Monday 19 October 2020
OUT OF DATE - WHY I NEVER GOT (PROPERLY) PUBLISHED
Last week I wrote about WHY I'VE STOPPED WRITING. One of the reasons was my failure to get properly published. How did that happen?
Things had started well. I'd found an agent who was willing to take me on. He began approaching publishers on my behalf - but there were two immediate problems. Firstly, the book wasn't quite ready. It was too long - 114k words - whereas it should have been nearer 100k. My agent should have tackled this with me before we made approaches but failed to do so. Having said that, if a publishing editor with any nous had been interested they would have spotted this and asked for the cuts themselves. I subsequently made them myself but by then it was too late.
The real issue at the time was the fact that my agent suddenly quit his job and left the industry. As a result I found myself in no man's land with a potentially publishable book which had been seen by half the industry but with no champion to see the task through to completion. I approached other agents but my book was now damaged goods. My only alternative was a hybrid publisher and to pay for the privilege.
If that were all, things might have resolved themselves. I could write another book and start over. I did and my hybrid publisher accepted three more of my novels without further charge. But they've not been successful and I've come to learn that there's a more fundamental underlying problem.
Frankly, I'm not of my time. I'm white, male, middle-class and middle-aged and I write what I know. Who wants to publish that these days? Or read it for that matter. Certainly not the Irish novelist Marian Keyes. Here's what she had to say earlier this year. "I only read women. I know that men write books. But their lives are so limited. It's such a small and narrow experience." (The Guardian, 10 Feb 2020). I have to say I found this crass, narrow-minded and unfairly denigrating of men. Of course men have deep and significant experiences. And, contrary to popular belief, we also have emotions - although we're often pretty good at hiding them. As an immediate example, last night my wife and I watched 'The Judge', a 2014 film starring Robert Downey Jnr and Robert Duvall which explored the tempestuous relationship between father and son. Not the greatest film I've ever seen but it certainly serves as an example of men's emotions and experiences. To sweep all this aside as an irrelevance is to make a big mistake. And by the way, I note that Keyes' statement failed to attract much criticism - and in fact in the article I quoted above she was lauded for it. Can you imagine the furore this would have provoked had it been said by a man about women?
Whilst extreme, what Keyes said typifies current sentiment about men's writing. Douglas Maxwell, the Scottish playwright, has mentioned this. In a recent workshop he highlighted not just the difficulty of getting recognised within dramatic circles but particularly of how the burden of being white, male, middle-class and middle-aged has made things even more problematic. There appears to be a backlash against male writers and there is mounting anecdotal evidence to support this.
My first (local) publisher, Stairwell Books, has announced that next year they will only be publishing books written by women.
There are prizes for women-only writers. I know of none for men.
There is a magazine for women-only writers (Mslexia). I know of none for men.
There are competitions for women-only writers. I know of none for men.
The large majority of literary agents are women.
The large majority of writers of fiction are women.
The large majority of readers are women.
If you are a successful female author writing about women's issues, you may view the publishing industry differently. But from where I stand ie. as an unsuccessful, effectively unpublished, white, middle-class, middle-aged man writing about things I know, I see publishing as being dominated by women and exhibiting a prejudice against men. Is it any wonder that as I near my 70th birthday, I view this as too big a mountain to climb?
Monday 12 October 2020
WHY I'VE STOPPED WRITING
Correct me if I'm wrong but was it not Philip Larkin who said "The desire to write poetry has left me"? I've tried looking it up via Google and his Wikipedia site but I can't find the reference. So perhaps I'm wrong. Not that I've ever written poetry and even if I had I wouldn't admit to it. But it does sum up the way I feel about my own writing. Whatever 'desire' I may have had has completely evaporated - for the time being at least.
And if my hunch about Larkin is right, then I'm clearly not the only one this has happened to. For instance, my Google/Wikipedia search revealed this about Philip Roth. "I have no desire to write fiction," said the Pulitzer prize-winning literary giant. "I did what I did and it's done. There's more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date." (The Guardian, 4 Feb 2014). He went on to say, "I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature." On a personal basis I'm currently enjoying being with my grandchildren, playing with my Scalextrix set, watching F1 and going out birding. So should I count myself in good company? Or mourn the fact that I seem to have moved on? The answer probably lies in the reasons why I've stopped. What are they? I've been giving this some thought and I've come to the following conclusions.
Let's firstly go back to why I started. I was 55 and experiencing the inevitable mid-life crisis. I'd tried my hand at business in various guises - and failed. I'd been made redundant three times and whilst capable of supporting myself and my family, my venture into self-employment had not progressed as I would have wished. There was a sense of underachievement and a gap that needed to be filled. The self-expression that came through writing appeared to bridge it.
But that alone wasn't enough - I had to be successful at it. I'm an intensely practical person (I chose to read Engineering at university rather than pure Physics) and the thought of leaving half-finished manuscripts lying in the bottom drawer of my desk just didn't sit right with me. So in addition to writing novels I also embarked on the equally herculean task of getting published. The irony is that I very nearly succeeded. BIRDS OF THE NILE attracted an agent and we began the process of 'selling' the book to respectable publishers. But halfway through the process he left the industry and my potential career as an author nosedived. Feeling abandoned and desperate to get what I thought was a good book 'out there' I resorted to a hybrid publisher and paid for the privilege. They did a terrific job and the finished article looked great but they had no marketing clout and the only way I could achieve any sales was entirely through my own efforts. I gave talks at Literature Festivals, visited Book Clubs and Writing Groups where, very occasionally, there were crowds of more than two people (I once did an event in Middlesbrough when nobody turned up at all). And having spent Monday through Friday slaving away at the writing desk, I found that I could sell decent numbers of copies of my book by spending all day Saturday standing in WH Smiths or Waterstones. Come Sunday and I'd feel shattered. However, on the strength of this, my new-found publisher took on three more of my novels without further charge. But after over three years of hanging about in windy shop doorways and an endless amount of compromised weekends, there was no 'take-off', no magical uplift in sales other than what my own direct face-to-face efforts could accomplish. It was both exhausting and ultimately futile. I turn 70 at the end of the year and the thought of going through that all over again for the sake of writing another book is simply too much to bear. So for the time being I'm done.
It's not as though I don't have anything else to say. There are at least four more novels I had plans for. They all express something I feel is important. But perhaps that something is only important to me and if no one else is interested, be they publishers or readers, then I may as well keep things to myself.
I also have the opportunity. I've just completed eight years working with York Literature Festival, the last four of which I've spent as Chair or Festival Director. These are effectively full-time commitments and there's been little time or space for writing. That's all come to an end now, I have plenty of time on my hands and I've tried telling myself that I should get down to it again. There's the first twenty thousand words of a new novel in my pending tray. I've enough unpublished short stories to create an anthology. I've even thought about writing a play. All to no avail - I simply don't feel like doing it anymore.
It all reminds of the old adage about the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak. In my case the flesh is fine. I'm still active and energetic but it's the spirit that's deflated. Philip Roth seems ok with swimming and baseball etc. I've got grandchildren, Scalextric and birdwatching. Is that enough? My inner psyche tells me it's not and that gap I mentioned earlier will still want filling.
So if it's not writing, what on earth do I do next?
Monday 6 November 2017
MEN BEHAVING BADLY
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Monday 30 October 2017
EDITING IS WRITING PART 5 – LETTING GO
Hello and welcome to the final post in my series EDITING IS WRITING in which I’m trying to convince you that the painful process of editing is an essential part of writing itself. There’s a good argument to say that editing is not just an essential part of writing but that it’s actually the most important part. It’s certainly the lengthiest. A rough first draft can probably be hammered out in the course of six months concentrated effort but taking what will no doubt be a sow’s ear and fashioning it into a silk purse will require at least another year’s work. Unless you’re James Patterson of course, in which case you’ve developed the ability to write perfect novels in your sleep. But for us mere mortals the reality will be totally different.
Last week I recapped progress to date – I’m not going to repeat that now. Suffice it to say that we’ve reached the stage where all we’ve left to do is literally dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s ie. proofread our work. Proofreading is the business of ensuring that your completed masterpiece gets presented to the reading public in the best possible way – we don’t want any silly spelling mistakes etc. distracting the eye and diminishing your status as a truly professional author. This is a purely mechanical task. That’s why many authors sub this phase of editing out as it doesn’t involve editorial changes to the text. Or at least, it shouldn’t do. The trouble is, even though we’ve methodically followed all the phases of editing that preceded this and our book is now theoretically perfect, we’re still tempted to tinker with it. Because it’s never perfect, is it? And the most difficult thing of all is knowing when to let go.
