How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.


Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.

 

 

How to get a novel published – if that’s what you really want…

Take heart. Take a big slice of heart. It’s actually easy to get published.

It’s obviously a lot less easy to publish exactly what you want to write, or exactly what you’ve managed to write, and it’s pretty damned hard to get a devoted readership. But…

Let’s start with easy – and I’m saying this after a newly mailed rejection’s just pinged the email with its next nail for the coffin – Yes. It’s easy. I keep telling myself that despite everything. For one it’s easier than a heap of other things that people don’t spend half as much time dreaming about.

It’s easier than getting onto TV. It’s easier than becoming than becoming a circus performer. Easier than becoming a tapestry-maker or a thatcher. Easier than getting to direct films. Maybe easier than finding an honest politician or a till-death-do-us-part relationship. Take heart. When you walk into a book shop, don’t feel depressed at all those lucky, lucky published people. Rejoice. The system wants this many published authors – even if they’re stuck on the shelves and the remainder piles – and it craves more.

Yes, getting published is a really achievable ambition. It’s obviously a lot harder to make a living at writing. It’s very hard to become known as a writer. It’s very hard to produce a treasured classic. But for many there’s a simple dream of is just being published.

Why?

Well, probably for simple affirmation, an acknowledgement by someone else that you deserve to be called a writer. It also chimes with all those reasons for being published that feel so wrong. Who do you want to teach you creative writing, for example, the lady who’s published or the lady who isn’t? That’s usually a question that everyone answers without even asking the potentially more important stuff: how good a teacher they are, whether their own work chimes with the student in question, never mind what they’ve published exactly and how reputable it really is outside a niche of die-hards, No. Published. That’s what makes you an author. That’s what makes your work worthwhile. And, if you’re not very psychologically careful, you end up thinking that’s what makes your life worthwhile.

Nonsense.

Write because the writing is what you need to do. If you’re published by someone it’s because they can see something beyond that need, an inroad, a paying audience, or a business opportunity – publication s not a sign that you are or aren’t a writer. Of course bad writers generally get published less than good writers, so, in some quarters at least, it is a badge that confirms you’re not a bad writer. It’s far from the case though that only good writers get published, or that somehow it’s being excellent that gets you published.

If you want to be published then the path is well known. It’s a fairly straightforward set of steps. The problem comes when… No, save that for the end. Here’s what I believe the steps are, and you just need a 90% productive effort on ALL of them.

Here are the steps

  1. Know what writing is
  2. Know the craft of writing
  3. Know the audience that suits you
  4. Make your suitably deliverable USP
  5. Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers
  6. GO! (write…or rewrite…. or patch and scrape at what you’ve misguidedly started)

If you’ve done all of these properly, there you are. You should have no trouble getting published. Agents want books, good books, books they can sell, books from writers who know their audience and have got that neat USP. Publishers want the same. It doesn’t particularly need clever writing or deep philosophy or society-changing themes. If you’ve got your book done to the steps here then there shouldn’t be a problem. If you haven’t got one, then go back down the ladder and see where you didn’t get the 90% productive effort for one of the steps.

Getting published, step one: Know what writing is

You could by-pass this if you were already famous for something else, but let’s for a minute assume the publication will be because of the writing. Here’s your first step. Know what writing is.

Do you? Really?

For those who want to write and who need all their words in writing this stage may have been completed between the ages of 4 and 14, but then you have to be wary that your sense of what good writing is isn’t obfuscated by literature courses and social snobbery around what reading should be.

Reading is key. It needs to be reading that teaches you what writing is, though. You need to be alert to why a set of phrases works or doesn’t. Why one passage of writing is pompous and off putting, why another seems frothy and overly-sweetened. Classics are a must but it’s probably a 10% dose. The reasons why Joyce and Dickens are still read are not always because they illustrate what writing should be.

Get to know which writing you want to emulate. Make sure it’s writing that living readers acknowledge as good writing. Your style could well do with the spice of Woolf or Wilde or Wodehouse but beware of making that spice the substance of the meal. You need to practice your way into a deeper understanding. Exercise across a range of styles, do pastiches, emulate writing that delivers emotion successfully to you – and spread the range of emotions as wide as possible, emotions of pity, hilarity, anger, fear, disgust, affection, scorn. What writing does that for you? How could you do it for others?

Pick up on all aspects of style. Emulate it. Then step away from the copies and begin to understand what writing is for you.

Getting published, step two: Know the craft of writing

This is where the hard work starts. It’s not particularly hard work to know what good writing is for you and your hoped-for circle of influence. Knowing the craft of writing is something else.

There’s a few hundred thousand books out there, courses too, some good some bad. Blogs galore, as the developing craftspeople try to fathom what their shortfalls are and what aspect of the craft they’ll take to next.

For me being able to articulate craftspersonship is part of the process. That’s not to say you can’t do it without. There’s plenty of great books written through intuition and just riding the time-honoured patterns that you’ve been steeped in through endless reading. If you want to improve at anything though, get to the stage where you can articulate the essence of that craft.

It’s like chess. You can intuitively move pieces into or out of danger. Once you’re a grand master you probably have a raft of unarticulated sensations about the game. Yet in the step between beginner and master you will improve fastest when you’re able to say exactly why one move is better than another, to talk it through in words. Same with snooker, same with football. If you can give name to it then you begin to really know it. If you have to teach grammar, to explain the rules and the exceptions, then you know grammar. If you are a designer you know why something will work and can explain the parameters of design function – it’s not just a case of moving stuff about and maybe getting lucky.

It’s the same with writing. Can you say which bits of your writing are good and explain why?

That’s craft and if you can’t then this is possibly a step you’ll struggle to pass.  Why does one set of sentences work with better rhythm than another?  Why does one combination of words have more potency than a set of synonyms. What is fresh and what is stale? What is expansive and what is cluttered?

What qualities of character are most likely to get audience response? How are traits described and nuanced? How does conflict flow, develop and resolve? How are readerly expectations toyed with and variously delivered? How is a familiar pattern thrown open to unexpected delight.

Get the books. Do the courses. Think long and hard why some things work and some things don’t.

Understand all the rules. And if you’re breaking them understand exactly why.

Getting published step three: Know the audience that suits you

If you’ve got an eclectic taste this might be a difficult step. If you are desperate to be innovative and experimental then this could be the most difficult step.

It’s easiest if you love one kind of book and you’re desperate to emulate it. Romance. Fantasy. Teen dystopia. Tartan noir. Dada. These are genres with audiences and if you know that you want to grab that particular audience’s attention, then this should be a breeze.

Publishing is not about literature. That fact used to confuse and beguile me. I studied great works that had stood the test of time. That was what i thought literature meant. I believed natively that the literature had come from brilliant minds as a conduit of great souls, that there was something in the work itself that was of quintessential literary greatness and that that was why it had been published and cherished through the decades.

Bollocks. Of course.

Literature studies are not about great works, they’re about great publications. As a subject of study, a book that has had a publishing history and an audience and a social reaction and a critical history is a far far different thing from an identical book that was never noticed.  Even if you are going back to the text itself with the New Criticism the fact is that those texts have risen to a point of critical attention. They are works within markets and within social contexts. Whether it was the direct aim of the writer, or of someone who discovered the works lying in a drawer, or of some unscrupulous literary thief, the work evolves into, of and for an audience.

So, if you want to be published you cannot be sniffy about audiences. You can’t be random or natively optimistic either.

Nothing short of this: you need to define who will read your work and guarantee that, given the opportunity, they would respond to it as with a range of their favourites. No point saying that a work is for porn lovers who also like a bit of Enid Blyton, that isn’t a valid target audience; no point saying your audience is all those who’ve caught the Kabadi on TV and are sure to want a horror story based on the ghosts of former champions – that’s at best an uncertain audience.

Look at who’s reading books and make sure yours could be tossed into a pen of at least a few thousand who would welcome it as a familiar if uncommonly interesting friend.

Getting published, step four: Know your USP

Once you’re among that audience and you know them well and can imagine the looks on their faces when you show them your front cover – and as you picture a persona of a reader and take your imagination through their reactions to your work – this is the step where the difference, the exception, the quirk, the niche, the je-ne-sais-quoi is utterly essential. The Unique Selling Point.

This audience wants more, they can’t wait to get the next great thing, the novel that will make them feel the way they have with all their favourites in the genre, they want more but why do they want this one? The same but different. That’s what everyone wants. Same ball-park but a remarkable variation in the bleachers.

The best end of this is a quirky, utterly Zeitgeisty premise that makes everyone pant to get the full story. Easier said than done, but framing this is the best step in any journey to a publishing deal.

