6 things (you might not have considered) that will hold you back as a writer

1. You’re actually interested in the writing (you know, style, elegance of expression) — not just getting noticed for your hackneyed, no-intelligence, punctuation-doesn’t-matter story.

2. You hate Amazon: a company run by a psychopath with dodgy working practices being indulged by sycophantic governments as it moves towards a virtual monopoly position (my novel’s on Smashwords).

3. You hate Facebook: a data-mining company run by a psychopath (I’m not on Facebook).

4. You hate posts about how to promote yourself on social media (I deleted my Twitter account).

5. You find self-promotion rather unseemly, a bit undignified really (while recognizing you have to tell people it’s there — the novel, that is — if you want them to read it).

6. You think best-sellers are mostly shit (Dan Brown, James Patterson, E.L. James, Lee Child, Clive Cussler, to name a few), reflecting the poor taste of the “average” reader.

7 (bonus point). You recognize, at bottom, that this world isn’t really for you.


It’s a brilliant story, but…

Have you ever been offered money to write someone else’s book? I have. Indeed, I imagine it’s fairly common. Usually, the offerer has a novel that needs a bit of EPR (editing/polishing/redrafting), but, having busy, complicated lives, they don’t have the time to do it… so would I be interested in doing it – for, say, £500 (okay, £1000)? I mean, yeah… because it’s just about a bit of time.

These askers are wannabe authors who don’t think a little thing like not being able to write should hold them back. What they know – or think they know – is that you can write. I mean, shit, you have a blog and you know how to punctuate; and didn’t you say you’d written a novel? I’m sure I heard you say something like that while I was mentioning how busy and complicated my life was – what with the divorce and kids and all.

Should you ever find yourself the askee in this situation, say no… but temporize. Say you’ll look at the manuscript without committing. The look will be instructive.

You’ll be briefly impressed. The first page will be near-perfect, though there might be a clunky sentence lurking in there that alerts the discerning to the car-crash to come. By page two, the standard will have slipped slightly, and by page three the deterioration will be marked, noticeable to anyone literate. The standard of page one will never be recovered.

This type of author will often have read writer self-help books on How to Write a Killer First ParagraphPageChapter… (you get the picture), but their efforts will generally never extend much beyond the Killer First Page, which will probably have been polished to death with the odd smear still in evidence.

Errors will be basic and inconsistent: “Okay”, she said. Or: “Okay” she said. Tenses will be mixed inappropriately as the effort to write becomes exhausting and tiresome – and isn’t it about the story, anyway? Shit, you can hire someone to sort out the clerical stuff. Except that the errors aren’t just clerical. The novel doesn’t just require the addition of appropriate punctuation; it requires rewriting. Sentences at first, then paragraphs, then pages, and then – disastrously – you’ll find yourself drowning in the realisation that their writing has entirely fallen apart. Indeed, that that Killer First Page cost them an enormous amount of time and effort. You will also know that £500 or £1000 isn’t going to cut it in terms of compensation for the work involved in effecting the necessary repairs. Notice I’ve said nothing about the story here, which (in this role) is none of my business.

Would I do it, then, for £10,000? Essentially, you’re being asked to take a scrappy manuscript and make it immaculate in terms of the writing. I can do that – and for £10,000 it would be worth the effort. The problem is the human considerations. Taking an old person’s life savings to edit, polish, and redraft the novel about their father’s experiences in WWII would not feel cool. I’d be less uncomfortable taking the money from a millionaire who wanted the treatment for his post-Cold War thriller because my only concern would be to  deliver an excellent EPR (do a good job, in other words). Whether or not the millionaire later recouped the outlay in the market-place wouldn’t be a concern. At least, he’d have something literary to sell online and show off to his friends.

This is an issue, though – the temptation to blame your editor for the the subsequent lack of success of your novel (since only they will have benefited from it in financial terms). Clearly, there are bad editors out there, or people advertising these services, who can’t do the job: novel doctors and get-your-novel-into-shape merchants willing to offer various levels of feedback and editorial input based entirely on how much you’re willing to fork out. Essentially, we’re moving into the shady world of literary bottom-feeders here – parasitical scamsters willing to exploit your dreams and take your money. Of course, there are also perfectly genuine people offering these services, who simply aren’t very good at what they do. Be careful if you don’t know the people you’re dealing with. You’re likely to come away disappointed – indeed, it’s probably safer to assume you’re being scammed.

As for me – well, I’ve had a few it’s-a-brilliant-story-but novels pass across my virtual desktop (historical romps, fictionalized rock ‘n’ roll memoirs, James Patterson type thrillers) and have offered some free editing (as I said, it’s instructive), enough to assess what a huge task it would be to treat the whole novel. Really, as you plough ever more deeply into their deteriorating writing, you’ll be glad you didn’t take the money and can return their novel telling them you don’t have the time to do it justice (because it’s such a mess), but you might want to keep the bit in parenthesis to yourself.

Jeffrey Archer – storyteller!

