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We sit on our hands
I’ve just written a song. It’s called “We sit on our hands.”
Last week the House of Commons shied away from allowing even the possibility of military action in Syria. Now I’m far from being a hawk who wants to go to war at the slightest excuse, but honestly I was appalled. In that one vote last week we stopped being British. In that one vote we gave succour to the murderers. In that one vote we finally lost the cold war and allowed the Russians to win. (No wonder they feel confident enough now to portay us as an insignificant people that no one needs to listen to any more.) And finally, in that one vote we told the oppressed Syrian people to give up hoping that someone cares enough to help.
Of course this may be an overreaction on my part. Perhaps I need to embrace the realpolitic of the situation, act in cool clear detached sort of way to the gassing and burning and murdering of children. But I really can’t.
I’m not saying we should just wade in without thinking about it. What I’m saying is that we cannot just shrug our shoulders and say “what can we do - it’ll only make things worse.” We need to allow ourselves to remember our humanity, and act when we should act - not for the greater glory of Britain, not because of financial interests or political adventurism, but because there’s a governement out there torturing and murdering its own people - men, women and children.
Next week and Congress will be voting too. I’ll nail my colours to the mast: for the sake of the future, for the sake of freedom, for the sake of human decency and dignity they must vote to do something and not just sit on their hands.
The lyric is here. Hopefully I’ll record the song this week.
Syria - Parliament - Congress - Military Intervention
My good friend Ĝivind Hatland has sent me a Christmas present: a CD of his lovely, sad
song, Let Sorrow Go By. I had a bit of a hand in the making - the words are mine. It was a curious exercise. Ĝivind was a successful Norwegian performer in the seventies and eighties, both solo and with a band - typically doing covers of UK and US hits. A couple of recordings have found their way onto You Tube:
But Ĝivind also turned his hand to writing very fine melodies too. On one of my visits to
Bergen he played me an old song of his and wondered if I could come up with some new english lyrics to fit the melody. I don’t speak Norwegian but to my ear his original lyric sounded quite beautiful and I did wonder whether I’d be able to match them. Deliberately I didn’t ask for a translation - I wanted to produce fresh lyrics suggested by the music rather than just rehash Ĝivind’s ideas. I came up with the lyric “Love Remains” - the story of a ghost watching closely the love he has lost and guarding the memories of their days together. I learned after that Ĝivind’s lyrics were also about a lost love, though the loss was to do with the breakdown of a relationship. But the mood was very much the same. It just shows that a good tune always tells its own story.
Ĝivind decided to go with the new lyric. After much studio time - Ĝivind not me! - and careful engineering the song is now finished. I love it. There is a sort of 70s vibe to it, an undeniably scandinavian sound. Wistful, and bittersweet the performance. Far beyond anything I could have done with the lyric.
A most kind man, Ĝivind has generously allowed me to add the recording to my site. And here it is (if I can remember how to get it uploaded!)
From the city side
the opera house is slabs of
stone and ice fractured
by the movement of currents
beneath. Rising in the turbulence
all angles, ready to fall and rise again.
I seek orca, seal and polar bear but find only
more like me..
On the harbour side,
looking back, the house navigates to a berth,
a vast ocean going liner, with a bridge
but no prow – instead she slopes into the water
like the nosing of a nuclear submarine. Encased
in mighty glass sheets the decks, protected from the elements,
are hardwood memories of Vikings.
A million slats girdle the circle and stalls
And carry the gods.
That forward slope invites exploration above decks.
We tread monumental slabs of white marble,
covered now in snow, and the tracks of adventurers.
Giselle and La bohème tinker with hearts below while
beyond such tales, the human spirit seeks height and
perspective – or merely something to do on
this cold, sunny day.
We walk above but it is no roof. All those making journey
discover the sky snowfield, a high frozen plane transported
from Svalbard or Norway’s remote interior. Ancient to the heart but for
steel towers, monolithic without heeding stone,
mysterious, brutal and alien, making science fiction of the fantasy.
On descent of the slope, and departure, my footsteps circumnavigate
a message to the world, trampled into a once virgin field.
Standing close to the water’s edge I read clearly the
words ten feet tall
Whether in the glory and ecstasy of art or a
Youthful need to announce presence and existence,
Man everywhere must leave his mark
- and upon the works of other men!
I wonder if Svenne will grow up to be a critic, or Agy (I assume that Svenne and Agy(ness) are an item.
This piece is not a poem – though it may be one day. For now it is a bundle of images and thoughts prompted by the excellent new(ish) Opera House in Oslo. I didn’t have a camera with me at the time of my visit so words will have to suffice - though you could get a better idea of what I’m going on about if you go here
http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=oslo+opera+house+images&hl=en&qscrl=1&nord=1&rlz=1T4SMSN_enGB460GB472&site=webh p&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=ihNNT4HDMMLf4QSsvJiLAw&sqi=2&ve d=0CDIQsAQ&biw=1366&bih=589
My note book reminds me of one other memory of my visit. Within two minutes of me wandering inside the building we had a Doctor Who moment. A spaceship alarm bloop boo-ooped, maybe I had been transported to Skaro. Or maybe The Library.
A voice spoke ever so clearly in Norwegian then English:
“The fire-alarm has been released,
please leave by the green emergency doors.
The fire-alarm has been released,
please leave by the green emergency doors.
