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Friday, October 19, 2007

 

Outed!

In the last comment thread, goosefat101 links to a cute little book called Where Dogs Dream with the remark 'there's another kit whitfield who wrote this book ... at least I'm assuming its a different one. Certainly it would be weird if it was you who wrote it.'

Well, I'm sorry to weird anybody out, but it's time to set the record straight: I did write it.

I'm even kinda proud of it.

Writing, as most of us know to our cost, is not a very lucrative job. The result is that writers have to make a living in some other way. Some of us work as firemen, doctors, teachers and other such useful professions, but there's another likely course: something that uses verbal aptitude. Writers are good with words, and like using them; that's a transferrable skill - and transferrable skills can be put to work when the bills need paying. Advertising slogans are an example; the famous 'naughty but nice' has been variously attributed to Fay Weldon, Anthony Shaffer and Salman Rushdie. Journalism is another one - and indeed a useful one when it comes to getting reviewed, as you'll already have contacts. Neil Gaiman's first book was a biography of Duran Duran; Terry Pratchett supported himself for a while as Press Officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, writing copy about nuclear power stations. Nobody comes along with the work you really want when you're just getting started out, and you have to make the rent somehow: the result is that many a writer gets a start writing the kinds of things they never would have written on their own. It's not very different from an aspiring actor taking a job in an advert - and that can have its own merits; Anthony Stewart Head was known for years in Britain as the Gold Blend bloke, having turned in a sufficiently good performance (playing opposite the equally effective Sharon Maughan) in a series of coffee ads that they're still among the most famous advertisements in the country. You take the job, and you do it to the best of your abilities.

I used to be a copywriter. I'm also the author of Dads, Girlfriends, Little Angels and, my personal favourite, Smooches, all published by MQP. I wrote a book called The Family Chronicle for Past Times. I've even got a camera-phone picture of Smooches occupying the number-one slot on a Top Ten shelf at WH Smith, which is a higher slot than Bareback occupied in it - I think it got to about seventeen. (If this offends your view of literature, you know what to do: buy more copies! Let's knock Smooches out of its slot.)

These books followed a specific formula: the publishers would select a bunch of pictures from an archive - generally Getty Images - and hand them over to me with the commission: find quotes that are appropriate to these pictures and suit a certain overall tone, properly sourced, preferably out of copyright, and have it back within a month. I'd do these commissions in between writing Bareback.

I maintain to this day it was very good for me. Freelance work gives you a number of useful lessons:

1. It makes you appreciate fiction. It makes fiction, in fact, seem incredibly free and easy. When it's your novel, you can set the style and use any words you like; when the style is somebody else's and you have to comply with it precisely, there's far less freedom of movement.

2. It sharpens your ear for tone. When you're using quotations rather than writing them yourself, you have to listen very closely for discordant notes; anything that's too cynical, too melancholy, too preachy, too flat, too anything, is going to be rejected by the editor. This is excellent practice: it makes you really listen to language.

3. It stops you being a snob. Those books are designed to be easy reading, joke presents, but let me tell you, they're no joke to compose. They take time, hard work, patience and a strong ear for language. They're not cool and edgy; they're not meant to be. They're just nice little presents for people to give each other, and that's fine: I really couldn't say whether Bareback or Dads has given more people more happiness, but anything that adds to the sum of human joy is a good thing.

4. It stops you being too egomaniacal. Having to do exactly what you're told while working on a book that doesn't express any profound truths about your soul is very salutary.

5. It teaches you respect and attentiveness about writing in general. That sales blurb on the back of your cornflake packet probably took somebody hours to compose. A Hallmark card jingle isn't going to win any Pulitzers, but it was written with care and intelligence by somebody complying with a very specific brief. My earliest mentor ran an entire agency of copywriters, and taught me a lot; copy has to be punchy, clear, lively, dynamic - all difficult things to accomplish, and it's a real skill. Copywriters are generally not expressing their own feelings: the Hallmark author who wrote that sappy little Mother's Day jingle may not have spoken to her own mother in years, but by golly, she was given the commission and she did a professional job on it. Novelists may be self-indulgent, but copywriters have to be disciplined.

6. If you're gathering quotes, it's incidentally an education in itself. Where Dogs Dream was a rather tricky commission: a collection of photos of dogs in various poses, to be matched to reflective quotes - I think the sample quote was 'What is the colour of the wind?'. Now, there is no Big Book Of Quotes That Don't Mention Dogs But Sort Of Suit Pictures Of Them: I had to spend every day for a month in the Poetry Library, reading about fifteen books a day, reading till my eyes crossed and the letters danced on the page. I read a lot of poems. I had to, because after a while, I picked up a good overview of the kind of poems that generally get written about landscape, and concluded (a bit grumpily by this point) something that you always conclude at some point during a freelance project: the nature of literature makes it very hard to meet the brief. Poets, I decided, wrote about two things: their own sensitivity, and getting laid. (Which made Smooches a far easier commission, except the book was six times as long.) Landscape poems fell into two categories: this landscape is beautiful but life is poignantly sad (too downbeat), and this landscape is nice but I'm the only one sensitive enough to appreciate it (doesn't mention the landscape enough). While I have cheered up since meeting the deadline, it was at least very interesting to read so many poems at once that I was even in the position to formulate such an irritable overview, and looking back, I feel kind of nostalgic about the whole thing. Lots of those poems were really nice.

