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.
* * * * *       

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.
* * * * * 

Monday, 27 February 2017

K.I.S.S.

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

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

J is for JOURNALISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

I is for INGENUITY

   There are two books you are concerned with if you are a writer. One is the book you want to write. The other is the book lots of other people are longing to read. The trick is to make them identical. You can, of course, ignore your potential readership and just go ahead to tell the story you have a burning passion to tell. It might just work - it MIGHT. Like the lottery - someone will win it. But this is not a very canny way of going about things. The ingenious participant in every sphere of endeavour is the one who stays ahead of the game. This year some books will be published that will attract massive attention. Now, when the authors first set out on their manuscripts, two, three or more years ago, they did not know how popular their work would prove to be but some of them will have approached their task with ingenuity. They will have given a lot of thought to one question: 'what will people be talking about in two, three or more years' time? And they will have tried to tailor their story to appeal to that future audience.
   One obvious pointer is anniversaries. For example 2020 will mark the 4th centenary of the sailing of the Mayflower. There's not the slightest doubt that various books will be published, on both sides of the Atlantic whose authors hope to cash in on the story of the Pilgrim Fathers. But there could be other ways to exploit the event of 1620. You might want to offer a serious analysis of what the first settlers believed in and the extent to which their ideals have or have not been realised in the subsequent history of the USA. Or you could use the voyage as a take-off point for a novel. There were some passengers on that ship who are little more than names to us four hundred years later. Plenty of scope, therefore, for weaving an imaginary story around one of them that would allow you to recreate the appalling conditions of a transatlantic crossing in a way that would not be possible for a factual historical account.
   Something less specific but potentially more rewarding if you get it right is looking into the crystal ball of the public mood. What will the atmosphere be like in America or Europe or - any place of your choosing - at the end of the decade. It's a good guess that nationalist politicians will be in power in some countries and that there will be growing apprehension that the peace the western world has experienced for seventy years might be coming to an end. There could be several ways of writing something useful to the world at such an anxious time: satire, serious biography of a historic dictator, or why not retell fictionally the Hitler story but set in modern Britain, or France or America? Brecht did that with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. OK, the play was a flop but the idea was a good one.
   Timing isn't everything. Far from it. There are some subjects that are always popular. Take rags-to-riches tales or family sagas, for example. Some years ago I stumbled (almost literally) on a story that had both these ingredients. Quite by chance I paid a visit to Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust mansion. I was so impressed by the house and contents that I tried to find out about the people who had built it and filled it with fabulous collections of paintings, furniture, porcelain and other treasures - the banking family of Rothschild. My researches unearthed an amazing tale of a Jewish money lender in the Frankfurt ghetto at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who sired five sons who went on to build the most successful banking empire in Europe. I also discovered that the story had never been properly told (partly because the family was reticent about co-operating). Some subtle negotiating by publishers and other contacts secured an agreement that I might write the book. In fact, the book almost wrote itself. All I had to do was travel around Europe talking with various members of the family and reading archive documents to which I was given privileged access. The result was a truly fascinating story, a saga that had everything - in spades. And it led on to books on two other remarkable commercial dynasties, the Astors and the Guinnesses. Where did the ingenuity come in? Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I think I can say that I was savvy enough to realise that the story I had stumbled on was one that lots of other people would also find fascinating.
   'Ingenuity' should not be confused with 'sales gimmick'. In 1979 Kit Williams published a small book called Masquerade. The pictures in it contained clues to a golden hare, buried at a secret location. Readers were invited to solve the puzzle and dig up the treasure. It worked. The book sold over a million copies and created a frenzy which lasted until the wretched hare was discovered in 1982. Masquerade unleashed a flood of copycat treasure puzzles. It was a clever stunt but it was a far cry from what we could call a piece of ingenious writing. In fact it wasn't written at all. What I'm referring to is a work of fact or fiction, worth writing and written with integrity. There are hundreds of such written every year. Some get published. A few - a very few - are commercially successful. The ingenuity comes in what we might call the incidentals - the format, the timing, the market research. It's about presenting your work to a public that wants it and knows that it wants it. This is a skill in itself and its once that authors, agents and publishers are trying to develop and apply day in and day out. This is one reason why it's important to work with a good agent and a good editor. It's their job to understand market trends.
   Of course calculation will only get you so far. It's like have a horse entered for the right race. You can make sure the conditions are favourable, the jockey skilful, the competition not too strong but it's the horse that has to win and victory essentially comes down to breeding and training. Successful writing is about a heck of a lot more than understanding your market but it certainly helps if you can keep an open mind and think outside the box.
   In a few days time let's look together at J for Journalism.
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Thursday, 16 February 2017

