Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Genie is out of the bottle - Cally Phillips

Happy New Year to you all. Here we are in 2012 –– and I'd like to share some reflections on the year past and thoughts of the one to come.

What have ebooks ever done for us? The danger of ebooks is that they could become like downloaded music (an indiscriminate free giveaway of creative endeavour) or YouTube (an indiscriminate sharing where creative genius gets lost in/drowned by creative tripe). But the benefits of ebooks are to be found within the dangers. Ebooks (like computers) are a tool and it depends how you use them, or more specifically, how they are used. Perhaps there is a dialectic at play here. And in 2012 we can look for the synthesis.

A New Age of Austerity brings a new dawn?

I suggest that in this new age of austerity, DIY has become less scorned in the field of publishing. The dragon of self-publishing as an act of ‘vanity’ is being fought and slayed. People are beginning to realise that the publisher/agent ‘gatekeepers’ ARE NOT ALWAYS RIGHT. The view is emerging slowly that sometimes (often?) writers (if they are good writers) can know better.

How I learned (almost) if not to love then not totally lose faith in facebook.

I recently came across an online debate about, among other things subjectivity in the arts, which ranged over topics such as how one can/should/does form one’s opinions, the role of the ‘professional’ and their relation to the ‘audience’ (or reader) as well as the place of controversy in the arts, the value of getting work out there and the bravery of the writer, allowing the public/audience to form their own opinions. Within the debate Linda Gillard defined good writing as "Saying what you want to say in the way you want to say it." Which is certainly a good start point, in my opinion.

The focus of the strand was about Catherine Czerkawska’s play Wormwood which some German Theatre Company is interested in re-staging (if they can translate it into German). Catherine’s play (about Chernobyl) and my play Men in White Suits (About Foot and Mouth in Dumfries and Galloway in 2001) have common ground in that both focus on the human story behind these ‘major’ events. They are not ‘political’ plays, more ‘social’ dramas. But neither has received the attention we (the writers) think they should have. Anniversaries have come and gone and they have been ignored. The question Why? came up in the debate.

Now, I must confess I had more or less given up on Facebook by the end of 2011 because I found discussions and statuses mainly bland or trivial, but having lit upon a thread where people actually discussed (and yes, disagreed in some points) about creativity, the theatre and publishing worlds, I believe there may still be some cause for hope. Perhaps the marketing hype is true and ‘the web is what you make it.’

What if people don’t like me? Get over it.

Over the years I certainly have had the feeling that many writers have been worried that if they push ‘the gatekeepers’ too hard they will be labelled ‘difficult’ and even be ‘blacklisted’. The motto ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds’ seems to have been the one adopted. I wonder if this has turned many of us into mealy-mouthed, dispirited or even broken writers? I think failure has too often been confused with not being ‘in fashion’; many good writers are ahead of their time and so are condemned not to have their work ‘appreciated’ when they create it. The debate put me in mind of the following by Samuel Beckett:

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ I have a lot of time for this quote (and Beckett). Not because I find any joy or triumph in failure, but because I think it actually deconstructs the notion of what creative ‘failure’ might be. Maybe I’m just too deep!

Many ‘classic’ writers, including Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and George Orwell all share the view that the writer’s task is to be true to him/her self and that while professional criticism has its place, it can also be the barrier which prevents truly great writing from ever been read.

Glad Tidings of Great Joy to All Mankind

As I see it, the good news for 2012 is that many writers now are coming out of Plato’s Philosophers Cave, or (since we’re still in Panto season, oh yes we are) letting the genie out of the bottle, and seeing the opportunities offered by epublishing and finally taking some personal responsibility for their creative endeavours. It’s what I’ve been preaching for over 20 years and it excites me that others now ‘get’ what I was talking about. It’s not about being shirty with the mainstream or ‘professional’ world, it’s not about ignoring creative quality in favour of vanity, it’s about serious writers paying serious consideration to their own skills and sharing this with the world – taking the risk that the world may or may not appreciate what you have to say.

Just do it meets Publish and be damned.

