Angry in Clapham

Last night I went to the writing group in Battersea for the second time. I won’t go again. I left angry.

I was late. There was a bottleneck at Kew Bridge. There often is a bottleneck at Kew Bridge.

By the time I got there they had started. The organiser had already left. The co-organiser was charing. He was one of the people I thought I would eventually have trouble with. There was clearly some kind of rivalry.

I found a seat. Only three people had put their names down on the meet.up page. There were ten people there. Some of them were new. Some of the regulars just hadn’t been at the last meeting.

We read round the room. I couldn’t concentrate. I have that problem before. It does not mean that I think what I am listening to is bad. it means I am bored. I think it is dull.

One young woman who had been before and read something before but who wasn’t there last time read from what appeared to be the draft of a young adult coming of age novel set in Algeria. The chapter was about young girls getting involved in a divination ritual. The young woman was quite competent.

The others were either incompetent or silly. A couple of them were writing personal stuff. That’s more difficult to do than people think.

The comments would have made sense if what was being commented on had any value. It didn’t. The comments represented an extraordinary over-valuation of some pretty trivial stuff.

A couple of people who couldn’t write tried to tell the competent young woman that her vocabulary was too elaborate. They seemed to be saying ‘Write like me.’

The chair left me till last. It was deliberate. He didn’t make eye contact. I thought it was what some people call ‘passive aggression’.

Before I read the chair had a go at me. What did I want from the group?

We had had that conversation before. I ended up being more openly aggressive. I said I wasn’t interested in feedback, critiques or workshopping.

I wanted to read. I wanted to read a whole chapter. I wanted to read without getting stressed. I more or less managed it.

The man who had made intelligent comments last time said it reminded him of Eisenstein. The competent young woman said it reminded her of a Portuguese novelist. Other than that I might as well have been reading into a vacuum.

One man said he didn’t want to read it. I told him the story of how I came to write the novel: the story about the young woman who was raped in prison.

That was a very aggressive thing to do.

I was angry. It’s an angry book. I wrote it out of anger. I was angry with the group. I was angry with what was going on in the room.

It’s not about amateurishness. It’s about seriousness. I will defend my book against all comers. I believe in it passionately.

I have nothing in common with those people. I need to find readers and make contact with other writers. I won’t do it there.

I went back to Clapham Junction. I heard saxophones. I thought the music was coming from the windows of an upper storey. When I crossed the road and looked back I saw a band on the corner.

I went back. I took a photograph. I didn’t put money in the instrument case.

They were performing in public. I was on the street with a camera. i didn’t have to pay.

I was under no more obligation to them than to the members of the writing group.

Power publishing

Westminster is the power borough. I don’t like it. That was where the group was meeting.

The visits to Westminster that I remember usually involved a demonstration. Once it turned into a riot. I was in a crowd that was charged by the mounted police. It was ugly. Four of us had to link arms to avoid getting dragged under the horses’ hooves.

There are other icons of power that I have seen in Westminster that are perhaps not so frightening. They can be ugly. On one occasion I walked round a corner and almost walked straight into a policeman in motorcycle leathers with a .38 strapped to his thigh. I am of a generation that is still shocked when we see policemen in this country openly carrying arms. And the leather gear was weird.

We were due to meet in the cafeteria of the Methodist Central Hall, which I wasn’t too keen about. I don’t like groups that ‘squat’. I would rather put a couple of quid into a whip to pay for a room.

I also wasn’t too keen on the size of the group. On the website it looked as if twenty-four people had RSVP’ed yes. One or two had dropped out, but it still felt unmanageably large.

As it turned out it all worked quite well. The cafeteria of the Methodist Central Hall was large, and on a Saturday it wasn’t too busy. The self-publishers had pulled two tables together in a corner, and were partially screened by a pillar. And there were only eleven of us.

On-line a minority of self-publishers are militant evangelists with all the social and personal finesse of the Donald Trump campaign team. The way the evangelists, all the other self-publishers are failures, losers and dopes.

Face to face, if the little group I met are representative, self-publishers are not like that at all. They are grown up. One woman was definitely under forty. One guy was on the cusp. The rest of us were greying, balding and wrinkled.

About four of the group had already published. Only one had a history of sales. A couple of people were struggling to find the right way, and a couple of others didn’t know what to do. One man hadn’t finished his book. He needs to start thinking about the market, so it was probably a good place for him to come.

The focus – and this won’t surprise anybody who knows anything about self-publishing – was very much on marketing. Nobody had got very far.

