Living the dream: cold calling

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

 

Many years ago a voice coach of mine told me of a man who had spent ten years working as an actor, or trying to work as an actor. An actor prepares for an audition, tries for a part, and is rejected. He may face a total rejection. He doesn’t have the right face for the part. And his acting is not to the director’s taste.

We, unpublished writers, can empathise. We too have experienced rather more rejection than we would wish. But only our work is rejected. Our humiliation is private. From the comfort of our own home, we see the bulky return envelope. Of course, we hoped someone wanted what we sent. But really we should know better than to think anyone would want it. We feel like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. What did he have to do to get an acting part? Dress up as a woman. What do we have to do to get published?

We may console ourselves with this thought: the publisher/literary agent who rejected out work has made a life-defining mistake. However, we don’t really believe that. It is hard to believe in yourself when no one else is showing a glimmer of interest in your work.

We read of writers who paste rejection slips on their walls. Perhaps they do this when they have become successful. But one failure after another does rather deflate our sense of humour. And we certainly do not want to have to confront rejection slips every time we walk into a room

Back to the actor: he was getting married. His new father-in-law owned an entity that sold pensions. He offered his son-in-law a job: cold calling people to sell them a pension. After acting, it was the dream job.

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The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (action takes place in the early 1930s)

September 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

What publisher would be tempted by a writer that suggested a novel dedicated to a lower-middle class family taking their annual holiday in Bognor?  The “novel” world usually concerns itself with people whose lives are more exciting than those of its readers (be it the extremes of wealth or poverty) and rarely with those whose lives are duller.

Writing about the commonplace takes considerable skill. RC Sherriff might have found (as Jane Austen did with The Watsons) that he had placed his people too low in society. Making people respectable and poor cuts them off from people who might bring drama into their lives.

The Stevens are respectable people with a moderate income. We do not anticipate that either Mr Stevens (50ish) or Mrs Stevens (in her 40s) will be unfaithful to each other, or that Mary (21) will be seduced and left with an unwanted child, or that Dick (17) will turn to some criminal enterprise to better himself. (Ernie (10) is too young to go to the bad.)

Whole areas of well-trodden literature are barred from the Stevens. Theirs are not the great tragedies of life but the milder (though long-lived) disappointments. Their lives are rather like our own: some successes, counted on, are not realised; expectations are blighted; and careers stagnate.

Mr Stevens, a clerk, never received the promotion he had thought his due. We do not feel that Mr Stevens was undeserving rather that he failed to push himself forward. The entire family, apart from Eric, lacks confidence.  The Stevens are easy to pass over, not because they are “unworthy” but because when passed over, they will make no fuss.

The annual family holiday is the high point in all their lives. This year Mary and Dick, no longer children, feel they should be going on independent holidays with their own friends.  But they are circumscribed by a lack of money and friends. People who do not have spare cash can find it hard to have friends. The cultivation of “friendship”, save when thrown together at school or in university, is bound to cost money.

Mary may go to a local dance and meet not very exciting people. She has an admirer but he is “no catch”. Mary works as a seamstress. She works long hours in a badly-lit room. On occasion she might help dress a young fashionable woman: a woman she has no hope of ever being. Long hours for little pay, then home. There is little on Mary’s horizon. Perhaps, she will marry a man like her father and contrive to bring up a family on a small wage. Or maybe she won’t marry and she will be swept into the services at the outbreak of World War II.

Dick left school a year ago to work in an office. His father pulled strings to get him the job. And although it is a fine position in Mr Stevens’ eyes, Dick dislikes his routine work.  After being captain of the football team at school, the job is a come down.

Mrs Stevens is a diffident woman. It is all she can do to manage and run her home. She has no outside interests and is not sociable. Mr Stevens first met his wife-to-be when he attended an amateur dramatic performance: she was one of the chorus. She was bright and she was vivacious. And Mr Stevens was extremely attracted to her. Mrs Stevens was never to be as bright or vivacious again. She soon dropped the drama. And after marriage, she showed no inclination to involve herself in any groups. That his wife should not be the bright girl he first met is a disappointment to Mr Stevens, but he is philosophical about that. She might have been many a worse thing, an extravagant woman who took no interest in her own family. Sometimes Mrs Stevens will drop her “aitches”. Internally, Mr Stevens winces. He is too self-conscious, and refined not to mind.  And at the same time he is aware, as we are, that the “aitch-dropping” is a small blemish.

The Stevens have had twenty summers in Bognor; it is not likely they will have many more. Twenty years of practice has enabled Mr Stevens to produce a complete list of “marching orders” (all those things that need to be done before they can leave). The house must be secured; puss must be fed in their absence and milk deliveries altered. Each member of the family is assigned duties from the orders.

To Mary’s lot falls the bringing of the canary to Mrs Haykin. A task Mary dreads. Mrs Haykin is a lonely old woman whose family has long grown up and gone away. Her conversation will be the same as the year before. Their meeting will be a reminder to Mary of Mrs Haykin’s loneliness, of the fact that the Stevens do not call in to see her enough: it is too hard to get away. And Mary’s own life is not so exciting that she can accommodate a Mrs Haykin. Mary is not unkind. And we feel with her.

We feel with the Stevens over many small embarrassments and anxieties. We can enter their world. It’s not too small for us and we are not above it because some of us seem to encounter just as many embarrassments, in our own lives.

Their holiday money is stretched to the limit: every shilling that is spent has been budgeted for. Mr Stevens is not frugal because he likes it but because he has to be. There is an allowance for morning buns, ginger beer, and Mrs Stevens’s port . . . . Their greatest expense is the hiring of a beach hut “The Cuddy” for part of the holiday.

For twenty years they have stayed at the same boarding house which is slowly deteriorating as their landlady loses her clientele. Mary and Dick are very conscious of the second-rateness of their accommodation. Mary compares their house with that of the young people opposite. They appear unhampered by landladies and parents. However much they too might want something better for their money, Mr Stevens does not feel capable of deserting a sinking ship.  They know their landlady is doing her best.

In The Fortnight in September. RC Sherriff achieves what is quite outside the range of imagination of most novelists. When other novels about exciting people in dramatic situations have passed out of our minds, the tale of the Stevens’ holiday lingers there.

(I don’t say that The Fortnight in September is a great book. But I would place it in my top ten favourite novels.)

 

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?

Skills

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