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What is “success” for an author?

Why do you write?  What do you hope to achieve?  What, in short, is your definition of success as an author?

The last question confronted me recently when a fellow writer, who I met online and do not know at all, wrote that I had been “successful” with my books. I have no idea if she had read any of them, but it prompted me to consider what success would look like. It is not a straight-forward question.

I wrote back with my usual hesitation. “My books do not sell highly,” I replied, “but they are well reviewed—I don’t know whether I would call them a success.” And then I thought about it a bit more, and wrote again with a more reflective response. And she did, too. Let me hold the last correspondence for a moment.

High Sales?

From various writers’ groups, one gets the impression that selling loads of books is the principal goal of most authors. This is not unreasonable. We want people to read our books and we want some income from the process – and those twin aims work in tandem. More readers equal more income.

Some writers go further and write to the market, meaning that they work out what readers are looking for and write to meet their expectations. Some even choose a genre for this reason. Many write numerous books in a series, again to maximise readership. Pile them high, sell them cheap, loads of sales. Everyone is happy.

Well, yes and no. We nonfiction writers have a harder time. There will be some with diet books or self-help books of other kinds, who have a large market of waiting readers. Some even turn these into series of various kinds. But it is much harder and rarer.

Good Reviews?

But a completely different criterion for success is a lot of good reviews. This is also clearly a goal of most writers, if only because good reviews lead to more sales. We tend to spend considerable effort—and, in some cases hard cash (such as paying for reviews via NetGalley)—in order to achieve it.

One can, however, view good reviews as an indicator of success in its own right. Your book may not be highly popular, you may not be making serious money, but there is every reason to be pleased with a succes d’estime.

This is true in other art forms – how much money did many famous painters make? – and should be applied equally to writing. I am not talking here of the hasty five-star review written by a well-intentioned neighbour, but of the thoughtful, reflective review from a complete stranger which indicates that your book is very moving or thought-provoking or whatever.

Winning Awards?

Related to getting good reviews is winning writing awards. There are many of these, I have found. Some are based on an assessment of the book by a panel of serious judges.   Others are based on readers’ votes, which sounds fine until you realise that they tend to be more an indicator of the number of friends and acquaintances a writer can muster (not all of whom will have even read the book) than a real ‘favourite’ book.

Alternative Definition of Success

But books can also be successful on other terms, such as the achievement of laudable aims. When I asked why my new e-mail friend viewed my books as successful, she wrote that they were “relevant and useful”. That is certainly one definition and one way in which many non-fiction books will thrive.

A book may be highly practical, for instance explaining how to play the guitar, or, indeed, how to market books on Facebook. If a book does so effectively, it can be deemed a success in its own terms, whatever the sales or reviews.

Alternatively, a book may offer a thoughtful account of the author’s experience of widowhood or dealing with a parent with Alzheimer’s disease. Such books can be moving in their own right as well as helpful to others.  This, too, can be a sign of success, whatever the sales.

My Own Definition of Success

Which brings me to my own position. The more I thought about this question, the more I realised that I would define success for myself as having written something I was proud of.  In my own case, it is writing well about a subject of real importance, with sensitivity and honesty.  It is what I have strived to do all my life.

I write what tends to be called narrative non-fiction. The particular selling point of my three current books is that they use the actual words of people following a long interview, so that they are comparable to a TV documentary, but in words. Their focus, however, is all over the place, according to what happened to capture my interest. There is no series and certainly no writing to the market.

How do they fare by these criteria?

Sales

With respect to sales, I don’t know what reasonable expectations for non-fiction should be, but I have never considered mine to be notably high.

The first, initially published by HarperCollins in 1992, is about what it was like to be living with AIDS when it was a life-threatening disease with no known cure (Wise Before their Time). It sold many thousands when first published, as there was a lot of attention to the disease at that time. I decided to re-launch it in 2017 for its historical interest – and I will be lucky if I sell 100 copies in a year.