The fire-alarm has been released,
Clearly the “Fire-alarm” is some fearful monster to be avoided by all who wish to survive.
This all began with a lack of confidence. The abiding idea that I would never be good enough to be a writer lay behind every poem stuffed into a drawer, every draft manuscript tightly packed into a taped-up box in the garage.
Regular visitors to this site may bear witness to a seeming truth that I have been posting material on the good old www in a manner suggesting I was a bona fide writer, with worthy opinions and a distinct voice that surely deserved an audience. My god, the tag line on my home page reads “Wilf Kelleher Jones, fantasy writer and poet” as though such a description was undeniable fact. Believe it or not, the line was included only after I had given myself a severe talking to. For deep inside me, then and now, a lack of achievement feeds that nasty little imp of despair. Grinning the while, it speaks to my living soul of the worthlessness, the mediocrity and self delusion that daily governs my supposed writing career.
An undeniable fact is certainly that I do write. All sorts of things – poems, songs, stories, fictional histories, novels. I’m not prolific but the work mounts up over the years. The question to ask is: what have I done with this mighty body of work? Well actually, up until the year 2011 arrived, the answer was a big fat nothing! In 2009 at least I joined a writing group and began to read out a few pieces. Before then, nobody read my stuff. Ergo my stuff wasn’t worth reading.
The odd thing though was that, despite this constricting lack of confidence in presenting my work, I always knew that there was one person at least who enjoyed what I produced. Me. Me being a fantasy buff, with a delight in story-telling and a fascination for legend and myth; someone who quivers in awe at even the thought of Haggia Sofia or the tomb of Cyrus; someone as happy reading verse as prose; someone who would regularly spend hours pouring over maps of imaginary lands and wondering what mysteries and adventures inhabited the unexplored hinterlands and the countries lying beyond the bounds of the page. My reasoning was simplistic: if I like all those things, I thought, and I can find them all in the stories I produce, then there may well be other people in the world just like me and maybe they’d be happy to explore all the landscapes I have imagined.
So stop being a wuss, I told myself, and put it all out there. Give it a chance to appeal to someone, to find some friends.
That’s what I’ve been up to over the last ten months. I found it a challenge trying to create the website, and hard work to promote it, but overall the experience has been good. I get visitors! I presume that some of them actually read what I write. Some of those blessed souls even choose to tweet-on what they have discovered. The featured poem page tweet counter is currently on 498 – most new chapters of The Best of Men seem to get over 50 readers. It isn’t going to make me famous and certainly won’t add to my exchequer but from 0 to 50 is without doubt an improvement.
But now it is decision time. My original idea was that I would post all my poetry free-to-read; that I would keep the site free of advertising; that the entire first part of The Best of Men would be made available not only free-to-read but downloadable in handy pdfs. You see that sneaky imp got in there and convinced me that no-one would ever want to pay for my stuff. “You’re getting nowhere,” it said, “with any of those those clever agents and wise editors, and you never will. You may as well just give it away– if anyone’s prepared to take it. Or give it up.” Bad imp.
But things have changed. No honestly. Incredibly, I do believe I’ve finally managed to evict that odious little blighter. Like Smeagol supported by the kindly Frodo, the unwelcome alter ego, that false, lying, pretend conscience has been ousted. How? Well part of it was the benign influence of good friends at my writing group. Their support and constructive critique has been a revelation to me. Bear in mind I have written in camera all my life. But something else is at play. You guessed it: the internet screams an alternative path. It is possibility where none existed before.It is independence – with no guarantee of success, guarantee of failure. That’s the thing about opportunity. Now I can and I will. Does it matter that my publisher of choice has so far failed even to acknowledge my e-mail. Irritating but really not a problem. Does it matter that…
Do you know I struggled for twenty minutes to identify another “does it matter” but failed miserably. What counts is that I no longer worry about any of it. Decision time. A decision has been made.
And that’s enough for now. More later. When I’ve done a little more thinking and can map it out.
I got back late from Oslo, exhausted as usual, and you’d have thought a quick glass of wine and then blessed oblivion would be the plan. But I couldn’t even think about bed. Next week was the launch. We were about to present our debutante anthology, My Daughter was an Astronaut, at its very own coming out party. The publicity would begin with an interview on the Lesley Dolphin show on BBC Radio Suffolk. I stayed up late reading and re-reading every last story or poem in the book. I needed to become an expert.
As it turned out the publicity effort really began on Remembrance Sunday. My son Robert was due to parade with the Air Cadets up onto Angel Hill for the laying of the wreaths. Mary and me and Isaac would be part of the huge crowd, applauding the veterans, moved by that brave and beautiful rendition of The Last Post, somewhat shaken by the low flypast of the two Apache helicopters, but overall completely grateful to be British and free and respectful on that bright November morning.
Before that was a rather less important call to arms but something that had to be done. The photo-shoot. George had been building the website for the book. It needed pictures. Waterstones in Bury have been exceptionally good to us: they would be hosting the launch and were happy to sell the book. Luckily for us they always seem keen to support local authors and long may that continue. For the photo-shoot once again they helped out by rearranging dump bins, displaying posters and putting up with the odd looking bunch getting in the way and making the place seem generally untidy. We tried to be as quick as possible, but it was a jolly little moment for us to savour. Whether the exercise sold us a single extra copy was irrelevant – we were there to share a common sense of achievement before the pressure began.
