Category Archives: Writing

How many?

I don’t get this. I know we are all different, but how many books do you need to sell to be a success?

Quite a few authors have shared their sales figures with me. I have no idea if I’m supposed to keep quiet about them, but let’s assume that I am. Let’s just say I have been surprised. Not by the smallish number a good many absolutely fantastically good authors have sold. It’s wrong and it’s unfair and I don’t know how they live or how they sit down and write the next book. But they do.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I’ve also been taken aback by how few copies – at least of the hardback – one or two authors with very solid reputations and marvellous novels, have sold.

How does selling 40 000 copies of your books sound to you? It’s not J K Rowling, but it’s quite respectable. Especially for someone who’s not a household name.

More than ten years ago I was persuaded to buy a crime novel when on holiday in Sweden. Written by Christina Larsson, who holidays just around the corner from the sales point, and let me tell you, that is no cheap place to have a holiday home. I’d never heard of her, but felt duty bound to support both the author and the ‘bookseller’.

I never got round to reading the book, though. I went looking for it recently, but deduced it’s either ‘on holiday’ without me, or it’s a charity case. I suspect the former.

Anyway, I looked, because I discovered Christina was about to receive some award in Finland, being very popular there (all these years later). The award caused articles to be written about her and her humble writerly beginnings. The first three novels – of which I bought the second – ‘only’ managed to sell 40 000 copies, so she gave up her writer career plans due to lack of success.

I’m afraid my jaw dropped. I know the publishing business in Sweden is more benevolent than the dog-eat-dog in the UK. But I don’t see how these sales figures could be considered a failure.

Eventually Christina did continue writing and has now done even better.

At the same time she has run a summer restaurant in the holiday resort, throwing lots of time and money at it.

And before that she moved the whole resort to somewhere in the vicinity of Madagascar if I don’t remember wrong. Son has the hoodie to prove it. Lots of merchandise got printed with the wrong latitude and longitude. These things happen. And Son enjoys his ‘mistaken’ hoodie.

What I only discovered last year, was that it was a friend of mine who’d discovered the Indian Ocean aspects of our summer paradise. 🙃

And I still believe 40 000 is more than fine.

The point

‘What’s the point?’ is a question I have asked several times recently.

I actually found the point one day, as I was pontificating about some thing or other, to you, right here on Bookwitch. It’s that I quite like writing. Not all the time, but if I can be a little silly, and far too often when I don’t really mention books.

When it is right, it is really right. Still. I merely need to steer clearer of being polite, say ‘no’ a lot more often, and well, hope for the best, really. My best. Your best.

So what I just did, was bin the pile of ideas I’ve hung onto for the last dozen years, almost not looking through them, or anything. OK, I might have glanced at some. And I kept a few. The rest went straight into the bin, because, let’s face it, if I have saved them since the beginning of time, they must be appalling. At the very least, not interesting.

A bit like me.

Are we really ready for this?

To mention, or not to mention. That is the question.

I am of course talking about the virus. Something that has touched on the lives of everyone, in the whole world, can’t just be disappeared in fiction. Can it?

I’d been thinking about this quite a lot, when a crime writer on social media asked her fellow writers what they thought, and what they were going to do. As for her, she was definitely going to mention it in her future writing, because, how could she not?

But someone else had asked her publisher and they had advised against it. Now, I don’t know if she will take that advice, but unless you set all your modern life fiction in the past, you can’t not have the whole virus situation as part of your story, even if it’s already – hopefully – in the past. It will need to be harked back to.

And if you write crime fiction, what an excellent way of adding a little something.  You could kill, hide, do anything, almost, during a lockdown.

As for children’s fiction, no need to kill off the parents in some outlandish way. Here you have a number of possibilities to make a young protagonist free from bothersome adults.

What you do if you’re halfway through a story now… Well, maybe rewrite it to end before February 2020. Or give up and write something different. Many authors seem to find writing hard right now. I’m not surprised. We don’t know the outcome yet. On the other hand, I marvel when reading books or watching films from, say, 1943. ‘How could they?’ I ask myself, ‘when they didn’t know what we know.’

Publishers are funny. So the one who advised against, can’t be the same who commissioned a Covid novel. I’m guessing it’s going to be a fast turnaround and the book will be out before we know it. I wonder if it’s done in the belief, maybe actual knowledge, that people will flock to such a story, like they supposedly click on news articles online.

I wasn’t ready for a Brexit novel before. I’m certainly not ready for a Covid one now. But as for mentioning it; yes, you must.

