And now for something completely different: A Spoke In The Wheel

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The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.

The first thing she saw was the doper.

If you’re thinking that I’m the one who comes off looking like a dick, I couldn’t disagree with you.

Ben Goddard is an embarrassment – as a cyclist, as an athlete, as a human being. And he knows it.

Now that he’s been exposed by a positive drugs test, his race wins and his work with disabled children mean nothing. He quits professional cycling in a hurry, sticks a pin in a map, and sets out to build a new life in a town where nobody knows who he is or what he’s done.

But when the first person he meets turns out to be a cycling fan, he finds out that it’s not going to be quite as easy as that.

Besides, Polly’s not just a cycling fan, she’s a former medical student with a chronic illness and strong opinions. Particularly when it comes to Ben Goddard…

A Spoke In The Wheel will be released on 5th May 2018. Watch this space!

“Quality”

Back in the days when I was trying to sell Speak Its Name to any number of overworked and bewildered publishers and agents, I was a bit wary of self-publishing, because I assumed that it was going to be a huge amount of work to ensure that you were left with a decent product. (This was, in fact, true. I did the work.)

And I’d read some advice from another author that suggested that traditional publishing was the best route to ensure quality. Once you had a publisher, they would set you up with an editor, and a cover designer, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any of that peripheral stuff.

I’ve since learned that this, as the old song says, ain’t necessarily so. For example, take a look at this:

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I’m not going to name the title or the author, because I suspect they have better things to do than basic quality checking on foreign editions of their books. The publisher should be paying someone to, you know, check there are spaces in between words. The publisher is Mira Books of Chatswood, Australia, and they do deserve naming and shaming. However or whoever you’re publishing, there’s no excuse for letting a book out looking like that.

E-books versus tree books: a false dichotomy

Books

Tree books are dead. No, wait, e-books are dead. E-books are e-books and tree books are tree books and never the twain shall meet. Loyal paper book readers will never read an e-book. Converts to e-readers will never pick up a physical book again. People fight to the death over this. TO THE DEATH!

Really, if you believe the press, it all sounds like an even pettier version of the Montagues and Capulets biting their thumbs at each other. But, while I know several diehards who wouldn’t know how to turn the page on a Kindle, and I’m sure there are a few e-book zealots who have pulped all the paper books they’ve ever owned, most of the serious readers of my acquaintance flick between paper books and e-books without a second thought. Why argue about formats when you could be, you know, reading?

As a reader

For me, it comes down to practicalities. On the most obvious level, if a book was printed in 1995 and nobody’s thought of releasing it in e-book format, then of course I’m going to read the hard copy. Or if it only exists in electronic format, then it goes on the e-reader.

In fact, the format in which I choose to read a book often depends on where I am when I decide I want to read it. At work? I’ll probably pick up a paperback in one of the station bookshops on my way home. At home? I’ll download it to my Kobo. If I’m standing in a charity shop, slightly bored and wondering what to read next? I’ll get the most interesting looking thing on the shelf.

Still on the theme of convenience: these days, most of my reading time is on the train, so the question of size becomes important. If I can’t fit it in my handbag, it’s probably not going to get read. And yet… I read War and Peace this year. I’d attempted it a couple of times before, but the physical copy is so big and so bulky, and it’s so easy to lose track one’s track among the various plot themes, that I never managed it. Having it on the Kobo (free from Project Gutenberg, I might add) I was able to just keep plugging away, a couple of chapters every day, until I got to the end.

On the other hand, if I’m going somewhere damp (the bath, for example, or northern Spain), I have no desire to risk an expensive piece of electronic equipment. As it happened, all the books I took to Spain with me came back in the state in which they left, and I’ve never dropped a book in the bath, but there’s always a first time.

In short, I tend to read books in whatever format I have them, and to obtain them in whatever format suits me at the time. Whatever makes it easiest for me to read, in fact.

When you dig into the debate, it often comes down to nebulous feelings about what the experience of reading should be like, and an aesthetic appreciation of the book as an object. Which affects my choices some of the time, but not always.

I’ve finished 45 books so far this year. 11 were e-books. 7 were hardbacks. Of those hardbacks, two were the family copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and three were John Buchan thrillers in the Nelson edition, which I’ve been collecting. I had no particular connection to any of the other hardbacks, or to any of the paperbacks, as objects. Indeed, some of them I read specifically to see if I really wanted them taking up space on my shelves, and now they aren’t on my shelves any more.

People talk about the smell of books. I’ve never quite got this. In my experience, old books smell of dust and possibly damp, and new books smell of solvent or nothing. But then I don’t have a very good sense of smell, so this argument doesn’t do much for me.

