‘Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.’
So wrote American novelist, editor and professor E.L. Doctorow. His is just one of many quotations that convey how hard it is to write. Another that springs at once to mind is this, by Ernest Hemingway:
‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
And this, from George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’:
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
If you write for yourself alone, in notebooks you ‘fill with the breathings of your heart’ and then lock away or burn, to be seen by no one, then there is no bleeding; writing is a beautiful, calm, affirming pastime. But if, as do many writers, you write with the expectation of the words being read… then with every word you write you know that you are hazarding yourself, and that takes courage and steel.
Why then, you may ask – as do all writers at one time or another – does a writer write? Why hazard yourself, why bleed, why be driven by a demon?
Each writer has their own answer to this question. Mine lies in my childhood.
I grew up surrounded by books, brought up by parents who had a great deal of respect for the written word and read with me. My grandmother was a published author of poetry, and my father published a book about the history of our family. I don’t recall wishing to follow in their footsteps; it just seemed natural to me, once I discovered the joy of writing, that the product would be words-on-paper to be shared.
I was in my early teens when I first shared a story. At my very strict convent school the nuns expected total focus; I, conversely, was a dreamer, and while I loved language and literature classes, I was far more interested in zoning out in maths class and escaping into a fantasy world. My governess, Zula, who had been with our family since I was very young, had instilled in me a love for oral storytelling – fairy tales, especially – and consequently, over the years I practised that with her, I had become adept at slipping out of this reality into another of my making. Soon, though, daydreaming was not enough; I wanted to share the story in my mind. It was the most natural progression in the world for me to pick up a pen and write.
I shared that first story – a romantic fairy tale, of course – with my closest friends. They enjoyed it so much that I wrote another, and another. Soon my stories were being circulated around the class. Girls would come to me and tell me what they thought of this hero or that heroine, how they enjoyed this aspect of the plot or being transported to that fantasy place. Their words spurred me on to keep writing, to meet the demand I had inadvertently created.
It was many years later, in the far tougher, more cynical adult world, that I shared my first novel, Burning Embers, through publication. In fact, that novel had existed on paper for quite some years before 2012, when I published it; I wrote it in French initially, and then translated it into English, and then edited it… and then put it away for a good while I met the demands of motherhood and business.
It was my children, eventually, now grown who convinced me to take the step of publishing my work. I had shared my writing with my family, but no one else. When I first considered that idea, considered hazarding myself, I was unsure. But as the idea settled in my mind, I found I kept thinking about the girls at school – how I’d felt when they clamoured for the next story, fought over who got to read the current one next; how they cried at the sad parts and smiled at the happy parts and fell in love right along with my characters; how my writing gave them something – an escape from daily life into a colourful, romantic, beautiful world. Those girls were my very first readers: I hazarded myself with them, and was rewarded for my courage. I think that was meaningful, the foundation for me as a writer – if I so choose.
The rest, as they say, is history. I published Burning Embers, and four more books since then. Do I always find it easy to sit down at the ‘typewriter’ and bleed? Not at all. But when a reader tells me they have been swept away by my writing, that it brought them pleasure and inspired them to dream, then it is worth every drop of blood.
I owe much to my teenage classmates back in time, and I owe so very much to my loyal readers, who make me want to keep writing another book, and another… and another.
Many years ago, when I set pen to paper and wrote the first draft of what would become my debut novel, Burning Embers, I thought a lot about the setting and the story and the characters and the mood – and I thought very little about specific categorisation for the book I was writing. Genre was important in the sense that I knew I was writing romance, but I didn’t drill down further and consider what type of romance I was creating; I simply wrote the book.
Fast-forward to the start of this decade, and I discovered, when I came to submit the manuscript to publishers, a whole world of categorisation of which I had been largely unaware. What kind of romance was Burning Embers? publishers wanted to know. It was easy to determine what the novel was not: fantasy or paranormal, for example. But other categorisations required consideration. Burning Embers is set in the 1970s; did that make it historical fiction or contemporary? It contains some descriptions of intimate moments; did that make it erotic?
