Ten Rules For Not Giving Advice

I have dismissed the culture of writing advice many times. The only reason I pay any attention to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is because they’re Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing. He knew what he was doing. There are countless people out there on the internet right now offering you advice, and I’m fairly sure most of them aren’t Elmore Leonard.

But I still get asked for advice from time to time. And I recently -somewhat flippantly- posted my own 10 rules on Twitter, in response to another beardy navel-gazer getting paid to write his own, most of which weren’t actually rules, and almost none of which were any good.

So, with the standard disclaimer that these might only work for me, and you gotta do you, and with the reminder that these are offered for free, here are my own current 10 rules of writing.

  1. Dialogue is about what people aren’t saying.

    What are they hiding? What are they omitting? Where is the lie? Particularly in crime or mystery fiction, where characters can be driven by secrets, and self deception.

    This approach can be of real help if you’re stuck. Back up. Look at the characters in the scene, and figure out what is the one thing they don’t want to say. Note that down for each character, then get them talking, and let them talk around those secrets. The conversation will flow, your subtext will be grabbing out for the reader’s attention, and your page will fill with words.

  2. Apply show-don’t-tell to character, and plot takes care of itself.

    There are many nuggets of well-meaning writing advice that are handed down and repeated, over and over, to the point when they become hollow. Show don’t tell is one of these. It’s often talked about it terms of plot. Exposition. Details. Reveals. Clues. It becomes a rule used to show the audience information, rather than tell it.

    Once again, pause, back up.

    This is tip is tied up in another modern little trap. Character has become the person, not the traits. The word is now shorthand for our dramatis personae. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good shorthand, we all use it. But we sometimes lose sight of character as aspect, as the traits that are revealed by the plot.

    And this is the real power of show don’t tell. Show things about your character. Show who they love, who they fear. Who they trust, who they hate. At a recent event I was asked how I’d managed to juggle all the plot details of How to Kill Friends and Implicate People in my head, because there’s a lot going on in that book. But the truth is, I didn’t. I managed the plot by managing the characters. At any given point in the story I was aware of their goals, their hopes, their fears, and I chose (hopefully) the right moments and techniques to reveal them to the reader. The plot…..took care of itself.

    Think of an action movie like San Andreas. Yes, it’s a big dumb spectacle. But it’s also one of the purest examples of this. The film is all about trust. Again and again, the story is showing us trust affirmed and broken. Heroes, in fiction, are the ones who people are able to put their faith and trust in. Horror films are more driven on fears. Crime can be driven on trust, or fear, or any number of similar elements.

    Show them. Reveal them. And show us why characters have earned -or haven’t earned- these trusts, hopes, fears. And the plot, I promise you, will happen.

  3. Write the scene from the POV of the person most invested in it.

    Elmore Leonard didn’t make this one of his own ten rules, but it can be found throughout his work. Which character is most invested in the action, the drama, or the tension of the current scene? Or who will have the freshest, most engaged take on what is happening? If the character is interested or engaged in the moment, the reader will be, too. And, once again, this will reveal character, which will, in turn, move plot.

    Okay, I hear you right now, saying, but I write my books all in first person, there’s only one character narrating. Hey, go write your own rules. Or figure out how to make this one work for that one voice. You think this is a free ride? Go do some work.

  4. Never use exclamation marks. Ever.

    Don’t all shout at me at once. You want to use them? Go right ahead. I mean, if you’re reading someone’s rules of writing just to disagree with them, there’s probably something more productive you could be doing. Writing, maybe?

    This one is a personal preference, more than a general takeaway. I think a good writer can express tone through dialogue. An exclamation mark -or slammer, as I like to call them- generally feels lazy to me. Most of the editors I’ve worked with have operated under a rule of one slammer per fifty thousand words (give or take.) I say that is one too many. The words, the way you use them, the speed, the urgency, all of these things can be expressed without sticking a slammer on the end.

    So, sure, use ‘em if you must. Just be aware you lose a year of your life for every one, and proceed with caution.

  5. ‘Write what you know’ is a dangerous trap.

