Monday, 27 February 2017

K.I.S.S.

     '... in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be 
    original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence 
    how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become 
    original without ever having noticed it.'                                                                                                                                                    - C.S. Lewis

Something I find particularly frustrating is those who enshrine the author's craft in mystique. They speak or write in hushed tones about 'finding your voice', 'literary values', 'developing style'. It's all, if you will forgive the expression, so much crap. Did Dickens go in anxious search of his 'voice'? Did Hardy worry himself sick about being 'literary'? Did Dashiell Hammitt sit up all night reading books about 'style'? Hemmingway, Jane Austen, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Harper Lee, Stephen King - whoever your favourite author is, if you could ask his/her advice my guess is that it would probably come down to the old adage, 'Keep It Simple, Stupid'. For my money, the reverse is also true: authors obsessed with style are an abomination. If I am reading a book and find myself stopping every few paragraphs to admire a telling metaphor or a neat turn of phrase, I'm very unlikely to persevere to the end. It is obvious that the writer is more interested in impressing me with his/her cleverness than in enthralling me with a story or persuading me with an argument.
   'Le style c'est l'homme m
ême' ('style is the man himself') - so the Enlightenment writer, George-Louis Leclerc, famously observed. He exalted the virtue of expression, because when a writer fixes his mind on conveying what he truly thinks or feels he is fulfilling his function. The author puts him/herself on paper. Does that mean that he/she is impervious to all that has been written before? Obviously not. You and I are in love with the same promiscuous mistress - 'words'. We are enraptured by them. We spend all the time we can in their company. They go into the ongoing creation of who we are and it is who we are that ends up on the printed page - as long as we don't allow ourselves to get sidetracked by the demon 'Literary taste'.
   Our readers relate to us, just as people in our everyday lives relate to us. Some become firm friends. Some remain mere acquaintances. Some may hate us. C'est la vie! Most reader reviews of my historical novels are kind enough to comment that they are fluently written but one disgruntled Amazon reviewer stated that reading one of my stories was like 'wading through treacle'. 'You can please some of the people all of the time'... And just as, in the real world, people usually see through us pretty quickly if we pretend to be what we are not, so it is a mistake in our books to affect a 'literary' persona. The same is true if we put on a 'commercial' front - i.e. writing in a way we think will sell. When a new novel becomes an overnight success some hopeful writers are tempted to copy it. Be warned - bandwagons are unstable vehicles. It's very difficult to ride to fame and fortune on someone else's success. There are, of course, niche markets (about which I'll have more to say under 'N is for Niche Market'). Fans of period romance, mean-streets crime, military history and other genres are always on the lookout for new authors. But discerning readers expect newbies to be experts in the field and to have something fresh to say. Once they've sussed that we're mere hangers-on we'll have lost them for all time - no matter how brilliant our next book is.
   A brief word about those poseurs extraordinaires, the literary critics, self-appointed 'experts' who claim to be able to detect what is and is not 'literature'. According to the OED base definition all books are literature because they are written (Latin littera = 'letter'). There is no dividing line between what is 'literary writing' and 'non-literary' writing. There are well-written books and badly written books and a wide range in between. Whereabouts on the spectrum any particular work is located comes down entirely to personal preference. No-one - but no-one - is going to tell me what is or is not a good book. Most of us would doubtless agree in identifying the brilliant and the rubbishy offerings but that would still leave opinions on the vast majority of books divided.
   What that comes down to for us writers is that if we write simply from the heart and from the head we will connect with some readers. They may be many; they may be few. Either way we will have justified our existence.
   Next time:    Literary agents
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Friday, 24 February 2017

J is for JOURNALISM

An author writing articles for newspapers and magazines is a bit like an athlete making visits to the gym as part of his training for the London marathon. Apart from the financial return (and, in terms of pounds per hour, may be more rewarding than the ground-breaking novel you are currently sweating over, there are several reasons for seeking journalistic outlets for your endeavours.
(1) It keeps the creative juices flowing. Because you are a writer you will write anyway. You can't help it. But knowing that your work will be read is a great boost.
(2) There are probably things you want to say that will not develop into a book but will turn into entertaining/informative shorter pieces.
(3) Writing to a fixed word count is an excellent self-discipline. It makes you concentrate on what you really want to say.
(4) You never know where it might lead. Feedback from readers is often valuable in itself but your feature may attract a publisher or a TV producer or ... No publicity is bad publicity .

As we all know, it's difficult to place book projects but the market for journalistic pieces is wide open. Editors of daily, weekly or monthly periodicals have got to fill hundreds of column inches every issue and some of that space is available to freelance contributors. Editors need good copy. I know - I was a magazine editor for several years. Thanks to coverage of current affairs by other media most established national dailies and weeklies are struggling. There's no doubt that they are not as open to non-staff items as they once were. But their doors are not locked and bolted. On the other hand there have never before been so many special interest magazines on the shelves. Whatever your interest there will almost certainly be a weekly or monthly catering for it - and linking together hundreds or thousands of fellow enthusiasts. What a captive market! And when your next book comes out an editor who has got to know you should be good for a review.

As a writer you will, of course, have developed the habit of making and keeping notes of things that interest you. What do you do with those items that move you, or fascinate you, or puzzle you, or intrigue you, or annoy you? Well, you could faff around firing off tweets or facebook salvoes into the cavernous void of cyberspace. Alternatively, you could turn your energy to producing a trenchant, or witty, or tear-jerking piece that will reach a known audience (and for which you might get paid).

