March 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
I have written of my experience of having a novel critiqued twice by professionals: the first (2015), a positive experience, was a boost to my confidence; the second (2016), a negative experience, was a devastating blow. Now it is 2017. I am not simply stating the obvious. I am just reminded again that years pass and writers may have nothing to show for them.
Later in 2016, I finished a children’s book. I gave the book to an eleven-year-old boy, the target market, to read. I was asking too much of him. He wasn’t enjoying the book. I discreetly took the manuscript back. The free critique amounted to: “This is unreadable.” Not quite what I had in mind.
Apart from feeling sorry for myself and thinking that some sort of success was long overdue, I began a new writing venture. In tandem with the revision of the children’s book, I was writing a play.
I had never considered writing a play. I had believed a “play” was completely beyond me. Having discovered novel-writing (in the view of the industry) to be beyond me, I thought why not a play? I soon discovered that a chapter in a book could be reduced to one page of dialogue. Best also to set the play in one place, if possible. Apart from running out of material quickly and the limited things I could deal with in one room, I found the business of writing a play extremely liberating. Its three chief attractions were:
I didn’t have to bother with description.
I didn’t have to set any scenes and worry about the type of chairs people should be sitting on.
I didn’t have to worry too much about “my writing”. After all, my characters were ordinary people, not literary geniuses, talking to each other in ordinary language.
Nor did I have to worry about transitions. Act one is Christmas Eve 1956, act two Christmas Eve 2056, if I chose.
Of course, when I completed the play, I was back to square one. Another finished piece of work and no one clamouring for it. I sent the play to someone I knew who is involved in amateur dramatics. (That is after sending it to someone I didn’t know who boomeranged it back to me.) He said he liked the play. He later said he would try and produce it locally (Portlaoise, Ireland) this year. I do not know if it will be produced locally. But I was pleased by the novelty of someone actually wanting to do more with my work than fire it back at me.
One lesson I did learn was: confidence in your work must come from you. If people praise the work, you may doubt them. And the other important thing is: you must find a way of getting your work to as many people as possible, so that it will land on the desk or in the email inbox of that one person in 100 or 1000 who will like it. You may get good advice. It will be free and you will also be establishing connections.
Better to send your work to people you “know” than you don’t. The word “know” means someone you have a very vague connection to. Any degree of introduction is better than none at all. Send sample work by email to “helpful” people, asking for their advice: not asking for them to do anything as momentous as publish you. Persevere with one work. Don’t keep moving on to new work. Promote the work you have already done.
In the absence of any better tips, this is the advice I am trying to follow myself.
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.”
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 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
Mr J L Garvin, editor of the Observer to Joyce Grenfell:
Avoid ’which’ and ‘and’. Stop and start again.
Facts first-feelings later.
Indicate, don’t elaborate.
Short sentences are more telling.
In 1937 Joyce Grenfell agreed to a six weeks’ apprenticeship for the job of radio critic. For three weeks, keeping in mind the rules, she wrote and rewrote practice columns. On what should have been her fourth week of the apprenticeship, her unsigned column appeared in the Observer, 11 April 1937.
From the book, Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure
July 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
When I read American novels I am struck by the number of products, food in particular, that are given their brand name. It is true that these ‘consumables’ are very common in America but are they quite as common as American novels would lead you to think? Identifying food or drink by brand is not as evident in English literary novels. The branded food, mentioned in American novels, is usually bad (unwholesome) food.
You will find brand-naming in novels written in the 1960s, perhaps earlier. And also in novels, set in 1950s, though written in the 1990s, for example, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House and Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven. Why do American novelists advertise denatured mass-produced consumables that don’t do people or the environment any good?
Any Irish or English or Scottish or Welsh reader of American novels should be able to answer the questions below.
Give the brand name for the following:
A fizzy non-alcoholic drinks (four letters or two four-letter words)
A breakfast cereal (eight letters)
A biscuit (four letters)
A fast food ‘restaurant’ (nine letters)
A cake (seven letters)
Shouldn’t novelists be a little bit charier of mentioning branded products and so giving free advertising to companies who have enormous advertising budgets? And clearly are doing their jobs very well if the branded product has, in the consumer’s mind, become almost become synonymous with the biscuit or drink. Aren’t small ethical companies, aiming to give farmers a living wage, or trying to preserve traditional skills, or providing for the education of children, far more in need of novelists’ gratuitous advertising? Why must novelists always be helping those giant multinational companies?
Before your made-up character reaches for a very real and much-advertised cold drink, think.
