Jack Lasermouth is a writer. Mostly science fiction but quite a bit of fantasy too, not to mention a shot or two of crime, an air kiss of romance and the odd self-conscious brain-stretch of literary. He’s not had much published so far, however, just a couple of stories in magazines that pay a few dollars a pop. He doesn’t really know why. Editors usually send back his stories without comment, other than the occasional generic ‘not what we’re looking for at the moment’. Once, he wrote back saying, ‘So, what are you looking for?’ but didn’t  get a reply.

When he writes, he tries to find something different to build a story around. It might be a joke his mother made recently, about how young people today look like zombies, shuffling around with their blank stares fixed on their little glowing screens. That one, he turned into a story called, ‘Zombies are Coming, Just as Soon as They Finish Texting’ but it didn’t sell.

When he tried literary, he thought he ought to delve deep into his psyche and find something beautiful, artistic, insightful and interestingly confusing to write about. He remembered feeling self-conscious at school, about liking science fiction when all his teachers told him it was crap. That story was called ‘Requiem for a Child’s Fascination with Quantum Theory as Expressed Through his Father’s Existential Sigh’. But that didn’t hit an editor’s button either.

Then he applied to a writing workshop at a science fiction convention, got a place and forgot about it until he received an email reminding him that he needed to submit a story by the end of the weekend. He had plenty of old stuff that he could put in but then he noticed that one of the expert critiquers in his group was a literary agent. Big chance! He needed a novel, or at least the first few chapters, and fast.

In the pub that night, the empty Word page on his laptop glowed at him accusingly and he realised he was done. He’d used up every original thought he’d ever had. His story juices had run dry. His tale-telling pecker was at half-mast. His plot balloon had been fatally pricked. But he couldn’t give up this chance to impress an agent. There must be something . . .

What if instead of looking for something original he borrowed a few old ideas and stitched them together with a slightly new twist? Hmmmm . . . His mind ranged around the hundreds of books he’d read, focussing particularly on recent novels. Noir . . . always a safe bet. Hard-bitten detective . . . lives in a hovel . . . drinks heavily . . . hasn’t had a case in weeks . . . ooh, better still, let’s put him in the future so he can use some cool tech to help solve the case . . . make the setting a little bit Blade Runner, a touch of the Matrix . . . Colombo-ish character; cleverer than he looks . . . now we need a twist . . . Ah, yes! He’s a transvestite! Likes to dress up as a female policewoman; attends crime scenes to get inside info – sorted!

At the convention, he joins his critiquing group. When it’s his turn, the first to speak is a writer; someone who’s actually been published quite a bit. Lasermouth looked him up online a few weeks ago and read some of his stories. He had to admit they were original all right but a bit intense for him. He had to think hard to keep up with them. Anyway, this guy lets Lasermouth have it straight: advises him to lay off the clichés and reach for something he actually cares about: a theme, an emotion, a passion . . . Jack nods and takes notes but he isn’t really paying attention. He just wants to get published.

Now it’s the agent’s turn and Jack tries hard to read her face. He’s fearing the worst, after a real author has just expertly fingered Lasermouth’s little exercise in casual copy-catting.

Her face breaks into a wide smile. “I loved it!” she says. “It’s a great homage to California noir. Your main character is a wonderful collection of tropes that crime readers love. And it’s a brilliant twist to make him a transvestite . . . ”

The published author is rolling his eyes but Jack doesn’t care. After all these years of rejection, he’s basking in the cool breeze of promise flowing over him through the agent’s suddenly opened door.

All he has to do is tell her the book’s finished then leg it home to bash out a quick 90,000 more words borrowed from various other sources, disguised just enough to pass muster.

Later, in the bar, the published author buys Jack a drink. He’s still feeling giddy from what happened after the critiquing group was over, which was the agent asking him to send her the rest of the book as soon as; adding that she was pretty sure she knew a publisher who’d take it on.

“Congratulations,” says the author but his eyes seem to be saying something less straightforward.

“Thanks,” says Lasermouth. “I can’t believe she loved it.”

“What do you think she loved about it?”

Now Lasermouth recognises what’s in the author’s eyes.

He takes a long swallow of beer and straightens his shoulders, accepting the road he’s just decided to take for the rest of his writing life.

“The fact she can sell it,” he says.


There’s this girl. You’re good friends but lately you’ve been sensing that it could be more. You want to ask her out for a drink, something the two of you have done a lot but this time, you want to hint that it’s so the two of you can see if you really click; that you might want to get serious together.

