Monday, 30 September 2013

Guest Post - David Barry

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I suspect this is not meant to be taken literally and is probably a metaphor for some greater truth, instructing us to admire another human being’s inner beauty rather than going on just looks. With books it’s a different kettle of fish.  Of course people judge them on their covers, because people in bookstores have to be attracted enough by the design to pick them up in the first place. Half the battle is getting a potential customer to pick up a book, turn it over and read the blurb on the back. 

My first novel, Each Man Kills, was published in 2002. It’s a thriller located in south Wales, and after many rejections with large publishing houses in London, I decided to approach a small Welsh publisher. They liked it, and a year later it was almost ready for the printers. I had had good experiences with this publisher, the editor was friendly and approachable, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about my book. I was asked for suggestions for the cover design. So far so good.

The plot of my thriller hinges on Celtic mysticism, and an escape following ley lines and ancient druidic stones and monuments. I suggested a black and white photograph of an ancient stone, surrounded by atmospheric mist on a gloomy day, and a red trickle of blood running down the stone, the only colour on the cover. A bit like Schindler’s List, which was shot in monochrome, but with occasional and unnerving glimpses of a would-be victim seen in red. My publishers seemed to like the idea, and said they would soon be in touch with a proof. But a proof never came. As the launch date of the book drew close I was presented with a fait accompli; the book arrived in the post one morning and on the cover was a rather unsubtle photograph of a hooded man grabbing a woman from behind with a knife to her throat. My initial reaction was negative. But, as it was my first published book, I became impatient to see it released and pushed any doubts I had about the cover to the back of my mind, convincing myself that I liked it. Months later a friend of mine lent her copy of my book to a friend, who read it and said she was surprised at how good it was. I was told that had she not known about me, and seen the book in a store, she wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up because of the cover. I knew then I had made a grave error, and should have trusted my first gut reaction. I had been too eager to become a published writer to form an objective opinion about the design.

My second book, Flashback, an autobiography about my life as an actor, I self published. Because I was paying to get it published, my attitude was very different. It was costing me money, and I knew I had to get it right. As soon as the proof of the cover design arrived, I decided I would market research it. I went out into my local pub, showed customers the design, and asked them if they saw it in a shop would they be tempted to buy it. It got a negative response. Then one of the pub regulars, I discovered, used to work in PR and advertising, and I was fortunate enough to get some free advice.

I suppose, if a writer is already famous and has a huge following, the book cover is not so important. On the other hand, many years ago, when I was a young man, I saw East of Eden by John Steinbeck in a bookshop. It had a ghastly cover: a badly drawn picture of a half-naked woman in the arms of what looked like a western saloon gambler. But I had already read Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday and The Grapes of Wrath, so the cover didn’t matter to me. I bought it and loved every page of it. But supposing someone who had never heard of Steinbeck bought a copy of the book, thinking every page had steamy sex scenes as promised by the book cover?  Perhaps the opening chapters and their descriptions of the Salinas Valley in California might prove to be a huge disappointment, however evocative and well written.

The other advantage of self-publishing and electronic books is the obvious one of it never going out of print as happened with Each Man Kills. When my thriller reached sales of 800 copies of the 1,000 print run, and didn’t appear to be selling anymore, it was remaindered. Flashback on the other hand, which I published back in 2006, and on Kindle in 2012, has had a resurgence in sales because I wrote a great deal about touring with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and for some reason there has recently been renewed interest in the actress’s career.

In 2008, I was about to have a children’s novel published by Libros International in Spain, a company founded by two writers. A chance meeting with the director of a small advertising agency director in Tunbridge Wells where I live resulted in the book design for The Ice Cream Time Machine. The MD of the company said he would love to design the book and all he wanted in return was two signed copies of the book for his children once it was published. But less than a year after the publication of the book, Libros ceased trading, and I thought that was that. But in 2011 I was fortunate in finding a way of publishing this through AUK, and it is now available as a POD paperback and in e-books.

