Friday 29 August 2008

Artist’s Treat

Julia Cameron, in her books The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write describes something called the “artist’s treat”. I’ve tried to programme that into my working life once a week now, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it happens without me planning it. Like the other Wednesday when I met Emma for coffee. She showed me a little quarter of Manchester that I didn’t know existed but that was within minutes of all the places I do know. I was going to the theatre than night and if I’d gone home, I’d have had turn straight back round and come out again. However, that now gave me time to kill. So, I had a good wander around Manchester. It’s a city I love, with a lot of life and buzz.

The whole point, I think, of the writer’s treat is not to have too great an expectation. You just relax and let things happen. You absorb so much subconsciously as you stroll around. I remember once a trip such as this to Winchester cathedral. It followed a surreal day – full day’s teaching at secondary school, followed by a pantomime rehearsal – even our Cinderella was male and he went, still dressed in drag, to the local station to pick up his girlfriend. Then, I and the other members of my MA group were expected to just stroll around Winchester cathedral and ignore each other if we met. We thought our lecturers had gone bananas. It so happens that a half decent short story for children came out of that. Not that one should do this expecting inspiration. It is a way of allowing a gap. Gaps are useful. It gives you a distance form your work, and it does allow seeds of ideas to be planted. Now, I try to create these occasions.

I love the buzz of cities like Manchester, but I hate retail therapy, though I do like having and wearing nice clothes. The trouble with shopping for them is it feels like pressure. An artist’s retreat has to be no pressure.

I’m off to meet my editor for lunch and then on to the CWIG conference in Cambridge. This involves negotiating the M25. Even without that, I always allow an extra half hour for every hour of journey. I could arrive one and half hour early, therefore. Also, I don’t know how long lunch will take, so I may not be able to check into the college straight away. Therefore, I’m flinging the English Heritage and the National Trust handbooks into the car. We’re members of both. If I have time to kill… but I won’t force it. It’s all about sitting back and letting something in, whilst feasting your senses and cranking up your optimism.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Editing and Editing and Editing

I am now on the eighth edit of Spooked. Tomorrow I show it to an editor even though I want to do another six or seven edits on it myself. It is gradually growing right, although until very recently I’d thought a novel I finished a year a go – and started about ten years ago – was much better.

So, why am I proposing to show this to an editor before it’s really ready?

It’s actually a matter of geography. I’m in Cambridge tomorrow for the CWIG conference, and the publishing company is based near Cambridge. I’ve never actually met my editor before though we’ve had plenty of conversations on the phone and via email. I’m also meeting the new publicist. It will be interesting.

I’m taking some things along for her to have a look at. My precious The Prophecy – I just can’t get used to that - it used to be Peace Child. I’ve actually had that one made into real books so they are easier to read. - Spooked as mentioned and Miss Maplethorpe – a short novel, perhaps for reluctant readers. According to Microsoft it has a reading age of 4.6. Interestingly that was edited to perfection when I last looked at it, about eighteen months ago. I’m sure today I would find it a bit shaky. I did have a little glance at it, though, as I printed it, and it did look fine.

But when do you stop editing?

I’m keeping fingers crossed for my lunch time meeting tomorrow.

I’m also taking a few extra copies to the conference as well. There will be many networking opportunities there as well.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Revisiting Translation Work

I’ve all but given up my involvement with language work apart form my Creative Writing in Other Languages and the fact that I read the literature printed in other countries. Then out of the blue last night, I get a phone call from an ex-client of mine wanting some help with the translation of a tenancy agreement. I used to teach their son French and he is now at university studying Spanish and about to do a year abroad in Spain. They are renting a flat for him.

Well, I haven’t done translation for a long time, but I always did enjoy working with this particular student, so I guess I felt I could do this, especially as I have come to a full stop with the tidying up the house etc. We can’t really do a lot more until we have a definite moving time.

And actually, I quite enjoyed doing the translation. I wouldn’t want too many – it would be too much like jobbing writing, but in terms of a bit of variety, it was good. I am a landlord. Too, and I’m trying to get myself out of that. Now that I’ve made that decision, anything to do with landlordism seems easy.

