I don’t often talk about money, but…

Redeswood1The cheque for my eleven-book deal with Audible arrived this week. I can’t actually explain how much this payout means to me as a working author. Once more, I have to thank my agent, Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency: there is no way I could’ve swung this one on my own. I’m not even going to say how much the cheque was for, although if any of my hard-grafting colleagues out there are wondering what agent-sold audio rights are fetching these days, feel free to email or PM me. For the purposes of today’s blog, the amount isn’t relevant. What’s relevant is the effect upon my daily life, and I do want to take up a few moments of your time to talk about that. The daily life of an author, because I know the market is tough at the moment, and I’ve seen a lot of discouraged people, and I’ve had more than a few queries lately about what it takes to make it as a writer. And I still think it’s possible, so I’ve tried to answer.

That’s a tricky task, although in each case I’ve tried my best. I can only tell you what it takes me. Am I making it? Well, just about, according to my own unsteady lights. First off, as my dear friend Josh Lanyon has said recently, you really have to decide what you mean by making it. Do you want to be JK Rowling? Do you want to get one book – yes, dear Goddess, please just one teeny tiny little book and I won’t ask for anything again ever – published, to obtain that one moment of orgasmically sweet validation and triumph? Do you want, like me, to enjoy the dubious, dangerous benefits of living off your wits, free from employers, in the middle of the wilderness, no savings, no pension, no sick pay, making just enough to cover the bills? There’s all kinds of making it.

Second, what are your circumstances? You need to balance out what you need to do against what you can do. I’m all in favour of pushing boundaries, but unattainable goals will wear you out and make you miserable. For me, in order to progress my career, stop living hand-to-mouth, get some money in the bank and make some provision for my frail (and rapidly advancing) old age, I’d need to produce about 5,000 words a day.

I can’t. I max out on 1,000, or 1,500 when I have no other commitments. Do you have kids? I spent five minutes with a kid the other day, and I was depleted and drained beyond imagination. I salute authors who have kids. How the bloody hell you do it, I have no idea. Do you want to have some kind of life outside your authorial vacuum flask? I didn’t think I needed one, but as I moved from part-time to full-time writer, and ploughed head-first into the menopause at the same time, I realised how badly I did. Depression and borderline agoraphobia presented themselves and asked to be considered for the role of Wolves at my Door. I had to chase them off while I was still capable of leaving the house in order to do so. Changes in my metabolism meant I could no longer get away with the utterly sedentary lifestyle I’d rejoiced in so far. We came back to my native northeast, where my family embraced me, undeserving as I was. I discovered Sacred Circle Dance; a wonderful group of fellow Pagans. I felt better. (Note: my problems were causative, circumstantial, temporary. Companionship and activity may help with cases of clinical, chronic depression, but far more likely will only act, if at all, as adjuncts to therapy, meds, and the sheer, gritted-teeth, back-to-the-wall courage of the sufferer. There’s a very big difference.)

So – 1.5K per day, zero future security, but a hell of a good time in the present moment. There is no prospect of retirement for me. That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to stop anyway. But that 1.5K per day has to happen. It has to, if that’s the figure you’ve come up with to allow you your work/life balance and to get you to the point of making it. Whatever figure’s come out of that complicated sum, it has to happen. Sometimes people ask me how I do it, and I don’t really understand the question. I mean, some of the people asking me this have proper jobs! And they’re asking me how on earth I manage. I want to say to them, “How do you do it? How do you get up at six, face a brutal commute, deal with your boss and whatever mountain of stress you have to scramble up and over every single working day in life?” I think they’d just say, “Well, I have to.”

And that’s it, precisely. As an author, you have to. Can you bring that combination of guts, persistence and sheer necessity to a computer screen, typewriter, notepad, whatever, every single day, and dig out of yourself your sacred and carefully calculated Daily Word Count? If you’ve ever had a job you hated and you stuck with it and did it anyway, you’ve got the character skillset for this game. You’ll stick with it and do it anyway, through illness, adversity, family upheaval, loss, just as you had to do with your day job. You’ll do it in sensible places and strange ones: at your desk, on riverbanks, on the back of bus tickets. And hopefully, one day – it took me about five years, transitioning slowly – you’ll be doing it in order to serve the needs of a job you love. At the very least, at the end of X amount of time doing X amount of words per day, you will have written a book! And even if you don’t think it’s a good one, it’s there. You can’t edit, polish and rework something that doesn’t exist. You can’t even chuck it in the f*ck-it bucket in favour of the next project, at least not with a satisfactory clang.

