To My Readers - Wherever and Whoever You Are

Dear Reader,
I've been thinking about you a lot recently. I've been thinking about where I may have been going wrong. And the one conclusion I've reached is that I could do better.

I don't mean the writing. I think the writing is probably as good as I can make it. Which is not to say that it doesn't have faults. I started my self publishing (ad)venture just over a year ago, but I've been writing, more or less successfully, for decades. And if that makes me sound old, it's because I'm ... old-ish. You can read about some of that writing history on my website, here.

The age bit is important only in that it has made me focus on the horribly swift passage of time. Publishing involves a lot of waiting, even when you have an agent.
Here's how it goes.

You wait for your agent to respond to your novel. He says he thinks it's wonderful, (yay!) but still sends four pages of suggested changes. You burn the midnight oil on rewrites.
Time passes.
He sends more suggestions. You burn more midnight oil and drink more coffee and hit 'send' on the rewritten version.
Time passes.You start something new. You wait. You become paranoid. But no news is good news. Right?
Three months later, you send a tentative email asking what's happening. He says he has been busy but he has asked a colleague to read the book.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
The colleague suggests drastic changes. Even your agent seems a bit phased. You throw a small wobbly, but because it has rocked your confidence you go over the whole thing for the zillionth time and make some more changes.
Your agent bites the bullet and sends out your novel.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
It is just before/during/after a major book fair and they are all busy. It is summer and they are away on holiday. It is autumn and they are involved with the run up to Christmas.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
Your novel finally manages to slide through one of the narrow windows of opportunity.
But the editor is busy so she farms it out to an intern.
Time passes.You carry on writing.
Finally, your poor, tired old novel creeps exhaustedly under the wire of editorial indifference.
The editor reads it. She says she loves it.
But she must consult elsewhere.
Time passes. You carry on writing.
Weeks later, she reports that she can't carry the sales team with her in the current climate.
Don't worry, says your agent. You worry.
Lots and lots of time passes. Lots of editors send you a series of ever more rave rejections.
You strike it lucky. You get a deal. You are demented with joy.
But, says the new editor, it needs some serious rewriting.
You burn the midnight oil. You drink more coffee. You hit send on the trillionth draft.
Then, the publishing schedule kicks in.
You wait two or three years before the book is in your hands and on the shelves.
Time passes and your life with it.

You can see how age becomes an issue, can't you? Well, it did for me, last year. I found myself with several completed and almost completed novels. People were telling me they wanted to read them. People I respected (editors included) were telling me they were good. But there was no deal on the horizon and it struck me that even if there was, the wait would be a long one.

So I decided to self publish on Kindle: three full length novels so far, as well as some short stories and a couple of play scripts. There are more to come: two more novels with another work in progress. I got through a lot of writing while all that time was passing! One of the books, The Curiosity Cabinet, had already been published in the usual way, but two of them are new. I've lived with these characters by day and dreamed about them at night. It's a lot like being in love: that same intense, obsessive interest, the way you can't get the beloved out of your mind. Their dilemmas kept me awake. Their joys made me smile and their tragedies made me cry.

So what do I mean when I say I 'could do better' ?
Well, I think it's this.
Writing is a solitary job, so most writers like to chat to other writers. Who better than another writer to understand where you're coming from - or where you wish you were going? We used to do it at conferences and meetings. We still do that. But now, we do it online as well.
Which means that sometimes, we find ourselves ignoring the people who really matter. And that's you, dear reader. You.
Naturally, our fellow writers do a lot of reading, so in a way, they are our readers too.
But I've begun to realise that I spend more time talking to writers about writing, than I do talking to readers about reading.
Yet as a reader, I love listening to writers talking about what inspired their books, where the ideas came from, what they feel about this or that character, what made them write the way they did, and why. I don't necessarily want to know about the nuts and bolts of it all. I just want to know more about the world of the book and what went into creating it.
As a writer, it's so lovely, so genuinely moving, to read reviews from completely unknown readers. It isn't just the praise - although that's nice too, of course, when it comes! But it's the feeling that somebody has 'got' what you were trying to say, that somebody has understood in a very special way, has been able to enter into your imaginary world and share it and take pleasure from it.
I know not all writers agree with me. I know that if most of us are honest, when we're actually writing, we don't think about our readers much, because we're too engrossed in the story and that makes us selfish.
But quite soon after that, the reader becomes very important indeed. Talking to people who have also been engrossed in the story, is one of the things I love most about this weird and wonderful job called writing .
I think I need to do more of that and I think I need to do it better. 

