Indie Authors: Don’t Give Up On Your Original Voice When Sales Are Bad

https://www.amazon.com/Longbourn-Jo-Baker-ebook/dp/B00CQ1D3BYFive years ago, when I started writing online, I was lucky enough to meet some outstanding writers on Goodreads (I’ve met others since, on Authonomy before it packed up and elsewhere, but here I’m talking about that original base of writer friends).

They were mostly women, varying in age. Some came from my native England, some from the US, and a couple from the Antipodes. Their genre varied, but they all had one thing in common….

They didn’t write formulaic, predictable stories. They broke rules; they used humour; they featured strong female leads (otherwise, I wouldn’t have enjoyed their stories). They were often a bit cross genre, and this was probably one of the reasons why they hadn’t got that elusive contract with an agent or publisher.

They wanted to achieve something original. Yes, they wanted success and sales – who doesn’t? – but above that, they wanted to write with an individual voice and to get readers for the novels that they had loved creating.

In those days, things were a lot easier from the sales point of view. My goodness, back then Amazon hadn’t introduced Amazon Select and Pages Read, both of which have led to a catastrophic fall in sales.

Why, in 2014 my spoof Regency (technically, late Georgian) Romance ‘Ravensdale’ sold thousands – enough for me to take my daughter on holiday to Paris.

It also attracted a good many resentful reviews from readers who disliked their favourite tropes being satirized, however gently, but that is the price of notoriety, and I think most writers, like me, would rather attract sales and public notice than have no controversy, obscurity, and dismal sales.

Incidentally, since the introduction of Amazon’s new sales policies, sales of ‘Ravensdale’ have plummeted. Because it is sinking into obscurity, I have made it free on Smashwords. I have tried to make it free on Amazon, but they ignore me. Here is the Smashwords link for that:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/721130

My own view is, that while it is nice to make money out of writing, that isn’t why I went into it; in fact, that is only the icing on the cake. The reason I went into it, is because I wanted people to read my stuff.

If I – as someone (I hope) at least partially sane – had gone into writing to make a profit out of it, then I’d be writing: ‘The Duke Gets His Breeches Down: Dastardly Duke Series 101’.

That is the way to make high sales and money out of writing.

Most of those writer friends haven’t sold as much as they deserve. But then, if they got their just deserts, they’d be best selling authors.

Sadly, the market doesn’t work like that; the market recognises the price of everything, and the value of nothing, as someone once said.  As often as not, it’s not the talented and original authors who are among the most successful.

Sadly, I think some of them have become discouraged about writing. Some are taking a long break from the whole business of writing and the weary slog of publicity, and finding it a relief. Of course, many of them are very busy; some of them still have children, and a job…The wonder is anyone in that situation produces good work at all.  But I suspect some have been discouraged by mediocre sales, and the lack of a breakthrough.

I personally, think it would be a great loss if they gave up altogether. Rather, I think that if an author is making a pittance from her writing and it has no visibility on the sales ranks on Amazon, she might as well make her books free.

Smashwords will do it happily enough. The problem is Amazon, who seem to turn a deaf ear when it suits them.

However, they have made my first book, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ free. For anyone interested, the new edition, complete with a faster start, is available here https://www.amazon.com/That-Scoundrel-Émile-Dubois-Light-ebook/dp/B00AOA4FN4

and here

By the way, I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all wonderfully original works are doomed to poor sales and lack of public recognition.  Many receive the recognition they deserve (though sometimes it happens after the author is dead).

There is Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’, for instance. What a brilliant work!

I found it such a refreshing change to read a book set in the UK of the Regency era which is about ordinary people – not the aristocracy (the families of approximately 700 men) or the gentry (approximately 1.5 per cent of the population).

But I will be writing a post about that soon. For now, I would like to say that I wish that all of my original writer friends were back to writing again. I miss them.

The Difficulty in Portraying the Truly Good Hero and Heroine – Examples from Classic Novels

The literary critic Graham Handley writes of the difficulty of creating a character who is very good: ‘It is a strange but true fact that the truly good person is difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, and Hester Rose (a sort of secondary heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’) may be compared with Diana Morris in ‘Adam Bede’ where there is a similar partial failure of imagination.’

Why this should be so is possibly a question of fashion. These days, we don’t want our protagonists to be too admirable, and the dread spectres of Mary Sue and Gary Stu hover near, whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson rose to fame (or infamy) through writing about two Mary Sues and one Gary Stu, namely, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlow and Sir Charles Grandison.

