Category Archives: Writing

Ten alternative New Year’s resolutions

I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. To my mind, the best time to fix something that isn’t working in your life is when you realize it isn’t working. If you decide you’re overweight in April, why not work on it then? Why wait to the randomly determined January 1st (when gyms will be packed in any case). But then I saw a stat.  that said more people who make resolutions in January carry through with them. So this year I’ve decided to break with old habits and attitudes, take a look at myself, and determine what needs to change. This, then, is my top ten list of things I will work on in the new year, in no particular order.

  1. Dare to fail
    I read the following quote from Michael Jordan back in October: “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occassions I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and I missed. I have failed over and over again in my life… that is how I have succeeded.”
    Fear of failure is paralyzing. It will prevent us from participating at all. Yes, rejection hurts. Yes, it dents our fragile egos. And it’s a lot easier to remain within our cozy den, away from all that hurt and rejection. But I won’t get better until I participate. That’s what Jordan was saying: you can’t make the shot until you miss it a couple of times (or a hundred, or a thousand) first. Every rejection contributes to success.
  2. Give up
    Yes, I know this seems at odds with the previous resolution. But I don’t mean stop trying. I mean stop pressing forward in the face of inevitable failure. Sometimes a story just isn’t working, and no amount of tinkering is going to make it work. Sometimes it’s better just to abandon it and move on. I learned this lesson in business twenty some years ago. I was running the newsletter division of a magazine publisher in London. My boss, an accountant by profession, taught me that it’s OK to give up on a title that just isn’t working. Shut it down and move on to something that’s easier and more successful. There are always new opportunities somewhere. Why waste your efforts pushing against a closed and locked door?
    Also (on this same general theme) sometimes the book you’re reading is just awful, and won’t get any better. I’ve wasted too many hours with books I hated just because of my obsessive compulsive need to finish every book I start. It’s time for that to stop. Enough. From now on I’ll give a book fifty pages to capture my attention. If I’m not engaged at that point, I’m putting it aside and picking up another one.
  3. Embrace my inner slob
    There’s one in all of us. The person who would rather hang around in the house all day in our PJs, playing solitaire on the computer, and reading trashy novels. Anything, rather than write. Wikipedia is a tremendous resource for procrastinating writers. You can waste hours on it, and chalk it down to research. The Internet in general, and email in particular are tremendous time sinks. Whole days just disappear down their gullets. Why would I embrace such behaviour? Arent’ we supposed to fight it? Confront it, and stare it down, until it turns and stalks away, its tail between its legs? Well, that’s what we’re told. But not all procrastination is bad. If you’re hesitating to get back to the writing, there’s probably a reason for it. You might be stuck, not knowing where the story goes next. You might be scared to ruin the great start you’ve made. We’ve all had stories unravel on us: fall apart under our fingertips. You might actually (imagine this) be tapped out and tired, your imagination exhausted by a crazy schedule. So I’m giving myself the permission to slack off every now and again, if that’s what my brain tells me it needs. Sometimes all it needs is the time and space to work out its next move, and bothering it with your need for the next sentence is not going to help. So get out of the way and let it think.
  4. Stop working so hard
    This is one my mother-in-law is convinced I’ve already embraced. Largely because she doesn’t see writing as work (especially as Imagenobody pays me to do it). The fact is, writing IS work. It’s hard, challenging work, that drains you, both emotionally and (surprisingly) physically. That’s the way I generally write. But it doesn’t have to be. Not always. Sometimes it can be pure fun. Human beings, I’m told, learn best through play. So I’m going to devote a bit more of my time this year to playful writing. Writing that I do for the fun of it.
  5. Abandon my goals
    This is related to resolution four. One of the things that makes writing work and not play is those pernicious goals: there’s a contest we’re entering, a journal we want to get our work into. Nothing wrong with that, of course. If we don’t have goals in life we’ll never achieve anything. But if I’m to write playfully, I’ve got to stop focusing on these goals — something somebody else determines is a measure of success, and focus instead on the rewards of the writing itself. The fun that can be had in exploring different styles, voices, genres.
  6. Break the rules
    I’ve spent the last several years working hard on my craft. I’m now at the point of diminishing returns: each book on I read on the craft of writing teaches me less and less, and reinforces old lessons more and more. Nothing wrong with that. It’s good to remind ourselves of what we already think we know, because it’s pretty easy to get slack and lazy, let’s face it. But the more literary journals I read, the more obvious it becomes that there are herds of writers out there, accomplished craftspeople, who work entirely within ‘the rules’. They colour within the lines. Their work is consistently good, but rarely really interesting. So I think I’m ready (now that I know them) to break the rules now and again. Not badly (at least not at first). Just for the hell of it, and to see what emerges.
  7. Savour rejection
    This is somewhat related to resolution one, but it’s subtly different. Someone (I forget who) once said that the writers who are truly blessed are those who haven’t been published yet. Because they’re free. Free of expectations, critical shackles, the need to match their former achievements. They can write what they want. They can enjoy total and unshackled liberty. True, that’s because nobody’s heard of them, or still less, cares about what they write. But it’s still liberating to think that, with every rejection, that freedom is extended a little while longer. Just as long as it doesn’t last forever.
  8. Stop deferring pleasures
    This year I’m actually going to do  with the things I’ve long wanted to, but haven’t because “I’ve got to get the book finished/the story collection done/a few pieces in journals” first. Forget that. If I want to walk the length of Yonge Street (1178 miles) to raise money for Toronto Rehab (who got me back on my feet after my heart attack) and blog about it, I’m going ahead and doing it.
  9. Laugh more
    This is self-explanatory, and health-promoting. Particularly, I want to laugh more at what I write: I’m hoping I’ll be laughing because it’s genuinely funny, but I’m prepared to poke fun at it too, if it’s that bad.
  10. Relax
    It’s better for my blood pressure. So much is out of our control in this world. It’s pointless contorting ourselves about outcomes we can have no influence or control over. I’m going to focus on the things I can change, and let the rest go.