The organiser, Philip, is putting in a lot of energy and probably keeping it happening. He is a good chair. We went round and talked about where we are. People spoke well and had interesting projects. Philip is a good chair. He is good at summing up each contribution as it ends.

People had interesting backgrounds and had done different things. They had different skills. There were two musicians in the room and one dancer. Some people were very concerned about getting paid for what they do. One lady, sadly, had fairly obviously been scammed. Not badly, but she still hadn’t noticed.

Philip is keen on setting up some kind of cooperative. The idea seems to be that if there was one person who was good at sales it might be catching.

I don’t think I will be ‘hard core’ for that kind of project. I want to meet some other non-commercial and hopefully non-realistic novelists. It would be good to co-operate in some ways. I don’t see a way of making joint marketing work at this stage. I think it’s for the future.

About half of us went to the pub. I gave a couple of people my card. It was worth it. I will go again. I don’t think it’s the kind of group that I’m going to learn anything practical from. But I liked the people.

Marketing surprise

I have finally decided to do some marketing. You are surprised? How do you think I feel?

I have redone the copy on the first two pages of my website. The first page is now about independence. The second is about vulnerability- childhood abuse and mental illness.

I have done a slogan – a sort of mission statement in four crisp adjectives. Oral, universal, episodic and non-linear. I have changed the email signature to include a version of the slogan. I have been paying attention, as you can see, to what the email says about the ‘message’.

And I have been on Amazon collecting the names and email addresses of reviewers. That’s the big thing.

I don’t like social media and I’m not good at it. I don’t want to rely on social media as the main way of selling books. I wanted something more direct. I remembered something about offering free copies to popular reviewers. I couldn’t remember how to do it.

I went on Google. I found not one answer but two, and I found them straight away.

I rejected them both. There was a clear and practical piece on Joanna Penn’s blog by a guest author about finding the most popular reviewers. That is obviously what you need to do if you want bestsellers, and probably what you need if your book is quite general. Mine are specialist. That isn’t going to work.

I was quite excited by a site called Jungle search. It’s a way of doing advanced searches on Amazon. Then I realised it was set up for and there was no way I could change it to what I want right now are English readers. World domination can wait awhile.

Jungle search however gave me the key idea. I could search by genre and sub-genre. I could find broadly compatible books.

I went on I clicked on Books. I clicked on Science Fiction and Fantasy. I chose Science Fiction. And then I clicked on Dystopia.

I looked for books that interested me. I looked on the right of the page for books with five stars. I looked for books with over a hundred reviews.

When I found a book that met my criteria and opened it up. I scrolled down. I clicked on See all customer reviews. I clicked on See all positive reviews. Then I scrolled down until I found a long review. I didn’t bother reading it. Length was evidence of literacy.

I clicked on the reviewer’s name, and brought up their profile page. Some listed emails. I noted the email, the name and the book they had been reviewing on an Excel spreadsheet I happened to have handy. I need the title of the book will enable me to personalise the email.

By the time I started going obsessive-compulsive I had thirty emails. I reckon I need a hundred for a useable test. That’ s going to take another few hours. Then there’s the business of sending them out.

I’ve already got the copy. I think I’ve got two sentences to get their attention, and another two to persuade them.

I’m going to offer a free copy of the eBook edition of In the Night the Men Come, the first novel. You can’t gift books on You can on What I will have to do is download the the HTML file from Kindle Direct Publishing, as if I was going to make corrections. Then I can send them that.

I think the ratio of emails to reviews is going to be about twenty-five to one. I have no idea what the ratio of reviews to sales is going to be.

If I get two to five reviews it will make sense to repeat the exercise with The City that Walked Away. I will need to trawl Amazon again for fresh emails. If I get one or none I don’t know what will make sense. I do know I’m not a quitter.

I can do something similar, only this time collecting web addresses. I can visit the sites, and check out the book bloggers. That should enable me to do something more focused and selective. Whether the results will be any better I don’t know.

I am a bit worried about what happens next. I will be publishing Flame Deluge, which is about Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, in a few months. The promotion for that will be very targeted.

All this feels like heavy lifting. I can do it once. I don’t feel I can keep doing it, and the next novel is probably three to four years off.

In one of the How To books I remember reading a comment about self-publishing being like publishing straight to the back list. That makes sense. But how do I keep sales going, year on year.

The only thing I can think of is word of mouth. So the question becomes, how do I get some word of mouth going?

