Archive for the ‘soapbox’ Category


Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I think the fetishisation of process is both an exercise in procrastination (for the maker) and a refusal to engage with the finished work (for the audience).  But what do I know?

From the Q and A section of Jon McGregor’s website – in answer to a question about the pens and paper he uses to write with.

As always, I’m in two minds. I’m  not sure if I should have this quotation printed out on the back of my business cards, tattooed on the inside of my eyelids and scrawled in black marker on the wall in front of my desk  – or if I should write a long ranty blog post about how much I disagree with the sentiment.

I admire Jon McGregor’s work hugely and as a writer I can hear his frustration with interview questions about typewriters and at times I have shared it. But then discussions about ‘process’ more generally are a huge part of what I do as a teacher – helping students to learn technique, or to isolate and improve the technique they are already using instinctively. I think having students reflect on how they write and to examine how other writers read and write is integral to their improvement.And it is what I try to do to improve my own writing.

But then again, what do I know? I am always in two minds about everything.

I’ve noticed several spats going on in facebookland recently about various political events – topics I never talk about in public at all. This silence of mine is because I believe the days when novelists had status as public intellectuals and rent-a-gobs, trotted out for an opinion on every major event in public life are gone, and properly so. We make things up, more or less well. We use stories to comment on the real world. Or we don’t. We use fiction to tell the truth. Or we don’t. Why would any of that make our opinions especially valuable?

And my silence also exists because I am so utterly of my generation it is unreal. I find it more or less impossible to come down on any particular side in very many subjects. Everything I write examines the idea of truthfulness, of reliable arguments, of words meaning what they are supposed to mean. Point of view. It isn’t that I don’t care – it’s just that by virtue of being a writer I think I’ve made it impossible for myself to engage with these debates in any meaningful way.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a household where there was certainly a right and a wrong way to see the world, and my opinions about things were consistently wrong. Growing up under the weight of that kind of intellectual violence makes me uninterested in dishing it out to others. So if you disagree with me, I’m not interested in proving you wrong or convincing you to think what I think. If I even think it.

It feels very important to me to practice informed disinterest. I know it is an impossible stance to truly have. But I am interested in getting there.

Which brings me back to Jon McGregor. Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong after all.

Maybe all this blogging about writing, teaching writing, reading writing and talking about reading is just getting in the way of the reading and writing. Maybe the reflection is the final step of the process, maybe it’s just all hot air.

I think it probably depends.

And if this all sounds like cowardly navel gazing and a waste of words to you, well, I can see the value in that argument too.

Writing Tips # 10 (Money for Old Rope)

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

The post on the practicalities of extracting money from the people you work for is a-brewing, but while you’re waiting for it, here are a few more thoughts on the work of being a writer.

If you do (expect to) get paid, at least do your client / employer the courtesy of treating it like a job. If you don’t want to be a hobbyist, don’t act like one. If you turn up pissed, late or are otherwise flaky you’re stealing from the person who has paid you and you’re making the rest of us look bad.

While it is true that an array of shocking behaviour is often tolerated and maybe even expected from ‘creative’ people, event organisers do chat to each other. I know, because I used to be one. And the idea that making things up gives you the right to be late, sullen, lecherous or otherwise rude really gnarls my chizzle.

I refer you back to Nicola Morgan’s post about Author Events. It’s true that once you start getting out there talking and reading and signing, many events will leave a lot to be desired. I travelled (unpaid) to do an event at a library which will remain nameless (not one belonging to the service I used to work for) to find there were no books for sale, my name had been spelled wrong on all the publicity, I wasn’t offered so much as a glass of water during the two hours I was there and at the end of the event was sneered at (we all earn as much as Dan Brown…) when I insisted on being reimbursed for my travel expenses. And during the break the organisers badmouthed the last writer who’d done an event for them…*

Nicola’s advice to organisers is spot on, but my advice to the writer on the receiving end of shoddy treatment is to be gracious about it. You can be polite and professional while insisting on a fee and a decent lunch break. You can be respectful without being a doormat. You don’t need to go back if it was that awful  (in fact, it would be better if you didn’t and there are polite and direct ways of letting the organiser know why you won’t accept any future invitations), but a bit of courtesy on the part of the writer goes a long way.

Many festival organisers and event administrators seem consistently surprised by the fact that I am punctual, send thank you notes, reply to my emails or put my out of office on, let them know in advance that I am nearly phone-phobic but pick up my email regularly and do my very best to remember their names. I am fanatical about deadlines and submission guidelines. And I am absolutely not meaning to sound smug. I have only come to this conclusion by making mistakes and noticing what happens when I do. I have a plethora of failings – and the I’m terrified so I’ll have a little drink…oops! trap is one I’ve fallen into more times than I should have.

