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Comment from the book world in January 2017


T S Eliot on the publishing of poetry

18 December 2017

'I look at a good many poetry scripts every week. Of the great majority, I may say that there is no part of my work which costs me less time and trouble. That is one thing about verse: you can judge from a very small quantity whether the author has any possibilities or not; you can often say, ‘The man who can write as bad a line as that simply hasn't got it in him.' The rarest experience is to come across a new poet who strikes you as so good that you don't need anybody's judgment but your own.

There remain a small number of scripts by new authors about which you cannot make up your mind at once. I usually keep such scripts for a long time, to take them up again at intervals, to read them in a different mood, at a different time of day. When one is tired, and has been looking at a number of bad scripts, it is very easy to deceive oneself into thinking that a collection of poems is better than it is, merely because it is better than the others.'

T S Eliot's address to the Society of Young Publishers, on The Publishing of Poetry, reprinted in The Bookseller 6 December 1952,  is part of a great online treasure trove of the poet's writing

'Too close to wherever your secret heart is buried'

11 December 2017

'The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them -- words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they're brought out. But it's more than that, isn't it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you've said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That's the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.'

Stephen King

'Most books don't last'

4 December 2017

‘My students at Columbia I teach to read. If you can be a good reader and can think that reading and literature are great pursuits, you can perhaps teach yourself to write. For every ‘lesson' one would try to propound there'd be a wonderful story or novel that violated any rule. But that's about all. I use myself as something like a specimen to them...

I'm not that much interested in what happens to my books after I pass along. I say, with Shakespeare, that: ‘Present mirth is present laughter.' Carver was a great writer, and nobody much talks about him, at least not in my hearing. Not that he won't persist; I think he will...
Most books don't last in the public consciousness beyond the author's lifetime. If mine don't, I still take immense pleasure from the use they were put to in my lifetime - by readers...

Writers are all supposed to be dedicated to their work's permanence. Me, not so much. If my work lasts as an element in the reading public's experience, I suppose I'd be happy - if I weren't dead. But frankly I can't give it much thought at all. It's one less thing to worry about, really.'

Richard Ford, author of The Sportswriter and Let Me Be Frank with You, talking about writing in the Guardian 

'Literary fiction was the thing'

20 November 2017

‘I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a novelist, but my father thought I should have a proper job, with a proper salary, a proper pension. The idea of being a writer struck him as the height of foolhardiness. He died very young (58), so he never saw how things worked out...

We were very lucky. For 10 years literary fiction was the thing, paperback imprints were starting up, advances huge, every publisher wanted the spin to their list so the literary novelist suddenly found himself in demand with auction bids for the next novel.

But then, slowly, it died away. My agent said there are maybe six literary novelists now, including me, who can make a living from their novels, who don't have any other jobs.'

William Boyd, author of A Good Man in Africa, Any Human Heart, The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth and eight other novels in the Sunday Times

200,000 books published a year (just in the UK)

13 November 2017

‘An optimist may think this abundance marvellous: a sign of publishing virility, of a lively literary culture. They would be wrong. It is a disaster for readers and for writers...

Do we really think that we need all 200,000 books? The sheer scale of the "publishing numbers racket" means that too many mediocre books are appearing, crowding out attention from better books. It becomes harder for the reader to find the good. Browsing in Waterstones for a decent read is like panning for gold in the middle of rapids.

Then there is the brute fact that shelf space is limited. Every new book evicts an old, probably better one. For every "exciting", over-puffed shiny debut, a tested and trusted book loses out. The shelf life of authors becomes ever shorter...

And pity that writer. Here's a figure to chill the blood: every literary fiction title written in English sold an average of 263 copies in 2015...'

Robbie Millen, Literary Editor, in The Times

Taking on Poirot

6 November 2017

‘There were some things about Agatha Christie's writing that I did want to emulate: not the prose style itself, but her blueprint for what the ideal crime novel should be and do. She often started with an outlandish, almost impossible-seeming plot premise that cranked up the suspense level to maximum right from the start; her stories have the strongest bone structure I've ever read, with the brilliantly elegant story-shape sticking out pleasingly at every possible point; she made the clues extremely obvious, to play fair with the reader, but always safe in the knowledge that her imagination was so ambitious and unpredictable that nobody would ever guess the solution.'