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The ineffable tedium of amateur writing

I was wary of Novel London when I first came across it. Safeena Chaudry, the organiser, promotes the – what? group? business? project? I don’t know what to call it – on A lot of groups are too middle class – variations on drinks and dinner and ‘meeting new people’ – and others are too weird. Tibetan nose flute for happiness and inner harmony. That sort of thing.

I didn’t follow up on Novel London right away.  I remember that I thought it was ‘too poncey’. I don’t remember why. Perhaps because they meet in Waterstones? Waterstones is pretty poncey.

Finally I accepted that I need to meet other writers and I looked at writing groups on again. Novel London looked like a writers group. They meet every couple of weeks and three novelists read the first chapter of their books. It sounded like possibly a good way of achieving what I wanted.

I joined the group and signed up for the next evening. It was in Waterstones in Covent Garden. That sounded really poncey.  I noticed there was a ‘Call for Submissions’. That sounded a bit poncey too. A bit too much like wanted to be a publisher. But I was curious. So I clicked.

There were a couple of conditions. You have to have finished a novel. Your first chapter has to be ‘dramatic’ enough to hold the attention of a rabble of other writers. (I think that’s the right collective noun.) You had to be ‘blogging’ and ‘tweeting’ about your novel. I’m not sure what makes it Novel London’s business that you are blogging and tweeting,  but that’s what they say.

You had to send the first chapter as a word or pdf file, and Chaudry wanted a potted biography and a synopsis. The usual stuff. Nothing surprising there.

The first surprise came when Chaudry acknowledged the material. There was a fee. The fee was apparently for the recordings. I had seen something about recording in the publicity material but it hadn’t seemed important.

I was startled. It is a very basic principle of business ethics – and by extension of consumer protection – that all fees and charges are stated up front. It should have been stated clearly on the same page as the call for submissions.

For reasons of personal and employment history I challenge this sort of thing. It is almost a reflex. I emailed again. How much? I wanted to know.

£150. What? A quick calculation on the on-board calculator on my dumbphone revealed I would have to sell eighty-eight eBooks to get that back. It may well represent the real cost of recording. It wasn’t an expenditure that I could justify commercially.

There is a lot of pressure on self-published writers to spend money upfront on marketing, particularly on covers and editing. There isn’t much in the way of sound financial advice. No-one, for example, is telling self-published authors to identify their overheads and make a budget. And no-one, except Mark Coker of Smashwords, is telling people not to spend money on promotion until you’ve got money coming in. I think Safeena Chaudry’s recording scheme falls foul of Mark Coker’s rule.

I went anyway. The West End at 6.00 p.m. on Friday was horribly crowded. I had to queue to get out of the tube. It’s years since I’ve enjoyed being in the West End. Waterstones in Garrick Street was like a church. Hushed, empty, and full of significant icons.

Novel London was in the basement. There were folding chairs and red and white wine poured out ready in glasses. There were a couple of fairly expensive-looking cameras on tripods.

There were perhaps twenty people. A large minority of the twenty were novelists and spouses. Despite my extreme introversion I was comfortable. It wasn’t a threatening crowd.

The event started more on less on time. The compere announced that the point of Novel London was to give writers a video that would be on Youtube for ever. That was the first time I had clearly understood what the point of Novel London is. Safeena talked a lot about crowd funding. The business, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t viable right now.

The writers read I couldn’t concentrate. At first I thought it was because the lady who was first up had a quite voice and an inexpressive manner. I turned up my hearing aids. It didn’t help. I would hear one word, a phrase; then I drifted off again.

The male novelist who read next had a stronger voice and read with more emphasis, but it was no better.  I couldn’t make myself focus.

I was really surprised. That’s not how I react to bad writing. I react to bad writing with intense irritation. This wasn’t bad. It was just unbearably dull. There was nothing to hold my attention.

At that point I stopped worrying. I didn’t care any more about the costs of recording or the consumer protection issues.

I was surprised by that too. I hadn’t realised that dullness, for me, is an over-riding moral category. I have learned something new.

After two chapters Safeena called a break and the compere asked – with some embarrassment – for contributions. I got my coat. I was conscious that I was being rude to the third writer. I think that participating in writers’ activities in London involves cultivating the capacity to be rude.

I didn’t meet anybody’s eye. I left.

Outside the young people were still arriving in Covent Garden for their evening out. I went home.

Literary fiction, cult and popularity

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 did all right when it was published in hardback in 1961. It didn’t take off until it was published in paperback and became a cult book.  It eventually sold eight million and with the income from the movie rights Heller became a millionaire.