I’ve based this series around my first novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. Am I happy with it? Up to a point, yes. It got published, so what is there not to like? Well, I can still think of one or two minor areas of improvement. And if you’re like me, you’ll never be 100% happy with your book. It’s a very natural thing for us to want to continue to improve – it’s one of the things that drives us forward. But attempting to achieve absolute perfection comes at a price, both in terms of time and mental health – trust me, I’ve been there. It’s what caused me to give up my first go at writing when I was in my early twenties.
Back in 1970 something I began what was supposed to the novel that would win me the Nobel Prize for Literature. This was how I was going to make my mark on the world. I completed the first three chapters and then made the crucial mistake of reading them. They weren’t good enough of course and so I rewrote them. And then read them again to see if they were any better. Which they weren’t. Another go at rewriting them. Still not right. Another go, and then another. Ad infinitum. Does this ring any bells for you? If so, take note, they’re warning bells. I gave up because I couldn’t deliver the perfection I was seeking to achieve. Older and hopefully wiser, I’ve learnt how to compromise. Let me illustrate this with a short anecdote.
I trained as an engineer. In those days, engineers and members of the intelligentsia were deemed to exist at opposite ends of the thinking man’s spectrum and we came in for a lot of stick at college where we were typified as hard-drinking, rugby-playing, rowers and thickos. We countered this in numerous ways, one of which was to tell a joke which concerned a mathematician, a social scientist and, naturally, an engineer. Here it is. All three were ushered into a darkened room where a four metre diameter circle had been painted in white on the floor. In the centre stood an extremely attractive girl (at the time in question, it was an all-male college). The terms of engagement were these. Starting from the edge of the circle, your first step toward the girl could be up to one metre but that every succeeding step had to be half of the previous one. The social scientist was totally bemused. ‘Hmm…’ he said, looking around. ‘A darkened room, a mysterious white circle, a nubile female and some complicated rules. This must be part of some sophisticated tribal initiation ceremony. I must go away and do some more research’. And off he went. The mathematician was more analytical. ‘I need to travel two metres. If I begin with one metre and then go half of every preceding step, it will take an infinite number of steps for me to reach my destination. I’ll never get there. It’s impossible.’ And he too left the room. The engineer took an essentially pragmatic view. ‘Just six steps and I’ll be close enough for all practical purposes.’
When I turned to writing this was an adage I inconveniently forgot. Had I paid more attention to it then it might have saved me a great deal of time and trouble. Those six steps advocated by the engineer will actually get you to 98% of where you need to be. As the mathematician pointed out, you can continue for as long as you like but you’ll never reach perfection and the strain to achieve that final 2% will cost you far more than it’s worth. As for the social scientist, conducting more research is always a good excuse for not reaching a conclusion.
So let me finish by quoting Leonardo da Vinci. ‘A work of art is never finished, only ever abandoned.’ The key is knowing when to abandon it. We tell ourselves it can always be better but there comes a point where the expenditure of more work brings no discernible improvement. That’s when it’s time to let go.
That brings me to the end of my series about the complete practice of editing. I hope you’ve found it useful. And here are the six steps which will get you close enough for all practical purposes when it comes to writing your novel.
- Finish the damn thing! Make sure you get to the end of your first draft however bitter that end may be. Don’t look back, you’ll regret it.
- Fix the plot. Use a 3 or 4 act structure or whatever it takes to make your narrative flow positively toward its conclusion.
- Trim the fat. If what you’ve written doesn’t contribute to the development of either plot or character then you should ask yourself what it’s doing there.
- Fix the prose. Now’s the time to smooth out your writing and get rid of all those grammatical crutches.
- Proofread. Read through your work line by line with a microscope and get those ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed.
- Settle for 98% Finally, know when you’ve done enough and learn how to let go.
Monday 23 October 2017
EDITING IS WRITING PART 4 – FIXING THE PROSE
Hi and welcome to the fourth post in my series EDITING IS WRITING in which I’m trying to convince you that the painful process of editing is an essential part of writing itself. In our attempt to create a professionally produced manuscript fit for sending to both agents and publishers, you’ll be pleased to know we’re over halfway there. Time for a quick resume.
In Part 1 we made sure we finished our first draft, even if it meant pushing ourselves right to the bitter end. This gave us the base material to work on. Our next task was to look at any deficiencies in the plot using techniques such as the 4 act structure, character arcs or in my case, sheer instinct supported by careful rearrangement of individual scenes. Whichever method you use for this purpose is down to personal choice – the important thing is that you go through the process in some constructive way or another. Then last week we took a critical look at the work and decided which bits of it we could do without, using the general principle that if whatever you’ve written doesn’t assist with developing the plot or enhancing the understanding of character, you should ask yourself what it’s doing there in the first place. Now we’re ready to begin something that actually starts to resemble what most writers would recognise as editing – fixing the prose.
You will doubtless have been subjected to much advice already about improving the quality of your prose. This may have come about through reading magazine articles, online posts such as mine or through attending some of the many workshops which are available on the matter. I have no intention of confusing you still further by telling you how to write. My purpose here is merely to convince you that fixing the prose is the next stage in the overall editing process, however you choose to do it. However, there are two things I have found of immense benefit when it comes to this and I want to share them with you in case you find them useful too.
I’ve based this series on my experiences with getting my first novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, published. Last week I told you that the advice I had received from a number of sources had convinced me that I needed to shorten the work. My agent at the time had co-incidentally made some suggestions about the way I wrote. He pointed out that I was in the habit of using what he called ‘grammatical crutches’. I suspect that we all have them and we’re tempted to think they’re purely part of our writing style. He contended that they’re not and that they’re simply there to make us feel more comfortable about our writing and that they’re really no more than verbal clutter. Here are a few of my own personal examples – ‘in truth’, ‘in reality’, ‘the fact of the matter was’, ‘in the meanwhile’, ‘on the face of it’ etc, etc. Ring any bells? You may be able to spot some of your own in there – or if not you’ll soon identify those which belong to you hidden within your work.
The likelihood is that your first draft will be littered with them. I don’t think it matters too much at this stage – they’ve helped you get through that awkward business or getting your thoughts out of your head and down onto paper. But now is the time to look at them more closely. You might like to think of your book as a well-tended garden in which people will want to spend time. My grammatical crutches were weeds that needed to be rooted out to enable whatever seeds I had planted elsewhere to flourish and grow into attractive flowers. I soon started getting rid of them. You may wish to do the same.
This came at the same time as I was trying to reduce my word count. Another means of doing this is by revising your sentence construction. Here’s an example. What was originally ‘It was as I approached the door that I noticed it was already open’ can readily become ‘As I approached the door, I noticed it was already open’. This cuts the length of the sentence from 14 words down to 11 – an apparently trivial saving, but by doing this throughout your manuscript it has significant results. The point here is that the work will also read a lot better. You may say it should never have been written like that in the first place – and you’re right, but we all do it, just the same.
These two things – eliminating my grammatical crutches and simplifying my sentence construction – were initially intended to help reduce my word count. They did, but at the same time they dramatically improved the quality of my prose. I distinctly remember re-reading some of the passages I had revised in this way and how amazed I was at the transformation it had brought about. It was as if the words had literally been lifted off the page in front of me and taken to a higher level. It was a seminal moment in my writing career and marked the point at which I truly felt I had become a ‘proper’ author.
So, once your plot is properly in place and you’ve cut the work down to a manageable length, fix your prose. Set your own standards and apply them rigorously throughout your work. Be consistent, and on occasion, ruthless. I’m firmly of the belief that when it comes to writing, less is more. You may have genuine reasons to be more wordy however, either as a result of the characters or setting you've chosen. The novels of the 19th century were often full of what would be described today as overblown prose, but they accurately reflected the times. And if that’s what you need to do, fine. Just be sure you know what you’re about.
Next week I’m going to bring things to a conclusion by looking at the final element of editing – proofreading – and also knowing when you’ve done enough and it’s time to move on.
Monday 16 October 2017
EDITING IS WRITING PART 3 – TRIMMING THE FAT
Hi and welcome to the third in my series EDITING IS WRITING in which I’m trying to convince you that the painful process of editing is an essential part of writing itself. Last week I suggested that before you even start to think about editing your book line by line you should spend time getting the plot right. I know this sounds obvious but so many of us jump straight to the last phase of preparing our work before we’ve got the basics right. It’s a mistake I’ve made plenty of times myself and I’ve had to learn the hard way.
With BIRDS OF THE NILE I was forced to drastically reconsider the plot since the book had been written in two distinctly separate parts and they needed merging together. The effort of doing so took me as long as it had done to write the original manuscript so by the time I’d ‘polished it up’ I’d already spent close on a year on it. I thought I was done with it and began the nerve-racking process of approaching agents – but the replies I received soon convinced me otherwise…
Don’t you just love literary agents? Especially the way they respond to everything you send them within days and how they take so much time and trouble to explain how much they liked your work but didn’t quite ‘fall in love with it’ and advise you what you could do to improve it next time? Perhaps not. I think I’m still waiting to hear from some of them 5 years later.