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So that’s it. My list for 2013. What are you going to change this year, and why?

The Mystery of the Short Story

So here’s what I find a little mysterious about the short story. Why don’t more people read them? If it’s true that people no longer have time to read full-length novels (and I hear that a lot), why isn’t the short story taking over?

Fiction seems to be shrinking all around us. The Canadian literary journal The Malahat Review is currently running a competition based on Twitter length pieces. Flash fiction competitions abound. Postcard pieces, micro-fiction, the list goes on and on. And even the traditional short story is being squeezed. Here in Canada our national broadcaster, CBC, runs an annual fiction competition called Canada Writes. In previous years the word count for this competition was 2,500. This year it was just 1,500. The received wisdom is that all this shrinking down is necessary, because in this frenetic, media-rich environment, people don’t have the time (or the attention span) they used to have. The novel is dying, the wisdom says (it’s not the first time the novel has died. It has died pretty regularly since it first appeared) and we have to experiment with these new forms, because that is the only way we’ll persuade people to read in the future.

I think conventional wisdom is off its rocker. If people wanted shorter fiction they would be turning to the short story. They are not. In Canada this form of fiction is celebrated and still widely practiced, but (outside of the creative writing programs) elsewhere it is largely ignored. People don’t seem all that interested in short fiction.

Why? I have a theory about that. Short fiction takes a big investment for a small payoff. You have to enter an entirely new world with every story you pick up, immerse yourself in a new set of characters, and fall for them a little bit (at least, that’s what the writer is aiming for). That’s a lot of effort. I’ve just read the first story from Karen Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Now I love Russell’s writing style. It’s quirky, funny, and at times beautiful. It crackles on the page. But (you spotted this coming, right?), whereas her book, Swamplandia! immerses you in the worlds of the weird, alligator wrestling Bigtree family, the short story which mothered that novel left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Not that the story had the wrong, or a botched, ending. It didn’t. But I was just getting warmed up when it all ended. Which is why, I guess, she wrote Swamplandia!

