Wednesday 27 May 2009

A Chip Off the Old Block

This post was written in response to a request from one of my tweeps who was suffering from a bad case of writers' block

There’s nothing more frustrating for a writer than reading a piece of “advice” that concludes “it’s all down to the individual” (in mitigation I would point out the most frustrating thing of all is to read such “advice” in something you’ve paid for, and this blog is free). And there’s nothing more irritating than an expert taking their personal experience and trying to universalise it (something writers – “ooh, you know, ignore the submission guidelines and just give ‘em what you think they should have,” “I just sent off the first 100 pages, straight to the publisher, why don’t you” – are particularly bad at).

Block really is one of those areas where, even as I type now, I can’t quite see how to avoid one of the prongs of this dilemma. I can tell you what works for me – and then either say “but you need to find what works for YOU” or “and this will work for everyone.”

And I don’t want to do either, so as a means of stalling, I’m going to give what I think is some very important advice. We all have different approaches to the way we work, rooted in our personalities. Understanding some of our basic traits can be a very good way of understanding why some things will never really work for us.

The most famous diagnostic tool for personality types is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It takes four areas of human personality and divides them into opposites, helping you to see in each case which of the pair of possibilities applies to you. It’s highly questionable in many ways, but it’s more than just a bit of hippy naval-gazing. For example, the Introvert-Extravert pair can explain a lot about our approach to writing. I certainly helped me to see why writers seem to be split in two on the issue of feedback. Introverts – on the MBTI definition – draw their energy form within themselves (they like to think about things before declaring their hand, to work things through in their head); extraverts draw their energy from the outside world (they like to bounce ideas off people, they think better interactively).

In terms of block, the MBTI Judging-Perceiving (J-P) pair seems to me to offer some hope for understanding why certain things suit certain people. J personality types will prefer to approach a task by working steadily towards the final goal. A graph of their output would look pretty much like a smooth line from start to finish. P personality types function best on the adrenalin rush of a tight deadline. After an initial burst of energy, they will find it very hard to get the motivation to do anything else until he deadline looms, when they will get a buzz off working flat-out to get the project finished. Importantly, both J and P types will get the project done on time; and both will get it done to the same high (or low) standard. But the way they do it will differ.

You can see where this is going already, I’m sure. J types suit long, sustained projects like novel-writing; P types suit a series of tight deadlines – they are made for journalism. Unfortunately the world just ain’t that simple. Self-awareness is great, but knowing our strengths and weaknesses doesn’t mean we long to play to them (although it DOES mean that we can be aware of the risks if we decide to play against them). I am as extreme a P personality type as it’s possible to get (how I ended up as an administrator/project manager for my day job I don’t know! Fortunately I’m also an E and an “F” (a touchy feely people-first type) so I find it fairly easy to get people to think I’m doing a good job!), but I want to write novels.

What an awareness of the mismatch between my MBTI type and my dream has given me is the opportunity to try and restructure my approach to fulfilling that dream. There’s a fundamental point about block that I’ll come to at the end, but what awareness of my P personality type has done is enabled me to structure what’s essentially a vast, long project in the form of lots of little ones. I’m writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes “live” (I post chapters as I write them) on the web, and seeking interaction form readers as I go. Of course, this suits my extravert personality type. But it also creates a series of mini-deadlines (the problem with saying “I must write 1000 words a day” is that if you don’t there’s no sanction – a P type needs the deadline to be real). If I don’t have two chapters a week, the project will fall to pieces. I haven’t had serious block once.

I’m sure a large amount of block is actually the result of a P personality type not realising they are a P, and trying to write in a way that suits the J type.

Which brings me to two general points about block. The first is that one major cause of block is perfectionism. We get frightened of writing the first thing that comes into our head in case it’s rubbish. Perfectionism can be crippling, and is too big an issue for me to deal with here in full (it can also be a clinical condition, and I don’t want to trivialise it by undercooking my answers). What I will say is that writing in public has been a fantastic way of getting over perfectionism for me. It is, at first, very hard. I’ve got over that by making a joke out of the fact I’m making my first drafts public. That certainly won’t work for everyone. You might want to join a critiquing group like or and post your first drafts there. The main thing – and this is the main theme of this blog, the path between universalising personal experience and giving in to relativism, is self-awareness. Once you realise it’s perfectionism holding you back, you’ll be further on the road to solving the problem.

My final point is about how we choose to prepare for writing a novel. I’m not going to generalise here, and it’s certainly true that the most detailed advance synopsis can get derailed by a character who suddenly decides not to play ball. But if your problem isn’t a fear of writing rubbish, or a difficulty with motivation, the chances are it’s a problem with “what next?” What next can mean all sorts of things, but in general it means “my character won’t do what I want her/him to do.”

