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.