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Tag: Pancho

2

Do the Work

There’s a vast abyss between would-be writers, and the ones who are really prepared to do the backbreaking work. I never ever show work in progress to anyone, not even Rachana, my wife… because I don’t like to be judged or critiqued until something is what I would class as very clean. People try and send me bits of books they are writing the entire time. I suppose that all authors get this and I really wish would-be writers would spend their time writing and not sending half-baked material out, hoping for praise. Remember, a book isn’t finished just because you have written a draft. That’s the real starting point. It’s the clay from which you can sculpt a work of genius. Here’s an example that’s stuck in my head. A few days ago a close friend asked if I would read a book that her ex-boyfriend had written, and give him feedback. She added that it was rather good in her opinion. The manuscript was emailed to me. I scanned as much of it that I could endure. It was clear from the start that there were some very serious problems. The first and main one was that as a ‘first book’, the writer was relishing in ever cliché that had ever been invented. The other faults were a total lack of character arc, narrative voice, themes, detail etc. So I wrote to my friend and suggested that she send my comments to her ex boyfriend. I told her that as I didn’t know the man, I hadn’t really got an idea what he wanted. So I wrote two different letters to her, and asked her to judge what he wanted and send on the appropriate one. The first letter was one of unctuous praise. I assumed the man had written the book, and was now showing it to me, because he wanted attention. I raved about his great work, complimented him in the most over the top manner, and wished him luck. The second letter explained that the book was totally flat, a complete heap of nonsense, without hardly any merit at all. BUT, I said, if he worked and worked and worked at it, he would eventually reshape it and could turn it into something worthwhile. If he did that, I explained, he would have what it takes to be a published author. I don’t know which letter she sent on.



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0

Honing

Read the great Georgian and Victorian novelists and you see that they were writing the same book over and over: almost identical plots, characters and themes, just honing the work a little each time. I’m not saying it’s good to churn out meaningless twaddle on the same blueprint. But there is merit in understanding what works and using it repeatedly, refining the way you tell the tale. You find it with modern writers too. Don’t tell me that an analysis of Stephen King finds his books are radically different. They get better and better as he has learned to hone, to become ever more refined. Like a master fencer who can make a strike by the most subtle twist of the wrist. Find a way of telling a story that works for you, get comfortable with it, and allow yourself to develop your storytelling capability through the genre or medium you have chosen.



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1

The Craft

OK. I’m going to state the obvious but please give me a break. If you want to get good at something — just about anything — you have to work at it. And it goes for writing more than just about anything I know. Here’s a trick that I learned. You give yourself half an hour. Put a clock on the table if necessary. And write a short paragraph. Describe something. Anything — just a jug of flowers on the window ledge, or your favourite painting, or a person you know. When you have written it, turn the paper over, or away from the computer screen for three minutes. Then read what you’ve written. Can you add to it? Can you make it flow a little better. Does it need chopping about? If so, work on it. Then turn away for another three minutes and, again, read through and rework. When I have written something (except this blog, so forgive me for that), I constantly re-read and rework. I substitute words, tenses, and lots of little things with the aim of creating a product that’s easy to read. In my opinion, it’s far better to write a paragraph that’s blindingly clean than pages of stuff which are full of mistakes.



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1

Open Arms

I have always found that one of the great joys in life is how one thing links to another, or how one person will take you to another, who passes you on, and on… Sometimes I come across someone who prices himself out of the initial steps of progression, and thereby never receives opportunities that would have flooded in if the person had not been so mercenary at the start point. I usually have a lot of stuff on the boil, partly because I like to work that way, as I find it stimulating, but partly too because I find that one small project may lead to something later – possibly something very large. I do projects when they are paid well, of course, but I often take on work that pays very little, or nothing at all, if I can spare the time. This open arms approach works well for me, and reminds me constantly about the interrelated nature of our world.



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3

Linking Work

My father would always counsel me to link all projects together, so as to form a kind of spearhead. By doing this you achieve a momentum that’s lost when spreading thin. In the 1990s I spent a year in Japan and bought dozens of books on Japanese culture, language and history. Many of these books were written by an author (I assume he was American). His output was astonishing. There were all sorts of titles under his name. Some were works of fiction, others business books, guides, reference volumes, and even titles about the sleazy side of the Japanese water trade. I was a fan of the man’s work, and always impressed that he was so prolific. But the problem for him was that no one took him seriously. He was giving all sorts of mixed messages. The business readers didn’t like it that he’d written about Sex in Japan, and the people who bought the Sex in Japan books didn’t appreciate that he had written business books. So he reached a point at which, despite huge output, he stagnated. I always remember his example, and the fact that linking work together strengthens the value and appeal of that work.



