Friday, February 22, 2008

What am I doing? What should I be doing?

The dream article is taking shape in my head. However, I am wondering if it will ever progress beyond there.

On Thursday I drove to Cambridge with Frank Tallis, who happens to be a clinical psychologist and an expert in Freud. He's also an exceptionally good crime writer.

We had a lunch appointment with a reading group based at Heffers, the number one bookshop in Cambridge. There was plenty of time to chat in the car.

I mentioned to Frank the almost incapacitating sense I have of feeling I need to do something to promote my books, whilst not being sure what exactly I should be doing. This has perhaps led me to coming up with ideas for articles, pitching them to the Guardian, occasionally posting them at the Rap Sheet, and of course feeding the plog.

Frank had a clinical term for the state I was in, which has been induced and studied in lab rats apparently: learned helplessness*. If you create an environment in which lab rats receive no rewards or deprivations for their actions, in other words where nothing they do makes any difference, they reach a state that is analogous to depression in humans. Frank reckons that this is the state that we writers exist in.

He told me he used to write articles, and got the idea he might be able to turn it into a bit of a sideline, which might help to get his name about, which might lead to a few more sales. But he gave it up as a waste of time. I could see his point. After a while, it seems that you are spending all your time and energy trying to produce the articles, when what you should be doing is writing your books.

Frank was unequivocal. The only thing we writers can do is make our books, or stories, as good as they can be. Work on our writing. That is the only thing that is within our power or control. And that is the only thing we can influence that will surely make a difference.

So I felt chastened.

On Monday, after the kids have gone back to school, I am going to turn over a new leaf. No more pitching ideas for articles. No more cat videos. I'm going to get down to some serious work on the next book. Frank also had some stern words about using the research as an excuse to put off writing.

In the meantime, my spirits were lifted by a review of A Vengeful Longing by Andrew Taylor, author of The American Boy, in The Spectator.

Here's a quote:

The result is a book that satisfies on more than one level — as a story of investigation and also as a historical novel crammed with sharply individualised characters. Morris has clearly done his research, and he also has an unusual ability to enter imaginatively into another time and place. The novel is well written too, and constantly nudges against the genre envelope of crime fiction.

It always amazes me when people I don't know respond positively to my work. Equally, perhaps more gratifying, is when friends like my stuff too, especially when they also happen to be writers whose work I respect and enjoy. So I was deeply chuffed to have my writewords buddy and fellow crime writer, Anne Brooke describe AVL as a "dark masterpiece" in a review she was kind enough to post on both writewords and amazon.

All I ever get from my guardian articles are weird and charmless comments. I should stick to the novel writing.

*My thanks to Ania Vesenny for reminding me of the correct term.


Anne Brooke said...

Tee hee, Roger - I'd like my strapline to be "weird and charmless" actually - it sounds fab ...



Anonymous said...

Does the Guardian not also pay you? If it staves off the wolf from the door for a bit, and allows you to keep writing full time, then that is a benefit in itself

Unknown said...

Interesting. I'm not entirely sure I agree. One of the interesting things about networking is that you never know where opportunities will come from, or what form they will take - so while it's not wise to keep plugging away at the same old places, spreading your net wider always gives you a chance to meet people who can help you - or whom YOU can help, which is very empowering too.

But I agree that make-work to take the place of writing is usually a bad idea!

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Hear, hear, Roger. My experience of the publicity process is that it's easy to let it swallow up your time. This thought was particularly in my mind when sitting on the sofa of a local TV station at 6:30 in the morning trying to remember the title of my book. It rhymed with 'who', I recall.

In case, you're interested, I wrote a brief piece on locus of control (related in some ways to learned helplessness) in the context of depression and writing:

David Isaak said...

Wow, that was a well-timed piece from my point of view. No wonder I'm so glum.

On the other hand, I had Pamela read the article, and she nodded thoughtfully through most of it, until she suddenly cried, "What? No more cat videos?" Web Admin said...

Excellent post, Roger.

But I hope the Plog isn't a casualty of this new way of working. Blogs are perhaps the height of “learned helplessness” – something Grumpy Ole Bookman alluded to before he signed off. And the Cat videos might not directly influence sales, but they are entertaining, just like this Plog. (Apart from selling books, aren’t writers meant to entertain as well?) If you can strike the balance between creativity and publicity, then don’t feel guilty about video-taping your cat and posting it on the Plog, I say.

My rule of thumb is that if you enjoy doing it – the plog, the Guardian articles, the videos about cats and coffee pots – then keep doing it. It might not pay well, but a blog is a great way of getting your feelings onto the page without writing a self-indulgent book about writerly angst, and it’s damned interesting for other writers and readers to read.

Just like your last post.

Roger Morris said...

Now now, Anne. Less of the charmless! ;)

Yes, dc, the Guardian does pay, a little, for the blog pieces. Or rather they do me the honour of allowing me to invoice. Whether or not I will ever actually receive any money... but that wasn't really the reason I did it. In fact, I didn't expect to get paid at all. But I also can't expect them to take everything I write or pitch at them... so there is a certain amount of time and energy spent in something that produces no fruitful result. But that's my problem, not theirs. And I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone else from trying there.

Kay, your point about helping others being empowering is very well made and a good reminder. That's why I like the macmillan new writing blog project so much, though I cannot claim any credit in setting it up. That was, as far as I know, Matt Curran and David Isaak - you guys should be feeling very empowered!

Hi Ian, I remember reading your piece when you posted it, way back when. Fascinating stuff - and you actually know what you're talking about. (Unlike me!)

David - don't! I've sworn an oath. No more cat videos. Tell Pamela I'm sorry.

Matt, thanks for your kind words. In principle, I agree with you about the enjoyment rule. It all comes down to time really. I just find that even now there are not enough hours in a day. What I really should be doing is getting on with the next book. But it's at that difficult early stage where it doesn't seem like I'm making any progress. It feels like I'm getting nowhere, just squandering my time on other things. Plus, I have got another major project which is set to demand a lot of my time.

I'm going to allow myself to post something as a response to all this!

Anonymous said...

Synchronicity, Roger - I distinctly remember using the phrase 'learned helplessness' on a forum (or maybe on my blog?) quite recently. I think it is a state that authors can easily get into. Of course the author's particular variety of learned helplessness is known as Frankfurt Syndrome: the booktrade and its associated media are so big, so multifarious, and we and our one (two? ten?) book/s are so small... And we cluster together and talk gloomily about how impossible it is to make a dent in that world and that it's Getting Worse - just like global warming, really, or Darfur... And then we stumble over some bastard who seems to have got it nailed and pops up every time you open a magazine or turn on the radio. Much as writers need to talk to each other, I sometimes think that as many opportunities networking leads to, it takes away with the otherhand by reinforcing that sense that, really, there's no point in doing anything.

I agree that our first priority must always be writing the next novel. But, yes, we need to pay some of the mortgage by other means, and also we need a break from the novel, to write other stuff with a different rhythm and voice and purpose - that's one of the chief functions of my blog for me - and do things that take us away from our desks for a day every now and again. Maybe it's a case of trying to work out what we, individually, are most comfortable with and therefore likely to do well at. Roger, you talk so well about your work, I suspect you've found a natural slot with crime evenings and the like. I'm still waiting to find mine, but if anyone's writing literary-commercial crossover hist fic and wants to team up, and pitch to bookshops, let me know...

Roger Morris said...

Hi Emma, thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree with almost all of it. The only bit I would take issue with is about finding a slot with crime evenings and the like. I really really really don't find it easy talking about my stuff in front of people. Fortunately I don't get asked to do it at all often!