    This is another of those pieces of advice passed down from yore. I believe it’s the most dangerous. It puts a limit on your work. Of course, like all the worst ideas, it’s got a grain of truth to it. We should know what we write. But we need to remember we can change what we know at any time. ‘Write what you know’ is the hill that bad fiction dies on. Generations of straight white men, writing straight white male fiction. Giants of the literary world who are feted for writing navel-gazing, middle class kitchen dramas, about navel-gazing, middle class people. Or, even worse, it leads to genre fiction where authors write the genre fiction that they know. The same tropes and cliches, trotted out, page after page.

    Push past your own walls. Go out and talk to people. Hear how they talk. See how they think. Learn what’s important to them. Ask questions. Read outside your comfort zone. The real thing, the real thing, is empathy. If you approach your work with empathy, pretty much everything else will be figured out along the way.

    Forget write what you know.

    Live by know what you write.

  6. Never take writing advice from the kind of people who offer you writing advice.

    Yes, even me.

    Especially me.

  7. Finish things.

    Stories have endings. Anybody can write, but you become a writer by finishing what you start. Not everything, don’t worry. We all get stuck. We all throw out work. But at some point, you need to knuckle down and finish a story, and then…..let other people read it.

    One of the reasons I’ve become hesitant to give writing advice over the years, is that it seems most of the people who are asking for it haven’t finished their book or story yet. And you, dear procrastinator, are standing in your own way. You can’t become a good stand up comedian until you perform in front of people. You can’t progress as a filmmaker until you make a film. And you can’t really learn anything as a writer until you finish writing something, and let people engage with it.

    Once you do that? I can help you. Other writers can help you. You can help yourself. You’ll see the shape of story. You’ll know the pitfalls, you’ve proven you have the motivation. We can get down into the foundations of what you’ve built and help you move it all around.

    Come to us with a story, we can help. Come to us with an idea, and all you have is an idea.

  8. Rule six was really important.

  9. Dialogue should vary.

    Here’s another dangerous old piece of advice; ‘read your dialogue out loud.’ This is problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, you absolutely should do this. Secondly, this can absolutely become a trap.

    Wa-huh? Stop confusing things, dude.

    Okay. Well, I’d say that advice doesn’t go far enough. You should read everything you write out loud. The whole thing. Language is alive. It flows. It needs to move like fire, searching for oxygen. If you don’t read you work out, there’s the risk of ending up with stilted, dead prose.

    And dialogue needs to sound like people talking. So of course you need to check that it actually….sounds like people talking. But at every stage of the process you need to be aware of the potential trap. Be conscious of not making every character sound like you talking. It’s an easy thing to do. In making sure that all the dialogue flows easily off your tongue, it can start to all sound the same.

    A common phrase I hear is ‘I write dialogue to a rhythm, like music.’ Usually -in fact, almost always- I hear this from people who aren’t musicians. Certainly not drummers. Probably not bass players. Possibly a rhythm guitarist, whose grasp on such concepts can be hazy at best.

    We don’t have to look far to see auteur screenwriters who are feted for writing great dialogue, and yet churn out the same voices again and again.

    Do I have any extra tips for overcoming this? Well, half the time I’m lucky. When I have the luxury of time, I’ll let the characters audition for me on the page, and in my head, waiting until I find a distinct voice that interests me, and then I’ll write for that voice. But the rest of the time? When I’m writing to assignment or deadline, and I need to be getting words down on the page before I have a clear idea of the voices? I’ll cast people. Friends. Celebrities. Actors. I’ll pick distinct people for each role, and I’ll write to their voice, rather than mine, while I wait for the character to take shape.

  10. I need a tenth rule? Okay. Guess I do. What will it be? I’VE GOT IT. Don’t be solitary.

    Writers aren’t solitary.

    The job can be, but don’t give in to it. We sit at desk, or on the sofa, or on the toilet (what? don’t judge me, this post has gone longer than I expected) and type. We talk to ourselves. We throw exclamation marks around. But we need other people. We need contact. We need ideas, and laughs, and frustrations. We need to get out of our own heads and into other people’s, and we learn to do that best by doing it. Once outside, we’ll find there’s a wonderful, large, supportive community of people who want to help.

    There will be authors who’ve been exactly where you are, and know how to get out of whatever rut you’re stuck in. There will be readers who want to lift your spirits by telling them how much your words have meant to them.

