Bloody Good Reads: All The Birds, Singing

I resisted reading this for a good long while, I’m not quite sure why. It was so enormously praised when it came out, I suppose I must have decided, in my miserly way, that it was over-hyped. Well, it wasn’t. It’s an elegantly-done thing, full of threat and beauty, but for me the best and most interesting thing about it was the structure, which flips between the now and the past, with the now stepping forward but the past receding, with each chapter moving further away until the last chapter reveals the past of the main character, Jake, with the strange scars on her back and her apparent flight from her family in Australia to a sheep farm on an unnamed British island.

It’s not a long book – barely more than 200 pages – and the story it tells is a simple one, but that just gives the story room to breathe and the words room to grow in your head after you’ve put it down, until you can almost hear those birds singing yourself. A lovely thing, and very recommended.

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Aversion Therapy with the Authors’ Club

The Authors’ Club were kind enough to invite me to give a talk at their monthly lunch about my books and my writing. I took the somewhat self-indulgent and meta route of talking about talking about writing. If you read the below, you’ll see what I mean.

Hello, and thank you Sunny and everyone here for inviting me to speak to you.

But I won’t pretend this is going to be easy. In fact, this is a session of aversion therapy for me. Because I am going to speak – DEEP BREATH – about me and my – SWALLOW – writing!

Groucho Marx, as everyone knows, said he’d never join a club that would have him as a member, and thus inevitably ended up posthumously donating his name to a club.

Today is the opposite of that for me. Because here I am, at the Authors’ Club. A club of authors.

Talking about myself.

Talking about being an author.

My teenage self has just roused himself from the floor, where he was listening to heavy metal and dreaming about Kate Locke and her amazingly tight jeans, and given his future self a round of applause.

But why should this be aversion therapy?

Anyone who’s ever seen me talk about ‘being an author’ will know that I have had a profound aversion to it ever since my first book was published in 2011. Not to talking about myself – oh no, I can gladly bang on about that for hours. But when it comes to talking about writing, I’ve encountered an insurmountably English diffidence.

So, you’re all here to help me with this desperate affliction. I want to talk about being an author.

Why do I want this?

Firstly this: not wanting to talk about being an author has the unwelcome, and entirely unsought, side-effect of making said author sound like an arrogant scoundrel. I learned this, actually, at another Authors’ Club event. You kindly shortlisted my first book, The English Monster, for the Debut Novel award, more of which in a moment. Part of my duties (as I then saw them) was to read from the book and answer questions alongside the other shortlisted authors. One of these questions was along the lines of ‘was it hard, writing this book?’

Yes, of course it was hard. It’s a hundred and ten thousand words! I’ve never written anything as long as that before! It took bloody ages! And then the pacing was wrong, and the tone was inconsistent, and a lot of the imagery was naive or didn’t work, and most of the characters were entirely unsympathetic, and I did it all on my own, and I had a job at the time as well, and I can’t believe I pulled it off, and here you all are saying this book is quite good, actually, and I can’t BELIEVE IT!

The trouble is, I did not say any of these things. No, indeed. Because it was drummed into me at school: Don’t show off. Don’t display enthusiasm. Adopt, at all times, an air of worldly insouciance. Discussing one’s own achievements is deeply uncool, not to say horribly gauche. DO NOT DO IT.

So that was playing round in my head. The other thing that was playing round was this: my wife was then working as a headteacher in a Peckham primary school. She went into work every day at seven, and got home at eight. During those thirteen hours, Peckham threw everything Peckham could throw at her, and believe me, Peckham’s got a lot of stuff to throw.

In that light, how could I possibly describe what I did as hard? Even if it perhaps was.

So I answered the question like this: “No, it wasn’t hard. I wrote in the evenings. I treated it as a kind of hobby. Some men build model ships. I wrote a novel.’

Tumbleweed echoed around the room. My wife put her head in her hand. Somewhere across London a child could be heard to laugh derisively.

