What You Write Shows Who You Are

The Arts


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.




15 comments on “What You Write Shows Who You Are”

  1. Jo W says:

    Well said Chris! I’m just glad you’re writing for us,the readers. Thank you :-). (By the way,I’m back now and you were right about the temperature here. Maybe it was too warm in Portugal. I’m off to get my cardie on.)

  2. Vivienne says:

    As I child I always imagined writers scribbling late at night in attics with inky fingers by a guttering candle – and probably not much money involved (a bit George Gissing), but for the love of it, or rather that they were driven. I don’t want to read a romantic Cornish book prompted by an agent and think I would recognise one if I came upon it. Did I recently see that a Da Vinci Code, teenagers’ version was in the pipeline? I looked away quickly in case it was true.

  3. davem says:

    excellent article and from the heart

  4. Steve says:

    I think what you say applies quite generally to “life” : Know who you are and make the best of it.

    Just by coincidence i had an email today from a colleague regarding future plans for the company we run together: regarding the direction for the business, she wrote: “To me, what gives me purpose in life is what I do and with whom – not, what I own.”

    On a different but related topic, I decide acouple of years ago to clear out all my fiction books for ebooks (they were really weighing me down) keeping only those for which either no ebook exists or just a few which really mean something to me. So I have for instance my signed first editions of the Foundation trilogy, and my Bryant and May books, etc. So your books mean something to this reader – not a quality judgement, a personal thing. Hope that makes sense.

    Hope that wasnt all too philosophical!!

  5. Mike Cane says:

    ‘Christopher Fowler is an award-winning novelist who would make a good serial killer.’ – Time Out

    Go on, write that. Writer finally breaks down in professional jealousy and goes on a spree. Your “Withnail & I.” It’s your bestseller.

  6. admin says:

    Don’t tempt me, Mike!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    (Another column printed for my non-computer friend. He enjoys your writing, Chris, but doesn’t read mysteries.)

  8. Bee says:

    A publishing executive once told me that a famously best selling author customarily produced a vague story line and a few pages of dialogue and then a team inside the publishing house “slaved over it until literacy was achieved”. One of these writers then told me that the real trick was not to make the writing too good or the famous “storyteller” might be exposed for as as an even bigger a liar and a fraud than is generally well known,

  9. Bee says:

    Apologies – it appears I need an editor myself.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Since we are not Virginia Woolf or any other member of the Bloomsbury Group, Bee, we all do. Apparently that group published their work without editing and look at what wonderful material they produced. Thus a friend, who claims that writers are just sloppy today. They should be able to monitor their writing and not need an outsider to tell them when they have completed their work. Please, someone, tell me he’s wrong. I can’t abide the idea that not only could they write but they were able to edit themselves effectively.

  11. snowy says:

    I have a vague memory that TBG used to read each other’s manuscripts and offer amendments/corrections. So they were effectively proofed and edited by their peers before they went anywhere near publication.

    But I can’t point to a source at the moment. [It was probably on a wireless discussion ages ago.]

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Snowy, I am sure your memory is accurate and it is what I suspected. I will see what I can find but in the meantime will point out the probability to my friend. I think it’s just that authors today credit their editors. I just noticed in a book I bought today that there are a whole range of references in the CIP information. LCCN, LCSH, BISAC, GSAFD and DDC. It was bad enough learning about ISBN, but now I’ll have to locate all of these others to see what is/is not relevant.

  13. snowy says:

    I had a quick poke about, to see if I could find a reference. But didn’t find anything quickly, I suspect it was all so low-key, ie. any notes iare going to be buried in personal correspondence or diaries. Which are a lot hard to search.

    [I wouldn’t be completely surprised to discover that there is a proper Woolf/Bloomsbury scholar, lurking around here somewhere.

    But I’m not sure how to tempt them out?

    Go obvious?

    HELP! HELP! I’ve been clinging to this Lighthouse, Night and Day, or at lleast all of Monday and Tuesday, beset by The Waves facing The Voyage Out,]

  14. snowy says:

    Punctillaton and speeling nightmare, that one!

    1/10 Remain after class!

  15. Living in North Carolina I had not discovered Christopher Fowler. Reading a blurb about a Bryant and May mystery, I sent for a used copy on Amazon to try this author on. Full Dark House arrived in pretty good shape, it was affordable, what did I have to loose. Oh my, what a writer, what wonderful characters, layered with interesting things to know. I’m working my way through the series, laughing out loud, marveling at the settings, enthralled with Bryant and May in every way….stopping to read allowed to my husband…. “Listen to this.” I believe writers show who they are through their work; Christopher Fowler has become one of my favorite authors, his series endearing, a writer’s writer. I have featured him on my blog. Never mind about writing for the current market, just write like Christopher Fowler.

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