Sophie Hannah, author of The Monogram Murders, Closed Casket (both Poirot novels), Did You See Melody? and 18 other novels in the Observer

'Start by writing an outline'

30 October 2017

Starting out

As an aspiring writer, you should certainly start by writing an outline. I explain how to do this in this Masterclass. You solve a lot of problems with an outline. It is far easier to correct your mistakes if you write an outline than if you sat down and wrote, ‘Chapter One' at the top of a piece of paper and started writing. If you work that way, it will take an awfully long time to correct your mistakes.

You will spend six months or a year writing the book, and only then will you find out things that you wish you had known right at the start. Writing an outline also concentrates your mind. It is good to carry on reading a lot at this stage. Suppose you are writing a love story and you have decided that the hero of the story is in love with a woman who is already married. When you are reading other books, you will see how other writers have handled this and you'll see the problem from different angles. That will give you a rich sense of how many possibilities there are.

Ken Follett, author of The Kingsbridge Series and The Century Trilogy, whose latest novel is Edge of Eternity on his website, in a helpful series that it's hard not to quote from again.

'Ways of keeping readers reading'

23 October 2017

'I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways of keeping readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something, even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.'

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

'It is no good having people who are ordinary'

16 October 2017

'When you're writing a book, with people in it as opposed to animals, it is no good having people who are ordinary, because they are not going to interest your readers at all. Every writer in the world has to use the characters that have something interesting about them, and this is even more true in children's books...

I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel. If they are ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That, I think, is fun and makes an impact.'

Roald Dahl on Brainyquotes

Are American literary novelists ‘less feverish about pecking order’ than the British?

9 October 2017

‘They're more realistic about it. Berryman, when Robert Frost died, said, ‘It's scary. Who's number one?' Very unsentimental. At least status anxiety is overt here. And I think writers have a better time from the press here than in England. My historical explanation is that Americans wondered what sort of country they were living in, a new, young country, and subliminally saw that writers would play a part in telling them; not just a collection of Italians, Germans, Jews, but a real nation. In England, they don't want to be told what they are. They're quite clear on that, thank you very much.

And they think writers are just pretentious egomaniacs.'

Martin Amis, author of London Fields, Money and The Rub of Time in the Guardian


'Slightly off-kilter reality'

2 October 2017

'I started with a desire to explore marriage this round. My previous two books were told from the point of view of women who were decidedly single-who didn't really even know how to sustain any kind of relationships, romantic or not. So I wanted to deal with a married couple, and do it as a "he said, she said" kind of narrative, because marriages are, in a way, one long version of a "he said she said" story. No matter how close we are to someone, there will always be a disconnect. I think that's why, when you go out to dinner with a married couple, there is invariably some story that they start telling, that each of them swear is being told wrong. And they are always so incensed about it, right? "You're telling it wrong!" But I think it's because, underneath, we find it alarming, that you are sharing a life with someone and yet can experience the same thing in very different ways. It's shocking sometimes. So this takes that idea of never entirely knowing your spouse, and blows it up times 1,000. As far as keeping it just this side of believable: thank you. I like to tiptoe right to the edge of gothic. My novels all have that just slightly off-kilter reality. It comes from my love of fairy tales, Lifetime movies and Davids Lynch and Cronenberg...'

Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl and Dark Places, on her novel Sharp Objects, on her website. 

'A writer must not shift your point of view'

25 September 2017

Remember to never split an infinitive.
The passive voice should never be used.
Do not put statements in the negative form.
Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
A writer must not shift your point of view.
And don't start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember, too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
Don't overuse exclamation marks!!
Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
Always pick on the correct idiom.
The adverb always follows the verb.
Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.

William Safire, author of Full Disclosure, Scandalmonger and a long-running column "On Language" for The New York Times Magazine, from William Safire's Rules for Writers