You’re in the lift of a government building in London. It stops and this guy gets in. He’s chatting to someone else which allows you to learn he’s a civil servant who’s just cycled to work from Camberwell. However, he’s wearing full Tour de France clobber: all spandex– tight shirt covered in decals, tight shorts, racing shades perched on top of his head, pink racing shoes with cleats that clack on the floorboards; in one hand he holds his aerodynamic cycle helmet, in the other his aerodynamic back pack with hydration system (well, he certainly wouldn’t want to risk air resistance by carrying the weight in side panniers or waste a valuable micro-second having to take a water bottle out of its holder or simply get off the bike and take a few swigs, or admit  that he doesn’t really need a drink for such a short ride into the office).  You have to remind yourself: this is someone who is just commuting a few miles to work. The appropriate kit for such a task would be a non-racing bike that can carry weights easily so you don’t have to put your back out doing so; loose clothing that doesn’t make you look like a pratt and therefore become a justifiable target for cycle-hating car drivers; plain glass glasses so you can actually see through smoggy winter London air; and ordinary shoes so you can walk to your desk without looking and sounding like a praying mantis with a ball bearing up its backside.

Now, the question is: does this person believe he’s being an individual by dressing this way? If he does, then he’s almost certainly deluded. It’s far more likely that he’s succumbed to a particular trend, cleverly fuelled by equipment companies who know how to play on his suppressed desires to be ‘different’, to be a contender, to look like a pro.

Does that matter? Well, not if he keeps the delusion to himself. Okay, he will probably irritate a number of other cyclists, either because they’re competing to look the most pro and he’s got a bit of kit they haven’t, or because he’s weaving in and out of traffic and cutting up cyclists who are sane enough to realise commuting isn’t a race. But he isn’t going to impact negatively on anyone else’s development as a serious cyclist.

Okay, here’s where this analogy is going: I want to say something about writers who write articles on how to write. Some writers, at least: the ones I think are doing the equivalent of wearing spandex to commute to work.

There’s a particular tone adopted by quite a few how-to article writing writers. It took me a long time to figure out what it is, other than having a gut feeling it isn’t authentic. I think it goes like this:

STEP ONE: assume position A.

Position A is a wonderful platform woven from organic coconut fronds set at the top of the rain forest. From there, the writer can see everything (well, the tops of every other tree and a few more platforms with other article-writing writers on them at least) and is therefore wise and knowing.

STEP TWO: pretend to assume position B.

Position B is lower than A but still with a fabulous view of all (other writers) below. But because it’s beneath the very top, it allows the writer to adopt a tone of slight self-deprecation and false modesty about the distance he/she still has to go, as well as not being as challengeable as he would be if openly in A. This is a kind of reverse humble-brag, implying that the writer should be at position A but is too modest to say so, thus in one go displaying (fake) humility and protecting himself from any accusation that he’s not actually the top dog.

STEP THREE: disguise position C – where the writer actually is.

Which is where in some ways this blog post begins.

Most writers spend many years waiting to be recognised, to get something published. Probably what they should be doing in the waiting time is working on their craft and producing more stories. But it’s difficult.

It doesn’t help that it’s not only writers and cyclists who adopt this three-step approach to unchallengeable smugness. You encounter it everywhere: in the pub, the office, the gym (I hear) . . . People discuss a topic, assume position A then immediately drop to the tone of position B. Hence the smugness, because they can now discuss every subject on Earth, any of which they have no real knowledge of at all, and in a tone that implies they know everything. And you can’t challenge them because they’re at position B – or at least their tone is saying they are – which is a humble step down from all-knowing.

Where they actually are is in the position of not knowing anything much at all. The shame of it is that this would be the ideal position from which to have a real conversation. Instead of everyone swapping smug pronouncements, they could open up the subject and try to learn something from each other.

Okay, it probably wouldn’t encourage the reading of your article to start by saying, “Actually, I know bugger-all about writing” but it could help if you showed that your real position – C – is not so far above the reader’s but the point is, it is above. Then, you could both open up in the face of sharing reality, instead of the position B tutor protecting his delusion and the would-be tutored feeling they just can’t get hold of what the expert is saying.

The guy in the lift isn’t helping anyone, basically, but he’s going to continue displaying anyway. Some may be desperate enough to believe he knows how to win the Tour de France. They might ask him for advice so they can try to win it too. He might even give it.


Plagiarism is essentially ripping off another author’s work and calling it your own. There are of course grey areas. Clearly, writing a story about King Arthur is not plagiarism, mainly because he’s a public domain character who’s fair game for any writer. But what if you copy a unique idea another writer came up with for one of the Arthurian characters, like Lancelot is ugly instead of handsome as the legends tell?

