Tag Archives: Homage to Catalonia

Bloggers are really just desperate self-publicists… including me in this blog

You know you have lived too long when students think you know what you are talking about.

Yesterday, I was approached by a student who was writing an essay on “blogging as a means of journalism”. I told him I did not think of myself as a journalist. He did not agree. This is an edited version of the exchange.


– Do you consider yourself a journalist or any bloggers for that matter? If not, what do you think makes a journalist?

The fact you can ask the question implies the words ‘journalist’ and ‘blogger’ have different meanings. I don’t consider myself a journalist. Bloggers are certainly not news journalists – if they ‘break’ stories and report instantly on current news stories, it is not really a blog; it’s a news site. You could argue they are neo-magazine journalists providing comment and background.

Most bloggers are amateur dabblers and/or wannabe writers who want a voice in a world where they have none.

I started my blog to publicise a movie. Then to publicise stuff I was staging at the Edinburgh Fringe. It continued as self-publicity. If I were up my own arse, I might also say it preserves details of people in sub-cultures that might not otherwise be preserved. But it’s basically lightly-disguised self-publicity.

A good journalist is concerned with objective facts (whether reporting on them or commenting on them). A good blogger is usually more personal and ego-centric in style.

Some bloggers, of course, are frustrated wannabe journalists so the dividing line is muddy.

Personally, whether it’s a correct dictionary definition or not, I make a distinction between a newspaper report and reportage. I think a journalist/reporter’s piece has immediacy – you have to read it today or tomorrow for it to have any impact. Reportage (like George Orwell’s factual books and essays) can be read just as effectively years later. I would say Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia or Down The Mine are pieces of reportage by a writer, not journalism. Today, they could be written in the form of blogs.

– Do you feel any external constraints as a blogger? Do you ever feel under pressure to say specific things (or not say specific things) to protect people or yourself?

I do not generally write anything which, in my opinion, could legally, physically, professionally or personally damage people. I do not feel any pressure to say specific things and I do not give the subjects of my blogs copy approval in advance. My blogs are mostly interview-based and I record everything so I cannot mis-quote.

If – rarely – I want to disguise a person or a fact (eg if an unprosecuted or unknown crime or something ‘immoral’ or ‘embarrassing’ is involved) I will sometimes – very very VERY rarely – alter the name, geographical location or, if possible, the sex of the person involved. It means I can still tell the truth about the event itself but the person cannot be identified.

I have only done this less than a handful of times over eight years.

Altering the person’s sex totally throws people off any recognition.

– Has your blog ever been censored?

Only by me for reasons above.

I used to re-post a few of my blogs in the Huffington Post. I did once write a blog about rude words and discussed the use of the word “nigger” which is interesting because it is mostly completely unacceptable but IS acceptable from some people (eg Eddie Murphy, Quentin Tarantino) – and, in The Dam Busters movie, a dog vital to the plot is called Nigger, which was inoffensive at the time but is now worrisome to TV stations.

The Huffington Post would not publish the piece, although the word was solely being discussed as an abstract word.

– Do you ever have any issues in terms of libel or slander when writing your blog? Does it worry you sometimes that someone will ever take legal action against your opinions?

No. I worked for BBC Ceefax (part of BBC TV News) and briefly in the newsrooms at Anglia TV, Granada TV and ITN. So I am careful.

If anyone threatened me with a libel action, I would go to court, defend myself (because, in England, lawyers have no incentive to win minor cases – they get paid anyway – and the legal system has nothing to do with justice) and publicise the shit out of it to get more awareness of my blog.

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You can learn some creative techniques but you cannot learn to be talented

At the weekend, crime writers P.D.James and Ruth Rendell were chatting to each other at the Soho Theatre in London. Someone (clearly not me) asked if they had any advice for a young person who wanted to write.

P.D.James wisely replied that it depends whether you want to be published more than you want to write.

It is possible to be published without being a good writer.

But, if you want to write, then you have to write and there is no real advice except possibly to read lots of well-written books – because reading badly-written books will only lead you on to writing badly-written books.

