Two situations:

Elmore Leonard on BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”, explaining that he has no computer, mobile phone or TV. Kirsty Young says, “So, what do you do?” Leonard says, “I lie in the dark and think.”

A couple at the table next to us in a local restaurant. Her phone is never switched off. She spends the entire meal looking at it, apart from a brief period when she needs both hands to eat but even then it’s still glowing on the table next to her plate. Her partner looks well phubbed (phone + snub, apparently) and eventually switches on his phone, too, unable for whatever reason to tell her to turn hers off. I thought it might have been more effective if he’d taken out a book and read that instead – ‘bubbed’ her, maybe.

There are the obvious problems with phubbing, for example making your partner feel as if the fact he’s taken the trouble to spend time with you physically is worth less to you than checking out what your Facebook and Twitter pals had for their lunch today. Even if all you ever talk about with your partner is what you had for lunch today anyway and showing him photographs of that nice cheese sandwich you got in M&S, you’re still telling him that he’s second best in getting your attention. For what that’s worth – which brings me to my point, where writing’s concerned.

Writing is all about getting other people’s attention; but the question is, how do you produce something that’s worth their attention? Okay, there are plenty of books around today with about as much original thought as a cheese sandwich, and they appear to find plenty of readers. But I doubt they’re produced by much lying and thinking in the dark. They’re just chasing the tail of the low-consciousness end of the market. Fifty shades of cheddar and all that.

I’m talking about real writing; stories that do more than just reflect surface life. And for that purpose I’m going to choose to interpret Leonard’s words somewhat non-literally. I’m pretty sure he meant actual lying and actual dark, and can see the benefits of both. But there are easy diversions one can take while supine and light-free; kipping for example. No, real writers need to be lying in the dark all the time.

Let’s go back to Facebook/Twitter for a moment. The surface appearance, phubbing aside, is that millions of people are in constant communication. But that depends on what you call communication. Passing on others’ thoughts about others’ thoughts about others’ actual thinking (or not), isn’t communicating. It’s shovelling e-shit from one side of the e-world to the other. It provides the illusion of participation and of course the delusion of exaggerated self-importance.

Real writers don’t shovel shit. They get below the surface and interpret what’s really going on – below their own and others’ surfaces – then turn it into stories with unforgettable characters, plots and emotions. To do that, they have to lie in the dark in plain sight. They have to watch others’ behaviour without them being aware, and interpret that behaviour; and do this all the time. So they live a double life. On the surface, it’s all, “How are you today?” “I’m fine, thanks”, “Had a great cheese sandwich for lunch”, “Really? What kind of cheese?”

But under the surface . . . all apps are turned off; the smart phone is unplugged; the internet is a glossy chimera below the consciousness horizon. Here, motives are uncovered; emotions behind the etiquette feelings are read; the cry for help within the LOLs and the smiley face icons is heard.

Or not. Because I think the real writer goes deeper than this. Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is, that while most peoples’ surface thoughts are predictable and common, so too are the feelings that lie behind them. We all like to think our inner lives are special, which is why we protect them so strongly. But in reality, they’re probably just as ordinary as anyone else’s lunch menu.

So, do real writers plunge into the even deeper world of archetypes, say, or genetic imperatives? Actually, I think it’s at the interface between this level and the behind-the-surface emotions and thoughts that the writer needs to strike out in his own direction. Going too deep will just mire him in inevitable human drive terminal points – something that quite a bit of literary fiction does too much of in my view. Yes, yes, it’s all existentially pointless at the end of the day; yes, yes, people are driven by ancient unstoppable needs – I get it. Now, why don’t you do something interesting?

To summarise, then. Writers can’t afford to become diverted by the constant superficiality of social media. They could, I suppose, use Twitter/Facebook to interpret what anyone is really saying but that path leads only to death by a thousand trolls. Better to lie in the social media dark, watch and interpret; bub the phubber with a good book or a pad and pen; lift one’s eyes from the mini silver screen and face the world first hand, ready to storify it.


