Thursday, 15 December 2011

The illiterate guide

Having finally bought myself an iPhone, I popped into WH Smith yesterday and picked up one of several guides to the device that were on sale there. I now wish I’d spent a bit longer making my choice, because The Ultimate Beginners’ Guide to iPhone (even the title is slightly off-kilter) is without doubt the most poorly-written commercial publication I have ever seen.

Even just skimming the first few pages on the train home, I spotted several typos: ‘sinked’ for ‘synced’, ‘piece of mind’, ‘fore more see page 37’... Further tell-tale signs of illiteracy soon revealed themselves; ‘its’ and ‘it’s’ used interchangably, commas and hyphens either used wrongly, or omitted when they were needed, and of course the grievous overuse of exclamation marks.

Above all, the English is just appalling. Take this sentence: “Amazing seems to little of word to describe it’s performance!” What’s amazing is how many errors the writer has managed to cram into 10 words - errors a GCSE student would be ashamed of. The whole guide reads as if it’s been hurriedly translated from a foreign language, or written by a non-native speaker, and I suspect one of these is the real explanation. Either that, or James Gale (named and shamed as Editor on the contents page) and his colleagues at Black Dog Media are just rubbish at English - which makes publishing a spectacularly poor career choice for them.

I’ve spent much of my career as a sub-editor, so I take bad writing personally (not to mention the fact that I spent £8.99 on this piece of illiterate garbage). But there’s more to it than that. The real issue here is that this is supposed to be a technical guide; if the authors can’t spell simple English words correctly, why should I trust them when they’re giving me instructions on how to set up my iPhone, or listing technical specifications or statistics? It’s bad enough wherever it crops up, but in non-fiction in particular, poor spelling and writing undermines the entire enterprise.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Don’t give up the day job

It seems that you can’t open the Guardian (or rather, the Books section of the Guardian website) these days without reading another depressing article about the future (or lack of one) for books and, as a result, authors.

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Leith wrote about how the Kindle was killing off the printed book and examined some of the implications. A week later, Ewan Morrison asked Are books dead, and can authors survive? The answers are, respectively, “not yet, but they will be soon”, and “no”. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler.

As I wrote a few months ago, this is a depressing time for someone like me who always dreamed of being a professional writer. When I was growing up, there appeared to be something approaching a career path for novelists. You write some short stories, some of which get published in magazines; you start to get a reputation, which means that when you send the manuscript of your first novel to agents, they’ve heard of you and take the trouble to read it; an agent takes you under their wing and gets you a modest advance for that debut novel; and, over the years, the advances increase in tandem with your sales.

Of course, I’m sure it was never quite that easy. I also suspect that my education didn’t help; my school, and then my university, were places where it was pretty much taken for granted that you would achieve great things in whatever field you decided to apply your talents to. Indeed, I shared a German translation class with a girl called Joanne Harris, who has had an immensely successful career as a writer, with 11 novels published to date. 

She’s one of the lucky ones; the last generation of novelists who will have the support network of a major publishing house behind them. For the rest of us, self-publishing, possibly combined with one of the new-tech ideas discussed by Sam Leith, looks like the best bet. But the prospects of finding a mass audience, let alone making enough money to write full-time, are bleak.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Full circle

The first poems I wrote, back when I was 17 or 18, were really song lyrics, or as good as, with regular rhythms and simple rhyme schemes. That’s not surprising, really, as I’d been listening to pop and rock music for years, whereas the only poetry I’d read up to that point was centuries-old (notably the work of the metaphysical poets, which I studied for A level) that was never going to be an influence on my writing.

Gradually, as I read more 20th-century poetry, my own poems became correspondingly more modern, sometimes even verging on the oblique. Not that I was afraid to rhyme when the poem called for it, unlike some of the poets at the workshop I attended weekly for the best part of 10 years, who regarded a rhyme in the same way as a vampire regards a stake.

Towards the end of that time, I finally settled on a voice, and a style, that I was happy with. I started telling stories in my poems, assuming the voices of characters rather than expressing my own personal concerns, and it felt right. It also helped to confirm my feeling that I was ready to start writing ‘proper’ stories, in the form of novels, and I left poetry behind when I did so.

Now that I’m working on song lyrics (as I explained in a recent post), it feels like I’m combining both extremes of my poetry years. I’m writing verses and choruses with strong rhythms and rhymes, but in those verses and choruses I’m telling stories about characters. That’s a challenge in itself, because it’s hard to tell a story in three verses, or three and a half minutes.