Again, articulate the difference. Show the significance and originality of that difference, and understand exactly how different it can be whilst still being with the same audience.

Getting published, step four and a bit: Make your USP suitably deliverable

It’s the same point but different. Call it a log line or a premise or a blurb but what you’re after for this step is an astonishingly concise and beautifully delivered sense of where that USP lies. If it’s all in the twist at the end that you don’t want to reveal until the close then you’ll struggle. If the USP is its befuddling complexity then you’ll struggle. If the USP is not unique enough then you’ll struggle. If it’s unique but not something that will sell then you’ll struggle. If it’s not one point but seven then you’ll struggle.

For maximum appeal then, you know your audience, and here is a concise statement of the one clear, exciting difference that makes it wonderfully saleable. If you’re unsure how it should go imagine how you’d sell Silence of the Lambs with a USP. Or Northern Lights, Bridget Jones’ Diary, High Fidelity, To Kill a Mockingbird – they all did it to a level that made them exemplars. 

There’s a stack of posts on log lines and blurbs. I did one myself a while back but have forgotten what I said. (How to craft a logline or blurb.) Egri and McKee have interesting opinions to share. Basically it needs to conjure the possible development in the mind of whoever reads it.

Getting published, step four: Know where you fit in the hierarchy of agents/publishers

So you’ve got the book done and written, it’s great. It’s got a USP, you can deliver it – who do you deliver it to?

Consider the tale of the Most Unloveable Man on Earth though.  This MUMonE wanted to find love. He bought a bunch of flowers and thrust them in the face of the first supermodel that walked out of the Ritz. No dice. He got new flowers and thrust them at the first supermodel that walked out of the Hilton. Still no dice. He did the same thing a third and fourth time and then gave. Convinced he must be unloveable and unattractive he threw himself off the nearest bridge.

The most demoralising thing for amateur writers is the endless stream of rejections. You’ll get plenty of those, everyone does. But as with the parable of the MUMonE, you can do yourself a favour and at least be pitching realistically.

How do you find an agent – well, of course you google ‘em up. Those first page of google agencies must be choking for unknowns. You want a publisher, well whack your manuscript off to Penguin, why not?

Just as some footballers are at Stevenage and some are at Liverpool, just as some horses are doing the Grand National and some are pulling drays, as some chefs are at The Dorchester and some run burger vans outside Dorchester, you need to recognise what your Zone of Proximal Development is and where you belong at this stage in your career. If there’s a pyramid to climb with your literary heroes at the top then its unlikely you’re going to leap up there immediately. Be sensible. Be patient. Be realistic.

Your, ZPD, Zone of Proximal Development, is where you’re capable of moving to next. Understand that while some publishing is a rags-to-riches success story for an ambitious unknown, most of it isn’t. There’s a publishing house for you, there’s an agent for you. Assuming you’ve got through all the steps so far then you’ve got something to sell and someone will join in your quest (publishing) rather than no-one (self-publishing)

Here you go. Find the right person to support you and go for it.

But is being published a real and worthy quest?

The problem of course is that you don’t really JUST want to be published. You want to write what you want, you want to do it your way. Or you do want the publication but not the work. Or you do want the work but not the achingly dull practice of the craft before the work becomes justifiable as a potential fame-maker. 

Is that a word? It should be (or someone can tell me what the established term is). Fame-maker. We sift around in the dirt, cringing at our own anonymity and we’re looking for the elusive Fame-maker. The illusive Fame-maker. The thing that will get us recognised and will validate us. That will make us good in another’s eyes.

We are alone, reaching out here and there. Our published work seems a chance that a larger than normal number of people will connect briefly with us, they will seize our ideas and understand how we feel. It’s great to reach out and connect and great to make a gift of your ideas.

Don’t get too distracted by that, though.

There’s something in the process that must take precedence over the product. The steps above aren’t just steps towards getting published, not really. They’re steps in making the experience of writing better, better for you the writer. If you know what’s good, know the craft, if you think about audience and who might ideally read what you write, if you focus in on what is unique about your own practice and you do that well enough to get a concise simple statement as to why what you offer is valuable, then you’re not simply making steps towards some business ideal like publishing, you’re developing a craft, one that is intimate with the human brain and its craving for language to make sense of experience.

Do the steps anyway. Don’t treat publishers as gods that you need to please. Please yourself. Just move those few steps closer, wherever possible, to those great ideals that our literary heroes have established.

Ronnie O’Sullivan is a published novelist. Why do we write fiction, and what of our self (and not-self) remains?

Book cover with title and author and narrow street view of walking person

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s 2016 novel, Framed.

I’m not sure I’ll read Ronnie O’Sullivan’s novel. I might. I didn’t read his autobiography, but I have an interest in snooker and in the plight of those who’ve reached enviable levels of excellence and struggled to cope. I may even go to it in disbelief – a novel? Rocket Ronnie. But then why not, and I warmed to his comments during the launch publicity that the fictional story, in contrast to his autobiography, had helped him better understand himself through the process.

Do we write to know ourselves or for others to know us?

There’s a heap of reasons why someone wants to write. I’ve talked to people about the mass of words that burden their heads, the way every thought seems to require a fine sentence to make it more real and manageable. Others talk of the need to get that rush of evaporating thoughts into some permanent state in order to reorder and to play. Others need the invention, the pleasure that comes with manipulating a narrative around invented characters who may or may not have the quirks and traits of our friends and enemies.

For some there’s the expectation of that warm hug of childhood memory, that our works are loved and wanted and so we are too.  It can become a need to be heard, a tool for response in the desire to be unachievably meaningful to others’ lives. There’s the ‘being read’ and that’s where it all changes.

And of course anyone who can physically write can creatively write. At the very least they can contribute meaningfully to a ghosting process, and that’s perhaps no worse that Jeff Koons directing a porcelain factory to make a model Michael Jackson. One way or another craft has a democracy about it that many find enormously irritating. While musical composition or painting or magicianship need a journey of skill enhancement before you have anything to show another human being, while stand-up comedy or juggling require  some honing and testing before you dare go before a critic, writing is one of those things – like photography perhaps – that few people want lessons in and that everyone can get an odd good random result at, even if they’re not sure why.

Writing though is the use of words, as are many of our thoughts, as is our examination of self and motive. Whether we are good with them, or great, or not so terrific, there’s a familiar urge to get words down in a form that others might take them on board. There’s a sense that the self has gone with them in some form. There’s a chance that what that self becomes is distorted by our clumsiness, our ungainly phrase, our less than perfect delivery of narrative flow. What changes when we want to write but can’t.

Kundera springs to mind as someone who has characters that want to write but can’t. There’s a whole genre there, even, from Adrian Mole through Stephen Daedalus back to Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee. Not everyone who can’t write is lucky enough to have help – or to have major companies happy to launch us as first timers. Nevertheless, those who can write do; and then they often expect an audience. And there have been many explorations of what it is to hanker to express something through fiction and to struggle with the process.

This brings an interesting question about the need to write. Some of this is of interest in the consideration of what the author might be doing when the writing is shown to another person, and how the self might be adapted or tested upon the reception.

There are a set of circumstances through which this transfer might take place, and again I’m minded of Kundera and that marvellous passage possibly in Laughter and Forgetting where he talks of a desire to be seen by unseen eyes. Here’s a quick set of thoughts that someone else has probably done as a research project but strike me as important to revisit.

Types of audience for writers

  • The author reads their writing aloud.
  • The author has the writing read in their presence.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, knowing who will read it later
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing those who will read it later, but certain that it will be read.
  • The author places the writing somewhere, not knowing whether or not it will be read later.
  • The author reads the piece themselves then destroys.
  • The author destroys the piece without reading it themselves

This seems to offer some sort of parabola, the elements in the middle are distinct in scale. Those at the beginning and end are opposites but have a distinct authorial involvement.

Also each of these allows one of at least two distinct versions, those being whether or not the author is identifying themselves before hand as the author. This may then grow to a veritable hall of mirrors of possible versions, with authors announcing known or unknown versions of themselves, or any number of variables on the false author possibility from a simple pseudonym to an elaborate additional authorial being.

Back to the simple list above. The first two give some direct feedback and have a relationship with performance acts and the multiplicity of creative interplay between performer and audience. This is not normally the preference of an author, though. It is unusual in traditional written fiction and more familiar to publicity tours or fully-performative events for which a piece is specially written.

Many writers would harbour an ambition to be in at number four on the list. An audience that is guaranteed but unknown to us. As amateurs we are most regularly in at number five – like some am-dram Waiting for Godot, our hoped for audience may never come.

