How not to write a novel by David Armstrong

January 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

The essence of David Armstrong’s advice to those who would wish to become writers is: “Don’t”.

He was “lucky” enough to be one of the 1 per cent picked from a slush pile and published. Although his first published book was well-received by critics, this was not the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune, but of the more plateau-like career of a midlist writer.

The earnings of a midlist writer are probably less than a steady job working in a supermarket. The midlist writer can, without ceremony, be dropped by his publisher. She might never do better than the sales of her first book. He will never be important. No one will be booking him to talk at important literary festivals. She will never see anyone reading her book on the tube. He will remain not very well-off and obscure.

Some readers may consider David Armstrong’s view of the life of the midlist writer to be depressing and negative. But I found it reassuring. On the contrary, it is the stories of unknown writers coming first in their first literary competition and then signing a three-book contract that depress me.

To know that most writers have to work long and hard for little reward is good news to me.

“When Night’s Black Agents was eventually published, the very things that it had (allegedly) been declined for were exactly the same things that reviewers found to single out for praise.”

For example:

The ‘lack of pace’ that had made the book ‘unsuitable for today’s market’, metamorphosed in the Daily Telegraph into ‘prose with a slow, dark, rhythm’.

In the Guardian the ‘Midlands setting’, frequently cited as an insurmountable barrier to publication, was now, ‘unique and interesting’.






January 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

In an urban life it is almost impossible to escape, particularly in buses, other peoples’ mobile phone conversations. We only hear one part—often much more than half—of a conversation we would prefer not to hear any of: “I was like . . . ”;  “I said to her . . . ”;  “I . . .I . . . I . . . ”. These exchanges, rather than conversations, seem much the same. We could almost take over ourselves. Seldom do we hear anything of the least interest. The only exception I can think of, earlier this month, was in the Co-operative bank in Wood Green. Seated near me, in the waiting area, was a young black British man. He was telling his friend (at the other end of the phone) about his recent mishap in a night shelter.

The young man had been advised by the person managing the shelter that he should put his valuables in the designated safe place, (Perhaps it was a safe. I cannot recall.) The young man handed his valuables over for safekeeping. However, in the morning not only were his valuables gone but he was also admonished for having parted with them in the first place. The defence that he had been advised to do so by the manager of the shelter did not cut any ice. The same manager had gone on holidays, so there was no recourse to him.

The valuables were his work shoes and some unspecified documents. The young man recounted this tale of woe in a good-humoured way. Although he did not like the fact that the people running the shelter were denying responsibility for the loss of his valuables and trying to put the blame on him, he did not rail against them.

If that young man had been presented to you as a doctor, lawyer or architect, you would have had no difficulty in accepting him as a representative of those professions. What was such a presentable, articulate young man doing in a night shelter? What was his story?

Novelists often get germs of stories in such ways, fragments from which they must construct the whole. The fragment alone is not enough; your imagination must be fired too. In this case, interested though I am, no inspiration comes to me about the young man’s history. And I have a feeling that anything I might laboriously construct would be a cliché. Generally the first idea that pops into your mind also pops into other peoples’ minds. We do not always recognise these ideas as clichés but eventually we see, not soon enough, they are clichés and we have to think of something better. Elizabeth Bowen said dialogue should be unpredictable but inevitable. The same, I think, is true of stories. The reader should not guess straightaway what is going to happen. When the story does emerge, it should make good sense: be the only possible ending. Clichés are not the only danger to our story: unrealistic happenings pose a very real one too. Even if we avoid the unrealistic, we are not necessarily left with a story that is plausible and interesting.

But as to that young man, I cannot think of any plausible reason why anyone so, apparently, personable, should be in a night shelter. Perhaps some other writer can.



Time for the Book Doctors

December 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

A few unknown writers are lucky, their unpublished manuscripts land on the desk of some publisher who is so enthralled by what he reads that he is straightaway on the telephone making arrangements to fly to India to meet the writer (The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Perhaps we should take these stories with a pinch of salt. No doubt there is a bigger gap between reading the manuscript and booking a flight.