There are whole books written about dealing with this, and I have a couple of paragraphs. I’m not going to advocate detailed advanced planning to avoid block. That’s a red herring as far as I’m concerned (but again, the awareness that you may have a problem because you haven’t thought this bit of the story through may be a great kicking off point for an answer. it can be really fruitful – do you need this bit of the story at all? Could you do something really exciting with it?).

I plan a story by producing a graphic synopsis – I literally draw the story arcs. It works for me because I think very visually. I can see the book’s structure. I know where it’s going in general. I also do a fair bit of character sketching (words, this time – I think visually and I can do a nice diagram, but I can’t “draw” for toffee). I write out quite detailed “plans” for chapters five chapters at a time (I write short chapters, 1000-2000 words), so I always know the general structure of the story, where I am in that structure, and what’s coming next. It works for me – I write pretty much at the speed I can type because I’ve got the mechanics there already. Doing these mini chapter plans is also great for cutting out deadwood – if a plan reads “information about” or “we learn that” I ditch it. Each chapter has a focal character, and the plan tells me how that character changes in the chapter. I do think “static” chapters are another cause of block – if you know where you’re starting and where you’re going the rest is the fun bit. If you don’t have that A and B you may THINK you’re fishing for words – chances are you’re actually fishing for the “B”.

I hope I’ve steered a kind of middle course. I’ve told you what I do, but by telling you WHY I do it, and not pretending it’s a universal truth, I hope that even if I haven’t given answers to meet everyone’s needs, I have at least given you a set of questions to help you find the answers that work for you.

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Writing is not a Zero Sum Game

May 26

Writing is not a zero-sum game – far from making my success LESS likely, your success makes it MORE likely, so cooperation between writers is a good thing.

This column is probably as low on content and high on rhetoric as I intend to get in this series. I want to address an issue that’s vexed me ever since I started participating in online writers’ groups at the very start of 2008, after reading a little snippet in the Writers and Artists Yearbook about

I’d like to preface this piece with a comment, contra the vast array of critics each of those sites attracts. I have never had any really bad experiences of online writers’ groups. I’ve never been trolled or flamed or anything else jargonese. I’ve just met loads of great writers. People complain because they want sites to give them more – but that’s not the point. Without sites like youwriteon and authonomy, we wouldn’t have better sites, we’d have nothing! Over 400 people read at least some of Songs from the Other Side of the Wall before I completed the final draft. If even 1% of the comments I received (and it was, in fact, way over half) had been useful, that would have been 4 more than I would have received otherwise.

OK. To begin. Morrissey said it. Gore Vidal said it. We all mutter it to ourselves through bitten lips. We hate it when our friends become successful. It’s an ugly trait at any time and in any dose. But amongst anyone in the arts (I won’t single out writers – just look at those faces on Oscar night) it’s more pandemic than episodic. We resent successes we believe should have been ours – why did THEY get it? They must be connected. They must have lucked out?

That’s not really what this post is about. Envy is ugly. Envy is bad. I’m not going to bother discussing it even – it’s not a habit I’ll wean the envy addicts off. What I can do is make a business case against its worst manifestations.

I think there’s a feeling amongst new writers that writing must be a zero sum game. That is to say, we feel – largely because we hear about publishers’ lists, and how many or few new writers an agent will take on each year – there is a finite amount of space on the world’s collective shelf (I am talking for the purpose of this post about the traditionally-published shelf. There is, of course, no limit on the space available to self-published authors, although we can talk in a similar vein of a finite number of readers, a finite amount of newspaper column inches for reviews to occupy).

If we believe this, then writing is like those TV shows – How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria and its ilk. There are 20 places in Maria school. Every time someone else has their name called out, the odds seem to decrease for the remaining members of the 50-string pool form whom they’re drawn (this is itself not true, of course – if you’re one of the 20 best – certainly if you’re one of the 10 best, your chances haven’t decreased at all, it just feels from your perspective as though they have. And if you’re the worst, your chances remain the zero they always were. Which is an important lesson to carry over into writing – if you really do have “it” then as long as you plug away you’ll get there. And if you can’t string a sentence together you never will – UNLESS [and this is where awareness of your limitations can be an advantage] you play to your weaknesses and make your sheer blimmin awfulness what you do). It’s a zero sum game. Every one place given to someone is one place fewer available to the rest. Extra places will not appear out of think air (unless the show’s been orchestrated of course).

