Author: Gordon Lawrie

Pity the Poor MP

Pity the Poor MP

The journalist Ben Goldacre has a favourite saying, and now the title of one his books:  “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.” It applies to many things, but most of all to politics.

We ask a lot of our politicians. They work long days, and unless they escape somewhere far away, they’re never really on holiday. Family life is difficult and the divorce rate is high. A UK MP’s salary, currently £84,000, seems high, but that’s not so high if we’re trying to attract candidates who have already proved themselves highly competent in their own fields. At least it’s not if we expect them to give up their second jobs and become full-time MPs.

Once upon a time, the great majority of MPs were lawyers, doctors, farmers, journalists, trade union officials and so on, who were allowed to continue their extra-parliamentary activities so long as it didn’t interfere with their Commons work. I accept that there were MPs who effectively treated Westminster as their second job, and that wasn’t right. However, Parliament now seems filled with full-time career politicians, which can have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are being seen now.

Nowadays, if an MP loses his or her seat at an election, they’re unemployed. Out of a job. On the dole, receiving benefits. There’s a short three-month parachute payment, but after that…? If there’s a landslide defeat, and many MPs suddenly all come onto the labour market at the same time, it can be really hard to find work. When the Conservatives were swept out of office in 1997, half of all the defeated MPs were still out of work six months later. Some lost their homes. It’s a genuinely scary prospect for an MP. As the Tory MP Charles Walker put it, “There’s nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-MP.” That’s particularly the case in today’s job market.

So they’ll do anything they can to stop becoming ‘ex’. If that means defending the indefensible, they’ll do it. If it means supporting some dimwit to become party leader, they’ll do it. If they’re asked questions on party policy by media journalists, they’ll talk gibberish in support of the party line rather than give the honest, considered answer they’d really prefer to offer.

Most MPs – of all parties – are usually described by their constituents as “hard-working on behalf of their constituents”. They enjoy attending uncontroversial local events, or helping individual constituents with housing or financial problems. I can’t imagine they enjoy being ordered to give open public support to tripe.

Many of these MPs know there should be an election. They’ve had enough, but they’ve nowhere to go, the inevitable result of our insistence that politicians work full time. Perhaps the time has come to provide a softer landing for ex-MPs. It’s not the first thing that comes into your head when you look at the current circus act that calls itself Westminster politics. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

A Funny Thing (Well, Two Funny Things) Popped Into My Email Inbox Yesterday

I was innocently checking my emails last night: it was a Thursday, so there are always quite a few Friday Flash Fiction submissions to process. Once I’d dealt with those, I turned to the emails that are directed to my “writer” persona.

Right at the top was a blog notification from Caron Allen, a crime mystery writer I’ve only met once, but with whom I’ve shared a bit of correspondence. On this occasion, Caron’s blog – which comes highly recommended – reminisced over the (almost) ten years since the publication of her first novel, Criss Cross.

She’s actually slightly newer to the novel-writing process then I am – the “10th Anniversary Edition” of Four Old Geezers and a Valkyrie came out at the start of 2022. Much of her article relates how she tried, and failed, to land a conventional publisher, and ended up turning to self-publishing. As I’ve touched in other places, it’s quite possible that might have been Caron’s lucky break. Very, very few writers make any money from their work; all most should aim for is: to keep expenses to a minimum and not lose money; gain a bit of satisfaction; and most of all, enjoy those special moments when a reader tells you that they “found your book wonderful”. It does happen.

By those measures, I suspect Caron’s done quite well. Her books are cleverly pitched at readers who looking for old-fashioned escapist crime mysteries; the messy, gritty detail of death don’t feature much. As such, they’re slightly out of fashion, but readers like them – if that makes the slightest sense.

So I turned to the next email, which was from a company that claims to assist authors self-publish. I won’t mention the firm’s name, although I’m not sure it really deserves anonymity. Coincidentally, this one was also about self-publishing, and advertising a 10-week online Zoom course. I’ll leave you to study it for yourself.

