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 meetup.com. A lot of meetup.com 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 meetup.com 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.

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