Now as I am about to have my tenth book published, I look at all the various designs of my books, and I think my favourite is for my children’s book, designed by someone as a favour to me, and costing the publisher nothing. But maybe I’m biased. One of my favourite jobs ever was working as Writer In Residence in Aberdeen on the Reading Bus in 2007, a sort of colourful mobile library for children that visited various primary schools, and classes would climb aboard for creative writing sessions. Around that that time I was writing The Ice Cream Time Machine, and I used to read children extracts and was able to find out what worked and didn’t work. For that I was eternally grateful to children in certain areas of Aberdeen, which was why I dedicated the book to them.

Editors addition: David's new book Muscle is out tomorrow....

Sunday, 29 September 2013

AUTHORS ELECTRIC 'HOW-TO' DAY e-(asy) tips for electric authors by Cally Phillips

     This is the first of a new (hopefully regular) series which is loosely called 'A How-To Day' or 'Training Day' - the aim being that AE'ers share skills, tips and knowledge related to ebooks. With apologies to all the grannies I'm teaching to suck eggs. But someone out there will doubtless find this useful. [Cally.]

     Cally - I think it's a myth that 'everyone' knows how to do these things. When I was working in a university, I was astonished how many students never thought to take a quick look on Google for information - something which has become second nature to me. Many of them - and not just the older students - would say, 'Oh, I'm not really into computers.' And my young hairdresser, the other day, when I said, jokingly, that I would blog something, said, 'What's a blog?' I thought she was joking, but no, she really had no idea what a blog was.  So, thank you for going back to basics! - Sue Price.

Links and how to make them.
We all know how important links are right? No? Yes. Of course we do.
You put your ebook up on Kindle (or Kobo or apple) and then you want to tell people about it.  You want to share. How do you do this?  Well, each ebook (or indeed anything else you write, like blog posts) has a unique identifier

For a Kindle ebook it looks like this

If we look at the structure of it you’ll see the amazon area ( is there followed by the title, the format of book, it’s number and a load of reference stuff. It’s a beast of a thing.  If you like to play spot the difference, here is the US version of the same link

Yes, the significant difference is the instead of
Before you give up, let’s look at what you actually NEED of that link

This is the unique identifier. Amazon area, book title and format and CODE – you’ll notice that’s the same code you get when you actually publish the book to KDP    that B008QJVP60 is like your isbn number. It’s the ebooks unique identifier. The rest of the link takes you to that books place in amazon’s store.  
All the ref stuff that comes after, that’s not necessary to get you to the ebook.
But it’s still pretty weighty. Especially if you’ve got a lot of ebooks,

      Well, straight off, you've taught me something there, Cally! [Sue]. I knew you could just alter the part to or or whatever, without having to re-copy for every different Amazon site - but I hadn't realised that you didn't need the whole damn thing!
     So what to do?

Top Tip.
Create a list (or database) of your links so that you can refer to them in future and just drop them into whatever share medium (post, facebook status or email) you want to use.

Here’s an example of one of my ebook catalogue lists (as short links)
Another World is Possible

Bond is Back
Brand Loyalty
Chasing Waves
Down the Line

DTL/AC Omnibus
It Wisnae Me
Men in White Suits
Threads of Time
Triptych 2 FREE D
Voices in ma Heid

     I hope you can see how valuable this is, and you’ll have noticed they are NOT the same links = they are SHORT LINKS.  So how do you get short links?

     You might have noticed that Twitter makes its own shortlinks (maybe I need to get out more) and there are other places that enable you to create your own shortlinks which you can then store in that list/database you DO intend to make and save on a word file, right?

     I use Bitly.  You go to and set up an account. Free and easy.  Then you just copy/paste the LONG link into the slot where it says PASTE A LINK and bitly converts it into a short link which you
copy/paste back into your own word list/database.
     Bingo. You have all your ebooks in one handy place ready for using at later dates.

What about linking blog posts?
     You’ll notice (if you get out as little as me) that blogsites have addresses.

     They're called URLs - short for 'Uniform Resource Locator'. [Sue.] You find it in the 'browser box' at the top of your computer screen - the long box with the arrow pointing to the left at the left hand side.

     And each separate blog post has an individual identifier.