    As with everything else, there are traps here. There are people who want to take advantage of other writers. There are people who want to use you to elevate themselves. There are emperors with no clothes on, and they’re going to dare you to notice. And there will be people who will give advice they haven’t earned. How do you tell the good people from the bad? I’m afraid that’s on you. There’s no way around it, you need to learn that lesson yourself.

Freedom Of Reach?

We’re talking a lot about freedom of speech and censorship. You’re all forcing me to engage my brain, and this needs to stop. We can’t escape the discussion. Whether we’re debating the rights and wrongs of no platforming, or whether we need to ban certain songs.

It seems odd that we only debate these issues in relation to bad things. The same liberal dudes who will line up to say ‘well, I don’t think it’s right to call for the eradication of all left-handed comedians, but I worry about the slippery slope of censorship,’ will insist that liberals shouldn’t refer to Nazis as ‘Nazis.’ And I think we can all agree that, while we want to play devil’s advocate on behalf of awfulness, Hilary Clinton was absolutely and completely wrong to refer to deplorable people as ‘deplorable.’

 But I get it. I understand the arguments. We want to allow the idiots and the bigots to expose their idiocy and bigotry. We’re concerned about the precedent of giving anyone the power to ban words. We worry that refusing to platform people means we’re closing ourselves down to honest debate.

A word that has now become a homophobic slur, used in a beloved Christmas song, was once an Irish slang term for lazy. And, in the region I grew up in, the same word referred to a type of food. And even if the songwriter intended the word in the modern sense, rather that its original meaning, aren’t we crossing a dangerous line by censoring anything?

We can find proof of our argument, too. Nick Griffin of the BNP was fatally exposed by being given a national platform on the BBC’s Question Time. And the very idea of censorship, of deciding which ideas are allowed, and which aren’t, isn’t that what the bad guys do? Isn’t it all a bit too Orwellian?

On the other hand, not all bigots are idiots. Giving a platform to someone who is very good at expressing a bad idea does mean you’re giving a megaphone to the bad idea. The same BBC show that destroyed Nick Griffin helped to expand Nigel Farage’s influence, bringing his populist brand of racism to living rooms across the country on a weekly basis. And does ‘no platforming’ a transphobic activist mean we’re shutting down a debate? Yes, but why should we ask trans people to tolerate a debate about their very existence?

It seems that many of us will accept that free market is a flawed ideology when it comes to business, to human rights, and to laws, but still want to believe in the idea when it comes to speech and the marketplace of ideas.

For all my snark, I’m not here to trash the idea of freedom of speech. All of the arguments I made in favour of it are things I’ve said myself. For most of my adult life I’ve described myself as a freedom of speech absolutist. When I was campaigning for Scottish Independence, one of my many arguments was that a ‘new’ Scotland could have a ‘new’ constitution, including a guarantee of free speech.

But I can’t get past the idea that neither side of the argument really costs me anything. I’m very hard to offend. Straight white CIS man. Aside from the snowflakes of the alt right, and their cousins in gamergate, comicsgate, and getalifeyoumanbabiesgate, people in my category need to accept that we’re pretty much untouchable. The last thing I hear in life probably isn’t going to be a racial slur, as I’m strung up from a tree. I’m not going to hear taunts about my sexuality as I’m beaten into a coma. There’s never going to be a debate about whether I’m allowed into the correct toilet for my gender identity. I’m never going to have to worry whether the lyrics to a Christmas ditty, overheard in supermarkets across the land, are normalising a hatred that could kill me (Though Mr Blobby had a good go at it.)

And I think that’s where I come to. We all want to have a hard and fast, set-in-stone answer on this issue, and to never have to think of it again. But society is a conversation. A constant, evolving, conversation. We don’t need rules etched into stone tablets, we need empathy and nuance.

If we’ve reached a point in time where we’re asking conservatives, sexists, and racists to accept their views were framed by straight white men, don’t we also have to have the same conversation about liberal ideals? To all the people -including me- who have grown up accepting the idea that there are no bad words, that we need to allow idiots to expose themselves, and that every idea should be listened to, don’t we also have to think that maybe it was straight white men who came up with that logic? That maybe our very foundational beliefs about freedom of speech were created, and repeated, and enshrined, by people who never really had to worry about the weight of words?

