In which I Have Thoughts about disability, writer-world and publishing

This morning a friend drew my attention to a twitter thread started by Sam Missingham. Sam is a bit of a publishing industry legend and the founder of Lounge Books amongst a gazillion other things. She’s also a great advocate for under-represented voices in publishing.

Her thread today (which you can see here) was asking about experiences of disability in terms of wider accessibility and also in terms of writing events and publishing. And those are things I think about quite a lot when I’m wearing my Vice-Chair of a major writers’ organisation hat. But they’re also things I think about just as Alison. And just as Alison I started to type a reply, and then I stopped, because even in the modern world of multi-tweet threaded epics I couldn’t martial my thoughts down to a tweetable size. So instead, here I am, blowing cobwebs off the unloved corners of the blogosphere like it’s 2013 or something.

So let’s kick off by outing myself. I’m a disabled person. The most common response I get to that statement is generally in the area of ‘Oh but not like, y’know, really disabled…’ Here’s what the Equalities Act 2010 says a disability is… ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ So yeah – in those terms really disabled.

Amongst other things, I have IBS – a label I have lots of issues with – which basically means that I have chronic digestive pain and problems caused by nothing that GPs or consultant gastroenterologists can definitively identify. They can definitively rule out lots of things – bowel and stomach cancer, colitis, Chron’s disease, coeliac disease for starters – but can’t definitively rule anything specific in.

I’m not personally a huge fan of the term IBS. It stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I find it sort of creates the image of one’s bowel as a kind of grumpy old man* – a Victor Meldrew figure – bitching and moaning at whatever food happens to get chucked his way. As well as causing pain, IBS can also cause constipation and diarrhea, or, for a lucky few of us, both (sometimes within the same 30 minute period). For me, at least, a more accurate term would be Over-reactive Bowel Syndrome. Everyone’s digestive system reacts to the food we eat – if they didn’t we wouldn’t all share an understanding that beans make you fart – mine just has significantly more dramatic mood swings than most, and sometimes reacts to entirely unexpected things, like ‘it being Tuesday’ for example.

As a result I have to modify my diet – red meat, for example, is pretty much a no no – and I have developed the ability to know where the nearest toilet is to the level of it basically being a superpower. I carry a radar key for disabled toilet access and am getting more brazen (although not fully shameless yet) in the face of the ‘you don’t look disabled’ whispers and glances when I have to use the damn thing. It also makes losing weight a real challenge. Pain levels vary from day to day but on flare-up days, doing exercise is a non-starter. If you can imagine your digestive system as a bottle of fizzy pop and then think about the shaking effect of a vigorous 45 minutes of HIIT or Zumba you’ll get a good idea of the issues there. And on flare-up days the only foods that don’t make things worse generally fall into the ‘beige carbs’ category. Again, not ideal, for maintaining a healthy weight. I get bloating to the point where I’m pretty much guaranteed a seat on the Tube on suspicion of being about seven months pregnant. If I get too hungry I get stomach pain. If I eat even slightly too much I get stomach pain. Sometimes I do everything ‘right’ and I get stomach pain.

The amount of pain varies a lot and, like most chronic illness sufferers, I do a lot of powering through. Because you can, up  to a point, but it takes a toll. Powering on through pain is knackering. I have friends who have chronic illnesses where fatigue is a major symptom – I can only imagine that the exponential impact of the fatigue of powering through fatigue must be horrendous.

So that’s me. And now, I’ll try to drag myself back to the point I originally intended to talk about… What would I like to see change in writer world and publishing in relation to disability?

Obviously these are just my personal thoughts…

  1. Events with multiple food options please…  It’s great to be asked about dietary requirements before an event – I have multiple weird food allergies so it’s good to get them down in advance –  but realistically a lot of days I don’t know what I’m likely to feel ok about eating until I’m there. Buffets are good. Menus with choices are good. If there’s only one option, staff who are understanding about me leaving half of it are good too.
  2. Enough toilets… men’s, women’s, gender neutral, disabled – in a pinch I’ll use any of those. It’s just nice when there’s more than one cubicle for the massive room full of people.
  3. Stop telling stories where disability is a metaphor for the character flaw the protagonist has to get over please… Disabled people can be delightful. Disabled people can be dicks. Most of us are somewhere in between. Like, you know, people. What disability and chronic illness definitely aren’t are flaws to be overcome. Powering through pain isn’t a great personal victory – it’s a choice. Staying in bed isn’t ‘giving in’ to weakness of mind or character. Both of those actions are entirely value and morally neutral.
  4. Ask disabled people what they want and need… disability is a massive range of stuff. Sensory impairment, mobility limitation, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, mental health and a billion other things besides. I can’t speak for someone with, for example, a sensory impairment, but they can speak for themselves.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I probably have more, but this is quite a lot of ‘reckoning stuff on the interweb’ for one afternoon. Probably ought to do some real work now. Toodle-pip.

