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. 
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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.
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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.
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