But still. To be praised by people who are paying me for what seems to me to be a basic level of professionalism and politeness makes me wonder how bad some of the other writers are. Tip in miniature: don’t be one of those writers.

* see the title of this blog. Details have been pushed into fiction to protect the guilty and prevent them from recognising themselves. Because being polite is important to me.

The Tips for Writers posts are part of a series.

More Soapboxing about Cash

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Lots of discussion flying about via facebook, email and in the comments form of the latest Tips for Writers post I did about money and getting paid.

I guessed it would be an emotive issue – especially as most of us don’t get that much of it – and it is something I wish MAs in Creative Writing would cover more realistically and thoroughly. While many MA tutors do a brilliant job of managing the expectations of their students, to my knowledge, not many courses include seminars or modules specifically geared towards what exactly you’re supposed to do for money when you graduate. Employability in the arts is the official name for it, isn’t it?

Creative writing students need information about applying for ‘time to write’ and project funding, setting up live literature nights, small press magazines, making money from blogging, teaching and editing, because this is where so many writers are currently working without knowing their worth. They need information about self employment, about tax, about how to plan their continuing development as writers and as literature professionals. A post graduate qualification in writing should include education about what to ask for in return for unpaid volunteer posts and internships and training in creating a strategy for managing your own career. Rather than just telling us to get an agent, they should be examining the options around self publication in electronic and print formats – which are real options for many writers. Or at the very least they should signpost their students via the careers service to the very good literature development organisations that provide these services and information for writers (see links in the sidebar for the organisations I rate).

It is so important and, in my experience, skimmed over in terms that are not applicable to every writer (get an agent, don’t pay someone to publish your novel) because the great dirty secret of creative writing courses is that unlike professional qualifications in, say, nursing, teaching, law, information management and IT, most of the graduates won’t end up making a living in the field. In a class full of accountants, most of them end up getting paid to be accountants after they graduate. Is that true of creative writing MAs? A university can’t guarantee publication, or promise that publication will create an income stream decent enough to live on, but they can train their students in making themselves as entrepreneurial as possible.

Most of the stuff I know about making a living, I picked up from making mistakes, flailing around, and picking the brains of people who were where I wanted to be.

Maybe I am wrong. It’s been a while since I did my MA (which I certainly don’t regret but which – and this is important – I got a full and generous fees and maintenance grant for from the AHRC so I wasn’t starting my writing career in debt) and I haven’t researched the offerings of every single creative writing course in the world. I know there are a few of you recent and current students reading this, so chip in any time. I am interested to know what others’ experiences are.


Writing Tips #9 (Money)

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

It’s been a while since I posted one of these tips. The half-serious, half-tongue in cheek series is something that I wanted to continue over the summer, but what with one thing and another, I let it fall by the wayside.

I want to start it again by referring you to this post from Jane Smith on How Publishing Really Works (along with the accompanying comments) and Nicola Morgan’s response (plus more comments) on Help! I Need a Publisher. I’m a bit late to the party to weigh in, but these posts are well worth reading and my two penn’oth is below:

It’s not okay to work for free. If you can afford to work for nothing, that’s great – but unless you’re getting something else that is valuable you should charge a fee anyway (especially for teaching and editing/appraisal/consultancy) otherwise you’re unfairly taking work from a writer who can’t afford to work for nothing – which is the vast, vast majority of writers. (Insert depressing Soc of Authors figures here) Donate it to a charity if you’d prefer to, but make sure you get paid.

Work includes: writing a story, article, review, or report. Reading and commenting on someone else’s unpublished writing*. Delivering a workshop. Helping someone design a workshop which they will deliver. Researching. Reading from your writing to an audience who has paid to come and see you. Doing a Q and A. Fundraising. Giving a talk or a lecture to a book group, writing circle etc. Hosting, organising and promoting events.

Even if you have a day job and you do these things in your ‘spare’ time, it is still work. Even if your day job is really well paid. Even if you’re a millionaire. Even if you really, really like doing it. Even if you worry that you’re not as famous as they think you are. Whatever. It is still work and a renumeration is appropriate.

BUT this renumeration might not only come in cold hard cash (although never decline this – even if you’re getting an advance every couple of years, publishers don’t offer pensions). In the past I’ve worked for a very reduced fee or even for no cash at all because the ‘fee’ or the benefit to me has included one or more of the following:

Chance to gain experience in a sector or with a client group that I haven’t worked in or with before.