Books can be lovely things. They can also be hideous. (My photo above doesn’t do justice to quite how hideous the cover of Mulligan is.) To be honest, so long as the loveliness or the hideousness doesn’t get in the way of my reading the story, I don’t care.

As a writer

Similarly, I really don’t mind which format somebody chooses to read my book.

In pure financial terms, e-books make me more money. I can charge half the price for an e-book and still make twice as much as I would from the sale of a paperback. (Which is why the high price of a lot of mainstream publishers’ e-books is annoying, because I know what the mark-up is. I’m unlikely to spend more than about a fiver on an e-book, unless I’m really desperate.)

On the other hand, I miss out on the phenomenon where one of my readers says to one of their friends, ‘You might like this one,’ and lends them their copy. And the one where the friend of one of my readers, having a sneaky nose along their bookshelves, sees my book, thinks, ‘oh, that looks interesting,’ picks it up and starts reading.

Why should I care about that? you might well ask. Or, indeed, why am I not up in arms about it? I don’t make any money off that.

No, not immediately – but it means that another person has heard of me, has had the opportunity to see if they like my writing. My book doesn’t get into libraries or bookshops, so I’m reliant on this sort of interaction to spread the word. And anyway, since that’s the main way that I’ve discovered authors whose work I love, it feels a bit off to whinge about it. I very rarely buy a book by an unknown author at full price, and I don’t believe that many other readers do.

Anyway, maybe they then buy their own copy. Or maybe they nick the copy from their original owner, who buys a replacement.

You never know.

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Sometimes writers don’t write, and that’s fine

Trust me: I'm a card-carrying author

Trust me: I’m a card-carrying author

This week I was enraged, yet again, by a reappearance of the ‘writers write, and nothing stops them writing’ meme. I won’t link to the specific instance, because it was posted under lock, but here’s a (comparatively inoffensive) case of the genus in the wild. (It was the first one that came up on Google. I do not endorse the contents of the rest of the blog, either.)

Articles like this begin with ‘writers write’, which is true, if inane. I said myself, the other week, that the best way to get good at something is to do it and do it and keep doing it.

They then extrapolate.

Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘every day’. Some of them add, implicitly or explicitly, ‘and don’t make excuses’. Some of them end up implying that any week – any day – that you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.

Which is bullshit.

This is the longest thing I’ve written in days. I’ve written no fiction at all since last Wednesday, and I could quite see this state of affairs continuing all summer. Have I suddenly stopped being a writer? Of course not.

Here is a selection of reasons why I haven’t been writing:

  • I wanted to read Alistair MacLean instead.
  • I have had a lot going on in my day job.
  • I spent last Saturday at Norwich Pride.
  • I’d never seen Die Hard and we had to spend an evening remedying that state of affairs.
  • It was my birthday.
  • A fanfic I’ve been following was updated, so I read that instead.
  • I was off sick for two days and good for nothing other than sleeping and watching Star Trek.
  • I’m not a morning person.

I could point out the ways that all those things that don’t look like writing could contribute to making me a better writer. I could tell you that reading and watching other creators’ work gives me tools to use in my own. I could tell you that time in the ‘real world’ expands the material I have to write about. And that would all be true, but that’s not my point.

Because really, it all comes down to this:

I’ve been really tired and haven’t felt like writing.

That ‘excuse’, yes.

Here are some other reasons, which don’t apply to me, but which do apply to plenty of other writers who may not be in the physical act of writing at this moment:

  • childcare responsibilities;
  • other care responsibilities;
  • having to work two or more jobs to make ends meet;
  • chronic illness or disability;
  • wanting to enjoy that holiday of a lifetime and not spend it on things they ‘should’ be doing.

I’m sure there are many, many more. Feel free to mention them in comments.

These days it’s increasingly difficult to make a living by writing alone, and most of us therefore don’t have the luxury of time devoted to writing. We have to fit it in around the edges, and sometimes the edges themselves are filled up with things like other responsibilities, or sleep, or even fun.

Here’s the thing: I know, because I’ve been here before, and I’ve come through it and written again, that it’s not the end of me as a writer. I very much doubt that anyone would try to tell me that it was, now that I’ve finished and published a book and won an award with it.

I put the first word of Speak Its Name on the page in November 2007. I approved the finished work in January 2016. Did I write every day of those eight-and-a-bit years? Of course I didn’t. And it’s the better for it.

But I also know people who have been discouraged by this ludicrous gatekeeping, who have believed the pernicious myth that because they couldn’t or didn’t devote every spare minute to writing they weren’t ‘really’ a writer, and stopped altogether.

