Monthly Archives: March 2012
Where should you write? How often should you write? Is there such a thing as writer’s block? Should you discuss your writing with others, while it’s still in progress? If you’re looking for answers, the best people to ask would be writers themselves. Right? Not necessarily. Writers are a contradictory lot, like people really. Of course they are people too but sometimes we appear to be rather a strange breed.
In a collection spanning over 20 years, Jon Winokur’s little book ‘Writers on Writing’ contains as many varied opinions on the subject as patterns in snowflakes. Well, maybe not that many but still, a lot. The collection was published in 1988 and is now out of print, I believe, but you can still get a copy on Amazon. One reviewer claims ‘this book stopped me from stopping writing’ and I must say that certainly strikes a chord.
When you’re starting to write, you get bombarded with advice. If this is coming from people you perceive as being more knowledgeable than you, who have been writing for ever who are, yikes, already published, it can be most confusing. Especially if you respect them and yet their suggestions don’t seem to work for you. Whenever I was stuck, when felt that the idea of me writing fiction was simply laughable, I’d phone one or two trusted writer friends. And I’d turn to this book.
The great thing about these quotes is that they are contradictory. The lesson? There is no ‘right’ way to write, no ‘right’ time of day, no set hours – no set anything. It’s just a matter of finding out what suits you best and doing it. Of course, at first, you don’t know what that is – so it’s a question of trial and error. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take advice. Of course it’s good to learn from others who have been there before you. Just remember that it’s not set in stone. Pick and choose. Take the bits that fit you and ignore the rest.
Isaac Asimov would write for 18 hours a day. Edward Albee got a splitting headache after only three or four. Samuel Johnson said one should write at any time of day. Henry Millar started after breakfast. Jack Kerouac preferred midnight to dawn (that figures). As to the process, Joyce Cary never wrote to an arranged plot, Dorothy Parker thought it all out first and then wrote sentence by sentence, revising she went. Hemingway also revised over and over again whereas Katherine Anne Porter wrote her stories in one sitting.
There is some consensus – virtually everyone agrees that you shouldn’t discuss a work in progress. Most writers revise and redraft, though some far more than others. On everything else – including motive, readers and reading. Ego, talent, work habits, technique – there’s a wide difference of opinion. Here’s just a few of them. They are chosen at random, except the first one and the last – two statements that I believe in wholeheartedly. And find immensely comforting.
“A writer is someone who writes, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal
“The first thing you have to consider when writing a novel is your story, then your story – and then your story.” Ford Maddox Ford
“Writing is pretty crummy on the nerves.” Paul Theroux
“If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.” Kingsley Amis
“I write books to find out about things.” Rebecca West
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.” Joseph Heller
“I don’t get writing blocks except from the stationers, but I do feel so sickened by what I write that I don’t want to go on.” Anthony Burgess
“If my books had been any worse I would not have been invited to Hollywood, if they had been any better I would not have come.” Raymond Chandler
“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E.M.Forster
“Money to a writer is time to write.” Frank Herbert
The first time I met them, three or four years ago, my attention was caught by this tall man striding along the raised pavement on Upper Street, a ginger cat trotting along at his heels. That was my first sight of James and Bob. I followed them and had a chat with James. I was a little concerned – Bob was so tiny among all those feet rushing headlong along the pavements. James reassured me. And of course there was absolutely no need to fear – James would never allow any harm to come to Bob.
I’d see them from time to time, in the following years, maybe on the bus, sometimes in the street, James playing his guitar, Bob sitting quietly at his feet. Or draped around James’ neck. There was nearly always a small knot of people clustered round them. I’d stop for a quick word and to give Bob a stroke. Seeing them always made my day.
A while ago James mentioned something about a book. I remember thinking that I hoped he would get something out of it, that it would really make a difference to him and of course to Bob too. I’m delighted to say that the book is out and it really is going to make a difference. When I met them on the 38 bus, a few weeks ago, James handed me a flyer advertising his book signing saying he hoped I’d come along. Try to keep me away! As soon as I got home I put it in my calendar and last Tuesday, in spite of a wonky foot, I took myself off to Waterstones on Islington Green.
I got there early but the press had already set up outside the store and I could see people being interviewed. I went in, bought the book and hung around chatting to others as we waited. More and more people arrived; before long the queue was out the door. A ripple of excitement. Bob and James appeared on the stairs and made their way down. Before the signing could get under way there was a paws – sorry – for photographs. Bob took it all in his stride, sitting on James’ shoulder, posing beside a pile of books, standing on his hind legs to nibble a treat.