I guess it’s just one advantage of having a freelance life. Of course that all stops for me next week, when my university post becomes full time. The downside of that is being answerable to a hierarchy of line-managers again. The upside is the regular monthly salary. Also, when you’re employed as an academic at a university, there is plenty of variety in your work – which is all about writing anyway, if you’re teaching Creative Writing.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Books and Grand Pianos

We have a grand piano. It is over 150 years old Broadwood and both Beethoven and Chopin. It’s a delightful piece of furniture and it’s not bad as a musical instrument. You can’t tune it to concert pitch any more. If you did the repairs it needs it would devalue it as an antique. We’re moving soon, so there’s very little point in doing anything until we arrive at the other end. It does have a good tone. Of course, modern CDs and or MP3s or Ipods can produce fantastic music. Yet, the whole of our move goes around finding a space big enough for our grand piano. We wouldn’t be without it.

Nor would we be without many of our books. It causes us pain to throw any of them away. But we do have to. Although we’re moving form one four bedroomed-house to another, the new one is only two thirds the size of the one we’re leaving behind. So, a lot has to go.

There is some comfort in putting them in the Oxfam box or taking them to the local charity shop. In fact, as I unloaded a set of penguin reference books from my car this morning, someone pounced on them and bought them before they were even unpacked. Good.

I’m actually, perhaps a little unusually for a writer, welcoming the e-book revolution. I look forward to the day when there is no limit to the number of books I can consume and have access to, without having to use them as extra insulation for my home. Just think how easy it would be to pack for a holiday. And you’d never have to give away another book again. You could probably keep them all on a memory stick.

And yet. The books are like the grand piano really. Not all that much sense in owning them any more, but great all the same. So, perhaps my lottery-winner’s dream would be to have a house big enough to include a library that could expand forever.

Monday 25 August 2008

Moving House

Why does anyone ever do that? Is it worse if you’re a writer? Do we tend to try and hold on to things more?

I sort through books not wanting to get rid of them. I hang on to letters from old friends because I think they’re going to be some sort of company from me in my old age. I think it wise to hold on to all those padded envelops so that they can be used again.

It’s a desperate situation, though. We’re downsizing, even though we’re moving to a place where we’ll both have our own studies.

Everywhere is dust and decay. We remove two thirds of what we have and the third that’s left behind seems to take up more room than the three thirds did before. As we think of the dimensions of the new house, we have to strip more and more back.

I’ve decided that this week, as I’ve taken off time form the university, I’ll concentrate during the day on the physical side of sorting things out. it’s a Bank Holiday today. But later in the week, I’ll also take the time to make the necessary phone calls. I’ve done a few already.

I promised myself, though, that I’d spend a couple of hours each evening on my writing. I’ve had my laptop plugged in in the bedroom so that I could listen to a radio broadcast whilst I did the ironing. All right I’ll come clean : I was listening to The Archers omnibus. So, it’s still a good form of story, isn’t it?

I move my computer into my study and plug it in. No little light flickers on to say that it is running off mains electricity. We do all the experiments we can with swapping leads and fuses and establish, just five minutes after PC World has closed, that it is indeed the power pack that has died.

So, I’m currently typing away on an aging PC in my husband’s study.

Bank Holiday Mondays, eh?

Friday 22 August 2008

Age-banding or not

There is quite a lot of debate about this at the moment. Should we put the age of the reader on the book? Straight away, I see a problem. Who is the reader and which of their many ages do we mean? Reading age rarely matches biological age, and then there is mental, emotional and spiritual age to contend with. The combination of these “ages” plus children’s personal tastes will determine which sorts of books they might choose – or even more likely, have chosen for them by an involved adult. That all important cover, blurb and first page will give even more information. But if the child / adult suddenly sees that this book is suitable for 6-8 and they are five or nine yet in every other way the book really appeals, a potential reader is lost. How devastating for the twelve-year-old slow reader, perhaps also a little emotionally immature, to find the book that (s)he finds palatable is meant for nine-year-olds.

This is a world away from general cataloguing and shelving that already exists, and that can be problematic enough. Just think, in a bookshop, you start off at what has roughly indicated as your age group and you move along the shelves to find something harder or easier. You don’t notice, probably, because you’re short and the labels are up high on the shelves that you’ve wandered out of your zone.

