Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Rules? Don't talk to me about rules!

Well it was bound to provoke, wasn't it? Last Saturday's Guardian newspaper printed Elmore Leonard's already well known 10 rules and asked many other writers to provide their own, here:

I've come across the Leonard rules before so don't understand how come they are just being released as a book here. And I can't honestly be bothered to find out why. I hate writing rules!

If they worked, then everyone who followed them would produce similarly successful books, wouldn't they?

Here are a few taken at random:

Margeret Atwood - take 2 pencils so you can write on a plane because "pens leak" - honestly, I ask you! Did she get to be the great writer she is by eschewing biros? I don't think so.

Roddy Doyle - do not search for the book you haven't written yet. Is the man mad?

Richard Ford - don't have children. Back to the old Enemies of Promise premise, I see. How many male writers look after their own children?

P. D. James Increase your word power. This from a woman who misuses "fortuitous" in almost every novel.

Dip in almost anywhere and you will find such dross - this really is just filling column inches.

Tips, I can take. I've written some myself on because so many teenage writers asked for them and it saves repeating myself (I think I have 10 rules for writing fantasy there but done tongue in cheek - do not let your plot hinge on a birthmark, for example)

Hints are good. I love hearing about the way writers work. I loved it when the Guardian ran those pictures and descriptions of writers' rooms.

Advice? Good when asked for and given by someone one respects.

But rules? Nah. Rules schmules.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Can a hermit have a platform?

Or "what are you writing now?" It's a fact that some writers are more sociable than others. And in these days of enhanced availability there is even more pressure on writers to have "a platform" by which is meant a presence on the Net - a blog or two, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Now, though you know I'm not a huge fan of J. D. Salinger or Cormac McCarthy (and no, I haven't read the latter - I just mean I'm not a fan for that reason), no-one could say they have reached their present standing through their Facebook status.
Would they be even more famous if they had given us the occasional Tweet? e.g. Managed to escape interviews with 36 journalist today #amhiding.

I jest.

But there is no reason in the world to suppose that a writer of say novels, will also be a great entertainer at public speaking or in interviews or as a diarist.

And there is a particular pressure on children's writers to be available to their public, to do "school visits". These can be wonderful and I have recently come back into contact with a writer (ex-teacher)* who loves schools so much he does 100 such visits a year. That would actually kill me.

It's wonderful when you get a bunch of readers who know your books and ask specific questions like, "why did you make so-and-so do that?" or "Is such-and-such really evil?"

But when one is there just to be "an author" (subtext "any author"), it's so much harder. How can you be interesting for the several hundredth time answering "where do you get your ideas from?" or "how long does it take to write a book?" It makes me want to chew my arm off.

The Internet makes interaction with readers in some ways much easier. In the peace of your own home, you can answer fans' emails (I try to do it once a week). Though one sometimes gets unanswerable questions: "what phase of fantasy would you say Stravaganza is?" (say what?)for the most part this is a rewarding way of having fan contact.

But your maven is definitely NOT a hermit. Suppose I were? Would I want to let the readers get up so close and personal? Can you have shy or reclusive writers any more in a culture that prizes celebrity above all other qualities?

And suppose that your favourite writer is suffering from that mysterious condition "writers' block"? Will it hep to badger him or her about what the next book is coming out?

It's a real modern dilemma, the sort of thing Shaw would have written a good play about.

* Antony Lishak, who has started a website that will tell you all sorts of things about children's writers:

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Arguing about books

Recently on this blog I have been less than complimentary about Cormac McCarthy and J D Salinger. One reader and friend in particular has chastised me and it got me thinking about how we talk about books, publicly and privately. I've just read Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing and enjoyed it thoroughly even when I didn't share her tastes.

Firstly, she takes a positive pride in the lack of organisation of her books, something she invests with a moral quality, as she does so many of her personal preferences. She implies that mere "book collectors" arrange their books; she, on the other hand has had a life "working with books in various ways". Well, lots of us have, Susan, and some of us still like to know where to find a specific title!

This chaos does not extend to the study of her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.

Susan Hill reads Dorothy Sayers' detective stories but finds the Wimsey-Vane romance "embarrassing", enjoyed using the London Library but refuses to be a country member, remembers her extensive reading of Enid Blyton, is left cold by Jane Austen but re-reads Ian Fleming. In all of the above she couldn't be more different from your Maven.

But she loves Dickens and so do I, though we have different favourites. But we agree on the flawlessness of Our Mutual Friend.

"Name-dropping is a tiresome, if harmless trait" she says in the introduction before warning the reader that she has known lots of famous writers and I was glad of the warning. There is a lot of showing off in this book. (A postcard from Dirk Bogarde falls out of Graham Greene's The Third Man, for instance.)

Susan Hill loves My Family and Other Animals, Nancy Mitford,adores P G Wodehouse - I can follow her two thirds of the way here. Admires every other one of Kingsley Amis's novels, which makes her much more enthusiastic than me. And I just can't read his son at all - so fully expect another comment from my friend.

Like so many people, writers even, she hasn't read Proust or Ulysses ("though Stephen Fry ... swears by it"). But at least she says "I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic." Other omissions are Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, Gormenghast, any Terry Pratchett, in fact any fantasy or historical fiction writer.

Hasn't read the Morte d'Arthur either but at least that falls into the category of books she will get round to one day, rather than the often-tried and cast aside like the books in the above paragraph. The writer she loves most is Virginia Woolf.

So her literary mental world is peopled with different authors from mine. We might come together on Dickens and Gerald Durrell but the Malory that fills and furnishes my own brain is missing from hers, which instead has Virginia Woolf. But we both do have brains peopled by literary experiences, writers and their characters and that gives us more in common than either of us would have with many other people.

In the end Susan Hill tries to boil down the books she loves to a strict forty (I can't remember why). In choosing from Shakespeare she rejects all the poetry (why?), 12th Night, the Roman plays and all tragedies except Hamlet and Macbeth.The Scottish play wins. Shakespeare is allowed only one work while PG Wodehouse gets two! So does Trollope but I don't mind that because I love him.

I wouldn't give shelf room in my forty to Graham Greene or Anita Brookner but there again we are up against the immoveable problem of personal taste.

I found the book absolutely addictive because of the moments when I disagreed as much as the moments when I nodded approvingly.

But in the end I think perhaps its best to discuss books, like politics, with people whose general standpoint is closest to one's own. I never discuss politics with a Tory - no point. And there's no point discussing Terry Pratchett with Susan Hill any more than in her trying to convince me that P G Wodehouse is funny. We all have our blind spots.

But I enjoyed arguing about books with her for the duration of reading Howard's End is on the Landing.