Bird of Passage on Kindle - Disturbing to Read - and to Write.

Cover art precisely reflecting the themes of the novel - by Matt Zanetti 

If you're reading this on 10th or 11th May 2012, you can download my novel, Bird of Passage, free to your Kindle or Kindle App, here in the UK or here in the USA.

To be honest with you, although I'm very fond of this novel, very fond of its central characters, Finn and Kirsty, even I don't know what particular genre it belongs in. So I don't think I can complain too much that mainstream publishers couldn't seem to place it either. It's a mid-list novel, for sure and it's on the literary end of the mid-list. But that doesn't mean it's difficult to read. I hope the story is strong enough to carry you along.  It's contemporary fiction, but the story spans many years. It's a love story, but it also deals with the shocking realities - and the aftermath - of state sanctioned physical abuse in 1960s Ireland, which makes it a serious and challenging read.

The story of Finn and Kirsty begins in 1960s Scotland. Young Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to work at the potato harvest and soon forms a close friendship with Kirsty Galbreath, the farmer’s red-headed grand-daughter. But Finn is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories slowly. What happened at the brutal Industrial School to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there, and what became of the mother he lost. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. 

The novel is as much about the crippling psychological effects of physical cruelty as anything else. I've realised that even I, as a writer, found myself reluctant to tackle these aspects of Finn's story. (And even since publication, I realise I've been reluctant to talk and write about them.) I knew that I didn't want to turn this into a 'misery memoir'. But Finn, as he presented himself to me right from the start, seemed like a profoundly damaged individual. And it was quite a long time before I could bring myself to get inside his mind and find out exactly what had happened to him. It became even more disturbing when I found out what really had happened to so many people, when I found out - distressingly - the stories that lay behind those men you sometimes see in UK cities, Irish construction workers or older men now that time has passed, solitary souls, unable to form close relationships and sometimes reliant on alcohol to see them through each evening. Strangely, this reluctance of mine seems to be mirrored in the character of Finn himself who can't remember exactly what happened during his childhood, having buried it so deeply, because it was so damaging.

If this makes it a disturbing read - and I think in many ways it does - then it also made it a disturbing book to write. I found the character of Finn and his history so absorbing that I would constantly wake up in the night, thinking about him, trying to figure out why he was behaving in this way, and what might have happened to make him like this. It strikes me that writers don't always, or even often, manipulate plot and character. Sometimes our characters manipulate us. Finn was relentless.

From some of the  UK reviews, I can see that men have appreciated this novel as much as women. It has an island setting in part but much of the story of Bird of Passage also takes place in Ireland and on the Scottish mainland. It has a rural setting, but many key events take place in cities.

My friend and colleague, Dr David Manderson, of the University of the West of Scotland, reviewed it in these terms: It's not just a cracking read, it's a genuinely powerful one, and once you stumble over the great love story at its centre you won't be able to put this book down. There's real pain here and many different kinds of healing, few of them nice. A story that like Wuthering Heights has as many harsh and knotted bits as deliciously sweet ones, you will be taken to a different world by it, but one as real as your own.'  Writing in the Indie eBook Review, Gilly Fraser says 'There are no pat answers in this story and no neatly contrived solutions. Endings are jagged, situations remain unresolved. Yet at the end of the book, there is a feeling of satisfaction that things did work out as they should - at least to some extent.' 

There have been other reviews, most of them by people I don't know at all, one of them calling the novel,  'A breathtaking read.'  To which I can only say, thank-you, whoever you are - and I'm so glad you enjoyed it, if enjoy is the right word! As writers, we tend to write for ourselves. How else could we spend so much time absorbed in the world of each book or play?  But very soon after completion - if we're honest - I think that most of us want desperately to communicate with other people, our readers. We want to show them the world we have created, to introduce them to the people who have become so very real to us. And we love to hear that they too have become absorbed in the world of the novel - even when that world is by no means a comfortable one.  Finally, when I was looking for a cover for the eBook, I discussed the story and its background with digital artist Matt Zanetti. After a little while, he produced the cover above. It wasn't what I expected. It wasn't quite what we had discussed. But it took my breath away in that it so precisely reflected the themes of the novel: the lonely corncrake, the themes of solitude, imprisonment and a yearning for something better. 