We love to enter new worlds. And when we fall in love with characters we want to spend time with them. Want to experience their triumphs and disasters. Having fallen in love, we don’t want them to wave us away dismissively after 25 pages. So I think the idea that we don’t have time or attention for full-length works is just hogwash. Probably planted by a marketing exec at a big publishing house.

That’s not all I have to say on this subject, but it will do for now. What do you think? Is short fiction over-due a revival? Or do you want the full-on experience of the novel to possess you for hours at a time?

Book snob? Moi?

I just read a provocative post from a fellow blogger, which posed the question: are you a book snob?

Would I, for example, pick up Fifty Shades of Grey in a bookshop without cringing a little inside? Isn’t it better to spend our precious reading time with the classics than waste it with shallow drek? (I summarize and simplify for effect).

Well, it’s certainly true that I have been the snobbiest of book snobs. At the end of my sophomore year at university I bought a Euro-Rail pass with the idea of travelling around Europe for a month. In the event I spent a week in (the former) Yugoslavia and the rest of my month touring Italy. Somewhere around the middle of the second week I ran out of reading matter. I’d packed four books, but I’d read them all by the time I got to Florence. Panic started to set in. I probably started to twitch. I get like that when I’m not in the middle of a book.

Book snob somewhere in Italy, 1977

Fortunately, I was on my way to Rome, and someone told me about a bookshop which sold second-hand paperbacks in English for next to nothing ( I was on a pretty strict budget). When I got there my heart sank. The shelves were heaving with beach reads (Harold Robbins was a particular favourite at the time) – books that I wouldn’t or couldn’t bring myself to be seen dead with. There were only two books I could bring myself to consider: a collection of short stories by J.D. Salinger (For Esme, with love and squalor) and a book I’d never heard of by Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey). I’d never read any Austen, I’d always imagined her books would be girly and full of fluttering hearts. Nobody told me they were funny. Nobody told me they were hilarious. So my snobbery worked out quite well on that occasion: it opened my eyes to one of England’s geniuses.

It hasn’t always served me so well. In my early teens I read a lot of horror, and in my mid-teens a lot of science fiction, but I weaned myself off them because there were too many other ‘good’ books to read. It wasn’t until comparatively recently therefore that I was persuaded to pick up and read something by Stephen King: Misery. I was surprised. Shocked, actually. That experience put a little dent in my self-confident snobbery.

I’d like to say the decade since has been replete with similar epiphanies. I’d like to but I can’t. Every now and again I’ll pick up a best-seller to see what all the fuss is about (yes, I have read The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the Twilight trilogy, but I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey). More often than not I find myself feeling a little disappointed by the end of the book. Cheated even. Why? Usually it’s the quality of the writing. The Hunger Games is something of an exception. The writing, especially in the first 100 pages or so, is tight, and the usual, rookie mistakes are absent (he said, sneeringly). Suzanne Collins has a good eye for an apt metaphor. She is over-fond of cliches, to my taste, but of course cliches make ideas that much easier to digest. The plot is well constructed, and she (generally) shows us rather than tells us. Still, I didn’t love it enough to want to read the 2nd and 3rd books in the series.

You might say it’s a matter of personal taste, this book snobbery thing. Why should I look down my nose at books that other people enjoy? If they are entertained by them, if they are drawn into the worlds created in these books, then surely any subjective judgement of mine (or anyone else’s) that they are ‘bad’ is irrelevant?

I think there are three separate points to be made here (maybe more, but I’m going with three). Firstly, I think it is absolutely true that it’s better for people to be reading ‘bad’ books than no books at all. Nobody starts with Tolstoy, Stendhal or Austen. We have to graduate to them. Not everybody will. Some people (maybe most people) will be happy to stick with the easily-digested Pablum they started with. But others will move on to better books — books that stretch and challenge them, and that’s a good thing. Harry Potter launched millions of new readers, gave a generation of children an immersive and transformative experience of reading that will stick with them through their entire lives.

