Three Questions For Writers


Question 1: Early Work – Bin or Keep?

Last week I posed a question on Twitter to other authors.  It was prompted by the discovery of four novels I had written between the ages of 12 and 16. They are uniformly dreadful, derivative and clumsy, with only a rudimentary grasp of construction. To be honest, I really don’t feel like keeping these carbons of my teenage influences. They reflect influential novels and films of the time, most of them entering my brain unfiltered and untroubled by any sense of discernment. An obsession with narrative; too much plot, not enough story.

Ian Rankin and Jonathan Coe both told me they did exactly the same thing. Someone suggested I keep them to remind myself how far I’d come, but when I read the work of others I’m simply reminded of how far I still have to go. I remember how I felt reading Geoff Ryman’s ‘Was’ or Mervyn Peake’s ‘Gormenghast’ and thinking I should taking a job as a shop assistant instead.

Reading ‘The Hooded Gunman: An Illustrated History of Collins Crime Club’ by John Curran is a terrific if peculiar experience – who is it aimed at, fans of the artwork, nostalgists, completists? But it covers a vast range of genre novels, many of which might have been better binned than kept. It feels as though authors rode a great crest of hunger for books. Perhaps reading then was like TV now; a few gems surrounded by filler. Today, the process is far more considered. Nobody bangs out a novel in a day anymore like Edgar Wallace (on balance, a good thing).

Question 2: Would You Rather Go to a Party or Read a Book?

This was posed by Susanna Clarke, a question she then answers herself in ‘Piranesi’, a small miracle of a fantasy novel that manages to be somewhat bigger on the inside. At first I was disappointed by the apparent slightness of Clarke’s follow-up to ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ – less than 200 pages, with lots of blankness, space and repetitions. Yet in its own way it’s rich or possibly even richer than her debut success.

The book is about the very nature of fantasy, what is real and what is not, and a reclamation of sorts from the limiting, button-pushing Netflix idea of the genre. In telling a deceptively simple tale of a lonely man comforted by unshareable joys, Clarke works toward the root of how we manage to exist with ourselves. But don’t go in expecting all the answers. Like The House, some secrets remain below the surface.

Back to her answer; I vividly remember being at home when I was about seventeen and reading a novel while, just down the hill from where we lived, I could hear the sounds from the local disco and wondering why I had no desire to go there. When I finally succumbed a year or so later, it was every bit as depressing as I’d feared.

Reading was a pejorative then, for passivity and non-participation. But it’s only an outwardly passive experience; the battles are being fought in the head. I never felt embarrassed about being so antisocial and private. It is only now the author has been flushed from cover by social media that we have to share anything beyond the printed page.

The critic Brooks Atkinson once described the cocktail party as ‘the etiquette of whoring’. I once wrote a truly wretched comedy book about parties which my editor in the US refused because, ‘We take parties very seriously here.’


Question 3: Do You Think it’s Harder to be Published Now?

No and yes.

No, because there are so many outlets available to young authors who can self-publish, create a podcast, a YouTube channel, work in independent press or go after a mainstream publisher. No, because we are generally better educated now and creativity has been legitimised as a component of a profitable career, not a hobby for dilettantes. 

Yes, because there are still hardly any working class writers and still hardly any black crime writers, which in 2020 is an outrageous state of affairs. Yes, because the field is crowded, and obsessed with innovative debuts which don’t translate into second-book sales. Last year’s fashion was for line-blurring genre fiction; crime with a dash of SF perhaps, or a touch of knowing meta-ness, something I’m not entirely immune to myself.

Incredibly, in my sixties I find myself still too often considered the baby of the group. Once, just before I was due to give a talk at a library, two ladies stood up and walked to the display kindly assembled by the librarians. They studied the photo below. Finally, one of them decided; ‘Well, he doesn’t look like my idea of an author.’ And they walked out.

