My sister asked the other day, regarding career choices, ‘Do you ever feel you might have backed the wrong horse?’
It was a philosophical moment, of which she has many. Jane is an actress and this Zen theory was prompted by an interview she’d just been to where she thought she might have been a bit hysterical. It had been that sort of day. We are both longstanding freelancers. Rejection is our bread and butter, the kind that lands butter side down and gets grit in it.
Freelance, as a word, started out meaning exactly what it says, you were a free lance, owing allegiance to no Lord or Fiefdom. You were a freelance, or possibly a mercenary. I’m not sure what the difference is, you’re both in it for the cash. Freelance meant you were able to choose who you fought for in the lists. Can you see me desperately trying to big this up? This ‘gig economy’ that myself and my sister have been part of all our working lives. I never realised I was so hipster.
The wrong horse? Let’s take a look at the runners and riders shall we? I’ve had other ‘proper’ jobs and they were all terrible. I have worked as a temp and that involved stints at a plant hire firm, a vasectomy clinic, and for the CID at Bath police station on one short lived occasion. I worked in the British Gas typing pool filling out court reports. In the typing pool at Wiltshire Council I spent a considerable part of my time typing and retyping and retyping a tender document for a council catering contract that ran to about 500 pages of utter, heartkilling boredom.
One of my bosses, who shall remain nameless, used to ring me and say ‘Bring the diary’. This was, I hasten to add, the early 90s and email and mobile phones did not yet exist. I had only been promoted to this ‘gig’ because I’d complained to my temp agency that I knew how to use a computer so why didn’t I get sent to the computer jobs? Their response was to send me on a course in Holborn to be ‘trained’ to use a word processor their way. Word processor? It’s what we called a computer back then. Yes, I am Stegosaurus. Anyway. My reward was this boss and his diary.
In order to ‘bring the diary’ to his office I had to walk down three staircases and along approximately half a mile of Art Deco corridor. I would invariably reach his office, open the diary, click my pen and my manager would say ‘I’m in today’. Cue another pleasant stroll along that half mile of corridor. The consolation was that in those days there was a tea trolley loaded with cheese scones and a tea urn, which rolled around the building at regular intervals. Civilised. I can’t fault the cheese scones.
I’ve worked in the library service. It is quite physical, the library. Also no cheese scones. Everyone assumes you just look over your spectacles and read books. That you like a bit of quiet and lurk in archives with magical and forbidden texts. You’re probably good at puzzles. Probably. Not in my libraries. I did like the quiet and I liked interacting with people, not something that you get a great deal of in writing. I liked being able, on a few small occasions, to make someone feel better, to help them out by wiping out a library fine or to let them talk about their dog dying.
But I always had my eye on the slow hand of the clock.
Never look up from the writing. Clocks don’t exist. I’ve spent days writing when I’ve only looked up to notice that it was time to pick up the kids from school. You vanish. You exist in another time and space amongst other people, the people who live in your head.
Nothing comes close to writing, not even when I don’t get paid and don’t get paid is the default setting for a freelance writer. This setting is even more fixed in the new, shiny digital age. There has been talk of late about the free trade and exploitation issues in modern publishing and the fact that the writer, if they’re not bestselling, list-topping or indeed JK Rowling, is usually on a terrible deal that Oliver Twist might think exploitative. This is true. Freelance has much more emphasis on the ‘free’ aspect these days. In my recent experience (see blog in fact) people, the punters, the paying public actually don’t want to pay anymore. People want their digital entertainment for free and so the levels and layers of publishing are being stripped away and thinned out. Why do you need an agent? A middleman between you and the publisher? You don’t. Not these days. You are the gatekeeper. Put yourself out there. The risk used to be financial, that of the publisher trusting in your work to make them money, now the risk is all yours. Take it. Fly. Be free.
