Showing posts with label a career in writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label a career in writing. Show all posts

How Not To Be A Writer - Part Five: Early Radio Days

Outside our flat in Edinburgh's Great King Street
with one of my flatmates, Eileen.
 

As I wrote in an earlier post, my first radio drama producer was Gordon Emslie. I don't have a picture of him, sadly, and he died far too young, while still in his 30s. Over my subsequent career in radio, a career that came to an abrupt end, for reasons I'll outline in a later post, I was lucky enough to work with many talented producers but Gordon was the first. 

Gordon was definitely one of the good guys. He produced my first short radio plays, The Hare and the Fox and A Bit of the Wilderness. I learned so much from him and began to hone my craft, finding out  what worked and what didn't. Above all, I learned something about the practicalities of production which in those days involved 'spot effects' that had to be co-ordinated with the movements of the actors around the microphones - sounds like the rustle of bedding, the clatter of teacups, the clash of swords - and background sound effects produced by supremely talented individuals rushing about between tape and record decks  - the 'FX' were often on vinyl -  mixing sounds to match the setting and performances. Contrary to popular perception, radio acting involves some movement, as well as the ability to visualise the reality of each scene. Spot effects are still used, of course although other broader background sounds are generally laid on digitally, afterwards. Sometimes these sounds are played to the cast, so that they can appreciate - for example - the volume of storm noise over which they may be pitching the dialogue!

There were other fascinating aspects to all this. Radio plays are seldom recorded chronologically. Studio time is always at a premium. So a script will be read through, then rehearsed and recorded all within a very short space of time. Depending on the availability of the cast, who may well be involved with other work commitments, the play is generally recorded if not randomly, then patchily, rather than in sequence. Productions with several episodes and an extensive cast will always involve this patchwork of scenes which are then edited together. It is, I think, the nightmare of every producer and production assistant to get to the end of a major production and find that a key scene is missing!

The producer/director is the magician at the heart of all this, making it work. As the writer, I was expected to be there for much of the production, because I might want or need to make cuts or do rewriting 'on the hoof'. Like all drama this is a collaborative medium, and if you don't enjoy the heat of collaboration, you're best to stay away from this particular kitchen altogether. 

It's a fascinating experience, because it's only when you hear your words in an actor's mouth that you can see where changes may need to be made. A good producer/director, like a director in theatre, has the last word. The actor can ask for, and the writer can suggest changes, but all of this goes through the producer who is responsible for pulling the whole thing together, maintaining the central vision, to borrow an expression from the world of video games.

You learn not just how to work with dialogue, but also how to orchestrate, including 'stage' directions about where people are in relation to each other, and what they are doing. I remember writing 'they fight' as one direction, whereupon my producer pointed out that this was something of a cop out. (It was.) The actors needed to know exactly how they were going to fight, so that they could move -and breathe - in relation to the microphone and each other and produce a perfect sound picture.

On the other hand, the writer should never be giving precise instructions about how actors should say their lines: those superfluous 'slowly, loudly, angrily, sadly' adverbs that often litter scripts from beginners. You need to let the actors practise their craft too. Besides, if it isn't already there in the dialogue, then - with one or two exceptions where the meaning runs counter to the actual text - you're probably not making a very good job of your dialogue. 

I learned so much and enjoyed the whole process. You can read more about my subsequent radio work on this blog, here. 

I was writing other things: short stories, poems and reviews, but although future radio commissions seemed a distinct possibility, I knew that I needed something else, something to broaden my experience. 

Having put out a few feelers here and there, I was called to a meeting with Professor Stuart Piggott, a scarily distinguished (and rather handsome) archaeologist at Edinburgh University. I remember that he had a stuffed owl in his office, but very little else about that meeting. His friend and colleague Stewart Sanderson was running a course in Folk Life Studies at Leeds University. He was offering me a place to do a postgraduate Masters degree there. 

I packed my bags and went back to the city where I was born.



How Not To Be A Writer - Part Four: Money Matters

 


This is a small diversion from the chronology of  previous 'How Not To' posts.  Whenever writers get together, we don't talk about what we're writing. We moan about money. 

It's worth pointing out yet again that, with a few starry exceptions, writers are at the bottom of the heap as far as payment goes. Full time professional writers earn, on average, £7000 a year. That means that vast numbers earn considerably less and payments are falling all the time. I wrote my last big project on a £500 advance. It took 2 years to research and write. 

If you look this up on Google, you'll be presented with wholly unrealistic salaries in the £35,000 plus range. Some deluded websites claim a staggering £45 - £55000. I don't know anyone who earns anything approaching this from their writing, even those you would think of as successful. Those who do, earn it from writing related work, such as teaching creative writing in universities, so that they can encourage more people to be poor. Or writing for television. (Lucrative, but also hard to get into.) Or specialised writing, such as technical writing, for large companies. Those who write for children can earn a living of sorts by doing schools visits and talks, but again, these are a diminishing resource. And as another writer friend pointed out recently, these are payments for actual work undertaken in the school or college, not for the books themselves.

As far as large publishing companies are concerned, creative writing and publishing is a massive pyramid scheme, with the writers beavering away for peanuts at the bottom, and literally everyone else being paid more than the people without whom there would be nothing to publish or produce. 

There is no real solution to this. The big corporations will always pay their top executives handsomely and the astronomical advances will always go to celebrities, who probably haven't even written the damn books themselves.  Those organisations that are supposed to represent writers can do little about the imbalance. Small or medium sized publishers struggle constantly with rising prices of resources like paper, which means rising prices of books, and a corresponding fall in quality of the end product.

Almost everyone who writes, and most of those running small publishing companies, have to find other means of earning a living. I have colleagues who lecture, who teach in schools, who are alternative therapy practitioners, who follow quite different full time careers and write on the side. Creativity will find a way. I deal in antique textiles and toys from an Etsy store called the 200 Year Old House. 

And now, I self publish on Amazon under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, eBooks and paperbacks, with some excellent professional design and formatting help from a company called Lumphanan Press. I make no fortunes, but there's always the faint possibility that something will take off and bring in some real income.

I'll leave you with three things to think about. 

Getting an agent doesn't automatically mean that you will get a publishing deal these days. Don't waste years of good writing time submitting endless query letters to agencies and waiting for them to respond.
Most books don't earn out their advances. The system is designed that way. It's perfectly possible for a publisher to profit from a book while the author, even from a mass market success, is paid sixpence a copy, as part of the deal. It's going to take a long long time to earn out even a modest advance at those rates. 
When people tell you that there is 'no money in the budget' to pay the creatives, what they mean is that there is, in fact, a budget. They just expect that you'll work for nothing. I still do sometimes work for nothing, but these days it's only for local organisations, small charities, good causes. Places where I can sell my own books. And seldom in winter, when I hibernate. But for big media corporations? Book chains owned by US Hedge Companies? I don't think so. Not any more.




How Not To Be A Writer - Part Three: University

 


When I was seventeen, I headed off to Edinburgh University to study English Language and Literature, one of only two people from my school to go there, as far as I remember - and given that the other girl was on a completely different course, we never saw each other. 