For years I faced an uphill battle to be taken seriously. ‘You can get away with anything if you say it with a straight face,’ said Tony Hancock, who might have been describing the whole of Netflix’s output. I laughed and played tricks, didn’t take myself seriously as a writer, lacked the confidence. Perhaps because I never went to university, I failed to get this side of me out of my system.

Whether it was harder then or now, certain things never change. A lack of confidence in too many authors (which must particularly affect working class/ black writers). A failure to realise that your first book will define you forever in publishers’ eyes. And an inability to gauge whether what you are doing is in any way artistically successful, because there are so many measures of success. You can become top of the Amazon list of popular e-books about Cornish veteran cars because Amazon wants to spur you on, but that won’t get you into Waterstones.

I always wanted to originate, not imitate. It makes you impossible to categorise. You tend to fall between the cracks and pass unnoticed. Like most writers, for much of my career I’ve been all but invisible. I think of Dorothy Whipple or Peter Dickinson, and wonder who remembers them now.

Does this matter? If a writer writes a book hardly anyone reads, does it cease to exist? No, it makes you part of the Bloomsbury Group.


33 comments on “Three Questions For Writers”

  1. John Howard says:

    What the feck does “.. my idea of an author” even mean? Sounds like they were only there to get out of the rain. Or maybe they were characters in a Victoria Wood sketch.
    That is a very good photo of you by the way. I’m also very impressed at the way both of those pages are completely full. Or is that one of the novels rather than actually being a diary, as I notice that the pages for the 3rd and 4th of March are missing. Stay safe and have fun.
    PS: Oranges and Lemons is sitting on the shelf shouting at me to finish the Kate Atkinson book I am currently reading.

  2. Brian Evans says:

    It’s interesting that you are in the minority in that your handwriting slopes backwards. I would love to see a photo of your bookcase in close-up. Even without that, I can see misfiling. The London Encyclopaedia and the A-Z Map of History of London should be next to each other than on separate shelves, surely. I couldn’t live like that.

    I’ll be brutally frank, and I don’t care who hears me. If I’d have seen your photo going into your library talk, I wouldn’t have cleared off like those two ladies-nothing or no-one would have kept me out-if you catch my drift. I’d have gone in even if you were just reading the telephone directory.

  3. admin says:

    My handwriting used to slope back, but I took a calligraphy course and sloped it forward, which feels far more natural. I have always loved penmanship and ended up being one of those people everyone asks to fill out Christmas cards for them. I can hand-letter a poster in a specific typeface for you, no sweat!

  4. Jan says:

    Are you left handed by any chance then Mr F?

    I must admit it was this very same photograph (that seems to have quite made Brian’s morning!) that very much supplied me with the impression that you were built something on the lines of a garden gnome. You know sort of knee high to a toddler. Was a right old surprise to find out you were a v. tall person instead.

    You could caption this photo “Late 20C urban garden gnome” Was it taken @ the Barbican or perhaps
    Brunswick Square?

  5. Jill Q. says:

    I definitely prefer reading a book to going to a party, but I do love reading about parties *in* books. Anything from elegant affairs to teenage raves. My favorite thing about parties is the chance to people-watch and observe human nature and you get to do that in a book without worrying about spilling something on yourself or getting stuck net to a bore.

  6. Liz Thompson says:

    I can live without parties. I can live without restaurants. I can even live with meetings on zoom. I definitely cannot live without books.
    I don’t think I know what an author should look like. I’m quite sure a lot of them don’t (still) look like the photo on the cover.

  7. kevin says:

    A couple of thoughts: “too much plot, not enough story.” That really got me. I had, and still am, pondering that one. And second, most people are not interested in being writers certainly not here in the US. Everyone wants to be an author, like James Patterson. What questions do you have for them?

  8. Brooke says:

    Dear Author:
    1) Bin or keep? Though wince-making, your early work probably contains nuggets that can be commercialized. Question is whether ROI is sufficient–your time versus monetary return. If Amazon recommendations are an indicator, there is still a hunger for books, at least in digital format. And you can always use a pseudonym.