Thinking about it, maybe I should dig out my old notebooks and see if there’s anything I can use from my teenage poems… Then again, no. Best let sleeping dogs lie.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Overegging the pudding

Until recently, I’d only ever read two novels that were set in Watford – and I’d written one of them myself. (The other being Nick Corble’s excellent Golden Daze.) But I’ve just finished a third, and it’s a proper book by a well-known author: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by the ever-reliable Jonathan Coe.

Actually, only a small portion of the story actually takes place in Watford. But Max does live there, and this provides the excuse for a lengthy and excruciating monologue which is one of the highlights of the first chapter. (To find out exactly why it’s so excruciating, you’ll have to read the book: I don’t want to spoil the punchline.) A short extract will give you the flavour:

“… Caroline never really seemed to take to Watford, she never seemed entirely happy there, which I think is a shame, because, you know, there’s something good to be found everywhere, isn’t there?, which isn’t to say that, living in Watford, you wake up every morning and think to yourself, Well, life may be a bit shit, but look on the bright side, at least I’m in Watford, I mean it’s not as if Watford is the sort of place where the very fact that you’re living there gives you a reason to go on living, that would be overegging the pudding a bit, Watford just isn’t that sort of place, but it does have an excellent public library, for instance, and it does have The Harlequin, which is a big new shopping centre…”

And so on, for another page or so, with the name of the town cropping up remorselessly every couple of lines.

If I was the sort of person who got offended by such things, I might protest at the way Coe clearly suggests that his boring, bland and emotionally stunted protagonist has found a town that suits him perfectly. But really, what harm does it do? And at least he’s done his research, as another passage, where Max directs someone from Watford Fields to Watford Junction station, proves. I’ll even forgive him for calling it ‘Watford Field’. No one’s perfect.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A true journalist

Having written not long ago about my difficulties with non-fiction, it’s only fair to point out that I recently read a factual book all the way through, and was riveted throughout. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc. tells the story of the former Soviet airmen who make a perilous living flying cargo around the world in giant, but rickety, superplanes – everything from humanitarian aid to illegal drugs, often at the same time. It’s unlike any story I’ve ever read, and throws a whole new light on the way the world works.

I should say that I only knew about it at all because Matt is a friend. A few years ago we worked together at a publishing company, and I’d always assumed he was just another desk-bound hack like me. Little did I know that in his spare time he was hitching rides on these cargo planes, gathering material for this book – and risking death and disease in some of the world’s most dangerous cities, places like Kabul and Mogadishu.

Years ago, when I was studying journalism, one of my tutors made a useful distinction between writers and journalists. A journalist, she said, was someone for whom the story came first: they lived for the next lead, loved chasing down the details, and regarded writing it all up afterwards as a bit of a nuisance, frankly. Whereas a writer was someone who loved words above all, and it didn’t much matter what they were writing about as long as they could indulge in the art of composing sentences, paragraphs and pages that flowed in a pleasing manner.

I’ve always known that I’m a writer. In my professional life, I’ve never had the slightest desire to chase stories, let alone don a flak jacket and report from a war zone. Fiction is the natural home for whatever talents I possess. But Matt is a true journalist, and I salute him.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A bad week in December

I wrote a while ago about the benefits for a writer of reading bad books. I wouldn’t say A Week In December, the most recent novel by Sebastian Faulks, is a bad book exactly, but it has some serious flaws which got me thinking.

I should start by saying that I’m a fan of Faulks’ novels, all but one of which I’ve read and enjoyed. But they were all set in the past – various parts of the 20th century – whereas A Week In December is that most self-concious of literary forms, a State of the Nation Novel.

During the course of the week in question (the year isn’t specified, but the book was published in 2009), we follow the progress of a number of characters in London. Most notably, there is a ruthless, amoral hedge fund manager and a would-be Muslim suicide bomber, and the main question at the heart of the novel is which of them is going to cause the most damage. Then there’s a down-at-heel but sympathic barrister, a female tube train driver, a Polish Premiership footballer, the hedge fund manager’s pot-addled teenage son, a cynical literary critic, an ambitious politician’s wife, an Asian businessman who’s made a fortune from chutney...

