Saturday 30 November 2013

Reading Narrative Fiction, Identity and the Humane Society

On our Room To Write Sister Blog I have  posted a report  (Erasing the Chasm Between the Bench and the Dock:  An Experience in Boston, USAon the visit made by Avril and me to Boston to explore the Changing Lives Through Literature project masterminded by Professor Bob Waxler.  

Now, the presiding genius of that project -  Professor Bob Waxler of the University of Massachusetts - brings us his new book which goes even further in helping us in the wider society to understand the significance  of reading in our present day reductive, impersonalised  culture,
Waxler 100w
Robert P Waxler of
 University of Massachuset

Bob's new book The Risk of Reading (Great title!) defends  the idea that deep and close readings of literature can help us  understand ourselves and the world around us. It explores some of the meaning and implications of modern life through the deep reading of significant books.

He  argues that we need "fiction" to give our so-called "real life" meaning and that reading narrative fiction remains crucial to the making of a humane and democratic society.

Beginning by exploring the implications of thinking about the importance of story in terms of "real life", The Risk of Reading focuses on the importance of human language, especially language shaped into narrative, and how that language is central to the human quest for identity.

Bob argues that we are "linguistic beings," and that reading literary narrative is a significant way to enrich and preserve the traditional sense of human identity and knowledge. This is especially true in the midst of a culture which too often celebrates visual images, spectacle, electronic devices, and celebrity.

Reading narrative fiction, in other words, should be considered a counter-cultural activity crucial on the quest to "know thyself." 

Bob Waxler asserts that reading literature is one of the best opportunities we have today to maintain a coherent human identity and remain self-reflective individuals in a world that seems particularly chaotic and confusing. 

This book promises to be a great contribution to the debate on the role of narrative fiction in modern society.

Very highly recommended.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Createspace and Orphans in the Social Media Storm

My recent sceptical post (scroll back two posts) about the use of social media in selling and promoting your fiction has drawn quite a lot of attention. Some people thought I rather had my head in the sand; others applauded my desire to keep the fun in these processes, reflecting my determination that writing has to be a joy in itself and anything that takes away from this joy is a negative for a creative writer.

And then I attended a talk in London by Richard Foreman of the excellent  Endeavour Press.  He is clearly very positive about the function of social media in the selling process for fiction and sees it as important in the present and the future for writers. His rational, pragmatic approach to the whole thing made me think again. He had evidence of successfully selling novels through Endeavour. I would trust Endeavour with my work.

Richard certainly made me think again about the whole thing. An open mind has to be one way to make progress in this approach to selling and promotion.

So, home from London with my mind wide open I clicked into my Amazon account to see what I could do for the five independently published novels on Amazon. These novels trickle out consistently without making any big splash. Suddenly these favourites seem like orphans in the storm who need some care to flourish.

And then, with my independent publisher shades on, I sat down to think of what I can do for these five orphans of mine, and came out with these intention: 

I will take my orphans and dress them in new clothes. My version of this is to revise them again, re-jacket and re-issue them. Make them into sharp children.

Then I will republish them independently as Kindles and Hardback using the excellent Createspace processes. (I had already done this recently with my novel Paulie’s Web – already on Kindle but now launched in paperback.)

I am now working on my novel Cruelty Games. Here is the new cover (much better now designed with the Createspace Cover Creator) and I am halfway through the re-edit and revision of the text. Four more to go...

At the end of this,  with the new versions all in place on my Amazon list I will work on the Kindles publications, following Richard Foreman’s excellent advice:

I will ensure the prices are all very keen. I now understand at last that the level of pricing is important, particularly so  as it now rivals the second hand price of my novels. The fact is that interested readers can buy my full length novels second hand for as little as a penny, plus Amazon postage. (One part of me is still happy that people are evidently still reading my novels.) I see there are some first collectors editions out there for rather more than a penny, of course...

One by one I will go through my Amazon novels and apply the Amazon Special Offer  and Free Day process,

I will keep an eye on the Amazon Rankings, to which I have never before attended, as it seemed an impossible dream to be up there. But now, when I apply these processes to each book this will check out whether my actions have had any impact  on the rankings.

I will try to let people know about my progress using my social media, although I will feel impelled to avoid the in-your-face sell that put me off in the first place - that is before I heard Richard Foreman’s wise words.

Of course all this might come to nothing in terms of getting my orphans out there into the world and giving them a good chance in life. But at least I won’t be sitting there on the sidelines wringing my hands and saying if only I could give my babes a real chance in the world.

After Cruelty Games I will work on A Woman Scorned, then Where Hope Lives  then Lizza, then a fresh one called The Real Life of Studs McGuire. It's not at all like writing. It's a  bit more  like embroidery. It fills in the dark nights of winter and you end up with something beautiful. And your orphans are well clad,

I will report back on this process from time to time here on the blog. I thought it might interest other writers who have their own orphaned novel that they wish to nurture and send out into the world,

Thursday 14 November 2013

Skating, Stanley Spencer and Perceptions of Heaven and Hell

The Christmas tree lights were twinkling and the skaters were already skating at Somerset House when Gillian and I arrived to take a look at the surreal, intricate canvases created by Stanley Spencer for Sandham
Sandham Memorial Chapel
Memorial Chapel to honour the dead.

