Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction

broadcaster, Charles Williams, Chinaman, crime, criminal, detective fiction, essayist, evil mastermind, John Buchan, mystery, priest, Ronald Knox, Stephen King, theologian, translator, Uncategorized, Watson

 

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (17 February 1888 – 24 August 1957) was an English priest, theologian and author of detective stories. He was also a writer and a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio. Knox went to Eton College, England, and went on to win several scholarships at Balliol College, Oxford. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1912 and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, but he left in 1917 upon his conversion to Catholicism. In 1918 he was ordained a Catholic priest.

In addition to being a Catholic priest, theologian, broadcaster, essayist and translator, he also wrote six popular novels in the detective fiction genre. Knox was a student of this particular form of literature and, typical of his astute and powerfully analytical brain, he came up with his own Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction. Here they are:

1.   The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
Okay, this one is rather longwinded but it is logical. If you want your readers to be satisfied at the end, the criminal must be a character they have already met in the course of the book. Using a surprise hobo who has just drifted into town and decided to murder one of the local gentry is cheating. Knox was, of course, aware that this cheat was used in many of the fashionable crime magazines of the day, but found them just as abhorrent as we would do today.
Knox was much more subtle. Yes, the culprit must be a character in the story. But it must not be a character that the reader has had the chance to sympathize with. If the author pulls that trick, the reader feels cheated and is likely never to indulge the writer with any further book purchases. There are exceptions to this rule, nevertheless, as in the case of Agatha Christie’s brilliant “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” which was published in 1926. It didn’t hurt her sales one little bit. Evidently, Agatha had a different set of rules…
2.     All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
This is not fantasy we’re dealing with here. It’s real life – well, sort of. Readers are creatures of habit – aren’t we all? – and demand that the author play the game. Here there are no fairies, elves, ghosts, saints, angels, demons or trolls to clutter up the literary landscape. Just give us the facts, right? Except this is fiction and not fact. The novelist Stephen King seems to have done a creditable job of mixing straight fiction with fantasy (as did C.S. Lewis’s pal, Charles Williams). So why is the whodunit exempt? Possibly because, like the hobo in rule 1, it is a device that is too easy and, again, leaves the reader feeling cheated.
3.     Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
Here, Knox sounds peeved about the irritating way in which writers magically produce secret passages in old houses and trick switches in libraries that unlock secret doorways which swing out to allow the protagonist to pass on and discover the secret room. Too many of the thriller writers of the period produced this rabbit out of the hat. The word “secret” is key. Knox wants a straightforward mystery where the reader sees every hand that is played and there are no wild cards. The enjoyment is in guessing the culprit before the detective has revealed who it is, not in wildly surmising architectural anomalies and physical impossibilities.
4.   No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
This, again, would be too easy. Foisting a South-East-Asian weed, or a sinister contraption on the reader smacks of cheating. It is a device that is favored by the writers of adventure stories. John Buchan wasn’t above the odd mechanism or appliance. He used that to give Richard Hannay pause in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” and it didn’t really come off. It was a lazy technique that could have turned out much more convincing if there had been some human interaction, rather than a scene in which the red-faced hero struggles with wooden beams, gears and cogs for half an hour, while the nefarious criminal makes his escape.
5.     No Chinaman must figure in the story.
Chinaman? What Chinaman? This harks back to the dying days of the British Empire when all sorts of foreign nationals were flooding into London to do commerce with the biggest power players on the planet. The Chinaman was regularly used as the evil mastermind character in the magazines of the day. In the 1920s the Chinese were seen as exotic, sinister and somehow not quite above board. Here they were infiltrating British society, selling their unfamiliar wares and slightly distasteful take on life to the masses in the great metropolis. They were trying to take over our lives, by Jove!
When you pick up any appliance, from a toothbrush to a garden hose, and find the words: “Made in China,” you have to ask yourself if things have changed significantly in a hundred years – including our attitudes.
6.     No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
The premise of all classic whodunits is that the reader must be presented with all the same facts that the detective has. The purpose of this is to give the reader an equal chance to solve the puzzle. Coincidences, chance happenings and bizarre hunches rob the reader of that sense of being just as smart as the hero of the piece, because they are the hand of external agency in a world we thought was a level playing field. Readers are sensitive to that in the same way that cryptic-crossword solvers are sensitive to being given a fair chance to complete the puzzle by being given fair clues.
7.     The detective must not himself commit the crime.
In reality there is little room for this particular brand of shenanigan. Many detective novels are designed to be part of a series in which the detective solves crime after crime. If the culprit turns out to be the same person who is investigating, then the author has effectively shot him- or herself in the foot in terms of a putative sequel. It is true that the most convincing detective characters should also have their own faults and wrestle with their own demons. But the author must stop short of allocating blame for the main crime to the detective, otherwise what you end up with is a kind of moral anarchy in which the reader ceases to care about solving the crime.
8.    The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
This is a tricky one. As mentioned, the reader should have the same chance to solve the crime that the detective has. But to the same extent the author must have enough latitude that he or she does not have to telegraph each clue. Often the best way to introduce clues is as asides, or in minor conversations, or in apparently insignificant details arising that are quickly passed over. In that case, the reader really does know each clue, but not its immediate significance for the solving of the crime.
9.   The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
The Watson character’s purpose is to highlight the intelligence of the detective, ask the same questions that the reader is asking, and occasionally to summarize the investigation’s progress so far. The reason why he has to be dumber than the reader is to give the reader that superb sense of superiority that comes from being one step ahead of him. In a sense, the reader should be able to answer many of the questions that the Watson figure articulates.
10.  Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
These literary devices, by our time, have worn decidedly thin and smack of the lazy author who can’t resist pulling a fast one in order to solve chunks of the puzzle. Even if the author has prepared the reader for the appearance of the twin or double, the modern reader will experience a sense of letdown when the fact is revealed.