The list goes on and on, to such an extent that Faulks has provided a sort of key to them all in the first chapter, under the pretext that most of them are being invited to a dinner party that takes place on the final day of the week in question. A friend suggested that the publishers must have insisted on this list being added to help the poor, confused reader, and I suspect he may be right. I certainly found myself referring back to it at regular intervals.

Using a large number of characters isn’t a literary crime in itself, of course, though in a novel of fewer than 400 pages, it’s not particularly reader-friendly. The contrivance of the dinner party is clumsy, too – pretty much the only major character who isn’t invited, children aside, is Jenni the tube driver, and you sense that Faulks would have sent here there as well if he could just have contrived to make her one of the other characters’ long-lost niece or some such. And don’t get me started on the caricatures, most notably the critic, R Tranter (Art Ranter – geddit?), whose entire characterisation smacks of revenge.

No, what I really wanted to write about was the hedge fund manager, John Veals. Clearly, any State of the Nation Novel written towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century is going to have to deal with the financial markets, and Veals is a folk devil, the personification of everything that led to the financial crisis whose effects we’re still feeling. The trouble is that, in order to explain why Veals is so evil, Faulks has to go into detail about what he does and how it works. Thus, approximately 80% of the long sections of the novel in which Veals features are devoted to meticulous explanations of how various aspects of international finance operate.

Many years ago, I read a book about how to write fiction. I don’t remember much of the advice it contained, but one phrase stuck in my mind: “Don’t let your research show.” Large parts of A Week In December feel like they consist of nothing but research, and for me at least, they spoiled the experience of reading the novel. It felt like homework: rather than engaging with the characters, I was spending my time trying (and failing, it has to be said) to understand the complex financial world they inhabited.

There is a counter-argument, of course: that this is important stuff, and that unless we all understand how a few clever, greedy, amoral people brought the global financial system to its knees, we can’t begin to have a chance of preventing them doing the same thing again in the future. Maybe the novel is a good medium for that kind of education. But on the basis of A Week In December, I don’t think so. I suspect many readers will simply tire of the economics lesson, put the book down and read something else entirely. And I wouldn’t blame them.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Buddy, can you spare a song?

I haven’t had a great deal of time to work on my latest novel recently, but I have been experimenting with a different kind of writing: song lyrics.

This came about because my friend Jason, a talented singer-songwriter, mentioned that he was thinking of writing some new songs on the guitar. (He also writes and records electronic music as part of the duo Blue Angel.) He said he’d always written his own lyrics before, and he thought it would be interesting to sing someone else’s. As a writer, would I be interested in coming up with something for him?

As it happens, I used to write a lot of poetry, and I was a regular attendee at poetry workshops and readings for most of my 20s. Then I decided I was ready to start writing fiction, which was where (I was pretty sure) my true talent lay, and gave up poetry as a distraction. I never wrote song lyrics per se, but that was mainly because I couldn’t put them to music myself and didn’t know anyone who’d be interested in doing so for me. As a music fan, I’ve always like the idea of being a lyric writer.

So now I’m getting back in touch with a much more concise form of writing than fiction, and one where rhythm is a central concern. I’ve also been consulting my old rhyming dictionary for the first time in many years. It’s challenging, like using a muscle you haven’t exercised for a long time, but a lot of fun too. Of course, it may not come to anything – but in my head, I’m already writing my acceptance speech for when I win an Ivor Novello award...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

My fiction addiction

A few days ago I made a lunchtime pilgrimage to the nearest branch of Waterstone’s to satisfy what I can only call a craving for fiction.

I’d been reading a non-fiction book, JB Priestley’s English Journey. I’m a big fan of Priestley’s novels, and I like his voice, and I’d been trying to get a copy of his famous – but out of print – travelogue for a while. Finally I was given a dog-eared old hardback for Christmas, which I got about 100 pages into before starting to feel restless.

That’s not a reflection on the book at all, but it’s a common experience for me when reading non-fiction. I know this is a golden age for non-fiction, and I do occasionally buy and read a book on sport or music or history, or whatever takes my fancy. But however good they are, I never look forward to reading them the way I do when I’ve got a novel on the go.

I tend to read books on the train home after work. If I’m in the middle of a novel, I start to feel a tingle of anticipation the moment I leave the office, and when I reach my stop at the end of the journey, a slight feeling of resentment that I’ve got to stop reading. But if I’m reading a work of non-fiction, the resentment comes at the start of the journey, or at least a feeling of… dutifulness, I suppose.