Writing’s not like that. It’s like love and friendship and various other things that sound rather hippyish, like money if you believe Adam Smith, and several more scary and/or esoteric things like mutually assured destruction. The fact is, assuming you can all write, all have a reasonable dose of “it” without being “all that,” the more of your friends who succeed without your own success, the more likely your own success becomes. It reminds me of reading a very basic criticism of the principle induction, which stated that in many instances, the more times one discovered something other than the thing one was looking for, the more likely the existence of that (as yet undiscovered) thing became, although induction tells us its existence becomes less likely each time.

Put in a way that’s not based on lesson plans from my old days as a philosophy teacher, it goes like this. If your writing colleagues get published, it means people are reading – and they’re reading new authors. If lots of them get published, it means there are lots of people reading. And the more people who read, the more demand there is for books. And the more likely it is that your book will find its publisher.

So the next time one of your fellow writers leaves the unpublished ranks for that hallowed hall of those who’ve “made it,” send them that smiley emoticon, those yippees and woo-hoos, that bottle of wine and box of chocolates with a glad heart, because they’ve just done their little bit in helping your career on its way.

And once you’ve sent your flowers, you might consider asking yourself whether next time you hear of a colleague’s success, there might not be a better reason than that to congratulate them.

Monday 18 May 2009

The music of language

This is an old article of mine, originally posted on a writers' site, that might be of interest to the few of you who haven't seen it already:

A fellow writer had said:

"Repetition and echos can be a powerful tool if used conciously and occasionally."

And then posed the question "Is the following sentence overwritten?Burnishing the sky blood red, the orange glowing sunset hung over the dark western forest of the smoldering city ."

My response wasYes - let me say why I think it doesn't work, though (other than the fact I'm not 100% sure it makes as much sense - if something's orange how come when it burnishes something that something ends up red? Forest of a city - a metaphor too far? The metaphor's confused, but assuming it wasn't, the problems are:

1. too many participles - nowt much is actually happening (the sunset hung being about it), which adds stodge.

2. I know it's unfashionable, but I love beautifully written sentences even if they are overwritten - but a beautiful sentence has a rhythm - it slides off the tongue (kinda the opposite of pitjhy dialogue that you chew up and spit out). Why this doesn't do that is you have three bits - sky blood red", "orange glowing sunset" "dark western forest" that are all constructed in essentially the same way - so there's no development. What you need is best described like music - you either have to have rhythm - with ups and downs, quicks and slows, or cadenzas, where you move slowly and very calculatedly up or down the scale of (over)writing, or sometimes an arpeggio (sorry if this is patronising - that's a chord, only where you play the notes that make it up separately), where you take a big word (by which I mean an important noun not a long word)and tease it out by delivering a series of complimentary fragments (somewhat like a haiku). Let me make a fool of myself by offering to rewrite the sentence in these 3 ways:

a. The sunset hung above the smoking city, burnishing the sky with its blood-red glow. Here the emphasis is entirely on how the words come off the tongue - "above" works where "over" doesn't, for example, because the stress is on the second syllable not the first. You can't have a qualifier for "sky" because for the rhythm to sound right to our ears, it has to go with "glow" and leave a pause with "sky", had to replace "smoldering" with "smoking", because only a 2 syllable word works there and so on.

b. The sunset hung over the smoldering city, its orange glow burnishing the sky blood red. We start simple (no adjectives), then build to the most impactful bit of the sentence (blood red) - the progressive descriptions now serve a purpose.

c. The city smoldered, an oil-black forest under a bloody sky, burnished in the sunset's orange glow. I've changed what words refer to what because I like the idea of the buildings black but glistening (like blood does in moonlight), but what I've done is: present what's happening ("the city smoldered"), give a metaphor - "oil-black forest under a bloody sky" - then echo the metaphor in non-metaphoric terms (OK burnished's kind of a metaphor becsue normally you'd burnish metal not buildings, but...).

That probably sounds really anal, and none of the sentences is any cop (partly because I think you need to "overwrite" very selectively and only to further the plot,and I don't think a sunset does that for me unless we're in a prophecy situation - "you will die when the sy turns red" say), but that's how I'd approach it. And yes, I really do go through that kind of thought process and deconstruction of rhythm with every sentence I write - I might try getting a life instead.

3. Repetition works best when it reinforces, builds, goes somewhere - music again - it's like the theme you vary then return to -this kinda says the same thing a few times.

Read the book, buy the T-shirt?

OK, I’m taking my 10 commandments out of turn, because I went off piste with my last post to talk about music. So this week we’ll deal with commandment number 10:

Writers need to think like musicians and artists; we need to be showmen and women, to work in the public eye, and to make our money from selling an experience rather than a piece of hardware.

