The invisible writers

June 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

We hear all too often of the express way to success taken by some writers. We have read of people who have written some little story or perhaps poem of which they have no great opinion. Nevertheless, they go to the trouble of printing it off and finding an envelope and posting it off to a competition. They forget all about their entry. But they are reminded of it, soon enough, when they are told that they have come first.

We, on the other hand, only have stories that we have tried very hard to write as well as we can. Then we go almost mad and blind proofreading our story. We know what a dim view these judges take of typographical errors. How quick they might be to tell you of your sloppiness.

We are never sloppy. We briefly contemplate amending a  mistake in our printed copy in handwritng. But we can’t because we might be viewed as careless. We have to  print the story again, and again.  We cannot recycle an old envelope, lest the competition organisers hold that against us. Once we have posted off our entry, we do not forget all about it. We have high hopes of our story.

But the judges never get in touch. And we almost gnash our teeth when we read of yet another writer who, having toyed with the idea of writing, gives up a lucrative career to go on a writers’ course. Do you know the rest of the story? As soon as they stop toying and become serious, they are picked up by talent spotters. Of course, rarely does success come so easily. We have to remind ourselves of that. We have to remind ourselves of that.

Yesterday, a man told me of his brother-in-law who had taken time off his work to do a year’s full-time creative writing course. On the course, he was not lifted out of obscurity by a literary agent. Since he has finished the course, he has had to return to the IT work he knows best, and dislikes.  He needs the money. All the same, he is working on the third draft of his novel. I found it very refreshing to hear of someone who was working hard, had yet to have a big break but was showing impressive dedication.  Such stories are so much more uplifting than those of people taking to writing in January and becoming a publishing sensation by July.

I wish him luck. I wish all writers who plod away luck.


Edith’s Dairy by Patricia Highsmith, re-issued by Virago

May 31, 2016 § Leave a comment


One of the novelist’s great difficulties is to tell a story that is worth telling. Such a story contains interesting characters in interesting situations. A great advantage of writing a “genre” novel is that the novelist, if she fulfils certain expectations, may write a satisfactory novel. In a romance novel it might be enough to write about a single woman in the market for romance and have some sort of romance or apparent romance happen.  In a crime novel, a crime, often a murder, should take place, and the police should discover the who, the when, and the why. Writing a genre novel is not easy but the agreement between the writer and reader is clear enough.

Perhaps, given Miss Highsmith’s association with crime novels, we expect a murder or something criminal to happen in Edith’s Diary. But even if we were poised for a straight novel, most of us, I think, would come away somewhat disappointed.

Edith’s Diary does not contain a satisfying story. There are three main characters Edith, her husband Brett and their son Cliffie. Their son is a difficult child. We never get to grips with what ails Cliffie. Neither do we get to know Brett very well. And even Edith is not clear to us.  At the start of the novel, the family moves to a countryish place in Pennsylvania. Before long the family is joined by Brett’s bachelor (semi-sick) uncle.  From the start it is abundantly clear that the uncle will make a nuisance of himself. No one seems to like him. And he is not a likeable man.  We, readers, however guess that he will enrich the plot.

We anticipate that the uncle will prove intolerable and Edith will react with disastrous consequences . . . We feel the same about Cliffie who does one silly/misconceived thing after another.  And Brett too, in a quieter way, is very provocative. There are many storms gathering on the horizon.

Long before the book opens, Edith has had the diary but has made few entries in it. There are few enough diary entries in the first half of the novel. The diary entries are usually, to some degree, fictional, particularly references to Cliffie. She gives a flattering account of him.  Are the diary entries a plot device that has not been properly, or even regularly, incorporated into the narrative?

Edith’s very nice Aunt Melanie is a regular visitor over the period of the novel. She disapproves of Cliffie and Brett. We expect her to do something to rouse Edith to battle. For all that Edith is supposed to have liberal, provocative opinions, she is a very passive character (unbelievably so) when it comes to dealing with problems in her own life. (The modern reader has lost patience with passive characters.) Brett loses interest in Cliffie and exits the would-be battleground. And the reader is wondering if the storm clouds on the horizon are ever going to produce any rain.

