Creativity vs Business

When my first novel came out, one of my first ‘reviews’ was a less than warm with approval private message from a reader. This person claimed the book wasn’t bad for a first novel —  the best thing the reviewer said. I’ve since discovered that such communications are not unknown, although I and many authors wonder why a reader wants to contact an author to give them a bad day.

Fine, any number of books make even me grind my teeth. They deserve a few of the negative reviews which stop others wasting their money because it’s an amateur author and/or amateur publisher. Saying that, I admit not all of my past writing has been exemplary but I wrote according to demand and learned. My writing has seen vast improvements mostly from various editing experiences. An equal number of those books are in mainstream publishing and on bestseller lists. It’s a grey area one might say. Therefore, most books I dislike I choose not to review — I realise  the story may not suit me but someone else may enjoy it immensely. I wouldn’t contact an author with anything but praise or a sensible comment. Even constructive critique (critique not criticism — a subtle but important distinction) can be subjective and questionable. It’s all ‘opinion’.

I also accept the book isn’t ‘my’ book. There’s no point writing to an author saying one doesn’t like how the book ended. If a reader only likes books with happy endings, there’s no point to rile against every book that doesn’t have one. Better to read with more care, or write the books one prefers to read. One thing I love J.K.Rowling said was she’s not taking dictation.  The work is the author’s vision, not the reader’s.

Or is it?

There were changes to my first novel. Some occurred because the publisher wanted a series from an envisioned one-off novel. I’m not complaining. I loved my characters and we’ve had a long and happy relationship. Some changes I wasn’t so sure of, but they were small and we compromised. Other changes didn’t happen, but with hindsight I would love to re-work the stories one day. The fact remains when a reader reviews a book they’re not only judging the work of the author, but often an entire team of people the author has worked with. I found that first ‘review’ frustrating, not because the reader didn’t relish my story (it was MY story, not hers and I still feel much of the problem was the reader wanted more sexual content) but because some things the reader complained of weren’t down to me. Sometimes, the failure (or success) of a book isn’t down to one person.

A team of people have looked over the manuscript and the synopsis and decided whether they want to handle a story before it ever gains acceptance. Then the writer will work with an editor, and perhaps a line editor and proofers. These may give input. Their jobs are to catch weaknesses in the story, plot holes, typos, spelling and grammar errors. Even those small things can cause problems. For example, British spelling and grammar differs to that of the US (a subject for another blog). On top of all the ‘rules’ individual opinions creep in, as does house-style. I’ve had editors who want speech to be grammatically correct, when that’s one thing that shouldn’t be unless it’s for specific effect. I’ve had editors who do or don’t like contractions. Editors who wouldn’t allow me to use a perfectly acceptable piece of punctuation because the person didn’t like it.

But…but…but the book belongs to the author, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t the author decide these things, or at least negotiate? Yes, but most contracts will state the final decision lies with the publisher. When contracting a book the title may be up for change. The author may or may not get to approve cover art. The author seldom if ever owns the cover art. Once the book is out of print, be it paper or digital, often the writer can no longer display said cover art. As for the story… Fact: many publishers will let a writer know along with the offer of a contract what changes to the story the publisher wants to create a publishable book — to ‘fit’ their market. Many won’t. Often, the writer signs blind, and then waits with bated breath.

Even if the publisher specifies edits, that doesn’t guarantee an editor won’t cut lines and paragraphs, doesn’t guarantee he or she won’t cut whole chapters. Sometimes, the writer can complain and negotiate. This should involve give and take on both sides…but, remember, the publisher has final decision. With or without previous agreement they can make huge changes to books. If the publisher decides a chapter needs to go, whether they’ve forewarned the author, the chapter goes. If they want an additional character or one removed or altered, then it happens.

Saying that, any ‘good’ publisher will do its best to negotiate and compromise. They will explain why they feel the book needs the changes. Often, the reasons make sense. It’s painful for an author to have someone point out a weak spot in a work, but if the editor can support the argument, the author can grumble (quietly) and then yield to good sense. Sometimes the author cannot see or doesn’t agree with those reasons. I’ve had edits made to books that may best serve the publisher’s market, but don’t serve my intention behind the story. This is where creativity and business clash.

