Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Notes: Towards a Blog Novel

I sat down at my computer this morning to start work on a new novel, and couldn't face it. This has been happening all my life. It happens to millions of people. Writing a novel is one of the hardest things anyone can do, simply as an intellectual task, but what makes it harder is the loneliness, the fact that you have to work out all those problems on your own, and even if you succeed to your own satisfaction, there is no guarantee that anyone else will ever see your work, let alone get pleasure out of it. Most novels are never finished; most of those that are finished are never published; most of those that are published never find an audience; and most of those that find an audience are mediocre at best. We writers all know these things, and yet we keep on trying.

I'm not a complete beginner. See the right margin for details: I published a novel, WHOM, in 1989; I was and am pleased with it, but it received very little attention and is long out of print. Writing a second novel in the face of this apathy proved much more difficult, and it wasn't till last year that I finally finished one that I was happy with. I won't go into details about it, as it is still going the rounds of publishers and agents, and I don't want to prejudice that process. Meanwhile, I've completed a book of short stories, Singing a Man to Death, which is coming out in April from the Welsh press Cinnamon. I love the short-story form, but there is very little demand for it, in the UK at least, and I probably won't be returning to it. Most of my writing life has been devoted to poetry, in which I have had more success than in fiction, and I have just submitted my latest collection of poems to my editor. But I still feel unfulfilled as a novelist.

In some ways there has probably never been a worse time to write a novel. Publishers are in a state of panic over far-reaching changes in people's reading habits and cultural expectations, and the threat to intellectual property posed by the internet. The big publishers, as far as I can tell, are responding with a mixture of commercial pragmatism and intellectual conservatism. If you are a TV gardener or a stand-up comic they will be happy to publish your novel; if not, well you had better make sure it's exactly like something they already know they can sell, and then... well, they probably won't publish it anyway, just to be on the safe side. The agents and publishers I have been in touch with recently have generally responded by saying, 'How do intend to market this novel?' My instinctive reply is, 'I thought that was your job,' but, to be fair, they are dealing with unprecedented problems, and can hardly be blamed for feeling panicky about them.

On the other hand, the new technology and the cultural changes that have come with it have opened up opportunities for writers. For the first time I can remember, self-publishing looks like a viable option, thanks to Amazon's Kindle Direct scheme. If you take this route, social networking, blogs and other internet tools give you a realistic chance of making contact with your potential readers - after all, if even the mainstream publishers are now expecting you to market yourself, why not cut them out altogether? At the same time, small independent publishers are taking advantage of the caution of the big presses; again the new technology offers them both a reduction in costs and increased opportunities for marketing. As a poet (though one whose main publisher is one of the few remaining big players in the field) I have long been familiar with the world of small presses, public readings and workshops. Poetry is a genre with limited commercial reach and large intellectual ambitions; now it is beginning to look as if literary fiction is going the same way, and that may not be a bad thing for writers who don't mind that they'll never be rich. Self-publishing is not really an option for me, though, and small-press publishing is not ideal, because my academic job requires me to publish in the most high-profile way possible.

The last big change that happened in the UK literary scene was the introduction of academic creative courses. I was in on that, if not exactly from the start, then at least from the time when it was still a new and little appreciated area. I got my first full-time creative writing job at the University of Glamorgan in 1999, and have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2003. Teaching is mostly by workshop: students bring in the material they are working on, and it is discussed in class by the tutor and their fellow students before they take it away and revise it. This approach, we always tell them, takes the loneliness out of writing. They will improve faster because of the constructive feedback - and indeed, I've seen hundreds of students become better writers as a result of this process. I have also benefited from workshops myself: as a poet, I have belonged to several over the years, and brought them new poems to try out before sending them to magazines or editors. I'm going to one tonight. But I've never belonged to a fiction workshop, though some of my friends at the university have been talking abour setting one up. I am still not quite sure how such a workshop could be run, since it would require a lot of commitment from the members, perhaps following the progress of several novels over a period of years.

When I sat down to write this morning I thought, I wish I were writing a blog. As a matter of fact, I've just started a new blog on cult fiction, White Threshold; when I'm doing an entry for that, I just sit down and type. It's hard work, as all writing is, but I don't have any of those inhibitions and anxieties that stop me writing at all most of the time when I'm trying to be creative. Also, like a poem, a blog entry is something you can see through to the end in a relatively short time. At the same time, it's provisional - no one regards it as finished, and no one expects it to be perfect. And, like the poems I bring to workshop, it is open to feedback. Writing a blog, unlike many other forms of writing, is a clearly social activity.