It’s still a tough ride. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned the impact of that Audible payout, and that’s all I meant to talk about. The trouble with establishing yourself as an author, letting go of the Day Job jungle vine and swinging wildly on your new one, is that you have to keep swinging. My self-pubbed books do pretty well, but still drop off a three-month sales cliff at Amazon. And you know what that means, don’cha? 😀 My trad-published novels have a longer run, but it’s getting increasingly tricky to place one’s word-children with good and reliable adoptive parents. Essentially it’s a case of run, run and then run some more. So a sudden big cheque – wow, I can’t even begin to tell you. Missus and I will be down to B&Q on Monday morning faster than a pair of rats leaving a house with a leaky roof! I feel like all the boys in those eleven books went out, got second jobs and sent their wages home to Mama. More than anything else, I can breathe.

But you know what? I probably won’t. I could let myself off the word-count treadmill, for a month or even more. When I think about that, I get a rush of elation, and then a backwash of panic. I have a horribly addictive nature, and my primary addiction – thank God; it could have been so much worse – is writing.

It’s just nice for me to know that I could, and I’m so grateful. Grateful to my agent, to Missus for keeping the world around me sane and safe while I ride this bizarre roller coaster to wherever the hell it goes, to my family for their endless love and support, to my circle dancers for enfolding my abstracted, isolated brain into the warm realities of the group. As ever, to Josh, because all these eleven titles are self-pubbed, and it was Josh who set my FoxTales boat afloat. And just as much to every single person who’s ever bought and read – or, indeed, listened to! – one of my books. Thank you for the ride so far, and for the breathing space, which I’m now fairly certain I won’t – can’t – use. I’m not much good at saving, but I’ll try and save a bit of this one for a rainy day, and when I do, I’ll be thinking of all of you.

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Aaron to CT Green!

LifeAfterJoeWelcome to the Sunday blog! Unbelievably, we have finally come to the end of the questions I asked people to send me during my Christmas competition. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped this blog become a much more active and fun place to be this year, and I’ll try to keep it going. We’re not quite finished with the “meet the characters” series, though – I’m happy to say I have had a couple of email queries for future editions, so watch this space.

Now I’ll hand you over to Aaron from Life After Joe, and CT Green, who said she’d like to meet him, because…

…he was such a calm, but incredibly charismatic character – the line about it not making the pain go away…oh, that just gets me every time! Plus this was the first of your books I read, so it’s a sentimental favourite. ❤

 

Aaron: Strange place to bring you for a chat, but I often come out here at lunchtime for a break and to get some perspective. This is the Grey Croft stone circle, and if you look that way – over the earth bank they built a while back to shield the old stones, or maybe to shield the monsters of the modern world from their mystical influence – you’ll see Sellafield nuclear power station. It’s not easy to visit this place nowadays. The land is private, and power-plant security increasingly touchy: some poor guy was trying to fly a drone across the circle to get some aerial shots, and they had him in the holding cells at Carlisle police station before he could prove he was an archaeologist looking for crop marks. I got involved in that ruckus, actually – the guy and his partner had stopped to talk to me before they started work, and I phoned a mate of mine who’d used to do security on the oil rigs and is now a sergeant on the Cumbria force. Told him I was pretty sure the guys they’d hauled off were legit, and I didn’t want anyone accidentally getting shipped off to G-Bay, or whatever they do with suspected terrorists these days. My friend told me I could relax: the archaeologist turned out to be some high-level prof at Salisbury University, and had clearly been arrested by far bigger things than the Sellafield squad. As for his friend, he was going head-to-head with the military police like a true pro, so I probably needn’t have worried.