    2) Party or read? Trick question? Reading a book by Pullman, Gaiman, Clarke and other Oxford crowd or partying with friends (scientists, lawyers, artists, musicians, educators) who read, know music and art, and who can really burn in the kitchen? Easy choice.

    3) Harder to be published? Yes, definitely. It’s a wonder that anything original and readable gets published given the industry’s economic structure. But I think there’re other reasons why there are few black mystery/crime writers.

  9. muninnhuginn says:

    “I … didn’t take myself seriously as a writer, lacked the confidence. Perhaps because I never went to university, I failed to get this side of me out of my system.”

    I’ve always felt that the one thing I gained from my non-too gilded university career (too much time spent messng around being a lightweight) was a better ability to hide my utter lack of confidence.

  10. Peter Dickinson was so utterly brilliant. Whenever I’m asked by an audience (remember those?) who my favorite writer is, he’s who I call on. And there’s a re-issue of his books going on, so perhaps he’s not entirely forgotten. Idiosyncratic, and English, yes, but pure genius.

  11. Roger says:

    “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”
    The problem is that if you’re writing you need something to write about.

    I remember and admire Peter Dickinson, also a very good comic poet and author of the “Sonnet on the sonnet on the sonnet”.

  12. Ian Mason says:

    @Jan: “Are you left handed by any chance then Mr F?”

    No, just sinister.


    On the subject of Author’s photos on book jackets. I hate them. Just as I form a mental picture of the characters of a book, I form a mental picture of the writer. Whether I like the writer or not I’m always disappointed by their picture because they don’t look like they *should*. It’s very bad form on their behalf, and I insist that they all stop doing it immediately. Only George Orwell has not let me down. It’s almost as bad as seeing a screen or TV adaptation of a beloved character and they’ve cast someone who looks plain wrong for the character that is in my head.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Hate parties. And most events in general. I was afraid of people and always came home cringing from something stupid I had done or said. Guess who hasn’t been bothered by orders to stay home?
    I’ve met those two ladies before and they are a strange example of the average citizen. I have met Chris and he didn’t strike me as being as tall as he claims. I’m 5’1/4″ so you’d think he would loom but that didn’t happen. Don’t like the author photos he’s used lately, they make him look simple and I can’t imagine anyone less simple.
    There’s a thing authors often do (or have pushed on them) which is to make the picture echo something in the book in question. If there are dogs in the book the author is photographed with their pet, if the story takes place in a forest then the photo should have trees and so on. That one shown here is much more like the man I met than what I’ve seen in the books.
    I wondered about left handedness, too, Jan. That backhand writing is certainly common among left handers, although not inevitably. Everyone responds to things they know so I raise my eyebrows at Chris’ claim that after “a course” in calligraphy he can do poster lettering in any typeface you want. A little knowledge and all that…. We don’t letter in type faces, but in hands and after more than 40 years of off and on work I couldn’t do that, not even after righting the terminology. It’s interesting, though, how it sometimes takes very little to guide the mind to analyze the ductus of a letter and enable the hand to reproduce it.

  14. Jan says:

    Yes I’m left handed Helen and as a kid my handwriting sloped backwards. (My writing is still pretty dreadful.)

    I read somewhere that in some Arab nations there’s a much larger proportion of left handers and L.Hs writers may even out number right handers. Now I dunno where I picked this up and someone was probably pulling my leg!!! The interesting thing being the solution seems to have been starting writing in their books from the back page the top right of the page being the starting off point. This worked as the writing hand was less likely to come into contact with wet ink already on the page and blurring the pupils writing. This happened to me A LOT. Have we had the conversation before?? I know we’ve discussed inks!!!

    There was this discouragement of left handed writing in Western culture which I always thought was a funny old do. Was it on a religious basis? “sinistral” referring to left handedness also being the root of sinister.