Chance to work with another writer that I’d really like to meet / work with / pick the brains of.

Publicity / promotion / networking opportunities. Prestige, reputation and other forms of stroking (though be careful of this – if the work was that prestigious, they’d be able to pay you).

Raising funds for a cause I believe in (in this case, I’d expect to be offered a fee, and the choice to waive or reduce it would be mine to make as I see fit).

To support a fledgling organisation / event with the understanding that they were aiming to pay writers for their work in the future – in effect, I’d be helping other writers get paid somewhere along the line, and if I had faith in the organisation and was able to pay my rent otherwise, I might agree to that.

In exchange for services (I am very happy to work in exchange for services – never be afraid of asking me this as it’s something I’d like to do more of).

I have also, very often, done things that I usually get paid for, for free, because a friend has asked me, because no-one’s getting paid, because I think it will be fun, because it will give me an excuse to go and have a night out in a new place, because I want to, because I feel like it. In this case, I put the event under ‘social life’ rather than ‘work’.

I’m flagging up Jane’s post even though in blog-time it’s almost old news because I know a lot of the people I teach writing to eventually find their way to my blog and I’d like to give them a nudge towards these posts and urge them to think all about these issues – which are not old news and not likely to become so. Even if you’re just starting out with informal readings at live lit nights, ocassional volunteer placements, internships etc it’s still important to think about how much your labour is worth, and to whom.

(Yes, writing is labour. Reading to an audience is labour. I’m as working class as they come but even if you don’t sweat or get dirty it is still work.)

I made loads of mistakes when I was starting out – saying yes to everything and feeling grateful that someone would want to offer me work at all. It took two sets of mentoring, a couple of stern talking tos from a good friend of mine and a lot of soul searching before I was able to put a number on what I do. It is still something I find difficult sometimes – perhaps because I come from the public sector and am used to being badly paid for my skills, perhaps because I’m still working out the worth of my various labours myself, perhaps because when your work is so close to your heart putting a number on it feels very much like putting a number on youself.

How much would I charge for looking after my children? My childminder manages to work out a business model that works, we had to put a figure on it when buying life insurance recently** and I have learned that it’s okay to be cold hearted about your writing when it comes to talking invoices and contracts.

Don’t be surprised when people are shocked or even offended that you want a fee. Tough it out, pretend you aren’t blushing and say, ‘this is what it costs.’ While it is true a lot of events run on goodwill and volunteers (who are, I would argue, getting work experience, contacts etc) the writer, without whom none of it would be possible, is expected to work for nothing too. I often wonder where, in that case, all the ticket fees go to.

People will say things like this:

‘You do it for the love of it, though, don’t you,’

Yes. I love my job. I bet my web-designer and my accountant and my agent and my editor love their jobs too. They certainly approach their respective tasks, like I do, with enthusiasm, creativity and dilligence. Why is it okay they get paid fairly and promptly but I don’t? I bet my landlord loves getting his monthly check from me***. I bet the supermarket loves how much money I throw into their tills each month. (Cheesy peeps!) It isn’t only people who hate their jobs who deserve to get paid.

‘Well, so and so will do it for free…’

Okay. Go and ask so and so then. I’m sure if so and so were that good, they wouldn’t need to do it for free. You get what you pay for. This is my job. There’s a difference between a hobbyist and a writer and I am a writer. (I know it is hard to say this.)

‘It’ll be a brilliant promotional opportunity for you,’

Question this. How brilliant is brilliant? Exactly. Be an arse about it if you have to. If they are expecting loads of people through the doors, and those people are paying a ticket price, then they can afford to pay you. If ticket sales aren’t that great, you’re not getting that much exposure. Do they mean book sales? First, book sales at events are over rated and can be unpredictable. I’ve sold and signed over seventy books at a well attended local event at a near-anonymous venue (that I was also paid to attend) and three books (which I suspect were pity buys) at one of the most well known book festivals in the world (yes, that one – although I was also paid to attend, and very fairly at that.)

And second, so what if it’s a brilliant promotional opportunity for me – you’re charging people to come and see me, not come and see my book. If I’m not preparing for this event, travelling to this event or doing this event, I could be earning money doing something else. If the musician who plays during the break and the graphic designer who did the posters and the man who sells the tickets and the woman who dishes out the half-time wine get paid, I should be getting paid too.

‘It’s all for a good cause..’

That’s for me to decide, thank you very much. I have not got a heart of stone. If I want to donate to your charity or support your organisation, I will do it without being guilted into it.

