C is for Camera, Coffee, and Colon

Christmas already seems a long time ago but it’s a fairly big contender for a C word so only fair to mention it early on; especially since I’m currently writing a Christmas themed novella. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is something cosy (come on, you know me better than that) It’s about an accountant who writes a novel in company time and how his subsequent literary journey with a small publisher impacts on his life. Obviously, it’s mostly satire.

This year, I was given a Cannon camera for Christmas. I also received another type of camera entirely – thankfully much smaller – in the form of a colonoscopy. I’m rarely ill but when I am I tend to do it in grand style. On this occasion, it was deemed by my doctor that since I was creeping up to one of those birthdays with a zero on the end, I should take advantage of the screening on offer and get checked out.

‘You’ll forgive me,’ she said. ‘Eventually.’

Fred-Gwynne-as-Herman-Munster-laugh3This wasn’t what I wanted to hear the week before Christmas. I’m well versed in the use of the colon: although I don’t always get it right. Semi; or full? Thank goodness for my wonderful editor. An empty colon is something else entirely. The preparation for such an investigation is pretty miserable. No solid food for 36 hours and awash with two litres of unspeakably vile liquid flavoured with artificial lemon, is arguably the NHS version of the Beverly Hills detox. And the Colonoscopy Clinic must be one of the most miserable waiting rooms – down to the fact that everyone in there is famished and not only dreading the procedure, but not especially looking forward to the distribution of those fetching paper shorts. Maybe it’s because I’m generally an upbeat sort, but I always find my writer’s observational slant is a good antidote for such times. Take my consultant; impossibly tall with unruly hair, booming voice, broken English. He laughed a lot too as he led my feeble body onto an operating table. I can’t recall his name but I still think of him as Herman Munster. The student nurse couldn’t find any veins in my arm in order to insert a cannula (something I’d happily gone along with as it promised mild sedation). Herman’s expertise with the needle in this respect was at least reassuring. And then we were off. I could even watch the whole thing on an overhead monitor.

Er, no thanks.

CDm5rGCXIAEAP0OThey never did find anything wrong with me, despite several biopsies. I worried I’d be sent for again; for another, more intensive examination, but several weeks later I received a letter to say I was discharged. Possible gluten sensitivity, it said in the notes. I reckon one is either intolerant, or not. I know stress is blamed for pretty much everything without a specific medical name, but I’m more inclined towards this than any other explanation. Do upbeat personalities become more prone to physical distress; are we guilty of putting on a brave face once too often? I think there may be some truth in this. I’ve taken the suggested course of action in reducing all stress on my digestive system. This comes down to reducing gluten heavy foods, cutting out caffeine and further reducing my moderate consumption of Chardonnay.

So far, so good

But what of less visible stress? My brother and I have recently had to make the awful decision to place Mum into a dementia care home. It’s clean, safe, caring. But her quality of life is pretty dismal. Are we compromising quality for longevity? Without a doubt. Hidden, disguised stress is evident for all the family, especially Mum, who is trapped in an alien world in every sense of the word. Of course, any fiction writer knows that worlds are not required to be physical to exert considerable power. Authors often exist in an online bubble too. And this generally contrived world can be creepily competitive: Look at my amazing sales rank! Look at my gut-busting daily word count! Writing and publishing at speed is counter-productive to what was once, for me, an enjoyable experience. Or maybe I’ve simply exhausted my current genre and my writing brain needs a colonic! This comes down to reducing unnecessary reading matter, cutting out all trash and further reducing my moderate consumption of social media.

So far, so good…

550x358_emmerdale_soapsshowdown_week20_pic19As a result, I’ve spent considerably more time playing with my new camera than I have tapping at the keyboard. Why does this make me feel vaguely guilty? How crazy that the pressure of social media to present a constant stream of material can coerce and control the mind. It’s often an insular place to be on a permanent basis because much of the time, content is not only manipulated but it’s severely watered down. Real stories and information are difficult to find. When the soaps first started on the telly they were broadcast a couple of nights a week for half-an-hour, with ad breaks in-between. From the script-writers point of view this amounted to a manageable window of creativity. Now, of course, they’ve had to up their game, resulting a lot of the time in plot holes, repetitive devices to move the story on (eavesdropping is a big one), implausible character motivation and the worst of all – gratuitous violence. As a precursor to these pleasures we are warned before each episode that viewers may find some scenes upsetting. 

imagesI’m not being especially pedantic. A lot of the time I like Coronation Street. I think it’s the northern humour, and I fully understand the concept of wanting to sit and watch something which takes little or no effort. But I still want good content. Light entertainment, in much the same way as books labelled as light fiction, still need to offer a story. I don’t want more books and blog posts to read, I want less! In the case of blog-posts, lots of these amount to barely disguised advertising, and we’re already gagging from an abundance of that. The compromise for quantity is always going to be quality, although I shall strive to discover the pearls amongst the vast quantity of mediocre material out there… So, did you get anything good for Christmas? I got a colonoscopy! And a reminder that producing and absorbing good content paves the way to greater contentment. Now pass me a small and very expensive glass of vino; I want to toast those quieter books.

