Nige and I are sitting in the possibly unwisely named The Optimist, a little back-street pub, all wooden furniture and floors, shiny pumps, no TV, friendly if not particularly well-trained bar staff.

Perhaps because he’s in a chair for once, having sat on a nail earlier today, Nige grimaces and says, “I hate all this, you know.”

We don’t often come to The Optimist, it being a ten minute walk from our street, but this statement surprises me. “I thought you liked quiet pubs with bar staff who don’t wish you a nice day?”

“I don’t mean the pub per se,” he says. “I mean the phoney evil system that controls it.”

“But the beer’s real, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but every pint the landlord pulls here is instantly recorded at the brewery. Which is bad enough but he also has to buy all his booze from them at inflated prices. And he just gets a wage; no incentive to make the place pay its way.”

“But surely the brewery wants it to pay for itself; otherwise, what’s the point in owning it in the first place?”

He takes a long swallow of his beer, frowning. “Sometimes, Tel, I wonder what you did with your college education. Look, the way it works with pubs now – and just about every other bleedin’ once great British institution – is that the government’s encouraged market forces to rule. And what that means is a place like this gets sucked dry of any profit by the brewery, with the staff treated like shit and the locals just an inconvenience; then, when it stops being profitable, they just sell it off for a big fat fee and it’s turned into more housing.”

I think about arguing with him but actually I know what he means. “I was reading SFX the other day,” I say, “and the section on what’s coming was very depressing. Spider-Man 3 or should that be 6; Wolverine 29; Terminator 5; re-boot this and re-launch that . . . all costing millions and, I guess, making millions, too. Nothing new; no one taking any chances.”

“Market forces again,” says Nige. “Which is fine for delivering you the cheapest toothpaste, but when it comes to art, I don’t want Tesco telling me what I like.”

“But people do like all those super-hero movies and never-ending fantasy novels.”

“They think they do,” he says, “because the corporate world tells them they do. Oh, what am I saying – yeah, I suppose people really do like Harry-bleedin’-Potter. And it wouldn’t matter that they do so much if those books weren’t shoving all the interesting stuff into oblivion.

“It’s the crap perpetuation syndrome. And by crap I mean stuff that it doesn’t take any brain power to access.”

“Have you actually read any Harry Potter?”

“Have I?” He shakes his head sadly. “My ex-wife was a fan. Made me read the first one, which I handed back with an expressive grunt or two, and later gave me the fourth because she reckoned it was more adult. Give me strength . . . I told her to read the first page of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ since that contains more character depth and good writing than what you’d get if you put the whole of the Harry Potter series through a style mangle.”

I finish my beer and stand. Nige nods, hands me his empty glass. While I’m getting two more at the bar, I think about what he’s said. I know what the counter-arguments would be: that popular series like Harry Potter help to get kids reading, then they’ll move on to more challenging stuff. But I’ve always been sceptical about that line of reasoning. Surely, if a kid wants more challenging stuff, he’ll just go directly to it? Why would he need to be led there in various stages of easy-reading?

When I return I say, “A friend of mine makes TV programmes for the BBC. He said he’s always meeting people there with degrees who tell him they make programmes for stupid people.”

Nige snorts. “Yeah, well, that doesn’t surprise me. The BBC disappeared up its government remit decades ago. It chases ratings like Benny Hill used to chase fanny. But it ain’t supposed to need ratings because we pay it to produce programmes anyway. How nuts is that?”

“So, what exactly is the problem with all this?” I say.

He swallows about a half of his pint, then leans back. “Just that using market forces where art’s concerned means that crap rules; worse still, it’s exponential crap: the more crap you feed people and the cheaper you sell it, while at the same time making sure the good stuff doesn’t stand a chance, the more they get used to crap with everything; therefore, they convince themselves it’s not actually crap and buy even more of it; meanwhile, the perpetrators of said crap also convince themselves that they’re producing what the people want; which they are, the problem being the people have been brain-washed into wanting crap.”

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

He laughs. “I’m not the bleedin’ writer, Tel. You are. What are you going to do about it?”

I think about the many writers who, subconsciously or otherwise, find it hard not to chase readers one way or another; or who study what works in the market, compress it down into snappy guidance points which they then follow religiously. And I think about the few who go their own way but who often seem to avoid putting anything out there at all. Is the answer somewhere between the two? No, probably not; because that’s just another kind of compromise.

“Nothing,” I say. “I’m just going to carry on writing what I want to write; the kind of stuff I like to read. Anything else feels dishonest.”

He finishes his pint in one more swallow; stands, ready to buy two more. “Same again?” he says.

I smile. “What do you think?”


Last weekend, I attended World Fantasy Con 2013 in Brighton. This is quite a literary-based event, e.g. the organisers banned costumes (except for Halloween night), which didn’t go down too well with a lot of writers. I mean, I was disappointed because I’d been hoping to wear my costume of the writer in the corner who doesn’t want to be noticed but does really.