There are nuances of the exposed self in each one of these. Do we know the reader of our work, do we know their type or how they will make their judgements? Are we inviting this scrutiny from a predicted reader? How does that condition us and what does it make of self when we write for them?

Stories are legend of those whose readership has passed outside the one they had hoped for or predicted. It’s hard to say ‘poor’ JK Rowling without a snigger, but, if for a moment we have some sympathy, there was an author who created a quite wonderful saga for 7-11 year olds, replete with the many tried and tested literary elements for the age group. Suddenly however, global fame means that it’s being read by those who are rather older, and criticised for what it is or isn’t or, worse, what it should or shouldn’t be. (I’ve heard literary critics moan about everything from unrounded stage baddies in the series, to the lack of a coherent principle of physics.)  JK is famous for keeping her private life as private as possible and has said that, through publication, she expected to stay unnoticed in the background while the book and the characters became famous. Hard cheese, JK, hearts are bleeding.

That’s quite an interesting notion of what a book does for an author, and one that many would perhaps recognise. Our book is what has become famous. Our book is looked at, examined and tested against the rights and wrongs, the excellencies and deplorabilities of the world’s expectations. And – by chance – we, the author are not.

It’s not true of everyone and there are plenty of flamboyant, extrovert characters in the pantheon of literary high-achievers. They don’t seem to be the norm, though. Salinger and Harper Lee may be examples of those who rebuffed journalistic approaches and were characterised as reclusive and perhaps they are good examples of authors who actively feared the fame that their books had achieved and the scrutiny that they themselves were then under.

It may not be too wide of the mark to say that those who gravitate towards writing are seeking something of this possibility around the written word. Writing becomes us, (it goes with our hair…ba-boom!). It does though, we momentarily become our writing, but then it passes from us, never to grow old in itself but to find new life in other minds.

There’s a common trope of the aging painter collecting their early works around them. Collected works perhaps provide a literary equivalent. Here is a chance to assess, to see what we sent out into the world and get a sense of how those representatives fared without us. A chance to reflect how much of self was in them, to see if we still recognise what is there and to see if we can welcome them home without shame.

They are us when we want them to be. How many authors write under a pseudonym and for what reason? One reason is certainly the distance that it allows, as well as the active ‘becoming’ of some other self that it allows. How do we feel if our work is being talked about with the talker unaware that we are listening or that we are the author. Do we pounce into the conversation – well actually, you’ll be amazed to know…. Or do we stay silently proud or shamed?

Are we nervously weighing the control we have over the offer of visibility, like someone dressing to please, we tread slowly away from what is unremarkable and find our way across the see-saw ever closer to what is only too noticeable. Where is the balance and where do we feel most comfortable.

The real fear, surely, is that we will not be able to control the overbalancing rush if it comes. That others will be making the decisions. We offer up control, and, at the same time, seek vainly to retain it.

Jeanette Winterson has been very clear on many occasions that she is a fiction writer. She sees it as a misogynistic belittling of women’s writing that they are accused not to be writing fiction but instead can only write what they know, or about who they ‘really’ are. Is it that fiction is part of a more cultivated approach? In the same way that a more brilliant painter will see the world anew and paint it beyond its own reality, perhaps the fictionalist is getting at the world in a more productive, deeper way.

Autobiography is a well-examined phenomena in literature that is known to shed interesting lights on their authors that weren’t desired, predicted or acknowledged. False auto-biography is commonplace. In the case of Thomas Hardy, he released an official ‘biography’ which was later revealed to be an auto-biography.  There are a range of pseudo auto-biographies, among which are those that:

  • are openly autobiographical and read as informative and semi-objective in scope and tone
  • are openly autobiographical and acknowledging the subjective point of view and its likely limitations
  • claim to be autobiographical but admit swaying from facts (as others would likely accept them)
  • claims to be autobiographical and are consciously but covertly altered from facts others would accept
  • claim to be autobiographical and are unconsciously misrepresenting facts others would represent differently
  • are released as a fiction with disguised autobiography – possibly without full recognition of that likelihood

Is there a sliding scale here, from the desperate attempt at appealing to possible truth to the conscious attempt at falsehood? And does that scale include another parabolic feature, where the centre of the two extremes is something else, something more furtive yet literary.

There are ways for things to not be autobiographical when they emerge: a pseudonymous author, an Alice B Toklas alternative, a non-person, a fictionalised self, a mock self hyped and remedied, or just a character in and of itself alone, the simple way in which all fiction has something of the author’s life in them just as all portraits are in one way or another also self-portraits.

How might any of these identifiably contain more or less of a self that we would choose to show or hide? Or is it simply text from which the author evaporates, freed by their own Barthesque under-importance?

And which is Rocket Ronnie? Hopefully for him a happier man for his writing.

Western Road Brighton – a city’s lost decade and a council’s public shame

Western Road Brighton South Side with boarded up shops and restaurants and the Georgian mock-Pavilion architecture above them.

It’s an embarrassment! Two boarded shops on a central thoroughfare in a tourist town – architectural delights above.

What happened to Western Road? The housing in central Brighton is some of the country’s most expensive outside desirable London; it’s a central thoroughfare between major parts of one of the best-known cities in England; it has architecture to be proud of as long as you keep your head high and yet the locale remains at best a desert, at worst a temple to the low cultural horizons of the twenty-first century British seaside.

Some hint at the city’s former ambitions can be seen if, rather than scampering past the boarded up shops, homeless ghettos and everything’s-a-quid arcades, you look up at the higher floors of the buildings. A walk from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square offers a number of listed buildings, porticoed and enlarged between 1910 and 1930, designed to rejuvenate and make grand the thoroughfare of wealthy Brighton at the wane of Empire.

A hundred years on and the same buildings are home to only a few stores that aim for that same grand statement or nurture the promise that shopping is a world of elevated feeling, pampering and pleasure and honest satisfaction.  The upper storeys frown down now on a grubbier collection of high-street staples with their plastic signage.  Little testaments to the heightened possibility of the British high street experience exist here still – C&H, Kobar, Burts, Taj, and further towards the Hove border, the marvellous Cutter and Grinder. Back opposite Waitrose, the newly vanished Verano Lounge, once Loch Fyne and then a bar and billiard hall, is now another boarded-up frontage, joining its long-term derelict neighbour, once the site of video-shop Blockbuster. Look up and there are the towers and turrets of a mini Brighton Pavilion to enjoy, but no-one looks up.

Iron frame being erected, British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark)

British Home Stores building under construction 1931 (later Primark) From Peter Groves’ website

The 1870s took the ‘West Laine’ as it was from a thread of residential housing to a shopping street as it became the main route to the Brunswick Estate – now Brunswick Square and environs.  The Council pre World War One took action to acquire leases in order eventually to standardise the road’s width and bring some elements of planning to the district.

Through the 1920s and 30s the department store boom saw Boots, British Home Stores and Wades along with Woolworths and Marks and Spencers in 1932. A road of accessible and monumental shops, each with a brief to look as impressive as their products. Mitre House (one of the few buildings to have smartened itself in the past decade) also survives from this era. It seems woeful to point to the historic interest that elements of the street have.  Peter Groves speaks neutrally of the development which allowed only “remnants of old residential properties to remain” and points to Codrington Mansion, on the North Side, built in about 1830 and once the home of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, who captained HMS Orion in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  The plaque can be seen above a very ordinary row of shops. A plaque which has yet to be put in place further East might reference the Wisden family’s role in building the original terraces that lead up from Western Road. John Wisden (of the yellow cricket Almanac fame) was born and lived in a house on Crown Street again in the 1830s. By the 1930s big business was making the street grand, Seventy years later the grandeur was all but gone.

A comment on the mybrightonandhove site adds:

I remember as a little girl in the 50s going to a big shop called Plummer Roddis. My grandmother used to take me there and we’d have lunch. It was very posh, but not as posh as Hills of Hove! I also remember Wades, and Vokins down North Street and Hanningtons. What a shame we dont have such good stores nowadays. shops are full of cheap rubbish! Or am I just getting old?  By Lyn Horsburgh nee Waller (of the H A Waller & Sons family) (24/03/2013)

Those who mourn the demise of Hannigtons and welcome the John Lewis promises of a development on North Street might well see Western Road as a particularly desperate case in the annals of British high street history.

