Those Necessary Sympathetic, Rounded Characters: A Classic Novel Without Them

220px-Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_NevadaIn my last two posts, I discussed the dismal topic of getting really scathing reviews, and how a novice writer friend of mine had her confidence knocked through being on the receiving end of a particularly savage one.

On that, I’d like to add that perhaps that  is better than the lukewarm reaction over my latest I got from an associate the other day: – ‘I’ve been reading your book.  It’s all right; but nothing like as good as the first. Maybe I’m just tired of Gothic. I’m glad you’re doing something different with your next.’

I see.  Thanks for that.

Now, in a way, isn’t that indifference almost worse than having someone write a rant instead of a review of your book?

Anyway, I was wtiting about whether or not it is necessary to have sympathetic characters in order to like or become fascinated by a book, and how far this depends upon genre.

Then – wait for it, regular readers – I mentioned how in fact, I didn’t really care for any of the characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

I might as well add at once, that I found it hard to sympathize with the active whaling community depicted in the book. I tried, by doing that act of  historical distancing which allowed me to see that while they were decimating the whale population, they couldn’t see it, or that it was wrong. For all that, the descriptions of the battles which the Specksioneer (Chief Harpooner) Charley Kinraid and the heroine’s ex-whaler father have with the whales may have impressed Victorians as heroic, but struck me as downright barbaric and pitiful.

I have written before of how unsympathetic I find the two flawed heroes, the lovers (in the old fashioned sense) of the heroine Sylvia Robson: Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn.

The romantic interest, Charley Kinraid, ‘the boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, is dark and handsome, hearty, fearless, a brilliant raconteur, able to drink endlessly without showing it, the life and soul of the party, irresistible to women and admired by men. In short, he is an early example of the  ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’ described by a blogger:

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MartyStu

‘His gravity is so great, he draws all the attention and causes other characters (and, often, reality itself) to bend and contort in order to accommodate him and elevate him above all other characters. Characters don’t act naturally around him – guys wish to emulate him and all the girls flock to him regardless of circumstances. They serve as plot enablers for him to display his powers or abilities… He dominates every scene he is in, with most scenes without him serving only to give the characters a chance to “talk freely” about him…’

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This, basically, is why Charley Kinraid, though overwhelming, isn’t convincing. As Graham Handley observes, he ‘comes but fitfully to life’.  He is a walking macho stereotype. Such a man would never suffer form sea sickness, or fall flat on his face.

Philip Hepburn has the misfortune to be the polar opposite of a Black Hole Marty Stu. He is the indoors type with a sallow complexion, quiet, humourless,  and influenced by his grim quasi stepmother Alice Rose into the belief that any form of fun is sinful. Nobody admires him but Alice’s daughter. As an early critic observed, his whole personality seems to revolve around his obsession with Sylvia.

This might be interesting, for a short infatuation; but his drags on during years of indifference from Sylvia, who makes it painfully obvious that she worships his rival. This makes him a dismal character to read about.

Generally, then, to me, both flawed heroes seem curiously one dimensional and incomplete, as if they need to merge into each other to form one three dimensional character. As if in some bizarre way they are aware of this, they seem to be more interested in their rivalry towards each other than they do in the heroine Sylvia Robson.

At first I sympathised with Sylvia in her longing to have adventures at sea herself. However, as this is impossible for a respectable Victorian girl, she can only realise this wish by transforming it into a longing to have the man who personifies those adventures.

Unfortunately, then Sylvia Robson suffers the fate of any female character who falls for a Black Hole Marty Stu – she remains trapped forever in his event horizon, seemingly frozen in time and seemingly static, though she has in fact, vanished. In other words, she ceases to have an independent existence of her own.

Part of this dissolution of her personality is bound up in her tragic fate. She believes that Charley Kinraid is dead, but in fact, he has been taken by the press gang, and though Philip Hepburn knows, he keeps quiet about it so that he can marry her himself. Naturally, Kinraid returns, imagining that they are still troth plighted.  Sylvia swears never to forgive Hepburn. In the end, after Kinraid has humiliated her through an astonishingly speedy marriage to an heiress, and Hepburn has heroically saved both Kinraid and her daughter, she does.