This is the thing that sparks the most intense conversations with my fellow writers, with “we’re just different” being the standard answer, and the reason why my constant references to the music industry are taken as a sign the pressure’s finally got to me. And when I’m at a gig, surrounded on all sides by fans united by the sound and the experience, I can absolutely see the uniquely collective appeal of music. But…

Even during the most intense set I can’t get that “but” out of my head.

The fact is, I would happily pay £10 to sit in a hall and listen to Murakami reading from Kafka on the Shore (I DID fork out a fiver for this year’s Murakami diary even though the paper’s so shiny you can’t write your appointments on it). And look at flashmobbing; and those giant nude crowd photos set in department stores. Art’s clearly not so different from music. That’s the big “but” filling my thought screen – it’s not music that infects the collective consciousness. It’s culture. And culture is writing as much as it’s a rock concert.

I want to aside her, but I’m not going to because I’ll bore you stupid. Just let me know if you’d like me to talk about culture and collectivity in general and I’ll happily do so. For now, I’ll limit myself to the single observation that’s relevant to my argument. For most of the time we’ve had stories, they’ve been public and not private experiences, passed on by storytellers to a live audience.

All of which is jolly interesting but of no help in explaining how to make money from doing something other than selling books.

OK, I’m not writing a textbook, I’m writing a post for my blog and my thousand words are almost gone on my intro, so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to look at three ways musicians use to make money and see if there’s any transferability.

Take it for read, please, that this post is to be read in conjunction with my earlier post on giving your work away for free. Because for me there’s a real synergy there. Give your story away, and make your money from selling something else. If you can do this you really are on to a winner – and you’re obeying last week’s commandment of putting the fans first. Of course there’s the question of whether writing creates fans like that. But for now I’m going to refer back to my own example. Either I’m unique (in which case I should have figured out a way of getting rich by selling myself to research by now, and my bank account is conclusive evidence to the contrary) or writing can produce real fans.

So here’s our packet of three:

The tour. In the free download age, we’re always hearing that bands rely more and more on making money from live performances. I want to make two points. First, the live tour is something writers can replicate perfectly well. Second, whatever their multitude of benefits, unless you ARE Murakami, or Oasis, they’re not really a way to get rich.

I paid (sorry, my wife paid) £7 to hear The Boxer Rebellion last Friday (as an aside, that’s ridiculous value [we got 3 and a half hours of which 2 hours was live music form 3 great bands, including the hottest property in the UK] – gigs are ridiculous value, even the humungous ones – but the humungous ones aren’t really what we’re looking at as a replicable business model). There can’t have been more than 150 people there. Even allowing for an average price of £8 to include those paying £9 on the door, that’s £1200 from door receipts. Split with the venue. Less the cut for main support (assuming first support are doing it for nothing but the kudos). Less manager’s cut. Less paying the road crew. Less transport, accommodation, food, kit maintenance. Then split four ways. Even my maths is good enough to tell me it pays better to sew the tour T-shirts in a sweatshop.

You don’t make your money on tour from playing. You get a kick from playing; you spread the word by playing; you delight the fans by playing. You make money on tour by selling merchandise. And that can include selling something you’ve already given away. We went to see The Charlatans at The Astoria last November. They got a vast amount of publicity by giving away free downloads of last year’s album You Cross My Path. CDs of the same album were on sale with the other merchandise, and within an hour they were sold out – bought by people who already had the free download. The point is, get a group of fans together and they’re not just PREPARED to pay for something they’ve already got for free. They’ll WANT to. But those who missed out on the night probably won’t all go to HMV the next day – that’s the importance of the gig.

So can writers do this? Well, yes. Book tours, with readings and signings, don’t have to be impossible to arrange. And they don’t have to be dull, dry, reverential affairs (although they can be – what form they actually take probably depends on your genre). Nor do they have to take place in bookstores. Chains will probably baulk because if you’re self-publishing they won’t get a huge slice of the pie. Independent bookstores are more likely but not great venues. I’d take a leaf out of bands’ books. Start in small venues you can get on the cheap – why not ask pubs and coffee shops (these are great because people go there anyway). Give away free downloads to build publicity, put up flyers, then sell the book on the night and split the profits with the venue. Move on to town halls, leisure centres, other public amenities, when you think you can cover any cost (and why not find local bands and ask them where they play/rehearse?).

