Sunday, 27 March 2011
F Scott Fitzgerald said: ‘You don’t write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say.’ That was certainly my experience. I’ve written elsewhere that the only fiction I wrote before my debut Cut Short was in my school reports... As a writer it seems I buck the trend because I had no lifelong ambition to write books. I simply had an idea for a story, wrote it down, and was fortunate enough to attract the support of a publisher. Only since becoming a published author have I appreciated what a widespread ambition I’ve achieved. Like Richard and Peter, I encounter numerous people who want to write a book. WHY? So many people appear to believe that writing a book is easy. It isn’t. Producing a decent book – not self-indulgent rambling, but a book that thousands of strangers will enjoy reading – takes many months, in some cases years, of dedicated application. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people say: ‘My life is so interesting/inspiring/courageous, I really should write my autobiography.’ But such personal reminiscences don’t attract publishing contracts because publishers know what the authors of such chronicles fail to understand. No one is going to buy these journals, unless you’re a celebrity and even then success is unlikely. All of which is not to say that such individual histories aren’t interesting and valuable to the right audience and for the right reason. We all have our stories to tell - just don’t expect hundreds of thousands of people to read them. I’ve asked my father to write down his personal memories of a lifetime through the war and then as a GP whose career has spanned the rise – hopefully not the demise – of the NHS. The family would read and treasure it, with each generation adding its own narratives, but I wouldn’t try to publish it because, outside of our family, who is going to be interested? It would be like stringing holiday videos together and hoping they’ll become a blockbuster when – hello, reality check - they won’t even make it to the cinema.
Thursday, 24 March 2011
By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)
Richard Jay Parker raised an interesting subject in his last blog, and I'm sure he's right when he says that most authors have had this sort of experience. I've lost count of the number of times when I've been in some kind of social gathering where most of the people are strangers to me, and when the conversation has, almost inevitably, shifted to a discussion of the various participants’ modes of employment.
The statement ‘I'm a writer’, usually seems to produce one of two reactions. Either there’s a stunned silence followed by a detailed scrutiny as the other people stare at you as if you're some strange and unexpected life-form from another planet which has mysteriously appeared in their midst. This is often followed by a mild exclamation, then an observation that they've never seen a writer before, followed by a complete and irreversible change of subject. On the whole, I prefer this kind of conversation, because I'm better listener than I am a talker, and I'm quite happy to look and listen, hoping to pick up the odd idea for a plot or perhaps a useful characteristic or expression that I can shoehorn into some future book.
The other reaction is rather different. One of the people will give you a knowing look, which clearly implies that if an idiot like you can not only write a book but also get it published, obviously anybody can do it, and then they’ll say something like: ‘I thought I might become an author when I retire from accountancy/medicine/train driving/rat catching or whatever.’
To me, and I suspect to most authors, this makes as much sense as saying ‘I thought I might become a brain surgeon/research biochemist/rocket scientist when I retire.’ Becoming an author isn’t something you can do on a whim. Most of us have served long and hard apprenticeships before that elusive publishing contract dropped through the letter box. In my case, I earned my first crust from writing at the age of 17, with a mildly abusive letter published in a motor magazine which netted me a fiver. In those days that was enough money to fill the tank of my Mini. Then I wrote for a number of British magazines, which taught me the importance of choosing the right subject, sticking to deadlines, adhering to a house style, and producing work of the appropriate length.
But it took me ten years to get my first novel published, writing it, rewriting it, starting again when other ideas struck me, and then finally sending it out to agents when I thought it was of publishable quality. Actually, it wasn't. For one thing, it was far too long, and when I was lucky enough to be taken on by an agent after receiving over 50 rejections, the first thing he told me to do was lose 50,000 words, which was fairly major surgery.
I do wonder how many of the people who think they might knock up a novel or two when they get the time would be prepared to work at one book for a decade, and then chop out about thirty percent of it before it’s even submitted to a single publisher.
