Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REFORMATION 500

On an October day in 1517 an obscure 33 year-old friar in an obscure German town pinned up a public notice. The world hasn't been the same since. Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses were not a programme for violent revolution - simply an invitation to fellow academics to discuss some aspects of church practice that Luther questioned. How, then, did this end up rending the seamless robe of Western Christendom and plunging Europe into devastating wars of religion that lasted 130 years? The Reformation was a bubbling cauldron of political rivalries, social discontent and intellectual conflict. The eastern border was menaced by a resurgent Ottoman Empire, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent. The houses of Habsburg and Valois were locked in a war for the control of Europe. Communities were devastated by sweating sickness and syphilis, diseases hitherto unknown. State rulers were rethinking their relationship with the pope and questioning the nature of his jurisdiction. The opening up of long distance sea routes to East and West brought exciting new commercial possibilities but it also gave rise to a sense of unquiet, as people realised that the world was not the place they had always supposed it to be. Academics were asking new questions, exchanging their hypothetical answers via the revolutionising medium of the printed word. Everywhere there was a miasma of anxiety, a suspicion that old certainties would no longer serve. Among the more popular books of the period were works of satire, scepticism and humorous jibes directed at the clergy who, it was widely believed, did not measure up to the ethical standards they promoted in their sermons (e.g. The Ship of Fools, The Decameron, In Praise of Folly, etc.). Change disturbed people to such an extent that they were ready to listen to the prophecies of apocalyptic doom-mongers. Yet, despite all this unease, few were bold enough to challenge the doctrinal basis of the Catholic church. This was the only thing that gave cohesion to sixteenth-century life and to discard it would be to throw away the only belief system which made society work. To support that system (and their own status) church leaders defended with mounting ferocity the ancient truths. They made bonfires of books and men. They extended, wherever possible, their political power. And, then, along came Martin Luther. What he did was aim an arrow at the theological heart whose beating kept alive the febrile body of Latin Christendom. He exposed what he believed to be the intellectual and spiritual inconsistencies of the system. And people all over the continent read his protest. It seemed as though there was a sharp intake of breath across Europe as people came to realise that they did not have to believe what they had always been told to believe; that there was another - and more ancient - kind of Christian truth and that, in embracing it, so many of their questions were answered and their anxieties stilled. This liberating truth empowered the individual. It inspired many to face hardship and even death. It profoundly changed societal relationships - not least those between men and women. It transformed, not only what people did when they went to church. It affected the whole of their lives. In the words of the historian Jacques Barzun
'It fostered new feelings of nationhood. It raised the status of vernacular languages. It changed attitudes towards work, art and human failings ... by emigration to the new world overseas, it brought an extraordinary enlargement of the meaning of the West and the power of its civilization.'
It prepared the ground for the cultivation of democracy. The Reformation sundered church and state. It made possible the evolution of secular society. Yet, paradoxically, its aims were the reverse of this. Far from de-Christianising society, it aimed to provide humanity with a clearer vision of God, one from which the mists of 'false' doctrine had been rolled away.

What that dynamic vision was will be the subject of a conference to be held from 16 to 20 October in the magnificent setting of Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. The relaxing yet also stimulating setting of this beautiful place will enable us, through talks and seminars to explore in depth the history of the world-changing events being widely celebrated in this centenary year - Reformation 500. For full details go to leeabbeydevon.org.uk .
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Monday, 26 June 2017

Z is for ZERO TOLERANCE

If we are proud of our profession we should be intolerant of anything that lowers its standards or brings it into disrepute. Let's list a few things that are in danger of doing that.

(1) Cheapening our glorious written language. Of course, English is a living thing. It grows, evolves and develops to meet our changing needs but that does not mean we should be slipshod in our use of it, as though structure, conventions and rules don't matter. For example, 'crisp' is a perfectly good adjective - sharp, onomatopoeic and meaningful. 'Crispy' is flabby and does not mean the same thing. Attaching the suffix 'y' to a word usually suggests modification - 'yellowy', 'dreamy'. Good King Wenceslaus did not venture forth on a night when the snow was 'deep and crispy and even'. Another sin against good English is throwing away perfectly good words - e.g. 'convince' is not a synonym for 'persuade'. If you persuade someone to do something against his/her better judgement you have not convinced him/her. Perhaps the biggest crime is making a nonsense of grammar in the interests of political correctness. For example, 'Every member of the group must look after their own equipment' - yuk!

