The role of the writer’s friend

On Friday night, I attended the launch for Pulp Fiction Press’s latest book, Carolyn Morwood’s Death and the Spanish Lady. It’s a murder mystery set in Melbourne in 1919, in the aftermath of the Great War and during the deadly flu epidemic that killed more people than the actual war managed to do. I’m excited to see it out and it’s next on my to-read pile!

I love a book launch. The publisher gets to finally release their latest project into the wild. An honoured guest gets to launch it with good and kindly words about the author, the subject matter and how everyone there should buy a copy because BOOK X IS AWESOME AND YOU WILL TOTALLY LOVE IT.

And the nervous author, often better at hiding behind a keyboard and typing than standing up in front of a bunch of people, gets to say “I’m really proud of my book. I hope you like it.” (Perhaps with a subtext of “I’m kind of glad it is all over now. Someone pass me a drink!.” and maybe a frisson of ‘Oh god, now I have to write another one!!”

In short, a book launch is all promise and hope. It’s that marvellous/terrifying moment of letting your words finally fly beyond your own brain and fingertips and hopefully find some hearts and minds in which to nest.

But the release of a novel can be a fractious time for a writer as well. To be more accurate, it’s the months after the release that can be fractious, with well-meaning friends deciding that the best time for critical feedback on everything they think you did wrong is after publication.

I’m not talking about reviews, whether in the pages of a newspaper or magazine or in the blog of an enthusiast. All writers know that their book will be reviewed, and they hope some people will like it, though they know some people will hate it. It’s part of the deal. Bad reviews only upset me, for example, when I agree with the point they’re making. But I can live with the bad reviews. Not everyone’s going to like what I do. I don’t like everything that other people do. We all bring our own interpretation and ideas to what we read. I’m not even trying to please all of the people all of the time, so it’s hardly surprising when I don’t.

I’m talking about the friends who say “There’s a spelling error on page 58” or “I thought it had a weak ending” or “I really hated your lead character.”

I don’t mean to sound like a hypersenstive, delicate little flower but… why are you telling me these things? Why are you, my friend, telling me you don’t like my work, to my face, as though that is a helpful thing? I don’t expect that all my friends will like everything I do, but seriously, why do some friends feel the need to tell me they think my work sucks?

I’ve already had a handful of readers (with particular skills and viewpoints and a mandate to look for the flaws) provide critical feedback it before I submitted it to my publisher. My publisher has read it. So has my editor. Numerous times. Both have provided firm, unflinching but constructive feedback on how to polish it, picking up the continuity errors, plot holes and thin character development as we went. A team of other readers, including the proofreaders, have gone over it and hopefully caught all the errors (though, yes, sometimes we miss them).

So, you know, it’s been edited before publication. Once the thing is printed and sitting in its crisp, shiny cover, smelling of ink and new paper and potential, it’s too late to change anything. And if you don’t like the ending or the lead character, that’s really okay, but what is the purpose of telling me so? The reviewers will cheerfully tell me they don’t like my work, and I’m prepared to live with that, but why are my friends telling me? I, my editor, my publisher and a bunch of other people responsible for releasing the thing actually really liked the book and the ending and the characters, or we wouldn’t have released it.  I’m not going to rewrite it now. It’s finished. It’s published. It’s done.

Here’s the deal.

Writers:  Never ask your friends what they thought of your book. They may not care for it, and you don’t want to make either party uncomfortable by putting a friend on the spot and making them either lie or hurt yourfeelings with their brutal honesty. It’s needy and awkward, so do not do that to your friend or to yourself.

(By the same token, if you are sharing your manuscript pre-publication, ask for honest feedback. You don’t have to take it all on board, but this is when the honesty is essential.)

Friends of writers:  Feel free to tell your proud author friend that you enjoyed their book if you did. That’s nice, but it’s not essential. You can always say “I like the cover” if absolutely nothing else appealed. If you think the whole thing’s a wash, try “You must be so proud of your achievement.” But skip the part where you imply that your writer friend would have better spent that two (or more) years of their life learning shorthand and becoming a secretary, which would at least have been useful.

Offer your your support and a little kindness because, believe me, there have been times when this process has been really rough and the writer concerned has seriously considered that secretarial course.

