The gift of endurance. Yeah, right.

Re-reading Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee the other day, I came across this quote in a section headed The Gift of Endurance: ‘Long before you finish [writing], the love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish … Of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of the work itself.’

Cheerful, huh? Especially on a short winter’s day, with weeks of getting up in the dark still to go.

I mean, let’s face it, who does love the work all the time? All too often the actual process of writing is frustrating, demoralising and painful. Who hasn’t ever asked: is my story any good? Will anyone buy it? Can I really do all this over again?

It sometimes feels as if self-doubt is an interminable negative feedback loop, constantly undermining our confidence in our ability to do the very thing we love.

And there it is again. That word. Love.

Personally, I suspect that it’s part of the problem. Saying ‘I love writing’ implies it is necessarily a deeply rewarding emotional experience. When it’s not, a lot of us seem to blame ourselves: maybe we don’t love our characters enough or our plots; maybe the people who believe in us are just plain crazy.

But what is left if we don’t buy into the notion that we have to love what we do in order to keep doing it? Well, here are a couple of things that cheer me up no end.

According to research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, elite musicians, athletes and chess players weren’t born with unique gifts. They are instead highly motivated individuals who have to complete at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of more than ten years in order to achieve their exceptional abilities.

To quote Christian Jarret’s handy 30-Second Psychology, for this type of practice to work, ‘You don’t just repeat what you know but instead constantly seek to stretch yourself. This inevitably involves forensic self-criticism, repeated failure and a dogged ability to keep dusting yourself down and trying again.’

Sound familiar?

Then how about this, also from Jarret: ‘Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their nature, rather than circumstances.’ That’s from the section about Fundamental Attribution Error.

So, with all due respect to Mr McKee (who I admire a lot), forget about endurance being a gift. It’s bloody hard graft. And that’s the point. Lucky you if you do love the work, but that’s not the only way. For me, for example, ‘the work’ is too abstract a concept to keep me going year after year. I have to care passionately about this story, these characters, their troubled dreams.

Keeping this passion alive is like tending a fire: I have to sit down beside my story and look into its depths. If it’s dying, I feed it more research, more imagination, more hard work. Sometimes it consumes reams of notes about the main character’s motivation, or a single sheet with a clearer articulation of the theme. At other times it needs more knowledge gaps. Tighter scenes with more dramatic turning points.

More cake for the writer. Chocolate. Wine. Another long walk with my darling dog…

But yes, sometimes I have to close down the flue and walk away, trusting that the embers won’t die completely.

I have boundless admiration for people who keep writing regardless. Did you see that tweet about this year’s winner of the children’s & YA category of the Costa Book Prize? Apparently Brian Conaghan received 217 rejections. Two hundred and seventeen! Unbelievable. I’d have walked away long ago, no question about it.

So all power to him – and everyone else who keeps on keeping on.

May your fire never go out.

This blog was first published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2017.

Facts, fiction & the New Scientist

Among the many joys of meeting fellow writers is the discovery of yet another fan of the New Scientist magazine who, like me, finds inspiration for fiction from its tantalizing summaries of the latest discoveries at the very edges of human knowledge.

Week-by-week we lap up articulate rejoinders to the myriad sceptics of scientific method, and wonder at remarkable revelations about our scarily breakable natural world. It is a lifeline of rationality in this supposedly post-truth era.

According to my first editor, being a fan of the New Scientist isn’t uncommon among writers for young people. She didn’t just mean Science Fiction writers. Apparently, NS fans include authors working across the whole spectrum of genres.

Which rather begs the question, if we’re so keen on scientific truth, why are we wedded to lying, AKA creating fictional worlds?

At some other time – when I’ve organised my work-life balance rather better than it is now – I’d love to ask fellow New Scientist reader/writers for their take on this apparent contradiction. I’d also be fascinated to read your views on the subject if you felt inclined to share them.

In the meantime, this from New Scientist caught my eye.

A special issue about knowledge (issue no. 3119) addressed ‘the biggest questions about facts, truth, lies and belief’. Among its many revelations was this: ‘Brain-imaging studies show that when we answer trivia questions or look at blurry images designed to pique curiosity, areas associated with our response to food and sex light up. That suggests we treat knowledge as a similar primary reward.’

Knowledge, it seems, can be addictive.

For me, this surprising fact prompted an immediate question: are writers who love the New Scientist likely to be happier when writing stories that require plenty of factual research, rather than the sort of stories which rely more on inner explorations of the imagination and memory? And if that’s true, is that why I’m still hankering after the kind of in-depth historical research I did for my debut novel, rather than knuckling down to finish Book 2?

In the serendipitous way of these things, this topic promptly popped up again when author Kathryn Evans of MORE OF ME fame posted a fascinating blog about Second Book Syndrome over on Notes from the Slushpile, which in turn encouraged lots of interesting comments.

http://www.notesfromtheslushpile.com/2017/04/second-book-syndrome.html

The discussion of this phenomenon reminded me of something I’d heard David Almond talking about several times: he called it, ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations.’ That is – to paraphrase – finding the setting or subject which will define you as a writer, and weaving the threads of each story around this central creative core.

But how can we find that core without spending years exploring dead-ends?

In this regard, the New Scientist had some helpful words too.

As Anil Ananthaswamy put it, the question ‘Who am I?’ has resonated since antiquity. Science and philosophy distinguish between a ‘phenomenal self’ – through which we experience ourselves as distinct bodily entities living in time and space – and the ‘epistemic self’ which is capable of observing, understanding and modulating our motivations and behaviour.

Such a duality in perception is, of course, familiar territory to the fiction writer. Our characters are endlessly going on inner and outer journeys towards greater self-knowledge. Logically, then, this process ought to be able to help us find our own creative cores, too.