I loved the university and the city, made some lifelong friends, and started to take my writing a lot more seriously. I was mostly focused on poetry back then, something I had written on and off since my early teens. This was when I began to submit to various magazines, take part in public readings and generally mix with other young poets who were just starting out on the long long road to penury. That's me in the picture, long hair, long skirts and - although you can't see it - a bell around my neck. 

After the first few spells of winter depression and homesickness, it was a happy time for me. I remember my dear mum coming to visit me and watching the students in their army surplus uniforms or smelly afghan coats with a mixture of astonishment and admiration. She was a talented seamstress and made me maxi dresses and a 'Lara' coat, in black wool, with fur around neck and cuffs, clothes I would never otherwise have been able to afford. We were a lucky generation. We didn't realise just how lucky. Took it for granted that our fees would be paid, that we would get grants to live on, frugally for sure, but that was fine - and accommodation would be available. 

In my Honours years, when I was specialising in Mediaeval Studies, three of us shared a big, beautiful, shabby and impossibly chilly flat in Great King Street, the heart of the New Town. Henderson's where we bought our wholemeal loaves or went downstairs to drink coffee and eat a fantastic concoction of fruit salad, Greek yoghurt and ginger, (the old hippyish restaurant and shop in Hanover Street, not the new terribly posh incarnation) was nearby. The Laigh Bakehouse owned by a waspish retired actor called Moultrie Kelsall, where we bought cakes, coming home in the early hours of the morning, was just around the corner. 

None except wealthy students would be able to afford this area now, but it was inexpensive, albeit spartan. The elderly landlord and his scary wife, all red nails and lipstick, would visit occasionally to check that we weren't ruining the place. We had to put shillings in the meter for heating and lighting and the payphone on the landing was extortionate. Mobiles weren't a thing. We had no television and didn't miss it. Nobody ever had a car.

I read my poems at a couple of big, well attended poetry festivals at the university, festivals that I had helped to organise, as well as at the Traverse, before it too became serious and posh. I had poems published in various literary magazines, in a little collection called Seven New Voices and in a joint collection with Andy Greig, called White Boats. I did a bit of reviewing for a few magazines. I earned almost nothing. 

Then, I had a story called Catch Two published in glossy She Magazine. It was a strange little tale about two people trapped in a lift and it earned me the unheard of sum of £10. I had been in the habit of drawing out £5 a week for general expenses so it seemed like a fortune. 

After graduation, I stayed on for a year with my flatmates, working part time in a small art gallery in Rose Street to pay the rent and to buy time to write. And at some point, I wrote to and managed to arrange a meeting with a Scottish Radio Drama producer called Gordon Emslie. I had been writing radio drama speculatively for years. All those periods of illness with books and radio drama for company had borne a certain amount of fruit. Gordon seemed to think so too.

He was kind, encouraging and above all a talented radio producer. Back then, if a producer was prepared to mentor a writer, give them the benefit of his or her experience, and if the aspiring writer was prepared to put in the work, a small production was more or less guaranteed. Radio Scotland had an actual drama department that produced and broadcast actual Scottish plays to actual Scottish audiences. Later, London would introduce something called 'producer choice.' In true BBC doublespeak, this meant that the producer would have no choice at all, unless London agreed. But that's for another, sadder chapter. 

Meanwhile, I was happy. I was earning just about enough to live on in a city of great beauty, I had an entertaining social life, I had good friends, and I was learning about the joys of a medium like no other. 


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Old Titles, New eBooks, Gorgeous New Covers

 



Late last year, I received some welcome rights reversions from my publisher, Saraband, mostly of my fiction titles. At present, The Physic Garden, The Curiosity Cabinet and The Posy Ring are reverted in all formats, with the Jewel only reverted in eBook form. Saraband still has my two non-fiction titles, A Proper Person to be Detained and The Last Lancer, as well as the Jewel in paperback. However, these things take time, as you can imagine, while the publisher runs down previous stock as far as possible, so with the exception of The Posy Ring, the paperbacks are still available in their previous incarnation.

Over the past few years, I've published a number of  my older fiction titles under my own Dyrock Publishing imprint, so - among other things - I'm hoping to re-release all my reverted novels under the same Dyrock imprint before the end of the year. 

For now, I've published the above named four novels in eBook form, on Amazon, with the excellent assistance of Lumphanan Press in Aberdeenshire. I know this is something you may be able to do yourself - but like everything else in this world, it makes sense to use a skilled professional when you can. 

Although Saraband has kindly allowed me to use the old covers, it struck me that, for a couple of the novels at least, I wanted a change. It also struck me that The Posy Ring  - if not exactly a sequel to The Curiosity Cabinet - is certainly a companion novel, inhabiting the same small island world, with a similar structure, and with some of the same characters. I needed to 'brand' them together. 

Enter a Polish photographer friend called Michał Piasecki. This is one talented family! His wife, Iwona, had been incredibly generous and helpful with my research for The Last Lancer, doing some sensitive translation of family documents and letters, but she's a talented artist as well. Their son, Tom, drafted out complicated family trees for me, for the same book. When publication day came around last year, a dreich February day with no acknowledgment of the occasion, except from my lovely husband, not so much as a 'well done' postcard from anywhere else, Iwona and Michał arrived at the door with flowers and chocolates and we opened a bottle of 'bubbles' and had our own Polish celebration. 

Michał has his own Facebook page as Keen Photographer, and I had noticed how skilful and imaginative his landscape and night sky photographs were, but also realised just how good they might be as book covers. 

Here are two of them - perfect for pairing two titles that belong together. Read The Curiosity Cabinet first, and move on to The Posy Ring, to see what happens to some of the characters next, and to meet a whole new set of people. I love both these images, and for me, they seem to reflect something of the quality of both novels: dual time novels, where nobody goes back in time, but where in some strange way, the present reflects the past within this small Scottish island world. 

Michał created the perfect magical images, while Duncan at Lumphanan made them into gorgeous covers. 

We're not done yet. I'm about to publish a collection of my own poetry, Midnight Sun, spanning many years. This will be in paperback form with another Piasecki cover image. (I began my writing career as a poet, and carried on, intermittently, writing poetry.) And a little later this year, I'll be changing the cover of an older novel, using another perfect landscape image by Michał - just because I couldn't resist it. More as and when it happens! 






How Not To Be A Writer - Part One: Childhood

 

Here's me with my plaits. My hair was so long that I could sit on it. Mum plaited it every day - I must have been one of the few kids in my school that didn't get head lice, probably because they couldn't get any purchase on the tight braids. 

I don't remember learning how to read and write. My school was a small Roman Catholic state primary, not particularly close to where we lived in Leeds. There were always books in our house, including a set of old Wonder Books that had belonged to my Aunt Nora, beautifully illustrated extracts from the classics, poems and short stories by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I loved them, but I don't remember when I moved smoothly from having them read to me (along with little Noddy and The Faraway Tree) and being able to read them for myself.

