Crisis of confidence
Despite being the author of two mildly successful books*, I still have regular crises of confidence as I try to bring together a third manuscript. I am working in the non-fiction field, so it is not really writer’s block or blank page syndrome that I am talking about. Nor is it issues of plot or storyline (which I imagine novelists might have). No, it is about flow or style. I have usually got enough to write, but it is HOW to write it that I struggle with. I know that if I need to write more, then I must research more, or do another interview, both of which are tangible and usually achievable.
But quite often one can’t help thinking “well is this garbage writing”? Some say that authors don’t (or shouldn’t) read reviews of their own work. Well this one does. I have seen reviews that say my writing is “clunky”, or “academic” (the latter usually meaning ‘dry’, I guess). I tend to assume that those reviews that appear in magazines, etc., are giving the reviewer’s honest view, so I tend to give a measure of respect to that view. On the other hand those reviews by readers on Amazon may be less credible, as you do get some quite vindictive/vitriolic types who haven’t a good word to say about anything (cf Tripadvisor – where I would guess dis-satisfied customers are more likely to post than satisfied ones).
I did have one unsolicited comment from someone that my second book had a more natural flow to it, which I suppose shows some progress! But now I am working on Book III and it is biographical, rather than the previous two, which have been historical. It needs a different writing style. I need to define and find that style, which I haven’t done yet.
Much of the material I am working on comes from interviews with the two main protagonists. So, I am wondering to myself, ‘How much should be in quotes and how much converted to third person?’ This train of thought just leads to more and more questions. ‘How to be dispassionate?’ Bear in mind they might just be heroes of mine. The subjects are both very much alive and I am conducting a series of interviews with them. ‘Might it be easier to write about people after they have passed on?’ Then having written up, interpreted and contextualised what they say to you, ‘Do you show everything that you write to the book’s subjects?’
Then there is the thorny ‘How much of me goes in to it?’ I also keep asking myself, ‘Have I analysed things enough?’ Or is my attempt to critically analyse just producing stuff that will come across as ‘pop or cod psychology’?
In order to get a broad picture I am trying to seek the views of a number of family, friends or associates of the main characters. ‘What if I come across something about the subjects that is highly critical of them?’ Do I exercise caution, and stand accused (by myself not least) of censorship?
‘What if independent commentator on events says something I don’t agree with, or I think is inaccurate?’ As much as possible I am cross-referencing sources and checking, certainly being mindful that memories can be distorted unwittingly. Much of the action takes place in the 1980s and even earlier, so memories fade.
Bearing all this in mind I am finding writing this manuscript to be a very different process to previously. This time I will compile the material and then WRITE the manuscript. I expect this to involve some sort of ‘writing retreat’. It may be a virtual retreat, or it may be a hermit-like removal of self from my ‘normal’ life. Either way, I plan to address the style issue by trying to (re)write consistently throughout the manuscript in one go, and achieve an appropriate ‘voice’ that will make for a readable account of these two fascinating people’s lives.
* The day I was writing this posting I saw an article in The Independent called How to be more Zen about our failures and learn from our disappointments. In this an editor at Picador tells Giles Coren in his upcoming TV documentary Giles Coren – My Failed Novel (part of a season on Sky Arts looking at different aspects of failure) that: “Failure is about 800 [hardback] copies”. My first book ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ sold over 1900 hardback copies, which is why I said “mildly successful” at the top of this post. NB: The paperback is available again (via link above). And the second book ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ is well on the way.