Monday 28 April 2008

Have You Done It Yet?

I've added a link to another blog (and let's hope the Curse of Literascribe - see previous post - doesn't strike!) - it's Karen's blog Get On With It, at It's a delight - and there's so much there, wryly expressed, that we can all identify with. God, though, I feel the panic in my throat - yet another blog to keep up with! There'll come a time when 23.5 hours of my day will be spent just catching up with what other people are saying!

I've also added - very belatedly - another Quotation to my Quotes of Note at the foot of the page. It's a brilliant one - I came across it a few months ago and the damn thing has haunted me ever since. So it might as well haunt you lot too. It's by John Donne, one of my favourites, a man whose wit, ego, cruelty, tenderness, spirituality, and wisdom are always expressed in verses and sentences whose precision, rhythms and rhetorical structures are of awe-inspiring rightness. You read a phrase, are pierced by an image - and you have to put the book down and go away for a little think, a sigh as the words sink in, a shake of the head because you will never never never in all your life acquire such a facility for the sharpest thoughts in the clearest verbal expression. Damn the man. Have you ever played the game of fantasy literary dinner party - where you decide who you would invite as your guests? He'd definitely be one of mine.

Anyway, here's the quote, a short phrase, but starkly effective and oh so relevant to all us dilatory writers: 'To will, implies delay, therefore now do.'

So go on. Do it.

Saturday 26 April 2008


In the early days of this blog I put up a link in the box to 'Miss Snark', an acerbic anonymous New York literary agent: I found her blog witty, cutting, refreshing and informative. Shortly afterwards, she stopped posting because, quite simply, the blog was taking over her life and she'd had enough. Recently, I linked to the writer Tess Gerritsen's blog - also witty, honest, vulnerable and informative. A few days ago she decided to stop posting - is this the curse of Literascribe? No, it's because a certain camp of readers took exception to a recent post of hers because they totally failed to perceive its ironic tone. She was subject to such abuse that she decided it wasn't worth going on with the blog in the face of such criticism, misunderstanding and hostility. Can't say I blame her, having read some of the acid comments sent her way.

Both blogs are still up, so you can look at the archive. I recommend both of them - Tess gives us an insight into the self-doubts that beset even a successful professional writer. Miss Snark pulls no punches when it comes to shattering the illusions of self-deceiving aspirant writers. Both give us insight into how publishing works. Often the revelations are not at all comfortable - but if you're going to go into the lion's den yourself, it's best to know the beasties have claws and teeth and hunt in packs.

Out of all this we can see the perils of blogging - first, its addictive quality. I cannot ever see myself being one of those people who writes a daily blog. I don't want it to rule my life like that. The second problem, Tess's problem, is more worrying. Most people who read blogs are 'lurkers' - they read, ponder, are appreciative but don't communicate. Of those who do respond, the majority are positive and supportive, making an interesting contribution to discussion. But then there are the Others - and here I may be risking my own blog-existence - who, I have to say, hide in a cowardly manner behind anonymity, who are encouraged by the nature of online communication to unleash hostility, judgementalism, and vituperation, and who in all probability would never dare speak to their victim in such a way if they were actually face to face.

So, my sympathy to Tess. And thank you, Literascribees, for being (so far!) nothing but supportive!

Thursday 17 April 2008

Dear Diary

I like this quotation from Isabel Allende in the current issue of Waterstone's Books Quarterly, where she discusses, on publication of a memoir about her family 'The Sum of Our Days', the problems of writing about your loved ones: 'What I don't write, I forget and then it is as if it never happened: by writing about my life I can live twice.'

This struck a chord with me and it may well do with you. So often, especially when it's not going well, we ask ourselves why we write. There are many answers to that question and they are not mutually exclusive. Therapy, the joy of wordpower, an addiction to hooking the reader with a damn good yarn, fame, money ....

Allende is drawing attention to one of these reasons: when you write, you write for others, certainly, but you write for yourself. You write for the pride you feel, weeks, months, years later when you look at the words you put down on paper - those words, that order - and you realise that no one, not even yourself, could have written that passage that way, the way you did on that particular occasion. You write for attention: look at me, I'm a clever girl! You write because you have a message or you have a grievance or a memory you want to take charge of.

You write because you 'fix' yourself on the page. 'Fix' can mean, in the American way, 'heal'. It can also mean 'preserve'. You recreate and define and make sense, through storytelling, of the messy business of experience, and you say, not just to the world, but to your future self - 'This is how it was. This is how it felt, how it struck me.'