Most of the time for the second two volumes, the once high spirited and rosy Sylvia is depicted as pale and suffering, mourning Kinraid’s loss almost obsessively. As the critic T J Winnifrith remarks, ‘Kinraid is finally shown to be a shallow character; but the depiction of him is always so superficial that this makes it difficult to understand the depths of Sylvia Robson’s love for him.’

The melodramatic tone and improbable co-incidences in the last part of this novel are notorious.  However, I thought that the problems started far earlier, in the strange interdependence of the characters. Just as Hepburn seems to have no passion in life except in being Sylvia’s lover, so Sylvia very soon comes to have none except in worshipping and then mourning the loss of, Charley Kinraid. This fate – far more usual in a female than in a male lead – finally makes them both dismal.

Of course, one of the things that Elizabeth Gaskell was attempting to explore in this novel was how wrong (in her eyes, blasphemous) it is to ‘make an idol’ out of any other human being. She was also, as her daughter had recently gone through the disillusioning experience of having to break off  an engagement to a charming man with a questionable past – one Captain Charles Hill –  exploring the painful consequences of ‘ill advised’ love.

In fact, when I came to sum up the novel in a sentence, here is what I came up with: –

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and  finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

But, as I said, for all the unsatisfactory nature of the characters – for all that  they aren’t markedly sympathetic, I have been intrigued by this novel since I first read it in 2002.

True, I found Sylvia’s extended mourning of Kinraid tedious; I found Hepburn’s destructive pursuit of Sylvia frankly distasteful, and I found Kinraid to be about as rounded a character as a cardboard cut out. Also, I am disgusted by whaling and how we decimated the whale population in the Greenland Seas. Yet, still it remains one of my favourite novels.

It can’t be ‘comfort reading’ as there is scarcely any worldly comfort to be found in it, but clearly, there are elements in the depictions – perhaps, the vivid descriptions of life in the late eighteenth century sea faring community of Whitby (called Monkshaven in the novel), which have made me unable to dismiss it.

…And the same is true for me of ‘Vanity Fair’.  There, again, I don’t exactly like any of the characters – though I do feel sorry for Amelia – and yet, that is a novel I have read three times. True, it contains some unsurpassed passages on the battles of Quartre-Bras and Waterloo – but that is in the middle;  much of the later part is taken up with the society career of the vain, unfeeling Becky.  I suppose this book is also remarkable, in having in Becky Sharp what falls only a little short of a Black Hole villainess (a Mary Sue she most certainly is not).

Therefore, perhaps when advice to novice writers on how to draw in readers includes the invariable: ‘To draw readers in, you must create sympathetic, fully rounded, convincing,  developing characters’ – then the exceptions from classic novels which continue to be read but which have signally failed to do that just might noted?

Finally, for anyone interested, here is my link for my article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ published a few years ago on the F Word website: here

 

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Getting Those Dreaded One Star Reviews: What They May or May Not Mean.

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“I don’t deserve this!”

A writing colleague of mine was really upset by getting her first one star review. This had gone up on both Amazon and Goodreads. It seems that the purchaser had been so eager to spread the bad news about this appalling book that she had even gone to the trouble of opening an account at Goodreads to post it as her first book read.

Well, I didn’t say, as many hardened writers say, ‘Join the club; any Indie Author has to learn to shrug off destructive reviews.’  

That may be true, but it seemed a bit insensitive.

You do your best to give your readers the most gripping read that  you can, and then someone dismisses it as worthless rubbish, urging everyone not to waste their money.

Hmm. They are undeniably painful, getting those one star reviews, and unless you want to look unprofessional, there’s absolutely nothing that you can do about them. The only time I respond is when someone complains of errors, textual or historical. Then, being a bit of a prig about grammar and research, I politely ask the reviewer to point them out to me so I can rectify them if necessary.

