A few years ago I wrote a story for a collection of internet tales called ‘The Beacon’, about a son who posts an online message that lives on after his death and eventually reached his non-computer-literate father. Hold that thought for a moment.
I love London cabbies; they’re fast, smart and chatty – or at least they used to be before the iPod. But yesterday one asked me the question I dreaded. ‘So, what do you do?’
Admitting you’re a writer is like wearing a big badge that says Talk To Me. It’s my job to listen to other people. I’ve stopped listening to many people in media, though, because they don’t tell you the truth, they tell you what they wish was true. ‘I’m making a movie.’ ‘No, you’re writing a script and hoping someone will make it,’ and so on.
I try to talk to people in jobs that make them happy, not frustrated, and get a lot back. Yesterday I met the lady who looks after Health & Safety at the 02 Centre, a gentleman who explained the fastest way to teach Indian kids how many days there are in a month, a shopkeeper who had invented an impossible puzzle – and the cabbie.
I could have lied and said I worked in an office but I told him the truth. He replied, ‘A writer, eh? Yeah, I’ve been meaning to do that.’
There’s an old episode of Hancock’s Half Hour when someone asks Hancock if he’s a doctor. ‘No,’ says Hancock, ‘I never really bothered.’ It’s like getting that answer back.
In the last few years, the role of the writer has changed. It’s no longer something you get around to doing when things are a bit quieter, it’s not enough to write a book and send it off to a publisher. You are required to play a complicated game with the media that involves a lot of planning and projections, because the ground is shifting. Publishers do a lot of things for me, but the thing they do most these days is apologise. ‘We can’t’, ‘we wish’, ‘it’s not cost effective’, ‘it’s an uncertain climate.’ That’s fine, they try to help get me published and it’s all you can hope for. In England there was a long tradition of the Actor-Manager, and now there are Writer-Managers, but here’s the thing – the more a good writer does that isn’t actually writing, the worse s/he gets.
You may think it’s a shame the reading public buys stuff by Kate Mosse or Jeremy Clarkson instead of better books, but people don’t just have to do what’s good for them. They should be allowed to have a little fun, and if ploughing through a global potboiler makes them forget the cares of the world, that’s great.
So yesterday I made a decision, no more career micro-managing, no more presenting outlines and trying to guarantee profits to companies whose inner workings I’m not part of, I’m going to stick to the thing – possibly the only thing – I’m any good at; writing. If what I write ends up being published in the small press, or in a leaflet handed out by the nice lady from the O2 Centre, I don’t care. Somebody – hopefully you guys – will find it and read it.
To this end you should be prepared for a few experiments this year. I might try to sell a book online, or self-publish, or write a play. What I’ve discovered is that my readership – literate, liberal, considered, smart – won’t ever be as big as Dan Brown’s (who I’ve read and guiltily enjoyed, like eating very sweet cake when you really want to diet), but I think you will probably, hopefully find me and respond. Like the beacon in the story, I’ll continue transmitting and see what gets the best feedback. It’s time someone put away the bar charts and went with the suggestions of the readers, not the number-crunchers.
If that works for you, let me know.