    If you ask someone to go to they will simply get whatever is up there at the time they visit. If you want them to go to YOUR OWN post you need to give them YOUR post link.
Which looks like THIS.

     You can see that it has the authors electric blogspot address at the front (this is effectively the same as that  so don’t stress about it. 

     That’s followed by the year, the month and the actual TITLE of that post (this is mine from August)
You can save this link, copy and paste it and share it wherever you like if you want folk to go straight to this post. And yes, for those paying attention at the front, you can take that to bitly and short link it too.

     As with all things technical, there are many alternative ways to do things. In Wordpress as you create your post it asks you if you want to get a shortlink and if you do, then you’ve done the job then and there. Just add it to you OWN list with appropriate hint as to what it is and you’re set.  I can’t see a way to do that in blogger (but I don’t really know how to use blogger, I only use it to post for AE) Until your post is scheduled you can’t get a short link and until its published the link isn’t valid – think of it, the link is live when your post is live. But those are the only restrictions I can see.

Embedding links into word documents or into blog posts.

     When you are creating your blog (again I’m speaking wordpress here but it probably applies for blogger too) look for the link sign (like an 8) and you can copy/paste your link into the space. You need to Control +c the text you want to link then click link then paste in the link (be careful that you don’t paste in the text you’ve just highlighted!) and it’s all go.

     You can circumvent this with Word 2007 onwards by embedding links into the document before you copy it to Blogger/Wordpress (if you do this in advance rather than write ‘live’ into the sites)  You just highlight the text you want to link, right click the mouse and pick the HYPERLINK option and then paste in your link. 
     You’ll see why all of this is so much easier if you use short links. But it can be done with long links too.
I hope this is of some use to those who’ve been struggling wondering how to deal with those unwieldy links – when you shorten them and save them in a dedicated space, it becomes much easier to SHARE them.   You do, of course, have to remember to keep your list up to date with all the NEW things you publish.

     Thank you, Cally! - You've taught me a couple of things anyway, so I'm happy! [Sue]

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Theatre, Creativity and Things Philosophical...

     This week I went to the opening night of an intensely moving play, in which my grand-daughter, Anna Munden, was playing a leading role. Anna's been involved in theatre from babyhood (my daughter's a costume designer, and my son in law creates stage sets) and from the time she was a toddler, has always wanted to be an actress. Until recently, she's been involved in touring productions, mostly in the South West, so this Covent Garden debut, at the Tristan Bates Theatre, was her big moment. And incidentally, getting serious reviewers to go to a Fringe production is every bit as difficult as getting reviewers to read and comment on previously unknown authors.

     The play, TRANSPORTS, was written by Jon Welch, and it's very loosely based on the life story of Anna's other grandmother, who is a lot older than me. Her name is Liesl, and she's German-Jewish. As a fifteen year old, she was sent to the UK via the Kindertransport, by devoted parents she never saw again. The story is a dark one, but it ends in joy - it is, in fact, uplifting - which leads me into contemplating the role of darkness and evil in literature, because (uncomfortably), without evil/villains there would be no plot. As I say to kids when I do school visits, if the person you're writing about has a perfect day in which nothing, but nothing, goes wrong, then you don't have a story. Light shines more brilliantly where there is darkness - look at paintings.  It's an uncomfortable question. Liesl, who never reads fiction, asks, naively: "Why write stories about bad people?" The answer, unfortunately, is that without bad people, maybe there would be no stories.

     This leads us into a complex philosophical abyss... supposing we lived in the kind of world we're all striving for? Where everyone is happy and fulfilled? I remember a dystopian science fiction story from way back, in which people were equipped from birth with an 'exit' button. Those who were happy and contented never touched it. Creativity died out with those who pressed the button, and so eventually did humanity, suffocated in a featherbed of satisfaction and pleasure.

      And yet more philosophical stuff... a colleague of mine recently boasted that she was devoid of vanity (in spite of the fact that her hair, as usual, had been beautifully cut). This led me to question the true meaning of 'vanity' (OED: That which is vain, futile or worthless.) Imagine your world without mirrors, as it was, once. What would happen to your love/hate relationship with your own reflection? Would you just 'see' yourself in the eyes and words of others? What if they were lying? There's a book in this, somewhere...