Personally, I have a feeling that taking writing courses may also lead people on to bad writing because they might start to think there are rules.

It is a bit like the view of the late comedian Malcolm Hardee, who had little time for jugglers because he saw juggling as a skill not a talent. If the average person practised eight hours per day, five days per week for two years, they could probably become a good juggler because it is a skill you can learn. But being a stand-up comic is a talent. If you are not funny, no amount of practice will ever make you truly, truly talented.

You can learn some stand-up comedy techniques from experience, but you cannot learn to be talented.

Same thing with creative writing.

There is no shame in that.

I am crap at science and foreign languages. But I can write a bit.

On the other hand, never say never.

RKO Pictures’ screen test report on Fred Astaire read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”

There are limits, though.

P.D.James and Ruth Rendell both said they were particularly drawn to crime fiction and have written little else.

A friend recently suggested I could make a lot of money by writing romantic fiction but I said I did not really think I could write it because my heart was not in the genre. I partly said this because someone I used to work with at Granada TV actually tried to write Mills & Boon type novels and gave up.

She told me she eventually realised that you can only write that type of fiction if you believe in it heart-and-soul and enjoy it yourself. A friend of hers did enjoy the genre and he did successfully write for Mills & Boon. She did not enjoy the genre wholeheartedly so was, in effect, writing pastiche not the real thing, which she did not want to do.

She wanted to write well in a particular genre, but that was not her genre, so she felt she could not write as well in that genre as she felt she could in others.

I once had a conversation with an editor at Random House over a book which was never written. He said something to the effect of:

“I don’t know what your style is, John. I read I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake and I read Handstands in the Dark and I don’t know what your own style is.”

I told him: “Well, I hope I don’t have a style. I just write in whatever style seems most appropriate.”

In the case of I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, it was Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography and it was written from tape recordings of chats with Malcolm, so I just had to make the words on the page seem as if they came from Malcolm’s mouth. You can’t just write down exactly what people say: people don’t talk in coherent sentences. So I had to reconstruct what he said in a way that made it seem like what he had said. Of course, they were the words he had said on the tapes, but re-arranged for print so that, over-all, it read like what he would have said. They were his rhythms and words re-arranged for print.

“In the case of Handstands in the Dark, that was Janey Godley’s autobiography and she wrote it herself. At the beginning, I cajoled and encouraged her and suggested how she should perhaps go about it but, by the end I was just doing simple sub-editing – occasional commas and paragraph manipulation. I never wrote the words or sentences myself.”

When I was at college, at the end of the course (or it might have been at the end of Year One, I can’t remember), we had to deliver a significant creative project of some kind. I chose to write a novel and it was shit. But it got it out of my system. I felt that, if I wrote another two shit novels, the fourth one would be quite good.

When I was a teenager, I had wanted to be a writer and had admired (I still do) George Orwell as a communicator of thoughts. He is not a novelist, but he is a great writer – Nineteen Eighty-Four has some very dodgy characterisation and writing (the heroine is badly-drawn and the love scenes are crap). But the ideas are wonderful. It is a below-par novel but a great book. And Orwell’s non-fiction Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War is a masterpiece.

George Orwell is a magnificent factual writer, though not a good novelist. But he is such a good writer, he transcends that – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful novel, even if he is not a good novelist.

It seemed to me that George Orwell had achieved his ability to write so well simply by writing a lot at the BBC and elsewhere. (For a period, he literally worked in Room 101 at BBC Broadcasting House.)

So, after college, I consciously looked for somewhere I would have to write a lot, quickly, under pressure, reasoning that I might be able to write anything about anything reasonably fluently.

And that was why I initially became a Promotion Scriptwriter, writing scripts for TV announcers and trailers every day and often under extreme time deadlines.

That did result – I think – who am I to truly know? – in my being able to write pretty much anything in any style under pressure. And, because I also interviewed people for magazines, I knew the difference between writing for the human voice in vision and out of vision; and writing for different types of print.

