Thursday, 25 May 2017

W is for WORDS

                'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
                 Be noble to myself'
                                            - Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii, 192-3

In Shakespeare's play the queen has been listening to the empty promises of Caesar. She is not taken in by them and thus expresses her contempt. We are all familiar with the ways politicians play with words, using them to convey lies, half-truths, evasion and misinformation, investing them with emotional overload. We are aware of the slippery use of 'weasel words'. We know what they are doing, though not enough of us, like Cleopatra, call their bluff. It's not only politicians who abuse language. Advertisers study the psychology of words, so that they can select the ones which will evoke favourable responses in those who read or hear them. Academics use 'in' words to impress their peers (e.g. 'metanarative' instead of 'big story'). Writers of instruction manuals for our ever-more-complicated electrical devices seem incapable of writing an English sentence uncluttered with jargon, acronyms and symbols. And as for social media afficianados ... well, I won't go on. The point I want to make is that one of our tasks as writers is to preserve, protect, cherish and glory in that galaxy of glittering objects that provide our bread and butter - words.

Those of us whose natural tongue is English are the privileged guardians of the richest and most expressive written language in the world. We must protect it. From change? No, heaven forfend! Language evolves, and quite rightly so. But it should become richer for change and not poorer. For example, what is happening to the word 'persuade'? It is being barged out of the vocabulary by 'convince'. Now, the two words are not synonymous. You might persuade someone to do something without convincing him/her that it's a good idea. And there's another thing: political correctness has made us so gender sensitive that it is becoming commonplace to abandon grammar altogether. You would not be surprised nowadays to come across such a sentence as: 'Every member of the team has their special responsibility'. Yuk!

How can we buck this appalling debasing of our beloved English? It goes without saying that we should acquire, principally through our reading, as large a vocabulary as we can so that our writing will be as nuanced as possible; so that we can express our meaning with the finest degree of precision. This may not always be appreciated, as I discovered when a reviewer hauled me over the coals for using the word 'fissiparous'. In the context of what I was describing it meant precisely what I was trying to convey (i.e. 'having a tendency to fragment') but it was not a word he was familiar with and he accused me of making it up. Not that I would be offended at being accused of verbal innovation. There's nothing wrong in occasionally, being playful with our language. Shakespeare was a splendid maker-upper of words. In the quote above he takes that very noun 'words' and makes it powerfully a verb. We can almost see the sneer on Cleopatra's lip - 'He words me, girls'. Speaking, I find, can be a real help in finding the right combination of words. if I'm having difficulty with a passage, I say it aloud. Does it flow off the tongue or judder? Is the sentence too long? Is the paragraph overloaded? Do the chosen words convey mood as well as meaning?

We're not jailers of the language but we are guardians. We should be trying to keep its feet on the right path. If we don't, no-one else will. We're not pedagogues, either. We are not here to teach our readers how to write. And yet, in a sense we are. Just as our use of language has been shaped by all the authors we have read, so we are, unconsciously, influencing those who read our books, imparting to them our love of words. At least, I hope so.

Friday, 19 May 2017


This is to introduce Superstition and Science - Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans, which will be published on 25 May. In this book I try to describe the major developments of Western thought in the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in a way that is accessible to the general reader. This is a mammoth subject and it may be that I was audacious to attempt it. However, I believe that there are valid reasons for dissecting this period of intellectual history.

The reason that is the most immediately obvious is that these centuries (c.1450-c.1750) produced some of the more remarkable and fascinating characters in the history of our civilization - people who challenged old certainties, advanced new ideas, plunged deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos than anyone had dared to plunge before, and made discoveries that benefited their own and later generations. They are a varied pantheon of brilliant, often clashing, intellects - Copernicus, Luther, Harvey, Spinoza, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Dee, Locke, Rousseau and many others. Some are household names, familiar to most of us. Others are worthy of being rescued from relative obscurity. But, important as they are, we must not examine them in isolation in order to understand them. We must not locate them in an ivory tower labelled 'History of Thought'. They were of their own time, responding to contemporary events and fashioned by the world in which they lived. For most of the period under review that was a violent world. Political and religious conflict unleashed devastating wars and unspeakable violence which decimated populations but also inspired invention. Some of Leonardo da Vinci's visionary drawings were for war machines. The telescope was first conceived as a tool for military leaders. Improved navigation for fighting ships was an offshoot of star gazers' speculations about the movements of heavenly bodies.

Then, there is still a need to underpin with fact our study of the development of philosophical thought. It is not a single, simple line that can be drawn on a graph which begins in naive ignorance and rises to sophisticated understanding. The book is deliberately called Superstition AND Science, not Superstition TO Science. Human affairs are much too complex for such simplicity. Religion and magic are no more boon companions than science and atheism are inevitable bedfellows. The quest for truth in medieval Europe was, almost exclusively, the preserve of churchmen. They held a monopoly of learning and learning was based on revelation and observation. Revelation consisted of truths enshrined in the Bible, the writings of the great doctors of the Church and the wisdom inherited from the classical world - predominantly from Aristotle. The sine qua non of all intellectual speculation was that 'life, the universe and everything' could only be understood in terms of the interaction of two spheres - nature and supernature. The two momentous events that gave rise to the Renaissance - the invention of movable-type printing, and the influx of ancient Greek and Latin texts following the collapse of Byzantine Christendom - did not change this basic approach to scientia (knowledge). Throughout the period covered in Superstition and Science scholars continued to seek truth in the 'Book of Nature' and the 'Book of God'. By 1750 atheism had scarcely dared to show its face. Most men of science were also men of faith. Thus, Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, in A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of nature (1686) attacked the atheism he associated with libertinism; and Sir Isaac Newton devoted more mental energy to the second coming of Christ than to the theory of gravity. And if we see Galileo's spat with the Vatican as proof that religion and science were incompatible in the 17th century it is because our vision is dimmed by 21st century secularist assumptions.

