Writer

I want to contact other writers. I find this difficult. I strongly dislike online forums. I have been to a couple of neighbourhood writers groups. I have never attended a creative writing class and I never would. I have been to a couple of literary events in the past. The idea of conferences and festivals fills me with horror.

That just about eliminates all the obvious, traditionally recommended ways of meeting other writers.

I don’t need to meet a lot of other writers. I certainly don’t need to be superficially acquainted with a lot of other writers. I need to find a couple of other writers. And I need to get to know them well.

I am an introvert. I do not like crowds and noise. I like being quiet. I like the company of one other person. I like to do things on my own.

Traditionally writers have been seen as introverts. Writers used to be sensitive and solitary. I am aware that this is becoming a less fashionable view. Writers are entrepreneurial now.

I am not motivated by money. I think that seeing writing as a business degrades the concept.

As it happens, I am not motivated by prestige either. I think I am quite fortunate. The idea of literature, to me, is simply snobbish.

I do not want feedback. I do not want comments on unfinished manuscripts. I do not want helpful tips on technique and style. I am conservative. I do not show anybody what I am doing until it is done.

I want to find contemporary writing that I like. That is quite hard. There are far too many writers and far too many books. The literary publications and the literary pages, in print and online, do not help. They are doing PR for the industry.

It is easy to find good books on the backlist. There is a great deal of information on the internet. There are a great many second-hand dealers online. It is very easy to be an independent reader.

I do not expect to find good books on the lists of regular publishers. Self-publishers are motivated mostly by money and occasionally by prestige. They would not know a good book if they found one. They would certainly not publish it.

There are quite possibly self-publishers producing good books. I am a self-publisher. I produce good books. We are swamped by the mountains of crap that the other self-publishers turn out. Self-published books are slightly worse than regularly published books, which are already quite bad enough.

I want to meet writers who write books that I want to read.

I am looking for authenticity. I accept that is a term which is difficult to define. I also accept that it is difficult to make a claim for authenticity. Nevertheless I want it.

I want writers who are capable of tackling the horrors of the twenty-first century. I want writers who can deal with the inevitability that civilisation will collapse.

I want writers who have found their own form and their own style, and do not need a mentor. I want writers who are no more motivated by money and prestige than I am.

I want to discuss aesthetics. I want to talk about the world.

 

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Ash

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, amongst other things, a post-apocalyptic novel. The holocaust has already happened. It is referred to in a flashback. ‘The clock stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.’ We never learn exactly what caused the disaster. All government and all communication have ceased. There is no-one left to communicate explanations. There does not even appear to be anyone to figure out what the explanations might be.

From other flashbacks and from the state of the world we learn what happened after the holocaust. The world burned. The trees burned.

The earth is covered with ash. Ash clogs the rivers and hides the sun. The air is laden with ash. It is difficult to breathe and often impossible to see. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His head rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked towards the east for any light but there was none.’

Nothing resembling civilisation survives. There are one or two references to communes. There is no community. ‘The country was stripped and plundered years ago and they found nothing in the houses and the buildings by the roadside.’

There are two protagonists, a man and a boy. They are father and son. They do not have names. They are just ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’. This creates a certain universality.

The man is coughing. He is going to die. ‘… he crawled coughing and he coughed for a long time.’ Sometimes he coughs blood. The man carries on until the end.

The boy’s mother has committed suicide. ‘We’re not survivors,’ she says. ‘We’re the walking dead in a horror movie.’

The boy was born after the holocaust. ‘A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing.’

The boy has known no other world. ‘…to the boy [the man] was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed.’

When he boy sees himself reflected in the glass of a window the thinks it is another little boy. ‘A face was looking at him. A boy, about his age, wrapped in an outsize wool coat with the sleeves turned back.’

In the burned world there is nothing living except a few humans. There are fewer humans now than there were. ‘In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing.’

All the plants have been either burned or choked by ash. There is nothing for the birds and animals to live on. They have disappeared. ‘Do you think there might be crows somewhere?’ The world is dead.

Some of the humans scavenge. They depend on finding canned goods. ‘He sorted through the cans and went back [to the boy] and they sat by the fire and ate the last of their crackers and a tin of sausage.’

The rest have resorted to cannibalism. The cannibals are violent and cruel. ‘Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous…. Help us, they whispered. Please help.

