Tag Archives: writing

A Dish Best Served Cold

Well, my poor old attempt at flash fiction didn’t make the shortlist for the inaugural Reflex Fiction competition. Boo! But on the plus side, I get to publish it here instead. Hurrah!

It’s called “A Dish Best Served Cold” and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of the page.

 

Flash fiction – or when size really does matter

flash

So I made my first attempt to write some flash fiction the other day. It was a competition entry – Reflex Fiction’s inaugural contest, which closes for submissions on 28 February if you fancy entering (details here) – and with a top prize of £100, I hoped optimistically to put a dent in the bill for the astonishingly expensive replacement tap I’ve just had to buy for our downstairs loo. Well, you never know. And inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, right?

Except that was my first problem. How do you pick a topic for flash fiction?

The competition in question has strict parameters for word count: no fewer than 180 words and no more than 360. I’d never tried to write a story that short – the first draft of my last novel came in at over 150,000 words, so it seemed likely I’d find this a bit of a challenge.

A few years ago I went along to a London Writers’ Café workshop where the guest speaker was renowned author of short stories, Zoe Fairbairns. The most famous of her works is “Bus Ticket”, and she maintained that successful short story ideas often focussed on a single, small object.

The thing is, “Bus Ticket” is one of Ms Fairbairns’ shortest stories (and I’m far too scared to get her title wrong after reading it). It comes in at 756 words – more than twice the flash fiction limit. And a bus ticket is pretty small – as far as I can remember, anyway; it’s all contactless and Oystercards in London these days.

So how could I downsize from there? A postage stamp, perhaps? A button? Reasonable enough, but if everyone else was taking the same advice, those nice people at Reflex Fiction were going to be reading a lot of stories about philately and dressmaking.

I’m not sure I follow the logic that physical size has to matter here. Surely it’s the size of the idea, whatever it’s based on, that has to be manageable enough for the word count restrictions?

Then I wondered whether genre might be a factor. Would it be easier to pack the drama into a teeny tiny ghost story, say, or a murder mystery?

I tried looking at flash fiction websites to see if there were any themes. And guess what? There weren’t.

There were fantasies, and stream-of-consciousness pieces, and a rather beautiful story  about telepathy.  There were all kinds of different subjects and styles – which didn’t help at all but which was somehow reassuring in a funny kind of way.

At least I couldn’t get it wrong just by picking the wrong topic.

So I had a go, and while I doubt the resulting effort is really going to help with that new tap, I had fun doing it. Watch this space for the results as soon as I find I haven’t made the longlist. And I might give flash fiction another go one of these days – though I will have to live with that Queen song running through my head every time I think of it…

FLASH! Ah-ahh…

 

 

 

Fear of the dark

2017 feels a bit scary.

I don’t make a habit of attributing characteristics to years. It’s not exactly rational. But this time I’m making an exception.fear

Because in important ways, this year is make or break for the Yak household.

I’ve got six months to get Book 2 into a state where there’s some prospect of it bringing in some cash. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but it has to be something. If it fails – if I fail – it’s back to the day job. Except that the day job isn’t there anymore, so I’ll have to persuade someone, somewhere that 17 years of making Government policy equips me to do something other than make Government policy.

Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Then there’s the not-entirely-unrelated issue of having a two household marriage. Two salaries and one home, it turns out, was infinitely more comfortable than two homes and one salary. Who knew?

Finances aside, saying goodbye to the Husband as he left last night to return to the Sad Pad where he now spends the working week was hard. Not even the prospect of not having to share the  Waitrose chocolate truffles did much to help. The cats are discomfited by the lopsided parenting. Patsy is anxious and needy, and Poppy is cross about unnegotiated changes to the parental timeshare arrangements.

And that’s before we get to the big stuff. The Brexit and the Donald, and the it’s-OK-to-be-sexist/racist/fascist/just-unkind-because-we-won-and-you-lost-so-fuck-you. And all the sound and fury is bad enough, but what happens when the shit actually gets real?

This doesn’t feel like the way to start a New Year. This should be a time of hope, of resolutions, and fitness regimes and brand new word count targets. So let’s turn that frown upside down. What we need at times like this is a list. A top ten. Perhaps a top five then. Top five reasons for us all to be cheerful.

