Het Lab - three dancers

Get over yourself, stop worrying, and persevere

I’ve just published the latest artist interview in my This Is How We Make It series: choreographer Erik Kaiel is an articulate and generous interviewee, and his reflections on pursuing creative work have applications far beyond the world of dance.

With four interviews now online, covering performance, writing and visual arts, I thought I would pull out some of my favourite thoughts from Erik, Iain, Viccy and Jayne.

On why we make things…
‘There’s something that doesn’t exist in the world that needs to be out there, and even after you’ve made a piece it’s there a bit, but it needs to go further, like it’s not present enough. There’s something that keeps you going, that need to make and to put out into the public space.’

On the value of teaching…
‘I think teaching is returning to learning, and deepening your practice and your understanding. And I definitely think those years of teaching, even though I didn’t want to be a teacher, I wanted to be a dancer and a choreographer, it made me better at those things.’

‘I get a lot back from it. It energises me I suppose – and because making work can be a selfish thing in a way, so with teaching you feel like you are giving something back a bit to people, and passing on your skills.’

On how to make good work…
‘If you really want to be an artist, you have to not say, what does everyone else do? Not say, I need to have this and that and the other thing; or, I need a two-week vacation and then if there’s time over I will make art. Instead you say: I need a place to sleep, I need to eat, and I need to support my art-making – and then organise the rest of your life around that.’

‘If I want to have a good day I know the first thing I need to do in the morning is focus on the work.’

‘Winning prizes is important in giving me motivation, and that incentive to carry on … I rely on entering competitions to confirm that what I’m doing has some worth.’

On opportunities…
‘I like risks, saying yes to things and seeing where they go. But when I say I’m good at taking risks, I’m good at having things in place to take risks from.’

‘Basically everything I’ve done has come from a period of volunteering or doing little bits and pieces, and that developed into something more.’

‘Residencies have been key to inspiring new ideas, and developments in technique. Time away helps you to make leaps in your work, to move it forward.’

‘If you’re an upcoming comic artist and you’re not on Twitter then you’re making a mistake.’

Advice for our younger selves…
‘Advice to early-me: probably, get over yourself. So, as soon as you think you’re doing something because you’re a writer – oh, I stay up late, I don’t get up in the morning and write cos I’m a writer – or anybody who’s resistant to editing, get over that romantic view that you write and that’s it done.’

‘I used to worry more when I was younger about other people, about being current, and contemporary – but as you get older you start to think, actually, I’d rather just do what I’m interested in.’

‘Just because you can’t draw as well as artists in the comics you like, you can still make comics.’

‘I wish somebody had said, it’s important to keep going. I’m a great believer in, if you keep plugging away at it… I know you’ve got to have something there, some talent or something, but I don’t think talent is the half of it sometimes. It’s perseverance. I wish somebody had said don’t give up at the slightest rejection! You’re going to be rejected, probably over and over again, but then within that you’ll have some successes.’

You’ll find lots more words of wisdom in the complete interviews – read on here.

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

26 Children’s Winters

What is it that prompts you to really pay attention to an object in a museum, rather than letting your gaze skim across the surface? It could be a well-written label – or perhaps it could be a story, an anecdote or a poem…

26 is a not-for-profit organisation made up of writers, editors, publishers and others who work with words. It pursues its aim of ‘inspiring a greater love of words, in business and in life’ through all kinds of activities, the most visible of which is a series of exhibitions and books that ask writers to respond to objects, places, artworks, stories and more.

26 Children’s Winters is the latest 26 exhibition, currently on show at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood; I was one of 26 writers invited to respond to a specially chosen object from the museum’s collection. Each of us was asked to create a ‘sestude’: the signature literary form of 26, this can be a poem or a piece of prose, but must consist of exactly 62 words. It’s quite a challenge – especially when your allocated object initially fails to inspire! I’ve written here about the process of creating my sestude.

The end result took an unusual form that made things tricky for the exhibition designers – but as you can see they did a great job of accommodating my awkward piece:

Jane Alexander 26 sestude

And here’s one of my favourite sestudes, by writer Lucy Harland:

Jigsaw Piece sestude by Lucy Harland
Jigsaw Piece by Lucy Harland

The project will raise money for It’s Good 2 Give, a small Scottish charity supporting children and young people with cancer.  The sestudes are a really engaging way of encouraging people to look closely at each object, and prompting memories and personal associations – and you can see them on show until 31 March 2016.

