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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