March 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
We want, unless perhaps very intellectual, to write a readable novel, do we not? Writing something readable is not easy. When I read through my own work, as I am constantly doing these days, reading and re-reading with an adversarial eye to weed out all its flaws, I find that no matter how adversarial I have been there are always more flaws. And however exasperating it is to discover them, I am always dogged by more depressing thoughts. Is this novel interesting? Do these people seem real? Would anyone want to read the novel?
I hate to revise on Tuesday what I wrote on Monday. But this was Trollope’s method, and it is the method of other writers too. So, I have imposed it on myself. All the same, this method of revision does not seem to abbreviate the revision process.
My latest method: a revised print-out of the entire novel is to hand. I read it through, as a reader, for an overall feel of the story. As I read, I highlight the errors until I come to the end. If a chapter is in grave need of revision this may have priority. Before I revise a chapter, I read it again and use another colour pen and find (surprise! surprise!) more mistakes. Then it is time to return to the computer. The idea is to incorporate the two revisions in one go. Alas, I see that there are other things that need to be corrected. In all, three revisions are incorporated in this re-write. The following day I re-read on the computer’s monitor the same chapter and correct it again: I hope that when the chapter is printed off and read as part of the entire revised novel that it will stand up to scrutiny.
An unmarked novel print-out awaits my attention. But Hark! Something is wrong. It needs a new beginning. Not a revised chapter one but a whole new chapter to go before what was chapter one, and will now be chapter two. I believe it was Joyce Carol Oates who said you can only write your first sentence when you have written your last. Might it be true too that you can only write your first chapter when you have written your last?
One thing is clear: if you want advice on how to revise, I am not the person to turn to.
February 27, 2015 § Leave a comment
If ever a daily amount of writing is recommended, 1,000 words a day is the figure which crops up. Graham Greene told Theodora Fitzgibbon (noted in volume two of her autobiography, Love Lies a Loss) that you could accomplish a great deal by writing 1,000 words a day. In theory, you could indeed. If you write for five days a week, you clock up 20,000 words in a month, and have finished your novel within four months.
However, we know writers, with the exception of Trollope, are not producing three novels a year. (Trollope managed about one thousand words an hour and wrote for two and a half hours; for another half an hour, he revised his previous day’s work.) One would very much like to emulate Trollope, but one has to be realistic.
Writing one thousand words in an hour, in the early stages of a book, is not difficult. Words gush forth. Something goes wrong though. Our 1,000 words a day are not fit for consumption and it is overhauling them that takes time. The revision process is a very strange one for me: to be sure I am not methodical enough. I often believe I am working on the pen-ultimate draft but that is mere fancy, it is the pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-pen-ultimate draft.
When we start to revise, some problems glare out at us. We fix them and think, “Next time final draft”. Having fixed the glaring problems, we begin to see the less glaring problems: they then glare out at us. We fix them. And perhaps a draft or two later, we realise that some of our earlier work (already fixed) drops below the standard of our later revisions. That now must be fixed. Do not think I am aiming high. I do not spent days searching for the right word or manipulating syntax, I operate on a lower level than that, and I am merely trying to create something that is identifiable as a novel.
On the other hand, I am not without ambitions. I feel my “novel” is in want of some very good descriptions, moving scenes and insightful commentaries about the human race but I flounder. It is all that I can do to get my story straight or straighter. I must lower my sights and aim for a novel that makes sense, at least, to me.
What analogy is fitting for writing a novel? Barbara Pym likened it to making a sauce that you add things to and then reduce and perhaps continue this process. That is quite a good one. One is always adding and taking away and even taking away what one has recently added.
You could liken the writing of a novel to a drawing. Let us say we have almost drawn a pig but the pig does not look right. We change the pig’s face, and a dog’s face begins to emerge. For quite some time, the pig drawing and the dog drawing remain conflated. (Our book has become neither one thing nor the other: in other words got worse.) We sometimes forget to remove parts of the pig and the emergent dog looks a little peculiar. Finally the dog resembles a dog. On the whole the dog seems to be a better dog than the pig was pig. Not a wonderful image, we must confess, but at least it is a dog and not a pig-dog. We would very much like a better drawing of a dog. It is in want of improvement, but we fear that the dog may start to become an elephant. The dog will do. Let’s leave it like that. It will do!
The “it will do” standard does not impress others as very high but when you have worked and worked with your little book which takes so long to assume a recognisable shape, you can hardly be accused of being slipshod. We cannot spend the rest of our lives improving our novel. The “it will do” standard is not a low one, it often feels impossibly high and something we think we might never be able to say of our novel.
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.