Secondly, I’ll accept that certain aspects of book snobbery are ill-informed and small-minded. We’ve come a long way since the great Victorians. Nowadays a story doesn’t have to be told in a ‘literary’ voice to be literary. In fact we’ve come to understand that distinctive, ethnic or cultural voices are as literary as the refined, highly polished voices of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. That’s why books like Half Blood Blues can win literary prizes. We may prefer the more polished sheen of former eras, and that’s our prerogative. Until around 1998 I read very little that was written after about 1903, but then I ran out of things to read, and I had to start to dabble in modern fiction. I’m glad I did.

Finally though, I will say this. Arguments about subjectivity can be set aside when it comes to matters of craft. From a craft point of view it is absolutely possible to brand a book bad: that is, poorly written. Read any two books on writing craft and you’ll find that they agree on certain fundamentals — things that are relatively easy to erase from your writing once you’ve grasped them. It’s not going to make your book ‘good’  if you do so, but it will prevent it from being obviously ‘bad’. In the case of the books I’ve mentioned above they are chock full of these fundamental errors (by the way, in case you’re wondering, Stephen King’s books are not. In fact, King’s own book on writing, called simply On Writing, is well thought of amongst writers generally). What that says to me is that the authors of those blockbusters don’t really care about, or believe in, their craft.

 

Stalking An Agent

It’s time. I’ve re-written and re-drafted until I can draft it no more (well, maybe just the once, for old time’s sake). I’ve pitched the book at an agent/publisher pitch conference and got some positive feedback (two partials requested and one full manuscript, out of four pitches). I’ve had substantive, copy and line edits carried out. I’ve spent a year or more on Publisher’s Marketplace compiling a master list of potential agents. If all of this seems a little obsessive compulsive to you, consider this: you only get one shot with any given agent or publisher. One audition to wow them. If you don’t you can never go back. Not with that project. Maybe with the next one. So there’s a lot riding on this step. Having taken four plus years to write a book, wouldn’t you want to spend a little time to make sure it’s not stillborn too?

Anyway, if you think that’s a little excessive, just wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet. So I have my list of agents, and a clear favourite at the top of the list. Julie Barer of Barer Literary. I’ve been stalking Ms. Barer for at least a couple of years.

The first time I found her on an agent directory she had one of the qualities I was looking for: she was young and hungry, and therefore highly motivated. But having just set up her own shop, she didn’t have much of a visible track record. I wasn’t subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace at the time, so I couldn’t tell what deals she’d done at her previous agency (Sanford J. Greenburger Associates). I loved the fact that she’d worked at one of my favourite bookstores in New York City (Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers). When I was working for Jupiter Communications, the New York office just north of Houston on Broadway was a short walk from their Broadway branch. Stars seemed to be aligning.

Since those days, she’s become something of a rising (perhaps even a risen) star in the New York literary scene. She’s done a particularly good job of representing debut authors. Everything I’ve read about her and her approach and philosophy resonates with me. She likes to work with authors to make the work the best it can be before approaching publishers. She understands the need for personal care and attention and she wants to work with her authors over the long-haul. (If you’re interested, you can read her interview with Poets & Writers).

There are other pluses. She likes international settings (my book is set in London), with historical backgrounds (during the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s). She likes books which teach her about unknown or untapped little wrinkles in history. The historical background for my novel was a new law, passed in the UK in 1960, which legalized gambling. According to the BBC, within 18 months Britain’s high streets were pocked with off-course betting outlets, as bookmakers set up shop in neighbourhoods. The book looks at the social impact of this through its impact on one family, and one relationship in that family — a mother and her son.

So far so good. On the surface everything looks groovy. But now we come to the most crucial part of the equation. Taste. Will she like my writing? Will she get it?

Think of this journey as a form of bizarre online dating. The agent/author relationship is a cross between a marriage and a business partnership. Compatibility is key. For some people a mixed tape is a good, early way, to check the compatibility index. Think of an agent’s list as their mixed-tape. These are the books they loved enough to fight for. If I don’t love them too (or at the very least respect and admire them) what chance does this relationship have?

