It's A Kind Of Magic

God's footballer hears the voices of angels, above the choir at Molineux. 
-Billy Bragg

It's the done thing to sneer about football. It's lost it's soul, apparently. It's not what it used to be. Or it's just a bloated spectacle, with twenty-two millionaires kicking a ball around a field. I'm hearing more of this than ever before, now that my own club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, have rich owners, and are the current team accused of destroying the game. 

Growing up in England, in the eighties, football was every politician's favourite curse word. The reason for every social ill. The fans were animals, to be kept in cages. Living for over a decade now in Glasgow, I can still see that football becomes the easy target. Politicians, writers, journalists, can all complain about the influence of the game, rather than address the social conditions that lead to problems. 

An odd thing happened yesterday. I was running late for work. Booked to chair a literary event in the city, I was rushing across my local estate to get to the train, one I was pretty sure I would miss. Along the way, I passed some young boys, kicking a football around a patch of grass, with two stolen house bricks as goalposts. And, despite the urgency or my appointment, I slowed down to watch. Because that's what I do. That's what all of us -any of us who like football- do. 

There's a magic to it. A social connection. Sure, you can complain about the wages footballers earn, but why would we want an industry where the money doesn't go to the talent? And sure, we can scoff and use the 'twenty-two millionaires' line, but why do we ignore that none of them started out that way? Pick any of the largest teams in the English Premier League, and look at the backgrounds of their players. We'll find some grew up comfortably, some might be second generation footballers. But a great majority have come from poor backgrounds. From towns and villages, or from run-down inner city housing estates, where the governments have dumped a generation of immigrants. Some are even from refugee families, or grew up in the middle of civil wars. Some of those rich professionals will have grown up in back breaking poverty. But they had a skill, they worked at it, and now they're watched by millions of people around the world, and cheered for that skill. 

The one thing they all have in common, is that at some point, as children, they will have been kicking a ball about on a patch of grass, maybe with some stolen house bricks for goalposts. The height of the crossbar determined somehow, vaguely, by the extent of the goalkeeper's reach. 

There's a magic to football. A connection to something else. I think the sports we like as adults are probably the ones we played as children. And I can be a class warrior about it at times. There wasn't much tennis going on where I grew up. There weren't exactly copious opportunities to learn dressage. Most of the celebrated Olympic sports were the preserve of the middle classes and the well-off to pack their children into big cars after school, and at weekends, and take them to a place where they could be taught by expensive coaches.  

But everyone can kick a ball on their nearest field. And when you see children doing it now, you stop, or you slow your step, and you watch. For a second, maybe you're one of them again. Thinking, I could do better than that, give me a shot. 

My team are kind of rich now. If we play the game of judging a team by the wealth of their owner. They can buy better players. They've assembled probably the best Wolves squad of my life -not that it stops them losing to daft mistakes- and some of the rough edges are being smoothed out. A national football writer recently said he hoped we get relegated so that fans can 'get their club back.' 

I started supporting them in 1986. The fourth division. At that moment, there were probably 85 teams higher in the football league, and I could've followed any of them. But I fell for Wolves. Steve Bull, Robbie Dennison, and a guy nicknamed Rambo in defence. Molineux was a disaster area. Two of the stands were closed, one was a hundred yards away from the pitch, and the fourth...well the fourth was the South Bank and it's always been a magical place, even when it was crumbling and scary. 

So what's changed, between then and now? From the days as a national joke, on life support, to the days of a national folk devil, with money in the bank? What has altered about the soul of my team, or the nature of football?

Absolutely nothing. Go pick up a ball, kick it. It's all the same thing. It's all the same magic. If I see you playing, I'll probably pause to watch. Just don't pass to me, my left foot is terrible. 

 

This Is Not The Advice You're Looking For...

Late last year, I was out for dinner with a group of writers. Somewhere between pasta and chocolate cake, our conversation turned to Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Lines were drawn in the sand over which of the rules were worth following, where he'd gone wrong, and who felt the need to die on the hill of adverbs. 

I came to a moment of clarity. "The reason I listen to Elmore Leonard's rules," I said, "is because he was Elmore Leonard." 

Cut to this past weekend, and the most chilled-out version of Harrogate's crime writing festival I can remember. For whatever reason, be it that I've been a voice in the community for a decade now, or that someone had put drugs in the water supply, a number of authors came to me asking for advice. And I gave each of them the same answer. 

"The first thing, is to stop taking writing advice from the type of people who want to offer you writing advice." 