Here goes:

  1. Difficult times make for great art. Lots of writers hang around here – just think of all the material!
  2. The weather is pretty mild for the time of year. That’s good, isn’t it? Think of the little birds. And the sheep in the fields. And the hibernating ladybirds. (And if anyone knows of any reason why mild winters actually aren’t good news for particular species, please do NOT comment and tell me.)
  3. There’s a new series of Sherlock coming! You see, it’s already better than 2016.
  4. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince and even George Michael can’t die twice.

Ok, top four. Over to you for the fifth. In the words of Ferris Bueller’s teacher, “Anyone? Anyone..?”

 

In Search of Fairy Dust

Somewhere in here, nurse, there's a story, and we're going to save it!

Somewhere in here, ladies and gentlemen, is a story. Let’s try and save it!

I’ve got the editing blues.

After almost three years of sporadic work, the first draft of book 2 is complete and I’m half way through the read through. It’s confirmed my darkest fears: it’s in need of some serious surgery.

First, there are the slips of voice. Was I re-reading Pride and Prejudice, dear reader, when I came over all Jane Austen in the middle of my contemporary psychological thriller?

And what was I thinking of when I plodded my way through all those boring passages: she did this, then she did this, then she did this – and voilà! The cup of tea was made!

And then there are the abrupt transitions, the scenes that don’t seem to have an actual point, the echoes of words and phrases; and those damnable adverbs I’d tried so hard to purge but have somehow bubbled up anyway through the cracks of my subconscious and turned my sentences an alarming shade of mauve.

Keep breathing, I tell myself. It is good that you can see there’s work to do. Admitting the problem is the first step to solving it. Etc. Etc.

But the truth is, those problems are only part of the picture.

Before I started the edit, I took two weeks away from writing to cleanse my mind. It gave me the chance to read and re-read a whole pile of psychological thrillers, proper books by proper authors who had navigated the battlefield of publishing and landed an actual deal. It reminded me that there’s something else I need to add to the mix…

Fairy dust.

Because there are a hell of a lot of books out there. More specifically, there’s a truck-load of psychological thrillers aimed at the female market. Loads of victims and villains, secrets and lies, mysterious pasts and vengeful friends/siblings/former partners. And there are plenty that are competently written, with clean prose and a story that makes sense and keeps you turning the pages.

But the thing is, after a while, the vast majority of those novels sort of merge into one other. And that’s where the fairy dust comes in.

As part of my reading marathon, I turned back to two books I’d loved. No prizes for originality here, because they were both mega-sellers: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. I could see that they deserved their success. I could see that they both had something special, something that separated them from the rest. I tried to put my finger on what it was.

In the case of Gone Girl, you could argue that it’s about the voice or the language, those clever descriptive phrases that capture so perfectly a mood or an expression in just two or three words. For The Girl on the Train it might be the concept, elevating something so ordinary – the commute to work – to a stage for gripping drama.

But whilst those elements play their part, I think at bottom they both have something else, something that’s both elegantly simple and nightmarishly complex all at one.

Compelling characterisation.

I mean, I really liked Rachel, Hawkins’ troubled, alcoholic, quietly desperate protagonist. I rooted for her. Remember that time when she threw up on the stairs of her friend’s flat and then went to bed, telling herself she’d get up and clean it all up before her friend got home? Yes it was pathetic and disgusting, but all I wanted to do was take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her to clean it up now, no matter how bad she felt, because I knew what was coming if she didn’t. I cared about her. I wanted to save her from herself.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum there’s Amy, Gone Girl‘s anti-heroine. Amy isn’t so much flawed as twisted, psychotic, poisonous – and written with so much snap. She’s horrifying but fascinating, so dark that she sends a delicious shiver of fear down the spine. Like her husband, Nick, I had to know what was going on inside her head.

So I know that when I’ve cut the pointless scenes, and scrubbed out the adverbs, and improved the narrative flow, there’s another, more important thing on my to do list for the next draft:

I have to turn my protagonist into a heroine. I have to find the fairy dust.fairy-dust

Toddlerville: or Why Writing in a Café Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I wonder… Did JK Rowling have kids?

I am now Living the Dream. By which I mean: here I am, on what to the office-dwelling population is a normal working day, sitting in a café and scribbling in a notebook.

