Somerset Maugham and Marta Hillers believed in the Writing Cure

May 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Not long ago I learnt from Richard Wiseman’s :59 seconds that talking about negative experiences does not benefit a person in the long term, but writing about them may well be a remedy.

Somerset Maugham and Marta Hillers (the presumed author of A Woman in Berlin) knew this already.

In Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, Rosie is telling the narrator about the dramatic death of her six-year-old daughter:

‘Was it that death Driffield described in The Cup of Life?’

 ‘Yes, that’s it. I always thought it so funny of Ted. He couldn’t bear to speak of it, any more than I could, but he wrote it all down; he didn’t leave out a thing; even little things I hadn’t noticed at the time he put in, and then I remembered them. You’d think he was just heartless, but he wasn’t, he was upset just as much as I was. When we used to go home at night he’d cry like a child. Funny chap wasn’t he?’

The narrator of Cakes and Ale comments a few pages later: Whenever he [the writer] has anything on his mind, whether it be a harassing reflection, grief at the death of a friend, unrequited love, wounded pride, anger at the treachery of someone to whom he has shown kindness, in short any emotion or any perplexing thought, he has only to put it down in black and white, using it as a theme of a story or the decoration of an essay, to forget all about it. He is the only free man.

In A Woman in Berlin, the author recorded her experiences at the hands of the Russians in a diary: Russians raped many women, often brutally, and in gangs.

Towards the end of her diary, a woman asks the author if she ever dreams of the Russians. (We take it that she meant have nightmares.) The author said ‘no’ and then concluded that she had freed herself of the horror by writing about it.

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The Writing Cure

May 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Many of us have grown up to believe that it is helpful to talk about a problem. But is a problem shared, a problem halved?

To investigate, Emmanuel Zech and Bernard Rime from the University of Louvain in Belgium carried out an intriguing, and important, study. A group of participants were asked to select a negative experience from their past. To make the study as realistic as possible, participants were asked to avoid the trivial stuff, like missing a train or not being able to find a parking space, and think instead about ‘the most negative upsetting emotional event in their life, one they still thought about and still needed to talk about’. From death to divorce and from illness to abuse, the issues were serious. One group of participants were then asked to have a long chat with a supportive experimenter about the event, while a second group were invited to chat about a far more mundane topic – a typical day. After one week, and then again after two months, everyone went back to the lab and completed various questionnaires that measured their emotional well-being.

Although the participants who had chatted about their traumatic experience thought it had been helpful, the questionnaires that they later completed showed otherwise: the chat had ‘no significant impact’.

So, if talking about negative experiences to a sympathetic but untrained individual is a waste of time, what can be done to ease the pain of the past?

In other studies, participants who had experienced a traumatic event were asked to write for a few minutes each day about their experience. In one study the participants had been made redundant and they were asked to record how their job loss affected their personal and professional lives.

Although these types of exercises were both speedy and simple, the results revealed that participants experienced a remarkable boost in their psychological and physical well-being, including a reduction in health problems and an increase in self-esteem and happiness.

Conclusion: Talking can often by somewhat unstructured, disorganized, even chaotic. In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work towards a solution. In short, talking can add to a sense of confusion while writing, provides a more symptomatic, and solution-based, approach.

The beneficial effects of writing things down is not just confined to negative experiences:  when it comes to an instant fix for everyday happiness, certain types of writing have a surprisingly quick and significant impact. Expressing gratitude, thinking about a perfect future and affectionate writing have been scientifically proven to work, and all they require is a pen, a piece of paper and a few moments of your times.

Richard Wiseman’s :59 seconds is the source of this information.

The writer and social media

May 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some months ago, a writer, speaking at a self-publishing event, took a very negative view of Twitter. As some people tweet, along the lines of, ‘home now just putting the potatoes in the oven’, she had no time for it.

We all know that means of communications are used in different ways. To the  farmer in Africa, without any landline, a mobile phone is a lifeline. Londoners may say ‘my life is on my phone’ but their livelihoods do not depend on their phones in the same way an African farmer’s does.

We can tweet trivial things and we can tweet serious things and we can do both.

Mel Sherratt, best-selling writer on Kindle, had a social media presence before she self-published Taunting the Dead. She wrote a blog High Heels and Book Deals, and she was on Twitter.

Initially Mel Sherratt had not been that keen on joining Twitter. However, a friend persuaded her to sign up for an account (@writermel), and since then, Mel Sherratt has grown to love Twitter.

Writing can be lonely work. When Mel Sherratt takes a break from writing, she often goes to see what’s happening on Twitter. She might throw out a query to her followers: How would a frightened child call out for its mother? Would the child shout Mum or Mummy?  Her followers favoured Mummy.

Mel Sherratt stressed that her use of Twitter is largely social. Of course, she will let people know when she has posted an article, what event she might be speaking at, and she might retweet some news about a writer friend, but she will tweet about her dog too.