Speculation about the cosmos and man's relationship to it was not confined to scholars. Magic (black and white), alchemy, herbalism, astrology and folk religion were all facets of the prism that was popular belief and which cast its rainbow of everyday life. Even mathematicians like John Dee and Tycho Brahe were primarily in demand for casting horoscopes. Who could doubt that, just as the seasons for planting and harvesting were determined by the cosmic dance of earth and sun, so in all other human endeavours it was wise to fall in with what was 'written in the stars'. And just as acorns turned into oaks and caterpillars into butterflies why should lead not be transmutable into gold? The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, was not the only magnate who spent a fortune surrounding himself with 'wise men' who claimed to be able to harness the powers of the spirit world.

Meanwhile, official religion had not remained unaffected by the ambitious speculations of thinking men. Theologians responded to and contributed to the realignment of thought. The Reformation produced devout men and women who pitched individualism against the dictates of Catholic traditionalism, just as the Renaissance produced free-thinkers who challenged political and artistic conventions. From Luther to Wesley the lives and writings of Christian thinkers demonstrated new ways of thinking and believing. 

These are just tasters of the kaleidoscopic narrative that makes up Superstition and Science, a book that places the achievements of great pioneers like William Harvey, Andreas Vesalius, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society alongside the puzzling assertions of mavericks like Paracelsus, Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno. It is as we see such remarkable individuals against the background of their own, often violent, world that we can assess more clearly the places they occupy in that bigger narrative that is the adventure of the human spirit.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

V is for VANITY

For writers vanity is not admiring what you've written. Sometimes - just sometimes - that is justifiable. To have worked hard and long on a chapter, or even a page, and to have reached the point at which you can say, 'Yes, that really is what I meant; I couldn't have put it better' is justifiable self-satisfaction. To believe and seek to persuade other people to believe that you are something special because you write books - that's vanity. The tendency towards this kind of self-love has always been obnoxious but it has been encouraged by the development of marketing trends over recent years. Now that authors are expected to be involved in promotion - not just attending the occasional launch or festival but maintaining a social media presence - the temptation is strong to become self-advertising 'brands'. It can have a deleterious effect on written style, as when an author cultivates literary eccentricities in order to declare to readers 'look how clever I am'.

It is understandable that wordsmiths feel the need to do something - anything - to draw attention to themselves. In Britain alone 150,000 new titles are published every year. Most of them are doomed, after a short shelf-life, to disappear without trace. With insecurity built into the very framework of our lives it's not surprising that some of us resort to any tricks we can think of to stand out from the crowd. I believe we all need to guard against this tendency for at least two reasons. The first is that it goes against the grain - at least for many authors. We are solitaries. Large chunks of our lives are spent in confined spaces, shut up with our emerging creations. We don't devote much of our time to cavorting before the public, either in the real world or cyberspace. I've often thought that being a famous author is probably the most satisfactory form of celebrity because you lead a normal life without being recognised everywhere you go. Therefore, to actually seek admiration can set up real tensions. The other reason is that vanity is usually self-defeating. We live, are discovered and, hopefully, enjoyed in our printed words. It is the transmutation of our imagination and intellect into readable prose or verse that impacts on readers. The more we intrude our personalities - through the text or the advertising paraphernalia that increasingly precedes or accompanies the text in the market place, the more we bore or irritate our fans. For example, it is one thing to flag up on twitter each new publication and quite another to name drop or announce to all the other creatures in the aviary what fun we had doing the research or explain how we succeeded in tackling a difficult aspect of the subject. Of course, there are a few folk out there who are genuinely interested in the writer's craft but don't let's kid ourselves that the world loves us as much as we love ourselves. Readers want the product not the producer.

It could be reasonably argued that all authors are, of necessity, vain. We have the effrontery to think that what we want to say is of such interest and value to people that they will part with good money to read it. Perhaps we should remind ourselves frequently that our subject matter lies largely 'out there' rather than within. It was one of the more attractive Puritan divines of the 17th century who observed, 'None are so empty as those who are full of themselves'. We offer readers our view of the world but what matters is not that it is our view but that it is based on keen and honest observations - less introspection and more extraspection. The dish we serve up may be piquant, strong-flavoured, sweet or highly-spiced but it will be made more palatable if served with the sauce of modesty.
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Thursday, 11 May 2017

U is for UP TO SNUFF

Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was a rich man's vice and the valuable commodity was carried in ornate boxes crafted in gold, mother-of-pearl and other precious materials. Thus, if you were 'up to snuff' you were the tops in terms of wealth, fashion and sophistication. Few people now indulge this habit but the phrase 'up to snuff' lives on as a way of describing things or people of recognisably superior quality. How can we achieve this accolade for our work as writers? The only people who can confer it are our readers. That means we can't know whether our books are recognised as having real quality until they are published. By then it's too late to improve them. What steps, then, can we take while our work in in progress to ensure that it has a good reception and reflects favourably upon our skill as writers?

Well, we could let friends or family members read it. Not the best idea! It's a bit like putting our own child out to foster parents. We are reluctant to see it forming other relationships. As for the chosen readers they are likely to be very complimentary because they want to please us. If they stifle their reservations we have learned nothing. On the other hand, if someone gives us honest critical feedback we might resent it - and bang goes a beautiful friendship!

Alternatively, we could put our precious MS out to a professional reader. There are plenty offering their services - for a fee. The best ones will tactfully give considered advice. Here, the problem is that we are dealing with just one individual, whereas the success of a book depends on the favourable concensus of thousands of readers, each with his or her own preferences. More importantly, such paid critics have no personal investment in our work. They will not share in our success or failure once the book hits the market.

It remains true that the best people to help us raise our game are agents and publishers' editors. They do have a stake in furthering our careers. If we prosper, so will they.

So much for seeking criticism. The other side of the coin is knowing how to take it. Whatever we write reaches its 'finished' form as the result of a long, continuing process of self-criticism (or it most certainly should). We are constantly changing, revising, crossing out and re-inventing. We - and only we - know what we want to say and how we want to say it. As a result, it's not easy to accept from someone else any suggestion that we may have got it wrong, that it could have been done better. Successful writing involves compromise because we need to write, not only what we want, but what other people want to read. Compromise is never easy. If we reject it, there's no point in our seeking advice in the first place. If we slavishly follow every amendment urged upon us, we will end up with something that does not satisfy us and may well not satisfy others.

