Monday, February 06, 2006

The Nifty Fifty



Some time ago I mentioned that the first book I ever bought was "Fifty Famous Fairy Tales."
Also, I believe I crowed over an edition of "fifty outstanding authors" that appeared on my lovely Xmas lust pile.
I wonder if there's some sort of symmetry going on here.

I've had some trouble with the second one, keep wanting to stick one of those quaint 19th century titles on it - the one's that read like a long freight train - "Being an Account of the Extraordinary and Singular Travails of Divers Strange and Peculiar People."
I finally figured out why.
The editors did it in form - except they put it on the back as a blurb:
"50 of today's outstanding Authors discuss How and Why they Write. How they Found their Agents and Publishers and the Pleasures and Agonies of the Writing Life."
Yes, I cheated on the capitals in a mild maliciousness.
Funny how some things don't really change.
The authors are arranged alphabetically, but I don't think it's with Goreyesque intent.

The first one is Beryl Bainbridge:

Status: shortlisted for the Booker about five times.

Age at first sale: in her 30's.

Education: life - left school at 16.

Day job( in the beginning): repertory theatre, wife, mother.

Motivation: to make ends meet, ie. money.

Method: In later books anyway. Total Immersion Binge - "shuts off the phone...stays in her nightgown, sleeps on her couch, sends out for takeout food, and if inspiration fails, takes a tumbler of scotch." For about five months per.

Writing habits: can't start without a title, does prodigious research, throws away a dozen pages for every one retained, cuts like mad, thinks about every sentence, strict about precise word.

Breakout: First book published in 1967. Breakout came about 30 years after that. Implies she changed genres.
"After a long string of quirky novels based on a strongly comic sense of character" drawn from her childhood, she wrote "The Birthday Boys" (a fictional account of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition) which was followed by others " exactingly written, poetic and often harrowing accounts of people caught up in famous historical moments."

Notes: Wrote for peanuts until she acquired an agent. Item also suggests her breakout came after she acquired an agent.
Timing helps: "Every Man for Himself" came out just after the movie about the Titanic.

Are you solaced, comforted and encouraged by this example?

37 comments:

Savannah Jordan said...

Cold comfort, perhaps. It reads like a grocery list, or a resume for a has-been on the cusp of a comeback, not like someone 'Outstanding.'

Totally off topic, but, I like her name. Beryl's are beautful crystals! Emeralds, morganites... *sigh*

Bernita said...

Sorry it reads like a grocery list, Savannah.
That's my fault - I listed what I considered to be the pertinent bits.
The originals are interview-based essays.
She got, if I'm interpreting it right, a $40,000 advance for a book before "The Birthday Boys" - I wouldn't mind being a has-been for that money.

Rick said...

Yeah, $40K for a "pre-breakout" book isn't half bad. Of course, by definition this book is going to cover writers who have achieved some distinction, presumably mainly critical, but also not starving.

And a nice little insight that those impressive old-style titles were basically a blurb on the title page!

Bernita said...

Nora Roberts and Thomas Wolfe are included, Rick.

Erik Ivan James said...

It confirmed for me again that dedication is a must. Sometimes I think a "complete" dedication is required to be a successful writer and moreso than with many, if not most, other professions. (?)

Thank you for your effort to share this.

Bernita said...

I was rather pleased to see that her success did not spring from an MFA though she did have connections with "artistic" circles.

Carla said...

I thought the MFA for creative writing was a fairly recent invention? I'd have expected Beryl Bainbridge to predate it. Contacts, though, have probably been the wheels of the business since the dawn of time.
Did the $40,000 advance come under the category of peanuts? Wouldn't mind being a monkey if it did.

Bernita said...

Was of the impression they were around when she began writing in the late '60s, but I could well be wrong.

The point, I suppose, is if they were, were they viewed at that time as fertile ground/regular farmland by publishers?

Interpreting the time line, I have the impression that the $40,000 coincided with acquiring an agent and she got by on snacks before that.

Carla said...

The MFA might be regarded differently on different sides of the Atlantic. Over here it would be an MA (Master of Arts) and I think there's a fair degree of scepticism about them. The grand-daddy of them here is the MA in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia, set up by Malcolm Bradbury. I think that may have started in the '60s but for a long while it was the only one in Britain. It famously produced someone important (Ian McEwen? Others?), but I've seen press articles both for and against in roughly equal numbers. No idea what the publishing industry thinks, though I don't get the impression that agents/editors are automatically impressed. (Being recommended by someone they know whom you happened to meet on a course, that's a different matter). I've no intention of doing yet another degree so I've never bothered to research them very much.