If you are writing for TV trailers and you have to make Benny Hill, a documentary on Auschwitz and an episode of Coronation Street seem like a sensible single evening’s entertainment entity, you have to know how to tape over the cracks to join things together.

So I think I can write in pretty much any style and make the result seem fairly fluent.

But romantic fiction is just beyond my limit. I would not do it well.

And I want to write well… not just be published.

Write it as art and sell it as baked beans.

Absolutely.

But write it as art and it might last.

Unlike blogs, maybe.

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How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?

Yesterday, a 15 year-old girl asked me:

“How do you become a writer and what are the good subjects to write about?”

I told her: “The only way to become a writer is to write. It sounds silly, but it’s like juggling. The more you do it, the better you get.”

On the other hand, I can’t juggle, so what do I know about it?

Always beware of people who use similes about things they don’t know even the first thing about.

And who end sentences with prepositions.

I also told the 15 year old girl she had asked the wrong question.

“You don’t want to know what subjects to write about,” I told her. “You want to know who will buy and/or read the stuff you write. You don’t want to look at anything from the perspective of you writing something; you want to look from the perspective of someone reading what you write.”

That’s the only decent piece of advice I have about writing.

Never think of yourself as a writer.

The worst thing anyone can ever do is think of themself as ‘a writer’. If you do that, your mindset will be wrong. You will think, “How would a ‘real’ writer say this?” and you will copy the way you think a ‘real’ writer should write and it will be crap because you will descend into cliché.

Plenty of people write in the same way, but who wants to write like the lowest common denominator Fleet Street hack?

A famous actress with a great life story once talked to me about writing her autobiography. The most important thing, she said, was that she wanted to write it herself and for the book to be her own thoughts in her own voice. Eventually, the publisher persuaded her to have an experienced Fleet Street journalist ‘help’ her with the autobiography.

I picked up the published book in Tesco one day and looked at the first page. It read like any book serialisation in any tabloid Sunday newspaper. It was written in cliché Fleet Street sentences. It probably sold well because she was a famous actress, but not because it was well-written and not because she herself had written it.

In 2003, Random House commissioned unknown Scots comedienne Janey Godley to write her autobiography. She had gone into a meeting with an editor at their imprint Ebury Press with little hope of getting a book commissioned – nobody had ever heard of her – but, when the editor heard just a little of her life story, Random House virtually ripped her arms off to sign her up.

I was asked to actually edit the book which was published as Handstands in the Dark (a terrible title – it should have been called Good Godley! – but Ebury insisted). I had a meeting with Ebury after the contract was signed at which it was discussed what editing this book might involve, because Janey had never written anything for publication before.

It might involve doing nothing. It might involve tweaking. It might involve a lot of literary shepherding. It might involve writing the whole thing from scratch if it turned out Janey could not do it herself. They wanted to publish her story; she was staggeringly charismatic to talk to; but no-one knew if she could write for print.

As it turned out, she was a brilliant writer, though I had to give her advice in the first few weeks of the process. Of course, it might have been wrong advice – what do I know? – but I don’t think it was.

She used to send me stuff she had written almost every night. Because she was writing an autobiography, at first she delivered lots of facts.

This happened, that happened, then this happened, then…

This can wear the reader down and also it does not actually let the reader share the experience of what happened, which is the whole point of writing the thing. You can get bogged down in facts with no humanity. Writing is not about facts; it’s about emotions and thoughts. The facts, however interesting, are only the skeleton for the meat. People are interested in people, not facts.

I told Janey to find key incidents which epitomised the period or the emotions of what was happening to her at the time and then to describe those key incidents and emotions as vividly as she could.

“Write more about less,” I told her.

One way to make the incidents more vivid was to try to find any of her five senses that were key to the moment. A ‘key’ moment is literally that. It opens up a doorway to something. If she remembered an incident, what was the first thing she remembered inside herself? Which of her five senses was most vivid? Use that key sense of the moment and it opens up a whole emotional experience which readers can share.