Interestingly, it is Philip Pullman who is leading the anti-age banding campaign. Just think, how would you label His Dark Materials trilogy? I’ve said in my Ph D thesis that it is a Young Adult novel. It has the feeling of quest about it that many Young Adult novels do. Lyra and Will are young adults. Many young adults have read and enjoyed it. Yet is has been read and enjoyed by younger people – despite a rather high reading age register. Many adults have also enjoyed it. So, which age band do we put it into and would that put readers from other groups off?

Thursday 21 August 2008

Independent Publishers

There is a reaction to the narrowing of the market amongst the big publishers, where it is becoming very hard to get your work even looked at. Lots of small independent publishers are appearing. They find it harder to get their books into mainstream bookshops and they have less contacts within the industry. The public and those who take an interest in literature are slightly suspicious of them. Yet they do all the same work as a normal publisher. They’re actually an ideal outlet if you’re doing something a little unusual. They edit, copy edit, work with printers, set the book up, have relationships with distributors, deposit with the legal deposit libraries, do some publicity. The author must be prepared to do some of the footwork themselves. Also, if you do eventually become involved with a mainstream publishing house, they may frown at possibly slow sales. If that is bearable, this may be the way to go.

I have four of my books with Willow Bank Publishing, under their imprint Butterfly. They have done everything correctly and the first book out, The Lombardy Grotto, looks good. I’ve promoted it myself, like mad and it’s done okay but isn’t exactly a best seller yet.

Publish America is another and has had a lot of bad press. However, I’m very pleased with what they have done with my Nick’s Gallery. They do produce the books without any charge to the author, but leave the promotion mainly up to you.

A friend of mine may be about to be published with Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie. You can’t fault them on being a traditional publisher and they are completely upfront about the likelihood of sales being slow. They don’t ask for payment. Their web site looks good.

All of these are better than self-publishing or subsidy publishing. Their books do tend to be more expensive than those of mainstream publishers. That isn’t always a bad thing. They lead to a book on a shelf. They will probably allow you into the Society of Authors. Most importantly, they may allow you to produce something which is not what the mass market wants but for which there is nevertheless a market.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Getting an Accountant

A writing friend of mine contacted me recently and asked me whether I thought it would be a good idea for her to get an accountant. I said it would. Her circumstance are a little different from mine. She has a full time day job and writes-four hours a day. (Yes, four hours a day.) She has her first short story published in November. I, on the other hand, have been registered self-employed for eight years, have a 0.5 post which is about to become full time, have over 30 books in print and own eight properties.

Of course, I really need an accountant because of the properties. He charges me just over £1000 a year and saves me I guess about £6,000 or £7,000. He fills in my tax return for me. He knows what I can claim against tax for my writing expenses and my properties. If I only needed him for my writing, I guess I’d be paying him about £300 a year and he would save me a couple of thousand.

By rights, even if you are fully employed and paying PAYE, you should register as self-employed the moment you get anything published. There’s even an argument that says you should do that before you start earning from your writing, because you are actually incurring costs: that Arvon course, that conference, the heating and lighting in your work room. And yes, you do have to pay tax on your royalties. Some publishers, apparently at the request of the Inland Revenue, even ask you to invoice them for royalties – including a statement to say that you are responsible for your own tax arrangements. That is where your accountant can be really useful. And his / her bill is allowable against tax, too. It can almost get to the stage where you think with glee every time you spend something that you are going to get 25% - 40% back.

Just one word of caution, though. It can sometimes look as if you don’t earn a penny. Not so good if you’re trying to get a loan or a mortgage.

Monday 18 August 2008

Subsidy Publishing

There’s been quite a bit of talk about this on forums I belong to. Is “subsidy publishing” another word for vanity publishing?

I would argue it actually depends on exactly what your publisher does. Willow Bank, an imprint of which, Butterfly, has published one of my novels and is working on three others, actually does both.

I would say, that if the publisher just takes the money and does nothing, publishes everything offered to them, then they are vanity. If they edit and select, do much of the publicity and distribution work which the self-publishing author does not have time to do, then they really are doing something different from the old vanity publishers. It has to be at a reasonable cost to the author.

