Advice for writers always includes something about how to deal with writer’s block, as if it’s something like the common cold or a pernicious case of athlete’s foot. I have never really understood this, as most of my life I have been unable to stop writing even when I should know better.
However I think I have just developed a case of something like it and I don’t know how it has happened or what to do about it. I am as usual writing and writing – for instance, I am writing this very piece – and I am doing research for various projects I am in the middle of and I have started revising a lot of stuff on my blogs but I am definitely avoiding the one thing I really need to write, the thing I need to finish so I can actually get on with the next thing and then start something absolutely fresh. It must mean something … but what?
I have been working on a book of short stories, some of which were written years ago while others are brand new or radically revised. Some are quite long, almost novella length, others are super-short. I’m planning both e-book and paperback releases through Amazon and Ingram Spark. Maybe I’ll get a local printer to do a quality small run for the Australian market. Everything is ready for a final assembly and edit BUT there’s this one story I just can’t finish. It’s been through several versions, the main character has had several names and a variety of backstories, the key issues have changed several times, the narrative has shifted, her late husband has oscillated between being a stuffy idiot, a self-important moron and an OK kind of guy … and now I have her in the middle of the story and something really dramatic has to start happening to her and I just can’t get it moving.
So I wake up first thing in the morning determined to finish the story but instead I start looking at note I was writing about something else and then I’m looking at emails or trying to upload a pdf or whatever and two hours pass and then I have to start doing something else and my quality writing time is over so I say I’ll get back to it later in the day but it doesn’t happen, and then it’s night time and tomorrow is another day and I am sure I will finish it then but guess what? No luck …
Yes, it’s procrastination but something more as well. Is it some deep-seated psychological resistance to actually finishing this book and actually publishing it? Do I doubt the value of this story in particular, or the collection as a whole?
English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge first described his “indefinite indescribable terror” at not being able to produce work he thought worthy of his talent. I certainly don’t feel anything like indescribable terror. I’m just cross with myself for having constructed what feels like a wall between myself as a writer and the end of this story. Meanwhile Louisa, my character, is stranded in her luxurious hotel room in Bangkok waiting for her cosmetic surgical scars to heal. Poor thing.
Well it took six long days but I finally unpacked my new Kindle Fire HD 2016 8 inch and after the usual struggles with passwords and buttons and chargers it lit up, and what a pretty ***** it is. Actually I am not sure what it is – a thing? a device? a machine? Just another object? Yes, it is an object, but an object which reaches into the very depths of a writer’s being – this one’s, anyway.
Ridiculous, I know, but the whole time I didn’t have a Kindle I couldn’t seem to write a word. I carried around the print-out of latest version of Suburban Gigolo wherever I went, thinking I could start the next round of edits, but there was just something wrong. Didn’t even take it out of its brown paper bag. Night after night I re-tilted my bedside lamp and focussed my eyes on the printed pages of Emmanuel Carrere’s Liminov. I am really enjoying this book, in a strange abstract way, but the process of reading doesn’t feel the same. And if I can’t read, it seems I can’t write.
While I was recently in hospital I couldn’t read either, not because I didn’t have my Kindle – I did, it goes everywhere with me – but because I was so knocked out by the drugs and the pain and the numbing routine and the astonishing reality of having a metal knee now embedded and growing in my bones and flesh there seemed no mind-space left over for reading books.
However I became addicted to that enlightening TV show “Diagnosis Murder” about how a doctor (a spritely white-haired Dick van Dyke) helps his detective son (played by Dick van Dyke’s own real-life son Barry) solve strange criminal cases which embrace medical issues.
This was on every afternoon and I lay on my back gazing at the TV screen up on the wall and felt both cheered and reassured by the ability of doctors and detectives to solve all human problems, as they were still able to do in the early 1990s, unlike today where the crimes are so much more hideous and the main role for the medical specialists is scraping up samples from torn fingernails and cutting cadavers open with wryly humorous remarks.