We had a good, kindly infant teacher called Winifred Burgess, one of the very few teachers I remember with real affection, but I would always rather be at home than at school. The 'big girls' bullied us every playtime, pretending to balance us on the school wall, but in reality threatening to topple us over. Ever since my school days, I've marvelled at the naivety of adults about children and schools and the low key nastiness that went on, and I'm sure still does go on. 

My wish to be at home was granted in terms of a constant stream of childhood illnesses, interspersed with serious asthma, so I spent a lot of time at home, mostly in my nana and grandad's house, at 32 Whitehall Road, sitting on the rag rug in front of their fire, listening to their wireless, and reading. My parents started their married life in a tiny two roomed flat above their adjacent small shops - a sweet and tobacconist and my grandad's fishing tackle shop. When I was well enough, I would take myself along to his shop and sit with him in there, bothering him with questions that he never minded answering. He called me his little queen, in the old Yorkshire - nay, the old English - way. His 'little woman'.  I was very much loved and wanted for nothing, except perhaps a pair of patent leather ankle strap shoes, and I'm pretty sure I got those as well. Mum and dad took me to the 'pictures' - the Gainsborough in Holbeck - to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Afterwards, I made the whole family reenact it, alongside all my toys, with myself in the starring role, of course. An early venture into theatre.

I don't remember learning how to read and write, but somehow I could and did. I listened to the wireless - Listen With Mother, then Children's Hour, and the terrifying excitement of Journey Into Space. I have another memory of what must have been an early dramatisation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and its haunting opening lines 'last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again' - so vivid that I can still see it in my mind's eye. We had no television, nor would have for years, so the words had created the pictures long before I was old enough to read the book. 

At some point, I must have thought 'I could do that'.  

I was right. I could and, some fifteen years later, I did. On the whole, it was a mistake. It was a wonderful medium, but once television came on the scene, BBC radio drama was the poor relation. The cheap option. Of which much more later in this story. The talent they had accumulated was prodigious, but they neither knew nor cared just how extraordinary. It did, however, teach me how to write dialogue, and how to visualise things when I wanted to write about them, how to orchestrate. For some years, it would earn me a living of sorts, and even a couple of awards. All that, though, was far in the future.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire in Scotland. I was an incomer. An interlowper. I was an awkward adolescent and my accent was all wrong. Good experience for a writer-in-training, but not very comfortable at the time. No wonder I retreated into my head. It was a time that I still think of as 'bullying and Burns'. Great experience for a would-be writer though. 





How Not To Be A Writer - Introduction

Two cool cats

There are times, as a full time freelance writer, when  you think to yourself  'you're doing this all wrong.'  Rather a lot of times for most of us. More recently, as I start to take back control of what I do and don't want to write and publish, and how, that realisation, sometimes howled at the stars, mostly muttered sotto voce, changes into 'You've definitely been doing this all wrong.' 

This week, on social media, somebody asked me what was the title of my novel. Which novel? There are nine of them and counting. And three fairly hefty non-fiction books as well, involving a whole lot of research. Then there's half a lifetime of assorted plays, stories and poems, many of them still in print or regularly repeated on R4 Extra.. 

Have I, I wonder, been so careful about not over-promoting my own work that I've hardly promoted it at all? I can think of several writers who seem to be in positions of power and influence in the Scottish literary establishment (for want of a better word)  who have so little actual writing to their names that you begin to wonder if their relentless self promotion works. Those of us who spend most of our time writing can only look on in wonder at just how effective such promotion of so little substance can be. Very effective indeed, presumably.

It's doubly irritating, I think, because for the vast majority of writers, the very last thing we want to do is talk or write about what we're working on right now. If, as often happens, somebody asks 'what are you working on?' having first disguised the involuntary gasp of horror, you find some way of fudging it. You never go into detail. You're happy to talk about what you have written, but never about what you are writing. And that's because the more you talk about a project before you've finished it, the more it simply disappears, like, as our national poet describes it, 'a snowflake on the river, a moment white, then melts forever.' 

There are millions of blogs and websites and books out there full of advice about How To Be A Writer. When I look back at my long and varied career to date, most of it could best be described as How Not To Be A Writer. 

And you know what? I reckon that might be more helpful than 'how to' for a whole lot of people. I've been putting pen to paper for a long time.  More or less since I could read. Since I was the little girl in Clark's sandals, sitting on a doorstep in smoky Leeds, with my nana's cat, Jimmy. My late, very much missed Canadian friend Anna, a formidable lady with a stellar career in education, once asked me about what she called my 'inventory'. Everything I'd written, worked on, published, over many years. 'Why aren't you richer?' she asked. It's a question I and my artist husband have asked ourselves many times. I mean 'rich' would be lovely, but the question really should be 'why aren't you reasonably comfortable?' Or even 'why are you still struggling?' 

Clearly, we've both been doing it wrong. 

Come back soon for another thrilling installment of what not to do. 

Belated New Year Greetings!

 


The above picture is titled 'spring clutter' on my PC. Not quite there yet, but this week, I bought a couple of bunches of daffodils so we're getting there. This is the time of year when I try to buy a bunch of tulips or daffs, or sometimes both, every week, just to prolong my favourite time of year - spring. 

This year, too, I remembered to plant some bulbs back in the autumn, and they're all emerging. For the first time ever, I managed to persuade a couple of blue hyacinth bulbs to grow and - more to the point - flower, in a pair of lovely old glass hyacinth vases. Every year to date I've put them in these vases full of water, in hope, and every year I've been disappointed. Last year, I forked out for big expensive bulbs and hey presto - this year they're flowering! You obviously get what you pay for in this instance.

I've had a ridiculously busy, albeit happy, Christmas. Missing our son who works in Stockholm very much, now that he's gone back. 

But I'll also have some rather big news about my writing. Coming very soon. I've been gearing myself up to writing about this on here, but putting it off till I felt as though I had got 'all my ducks in a row.' Now, if not in a row, then at least they are swimming about where I can see them. 

Watch this space.

PS, the daffodil plate, my favourite, belonged to my mum who bought it in our local auction house back in the sixties. It looks like Moorcroft, but it isn't. Don't know what it is, but I love it.



Not Your Friends


Charlie Brown and Lucy, by Schulz

If I had to give one piece of advice to writers who are just starting out, or to those travelling hopefully in the early stages of the journey, it would be this: many of the people you encounter along the way, agents, publishers, managers, interns, editors, producers, directors, even those who work for agencies charged with funding the arts - remember that they are not your friends.

I have plenty of fellow writers and actors I've worked with, and I would count almost all of them as my friends. We share experiences in common, we sympathise with each other, we may well compete from time to time, but we also look out for each other when the chips are down. And even when we don't see each other for a while, we pick up where we left off when we do meet. That's real friendship.

When I look back over a long career in writing and publishing, I can see that most of the mistakes I've made - and I've made plenty - have involved me misinterpreting a warm professional relationship as genuine friendship. 

It never was. 

This is not a bad thing. We don't, for example, expect our doctors or dentists to be personal friends, as long as the relationship is polite and 'friendly' and mutually beneficial. Ditto our solicitors, accountants, and whatever other professionals we work with. There may be exceptions, but that's usually because the friendship predates the profession, or the professional relationship runs parallel to the personal friendship and has lasted for many years. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the situations where that was the case and, alas, the people in question are dead. 