Amazon and Goodreads readers of your book can say anything that they like – however untrue – about your writing in an effort to discourage anyone from making the same mistake that they did, and buying your book. That nothing happens for 98 per cent of it, say; or that these are the dullest, least sympathetic characters that s/he has ever had the misfortune  to encounter.  

That’s the downside of the technology that makes self publishing possible.

Generally, though, there is one comfort. Most one star reviews tend to be of the ‘couldn’t get into it don’t waste your money’ variety. I find it hard to believe that any discerning reader is gong to take those seriously.

And do most self published authors want undiscerning readers? Well, maybe we do, just a bit; the ones who are undiscerning in our favour…

My colleague’s reviewer insisted furiously that the book was ‘BORING!!!!!!! BORING!!!!!! BORING!!!!!!’

Well,  I have found large sections of many classics frankly boring, ‘Wuthering Heights’ ‘Vanity Fair’ ‘Tom Jones’ and much of Dickens to name just a few, so my writer friend is in good company in boring readers. 

Regarding this particular review, though, I pointed out to my colleague that there was a discrepancy between the indignant tone and the reader’s furious insistence that s/he found the characters dull and the action wholly uninteresting.

If I’m really bored by a book, I start to lose concentration. My mind wanders to that meeting with my older relative next Sunday, where she’ll tell me once more about her coming knee operation. In my excitement over this, I forget the name of the lead characters in the book, or what s/he was doing in the last chapter which led to what is happening now.

ZZZZZ..,What?

Oh yes:  I was reading… 

He flashed his brilliant white teeth in a menacing smile.

A young girl like you certainly shouldn’t be out alone in a place like this.’

Suddenly, Ludmilla realised that he was one of the gang of young Wolfmen who were terrorizing the city. In fact, he was none other than their leader. How could she not have realized this, the minute he began to follow her home?’

That’s just what I was about to ask myself. Self Defence Step One! ‘If someone starts following you, get ready for trouble.’ 

Still, to continue:

Do you care for a bowl of Doggie Munchies?’ Ludmilla asked kindly… Then she noticed again the slight limp, no doubt the result of that fight with the rival gang. “Maybe you would prefer a knee operation?’

Me: ‘Oh no, that was my imagination taking over. Ludmilla doesn’t make any such helpful suggestions. I just dozed off again. This book is a perfect cure for insomnia. I must read it every night. Probably most readers as bored as this would rate it with two stars, but I’ll give it two and a half stars, rounded up to three, if I can ever get to the end, that is…’

Being a writer myself, I am probably much more scrupulous about handing out low star ratings than many readers. As I have often said, I have to come across something like a story that suggests that wife beating is OK, or one that romanticizes rape to give a one star rating.

Still, I do think my nonsense above is probably more typical of how you react to a book that bores you than ranting. Far from becoming angry; you can hardly concentrate. You feel far too torpid to rush to write a review using capital letters and exclamation marks, let alone troubling to open a new account with a website to repeat what you’ve said.

I suspect that that particular reviewer and others who write that a book is BORING!!!!!!!, are in fact, more outraged than bored by it.

 Whatever it is that has disturbed them – it might be sexual content, a piece of religious heresy, or any other contentious matter – a comic fat character, perhaps – they prefer to insist that they were ‘bored’ rather than angry. After all, it sounds a lot more sophisticated – even a trifle Byronic – and it might put off more readers.  Also, that way, the reader avoids admitting that this book really had an impact on her or him.

Besides, as I pointed out to the writer, as that reader admitted she had to keep on skim reading to the end, that’s really good.  I personally regard anyone reading to the end of mine as a victory, even if they hate every word. If someone has to find out what happens, even if s/he detests the characters and the plot, then the author’s won her/him over into that fantasy world and got a grip on the imagination, and that’s just what any fiction writer wants.

Finally, until next time, here’ s an image of something to do with stars that brings everything into perspective….