The cannibals are also frightening. ‘They came shuffling through the ash casting their hooded heads from side to side. Some of them wearing canister masks. One in a biohazard suit. Stained and filthy. Slouching along with clubs in their hands, lengths of pipe…. Quick, he whispered. Quick…. The boy was frozen with fear. We have to run.’

Some of the cannibals have elaborated a social organisation. They are not just gangs. ‘He woke… in time to see the marchers appear four abreast. …all wearing red scarves at their necks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances…. Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves… and after that the women… and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites….’

After the holocaust there was something perhaps worse. The man remembers. ‘Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. The screams of the murdered. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road.’

The homicidal madness seems to be exhausted. ‘No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the blood cults must have all consumed one another.’ All that is left now is an urge to survive that has lost all the humanity that might make sense of the need.

The man and the boy are travelling. The man pushes their few possessions in a grocery cart. ‘They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.’

The world is not safe. They must assume that any other human beings are either cannibals or thieves. They must always take precautions. ‘This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road.’

It is not clear what they are moving for. This is not a world where anything seems to be of much value. It is ‘barren, silent, godless.’ There is a simple, binary ethical distinction. ‘They’re going to kill those people, aren’t they? There going to eat them, aren’t they? And we couldnt help them because they’d eat us too. We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?  Even if we were starving? Because we’re the good guys.’

It is, I think, though the point is not made explicitly, something close to a vision of hell.

In a New York Review of Books article, the author Michael Chabon described the novel as ‘a lyrical epic of horror’. Leaving aside the slightly dubious claim about a book, particularly a prose work, being simultaneously an epic and a lyric, I think Chabon is wrong.

Horror, as a genre, has something of the Gothic about it. It requires an element of the supernatural. Horror, as a feeling, is a reaction to an experience which violates deeply-held norms so completely that it is psychologically difficult, to the point of impossibility, to accept that what is happening is real. The focus of horror in the world of The Road is the cannibalism. Yet in the world of The Road, the cannibalism is real. The people doing it are – or once were – human.

Chabon also claims that ‘the adventure story in both its modern and epic forms… structures the narrative’. This is also I think not true. Action, in the adventure story, derives from the interaction of the personality of the protagonists – the hero, in particular – and the events to which the hero is exposed. The outcome is the mastery of events through the actions of the hero. There is a logic to it.

In The Road, there is no logic. Events are random. The man and the boy encounter marauders. Sometimes they shoot. Usually they run. Always they hide. The outcome of one chance encounter has no influence on the nature of the next. They manage to escape. They find somewhere temporarily safe. They master nothing. They just keep running.

The man and the boy search the buildings that are not too far from the road. Usually they find nothing. Sometimes they come upon a cache of canned food.’ Crate upon crate of canned goods.’ This is equally random.

The personality of the protagonists has little influence on events. It is not quite clear that the man has a personality any more. His interiority is restricted.

He dreams, more often than he would wish. ‘In his dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white.’

He is suspicious of such dreams. ‘He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death.’

He remembers. ‘He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music.’ He appears to have no other subjective life.

The man is practical. It is not clear whether he was always practical or whether he has become so since the catastrophe. There is simply no point in character analysis of that literary sort in a world that has been burned.

Like Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, the protagonists of the novels of the quintessentially protestant petty-bourgeois Daniel Defoe, the man constantly reviews his stock of goods. ‘He sat in the sand and inventoried the contents of the knapsack. The binoculars. A half pint bottle of gasoline almost full. The bottle of water. A pair of pliers. Two spoons. He set everything out in a row. There were five small tins of food and he chose a tin of sausages and one of corn and he opened these with the little army can opener and set them at the edge of the fore and they sat watching the labels char and curl.’ Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe were also survivors.

The man is practical. The shifts he makes to survive are frequent and described in great detail. ‘He checked the valve on the tank that it was turned off and swung the little stove around on the footlocker and sat and went to work dismantling it. He unscrewed the bottom panel and he removed the burner assembly and disconnected the two burners with a small crescent wrench.’ Practicality is often a characteristic of the protagonists of post-apocalyptic stories. The protagonists of Walter Miller’s stories Dumb Waiter and Dark Benediction are practical to a degree.

The novel is narrated consistently from the point of view of the man. The boy creates interiority by silence. ‘So when are you going to talk to me again? I’m talking now. Are you sure?’

The boy has two other personality traits. He is ferociously attached to his father. ‘Take me with you, the boy said. He looked as if he was going to cry. No. I want you to wait here. Please, Papa.’