Bullshit, I say again. Stop telling people this. It’s untrue and it’s harmful. It’s not encouraging people to write; it’s doing the opposite.

You don’t get anywhere as a self-published author by caring what other people think about you, but it’s taken me a long time to get past caring what other people think about me. I didn’t tell very many people that I was writing, and it was largely due to the fear of coming up against this idea that I wasn’t.

I am not excusing – or asking you to put up with – the tedious people who bang on and on about how much they’d like to write, or expect you to listen to their detailed exposition of what they would write if only they had the time. You could consider sending them an invoice for your skills as a writing consultant. Certainly if one more person tells me that everyone has a novel in them, I shall find it difficult to restrain myself from attempting to extract theirs by violent means.

But you don’t get to tell people that they’re not a writer. I don’t, either. (That picture at the top of the page? Means basically nothing in terms of my right to assess other people’s writer status.) Nobody does.

Some weekend reading

Happy Saturday! I hope those who are now embarked on summer holidays are enjoying them, and that the weather cooperates with any long-planned activities. Personally, I’m just getting to the end of a week off work, and I’m very slightly less tired than I was when it began, so I’m counting that as a tentative plus.

This week I have a guest post up over at I Heart Lesfic where I talk about the difficulty of finding the book I wanted to read and my consequent decision to write it myself.

There’s also a giveaway of Speak Its Name, which still has a couple of days left to run. You might be lucky!

And I talked to fellow self-published author Helena Fairfax about my favourite places, my least favourite job, and what I’d say to Jenny Lind.

Enjoy!

The cheapest art

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I said in an interview with another author that the greatest lesson I’ve learned in life is that the best way to get better at something is to do it, and do it, and do it again, and keep doing it until you actually are better.

The problem – apart from the frustration of not being better yet – is that doing something over and over can get expensive. Lessons, kit, entrance fees, instruments. Most arts require equipment, tools, raw materials. Canvas, paints, fabric, metal, yarn, thread, chisels, saw blades, goodness knows what.

And if you’re doing something over and over again, you use up more and more of the raw materials, and the chances are you’ll ruin quite a bit of it.

Then – generally speaking – the better you get, the more sophisticated your tools need to be, and you start wanting to work with raw materials of higher quality. Of course, a skilled artist can make something wonderful out of indifferent ingredients, but they will make something better out of better ingredients.

I started out making jewellery with an ordinary sewing needle and some seed beads that had been reclaimed (I assume; I didn’t do the reclaiming) from some evening dress. Proper beading needles were a revelation: they would actually fit through the hole in the bead. The first specialist equipment I bought was a set of three pairs of miniature pliers, which probably cost about a fiver. They were all very well in 2009, but as I got better I started wanting to do more, and I needed more in order to do that. These days I have another, decently sized, set of pliers, and a jig. I use silver wire as well as silver-coloured, and I throw in lapis lazuli alongside blue glass. I’d like to have sheet silver and a pendant drill and a blowtorch or three, and mandrels and a supply of saw blades that will last out until I learn how not to snap them.

Getting good at things takes time. It is also very likely to take space, and money.

But that doesn’t have to happen with writing. Well, the ‘time’ part does, but not so much the ‘space’ or the ‘money’. I’m still ambitious and I still enjoy experimenting – but writing looks pretty much the same. When I was eleven I wrote in a spiral bound notebook with a fountain pen. I’m still using a spiral bound notebook and a fountain pen. These days I also use word processing software, I’ll admit, but it’s not what makes the difference between good writing and bad.

Because words are words. If I write, for example,

‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ Lydia said. ‘Waiting. Waiting for the wheels of bureaucracy and justice to finish grinding so that we can get on with our lives.’

you can’t tell whether I wrote that on the back of an envelope or on an expensive Mac. And I can’t excuse bad writing by telling you that the kit I wrote it on cost a lot of money.

The wonderful thing is that words are free. I can throw them in willy-nilly and pull them out again without having to worry about waste. I can make a long string of adjectives and delete it without a second thought. I can pick words up in the street just because I like the sound of them, and use them over and over again. I don’t have to save them for a special piece, the way I would a particularly lovely piece of jasper.

Oh, there are things that have made it easier. An English Literature degree, for example, has really helped in understanding how to take texts apart, and, by extension, how to put my own ones together. A childhood in a house filled to the gunwales with books, swimming in words and meeting them as equals, claiming them as my inheritance. Friends who write and who talk about writing.

But there’s nothing particularly special about what I do. I put in the time, that’s all. I use the words that are hanging around, and I don’t worry about where the next ones are coming from. And I write and write and write until I get better.