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The Milky Way…

Next Post: Scathing Reviews Part Two: Those Unsympathetic Characters.

Originality and Breaking the Rules in Writing

grey outcastWhen I first started writing, it was in the days before the internet. The aspiring writer had to seek out and buy a ‘How To’ book, or borrow it from the library.

The first of these that I read contained this helpful piece of advice from the male author, very successful, but you might say, ‘one of the old school’. I have never forgotten his words, either: ‘If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about your dog, or your wife.’ Seriously, in that order.

But I digress…

For many years now, for excellent writing advice, you can go online and in a few keystrokes, locate many websites full of suggestions and guidance for aspiring and already published (self and traditional) writers about the technical issues of writing and the latest market trends in publishing.

It invaluable to have so many sources giving varied advice regarding such key matters as the issues surrounding the need to have a clearly defined protagonist, point of view, how to create believable and interesting characters, the perils of having a Mary Sue or Marty Stu main character, and all the rest of it.

220px-Renoir23If one is interested in following market trends in publishing, and the latest rumoured top hates of agents, then one can find all sorts of discussions about those.

Writing from the second person point of view is, I think, the only one that strikes a chord with me.

It seems that the current pet hates among literary agents and publishers also include a prologue, a story starting with the main character starting awake from a dream which indicates psychic communication, plus – bizarrely – large blocks of italics. I must say that I consider that last to be unreasonable, as it is a convention that letters etc should be depicted in italics. If we have a long letter in the story, are we then supposed not to put it in italic form?

And finally on these hates of agents and publishers, it seems that they hate brackets, too.

And that isn’t even starting on the ways they hate various themes, ie, hate children’s stories about discovering hidden treasure in a sinister secret passage in a castle (rather strange: I never met a child under nine who didn’t emjoy a story about that).

Rinaldo looking poshQuite honestly, it does seem to be getting to the point where agents should state what they don’t hate, rather than what they do, because it would surely be briefer.

But it also seems to me, with all this talk and advice about writing styles and what agents and publishers find desirable, what is currently fashionable among readers, and all the rest of it, that something important is being neglected.

Originality in writing means breaking the rules.

Originality means thinking outside the box, and writing the story the way it flowed from your fingers during one of those wonderful times when the story seems to write itself.

We all are all – hopefully- inspired by great writers. To name just a few who have personally inspired me, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Alexander Pushkin, Turgenev, Elizabeth Gaskell, all the Bronte sisters, George Elliot,  Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, George Orwell, Irwin Shaw, Patrick Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, Susan Hill, Stephen King and Margaret Attwood…

Of course, that’s failing to mention of my many talented indie author associates. I’ll spare their blushes, but several have inspired me.

But the main thing is, we mustn’t write like those writers we admire.

We can hopefully learn many things from them about structure, plot, characters, and all the rest of it. To name just one instance, when I read Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman’ at fourteen, I saw a demonstration of how writing about a dystopia doesn’t have to mean writing a story without absurdity. Absurdity and horror so often go hand in hand.

But finally, if we want to try and write something original, something memorable, we must strike out on our own, like youngsters breaking away from parental control. That is what the writers we admire did. Their writing would not stand out if they hadn’t. We don’t want to write a second rate version of what someone has already done.

That – and I know I have said it before – is why finally we should go with our instincts  about  writing, even if it sometimes means going against the flow.

Because – and again, I know I have said much the same in a previous post – we may shelve an idea we love, because it breaks some rule or other. And who knows but some other writer may not produce a book which becomes all the rage, and which breaks exactly those rules to which we kowtowed.

mrx%2BnecronomiconI’m not saying that it’s a good idea to send out manuscripts which, just for the sake of it, begin with a prologue in dream form, are written from the second person point of view, crammed full of italics and brackets, and feature treasure hidden in secret passages.

Well, come to think of it, maybe it is. It would be funny to see those agents and publishers’ faces…

Leaving that wonderful vision aside,  I do think if we keep too closely to the rules, we risk sacrificing our own individual style.