Oooh… actually one more thing  before I go. If you’re about to type a comment that starts ‘Have you tried…’ then please don’t. I know it’s well-intentioned but seriously I was diagnosed in 2012. If you thought of it in the time it took to read this post, you can probably assume it’s been covered.

*No. No idea why I think my bowel is male. That’s probably a whole year of therapy right there.

In which my publisher is 7 whole years old

Choc Lit, the rather lovely publisher that brought Sweet Nothing, Midsummer Dreams and the Christmas Kisses series into the world is seven whole years old today.

This is very exciting because seven is, I would suggest, without any doubt at all the best age to be. You’re still little enough to be cute and not really be expected to know stuff or do useful things like wash up or know how to debone a poussin, but you’ve reached the point where you’re in sufficient control of your own limbs for the full range of running/jumping/twirling activities to be very much on the table. At least until an adult comes and makes you get down off the table.

Furthermore, at seven you’re on a par with deadly sins, heavenly virtues, and the generally agreed optimum number of dwarves that can be looked after by a single fairytale princess/occasional housekeeper.

Seven is also the title of that film where Gwyneth Paltrow’s head ends up in a box. It’s how keen Jeremy Corbyn is on the EU. It’s the maximum number of crime-fighting children/dogs Enid Blyton considered it practical to group together into a single secret smuggler-catching gang.

It’s the wedding anniversary at which you might buy one another a nice jumper or a small flock of sheep. It’s the number of days Craig David needs to meet and thoroughly romance a young lady and get to the point where they both need a nice long rest.

So seven. There you go. It’s a number. Traditionally it comes after six and before eight, unless you’re counting alphabetically, in which case (taking only the first ten numbers in this example) it would come after one and before six. I wouldn’t recommend counting alphabetically though; you lose a lot of the benefit of counting if you do.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying, Choc Lit publish books, including my books. You could buy one if you wanted. Or not it’s really up to you. Anyway, they’re seven. Happy Birthday to them.

 

In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I have to remember not to lick the books

I’ve been a bit lax in the blog posting the last couple of weeks. This is largely because I’ve been mentally trying to compose a post about the Labour leadership campaign that isn’t just a series of video clips of me banging my head against a wall and then weeping gently, probably ending with a section where I jump up and down repeatedly on a picture of Tony Blair’s increasingly haunted face. I’m not sure that a post like that would really count as insightful or, indeed, interesting.

However, it’s so clear that generating a coherent opinion about Andy Burnham is basically my moral duty as a left-leaning bod with a blog and an interest in politics, that it’s hampered my attempts to blog about anything else. Fortunately today’s post brought something that absolutely, definitely has to be shared with the universe right now this very second.

 

Are you ready?

Ta dah!

Print copies

Actual print copies of my actual novel, Sweet Nothing. Actually printed out, so you can actually hold them, and cuddle them, and lick them.* There are lots of different novelist milestones – your first finished draft; your first finished draft that’s in a state where you could plausibly show it to another human being; your first rejection; your first non-standard rejection; your first contract; your first publication day; your first review; your first horrible review; the first time one of your books gets pirated etc. And in the modern world you can do all of those without ever having a printed book. So having a printed book shouldn’t logically make you feel like any more of a ‘proper writer’ than you were the day before. You’ve still written, edited and promoted the book – all that’s changed is that somebody quite unrelated to you has had the thing printed out and glued together. But still. It’s a book. An actual lickable** book. And it’s very very exciting indeed.

So there you go. A book. It’s out in paperback on August 7th, and by total coincidence the day before that is my birthday, so next week goes my birthday and then book birthday. If you check out my twitter feed (@MsAlisonMay) next Thursday (August 6th) there might even be a special #BirthdayGiveaway to win a signed copy, which would then be yours to keep, and, if you wanted, lick. Or just read. That’s probably a better idea really…

 

About Sweet Nothing

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. First novel in the 21st Century Bard series.

 

And you can pre-order the paperback or pick up the ebook for just 99 of your modern English pennies here.

 

*I haven’t been licking them. Honestly I haven’t.