Writing, in short, is a craft and a skill and, like any trade, it has to be learned. It’s also extraordinarily lonely. By definition, most of the time an author is sitting in a room, by himself, staring at a computer screen. There are no workmates to talk to, no canteen to visit for a coffee or a meal, no meetings, no progress reports, and nobody standing behind you to make sure that you are actually writing a book and not spending all your time cruising around Facebook, eBay or even less reputable websites.
It requires concentration, self-discipline and, obviously, a modicum of talent. But I still remember my first meeting with my agent, when he asked me what I thought was the most important quality for a writer. To me, the answer seemed obvious: talent, the ability to write, to tell a story that people wanted to read. Actually, he said, they help, but the single most important attribute, without a doubt, was persistence. Never, ever, give up.
And, until you’ve got a good few books out there, never give up the day job, either.
Saturday, 19 March 2011
In some ways writers are similar to visual artists, in their close observation of details. Painters seeing a landscape might rearrange the composition in their heads, select colours for a canvas, respond to light and shade (I’m guessing here.)
As a writer even the most mundane detail transforms into words in my head – a carrier bag flapping in a gust of wind, the smell of earth beneath dry leaves – anything can be used to help set a scene somewhere in a book.
Recently I had a very different experience of noticing detail, spending a week in hospital suffering a severe bout of pneumonia. Looked after by a wonderful team of NHS staff, I was reminded how much I take for granted every day. That first cup of NHS tea when I was able to drink, the feel of dry sheets after I managed to dislodge my drip which leaked in the bed (it was the drip), the joy of eating a piece of toast!
Not much about writing here but I have been a bit off the case recently - although I did have a clear view of the hospital car park, deserted after dark. One night I watched a lone figure hurry along the walkway and couldn’t help thinking “What if…”
…a second figure leaps unexpectedly from the shadows, brandishing a knife, and the patient becomes an unwilling witness, three floors up. Before she can move or cry out the victim staggers and falls, the assailant vanishes into the darkness… The patient presses her buzzer and watches as the victim bleeds to death far below in the deserted car park…
Ionesco wrote that "A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing." Seems we can't stop writing or thinking about writing!
Friday, 18 March 2011
Wednesday, 16 March 2011
By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)
By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington and James Becker)
To begin with, I must apologise for the long delay since my last contribution to this blog. There are two reasons for this. First, I got embroiled in a new writing project, details of which for the moment will have to remain confidential, though I will reveal all, as they say, as soon as I'm able. This necessitated writing just under 100,000 words in a month, which you don't need to be a mathematical genius to realise works out at over 3,000 words a day, every day. So I was starting at about nine in the morning, and usually stopping at about ten or eleven at night. To complicate things, the project also required quite a lot of research, which obviously slowed down my output. While this was going on, I simply didn't have the leisure to write anything else.
The second reason is practical. I live most of the year in Andorra in the Pyrenees, in a small house loosely attached to the side of a mountain, and early in February we were blessed with not one but two water leaks. Luckily, our tame – or at least house-trained – builder was already working in the house down in the garage, and immediately swung into action to try to find them. He deduced that water was coming down the underside of the internal staircase, which is made of concrete, and set about the lowest step with a jackhammer. Examination of the hole he’d dug suggested the leak was coming from further up, so he then attacked the second step. It will probably come as no particular surprise to learn that the leak was actually under the top step, which he discovered when every other step in the staircase had had a large channel carved out of its middle. This assault on our property sound much like the outbreak of a war, with the machine gun-like hammering of the jackhammer, and was doing nothing at all for my concentration as I attempted to get some work done.
We have another house in France, and after about five hours of this, we decided that it would be a really, really good idea if we just slung the dog in the back of the car and headed north, leaving the builder to fix the leak, which he'd now found, and then return the staircase to a structure that we would no longer need crampons and ice axes to climb up or down.