Virtually all of these “rules” have been broken by successful novelists who had the skill to hold the reader’s attention beyond the first few pages, through the ensuing story, right to the denouement. In fact, many of Knox’s rules seem superfluous, or at least partially inapplicable to modern day detective fiction. And yet, taken as a whole, they present us with the proposition that, in this particular genre, care must be taken over the telling, the explication and the execution of a story that is meant to be an entertainment which challenges the reader’s intellect and is worth the price on the cover of the book.

Happy New Year!

goals, Happy New Year, New Year resolutions, novel writing, obstacles, schedule, Uncategorized
It’s a new year, a new start. First question: how did you do with fulfilling last year’s resolutions? “What resolutions?” I hear you cry. Yes, I know. Last January is now just a distant, fading memory and who knows what you resolved to do in 2015? In any case, it’s now that time of year again and it behooves us to straighten the spine, stiffen the upper lip and seize the day. And after that little work out how about coming up with some resolutions for 2016?
If you are a writer of any kind, you will want to include some literary goals in your general ones. Here are a few suggestions to bear in mind when drawing up your short list of candidates for inclusion in your New Year’s honors list.
1)    Choose realistic goals.
One thing that is guaranteed to scupper your chances of reaching the goals you set is if you set your sights too high or don’t take into account external factors. So, for example a reasonable goal might be to write a novel during 2016. An unreasonable goal might well be getting it published. For a start, the publishing process is notoriously slow and even if a publisher were to accept your manuscript you might not see your book in print until well into the following year. That side of it is outside your control. So choosing targets that are within your grasp is a much more sensible solution.
2)    Come up with a plan for achieving your goals.
It is one thing to establish a set of goals. What matters and, in the end, what ensures success or guarantees failure is how you plan to achieve those goals. That means:
  1. setting realistic deadlines;
  2. taking steps to rearrange your life to facilitate the achievement of those goals;
  3.  it might even involve rearranging the layout of your home to make it easier for you to write; and
  4. it might involve looking at your schedule and shuffling things around a bit to facilitate your writing time.

 

3)    Choose how you are going to reward yourself for achieving your goals.
We all need incentives, so how are you going to reward yourself for hitting the targets you have set for yourself? A bottle of champagne? A night out with some friends? A brand new Ferrari? (Okay, back to point no. 1 about realistic goals.) Incentives, give you some impetus to finish the task at hand. However, they can’t be the only reason you write. If you’re not writing for the sheer joy of it and for the satisfaction you get from creating something new, then maybe writing isn’t your thing after all.
4)    If, during the year, it looks like you’re not going to achieve some of your goals, adjust your objectives so you achieve at least something.
This eradicates the demoralizing effects of failure. If you adjust your goals as you go through the year, you might find that, although you didn’t achieve the initial goal, you still achieved several secondary goals. Similarly, though, if you find you are not going to achieve what you set out to in your New Year’s resolutions, you might also want to examine what is stopping you from achieving each goal and take steps to sidestep it.
5)    Do what you can to eliminate obstacles in the way of achieving your goals.
In some ways, this involves looking ahead. There is no point in ending up in the middle of a problem and then choosing to act. Look ahead constantly and assess how close you are to achieving what you set out to do and anticipate any obstacles that are looming in the distance. That way, with some deft sleight of hand you might, in fact, avoid the problem altogether.
6)    Enlist the help of others in achieving your goals.
It is a fact that no man is an island (although, after having consumed huge quantities of festive food at this time of year, you might feel like one). Don’t just write down your list, make it public, share it on social media if necessary. Get the backing of your family and friends. Ask them to help you achieve your goals. And if it looks as if, during the year, you’re going to be way off track, ask them what they can do to help.
7)    Break your list down into minor goals.
For example, “Write a novel by December 31, 2016” is fine as an overall goal. But “Write the first three chapters by the end of February” is easier to achieve. So if you break up your goals into minor objectives, not only does it give you a better sense of progress and achievement, but it makes it much more likely that you will, bit by bit, achieve the overall goal.
This is a time that comes round only once a year, and another chance to set goals and achieve them. If you want to be successful as a writer choose your goals wisely and get started straight away. Happy New Year and good luck for 2016!