H is for HOW TO BOOKS and SITES

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.
* * * * *

Monday, 13 February 2017

G is for GAMBLE

     The professional author is a compulsive gambler. He/she invests time, effort and emotional capital in the conviction that somewhere there is someone who will want to read what he/she has written. Like all gambling, it's a mug's game. If you're in it for financial reward you'd be better off staking your life savings on a 100:1 outsider in the Grand National. Somewhere along the line you will, like all speculators, need a slice of luck. There may be a few successful authors whose first book soared to the top of the best-seller lists (and fewer still whose second and third books followed suit) but the vast majority of hopeful writers will never see their work in print and those that do get published will not be able to build a lasting reputation. The reason is simple: there are just too many books being written. Paradoxically, the digital age has made the situation worse. As has wisely been observed: 'It has never been easier to get published and never harder to get noticed'. The one fact follows logically on the other. Self-publishing and employing small-time, social-media-savvy new publishers has opened the way for would-be authors to sell their work in the market place. That means that there are thousands more books flooding into the high street and online stores than ever before. And that means that the majority of new titles are going to get lost in the crowd. It's inevitable. Don't be conned by the self-styled media wizards who cash in on the dreams of wanabees by offering foolproof formulae for success. All they can do is advise you on negotiating cyberspace with its myriads of media sites. Embarking on such a journey might get your work talked about by a few hundred people. What is certain is that this activity is highly speculative and immensely time consuming. The idea that you can generate success by spending a few minutes a day at your computer is a modern myth.
     But what is also certain is that we can, to a not inconsiderable extent, make our own luck, or at least shorten the odds. In this A-Z series, based on 50 years of experience as a reasonably successful author, I'm suggesting some of the ways you can buck the trend, how you can put yourself in the path of Lady Luck when she happens to pass by.
     (1) Get to know 'writing people'. By that term I don't mean people who, like you, want to get published. I mean authors, journalists, publishers, agents, everyone and anyone involved in the book bizz. Go to parties, festivals, library events and don't be overawed by celebs; they're just people. Twice in my life I've met, 'by chance', newly-appointed editors who were actually looking for authors to take on. They had not yet become overwhelmed by the slush pile. They were open to having ideas pitched to them. My pitches were successful.
   (2) Make use of the press. National dailies, local weeklies, specialist magazines - they all feed on freelance articles. Check what material they use and offer something relevant. A day spent producing a few hundred words tailored for a particular periodical is time well spent. You might actually get paid for it and you never know where it might lead (See J is for Journalism).
    (3) Share your passion. Whether your 'thing' is political analysis or match-box collecting there are folk out with the same interest. Join their clubs, whether online or in the real world. Run a blog site. But what is more important than your pet theories is what interests other people. Therefore
   (4) Know what people are talking about. Back in the 1960s Frank Chichester's solo voyage round the world was making headlines. I wondered whether anyone had ever written a history of circumnavigation. They hadn't. I did. The resulting book won awards and ran through new editions over the years. In 2007 there was much hand-wringing over economic collapse and other disasters. Were things really that bad? I pondered. The result was Britain's Rottenest Years, a trawl through several centuries of calamities.
   (5) Be at home when Lady Luck calls. My professional career started when I was a teacher (having given up on writing). Thanks to a major syllabus change there was a sudden need for a new text book. Publishers were urgently looking for someone who could write it. I didn't engineer that situation, but boy, did I cash in on it!
* * * * *

