Monday, 26 June 2017


If we are proud of our profession we should be intolerant of anything that lowers its standards or brings it into disrepute. Let's list a few things that are in danger of doing that.

(1) Cheapening our glorious written language. Of course, English is a living thing. It grows, evolves and develops to meet our changing needs but that does not mean we should be slipshod in our use of it, as though structure, conventions and rules don't matter. For example, 'crisp' is a perfectly good adjective - sharp, onomatopoeic and meaningful. 'Crispy' is flabby and does not mean the same thing. Attaching the suffix 'y' to a word usually suggests modification - 'yellowy', 'dreamy'. Good King Wenceslaus did not venture forth on a night when the snow was 'deep and crispy and even'. Another sin against good English is throwing away perfectly good words - e.g. 'convince' is not a synonym for 'persuade'. If you persuade someone to do something against his/her better judgement you have not convinced him/her. Perhaps the biggest crime is making a nonsense of grammar in the interests of political correctness. For example, 'Every member of the group must look after their own equipment' - yuk!

(2) Amateurishness. Most professions guard themselves against infiltration by untrained practitioners. Anyone masquerading as a doctor, an engineer or accountant deserves to be exposed and locked up before too much damage has been caused. Today there exists an assumption that anyone can write a book without any sense of vocation as an author or willingness to buckle down to learning the craft.

(3) Manipulation. Language is powerful - and therefore dangerous. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. We should, therefore, do everything we can to stop it falling into the wrong hands. There have always been purveyors of social poison. In the past peddlers of such toxic material were largely confined to politicians and journalists who played on racist, sexist, class or nationalistic prejudice for their own ends. Social media has increased this menace to the nth degree but books are not immune to changes akin to hate mail. There is a market, human nature being what it is, for pornography, explicit violence and pseudo-romance (By 'pseudo romance' I mean stories which sugar-coat human emotions and call the result 'love').

(4) Mercenariness. Of course, we all want monetary reward for our endeavours - and quite right, too. That means writing material people will pay to read. But we must resist the temptation to become mere hacks, churning out populist stuff for no better reason than that it will sell. If our output is to have real worth we must believe in it. We should be setting out our stall with honesty and conviction, even if it means offering the public ideas that are unfashionable or unpopular.

We are privileged to be in a position of influence, to affect the lives of others in a multitude of ways. Books have changed the world and continue to do so. But privilege carries responsibilities and one of those responsibilities is self-discipline. That means more than sitting at our desk for hours on end when we'd rather be lounging in the garden or going to the pub. Its about social responsibility and making the world a better place. That is not as ponderous and pretentious as it might appear at first sight. Making readers laugh is as important as making them think. Encouraging others to value themselves is as valid as challenging them to revisit their assumptions. Tapping the well springs of our shared humanity can enlighten people and move them. Truth has many faces and we writers are dealers in truth or we are nothing.

Thank you very much for following these 26 reflections on the writer's craft - if you have. I hope you have picked up a few useful thoughts from among those I've gleaned during fifty years in the bizz.

     'One would never undertake such a thing if one were not
      driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor 
                                               -   George Orwell on writing

Monday, 19 June 2017

Y is for YOU

     If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
     Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
     Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
     'He was one who had an eye for such mysteries'
                                - Thomas Hardy  Afterwards

I would be surprised if, at least sometimes, you do not ponder, as  you write, 'What will the readers make of me? When what Hardy called, "my tremulous stay" in this existence is over will book lovers - perhaps for a few years - go on taking my volumes down from the shelves and think, "He/she really shared our humanity and added something to it"?' We all want to be read, to be appreciated, to be admired. Whether we're pitching an idea to a publisher, sending a MS to an editor or standing in a public forum to defend our work, we want to feel that we have conveyed what we had a burning passion to convey and that readers have, whether or not they share our passion, appreciated our integrity. Or do we?

There is much tied up in that word 'integrity'. Polonius' oft-quoted advice to his son is oft-quoted because it's wise:

          ... to thine own self be true
          And it must follow as the night the day
          Thou cans't not, then, be false to any man.