It is certainly true that writing well and in a way to appeal to your target audience is no longer enough. You do have to get yourself noticed one way or another.

There are temptations about self-publishing. It is becoming respectable. You do have all of the control. The big draw back is that you do not sell the vast numbers of books that a mainstream publisher can. You do not have the same access to the market. The outlay, if you use a company such as Lightning source is minimal, but not free. Typically, title set up is £35 - £47. You need a cover designing – that could be £250 and you need to create your own PDF file. The actual cost of each copy of the book is about 70p plus 1p per page. It’s always good to have a proof copy made and that’s about £25.00. Then you have to think about discounts to bookshops. It becomes quite difficult to keep the cost down to what the normal book publishers charge. But if you have something rather special it can be worth it.

Friday 15 August 2008

"Making Changes" - an Advent Calendar of Short Stories

The first “Advent Calendar” anthology of short stories, “Making Changes” from my publishing imprint, Bridge House, is coming together. It is beginning to look very good. I’ve just six more stories to put in, then I must do the introduction and the contents.

It doesn’t sound like too much work – just find 24 stories, edit them a little, put them together and then get on with the marketing. It is amazingly time-consuming but tremendous fun.

I’m impressed and delighted with the stories I’ve managed to find. Also, all of the authors are working together proactively. There is tremendous excitement. It is good to be part of this.

I do have a day job, which becomes full time in September. I am also self-employed. I think this fits in almost as a hobby, but reflects my “day job”. This is the problem with loving your work. You don’t actually have hobbies and there are no contrasts.

I’ve decided the book is going to retail at £8.99. This is common sort of price for anthologies of short stories and implies a slightly literary take. Popular ones will sell at about £4.99. But I think you get what you pay for. This book is quality. It has a good mixture of stories, with elements of fantasy, thriller, children’s real life and mystery. It is going to be a good read.

We have a suggested cover design, though it may not be the final one and any minute now, I’m registering it with Nielson. Progress indeed.

See link under "For Your Information"

Thursday 14 August 2008

Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever” at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

This is a play I know well, having been co-producer of it at one time. It is an extremely funny play, with the larger then life eccentric Bliss family, made up of actress mother, writer father and two wild grown up children. This particular cast – Belinda Lang (Judith Bliss), Ben Keaton (David Bliss), Fiona Button (Sorel Bliss), Dorothea Myer-Bennett (Jackie Coryton), Simon Bubb (Sandy Tyrell), Lysette Anthony (Myra Arundel), Simon Treves (Richard Greatham) and Tessa Bell-Briggs (Clara) really pushed the characters quite over the top, in an almost Brechtian way, making it even funnier without letting it become ridiculous. It was quite touching to see the flip from eccentric overdrawn character to professional actor as they took their bow at the end. This was also a very well synchronised event – not always easy to manoeuvre in a theatre in the round.

The play had been so successful that they decided to extend the run by a week. Then there were fears that they wouldn’t be able to fill the seats. It is, after all, August, and many theatre-goers are away on holiday. They needn’t have worried. It was almost a full house last night and last night was a Wednesday.

This amazing theatre is housed in what used to be the Cotton Exchange. That retains much of its former glory. The ringing of a hand bell to warn that the show is about to start is nicely reminiscent of the sounds that would have been heard there in the building’s former life. An almost transparent “in the round” medium-sized pudding basin of a theatre seems to have been dropped into the middle of it, right underneath the main glass dome. This makes for a beautiful foyer, with plenty of atmosphere, two bars, a cafeteria, all open plan, with a full blown restaurant sectioned off. There are also other opportunities for buying chocolates, ices and coffees during the interval – or two intervals in this case. The building tends to be open almost all day everyday and is worth a visit even if you’re not going to see the play.

It’s a little difficult trying to decide where to sit. If you’re downstairs, you’re almost too close to the actors and you can’t admire the set. If you’re on one of the galleries you tend to need to lean forward, especially if you’re short like me, in order to be able see across the EU approved-height railing. It’s a little short on leg room, too. I often wonder why they can’t make theatres as comfortable as cinemas. Still, this is only a minor niggle in what is otherwise a very impressive space.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Other Creative Writers

We were interviewing yesterday at the university for another full-time creative writing lecturer. I wasn’t on the interview panel, but we are all invited to watch the candidates make presentations about modules they might introduce. We saw six altogether, so that meant three hours of watching.