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

F is for FAILURE

      Half a lifetime ago I was talking with a publisher about manuscripts he had turned down, and lived to regret it. 'There have been a few,' he admitted, 'but there's one that takes the prize. A woman sent us a sentimental story about rescuing an orphan lioncub, rearing it and returning it to the wild. Sloppy stuff, quite uncommercial, of course. We had no hesitation about turning it down, as did other publishers.' Born Free did eventually get into print - and it's still in print, 51 years later. Not only that, it had several sequels, was adapted for film and television and sold goodness knows how many million copies. But, more importantly, the book made a significant contribution to the campaign for wildlife conservation.
      Hang on a minute! This is supposed to be about failure, isn't it? Yes, and once upon a time Born Free was a failure, a fate it looked like sharing with the vast majority of manuscripts that get written. For the brutal fact is that far too many books are written and they can't all be best-sellers. Every one starts out as someone's brainchild and 99% will either never get into print or, if they do, their shelf life will be measured in months rather than years.
     Who is responsible for handing the black spot to your masterpiece? In the first instance, the publisher who sends it back with a polite, complimentary but firm 'not for us'. Nowadays you can save yourself this stomach-sinking disappointment by publishing the thing yourself or entrusting it to one of the numerous 'print on demand' operatives (See 'P is for Publisher'). But if you've crossed that hurdle and actually seen your dog-eared treasure transmuted into a real book with a glossy cover and your publisher has done his damnedest to promote it and it doesn't skyrocket into the dazzling bestseller cosmos, who's responsible? The promoters. There are lots of them around only too ready to trumpet your praises across the vastness of cyberspace - for a fee. You can, of course, prod all your friends and relatives to write glowing Amazon reviews. But chances are your mould-breaking novel will still not take off. Ultimately, the arbiters of success or failure are the public - or, to be more precise, that tiny portion of the public who actually comprise your potential niche market (See N is for Niche Market). There are bands of enthusiasts, such as Goodreads, who do their level best to raise the profile of new books but they only reach a few thousand followers who are avid readers anyway. They don't connect with the bookshop browser looking for a birthday present for Grandma or the traveller seeking something to make an airline flight remotely endurable. So, when it comes down to it, the people who will decide that your book is a failure are your fellow human beings. And they will do so, not because they don't like you, or they don't like your work. They will not ignore you out of unkindness, but simply because they have never heard of you. They have become accustomed to being sold to - noisily, frequently, through every medium the ad-men can devise, and there's no way you or I can compete with the sellers of cars and insurance and toilet rolls.
    STOP! If you are about to delete this 'depressing' and 'negative' post, hang on a moment. I'm not banging on about failure to annoy you. There are many writers who get disheartened or give up because they never realised how hard it was going to be to get published and stay published. It's important to understand the realities of the book world before we enter it. We need to assess the height and configuration of the mountain before we choose our equipment or work out the route of our ascent. One last statistic to drive home the point - PLR. In Britain authors of books in libraries receive an annual payment based on the numbers of their books that are borrowed. In 2016, 22,202 authors shared the pot, receiving between £1 and £6,600 each. Those hitting the six-and-half-grand jackpot accounted for 0.9% of the total - and they included writers of cook books, DIY manuals, etc. Most authors didn't make it into three figures. 
     The importance of failure is what we learn from it: (a) Persistence is obvious. Joy Adamson was incredibly self-opinionated and refused to take no for an answer. (b) Passion was what drove her. She didn't 'devise' a story to make money. The story drove her: it was a tale she believed had to be told. (c) Period. The 1960s saw the emergence of independent nations. Africa was in the news. Millions of people wanted to know about its land, its people, its wildlife. As any established author will tell you, there is no 'secret of success'. But there is a secret of failure and it's this: failure makes us take a hard, honest look at ourselves and ask 'Do I have the necessary mix of compulsion and calculation - the compulsion that drives me to share a story that must be told and the calculation to discern whether there are enough people out there ready to hear that story, and, if so, how to reach them.'
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Sunday, 5 February 2017