Wise Before Their Time

My most recent book, published in 2014, is about what it is like to be a grandmother (Celebrating Grandmothers), showing the joys but also the challenges of the role. I thought it would sell well – among other things, it is a perfect present for older women who can be difficult to buy for. But it has sold a little over 500 copies to date, which is nothing to be particularly thrilled about.

And in-between, there is my book about what it is like to work with the dying (Life in a Hospice). Initially published by a medical publisher in 2007, I had thought it would sell well because I found the subject so fascinating. Alas, I did not reckon with readers’ reluctance to read about death, and it sold only 600 copies in its first five or so years. Re-launched in 2017, it is doing better now, with about 300 sold last year and more this year, due to a BookBub promotion.

Life in a Hospice

Reviews

On the criterion of good reviews, however, my books have fared well. All three have received a large proportion of five star reviews, including many very thoughtful ones. My favourite, written by Sir Ian McKellen in his Foreword to my book on AIDS, says “these true stories are as powerful as any great classic of fiction”. And my book on hospice care was Highly Commended by the British Medical Association, a serious award in my view.

Pride

But most importantly, I feel–and the reviews confirm–that my books achieve my principal aim of an honest and moving communication about a subject of importance. In each case, I wanted to develop a real empathy among readers for the people in the book.  It is hard to know, of course, but both the formal reviews and informal comments from others suggest that I have performed this task.  It keeps me going.

Yes, I would like sales—the more, the better.  Yes, I want to get good reviews as they show that others have appreciated my efforts.  But most of all, I need to feel that I have created something I am proud of.

What about you? What’s your definition of success as an author?

This was first published by Ingenium: https://ingeniumbooks.com/whats-your-definition-of-success-as-an-author/

“A book that will make the problems in your own life look small”.

This is the heading to my most recent review of Wise Before their Time, about people living with HIV and AIDS in the early 1990s.
I won’t quote the full review, as it is long, but the reviewer really understood what the book was trying to do. He starts by remembering what it was like at that time, with so many people dying of AIDS (and he was living in Africa) and then reiterates that things have changed in recent years.
“Many of the people who appear in her book were infected in the late ‘80’s when a positive diagnosis meant the sudden end of your life. The advice given to these young people had to do with how to cope until the end arrived. This often brought on depression, panic, suicidal thoughts, a denigration of self and a loss of purpose. They soon realized that in order to survive a positive diagnosis, a positive attitude had to be developed quickly.
“The amazing thing about the book is how each person went about this. In almost every case they had to reach down inside themselves in order to tap into their emotional and psychological reserves, something that took courage and persistence. This is the remarkable thing about the book, by using their own words taken from spoken and written interviews, an intimacy is created that is impossible to ignore. These people open up their hearts and souls and you can’t look away. What impressed myself and other readers is the fortitude shown.

“One of the common themes is that it is relationships with others which generally sustain people. Another is that people so affected become more aware of what’s happening around them, they begin to enjoy simple things in life like sitting in the middle of London watching the red buses go by, waking up and seeing the sunshine, looking at flowers, seasons changing. And as one person put it, “…thinking, God, I’ve made it –.”
Yes, it’s a tough book.  But you won’t forget it.
If you want to read more, go to https://amzn.to/2qXNK6u

 

Does your body ambush you?

When my son, now in his late 30s, was about five years old, he made a remark that has stayed with me ever since. He had gone through a stage, thankfully brief, when he would pee unexpectedly, leaving a small visible stain on his trousers.

I asked him, I suspect with some exasperation, couldn’t he tell when it was coming? “No, Mum,” he said, “it is kind of like an ambush.”

He hit the nail on the head. Our bodies do ambush us all the time – from childhood right on up. We don’t see it coming.

The Struggle with Our Bodies

It starts as early as any of us can remember – we ran too fast on a pavement, we climbed that tree and, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on the ground and in pain.

From small scrapes to broken limbs, we learned early on that our bodies could be a nuisance and did not behave as we had planned.

Not to mention the many childhood diseases. I got absolutely all of them – measles, German measles, even Scarlet Fever, which was very serious in those days. I have a number of chicken pox scars to remind me of that particular bout.