Inspired by his experience on the Salonica Front and here as a hospital worker caring for the wounded in an asylum used as a hospital, the paintings chart Spencer’s inner and an outer journey mapping the experience of soldiers under fire and in the asylum where the wounded may make their journey of recovery.

I recommend to you the Somerset House Website which gives a good account of this exhibition.  

 As for me I tried to make sense of the profound experience of Spencer’s indosyncratic vision as I sat drinking coffe and  underlining phrases that jumped out at me from the modest clearly written introduction to the exhibition.

Putting these phrases together now I seem to have a ‘found poem’ which more clearly expresses my impression of the exhibition than some immodest critique.

In the exhibition, entitled The Heaven and Hell of War, Spencer’s paintings treat  us to images from the Macedonian Front and a home-front camp and Asylum where the wounded and the mentally ill live  separately but side by side. This seems to me to be a tidy comment on the confusion and pain of war. The underlying meaning of the paintings can apply equally to the soldiers and the insane.

So, with apologies, my ‘found poem’ inspired by Stanley Spencer:
Routine chores.

Tweseldown, the camp near Farnham
The hospital serve a  dual purpose during this war
A bus forces its way through rhododendron bushes and
a newly arrived convoy of soldiers settles in a bleak courtyard
The keys connect the painting to its location

Soldiers struggle to flatten out blankets. They live
repetitive insular lives. This one obsessively scrubs the floor,
sorting through blankets and spotted red handkerchiefs
dreaming of respite from unwelcome chores
painting Iodine onto a wound and
painting different materials and surfaces

The lives of mental patients -
they were all padlocked
Young Stanley. Self Portrait
A small figure - someone filling
urns with tea for one of the asylum wards -
in two different worlds.

A scene on the Macedonian front:

‘Stand to Order!’ The officer is camouflaged
with fern fronds. Piles of barbed wired appear
like black thunder clouds,

The resurrection of the soldiers -
each cross serving as an object of devotion
In a mesh of white crosses,
a soldier emerges from a grave
a cross serving to frame
his bewildered face

Saturday 9 November 2013

The Myth of Social Media Selling Novels for Writers

With other writers I was recently asked by Debbie Taylor  of the excellent Mslexia Magazine to fill in a questionnaire about the role of social media in my professional writing life. This made me think more deeply than usual about this issue. Social media have a kind of role in my professional life. I am occasionally on Twitter and Facebook and I do write this blog.

I do know writers who communicate very successfully and with great bezazz on Twitter and Facebook. They write about cooking, gardening, politics, people and all kinds of fun and frolics. They turn a charming and interesting face to an interested cyber world. One friend has built up a following of 40,000 readers by writing warmly and wittily about just this kind of thing. Through her I have learned that writing well in a hundred and forty characters is an art in itself.

But when we come to professional fiction writers  the whole thing is rather more complicated. Many fluid and witty Twitterers and Facebookers clearly do it for sheer fun and delight. They possess 140 character magic. The witty novelist Marian Keyes has the magic and is a joy to follow  just for the anarchic, creative fun of it all.

But the fun seems to have flown out of the window for some writers who are seduced by the growing myth that social media will sell your books. Some aspiring writers do their duty and enter the field like busy bees saying, in one way or another, read my book! buy my book! At first I thought this point of view was valid and I do sympathise with this strategy in a world where publishers invest less and less in promoting and marketing their not-already-famous writers. And - wonderfully - writers themselves are taking up the torch and going down the independent publishing route. Social media must seem like a gift.

The problem is that while I sympathise with the social-media-sells mantra, I have yet to see audits, evaluations or statistics that prove the success of this process for novelists, poets or short story writers in terms of sales. The already best-selling and wonderfully twitterer Marian Keyes hardly needs any cyber-boost.

Perhaps the Mslexia survey will begin to fill that gap?

It seems to me that a degree of success can be traced in terms of  the selling-success of writers who blog and twitter about their publications, which are based on a business model about how to succeed (‘in ten easy steps!’) by using social media to promote your book, or promote your business.

They use their own success in writing on this theme to assert it can succeed for you, the creative writer. I’ve bought some of their publications myself with the idea that they might provide one  answer for the fading fiction market. In reading them I see they all have the same message -  that if you follow their rules you can uses social media to sell your creative work. It clearly does sell their own book-products  but as far as I can tell only provides yet another arena for anxiety and failure for the harassed unpublished or newly- published original writer.

But I have to say that for me the use of social media works on a peculiarly idiosyncratic level. The way in which is works for me – as you will see from this post – is that it is an avenue for fun and a feeling of satisfaction. 

I post all kinds of stuff on here on Life Twice Tasted:  

  • scraps of work in progress, or not progressing
  •  emerging ideas about the writing and editing process 
  •  stories about my novels and books as they emerge 
  • reflections on novels I have written in my time
  • the vagaries of the publishing world (although I try not to whine - so bo-oring!);
  • the vivid and growing adventure of independent publishing 
  • reflections on books and authors I admire and who inspire me
  • idiosyncratic elements of grammar and syntax
  • episodes from my (rather long) life 
I find now that in doing all this I happen to be creating a kind of archive of my writing, and my writer's life. And this  inspires a vague and tentative hope that here at Life Twice Tasted I am able to share some fragments of my writer-self that a wide range of writers and readers may find interesting.

