Thursday, 27 September 2012

Why I will never self-publish

A time-slip story. It is 1962 and in a studios in London a band are auditioning for Decca records. It is The Beatles, a combo popular in Liverpool and in Hamburg but unknown nearly everywhere else (though bizarrely, they have just done a one off gig in Stroud). This audition does not go well. The band are disconsolate until somebody (probably Paul - it would be Paul) says 'Never mind, guys. Let's put it out ourselves.'

And so they do. Because this is my story and not a true story, my version of the 1962 Beatles are able to convene around a lap-top in Paul's bedroom and record their first album. No George Martin producing and with Pete Best on drums. It's a more or less faithful rendition of their live set, only not as good because they don't yet know much about capturing sound in the studio. Also Pete Best is very, ah, limited as a drummer so the time-keeping is erratic.

But the album comes out, their friends and family all love it. Fans buy it at gigs and it sits there in this strange 1960s internet I've just invented, available to everyone to download at will. Which is a shame, because all four members of the Beatles will have cause to regret rushing out their first album. A producer called George Martin hears it and decides he'll pass on what sounds to him like just another rough and ready beat group. Eventually Paul gets a day job in PR, George goes back to the electricians apprenticeship. Pete gets that civil service post working in a Liverpool job centre, where he regularly sees John. Because John is actually unemployable and so is always in the Job Centre.

And now back in the real world... the thing is, the Beatles needed rejection in order to get good. It was as vital to their development as the hours spent playing to drunken sailors as the warm up acts for the strippers in Hamburg. And even when they were ready for greatness they needed the special midwifery of a producer, plus the distribution of EMI, the PR guy, Brian Epstein.They needed a team of people that loved them, would fight for them and would also challenge them. They needed talent yes, but they also needed resilience.

Knock-backs are part of the process. Who was it said 'if you don't get rejections, it just means you're not trying hard enough'. Someone smart anyway.

We, of course are unluckier than the Beatles. We are unlucky because we live in a place where it is possible to have a rejection free artistic life. Because it's emphatically not a good thing. Musicians, writers, we can - if the knockbacks get too bruising - just stick our stuff out there. We can skip the whole tedious business of rewriting, reworking, redrafting, reshaping, arguing about plot decisions and character. We don't need agents or editors. we don't even need copy-editors - who wants to argue about commas, when they could be having fun, fun, fun. We can do it all ourselves and put it up on the internet and sell our work for 10p. Because anyway what is the point of trying to get published the old-fashioned way, everyone knows the traditional publishers only want nubile women or their mates from Oxbridge don't they?

Well, no. The rest of us, can with talent, luck and perseverance can still get proper deals. And I say that as a balding, greying middle-aged man living in the North who only ever went to Cambridge to see my dad, who was a porter in one of the colleges there.

Publishers often get it wrong. Maybe they even usually get it wrong, but at least you know the gateway was tough to get through. For a book to arrive in a bookshop it has been pretty thoroughly road-tested and interrogated. As a reader I find that comforting, even if it's annoying as a writer.

And if your book is too edgy for the mainstream? Well, there are dozens of eager indies putting out good stuff. And making a success of it. Sandstone, And Other Stories, Cargo, Bluemoose, Peepal Tree, Tindal Street, Cinnamon... and those just the ones I've thought of off the top of my head this second. And they accept unagented manuscripts too.

And the other thing that puts me off self-publishing? It's the zealots who advocate it. They are so angry. It's like publishing is a girl who inexplicably rejects their advances while blatantly flirting with some less worthy bloke from down the road. She likes someone else. Get over it. Maybe she'll see your worth another day after the pointless affair with the lesser writer burns itself out.

And it's not like the self publishing ebook authors are at the vanguard of some youthful revolution, because you know who really values the printed artefact? Young people that's who. In a world where anything can be 'published' on the net, then it has no real value. But if someone has invested time and money in making a real Thing, and then that Thing is transported from printers, to warehouse, to shop. Where people have browsed and chosen your Thing over all the other shiny Things they could buy. Well, that is really worth something...

So if you're considering self-publishing on the internet or anywhere else I would say wait. Ask yourself if you are really a skilled enough editor, copy-editor, publicist, designer and marketeer to do it all yourself. And even if the answer to those questions is yes. Then still wait, because maybe you are The Beatles in early 1962. Maybe you are just not quite ready. You need to get rid of the inner Pete Best that is holding you back. And you need to find your George Martin. Of course you can BUY the services of editors, designers, marketeers etc but actually that's my other big beef with the self-publishing industry...

