Pessimistic (but Good)Advice

Harry Bingham, of Jericho Writers, in his email last week, had a rather sad story, and some good advice arising from the story. The key person in the story is Karen Jennings, the South African author.

Karen Jennings: ‘I finished the novel in 2017 and no one was interested.’
Karen Jennings

Harry said, “The Guardian newspaper ran an interview yesterday with a South African author, Karen Jennings.

“In one way, the article offers a standard literary tale. Roughly this: ‘Author writes book, this time about a lighthouse keeper and a refugee who washes up on his little island. Publisher buys book. Publisher publishes book. Book gets nominated for a major prize (in this case the Booker). Book increases its print run ten times over. Author suddenly starts to get a ton of positive attention. Big newspapers like the Guardian run flattering features. Life turns on its head.’

“You’ve already read a version of that story a million times, except that on this occasion there’s more honesty on view. The interview also tells us that Jennings finished the book in 2017. She didn’t (and doesn’t) have an agent. She found it very hard to get a publisher. When she did find one, (British micro press, Holland House), the team struggled to find anyone to endorse the book or give them a quote for the blurb. Prospects were so meagre that Holland House put out a print run of just five hundred copies (and it’s essentially impossible for anyone to make money at that level of sales.) When the book came out it was met, very largely, with silence.

“Loads of writers struggle to get an agent, struggle to get published, struggle to sell books, struggle to get that book noticed. That is pretty much the norm for our odd little industry. And, OK, on this occasion we’re talking about a micro press that is well used to dealing with small numbers. But the same phenomenon is common enough with the Big 5 houses as well. Yes, advances are generally larger and yes, sales expectations are consequently higher. But if your book gets a mediocre cover, it’ll die all the same. You don’t hear a lot about the books that just curl up and die, but there are a lot of them out there.

“This experience often calls for sacrifices. Karen Jennings is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been really poor for a very long time. I don’t have much of a social life either. You know, I don’t have fancy clothes. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a career the way other people have.’

“Now that outcome, it seems to me, is optional. I urge writers – and I mean YOU – to look after your income sensibly. That mostly means: get a job and write in your spare time. Or marry someone rich. Or win the lottery or strike oil in your back yard. Please don’t make the mistake of looking to writing for your livelihood.

“There are a thousand books out there as good as Jennings’s. Most of those will just sell a few copies then be forgotten. It’s perfectly likely that Jennings’s book will perform decently, but not win the Booker Prize.

“Take a book that did win the Booker Prize: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. That’s a major author winning a massive book prize – so it must be a great book, no? I mean, there can’t be any doubt about that, can there?

“Well, yes there can. Geoff Dyer, writing in the New York Times, commented: ‘This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written.’

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually, an anything), it struggles to overturn or challenge that idea.

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually,

“So the Julian Barnes convention says, “Julian Barnes is a great novelist. Here he is writing about some Big and Important Topics. So this must be a Big and Important Book. Let’s say how great it is.” Easier to do that than to read the book and do some real critical thinking about it.

“Let’s summarise some of these thoughts.

“One: you can’t trust that excellence alone will bring you to national or international prominence. That may well not happen. Excellence is not enough.

“Two: you can’t rely on critics to determine the value of your book. For one thing, the critics are mostly unlikely to read or comment on your book. For another, what they say is often nonsense or a basket of conflicting opinions.

“Three: once an opinion has formed, that opinion is likely to hold like iron, no matter what the actual reality of the situation.

“It sets out the landscape for us as writers:

  • You need to enjoy the process of writing, because you may not earn money or fame.
  • You need to enjoy the process of publishing, for the same reason.
  • You need to trust your own inner assessment of the book, because you may not get any meaningful external commentary – and what you do get may be unhelpful anyway.

I think Harry makes a vital point: the reason we write is that we enjoy writing, not because we are seeking fame and fortune. If we start writing to achieve fame and fortune, we will almost certainly be disappointed.

Review: Of Human Bondage

Having never read any Somerset Maugham, I decided to read this one. Perhaps I would have been better advised to pick out one of his shorter novels – this one is exactly 700 pages – but as a semi-biographical novel, it gave me an insight into both his writing and his personality.

