Why I Won’t Dumb Down



I have a confession to make.

While I was working on this year’s seemingly prolific output, I was also quietly writing another novel.

One thing I’ve noticed about the review copies that come through my door is how many claim to have sold 3 or 4 or even 10 million copies. It’s pretty depressing when you know you’ve never hit those giddy heights in the entire course of your career. So I set out to write the kind of thriller even the legendarily dim stockists at WH Smith would put on shelves between the free Galaxy bars and porn mags. I’ve never been stocked there in over forty books. It was a challenge, and we like challenges here at Fowler Towers.

I thought I could manage my own take on the mainstream blockbuster thriller. I crafted it carefully with a killer hook, short chapters, plenty of action, a bit of sex, clearly delineated characters. The writing was a boring chore that just had to be done. Then I came up with a quirky way of presenting all this information to the reader.

My agent liked it a lot and thought it would sell, and sent it out to professional readers. After three months we looked at all the notes we got back. Not one of them wanted to take the book as it stood. Now, which word in the above account, sank it?

How ‘quirky’?

I just couldn’t help myself. I had to stop myself from being bored so I added a little something, okay? The publishers’ readers thought the format was too tricksy, and that it needed to be simpler for their lists. Simpler! The only way I could have written more simply would have been to draw accompanying pictures to every sentence. There is a bestselling author I know who’s a terrible, dreadful writer, but who protects himself from bad reviews by constantly reminding everyone about the veracity of his research. That’s one way to do it. Another way is by being a great networker in the critics’ fraternity – I know someone who does that, too.

To my mind, a writer lives or dies by the word. If you fail, it should be because the story isn’t good enough, not because you didn’t attend the right dinners. Even Dan Brown, an absurd writer, knows that and writes according to solidly appealing principles. ‘Inferno’ will slip down a treat, especially now that we have Kindles and nobody need know we’re looking at it, like porn.

I know my story was good, but the publishers’ readers may be right and the format – a Q&A between two unreliable narrators and a cop – might be too distancing for readers who like things plainer. Fair enough. But it makes me realise that the book industry now correlates to London and its relationship to the rest of the country – we have a two-tier system. On one side, the wealthy panoply of fine literature and on the other, books for poors.

My novel has gone into a drawer. I’ll take it like a man and rewrite it at some point. It doesn’t matter. There’s a new adventure always waiting to be written.

NB James Hadley Chase was not dumb, I just liked the cover.

9 comments on “Why I Won’t Dumb Down”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Yeah, I am always surprised by the great number of readers that like reams of research, rendered in massive pyramid blocks. and written as “dull as dishwater”, but then must have the rest of the novel written as simplistically as possible.
    “Oh, I really like the guy’s writing. I learned so much in his last thriller about sabotaging atomic clocks. The man’s a genius!”
    “Didn’t you find the plot very formalistic? The characters very thin? Sex every fifth chapter, car chase every third chapter and dialogue so tedious it was like being trapped on the elevator of fools.”
    “Doesn’t bother me. It’s all about what I learned!” “So look up sabotaging atomic clocks on Goggle or subscribe to Scientific American.”
    Nah, that stuffs too technical for me.”
    It seems that the MacGuffin has become more precious than anything else. And don’t step out of line when it comes to the several basic plots.

  2. Jo W says:

    Please,please keep the quirky side to you writing,Admin. Some of us out here like to use their brains! By the way, love the new picture header of your twitter page. When was it taken,last year? Are you supposed to be 00 OH !!

  3. admin says:

    For the reason behind the header picture, read Chapter 30 in Film Freak…

  4. Steve says:

    That would be like me writing dance music and inserting classical clarinet in the background. I’ve nothing against dance music and could write it in my sleep….but it isn’t me.
    And don’t you dare get rid of your quirkyness. Everyone on this blog including the lurkers would converge on Fowler Towers with torches and pitchforks.

  5. snowy says:

    It’s a little diseneng disingeros naughty to say that “Smiffs”* do not stock your books. At last glance there were 18 titles available.**

    [W H Smiths isn’t really a bookshop, and its position in the market is a historical quirk. Too long to explain why, but once Boots the chemist was once the pre-eminent high street source of books.]

    (* As rendered locally.)
    (** They are Ebooks in a slightly niche format, but they are there.)

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t think he said they didn’t stock him, just that they’d never put him between the free galaxy bars and the porn magazines. I wish someone had snapped up the book because that format sounds very interesting. How do we know the two narrators are unreliable? Can we trust the policeman?

  7. Bob Low says:

    Snowy-nice to be reminded of the distant days of yore when you could buy paperback books from Boots. I remember buying several volumes of the Fontana Books of Horror there. Didn’t they sell records as well?

  8. snowy says:

    Boots started dealing in books IIRC with the 2d* library, (see ‘Brief Encounter’, it’s where Laura goes to change her book.)

    But at the height of their popularity the larger shops were more like department stores, with a in-house pharmacy, than what they are today.

    They sold a huge range of goods both plain and ‘fancy’. But rather than list them, I thought I’d leave a gap and see if other people want to chip in with what they remember buying.~

    *2d, two old pennies.

    ~Especially those that don’t normally comment 😉

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I recently saw someone on the Antiques Road Show having the procedure of adding up a column of L S d explained to them and now Snowy is defining 2d. Have people just put the whole process away as if it had never been? I was rather proud of being able to do it as long as no one threw in florins or wanted it in guineas. If you read English books you had to learn. (I waited 2 days, Snowy.)

Comments are closed.

Posted In