Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Who Dictates What is Written: the Reader or the Writer?

Most guidance you read on writing is aimed at the writer in terms of how to structure the work, develop the characters, refine the tone of voice, ad nauseam, i.e. how to improve your craft from a writerly point of view.

I, from an advertising background, constantly think of the reader.

'Of course,' you cry, 'it's obvious you have to think of the reader when you're writing an ad; you are trying to sell them something! I am trying to write a book and not flog someone a dead horse.'

The fact is all your efforts can amount to flogging a dead horse if you don't think of your reader. Because the fact of the matter is you are trying to sell them something. Your book.

There is an old adage in advertising that states you can sell anyone anything once; the trick is to be able to sell them it twice. That is where the money lies.

If you write a tome thinking only of what appeals to you, without doubt you will be the first to cry when you receive nothing but rejections. The whole function of publishing is geared towards thinking what the market, your potential reader, wants to read. If you are not geared to the same degree, there will be a clash of gears.

If, by some oversight of an editor's judgment, your book makes the shelves, people will buy it. A few, nonetheless some. However, if it fails to live up to their expectations those few will never buy another book you produce. As a reader, you know how many books you have bought on the spur and left, half-read, to curl at the edges never to buy a book by that author again. Worse than that, you will not be the beneficiary that no amount of advertising pounds/dollars/yen/yuan/rupees can buy; recommendation by word of mouth.

It is true advertisers chuck a lot of money at the reader, or market, to discover what the reader thinks, eats, drinks, wears and the quality of air that he or she breathes, so the copywriter has a fair idea of the person they are appealing to. The poor author does not have these resources. I correct myself: the author has an immeasurable wealth of data just down the road at their nearest bookstore.

Bookstores are filled with books that have succeeded in every describable genre. Read them. Have your favourite open on your desk as you write. These authors have an insight into what your readership wants. Do not be afraid of being a clone of the person you admire; you are far too surly, feisty, cocksure, a pain-in-the-arse to be anyone other than yourself and it will show in your writing. As I used to say to my girls, 'Don't copy my mistakes, learn from mine and find your own.' (They now tell me the same.)

Did Tolstoy, Dickens, Zola, Twain, Garcia Marquez, and others from different continents and sub-continents advocate what I am saying. I doubt it. The understanding of their readership was in their DNA; they had no need of trite observations from some hack lowly as I. For the geniuses among you, I apologise; for those, like I, struggling, I hope my comments help.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Rumble Strip - A Review

I won, thanks to much ingenuity, cash and secret liaisons with the gorgeous, hugely talented and acclaimed sex goddess, Caroline Smailes, Rumble Strip.
  Rumble Strip. Strange book. A graphic dissertation on the topic of road kill that depicts no living individual. Humanity is referred to through road graphics. Appropriate, perhaps, in terms of the message of the book, which is once in a car we lose all connection with humanity, with ourselves.

As one who has not owned a car for over fifteen years and who used to cycle everywhere in London on my daily commute, the message of the book had long been absorbed from the painful experience of years.

(Woodrow Pheonix sticks his pins in motorists; other targets are cyclists themselves and pedestrians who ignore cycle paths.)

Rumble Strip is a brave book, published by the brave, Myriad Editions.

I feel sad about this book because it only preaches to the converted. Everything it has to say is true but everything it has to say is known by us, in the know, and unwelcome, ignored, shunned by those whose concept of their dicks/fannies exceed the size of their organs, especially their brains.

It is, in blank form, a straightforward, well argued dissertation on the merits or opposite of the car; however, if my ego dictated that I need drive a monster, four-wheel drive around the small streets of Brighton, and plenty do, this is not a book I would pick up. If small, pocket-sized machine guns that sprayed people with the message from remote, safe distances could be packaged, I would be the first to buy.

Much effort went into Rumble Strip and it shows. It is not, however, a bible, as had been suggested.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Writing: The Way Forward

Somewhere I read that writing is making a resurgence because of the growth of social networking. I can believe it; however, it will have a consequence, not unwelcome, on language. We refer back to Shakespeare as gospel but most in the know understand language or spelling was constantly under experiment during his ungoverned times.

We are going through a similar revolution.

My breeding is of the old school. That said, I am a writer, an artist, someone who is very interested in language and expression, so even if I tend to use the language of my generation to express myself, it is not true of my writing.

I offer an example of a Facebook dialogue between my daughter and friend:

Cast of characters:
Emily - my daughter
Amy - her daughter
Facebook user - female friend
Dan - Emily's partner

Emily Thompson is lovin Amy's hair. yay!!!
User: wht ya done girly xxx
Emily: she's all fringed up and lookin good.
User: cool thought it be ok where did u go ?? x
Emily: headmasters, she always suited a fringe when she was little. i've remembered why i grew it out now though, she looks older, my baby is growing up.
Emily: dan isn't working 2mora so he can have the girls when i go hospital, cheers though
User: ok mate no worries :-) x

So, purists, how do we handle this. To my mind, this is a minor contemporary drama, well communicated and it gives a clue to the global sway on expression the Internet now has.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Voice v. The World

I want to clarify my jumbled thoughts in my last post, i.e. voice versus point of view.

