Monthly Archives: September 2016

Dear Jim… (#5) re: When Reasons Not to Write Aren’t Reasons Not to Write

He started his epistle with an epigraph. What a nob.

– Overheard while walking near my own mouth.

Dear Jim,

Firstly, and obviously, get well soon.

Secondly, the answer to your question of when to stop is just as obviously: Never; ‘Starve a fever, feed a cold, but work through both,’ as my mother never actually said, but should have. Which is why my bosses have always applauded me for sitting at my desk hacking up the most infectious parts of my lungs, before passing off freshly moistened files to my soon to be just as poorly workmates. Go Capitalism.

But thirdly – and mostly – I wanted to pick up on your reference to Amis:

“Amis is damn right when he talks about stepping back !!!!!FOR A MOMENT!!!!, and going to do something else: not slamming one’s face endlessly against a wall of words.” 

The emphasis there is mine, and I bring it up because it triggered a particular bugbear of mine.

Far too often people seem to think that art requires some sort of hermetically sealed Ivory Tower with a south facing window and just the right humidity and temperature for your pet muse to whisper in your ear without getting tongue cramp. Which is fine if you are happy just doodling. Like, you can get a ton out of just doing creative stuff every now and again as a hobby.

But if you want to write something good, if you want to be read without embarrassment, or even to read at all… you do actually have to write. And you have to write a lot.

For some reason in the 1800s the view shifted from artist as organ grinder/monkey combo, to artist as visionary. They forgot artist and artisan come from the same root and started thinking of artists as ‘brilliant’ or ‘zeitgeisty’ or ‘so fetch’. Artists are not any of those things, they are the less calorific half of bread-and-circuses.

Stepping away from the words is fine, as long as it is about managing your energy or health. My basic thing is that if your reason for not writing wouldn’t fly as a reason for not doing your actual job if you have one, then it just isn’t good enough.

If you are a writer, and you lack inspiration, so fucking what? You want to protect your precious art? It’s not that precious. Set yourself deadlines and meet them. Hate the work you produce by all means, but produce it. Anyone can write when the muse is balls deep in all your brain holes, but the point of being a writer is that we WRITE. The universe can’t do all the heavy lifting.

If you’re blocked then you need to put your arse back in the chair and work at it. If you have no ideas then sit down and brainstorm, read some non-fiction that looks like it might trigger something, find a specific market and let their guidelines direct you to something. But don’t leave that chair until you’ve written something.

It winds me up no end to hear things like: ‘I can’t make myself write. Writing for money/to a deadline/on cue/every day hurts the art’. When I worked nine-to-five, I would finish the day exhausted, with whatever currency discipline is transacted in spent in not throttling my immediate manager. As a colossally lazy person, it was already excruciating to sit down to the genuinely taxing brain-work of writing. So once I had carved out the time, avoided all the temptations and apathies that lay between me and the word processor I had to write then, because tomorrow I might not have the wherewithal to drag myself to it.

Just try telling that person to wait for the muse.

And that sort of thinking misses the fact that first drafts are not Writing. They’re like 5% of it. What the muse gives you is always half-cocked and half-baked even at the best of times.

Fact: your first draft is ugly. Even at your best it is ugly. Too ugly to live. You have to beat the ugly out of it. That beating is basically 95% of the gig. If you sit around waiting for the muse, it means you’re not even doing that first 5%.

Lastly, writing is not meant to be fun. You shouldn’t enjoy it. Like childbirth it should be a vindictive punishment exacted against yourself for the sins of your ancestors. The whole process should be horrible, a trial by ordeal which leaves you not happy, but somehow satisfied, having been tested and having measured up.

Since quotations are apparently a major constituent of letters, ideally from poetry – specifically James Baldwin where available – I’ll leave you with this poem, reconstructed from memory because as far as Google seems to think Dorothy Parker is the only person to have said it:-

I have a confession,

And this is it:

I hate to write,

Love having writ.

I am willing to admit this last point about self-flagellation may owe more to the Protestant work-ethic of my own conscience, who dismisses anything enjoyable as sinful*, but I stand by the rest no matter how Calvin-inflected your conscience is.


A piece of writing that is a metaphor for what writing should feel like. 

So here’s the cliff notes version of this rant to pass on to anyone you meet whose excusing themselves from writing. After cussing them out tell them:

(1) don’t get prissy about ‘inspiration’, just write daily or close to it;

(2) if you don’t write today, you have nothing to rewrite tomorrow, and rewriting > writing, so write daily or close to it; and

(3) if you enjoy doing anything, you’re doing it wrong; and you won’t enjoy writing daily or close to it.

