Friday, 31 October 2014

Getting to keep 10% of everything you earn

This is a brief snippet from an old BBC sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour:

Sid James: “You’ve forgotten something, mate. I’m your agent, remember? I got a contract with you.”

Hancock: “Contract? You’ve been holding that thing over my head for five years now, allowing me to keep 10% of everything that I earn.” 

Audience laughter at the rapacity of Sid James and Hancock’s gullibility.

Now imagine Sid as a publisher, and Hancock as a writer, and suddenly it's normal and accepted and nobody laughs. (And his literary agent would take 15% 0f the 10%...)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Present tense again

I've grumbled before about writers using present tense for no good reason in fiction. 

I'm not unreasonable. I'm prepared to admit that sometimes it's okay. I've just reread Mortal Engines, and though most of the novel uses past tense, occasional passages are in present. Unexpectedly, this works. I first read the book before I began to write, and didn't even notice. 

I've used present tense myself. In my short story, Mr Conway's Heaven, the protagonist narrates, and the whole point of the story is that he doesn't know what is coming to him.

But what's rattling my cage right now is trendy historians on radio and television using present tense to describe historical events, when historical events by definition happened in the past. This invariably has me gritting the teeth and muttering, "Henry VIII is not marrying Anne Boleyn now. It happened nearly 500 years ago! If that doesn't merit the past tense, what on earth does?" 

Where will it all end? Do we face a depressing future when any tense bar the present is quaintly old-fashioned and used only by pedants?

Researching the topic, I see I am not alone. The modish Melvyn Bragg was criticised for abuse of the present tense this summer, and quite right too. Grrr.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Truth in fiction - dos and don'ts for authors

A biography can only tell you what the biographer thinks happened. (Imagine your biographer after you've died earnestly interviewing family, friends and enemies. How close would he get to the truth about you?) Whereas fiction deals in what the author knows to be true. One recognizes one's own experience in a good novel, as well as learning about human nature.

It's always a mistake for writers to bend the truth; readers will instantly notice. It's also obvious when they let their views interfere when depicting character. A writer may disapprove of swearing, smoking, and certain political views, but if all the 'good' characters behave in ways he approves of he'll find it terribly limiting. 

Having a character do something nobody ever would in order to advance the plot is a seriously bad idea. Follow the character, change the plot. Unless one's name is Agatha Christie, that is. It worked for her. Last week I listened to Murder in Mesopotamia, and the plot had me yelling at the radio, "What? What? WHAT?" It hinges on a woman who has been married to her husband for two years not realizing he is the same man she was married to fifteen years before. Now I'm not good at remembering faces myself, but even I might be relied upon to spot that husband #2 was husband #1, lightly disguised by a change of name and a Swedish accent.

Though truth is good, writers need to be careful when adding undigested chunks of their lives to a novel. For some curious reason, that's always the bit readers pick on as being implausible, and it's no good protesting that it really happened to you. I remember on YouWriteOn criticizing a thriller because of the gorgeous personality-free female who seemed like just another bit of the hero's kit. The writer emailed me to say she was based on a real person he'd known. Problem is, even if he put a footnote in the finished book to that effect, it still wouldn't make the character believable.

So to sum up: we must tell the truth, but transform it into fiction first; never foist our prejudices on our characters; show life as we see it. No cheating.