(2) Amateurishness. Most professions guard themselves against infiltration by untrained practitioners. Anyone masquerading as a doctor, an engineer or accountant deserves to be exposed and locked up before too much damage has been caused. Today there exists an assumption that anyone can write a book without any sense of vocation as an author or willingness to buckle down to learning the craft.

(3) Manipulation. Language is powerful - and therefore dangerous. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. We should, therefore, do everything we can to stop it falling into the wrong hands. There have always been purveyors of social poison. In the past peddlers of such toxic material were largely confined to politicians and journalists who played on racist, sexist, class or nationalistic prejudice for their own ends. Social media has increased this menace to the nth degree but books are not immune to changes akin to hate mail. There is a market, human nature being what it is, for pornography, explicit violence and pseudo-romance (By 'pseudo romance' I mean stories which sugar-coat human emotions and call the result 'love').

(4) Mercenariness. Of course, we all want monetary reward for our endeavours - and quite right, too. That means writing material people will pay to read. But we must resist the temptation to become mere hacks, churning out populist stuff for no better reason than that it will sell. If our output is to have real worth we must believe in it. We should be setting out our stall with honesty and conviction, even if it means offering the public ideas that are unfashionable or unpopular.

We are privileged to be in a position of influence, to affect the lives of others in a multitude of ways. Books have changed the world and continue to do so. But privilege carries responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is self-discipline. That means more than sitting at our desk for hours on end when we'd rather be lounging in the garden or going to the pub. Its about social responsibility and making the world a better place. That is not as ponderous and pretentious as it might appear at first sight. Making readers laugh is as important as making them think. Encouraging others to value themselves is as valid as challenging them to revisit their assumptions. Tapping the well springs of our shared humanity can enlighten people and move them. Truth has many faces and we writers are dealers in truth or we are nothing.

Thank you very much for following these 26 reflections on the writer's craft - if you have. I hope you have picked up a few useful thoughts from among those I've gleaned during fifty years in the bizz.

     'One would never undertake such a thing if one were not
      driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor 
      understand'  
                                               -   George Orwell on writing



Monday, 19 June 2017

Y is for YOU

     If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
     Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
     Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
     'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'
                                - Thomas Hardy  Afterwards


I would be surprised if, at least sometimes, you do not ponder, as  you write, 'What will the readers make of me? When what Hardy called, "my tremulous stay" in this existence is over will book lovers - perhaps for a few years - go on taking my volumes down from the shelves and think, "He/she really shared our humanity and added something to it"?' We all want to be read, to be appreciated, to be admired. Whether we're pitching an idea to a publisher, sending a MS to an editor or standing in a public forum to defend our work, we want to feel that we have conveyed what we had a burning passion to convey and that readers have, whether or not they share our passion, appreciated our integrity. Or do we?


There is much tied up in that word 'integrity'. Polonius' oft-quoted advice to his son is oft-quoted because it's wise:

          ... to thine own self be true
          And it must follow as the night the day
          Thou cans't not, then, be false to any man.


But we are in the book bizz and there are many temptations to shave bits off our integrity. When we look in the mirror of our latest offering to the world of LIT-ER-A-TURE do we really see ourselves as we are? Or are we confronted by an idealised image? Do we see lurking behind that visage the face of some other writer we admire and try to emulate? Is the mask peering back at us smeared with stylistic cosmetics in order to make it more attractive to our readers? Some while ago I was chatting to a novelist who had centred her latest work on a real historical character whom I have studied. I commented that I did not readily recognise in her work the man I had been researching. Her reply was, 'Nor do I but I've had to turn him into someone modern readers will easily understand.'