    I’m a bit taller than yourself H I’m 5’6″ but I thought Mr. Fowls was proper tall maybe because I thought I would be meeting a short arse and it was just expectations.

    There’s a really interesting programme on bbc4 about the secret history of writing. Last week they were discussing how iPhones in particular are bringing to an end the classic scripts of China and the Arab writing plus various Cyrillic script.

    There’s like a Franco Arab script more suited to keyboard use (why Franco I just dunno) and a form of Chinese script called Pin Yin which is letter based not pictorial based so in fairly short order scripts thousands of years old may become redundant. Ideas will be expressed differently.

    Maybe at some stage writing itself maybe semi redundant. Now that’s weird! Entirely possible but weird!!

    Hope you and Ken are still doing ok Helen.

    I really need to study a bit of my 1st Aid book as I have to do my first aiding course early next week. Writing in here is like my avoidance strategy.

    If this has lots of mistakes it’s because I have lost me reading glasses and can’t check it properly been lost for days it’s a right pain.

  15. Dawn Andrews says:

    I also really like that photo of the writer, and prefer the word writer as it contains the word write as is only right. Also hate parties, especially serious ones. I mean what’s the frigging point of a serious party?

  16. Peter T says:

    There’s an old film where the main character, it might have been Cary Grant, goes to a party. Instead of speaking, everyone is saying, “Whaa, Whaa, … Whaa, Whaa,” in very upper class tone and with great enthusiasm. I’m afraid that’s parties for me.

  17. Jo W says:

    Ok,my hand is up,sir. I wrote with a backward slope and try as I may I could not change it,despite being told repeatedly by teachers and concentrating hard, it would not change. Then a bright idea came to me,if my handwriting wouldn’t straighten then perhaps having the paper/exercise book etc.slope back,then my writing would appear to be upright. You know what? It works.
    No, I am not left handed,in fact I can’t do much with it save wear the other glove in a pair. 😉

  18. Jan says:

    That was pretty much the same move /tactic I used to keep my sweaty little South paw out of the way of the sentences I had written.

    Who the hell would would read a book instead of go to a party? Specially if it was an effing first aid book. Boring!

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Turning the paper is the usual compensation and one that even calligraphers use to reduce the adjustment their hands have to make to deal with certain “hands”.
    Jan, try learning Arabic. It runs, as you say, from right to left and you can see how people who would otherwise be somewhat ambidextrous would just be strongly tempted to shift to writing left handed. In those cultures, though, there are rules about which hand is used for what (for hygienic purposes, particularly) so you might find other problems. Ancient Greek used to work both sides of the street with one line running one way and the next the opposite. That would certainly speed up writing but I’ve often wondered about reading it. And did you know that it was a long time after writing was invented that people learned how to read silently?
    That program about writing sounds like what was broadcast on PBS for Nova. We got the first two weeks but for some reason they didn’t give us the third chapter. I’m still snarling because the series doesn’t show on either PBS or BBC’s shop lists yet. I really want it because I actually know some of the people cited and even Brody has taught at our conventions, although I haven’t taken his courses because I am too straight laced in my lettering for his free wheeling stuff.
    I’ll shut up now.

  20. Andre says:

    Very early this year I had the sterling good luck to be vacationing in Hawai’i on the island of Maui. As bookstores of any sort are in short supply in the islands, when I saw a used and new store in a mall I nipped right in. It was run by the local library system, and was excellent. Whilst perusing the mystery section I came across a few works by Peter Dickinson. I had never heard of him before, so I walked out with “Sleep and his Brother” , # 4 in theJimmy Pibble series. After reading that, the hunt was on.
    As Ms. King says, a brilliant writer. His works are now published in the states by Open Road Integrated Media. The Glass Sided Ants Nest was only available as a download, but I have been able to order the others through my local book shop. Well worth keeping an eye out for.
    On a semi side note, my fellow statesiders have lamented the lack of Oranges and Lemons. I was able to order it through Book Depository. The price was good, shipping reasonable if slow. I believe they are a tentacle of Amazon, but book lust knows no bounds.
    Stay healthy and safe.