To show your support, it’s ideal if you buy a copy of the book, even if you don’t read it (though it’s nice if you do). It’s great if you like it, but you’re not obliged to. Just like you’re not obliged to tell the author every defect, great and small, you think the book contains.

So please, if you love me, if you understand what hard and emotionally exhausting work this has been, oh please be kind. Suppress that need to tell me how flawed you think my book is*. And I promise not to tell you that you really can’t sing, that you’re a bad cook or that your children are ugly**.

Because that would be rude and tactless.

*Though actually, if you find formatting or typing errors in my e-books Witch Honour, Witch Faith, Fly by Night or Sacrifice, I’d like you to tell me about those, because those ones I can fix.

**These examples are not aimed specifically at any of my friends, just in case you think it’s you I mean. All of my friends are excellent cooks, sing like nightingales and have exquisitely behaved and beautiful children.

Self-publishing = vainglory?

Dymocks’ announcement of the launch of D Publishing Network is lighting up the newsgroups and Twitter at present. It’s at pains to state that the venture is not ‘vanity publishing’, the service will nevertheless allow writers to pay to have their books designed and uploaded, with the distant possibility that some books may be distributed via the Dymocks chain of bookstores.

I am not sure how this model is different from ‘vanity publishing’, but it will allow Dymocks to participate in the shift to authors self-publishing that is already very common on Smashwords and Amazon.com.

I myself have books on both Smashwords and Amazon.com. Each of the titles was previously published by small presses (Homosapien Books and Five Star Science Fiction) and are now out of print except for the digital imprints I’ve now released online. These books have been through the curation process of having a publisher select them from submissions and polished in collaboration with a professional editor.

So, like Dymocks, here am I distancing my own online efforts from that dreaded label, ‘vanity press’.

Cory Doctorow doesn’t seem to have this problem owning what he does. But of course, he was a professionally published author long before he experimented so successfully with the digital self-publishing route.

Why is it that readers automatically assume self-published means bad books? True, we’ve all read books that were published in this way that were at best full of typos and at worst full of badly plotted, badly written, self-indulgent purple prose. But then, I have read professionally published books that are just as guilty of poor structure and style, many of which I’ve abandoned by chapter five because I just don’t have the time to read books I’m not enjoying.

If someone creates jewellery that they then sell at markets (or on Etsy), we might be intrigued and praise the artist for their work. We might similarly encourage and support musicians who fund their own CD to sell while busking. Such efforts don’t have the sales reach of an official music publisher or art gallery to promote them, but we don’t disparage the efforts or talent of such entrepreneurial creativity.  The popularity of such work will soon be determined by those who see and buy things on the spot, and help the creators build up an audience of enthusiastic fans.

But try to write a book, publish it and sell it on a roadside stall (or online) and everyone will just assume it’s terrible. Admittedly, it’s harder to determine in a short period whether the book will be your cup of tea. A painting, a piece of jewellery and even a track from an album can be assessed in a pretty short period of time. Taking out fifteen minutes to read the first chapter or two of a budding new work is more time consuming and maybe less revealing to the casual purchaser.

But this is not far from how we select books (either digital or paper) in the bookshops. There, we may leaf through the first few pages to see how it strikes us. We also go by word of mouth or, in digital books, a free sample to download and try. Staff and friend recommendations and reviews give us an overview of what we might like to read. Surely this same model can apply to self-published books?

I am trying to train myself out of the old gut response that a self-published book is necessarily a bad book. I’ve been disappointed often enough with traditional titles, and every good book started as an unpublished manuscript at some point. The self-published titles on Smashwords, Amazon and, in future, D Publishing, will eventually be sorted into wheat and chaff by virtue of the same methods used for books with publishing houses: reviews and recommendations.

Nevertheless, authors taking this route can learn a lot by understanding and valuing the process that takes place in traditional publishing, where manuscripts are selected, curated and promoted by experts.

Many self-published books fail on a basic level because of the lack of editorial input and proofreading. I owe so much to my own proofreaders and editors for catching things that I have missed because I have just been looking at the damned thing for far too long. It’s not fresh to me any more, and I’m reading what I meant to say; not what I actually said.