** Still wrong. I’ll add ‘books’ to my list of Things I Must Not Lick.***

*** List also includes David Tennant, other people’s cake, and leading literary agents.

 

In which I have a lovely new book coming out

I’m absolutely delighted, pleased, chuffed and gladdened to be able to officially announce that I have a new book out – well not quite ‘out’, technically just ‘available for kindle pre-order‘. It’ll be properly out for kindle (or kindle apps) in June, and hopefully in other formats sometime after that, but still I feel like having an excited author moment, and frankly you can’t stop me.

This is my fourth book, and second full length novel, to be published by Choc Lit. Midsummer Dreams was the first new book I started from scratch after contracting my first one, Sweet Nothing and, in all sorts of ways, it was the classic difficult second novel. I had the idea of ‘a contemporary rom-com inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ months before I started writing, but translating that idea into words on the page was tougher than anything I’d written before. Suddenly I found myself wracked by doubt. Was the first book a fluke? Could I do it again? What if the publisher thought it was terrible? What if they were right? What if I’d broken too many ‘rules’ of the genre? What if I’d gone too far?

Happily the Choc Lit tasting panel, who read all the submissions before they go to an editor, didn’t share my concerns, and so earlier this year I found myself with my nose deep in the manuscript again making edits and revisions to polish the story up into a finished novel. And while I was doing that, somehow, I managed to fall in love with the story and the characters all over again. So here is my lovely new book baby. I hope you will buy, read, enjoy and love these four horribly messed-up people as much as I do.

MD Final Cover

Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything …
Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect.
Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself.
Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers.
Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach.
At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice might not always be the right one.

In which I weigh into the whole Amazon vs Hachette ebook pricing argument

Day three of the Awesome Week of Daily Blogging and the posts are still coming thick and fast.* Today I thought I’d weigh into the whole Amazon vs Hachette debacle, because for a new author currently exclusively ebook published on Amazon there’s no way that could be unwise. (‘You have books on Amazon?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why Alison, you hardly mention that at all!’ Indeed. I am too modest. They’re here. Feel free to go buy them.)

For those of you who don’t spend your free time reading articles about corporate disputes in the publishing industry, essentially Amazon (who I’m guessing you’ve heard of) and Hachette (who are a big publisher) have fallen out over new contract negotiations over ebook pricing. Amazon think ebooks should be cheaper. Hachette don’t agree, or, perhaps, just don’t want that to be up to Amazon. I’m simplifying, obviously, and if you’re really interested in the finer details you know where google is, and, if that’s too much effort, there’s some interesting stuff about the changes in the ebook pricing model that led up to this point here.

What I am going to bang on about is the way in which this whole hullabaloo** has led to an outbreak of rather bizarre open letter writing. 900 authors have signed this letter ‘to their readers,’ but actually clearly aimed at Amazon, and helpfully popped the whole thing in the New York Times. Amazon have written this letter to their kindle authors, but actually clearly aimed at Hachette, and, even more helpfully, popped it on the interweb for the world to see too (horribly misrepresented Orwell quote and all). Now part of me applauds this approach to doing business. It might have been thought that letter writing was a dying art, but apparently not. What does seem to be a dying art is the ability to address one’s letter to the relevant person and pop it in an envelope. Open letters are suddenly very much in vogue.

It’s not limited to publishing industry pricing disputes. Gyrate around on TV wearing a flesh coloured leotard accessorized with 2013’s Robin Thicke and people start writing them. Suggest that people ought not to vote, and people write them. And frankly I’m a bit annoyed. Irrationally annoyed, I admit, but annoyed nonetheless. If you want to say something to one individual or company, write them a letter. If you want to say something to a more general audience, write an article or a book or a blogpost or an exceptionally pithy tweet. If the thing you want to say is primarily aimed at improving your own commercial position then be honest with the universe and write an advert.

I’m not quite sure what it is about open letters that winds me up so. Actually, yes, I am sure. It’s the double standard. Open letter writers are trying to have it both ways. When you write something publicly you run the risk that people will think it’s dull, or crap, or will just disagree vehemently with the thought you’ve spent hours crafting and trying to communicate. When you call the thing you’ve written an open letter, you’re giving yourself a get out of being able to pretend it was only really aimed at the named recipient. But it’s not, is it? Because if it was you’d have got a stamp and an envelope and just sent it to them. But maybe you can’t. Maybe the person in question hasn’t given you their address, or email, but that couldn’t possibly be because you don’t know them and they don’t care what you think, could it? Obviously they, and everyone else, need to know what you think. Which is fine. I’m in no position to criticise anyone for the random spouting of opinion at the world. But stop pretending that it’s personal, when it’s just some stuff you reckon.

