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.