Merchandise. Yes, merchandise. This is where the money is made by bands on tour – those 50 T-shirts at £15 a pop will earn them as much as the door money. Then add the badges, hats, mugs, and lanyards. But how on earth can a writer sell merchandise? Well, I bought my Murakami diary…
As a writer you may not be able to do the whole traditional gamut straight off – chances are people won’t want a Joe Wannabe mug, for example. This DOES illustrate the importance of branding yourself, though – giving yourself a visual as well as a verbal identity (think about the font and layout of your covers). One of the most important parts of The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, especially given the subject matter, iconic images and viral phenomena (although I obviously chose the subject matter for a reason) was the creation of a brand image to go with the website and novel. Agnieszka Kitty is an instantly recognisable, simple image that would look fine on anyone’s T-shirt.

Your audience might want different merchandise – I think Agnieszka Kitty eco bags would look rather nice. Then there’s the obvious – bookmarks. The other thing you can do is tie your merchandise in with your book – there’s a big tech element in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, so I’m thinking mobile phone or iPod socks (but be careful, and I’d advise steering clear of the legal minefield of using proprietary brands). Does your book have a key theme? An orange chrysanthemum, for example. The masters at this are the Coen brothers – think Miller’s Crossing hats, Big Lebowski bowling balls, O Brother Where Art Thou hair wax (not to mention the Soggy Bottom Boys CD).

The special edition. Musicians and film studios are masters at this. The Smiths even wrote a song (Paint a Vulgar Picture) about it. When I was at university, bands would routinely bring out 5 or 6 versions of a single and fans wanted ALL of them. Needless to say eventually the fans got rather tired of “a slightly different cover” and “bonus tracks,” but the special edition has evolved.

The point of the special edition isn’t really getting fans to pay twice for the same thing. That’s what the bad old days turned it into. It’s about just what it says – giving them something special. Something that’s a badge, that marks them out as a “real fan” as well as satisfying the fans’ desire to know more about anything and everything to do with your work And the advantage to you is you can charge a premium, making more profit per unit. There are whole books to be written on getting the price right – my rule is simple: never take the p*** - it’s as much for them as it is for you. They may grudgingly pay £20 but wouldn’t you rather they willingly paid £15? But always charge more than the standard version (or if you’re giving the standard version away, more than the RRP of similar books) – otherwise it’s not special, it just looks like the different cover double profit trick.

So what goes into a special edition to make it special? In a way that’s up to you and will depend on what you write about. But make it something YOU’D want, and be prepared to pay for. And make it specific to your book (don’t just stick a generic pen on the cover, for example, or give them 20% off a MacDonald’s). Is there more information you could give on some of your characters? If you have a great cameo character you know people will love but can’t really expand for story reasons, why not write a short, or even a novella, and include it (The Man Who Panited Agnieszka’s Shoes is about a man’s search for his missing daughter. There’s nothing about her childhood, but from June 1st I’ll be tweeting her childhood story on the username dadpleasefindme – the collected tweets would be a perfect companion piece to a book)? Does your protagonist keep a journal? Why not give a customised blank journal of the kind you’ve described so readers can keep their own (would work perfectly if you’re writing a Bridget Jones type book)?

Saturday 16 May 2009

The Last Night of the Fair

(Regular readers of this column, and all the members of the Agnieszka’s Shoes Facebook group, will know I’m always talking about The Boxer Rebellion, currently the most exciting band in the UK. Nathan, Todd, Adam, and Piers are everything the ethos of Agnieszka’s Shoes stands for: perseverance, ingenuity, success achieved outside of – even despite of – the mainstream industry, and a product of the very highest quality. Yesterday at the Joiners in Southampton they gave a historic gig. I’m reviewing the gig for this week’s column as a tribute to them, and an inspiration to all the writers out there I’ve been encouraging to go out and do something in 2009 to make it happen.)

Sitting in the Master Fryer on St Mary’s Road, throwing a badly skewered sausage across the table, I had a sickening sense of déjà vu. We’d been to see The Boxer Rebellion play three times since I first read about their label-less success on iTunes in a metro article this January. Twice we’d seen them play to sell-out venues in London, but on the only other occasion we’d seen them outside the capital, when they played The Bullingdon in Oxford, they’d done their awesome best to rouse a criminally three-quarter empty venue. Even as the doors opened and a girl in the coolest platform boots ticked our name of an empty-looking list and admitted us along with one other bored-looking middle-aged bloke, it looked like we were in for the same.

The doorman struggled to find something to keep the micro-crowd happy on the giant plasma screen in the bar as the sound checks finished (he eventually settled for a QVC session selling crap-cut topaz rings). Which was when we got the first hint of what was to come. At first I thought they’d put Morrissey on the radio, until I realised the venue was so small we could only be hearing the first support, Red Drapes. Things were looking up.