Why? Because I sounded like a colossally arrogant scoundrel, that’s why.

I learned something that day: both listening to my own woeful underperformance, and to the words of my fellow authors on the shortlist, all of whom spoke amusingly and movingly and above all interestingly about their work. I learned that when people ask you a question such as is it hard being a writer they’re not expecting modesty, be it fake or be it genuine. They’re expecting insight. They’re expecting interest. They’re expecting amusement.

They’re expecting you to talk about yourself, with self-confidence, in an interesting way.

But this raises an interesting issue, and it brings me to my second reason for wanting to talk about being an author. I noticed two very distinct things on the day I was published. The first was the wave of self-doubt that broke over my head. It was like an acute version of Imposter Syndrome, that feeling many of us have that we are going to be found out, that we don’t really know what we’re doing, that one day someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say I’m sorry, but there’s been a terrible mistake. So, even though an agent has taken you on, even though a publisher has paid you cash money for the privilege of turning your manuscript into an actual proper published book, even though it’s received some decent reviews – you still find reasons for why it must be a rubbish book, and you must be a rubbish writer. And being English, I tended to smother that anxiety in diffident self-deprecation. And thus ended up looking conceited.

The other thing that happens when you’re first published is that you notice other writers in a new way. For the first time, these strange creatures are objects of immediate interest. And my word, they don’t half talk about themselves a lot.

They talk about their writing process. They retweet praise from their books. There are a great number of them who call themselves ‘writers’ who seem to have published no actual ‘writing’ at all. They discuss their inadequacies at great length. They do Q&As and blog tours and Reddit AMAs and place endless About Me articles on their websites and are always asking me to Like their Facebook pages or to follow them on Twitter.

In short, they generally behave like people craving attention and affirmation. Not all of them do all of these things. But most of them do some of them.

And by ‘them’ I of course mean ‘me’.

Why is this, I thought. What’s wrong with these people? Why are they making such a meal of something as natural as writing?

Because, you see, up until then writing had been natural for me. I had done it as a kind of hobby. I worked full-time, and I had no expectations of being published. Which isn’t to say I didn’t desperately want to be published. But I didn’t expect to be.

And then, my first book came out. Then, I was in the game. Because now, a lot was riding on the second book. And suddenly, I didn’t know if I could do it anymore.

It was, in other words, a crisis of self-confidence.

So I looked at all these writers blah-blah-blahing about themselves, and I felt my own crisis of confidence, and then I read something by Neil Gaiman. Now, Neil Gaiman is someone who talks about himself a lot online, and I have had my bitter moments when I’ve wanted him to shut up, because he is of course quite brilliant and utterly successful and married to a rock star and generally very, very cool. So it’s easy to pastiche him sometimes, to characterise his somewhat glib assertions about the creative process as being… well, somewhat glib.

At least, that’s how I tended to characterise him.

But then he said this, in a commencement speech at some American college or another:

Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.

He said a bunch of other things in that speech (including admitting that he, like me, had suffered from imposter syndrome, or what his wife Amanda called the Fraud Police). But that really stuck with me.

Pretend you’re a writer. Pretend you’re a good writer. And perhaps that will increase your chances of being one.

This is insane, right? But what if this was why all these people were so fiercely calling themselves writers? Were they seeking to convince themselves? Were they acting out a role?

I think they were. I’ve even found an academic paper on this.

Seriously.

It’s called ‘Confidence and Competence in Writing: The Role of Self-Efficacy, Outcome Expectancy, and Apprehension’. It was authored by Frank Pajares and Margaret T Johnson and published by the National Council of Teachers of English in October 1994 – so at a time when ‘social media’ meant sharing your newspaper.

Now, this study is interesting in all sorts of ways, and is also full of some pretty dry academic prose (which is code for ‘stuff I didn’t fully understand’).