The boy also gets upset when they are unable to help someone they encounter. ‘There’s nothing we could have done. [The boy] didn’t answer. He’s going to die. We can’t share what we have or we’ll die too. I know.’

In the same way that personality has been reduced to the minimum, emotion is also restricted. The vocabulary of feeling is reduced to one word. ‘The boy was very scared.’ The only other emotion is occasional anger. We can tell when the man has been angry because when has been impatient with the boy he apologises. ‘The boy didn’t answer. [The man] was close to losing his temper with him and then he realised he was shaking head in the dark. Okay, he said. Okay.’

Apart from fear and anger the world of ash and night is numb. It is traumatised. It is not post-traumatic, despite the need for hyper-vigilance. The trauma has not ended. It seems unlikely that it will ever end.

Like personality and emotion, language is restricted. What appear to be sentences – they have initial capitals and are provided with a full stop, a period, at the end – are often not sentences at all. They lack main verbs. ‘The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of colour. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke.’

Sometimes there are participial phrases. They have, as the term implies, a participle. They lack the auxiliary verb that is needed – though the phrase can be understood without it – to make it grammatically complete. ‘Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop.’

There are nominal clauses. ‘He studied what he could see.’ They look deceptively like a relative.

There are compound sentences. The connections between the clauses are made by conjunctions. ‘He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again.’

Where there are relative clauses they are not used to express relationships between concepts. They make precise statements about location and place. ‘The shore was lined with birch trees that stood bare pale against the dark of the evergreens beyond.’

This is technically ‘parataxis’. It is language without syntax. Relationships of hierarchy and subordination have gone. Statements are simply juxtaposed.

Parataxis is more typical of speech than writing. Writing, in The Road, consists of old newspapers and a few rain-sodden books.

Parataxis has a primitive quality. That is appropriate. This is a primitive world. The only appropriate feelings here are the primitive feelings. Most behaviours are primitive too. They concern survival.

Abstract, Latinate words – the language of formal writing – have also largely disappeared. Where Latinate terms occur they are words such as ‘glaucoma’ that describe tangible things and have entered colloquial speech.

‘At evening a dull sulphur light from the flames. The standing water in the roadside ditches black with the runoff. The mountains shrouded away. They crossed a river by a concrete bridge where skeins of ash and slurry moved slowly in the current. Charred bits of wood.’

The Latinate terms here are ‘sulphur’, ‘mountains’ and ‘concrete’. The words that convey the meaning are ‘dull’, ‘black’, ‘shroud’, ‘skein’, ‘ash’, ‘slurry’ and ‘charred’. They are Anglo-Saxon words. They are suggestive, deathly, and menacing.

There is one question that inescapably arises. Why carry on?

The man’s over-riding motivation is his attachment to boy. ‘My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you.’ The attachment is passionate and spiritual. ‘He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

At other times the references to God are more ambivalent. ‘Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? O God, he whispered. Oh God.’

The wife of the man who finds the boy at the end seems to believe in God. [She]… would talk to him sometimes about God.’ For the boy this is difficult. ‘He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father….’

It does not appear to be religion that motivates the man to carry on. It is something perhaps more primitive; it is survival. ‘This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.’

It is not clear that there is a purpose to survival. At one point the boy asks his father, ‘What are our long term goals?’ He startles the man with the sophistication of his language. He startles him also, perhaps, with the content of the question.

There is no answer. They carry on until they can go no further and do no more.

The Road is an allegory. It is not, I think, an adventure story as such or a horror story in the usual sense. It certainly is a post-apocalyptic story, but at the same time it is more than that. It is in fact a rather complex allegory.

There is an endless journey. There are random dangers. There is a need for constant vigilance. There are occasional windfalls. Without the windfalls they would not survive.

This is an allegory of life. This is how, for something like 120,000 years, homo sapiens sapiens survived.

The man cares. The boy learns to care from him.

This is an allegory of humanity. One of the things that human beings do that makes us different from the other primates is that we care.

The man finds food. He takes care of the boy. When necessary, he kills.

The man protects and provides. This is an allegory of love.

The man and the boy carry on. They carry on in a ruined world when there is nothing to live for any more. This is an allegory of trauma and survival.

I am sure of the literary value of this novel. It is consistent, vivid, plausible and fully imagined.

I am less sure of the philosophical value. I am bothered by the nihilism. I understand that human beings are cruel, and capable of regression. McCarthy’s imagined world, however, is so self-contained – so complete – that I do not know how to map his dark vision onto the world I am more familiar with.