It’s true that I’m doing this in a somewhat self-conscious manner. I’m pausing every now and then to scan the room under cover of sipping my green tea, wondering whether anyone is looking at me. Wondering whether they’re thinking “Look at that woman on her own, writing away in that notebook. I wonder what she’s doing? She looks an intelligent sort. Perhaps she’s a writer?”

The fantasy

The fantasy

But of course, no-one is doing that.

That might be because they have other things to think about, or that they’re just not as nosey as I am, or because actually I don’t look intelligent at all. But the main reason that they’re not looking around full stop is that they’re all engrossed in their children. Those small people who’ve colonized all the lovely places I’d dreamed of idling in looking arty, just as soon as I’d relieved myself of the millstone of paid employment.

I look around the room and every table has a minimum of one babe-in-arms. Most have two or more, surrounded by a hinterland of buggies and bags and bits of plastic in primary colours and scraps of clothing in – I’d be prepared to put money on it – organic cotton. And this isn’t Hampstead or Primrose Hill, for Christ’s sake. This is Lewisham. Where are all the pimps and drug dealers? They’ve been driven out by the bloody parents.

The result is a constant soundtrack of squealing, squawking, burbling, gurgling and the occasional distant bark (we’re in the middle of a park, but the dog owners are keeping a respectful distance). Which brings me back to my original question: did the JK Rowling who sat in a café penning her future mega-sellers have small children?

The reality - only with more chairs

The reality – only with tables

To be clear: I’m not imagining that any such creatures were with her at the time. It takes only a moment’s observation to see that if they had been, her time would have been spent cajoling, scolding, pleading and mopping, not getting Harry, Ron and Hermione to do battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But surely she must have had that talent, peculiar to the parents of toddlers, of blocking out the cacophony they produce?

Did she, I wonder, also have a coffee budget? How forgiving were the owners of that café, wherever it was, unaware of how this daily drinker of single lattés (I’m just guessing here; they might have been cappuccinos) would one day put their establishment on the map?

And do these omnipresent parents have coffee budgets too? Did they take into account in whatever calculations they made about the financial cost of parenthood (assuming that they didn’t simply shout “Babies!” and abandon contraception) the sheer quantity of caffeine they would apparently need to get them through the Vale of Tears that seems to be years 0-5?

I’d like to think that I could wait them out; that if only I ordered another tea, then another, and perhaps another, eventually – as well as needing to find the loos – the parents would leave, taking little Matilda or Moses to baby massage, or baby yoga or baby cross-country skiing, and the space could once again be used by people higher than 2 feet tall, speaking at a volume that wouldn’t trouble a jet engine.

But the hope is a vain one. There is a never-ending supply. No sooner does one group depart than another arrives to take its place, clad in the same clothes, talking about the same things, taking the same supply of toys and soft-covered books and plastic bottles from the same bags hung in precisely the same way from the handles of the same buggies.

This is their world, and I am the interloper. I feel like Neville in I Am Legend (the book, not the film – damn you, Will Smith). Joining their ranks is unimaginable. I have only one option.

Next time, I’m bringing headphones.

Fermez les yeux and brace for impact

I’m so excited today I can hardly string a sentence together. And that would be ok, because what I’d really like to do is to cut the prose and list, shamelessly, the places you can see my book online.

That’s MY BOOK.

My. Book.

Oh, but you’d be interested to take a look? So kind of you to say so! I don’t want to bore you. And I won’t be offended if you don’t click on any of the links. Though the cover art really is quite fab. Intriguing, even. Just the right sort of thing for a thriller.

Well go on then, you’ve twisted my arm…

Fermez les yeux 

Just - aggghhhhh!

Just – aggghhhhh!

Didn’t I say it was in French? Ah well, they have excellent taste, the French – everyone knows that. The Germans too – there may be a post on that subject coming up in, say, July or so.

So… here it is, at long last. I have the artwork and a publication date – 10 February – and in the next day or so I expect to get my hands on the book itself. That’s a real live, honest-to-goodness book, with an actual cover, and a spine, and pages with words on them. My words.

Not that I’ll actually be able to understand many of them, it being in French and all. I only have a GCSE and my characters don’t spend all their time telling each other what their name is, and that they live in London, and asking if they could they have a white coffee and a ham sandwich, and what’s the best way to the post office.

But still. They’re my words en français. At least I hope they are.

