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On authors and housework

Have you done the washing up? Or did you leave it on the sideboard in the comfy expectation that, by the time your return from your work (yes, reading The Author is work, actually), some civilian, some non-writer, will have dealt with it? Maybe you have an absolute treasure who relieves you of the problem altogether, allowing you that all-important thinking time that is so important for those of us in the creative industries. These are not entirely facetious questions. Already this year, the role of washing up in the writer’s life has become a leading issue of literary debate. Several reviewers of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Bruce Chatwin, for example, have been worried by the fact that, throughout his marriage, the great man was never known to have taken his plate at the end of a meal from the table to the sink, nor to have washed up a...

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On publishing your own work

It was a truly poignant moment of television. The author Timothy Mo, filmed by BBC Newsnight, was ringing WH Smith to book an appointment to discuss a novel to be published by the Paddleless Press. Who was the novel by? Timothy Mo, actually. Yes, he explained, he was both publisher and author. The name was spelt M.O - as in ‘Half a -’ Actually, he had been twice short-listed for the Booker Prize. Yes, the Booker. And so it went on, a horrific authorial nightmare. At the time, two years ago, for an eminent novelist willingly to impersonate a publisher’s rep on behalf of his own work suggested some kind of nervous breakdown, particularly when it was revealed that what had driven Mo into self-publishing was a humiliating, insulting offer from his publisher of £125,000. But no. It turned out that this exercise in self-abasement was not an aberration but...

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On being Harvey Porlock

It is, I am depressed to discover, Harvey Porlock’s birthday. For ten years now, Harvey has looked at the week’s book pages, reporting, sometimes in a bolshy, opinionated fashion, on the efforts of reviewers, a small-time whistle-blower within the literary establishment. He has changed over the years and has become less even-handed, more crotchety and paranoiac. As fictional characters are supposed to do, he has taken on a life of his own. Harvey, c’est moi. Every week, under his name, I write the Sunday Times ‘Critical List’ column, offering a snapshot of the literary cavalcade as it passes by. Conceived and named by John Walsh, then literary editor, Harvey Porlock was originally to be have been inhabited by three writers, taking turns to consider the week’s reviews. It’s a fiddly, time-consuming job, involving many trips to the newsagent, much tearing out and scrutinising of book-related items, selection of the most...

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On being the wife of an author

There was a time, not so long ago, when to live and care for an author was thought to provide its own small rewards in terms of posterity. So Mrs Tolstoy transcribed five full drafts of War and Peace, Mrs Chesterton tied her husband’s shoelaces for him, and Mrs Nabokov organised and attended every one of Vladimir’s lectures. But to judge from recent evidence, this basic loyalty to husband and muse has become yet another casualty in the great new gender war. How should the wife of an author behave? The question itself seems old-fashioned, even sexist. Yet, week after week this column - regarded by many as the caring, human face of The Author - receives letters from women who are confused and discontented by their role in the literary process. This is not an agony column - there is, after all, a limit to how much comfort one man can bring...

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On suffering from life block

“Thank God for lovely work,” a writer-friend said the other day. She been having a tough time on the romance front and now was returning, bruised by life, to the author’s place of ultimate safety - the study. Writing as therapy: how tempting it is, and yet how dangerous. For weeks, months, you can hide away in your work, avoiding the perilous, uncontrollable thing they call the “real world”. Then one day, perhaps for reasons of research or simply because you have become uneasily aware that you are missing out in some way, you decide to step outside, blinking and nervous, and join the party... But - here’s the horror - you seem to have lost the knack of living. Everything in the real world seems loud and fast and threatening. People stride about, apparently talking to themselves. Conversation is difficult, particularly when you asked about events, celebrities and TV...

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On what you want, what you’d settle for, and what you get

“Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness,” Georges Simenon once wrote but, like his other pronouncements - those 10,000 women he was supposed to have slept with, for example - his words contain only a fraction of the truth. Writing, as we all know, is a profession which exists in the dark, perilous territory between hope and reality - between what you want, what you’d settle for, and what you get… The work You want to write a work of towering genius in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy. You’d settle for writing a timely reflection of the zeitgeist in the tradition of Bridget Jones. You get a Christmas stocking-filler in the tradition of Ronnie Barker’s Book of Boobs. The agent You want a hip young gunslinger from a hot agency. You’d settle for a knackered old soak with an adequate contact-list. You get your mum. The sale...

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On the tricks of the trade

The rather brilliant little BBC series Trade Secrets has recently invited experts from various walks of life - photography, antique-restoring, building, butlering - to reveal the tricks and short cuts that make their work easier. Because the craft of writing has yet to be included in the series - a surprising omission since there are few professions where trickery is more widely used - the Endpaper research team has been collecting some of our own best-kept trade secrets… * Here’s a way of clearing the mind every morning. For 45 minutes, limber up for the day’s work by writing down the whatever pointless gibberish happens to drift into your mind. It is said that many of Jeffrey Archer’s short stories have been created in this way.   * When your publisher asks you to do a major rewrite on your manuscript, simply change the font you use on your computer....

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On establishing a relationship with a publisher

Heaven knows, it is difficult enough in these brutal, fretful days to keep any serious relationship fresh, stimulating and alive through the good and the bad times. Where once it was assumed that partnership involved serious, long-term commitment, today those of us who manage to stay “hitched” for five or even ten years are often regarded as oddities, throwbacks to gentler, more civilised age. Again and again one hears the same old story. It was perfect the first time, they will say - a whirlwind of energy, optimism, need and mutual satisfaction. But, once the novelty wore off, the relationship became something of a chore. Boredom led to indifference which sharpened into active dislike. Soon it was only a matter of time as to when the final rift would occur. Does it always have to be like this between authors and publishers? Endpaper asked several of our most successful writers...

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On discovering whether one is worth knowing

It’s all about contacts, you know. There’s no point in sitting at home, gazing out of the window and sucking your pen, expecting your career as an author to look after itself. You have to be out there in the real world - or, at least in the book world. Test the variety and worth of your personal literary network in this exclusive Endpaper survey. You gain a point if you know someone who: Has reviewed their own book under a pseudonym. Can get you a mention in a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Has had a book ghosted without reading a word of it. Can quote an entire sentence from Finnegan’s Wake. Has met Thomas Pynchon. Has been on an author tour of China. Has had an entire wall papered with genuine rejection slips. Has written something that has caused someone to be physically sick. Earns a 17½% royalty...

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On discouraging the young from becoming a writer

When, on the letters page of the last issue, Mr William Stevenson of Edinburgh wrote, ‘I have long felt that what The Author needs is an Agony page,’ he was representing the views of many readers. This column now and then offers emotional, therapeutic advice to writers, as a result of which the Endpaper office is inundated with letters, emails and telephone calls, covering every kind of authorial agony. Frankly, if I were charging basic Hampstead rates for this counselling service, I could have put my laptop on permanent suspend months ago. The problem is that, frankly, other people’s problems can be a bit of a bore. Whenever I have tried to move into Dear Marje mode, the editor has returned my first draft with tetchy notes of criticism in the margin - ‘Gimme a break’, ‘Who cares about this loser?’, or, his favourite, ‘Booooring!!!’ Off the record, he has...

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