It wasn’t at all boring. These were six really busy, really creative people. There are so many exciting projects going on at the moment. It also showed how writers do have to be versatile these days. Goodness, we have to run ourselves as businesses. A little paid employment here and there is handy in the extreme.

What a variety we had there – playwrights, a poet who is turning to prose, people involved in radio, theatre, film and new media. It was good to be able to talk, though, to people who are involved in similar issues to myself.

It’s made me think about my own interview. I remember that day so well. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I came away feeling that I’d be delighted if I got the post, but also that I could quite understand if one of the others got it. I hope our candidates yesterday felt the same way. I do believe that our interviews are very friendly, though no less rigorous for that.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Under the Weather?

It is pouring with rain at the moment. Manchester, in the rain. There is a severe weather warning for he North West. Apparently the torrential rain has not yet arrived. That comes later. I feel that I need sunshine, but I won’t get it here. Even on a warm day, the sky is not always that blue on this island.

And yet. There’s something incredibly cosy about being indoors at times like this, tapping away on my computer keyboard, engrossed in another world.

The book I’m writing at the moment is set in a partly shadowy world, which is from time to time infused with light, and partly in our normal world. There is music in that world. And romance, plus a little humour, but also poignant sadness and dread.

The great thing about writing is you can actually visit any world you wish with your imagination. You are totally in that world as you write.

I do have to admit that the sun inspires me. It was a holiday in the south of Spain one incredibly hot summer that got me writing in the first place. Then, this year, on Tenerife, I seemed to get all of this energy and almost completed a novel. I think it’s partly helped by the healthy life style there. You get away from the phone. You eat well, You swim and walk a lot. I do imagine myself living that life permanently. Writing in the mornings. Swimming, walking, reading or sleeping in the afternoons, depending on the time of year, and being sociable, doing talks, or having quiet evenings at home after the sun goes down. Hmm. Ah, well, I’ll just have to make the most of my research day each week.

Monday 11 August 2008

Writing for Triond

This is an interesting concept. You write an article or a piece of fiction and you post it to the Triond web site. They then place it on the most appropriate web site which is monetarised. They take half the income. You can see how many times your article has been visited. People can leave comments and also say that they liked it. It’s another connection with your public.

Half the income might seem a bit steep. However, I’ve often noticed that I spend more time on marketing material than I do on writing it. So, it seems okay to let these guys do that work and I’ll concentrate on the marketing.

I’m not earning a lot this way. In fact, I’m earning considerable less than I was from my own blogs until Google Adsense pulled the plug for reasons I still fail to understand. I think possibly some rival to some firm that was advertising on my site had become trigger happy and made unfair clicks. This could also happen on the sites where Triond post. I expect, though, they have a more sophisticated relationship with their advertisers.

I would have to write a thousand more articles to get anything like a decent wage with this scheme. Still, as with other forms of royalties, they do still keep coming and lots of peanuts make a feast, lots of trickles make a torrent.

You still have to make a marketing effort. Most of the people who read your postings will be people who have a connection with you. Some others will stumble across you. If the content’s good, both sorts of people are likely to come back. The trick is to make that as automatic as possible – put a link in your email signature. Have a link from your blog and from your web site.

I’m forcing myself to write at least one article a week. And I’m putting up anything else I also think of. At least that’s good for my discipline. And it’s not really costing me anything.

Friday 8 August 2008

The Joy of Computers

There I was, working away in my office on a paper I was writing about using the Creative Writing workshop with undergraduate students. Suddenly a little message pops up saying that the system was about to collapse, and I should save all my work. But I couldn’t do a thing, because the computer, in that application at least, had frozen completely. It did say it would attempt to save my work but then informed me that it had not managed to. I’m just hoping I’d not done too much after the last auto save, and that the auto save had worked.

I am so meticulous about backing up work. I do save everything on to my memory stick as well as whichever computer I’m working on. My home computer gets backed up to my husband’s once a week and they both get backed up to a remote mainframe once a month. The university one also does periodic back-ups, but I notice they keep some of them on the same drive as the original documents.