 


Finding Time to Write

bestsellers' list, creative writing, distractions, finding time to write, publishing, Uncategorized, writing
One of the reasons a lot of people have never written a novel, or completed any other writing project for that matter, comes down simply to the fact that they can’t find the time to write. But there are various different attitudes strung along that continuum. Some say that they can’t find the time because their social calendar is full. In this case, each social event is weighed up against the desire to write and, after the briefest of punch-ups, writing takes a dive in the first round and is once again put on the back burner. Others say that whenever they sit down to write they are too easily distracted by other things: TV, the Internet, finishing a crossword, reading a book, staring out the window. This is a common complaint that is easily remedied by a bit of objective examination of the circumstances. But there are people on the other end of the spectrum, who believe that everything should be sacrificed in order for you to achieve your writing goals. I have even heard more than one well-known writer maintain that he chooses writing over his wife and children and has no trouble abandoning them to concentrate on his writing…
One aspect of writing that makes a difference in whether or not you ever achieve anything at all, is whether you take a professional attitude to your writing projects. If you view them merely as pastimes or hobbies, then there is little to stop everything else impinging on your writing time (although you could argue that there are many people who take their hobbies more seriously than they do their day-time jobs!). If you say to yourself, “Self, you must be serious about finishing writing projects and take steps to guard the time allocated to them,” then you are well on the way to writing success. It’s a good start at least. Never just dabble, never merely “dip your toe” in the waters of the writing life. If you ever want to achieve something as a writer you have to have a decent amount of commitment to see it through.
If you happen to be married, then it helps enormously if you can obtain the agreement of your spouse. All it takes is sitting down together and discussing what is reasonable in terms of time commitment and effort. This is often a two way street and you may have to make some reasonable concessions of your own before an agreement can be reached. There is no use insisting upon your writing time if there is nothing in it for your partner. The mistake that the aforementioned guy who put his writing before his family made was in setting his priorities wrongly. It is the same with any career choice. The time you spend with your spouse and kids is crucially important. If you skimp on that, you do not get the time back, and you cannot make up for the kids’ lost time by choosing to spend time with them when they are adults and you have several bestselling novels under your belt. No, without doubt, when compared to almost everything else in your life, family should come first. On the other hand, if you examine your schedule you will probably find that you can cut some slack here and there from other less important activities and still find time to write, without stealing time from your family.
Taking time out of your downtime is often a good place to carve out a writing life. That is not to say that you should lock yourself away and never communicate with another human ever again. All it means is that, if you are serious about wanting to achieve something as a writer, then often you have to make sacrifices elsewhere. There is all sorts of time that is easy to spend on watching sports activities and TV shows, that, with some shrewd management and a modicum of discipline, could add several hours of writing time to your average week.
So, say you hack away at your schedule and miraculously chisel out an hour a day. What do you do then? Well, first of all you need to find a place to write that is not prone to distractions. This is preferably in a room on your own. Some people can write better while listening to music. I’m not one of those people. I’m easily distracted. Similarly, if you find yourself peering through the slatted blinds at the traffic passing outside your home for hours on end, maybe you should turn your chair/desk/writing surface so that you can’t be distracted by that.
You may even find that when you sit down to write, you are too drowsy and no amount of coffee will shift that. Everyone has his or her own circadian rhythm and each person is more drowsy at certain times of the day and more alert at others. It’s worth experimenting with this to find out when a good time for you is. I know that I begin to slump some time between 3.30 and 5 p.m.; for others it may be different. Then again, if you find you are drowsy no matter what time you choose, then you may not be getting enough sleep. There’s no point is waking up after half an hour slumped over the desk and drooling into the keyboard of your laptop. For some, lack of sleep can be accounted for by the fact that they are getting up several times a night to tend to a newborn infant. In that case, there is nothing you can do about it and you either have to stumble on and make the best of it, or regretfully wait for a few months until you’re back on your game.
Whatever time or place you choose, what matters is whether you are serious about wanting to achieve something in your writing. So to sum up:
  • Be professional
  • Get the complicity of your family
  • Prioritize your social activities
  • Choose a conducive place in which to write
  • Eliminate distractions
  • Get enough sleep
  • Choose a time to write that works for you