My Matthew loved that story. I don’t get to bring many exciting tales home from work. “Hey, Matt, today we managed to synthesise a five-stage polymer link!” Doesn’t really compete with the stories of life and death he could tell. But the thing is that he doesn’t, not as a rule. He’ll come in like the east wind blew him, throw his coat onto a chair, grab me for a rib-creaking hug, then pour us both a drink and sit down at our kitchen table, genuinely enthralled to hear the latest from the front-line of radioactive-material containment research. I work at Seascale Reprocessing now, battling it out to beat the deadlines on the old underground tanks, which will decay to the point of leakage approximately twelve thousand years before their clicking-hot contents cool off. It sounds exciting – or terrifying, depending on your outlook – but the details of it, the chemistry and molecule-by-molecule advances, ought to be boring as hell to an outsider. But Matt rests his chin on his hand and listens as if his own life depended on it, not the lives of future generations.

Sometimes, if we’ve gone out for a walk in the fields after dinner, he’ll tell me a story in return. It might be something very good, a cancer remission, a kid waking up from a coma after a car crash. Far less often, something terrible. Between one drystone wall and the next, across a stretch of beautiful northlands moors, he’ll tell me, usually with his coat collar turned up, his hands pushed into his pockets, fixing his attention on the turf.

I’m always so bloody grateful when he does talk. About the bad stuff, I mean. Would he have been different if Joe had never left him, if he’d never had his fight with drugs and booze? Stupid question – of course he would. All our experiences change and affect us. But with my poor Matt, the transformation was radical, deadly, marrow deep. I was at his side for the long process of his rebuild. I don’t say recovery because he never does; he never makes that fundamental error. He can never drown his bad days in alcohol again. The man who rebuilt himself out of his own wreckage knows that, and instead – eventually – shyly, as if we hadn’t been lovers for years – he drowns himself in me.

I took a big chance, telling him what I did from the high moral ground of my bar stool in the Powerhouse on that first night. He might have walked away from me forever. I thought he had, when he stumbled off straight into the arms of his spiky-haired nemesis from Scotswood and gave us all that memorable floor-show. I suppose, technically speaking, he kept walking after that – across the city, into the underpass, and I’m not sure what would’ve happened if the Parfitt lads hadn’t interrupted his progress home. If – thugs as they were – they hadn’t given me the priceless opportunity to catch him up. The beauty about Matt, though, is that even when he’s on the run, he keeps thinking. No wonder he makes such a good doctor, rushing between other people’s crises, always alert! Wasted as he was that Powerhouse night, he’d turned over my one line of unsolicited advice – this won’t take the pain away – and instead of running on, or maybe punching me in the mouth for being a self-righteous prick, he let me walk him home.

Well, it’s the end of my lunch hour, and my polymers await. It’s been a pleasure meeting you here up among the old stones, CT. Thank you for coming and listening to me.

 

Harper: Thanks for that great conversation springboard, CT!

Scrap Metal – Nichol to Chad

Scrap Metal cover art final 72LGAfter a pretty chunky sabbatical, the Sunday blog is back! Today Nichol is talking to Chad, who said…

I’d love to meet Nichol and ask him how the farm was going; to find out how he was doing without his Granda and whether he and Archie were still friends; whether his Cameron was still sculpting, and whether they ever got to meet the Basque gardner 😉 I’m really looking forward to hearing from Nichol about his progress on his PhD – I don’t envy him having to do it by distance.

 

You know, I did have a week or so when I almost thought of giving it all up, grabbing Cameron and running away? It was January, and cold enough to freeze the bollocks off our best Leodhas ram. I’d had another dose of flu and got behind on my dissertation, so Cam had had to go off on his own to the mainland to sort out a new winter-feed supplier. As soon as he’d left, half the farmhands had gone down with a worse flu than mine, so instead of shedding brilliant new light on Brythonic-language syntax, I was running ragged round the fields with Gyp, Floss and Vixen (who at least now consented to work with me, though I’d never perfected Harry’s semi-mystical system of whistle-commands), preventing our herd of pregnant ewes from slithering into snowdrifts and off the clifftops. And, despite our best DIY efforts with the old house the year before, we hadn’t got around to loft insulation, and just before midnight on one grim and sleet-lashed night, the pipe above the kitchen burst, spraying freezing water through a crack in the ceiling, shorting out the internet, my laptop, and the few pathetic paragraphs I’d managed to squeeze out of my aching head. So when Cam arrived home, he found me up a stepladder, soaked, sneezing, swearing the game wasn’t worth the candle and I’d damn well sell up, sacred Seacliff traditions and all, because why in God’s name would any sane man ever live such a way in the 21st century?