Maybe it’s time we devalued devil’s advocate and started protecting people. Maybe it’s time we realised that free market economy is as corrupting for words as it is for money. And maybe it’s time we re-evaluate every idea argued for by white dudes, including the ones we’ve always thought were right.  

On Change

On Change.

Answers. Solutions. Diversity.

I’m sick of talking about them. Which isn’t to say I’m at an end of caring about them. But what are we really talking about? Who is in the conversation? And do we mean it?

A friend, who is much smarter than me, recently re-framed how I was talking about diversity. The word itself has become a buzzword that we throw around, it starts to sound like an option on a menu. An added extra. Like we order the regular, normal, crowd, and then for an extra pound or dollar we can add diversity or chilli fries. Instead, my friend suggested, I should think about representation.

We’re not talking about the nice idea of adding an optional extra to the menu, we’re talking about re-writing the menu to reflect the world around us. We’re asking for books, for conventions, for writer organisations, and for publishing companies that represent the world as it is.

You know another word that gets used frequently? Privilege. And in this case, privilege means that I keep being asked what I think the solutions are. What are my opinions. My ideas. What would I fix? I had a go at fixing some of them. I’ve offered suggestions to other people who are still trying. Even in a conversation that starts from a point of trying to invite more people to the table, being the straight white man means I’m programmed to offer the answers, and the conversation always makes room for my voice. And that’s seductive. It’s powerful. It can convince well-meaning people that their intentions are the most important thing. And it’s easy to become blind to being part of the problem. Easy to forget that you’re still a group full of white people talking about what writers of colour need, or a room full of straight people talking about what LGBTQ+ writers need. Because we’re right and because we mean well.

Do I understand how bad decisions get made? Yes. I’ve been in the room for some of them. Can I understand how, in the current #MeToo climate, we might think it’s a great idea to honour a woman with a history of prosecuting sex offenders? Sure. Can I understand how those good intentions will then blind us to other issues? How we will tune out the voices who come from a different experience? Sadly, yes. We too often can’t look past ourselves, of deciding we get to decide the priorities. Intersectionality has been talked into the ground in SFF, Horror, RPG, and has been the source of great arguments in comics and video games. Do we talk about it in crime fiction? Are we conscious of how we use our ears? Of who we listen to?

It’s not about my solutions. It’s not about my answers. It’s about listening.

Our intentions are pointless unless we’re listening. Unless we’re making sure that we listen to all voices, no matter how new they are in the room. Unless we’re actively going out and listening to people who aren’t even in the room, who don’t know where the door is.

Who is in the conversation? Whose questions are being listened to? Whose experiences are being taken into account? Who are we listening to?

I’m sick of talking, I’m sick of being asked my opinions. I want to listen.

Working In The Chain Gang

Homeless charities are warning that millions of people are now only one paycheck away from homelessness. It’s a cold Monday night in Glasgow, and I’m talking to someone who hasn’t had a home to go to for months. It’s an existence of sofas and car seats. The guy sat on the other side of me is overdue his own rent, but talking about the things he wants to do to help other bike couriers, once he’s square.

It’s a strange life, this one. Spending days and nights on a bike, hustling. Delivering shit for other people. Being yelled at all day. And, in Glasgow, spending most of your time soaked through by rain. All for something somewhere below minimum wage. A new problem to solve every ten minutes. A fresh chance to get killed or maimed on the road. Each delivery comes with the risk that your bike -the one thing you need for your job- will be stolen in the brief time you’re away from it. Picking up from someone who, in a good moment on a good day, might treat you like a human being. Delivering to someone who might appreciate the athletic feat you’ve just accomplished.

(Side note/universal truth: People in the poorer areas of a city will tip far more regularly, and in a greater amounts, than the people in the richer parts. They understand the value of human effort, and its relationship to money.)

As a crime writer, I mix regularly in circles of people who talk about being social writers, about the ‘working class.’ We write books full of people who spend half the plot rationalising their outlaw lifestyles. The more you live and outlaw lifestyle, the clearer it becomes that rationalisation is a thing best left to those who have time for it. You do what you do, when you do it, to live.

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

I don’t know. This phrase is getting used a lot at the moment. Writers, publishers, everyone wants to be seen to be doing their bit to encourage the ‘working class’ or to present their own bona fides as a member of this group. We’re all in a rush to show how we have a finger on the pulse, how we want to tell ‘their’ story. On this cold Monday evening, I’m looking round this circle of 30-odd bike couriers who’ve gathered to hang out, and the phrase ‘working class’ is ringing kind of hollow. Whose story is being told?

