25 March, 2009

Of aspiring writers and (some) agent/publisher websites

As an aspiring writer, I hoover up advice wherever I can find it. Among the most valuable sources are agent/publisher websites. Thanks to their good counsel, I have enough information to avoid irritating them and/or humiliating myself when I send off my query letter, synopsis and sample chapters. After all, the rules of submission mean ‘You do it their way’. 

I accept, too, that with aspiration comes disappointment. Before sending off my work, I will inoculate myself with large doses of realism about the talent I may, or may not have (goodness knows, there is enough advice out there urging me to do this). And if I’ve learned anything about contacting agents and publishers, it’s that whatever reply I get, no matter how I feel about it, my response will be:

• to be grateful 
• to take on board, seriously and thoroughly, what has been said 
• to get back to improving the writing and to making the next approach better 

And if there is no reply, I'll cleave to the last point. However, a wearisome feature of some websites is the regular ‘screamer’ of the “I’m surrounded by idiots” variety, when referring to contact with writer wannabees. Authentic examples are publicly (although anonymously) posted about writers who have sent in inappropriate, illiterate, inconsiderate, ignorant, impolite or downright rude letters. 

The patronising, “can you believe this?” rant is usually rounded off with some finger-wagging advice. This can be funny but – and I hesitate to say this about arbiters of originality and talent – it’s becoming boringly samey.

More often than not, the ‘Comments’ sections for these tirades are packed with 'Right ons,' or 'Can you believe its?' and other messages of mutual solidarity/sympathy from fellow professionals and, worse, from sycophantic writers, who line up with teacher to say ‘good post (you couldn’t possibly mean me)!’ 

Good agent/publisher websites provide invaluable help and encouragement. However, for most didactic efforts there will always be too many pupils ‘who just don’t listen'. When this happens, it’s a tad too easy to play it for laughs in yet another “How not to do it” story of hapless writers getting it wrong.

Of course, it’s not one-way traffic. Writers have myriad ways of letting themselves and fellow writers down, not least by behaving badly when their wonderful talent isn’t appreciated. Nevertheless, most of us read and take professional advice; it’s only completely in our own interest. 

So, for the advice offered – without charge – sincere thanks. But how about a little less scorn?

12 March, 2009

The great Hugh Leonard

I missed the news of the recent death of Hugh Leonard, one of the great comic writers - up there alongside Flann O’Brien, James Thurber and Damon Runyon.

For me,
Home Before Night (apparently out of print, shame on Penguin) is the funniest-ever novel and Da was the equally funny but more heartbreaking play that was based on it. It brought my Irish father to tears of sadness and joy when we saw it together (his first theatre visit) at London’s Kings Head Theatre in the 70s; he also spent rest of the evening drinking with the play’s star, Eamon Kelly.

Leonard’s series of half hour TV plays set in Dublin could have been called
Dubliners, if James Joyce hadn’t used the title first. The plays usually ended with David Kelly sitting on a street bench and summing up the preceding 30 minutes with the superbly philosophical, ”Ah well, der y’ar”, which is every bit as good as, "So it goes" in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

I wonder which modern English writer has written or could write as well about my own city of London and fellow Londoners?

Three more-or-less accurate quotations come to mind before I go back to his writing and savour the whole treasure trove:
Of a woman who lies about her age. “I’d hate to be hanging since she was 50.”
Of a dry, pedantic suitor who had been rejected by his love and at whose funeral “the only mourners will be a group of unsplit infinitives.”
On hearing that his writing rival, Ulick O’Connor, was in hospital, “It must have been something he wrote."

I picked out ‘Dublin’ among the host of Irish accents at Cheltenham yesterday – accompanied by ever-present laughter. Is the Festival the only world-class sporting event at which so many people have drunk a little too much, where even more have lost money but where everyone seems to be happy?

Photo Irish Connections

05 March, 2009

On better reading and writing

I’ve been putting off reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I don’t know why exactly; something to do with a sneaking conceit that literary criticism can be lofty, dusty and display too much academic preening. And little of it ever led me eagerly to read the authors being appraised.

So, do I need to know how fiction works? Truth is that my reading demands have rarely risen above asking if the fiction works for me.

My reading choices weren’t steered by literary criticism but mostly by an erratic ‘banging around’ like a pinball between different pingers (what is the word for those things that thump the silver ball about?):
• personal preferences, involving too much clinging to favourite authors, and to their favourites
• wider, braver choices suggested by trusted reading friends
• a need to read the ‘surely you must have read’ ‘classics’ and ‘leading’ authors (pretension is a fair old reading stimulus)
• good author interviews (reviews of Anita Brookner’s new novel didn’t lead me back to her, but Mick Brown's recent Telegraph interview did)
• compelling reviews
• good book covers

Lifetime reading hours have been infinitely greater than those spent writing. So, I'm a far better, more experienced reader than I am a writer; something that obtains for all writers, albeit in differing proportions. But it’s only the writing we get to see, even though we can hear whispers and occasional shouts of other authors rising from the page.

Friends suggested that How Fiction Works would make me a better reader – a bit worrying when they know it’s the writing I’m struggling with. They were right. And blessings on Mr Woods, if only for making ‘free indirect style’ something I now completely understand.

I’ve little to add to the blurb on the book’s cover, save that I do feel a better reader. And writer? Yes. The endless but essential reading and re-reading of my own drafts may have got more demanding but it has also become more productive.

Today’s bonus: fine poem by Carl Dennis

Image courtesy of sociallyglobal.ning.com