E IS FOR EMPATHY

     In a recent interview Alan Bennett defined a good playwright as someone of whom an audience member could say 'he/she is someone who knows what it's like to be me'. Those words can also be applied to novelists, biographers, historians and anyone writing about people. It's easy when we set out on a story to get into the mindset, 'What do I want to say about this person, situation, event.' Mistake! Our characters and plotlines should never be vehicles for our own ideas, prejudices or beliefs. Michelangelo described carving a statue, not as imposing an image on the stone, but as releasing from the stone an image already within it. The writer, also, starts with what is there. This is obviously true if our stories are about real people, but the products of our own imagination also only work if they have the reality which stems from close observation and understanding. We must know what went into their making - where did they live, when did they live, what kind of a family did they grow up in, how well educated are they, what tragedies have scarred them, what difficulties weigh down on them, how much self-worth do they have? This may sound very obvious and it's certainly the sort of advice you will find in any 'how to' authors' manual but it's surprising how many of us struggle with it. In biographical and historical writing (fact and fiction), the field I know best, some authors start with a theory and set out to prove it. They are intent on demonstrating that X was a maligned hero or Y a virtuous, put-upon woman, instead of starting with research and following it wherever it leads.
     We are truth-tellers or we are nothing. We owe it to our characters to tell the truth about them and to our readers to tell the truth to them. We are intermediaries, introducing one group of people to another. We want our readers to believe in our characters, to be enthralled by them and - it is not fanciful to say it - to be open to being changed by the encounter. To misrepresent is not only poor, ineffective writing, it is immoral. If I was doing a biography of a contemporary subject and if, as a result of slipshod research or actual malice, I misrepresented that subject I would lay myself open - quite correctly - to prosecution for libel. The same holds good if I am writing about someone long dead. In fact, the offence is worse because the maligned individual has no redress.
     You might argue that, while that is obviously true for factual books, it doesn't hold for novels. We can make our characters do whatever we want, can't we? Well, we certainly create the situations they have to face but we must not make them jump through hoops just for the sake of the plot. Some writers of fantasy or romance ignore that restraint, making their heroes and heroines perform impossible feats or experience emotional traumas in the hope of thrilling the reader but the reaction they achieve will only be ephemeral. Any suspension of disbelief will not last because the shallow characters carry no conviction, evoke no deep response. When we turn the last page we should feel something of what Raymond Chandler meant when he observed, 'To say goodbye is to die a little.' That will only happen if, thanks to the author's empathy, we have really engaged with his dramatis personae. The greatest satisfaction I get is when someone tells me, 'After reading your book about X I went and read more about him' or, 'I didn't like Z but I understand why she did what she did.'
     How do you 'get empathy? Well, it certainly isn't taught in any creative writing course. No literary agent or publisher's editor can tell you where to acquire it. Reading the best authors may inspire you but their genuineness will not rub off on you. Even putting other lives under the microscope of your probing intellect won't get you very far. Involvement is the only tutor. We have to get out of our ivory towers and become vulnerable to the loves, hates, joys, fears, disappointments, sorrows and petty meanesses of others. That's why writers, including me, find it a constant challenge.
____ 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