  21. Andre says:

    Oh yeah. The point of the above blather was to point out that sometimes invisible writers reveal themselves to new readers. Chance is a wonderful thing.

  22. admin says:

    Andre, you can always order through the Mysterious Bookshop, NY. I stumble across writers I haven’t read all the time, or new work by ones I’ve only slightly read. This week, Dorothy Whipple and Holly Roth.

  23. Ian Luck says:

    I’m with M.R. James on parties. As a child, he went to a party in a large country house. Not long after he’d arrived, he vanished from the childish celebration. A search of the house found him in the library, happily reading a large book.

  24. John Griffin says:

    I learnt to combine reading for pleasure and lust in my early 20s by only going to parties where it was likely older women of independent means – who may have good bookshelves (hem,hem) – were on the lookout for young chaps. OK, for a portion of the 70s I was a kept man; the best bookshelf included lots of crime fiction along with interesting factual books (she was statuesque, deeply caring, loaned me a sports car, but lived fast and died young), the worst belonged to a lecturer in English (and she was just as awful and unsanitary with it). A good book was always better than a nightclub, largely better than a party, and exactly what was needed for a decent pub night Sunday – Thursday.

  25. Roger says:

    “only slightly read”

    … a phrase which shows the difference between a professional writer and the rest of us. It doesn’t matter if you took up writing because you could casually use phrases like that or you learned to do it through practice. It’s a difference in kind, not degree.

  26. Dawn Andrews says:

    Confessions of a book tart is it? My History of Art tutor was equally unsanitary and possible insane, but good fun at times. Great stacks though, and a remarkable cellar!

  27. Paul C says:

    Talking of History of Art, there is a wonderful introduction to the subject called ‘The Story of Art’ by E H Gombrich which is a marvellous, marvellous book. One of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read.

    There’s also a very funny comic novel on art called ‘Kingdom Swann’ by Miles Gibson about a bawdy Victorian artist who takes up new-fangled photography when his paintings stop selling.

    Gibson is an interesting reclusive writer whose best book is ‘The Sandman’ a black comedy about a serial killer named (from memory) Horace Mackerel on the prowl in a very vividly described seedy London.

  28. admin says:

    Thanks for the Miles Gibson tip – I’ve just bought ‘The Sandman’.

  29. brooke says:

    E.H. Gombrich: see also “A Little History of the World” and “Critcal Thinking Skills,” Sir Ernest’s reflections at the end of the former show why we need the latter.
    And there is the morbidly fascinating “The Sandman,” by Hoffman.

  30. Dawn Andrews says:

    The Story of art is brilliant, still the very best introduction that exists, he’s such a lively writer and his enthusiasm for the vast subject is inspired, as was my old tutor, not the faculty letch by the way, just very generous with books and wine and very gay! I will track down Miles Gibson also.

  31. Ha! I’m a working class writer and you were very kind about my first book, Chris. But it was funny trying to get an agent. After 3 I gave up. The first one actually took me for coffee and said, “I love this, but we wont find a publisher because it’s dark and funny, crime and horror.”
    Second agent (I still have the email) “Brilliant – but what shelf would it go on?” When the 3rd made a similar point, I realised I’d have to just do it myself (but I had it fully edited and proofed). It’s been bought and downloaded about 1500 times and there are about 130 reviews online, all but a handful of 4-stars, still mostly 5-stars. Not one reader has said “oh, but you’ve mixed genres!” Grrrr. Second one is out on November 15th.

  32. Ian Luck says:

    I agree entirely about the Gombrich book – I have to get a new copy, as the binding on my copy has long since gone west.

  33. Helen Martin says:

    So there’s at least three books I want to read.

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