Sometimes it seems that the writing blogosphere is in danger of sinking in a slurry pit of humblebragging, big tarting, whingeing and all-round delusional blathering. Forums are swamped with writers essentially either bigging themselves up under guise of questions they don’t want answered or moaning about their sorry lot under guise of making ‘objective’ observations about how the industry works.

One of the best/worst humblebrags I saw recently was from a writer claiming she had a dilemma and would appreciate our views. She apparently couldn’t decide whether or not to attend a prize-giving event where her book was a candidate. Her reasons for going or not going made no sense but then they weren’t really the point. What she was actually saying was: HEY, HEY! I’M UP FOR A PRIZE! ISN’T THAT GREAT! HEY, HEY! EVERYONE CONGRATULATE ME!

One of the negative effects of the internet is that such irritating behaviour receives instant support from others who also practice it. In the old days, you only had the pub to humblebrag in and let’s face it, if the person above had had to put such a pointless question face-to-face, others would have been splitting their sides. When you can’t see someone, they can get away with the implication that they’re poker-faced in making big tart claims. But when they’re directly in front of you, the faux frowns and conflicted waving of the hands looks exactly like what it is: pantomime protest designed to encourage compliments.

Under the surface of all this fake modesty, humility and bashful acknowledgement of the support of like-minded fellows, I suspect something like this mind-set is constantly plotting one’s self-aggrandisement:

  • My life is defined by being a writer. It’s what I tell others I am and what I want to be respected for.
  • To do writing well requires a long period of training, constant practice and on top of that the courage and talent to keep pushing the boundaries of my creative limits.
  • But I prefer to talk a lot about writing; to produce a blog full of advice to other writers; to post a couple of thousand words a day on writers’ forums. I am convinced that all this activity is the same as creative writing.
  • If I make the maximum out of the small amount of creative work I actually produce, this will somehow bring about my ‘breakthrough’.
  • When I get my breakthrough, everything will change. Publishers will chase me with contracts; my agent will handle all the financial arrangements; I will be free to write what I really want to write.
  • I can’t write what I really want to write now in case I miss my breakthrough moment.
  • My advice to others (on how to do what I haven’t done myself) is based on my minimal actual experience but I just know it’s wisely universal.
  • I ignore all inconvenient advice from commercially successful writers (usually involving hard work, persistence and humility) and justify it with the view that they just churn out product and don’t understand art.
  • I must at all times support the humblebragging and self-delusion of the other writers on my forums. This is crucial in order to maintain my self-respect.
  • I am defined by being a writer. Nothing must ever question this. If I’m not a writer, I’m just an ordinary person who watches television and avoids the truth.
  • If I’m going to achieve my aim to be a recognised writer, I need to make more effort, basically. But if I make more effort, I will break the edifice of ‘writer’ I have spent years building.
  • Edifice is everything and must be protected at all costs.
  • I will support all advice that encourages delaying tactics rather actual results, e.g. that writing is re-writing; that great work only comes from endless revisions and multiple drafts.
  • Being a WRITER is much more important than being a writer.
  • I must always protect the circle of self-delusion, e.g. I must regularly link my numerous forum posts to similar numerous posts on my blog; never let outside advice threaten the edifice.
  • I had a couple of books published many years ago but I must never admit this was in effect the end of my career; that I now need to try and try again in different ways. Instead, I’ll mention my ‘work in progress’ frequently, and my agent, and encourage everyone to believe my career is still alive.
  • I’ll take up teaching. Many creative writing establishments are only too happy to give teaching jobs to real writers, not those commercial imposters.
  • I will make sure my students learn about real writing from me. I will give them the indisputable truths of writing, e.g. that re-writing is writing.


  • Write because you want to. When you want to, you’re more likely to love to.
  • If you don’t want to, don’t.
  • If you don’t write, do something else. You can always come back to it when the something else has given you real stuff to write about.
  • Find out what needs doing from those who know, not those who say they know.
  • Do what needs doing; struggle with the constant contradiction between creative impulse and fiscal need.
  • Always be honest about what you’re actually writing and why.
  • Brag, don’t humblebrag.
  • Don’t support the group mind, especially when it’s buttressing each others’ edifices.
  • As a general rule reverse the advice given by writers who don’t actually write very much.
  • Don’t let yourself forget that writing is an improving game, not a consolidation exercise.
  • Write because you want to.