The writer wants to create. The publisher wants to sell. So does the writer, but the story is all important to the writer unless they are writing purely for commercial reasons. A publisher will follow the market trends, see what sells best, and follow those leads, accepting and altering work to gain the most sales. This is often why many manuscripts get rejected, regardless of the writer’s brilliance. A writer also needs good timing. There’s no point writing a zombie novel when vampires are all popular and vice versa. Some books must await the right time and market. Sometimes a perfect market doesn’t exist, and it’s a case of tweaking a story to fit one that does.

It’s in the best interests of the writer to get in writing an indication of what edits the story will undergo before signing a contract. It’s in the best interests of the publisher to provide these. A publisher is nothing without its writers, and should a writer have a bad experience the publisher can guarantee to receive no more works from that source. Some publishers don’t care — there are plenty of people out there who want to write — but in this era of the internet and information exchange bad reputations can stick.

Let Yourself Fly

Usually the mere mention of Tim Burton will put me in a cinema seat, but with the release of the live-action version of Disney’s ‘Dumbo’*, I hear that the film lacks the heart of the original so I’m thinking ‘not this time’. I’ll watch but likely wait until it comes to television in some form.

*(An oxymoron considering much of it is CGI, but so was Jungle Book and that was enjoyable.)

However, what it did was recall a memory I thought to share with you. Many years ago I worked with a woman who had a six-year-old girl. If I say watching films at home on VHS was still quite a novelty and DVDs were still to be invented for consumer use, I’m likely aging myself, but Dumbo had been released on tape and ‘owning a Disney film’ created quite a stir in those days. Many no doubt paid more for the privilege than the often 2 for 1 deals for these films today. Yet I’m talking about another historical event — If memory serves me correctly, this was the first showing of Dumbo on British television. Many of us rushed to set our VHS recorders.

The week after this big event I was talking to my colleague and asked what her daughter thought of the film.

“Oh that,” my colleague said. “I turned it off.”

Confused I asked, “What? Why?”

“She started crying.”

Even more perplexed I said, “So? At which part?”

“The bit with the mother swinging him in her trunk. I told her, so silly to cry over a cartoon.”

“But… But… But…” I stuttered. “I cry at that part too.” This earned me an incredulous look of derision. “It’s sad,” I defended my position.  “And besides, now she doesn’t know there was a happy ending.”

As we all know, the whole point of Dumbo is to show having faith in yourself and taking chances can lead to magical outcomes, maybe not as enchanting as learning to fly, but had I not pushed through adversity I wouldn’t be writing. And I hope, wherever she is now, my friend’s daughter at long last saw the end of Dumbo, went on to great things, and maybe one day sat down to watch Dumbo with children of her own, all having a good cry. I hope you all do, and one way or another, let yourself fly.

Update Feb/Mar 2019

OUT AND ABOUT:
Not much to report in the way of going places. We’ve been working hard to finish all the window and floor trims they gave us in this house (they used sealant everywhere) and it’s a tedious job. Well worth the hardship, boredom and monotony but tedious all the same.

TELEVISION:
Love, Adult and Robots on Netflix is definitely animation for adults. Sexual, violent, at time humourous… the one thing I can say is the various animation used is superb, and some stories from a storytelling perspective excellent.

We’ve also been catching up with series 3 and 4 of Gotham (being behind). If you don’t share an interest in these universes, the programme wouldn’t be for you, but I like taking the Batman realm and giving it a factual setting even though it retains some supernatural flavour. The portrayal of Penguin and The Riddler are my favourite characters though I’m always happy to see Sean Pertwee.

Films have been lacking though we watched another award-winning animation of Isle of Dogs, though I won’t be able to see Liev Schreiber again without wanting to call him Spots.


READING:
The Key to Midnight, Dean Koontz
A re-read for me after many years. The opening mystery drew me in as much this time around as it did before. Though I want to love this book, the sexual violence seems to be a product of its time — I couldn’t help feeling the book could have been as threatening without it. Still the reveal is big enough and logical and there are enough twists to make this an excellent thriller. A pleasure to discover an early kick-arse heroine, although she has flaws, and, in places, a naivete that’s questionable (can’t say more without spoilers).

