Thursday, 19 June 2008

Some Thoughts on Self-Publishing

I had a long conversation with a writing friend yesterday about self-publishing. It is definite something which is gaining respectability. I do love the print-on-demand service which Lightning Source offer. Their service is quick and efficient and they offer a quality product. You gain immense satisfaction form designing the book and then seeing it arrive, all shiny and shelf-ready.

The big bugbear with self-publishing is that you have to be your own publicist and distributor and that can be time-consuming. Lightning Source does give you the option of linking to Ingrams. This does mean that you have to offer a substantial discount, but this can easily be achieved by sensible pricing.

Publicity is a little more difficult and it does require your own effort. Book Promote do a very good service for £396. You have to weigh up your time again that cost and also remember that they have same expertise and same contacts that you don’t have. Then, you also need to programme in your own activities. They do need space, time and focus. Interestingly though, of course, you need to do this even if you are published by a mainstream publisher. And since you make a bigger profit margin on the book when you’ve published it yourself ….

Monday, 16 June 2008

Children Behaving Well

I completed two more school visits last week, both of them secondary. One was in Stockport and one in Pontefract, so reasonably local to me in the north of England.

The children at the Stockport School, the Werneth High School were very lively. Nikki Heath, the school librarian had arranged it all. As I drove into the car park, I noticed a banner congratulating Nikki on being voted school librarian of the year. Once I’d met her, I could see why. She is so committed, energetic and apparently tireless.

The library at that school was absolute buzzing when I arrived and it got even busier as we went into break. Nikki had assembled a group of 35 Y8s and Y9s. They were all interested in reading and writing, but weren’t necessarily the brightest students in the school. We were also aided by one of Nikki’s Y11s. I did ask myself whether this was going to be a particularly easy talk, given the liveliness of the children. I needn’t have worried. As soon as I started talking, there was absolute silence. The students remained engaged for the complete two hours. I did my Character Magic exercise again. There was no reluctance to read out work at the end. The children’s character scenes were delightful. Nikki tells me how much they all enjoyed the workshop.

The Pontefract School, the Hemsworth Arts and Community College, was enormous. I saw two Y7 classes there. The talks came out slightly different to each group, which is not unusual. The second group asked hardly any questions, but we did get into an interesting “what if” conversation, with the students’ imagination, and mine, running wild. Their behaviour was impeccable. Their teacher, bright, young and enthusiastic, but nevertheless strict did deal with a couple of children I’d hardly noticed breath.

I have another primary visit today. Apparently there will be an Ofsted inspector there. Well, it won’t be the first time.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Hobbies for Dream-Livers

If you’re living the dream, what do you do for fun? If your day job is what you’re most passionate about, how do you have weekends and holidays?

I think I’m not the only writer who finds it difficult to answer the question “What do you do in your spare time?” One gut reaction is to say “What spare time?” If you’re self-employed, and writers living the dream are, spare time is time you’re not earning money, so the temptation is to keep on working. But you love your work anyway, so what’s the problem?

Sure, I go to the gym, but that’s about keeping the body healthy so the mind can work well on the texts and anyway, I think about my plots and characters as I plough up and down the swimming pool. There’s the odd movie – but the critical voice analyses the “text” and the writer learns form it. Even sitting in a café or a bus and people watching is part of your work. Very pleasant work, but work all the same. I do mix with friends, go to the pub with colleagues (yes, I’m employed as well, but my job is to do with my writing, ain’t I the lucky one?) and I love getting out of my head and out of my shed. I never use friends as characters. Friends are too precious for that, but I guess something about the way people are does go to the back of the subconscious all the same. Those occasions are great when they happen, but I don’t miss them if they don’t because I’m so contented with my writing life. Not my writing of course. Part of the life is ever seeking to improve and set yourself challenges.

So what is it that I now look forward to? Apart form the gin and tonic on a Saturday night and the dinner excellently prepared by my husband?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s singing with a choir. The Ordsall Acapella Singers to be precise. I hate it if for reasons beyond my control I can’t make it to a rehearsal on a Tuesday evening. We currently meet in Ordsall Hall itself, a fantastic old house in the middle of Ordsall and not far from Salford Quays. Our choirmaster, Jeff Borradaile, is a genius at getting the best out of us. Well, he got me singing didn’t he? He makes it fun, but is strict enough with us that we wouldn’t dare offer less than our best. He’s there every week, working hard with us, and gives us confidence at the ever-increasing number of gigs we’re getting these days. On the odd occasion that he can’t be there, our chair, Andy Townsend is a very competent substitute, as well as being a talented singer. And everyone is so nice. We even had a two day workshop last weekend. People singing instead of enjoying their gardens in the rare sunshine. Wonderful!