 

After that, all that is required is for you to come up with a few interesting projects to work on. You will find, if you can sustain a regular work ethic in writing that, in time, you will be able to complete even the most complex of projects. Before you know it you will be sending off manuscripts and book proposals to publishers and eagerly awaiting the sudden appearance of your new novel on the New York Times bestsellers’ list. (Or wallpapering your bedroom with rejection letters, depending on how good you are – but that’s another topic.)

 


Sayers’s Daily Grind

Captain Oswald Atherton "Mac" Fleming, detective fiction, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey, Montague Egg, S.H. Bensons, Thomas of Britain, Uncategorized
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (June 3, 1893 –December 17, 1957) was a novelist, playwright, essayist, translator, copywriter, and poet. She is most famous for writing the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels and short stories, but she was also a serious student of ancient and modern languages who translated Dante and wrote the scripts for a brilliant but controversial cycle of radio dramas on the life of Jesus.
In 1924, when she was 30, Sayers secretly gave birth to an illegitimate son, John Anthony who was cared for by her aunt and cousin and passed off as her nephew to friends. Two years later, she married, not the father, but a Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a crapulous Scottish journalist, and they both worked for a living, until he was invalided out of his employment due to worsening health as a result of wounds received during the Great War. The marriage was not a happy one, because of Mac’s drinking, truculence and his domineering attitude towards his wife (which nevertheless proved unfruitful because of Dorothy’s strong spirit). He died in 1950.
During their years together, Sayers held down a job as a copywriter at S.H. Bensons, an advertising firm, and would write in the evenings after work. In the nine years that she worked there, she managed to produce seven full-length Wimsey books, and one volume of short stories. The average length of these books was about 90k words. But that was not all her output. She was a member of the Modern Languages Association from 1920 and contributed to their journal as well as penning a translation of Tristan and Iseult, which was written by Thomas of Britain in the twelfth century; she also contributed detective stories featuring Wimsey and Montague Egg to various magazines. All this she managed to accomplish while running a household, attending to chores, scrimping and saving and continuing her academic studies. In 1929 she left Bensons to concentrate on her writing. Latterly she became famous as a lecturer on religious subjects, wrote many articles and letters, and in the 1940’s began to translate Dante, for which she had to teach herself Italian.

 

 

 

 

Hers is a story of dogged effort, sometimes under adverse circumstances, that paid off. She always expressed mild distaste for the writing of detective fiction because she felt it wasn’t “serious” work. Serious or not, her detective books have become classics of the genre and eventually brought in enough income that she did not need to worry about money again. In the end, Dorothy L. Sayers became a household name and secured her place as a doyenne of twentieth-century detective fiction.

Happy Hanukkah, Christmas or Whatever!