Now that’s probably a tad unfair on the authors who wrote to their readers, and the wider world, about Amazon. They do clearly have a vested interest in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette and in the wider direction of travel of ebook pricing and the bigger question of who now controls the publishing industry. But there’s another element that I find difficult here, which is that it’s starting to feel as though authors are expected to pick a side. I’ve been asked on facebook and other forums for a view and it’s tricky. The bottom line is that Amazon are a big ol’ business. They’ve already killed off a huge section of the physical bookselling market. They’re moving aggressively into publishing. From a commercial point of view, I see no reason why they wouldn’t want to dominate on both the publishing and retail sides of the business, which sounds bad, but they’ve also brought opportunities for new authors (me included) through the ebook market and the explosion in self-publishing which Amazon has massively supported. Big publishers are increasingly risk averse – previously secure mid-list authors have seen their contracts cancelled or not renewed in recent years, pushing many of them, slightly ironically, into Amazon’s self-publishing embrace.

For the individual players in the system – readers and authors – any one company, or cohort of companies, having dominance is probably not ideal, but being asked whether you’d prefer your industry to be dominated by one retailer or by a few big publishers is no real choice at all. What I want, as an individual author, is to get good quality books out to readers, and to be able to make a living from doing that. However the current round of chips falls, it feels like it’s getting harder and harder to do that.

And everyone breathe. Thank-you.

* Once per day. At best.

** It’s definitely the correct technical term. Stick with me.

In which I read a Bad Book

It is one of the small sadnesses of writing fiction, that doing so can break the pleasure of reading. It’s like being a magician at a magic show. You can be impressed at the skill on display. You can feel professional respect for the fellow conjurer on the stage, but if you can see too much of the craft you don’t actually get the thrill of feeling the magic. Occasionally, a book comes along that’s so good, or so far outside your own writing experience, or both, that it forces you to switch off your analytical writing brain and just enjoy the story, but a lot of the time you find yourself thinking, “Oh. Very good. I see what you did there, ” rather than just “Wow!”

Occasionally the opposite happens. A book so bad comes along that rather than thinking “Wow,” or “I see how that works,” you just think “How?” How did this get past an editor? How did this get published in its current form? Just how? I am currently reading just such a book, and, rather churlishly you might think, I’m not going to tell you what it is. There are reasons. Firstly, any book review is subjective and I resolved when I started this blog that I would only post reviews that were at least 51% positive. Secondly, I’m a member of more than one professional organisation for authors. I meet other writers. I’m also English and middle-class and therefore prepared to do pretty much anything to avoid potential future confrontation or social discomfort.

Anyway, this book is a mainstream published book by a successful “Sunday Times bestselling” author. It’s not a debut. It’s not a poorly edited self-published tome by an enthusiastic newbie to the writing game. Looking at it’s Amazon reviews, it’s a book some people have loved. As I said, my opinion is entirely subjective. However, what I don’t think is subjective is that this book almost certainly wouldn’t have attracted the attention of a publisher or agent if it was a debut. It commits many of the sins that newbie writers pay good money to conference organisers, creative writing teachers and writing consultancies to be warned against. The setup for the story is long, so long, too long, taking up about a third of the book. Then about halfway through the style of the story changes so you’re not reading the sort of book you thought you were at all. The writer headhops – jumps between the points of view of different characters – abruptly and without obvious reason. Headhopping isn’t a writing sin because it’s inelegant; it’s because it’s really confusing for the reader, and as a reader, in this case, I was really confused.

And in a sense, so what? A debut novel doesn’t just have to be as good as the general malaise of stuff out there in your genre. It has to stand out. I know plenty of talented writers who had novels rejected not because they weren’t good, but because they weren’t stand out enough to be a debut novel. Some of those “not good enough for a debut” books were then published very successfully as novel 2, 3 or 4.

I wonder though whether there’s a point of success where quality control ceases to be a consideration. Reading this book, my natural urge, as a writer, is to get a pen and a notepad and start to make editing and revision notes. It feels like an unedited draft, rather than a finished novel. More than anything I’m confused by that. I don’t understand how the novel got through an editing process in its current form. Maybe the writer is at a level of success where the publisher reckons their work will sell regardless. Maybe the writer knows it ain’t a great book, but was pressured by contractual and commercial obligations to put it out. I don’t know. Lack of editing though, is one of the criticisms used by mainstream publishers to bash the self-publishing sector. Sometimes that criticism is justified, but as a criticism of a whole sector of an industry it’s too much of a generalisation, especially when the big publishing houses are putting out their own, albeit possibly smaller, share of poorly edited material.

So that’s my confusion for this week. Feel free to chat about bookly things in the comments – particularly bad books, poorly edited books, books you wanted to chuck across the room. Off you go.