In the print edition of this blog, I’ll just turn this into a listicle.

Yours curmudgeonly,


P.S. *Imagine how tragic it must be for this conscientious conscience to be housed in such a dissipated layabout. Only the self-loathing makes all that laziness palatable.

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Dear Jon . . . (#4) re: On Being Ill

James’ latest bletter came through the blorld blide bleb. Click through to read it on his site.

“Dear Jon,

So, recently, as you know, I’ve been ill. And as such haven’t really been working much at all. So, on reading your letter I wondered – when do we chose the times when we don’t turn the page? When do we let our fingers hover over the keyboard, and then draw them back? When should we choose to rest rather than wrench yet another sentence from our befuddled minds?

Part of the problem is…(click here for the full thing).”

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Dear Jim (#3) re: Thousand Page Journeys

Dear Jim,

Thank you for your letter of last week. I know that The Gift (1938) feeling – or as it is known in my own head-brain: the A Dead Man in Deptford (1993) feeling – that frustrating feeling that you are always reading, have always been reading, and will always read a book which despite all that reading past, future and present does not ever seem to end.

At the moment that feeling is a source of minor stress, because beyond your Dead Men in Deptford there are always other books. As you know, I am a massive fan of reading lists. You’ve seen the forty or so books which sit on my desk in a line of TBR towers, looming over a row of ten or fifteen other books, bookmarks jutting out of them like dorsal fins, who are sitting there waiting for me to go back and finish them. Towers of classics which I should read, of pulpy trash I want to read, of research books I need to read, and of books that the real owners will be wanting back any day now.

Those fortyish books amount to about five months worth of reading at my current rate. It is like a speculative geography of my future knowledge. And beyond those roughly 15k pages is the unread deep-time strata of the bookshelves. Those are so far into the future there are Morlocks and Universal heat-death and I will be in my thirties. All that and more will come to pass before I can read half of what I should/want/need to.

(I feel like there’s a paradox in there among the TBR piles somewhere, if one wanted to tease it out. Something to do with how the books that matter most are the one’s that by definition have had no direct influence on you because they are not yet read. Like, I don’t stress about the thousands of pages of Dostoevsky I have read, but the thousands of Dickens that I haven’t. Not now though, there are future letters for frivolous stuff like that, this letter is about frivolous stuff like this:)

So much of this Chicken Habits for Effective Souls stuff the problem is really one of tricking your brain (half-wit that it is). You can only ever read the next page, paragraph, sentence, word, letter or punctuation mark. So just don’t look at the pile of books on your desk, or the monolithic Billy bookshelves from Ikea. Head down, tail up and all that.

Which reminds me of the more general struggle to be writing, to eat well, to live well, to exercise and meditate, to not eat the marshmallow, not drink the whole bottle of wine, not spend the whole day in bed masturbating, napping and binge watching Pokémon. These things are difficult for some reason. They shouldn’t be; every one of them comes with a positive reinforcement of satisfaction when done, while not doing them has the negative feedback of Protestant guilt.

The tricks we play are often silly; ‘I will just wash one dish,’ I tell myself. ‘I will do one set of pushups.’ Or like Isherwood ‘I’ll just put the novel up on a screen and then go do something else nearby, looking over occasionally.’ Whatever it takes to trick the brain into lowering the activation energy required to get started. Because inertia is not just a physics thing, it’s psychology too.

One of the many reasons the tricks are needed, is because if you lean to much on the idea of ‘completion’ then the whole exercise of being starts to look pointless. it comes to the realisation and rerealisation that you will never finish reading all the books you should/want/need, will never run out of art to create, that there is no final boss fight that will end exercise. There is no completion for a lot of stuff, just giving up and/or death (And what do we say to the God of Death, Jim?*).

Existentially unpleasant as that can be, accepting it is also the best way out of the kind of doing/not-doing stress that I’ve had accumulating of late. Which is why I bring this up, less for your benefit than as a reminder to myself to just keep doing. Sweat the parts as they come (*snarf*), and the whole will take care of itself.

Not only does the thousand step journey start with the first, it continues with the second, then the next one. And after that you’ll still have to decide to take the next one after that,  until way down the road – I hope– you suddenly find yourself sans feet, sans teeth, sans etc…

The best thing about this particular trick is that it is not a trick, it reflects the world.  The worst thing is how oddly forgettable it is. I used to listen to Zen Mind, Beginner Mind (1970) on audiobook once a year, to refresh the memory.