Tim Cooke, self-published author of Defending Elton and Kiss and Tell, was slow to join social networks; he felt they might not suit his personal style. But he started a blog (T J Cooke) and joined Twitter (@timscribe). Contrary to his expectations, he found that writers on Twitter could be very supportive of each other. And his attitude to social media changed.

Both writers were speaking in April at this year’s London Book Fair. At the question and answer session after their talk, one attendee told us that she had written books, cosy crime. (I think she had self-published but I am not sure in what form.) The books were selling but her being on Facebook and Twitter did very little to increase her sales. She wondered why.

Neither Mel Sherratt nor Tim Cooke could throw any light on that. Should you be fully engaged in all forms of social media? Will your presence on Twitter boost your sales?  Will you succeed just as well without Twitter ? You might. Mel Sherratt writes women’s fiction using a pen name and, despite having no presence on social media (in her pen name), these novels sell.

If only we had the answers!

How much will people pay for an ebook?

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We all carry notional values for money. A pound or two is not very much, not enough to buy a coffee in most cafés, a second-hand book in Oxfam (average price £2.50) or a large loaf of wholemeal bread (£2.30) in Dunn’s, a fifth-generation bakery in Crouch End, North London.

Yet many self-published books sell on Kindle for 99p. Self-published author Tim Cooke believes that some people would not be too quick to spend even 99p on a book. The sum of 99p is not so inconsiderable that they will buy an ebook without a second thought.

You can search by price on Kindle, and see what is on offer for 99p. I have no idea if the cheapest books sell most. Daniel Cooper ( Head of Kindle Direct Publishing, EU) did not appear to think that the lower the book is priced, the better its sales would be.

When self-published author Mel Sherratt first made Taunting the Dead available on Kindle in December 2011, she priced it at 99p. It quickly became a bestseller and reached number 3 in the Kindle fiction category in 2012. Despite her success, Mel Sherratt has not increased the price above £1.99. Would her readers have baulked at paying £2.99?

Are writers, who have had their books professionally edited, selling themselves short when they price their books at 99p? Will potential buyers assume the quality is poor?

Daniel Cooper informed us that from one year to the next, Kindle sales of self-published books increased from 14% to 26%. Will self-published books continue to make up a quarter of the Kindle market? What percentage of those books was sold for 99p?

In some cases the low price will reflect the fact that the books have been poorly edited and written. In other cases you will be buying a book that has had as much professional attention, perhaps more, than a book that has been traditionally published. At 99p, authors, who have paid to have their worked edited, will have to sell many books to recoup their investment.

In other industries sellers have increased the price of their goods with no adverse affect on sales: sometimes their sales increased (See Yes! by Noah J Goldstein, Steve J Martin, and Robert B Cialdini). Could some writers selling ebooks for 99p, price them at £2.99, and possibly sell more copies?

Mel Sherratt, Tim Cooke, and Daniel Cooper spoke in the Authorlounge, The London Book Fair 2013.

How can I support my writing habit?

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Tick tock! Tick tock! Over two years have gone by since I started entering writing competitions. About six months ago, I considered giving them up altogether. But I changed my mind and entered three: one in February, and two in March.

I didn’t make the shortlist of either Myriad’s or Cornerstones’. This month, May,  the results of Mslexia’s Short Story Competition will be announced.

When I entered these competitions, I told myself that if I got nowhere in all of them, I would have to change my strategy. I could not continue to enter competitions. Competitions take time, and time, once spent, is gone forever.

Initially, when I discovered two afternoons ago, that I had not made the Cornerstones’ shortlist, I remained in a reasonably buoyant mood. That evening, I went to a literary event. There I met a writer who told me that she worked for a literary consultancy. She mentored other writers. In this way, she earned money when writing did not pay. Does it ever?

She talked about writers having sometimes to review their aims, not to make publication their ultimate end. I nodded at this: I was still philosophical. She also said that writers do not always feel as validated by being published as they anticipated. Presumably their sense of validation depends on the critical reception of the book, and its sales. Most writers must feel very validated if their books are critically acclaimed or sell in great numbers.

After returning home, I felt I could not bear the load: the notion that I would write for neither publication nor money. We all have to make adjustments along the way. It is hard enough to accept that writing may not pay as well as stocking shelves in a shop but I could never write for my sole satisfaction. If I wanted to do that, I could keep a diary. I write to be read by other people. For me, a writer or artist must have an audience.

If mentoring were an end in itself, what would I be then? Not a writer but someone with a writing habit. How would I find money to support my habit?

What would Henry James, that most pure artist, say to the idea of writing for writing’s sake? I know of no writer who was hotter after the dollar than James was, or who was more of a conscientious artist. (Flannery O’ Connor, ‘The Nature and Aim of Fiction’). I imagine most writers, great or minor, are with me on this: we want  at the very least to be published, and we would very much like to be paid as well.

All the same, I am going to change my strategy. My next step will be to pay to have my children’s book professionally edited.

Where Am I?

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