Christmas, Hanukkah, Holidays, memoir, nonfiction, novella, novels, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, Yuletide
Compliments of the festive season – Hanukkah, Christmas, the Holidays or whatever other euphemism you choose to describe that most sensitive of festivals! This is the time of year, generally, when all of us slow down, abdicate from the rat-race, and begin to take stock of where our lives are going. It is a time when people begin to think about their job situations, their family circumstances, what they have achieved over the preceding months and years. For some of us – and, if statistics are to be believed, many of us – it is a time for assessing whether we are doing justice to our writing projects. Whatever happened to that novel you started writing? Where is your plan to write your memoirs? How many poems have you written over the past year? What about your plan to pursue a career as a freelance journalist in your spare time?
It’s time to take down your over-thumbed manuscript from the top shelf of the closet, dust it off, and re-evaluate whether it is a goer, or whether you need to try something different. Do you have a sliver of an idea for a new novel based on your experiences as a debt-collector for a loan shark company, or as a waste management technician, or as a teacher in an elementary school? After all, isn’t the perennial advice to novelists: “write about what you know”? Or should you do some research for your novel. How about studying the habits and lifestyles of pygmies in equatorial Borneo? Or reading up on the lot of coal miners in Wales during the nineteenth century? Or exploring the possibility of sentient life on another planet and its endeavors to find sentient life on ours?
But perhaps novel-writing is not your thing. Sure, you would love to see your story in print, but the novel is such a huge undertaking that you’re not sure you have the stamina to reach the end before old-age and decrepitude catch up with you. What about writing a short story? There are still many magazines and journals that publish short stories of up to 5,000 words. There are also short-story competitions with real prize money attached to them (some of them quite substantial). The short story is an art form that can be difficult to tackle effectively. (Nowadays, the best short stories begin in media res, right in the thick of the action where the protagonist is already keyed up for some destiny-changing task or is just about to carry out a deed that will have ripple effects through out the rest of his or her life.) On the other hand, you might start writing a short story and suddenly the narrative takes off and becomes a 30k word novella, or even longer. That’s still a viable publishing possibility.
But maybe you don’t think you have time to write stories and prefer, instead, to concentrate on poetry. One of the surefire ways in which you can inspire yourself is by reading other poets. You may have a favorite poet whose work you admire, or even just a favorite set of poems. How did the poet achieve the effects he has expressed in his or her poetry? Of course, poetry is an art form and is only partially open to analysis. But if you can break down some of the techniques used in various different poems and then try to imitate them, you are well on your way to expanding your skill as a poet and writing meaningful poetry that can touch people’s hearts and minds, or share something profound using the economy of words that only poetry is capable of.
Then again, you may have got to a point in your life where you realize that you have had enough experience to write a memoir or autobiography (although inexperience doesn’t seem to be an obstacle in many cases!). This can be a fun project to pursue: gathering illustrative photographs from the early years, researching times and dates, interviewing those who know you and are familiar with your life. However, beware. Even the most interesting people can produce unreadable drivel if their writing style is found wanting. It is not enough to have wrestled alligators, climbed Mount Everest – twice, or even at one time have been a jobbing astronaut; if you can’t write prose that captures readers’ imaginations, then the book is doomed to failure. (To that extent, one possible solution is to employ a ghostwriter to produce the manuscript.) Conversely, even if you have not led a life that scintillates with riveting detail and unusual events, you can still produce a book that will sell in the thousands if you can write well. Humorous memoirs come under this category. In this case, one of the things that attracts readers is what I call the “texture” of the writing. If you can write work that is a pleasure to read, then people will buy it.
If you have any ambition as a writer at all, Yuletide is the perfect time to re-energize your resolve and do something about it. How will you set aside time every day or week for writing? How will you make sure that you contribute some lasting legacy to humanity’s store of literature? You’ve got a few days off without the pressure of work. Go for it! You know you have it in you…

 


5 Rookie Mistakes When Writing a Nonfiction Book

independent publishing, nonfiction books, publisher, research, structure, Uncategorized, voice, writing style, Zsa Zsa Gabor
It seems that quite a lot of people are drawn to the idea of writing a non-fiction book. Whether it be an autobiography, an instruction manual on racing pigeons, or a self-help book for obesity sufferers, more people than ever realize that they have a store of knowledge, a collection of anecdotes or a well-won panoply of expertise that they feel duty-bound to share with the rest of humanity. Writing a non-fiction book is not as difficult as it sounds, but writing a book that will sell or that is presentable enough that other people might want read it is a trickier proposition. As always, one of the key things about writing any book is having the stamina to finish it. But here are some other tendencies to avoid when approaching the non-fiction book in particular:
1. Getting lost in your research
Research is an activity that is difficult to avoid when writing a non-fiction book. Sure, you obviously need to carry out in depth research if you’re writing a history book, but even an autobiography can demand background reading and fact-checking to make sure that the sequence of events is correct. However, there is a limit to the amount of research you can and should do. It is very easy to fall into the trap of pleasurably poring over background material and forgetting to actually write the book.
2. Taking too long to get to the point
This can be a danger no matter what kind of non-fiction book you are writing. Let’s assume you have written a non-fiction book, which you now want to sell. Think of the reader’s experience. The reader has bought your book because it is a biography of the 98-year-old actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor. The reader is not interested in her childhood (unless it bears directly on what came later). The interest lies in her later life, her acting career, her nine husbands, her erstwhile glamour. So if you take too long to get to the juicy parts of the book readers will lose interest. But the same even goes for writing an instruction manual – in fact, even more so. Readers have bought the book because they want quick answers without having to do a whole lot of research themselves, so it makes sense not to belabor the introductory chapters but instead to go straight to the nuggets of information they crave.
3. Not having a pleasing writing style
This is a bit of a tricky one, because what it comes down to ultimately is a matter of taste and each reader is different. Because you may have done a lot of research and may consider yourself an expert in the field you’re writing about (heck, you may actually be an expert!) there is a danger that you could come across as overbearing and heavy-handed. If you are writing a fairly long book, there is a danger that you can start to repeat yourself. And if you are given to long elaborate sentences you could come across as boring. The key to keeping the reader engaged is to minimize long sentences, keep the action moving along, ruthlessly cut out any extraneous material. Then all it comes down to is finding your “voice,” which should be friendly not alienating, informative, but not ponderously authoritative, and light and readable without being vacuous. One of the ways of achieving a “voice” is by visualizing an imaginary reader you are talking to. One author suggests: “imagine you are in a room with a few close friends and you are telling them something that happened to you, or imparting information to them on a particular subject. Then just write down what you would say. Finding your “voice” is a surefire way of making your book highly readable. That way, when it’s published, your book is likely to garner five-start reviews and that will have a positive impact on sales.
4. Not having a clear structure
With works that are chronological, like a history book or a biography, it is much easier to structure the book: this happened, then that happened, then the next thing happened. But when you are writing a self-help book, an instruction manual, a textbook, or a religious book there may be no clear structure that comes to mind. The best you can do in that situation is make sure that before you present each section, you have already given readers the information they need to interpret what you are saying correctly. If you don’t follow that logical path, then you may end up with copious footnotes in the hope that you can explain things as you go along. Footnotes create their own problem for readers. Should the reader stop and read every footnote, thus losing the momentum of the book, or ignore them and run the risk of not quite understanding what you’re talking about? Needless to say, it is important with non-fiction books to work out some kind of structure in the first place, rather than simply gather information together in a haphazard way hoping that the reader can navigate a way through the book on their own.
5. Writing the book before you have a publisher
If you had just completed writing a novel, your first step might be to submit it on spec to a publisher in the hope that some discerning editor will pick it up and champion it all the way to publication. However, with nonfiction books, generally, the sequence is reversed. You would write to a publisher or agent with a book proposal along with, say, the first couple of chapters (so they can get an idea of your writing style) and hope you are then commissioned to write the whole book. If you decide to write the book before submitting it, there is a good chance that it will be rejected. But even if it is accepted for publication it is probable that the publisher will require substantial changes to the text before it is ready. Both scenarios can be avoided by submitting a book proposal before you go ahead and write the book. Of course, if you decide to publish the book yourself, for example as an independent author, there is no need to submit a book proposal since, in effect, you are the publisher yourself.
Writing a nonfiction book can be tremendous fun and part of the reward can be its eventual publication. You stand a much better chance of seeing your work in print if you can attend to these five simple points.