In case you hadn’t bothered to do the calculation, that’s also an EXTRA £440 they charge for splitting the payment across six months. And if you look at the application form itself, you have to tick a box agreeing that “you might need to spend extra money on outsourcing other assets like book covers, editorial work, website building.” It’s a blank cheque.

As the drug campaigns say, just say no.

PS – If you want to save £2499.01, why not try my own Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide? Cheapest of all here at this link.

*Also an excellent opportunity for shameless self-promotion.

Sharks in the Publishing Seas

Sharks in the Publishing Seas

I’m not proud of everything of everything I’ve ever written. I like some of my material, even quite a lot of it, but I recognise that it’s not to everyone’s taste. When you dabble in any of the arts – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, novels, anything at all – you have to get used to the odd kicking. People read your work and feel entirely qualified to tell that you’ve written a lot of tosh. A nephew once borrowed one of my novels and then wrote back to point out the areas where I clearly “wasn’t a professional author”. He got quite short shrift, but generally I ignore dross. You develop a thick skin as a writer.

But even if I recognise that some of my writing isn’t very inspiring sometimes, I’m proud of my staying power. I might write a trashy novel, but I’ll finish the entire trashy novel right through to the bitter end. As a result, I have a couple of truly atrocious manuscripts that spend most of their time buried deep in a lead box many feet underground in case they should accidentally escape. Just occasionally, though, I have a little fun with them.

For I have an alter ego. I can’t tell you what that alter ego’s name is, but my other me could be either male, female or gender-fluid. Let’s for the moment give my other me the name ‘Chris’, and you’ll get the idea. Let’s go the whole hog and call me ‘Chris Smith’. What ‘Chris Smith’ then occasionally does is submit one of these awful (but complete) manuscripts to a vanity publisher, to see what happens.

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what a vanity publisher is, and that, although there are superficial similarities, it’s actually the opposite of self-publishing. Self-publishing authors pay all the costs of producing a book – editing, cover design, printing and so on – but then the books themselves belong to the author. So, too, do the rights to the book, which means that if Steven Spielberg wants to turn your book into a blockbuster movie, you can sell him the rights and earn money that way, too.

Vanity publishing firms offer to publish your book for you. They look like ordinary publishing firms, but they ask you to “contribute” part of the production cost. In fact, they generally ask you to provide a very large part of the production costs, something like 100% perhaps. Just in case the book’s any good, the vanity publishing firm retains the rights to your book, and the books are theirs, too. They’ll be nice to you, though; they’ll give the author a 40% discount on their own book. Get the idea? Vanity publishers are the spawn of the devil.

There are black lists (they’re known as “red lists” in the trade) of vanity publishing firms, but most people who write books will have heard of at least one of them. For fear of legal nasties, let’s not name them, but instead we’ll invent a firm which we’ll call Morris MacDoggie. So, just to see what would happen, I sent one of my worst manuscripts (in a perverse way I’m rather proud of them) to MacDoggie’s “for consideration”.

What then happened was entirely predictable. I received a letter from MacDoggie’s which stated:

Your manuscript was brought to our attention at the latest editorial board meeting where we discussed its potential, and the possibility of it being published. Having read all the reports and taken note of the editors’ opinions, I can confidently state that your work was a captivating and enthralling story that will resonate with readers from beginning to end as they follow the protagonists on a journey that will define their relationship.This book will also explore the many issues that are comparable to social issues today.

This assessment of my manuscript, i.e. “captivating and enthralling”, is risible: the novel is, in fact, dreadful.

But the kicker in the response lay not in the response letter, but in the accompanying “contract offer”. Sure, they were offering to publish my book, but only if I myself made a “contribution” of $3,100 (I sent it to the US office). Morris MacDoggie would keep the rights, including any sell-on rights should anyone wish to film the thing, for goodness’ sake, and they get to set the cover price. Morris MacDoggie could also instruct me to do any promotion of the book at their request.

For that, I would get 25% of the sale price of each book. I would receive 20 complimentary copies of my own terrible book, but thereafter I’d have to pay the same price as any bookshop – in other words, I’d get a 40% discount.

