Keeping it Simple

For a writer, to sit indoors and stare out when the weather is fine is a form of torture. The urge to nip out and get on with the gardening, or just to take the dog for a walk, is almost overwhelming when confronted by the cliff-hanger that looked so clever the night before, and which now appears utterly implausible and impossible to recover from.

However, this week having included a bank holiday, I was allowed to submit to my whims and joined the family camping in Cornwall where we enjoyed the sunshine so fully that we returned like a contingent of lobsters. The wind was so cool off the sea that we didn't realise how hot the sun was.

Sunny Cornwall

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent back in Exeter completing the last two student appointments and writing up my report. Well, beginning my report, really.

The Royal Literary Fund collates anonymised information about how many students and what kind who visited their authors. It's not to check up on individual students (all meetings and discussions are entirely confidential and no names are ever mentioned under any circumstances), but it's important for the RLF and universities to assess how successful the authors, like me, have been in getting to the people who need help with their writing.

So I spent all Tuesday riffling through my notes and files, recording how many students came to see me, how many were of this or that age, how many came for one meeting, how many for two and so on. Four hours, it took me. After that, I had the basic numbers.

Next came the task of figuring out what the percentages were for each separate heading, which for me meant grabbing my trusty thirty-year-old Hewlett Packard calculator. A great device this, which I bought when I was selling computer leasing for a period, just as Atlantic Leasing collapsed and took the industry (and my job) with it.

Thursday was a fun day out for me. I drove up to Evesham to meet with my friends and partners in crime to discuss a literary festival next year. I'm helping to plan and organise it, and so far it's looking really good. All the authors we've approached have accepted our invitation, and the plans are progressing nicely. I'll put some information up when the plans are finalised.

Back home, Friday was the day for writing up case notes for the Royal Literary Fund report and making a little more sense of the numbers I had collated earlier in the week. Which was fun - I used to be a mathematician before I attempted to write.

In fact, I was a very happy student actuary for some time, until it dawned on me that the definition of an actuary (someone who finds accountancy too exciting) was in fact thoroughly appropriate.

Thus it was that, early in 1981, I began a career as a salesman. No, I didn't think of a career as an author - after all, I knew full well that writing would be a daft way to try to earn a living. Talk about unpredictability. It was Steinbeck who said that "The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem a solid, stable business." He was right.

But writing is only, really, telling stories. We can all do it, with a greater or lesser degree of success. I can stand on my feet in front of an audience and talk for some time about amusing situations that I have experienced in my time as a writer, with plenty of anecdotes to illustrate how daft this business is. I can also talk about the Knights Templar, the Knights of St John, leprosy, the reign of Edward II and his miserable end. In the same way, anyone can talk about the things that interest them.

However, when many people are confronted by a sheet of empty paper, something goes "BANG" in their brains. It is as though the paper sucks the inspiration from them. I know. I've been there.

I am lucky, because I was taught as a mathematician, and I have always liked to analyse and plan. It means I can happily sit with a pen and paper and brain-dump. Putting ideas down on paper has never held any fear for me. I will make notes, scrawl outlines, and sketch ideas for faces or scenes - it doesn't matter what: anything to stimulate the brain into action. Often I will use software such as the superb Scapple from the folks that wrote Scrivener, because the two work together so well, and they can save me hours, but the first port of call is always still the sheet of paper. And ideally blank, unlined paper. I want to be able to sketch and play with ideas, because that is how stories can be helped into existence - and lines constrain. They force your words into a regimented order, and order is the enemy of creative writing.

It's been interesting for me to help students with the RLF, because the issues they face are the same as any other writer. Whether you are setting out to write novels, essays, dissertations, or responses to tender, it doesn't matter - the problems are the same.

Everyone is struck with fear when they are confronted by the blank sheet. It's the fear that the words won't flow, that other people will think you a fool, that the things you write will seem silly.

University students have the fear that their work will not make sense, or won't read as being academic enough. They are petrified that their writing will look puerile when compared with other students.

Oddly, the same fears strike all authors. Many will mutter and complain when a new book has to be written. As a salesman I was always told that I was only as good as the previous month; as a writer, there is always a sense of dread at launching into a new novel, because one never knows whether the concept is good enough - or the writer's skills are up to the task this time.

However, the best advice is the same for any writing. "As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out," Mark Twain said, and Orwell had a series of rules about keeping things simple.

A reader - and it doesn't matter whether it is a professor reading a dissertation or the woman who sat beside me today on the bus home - wants to understand what you are trying to put on paper. They don't want to be impressed by polysyllabic demonstrations of dictionary-like vocabulary, they just want to be able to comprehend what you are trying to get across.

The rules can be stated briefly: keep the words as simple as possible, your sentences short and concise, and the meaning will come through. Don't ever use words you don't understand, because that way disaster lies.

The best language is the simplest, which is why Dickens, Wodehouse, Laurence Block, Elmore Leonard, and Raymond Chandler are still so popular today.

And finally, now I have to get back to the latest set of proofs. Three books to read through every month is proving to be enormously time-intensive, but it'll be worth it. I'm really looking forward to seeing all the books in their new covers.

New Proofs

In June I'm being sent around Devon and Cornwall to sign copies of TEMPLAR'S ACRE in all the major shops, and the next week is going to be all about marketing, so I hope you'll want to come back and read about the joys and pitfalls of going out and selling books!

Michael Jecks

As well as collaborating with fellow members of The Medieval Murderers, Dartmoor-based Michael Jecks is the author of thirty three novels in his best-selling Templar series. His latest, Fields of Glory will be published in June 2014 in hardback and Kindle from Simon & Schuster. Expplore more of Michaels' work at: www.michaeljecks.co.uk

10 May 2013

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