I have long been an advocate of the just do it philosophy (before it became the brand of Nike) After 3 years of touting my first play We Wove a Web in Childhood round in the early 90’s, being told it was unproducible (is there such a word?) I directed a two week run of it myself in 1993 with professional cast. Clearly it was producible. We just did it. We put our money and our effort where our mouths were. It worked for me. And for most of the audience, (with the exception of those who could not bear to see the Bronte’s as other than pale, consumptive victims.) The play ‘wove’ Bronte juvenilia and poems into a dramatic narrative/biopic and included a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo with a cast of 4 in a 10foot square ‘black box.’ Impossible is nothing. In 2002 when I took up the first Dramatist in Residence post at Dumfries and Galloway, I had to employ this strategy again. For more about this interesting? story go to Bamboo Grove (and prepare to be amazed.)

If you’re lucky you live and learn

I learned that in theatre, film and now in publishing that when people tell you you can’t, you just have to get on and do it for yourself (at a rate you can afford of course.) It appears to be a life ‘theme’ if you will. If you are a good writer and have confidence in your creativity there is no reason why you should not take control of at least some of your own publishing. Of course actions have consequences but that’s no bad thing. If you don’t write for the mainstream it is no surprise that the mainstream doesn’t want you. If you are not ‘flavour of the month’ then why bang your head against a brick wall? It doesn’t have to be an act of defiance, just an act of creativity. Over the years as I’ve grown older (and wiser?) I’ve become less ‘anti’ things and more ‘non’ things. Pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s for sure, but for the rest of your creativity, take the plunge and let the potential audience decide.

Can there be strength in Unity?

This view is at odds with the way the marketplace is currently structured. But it’s up to us to work out a way to change that. Maybe that’s our joint goal for 2012. Find a way to be truly independent as ebook publishers. Putting the work out there is the first step. And that’s the responsibility of each individual writer. Perhaps developing a spirit of collaboration between independent/individual writer/publishers will be the way to achieve increased readership.

A new economics or a new cultural revolution?

Helping to promote each other in the simple, inexpensive ways offered by online media (commenting/liking/sharing/reviewing and reading) in the great scheme of things take little time, effort and money. It’s what you can do with all that time you’ve freed up by not going to all the meetings with the publishers/agents, not doing all the rewrites demanded by producers/editors and the like. Or indeed by not wasting time on trivia on social media but actually using it for creative purposes (as this blog does).

As individuals we can’t do much to influence the ‘real’ world we live in, but let’s put some effort into making the virtual world just that little bit better. I hope that other writers may find that from disillusion with the mainstream, something beautiful may just flower and this is my wish for 2012. And that we all learn that there is more to the ebook revolution than money. Adopting a new ‘model’ can get us all a long way in attaining what I suggest may be the writer’s primary goal – building a relationship with individual readers.

And even if you are in the grip of the belief that money makes the world go round, I suggest that buying a fellow writers e-book costs considerably less than the petrol or fare to a meeting to the ‘gatekeepers’. In fact probably less than sending out a script by post (taking into account paper, ink, envelope and stamp costs). It generally costs less than a monthly magazine, offers much more and will last much longer.

Practice what you preach?

Once again, in 2012 I’m going to stick my neck out, and put my effort (I don’t ‘do’ money these days) where my mouth is. I’m currently setting up an indie ebook review site click here if you are interested in becoming a reviewer, or submitting work.

Meantime if you want to find out what’s in the pipeline from me in 2012, go to HoAmPresst site or blog or page or facebook page (and ‘like’ me – please ‘like’ me at least virtually) to be kept up to date with information.

My next e-book will be out in February/March on all formats and is a play Chasing Waves


Anonymous said...

My two most successful self-published titles (print and ebook) are both books which were turned down by multiple publishers. A-hem, insert your own wry smile here...

Jan Needle said...

thanks for that, cally. very thought provoking. the mighty beckett (or vladimir of estragon at least) once rated critics lower than cretins, and they're certainly a problem. as all appreciation boils down to personal preference (whatever leavis said, and probably believed)it leaves us so-called creators chilling in that sterile wind. what we say may be right, but what they say, goes. ebooks give us all the chance to get it out there. let the publishers and critics have the ulcers if it doesn't sell!

Susan Price said...

Wow! Cally, thanks for this - a truly inspiring and thought-provoking post!

Pauline Fisk said...

I really love this post. I've come to it very late, so don't know if you'll pick up my comment, Cally, but thanks for it's passion and energy. Inspirational stuff.