Following Gandalf’s Advice

by Jo Harthan

Never doubt that the fiction you write can have a profound effect on your reader. Books are powerful and can be a medium for subtle indoctrination. 

So begins my blog during these strange times. The present lockdown, because of coronavirus, has given me lots of time for self-reflection—not that I’ve had a shortage of time for doing that over the years. But this is different. This is forced isolation. 

Until March I was sure I had my relationship psychology sussed. It was on the lines of Freud’s theory that women like me are attracted to men who don’t reciprocate love because that’s how my father was; they’re painful attachments that are familiar and comfortable. Despite knowing that, I’m still attracted to the Mr. Wrongs. 

But hold on a minute. Maybe Freud was Mr. Wrong. I say this because three weeks into my self-isolation, I woke with a startling revelation. It’s not my father that’s the problem. It’s the publishing industry!

Publishers decide what fictional world we will escape into. Our daydreams are very powerful. I was a child of the 50s and, until John Lennon came along, the epitome of my desirable man was James Bond. Ian Fleming sexually objectified women by giving his characters such names as Pussy Galore, Plenty O’Toole, Xenia Onatopp or Holly Goodhead. It seems quite shocking today. I remember an older sister catching me reading Dr. No and admonishing me for it. She said I wasn’t old enough to be reading ‘racy stuff like that’. I was fourteen. Perhaps she was right but for the wrong reasons. 

The right reason would have been that I was being indoctrinated into a fairytale where women were powerless and men were heros. I truly believed that when my prince came, he would be a Sean Connery clone. This sort of propaganda was still being pedalled in 1982 when Richard Gere threw Debra Winger over his shoulder and carried her off to eternal bliss in the nauseatingly romantic movie, An Officer and a Gentleman.

So are things any different today? With Indie publishing you would think so. Anyone can now publish anything they like, any genre, any theme. The trouble is, publishers still have the edge because they know how to operate the marketing network. Getting your work ‘out there’ is the main stumbling block of any self-published author. Your work may be brilliant but if the world doesn’t know it exists, it will never be read. So how can we get our name out there? 

Well, not by giving your book away as a free kindle download that’s for sure! A lesson I’ve only recently learned. Following forty, free downloads of my latest book, Vital Organs, Amazon KDP in their wisdom decided there was ‘unusual reviewing behaviour’ and blocked reviews from anyone other than ‘verified purchasers’ i.e. those readers who had paid for the book. I had run the free promotion in the hope of getting reviews—why else would I give my work away? I tried for over a week to get answers from Amazon, making my questions as simple as possible—only a yes/no answer required:

1. Are free promotion downloads treated as ‘un-verified purchases’ even though, on download, the message says ‘thank you for your purchase’?

2. Was it too many reviews from ‘un-verified purchases’ that triggered the ban?

3. Was it just one review that triggered the ban? If so, was it one of the free downloads?

4. Will this ban on reviews be lifted soon?

5. Is there a limit on the number of reviews accepted following a free promotion?

I still haven’t received an answer to any of those questions. I find that rather worrying. Either KDP staff don’t know what algorithms are operating on their website or they are imposing clandestine marketing censorship.

However, back to coronavirus.

Until Covid-19 made an appearance, I had been wishing I had more time to write. Guitar playing and drinking beer at open mics had taken over my life. In addition, I had my ukulele club, workshops and talks to prepare, holidays, conferences and residential courses booked. Remember the cliché ‘be careful what you wish for’? Obviously, I’m not suggesting that this virus was my doing. As an Indie author, I don’t have that much power. Though I do, it seems, have the power of prophecy.

This week, author copies of Vital Organs landed on my doorstep and I saw, as if for the first time, what I had written for the back-cover text—penned in January. 

“A story demanding to be told condemns the writer to servitude in solitary confinement for an indefinite period of time.”

Amazing! When I wrote those words, I had no idea that a much longer period of forced incarceration was fast approaching. 

The moment we went into lockdown, I was reminded of Gandalf’s words in Tolkien’s, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

So, that’s what I did. And my decision was to devote all my time to writing. 

I formatted and published Vital Organs a week into lockdown—a novel I had started during NaNoWriMo 2017. It’s a story of how one woman tries to come to terms with the new ‘opt-out’ system of organ donation after the death of her only son. I had to make last minute changes to accommodate Covid-19, though it’s now apparent that I may not have gone far enough. The ‘opt-out’ was due to come into force this month (May) but appears to have been put on a back-burner. In addition, my novel assumes that by November 2020 the lockdown is nothing more than a bad memory. As Jennifer Joyce said in her blog, this is the world of fiction, so does it matter? I’m hoping not.

I’ve just finished another novel—the one written during NaNoWriMo 2019 titled The Daisy Grave, and am now busy with the next one, Reaper of Souls, started during NaNoWriMo 2018. There are another three, half-written books waiting patiently in the wings, hoping to be completed before I commit to NaNoWriMo 2020. 

I must confess, I am rather happy in my solitude, safe inside my little writing bubble, un-fettered by Mr. Wrongs. I don’t watch the News anymore—it makes me cry to see other people’s pain. But never a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for the life I have, warts and all.

And it’s been wonderful to keep in touch with writing colleagues without the need to get dressed, wash hair or wear make-up. I’m bra-less and totally liberated. We have regular Zoom meetings and workshops that make the time fly by even faster than it was before. I no longer have time to wash my hair.

Regardless of what BoJo announces in the future, I think I may continue my lockdown until I come to the end of my ‘To Do List’. I may even go in search of a cave.

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