Posts Tagged author life

Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives

Author life isn’t necessarily easy. Although our stresses are hardly big league – we’re not performing brain surgery or living in a war zone – we sometimes feel embattled and alone. If you’re having one of those moments, let this restore your courage.

First, watch this film by Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World (enjoy the colossal glaciers, the eerie beauty of the sea under the ice and adorable nihilistic penguins). Then – the important bit – read this fan letter to Herzog by critic Roger Ebert (if you have the film DVD, there’s a panel discussion of it in the extras).

Ebert’s fan letter is actually about all of us – the creators with a powerful inner compass. It’s a fan letter for our values. Most of us could take ‘easier’ options, whether artistically, commercially or in life as a whole, but we must do otherwise. Yes, says Ebert, there are people who appreciate this spirit. Who applaud it.

Here’s why, in 7ish highlights.

1

‘This is … a letter to a man whose … vision … challenges us to ask … questions not only about films but about lives … their lives…’

Our personal vision. We notice, we feel, we create.

2

‘I believe you have never made a film depending on … formulas…’

Formulas? No.

3

‘…and you want every film to be absolutely original.’

We might not even follow our own, er, formulas.

4

‘Without ever … having a dependable source of financing, without the attention of the … oligarchies that decide what may be filmed and shown, you have directed at least 55 films or television productions …  because you have depended on your imagination instead of budgets, stars or publicity campaigns.’

Although we’re not financially naïve, we’ll do what we do regardless of whether it is commercial.

5

‘You have had the visions and made the films and trusted people to find them, and they have. It is safe to say you are as admired and venerated as any filmmaker alive…’

Independence leads to artistic identity, a distinctive style, and respect for our integrity.

5.5

…‘among those who have heard of you, of course…’ 

I admit that Herzog’s obscurity problem is not on the scale of, say, the obscurity problems that most of us have. But if we’re talking about scale, it seems Ebert regards Herzog as a tad obscure.

5.75

‘Those who do not know your work, and the work of your comrades in the independent film world, are missing experiences that might shake and inspire them.’

Making us feel a bit better about that obscurity thing.

6

‘You often say … the media pound the same paltry ideas into our heads … and that we need to see around the edges or over the top. When you open Encounters at the End of the World by following a marine biologist under the ice floes of the South Pole, and listening to the alien sounds of the creatures who thrive there, you show me a place on my planet I did not know about, and I am richer. You are the most curious of men. You are like the storytellers of old, returning from far lands with spellbinding tales… the world as we dream it… the deeper truth.’

That’s why we make what we make, and we take such care.

 

Interlude 

Let’s recap.

1 Be curious.

2 Invent.

3 Don’t be afraid to develop.

4 Be independent in the most important way, with your questing, communicative spirit.

5 Find your audience gradually and genuinely, with the distinctive character of what you do.

 

And back to Ebert… finale

‘You and your work are unique and invaluable…. You have the audacity to believe that if you make a film about anything that interests you, it will interest us as well. You have proven it.’

Go forth and be audacious.

PS Watch the film and look for the little penguin.

PPS If you’re curious to know what this little penguin is doing with all her creative time, here’s my latest newsletter

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The rescued desk – where do you write?

I’m addicted to those pieces in Saturday newspapers where authors show us round their writing rooms. The walls for Post-Its, the arcane but essential talisman on the desk, the flop-and-read area…. even if we all know that half our work probably happens in snatched scribbles at the Tube station, or in our heads while watching a film.

Anyway, here’s my own contribution, first written for the Authors Electric blog back in 2012. I’m sure some of the piles of notes have waxed and waned, but the general geography of where everything lives is the same. Writers are creatures of habit, I guess.

My desk is an old dining table. It has been with my husband longer than I have.

He didn’t acquire it by choice. Years before I met him his mother found it by a skip. She delivered it to Dave ‘in case he’d find it useful’. He didn’t, because he didn’t need two dining tables. So he put it in the box room. Then I moved in.

I was a private scribbler, a manic creative. The box room became my study and the table my playground, with a computer and a litter of notes. Short stories, a tinkered-with novel, naive submissions. Gradually commissions happened. My prose left the house as printouts and disks and returned as proofs and then real books.

The table and I had become serious.

It was not a lovely beast. Not just because of the haloes from hot mugs, the cigarette burns and the grooves from children’s scribbles. I’ve never seen wood that looked so like Formica. I sanded and painted the top, in a paler tone of the smoky lilac on the walls. The table’s legs were neither substantial nor retro spindly. But painted black they became svelte stilettos. Dave made me bookcases, also in black.

There isn’t much else in the room. In one corner is a Nepalese cushion, to be used for reading and for plotting out books on index cards. The cushion is a hypnotic-looking mandala with red tasselled corners. (Tasteful neutrals make me cross.)

Beside the monitor is a stack of CDs, chosen to witch up characters, places and scene moods for works in progress. Pens are crammed in a box that once held Laurent Perrier champagne. Leads and USB drives live in a distractingly hip Michael Kors sunglasses case (a charity shop treasure). Something, one day, will find a home in the tiny cylindrical box inscribed with the word Pride. Papers, cards and a quill from a pheasant’s tail sit in a wooden chest – a gift from a friend who died one Christmas in a car crash.

