What You Write Shows Who You Are
It has been in the back of my head for a long time that there is a right and a wrong way to behave after becoming a writer. Because we don’t work in corporate environments we have to form a creed for ourselves, but what should it be?
Before I was brave enough to try novels I had written a very bad book called ‘The Ultimate Party Book’, and my America editor told me, ‘we take our parties very seriously in this country.’ So quite early on I realised that I was not a networker. I thought parties were about having a laugh.
At business events I was a walking disaster, forever putting my foot in it, forgetting names, saying the wrong thing, failing to connect with the people who supposedly matter. I’m just not cut out for networking. I prefer talking to readers rather than those who might prove useful to me.
But writing has become a little more dog eat dog than you’d expect these days. I was talking to a magazine editor when a man stood between us with his back was facing me and told the editor; ‘Don’t hire him, hire me, I’m better and younger’.
But it isn’t why I developed the rules by which I live; rather it was the other way around. I was already practising an unspoken creed which I had not realised was governing me. I believe in a meritocracy. I only take commissioned work if it’s for a good cause or with a good editor. I’m happy to be edited but not to compromise. I prefer small events that need authors over big events that simply collect them.
I’ve watched some dreadful writers rocket to worldwide translation and million pound deals through brilliantly networking bad books. Jealous? Who wouldn’t be, just a little bit? But all writers have something to complain about.
The snobbery about mainstream novels occupying the higher ground over genre fiction still exists, and ‘literary’ writers can be unbelievably snobbish and rude. It’s easy to criticise JK Rowling but who among us has achieved what she has done for children?
It’s said that Agatha Christie used a third fewer words than almost any other author of the time, and is still widely used to teach English as a second language. But anyone who think that this makes her a bad writer should read ‘Endless Night’ to see just how brilliantly she plied her trade. Simpler doesn’t mean dumber. What comes through her books is her very clear mindset. Dan Brown’s novels, based on historical mistruths, are readable romps, no better or worse than pulps from the 1930s, but no voice or creed comes through except perhaps the desire to make a lot of money.
I think all writers reveal a little more of themselves than they intend in their writing. You can smell a desperate wordsmith a mile away, and soon start avoiding their prose.
Amazingly there are writers who’ll tell you they’re only in it to get rich, as if we were investment bankers. But there are others who write because it’s like breathing. At Bristol Crimefest I got into an argument with an agent who advised her authors to rewrite their books according to market whims. If romantic novels set in Cornwall are suddenly popular, she tells her authors to switch the locations of their stories. I can’t deny that ’50 Shades of Grey’ made a lot of money for whoever ended up writing it (let’s just say the book did not magically appear on the bestseller lists) but you should always do the very best you can – otherwise what do you have? As for quality control and deadlines, what would you rather have on your gravestone, s/he wrote a great book or s/he delivered on time? I discard about a third of everything I write.
Some of the greatest novels fail to find readers and win the approval of critics, just as many brilliant authors never win an award. I’m pleased when I do win awards but the reader must always be placed first above all else. I passed my childhood in the thrall of books. We had no TV and not much on our bookshelves, so my pocket money was spent in secondhand bookshops reading authors whose passion for writing shone through.
They wrote for a living, but they wrote for the public – not for the deal.