But the results of the test seem clear, and there are two parts to it:

1 – There is a clear correlation between a person’s self-confidence in general, their specific confidence in their writing, and the quality of their written work. As a side note to this, it’s one’s general confidence in writing that has the strongest correlation with writing outcomes; specific confidence in individual writing tasks (yes, I can use a comma correctly) does not have the same correlation.

2 – That as people practise certain writing skills, their writing improves – but their confidence in their writing does not improve in the same way.

In other words, if you’re confident in what you do, you’re likely to be better at doing it.

But the flip side is, you won’t get more confident by doing it.

I find this disturbing, because of this: I have moved from being a very self-confident writer in short form arenas such as journalism and reviewing, to being a very unconfident writer in novels. I have a very bad dose of imposter syndrome when it comes to what I do.

But even that is not quite right. Because, when it comes down to it, I have written three novels which have been published (well, nearly). I can, clearly, write.

So perhaps I should just say the words “I can, clearly, write” to myself. Over and over and over again.

That seems to explain a lot of how writers behave online. Their retweeting of positive reviews. Their blog posts about their writing process. Their hurt reaction to criticism. Their self-description as ‘writers’ in Twitter profiles and website headlines, as if to write the words ‘I am a writer’ in as many places as possible somehow makes that more true, even if they’ve never had a book published or even a review or a magazine article. This behaviour which I have, in recent years and in my customarily judgemental way, found occasionally risible, occasionally even contemptible, is neither of those things. It’s actually perfectly sensible. Here, for me, is the killer line from that study:

Students who lack confidence in skills they possess are not likely to engage in tasks where those skills are required.

To extrapolate from that in a most unacademic way: I’m never going to write the novel I’m capable of writing if I don’t convince myself I’m capable of writing it.

And the first step to doing that is pretending I’m capable of it.

So: here I am, standing before you today.

I am a writer.

And some of the things I have written have been…. have been…. have been…. pretty good.

There.

Thank you.

The historian in the park

Yesterday I walked across the park to catch a train to the British Library for the Georgians Revealed exhibition. In my bag I was carrying a very good history book by a very fine popular historian. As I walked down the hill, a jogger overtook me with an elegant running style and barely a sideways glance. It was the said historian out for his mid-afternoon run.

I’ve never been good with the fan thing. I’ve always been too embarrassed to walk up to someone with whom I have a one-way relationship and accost them as if it were two-way. And in this particular instance I would have had to:

  • run after the historian, which would have been uncomfortable at the pace he was going and pretty weird
  • by approaching him, reveal that we were near-neighbours (which I hadn’t realised until then), which would have been oddly stalkerish
  • not been British

None of these felt particularly desirable, so I just carried on walking, watching the brain which had distilled massive centuries-old narratives into exciting prose disappearing round the bend where my dog takes his morning dump.

This, I remember thinking, is why I live in London.

PS: The Georgians Revealed exhibition has some very nice things in it. But not enough crime and punishment for my admittedly biased tastes.

Handbags and gladrags: a new look for my website

Regular readers (hi Louise!) will have noticed that this website looks a lot sprucer than it looked yesterday. That’s because I got a man in – a fellow named Jason Bootle, as it happens – to work some design magic on the place.

Words I can do, some of the time. Design is  a mystery to me. As Arthur C Clarke would have said if he’d been a plasterer, any craft learned over time is indistinguishable from magic to those who don’t have the craft.

So thanks to Jason for finding the right combination of typeface, colour and image to make this place look a little less… lived in.

Now though I shall spend the next two years frigging around with the colours and breaking the image sizes and basically trashing the place. So enjoy it now, while it’s still pristine. If this were Grand Designs, the fancy couple who developed the place have moved out to cash in on the equity, and the clueless financier with no style has just moved in with his trophy wife and his appalling children.

Give it a year, and you won’t recognise the place….

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Paperback Publication Day for THE POISONED ISLAND

A big day for me today: the paperback of my second book, The Poisoned Island, is published in Britain. It looks amazing, it’s in all the usual places, and it’s got a special treat at the back: an excerpt from my third book, as yet untitled but coming in 2014.