I need to create a context. I can only do that by reading some more of McCarthy’s books.

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

Money and self-publishing

Financial advice for self-publishers

The only writer on self-publishing who gives financial advice is Mark Coker, the CEO of Smashwords. It’s in Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success, which is available on Smashwords or from Amazon. It’s free.

There is plenty of good advice on marketing. The advice on publishing is sometimes contradictory, but it’s there. You can work it out.

What’s missing is basic, sound advice on finance and business. In this article I am going to cover some of the basics that everybody – self-publisher or not – needs to know when they set up their own business.

I am also going to point out some of the problems with the standard business advice that self-publishers are being given – particularly over editing and cover design.

Self-publishing is a business

Writing, to many people, is a serious, spare-time leisure activity. However much you dream of success, it isn’t the way you make a living. It’s a hobby.

When, these days, you finish the book, you probably think about self-publishing. That can feel like a hobby as well.

Beware the Inland Revenue

HMRC – Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – don’t agree. If you are offering goods or services for sale you are trading.

The same applies, for example, to selling goods on Ebay or renting out a spare room. It’s a business.

If you are running a business you are required by law to do two things that involve HMRC.

Register for Tax

You are required to register your business with HMRC, even though you are almost certainly already paying PAYE. You can do this online.

The best option for most self-publishers is to register as a sole trader. This simply means you are in business for yourself, and you are not in a partnership or involved with a company.

You will need to get a Government Gateway password. At the end of the process you will get a unique taxpayer ID.

Your unique taxpayer ID enables you to register with the United States Internal Revenue Service on Smashwords to avoid having 30% of your US earnings withheld against tax. You can complete the same declaration on Amazon using your NI number.

Completing a Tax Return

You will need to complete a tax return even if you don’t make a profit. This may seem illogical. It’s the law.

Self-publishing, as a business, is pretty simple. Completing a tax return as a self-publisher is correspondingly simple. It helps if you have a basic idea of book-keeping.

You have at least one other important legal obligation.

Keeping Accurate Financial Records

The law obliges you to keep accurate financial records for your business. This means you must record every separate sum of money received, and every single payment that you make.

What none of the self-publishing manuals tells you to do is something very elementary. You should identify your overhead costs.

Overheads

The direct costs of a business are the costs of manufacturing and distribution. All the other costs are overheads.

The inescapable overheads of running a small business are things like postage, phone, stationery and computer costs. If you feel you need to identify your business telephone costs you will probably have to buy a separate phone. They are pretty cheap.

If you are writing non-fiction you are very likely to have research costs. This may be travel, or it might be buying books or magazines.

A self-publisher will have some publishing costs. Unless you choose to publish Print on Demand paperbacks they will be minimal.

If you publish paperbacks you will need ISBNs. Services such as CreateSpace will sell you single ISBNs. It will be their prefix. If you want to buy your own a block of ten numbers (these are UK prices) costs £149.

Business Accounts

It’s not a legal requirement, but pretty much everybody will tell you to get a separate business account. You will find if you do that, keeping track is much simpler – and if you don’t, it’s very easy to get in a complete mess.

Book-keeping

Book-keeping is easy. You don’t have to do double-entry.

You don’t need to hurt your head with such things as accruals. You don’t need to distinguish between cash flow and profit and loss.

All you need is a cashbook.

You don’t need to buy printed stationery from Rymans. You can do everything you need in an Excel spreadsheet.

If you have not done book-keeping before you will probably need to buy something on Amazon. The problem is that even the simplest recommendations are more complex than self-publishers probably need.

If you like you can try something like this.

Date Payee Item Income Total Stationery Computer Publishing
B/forward 56.27 457.93 140.18 177.71 150.35
1/1/2017 Rymans Paper 4.99 4.99
8/1/2017 Hosting 1&1 3.59 3.59
15/1/2017 Nielsen ISBNs 149.00 149.00
22/1/2017 Sale 8.99 J. Doe
This month 8.99 157.58 4.99 3.59 149.00
C/forward 65.26 615.51 145.17 181.30 299.35

Note that you have in effect two totals at the bottom of the sheet.

‘This month’ excludes the ‘Brought forward’ total from the previous month. ‘Carried forward’ is ‘Brought forward’ plus ‘This month’.

You can add columns for post, phone, research, advertising and so forth.

You may want to add a column for ‘Capital’ to the left of income to record the money you put in. This is unorthodox but it will work.