In bygone eras social climbers tried to get up to snuff by slavishly following fashion and I guess not a lot has changed in that regard. It may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it seldom, if ever, works in the writing world. Copying popular authors' subject matter and style invariably ends up by exposing our own lack of 'flair' or 'elan'. And, in my opinion, there's something tawdry about piggy-backing on someone else's achievements. We should be offering our own skill and insight to the world.

Will we be rewarded in material terms for doing so? Well, it would be nice to believe that 'genius will out' but experience suggests that, 

     Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There are two truths about the writer's world that are profoundly unfair: too much rubbish gets published and too much work of real merit does not get into print. But success is not solely measured in material terms. Self-satisfaction, regardless of market reaction, is worth more in the long term. An author whose life and work are marked by passion, imagination, persistence and sheer, bloody slog is, I suggest, a creative agent who is truly up to snuff.
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Monday, 1 May 2017


     It is remarkably appropriate that today marks the 500th anniversary of one of the more unsavoury events in the history of England's capital city. An angry mob of some 2,000 people rampaged through the centre of London bent on 'bashing foreigners'. The premises of alien traders and artisans (mainly French, Flemish and Italian) were broken into and looted. Several of the inhabitants were injured, though, remarkably, no-one seems to have been killed by the rioters. Law and order was only restored with difficulty by mounted troops who were even more violent than the protesters. Some 300-400 offenders were rounded up and, at a hastily convened court, the ringleaders were convicted of 'disturbing the peace of Christendom' and summarily hanged, drawn and quartered.
     At first sight this looks like a simple example of ugly xenophobia. Politicians and rabble-rousers can always rely on distorted national pride to channel discontent into an attack on 'them'. It matters not who the 'them' are, whether Flemish weavers, Muslim women wearing traditional dress or Mexican immigrants. All that matters is that the chosen scapegoats are 'different', 'foreign', 'not like us'. The Evil May Day riots of 1517 certainly had their origins in inflammatory preaching. Some two weeks earlier an open-air preacher in Spitalfields, an area where many immigrants lived, railed against their alien customers. He protested that they took the jobs of honest Englishmen and deflowered their wives and daughters. This mingling of truth, prejudice and downright lies did its work and, by the end of April it needed only one spark to set fire to the dry tinder of grumbling and gossip. That spark was a notice pinned to a door of St Paul's Cathedral calling all 'true Englishmen' to assemble at the church of St Martin-le-Grand on the next public holiday - May Day.
     Most people do not follow closely the intricacies of national and international politics. That makes them easy prey for rabble-rousers offering simple answer to complex problems, particularly if those answers are emotionally loaded. That was certainly the case in 1517. If the rioters had a genuine grievance they were not the fault of the strangers in their midst. It was the economic system which was responsible for the influx of European settlers and that system had the full backing of the Tudor regime. London, like all major European cities, was cosmopolitan. The smooth running of commerce require foreign banks and merchant houses to keep offices and agents in the English capital. The high quality English merchandise was, in some measure, dependent on immigrant craftsmen, such as Flemish dyers, who were particularly skilled at their job. The government profited from the settlement of overseas workers by the imposition of alien taxes. Clothiers and other industrial tycoons enjoyed close relations with their associates beyond the Channel. Government profited from import and export duties which made up a substantial part of annual revenue, and to encourage foreign businessmen the Crown extended special privileges to them. And at a diplomatic level national prosperity demanded the safe and easy routine operation of business across national borders. All this helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities to the popular protest of 1 May 1517.
     When the initial panic had died down. Henry VIII, in a stage-managed display of royal magnanimity, pardoned the remaining rioters who had been arrested. Assurances were given to foreign ambassadors that their fellow nationals would continue to enjoy the protection of the government. Essentially nothing changed - in the short term. In the long term Londoners learned to live with their foreign neighbours. Many of those neighbours married into English families, leaving nothing but their surnames as an indication of their origins. That is the way communities develop. All western nations are inhabited by mongrel populations. As long as countries prosper they will continue to attract fresh waves of settlers. The only way to stop this process is to stop being prosperous.
     But, then, that is just another over-simplified solution.

Friday, 28 April 2017


          'I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which          of them deserve to be followed.'                                - George Orwell

     There is a sense in which all writers are teachers or truants. We either have something to tell the world or we've bunked off into our own imagination. At the risk of overburdening the metaphor we might say that life is a classroom where lessons - some good, some bad - are taught about how things really are. Some of us, like teachers, believe we have things to impart that readers need to know. Others of us have got bored with reality or find it distasteful and prefer to peer in at the schoolroom window beckoning our classmates to come out and join us to romp in the world of fantasy. We either explore the human condition as it is or create a world inhabited by people as we would like them to be. To give concrete examples, we can either identify with George Smiley and his creator, John Le Carre, or with Ian Fleming and his tough, womanising hero, James Bond. One explores the real world of espionage; the other feeds our craving for excitement. In our writing we have to choose which it is we're offering our readers - enrichment or escapism.

     Escapism: A look at the bookstand in any supermarket leaves us in no doubt that fantasy pays. Apart from a few novels by well-established authors who have become household names, the shelves are filled with romances aimed at the female market and adventure stories for the chaps; proof, if any were needed, that many (most?) people look to books to provide them with escapism. They try out the works of unfamiliar authors who seem to be offering them the fare they are already used to, whether that's whodunits or bodice-rippers or pseudo medievalism. They are not looking for profound insights into the human psyche. A new author seeking to establish him/herself can quite easily and quickly work out how to exploit the escapist market: read half a dozen examples of a chosen sub-genre, make careful notes, work out the formula and reach for the keypad. We can all think of writers who have done just that and have churned out undemanding page-turners. What are your chances of joining them? Miniscule. You would find  yourself in the first-timers' lottery, with nothing to make your work stand out from the crowd. This is a strategy many, many hopefuls have tried. Your only chance of getting into print would be to self-publish or become involved with one of the small online publishing outfits who lack the resources to give your work real heft.