I’m too old and stuck in my ways to alter my course now. Plus I find that I can’t actually stop writing. It is soaked into my blood. It just goes round and round, passing through my heart, feeding my muscles. Even at the library, in the duller moments where there was no one to accost and I’d shelved all the books, I would whip out my notebook and scribble away, breaking off if someone needed the key to the disabled toilet or an emergency Val McDermid.
Now, in the digital age I am thankful. I don’t have to wait for a publishers approval, I can put my own stuff out there and I do so. It is a freedom that I appreciate. I’m not famous. I’m not bestselling. I earn tuppence ha’penny, I am a writer.
It’s a wild horse, unfettered and unruly, but I’ve got my buttocks firmly clenched in that creaky old saddle and yes, tally ho.
‘I only ever buy free books’ said one lady in the library, actually several ladies have said this in the library on various days over the last few years with not even a wink at the linguistics of it. Another confessed ‘I’ve got 250 books on my kindle and they were all free.”
‘I only ever buy free books’. Hm.
Free books. Hm.
Several of my own outpourings have been free this week because sand in my head is shifting and forming dunes and just recently I’ve decided to go with its soft but seismic flow.
Free books are not a new thing. Libraries were invented for the free sharing of this epic luxury item. The Book. The repository of secrets, knowledge, story. People coveted them. People wrote them out with illuminated letters as a means to share the ephemera that is thought. ‘I think and believe this’ they thought and believed, ‘and if I scratch it onto parchment and draw a dragon round the first letter you might read what I have written and think about it too.’ Or you might not.
Books were few and far between, in those days, O Best Beloved (Kipling credit here) books were like diamonds, rare because they had to be painstakingly hand written and back then people did proper handwriting or ‘calligraphy’ to give its correct title and this took ‘some time’. I know this for a fact because my mum, not a monk or abbess, just an enthusiast, did some calligraphy as a hobby including illuminated stuff for our church and it took a lot of time and effort and considerable squinting through reading glasses. It involved inky fingers and Winsor & Newton and cartridge paper and vellum.
We think it is bad now when books fell forests in a welter of papermaking, at least these days the sheep are sighing in relief. “For a minute there I thought I was going to be Parchment.” and instead they are simply sheared into jumpers.
Back in those days you might be privileged enough to be able to read. You could share in a library if a local nobleman or abbey let you in through the hallowed and creaking doors. Rebels and revolutionaries grew hoarse trying to spread their words of anarchy and misrule and so something had to be thought up.They began to clutch at the idea of teaching everyone to read, to empower people through words.
So, we moved onto printing with a press and all the monks could take a breather and go and tend the fish pond or brew mead for a bit before being Reformationed the hell out of here.
Hm. Books. Something quite good that these religious bods did, some thought. Other people began to put their ideas onto paper using Mr Caxton’s patented Potato Press. You could have any font you liked from the ones on offer then: Maris Piper, Pentland Javelin, Arran Pilot, Sarpon Axona.
Public Libraries became a thing, starting with circulating libraries and the gradual pushing of that most illustrous of drugs, that greatest high, the rushiest rush, STORY. People joined libraries so that they could share in the bounty of the word. They could glean knowledge and follow the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel or find out about sharks. Other heroes and vertebrates were and are available.
Books were still pretty pricey to purchase though until the advent of the Paperback book, the book for everyone, that they could carry in their pocket. Now you literally could carry dreams in your pocket, straight from the head of DH Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Dorothy L Sayers.
Libraries hung on in there because there is always room for free bookage. When I used to take my two scamps to Storytime we often borrowed books which we then loved so much we (well mainly me, the scamps were too wee and didn’t have bank cards) felt compelled to purchase, ‘Avocado Baby’ by John Burningham ‘Horace and Maurice’ by Dick King-Smith, ‘Not Now Bernard’ by David McKee to name but three. That was the key. We loved them and needed them to be within reaching distance. There is no point banging on the window of the library at half past two in the morning because you’ve woken from a bad dream and are in dire need of Preston Pig (thank you thank you Colin McNaughton).