If you’d like to find out more about The Poisoned Island, maybe read an excerpt and check some reviews, go to my page about the book here.

And if you’ve bought the book and would like me to sign a stick-in frontispiece, get in touch with me via my Contact page with a proof of purchase, and I’ll make that happen.

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My First Proper Festival

I’m back in London after my first experience of a Proper Book Festival. It was the inaugural Harrogate History Festival and it was a pleasure from start to finish. We we’re put up at the Very Posh Old Swan. We did a panel this morning entitled Before Sherlock and I had the honour to share the stage with our chair Andrew Taylor along with Robert Ryan, Nick Rennison and Joan Lock. Our audience was both numerous and very friendly and afterwards there was a signing room with Sharpies and a Queue. I felt for at least one morning like a Propah Writah.

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On the way home to London I had a couple of hours walking around York in the sunshine. It was beautiful and full of locals out for a stroll. Rather lovely all round. And they have a rather swanky concept of taxis up there.

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Day Three Extra: bussing through the fjords

It’s inevitable on any trip of this scale that any single leg is going to appear insignificant in the general scheme of things. Even monstrous journeys like the sleeper from Amsterdam to Copenhagen are just one step within many. You can only keep so much scale in your head.

So it’s fair to say I hadn’t paid much attention to the bus trip we had to make on day three, other than a fairly grumpy acknowledgment that our steel wheel adventure would have to give way to rubber for a while. This, as it turned out, was a rather silly point of view.

Every turn the bus made brought new wonders. Drowned mountains with vertiginous waterfalls for hair. Clouds designed in Asgard. Tunnels of up to four kilometres that barely accommodated our bus, their walls of unfinished bare rock where dwarves had been digging for iron. Suspension bridges that looked like they’d been there since the 1500s.

Jawdropping. Gobsmacking. Brainstunning. If Wordsworth had been on our bus he’d have either produced his finest-ever work or had some kind of creative aneurysm.

In amongst all this wonder, we took a ferry – one of those brisk well-organised things I associate with Scandinavian detective dramas. We bought hotdogs and stood outside above shockingly deep waters, chugging between drowned mountains.

We got to Narvik at 9pm and took up residence in three little wooden cabins above the fjord. We went our for pizzas and beers and came back at midnight and it was still as bright as a February afternoon in London.

One other little thing I noticed yesterday. The smaller trees in the thick pine forests were often bent over at strange angles, or uprooted entirely. Almost as if a gang of gigantic creatures had been marching through the woods, sniffing the air for the blood of Englishmen.

More soon. And do do do check out Paul Clarke’s pictures – yesterday’s are amazing

Day One: Somewhere in the Low Countries

We’re half-an-hour north of Brussels heading towards Amsterdam on the Thalys. The carriage stinks of cheese and meat from the bags of food we bought in Brussels. We’ve also got three gigantic loaves of bread, 10 litres of wine, various bottles of spirits and soft drinks. It’s fair to say we’re a little weighed down and a little bit tired.

We met at St Pancras at 7 this morning for a full English breakfast and variously stiffening drinks. Then it was onto the Eurostar – ten men in matching t-shirts bearing the Disorient Express logo, like a stag party planned by Alan Bennett.

The next stop was Brussels, and the reality of what we’re in the business of doing hit home. First, the sheer physical effort of wandering around a crowded city with heavy rucksacks. Then shopping
in the Brussels equivalent of Tesco Metro – still with rucksacks. Then getting back to the station with enough food and drink to get ten men past Copenhagen. All that with Belgian beer inside you.

But we’ve made it to the next leg. Soon we’ll be in Amsterdam, changing onto the 15-hour Borealis, and then sitting down and demolishing some of those heavy comestibles. We’re on our way.