Miller didn’t. A Canticle for Leibowitz did well but not nearly as well as that.

The curiosity is that both novels had their origins in active service by their authors in bombers in World War II, and in both cases that experience was made into something wider.

There are differences between the books. Catch 22 is not science fiction. It is more literary in some ways and while I don’t think it is more intelligent many readers may have seen it as more intellectual.

It is said to have become a cult book with baby boomers in the sixties. That would have been quite an achievement. Books were not cool in the sixties. Movies were cool. Comic books were cool. Books were not.

What was cool in the sixties was irrationality. Catch 22 – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – is profoundly irrational.

Miller deals with the profound irrationality of the willingness to use nuclear weapons in war but his criticism was rational. It was also religious. Religion, in the sixties, was not cool.

This raises some interesting questions – about merit, fashion, perception and the market. I haven’t got a clue what the answers might be.

Photo credit: antonychammond via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA


The public letter writer

I have been intrigued by the idea of the public letter writer for about forty years. In my twenties I was lucky enough to spend a fortnight in Ghana. That was wonderful in a number of ways. My enduring memories include the slave fort at Cape Coast, and a funeral at Elmina where the dancers were wearing costumes based on eighteenth-century grenadiers, floppy tasseled caps and all.

I can’t remember where it was I saw the letter writers. It wasn’t a big or impressive market. Some of the traders -mostly women – were just sitting on the bare ground with their meagre stock spread in front of them waiting for customers to come.

At the edge of market there were a couple of folding tables. Behind each was a folding chair. You cannot have an office without at least a table and a chair.

Each of the tables was protected by a tall umbrella from the sun. The umbrellas were secured in the ground. They must have had a spike at the end of the handle.

In the centre of each of the tables was an old Underwood or a Remington. I was still using my father’s old Remington at the time. I loved it.

Around the typewriters was the rest of the stock in trade. A packet of envelopes, a sheaf of paper, a pile of printed official forms.

The proprietors of the businesses were standing a little to one side. Business must have been a little slack.

They weren’t laughing or joking. These were serious men. I have the impression that one was wearing a traditional Ghanaian shirt with trumpet sleeves, and perhaps a skullcap, and that at least one of them was looking scholarly in glasses.

Public letter writers exist to write what their clients would have written if they could have written it themselves. I thought it was wonderful.

I hadn’t really settled down to anything when I left college. The fantasy of being a writer was still too strong. I was in and out of short-lived, unsatisfactory jobs.

If I had thought there was a market for public letter writers in England, I would have wanted to be one.

I have heard of public letter writers in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The narrator of Naguib Mahfouz’ Children of the Alley is a letter writer. He is the first person in the Alley to have made a living from writing. Nobody understands him.

Public letter writers must have been fairly widespread in the Third World at one time. When there is a modern government which does its business on paper, a population which is largely illiterate and unemployed school leavers public letter writers are going to exist.

I would imagine they were an urban phenomenon. There can’t have been enough business in the villages for full-time specialists in letter writing.

Nowadays the public letter writers are being made redundant by computers. I feel sad.

Many years later I had the opportunity to work as a community mental health advocate. My sister says I was paid to make trouble, and did it.

I used to do correspondence for vulnerable people, and fill in forms for people who were paralysed by their anxiety about the bureaucracy. I was instructed. I was supposed to do what the clients wanted, and not what I thought was good for them. I often used to see the resemblance between what I was doing and what a public letter writer did.

The young woman whose story eventually prompted me to write In the Night the Men Come approached me about a housing matter. On one occasion I made an appointment for her to approve a draft of a letter before I sent it.

We met in a community centre on an estate that I had occasional use of. It was much more convenient for her.

We sat round the corner of the big meeting table. I watched her read the letter with full attention.

When she put it down she said, ‘That is what I would have written if I could have done it myself.’

I felt completely validated.

She knows about In the Night the Men Come. All she said was ‘Wow’. She hasn’t kept in touch. I wasn’t able to offer her a copy.

I don’t think it’s what she would have written at all. I have been very careful to make sure she can’t be identified. I have changed almost everything. Anything else would have been presumptuous.

I still do public writing. My flatmate is the chair of the local community association. When she needs a flyer or a press release she cajoles me. She is very proud of her literary lodger.

I wonder about the novels.

I don’t think I write the stories that readers would have written themselves. But maybe I can write stories that my readers need to have told?