To us, unpublished writers, such stories might be happenings in a foreign land. We send our manuscripts to publishers or to literary agents: to say that no one is excited about them is, it seems, to understate the matter. No publisher wants to read more than the three chapters sent. Even if they do praise them, they defend their lack of interest in reading the entire book by saying they cannot imagine a market for it.

We, unpublished writers, must embark on a different kind of offensive. We will win a prize in a literary competition: we shall come to everyone’s attention. We will no longer be an unpublished author but an award-winning one. We shall have a tag line, at last. Twenty competitions later: two other novels started and eight to ten short stories written, and over £200.00 in entry fees and related expenses spent, we find that we have realised none of our ambitions. We are just as obscure, just as unpublished, but even poorer. These results are not such to give us confidence. We might even be obliged to draw some unflattering conclusions: we cannot write.

Literary agents, apparently, think nothing of unsolicited submissions and deem them fit only for the rubbish bin. If unpublished writers write such rubbish, why are we, competition entrants, not winning all the competitions we enter? So we do not believe these literary agents: the world is not teeming with hopeless writers. Or perhaps the truth is that we are even more hopeless than the hopeless writers.

What next?

We have tried to get published, as an unknown; we have tried to win a competition and failed: is it time to stop writing? Are we a little slow on the uptake? Or is there yet one more thing we can do? We have not sought professional advice. When we seek professional advice, we pay for it. That is the hard part. We had hoped to earn some money from our writing, but now, contrary to all our hopes, we must pay someone to read our book. (People have to be paid to read our books.) Will it be more money thrown away? Of course, we have these fears, but we remind ourselves how much time has been ‘wasted’ already. Perhaps we must now ‘waste’ money. Money, in theory, can be made again but lost time is lost forever.

Last Christmas the children’s book I had planned to send to a literary editor turned out to require more work. At the end of August, eight months later, that work had more or less been done. I have yet to reread it all. I daren’t! I might discover once more that it is far from finished.

So at the end of August, on a wave of inspiration, exasperation or utter delusion, I began a new novel. A new one! Maybe I do need professional advice of another sort. Hugh Walpole wrote the very readable Mr Perrin and Mr Traill in three months. Wouldn’t it be something if I could write a novel in three months, as opposed to three years?  My idea for the book was not new, about five-years-old, and I felt: There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.

At the end of four month­−I am not as good as Hugh−I fancy, I see the finishing line. Who knows it might be a mirage? In any event, this is the book going to the literary editor not the children’s one. I hope it will be an interesting experience, and not a matter of paying hundreds of pounds to be insulted.


The book is untitled, at the moment. The germ idea: St. John, tried and executed for a murder he did not commit, returns some fifteen years later, a ghost, to help two ‘unsuspecting’ detectives solve the case that is about to be reopened.




Where have all the cross mothers gone?

July 31, 2014 § 2 Comments

Some time in the mid 1970s, I was on a beach, perhaps Brittas Bay in Wicklow, when a mother threatened one of her children in roughly these words, ‘Get dressed quickly or a lion will come and eat you up.’ It is probably the outlandishness of the lie that has caused it to stick in my mind.

Parents do not tell such lies to children any more. No more than they appear to say things like ‘You are making a show of me.’ or ‘Money does not grow on trees.’ These were some stock phrases that parents used in the 1970s. Now they are not to be heard.

Some years ago my own mother commented on the devotion of today’s parents to their children. In her day, children were seen as so much more of a nuisance. There has been a revolution in the behaviour of parents towards their children, at least, in the case of middle-class parents.