Catherine Czerkawska 

Piracy and Pricing: A Hot Topic. (And I don't just mean Johnny Depp)

I've been thinking about opening this particular can of worms for some time, but have held back, mostly because some of my friends have very definite views on the topic, and I know it's contentious. Some of the arguments on Facebook become so heated that the screen practically explodes. Also, I can see both sides of the debate.

Somewhere online, there's a BBC Radio Play of mine which has been streamed by a pirate site. It's a play called Tam O' Shanter, and it was broadcast to mark a Burns Anniversary. You can download it for free, if you like. People occasionally get indignant on my behalf but I find it very hard to get hot under the collar about it. I've been paid for it, the BBC are never going to repeat it and if they do decide to repeat it on 4 Extra, my share of the dibs will be unbelievably tiny.

When my son's video game development company, Guerilla Tea, recently released their new game, The Quest, onto various platforms, they remarked that it was being pirated almost as soon as it was released. They didn't seem too bothered about it. Not half as bothered as most writers are when their books are pirated in foreign parts. Not half as bothered,  if I'm honest, as I would be if my novels were pirated.

Now most writers seem to think that the comparison is bogus, since a small and inexpensive video game download is easily made. They've bought into the media's fondness for tales of the geeky - but mythical - teen working alone in his bedroom, to develop a prizewinning game.  In truth, it takes several people many months or even years of hard work and is almost certainly the equivalent of a novel, perhaps more than a novel, since the developers need expensive software in order to be able to release the game onto certain platforms. So why are the GT lads far more laid back about piracy than me and my writer friends?

'There's no way it equates to lost sales,' one of them told me. 'The people who are downloading pirated copies are never going to buy it anyway. If they were, at this low price, they would just buy it. And it certainly helps to spread the word.' I'm told that developers have been known to contact the pirates to say 'cool - but if you play it and like it, give us a positive review.'

The key here seems to have something to do with price. Cheap mobile games are the norm. Overly cheap books tend to signal 'amateur'. And perhaps the markets are simply smaller. The evidence within the games industry suggests that if you won't buy a download for 69p, with the possibility of upgrades and support, ('added value') you're not going to pay for a download at all. With conventionally published eBooks often sold at such high prices, piracy may well make a difference. Although the same logic may apply. Piracy will have no effect on sales since those who pirate would seldom if ever pay £9.99 for a download. Which leads me to another thought. Neither would I.  £5.00 is my cut-off for a download. I've paid more than that but only very occasionally.

Publishers can talk till they are blue in their collective faces about the associated costs, but the fact remains that in a world where you can download a complex game which has had to meet certain criteria, for a couple of pounds, and an album for a fiver, very few people are going to be persuaded to pay more than that for a book. Indie publishers have taken this on board. Actually, many indie publishers do charge too little. The 99p book - unless it's obviously short, or very light - a novella, a handful of stories, a guide to something or other, a small collection of essays - is beginning to stand out as the work of a rookie. £2.99 or £3.99 is low enough for an impulse buy - not much more than the price of a latte - not so steep that you back off and think about it. (Which generally means that you won't buy it.)

But there's no use in us digging in our heels, taking a moral stance, screaming 'death to all pirates' and refusing to engage with the world as it is. They may well be thieves and vagabonds but when you're in the middle of the ocean with no gunboat in sight, you'd better have an alternative strategy, because shouting at them to go away is never going to work.

One possible solution may be to add value, just as video game developers do. There's a fashion for wailing 'but authors can't do this!' But if you stop and think about it, authors can and already do engage with their readers. They write interesting (and free) blog posts about the background to their books, they have Facebook pages, they give readings and talks, they do reviews and make recommendations and tweet about all kinds of things. These are the extras that will make your potential reader click on the purchase button. If they prefer to download from an illegal site, with all the added hazards to their own PCs or laptops, then they were probably never going to be a paying customer anyway.

What do you think? But let's have a nice clean fight, shall we?