Writers are often to be found extolling the 'friendship' they have with their 'wonderful' agent or director  or publisher. I've done it myself more than once. It's hard not to see it as friendship, when there are so many similarities with the real thing: the long, mutually supportive conversations, the praise, the positivity, the helpful suggestions, the promises. 

Unfortunately, and unlike real friendships that can persist through thick and thin, over many years, professional relationships may not. Sometimes they end suddenly and unexpectedly, with a letter or email. Occasionally, just when you thought things were coasting along nicely, you feel the chill wind of disapproval, followed by silence. Sometimes you realise that the person who was once so responsive - the person who made you think 'this time, it will be different!' -  hardly responds at all. You make a hundred excuses for them. To yourself and to other people. I've done this countless times with different people, giving them the benefit of the doubt, shrinking away from the obvious conclusion. Like Schulz's Charlie Brown, you can't resist one more try at kicking that ball. Afterwards, you liken it to those love affairs where you make excuses until no more excuses will do. 

It isn't a love affair at all. It's a professional relationship, no more, no less. 

The cut off is invariably a commercial decision. Mostly, it's that you simply aren't making them enough money. For professionals, the business always comes first. And you know what? That's exactly the way it should be. As long as it cuts both ways. 

It can't be said too often. A professional relationship is not a friendship, no matter how much it might masquerade as one. This is not to say that it can't be polite, congenial, supportive and very good while it lasts. All of that. But when push comes to shove, they are not your friends, and if you begin to believe that they are, you are, I'm afraid, doomed to disappointment. 

The corollary of this should be that you are free to do the same thing. Your career comes first. Look out for yourself.  Don't hang on to a failing business relationship, however cordial, because of misplaced feelings of loyalty. Save that for your real, personal friends. They're the ones who deserve it. Where business is concerned, and writing is a business as well as a vocation, speak softly and carry a big stick. Be nice, be polite, but always be aware of what suits you and your work best. They won't mourn the loss of you at all, if you walk away. Because they really are not your friends.


Bad Advice, Good Advice

 


A few years ago, it struck me that I had probably been given more bad than good advice about writing over the years, all of it from well-meaning 'experts'. I've been known to hand out quite a bit of writing advice myself over the years and sometimes I find myself thinking 'have I done more harm than good?' and not being at all sure of the answer. Although when I have commented on a piece of writing, I do tend to do so with a huge proviso that nobody should ever take anyone's else's opinion as gospel. Not ever. 

One of the most worrying aspects of my time spent as Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow, at the University of the West of Scotland, where my job was to help students with their academic writing, always came when that academic writing involved some aspect of creative writing. I vividly remember telling one student that she needed to take her script away and 'play with it'. 

She looked horrified. 'But we can't play with it,' she said. 'We have to get it right!' 

How could I possibly explain to her that most professional writers spend hours, days, weeks 'playing' with an idea, trying to find out if it's viable, trying to find out what works and what doesn't. And more to the point, why were her lecturers telling her that there was any one way of 'getting it right'. Bad advice indeed. 

Bad advice I've been given over the years? 

Don't turn this radio play into a stage play. (It was crying out to be turned into a stage play.)

Nobody is interested in the supernatural. (You're kidding me, right?) 

This is a library novel fit only for housewives. Bin it. (You can read that novel here. I still get messages from people telling me how much they like it - but perhaps they're housewives!) 

Listen to your script editor. They have your best interests at heart.  (Some do, some definitely don't. The trick is knowing the difference.) 

Don't self publish. Nobody will ever read it. 

We don't have any development money in the budget. (There is, in fact, a budget. They just decided not to pay the writer.) 

Best advice I've been given over the years? Two gems that have never lost their power to inspire.

Stop watering your Dylan Thomas adjectives and watching them grow 

The only way to learn how to write is to write. And read. A lot.

Which leads me to the unexpectedly worst possible advice I've had. I used to believe it. Hell, I've probably said it myself to emerging writers. 

Write about what you know about.

That way, boredom and madness lies. I know there is some truth in it. If you're writing about - for example - Scotland, it helps to know a bit about the country. If you're setting your novel or story in an unfamiliar city, you'd better find out what you can about it. If your feisty 18th century heroine is doing things that no 18th century woman would ever do, or knowing things that she would never know, you might need to have a rethink. 

But for heaven's sake, don't be afraid to use your imagination. Stretch it. Make some leaps into the dark and see where you land. Even when I was routinely telling people to write about what they knew about, I would always qualify it with 'but you know more than you think.' Not only that, but you can find out almost anything.

Use that knowledge in a million imaginative ways. That's what writers do. 


You Don't Need to Pay to Write

Lidl has lovely notebooks

I was troubled, recently, to see somebody posting online that she couldn't afford to pay for creative writing courses and retreats. The person in question seemed to have swallowed the myth that it isn't possible to write without them. 

I'm here to tell you that this is not true. 

If you want a recommendation for a 'how to' book, you should buy Stephen King's excellent On Writing, more memoir than instruction manual. The advice he gives is both simple and cheering. Read a lot, write a lot and avoid 'workshops' like the plague. 

I've written since I was a child, beginning with poetry, moving on to plays and short stories, and now all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. None of it has ever paid very well, and therein lies a problem. 

The numbers of writers who can earn a living from their fiction has become vanishingly small. This is why so many of us teach the thing we know most about - creative writing. For many writers tutoring classes and retreats is the only thing to keep what Robert Burns called the 'poortith cauld' - cold poverty - away from the door. They can be useful and helpful, no doubt about it.

But that doesn't mean any of them are compulsory.

'The only way to learn how to write is to write,' a novelist told me, when I was first starting out. So I did. 

You could, if you lack confidence, find a local writing group: one where you can receive encouragement or pointers or inspiration. These are usually much less expensive than the big professional courses. Joining a book group might be an even cheaper alternative, where you'll read and discuss books with other people, and gain an awareness of why some books are more popular than others and whether that matters, and what kind of  books you like best.

But don't let anyone fool you that you have to be able to pay to do courses or retreats or classes to learn how to write. If you don't have access to a computer, join a library, and buy yourself a big fat notebook and some pens. (Lidl has great, cheap notebooks. So does T K Maxx.) 

That is really all you need to get started. Give yourself permission to play around with words and ideas. Don't feel that you have to 'get it right'. Just enjoy yourself. Worry about all the rest of it later. 


Publishing Advice for the Faint Hearted


My new non-fiction book,
to be published in spring 2023, by Saraband.

There is an ocean of publishing and self publishing advice out there already, some of it very good indeed, and I don't propose to reinvent the wheel. But given that I'm a 'hybrid' writer - both traditionally and self published, roughly half and half - and also that I'm 'contaminated by experience' as somebody at the BBC once described us more mature writers and I'm sometimes asked for advice, I thought a few pointers might not go amiss. 

