July's guest blogger is Hilary Custance Green a self-published author and a student from the 2014 cohort on The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 'Realities' short story course. These courses are linked to SCVA exhibitions and a new course will be booking soon.
One October day I found myself, aged 52, standing on top of a telegraph pole. Below me the rest of my ‘team’, five youngsters half my age, two of them clinging to the free end of my safety harness, were urging me to jump. At eye level to my right, but way out of reach, dangled the bar of a trapeze.
I had arrived at this point by taking up one of the remaining places on the five day CRAC course (Research Councils’ Graduate School programme) – without noticing that this contained a demanding physical element. I was in the last month of my Medical Research Council funded PhD and some angel said, just don’t miss it. Those five days turned into one of the marker periods of my life.
Who could be without this grid, for instance?
· Awareness of personal transferable skills and attributes
· Skills and processes required for team building
· Techniques needed for personal career management
But me? In my early fifties? A jack of all trades, so poor at career management that I had amassed four degrees while my CV included seamstress, art college model, jobbing gardener and garden designer. I had spent more than twenty years as a sculptor – oh, and a wife and mother – was it too late?
There was also the little matter of my NOVEL. Four years previously, I had made the momentous decision to stop making big, heavy sculptures of little use to the world, and try to add to the family finances. Because I still needed a creative activity that would be unaffected by age or physical infirmity, I started writing fiction while I studied Psychology.
Writing is a craft needing much application, so I began with a ‘learning’ novel. When, several months down the line, I found Gary and John in bed with each other and very little idea of what would happen next, I put these chapters in a drawer and started again. In the meantime, I lucked in on a job with the Medical Research Council and eventually funding for a PhD. So I found myself drafting my first novel alongside my thesis. I (like to) think both were the better for the symbiosis.
My first novel was eventually published at which point I discovered, as do all writers, that marketing was another skill needed in the author’s armoury. I was, am and probably will always will be, reluctant, idle and generally pissed off by the whole business of marketing my books. It’s a trade-off, though. I want to write, I want to be read and ideally I’d like to be paid, or at least not work at a loss. The inefficiency of the small indie publisher of my first novel, made me decide to do it myself. So I set up a one-person publishing firm, Threadgold Press (http://www.hilarycustancegreen.com/Hilary_Author_Website/NEWS.html) and published my next two novels. After which I felt a little more sympathetic to the original publisher, because publishing is, ideally, team work.
This brings me back to the CRAC course. Our team of six plus a moderator had thrown ourselves off high places, run a campaign to sell toothbrushes, put on an edition of the 9 o’clock news (in real time) and listened to the CEOs of big companies telling us stories. We had worked intensely together and learned to depend on and support each other. One of the many tasks we crammed into those five days was an analysis of team roles. We used Belbin (http://www.belbin.com) to rate each other.
There are eight or nine distinct roles you can play as part of a team. Unsurprisingly, the young postgrads were heaving with Plants (ideas guys), and this was, indeed, my major role too with a bit of Team Worker thrown in. A publishing company needs a Plant, but rather more importantly it needs Implementers, Co-ordinators, Shapers, Resource Investigators, Monitor Evaluators, Completer Finishers and Specialists. Team workers are also useful – but only if you have a team. It is not news that publishing and marketing a book is tricky if you are by nature a writer first, but today’s publishing environment leaves us little choice. There comes a point at which you need to decide how many of the team’s roles you are prepared to take on.
Personally, I find that as long as some people read my books and get in touch to tell me whether my story worked or not, I feel justified in writing. So I set my goals manageably low – to make back the basic costs of publishing. I also (thank you CRAC) learned to play to my strengths. A couple of years ago, I started a blog (http://www.greenwritingroom.com). This is a very safe and comfortable space for a writer, with no pressure to sell. In the run up to my last publication I enrolled on a writing course (http://www.patriciamullin.com); I improved my writing, made new writing friends and sold some copies of my novel. I had a party and sold books in the village fair. There’s lots more I could do, but if the choice is between writing and selling, there’s no contest.
The CRAC course left me with two things: a much better opinion of myself and, as I have only just realised, a lot of material for my last novel Border Line, in which a leader persuades a group of people, intent on suicide, to play games…