I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I was agented twice for BIRDS OF THE NILE but I lost both, one to misfortune and the other to indifference although I learnt something to my advantage on both occasions. They each suggested I reduce the length of the work, particularly in the central section where the pace of the narrative needed to pick up. This is not an uncommon problem. Many good books get off to a cracking start (we tend to ensure that they do) and many have strong endings but, like a well-used bed, they can sag in the middle. Mine was apparently no exception.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it – at least one other agent had already made the point. I’d ignored it. If I started making changes based on every single comment I received I’d forever be revising my work. Someone will tell me they love a certain character while someone else will say they hate them – and trying to please everyone will drive you insane. So these days I work on the principle of three strikes and you’re out. The first occasion is bad luck, the second coincidence and the third is invariably enemy action so when I got told I should ‘shorten up’ for the third time I knew I had to do something about it. I only wish I’d paid attention earlier.
I began by reading through the offending section carefully myself. I probably thought there was nothing in it – how could I possibly throw away huge chunks of what I’d labored so hard to produce? However, mumbling something suitably derogatory about the triumph of commercialism over art, I set about the task and soon realized they were right. Looked at in the cold light of day, the middle section of my book not only sagged, it positively collapsed and even I became frustrated with the failure of the narrative to move forward sufficiently quickly.
Fortunately for me, it was easy to see why. The origins of BIRDS OF THE NILE lay in a trip my wife and I made to Egypt in early 2009. Amongst other things, we spent a week cruising on the Nile. I kept a diary of events and it was this that formed the basis of the section of the book which ultimately became Act Two of my four act structure and the one which caused the most problems in terms of its length. Sure, there were some great descriptions of temples, gods and ancient Egyptian myths – ok for a travelogue but not suitable for inclusion in a novel. I made a few phone calls to garner advice, sharpened my metaphorical red pencil and swiftly came up with the following plan of action.
- Firstly I determined the extent of the damage. The book was then 114k words in length and conventional wisdom suggested I should get it down to 100k max. The section I’ve mentioned above was 49k words and needed to come down to no more than 39k. The other 4k would come from the rest.
- How? One agent I happened to be speaking to gave an immediate reaction. ‘The first thing you should do dearie,’ (sic) ‘is cut out the sex scenes’. Unfortunately for me (or not, as the case may be), the book didn’t contain any so I was unable to follow her advice – but I offer it here as your first port of call. Writing sex scenes is notoriously difficult and unless you’re writing soft porn or erotica, DUMP ‘EM. By all means lead your characters into the bedroom – but close the door firmly behind them and DON’T FOLLOW THEM IN. It may surprise you to know that your readers have vivid imaginations of their own and can manage very well without your help.
- Now cut out the other unnecessary scenes. I was amazed by how many I’d included and I’m sure that when you come to examine your work in objective detail you’ll be surprised too. In the passage I was concerned about I was able to identify 6 distinct pieces WHICH DID NOTHING TO DEVELOP THE PLOT OR HELPED THE UNDERSTANDING OF ANY OF MY CHARACTERS. So on the basis that they were purely ornamental, I got rid of them. With each scene being around 1000 words apiece, I racked up savings of 6k words.
- Next, I cut out any unnecessary paragraphs. On much the same basis as above, there’ll be some lurking in there somewhere – even in the scenes you need to keep. Another 3k word saving.
- Now we come to the part about tightening the prose. For me this comprised two essential elements – grammatical crutches and sentence construction. I’m going to deal with these in more detail next time so I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until then to discover exactly what I mean. Suffice it to say that by applying these techniques I was able to reduce my book by the other 4k words I was looking for. Generally speaking, I find I can lose around 10% of any first draft without unduly compromising its meaning (or its sense of poetry) merely by simplifying the way it’s written. With my book at 114k words I could have potentially shortened things by a further 11k – but I had already done much of the line by line editing earlier on so 4k was good enough for me.
- Finally, monitor your progress against target. If you need to shift 10k words and you’re getting to the final stages and you’ve only managed 5k you should have been more ruthless earlier on. Keep checking you’re on course to even it out.
The result for me was a shorter book (99,991), a faster paced narrative in the middle section and much better prose all round. Not only that but I felt like a true professional while I was doing it. It was painful at times. I can’t say I had to kill any of my darlings as I’m not sure there were very many of them to start with, but having to ditch chunks of work you’ve spent hours and hours producing is never easy.
As I outlined above, next week we’re going to have a look at the next phase of the editing process and in FIXING THE PROSE I’m going to give you a couple of tips about how to improve the way you write. See you then.
Monday 9 October 2017
EDITING IS WRITING PART 2 – FIXING THE PLOT
Hi and welcome to the second in my series EDITING IS WRITING in which I’m trying to convince you that the painful process of editing is an essential part of writing itself. Last week I suggested that completing a full first draft is the best place from which to start editing rather than tinkering with your work as you go along. My experience of doing this when I was young cost me a novel and 33 years of my life, a mistake I cannot afford to repeat and one I would not wish on you. So let’s suppose we’ve reached the end of whatever story we’re telling and we’ve accumulated 100k, 200k however many words it takes. We’ve breathed a huge sigh of relief, made ourselves a congratulatory cup of tea and given ourselves a day or two off. The question then arises, what do you do next?
Whenever I’ve reached this stage I’ve always thought of the piece of work I’ve produced as being something like a bank – it’s too big to be allowed to fail. I’ve invested six (or more) months of my life into it and I’m not going to let it go just like that. Many people will tell you that you should leave your newly-completed manuscript aside for a while and give it some time and distance before you come back to it. I tend to agree and I will often work on different projects between redrafts. My current work in progress, BOXED IN, was actually first written back in 2008 and has seen various re-incarnations in the intervening period. Now it’s come to fruition and I’m determined to finish it off. When that’s done I’ll most likely start on the first draft of something else, and so on.
But I’m not here to talk about BOXED IN – pardon the pun, but that’s another story. I’m basing this series on my experiences with my debut novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE. When we last left it, my first draft amounted to 99k words and was in two distinct halves, one written before the revolution in Egypt and the other one after. I now faced the daunting task of uniting them.
Even if it were not for the fact that assembling my narrative into some semblance of a sensible order was the obvious thing to do, FIXING THE PLOT is what comes next once your first draft is complete. However good we are, at best it will contain numerous inconsistencies and probably a good deal of irrelevance. At worst, it will be a mish-mash of both good and bad writing and ideas but will lack any narrative drive or structure – which is precisely where I found myself with BIRDS OF THE NILE. True, by resetting the book against the background of the revolution, I had solved a couple of the plot problems I faced with the initial short novella. I had always thought REDA’s reasons for not accompanying LEE YONG to America were never strong enough – as a patriotic Egyptian, wanting to stay and fight for what he believed in was far more convincing. My main character, BLAKE, is blinded. To explain this in the novella, I invented a fictitious disease caused by parasites in water (I called it ‘river blindness’) but it was never going to stand up to any form of rigorous examination. With the revolution to hand I could place BLAKE at the centre of a battle scene where a tear-gas canister explodes in front of his face – much more realistic and thereby adding further to the overall tension. But these were minor victories in what was a far greater undertaking – the book was still a bit of a mess.
I had at least prepared the outline of a plot. I had a ‘structure’ in mind and I’d drafted out the main sequence of events – a long synopsis if you will – so I thought I knew where I was going. I tend to find my way through this by instinct – I invariably know my opening scene, my basic premise and my final scene and I navigate my way from one to another quite naturally. Others will tell you that plot should be constructed in a more defined fashion and will talk to you about 3 or 4 act structures with ‘character arcs’ and certain key points along the way. Personally speaking, I’m not a great fan of writing workshops. Not only do I hate being ‘told’ what to do but I find I’m a contrarian and so they have the exact opposite effect on me than what was intended. Someone told me once that you should never use the word ‘suddenly’. My immediate response was to go home and put the word ‘suddenly’ in as many places as I could. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to writing workshops, if they work for you that’s fine. All I’m saying is they don’t necessarily work for me. BUT… Something happened a few years ago that made me sit up and take notice.
I’ve attended a number of writing conferences, both in York and in Winchester. Rightly or wrongly I came to value them for the contacts and the socialising rather than the content of the workshops themselves. I remember sitting between sessions at one such event, and when the foyer emptied and the delegates all went off to their next lecture, I wondered what I might do with myself for the next hour. A quick scan of the programme told me that of everything on offer, a talk on the 4 act structure attracted me most so I went to sit in. Unfortunately, I can’t locate the name of the lecturer but his presentation totally blew me away and I emerged an hour later with my head in a spin. It made me realise that what I had ‘instinctively’ done with BIRDS OF THE NILE was almost exactly what he was advising with his 4 act structure. I was so inspired by this that I wrote a talk on the subject myself and delivered it much as I’m delivering this now. I’m not going to visit that on you here as information on the subject is easy to find elsewhere and probably better expressed – the point that I’m making is that you need some kind of template within which to frame your narrative so that it both makes sense to the reader and is attractive to them. Never mind the finicky details at this stage – get the bigger picture right first. I did that instinctively with BIRDS OF THE NILE, then subsequently discovered it fitted the outlines of a prescribed 4 act structure. Whichever way works for you is fine, but I suggest that it’s what comes next.