 

 

B is for Beatrix, Barista, and Banana

After the angular acrimonious ramblings of letter A, I thought a more optimistic post was in order and letter B is altogether a softer, more rounded individual. A week of bumbling across Cumbria under bright blue skies and lurching from pub to pub was a rare tonic.

DSCN6390I do love the Lake District. We stayed at The Plough in the luxurious Redman Room, not too far from a village called Nook so I’m not sure the week worked as an escape from books. In fact, I could easily set a series in Cumbria, although if I were to believe something a publisher said to me about locations, I’d never write anything set in my native Snowdonia again, let alone anywhere so inconsequential as the Lake District. I wonder what Wordsworth would have thought about that, or Arthur Ransome?

In terms of books, the area is a wonderful literary blend of Wordsworth, Ransome, and Potter. It even boasts Wainwright for the non-fiction section. Apparently though the top British settings in fiction are Cornwall and Scotland. Clearly, I need to get Jack Redman out of that spa bath and into a kilt.

B is also for Bullshit, and Birthday!

April 2016 coincided with the Queen’s 90th, Shakespeare’s 400th and most appropriately for Cumbria, the 150th birthday anniversary of Beatrix Potter. Her legacy of 23 children’s books lives on.

e5ddac6377fc8aa4692eabc4baa4c630Interesting to read that Potter originally self-published the famous Peter Rabbit story after a host of rejection letters from publishers. In 1901 she printed 250 copies herself. It was so successful that within a year she was approached with a deal from one of the original publishers who had turned her down. But in 1903 she took matters into her own hands again when she failed to reach an agreement with Frederick Warne and self-published The Tailor of Gloucester. Potter was reportedly dogmatic about what she wanted the book to look like. Warne wanted cuts (that old chestnut) and she didn’t; so she self-published 500 private copies. In the end, Warne gave in and their subsequent partnership – both commercially and romantically – saved his publishing house from bankruptcy and revolutionised the way children’s books were marketed and sold.

Has anything changed in the industry? Other than Kindle, no!

13001210_1182904868420469_1182541687761248515_nPrior to my Cumbrian bumblings I met with Gillian Hamer of Triskele Books to discuss our next bookshop event at Hinton’s of Conwy. Thanks to Storm Desmond on December 5th our previous event was literally a whirlwind, but we aim to do bigger and better the next time around. We chose a coffee shop in Conwy in which to discuss the finer points – such as which wine to serve – but I admit to being heavily distracted. I think it must be a writer thing, people watching and dog watching. Where else can you buy Welsh tea bread from the same rack as a selection of dog chews? It was a busy venue with an eclectic queue of customers, obviously, some of them canine and suitably attired for the occasion with designer neckerchiefs. When it came to my turn, the barista charged us a hefty price for fancy drinks. Gone in fifteen minutes and with no real lasting impression, this had us somewhat downhearted when we compared the inflated cost of a cup of coffee to a novel which had taken maybe 12 months to write and produce. Should readers expect to pay more than 99p for a novel? I’d like to think so but reality dictates otherwise.

Royalties or any kind of profit are especially poor with regard to paperback sales (a retail price of £8-£10 can still mean less than £2 for the author). The bulk of the retail price is of course dictated by the printing and production costs of the physical book.

12339449_755681737870922_2320413221731760214_oAnd yet, from a satisfaction point of view, book signings allow a one-to-one audience with the reader and sometimes, this is priceless. Have we devalued material by publishing on Kindle? Probably. Without that physical copy in their hands, it’s not immediately apparent to the reader where the cost of producing electronic material comes from, and I think there’s a high expectation now for free or 99p novels.

Although Beatrix Potter did well from her royalties, including the purchase of Hill Top – her beloved farmhouse at Sawrey – would she believe that today, an original copy of Peter Rabbit attracts a price tag of £35,000?

John Ruskin, a Victorian artist known for his Cumbrian landscapes and a prominent social thinker from Potter’s era, gets this into perspective: When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort. There is no wealth but life…

Okay, press on… B is for brewery, Border Collie, beef and ale pie…

DSCN6386Wandering lonely as a cloud and looking at spent daffodils is no great hardship in Cumbria when the sun shines, although there was still clear evidence of Storm Desmond. It may have hampered our book signing in Snowdonia, but Cumbria got the full force. Many foot bridges were either washed away or partially collapsed in the National Park, and it was pretty incomprehensible to see roads closed because of huge sinkholes and massive subsidence on such tranquil, sun-filled days. The trees bordering the River Lune – those still standing – were extensively decorated with debris from the riverbed, like dirty lace. The volume of water surging along the Lune had virtually carved out new banks, taking down huge trees, stiles, and miles of fencing. It was the stuff of fiction, faintly unbelievable and morbidly fascinating to see how high the water level had reached. In various places around Cumbria we had to find an alternate path, and found ourselves walking miles off the original route.