As you know, of late, I have mentioned the fear of Alzheimer's. Pretty much all of my adult life, I've kept a diary. It unnerves my husband, and I don't blame him. It unnerves me. I often wonder what I should do about the ever-increasing piles of books full of my experiences and angsts and attitudes, because the me that's in those pages is rarely a me I particularly like or admire. This is because a diary is a cistern in which to deposit the thoughts and emotions you maybe feel it's necessary to keep from the world. If you can't be honest in a diary, where can you be? I'm talking of course of a diary you truly write for yourself, not one where you keep a weather eye open for an audience. Last night we watched a repeated programme about Kenneth Williams, who was enormously talented and articulate and whose diaries, now in the public arena, were brimful of the vitriol and bitterness that churned within him, of symptoms of physical malaise and the anxiety that created and of an ever-deepening utter hopelessness. Did he leave instructions that, post-mortem, these diaries should be published? What do you do with these daily records of self-castigation, repressed anger, self-pity, petty diurnal routines, references that nobody but yourself will ever 'get' - what do you do with the slow verbal accumulation of a life lived? I don't know - I truly don't. Much of what I've written I would never want anyone to read. Much of what I've written does not reflect who I am now. I remember when I first read Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' how impressed I was that she would quote her own juvenilia, her poems, her diaries, in all their youthful self-importance - this was so honest. In truth, we'd all really like to edit our own lives, so that people can see us in the best light - and, as I've said, a true diary shouldn't edit as it goes: it should record who you are at each transient stage.

I'm also, it has to be said, proud of my diaries. Even when trivial, they mark an achievement - that every day I sit down and put into words how I feel and what has happened. All those words. When my creative writing is struggling, there is always my diary - I have always written something, even if it's only for myself, even though it's such a solipsistic activity. Also, I feel proud when I've managed to describe an event well - just as I would when I write a good scene in a novel. I'm proud, even when I cringe, when I look at something I wrote months or years ago and it is well expressed and it brings back to me an episode or a perception I've since forgotten. Which brings me back to Isabel Allende: writing preserves your life. Writing saves your life. So often these days, when I spend my time in what Jane Austen calls 'a kind of slow bustle', I quite simply forget. I forget what I went upstairs for. I forget if I took two paracetamol or just one. I forget what we did at the weekend, I forget - oh, so much. The diary is my safety net. I need it to reassure me about what and when and how. It gives me discipline and a purpose. And all those volumes may, one day, make such a big bonfire that they'll need carbon offsetting.

Or ...

Algernon: Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?
Cecily: Oh no! You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Advances in Retreat

'Writing, the No-money Game' - now there's a title you can't resist: this is the area debated in Jean Hannah Edelstein's Guardian blog -
What has given rise to it is a proposal by an imprint of HarperCollins to dispense with writers' advances and instead give them a bigger cut of the royalties. On the face of it, I'm in favour of that. The reading public often has no idea at all how small the writer's cut is. When I signed copies of the £17 hardback of The Chase when it came out, many were the signees who seemed to think I was earning all or most of that £17. Hah! At most, £1.70, my dear - and don't even mention paperbacks to me - pennies, my love, mere pennies. Then again, my advance - like most advances - was pretty small. So I would welcome more than 5% or 7.5% of the price of my book as reward for my labours - but is it a good idea to get rid of advances? There are two major problems with this: the first is how long it takes to write a book. The Chase took me six years. At least with an advance, you at last get some sort of reward, divided into instalments at the signing of the contract, at the delivery of the final manuscript, and on publication. With no advance you would have to wait another year for the book to actually hit the bookstalls, then for the income from it to filter through the Byzantine and slothful accounting systems of your publisher. Secondly, most writers are aware that the amount of marketing effort your publisher puts into your book is commensurate with the amount of the advance paid. If it's a large advance, the publisher will make more of an effort to recoup that investment. So, all in all, I do think advances should stay and royalties should increase!

The Guardian blog has, as ever, given rise to debate by the old faithfuls who love to comment on it - the debate is interesting, often eccentric and self-indulgent, and at times acrimonious. It veers off the point of advances etc to return to that hoary old chestnut: that somehow writers, being such noble souls, should write for the love of it - not for dosh, not to satisfy ego etc. Do take a look and see what you think. When I'm teaching creative writing I always ask my students to examine their motivation as honestly as possible. And yes, we writers do have ideals, and many of us could not conceive of giving up writing even though we never gain any reward or recognition for it, and many of us look askance or with a snobbish superiority at those who turn into cash cows for their publishers. My own feeling (and my feelings are complex at present, as I am engaged in a personal struggle with my own writing and motivation) - is that it's perfectly OK to want to earn money from your talent. And why not a lot of money? The problem just now is more to do with the limitations of the celebrity-driven commercial world of publishing, which seems to be in a state of feverish pursuit of ... what? The sure-fire, the done-before, the lowest-common-denominator insult to the reading public which assumes they have no spirit of adventure and must not have their horizons broadened, by a process that demands books be written on the ever-more-speedy production line, by an artistic environment -as in films and music - where the artist, the actual creator of content and 'product' is devalued and exploited.