The diary entries in the second half of the novel become more disconnected from reality. Edith fabricates a life for Cliffie: he is successful and is married with children. All the things he is not.

The playing out of this novel reminds me of carousal in a fairground. We watch the carousal go round. We see the golden horse, then the black horse, then the white horse and again the golden horse. The characters in these books come round like horses on carousal. There‘s the nice aunt Melanie, there’s uncle George being a pest, there’s Cliffie getting into trouble, and there’s Edith writing something in her diary. But does any of it really matter? The characters do not fuse together to create dramatic incidents that would give this novel a plot. Yet from the start dramatic events are foreshadowed, or we think they are, but ultimately everything peters out.

Towards the end of the book, Edith succumbs to madness. Her “madness” seems to be brought on very quickly, almost as if Miss Highsmith wants to wrap things up quickly.The end of the novel is dramatic. Miss Highsmith brings the novel to an end in one of the most time-honoured, if unsatisfactory, ways.

Virago chose to re-issue this novel, and has gone to the trouble of providing a foreword, promoting the novel. And, no doubt, many of us reading the foreword feel intellectually unequal to it. To think that we, in our ignorance, should have dismissed the novel!  Later when we regain confidence, feel less intellectually inferior, we listen again to that internal hum of dissatisfaction that no forewords could silence

Surely there are novels that deserve to be re-issued more than Edith’s Diary does, or new novels that deserve a first publication?  Is the decision to re-issue Edith’s Diary simply a commercial one, a hope that money can be made from old rope?


The golden age of publishing: when was it?

April 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Unpublished writers, who attempt to be published, are quickly put in their place.  Publishers must tire of having to repeat the same things. Manuscripts are rejected because they do not reach the ever-increasing high standards:  the bar is always being raised.

Judges of writing competitions must be worn out too repeating that the entrants for a particular competition were of an unusually high standard and therefore many of the entrants have not made the longlist.  Such a pity that those unpublished writers do not enter the year the competing novels are of an unusually low standard.

And literary agents have their share of repetitions too to endure. Literary agents have to thrill with excitement when they read your manuscript; they only seek to have novels published that they love, that set them afire with enthusiasm, that they are (that much overused word) passionate about. We are unfortunate. Our manuscripts thrill no one.

Are unpublished writers to infer that there was once a time, a golden age, when the public were so hungry for novels that publishers did not have to concern themselves overmuch with quality? Were notices placed in the windows of publishing houses saying: Manuscripts in any condition urgently needed?

In my local library, there is a book sale. Books for adults fetch 40p, and books for children fetch 10p. Presumably these books are not being borrowed, and the library must purge its shelves of them to make way for more attractive novels. Were these discarded books once manuscripts that sent thrills through literary agents? Were these books once the subject of editorial conferences? Did the writers wrangle with the publishers about the kind of book jacket they wanted?  And after all these baptisms of fire they are now cast aside.

What of the public who go out and buy the books? What say do they have? Should the publishing industry have sneak previews of books so the ultimate readers can tell them where they are going wrong before they print thousands of copies? (Like sneak previews in the film industry.)

By the time the reader comes into the picture, it is too late. Despite the high standards of the publishing industry, a book club member told me last Saturday that sometimes the only discussion a book can provoke is the one entitled: How did this book get published?


March 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

Are you able to read?

This question might have been asked of a child when I was young. However, since perhaps the millennium phrases such as “I can swim.”; “I can play football.”; “I can read and write.” seem to have fallen out of use.

We talk mainly of “skills”. We improve our reading skills. In a charity shop, over the public address system (or perhaps intercom), volunteers are enticed by the suggestion that they will improve their skills. The skills include meeting and talking to people.

For me the word “skill” still suggests an acquirement that is above and beyond the average. Most of us read. But not many of us play a piano to Wigmore Hall standards. How do we now describe the accomplished playing of a concert pianist?

At an assembly a few weeks ago, I listened to children speak of their recently improved skills.  One of the children talked about her “patience skills”. Other skills were mentioned too: “endurance skills”.

Is this not a most unnatural way of speaking? Why should the language school children use smack so much of the business world?  Do we now talk of our “waiting-in-a-queue-skills” or our “buying bread skills”?