And, of course, numerous colds and flus that came and went, as I mixed with other children at school.

Our teens and beyond brought an even bigger ambush – the menstrual period. It arrived when we least wanted it and, for some of us, on no particular schedule. We waited for it to come and, at some point, worried when it did not. Or, we wanted children and worried when it did.

We have all spent some hours over the course of our lives thinking about what was or was not happening down there. With no control.

Older Bodies

Of course, as we grew older, we were subject to large numbers of potential illnesses. Many of us have been through one or another life-threatening disease and many of us have lost friends through this route.

I lost a good friend to one of the worse scourges of our time, HIV/AIDS and, with his help, wrote a book about people living with AIDS and HIV.

And things only get worse as we age. “Old age is not for sissies,” they say, and they are right. Our bodies ambush us in one way after another.

The older we become, the more prone we are to serious illnesses that stop us in our tracks. We cannot hear or see as well as we used to, we can no longer run as fast as we would like, if we can run at all. And even the problem my then five-year-old son experienced rears its annoying head.

Some of us, although presumably not those reading here, lose our minds, bit by bit, to one kind of dementia or another. This is an ambush like no other – not part of anyone’s life plan.

Attitudes

How do you feel about all these events taking place within your own body? Do you quietly accept that this is part of being human and we should struggle through with dignity? Do you feel it is part of God’s plan?

Or do you, like me, rail against them? I have been amazingly healthy all my adult life, as was my father. And, like him, I get enormously angry when my body lets me down. How dare it not do what I want it to? Who gave it permission to succumb to a cold or flu or worse?

Yes, I know this makes no sense. I should accept each challenge as it arises. It is part of life’s rich tapestry. You are doubtless made of stronger stuff.

My husband says I will be indignant on my death bed – and it may well be true. I will let you know.

 

This was first published with a different title by sixtyandme.com (http://sixtyandme.com/coping-with-our-60-plus-year-old-bodies-is-it-even-possible/)

Powerful stuff

Wise Before their Time had a lovely new review this week, entitled ‘Powerful stuff’.

The reviewer says:

An evocative tribute to the experiences of people with HIV and AIDS in the 1980s; to their suffering and to their strength of spirit. A collection of historical value and a reminder of the cruelty inherent to ill-informed, fear-driven prejudice that is just as relevant today.

Read this book. Listen to the stories of the people who contributed to it. Feel their experiences. Find the opportunity to learn from their wisdom in the way you live your life and the ways in which you relate to others.

I like this review because it says something I felt when I wrote this book.  Yes, one should read it to hear how difficult it was for people living with HIV/AIDS back in the day.  But, perhaps more importantly, we can learn from them to make our own lives better.

I say ‘amen’ to that.

 

Wise Before their Time is available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon and other platforms

Celebrating Grandmothers gets a new cover

I first published Celebrating Grandmothers, in which nearly thirty women talk about how it feels to be a grandmother, four years ago.

It was very well reviewed and bought both by grandmothers and for grandmothers. It was discovered to be an answer to that question ‘What in the world will I get my mother for Christmas this year?’.

The old cover wasn’t bad, in my view.  I could show the book to people in the street, their eyes would light up and, not infrequently, they would buy.  But I never felt really happy with it.  There was something ‘old lady-ish’ about it.

So I went to my cover designed and she prepared a new cover, as shown above.  The photo is the same, with the warm interaction between grandmother and baby, but the feeling is lighter.  It is available from Amazon.  The contents of the book remain unchanged.

I will be curious to see if there is any change in my sales. Do let me know what you think.

 

Celebrating Grandmothers is available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon and other platforms

Are you old?

 

The Image of Being Old

The question is – what is this ‘old’ that they don’t feel? Rather than age itself, what they’re talking about has to do with an image they cannot – or will not – identify with.

I suspect the image is connected to our view of our grandmothers (or other older women we knew) who fully expected to be called old. They wore sensible shoes and ‘appropriate’ clothes.