I compiled a list of five novels Ms. Barer represented; books whose emotional landscapes seemed similar to that of my own book (fractured family relationships, secrets and betrayals, that kind of thing) and added a sixth just because I was intrigued by it. I took my list to my local bookstore, Nicholas Hoare. The little old lady who serves there on a Saturday morning is delightful. I’m never sure if she remembers me, or if she’s just that friendly to all her customers. She was devastated that she didn’t have a single one of the six on her shelves (the full list, in case you’re wondering, is at the bottom of the page). She insisted that I should wait while she found me a book (I have at least 20 novels sitting at home waiting for my attention, but what the hell, who doesn’t need more books?). She came back with several I’ve already read (Sister’s Brothers, Cat’s Table, Sense of an Ending), a couple of non-fiction titles that intrigued me, and also, miraculously, another book represented by Ms. Barer: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

Foolishly, I mentioned this to her. She launched into a rhapsody of praise for the book. I’m not the first customer she’s introduced to it. Far from it. And the others, she told me, have all come back wanting more from this author (Helen Simonson). I was ordered, should I be speaking with Ms. Barer (I’m apparently a personal friend of her agent now), to tell her to get Helen working on the next one, tout suite. I’m actually really liking it, although its tone is gentle, wistful and a little whimsical (while mine is often gritty, with a certain dark humour). It’s reminding me a lot of Barbara Pym, who’s been largely forgotten these days. But the good news it, it’s distinctively English. So you CAN sell books in New York about England and the English. Good to know. I’ve learnt that at least.

I’m making it my April 2012 book (yes, I know, I haven’t followed up on that series for months… I’ll get onto it right away), because it qualifies on all fronts.

What next? Next is the query letter. A single page missive where I beg Ms Barer to represent my novel, tell her why I want her and nobody else to do so, describe the book in about 100 words, and convince her I have the credentials of a writer. The only dangling question is, should I mention my little old lady, and the request for another novel, pronto, from Ms. Simonson?

Oh, and for those who are interested, the books from Julie Barer’s list that I was looking for in Nicholas Hoare were:

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, A Friend of the family by Lauren Grodstein, The Summer We Fell Apart, by Robin Antalek, The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport and Long Drive Home by Will Allison. The book I ordered just ’cause it looked interesting was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.

 

March 2012 Book(s) of the Month: Grammar Matters & How to Write a Sentence

Boy am I glad I relaxed the rule on fiction only this year, because it gives me the chance to introduce Grammar Matters to you. This little book (less than 100 pages long and pygmy-sized) may change your life if you’re a card-carrying member of the grammar police. Because in Grammar Matters, Jila Ghomeshi (yes, for the Canadians, she IS the sister of Jian Ghomeshi) argues that prescriptivism (the habit of correcting us when we make grammatical ‘mistakes’) arises from social prejudice. It’s a subversive theory, if not a particularly creative one, but even if you’re firmly entrenched in the prescriptive camp, I’d recommend you read this book. I confess that I cringe inside every time a TV presenter says literally when a) they don’t need to, or b) they mean figuratively, but I’m prepared to accept my grammatical peeves are as much a product of my background and upbringing as they are adherence to some mythical standard of proper grammar. Truth be told, grammarians backed into the laws of grammar by observing how language is actually used. Pick this book up and read it. It will take you about two hours, but every time somebody berates you for a subsequent grammatical error you’ll be able to pull it out of your back pocket and tap them sharply on the head with it.

It’s published by ARP, a small Winnipeg-based press. I bought my copy (for full price of course, because that’s the deal) at Type Books.

I’m really relaxing the rules this month, because I’m introducing a second book: How to Write a Sentence (and how to read one) by Stanley Fish. This may seem an odd companion to my other book pick this month, because it sounds as if it’s going to be a straight-laced, prescriptive book on the rights and the wrongs of sentence construction. It’s not. It’s merely a thorough-going description of the writer’s toolkit.