I haven’t done that for a while now, but it might be a good time to put it back into rotation because I am about to start reading DeLillo’s billion-page epic Underworld (1997). I feel like that massive book almost a thousand pages long and covering a span of time roughly equal to a smoker’s life could in some way be a metaphor for something.

But like paradoxes metaphor’s are beyond my remit today. Today I’m just psyching myself up.

Yours briefly mindful,


*’Not today.’ You really should just suck it up and watch Game of Thrones – Today, ideally.

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July’s Reading

This continues, and hopefully brings almost up to date the review of my reading. I read a mere five books last month so it has been relatively easy to catch-up.

1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, who have a strikingly different view of the Beats than the Beats do.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Well written and fascinating, this book is an extraordinary look into the life of a major international figure, and into the more local problems of racial and religious conflict that dog American culture.

The story follows Malcolm X nee Little from his earliest youth, through his period of criminal exploits, his redemption by the prophet Elijah Muhammad, and his eventual betrayal by the Nation of Islam. What is striking is to see the way Malcolm’s ‘hate’ is so much more complicated than him just being the violent flip side to the Martin Luther King coin.

The book is also fantastically well written, Haley manages to keep Malcolm’s distinctive style of speaking in the text, and contributes a fascinating introduction in his own voice.

I would highly recommend to everyone ever, especially now, when post-colonial Europe is entirely failing to understand the anger of the Middle East in almost exactly the same ways White Americans failed to understand Black Americans.

2. Shakespeare After All by Marjorie Garber, who liked the Winter’s Tale for some unfathomable reason.


Shakespeare After All

Garber’s book is a wonderful introduction to Shakespeare scholarship and goes really well with Emma Smith’s lecture series (which can be listened to here). 

Garber’s book is made up of 38 essays – one on each of the plays – and an introduction. Each play is treating to an essay one by one, in a rough chronological order of when they were first written. The focus is on how the plays have been treated by scholarship over time, and on placing them in the progression and network of ideas and themes of Shakespeare’s as they develop through his career.

If you have a deep interest in Shakespeare this will deepen it, and if you just want a general overview this is probably the only book you’ll need on the subject. I would highly recommend to anyone who is not put off by its near 1000 pages of tiny type.

3. A War of Choice by Jack Fairweather, who likes his subjects a little too much.


A War of Choice

I finished this, by coincidence, in the same week the Chilcot report came out. And off the back of the book I came away thinking that the media focus on the war as Tony Blair’s pet project is far too narrow.

Fairweather paints an ugly picture of just how many things went wrong in preventable ways: UK advances in the South were reversed because they ran counter to the general strategy of the US, cultural misunderstandings abounded, petty departmental squabbles in government kept experts out of the rebuilding process… the list goes on and on Blair was just the bloodstained tip of the iceberg.

The book is compellingly written as a series of individual’s stories which left me feeling that the war was a tragedy in Whitehead’s sense: the remorseless working of an impersonal thing that simply ground up people, nations and – in the end –the whole Middle East, in its relentless cogs. I would broadly recommend.

4. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, who must have had a grim time in the 50s.


The Golden Notebook

Impressive rather than enjoyable, this intimidatingly long book breaks the life of Anna into a narrative portion and her notebooks. The notebooks themselves are split up, and into each of four different coloured books Anna writes a specific aspect of her life. One contains her political life, another her writing life, another her personal life, and another the unadorned events of her life.

That life is largely made up of one unhappy marriage and numerous unhappy affairs, the struggles of an artist who feels unable to produce art, and an idealist turned cynic. It is not a happy book, and in many places becomes extremely boring. But there are flashes of greatness, and long sections that qualify as page-turner-y.

The main triumph of the work, however is its form. I would highly recommend.

5. The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, whose father definitely did have a grim time in the 40s.


The Complete Maus

This Pulitzer prize winner is one of the great graphic novels ever written. Part holocaust biography, part family history and part meta-journalistic analysis, Maus casts Spiegelman and his Jewish ancestors as mice, the Germans as cats, and the Polish people who helped and/or turned on his parents as pigs.

This zoological whimsy does nothing to reduce the appalling horror of the narrative which is as much about human nature under duress and how a community under threat responds, as it is about the Holocaust itself.

Based on conversations with his father, Art draws up a beautiful and harrowing story that is one of the major artistic responses to one of the 20th Century’s darkest hours. Cannot recommend this highly enough.

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Dear Jon… (#2) re: Gifts

The Jim in question has replied to last week’s Dear Jim… (click here to read that). Click the link below to go and read Jim’s response.