BBC Radio Suffolk is a friendly place. Tucked into a corner plot by a busy roundabout hard by Ipswich town centre, you could easily miss it. I arrived too early of course but that was fine –a pleasant half hour chatting to the entertaining lady on reception helped me relax. There would be two of us to share a conversation with Lesley Dolphin. I was there by dint of the fact that the title of the book was taken from a poem of mine; Carolyn was there because she’s just so good at these things – that and the fact that the anthology was her idea in the first place. I was intending to post the entire interview for your entertainment but I failed to harvest it properly from the Radio Suffolk website. What I do have are the readings we did for the show. You can find them
It was the first time I had ever been on the radio, the first time I’d been the author plugging his book, and if you click on the link you’ll hear the first ever reading of the poem My Daughter was an Astronaut. Up until now I’d read it aloud only to myself. All in all a good experience for
me. I’m truly grateful for Lesley’s kindness.
Are all radio stations like this? I expected producers and presenters to be professional but the enthusiasm and the encouragement gifted to guests at Radio Suffolk is quite humbling.
Dress rehearsal for the launch went smoothly on the Tuesday night. I read the poem for a second time. We talked through the programme; I thought the whole thing would be a breeze. And mostly it was.
The guests arrived on time – over a hundred of them. We managed to greet the Worshipful Mayor of St Edmundsbury with the correct form of address. The hubbub of nibbles and wine and chatter had a strangely calming effect. I called the room to order with my best bellow and proceedings began almost on time. The opening words from the Mayor were followed by George’s introduction to the book and to the Writing Group. The audience were attentive, there was no heckling (I tried to keep schtum). Teamwork was the theme. There are 15 contributors to My Daughter was an Astronaut. The writing aside, everyone involved has got stuck in wherever necessary, and boy has it been necessary.
But all this was preamble. The audience wanted to know what the book was like. They’d come to hear readings, and so the readings began. Rose O’Meara’s rendition of the Flint Wall was perfect – her voice cleverly full of the cumulative disappointments of her character. And David Richmond should be acting: the extract from his First World War story Summer Madness left those gathered in stunned silence before erupting in a hugely deserved burst of applause. How could I follow that?
Time for another first. Part of the reason I’d wanted to read My Daughter on the radio would be so that I could get that first read done in a small room with only a couple of people present. And that wasn’t because I was worried about being word perfect. I was worried in fact that I might not even be able to get through it at all. At the launch, in front of one hundred people, most of whom I didn’t know, I read it again. The first for me this time was in allowing my emotions to get the better of me in front of a large audience. I had to force myself to read the last line - and then I ran for it.
Luckily Nigel George stepped up immediately with the Utah Gun Prison and Pizza Company. His outrageous blend of humour and violence always makes me feel guilty for giggling so much. Leave ‘em laughing they say, so he did.
There you go: a week of firsts. First radio interview, first reading for the poem, first book I’ve ever published, first launch party, and the very first time I’ve truly lost it in public.
Next event we do I’m going to read something else instead.
I am sitting at breakfast in the Scandic Hotel in Tromsĝ, Norway. Out there, across the sound, rugged peaks with names I do not know stand tall and proud and eternal. They dwarf the building work going on below to improve the Jekta shopping centre, and make even the amazing endeavour of human flight, represented here by the Tromsĝ Langnes airport, insignificant in the face of the reality of the earth, and moon and sun and stars.
And yet, last night as I stood in the car park, a steaming coffee in hand, gazing at the ineffable play of the northern lights across the panoply of a sparkling universe, my thoughts were not lost in space, or contemplating the grandeurs of existence. Instead they were back in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, running through over and again everything that had yet to be done before publication of My Daughter was an Astronaut, and hoping my colleagues in our venture were not suffering too much stress in my absence. This may seem to you the tiniest of endeavours but for now, for us, it’s enough.
It began for me when I joined Write Now! the Bury writers’ group in November 2009. I’d been writing for years, small poems and vast fantasies, but hardly ever bothering to submit my work for publication. There had been a few well merited rejection slips along the way, but finally I decided the time had come to change the game. After years of selling other peoples’ books I wanted to sell my own.
George Wicker founded the group five years before my arrival. He’s an inspirational man though he would most likely deny it. A Taoist, a vegetarian, a poet and novelist, he’s happiest cycling through the lanes of Suffolk or playing his guitar. Like me he’d reached a tipping point. He’d published a volume of poetry, and completed a fantasy novel, but knew he needed to go one step further.
So, here we are: a group of twenty-five or more members – a diverse gathering of teachers, those retired or un-retired, engineers, doctors, salesmen, lawyers, students, actors and indeed the odd professional writer. We meet every two weeks in a small room in the Woolpit village hall. There is perhaps a hard core of ten members but others come and go as life dictates. Our duty is to bravely read out our work, and then try not to flinch as the brickbats of critique fly across the table. I make this seem a fierce process, and it is certainly not for the faint hearted, but there is a world of encouragement in that room, a kindness of common purpose, a finding of feet. At every meeting we entertain each other hugely and then offer reaction and feedback for no other reason than to help each other achieve something better. Bruised sometimes but buzzing, we return to our desks to repair, rework, rewrite and we feel privileged to have found such company.
