Archive | July, 2013

Create a canon to rival Dostoevsky’s in just six months – here’s how…

28 Jul

Shamed by the small size of your œuvre? Want to create a body of work like Dostoevsky’s without having to work out? In my five star-rated, best-selling new self-help book, I tell you how you can write a million words of high quality prose expressing ideas with philosophical muscularity in just six months, without even having to think about it. Yes, that’s right, a million words in six months! 

Since dipping a toe into the waters of the on-line writing community a year or so ago, I’ve met some great people, many of them here on WordPress. I’ve also encountered a great deal of foolishness, for want of a more critical word. And on another social network, I’ve found myself deluged with a relentless tide of self-promotion that has made it impossible to tell if anything interesting is being said. In amongst its flotsam and jetsam, I’ve managed to catch hold of the occasional item, the intellectual equivalent of driftwood.

For some years, I was a member of a writing group, here in my home town. I’d grown a little tired of writing in a vacuum and wanted to meet like-minded individuals, off whom I could bounce ideas. I was introduced to a number of writing friends with whom I remain in contact, although I’m no longer a member of that or any other group. It was also my initiation into some rather extraordinary ways of thinking. Apparently, you can write novels even if you don’t read, plays if you don’t watch them, poems if you’ve never read any… Well, yes, you can but on the evidence that I saw, they’ll be dire. And, supposedly, you don’t need to revise or redraft. The last member to join before I left brought along some of his work. We made some suggestions. He rejected them all out of hand. He’d produced his last novel in just one month, he informed us, and he never revised or redrafted. Hmm…

I keep encountering this idea that a novel of quality can be written in 30 days. I mean, why would you even want to? And why 30 days? Why not 25 or 40? The latest message-in-a-bottle washed up by social media on the shores of my computer was news of a self-help book, suggesting that ‘you too’ could write ten thousand words in a day. In the blurb for the book, its principal advocate claimed to have experienced an insight of Damascene proportions. A novel can be written in – yes, you’ve guessed it – 30 days. This and other endorsements were littered with mistakes. The chief endorser even had a punctuation error in the title of her novel on Amazon, for God’s sake. It’s entirely possible that this self-help book is filled with great insights, but its central premise is mistaken, such errors would suggest.

I could write ten thousand words a day if I wanted to. I could write a novel in a month. I can guarantee you that it wouldn’t be Crime and Punishment, though. It would be unadulterated trash. I have written quickly as a journalist. And there’s a word for the end product. It’s called hackwork. Oh, heaven help us – we’re all going to drown in an ocean of words, and most of them won’t be very good…

So, would you like to know the secret of writing a good book? Read my five star-rated, best-selling new self-help paragraph and find out how! Spend many years reading a vast quantity of well-written books. Dedicate many more years to learning and practising your craft. Revise, redraft, take on board what others have to tell you. Accept that most of what you write will have to be junked. Be prepared to work hard and even then, you’ll probably find yourself falling hopelessly short of what you hoped to achieve. And all of that comes before trying to find a publisher for your work… Yes, that’s right! The secret is… there is no secret! 

© PSR 2013

Reflections on Rejection

23 Jul

Rejection. It sounds like being given the brush-off from someone you’ve chatted up at a party or being turned down for military service on health grounds. Like anyone who’s been writing for a while, I have a fair collection of rejection letters from publishers and agents. I’ve related before how the tale of one rejection helped me land a non-fiction deal. I even followed a fellow writer on Twitter just because she’d declared that she was decorating her bedroom wall with rejection letters. Like writing those first million words of rubbish, the acquisition of a file of rejection letters seems to me yet another stage on that journey from would-be to committed writer.

I mentioned in my previous post that William Golding failed to find a publisher for the first three novels that he wrote, before finding success with Lord of the Flies. By all accounts, he was on the point of giving up and Lord of the Flies was his last shot. The first reader at Faber (his eventual publisher) rejected it. And yet Golding would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize.

I’m currently reading Andrey Kurkov, the Ukrainian writer most widely read in the Western world. I read his ‘Penguin’ novels, Death and the Penguin and Penguin Lost, morose and witty yarns that I thoroughly enjoyed. I didn’t get on with The President’s Last Love but The Good Angel of Death, the book that I’m reading at present, seems to be a return to form. And it turns out that Kurkov is another of those writers whose story provides inspiration to the unpublished novelist. Apparently, Kurkov received over 500 rejections before being given a publishing deal, during which time he wrote eight novels.

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Death and some crows – image from my unpublished first novella – I didn’t have any penguins

This summer, I resolved to step up the effort to find a publisher for my war novel. After all, I put six years of my life into creating it. It’s currently out there for consideration with six publishers. In all probability, I shall receive a few more entries for my collection. But there’s a clear message from Golding and Kurkov for all writers who are struggling to get their work into print. Keep on working and don’t give up. Rejection needn’t mean dejection. You never know what may be around the corner…

Last of all, I’d like to extend my congratulations to the maker of the 3000th hit on this blog, who stumbled upon it from Algeria, the fiftieth nationality to visit.