Book Titles: Choosing a Title and some Good, Bad, and Indifferent Titles from Classic Novels

mrx%2BnecronomiconTitles are always difficult to decide on. This is all the more of a challenge, as the conventional wisdom of innumerable writers websites says you have to have an outstanding one that will make your readers want to start reading at once: – not an easy task.

Well, I find them difficult, anyway. I was stumped as to what to call the Sophie de Courcy and Émile Dubois story, until I realised that I had the title in the text in the quote from Lord Dale in Émile’s days as a highwayman: – ‘You’re that scoundrel, Émile Dubois: i can tell by your eyes!’

I believe this is often true (having difficulty in finding a good title, I mean, and then finding it in a line in the story, not identifying highwaymen by their eyes). That’s handy, given the sickening number of times an author must edit, re-write, and edit again. You can read through looking for a possible title, and the great thing is, these days, it doesn’t have to be conventional; it can be a question, or a threat, as in Harlan Ellison’s classic dystopian fantasy, of which more below…

I am never sure how far titles influence me as a reader. I would say only occasionally when I was younger, and perhaps more often now. Covers often interested me more then. Perhaps I have become less visual? Hard to say, as then I had seen so much less of both than I have now.

I was pulled in by a several titles, though, even then. For instance, when I saw that one of the late Philip K Dick’s: ‘”Flow My Tears,” The Policeman Said’ that acted as a hook at once (I would dispute that his surname had a Freudian effect on me, though!) .41cypvh7jfl

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison was another. I knew I’d have to read that or burst, though I was fourteen at the time, and cynical about almost everything.

The Philip K Dick novel disappointed me slightly, though I really think I ought to re-read it, as I would understand the many references better now, and at the end the meaning of the title, elusive throughout , was finally illuminated in a cathartic scene.

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ is surely a work of genius. I gather that it has won classic status, and deservedly. I realised, when reading that, just how you can write a story with a serious political or anyway, ‘social’ message, and still make it entertaining.

For anyone reading this blog who hasn’t read that story, I would urge: please do, even if it’s the only piece of fantasy you ever read. It is horribly prescient. Written circa 1965, it prefigures our present day Culture of Hurry in a hideous but comical dystopia of a world governed by clocks. The very rhythm of the story is reminiscent of the ticking of a clock out of synch.

It is grotesquely comic, and highly tragic. It’s wonderfully constructed, though this is done with such mastery that it seems almost by the style that it was slapped together accidentally.

wuthering heightsOddly enough, I have never read a review on it, so these opinions are just ‘off the top of my head’.

But some other classic best sellers have, to say the least, lacklustre titles. It would seem that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, nobody was that bothered about a title as a form of advertisement. A title seems to have been used as a means of summarising the book, rather than that of selling it.

Samuel Richardson’s’ Pamela’, anybody? Well, that does have the subtitle, ‘Or Virtue Rewarded’. I am sure that those who have borne with me through many blog posts know at once what my take on that is: ‘Moral and religious hypocrisy and toadying to your would-be rapist rewarded, more like!’

For sheer yawn inducing lack of allure, try the title of the today little known sequel: ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’. Yes; and the story isn’t much more exciting.

Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ has a dull enough sub-title: ‘The History of a Young Lady’. Maybe that was to put off those readers with perverted tastes who might plough through six of the seven volumes for the pleasure of reading of the rape (which anyway, takes place offstage to maintain propriety).

Then there is Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’. That’s a nice name, and unusual, but not exactly a descriptive title. Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Joseph Andrews’ are even less likely to enthral: unlike Richardson and Burney’s, those don’t even have unusual names.

