Monday, 4 October 2010

A blot on the CV

A few years ago I was sitting in a pub with a fellow author, doing what authors almost always do when gathered together, bemoaning our lot. Specifically, we were both complaining that after a few years of freelance writing as a profession, we seemed to have become all but unemployable in any other line.

I'd better clarify that quickly, not least in case this is ever read by a potential employer!

The problem isn't that writing books and short stories isn't a real job, involving a range of what I think are called "transferable skills". Leave aside the business of stringing a sentence together repeatedly for hours on end, day in day out, it usually involves self-discipline, research, a certain amount of imagination, and some sort of feel for things like promotion and marketing.

The problem is that despite all this, being a writer sometimes feel almost like a blot on the old CV, simply because of the kind of person people think you are: a surly loner who spends his days hunched in a garret, and probably drunk (maybe I shouldn't have started by mentioning the pub!) Not the image to have in an era when collaboration and teamwork are the fashion.

Actually there are days when I wouldn't mind being a surly loner etc., but the reality isn't like that at all. What brought it to mind today was another conversation (in an office this time, with nothing stronger than a cup of tea)in which I was trying to get across the kind of teamwork that is involved in publishing a book. I was moved to make a list of the people I've had to work with, which included agents, publishers, editors and editorial assistants, publicists, copy editors, proofreaders, artists, booksellers, convention organisers, fellow authors and I'm sure many others that I could think of if I put my mind to it.

I sometimes think it's a bit like being a racing driver (well, apart from the adrenaline and the risk of dying in a horrendous fireball, of course) - the author may be at the centre of the whole process but if you can't work well with your pit crew you aren't going to get anywhere.

And the point of all this...? Well, yes, as it happens I am looking for a job at the moment... but the point is that while the idea of a writer isolating himself in a lighthouse or a remote cottage somewhere may sound terribly romantic, it's almost never really like that, and my life would be a lot easier if this were more widely known!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Fresh Start

I've decided to give blogging another go.

Why did I stop in the first place? Probably because, to be honest, when I set this thing up I gave very little thought to what it was actually for. It was going to be an adjunct to my website, fair enough, but beyond that?

I was going to blog about writing, but there's only so much so material you can get out of "spent most of today staring out of the window, then got down 500 words." I thought this would rapidly become boring!

I was going to blog about the university - but I was afraid I might end up saying rude things about students, which would get me into trouble!

The effect of all this was that I pretty much dried up, I'm afraid. Now I've decided to take a step back from all that and just ramble generally about things that I think are interesting.

There's something of a lesson in that, I think, at least for me - a writer has to be aware of how his words are going to be received and who's likely to be reading then, but if you get to the point where that's all you ever think about, then you may as well not bother!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Me and Oliver Postgate

I'm very sad to learn of the death of Oliver Postgate at the grand old age of 83.
For British readers I need hardly say any more. He was part of all our childhoods - Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss, and of course the inimitable Clangers. For anyone else, well, if you don't know what I'm on about, it's really no use trying to explain! Except to say that he was both the perfect children's storyteller - combining simplicity with humour and great characters - and a marvellous animator.

Interestingly, if you read his memoirs you will see that it was his work as an animator that led to his spending a year at an Australian university supposedly teaching his craft to the students there. It doesn't seem to have been a success: the academics clearly had no idea what he was there for and actively obstructed his attempts to teach anything.

I have to admit that I had Oliver Postgate's experience in mind when I started working at the university. After all, like him I have been more or less parachuted in with no background or experience in academia, and expected to impart some details of my craft to students when, for all I knew, their tutors may feel they can teach them all they need to know.

In practice I am pleased to say I haven't found this to be problem. The academic world has its quirks and I am aware of the politics going on around me (although the department I'm attached to keeps me reasonably well cushioned against this sort of thing). I'm able to get on with my job of seeing students individually and I've no doubt that I will be able to put on workshops and the like if I wish. Partly I expect this is because I have lower expectations than Postgate did, although I imagine it's also true that universities now are much better at integrating outsiders into their own student support networks. Mind you, I don't see that many academics - which could well be another reason why they don't bother me!

Funnily enough, it's just occurred to me that my university, Kent, had a particular association with Oliver Postgate. A triptych designed by him hangs in one of the colleges, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university - although it was apparently made clear at the time that he was receiving it only on behalf of Bagpuss!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

No such thing as bad publicity....?

