Tuesday 23 July 2013

Platform and the profession

Tonight I'm giving a lecture (with Brian Keaney - it's one of our double-acts) on living as a professional writer. I'm not going to tell you what we'll say, partly because we don't know until we plan it over a coffee at 5pm and partly because the students might not come if they can read it all in advance. But what we won't be doing is insisting that it's vital to have a platform to succeed as a writer.

No one seems to have any idea whether a platform - as in a regular blog, twittering away, a Facebook author page and all that shiz - makes any difference to book sales. It's a general assumption that it's vital if you are marketing self-e-published books. After all, how else are you going to get any publicity? But for mainstream publishing? Publishers like us to do it, but unless you already have a significant following, does it make much difference? It's an impossible question to answer, of course, because there's no control: we can't compare sales of book A with and without the author's platform.

I have a Facebook author page but pay relatively little attention to it. I comment on new books, occasionally on books in progress, occasionally on reviews or mentions. I can't really imagine anyone is interested. I have never asked all my friends to like it. That seems to me both rude and pointless. I wouldn't go up to someone (except a very close friend who would give an honest opinion) and say 'do I like nice in this?' or 'do you like me?' So why would I do it online?

And I have a blog, obviously. But this blog doesn't identify me. OK, it's not hard to work out who I am. It used to be a lot more secret than it is now. But when one of my editors identified me from the writing style alone, I gave up on the pretence that it's actually anonymous. Besides, this blog doesn't promote my books. Occasionally, I even anti-promote them. I once suggested people did NOT buy my books unless they had actually checked that they wanted them, as I thought the Amazon write-up missed out crucial information and I don't want people to be disappointed. (The books in question were short.)

If anything, this blog reduces my income. At least one publisher has said he'd never consider publishing someone who called themselves Stroppy Author. I can't decide whether to rise to the challenge and try to sneak a book to him or whether to say 'I wouldn't want to be published by someone so cowardly and insecure.' But actually, he's a very fine publisher, so probably the former. And I have argued with publishers more than once about things I've posted here (not recently, but it happens). Publishers like an author to have a platform, but they don't like it to be built on their own books. It's a sort of virtual NIMBYism. That all makes my platform a negative platform - more like standing in a hole in the ground.

Does it affect sales? Who knows? My best-selling book has sold over 350,000 copies. I have never mentioned it on this blog. I don't think the two are connected (though maybe if it's a negative platform, they are!) I think, rather, that it's a popular sort of book that will always sell. And some others are not. And no amount of shouting about them will make people suddenly want them. So I don't. I hate shouty things anyway. I can just about cope with being publicly facetious in text but I always turn down requests for radio or TV. To my shame, I didn't even return the call to the last TV person who wanted to talk to me.

So I'm not really qualified to talk about platform. As I said at the Society of Authors the other day, I have a kind of e-agoraphobia - fear of the virtual market place. Perhaps I would be a mega-bestselling author with lots of money if I didn't. But then again - I think I'd just have pissed off more people. Even more people.

But to the point. When new, young writers ask how they should be building their platform, my answer is 'You shouldn't. You should be writing decent books.' Or, as Nicola Morgan puts it, Write the damn book. No one likes to look up to a platform, anyway. We all prefer to peer down into a hole. I'll be in there.

Please, all you pro-platform people, put your case so that my students can get a balanced view!
Nicola - please add a link to your stuff on platform as I can't find it!

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Story is an emergent property

Yesterday, Brian Keaney and I gave the first lecture of our summer school course at Cambridge University. We don't script out lectures. Brian did have half a page of scrawl which he called notes, though that's really an overstatement. (Sorry, Brian: they were sweet.) Instead, we sit in a cafe for three hours before the lecture and just talk around the subject. That stirs the ideas up. It's a bit like poking a muddy pond with a stick. We get all that sludge of acquired knowledge about writing moving around. Then when we have the students chained to their chairs, glasses of wine in front of them, we just talk.

One of the things we were talking about last night was how to make stories. What is the difference between an account and a story? An idea that came up in the cafe but didn't make it to the lecture was that story is an emergent property. An emergent property is something which comes about when you put things together, but isn't inherent in any one of the things. So wetness is an emergent property of water. If you have one water molecule, it's not wet. If you have a million water molecules, you also have wetness.

When you first ask a small child to tell a story, it gives an account. For example:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich.

That's an account of unrelated events. Well, they are related in that they are in a chronological sequence, but not causally or in any other way. Add a link and it becomes a narrative:

I got home and my cat had killed a bird. The bits were on the floor. I made a sandwich, but I couldn't eat it.

You might say that's not a link. But it's the ingredients of a link - the reader will make a link out of it.

Although there is no statement of cause, we infer an emotional connection. The narrator can't eat the sandwich because the bits of dead bird make him/her feel sick, or disgusted. Now we know something about him/her - they have the beginnings of a character. There is movement; our understanding of the first part of the narrative is altered by what comes afterwards. It does the 'show, not tell' thing, and it makes the reader do some work.

Stories emerge if you put the bits together - plot, character, causation, emotional change, setting, motivation. They emerge because the reader is also a human being with similar consciousness/experience. You don't have to state the links all the time - you can rely on the shared human experience of writer and reader to supply the links. And that's another thing. It's fine if the reader makes a story that differs slightly from the story you thought you wrote. A person with OCD might assume the narrator in that little snippet couldn't eat the sandwich because the mess was offensive simply as mess. That's fine. Let the reader make what they will of it. It's not your story once you've let it out of the box. You put things together, and something else comes out of their juxtaposition.

Look at this:

The man stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.
The raven stood on the high ledge. Then he plunged off.

See? You know ravens can fly, and men can't. The first is a tragic ending. The second is an exciting start. The story emerges from the mix of words and the reader's knowledge.

(Of course, that's not all it takes to make a story that is worth reading. Writing a good story, that's another week's lecture.)