14 Thoughts About Writing

It’s twenty years since I began writing my first book. I had the title for it, Nice Jumper, long before I’d fully worked out what the book was going to be. Like most of my books, it’s about the thing it’s about (golf) but also not about the thing it’s about. I’ve not looked at it for a long, long time, but I seem to remember that it is not too terrible, taking into account my youth (I had only very recently turned four), my lack of education and experience, my suggestibility and my illusions about what the world might be. I am sure it tries too hard to be funny at times and misses many opportunities to step aside and give life a chance to be funny on its own and skims the surface of its subject in a very 2001 way that would now annoy me but I also feel more fondly towards it than I do towards at least three of my other books. The reason for this is the same reason I feel more fondly towards my writing for the fanzine I used to put together in the mid-90s than I do towards the remunerated writing for the music press that directly followed it: it’s unrefined, unworldly and uneducated, but it has a passion and freedom and self-determined shape that some stuff that followed it didn’t. I burned my NMEs years ago as I knew that if I went back and read my pieces in them all I’d see was me nervously trying to glue sentences together to the agenda of some people I believed to be socially and intellectually above me. I might regret that one day, but that would probably only be because I’d like to remember the bands I chatted to, or the gigs I was going to in Nottingham and Sheffield and Manchester and Leeds and Derby at the time. I recall sleeping on a floor after DJing at an ex-girlfriend’s gig in Manchester. Her friend, who was one of three other people sleeping in the room, had heard I wrote for the NME and asked how much I got paid. I told her I’d received £27.48 for my last review, which was one of my longest pieces of writing for them so far. “No but seriously,” she said. “How much?” Perhaps the moment your life as a writer can be said to have truly begun is the first time you have to disabuse someone of their grandiose notions of how much writers earn.

If there’s not a point in the day when your mind turns to goo while writing a book, the chances are you’re doing it wrong. My time for that is usually later in the day, when I’ve been very productive, but, in the flow of it, have pressed on a little too hard and become an all new blurred representation of what was once a person. It’s a period when I am unable to any longer retain that vision that enables me to see that what I am writing is worthwhile by mere virtue of the fact that it is not any one of several billion other things else that I’d be disappointed in myself for writing. By the next morning – and I am very much a Morning Writer – everything has usually come back into focus. You still don’t know for sure that it will work, but you’re aware that you’re creating something that didn’t exist before, and you’re enjoying it, and that in itself is quite exciting, and reason enough for doing it. A good thing to do to measure how you truly feel about a book you’re writing is to imagine how you’d feel right at that moment, if you lost all of it. For example, my answer right now, regarding the book I’m writing, is, “Like somebody who’d been put through a shredder, then blown away into a void by a series of northerly gales.”

Whenever I write very critically about my own writing, I always get messages from people saying I should be kinder to myself. I’m kind to myself in some ways, kinder to myself about my work than I used to be, just as I’m more harsh on myself  than I used to be in some other ways. Self-criticism can go hand in hand with confidence. The self-criticism and the confidence are what makes everything move forward to a new place. That, and not being dead.

The biggest advances I have ever received for books all happened well over a decade ago and, even though they were not really big at all and merely “ok”, by the standards of the time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that they will never happen again. Maybe that’s for the best. Big advances occur when publishers get into a flap over a book – or, to be more specific, a book’s potential place in the culture of right now – and want to outbid other publishers for it. Then the 99.9% of remaining authors, surviving on small advances, get squeezed as a result. A small advance for a book is tough to live on but at least the book has some relationship with its sales that’s grounded in reality: if people buy the book, it recoups, and you begin to feel like it’s properly out there, but without getting any unrealistically high-flying ideas about the life it’s living. Also, you might ask yourself, in return for the big advance, do you want to wear the wardrobe of the big advance? Do you want to wear the coat of Shit How Can My Next Book Live Up To This? Do you want to wear the skirt of Seeing The Envy In Other People’s Eyes? Do you want to wear the cravat of Going On Some Fucking Awful TV Show With Some Nobhead? Do you want to wear the sweater vest of People Who Have Never Read Your Book Talking About How Much They Hate Your Book? And perhaps most significantly of all do you want to wear the underpants of How Can I Possibly Find Time To Write And Get Inspiration For Another Book When All I Do Is Go All Over The Place Promoting The Book With The Big Advance That I So Dearly Want To Move On From? My wardrobe is tired in places, and I will need to update it at some point, but I’d rather do the updating myself.