The truth is that, as I approach the age of 50, reading anything that isn’t made up still feels a bit like homework to me. It’s something I feel I ought to do rather than something I want to do, whereas being immersed in a novel is a wonderful, addictive feeling that I hope I never lose.

I will get back to English Journey before too long, though I suspect I’ll read it in short chunks rather than all the way through. In the meantime, I’m thoroughly absorbed by Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, and looking forward to spending some quality time with it over the Easter break.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

The problem with self-belief

I came late to the Jacqueline Howett affair, which has been all over the internet and Twitter this week. Howlett is a self-published author who took exception to an online review of her novel The Greek Seaman. The reviewer praised the story, but criticised her poor spelling and grammar. Howett was furious, and as the to and fro of comments underneath the review grew, it became clear that she really didn’t understand what was wrong with her prose. Her last riposte before comments were closed was a succinct “F*** off”.

There’s been much discussion of this incident, with many commentators focusing on what it says about self-publishing. “This is the very type of behaviour that will continue to tarnish self-published authors as hobbyists,” was a typical comment.

That may or not be true; I’d hope that most readers have the sense to take each author on their own merits, rather than lump all of us in together and dismiss us out of hand. The thing that really struck me about the affair was the extreme self-belief Howett displayed throughout. She never wavered from her position that her grammar and syntax were perfectly comprehensible, despite numerous readers agreeing with the reviewer, who posted a couple of prime examples of garbled nonsense.

Now self-belief is something you have to have as a novelist. To make up a story, write it down, turn it into a book and then ask strangers to read it is an act of extreme presumption; you wouldn’t do it unless you really believed, deep down, that it was worth other people taking the time to read your creation.

On a more basic level, it extends to your writing style. There is no right and wrong when it comes to such things, and any creative writing tutor will tell you that you need to find your own voice. Again, it takes a certain level of self-belief to foist that voice on others.

The corollary of that is that you need a level of self-awareness to go alongside it – the self-awareness, for example, to realise that not everyone is going to like the way you write. (Not taking offence when that happens helps, too.) It’s a difficult balance, because self-awareness can easily tip into self-doubt (we writers are fragile beings), and then you’re stuffed.

Ultimately, Howett’s ravings display an extreme example of self-belief taken too far. She is so passionate about her novel that she has become blind to its flaws. A bit of self-awareness would go a long way, in this case.

Mind you, some grammar lessons would help, too.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The benefits of reading bad books

Like most keen readers, I don’t read many bad books. There are plenty of tried and tested authors I know I can trust, and when selecting a new book to read, I usually base my choice on a combination of recommendations and reviews from trusted sources, word of mouth and other factors.

But I have a bad book in front of me now. It was a gift, which makes me feel a little guilty for dissecting it - but what the hell. The thing is, I reckon you can often learn more about writing from a bad book than a good one.

The book in question is Our London Office by Thomas Armstrong. Published in 1966, it is long since out of print, and though I’m told Armstrong was a popular author in his day, these days he doesn’t even merit a Wikipedia entry - the ultimate indignity.

Our London Office is the fourth in a series known as The Crowthers Of Bankdam; a grand saga following the fortunes of a family of West Yorkshire textile merchants. In this volume, set in 1957, the youngest son, having fallen out with his father, has come to London to start a cosmetics company with a friend, but after many twists and turns, he ends up mounting a coup and returning to Yorkshire as head of the family firm.

So why is it so bad? To start with, although it’s less than 400 pages long, the book seems to go for ever. Armstrong doesn’t seem to have grasped that, having invented characters, he doesn’t have to document their entire lives. So every day in his hero’s existence has to be accounted for, and even if the last interesting incident occurs at lunchtime, we still have to be told what he does in the afternoon, what he has for supper, how he spends the evening and what time he goes to bed.

Even that wouldn’t be so bad if the author wrote sparkling prose. Armstrong doesn’t. To give you a flavour, here’s the opening of Chapter Three:

“In the early days of August there was every sign that the national economy was to have one of those belly-flops which regularly occur whatever colour the board of management at Westminster. But however the international bankers may have been looking with narrowed eyes towards London, Ray and I had our own problem to solve: whether to stabilise C-W’s turnover at its current level, or to crack on.”

This passage illustrates another fundamental problem. The book is about business – two businesses, in fact, the fledgling cosmetics firm and t’mill back in Yorkshire, and Armstrong is keen to follow the progress of both. So we hear an awful lot about turnover, and production, and cashflow, and balance sheets, and a whole lot more besides. Any writer would struggle to make this stuff sound interesting; in Armstrong’s hands it mostly resembles extracts from a particularly dull annual report.

