No showing off please, we're British

We all know conflict is essential in fiction. There must be conflict right from the word go, otherwise no one will ever, EVER read our stories.

The conflict on the page, however, is the least of what it means to be a writer. We have other inner battles to contend with. Whether, for example, to leave the computer and do some exercise or whether to stay put and eat another Jaffa Cake. But the internal conflict I didn't anticipate was the one over trying to talk about my book.

This happens after you have supposedly got over all the hurdles. An agent and publisher like your work. You have a fixed date for it coming out, there's a gorgeous cover design, and your mum's friends are all bizarrely impressed at the notion that they will know an actual celebrity who will have millions of pounds just like J. K. Rowling.

The conflict arises when you know that your credibility, writing career and finances depend on people buying – and preferably enjoying – your book. And yet you want to die with embarrassment at the thought of having to go out and tell the world how supposedly great it is.


A confident, well-groomed person, looking rather like Audrey Hepburn, leaves everyone open-mouthed with admiration at the vivacious and yet intellectual way in which she mentions her masterpiece.

“What's it about?” an admirer begs to know, and the author smiles intelligently.

“Well,” she replies. “I see my book as being essentially about determination and survival.” The listener cranes in, captivated by the author's unparalleled combination of brains and beauty. “It's about two isolated people recognising themselves in each other and discovering a shared enislement in a society that wants to keep them in their place.”


A red-faced person, dressed courtesy of the skip out the back of Oxfam, twiddles an empty wine glass and notices that the person she is talking to keeps looking past her in the hope that someone will rescue them.

“So,” the non-admirer says, stifling a yawn. “Are there any wizards in it?”

“Uh,” the author replies. “It's just stuff about people throwing stuff at each other and stuff, and there's kind of some gruesome stuff ... and ...” (non-admirer waves at someone across the room) “and ... and stuff like that.”

Plugging a book just feels so showy-offy and un-British. It's just not the done thing to look pleased with oneself, is it? If, like the wonderful Gail Trimble of University Challenge, you awkwardly admit that you might be quite clever and possibly might have achieved something, you can even induce violent hatred.

It's more acceptable to mumble about how the book's not really very good and it didn't take that long to write and no one's going to like it so it's probably a good thing that no one will ever read it anyway. And it's up to people whether or not they buy it and if they don't want to that's all right because that's up to them and they don't have to and I won't be offended ...

And yet that doesn't actually impress anyone. If we writers don't appear to have confidence in our work, why should others? So how do I talk about my book without making people mutter “Who does she think she is?”

All you proper authors out there – how do you do it?

Thank you to Steve Knight for his Union flags photo.


Liz said...

Caroline, great write-up and great question makes me think of that line that used to be fired at us as kids 'self-praise is no praise' and 'getting too big for one's boots'... I think in other cultures, it's no big deal to blow one's own trumpet, but in Ireland for sure, it's sort of looked on as showing-off but as you say how the hell do you promote a book if you don't speak positively about really interested in hearing how others manage to do it....cheers : )

Anonymous said...

So interesting and so true! When asked about my books, I prefer telling people how long and hard I struggled to be published, and how, really, I'm just an ordinary girl with no special qualifications, no further education, just the determination to write a book, etc etc. Somehow people find that kind of thing acceptable and they tend to warm to you more than if you sound pretentious, 'literary' and clever! Actually not difficult for me as I'm not pretentious, literary or clever anyway! Face to face with people,I promote the books by saying things like 'I think it'll make you laugh', or 'I hope you'll find you can relate to the heroine' - but in written articles or on websites etc it's easier to say more, without sounding too smug, I think. Let's face it, we all prefer writing to talking about it!

Laurie Paulsen said...

oh, jeezum crow, i love this post! if i could reach through this monitor to yours, i'd clap my hands to your cheeks and give you a smack on the lips.
i've had those awkward conversations, after having had the courage to mention to a diner waitress i'm a writer and working on a novel (for example). i discover i have absolutely no idea what to say or how to say it.
i tell myself that developing a solid ten-word synopsis would help me (haven't done that yet), but i suspect it's more about the delivery than what specific words i say. nothing to do but practice talking about myself (*ulp*), and i shudder to estimate how many potential readers i'll alienate before i gain some level of personality.
thank you for talking about this in public!

E.G. said...

Oh yes oh yes - I need the answer to this! At the moment I can just about manage: 'Er, it's just about this, so anyway what's new with you?' whenever someone asks. I take it this will not do when I present the book at the London Book Fair in a few weeks...

I obviously had a big enough ego to write the book and hang on for dear life during the hellish submissions process...but now I'm quite the wallflower.

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness, Caroline, this was not only very funny, but also SO TRUE! I have seriously found myself at book signings telling people not to buy my books because it isn't very good...