I recall, back when I was filling in publisher forms, thinking that it would have been far easier had my book fit very neatly into one (and only one) category; that perhaps if my novel did so, my chances of securing a publishing a contract would be greatly improved.
Yet I knew this fundamental truth of writing: you must write the book that wants to be written. Not a book you think a publisher/agent/reader wants; a book that comes from you, from your soul – from the muse. As one of the most respected and influential writers of the 20th century, Franz Kafka, put it:
‘Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.’
Thus writers will always write books without much thought for categorisation. Why, then, need categorisation exist? The general idea is that categorising books into genres, and sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, is helpful to booksellers, in presenting their wares for sale; and to readers, in browsing for books that fit their preferences. And yet it seems the difficulty of classification spills over to this end of the process as well.
Recently, I read with interest an article entitled ‘A Look Inside America’s First Romance and Erotica-Only Bookstore’, exploring the Ripped Bodice bookshop in LA, which is run by two romance-novel-loving sisters, Bea and Leah. Given that the store specialises in romance novels, organisation of novels is by sub-genre. The main ones are historical, contemporary, paranormal and erotica, along with ‘islands of other specialty sub-genres like LGBTQ, suspense, cowboys…’. But categorisation can lead to confusion, as Leah explained:
‘How do you shelve a book that’s lesbian vampire erotica? Does it go in the lesbian section, the vampire section, or the erotica section? These are real questions we find ourselves asking.’
Interestingly, Leah suggests that ‘the nature of… digital marketplaces makes categorization there intrinsically easier than for a brick-and-mortar shop’. Certainly, I have found through working closely with my publisher, London Wall, that the many categories on the websites of retailers like Amazon allow for all manner of different ways to categorise a book. At the time of writing, for example, my Andalucían Nights series is categorised as follows on Amazon.com:
Indiscretion (Book 1): Books > Romance > Historical > 20th Century
Masquerade (Book 2): Books > Romance > Multicultural
Legacy (Book 3): Books > Romance > Contemporary
I am not sure, however, that the wide range of categories that can be applied to books is always helpful to the reader, because often one category alone does not adequately express the essence of a book. Taking a look at Amazon.com’s sub-categories for romance (which, incidentally, differ from the Amazon.co.uk list), I could argue that the books of my Andalucían Nights series could fit into these categories: Multicultural, Heroes/Rich & Wealthy, Themes/Beaches, Themes/International, Themes/Love Triangle, and Themes/Workplace.
Ultimately, I am happy for my fiction be categorised in any genre that sensibly fits my writing. The Echoes of Love and Burning Embers, for example, are currently ranking in Romance but also in Literature & Fiction (Women’s Fiction > Contemporary Women) on Amazon.com. I don’t worry about categorisation when I write, and when I am asked ‘What kind of books do you write?’, I reply with what one newspaper reviewer said of my debut novel: ‘Romance like Hollywood used to make.’ That would make a wonderful category in itself, don’t you think?
For me, there are few pleasures that can compete with a half hour spent browsing in a bookstore. Canterbury and Dover, the main cities near my English home, offer a wealth of options, but for a special treat I venture to one of the quaint seaside towns on the Kentish coast. Whitstable – famous for its oysters – is home to one of my favourite bookshops, Harbour Books. It looks small, but a wealth of books are to be found within its rooms, and it has such a lovely, friendly feel.
Further afield, the book lovers’ mecca in Kent is Rochester, which was the setting for many of the works of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby. I love Baggins Book Bazaar, the largest rare and second-hand bookstore in England, and a veritable treasure trove for bibliophiles.
What’s notable about both Rochester and Whitstable high streets is that they are home to independent shops, which give the commercial centres such wonderful character (which, in turn, attracts shoppers, and visitors by the coachful). That ‘character’ refers to the traditional English high street, harking back to a time before chain stores, when shops were independent.
