Better late than never this week, yes the blog goes out on a Sunday because MTM was phaffing about too long on Saturday. On the upside, the phaffing involved writing 2,000 new words on Hamgeean Misfit 5. Hoorah. On the downside, I wrote 202 words of it today, and this!
Yep. News this week, I decided, at the last minute (but then, how else do I do anything?) that I’d have a bash at NanoWriMo. If you don’t know what that is, it stands for November Novel Writing Month … actually it doesn’t does it?Well look, that’s what it is, anyway.
The idea behind it is that you write about 1,600 words every day throughout November and at the end you have, 50,000 words, which is a novel. Obviously, the chances of me writing anything on a Wednesday are slim so that’s five days down before we start. That means that if I want to write 50,000 words in November I have to do at least 2,000 a day. Hey, you know me. I like a challenge.
When you’re writing it all on one story it is quite a tall order. My brain takes ages to mull things over and so I usually write several things at once. I might yet do that with Nano and call the results ‘a book’, but at the same time, I want to finish this particular story and this seems as good a time as any. At the moment I suspect that it’s terribly slow and lacking in action but I’m thinking that once I get the bulk of it down I can fix that. Everything I’ve written is stuff I can use, although I did have to move chunks around a lot yesterday to make it work. I guess what I mean is, I’m not so worried about whether or not I’m writing these scenes in the right order (or even the write order, badoom tish! Oh ho ho).
Thus far, yeh, a week in, I’ve managed to write an average of 1,000 words a day because I managed 2,202 yesterday which means I’ve got Wednesday covered. OK that means I’m 600 words a day down. On the up side, this particular book has now reached 17,000 and something words. I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen but I’m enjoying finding out. There are any number of bizarre plot strings which may or may not come together into something meaningful. One involves an actor with a colourful past as an all-in wrestler. I like the idea that Marcella the Pirate, who is a key character and a total cow right now, might reform somehow after a run-in with the Grongles and retire from her life of crime as part of some travelling wrestle-tainment show.
Other strings involve someone in The Pan’s party getting kidnapped and the plot, or at least, the next bit, revolving around his efforts to free the kidnapped person. It’s kind of a mystery and I like the idea of them solving things by blundering blindly deeper and deeper into the thick of it like the bunch of clueless fools they are. It remains to be seen if my intellect is capable of constructing a suitably mysterious mystery to solve. Probably not. It’s all rather jolly though because I’m just agog to see what happens at the moment.
Today, I also wanted to share some thoughts that have been drifting about in my head for some time now about writing generally, and my career, such as it is. The hurriedly written newsletter I sent out this week seems to have hit a chord as a fair few people replied. There’s a small group who reply regularly, anyway, but there were a couple of extras this time and one sent me a truly wonderful letter asking why I wasn’t famous, which was actually quite humbling, as well as touching. And then a similar discussion popped up with a member of the K’Barthan Jolly Japery group on Facebook who said I didn’t give myself credit over the books and then proceeded to say lovely things about them which had me walking on air for the rest of the day. Woot!
Funnily enough, I remember asking Gareth exactly the same question on Whatsapp while he was doing the K’Barthan Series. It was a question neither of us could easily answer. Why is one artist famous and another not?
Sometimes, it does appear that an artist’s skill at marketing or reading the zeitgeist surpasses their actual ability. But also, I think there are disciplines where the art of succeeding is about so much more than just the artist doing their thing. It’s really hard to talk about this sort of thing when you aren’t successful because you can come over as bitter, or sad or whatever. I feel none of that, surprisingly.
When I look at my books, I’m pretty sure they’re commercial, yet different. Hell, I’m even confident that, if you like that kind of thing, they are good. They just … don’t sell.
Strangely, I have come to realise over the last year that I am completely alright with that.
Perhaps it’s because I write my books for me. Sure, I want to share them with others but I like them. It turns out, they differ from the type of thing most people want to read, but they are the kind of thing I want to read and the kind of thing I like. I enjoy writing them, indeed, I kind of have to. It isn’t 100% voluntary, this writing gig. It’s a cross between a bad crack habit and a calling. I need to do it, I need to tell and share stories. It’s a compulsion and I think most people practising an arts ‘thing’ feel the same way about their creative weapon of choice. I’d say there are very few of us do it because we can, we do it because we have to.
So if we’re all telling stories, why do some people succeed and some people not? Well apart from the obvious things, I mean, in that some books are just terrible, or too out there, or badly presented, or the authors have a higher opinion of their own talent than perhaps they should.
Here’s my guess, or at least, this is what I said to the lovely person who emailed me, anyway. I think that ‘success’—or at least financial and fame-type success—in any arts career is about 73% hard work, 25% talent and 2% luck.
While talent and work can get you to the point where you can turn in the kind of stuff you are proud of and which may even get you earning, I suspect that the thing that gets you into the stratosphere, and household-namery, is that 2% of luck. You can probably succeed with less work and more talent, or perhaps if you put in more work, you can succeed with less talent but I suspect it’s the luck that takes you over the edge.
Luck is the right person encountering your stuff and then telling the right people. It’s Stephen Fry discovering one of your books and mentioning it on twitter, it’s David Gilmour hearing you and championing your work to the record company. I genuinely believe that all you can do, as the artist, is make sure you cover your arse; put in the other 98% of the equation, do the work, do it to the best of your ability, rinse and repeat in the hope that it will be enough, and then learn the other skills; do your best to make the luck.
Sometimes, I do feel that my books are the equivalent of Kate Bush’s music. Strange but good, only without the Gilmour. Other times, I think that I am probably being slightly deluded about my skills as a story teller to put myself on the same plane as someone like Kate Bush. And furthermore, that she would have succeeded without the Gilmour factor and that the ‘Dave’ effect was just the icing on a the cake that was already well and truly cooking.
