Home Thoughts from Abroad by Jan Needle

Thoughts from a visit north of the border. The house party consisted of Cally Phillips, George, Hector, Dude, Jan and Viv. Call it an authorial thinktank, or brainstormer. There were three guitars and a tin whistle in the croft (!), and we didn’t play a note.

One of the subjects me and Cally talked about a lot was the continuing problem of self-division. So keen was I to meet and pick the brains of a genuinely computer literate writer that I paid half a million quid for a single rail fair from Manchester to somewhere north of Aberdeen. I won’t tell you where exactly, because Hector and Dude would die of excitement if they had any more visitors to run around and slobber over, and I won’t mention that the cost was well offset (as my kids might say) by the gift of a magnificent Subaru to drive back to civilization in.

Cally and George, near the Spotty Bag shop.  Cold
Two points before I continue. One, I’ve never agreed with the bizarre rule that you must never use a preposition to end a sentence with, and Two, I’m lying about the price of the rail fare. Booked in advance, it was twenty five pounds. And the Subaru, much to my astonishment, did about thirty to the gallon. The whole thing would have been ridiculously cheap and successful if I hadn’t then tried to insure the vehicle for a year when I got home. Confused.com (the lady with the funny hair and a cornucopia under her skirt) wanted just under two grand! I’ve since been told by my daughter and other young things that Confused.com is far and away the dearest on the market, but I still haven’t dared ask any other company. Bloody television advertising.

And so to self-division. Ms Phillips, as regular readers of AE well know, is a powerhouse of energy and commitment. Her emails to me are often timed long before sparrowfart (that’s not rude; it’s Australian for unpleasantly early in the morning) and emails constitute about minus nought per cent of her daily literary output. Her house is scattered with the corpses of worn out computers, and George has to sustain himself with a large and wondrous collection of single malts. But the first thing we agreed is that the era of new media authorship is the era of fragmentation. Which boils down to this:

Jan: Cally, tell me how one writes books, and gets the fact of their existence known to more than seven people.

CALLY: How many hours are there in your working day? Do you get up before or after dawn? Do you go to bed before or after the bats have hung up their batboots for the night?

Jan: Cally, I grow old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. I must stop work after the Archers, obviously. The emotional strain of trying not to strangle Pip (at least metaphorically) becomes too great.

Ms Phillips laughs. A merry laugh, but tinged with sadness. Or even existential despair.

CALLY: You men are so self-indulgent. You have to school yourself. Do you have two madly energetic dogs? Do you do all the cooking, housework, snow clearing, cat sitting for the neighbours? You must divide your time up. First the important things, then the less, then the least. Pull yourself together, Needle.

Jan: But writing takes it out of me! By the time I’ve done a thousand words I want me mum! Sorry, I mean me bed. I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sometimes I just can’t go on…

So Cally showed me how to set up new blogs, and talked through how to get people to read them, and explained this, and explained that, and cooked the tea, and for all I know knocked off a thousand words as well. Oh, and took us up to Banff, and introduced us to the Spotty Bag shop (the best shop in the world), and walked us through the woods. She even set up the new blog for me, and we made a list of things I’d do on it as soon as I got back to England and had a sleep. And I was inspired.

But we did agree the whole thing was bordering on the ridiculous. When I had young children, and overworked myself as a writer and had a proper (!) job as well,  my kids started calling me Uncle Daddy. And in those days my publishers did (or said they did) all the promotion and stuff like that. And now it’s down to me.

Cheshire. On the canal boat five days later. Warm
And our biggest area of agreement is that one can do too much of the self-promotion thing. And one needs a way of assessing whether it is worth it. I honestly spend far more time trying to be noticed than I do writing books. Sometimes I spend more than an hour a day on Facebook. More than an hour, for God’s sake!

What for? Who am I kidding? How many ebooks does it sell me?

The upshot of that delightful two days in Scotland, with those delightful people and their deliciously bonkers dogs, was this – we need to write more books. Not blogs, but books. If you write more books, more people might read them. If you write about the books you’ve already written, if you write about them till you’re blue in the face – the people who like them will say ‘Come on, then? Where’s the next one? We haven’t got all day, you know.’

