A Writer’s Manifesto

I love this time of year. I grew up in Ireland, where summer was three hours on a July afternoon where you could just about get the barbecue lit beneath the driving wind, and you’d hurry to stretch out and burn to a crisp as much of your body as you could. So part of me secretly loves the cinnamon smell of fallen leaves, digging out woolly hats from drawers, and sticking on the heating. I also like the back-to-school new-stationery feel of Autumn, the chance to set new resolutions and draw up a study schedule. Why limit the opportunities for failure and self-recrimination to just once a year, that’s what I say. So I often find myself at this time of year cleaning out cupboards, tidying out old boxes, and generally swearing to improve my life in various intangible ways.

The summer for me has been characterised by two things: the Olympics and Paralympics, which sucked non-sport loving me in with a ferocity I hadn’t imagined; and also, Not Writing. Oh, I’ve been editing and fiddling and proofing and so on, and my second book is pretty much finished, but as for new writing, I haven’t done a single word since I went on holiday back in April. During those two weeks I wrote over 30,000 words. And I wasn’t even really trying. Since then, nothing. Not so much as a split infinitive. I’m not sure I even remember how. I look at the notebook I filled with words – many of them sharp, and funny, and touching (IMHO) –and I find it hard to realise I wrote them. This shows the odd ebb and flow of creativity. It’s easy to do nothing for months and months, without even noticing. It’s also easy to ride a surge of inspiration and bang out thousands of words per day. If only we could control those tides, our jobs would be a lot easier.

Last weekend I also went to the York Festival of Writing, full to bursting with aspiring writers. These were a serious bunch. They had completed novels, proposals, synopses. They had nice neat folders. They knew what they wanted. I’ve always felt that knowing what it is you want – ie to be published – is a huge step towards making it happen. I spoke to people who had given up work to write, or were carving out time between family and jobs and everything else that takes up our lives. Who get up early every day to write, or work late into the night. Who’ve decided this is their dream and are prepared to make it happen. I’m sure some of those people will be well on their way to being published this time next year. It also made me think about my own creative slump. I hadn’t even realised I was in one, because after all I have been working on the book. I just haven’t written anything new. And that’s a bit sad considering I wrote two books last year. I let everyday life, and emails, and walking the dog, and making appointments with the dentist, get in the way of what matters. So I’ve decided to pull my wooly winter socks up and write myself a manifesto for being a happier and more productive writer

A Writer’s Manifesto

Make time for writing above all else: Everyday life is a constant avalanche outside our door. There will always be more chores, more emails, more other jobs to do. What I need to figure out is a way to decide what’s important and make it my priority. It’s writing. It has to be writing. Because what else is there?

Keep trying to get better: those Olympians didn’t run one race and then slack off for the following four years. They ran or swam or jumped every day, because there’s no such thing to them as good enough. I need to inject some of this hard-core dedication to my own work. Just because you happen to sell one book, it doesn’t mean you’re set for life. You have to come at writing afresh every day. Luckily for me, it’s something you can go at hardcore while still staying in bed. Result!

Don’t be frightened: it must be bloody terrifying to have a whole stadium of people waiting for you, hanging on your every movement, the slip of your foot or hand all that swings 80,000 breaths from a cheer to a groan. In comparison, waiting for people to read your book is nothing. So what if they hate it. It’s not being beamed around the world to millions of people (I wish). So I shouldn’t be scared to try new types of writing, or break out of my ‘brand’. There’s nothing to be scared of. Except papercuts.

Try to be grateful: I’ve written before about how easily I can get sucked in to anxiety, moping, and even jealousy at how other people are doing. But as I’m sure Olympic athletes would say, the race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. (Wait, that’s from a song or something, isn’t it?) In her brilliant book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says other people will always be winning prizes and getting reviews and being successful. She recommends telling yourself that ‘They are good and I am good.’ I think that’s powerful advice (and I recommend the book generally for getting out of a creative slump and remembering why we actually write).

Write for the love of it: once it becomes your job, it’s easy to forget that you started writing because you couldn’t imagine anything more fun. Writing can become like a PG film – featuring scenes of extended peril and some mild swearing. Because if you don’t get this book right, you can’t just shove it in a drawer and shrug with insouciance. Your whole career depends on it. But really, it’s a privilege to be in this position, so I should just get over it and carry on.

In fact that would be a good general motto for my life, so here it is again:

JUST GET OVER IT AND CARRY ON.

I might get it carved onto my desk so I can see wisdom every time I bang my head off it.  What are your tips for starting afresh with writing?