Rick said...

Carla, the MFA over here apparently originated, or at least was popularized, by a writing program a the University of Iowa. (Or Iowa State?) It is at least as controversial as its UK counterpart.

Just as there's a suspicion that too much "workshopping" squeezes all the life out of a story, there's a suspicion that an MFA does so to a writer, leaving them capable of producing dead imitations of fiction but not actual, living fiction.

Bernita said...

Some agents' websites imply a fine arts degree allows one to insert a toe in the door.
Perhaps the degree might be considered particularly useful credential when writing literary fiction.
On the other hand, it might just mean a reasonable assurance that the writer can construct a sentence.

Savannah Jordan said...

No apologies necessary, Bernita! That was my pre-caffeinated view on the post. :)

I agree, though, $40,000 would be damn nice, and to chime in with Erik, dedication seems to be the underpinning to her success. Many would have thrown their hands into the air, and their pc's out the window long before.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think I'm with Savannah on this one about the 'cold comfort"!
I know that persistence is a virtue in this business, but my motivation isn't money (although I wouldn't turn down any 3 book deals)

*she says as she looks around to see if an agent is in earshot*

I just have to write...which, Bernita...if you stay tuned to my blog this week, may turn into the proverbial s**t-storm!

I don't close myself off...I keep on moving as I write!

Bernita said...

She said she did stop for a while when her third novel was turned down.
Then another publisher called and said something like "Your stuff is pretty awful but there's something there. What else have you got?"

Bernita said...

I'm always attuned to your blog, Bonnie.
Let 'er rip.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I relate to the method! And then it really is every man for himself around here.

And every dog, and every cat...

Bernita said...

I relate to it too, Sandra!
Total, obsessive concentration!

Dennie McDonald said...

I don't know if it comforts or not but perseverence is key - If I have to wait (and keep writing) for 30 years for that break-out novel - so be it - I'll be writing anyway - so ...

Bernita said...

That's it, Dennie, plus the fact she obviously got satisfaction and some money during that period.

Kirsten said...

One potential pitfall of doing an MFA: your heroes/heroines all come out as academics. Far better to get out into the real world, so you can make your protagonists resturant employees :-D

Bernita said...

Damn, mine is a bit of an academic and I don't have an MFA.
What's my excuse?
Some plots require the reality of higher education.
Does a degree or two determine the lead character?
Seems to me a lot of people get through university by being supermarket clerks, short-order cooks,mall guards,bouncers, bar tenders, waitresses,summer fire fighters,etc., etc. in the "real world."

Bonnie Calhoun said...

So far mine are all military people but I'm moving on to archeological types...no MFA here...those initials always makes me think of...oh, nevermind!

Carla said...

MBA has numerous alternative acronyms too. Means Bugger All and Master Bullshit Award are the two I'm most familiar with.

Bernita said...

Oh Bonnie, me too!

I always said, Carla, that bullshit baffles brains.

Kirsten said...

Does a degree or two determine the lead character?

Let's hope not, Bernita, or I'll be stuck forever with characters getting liberal arts undergrad degrees from small state colleges . . . living it myself was bad enough :-)

Daisy Dexter Dobbs said...

Creative people, whether monetarily successful or not, tend to be slightly (or more) off center. Eccentric. I can say this without apology because I’m about as quirky as they come and old enough to accept and embrace those qualities now. That’s one of the reasons why I find Beryl’s mini-story to be one of real interest, Bernita. I enjoy getting little glimpses into the minds of other creative individuals, the way they think, go about their work, when/if they make a breakthrough, and what happens to them after the fact.

I read this woman’s profile and see a successful writer. Not because of any monetary publishing success, but simply because she has continued to write for all these years, regardless of ups or downs. For me, that’s what it’s all about--the writing, or the art. The creative process.

Bernita said...

A lot of writers have degrees but don't live in an ivory tower, but I have a certain respect for this one, Kirsten, because she apparently didn't have that option.

Glad you enjoyed it, Daisy, and I agree. Bainbridge has an odd-ball reputation(perhaps because she has "an enormous stuffed buffalo" in her front hall, along with a life- size plaster saint) and is considered eccentric. But she said "...I don't see how you can be eccentric and still write hundreds of words a day, and pay the bills, and own a house, and baby-sit for six grandchildren every week."