Those fresh eyes, who are paid to be constructively critical rather than being friends, who are looking out for my delicate writerly feelings, are essential to helping me become a better writer, and to releasing books that are as good as I can make them at the time. Luckily, the publishing house takes on the economic responsibility of paying these fine people in the hopes that my books will sell well enough for them to recoup their costs.

My publishers have all been small presses, so while finding distribution channels can thankfully be left to them and their expertise, on the whole, promotions and marketing are left a lot to me. It’s hard work, and it’s time spent spruiking that I would rather spend writing, but I have to get word out somehow. Those recommendations and reviews don’t write themselves. (Well, some try via programs, but nobody’s falling for that.)

Doctorow recently pointed out in a Locus article that self-publishing and especially marketing books is much harder than it looks.

In the end, I think that self-publishing can work and be worthwhile, but the author needs to exercise professionalism. Self-publish by all means, but be professional and businesslike in your approach to the manuscript. If you don’t have a professional publisher to take on the costs of editing, find an independent editor to at least proofread your work. Value their input. Even if you don’t agree with it, don’t dismiss it out of hand. If they’ve missed the point of your prose, maybe you haven’t written that passage well enough.

Take the time to learn more about the craft of writing. Learn about grammar, spelling and structure. Read widely to see how others do it. Accept constructive criticism gracefully. Be painstaking and check your work. Consider your marketing approach, because publishing is absolutely not a case of ‘if you write it, they will come’.

Be like those artisan jewellery-makers, those struggling artists, those hungry musicians. Put everything you can into perfecting your craft. Help to get rid of the stigma of self-publishing by respecting everything that a publisher does for a writer and replicating it as much as you can.

Then, with luck and good timing, the readers will determine what happens in the market.

***

My thanks to Katherine Horsey, a fellow editor, who proofread this entry for me.

I will be presenting ‘Introduction to digital matters for writers’ at the Australian Society of Authors’ E-Exchange Day on 17 September 2011. Check out the ASA page for the details.

Interview: Warren Bonett at Embiggen Books

Bucking the trend of bookshops closing down, Embiggen Books threw open its literate doors to the people of Melbourne in August 2011. Warren and Kirsty Bonett brought their arts-meets-sciences store from Noosaville in Queensland to Little Lonsdale Street, opposite The Wheeler Centre, for family reasons. It’s definitely a win for Melbourne!

I spoke to Warren in mid-August about Embiggen’s approach to life and its future plans.

Narrelle: What’s the philosophy behind Embiggen Books and the kind of books that you stock?

Warren: We focus on science as a pretty big area, but our primary thing is where the arts meets the sciences. Our MO, if you like, is a cross pollination of ideas. We got in a lot of neuroscientists to talk in the shop up north and we will do the same down here. They have a lot of things to say to people of all disciplines. You’ll find Proust, for instance, was particularly interested in the mind and there’s been a lot of cross-fertilisation between Proust and neuroscientists in the way that they think about thought itself and the brain.

N: What kind of ficton will you stock?

W: There’s quite a lot of science fiction in there, but what I’ve done is actually keep all of the different genres together from literature through to sci fi, horror and crime, because I think that the distinctions between the genres is shocking at best. It’s all a bit artificial. Science fiction or crime tends to become called literature after a patina of age has given it a bit of respectability.

Fiction is a good example of people being able to stumble across something that they weren’t really expecting to find or look for. Someone might come in for a Dickens and walk out with Doctorow instead. That idea, to me, goes to the heart of the store.

N: The store is making me think of Jules Verne, HG Wells and the whole Victorian era with that idea that the sciences and the arts not only don’t have to be separate but perhaps shouldn’t be separate.

W: I think they’ve both got to transform. Once upon a time you had the Renaissance-type individuals who didn’t really specialise but just applied thought to a wide range of disciplines. I think we’re at a point where that is almost impossible now. But some of my favourite artists and the most stunning artwork you’ll see today are coming out of people like mathematicians and engineers.

I think in some respects it behoves the arts to catch up with that, in that we can’t just rest upon our laurels and say “I’m a creative type, therefore I don’t have to pay attention to this stuff.” I think if you’re a creative type, it’s your responsibility to pay attention to this stuff.