W Somerset Maugham

Maugham was born in the British embassy in Paris (and was therefore British) to the British lawyer, who handled the embassy’s legal affairs, and his wife. Both his parents died before he was ten and he was put into the care of his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, Kent. He attended the King’s school in Canterbury, where his small stature and a stutter made him the butt of jokes by his contemporaries. He wrote steadily from the age of 15, and at 16 his uncle allowed him to study in Heidelberg, where he wrote his first book and had an affair with an Englishman ten years his elder. He returned to London, where, after a stint as an accountant, he studied medicine and was qualified as a doctor. In 1897, he published his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth, the immediate success of which persuaded him to abandon medicine and take up writing as a career. Maugham was particularly financially successful as a playwright, but he wrote short stories, travel books and a long list of novels. He was married in 1917 to Syrie Welcome, with whom he had a daughter in 1915. The marriage was unhappy, the couple separated, and Maugham lived most of the rest of his life on the French Riviera with a male partner. In 1962, Maugham sold a series of paintings which he had given to his daugher, Liza, who took him to court and won. The writer descended into mental illness, and unseemly vituperations which hurt his commercial image. He died in 1965.

Of Human Bondage is set in about 1900 and parallels Maugham’s real life until the protagonist, Philip Carey, becomes a qualified physician. As a nine-year-old, Philip is orphaned and put in the care of his uncle, the vicar of Blackstable. He is a shy, introverted boy, with club foot, who is harassed by his classmates at boarding school. Rather than accept a scholarship at Oxford, Philip goes to study art at Heidelberg University. In the company of an assortment of artistic friends, he discovers that he has little talent as an artist, and returns to London where he is an apprentice accountant for a brief spell before entering medical school. He meets Mildred a lower class waitress, who treats him with indifference, but he falls passionately in love with her. Mildred leaves Philip repeatedly for others, and descends into prostitution. While working at a hospital, Philip befriends a family man, Thorpe Athelny. Philip looses all his money on a failed investment and descends into abject poverty. He reconnects with Athelny who has an attractive but ordinary daughter, Sally. Sally and Philip admire each other, but do not profess love. Philip receives an inheritance from his uncle which allows him to finish medical school and be qualified. Sally fears she is pregnant. Philip decides to give up his dream of travelling the world to marry Sally. She tells him she is not pregnant, and that he is free to go. Philip decides to marry Sally and take up a post as a rural doctor.

Of Human Bondage is considered Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece. When it was issued (1915) it was criticized in both the the UK and the US. However, Theodore Dreiser, an influential American novelist and critic called it a work of genius and compared it to a Beethoven symphony. It has never been out of print since. Maugham himself was modest about his talent, saying that he was in the very first row of second class writers. In spite of its seven hundred page length, I found it calling me when I put it down. It is rich in characters, ideas, emotions and events. One has an almost constant desire to find out what happens next, and it is seldom what the reader anticipates. Maugham rarely ‘shows’; he ‘tells’, but most of his telling is about the intricate thought processes and feeling of the characters. In all their complexity they become knowable to the reader. Maugham derived the title from a passage in Ethics by Barch Spinoza: “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master … so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him.”

I have two criticisms of this novel. First, I find Philip’s passion for Mildred difficult to understand. She is unattractive, rude, selfish and fundamentally stupid. She should have been given one or two redeeming features. Second, the intricacies of Philip’s many friendships are, in only a few cases, contributing to the wealth of the novel. A modern editor would cut heavily in that area. Of Human Bondage has to be read as a great piece of historic fiction, not as a modern novel, which would be judged on today’s very competitive standards.

Can White Authors Write Black Characters?

There is an article on the HuffPost website by Lorraine Devon Wilke, dated 22 October 2017, with the title “Are White Authors Not Allowed To Tell Stories Involving Black Characters?” This interested me as I have recently written a novel in which a black billionaire is a principal character.

Author, artist, and cultural commentator, Lorraine Devon Wilke, shares her unique take on everything from the inflamed landscape of politics and evolving social mores, to the ever-changing influence of media, entertainment, and art. 

Lorraine Devon Wilke

Ms Wilke said, in part: “Storytellers are the chroniclers of our life and times. They memorialize history, dissect our complex and evolving world; they entertain and provoke and captivate. They are as diverse and eclectic as the characters they create and the stories they tell. It is their job to reflect who we are, what we experience, and what we can imagine. That’s a big canvas. It’s huge. And there’s no end to the variety of colors and hues that can be drawn upon it. Just as there is no end to the variety of artists weaving the tales drawn there.

Yet some believe there are rules to who gets to use which colors, who gets to draw outside the lines to tell stories that involve characters from different cultures. Some believe issues of race can only be voiced from within limited perspectives. Who gets to decide that? Who determines the answer to the title question?