So we went to France. We have a house in a mediaeval village in the southern Dordogne. In fact, it's a good conversation stopper to say that we bought Credit Agricol, but it's actually true, although only a building which they had just vacated. The communication problem referred to in the title is, not to put too fine a point on it, France Telecom. If you think BT is bad, and it undeniably is, France Telecom is in a league of its own. Last year, our next door neighbour sold his house and bought another one at the end of the same street, a distance of about ninety yards. Both houses had telephone lines physically installed, and all he wanted to do was move his original number from his original house and transfer it to the new property.
This, you might expect, would involve throwing some kind of electronic switch in an exchange somewhere, an operation that might take perhaps two or three seconds. Even allowing for the inevitable form filling, head scratching and other activities inseparable from work of this kind, you might think a week would be adequate. In fact, it took France Telecom just over two months to complete this operation and, to add a typically French insult to injury, for the second month they rang my neighbour on a regular basis, but always, significantly, on his mobile phone, to ask if the landline was functioning correctly. His replies became noticeably shorter and lacking in warmth towards the end of this period.
The bank which we bought was well supplied with landlines. There were phone points in virtually every room, and multiple lines entering the building. When we enquired informally about the possibility of having just one of these existing lines connected to a telephone handset inside and the local exchange outside, there was a certain amount of sucking of teeth and even more head scratching, and eventually a timescale of six to eight months was suggested as being reasonable. It may have seemed reasonable to France Telecom, but it didn't strike us that way. So we ditched that idea and bought a mobile.
And all that, I suppose, is really just a roundabout way of saying that, because I didn't have access to the Internet, except by nipping round to a friend's house and borrowing a bit of his wireless network for a while, which was hardly ideal, even if I had found the time to write anything for the blog, I wouldn't have been able to send it.
But now I'm back, as Arnie might reasonably have said, and hopefully you'll be able to find me here every week from now on until Matt finally decides to shoot me! And next time, I’ll try and think of something interesting about writing, rather than builders and the French phone service non-providers.
Thursday, 10 March 2011
The UK experienced another TV milestone recently with the first (official) product placement featured in one of its daytime shows – ‘This Morning.’ According to reports I believe Nescafe paid £100,000 to have their Dolce Gusto coffee machine lurking on a cookery segment.
This practice is already established in the US on TV and in movies. I wonder how long it will be before we get to see it so blatantly shoehorned into books?
Ebooks are already being singled out for intensified advertising so how soon before it impinges on the works themselves and is backdated to earlier classics…
From Russia With Lovefilm
Empire Of The Sunny Delight
Life of Pukka Pi
Importance Of Being Ernst & Julio Gallo
The Complete Sherlock Ideal Holmes Exhibition
Man For All Chicago Town Four Seasons Pizza
Le Morte D’Activia (Mmh Danone)
Mother’s Pride and Prejudice
The Miller Time Machine
A Clockwork Orangina
Warburtons And Peace
McDonald’s Animal Farm – I’m Lovin’ It!
Jane Aer Lingus
Goodbye Mr McCain Oven Chips
Jose Cuervo Tequila Mockingbird
Although obviously the advertisers won’t be as subtle as the examples I’ve come up with...
Any other suggestions? Feel free to leave them here or send them via Twitter @Bookwalter
Visit Richard’s darker side at: http://www.richardjayparker.com/
Tuesday, 8 March 2011
There’s a lovely piece in The Guardian today by Christina Martin about Amazon reviews. Apparently, there has been more controversy about authors writing their own reviews (how could they – the cads!) and whether the reviews are really reliable.
She makes the valuable point that they may or may not be real. It doesn’t really matter. You can fairly easily tell which ones are genuine and which ones are fakes by the way they are written, and whether the person has reviewed similar books. And they open up the debate about books to lots of new voices. After all, before we had to rely on the reviews on the back of book jackets – and they were often fairly fictitious as well.
Most authors have an ambivalent attitude to Amazon and other online reviews. Personally I like them. I’ve had good ones and stinkers, and although none of us like being criticised, I can take that in good spirit. The internet is full of nasty stuff, and there is no reason why authors should be exempt. Online reviews are one of the few ways we have of getting feedback on our work, and of judging how much impact it is making on the world.
The more of them the better – even if they aren’t real.