Friday, 27 January 2012

Breaking up is so hard to do

I've been dismembering one of my books, painstakingly taking it apart, page by page, so that each comes away from the glue of the spine cleanly, a perfect rectangle. It's a strange, not entirely comfortable, feeling. The book in question is a paperback copy of The Witness, my post-Scottish-independence thriller. I'm doing it because I no longer have an electronic version and the only way I can get the book onto Kindle is to have the text scanned and create a new file from it.
As I remove the pages I can't help pausing when my eye is caught by a passage or turn of phrase I remember particularly well or am especially proud of. I find myself reliving the pleasure of writing it, and this throws into relief the dilemma I face at the moment: should I abandon the novel I've been writing for the last four years? I wrote here last year that 'the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.'
Hmm ... now I'm not so sure. I think perhaps that this particular story has lost its energy. More than that, I wonder about its relevance to me in 2012. When I started it, in 2008, I had recently published two novels in quick succession, both of which had been critically well received. A third in the same general genre - the young adult thriller - seemed the obvious thing to do, especially for someone whose literary career to date had followed a random trajectory to say the least.
I had two ideas gnawing at me. One was to mine the diaries I had written nearly 40 years previously, during a year travelling on a shoestring through Latin America. The other was to examine the impulses that make someone steal. As a small boy at boarding school I had stolen sweets, sometimes from the large jar of favours that sat in the headmaster's study (fair game one might say), sometimes, much more shamefully, from other boys. I had been caught and beaten for it and it had troubled me, intermittently, ever since. What, at that moment in my life, had made me do something I had never done before and have never done since?
My story, The Artefact, concerns a precocious eight-year-old who is taken by his parents on a scientific expedition to Amazonia where the whole family suffers a trauma. Later, back in Scotland and growing up neglected by his work-obsessed parents, he starts to steal compulsively. This leads him into bad company and worse trouble. By the time he is about to leave school he is staring into the abyss. It comes to him that he has been cursed, that the only way to get out of trouble and rid himself of the compulsion is to return to South America and right a wrong he had committed there as a child, ten years earlier.
Although I’ve written around 70,000 words, hardly any of that has been over the last two years. Other commitments and interests have taken over, not least Room 121, the business book I co-wrote with John Simmons, and this blog. Dipping back into The Artefact now, some of it seems good, some less so, but - and this may just be the time of year, though I suspect not - it feels stale; the thought of returning to it does not make my pulse race. I know that to finish it is still several months' work. Then there's the thorny question of whether to find a publisher or self-publish. There’s promotion - can I face, indeed do I have the time for, touring the secondary schools again. And there’s the commitment to a follow-up, pretty much a given should I find a publisher.
  To some extent the project has already done its job. I’ve come to understand through the research and writing that in certain circumstances stealing can offer a form of comfort and a sense of self-connection - an explanation certainly, if not an exoneration. I’ve also discovered that my South American material bears revisiting, and there are other arenas in which I could re-work it, this blog for example. Yet a year ago a prominent children’s author for whom I have great respect, insisted that I finish it and paid me the compliment of saying that the kind of books I write are important to their audience.
So I’m stuck. Should I finish it simply because it's there? I need some other opinions – including yours, Dear Readers. I'm posting the first couple of chapters here to give a flavour of The Artefact. If you can spare a few moments, please read them and help me decide: carry on or let go?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A time for kindling