Mister Teacher, Jack Sheffield
A pleasant read of charming anecdotes. There’s little new to say after the first book, but it’s an enjoyable series when in need of some light, comfortable reading, no bad thing. I will read more in the series.

Mozart’s Blood, Louise Marley
An interesting story told in a non-sequential order, hopping back and forth between the present and the past. I found Ugo more interesting than Octavia but the book didn’t dissolve into overplayed romantic cliches as one might expect from the cover. It’s not a romance at all, though it has a romantic tone but one more to do with the close bond of circumstances and friendship. A well plotted book, blended with the operatic and historical setting with a different spin on the vampire mythos. It’s very much a plot driven novel. I so want to adore this book but can only like it…a lot, the one improvement might have been a little more emotional investment. I can’t say why I’m not drawn to care as much as I want to but I’m still glad I read this and may well keep it and check out more of this author’s work.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Hard to believe I’ve never read this classic before. The book opens to make the reader question what he or she is reading. It has a crazed, abstract poetry to it. It dawns the story is about much more than is on the page, questioning the meaning of books, the attention span of society, of works shortened, condensed into snippets, even of politics, censorship and, ultimately, war. The book feels timeless yet never more timely than now, speaking of people turning from books to technology. This story is visionary. Clarisse McClellan: ‘She didn’t want to know how a thing was done but why.’ Fantastic line. Even better ones: ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.’ This on a page well worth reading alone. A subliminal work perhaps, certainly supreme. Some say works of fiction aren’t real but no fictional work can get more real than this.

Icebound, Dean Koontz
Another re-read for me that proved to be fun. This is the only real attempt Koontz says he made at a traditional thriller and he did a wonderful job. The factual details are enough to be engaging without boring and there’s a real sense of a ticking bomb. While there may be better thrillers on the market at the time Koontz wrote this he did a job good enough to translate to film although the ability to put this on screen likely didn’t exist to do the story justice. One particular mention, I love it when I’m reading and come across a sentence that expresses a perfect sentiment and in Icebound there is one: Politics was an illusion of service that cloaked the corruption of power.

Dear Teacher, Jack Sheffield
Another good instalment, although the back-and-forth romance element started to annoy me a little, which the cliffhanger helped to make up for. I’ll keep reading.

The Black Mariah, Jay R.Bonansinga
Someone gave me this book as a freebie many years ago which I kept thinking I’d get around to reading it ‘one day’. That day came, and yet, doing only glancing at the cover, the author’s name still didn’t click. Little was I to know the day I received this book its author would become involved with the successful ‘The Walking Dead’. The book was a better read than expected with a sense of movement and time running out at the heart of the story. I couldn’t help viewing it as a film and there’s a mention on the cover it was in development though whether anything came of that, I can’t find any evidence. The story takes a few leaps of suspended belief but it’s an eventful read.

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
The cover of this book says you’re in for a treat. I’m not sure I’d go that far but there’s something that oddly lingers. I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed this at all if I were younger reader and I admit I went into it not at all trying to figure out who did what or to whom so perhaps that would be half the fun. Still the quirky characters and the distribution of clues is hard to shake off. A classic book that’s bound to draw mixed reviews and muddled feelings. I’m most impressed that the writer wrote this straight off with no planning, but though I’m glad to have read it, I’m not sure it’s a keeper for me.

WRITING:
I’m editing Cosmic for the romance market and have to say some of my writing is a little cringe worthy. Still, it was all a learning experience. Mostly, I would use 20 words when 10 would do, and these days I can see where to add more romantic elements and character development.

I still cannot announce the piece of writing I’m dying to talk about but Barbara Custer who edits Night to Dawn Magazine also snapped a quirky short story of mine. Not sure when it’ll come out but I’ll let you know as soon as I do. I’ve featured before in Issues 15 and 26.

