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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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On being read for libel

There came a moment, as a recent project went through its editorial process, when I realised that I had returned to a place of paranoia and fear, where disaster waits around every corner and everyone is a potential danger. I was back in Lawyerland. My first visit to this place had been 20 or so years ago when I worked in publishing. I was the editor of a book co-authored by Willie Donaldson, the author of The Henry Root Letters, which included - indeed was entirely comprised of - rather rude and risqué jokes and references to people in public life. A libel report seemed sensible and many hours were spent in expensive discussion with lawyers and the authors. Eventually, the book was cleared for publication. Within days of its appearance, we had received a fierce letter from the feared lawyer Oscar Beuselinck on behalf of Paul Halloran of Private Eye, claiming...

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On the different species of publishing wildlife

It is almost always a mistake to agree to speak to a group of young students at one of the publishing courses which have recently become all the rage. The would-be publishers will already have been addressed by senior executives, editors, rights managers, agents and sales supremos. A visit from an author, their tutor has decided, would be an amusing and piquant way to end the course. The problem will be that their minds will already have been poisoned. Over the previous weeks, they will have been taught that authors are innocents, floundering helplessly in the grown-up world of business. Any attempt to suggest that an author can be professional and is frequently more competent than a publisher will merely confirm another of the students’ certainties. You are an example of something they have been warned about: the difficult author. Aware of the growing gulf of misunderstanding between authors and...

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On writing a newspaper column

If you write an opinion column on a regular basis for a national newspaper, you will soon, in this great age of email interaction, discover the issues which most excite your readers. In the Independent, where I am a columnist, hunting used to be a great inbox-buster; smoking still is. Make a joke about poets - and who can resist doing that? - and a mighty keening from the nation’s versifiers will follow. Mention religion and sweet, sincere vicars will try to convert you. Dare to suggest that the supporters of Millwall Football Club are not always gentle, saintly folk and an orchestrated campaign of e-yobbery will follow. Alternative comedians turn out to be startlingly thin-skinned. But, personally, my greatest surprise has been the doctors. I had written about the sloppy and insensitive treatment of a friend, who was later found to have a brain tumour, at the hands of two...

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On playing the publicity game

Although few authors know it at the time, a moment of truth occurs quite early in their careers. It is when a questionnaire arrives from the publisher requesting, among other things, a brief biography. The point will be made, often with some force, that this little “About the Author” paragraph is an intrinsic part of the promotional package. Nobody, least of all in the busy world of the media, will be interested in a writer who merely writes. For the keen young author, modesty is not an option. A spot of biographical glamour - zany jobs, a chequered career, a drug habit, perhaps a hint of family heartbreak - is needed. The fact that most authors, particularly the good and serious ones, tend to be quiet, scurfy types whose most exciting adventures take place in the brain or on the page, presents no problem to publishers. They have been goosing...

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On writing for money

America, where writers are bigger, braver and tougher than we are, has just discovered how dependant it is on those unsung heroes tapping out words in the background. During the Great Writers Strike of 2008, the entertainment business, indeed the celebrity machine itself, has creaked wheezily to a halt. Smooth-talking chat show hosts, deprived of the source of their smooth talk, have had to be taken off the air. Their famous guests, no longer spoon-fed jokes and charm, have fallen silent. Award ceremonies have been cancelled: without words on the autocue, all the glitter and glamour which a Hollywood stylist can provide have been as nothing. Would a writers’ strike have worked in Britain? Almost certainly not. Solidarity, in spite of the best efforts of the Society and the Writers Guild, is not something that comes naturally to us. We are in a rat-pit, fighting for survival. Everyone but the...

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On the democratisation of writing

There have been outrageous scenes at the British Library. Arriving at the start of a working day, authors have been shocked to find that on some days one of the world’s greatest research libraries is full of students, reading, relaxing, socialising, texting one another. Lady Antonia Fraser queued for 20 minutes to leave her coat and then for half an hour to collect her books; Claire Tomalin was disturbed by schoolgirl giggling among fellow users. Tristram Hunt complained that the library had become “a groovy place to meet for a frappuccino”. Christopher Hawtree was obliged to perch on a window-sill. In its way, this stand-off between distinguished writers and students is a perfect story for our times. Business ethics is behind it. Access, one of the buzzwords of the moment, has been deployed in its justification. And rumbling behind the row is an ever-renewing debate about elitism and expertise, snobbery...

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