Despite the success of North Laine, Jubilee Square and the revitalisation of the seafront since the mid-nineties, many visitors to Brighton see only dirt and depression. This aspect lay in the background of the Guardian’s article on the British Airways i360, as Brighton’s “lost decade.” Western Road couldn’t have been more lost. In a part of England where two bedrooms will cost half a million pounds plus, and which, via Preston Street, could well form part of a tourist walk from the new seafront development by West Pier back to the station, in this bit of town, 10% of shop windows are boarded up, 20% are pop-up or bargain retail, the rest speak to a world of perfunctory everyday and recessional shopping that are part of no tourist itinerary. Primark is a top-end shop on this strip and despite some hot-headedness with planned delivery vehicles, their development did renovate the 1920s West-facing wall and keeps the imposing look that its 1930’s forerunner BHS had planned. It’s sad that the rag-bag of dismal shops here aren’t forced to smarten up to Primark’s example.

Western Road from the i360 at full height

Western Road from the i360 – the tops of the buildings occupied by MacDonald’s and Poundland

While you are advised to look up when heading along Western Road and catch the architecture, rather than the bog-standard corporate hoardings, there is now, of course, a chance to look down on some of these same streets. Three cheers then for the British Airways i360.  Have a glance from the top of the i360 and you see some of what you can so easily miss at ground level, the fact that many of the buildings of Western Road are fascinating and lovely. Above McDonald’s and Argus is a portico that could grace a Greek temple. Beside that are the 1930s department store developments that once sought to inject grandure into Western Road and did so with some style and some longevity.

Yes, at last, following walkouts by Ghery and others, Brighton has a new construction, one designed to bring tourists to spend money, enjoy the seafront – not to mention the lofty view of the sea and countryside – and recommend the place to their hoards of culture hungry friends. Surely the city will prosper, will be famous for something other than the rough-stuff of Cuffs and Peter James – we may even find Brighton is a destination of choice for those who fly to London and seek their day out from among the provincial towns – Oxford, Windsor etc. –  or the quirky interesting features of North Laine will flourish and spread. Or is this thought too genteel and gentrified a prospect.

Brighton can surely compete if we can get our visitors to the Georgian squares at Brunswick and Palmeira and back safely to the station.  However it’s far too easy as a tourist to come down, wander down Queens Parade, West Street, Western Road and then head home wondering what’s so special about this so-called tourist town. What indeed? The lucky ones turn from the station and go through the buzz of North Laine and onto the Lanes and find refuge on the much improved seafront, but it’s easy to miss, or easy to see kiss-me-quick Brighton as the only aspect, an overspill from the 1960s cliche of the dirty weekend resort.

Poundland, Western Road, Brighton

Poundland are allowed a window display of stickers in a conservation area and on a GII listed building

Too few tourists head for the sweeping Regency Brighton of the squares. Even fewer know the sloping, winding streets that make up Clifton Montpellier conservation area. Yet the conservation area touches Western Road, and includes the streets that rise up the hill from it. Heritage protection of all the houses mean most properties need planning permission to change their front doors, must paint facades every two years and can only have bona fide wooden bow sash windows. Yet the Western Road shops seem to get away with atrocities. The council have let Poundland stick their national standard product stickers in the conservation zone on a listed building. At one stage the shop even got away with a giant exposed satellite dish on the East wall. Brand icons proliferate unchecked on tawdry scraps of industrial plastic.  A blue Greggs sign vanishes alongside a range of temporary plaques that offer homage to the low-cost, short-lifespan end of shopping, while banners for closing down sales vie against the stack-em-high sell-em-cheap fly-by-nighters and the insidious brown chipboard that covers so many windows in the area.

Boarded up shop front on Western Road, Brighton

Site of former Jamie Oliver Recipease, closed in 2014. The legacy of the failed venture is a boarded up shop front two years on.

Jamie Oliver’s Recipease moved in, did okay, did a revamp and then shipped out. It’s remained boarded up ever since, with locals looking for who’s to blame and gathering that either the council have failed to control the area or some phantom pension fund have taken the upper hand. Someone must accept responsibility for unaffordable rents, unclean frontages, unmanaged and possibly by now unmanageable degradation. Yet the users, the inhabitants and the range of visitors seem too mixed to produce any positive push on a direction for this place. The percentage of houses owned by those who do not live in central Brighton is huge with smaller properties being prime pickings for landlords and buy-to-lets. In terms of ownership central Brighton regularly tops the most-expensive-places-to-live-outside-London charts. It’s even more of a force in the charts that show the gap between average earnings and average house prices. Few people who can afford central Brighton housing actually work in Brighton – it’s a commuter hot spot, too. By the looks of Western Road even fewer people who can afford central Brighton housing actually shop in central Brighton and at some stage perhaps even this trade will stop.  Boarded out shops cater for no-one.

Yet with the new i360 promising to show us new views of the fifth elevation across Brighton and offering a draw on tourists to the South of the country, there is perhaps some hope. The opportunity is there to make Brighton’s central areas a place of delight and charm for all users, whether passing through, shopping or living. Just get it cleaned up!

When to use which and that – and not give in to the Microsoft bullying.

Bloody hell, it’s happened again.  I’ve got a perfectly sound use of which in a defining relative clause and someone’s objected to it. A while back I had ten in a draft and a German colleague went through changing them all to ‘that.’

Yawn. Here we go again: When do we use which and when do we use that?

As any standard grammar will tell us:

Non-Defining clauses MUST use a comma followed by which.   Defining clauses can use either that or which and have no comma.  

In defining clauses (ones which ‘define’ or give essential information to identify the noun they follow), the author can choose ‘which/that’ to suit the cadence or the repeating patterns in the work.

So:

  1. The garden which we walked through had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.
  2. The garden that we walked through had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.
  3. My own private garden, which we walked through yesterday, had been trampled by Microsoft grammarians.

These are all good sentences.

The first two are defining. The clause following that/which is necessary to define the garden we’re talking about.

The third sentence is not defining the garden as it’s already clear which garden we’re talking about.

You cannot use ‘that’ in a non-defining clause – a rule of thumb is that you cannot use it after a comma. So

  • My own private garden, that we walked through yesterday, had been trampled. 

would be wrong.

With examples 1 and 2, because we have a new subject, there’s also the choice to miss out the that/which altogether.

  • The garden we walked through had been trampled….

Here’s an example with no new subject for the clause. We can choose ‘that’ or ‘which’ but we can’t miss them out:

  • The grammar which is being changed has only been changed because of soulless corporate practices.
  • The grammar that is being changed has only been changed because of soulless corporate practices.

You can play with these. And that can be contracted to that’s, which could be preferable for a more colloquial feel. To native speakers there’s an increased formality around ‘which’, perhaps, but IT”S NOT WRONG!

Why have Microsoft become the arbitrators of English language?

Language does change and that’s wonderful and evolutionary and makes us all feel like the soup of society is running down our faces and into a gutter where it can be spooned back over our heads. Great. The change which is happening in this case though, is one that comes only with a corporate convenience and the kind of change that comes through slavery to American grammar-checks.

How many more?  Is there a project to ascertain how word-processing devices are changing language and what the driving force is for that change?  With the that/which conundrum it seems simply to be a cosier algorithm for the grammar check programmers – only allow the word ‘which’ when there’s a comma before it. Always use ‘that’ when there’s no comma.

This isn’t simply a force of American English, the ‘that’ form is arguably more firmly embedded across the US, but grammar codes are not specifically trans-Atlantic on this one – in any case American English tends to hold more aged conventions for longer, as they do with ‘whom’, which in British English can seem fussy.

This is more particularly a Microsoft thing.

Our flow of creative choice has been stifled. More worryingly we don’t recognise it. Increasingly, the word ‘which’ simply looks wrong because it’s being expunged by word processing checks. We don’t trust ourselves, we just change to the MS patterns. We grow to trust and love our built-in grammar authority. Foreign schools with non-native speakers are looking for easy rules to give their students. It’s easier to give a rule than explain a quirk or offer a choice. Easier to mark. Easier to tick the box and move on.

Time to stand up for ‘which’ if you like it.  Or sell your soul to the company which gave you Comic Sans and Calibri fonts as the default look and feel of our world of words.

 

What’s on the opening page of your novel? – A first page check list…

Check listers – the life-saving nerds

A check list. Not the most flamboyantly creative solution to a writer’s journey, but a pretty useful base camp. Masters of a craft of course have an auto-checklist – just as any experienced traveller subconsciously cycles through the daily requirements and quickly senses when something is missing.  Such is craft.

If you’re not yet on auto-pilot, though, a list can push some useful questions at you. It needs to be your own check list – you can’t engage with some other anal-retentive’s bullet-pointing habits. That’s not to say you can’t take a few looks at what others are doing – others’ lists of essentials are part of that hive-mind development to which centuries of literature are testament. But make it your own. It’s your writing it has to work with.