      Finally to more frivolous things...My picture book: "...and Nobody Noticed the Mouse" is being launched at the much-loved Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill, on October 15th. It's taken me a lot of courage to agree to set this up, because my husband and partner, David, won't be there to celebrate with me (he died suddenly in March this year). The book launch, in a sense, is for David, because without his support I could never have been able to pursue my career as an author. He was often my first reader (for picture book texts, I would sit him in a chair and tell him 'Now you're 3,4,5 years old again') He was a meticulous editor and critic, and, most recently, my ebook publisher, bringing back to life so many of my previously out of print books. To say that I miss him would be an understatement.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Has anything really changed for writers? - Andrew Crofts

I am off to the Cheltenham Festival on October 5th to chat about
Andrew Crofts
self-publishing at a workshop organised by Alison Baverstock, who runs the publishing course at Kingston University and is author of the excellent “The Naked Author”. Details of the event can be found here

     I also attended an interesting workshop on digital publishing at the Groucho Club the other day, organised by the folk at The Literary Platform. It seems the whole world is searching for the secret key to the door of best sellerdom, but apart from the fact that we can now conjure our books into physical existence in a way we previously had to persuade publishers to do for us, nothing much has really changed in the 40 years that I have been earning my living as a scribe.
     We still have to write stuff that people want to give up their time to read, and we still have to find a way to get it to their attention. We are all of us only on this planet for a limited time and can only read/watch/listen to a limited amount of stuff during that time, but still we all produce more and more for everyone else to read.
     Perhaps we should just relax and write the things we really want to write for ourselves, just like most painters just paint the pictures they want to paint, without ever imagining they can turn themselves into Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin.
     If we actually want to support ourselves with our writing, we still have to put ourselves out to hire as journalists, copywriters, ghostwriters and every other kind of writer for rent; all the same stuff I have been doing for the last forty years and will probably continue to do till my last breath. Nothing has actually changed except that we are now able to print our work and make it available for discovery in ways we couldn’t before – no-one is ever going to be able to change the fundamental laws of supply and demand and even if the doctors find ways for us to double our lifespans we still won’t have time to read everything that we want to.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why I'll Never Get The Wise Monkey Badge

Authors Electric has decided to give me a regular slot on the 26th after my recent guest post about snake oil. They should have spoken to the schoolteacher who wrote on my homework "Ruby Barnes has a complex neurosis that makes him cry out for attention by not fulfilling his obligations." The subject was meteorology and I was writing about cloud formations. I guess he didn't like my blue sky thinking.

Back to the monkeys in the title. Last week I collected my first ever vari-focal spectacles from the opticians. Fooled by the 2 for 1 special offer, I over-invested in Tommy Hilfiger and Timberland frames and had to lie to Mrs R about the real cost. These are the first you have to wear them all the time glasses since I first donned John Lennons at school aged 9. I had managed to reach a venerable half-century without further deterioration, so I thought.

The Kindle is to blame. For the last two years I've done all my reading on my Kindle 3, adjusting the text size for comfort. My day job changed too, less looking at tiny figures on spreadsheets and more sitting in meetings and facilitating results from what I was hearing. Then I branched out from being an indie author into publishing and breathing life into a fellow author's out-of-print backlist. I found I couldn't read the tiny print of his paperbacks. And Lidl, I blame them too, for printing cooking instructions in twenty languages with miniscule print.

The truth was revealed when I was snowbound in Glasgow airport with twenty Scottish rugby players, a Welsh male choir, assorted nurses and random flesh-eaters (a whole other story but it pays to fly Aer Lingus and not Ryanair.) Out of boredom I bought a bottle of TCP and a pair of reading glasses. After a lot of staring around and glaring at people, I realised my eyes had adopted a fixed focal length. Fast forward, back (?) to Specsavers and the optician did her tests, showed me computerised images of my retinas and told me I had stigmata. I was quite pleased as I've always had a certain messianic quality (maybe that schoolteacher was kinda right and he just misdiagnosed me?) Then I watched her lips as she repeated the word astigmatism. I had left my hearing aids at home (congenital high frequency hearing loss - nothing wrong with my genitals as my father says.)