The Desire to Stop

Some days I don’t want to write. Not a day off, but to GIVE UP the writing. I know I’m not the only author to feel this way. I’ve discussed it with others and we agree writers can sometimes ‘beat themselves up’ too much. There are days when a writer feels he or she isn’t writing enough and is not a writer at all, maybe because it’s easy to feel it’s impossible to get enough down on paper (or on the screen) in a day, or owing to a thousand other reasons.

Some days rejection causes this mood. Some days it’s self-doubt. Occasionally it’s stress, other things in life demanding attention. Or the sun is shining, and the temptation exists to be out and about, preferring to read a book instead of writing one. Or the writer may wish to talk to a friend, listen to music, watch a film, go to the gym, for a walk, cook the dinner. To do something, ANYTHING, other than stare at a blank white space seeking to fill it with words.

Words. I live with words. There’s seldom ever a silent moment of peace in my head. When I’m not writing I’m struggling to find time to read so if I’m not with friends or doing several demanding chores, I spend my time with WORDS, so many words, enough to drive a person crazy.

Sometimes rejection or a bad review makes an author throw up their hands, cause them to wonder why they do this. Few ever see true monetary rewards. Financial success does and can happen but most writers need a day job. Most need to hit the bestseller lists to make the true writing dream come true, and even then they have deadlines. That doesn’t mean those who need to subsidise their writing or use their writing to subsidise their life are failures.

It’s difficult to get published these days, even more so than at other times in history in some ways. Writers compete with music and movies, but also computer games and the internet, even social media such as Facebook. Any acceptance is a reason for celebration but there will be days, even when things are going well, when a writer wonders why they do this. Life could be quieter, simpler, more ‘fun’ if they could just turn their back on this insidious NEED to write. It’s infectious for many, the need to write… yet that’s often the difference between someone who IS an actual writer and a person who dreams of writing.

Sometimes wanting to walk away comes down to having too many things on the go at once. A writer can feel unsatisfied. I once feared a market I wrote for would outgrow me, another would change in a way that didn‘t suit me. It’s why I’ve periodically followed opportunity rather than intent, though many reasons exist why writers have to do this. Other works I write to fulfil another part of me.

Here’s the hideous and wonderful thing. Writers need to be open to possibilities. For me I find one style of writing, one genre, too restraining. There have been moments when I’ve too many things on the go, things I ‘need’ to work on, things I ‘want’ to work on, things lined up, not enough time off and too other demands sitting on the sidelines. I know writers who might have considered my list meagre, and I admit to a little envy to those who are prolific and still manage a life. I can’t always do so, and the reason varies. Workload, health, emotional drive — all these things and more have an impact. The new writer may believe they can write when inspiration strikes but the ‘business’ of writing doesn’t allow for that. Long gone are the days when a novel once a year is the normal expectation of most novelists.

Everyone needs time for themselves. To curl up with a book, to snuggle with someone important. As wonderful as being a writer can be, there’s always the risk of looking around one day and wondering what happened to life, when did it all rush by, and where did it all vanish? Everyone risks this, creative people more so. Writing like everything requires a balance. I’ve yet to find mine and it won’t surprise me if I never do. If you want to be a writer, don’t assume the pressures of life, of finding time, vanish. Spare time becomes a nostalgic memory, and, for a few, the desire to stop haunting.

So many books, so few stars

We’ve all seen it. A book we’ve loved that may have good reviews, but the reviewer hasn’t awarded many stars, which to the writer is confusing. Perhaps this is a question of personal semantics. I have my marking system for books. Five stars is for an outstanding read. It’s one of those I wish I had written myself. Four stars is for a book I’ve found exceptional. It could have been something about a character or the plot, but something in the book has made me remember it. I usually say it’s haunting. Then, where most people would think three stars is a mediocre title, I apply it to all the other good books I’ve read; the books I’ve truly loved and that will stay in my house, and I think worth anybody’s time of day. A three star review can feel like a letdown but truly it’s a decent rating. Two stars is for something I may keep but probably never read again. It’s one of those ‘if you’ve nothing better to do’ categories. One star I seldom apply because if a book is that unsatisfying I’ll likely never mention it.

Some sites, like Goodreads, have a recommended meaning for their ratings (there three stars is a perfectly decent score), and that can help, but I believe we all mark books based on personal expectations. This means the ‘score’ may not accurately reflect content.