There are some things you just have to take on the chin.
Ten days ago we had our annual Dark Angels get-together. John comes up to Edinburgh from London. Stuart and I meet him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. We plan the coming year and enjoy a good lunch.
‘You’re such a geek,’ they said, as I produced my new iPad.
It’s not quite how I see myself, but from their perspectives I guess maybe it’s true. John cleverly avoids things technological by having an obliging better half to whom he refers from time to time as his IT manager. Stuart, the poet, simply scribbles things on the backs of envelopes. Me … well, yes, I confess I enjoy things that do clever stuff. I like to be properly tooled up for the job on hand (unfortunate turn of phrase, I know).
The iPad was a Christmas present to myself, well-deserved of course. That cut no ice with my 20-year-old son. He stole it at once and disappeared on an Angry Birds binge. When I’d retrieved it, I set about downloading the Kindle app (although in truth you don’t set about anything with an iPad; you just tap the screen and whatever it is happens almost instantaneously). In any case, this – Kindle – was the real reason, I’d persuaded myself, that I needed an iPad.
A few weeks before, I’d had an e-publishing tutorial with Edinburgh crime writer, Lin Anderson. Lin has had some decent results on Kindle with her backlist and is now, generously, on a mission to spread the good word to other writers. The good word is this: no writer need ever again suffer the indignity of titles forlornly mouldering in that great literary boneyard known as 'out of-print'.
This is a revelation. Out-of-print titles, in my case four out of six, are to all intents and purposes dead. No one’s promoting them (not that anyone other than me ever did much for mine, anyway). No one can buy them. No one can read them. All that effort and it’s as if, by declining to reprint, the publishers have locked them away, out of sight forever.
Enter Amazon. Suddenly, with a little bit of formatting I can upload my text and jacket image to the Kindle store, write the blurb, set my own price (having first reverted the rights from the publishers, of course) and the books can carry on selling forever. Now, here’s the really good bit. If that price is more than £1.50, Kindle gives me back 70% (or 30% under £1.50). I can set the price as high or low as I like, and change it every day if I want to test the market. Furthermore, Amazon, with all its clever algorithms, will automatically, electronically do at least as much promotion as my publishers did.
I’ve written in the past about the economics of publishing fiction (see here), but only in respect of my ten percent of the cover price and what it has contributed to my overall income (practically nothing); not about where the rest has gone. One swallows all kinds of things out of habit or convention. In twenty years of being published I’d never really questioned the obvious madness of giving away ninety percent of the income from work that I had sweated blood over. I do now.
Did I really need to help finance a glass-and-steel office at King’s Cross, an editor of whose time I might get a couple of days per book, a marketing department quite likely to commission a cover I hated, and a publicity department staffed largely by eager but clueless teenagers?
Clearly not, as I now understand. I can’t wait to get my backlist up on Kindle, to bring these books I love and am proud of back to life again. They won’t necessarily be my pension (though nothing’s impossible), but they will at least be there for people to read once more. Perhaps I am a geek, after all. If so, I’m a geek who doesn’t like not being read.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Life and Fate

We're two weeks into the new year and stories are everywhere, it seems. There's Melvyn Bragg and his Radio 4 series on the history of literature. It was the 4,000 year-old Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, that set humanity off on its story-telling spree, he tells us. Then there's War Horse, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel. Amid all the publicity, the author has been seizing every opportunity to repeat his mantra that every primary school day should end with the children being read to for half an hour.
   Back on Radio 4 Sarah Wheeler has been introducing readings from the diaries of various members of Scott's South Pole expedition, surely one of the most tragic of exploration stories. And then there was Jeanette Winterson talking passionately about why it matters to read. 'A book is a door,' she said. 'On the other side lies somewhere else.'
   I love that thought. The somewhere else, of course, exists only in our imaginations. But how vivid and real it can feel. Over the Christmas holidays I finished Life and Fate, the 800-page saga by Vassily Grossman set in 1942 during the battle for Stalingrad. Not the kind of thing I normally go for, I have to admit; the last big Russian I read was Dostoevsky, in my early twenties. But after Radio 4 recently gave over every drama slot for an entire week to a dramatisation of Grossman's book, I mentioned that it sounded worth reading and was promptly given it for my birthday.
   During the war Grossman worked as a journalist, reporting from the Eastern Front for the Red Army press. Witnessing the deadening hand of state ideology, even in the thick of battle, he was appalled by the similarities between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany - and went on to describe them in the novel with an almost Orwellian clarity. Before the book was even finished it had attracted the attention of the KGB, who eventually confiscated it. Grossman died in 1964 but had made copies which were later smuggled to the west where it was first published in 1980.
   It tells the story of Viktor Strum, a Jewish theoretical physicist, and his extended family who between them experience practically every shade of existence in the Russia of the 1940s, from the front line to the labour camps, the state-sponsored laboratory to the steppes, the Lubyanka to Treblinka. The central scene is the desperate struggle for control of Stalingrad during the pitiless winter of 1942/43; the central theme the erosion of individual destiny by the relentlessly controlling mechanism of the communist state.
   As 'somewhere else' it wasn't always an easy place to be, but it was an equally difficult place to leave. In my imagination I absolutely inhabited those bombed-out factories, Siberian wastelands, crumbling apartments; I lived the characters'  inner and outer struggles. The scale and ambition of the book made most of the contemporary fiction I have read seem puny and domestic. For the couple of months it took me to read it majestically enriched my imaginative hinterland and I don't doubt that I've expanded personally as a result. That's why we need to read. That's why the bookless households inhabited by a third of children in the UK offer such a bleak prospect.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Community spirit