One of the strangest, Narnia-like hot takes for Brexit that I’ve been given lately, is that leaving the EU will make room for more migrant workers to come in from outside of the EU. From Africa, South America, China. And that, in turn, this influx will lead to racists becoming less racist. Because meeting workers from a foreign land will somehow make them see the error of their ways, after voting to expel workers from….foreign lands. To believe this, we need to live in a bubble where this isn’t already the case. Where migrant workers from all over the world aren’t already here, and exploited, and less than a paycheck from sheer desperation.

This is the level I’m living at, half the time. Couriers, waiters, kitchen staff, hotel porters, cleaners. On the bike, I’m working daily with people from Brazil, Ethiopia, Eritrea. They bust their ass, and yet they don’t seem to exist to people above a certain floor. And along with them, the people from here, the ones who’ve been left behind, or chosen to step off the path. The ones who can’t fit into the packaged version of a normal life, or have never had a real chance to get one.

The guy sitting across from me is from Ethiopia. He had a hell of summer. First, he was hit by a car in the Merchant City. Cleaned out completely. And the car was totally at fault, the driver deciding the best way to take a corner, was to veer so wide he crossed the lanes, ploughing straight into a cyclist waiting patiently at the junction. The only reason the cyclist wasn’t blamed, is because there is video proof. About two weeks after that, this guy got stabbed. Saw the blade coming, put his helmet in front of his face for protection, took the blade in the gut. Cycled to the hospital, got fixed up, back at work the next day. And somewhere around that time, he also had his bike stolen.

To the racists in this country, this guy is here to steal their taxes or jobs. Funny, I don’t see them out there on the bike, working fifteen hour days, delivering food for a level of pay they would laugh at. To a number of progressives in this country, he doesn’t yet exist. He’s something that will happen after Brexit, and his arrival will herald a new era of anti-racism. I look forward to him getting here.

There’s a lot of romanticised stuff written about bike couriers. Some of it is true. It is one of the last real outlaw existences that people can see in a city centre. Crazy people, with no bosses, taking stupid risks for no real pay. Spending your day out on a bike, instead of in an office, brings an amazing sense of freedom. In the very best moments, when you see a line open up in the traffic, and you truly open up your legs and show what you can do, it’s the best job in the world. On your worst days, at 10pm on a wet October in Glasgow, when you’ve been soaked to the soul all day, and have to stand and change a tyre in darkness, it’s…..still a great job. When you wake up the morning after a long shift, and find out your legs won’t be waking up for another four hours, it can be more of a soul crushing existence.

Compared to some of the other types of work we don’t really talk about, it’s an amazing job. I’ve done my time in call centres. When we talk of ‘working class’ people and normal jobs, we tend to throw around phrases like ‘9 to 5.’ But 9 to 5 is really the privileged preserve of people in good office jobs. If you’re a call centre worker, you’re on tap for a whole range of ever changing shifts, including weekends, for which nobody in politics seems to have your back. I talk to so many lefties, and listen to Labour -my natural home- talking about bringing back industrialisation, of unionising these mythical workers. It’s a shining vision of the past. The working people who need help are being systematically dehumanised in call centres, retail parks, and warehouses across the country. Start getting protection and rights for them. My time in a call centre almost drove me mad, and certainly stripped away layers of humanity and self-worth.

Compared to that, working as a bike courier is just about the most humanising thing you an do. In a world full of shitty working conditions, it’s a chance to rebel, to insist on carving out some space to be yourself and work your own rules, dress your own way, live your own life. To value your own body and spirit every single day, as you achieve small slices of the impossible just to get a fucking box of chicken nuggets to someone. It’s an insistence that we will be human, even in an app-based industry that doesn’t see us that way.

But put the romance aside, and think about the people who tend to work in these jobs. People who are new to the country, people who were born here but have never seen a chance at anything else. People with ADD, people with dyslexia. People with dependency issues that keep them from holding down the mythic 9-5 or the crazy call centre shifts. Sure, you get some students earning beer money, maybe even a novelist, but don’t follow the overriding narrative that these are the majority. Don’t be fooled into caring less about bike couriers based on the fact that a small percentage of them are just earning a little extra cash.