I seldom give bad reviews for two reasons. One, I know how I would feel if it were me and two, I’m always aware that what I dislike someone else may well love. It’s all opinion. As a writer, I think sometimes it’s best to be careful what you say, but we all know there are some deplorable books out. Many on bestseller lists. I’m sorry to say publishing (especially in digital form) has opened doors for many good writers who may not otherwise have a chance, but many unscrupulous individuals have also seized the opportunity to set up as publishers and will take any standard of work to market.

This isn’t always the fault of the inexperienced author. Whether a person has the ability to write or not, without the right guidance they may never realise the difference between genuine talent and a gift that needs nurturing, though the truth is all writers need cultivating. An unscrupulous publisher will heap praise on the unsuspecting where it’s not warranted, and how is the writer to know? Please, as a reader or writer, one bad experience must not discourage, deter, or dishearten. There are reputable publishers out there, and there are excellent authors. Many of these books are as good as anything in print, maybe better. The format doesn’t change the quality of the work. Only the publisher does. When I give a review, I seldom award stars unless it’s where I must. I say what I think of a book and why.

Word Count

I’ve received this query before so thought it makes a good topic. What is my word count? Do I strive for a daily figure?

A spinoff from that is to ask whether there’s a wrong or right way to do this thing called writing. Most courses and advice books will tell the writer to write ‘every day’. I believe this instruction is erroneous. Truth is, most writers work more than anybody. Many have day jobs, family, friends, need to do the washing, get food in, and clean the house same as everybody, but they write and see to those necessities that. Once you’re a writer, and once you’re serious, there’s no such thing as having ‘spare’ time.

I think writers need to make time. I’ve promised myself to be productive, but also to take time off…a subject on which I could fill another blog as I live in the vain hope of doing so. The point I’m making is that writers get sick, they get beyond tired, and can get exhausted. They get tired, annoyed, frustrated. Everyone gets time off — why not the writer?

Mostly because it’s difficult to stop our brains from ticking along. We can take a holiday and get ideas every day we’re away. Fine. Jot them down, just try not to begin the project. What these courses should say, and often mean, is that a writer needs to write regularly. For many writers this means a daily word count.

What that word count should be varies. I’ve known writers for whom 500 words feels like a huge number. Many settle for 1000, but for me 1000-1500 words feels as if I’ve barely got started. Stories often come as if I’m reading, the only difference is that the ‘book’ I’m reading from is inside my head. I need to ‘fall into’ the story the same way I do when I’m reading, forget time, block out everything around me. I often write from A – Z, page one to infinity.

At around 2000 words, I feel as I’ve put in a good day’s work. I aim for 2000 words a day, five times a week. Many have told me that’s a huge amount, but let me add that I’m a fast touch-typist. If the story flows (a big IF), it’s surprising how fast I can put 2000 words on the page. An average document in an office can be longer than that, and it wouldn’t take a professional typist long to transfer. If I have the time and the story is streaming, I have written more.

The most I’ve ever written in a day was around 10,000 words. I was on holiday, and I woke up one morning with a story fully formed in my head. I spent 8 hours typing, scurrying to grab drinks and a sandwich and taking bathroom breaks only when necessary, but I don’t recommend it, found it exhausting, mentally, emotionally, and worse of all, physically. Not a good idea to spend those hours sitting in a chair. Still, I have managed 4000-4500 words on a sunny afternoon feeling nothing other than accomplished. That makes up for the days when I’m unable to write.

It happens to most every writer. There are days I can stare at a blank page on the screen, and I’ll be lucky to write a sentence. James Joyce apparently once said if he wrote a couple of sentences in a day, it was a good day. So I may say I’m aiming for 2000 words a day, five times in a week, but if I get a day where nothing comes I seldom try to catch up. Sometimes I catch up naturally — a day of high-productivity can follow a torturous one — but I never push for it, because it feels too much like forcing the story. That’s not the same thing as trying to force oneself through a block. Sometimes the write must insist on sitting in that seat with fingers on the keyboard and lump it. That is often the contrast between a wannabe writer and one who has any hope of making a career of their writing.