Mr Fish is a professor of law at Florida International University. He says he wrote this book because he’s become, over the last few years, increasingly dismayed at freshmen’s inability to string words into a coherent sentence. So he wanted, by the use of case studies and examples, to demonstrate not only how it’s done, but all the sentence construction tools good writers use. We have choices, he says, and our writing will improve when we familiarize ourselves with them and start to put them to use in our own craft. I’m always open to improving my craft, which is why I picked the book up. I’ll admit, I didn’t learn anything new, but Mr. Fish did make me think more critically about my own choices. The book is published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins (a subsidiary of NewsCorp). I bought my copy at Nicholas Hoare.

Five things I’ve learnt about blogging in the past two weeks

So here’s the thing: I had a funny little facebook exchange with a couple of friends two weeks ago. I posted a comment about an album I was listening to: said I was going to compile a list of 1001 albums I would rather kill myself than listen to one more time, and that Chicago Transport Authority is IN. They responded almost immediately with ideas about what should be on that list – their messages came through as I was changing in my gym’s locker room to go for a run.

So, in the 50 minutes I was on the treadmill, I got to thinking. Maybe I really should start a list. It would be easy enough to blog. Wouldn’t take that long. Entries could be pretty short. By the time I’d run my 5 miles, I’d written the first three entries in my head and had a number of other albums in mind for roasting.

Now, two weeks later, I’m wondering if I’ve created a monster. Yesterday my 1001 Albums blog had 30 times the traffic of this blog. 30 times! That’s a little depressing. I’ve been at this one now, on and off, for a couple of years. It’s all connected up to my twitter and facebook accounts. I haven’t worked at it hard, I’ll admit. I had a book to write, so I’ve neglected it for long periods. However, even on its busiest day it hasn’t got close to the traffic 1001 Albums is creating. It’s 10.30 in the morning here and 1001 Albums has already had more traffic than this blog had on its best ever day. So here are some of my observations on what’s different about 1001 Albums.

1. People (especially boys) like lists
They are good conversation starters, in the bar after work, standing around the water cooler, just generally. Lists are fun, and everyone can contribute.

2. People like humour
Since I incline to cruel sarcasm, I find I have to temper my inclinations a little here, but I haven’t bothered on 1001 Albums, because it’s just for fun, and if people don’t like it, well, they don’t have to read it do they?

3. People like silly photos
The search term which has generated the most traffic on my blog is ‘afro’. I posted a silly photo from the 70s of a guy with an afro, which I’d scraped off a random web site. Today, if you type afro into your browser, and click on that guy’s picture when it comes up in Google Images results, it will take you to my home page. This is not great news if you’re a word person, like me. I want people to come to my blog for the writing, not the silly photos. But the ugly truth is, it’s the silly photos that get ’em in.

4. People like short, regular posts
I post to 1001 Albums pretty much every day. It doesn’t take long. I can usually think about what I want to say when I’m on the treadmill and just type it out when I get home (you can tell the days I’ve been to the gym – they are usually the days I post). I do it over a cup of tea or coffee. Also, the posts are pretty short and quick to read. Most of them are less than 200 words (since this post is already at 500 words, I’m breaking this rule here).

5. People like strong opinions
They don’t have to agree with me, but having a strong opinion to react against is good. There’s way too much pale-pink opinion out there. Opinion that has been robbed of its testosterone. People are way too worried about offending people. Now I don’t want to offend people. I’m not going to go out of my way to offend people. But we’re not talking sex, religion, or politics here. We’re talking about Albums, something everybody can have an opinion about. I’m not worried if people disagree with me – a little controversy never hurt anybody’s ratings. I’ve already had as many comments on 1001 Albums as I’ve had on this site in two years, and it’s because people either wholeheartedly agree, or they actually LIKE disco. That’s something else that’s been weird: the things I thought were uncontroversial (disco sucks) have generated comment, but things I thought I was going out on a limb about, nobody cared.
Here’s something else that’s interesting. Here, in this blog, I’m careful to back up everything I say with evidence and argument. On 1001 Albums I throw out my opinions willy-nilly, often with no evidence at all, as if they are just obvious truths. Nobody cares. Well, very few people care. Which is a little bit worrying.