One of the tenets of the Write Now! constitution is that members must actively seek publication. I became a member shortly after an idea had been mooted that, as part of this drive to fulfilment and to encourage the uncertain, it was time to put together an anthology - a celebration of five years of solid hard work and fearless invention. At my very first meeting submissions were sought.
What sort of book would we produce? From the start we agreed it would be the sort of book Penguin or Harper Collins might sell through a proper bookshop - nothing less than that. Well, there are many paths to publication these days if you are prepared to pay someone to do the work for you – the cover design, the typesetting, organizing the print run, buying the isbn, registering the title with Nielsen and so on. But we wanted to do as much of this by ourselves as possible. We wanted Write Now! to be the publisher. We were encouraged by the fact that George was a typesetter by trade.
I remember that a lack of confidence set in almost immediately. Could we trust ourselves to pick the right material? How would it be if some members of the group rejected the work of other members? And did any of us have the slightest notion of book design and cover art. We collectively decided to seek help. First of all we asked the writer David Pescod to cast his eyes over the submissions and select only the best of them. And we co-opted the help, through a little paternal pressure, of graphic designer, Oliver Kemp, to come up with the cover art.
It wasn’t long after that the trouble started.
Were we happy with David’s selection? Yes and no. “Why has he picked my worst story and ignored my best?” and “There aren’t nearly enough poems!” were two of the less contentious remarks. The first jacket design came in: a ruined house with a rocket ship parked alongside, under the garden turf a grubby doll and a spaceman’s helmet. It came with a choice of fonts. It is astonishing how quickly the meeting room divided.
The book was to be called My Daughter was an Astronaut. When the first selection of stories was made we each browsed through the work seeking some inspiration on a title that might unify the whole project. The stories and poems were diverse in genre, style and purpose. No help there then. Picking a title to indicate that the book was in fact ‘a bag of bits’ produced efforts ranging from the trite to the bizarre. I myself tried to promote the word salmagundi, a dish of many elements, but thankfully I got nowhere with that one. And so instead of seeking some common denominator or a synonym for the word anthology, we plumped for using the title of one of the chosen contributions. It was a democratic process: nominations were made and votes counted. The Astronaut title narrowly beat The Flint Wall.
We sought a more cheerful jacket – the first attempt obviously having more to do with psycho killers than the general content of our book. The next offering presented a midnight blue sky with stars and a golden rocket ship, the silhouette of a young girl on a dark hill in the foreground, her hands reaching up to the heavens. “But it looks like a children’s book!” came the cry. “I like it!” came another. Our anthology is really not for children so we needed to be wary. “Can we lose the Borrower?” I asked. The child became a regency woman prancing through dark grass.
We began to lose hope. There was no agreement on content, strong opinions on the merits or demerits of each cover design. I’ve spent so many years in publishing that I knew arguments over design are to be expected; for those less used to such considerations the disagreement seemed insurmountable and enthusiasm for the project drained away. It was now half-way through 2010 and thoughts turned to the easier matter of our biannual Write Now! short story competition. To me this seemed a distraction, for others it was a blessed relief. The anthology was shelved for several months.
In the end the break was exactly what we needed. Over the course of two years while some people dropped out of the group, along came new members. Their energy and intelligence put fresh fire in our bellies. In a spirit of rejuvenation the anthology committee met again in February 2011. I laid on crisps and wine only – we didn’t want too many distractions. The meeting proved pivotal. We rededicated ourselves to My Daughter but determined that things had to change. From now on executive decisions would be made with little reference to the wider group. We would re-open submissions to new members, and allow extra submissions from the rest. We would make the final selection of content entirely our own choice, with the committee deciding what was to go in and what was to be rejected. George set out to address production questions. Carolyn and Eleanor began to consider the opportunities for marketing and publicity. I was tasked with sorting out the cover.
It’s a tight space my dining room but even so there was a stonking great elephant in it. “So, how are we funding this?” David asked. Bear in mind that at Write Now! we are not in the business of making pots of money out of the members. We each pay a small membership fee at the beginning of the year, while the £2 a meeting sub is taken only to pay for refreshments. Our bank account wasn’t exactly groaning after we had awarded the prizes for the short story competition. Some few hundred pounds was surely not going to be enough.
You may not be familiar with print processes. Essentially the main choice lies between printing a short run digitally, or going for a longer run where the costs work out best with good old fashioned lithography. 250 - 300 copies digital might cost, just for the printing, say £700, where the same quantity litho more like £1100. But if you increase the quantity the digital cost goes up with each extra copy while the litho figures barely alter. We plumped for 750 copies litho at a cost of £1400.
Barry delineated our options. “As I see it there are four possibilities,” said he gravely, “We may be able to get funding, say from the Art’s Council or a similar body; a local company may be able to offer sponsorship; we could, if pushed to it, explore the notion of advertising within the body of the book, or,” and here he paused to fix us one by one with a steely eye, “we could just pay for it ourselves.”
Well, although David went off to explore several of these avenues, we all knew there and then that if the book was to be made real, the funding would have to come from our own pockets. As far as I’m concerned that is how it should be. A friend of mine recently reminded me that John Murray risked everything to print all those copies of Byron’s Childe Harold. Well ours is no great work of literature, merely an entertainment, but the principle is the same. In the end it was not so hard to finance the book. We found that, with a little jiggery-pokery, if each contributor of content also put in a portion of the cost then the price of production could be met. Write Now! Publications is an entirely self-funded operation. We contributors have spread the risk among us, but yes, we all stand to lose our deposit if we can’t make the book work.
