On seeing a reader opening up your novel

My first book was published in 1987. It was called School Portrait. And when it came out I used to go into bookshops, find it on the shelves, shift it so that it was more noticeable, and then loiter hoping I’d one day see someone pick it up and start to read it.

I never did.

But yesterday a much respected English teacher and academic colleague, Kelli McGraw, sent me this photo.

IMG_3636.jpg

Then came this message:

“I'm wrapped in a cozy blue blanket, snuggled on my cozy blue lounge, reading about a cocoon. I already like the characters.”

It’s like being in the bookshop in 1987, only this time someone has picked up my book. And is reading it.

This kind of experience is such a pleasure for an author.

"So Steve, how's the book doing?"

It’s a question I keep getting asked. Until yesterday, I wasn’t sure how to respond.

I’ve sold a couple of hundred copies, some via Amazon and some I’ve sold directly, and the book launch is still a month away, so I guess that’s pretty good. I suppose if sales are the measure of how the book is doing, I won’t know until after the main publicity burst around the launch on 26 March.

Screenshot 2019-02-18 13.48.06.png

If visits to my Squarespace website where the novel is featured are any guide, interest is growing.

There are now three bookshops - Readings in Carlton, the National Library Bookshop and Book Face in Gungahlin - who have agreed to stock it, and a number of other Canberra and Melbourne bookshops are looking at it as I type. So that’s good.

We have 122 people who have sent RSVPs to say they’re coming to the Book Launch. That’s exciting.

But I was reminded again yesterday, when I friend told me she was about to read the book for the second time, that none of the above are the metrics that matter. It’s what people have been saying about the experience of reading the book.

Screenshot 2019-02-20 12.11.53.png

An American teacher wrote to me via Twitter last week, and it’s comments like these which make me feel that the book is doing just what I hoped it would do.

The Harriet page on my website has most of these comments, and the short film here has snippets from many of them.

Three insights gained from wise others

Screenshot 2019-02-11 12.43.22.png

In my last blog, I asked for advice about writing a study guide for The Worlds of Harriet Henderson. Twelve members of ‘my community of knowledgeable peers’ replied, and their advice has given me three clarifying insights.

 1.     I don’t like the idea of readers studying my novel. I want people to read it, and I want to do everything possible to encourage as many readers as I can. Perhaps the study guide idea was, for me, a way of enticing teacher educators to get their pre-service teachers reading my book; naturally I want pre-service teachers to read my book. But I don’t want them to study it. Mary talked in the comments about the experience of entering into the world of the novel, and how a premature exposure to a study guide might interfere with that.

2.     If there’s guiding to be done, I want the novel to do the guiding, not me. When I’m teaching students in schools or at university, or when I’m leading teacher groups, what works best almost every time is when I introduce some material and then ask two questions: What did you notice? What did you wonder? The ensuing discussion is then determined by the material and the readers’ experience of it, not by my own preconceptions or agenda. I think an approach based on these two questions would lead to the kinds of discussions and explorations listed by Misty and Brenton in their comments on my last post.

3.     I’d rather spend my time doing other things rather than writing a study guide. I want to start writing the next novel. I’ve also got some ideas about creating some kind of online space for an emerging and potential community of knowledgeable peers. And I’d love the opportunity to discuss the novel face-to-face with groups (students, teachers, readers). I’d find all of that kind of thing much more appealing than writing a study or reading guide.

 Thank you all who commented. Whether you were encouraging or discouraging of the idea, your thoughts helped bring me some clarity. I do feel blessed by these collaborations.

A Study Guide for 'The Worlds of Harriet Henderson'?

A former colleague has encouraged me to have a go at creating a study guide for my novel, The Worlds of Harriet Henderson, for use with pre-service teachers in universities or with English teachers as part of PD courses. Some of the reviews from teachers and teacher-educators have hinted at something similar.

I’m not sure. It’s the kind of project I’d enjoy working on, but would it be useful?

I thought I’d flag the possibility here, have a go at the beginning of a study guide, and see what others think.

So here’s a draft beginning:

Screenshot 2019-01-31 14.42.51.png

Is this worth pursuing?

I’d love some thoughts from those ‘in the field’: teacher educators, pre-service teachers, English-teachers-thinking-back-on-their-pre-service-experience.

If encouraged, I’ll spend hours happily working on this, but I don’t want to do it if it wouldn’t be useful.

An introvert’s pleasurable obsession

IMG_3267.jpg

It’s happened before, many many times in my professional life.

I become possessed by a project. By a vision of what’s possible. I become obsessed with nailing down every possible detail that will help me make it happen.  As I’m eating my breakfast I jot down thoughts, or add to my ToDo list. When I’m chatting to a friend, colleague or student, I find myself only half-listening, distracted by some new idea that’s popped into my head or by an urge to get off on my own to continue the planning. I gobble lunch, rush off to my desk after dinner. I don’t sleep well. It’s exhausting but fun, both draining and energising by turns. I’m all a-buzz, restless except when on my own and lost in the ordering of tasks, the research, the ways in which I’m going to cultivate the enthusiasm of others.

I’m in the midst of it again now.

Today’s pleasurable obsession is the marketing of my novel, The Worlds of Harriet Henderson, due to be released on 26 March.

Why this particular challenge to my occasionally debilitating introversion should be so pleasurable, I’m not entirely sure. I was initially repelled by the idea of having to spruik my book.

