Value Your Writing

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I was watching a documentary about Christie’s Auction House the other day (more unexpected research!) when they took delivery of a beautiful Constable painting. Three specialists inspected the piece, oohing and aahing over the quick brush strokes and immensity of the sky. Then came the real deliberations… how much was it worth? As they debated over how many tens of millions it might fetch, the documentary maker asked them how they arrived at such a price (£20 million). The specialists said that the price was based on how much previous Constable paintings sold for and how much buyers would be prepared to pay. It was staggering to me – it wasn’t so much to do with the actual artwork itself, but how the art world chose to value it. The artist is long gone and even if he were alive today, could not profit from these kinds of sales. Banksy highlighted this issue when he shredded one of his paintings that was resold at auction.

The way society values things can often seem completely unrelated to an item’s true worth. It seems to be more about ownership and the prestige that it brings, rather than investing in an item because it means something to you. The documentary went on to boast about Christie’s new operations in China, where they were basically teaching the Chinese the value of Western art (i.e. teaching them how to spend their millions lusting after the same limited number of artworks deemed worthy). It all seemed so fake and contrived to keep money flowing within the same circles. As my mother would say, money for old rope! These auction houses aren’t actually creating anything or adding value – they are making their money off the backs of artists who died hundreds of years ago, many of them penniless. I often think of Van Gogh and how he struggled throughout his life. Ostracised by the art world at the time, his paintings speak to so many of us now because of their individuality and unique style.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with anything? Well, I’ve been stressing over book sales recently – wondering if I could be doing more and getting frustrated with myself because OBVIOUSLY I’m not doing enough. Which has ultimately led to me viewing my work purely in terms of rankings, sales and reviews. Which is awful – nobody should view their work in those terms, yet it is a reality you face when you’re trying to make a living out of writing.

The problem is, it’s an extremely narrow view of how much your book is worth. I lost touch with how much value I gained from writing my stories in the first place – how much writing helped me through the ups and downs of life. My books have been an escape and a sanctuary. A source of limitless frustration, yes, but also a source of pride. Becoming a writer has been a dream come true. It has given my life a whole new meaning and purpose. Not to mention the joy of being read! One of my favourite reviews (which I should really stick on my fridge in moments of doubt) was from a reader who thanked me for following my passion and living my purpose. Now, what could be worth more than that? You can’t put a price on that kind of connection.

We are all creators, communicating our unique experience of life. Value arbitrarily placed on something by the outside world doesn’t always necessarily mean ‘better’. It might just mean they can find a buyer for it, or that it will sell with minimal fuss. The same applies if you submit a manuscript to a publisher – if they don’t think your book is commercial enough, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t any good. Market forces are driven by very different motives. Was J.K. Rowling’s writing any less impressive when she was writing in a cafe, unemployed and unable to get published? Were Van Gogh’s paintings any less vibrant and expressive when the art world had turned their back on him? The work is it’s own reward, its value is inherent, regardless of stats or awards. Your writing has value, whether you are published or not, whether your last book was a hit or not. So never skimp on the quality of your work – make it the best it can be, for yourself. Don’t follow the markets or compromise your ideas. Never stop dreaming. The process of creation, fulfilling your artistic potential, telling your story – all of these things are beyond price tags.

We all want to be successful, but I’m not sure that allowing the world to tell you how much you’re worth is the meaning of success. An artist’s career will always have peaks and troughs, but that does not reflect your worth or predict your potential. We should value our talent and keep writing (and stop checking the sales reports!)

The Dreaded Question – What’s Your Book About?

Evie Irish TimesIn a recent article I wrote for The Irish Times, I set out to examine why writers find the question ‘What’s your book about?’ so tricky to answer.  Apart from filling your cheeks with air and slowly forcing it out through your mouth, what can you say about the behemoth that has taken over your life for the last few months/years?

And that is the conundrum that is the creative process. We’re not entirely sure how we do it. It’s such a fragile thing that, even having achieved it once, there is never any certainty of being able to repeat the performance. There is an element of alchemy involved in creating something out of nothing, willing an idea into existence by conjuring words onto paper. So perhaps, like magicians, we don’t like to reveal our secrets… because the truth is, we have no idea how any of this works. The trick is making people believe we do.   IT Books

I found some excellent quotes from the greats in our industry like Orwell, Atwood, Saunders and others that will hopefully make you feel less of a deer in headlights the next time you stumble over your answer.  You can read the article in full here.

You could be forgiven for thinking that all successful authors are able to transform into sleek, marketing machines the moment their book hits the shelves, but most of us are just fumbling our way through as best we can.  Self-promotion takes practice and is a skill that has to be learned and more often than not, learned the hard way.

Interestingly, Author Lan Samantha Chang has written a wonderful essay on the subject of protecting your inner life as a writer, especially when it comes to promotion.  It can be difficult to navigate your way from lone writer behind a screen to a public author and she questions if perhaps the reason it is so difficult to discuss our art is because the art should speak for itself?

This struggle takes place, I think, because the sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness. We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method. The finished product is like a pearl, complete and beautiful, but mute about itself.

Yet, her greatest advice is not to worry.  In traditional publishing, the publisher would have dealt with the day-to-day concerns of getting your book out there.  But nowadays, we are all working as authorpreneurs – we are responsible for creating a platform, generating interest and reaching new readerships.  However, Chang advises that we should keep our writing life separate from our writing career.

The single essential survival skill for anybody interested in creating art is to learn to defend this inner life from the world.

But is there anything we can do to avoid the selective mutism that takes hold when trying to compress several years’ worth of work into a catchy sound-byte?

Many people just want to know what genre your book is, but for a lot of authors, their book doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre.  An author recently told me how she attended a PR course for author interviews and one of the best tips she received was to outline three key points about your novel.  And then learn them by heart, so no matter the pressure cooker situation you may find yourself in, your three key points are burned into your grey matter.  It might not convey everything you want to say about your book, but I think that’s the very reason we find the question so difficult to answer in the first place.  We want people to know why our book is so unique, so different to anything else out there.  But no-one has time for that and it’s a sure-fire way to talk yourself into a word-shaped corner.  Talking about your book should be fun, so I think if you can get past the initial hurdle by using these key points, the rest should be a piece of cake (lol!).