Saturday, 28 July 2012

What Form Should a Prize for Self-published Writers Take?

OK, there are lots of prizes for self-published books already. There are even some prizes where the self-published can compete alongside the mainstream. This post was occasioned by the latest renewal of one of the book world’s most raucous and high profile events, the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.

Never short of controversy, as I know, having been the publisher, at eight cuts gallery press, of one of last year’s shortlisted books, The Dead Beat, Not the Booker is also a great platform for small publishers and edgy literary books. The rules of entry have always been the same as those for the Booker. But this year, for the first time, the competition’s infinitely patient organiser Sam Jordison has made reference to the elephant in the room:

But leaving [self-published books] out does seem increasingly anomalous in the brave new world of electronic publishing”

and he even hints at more to come

“we've even discussed the idea of a new and separate award for self-published novels”

The reaction has been predictably mixed. On the one hand, commenters have welcomed the thought of a self-published prize run on such a high profile forum as the Guardian. On the other, concerns were expressed about the ghettoisation of self-published books. There has been, however, an amount of consensus behind the idea expressed by the commenter lemonworld:

“I’d  love to live in a literary world where we don't spend so much time talking about HOW something is being published and instead talk even more about WHAT is being published”

I think that’s a sentiment all of us, except maybe for a few sub-editors, would concur with. The question is how to get there.

There are two issues involved here. First, and probably not foremost, we have to settle the issue concerning writers of whether the best scenario is to adopt an all-or-nothing approach (with self-published books only being considered alongside those from the mainstream) or whether to accept what’s on offer and try to win the doubters round. I can see the point of the former approach, but I don’t think it’s the way forward. If we want prizes seen by the mainstream, we can’t hold them to ransom. Things are changing, but the media holds the power. But even more to the point, there are many self-published authors who won’t cede the ground – and if we don’t join the bunfight, the sales-oriented, pushy-marketing self-publishers we want to take the media spotlight off will be the ones who shine. Also, as lemonworld also says, there’s no shame in being a fringe – in other branches of the arts, it’s a badge of pride. And I’ve experienced first hand how by taking your place on the fringe and grabbing the chance by the scruff of the neck and giving it your all, you can make your way into the mainstream. I was given the chance to do exactly that at this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where our New Libertines spoken word show delighted a full house as part of the fringe and will be part of the main festival next year.

Second, any competition has to engage readers, and that means addressing their concerns. When it comes to the threads on the Guardian, the principle concerns all focus on the same thing – the behaviour of self-published writers and their denizens of supporters. This, of course, is not a concern that transfers to all prizes – many are not accompanied by blogs, and many do not encourage participation in the way Not the Booker does. But it’s a concern I very much sympathise with.

How and how much to talk is such a tricky one for self-publishers. We are given so little air that whenever we are offered any we want to grab it and make the most of it. But everyone’s concern, going back to the start, is for it to be about the books. And for that to be the case, everyone needs to keep their end up. Prize organisers need to make sure those who shout loudest don’t get more read-time, and self-publishers need to make sure they keep their contributions focused on keeping the attention on the books and the unearthing of the genuinely best work – it’s the one thing that above all else will be in self-publishing’s interest in the long run. I am tempted to add that readers should ignore what is said and try all books equally – but I’m not sure it’s our place to make any demands of readers.

As writers, we have no control over anything but our own conduct. We can – and should – make a constant case to the organisers of prizes to run things in such a way that the best books have a genuine chance to shine. As self-publishers, we are constantly complaining about lack of media oxygen – for us then to in any way advocate a system that advantages those with followers or sales or platforms of any kind would surely be hypocrisy. More than that it would be an arrogation of our duty to place the interests of literary culture above those of our own books.

So what format would I like to see? Well, I don’t think you could better the Guaridan First Book Award. Anyone can nominate a book – their own or someone else’s. Only one nomination is needed for entry, and at least two readers from a panel then read each book and post their reviews. A panel of reviewers and Guardian columnists then come up with a shortlist that is reviewed by a staffer (or Sam) – reviews of each book are posted and discussion encouraged, but the winner decided upon NOT by a vote.

Monday, 23 July 2012

"V is for..." the troubling subject of voice

It’s the most important thing for any writer yet it’s the hardest of all to master. Largely because so few people seem to be able to give a coherent explanation of what it is. A few years ago I wrote a couple of pieces about it (here and here) but starting a new advice blog for self-publishers (and having three more years of getting to know the work of thousands of self-published writers) seems like the perfect time to revisit the subject of voice.