Rather than argue the exact definition of plagiarism, however, I thought it might be more useful to talk about author integrity. I’m going to use three examples as starting points:

  1. I once read a book (well, the start of it anyway) in which the author describes a character as a ‘Harrison Ford lookalike’.
  2. A big-selling fantasy novel containing a scene in which the author describes a character looking around a room and noting that each person is ‘better-looking than the previous one’.
  3. A big-selling children’s novel telling how a vain, bullying secondary character takes up boxing and becomes an even bigger bully.

In 1, the lack of integrity is obvious. The author is taking a lazy short-cut to telling the reader what his character is like, or at least what he looks like. One of the clear problems with this is: does he mean Harrison Ford as in ‘Star Wars’ or as in ‘Ender’s Game’? Also, Harrison Ford is of course both a person and an actor; so which is the writer referring to? But there is a more fundamental problem that that, which is similar to the wisdom that suggests checking out a restaurant’s toilet before eating there, i.e. if it’s a tip, what’s the kitchen going to be like? Similarly, if the writer is this lazy with a description, what’s the plot going to be like?

With 2, the writer’s integrity might not be in question for a lot of readers. What he’s said is after all the kind of thing someone might say when telling their friends about a showbiz party they attended. It sounds natural. However, if you think about it logically, it doesn’t  make sense. It’s suggesting in effect two things: that everyone in the club arranged themselves in order of beauty, and that the observer somehow managed to visually find the least attractive person first, after which his gaze naturally moved up the pecking order of lookers. Here, we’re probably talking about integrity that should concern the author more than the reader. Why? Because an author is not occupying the same role as your mate telling you a story in the pub. He’s an authority on the story; he’s the creator of it. Therefore, he has a duty to ensure his creation is intact, consistent and believable.

With 3, the author hasn’t exactly transgressed his integrity: it is after all quite possible that a cowardly bully could become an even bigger bully if he learned how to box. However, the lack of integrity here is more in what the author didn’t do: he didn’t take the opportunity to twist expectations and, say, have the bully through boxing develop a new-found sense of self-worth and respect for others, and even become an ally for the main character instead of an adversary. However, this route would of course create more work for the author, both in thinking it through and in making changes to the plot and character arcs.

I believe lack of integrity about details such as the above, encourages lack of integrity about the story overall. Also, if an author commits the kind of thing described in 1, then there’s a fair chance he’ll do 2 and 3 also. And, while he’s at it, grab that idea about Lancelot being ugly too.

The question is, does it matter? So what if an author takes short-cuts; doesn’t that just make the story easier to get into? Maybe, but it also makes it easier to get out of.

Authors who lack integrity are not much different to insurance salesmen. They’ll tell you what you want to hear, take your money and forget all about you (while putting up your premiums the next year because they’re going to offer new customers a better deal). And of course, insurance companies are always plagiarising each others’ ideas.

Authors with integrity take a lot of trouble to get things right that most readers won’t consciously notice. They’ll make their plots water-tight, even in the face of the often plot-less or plot-ludicrous best-sellers around today.

Lack of integrity amounts to lying. It’s similar to when someone buys a house that they intend to rent. They hire a builder and tell him to make it look good but to do so as cheaply as possible. So, he paints directly over old paint instead of sanding it down first; he fixes holes in the wall by stuffing them with wet newspaper and Polyfilla-ing over the top; he paints over the damp patches instead of putting in a damp course. When the tenants walk in the place looks great. It smells of fresh paint; everything gleams. But essentially it’s a lie. The landlord doesn’t care because he doesn’t have to live there and the tenants will pay him anyway.

Well, you see the analogy. Plenty of authors churn out stories which look as if they work but when you strip away the Plotfilla, nothing holds together permanently. TV dramas often disguise this with sleight-of-hand flashy visuals, distracting you from noticing that the plot doesn’t actually work. It’s harder to do this in written fiction but unfortunately these days, many readers’ anti-bullshit vision is permanently blinded by slow-mo shots of billowing curtains, or actors who stare ‘meaningfully’ out of car windows, so that they just don’t notice.

All of which means the first and last reason for an author to keep his integrity is because he simply wants to know that whatever he leaves behind him in terms of story is built to last.


You knock on the dark oak door, wondering what can be on the other side. There is no sign on the door to tell you. All you have is a cryptic letter inviting you to this address in a Victorian back street just off Whitehall. The letter praised your writing, said it had been ‘noticed’; that you should come along tonight and meet people who can help with your career. Natural suspicion fought for a day or two with desperate ego and eventually lost.

The door swings smoothly open. Standing before you is a man wearing a red velvet smoking jacket, whisky tumbler and cigar in his right hand. His eyes appear to possess a perma-twinkle. He’s almost handsome, possibly charming. He’s grinning at you as if he’s known you for years.