Culture keeps us going

I don’t know about you, but writing is harder now. And it’s not as if I live off writing, or anything. But I know people who write, and they find they can’t, or at least not their usual stuff.

Sara Paretsky was bemoaning how she couldn’t get stuck in with writing, when she came across something Toni Morrison had said:

“I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, ‘How are you?’ And instead of ‘Oh, fine — and you?’, I blurt out the truth: ‘Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…’ I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: ‘No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!'”

Morrison adds, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

I’m hoping now that Sara will be able to get started. Because we need her words, we need V I.

Within minutes of reading the above, I found myself watching a flash mob thing on YouTube that someone had linked to. It was a group of opera singers belting out Funiculì, funiculà in a Waitrose food hall. It was wonderful! I listened twice, and felt very cheered. I could tell it wasn’t recent, because people were standing too close, but it didn’t matter. I’ve since discovered it was from 2013, and had something to do with pasta sauce, but it was still joyous and fun.

I came to the conclusion that we perhaps appreciate these things more for being short and near and unexpected. Something to brighten up everyday life.

That bit of deep thinking reminded me of something the volunteer organist in church once said. Jan Wallin played double bass for the Liverpool Philharmonic for a living. It seems he, too, doubted whether what he was doing was of any use, when a doctor friend pointed out that it was hearing music like that, which made life bearable for people like him.

In short, we need ‘fripperies’ like culture to survive. Or, to feel better while surviving. Jan didn’t only play for the philharmonic and in church; he also wore the exact same shoes as Father Christmas.

Three ten-year-olds

I have been reminded of some books that were first published ten years ago. 2010 was an interesting year for books and witches. There seemed to be a whole host of new authors, sort of clamouring for my attention. And that always scares me.

But early 2010 was a good year. (Maybe later in 2010 was good too. I’ll deal with that some other time.)

First I read Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story, even though it didn’t come out until May or thereabouts. But I read an early copy and I loved it. And it wasn’t a one-off, as Candy has continued to supply some lovely novels for, well, for everyone, I should say.

Second I read Keren David’s When I Was Joe, which I’d not been sure about, what with knife crime and that kind of thing. But even then, it was a fabulous story. The kind where you look forward to all the next books coming from that keyboard.

And sandwiched between these two authors was Jon Mayhew and his Mortlock. Just the title was enough to send the right vibes, and there are graves and ravens aplenty. Jon has also gone on to write lots more books. So many, in fact, that I can’t keep up. But that’s all right. I think.

This is precisely what I like in this business. New people turn up, and turn out to be as good as those who were already there. And so it grows.

Happy tenth birthday to all three books and their creators!

Speculating on Liz’s new book

I frown on speculation. People can write a lot of words on stuff they know very little about, guessing as they go.

But piecing together news from more than one source, I am hoping that the new novel by Liz Kessler – Chasing the Light – that Simon & Schuster will publish next year is based on a story Liz has told several times, about her own family’s past. (Yes, you are quite right. It is a long wait.)

The Bookseller says it’s set in the 1930s, it’s about three children, and it’s got something to do with an event in ‘her own family’s history.’ I forget the exact details of the story I have heard, but if that’s what we are dealing with here, it’s a tiny coincidence; the kind that happens all the time, but which in this case saved lives. Without it we wouldn’t have had Liz, or her books.

I hope this is what it is. And I’m looking forward to it. We are now back in darker times, and need all the help we can get from that period we believed we had long ago put behind us.

Are we not all the same, then?

How many times can I jump in, feet first, and say the wrong thing about who is allowed to write what? Too many, probably.

But honestly, in a world where so much is wrong, should there be this much arguing about whether people are brown-skinned enough to write certain books? Somewhere at the back of my mind runs a song which claims that we are all the same, regardless of colour [of skin]. I mean, I know we are not. Not really. We should be, but life isn’t fair or equal.

I’d quite like to be paid a seven-digit sum for a novel, should I ever write one. But I’d rather not be at the receiving end of threats. (Could these people not have a go at someone who’s done something worse than write a book?)

This made me think of Elizabeth Acevedo, who identifies as Afro-Latina. She writes books about young people with a similar background to her own; black, Spanish-speakers, born and living in the US. That’s good, because it’s what many of us need, whatever our colour.

I’d like to think that no one will question Elizabeth’s ‘right’ to write these stories.

But then my mind wandered, as it does. You know those acknowledgements at the end of a book? I remembered that in her latest book, With the Fire on High, she thanked someone for advice on what it’s like to be a teen mother. And that’s good. It means Elizabeth, who I understand has no children yet, got feedback on what she ‘made up’ for her heroine Emoni.