1 Don't self publish too soon. 

If you want to try for a traditional agent and publisher, then by all means go down that route first. Polish your manuscript till it's as good as it can be, and start sending out those query letters, those sample chapters, those synopses. Do your research. Be professional about it. Be polite. Don't harass people. (You should see the emails some would-be writers send to publishers!) But at the same time analyse your ambitions. Do you just want to get this one book 'out there' or are you planning for the long term. In which case ...

2 Don't wait too long to self publish.

By which I mean, don't hang about for years, hoping that you're going to hit the big time. Agents and wildly successful writers will tell you that if you persevere you will get there, and you may. But you may also waste half a lifetime on a single project. Bestsellers are the stuff of our dreams. Steady sales, even small ones, are possible. You might be surprised by how many writers combine self with traditional publishing these days.  

3 Don't keep polishing the same book, over and over.

Well, you can. I've done it more times than I care to remember, but mostly because I hadn't got it right the first or second or third or fourth time and in general I love to edit. Whatever you do, do not keep rewriting your book to the demands of a string of different editors, because nothing is more certain than that it will eventually implode under the weight of contradictory demands. 

Take The Amber Heart. That was by far my longest saga of rewrites, a book that I'm pretty satisfied with now. I'm very glad it's out there, and reasonably well reviewed. But at one point, two different agents had told me to delete a third of it. Unfortunately, one wanted me to lose the first third and one the last third. I did neither, but I certainly pruned it drastically and then rewrote large chunks of it as my skills as a novelist improved. I enjoyed it, but it took years, and I was writing plenty of other things at the same time. The trick is not to get bogged down in one project.


4 Do keep on writing. 

Write your next book while you're trying to sell the first, and write another book once you've written that one. Practice makes perfect. You'll be learning how to write while you're doing it. We all have bottom drawer novels that should probably never see the light of day. But once you have a significant body of work, you can decide which projects have 'legs' and which you've lost interest in. Then you can choose what, if anything, you want to do with them. 

5 Time is a good editor.

If you can leave a book - or any piece of writing - for a few months, even after you think you have edited it to within an inch of its life - you will see not just typos and repetitions and infelicities, but all kinds of structural things that you want to work on. This is another reason to be prolific, to leave one project in abeyance while you work on something else. The other tip is to send your manuscript to your Kindle and read it on there. Problems will leap out at you, because you're seeing it in a different format, much closer to print.

6 Write for love, try to publish for money. 

Samuel Johnson said no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money, but almost nobody publishes for money these days and we're not all blockheads. Publishers, except for the big corporations, don't make much either. If you want money, buy a lottery ticket. But although you will and should write for love, remember that publishing is a business, whether it's yours or somebody else's, and you should treat it as such. Be polite, be thoroughly professional, but don't assume you always have to be a humble supplicant either. 

Bird of Passage was definitely a labour of love!

7 Be realistic about selling

I know a number of writers who boycott Amazon. Oddly enough, they don't ever seem to demand that their publishers boycott Amazon too. There are some truths in their stance. Amazon doesn't pay much tax here in the UK, but that's the fault of the government who don't ask for it. And it isn't only Amazon. If you're reading this on a smartphone, check just what your phone company doesn't pay in UK taxes either. At the same time, you could look up just who owns the UK's biggest bookseller. 

'I prefer to buy from a small business,' people say, and so do I. But the fact is that thousands of small businesses (some with bricks and mortar stores too)  trade on Amazon, thrive and pay their taxes, because no small business will get anything like the publicity, the digital footfall and customer security a site such as Amazon will deliver. I notice that Amazon is starting to flag up these small businesses, and good for them. 

8 Be realistic about your own skills

When I first decided to self publish some of my older titles, I did it through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and still do. They have made it progressively easier over the years. I can also put new, experimental (for me) work out there, such as Rewilding. More recently, I decided that three of these older, recently revised novels deserved to be in paperback. While I can format for Kindle, which is fiddly but easy, I soon realised that formatting for print-on-demand paperbacks was a much harder proposition. Ironically, one of the ways I realised this was when reading a book that had been published by a small publisher, only to find 'printed by Amazon' on the back and to realise that the company had made a terrible job of formatting the paperback.  

After some searching, I discovered Scottish based Lumphanan Press, who now help with my formatting for paperback. I pay a flat fee and they make a truly excellent job of formatting text and cover so that I can upload it myself. I'm delighted with the finished product and it means I have some copies to sell alongside my traditionally published books, at various events. I either use my own photographs or my husband's artworks for the cover images. (I'm aware that I'm lucky to have a painter on hand.) I should point out here that Lumphanan offer a full spectrum of services, so if you want more extensive professional help with your project, you can get it. They are emphatically not a 'vanity press'  and they will never do the hard sell -  but they will obviously charge realistic rates for the services they offer. Finally ...

9 Live in hope.

I don't make any fortunes out of my writing. I never have. I have had spells of making a reasonable living but it was always a switchback. A giant game of snakes and ladders. Now, between my traditionally published work, some paid events, a pension and a small monthly payment from Amazon (who pay every month, on the nail) - my artist husband and I get by. I also sell antique textiles online to supplement my writing income. I'm not retiring any time soon and have a big new project in mind. But I know people who have made quite a lot of money. Those self publishers who have done this have treated it as a business. They do indeed write for love and publish for money. And they are prolific. Not all of us can or would want to do that and some people just want a traditional deal. For some, seeing their work in print is enough. There is no single right way - but it is good to be aware of your options. Do feel free to comment or add questions. 

 Whatever you decide to do, go for it wholeheartedly. Love what you do. And good luck! 


Ice Dancing is a grown up love story and - in terms of reviews -
probably my most successful book! 





Money Matters

Where's that pot of gold?

This is the time of year when we think about money. This year we're thinking about it more than most, with our energy bills about to rise, the prices in the shops already going up, and our annual paperwork revealing just how little we have earned, yet again, for large amounts of work. The accountant and I have just had our annual 'this time next year we'll be millionaires' conversation and even he has noticed that it's all wearing a bit thin.

We're told that Arts and Culture contribute £8.5 billion to the UK economy. So how come all the writers and artists I know, and we're talking full time or almost full time, long term professionals here, not hobbyists, make so very little cash? Every year in every way, we seem to do more work for less money. 

Where is it all going? 

And what, if anything, can we do about it? 

I don't have any easy answers to these questions, by the way. I'm just throwing them out there as points for discussion, because until we debate this, things can only get worse. 

Is it because people believe that anyone can put words on a screen or on a piece of paper? Maybe they're right. Maybe there is so much free stuff out there that people don't see why they should have to pay for it. Do artists have the same problem? Probably. 

I'm always a bit phased by writers who boycott Amazon, but are OK with people buying a single second hand copy of a book and then passing it around several friends. Do people ever stop to think about where the money to pay the writer -  or, indeed, the publisher - comes from in that situation?

I dimly remember a time when I made a decent living out of my writing. My husband was working as a woodcarver and I was writing mostly radio drama, with a little bit of television and theatre. TV was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but I never did enough of it to get rich. But radio paid reasonably well, and with one or two good drama commissions each year, as well as a bit of tutoring here and there, the odd story or feature article, a review or two for a newspaper, we were OK. 

