Today’s Challenge: Share A Writers’ Secret




joeRecently someone challenged me to offer up a writer’s secret, something we don’t even talk about with other. So here’s one. Many of the writers I’ve met are addicted to covetously measuring the success of others.

We don’t mean to, but the yardsticks of style, intellect and erudition can prove obsessive. We don’t care about who came up with a good plot though, because frankly anyone who’s watched TV can do that. We admire technically skilled writers for clarity and concision. It’s why at any gathering of fiction writers nobody talks about their work. The subject is forbidden.

Why are we so fascinated with this social order? Because a look at the Amazon bestsellers page will make any author throw up in their mouth a bit.

Cookery books, diet books, books about babies and hygge and whether you have the right body image. (When I’m in London I have to walk past Joe Wicks’ healthy, TV presenter-friendly face every morning – he’s in the window of Pan McMillan telling us we should all be lean. He’s about 15 for Christ’s sake.) General fiction is dominated by books about women who have affairs and hilariously, another novel called ‘The Girl on the Train’ which presumably very stupid people like the woman on BBC Question Time who said she voted Brexit because of bananas are mistaking for the other one.

And while we may frown on Dan Brown and whoever it was who wrote ‘The Girl On The Train’ because they were more successful on more limited skills, we fail to appreciate why they were more successful. (Ie. precisely because they have more limited skills.) They’re not outrunning their readers. Sometimes you need to put down War and Peace and play Angry Birds. It’s something many of of us struggle to do.

In my spare time I’ve been working on a thriller for four years, on and off, and looked through the notes last night – 12 rewrites, 14 discarded endings, 22 discarded subplots, 8 discarded characters. Dialling down the prose has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Lee Child and Jo Nesbo, whom I regard to be the masters of this art, drop into a mindset I struggle to access.

I have one list of writers whose prose I admire (many of them will be found in October’s ‘The Book Of Forgotten Authors’) and another whose prose I struggle with. The former list runs into hundreds, from Dickens and Forster to Gary Indiana and Margaret Millar, while the latter includes Brett Easton Ellis and Haruki Murakami.

I buy a lot books but my reading list tends towards the outré. I was recommended this by my pal Porl, who is probably the only other person in Britain who’s heard of it. It’s great.


As a writer, the worst things you can be are a/ too clever and b/a good all-rounder. In the social order of writers there’s one other problem; literary fiction, which gets its own classification as opposed to ‘genre fiction’, which is anything that you can describe in a word – crime, mystery, humour, romance, horror, SF etc.

Literary success haunts some writers like Banquo’s ghost. Everybody likes it (it especially makes agents and publishers look good) but nobody reads it. The moral of all this? Do what you’re good at and be happy doing it.

6 comments on “Today’s Challenge: Share A Writers’ Secret”

  1. Marty Church says:

    Strange Tide was wonderful (as are all your books). I love the esoteric history and convoluted plots. I have to look up words about every ten pages, which is an education. Thanks for the emotional resolution for a few of the characters.
    Long live Bryant & May!

  2. Roger says:

    Is it fair to say Haruki Murakami is an author whose prose you struggle with when – I presume – you read him in translation?
    “Challenging” prose can be enjoyable – I’m a devotee of Henry James’s later novels – but it’s very easy to go wrong with. I won’t list the authors I can think of, out of kindness.

  3. admin says:

    I think I’m always aware of the growing weight of novels I still have to read and give up more easily than when I was young.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    I always loved Alan Coren’s explanation for his first collection of articles ‘Golfing for Cats’. It had a swastika on the cover.
    He explained that, after months of research (pre-internet days), it was proven that books with the words ‘golf’ or ‘cats’ in the title, or with a swastika on the cover artwork outsold everything else by miles. Imagine if he’d been living now.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I tried Murakami – in translation, yes – and did give up. It may have been a bad week but I think you need a familiarisation course in Japanese literary conventions to make it a little easier (and I hope it was Murakami I struggled with – it was some time ago.)
    Translation. We have mentioned this before. Publishers (or authors) have to be careful in choosing a translator because you want the translation to transmit the same emotion as the original. That may entail a very different vocabulary than the original and the whole enterprise becomes a bit of a balancing act. There was a book which started in Europe “The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window – was that it? European readers laughed themselves onto the floor. Dan Terrell read it and was disappointed because it just wasn’t terribly funny. His wife read it in German and said it was really funny, but when she read part of the English version she agreed that it certainly “lost something in the translation.” Perhaps they needed a different translator.

  6. John Griffin says:

    Saw them on B&W TV when little – Wilson, Keppel & Betty, at least one of the versions of them. Will look for the book.

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