A week ago, Glasgow couriers went on strike. Protesting the pay conditions imposed by one of the cities main delivery companies. Their demands were humble. A minimum of £4.00 per delivery. That is, the person who brings you your dinner, is asking to be paid at least £4.00 for the effort. This isn’t currently the case. Many times, that person might be earning closer to £3 for your trip. Possibly occasionally £2.80. A minimum of £4.00 makes it feasible to at least hit minimum wage for a consistent run of hours. And ‘minimum wage’ is a lie in itself, when it comes to courier work. Minimum wage for a shitty call centre, or a shop, will include entitlements to sick pay, holiday pay. It includes the understanding that there will be times you’ll be paid even when you’re not working. Bike couriers get none of this. Factor that in, and a minimum wage for a bike courier should be looking closer to £12.00 or £15.00.

In raising awareness of this issue online, I heard from a freelance artist who probably considers himself an ethical left wing white knight, whose answer was that the couriers should go get other jobs. Cool story bro, thanks for your input.

Who cares about this small community of people? Probably not you, because they’re cyclists. And you hate cyclists. You can’t really explain why. You just do. If pressed you’ll come out with the same tired cliches that don’t stand up to logic or scrutiny, but deep down, you’re just conditioned not to like them. Just as you’re conditioned not to think about the person working in the hotel basement, the person working in the kitchen, the person cleaning up after you. Just as your conversations about ‘working class’ will tend towards focusing in on arguments about the divide between the working and middle class, and who has or hasn’t sold out, and what more can be done to increase mobility from one to the other. Let’s all keep our eyes averted from the people who don’t even qualify for the conversation in the first place.

There's An Opera Out On The Turnpike

Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy
— Bruce Springsteen 
Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
Watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ‘bout the break he’d give us if he could but he just can’t
— Same Fella

There's a line you'll hear a lot if you profess to being a Springsteen fan. "I want to like him, but he doesn't really get working class life," or, "the working class hero bit gets old." Some variation on that. Something I've heard more then once since the release of his autobiography, is that he's a fascinating guy with a lot to say, but that his songs are trite. 

(I'm pulling a lot of disparate thoughts together in this piece today. I'm not sure If I'll pull it off.)

I've long argued that each different artistic medium has its own strengths and weaknesses that should be celebrated or acknowledged. I rail against using the term 'graphic novel' (a war I have quite clearly lost...) because I want to talk about comics on their own terms, not in comparison to a 'better' art form. There are things comics can do better than any other medium. There are things they can't do. In the same vein, I roll my eyes if a standup comedian has to be praised by being something else. A poet, or a troubadour. I don't like to talk of a TV show being 'like a novel.' To my view, we should celebrate the great things for being the best version of their art form, not a weaker version of a different one. 

But I'm also thinking a lot about the way we talk about our media. Avengers: Infinity War was, to my mind, exactly the film they set out to make. A series of interconnected scenes that push our emotional buttons, based on pre-existing ties we had to all of these characters. But we talk about all films as if they're setting out to achieve the same thing, and then base our criticism on whether they hit that standard. 

Another point that's true, is that entertainers and storytellers get a different emotional reaction for their work than anyone else. As my pod-partner Chantelle has pointed out on Crime Friction, an accountant can do a brilliant job, but they don't have an audience emotionally invested in their work. As writers, performers, storytellers, we do. 

More and more, in a topic I'm sure I'll return to later, I'm realising that storytelling rests on selling emotion. It rests on feeling. Plot, structure, grammar....all of these things are useful tools. They're good guides. But we stand or fall by whether we can make the audience feel. In the moment. And then again in the next moment. And so on. All facts, all ideas, all plot mechanics, all arguments about act structure, are secondary to that. In a recent podcast interview, Writer/Director Chris McQuarrie said that 'exposition is the enemy of emotion.' And he should know, as the guy who delivered the last two Mission Impossible movies, and crafted one of the greatest plot reveals in cinema history. As a growing action director, we can view his work as an ongoing lesson in making people feel. Sure, Tom Cruise does a big stunt that they'll put in all the trailers and use to sell the movie. But the key to those scenes is how we're feeling about them. Are we tense? Are we scared? 