     Enrichment: Most publishers and all discerning readers are looking for writers with something worthwhile to say. It may be expertise that you have to impart - knowledge of the fashion industry, collecting rare stamps, any specialised knowledge that you can draw on to give your work, whether fact or fiction, verisimilitude. Or it may be personal experience that enables you to write with authority - coping with disability, witnessing a tragedy at close quarters, achieving a long-cherished ambition. In other words this kind of writer provides enrichment by offering something of him/herself. He/she is a teacher, not a truant.

     Of course, there is much more to successful authorship than deciding whether you want to provide escapism or something with more substance. You still need to develop writing skills. You still need guidance in the complex publishing business. You will, almost certainly, need a least one piece of luck. It's also true to say that the distinction I have suggested between the two approaches to our craft is not hard and fast. There are fantasy tales that rise above the mere recitation of thrills and spills and there are books which fail to deliver on their promise of providing something profound. But, that said, it is worthwhile for all of us to ask ourselves - often - what it is that we are trying to do, why we are trying to do it - and how much of ourselves we are ready go invest in the process.


Saturday, 22 April 2017


'Weak argument  -  shout'

   Academic research has established what most of us have long realised - that in the business of opinion forming to assert lies with conviction is more effective than calmly telling the truth. Politicians do it. We had a plethora of bombastic misinformation in last year's USA presidential election and the British referendum debate. Tweeters do it, hence the concern over hate mail and fake news. Manufacturers do it by hyping their products. The rule that governs most marketing - whether of a political programme, a washing powder or a personal prejudice - is, 'Never mind the facts; deliver your message loudly and with conviction'.
   Professional writers are supposed to be immune to this sort of thing. We should value truth above all else. We should be able to tell our stories, whether fact or fiction, using imagination as a vehicle for truth and not an embellishment of it. We should avoid the hidden agenda. We should let the narrative speak for itself and, as far as humanly possible, not interpose ourselves between the text and the reader. In other words, we should not sacrifice substance to style. I suppose that, as a historian, I'm particularly sensitive on this issue. My training has established the basic rule that the writer starts with the existing source material, assessing its worth and building his/her narrative on all the facts that can be discovered, irrespective of whether or not they support his/her own sympathies. Good history writing, like all good biography, is 'warts an' all'. When I come across a book that is written to prove a point (or, more often, to disprove someone else's point) I'm instantly on my guard. But it's not only in the field of historical non-fiction that we need to avoid the 'weak argument - shout' approach to our work. A while back I read an internet apologia by someone who had written a novel about Anne Boleyn. Her attitude was 'historians have described Anne as a scheming woman but I don't think she was like that. So in my story I describe her as a brave and wise heroine'. In other words, 'Don't confuse me with facts; I know what I think'. We all, if we have any intelligence at all, are sensitive to truth and falsehood. When a book fails to convince us, we stop suspending our disbelief and, in all likelihood, set it aside without reading to the end.
   The above may seem like a counsel of perfection and - to some extent - it is. We all have our convictions and prejudices. They go into the mix of our personas and, inevitably, colour what we write. But that does not mean that we are free to ignore our obligation to truth - to take our eye off the substance of what we are writing and concentrate instead on how we can impress a publisher or a reader. This involves a high degree of self-discipline. We are not free to 'let it all hang out' - not if we expect to be taken seriously. Here is a simple catechism we could all do well to pose to ourselves every time we take up pen or keypad:

1.  Do I have an agenda? Am I trying to persuade people to think/believe as I do?
2. If the answer is 'Yes', am I presenting my argument fairly and intelligently, recognising that opposing points of view must be respected?
3.  If the answer is 'No', am I really sure I'm not using my plot, characters or presentation of facts as a means of writing a surreptitious sermon?
4.  Are my characters - real or imaginary - well rounded and believable. In real life there are very, very few complete heroes, heroines or villains.
5.  Am I using a style based on clever, fashionable or 'literary' stratagems to make a good impression and win the approval of readers?
6.  Am I prepared to undergo the mental and emotional stress of getting inside all my characters, so that I can, hand on heart, say that my objective is truth?

   As a writer I am privileged to convey my thoughts directly, and personally into the mind of every one of my readers. That is an awesome responsibility that I take extremely seriously. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

R is for READERS

   It goes without saying that our readers are the most important people in the world (apart, of course, from our nearest and dearest). They are our creative partners in the business of making books. All we can do is turn our ideas into loops and lines and squiggles on the printed page. They remain meaningless until someone decodes them and, from the resulting words, produces images that will bear some resemblance to the pictures we had in our minds when we started the transaction.
   But who are our readers? Where are they? How do we find them?
   For the most part, they are anonymous. For all an author knows his biggest fan might be the young mum over there, struggling to get onto the bus with her pushchair or the scholarly-looking gent in the corner of the first class carriage. And that's frustrating because we would dearly love to ask their opinions of our work. Something even more disconcerting is our inability to identify members of that other, far larger, crowd of unknowns - our potential readers, that army no man can number who would enjoy our books, if only they'd heard of them. So how do we make the connection? How do we find those people who would love to enter into creative partnership with us? If I knew a simple answer to that I'd be a very wealthy man. In a marketplace absolutely saturated with books (mostly of indifferent quality) it takes most authors several years and thousands of miles of printed words to acquire a following. There are two obvious ways to buck this trend. One is to become famous for something else before embarking on a writing career. Politics is a useful platform, particularly if you achieve a certain amount of notoriety while being paid from the public purse. The other is to acquire the enthusiastic backing of an established publisher prepared to put considerable resources into promoting your work. Sadly, the cruel fact is that big promotional budgets are, with few exceptions, only allotted to authors who are already well established.
   Most writers enter the market maze alone and try to find their tortuous way to the reader who wants what they have to offer - but doesn't yet know it. That's why the book market differs from most other kinds of shopping place. In the latter the customer knows what he/she wants. If the sofa needs replacing or a joint must be bought for Sunday lunch, he/she knows where to go to find it. Book buyers, by contrast, are not going to come looking for your book if they haven't heard of you. Most of them don't read publishers' catalogues, even online, and don't belong to internet chat forums. In their case the producer has to track down the consumer and not vice-versa. Your book has to shout from the overstuffed shelves of Waterstones, or the ranks of colourful jackets jostling each other on Amazon.
   The internet, by definition, is a tool for making connections but it really isn't very good at it. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the task is vastly bigger than www can cope with. There exists an array of sites dedicated to promoting books from the leviathan of Amazon, to Goodreads and online readers clubs down to individual twittering. The one weakness with all these is that they rely on the energetic activity of compulsive readers and those are comparatively few in number. That doesn't mean we shouldn't make contact with them. On the contrary, every opportunity we have to introduce our work to people likely to be interested must be grasped. But it would be a mistake to put all our eggs in the internet basket. Its potential is limited. If online self-promotion has not already made the fortunes of thousands of authors, it ain't going to do so now.
   Depressing? Yes, but there's no point in point in anything other than telling it as it is. We are all operating in a vastly overstocked market. Suppose you lived in a town with 10,000 theatres, each offering a different production. A handful would probably survive. The rest would struggle. Which shows would you be most likely to see? Probably the popular ones. What might persuade you to try out one of the less well known? Almost certainly, the recommendation of a friend. Ultimately finding new readers comes down to people. Some of them we can reach with our computer keypad. The majority we will meet in the real world. That means getting out of our anchoritic cells as often as possible and going to places where readers gather - libraries, festivals, clubs, pubs, churches, societies. The best guide to the maze is what it always was - word of mouth.
* * * * *