If you really wanted to, though, you could take this cultural appropriation thing as far as you need to, to get an argument going. Maybe only someone who’s not only a mother, but who was a teenage mother, should write this book? Stupid, but isn’t this what’s happening when white people get it into their heads to write about a topic they are not ‘qualified’ to cover?


I obviously believe that anyone may write what they want. If someone wants to publish that writing is another thing, as is whether anyone will read it.

Meanwhile I’m more than happy with the efforts of  Elizabeth, and authors like Angie Thomas and Jacqueline Woodson. There could and should be more, and with time there probably will be. Unless we should all have worried more about the men who have the power to end the world right here and now. Maybe argued some more, and stopped them. Instead.

Off my trolley

Things change.

And, yeah, you and I both know I don’t much like change. But this isn’t one of those changes.

Back in the infancy of Bookwitch – the blog, not so much herself – she wrote by hand, and she sat in her comfortable armchair and read books. Oh, the innocence of it all…

Daughter was still at school, and she needed to build me a piece of furniture for her GCSE tech. The teachers were still raw from her brother’s triangular table, so there was a complete ban on triangles of any kind. She designed a Bookwitch trolley to sit next to my chair, and where everything would go, from mug of tea and spectacles to current books and paper and pen. It’s on wheels, so I could push it around. It’s what I do best.

But now, I don’t do these things, apart from the pushing.

The trolley leads a more sedate life, mostly holding maps and large books for the Resident IT Consultant. It stands quietly, next to the two Oyster catchers in the window.

That’s life, I suppose. Needs change. Still love the trolley, and Daughter. Also still have the triangular table. (It’s behind me!)

Can’t say the same for the rest in this photo, which has a certain antique value. Wrong room. Wrong house. Young-ish looking witch. Much of the furniture is gone and the lamp has had its foot removed, but you’ll be pleased to learn I still wear the Crocs…

Eleven years on, we are coming up for Bookwitch’s 13th birthday, and there might be changes. I’m already at war with someone about Bookwitch’s looks (I don’t mean her in the photo).  We’ll see how that goes.

Perform

From what I understand it’s something that takes most [new] authors by surprise. They thought it was enough to write the book, enough to get enough professions interested in the book, and enough for it to be published and enough for people to buy the book. And then we start the whole process all over again for the next book.

Well, after a few years of stalking authors.., I mean going to lots of author events, I knew I didn’t want to be one of them. I did not want to get the call from the Edinburgh International Book Festival to come and talk about my new book. It’s enough to make me not even consider writing, other than this drivel, in case it turned out better than expected.

And I have looked at them. Many are extroverts. Quite a few are [ex]-teachers, and I have assumed standing in front of rooms full of people is fine if that’s what you’re like. I gather some make use of the wine in the green room, just to feel braver. But I’d like to think that a good number simply say ‘no thanks.’

I saw this article in The Bookseller a while back. Couldn’t actually read it, as I seem to have clicked on too many articles recently. But it sort of says what it’s about. Benjamin Myers, whom I don’t know at all, and the Society of Authors are critical of the pressure to be[come] a ‘personality’ in order to sell your book, when writing it in the first place ought to be enough.

And then we have the personalities who take to writing. One assumes they at least relish the performing. Maybe that’s why we have so many? Publishers get fed up with authors hiding in garrets, so go in search of new ones from the stage and the screen?

Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity

Thought I’d treat you to another of my – our – Christmas present books. Rather than offer any kind of review, which would be fairly hard to do, I will show you some of my photos of it! The title is a bit of a mouthful, but I gather academics, even scientists, like that sort of thing. It’s called Know Thy Star, Know Thy Planet – Disentangling Planet Discovery & Stellar Activity.

As you will have worked out, this is Daughter’s thesis, and it was generous of her to let us have a copy. I believe they cost a fortune.

Dr Giles has her foreword in no less than three languages, which is one more than they demanded. (Apologies for any mistakes in the third one; I don’t really speak ‘science’ in any language. And the visible mistake is all my fault…)

Because astrophysics is such a male subject, she worked hard to put women scientists in there, from Dr Nirupama Raghavan who is the Resident IT Consultant’s cousins wife’s cousin’s mother-in-law (!), and who was Director of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, to Dr Jessie Christiansen, an almost peer from CalTech.

I like heavenly bodies to be eccentric; it sounds fun. And in the index I discovered that Daughter’s surname puts her right after some G Galilei chap.

Also, the book is purple!