Do you ever have the feeling you’ve slipped into a different version of the universe by mistake? Sometime I feel as if I’m living another MTM’s life where the basic essentials are the same but some of the bits around the edges are… not what I thought. I can’t quite explain this but it’s usually at times when I look at the zeitgeist around me and then at what I do and think… ‘ah.’
This cropped up in two respects this week. First, because as a fairly avid reader of Chuck Wendig’s blog (you really should check it out) I read his post about 10 books that had stayed with him and took up his invitation, at the end, to list the ten books that stayed with me. You can check out the post and read everyone’s comments (including mine) here. What interested me was that the books that had stayed with people were all pretty heavyweight, barring one person, who, like I did, listed Green Eggs and Ham. But basically, the mood is academic. And serious. And then I turn up.
Here are ten of the books that have had the biggest effect on me:
THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, CS Lewis. My parents read all the Narnia books to me and my brother as kids. I thought all books were like that. I didn’t realise there was a special pariah genre for them all.
FAIR STOOD THE WIND FOR FRANCE H E Bates. H E Bates can describe a summers day and just put you right there. This is just a wonderfully uplifting story and I loved it.
THE CHILDREN OF THE NEW FOREST Frederick Mayerat. Another fantastic book which my parents read to me as a kid. It has people with big hats and swords in it. What more could you want?
A GENTLEMAN OF FRANCE, Stanley Weyman. More hats and swords, in France this time.
THE THREE MUSKETEERS Alexander Dumas. Cracking historical novel. More Swords and big hats, with the odd heaving bosom thrown in for good measure.
THE ASTERIX BOOKS by Goschinny and Uderzo. Yes. All of them. I first read them when I was about five. After that, each year I grew I got more of the jokes. Multi-layered masterful humour. And silly names.
THE HITCH HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY Douglas Adams. Because that’s how you do brainy comedy.
GREEN EGGS AND HAM Dr Seuss. The world of Dr Seuss – particularly Tweetle beetles from Fox in Sox has me completely hooked. That’s where my own fantasy world building started. With the weirder offerings of Dr Deuss. But I like green eggs and ham best.
WYRD SISTERS and THE NIGHT WATCH by Terry Pratchett. Because Terry writes the most fantastic stuff and I love it.
ABOUT A BOY Nick Hornby. Poignant, intelligent and laugh out loud funny.
A SPOT OF BOTHER, Mark Haddon. Ditto.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, Bill Bryson. Bryson makes a history funny. It’s densely written. You can’t read too much at a time because it’s the literary equivalent of an enormous cream cake. Little and often is the way to read this. But it is absolutely fab. Actually, anything Bryson writes is a scream.
Looking at it now, I missed out, PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING BY GRAHAM GREENE (whose name I can’t remember how to spell) and PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING BY OSCAR WILDE. If I could write one piece of work like The Importance of Being Earnest I would consider my work as an author done.
Looking at my list compared to the books on the others it struck me how very out of step with the popular zeitgeist I am. Lots very serious books by people like Melville, Poe, Atwood, Hosseni… A fair bit of GRRM, CS Lewis, Herbert and King. Nobody mentioned Pratchett as far as I recall although I think someone mentioned Douglas Adams.
Find a forum about books and the authors everyone bangs on about seem to be the likes of Steinback, Hemingway, Poe, King, Herbert, Melville, Hemingway, GRRM…. American authors. Always American. No-one mentions HE Bates, no-one mentions Greene. Perhaps, most Americans – and we have to face it, the English speaking internet has a very strong US bias even though there are more of us, from other nations, than them – haven’t heard of Bates or Greene, or other greats like George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Sir John Betjamin, just as I haven’t read Steinback or Melville (yet). But going back to the blog post, the onus of that set of comments does seem to be on cutting edge, horror or high brow.
It made me realise how inept I am at trying to be edgy.
It also highlighted the career decision that lies ahead of me now; heart or head. Let me explain. I started out with a budget that would cover six books. But due to the requirement to edit K’Barthan 1 again and again and the need for a proof edit after the copy edit I’ve blown that budget on four books. I thought six was a good buffer but to be honest I expected to earn enough to produce a low budget book once I’d published two or three. I’ve published four and that may yet happen. It may but it’s not looking too hopeful.
So what now?
The K’Barthan Series was completely self indulgent. I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, and I wrote it with a passion. In an ideal world that’s what I’ll do. But I’m beginning to realise that K’Barth is quite… out there. But… in the wrong way. It’s up front but not edgy enough, it’s weird but not scary enough. It’s not normal. It’s a book syndrome. It’s a bit socially lumpy.
Mwahahahahargh! I’ve produced the literary equivalent of myself!
Then I swing back the other way and convince myself it’s fine. Comfort myself with stories of people like Anne Magill, who studied fine art at Liverpool and then went to London (St Martin’s) where she met solid resistance from her tutors to her style. She stayed true to it, though, and is now a hugely successful painter selling works to people like Russell Crowe.
She says (Anne Magill, I mean):
“I ended up going into commercial design because figurative traditional work was frowned upon,” but, she added, “If I’m damned I’m damned. I can only do what’s in my head.”