Remember reviews? Newspapers with decent circulations used to pay professionals for reviews and freelance articles. Alan, meanwhile, was making new hand carved rocking horses  and restoring old ones. as well as working on some spectacular outdoor carvings. Again, we made no fortunes, but we could pay our bills and have the occasional treat. We made a living.

Now, many of the 'extras' that used to provide a decent portfolio of work have evaporated. Instead 'creatives' need to spend more and more time and money on promotion, time that we used to spend on the actual creative work. 

Once again, this is not so much a complaint as something that should be up for discussion. There are no easy answers. But I know very few full time creative people who make anything like a living from their work. People often come late to a creative career when they have a reasonable pension from a completely different job. They don't have to make money. The rest of us muddle along as best we can. Not very well at all. 




We Need to Talk About Hierarchies

Riding the waves ... 

Over lockdown, I've been having some online conversations with fellow creatives about what we want from our work, and how that changes as we grow older. How we manage our expectations. How we deal with disappointment. How we navigate the line between working at what we love and getting reasonable payment for that work. 

The real trigger for this post, though, may have been somebody referring to 'writers lower down the ladder'. It is a common enough expression and one that we often find ourselves using or implying. I've probably used it myself.  But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that the hierarchical model is useless where creative careers are concerned. If you see your career progression in terms of some hypothetical hierarchy, where you're aiming for status, authority, celebrity and massive remuneration, you will almost certainly be doomed to disappointment. 

Worse than that, you may waste good writing time hoping for your big breakthrough, when you should be getting on with writing. This isn't a counsel of despair. Nor does it underestimate the skills required, skills that you'll mostly acquire by practising every day. Reading a lot and writing a lot. 

The truth is that there is no single ladder. For the vast majority of people, a creative career is a giant game of snakes and ladders, with most of the ladders turning out to be more like step stools - and a whole lot of snakes of varying lengths, some more deadly than others. 

There are exceptions. There are wildly successful people. Some are fine writers. Some, not so much, but they have tapped into something in the popular imagination, and good for them. I may envy their success, but I don't begrudge it. But they are all outliers. You may as well go and buy a lottery ticket. The odds of mega success are pretty much the same. Somebody will win big every week just as somebody will achieve genuine, enduring, multi million pound worldwide best seller status. But if you do the lottery, the most you stand to lose is a couple of quid a week. If you waste a lifetime pursuing mythical best seller status as a writer, you may well lose a whole lot more: the joy of writing, of loving what you do, of honing your craft, of - yes - making as much of a living as possible along the way, but of not letting the pursuit of somebody else's expectations or fashions impinge too much on what you feel in your bones you should be writing. 

Besides, as the wonderful William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything' - so you're just as likely to make it big following your heart as you are following somebody else's 'how to' prescription. Or last year's fashion.

The myth of the ladder to success - if you try hard enough and climb long enough you'll make it - is such a powerful one that all writers seem to subscribe to it when they're starting out. Me too. But it's demonstrably untrue - a tale usually told by those who have already made it big, often more by good luck than good management. 

With experience comes the harsh but liberating truth. Experienced writers often make judgments based on all kinds of things, often conflicting things that we would do well to acknowledge. Do we want to get this book or play or other piece of work out there? Do we want to communicate? Are we working on something for ourselves alone? Do we trust this person with this project? Do we believe in the project? How much are we prepared to sacrifice? Do we feel exploited or are we - as is so often the case - partners in some worthwhile but not very lucrative exploration. 

Everything is a negotiation between what we want and what is possible. Which in turn makes us think about how we can manage a career and how our aspirations can change over a lifetime. There is no ascending curve that you can plot your position on at any one time. We are, lets face it, all at sea, almost all the time. Sometimes our little craft is riding the waves beautifully. Sometimes we're rowing like mad and getting nowhere. Sometimes we're clinging to the wreckage and praying for help. Just occasionally, the million pound yacht looms on the horizon and we dream of climbing on board but more often than not, it motors on by. And sometimes, in the words of a very fine poet indeed, we're not waving, but drowning. And even then, we'll probably write about it. 


Writing Classes, Rainbows and Pots of Gold.

 

 

I've just finished reading a book called Negative Capability by Michele Roberts - a memoir of a difficult year in her life. Among the memorable passages was one dealing with writing classes. 

She points out that 'most of the students equated novels with producing marketable commodities. They were obsessed with writing correctly to certain agent identified, agent approved agendas.' A little further on she points out that 'they trusted literature less than self help writing manuals.' Roberts goes on to remark that she can't stop herself from bursting out in 'defence of making art' which cuts no ice with the students.

I found myself highlighting these passages and going back to them with sympathy and recognition. I too have taught writing classes and workshops. Over the years, I've seen the balance shift from the desire to learn about the craft of writing to an obsession with commodity and some hypothetical market - the pot of gold at the end of the writing rainbow. 

I used to teach creative writing for the Workers Educational Association. We lost funding, but eventually, because I was working in what was termed an 'area of social deprivation' (it was certainly that, but the people were the nicest, funniest, most talented bunch I've ever worked with) - the local council offered to supply the deficit. Except that suddenly they wanted an end product. It wasn't enough to encourage people to write in different ways, whether it was prose or poetry or drama - and we had people working on all of these within the group. No, there had to be an outcome. A thing at the end of it. Hence a great many funding applications that involved the production of box ticking anthologies. 

It marked a shift from a perception of the value of doing something for itself alone, to doing something only if there was a tangible result. When the relative impossibility of that tangible outcome became obvious, they decided that health and wellbeing was enough of a thing, so you had to demonstrate that you were prepared to be a cut price and largely untrained mental health professional as well. This is an attitude that is now so deeply and disastrously embedded in the bodies set up to support the creative industries that I doubt if we will ever manage to switch back to valuing participating in the arts purely for its own sake. 

I play the piano because I love doing it. I'm never going to be a concert pianist. I learn to play things because it gives me a bit of a buzz, and I suppose that's a wellbeing outcome of sorts, but frankly, I do it for the sheer enjoyment of playing and that's reason enough. I do it to do it. 



This is why, although I'm happy to give talks about my fiction, about the experience of writing and publishing, and also about the practicalities of research, I'm no longer keen to engage with the highly prescriptive aspects of a writing life, such as all those social media posts about the dos and don'ts of constructing query letters. And as for those agents who post scathing online take downs of terrible-query-letters-I-have-known for a bunch of sycophants to laugh at, in hopes of currying a bit of favour ... don't get me started! 

The harsh truth is that, even if you do manage to land an agent in the net of your perfect query letter, there is no guarantee at all that that agent will find you a publisher. But if you write to the specifications of a string of other people: the agent's reader, the agent, the publisher's reader, the publisher, the editor, I'm not at all sure that what will emerge will have done your development as a writer any good at all. Add to that a clutch of so called beta readers - a term from the video games industry that doesn't mean what people think it means -  before you even start on the long road to finding an agent, all with varied opinions about what you should and shouldn't be writing, and you'd be better to do a whole lot more reading and a whole lot more writing. As Roberts so succinctly puts it, find your own way into 'making art'. 

