A most delightful primary school near Gloucester will be performing Tattybogle the Musical for their Easter show, so they invited me to spend a day with the year 1 and 2 children, reading stories and answering questions. Year 1 had prepared written questions – very impressive for such small people! Year 2’s were spontaneous. My favourite was ‘What’s your daddy’s name?’ One smart little girl also worked out how old I was by asking how long ago I’d written Tattybogle and how old I was then.
My absolutely top part of the day was a Year 1 written question: when did you becom the Other? It set me thinking about how much of ‘the other’ we are as authors. Are we a breed apart? A series of sub-species, rather, since there are several distinct types of writer? Or, can anyone and everyone write stories? The short answer is, I suppose, yes, anyone can, but whether or not they should, and then put them out for public consumption, is another matter entirely. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, as I’d taken part in a Book Show, at which authors showed their wares. There was a mixture of self-published and traditionally-published work. It ranged from impressive to ... not so great, as one might expect. Two of the more interesting books contained acknowledgements to ‘friend and critic’ and 'for proof-reading, corrections and support’. There’s the clue.
Participants were also invited to give short talks. The speakers were notable for the confidence they displayed in their work, unlike most writers I know, who tend to be anxious and overly self-critical. One who stood out was a freelance editor, who told us how much we needed her help with books we have wrote, and talked about people publishing books theirselves. Shocking. It reminded me of a very delightful couple, a husband and wife, I met a few years ago who had sunk a small fortune into a children’s book they’d written and illustrated. They’d had a print run of hardbacks, commissioned toys to go with the story and an elaborate display stand made like a windmill. They were going to donate a proportion of the profits they made to charity. I bought a copy. When I got it home, I was horrified at the number of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and typos. Then I had a distraught phone call from the woman. She asked me what I thought of the book, as they’d just had a very angry, rude letter from someone who’d bought a copy, pointing out all the errors, asking them how they dared to put it on the market, and demanding their money back. I mumbled something about the importance of proof-reading, and she said they had employed someone to do that. A charlatan, obviously. He’d said he was a journalist and so they had trusted him – and paid him handsomely. I felt so badly for them. They lacked experience of how the world of publishing works and had been shafted. All their dreams were in tatters and their money wasted, but they had tried to do the right thing and employ someone they believed to be a professional to help them.
My experiences at the Book Show made me think hard about the rash of self-published books we are seeing now. On the one hand, it’s great, and I have benefitted hugely from being able to produce some of my own work this way, as have many of us. I don’t want to deny anyone else the same opportunities, do I? No, BUT when a book has been put together without what one might call ‘due process’ – subjected to critical appraisal, with the emphasis on critical, rewritten as a result, re-re-written if necessary, edited, proof-read, etc. etc. then presented to the world with more confidence than it might warrant, it makes me quite unreasonably angry. I’m not even sure why. Perhaps I’m just being snobby and don’t want my books to be lumped in with these others. I should remember that The Silkie was kindly, firmly and privately criticised for its layout and font by writers with my best interests at heart, so who am I to talk?
More years ago now than I care to count, a small bunch of us set up a writing group. It’s still going strong, although we have lost two of the original members to death and have had to fight to fend off people who were desperate to join us but did not want constructive criticism. ‘Say what you like, I’m not changing anything,’was one memorable comment, about a long convoluted plot full of obvious holes. Two recently-new members are made of different stuff, however, and contribute hugely to the work. Our manifesto when we set up the group was that we would not start by seeking publication: we would write, bring copies, read aloud and listen to criticism with an open mind, rewrite as necessary, and go on until we had ‘found our voices’. Only then would we consider submitting the work to publishers. It has been invaluable. I wish some of the people who set out on the rocky road to publishing, by self or other, could have the benefit of a group of like-minded, fiercely critical writers to help them keep up to scratch – although I know that some brilliant writers have to plough the lonely furrow and couldn’t bear to be part of such a setup. However a writer works, they don’t just dash something down and put it out without further thought. They are self-aware, self-critical. It is these attributes, along with the willingness to craft, hone, fettle, and go on no matter how long it takes or how much effort, that separates writers out. Perhaps we really are the Other.