I’ll be honest: alongside the excitement, there’s more than a hint of trepidation. One part of me understands that this is a first book being published in translation. That it’ll be a pebble dropped into the ocean of new books. That it’ll be a struggle to get anyone to read it at all.

I know all of that, and it doesn’t matter: I’m still ridiculously happy to think that my characters will be let out to make their way in the world. At the same time, I feel the first faint stirrings of obsession and paranoia.

They’re feelings that aren’t entirely unfamiliar.

Because there were times when I hated this book. When I was so sick of rewrites I felt I knew every single word off by heart. That I felt like I never wanted to look at it again. It brought me some of the greatest highs of my life (getting an agent; hearing that the big five were taking it to acquisition stage) and some of the biggest disappointments (none of the buggers were offering).

After a while, the disappointment faded. I appreciated what I had – a brilliant agent who was passionate about my book and who’d given it as good a chance as it could ever have got; a deal for the French rights with an established publisher; the idea for the next book and a glimmer of an idea for the one after that. I might not have had Euromilions-winning levels of good luck, but it was definitely five-lotto-numbers-and-the-bonus-ball territory.

All my passion for Waking Sara – for that’s what it was called back then – both love and hate, subsided into a gentle affection. I looked back on the days of the rewrites with a head-shaking fondness. I regained a sense of perspective.

Until now.

The release date is 10 February (just in case you didn’t get it the first time). That’s a whole 24 days away. And yet – someone has already given it three out of five!

I mean, I suppose it could be worse. I think I’d rather have a boringly middling mark than out and out disdain.

I think.

But couldn’t my unimpressed reviewer even had added a few words of explanation?! I mean, that book was the result of three years of my life! But no, he/she (or possibly even the default setting on a computer programme somewhere – I live in hope) has just given me my mark and got on with their life as if it doesn’t matter. Hmph, I say. Hmph.

And then there are the discounts. Not that I mind them in themselves – €15.90 is a lot of money for a paperback novel – but it’s the indecent haste of it! My poor little book isn’t even out and it’s having 5% lopped off its price without so much as a by-your-leave. It’s as if it’s already on the way to the bargain baskets! (Mind you, though, it is a bargain. So if you want to brush up on your French…)

And then the final indignity. Amazon, whom I once bravely defended on this very site, have got my name wrong. How they’ve managed this, I’ve no idea, but I can say with absolute certainty that I have never, ever been called Clarence. Not even in a French accent.

Anyway, if you or anyone you know speaks French/would like to speak French/ knows someone called Clarence, there’s a book out next month you’d absolutely love.

The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.

Left brain, right brain: on the fundamental incompatibility of creativity and paid employment

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it's almost three hours now into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn't turned up?

Hmm, I wonder which bit of my brain is producing the irritation that it’s now almost three hours into the appointment window and the telephone engineer still hasn’t turned up?

Bank holiday Monday and it’s an ungodly hour of the morning – 8a.m. to be precise.  The kind of time my body clock would turn its nose up at and refuse to acknowledge it even existed if it weren’t for the tyranny of the mortgage.  The fact that I’m conscious and typing on a non-working day is the price I’m paying for a moment of ill-considered generosity of spirit towards the end of last week when the Husband arranged a morning visit of an engineer to try and get our phone fixed. He’s having a stressful time at work, I was full of good cheer at the prospect of a four day weekend; there may have been a glass of wine involved.  Before I knew it, I’d volunteered to be the one to haul myself out of bed – a fact he gleefully reminded me of as we got into bed a mere six hours ago after a Game of Thrones box set marathon (him) and an obsessive internet search for antique brass two light ceiling spotlights (unsuccessful – me).

So here I am, half asleep and waiting for the engineer who, according to the Law of Sod, will no doubt arrive at the end of the four hour slot we’ve been given, if indeed he arrives at all. What better time to attempt to breathe some life into this poor, neglected blog of mine?

It’s been seven weeks now since I returned to work.  Time enough, you might think, to have settled into a rhythm.  Time to have reprioritised and reorganised and rearranged.  Time, in short, to have sorted myself out and found a way of fitting in full-time work and writing groups and book clubs and blogs and reading, and perhaps even a bit of writing.

You might think that. But I’m sad to report, you’d be wrong.

