Friday, 24 August 2007

The I’m-a-writer-and-no-one-understands-me blues

I expect three and a half million bloggers have got here before me on this one, but a YouGov poll of 2,461 people in the UK has found that nearly 10% of my fellow Britons aspire to being an author.

There has been a great deal of speculation about this, but I suspect there are a number of factors at play here; not least of which is ignorance. Most people seem to think that (a) writing is easy and (b) that it pays well. Sorry to disabuse you, fellow Britons, but it is neither.

Let us deal with the issue of remuneration first. The figures for author’s earnings in the UK that I have are not as up to date as the YouGov poll, but I suspect things have changed very little in the last few years. A poll of members of the Society of Authors suggests that about 5% of authors earn over £75,000 a year. That was the good news. 75% of authors earn less than £20,000 a year; 60% earn less than £10,000; 46% (nearly half) earn less than £5,000 a year from their writing (and for some that is their only income).

Put another way, three quarters of the authors who took part in the survey earn less than the national average wage; two thirds earn less than half the national average wage; and half earn less than an employee on the national minimum wage. That is how much we value authors in the UK.

Those statistics will hide certain facts. After all, if your only book in print is a small local history, you are not going to expect to make a living from it. But then, nor are you likely to bother joining the Society of Authors. For the most part the figures are an accurate picture of how authors are rewarded for their hard work (and we’ll get to that in a minute). It is no wonder they are to be found slogging up and down the country doing what they can to promote their works and pick up extra cash for giving talks. If you live anywhere near the site of a literary festival, there are times you are tripping over the pesky blighters and wondering why they don’t all go back to their luxury homes in Gloucestershire and pen another best seller. Except, of course, they are just as likely to be living in a council flat behind a steel reinforced door wasting days filling in their tax credit form.

The problem is, the media (I know it’s a generalisation, but you know what I mean) are not interested in the everyday lives of yer average author – coping with the kids in the holidays, getting the dog to the vet, finding money to pay the bills by working unearthly hours in a burger bar (where the pay is way better than their last royalty cheque), worrying about whether the car will pass its MOT. They like the glam, rags-to-riches, self-mythologizing darlings (who are usually the ones to pick up all the extra cash from appearances); the ones who pick up huge advances for poorly written work; the ones who look good on television.

Writing, for the majority, does not pay well. And we are singularly (if somewhat relatively) disadvantaged by living in the UK. Here, writers do a good deal worse on average than their European counterparts, despite writing in a language with a potential audience of something like 2 billion. So, all those people who aspire to be authors in the belief it is a money-spinner, be warned. The chances are against you making your fortune, even if you are a highly accomplished writer.

Which brings us to the other common belief about writing: that it is easy.

We all know of tales of writers who could dash off a book in a few days; some of them are well written as such people have a natural fluency and an energy that is to be envied. But the likes of Edgar Wallace, Georges Simenon, or Mike Moorcock in his early days are a rarity. Nor is their ability some sort of fluke. They went through exacting apprenticeships that honed their skills; and producing works at that speed takes its toll.

Most writers take a little longer to get their work on to paper. A dense literary novel of 90,000 words, even if you are able to work day after day without real life intruding, can take a year or more – especially if it is well written and subjected to a number of drafts and editorial work. I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t have off days; who doesn’t sit staring at their computer wondering what the hell they think they are doing; who doesn’t overdose on caffeine; who doesn’t become addicted to any one (or more) of the three billion online games you can play; who doesn’t want to take a can of petrol and a match to all their work and a lump hammer to their computer before going back out into the world and making their way in a simple, safe job that pays on a regular basis.

And that is only part of it. You can spend a year (or more) of your life, sweating blood over your book and alienating your family and friends in the process without the slightest guarantee it will ever get published. Very few writers can scribble an idea on the back of an envelope and expect a big advance. Very few authors are even guaranteed that a publisher will want to look at their latest work. So once you have finished the book, you have to go through the highly stressful process of submission. I won’t even go there today, save to say it is not a genteel world involving civilized people making rational decisions based on literary merit.

Plus you have to cope with non-writers.

I have been incredibly lucky. My mother was very supportive in my early days of writing and it was from her I got my love of books. She was rewarded by seeing me get into print. My wife is equally supportive and I could not get through it without her. The rest of my family have always made encouraging noises and have never once (at least not to my knowledge) shown any sign that they think writing is a daft thing to do. I’m the only one that thinks that. My only regret is that my father never saw any of my work. It would have perplexed him, I suspect (the only book he ever read was an engineering handbook), but he would have been supportive.

Why non-writers think that writing isn't a proper job I will never know. Who on earth do they think wrote all those scripts for every television show and advert they ever watched, every movie they went to, every radio show they listened to, every play they saw, every paper and magazine, every paperback they picked up and filled a couple of hours with, every cereal packet they read?