They mended socks and cooked everything from scratch. They stayed at home or went out with friends to do something sedentary, like playing bingo or bridge. They would never dream of an exercise class.

Unless they were poor, most had never worked. If they had, they would have retired years before. Indeed, they had no expectation of living very long, as life expectancy was so much lower than now, topping at 70 or 71. They were at the last stage of their lives.

They seemed old to us, but perhaps more importantly, they felt old to themselves.

Age Is Just a Number

Our generation is completely different. We play tennis, have sex and wear the same sort of clothes we have always worn. Of course, we don’t feel old. We say, “you are as old as you feel” or “age is just a number” and pride ourselves on how well we keep ourselves trim.

But is this because we fear being old? As is constantly noted, we live in a youth culture and everyone wants to feel they are still part of it. We can dye our hair, have facelifts and hide our advancing years reasonably well.

We are, to all intents and purposes, not ‘old’ to the outside eye. And so, it is easy for us to declare ourselves to be far from old.

Those Who Feel Old

I rush to note that some of us do feel old. We suffer from ill health, have witnessed many deaths, perhaps nursed an ill husband. We are no longer able to do the things we used to do. We accept the situation and readily say we feel no longer young – or even middle aged.

Society Marks Our Age

And we are, of course, aware that our society marks our age in numerous ways. We are referred to as ‘seniors’ or ‘pensioners’ and receive all sorts of preferential treatment.

In London, I have a permanent ticket called a ‘Freedom Pass’. It gives me completely free transport on the tube, bus and train, within a generous perimeter.

I also have free prescriptions and eye tests that other people pay for, although health care is generally free. Not to mention reduced rates at the gym or the cinema. Other countries often offer similar benefits to those over a certain age.

There are, however, the less desirable marks of age. We may be called ‘geriatric’, ‘antiquated’ or ‘over the hill’. My son used to refer to old people as ‘crumblies’, but there are many more such terms.

What Happened to ‘Wisdom’?

But, in truth, what is wrong with being old? Why do we feel diminished by the very thought of being put into this category? If we have passed retirement age, we are chronologically not exactly young. Why not come out and say so?

There are so many real benefits to being old. We have loads of experience with all sorts of people and situations. We have had to face – and come through – crises of one kind or another.

And, most of all, we have the strengthened confidence that comes with this experience. Some would say we have wisdom.

My father used to work for an international organisation which brought him into contact with many people from the Far East where age is valued greatly.

He often struggled to gain authority in their eyes because he always looked young for his age. He told me that he used to mention, as casually as he could, his children being in college – or beyond – to gain the necessary gravitas.

I have personally never had a problem with revealing my age. I am lucky in my genes and do not really look my age and certainly do not dress for it.

As I write, because it is hot, I am wearing shorts and a t-shirt and am, moreover, barefoot. Both my grandmothers would be appalled. Nonetheless, I get offered seats quite regularly on the bus, which suggests I have reached a certain look.

But I will proclaim my actual age – 76 – to anyone who is interested. I do not feel that it diminishes me. Indeed, for all the reasons noted, I like being old. It may not last long – who knows! – but it is great being here.

Do you admit to being ‘old’? Do you reveal your age when asked? Are you pleased to have reached your later years?  

This was first published by Sixty and Me (http://sixtyandme.com/is-age-just-a-number-do-you-feel-hesitant-to-reveal-your-age/)

Learning to be a grandmother

It is often suggested that babies should be born with a manual, because it is so hard for new parents to work out how best to look after them. We, mothers, know that we managed somehow or other. But now it begins again, as we are faced with being a grandmother.

So how do we learn to be grandmothers?

Instinctive Grandmothers

Of course, some people are ‘naturals’ whether as mothers or grandmothers. It wouldn’t occur to them to look for an advice book or to ask friends – they just know how to do it.

I watch these women in awe, as it certainly isn’t me. I didn’t have a clue when my first baby was born, although I was probably a little better by the time I had a second.