Between these fixtures are notes. Pictures, too, of random strangers I’d cast as my characters.

At the moment there are five or six books evolving on that desk. If you took a stop-motion film you would see them multiply, spread and vanish like the seasons.

Like the narrator of My Memories of a Future Lifel I’m a martyr to RSI. If Dave has to sort out a problem with my computer he curses the kneeling chair, the joystick mouse and the gusseted ergonomic keyboard.

The computers have come and gone. Relics gather, CDs and notes arrive and leave. But the foundling desk has been under it all from the start, through much discovery and the paperdrift of many books. And here it still is. I think it might even be older than I am.

Psst… if you want to see what’s going on there, sign up for my newsletter

Where do you write?

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A plea to authors – please speak out about piracy

I’ve had a worrying experience with a local book club. I’m not sure it is as it appears, so I won’t name names. But either way, it raises worrying questions about the way authors’ work is valued.

Recently, a book club invited me to make a presentation about Lifeform Three. The club voted to read it. The organiser went out of the room. Ten minutes later she returned. The books were ordered, she said! So quick. Everyone went home happy.

Except. I should have seen seven UK sales within 24 hours but there was only one. An ebook. Being indie, I know the local bookshops don’t have that many copies. Also, cheap second-hand copies on Amazon are scarce. Did the club just pretend they were going to read it?

It was sweet of them to spare my blushes. And I couldn’t exactly ask.

I shrugged it off. But this week I was talking to an author friend. She said she’d had the same puzzling situation, several times. She said that local book clubs had contacted her because they were reading one of her titles. They asked her questions about the text. But she saw no corresponding rise in UK sales. Like me, she knows local shops don’t have that many copies. The libraries don’t stock her books. Secondhand copies are in short supply. Each time a book club takes up one of her titles, she sees just one UK sale – one ebook.

It seems to be a pattern.

Finally, she said, she found the answer. She said that one club admitted that it buys one ebook and shares it among all its members. Could they be passing one copy between them all? Unlikely as they all needed to read it at once. She strongly suspected they were making duplicates.

Was this also the explanation for my book club experience? I saw just one sale, remember.

I asked. I was told: ‘We mostly get our books through Amazon, and often from the second-hand sellers. I like to read a real book and don’t have a Kindle’. So be it.

But why was I ready to believe villainy?

Because it fits a bigger picture. Because I frequently meet people who think piracy, file copying and illegal downloading hurts nobody. They say it’s a ‘victimless’ crime. They defend their right to do it. These are people in well-paid jobs, BTW.

What harm can it do? Let’s illustrate that by giving book clubs a fair hearing. Let’s show the good that just one group can – and does – do for an author’s reputation and sustainability and why we appreciate them so much.

The power of book clubs

Imagine if one club orders seven copies in a store. That puts the author in the store owner’s good books. If they’re bought online it spreads beneficial juice through the chart algorithms. Just seven copies can make a real impression. Many clubs are a lot bigger.

You might think traditionally published authors don’t have to worry as much because they’re funded by the publisher, but if the book doesn’t gain traction, the publisher drops the author.

So a book club is not only putting money where it deserves to be. It is doing a lot of good for that author’s long-term career. Thank you, BTW.

Money, money, money

I’m sorry to mention money so much, but I think this is one of the stumbling blocks. How many times have you had to explain to non-authors that books have not made you steaming rich?

Indeed, I wonder if we’ve helped create that impression? All these carefree pictures of authors signing heaps of books in crowded bookstores; holding launches in front of appreciative audiences.

Films and TV are even worse. I’ve seen LitHub articles that laugh at the kind of blissful artistic life that moviemakers think is the norm for writers.

Of course we like to share our highlights, but the public is getting an erroneous message that we’re all living the dream in a utopia of wordy fulfilment. So what’s a lost sale? Or 10?

We’ve failed to emphasise how much of an impact lost sales and piracy have (thanks for the pic Leo Reynolds on Flickr).

Selling ourselves too cheaply?

And obviously the freebie culture hasn’t helped – that’s a rot we can’t reverse. Neither have subscription services, where content is an all-you-can-eat buffet. We often hear people say they can’t afford to buy books, but many of those people can fund foreign holidays, concert tickets and regular doses of frothy coffee. They can’t fund their reading?

Because they don’t think they should have to.

Stealing is the new black

Yesterday I saw a sign in a charity shop: ‘If you steal from this shop, you are stealing from animals.’

Think about that. Who would steal from a charity shop? But it happens so frequently that the shop had to display a sign. How did the thieves justify that to themselves? The stock was donated so the theft harms no one? Another kind of victimless crime?

Unfortunately, there have always been ways to share files and cheat their creators. Ask any musician. It’s too late to change some people’s minds. But we can speak up so that more people don’t drift into it unawares. Ebook copying is damaging authors’ careers.

I don’t know how we’ll change people’s minds about this. Suggestions?

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Biggest challenge as an indie author and how to stay creative – interview at ALLi

How do I stay creative, motivated and productive when there are so many non-writing demands on an author’s life?

Today I’m answering these questions at the website of the Alliance of Independent Authors. What was the best decision I ever made? (Thankfully they didn’t ask about my worst…) Do drop in.

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