Friday, 28 April 2017


          'I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which          of them deserve to be followed.'                                - George Orwell

     There is a sense in which all writers are teachers or truants. We either have something to tell the world or we've bunked off into our own imagination. At the risk of overburdening the metaphor we might say that life is a classroom where lessons - some good, some bad - are taught about how things really are. Some of us, like teachers, believe we have things to impart that readers need to know. Others of us have got bored with reality or find it distasteful and prefer to peer in at the schoolroom window beckoning our classmates to come out and join us to romp in the world of fantasy. We either explore the human condition as it is or create a world inhabited by people as we would like them to be. To give concrete examples, we can either identify with George Smiley and his creator, John Le Carre, or with Ian Fleming and his tough, womanising hero, James Bond. One explores the real world of espionage; the other feeds our craving for excitement. In our writing we have to choose which it is we're offering our readers - enrichment or escapism.

     Escapism: A look at the bookstand in any supermarket leaves us in no doubt that fantasy pays. Apart from a few novels by well-established authors who have become household names, the shelves are filled with romances aimed at the female market and adventure stories for the chaps; proof, if any were needed, that many (most?) people look to books to provide them with escapism. They try out the works of unfamiliar authors who seem to be offering them the fare they are already used to, whether that's whodunits or bodice-rippers or pseudo medievalism. They are not looking for profound insights into the human psyche. A new author seeking to establish him/herself can quite easily and quickly work out how to exploit the escapist market: read half a dozen examples of a chosen sub-genre, make careful notes, work out the formula and reach for the keypad. We can all think of writers who have done just that and have churned out undemanding page-turners. What are your chances of joining them? Miniscule. You would find  yourself in the first-timers' lottery, with nothing to make your work stand out from the crowd. This is a strategy many, many hopefuls have tried. Your only chance of getting into print would be to self-publish or become involved with one of the small online publishing outfits who lack the resources to give your work real heft.

     Enrichment: Most publishers and all discerning readers are looking for writers with something worthwhile to say. It may be expertise that you have to impart - knowledge of the fashion industry, collecting rare stamps, any specialised knowledge that you can draw on to give your work, whether fact or fiction, verisimilitude. Or it may be personal experience that enables you to write with authority - coping with disability, witnessing a tragedy at close quarters, achieving a long-cherished ambition. In other words this kind of writer provides enrichment by offering something of him/herself. He/she is a teacher, not a truant.

     Of course, there is much more to successful authorship than deciding whether you want to provide escapism or something with more substance. You still need to develop writing skills. You still need guidance in the complex publishing business. You will, almost certainly, need a least one piece of luck. It's also true to say that the distinction I have suggested between the two approaches to our craft is not hard and fast. There are fantasy tales that rise above the mere recitation of thrills and spills and there are books which fail to deliver on their promise of providing something profound. But, that said, it is worthwhile for all of us to ask ourselves - often - what it is that we are trying to do, why we are trying to do it - and how much of ourselves we are ready go invest in the process.


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