Perhaps it’s because the early response to my novel has been such a surprise. For most of the three years since I began writing it, I honestly thought it likely that I would be its only reader. But then at the end of 2017 I showed it to a friend, which led me to share instalments with 50 others, and then the responses and reviews came in, and suddenly I found myself keen to get it out into the world.

Self-publishing seemed the logical way to go. I’d had a wonderful experience with McPhee-Gribble Penguin back in the late 1980s with my first book, School Portrait, but my other books were not well edited or marketed. This time, retired and with time to spare, I’d do it myself.

And while the obsession has crept up slowly over the past six months, it now has me very much in its grip. I’ve lodged Harriet with both Amazon and IngramSpark. I now know about barcodes, bleeds and biblets, about ISBN, ONIX and POD, about Thorpe-Bowker, Bolinda and the Copyright Agency. I’ve bought ISBNs and a  Book2Look widget (take a look! It’s really cool!). I’ve joined the Small Press Network, Netgalley, and discovered the Alliance of Independent Authors, and signed up again with Australian Society of Authors. I’ve been to a conference on Independent Publishing, and will soon be applying to ALIA to have my book put into public libraries and to ASO to have it put into school libraries. I’ve reactivated my blog and redone my website. I’ve made movies using Animoto and created graphics using Canva. I’ve learnt how to pack books for postage and how to get free postage through Amazon. I’ve planned a book launch and am learning how to do an Email Campaign through Squarespace. I’ve written an article for the journal Changing English;Studies in Culture and Education and I’m thinking of making an audiobook. I’ve been regularly posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. I’m building a list of bookshops and print-media reviewers and radio programs to approach.

Who knows how effective any of this is or will be. I worry, occasionally, that I’m overdoing it. Or that I’m putting my energies into the wrong things. 

But if I sell 200 books or 2000, does it really matter? It’s been suprisingly absorbing and fun.

What's it all about?

My 25-year-old son Oliver recently wrote an email to his workmates, an email which included the following:

I wanted to drop by and brag about my Dad. He wrote a goddamn novel! I've read it and I loved it (and not just coz he's my Dad). Mum edited it, I proof read it and took his portrait for the back cover, and my little brother designed and did the art for the cover. A real family affair! … It's finally out on Amazon, and Taylor and I were gonna order copies together to save on shipping. If any of you would like to support a lovely old man with an incredible skill for storytelling, let me know and we can team up on a big ol' order.

“A real family affair!

“A real family affair!

Clearly this marketing strategy -  linking a desire ‘to support a lovely old man’ with buying a book - works! Twenty two of his colleagues dug into their pockets and ordered the book. :-)

This morning, though, Oli told me how he struggled when asked what the book was about. ‘What do I say?’ he asked.

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself as I throw myself into ten weeks of publicity before the official launch on March 26th. I’m not happy with the ways I’ve described it on Goodreads or on my website or on Book2Look or Netgalley.

Cover design and art work by Solomon Karmel-Shann

Cover design and art work by Solomon Karmel-Shann

Writing helps me with questions like this. Hence this blog post.

What is my novel about?

The simplest way to answer the question is to repeat the title. ‘The Worlds of Harriet Henderson’. My book is the story of a fifteen-year-old girl and the complex intersecting worlds that she both experiences and creates.

When I started writing the first chapters in mid-2015, I thought this was exactly what my book was going to be about (and also about the complex and intersecting worlds of her grandfather, her teacher, and her friend Zeph). I wanted to write a story, not a treatise or essay or journal article. I’ve always loved telling stories. Here, newly retired, was my chance to tell a long one. I wasn’t setting out to explore a theme or to make a point or present an argument. I wanted to draw on moments from my own personal and professional life to make a story which a reader would enjoy reading.

As Tim Winton said in a recent interview

I don't set out to write a novel about anything … I don't do themes or issues, I just write about a place and the scum that bubbles up out of it, which is the humans. I just follow them and see what gives.

But now I realise that something happened in the writing of the book that meant that it wasn’t just me telling a story. The characters whose stories I was imagining (Harriet, Max, Molly, Zeph) were all aspects of me, and so inevitably what they felt, believed and said came to resemble things that I feel, believe and say.

All my teaching life I’ve felt a kind of semi-articulated frustration that the way our general culture talks about teaching, schools, students, learning and education is somehow two-dimensional, and that this narrowness of view affects our teaching practices and limits our institutional structures and procedures. It also pits us teachers against our deeper intuitions and loves. Where teachers (and especially English teachers perhaps) have what I’d call a mythopoetic sensibility, our society values something more functional, rational and blinkered.

I love the term ‘mythopoetic’. For me it speaks to the way our lives are made meaningful through the stories we live and feel and imagine, and through the way others’ stories or life-trajectories intersect with and affect our own. When we see a classroom through a mythopoetic lens, what is hidden or suppressed through being viewed through a functional lens becomes visible. What is potential but dormant becomes accessible and touched.

My novel is not just the telling of a story. It’s an attempt to describe a classroom – and the teachers and students who live so much of their waking lives in it - through a mythopoetic lens.

I’m not sure that this would help Oliver all that much next time he tries to explain what my book is about. I’m not sure that it gets me much closer to re-writing the unsatisfactory book summaries on Goodreads or my website either.

I’ve still got work to do before I’ve found the right words for my publicity blurbs.

I’d appreciate any comments that might help nudge me closer to a pithy expression of what my book is all about.

***

Postscript: In November 2018, the journal Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education published online a piece about the genesis of The Worlds of Harriet Henderson. It’s called The Worlds of Harriet Henderson: Fiction as a Window into the English Classroom.”