You may already be happy with your ‘bigger picture’ or you may find it needs revision. I had mine in the form of my extended synopsis – my problem was that my manuscript consisted of two separate pieces of narrative that now had to be integrated into each other. My first step in resolving this was to divide both pieces into a set of individual scenes (or what were effectively chapters) each with a description of what the scene contained. Looking back at the notes I made at the time I see there were 33 of them altogether. I then rearranged them into an order that reflected my ‘bigger picture’. This isn’t something new. I’ve heard of authors who actually organise their work in this way, starting with their overall view then breaking this down into a series of individual scenes before they even begin writing. Some also use postcards for each scene with the content of the scene written on them, occasionally moving them round on the desk or a pinboard until they feel happy with the sequencing. I drew my scenes up into a schedule on a word doc and shuffled them around until I felt happy with it. As I say, it’s whatever works for you. The key point here is, you haven’t wasted time and effort by trying to line by line edit a manuscript that is never going to work – at this stage you need to be thinking about the wood and not looking at the trees.
In my case I now had 99k words in 33 chapters arranged into reasonable order. My next task was to read it through and make an assessment. This is the part I dread because I know how I’m going to feel about it – I’m going to hate it. Back to Hemingway and ‘the first draft is always s**t’. This used to depress me dreadfully at first, but in recent years I’ve become much more relaxed about it as I’ve learnt that with the application of a lot of hard work and technique, what appears to be an ugly duckling can be transformed into something approaching a swan.
When I read through BIRDS OF THE NILE I realised two things. Not only were there significant gaps in the narrative but there were also significant areas of overlap, both of which arose from the concept of trying to write two separate halves and then welding them together. There were also some examples of where the scenes weren’t in quite the right order but this was a minor irritant and easily fixed.
So I started all over again, working through the book from scratch, moving more scenes around, adding in the missing bits and taking out the duplicates. This was effectively my third draft and probably took me another six months. Only then, once this part of the process was complete, did I feel I was in position to start the line by line editing we talked about at the beginning. More hours at the desk and a fourth revision, but the result was a completed novel of 114k words with a structured plot, honed to an acceptable level of grammatical excellence and English. Or so I thought. Because that’s when I started sending the manuscript off to prospective agents and the next phase of my problems began.
Next week in TRIMMING THE FAT, we’ll look at what those agents thought of my efforts and what I had to do to put it right.
Monday 2 October 2017
EDITING IS WRITING PART 1 – FINISH THE DAMN THING!
Hi and welcome to the first in my series of posts about the damnably inconvenient business of editing your novel. Yes, all that hard and painful work you put into getting your first draft down on paper was only the beginning – now you have to do it all over again if you want to get rid of the inevitable mistakes and glitches you left behind. No one, not even Charles Dickens, has ever written a book and not had to rewrite it. So buckle up, get your writing head back on and prepare for some more long and tortuous sessions at the desk as you tell yourself that editing is writing.
I’m lucky. As you can see from my Home page my fourth novel, BOXED IN, has recently been accepted for publication. To reach that stage, the vast majority of the work I’m going to talk about has already been done – all I’m left with now is a little bit of fine-tuning as recommended by my editor and dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s. Many people think that’s what editing actually is. Some people think it’s merely getting rid of any typos. It’s not – that’s proofreading, and to confuse the two is to make a fundamental error. Editing is actually the process which turns a roughly written first draft into the highly polished manuscript you send off to agents and publishers in the hope that it will finally finish up in print. It usually involves a lot of rewriting and will probably take as long to do as writing that roughly written draft in the first place.
But I’m not going to base this series on what I did for BOXED IN – that would be much too easy. I’m going to go back to my experiences with getting my debut novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, into print because that was far, far harder and will serve the purpose so much better. It involved many more glitches, many more mistakes and at the last count took something like seven rewrites. It hurt, and if I can spare you some of the pain I had to go through to get that right, so much the better.
As a novelist, I’m a story-teller. So let me begin by indulging myself for a moment or two and telling you one. I have two overriding passions in life – they’re birdwatching and literature. BIRDS OF THE NILE is the ultimate example of what happens when these two passions collide. When I was younger (much younger) one of my heroes was Ernest Hemingway and to a certain extent I modelled myself on him. But I was a toned-down variant and whereas he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees my version would have been much more prosaic and probably something like Over the Stream and Into the Bushes. However, when my wife and I decided to celebrate a certain wedding anniversary with a trip to Egypt in January 2009, there was no way I was going to leave my telescope and binoculars behind. The result was a cruise on the Nile, some absolutely fabulous birds and a plot for what I then intended to be a short novella.
When we got home I settled down to writing it up, but I soon realised there was much more to it than I’d imagined. Instead of the 20,000 words I’d planned I had 43,000, far more than I could reasonably condense into the original form I’d had in mind. Not only that but there were some serious plot deficiencies (which we’ll come on to later) and rather more worryingly, it lacked that magic sparkly sprinkly-dusty thingy you need to make your work stand out and shout Read Me! The manuscript got put in the drawer (no bad thing at this stage, by the way) and forgotten about until it could be rethought.
Fast forward eighteen months to early 2011 when something unexpected happened – the Egyptians decided to conduct a full-scale revolution with masses of people camped in Tahrir Square and pitched battles involving both tanks and camels. This, although extremely inopportune for President Mubarak, proved remarkably convenient for me in that I now had a suitably dramatic background against which to frame my story and the chance to add the magic sparkly sprinkly-dusty thingy which was previously so lacking. My wife (bless her) nudged me in the ribs, I retrieved my manuscript from the drawer and spent the next six months composing the second half of the plot.
I faced a choice as to how to do this. Should I rewrite it completely from the beginning, incorporating the new elements as I went along? Or should I write some completely new material and integrate it later? I chose the latter and specifically not to re-read and tinker with the original, as tempting as that might sound. Why? Because of what happened to me over forty years ago when I made one of the biggest mistakes of all.
At the tender age of 21 I had determined to be a writer. My head was buzzing with plots, stories, call them what you will, and although I’d qualified with a degree in Engineering I gave up ‘normal’ life to do what my other heroes such as Faulkner and Steinbeck had done and take menial jobs while I wrote what I idealistically thought would be my Nobel Prize winning masterpiece (don’t laugh). I rented a tiny bedsit in Leeds and worked peeling vegetables in a local café before moving on to driving a van, delivering bread and then subsequently, building materials. As for my great novel, I began writing it whenever I could but with no thought of preparation whatsoever and after a few months of grinding it out I’d achieved the total sum of three chapters. That was when I made the fatal error of returning to the beginning and rereading what I’d done. Disaster. As you can imagine, it was nothing like the masterpiece I’d intended and was in fact, crap. Later on I was to learn that this was invariably the case and as Hemingway himself put it, ‘the first draft is always s**t’. But this was of no consolation to me at the time and I foolishly set about the task of rewriting those first few thousand words in order to try and achieve perfection. It didn’t work. So I tried again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually I realised I was never going to get to where I wanted to be with it so I abandoned the work, gave up my menial jobs and returned to ‘normal’ life, taking a post with an engineering firm in Crawley. The trauma of this early experience was such that I was not to return to writing for another 33 years. And as for my ‘great’ novel, it barely got started, never mind finished. Although I’d no idea at the time, I’d made the fundamental error of trying to edit line by line instead of taking an overall view. Not only that but I hadn’t even got to the end of the book before attempting to polish it.
So here’s the point of Part 1 of my series – FINISH THE DAMN THING! And however bad you think your first attempt might be, do not, under any circumstances, look back and try tinkering with what you’ve only partly completed. The proper process of editing can only begin once you’ve got that rough and messy first draft tucked safely under your belt. Let the painful experience I went through convince you to keep moving forward – you’ll be so much better off if you do.
Meanwhile, we were talking about my debut novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE. I’d just completed my second stab at it and I’d added a further 56,000 words. I now had the basis for a full-length novel but the problem was that it was in two distinct and disparate halves and needed knitting together. How I was able to do that forms the next part in my series. Called FIXING THE PLOT, it will be here next week. I look forward to talking to you then.
Monday 25 September 2017
Gender Equality? You're Taking the Piss!
As you're probably aware, I take a keen interest in matters of gender equality. Moreover, I profess to be a feminist ie. I believe in equal rights for women (and for men, I hasten to add) but from time to time my credulity as to the claims of unequal treatment are stretched to breaking point. Leafing through my pending tray of gender-based clippings the other day, I came across three examples which caused me to think twice and I offer these to you now in the hope that you can tell the wheat from the chaff.