 


The Classic Whodunit

Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy L. Sayers, Hercule Poirot, Janet Evanovich, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Mary Higgins Clark, P.D. James, Uncategorized, whodunit

When I was about ten years old, a school friend lent me a copy of an Agatha Christie whodunit. It was a revelation to me. Not only was the book relatively short – which for me was a sine qua non – but I got a great deal of pleasure from trying to work out who the murderer was and discussing it with my friend.

Agatha Christie is, of course, the world’s best-known mystery writer of all time. Her books have been translated into over 40 languages and have sold over two billion copies. Apart from the Bible and Shakespeare she is top dog in terms of sales. Her oeuvre covers 78 mystery novels, 19 plays, and over 100 short stories. This is a staggering output. In fact she was so prolific that she once wrote an entire novel over the course of one weekend: Absent in the Spring under the name Mary Westmacott.

My own personal favorite was Hercule Poirot, the Belgian bon-vivant detective who appears in 33 novels and more than 50 short stories. I loved the way he hardly seemed to do any detective work: a question here, a conversation there – and always with very little in the way of hard facts until right near the end. The classic conclusion is where he gathers all the suspects together in the same room and says something like, “I suppose you are all wondering why I have gathered you here. One of you is the murderer…”

It wasn’t until years later that it dawned on me how gruesome those books were. Poisoning, bludgeoning, stabbing, hanging, shooting – all horrible ways to end one’s days. And there I was at the tender age of ten reading one after the other. Perhaps what makes the whole thing less horrific is the way in which the detective treats it, not as the snuffing out of a human life, but as an intellectual conundrum that has to be solved. The characters were all cardboard cutouts – the colonel, the doctor, the nurse, the governess, the young couple etc..

They were all taken from her stock of regular characters albeit with the names changed for each book. And that lack of real humanity is what made it acceptable to deal with the murder on a cerebral level rather than as a terrible human tragedy. And that’s also what makes these kinds of detective novels slightly distasteful. If we ourselves had been witness to one of those ghastly murders, we would probably need a course of counseling and Prozac to recover from it. Agatha Christie’s characters take it in their stride (after all, they had already been through it all before in her previous books).

Some of the best exponents of the classic whodunit are women: apart from Agatha Christie, there is Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Mary Higgins Clark, Janet Evanovich, Donna Leon, and so on. Why is that? Perhaps the reason why they are so good at it lies in the natural female ability to empathize with various characters and therefore adopt various different characters’ points of view and emotional reactions. That, of course, is essential if you want to write a convincing whodunit. Whatever the reason, these women have become adept at portraying brutal killings and their aftermath in a convincing way.

