…Who touches this touches a man.
Yes, old Walt knew a thing or two. And it’s right here! A man on a motor-bike wearing a black helmet – not the bike, the man – just delivered it. It sits on the desk in front of me in its cellophane wrapper, unopened, (well, I know what’s inside) and pristine, and I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s beautiful. Excuse the self-indulgence, but the advance copies of my book just arrived. Bulk supplies won’t be in the shops until November 27 and the police are not expecting undignified midnight scrambles outside Waterstones. Neither have I (yet) been asked for an interview by John Humphrys or Jay Leno. But who cares? It’s here...
I’m trying to judge a short story competition. You can’t help but wonder at the number of people who want to write but who don’t read. I remember Gordon Ramsay saying once – he’s the TV chef who can only be seen after the 9pm kiddies-bedtime watershed because he’s so foul-mouthed. (Guess I should have wondered this before, but how do you have an evening watershed in the US with its different time-zones? It wasn’t a problem when I was raising kids there because in the US, TV obscenity is a relatively recent phenomenon.)
Oh yes, Gordon Ramsay. He said that lots of people want to be top chefs but they’re not interested in food. It’s the same with writing. Lots of people want be famous writers but they aren’t interested in books. It won’t work – it’s not what you get out of it that’s fun – it’s what you put in. It seems pretty obvious: after all, painters look at pictures all the time. Virginia said it right: “Books read us”.
But I digress – again: back to the judging. There is, as you’d expect, a wide quality range. It’s not just that some people write better: they may have been writing for longer, be better read (see above) or realised at the last minute that the deadline was almost upon them. But they all merit roughly the same amount of attention and comment, right?
You’d think this would mean that the better stories would be harder to critique, and that it would be easy to comment on a story that you didn’t like. It’s not what I’ve found. I could go on for pages about the bad ones, because I want to tell them where they went wrong, how I think things could be improved. Then I have to go over it all again to check I haven’t committed the sin that uncaring editors do dozens of times a day: discouragement.
So if you got a long critique, it probably means you didn’t win. But that’s not the point. I just hope it was, at worst, positive and encouraging, and at best inspirational. And that you’ll try again next time.
I've been coming to France a fair number of years - a fair number of decades actually - but there's one habit I can't break. This is, before I go into a DIY shop, doctor's surgery, anywhere, I do a little check to see if I've got all the vocabulary I need. Wall plug - cheville - biopsy - biopsie - OK, let's go. It's silly I know. When the phone rings you can't race through the dictionary to check you know every word they may use. You just wing it. But I still do it.
The other day I wanted a jubilee clip. It wasn't in the dictionary so I had to wing it.
Me: (in French) "I'm looking for this ring-like thing that has little ridges on the outside that you tighten up with a screwdriver." As I go into my impersonation of Marcel Marceau with screwdriver, the man interrupts.
Man: "Juibeelee cleep?"