System, Genre, Profit

I’ve been thinking about organisations and their systems quite a lot lately. It’s easy to see the negative effects these can have when you look at say local government. In order to function, or so it believes, local government needs to be properly organised then exert control over what happens within it via systems. Once established, the organisation and its systems becomes more important, at least to itself, than the work it’s supposed to be doing. Hence, local governments often seem to work in the opposite direction to what local people actually want but because the system is working so smoothly it doesn’t matter. What people want is irrelevant. Or, rather, what people want must be what the system produces because the system works, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, I don’t see it’s very different in publishing. Publishers are organisations and they produce books via various operational systems, one of which is genre. Putting a book into a genre saves time and money in that its audience can be easily identified, informed and sold to. The problem is, once the operating system becomes effective, at least in its own terms, it begins to exert control over the creative element. Then, genre becomes more important than quality of writing. Right at the source, the author is shaping his output to fit some genre or other, rather than pushing his creative boundaries.

Pitching has moved back down to the author, too. Pitching used to exist mostly at the reader end, with the blurb on the back of the book. And with some publishers, they didn’t even have blurbs: readers took their books on reputation of quality, or read some first in the book store or library. Then pitching moved to the sales teams pushing books to book stores and distributors. Then it moved to editors pitching to the sales team. Then to editors pitching to their editorial team. Now, authors need to pitch to their editors. And you don’t pitch on quality; you pitch on usefulness to the genre, to the system.

Do publishers’ systems work? Well, again, they must do else they wouldn’t exist. Perhaps a better question is: what’s the price of the publishing systems that work? I’d hazard a guess that quality is the price. Not that editors don’t like quality writing; of course they do. But it’s become increasingly irrelevant except perhaps to a minority of quality-seeking readers.

Which gives the quality-seeking author something of a dilemma, i.e. is it worth it?

Another problem with systems is that the end users have become conditioned to them too. When you go shopping in a supermarket, it’s much easier to go for the well-known brands, even if they might not be as good as the lesser-known ones. You know what you’re going to get. You don’t have to spend time researching the ingredients. Lots of other people agree the big brands are worth buying, so you have company. Better still, the big brands tend to be cheaper.

One argument against dropping the Net Book Agreement was that quality would suffer. Publishers would concentrate resources on their big brand name authors and, crucially, cut the cover price of those authors’ books. Which means the ‘mid-list’ authors, who perhaps tended to pursue quality more than genre-fit, would become an endangered species. Hmmmm . . .  

Has self-publishing broken this brand-price-quality conundrum? It may be too early to tell. However, so far, a lot of successful self-published books do seem to imitate traditional publishing’s brands, genres, styles, etc. Which makes sense: many readers of self-published books have been programmed by traditional publishers, and will probably still search for genre rather than quality, at least as a first thing. And, of course, a lot of self-publishing authors want to make sales now.

I believe there are a whole lot of readers out there who look for quality first. However, it will take them time to find it in the vast ocean of self-published work available. And how does the quality-producing author help them to find his work? After all, he needs to describe it in some way, and many self-publishing outlets insist he ‘tag’ it with recognisable genre labels. All of which means, quality authors finding quality-loving readers will take a lot longer than with genre-to-genre relationships.

Maybe a new genre is needed. Something like the IT’S NOT WHAT I EXPECTED, BUT IT’S REALLY GOOD genre. Which by its title alone would challenge authors to do something different with the genre they may feel trapped by. It might even in time attract readers who are fed up with the DON’T EXPECT MUCH OTHER THAN COPY-CAT IDEAS, PREDICTABLE PLOTS AND STEREOTYPICAL CHARACTERS BUT, HEY, WHAT THE HELL, AT LEAST IT FITS THE GENRE genre.