“Dear Jon,

Thank you for your letter that isn’t a letter. This is clearly going to be the basis for a thrilling epistolary novel; Pamela here we come. So, your post (you’re sehr welcome BTW) sent me on a series of thoughts on gifts, or gifting. These are thoughts that, I think, I have expressed to you before. Thoughts about what a gift (on birthdays, at yuletide) is, or at least can be…” (click here for the full letter.)

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How to Write Novel: Part 1


Image by Ralph Steadman.

Having finished Part 1 of 5 of The Novel,  now might be a good point to talk about how that got done. So, here goes…

I once pestered Jim about how he does his planning. In usual writery style he went into ten or twenty minutes of incoherent blather using his mouth, then went away and wrote it all down with great clarity and style on paper. His comments, and the writings of A L Kennedy, Stephen King, Martin Amis, Uncle Jim, Bisherwood, and any number of other writers on Writing all contributed to my thinking and doing on this. None of those people work in the same way. What follows is what has worked for me, so far.

The Throb

‘How do you come up with that?’ is one of the more flattering questions a writer can be asked. It’s also an unpleasant one to answer. While the process remains invisible it can also remain impressive. And you and the questioner can continue to look on your writing as the work of a genius, bestriding the world like a Colossus, great verdigrised balls dangling high above the peons who crawl about in their shadow.

Unforch, the reality is that ideas come not from genius but from an accretion of smaller ideas, each one thought up assessed and then followed for a little while until it starts to branch out into interesting possibilities.

For the current novel, I was originally thinking about writing a Vietnam novel, something based on the shlockier end of cinema’s dealings with the American involvement over there. But I was also on a kick of reading difficult books at the time, the variations of the voices and form of Ulysses got into my head. The verbal and temporal shenaniganising of Will Self’s Umbrella gave me more thoughts, and The Novel became a whole other thing. Something rather more serious and far less about Vietnam itself. More about the legacy.

Martin Amis talks about Nabokov talking about ‘the Throb’ a kind of building need to write one particular thing over the many others. It is one of the writerly metaphors I buy almost completely. For me it tends to feel more like a snowball as those notes accrete, so does motivation and research and thought-space. At some point it becomes The Thing to Be Done.

I wrote six first chapters for six different novels while I waited for the contractions to begin on one of them. In the end it was this.

The Wrong Way For Me.

The last two novels I wrote were written after Stephen King’s approach: one draft with the door closed, one with it open – the idea being to write the thing start to finish as fast as possible working out what it is as you go. When you get to the end you read it through and remould the mass of word clay into something more novel-pot shaped.

The result after the first draft for both of those last two novels was something too close to a novel to make a total rewrite acceptable, but much much too far from anything coherent or readable to be worth saving. They were worthwhile exercises and the process was educational. I wouldn’t be writing the current work as well as I am, if I hadn’t got those two failures under my belt.

So it turns out, Stephen King’s approach was not the one for me. I might still recommend it to someone just starting out. There is a sense of momentum, and of fun, in seeing your word count build. And it gives you a huge pile of rough sentences to go over and correct and learn all the ways to say things badly from. The more you write the more you learn about writing, and the faster you write the sooner that learning comes. Assuming you are stopping regularly to pore over the words you are producing.

Step 1– Prep Work

So with the new novel a far greater level of planning is involved. So I have fussed more, working out how my many narrators interact, and the different plot threads, theme threads, needle and threads connect up or work together. I also needed to do a ton of research on the late sixties in America and Vietnam and early noughts in the UK.

But research is not just stuff like ‘When were the moon landings?’, ‘Could someone have eaten KFC in 1969?’, or ‘Was 9/11 on a Friday?’. It was also things like seeing how other writers had handled similar themes, settings, or formal approaches. That lead to one of my favourite things: reading lists (click to see mine here).

The prep period was – or rather ‘is’ as the whole business continues even as I write the darn thing – also a time of just mulling. After reading stuff, I have to think stuff, then scribble the stuff down before I forget it. I suspect that in a lifetime everyone has the ideas for a great work of art; but because your brain – like mine, and like Soylent Green – is made of people those ideas are lost the minute attention is diverted. This is why writers should always carry notebooks. Always. Just like I would if I didn’t constantly forget them. Also pens, carry pens.

The notes, when they do get writ, are rarely original. They’re more likely to be triggered by some fact (For example, have you heard of Operation Wandering Soul?) but also things I watch or read. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘I have seen X done before, how could it be done in a fresh as fresh new way?’ or something more along the lines of ‘Y is great, what is the next logical step to that?’ or sometimes just, ‘Z is great. Let’s do Z, but in space.’ The old saying about ‘bad artists borrow, great artists steal’ applies.