Of course, there is no point banging on the window of half the libraries in Britain any longer, at any time of day at all. You can squidge your desperate story-deprived face up against the glass and dislodge some of the dust that is gathering on this palace of language and communication. The voice of the library, the citadel of the free book, is being choked into silence. Where cuts are to be made the library is seen as whipped cream, fattening to the brain and unnecessary, not like paying councillors extra bonus cash for attending various committees of their choosing.
So now we have the digital age where sad sacks like myself can throw our witterings into the wind. I know people have despised ‘self-publishing’ but there is a long and proud history to it. Virginia Woolf was, essentially, self-published. James Joyce got a group fund thing going on with Shakespeare and Company. When people cite the ‘gatekeepers’ who are editors and publishers they often neglect to mention the man who passed on Harry Potter.
I could write several blogs about publishing and its vagaries and adventures and they would all be written with blood and smudged with sweat. I love writing and I’ve sold enough books to know that some people, somewhere, like what I write. I’ve been to writer events where these people have turned up to have a chat so I know that they are not just in my imagination.
So. Free books. My latest books ‘The Witch Ways’ are published by Ipso Books, an offshoot of my agency PFD who decided to jump on the bandwagon that many recently redundant authors discovered. Why not cut out the middle man and DIY? I’d already done this for myself and was happy to join in when Ipso started up.
Digital books are not expensive to produce in material terms. In physical and mental terms they take up exactly the same amount of my life, the same days and breaths, the same heartbeats and yawns, the same man hours crunched up at my little garden table, Parker pen clutched in my hand.
But, because they are not something that requires a tree to be felled or a printer to painstakingly set into blocks they are like a kind of magical book. They can be free. Lots of people, some of my colleagues at the library included, brag about the sheer quantity of free books they have amassed. There are lots of websites that promote freebooks and how to obtain them, endlessly until the twelfth of Never.
In order to lure people into the world of The Witch Ways, you can, with a couple of clicks and an exchange of email addresses, obtain for yourself a freebie copy of ‘The Ice King’ one of the ‘Whispers’ the short form side order books of the series. The idea is, if we give you this, you might want to taste more. I hope so. I have enjoyed writing The Witch Ways tremendously.
One lady emailed my website and said how much she had enjoyed the book but that it ‘vexed’ her that it was free. She said that it had been ‘crafted’ and therefore it wasn’t right that it was just given away and this was made worse for her by the fact that she had enjoyed it so much. Needless to say I wrote straight back and thanked her, not least for her use of that wonderful word ‘vex’.
Just last week however, another lady wanted confirmation that the book on offer would be ‘a real book, not one I have to read on a computer’ and that if it were not paper and glue then she wasn’t interested.
I wrote back to say that sadly the book is a digital one, I did not waffle on at all about the difference in costs of giving away ‘real’ books. I thought about what she had written for a long time this week.
As a result of this and my gradual fury at the world in general, at austerity and inequality and Brexit, I’ve had an epiphany, one that says that I no longer care whether I make a living as a writer, I just care that my books get out there and, in these harsh times, I’m going to be giving them away when I can (Amazon allow 5 days out of 90 to be free promotions). It remains to be seen whether the free for all leads to further sales when the price clicks back. I have no problem with my digital books being 99p either. They are not made of paper, they are just made of my brain and my heart and my soul, those less tangible commodities.
I just ask that when you are busy scooping up your hoard of ‘free’ books spare a thought for the author behind them, for the time they spent in their heads, forging the story that you have loved and enjoyed. Just a brief moment, the one in the middle where you gasp and turn the page.
They gave you that gasp, they turned up the beat on your heart. And all for 99p.