I am a white author telling a story that involves black characters. This, as Anthony Horowitz, who’d been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his ten novels: was warned, is not considered “appropriate.” It’s seen as “patronizing.” Though, in following that paradigm, who, then, would be able to tell the story of an interracial relationship if neither race can write about the other? Personally, I find that to be madness, but I’ve now had agents from three different high-profile literary agencies specifically cite “appropriation” as their reasons for rejection:

  1. The first felt my “whiteness is kind of a problem,” she wrote: “This is a well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current… but there may be an issue of whose voice gets to represent race.”

2. The second asserted she couldn’t take it on because of “all the concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ these days.”

3. The third felt the black male protagonist “didn’t sound black enough.” I won’t even parse that implication.

But the message was clear, at least from the point of view of these particular gatekeepers: white authors writing black characters are unmarketable. Beyond “inappropriate,” “these are brutal times in fiction and we’re not comfortable representing a book, no matter how good or worthy, in which that issue is present.”

How do we feel about that? As readers, writers, and consumers of cultural content?

I find it dangerous. I find it censuring. I find it condescending and discriminatory. I find any limitation to writers of any race to be the antithesis of art.

Industries, like the publishing industry, pendulate wildly as they attempt to transcend and reinvent, often without clarity about what’s next or what new turn culture might take while they’re trying to survive. So I get it. I get a literary agent telling me she “doesn’t have the courage” to take on a book that might stir controversy, that might garner commensurate cowardice from the publishers she’s trying to sell it to. It’s a business; she’s gotta make a living,

But if a book with black characters written by a white author is a “well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current,” and if that book — presented with fully-fleshed characters, with depth, sensitivity, and authentic reflections of all ethnicities involve — is rejected simply because it might trigger discomfort about “cultural appropriation,” what is the underlying message?

Literary discrimination. Artistic cowardice. Market segregation.

Is that really what we want from our artistic gatekeepers? Fear of controversy? Cultural timidity? The negation of an entire demographic of voices who dare to include diversity outside their own? Have we really come to a time of such hair-trigger sensitivity that we require our storytellers to limit their imaginations to only the race, creed and color they are?

Tell that to Harper Lee.

What Faulkner Had to Say About Writing

Amanda Patterson has a post on the Writer’s Write website on the ten comments William Faulkner made about writing.

Ms Patterson, on her Twitter site says, “I love books. I always carry two with me – one to write in and one to read.”

William Faulkner was an American writer, who died in 1962. He is a Nobel Prize winner who wrote primarily about the South. He offered plenty of advice to young writers in 1957 and 1958, when he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. His lectures and public talks were recorded and can heard at the university’s Faulkner audio archive. He was also interviewed extensively over the years.

William Faulkner
  1. Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing. Being ‘a writer’ means being stagnant. The act of writing shows movement, activity, life. When you stop moving, you’re dead. It’s never too soon to start writing, as soon as you learn to read. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  2. I think it best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It’s best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognisable touches. (From What’s the Good Word?)
  3. Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window. (The Western Review)
  4. I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says… You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive… After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical. (From a University of Virginia graduate class in American fiction)
  5. [A good novelist] must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  6. The real truths come from human hearts. Don’t try to present your ideas to the reader. Instead, try to describe your characters as you see them. Take something from one person you know, something from another, and you yourself create a third person that people can look at and see something they understand. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  7. For [writing] fiction the best age is from thirty-five to forty-five. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from seventeen to twenty-six. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed into one rocket.” (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  8. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  9. You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretences. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression. (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  10. Probably any story that can’t be told in one sentence or at least one paragraph is not worth writing. (University of Virginia Q&A)

I think there are some very good points here. I particularly like his comments about bringing characters to life before writing about them. His comments about just trying to be better than yourself, and the one-sentence story make a lot of sense.

5 Pieces of Common Writing Advice You Should Absolutely Ignore

There is an article with this title written by Stephanie London on Writers Digest two days ago.

Originally from Australia, Stefanie lives in Toronto with her very own hero and is doing her best to travel the world. She frequently indulges in her passions for good coffee, lipstick, romance novels and anything zombie-related. She is a multi-award-wining USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romances and romantic comedies.

Photo credit:    Jimmy America   .
Stephanie London

Excerpts from her article are below.

“1. Show, don’t tell.

