25 January 2012

Review: Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer
Booklife: Digital Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer
A & C Black, 2009

VanderMeer has been one of my heroes ever since I encountered City of Saints and Madmen when I was seventeen. It's a singularity cool book, and if you've not heard of it go and look it up now instead of reading this post.

Booklife is on the syllabus of the writing course my father is taking, and so he innocently ordered it about three months ago, little knowing that I would confiscate it for my own use the moment it came through the door. I though I'd write down my thoughts before giving it back, as I'll probably never see it again.

Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer (Image Source.)

Booklife is a curious mixture of self-help book and insider's guide to the publishing industry.

I loved the insider's guide parts, but felt that the self-help sections were in general aimed at people of considerably less Internet-savvy than myself. There's some good stuff about nurturing creativity though, at the beginning of the second section.

Cool publishing insights mainly congregate in "Chapter 2: Communicating Your Booklife", in which VanderMeer takes us though the process of publishing and promoting a book and how an author can contribute to the mix. It's detailed enough to be really useful for those interested in self publishing as well.

This insider information is built on in the appendices, with a more in-depth exposition of the differences between marketing and publicity as well as explanations of what agents/marketers/PRs/publicists actually do.

It's not the purpose of the book to talk about how you should write. It's more about the way you should go about writing, writing as a process and lifestyle rather than as an art.

That's a shame, because in the places where writing as an art in engaged with the book is simply gripping. In particular, the mini-essay in defence of purple prose on page 178 blew me away. Nathan Ballingrud's appendix on "Nurturing Creativity" is also very inspiring.

If you are looking for a book about creative productivity in the world social media and relentless PR, then this may well be the book for you. As someone practically suckled on Twitter, though, I'd have preferred to read VanderMeer on the topic of writing itself, as he would clearly be awesome on that topic.

P.S.: Amusingly, there is a little rant about book reviews on page 282. I say little, it actually runs to six pages. I agree with most of what VanderMeer has to say - mainly advice along the lines of 1) the review is about the object reviewed and not about you and 2) don't be pretentious or a dickhead.

But VanderMeer forgot to mention two key things: 1) A good review is entertaining in its own right. 2) And of course, all reviews are really about their writer.

18 January 2012

On Poetry PR

I was lucky enough to attend the T S Eliot Prize Readings at the Southbank Centre on Sunday night.

It was an enjoyable evening, and it exposed me to poets I wouldn't otherwise have read (notably Esther Morgan, who I really liked), but it can't be denied that as an evening out it was sadly lacking. The readings, with the exception of Carol Ann Duffy, were all pretty bad as performances, for all sorts of reasons that I'm not getting paid enough as a performance consultant to go into.

Coverage of the T S Eliot prize this year, at least on the Guardian and the BBC which are basically where I get all my poetry news from, was very much focused on the 'scandal' of Alice Oswald and John Kinsella withdrawing from the award over suspicious of an ethical nature about the prize's new funder. In one particularly good example, the Guardian headline announcing the winner is:
John Burnside wins most controversial TS Eliot prize in decades
Scottish poet's Black Cat Bone beats strong shortlist in contest mired in protest over City funding
The relevance of the controversy to the story is minimal, in fact nonexistent. That Burnside has won the award (incidentally, he is my least favourite of all the short list) doesn't have much to do with Alice Oswald withdrawing. Unless you want to imply that he wouldn't have won if she was still in the running, but I'm sure the Guardian isn't that underhand.

It was with this context in mind that I sat down to write this post about the T S Eliot prize. I thought I'd get myself a fresh angle.

One thing I'd noticed during the reading was that the demographic of the audience was rather unusual. 99% of the audience were over 30, as one would expect at a poetry reading. It was the 1% of people under 30 that were extraordinary. They were all extraordinarily good looking.*

However, I didn't find much mileage in commenting on the above-mentioned observation. Instead, I found myself thinking more and more about why the coverage of the T S Eliot award has been so completely not about the poetry itself.

What I believe the Guardian's writers are doing with that article - and I think they do it really well - is making it interesting. The fact that John Burnside won the award, and the quotes about his work from the prize judges and so on are just a big pile of yawn. The real meat of the story is the potential scandal; and so that's exactly what the headline writer has focused in on, and why the article includes background info on the debacle and so on, even though there have been no new developments. And that, my friends, is why the Guardian sells. **

And now for the Remaining-a-Writer traditional segue into musicology in the middle of an otherwise promising post. The relevance? Like a poetry reading, a concert is an aesthetic experience which cannot be considered news in its own right.