“The last chance to see them play intimate venues,” the listings magazine we were flicking through said whilst a pissed bloke hectored the under-employed doorman “Who are they? Are they any good? Nine quid, that’s a bit steep.” That’s why we were there. On Saturday TBR were performing their first festival of the summer, Brighton’s Great Escape. By the time the leaves begin to turn and the evenings draw in, they’ll be off into the stratosphere. This was the last chance to stand a few inches from Nathan’s feet and read the set list taped to the floor as they went.

Red Drapes finally started half an hour late, after a long stint of piped Kate Bush. By then there was a half decent crowd, even if most of them looked like the support’s parents and classmates. The drummer (a ten years and a thousand pints or so younger lookalike of TBR’s Piers) clambered onto the stage and off they went with Reflections, eerily reminiscent of Morrissey’s masterpiece The Last Night of the Fair, which only added to the whole Twelfth Night feel. It was a marvellously apposite start to an evening that had a deliroius feel of the kind of heady excitement that only a certain pervading melancholia can bring on. I'm delighted to see Red Drapes have now started tweeting. Things are starting to grow for them, and long may it continue. This is a polished young act, and the Smiths-like sound they have off so well is something I can never hear too much of.

Once they’d sorted out a couple of the technical issues that dogged the whole evening (“it’s a shit keyboard,” said Nathan, defusing the situation with his trademark “lovely apple pie, Mrs Jones” smile when the sound went tits-up after We Have This Place Surrounded), Kaputt launched into their frantic set, with frontwoman Silke screaming “I want to fade away” in a way that sounded bizarrely like Lenny Kravitz had walked into the Scotch video tape advert from the 80s. In a way they were the unlucky odd ones out of the night’s trio of bands – Red Drapes had clearly dragooned everyone including the postman’s niece’s dog, and everyone else (like the guy next to us who – like us – had driven miles to see them, and was a veteran of their knockout Scala and Dingwalls gigs) had come to see TBR. Which was a shame, because Kaputt are really rather good. Their punky two tonish sound and minimalist lyrics had a real energy to it, a bit like a hard core version of The Slits at times, and when Silke shouted “Do they dance in Southampton on a Friday night? Well come on then!” you really felt a bit sorry for them, like you did after the show when TBR were signing the only-available-on-tour CDs of Union and Red Drapes were hugging their mates, whilst Kaputt sat in the corner with a quiet pint.

By the time the stage was set up for TBR and the sound guy had finished trying to get any sound at all from the “shit keyboard” with his penlight and screwdriver, the place was packed. It was nothing like the cold Sunday night at The Bullingdon. It was clear that in the two months since then, something had changed. For good (“Hello, Wembley,” shouted Nathan at one point, with only a hint of irony). Adam and Nathan made what’s now a highly practised and highly polished entrance to Piers’ and Todd’s drums on Flashing Red Light Means Go (long gone are the nerves and fumbles and “oh my God”s we’d witnessed in February when the sell-out Dingwalls crowd had overawed them).

Throughout what followed there were all kinds of little signs of the way things are changing for The Boxer Rebellion. For the first time at one of their gigs, whenever I looked across the room I could see people singing along. Their songs are beginning to enter the collective psyche, beginning to become anthems, sounds you could imagine filling arenas. By the time the band reached All you do is Talk, the whole crowd was screaming back “you don’t seem to listen.” Then there was the encore after Silent Movie. In an intimate venue like Joiners you can’t go backstage and wait for the cries of “more!” to reach a frenzy so much as hover at the side looking a bit embarrassed, shrug you shoulders and skulk back. “That was fucking lame,” mumbled Nathan into the mic with a laugh and yet another disarming smile, delighting in a moment of complicity with the crowd. Their act no longer really belongs somewhere like this. This was a massive gig in a tiny venue, and the rush and the shame of it made for a mesmerising cocktail.

One of the great things about seeing TBR is that they always have a drink and a chat with the fans after the show, and when they’re outside London they sell their own merch, sharpies at the ready as they rip the plastic wrap from the CDs and pass them down the line for signing. They always have time to speak to everyone, but that’s something you can only do when your crowds are a certain size, so while things are only getting started for them, there was a sense in which it felt like saying goodbye.

Today The Boxer Rebellion will be playing The Great Escape in Brighton, the first of a busy festival schedule that will surely put an end to the days of taking every gig they can get their hands on. When my wife told Todd we’d come down from Oxford, he asked if we’d come for The Great Escape. “No,” she said. “We came just to see you guys.” “Hard core,” he replied in his deep Ozzie drawl. “Drive carefully,” he said as we left. Back at you, guys. This is the point when the ride gets really bumpy.

(On Tuesday I’ll be looking at what we as writers can learn from the example of bands like the Boxer Rebellion. Hint: it involves prodigious talent, originality, persistence, large amounts of very hard work, and never forgetting what you’re doing it for.)