These endless novels were best sellers in that era; people just couldn’t get enough of them. Of course, with ‘Pamela’ there is the issue of whether he drew in the reader with the lure of,  ‘Attempted Rape as Titillation Whilst Expressing Every Sort of Moral Abhorrence’ . I tend to agree with Coleridge that he did, possibly unconsciously.

The rape in Clarissa takes place offstage, and not until Volume Six, so a reader would have had to be as patient as s/he was purile to keep on reading that long just for that, even if people did have longer attention spans in previous centuries. Probably the fascination  of that saga was the villain Lovelace as much as the heroine, and the depiction of his evil if far fetched machinations.

Clarissa is of course, a far more sophisticated creation than Pamela, who to most modern readers comes across as a prize opportunist hypocrite. I can’t answer for Sir Charles Grandison. I have heard that the character is unbearable, and it is worth reading just for that. I have also heard that in it, a woman actually apologises for preferring God to Sir Charles.

Still, having in recent years ploughed my way through ‘Pamela’, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’ (it seriously is called that!) I don’t think I can stand reading any more of Richardson’s self-serving Puritan morality for a long while.

Both the eponymous heroine of ‘Evelina’ and the hero Lord Orville are extremely virtuous and outstandingly dull. I felt like going to sleep whenever Lord Orville spoke.  Fortunately, he does that only occasionally, usually to show a high minded understanding of whatever situation it is in which he is involved.

By contrast, the villain Sir Clement Willoughby (did Jane Austen borrow his name?) provides a great deal of amusement. He spends much of his time, when not involved in rascally plots, in insisting on his deep love for the heroine. Still, never – the cad -does he  so much as hint at marriage. At the end he informs Lord Orville that she is not well born enough for him to consider for anything but as a mistress.  Lord Orville proposes believing her to be ‘low born’ – but then, he is a hero.

It was left to the genius of Jane Austen to create a hero who insults both the heroine’s face and her family origins.

Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are another virtuous and dull hero and heroine in a classic novel. Someone has commented somewhere (I have managed to lose the link) that Darnay is just like an android programmed to do good things – he seems to possess no mental life at all, and whenever he opens his mouth, virtuous platitudes come forth. Lucie Manette is an embodiment of a Domestic Angel.

I have to admit that I dislike that novel, because of the influence it has had in portraying the French Revolution in an entirely negative light, in particular shaping the popular misconception about the number of victims of the Terror.

As George Orwell says: ‘ Though he (Dickens) quotes no figures, he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared with one of Napoleon’s battles. But the bloody knives and the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in (the reader’s) mind a special sinister vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers. To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads. ’

That however, is off topic…

Intriguingly, Charles Darnay does come to life – twice – when he is in danger of death. Both when he is being tried for treason in the UK, and later when he is tried for it in France, he is suddenly there, real and believable.

In fact, I found the scene where Lucie Manette (who doesn’t yet know him) sheds tears because she is forced to give evidence against him, and they gaze at each other through the courtroom and obviously start to fall in love, both evocative and gripping.

Generally, then, I find it hard to think of a truly noble hero or heroine in a classic novel who is both interesting and believable.  Readers may have been more fortunate; if so, I’d love to hear of it.

‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring: A Fascinating Depiction of an Opportunist Protagonist

I’m reading ‘Fame is the Spur’ by Howard Spring, published in 1940.

This is, of course, an epic story recounting the rise of the labour movement in the UK in the late nineteenth century until the 1930.s, and of the fate of one labour politician in particular; this is in some ways a dismally familiar story – an account of how a  firebrand socialist politician is incorporated  into the capitalist status quo he once opposed .

This depiction makes absorbing reading.  It’s an epic novel with ambitious scope, written with flashes forward and backwards –  grinding poverty, ambition, love and class conflict are vividly portrayed.

I started reading it as background reading for my planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.  I have been really drawn in. The writing style is uneven – some of it brilliant, other parts border on the sentimental, and some of the description is clumsily put – but overall, it is an impressive book and I shall certainly be reading more from this author.

I came across it when working in the libraries many years ago. Doing research for my own planned novella on the Peterloo Massacre, I remembered recently that the nickname, ‘Shawcross of Peterloo’ is given to the main character in the novel .

As a boy, he is literally handed a sword used on the crowd in that slaughter by ‘The Old Warrior’, his parents’  elderly lodger – his sweetheart was murdered that day.

That sword, standing as a symbol of support for the downtrodden, is a sort of leitmotif running through the story.

I gather the film – which I think I saw on television as a kid, but failed to understand– depicts Hamer Shawcross as a man who, coming from the dispossessed himself,  is a genuine firebrand who sells out.