That's what Stephen King recommends here, and whether you like his books or not, I reckon he's right about this one. 

Which is not to say that a good editor isn't a wonderful thing: one who asks all the right, difficult questions and allows you, the writer, to rework and to learn a lot about your own craft in the process.  But that's a very definite professional skill, and not one usually possessed by an opinionated literature graduate intern working for peanuts for an agency or publishing house. 

The harsh truth is that the pot of gold at the end of the publishing rainbow is as elusive and mobile as the mythical one. And as William Goldman accurately states, in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything'. Unless you're one of that growing band of celebrities in another field deciding that they've always wanted to write a book, the really big hits tend to come quite suddenly, out of left field, unpredicted by the industry itself. Not just unpredicted, but often rejected. Then they all want more of the same, until the next big hit comes along and takes them completely by surprise. If you're ready to ride that new wave - which tends to be a matter of coincidence and luck rather than anything else - good for you. 

Otherwise, write what you love, write what obsesses you - and to hell with the rest. If you don't, you may find yourself missing the beauty of the rainbow, in pursuit of an elusive pot of gold that will probably turn out to contain a few dried leaves. 

Fairy gold, you see. Just can't trust it. 





Beware of Advice

From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979

While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.

Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.

Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)

We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.

None of them told me exactly what to do.

Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'

In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.

I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.

So what kind of advice do I mean?

I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.

I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.

I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.

One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.

It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.





What Your Bookshelves Say About You

I don't even know what my bookshelves say about me, but it seemed like a good title, especially in the light of those lockdown interviews, in which the celebrity or politician is carefully positioned in front of a shelf full of significant books.

Here are some of mine, even though I haven't done any interviews. The room where I'm lucky enough to work is full of books, and there is very little rhyme or reason to their arrangement - but I more or less know where everything is.

There's a loose subject matter theme to it all, and for a particular project, I'll gather lots of books together. So for a while, researching A Proper Person to be Detained, I was sitting among heaps of books and maps about nineteenth century Leeds, while the picture below shows the shelves that held - and still do hold - all the books about Robert Burns that I gradually amassed while I was researching The Jewel.
Burns among others.

On the rare occasions when I've been persuaded to sort everything out, I've needed a particular book almost immediately, gone looking for it in the old place and realised that I didn't have a scoobie where it was. So now, I weed out books I don't mind recycling, but I try to leave the rest more or less as they are.

All the same, the books don't stay in one place. They migrate. In fact I'm pretty sure they breed. So there are art and craft and antique books in my husband's office/studio, where I also keep most of my antique textiles (well out of the way of the paint), there's a shelf of novels in the living room, cookery books in the kitchen and heaps of our son's books in his room that has gradually become a comfortable spare room, although visitors are still treated to large tomes on Game Design and Discrete Mathematics.

Two things surprised me a bit about the celebrity books on display. One involved shelves full of 'colour coded' books that I'm told is an interior design thing. But no reader, surely, would do this? How on earth could you colour code a thousand books. Oh wait - most people don't have a thousand books.

I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. I read in bed, in the dark, and I'm there, in the world of the book. But if I really love a book, or if it's written by a friend, I will often buy a paper copy as well.

The other thing that surprised me was people scoffing at writers actually having their own books on their shelves. Here are some of mine. Generally, nobody sees them but me. This is, after all, my workspace and few people are ever invited into it.


But why should people be surprised at writers having copies of their own books? Would you be surprised at Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh having a garden? The fact is that on publication, we are given a handful of author copies. We give some away to close family or to people who have been helpful, but we generally have a few copies left. Then we often buy our own books to sell at various events because that's one of the ways in which we make our income. We may even sell signed copies online.

Also, on those days when we wonder why the hell we are doing this, we can at least look at them and figure that it might not have been a terrible waste of time. Most books are the product of many months of hard work and sleepless nights. We like to think that it hasn't all been in vain. Having something tangible is a good way of countering imposter syndrome. 

The Great Silence

Wormwood.
Last week, a good friend in a different area of creativity asked me why I had given up writing plays.

I suppose the answer is that I haven't, not completely, and if somebody asked me to write a play again I would certainly consider it, especially if it involved dramatising one of my own books. Still, the question gave me pause for thought.

Why did I give up?

Well, one of the main reasons was that I wanted to write fiction, and in fact I was writing fiction, lots of it. But because I was learning my craft, I didn't want to go back to dividing my time between the two. I wanted to live in the world of whatever book I was working on. So in a way, abandoning plays wasn't so much a conscious decision as a refocusing. And that was fine.


But there were other factors. Lots of women who were writing plays at the same time as me seem to have abandoned theatre as well, especially here in Scotland. Somebody speaking about women in theatre on a radio programme only the other week pointed out what a difficult place theatre was for women to get so much as a toehold in, back in the 1980s. Listening to her, I thought 'not just me then.'

It struck me that one of the other reasons why I gave up on theatre was that my life had changed significantly. I was living in the countryside, I had a child - and I couldn't any longer lurk in theatre bars making sure that those doing the commissioning remembered my existence. This may sound like a lame excuse - and the truth is that had I wanted it badly enough, I might well have done it - but the fact remains that I fell off their radar and at the time, I really didn't miss it.

Quartz
Back in the 80s, after writing 100+ hours of radio drama, some TV, community theatre, and a production at Edinburgh's Lyceum, I had two major and very well reviewed productions at the Traverse in Edinburgh: Wormwood (all about the Chernobyl disaster) and Quartz. I remember Michael Billington's complimentary review of Quartz and his hope that the theatre would go on to 'nurture' me.

Nurturing was never going to be on the agenda.

I had a brief resurgence with the wonderful David McLennan at Glasgow's Oran Mor, who produced three of my short plays, at least one of which - the Price of a Fish Supper - has gone on to have an excellent and successful life beyond its first production. But after David's sadly early death, I again entered what I have come to think of as The Great Silence.

I would send ideas, scripts, proposals to various theatre companies. Most of the time, they simply weren't acknowledged at all, although there was the occasional standard rejection. From that point on, nobody - except David, for that short time - treated me like a professional.

I was reminded of this recently, when I decided to explore the possibility of finding an agent. I have had agents in the past, including the late, great (but scary) Pat Kavanagh, who sold my first full length adult novel. It was sold to the Bodley Head, which was instantly taken over by one of the big publishing beasts and they tried to transform it into the fashionable beach bonkbuster it wasn't. My next novel had a Polish background. Pat loved it but couldn't sell it, and if she couldn't sell it, nobody could. We got a string of rejections saying that editors loved it but nobody was remotely interested in Poland. Nevertheless the single best piece of advice I have ever had about writing came from Pat.
'Only write something if you can't bear NOT to write it,' she told me.

My last agent disappeared without trace. I have no idea, not the foggiest notion, what became of him. He went AWOL and incommunicado and I've never heard from him since. Perhaps he too entered the Great Silence. Over the past year, with nine published novels under my belt, four of them still very much in print, and a brand new and well reviewed non-fiction book published in the summer, I contacted various agents who said they were looking for new clients, and who seemed like a good fit.