What have I managed to do since my nose has once again been pressed firmly against the grindstone? Well, here – in numbers – are my achievements of the last seven weeks:

  • Episodes of PTSD involving sobbing into the Husband’s t-shirt, melodramatically declaiming that I Simply Could Not Do It Any More: 1
  • Moments of realisation that I could, and in fact, had to: 1
  • Blog posts: 1
  • Book club meetings attended: 0
  • Writing group meetings attended: 1
  • Emails to agent: 6
  • Rewrites: 0.1 (based on how much rewriting was actually done)
  • Publishers to whom manuscript has been resubmitted: 0
  • Bottles of champagne not drunk at Christmas and which I’ve promised myself I will open when I eventually get that book deal: 1
  • Bottles of champagne still unopened: 1
  • Words of second book written: 0.

I’m forced to conclude it’s not looking great.

But why is this? Why the creative paralysis? Is it simply the restrictions of the number of hours in the day? Or is there something more going on here?

I was talking to another frustrated writer the other lunch time (honestly, it turns out that the civil service is full of them – if people ever start reading more, Ministers will be hard pressed to find someone to make them a cup of tea, let alone advise on policy). Her theory was that she switched to the right hand side of her brain when she was in “creative” mode, and that she was simply incapable of using her “left side” analytical, reasoning skills at the same time.  The result was that she found herself sitting in meetings musing over her colleagues’ hand gestures and psychological drivers, instead of engaging with whatever happened to be the substance of the discussion.

Is this true for the rest of us, I wonder? Do I have to switch off my creative self in order to do what’s essentially an analytical job? Does my imagination limit my efficiency?

It’s true that my mind has been known to wander at work.  One of my junior Ministers – the previous administration, I hasten to add – bore a distractingly close resemblance to 80s comedy schoolboy Jimmy Krankie. I spent many a happy hour trying to work out what a former line manager reminded me of when he leaned backwards in a peculiarly stiff shouldered way and waggled his hands as he spoke, before realisation dawned that it was one of those puppets in Stingray or Thunderbirds.  And which of us hasn’t occasionally wondered where one or other of their colleagues sits on the psychotic scale?

But everyone does that, right?

In the case for the defence, I wrote 80,000 words of my first draft whilst working full-time; and, about half of that was written after dad had his stroke and I was trekking back to Wales most weekends to see him.  Surely it’s a bit much now to be claiming that I can’t write anything half decent without a three week run up of clear minded, distraction free, Creative Time?

And yet, there’s something in this left-brain, right-brain thing all the same.

I remember very clearly the moment when my return to work suddenly became less painful. It was Wednesday lunchtime in my first week, the day after the t-shirt-moistening snivel fest referred to above.  I’d just finished a meeting and was walking back to my desk and I felt something click into place – I realised I felt different.  As my one and only blog post to date since returning to work noted, “I felt like a civil servant again”.

I’ve no idea what triggered it. It might simply have been a defence mechanism to stop myself feeling so bloody miserable.  But whatever it was, it was absolutely real to me.  From that moment on, it felt like being back at work wasn’t the end of the world. It felt like I could cope.

There’s a corollary, though, to feeling like a civil servant. No matter how hard I tell myself it doesn’t have to be this way, I feel like less of a writer. I can feel it, that idea: the one that’s creeping back in, slithering through the crack under the door of my subconscious.  The idea I thought I’d almost got rid of when I was on leave.  The idea that writing isn’t serious.  My writing, anyway.  That it’s nothing more than a quaint little hobby I turn to when I’ve got nothing more important to do. That I ought to grow up a bit, give my intellectual energy to the thing that pays the bills.  That I’m too old to be playing at make believe.

And maybe that’s what it really comes down to for me, this left-brain, right-brain thing.  Maybe it’s about believing that it’s okay to spend time on something creative; and more than that, that I shouldn’t be embarrassed about taking it seriously.

I re-read the post I wrote when I was preparing to return to work earlier today, the one that tried to set out what I’d learned in my time on leave (https://mrsholderslegacy.wordpress.com/2014/02/25/goodbye-freedom-its-been-fun/).  It said that I’d realised I didn’t need validation through a performance marking for my day job. Perhaps now Right-brain Me needs to make the same journey. Perhaps I need to make myself believe that I don’t need validation through a publishing deal. That I can take my writing seriously without having to be paid for it.