Let me begin with the idea that boys perform better than girls at calculations involving projectile motion because of the way they urinate. It seems that being male gives us an unfair advantage in this area (as if men didn't have enough 'unfair' advantages already) simply because we piss up the wall while girls pee down the loo. There are some people who take this explanantion seriously. More than that, they're academics. In other words, they're employed by the Government and paid with tax-payers' money to spend their time researching such ideas. And if you don't believe me, please read the following article.
Fortunately, not everyone takes this as seriously as they do. Count me as one of them. And if you're not on the same side, I think you should consider seeing a psychiatrist. Vomit forms a projectile. Next thing you know they'll be telling us girls are never sick.
Next. Tintin is a girl. Or so claims French philospher Vincent Cespedes. You don't believe that one either? Well, here's where it came from.
You may recall that a few weeks ago I wrote an article about how both our national and personal identities are gradually being eroded with these constant attacks on our cultural heritage (Monday 4 September 2017 - So, You’re White, Male, Middle-class and Middle-aged? Oh Dear… Part III). I was a great fan of Tintin in my dim and distant youth - I still have almost every Tintin book available up in the loft. When my two grandsons are able to read and show sufficient interest (as I sincerely hope they will) I'll fetch them down and share them out. I might even read them again myself. And no amount of carping as to Tintin's gender or sexuality is going to prevent my enjoyment of what are tremendously good stories. If I ever have any granddaughters, they'll be equally welcome to do the same. So Mr Cespedes can get his tanks off my lawn.
And lastly, something more serious. Recent research purports to show that history is predominantly written by men and is about men. Yet another article to contemplate.
I make no comment as to whether the content of history books is skewed toward male subjects - I don't read enough of them to form a judgement. What I will say is this. As you may know, I spend almost every Saturday in a bookshop somewhere in Yorkshire. I've now done over 100 such events and I must speak to upwards of 100 people a day. And I can tell you categorically that of those I meet, at least 75% of them are women who for the most part read fiction, while the remaining 25% are men who for the most part read fact. A far higher proportion of men read history than do women and if men ever do read fiction, it's often based around history of some kind eg. Bernard Cornwell or Wilbur Smith. It therefore comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to learn that the large majority of history books are written by men and aimed at a male market. No more so than that the large majority of romantic fiction is written by women and aimed at a female market. In fact, the last time I looked, the last 60 winners of the Romantic Novelists' Association annual prize were all (ostensibly) women. I say ostensibly because I do know of some men who write romantic fiction but publish under a female pseudonym because they know they won't be read unless they do (trust me, I've met one). Funny how that never makes the headlines, isn't it?
And the moral of all this is? Gender equality? Yes, wherever we can. Gender misrepresetation? No, not if we're to tackle things seriously. So please stop taking the piss - it won't work with me.
Monday 18 September 2017
So, You’re White, Male, Middle-class and Middle-aged? Deal With It!
I’ve been writing a series of articles recently about the plight of white, middle-class, middle-aged men. What a hard-done-by lot we are! I should really stop banging on about it before it begins to look like an obsession – although I am tempted to ask why all five of the shortlist for the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker prize’ are female. To tell the truth, I think I already know the answer. The nominations, and the shortlist, are both determined by public vote. The public in this case is likely to be the book-buying and reading fraternity, which, based on the personal experience I’ve gained in bookshops over the years, is composed predominantly of women. (I suppose I should therefore call it a sorority, or sisterhood, rather than a fraternity – either way, I’m heading for trouble.) Ergo, as they used to say in ancient Rome, the vote reflects the preference of the majority – which is solidly for womens’ fiction as written by women.
At least, that’s what you might think. The other evening I met a woman with a completely different view. As Chair of York Literature Festival I’m the recipient of the odd invitation to local events and the other night I was an attendee at the launch of York Explore’s Big City Read for 2017. The crowd was made up of the usual suspects (including the Sheriff, incidentally, whom I met for the first time and mistakenly assumed was the Mayor. Whoops!). The lady in question (whom I also didn’t know) expressed the view that womens’ fiction was vastly underrated. As I was representing the Festival, I managed to restrain the desire to emit blasts of steam from both ears and listened patiently while she told me how hard it was to compete and how little publicity she was afforded by her publisher, etc, etc.
It struck me that this is a very common complaint amongst us lower/middle ranking authors and gave rise to the thought that perhaps the whole argument about being white, male, middle-class and middle-aged, or womens’ fiction being underrated, is simply one of perspective. I bemoan the fact that I’m not universally recognised as much as I think I should be and my female counterpart clearly feels the same. And so rather than lay the blame at our own doorstep and accept the fact that we may not be as good as we think we are, we’re inclined to blame this failure on our class as a whole. In other words: it’s no wonder I don’t get what I deserve – look how my people are treated! Without going into this more deeply (and things thereby becoming too political) I can think of other situations where this polemic might apply and where such transference of responsibility is a convenient way of absolving ourselves as individuals.
So it’s probably time to leave this debate behind, deal with my own deficiencies and move on to other things. And now is exactly the right moment to do so as I have some news to communicate. And no, it’s not that I won't be appearing on Strictly (again), or indeed that MALAREN has been entered for yet another prize (this time it’s the Costa) but rather that Roundfire Books have offered to publish what will be my fourth novel, BOXED IN. We can talk about the book itself in more detail at another time but what it means is that I’m going to have to spend the next couple of months (or more) editing my initial manuscript and honing it from its rough original state into the piece of polished perfection that my publishers (and I) have rightly come to expect. So time previously spent complaining about how hard-done-by I’ve been will now have to be dedicated to proving how good I can become.
To help me in this I’ve decided to replace my whining with something altogether more positive. I’ve been preparing a series of talks about the editing process itself and I thought it might be instructive to post this on my website at the same time as I’m trying to put it into practice. Based on my experiences with getting my debut novel, BIRDS OF THE NILE, into print, EDITING IS WRITING will come in six instalments beginning in two weeks’ time. So Monday 2 October sees Part 1 : Finish the Damn Thing! appearing here.
Join me then (if not before) for what I hope will be an enjoyable journey.
Monday 4 September 2017
So, You’re White, Male, Middle-class and Middle-aged? Oh Dear… Part III
I’ve been writing a series of articles recently about a character Grayson Perry calls ‘Default Man’. He’s white, male, middle-class and middle-aged and, according to Perry, the source of much of what’s wrong with the world. Why should I take such a special interest in him? Well, I happen to be white, male, middle-class and middle-aged myself and I rather resent being told that I’m a problem; plus the books that I write have white, male, middle-class, middle-aged protagonists so you could say it’s no surprise that I’m inclined to jump to Default Man’s defence. True, I do have a vested interest but I don’t believe my argument is based on something purely personal. It plays to a wider context and today I want to explain why I think Default Man needs our support.
You’re probably aware that I’m heavily involved with the running of the York Literature Festival. Our 2017 offering brought a phalanx of household names to the attention of the local public and included, amongst many other distinguished celebrities, Michael Palin and Dan Cruickshank (both of whom are white, male, middle-class and middle-aged by the way - but in this case that’s purely co-incidental).
Palin is best known for his comedy but he’s also the author of a number of books, including one entitled Hemingway’s Chair. Far from being comedic, it’s a serious piece of work and knowing that he was coming to visit us, I determined to read it. Not only that but I have a special interest in Hemingway himself. When I first tried writing back in my distant youth, I was very much motivated by the American authors of the 1920s and 30s – Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and of course, Ernest Hemingway. I would go so far as to say that in my early writing career I wanted to emulate him above all others. I admired both his stories and his prose but I was also attracted by his lifestyle, his love of the outdoors and his adventures with wildlife. So much so that when I was offered the opportunity to become a ghillie during the stag-shooting season on a Scottish estate at the age of nineteen, I grabbed it with both hands. Later on, I tried to write a novel in the style of Hemingway based on my experiences. It failed miserably of course. You could say I was rather naïve to have tried but when we’re young we make these kinds of mistakes.
Despite this reversal, Hemingway was a man I continued to revere. Even now, when I give talks about writing I will often begin with the thought that I’m passionate about two things in life, bird-watching and literature, and it was when these two collided that I was inspired to write my first novel, Birds of the Nile. I then go on to mention the influence Hemingway had on me and I jokingly compare myself to him by suggesting that whereas he wrote Across the River and Into the Trees I would have come up with something much more mundane such as Over the Stream and Into the Bushes. And by the way, I’d like to point out that I’ve never had the desire to shoot animals other than through a lens but the effect he had on me remains to this day.