Against the grain – I’m not the most natural list-maker – I’m trying to evolve a check list of what to put on the first page of a novel or, what to look for on the first page of a novel – gradually it’s seemed more like a wish list – sometimes it seems like it could work for any fiction – sometimes it seems to offer just some possibilities to think back over.

First pages of novels – the welcome mat on which the hasty traveller wipes her feet

Why a first page check list? There are plenty of blog posts about not getting trapped in the minutiae of first lines and first paragraphs – and they’re right. There’s no point blowing your valuable time titivating a primary page if everything else is sliding into oblivion.

When everything’s looking good, though, when you’ve got your magnificent work in place – and it is magnificent, trust me, you can’t put years of work into  something and it not be magnificent in one way or another – at that point give the first page of the novel a last rigorous check against a robust set of known non-variables. This is, after all, the calling card, the best foot forward, the tice and tempter – this might be all anyone ever sees.

And at the backs of our minds, however much we try to ignore it, we can’t help pondering what those fiends in the publishing business will think as their gattling-gun fingers rattle our offerings from in-box to trash. That submission of yours is one of thousands they’ll be skimming and binning between the breakfast pastries and the first triple espresso. Maybe – just maybe – they may snag on something of what you’ve spent your hours on, they may feel the feelings you’re trying to express, wake up to your USP – but then, who knows if they have human feelings anyway, such is business.

Forget publishing biz.  If nothing else you can reflect on whether you’ve produced your best work and whether there’s an easy-to-open doorway into that best work, or whether you’ve accidentally laid a minefield of savage and inhospitable material and a wasteland of dullness at the entrance.

What a reader should get from the opening page of the novel

There’s plenty of advice on opening a novel – any favourites?  It’s clearly useless and irritatingly vague to simply command – Interest me!

It’s equally obvious that a rewarding first page of fiction can come in thousands of possible forms from a set of jarring words or series of punctuation marks through to something that’s actually worth reading and those novels whose first pages have gone down in literary history.  “Tom!” “It was the best of times…” “It is a truth universally…” “and the clocks were striking thirteen”. There are many ways to flay this feline.

This then is some basics that I felt I wanted or needed when I looked at a first page – a list I came up with as I culled from here and there and added my own learning from favourite first 500 word blocks, opening paragraphs and so on, particularly when venturing near unknown authors’ works.

As a reader I want to believe :

  • It is clear who or what I need to focus my attention on here

  • This prose has made me engage emotionally and/or intellectually

  • I could trust this author. They know how to write for me

  • I have a strong sense of setting through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I have a strong sense of character through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I feel my emotions shifting around what is written here

  • I admire / pity / fear / am amused by this character

  • I sense a threat and want to know what the character’s response will be

  • I sense conflict and want to follow the counter response

  • I’m predicting the immediate next step for this character in terms of a clear problem or opportunity

  • I would want to know what happens to this character longer term

  • I would be sorry not to find out what this page leads to.

This seems to get a little bit further than just hopeful ‘give it your best shot’ advice. It speaks to mechanics and fundamentals rather than prescribing a type or style or formula. It allows for all but the most ‘experimental’ of openings, and might even give the experimenter some consciousness of what aspects they’re experimenting with. What it doesn’t give is the ‘how’ and that’s where personal inspiration and industry can be allowed near the list.

That’s my current list. It might change next week. Good luck with your own.

Is my scene a scene? Writers’ ‘idle drift’ and the amateur novel…

I’ve been taking the scenic route again. One thing I’ve found more helpful than it ought to be is to accept that ‘scenes’ can be meaningful in the novel as well as the play and screenplay – whatever ‘scene’ is and we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s a fact of my own practice, though, that once I’d accepted the idea of scene and how it can focus a passage of writing, I realised there was a strong chance that any slackness in the dramatic thrust of the work can quickly be put down to a poor scene.

There are a lot of poor scenes in first draft novels. Bad scenes – non scenes – flat scenes… One reason for this is to do with the old chestnut that has preoccupied me throughout this blog. Novelists don’t like the trappings of the screenplay trade. Novelists like ‘voice’ they like ‘word’ they like character. Novelists like psychological tension and complex internalised brooding. They like slow pace and the see-saw between showing and telling. They hate ‘scenes’. They hate all that associated scenic scaffolding that underpins success for the mass-audience screen industries.

Yet it is ‘scenes’, in a very theatrical sense, that make up many of the most memorable chunks of favourite novels. Scenes are a dramatic unit, of course, and a scene shouldn’t be confused with a setting, To my own lists for regular examination I’ve recently added Sergeant Troy’s sabre wielding and Eustacia Vye’s twilight bantering from Hardy, Austen’s Mansfield Park theatricals, her P&P dance, Jeanette Winterson’s school scene with Sister Virtue in OANTOF, Hornby’s Quiz questioning in Fever Pitch, the Cricket matches in Fry’s The Liar or LP Hartley’s Go Between and certainly anything by converted screen writers like David Nicholls.

Even if you reject the practice, it’s important to recognise what a scene is and to make the most of one as it begins to suggest its place in your novel.

But what is a ‘scene’?

The best definitions of scenes, like it or not, come from playwrights. Scene is something that imposes itself much more readily on structure in theatre and film – it chimes with the audience’s consciousness of place and time, a contained unit of physical activity. A scene is more clearly a something when we talk theatre, and cinema is a short step away.

Historically, however, the English novel is rooted in epistolary practices rather than the stage drama, and this leads to obvious differences in approach. Technique at the arty end of prose writing tends to eschew scenic structure in favour of tensions between word groups and spidering psycho-dynamic evolution. I even reckon some scenes in novels only seem like scenes after they’ve had a film or play treatment – as we can see from films like Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses.

Yet it’s useful to reflect on what a consciousness of scene can do. Thinking in scenes brings a focus on contained environment, characters meeting for dramatic reasons, dialogue and action that has progress, dynamism and a shift in tensions. For the dramatist who has to haul their players into a space – real or imaginary – for a finite timeframe, the drama is driven by the act of creating scenic unity, the containment and the resultant tension. It is the scene that proves the dramatist’s best method for building dramatic tension.

This is not always how chapters or paragraphs are driven, and sometimes, perhaps, they should be – for their own good.

Scene shifting and the writer’s idle drift

Scenes – and its important that this means a unit of drama rather than a block of prose – attract attention and live long in the memory. They can be any length – any percentage of a chapter. Yet as novelists we can end up with scenes that fail to work in the way that dramatic scenes should. Sometimes this can be because the writer is not aware that they have a scene or because they are purposefully rejecting the notion of scenes.

Often a scene has emerged not through conscious, artful dramatic building but instead has crept up on us unawares. It’s common to find a scene has developed and been quickly killed flat through what I think of as my “writers’ idle drift’. They appear something like this – writer knows that there are ten pages needed before the crucial pivot action is delivered, ten pages of time need to pass in order to have too sudden a leap since the last main action. So what to do? Needs some build up, bit of tease, bit of foreshadowing? Or maybe now’s the time to make sure everyone’s fully aware of the troubled childhood of the character; or the grand philosophy of life from the point of view of the antagonist…. Or, while we’re wondering, look,  there’s a handy table for the characters to sit at, great, and they need some descriptive dressing of the  shadowy bar and there’s some menacing extras at a distant table and… they can talk…. and I’ve got some beef to get off my chest so one of them says that and then they keep talking… about…

It’s a horrible but common trap – a ‘scene’ becomes a place to bring characters rather than a unit of drama. This is especially true if our characters start gaining a life of their own. If we’re not careful they begin not to understand their place as fictions but instead become friends and enemies, lovers or dopplegangers. Soon, instead of functioning within a framework of drama, the characters are suddenly having quiet cups of coffee together, sharing a silence over a pint, yarning about their troubled weekends, playing unnecessary sports. Characters are soon running the show, having a gossip while you wonder what they’ll be up to later. They’re not part of a dramatic scene, they’re just there and you’re building the atmosphere around them and just hoping it’s a scene.