Which is why, while I spend my Saturday morning writing this little piece, for want of being able to help otherwise, my friends in Suffolk are slogging away preparing for publication day. I hope someone will send me a picture of the Waterstone’s window display advertising our launch party on the 16th November and perhaps also a shot of the pile of books within the shop. Work, the daily grind, will keep me in Norway for another week but I’ll be back in time to do my reading when called upon. We expect more than 100 attendees, including the Worshipful Mayor of St Edmundsbury. I hope they’re in a Christmassy mood.
I’m hoping too that they will like the cover I eventually produced. No silhouettes now but a quirky picture of a young girl, full-face, apparently wearing a spacesuit; the stars and rocket ship are still there but the aching, swirling greens of the northern lights now add a little magic to the image.
The countdown has begun. Lift-off will carry our precious cargo up through the lights and on into the stars. Who knows where it will end up.
My daughter was an astronaut
She sailed the inky night
Her smallest steps were giant leaps
She put the night to flight.
My Daughter was an Astronaut
Do you remember everything you say in conversation? I certainly don’t. There’s always the gist of where the conversation went in general, but the phrases and sentences are quickly lost. That’s why it’s always handy to have people listening in. They’re almost bound to remember specific elements that catch their ears even if they are not completely up with the main thrust of whatever discussion is occurring.
Bar talk is dangerous. There are people in the world who now think that I don’t like small press publishing. This to me is amazing given that I’ve been buying books from small presses all my life and have been considering setting up my own little outfit. I expect that may come as a bit of a surprise to some people who think I spent an evening disrespecting them. If I did then I’m happy to apologise. Life is hard enough for small presses.
But let’s revisit the argument. It was all to do with new technology versus the conventional publishing model and the consequences for struggling writers in particular.
Writers struggle to get accepted by publishers big or little. Some may say “Oh, but quality will out!” and therefore if you’re rejected there’s a reason. One of the panellists on the final morning of Fantasycon 2011 thought it helpful to reel out the mantra that “There’ll always be vanity publishing but it can’t match the quality of books produced by professionals” – as I can’t give you the exact words used (other than ‘vanity publishing’) I’ll refrain from identifying the speaker. Plainly quality should derive from a conventional publishing process – having the advantage of an editor, a copy editor, a production controller etc should always mean that the work is of publishable quality and the product is properly presented. I’ll try to forget some of the more execrable conventionally published pieces I’ve come across and broadly agree with this argument.
But the corollary of ‘conventional publishing = quality’ cannot be that ‘self publishing = crap’. It sometimes is but often not. No author wants to put out something that will embarrass them. As packages get better, as writers become more savvy, as the market sorts out the bad stuff from the good stuff, the general quality of self-published material will, I am sure, get better. Will there come a time when self published books will become indistinguishable from conventionally published books? It seems to me inevitable.
But even if this is true how can that have anything to do with the fate of small presses? Well I wonder if submissions to small presses will continue. At present, if Angry Robot offers a window of submission opportunity they are inundated with material. A tiny percentage of that material will be taken on. What about the remainder? Are the rejected likely to sigh, shelve their dreams, lock the office door and retreat into endless re-runs of Dr Who and Game of Thrones? Well yes, some of them will, but a lot more are going to look out for an alternative. Twenty years from now the alternative may well seem like the starting point and the conventional path somewhat quaint and outmoded. And that may not be the case only for less than perfect writers, but maybe also those brilliant individuals destined to become stars.
Without submissions what happens to the conventional publishing model?
Oh I’m not saying that no one will be looking for an agent, that no one will be looking for a small press to cut their teeth on, but I do think the pool of talent available to conventional publishing will diminish even as the explosion in the number of writers out there continues. More and more as the years go by we’ll see thousands of books becoming successful through internet sales, through e-book sales without the author ever having seen the inside of a publisher’s office. I would expect that pretty soon the big publishers, and no doubt some agents, will be scouring the net for the very best of these. They’ll Hoover them up and bring them into the conventional model already confident of turning a fast buck. The small presses however will have to work harder and harder to survive.
Now, it is at this point in the conversation that I said something like: “In twenty years or so small presses will be dead in the water.” No doubt someone can give me the exact words. Let me say this clearly: if what I posited is true then it will be a sad day. Small presses add so much energy into publishing. They discover and nurture new talent, they have the ability to concentrate their efforts into particular interests – they can become the kernel of genre publishing. And occasionally they publish their mates. What’s not to like about small presses; what’s not to mourn if in the future new technologies cause writers to bypass all of those good things in favour of more personal control?
We are living in a time when the conventional route to getting your work out there looks less and less of an option, a time when the comfort of a publisher’s support will seem utterly inaccessible to so many writers that instead of stepping out on the conventional path they’ll either go it alone or form cooperatives of like-minded people. They will be the publishers. Will they be driven by vanity? Or despair? Or just by the knowledge that it can be done?
This was not meant to be a dissertation – a good job given how loose it is. It’s more like a discussion in a bar. The sort of thing where you’re at liberty to speculate and come up with outrageous hypotheses, where if someone disagrees with you they are perfectly entitled to say so - and preferably at the time rather than grumping about it afterwards. However, as a convention newbie it may be that I mistake the purpose of the event. I thought it was about meeting up with people who love fantasy, chatting about books, looking at the past, speculating on the future.