The book is more complex. In it Hamer Shawcross is depicted as being disturbingly opportunist from the beginning; from childhood, using people comes easily to him. He is lucky, as his stepfather and his friend help build him a study bedroom – a thing unknown for a boy from his  background in the industrial Manchster at that time. He is always encouraged to study and broaden his mind.

His family cannot afford university for him, so he leaves school at fourteen to work for an older friend who runs a bookshop. With a single mindedness one can only admire he continues to study, including languages, and at the same time he works hard to develop an excellent physique.

He shows a less commendable singleness of purpose, when he leaves his widowed mother (who can’t afford to pay the rent to keep her home without him) to go travelling about the world for four years.

He returns, a charismatic man with an astounding capacity for making stirring speeches and sweeping people up in his enthusiasm.

While the reader cannot find this protagonist wholly sympathetic, what is interesting is that it is unclear whether or not he is fully unaware of his own lack of sincerity.

However, it is hard to say, for much of the time, we do not have access to Shawcrosses’ thoughts. We see only his acts, and we usually see him through the eyes of other people, ie, his humble widowed mother, then Ann, his besotted wife from a privileged background, and his Dull But Worthy friend Arnold Ryerson.

I have quoted before the late Elizabeth Gaskell critic, Graham Handley, on the issue of how intriguing it makes a character for the author to reveal only so much of the workings of his or her mind.  This is particularly the case where sh/e is in fact, shallow.

Graham Handley wrote this of Gaskell’s portrayal of the ‘romantic interest’ in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ the Specksioneer turned navy captain Charley Kinraid.

I have written before of that character’s shameless opportunism, and the clever way in which the author makes an essentially stereotypical character mysterious, by revealing so little of his point of view. The rumours about his fickleness are never entirely confirmed or denied, but left as background hints that he is charming but unreliable, above all, a man who always has an eye on the main chance.

The depiction of Hamer Shawcross is a little like that; though his betrayals and changes in allegiance are more solidly depicted, he is mostly ‘seen from the outside’.

Interestingly, for all the occasional lapses into sentimentality in the tone of the novel,  there is no hearts and flowers happy ever after for Shawcross and his wife. Ann retains her ideals if she does continue to love her manipulative and increasingly successful life partner. He has promised to support female suffrage as an MP, but later equivocates.

By then middle aged, she becomes a suffragette, demonstrating and regularly being hauled off to gaol. There follow bitter years of conflict between them, though the bond between them is so strong that they cannot separate.

That struck me as being a realistic love story, as distinct from a romantic portrayal, and I find this impressive.

A manipulative, opportunist protagonist is always a fascinating concept. I haven’t gone much into how many modern ones there are; I can call to mind a few from classic novels.

What will happen to Hamer Shawcross I don’t know; I suspect – as it is a realistic novel – that he will gain success, but find it essentially hollow.

With regard to Charley Kinraid in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’, regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my dissatisfaction with the undeserved glowing fate Elizabeth Gaskell allowed him. I have remarked on Kinraid’s shameless self serving attitude before. As chief harpooner on a whaler, he opposes the press gang to the point of shooting dead two of its members. When he is later impressed into the royal navy, he accepts a promotion to Captain, where he must, to get enough crew, routinely send out press gangs himself. Returning to Sylvia to find her tricked into marriage, though he has declared that ‘I’ll marry you or no-one’  he marries a pretty and doting heiress  within six months.

That is probably realistic, too. But for his emotional betrayal in forgetting Sylvia in weeks, I thought he ought to suffer at least to experience a sense of disillusionment in his new life.  This, I predict, a sense of the hollowness of success, will be the lot of the male lead of ‘Fame is the Spur.’

Intriguingly, the writer of ‘Fame is the Spur, though writing eighty years later than Elizabeth Gaskell and decades after Freud,  lays less emphasis on the sexual side of life in Shawcrosses’ career than might be expected.

While in the Victorian ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Charley Kinraid’s reputation as a philanderer is discussed by some sailors in an inn in  such a way as to disgust his listening rival Hepburn, little is said about any philandering on the part of Shawcross. One might almost expect so attractive and unscrupulous a man to  have worked as an unofficial gigolo, perhaps, but if he has, the author does not say. We are merely assured that he knew how to flatter women.

This is one of many novels which  I began to read merely for background information, only to find it really intriguing. I’ve ordered the film DVD, too.  The same was true of Mrs Linneus Banks 1873 novel, ‘The Mancheser Man’ , the robber novels ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ by Vulpius, the novella ‘Dubrovsky’ by Pushkin, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Elizabeth Gaskell and many more.