That “25%” figure is actually suspiciously high. Normally, commercial authors might reasonably expect around 10% of the sale price. So I’m guessing that the book would only be printed on demand: in other words, it wouldn’t exist unless someone specifically asked for it – such as the author. When you looked at the contract more closely, they didn’t commit to distributing the book at all. And if a publisher holds the rights but effectively stops anyone else from buying your book, I’d say they’re not publishing your book at all. Believe it or not, Morris MacDoggie wanted first refusal on all my future writing as well.

Of course I turned the “offer” down. To be fair, sending dross manuscripts to firms like Morris MacDoggie is a bit like bear-baiting, and should probably be outlawed. Perhaps I ought to apologise, but these firms are sitting like hungry alligators (or sharks, if you prefer) waiting to eat up vulnerable authors like you and me. Fall into the clutches of one of these predators and say goodbye forever to your cherished book.

PS – If you’re curious, the manuscript in question was called “In Your Shoes“, and featured a couple of teachers who take drugs at a party one night and end up in each others’ bodies. Slowly, they have to learn to live with the different expectations placed on men and women in society. Although I made it to the end, it just proved too difficult to make it work well, at least for me. Aware of what happens in a school, I got too bogged down with trying to stop them being discovered. The intimate scenes, including the sex scenes, were probably the best bits.

Friday Flash Fiction

Friday Flash Fiction

Although I like to think of myself as a writer, to many readers around the world I’m probably more familiar as editor of the flash fiction online publication Friday Flash Fiction. Friday Flash Fiction – usually referred to by its followers as “FFF” – began as a conversation thread LinkedIn in 2013, but quickly outgrew that social media platform, and in the intervening years a total of over 10,000 stories and poems have appeared on Friday mornings.

The beating heart of FFF is its ultra-short fiction section, i.e. fiction of 75-100 words. (It therefore includes “drabbles”, but drabbles have exactly 100 words.) The essential challenge of Friday Flash Fiction is to write a new, fresh story each week in time for publication on the next upcoming Friday at 7:00 am UK time, although nowadays there are so many stories to publish that a second batch is published at 10:30 to give each story a few hours on the front page. There’s a lot of reading there, even although the stories are short. The one thing we insist on is that the story is freshly-written that week, and isn’t a re-hash of something that’s appeared elsewhere previously.

Editing takes up a lot of my time, but it’s hugely rewarding. I’m well aware that, for many writers, this is their first venture into creative writing, and seeing their work validated nby being published for the world to read sets them off in more ambitious directions. We have a number of younger writers; we don’t reveal ages, though, everyone is judged the same. We also have a surprising number of writers whose first language is not English: perhaps they’re learning, and being encouraged to write by a professor or tutor; perhaps they simply want to brush up their skills.

I’m aware that there are other reasons for writing, too. Writing can be great therapy for individuals currently finding life difficult for one reason or another. Recently, one of our contributors has been posting material from Ukraine, where she personally has witnessed rocket attacks and bombs at close range – and yet she wants to express herself in fiction terms. She’s good, too.

We don’t accept everything submitted, but I want to encourage, not create some sort of contest to see who gets published and who doesn’t. What makes for good flash fiction is for another post, but in general so long as it’s a story written in decent English, isn’t tasteless or nasty, and meets our fairly obvious requirements to complete the submission form correctly, we’ll publish it.

I said that the vast majority of writers appreciate the hours (and a little financial support) that go into editing any publication, whether electronic or in print, but there will always be exceptions. Writers are artists, after all, and throwing toys out of the pram isn’t unknown for creative types when they feel slighted, rejected or treated unreasonably. Friday Flash Fiction offers a feedback service for which we charge a minimal fee (£5.00 is nothing, believe me) and yet there are still those who think “Was my story rejected because it was ––?” isn’t a request for feedback. A good tip for any writer is to ask yourself: what is the publisher getting from my story? And if the answer is “nothing”, then expect nothing in return.

But that sort of writer is mercifully rare. Please do check out FFF, and if you haven’t already done so, try sending something in. It’s fantastically good for your writing technique, compelling you to make use of every word, to treat each one with reverence, and to learn the value of the unspoken extras to be found in the spaces between them. And it’s only 100 words, for goodness’ sake – what have you got to lose?