Later, when I was fibbing to Mrs R (who is 8 years my junior, as she's always reminding me) about the cost of the glasses, she said, 'Let's hope nothing happens to your voice as well, or you'll never be a wise monkey.' She's of the opinion that I have always missed a lot of what's going on due to my hearing and will now miss even more due to my eyesight. Oh contraire, Mrs R.

It's true that I have never fully understood the lyrics to pop songs. I can't dissemble the words run together by all those regular singers and anything like rap is just an aural blur. I assumed the other kids all bought Smash Hits magazine or something and learned the words there. TV was a mystery. I followed the sense of the story rather than the dialogue. Reading books was substantially more satisfying. Throughout school, college and work I made a jester's career out of deliberately mishearing and throwing back allegedly humorous misinterpretations. No, I can't think of an example. Stigmata will have to suffice as evidence.

This partial sensory deprivation made me more attentive to other things - things I could see. I became an observer. While people verbally engaged in work meetings, I wrote pages of notes on key points (well, the ones raised by people with loud, clear voices.) Observing the body language of others told me who was in power and what people were feeling regardless of what they were saying, and I was off in my own world of problem solving. After two decades of this my imagination was running riot. The doodles started to take up as much space as the notes. It was a logical step to transform my observations and start writing fiction.

I remember the day, five years ago, when I first collected my hearing aids. Small digital devices with near-invisible clear tubes, like rice noodles, bringing the missing sounds of the world into my ears. I chose a colour for the plastic business end of the devices from the broad palette of choices - light grey to match my hair. Individually programmed to restore the deficient components of my hearing capability. I sat in my car in Waterford, the weather traditional Irish, and was nearly deafened by the sound of raindrops whipping the driver's window. On the drive back to Kilkenny my vehicle issued a continuous symphony of creaks, squeaks and whistles. Arriving home I used the bathroom and it was like Niagara Falls. My senses were heightened to an excruciating level. These days I don't wear my devices all the time, only for meetings, watching TV, and social occasions. And for sensing the environment.

Back to the glasses. Astigmatism means my eyes can no longer adequately focus of their own accord. That explains why other people's features at work meetings have been floating asymmetrically across their faces for the past couple of years. I had assumed that the Irish health service (yep, that's my 9 to 5) was infiltrated by aliens. When Specsavers handed me my vari-focals, together with a test card of different sized sample texts, I had another epiphany. I could read anything. Even tiny text. Even with my left eye which hasn't been able to read properly since I was a kid (yeah, sounds like I was a bit negligent in giving up those John Lennons).

I don't wear these glasses all the time. One eye is weaker - the left was never quite the full ticket. That means the vari-focal aspect of the glasses requires me to 'point my nose at the target,' as the optician said. Otherwise one eye's focus is blurred. This is a new experience as I've always been the kind of dodgy guy with wandering eyes, best suited to hiding behind portraits in scary films and following people around the room with my gaze. Now I have to point my nose at the target. I'm still adapting to this technique with book, laptop, computer and TV, but I have it down with driving. I guess that's because the world outside has infinitely varying depth. I don't even notice that I'm nose-pointing. What I have noticed is I can see everything better than ever before in my life. I can see the clouds swirl on top of Mount Leinster when Heaven touches Earth.