But maybe conventional wisdom is to maintain a judicious silence on some things.
Suppose I should tag this #Fantasycon #selfpublishing #smallpress
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Douglas Gilmour commented:
I may have been propping up the same bar and heard little to offend but did learn a great deal about the practical workings of an industry in flux. There was a frightening amount of talent and a splendid desire to help those fellows around them. Some of today’s self publishers will be tomorrow’s new publishing houses taking on those niches that bigger, more risk averse houses cannot.
I was so looking forward to visiting Venice. OK, so it was only a day trip from our base on Lake Garda, and it was the middle of a 35 degree summer - hardly the best way to take in and properly appreciate one of the undoubted wonders of our world - but surely being in Venice anytime must be better than being anywhere else.
It is surprisingly easy to adapt to the Italian style of driving. One nice German lady explained to us how she refused to drive in Italy because “the Italians are mad when they get in a car.” And by implication the Germans are not? Maybe it is perfectly sensible to drive at 120 mph on crowded autobahns. As far as I can see the Italians are comparatively sedate. No more than five moments of hardly averted impact in the whole journey.
So our route along the A4, without fuss, delivered us directly and without damage to the Western edge of the ever beautiful Venice, just where the vast Tronchetto car park lay in wait.
Vast car park. Vast car park! As you cross the Ponte Della Liberta there is no exciting view of San Marco’s domes or winged lions on pillars - only the spiral ramps glittering on either side of a concrete slab, built for function, deadly to the imagination. Of course in a car-less city you need somewhere to hide the cars but does it have to be so obvious? Welcoming this ease of access but already disappointed we parked up quick and went in search something more satisfying.
The lack of directions was hardly a problem - we just followed the other mystified tourists circumnavigating the building and eventually worked out that wherever there are hawkers trying to flog you mementos even as you arrive in the city, there must also be some chance of ingress.
Panic not: I’m not going to give you the full story of the day - the fighting through heaving crowds, the argument with rude locals pushing their way to the front of the Vaporetto queue, the expense of restaurants I couldn’t afford, the godsend of a decently priced menu in a restaurant that promised and delivered almost edible food - with the added bonus of severe food-poisoning a little while later. Hell, when you go there yourself you’ll no doubt have a completely different sort of day and that will be the only one worth your while remembering. But what I want to say is -
Venice is one of the most amazing places you could ever visit. The sheer energy of the place, the enterprise, the narrow boats of commerce searching tight waterways for hidden doors or dangling pulleys, the seeming chaos of vaporetti and launches, barges and gondolas, all bobbing and spinning and thrashing along and across the Grand Canal. The splendour of the classic buildings, the art of the Guggenheim, the wonder of Bellini - sensual, delicate, real. The glories of Venice go on and on...
cheek by jowl with decay, with a lack of care maybe? Perhaps it’s the result of recession that all along the Grand Canal buildings deemed unimportant are neglected, perhaps it’s too expensive to paint the backs of buildings. Except that the backs of buildings along the waterfront actually function as a facade. When you arrive in Venice the Grand Canal is your welcome.
No doubt people will respond with “But Venice has always balanced majesty and art with this crumbling charm. Thus it ever was.” Well, I was there in 1988 and it didn’t seem so dilapidated then.
Where does this leave me? I’m in love with the place and I want it to be cared for. The major restoration projects are essential and no doubt so expensive there’s precious little left for anything else. But what about he rest of it? Paint, plaster and care need applying to the lesser and the forgotten - the bits between. Venice has a precarious enough existence as it is: the sea may one day assert it’s dominance, what a crime it would be for the city to fall to ruin for want of basic maintenance. We don’t want to end up with shining monuments, spared the assault of time, standing like tombs in a landscape of decay.
In Venice, where facade is everything, it is perhaps important to understand that everything is facade. Everything is important.
submission howling blues
I am beginning to think I have a problem with the submission process. I’m not referring to the serious stupidity of submitting pointless words not worth the pixels they’re written on - I hope that anything I choose to put forward for public or private scrutiny is at least thought provoking or entertaining enough to merit some small degree of consideration. No, the problem I have is temporary blindness. That must be it because otherwise there is something worse going on.
You know how it is: you send a letter of enquiry to an agent you’ve been stalking for ages - hmm perhaps stalking is the wrong word, but anyway - and you know their details inside out, and yet somehow still you manage to put an extra ‘n’ in the surname, or substitute ‘Z’ for ‘X’ in the company name. This sloppiness is generally the result of poor typing rather than any particular need to insult the recipient, and it doesn’t much matter anyway because you’re going to read through the message at least four or five times before allowing yourself anywhere near that dangerous but beckoning send
button. Oh yes you are! So how is it then, that I can successfully proofread an entire novel and yet still can’t spot an obviously errant letter in a paltry six line e-mail? And how is it that within seconds of clicking said button of no return, the merest casual glance will reveal to me the full horror of my mistakes as though they’ve been highlighted in dayglow orange. Temporary blindness, I swear that’s it: brought on by stress.
It’s the same with the manuscript itself. Clearly it’s really easy, what with all the chopping and changing you do in the writing process, to occasionally produce subsequent sentences with the same word used twice. It makes your prose look particularly inept:
“He rolled onto his back...” “he rolled his head to one side...”