Authors Behaving Badly

What an angry shouty weekend it was. I’d planned to relax, do some writing, work on preparing some workshops that I have coming up. Instead I spent the whole time fielding phone calls, emails, and angry online comments. I’m sure you’ve all seen the allegations (and admissions) that several authors have used fake accounts to promote their own work and give bad reviews to the work of others. There has been outrage at this. It is seen as unequivocal Bad Author Behaviour. Having been put in the middle of it, I want to unpick some of what may or may not be seen as bad behaviour (all in an entirely personal capacity).

Using a fake name to review your own books – whether on Twitter, Amazon, or blogs. To me this is straightforwardly BAD. It misleads readers and is just a bit pathetic.

But how far does this go? Is it wrong if friends and family review your book? Should you ask them specifically not to? I currently have 33 5* reviews on Amazon. As far as I know about five of those are from actual friends of mine, all of whom have read and I believe enjoyed the book. I was quite proud of that number until all this broke. It’s easy for bigger-name authors not to care about online reviews, but for some these are the only reviews they get. Great Amazon support can make the career of an author with not much publicity behind them. Surely that’s not wrong.

Nepotism – an extension of the above, and arguably also misleading the reader to an extent if you don’t declare an interest. But the practice is totally endemic. Authors review each other’s books. They provide blurbs, sometimes to their friends. They may suggest their friends for events, or other opportunities. Usually this stems from a genuine admiration for the person’s work. We’re all readers first, writers second.

Similarly, in print reviews, most reviewers and authors are known to each other to some degree. It’s a small world. Reviewers of integrity would never promote a book they didn’t like – are we saying they also can’t review the work of people they’re friendly with? Maybe we need a register of interests: ‘On the 25th of July 2012, I was bought a gin and tonic by AN Other author in The Olde Kindlemaker’s Arms, London’.  I think this one can be BAD but is not at all straightforward.

Dissing the work of other authors – we’ve all done this at one point or another, but usually in private. I occasionally will say online if I’ve not liked a book, but usually only if the author is very famous and unlikely to give two hoots what I think. Maybe I shouldn’t even do that. Are we saying authors are not allowed to comment on the work of other authors, at all? Or is it only if they’ve used a fake name? But then lots of people use nicknames on Amazon. Is every 1* star review suspect? Or only those from authors? I think this one needs unpicking a bit to see what it we truly consider BAD. Is there a difference between one bad review, given as a reader, and a sustained attacked on people (eg lots of reviews under different names, getting your supporters to attack the other writer, etc). I personally would never give anyone a 1* star review, whether I knew them or not (cos it hurts, man) but I don’t think the issue is quite as cut-and-dried as it may appear.

Responding to bad reviews – that way madness lies. I’ve had my share and I haven’t responded to any (even the one that said ‘this is a terrible mix of chick lit and crime, and it works as neither’). People are entitled to give bad reviews, and as the writer you just have to take them. Authors such as chick-lit writer Emily Griffin have really damaged their reputations by feeding the trolls. http://mybookgoggles.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/author-behaving-badly-emily-giffin.html

Becoming furious and demanding instant action on an issue that hasn’t been properly looked into – as I’ve said, I personally would never do any of the actions people have been accused of. But there are such things as due process, right to reply, and legal obligations not to react in a knee-jerk fashion. Unfortunately, trying to respond in a measured way can lead to accusations of ‘fence-sitting’ and ‘having no balls’. (It’s always about balls…)

Forgetting that no one died – I’m always amazed at how strongly people in the writing world can respond to seemingly trivial issues (I don’t include the current issue in this). Maybe because we’re a bunch of highly strung, twitchy artists. Or maybe because people often haven’t had to go out to work for many years, and forget how to behave in a professional environment. Books are important, sure, but we’re lucky to work in a industry which rarely kills anyone. Maybe we should remember this more and try to be a bit less petty.

Attacking other authors online– we’re all upset about this being done under fake names. However, I feel I’ve been attacked myself, and sworn at, and harassed, because I work (freelance, part-time) for an organisation where one of the authors in question is a member and long before all this broke was on the board. It’s absolutely fair to be angry because someone has acted in a way that’s underhand and unsupportive of other authors. It’s absolutely fair to expect a response. It’s absolutely fair to put your opinions to the board (even if you have never actually joined said organisation yourself). It is not fair at all to attack and swear at people who’ve done nothing wrong.

What would be helpful would be actually join such organisations and try through them to combat dishonest and unfair practices. So I think attacking people online, whether in your own name or a sockpuppet’s, counts as BAD.

Once again I say all this in a totally personal capacity – because I think once people have directed criticism to you personally, it becomes personal.

What else do you think is Bad Author Behaviour? How about:

Getting embroiled in online arguments when we should all be working on our books? I bet our editors would like to give us a rap on the knuckles for that.