Agatha Christie’s novels always wrap themselves up quite satisfactorily at the end with no loose ends left dangling from the end pages. But, paradoxically, the best whodunits are only partly satisfying. If the author has portrayed the characters in a convincing enough way, then we hate to see them disappear when we get to the end of the book. We want to know what happens to them after we have turned the last page. We care about them enough to want to spend more time in their company and resent it slightly when the author has drawn the action to a close. And, ultimately, isn’t that feeling of loss more satisfying than a clever deus ex machina from Agatha?


Hero or Antihero

Black Mask, brighten rock, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, graham greene, Raymond Chandler, the heart of the matter, the power and the glory, Uncategorized
Most modern novel writers have a balancing act to perform when they sit down to write a book. The act involves the attributes of the main character in the book. If they make the leading man or woman too perfect, the reader will lose interest in them and won’t really care that much what happens to them. They will also have a titanic struggle trying to make that character believable and can run the considerable risk of creating a flat one- or two-dimensional character who acts predictably.
No, what the author should be attempting to build is a character who has flaws, who has a past, and has some secret hidden away which eventually compromises the choices he or she makes at key points in the book. But there are also sizable risks in portraying a flawed character, too. If, for example the main character has too many flaws – as might be the case with an anti-hero – then the reader might find that person morally repugnant. If there are too many flaws that don’t accord with the readers world-view, or that trample all over the reader’s staunchly held beliefs, then the reader may find that there is no one in the book to root for, or that they want the character to be ultimately vanquished by the mounting obstacles that are set against them.
Of course, a writer might quite like the idea of assaulting the sentiments of the reader with characters that are ultimately too repulsive to be even remotely attractive. After all, no too readers are the same and what might be abhorrent to one might be attractive to someone else. The question is: are there enough readers who like the main character enough to still root for him or her despite their glaring shortcomings?
Graham Greene trod a very precarious path with some of his main characters, for example the outlaw whisky priest who fathers a child in The Power and the Glory, and the ruthless teenage sociopath and up-and-coming gangster Pinkie Brown, in Brighton Rock and the adulterer, Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter. But then, Greene’s books were literary novels of a sort, as well as being commercially popular potboilers. So to that extent he had more latitude because of the quality of his writing. And in fact all of these characters reach some sort of redemption in the end, albeit veiled and concealed by their troubling character flaws. So in a sense Greene more or less got away with creating main characters who were in varying degrees detestable.
Modern readers are now generally averse to the kind of moral uplift that characterized British novels of the late-19th / early-20th century. Later on and an ocean away, in the United States, Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler pioneered their signature hardboiled style of writing, initially in magazines like the Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, but thereafter in novels which had their heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. In these stories the protagonist is usually more or less a high-functioning alcoholic, something of a womanizer and is no stranger to roughhousing. Plenty of flaws were on display but they never went so far as to alienate the reader too much. There was enough titillation, violence and whiskey-swilling to qualify them for peripheral anti-hero status, but not so much that the reader couldn’t root for the leading man’s eventual success – after all magazines and books had to be sold. From then on, most successful heroes and heroines had to have shady pasts or compromising character traits, in order to be “real.”
Presenting a flawed character who is still attractive is, of course, a bit of a tightrope walk but one that must be attempted by anyone who has serious intentions of producing a successful novel. The good news is that a novelist has much more chance of portraying a well-rounded character by making him or her flawed. And that in itself makes the book a whole lot more enjoyable to read, which in turn means better reviews and ultimately more sales.

 