In fact, I have been guilty of calling a novel simply after the name of a main character myself – in ‘Ravensdale’. I liked title, as both the protagonist Reynaud and the antagonist Edmund share that surname, and it is the name of the earldom which Edmund covets; besides which, ravens are seen as birds of ill omen and they circle about at the climatic points of the story. Still, potential readers don’t know that.images

Another early novel is a favourite mine of the so-bad-it’s-good category ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti’. That is probably a title that promises much blood and thunder in the original German. I don’t speak, or read any German, so I couldn’t say. In that English one, it sounds like a take off of some school story of the mid twentieth century: ‘Renny Reynolds, Captain of the First Eleven’, or some such.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is a name difficult to detach from its lurid reputation, but removed from that, it isn’t much of an advertisement for the excitement of that truly terrifying story.

Then we go on to the subtle, but sedate titles from Jane Austen: ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Mansfield Park’ etc.

‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ are again far from riveting titles; ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ are a bit more likely to stimulate interest.

thElizabeth Gaskell was another person who went in for sedate titles. ‘Mary Barton’, ‘Ruth’ and ‘North and South’ etc. ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ might be considered to be shockingly risqué for this most Christian of authors –except for the fact that ‘lovers’ had a completely respectable meaning in the mid nineteenth century UK…

Her one time editor Charles Dickens knew how to market writing – how to end his serial pieces for his magazine on a cliff hanger, and how to appeal to his audience – and yet, his titles were hardly of the sort likely to send rushing to buy a copy – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Domby and Son’, ‘Hard Times’ etc. For all that, he was of course, the most successful author of his age. He did seem be fascinated by bizarre surnames and of course, these often feature as titles, ie, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.

t2c-_carton_the_the_young_seamstress_before_going_to_the_guillotine_john_mclenanThen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, we have one of the most famous novels ever to be published in the UK – so famous that it is hard to detach the name from its reputation –’ Dracula’. That name is taken from the title of the sinister ‘Vlad the Impaler’ of fifteenth century Transylvania, Vlad Tepes. It seems that nearly until publication, Bram Stoker was going to call the book, ‘The Dead Un-Dead’.

Bland as many of those nineteenth century titles are, it is interesting how a slight alternation would make them either ludicrous or totally boring.

‘Balmy Valleys’ by Emily Bronte.

‘The Tenant of Mellow Meadow Bungalow’ by Anne Bronte.

‘A Saga of Two Suburbs’ by Charles Dickens.

‘Sylvia’s Acquaintances’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.

‘Flat 2B, Mansfield House, Mansfield Road’ by Jane Austen.

‘Humility and Open Mindedness’ by Jane Austen.

They do certainly lose an allure, so there must have been some thought given to those original titles, sedate or not…And on Dickens, how come I forgot last week to include the supremely dull virtuous hero of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay as a Marty Stu hero from a classic novel, or, in my post of two weeks before, Lucie Manette as a classic example of the true  Mary Sue as heroine?

Rules Writers Must Not Break and What Do J S Bach, Margaret Mitchell, Zane Grey and Louis L’amour Have in Common?

grey outcastThere’s a few things I’ve been wanting to say as part of some post, but I can’t think of any suitable one, so I’ll just mix them together in a miscellaneous post about market trends and rejections.

The first thing is a story to encourage those who are trying to create something special, and meet with incomprehension/dismissal/harsh criticism.

It’s about the baroque composer, J S Bach himself and ‘The Brandenburg Concertos’ (well, they weren’t known as that at the time). They’re regarded as masterpieces today, of course. They’re among the pieces I play for inspiration –  on the off-chance that anyone’s interested – ( the sixth is particularly good for inspiring a high minded sort of detachment) but I don’t think that latter recommendation would particularly impress Bach.

Anyway, when he  sent them off to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, along with a fashionable French dedication in 1721, the Margrave neither acknowledged their receipt, nor ever had them played.

It seems that there is some excuse to be made for this lack of appreciation of this presentation with such exceptional pieces of music. Bach had promised to give him a piece of music demonstrating his talent when they met two years previously, and had taken long enough to get round to it. He may even have sent the pieces as a sort of eighteenth century CV, as he was looking for another post at the time.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation may have been that these pieces were designed to suit the versatility of the orchestra which Bach had in Clothen rather than that of the Margrave. It seems the pieces were unusually diverse for the orchestras of those times.

