writing career

Man of Many Parts: Shakespeare, Modern-day Novelist

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Since his death Shakespeare has had a long and illustrious career, playing many memorable parts: immortal bard, literary imposter and, somewhat improbably for an upstart crow, a swan.

Recently, Will has even been cast as a shiftless time-waster – a timeless shape-shifter, I mean.

Clearly, Shakespeare has been many things to many people. In his lifetime, though, he was simply many things full stop. The son of a glove-maker, Will turned his hand to one vocation after another – actor, poet, playwright, investor, producer – acing them all. And yet he never became a novelist – unsurprisingly, perhaps, since in his day the first English novel, Robinson Crusoe, was over a century away.

Back then, the future, too, was still to come, as was our current century – the twenty-first.

Would Shakespeare make it as an author today? Would he ever! To my mind, Will is the very model of a modern-day novelist.

I came to this startling conclusion a week ago, while pretending to write a proposal for a PhD project located in the city from which I’d fled last year, a project entitled ‘The Novel in the 21st Century: Reading Contemporary Book Culture’.

I read novels in the 21st century, I thought. I’m qualified to critique the state of the art. And yet part of me wasn’t so sure. I’d failed to finish any of my forays into long-form fiction, after all, let alone have one published.

Deflated, I wondered why. Robinson Crusoe had appeared long ago, so I couldn’t use Shakespeare’s excuse. Was I simply a shiftless time-waster?

And then it struck me. Shakespeare!

I haven’t made it as a novelist because I’m not like Will.

New-age novelists don’t sit lord-like in an inky tower, channelling unchallengeable wisdom, painstakingly making immutable monuments designed to be decoded in private. They’re performers who collaborate like playwrights and play many parts.

The novel of now isn’t a big book thick with detail and description, whose life is strung along lines and bounded by covers. It’s a set of directions aimed at activating an audience and spawning new stories – a staged production, no less.

For a time Shakespeare was based at the Globe Theatre in London. There, during performances, actors and audience, playwrights and producers alike would interact, working as one to put on a play.

Literature is theatre once again. Today’s stories, though, are told on a truly global scale, woven in a web populated by people working with a will, like a Will.

Until I join their ranks I might as well hang up my pen and paper.

[Artwork from OpenArt]

On Being a Back-to-Front Writer: Story-telling and Self-promotion

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What happens when, as a would-be writer, your illusions are shattered? When, say, one of your articles goes viral, only to be followed by – silence. No knocks at the door, no alerts in your inbox, no flutters, no tweets. No nothing.

Before long, those million or more hits you took really start to hurt.

What happens? You blog about your disenchantment, of course, as one Lily Dunn has, er, done. Shocked by the apparent insignificance of her overnight ‘success’ – of an online article making a massive splash – Lily admits to being a little disheartened. ‘I want to give up,’ she writes.

In an eloquent and engaging appraisal of her bruised state of mind, Lily wonders what it takes to kick-start a literary career. If good writing – writing that attracts millions of readers – is not enough to win you your first contract, then what the hell is? The answer she arrives at only adds to her angst: it’s shameless self-promotion, silly.

‘Being a successful writer is no longer about craft or talent or art,’ Lily writes. ‘It’s about who is the most provocative, who is the most visible on social media, who is the most aggressively self-promoting.’

As a fellow aspiring author, I feel Lily’s pain; I, too, harbour the hope that one day, come what may, good will out. Here’s the rub, though: I don’t really believe it. Experience has taught me otherwise. But that’s okay, and I’ll tell you why.

Self-promotion – that bugbear of many an unheralded writer – is not antithetical to story-telling, it is story-telling. And not just any old story-telling either, but the biggest and best kind there is. Why? Because self-promotion is about composing your ‘self’. It’s about creating a real life-story that has the power to validate and enliven not only you as a writer but every thing you’ll ever write.

In short, it’s about being a ‘back-to-front writer’, since it asks you to bring your ‘back-story’ to the fore – to the forefront of your mind. Get your back-story right and the readers of your work will become your readers. You – and not just your writing – will go viral, and ‘success’ is sure to follow. Prepare for knocks at the door and alerts in your inbox; for flutters and tweets. The world will come calling.

How else do we explain the irritating success of ‘celebrity’ writers and the undying appeal of our ‘classic’ authors? Sure, their works are often exceptional, but they always come with rich, ready-made back-stories, self-propagated and otherwise, in which readers revel. I mean, why buy one story when you can hook a whole series?

What we as writers ought to be creating, then, are multi-story constructions. High-rise ‘libraries’, if you like. For each of our works we must lay a foundation floor – the back-story that best supports any impending upper levels: the ‘front-story’ we want to tell, along with the stories others might one day write about us and our edifice. In this way, we end up with a veritable stack of stories, the height and heft of which determines the ‘standing’ of our work in the teeming cityscape that is the marketplace.

Worried about authenticity? Don’t be. As ever, the style of your back-story more than its content will trumpet the ‘true’ you. (Yes, I do believe in such a chimera.) Back-story not selling you well? Then write another, donning a costume your ideal reader will recognise and rate. Write better, work harder and, as always, trust to luck.

Personally, I find the prospect of crafting characters for myself daunting yet exhilarating. We authors are protean beings, so the possibilities seem plentiful. Too plentiful, perhaps. Sometimes the hardest advice to take is your own…

Like it or not, the stories we tell about ourselves are the weightiest we’ll ever have to write. For if self-promotion is, as I suggest, simply the telling of stories about ourselves, then our success rests in the right place: in our ability to write. It’s just a matter of learning to write the wrong way around.

Think about it. Are you a back-to-front writer?