“Come in!” he says, moving to one side and gesturing towards the large room behind him. “Welcome to the club.”

You see a log fire, lots of maroon leather chairs, a golden bar at the end of the room behind which a bow-tied waiter moves with calm speed, shaking a cocktail, behind him are sparkling rows of spirit bottles, decanters and flasks. You smell cigar smoke and the mouth-watering aroma of bacon. There are about twenty men and women scattered about the room, most talking in twos or threes. With a lurch of wonder, you recognise some famous writers’ faces.

You are being invited in. To the club. Here, you will be helped by friends who have friends and contacts on the inside. You will be able to casually drop the name of your club into cover letters to editors who are also members. Your stories will suddenly find their way into thousands of hands. You’ll be nominated for writing awards that previously you couldn’t even discover how to approach. You will sit back in a leather chair and smoke big fat cigars and eat bacon sandwiches with the crusts cut off and order drinks you’ve never heard of before. You’ll be cared for, loved, accepted. You’ll be in the club.

Walk inside and you can give up fighting. After all these years of struggle, you can finally relax. Let the system take the strain. You feel a clump of well-won emotion blocking your throat.

Your host is still smiling, waving you inside.

You take a step forward, heart melting with gratitude.

But then something stops you going further. Is it that the twinkle in your host’s smile contains just a hint of self-loathing? Is it that the dim lighting doesn’t quite disguise the dark red stains on the deep brown carpet? Is it those hunting scene paintings on the wall no doubt put there by the real owners of the club? Or the barman’s slightly cynical smile as he pours another cocktail for the grey-haired writer dozing at the bar? Or the slightly over-reaching laughter? Or the, now you think about it, lack of any actual writing going on?

You turn and walk away to the hissed comment of your host, “You’ll regret it.”

The world is run by clubs, of course. Small ones like the group of regulars in your local who can make the difference to your night being pleasant or slightly off. Big ones like the British establishment who can make even the worst crimes committed by its members go away. And the not so clearly defined but nevertheless effective ones like the publishing industry.

When a writer is deciding what to write, he doesn’t tend to think in terms of the admission criteria for the club. At least not when he’s starting out. He’s only concerned with creating a convincing plot, a great character or two, and expressing a new angle on a theme that’s important to him. He’s like the kid who just loves kicking a ball against the wall and playing spontaneous games with his mates; trying new tricks, weaving in and out of defenders, not passing when he should, shooting for the hell of it instead.

But if he wants to play professionally, he has to join a football club. Where there will be rules, codes of conduct, uniforms, non-playing but ultimately powerful owners, a manager who needs him to play more defensively than he’d like.

And here I’ll stop the football analogy. Because it’s actually different for a writer. The club is in us. It’s the accumulated domicile of the many needs to conform, all of which are anathema to the creative process. Despite what I said about the restrictions of a football club, a great player will still thrive within it, even against it. But the ultimate writer’s club is his own inner padded leather chairs and Cuban cigars, which will stop him stone dead.

No one tells a writer to homogenise a character here, to be the right kind of derivative there; to steal his ideas because copyright doesn’t cover them; to toe the latest  PC line; to be ‘cool’ – to wear the story like a branded T-shirt instead of totally inhabiting it with passion and heart and belief. Club writers care about how they’re perceived. They write blogs from a slightly elevated (but pretend humble) position of The One Who Knows. They imitate self-deprecation but in reality want worship. They find out who thinks similarly on the publishing side and seek them out, not because they have a fantastic story to sell but because they might some time in the future have an okay, do the job, inoffensive imitation one that won’t give any readers mental heartburn or that they’ll remember twenty minutes after reading, which is just as well otherwise they might realise they’ve been sold a nicely decorated dud designed to little more than bulk out the writer’s list of credits.

All of which means non-club writers are destined to walk a fine line. They are after all trying to succeed in a world full of clubs, where most people rapidly move from one kind to the next – family, work, social – barely taking the time to suck in a lungful or two of free oxygen in the spaces between. The non-club writer produces a punchy, beautifully written story that makes people feel but also think, and already he’s in trouble.

On the one hand, there is the clear-conscienced writer who has produced the best story he possibly can, but now has no idea what to do with it. On the other, is the club member who doesn’t even start a story unless he knows who’s likely to buy it.

Skewing it all, unfortunately, is the large proportion of public taste for the club concoction; the easy to digest, predictable, mildly exciting ride. Hence the dreary predictability of best-sellers. So it is then, that the non-club writer has two clubs to battle, one giving the other exactly what it thinks it wants, its taste built on what it’s already been given, perpetuating a closed circle of mediocrity.