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5

Specialization

I am a huge fan of polymathy: the ability to master several subjects and use strengths in one to further understand and master another. But within our society it’s all about specialization. Despite my championing a polymathic approach, I do see the benefits of being a specialist, at least for breaking in. Turn on the BBC World news after a crisis and they will have some obscure professor or expert from a think tank sitting on a chair, spouting his ideas on how the crisis is going to play itself out. Why’s he there? – because he’s the one guy who’s perceived to be the expert. It’s all baloney of course. He’s really there because the TV producer needed a bum on a seat attached to a mouth that was capable of filling five minutes of silence with what sounds like shrewd analysis. Watch the media and the world of publishing, especially in the light of the internet and the growth it’s allowed in niche culture, and you see that specialization is on the up. Again, look at cycles and areas that are going to come to the fore, and throw yourself into that. The one thing to avoid, of course, is getting painted into a corner. Always be ready to sidestep into another related niche when the time comes.



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5

Followers

Remember: followers need someone to follow. If there is a school of striped fish in a tank, and suddenly a healthy-looking red fish arrives in the community, the other fish will be attracted to it, and will follow it. It’s a fact. The important thing is getting your foot through the door. There are lots of ways to do this. One is to make yourself an authority on a subject that needs vocal authorities. Another is to publish a book on www.lulu.com or www.blurb.com, and register the book with an ISBN number, so that you can have it sold on Amazon.com and other sites. Suddenly it means you have a track record, and you’re away. Yet another idea is to get on other internet sites as a track record, such as Wikipedia. Remember, these days editors and agents Google, or rather their poorly paid assistants Google. If you are look-up-able, you’re heading in the right direction. Most of the time editors don’t know what they want. They seem remarkably surprised when a book you’ve been championing forever actually sells. But the public are much more clever than most publishers. They do know what they want, and they want stuff that comes in cycles. Learn to understand cyclic culture, trends, and the like, and you’re likely to have an easier time in appealing to the masses. 



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2

Risk

In publishing, no one – absolutely no one – will help you out unless there’s something in it for them. Unless, that is, if they are so assured of their position that they can endure risk. These days even huge publishers have systems in which facing any risk opens the individual up for attack. No one will put their neck on the line. It’s largely the same story through corporate culture… and it’s a system I know well from the Arab world, where no one will ever take responsibility – except the top man.  I encourage people when they are trying to break in, to think in an original way. Be completely inventive, innovative, and sooner or later, others will back you. 

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3

Puffs

As I wrote yesterday, getting quotes from those who are in the system, and near the top, are invaluable. The secret is to get a quote from someone at the zenith of society, someone respected by all, whose critique encourages all others to fall into line, and offer their support. The important thing to remember with publishing, as with just about all fields, is that people are naturally followers. Before they react, they look first at how others are reacting. And they don’t want to seem foolish by praising something others will decry. It’s a case of the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’, and it’s a system that shapes our lives. The secret of success is to learn to control people so foolish that they worry how others will perceive them. And getting high level support is a crux in achieving this.



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4

The Agency

But let’s backtrack a little. When I was trying to break into publishing I couldn’t even get an agent. And these days publishers depend on agents as a filtering mechanism to keep them away from the public, a layer of society they disdain. So agents ferry to their door the best well-chosen writers. But getting into an agency is hard. One route is to get a well-known author to recommend you. If you write cold, then they’ll probably get a 19-year old trainee called Tabitha to send you a form letter, beginning ‘We regret to inform you that at this time…’ I bought myself a copy of the Writers and Artists’s Yearbook and wrote to every agency. All of them declined to take me on. So I started my own agency. It was called Worldwide Media and all it was really was a ream of fine letter heading, and a phone line in the back of my bedroom. I went by the name William Watkins who had a funny voice, and a single client, Tahir Shah. Firstly, I sent the manuscript with fawning letters to a lot of famous people, and asked obsequiously (pandering to egos all the way) if they might give me a quote for future publicity. Some of them did write back. And I used their quotes when I sent the manuscript around to publishers. Rather, I didn’t send them, but loaded them into a huge backpack and cycled around London, dropping them in at publishers’ offices, masquerading as Wally the biker courier. Then I went back to my bedroom to wait. Days passed. Many days. And just as I had given up all hope, a call came through. It was an editor. She sounded hurried and a little flustered, and she was asking to speak to Mr. Watkins. I was eating lunch from a can, Campbell’s soup, when she telephoned, and she took me by surprise. Remembering that a busy agent would never be available at once, (and pretending to be the poorly-schooled receptionist), I put the phone receiver on the bed and finished eating my soup. At length, I picked it up and, putting on a silky smooth voice, I greeted her a William Watkins. The long and the short of it was that Watkins came through and sold my book. And once I was in the system, published, moving forward was reasonably easy. But of course the system is designed to keep the uninitiated out, but once you’ve been blooded, you’re a member of the club



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