But TV in the end is no substitute for reading, and now I have a Kindle again I can read all the books I recently downloaded just before it finally died. These include the only book by Carrere which I can find on Kindle, The Kingdom, yet another excursus into the world of the first Christians, a theme which seems to have been trending recently, no doubt due to the near universal perception of imminent apocalypse. I even started watching A.D. the Bible Continues (2015) on Stan but that otherworldly gleam in Peter’s eyes is really getting me down. Actually I thought the first three episodes were excellent, but it became a bit repetitive after that.
The thing is, you live with stories, and it matters how they reach you. TV has become a wonderful medium now that you can watch series the same way you read a book … you don’t have to wait until next week’s broadcast, you can just keep on and on and on until you absolutely have to get up and go to Aldi or clean up the cat vomit. Then the clever TV knows exactly where you got up to, and takes you directly back there. Just like the Kindle does.
I can feel myself falling in love with my new Kindle, even though I’ve hardly even turned it on yet. What creates this powerful attraction? A lot of people have it with their mobile phones, almost unable to be diverted from them even by great moments in the Real World such as picking up your children from school. The recent campaign in Britain to get parents to actually look at their child when they pick the poor little thing up at the school gate marks just one moment in the process of human alienation we are in the midst of.
How to think about these object-obsessions? To cut a long psychoanalytic story short, it is a kind of transitional object. You know, the blanket the child carries around until it decays, the beaten up teddy bear, the Thing your little one just can’t be without. Some clever evil genius worked out that we never grow up, we humans, we go on looking for the comforts of childhood, and these days they’ve given us an electronic item instead of Blanky. I’m not the first to think of this, although I did feel disappointed when I found this quote:
The thing about electronic objects though is that they just don’t feel the same . How about making Kindle or phone cases out of woven feathers? I had a kind of feathered scarf when I was a small child and yes, obviously it came from my mother, and I needed it in the same way I seem to need my Kindle now. I just can’t go to bed without it, and if that happens then I can’t seem to write anything the next day. What The ????
Cindy Fazzi’s recent post “Six Signs of a Literary Snob” here reminded me of the vehement debate around the effects of cliques formed around creative writing courses and literary journals in Australia which erupted in 2016 and resulted in a wild outburst from a young Australian author in that revered Melbourne literary journal Meanjin. Luke Carman has runs on the board. He has published short fiction in local journals (HEAT, Westside, Cultural Studies Review) and has been on the shortlist for a few recent prizes. He has published a book of short stories (An Elegant Young Man) and tutors in creative writing at the University of Western Sydney… but there are two strikes straight away. Short stories are considered somehow mildly deplorable and definitely not a mark of “real” literature, and Western Sydney – which means anywhere between Ashfield and Wentworth Falls – is by definition not a site from which worthwhile literary forms could possibly emerge.
Luke spat the dummy in a big way. He said that Australian literary endeavour had been infiltrated by “wannabes” who were “dictating terms for an artform to which they contribute nothing but their lordly presence”. Luke was taking on the prevalent literary snobbery in Australia which seems to be flourishing more vigorously than ever, especially regarding the books that agents and publishers are permitting past the starting gate, and in the award of literary prizes and other marks of distinction.
Cindy’s go-to list for the literary snob:
Reads only literary fiction; absolutely no commercial genres for this reader.
Refuses to read self-published books.
Refuses to read any best seller, even if it’s literary.
Doesn’t like to read feel-good books or happy endings. The more depressing a book, the better for this reader.
Doesn’t like to read “easy” books. The more incomprehensible, the better.
Won’t read a novel published after a certain decade or period (e.g., nothing after the 1960s or after 19th century, etc.)
This fits the Australian scene perfectly, except for #6. The literary world here is mainly devoted to recently published works from authors who have already made their mark on the Ozlit scene. Debut authors need to have come through a Creative Writing program in one of the main universities and consequently enjoyed Fellowships and residencies in prestigious programs. They are usually championed by an important figure, preferably a famous writer, who refers them on to agents and publishers. Agents and publishers want books whose themes resonate with the current cultural obsessions – indigenous dispossession, gender-based suffering, migrant disaffection, the struggles of the repentant drug addict – and have no interest in books which engage the general popular audience, those which sell well because of their exciting plots and “easy” writing. As for the happy ending, who could take that seriously?
