Penny Vincenzi

There was a full page article on the June 16 issue of The Daily Telegraph about Penny Vincenzi.  It was written by Byrony Gordon, who covers women’s issues for the Telegraph.  She says that “Penny Vincenzi’s books are an epic saga containing family secrets, romance and seriously strong women. ”  I’ve read one of Vincenzi’s novels (there are 17) and I would agree with this characterization.

Penny Vincenzi

One particular quote in the article caught my eye.  After saying that it takes her about a year to write a book and she never plots anything out, Gordon quotes Vincenzi, “I haven’t the faintest idea what is going to happen, ever.  I just get the kernel of the idea, which in this case was supposing a company was about to go under, and then the characters wander in.  I never have any idea what is going to happen at the end.  I truly don’t, which is why they are so long.”

Does she ever get writer’s block?
“Oh no,” she says with a shake of her head.  “I have a friend who does books, too, and he was party to a rather intense conversation about writing.  Someone asked, ‘What do you do when you get writer’s block?’ and he said, ‘I’m not clever enough to get writer’s block!’  I do think there’s an element of: ‘Oh, it’s my art, you can’t cut that bit out because  that’s the core’ .  I don’t agonise.  I do have terrible days when I realise I have gone down a completely blind alley and I’ve got to come back.  The only cure is to press the delete button, I’m afraid.  I once deleted 20,000 words and I felt much better after that.”

One has to admire this about Vincenzi: she has an extraordinary talent to write in what sounds like a stream-of-consciousness mode while at the same time having a keen awareness of what her readers like.  She is a successful writer and it works for her.

What caught my eye about this article was the contrast with my style.  I, too, take about a year to write a book, but I do a lot of charity work and my books are shorter than hers.  I write about 8 pages a week; she writes at least twice as much.  Part of the difference is that I do agonise, and I do a lot of editing in multiple stages.  For me, a novel has to be credible, and since I write ‘modern. real-world novels’, I spend plenty of time on research.  For example, I’m currently writing a novel which is partly set in north west Africa, and I want it to be accurate.  I also do quite a bit of planning: novel outline, chapter outlines, character portraits, and with my more recent novels: what’s the point of this novel?  what’s its message?  what would I like the reader to take away?  This message is, for me, the central nervous system of the novel.  The characters, the events all have to support this core sense.  If there is no core sense, the novel is just entertainment, but, of course, it can be delicious entertainment.

As to writer’s block, I would call it a barrier, rather than a blockage.  There are times, particularly in starting a new situation, when I’m unsure how to proceed.  I’ve learned that what’s necessary for me is to sit here and think about it.  An idea will present itself.  I’ll reject it.  Not good enough.  How about this?  I takes patience and perseverance, and sometimes – I agree with Vincenzi – it means starting over.

So, in a way, I envy the free-flowing style of Vincenzi, particularly when I’m trying to write something that engages our ideas, our emotions, our senses and our instincts all at once.  But the free-flowing style would not be me.



Literary Criticism

Many (most?) authors think about literary criticism.  We tend, after all, to be surrounded with it.  Some we like.  Some we don’t like, particularly criticism which we feel is unfair, or doesn’t understand what we are trying to achieve.  Ultimately, the challenge that criticism (fair or unfair, understanding or oblivious) offers those of us who write is to try to see the criticism from the critic’s point of view, and to take away at least something of value.

I think it’s interesting to compare criticism with creativity.  In a sense, they are opposite sides of the same coin.  Both activities involve the creative impulse.  The creative person (or author) produces something, and the critic evaluates it.  They are interdependent activities it the sense that creating without evaluation may produce rubbish, while the critic depends on the author to produce something.  As to which comes first (the chicken or the egg), I think that the creative impulse produces something and its existence calls the critic into being.  Both the critic and the author speak the language of creativity, but their philosophies in the use of the language are quite different.  The author uses the language to produce something which s/he sees as having value, while the critic’s urge is to find or evaluate that value.  I think it is fair to say that that both the author and the critic could benefit from having some of the skills of the other.  Certainly, authors could profit from having some of the critic’s ability to think about what is valuable.  And critics would be more effective if they had more understanding of and familiarity with the creative process.

What makes all of this quite interesting is that there are no objective standards for what ‘good’ is for a writer or a critic.  There are no tests to pass or qualifications to earn to be considered a ‘good writer’ or a ‘good critic’.  ‘Good literary critics’ tend to be ‘prominent’ or ‘recognised’ – whatever that means – and ‘good writers’ are viewed similarly.

One of the difficulties which authors have with literary criticism is: on what basis is my work being judged?  Is that a meaningful basis for my particular work? Critics seem to emphasise particular criteria as they evaluate a work.  For example:

  • Is the plot interesting and credible?
  • Are the characters truly human (or not)?
  • Is the setting believable or realistic?
  • What about the author’s use of language?
  • What about spelling, grammar and syntax?  (I read recently that a novel without any punctuation was awarded a major prize in the UK. Imagine what a nightmare that would be for the reader.)
  • What is the intended audience for this work?
  • Will this piece of work make money?  (Critics associated with main stream publishers put much emphasis on this.)
  • If we look at this piece of work from a philosophical, religious, ethical, sociological point of view, what do we find?
  • What ‘school of literature’ (if any) does this writer represent?

There are also various ‘schools’ of criticism, such as:

  • Reader Response Criticism: how and why will the reader (what sort of reader?) see this novel?
  • New or Formal Criticism which treats the work as a stand-alone entity, without reference to the author, the reader or historical context
  • Feminine Criticism: it’s all about gender or lack of gender: the text reflects a particular view of men or women?
  • Marxist Criticism: focuses on economic issue, capitalism and the plight of the poor
  • Historical Criticism: analyses the work from the perspective of history
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism: views the work through the lens of psychology
  • Authorial Criticism: to know the work one must know the author

So . . . Might it not be better of the author and the critic could actually discuss a critical point of view before it is published, not with the purpose of  ‘watering down’ or changing the criticism, but with gaining a clearer perspective of each other’s understanding and intentions?