It's the photo that gets me...

I think the explanation is that the photographer was so keen to get the Sun shining on the Drill Hall Library in the background that he had me squinting and generally looking - what can I say? - rather peculiar. Oh well. All I can say it I don't really look like that!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The story so far...

Half a term under my belt, and what I can say for the experience so far? I had a chance to reflect on this last wewek when the man from the university press office came to interview me for a press release.
My first thought is that on the whole it's been easier than I expected. I'd imagined myself getting bogged down in technical stuff - the Harvard Referencing System, for example, or the difference between report writing and essay writing. But it hasn't been like that, for the most part: the advice I've been asked for has been much more basic. To begin with it was how to structure an essay, which I translate as "how to put together a coherent argument". Now, as the first years are starting to produce work for submission, the focus is more on how to edit or how to proofread. In some ways that's more difficult: it's easy to point to a spelling mistake or a puncutation error and say "That's not right!"; harder to take a step back from the detail and try to show the student how the error impairs his work as a whole, and what he can do about it.
There's been less diversity in terms of disciplines than I expected. I haven't counted them up yet but the vast majority of my customers have been social science, business studies or law students. I suppose that reflects the way my work is promoted: presumably the tutors in those departments are recommending me, although I don't know that for sure. It would be nice to see a scientist or a drama student for a change.
It's nearly all been essays. Otherwise I think I've had one academic appeal, a placement application and a presentation.
The one thing nobody, but nobody, asks me about is creative writing - far less my own work. I'm not sure what I think of that. I'm not here to promote myself, of course, but it surprises me a little that nobody is at all curious about why I'm here at all. Perhaps it shows how focused the students are on their work. Or how far they take what's around them for granted.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A bit of politics

I haven't done politics here before and I don't intend to make a habit of it, but this is something I feel strongly enough about:

As they say:

On Wednesday October 8th, the British Government invoked anti-terrorist legislation, which was in effect aimed at the people of Iceland. This devastating attack on our society was received with disbelief here in Iceland, where it turned a grave economic situation into a national disaster. The people of Iceland have always considered themselves great friends of the United Kingdom. Our nations have a long history of mutually beneficial trade and have been close allies in NATO and Europe.

Hour by hour and day by day the actions of the British government are indiscriminately obliterating Icelandic interests all over the world and, in so doing, diminishing the assets that could be used to reimburse depositors with Icelandic banks in the United Kingdom and Iceland. The government's actions are also endangering the future of nearly all Icelandic companies and of the entire nation, in addition to over 100.000 employees of British companies with Icelandic connections. In this regard we would like to stress that the Icelandic authorities have always maintained their intention to honour their obligations in this matter, contrary to claims made by Chancellor Alistair Darling and Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

In these trying times, it is vital that we all work together to meet the troubles that lie ahead. We cannot let leaders, like Gordon Brown, destroy the long-term relations of our nations for their own short-term political gain. Mr. Brown would never have reacted to the collapse of a bank from a larger and more powerful nation by tarnishing its people as terrorists and criminals.

We, the people of Iceland, ask you, our British friends, to join us in the common cause of ending diplomatic hostilities between our governments. It is our hope that this will stop the unnecessary economic damage on both sides, so that we can start to rebuild and make amends

Or, to put it another way:

Presiding over a debt-fuelled boom is one thing, but when it all goes (predictably) bust, going to war against the smallest country you can find is hardly a constructive way to address the problem, is it?

Hat-tip: Iain Dale

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Those who can't spell, teach

If it seems odd that I have to help undergraduates - people who have all got into university - with their English, then read this story. Of course, these tests are for trainee teachers: I don't mean to imply that all schoolchildren are being taught by illiterates. But I do worry when I find basic errors in letters that come home from my son's school. I've lost count of the times I've seen "practice" and "practise" transposed, for instance.

Mind you, the most memorable error I can recall seeing was in maths rather than English. It was a homework assignment some years ago when Isaac was asked to make 18 pence out of three coins. He got extremely frustrated, and I couldn't blame him - it's mathematically impossible! Well, almost - as I took great delight in pointing out to his teacher, it can be done but only in old money - with three tanners or a shilling and two thrupenny bits - but I don't think that was what they had in mind!