6. (I know it was five things, but this is the bonus extra thing)
People like focus. A blog is a little like a ‘department’ in a magazine. Everybody has their favourite spot: a feature they enjoy reading. Magazines are made up of a handful of these departments. When I was in the magazine business myself, I launched several, and the most fun part of that job was figuring out what departments the magazine should have. Blogs seem to work best when they have  a tight focus people can easily understand and identify with. The scatter-gun approach doesn’t work.
Also, carve yourself a niche where you’re a legitimate expert. Notice, I didn’t call my list the 1001 worst albums of all time. I don’t have the credibility to create that list. I’m not sure anyone does. You’d have had to have listened to every album ever made to make that list. It’s just a list of the albums I never want to hear again…Ever. There are a bunch of reasons why. Maybe they are overplayed. I really loved it in 1972, but I never need to hear Stairway to Heaven again. Maybe they are just really, really horrible. Maybe the artist who made the album was insane at the time. I’ve got so much to write about.

To blog or not to blog…

“Why should I give my work away? I want to get paid for it. How am I ever going to get paid for it if I keep letting people have it for free?”

The question was asked by one tortured soul in the Shameless Self Promotion Seminar at the Ontario Writer’s Conference.  The seminar’s leader, author Ann Douglas, had a sensible, balanced answer ready (so balanced and sensible that I’m pretty sure it’s not the first time she’s been asked this question). View it as a marketing expense, she said: an investment. You’re paying yourself for work which will help get the word out about the work you do want to get paid for.

The question is obviously one which haunts fellow writers: after Ann’s session I was chatting over coffee with a couple of the people who were in the same session and they echoed the sentiment. Why would we write for free? We should (it was put to me) respect our own work enough to expect to be paid for it.

I’ve got a lot of sympathy with this point of view. After I graduated (far too long ago now to mention) I was offered a ‘job’ at the publishing company where my mother worked. They couldn’t pay me (these days they call that an internship – back then we just called it cheeky), but I would learn the ins and outs of publishing, and it would be a start.

I respectfully declined, for two reasons: first, I had a number of job applications in, and was expecting to hear back about a paying job in journalism pretty soon, and second, it wasn’t a publisher whose publications I admired or respected. Turns out I was right – within weeks I had two job offers on the table – one from a company which paid me to go on a nine month Journalism For Graduates training course.

So I fully sympathize with people who take the point of view that writers should be paid for their work. But, on the other hand, which of us expects to be paid to write a job application? No, of course this isn’t exactly the same thing. The blog is a little shop window to the world. It’s not advertising, per se, nor marketing come to that. If that’s all it is, why would anyone read it? No, I think of my blog(s) as a place where my passions spill over, and opinions and ideas which I wouldn’t expect (or necessarily want) to get paid for, can be given an airing. Other people who share those same passions may be benefited, or entertained.

I wouldn’t put anything I think I could sell on my blog. Does this mean that what I post on my blog is just the off cuts? The work I don’t think is good enough to put anywhere else? Not at all. The things I post here are good enough (I believe) for public consumption, but not appropriate for any of the journals or magazines where I actually want to see my work.

It’s not even about money. I’m coming at this whole GIANT publishing adventure backwards, I now understand, having started writing a novel first. I now understand (thanks to a little research which I should probably have done sooner) that if I’m going to stand a chance of getting an agent’s attention when I come to start querying them about my novel, I’ll be a lot more credible if I have a few writing credits to my name. Not any old writing credits (I’ve got plenty of those, I was a journalist for 20 years or so) but credits for creative fiction in literary journals. So, for me, the point is not the money, it is  to get published, and build a portfolio.

For that reason you won’t see my work in progress here. I’ve just had one story accepted for publication, and am sending out another, today, to a magazine which I think would suit it very well. I’ve also currently got two other pieces out on submission – one to a single journal and the other to five journals. I’m currently  working on another short story which I hope to enter into a competition for ‘new’ writers. You won’t see any of this work on my blog until (and if) it gets published or I give up on submitting it. Not because I’d rather be paid, but because I’d like the publishing credits – it’s how a writer builds a career. One story at a time.