Yesterday I was working on a Word document on my F drive which is a virtual drive, not actually on my office computer. I was also saving to my memory stick, but I do tend to only do that at the end of a session. I fear I may have lost abut half an hour’s work.

I rebooted, and while the machine was sorting itself out, I popped into the staff room to wash my coffee cup. The head of the support staff was there and told me there had been major network problems.

I guess it might be because they were working on the library catalogue, which must take up a lot of the network. They do have to do these things sometimes. August is a good bet. The students are certainly not there, and a lot of the staff are not either.

I’ll try again today. But if it’s all not working, I’ll be off to the Imperial War Museum North to see the Horrible Histories exhibition. That does fit in very well with my research.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Meeting new Students

I was the only Creative Writer in the university yesterday. Our Head of School was away on vacation, and the second-in-command s the one who would normally greet these students, in the absence of other Admissions Tutors. It’s a funny month, August, yet for prospective students it’s a potentially exciting time of the year. They’ll be coming here soon. They’re trying to sort out what they need to do.

They were very quiet, which surprised me. I would never have been so quiet in those circumstances, I don’t think, even when I was that young. And yet I don’t consider myself to be a particularly extrovert person. I guess some of my writing friends would think I was, but compared to many others ….

They stayed for about an hour. I asked them questions and they asked me a few. All but one of the six – four English and Creative Writing, one English Literature and Language and one History – are starting this year. As often is the case with Creative Writing, several are coming in through access courses. Two were transferring from another university. So, in all but one case, it was not a matter of waiting for A-Level results.

Towards the end of the hour, the questions came. I was able to answer most of them and point them in the right direction for others. I’d be happy to work with any of them.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Academic / Writer

Most of my writing yesterday was academic. I am wrestling with a book proposal which builds on my PhD thesis. It’s almost harder than writing from scratch. I’m submitting three sample chapters, one of which is actually the introduction. The chapters should be about 7,000 words long. Currently the one I’m working on is running at 5,800. I think, like I tell my students, I need to add more concrete examples.

I’m also making progress with the Creative Café. I’m getting quotes for designing the logo and getting the first bits and pieces printed. It’s potentially a very exciting time. I just have to keep fingers crossed that I get the funding.

I really value my job. It’s as if someone has said, “Gill we value what you do. We’ll pay you a retainer.” So, I have a living wage and get to do what I do anyway:

· Write books

· Give talks

· Critique other people’s work

· Talk to people about writing

· Write critically about writing and literature

· Go to interesting conferences

· Give papers at interesting conferences

· Research into interesting matters.

· Look for funding for projects

. Occasionally I get what might be described as a bonus. I get a royalty cheque or I go to a reading and sell a few books which my publisher has sold to me at a discount.

What a fun life!

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Veiled Dreams

I started reading the final proofs for this yesterday. I’m actually rather pleased with it, although here is the usual problem of wanting to alter last minute bits, and of course it’s actually too late for that.

I finished Veiled Dreams almost exactly a year ago. it was the project I took on after I’d completed my PhD, whilst I was waiting for the viva, and then afterwards.

And it is good. I’m even thinking that it is slightly better that the one I’m currently working on. That is a little disturbing. I suppose I should remember that I haven’t finished editing Spooked.

Both of these are young adult texts and they do contain some quite explicit details about sex. I feel this is a little daring, but I do get sick of it being glossed over in much of the material I read. So, I feel justified in including it, though worry about readers’ reaction, and perhaps more importantly, the reaction of those gate-keeping adults.

I think one of the reasons I like Veiled Dreams better is that I am more in love with Jan, the boyfriend of the main character, than I am with Tom, the main character in Spooked. We do get Jan’s point of view, and we are touched by how much he cares. However, most of the time we get Christina’s and we’re actually then drawn into loving Jan more because she keeps getting it wrong. She’s feisty and passionate, so we do like her too.

Tom? A good egg, generally, touchingly in love with Amanda. But de we get close enough to her? It’s perhaps something which will be more firmly there after I’ve completed all of the editing.

So, is this an alarming winding down or is it proof of the importance of editing?