We’ve all heard the “moon glinting on broken glass” example of how to show rather than tell. However, this advice often seems to be applied too rigidly. Telling isn’t bad. Telling provides clarity and certainty.

One area where I find telling to be necessary is your character’s goal. In this instance, you can first tell and then show. It’s actually the layering of telling and showing which makes for a powerful story. However, if we spend the whole story showing your character working toward something without ever having the character acknowledging in uncertain terms, the attainment of that goal won’t have the same impact. Or worse, the reader may not actually know what the goal is or why the character wants to achieve it.”

I’ve been reading Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. Obviously, he never heard of ‘show don’t tell’, but he uses the telling very effectively in giving the reader a clear view of what’s going on inside the protagonist’s head and of what he is feeling. The reader is well prepared when there is action and the showing.

“2. Write what you know.

I understand the theory behind this advice. Yes, we want to get our facts straight and write with authority. But this idea is completely limiting if you don’t ever give yourself room to step outside what you know. Besides, anything you don’t know can be researched. And the process of stepping beyond what we know to learn something new or to investigate an experience that doesn’t line up with our own is ultimately what will make us a more empathetic and well-rounded writer in the long run.”

Of the ten books I have written (eight are published to date), only three are based largely on my own experience, and these three have no extra critical acclaim. Seeking Father Khalik is based in the Middle East, and is about Islam. I spent as much time researching for it as I did writing it. It was well received.

“3. Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.

We want our writing to be clear and to allow the story or message to take centre stage. And we’ve all read prose where it sounds like the author had a thesaurus open on their desk. Some things to consider when it comes to word choice, however, are cadence and character.

Always opting for short words can give the cadence of your writing a very monotonous feel. Just as we should vary our sentence lengths, we should also vary our word length to avoid our writing feeling as though it drags. This is especially important now as many books are being put into audio format where a monotonous cadence is very obvious!

It’s also important, especially for character-driven fiction, that the word choice is appropriate for the character. If all your words are chosen for their short length, then your characters may end up sounding the same.”

I keep a thesaurus handy when I’m writing because now and then the word that comes to mind doesn’t express what I want to say. So I find a better synonym. Hemingway would probably agree with this advice. His novels are remarkable for their simplicity of language

“4. Don’t edit as you go (aka write now, edit later).

I’m going to contradict myself a bit here because I do generally follow this advice. However, this doesn’t work for all writers! That’s because there’s no style of writing that works universally for everyone. Some writers need to tweak as they go in order to fully understand the story they’re telling. I know plenty of writers who do their writing and editing in the same pass, which results in a very clean first version. Editing, for these writers, is part of their creative process.

One time you may want to ignore this even if you usually write now and edit later is if you have a strong feeling the book is going in the wrong direction. Going back to the start of the book can help you get your story on track and save you more wasted time in the long run.”

I tend to edit while I’m writing, edit again when I’ve finished a chapter, and when the manuscript is complete. Then I’ll edit again in response to my editor’s comments.

“5. Write every day.

Similar to the last piece of advice, anything which prescribes a certain way being the correct way is to be approached with caution. If you’re the kind of person who’s motivated by streaks or momentum, then writing every day may work. For plenty of writers, however, even very successful ones, writing every single day isn’t always practical, sustainable, or conducive to a creative work environment.

Personally, I write four to five days per week. I need the weekend to let my stories percolate in the background and when I’ve tried to write to seven days per week in the past, I was actually less productive. I know writers who write less than this with much success. There are also people who “binge write” where they’ll have huge word counts for a few weeks and then not write anything for the next few weeks while they refill the creative well.”

When I’m really engaged with a novel, I try to write every day, but the length of time can vary from between two and eight hours. I’ve started on my eleventh novel, but I’ve set it aside so I can focus on learning Italian. But, I’ll come back to it, incorporating some of the ideas I’ve had in the meantime.

P D James Talks About Writing

Although she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 42, Phyllis Dorothy James had been writing since childhood. A celebrated crime writer, she penned more than 20 books, including the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series. A year before her death in 2014, at the age of 94, she talked to Allison Feeney-Hart of BBC News.

P D James

“You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.

You absolutely should write about what you know. There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer. You have to learn to stand outside of yourself. All experience, whether it is painful or whether it is happy is somehow stored up and sooner or later it’s used.

I love situations where people are thrown together in unwelcome proximity. where all kinds of reprehensible emotions can bubble up. I think you must write what you feel you want to write because then the book is genuine and that comes through.