For many years, when I wrote, I always had the voices of other writers in my head. The voices would alternate but they’d always be there. Then one day, I realised they’d vanished, although I didn’t know how long ago they’d vanished, as I hadn’t noticed precisely when it had happened. This would have been probably around six years ago, which was the same point that writing started to become something a bit like breathing for me. Not exactly like breathing. I don’t die if I don’t do it. Sometimes I even become briefly more alive. But, if I leave it any real length of time, I begin to feel very strange and wrong, like I’m not fully human. Yet, also, when I am really in the thick of writing, I am not a proper human either, because I forget to do all sorts of basic tasks and often don’t make a lot of sense when people talk to me. So essentially I suppose what I’m saying here is that a decision to be a writer is a decision to totally rid your life of periods when you are a human.

Our means of communicating with each other change so quickly nowadays, but normalise just as quickly, so you forget that not so long ago the options presented to you were entirely different. I tell myself I should have been stronger in the past. I tell myself I shouldn’t have let certain previous publishers put the misleading covers on my books that they did. I tell myself I should have resisted the voices that coerced me into adding a gimmicky subtitle to a book I wrote in 2008, or write the intro to that book in a way that put the book more firmly into a portable box but made me sound a bit different to the person I am and made the book – although it remained not without merits and truth and feeling – inhibited by that intro. But I too easily forget how different everything was then. There wasn’t the potential to build a readership independently online through a social media link to what you wrote on your own website. There wasn’t an experienced crowdfunding publisher available, founded by bright minds who wanted to support ambitious, unusual projects. You remembered what your life very nearly was at an earlier point: the horrible jobs you might have ended up in, the lack of prospects you appeared to have. You did what you could to stay published, to stay afloat, to keep going.

I have had two moments when I felt like I was being told it was all over, and like I needed to get another job, quicksharp. Various factors played a part: loss of journalistic income to help support me, a book not doing as well as was hoped, me generally not yet being good or resolute or me enough, the economic climate of the country. But it never felt exactly like that. It felt like a posh person in an office in London was telling me that it had been decided, by the people who knew what books should be about, and who should write books, that I wasn’t allowed to write books any more or that the ideas I had for books were unviable. I can still hear that voice in my head because I can remember a less refined newspaper editorial version of it, too, from earlier in my life, in phone conversations: a very slight apologetic tone barely masking an obvious delight in the power to be able to say what’s what and who is allowed to do it. What I love most about crowdfunding books and not working for newspapers any more is that it permits none of that. “This book doesn’t seem like the other books. Are you sure it’s allowed to exist?“ Do readers get pleasure out of it?” “Yes, it appears so.” “Ok, well then, in that case it is allowed to exist.” My latest four books and the one I’m writing right now are real because over 1000 members of the general public made it known that they wanted them to be, not because someone thought they sounded a bit like another book that had made some money recently and that because of that they might make some money too.

People will say rejection is demotivating and that some genres of books are “dead”. The first of these things is not necessarily true, and the second definitely isn’t. If a book is good, it’s alive, no matter what genre somebody decides it fits into. In 2012 a man in the publishing industry told me that I’d never be commissioned to write another animal-themed non-fiction book unless I found a one-legged dog that juggled and wrote its life story, because, with very few rare exceptions, animal books were “dead”. Not long after that, I sent him a short draft of the animal-themed book I was writing and he replied with a rejection email about its contents so instantly damning and personally insulting, I regret not instantly framing it. The book was published later that year, and went straight onto the Sunday Times top ten bestseller list.