However, for anyone who has had the deflating experience of having that cherished creation dismissed or frankly ignored, that is an encouraging story.

Has anyone heard of J S Bach and his ‘Brandenburg Concertos’?

Has anyone heard of the Margrave of Brandenburg or does anyone now care two hoots about his view of the worth of what are now called as the Brandenburg Concertos? (here’s a picture of him, anyway).

The other story must have been incredibly deflating for the author in the receiving end, but is horribly funny.

A publisher wrote in response to Zane Grey: ‘You have no business in trying to write and should give up’.

Almost as discouraging must have been Margaret Mitchell’s 38 rejection letters for ‘Gone With the Wind’…

But that is not quite as bad for the 200 received by Louis l’Amour (I didn’t know there were that many publishing houses even in the US, and decades ago; but perhaps they were for several different books).

I personally  am not a great admirer of westerns, or for that matter, of ‘Gone With the Wind’, which was one of the many novels I found on that Aladdin’s cave of a maze of bookshelves back in that great isolated house in the Clwyd Valley, into which I used to delve on winter’s evenings. But the point I am making here is that a lot of people do admire the work of these writers; they may not be comparable to the great JS Bach as regards originality or mastery of their craft; but they had a vision and they stuck to it in the face of all discouragement; and that takes commitment.

I have said before that too many author’s websites seem to give facile, bland advice: anodyne advice, in fact. Do your market research, and write for a particular type of ‘average’ reader (ie, six foot, hairs on the back of his hands, reclusive castle dweller in Transylvania; likes stories about his ancestors) and write accordingly.

Above all, do not break the rules.

It’s these supposedly hard and fast rules that I object to (and yes, I did write a post on this very point not so long ago). The supreme irony is, that the successful authors you are advised to imitate on these How To sites, DID break the rules (and I’ve just broken one myself; never write in capital letters to emphasize a point; people will think that you are semi literate).

Nobody wrote about dystopias when George Orwell wrote ‘1984”; nobody wrote about boarding schools when a certain best-selling children’s writer decided to give a new slant on one; vampires were old hat when Anne Rice decided to write a new take on them.

If they had ‘properly researched the market’ they wouldn’t have written what they did (and so set new trends) at all; they would have played safe, and possibly lost their vision and written something derivative.

Someone in the writing business warned me some time ago on the hazards of having multiple points of view (as I tend to in my novels), let alone having more than one ‘main character’ on the grounds that ‘these days, people only want limited points of view and they want to know who the main character is, and who to root for, early on’.

This advice was constructive, and based on her best information; but I disagree with it. I think it is too restrictive. And given those writers who broke certain hard and fast rules and so set new trends, isn’t it quite likely that someone will come along and flout those particular rules and write something original that also sells well, so that suddenly everyone will be breaking them?

Suddenly, having a restricted point of view may be ‘totally outmoded’.

I came across a How To book on writing recently, published in the eighties. It fell open at this page. ‘Please don’t give your characters names that reveal something of their characters; that’s pathetically old-fashioned.’

And so it was, back in 1985. That was another trend overthrown by that nameless writer of children’s fantasy.

In case any regulars get a feeling of déjà vu, yes, some months ago, I did publish two posts that touched on different points covered in this one, but I wanted to approach the topic from a slightly different angle.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.
Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Got to go now. I’ve just got a communication from that lonely soul in Transylvania, saying he offers residential courses for writers. He says that ‘Time wasters need not apply. Must be free of blood disease; testing obligatory’. He offers spectacular views and the course is for health fanatics, and culminates in an exciting climbing excursion, of the sort pioneered, he says, by Jonathan Harker. He promises: ‘This is not just another writing course; this one will transform your whole existence and view of life’.

Hmm. I had glandular fever as a youngster; would that disqualify me? He says I can have a discount. Should I apply?

I have always wanted to go to Transylvania….