I believe that someone who can write, who has a feeling for words and knows how to use them will find a publisher. Because after all, publishers do still need to find new writers. We all get old and we die and that’s that and there have to be successors.

I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are?

Some people have to have the room, the pen and others do everything on a computer. I write by hand and I can write more or less anywhere as long as I’ve got a comfortable chair, a table, an unlimited amount of biros to write with and lined paper to write on. And then the next day when my PA comes, which she does at 10 o’clock, then I’ve got quite a lot to dictate to her and she puts it on to the computer, prints it out and I do the first revision.

In a sense, therefore, I revise as I go. It’s important to get up early – before London really wakes and the telephone calls begin and the emails pile up. This is the best time for me, the time of quiet in the morning,

Goodness gracious, how the world of publishing has changed! It is much easier now to produce a manuscript with all the modern technology. It is probably a greater advantage now, more than ever before, to have an agent between you and the publisher.

Everything has changed and it’s really quite astonishing, because people can self-publish now. I would once have thought that that was rather a self-defeating way of doing it but actually publishers do look at what is self-published and there are examples of people picking up very lucrative deals.

To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don’t think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don’t think about it or talk about it, get the words down.

It is undoubtedly a lonely career, but I suspect that people who find it terribly lonely are not writers. I think if you are a writer you realise how valuable the time is when you are absolutely alone with your characters in complete peace. I think it is a necessary loneliness for most writers – they wouldn’t want to be always in the middle of everything having a wonderful life. I’ve never felt lonely as a writer, not really, but I know people do.

Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting. I think I have a strong response to what I think of as the ‘spirit of a place’. I remember I was looking for an idea in East Anglia and standing on a very lonely stretch of beach. I shut my eyes and listened to the sound of the waves breaking over the pebble shore. Then I opened them and turned from looking at the dangerous and cold North Sea to look up and there, overshadowing this lonely stretch of beach was the great, empty, huge white outline of Sizewell nuclear power station. In that moment I knew I had a novel. It was called Devices and Desires.

Never go anywhere without a notebook because you can see a face that will be exactly the right face for one of your characters, you can see place and think of the perfect words to describe it. I do that when I’m writing, I think it’s a sensible thing for writers to do.

I’ve written little bits of my next novel, things that have occurred to me. I’ve got the setting already. I’ve got the title, I’ve got most of the plot and I shall start some serious writing of it next month, I think.

I never talk about a book before it is finished and I never show it to anybody until it is finished and I don’t show it to anybody even then, except for my publisher and my agent. Then there is this awful time until they phone.

I’m usually pretty confident by the time I’ve sent it in but I have those moments when I think, ‘well I sent it to them on Friday, by Saturday night they should be ringing up to say how wonderful it is!’

I’m always aware that people might have preferences and think that one book is better than another.

I am lucky to have written as many books as I have, really, and it has been a joy. With old age, it becomes very difficult. It takes longer for the inspiration to come, but the thing about being a writer is that you need to write.

What I am working on now will be another detective story, it does seem important to write one more. I think it is very important to know when to stop.

Some writers, particularly of detective fiction, have published books that they should not have published. I don’t think my publisher would let me do that and I don’t think my children would like me to. I hope I would know myself whether a book was worth publishing. I think while I am alive, I shall write. There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”

I usually try to edit pieces like this, because I’m conscious that most of you don’t want to read a long wheeze. But with this piece, as I read through it, the warmth and openness of Ms James prevents editing. I agree with everything she said, except that I’ve never been motivated and clinical enough to carry a notebook to record my observations.


I received an email from Harry the boss of Jericho Writers on the 7th of May. I’ve been saving it to share with you.

Harry Bingham

Harry said:

“One of the strangest experiences in any author’s life arrives the moment they sign their first two-book deal. (And yes: fiction is normally sold in chunks of two. There’s no rigorous logic operating there, except that the first book is the one that attracted the publisher and the second one gives them another opportunity to profit from the success of the first. It also, incidentally, gives them the opportunity to compound their loss if the first book loses money, as most first books do. And yes: Publishing Logic is not really the same thing as actual Logic-Logic.)
Anyway: we were talking about strangeness. And your first book almost certainly came to you in a rush of inspiration. Yes! I have to write that story. My head is full of these characters, these events, and I have to set them down. That opening burst of inspiration eventually produced a manuscript, some rejections, an acceptance and a book deal. Well done you.
But it also produces, right now, the expectation – indeed, the contractual obligation – that you will write another book of the same standard. Yikes! That inspiration? Where did it come from? How do you invoke it? How do you ask it to strike again, in the exact same spot as before, and in a timely enough way that you can meet the date written into your contract? The ask seems impossible. Seems – and sometimes is. I know a couple of authors whose second books simply didn’t meet the levels of their first.
In one case, I know the author simply bashed out a serviceable but uninspired second novel because she didn’t know what else to do. Her career never recovered. But there are solutions. There are ways for you to invoke that inspiration. To find it reliably and, as it were, to order. The trick is to forget about the bolt of lightning. That’s not what you’re looking for. You’re searching for the tickle of interest, a quickening of interest, the red thread lying in the blue.
Here’s a news story that tickled me today: The sheriff’s office announced Monday that [a woman from’ Salt Lake County], who had been missing since before Thanksgiving, had been found alive in an area not far from where she was camping. Authorities said the woman, who had yet to be publicly identified, “had lost a significant amount of weight and was weak” when she was found. She was lauded by the sheriff’s office as “resourceful,” living off grass, moss and water from a river. “We now believe she knowingly chose to remain in the area over the months since November 2020,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release. The bit I love about that is the grass and the moss. It’s such a great novelistic detail.
“Living off squirrels, edible tubers and insects” would have given a totally different and (to me) less interesting tale. Or another example: I was with a friend yesterday, who told me that she’d had a spate of burst tyres on her car. Each time she had a burst tyre, she got a call the next day from her (rather dodgy) ex, asking how she was. When she became suspicious at these coincidences, she checked her car and found a tracking device fixed to the inside rim of her wheel arch.
Or – Well, when I was wondering what to write about for my last book, I started browsing the website of the National Crime Agency and other similar outfits. There, I saw some references to antiquities fraud, which intrigued me. That criss-crossed with the idea that King Arthur was a genuine figure of the early Welsh Dark Ages. And what if …? What you notice here is that the story never arrives fully formed. It doesn’t even really present itself as a story, exactly. Not even the raw material for a story. At most, it presents as a kind of doorway into something. A portal. It is your task to bundle your way through that opening. To be active, not passive. So the woman in Utah with the moss and the grass: why was she there? What was it like for her? Was she running from something? Or to something? Who missed her? Who was looking for her? I don’t have much interest in what the actual answers to those questions are. Personally, I tend to discard the actual facts of any real-world story pretty quickly. It’s your answers that matter, not the actual facts of the case. Take that friend with the dodgy ex. The person in question threw the tracker away, changed her phone number, cut any kind of contact with the nutter. That was the end of her story, but your story would leave the actual facts almost immediately. Maybe she put a tracker on his car? Or started to mess with his head by popping her tracker onto the side of a lorry bound for France. Or …? The moral here, really, is that life – and your reading, and your existing interests – already furnish you with a million ideas for stories, far more than you could ever write. Your task is to notice those trembles of interest, then explore actively. Discard anything that doesn’t open out into something yet more inviting. Explore the pathways left open as deeply and actively as you can. “Actively” here means reading. It means writing. It means starting to write notes on possible stories. Inspiration can strike anyone, anywhere. But it only kindles fire when you’re at your desk, ready and working.

Harry makes an excellent point in his email. Inspiration is about exploring the hundreds of prompts we get from our native curiosity, and then arranging the answers into a story than has meaning for the reader and captures his/her attention.


The May 16 blog on Reader Views is written by Megan Weiss and it’s titled: Grief, A Reflection of What We Love – A Central Role in Fiction.

She says: “I have had a passion for reading and writing since I was in junior high. Books are treasures, and I have always believed that knowledge is one of the best tools anyone can have, in any and all forms. I remember starting to write silly little stories when I was in elementary school, and gradually experimented with longer, more serious works as I grew older and got into high school. I did not initially intend to be a writer when I grew up, but the more experience I obtained and the more books I read, the further I got pulled into the literary world. I like to think that I did not find writing as a career, writing found me and taught me where I truly belong in the world.”

Megan Weiss

In the blog, Ms Weiss says, “The thing about grief is that though it has an exact definition, it has no straight path or timetable.  It does not follow psychological rules or care about what stage of your life you are going through.  Grief only cares about making you feel.

According to Psychology Today, one of the most common misconceptions we have about grieving is that there is any kind of real “process” or “correct” way to go through it.  We have all heard the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  The truth is, however, that these stages were never meant to be applied to the grief process that follows the death of a loved one.  Instead, these stages were derived in order to help people cope with being diagnosed with their own terminal illnesses.  Somewhere along the way, however, people began to draw parallels between the personal grief process that comes after receiving terrible, life changing news and the more commonly accepted grief process that comes with death. 