If we successfully sell the emotion and the character, the plot and message will take care of itself. 

And that brings me round, as much as I want each art form to be praised for it's own merits, to thinking about what they have in common. It's that emotional bond. To a greater or lesser degree, a successful piece of art in any medium will make us think, but to earn that they have to make us feel. A joke can pierce deep into the hart of an issue, but needs to pay it's dues first by being funny. A song can be political, can be about some deep social issue, but we need to viscerally feel that issue. Novelists get probably the most room to play. We can choose to take our time, to deep dive into any subject we want. But even still, we need to be aiming for the emotion of every single scene. Write a chapter from the point of view of the person most invested in it. 

(Do I have a point to any of this? Probably not. But I started out with the vague idea this was going to be about Bruce Springsteen. I used quotes, and everything. So I should make some effort to circle back there.) 

I don't really understand any of those arguments against Springsteen. That's not to say I don't also agree with some of them. I grew up in a working class area, I had family members who were long-term unemployed, and I got married young. So when I listen to a song like the River, all I can feel is a vague hollowness. The song doesn't touch me. Doesn't feel anything like the lives I saw or lived. But at the same time, there are few songs that feel as real, as true, to me, as Used Cars. That thing should be a national anthem to somebody, somewhere. To some degree, Springsteen's 'working class' songs are essentially about a life he saw his parents living. Viewed on those terms, we unlock a key to the emotional side. The songs that tap into youth and frustration, or into the way a younger generation struggles with their elders, are the ones that feel purest. 

But I'm not sure why we judge someone's entire career based on whether or not his working class songs are accurate. Is he a documentary film maker? No. Is he a novelist or photographer? No. He's a rock and roll songwriter. There are things that form can do better than anything else. There are also limitations. 

I'm not entirely sure why it's become so common to write off the guy who wrote Born To Run or Jungleland based on whether he really captures the spirit of Ken Loach. 

Let's take another example. There are few finer trickster spirits wandering our artistic highways than Tom Waits. It's easy to forget now, but at the start of their careers, at around the same time, Springsteen and Waits were marketed as east and west Coast analogues of each other. Both young, vaguely beardy, street poets in newsboy hats. In fact, the more you know about Waits, the more you see the whole first decade of his career was an act. The jazzy noir pose, the ballroom heartbreak, the piano that was drinking, and the exposed heart of a Saturday night. All of it was an act. Tom being something he thought he needed to be, and the record company packaging something they knew how to sell. At some point, he shifted, like someone pulled the focus very slightly on the camera following his life. He stepped between the cracks and went loveably crazy. I would give a lot more than I own, to be able to travel back in time and watch a Waits fans' eyes as they dropped the needle on Swordfishtrombones for the first time. Suddenly he's singing about dwarves who live underground, about catching a black crow inside a guitar, he's warbling about Singapore noodles and shore leave, he's taking us on a weird German marching band tour of a back alley. And he's doing it all with a wink and a smile. 

(Side note: 16 Shells From a 30.06 is possibly the best song ever about writing. Shooting a hole in the sky, capturing the blackbird that flies down through it, trapping the bird inside a guitar, and playing the strings just to drive it crazy. Beat that.)

So, to me, ditching Springsteen because a few of his 'working class songs' don't ring true, is like dismissing Tom Waits because his 70's period was a bit hollow. It's simply not what I go to them for, and there's way more to their art than one ingredient. Springsteen found fame as the man who wrote about operas out on the turnpikes, and ballets down in the alley. About big dreams, and small chances, and the need to escape. He has an ear for the mythic. Later on, as his first marriage was failing, he turned inwards, and started to write startlingly honest narratives about the heart. Both of those periods are amazing. I go to Springsteen for those moments, captured in the two quotes I opened with. Big mythic themes, and small focused observations. I don't really go to him for anything in between. Just as I go to Tom Waits for his odd soundscape, the imagined landscape of tricksters and bruises. Somewhere out there, in the mythic rock and roll landscape, I think Waits and Springsteen characters probably meet up and trade stories. About circuses, clowns, street fights, road races, and lost loves. Admit it, you'd want to watch that movie. And you'd feel the hell out of it. 

And if you think you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you’ll have to tell a lie
— Tom Waits