D is for DISCIPLINE

     I don't suppose there's anyone who seriously believes the romantic notion that an author is someone who only writes when he/she is 'inspired' to do so. Conversely, I hope no-one takes seriously the concept of 'writer's block'. I was once at a conference at which Bernard Cornwell was speaking. In the question time afterwards a young lady asked him, 'Do you ever get writer's block'? He countered with a question of his own. 'What do you do for a living?' he asked. 'I'm a nurse,' she replied. 'So, tell me,' he said, 'do you ever get nurse's block?' His point was that writing is a job and, like any job, it has its good days and bad days; days when the words flow and days when you write the same paragraph over and over again and still can't get it right.
     So, how do you cope with the bad days and how do you keep them to a minimum? The answer in a word is 'discipline'. If you were working for a boss you would, reasonably, be expected to devote a certain number of hours a week and diligently perform the tasks assigned to you. Well, you are working for a boss - your public. They have every right to expect your best efforts. The trouble is, there's no boss looking over your shoulder, or checking your research or timing your coffee breaks. It's all down to you. And it's not easy. When my mind is drifting away from the task in hand I can think of a dozen other things I ought to be doing. That creaking garden gate really must be fixed. This might be a good time to phone my agent for a chat. Then, of course, there's that time waster extraordinaire - the internet. Perhaps I ought to check for the tenth time this hour to see if anyone's tweeted me. All authors face their problems. Here are a few tips I've discovered myself or picked up from others:
Location, location, location: Roald Dahl used to work in a shed in the garden. Some writers actually hire an office and, literally, 'go to work'. In a specially arranged creative spare you can avoid most domestic distractions.
Time management: I hate routine (particularly when imposed by someone else) but I've had to evolve my fixed working hours. They have varied over the years but have currently settled to my present schedule. I'm at my desk, apart from meal breaks, 9.0 am to 5.0 pm. Of course, this can't be absolutely rigid; the phone must be answered and one can't do much gardening at night! But, as far as possible, I keep correspondence, exercise, reading for pleasure, socialising, etc out of 'office hours'.
Variety: It often helps to have a couple of projects on the go at the same time. Different tasks involve different kinds of brain activity. A detailed non-fiction book requiring lots of note-taking needs a different kind of concentration than the next chapter of the current novel or collecting the illustrations for a magazine article or roughing out a lecture. If I'm stuck on one project, it often helps to switch to another. 
Sleep: Time was, when the juices were flowing, I could work half way through the night. Now I'm lost without my eight hours. Getting the amount of sleep we need is simple common sense. I make sure that when the light is switched off, so is the brain. I don't take my creative problems into the world of dreams. BUT, of course, they are there in the unconscious mind, which often does its work independently of my own cerebral effort. Frequently I find that a problem that seemed intractable the night before has solved itself by the morning.
Holidays: Whatever jobs we do, a seven-day-week doesn't make any sense. Everyone needs a break, a change of scene, the stimulus of a different environment. Our sanity needs it. Our work needs it. But, then, does the writer ever stop working? All experience is grist to the mill, whether absorbed consciously or unconsciously. My pockets are stuffed with bits of paper on which I've jotted down observations, ideas, comments. I really ought to keep a notebook but I've never got around to being that organised.
Filing: Some authors are very methodical. They keep card indexes or whatever the internet equivalent is. I expect it's a good idea. Perhaps, one day, when I have time ... At the moment it's one area where my self-discipline breaks down.
Privilege: When I'm tempted to settle for second best; when my mind recoils from yet another rewrite of a difficult chapter; when I can't bring myself to cross out a particularly juicy bit of prose; I try to remind myself how privileged I am to spend my working hours doing something I enjoy - something thousands of other people make possible by buying my books. I owe it to them to carry on doing the best I possibly can. They have a right to expect me to be disciplined.
   That really leads on to being involved in other people's lives. E is for Empathy.
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Sunday, 29 January 2017