Friday, 7 April 2017


I'm so busy that if I didn't spend at least three
 hours a day in prayer I'd never get everything done.
                                                   - Martin Luther

   People can make money from bad books. They do it all the time. They churn out romantic slush or gung-ho macho fantasy or how-to-succeed manuals or pornography or any page-filling rubbish for which there is a recognised market. By contrast, writers whose sights are set higher than the lowest common denominator of public taste devote time and effort to careful self-criticism and/or evaluation by experts qualified to guide them in honing their talent.
   That poses problems. How many drafts does it take before a MS has reached perfection (or as near perfection as you can reasonably manage)? How firmly should you stick to your guns when your publisher or agent is suggesting further revision to you? Should you model yourself on other authors whose work you admire? In brief, how much attention do you pay to quality control?
   The relationship of author and manuscript might be compared to that between parent and child. There is a fundamental bond between them. Your book is yours. It comes out of you. But you have in mind its eventual independence. Therefore, you have to train it to stand on its own feet. That involves a subtle balance of loving nurture and firm discipline. Over-indulge your brainchild and you spoil it. Over-restrain it and it may be too weak to survive in today's ruthless marketplace. Perhaps some examples might help.
   Over-indulgence: The 'purple passage' is anathema to a novel. Lengthy, 'poetic' descriptions clog the narrative and prompt readers to skip over paragraphs (or even pages) of beautiful prose. Unselective use of data can have a similar effect. I sometimes come across a book whose author appears to be saying to me, 'I've spent five years researching this and you're going to get every single second of it.' Quality control often entails ruthless employment of 'scissors', cutting out whatever is not relevant to the text. 
   Over-restraint: This sometimes comes down to laziness, a failure to provide the reader with the background information he/she needs. If I am engaged on a novel I have clear pictures in my mind of my main characters. This may tempt me to give them words or actions that are, to me, absolutely credible. But if I have not built up images of those characters in the mind of the reader, he/she might not understand their motivation. That's the point at which I lose their willing suspension of disbelief. If, in a work of non-fiction I am arguing an important point, I need to be aware of the main counter-arguments that might be advanced and deal with them honestly. Quality control has much to do with getting the balance right.
   How much should we be influenced by the 'guidance' offered by other people? The inspiration, the ideas, the vision are yours. Should you allow others to modify them in the interests of quality control? That's not an easy question. A second opinion is always useful. It's very easy to get so close to your MS that you cannot see problems that are obvious to someone coming to it fresh. But don't show it to your spouse or your best friend, or anyone who can be relied on to tell you what you want to hear - that your book is 'wonderful'. An experienced agent or editor is likely to be your best guide. If an expert makes suggestions, be humble enough to consider them carefully. But always apply one simple test: 'Is this suggested change going to say more clearly what I want to say or is it offered in the interests of marketing strategy. Don't abandon your vision in the hope of selling more copies.
   Ultimately quality control is down to you. How much tinkering should you do to your first draft? One piece of advice often given is, 'Put the MS away for a couple of weeks; then read it through.' You will usually find that standing back from your work in this way enables you to see its good and bad points more clearly. This process should not be repeated too often. The moment you find yourself beginning to get bored is the time to stop messing, get the book out there and let the readers decide.
* * * * * 

Thursday, 30 March 2017


I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered 
it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous: and it did not get into print until, fifty years later,
publishers would publish anything that had my name on it.
                                                                        George Bernard Shaw

   Shaw's experience strikes a chord with most published authors. We may not soar to the heights of GBS's fame but we have all proved the truth of the old dictum, 'Nothing succeeds like success'. Back in the early days of my efforts to become acknowledged as a serious writer with something valuable to say, I received a series of rejection slips. Then I was approached by an educational publisher who desperately needed an author for a school text book. The project had no connection with what I had written earlier but there was a captive market for it and, inevitably, the book sold well. The interesting thing was that when I approached other publishers with MSS that had originally been rejected, they were now favourably received. I had a track record. The risk factor of taking on this novice author had been diminished.
   Does such a tale make for cynicism and despair among those still waiting for their lucky break? It should not. We need to take on board four basic facts:

1. Publishers are people - or, rather, they employ commissioning editors who are people. They have their own preferences and areas of expertise. Anything you can find out about the editor you wish to approach will help. This is where an agent comes in handy but  you can often learn about editors from their online profiles.