The point about Hemingway’s Chair is that it exposes what one might euphemistically describe as the less appealing parts of his character. He was, apparently, a bully, an ardent womaniser and responsible for the depletion of significant amounts of what has since become endangered wildlife. You shouldn’t need reminding that it was his novel The Old Man and the Sea which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature, but these days we’re asked to consider whether there are any marlin left in the seas around Cuba as a result of his fishing exploits. So, given that he is now perceived more as villain than as hero, I’m forced to re-evaluate my feelings about him.
It seems to me that this is all part of a trend to re-examine our past in the light of our new, ‘enlightened’ modern-day values. We are told, for instance, that the colonialism and empire-building we endulged in during the 18th and 19th centuries caused other countries irrevocable amounts of damage. The campaign by students to remove the ‘controversial’ statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University is a typical example. The Rhodes Must Fall movement claimed that the ‘British imperialist’s’ legacy should not be celebrated and said that the statue of the man was representative of Britain’s ‘imperial blind spot’ and had to come down. Believe it or not, a similar campaign has now been started in respect of the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. I recommend that you read Afua Hirsch’s recent article in The Guardian in which she accuses him of being a ‘white supremacist’. Here’s the link.
You will no doubt have noticed that both these people are white, male, middle-class and middle-aged (as was Hemingway) ie. they belong to that class of person Grayson Perry dubbed ‘Default Man’ which I mentioned earlier. ‘I am a white man,’ says Perry, ‘a rather tarnished badge to wear these days, weighted with guilt and shame at the behaviour of one’s fellows.’ To read his book, one would clearly have to include Rhodes, Nelson – and Hemingway – in that category.
Yet these are some of the figures whose history, achievements and reputations made a significant contribution to my personal development when I was growing up and are part of what I am today. Am I now expected to accept that much of what I was taught, learnt and believed in all those years ago is to be thrown into doubt and tossed aside because it was ‘wrong’? What effect do you expect that will have on me? And more importantly, not just me but the millions of other people in this country whose cultural traditions are steadily being ripped apart? This is a subject that goes beyond just being white, male, middle-class and middle-aged but goes to the heart of what it means to be British. Well, you might say, a thorough re-evaluation of our national identity might not be such a bad thing given the advent of globalization and modern liberal attitudes towards race, religion and sexuality, but I believe there are dangers here if this is taken too far. Which brings me on to Cruickshank…
Dan Cruickshank was one of the stars of York Lit Fest 2017 and his event at St Peter’s School was a sell-out. Others, such as Ann Widdecombe, attracted good crowds but failed to fill the hall. This surprised us for whereas Widdecombe was both eloquent and lucid, Cruickshank was neither and flapped and floundered his way through his lecture with much of his characteristic hand-waving. He told his audience that he failed to understand why the BBC took so much film of him on location but cut huge amounts of it back in the studio. Someone obviously needs to have a quiet word in his ear.
Having said that, despite the clarity and assurance of her delivery, Widdecombe told us next to nothing of any consequence. Cruickshank on the other hand, gave us nuggets. True, you had to listen carefully, but they were there. One in particular stands out. It concerns Palmyra and the world heritage site of the ancient Temple of Bel.
Cruickshank had visited the place some years before when it was still intact but in the months prior to his talk it had been levelled by ISIS in a deliberate act of desecration. He clearly felt passionate about it and it was this perhaps rather than anything else that gave rise to his on-stage agitation. The point he made was that this was not just a random piece of architectural violence but a calculated move aimed at destroying an enemy’s cultural heritage.
'These attacks on buildings are not just an attack on history and beauty,' he said. 'They're also an attack on people's sense of pride and identity.'
Take away people’s sense of pride and identity and you undermine their beliefs and their will to defend them. A sense of identity is crucial to all of us. Remove that and we collapse. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Now I’m not going to try and pretend that the ‘attacks’ I’ve highlighted on Hemingway, Rhodes and Nelson are part of a concerted attempt by our enemies to undermine us –but they are examples of the way in which aspects of our history and cultural heritage are being called into question. There’s no great conspiracy here – after all, why should our enemies spend time and effort doing such a thing anyway? We seem to be making a pretty good job of it ourselves. But as Cruickshank makes us aware, these things matter and if left unchallenged will eat away at our self-belief and confidence to the extent where, both as individuals and as a nation, we will lose the determination and ability to act in our own self-interest. If nothing else we are presently conducting a war on terror and an enemy whose ultimate purpose is to destroy Western society, its culture and its democratic ideals. Now is not the time for us to be helping them achieve their objective by doubting ourselves and our sense of national and individual identity.
NB : For further information about Dan Cruickshank’s talk, here’s the link.
Monday 21 August 2017
So, You’re White, Male, Middle-class and Middle-aged. Oh Dear… Part II
A few months ago I wrote an article with the above title based on some remarks made by the Chairman of Tesco, John Allan. He contended that in the politically-correct climate of today, the chances of a white, middle-class, middle-aged man making it into the boardroom of a major company was next to nothing. This followed a personal attack on me, launched on social media, by a radical feminist whom I’d apparently offended by placing her husband’s name in front of hers in a brochure. I had, in effect, called them Mr and Mrs instead of Mrs and Mr and I stood accused of being androcentric. And yes, it was a new word on me too and I had to look it up in my dictionary. It means focused or centred solely on men.
Her response was to label me as white, male, middle-class and middle-aged as if that somehow explained my ‘error’. And by the way, she threw ‘non-disabled’ into the bargain. I’ve since realised that she forgot to mention I’m straight but hey, I’ve decided to let that pass. At the time I thought these were purely random epithets she had invented herself but when I find Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man littered with the same phrase it strikes me that I am now defined as being a member of a particular class. This is the third time I’ve heard it used and I’m reminded of that World War One saying about being picked out by snipers – once is bad luck, twice is co-incidence but the third time is enemy action. So I think I can now safely conclude that white, middle-class, middle-aged men are under attack – and it’s about time they started defending themselves.
You could say that I had deliberately put myself in the way of this third incident. I’d chosen to read Perry’s book, purely on the basis that I was well aware of its contents and thereby intrigued as to what he had to say. The title itself gives us a clue, although a somewhat contradictory one. It’s a parody of the work of two famous predecessors, Darwin’s 1873 version of the same name and Jacob Bronowski’s 1970s television documentary entitled The Ascent of Man. But whereas Darwin charted man’s upward evolutionary progress and Bronowski his cultural and intellectual rise, Perry is intent on fostering his decline. His argument, in summary, is broadly as follows.
- The vast majority of the world’s problems are caused by men – and in particular, white, middle-class, middle-aged men. (This, incidentally, is a phrase we are already becoming weary of. Perry uses the label ‘Default Man’ and for the sake of brevity and ease of identification I shall do the same. Of course, this is a thinly disguised insult since as Perry himself points out, two of the synonyms of default are ‘failure to pay’ and ‘evasion’. But for the moment, I’ll let that pass too.)
- This failure is down to men’s macho tendencies ie. their attitudes, and especially their desire to be ‘top dog’, to dominate and to exercise power. According to Perry, these are some of the defining characteristics of modern masculinity.
- These attitudes have been acquired solely through conditioning – a process overseen by Perry’s so-called Department of Masculinity. In other words they arise purely from nurture rather than nature.
- And lastly, men need to fundamentally change their attitudes if we are to have a better world.
Now as it happens, I quite like Grayson Perry. He’s both thoughtful and articulate, very perceptive and makes some acute observations about human nature. But that doesn’t mean to say I have to agree with him. He makes a number of points I take issue with, not least of which is the assertion that I and my kind ie. Default Man, are responsible for all the world’s ills.
‘I sometimes watch the evening news on television and think all the world’s problems can be boiled down to one thing; the behavior of people with a Y chromosome.’
This type of sledging is prevalent throughout the book. One only has to read the endorsements at the front to get a flavour of what is to come.
‘A siren call for men to sort themselves out emotionally before we destroy the world.’
‘It is time… to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.’
It’s not the first time I’ve been subjected to this prolonged form of sophisticated name-calling. When I was a financial consultant back in the 1990s I would regularly read the relevant sections of the Sunday papers to keep myself up-to-date with the latest trends in my chosen profession. It seemed to me that every time I came across the words ‘financial consultant’ they were preceded by the adjective ‘commission-hungry’. There was actually an element of truth in the statement. I was a self-employed agent and had no basic salary so commission was my only form of income, but the underlying implication was that I was some kind of parasitic leech feeding off an unsuspecting client bank. In fact, I was helping hundreds of people to find the right mortgage deals; to protect themselves and their families from the financial effects of death and illness; to save for their retirement and to advise them about the best forms of investment, but the provision of these fundamental and important services was something that journalists of the day preferred to ignore for the sake of a newsy strapline. Nowadays I get the impression that it’s estate agents who receive an equal if not greater amount of opprobrium. Later on, in the 2000s, I stopped reading the financial sections of the paper altogether, so hacked off was I with the constant carping.