I think, particularly if you’re like me and read a lot of books written during the middle part of the 20th Century, there’s a mythical narrative of your favourite writers’ careers that you can start to believe in, in which they arrive fully formed with a startlingly wise and original first book which is followed by several even more startlingly original and wise books. As someone whose growing up as a writer has been done in public, in a small and not very dramatic sense, I sometimes put on a pedestal those whose flawed early manuscripts never saw the light of day and only got published when they’d fully found their voice. But scratch the surface and the truth is usually messier. Anne Tyler is very dismissive of her first book. For the last third of his life EL Doctorow went to great lengths to keep his second novel from ever being reprinted, such had his distaste for it grown. And as anyone who’s read him knows, EL Doctorow was God: a position he occupied on all days between the publication of his novel Ragtime in 1975 and his death on July 21st 2015, with the exception of those days when Annie Proulx was writing a short story. God and God, I have recently learned to my despair, both have received some quite damning one and two star amazon reviews. All of which should tell you the truth of this business: you can’t win, you will make mistakes, you shouldn’t expect to be perfect and, however angelically and lyrically and mind-expandingly you write, some bastard will still come along and say the work you put your whole life and soul into is an old rucksack full of jizz.

Nobody is above typos. I read a novel from the 50s recently and found at least four in it. There will be one, at least, I bet. A nice man from Hatherleigh called Dave usually spots the typos in my pieces for this website and emails me about them and I buy books and send them to him as a thank you. Dave has very good eyes. Lovely eyes, even, maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t seen them in person and they say you can never truly tell by photos. What I notice with the typos Dave points out is that they are nearly all from a point when I went back into the text, after a first draft, and dragged and chopped it about a bit. I should probably learn from this but don’t.

I’ve worked with several talented editors but I am in particular debt to two who went in heavy with the red pen on early manuscripts and made a notable difference to the shape of my writing life. The first was Martin Fletcher, who – then working at Simon And Schuster – took the time to look at a sample of Nice Jumper, in 2000, even though I was four and had not even begun to attend primary school at the time and Simon And Schuster were not actually intending to publish me. As a part-result of Martin’s thoughtful, sometimes blunt, comments, I recast the book as non-fiction, which is what it clearly needed to be in the first place and only hadn’t been because of my writhing impatience to write fiction. Six years later I handed a second ungolfy golf book, called Bring Me The Head Of Sergio Garcia, to Tristan Jones, my editor at Yellow Jersey Press, feeling it was the tightest, most polished work I’d ever done. A fortnight later, I stared in horror at the ornate pen marks Tristan had made all over the margins of the manuscript. How could he attack me like this? I’d thought we were friends! I stepped away for a couple of days, wondering what other job to seek now I knew I was a failure as an author, but on re-examination was able to see Tristan’s true goal, which, contrary to what I’d initially thought, was not to make me cry, but to make me a more readable, more direct, writer. From that point on, I became a much harsher self-editor. Moreover, I began, for the first time, to truly relish editing, and my subsequent editors have made minimal changes to my books. Not long after I worked with him, Tristan left the world of publishing, which instantly made it feel like a less artful place, and I hope he knows what an impact those comments in that beautiful calligraphy had on me. His and Martin’s feedback was very different to that of another editor I almost worked with in the early 00s whose red pen marks on a couple of sample chapters of mine were largely about his mission to make my book more closely follow the formula of the other non-fiction he published: a formula tending to make for books that made a fair bit of noise on their initial publication but might almost have never existed three years later. What Martin and Tristan were doing, by contrast, was using their refined knowledge of what makes a book shine, their excellent eye for flab, to bash me into shape, for my own benefit.

I can never decide whether I read to be able to write more or I write to be able to read more but it’s definitely one of the two.