Technically speaking, the very first bookshop in Britain was established at Cambridge University. But the first commercial enterprise in this vein was Hatchards of Piccadilly, which has been trading since 1797. Its clientele has included Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Her Royal Highness the Queen. From the Hatchards website:
Eight generations of customers and booksellers have come and gone since the shop first opened its doors. Many things have changed but the essence of the place remains the same and is unchangeable. Hatchards is a unique British institution.
Such a description makes me want to visit, and soon!
I wonder, though, would I feel the same way about Hatchards, and about Harbour Books and Baggins Book Bazaar and all of the independent bookstores I visit, if they were not, in fact, independent, but owned by a big book retailer?
A story in the news recently gave me cause to consider the plight of independent bookshops. The Guardian reported on controversy arising over Waterstones, the giant of British bookselling, opening three new stores cleverly disguised to look like independent bookstores. In Rye, Southwold and Harpenden, pretty little bookstores have appeared that look just as unique, inviting and independent as the likes of Harbour Books; the only clue that these stores are part of the Waterstones chain is a small handwritten note in the window of each.
The managing director of Waterstones defended the action, saying, ‘They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t.’
Some local people in the towns, however, accuse Waterstones of subterfuge, saying that had people known these were Waterstones stores, they would have tried to block their opening, to protect their high streets from chains – whose arrival in the high street is the reason, in the first place, that rents and business rates have risen to a level when independents struggle to survive.
In recent years the number of independent bookstores in the UK (and, indeed, in other countries) has been in decline, due largely to the rise of big companies like Amazon and Waterstones. This, for any sensible reader, writer, publisher or bookseller, is clearly not to be taken lightly. (For an insightful and well-argued view on the matter, take a look at ‘Why We Need Independent Bookstores More Than Ever’ at Publishing Perspectives.)
It strikes me that we need:
1. More bricks-and-mortar bookstores
2. More independent bricks-and-mortar bookstores
So how should we feel about Waterstones opening three faux-independent bookstores?
Well, on the one hand we could see the Waterstones point of view (‘They are very small shops in towns that had independents and very much wish they still had independents but don’t’) and be glad that beautiful new bookshops are opening.
On the other hand, we could decide that these bookstores would be better as true independents, and encourage the opening of more independent bookstores. How do we do that? It’s simple, so far as I can see: if we love independent bookstores and believe they must, like Hatchards, survive, then we must shop in them.
If you’re passionate about independents, take a look at the Indie Bookshop Week website at http://indiebookshopweek.org.uk/, run by @booksaremybag and @IndieBound_UK. The week will be running from 24th June to 1st July 2017, and will be a celebration of all independent bookshops. The website contains lots of information, and can help you discover new bookshops to explore.
‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live,’ wrote Henry David Thoreau, the great American writer who famously retreated from life for two years to live in a house he’d built in a wood. In the work this retreat inspired, Walden, he explained:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Thoreau is by no means alone in being a writer with a need to both experience and retreat. The openness and clarity with which he described his need and journey on which it took him has inspired many writers since to journey similarly; and it has led, in modern times, to two offerings for keen writers: the writing retreat and the writing residency.
Open any writing magazine and you will find advertisements for retreats all over the world – beautiful and interesting places to which writers can travel and immerse themselves in nature, in history, in silence; in solitude, where preferred, but also in companionship with fellow writers who are on the retreat. The idea is that the writer is able to breathe and reflect, and he or she has the space in which to write, free from the constraints and distractions of daily life.
Writing residencies work a little differently. Whereas a writing retreat is essentially a kind of holiday, for which you pay, a residency is free of charge (sometimes even subsidised) and is based on exchange. The organisation offering the residency grants the writer free use of space – an opportunity to experience a new place and new people, and retreat from everyday life. In return the writer gives his or her skills and/or art to the organisation. The writer’s input can be in all kinds of forms, from poems to stories, workshops to creative writing teaching.