DSCN6399We did find Ruskin’s steps though and climbed to the famous viewpoint in Kirby Lonsdale, hot and exhausted and tempted to bring out the emergency food supply, but not quite. Who needs a black banana when there’s beef and ale pie just a bit further on? The bar at The Watermill Brewery is mostly for dogs, children rather less so. The ales are straight out of someone’s active imagination: Collie Wobbles, Shih Tzu Faced and Wruff Night. Our dog used to love visiting because there was always some sort of canine action and plenty of tidbits on the floor.

Inspired by Potter, I should really write a book based on our dog’s adventures, illustrated with abstract line drawings. There’s nothing like the body language and facial expressions of a Labrador to raise a smile. And Pringle had a lot to say. There was that time he dragged a full picnic table across the camp-shop entrance and everyone was trapped inside. My husband yelling, ‘Pick up your balls!’ on a Cornish beach in August. The seven popped beach balls we had to pay for…

A couple of trips to Scotland and we’ve got the location covered. 

The Dead Dog Diaries: Adventures of a Spooky Bounder. I wonder what Beatrix would have made of a paranormal dog? Ruskin would be ashamed of my commercial plotting but just think, in 150 years’ time it might be worth a few quid.

A is for Alphabet, Author, and Alpaca.

The alpaca is a glamorous member of the camel family and anything with a triple A in it has to be good at something. And I happened to meet a fellow author within days of coming across the alpaca, but I’ll start with the alphabet.

I’ve been in a shady place with all 26 letters for a good while. It all stems from that nonsense called Publishing One’s Book and entrusting it to an actual publisher. Well, that didn’t work, did it? Neither did the two name-worthy agents back in the old traditional days. Both agents said those immortal words: I’d love to represent you.

And the publisher said those other immortal words: I want to publish you.

11256845_1010782965672680_7187820645503081881_oIt’s been a week of lows for a few of my author pals too. The reasons are all valid and as writers we’ve all been there at some point. Sometimes a random, scathing comment can be the straw that broke the alpaca’s back. Unjust reviews, reviews of the editing or formatting of the book rather than the story, editors who’ve charged a lot of money and not completed the job, paying out for marketing and not selling a single copy, people who expect books for free… no sales. It’s a tough industry and sometimes those who should be supporting independent authors, let them down in ways we find hard to swallow on a permanent basis.

Someone told me that the only technically perfect book she’d ever read was edited and proofread by someone who charged £2,000 for the job. When royalties come in at 35p per 99p Kindle book and maybe a quid for a paperback which has cost several hundreds of pounds to produce to a readable standard, then I think we can all work out an appropriate response to that! 

This is not misguided moaning, an excuse for sloppy work or a mass wringing of hands. It may be more serious: I may have reached a stage of indifference. I started this venture for fun. Now, I’m unsure if I want to write novels anymore, and not only because sales and visibility are phenomenally difficult – with or without a publisher – but because funding the process is exhaustive, and not just in monetary terms, but emotionally and mentally too. Maybe – and this is the killer of all things creative – I’m just plain bored with it all?

I used to write for pleasure. Is it right to write for pain? Not for me. I publish myself through choice and this is perhaps the epitome of freedom for an author or any artist, but it’s a double-edged sword because I now know that none of the routes are golden. So many authors still presume the interest of an agent or a publisher is the mark of excellence or the end goal. It may work out for some, but there is still a hard line of prejudice in the commercial world as to what will sell or what is currently trending. The sad part about this is that the quality of writing seems to be the least important ingredient.

I write complex, multi-layered character family-drama. I write my stories because they are the kind of books I like to read myself. There’s a piece of me in each and every one, and I think this is what makes the process so enjoyable. 

DSC_0005I guess I’ve hit rock bottom a few times over the previous six years and I managed it again in spectacular form a few days ago when I managed to propel myself down a full flight of iron steps. The close proximity of the Llangollen canal and the fear of breaking bones was especially unpleasant. My backpack, stuffed with miscellaneous rubbish, saved me from serious injury. Apparently, I’m not the first person to pitch down those steps and I guess as a metaphor we’re on the right track here because I did manage to walk away mostly unscathed, apart from a large bruising around the saddle area. I hobbled on, fortified by the lure of meeting Shani Struthers in a wine bar…

Sometimes, when the chips are down a curveball comes rushing in and we have to listen to what the universe is trying to say to us as individuals. There was something whispering in my ear that day. Could something as simple as removing the pressure to perform, bring its own reward? I used to really, really love writing. This was before I began the process of commercial publishing, sales, marketing and all that jazz that seems to be expected of us. If we remove these stumbling blocks is it enough to engage with a smattering of genuine readers who deeply connect to your material? If you can honestly answer yes, then I think I can promise amazing results and instant satisfaction by writing exactly what you want to write whilst spending the majority of your money on food and drink!

Alphabetti Spaghetti might be the answer… Bottoms up!

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