For me the year began properly on Monday night with the annual village dance. In the middle of Birnam is a large, ugly Victorian hotel with one marvellous, possibly unique, feature – a huge first-floor baronial hall. Here we gather every New Year to dance and greet those neighbours we didn’t bump into in the car park of the Taybank pub which, complete with covered stage, raucous band and compulsory inebriation, has now become the focal point for Hogmanay itself.
The ceilidh, by contrast, is a family event. Every generation is there and most people know one another. There’s a great atmosphere, excellent music from Edinburgh's Bella MacNab ceilidh band, pretty well everyone dances, no one gets too drunk or shouts, and the feeling of goodwill is palpable. I leave each time with the glowing sense of belonging to a real community. It’s a constant delight and a novelty that never wears off for someone brought up in the kind of rarefied circle where one was more likely to have tea in a castle than mix with the local village folk.
It made me think what an elastic word ‘community’ has become. We talk of communities today to mean groups of people who are bound together only by someone else’s idea. There’s much talk of community in the corporate social responsibility report I’m currently writing for a large manufacturing plc. They’re eager – quite understandably in these scrutinous times – to be seen to be connecting with people beyond the factory walls, and doing the right thing by them. But the members of these communities, be they whole towns local to the factories, or particular common interest groups with whom the company has dealings, or just, collectively, the people who buy their products, have no knowledge of one another. So are they really communities? No, of course not. In a real community everyone is known to everyone else and all are nourished and supported by their membership of that group.
Which doesn’t, of course, mean that they must live cheek-by-jowl. A community that flowered briefly but thrillingly, and which I now miss greatly, was that of the musicians that gathered every Monday night at my local pub, the Birnam Tap Inn, during the first five years I lived in the village. Over the last few days I’ve been listening again to recordings I made of those sessions and the feeling of nostalgia is, at moments, almost unbearable.
We came together one evening a week to make music in the most spontaneous, open, communal way possible. Everyone was welcome, whatever their musical ability. There was no programme or agenda. We simply played what we felt like on the night and because the place attracted excellent musicians, the music was mostly of a much higher quality than usual for a pub session. It was exhilarating and deeply connecting, not just for the players but also for the audience of regulars and passers-by. We were all enriched by the experience and on certain nights, when the energy was high and the musicians hit a particular groove, there was an almost religious intensity to the experience.
The session finally ended when the hotel to which the pub belonged closed down. That was three years ago. Now the place is a pizza parlour; home, perhaps, to a new community of regulars. Whatever brings us together, most of us need communities - although it wasn't really until I returned to Scotland, in my early 40s, that I realised it. Now I belong to several, the village of Dunkeld and Birnam, Dark Angels and 26, to name but three. The thought warms me as we face the uncertainties of 2012.