Self-publishing, indie publishing whatever you call it, is one of those things that sounds democratic but is actually anything but. Is the opposite of that. It sounds like it is one of those games anyone can play but actually the indie authors who are most visible are generally the ones with the deepest pockets. If you're skint how will you afford all the help you need to publish properly? If indie publishing were ever to become the norm (and it won't) then how will the marginalised voices ever find a way to be heard?

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Ben Myers - some good words from the bloke up the road

IPSWICH is not really a small town. 120,000 people I'd guess... And I lived there for six years and guess how many writers I knew? Well done Sir, Madam...that's right. None. Not a single one. And I moved North to a small wet town in the Pennines and I suddenly couldn't move for writers. They were in the co-op, the grocers, the pubs (obviously). They were in the bun shops, the newsagents, the camping suppliers and the Spar. Hebden Bridge is the kind of place where, after you've chatted about rain and flooded cellars, conversation moves naturally onto the perfidy of publishers, the stupidity of TV producers, the strange tastes of readers.

It can get a bit claustrophobic. And living where all the writers live is expensive (I've blogged about this before, but I'll say it again - if you want house prices in your town to go up invite in the writers, the artists, the poets - they create the vibe that your lawyers and your TV bigwigs will pay big money for) so I moved again. Only a mile and a half down the road to Mytholmroyd.

Hebden Bridge is the town that passed the 11plus and went to grammar school, where it customised its uniform a bit (tie half-way down the shirt, nothing too outrageous) and got into whey-faced guitar music and got a shaggy indie-kid haircut. Mytholmroyd went to the comp and got into Sabbath and cider. Hebden Bridge reads The Guardian. Mytholmroyd reads The Mirror. And before anyone gets too irate on Royd's behalf, I prefer The Mirror.

Mytholmroyd is chippy and cross about the way Hebden slouches about  thinking the world owes it a living. Mythoymroyd is a grafter. Royd is not for hippies. No one makes knitted yoghurt gags about Mytholmroyd. Royd is cheaper.

And yet, still I can't escape the writers. Ben Myers for example. He lives up my road. He lives ten doors away. I walk past his house twice a day walking my boy, Herbie, to school. He walks past my house twice a day with his dog, Cliff.

(And I know what you're thinking. The boy has a dog's name. The dog has a bloke's name. I think it too).

And we're both on the short-list of this ludicrous award thing The Guardian's Not The Booker. You got short-listed by a public vote (though that makes it sound much more simple than it was - people had to write 100 word reviews of their chosen book and post them on the Guardian book blog in order for the vote to count. Imagine if grown-up elections were held this way. If you had to write a 100 words in praise of Ed Miliband in order to change the govt... it's no way to get a high turn out...) And Ben's book PIG IRON topped the poll.  

Despite his living ten doors away, I've only met Ben twice and both of those times were in the last couple of weeks. After the Not The Booker shortlist was announced we thought we should meet, so he came round for a brew... and we met again a few days ago when we found ourselves looking for a tearful kids lost toy plane in the park (fret not boys and girls - we found it).

He's good company. Serious and thoughtful about his work and committed. He writes, he walks, he thinks. Reads, listens to music, watches films. That's pretty much it. Doesn't drink or smoke, commits himself to refining his vision and expressing it. He's impressively dedicated and the work is muscular, powerful and original.

His first book - the provocative BOOK OF FUCK - was written at speed when he was 24. His second - RICHARD - caused something of a bruising fuss when it came out, being the imagined story of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers - a figure the hard-core fans think they own.

PIG IRON tells the story of a John-John Wisdom a bare-knuckle fighter from the North-East's traveller community, and is making waves far beyond The Guardian...

Anyway, in my relentless search for writers' stories, I walked the 50 yards to his house and asked him some questions. But maybe you should read this extract of the book first.

Or this review:

And now read this:

Hello Ben, can you write your autobiography for me in exactly 50 words (not 51, not 49 - EXACTLY 50)?

Just before I became a teenager I wanted to be boxer. Then my grandfather killed himself. Then I was seriously ill in hospital for a long time. Then I decided I wanted to be a writer and have been trying to become one ever since. I write every single day.

Why should we read Pig Iron?

Should seems like a strong word, but I think reading any book is better than doing lots of things. Like golf, for example. Or waddling around one of the newly sprouted edge-of-town malls. There’s a bit in the book that has made some people cry. Another bit has made someone regurgitate.

What research did you do?

I spent many years researching travelling culture through books, articles, documentaries, films, conversations. I actually researched the subject long before I decided to write a novel with a gypsy narrator. It was just anthropological interest, I suppose. I’m also a nature boy and spend a lot of time walking or running outdoors. I probably do a few miles every day so that informs the descriptions of landscape. On a more practically level I did a lot of research about boxing and illegal fighting techniques in order to accurately write about violence in a way that is hopefully convincing, sickening and repulsive. Because violence is.

How do you feel your writing has changed since The Book of Fuck came out in 2004?

It has changed a lot. I feel like my writing has got infinitely darker, more pared down, more economical. I think it has more meaning. Somewhere along the way – probably about five or six years ago – I finally stopped emulating my literary influences and began to really think about finding a voice I could call my own. I embarked upon a new regime. I don’t drink or smoke or take drugs (all of which I have some experience of); I don’t have a TV that works and I gave up on newspapers. Instead I sit down and I write. I’m only just starting to get there. Also I only write about life and death now.

You co-founded a movement - the New Brutalists - how serious was this? And how would you define New Brutalism?

Brutalism was a call-to-arms. It was – and is – a small group of like-minded people, all born in the mid/late 1970s, all from various towns in the north, banding together out of a shared sense of frustration  and anger at a mainstream literary world that had rejected our heroes and were now rejecting us. Our main output was first and foremost poetry. Many of our influences came from cinema, visual art and music – particularly the energy and minimalism of punk and post-punk. There was no bitterness there though – just energy and optimism.

Your last book - Richard - was a kind of imagined autobiography of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers. What attracted you to his story?

Richey Edwards came from a background – a world – comparable to my own.  Similar background, similar era, similar tastes. He came from ordinariness and became a rock star. I come from ordinariness and ended up writing about such rock stars at Melody Maker and other publications. I was less interested in the rock star aspect of the story though, and keener to explore the theme of the mental disintegration of a young man. I’ve seen a lot of mental disintegration in young men – and women.

I wanted to get behind the smokescreen of music press mythology – though may have ended up contributing to it instead. Many of the influences on the book were the very same writers Edwards cited as influences upon him in the first place: Camus, Sartre, Hamsun. Sylvia Plath. Bret Easton Ellis. Existentialist / nihilist fiction.

How did readers, Manic Street Preachers fans, his family and his bandmates respond to the novel?

It seemed to illicit all sorts of responses from all sorts of people. From the glowing to the hateful. The most damning appraisals came from those who had never read it. There was a lot of anger. The most positive feedback came from readers who had no interest in iconoclastic rock writing and instead read it as a contemporary novel grounded in reality.

You write for music magazines. When I was young this was THE dream job. What are the best/worst things about it?

The best: freedom and free things. Just being able to write. I’ve been able to see the world thanks to music magazine and met so many interesting people along the way. I went through a phase in my early twenties of simultaneously living in a squat in London and staying in hotels in Hollywood. That was good. The worst: the money. Music journalism pays less now than when I started 15 years ago. The irregularity of work. The lack of standard benefits (sick pay, pensions). But how cares about money. If you can live on a mid-four figure salary per annum and don’t mind receiving death threats from over-inflated, pompous ego-heads who spank planks for a living then this is the job for you!

Who, in life or writing - do you most admire?

I like Werner Herzog and Iggy Pop. I tend to admire people who commit to a singular vision. Original people. Francis Bacon, Crass, Sun Ra or the face that Gloria Swanson pulls at the end of Sunset Boulevard.

In writing it’s often particular books rather than people, though I keep coming back to Ted Lewis, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, Italo Clavino, John Fante, Daniel Defoe, Derek Raymond, Mikhail Bulgakov, John Rechy, David Vann, Roger Deakin. Pat Barker’s early novels. Some Charles Bukowksi. I like some crime writing, nature writing, a lot of the kitchen sink / angry young man novels. I watch a lot of films. There’s a group of people in Newcastle called the Amber Film Collective; I like their output. At the moment I’m watching lots of obscure English films from the 70s too. I like the feel of them. The autumnal colours, the odd sound effects and the tension.

How come you ended up in the this little patch of West Yorkshire and how long will you stay do you think?

I think I wanted to experience ‘rain’ in all its many varieties. I’ve moved five times in five years so I intend on staying here for quite some time. Long enough to be covered in algae and harbour a disliking for people in Lancashire anyway.

What's next?

I’ve been working on two novels since Pig Iron and they’re nearly finished. Together they form a loose trilogy of sorts – thematically-speaking anyway. Though each novel is a stand-alone work, they are each set in a different rural corner of Northern England. The rural England you rarely see on television or read about in your Sunday supplements. Each concern characters who exist on the fringes of society. Alongside  Pig Iron they explore ideas such as identity, landscape, moral corruption, violence, crime, familial legacy, deviance, farming, survival – but also beauty and escape too.

 Pig Iron is published by Bluemoose and available everywhere...

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The Lazerzone Incident

The boys are nervous, keyed up. It's going to be a shitstorm, they know that. But this is what they've trained for. They've thought about nothing else for days. They feel the comforting heft of their weapons, shift and wriggle under the body armour. I'm with them. And I'm armed and body-armoured too, but I'm not really one of them. I'm a newbie, a rookie, new to the soldier's life. likely to hold them up, slow them down. A liability who could cost lives. But I'm determined not to let the squad down.

We see our opponents and I want to laugh, even as my heart sinks...

I should reassure you here. I'm not embedded on a mission with Our Boys in Helmud. I'm actually with Our Boys in Huddersfield. I'm at Lazerzone for my youngest's ninth birthday party. I'm just about tolerated in his team of eight eager little commandos and we've just watched the health and safety talk presented by a Saturday Kid so bored or hungover or doped up, that I kept thinking he was going to nod out before he reached the bit about what to do if the fire alarm sound...

Oh yes, our opponents. They troop in to the pre-battle  holding area and they are eight little boys, as nervously excited as our lads are. They are even accompanied by an old codger - the equivalent of me. No doubt he is also dad of the birthday boy, tolerated more than properly included in the platoon. I catch his eye, we both do resigned little shrugs.

Because there is one difference between his squad and mine. They are all Asian. And my kid's team? They all look like Stormtroopers, they could hardly be more Aryan. Pale-eyed blondes the lot of them. Except for Herbie who is a red-head.

So the enemy here could be pint-sized Pathans. Trainee Taliban. And the old guy with them in white fully turbanned up with an impressive beard.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the notion of waging War against Asians. Even in fun. I had Iraqi lodgers during the first Gulf War and that was hard as night after night we all watched planes take off to hurl fire and metal onto their family and friends. And ever since we've seen too many pictures of dead babies, houses turned to rubble, kids with bandaged stumps. Bodies blown apart in Karachi, Kabul, London. It's all been too horrible and this game in Huddersfield suddenly feels kinda grotesque.

Maybe all war games are grotesque. Maybe we should stop our boys doing it. Then again I grew up killing hundreds of imaginary Germans on a daily basis. and once me and my cousin Kevin spent a whole week re-enacting the fall of Saigon. I once played the Confederates when we had the American civil war taking place in the fields behind my house in Curlew Crescent.. And yet I love Germany and the Germans now (and not just because they've been buying my book).   I'd be keen to go to Viet Nam. And I have no urge to buy myself a couple of slaves.

And yet this impending battle in Huddersfield lazerzone  does make me a little queasy. And this feeling is not in any way dispelled by going into the battle arena itself.

It is a church.

Yep. The interior designer of Laserzone has decided that  these wargames should take place in a replica church complete with pulpit, font and stained glass window. What we are about to enact here is a heated skirmish from a 21st century version of the Crusades.

And what you want to know is whether I do, in fact, join in. Of course I do. The boys on both sides are oblivious to the resonances of the set up. White or brown, they are all just little boys having fun pretending to shoot people, the way little boys have done for generations. And in any case the guy with the turban shoots me in the back within a minute of the battle commencing. He doesn't seem to agonise over the politics of lazerquest quite as much as I do.

I get into the game so much that I launch a solo assault on the enemy stronghold Colonel H Jones, only to picked off by a self-assured young brave who says. 'Goodbye, old man.' before firing the fatal shot. It's a cool line, one I applaud even as I make the decision to hunt him down in the next game.

And tomorrow our wee man is ten and we're going back to Lazerzone for his tenth birthday. Can't wait to see who our opponents are this time. The children of bankers maybe. Prep school kids. That would be much better. My boy's  little gang though, they won't care. They'll zap whoever you stick in front of them. And they'll do it anywhere. Church. kindergarten. shopping Mall. School. University. And I don't think many of them will grow up to be mass murderers or war criminals.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Wake Up Happy Every Day - An extract

This is the first page or two of the first draft of the next novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day due to be published by Bloomsbury in 2014.

Not a single word of this may survive the editing, redrafting, and reshaping process. Or some of it may turn up, but in different parts of the book. It could even turn out to be the very last page. Everything is up for grabs. Maybe the book won't even appear, or if it does it might have a new title. This extract , if it does survive, will almost certainly be shorter, crack along faster.