Grief has no stage.

It follows its own track, at its own speed, and all we can do is ride the rollercoaster until it finally comes to an end one day.  Even then, however, the feeling never truly goes away.  It stays with you, like that feeling of having your stomach drop out from under you as you hurtle down the hill of a giant coaster.  Even after your feet are back on the ground, there is part of you that is still waiting for the rest of you to catch up.

Grief is not simple.

It is not meant to be.  It is different for each person, and each loss, and that means that no one should force themselves to “feel” according to a certain schedule or rule. 

Grief plays a central role in fiction.

There is something quite intimate about reading along with a character who is going through a loss – maybe even one that a reader can relate to.  Books that feature grief, death and loss allow those who are bereaved to have a safe avenue through which to process and express their inner tangle of dark, twisty emotions.  It helps the reader to know that they are not alone in experiencing such a state of despair. 

Fiction that features grief, death and loss also goes one step further: it helps readers to see how there is still light.  The tunnel might be dark and long right in that very moment in time, but just like the main character of a book, eventually the light will come back into their lives and they will be able to live again.  And usually, once you climb up out of the black hole of grief, the life we continue living is enhanced, because we are filled with a new purpose and vigor: to live the life our loved one was not able to have.”

I like Ms Weiss’ point that there is no correct personal definition of Grief: there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and no correct formula for getting past it. In my novel, Granduncle Bertie, which will be out later this year, there is considerable exploration of death: of a child, of a brother, of an adult son, and of several older people. In spite of all that, it is not a sad book, but it is true that the affected characters all deal with their grief in different ways.

One Star for Megan

Wednesday’s edition of the Mail Online has the headline: “Meghan Markle’s children’s book The Bench is branded ‘bland’, ‘shallow’ and ‘uninspired’ by US readers as it fails to move past number 100 on Amazon’s bestseller list after being met with abysmal reviews in the UK.”

The article was written by Charlie Lankston for the Daily Mail and Harriet Johnston for the Mail Online.

“The debut book by the Duchess of Sussex 39, was inspired by a poem she wrote for Prince Harry’s first Father’s Day the month after Archie was born, and explores the ‘special bond between father and son’ as ‘seen through a mother’s eyes’. 

However readers on both side of the pond were left very unimpressed by the $18.99 tome, with one children’s librarian in the US slamming it as having ‘no characters, no fun, no adventure.  I’m a children’s librarian, and I’m chagrined this book will now be part of our library. It is not a book for children,’ the person wrote, before opining that the book was only ever published because of Meghan’s celebrity status.

They went on: ‘It’s barely a book at all actually, just a set of poorly-rhyming platitudes on how to parent. I would be shocked if anyone gave this 5 stars if the author was an anonymous person (actually, the book wouldn’t have gotten published at all). 

‘It distresses me that Meghan (excuse me, “the duchess”) reportedly received a half-million dollar advance for this drivel, when there are so many well-deserving authors who struggle to make ends meet. Please, try their works out instead. If you need help, your local library would be delighted to offer suggestions.’

No major US media outlet included an official review of the book in its coverage. There was plenty of criticism posted online however, with many Amazon users expressing extreme disappointment in its ‘bland’ and ‘uninspired’ storyline. 

‘Boring preachy storyline and lackluster illustrations. Ms Markle is not a children’s author,’ one person commented. 

Meghan dedicated the book to Prince Harry and Archie, saying they make her heart go ‘pump-pump’, and wrote alongside a picture of a father and son playing with toy dinosaurs: ‘When life feels in shambles, you’ll help him find order.’  

But some readers called out the mother-of-two for penning a book about the bond between a father and his child when she is estranged from her own dad, Thomas Markle. Another added: ‘Ugh. She hates her father and has alienated Harry from his and she writes [a] kids book about fatherhood?’ 

The Telegraph’s Claire Allfree called The Bench ‘semi-literate’, writing: ‘One wonders how any publisher could have thought fit to publish this grammar-defying set of badly rhyming cod homilies, let alone think any child anywhere would want to read it. But that’s planet Sussex for you, where even the business of raising a family is all about the brand.’ “

For me, the nail in the coffin is the dedication: “For the man and the boy who make my heart go pump – pump”. What in the world does her heart normally do? It’s drivel. I believe that it takes plenty of literary skill, a vivid imagination, and great empathy to be a successful writer of children’s books. In the long run, brand means nothing.