I went to quite a few panels, most very interesting, some not so, which is fairly typical of Cons. The first time I actually sat on a panel, as moderator, was at a British Fantasy Con, with Neil Gaiman on the panel. Having done quite a bit of training and coaching, I assumed the rest of the panel would appreciate my having prepared plenty of discussion material. I don’t think they did. At least, if the shocked looks on their faces as I ‘prepped’ them before the start were anything to go by.

No, on the whole Con panels rely on members to talk amusingly and knowledgeably off the tops of their heads. Which most can do, of course. For instance, at World Con I went to a very entertaining panel discussing ‘Writing for series TV’, including Brian Clemens, Richard Christian Matheson, David Pirie, Stephen Gallagher and Rob Shearman.

I was rather star-struck, especially by Brian Clemens who was responsible, amongst other great series, for The Avengers. He said at one point that the best advice on writing he ever got (from the Danziger Brothers) was: “There’s no mystique to writing. It’s arse to chair and pen to paper.”

I also went to a panel discussing how to sell scripts to movies and TV. Richard Christian Matheson said at one point:

“You have to have a really high threshold for rejection. In this business, golden opportunities turn black. You have to keep writing. There are an extraordinary number of set-backs to face. Take an inventory of your nature: where is your threshold? It’s not about the one moment; it’s about momentum. You have to be relentless – in a way that you’re not about anything else in your life. And you do that by loving to write – so all the rejection doesn’t punch a hole in you; it just makes you keep on going.”

The panel had me fired up about thinking bigger; at producing a few stunning spec scripts and taking on TV; no, make that Hollywood. But then, the last panel I went to discussed the question, “Is it possible to make a living from writing short fiction?” The panel said they’d been joking beforehand about how this would be the shortest-ever discussion; probably just the one word, and not with more letters than two in it.

Then Rob Shearman spoke about how he’d been writing short fiction for a few years now and loved it. He talked about how in many ways it’s the purest fiction form. It’s where, as a writer, you can really take control and be free from outside interference. He also loved the completeness of a short story: that you encapsulate an idea or theme, and a character or two, in the appropriate writing style, then move on to another one.

This chimed with me. I used to write children’s books but became disillusioned with the publishing industry. The interference isn’t as bad as with movies, but there are still various committees your book has to pass through and their criteria aren’t really that different to Tesco’s when it comes down to it. I’d started at a time when a writer could write what the hell he liked and his editor could just go ahead and publish it. I tried premier-pharmacy.com writing stuff that conformed with ‘market needs’ (whatever those are) but didn’t have the heart for it. So I decided to switch to my first reading love: Science Fiction (and Fantasy), partly because I’d learned there are a lot of very good short story markets for the genre.

The first time I sat down to write an SF short story it was for my entry application to the Odyssey Writing Workshop. I was actually thrilled again at being faced with a blank page. I had an idea and a feeling for the shape of the main characters, and whereas with a novel, I could be looking at weeks or months before hitting the ‘point’ of the story, now I could get to it in a day or so.

Every short story I’ve written since has been for its own reasons; and they’ve all been different. Apart from the creative pleasure this kind of freedom brings, it’s also made me a better writer. I’ve used just about every form, tense and structure, and tried dozens of different points of view for the main characters.

Also, while competition for places in the top magazines is incredibly strong, it’s for the most part open. You write a story because you want to; an editor reads it and buys it if he/she likes it. Done. Okay, there are going to be some market considerations for magazines too, and the need to get ‘names’ on board, but there is still plenty of space for stories that are excellent just by being themselves. And if you produce enough quality stories, you’ll sooner or later sell one, which is a great confidence boost. Selling novels, of course, is incredibly difficult and usually you’ve only got one or two to hawk around.

I often advise the writers I work with to try short fiction, but few rarely do. They start with novels and stick with them. Which is frustrating because I can see how much their writing would improve if they wrote shorts too. But I think sometimes they’re frightened to. Perhaps it’s because in some ways you put yourself more on the line with a short story. There aren’t enough words to hide behind. Here’s the main character; here’s the problem he’s got; here’s how he solves it (or doesn’t); and here’s how I’ve taken you through his well-structured journey with exactly the right kind of prose, tone and voice. More than anything, here’s how I’ve produced something magical and memorable, and now I have to do it all over again, already.

Perhaps it’s also fear of change. While you stick with that novel, spending years re-writing it and sending it out, you don’t have to change or develop as a writer. You tell yourself it’s just a case of the right agent or publisher discovering you. But if you write a short, then another, then another, and you send them all out, and they’re all different, then in a way you’re putting yourself out there as a writer, not just as one book. And if you get rejected as a writer, well, that would be the end, wouldn’t it?

I believe there’s a limit to the amount of creative, interesting and magical stories a writer can produce before they become predictable and repetitive. However, those who only write novels face the danger of staying below their creative limits. I believe you can access the bottom quarter of your creativity by sticking to one or two projects (novels in this case) but you only access the top three-quarters by producing more, trying more, and reaching for more. Which writing short fiction demands.