When Marcel Proust wrote his autobiographical Remembrance of Things Past (which, of course, I have never read) he ended up writing seven volumes after drinking one spoonful of tea in which he had soaked a piece of madeleine cake. The taste triggered involuntary memories of his entire childhood – all the tiny details came flooding back to him.

He wrote: “The taste was of a little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings…my Aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea….Immediately the old grey house on the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set…and the entire town, with its people and houses, gardens, church, and surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being from my cup of tea.” Just seeing the madeleine had not brought back these memories. He needed to taste and smell it.

Describing what is seen or heard is obvious. Perhaps smell and taste come next. But touch is important too. If you describe the rough or smooth texture of something, the object becomes more alive.

You can write that you sat on a sofa. Or you can write that, as you sat on the cream sofa with its three dark brown coffee stains, your fingers ran over the rough-textured woollen blanket which Fred had half-thrown over its back that drunken night.

Of course, you don’t want too much of this – it could end up as bad as having endless adjectives in front of the noun. Who wants to read too many sentences about a noisy, black, frightened, one-eyed Shetland pony?

I told Janey that, if she remembered one key sensory detail of any incident, include it. So, in one sentence, she wrote:

“Three plain clothes detectives were standing around, their cold breath drifting up and turning white and blue in the flashing lights of the ambulance.”

I think that description is all-the-more vivid because Janey chooses to write “white and blue” instead of “blue and white”, but that would take a whole extra thousand words to discuss!

In another sentence, she writes:

“I ran up the stairway with one policeman behind me, my bloodied shoes sticking to the wooden stairs as I went.”

It is, of course, the fact that the bloodied soles of her shoes stick slightly on the wooden stairs which makes it so vivid.

Handstands in the Dark is not a book you forget easily. The rather stunned publisher at Ebury Press said details stayed with him vividly for days after reading it. And Janey wrote every word in it. I very carefully did not suggest words or phrases. Which can be a problem with publishers.

My experience is that people who can write do so. People who want to write but can’t write become publishers and then try to write through other people, often messing up writers’ text and downgrading it to cliché mulch. This, it should be said, did not happen with Janey’s book which Ebury were not allowed to see until the manuscript was completed and which went on to be both a Top Ten hardback and Top Ten paperback bestseller.

An extension of the truism that “those who can write do and those who can’t write become publishers” is that those who can’t write start courses teaching people how to write. That is not always true, but it often is,

The only way to learn how to write, as I told the 15 year old girl yesterday, is to write and write and write.

But don’t sit down with a black sheet of paper or computer screen and think you are creating the words that come out of you. Instead, turn it round 180 degrees and, as you write, think you are seeing the words appear for the first time and you are the reader not the writer. Put yourself in the position of someone who does not know what is coming next.

The first sentence should intrigue the reader into wanting to know what the next sentence is going to be. You want to hook the reader. So, imagining yourself as the reader, you know what has to be written to explain more about what is being said – what is needed to understand more about the argument or about the plot. But you don’t want to give the readers 100% of the information. You want to ‘hook’ or intrigue them into constantly wanting to know more.

Keep ‘em wanting more.

My template was George Orwell, who I think was a great communicator though a shit novelist. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a wonderful book. But the human beings in it – particularly the heroine – are badly drawn. He was a journalist and writer of ideas – his non-fiction like Homage to Catalonia is masterful. Animal Farm, which is really a non-fiction book masquerading as a fictional story, is amazing. But he was not a good novelist.

Me?

I think layout is almost as important as what you write. Make sure it looks easy-to-read on the page. Vary the lengths and look of the paragraphs. Mix prose and quotes. Don’t have big impenetrable-looking chunks of text. Make it look easy to read and it will be easier to read.

My own big problem is I need deadlines to write anything. So I will just go off out to Tesco now.

Do what I say, not what I do.

Always easier to say to a 15 year-old.

And remember William Goldman’s oft-quoted but oft-misunderstood recurring warning in his brilliantly incisive Adventures in the Screen Trade the best book I know about the creative process and full of great Hollywood anecdotes:

Nobody knows anything.

Maybe it is a pity it has taken me 1,766 words to mention that.

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