These were produced by writers struggling to earn a living, using their native language to convey every conceivable emotion and bit of information, to make people laugh and cry, to inform them, puzzle them, and sometimes even to make them think. All those great works of philosophy weren't just written by philosophers, they were written by people who were writers as well. All those schoolbooks – writers. All that popular science, all those cookery books, DIY manuals, gardening books… Writers.

Writing is a proper job and a lot more useful than some that could be mentioned. It is a job often undertaken at the author's risk and involving a great deal of will power, mental and physical stamina, not to mention intelligence. If you have a writer in the family, you should be bloody proud of them for having the wit and the courage to want to do something so useful, knowing that they will probably never receive the rewards they justly deserve.

And if you know of someone who wants to be a writer; support them, but don’t let them go into it without knowing the facts. Perhaps if those people who had been polled were aware of all the facts, there would be considerably less than 10% of the population with writing as their dream job.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Another award

It will all be going to my head, I'll be demanding two biscuits with my tea. I've been given another award by Sue, for which, many thanks. I will now go and have a think about passing it forward.

So, what is good writing?

I suppose I set myself up for this. If you moan about bad writing, you really do have to defend the position, no matter how controversial. It is not that long since I was jumped on and called an arrogant monster for daring to criticise the quality of writing in a popular series of books. But I have never been one to avoid argument if I believe there is a valid point to be made.

Let me start by coming at the subject from a tangent. I finished my last post by asking, “New authors? Who needs ‘em.” In this different context, the answer is, “We all do.” (Especially those who are trying to get into print or establish some sort of name for themselves).

The problem is, getting into print is not easy. Given that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of new books are printed every year, it might seem that getting published was never easier. However, for every book getting into print, thousands are being rejected.

All that rejecting is first done by agents and editors. They are still (and self-publishing will have to be left for another time) the gateway into the land of publishing. They do not choose manuscripts according to some rational pre-set checklist; they do not consider themselves the guardians of ‘literature’; and they are in it for the money (they have to put food on the table like the rest of us).

This means that manuscripts are chosen for reasons in addition to or other than their literary merit. An agent or an editor has to like the manuscript. It has to grip them. If they like it, they will bend over backwards to see it in print. This is as it should be. No author wants to deal with people who have no enthusiasm for their manuscript. Sadly, it does mean that it is impossible to predict what any given agent or editor will find attractive on any given day.

One thing, however, is essential. Good writing.

Content, style, genre, layout, all these things are subjective. But good writing? I would contend that this is not. I do not, for example, read hospital romances. They are not my cup of tea. However, I am sure I could tell the difference between one that is well written and one that is badly written.

We do not expect that such books (or indeed most books) will be considered great literature in two hundred years from now. We do expect that they reach a certain standard of literacy, that they are clear, well constructed, and allow the story being told to take centre stage. So, to ask the question again, what is good writing?

The English language is gloriously flexible and has a stock of words that no writer can exhaust. Even when the basic rules of grammar are ‘broken’ (it is descriptive not prescriptive), it can be done so that it still makes perfect sense. It is a remarkable tool and every writer should glory in and have respect for the resource that is at their fingertips. There are so many who do not.

Clarity is important. This does not mean simple sentences. It means sentences and paragraphs you can get to the end of without needing to go back to the beginning to find out what they are about. It does not mean a simple plot. It does mean being able to follow the complexities without having to make notes or without falling through the holes. It does not mean lack of subtlety. It does mean that complex ideas, characterisation, and plot twists are within reach of the reader.

The other point about clarity is that when you read a book, it is annoying when the language gets in the way of the story; a bit like music on film or TV that drowns out the dialogue or commentary. I enjoy clever use of language, I can even appreciate a well-written phrase or sentence as I read it, but if that is all you are getting, or if that cleverness is always to the forefront, it begins to pall.

Some books can be badly written by being over-written. The author is showing off. Look how good my command of the language is; look how much research I have done; look at my cultural references; look at my stylistic devices. I am not saying a book shouldn’t have these, but I would contend that if they get in the way of telling a story, they are badly used.

Style, plot devices, syntax and all the other tools used to create a piece of written work are just that: tools. If I buy a hand made cabinet, I don’t want to see tool marks, joints, or where a couple of duff bits of plank were nailed on to the back to hold it all together. I don’t expect that from a simple, workaday kitchen unit any more than I would from an armoire with marquetry panels. If I buy a book, I don’t want to see the author at work unless I want to at a time of my choosing.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

On reading

Much of my reading of late, as evinced by the list at the side, is actually re-reading. I hadn’t realized until I made that list and thought back to stuff I had read before those. And then I started thinking about why.