For some writers, no doubt, it is easy: guided by instinct, you just get on with it. But if, like me, you’re still wondering what it is that is truly worthwhile writing about, a good hard look at ourselves (rather than the fickle marketplace or how well an earlier work sold) is probably the best starting place.

If we’re enthralled by family dynamics, that’s what we’ve got to write about. Ditto if it’s the emotional turmoil of first love – even if we might have to wait a while for the YA market to pick up again. But if it is factual research that floats our boat, I guess we have to be true to that too.

A Christmas wish for a writer friend

My gift would need a little magic and perhaps a small miracle or two.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, the last-minute wrapping & complex calculations for the cooking time of turkeys would suddenly disappear. Unwanted guests and unwelcome invitations would evaporate too, and grumpy partners and recalcitrant teenagers become, miraculously, cooperative. And the stage would be set.

In a light snowfall, a limousine would appear at their front door. A stretched limousine. Something outrageous like a Humvee. Pink. Or pure black, with tinted windows. Inside, champagne – and the passports of my friend and the people she (or he) truly loves…

Find out what the gift was via the original post in Author Allsorts:  Magic & far-away miracles: a gift for a best writing buddy (were money no problem!) By Rowena House

La Belle Sauvage, Amazon & the decline of Fleet Street

This is the excerpt for a featured post.

I’m researching the First World War again at the moment, this time for a short companion piece for my traditionally-published debut novel out next year. It’s a marketing idea borrowed from independent authors: a cut-price short story or novella, promoted on social media via the five-day give-away option on Kindle Select, is designed to tempt readers to your Amazon page, where – hopefully – some will buy the novel too.

Whether it will have any impact on sales I’ve no idea (I’ll let you know next year) but the story is asking to be told, and I find historical research brings its own rewards, so I’m going for it anyway.

However…

I am troubled by the assumption behind this strategy: that cheap is best when it comes to selling stories. After all, this discount culture is one of the main charges levelled against Amazon by traditional publishers and bookshops which do so much to promote authors.

The debate about aggressive discounting of children’s books became particularly impassioned last week following this blog by Tamsin Rosewell, bookseller at Kenilworth Bookshop in Warwickshire:

http://kenilworthbooks.co.uk/we-need-to-talk-about-hardback-fiction/

What provoked her to speak out were the heavy discounts being offered by the biggest names in book retailing on pre-orders for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, volume one of The Book of Dust. At the time of writing Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith and Foyles were all offering hard copies for £10.00, half the recommended retail price.

As Ms Rosewell said in her blog: ‘To be part of the buzz, we would (as it looks at the moment) have to sell this book at a loss or for no profit at all, or we could consider not stocking it. But how can we possibly not have The Book of Dust in our stock and prominently on display in the shop? What kind of bookshop would not stock The Book of Dust?!’

Book people on Twitter reacted to her blog with shock and dismay. Philip Pullman himself joined the debate, saying he’s always been a strong supporter of the former Net Book Agreement, which once guaranteed retail prices. By the time Ms Rosewell had to open her shop at 9 a.m. she said she’d received hundreds of replies.

Coupled with her concern about the impact of discounting on author incomes (the lower the shop price, the lower the royalty) her pleas for fairer pricing made me think again about my responsibility towards bookshops like hers in the face of cut-price competition.

Now there’s nothing I can do about Waterstones or Foyles; the price of my novel will be set by my publisher and the stores. But what about Amazon? Should I avoid it altogether as some supporters of the physical book trade advocate? Am I helping to cut the throat of independent bookshops everywhere by giving away my novella, or selling it at the same price as a can of baked beans?

Perhaps.

On the other hand, is there any point whatsoever fighting against one of the greatest revolutions in retailing ever? Amazon won’t notice our protests. And with average advances so low, how can authors afford to boycott this global marketplace?

I think my fatalism about Amazon has a lot to do with my early days as a journalist when (and I’ll say this in a whisper) I worked on Fleet Street at a time when vans stacked with the Evening Standard and Sun would roar out from the side streets with the newsprint literally hot off the presses.

I even subbed on the ‘stone’ – a damn great granite worktable supporting the heavy frames for the broadsheets – with a compositor setting the city pages of the Financial Times in hot lead metal. It was another world, another time. The battles fought by the unions against Rupert Murdoch’s new computer technology now seem futile and doomed to failure.

Yes, I know that today there are figures ‘proving’ that e-books are on the wane in the UK and physical books in the ascendance, but I’m afraid I don’t trust them. I think they’re partial statistics being used to make a case that traditionalists dearly want to be true.

As an investigative journalist, I want to dig down beneath the headlines into the real data to find out what’s actually going on. I suspect I’d find at least some of those lost adult fiction sales in the e-book market.

OK, I might also find that children’s books are the exception. But five year olds have phones these days. Why should they only play games on them and not read e-picture books? And what’s easier than giving your child or grandchild Apple Store or Amazon credit as a birthday present? Kids don’t need a bank card to shop for books online.

I worry that by resisting this online trend, by not aggressively seeking out e-sales, traditionally-published authors (and our publishers) risk missing out on a growth sector that should be central to our long-term economic planning.

So yes, I do think authors have to adapt to Amazon whether we want to or not, just as independent shops like Kenilworth Books have to shrug when the big High Street retailers discount the latest Wilbur Smith or Robert Harris, and accept there’s no point in them stocking it.

But like Ms Rosewell, I also think we have to shout out when a big launch like La Belle Sauvage could (possibly) be the Harry Potter for a new generation, and benefit the wider industry from an upsurge of interest in great children’s books.

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.