All text and image © PSR 2013

Writing a Sequence of Great Novels

16 Jul

I’ve just finished reading The Rebels by the Hungarian author, Sándor Márai. Its atmosphere was pleasingly surreal and it contained some wonderfully executed set pieces. Márai wrote a number of novels in the 1930s and 1940s that weren’t translated into English until comparatively recently and so only now are being discovered by modern readers. I was impressed enough with The Rebels to try another.

There are numerous books that I’ve enjoyed reading, and a smaller number that I’ve loved. I have my favourite authors, of course, all or most of whose works I’ve read. Some writers have even written several books that I hold in the highest regard (Perec, Sebald and the deeply unfashionable, Graeme Greene, for example). And then there’s that select band of writers to whom I’ve referred before and who, from the outset of their writing careers, published one fine novel after another. I’m sure that readers of this post will have their own contenders in mind (please feel free to share them on this blog). Many would argue for Austen or Dickens, say (authors for whom I admit a blind spot). I would choose the first five novels by William Golding. The composition of Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall and The Spire seems to me an unrivalled achievement. More obscure and largely out of print are the first five novels of Rex Warner. The Wild Goose Chase, The Professor, The Aerodrome, Why Was I Killed? and Men of Stones form a hugely impressive sequence. These books have in common a quality that I admire, each is different from its predecessor. It’s a great joy as a reader to discover these sequences, reading them one by one and remaining spellbound. Omitting A Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell’s novels remain a formidable presence. More recently, Magnus Mills looked like he might be a contender with the publication of his superb first and second efforts, The Restraint of Beasts and All Quiet on the Orient Express. I read each of his next four novels with an increasing sense of disappointment.

This refers to published novels, of course. Golding wrote three earlier novels, I believe, before he eventually found a publisher with Lord of the Flies. I recently re-watched Five Minutes with Iain Banks on BBC iPlayer. Banks noted that he’d also written several novels before The Wasp Factory was published. The interview was notable in two other regards. The interviewer cheerfully declared that he was only part of the way through The Wasp Factory. You’d have thought he’d have finished reading that slim volume before interviewing its author. I was also struck by how full of life Banks seemed so soon before his premature death. If we relaxed the rules a little and ignored earlier, inferior works or later works when the writers powers were diminishing, there’d be further contenders. Some writers manage to have their earliest work published. Others don’t. Some writers, like Banks and Orwell, die early so we never find out if their writing would have trailed off. Some simply stop writing novels altogether (E.M. Forster, for instance, for whose novels some might make a claim).

There’s a further connection here. In creating these sequences, some writers appear to exhaust their novelistic resources. Upon completing The Spire in 1964, Golding published no new novel until Darkness Visible in 1979. The same was true of the brilliant comic novelist, Michael Frayn. He wrote five superb novels between 1965 and 1973, then nothing until 1989 (he did, though, write a series of highly regarded plays). I don’t have time for a 15-year drought. I’d probably be in my box before I got anything else finished…

The creation of such a sequence must be what every writer aspires to, I should have thought. As far as my own works are concerned, there are three that I’ve disowned and a further two novellas which remained unpublished. If by some miracle, then, my war novel were to find a sympathetic publisher, it would be my ‘first’ fictional work. I’d be loath to make any great claims for my own work but it’s the best thing that I’ve written and my readers seem to have liked it so far (see here). And that would make the work in progress my second. It’s coming along quite nicely and is certainly different from the war novel, that’s for sure. Time will tell.

I’m dipping into the Icelandic Sagas at present then I’ll be turning my thoughts to what to read over the summer break. Márai is a possibility. I’ve yet to read Mills’ latest novel. I’m not sure that I’ll be giving him a seventh chance…

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The work of the great Norwegian sculptor, Gutsav Vigeland – surely influenced by the Icelandic Sagas

All text and image © PSR 2013

Reading at Arts Festivals

2 Jul

Yesterday, I attended the writers’ café at the arts festival in my local town and gave a reading from my recently completed war novel. The novel follows the fate of a bomber crew in their attempt to complete their tour of duty. It’s interspersed with tales about the other crews on base, one of which I read last night.

It’s something that I seldom do. It’s four years since I last did so, in fact. The reading seemed to go down reasonably well but I wasn’t happy with my delivery. In everyday life, I’m a very confident person. I talk to groups of people for a living. I read the Moomins to my children with gusto. For some mysterious reason, I just seem to have a block when it comes to reading my own work. I get nerves. Having spent years playing in bands and taking part in theatrical productions, it’s something I’m not used to experiencing.  Any tips from seasoned readers will be gratefully received!

Other readers were cool as cucumbers. And there was some impressive writing on display. Sian Notley’s monologue was superb. It was a shame that my writer friend, J Huw Evans couldn’t be there to treat the audience to his performance poetry, though.

Anyway, the reading that I gave has been added here to the ‘Writing’ page of this blog. I hope that you enjoy it, should you happen to take a look.

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The author (centre) many, many moons ago, having recently departed the stage… And yes, that’s a bad haircut. Photographer unknown.

Text © PSR 2013, image © the photographer