Nor, nearly 40 years later, did I have much immediate sense of how to be a grandmother, much less a good one. It certainly didn’t feel natural to me from the start, as it all felt so long ago.

Learning from our grandmothers

In my book, Celebrating Grandmothers, where nearly 30 women talk about how it feels to be a grandmother, many explore this issue.

A few describe their own grandmothers in some detail. Of course, those women of the past varied hugely – not only in their social backgrounds but in their behaviour. Some were memorably strict, while others were distinctly full of fun.

My interviewees shared that their experiences of these women had influenced them as grandmothers. Especially in those cases where they had spent a lot of time with their grandmother or she had a strong personality which impressed certain values or attitudes onto them.

This is not my case. I had little to do with my own grandmothers, as one lived too far away – the breadth of the USA was a serious hindrance in the 1950s – and the other had only limited interest in the role. Neither helped me much when my time came.

Learning from our mothers

Of course, your grandmother is not the only potential influence in this arena. Our mothers, too, were grandmothers to our children, as were our mothers-in-law.

Some of the women I interviewed felt that they had learned a lot from them, watching how they had played with their children or had taken an interest in teaching them.

But I, again, did not have much luck in this situation. By the time my children were born, my husband’s mother had died, and my own mother was, again, too far away as I had moved overseas. And, as she was a very dedicated career woman, I am not sure how involved she would have been had she lived nearby.

In any case, I had little in the way of role models.

Grandmother Experts

Nowadays, we all learn from ‘experts’ on all sorts of issues and being a grandmother is no exception. There are numerous books on “how to be a good granny” – as well as my favourite, “how to be a bad granny.”

There are also a growing number of websites devoted solely to the joys and challenges of being a grandmother or touching on the topic quite frequently. Including, of course, this one.

Many of us have doubtless learned a great deal from their advice – from how to avoid saying the wrong thing to how to cope with modern equipment. But it did not occur to me to look for such information online or in a book.

For example, when I was writing my book, which is definitely not a ‘how to’ book, one friend asked if it would explain how to fold down a modern pushchair (stroller). Perhaps we have all struggled with that one.

Make It Up as You Go Along

I think that most of us make it up as we go along. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

We probably make some of the same mistakes we made as mothers. But I am sure we make many fewer, because – although it may not seem like it when the first grandchild is born – we have been there before.

Like with a second child, the knowledge is just lurking there, waiting to come out. We cuddle and burp the baby without thinking about it. We encourage the toddler to toddle and, as they grow, we talk to the grandchildren about the wonders of life, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It comes naturally.

Some do not want to take a great part in this adventure, but most of us find it enormous fun – and incredibly rewarding.

As we used to say playing tag, “here we come, ready or not” and you are probably readier than you think.

Celebrating Grandmothers is available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon and other platforms

This was first published in a slightly different form by Sixty and Me (see http://sixtyandme.com/5-tips-for-learning-how-to-be-a-grandmother/)

Becoming a grumpy old woman

I would guess that most people who know me see me as a cheerful older woman, with a good life and little to complain about. All this is true. Yet, at the same time, I can feel myself turning into a Grumpy Old Woman.

There are several things that I find increasingly annoying. Unfortunately, I can’t write about all of them, so here are just a few.

Mobiles

There you are, quietly walking down the street, when someone walks into you because their head is in their phone.

Or you see them coming and you stop, completely still. They look up and say “Oh, sorry,” as if they couldn’t see that walking along blindly is bound to cause someone trouble at some point.

Backpacks

And, while on the subject of public places, I get very irritated by thoughtless people with backpacks. They are especially annoying in tight spaces, such as a bus or train, when they turn around and the pack crashes into you.

I have long thought that backpackers should be required to pass a driving test on managing body space. It might help them learn that their dimensions are extended hugely by their packs.

Going to a movie

It used to be a joy to go to a movie – you would have the odd advertisement or trailer, and then sit back and enjoy the film. Not any more.