Try it out. If it helps, the Ice King is one of my favourites. https://www.helenslavin.com/signup/
I like a walk to clear my head. Some of my knottiest writing problems have been solved by the simple act of tugging on my boots and disappearing down the road and into the woods. There have also been dishwasher revelations and laundry epiphanies. The thing about writing is the stuff never stops, it never leaves your head. Your stories skulk and prowl and lurk and then jump out on you when you are least expecting it. At the supermarket checkout for instance where you have to hold up the queue with a garbled explanation “I just have to write this down.” before you fumble in your handbag for one of the notebooks and two of the pens (the first one never works!)
Yesterday I left it until late in the afternoon before I took my walk. I nearly didn’t. I sometimes have days when I am reluctant to leave the building. I can go into the garden but, on those odd days, the idea of people and streets is intimidating. These are the days when I most need the walk and yesterday I dragged myself. Three times I headed to the door and thought ‘No, it’s getting dark’ and then once again ‘No. I need to start the tea.’ and finally ‘Get out or else’ which did the trick.
Off I trotted. I have a fitbit which logs my steps and I like it because it is interesting how far you walk in a day, even on the days when you don’t officially, ‘go for a walk’. I try to manage one big circular walk a week and by that I mean heading off up the canal to Bradford on Avon, sometimes further on to Avoncliff. I have arthritis in my knees and so I head off looking like Ranulph Fiennes with my Nordic poles, rattling with Paracetamol. This is an official ‘arthritis management’ scheme taught to me by the lovely lady in Orthopaedics; it is called the 3Ps system: Pace, Poles, Paracetamol. It works, have to admit.
Yesterday I didn’t take the poles as I was only venturing out on a short expedition. I thought I might head off to Biss Meadows and do some kind of circular walk. It is not the best place to walk as the paths have a tendency to lead either to the rear boundary of the housing estate or other less picturesque dead ends. During the summer months there was one dead end which revealed a tent and someone’s neat camp tucked into the cover of the trees at the edge of the river. Few people glimpsed this hideaway. No one took their dogs up the bare dirt path to the bridge, preferring instead the proper, landscaped, gravel path. The bridge doesn’t really lead anywhere once you reach it, it heads out over the field towards the big A road and is not really much of a walk. I turned back of course and that’s when I saw the small camp. They were there all summer, clearly living in the tent. Yesterday there was simply a bare patch on the ground where the tent had killed off the grass. It will cover over again when the spring arrives. I wonder who they were and where they went?
The paths are laid out with edging and gravel here but, as stated, they don’t go anywhere. There is no circular route or plan, you have to back track. Yesterday for instance, I attempted to cross the open grass and found that it was a Tolkienesque bog and the ghostly face looking up at me from the shining quagmire was my own. I dodged and splodged my way across and garnered several disapproving looks from the dog walkers. That is one of the oddities of the dogwalkers around these parts. They don’t understand why you are walking. They stand sentinel as their pooch whizzes about after a whiff of squirrel, a musk of cat, and they look at you with much the same regard as a nightclub bouncer looking at your trainers. I have also found that dogs don’t care for the Nordic poles. I’ve menaced two spaniels and a beagle in recent weeks with the owner rushing to ‘rescue’ the dog from the weird four legged woman. Where’s your dog you big stick insect? You do not have a dog? Why are you out here then? You’re ‘just walking’? Isn’t there a byelaw against that? Are you a terrorist?
I was there to look at the rushing river of course, twisting its way past Tesco. I was here to spot the huge flock of magpies winging their way through the trees. I lost count after fourteen and began to wonder how the rhyme works, seven for a secret, yes, but what are eight for? It was quite fun to trudge along the path and make up the rest. Eight for a journey, Nine for a rest. Ten for a teacup, eleven for a vest? Hm, could do with a vest, it was quite nippy yesterday. No. Something else rhymey but better. Erm. Eleven for a quest. Ha. Twelve for a…twelve for a…? Your mind wanders with your feet and takes flight with the magpies. Twelve for a haunting, thirteen for? Oh heck we’re back to vest again.
I give up on the magpies for now and hurry off to worry a border terrier.