She followed her heart and now she’s doing OK.
Then there’s Kate Bush. Look at the pop scene in the late 1970s and early 80s. You’ve got punk, two tone, mods doing the usual do and then the odd M.O.R. hangover from the disco era. Where in the name of all that’s holy to you put our Kate Bush among all that? Her output is completely crazy, it’s quirky, her voice is weird, her choices of subject for her songs is esoteric, at best, and at worst barking loola. But people liked it anyway because it’s so honest and genuine, oh and it’s also good.
That’s what I want. For my stuff to be honest and genuine and good. And for me to be right in believing.
But am I? Or am I just being a self-indulgent, jumped-up twat? Someone called me a hack in a review the other day. It was oblique, as in ‘hack habits’ but it smarted. A lot. And the worst thing. It’s probably true.
When I wrote the K’Barthan Series, I wanted to show myself and all the naysayers that I can write like this and succeed. I reasoned that, if I liked it, other people would. And some do. And I am beyond grateful to each and every one of you who has bought it, read it, reviewed it. But it is a hard sell. And I’m realising that all the publishing people who said the names were stupid, the plot too involved, the level of intellect I assumed for my readers too high… I’m realising that unfortunately, if I want to make enough money to pay for another book, they might be right.
That’s probably why the big self publishing sites like Big Al’s Books and Pals and Bookbub won’t touch Few Are Chosen. Because when it comes down to it, even in self published author land, the big fish want the same commercial criteria that publishers want. And it’s all very well trying to prove something actually does work, but for that to happen, readers have to know it’s there. And it’s almost impossible to get it in front of them. Except off line, in the real world, where you need stock that costs money I don’t have. It’s a bit chicken and egg to be honest.
So the nub of it all is that I’m suffering a bit of a conundrum as to what I should write next.
Because I want to write stuff that is honest and true, that is me on paper, which means more stuff like the K’Barthan Series. But if I’m going to write more K’Barthan style madness, I need to do something alongside that sells, to fund it. Or something that will, at least, be mainstream enough for the big indie sites, with thousands of followers, to risk actually putting it in front of them. That’s tricky, because I wouldn’t know what commercial was if it stood up and smacked me in the face with a haddock. Universal appeal, yeh, I can do that, but nobody wants that, it makes selling the books too difficult. They want the next big thing. Before it happens. They want stuff that sells. And I don’t know what that is.
So it’s back to the brick wall. That’s right, the one I was hoping I could sidestep by self publishing my books and proving to the world… yada, yada, yada.
Because my stuff didn’t fit with publishers, but it doesn’t fit in with the indie gatekeepers either – except for Awesome Indies, who I, therefore, think are awesome.
So here’s my three step plan:
STEP 1: Find out what, exactly, is ‘wrong’ with the K’Barthan Series, somehow. I.E. find out why a publisher would say ‘no’ so I can avoid making the same mistakes in the next book.
STEP 2: Applying what I’ve learned, I need to write the most commercial novel of which I am capable and use it to fund any subsequent pieces of unmarketable whimsy.
STEP 3: Stick £10 a month away in my building society account. For all my hand-to-mouthness (yes I know, I spent everything I had on a car. It’s definitely my fault) I won’t notice it’s gone. I have discalculia, for heaven’s sake! And in a year’s time, when I’ve written my next book, there might be enough cash to publish it at the usual loss and eventually there might be so many books that the sales income they generate can fund another one, anyway.
STEP 4: Write some shorts and experiment with putting 20,000 novellas into things like KDP Select on a rolling basis, which, hopefully, will introduce my work to a whole new bunch of readers who have no access to it now, and who will buy all my other books (and then music will play and there’ll be smeary shots of me dancing, crying with joy, through falling rose petals-) Sorry. Got a bit carried away there.
Held in reserve, steps 5 and 6.
STEP 5: Find a publisher who will make me rewrite and rewrite and rewrite my next piece of unmarketable whimsy until, together, we turn it into something marketable. This is a hugely unappealing prospect because I can’t imagine a publisher thinking any differently about my books from the agents and the big hitter review sites. Which means thousands of pounds on postage and years and years of being told, politely, to fuck off and trying to put a positive spin on it. But I might manage it, and if I do, it will open many closed doors, and I’ll learn a huge amount.
STEP 6: Crowd fund the next book? Eeesh. I guess there’s Unbound, but do I have the time or charisma to undertake the social media activity required to drum up… well any votes? Let alone enough for them to publish a book.
Which brings me back round in a circle to the question ‘how do I make my work commercially viable?’ The biggest problem I face lies my answer to that question: ‘I like it the way it is.’
So that’s the nub of it. Do I attempt to be the Kate Bush of writing and try to make it on my own? Only with rather less talent and no help in the offing from any literary equivalent of David Gilmour. Do I keep on struggling and hope that somehow, one day, my work stands up? That I can find a way to walk the line between being true to myself and bang on the money. Or do I try to sing something more mainstream, in a slightly less squeaky voice, about a bog standard subject to see if the Polydors of the writing world will accept it?
Very tricky question. And one to which, right now, I have no answer.