Notebooks and tea

Right ideas, wrong time?

Every year at this time, I’m surprised by how much I love September. I love the quiet after the Edinburgh festivals, the sense of reclaiming the city. I love the earlier nights, evening walks through the gloaming, windows lit up and unshuttered. I have no expectations of the weather, so fine autumnal days are an unlooked-for gift, particularly after a shifty summer like the one we’ve just had. And the chill beneath the sun, the freshness in the air, takes me straight back to the autumn I first arrived in Edinburgh as a student; I’m reconnected to the thrill I felt, aged 18, moving to this amazing city – and to the start of all those academic years in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle.

So September is all about beginnings, and that’s probably why ideas for a new novel – or a new something, at least – are nudging me so insistently at the moment. Ideas can be such inconvenient things: they’re elusive when you court them, and when you’re positively not looking for them they’ve a tendency to bounce about your head like moths round a lightbulb. It’s not a good time for these new characters, settings, events to arrive. This autumn is for rewriting my next novel, for writing short stories and working on critical chapters for my PhD thesis, and for starting a new year of creative writing teaching. But at the same time, it feels unwise to ignore this new thing – what if it takes off in a sulk, never to return?

Besides, new is always appealing. Poet Stanley Kunitz said, ‘The poem is always perfect in the head,’ and novels are the same – they’re inevitably imperfect versions of the vision you had before you first put pen to paper. The unwritten novel, by contrast, is full of potential; it holds the promise that this time you might not fail. This time, you might achieve what you set out to do.

I can’t write this something now; I can’t ignore it, either. So I’ve bought a new notebook for my new project, a big, blue, beautiful Moleskin. The self-imposed rule is that I can add to this book with notes and images, but I’m not allowed to look back over what I’ve collected. Not yet; not until I’ve finally finished the novel I’ve been working on for the last three years. That might not be too long, now – tomorrow I’m off for a week’s retreat, just me and the rewrites.

In the meantime, I hope the new thing will wait for me – whatever it turns out to be.

Reading The Last Treasure Hunt

Five ways of reaching readers

There’s just one more week to buy The Last Treasure Hunt for 99p in the Kindle summer sale, which ends on 31 August – and here’s a recent review that might persuade you to take a chance on it. Amazon’s Kindle deals are a great way for readers to discover unfamiliar authors, and an important promotional tool for booksellers. But what else can you do to get your book noticed among the 20 new titles that are published every hour (not including self-published titles) – particularly if you’re an author without a huge marketing budget behind you?

The truth is that nobody really knows what generates that holy grail, word-of-mouth; and though a marketing team and a budget to cover billboard ads, shelf-space in WH Smith and competition entry fees will help, for most authors that’s far from the reality. So with that caveat, here are five promotional tips I’ve collected recently from authors, agents, publishers and publicists.

1) Make your book easy to talk about
This tip came from Jonah Berger’s book Contagious, recommended by author Viccy Adams. If your story is easy to talk about, it’s easy for people to recommend – in other words, it lends itself to word-of-mouth success. That’s why, although The Last Treasure Hunt is about a lot of things besides celebrity culture (friendship, competition and betrayal; success and failure; our insignificance in the world, and the tension between anonymity and recognition, between living at the centre and on the edges; what it might mean to make the right choices in life, or the wrong ones…) my publisher smartly summed it up as ‘a modern media morality tale’. It’s a memorable tagline, and hopefully intriguing enough that potential readers will want to know more.

2) Make it easy to buy
Newspaper reviews and media coverage will all help build awareness of your book, but for this awareness to translate into sales the action of buying it needs to be made as easy as possible. And while there’s not much you can do if your book isn’t prominently displayed in high street bookstores, you can make sure it’s simple to buy online by including direct links to the major booksellers on each page of your website, and on any ‘guest blog’ posts you write for other websites. Thanks to author Mandy Haggith for passing on this tip, which she picked up from creative entrepreneur Jo Penn – it’s one that seems obvious, and yet I hadn’t included these links on my website until Mandy prompted me to.