Step 2– Outlining

At some point the miasm of notes, thoughts, ideas, sexual fantasies, &c… begin to condense into a sticky dew. At which point a more analytical sort of brain steps in and starts to order the fragmented notes (and images and sentences and plot lines and characters and trivia) into something that might, if you squint, start to look like a blueprint for a piece of art.

With this novel I broke the whole thing down vertically into columns which represent the chronology of the book, and horizontally into rows threads which represent various elements: in this book there are several time periods running concurrently, and different narrators for each. Then I add another row for thematic development and another for general notes.

Once I had a sort of map sorted in my head and on paper, I moved on to to a planning document, referring to the table I drop the notes into a rough sort of order, hen jot down specific scenes.

As I go along the planning document changes; I write from start to finish so I have detailed notes of the next few chapters, then less detailed notes for the chapters after that, and vague sentences outlining the sections beyond that; the further away the sentences are from being written, the vaguer those sentences.

Step 3– Drafting

I then set up another document to act as a workspace, notes are transferred here scene by scene. Sentences are jotted down, paragraphs too. Bit by bit they get linked up into scenes or sequences, and finally chapters.

As a section takes shape I go over it again and again filling in the gaps and correcting the more heinous incidences of cliche and general ugliness. Once it looks roughly right, it goes into the first draft document which will eventually contain the entire work in progress.

So far the first draft doc contains the thirteen chapters of section 1.

Step 3.1 – Words

When time, and concentration, are on my side the process of writing looks something like  this article by A L Kennedy only less accomplished. A sort of slow working and reworking, fussing over word choice and rhythm. Looking for something that is stylish and which works with the themes and atmosphere of the particular scene and the general book.

The writing of sentences involve a few main concerns. The negative concerns are avoiding clunky phrasing, ugly repetition, accidental rhyme (deliberate rhyme – or half rhyme – is fine), words with the wrong connotations, phrases containing  dead language, phrases containing cliches. The problem is that the first thought is always the most natural, but it is also the most likely to be derivative. Borrowed language is, as the joke goes, to be avoided like the plague.

The positive concerns of writing sentences are packing as much plot, character, theme, and what A L Kennedy calls ‘atmosphere’ in one of her other essays, as possible into every fragment of language. While doing this you are also looking to make something that sounds readable and/or euphonic and/or stylish and/or beautiful. It has to serve a function in the scene, be clear in what it is describing, and never lose sight of the way the book as a whole works.

The sentence by far the most enjoyable and/or gruelling bit of the writing process for me. As world building, or storytelling, or seeing what characters will do next is for others.

I think there is a subtle divide, one which lives close to the genre/literary divide, between those who enjoy the creation of the story: plot (Dan Brown), character (Chandler), and world building (Tolkien); and those who enjoy dealing with ideas or concepts (Huxley); and with those for whom all of that is just a vehicle for fucking about with words  (Amis, M).

Step 3.2 – The Scene

At a scene level I tend to rush, often back and forth, over the scene. Or write one ideas progression, and go back in the next pass writing in the other thought, or the action, or whatever.

Scenes for me tend to be built up step by step out of stage directions (blocking and dialogue, who goes where, does what, in the course of the scene), exposition (what information is revealed about stage directiony stuff that isn’t directly in the scene), and thoughts. Other passes may focus on tightening up things like how a symbol is used, or details which point to something that I don’t want to state explicitly but I want to be there in the text.

This more rushed the back and forth the more work to be done either in later passes, or in future when I come to do the second draft.

Step 4 – Rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting.

The result of all those threads and sentences is a block of material which should read like a coherent passage. At that point I start to go over it, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, smoothing out the wrinkles, fixing grammar and typos. If it needs big structural changes, or just seems dull, I’ll add notes to look specifically at large scale changes in the second draft.

The ‘step’ nature of this essay is a bit misleading, as at this point and for most of the process all four stages have been in progress, overlapping. I start new scenes before putting old ones to bed. I’ll fuss over sentences before I’ve worked out what all the threads of a scene will be, and I’ll stop mid-scene to go and write an overview of something else later in the book. There’s no hard split between these stages.

Step 5 – ….and Beyond.

So I go back and forth over it all. And then again. And again. Once I can’t see it anymore – because its all patterned too deeply into my retinas, and neural networks, then I copy and paste the piece of writing into a third Document entitled FIRST DRAFT.

Or at least that’s what happens in a perfect world, more likely I rewrite it till I’m sick of it.

And then it is onwards towards the second section.


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