Writing residencies (part of the artist-in-residence scheme) are available in all kinds of places. They are not about retreating from life, going deep into the woods like Thoreau, but about connecting with it: using the art of writing to forge meaningful cultural exchange. All kinds of writing residencies are offered; writers can be resident in places like galleries, museums and theatres, but also in places not immersed in the art world. Recently, for example, Lit Hub published an article entitled ‘8 highly unusual writing residencies’, which included opportunities for writers to write in a bridge control tower in Seattle, an off-grid treehouse on a Scottish mountain, any Amtrak train and… Antarctica.
Would I apply for a residency like this? Well, I can’t say that Antarctica appeals! In a warmer climate, however, it would be wonderful to connect with writers and readers in an inspiring space. For me, it would have to be somewhere beautiful and very romantic; a place where lovers come together, fall in love, pledge to love each other always. A wedding venue, perhaps? I can imagine that the experiences there would be thought-provoking and inspirational for my fiction.
But I doubt very much that I will ever apply for a residency, or book a retreat, because while I love to travel while researching a book and have the experiences that Thoreau rightly says writers must have, I do not feel the need to retreat when I am writing. Here is why:
* I enjoy writing within my everyday life. I enjoy writing at home, in my office with everything I need within reach; in the garden with views of the flowers, the trees, the ocean.
* Writing is wonderful, but it is a lonely pursuit; it is emotionally draining; and it is so easy to become consumed by the story world. After several hours of writing, it does me good to step away from my novel and return to the real world: to cook a meal or tend my garden or take a walk to the local village and meet a friend for coffee.
* Writers like me who want to keep writing, keep publishing, can’t afford to write in fits and starts, to write only when alone or in a special place. We have to write every day, whatever the weather, the mood, the state of the muse. When you write this way, you fall into a rhythm that becomes as reassuringly constant as your heartbeat. Like Descartes’ ‘I think therefore I am’, your philosophy becomes ‘I write because I am’ – because you are a writer.
Recently, the arts news has been full of a major comeback: that of the vinyl record. In 2016, vinyl sales in the UK reached 3.2 million, which is the highest figure for 25 years, and represents a 53 per cent increase on the previous year. Most interesting is that this surge of vinyl sales has pushed past digital downloads, making the physical, ‘real’ record the more popular format.
No doubt the death of several prominent artists like David Bowie in part prompted vinyl sales, as fans looked to purchase lasting mementos. But the most compelling and most resonant reasons behind the impetus to choose vinyl over digital come down to authenticity, tangibility, quality and nature of the sound, and the ‘art’ of music creation and listening. Listeners want to turn back time and go back to basics. Music lovers enjoy the sound of vinyl and the experience of playing on a record player, and appreciate the record and its sleeve art as an objet d’art to be treasured.
Are you connecting the dots already between music and literature? There is no denying that a parallel can be drawn between the music industry and the publishing industry. Digital in both arenas has empowered creators to seek out their own audiences, and has opened up new ways for consumers to discover music/books. However, digital has driven down prices, and in doing so it has devalued the actual, tangible art – the books and the CDs or vinyl.
Now, just as music listeners are returned to vinyl, will readers who embraced ebooks make about turns and return to print?
Back in August last year, Market Watch reported that print sales in the US were on the rise. According to US Census Bureau statistics, print sales declined from 2009, but rose 6 per cent in the first half of 2016. The Guardian in the UK reported a similar story: ebook sales falling and print rising – not remotely at the level of vinyl, but certainly notable.
Readers, authors and publishers alike were shocked last week when popular distributor AllRomanceebooks.com suddenly announced its abrupt closure, after a decade of trading. The reason cited? ‘Growing concern over the state of the eBook market going into 2017’ (source: Bustle).
Do you have an ereader, an iPad or a Kindle or a Kobo? Do you enjoy reading on it, or is there a (growing?) disquiet about the format? Do you feel in a pull to print – if you have the choice, do you opt for a print book in your hands over an ebook? If I gift you one of my novels, is that more meaningful and special with a paperback or hardback for your shelf, or an ebook on your device?
I would love to hear your thoughts.