3) Use clever pricing
A while back I attended a Scottish Book Trust event for new writers, and one of the interesting things that emerged from a panel discussion was a broad consensus that the usefulness of social media in promoting books is more and more limited, simply because of the difficulty of being heard above the cacophony of marketing messages. Publisher Scott Pack suggested that clever ebook pricing strategies may be a more effective way of reaching readers. For instance, he might sell an author’s first book for 99p to attract new readers, while their subsequent titles are priced at £3.99 or more. Scott has blogged here about strategic pricing. If you’re a self-published author, pricing is something you’re in control of; if you’re traditionally published, you can still use pricing as a sales strategy if you sell signed copies of your books directly to readers through your website – for instance, offering discounts for a limited period to promote your book as a seasonal read or tie in with events like World Book Day.

4) Do everything
Thanks to my agents for this advice – that it’s worth taking any and every opportunity that comes your way. You may feel intimidated by the prospect of a radio interview. You may struggle to fit in an event with work and family commitments. Or you may think that a talk in front of a handful of people or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slot on local TV is barely worth the trouble. But each of these things can lead to other, bigger opportunities – and it’s impossible to tell when that might be the case. So say yes to everything; at the very least you’ll meet some interesting people, and know you’re giving your book its best chance of success.

5) Be nice
I’ve saved my favourite tip until last, because it’s also the most rewarding. A couple of weeks ago I begged a friendly publicist to tell me the secret of making books sell. There’s no secret, she told me – or if there is, no-one knows what it is. And then she added: Oh I know. Be nice to booksellers. (No surprise that she turned out to be a former bookseller herself.) Booksellers are lovely literary types, of course, so it’s no hardship to follow this suggestion. And if a bookseller loves your book, and likes you too, there’s no better champion to have – except maybe a librarian. So, be nice to them too.

writing desk

The room can write the book

A few weeks ago I took the plunge, and rented an external brain.

This is not the opening line of a science fiction story (though, hmm, maybe it could be…). My external brain is a studio: a corner of an industrial building, a partitioned space shared with eight artists. A bookshelf and a reading armchair, an office chair and writing desk, and a good long surface for laying out pages and making plans – plus a stretch of wall-space, so I can draw out structures and schedules on huge flip-chart sheets.

Reading chair
The reading chair

I first came across the notion of a room as an external brain in Vincent Deary’s How We Are. Early on in the book he recounts how, before he started to write, he organised his workroom: ‘collecting and ordering the books, papers and articles into one space. I mapped the shape of this book onto a wall chart … I filled a filing cabinet with files, one for each chapter …. I spent several years getting this book out of my mind, and then two months spreading it all over this little room.’ Now, he says, the room can write the book.

The room can write the book. What an appealing idea that is. I’ve been writing at home for a decade, decamping to libraries and coffee shops when cabin fever strikes. But with two all-encompassing writing projects on the go – a PhD and a novel rewrite – I needed the ‘cognitive prosthesis’ Deary talks about. I needed a space that was dedicated to reading and writing; somewhere I could make my thinking visible. I needed to be away from the easy distractions of radio, kettle, garden. Above all I needed to avoid the internet, with its seductive illusion of productivity (social media is promotion; aimless surfing is research). We’re all vulnerable to this: even big name writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen have to resort to extreme measures to keep themselves away from its temptations.

planning desk
The planning desk

Deary also talks about rooms as ‘spaces of embodied routines’; how repeatedly using a place in a certain way creates powerful behavioural cues. When I sit at my desk at home, it’s automatic to check email – but when I walk into the studio first thing in the morning, it’s automatic to flip open the laptop and begin work where I left off the previous day. And for me, sharing a studio with artists taps into older behavioural cues: having spent four formative years at art college, working in a creative visual environment somehow facilitates my own imaginative work in a completely different medium.

‘Without this room,’ says Deary, ‘I’m just a guy with a notion for a book. Equally, without me this room is, well, just weird. Together, the room and I can do stuff that alone would be impossible.’

the editing stage

eBooks and digital immigrants

Apparently, today is Scottish eBook Day. Did you know this was a thing? No, me neither. But why shouldn’t there be a day to celebrate eBooks? The ease of reading and publishing in digital formats has shaken up the world of books, largely for the better. eBooks are arguably greener than their paper sisters, and the format is certainly more accessible for anyone with a visual impairment.

I was a fairly late adopter of eBook technology, but by the time my brothers, my sister and my 70-something parents had all fallen for their Kindles, I decided it was time to make the jump.