It’s much the same today with Perry and Default Man.
‘I am a white man,’ he goes on to say, ‘a rather tarnished badge to wear these days, weighted with guilt and shame at the behavior of one’s fellows.’
Well I have some news for Mr Perry. I’m also a white man and I’m actually quite proud of what I and my ‘class’ have managed to achieve over the last two centuries of Western democracy. Let me give you some examples, beginning with the invention of Western democracy itself.
Let’s suppose we were to go back 200 hundred years (a mere blink of an eye in the long history of man’s evolutionary journey) and examine the improvements in the human condition which have taken place since then: the enormous increase in living standards for the whole of the population; the abolition of slavery; electoral reform (not forgetting universal suffrage); the elimination of forced child labour; the Education Act of 1944; the formation of the National Health Service; the advances in workers’ rights and more recently, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the introduction of gay/equal marriage. These are the cornerstones of a tolerant and civilised society and give us the benefits we have come to enjoy as members of a modern Western democracy. And if one accepts that it really is Default Man who has exercised formal power over this period, then these are his achievements and his alone. So should we feel ‘weighted with guilt and shame’ about them as Perry does – or should we take pride in them, as I do? There is still much to do of course and many forms of injustice remain, but I would argue that taken overall, Default Man has been a force for good rather than evil.
I must also question Perry’s view of masculinity itself. He would have us believe that to be masculine is to seek power, to want to dominate, to be ruthlessly competitive and to be continually looking for sex. Now I don’t doubt that there are men who exhibit these traits in one form or another and to a greater or lesser degree. (Personally speaking, I’m glad to hear that men like to have sex – without that we’d have struggled to perpetuate ourselves as a species.) But the manner in which Perry portrays these characteristics suggests that all men are power-crazed and prepared to take excessive risks to achieve their ends.
‘Masculinity,’ he says, ‘is to chase things and fight things and to fuck. Everything else is a bit of a mismatch.’
Not in my house, Grayson, not in my street and not in the city where I live. This is a deeply flawed misrepresentation and is not mainstream masculinity as I know it.
He cites men’s attitude to war as a typical example.
‘War,’ he suggests, ‘fits traditional masculinity like a glove. The drive to war has deep appeal to many people; for many men, it can feel so right that they rarely question it.’
Really? Try telling that to the thousands of men who took to the streets worldwide to oppose the war in Iraq. He goes on to say,
‘I have heard men talk so often of our generation being deprived of the opportunity to step up to the plate and prove their manhood.’
Now I’m happy to admit that I’ve been around for a few more years than Grayson Perry but I have never, ever, in all my years heard anyone of any age, race or religious belief express anything that even remotely approximated to that sentiment. I can only assume that he is living on a different planet than I am.
There is good reason to think that this is actually the case. Perry’s father left home when he was four and was replaced by a stepfather who was both violent and abusive. My father also left home when I was at an early age but my stepfather was a kind and loving man for whom I have nothing but respect. Perry is a transvestite and enjoys inhabiting both women’s clothing and their psyche. On the other hand, I’m ‘straight’ and I’ve never had a problem with being ‘masculine’ – until now that is, when people such as Perry start calling it into question. He clearly struggles with what it means to be a man and has spent his time searching for answers in the most extreme of places. No wonder then that he has found the most extreme of examples.
I’m a bird-watcher. And like the vast majority of the population I’m familiar with Blue-tits, Robins and Blackbirds. But for the more discerning ornithologist, species that the rest of the world has probably never heard of, never mind seen, are of far more interest. We like to go looking for things such as Red-throated Diver and Ring Ouzel. These birds aren’t classified as rare but they’re scarce and you have to put yourself out to go find them. But once you do, you can see them in reasonable numbers. Perry is doing much the same in his search for the modern-day meaning of masculinity. During the making of his series All Man for Channel 4, he went to the City and sought out high-rolling bankers; he visited the back streets and talked to hard-core cage-fighters; he went to the desolate outskirts of Skelmersdale and mixed with a gang of young hoodies. Did he really expect to find mainstream masculinity in these weird and wonderful places? Of course not – no more than I would expect to see a White-tailed Sea Eagle in my back garden. But as we should already know from watching reality TV shows, ‘mainstream’ and ‘commonplace’ don’t make for interesting viewing.
We could all say this (me included) but Perry should get out more and mix with some ‘ordinary’ people. I live in a predominately white, middle-class area in a predominately white, middle-class city. My friends and neighbours are a great bunch of people and my relationships with the men amongst them are all pretty positive. We don’t compete with each other and nobody is trying to seduce someone else’s wife. Having been in our current property for a little over 23 years, we’ve just had our bathroom and en suite replaced. I happen to think that the plumber who installed them has done a great job and that they look really nice. One of my neighbours happened to mention that he was thinking of doing the same so I invited him round to take a look. Perry would say I did this because I wanted to show off and get ‘one-up’ on my neighbour. Far from it. I did it because he’s a good friend of mine and I wanted to repay the favour he did me a few months ago when we were in the process of having some other work done and he was good enough to give me a few handy tips. All very blokey stuff, I know, but Perry mistakes these exchanges as examples of one-upmanship whereas they are in fact the small talk by which men engage with each other and form meaningful relationships. Nothing much wrong with that.
In his desire to push the boundaries of his research and make both interesting TV and reading, I believe Perry is confusing masculinity with machismo. He has gone looking for masculinity in the most far-flung places he could find and has naturally found the most exaggerated examples. And, by ignoring the behavior of the vast swathe of white middle-class, middle-aged men, he has inevitably reached the wrong conclusions. Had he made the focus of his attention Macho Man instead of Default Man, his findings might have made a lot more sense.
Now let me deal with the notion that this so-called ‘toxic’ masculinity arises purely out of conditioning ie. that it’s solely a function of nurture and that nature plays no part. Perry asserts that
‘Many feminists and advocates of gender equality don’t like the idea that biology may play even a small part in gender differences. They believe that male and female brains are exactly alike, that all gender is conditioning, and what’s more conditioning by a male-dominated environment (therefore evil). I’m tempted to agree with them: it’s certainly healthier if we see gender as conditioned and therefore more fluid.’
Healthier? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing’s for sure, it certainly suits Perry’s argument to say so. Because by making the fundamental assumption that ‘all gender is conditioning’ he is giving himself the ability to say that all gender can be changed. But what happens to the argument if that initial assumption proves incorrect?
There is evidence to suggest that there is little (if any) physical difference between the brains of men and women. Fine. One could liken the brain to a computer. From the outside, two computers of the same make and size will look identical. What makes them different is the part of them you can’t ‘see’ ie. the way they’re programmed. If each is programmed differently, when you open them up they will start to behave differently. I believe that with men and women, part (but not all) of that programming is ‘hard-wired’ ie. it comes pre-determined, rather like a computer operating system. Why do I believe this? Because of the biology. In case you hadn’t noticed there are significant physical differences between men and women, the prime example of which is that women’s bodies are ‘designed’ for child-bearing. It’s not their fault, evolution has made them so and I believe that evolution has also ensured that part of their brains has been hard-wired to cope with the effects. Thank goodness they are as the effort required to condition each generation of women (or men) from scratch into the intricacies of raising children would have taken up so much energy in the past as to render homo sapiens impractical and we would never have survived as a species. Nature did this and she did it because it was the most efficient way possible to enable us to proceed. You can’t ‘condition’ women to have children (or not have them) any more than you can condition them to live longer than men. These are incontrovertible biological facts. Unfortunately for Perry and his argument they also represent what Al Gore once described as inconvenient truths.
The same biological backdrop must also apply to men. I’m hard-wired as a man and I will exhibit certain basic male characteristics. And as we’ve already discussed, I’m white, middle-class and middle-aged as well. However hard I try these are things I can’t change and that means I carry a certain amount of inherited baggage. What I’m saying is that you can try and take the masculinity out of man but you can’t the man out of masculinity – there will always be that core element which will remain essentially male. What rankles with me about Perry’s discourse, and that of others, is that they are implying that my core element and even the very fact that I am a man is necessarily bad and I deeply resent that.
So does this mean that change isn’t possible at all? Not so, it’s just that Mr Perry and I differ as to how that might take place. He believes that modern masculinity is bad, all gender arises out of conditioning and that masculinity can, and should, therefore be changed. I contend that taken overall, his view of modern masculinity is mis-guided, that the basic element of gender is hard-wired and linked to our biology and that we can’t tinker with it anyway. But that still leaves the other part of a computer’s wiring, the part we call software ie. that which we chose to load up and utilise? In humans, this must be the part of us that decides who we are as individuals and the suspicion must be that it comes pre-dominantly from nurture. In other words, I’m a man and generally speaking I will act as a man, but what type of man I turn out to be will depend on my circumstances and upbringing. So yes, there is that element of us which is subject to conditioning, although whether it forms a sufficient part of us to effect the transformation in attitudes Perry want to see is open to question.