2. Publishers have to publish to stay in business. Editors have to find promising propositions to work on if they are to avoid redundancy. So keep on submitting.

3. Publishers receive far more MSS than they can, with the best will in the world, give detailed consideration to. Some have been sent to the wrong place by writers who haven't done their homework properly. Some have been sent by complete novices. Some have been sent by agents with their recommendations. Some have come from 'celebs' or writers already known to a wide public. Some have been sent by authors who already have been published. Which do you think will be considered first?

4. Editors are accountable to their marketing departments. They have to persuade the money men that the books they want to take on will show a profit. Always stress to editors that you have considered carefully the market potential of your masterpiece.

   No industry has changed more drastically than the publishing industry over the last few decades. When I began to write commercially the main London publishers occupied small offices in West End back streets and their staff were dedicated to the maintenance of high literary standards. They relied on the sales of well-established authors to enable them to back new writers of promise. Now most have been gobbled up by conglomerates operating out of glitzy office blocks and are primarily committed to keeping their shareholders happy. They do still care about finding and promoting new talent but the emphasis has moved decidedly towards 'safe' projects - T.V. tie-ins, celebrity biographies, cookbooks and genre fiction (such as romance, crime and fantasy) which will sell in supermarkets. One response to changing market realities and the development of new technology has been the emergence of a swarm of new, small-scale publishers. Their appeal is to the hopefuls who have been unable to interest mainstream houses. They can offer to see your work into print without close scrutiny as to its quality because (a) they print on demand, (b) they don't pay royalties and (c) they don't employ a host of professionals covering the many aspects of editing, production, promotion and marketing. They rely heavily on internet selling and expect their authors to do the lion's share of online promotion. The end results tend to be books that are more expensive and of  more variable quality than those produced under well-established imprints.
   Both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. You are much more likely to get your MS printed by one of the smaller operators but that's only the first rung on a long ladder leading to public recognition and you may well not climb higher (even if you are ready to invest hours of time in tweeting and all the other methods of self-promotion recommended by the publisher). To be taken on by a well-established publishing house is hard (particularly if you do not have an agent to fight your corner). If you are offered a contract you will be in for a long, exacting editorial process designed to hone your work thoroughly. But your book will be made known internationally through the intercontinental publishing grapevine. You will be in the hands of an imprint which has cachet with reviewers and bookshops and will be assisted by an army of expert editors, proof-readers, designers and promoters. And you will be paid a royalty (usually with an advance element).
   Whatever publishing route you choose there will be hazards along the way and no guarantees of success. One service 'old fashioned' publishers offer to the reading public is to turn down MSS. This may sound harsh but there are too many mediocre and downright bad books published. This has a degrading effect on the book bizz in general. If you are a born writer with a genuine gift that comment won't put you off. If you are not ...

Friday, 24 March 2017


not to be a
success, but
rather to be of
- Albert Einstein

         Question:  When is a book not a book?
           Answer:     When it's a marketed product.

   There is a basic disconnect between authors (or artists in general) and marketeers. Very few (if any) writers are comfortable as salesmen. We have a gut feeling - and rightly so - that our task lies in employing our skills to express as effectively as possible what we feel passionate about. That consumes all our energies. Conveying the results of our labours to the book-buying public is someone else's responsibility. That's why we have agents and publishers. Selling what I write is a full time job. It involves mastery of numerous techniques from jacket design, to cataloguing, to advertising, to co-operation with professional and other bodies, to multi-media expertise, to negotiating with festivals and other interest groups, etc., etc., etc. etc. I lack the skills and the time to get involved in this sort of activity.
   But there's a more fundamental reason why creative and business activities should be kept separate and it's succinctly stated in Einstein's dictum, 'Strive not to be a success but rather to be of value'. That stands in contradistinction to all the slick one-liners thrown out by entrepreneurial gurus, machine-gun firing get-rich-quick mottoes. Maintaining distance between creating and marketing is important because otherwise we face the temptation of modifying what we want to say in order to make it saleable.
   But you may say, 'Ah, but the internet has changed all that; today's authors must maintain an online presence'. Certainly the new and constantly developing information technology has made a difference to the book bizz. There is a veritable smörgasbord of ways to communicate with each other and with interest groups but smörgasbords have their problems. The choice is so large that we might not know what to sample. Each item is presented attractively and we might try some only to be disappointed with the taste. Then, again, we might load our plate and end up with indigestion. So, if you are going to put yourself and your work 'out there', how should you go about it. Well, here are a few tips.
1. No novice author has achieved instant fame and fortune by courtesy of the internet. A reputation can 'take off' thanks to twitter, youtube, and facebook because what they can do well is build momentum but the basis will always be the relatively slow business of word-of-mouth recommendation.
2. Totally ignore all internet experts who offer to launch you to bestsellerdom.
3.  Set up and maintain a lively blog. This is your personal shop window. As people hear about you, this is where they can come to 'meet' you.
4.  Back up the blog with a flow of tweets but don't use them to tell potential readers how marvellous your work is. That puts most people off. Blog-tweet feeds are most effective when they invite people to share some topic (preferably of current interest) about which you have something informative/amusing/unusual to say.
5.  Enjoy mutual interest groups but don't spend a lot of time on them. Most have a comparatively small membership and you could find yourself preaching to the converted.
6.  Don't let marketing the last book get in the way of writing the next one. Building your reputation depends on developing your skills and building up reader expectation for what's coming next.

  Only the quality of our work will attract the enthusiastic and loyal fans who are the building blocks of our reputation.