7. It teaches you a sense of humour. Try compiling poetry quotes about dogs while reading poems that keep spoiling a promising-looking quote with a mention of the poet's hands. Try finding out-of-copyright quotes - ie, about a century old - that express a modern, warm-and-fuzzy view of fatherhood, all of them necessarily written in an era where the big thing was Respect rather than Cuddles. Being a little cork bobbing on the sea of Literature, caught between the firm brief your employer has given you on the one hand, and the stubborn tendency of literary writers not to compose stuff that lends itself to little pink gift books on the other, and you get a sense of existential comedy that's very beneficial.

8. You get paid for it.

Those were young-and-needed-the-money books, but if I needed the money again, I'd happily do more of them. They were a challenge, and I took professional pride in making them be as good as possible. For many people, I suspect, such books are as close as they may get to great poetry; in that position, I felt it was kind of privilege to be showing people just how great poetry can be. I'd like to think that some people liked a particular poem extract I picked enough to go off and read the whole thing, but even for those who didn't, I picked stuff that was as lyrical and intelligent as I could find, and there's some good writing in those books.

A writer's magnum opus may express the most about their inner life, but it's probably not their whole biography.

Comments:
Cool.

I wasn't suggesting there was anything wrong with writing such books.

I'd do so myself but I haven't got the appropriate grammer and spelling skills, plus I find it impossibly hard to motivate myself for things I don't feel anything about, basically i lack the dicipline. I can be tireless for my own stuff or for stuff I'm commisioned to do, or even as favours for friends, but I have failed at every attempt to get myself motivated for that sort of thing.

Mind you if someone offered me such a thing without me having to go out and get the job I am sure I'd find the motivation... though most likely not the skill.

There are so many different forms of writing and people have different skills and different ways in and out of it. I certainly make no judgements of anyones form or ways through this difficult buisiness of writing. I think its harder to write a mills and boon book than a literary novel!

I wish I had a way out of my day job that was as much fun as looking for quotes on pictures of dogs would (occasionally) be.

take care,

d
 
Y'know, I remember those coffee ads. They ran on this side of the pond as well. They were fun! That was a great example of doing "work for hire" to the utmost best of your ability and really nailing it.
 
Any chance you could change that reference to me to a link... no one reads my blog :-( no matter how regularly I ping!

http://goosefat101.blogspot.com
 
Sorry, but I don't think it would be appropriate for me to put in a link in this case, as I wasn't talking about your blog, but a comment that you made here on mine. I link to articles if I'm commenting on their content, but that wasn't the case in this instance - I was discussing the fact that someone had got confused about the books, which was a topic applicable to a general audience: it would have given everyone reading this blog a false impression if I hadn't clarified the issue. If anyone wants to link to your blog, they can do it by clicking on your name in this thread.

I'm not comfortable with the idea of a blog becoming too much a dialogue between or plug for other blogs. I'd like to keep posts applicable to as wide an audience as possible, as lurkers always outnumber posters by a huge factor and I don't want to make all the lovely lurkers out there feel like I'm only aware of the posters. And as a general policy, I'm not willing to put in links on request: if say yes to requests some of the time, I'll be put in an awkward position if I want to refuse other requests later. People I refuse will want to know why, and I'll have to say 'I don't like your blog', and that's no way to repay the compliment of somebody liking mine.

Blanket policy, I'm afraid: I link when I choose to, but no requests. Anything else is unworkable.
 
Kit, I've been working on your author profile over at GoodReads, and I wonder if you'd give permission to use the author photo here on your site over there as well? At the moment you don't have a photo at all :) (or a bio).
 
You'll have to contact Chloe Johnson-Hill at Random House publicity; I don't own the copyright on that picture, and I'm not sure if it belongs to Random or the photographer. Her e-mail is cjohnson-hill@randomhouse.co.uk.

But if it's a question of including the gift books, here's my problem: if it were up to me, I'd leave them out. I don't have a problem with having done them, but they were just bread-jobs that took a month apiece, which I compiled rather than wrote, and because there are a lot of them, they're rather crowding the actual novel, which took much more work and was entirely personal. I had a different hat on entirely when I did those books.

Also, I didn't write Where Cats Meditate or Great Quips from Great Brits; the former is misattributed and the latter is a project I wrote the pitch copy for that never got commissioned. I haven't even heard of Where Pets Display.

Obviously I have no control over what anybody says about me on the Internet, but if my opinion is relevant here, I think letting the gift books outnumber the real book doesn't give a very accurate impression. I was quite pleased with those gift books, but in the same way I'd be pleased with putting up a solid set of shelves. They're far less important than Bareback, and at the moment they look as if they're rather ganging up on it!

This is partly just me trying to manage my public face, but there's an element of concern for book-buyers as well. If you like one book by an author, it's very likely you'll want to read more, and as none of those gift books are available in libraries or even most bookshops, I'm worried about wasting the money of a Bareback fan who ends up buying one online, only to be disappointed that none of them are anything like my fiction. I've done that kind of thing occasionally, and it's always a pain. (And what a Little Angels fan would think of Bareback can only be imagined.)
 
It was an off chance sort of thing and meant in a friendly way and not in a demanding or critical way, I wasn't really expecting you to do it.

When I talk about someone I always try and link to something relevant to them just to give the blog reader an idea of who they are. But fair enough you have a different editorial policy.
 
Unfortunately, if I delete a book, Goodreads will just put it back--that part's totally beyond my control :). But I'll see what I can do about the misattributions, which probably originated with an outside source :).
 
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