Why do I enjoy it so much? Yep, it gets me out of my shed and out of my head. But there’s something else about singing. It lifts the sprits. I’d swear I write better the day after I’ve been to a choir practice or a gig. One of the other ladies in my section works in the NHS and she’s been accessing articles which describe in technical detail how singing causes changes n the brain, though if you’re professional, there are other stresses. There’s also something about team work. You have to blend in with the others. There’s no room for egos – even if you get to sing a solo part. It’s a group effort and a great antidote to the solitude a writer needs. Oh dear, does it mean that even this is part of my work? Well, so be it.

I was rather bemused when a colleague I met at my new position at the University of Salford was being very persuasive about the choir. She is also on the Creative Writing team, and I became so intrigued by her enthusiasm that I thought I’d better give it a go. I’d not sung in a choir for years, thought I had helped out, with other staff, at one school I taught in when the music teacher needed to encourage volume in the students singing in “Joseph”. After getting to the end of school on a Wednesday after a day of stressful interaction with demanding teeageers I would think “Heck, I’ve got all this marking to do and get ready for tomorrow. I really could do without this choir practice.” But then I’d go along anyway, becaue I don’t like to break promises, and I’d sing my heart out, then come back to my classroom. The marking was still there. It somehow didn’t bother me so much. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “It’ll only take me an hour.”

Do you know what? There’s three of us from the Creative Writing team at the University of Salford now members of the choir. Chances are, singing is the great hobby for dream-living writers.

When I was a full-time teacher in secondary schools, I used to get a similar contrast to the day job through being in a drama group. Drama is too similar to what I now do daily, with the same stresses.

So, any more writers stuck in heads and sheds living within striking distance of Ordsall, near Salford Quays? Come and join us on a Tuesday evening at 7.00 p.m at Ordsall Hall.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Problem with Reading

The problem for writers about reading is that you can’t stop being a writer enough to get really absorbed into a new book. If you also happen to be teaching Creative Writing at a university as I am it gets even worse. Each book you read, you start editing and I often find I start thinking in terms of marks. I even reedit my own book as I give readings at schools and other meetings. I used to think what they said about Anthony Minghella was an exaggeration – that he never finished work he just abandoned it. Now I think I’m even worse than him.
Take the book I’m reading at the moment. It’s a typical holiday read, written by an American about American women but with much of the plot playing out in Europe. However, there is plenty of back story set in the States. I initially found several of the sentences clunky and the only character I’ve met in depth somewhat unbelievable. The technology is way out of date – no blackberries, no mobiles being used in flight mode and no wireless internet. Still, the book is only a few years old and that is how fast technology is moving.
And yet. By chapter three I’m hooked.
I feel very much the same about the Harry Potter books. I can pick lots of faults with the writing. Yet the plots are superb. Plot is King. And interestingly, Stephen King claims he does not plot but just puts characters together and sees what happens. Yet his plots are almost perfect. All this analysis, hey? Reading won’t ever be the same again, I guess.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Inspiring Locations

Well, here I am again, back where it all really started. I am staying in Nerja which is the place which inspired me to start writing again. It was that first holiday here, when there was an explosion on the hillside which made it smoke, and made the police, fire engines and ambulance rush up the hill. That year it rained in August and it never rains in August. The next day the lime-washed villas were covered in a spider’s web of sand. Two days later, the sea started moving to the west. Then we visited the well-known Nerja caves which are actually situated at Maro. All of this told me the story of “Jason’s Crystal”. It was significant, too, that that year the children ran out of things to read whilst we were on holiday. I was forced to write. I achieved a thousand words a day, which produced the chapter for that night’s bedtime story.

I had always wanted to be a writer, but I was then just one of those people who said “One day I’m going to write a book.” Of course, it doesn’t actually happen unless you make it happen. I gradually have now.

Nerja is a fantastic place. We’ve been going there since 1988. Anyone we know who’s been there just keeps going back. It has changed in that time and it has become much smarter, but the change has been gradual and not too violent. There are some sadnesses. The market closed some years ago. The Belgian butcher we have used for years has changed hands since we were last here two years ago. The greengrocer retired that year too and the shop has become a clothes shop which is also now closing down. But many things remain - our favourite beach restaurant and the old men who sit under the lemon trees on the market square for instance.

I dined out last night with a couple who live a little further along the coast. She is local and comes from Malaga. Nerja was the place of her childhood, because a TV series was based here. Rich adventures happened in Nerja in a TV series called “Verano Azul”. I am not surprised.