Or then again, maybe that’s just a way of feeling better about admitting defeat?

 

 

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails

That’s what little boys are made of, apparently.  Not a very nice rhyme, when you come to think of it – though also rather a confused one.  I mean, puppy dogs’ tails are nice things, aren’t they? All waggy and cheerful.  And snails can be quite pretty when you look  at them, and very tasty with a bit of butter and garlic. Slugs – okay, there’s not a lot to be said for slugs. Sorry.

What’s this got to do with anything, I hear you ask.  Well, as I may have mentioned in passing, this week was my first week back in work since taking unpaid leave at the start of July.  A degree of excitement at the change got me through Monday, but by the end of Tuesday I was a miserable wretch, unsure how – or indeed if – I was going to make it to the end of the week.

“I don’t belong here!” I wanted to shout at my colleagues.  “I’m not the person you think I am. Can’t you see it? Can’t you see I’m A WRITER NOW?!”

Some time on Wednesday something clicked back into place.  I don’t know how it happened, but it did. One minute I was bewildered and miserable and ready to beg The Husband to sell up and move to the Orkneys and keep goats; the next it all seemed – well, fine.  The job was new, yes, and frantically busy, and I didn’t know what I was doing – but it all felt  manageable.  I knew I’d learn what I needed to. I believed I could be useful.

I felt – dear God, I can hardly bring myself to write it – I felt like a civil servant again.

And that made me think – what is it that makes us think of ourselves as one thing or another? Is the need  to define ourselves innate to our nature, starting even before those rhymes that tell us we’re made either of molluscs or cooking ingredients? And if that’s the case, what happens somewhere along the line that makes some of us feel we want to claim the badge of “writer”?

I’ve seen enough posts about this topic to know that the question of whether or not we deserve to call ourselves writers is something that exercises many of us. Do we qualify before we’ve had something published? Does self-publishing count? What about pieces in magazines?  Is it something about sales?

The obvious question in response to all this soul searching is, why does it matter?

The somewhat circular answer seems to me that it matters because we want it so much.  We want our efforts recognised.  Somehow, being able to call ourselves writers legitimises the hours hunched over a keyboard or notepad; the solitary, often painful process of choosing, arranging and rearranging words that, for the vast majority of us, will only be read by a handful of sympathetic friends and family – and that only if we can steel ourselves to expose our souls and share our writing with anyone at all.  It’s behaviour that could almost be a definition of madness – but give yourself the label of “writer” and it’s suddenly reasonable, admirable even. You are one of a tribe: a creative.  An artist.

Our sensitive little egos both fear and crave the title.  It’s so personal and important we can hardly bear to talk about it.  Defining the label seems crass and fatuous.  But never fear: that hasn’t put off one Rachel McCain who, confident that she bears the mantle of “real” writer, has written an epistle on what we all need to do in order to emulate her: http://www.litro.co.uk/2014/02/the-write-life-definition-of-a-real-writer/#comment-35355

Just so we’re clear how impressive she is, Ms McCain spells it out for us:

I’m a writer. Not a nonchalant blogger or a self-published author who lacks writing skills. An actual working writer. A journalist, essayist, creative writer, scribe. Call it what you will, but I am a professional nonfiction wordsmith.

(Heaven preserve us from nonchalant bloggers. )

She then goes on to explain what this requires, which seems to amount to writing in a notebook at unsociable hours, using a thesaurus and reading (second-hand books, apparently, which as we all know are morally superior).

Hope he's been accredited by Rachel McCann...

Hope he’s been accredited by Rachel McCain…

For someone who claims to be “passionate” about plot structure, Ms McCain’s argument is a little difficult to follow.  There’s something about caring about your work, being keen on punctuation, having churned out stuff for a long time and having a degree (goodness knows how all those eighteenth century writers managed to produce classic fiction without the aid of a Masters in Fine Arts).

And then she gives the game away:

My issues center on those who lack substantial credibility and a modicum of talent – but still call themselves writers, still feel they can start from the top, so to speak. Unskilled self-published authors, brain-dead bloggers, lifelong townies who are given a literary soapbox: If it wasn’t for technology, you probably wouldn’t have a page to write on.