And although - as you see here -  I have designed Life Twice Tasted to be a kind of showcase for all my novels and it enjoys an average of five thousand page-views a month, I have no idea whatsoever whether or not this blog increases my book sales in any way that is not merely incidental. My book and Kindle sales do go up incrementally but they might have done this anyway. And now many of my books are on the second-hand carousel of Amazon and other on-line sites. How would I know how many of them are re-sold in this way? I am delighting at the thought of these novels having a second reading - a second life -  although there is no profit to me.

I can hear business-model gurus groaning at my un-business-like approach, I disobey other rules as well. We are told to write short snappy posts – kind of bite-size pieces for those of short appetite and attention span. Well, as you see here, my posts are longish and essay-ish and don’t underestimate the intelligence of many of my readers. (If you have read this far you are one of them…) Also my posts - though they frequently focus on the writing process -  cover a wide range of themes. Apparently that’s another taboo.

But, even though I don’t have the 140 character magic (mentioned above) I do go on Twitter and Facebook as well -  posting occasional casual and quirky elements from my daily life, I will also mention it  if I have a book out or a book launch in view. I will also post there the theme of the current post on my blog. If Twitter folk  are interested they might click through to take a look at Life Twice Tasted. If not they will click on to other possibly more enticing things. Fair enough.

So, if it’s not about selling books, what is a writer’s blog about? Whatever happens, the medium must be the message. A writer’s blog should be well written and interesting in itself – seriously interesting, seriously funny and seriously original. If - by the by -it sells a few books, in tens, hundreds or thousands, that for me is just a bi-product.

So for me writing posts for the blog is an end and a pleasure in itself and it must stay that way. Once it becomes a means to the end of spurious fame and fortune then it becomes tatty as an over-used apron. I think the notion that exploiting social media to achieved worldly success for creative writers is at best wishful thinking, at worst a damaging myth.

Definitely a work in progress...

I am not being disingenuous when I say that truly, I love writing on Life Twice Tasted for its very own sake. For me the blog is a living, growing thing, like a forest that becomes more intricate in time. Like the thousands of less-than-famous essayists of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries I write my pieces for for personal satisfaction and very small reward.

For me it is a respectable, if not profitable, occupation … 

in addition to writing the novels, of course.

And here are some very different blogs that demonstrate the qualities I admire 

The writing-wise wise and wonderful Writing Junkie 
The wittily toothsome Licked Spoon /
The lyrical gardener and cat lover Pablo's Friend 
The wise, witty and humane 60 Going on 16 

Thursday 7 November 2013

Sexual and Emotional Freedom in the Blitz

The spurious intimacy
of the underground bomb shelter
Last night I had the pleasure of  watching  the tousle haired James Runcie presenting on The Culture Show discussing the invigorating creative effect of the experience of the London Blitz during World War Two, on upper middle class writers who used the profound experience to inspire great novels.

Alongside Grahame Greene (The End of the Affair), writers Elizabeth Bowen (In the Heat of the Day), Henry Green - Real name Yorke - (Caught), Rose Macaulay (Towers of Trebizond) all used the insights offered by surviving in London under severe bombing while 'doing their bit' as fire wardens and fire fighters. During this time they actually lived and worked shoulder to shoulder with a class of people who had been invisible to them in the pre-war security of their upper class literary lives.

With wives and partners safely in the country,  life in the Blitz offered sexual and emotional freedom,  where there seemed no accountability other than writing, packing in as much life as possible in  today, and surviving until tomorrow

The terror, passion and immediacy of the Blitz, (which Rose Macaulay referred to as 'a sample of total war')  was compared by Henry Yorke (in the mind of one of his characters): 'War, she thought, was sex.'

I was interested to note that the programme leaned heavily on an excellent book by Lara Feigal  called The Love Charm of Bombs I really enjoyed reading   this well-researched 500 page book, (I had read it earlier this year; it had  been given to me as a Christmas present). So I was very pleased to see Feigal on the programme and also in the credits as consultant.

 I found the programme quite compelling. But if you want to empathise with the anarchic feelings and the literary and sexual acuity of those times I would recommend making some time to read the book.

On the back of her book Feigal aptly quotes Grahame Greene: The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakeable engine ("Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?"), the bomb-bursts move nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love charm.'  

And now I have to declare an interest here, on two counts.
First, I have been told that I was conceived during the massive November blitz of the city of Coventry. Secondly I wrote a novel built around my parents' experience of that Blitz. Of course, being of the invisible class (see above), they were not acquainted in their provincial city with  upper-middle-class writers 'doing their bit' for their country while they enjoyed the anarchic freedom of 'total war'.

When you think  about it though,  my mother and father made love in the Blitz and at the same time made a writer for the next generation.

My own novel emerging from all this is
called Land of Your Possession. You can see it here on my sidebar...


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