One responded pleasantly and personally. She was understandably too busy and told me so quite quickly, while also praising the work.
One turned me down immediately with a formal rejection letter. I doubt very much if my enquiry got beyond the intern employed to sift them.
One asked to see a PDF of a book and then - nothing.
The rest didn't respond at all. I had again entered the Great Silence.

Well -  I'm fine. I have an excellent publisher and exciting work to do, and I've given up on the notion of representation. In fact I've probably got enough interesting writing work to keep me busy for the next few years: work that I can't bear NOT to do. And that's a blessing in anybody's book.

But it does make me wonder about people just starting out. Apart from the lucky few, how do they get themselves noticed? How do they ever stand out from the crowd? And what about that old maxim that if you're 'good enough' you'll make it? So you just have to persevere? Because the successful people I know have persevered with the actual writing, for sure, but I suspect most of them have also taken matters into their own hands in some way.

I don't have any easy answers to this, but I do wonder what other writers, experienced or emerging, think about it.
How did you do it?
How do you plan to do it?












As A Writer: Five Things I Would Do Differently Now

Whether you are in the early stages or in the middle of a career in writing, but struggling, you may find this post helpful. It arose from a conversation I had recently with an artist friend. We often compare notes about our respective professions and it's always illuminating for both of us.

'Would you do anything differently?' she asked me. 'Knowing what you know now?' 

It struck a chord with me, because it's something I think about quite often these days - how I might have done things differently; how I might have approached things, so that I ended up struggling less and enjoying the process more. Opportunities are very different from when I was starting out: it was better in some ways, much worse in others, so I realise that hindsight is a great thing. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on where I went wrong. 

1 I would pay a lot less attention to advice about what I should and shouldn't write
Practically every single piece of advice I've been given about what to write as opposed to how to write it, has turned out to be wrong. I don't mean technical development advice. All of us need some of that, and if you can find a good editor or mentor  - somebody who is willing to work with you and whose advice you know you can trust - then seize it with both hands.
We all need to learn our craft.
But I mean the casual, throwaway advice, often from people who are in 'the business' in some way.

Write this, don't write that. 
There's a market for this or this but not for that. 
Don't turn this radio play into a stage play. It won't work.  
Don't write non fiction. 
There's no market for the supernatural.
There's no market for ... just about anything you fancy writing.

When I felt in my bones that I wanted to write something, I was right and they were wrong. Often, I was simply ahead of the game.
Read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and then write what you want because he was right. Nobody knows anything.  

2 I would do a postgraduate business studies or marketing course.
I've only learned about the business side of writing and publishing as the years have gone by. I'm still not great at it, if the truth be told, but I'm better than I was. The 'creative industries' are full of writers who don't know nearly enough about the business side of writing and publishing, about being self employed and running your own business.

This means knowing your responsibilities as well as your rights. Being professional. Meeting deadlines. Writing for love but publishing for money and treating it as a business at the same time. Knowing what the cost of running that business involves, even if you're working from home.

All those years ago, when I started out, a knowledge of business wasn't deemed important for people working in the arts, on the creative side at least. We left all that to the middle men and women. Silly us. Because suddenly, we found that we were working in something called the Creative Industries, while still being advised not to worry our little heads about such things. I suspect even now, many university creative writing courses do little to address the business and marketing side of creative practice.

Understanding the business side of things is vital for anyone hoping to build a career as a writer - and it would have been so much easier if I had known more about it earlier.


3 I would never work for any big company on the promise of exposure or jam tomorrow or a  future commission.  
This is closely linked to 2 , above. I've done this two or three times, mostly with television proposals. I don't mean a basic proposal or submission. Getting a foothold in any area of creative practice means actually doing it. When a fellow writer told me, a long time ago, that the only way to learn how to write was to write, he was absolutely right and most writers do an awful lot of writing on spec before publication or production.

This was something different. I already had a track record, but this involved months of unpaid work, encouraged by a script editor. When I look back on the waste of time, I could scream, and yet it was my fault. I was a willing volunteer. I went along with it in pursuit of all that lovely jam tomorrow. Eventually, it occurred to me that the script editor was being paid - not handsomely, but a whole lot more than me - to work with a number of different proposals, most of which would never be made. This would have been fine if they paid development money for the work involved. But they never did. There was 'no money in the budget'.

Whenever anyone says this to you, bear in mind that it means that there is, in fact, a budget. They have just never included the writer in it.  There should be a fee for this kind of speculative work that they are asking you to do. And if they decide not to use it after all, there should be a kill fee - a sum of money to give you some compensation for your time and effort. 

4 I wouldn't write radio drama at all. 
This is a big - and quite emotional - issue for me. I began my writing career as a poet and short story writer (with a decent publication record by the time I was thirty) and in parallel with that as a radio playwright. I loved the medium. But with hindsight, radio drama was a dead end for me.
I worked with some fine producers, people I still admire and they taught me plenty.
I used to say that radio taught me how to write dialogue, but I was pretty good at that anyway and I could have learned.

As a career pathway, it was useless.

After a while, radio drama that had once been exciting and experimental for me, became something of a treadmill, albeit an enticing one. It was hard work, but it was fun to do. It was difficult to turn down commissions, because it paid some of the bills, but it wasn't nearly as well paid as a 'proper' job would have been, and yet it was equally time consuming and tricky. While I was writing for radio - sometimes ten part serials for the Classic Serial slot - I wasn't writing other things. And yet I was always a single commission away from financial disaster.

There was only one real outlet for an experienced radio dramatist, and that was via the BBC. If the work dried up, as mine did, almost overnight, there was nowhere else to go, no other outlet for a very singular set of skills. Just at the point of commission, there was a change of personnel and the plug was pulled on a major series. I did a bit of audio work for various visitor attractions. I turned to theatre for a while, and enjoyed the experience, but eventually I returned to the work I should have been doing twenty years earlier: writing fiction and popular non-fiction. I'm glad I did, but I wish I'd done it much sooner. Radio allowed me to feel that I was making a living as a writer, but the reality was that I was going nowhere and had relinquished control over my future to a single editor.

5 I wouldn't be ever so humble.
The truth is that now, writers do have options, self publishing, blogging and podcasts to name a few. As I said at the start of this small rant, hindsight is a great thing and most of us find it hard to plan out a creative career. Life takes us where it will. Perhaps all of us should - with the provisos of being polite, businesslike and responsible - learn to be a little less accommodating.

As with every single area of life and work - and the creative industries are no exception - people will want to look after their own interests. This doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them human. But the 'creatives' working at the sharp end tend to get into the habit of seeing themselves as supplicants, of being scared to rock the boat, of assuming Uriah Heap levels of humility. Actually even this isn't always true, and I'm told by publisher friends that those with the least talent are invariably the most entitled and rude. So don't let's get carried away with ourselves!

All the same, what we are looking for is a modicum of professionalism in the way we are treated, with the proviso that we behave professionally in return.

To that end, we need to be aware of our own agency, aware that we are sole traders, navigating difficult and precarious waters for the sake of ourselves and the work that is so important to us. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should at least try to 'be excellent to each other.'

That shouldn't be too much to ask for, should it?


Starting out.