I very rarely see self-published authors talking about voice, which is a shame, because it’s an essential topic. And, to be perfectly blunt, you can spend an arm and a leg on proof reading, editing out the holes in your plot, and whizzifying your cover, but if your writing’s voice doesn’t sing off the page and make your work stand out from every other author in your area then you will never develop your 1000 true fans or have a long, sustainable writing life – your books will be interchangeable with any similar book. The way to proof yourself from that kind of reader indifference is to have a voice that is unique, to make *your* next book a must have.

The problem, of course, is it’s not as simple as saying “I’m going to get my voice right” the way you can with selling or even ironing out your saggy middle. A genuinely original and brilliant voice is something very few writers achieve. I do think, though, if you’ve got one it can often get hidden if you’re not letting it sing out – which means there *is* an appropriate conversation about voice.  

And a lot of that conversation will involve understanding what voice is and what it isn’t. You will sometimes see people distinguishing the voice of your characters from your voice as a writer. To me that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we’re talking about. The “voice of your protagonist/character/blah” is simply a tautologous way of saying “your characterisation”. Which is important. Vitally so. But it’s not your voice. Brilliant characterisation can only take you so far. Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury is one of the most perfectly-drawn characters in literary history. But if he’d spent the book using his “voice” to talk about eating his greens for dinner the novel wouldn’t be quite the masterpiece it is thanks to Faulkner having him focusing on oblique references to the slow and systematic abusive deconstruction of his sister, Caddy. Which is as good an explanation as I can think of for what voice is – and isn’t.

Your voice is, at its most basic level, what you have to say.

Now that’s a hugely knotty thing to say, I know, because at least a gazillion awkward sods will jump on it to assume I am talking about your book’s message. I’m not. If you know me at all, you’ll know the one thing a book shouldn’t have is a message. But you should have something to say. And the success of your voice will be a combination of what you have to say and how successfully (clearly) you are able to say it.

So, what is the difference between what you have to say and a message? At a surface level, quite possibly nothing at all. But the dynamics are very different. Your voice, the thing you have to say, feel compelled to say, is simply what it is – it comes from you and you have done your job if you take it from inside and put it out there clearly. A message seeks to go beyond that, sees your commentary and your articulation of that commentary as simply a means of persuasion. There are all sorts of reasons why I think that makes for lesser literature – from theoretical assumptions about what you can and can’t communicate to the practical observation that if your writing is made subservient to some kind of higher purpose then the writing will suffer and the reader will feel (and be!) used.

The second reason people struggle to find their voice is they are not really sure what they have to say. There can be many reasons for this, from writing for a reason other than the compulsion to write through trying to channel that compulsion to write into marketability to confusing your characters and their dilemmas with the thing you have to say.

The first two of these I won’t talk about here. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a market and many many people produce wonderful books by doing it. But this blog isn’t primarily for them. The third seems strange. Isn’t everything about your character and what happens to them? Well, on one level yes. They’re the nuts and bolts that comprise your book. They’re how you hook your reader in. How well you characterise (the fact I’m using that word, the one I’ve said isn’t voice, should be a big clue), and how well you plot are part of the process of ensuring your voice is heard. But they aren’t *it*.

Let’s have a look why. Now, my writing process/journey is probably like many of yours. Characters, situations, plot snippets, dilemmas, times and places pop into my head all the time. I write them own an see if anything more comes of them. Most of the time nothing does. But sometimes a fragment will stay with me. Its tendrils will creep out, take root, throw up shoots of their own, and before I know it there’s the seed of a story/poem/novel. The first time it really happened was when I started Songs from the Other Side of the Wall. I couldn’t shale this teenage girl, Szandi, looking out of her bedroom window over a vineyard covered in morning mist, catching sight of another young woman and falling instantly in love. It’s a vignette. Like hundreds of other vignettes I’d noted down. But *this* one wouldn’t leave me. *This* one kept growing. She would never see the woman again but her life would be shaped by the desire to find out more about her. This desire would pull her into a different world, one far removed from her rural family life in Hungary. It would take her to England, to the city, it would leave her caught like a bug in a spiderweb ever more tangled with every step as she was pulled apart between tradition and modernity, east and west, country and city, art and commerce, family and lover, mother and father, living in the past or creating a future. Now, Szandi was interesting in herself. I wanted to spend time with her. But the thing is there was a reason why I found her interesting in a way I hadn’t found other potential protagonists interesting at all. Her story as it unfolded in my head said something to me. It resonated with me, with my fascination with modern Europe, with the way we construct our identity, with the way we define ourselves by some of the choices we make and not others.