It’s the most free of times. It’s the least free of times. It’s wonderful that so many people have a voice. It’s terrible that so many people have a voice. The internet is giving disadvantaged folk opportunities they never had. The internet is a perplexed, distracted, extremist septic tank with no room for nuance or constructive debate. It’s amazing and brilliant that you can reach people via it but what happens when you do often horrifies you. If you’re making some kind of art that people appreciate, people want you to talk about it on there, but then when you do, even mildly and cautiously, somebody pops across and says “HOW DARE YOU?” but in far less polite words than that, as if you’ve just wandered into their house, stripped off and rubbed yourself all over their ottoman. Someone else without a name pops over and tells you they’ve been watching you and what you create is worthless. And you think, “You are entitled to your opinion, but does this invalidate the message I got today that said what I wrote in my latest book was an important comfort to someone’s mother when she was in hospital dying of breast cancer? Having been put in my place by your anonymous noise, should I tell the person who messaged me about her dead mother that she’s speaking an untruth?” And then you look to your left and your right, and you remember again that it’s ultimately nothing to do with you, it’s everyone and everything, you’re not getting anything like the worst of it, and you should be thankful, just as you are for so much in your life, even though the Internet reminds you endlessly of that and says you’re not thankful enough, feels very often like some pulsating counterproductive monster that wants you to stop living and just tell strangers how thankful and angry you are all the time, and seems angry when you don’t do it. And simultaneously you rhapsodise about simpler, more civilised times, when nobody knew anything much of global significance but could predict weather using their knees and would settle disputes by meeting beside the sundial next to the village green and fighting with pikes and lances and spades, watched by a baying crowd and their quarter-evolved wolfpets. And ALL of it, EVERY LAST TINY BIT OF IT, makes your faith in the books you read stronger than ever, your faith in their length and their quiet thought and their love and their ambivalence and their bravery and their imagination and their understanding, makes you surer that they are the only real place for anything lasting or important to be written or hashed out, confirms your belief that when this digitally-exacerbated global mess has calmed or burnt itself out, they will be what is left to stand and, even if they aren’t, they’re still what really matters and what are most worthy of your increasingly precious time.

I think there’s a place for writing about writing. Every so often it needs to be done. But every time I do it, I just end up thinking, “There’s endless more important writing to be done than writing about writing.”

My first ever novel, VILLAGER, is now up for funding. If you’d like to reserve a copy, you can do so here.

11 thoughts on “14 Thoughts About Writing

  1. ‘ Monoculture might make a quicker return, but it leads to a depleted soil and genetically weakened crops.’ John Mitchinson in an interview with ‘The Bookseller’.
    I love this way of looking at the mainstream book publishing world. The conventional marketing and funding of books is based on limiting choice. Books, authors and ideas that don’t fit the mould are passed over.
    Hurrah for Unbound! Its website states that it shifts the balance of power.
    Thanks for writing about how you got to where you are now, Tom.

  2. The internet has laid bare so many uncomfortable truths about humanity. But here you and I are, enjoying a freedom unattainable before it existed. Massive understatement that it’s a mixed blessing. I thank the Gods for it every day because it allowed me to finally support myself financially. Life for me was a relentless hell for lack of consistent bare minimum income due to physical issues. And, the ‘net allowed me to discover good people like you and your mom and dad, for which I’m deeply grateful.

  3. That last paragraph. I laughed aloud—because it’s well-timed, and because it hits the nail on the head in three sentences. The only significantly-paid* writing I ever do is about writing itself. Which has felt extremely odd, every time. Capitalism and Art You Want to Make don’t seem set up to play happily together. (Maybe this is because capitalism hates play, and anything else you do that isn’t about consumption.) I’m here to cheer on any folks working together to find creative ways to keep on living and also make the art they want to make.

    Speaking of which: really looking forward to Villager.

  4. I’m not a writer, but I’m trying to be a more creative person, find my voice, and somehow invent the discipline to finish what I’m working on – your writing about your writing always reminds me to try my best to get back in track and really work on Being Myself. I feel I’m about 20 years behind schedule, but seeing successes from independent artists like yourself helps keep me from giving up. I still have to get my metaphorical manuscript (buildings instead of books for me) edited by a thoughtful advisor, but maybe someday soon. Looking forward to Villager and Notebook!

  5. It seems that every single one of your pieces on this website produces a quote that resonates with me deeply and makes its way into one of my journals so I can be inspired by it forever. This time it is that last bit about how books will always be there to remind us of the important things even when the world is a mess; and they are therefore always worthy of our time. A long quote to transcribe into my journal, but worth it.

  6. Love this. Makes me more hopeful about my own writing. May I make a general editing suggestion? Break your writing into smaller paragraphs, they’re easier to read. I smetimes give up on your longer paras, they make my eyes feel tired. Hope that’s not seen as me being cheeky.

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