Rules to write by

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

Ten thousand steps

December 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

I used to walk, and then I took to the bike for a year and a half. Cycling, primarily to get around, and for exercise too. The “walker” is more vulnerable than the ”biker”. The walker bumps into people and “chats”. Bad for the unpublished writer. You have work to get back to, but it is rather difficult to allude to the novel. After all, it is not work work: that is, paid work. If you are not being paid for what you do, it seems rather daring to suggest that it is work.

For me, one of the great freedoms of the bicycle was sailing past people who might otherwise prevent me from “working”. Also more time, would mean that more work was done. But things did not turn out that way. The bike ride was not long enough to constitute an exercise stint, so I had to supplement the cycling with the rebounder (a mini trampoline). Then there was another difficulty: it was hard to find the time for 30 minutes on a trampoline. Or was it willpower?

So this year, September, it was back to walking. PG Wodehouse went on a long walk every day. Maybe my ideas would improve. Then the signs kept pointing to walking. A friend wrote to me, telling me her doctor had told her to walk 10,000 steps a day. A new acquaintance told me that we think best when we walk. Then I bought The First 20 Minutes by Gretchen Reynolds and the conclusion is irresistible: walking is where it is at.

I should qualify that statement. “Walking is where it is at”, if you want to do only moderate exercise, and keep on doing moderate exercise. We all know how fatal it is to be ambitious about exercise. And, of course, we will not always be willing to do our moderate exercise.

It takes time to walk 10,000 steps, and some 1,000 steps seem a great deal longer than others. So there’s nothing like recording your steps on a pedometer. We tend to think we are walking more than we are. In The First 20 Minutes, a survey referred to, revealed that most people believe they take more steps a day than they do. They usually take half what they think, two thousand steps, not four thousand.

As for the ideas, have they improved? I wish I knew.

If right now you do very little exercise, why don’t you get off the tube or the bus a few stops earlier, and begin walking your way to health?



What affect do mobile phones have on dogs?

October 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

The telephone brought a new urgency into communications. More than anything: a telephone rings and it has to be silenced. This is traditionally done by answering it or waiting until the caller rings off. The ringing telephone has always had priority. Do most people feel that the caller may be about to communicate something exceptional to their advantage: shares which were thought to be worthless have increased a hundredfold in value; someone is inviting them on an expense-paid holiday to Florence; they have won the literary competition they entered (most unlikely of all). Experience tells us all that the caller will say none of those things. Yet all over the world people, even though they are in company of their friends, will answer the telephone, thus giving priority to the ‘unknown’ caller.

Etiquette is a long way behind our use of the telephone. You are talking to people and their mobile phone rings. They take the call, sometimes, mid your sentence and without a word of excuse. The mobile-phone-answerers do leave their interlocutors in an awkward position: the interlocutors have to slink away, rather than listen to the call that was more important than their conversation.

It is the same too in queues. You join a queue at a reception. The telephone rings and the receptionist picks up the receiver and deals with the query. The person who rings has jumped the queue. In South Africa (or Harare), I believe, the receptionist may well answer the telephone but will then put the caller on hold and deal with those people queuing first. This more equitable system has not made its way over to England.

However, there were limits to how intrusive the ‘fixed’ telephone was able to be. The mobile phone brought ‘noise pollution’. How often are we walking in a secluded area when our peace is shattered by someone talking on her mobile phone? We have come for peace and quiet and are not going to get it. Why can people never be separated from their phones? If they are walking in the countryside, can they not be content to do just that. Can they not be without talking for forty minutes? And all those babies and dogs that once went on walks with their parents or owners, how their lives too are changed! The very time when their parents or owners could be totally devoted to them is not to be. We have all seen the buggy pusher, coffee cup in one hand (or dog lead with dog attached), buggy in the other and phone sandwiched between ear and shoulder.

Do not those babies and dogs deserve something better? Their parents or owners to be really present to them.

One can only wonder at people’s desperate need to talk, first thing in the morning too. Is there not a need for a phone ‘fast’, a national day of silence of, save in emergencies, no phone use?

And for all this talk, it isn’t as if we are listening or communicating any better.