As to whether men should change, I offer no opinion. I’m an observer, not a moralist and it seems to me that this is a personal decision and should be left up to each of us as individuals. Besides, any attempt to advocate such change would involve needing to define what modern masculinity should to look like and I have no intention of going down that road. What I can say is that I don’t feel the need to change myself and I would rather Mr Perry directed his remarks at Macho Man instead of at me. And let me clear up one other thing while I’m about it before I get deluged with hate mail from ardent feminists (which is probably going to happen anyway). Although I believe that nature has made woman the sex best equipped to bear and raise children that doesn’t mean I think they should be forced to stay at home and do it. If they and their partners decide to have children and share the burden of raising them equally between them, that’s absolutely fine with me. As I say, I’m an observer, not a moralist and I have no intention of telling people what they should and shouldn’t do.
But despite my conservatism and apparent reluctance to embrace change I do believe it will happen. Societal norms are moving rapidly in that direction and there are signs that much of what Grayson Perry desires will come into force – although whether gender conditioning alone will be enough to eradicate the unacceptable behaviour of Macho Man remains to be seen. Given that I believe there is some inaccessible element of masculinity buried deep within us, I somehow doubt it and we will have to look to the long term and wait for our biology to alter. Evolution will ensure that it does. We already have a (theoretical) choice as to gender ie. whether we, as individuals, wish to adopt masculine or feminine attitudes. Some of us are now able to chose our sex ie. whether we wish to be defined as male or female. Advances in technology suggest that at some point in the future we will have the ability to form human life outside the womb. (See the article referenced below.) All these things point to massive changes although exactly how things will alter and over what period it’s impossible to say. Longer than my lifetime, I’m certain and unfortunately for Mr Perry, longer than his too.
Monday 13 March 2017
So, You're White, Male, Middle-Class and Middle-Aged? Oh Dear...
Back in 1970, when Reggae first burst onto the music scene, one of the songs of the day was entitled 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black'. Originally performed by Bob and Marcia, it was re-released in 1972 by Aretha Franklin and became a classic of its time. Its lyrics continued along the lines of 'Oh what a lovely precious dream'. This was doubtless part of the same dream which inspired Martin Luther King and was overtly political in nature. Despite the progress that the Black movement has made since then, much of that dream remains outstanding. Fine. But what if you're middle-aged, middle-class and white? And male to boot? Well, according to John Allan, Chairman of the UK's largest retailer (Tesco), if your dream consists of gaining a place in the Boardroom, you're stuffed.
“If you are female and from an ethnic background – and preferably both – then you are in an extremely propitious period,” he told a panel during the Retail Week Live conference this week. “For a thousand years, men have got most of these jobs, the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now and will do for the foreseeable future. If you are a white male, tough – you are an endangered species and you are going to have to work twice as hard.”
As you can imagine, his comments have caused quite a stir. But, if we can set aside any natural reactionary prejudice (hard to do, as we shall see later) is there any reason to take his remarks seriously?
I can't comment about life in the modern business Boardroom. I was in one 30 years ago and yes, it was composed solely of white, middle-class, middle-aged men. But things change. Today I'm on a very different kind of Board, that of a Board of Trustees of a Literature Festival. Our problem is not so much the awkward political choice between competing candidates but rather finding any sort of candidates at all. We would willingly welcome anyone prepared to serve, be they young/old, black/white, male or female, just let them come forward, we'd be delighted to see them. What I can comment on though is the state of play in the world of modern literature and in particular, fiction.
A few years ago the debate was all about the alleged preponderance of men winning writing's major prizes. As a result, the Orange Women's Prize for Fiction was set up (now renamed the Bailey's Prize) which despite today's supposed 'equality', is still open only to women. Does this mean that the pendulum has swung very significantly the other way now in literature as well as in business? Only the other day someone (it was a woman, incidentally) told me it was clear that you had to be both female and from another continent to stand a reasonable chance of getting your book published. I would have to say that I have absolutely no concrete evidence to support this assertion but the very fact that the perception exists makes it worth asking the question. Which in this case is, Is the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged author equally in danger of extinction as his business counterpart?
My remarks will no doubt prompt a storm of vociferous online protest, much the same as greeted those of Mr Allan. It seems to me that when it comes to any kind of debate conducted via social media, the first tactic employed by your opponent will be to try and drown out your argument by subjecting you to a stream of personal abuse. It's water off a duck's back so far as I'm concerned, I've been through it once already. Back in January I incurred someone's wrath by supposedly favouring men over women by using the phrase 'Mr and Mrs' instead of 'Mrs and Mr'. My assailant said (and I quote) 'The person who did this is white, male, middle-class, middle-aged and non-disabled'. So just as you can 'profile' serial killers and paedophiles, the clear implication was that I must therefore be a misogynist. What they failed to mention was that I'm also not gay and since they're aware of what newspaper I read, my supposed political opinions. Leaving aside the question of class, these characteristics place me as close to Donald Trump in my antagonist's mind as it's possible to get, hence the assumption that I'm chauvanistic. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I'm actually a committed feminist ie. I believe in equal rights for women (and for men, by the way). But then, truth can be extremely inconvenient when it contradicts ardently held dogmatic opinion.
In the meanwhile, we should really get on and ask what the future holds for the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged author. Do they have anything interesting to say? Or are they so handicapped by their lack of handicap that we can safely ignore them? And what of the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged protagonist? Not to mention those who are non-disabled and straight. Are their lives so obviously devoid of meaning that we have no real need to read about them?
I believe that we do and that their stories are just as important. But then I would say that as this is precisely the area l work in. It's an argument I'd like to pursue further on another occasion but for the moment I'd like to leave you with this thought. In recent years liberal opinion has tended to focus on improving the lot of those with disadvantages, on the plight of immigrants from war-torn countries and the pursuit of European expansion. I make no comment on the rights and/or wrongs of these projects but it has meant that 'ordinary' people have felt excluded from the mainstream of politics. The inevitable backlash has been the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump in the States. Will this trend extend to literature and will we see an upturn in the popularity of books about the white, middle-class, middle-aged male? All I can say is, if I have anything to do with it the answer will be yes.
Thursday 24 November 2016
So What Makes a Good Book?
Today is the formal publication date of my third novel. After many months of effort (I began the first draft in the summer of 2013), MALAREN finally emerges into the light and the uncompromising glare of public scrutiny. Such occasions are inevitably accompanied by a certain degree of nervousness. What will people make of it? Will it be thought of as a good book? All of which raises the question of what we mean by a 'good' book. And, incidentally, of what we mean by 'people'. Because in my view, it all depends on your perspective...
As you're probably aware, I spend a significant part of my time in bookshops promoting my work. Every Saturday you'll find me in one somewhere in Yorkshire and the North East. (If you want to know exactly where and when, why not visit my News & Events page where you'll find the details.) As a result, I get first hand information from the book-buying public about what they like, what they don't like and what for them constitutes a 'good' book. Some prefer crime, some like romance, some historical drama, and there are those who don't read fiction at all. But for those who do, they all seem agreed on one thing - they want strong characters and a readily discernible plot.
To a novelist like me who's committed to entertaining the reader, this is music to my ears - and hearing it repeated time again merely confirms what I've always thought I've needed to do to be successful. But is being 'successful' the same thing as writing a 'good' book? That's a sentiment not everyone would agree with. And by that I mean the critics. For them, a 'good' book is far more likely to mean one that's well-written. But as we know, not all successful books are well-written. And by the way, not all well-written books are successful. I recently tried reading one which had won a major literary prize and I couldn't get past page 50. The prose was rated outstanding but I didn't engage with any of the characters and there was no sign of a meaningful storyline. Confused? No wonder. How many times have you picked a title from a big-prize shortlist only to be disappointed?
But there are yet more links in the chain between an author and their reader - and that's agents and publishers. (Things are a bit simpler for me in this area - I have no agent, although applications for the vacancy will be gratefully received. Please use the facility on my Contact page to apply). They at least are united in their concept of what makes a 'good' book - it's one that sells. Ask any fly on the wall of a commissioning meeting at a publishing house what the attendees were talking about when they said 'Now that's a good book' and they'll tell you it was the one at the top of the best-seller charts. Never mind the writing - just show me the money.
So we're beginning to get the picture of what makes a 'good' book. It should ideally be well-written, have strong characters and an engaging narrative and sell in bucket-loads. No pressure there then. Which brings us to the point of how the authors themselves feel about it. What I can tell you is that the best authors are never entirely happy with their work - there's always something they think can be improved on - and so 'good' usually translates into 'could be better'.
And is MALAREN a 'good' book? We'll have to wait and see but in the meantime I'll let you make up your own mind. You see, it all depends on your perspective...