Here’s someone who’s stamping her little foot because writers like E.L. James can publish work that isn’t going to win any literary laurels, but – gasp! – people nevertheless want to read it. And she’s made a packet doing it!

It’s just not fair! There’s poor old Rachel, on her second writing degree, and former deputy editor, no less, of Home Town Media Group  (a “small community newspaper company in New York”), scribbling away for over a decade and still working on that manuscript (it’ll be ready any day now, I’m sure) – and NO-ONE CARES! No-one’s given her a badge to say how wonderful she is! No medal of honour to distinguish her from this dreadful woman who’s just come along and written a few books millions of people have enjoyed reading!

The world’s gone to hell in a hand basket.

Hmm, I smell something a bit pungent here. It must be the odour from that veritable vineyard of sour grapes.

Well, here’s one nonchalant, brain-dead blogger who’s about to upset Ms McCain and others of her ilk.

Yes, I’m a civil servant. And you know what? I’m a writer too.

And you can stick that up your MFA.

Qualification shmalification: who needs an MA in self-publishing?

What’s the point of a qualification?

If anyone had asked me that question before today, I would probably have answered something along the lines of it being a combination of a) proof for an employer either that you already have the knowledge and skills needed to do their job, or that you’re generally bright enough to pick them up; and b) a sort of pat on the back to yourself for spending time and energy learning something new. It can be both of those things, or one or the other, and either is fine. But basically, that’s what it’s all about.

"To Amazon!"

“To Amazon!”

That was until today.  Because today I heard about the University of Central Lancashire’s new MA in – wait for it – self-publishing.

Now I’m not going to come over all Michael Gove here.  If someone wants to do a doctorate in the evolution of the daleks, or the plot structure of Hollyoaks, or how that fairly thin woman without luggage managed to take up the entire corridor all the way between the Jubilee and Bakerloo lines at Baker Street this morning, that’s fine with me.  Hell, my degree was in Egyptology, so you’re not going to find me throwing stones in that particular glass house.  All of these topics come under the general heading of “self-fulfillment” in my book, and if you can afford the time and money, why not?  Who knows, you might even stumble across a shiny new logarithm to prevent tube station corridor-hogging by skinny women in leggings.

But self-publishing? Really?

I mean, presumably the way you demonstrate you’re up to the requirements of the course is – I don’t know – to publish something? And if you’ve gone to the trouble of writing that something, wouldn’t getting it out there for the world to see be reward enough?  Wouldn’t wanting people to read the thing that you’ve pored over and sweated over and drained your very lifeblood into be kind of the most important thing?  And wouldn’t the best possible indicator of how well you’ve done the job be, not a certificate and a photo of you wearing a silly cap, but the number of copies you sell?

As for impressing a potential employer… Imagine the conversation – sorry, monologue:

“Well when I’d finished writing The Amazing Adventures of Millicent Muckraker, I naturally considered self-publishing. So I took myself out for a coffee, and I was really impressed with my vision for the book.  I was nice enough too, and I obviously had my best interests at heart… But when it came down to it, I just wasn’t happy with my credentials. Anyway, a year later, I got in touch with myself again and this time I had this great qualification – oh yes, from the University of Central Lancashire – and I thought: yes, this is the self-publisher for me!”

And before people tell me I’m underestimating the new market in assisted self-publishing, that’s not how this course is selling itself. There’s no mention of “assisted” in the title; no reference to dealing with authors who refuse to have their work edited, or to accept that they might not meet with the success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Needless to say, that doesn’t mean the marketing team haven’t mentioned E.L. James in the blurb, for they have, the not-so-subtle implication being that fame and riches await those prepared to shell out a little upfront investment in the other UCL.  After all, says course leader Debbie Williams, gamely attempting to maximise her market, “Everyone has a book in them.”

A course in self-publishing I can get behind.  Everyone I’ve spoken to who has any experience in it says it’s bloody hard work, and giving people the skills to do it well seems a perfectly legitimate endeavour. But the idea of self-publishing as an end in itself? An MA – a post-graduate degree, no less – not because you’ve managed to produce anything worth reading, but because you’ve got something, anything, published on Amazon? That seems a pretty hollow enterprise to me.

Let me know what you think! Am I being narrow-minded? Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with a self-publisher getting an extra couple of letters she’ll never use after her name when she’ll be doing all the work anyway?  Add your comments below…