You've heard of the Proms. You may even have heard the Proms. They're a huge deal, perhaps because they've learnt a lot from their competition in pop music. The target audience of the proms is ordinary*** people, and resources for understanding and enjoying the music are provided for ordinary people. There are companion programmes, post-concert commentaries, websites, and all sorts of things to help make the aesthetic experience something people can a) enjoy and b) talk about with each other. In other words, they have designed their programme to allow it to achieve social mass.

Where are the comparable resources for the T S Eliot prize? Those 1% of fit young people who somehow ended up in the auditorium were ripe for the picking. My cousin, 20, forced to come along by yours truly, could potentially have been converted to poetry for life on Sunday evening. Instead, her and all the other young folk's suspicions about poets are a race of disorganised mumblers have been partially confirmed. I say partially, because not every single one of them mumbled and not every single one of them was disorganised.

Poets like Carol Ann Duffy, who was the only poet on the bill my non-pretentious relations forced to come with me to the reading had heard of, have also found ways to make themselves discussable. Cazza Dee knows how to be news, by creating news stories about herself, but also by commenting on news events through her poetry. 

Ruth Padel too, bless her, definitely knows how to be news by now.

Excellent PR shot of John Burnside, of the type that should be attached to all press releases.
Terrible PR for Lady Gaga: nothing interesting to look at at all, and very unprofessionally produced.
It is not my intention to slate the T S Eliot prize or the Poetry Book Society, however, which both clearly suffer from a lack of budget rather than a lack of sense, and have had more important PR problems to be dealing with this year than simple audience engagement. That fact remains, though, that they need to catch up if they want poetry to survive.

One note of hope comes in the form of Simon Armitage's upcoming Poetry Parnassus. The festival's very concept is undeniably newsworthy - by nationalising poetry he makes it something to be proud of, competitive about, and something to build your identity from. The key thing for me is that the festival seems to be planning to do this in a way which makes poety easy to talk about.

* I'll let you choose if I should be included in that statistic or not.
** Metaphorically speaking, it seems.
*** Definition of ordinary: without a music degree.

11 January 2012

The Failed Retreat, 3-8 January 2012

This blog began at a Failed Retreat, so as I write up this latest in my creative writing adventures I feel as though I've reached an anniversary of sorts. I'm actually quite surprised I've managed to keep writing it for so long.

The Failed Retreats are a termly activity organised by the wonderful Failed Novelists. I think this is the fifth retreat I have attended, but I have no idea if I'm honest.

To date, the most exotic location for the retreat was a log cabin in the Transylvanian mountains. On this occasion, most of the writing was done on extremely long train journeys across Romania, but a great time was had by all.

This time around the retreat was hosted in a cottage in borderline-rural Wales. On my train journey across the UK, I did a humongous amount of feedback for other people's projects, so I was more than ready to get stuck in when writing time began. I also was lucky enough to have planned what I was going to write, which always helps.

Here is a summary of the creative projects which were worked on during the retreat. See if you can guess which projects belong to me, and which to the other three attendees.
  1. A television drama in three episodes based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Starring Hugh Grant as Gilgamesh.
  2. A feature-length film based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. As yet uncasted.
  3. A novel set on the Steppe in 1200 AD. Think tribes and wild camels.
  4. A series of poems about STDs.
  5. A stage play about colonialists stranded on a tropical island. The colonialists kill a Sacred Beast (blatantly a cat) and it's all downhill from there.
  6. A short story about a matchmaking octopus.
  7. An ancient near-Eastern historical tragedy in blank verse, incorporating authentic Akkadian prophesies.
Highlight to reveal the answer: Projects 1, 4 and 6 are all mine.

"How about this one?" (Image Source.)

4 January 2012

Remaining Unemployed

When I started this blog, it was my intention to write about my efforts to make a living while developing myself as a writer. So far, I've been focusing on the writing part and not written very much about my forays into the world of redundancy and endless work experience. This is partially because job seeking is boring, and partially because my CVs are almost supernaturally low on literary merit.

