Saturday, 30 April 2016

Are modern novels novel?

I trained as a telephone engineer. In my day this required a practical understanding of electricity and electronics and the honing of relevant skills in wiring, soldering, fault finding, etc, etc. Anyone of average intelligence could become telephone engineer, but only those with an interest would commence the lengthy process and only those with an aptitude would stay the course.

In writing I am an amateur. My teachers, after leaving school at the tender age of sixteen, were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, George Orwell, W Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene – to name but a few, and I have often wondered if those greats of literary fiction were trained? Did they attend creative writing courses or take degrees in writing?

Training to be an engineer, scientist, bricklayer, plumber, doctor, or whatever seems to me entirely different to training to be a writer. When I decided to write my first book (a non-fiction on voice systems) a colleague asked me, “Can you write?”

I was stunned. Everyone, I thought, well almost everyone, can write – just as everyone can speak. I had by then written countless research reports, articles for magazines and learned journals plus many stories for my children. Of course I could write. But that was not what he meant: he meant, could I write well – well enough to warrant the publication of a book? I wasn’t sure, so I recruited the help of my old boss, then retired, the son of an English teacher and a stickler for good grammar. Hugh became my editor for that first book and subsequently the editor of a newsletter that I ran for some years.

Recently I attended a lecture on editing. It was not what I was expecting. Rather than providing tips on improving ones output by removing solecisms, typos, etc, this worked at a higher level. The lecturer was an excellent presenter. He targeted three early chapters of novels currently under creation, making points about mood, the consistency of metaphors, the choice of words, etc. To me this seemed like literary criticism, or the sort of advice provided at creative writing courses. And it worried me.

Though I am a teacher of sorts I could never teach creative writing because I have not created a successful novel. On the other hand, publishing a successful novel does not make you a good teacher. Furthermore I do not really believe that creativity can be taught, the very idea seems to me to be an oxymoron. Encouraged yes, but taught no.
As often, I find myself well out of step. There is now a whole industry built around creative writing plus bringing the resultant masterpieces to the eyes of agents or publishers. And, failing publication via the traditional route, there are heaps of companies to help you publish your own book, design the cover and distribute it. Yes, there are kits, courses, consultants, critics, and lots of other things beginning with ‘c’ – all at a price.

And the output? Why, a new creation which is a page turner, where the characters are well-rounded and leap off the page, which has a subtle back story, gripping first line, a beginning, middle and an end, is  full of fresh metaphors and singular similes and has a riveting and unpredictable plot scattered with innumerable smoking guns. A novel that is unique, original and, well, possibly, just a little formulaic.

Sour grapes? Possibly. I must say that most people I have met who have been on creative writing courses seem to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves – and that cannot be bad. Some complain that they spend too much time critiquing the work of the other budding novelists on the course, but all agree that it was a sociable experience.

Oh, and in all honesty I do not know the answer to that question posed by my colleague over a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps I should take a course?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A ton of weightless books

I topped the ton on a motorbike years ago on a stretch of the ruler-straight Roman road that crosses the Cotswolds Hills called the Fosse Way. I passed the ton in a flashy, silver Mazda car rocketing along one of the unbelievably unrestricted sections of a German autobahn. And just today I clocked the ton in the “Books Read” section of my Kindle. If you are not from the UK this might all seem very odd, but, colloquially, a ‘ton’ here simply means one hundred: a. hundred miles per hour or a hundred books or whatever

A hundred books would weigh about a hundredweight, i.e. about one hundred pounds in America, more in the UK and roughly fifty kilograms in Europe. A strong man can carry a hundredweight bag of cement under each arm. I can manage one with difficulty – in other works a ton of books is pretty heavy.

One estimate I’ve found reckons that you can make 20 to 30 books from a 10 inch (25 cms) thick tree so my one hundred books would have required the death of four trees if they were paper, plus all the energy involved in felling the trees and transforming the wood into pulp. In the Kindle my books weigh effectively nothing, and cost virtually nothing to produce. What’s more they only take up a quarter of the Kindle’s available storage – so plenty more reading yet.

Actually my Kindle, just like my offices in the past, is a mess. I do have a section for “Books Abandoned”. There are 37 currently lying, sad and rejected, in there. Then I have the equivalent of my desk top where books lie about in good order, but actual disarray. There are well over a hundred books there patiently awaiting the push of my finger. Some, like The Diary of Samuel Pepys, I’ve been nibbling away at for years. Others are samples that I have yet to look at, others are in some intermediate state where I cannot bring myself to abandon them, but probably should. Still others are simply forgotten or ignored like a volume that has slipped from sight at the back of the sofa.

How can I be so messy? Well all of those books hanging around on my desk top, and those that I’ve abandoned and read are in that quarter of storage that I’ve used so far, so I can afford to be a little lax. Besides no one else sees my mess.

Where do all these books come from? Almost all are from Amazon of course, but the problem there is finding books that you like at prices that you like.  Here’s where Book Bub comes in. Every day it send me an email with news of eBooks on special offer that I might like and so I have a queue of books that I have sampled or bought by this route adding to the mess on my desk top. And I love it. My greatest fear is to be without a book to read - no fear of that nowadays, the problem is to find the time to read them.

My one hundredth book was The Fictional Man by Al Ewing. It was interesting. The gimmick here is the production (not explained in any detail) of fictional characters in the flesh who then play their namesakes in TV series etc. Yeah, it’s an odd idea, but it allows the author to debunk racism and question our own versions of reality. Not surprisingly it introduces the touchy subject of sex between ‘fictionals’ and ‘real people’ and ends with the odd concept of ‘real people’ who want to be ‘fictionals’. Perhaps not so odd in fact.