See you all over at The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes

Monday 11 May 2009

Readers and writers - restoring the lnk

A lot’s been made of the democratising effect of the Internet. We live in a world where we can all be producers of culture. Anyone with Internet access can set up a blog and pour out their soul. And it takes little more than a mobile phone and to that you can add sound, picture, and film to the “we’re all at it now” package.

But that’s not what I’m interested in. The sociology of our supply-heavy culture is fascinating, but what’s even more exciting, culturally, is the way technology has changed the relation between producers and consumers of culture. Sure the Internet is a large part of it, but so are developments like print on demand technology, allowing you to publish your own book on a tiny scale with little more than a pdf – and, more important, to bring out a new edition of the book any time you want to.

What’s so special about the new way of producing and consuming culture? The fact that as a reader, listener, viewer, I can go straight to the artist. And as an artist I can put my material out there to be accessed directly by my audience. We’re directly in touch with each other (to the extent we can add comments straight onto any piece of art to let each other know what we’re thinking) Gone are the days when focus groups and test screenings forced directors to change the endings of movies like Fatal Attraction, or add explanatory voiceovers (Blade Runner). Gone are the days when a record company tied you in to a gazillion album deal and forced you to churn out a gazillion copies of the same sound (Paul Young, George Michael).

What we’ve been less quick to pick up on as we celebrate the delightfully diverse creative culture, the fresh, untampered voices of musicians and directors, is the relevance of this new directness to writers.

We can all, for under £50, publish our own work on sites like Lulu. Gone are the days when editors, agents, publishers, reviewers got to dictate what the public could and couldn’t read. Gone are the days when if something’s not “on trend” it’s impossible to get it published. Gone are the days when an author has to turn their voice down, give us an uplifting ending, put in a little more of this and a little less of that because their publisher wants it.

We can now offer readers the prose we – and no one else – wanted to write. And as readers we can access prose as the authors intended it to appear, and not as we are told it should appear.

Traditionalists have attacked this uncut, unedited prose because, they argue, without editors it will be amateurish and – to be frank – shockingly poor, full of stodge and typos. And I have to say, when I read the later works of authors who’ve hit the big time and get to override their editors, I can see their point. The last few Harry Potters could have done with a good axe to the roots.

My answer is twofold. First – so what? Isn’t it actually up to the readers to decide whether they want typo-laden, raw, unpolished “rubbish” or not? And if they say they do, isn’t it up to anyone who cares about culture (as opposed to people who care about preserving a tradition) to accept that? Are there still people who would say punk should be excised from the history books because, let’s face it, 99% of it was bloody awful? Wasn’t the point of punk more than 30 years ago to give everyone to do it for themselves? And wasn’t the result a much-needed creative shot in the arm for the whole of western culture whose positive influence we’re still seeing today?

I fail to see the validity of the “but it’ll be crap” argument, the “it’ll devalue the proper stuff” argument. No, I’ll go a lot further than that. I find these arguments toxic, pernicious, totalitarian, downright frightening. Who these people think they ARE to define culture and value. Music had Johnny Rotten meets Ken Tynan. Art had Tracey Emin meets Brian Sewell. Literature is in serious need of a similar moment; a moment when the public see the veneer of ossification and decay ripped away from their perception of literature for good.

My second answer is that the argument misses the mark – it’s as though the traditionalists who claim to be preserving the industry as it stands don’t know the difference between editing and proofreading. If I don’t have an editor, agent, or publisher, I’m still perfectly free to have a graphic designer, a team of proofreaders, and an IT whiz producing my website. True, many of the self-published books out there are full of typos and stodgy writing. That’s hardly proof all self-published books have to be that way.

For me, it’s this aspect of writing today I find most exciting of all. I’m writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes on Facebook, posting a chapter at a time. I post what I want, and readers tell me if they like it or not. What results is a book that pleases everyone, but more than that – the novel grows out of the direct, interactive relationship between me and my readers. THAT’S exciting.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Rewriting Workshop

Those of you who've been following this week on the facebook group The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes will have seen I've been rewriting the opening, fiocusing on chapter 19, which I've rewritten 3 times - once structurally, then moving in to a line edit, and then the dialogue, whcih I rewrote in response to feedback received from one of my readers.

It's been an incredibly exciting exercise for me (I love rewriteing), and I hope it's been informative for everyone else to see exactly what thought processes are going on as I rewrite each word - and how I approach editing in the light of feedback. I do hope people will go over there and take a look.

In the meanwhile, as the final part of my rewrite week at the group, I promised a query workshop on rewriting - so anyone with any questions about rewriting in general, or their pieces in particular, post them here and I will do my best to answer, today or Monday.

