The writing buzz by Quentin Bates

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Like Barbara last week, I’m finding things becoming more hectic recently. The day job (about which one should never, ever blog or tweet) is certainly demanding. The world of fish is in turmoil and likely to stay that way, but enough of the fish business. It’s the world of books that’s also in turmoil.

A certain behemoth of an online retailer has once again been chucking its considerable weight about and plucky publishers are battling to hold their own. At least, that’s the angle that the media seems to take on all this, but you’d hardly expect the mainstream media to do anything other than weigh in on behalf of publishers – not least as some publishers are also owned by or intricately tied to business groups that also publish newspapers, making this a Goliath versus a slightly smaller Goliath battle.

Who knows what the truth of it is once it’s been filtered through the sub-editors’ desk and the proprietor’s particular slant has been added, or past the megabookstore’s tight-lipped PR department? The whole shebang could have been tied up quietly behind the scenes for all we know with a few discreet meetings, but I don’t think so. Not yet, at any rate.

Will publishers be able to fight back? They definitely need to, if what we’re being told is true, or even partially true; and the online megamart really needs some decent competition, for its own sake as well as ours. A monopoly isn’t generally a healthy situation unless you’re the one with the market firmly grasped by the short and curlies.

Whatever the outcome, if there is an actual outcome rather than a longstanding and uncomfortable stalemate punctuated by regular squabbles, writers are certainly becoming squeezed. Advances (that’s when there is an advance) are smaller than they were a few years ago and nobody gets many second chances. There are a good few respected and established writers who would get precisely nowhere if they were starting out today. These days there’s no question of a fresh-faced new author getting the leeway of five or six moderate sellers to establish a readership. Now it’s two, tops, and you’re out. Game over. Do not pass go, do not collect £200.

On top of that, nobody really has any idea how the digital revolution will pan out. I’ve already heard pundits predicting the demise of the e-reader. How many years have we had e-readers? Ten, maybe? And they’re on the way out already to go the same way as Betamax and wax cylinders? So much for the death of the book, in that case. Paper books may be clunky, old-fashioned and quite possibly deeply uncool, but at least they don’t suffer from built-in obsolescence.

Why write stories at all if things are so bloody bleak? I ask myself the same question all the time. I occasionally wonder if, had I stayed at sea, could I even have been comfortably retired now? So why write stories? I have to admit I have a couple of quotes pinned to the wall of the shed where I write. Wodehouse and Orwell are there along with this magnificent truth from John Steinbeck;

‘The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.’

The simple answer is that there’s a buzz to making stuff up that is unique. Admittedly, there are things that are more fun, but those tend to involve things like absinthe, fast cars and taking your clothes off (not necessarily at the same time), and they’re not a lasting buzz; or so I’m told.

The feeling when a story really starts to flow properly is electric. It doesn’t happen often, not to me, anyway. Most of the time it’s a plodding affair, a number of words that pile up at the end of a week that’s never quite as many as it should have been, a lot of pondering when by rights I should be thinking of something else, and then the long process of ironing out the bugs and wrinkles. But sometimes it just demands to be written. An idea or a couple of characters turn up and strike sparks off each other, and the story almost writes itself.

That’s the way it’s going at the moment and every spare minute is spent tapping at the keyboard. I’ve no idea how long it’ll last, hopefully until the story resolves itself, which may or may not be before my wife starts to wonder if I’m going to live in the shed permanently. It may start to fizzle out at any moment. But while it lasts, I need to make the most of it and watch the story unfold.

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