This is my point, the nub of the thing. There's a world of sensory perception all around us. If you have perfect senses then you are, perversely, desensitised to these things. The blind man's spatial awareness is a wonder to behold. As a writer, your job is to build sensory perception into your writing. As a reader, your job is to appreciate and enjoy.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

NEW (illustrations) .FOR OLD (book) - by Susan Price

     My book, The Wolf's Footprint, has had quite a history.
The Wolf's Footprint, original cover: Parkin

It was first written, long ago, as a 300 word picture book text, for a conventional publisher. To be honest, I forget which one, I've worked with so many.
     The editor who asked for it was enthusiastic - but picture books are always a hard sell. They're expensive to produce as paper books, and have to be pre-sold to a large market to make them viable. This means producing a book where both story and illustrations appeal to either Europe or the US as well as the UK. In the end, The Wolf's Footprint didn't make it as a picture-book.
     Some time later, Hodder asked for a short story that would appeal to young children. So I expanded The Wolf's Footprint, and turned it into a longer story for rather older children. Hodder accepted it, found an artist, and produced a rather attractive book, (see above) with excellent illustrations by David Parkins.
      I frequently go into schools, and I regard a few of my books as stand-bys, because I know they will go down very well when read to a class. Odin's Monster is one. The Wolf's Footprint is another.
     It begins rather like Hansel and Gretel, with a child overhearing her parents planning to abandon her and her brother - and quickly moves on to the children alone in a darkening forest. This is a primal fear for children, and it's always a pleasure to feel the silence grow as I read, and watch the eyes widen. The stories that engage us most are often those that go straight to the heart of what we most fear. Why else do so many women write so well about serial killers?
     Once the children are alone and lost in the dark, the story moves away from Hansel and Gretel. Instead, that's when the wolves come...
     (On one lovely occasion I remember watching a little girl at the back of the class acting out the movements of the wolves. I don't think she knew she was doing it. Her eyes were wide, seeing the story behind them rather than anything in front of them. I struggled not to laugh and to keep my voice steady as I read on. Quite apart from ruining the reading, I wouldn't have willingly laughed at her for a chest of treasure.)
     Early this year, the very few copies of The Wolf's Footprint I had for sale on my website shop suddenly sold out over a few days.
     After that, the emails started to arrive. They were all from teachers, and they asked: Did I have any more copies of The Wolf's Footprint to sell? Did I know where they could find any more copies? One asked, did I have 16 copies? - I wish!
     I contacted my agent, and found that The Wolf's Footprint had gone out of print. Nobody had bothered to tell me, of course. I'm only the author. Furthermore, the rights had reverted to me.
     So I contacted some of the teachers who'd asked me for copies. Would they be interested in an ebook edition of Footprint? - They would. A single ebook copy could be put up on the whiteboard for the whole class to see. If it had 'big colourful pictures', all the better. A paper edition might also sell.
     The Wolf's Footprint is a short book, so formatting it was little problem. And the illustrations? I handed my last copy of the book to my brother, Andrew, and asked, 'Fancy doing some new illustrations for that?' He agreed, so long as he wasn't expected to copy the published illustrations, and had a free hand to do his own.

    Being able to work closely with the illustrator is a great pleasure. Andrew works on a Bamboo tablet connected to his laptop. Before he got this bit of kit, he used to scan drawings into his computer and use the sketch as the bottom layer of his art-work. But now he finds it quicker to draw directly into the computer.
     There are several graphics programmes, and they all work in a similar way, by layering different components of the art-work on top of each other. The layers can be given differing levels of opacity or transparency, depending on the effect wanted. The background will be on one layer, the figures on another. Colour might be added on another layer. Elements can be tried out on a separate layer - and if they don't work, can be removed without altering the work already done.
     Text, whether speech-bubbles, captions or titles, is added on another layer, on a 'word-processor layer' which enables the size, font and colour to be experimented with. However, once the art-work is 'rasterized' (a word I never came across before), it can no longer be altered. \But, Andrew says, he always keeps his work stored in the graphics programme, so if I decide I want the lettering altered, he can go back to the original and change it.
Artwork, copyright Andrew Price 2013

     Above is the cover as I first saw it. Then Andrew said, "Or you can have it like this - "  He clicked a few keys, and this appeared.

Artwork, copyright Andrew Price 2013

      I decided I liked the second one better, so this is going to be the cover of the ebook - and the paper book, if I can ever master CreateSpace.
     Andrew has said that I can blog one of his unfinished sketches, so you can see part of the process - 

     This is going to be the King's hunting lodge. You can see the basic sketch. The colour has been added on another 'layer.'
      Below is a more finished version.

