I’m going to write this entry in a markedly different style to demonstrate a point. I’m normally pernickety about starting a new paragraph every two to three sentences, or perhaps only one sentence to emphasise particularly pertinent information. A surprising number of people don’t leave enough paragraph breaks, or don’t leave any, which makes the text harder to read. If you analyse a newspaper or a novel, you’ll invariably find the first sentence of each paragraph indented by a few millimetres. This tiny gap indicates that the narrative is moving on and allows the eye to rest briefly. There are occasional exceptions, like the Will Self novel Shark, deliberately shunning paragraphs in favour of a single sentence that spans the whole narrative. The Look Inside feature on Amazon shows how the publisher prudently compensates for this by using wider line spacing. In the early days of the CD-ROM and the Web, it was quickly discovered that longer articles aren’t so easy to read on a PC, and not just because of screen brightness. The main difference is that it’s possible to turn your head or eyes quickly to see a whole double newspaper spread, giving a solid frame of reference, but a computer screen can typically only show part of the text at any given time without some input by the user. As such, additional eye rests are necessary, and professional websites will generally leave at least one line between paragraphs, often with additional negative space at the sides. A big shout-out must go to WordPress for its readability. Composing an entry is done in blocks, typically containing one paragraph or illustration, and as such, it encourages spacing. The publishing layout is also widely customisable – something that social media sites could learn from – so you can fill as much or as little of the screen as you need. If you’re a writer of any sort, one action that makes your work look instantly more professional is to leave paragraph spaces. It doesn’t have to be every two or three sentences like me; indeed, Virginia Woolf was known to use page-long paragraphs. Your reader’s eyes, however, will thank you for the occasional rest.
It came to my attention this week that Kirkton Community Centre in Dundee is on the market and there is a petition to stop the sale. The building also houses the local library. I haven’t been in for years, but only because it’s the wrong side of town for me.
My grandad lived around the corner and he would take me there every week. This was the first half of the 1990s, so I would have been aged between about seven and 12. As such, this was also before the Internet, so there were only books, newspapers and a small selection of video tapes.
I did read the occasional novel, especially those by Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but I don’t recall borrowing any from Kirkton library.
Instead, I always headed for the non-fiction section, where I’d borrow books about any and all subjects: building models from cardboard, how the weather behaves, running a shop, the ancient Egyptian way of life, &c. It never occurred to me to look at the catalogue system. My literary kicks came from simply rummaging around the shelves.
I could even find enjoyment in pure reference books. My grandad owned a thick Chambers dictionary from the 1970s that also contained a wealth of other data: the etymology of given names, ready reckoners for unit conversion, a guide to musical terms, &c. I still posess a copy, although mine is dated 1990. Even the BT Phonebook occupied much of my attention, with its pages of crisis helplines, or instructions about how to call a ship at sea.
All of which reminds me it’s been the longest time since I’ve visited my nearest library, just five minutes’ walk away. That’s only partly because of the lockdown; I’d used it only a handful of times even when it was open.
My favourite feature is the separate reading room, making it an ideal spot to work without the distractions of home. It would be entirely possible to set aside regular time to visit and to take out some books there once it’s open again. I could brush up on my knowledge of ancient Egypt.
It can be hard to believe that that even well-known writers might only be one piece of work away from losing popularity.
Experience helps a lot, from knowing your particular audience to being aware of wider trends – not to mention fads – in contemporary tastes. However, there is no telling for sure how the public will react to the next offering.
A good way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the winners of the Booker prize. Here’s a list from 1969 to 2014, in reverse chronological order.
Only a few of these have become household names, such as William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and double winner Hilary Mantel. But mention Aravind Adiga, JM Coetzee or even the first winner Bernice Rubens, and it’s likely you’ll need to give a little more context about who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t popular writers among their fans, merely that their work hasn’t caught on with the public the same way as their prized novels.
But who needs to be an outright success as an author? There is a term in publishing known as the midlist.
These are books from authors that don’t shift in great numbers, but do sell well enough to justify remaining in print. By its very nature, there are no great examples of midlist authors, because most of a publisher’s roster is likely to fall into this category. In fact, remove the handful of high earners and everyone else probably fits there.
This structure seems to be particularly true in non-fiction. Friends who have told me anecdotally that writing articles can bring in a steady enough income to justify their efforts.
So even if your next project doesn’t catch on as you expected, give it a little time and see whether it fits within the midlist.
Almost every writer who wants to be published will have to face rejection somewhere along the line. Perhaps it’s not what they’re looking for at that time; maybe they liked it, but other work was of a higher standard.
Last week, though, I was in the position when I had to turn down an offer. I have a friend – let’s call her Alice – who runs community engagement activities for a historic trust. This time, she was running an event for people aged 60 and over to share their memories for a children’s’ book. Unfortunately, one of the participants had fallen ill, but she had an unusual story of World War II that deserved to be told.
Alice furnished me with the important points. I considered the offer for six days, but I found it impossible to shape a poem or a story around the facts I was given.
The difficulty with biography is that when you don’t know the individual personally, it’s necessary to conduct a lot of research. There was a Middle Eastern leader some years ago who would carry out an hour of research for every minute he planned to spend with a visitor; inconveniently, my own research has not turned up this guy’s name.
I need to stress that this wasn’t Alice’s shortcoming, but from the information I was given, I felt I’d be unable to do justice to her story. So I made the decision to decline the offer, but not before referring Alice to a tutor friend who teaches life writing. I do hope the participant’s story can be told in a suitable manner.
Of course, if there’d been no requirement to tell a true story, I could easily have taken the available facts and fictionalised the rest. It would have been very different, but probably rather compelling.
I admitted in my first entry that I have only been writing for fiction three years. Today marks that third year.
On 29th October 2010, I joined National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) on a whim. A lot of online friends seemed to be doing it. Until then, I had written only non-fiction blog entries, so I can’t explain why I’d already had a book idea kicking around for months before this.
I didn’t initially tell anyone what I was doing,except for the active NaNoWriMo chapter I discovered in Dundee. At their meetings, and any moments I could grab, I bashed out my first novel Chris The Girl, set in the year 2525 when only women exist, and reproduce by the use of technology. I reached 50,042 words; just over the punishing target. I’ve successfully tackled it every year since, and will be starting again in a few days’ time.
Then in March 2011, I heard of a new local writing group. At school, I was forever being marked down for not writing long enough pieces, but after a few weeks, I started to think, “Chuffing Nora. I’m finding this easy.” I don’t know what changed in that ten-year gap but perhaps it was because our focus here was how to make the story flow, not on refining the grammar or making it fit an exam question.
Now I’ve written dozens of stories, and had a couple of them published, my first being with The Fiction Desk, while I haven’t really talked about my second, with FourW. My story The Almost Man will be published in their latest anthology. If you live in Australia, you can go along to one of their launch dates:
Wagga Wagga on Saturday 23rd November 2013 at Wagga Wagga City Library commencing at 2.00pm.
Melbourne on Sunday 24th November 2013 at the Robata Bar in St. Kilda commencing at 2.30 pm.
Sydney on Saturday 30th November 2013 at Gleebooks, Glebe Road, Glebe commencing at 3.30pm.
The one good element of starting late is that I’m not embarrassed by my earlier attempts. There are many people who go through their teenage notebooks and cringe at the clumsy metaphors or purple verse, whereas the worst I experience is spotting rough corners that could do with tidying up.
On the other hand, I’m very competitive and find it difficult to accept that I haven’t written nearly as much as I might have by this age. And that means I’ll forever be playing catch-up.