For me, if you leave it with the characters not only will your voice be unclear, it’s rather uninquisitive (a better word than lazy) of you as a writer. The key to it all is why you are attracted to this character, and why, having chosen them, you are drawn to a particular part/time of their life (there is a reason why so many novels are set at transitional moments in our lives – and, conversely, why seeing this there was a new wave of writers in the 80s and 90s looking at non-transitional moments). And once you have latched onto that you have reached your Archimedean Point.

And it is using that fulcrum as just that – the point of leverage for your entire novel, building up the layers of character and story always and only as they come back to, are illuminated by, or are fleeing from that single point – that you will make your voice clear.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Be inspirational

I began this post after having lunch with one of my favourite poets, Clarissa Pabi. I am very lucky to spend my days in a city that has an absolutely bustling creative scene and a hub, The Albion Beatnik Bookstore, where you will almost always find someone creative doing something exciting any hour of the day or night. Clarissa is one of many wonderful creative people it’s been my privilege to meet in the past three years I always leave feeling a buzz in my head and a need and desire to go out and do something interesting, inventive or just plain different.

A week later, as I sit down to finish it, I have a very personal reason to talk about inspiration (which also explains why I have been, and will be for a week or so) absent from here. Last Monday, my mum lost her lengthy battle with cancer. She introduced me to the word Beatnik when I was about five, and it was her love of books, the wonderful tales of her travels across Europe in a Morris Minor van, and the way each new edition of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and Colette’s letters was a household event that set me on the insatiable writing path (those things and the old school desk my parents got me for my third birthday at which I sat scribbling in the middle of the night from my earliest memories). The day after she die it was my privilege to be able to perform a set of performance poetry in her memory at the night Full Fat at The Book Club in Shoreditch. This post is also in memory of her inspirational qualities.

“Surround yourself with inspirational people” is one of those truisms of the creative world. It’s how collectives come together, how vague perceptions are refined through the polish of another person’s perspective, how we find ourselves challenged and inflamed with enthusiasm to do the things that would otherwise remain the vaguest of dreams, how diverse ideas bounce off each other, the friction creating a heat that cooks them into delicious creative recipes, how – at the bottom line – new movements are formed.

Before I’m accused of adding yet another page to the extrovert’s charter, consider what originally gave you your love of the arts. Most of us can point to someone who pointed us in the right direction, however gently and however long ago. I have been blessed with a life filled with inspirational people, from my mum through to people I work with now like Clarissa.

But my point here isn’t about how to draw inspiration, or how to make your artistic journey smoother by surrounding yourself with “the right people” (however important those things are). My point is the unquantifiable debt we owe our inspirations. Without those inspirational figures we would never have set out on the path we love. The way we can best repay that debt is simple. Be inspirational.

What does that mean? Well, it’s as indefinable as being spectacular, of course. But like being spectacular it’s a mindset that we can all aspire to and adopt. Think back again. We are surrounded every day by people enmeshed in the world of arts and letters. What is it that made the few who inspired you stand out?

Ever one to look for alliteration where none exists in nature, the following five things feel like a good place to start.

  • Enthusiasm – it’s infectious, almost epidemiologically catching. Do you love literature? Really love it?  Let it show!
  • Encouragement – those who inspire us are always looking for ways they can support others. They often have an uncanny knack of seeing beyond the one who shouts loudest in a group, seeing what it is that burns unseen, even unnoticed, in the quiet kid at the back of the class, making a line straight for them and helping it catch fire. See a glimmer of interest in someone? Don’t say “that’s nice?” or even walk on by. Stop and figure out what you can do to help it burn brighter.
  • Enjoyment – it seems obvious but it’s something we forget so often. One of the main reasons we do things we see others doing is that we see just how much fun they’re having. There will be times when the last thing you feel like doing is tapping anything on the keyboard. I know that all too well, and I know how important it is to vent sometimes. But some writers seem to make a virtue out of grumbling at every turn. There are times we need to keep those conversations among friends because, after all, if we didn’t at a deep underlying level love what we do, we wouldn’t do it.
  • Energy – I’m not talking about tweeting 100 times an hour or generally being one of those always bright and breezy smiling people who thinks the world is always one long cocktail. It’s more a question of giving what time you have. People who inspire us are just as susceptible to depression and the vicissitudes of life as the rest of us – it’s what they do with the time they have that matters.
  • Engagement – this is pretty much where I started with this blog and it’s still the most important thing. Speak to people, and not just to tell them what you’ve done now. Take an interest in what they do, listen, respond to their comments.

Of course not everyone can do all of those things. And certainly not all the time. But when we are able, then we should put this right at the top of our priority list. It’s the least we owe the people who got us started.