MissWrite said...

You know, it's kind of scary in a way. On the one hand it's almost (note: almost) romantic in it's story, and happenings. On the other hand, Beryl's description of 'Total Immersion Binge' writing is at first cool, sounds like a good idea, until you get to the 'for five months' part. OMG, the style sounds like what I go through here with 'mare stare' when we have all of our mares about to give birth in the same time period... and I know what I look like after 2 months of that. FIVE MONTHS? Holy Blackeyes, Batman!

The fact that her 'breakout' appeared to coincide with her getting an agent isn't too shocking either. I really think, although you have to do it in many cases, getting a publisher without one is like asking to have your teeth drilled without novacain. It's gonna hurt, and there's nothing you can do about it without the drugs.

Too bad you need a prescription for drugs, and getting an agent is even harder sometimes.

MissWrite said...

quote: "...I don't see how you can be eccentric and still write hundreds of words a day, and pay the bills, and own a house, and baby-sit for six grandchildren every week

Personally, I don't see how you can do all that and NOT be eccentric.

I'm not sure I know how you can be a writer at all and not be at least a tad eccentric. :)

I wear the badge rather proudly.

Bernita said...

Tami, I can't for the life of me see anything eccentric about being a writer.
Most of the eccentrics I know are definitely not writers.
I wonder if what Bainbridge was expressing was the idea that she did not ignore the normal responsibilities, or use her "art" as an excuse to evade them.

Thomas said...

Are you solaced, comforted and encouraged by this example?

No. For two reasons. First she was in her thirties, and mine are running out, and she published her first book in 1967. The publishing world seems to have changed beyond recognition since then.

Gabriele C. said...

Hehe, I have degrees (in Literature, though that's only about analysing books, not writing them; History, Comparative Linguistics, and Scandinavian Studies - all very useful if you want to end up unemployed) and my characters are Roman officers and tribal warlords.

I don't think there's anything in the way of Creative Writing courses or degrees here, at least not that I know of, yet there are quite some writers in Germany. *grin*

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I'm not eccentric (Stay away from my eyes!...Go on through little UFO, go on through..) but some of my blog respondents are driving me into extreme eccentricity, even outright nuttiness.

You aned I had exchaned playful mash notes in my comments section, You said (I said?) something about butter. Two respondents suddenly went off on butter jokes, going so far as calling you the evil margarine lady.
This began to inspire me. I began to imagine you as a Phoebe Zeitgeist(got the name from the late Michael O'Donoghue) Phoebe Zeitgeist, a Serbo-Croatian debutante who was variously kidnapped and captured, first by the butter-churners on my blog, and a series of bizarre characters such as Greenland Eskimos, Nazis, Chinese foot fetishists and lesbian assassins.
I am kidnapped and captured too, but they have me in a separate cage, and strain as we might, our hands just can't touch wherever we are stored by the Eskimos, Nazis, Chinese foot fetishists and lesbian assassins.
Eccentric? Me?
(To imaginary little man on my back): Get Off!
Admontion to ghostly old lover: "Go on through, Mona, go on through"
Crikey, I don't know what they fed me in the halway house, but it makes you lively.
Who says I'm eccentric?

Bernita said...

Shall we colour you chagrined then, Thomas?

I keep wondering why they seems to have status or stature, Gabriele. Standard arts degrees should rate as high or higher.

I'm beginning to wonder if you're dangerous to know, Ivan. A commodity yet, and an imitation at that.

Ivan Prokopchuk said...

I think Bonnie and a couple of others pretty well have it right.
The MFA programme, if administered by a large and prestigious university like UC a Irvine, California or even good old Iowa, can open a couple of doors for you, but so many of the graduates are still delivering telephone books.
Got me into at least teaching for a while.

Many years ago, I taught writing class and mentioned to some students that I had an MFA and said, "You can imagine what that stands for."
They all wrote down my entire two sentences.
Crap. I had stumbled into an academic upgrading course.
I retreated to the washroom, where somebody had written FOK.
"Damned community college spelling," I muttered.

Bernita, you no commodity.

One parent of East Indian extraction, seeing the way I was carrying on, asked if I had my MFA.
"Don't worry, I've been certified by the best," I'd said.
I think he took it the wrong way.
But his kids all passed!

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