At the end of the financial year you set up a sheet with the same column headings and a row for each month.

The totals will enable you to complete your tax return for the HMRC.

Your total expenses minus total income is your profit or loss for the year.

It really is quite easy!

Budget

Self-publishing is a slightly misleading term. It covers a number of approaches which are related but not identical.

What all the approaches have in common is ownership and risk. The writer retains copyright. The book is published under the author’s name, or the name of an imprint that the author has registered.

The writer of a self-published book finances publication, retains any profit and has to finance any loss.

The difference is who does the work.

Artisan self-publishing

There is a group of authors who like to do everything themselves. They format their eBook files, lay out the pages for their print on demand paperbacks and – despite the propaganda – create their own covers.

They need time, which not everybody has. They will need to learn new skills.

Time, of course, has a cost. If you have to pay the rent and feed the kids you might be advised to work out the ‘opportunity cost’ of self-publishing: how much would you have earned if you worked the same hours in your usual trade?

If you do everything yourself your only costs are your overheads. Print on demand books and eBooks are free to produce. That is a quite extraordinary fact which has transformed the economics of publishing.

It is quite easy for an artisan publisher to publish a book in both electronic and PoD editions for £300-£400. If you are careful and cut corners you can do it for £200-£300.

Managing self-publishers

There are another group of authors who like to get things done by working with other people. They are – though they may not realise it – managers by temperament.

What I am calling ‘managing self-publishers’ are often known as ‘author entrepreneurs’ or simply ‘independent authors’. This approach won’t work financially unless you are writing for the market.

Managing self-publishers will typically hire a designer and an editor. This is a completely different level of cost.

Writers who adopt this strategy are competing in the marketplace with trade publishers.

Costs for entrepreneurs

Ed Peppitt in How to Self Publish: A Guardian Masterclass gives the following costs.

Editing: £350-£1,250

Proof-reading: £250

Design: £50-£750

Mr Peppitt doesn’t give a figure for overheads, but I think we should: say£300.

The low-end cost of producing a book by this method would be £950. The high-end estimate is £2,550. It’s a considerable difference.

The costs given by Joanna Penn in Successful Self-Publishing for editing, formatting and design are $400 at low end and $2,500 at the high end. At the post-Brexit rate of exchange that gives £325 to £2,025; with overheads, £625 to £2,325.

The difference between the high-end figures are not an order of magnitude. I am going to use Mr Peppitt’s figures, as they are British and more recent.

Sales and prices

Mr Peppitt suggests that most self-published authors will sell less than 300 copies. I have heard other figures, but for the sake of argument I will go with Mr Peppitt’s.

The ‘sweet spot’ for eBook pricing is probably £1.99 or £2.99. I am going to disregard Print on Demand sales.

If you publish with KDP and sell 300 copies at £2.99 you will receive 70% of the net, or £627.90. If you keep your publication costs to the low end of Mr Peppit’s estimate, you will lose £322.10; at the high end, £1,922.10.

If you sell 300 copies at £1.99 – a price you presumably chose to encourage sales – you will make only 35%: £208.95. If you keep your costs right down you will lose £741.05.

Budding entrepreneurs are fairly unlikely to make a profit on their first book. Hobbyists, however, may make a few hundred pounds.

Sound advice

Mark Coker points out some basics. ‘Now, a reality check: Just as most new businesses fail; most authors will fail to become commercial successes because most books don’t sell well …your book is unlikely to sell as well as you expect, or as quickly as you expect, or as well as you think it deserves… It’s difficult to control or predict consumer behaviour.’

Most new business fail in the eighteen months after the first twelve months. They fail when the owner’s savings run out. They don’t fail because the owner doesn’t understand their trade. They fail because they get the finance and the marketing wrong.

Mr Coker’s most important piece of advice is I think this. Wait for the cash to come in before you start spending it. Print on Demand books and eBooks are very easy to upgrade.

Honesty

Intending self-publishers need to be honest with themselves. They need to predict their costs as carefully as possible.

They need to make assumptions about sales.  One assumption should be that there will be no sales. Your sales projection will then tell you what you will lose in the worst case.

If the worst case is what happens, how are you going to finance the loss?

There’s an even more fundamental question that may be difficult to answer at the beginning. The further you go the more important it becomes.

Are you self-publishing to make money? Or are you doing it for some other reason?

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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.

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.

Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida via Visualhunt.com / No known copyright restrictions