Your written work is YOU in words. That doesn't just apply to autobiography or to passionate expression of your convictions. It covers every genre - humour, crime, romance, biography, history, etc, etc, etc.  But the process of writing is an exercise in communication and it is in the act of communicating or translating you into words that distortion can occur. Being true to ourselves means setting down what we genuinely think or believe or feel, not what we'd like readers to think we think or believe or feel - or even what we would like to think we think or believe or feel, if we did not know ourselves better. Whether we are dealing in facts or ideas or character studies, 'truth' has to be the sheep dog constantly nudging us and snapping at our heels when we find ourselves writing what we think our fans will like, or what is currently fashionable or what will sell.

Is that too difficult; a counsel of perfection? Yes - but did anyone ever say professional writing was easy?
_____ 



Saturday, 3 June 2017

X is for X FACTOR

Publishers will tell you that they are always on the lookout for book proposals that are new, fresh, original. Then, when you present them with your new, fresh and original brainchild they tend to response 'Oh, we've never done anything like that before: we don't think it will work.' This is a dilemma that faces many authors - or, at least, many authors worth their salt, for we all ought to be trying to expand literary boundaries. We hope that our latest title has the X factor. But what is the X factor?

Well, we can identify some things that it isn't. 'X factor' is not a synonym for 'best-seller', that grossly-overused expression, which has virtually lost all meaning. An X factor book is not one that does reasonably well at the bookshops. Commercial success may be the result of several different things - the author's celebrity or large fan base; an effective publicity campaign; television exposure; or lucky timing. X factor is not an accolade awarded to a book that addresses an issue that desperately needs addressing (important though such works are). X factor is not a quality recognised by committees that make literary awards. X factor is not a question of longevity, though books which have this rare quality usually stand the test of time. For example, Das Kapital does not have the X factor, while The Road to Wigan Pier does. It's easy to dismiss all these attempts at definition because X factor is, by its very essence, indefinable. It is a quality that makes something very special.

Often this quality makes a book a game changer. I referred above to The Road to Wigan Pier, a work much in our minds in this, its 80th anniversary year. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) produced a study of the appalling poverty existing in the industrial north of England in the 1930s. It told a terrible story. It shocked its readers. It pricked consciences. It was a depressing read. But it was also beautiful. The poetic descriptions of grimy streets, shoeless children and lives cut short by disease touched people's hearts infinitely more effectively than any socialist rant would have done. Orwell's readers were not just, through his powerful prose, 'observing' urban poverty; they were seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, feeling it.

Of course, an X factor book does not have to be a social exposé. In fact taking the lid off subjects we need to be aware of is probably done better by television and film nowadays. Having said that this faculty is indefinable, it would be foolish of me to attempt to describe it. But I think it's safe to offer one or two qualities that contribute to this elusive intrinsicality. (1) Passion: An X factor book is one that has got to be written, that almost tears itself out of the author's soul. (2) Love: it may be indignant, angry or challenging but it will treat its subject and its readers with affection. (3) Linguistic inevitability: by which I mean that the subject will dictate the style. (4) Painful honesty. It follows that nothing you learn from manuals, creative writing courses - or A-Z blogs - can infuse the X factor into your writing.

Most of us won't possess this strange quality. Those of us who do can't bottle it and pour it out into everything we write. If we produce one volume that has the X factor then we are among the thrice-blessed. Perhaps, if we asked ourselves the question, 'If I had only six months to live what book would I want to write for the benefit of the world?', and if we then sat down to write it, well, we just might pull it off.

PS: Don't try to work out the tweet formula - it's nonsense.
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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

NEW BOOK OUT 25 MAY

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.
* * * * *

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.
* * * * *

     


Monday, 1 May 2017

EVIL MAY DAY

     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

T is for TEACHERS and TRUANTS

          '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

S is for STYLE and SUBSTANCE

'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

Q is for QUALITY CONTROL

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

P is for PUBLISHERS

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

O is for ONLINE MARKETING


"Strive
not to be a
success, but
rather to be of
value."
- 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

N is for NICHE MARKET

   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.
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Friday, 3 March 2017

L is for LITERARY AGENTS

'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.
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