The thing is, you just put your head down, make your shit and put it out there. Because the more of your shit there is floating in the ether, the greater the probability of Mr Gilmour—or equivalent— finding it. Or that huge review blogger—you know, the one with the thousands of followers who blindly buy everything she recommends—she’s more likely to find your books if there are sixty than if there are six.
It’s just maths innit?
That means, I guess, that one of the biggest parts of success is having a LOT of content available. Look at Julia Donaldson. The Gruffalo hit the big time quite recently with the film and all but it actually came out in the 1980s. I remember my friends reading it to their younger siblings when I was at school. Ditto Michael Morpurgo, who spent a lifetime producing scores of the most fabulous books but became major league when, some years after it was published, one of his books was made into a West End show. Behind those big successes are years and years of bum on chair, head down, create, rinse, repeat.
In my case, it does feel, slightly, that the amount of material people cite as essential to gain traction is always the number of books I have out, plus about 30%. When I had one book out it was three, when I had three out it was five, when I had five out it was ten, now I have ten out, it’s twelve. It is what it is; funny in a painful sort of way.
It might be, possibly, that availability everywhere also helps. I’m talking less about KU versus wide as large print, paperback, hardback, french, german, audio, ebook etc etc. If I ensure my content is out there in as many formats as possible it has to help a bit, right? And I have ensured that my whole publishing ecosystem is primed and ready so that, should the luck unicorn fart at the right place and time, and a cloud of richly-scented glittery sparkles float my way, I can maximise the exposure to that magic spangly guffage.
If a gargantuan back catalogue is the way to succeed, it’s unlikely to happen for me. My rate of output is way too slow to play the numbers game. But people do succeed without it. Perhaps I could be like that author who wrote a crime book, put it on Amazon so her family could buy it and woke up five weeks later to discover she’d sold 80,000 copies without doing anything. Oh no hang on, that was a) a crime book and the key word there is crime (or thriller or romance). And b) she was a solicitor writing in her spare time, as so many break out indie authors are—maybe there’s something in the mindset. And anyway, I’ve written ten books now and it still hasn’t happened so I suspect that boat has sailed.
As for making my own luck. Hmm … well. There are about 2,965 people on my mailing list. With every new release that number goes up by about 20. It seems that I cannot break through that 3k barrier until the next two books are out, at which point, presumably, my having hit the holy grail of twelve, the magic traction number will be fifteen.
Certainly, if it’s really true that I need about 10,000 engaged mailing list readers for any of my new releases to be even half visible in the stores—and I’m pretty sure it is—I will have to write an absolute craptonne of books.
Yeh. As, you can see I have a very long way to go. If I’m totally honest with myself, it’s probably further than I’m going to get in this life time.
Do I care about that?
Strangely, not the way I used to. When I started writing books, I thought my stuff was so mainstream and bleedin’ obvious that it would sell by the truckload. I thought a good product was enough and, sure, if I went back to 2010 knowing the things about book marketing that I know now, perhaps it would be.
At the time, I wanted to sell enough books to rescue McOther from his job because it was high stress and he was clearly not enjoying it the way he had at the beginning. Even in my most high-powered job—national responsibility, household name company—I didn’t earn what he paid in tax so between you and me, it was probably a rather ambitious target.
However, this last year, somehow, I seem to have let a lot of that stuff go. Perhaps it’s because McOther is retiring so he doesn’t need rescuing and there isn’t that same urgency. Perhaps it’s because he’s at home now and McMini was at home school for a fair part of the last two years and that’s been really lovely. Maybe it’s that life is easier now Dad’s gone. It was bad watching him suffer his illness but it was also very distressing to watch Mum endure it too. Now he is OK, and though she has dementia, Mum is OK at the moment, since she’s happy enough and ensuring that she is as happy as possible is all I can do. Maybe with less angst about other stuff it’s easier to let the writing angst go. Or maybe I’ve accepted that while success, on the world’s terms, is possible, it’s probably not going to happen, and that’s OK.
Perhaps there is just too much joy to be had in the texture of life to obsess over succeeding in one specific area. And perhaps that single-minded approach is what sets successful writers apart from people who are reasonably talented, but unsuccessful, like me. But I don’t want to miss Real Life and anyway, without it I can’t write. The daft games with the McOthers, McMini discovering the first faint signs of armpit hair and obsessively checking for extra growth and reporting his finds. His endless search for thrash metal records, his ludicrous out there view of the world. The pleasant, gentle rhythm of life casa McGuire or the holidays we have. All that stuff has to be experienced and lived. Not only is it important to me but without it, my mojo is as useless as a car without petrol. Life, living, experience has to go in for any writing to come out.
Anyway what is success if it isn’t happiness?
So will I keep writing. Of course. And without the pressure on myself to succeed, I find I enjoy it better and write more. Strange huh?
Will lots of people start reading my books? Will I earn a craptonne of cash from them? Will they become bestsellers? Will they be made into a film? Will The Pan of Hamgee become a household name? Well … it would be nice but if I’m honest … probably not. But you know what? Amazingly. That’s alright.
As long as I can carry on writing books, and as long as the handful of folks who do read and enjoy them keep on reading and enjoying them, I’m OK with that.
Talking about books …
Which reminds me, if you want to decide for yourself if my books are any good, feel free to read one. You can find a list of them, with links to buy them from the major stores, and mine, at the end of this smashing link here:
Or you can sign up to my mailing list and grab Night Swimming for free here: