The other day I read a tweet about preparing for festival season. I assumed that it was related to Electric Picnic or Glastonbury, advising us to get our ‘festival on’ by donning the obligatory uniform of wellies, trilby and cut off shorts. But imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I realised the tweet was referring to literary festivals and directed at authors who want to start booking their summer appearances now. When did this happen? When did authors become a troupe of travelling minstrels and what happened to the idea that writing is a solitary pursuit?
Writer Jason Guriel wrote a really interesting article this month ‘What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone?’ addressing this shift from what was always seen as an individual sport, to a community endeavour, and why he feels we are the worse off for it.
“writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another.”
It’s a controversial argument, but a very interesting one. Are all of these gatherings, talks, residencies and teaching gigs taking away from the one job we’re supposed to be doing – writing? As authors, we have been tasked with the job of getting our work ‘out there’ and I think the writing community has grown from that. But while many authors really enjoy engaging with the community, Guriel argues that if everyone is being pushed in the same direction, what happens to the independent spirit?
It is true that we need time alone to develop our own ideas – it’s hard enough not to be influenced by trends and seduced by mainstream ideas. In order to really create something truly original, we need to be alone with our thoughts and in order to do this, we need to guard our privacy. It’s nice to share, but writers need to keep a certain amount to themselves (namely, their selves). There is a risk that if you become too much of a spokesperson for your work, or a writing personality, the authentic voice of your work could get diluted. Not every writer is a loner, but they do tend to seek solitude in order to hear their own voice.
“Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids.” Kay Ryan, poet.
When I began writing, the buzz words were ‘author platform’ and if you didn’t have one, you’d never make it. So I made it my business to build my platform, one blog/tweet/post at a time. I got to know the main players and believed that I was on the right road to success. But then, I would see a complete unknown, an outsider if you will, speed past me to publishing fame with no platform whatsoever. No social media accounts, no blogs, no ground-works to speak of. While I was busy networking and making connections, they were writing and submitting. So you see, there really are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being a writer, you’ve got to do what’s right for you and more importantly, what works for you.
“‘What is the role of the writer to her society?’ was a question Wallace Stevens took up and his answer was: none,” says poet Souvankham Thammavongsa. A writer’s real responsibility, she suggests, is “to build a voice and to keep building that voice.” This stands in stark contrast to the civic-minded suggestion that writers apply their bricks and mortar to some cloud-city of togetherness.
Then there’s the whole ‘totes awky momo’ when someone you’ve been palling around with (in the literary sense) asks you to review their book and you don’t really like it… what do you do then? I know book bloggers (unfairly) get stick for this all the time, but it’s not just bloggers who get caught in this web of networking that make it increasingly difficult to go against the pack. I’ve noticed even with online bookclubs, when there is over-whelming support for a particular writer, anyone who feels differently is almost afraid to speak up. I have seen people apologise for not liking a book!
“It becomes harder to file an honest review of a book if you’re always rubbing shoulders.”
Still, I don’t believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water (I think there are laws against that now anyway). I believe that there is more integrity in the community than this article suggests, but I agree that we do need to challenge the status quo and question the prevailing wisdom around promoting the writing ‘scene’ as opposed to the community.
Personally, I love the community I have found, particularly online because I don’t have to dress up for them! Pretty much all of the writing opportunities I have found have been through social media. There is great support there, people share information on all sorts of things, particularly in the indie community and it’s good to meet people who are experiencing the same things. I love when other writers talk about how difficult it is to stay sitting down, or how your writing can seem like genius one minute and drivel the next. I feel a sense of solidarity. But I don’t discuss writing techniques with these people. I don’t learn my craft by talking to authors, I learn by reading their books. I learn how they deal with different challenges in their writing between the pages. Talk, as they say, is cheap, but if you really want to further your writing career, read.
While you’re here, The Heirloom is just 99p on Kindle all this week. Eva Green said she couldn’t put it down*
*Might have made that bit up
21 thoughts on “A Party Of One”
Loving your articles Evie! You should write a non-fiction book about sorting out a writer’s head!
Uh-oh, you’ve planted a seed Lucy! Thank you, very kind 😉
Another useful think-piece for authors. I’m alone in my study right now, writing a sequel, but I was glad to run across this post.
— author of Deadly Fare
Thanks David, I love finding writers who swim against the tide… there are more of us!
I think there is consolation in that this build your own social media platform idea is a relatively new one, yet fabulous books have been around for generations. Well written books must then be speaking for themselves. If it were down to a vote, I’d go for keeping your head down and plowing on with the writing. The problem I find though is in order to avoid that lonely feeling I waste too much time in interaction, which then becomes too much distraction! I need company but then I’m not staying focussed.
That’s a point well worth remembering, good books speak for themselves. The article was more about literary festivals and other gigs that seem to have mushroomed around the writing community and while it is nice to meet up with like-minded people (and try to flog your book!) it does create its own problems – like distraction 😉 Also, if it’s just more writers in the audience, then you’re still not really reaching your readership, so I guess it’s good to consider how much time you’re willing to devote to being part of the community.
This post resonated with me and I bet many other writers Evie. Perhaps there is more pressure these days for writers to sell books/make a living from writing (even if ‘self imposed’) due to an increased value society places on measurable (ie financial) kinds of success – and from the popularity of self publishing, dare I say? But the costs of this success can be high (dumbing down, burning out etc). The key question, how does one sell one’s books/make a living as a writer without having to sell one’s soul in the process?
Very well put Jennie. I feel that there is a natural life-cycle to a book and to the author, that is being condensed by the current system. There seems to be a huge marketing buzz around new releases, only to be forgotten about in the rush for the next big blockbuster. I think most authors want to write books that will stand the test of time, but I’m not sure if they are always given the time/space/freedom to grow and hone their craft. I completely agree with you, basing every notion of success on monetary value can only lead us in one direction and I think the integrity behind what it means to be a writer gets left behind. Thanks so much for your comment, you’ve given me a lot to think about!
Ah, Evie ~ my take on it is this. However much you network, kiss-kiss, socialise, promote, give talks, etc, you’ve still got to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours on your own, just writing the damn thing. And again. And again. Writing isn’t a group activity. Unless you’re trad pubbed (by which I mean Big 5), most of your sales will come from ebooks, which come from Amazon, and sales on there is all about Amazon visibility. The people buying your books don’t know how much you’re networking or not!! I like meeting other writers and bloggers, but I wouldn’t want to do it more than once or twice a year. I don’t have the time, for a start off!!! If you’re going to do this, you have to be prepared to spend much of your days alone, and do it without motivation/support from others.
Re the author-author-friendly-blogger reviewing: it’s the reason that, on Rosie Amber’s Review Team, team members are not allowed to submit their books for review. If we did, any great reviews would look biased, and as if it was one of those ghastly author-author review swap clubs. I think the way round the problem you pointed out is simply to make it clear from the outset that you don’t review on request or enter into review swaps. If a writer has so few reviews that he/she is actually asking other writers to review, that would give me warning bells! As a part of Rosie’s review team, when I receive my review copy from an author who’s submitted, I make a point of not getting into friendly chit-chat with them. I just thank them, and let that be it. Makes it easier – I save the friendly chat for when I’ve read it and like it.
What’s really coming through in your response Terry, is that you have to have a plan. I think when you are more of an established author, you can spot a mile off when something isn’t going to be worth your while. But, as the author of the piece pointed out, up and coming authors are being made to feel as though their appearance at countless literary hoe-downs are essential for furthering their careers. All those ‘How to get published’ seminars for newbie writers, which are usually outdated and nothing you couldn’t have found out for free on Google, can be a complete waste of time. How many people actually get published after one of those and do you get a refund if not?! When you’re starting out, you feel so much pressure to do what everybody else is doing, regardless of whether or not it’s actually yielding them any results (ie. exposure, sales). Like you said, it depends on your market and as authors, we need to know our market and plan around that. Some writing events can be really enjoyable and informative, but other times you start to think you might have been better off sitting at home and writing your next book!
Yes, I do see what you mean! Though believe me, it’s not only new writers that feel the pressure; I remember a while back declining an invitation to some writers and bloggers get together because it was too far away, and was told, rather sniffily, that some writers were coming from overseas. As for those dos where you pitch in person to an agent – horrendous! Aside from the fact that I want to stay self pub, I’m not a salesman. I can write about my work, I can’t talk about it. Basically, there’s so much bollocks talked, and oneupmanship, in the writers’ world, that I prefer to stay where I am. Behind the laptop! And you’re so right in what you say – you improve your writing by doing it, and by reading (and watching TV drama, oddly), not by attending conferences and ‘how to’ classes. As for ‘how to be published’ – well, don’t get me started….
That’s just it, the pressure to conform, to follow the herd. It always grates on me, so when I found this article, I was like, “These are my people!!”
Do you make a distinction between events for writers and events for readers? I don’t hold too much truck for writerly events as many of them seem to be another way of parting “aspiring authors” from their money, although they can be good for confidence when you are new to the (self-)publishing world, and occasionally later on for a jolly with scrivener mates. You can come away from such events inspired and buoyed up by meeting like minds (or you can come away from them depressed and ready to give up …).
If writers can find the time and energy to attend reader events occasionally, though, I think it can be worthwhile. I haven’t attended any reading by an author where I haven’t wanted to buy their book afterwards, and I have found authors I wouldn’t otherwise have known about that way – and I’ve gone on to spread the word on social media. Discussion panels can be quite illuminating for readers too. But I don’t think authors should feel obliged to do readings or events if they hate the idea of them.
Authors reviewing (and endlessly plugging) other authors (when the reader knows they are mates) is a whole other can of worms.
Good point! I got the feeling from the article that he was talking about writer events, although he does throw readings in there too – writers having to go to other writers events within the community and the whole thing self-perpetuating itself to create the ‘writing scene’. It’s an interesting look at how the idea of being a writer has evolved and what is now ‘the done thing’.
Connecting with readers though, that’s the opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. It reminds me of Joanna Trollope coming out against JK Rowling’s use of twitter – not all writers enjoy social media, but that doesn’t make either of them wrong. So I completely agree, authors should do what’s right for them.
And you’re right, probably best to leave the lid on that particular can! 😉
I went to the Wexford Literary festival yesterday, I go every year (this was their 4th) and I love it. For me, the timing always marks the end of a busy calving season and the start of a busy writing one (as I usually have a September deadline). It never fails to inspire me – someone will say something that will spark an idea, sometimes I had the idea during the calving season and just needed the time and enthusiasm to get the spark ignited. It’s happened again this year.
It’s a lovely festival – really good talks but the huge plus is how friendly everyone is. Carmel Harrington is one of the leadign lights of it and is so encouraging. Yesterday she gave a shoutout to all the authors who have works out on submission or just got deals too. And of course, self publishing panels are held too.
Ah well, there you go – there’s two sides to everything isn’t there?! Great to hear you were inspired in Wexford (still haven’t been, but it’s on the list). They must be doing something right if you keep returning there, so that’s a very good sign. Is it more geared towards writers than readers then? Sounds very inclusive.
Yes, more so for writers / inspiring writers. I haven’t been to a festival that is more towards readers to be honest.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, the Tramp Press duo were there yesterday and they didn’t see a social media presence as that important (although they have heard of authors missing out on deals because too shy to do interviews kind of thing), they see the writing as the most important and if it’s really good, it will sell anyway, and it’s their job to do the marketing. Good to hear.
Wow, that IS interesting. It’s not often that you would hear that message from a publisher.
Then again, I suppose their audience is more literary fiction, which doesn’t tend to do as well as genre fiction in the digital market, so I guess that makes sense for them. Again, I think you’ve really got to define your market and plan accordingly. Being a writer isn’t a one-size-fits-all profession. They were in Galway at Cuirt as well, great publishers 😉
I just attended a Facebook live session by an author who was reiterating the fact that in this digital age only writing a good book is not the means and end to an author. One must interact with bloggers, writers alike and strategize over marketing etc. Sometimes it becomes all too confusing for a newbie author like me. These are all distractions I feel yet I am pulled towards it, 😉
Great great post!
It’s true, no woman is an island! Like I said in the piece, I put a lot of effort into creating a digital platform, but I’ve also seen people get book deals without it, so it depends on you and your market. Also as a self-publisher, it was vital for me to make connections with people who would help me to get my books seen. I can imagine how daunting it is starting out. I had already written my first novel before setting up my blog, twitter etc (which would be seen as madness today!) but in a way, I think it worked out better for me. It would have been too much too soon and ultimately, the writing should come first. As you say, it’s all such a distraction and you can often find your days eaten up with researching what you should do to become a writer, rather than writing! It’s the same once you have published, you can get sucked into endless marketing and it can be really difficult to get back into writing mode. You’ll get the balance right in the end and to finish off with another cliche, everything in moderation! Best of luck 😉