C is for Celebrity

     If you saw J.K. Rowling pushing a trolly round Sainsburys would you recognise her? Neither would I. That's the difference between fame and celebrity. Famous people are known for what they do. Celebrities are known for who they are or for the image they project. They are public personalities. The cult of celebrity essentially began with the development of visual communications media. The movies made stars. But they could act. Television has created 'celebs', people of modest talents or none. It's not one of the more admirable characteristics of our society. It has certainly done authors no favours. It has flooded the bookstore shelves with books by, or ghosted for, celebs.
     If I were tempted to adumbrate a golden rule for aspiring authors (of course, I'm not because there's no such thing) I might suggest 'Get yourself on the telly'. It's a strange phenomenon that people will buy books if they recognise the author pic on the jacket. Publishers, of course, know this full well. That's why they hand out generous advances to writers who have no literary pretensions. It is part of an author's responsibility to maintain the quality of the written word. It should be part of a publisher's concern to foster those who are trying to do just that. Every penny they expend on paying and publicising the written ramblings of TV game show hosts or self-glorifying politicians is a penny not spent on maintaining standards in the book bizz.
     Is there anything we authors can do about this? Not really. We are, in effect, anti-celebs. We spent most of our time, not in the public forum, but in virtual purdah. Our interaction is with the page or the computer screen. Or, rather, it's internal as we struggle with words, metaphors, images and emotions in order to externalise them in ways that will inform, move, amuse, delight readers, most of whom we will never see. If we are successful it's not because people admire our looks, our quirky behaviour, our dress sense. Any success is down to the words which allow readers access to our imagination, our knowledge, our humanity. It is a privilege to be able to influence them and, in some measure, to enrich their lives. But it is also a frustration to know that we could contribute even more to the public weal if we were better known.
     This frustration tempts some aspiring authors to dissipate their time and efforts building up 'followings' via twitter, facebook and youtube. I'll have more to say about that under 'S is for Social Media'. For now I'll just comment that, in my view, this kind of self-promo is speculative and time-consuming. To end on a more up-beat note, there are other ways of getting better known, word-based ways (See J is for Journalism and N is for Niche Markets). So, my 'D' will be not for Despair but Discipline.
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Friday, 27 January 2017

B is for Bookshops

     One of my simple pleasures in earlier times was to spend an afternoon meandering along Charing Cross Road, browsing in the almost door-to-door bookshops. Some of them still remain, with their stuffed shelves spilling out onto the pavement but this street is no longer the bibliophiles' Mecca it once was. Times have changed and their impact on bookshops is a microcosm of the metamorphosis of our civilization. Am I embarking on a nostalgic rant about the book bizz going to the dogs? Absolutely not; but I do want to make a few observations, from a writer's perspective, about how things have changed for good or ill and what that means for us.
     Let's start with the good news: the book is not dead. Despite the appearance of the 'entableted' word, all surveys show that most readers still prefer to turn the pages of a real book. Not only is there a tactile pleasure to be derived from this but it is, actually, easier to 'move around' between the covers - back-checking previous passages, using the index, making individual marginalia. We can still build up relationships with our favourites and recognise them by their size, colour and dog-earedness.
     That said, we have to face the fact that the book has become a commodity, and this is something every writer and particularly every fiction writer needs to take on board. The main objective of the marketing departments of the major publishers (and it only applies to the big boys; others don't get a look-in) is to have a new novel taken up by one of the big supermarket chains. They are the retailers who place the big orders. One in every five books bought is taken off a supermarket shelf. What can the aspiring author learn from this? That it's worthwhile looking at the bookshelves in Tesco or Waitrose. Like it or not, the supermarket bosses know what sells. So, am I suggesting that you prostitute your art by churning out wordage aimed at the lowest common denominator of public taste? No, but it's certainly helpful to know what the current public taste is. If you can support your latest pitch to a publisher with evidence that Asda are currently selling Roman history novels or political thrillers or whatever 'just like mine' you stand a better chance of getting taken seriously.
     Savage commercialism has impacted on booksellers (and therefore, authors) in other ways. Shops used to be places where writers could meet their potential readers. Many of them hosted signings and talks. Few now do so. That is because hundreds have been forced out of business by the chainstores and their discount policies, and few of those who are left can afford to put on social events. Of course, there are brave exceptions. It is well worth authors establishing and sustaining relations with booksellers, particularly if they can make local-interest connections with their books. However, to all intents and purposes this marketing opportunity has been closed to us.
     Going back to where we came in, Foyles in Charing Cross Road, in its glitzey new store, puts on some excellent author events. So do some Waterstones branches. But don't imagine you'll get a look-in there. They are not interested in honest-to-goodness writers. They only want big name speakers who will put bums on seats.
     That brings me to my next topic. C is for Celebrity. Watch this space.