To begin with, it is money, or lack thereof. Not just me (although I think I have always lived well on the ‘wrong’ side of the official poverty line; even when I had ‘proper’ jobs). I always find cash for books. But I do not buy anything until I have read it and know that I want to read it again. I cannot afford the luxury of buying books on the off-chance. That has always meant trips to the library armed with sheaves of request slips; knowing that I was getting a good read and introducing off beat titles that others might chance upon.

This year, however, one of the local authorities whose libraries I use has introduced swingeing cuts to their library budget (30% was the figure I was given). They are planning equally vicious cuts next year. This has resulted in rapidly emptying shelves where old stock is not replaced and a huge reduction in choice. It has also meant that members of the public can no longer request titles not already held in stock.

They are buying new books, but from a recent trawl through their idiotic online catalogue (that is another bone of contention – why do they list books on their catalogue that they do not hold in stock?), these are not books that interest me. I do realize, of course, the library system is not there solely for my benefit, but I can now no longer read new books in the hope of discovering a new author.

And the other local authority (the one in whose boundaries I actually live) is equally unhelpful. The main library is over thirty miles away, but we do have a tiny branch in the village. It is about the size of our living room. The problem is, it is not linked to the main system. I cannot, therefore, browse their online catalogue and order a book. I have to go to my branch, give the details to the librarian who then puts in a request on a slip of paper, and wait. I also have to pay up front. I don’t mind that from a cost point of view, but it is a real hassle if they don’t send the book as you cannot get refunds. You have to order another book. And their stock is not up to much.

Another reason I am re-reading is that after a long period of trying to discover new authors whose work I enjoy, I have given up. Now, I am happy to believe this is just me. I’m getting on a bit; probably fossilising. Nothing is as good as it was in my young day. Oh no. On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder what has happened to writing recently.

I suppose I could have a go at agents and publishers. They, after all, are the portal through which works must pass before making it into print on a commercial scale (that is, scale enough for the writer to earn something more than it costs to keep their printer filled with ink). And I know there are writers out there producing stuff that is far superior to a great deal of the crap that actually gets put on the shelves of book shops.

When I say crap, I am not making a judgement based on subject matter. Tastes are infinitely varied. When I say crap, I mean two things. The first is yet another book without merit or originality that is riding the tail end of a bandwagon from which agents and publishers hope to squeeze a bit more dosh. The second, and much worse type of crap, are all those books that are badly written.

“Is that not just as subjective as taste in content or style?” I hear you ask. To which I would reply with an emphatic and resounding, “NO!”

There are certain types of book and certain styles of writing I do not enjoy. The things I love, I know, are not liked by others. But there is, I would contend, a difference between personal taste and knowing whether or not something is badly written. This is mostly to do with syntax, but it is also about plotting and character development – all those things you will find in creative writing courses and in the countless books produced by editors, agents, and writers on how to write books that will get published. All the rules and pointers that are regularly and depressingly ignored in many of the books that make it into print.

I spent several hours in a bookshop yesterday, taking book after book from the shelves in the ‘New Titles’ section. And book after book went back onto the shelves because I could not find one that did not have some basic, syntactical error; or that did not read like something an earnest fifteen year old had written with a thesaurus to hand and a burning desire to impress.
Perhaps I am too sensitive about these things, but it seems to me that if I am paying out seven or eight quid for a book, I have a right to expect a certain level of basic literacy, something that is reasonably well constructed, with an absence of too many typos.

So I go back to books I know are well written; to authors I know who care about the language and have learned to craft it both appropriately to their story and with respect for a medium that can do so much to please and enlighten others.

I am not sure there is any point to this little grumble other than to explain to myself (and anyone else who cares to listen) why I am re-reading so much old stuff at the moment. Besides, revisiting old friends, sometimes after years of absence is great fun. I have started on a chronological read of Dickens and have promised myself the same with Virginia Woolf. I have been rediscovering the joys of Albert Campion and Sherlock Holmes; exercising my flabby intellect with the work of Langdon Jones and Barrington J Bayley; and experiencing yet again the awe I have always felt with what Samuel Beckett does with language. I have been smiling quietly at the antics of William; rediscovering some of my metaphysical roots in the books of Mike Moorcock; and immersing myself in the tricky mists of Celtic myth.

New authors? Who needs ‘em.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007


My thanks to Viki of pernickety hat who has nominated me for a Creative Blogger Award. You can see it over on the left. I am immensely proud of this. It is the first award I have ever won for my writing. And having won it, I am allowed to pass it on to others whose blogs have inspired me.

This will be the hard part as I know more than five people who are deserving. However, for their unfailing ability to make me think, I nominate Lightly Done; Drivin' Me Crazy; Random Blethers; Close to Home; and Time for Tea and Cake.

Saturday, 4 August 2007


This has been on my mind a lot recently. There have been several interesting articles circulating, I have had some interesting conversations, and my current reading has prompted some thought on the subject.