Why The Recession will End in Tears and Result in Boring, Samey Novels

Apparently, being unemployed is all the rage these days. My own demographic, 16-24 year olds, are the worst effected, presumably because we're all busy doing unpaid work experience.

If my generation is to be the Unemployed Generation, we're going to have a lot of time on our hands. Demand for entertainment will go up. Because everyone is unemployed, there will be fewer people being paid to produce entertaining things, so there will be less entertainment around.*

Intelligent people are naturally industrious, if there is no entertainment provided, they'll invent. Lying at home all day, the Unemployed Generation will have little better to do than starting bands, taking up knitting, and writing novels. There will also be an increase in teenage pregnancies, and more local football teams.

Of course, some of the UG will be happy lounging at home watching repeats of Location, Location, Location, but I prefer to deny people that boring exist.

Perhaps some of the great minds that would otherwise have been absorbed into the City will direct their energies into making great literature? Imagine what wonderful novels Alex Salmond could have written if he wasn't wasting his time reforming the Scottish political landscape.

Well that's not what I want to do. I'd actually like to have a job. And no, I'm not comparing myself to Alex Salmond. For starters, I have little interest in politics, and for puddings, I'm not particularly anti-English.

Without access to employment the UG will have little to write about apart from sex and death. The world of employment, on the other hand, is not only interesting in itself, it opens doors to other worlds too. It's all very well having unlimited leisure time to travel in if you don't have any money to buy train tickets.

Imagine how awful it would be if an entire generation's literary output was about unemployed twenty somethings who wonder around not even being able to afford drugs. It would be like Trainspotting without the heroin.

Why Working is Good for Writing

I think people often assume that creative writing and making a living are polar opposites. There's an enduring  image of the budding writer as poverty magnet. Writers live on Edinburgh housing estates with small children and smaller benefits, and write in cafés on Moleskine notebooks. Writers feast on Lidl's multipack mince meat and hover over electric radiators because they can't afford central heating.

Don't be fooled - it's an amusing stereotype to bandy about at parties, but it isn't always the case.

Extensive leisure time, which is a forgiving way of saying 'unemployment', simply isn't a necessity for finding your voice. We all know there are plenty of authors who had, like, you know, careers. Terry Pratchett and Charles Dickens were both journalists. Janice Galloway and Carol Anne Duffy were schoolteachers. Kingsley Amis and Liz Lochhead were academics. Jean le Carré was actually a spy, weirdly unlikely though that may seem.**

It's clear that, for me at least, having time to write and actually writing are very much not the same thing. The most creative period of my life (so far, hopefully) was the first term of my second year at Oxford. I wrote/edited over eight hours of radio drama with my friends, and recorded it too. This was on top of my Oxford degree and everything else I was involved with, of course.

In stark contrast, since September I've mainly been lying around at home in Y-fronts, but I've only written 20k odd's worth of creative writing (most of it my novel). That's an average of 222 words a day, which is frankly unimpressive considering that when I get going I can happily write two thousand words in an hour.*** I find that having more time to write actually makes me less motivated. If there isn't a hurry, then it doesn't get done at all.

On the other hand, I found while I was working (six days a week) as a Christmas temp for a large bookshop chain, that I was too tired to make good use of the hours I did manage to set aside for writing. That balance between work and real work, between employment and vocation, is really really hard to get right.

Perhaps this is why people at book festivals are all so interested to hear about the daily routines of the writers they admire?

Ask the average person about Haruki Murakami, and they'll tell you they've never heard of him. Ask the average person worth knowing about Murakami, and they'll probably be able to tell you the titles of a few of his books and the fact that he gets up at 4am most mornings and writes until lunch, before his main business of training for marathons, which he does for a further eight hours.

Murakami is obviously a nutcase, but perhaps he's onto something there.

I think the balance between writing and the rest of life is something every writer struggles with. It's a shame the current job market is tying the hands of so many people. By which I mainly mean me.

* The basic situation in the creative industries seems to be that most potential customers have no money to spend on the creative industries because the creative industries do not provide enough jobs.

** I freely admit that my source for all of this information is Wikipedia. I'm not getting paid to write this so I don't have to fact check.

*** I can prove this, if you don't believe me.