The authoritarian mother or father has been replaced by the indulgent parent. When A S Neill founded Summerhill, a progressive school, one of the problems he had to combat was parents’ inclination to repress their children. A S Neill allowed the children great freedom: they could choose what to do, but they could not run riot, and equally they could choose to do nothing: not even to learn to read, as in the case of one boy who was an illiterate seventeen-year-old when he left the school. (But later when the boy found what he wanted to do, he learnt to read and turned out to be a great success.) Now Summerhill is run by AS Neill’s daughter, Zoë Neill Readhead but her aims have changed. In an article* headed ‘Liberal Summerhill tries discipline’ she says ‘permissive parenting is producing a generation of over-indulged children more attentive to televisions and computers in their rooms than playing with fellow pupils.’

All the same, the parent-children relation is not necessarily just one of over-indulgence, there appears to be a ‘Look at Me’ element to it too. The ‘Me’ being the parent not the child. You hurry into the library wanting to quickly return a book but Father is there, dressed perhaps in long shorts, wearing flip flops or sandals or some other footwear that indicates that he is in no hurry. He is being served by the librarian and is talking to or addressing his son, a toddler:  ‘Max would you like to get this out or have we read it already? You loved the one about the bears  . . . .’ Little Max, contrary to his father, is not yet articulate; he takes little notice and wanders away. Father may stroll over to him and bring him back to the counter or raise his voice to continue his monologue but one thing is sure: Father will not turn round and see the four people waiting behind him and bestir himself. Father will take his time and, worse still, our time.

We hurry into the bakery, hoping to fly out with our loaf of wholemeal bread but there is no hope. Mother and Nina are there. ‘You like pink don’t you? Do you want the one with the pink icing? Don’t forget this afternoon, we will be going to little Ian’s birthday party. Do you think he will like the toy we got for him?’  The shop assistant is waiting behind the counter, poised to serve. But she must first hear about Nina’s afternoon.

In another shop, mother is clapping her hand against the outstretched hand of a very small child. Too small, we think, to understand this gesture of jubilation. She is talking very loudly. We are bemused. Have we stumbled into a performance of one kind? One we would never have paid for and certainly do not want to see. We want to do what we came in for: get a photograph taken. That’s, after all, what the shop is for. We don’t wish to view a ‘talkie’ tableau vivant, ‘Wonderful Mother interacting with Child’.  We can be in a hurry all we like: Mother is not. We must once more be the unwilling witnesses to another performance from a ‘model’ mother. Sometimes we can’t help but feel that there is a hidden camera that mother knows of but we don’t: it is one way of accounting for the performance.

What strikes us about the way these parents relate to their children is its ‘unnaturalness’. We find it hard to believe that they go on like this all the time when they are at home without an audience. However self-absorbed these parents appear, we believe they are very conscious of their audience; and are as much talking to their audience as their child: letting the dull old bystanders know what an exciting life they have, or indeed just showing what wonderful parents they are. Must parents always be imposing themselves on their children? What about the ‘benign neglect’ that Rudolf Steiner went in for.

A few years ago in Lismore, Ireland I was transported back over thirty years when a car pulled up, the door opened and a child ran out to go over to the playground, but mother stayed sitting in the car. She did not get out of the car to be with her daughter in the playground. Before me loomed a seventies-style mother.

That it not to say that we want the cross mother back. No, not at all! But sometimes that old astringency might be a welcome relief.  If you want to get a flavour of how parents were in the seventies, you could do no better than to read the children’s picture book, Come Away From The Water, Shirley by John Burningham

*. The Sunday Times, 4 June 2006


The word ‘mother’ is virtually anachronistic, but ‘mum’ and ‘dad’ other than when used as an appellation do not come naturally to me.




How much will people pay for an ebook?

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

We all carry notional values for money. A pound or two is not very much, not enough to buy a coffee in most cafés, a second-hand book in Oxfam (average price £2.50) or a large loaf of wholemeal bread (£2.30) in Dunn’s, a fifth-generation bakery in Crouch End, North London.

Yet many self-published books sell on Kindle for 99p. Self-published author Tim Cooke believes that some people would not be too quick to spend even 99p on a book. The sum of 99p is not so inconsiderable that they will buy an ebook without a second thought.