But what’s the problem? Such errors are bound to come out in the first edit or the second or the third. Unless, that is, you have a deadline to meet, an agent to woo, a competition entry that must be submitted within the next three hours. Because, inevitably, that blindness is going to hit you each and every time your eyes even begin to approach the offending paragraph. Your gaze will slide past the problem as if The Doctor has sneaked by with one of those nifty perception filters; and if you dare to read the passage aloud your sentences will undoubtedly sound like pure Shakespeare. Satisfied now that your writing is easily on a par with a Dickens or a Proulx, you will pass the story fit and well, and send it on its little way with a smile on its lips and hope in its heart, and all will be right with the world.
Within five minutes only that repeated word will be leaping out of the page at you like an angry Rottweiller slipped its leash. The impact can be devastating.
Temporary blindness - temporary word blindness. Not good. Not good at all - and yet...
and yet I can’t help thinking that this posited, dubious physiological condition is nothing more than a construct I use to mask a hideous truth. You see, I can’t help thinking that maybe I will always have a problem with submissions for the simple reason that, when it comes to accuracy in writing, I’m plain damned incompetent!
Oh, it’s all so depressing. Maybe I need to write a song about it to pull me through - something of a habit of mine. Perhaps I need to break out the keyboards, turn up the
amp to at least number nine and scream all the worry and pain down an open mic:
Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh won’t you save my soul:
From that submission-howling, word-blind, deadline blues...
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Jackie Dick (@fumanchuchat) commented:
My sympathies. Think we have all been down this road a few times. It's hope blindness, methinks, as much as word blindness. Everything looks so golden with hope when you press that send button, that you can't see the forest for the trees. Maybe wait a bit, a few hours before sending. But, alas,you couldn't because of deadlines. Okay, then, sing that song and turn up the amp.
“My beautiful angel”
On March 20th 1993 the IRA exploded two bombs in Warrington town centre. 57 people were injured and two died: three year old Johnny Ball and Tim Parry who was twelve.
It was the day before Mothering Sunday, the shops were heaving with people buying up cards and flowers and gifts, all with one simple purpose: they wanted to say “I love you.”
Little Johnny was taken into town by his baby-sitter on exactly that errand. Tim Parry was meeting up with his mates.
This is not the place to talk about the heroisms of the day, the ongoing work of Tim Parry’s dad, determined to make sure his boy didn’t die in vain or the relentless anguish and depression that carried Johnny’s mum to her grave. You can read the newspaper reports.
Wilf Ball only met up with Marie Comerford when he was in his fifties. His first wife had suffered two miscarriages - he’d never been a father. “Marie and the arrival of
Johnathan,” he said, “took ten years off me. Their going added twenty.”
When I heard the news yesterday of a bomb threat - a Republican bomb threat - that closed several streets in the middle of London, immediately my mind went flying back to 1993.
I suppose it was partly because I knew Warrington so well - my wife grew up there, we did our courting on its streets - that I couldn’t stop watching the TV reports and reading the papers about it. But mostly it was the sheer outrage that gripped me.
I was travelling at the time - staying at the Judges Lodgings, a hotel in York just by the Minster. I just didn’t know what to do with myself I was so upset and furious at the same time. After a failed attempt to calm down - by getting myself a pint or two in a nearby pub - I marched back to the hotel, took out a pen and some sheets of the hotel paper and tried to write the anger out of me.
What came out was the “poem” (nothing of the sort really just a heap of words) The Death of Johnny Ball. I faxed it, the three handwritten sheets of it, to the editor of The Guardian with the request that, if they knew any republicans - and I’m sure they did - then maybe they could push it under their noses along with all the other messages of anger and pain they needed to read and hear.
The blazing anger didn’t leave me though - because when I was in the pub trying to get away from the story, there on the TV, was poor Wilf Ball, sitting with his head in his hands, and crying, and asking “How could they do that to my beautiful angel?”
Makes me cry to this day just thinking about it.
For what it’s worth you can find the poem here.
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Matthew Dent (@matthewsdent) commented:
I couldn't agree more. As someone who grew up in Warrington, and who was very nearly there (albeit only two years old) on the day of the bombing, it has been something I've carried with me ever since. The London warning brought back the same memories to me, and the same fears that all the peace and reconciliation since that day would be undone. But at the same time, the broad condemnation of the murder of PC Ron Ronan Kerr in Northern Ireland, and the Queen's historic visit to the Republic of Ireland give me hope. We're not there yet, not by a long shot, but we've taken many steps towards peace since that Saturday in Warrington.
Yes we have, and we’ll take more, and one day all this will be over.
My old China
Yes, I was that rude: “So how did you get to be China then?” Mr Mieville is not only a
damn fine - no, that’s not right - not only a Ballard for the 21st century but he’s by all appearances a good man too. “My parent’s were hippies - it’s rhyming slang,” said he cheerfully.
If you can’t be mates with your parents then something’s wrong, I say.
So there we are, me and my mate George, on a jolly to Cambridge and Heffers star-studded Fantasy Night, both determined to rein in the spending while making the most of an unusual opportunity. I didn’t do too well on the first bit. My credit card is still aching from overuse, and I rarely make the most out of anything but on this particular occasion I’m pleased to say that the positives outweighed the negatives.
