In July, 2014, just after the publication of In Love and War, I was asked to speak to students on the Creative Writing Master’s programme at Oxford University. I read them a letter that I wrote to my younger self. Here it is, with a few illustrative pics.
I’m writing this in July 2014, which must seem impossibly distant to you back there in 2009. You’re standing, thunderstruck, in front of Faber & Faber’s old offices in Queen’s Square (they’ll be moving to Great Russell Street in early 2010). You’ve just had a meeting with your – and this is the first time you’ve thought of him as such – editor, Walter Donohue. Pinned to the wall of his office is a facsimile of T.S. Eliot’s note on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Hawk in the Rain’ – “I’m inclined to think we ought to take this man now.”
Well, Alex, Faber are taking you now, taking your first novel, This Bleeding City. Details will be thrashed out with your agent later, an advance agreed, some edits suggested. But in this moment, as you stand in the Bloomsbury sunshine, it is enough to know that you’re to be published, and by Faber & Faber no less. As a Faber author will put it to you later, those ffs are a hell of a monogram to have on your cufflinks.
Alas, Alex, that buzz will fade, and there’ll be disappointments ahead (as well as great joy). As an author you’ll leap from one rock of good news to the next, but there’ll be periods when the ground opens up beneath, and you feel like you’re windmilling your legs, Wile E Coyote style, over a gaping abyss. That’s why I’m sending this letter back from the future, with some words of advice and cautionary tales about the peaks and pits of the writer’s life. If it’s of help to you, and any others that might be listening in across the years, then maybe all those white nights of panic, the worrying and the heart-ache, will have been worthwhile.
To start off, some advice for the most important part of all, the writing. There’s a lot of guff talked about how to sell books, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re on Twitter or not, whether you’re a networking genius, whether you look like George Clooney or something from Hieronymus Bosch – write a good book and success will come. So here are my top writing tips:
1) Don’t make a fetish of your writing. Don’t say you can only write with quill on vellum, or only in a suite at the Waldorf or in the turret of a twelfth century castle in Murcia or Mercia. Write whenever you can, wherever you can, because the more you write, the better you’ll get.
2) I’ll say some more about the Internet later, but as far as this part goes, the Web is your enemy. Freedom will be the best $10 you ever spend. It blocks access to the internet for a predetermined time (you could also, like Jonathan Franzen, gouge out the ethernet port on your computer with a screwdriver). I do chunks of an hour and forty-five minutes hard writing, and then allow myself fifteen minutes to vegetate in the shallows of Buzzfeed and Facebook.
3) Don’t try to be too clever. Don’t put ideas before plot. Don’t be tricked by the avant garde. Georges Perec, Roberto Bolaño and Lydia Davis are still telling ripping yarns, they’re still giving us the traditional satisfactions of storytelling, they’re just finding new vehicles for those satisfactions. Read Laurent Binet’s wonderful HHhH, which will be published a year from now in French. He serves his avant garde cake with lashings of plot, tension and all of the traditional trappings of the novel.
4) What are these traditional satisfactions we looks for? Above all, plot, which is character, as Fitzgerald tells us. Give us vivid, sharply-drawn characters who, put under pressure by the events of your story, change in ways that tell us something profound about what it is to be human. The American novelist John Barthes put it like this: the fundamental question the reader of a novel asks is not, as we might suppose, what happens next, but rather the more fundamental question, “Who am I?”
5) Place. Describe the world of your novel clearly and carefully, picking significant details and rendering them in ways that make us see them with clear, fresh eyes. Remember what Richard Russo said: that it’s one of the essential writerly paradoxes that the more intimately and particularly you describe a place, the more universal it will seem to the reader.
6) Finally, and most importantly, give credit to the intelligence of your readers. They’re smarter than you think, and if you give them a good book, they’ll do a lot of your work for you. “Show don’t tell” is a subset of this, but it’s a much broader point. Not only do readers not want the writer to do all of the thinking for them, to tell them what to think and feel – Stanley Kubrick described this kind of writing as like going to a dinner party where the host chews up the food for you and regurgitates it into your mouth; more than this, though, one of the real pleasures of reading is to make imaginative and intellectual leaps into the narrative, to flesh out the world of a novel with material from our own minds, our own lives. When we do this, we are making an investment in the novel, an investment that pays dividends.
But let’s go back to you, Alex, standing there in 2009. You’ve already made some serious choices about your career. And that’s a big one there – the fact that you’re calling it a career. I don’t only mean that in a couple of months, once you’re clear that this really is happening, and not just a beautiful dream, you’ll hand in your notice at the job which, let’s be honest, you were never really cut out for. I mean also that extraordinary things happen once you respond to the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” One of the most difficult things in this new world will be taking yourself seriously as a writer, and persuading other to do so. Even now, five years on, there will be people around you who want to treat your writing as a kind of glorified hobby. So do tell people that you’re a writer, and let the people you care about know how important it is to you.