Where to Buy Books?

There is an article in the News York Times by Dani Blum dated April 30, 2021 and updated May 4; in investigates the conflicting when we are buying a book between the desire to support our local bookstore and the convenience and cost of buying on line.

Dani Blum is a news assistant at the New York Times. She has written for Pitchfork, GQ, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Daily Beast, MTV News, Redfinery29, Cosmopolitan, Philadelphia magazine and other publications.

Ms Blum says: ” For those who want to discover and support new writers, rather than waiting for splashy releases, independent bookstores tend to be a better option. Authors generally get paid the same amount no matter where their book is sold, said Allison Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association. But books without large marketing campaigns behind them have a greater chance of being discovered at an independent bookstore. ‘If you want to support debut authors, or mid-list authors, or certain voices, those books are going to be more apparent in an independent bookstore,’ she said.

‘Discoverability is essential, and it’s very difficult,’ said Regina Brooks, the founder and president of Serendipity Literary Agency in Brooklyn. Black bookstores, in particular, have become a space for making debut authors more visible, she said.

Independent bookstores and Barnes & Noble also host events with authors — the Booksmith in San Francisco hosted 300 events a year before the pandemic, a representative said — that can raise awareness about books and encourage sales. During the pandemic, some stores pivoted to online events; Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, for example, hosts several Zoom events per week.

‘If independent bookstores disappeared, authors would be screwed,’ said Dennis Johnson, co-founder and publisher of Melville House, a bookstore and press based in Brooklyn. ‘When there are fewer bookstores in the landscape, there are fewer book sales and fewer people just aware of books.’

If you can’t order directly from a bookstore, e-commerce sites like IndieBound and allow you to purchase from independents, which receive a cut of the profits. Keeping independent bookstores in business enables them to continue to support authors. While has been a lifeline for bookstores during the pandemic, it’s better to shop directly from an independent bookstore’s website if they have one, said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, since they receive the full profit from your purchase. Many bookstores currently offer curbside pick up, which costs them less than shipping and delivering books.

And if you do buy from Amazon, pre-ordering books can be helpful for writers, said Kate McKean, vice president at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency — particularly since Amazon tends to send more data to publishers about pre-orders, which can indicate a book’s popularity. Amazon designates its best-sellers, which can attract more readers to find and notice books.

Publishers usually make slightly more money when their books are bought at independent bookstores, said Andy Hunter, the founder of That’s partly because retail giants like Amazon offer different rates to different publishers, he explained. A representative from Amazon declined to comment on revenue share between Amazon and publishers.

Supporting small presses, which have strained to weather the industry’s fluctuations during the pandemic, can take the form of shopping from independent bookstores. These stores and presses often have relationships to each other, Ms. Hill said. ‘Independent bookstores support independent publishers. That’s a tight community,’ she said. ‘The book industry is such a delicate ecosystem. Supporting independent bookstores keeps the ecosystem healthy.’

Barnes & Noble is also a crucial part of the book retail ecosystem, Ms. Hill said, and a crucial outlet for writers and publishers. The key is to ‘spread it around,’ Ms. McKean said. ‘If we only shop at one retailer, that’s bad for everybody.’

If you want the fastest delivery it’s hard to beat Amazon on shipping speed. The retail giant offers free domestic shipping between five to eight days of ordering for all users and two-day shipping for Amazon prime members.

If you want the lowest cost, Amazon also largely wins out on price. ‘Most indie bookstores will be transparent with the fact that oftentimes, we can’t compete with Amazon on prices,’ said James Odum, communications director for The Strand bookstore in New York City.

If you want the best selection. For readers seeking the largest possible range of reading options, Amazon features over three million books available online. Book recommendations are surfaced through both an algorithm customized to the individual user and through an updated list from Amazon book editors.

‘Independent bookstores can order nearly any book anyone wants,’ said Mr. Graham. Beyond the breadth of selection, independent bookstores have the benefit of more curated selections, with individual booksellers advocating for their favourite books. ‘There’s really no algorithm equivalent to it, said Amy Stephenson, a representative for the Booksmith in San Francisco.”

After reading the above arguments, I’ll have to admit to having a new-found preference for shopping at the Waterstones shop in the nearby mall. Amazon may be fast and cheap, but it only sees books in monetary terms, and not in artistic terms, as book stores see them.