So this is my writing tip: do not undersell yourself. If you insist on a fee, you generally get treated better than if you’re willing to turn up for free. If you decide to waive your fee because you’re getting some other benefit, make it clear you are waiving a fee that you would usually charge AND make sure you get your train fare.

*if you email me your great unpublished novel, I will email you my consultancy fees list, no probs.

** aha! So that’s why banana skins have been appearing at the top of the stairs at Ashworth Towers these days…

***despite refusing to fix my rickety windows for nigh on two years now.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy my other Tips for Writers. Although they are worth more or less exactly what you pay for them. Comments and questions welcome.

EDITED TO ADD: this link to Daisy Baldwin’s post on voluntary work and internships – required reading for the arts grads amongst us.

How On Earth…

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

I have two or three things to say. First, the person who is finding this blog by typing ‘Jenn Ashworth names of children’ into google – stop it. It is odd, and I can guarantee I know more scary people than you do.

Second, if you meet me at a reading, don’t ask me this: ‘how on earth do you plan to write with two children?’* or some version of it. Not unless you’d also ask a man that question. Not unless you’d also ask a doctor, an accountant, a shop assistant, a farmer, a driving instructor etc. It’s rude (my reproductive choices and family set-up are NONE of your business) and it is silly. I do exactly the same as the billions of other parents who work-for-money as well as working-for-love do – I choose a job that has flexible hours (you can’t seriously be telling me writing is more demanding than being a surgeon or a cleaner or a bus-driver or a barrister? Really?) refuse to breed with anyone who doesn’t see parenting as a labour to be shared, and prioritise work and family above other, boring things like television, housework, social outings, spare money and early nights / lies in. 

*P.S Yes, this is an announcement. Mr, me and Small Fry will soon be joined by a Little Stranger. As you were.

Writing Tips #6

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Here’s an interesting post from Charlotte’s Web about the Seven Stages of Receiving Criticism.

Seeking out feedback on your work is important. It’s a myth, I reckon, that most writers do successful writing on their own, in a garret. But it’s not a community effort or a writing-by-committee job either. You send your story to a few friends, or go to a creative writing group, or join a workshop-based course, and other people read it, and they say stuff.

And what do you do?

You shut up, is what you do. Zip it. Lips together. Cake-hole closed.

It’s okay to ask questions. ‘How do you think I handled setting? Is it clear that Millie didn’t mean to steal the cakes? I worry about my sentences being too long, what do you think?’ either before, or during the time when you’re getting feedback. It certainly helps me if you let me know what you want me to look out for, although I reserve the right to comment on other things too. But here’s the secret – once more for the road: once you’ve asked your questions and once you’ve handed over your writing – keep your mouth shut and listen.

Getting someone to thoughtfully read your work and then take the time to tell you what they think is a gift. It’s rare to get excellent feedback – rare to get any feedback above ‘very nice’ at all, unless you’re willing to pay for it. If someone’s good enough to take the time, listen to them. It’s for your own good, and even if it isn’t for your own good, it’s MANNERS for Pete’s sake. If you don’t want to listen, thoughtfully, then don’t ask. If you think they’re not going to understand, then don’t ask them.

It really, really really, really really really really gnarls my chizzle when writers interrupt to explain or justify what they’ve written in the face of critical feedback. (It actually does say here he’s got a peg-leg, which explains why he wasn’t able to drive the gettaway car…) You’re not going to be there to give a reader a running commentary if the book ends up in a shop, are you? If the piece doesn’t work without you orating on its behalf, (well, if you haven’t read *whatever* then you’re probably not going to understand what I’m actually doing here) then it doesn’t work and the best think you can do is listen and see if you can find out why it doesn’t work. Don’t correct the misunderstanding (actually, if you’d read the rest of the chapter you’d find out that…) find out what it is about your writing (if anything) that made the misunderstanding happen.

Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up. If it turns out you’ve not found your ideal reader, or you decide the feedback wasn’t useful to you, you say thank you nicely anyway (it’s a gift, remember, and one that you asked for) and then you button your mouth and sleep on it, or ask someone else, or decide you’re one of the garret writers. But you do that on your own time, not while someone’s trying to tell you what they thought of your writing.


Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The reason I want to write a detective novel:

They are about finding things out. I try to avoid using words like epistemological on this blog, as I’m fairly unsure of the spelling and I wonder sometimes if words like that don’t mean exactly what I think they mean. You wouldn’t want to look like a wally, would you?

There are always a couple of stories. The event, which is the murder or the stealing or whathaveyou. Which is often not really there – sort of between the lines. And then the actual story, which is the uncovering.

Like unreliable narrators have two stories – what they think they mean, and what you think they mean. And the magic of how the other story gets in there, when you haven’t used words to write it at all.