I recently discovered a novella, though, in truth, it is more of a long short story than a novella, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, by Joseph Roth.

Joseph Roth was an alcoholic refugee in Paris prior to the last war. He wrote The Legend at a leisurely pace over the first four months of 1939 and died in the fifth before reaching the age of forty-five. The translator, Michael Hofmann, comments, 'it is clear Roth for some time had been running out of reasons to remain alive'. A sad reflection on sorry times. The book, however, is in no way sad, even though it charts the last few days of another drinker. Quite the opposite, it is a heart warming tale, a redemptive tale of one man's earnest endeavour to be decent. Whether he fails or succeeds is almost irrelevant because it is in his effort that he is blessed.

To the point: the book is written in a very individual style that, to my mind, reflects the world view of an inveterate inebriate. There is a dignity to the prose of a man doing his best to hold himself erect and not stumble. There is sense of confusion about what is happening and why it is happening, and small mercies are  accepted as miracles without the need of further explanation.
These are the opening lines:
'On a spring evening in 1934 a gentleman of mature years descended one of the flights of stone steps that lead from the bridges over the Seine down to its banks. It is there that, as all the world knows and so will hardly need reminding, the homeless poor of Paris sleep, or rather spend the night.'
From these few lines, it is possible to recognise the voice of a seasoned author and the world view of the protagonist who is yet to be introduced.
The voice is visible in the confidence of expression, the world view in the weariness of the observation 'as all the world knows and so will hardly need reminding'.
Another book with a very recognisable world view, one that most will be familiar with, is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon. Christopher, the fifteen old protagonist, has Asperger's and, therefore, an idiosyncratic  means of engaging with the world.  Haddon so well describes the logic of his central character that, as a reader, you find it a mind-wrench to detach yourself from applying the same reasoning to your own personal life.
The final book I was going to comment on was If nobody speaks of remarkable things by Jon McGregor because of its lyrical quality; overall though I was disappointed. To coin a neologism, it is CCTV literature; one of remote observations on the minutiae of those living on an anonymous street in an unnamed northern town. Very occasionally it takes you into a close-up to the only named character who is coming to terms with the fact she is pregnant. Although the opening presages a disaster that is only revealed on the final pages of the book, by that time I had long lost interest. (In any case, I had guessed the disaster correctly from the beginning.) The reason why I was going to select this as an example of a novel with a view of the world that reflected the attitudes of its characters was because of its language which, though poetic, is distant and uninvolved, qualities, I believed that commented on contemporary society. However, I was disappointed to pick up another book by McGregor, So many ways to begin, to discover he employs exactly the same tone to describe what I presume must be a different situation. Least I hope so. The first, in my estimation, was over-written.
Instead, I will choose In Search of Adam where Caroline Smailes invents not only a tone to match the outlook of her chief character but a form of writing that physically illustrates her fractured view point, and enhances the reader’s comprehension of the post trauma of child abuse. She achieves the same in Black Boxes, but is wise and intelligent enough not to employ the same tone or methodology but creates a new form of literature out of the scraps, the detritus that constitutes contemporary written communication. Both are brave and both work.

The conclusion is good writing, far from telling you how a character sees the world, demonstrates the individual's psyche in its structure, language and composition.

Friday, 2 October 2009

What Kind of Voice Have I? (Sung out of tune)

Much is written about finding your voice, tone of voice, style and similar; indeed, it is something I worried at for a long period.

I was continually complimented on my writing at university by kind tutors, and wondered what it was they could see that I could not. I report this not as a puff to myself but as a problem for any writer.

Reading back to yourself a piece you have written cannot be equated to standing in front of a full length mirror. While it is true the silvered surface first presents you with all the faults you imagine of yourself, it is still possible to regard your image reasonably objectively.

When reading my own writing, all I replay is the struggle I had selecting every word, the choice of phrase, the debate I had about the structure of each sentence, and am still left wondering if one of the alternatives would not have been better. I find it virtually impracticable to view it dispassionately. And I certainly find it impossible to identity my voice.

I assume all writers discover this to be the case. I sincerely hope so, I don't want to be a loner all my life.

Now, what has brought on this crisis is the next book I am planning. It will, if all goes to plan, take in a tour of different European cities at different times during the last couple of centuries. I have been considering ways and means of achieving this so that the book does not rely  purely on description to indicate different times, different places, but also on the texture of the writing. The danger is, if mishandled, it will resemble nothing more than a collage of poor pastiches of the various periods and so will prove an affront to the eye.

So, I conclude in my most judicial manner, there must be a single world view to act as the foundation for these historical monuments. Or a point of view, securely located in a defined era, that describes what it sees and how it sees with a definitive tongue.

I am sure I am not explaining myself clearly as I am still groping towards an understanding of how I want to achieve what I want to achieve . The thought is yet to emerge and remains somewhat wobbly in outline.

In my next post, I will use some examples to clarify something of what I am saying - especially the world view point.