     And, finally, here's an unfinished sketch for 'The Hunt.'

Artwork, copyright Andrew Price 2013

      I love the movement.
     When The Wolf's Footprint is up on kindle, I shall contact the teachers who were interested in it again, and tweet about it - and I think I'm looking forward to seeing it up and on sale even more than with my other books!

Susan Price is the Carnegie Medal winning writer of 'The Ghost

Her 'Sterkarm Handshake' won the Guardian prize.

Artwork, copyright Andrew Price 2013

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

What do you do when you're not writing? by Jo Carroll

What do you do when you’re not writing (or travelling)? How often am I asked that!

It’s a strange life, being a travel writer. I’m officially retired, so I can’t claim it’s a ‘proper job’, even though it fills almost all my time – or it feels like that.

I had a proper job once. I worked in Child Protection – putting on special clothes to go to work, picking up my case and my files and heading for an office with a desk and secretary. I was, I was assured, an expert. Sometimes I had to appear in Court and give evidence, help to prove a child had suffered ‘significant harm’ (that’s jargon. I won’t elaborate.). I tied my hair back and wore stern clothes.

The only way to survive a job like that is to learn to turn it off. No phone calls after eight at night. At least one day off a week. If a child continued to run around in my head I knew I’d missed something, and so go back to the papers and notes till I’d worked out what it was. Then close the office door, sit back with my wine, and be a real person again.

But now – I write and read and travel. I think about writing and reading and travelling. And the line between doing that and doing everything else is flimsy. For instance, on a recent trip to Lille I had no idea I was thinking about a short story I’d been playing with when – suddenly – there was a picture of my main character, on the walls of a portrait gallery. She’d obviously come with me on the coach without invitation, and was lurking at the back of my mind without my knowing.

I have family and friends – and I love every minute I spend with them. But sooner or later someone will ask where I’m going next, or what I’m writing at the moment. They’d never asked about Child Protection as so much of my work was confidential. But writing, or travelling – they all know about that. Maybe I should say, ‘I’m away from my computer, or the travel books, at the moment so I’m not going to talk about it.’ But I don’t, because characters leap about in my head the second anyone gives them any attention. To say nothing of excitement about the next trip I’m planning.

I thought I was safe with the grandchildren. After all, they are too small to give a monkey’s toss if I’m writing, or travelling, as long as I know how to put a lego rocket together. But the other day the six-year old, who has been learning about countries at school, asked me if I’ve been to India … and didn’t we have a lovely time talking about my Gap Year!

There are links to grown-up versions of my travels on my website.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Why I'm Not a Writer by Lev Butts

In a recent article on, Gladstone claims that the third most popular lie told on social media is listing hobbies (such as writing) as vocations. He claims this is a lie unless said hobby allows you to "feed [your] kids and pay [your] bills and pay down [your] student loans doing nothing but writing outside of an established organization." At first, I had to agree with him and almost went to my Twitter account to change my description before something occurred to me.

I found at least two problems with his reasoning:

1. By his definition, very few writers can describe themselves as writers. 

Richard Monaco, who as I've mentioned before, was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, no longer supports himself primarily through his writing. He still writes, he still sells novels, and he still receives the occasional royalty check from Parsival. They just don't bring in the amount of money they did in the 1980's. According to Gladstone's article, he is no longer a writer despite his two recent books, forthcoming memoir, and two new novels-in-progress.

I promise I try not to mention Monaco in EVERY post,
but so far I've had no choice. He fits every topic I've written about.
Mary Hood, who's won a whole slew of awards for her fiction, works, I'm told, in a factory to support herself (one of the major reasons she takes so long between books). I'm afraid, she's not a writer either.
Put the book down Mary;
Gladstone says you have an assembly line to work.
Edgar Allen Poe had to lie about his age and join the military because he was unable to support himself as a writer. He died virtually penniless in the streets.
Not a Writer

For most of his life, Nathaniel Hawthorne held other jobs besides writing to support his family.

