A Less Lonely PursuitPosted by Myke Bartlett on Aug 1, 2011 in Featured Articles, if:book Essays | 3 comments
Writing is a lonely pursuit. As a full-time writer, I spend most of my days sat alone with the blinds drawn, pretending the dog is interested in my observations. Still, this is the career I’ve dreamed about since I was far too young to consider any career that wasn’t ‘Ghostbuster’ or ‘adventuring archaeologist’.
Strangely, I never really worried that I couldn’t write, but I did worry the stories I was telling wouldn’t appeal to the arbiters of the publishing world. Another podcaster, J.C. Hutchins once said something similar: “If I based my opinion of my work solely on the reaction of agents, then the work was shit, and I didn’t think it was.” Maybe that was why I never sent any chapters off to publishers or agents, fearing rejection was inevitable. If only there was some way of side-stepping the slush pile and connecting directly with an audience.
When I bought my first modem in 2000 (yes, that late), I immediately became excited about the possibility of finding that audience online. Without knowing what I was doing, I built myself a website and posted chapters of a book I was writing, week by week. By the book’s end I had about three readers, but that was encouragement enough to finish. Four years later, ensconced in a particularly dull office job, I blogged another novel, Electricity. This time I doubled my readership, but felt no closer to the big time.
Podcasting – the posting of mp3 files in an RSS feed – seemed a far more alluring prospect. In 2006, Podiobooks.com was opening for business and looking for submissions, so I recorded the first three chapters of a new project (I had only written four chapters) and duly sent them off. It was perfect timing. When the site launched, my novel How to Disappear Completely sat proudly on the front page.
At the time, I was spending three hours a day staring out a train window. Armed with a laptop, I was able to use this commuting time to write and edit a chapter a week, which I would then record and post on the weekend. It was, to be honest, a disastrous model. Real life ate up my time and I frequently hit a brick wall in my ill-planned plot. Often, I wished I could abandon the whole project.
The problem was, I now had an audience. Whereas I had enough fingers for each of my previous readers, my audience now numbered in the thousands. If I missed a deadline, angry emails arrived, demanding more. It’s hard to think of a better incentive for a wannabe novelist than furious impatience. The book would be finished, whether I liked it or not.
Feedback was immediate and largely positive. I soon noticed that I started to reshape the narrative in response to the likes and dislikes of my listeners. Most notably, I realised that I had a tendency as a writer towards the ‘downward spiral’, in which characters rarely triumph for long. It’s a plot shape familiar to Australian fiction, one which Louis Nowra identified as the guilty party in an article examining the unpopularity of Aussie film.
One of the reasons that podcasting had appealed was the ability to move outside the local market. How to Disappear Completely wasn’t set in Australia (although it did feature an Australian protagonist) and seemed, to me, a poor fit for the local literary scene. Sure enough, the majority of listeners came from the US, where the hero narrative – as explicated by the likes of Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee – rules all. In connecting directly with an overseas audience, I had inadvertently exposed the parochial nature of my plotting. Despite being convinced my stories didn’t belong in my national canon I was, after everything, an Australian writer.
In response to this feedback, I wrote a chapter in which the characters began acting more heroically and the praise immediately poured in. As the book progressed, the writing process became increasingly interactive. I became more aware of which characters were finding favour and, perhaps crucially, what listeners really wanted from my story. Some listeners sent me artwork depicting the protagonists as they saw them, some sent me money, one kindly offered to build me a proper website (which he continues to manage). Their interest, generosity and loyalty was astonishing – certainly more comforting to a writer than a letterbox full of rejection letters. Suddenly, writing seemed a far less lonely pursuit.
However, the end goal, as with every other podcast novelist, had always been publication. Podnovelist pioneer Scott Sigler had used his fan-base to propel himself into the bestseller lists, and other authors were finding once-closed doors now left ajar. I had approaches from two agents, both of whom were based in the US, and began dialogues about how the podcasted first draft could make it onto bookshelves. At around the same time, I turned down a publishing offer from an American small press, who wanted to more or less print the podcast as it stood, flaws and all.
I was certainly aware that a massive amount of restructuring was required. Having written the book as an episodic narrative – with each episode requiring a certain amount of action, intrigue and forward motion – I was faced with the task of teasing out a story that would make sense on the page. One of the agents – quite rightly – baulked at the amount of effort required, while the other spent more than two years reshaping the book, only to lose her job at the crucial moment.
As it stands, How to Disappear Completely has notched up around half a million downloads and has regularly breached the US iTunes Top 10. It’s certainly not the biggest hitter in the podosphere, partly as I’ve been reluctant to engage with the kind of relentless promotion and grandstanding required to woo and maintain a larger audience. An online audience, many of whom feel they are essentially ‘getting in early’, can be extraordinarily loyal, but they also want to be reassured – perhaps as your work lacks the publishing industry’s stamp of approval – that they’re on to a good thing. As a writer who tends towards self-deprecation (I’ve had angry emails demanding I stop), I’ve never felt comfortable telling the world how awesome I am, several times a day.
Five years on, I’ve come to feel podcasting is a flawed model for side-stepping the slushpile. Undoubtedly, some publishers have found themselves won over by authors already armed with a readership and, certainly, an author who can manage his own marketing is an alluring prospect. For most podnovelists, however, a publishing contract remains elusive. Many, myself included, have experimented with publishing-on-demand, as a means of capitalising on the audience base we’ve accumulated. Most have found it a good way to make pocket money, if not a career.
The worth of podcasting a novel is something that, in the end, might mean little to your bank account. If nothing else, I’d recommend it as a means of ensuring you finally finish that novel sitting in your bottom drawer. More than that, it opens a window on that dark room and allows you to communicate with a waiting audience while still hammering away at the keyboard. What other method of publishing allows a writer to effectively workshop a first draft with thousands of readers, scattered across the globe? For myself, the process has been about building confidence as much as refining my art. There is, it seems, an audience out there for every kind of tale – even if, as yet, they remain ignored by the publishing industry.
Myke Bartlett’s podcast novels are available from his web site mykebartlett.com. His Salmon & Dusk podcasts have sometimes broken into the Top 10 US iTunes Podcast Charts. His YA novel The Relic has just been awarded the 2011 Text Prize. Myke is also the Music, Film and TV reviewer for Melbourne’s The Weekly Review.
Image (Pfc. Elmer McDaniel, USMC, decorated back of his work jumper with what he called a “Jawja” peach. On board the USS Lexington (CV-16)., ca. 11/29/1943) courtesy the US National Archives via Flickr Commons.