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On being a dinner-party novelist

I was in one of those profound creative reveries which take the form of watching in very great detail what is happening on the bird-table outside my office window, when the telephone rang. It was a distant cousin from whom I had not heard for some time and he was wondering whether I could help him with some advice on a writing matter. Here was something of a surprise. A nice enough chap, my cousin is not known for having literary tastes extending beyond the Racing Post, the Bloodstock Breeders’ Review and an occasional Dick Francis. It turned that he was calling on behalf of a friend who was working on a novel. She had a terrific tale to tell, some great characters. At dinner-parties, she would often keep the whole table gripped by stories from the novel. As he spoke, I anticipated the request that would soon be on...

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On the illnesses of authors

Authors in America are facing a new problem. Those who are considering earning their living by trying a different genre - an established thriller writer with an idea for a children’s book, for example - runs the risk of suffering from what publishers now describe as “brand disintegration”. The brand that is their work and image will be eroded and destroyed by any hint of versatility. For a few authors, particularly those whose brand disintegrated years ago, this news is hardly a surprise. The act of writing for publication lays one open to many such everyday occupational diseases. As a medical service to members, a new Endpaper consumer guide covers, in simple layman’s terms, the more common authorial illnesses and complaints. Repetitive Book Syndrome At the opposite end of the diagnostic scale to Brand Disintegration, RBS leads to a compulsion to write virtually the same book year after year. Fortunately...

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On teaching a creative writing course

The literary world can sometimes be surprisingly generous with the little rewards and favours it bestows. Stick around for long enough, be seen at the right festivals and parties, avoid hitting critics or sleeping with the wives of publishers while allowing a dribble of publications to issue forth under your name, and eventually you will be repaid. Years ago, in another lifetime, I published a rather brilliant and affecting first novel called A Touch of the Other. Today its author Clare Morgan is Dr Morgan, course director of a brand new creative writing course that is to be run by Oxford University. Announcing the setting up of a two-year masters degree, Clare told the press that she was currently looking for tutors who would provide multicultural diversity, a range of writerly voices, imaginative engagement, and so on - all of which has conveyed the same message to me. It’s payback time....

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On the unexplained mysteries of the writing life

Some authors believe that the modern publishing world is a cold, mercantile place whose typical inhabitant is a lizard-like character of indeterminate sex, with calculator eyes, a credit card for a heart and an emotional life as carefully controlled and sponsored as a Waterstone’s display window. There may be an element of truth there but, perhaps because the industry still depends upon the fragile talents, and even more fragile temperaments, of writers, not everything that happens there can be explained by a balance sheet. In fact, a powerful element of the unknown, even the magical, continues to run through the everyday business of the book world. These unexplained mysteries of the writing life change and shift over time but continue to impinge spookily upon our lives. Who can tell what strange influences cause them? All we can do is be prepared. Any sales figures mentioned by an editor will be...

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On meeting a grand old bookman

It was a glorious autumn day when I set out from the Endpaper office, strewn with the detritus of the literary life - old copies of theLondon Review of Books, invitations to launch parties, scraps of half-completed poems - and headed southwards towards Sussex. My quest was for nothing less than for a glimpse of the past, an encounter with a legendary figure from publishing’s golden age. I was to meet Sir Julian Farquhar, creator of the famous house of Farquahar and Velch, chairman of the Society of Bookmen 1963-75 and widely regarded as one of the last great publishers of the old school. Books have been good to Sir Julian. Although his family were comfortably off, allowing him to live off a private income while working for Walter Hutchinson in the 1930s, he was later able to acquire an Elizabethan manor to which he retired and where we now...

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On some useful attributes for a writer

There comes a moment when the excitements of buzzing literary gossip become wearisome, and the yearning for golden critical opinions, mind-boggling sales, perhaps the odd little prize, begins to fade. You are a writer. Your basic needs are simple. You want to be left alone to write stories, and then be paid for them by a polite, grateful publisher. Surely that cannot be too much to ask. But it is. A chill wind is blowing down Freelance Avenue, rattling the shutters of all but those who live at the smart of the street. Alternative options have to be considered. So when a tentative enquiry comes in as to whether you would be prepared to write an instructional manual on how to write a novel, you suppress your immediate reaction - a loud, derisive “Hah!” like the Arabella Weir character in The Fast Show - and begin to think about it. Would it...

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On writers who prefer to rest

Writing isn’t life, you know. When you lay down your pen, perhaps having received a rejection note so brutal that not even you can construe it as actually rather positive in its way, the world keeps on turning. In many ways, the life of an ex-, dormant or would-be writer is every bit as varied and rich as that of one who is still doggedly churning out the words and playing the game. There is more time for play when you stop writing. Fewer ambitions mean fewer disappointments. You are still essentially an author, but a non-executive one. Your work exists in that pure, unexpressed, interior state which is always strangely superior to what emerges on paper. Taking physical shape, words seem to lose some of their magic. Anyone who still needs convincing that there is life after writing should attend the next annual party to be held by the...

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On the boom in ghost-writing

It’s hip, it’s profitable, and it reduces words and writing to minor functions in the publishing process. Who could be surprised that ghostwritten books are the must-have adornment for all major lists this year? As publishing increasingly learns its values from the PR industry, any minor embarrassment connected to publishing books that are not written, and sometimes not even read, by their “authors” has faded. Many believe that the sheer logical simplicity of the ghosting process, which separates the public aspect of being an author from the actual writing, is the way that the book business should be going. But the trend raises difficult professional questions. Should the glamour model Jordan, as a successful non-writing author, be eligible to join the Society? Where does hands-on editing end and ghosting begin? Now that Wayne Rooney has landed a £5 million deal, does his hired writing hand Hunter Davies risk becoming that...

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On humiliation in a classroom

It was a professional event, the horror of which is still with me months after it happened. It could have been a nightmare - the sense of helpless humiliation, the feeling of talking ever louder without being heard, the sensation being trapped in events over which one has no control, the acrid smell of panic - but it wasn’t. The occasion was a school visit of the type that I have done hundreds of times before. Talking about yourself is no great hardship, children are normally a good audience; it should have been a breeze. The age-group I was addressing, admittedly, was a tough one – early adolescents who were deep in the dark forest of teenage non-communication - but they were my potential readership at the time, the school was well-run, and I had a new book to boast about. The class teacher who introduced me was bearded, tubby,...

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On understanding book trade slang

Old-fashioned types - the sort of author you and I would have nothing to do with - have taken to complaining that publishers describe their darling, bleeding little volumes as ‘units’. It is as if, these sad individuals will say, their work was nothing more than a can of baked beans. We are almost always too polite, aren’t we, to tell these dear old things the truth in language they will understand - that things have changed., that not only are books units in the modern publishing world but so, if they are lucky, are authors. There’s a whole new industry vocabulary developing and is up to us, the writing units, to keep up to date. Here are just a few of the latest phrases that you are likely to hear in any decent agent’s or publisher’s office. Back-flap babe. The modern literary agent, aware that media visibility is the sine...

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