Pretty soon I was a convert, won over by price promotions and the instant availability of any title that might catch your eye. I remember running out of books halfway to the Outer Hebrides and downloading fresh sustenance on the deck of the CalMac ferry. I was reading more than ever before, racing through free classics, out-of-print gems and 99p daily deals.

Gradually, though, I noticed something odd about my reading. I kept forgetting things I’d usually remember – characters’ names, important plot points, even whether I’d read a book or not. Every book, every page looks alike on an eReader, and without the visual cues I was accustomed to – the jacket design that helps you remember a title; the typography that subtly contributes to the overall feeling of the book; the placement of a sentence on the left or the right-hand page, top or bottom, near the start of the book or close to the end – my recollections were hazy. I still enjoyed what I was reading, but once I’d moved a book to my ‘read’ collection it slid too easily out of my mind.

My reading these days is 95% hard copy. Library books are even cheaper (and greener) than eBook promotions – and since I’m studying for a PhD, paper allows me to flip quickly to indexes and footnotes, and to annotate with pencil scribbles and sticky tabs. I still use my eReader for travelling, and for reading completed manuscripts; I’ve found it’s helpful in creating the distance you need in order to approach your own work, as far as possible, as a reader rather than an author. But if the digital world is divided into natives and immigrants, I’m in the latter camp: even at the editing stage, sometimes you can’t beat a print-out, a pair of scissors and some sellotape, sticky notes and a trusty red pen.

Author event at Books Books Books, Lausanne

Tips for terrified authors

For many people, speaking in public is a genuinely frightening ordeal. Years ago, I studied on a course that was assessed partly on a presentation to my (small, friendly) student group; for months in the run-up to The Day, I existed in a state of anxiety, falling asleep each night to self-hypnosis tapes in an attempt to manage my fear.

Fifteen years on, I may still get a flutter of nerves before stepping in front of an audience, but that crippling fear seems like nothing so much as a bad dream. Over the last month, I’ve appeared on local TV; held three launches for my debut novel; performed a reading and Q&A at an author event in Switzerland; and taken part in an advice panel for postgraduate creative writers. There’s no way round it: if you’re an author, public speaking is increasingly part of the job.

So if the prospect makes your palms sweat and your heart skip – if you’re breathless right now at the thought of it – how can you learn to endure, and even enjoy, the experience? Here are five tips that helped me to feel confident in front of a crowd.

1) It’s not about you.
When I started teaching creative writing, this was my mantra. In those early days, remembering that the focus was not on me but on my students allowed me to feel comfortable in the classroom. But surely appearing at an author event means it is about you? I prefer to think it’s all about the book. The book wants to be read – and it’s my job to bring it to life for potential readers.

2) Be prepared.
Being thoroughly prepared for an event can help you feel more secure. Attend other author events to get a sense of the questions you might be asked; think about how you might respond, and jot down some notes. Practise reading aloud; record yourself, so you can fine-tune your performance to make sure it’s engaging. And if you always read your work aloud as part of the writing and editing process, you’re one step ahead – you’ve already put weeks of effort into making your prose sound great.

3) Keep it brief.
Short is always good when it comes to book readings. It can be reassuring to know that you just need to reach the end of the page without your voice going AWOL – and since it can be hard for listeners to stay focused on longer extracts, the audience will thank you too. Similarly, if you’re new to speaking in public and the idea of giving a five-minute reading makes you deeply anxious, try not to be persuaded too far and too quickly out of your comfort zone: an hour-long discussion about the themes of your novel, for instance, is something you might want to build up to gradually.

4) It’s normal to be scared.
Fear can be deeply physical: you may feel unsteady, light-headed, dry-mouthed … the list goes on. There are some practical things you may be able to do to conceal these physical signs of nervousness: sitting rather than standing, leaning on a lectern, using a mic, having water to hand. But really, so what if people notice your hand is shaking, or hear the wobble in your voice? We all know how hard it is to be the centre of attention: the audience is on your side, willing you to do well.

5) Get older.
An easy one, this! The fear of speaking in public is often tied up with insecurities about how others perceive us. But time is on your side, since one of the great liberations of growing older is caring less what people think. Perhaps one day you’ll face your audience wearing purple, with a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit you.