And the way you can monkey about with the detective form. The not-finding out. The impossibility of finding things out. Of knowing things.

I think that’s a regular theme with me. The Annie book is really about the impossibility of knowing someone else, because we only have words to touch each other with, and they’re not very good for that. And Cold Light is, I realise now I’m reading through my almost final draft and cursing the typos and the awkward sentences and the non-nonsensical things I’ve made my characters say now and again, sort of about the same thing – I’ve been reading Elizabeth Loftus and there’s something coming out in this book that I already knew. Our memories aren’t the way that books with flashbacks in pretend they are at all. And still I like to write books with flashbacks in.

I don’t think it is possible to find things out. To know things. Not by interrogating other people, or ourselves, or the past. The evidence is unreliable.

So why not write a detective novel?

Cambridge Japes

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

I had a lovely time. Thank you Rosey, Natalie, Alaysha (I hope that is right) Pam and Clare. It was emotional to be back.

This place is the first place that I felt at home and the first place where I felt reading and writing for a living was an acceptable ambition. It takes confidence to say you want to be a writer (even if you never say it out loud, it is still scary) and Newnham is where I started feeling confident. I love this place. And I loved doing my reading and answering questions and listening to all sorts of other people who are going to be all kinds of different writers.

Ace! Top Banana!

And, while I’m here, or rather, while I was rooting about on the internet, what a shame it was to discover that Newnham is hiking up the rent that students pay to live there 8.5 % ( a year. For five years.) as well as charging top-up-fees. I’d never be able to go there now. Not in a million years. I only just coped with the post-degree debt as it was.

It makes me sad.

I know good things aren’t always (and maybe shouldn’t always) be free, and I know that Newnham gives very generous bursaries and financial assistance to students who need it.

But all the same, it is probably a good idea not to make it so that only rich students are allowed to go to a place that has such a profound, long lasting effect on the women who study there.

Seems a bit old fashioned to me.

The talk I gave was for the arts soc. That’s where Virgina Woolf first mentioned that a woman needed a room of her own in order to write. A room of her own and five hundred pounds a year. Which, by today’s standards, is quite a lot more than the average wage, tons more (according to S of A figs) than the average writer earns from her writing, and maybe not enough to have a room of your own at Newnham.

Just saying.

Home Again

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

And what a nice trip away that was, despite almost being obliged to have a conversation with a car salesman. There was outside, grass, sunlight, good food, good company, good sleep and no dreams. Ace!

Now I am back.

This -> is tomorrow. Very exciting. I’ll be there, wearing a black dress. I haven’t decided on the shoes yet. What I’d really like is a pair of cherry red cowboy boots, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to secure a pair at such short notice.

I’ll probably blog about something other than my own nights out/holidays/promotional activities sometime soon. Lots of new things are going to be happening.

Linky + Sicky

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I’ve been reading this blog a lot recently. I hate twee mummy and baby type writing, but this one is not like that at all.

There are so many stereotypes about young single mothers that when you are one, it is very difficult to be anything other than a walking, sleep deprived cliche. And when, as well as a pram-face, you’re also a writer, the cliche bit is a horrible thing to drag around with you. But this blog isn’t like that, and everyone should read it immediately.

A shy friend of mine has just joined blog-land with an amazing post stolen from a Facebook meme than turned into a bit of a rant.

I am not a fan of memes and internet quizzes and tagging and all that other strange stuff. But if I could work the ’25 things about me’ meme that’s going around Facebook right now as well as my friend the Capt’n has done in his new blog, I’d be more inclined to join in with them. I demand that you read and comment so he will carry on blogging.

I read this, and nodded a lot

This should be a good-enough answer to the question I’ve been asked more and more often recently: how autobiographical is your writing? Of course it is. Yes, all of it. If I hadn’t have spent a lot of time thinking about it and experiencing it in my head, I wouldn’t have been able to write it. And for me, things experienced in the head are much more solid and real and memory-making than the other kind of experiencing, which mainly involves sitting in chairs or putting books on shelves.

Now – my Small Fry has spent twelve hours vomiting over everything in the house. Now is the time for me to turn off the computer and don my rubber gloves.

The next post will be about meeting web designers and photographers, planning launch parties, and getting my author copies. There will be real ‘author glamour’ in the next post. But not now. My whole house smells like sick.

UPDATE: Sorry about all the typos, especially if your reader got it before I corrected it. Put it down to the 3 hours of sleep I got, and the 10+ hours of nursing I’ve just done. And now she’s running about crazy demanding Santa, chocolate and ‘a type.’

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