It’s essential to check first drafts for failed scenes, non-scenes, accidental scenes. To get myself to focus on these I put together a quick check list. This practice probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s a handy class exercise for you to invent your own system of ladders to get out of holes. Here’s what I ended up with as a first go:

Checklist for dramatic scenes

  • A charged environment. Some environments are naturally ‘charged’ and it’s important that they’re charged with expectation and potential rather than just noise or lights or gloom. Weather alone does not a charged atmos make. What’s charged about the environment here and how can that develop through the scene?
  • Conflict. The usual first request of any scenic endeavour. Opinion on this is often extreme and says “no scene without conflict”. It’s certainly difficult to make sympathetic, patient explanations work for you in terms of gaining interest from a reader who could put the book down at any second. What dynamic is there that pits one will against another. In other words what does one character want and how is that want being prevented. Is there any conflict in the scene? If it’s not open conflict is there a sense of tense expectation and an aim to achieve.
  • Unanswered questions. A staple from basic literary theory. What question is being asked at any given point and how long are we likely to wait for the answer? We could be waiting for explanation, or detail or the why and what that will fill out the theme.
  • Unresolved action. The other staple. If you’re trotting out a sluggish scene, is there something before it that we should be waiting for? Something as simple as a hovering fist or a lover doubting the next kiss can be enough to lift the flagging dialogue.
  • Change. Meaningful change, that’s another thing that everyone feels should be part of the whole work but often fails to be built into the individual scenes. Have a go. What change has taken place over the two or three pages you’re dealing with. Growth, realisation, disillusion. If it’s a scenic scene then how does this change, what steps what patterns of focus – how is this made meaningful? What swings have you established between high moods and low moods, positive values and negative ones, seeming success and seeming failure.
  • Beats/Steps. A movement towards a known goal.  A movement away from that goal. A shift of power from one character to another. A change from low to high mood, pessimism to optimism. A shift of pace in terms of change. – these all count towards a beat planning – beats make scenes – and again it might seem a bit screenplay and rigid but its amazing how much more effective a passage can be if it’s scenically viable in these terms.

Is my scene a scene?

One to answer for yourself and evolve what a scene usefully is for your practice. Basically, though, does your scene contribute to an ever strengthening set of reasons to keep reading?  It’s  worth asking yourself the question at any point – could I put this book down? What’s making me want the next parcel of information? What’s up in the air? When will the secrets be revealed? Will it go in that direction or the other? What if these people don’t move on?  Of course if you over-dramatise these elements then the cliffhanger effect can skew your attempts at subtlety, but at  every dramatic unit – scene –  think what is shifting ground, moving, threatening to change.

 

 

Literary agents and coping with rejection

The kindest rejection letter I ever got was from a literary agent in the US. He gave me a few pretty solid reasons why he thought the MS wasn’t going to suit his lists and why he had doubts on its saleability. Then he concluded with “now go and prove me wrong.”

How kind – how un-agent like. It was many years ago and still sticks in my mind as the latest, po-faced rejections come slithering in. Not that they slither onto doormats anymore, of course. A ping of email delivery and it’s over, another dream for the trash.  A hobby so lonely even Robinson Crusoe wished he could give it up just got lonelier.

If nothing else the latest round of rejections had me reflecting on coping mechanisms and what attitudes my thicker skinned, older self had developed that were unavailable during those early years.

It’s not as painful, but it’s still not pleasant. Exactly how it feels to a first time amateur is always hard to explain to non-writers. It’s also hard to explain to professionals, Professional journalists, broadcast and film writers – along with fellow professionals from acting to architecture – live on a diet of rejection and have their own numbness its sting – they also have a professional plan. These plans involve pitching ideas before committing, repitching an idea to suit a market, testing the market for new ideas, reusing project material for the next pitch and then pitching a lot.

It’s a bit different for the hobbyist who’s looking for a step towards publication. Especially for a novelist, for whom the markets are rarely a set of professionally orientated pitch and sell cycles. More common for the amateur is to spend years of dedication on a project that has personal meaning and commitment. The desire to publish is more to do with affirmation of deep emotional factors. It craves a reward that is very different from the professional pitch-monkey’s rolling band-wagon.

For plenty of would-be authors, the literary agents’ rejection of your manuscript isn’t the same easy agony as, say, a casual “get lost” from someone lovely you’ve asked on a date. For those of a certain mentality it’s more like someone has scorned your new born child, has made an insouciant and abiding decision that  the babe needs to die to save the world from its pernicious lack of promise. Yes there’s a strong tendency to make metaphors of parental loss. “Of all stillborn books the stillest” said Mr Swinburne of his first book – and he was right, a massive, massive flop, now unread and largely unreadable and worth a few thousand if you ever find a copy.

It especially hurts your pride of course, because the years of writing have brought with them a relationship with the work that is a deep form of love. It also tears away your dreams of what the future might hold. It’s wretched if you’re on your second or third effort and have improved hugely as to the craft. You think you’ve ticked all the boxes this time, fine-tuned like crazy, plotted to perfection and market-researched your characters’ likeabilty – generally upped your game to make your offerings better than lots that are already roosting in the bookshops. You’ve been nurturing a fledgling hope despite your fear of its growth. You’ve told yourself for days that super agent x wouldn’t possibly want your book, they’re too… but what if they did?  What if this was the magic boost that transformed you from unpublished to published author and thus miraculously turned your sad and sorry hobby into something you could actually be proud of?

Literary agents – the grim gatekeepers?

Of course the promised-land of publication is easily over-wrought by hope and imagination. For one thing we know (or at least know of) plenty of authorial experiences that are not as magically transportive as might have been hoped. There are hundreds of thousands of published authors. You’ve hardly heard of any of them. Hardly any of them are full time. Many are stressing over where their difficult second book is going to come from. Many of them are hawking their own books round provincial shops. We also know just how many books are out there – count them at Waterstones and the city library. So many books. An ocean of independently sprinkled drops. Surely they can’t all be so skillfully crafted and divinely inspired that they cannot be replicated by mortals. So maybe the success of publication is not about gift or skill or divine inspiration. And when you send to an agent or publisher, as satisfying as the rite-of-passage will no doubt be, it’s certainly not a golden ticket out of a hum-drum existence as a hobbyist.

It’s interesting that most hobby writers still long for traditional publication. There’s something about the confirmation and the sense of belonging that remains important to the writing mind. Despite the known ocean of books, when we get to add our droplet it’ll be because we were better rather than just luckier than the rest. Is this because we have a strangely awed impression of what a literary agent is or does? Or is it something about the hallowed nature of the book itself? Somehow a low-selling book that is stocked at Smiths and can be signed on the flyleaf  seems, for many, preferable to a better-selling, self-published e-tome.

For all the leaps towards democracy enjoyed by the digital practitioners, podcasters and YouTubers, the traditional prose fiction writer still craves affirmation in traditional ways and from a set of people that are almost mystically distant from our current base of associates. Like a toddler pleading for parental praise, we look to agents, publishers and strangers-who-like-books in order to get their blessing and feel approved. In this way it’s most unlike gardening, cooking, DIY and a number of other creative hobbies we could be doing instead.

Coping with rejection

It may be that literature needs agents the way pocket watches need Salvador Dali. However, for those that feel the craving for traditional acceptance we allow ourselves to feel as though someone mean and malicious and unreasonably powerful has strung us up despite our pleading and struggling.  My latest was a standard rejection, too, which for the hanged man seems like an extra bit of gleeful drawing and quartering and a voiding of rheum upon the pendulous body.

Why do we imply it feels so much like death and loss?  I had a book as a child that had an author father as a character and the MSS that came back through the door were described as “the bodies” – “I’ve removed the bodies”, says the father. That stayed with me. I think the novel was ‘Cross Country Pony’ by Patricia Leitch (fantastic read as I recall and well off the beaten track today – worth getting from ABE books if you have animal-loving children – and maybe a demonstration of how books float forever in minds and second hand bookshops and why as writers we want to gift our works to a traditional system…)

So, loss, sadness, vile bodies and fear in a handful of dust etc etc etc. Well, if it is grieving, then according to the Kubler Ross model you get five stages to go through – denial, anger, bargaining, depression before finally reaching acceptance. Accept what though? Accept that it’s rubbish and don’t bother?  Accept the monstrous difficulty of the task and keep going? Maybe accept that it’s really not a loss at all.

Let’s run with this one. What have you lost:  a magic carpet to sudden success – a self-pride you’ve always struggled to muster – five years of your life and sanity – your only child? Er – no, not really. Maybe it’s not loss at all. Taking something from the professionals, perhaps it’s a gain. A gain in experience, a pleasant well, maybe at the end of the more important journey of the artistic, creative practitioner.

However much of a knock back it feels not to have got your literary dream this day in this way, it was really only a passing attempt in a task that has so much more to it. It takes a bit of self-persuasion, but the step forward I know I need for myself is to stop seeing today’s email to super agent x as the final conflict and climax to my life-story as a writer. This isn’t a resolution to a complex tale in which I failed to triumph. It’s just a smile to a stranger in the street who may not have smiled back, but so what, I’m still walking onward.