Friday, 17 March 2017


   When you pitch a proposal to a publisher you may very well get the response, 'Who's going to read this book?' It's a fair question. If you want someone to invest good money in your brainchild he/she will need to be convinced that there's a market for it. It's also a question every author ought to ask him/herself before investing hundreds of hours into creating a new piece of work. You may be excited about a wonderful plot that has occurred to you or feel strongly that an issue on your heart should be aired to the world at large but unless you have some idea of the potential readership, you could be wasting your time. It's a sobering fact that most new books have a shelf life of three or four years and are only reprinted on demand. It's true that there's no easy answer to the question, 'Who will read this book' but that doesn't mean that the question should not be asked. So, how do you identify your niche market?
   (1) Assess what similar books are already out there and selling. Amazon Books are useful here because they display lists of titles under the heading 'Customers who bought this item also bought'. Have you anything to add to the contributions of others? If you are simply hoping to clamber aboard the bandwagon, it won't work. Aficianados know what they want. My Treviot novels are sometimes compared with C.J. Sansom's Shardlake stories. We cover the same period but my yarns, unlike Chris's, are tied to real unsolved Tudor mysteries. That's the 'twist' I employ to interest readers looking for something new in their favourite field of historical fiction.
   (2) Share your enthusiasm with others online. This can be a good way of identifying people of similar interests. But be warned, on-line chatting can be a terrible time-waster. Not all interested parties are avid book-buyers.
   (3) Keep a list of major publishers who sell 'your' sort of books. They have established a viable market. Analyse their catalogue entries. You might spot a subject gap they've missed.
    (4) Read magazines. There can be few specialist subjects that are not catered for by regular periodicals. These can often provide starting points for original research.
    (5) Meet real enthusiasts as often as possible - in clubs, special events, book fairs, etc. There's nothing better than one-to-one sharing. Whether your passion is saving the whale or collecting 1st period Worcester porcelain you'll find soulmates at such gatherings. They're not all twitterbugs.
   Every market is a niche market - but some niches are bigger than others. The Harry Potter books were written for children and young people with a love of 'magic' stories. They 'hit the spot' with millions of young readers. The bigger the niche, the more crowded it is and, therefore, the more difficult it is to elbow your way in. However, fans are always on the lookout for a fresh take on their favourite subject. For example, if your interest is in World War II espionage, has anyone majored on events in Turkey? I don't know the answer but I like the sound of 'The Istanbul Connection' (Yes, I know it's an old jazz number).
   Today's book market is vastly overcrowded. While there will always, thankfully, be startlingly new books that take the world by storm, most readers have limited tastes. The trick is to cater for a particular taste, while, at the same time offering the 'old hands' something they haven't come across before.

Friday, 10 March 2017

M is for MAD

The only things you can take with you are those you've given away 
                                                             - Frank Capra

   In 2009 a Pakistani girl, still not in her teens, wrote a blog describing what life was like for women and girls under Taliban oppression. Malala is now famous worldwide for her campaigns for female education, is a Nobel Prize winner, the subject of numerous magazine articles and has co-written her autobiography. And she is still not twenty years old! Her path to fame was as costly as it was unexpected. Not only did she and her family have to leave their homeland, she narrowly survived assassination. Undoubtedly, Malala is MAD - she Makes A Difference. Any writer worthy of the name aims to do the same.
   A writer is someone who has a love of words, an affinity with language, a skill in describing, with unambiguous clarity, things and concepts, an ability to convey powerfully emotions, ideals and beliefs. A writer is a professional; someone with a calling, a vocation; not someone like W.S. Gilbert's 'lady from the provinces ... who doesn't think she dances but would really like to try'. If I found myself one day not very busy (if only!) I wouldn't think, 'I'll have a go at designing a bridge'. Well, our role in the great scheme of things is as distinctive and important as that of the engineer. We are here to make a difference and if we are remembered after we have died it will be because, somewhere along the line, we changed the life of an individual, a group, a community, a nation or the world. So many 'how to' manuals promote an introspective attitude, as though being a writer was about being personally fulfilled or - heavens preserve us - just making money. Anyone who in all honesty, would describe their motivation in those terms would be well advised to put less strain on the rain forests and find something more creative to do with his/her brief span on earth.
   What does 'creative' mean in this context? It means whatever enriches mankind. For writers that means extending a reader's awareness of his/her humanity. It has been traditionally associated with the 'humanities', the study of philosophy, history, religion, art, music and language but creativity can be achieved through almost any genre of fact or fiction - humour, history, biography, crime, sci-fi, social comment, adventure. It tells us things we didn't know about ourselves and things we did know but didn't know we knew. A book will enthrall us as long as it touches something deep in our psyche. Books have the power to excite or calm, to inspire us to new thinking or underpin our fast-held convictions, to deepen our sympathies or fire up our indignation, to bring out the best in us. Or the worst. We only have to think of Mein Kampf's rabid racism, Machiavelli's endorsement of political amorality in The Prince or the unbridled libertinism of the Marquis de Sarde's 120 Days of Sodom to realise that books can engender bad change as well as good.
   We writers have the power to choose. We have the gifts that enable us to influence people. That carries responsibility. Neutrality isn't an option. Because we are who we are we translate ourselves to the printed page. The results will depend on whether we speak truth or falsehood. Falsehood is not restricted to that which deliberately appeals to the salacious, distorted or unprincipled mind. The glib, the flabby, the sentimental, the sensational that wallows in violence, lust or deceit for its own sake - all such books cheapen their authors and demean their readers. Lydia Languish in Sheridan's The Rivals is the archetypal dupe of romantic fiction, determined to make her fantasy love affair a reality: 'I projected one of the most sentimental elopements! So becoming a disguise! So amiable a ladder of ropes! Conscious moon! Four horses. Scotch parson! ... Oh I shall die with disappointment.' The novels she read were certainly not the kind of books Thomas Carlyle adored: 'Of all the things we can make here below the most momentous, worthy and wonderful are books'.
I know what kind I must write - or try to write.
* * * * *       

Friday, 3 March 2017


'Computerization eliminates the middleman'
                                 - Isaac Asimov

   If he were around today I wonder whether Asimov would want to modify that assertion. For writers the internet has stirred up a swarm of middlemen offering to publish or promote our work. Since there are a multitude of hopefuls wanting to get their MSS into print and since it's difficult for beginners to make the breakthrough, it's not surprising that there should be hundreds of slick operators hungry to exploit them. Now, the book bizz has always had its middlemen. They're called literary agents. Are they any different from the johnnie-come-latelies buzziing around in cyberspace? And do we need them anyway? 