You can search by price on Kindle, and see what is on offer for 99p. I have no idea if the cheapest books sell most. Daniel Cooper ( Head of Kindle Direct Publishing, EU) did not appear to think that the lower the book is priced, the better its sales would be.

When self-published author Mel Sherratt first made Taunting the Dead available on Kindle in December 2011, she priced it at 99p. It quickly became a bestseller and reached number 3 in the Kindle fiction category in 2012. Despite her success, Mel Sherratt has not increased the price above £1.99. Would her readers have baulked at paying £2.99?

Are writers, who have had their books professionally edited, selling themselves short when they price their books at 99p? Will potential buyers assume the quality is poor?

Daniel Cooper informed us that from one year to the next, Kindle sales of self-published books increased from 14% to 26%. Will self-published books continue to make up a quarter of the Kindle market? What percentage of those books was sold for 99p?

In some cases the low price will reflect the fact that the books have been poorly edited and written. In other cases you will be buying a book that has had as much professional attention, perhaps more, than a book that has been traditionally published. At 99p, authors, who have paid to have their worked edited, will have to sell many books to recoup their investment.

In other industries sellers have increased the price of their goods with no adverse affect on sales: sometimes their sales increased (See Yes! by Noah J Goldstein, Steve J Martin, and Robert B Cialdini). Could some writers selling ebooks for 99p, price them at £2.99, and possibly sell more copies?

Mel Sherratt, Tim Cooke, and Daniel Cooper spoke in the Authorlounge, The London Book Fair 2013.

At the AuthorLounge, The London Book Fair 2013: How to get a literary agent

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

The publishing industry is changing fast and the role of everyone in it is changing too. Everyone has to do more. The writer must do more than write, and the literary agent must not only prepare a book for showing to the publisher but a package also.

What is the package that the author must sell? Henry de Rougemont, media manager, of The Hanbury Agency considers that the package consists of the book, the author, author profile and the author’s media presence. (Media Manager is a new role in a literary agency.) A novice writer can establish a media presence on facebook, twitter or in the blogsphere.

The book should be good, as good as the writer can make it. And even so the literary agent is unlikely to simply re-parcel your submission and send it out. He must work on it too. Charlie Brotherstone of AM Heath particularly enjoys nurturing authors. He helps authors realise their potential.

What will Charlie Brotherstone look for? Initially, a good cover letter. If the author can write a good cover letter, he may well be able to write a good book. One attendee asked how important an MA in Creative Writing was. An MA would indicate that the author was serious but would not be crucial. Ultimately, a well written cover letter might prove more important. A writer must be able to write. And despite all changes, the most important thing for a writer to do remains: the writing of a good book.

Is the literary agent the first door to knock on? My own view, increasingly, is that you might be well advised to seek some editorial advice before you submit to an agent. It is not at all easy to get an agent.

Of course, agents are not essential. However, agents, Charlie Brotherstone says free up the writer’s time, for writing. It is hard for a writer to wear so many hats. As it is, he must wear more than one. It seems we must all be prepared to face challenges we would rather not. We must be less passive. We must take control.

Writers, come down out of your ivory towers. It may no longer be enough that you write a book, you may have to become something of a performance artist too. Even writers themselves have adopted the language of live performance, usually reserved for musicians: they talk about doing gigs.

The times are changing. And many of us will have to change with them or be left behind.

Authoright is curating the Authorlounge at the London Book Fair.

The CWA’s top 100 crime novels reconsidered

February 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Wikipedia informs that The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time was a list, published in book form, in 1990 by the British-based Crime Writer’s Association (CWA). I wonder how many of the books listed would appear today, even if the choice was limited to only those books published at the time of the first list. Would today’s impatient readers put up with some of the books?

I will be considering whether some of those books (I have read about a third) deserve a place on the list. I will also be making a case for a few books that don’t appear and were in print at the time the list was drawn up.

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