So is it possible to write a novel in the form of a blog? As soon as this idea occurred to me, I guessed I was not the first person to think of it, and did a quick search. Sure enough, I'm not, and I see someone has even coined the word blovel. The advantages are clear, but what of the disadvantages? For one thing, there's the copyright question. Would anyone want to publish a novel (because I would still be aiming, ultimately, at publication and royalties) that had already been published for free on the internet? I am still working that one out, but part of the answer is that I would use the blog only for the draft stages, which are the ones where I really need help, but which would be very little good to anyone on their own. It's true that I couldn't stop people stealing my characters and scenarios, if they thought there was anything in it for them, but it's not easy to defend against that kind of thing even with a published work. I suspect that the point at which I add real commercial value (if I ever do) will be when I take the novel away from the blog and work on it on my own. Meanwhile I'll look into the copyright issue on blogs and see if I have to do anything in particular to get legal protection. (This applies to White Threshold too, of course.) The other big obstacle is a psychological one. Like most writers of my age, I'm used to thinking of my writing as a largely private activity, and the earlier the stage of composition, the more private it is. This is partly because I don't like people seeing how badly I write at this stage, and partly because I'm trying to hide the personal feelings and histories that go into it. T.S. Eliot claimed:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
I don't entirely go along with him here, but I know very well what it is to want to escape from personality, and that process of escape or hiding, whichever metaphor you prefer, is certainly part of my motivation when I write. Another part, paradoxically, is the opposite, the desire to express or reveal my personality. I have been trying to find a compromise between these two extremes all my life, and it seems that in making my novel public I will finally be committing myself to one of them. This is scary, and not just because it means revealing one's vulnerable points, but even worse - it risks boring and embarrassing people. But my students have exactly the same misgivings when I tell them to bring their stories and poems to workshop, and I always reassure them that the process is not as painful as they expect; most of them will actually enjoy it, and it will help them to become better writers. Isn't it about time I practised what I preach?

My next posting, which should follow very soon, will reveal how I intend to go about it.


  1. Hey Matthew, just discovered you blovel.

    I was feeling pretty much the same yesterday when I sat down to write these bloody sonnets I opted to write as my final creative piece. An hour and a half produced the line: 'Who cut this cube and scored each face with eyes?'

    This blog is an excellent idea and the 'notes' sections are incredibly useful. I think too that any form of expression allows a broadening of one's mental horizons - through playful experimentation - and also allows the writer/singer/artist an excuse to reveal their inner self. It's also useful to know that someone who works as a professional and teaches creative writing still feels as lost as the novice and finds writing just as difficult.

    I wouldn't worry too much about people lifting your characters/plot-lines; with the picture you've just painted of the publishing industry, it would hardly be worth the effort! I will certainly read and give you any feedback I can. I may even start to grade - let's see if you will break the 80% mark! I rarely forgive and never forget.

    Anyway, well done. Patrick.

  2. It's a good line, though, Patrick. Only thirteen to go! Yes, I quite agree that no one is likely to want to steal the novel. Making it public instead of hoarding it like some secret formula I don't want foreign agents to get hold of has been quite liberating. It takes all the weight of expectation off it - now it's just something I'm messing around with, which may or may not become a work of fiction, but will almost certainly never be worth an 80. At least not from you, knowing what a strict marker you are!

    1. Just stumbled upon this blog through White Threshold - where I found the map from the front of Robinson which I intend to steal for my own post on the book. Maps are supposed to be stolen anyhow, aren't they? Anyway, I enjoyed your post there and also your post on one of my favourite novels Riddley Walker.
      I like your exposition of the difficulties of writing here also, both from an emotional and financial perspective. Starting a novel feels like trying to talk to someone in the opposite stand at a football match. They will only hear you if you shout the same words as everyone else.
      I find it difficult enough to find time to blog, and that often is late night time which feels hard won when the kids wake you four hours after retiring to bed.
      Looking forward to following this blovel and picking up some tips along the way.

    2. Thanks, Séamus. White Threshold a bit stalled at the moment while I wait for news about another possible home for it. You're welcome to the map - only Muriel Spark could sue you, and she's not likely to take action now, though I wouldn't want to be haunted by her, come to think of it. A great writer but a difficult person. I love your phrase about the football match. It's so hard to break through now; I'd love to be read widely, but not if it means writing the kind of books I wouldn't want to read myself. I'll check out your blogs soon.