James signed book after book, writing individual and personal messages. Bob, with a little help, added a paw print. Half way through the evening the book was sold out, but there was a promise that they’d be back to sign the many other copies on order. I was one of the lucky ones who got my book signed. I only had time for a quick read during the week but this weekend I sat down and read it from cover to cover. It’s a great story and very moving. It really is true what James says that they rescued each other. I really hope it will help a lot of people be more understanding.
James, a street musician, writes honestly about the life he led when he was a recovering heroin addict, about the battles he’s had to fight, about the loneliness of life on the streets and about how meeting Bob helped him turn his life around. I have nothing but admiration for him – it takes guts to beat an addiction. It takes a special sort of bravery and determination to pull yourself back up when you are alone and down. When one dreary day follows another, when it’s hard to see any future. If he hadn’t had such a big heart, if he hadn’t taken pity on the scruffy, sick street cat things might have been very different.
He wasn’t looking for any reward when he took Bob in, he couldn’t possibly have known what the future would bring. Now, because of his own act of kindness, James has hope and a new life. Man and cat had already rescued each other when agent Mary Pachnos approached them to suggest a book. It’s a lovely book, heartwarming, and they’ve got a great agent who will look after them and I wish them a very happy and contented future together, whatever they’d like it to be.
Post Script. I had talked about the book signing on twitter, and I’m sure many others had too. What I hadn’t expected was the reaction the following day – people were twittering from the USA, the Ukraine, Brazil – everywhere. The story was covered globally including by CBS news and China Today. I’ve never seen anything literally go viral before – it was amazing. Well done to everyone who helped in any way.
This is the link to the lovely video. Word Press will not allow me to embed it …! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdAFjB7AeYA
James M. Cain tells a great story about his novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. A strange title, you might think, for a book about sex. It appears, though, that the manuscript was rejected so many times that when the rejection letters arrived, the postman rang twice. Now this does rather beg the question as to how the postman knew they were letters of rejection. It’s a great story and who am I to take issue with the likes of James M. Cain.
My information comes from Rotten Rejections, edited by André Bernard. It’s subtitled ‘The letters that publishers wish they’d never sent’ – and to give him his due, he does include rejections he sent out as well as some he received. Of course we all have the benefit of hindsight, even so the book is a great encouragement for those of us who’ve ever been rejected. I particularly dislike the cop-out – ‘it doesn’t fit our list’ but I’m in good company. The great Agatha Christie was subjected to that one for The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
There are so many gems in this book it’s hard to know what to include. So I’m leaving aside manuscripts that were rejected because they were, in their time, considered to be too racy or too sexy. Manuscripts submitted by DH Lawrence, Norman Mailer, W Somerset Maughan, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Hardy and Jacqueline Susann among others. Since I haven’t room for all of them I’m listing those that most appeal to me, on all sorts of levels. Some are well know, others less so. Here’s a selection.
Animal Farm, George Orwell. “ It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”
Crash, J.G. Ballard. “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
The Bridge over the River Quai, Pierre Boulle. “A very bad book.”
Untitled Manuscript, Emily Dickinson. “Queer … the rhymes were all wrong. They are … generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
Northanger Abbey, 1818. Jane Austen. “We are willing to return the manuscript for the same advance we (paid) for it.”
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding. “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”
The White Goddess, Robert Graves. “I have to say that it was beyond me and failed to stir any spark of interest …”
Catch-22, Joseph Heller. “I haven’t really the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. It is about a group of American Army officers stationed in Italy, sleeping (but not interestingly) with each others’ wives and Italian prostitutes, and talking unintelligibly to one another … constitutes a continual and unmitigated bore.
The Spy who came in from the Cold, – John Le Carré “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
A Dance to the Music of Time, Antony Powell. “… a 350,000 word monstrosity that may not be any more saleable than its parts have proved.”
Man and Superman – George Bernard Shaw. “ … he will never be popular in the usual sense of the word, and perhaps scarcely remunerative.”
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells. “ An endless nightmare. I do not believe it would take … “
Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe. “Terrible.”
A River runs through it, Norman MacLean. “These stories have trees in them.”
That last one is my absolute favourite, it’s so weird – mad as cheese. Apart from the rejections themselves, the book is full of anecdotes by or about writers such as George Bernard Shaw, Steven King, Emily Dickenson, James Joyce and Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was self published in the first instance, though the publisher who’d rejected it later had a change of heart. And knew he was onto a sure thing! Not much change there then! But take heart. There’s no disgrace in being rejected, especially in such illustrious company.