Monday, 27 February 2017


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Sunday, 5 February 2017


     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


     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.