Wednesday, 5 August 2009

In collaboration with...

This is a tough time for writers, no doubt about it. I know at least two published authors who are struggling with sales and new deals and with agents (not to mention editors and publishers and, yes, readers) whose expectations don't chime with their own. The industry is undoubtedly hauling in its horns. It depresses me whenever I see agents advising new writers to compare their writing to that of one or more published authors, as if only by slotting neatly into the marketing machine can a new writer hope to be published. I know there are agents who specifically state that they don't want such comparisons since they are seeking a New Voice, but these seem to be a shrinking minority; more and more we are being asked to Fit In, to Conform. I appreciate exactly why this happens. The marketing machine is a large and greedy piece of equipment, geared to make publishers less nervous about taking a punt on new names. But I wonder if it isn't partly to blame for the trouble (recently highlighted around the blogosphere) that some writers have in respecting the boundaries of our art. If publishers want the next Dan Brown (gawd help us) then an ambitious writer might be forgiven for doing his or her damnedest to produce such a thing. Whither originality, then?

So much that I have heard of late has served to put me (and, I'm sure, a lot of you) off writing as part of a group. It seems to suggest that we'd all be better off back in our garrets, lonely as heck, hunched over our manuscripts, guarding our work as if our lives depended on it (as, indeed, our livelihoods just might). I'm not saying this is an over-reaction, because the depth and breadth of the damage that's been caused is such that any other response may actually be worse. I don't have a magic formula (sorry!) but I do have a bit of personal experience I'd like to share.

I fell in love with writing precisely because it was a solitary art. I shared a bedroom with a younger sister and writing was my way of stealing a little time and space to myself. That said, from the start I liked an audience for my writing, and would read my stories to my younger sister who, bless her, was always enthusiastic to hear more of my tales of winsome boy spies (of course I didn't know then that they were winsome; I fondly imagined the pair to be sterling examples of machismo). I continue to write such stories to this day. It's my way of relaxing my writing brain in-between the serious business of composing novels. And I have an audience for my spy stories, a loyal core of readers whose enthusings and stamina spur me on to write more and better. My spies are no longer winsome and my plots are a thousand times better. I write on-the-wing, no overall structure in mind, posting in chapters and using the feedback from my readers to help me shape the story as it unfolds. This is an amazingly fruitful way of working. My readers ask questions, of me and my characters, they make suggestions and requests - I thrive on the interaction. I have even written long sections in partnership with other writers, to whom I entrusted my characters (somewhat jealously, I must admit) because the enjoyment (and the constant surprises) outweighed the weird sense of invasion I felt at the outset. I suppose what I'm saying is that collaboration can be good, as long as everyone respects the boundaries and one another.

Secondly I should like to say that I never expected to derive any enjoyment from any aspect of writing other than the pursuit itself. I thought my happiest hours would be those spent alone, creating worlds and people to dwell therein. Had anyone told me that some of my golden memories would come from group activities with other writers, I'd have thought them barking mad. It was the loveliest surprise to discover just how fun I could have in the company of those who, like me, had chosen the solitary art (if you'll pardon the pretension). Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of Vanessa Gebbie (among others) I will always cherish the time I spent in Bantry last summer at the West Cork Literary Festival. And to think I'd always fancied myself as the misanthropic type!

I think it's one of the hardest things for a writers to do: to reach out to others and involve them; to share your most jealously guarded hopes and fears (a writer's raw material, in other words). Trust is a very tricky commodity for a writer. Perhaps this is why it hurts so much when that trust is breached. And why it means so much when it's extended in our direction. I remember telling a fellow writer (much older than myself, an uncle in effect) a smashing idea I had for a spy story. Almost the first thing he said to me was, 'Don't tell ME! I'm a writer! Don't ever share your ideas with another writer!' He was half-joking, but every writer reading this will know what he meant.

The lessons learned in the last few weeks drive home just how much courage and heart it takes to trust ANYONE else with our time and our ideas. I applaud those who are able to do this. They are a rare breed and deserve our support and thanks, because without them we'd all be garret-bound. And think how lonely that would be.


Gay Degani said...

Hmmmm. Being a garret-habitant myself I find this post interesting and confusing. Not the post itself but my reaction to it. I need no encouragement really to avoid other writers, but I also know that a good writer must take risks. And sharing with others is always a risk. How do I determine who to trust?

I guess my answer is to take it slowly. Get to know other writers like you'd get to know a lion. With caution.

Lucky for me I have three people a completely trust. You're one of them. And I know you trust me.

So my reaction is that I feel reminded that I have to be ever on the alert and yet trusting too and that's just plain hard.

Sarah Hilary said...

You're right, Gay, it's damn hard. If we try and do it all by ourselves, we end up arrogant or simply myopic about our own ability. But listening to too many other opinions can undermine that other fragile commodity: our confidence. We need to find a few excellent allies, with whom we chime and can work for mutual improvement. Buddying with you meant I was able to cut ties to places where I was casting about for support and empathy. It clarified things in my mind, admirably. I wouldn't be without my buddy.

Martha said...

Interesting post, really enjoyed reading it. I like working alone but have had fun times pairing up with people too, so I guess for me it's nice to have a mixture. I like the communal aspect of blogging.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Martha. I blogged this a couple of years ago and, since then, have returned to near-solitary writing. I love socialising, though, on Twitter especially.