There are a stack of coping mechanisms all of them have been useful to someone. There’s the sour grapes about the worthlessness of agents. There’s the claims of misunderstanding – they didn’t  get it, they didn’t even read it, “the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”… and so on. If you’re still young enough to do it you can always stick up and stare at the old Samuel Beckett favourite from Worstward Ho (1982) …”All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  (Although some Godot fans might prefer “Let’s hang ourselves immediately.”) There’s the beefier end of coping if you’re inspired by Beatrice Dalle in 37° 2 le matin (Betty Blue) – stick a pencil into the offending agent’s head through the eyeball.

We can be glibber than that, surely. We can be bolder. We can be more realistic.

To share my own coping mechanism here, I’ve made two lists. One is the way agents can appear when you’re investing emotionally and you’re daring to hope.  One is a bit more sensible to the realities.

Is this list-making practice part of the grieving process – is it anger, or bargaining? Or is it perhaps perhaps just acceptance of a landscape that is rich in unpredictability, ignorance and unreplicable lucky breaks:

Ways to see literary agents

1 – the agent is an omnipotent god

  • I believe that an agent’s aim is a concrete judgement of the literary quality of my work
  • I believe an agent makes empirical, evidenced and unchallengeable decisions as to the merits of my work.
  • I believe that an agent is a gifted and brilliant literary critic of impeccable taste
  • I believe that an agent has read and re-read my work, got to grips with its nuances and subtleties and has now realised the text was worthless
  • I believe that agents are world-leading business entrepreneurs whose every decision is strategically miraculous
  • I believe that agents have scientifically ascertained which books succeed and can replicate a best-selling formula with whatever works they choose
  • I believe that an agent sneered and joked with colleagues at the temerity of me sending to their sanctified agency
  • I believe that this agent represents the likely point of view of all agents, who all share a taste and judgement
  • I believe these people are agents of a Salieri-style god, sent to torment me in my mediocrity

Or, 2 – the agent is a human business person

  • I know the agent is making one decision only –  will this text be worth them backing as a business proposition.
  • I know the agent has to make quick decisions and will only pay close attention to one or two proposals that leap out for them personally as business ventures
  • I know that agents need a “same but different” guarantee to work on and will only invest their time in something that has this slight stretch on a current and known market
  • I know that agents reject thousands of scripts that are perfectly readable and enjoyable but would just take too much effort to push from an unknown
  • I know that agents are readers that have likes and favourites and are influenced by their ordinary, readerly tastes
  • I know that unknown authors are hard, hard work to get into a reading public that’s content with the status quo
  • I know that agents take on works that don’t get published or which don’t get readers – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny
  • I know that all agents have passed on works that later gained success elsewhere  – their decisions are not perfect and their failures are not subject to much scrutiny

Add your own points – or make a new list “the agent is a….”

For me it’s back to some sending. At least these days it’s cheaply done by email. Agencies, like critics, have a certain place in the scheme of things that can seem daunting and are a momentary nucleus of power over your destiny. There’s no hotel booking style website for us to rate our experience with agents. They won’t get dissed online if they fail to be friendly or polite or just or fair – and we don’t get stats on who’s accepted or passed on the next biggie.

If it suits you, go back to the most favourite literary coping mechanism of them all, a list of the now treasured works whose authors had to self-publish or self-fund or who were surprise successes, originally pushed into minor rivulets of the literary rio grande. From the Brontes to Captain Corelli to Harry Potter to Lolita and Lord of the Flies we’re afloat on a set of random decisions that we’re just hoping will go our way.

 

When do you throw the books away?

Three things happened recently, all of which conspired to remind me – not that I needed reminding – of an old story my father enjoys telling.

The three things were: my youngest son’s book exchange day at school; managing the house shelving around some long-mooted building work; and getting increasingly joyful about the practicalities of Kindle.

Worn spines on old books next to ipad showing online version of Book of KellsMy father’s story, one of many that have given good service over the years, hinges on his sense of early poverty. It’s in some ways a proud sense of early poverty as it gives plenty of scope for the making-good bits of the life story that can come after. It’s not only financial poverty either. He’s particularly conscious at the lack of intellectual stimulation given to youngsters  in the Yorkshire mining communities of the thirties, of which he has rather astringent memories.

His story has plenty to interest anyone who likes a proto-Dickensian vision of such troubled environments. His story revolves around The Book. They only had one – or at most three, the story can be adapted to suit the credulity of the latest audience. If they were lucky, the eldest two children, having finished their Sunday bread and dripping tea and having scoured their hands with carbolic, would be allowed to take a seat and look at The Book. It was placed on their knees. They could only turn the pages under supervision. The Book was a handsome Wonderbook of Wholesome Knowledge for Pre-war Boys and Girls, at least in the version I tell my own children now. It must have seemed a marvel.

There came a time though when the book disappeared. It was given away to some passing junk collector. My father, bereft, asked where The Book had gone. His mother replied, ‘well, you’d read it.’

This story has come in various ways over the years and the one here is my own edit, one that serves the purpose of some other thoughts at the moment. My own children have hundreds of books. We’re proud to be the sort of family that has books and has them out and visible. Not in a neat display either, but in double-stacked shelves and piles of things that are being read or meant to be being read or just nice reminders that they’re there. We have books with multi-cracked spines and sunlotion stained pages, others that spent months in a rucksack, some that are pristine, one or two that are signed and were expensive. The kids have books from childhoods that weren’t their own, preserved and handed down whether they want it or not, Ladybirds, Blytons and all. They’re all precious. We can’t throw a single one away.

I’ve tried. I’ve made a pile of things I haven’t read or won’t read again or didn’t like in the first place and had the whole lot ready for the Heart Foundation deposit. Then I remember how I came by this book or that, or I see a scrawl in the cover, or know that I own it because of a promise to read, or a longed-for connectivity, or a memory of whens and what-ifs. They’re impossible to get rid of, even the paperback 1950s versions of obscure Restoration dramas I’ve not mustered an interest in for twenty years – the fact is I own them because of a promise to engage and I don’t feel I can back out of the deal so uncouthly.

Back to my son’s book exchange day. He was told they could bring books into school to swap. He very cheerily pops upstairs and comes down with the full set of David Walliams novels which he got at Christmas and simply loved. As parents we entered a state halfway between anger and disbelief. These are new books – by which we mean bought within the last two years. You can’t give those away.

‘Yes, but I’ve read them.’ Says my son.

Ah, so what we’ve got is a clash of values. The youth of today perhaps have new systems of possession, gifting, storing, keeping and disposing that are entirely at odds with even my own upbringing, let alone that of my father. Books are now to be read, enjoyed as texts and then their physical husks to be parted with. This is something alien to me and my cherishing, hoarding sense of the holistic literary experience, one which has its bibliophile clutter of firsts and proofs and trade-editions, where a book once loved is soon to be re-read, where each dog-ear and underlining is a friend, where a stain on a page from some once-upon-a-time coffee will usher a memory of when and where and can bring an explosion in the mind of sensations otherwise inaccessible through age.

Yes it’s all different now. I am deeply enamoured of my Kindle which, bought in 2014 after a bit of tentative deliberation, has never failed to amaze me. Dozens of books in one handheld pack. Online shares of quotes and favourite passages. Dictionaries and vocab-builders – particularly useful in French so that I can instantly forget new vocabulary and feel guilty. Page memory across different devices. What’s not to like, as the saying goes. Even the constant hectoring by Amazon’s tag-based marketing has a sort of desperate charm, like sitting with a permanent personal Willy Loman or Gill off the Simpsons.

But can Kindle provide the necessary therapy for my generation of bibliophiles and its indigestible clutter? Can it ease that belief that material goods are something to cling to, at least for those of us whose parents had nothing. Is an aversion to patina something the next generation will grow up with, happy with only those fine editions that they chose to have on shelves, unread because all reading is done on screen? Perhaps there will be no books on shelves for the future-home’s white-cube rooms. Perhaps blocks of bound paper will be saved only to refurb Olde Worlde pubs. Or, perhaps, there’ll be one or two people that feel some deeper atavistic need, and who choose to find and preserve their grandfather’s Wonderbook.

 

 

Academic Profiles – top tips and seven common faults – how to improve

Surprisingly, given the common sense of most business practice, universities are often less than excellent in communicating their greatest asset.

What most people want from university is to engage with staff, staff who will help make an experience for us, who will transfer to us their interests, wisdom, contacts, scope, skills, enthusiasm and brilliance. We come, whether as students, collaborators, employers or employees, looking for intellectual and professional charisma and while we may find it when we get there, it’s not always evident in the preliminary online offering.

There are two main online access routes through to the university world. One is the academic product itself, traditionally in the form of arcane texts but increasingly evident in films, sound files, activities or interventions. The other is the digital marketing brochure, rich in smiley seminar sessions, well-sampled sound bites and buildings forever washed in sunlight.