To begin with I managed to talk to Trudi Canavan without excessive burbling, I limited
the rude questions to just the one previously mentioned, I bought two books from authors I wasn’t sure about, avoided spouting any “I write a bit too” comments, and more or less succeeded in looking interested during a couple of very dull readings - no names, no pack drill. During q&a with Erikson and Mieville, I even surprised myself by asking two vaguely intelligent questions that prompted interesting replies.
Negatives were less to do with me and George and more to do with poor acoustics and a couple of less than vigorous performances. Why Heffers couldn’t have provided mics for those authors less practiced in the art of projection I don’t know. Poor Ms Canavan had signed so many books and chatted with so many people that her voice was shot and her valiant attempt to read all but inaudible.
Not everyone was so challenged: Peter Hamilton, a veteran, had the good grace to repeat aloud whispered questions from the floor - always helpful, Steven Erikson avoided reading for 15 minutes solid by the simple expedient of giving us a couple of poems rather than a chapter of his new book and Alex Scarrow, a graduate of the Brian Blessed School of acting (his comment not mine), elevated the drama of his opening chapter with almost Dickensian prowess.
But, for me, it was China Mieville who held the floor. His confidence, his wit, his humour and his skill in carrying an audience were exemplary. You could tell he was used to lecturing. His peers I hope were taking notes.
What I have learned: if you want people (and not just fans) to listen to you you must practice your readings, make them brief, arm yourself with a good stock of ideas and be passionate about your work and ideas without seeming obsessed by either.
Oh and yes, now I know that China Mieville is a bit of a star.
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George Wicker said:
Ditto You saw things roughly as I did Wilf. The lack of PA was spoiling it a bit -
some soft-spoken folk need a little help. Yes, Mr Mieville came over well, although
I kept trying to work out the themes of his tattooed arms. A couple of the other authors were engaging too. For someone not as versed in the genre as yourself,
I found the sheer thickness of the majority of the books intimidating. While you squeezed credit out of the plastic, I spent nothing, simply because there was too much choice. Although I do intend to buy a couple of the featured books for my Kindle. When I've finished my Bryson book on Shakespeare. Although I could always borrow them off you...
Bad news; good news
You have to be concerned when a friend texts: “Saw your e-mail. Will you be in lunchtime?
I need to speak to you.”
You know there’s something bad coming up. Today the bad thing was that a once good friend had died.
Michael was a huge man who made his world what he wanted it to be, could never be pushed around, did not ever take advice. We all loved him for it. And sometimes worried for him.
But you probably spotted the “once” bit. Yes, there was a time when I spoke to him most days, when I stayed at his flat, went to his parties. But he moved on to a different company, I stayed where I was and our paths almost never crossed. It was one of those things where you keep saying “Must go up to see Michael next time I’m in town” but never get round to doing it. And now I’m left with regret. No time left now to make amends, no chance to see him again.
And so I’m not going to write an obituary, or a mini biography - I don’t deserve the honour.
It may be, then, that you will think this entire entry pointless - and possibly also an imposition. You have little idea who Michael was, no connection to the events of my past. I make no apology. Because maybe, in your own past, there is someone who once made a great difference to your life, someone as important to you as Michael was important to me, but who, for whatever reason, you have fallen out of touch with.
May I presume to suggest, if you have time to browse the net, read poems, take in some daft clips about foxes on a trampoline, that perhaps just a few minutes on a quick e-mail,
a text message, a phone call, or even just a tweet could be a better use of your time. Make it a fun call, put some heart into it. For time is slipping away on all our joys, and our friends and our loves and there will come a point when it runs out altogether. Let’s make the most of each other.
You know that something good is coming up whenever a friend wants to speak to you -
even if the news is bad.
Twitter will ruin my life
No seriously. It grabs my attention at the start of the day as I search for interesting
people to follow - interesting but not already followed by 5000 people that is - and then
sucks in whatever last vestige of creativity I still have, demanding I use it to create just
one interesting tweet worth the typing. I fall into inevitable depression as I discover that once again I have nothing to add to the world that is not fatuous, cliched or self-seeking, and at the end of the day I go to bed wondering at just how much time I have wasted in the pursuit of what, when all is said and done, is an exercise in self marketing.
(Sorry just feel the need to throw in a few, in a sort of ironic way - a sort of “what’s an
idiot like me doing pretending he can write” way. Sick as a parrot about it.)
Madness - I should be getting to grips with my short story entry for the BFS competition;
I should be banging away with The Twist Inside. I should not be blogging here. When I started I thought I might produce something worth the reading but the realisation that no-one actually visits has put paid to that intention. I could of course point people towards the page whenever I post a new blog using Twitter of course, but who would want to read a blog like this? And would it be wise to do that? Perhaps I should embrace the anonymity. If no one ever visits then I can get away with saying whatever I please: I can gripe, attack, insult, whimper, ramble all to my hearts content. I can use the page as
But all with the added stomach-churn of expectation that eventually someone will stumble across the page anyway, and all my secrets will be revealed. And if I’ve said anything particularly stupid - another inevitability - then there’ll be trouble.
Add to that the distinct possibility that in my daily desperation to post yet another a new tweet I’ll go ahead and do it:
“New Blog Post: Twitter will ruin my life. http://tinyurl.com/67kxhtb”
But not today Zurg.
We sit on our hands
Let Sorrow Go By
A Week of Firsts
Twitter will ruin my life