But this is where we are now... This is the demo version...

There will, of course, by typos and crimes against grammar...

Wake Up Happy Every Day
I am in San Francisco. In Russian Hill. In a house that once belonged to Fanny Osborn-Stevenson, widow of Robert Louis. I am drinking 50 year old malt and sitting in in a fine leather arm-chair. There is the smoky crackle of vintage blues in the background. On vinyl. Bessie Smith. Good booze, good blues and nothing to do tomorrow. This is all anyone needs to be happy. Only I can't really concentrate because Russell is talking.

'I'm giving it all up, mate. Getting out while I can.'

Russell is turning his back on everything. Not the money, obviously. Just the work. Just the life. He's fifty tomorrow after all, he's worked long enough - now is the time for adventure, travel. He's going to see everything. He's going to Marrakesh, Ulan Bator, Spitzbergen. He's going to Easter Island, Dahomey, Kaliningrad. The Antarctic if he can. He's going to Everywhere and then he's going to Anywhere.

And he's not just going to see these places oh no - he's going to develop relationships with them. He's going to get under their skin. He's going to pull them apart to see how they work. Maybe he'll write about them. Proper books too. Not just bloody blogs.
And then he's going where they don't even have Starbucks. Where he can't be emailed or poked or skyped or dream-tabbed or sat-phoned. Places where the long needy arms of Thread friends can't tap him on the shoulder to suggest he like something they've done, made, seen. Or, worse, like things their kids have done, made, seen. He's going where he's beyond the reach of what's trending.

I wonder if there even are such places any more, but Russell's too intoxicated by his plan to listen.

Maybe he'll help set up schools, hospitals, Maybe he'll adopt a few kids. Bright kids. Kids who can talk. Kids who can walk properly. I let it go, don't say anything.

On and on he goes, while Bessie struggles to make herself heard. He says that, then again, maybe he won't help the street kids of South Sudan or wherever. Maybe he'll - at last - just have fun. See what happens. He's going to be open to whatever comes along. He's going to have the gap year he'd denied himself at eighteen. The gratification he'd deferred then he's going to have now with compound interest. From now on he is going to have a gap life. Fifty, says Russell, is not the new forty. Fuck that. Fifty, says Russell, is the new nineteen. A time when the world is full of limitless possibility.

His eyes are blazing. This is his renaissance. He is leaving behind the crocodile swamps of commerce. He's liquidated all his interests and he names the figure he's got for them. The numbers make my eyes sting. Make my skin itch. It's a staggering sum.

Turns out Russell is richer than the Queen, richer than Madonna. Zuckerberg rich. Biblically rich. Richer. What a waste. What a terrible, terrible waste.

I close my eyes. Listen to the music stretching its fingers out from the all the ghosts of the great depression: from the soup kitchens, from all the brothers sparing dimes. Listen up fellas, Bessie Smith wants a little more sugar in her bowl. The minx.

And then Russell feels the need to tell me why he can afford to do this gap life thing and I can't. And so the very last words he says to me, like so many other words over the years, are about success, failure and the line between them.

People say it's a fine line, like the one between love and hate. Russell, bless him, has never seen it like this. For Russell it's always been more of unnavigable ocean. His continent of hard-won achievement on one side – all fifteen million dollar houses once owned by the widows of famous wordsmiths on one side, and the scrubby, barely inhabitable landscape of my failure on the other. It's a subject he finds endlessly fascinating. One he can to return to again and again, always finding something new to say.

And now, on this last night, he says, 'Thing is, Nicky-boy, I know that it is partly genetic. And it might be a little bit environment but mainly – mainly - ' here he wags a stiff finger for emphasis. 'It simply has to be character. I have it. Sarah has it. You don't.'

He says that, or something very like it, and then he goes to one of the six luxury bathrooms recently restored by architect Joe Farrell and Landmark builders.

Russell's view is that he's done better because he is better. I've done crap because I am crap. And, truthfully, I don't mind this sort of talk. Not really. I can't be arsed to even pretend to mind. I'm used to it. It's an old old routine, easily bearable. It's not like I even really listen any more. Sarah gets annoyed about it, but I don't. And Sarah, my beautiful, loyal, kind-hearted life-partner, is upstairs. As is my funny-faced newish daughter. Where is Russell's loyal, kind-hearted life-partner? Where is Russell's funny-faced newish daughter?
Exactomundo, my friend. They are nowhere.