There’s an opportunity however to develop better practice in what lies between these, to show a broad, non-specialist but intelligent readership what differences the university system makes to the world and what part its individual staff members provide.

This is not an altogether straightforward task. To begin with there’s a slippery tightrope between the many audiences, which range from prospective students to prospective peer reviewers. There’s also a far too easy slide into the dry, mechanical horrors of a CV listing, jammed unreadably with ISSN numbers, colons and a subtitular warren of similar-sounding publications and conferences.

As a best aim, an academic profile should demonstrate how staff members engage with enquiring minds at all levels, giving a true sense of scholarly achievement and its wider beneficiaries, while at the same time showing you as an individual to be a model of intellectual agility, enthusiasm and scholarly generosity.

Or at least it should be something that you, as an academic, spend time on and take pride in. As a check list or an initial push towards improvement, here are a few common failings observed ‘in the field’, including one or two tips, quick wins and seven deadly and all too familiar profiling sins:

1 – The Corpse – profiles that are not up-to-date

There are plenty of dead profiles in the digital world, often because the academic has moved on and institutional systems can’t cope with absences. It can also be caused by a failure of ownership in institutions where academics have either no direct governance or are not encouraged to feel that the institutional representation is also a personal one.

Sometimes profiles are just a victim of general busyness, most evident in those that have been overworked at one moment in time with no ongoing regular commitment – “My current research will be presented at the state of the future conference in 2010…” etc.

It is good practice to make sure that any profiles that are created link back to something that is regularly updated. Try to avoid building just for the here and now; be careful with “in progress”, “going to”, “soon”, “this summer”, “current”, and so on unless you need to use them because, one, you know you have an audience that will be regularly checking back and, two, you are personally committed to efficient updating. Otherwise, be as time neutral as possible and do enough basic gardening to make your plot looked lived in.

2 – The Invertebrate – profiles with no spine

It’s common to describe airy activities without showing actual scholarly substance, even more common to assume that the audience will grasp the substance from bald specialist reference points.

Somewhere, the description of your work needs to have convincing and accessible evidence of originality, rigour and significance. Not just what activities have been undertaken, but what effects you have had. Test what you’ve put on the page against basic questions: What have you changed? What have you created or developed? Who has benefitted? How great is your reach?

Beware of just listing titles for a start. That’s not to say the CV of papers, books and conferences doesn’t go up there somewhere, but apart from the length of the list, what’s being demonstrated to those who haven’t read the papers themselves?Spare a thought for the visitor to your pages, the audience that comes from outside your specialism. Be very clear as to the basics of research activity: What are the questions your research is trying to answer – why is it important to answer them – what contribution are you making to a step change in the debate?

Imagery, moving image or sound should function as part of the delivery of this. When using audio-visual material, check how it contributes to the audience’s understanding of what your contribution is to a scholarly or research base. If an image is viewed as merely decorative then does it need to be there at all.

Originality. Rigour. Significance.

Share the passion… with evidence

3 – The Ivory Tower – academic profiles with no teaching

This principle isn’t just for research. In teaching, what originality and rigour do you bring? What evidence of classroom impact do you have? Or outside the institution, what professional bodies or communities benefit from your work?

Profiles tend to be driven by research, partly for institutional and partly for personal reasons. Traditionally, universities were proud not to teach as such. Learned doyens expatiated to attentive listeners who then taught themselves through scholarly diligence. New university structures, methods and institutions now have professionalised teaching at the core of a modern university experience and uni teachers are expected to be more than just experts on their pet subjects.

Acronymous titles of seminar-series, lists of modules developed, or dry reflections on the patterns of pedagogy in the tutorial environment are less engaging than something that really demonstrates teacherly skill. Videos, audio recordings or just plain text, whatever the method, show that passionate, inspiring, effective teaching is part of your academic communication.

4 – The Lionskin – profiles with bold claims

Not many academics are great spin-jockeys. In a profession built around truth-seekers it’s usually unwise to resort to buzz-words, fudging or lies. “The prodigious twenty-year-old’s internationally-renowned, world-leading, paradigm-shifting debut essay due out next month…” etc

“World-leading”, “international”, “influential”, “ground-breaking” are phrases to use sparingly and advisedly, especially about yourself or your project, especially when unsubstantiated. It sounds obvious, but there are plenty of suspect claims of stardom out there. A download from Fiji does not make work “internationally acclaimed”. A unique niche topic does not of itself make the investigator a “world leader”. Leadership implies followers and breaking ground implies that others will be building on it. Everyone who counts is likely to already know you’re world-leading if you really are; if they don’t but they should, try showing rather than telling.

Calmly excellent is what an academic profile should be – quieter confidence beats bombast and hyperbole in most rigorous research circles. Let others judge and let them judge by the evidence you give.

5 – The Shaggy Dog – overly chronological tales

There’s often a fair few paragraphs of early career development to get through before you make it to the meat of a profile. “Having won the handwriting prize in my first year at St Hildegard’s I took a keen and early interest in mathematics especially subtraction…” etc.

Yes, the profile is a narrative of sorts. It’s worth reflecting however on the journalistic trend that produced the inverted pyramid of “best stuff at the top”. Your audience isn’t captive so don’t waste time gradually working a narrative that builds towards that late career professorship and Nobel prize.

Whatever is best about your career to date, put a couple of neat references to it at the top.

6 – The repeat groove – failure to edit …

The trouble with being an expert is you’ll be called upon to repeat your best stuff at many a live interaction. Chances are a developing essay has five conference presentations around the same issues. Consultants will be consulting regularly on what they’re known for.

The quick fix for an academic profile is a CV-style list, often chronologically delivered, and similar work comes up again and again in a range of forms. Many profiles – as with many CVs [resumes] – seem expecting to be judged by their length rather than their clarity or quality. Beware of padding out with minor activities, especially in early career. Try to think who will be trying to read the page, how you might help them through with digestible parcels of information, and what impression of quality and significance they might be carrying away with them.

A strong recommendation is to have clear titles, bullets where necessary, structured themes and an excellent summary first sentence for each section.

7 – The open-mic of Euphues – profiles of inappropriate tone

Originality, significance and rigour should be shown as though writing for an intelligent but non-specialist audience. This is true of any communication of academic work outside the peer group. Strange that it is not in more evidence on university websites given that funding bids and conference places and publishing deals require exactly this.

The most extreme problems are either that the tone of a profile replicates a job application, through which professional restraint and bland adherence to protocol are thought optimal tactics, or it replicates a half-remembered philosophy lecture with a fuzz of large and very woolly words.

What tone to employ, what style, what rhetorical devices? Well, there’s plain English and there’s English so plain it fails to function. There’s academic phrasing and there’s obstructive pedantry. Yet, between the Sestos and Abydos of the tonal spectrum, between pleonastic Heroes and the off-duty parataxis drivers, there’s ample space to sound scholarly without sounding an arse.

Your style will be your own but there are basic rules: try not to repeat phrases especially not at the beginning of every sentence, (Dr X wrote this, Dr X then wrote that); try to avoid vocabulary that ties you to a bygone era or excessive lucubration; and never, ever try to sound cooler than your undergrads.

Your academic profile – concluding notes

Profiles come in many guises, from those that are out-of-date copies of a CV to those that throb with un-evidenced marketing spin. In between are some that are confident, informative and interesting.

Most include the right basic material but many are incomplete, poorly ordered or poorly edited. If you’re responsible for a profile then give it a health check. Have you got, for example:

  • A short, effective opening statement showing excellence and compelling further engagement
  • A brief, engaging and focussed overview of your career
  • A statement of research interests appreciable to a non-expert
  • A means to make immediate contact
  • A set of premium, recent research achievements, suitably delivered and connected to further reading and contact
  • A sample of how you use your teaching skills to communicate your expert knowledge
  • Evidence of the esteem in which your research is held beyond the institution
  • Evidence of the (potential) value of your research to those outside the direct scholarly circle
  • Clicks outward from well-edited lists of outputs that allow for download or further information.

Unfortunately the academic profile is the last thing on many people’s lists of things to get right and the institutions that require them often provide little direct help.

Some academics have no profile at all, which seems slightly neglectful, if not ungrateful. Others have a fat paperback’s-worth of information that may prove undigestible for human beings.

Maybe the world-wide few who can fully appreciate your scholarly work will not be judging you by your academia.edu, Linkedin.com or institutional page. However you may be able to make the most of your next circle of influence and, in between the PhD studentship and the Nobel Prize, there is a ladder of recognition that might be easier to climb by avoiding one or two of the most common errors.

Do make time to do something – and a bit more time to do something good.