So here I am now, three weeks after Scotland, sitting at my table – a better person. Since I got back I have processed half a new book to go electronic, although I’ve not had time to start an original yet. And I’ve failed to polish up the details of the proposed new blog like I promised Cally that I would.

She’ll understand. Because she knows I think it is a good idea. But we’re also both sure of this (pretty sure): Don’t tear yourself to pieces getting noticed. Get the real work done.

It was good to meet you, Cally Phillips. And your gang. It was an inspiration. 

Lancashire. Bloody freezing...

BIG PS. It turns out that another bigger brain than mine, Sue Price, is even now working on the publicity problem, and has also got some egregiously good ideas. We'll all be rich, I tells ya! Where would I be without generous women?

PPS I'm part of a small bookfest at  the Albert Club in Manchester  on Sunday June 2. It's a great place - tennis, bowls, snooker, culture. And me! Everybody welcome. http://www.thealbertclub.co.uk/


Dan Holloway said…
gosh. The most worrying thing is that I read "more than an hour a day on Facebook" and had to do not a double but a triple take to figure out what you meant - "is that sarcastic? Is that meant to sound like a lot? Is he self-deprecatingly but slightly mysteriously saying he knows he doesn't spend enough time on social media?"

Dividing myself is something I've never been good at. A heady mix of social awkwardness and frequent hypomania means I tend to say yes to everything I'm asked to do then spend the next 6 months rushing round trying to do 75% of it at least not utterly abysmally, and then collapsing for 6 months. At least, being a poet, the question of how to sell books doesn't really enter into the equation!

Where we can absolutely agree is that Cally is an inspiration
julia jones said…
Write more books - oh yes! Go Jan. Also I feel that the social media thing works best when personalised. IE doing the bits that you enjoy and having chats with people who you like - whether you know them or not. In that way Facebook (or whichever you prefer) becomes a pleasure not a chore. Could we then think of it as self-expression and not self-promotion? As with the AE blogs. Writing about whatever is interesing at the time is really not too bad. Writing with the ineptly concealed message 'I want you to buy my book' is cringe-worthy and a chore. Off to the attic now. (Liked the photos btw)
Bill Kirton said…
Theoretically, this was just what I needed. I've been doing all sorts of things to avoid getting started on the ought-to-be-soon-WIP. I've researched it until I have far more 'facts' than I need, I've interviewed eminent historians, I even spent time during my visit to the USA talking to volunteers at the beautiful Mystic Seaport in Connecticut and getting ideas about improving on board conditions on the sailing ships of the 1840s. So the novel (and more) is in my head. And Cally is absolutely right, my energy should now be channelled into transferring it into the computer.

But note my opening word. Everything points to the irrefutable truth that I should make a start. And yet I still check emails several times a day, take frequent 'quick' looks at Facebook, read blogs, think about writing another blog myself, and on and on. I wonder if Cally offers energy transfusions.
Chris Longmuir said…
I enjoyed reading this blog, and like everyone else on here I loathe the self promotion bit. I think my granny's words are ingrained in me, she always said that telling anyone about what you've accomplished and what you're good at is vanity. Get out of my head, granny!
Dennis Hamley said…
Oh God, Jan, I know I should look at Facebook for more than ten minutes a day and have an authors page and tweet like a madman and blog every day and not spend three hours deleting emails I don't want to road (none of AEs') and do a thousand words before breakfast (there was a time when I really did do that)but I've got so bloody lazy. Half my morning is taken up commenting on you lot. I suppose the only way forward is just to ebook so many books that they just elbow everybody else out of the way. Well, my new resolve is to do just that. We shall see.

Your praise for Cally is exact.
Dennis Hamley said…
Me again. Jan, we're both old gits so get an car insurance quote from Age UK. I did, It was one quarter of what I'd been paying the sharks from Aviva.
Dennis Hamley said…
And buy your rail tickets from the Trainline with your seniors railcard.
Jan Needle said…
Dennis, you're giving away the plaaaat, as Kenny Everett used to shriek. For professional purposes I'm actually thirty two, like Bibi Daniels Lyon (whoops; there I go again), having realised some time ago that to anyone under forty, anyone over fifty is mere sod-fodder. (Just made that expression up. Good, innit?)