There are a few - I won't say 'rules', more common courtesies - that must be observed.
(1) Familiarise yourself with the periodical you plan to approach. Make sure the item you have in mind is exactly the sort of material it carries - Get a feel for the appropriate style.
(2) Check how the editor should be approached. Some like to be presented with an outline in the first instance. Some prefer to consider the finished item. You will find this information in The Artists' and Writers' Yearbook (I assume that you have this essential tool).
(3) Stick rigidly to the prescribed word count.
(4) Build up relationships with the editorial team. In this bizz, as in most others, it's not what you know but who you know that counts.
(5) Enthuse about the periodical, its subject matter, its readers. Don't give the impression that you're only writing to further your own career.
(6) If you are sent copy proofs, check them and respond promptly. Editors work to deadlines and it doesn't pay to keep them waiting.
(7) Sign up with ALCS (Authors Licensing and Collecting Society). This organisation exists to ensure that writers receive acknowledgement and payment when their work is quoted in other outlets (books and articles).

Professional authorship, as we all know, is a solitary life. Building contacts with others who share your passions takes you out of yourself. Journalism is one way of widening your circle of friends. I'm happy to count among members of my circle university professors, highly successful fellow authors and TV celebs. Several of them I met through the pages of newspapers and magazines.

Next time we'll K.I.S.S.
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Monday, 20 February 2017

I is for INGENUITY

   There are two books you are concerned with if you are a writer. One is the book you want to write. The other is the book lots of other people are longing to read. The trick is to make them identical. You can, of course, ignore your potential readership and just go ahead to tell the story you have a burning passion to tell. It might just work - it MIGHT. Like the lottery - someone will win it. But this is not a very canny way of going about things. The ingenious participant in every sphere of endeavour is the one who stays ahead of the game. This year some books will be published that will attract massive attention. Now, when the authors first set out on their manuscripts, two, three or more years ago, they did not know how popular their work would prove to be but some of them will have approached their task with ingenuity. They will have given a lot of thought to one question: 'what will people be talking about in two, three or more years' time? And they will have tried to tailor their story to appeal to that future audience.
   One obvious pointer is anniversaries. For example 2020 will mark the 4th centenary of the sailing of the Mayflower. There's not the slightest doubt that various books will be published, on both sides of the Atlantic whose authors hope to cash in on the story of the Pilgrim Fathers. But there could be other ways to exploit the event of 1620. You might want to offer a serious analysis of what the first settlers believed in and the extent to which their ideals have or have not been realised in the subsequent history of the USA. Or you could use the voyage as a take-off point for a novel. There were some passengers on that ship who are little more than names to us four hundred years later. Plenty of scope, therefore, for weaving an imaginary story around one of them that would allow you to recreate the appalling conditions of a transatlantic crossing in a way that would not be possible for a factual historical account.
   Something less specific but potentially more rewarding if you get it right is looking into the crystal ball of the public mood. What will the atmosphere be like in America or Europe or - any place of your choosing - at the end of the decade. It's a good guess that nationalist politicians will be in power in some countries and that there will be growing apprehension that the peace the western world has experienced for seventy years might be coming to an end. There could be several ways of writing something useful to the world at such an anxious time: satire, serious biography of a historic dictator, or why not retell fictionally the Hitler story but set in modern Britain, or France or America? Brecht did that with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. OK, the play was a flop but the idea was a good one.
   Timing isn't everything. Far from it. There are some subjects that are always popular. Take rags-to-riches tales or family sagas, for example. Some years ago I stumbled (almost literally) on a story that had both these ingredients. Quite by chance I paid a visit to Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust mansion. I was so impressed by the house and contents that I tried to find out about the people who had built it and filled it with fabulous collections of paintings, furniture, porcelain and other treasures - the banking family of Rothschild. My researches unearthed an amazing tale of a Jewish money lender in the Frankfurt ghetto at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who sired five sons who went on to build the most successful banking empire in Europe. I also discovered that the story had never been properly told (partly because the family was reticent about co-operating). Some subtle negotiating by publishers and other contacts secured an agreement that I might write the book. In fact, the book almost wrote itself. All I had to do was travel around Europe talking with various members of the family and reading archive documents to which I was given privileged access. The result was a truly fascinating story, a saga that had everything - in spades. And it led on to books on two other remarkable commercial dynasties, the Astors and the Guinnesses. Where did the ingenuity come in? Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I think I can say that I was savvy enough to realise that the story I had stumbled on was one that lots of other people would also find fascinating.
   'Ingenuity' should not be confused with 'sales gimmick'. In 1979 Kit Williams published a small book called Masquerade. The pictures in it contained clues to a golden hare, buried at a secret location. Readers were invited to solve the puzzle and dig up the treasure. It worked. The book sold over a million copies and created a frenzy which lasted until the wretched hare was discovered in 1982. Masquerade unleashed a flood of copycat treasure puzzles. It was a clever stunt but it was a far cry from what we could call a piece of ingenious writing. In fact it wasn't written at all. What I'm referring to is a work of fact or fiction, worth writing and written with integrity. There are hundreds of such written every year. Some get published. A few - a very few - are commercially successful. The ingenuity comes in what we might call the incidentals - the format, the timing, the market research. It's about presenting your work to a public that wants it and knows that it wants it. This is a skill in itself and its once that authors, agents and publishers are trying to develop and apply day in and day out. This is one reason why it's important to work with a good agent and a good editor. It's their job to understand market trends.
   Of course calculation will only get you so far. It's like have a horse entered for the right race. You can make sure the conditions are favourable, the jockey skilful, the competition not too strong but it's the horse that has to win and victory essentially comes down to breeding and training. Successful writing is about a heck of a lot more than understanding your market but it certainly helps if you can keep an open mind and think outside the box.
   In a few days time let's look together at J for Journalism.
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