A great example is the spectacular but largely culturally invisible writing career of Sydney author Liane Moriarty, recently dubbed “the most successful Australian author you’ve never heard of”. I came across her work entirely by accident, wandering about on Kindle as I do most nights, exploring new things to read. I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman writer, offering great fiction about a Sydney I knew, so recognisable, real places and real (often horrible) Sydney people! I loved the first of her books and then bought and read all of them in quick succession. Now she can’t write fast enough to meet her reader’s demands. This is a writer who has sold six million books around the world. Her books are hardly light-weight. They address the dark side of Sydney suburban life in a way never written about before. Her endings aren’t “happy” although they aren’t necessarily tragic either. They are well-written, lovingly crafted and you can’t put them down. Now Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon are starring in the movie adaptation of her smash-hit “Big Little Lies”. Oh, OK, there’s the problem right there! She is successful! People want to read her books! She’s sold the film rights! And she’s writing about Sydney suburbia. Not good among the Melbourne establishment which pretty much dominates the literary scene these days, or so everyone seems to agree.
So what about Luke Carman? He’s writing about Sydney too, but it’s a Sydney even Liane Moriarty’s fans won’t know much about. Set largely in his home-suburb of Liverpool, the characters in his stories reflect the turbulent and sometimes bizarre reality of contemporary life for the young in Western Sydney. They are addicts, poets, people who see ghosts, Lebbos, Grubby Boys, scumbag Aussies. His alter-ego writer loves Whitman and Kerouac and Leonard Cohen. The book is full of energy, edgy street-scenes and local voices, really INTENSE as the younger generation say. I loved his book, published by Giramondo, which is a pretty respectable local publisher, and wondered what had led to his “spray” in Meanjin here. It’s a wonderful but complicated essay, full of rage and bile. Many would join me in saying, “Luke, I feel you”.
Without doubt the Australian literary scene is self-referential and highly conservative. Obsessed with its own preservation, denying the validity of the e-book, loathing self-publishing, there seems to be in a kind of retro-neo-colonial suspension going on here. New forms of expression and new kinds of stories are ignored or, more accurately, not even recognised.
The overlap and interplay between visual and written culture is at an exciting place. As long-form television is replacing the standard movie, new strategies of writing (the long-form literary equivalent, as practiced by Knausgaard for example) opens up a new trajectory reminiscent of Proust. Screen-writers write fiction and turn their fictions back into television series – thinking here of that fabulous 2016 series Good Behaviour – and “books” can be as long or as short as writers like and readers enjoy.
It’s become a terrible struggle for the conventional author trying to get “the book” published in print. The e-alternative is terrible as well, especially trying to find a market with the five million books now available online. But writers can’t help themselves, they like to write, and readers like to read, it’s a question of finding new ways for them to get together. The canapés and champagne Harbourside set may still be seeking their Bourdieuan distinction, but there is a lot more to the writing scene now, thank goodness!
Writers are born, or so they say. Problem is, publishers don’t have room for them all. They have weird criteria about what they are willing to publish. They hate the slush pile. Then along comes self-publishing. The freedom to write what you want at the length you want to write it, to publish it to a potentially world-wide audience and to control every aspect of the process! Perfect. And when the writing is finished – voila! A few fiddles on the computer, a cover of some kind and that should be it, right?
Well, we know now how wrong that is. The labyrinth of self-publishing discloses itself with consummate cruelty. Soon the writer’s brain is entirely occupied with technical issues, spending sleepless nights scouring the internet as the poor sap slowly learns that the actual writing is both the most and least important element in this process. Moreover there are hundreds of thousands of others all doing the same.
As self-publishing has exploded the author has to become an author-preneur and master a thousand arcane skills. The easiest method is to hire someone else to do it all and pay them. That way your book will definitely be published, in e-version and print version, and you have become a “real” author. There are hundreds of agencies now offering these services, with all kinds of bells and whistles: editing, covers, conversions to different formats, uploading. But it costs! So there is your book but now nobody is buying it. What to do? Marketing…. Oh, that costs more again! And here are more agencies willing to take your money to do it for you. Or you can do it yourself at minimal cost but it still costs. Professional reviews at $500? (Biggest ripoff of all – that’s Kirkus).