So that’s my take on it, and steampunk and the Victorian era is really classic for it. The great icon of steampunk and in the sciences is Charles Babbage, possibly one of the top five most brilliant people the world has ever produced. His discoveries and his work are absolutely mindboggling, and he really did cross over between multiple genres. For instance, one of his favourite things was automata. That art that has really been lost, where you make a robot, effectively, out of clockwork.

I’d love to have some in the store and be able to represent artists that do the work in here. That would be fantastic.

N: Is that something you might consider in the future, having mini art installations?

W: Up north we actually did have a gallery attached to our bookshop. It just so happened that this space wasn’t really suitable for it. But we will conduct one and two day exhibitions, where we have a particular artist come in, some plinths and things through the store, by invitation only.

N: Is there anything particular you’d like to say to readers about your store and what they can expect of the experience?

W: It’s our mission to keep the culture of bookshops and having somewhere where you will be provoked in thought very much alive. We will have more events than most bookshops tend to, but we’ll bring in the people who are running the synchrotron or scientists from the Florey Institute in order to try make those things more accessible to people.

You don’t have to go to university or a specialised centre to see that. And that’s what we want to permeate throughout the shop. If you’ve got any ideas about anything that is worthwhile and rational and reasonable out there about the world, we want to help people connect with it.

***

Embiggen Books at 203 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne is open Monday to Saturday, and late on Thursday and Friday nights. Follow them on Twitter @EmbiggenBooks.

Embiggen is also now stocking titles from Twelfth Planet Press, including the first three 12 Planets anthologies, Nightsiders by Sue Isle, Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Raynor Roberts and The Thief of Lives by Lucy Sussex. It also stocks Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. So what are you waiting for? Get yourself in to Embiggen Books!

It’s not creepy, it’s research.

I like visiting graveyards. Some people think this is morbid of me. They suspect perhaps that I’m scouting for possibe monuments for my own passing, or wishing to dwell on the End of Things, especially since, as an atheist, I really don’t believe I have an afterlife to either look forward to or dread.

Others share my enthusiasm, like my friend Katherine who recently accompanied me on two visits to the Box Hill cemetery in search of a couple of gravestones. Two visits were required because we couldn’t find DJ Dennis or Cyril Callister the first time round. Luckily, on the second visit we bumped into some members of the Friends of the Cemetery who knew just where we could find them.

But seriously, I don’t find graveyards morbid. Sometimes they are very sad, especially the graves of children. Most graves are meaningful only to the families of the deceased. Sometimes, though, a little part of the person’s story is left behind for random strangers like me.

And that’s one of the pleasures of the graveyard for me. These places mark the end of everyone’s story, eventually (or, if you’re a believer, the end of volume one and the beginning of the sequel). From time to time, a little of that story is shared.

In Box Hill, Katherine and I found the grave of a woman from Brighton who had been a keen gardener. We knew this because her epitaph referred to her devotion to her garden and the joy she and her neighbours gained from her gifts with plants. Beneath the headstone, her grave contained a little panorama of plants and a bluebird made of porcelain, shielded under clear perspex. I never knew this woman, but for a moment I shared and understood her love of growing things, and sharing that love with her community.

The purpose for the visit was to take pictures for entries in a new iPhone app project I’m working on, so, see, research, like I said. Dennis and Callister were my destinations.

CJ Dennis’s grave bears a quote from one of his poems, and it was pleasant to spend a moment reflecting on the legacy of The Sentimental Bloke and his other works which I”m yet to read. At Cyril Callister’s grave, I took a moment to be thankful for Vegemite, which he invented, on which so many Australian children have grown up and which gave me a taste of home when I needed it while living on foreign shores.

It has to be said, as an editor in my day job, it’s also an occupational hazard that I spotted a typo on stone. I don’t believe in an afterlife or ghosts, but I swear I’ll come back to haunt anyone who carves a spelling or grammatical error into my final resting place.

Graves can be sad; they can even be morbid. I find them melancholy but restful, a reminder that every life, however, brief, has it’s own story, filled with love, drama, tragedy and joy. It’s a reminder that every story ends and that I want to fill mine with love, adventure, friends, exploration and the unexpected.

In case you’re wondering, if I end up with a headstone (rather than cremated and kept in a pretty jar) I’d like my epitaph to read: Here lies Narrelle Harris. Full stop.”

Words are like oxygen