So, Alex, now you’ve quit the job, and you’re sitting at your desk with the rest of your life stretching bleakly ahead of you, how is it that you’re supposed to earn a living again? Faber will end up paying you a decent advance, but it’ll be paid in instalments – some now, some when you deliver the final manuscript, the rest on publication. And after 15% to your agent and a slug on tax, it suddenly won’t look like much.
The average salary for professional writers in 2013 was just over £25,000. This mean is skewed upwards by the JK Rowlings of this world; the median is perhaps the more accurate figure: £11,000. Still sure you want to quit that job? And what about your chances of earning that advance back, of seeing actual royalties? Even when this does happen, the royalty cheques that come in subsequently will hardly keep the wolf from the door. You’ll earn around 75p from every paperback sold, meaning you’ll need to shift thousands, even tens of thousands, to make a decent living.
Now, Alex, you have a baby boy back there in 2009, and a little girl will be born in 2010 (in fact, you’ll go straight from the launch party of This Bleeding City to the labour ward).
You have mouths to feed, and so you need to get used to the idea that you’ll need to do something other than just writing novels in order to make ends meet. You’ll need to have – oh ugly phrase! – a portfolio career. But don’t lose track of the novels. They are the most important thing, and anything else you do must be subservient to the books.
In the end, the sidelines that work for you, that feed rather than frustrate your novel writing, are teaching (first English Literature, then Creative Writing) and journalism. Book reviewing will be a struggle to start off with (and you’ll look with no little shame at some of the early attempts). Just remember Updike’s rules for reviewing: “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast… The communion between a reviewer and his public is based on the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should bend towards that end.”
Mainly, with journalism, just say yes. If it seems like a tough assignment, and you’re not sure you’ll be up to it, that’s good: it’ll make you a better writer. Saying yes will lead to bottlenecks when deadlines pile up until you have to work all night, and it feels like you’re back at Oxford eating spoonfuls of sugar at 4 a.m. to fight your way through an essay crisis. Always remember, these weeks of hard slog are better than the weeks when you don’t earn anything, and you wonder whether the world has forgotten you, and you’re only bailed out by a surprise royalty cheque from Slovakia. God bless the good people of Slovakia, who will take to your work with inexplicable enthusiasm.
Be deeply suspicious of people who ask you to write for free. Not only because you wouldn’t you ask your plumber to fix your loo in exchange for an Amazon review, but also because the world needs reminding that words have value.
I said earlier that in order to sell a lot of books, you’ll need to write a good book. Well let’s say you’ve done that Alex. Here in 2014, you’re feeling not entirely disappointed with your third effort. You’ll still need to get out there, to plunge into the grubby world of promotion, to tour the bookshops and speak at every literary festival that’ll have you. And make sure you stay on top of all this. Early on in your career, Alex, you can’t afford to leave it to agents and publicists (great though they are). No one will care about your book as much as you do.
Publishers’ nights are spent dreaming of one thing: the word of mouth success. It’s what Robert McCrum calls the Holy Grail of book publishing, the novel that spreads like a virulent disease, pushed from one friend to the next, leaping like ebola from book group to book group. It’s tantalising for publishers precisely because the science of word of mouth successes is so inexact. It’s striking that McCrum illustrated his article on the subject with reference to James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, whose sales were underwhelming. But know this: to even have a chance of taking off, people have got to read your book. So get out there and sell yourself and your novel. Get on Twitter, set up a Facebook page for your book, engage with readers on Goodreads. Be apologetic in the emails you send to friends begging them to buy your book, to press it on their friends and colleagues, but send them all the same.
And if this all sounds disenchanting and sordid and commercial, what Hopkins called “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” then go back and work in a bank, and have writing as a hobby, a writing career as another might-have-been.
A few final thoughts before I go, Alex. Don’t read your reviews. And because I know you won’t follow that advice, then read all of them (your publicist will only send you the good ones). And when there’s a bad review, try to learn from it, work out why the book didn’t engage the reviewer and next time, do better. And when there’s one real stinker, and it gets personal, name a grotesque paedophile in your next novel after the reviewer.
If and when you find some sort of success, don’t forget how hard it has been (and continues to be). Be generous to other writers. Give of your time and experience and remember how you were helped (and will continue to be). Be a mentor, offer blurbs to books you believe in, be honest, but be kind.
Finally, and this is a lesson you will learn – painfully – over the dark winter months at the end of 2013, push yourself harder and further than you ever thought possible, both in the effort you put into your writing, in your use of language, in the depths you plumb in your heart. You won’t get all that many chances, Alex, so make this one count.
Oh, one last thing, that Evening Standard photoshoot you’ll do in 2011? Just say no. You’ll look like a chubby undertaker in tight leather pants.
Lots of love,
Your future self,
P.S. To show you’ve been listening, post a link to your new book at the end of this letter, and urge people to buy it. It’s far and away the best thing you’ve written. http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/in-love-and-war/9780571279456