Very few authors ever reveal what the whole process actually costs them and what income it produces. One recent exception is US indie author Joynell Schulz who has generously shared through her blog everything she has been going through to get her first book out there. Find her at http://www.joynellschultz.wordpress.com
In her most recent post she sadly recounts what it has cost her so far, and what her sales have been. Short answer: nothing like enough to recover costs. So now she is investing more in various marketing approaches. Good luck with that Joy!
One author who has shared his writing costs and income is Jim Chimes. He has put up his figures for several years now. It is worth noting that he is a hybrid author, with an agent and a traditional publisher. He also publishes short works and some other stuff as an indie. His income has increased steadily over the years and he is now making a good-enough living from his writing to give up other employment. What a reassuring message!
His most recent posts analyse the results of a survey he carried out among a variety of writers – indie, trad and hybrid. They all wrote novels: non-fiction and short fiction was not included, although of course if a novelist had also published shorter writing that income would have been presumably included. This makes very interesting reading. It shows a huge variation in the annual income from his respondents. The most surprising finding is that indie authors even after deducting their costs have the highest median income – higher than authors publishing through both large and small presses. Eight novelists made more than a million dollars last year and some of them were indie authors. The average income across all the respondents was around $17,000. Overall authors publishing with large publishing houses and indie authors made around the same average income.
A key to being a successful indie author, though, is to be able to manage the thousand tasks which a traditional publisher would otherwise manage. Here is where much of the expense comes in, and the strategies required to be a successful author require a lot more than writing. But what happens when all the strategies are followed but the writing itself just isn’t all that great? Every author who is self-publishing has to ask hard questions, ultimately about their books. And their audience, genre, style, look – and how fast they can work. Jim Chimes’ figures clearly show that full-time authors – those who do nothing professionally other than manage their writing career – make many times more than those writing part time. But the books have to be good enough, and there have to be a lot of them. It’s a bit like a production line. But if your books aren’t selling, then there’s no alternative to writing part-time. Chickens and eggs!
Maybe it’s better to think of writing books as a kind of personal entertainment, an expensive pastime like owning a race-horse. You might never get your investment back, but if you enjoy the thrill of the track, go for it! Or, if you disapprove of racing, maybe yachting or flying would be an appropriate analogy. Either way, you can spend all your time doing something that engages you even if it costs. So many writers on their blogs and in comments say that they don’t want to make money from their writing, but they don’t say they are happy to lose it. But maybe that’s what it takes to be a successful writer these days. Next thing the writers will be paying the readers to read their books. Hmmm. That definitely has potential!
Writing my previous post about the pernicious publishing practices which have emerged in Australia in this post-Amazon age, I found myself reflecting on that Australian literary and political figure Bob Ellis. Near the end of his life (he died at his beloved Palm Beach home in April 2016) he gave a radio broadcast about the things he thought had gone on in his life, and in the world.
The thing he emphasized most was how important his early life in small-town Lismore had been, and how much he regretted the way he had lost contact with that tight-knit community-based world – a world when you knew everybody’s family and they all knew you, back for generations. Where families intermarried and feuds occurred and events were celebrated and sins were forgiven. Of course we know it isn’t like that any more – the horrors of small-town and rural life seem far worse now than before – family murders, suicides, drug addiction, child abuse and the rest of it – but the virtues of that former way of life seem ever more compelling to those who left it behind in the heady rush of postwar modernity.
I was a little disappointed in Bob’s book, not because the individual essays and articles weren’t interesting but because I had hoped for something more like an autobiography or memoir. Writing about the times you are in bears the signs of its era. Reflecting back on what you did and thought and why, as in a memoir, highlights the peculiar quality of early life commitments and decisions. What seems self-evident at one time may turn out to seem very peculiar three decades later. From Bob’s radio broadcast I felt he had definitely been in a state of reconsideration, and this book sometimes let you glimpse that, but more would have been welcome. Also, as in life, Bob just couldn’t stop himself namedropping so the reader knows how chummy he was with the great, the good and the famous not-so good.
Bob Ellis was an Australian literary figure, even an icon, whose legacy may disappear quickly. He was a genuinely strange person.