Susie Vereker said...

Great blog full of truths! Potential punter at book sale asks what your book is about. You say 'Er, um' and they say 'I really like Judith Lennox' 'Well, I love Judith too and she's a good writer.' 'Wonderful, isn't she?' says the punter and walks away.

Phillipa said...

Caroline - what a brilliant (and toe curlingly accurate) post. I have done two signings in bookshops, alone, and I wouldn't do another. I found it impossible to stand up and promote the book cold to people. I don't think signings are a great idea, anyway, for an unknown writer. Now I only have launches with friends and invited captive guests, who can be bribed with wine and chocs. My bookshop manager friend advised me to do this, having seen too many signings where the poor author spends three hours shrivelling up with shame on the floor of the shop.

The Write Woman - I envy you because I got an agent/publisher first time and there are a few people who *haven't* seemed to like that. The rest ask me 'why' and 'how'I did it? How do you answer that other than 'I got very very lucky' (which essentially, is true!)

Romance writers do a lot of self-promotion, partly because, cough, most of us have no choice. I find that, on the whole, US writers have no problem whatsoever with self promotion and I mean that in a nice way, honestly. It's just accepted in the US that you celebrate your achievements - why wouldn't you want to tell the world? As a Brit, I find it very weird and embarrassing to promote my own work but I as I also work in advertising/PR in my day job, I'd be a bit of a wimp, if I didn't try. I'm not too with writing PR, but as for having to talk about the book - I'm with Rosy and am sorely tempted to say: 'oh, gosh, you don't really want one of mine, do you?"

Administrator said...

Well, as an as-of-yet unpublished author, i still find people in awe if i write novels.

I don't understand why people are in awe of us though, published or not, lots of other people in other walks of life do amazing things - even if that's 'just' holding down a job or raising a family.

I usually shrug and say i'm sure there's something you do wonderfully that i wouldn't have a clue about.


Gillian McDade said...

I think most people are naturally very coy about their own work. And then once you come to publication, there's all the promotional work to do, in which case you do have to blow your own trumpet!

Caroline Green said...

Brilliant post, Caro! I love these insights into what it's like beyond the Being Published hurdle....although the grass isn't as shiny and green as I'd hoped!
Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone, thanks for all your comments. It's quite comforting that I'm not the only one who feels like this.

It is a paradox that we have the bloody-mindedness to keep honing the book and sending it out in the face of rejection, and yet suddenly feel vulnerable when there's a chance of people reading the wretched thing.

Getting published is pretty good, though, so I won't complain too much!

Anonymous said...

I sympathise too! I'm always getting told that my pitch isn't confident enough. Ultimately, though, I feel like a right fool trying to plug my book to people, so I don't *feel* confident. I'm hoping practice makes perfect, and quite quickly too...

Geraldine Ryan said...

A really funny post, Caro - and I've loved reading all the other contributions from fellow writers.

Anonymous said...

Bgger, left a comment and it disapperared.

So,just to say, brilliant, brilliant post!


Susie Nott-Bower said...

So true - and in a way it's even tougher when you haven't been published. I find it's helpful to have a three key-word sentence - eg 'It's about love, rebirth and magic' and leave it at that. As soon as they ask if you've been published and you reply in the negative, they quickly lose interest anyway!

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh. All so true. When I called my mum to tell her I'd got a book deal - and it wasn't as if I was being loud about it - she waited until I'd passed her on to my boyfriend, and then said to him "Just make sure she doesn't get too big for her boots, won't you?"

And as for my dad... when I got the offer, his first reaction was "Who are these people??" (who madly want to publish you!) "Are they genuine??" I assured him they were. Mum suggested that we have some champagne to celebrate. "I thought you have champagne only when you've signed the contract", said my father. "Um, well, we can have another bottle when the contract comes," I said. "No," said my father darkly. "Once is enough."

As for talking about the books - no, I can't do that either.

I talked about them once. Once is enough. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone - very interesting comments.

Your parents' reaction must have been disheartening, BCW - I hope they've got used to your success now.

Anonymous said...

Oh they've said nice things as well, of course, but I think they're just a bit freaked out by it on some level :)

Anonymous said...

What a funny post, and so true! The first time I was stopped in the street by a fan, I realized I was wearing my blouse inside out. It doesn't get much more embarrassing than that.

Still, what you have to remember is that meeting compliments with a running commentary on your personal deficiencies isn't an especially attractive trait either. It can be boring, sound false, and, worse, come across as ungracious in the face of a genuine compliment. Somewhere between gushing self-deprecation and repulsive arrogance lies a happy medium!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kate. Yes, it is tedious when people go on and on about how rubbish they are. It can come across as fishing for compliments, or as you say, can appear quite rude when someone else is just trying to be nice.

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