   Basically, 'yes' and 'yes'. A good agent is invaluable to an author - and that for three reasons - Contacts, Contracts and Critique.

(1) Contacts: The adage, 'It's not what you know but who you know that matters' works in all branches of the media industry just as much as in most other businesses. Networking sells book ideas, just as it advances company careers and gives Oomph to popular protest movements. As an author with a MS to promote you can build up your own networks if you've nothing better to do with your time. The problem is that, as a writer, you do have something better to do with your time - writing. Building a fan base of 100,000+ readers is enormously difficult and vastly time-consuming. If that were not so there would not be hundreds of 'new middlemen' offering their services - for a fee. What's the difference between them and established literary agents? Well, just the fact that they are established, part of the book creating establishment. They belong to the network. They spend every working day in touch with editors, producers and marketing people round the world. Some publishers only look at MSS submitted through agents. They know what's 'in' and who's 'in'. The fact that my agent works in London means that I don't have to and can enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside, concentrating on my job - writing.
(2) Contracts: Publishing contracts are long and complicated and every year, thanks to electronic books, they become longer and more complicated. I can't keep up with all the legal small print about rights and penalty clauses, etc. These things matter. So does making sure that all payments due to me come in correctly and on time. My agency has an accounts office dedicated to doing precisely that. All this saves me many precious hours - hours I can spend doing my job - writing.
(3) Critique: My agent is an invaluable filter, straining my brilliant ideas and enthusiasms into the market. There are several reasons why a project I propose should be adapted or even abandoned. It might be that someone else has an almost identical book coming out in six months' time. It might be that the publisher I have in mind has had a change of editorial policy. It might be that a commissioning editor is planning a new series into which my book might fit - with a bit of tweaking. The market is constantly changing and I need help in remaining a part of it. I need good advice and I'm not too proud to take it. Working in harness with my agent is the best way I can do my job - writing.

   Of course agents are not infallible. Of course, there are good ones and less good ones. During my fifty years I've had two and they have both served me well. Occasionally I have disagreed over a decision but for the most part I have benefited from their inside knowledge. After all, it pays them to help me succeed. If I don't make money, they don't.

   I know, I know what you may be thinking: 'That's all very well but how can I get onto an agent's books?' If an agent is good, his/her client list is likely to be full. How to overcome that problem? I wish I had an easy answer. All I can suggest is keeping up with the the latest info in the  Artists' and Writers' Yearbook and being persistent. Knock on doors as often as you can. One day one will open. Then you will have someone in the bizz who is on your side, who wants you to succeed and will do his/her best for you - even down to offering a shoulder to cry on. And that is worth its weight in gold.
* * * * * 

Monday, 27 February 2017


     '... 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
* * * * *

Friday, 24 February 2017


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.
* * * * * 

Monday, 20 February 2017


   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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Thursday, 16 February 2017


Shepherd Mead's book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1952) was a howling success. It inspired a record-breaking Broadway musical and a film, both of which were also highly successful. That's ironical. Why? Because Mead and Co. were writing satire. They were pulling the plug on a whole succession of perfectly serious success manuals that were published during the previous half century and which offered the secret of achieving the American Dream. The whole point of the send-ups was that there is no secret. But, do you know what? Even after the humorous exposé, hucksters went on writing success manuals and they're still at it - taking money from people desperate to make their fortunes and ready to believe that, by learning the rules that appear to have worked for some of the world's billionaires, they, too, can join the club. Most of us can see this pipe dream factory for what it is but there will always be enough gullible folk around ready to fill the pockets of the how-to merchants.
     And there are some of these merchants operating in the book bizz. They can do so because there are thousands of wannabe authors out there who have the necessary drive to produce a readable manuscript and believe that, by applying the right formula, they can turn it into a best-seller (by the way, that word 'best-seller' has to be one of the more meaningless and overworked terms in modern parlance).
     At this point, someone might object, 'But, Derek, that's exactly what you're doing - telling other people how to be successful'. Absolutely not; I can't and won't say 'Do this, this and this and you'll become a successful writer. All I can do is pass on some of the things I've discovered over the last 50 years about how the book bizz works. And I'm not making any charge for my advice!
     There are two aspects of an author's life - the creative and the commercial and the how-to merchants are operative in both. There are those who produce how-to-write books and courses. As I remarked in the first of these little articles, you can't be taught to become a writer. Writing is in the genes. Either you are a writer or you aren't. If you are, you will put pen to paper or finger to keypad whether or not anyone else ever reads a single word you have written. You may spend time and money on writing courses, learning about plot-creation, character-delineation, evocative description skills but you still won't be an author, any more than I can be an artist by learning about perspective, composition and colour-combination. I can say this with some authority because there was a time when, for my sins, I spent a couple of years as a creative writing tutor. You can learn techniques. You can discover how to express yourself better but there is no rule that states, 'If you can write well enough you will be a successful author'. There are people who write well who are not successful and there are successful people who do not write well.
     The other success merchants claim to be able to teach you how to sell your work effectively, 'Forget quality,' they say. 'It's all about marketing. We can show you how to find customers.' The advent of social media has given an enormous boost to this market sector. The promoters will produce, for a fee, a package of 'foolproof' techniques for blogging, tweeting, facebooking, youtubing. All you have to do is fill twenty-five hours a day with online activity and best-sellerdom is assured. If you follow the pattern and still don't succeed their get-out tactic is to tell you you're not working hard enough. Useless to tell them, 'I'm a writer not a salesman'.
     What, then, to do with these get-rich-quick merchants? My advice is to ignore them. That does not mean not attending creative writing courses. It doesn't mean turning your back on social media. It does mean making those things work for you. You set the agenda. You choose how to make the best use of your time and energy. Writing is a highly individualistic profession and there are numerous ways to become the best writer you can be and reach the readers who will enjoy your work. Make your own contacts. Follow the trends of your own choosing. Be ready to learn from those who know about the book bizz but always be your own person. Whether that will lead you to financial success neither I nor anyone else can foretell, but, hopefully, it will help you feel fulfilled - and you can't put a price on that.
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