And best of all we saw David Suchet outside a chocolate shop in a beautiful Brussels arcade. That’s right. We saw Hercule Poirot in Belgium

Rules for using Twitter

Yesterday author and near-namesake Lynn Shepherd published five golden rules for writers on Twitter which you should go and read. Her tips are useful and Lynn, who writes very smart and exciting literary thrillers set in the early Victorian period, has a few thousand followers and tweets regularly and is a generally very nice person.

Which makes it hard to disagree with her. But disagree I will.

See, rules for Twitter are all very well, and you’ll find a great many of them. But the more I use social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, and the more it gets under my skin, the more I think there’s only one rule. And it’s this:

Don’t try to be someone different online to the person you are offline.

Now, this being one of those annoying think-out-loud, don’t-know-what-I-mean-till-I’ve-said-it creatures called a ‘blogpost’, I’m going to instantly counter that with of course you can be someone different online. You can adopt a personality, pretend to be Samuel Johnson or your dog or a tree. But that’s different. That’s not the kind of social media Lynn or I are talking about.

So, if you’re a person not pretending to be someone or something else on Twitter, you can’t be someone you’re not, and nor should you try to be.

I know, because I’ve tried.

Most days, I’m trying very hard to be someone I’m not when I’m online. I’m trying not to be judgemental (I’m very judgemental). I’m trying to choose my words carefully (I stick my foot in my mouth all the time). I’m trying not to pretend to have knowledge I don’t have (I’m a know-nothing know-it-all blowhard in the flesh). I’m trying not to be too diffident (I’m way to quick to challenge others for taking themselves seriously). I try not to be too fake-modest (….).

I’ve tried not to be all these things, and I always fail. Take yesterday. Someone else on Twitter was being puppyishly enthusiastic about another writer, and I snarled ‘brown-nosing’ in their direction. I then agonised about having done it – it was cruel and it was pointlessly negative. I then deleted the tweet. I then felt bad about deleting the tweet. I then had a shower.

See, this kind of stuff is really damaging. One of the worst things social media has done to our kids, I think, is force them to play the age-old playground game of pretending to be someone you’re not even when you get home. We can’t shut the door anymore on the world and be ourselves. If we’ve constructed an image of ourselves in whatever walk of life we exist in – our school, our office, our friendship groups – social media demands we continue to portray that image even when physically alone in our own homes.

Well, stuff it. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to play at being me, and not some re-engineered version of me that might play better. I’ll apply the same rules to Tweeting and Facebooking that I’d apply to real life. Be kind. Be honest. Do unto others as you would be done by. And if you’re being boring, shut up.

Shutting up now.

 

Cooperative Bank: one less thing to be smug about

I used to write a fortnightly column for Guardian Unlimited called Financial Hypochondriac, in which I had some fun with the idea that the financial system was too complicated to be understood by ordinary mortals, and that consequently we were all being forced into a state of constant anxiety about our finances. At least, those of us who thought about such things were. The columns are still online, too, though I shan’t be reading them myself.

But one thing I’ve been certain of for a long, long time is that the Cooperative Bank is the place to do your day-to-day banking. Why leave your money with the spivs and cowboys of the High Street banks when you could stick it with an organisation that has members not shareholders and even boasts an ethical investment policy? When people complained about the banks, I would say what on earth’s wrong with you? There’s an obvious solution. Move your account to the Coop!

Those smug, carefree current account days are no more. For the Cooperative, it turns out, was being run in just the slap-happy fashion as all the other banks, overstretching itself and essentially making like a third-year undergraduate who’s just negotiated yet another increase to his overdraft. And, to make good its previous indiscriminate cash-splurging, it’s now having to float on the Stock Exchange. Imagine! Grubby stockholders, pawing over the pristine Coop’s finances with their ravenous jaws! Now, when I log into smile.co.uk, the Coop’s now-rather-poignantly-named online banking service, it smells slightly of disappointment and betrayal.

Where do I go now? Nationwide twitches its mutual skirts in my direction, while the fat cats at HSBC open their soiled gaberdine raincoats and offer me a First Direct login. But who to trust, now that good old dependable Coop has turned into a dud?