But the fact was that Cam had taken the last ferry home through heaving seas, and tackled drifts and black ice all the way from Brodick to get back a day early. He walked in like a miracle, hoisted me down off my ladder, and I held out for about thirty seconds, assuring him I was okay and had everything in hand, before dropping like a snotty avalanche into his arms. Once he’d duct-taped the pipe, checked on the ewes in the barns and set the laptop and modem to dry out gently on a rack over the Aga, he sat down with me, and asked me – because he always listens, even when I’m just blowing off steam and frustration – if I’d been serious. If I wanted to keep our life here for its own sake and for ours, or if Harry was throwing a longer shadow over me in death than he had in life.

Because I wasn’t doing quite all right without the old man, and Cam knew. Neither of us was, though we’d done all the things we should – made our donations to the British Heart Foundation, cleared out Harry’s wardrobe for charity, even drained that damn lochan and sown wildflowers there, my mum’s ghost flickering around the edges of perception, helping the seeds to thrive. We both knew there was a danger that we’d end up running the Harry Seacliff Memorial Farmstead for sheer baffled love of him, even if that was no longer in our own best interests. And unlike me, Cameron has the emotional balls to come out and say all these things, and at that moment I was able to admit, fully and maybe for the first time, how big a hole the old man’s death had punched in me. Cam got into the fireside armchair with me, tipped the rest of the hot whisky toddy he’d made for me right down my throat, took me into his arms and let me cry like a toddler banshee over it all.

We were better after that – both of us, though all poor Cam had got out of the deal was seasickness and a damp sweater. Archie and Shona were banging on the front door at first light, shovels in hand, stand-in farm lads waiting in the Land Rover. Their romance was well established by that point, although Shona mostly showed it by vigorous denial. As for me and Archie – not many friendships could have come out of our debacle intact, and ours wasn’t, but in its own banged-up way, it was pretty indestructible. And yes, my Cam is still sculpting. Once we’d fought through that day and a couple more tough ones, once the pipes were fixed, the winter feed delivered and the whole Memorial Farmstead dragged back onto even keel, I followed the clatter of a sledgehammer on steel to find my brave, lovely lad in floods of tears himself, having finally brought out the bits of the tractor we’d found down in that drained lochan and begun his next and most extraordinary piece of work.

What was it? I’ll leave that for another tale, but suffice to say, between the plantation money he’d found for us and his gallery sales (our scary lady from Birmingham really came through), we were afloat. And January loosed its bitter grip, and soon after that we were celebrating an anniversary – the date of his arrival, when he’d come to me out of the storm, with the wind and the hail and first of the springtime lambs. We’d made all kinds of plans, but ended up in the room where he’d once imprisoned us both, the door only locked against wandering sheepdogs and farmhands this time. By nightfall, we’d decided that nothing would part us from Seacliff. That life on the island was a beautiful struggle, and in each other’s arms, that fight became a dance, and a dance neither of us ever wanted to end.

Having said that, I should also get the hell away from it for the residential Easter and summer weeks now available for PhD students in Edinburgh, because Chad is right – taking those courses by distance is gruelling, and sometimes you just need to sit and chat about lexical-functional grammar face-to-face. We’d arrange with Shona and Archie to cover the farm, as we did theirs when Archie could lure her away for dissipations in Glasgow, and Cam could come and meet me for a long, wild weekend of luxury hotels and gay nightclub bump-and-grind, like normal human beings.

Which brings me (kind of) to the holiday we had in the Pyrenees, and that Basque gardener…

But that, too, is a story for another time.

 

Those were some great questions, Chad. Thank you very much. Next Sunday we’re off to Newcastle for CT Green, who said she’d like to meet…

Aaron from Life After Joe – he was such a calm, but incredibly charismatic character – the line about it not making the pain go away…oh, that just gets me every time! Plus this was the first of your books I read, so it’s a sentimental favourite. ❤

Thank you, CT! Aaron will look forward to talking to you.