Dan Holloway: Where Are You Going To

It’s funny how changes creep up on you until one day you sit down and have a think and go “whoa there, steady on, lad”. July was one of those months for me. It was fantastic, but also a little scary, and a timely reminder that it’s good to sit down regularly and take stock. To take a look where you were last year, and what you said you wanted last year. And how far you’ve moved in respect to both.

Writing is like music in many ways, and the writing business like the music business in many more. But one of the most pertinent similarities is the way you start out scratching and scraping to play first on at your local pub, and you keep scratching and keep scraping only one day you realise you’ve actually been approached by three bands in a row now who really wanted you to come and support them next time they have a pub gig. And (you hope) so on.

Progress in writing, as in music, can be so imperceptibly slow that it’s only when you look back year on year – or further – you realise how far you’ve come. Day to day it feels as though I’m doing the same now as I’ve been doing for the past three and a half years, since I made the decision at the start of 2008 to do something with my as-was newly-finished manuscript for The Company of Fellows other than leave it in my bottom drawer. Day job aside, I write, I do blog posts, I tell people about other writers I love, I try to get people along to hear great writers (and sometimes me) read.

(that's me at Blackwell's with l-r Rachel Genn, Naomi Wood, John Butler, store manager Euan Hirst, and Lee Rourke)

The grind feels the same. It *is* the same. But the other day I had one of those slightly vertiginous moments and realised maybe I’d moved on from scarping and scratching. Take readings: Back in June I organised a show at my first ever literary festival; at the end of July I was on a panel of pukka writers at Blackwell’s; next month I’m on a festival panel talking about publishing with Luke Brown from Tindal St. And promoting other writers: I run a tiny alternative press (eight cuts gallery press) publishing three of the most incredible pieces of contemporary literature, and within a fortnight one of them, Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom, was called in by the Guardian First Book Award judges and another, Cody James’ The Dead Beat, was the talking point of Not the Booker Prize. Even my own work was being read by more people than last year – a few weeks ago The Company of Fellows sold its 5000th e-copy.

All of this is a little scary, but fantastic. And proof positive that nothing is quite so sure-fire as plugging away at it. And a little bit of a brass neck. Almost everything that’s happened to me that could be counted a break has happened because I stuck my hand up. Or sent someone an e-mail. Or generally, but in the politest possible way, ignored the barriers that allegedly exist.
But. And here’s the other thing. Movement is one thing. And it’s very tempting to get excited by it. This time last year I’d sold fewer than 100 books and readings were a favour from the lovely guy who runs the local bookstore. But, just like it says in those mortgage ads, movement can be away from your goal as well as towards it. And when movement involves what some people would call “progress” that’s the time when that can be most true but you’re least likely to see it.
Which is why – unlike a lot of bands with their entourages, and even a lot of writers with their well-meaning family and friends – it pays always to keep reminding yourself why it is you’re doing this thing, and measuring your movement against that goal (or at the very least being aware that your goal has changed, rather than watching it slowly slip beneath the horizon).

Some of the things that have happened this past month have taken me quantum leaps towards wgere I want to be - none more so than when the Guardian First Book Award judges gave their verdict on Penny's The Zoom Zoom - “lively and original new voice in poetry“ and “a really energetic and raw collection of poetry and short prose”. But some have taken me further away. I love reading thrillers, but I am not a thriller writer. It's increasingly hard to convince the world of that, and to get back on the track of what I really really want to do - take literary weirdisms out of the shadows and present them to the world.

There are two messages in this. First, there’s no substitute for sticking at it and putting your hand up in the right places. And second, movement is all very well but it can as easily be away from your goal as towards it, so make sure you take stock regularly to check you're going in the right direction.


JO said…
Thanks for this, Dan. A timely reminder to hang in there. Tho yours are scary footsteps to try to follow - good luck with whatever comes next. You've earned your success.
Dan Holloway said…
Thanks Jo :) I don't know about scary but probably *deep* footsteps with 18 stone of bulk. I think the really important thing is that what seems like success might not be and we need not to be distracted by bright shiny lights and remember what it is we really wanted to do when we started out.
Sessha Batto said…
Goals are much like desires, best left behind ;) I prefer to walk the path as it is revealed, rather than try to anticipate the destination and forge my own way. I fear what I may miss in a single-minded rush to the goal. As for footsteps, I prefer to leave none, I wouldn't want to distract someone from their own path, after all!
Dan Holloway said…
Sessha, I think that's a very good approach, and how I tackle life in general (when you're as broke as we are you have to look forward not back and take things as they come). On the other hand, I realised recently I was being steered in a direction I really didn't like - there is so much I am passionate about at eight cuts, and that was in danger of getting lost entirely
Sessha Batto said…
It would be a true shame to lose the wonderful things you're doing at eightcuts! As for writing, I certainly wouldn't write anything I wasn't inspired by . . . but I don't worry too much about what form it takes (not that any of it is terribly commercial) ;) Look at it this way, if you enjoy writing thrillers, and it brings an audience to your other writing - win-win. If you don't enjoy writing them, then don't. As to whether you're a good thriller writer or not . . . as always, that one is in the hands of readers. We can not adequately judge work we are so emotionally bound with.
Emma Barnes said…
It's a good point you make. A few years back there were so few distractions: no blogs, no social media, and although it could be very depressing to be sitting in a room, at a desk, with nobody beating a path to the door, it did focus the mind on what one really wanted to write. Or so I found.

Now there's a myriad of opportunities and chances to "get busy" but sometimes it can be a distraction, and it's really important just to take stock.

Which I will do just after I've met my next blog deadline....
Dennis Hamley said…
Dan, you are very fortunate in having so many talents and interests - and chief among them the ability to see the potential in other people. I've known that from a life of teaching, especially now with students on the Oxford creative writing diploma, whose talnt amazes and humbles me. The point about diverse interests, it seems to me, is that they are all aspects of the same internal drive. You've got that and it won't lead you away from your goal, it will help you triumphantly to achieve it. You see if I'm not right!
Dan Holloway said…
Thank you, Dennis :) I just need to find those 25th, 26th & 27th hours in the day!

Emma, they weren't the distractions I wsa thinking of, but I do spend rather too much time on twitter! That said, it's only by hanging out on twitter I've been able to reach the position where I'm able to help my writers effectively.
@Ruby_Barnes said…
That's an interesting post, Dan. Nose to the grindstone is a good philosophy, with an occasional tea-break to check that the stone and the grain are the ones you want, as they can change.
Dan Holloway said…
To add a further update, The Dead Beat today reached the shortlist for Not the Booker Prize :)
Dan, you're so right when you say writing is getting like the music business. I was explaining to a musical friend what being an indie author was and he said 'like in the music industry'. No stigma, no mutterings about vanity press - he understood. Perhaps public understanding of the book industry today is actually more acute than we think.

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