But the book isn’t just about these two businesses. Oh no. Armstrong keeps around a dozen plots on the go throughout the book, making it hard work for the reader, who has to keep up with the exploits of the hero’s girlfriend, family, colleagues and other contacts. A good writer uses sub-plots to amplify or counterpoint the central plot; Armstrong simply seems unable to leave anything out, and thus condemns himself (and the reader) to follow each character’s progress remorsely.

Finally, there’s the central character himself, Charles Crowther. Even without reading the previous volumes in the series, it’s clear that Charles is meant to be seen as the clear-sighted, modernising influence the family firm needs to free it from the shackles of the past and make it competitive again.

Unfortunately, he comes across mainly as an arrogant, intolerant prig who knows best in every situation, and is thus extremely hard to like. Never more so than when his free-spirited girlfriend starts dabbling with drugs, a development he sternly (but vainly) tries to nip in the bud. When she eventually dies of a heart attack caused by too much heroin (or some such), Charles is clearly upset, but you can sense him (and Armstrong) thinking that it’s for the best, really. A chap can’t be burdened with a junkie for a wife, not when he’s got a business to run.

I realise that this last issue can be put down to changing attitudes, but I think the rest provide useful pointers for any writer. Indeed, whenever I’m struggling with a passage in the novel I’m working on, I tend to wonder what Thomas Armstrong would do - and then do the exact opposite.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Five years, that’s all we’ve got

Amid all the ballyhoo and hype surrounding World Book Day, I’ve been finding it hard, as a writer, to get excited. Don’t get me wrong - books are wonderful, life-changing things. I just worry about their future.

The more I read about the way the media in general, and publishing in particular, is heading, the more discouraged I get. A typical example is this recent blog post by David Hepworth, and in particular the proclamation by a literary agent that “within five years, no one, not authors, agents or publishers, will be able to make money out of books”.

It’s not that I ever expected to get rich out of writing novels, or even to make a living by doing so. I’m not stupid - I know that very few authors survive on advances and royalties alone. But if no one makes any money out of books, how will they get made? In a capitalist society where the profit motive reigns supreme, any product that doesn’t make money is effectively doomed, however beneficial to the public it might be.

This doomsday scenario is probably exaggerated to a certain extent, but I don’t doubt there’s a kernel of truth at its heart. The effects of the digital revolution are already there for all to see; music stores and record shops closing because they can’t compete with online retailers, who in turn are losing sales to illegal streaming and downloading…

If the only future for an unknown author is self-funded self-publishing, followed by the desperate scramble to find enough people willing to pay a few pence for the product of years of hard work that you might just cover your costs if you’re lucky, then you have to ask yourself: is it worth the effort?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The importance of a varied diet

Like many people, I tend to read the same kind of books most of the time: literary fiction (most of it, I’ll be honest, written by white, middle-aged men like me), with the occasional crime novel to cleanse the palate. But, as with food, I do believe that it’s important to vary your diet from time to time, and right now I’m reading something different. I’m about halfway through The Dark Volume by GW Dahlquist, and I’m loving it.

The Dark Volume is the sequel to The Glass Books Of The Dream Eaters, which I came across a couple of years ago when Penguin had the brilliant idea of publishing it in weekly instalments: I paid a ‘subscription’ and a chapter arrived in the post each week for 10 weeks. It was a brilliant idea because The Glass Books… is the kind of adventure that would once have been described as ‘rollicking’, and with each chapter ending in a cliffhanger, it lent itself perfectly to serialisation.

If you had to ascribe a genre to Dahlquist’s books, I suppose it would be fantasy. They’re set in a time and place that resemble Victorian England, where a sinister cabal is plotting to acquire wealth and power using a diabolical invention. Three disparate characters team up to try to foil them: an unworldly but resourceful heiress, an honourable German doctor and a ruthless freelance assassin. The books basically consist of a series of chases, with the heroes finding themselves in one perilous situation after another.

If it all sounds rather silly – well, it is, but it’s skilfully written and utterly absorbing. (I was reading it on a train this afternoon and almost missed my stop.) When I’ve finished, I’ll doubtless go back to my Hornbys and McEwans, but for now I’m thoroughly enjoying my change of diet.