Also not a writer
The truth is that the chances of making your living writing, especially in this economic climate, are, if I were to make a fairly educated guess, akin to the chance a black man has of surviving a season of The Walking Dead.   The aspiring writer may want to make nice with any well-to-do relatives or consider moonlighting as a CEO.

Spoiler Alert
“The arts,” says Kurt Vonnegut, “are not a way to make a living. If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

And there is a lot to be said for Vonnegut’s opinion. Careers in the arts are rare and mostly poorly paid. 

I know this. I’m a writer and a humanities professor. 

In fact, nothing pleased me more than finding out my son was going to technical school to be a nurse. “You’ll make way more money than I do,” I said. “My retirement is assured.”

However, my goddaughter called me a few weeks later and told me she was nervous about growing up and entering the real world. I asked her what she wants to do.

She wants to be a best-selling novelist.

I told her she’d need something to fall back on while she waits for her novels to be appreciated by the masses. To her credit, she had thought about just that: “I’ll be an English teacher,” she said, “like you.”

Since no amount of logic can dissuade her from this plan, all I can do is be proud of her, too, and wait for my inevitable opportunity to tell her “I told you so.”

However, there's an even bigger problem with Gladstone's reasoning

2. He blurs the difference between "vocation" and "job"

Gladstone says it's a lie to list your hobby as a vocation.

 Vocation: The particular function or station to which a person is called by God; a mode of life or sphere of action regarded as so determined.

Job: work done for pay in order to live in a fairly dry wooden box, drape oneself in inexpensive fabric, and avoid starvation.  

I've done a lot of things for a living in my fairly short life: drug store clerk, fast food worker, janitor, car auction driver, rental car agent. None of those things have ever defined who I am. They were just jobs I did; by and large, they did not provide insight into my soul. 

In his article, Gladstone claims that even though he does enjoy writing, since he doesn't support himself with his writing, he feels uncomfortable referring to himself as a writer. "Many people," he continues, "don't have that problem. Their [online] bios define them as painter, writer, dancer!"

Go to your local night club, pub, or fancy restaurant, (any place that is likely to provide some form of live music) and ask those performers their vocations. While most of them have day jobs, I am willing to bet they all refer to themselves as musicians. Go to a local poetry reading, ask the performers the same question. They will all call themselves poets.

And why wouldn't they? Isn't it much more satisfying to publicly acknowledge your creative side? Who wouldn't want to be a painter instead of a fast food clerk or a musician instead of an elephant-shit collector?

Yep. It's a thing.
If I spent all my free time volunteering at the nursing home and donating food to the soup kitchen, or helping under-privileged children learn to read, I suspect Gladstone would have no problem with my listing "community volunteer/literacy advocate" as my vocation, even though I would make no money at it. 

Indeed, Gladstone's article itself serves as proof of my point. I have no idea what the man does for a living. Don't even care to. For all I know he could be the world's most effective toilet tester.

Yep. Also a thing.
What I care about is reading his stuff (because, well, it's pretty freaking great). I am fairly certain I am not alone. What fan base Gladstone has is mostly based on his writing, I assume. 

My point is vocations and jobs are very different things. Sometimes they overlap (I do see my "day" job as a college professor as a vocation, too); most of the time, they don't. If someone asks me what I do, I generally say I'm a college professor and a writer; if they ask me what I do for a living, I stop at college professor.

The truth is a vocation is a very personal thing. It gives your life meaning. It fulfills you as a person, and generally makes life a little less crappy for someone else, but more than anything, it defines who you are to yourself. It may be something you do to make your living, it may only pay for the occasional night out (or, in my case, the occasional Redbox rental and bottle of Guinness), it may not make you any money at all. But what it does do is make you feel personal worth.

My point is calling yourself a writer, a dancer, a musician, an artist, or any of a thousand other things that make your little patch of the universe bearable for others and yourself is exactly what a vocation is. Whatever else he does, Gladstone is a writer.

And so am I.

Don't think of my title as a lie; think of it as verbally ironic.

Don't take my word for it, though, check out Gladstone for yourself. He also has a new novel coming out in March; it looks great. 

Oh yeah, I have a new novella out now.