I knew Bob back in his Sydney Uni days, when he hung around with those two great poets Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. Bob was generally long-haired and shabby. Les was fat and looked like a farmer, which in fact he was. Geoff was immaculately be-suited and always elegant and polite. They were an ill-assorted trio. Les went on to become a right-wing identity and Poet Laureate, while Geoff went on to be a lawyer as well as a poet. Bob became ever more leftish, cultivated all his important connections and wrote plays and books.
Young Bob Ellis (ABC)
Although I met and talked to him many times at pubs and parties, he generally ignored anybody who wasn’t important or political. I hadn’t seen him for well over a decade, during which time I had spent two years living with Aboriginal people in the desert. Then, to my amazement, there he was at Maralinga, at the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Testing, 1984. I had been asked to act as the Royal Commission’s anthropological advisor, reporting directly to the Commissioner. “Diamond Jim” McLelland was an august and controversial legal figure with his dapper suits and air of absolute superiority. Renowned as a supporter of Gough Whitlam and accused of extreme Leftism by various Australian rightists, he went on to front the Land and Environment Court.
In the remote flyblown deserts of Northwest South Australia, he fitted in with grace and generally good temper, sitting under flimsy shades among the Aboriginal witnesses, squatting around campfires, and walking unconcernedly through the plutonium fields. I went wherever he went and listened to all the evidence. I suggested questions he might like to ask the Yankuntjara and Pitjantjara speaking people and commented if the translations to and from English seemed inadequate or wrong. Unlikely as it seemed, Bob Ellis was there too. He was there to write a book, he said. He and Diamond Jim seemed to be best mates, and Bob was permitted to attend all the hearings out in the desert. Bob, who was constantly shambling, shuffling and disordered, behaved with his typical contempt for almost everyone. He did try to converse with the Aboriginal witnesses but they had no idea who he was and thought he was just another lunatic white man. Again, he paid no attention to other white people, including me.
I have just finished a long story – novelette length – about Maralinga for my new collection of stories, Radiant Sands, which should be out in a month or two. In Bob’s collected works was a long piece he had written about Maralinga, which I had never seen or even been aware of previously. So I wanted to buy the book to see what his recollections of the event turned out to be, which is what prompted my previous post.
It was a scattered collection of observations. Bob seemed to have attended most closely to the Aboriginal evidence and was able to convey the extraordinary quality of the desert hearings, although the details were sparse. It was a good piece, and I enjoyed reading it.
My own fictional novelette, Last Patrol, to appear in Radiant Sands, is nothing like this. The people Bob Ellis heard and saw were the same groups of people who appear in Last Patrol, but I was trying to restore the realities that lay behind the formality and structured context of a legal hearing. I fictionalised a part of the story which I believed to be true and invented a character who was a composite of all the Patrol Officers I had met and heard about during my years in the desert. I had no reason to question the account of many people I knew well that their relatives had still been living in the far bush during the early 1950s, and that some had perished in the bomb blasts.
I attempted to persuade the Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission to follow up this line of questioning. Many witness statements agreed that there had been people coming in from the far north-west at the time of the first tests, relatives who had never been seen again. But it was a step too far. There was no way of getting direct evidence or witness statements, since, were this a true story, nobody had survived. And maybe it opened up too great a can of worms, even for this enquiry.
Nobody who hadn’t been there could really grasp what had happened. Aboriginal life in the desert in the early 1980s was not so long ago. People had told each other stories, and these stories had passed along the chain of story-telling far to the north and west and around the desert. The criteria of “truth” in a legal case depends on a certain kind of evidence: this, but not that; here but not there. That’s not the way Aboriginal people think, nor is it the way their world is constructed. Even the “black cloud” evidence was not fully convincing to the judge and the legal team. The “missing relatives” story would have been even less so.
Memories and stories have their own rationale; memoirs and autobiographies move to a different rhythm and call for a different kind of truth. Writing about a historical event through fiction is a truly strange form of knowledge-creation. I tried it and liked it but it still makes me feel uneasy. Readers can make up their own minds when the book comes out but in the meantime I have put a short excerpt from the story on this site, under “Fiction” – “Radiant Sands”.