Dan, I look at FB only for a burst in the morning and another in the evening. It's horribly addictive, and leads weak-minded people like me into (for instance) weird arguments with the fruitcakes from Ukip. I once suggested an article in the Guardian was worth thinking about, and now they're out to kill me. EVIL, VICIOUS AND WRONG. (That's me).

The real problem with things electronic, for me, is that they waste time in so many ways. For instance, I'm writing these rather clumsy and ungainly responses because I spent an earlier half-hour knocking off some brilliantly witty and germane sentences (I sez so meself, guv), then pressing the button which said Close This Window (don't ask me why) and losing the lot. As I started all over again I heard Cally's voice from four hundred miles away yelling YOU BUFFOON!

She's right. By the time I'm forty, I'll be in a bathchair... By the time I've actually finished this, it'll probably be tomorrow. i want me mum...
julia jones said…
Digital Book World today acknowledges the difficulty of e book publicity then quotes some expert as saying "be as authentic on social media platforms as you are in person" - there you are, Jan, your problem solved!
glitter noir said…
Now, there's a meeting I'd have been glad to attend. Thanks to this post, I finally have. Great post, Jan.
Lydia Bennet said…
Great fun to read, Jan! And yes we need to keep writing, keep formatting, and keep kindling etc but we do need to get the word out. I use social media a lot but more often for other things than self-marketing - there are those who bang on endlessly about their latest book and nowt else, awful, and they never show interest in anyone else's work or share anything. But basically we all need to be thoroughly cloned.
Susan Price said…
You wait 'til I get this on-line classroom thing sorted, you lot...
Jan Needle said…
I daren't say 'can I be excused, Miss?' (I wouldn't want to, either, Sue. All for one and one for all, I say.) I do have a feeling that by gently going on we'll get there in the end.

Oh bugger - I'm on the net again!
Jan Needle said…
And I clicked Close This Window again! But it didn't disappear this time! Even the ghost in the machine realises I'm too incompetent to penalise. Yippee!
Jan Needle said…
And I clicked Close This Window again! But it didn't disappear this time! Even the ghost in the machine realises I'm too incompetent to penalise. Yippee!
Jan Needle said…
So what did I do then? Doh!!!!
CallyPhillips said…
I break radio silence... (in a manner of speaking) as of course it would be rude not to acknowledge such a tribute... not sure my part of the dialogue is what I might say - sounds a bit feminist/sexist for me!! Anyhoo... I guess that for me I just developed the principle work hard through work smart not hard and arrived at WORK SMART AND WORK HARD. And since TIME IS MONEY and I don't like waste I have a zero tolerance approach to waste. Yes, prioritise. Understand the law of diminishing returns. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it and then DO it.
Ironic then that I've just instigated a 'business' policy that means I'll be doing NO 'creative/personal' writing for the next 6 months. The odd short story maybe but I'm in PUBLISHING mode and am to be seen marching the hills with a copy of BUTCHER'S COPY EDITING under my arm at all times. I am dreaming of which font at which size and which method of delivery and planning next year in fine detail as regards promotional activity... but before then I need to get my finger out and sort this August's ebook festival. That is an opportunity for collaborative promotion and input from all is welcomed (some of you are already committed I know) but if AE as a group want to do something the doors wide open for slots. Just someone else will have to organise it because, well, I've also got Dennis' book to scan (it will be done by end of month Dennis I'm well through it now) AND Jan - in God's country it cost me £200 a year to insure Subaru. So either you live in a dodgy address or have dodgy credentials. It is, I fear Insurance group 13 or so but hey that's what 2litres does for you. Suck it up and do some WORK finding the best deal!!!
Thanks again matey. It was great to meet you BOTH and inspiration worked both ways. And it was even FUN.
Dennis Hamley said…
Cally, you're a genius, I always said so and the end of the month isn't that far away! Anyway, meanwhile I'm putting a ghost story (mine, of course) anthology together so that I can put on a show of knowing what I'm talking about in the Efest ghost story seminar.

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