What Makes Appealing Writing?

Reading & Writing

paperboy 2004

A question: Do you want to try and get rich or do you want to be satisfied? Surprisingly, there are many writers who still believe that this is even a viable choice. Nobody who’s creative can ‘decide’ to get rich. Many writers who set out with supposedly killer hooks for their books quickly come a cropper. Fashions evolve but the public taste twitches back and forth almost week by week, and it’s hard to ever find what people are interested in – and if you confront them, they’re liable to tell you the opposite anyway.

I think the bottom line is always; is your writing appealing? It always surprised me that actors’ personas are largely reflections of their characters, because something of the real person shines through the acting. There are exceptions – famously Alec Guinness didn’t have a ‘real’ persona, and I know of one major Hollywood star more famous for being handsome than his acting ability who is a monster in real life, while his public persona is ‘adorable’. Generally, though, writers and actors share this trait – you can see through their writing to who they are.

Four years ago I wrote a book about growing up in a house without books, called ‘Paperboy’. It was about wanting to tell stories and making them up when there where none available. I always felt that writers should remain invisible behind their works, and never intended to write about myself. A book that was meant to be about the sovereignty of words, the development of the imagination and the act of reading somehow turned into the opposite of a misery memoir. It grew out of several pieces I had read aloud at literary festivals, and gradually evolved, but along the way family members and friends became inextricably Pritsticked into the story.

When I set out to chronicle my so-called career in the British film industry, I found the same problem arising. I didn’t feel as qualified as others to write an academic analysis of British cinema, but it was impossible to discuss films without setting them in context. Once again, the finished book turned out to be very different from what I’d intended, partly about English films and the act of seeing, and partly about the friendship of two penniless film obsessives who ended up running a unique film company. It also became a requiem for a lost way of life. It was hard to fillet out the personal parts from the book, and became partly about my lifelong business partner, Jim Sturgeon.

I think you have to let this happen. If we shut ourselves off from the writing it often rings false. And we have to use real emotions.

The Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel, who never seemed able to put pen to paper without saying something wonderful, had this to say on the subject. ‘Unicorns, dragons, witches may be creatures conjured up in dreams, but on the page their needs, joys, anguishes and redemptions should be just as true as those of Madame Bovary or Martin Chuzzlewit.’

Read his incredible anthologies of stories to see this put into action.

3 comments on “What Makes Appealing Writing?”

  1. John Griffin says:

    I think that the authenticity shines through – being of a similar age (62) and growing up where books were one of two refuges from a chaotic family life (the other was sport), I found terrific resonances on most pages of PaperBoy. It reeked of the 50s and early 60s.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    I really enjoyed this piece and while I can imagine a life without books, stories, and the immigration to try and create substitutes, I shudder at the lack of such. And of course to be fully empowered the unicorn, dragon, witch must be set in an environment which brings the u, d, w to life, just as in a well-done museum display. That’s where the writer’s immigration takes wing. And the littlest detail can make or break a tableau: a tiny lizard suddenly seen that has been accidentally flatted under a T-Rex’s hind claw – good; an empty crisps’ packet trapped under that T-Rex’s hind claw – bad. Creating the T-Rex is fun, creating it’s environment is far greater fun and describing the creature hot on the tail of Professor Challenger even more fun – oh, nuts that’s been done.
    Georges Simenon can do this in several pages and then build and build until you know his story’s character(s). Or how about the Secret Garden, where the heroine (not heroine not called hero – we’re into the historical here, who rescues the ill and shut-in boy by bringing the garden, gone to sad wildness, outside his sickroom window back to life and then insisting that he must go outside to discover the garden, and life, and he does go and things change.
    Things can change: some, a bit, a lot – that’s what writing is for. It’s the author’s making things change, showing things can change, making them change for yourself the writer and others – your readers – that’s the writer’s goal from charcoal on the cave wall to the inkjet on bond… oh, and getting paid.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Sorry – did not mean immigration(s) -what a way to start, but immigration is a hot topic this July 4th in the U.S, Children and mothers walking thousands of miles to come north to America and escape drug lords, wars, and starvation. Ever wonder why the human population migrated around the globe? Hunger, a spear in their backs and maybe a better view if a sunset and a sunrise.

Comments are closed.