Photo credit: via Visual Hunt / CC BY

Writing in retirement

A self-published writer enjoying his retirement in idyllic surroundings

Writing in retirement is such a cliche. Even my flatmate teases me about writing my memoirs, and my flatmate likes me. I walk the dog and feed the cat.

I reached 65, normal retirement age for men of my generation, just under three years ago. A few months before the small local charity I was working for lost the contract that funded my post.

I hadn’t assumed that I would retire. I thought I would continue working, at least part-time, till I was seventy. I applied for a few jobs in my field and got a couple of interviews. I came second.

Coming second in a job interview is a bit like coming fourth in the Olympics. You don’t get anything.

After about eighteen months I realised I liked not being tired and stressed the whole time. I think that is the point at which I accepted that I had retired.

I started In the Night the Men Come a few months before I left the job. At that stage I wasn’t writing in retirement, and I wasn’t expecting to retire.

I had been doing a lot of personal writing, off and on, for a long time. I had got to the point where I  wanted either to finish it, or stop.

I was trying to write about childhood sexual abuse. I was worried about narcissism, and there was quite a difficult technical problem. There appeared to be two timescales, one for the events and the other for the memories. It was difficult to reconcile them.

I had done an edit. I was trying to force myself to read it over, so I could make a decision.

I couldn’t do it. At that point I knew I had abandoned the project.

I asked myself if I would ever write again. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably.’

I asked myself if I would ever write fiction again. I was in the office at work. The answer was, ‘If I had a story’.

I realised at that moment that I did have a story. A client of mine had been gang-raped in prison in her country of origin by the security forces. They were trying to get her to denounce a close family member as a spy.

The young woman was still traumatised. She had had a very difficult time before she got ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the United Kingdom. She was still struggling in some ways.

I had done what I could. I would have liked to do more. I was angry.

Within twenty-four hours I had a complete outline. The next morning I went to my local Ryman’s and bought an imitation Moleskin notebook.

I thought that was really weird. There I was. I was sixty-four years of age. I was on my local high street buying a writer’s notebook.

I struggled with the book. I stopped writing for a while before I left the job. I was just too tired.

I took time off and did something else between drafts. The ‘something else’ was usually a draft of an essay. I haven’t yet completed them.

I did a lot of revision. I did each version in a different colour. By the end the manuscript looked wonderful. It was also completely illegible.

I did ‘substantive editing’. I kicked whole chapters out and wrote new ones.

That made me nervous. I have never liked writing to order. It gave me a lot of confidence to find that I could imagine something new when I needed to.

In the Night the Men Come took about two years, off and on. The City that Walked Away took six months, and Survivor took four weeks.

I didn’t do a lot of revision on either The City that Walked Away or Survivor, and I didn’t do any substantive editing. I had found a technique and a style. The first draft was pretty good and the writing was easy.

Writing in retirement clearly allowed me to be more productive. I wouldn’t have written nearly so much if I had been working, even part-time.

I had a security I hadn’t had before. My old age pension is almost like a citizen’s income. Day to day I don’t need to worry.

I also in an almost ideal environment. I had to move about the same time I lost the job, which was a little nerve racking. In my new home I have room for a desk, I have four bookcases and I have a balcony. It’s perfect.

Clearly if I hadn’t realised I had a story I wouldn’t be writing, or at least I wouldn’t be writing fiction. I would probably be volunteering.

There are other processes involved. They are longer-term.

In 1993 I self-published an offset-litho paperback novel. It was a disaster. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway. I was manic.

That was bruising. I solemnly abjured fiction. I had in fact already become very sceptical about fiction. I wrote the novel anyway.

I decided that if I wanted good mental health, I needed to do the same things that everyone else did. I didn’t need to be special and different. That was essential to mental health recovery.

I also dismissed my conviction that I was a writer as a narcissistic adolescent fantasy. That was going too far.

I didn’t read fiction again until 2003. I was really angry with Tony Blair. I wanted find out more about the Arab world.

I stumbled across Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz restored my faith. I collected his novels avidly. I am not usually a collector.

I realised it wasn’t fiction I had a problem with. It was contemporary Euro-American fiction, and more generally ‘bourgeois realism’.

When I moved and retired, I had the leisure to develop my new-found interest. I discovered contemporary Chinese fiction. I am not just writing in retirement. I am reading in retirement as well.

Writing in retirement gives me the leisure to write and frees me from distraction. Retirement is a necessary condition for productivity.

It isn’t a sufficient condition. I had to regain my faith in fiction, and I needed good mental health. And I needed a story.

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