Supposing, instead of the half-glimpsed, half-guessed way we normally conduct such potentially life-changing events, you actually had to sell the evening to her. I suggest there would be broadly two approaches you could take:

1.         “Hey, Jemima. Fancy going to The Dog and Duck for a few laughs and a chat about anything that interests you; and I mean you. I’d really like to get to know you better; talk about your favourite pop stars and all your cats, the ones you’ve shown me all those adorable pictures of. We could talk about favourite holiday destinations, and the best meal we’ve ever had; and what makes a perfect Christmas. I just know somehow that we’re going to find we have even more in common than we already do.”


2.         “Jemima, when I’m with you I often sense that we’re close to the edge of an adventure into the unknown. I don’t know what lies that way but I feel inspired to explore it with you. I don’t want to spend my life swapping superficial tastes in music, books and food. I want to see where the path will take us, together. No set route and no destination in mind; the only safety we’ll have is that we’re in it together, the two of us against the corporate, comfortable and ultimately dead-end world. It might even lead to love; the real kind.”

Well, let’s just say one of these approaches is more of a risk than the other. The first, if only by the law of probabilities is more likely to get Jemima down the pub. And isn’t that the main aim? Surely, she’ll have at least detected a hint of what you really want and at least she’s there in person to convince later. Whereas the other route is more likely to have her running for the exit even before she’s inside the pub to exit from.

On the other hand . . .

There is nothing more magical than holding her gaze while you make it clear that this is no social equivocation: you want her, the real her, to be with the real you – and then she says, “Yes.”

Not unexpectedly, I think there is a similar dilemma for the writer when submitting to editors.

Despite what a lot editors say about wanting quality writing that’s different and true, expressed in prose that does more than just tell the story, that’s a character in its own right, they don’t often publish that sort of thing. It’s quite likely that they don’t receive much of that sort of thing of course, and hence a kind of viscous circle.

A conspiracy of the adequate quickly takes shape. It fills the Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and magazines, it even wins the prizes. Readers, with little else to choose from decide this must be all there is, so they read it, get used to it, become comfortable with it. The writers who write it can produce gallons of the stuff to order, to fill any hole an editor has in his publication. So the second-rate, the barely okay, becomes not only common but even celebrated too.

Why would an author try to do anything else? He’d be nuts to. It would be the same as if every time he had the chance to go to the pub for an evening with someone, he promised the best of himself would try to make it a unique event, and fail in the attempt rather than trot out a load of conversational crap that can’t really be challenged but certainly will be forgotten once the affects of the alcohol have warn off. Any takers?

There are authors who are very successful because they pander to this quick-fix need, in a field swamped by submissions. They take care never to write anything that requires the reader to think a little, to shift perception. Instead, they produce generic character cut-outs that say and do nothing the reader isn’t always ahead of. Their prose has the depth of the warning on packets of Sainsbury’s cashews that reads, ‘This product may contain nuts’ only not as funny.

A pox on them. They know who they are, and they know the compromised, condescending, utterly hollow work they produce.

Real writers don’t bring out stored reactions to the girl, eager to say and do anything that will please her. They don’t even think of the girl as a first thing. Instead they lead with their inherent, questing curiosity. Curiosity that’s interested in her, not the indistinct compromise between responsibilities the world has made her; but the her that knows there’s something more. Curiosity that takes constant risks, drawing out poetry from the angles of light across her eyes that may or may not be on the verge of soft yet total change. Not just moment to moment, but moment discovering the next moment and changing the one after it.

This is still an investigation into the integrity of the author, I think. Not integrity as in being of strong moral fibre but more to do with someone who won’t compromise on effect. Who always strives to tell a story memorably; to not stint on character, not settle for cliché, not cheat the reader by plugging the story into some plot-o-matic device that’s about as subtle as a cold caller asking you how you are today.

I deeply believe that there are a whole bunch of readers out there who want to read quality work. And there are plenty of authors who want to provide it. But it’s difficult to get them together. The noisy shallow surface skimmers have most of the space, created by brands and genres and markets and false needs; all the crap that’s easier to talk about in the pub than reality.

The key to all this probably occurs quite early in an author’s life. Either he writes because he wants to explore and share the endless mystery of life or he wants everyone to call him an author and buy his stuff, even if it’s full of nothing but borrowed ideas powered by an insecure ego.

In the business world, there’s the expression ‘balls on the table’ (or ‘plums on the cabinet’ as someone in my office once told everyone by email, presumably offering us some kind of fruity treat), which means putting yourself on the line. For an author, I think that means writing with heart and belief, disguised legitimately with characters and style and humour and great prose. It’s not a hollow soul disguised as art.