Well, I'd like to pretend that the reason I haven't posted here for so long is something large and amazing - a burst of literary inspiration, a passionate affair, a killing on the stock market - but of course it isn't, it's the usual accumulation of dull but urgent stuff which domestic and freelance life attracts as a drain attracts dead leaves. Most of those leaves are terribly boring (did you think that if the oven door you were trying to mend slipped one inch to touch the floor, it would shatter? No, neither did I, but now a new oven door is one more thing on the To Do List). But a few are interesting:
On Sunday 5th April I'm doing a session at the Oxford Literary Festival, in tandem with Martin Brasier, author of Darwin's Lost World. 10am in Festival Room 2. I've been reading Martin's book and to anyone interested in narrative and creative thinking across the arts and sciences, as I am, it's fascinating stuff. And I've realised that the fun of festivals, as opposed to other events, is that since they're so often held in beautiful places that take forever to get to (yes, even Oxford, if you live in South East London), you always end up spending a night there, and then you can go to other sessions. It doesn't get much better than Simon Schama introducing his film on John Donne, which is on Saturday night. And after my own session, I just might hang around for two novelists discussing truth in historical fiction, about which I hold strong views...
The UK paperback of A Secret Alchemy is published on 16th April, and there's been a flurry of activity, not just to fit the hardback reviews onto the cover, but also on the marketing front. And it's borne fruit: for the week of the 20th April, if you buy a copy of The Times in W H Smith, you can buy a copy of A Secret Alchemy for less than half the cover price. So if you realise a week late that you've forgotten to get an Easter present for a not very favourite great aunt, it'll be nicely in time to persuade her to write you back into her will. I promise I won't tell her that it only cost you £2.99.
And a few more festival dates, just briefly: on Friday 8th May I'm at the Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey, Cornwall; on Monday 11th May I'm at the Swindon Literary Festival; and on Tuesday 26th May I'll be appearing at the Hay Festival together with my cousin the poet Ruth Padel, whose new collection is Darwin: a Life in Poems. And I'll also be appearing in October at the Wimbledon Book Festival, but that's so far ahead I don't think we need worry about it just yet, do we?
So, I admit, I've been short of time to grapple properly with a decent-sized thought. But the Starting Your Novel session Debi Alper and I ran on Saturday for Writer's Workshop got me thinking. 17 aspiring writers in a room at the top of Waterstone's Picadilly, some new to the whole workshop thing, some old hands, and a lot to cover in the day. It's been a while since I've been in a workshop setting, and I found myself thinking about the whole business of feedback. We've all spent so much of our lives in education that I think we don't always think about what's going on when someone says something about our writing. Learning to deal with feedback is a central part of becoming a writer: a particular process all on its own, a meta-process operating above the process of learning to write better. I've seen writers angrily refuse to change a word, I've seen writers in tears, I've seen writers meekly cut a terrific character which one single person doesn't like, I've seen writers paralysed with self-consciousness for weeks. And I've been most of those writers at one time or another. It's complicated by the issue of the standing of the person making the comment: how does a friend rank against a stranger, a published writer against a really good teacher, a fan of the genre against someone who's never read any of that genre before; an experienced reviewer with an excess of bile against a fan who says you've shown them that contemporary fiction need not after all be a closed book to them? (and yes, both of those two last have happened to me too.)
What it comes down to, I realised recently, is that when you're given feedback, you have three possibilites: accept, adapt, or ignore. Accept is obvious: all along you knew that it didn't really work, you just hoped no one else would notice, but they have, so get to work. Adapt is the most interesting, because what it means is that you accept that there's something wrong, but you don't agree about what exactly, or why, or what to do about it. You're going to have to think laterally, talk/draw/sing, or go back to the roots of why that bit's there. Could you get the same effect, or a different effect with as much symbolic or thematic weight, by another means? Ignore is when they're just plain wrong: they didn't get it, they haven't read the whole thing, it's not their genre, they're not calibrated for thumping good stories, or baroque literary excess. Ignore is not for those times when you realise that there's something wrong but it's a regrettable necessity given all sorts of other things. If it's wrong, it's wrong, and you're going to have to think round it till you find a solution. (What do you mean, but the solution's re-writing the whole novel? Okay, re-write it then!)
Which you do will have something to do with how you weigh the feeder-back's opinions, and that highlights an important truth about working in the arts. They're not a democracy or an equal opportunities environment: not all opinions are equal to you when you're working. You're utterly entitled to make your own decision as to what's worth listening to. If it's an experienced editor of novels like your own, you'd be completely barking not to listen to every word and weigh it extremely carefully, but it has been known. If it's someone who only reads Michael Chrichton commenting on your highly experimental literary fiction, you're not morally or creatively obliged to do more than say thank you. If it's someone who only reads highly experimental literary fiction commenting on your heart-warming romance-with-a-twist, ditto. Accept, adapt, ignore: it's your choice.