One of the ways in which we deal with the vast amounts of information that pour into our brains on a daily basis (other than my patent method of letting most of it in one ear and straight out the other), is to put things into categories. That way, we can juggle with the categories rather than the individual items. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we remember that categories are a convenience.

For example, it makes life a lot easier for the manager of a bookshop to be able to classify books in certain ways so they can be shelved together in ways that make it easier for customers to find what they want, or at least browse amongst those books they favour. I do the same at home. Reference books on one set of shelves; general non-fiction on another; fiction; children's fiction...

Of course, there are always books that never quite fit. There are several history books in my reference section as I go back to them constantly for my current project. When I have finished, they will be moved.

There is no problem in any of this. The problem (if it can be described as such) is that books, especially works of fiction, are further subdivided into specific genres by publishers. This would be all right if it was, again, a matter of convenience; unfortunately, it no longer is.

When and how genres became 'fixed' is a matter of debate. It did not seem (and I am happy to be corrected on this) too much of a problem in the 19th century or even the early 20th. An author wrote books. If one happened to be about a time machine, it did not exclude them from writing a story of political scandal, any more than their publisher would reject the latter on the grounds they were a science fiction author, or the reading public would ignore the former as it was 'merely' science fiction.

These days, genre has moved way beyond a convenient way of signalling the content and style of a work. It has developed into a series of ghettoes and this, in my opinion, is a bad thing. It means that readers miss out on good books because the author isn't perceived as a writer of a specific genre. It means authors feel constrained to write a particular type of book instead of developing an idea that interests them in a way that best suits the story. There are exceptions, some authors are well known enough to be allowed to work in several genres, and others are happy writing one kind of fiction. But because the barriers have become rigid, we all lose.

I seek out books and authors for their style and the themes they explore. I don't care if the book is science fiction, crime, a thriller, 'literature', a book meant for children, fiction or non-fiction. In fact, I get annoyed with genre, because of the snobbery that is involved; not just from those of the 'literati' who see genre writing as inferior, but those who hole themselves up in the ghettoes and look down on anything outside that ghetto (and usually on a number of sub-genres within their own ghetto as well).

The writing I enjoy most is often described as cross-genre, slipstream, pays no heed to the conventions or exploits then and subverts them. Not all such books are successful. They sacrifice telling a good story on the altar of experimentation, but they do have the virtue of daring to take steps into new territory.

Recent examples of 'mainstream' authors breaking the mould (remember the fuss when Margaret Attwood wrote a bit of science fiction?) are rarely that. Margaret Attwood may be a good and interesting writer, but in common with a lot of mainstream authors dipping toes into fresh seas, if she looked at the beach she would find a number of footprints already there. But because these stories and these experiments were done by science fiction writers or thriller writers, they have slipped under the radar and been ignored. This means we are left to reinvent a wheel that was designed and perfected by previous generations of writers - many who see their work difficult to keep or get back into print.

I admit there is an entirely selfish reason for all this. My fiction writing has rarely been conventional (which is not to claim it is any good). I'm not keen on sticking to a genre, either. It's not done me much good over the years, partly because I never know how to describe things to agents and publishers. My novel Wealden Hill, for example, could be described as a fantasy, but not in the conventional sense. It could also be described as a historical novel, but not in the conventional sense.

Many years ago I tried to sell a science fiction spy thriller about a government agent caught up in what might (or might not) have been a conspiracy by aliens to take over this planet. It was a novel in itself, but sufficiently open to milk a series of stories out of it. I was told, in 1992, when I touted it round, that nobody would buy this sort of thing. Then The X Files hit the little screen. After that I was, apparently, trying to tout a rip-off.

I use this as an example to demonstrate that many of the big successes on television, in the movies, and in books, are not formulaic or genre driven. People are hungry for something a bit different (and not just another variation on chalk and cheese cops or 30-something female search for the meaning of life sagas), something a bit out of the ordinary, something that teases and takes them into new areas. Not everyone wants to read William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, but a lot of people are bored silly by clones of the real successes (and some of the real successes are depressingly badly written).

Charlie Cornelius sits in awkward territory. On the surface is the tale of a child who, after surviving alone in London during the Second World War, goes in search of her parents. I can hear that being clicked into a genre already. But Charlie Cornelius has unusual parents, travels in time and alternate universes, lives a great deal inside my head into which she journeys very deeply (poor kid), and acts as a mirror to reflect the horrors faced by children around the world on a daily basis. It has a strong narrative core, but will have an unconventional structure.

If I had started with a genre (even the one called 'mainstream'), I would have given up on it a long time ago. I have a story to tell, I have themes to explore. The style of the book and the way it is written will deliberately reflect that. If it doesn't squeeze into a preconceived and useful pigeon hole for the benefit of agents and publishers... frankly my dears, I don't care.