There is the couple across the aisle who insist on unwrapping their sweets (candies) one by one throughout the course of the film. Do they not realise that doing this slowly is no quieter, but just prolongs the agony? Perhaps that has always been a problem, but I am becoming less tolerant.

But what is new at these scene are the people who must check their phone. Even if they don’t talk, the light is incredibly distracting. I do think people should be able to forget their phone for the brief duration of a film.

And everyone seems to need to eat. Some cinemas even offer full course meals to their patrons, which might be nice for the hungry person but pays no thought to the person sitting next to them.

Selfies

The very word ‘selfie’ denotes the modern generation. In our day, we never had to show that we were there, wherever ‘there’ was.

The worst is in picture galleries, where the rooms are full of people with their phones and, where allowed, phone sticks. They don’t seem remotely interested in the paintings themselves, but only in showing the world that they have seen them.

Perhaps there should be fake galleries, intended just for them, so the rest of us could enjoy paintings in peace.

Airports

Everyone seems to love to travel and to talk about the marvellous places they have visited. But they never tell you about the airport. Is it just me or are airports getting worse?

I can manage the discomfort of airplanes themselves, although there is little to recommend the time you spend strapped into a small seat.

But what gets me down is the stress of getting to the airport in time, with the underlying threat that if you aren’t there two hours in advance, they won’t let you on the plane.

The worst is the airport itself. You’re stuck there for ages, surrounded by multitudes of people. Hardly anywhere to sit down, but shops and more shops everywhere. I don’t like shopping at the best of times, and I certainly do not want to do so in an airport when I have enough to carry as it is.

And then there is the ladies room. Toilets still function as normal, but modern sinks are becoming a kind of intelligence test.

How do you obtain simple running water? Some new-fangled taps have parts to push up or down or sideways – but which? Or they have electronic gizmos that don’t seem to recognise my hands. Do the architects of such contraptions think we automatically know how they work?

Grumpy and grouchy

Yes, I am becoming a grumpy old woman. I don’t know whether I am more annoyed by other people or by the increasing presence of modern technology. All I know is that sometimes all my good cheer gets taken away.

 

This post was originally published by SixtyandMe (see http://sixtyandme.com/5-reasons-i-am-becoming-a-grumpy-old-woman-in-my-60s/)

Splashing in Puddles

“My son and his wife encourage the grandchildren to be free, like when they want to splash in a puddle. Whereas I would say ‘Don’t go in that puddle!’, because I was conscious of the washing that would engender.

I’ve often thought that if I were to do it all again, I wouldn’t be so strict – I would let them splash in puddles.”

…from Celebrating Grandmothers

One of the many unexpected side effects of being a grandparent is watching your own children bring up their children. This can prove both a joy and a challenge.

Attitudes toward child-rearing change over time, so we grandparents have to expect some changes. And modern circumstances are also very different – there were no complex computer games, no mobile telephones and none of the other electronic gadgetry in our day.

Some grandparents are clearly concerned about the way their grandchildren are being brought up. They say that the children have too much ‘screen time’. Some feel that their grandchildren are being spoiled with too many things or not sufficiently encouraged to take risks.

And they feel there is very little they can say. “Every grandmother has to be issued with a zip” as one grandmother said.

But others are enormously impressed by the child-rearing efforts of their own children. They look back with some sadness at their own lack of awareness of what they were doing, while applauding their son or daughter’s wisdom at finding the right balance.

Childrearing is one of the harder things we do in life. We rarely feel that we got it right. We mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. But we can reflect on what is best for the children – and, as the grandmother quoted above said, let them splash in puddles!

This was originally published by The Grandparent Hub (see http://thegrandparenthub.com/splashing-in-puddles/)

 

Celebrating Grandmothers: grandmothers talk about their lives is available as a paperback or ebook on Amazon getbook.at/Grandmothers

 

Podcast

When I went to the Dublin Writers’ Conference, I was asked to take part in a podcast interview for the Irish Writers Podcast.  This has now been aired.  I talked about all three of my books for about eight minutes.  See https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-p6ygd-9449f6