Whew! I leave you with a quote from Jane Holland in the debate after the blog - she has several comments there, including a scary resume of just how much money she (did't) make from one genre novel - '...there seems to be an absurd assumption hereabouts that writers should write for sheer pleasure and artistic integrity, and that if they're lucky enough to be published, to accept that as the pinnacle of their achievement. Any unholy desire for filthy lucre - i.e. a few quid for a poem, and if you're really lucky, a couple of grand for a first novel that probably took you several years to write - is to be rejected as a soiling of the artistic dream.'

Artistic integrity? Filthy lucre? As Harry Hill would say: 'There's only one way to find out! Fight!'

Friday 4 April 2008

Lurgies, Male Writers and Readaholics

This will be a brief one, because I've been ill all week: a throat/chest lurgy struck me down after my return from Scotland - I believe I caught it on the plane down. Had to do some teaching this week and had scarcely a voice with which to do it and I'm having real trouble shaking off the coughing and sniffing and wheezing. Could understudy for Gollum, my Precious.

The Oxford Literary Festival is on this week, and offers a colossal selection of events (see my posts this time last year for the talks I attended then) but so far I've only attended one event, which was a question and answer session with Fay Weldon, to which one of my ex-creative writing students kindly invited me. It was enjoyable, and Ms Weldon was good value with her witty answers, but the shop (Blackwell's) was incredibly overheated so physically it was uncomfortable. The majority of the audience women, like myself, of a certain age, all of us boiling: it was like a collective hot flush - perhaps a good noun for a gathering of menopausal women.

I've just finished reading Claire Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy, the Time-Torn Man. Very readable and interesting, but God, you wouldn't want to have been married to him! (Cf Messrs Alfred Tennyson and John Milton). It's a damn shame that a woman has to die in an attic after years of estranged living in the same gloomy house to get her husband's attention back again! And then it's pretty tough on wife number two to listen to his endless bleatings about the lost regretted past!

Before that I read Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. I started out by liking it very much - and ironic novels about the self-destructiveness of writers are bound to appeal to self-destructive, self-questioning writers. I recommend John Colapinto's About the Author, for instance, which is an excellent black comedy and has lots of satire about agents, publishers and the vanity of writers, as does Terence Blacker's Kill Your Darlings. Wonder Boys, I'm afraid, palled for me, as I found the hero, Grady Tripp, more and more annoying. He was a child and he needed a good slap. His bumbling and fumbling and copping-out of any situations that demanded a modicum of responsibility and moral maturity were meant, I suppose, to be comic and endearing, but really - he needed several slaps. And I couldn't believe that a sequence of women would have found him irrestible. The story tottered from farcical scenario to comic misunderstanding, with Grady leaving a trail of dead animals in his wake. I couldn't have cared less. The style was flashy and clever, and there are lots of good apercus about the creative process, the ageing process and the quest for who we are - and I did finish it, because I thought I ought to and also because I'd liked the other Michael Chabon novel I'd read, The Final Solution, which I do recommend.

However, here's a good description in Wonder Boys of the crucial nature of reading to those of us who are addicts: 'Sara would read anything you handed her - Jean Rhys, Jean Shepherd, Jean Genet - at a steady rate of sixty-five pages an hour, grimly and unsparingly and without apparent pleasure. She read upon waking, sitting on the toilet, stretched out in the backseat of the car. When she went to the movies she took a book with her, to read before the show began, and it was not unusual to find her standing in front of the microwave, with a book in one hand and a fork in the other, heating a cup of noodle soup while she read, say, At Lady Molly's for the third time (she was a sucker for series and linked novels). If there was nothing else she would consume all the magazines and newspapers in the house - reading, to her was a kind of pyromania - and when these ran out she would reach for insurance brochures, hotel prospectuses and product warranties, advertising circulars, sheets of coupons. Once I had come upon th spectacle of Sara, finished with a volume of C.P. Snow while only partway through one of the long baths she took for her bad back, desperately scanning the label on a bottle of Listerine.' Recognise that? Oh, yes. See also Anne Fadiman's book Ex Libris for further description of the reader-as-addict.

And here I was thinking this would be a short post ...

Just time to say happy birthday to this little blog, which I started in the middle of March last year. Many thanks to those of you who are regular readers: it means a lot to me.