ArcherJeffrey Archer likes to say he’s a story-teller, a yarn-spinner. That’s what people want, he avers, “a good yarn, me dear.” This last bit added in a pantomime twang. No mention of art or writing, certainly not literature. A fake man writing fake stories (some of them borrowed) about fake people. I’ve got a terrible feeling it works because the undiscerning reader imagines they’re being granted an authentic insight into unauthentic, fake lives – political people who will do anything to succeed in the Game of Getting On.

He mentions in an interview that Kane & Abel has sold 37 million copies. “Are these 37 million idiots?” he asks defensively. Not idiots, necessarily (though some of them may well be), but undiscerning readers certainly. Archer’s success is only explicable in terms of a dumbed-down, undiscerning, celebrity-obsessed culture. He’s an appalling man and a worse writer. Apparently, it takes him fifteen drafts before he’s done. Fifteen drafts or thereabouts. Fifteen drafts! Let’s be clear, then: the shallow, badly written crap you’re holding in your hands when you buy an Archer took fifteen drafts, and is the result (make no mistake about it) of a lot of disciplined hard work. Jeffrey wants us to know this.

As well as being a producer of crap, Archer is a tetchy, self-important scamster, who doesn’t like being mocked. For British people of my vintage, this is the defining interview:


Despite a life of dodgy deals and dubious investments, he decided to stand for London mayor in 2000 backed by Thatcher and Major, and the then leader of the Tories, William Hague – and that was when the Daily Star libel case came back to haunt him. The prospect of Archer attaining a political office with real power was too much even for the people who had lied for him in the past. This is Archer on Michael Crick, a reporter for whom he doesn’t much care:


The Daily Star libel case is amusing, inasmuch as a tawdry tabloid newspaper’s allegations were true (Archer had visited a prostitute, and he did later give her £2000 to leave the country). But Archer sued, the judge (Justice Caulfield) salivated over Archer’s “fragrant” missus, and Archer won the case. He’d probably have got clean away with it had his political ambitions not reared their (very) ugly head again.

Things fell apart for Archer, and he ended up being tried for perjury. He was found guilty, and sentenced to four years in prison. Archer was by this time already enough of an absurd fiction himself for this to be absorbed (as an admittedly biggish chapter) in the dreadfully purple story that is the Life of Jeffrey Archer. He wrote and published his prison diaries, and has gone on writing successfully (in the kerching sense) ever since.

He’s seventy-four now, and goes on unquietly and unapologetically being Jeffrey Archer – storyteller! Like Patterson, another non-writer who presumes to hold forth on the subject of writing. Unlike Patterson, this clown’s British, and still a Lord of the realm.

James Patterson – American hero

JPJames Patterson is an awful writer. Indeed, he’s the type of “writer” who I imagine is just a label on a book – books written by other people. Actually, he is the type of “writer” who is just a brand label on books written by other people. By his own admission, he works with “co-authors” and “collaborators”. He provides outlines and farms them out to writers, who knock up novels from them. Seriously, this is writing as business, author as brand, writing by committee. Hollow drivel, designed for mass appeal. Fast books and double on the fries.

Just let me pause here to put my cards face-up on the table. If you’re the sort of “reader” who thinks the likes of Lee Child and/or Dan Brown are good, and that criticism of them is motivated by envy and/or elitism, I would suggest you leave this page now. You’ll be offended. So please leave. I’d honestly rather not bother with people who think popularity and success in monetary terms are their own justification.

Dan Brown, Lee Child, Clive Cussler, James Patterson – they’re producers of crap. They say nothing interesting, and they say it in an uninteresting way. Dumbed-down writing for a dumbed-down readership (most of whom find thinking and reading threatening). If you can read a comic or tabloid newspaper, you’ll have no problem reading these authors. Is it better that people read these books rather than none at all? I wonder. Is it better that people read Rupert Murdoch’s red-top rags rather than no newspaper at all?

Reading Child, Patterson, and Cussler (who incidentally is passing the business onto his son) is like eating a McDonald’s every day and imagining you have a decent diet. Being able to read at this level does not make you discerning or thoughtful. It does not give you insight. I’m not saying you shouldn’t read crap, any more than I would suggest that eating crap occasionally is a no-no; I just want you to know, be able to tell (for yourself, not because someone else is telling you so), that it is crap. If you don’t and can’t, you probably (sadly) have degraded sensibilities. If you think the Die Hard movies are the height of cinematic achievement, you’re missing (or have missed) something. Sorry.

In interviews, Patterson talks like he isn’t part of the problem. He’s either a very good con-man or is entirely deluded. He expresses concern for book-shops and publishers, and talks about the importance of young people reading. This is a man who has degraded the writing process, and involved his readers in this degradation. He, and his publishers, must surely have contempt for the people who buy his books. He’s dull, he’s rich, he’s self-satisfied, and he’s not someone from whom I want to take literary advice. Indeed, I’m amazed he has the nerve to offer it.

Most people (and certainly most Americans) lack discernment, so money and popularity are the only way they know how to keep score. It’s why poor people in America vote for measures that benefit the rich. They think money, making lots of it, is its own justification.

Here are two interviews with this successful American writer:


Here’s someone desperately trying to be reasonable about JP (while suspecting that the emperor might, indeed, be going sans apparel):

“I doubt that James Patterson can actually write.”

Yes, me too. That won’t stop him, though. Not while there’s another buck to be made.