Happy rewriting!

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Remember it's for the fans!

The Fifth commandment Don't be afraid to give your work away for free

I’m not going to mention The Pirate Bay in this article. Not once. Except for that, of course. If you want my opinion on the record, it’s this – my only thought as I read the coverage was how sad it was that everything was about file-sharing games, music, videos. I’d love to have my work file-shared on The Pirate Bay. It would mean people wanted to read me. It would mean I had fans. And if we have fans, even if they get your material for free (remember – it’s not a choice between paying for your work or not paying; it’s between getting your work for free or ignoring it – which would you rather?), we have people who will pay for something from us. Anyway, that’s it for The Pirate Bay. I’m available for interviews, panel appearances, after-dinner speeches and guest blogs on the subject through the usual e-mail ( Er, I do go on about Napster, though.

I think attitudes to this may be changing so fast there’s not the same need for me to write this column as there was when I first laid out my 10 commandments. More and more writers I know are at least taking the possibility seriously of giving away their work in electronic form. Some – the irrepressible Dai Lowe, for example, who writes the most exquisite literary satires – have already done so.

So this is going to be less about getting people’s head around the idea – as the interview I gave for Writers’ Forum was – and more about some practical advice on how to – and not to – go about it.

A very brief point to reinforce the fact that giving your work away isn’t the same as consigning yourself to penury (there will be more on how you DO make money in later weeks). When Napster became big news, everyone said musicians would no longer be able to make money from their music. The whole industry would collapse. Parts of the latter statement have some degree of truth in them; the former turned out to be nonsense. In fact the current panic over performing rights and the removal of music from YouTube demonstrates that NOT being able to give your music away is actually the musician’s headache. What happened was bands decided if people were going to get hold of music for free, they might as well get it from the musicians as the pirates. Now when you go to a band’s MySpace you expect to get free music; and some bands like nine Inch Nails have turned the giveaway into an art form. It serves two very clear purposes – bringing in new fans; and rewarding your existing ones. And both of those are admirable aims that can be applied equally to writers.

What you should do follows naturally from why you are doing it. For now I want to focus on writers looking to create new fans by giving them something for free, in the hope that fans will ultimately equate to money. It’s not unique to the arts, of course – Internet Service Providers did it in the 90s; magazines and part works do it all the time. With the arts it’s not quite so mercenary as grabbing a market share you can exploit – it’s more that you know you’ve got something people will love if only you could persuade them to give it a try. It’s more like supermarkets offering cheese and wine tastings.

Something that seems incredibly obvious but actually isn’t – as I found out during a conversation with a friend who wanted to give away a detective novel – is that if you’re trying to get fans for your work, the piece you give away has to be representative of your work. The friend in question writes beautifully crafted literary fiction. His detective novel is great – but readers who loved it and sought out the next book of his would be left scratching their heads.

Another thing people don’t realise is that the book you’re giving away has to be your very best work. It’s your showcase. It may be the one chance you have of getting someone to read your work. It has to be good enough to get them hooked. Dai Lowe came in for a lot of stick when he started giving away the wonderful Fardel’s Bear. “It’s too good for that,” people said in horror. That’s the point. Anyone who reads Fardel’s Bear for free will be desperate to keep their £7.99 to one side so they can pay for his next book. If he’d given away one of his old stories he didn’t really care about, whoever read it wouldn’t have given the carefully preserved Fardel’s Bear a second look.

It’s counterintuitive to give away your best work, but stop and think for a minute. As a writer, you’re doing it so that eventually you can earn a crust. But that’s not the real reason you’re doing it. The moment you decided your writing was more than a hobby, you entered the world of culture. And that’s a world where the person who really matters is the fan (just like in any business it’s the customer who rules).

The moment we forget that what we do is for our fans we not only stop deserving to be a success, we make our success that bit less likely. When I started writing The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes, declaring that I was giving 7 months of my writing life to creating something that wouldn’t earn me a penny, several people said, “It must be difficult writing a story you don’t really care about.” They assumed that if I was doing something promotional, if I was giving it away, it meant I didn’t care (you don’t give away ART after all!). What I’ve found as I’ve been writing is the exact opposite. Every time I log on and see a new group member, or read a comment, I care more than I could ever imagine caring about a story I write locked away in my study. I’m doing it for the readers – for any writer – as for any musician – that has to be the most important thing of all.

So it turns out the two reasons for giving your work away – winning new fans and rewarding existing ones – aren’t so different at all. What it’s actually about is connecting with your readers and doing things for them – and that’s the most rewarding thing a writer can ever do. It’s also the way to make your money – and make it with integrity.