But we are in the book bizz and there are many temptations to shave bits off our integrity. When we look in the mirror of our latest offering to the world of LIT-ER-A-TURE do we really see ourselves as we are? Or are we confronted by an idealised image? Do we see lurking behind that visage the face of some other writer we admire and try to emulate? Is the mask peering back at us smeared with stylistic cosmetics in order to make it more attractive to our readers? Some while ago I was chatting to a novelist who had centred her latest work on a real historical character whom I have studied. I commented that I did not readily recognise in her work the man I had been researching. Her reply was, 'Nor do I but I've had to turn him into someone modern readers will easily understand.'

Your written work is YOU in words. That doesn't just apply to autobiography or to passionate expression of your convictions. It covers every genre - humour, crime, romance, biography, history, etc, etc, etc.  But the process of writing is an exercise in communication and it is in the act of communicating or translating you into words that distortion can occur. Being true to ourselves means setting down what we genuinely think or believe or feel, not what we'd like readers to think we think or believe or feel - or even what we would like to think we think or believe or feel, if we did not know ourselves better. Whether we are dealing in facts or ideas or character studies, 'truth' has to be the sheep dog constantly nudging us and snapping at our heels when we find ourselves writing what we think our fans will like, or what is currently fashionable or what will sell.

Is that too difficult; a counsel of perfection? Yes - but did anyone ever say professional writing was easy?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

X is for X FACTOR

Publishers will tell you that they are always on the lookout for book proposals that are new, fresh, original. Then, when you present them with your new, fresh and original brainchild they tend to response 'Oh, we've never done anything like that before: we don't think it will work.' This is a dilemma that faces many authors - or, at least, many authors worth their salt, for we all ought to be trying to expand literary boundaries. We hope that our latest title has the X factor. But what is the X factor?

Well, we can identify some things that it isn't. 'X factor' is not a synonym for 'best-seller', that grossly-overused expression, which has virtually lost all meaning. An X factor book is not one that does reasonably well at the bookshops. Commercial success may be the result of several different things - the author's celebrity or large fan base; an effective publicity campaign; television exposure; or lucky timing. X factor is not an accolade awarded to a book that addresses an issue that desperately needs addressing (important though such works are). X factor is not a quality recognised by committees that make literary awards. X factor is not a question of longevity, though books which have this rare quality usually stand the test of time. For example, Das Kapital does not have the X factor, while The Road to Wigan Pier does. It's easy to dismiss all these attempts at definition because X factor is, by its very essence, indefinable. It is a quality that makes something very special.

Often this quality makes a book a game changer. I referred above to The Road to Wigan Pier, a work much in our minds in this, its 80th anniversary year. George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) produced a study of the appalling poverty existing in the industrial north of England in the 1930s. It told a terrible story. It shocked its readers. It pricked consciences. It was a depressing read. But it was also beautiful. The poetic descriptions of grimy streets, shoeless children and lives cut short by disease touched people's hearts infinitely more effectively than any socialist rant would have done. Orwell's readers were not just, through his powerful prose, 'observing' urban poverty; they were seeing it, hearing it, smelling it, feeling it.

Of course, an X factor book does not have to be a social exposé. In fact taking the lid off subjects we need to be aware of is probably done better by television and film nowadays. Having said that this faculty is indefinable, it would be foolish of me to attempt to describe it. But I think it's safe to offer one or two qualities that contribute to this elusive intrinsicality. (1) Passion: An X factor book is one that has got to be written, that almost tears itself out of the author's soul. (2) Love: it may be indignant, angry or challenging but it will treat its subject and its readers with affection. (3) Linguistic inevitability: by which I mean that the subject will dictate the style. (4) Painful honesty. It follows that nothing you learn from manuals, creative writing courses - or A-Z blogs - can infuse the X factor into your writing.

Most of us won't possess this strange quality. Those of us who do can't bottle it and pour it out into everything we write. If we produce one volume that has the X factor then we are among the thrice-blessed. Perhaps, if we asked ourselves the question, 'If I had only six months to live what book would I want to write for the benefit of the world?', and if we then sat down to write it, well, we just might pull it off.

PS: Don't try to work out the tweet formula - it's nonsense.