Eliot’s Daily Grind

Boston, Criterion magazine, Dylan Thomas, England, Faber and Faber, Lloyds, Stephen Spender, Ted Hughes, The Wasteland, TS Eliot, Uncategorized, W.H. Auden
Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965), commonly known as T.S. Eliot, was an essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic, and is thought by many to have been the most influential poet of the twentieth century. He was born into a high-ranking family in Boston and after a childhood fraught with physical weakness and isolation found himself in Oxford, England, on a scholarship in 1914. He married the following year and from then on was to make England his home for the rest of his life. After a brief dalliance with schoolmastering, in 1917, he took a position at Lloyds Bank in London, working on foreign accounts. He quickly made himself indispensible to the firm and proved to be a superb businessman.
It was while he was engaged in the staid world of banking that he provided some of his most trenchant poetry, criticism, and essays of the time. He worked incredibly hard and had a strict schedule to keep every day. He needed the extra money in order to make ends meet, so after putting in a full day’s work at the office he would return home to write essays, lectures and book reviews. In his “spare” time he also founded and edited the Criterion literary magazine and produced several volumes of groundbreaking poetry.
Eventually, after a long career with Lloyds, he moved to the publishers Faber and Gwyer (later to become Faber and Faber) as poetry editor where he was responsible for seeking out hidden talent and published poets such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Ted Hughes and Dylan Thomas.
But in his later years, even when he was rather comfortably off and did not need to worry about money he still kept to a punishing schedule. He would rise early and leave the house at 6.30 to attend mass, returned home and, after a full English breakfast, write until about noon. Then after lunch he would take a bus to his office at the publishing house (completing the infamous Times cryptic crossword on the way) and work all afternoon having meetings with other editors, reading manuscripts that had been submitted and dictating letters to his secretary. In the evenings he was often called upon to deliver lectures at various venues, so he also spent time in meticulous preparation.
Needless to say, long years of unremitting hard graft took its toll on his health, so periodically he would need to take time off work because of nervous exhaustion. It was during one of these extended breaks, first in Switzerland and then in the seaside resort of Margate on the English coast, that he composed most of The Wasteland, his poetic masterpiece that was to rock the literary world to its foundations.
Eliot was the exact opposite of the dreamy-eyed romantic who pens nature haikus and love sonnets in a flood of emotion and cant. He was a shrewd businessman, and incisive critic, a brilliant poet who articulated the spirit of the times and an inveterate workaholic.

 


Poetry is Just for Sissies

decline of western civilization, Emily Dickinson, John Ashbery, nature poets, poetry, Psalms, Robert Frost, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, Uncategorized, war poets, writing poetry
Have you ever been sitting with a group of people whom you don’t know very well – perhaps coworkers or friends of friends – and the subject of poetry comes up. You know that you yourself have dabbled in that black art but you hang fire, you’re not about to blow the gaff and “out” yourself as an aspiring poet. Instead you wait. Where is the conversation headed? Will it rush headlong towards wholesale scorn, or is the company more sympathetic? You know you’ve written a few verses in moments of intense emotion; in fact you even composed a poem for your godfather’s fiftieth birthday but which you were too afraid to read, have read, or even have discovered. The conversation turns to which poets everyone can remember from high school. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? Robert Frost? T.S. Eliot? Or even some more recent deities like Sylvia Plath or John Ashbery? The names swim in your head like a thick steaming soup of unattainable brilliance. But most of all they conjure up the canons of English and American Literature, which make your paltry poetical offerings seem weak, thin and decidedly juvenile. Should you suddenly blurt out, “But I’ve written poetry too!!!” or simply sit there with a vague enigmatic smile and let the moment pass, like a badly digested plate of meatballs?
If you are a woman, it’s not so bad. Women like poetry, don’t they? Well, okay, not all women; but a lot of women seem to be more attuned to the finer sentiments, such as you might find expressed in lines of verse. But if you happen to be a guy and you take the unalterable step of admitting to a penchant for poetry then you may as well smoke your last cigarette and put on the blindfold, because, my friend, your life is over.
Exaggeration? Probably – a little. But saying the dreaded phrase, “I write poetry,” can be a bit like saying, “I am infected with the SARS virus.” It has consequences. And for the poet those consequences might involve reactions like, “Would you mind (snicker) reading us some of it to us (chortle)?” – unless, of course, you stumble across a group of people who have actually read some poetry since they were eighteen and are open to the possibility that they might enjoy writing some too.
Before the twentieth century, poetry was seen as a necessary part of the refined life that civilized people strove for. It was, in fact, possible to make a moderately good living from writing poetry, provided you actually had some talent. But like so many other elements of the refined lifestyle, poetry too has become devalued. The misunderstanding about poetry nowadays is that its arguments or themes or topics are largely ephemeral, emotional or effeminate. Yet poetry has addressed and still does address the key moments of life, the depth of human experience, and the transcendence of the human spirit, and gives the lie to the assertion that humankind cannot rise above itself. In fact, like music, the best poetry has a quality about it that circumnavigates rational thought and hits home to the heart in a way that takes the breath away. It can draw us up to a spiritual level in a way that ordinary prose cannot hope to match.
Poetry is not just for fops and dandies. And if you read any of the war poets from the various different conflicts of the last two centuries, or the poets who observe the struggle for survival of animals in the natural world, or the poets who commentate on the decline of western civilization, or even the poet who composed the Book of Psalms, you realize that not only is their poetry robust and visceral but it is also true.
Poetry is not for sissies, it’s for real men and women in a crazy world who desperately need some guiding light in the darkness.