Monday, 9 June 2008

Authors, Writing and the Internet

As you know, I enjoy writing fiction, some of it I show off here. The other resident of my house similarly writes, though neither of us really discusses our writing in more than general terms. Late into the night, single lights are left shining over a glowing computer as we hammer out our latest work. I have a problem that when I leave my office I often find the house in utter darkness and fumble around trying to find the light switch which is at the far end of the corridor outside my office, wired in by people who clearly did not write late into the night or, maybe, carried torches. I have been writing since I was a child. I used to always get good marks in my creative writing lessons and it seemed to help me in my exams. I have done reasonably well in a few competitions, but I am not one of these people who enters loads of things. Given that so many people write now, I have no hope of being noticed. There is a computer in almost every house and we can all hammer away to write our stories. I suppose we all dream of being like J.K. Rowling, because, with so many chances to get on and escape our lives being closed off, writing a bestseller remains one way out.

The scale of how much fiction writing is going on in the UK nowadays was revealed by a friend of mine. She had entered a novel-writing competition run by Amazon. They had 34,000 entries; my friend got through to the 'short list' of 5000 novels. These were judged for the first two phases on a regional basis, with members of the public writing their reviews of novels put forward. I reviewed a couple, of course like most people, including my friend's. There was a final 10 novels but I stopped at that stage because they were almost all the same, and incredibly bland at that. The process showed me that such a public vote on writing leads to a kind of homeopathic procedure and you end up boiling down anything to interest to the blandest least offensive novels.  Even Richard & Judy, the UK's self-appointed promoters of literary taste (and however you might dislike them, they have done a great deal for promoting writing in the UK) make often less easy choices and certainly less bland choices for their recommendations.  Their novel-writing competition of a few years ago had 49,000 entries.

Perhaps universal democracy in selecting novels is flawed, we need things that challenge the reader rather than are simply mush. It seemed to be the same issue that has been highlighted by the most anodyne of British broadcasting, the 'Book at Bedtime' on Radio 4 in which a current novel is read each evening. There have been complaints that the last two have been too challenging and bleak. It seems we want to be wrapped in cotton wool in even our book choices these days, but, unfortunately, that way leads to the death of literary culture. Even J.K. Rowling whose work is heavily rooted in the public-school novel traditions, breaks away at times and writes maturely for young people, and, at a length (around 700-800 pages), that many adults would shy away from.

I go through phases of writing short fiction, novella length and then novel length and often then go back again. I like to get my details in my novels precise, whether they have a current or a historical setting. I bought a book in the 1990s (I thought) about writing fiction. However, within the first chapter it said there was no point an 'amateur' writing fiction as they could never do a sufficient level of research to produce a novel that would not be picked to pieces by readers. Instead, the book advised, 'amateur' people (and surely all authors are amateurs until they are published, I guess unless they are journalists first) to stick to writing non-fiction books about their hobbies or local areas.

Of course, this was utter rubbish. For a start, readers are tolerant of 'errors', especially if they pander to what they think is the correct fact (it is often harder to feature the truth in a novel than what is the accepted truth). Even Ian Fleming made blunders about certain guns and holsters and things like that, and yet, none of his books seem to have been out of print in the whole of my lifetime. The other thing is that people often start writing fiction about what they know, their town or their job, and this allows them and others to have confidence, and from this, they build into being an author on broader issues.

A friend of mine always complained because I wrote stories about women or people from different cultures, that she felt I could not know anything about. I said, well it would be very tedious if all I produced were stories about a man in his thirties, working in an office and living in East London. Writing is about escapism, after all. I think we should take on the challenge of writing as different people. We can never have been all the people in any story, so we always have to look through the eyes of others. This perception we gain from observing and reading ourselves.  I used to set myself the task while sitting on London Underground trains, of describing, in my mind, the people sitting opposite me and I still find my descriptions of people are often stimulated by pictures I see. In fact, these days, for my stories, often I do not make up people or their clothing, I simply describe ones I find by surfing the internet.

For people who worry that they do not know enough about the world and the views of others, I always recommend that they start writing science fiction or fantasy novels, because then you are free to create the whole world and it does not matter if ice is lighter than water or not, or that a certain gun is of a particular calibre, or a town is not in a certain place - it does not matter, you decide all of those things for your world. When writing, it is astounding how quickly the fictional 'universe' takes on a logic of its own. Even in a contemporary piece, well-established characters quickly give momentum to the story in how they act and will be expect to act or respond to any situation.

The internet has revolutionised fiction writing. When I was writing in the 1980s and 1990s, I would spend hours pouring over factual books getting details especially for my stories set in 1920s Munich. I would have to get maps and lists of names appropriate for the time. I would have to read up on appropriate cars and clothing and weaponry (these were murder mysteries) and assemble them in a huge file. Now I can research as I write. If I want to describe a house in the Bavarian Alps, with some Googling I can find half-a-dozen pictures of them in minutes. If I want to find the distance between two towns, I use the AA website and get it in seconds.

Maybe this is why writing novels has become so popular, it is so much easier now to get accurate information quickly. I must say you do find, though, that sometimes you keep running up against identical resources, the same essays repeated again and again, sometimes simply translated into another language, but saying the same thing. This can be frustrating as you cannot push on beyond that level of knowledge about something. However, this has always been a problem for authors, even 'professional' ones. They have no greater ability to acquire knowledge than you or I do. The internet has democratised a reasonable level of knowledge and certainly can give you more than enough accurate data to produce credible stories.

The minutiae you can tap into is astounding. As in the past, authors benefit from the painstaking of people interested in individual towns or particular foods or trains or ferries or guns or police forces or whatever and writing about these things as a resource that fiction writers can also tap into. Just remember not to choke off your narrative with too much detail so the story drowns in it.  Few readers are fans of Cubist writing.  If you include too much detail you end up with something like 'The Mezzanine' by Nicholson Baker (1989) which is a novel entirely about one man's travel up an escalator during his lunch break and covers only a matter of seconds in time! Detail is good, we can get lots of it easily now, but, as Ian Fleming showed, it should not get in the way of a good story.

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