And I was wrong, of course. The first thing is to finish whatever damned thing you're writing. Get to the end and do it again. I should have said "the second thing is to stop taking writing advice from the type of people who want to offer you writing advice." 

Readers may know I've dabbled in the world of Stand-up Comedy. Not enough to call myself a stand-up Comedian, but I've been on stage, gotten laughs, killed a room, died on my arse, and gone back to do it again. One of the best things about doing comedy is hanging out at the back of the room with the comedians. We've all seen that group. The people in the corner, or at the bar, watching the acts, appreciating the inside-jokes, supporting those who are dying, sharing war stories. We all want to be in that group, sometimes. We all want to be seen and heard in the inner circle, to have our opinions valued. The thing is, to really be accepted into that group, they need to have seen you doing it. That is, if you want to be seen as a comedian, they have to have seen you doing comedy. Kill or die doesn't really matter. You can have been the funniest person on the bill, or the worst piece of crap in the room, but you've earned your spot in the group by getting up on the microphone and doing the thing. 

There are tiers within that, too. If you turn up night after night and do the same set, in the same way, without ever learning, you won't be taken as seriously as someone who is seen to be progressing and adapting. If you regularly kill a room, you'll be taken more seriously than someone who never gets a laugh. And, the distinction of all distinctions, if you're a paid act -if you earn money from your comedy- your voice carries more than an open spot. 

Advice is given. If you're seen as someone who has a bit of talent, or has something that can be improved, the paid acts and the experienced open spots might take you aside and give you some feedback. And, if you're smart, you listen, you thank them, you stay gracious, and you learn from what they say. There's no ego involved in that process. They know a thing, they're willing to give it to you, you take it because it makes you better at your craft. There is bad advice, from people lower down the order. But it comes from a place of ego, and it's easy to spot it for what it is. The lines are clear. We know who has earned their voice and who hasn't. 

The problem in the crime fiction community, is that there are no clear lines between those who have earned their voice and those who haven't. 

There is much more bad advice floating round than good. And it's easy to fail in this game, it's easy to miss an opportunity and grow bitter. If you've taken some bad advice, it can create a cycle, where you become jaded because things didn't work out -not seeing or knowing you were step up to fail- and you pass the same bad advice on, wrapped up in an extra layer of resentment. For some, this can turn into lecturing the audience, or complaining about publishers. For just a second, let's relate this back to comedy again: Who wants to see a comedian lecturing the audience for not laughing? Who thinks a comedian gets booked by badmouthing the bookers? 

Part of it is down to the idea of branding, I think. For over a decade, anybody who is fresh to the field has been told they need a brand and a platform. For many, social media has made that seem simple. Their brand can be opinions or advice. The platform can be twitter, or facebook, or a blog (pauses to stare at the camera.) How are you going to give meaningful advice on writing a book if you've not finished one yourself? Or if you're only two or three books in? How are you going to give tips on getting an agent if you don't have one? How are you going to talk about the insides of the publishing industry if you're sat on the outside, looking in? How is what you're doing going to be of any help to the person coming into the game two steps behind you, who doesn't know enough yet to know whose advice is worth taking?

Writing advice in and of itself is not bad. But bad writing advice is destructive. It can ruin careers. Too much of it comes from ego rather than any desire to help. Too much of it is about trying to build your own brand to sell your own book. 

Another side that we don't talk about is money. Look, I'll be honest, sometimes I'm a full time writer, sometimes I'm not. There are months -there can be a whole stretch of them- where I need to get out on a bike and deliver food to pay my bills. There are other times when my books sell well enough to cover everything. Within this writing game, for those of us who try and turn it into a job, there is a degree of hustle. Chasing down leads, looking for opportunities. Finding ways to earn. And sometimes, those opportunities come in the form of teaching, or coaching. 

To my view, both teaching and coaching are valuable skills. They come with their own craft, and should be taken as seriously as writing. We should want to learn how to do them, and earn our spot. We should want to be teachers or coaches, just as a writer should want to be a writer.  But often, in our game, the opportunities come as a way to pay bills. "Hey, if you're looking for some work, why don't you teach this course..." And then you think, sure, I can do that, and set about cooking up some opinions and forming your experiences into something approaching a teachable lesson. I've had those opportunities, and couldn't in good conscience take them. The best teachers I know are people who want to be teachers, and they deserve to be paid for it because they put in the work and we should be paid for work. I'm not a teacher, I'm not a coach. I'm a writer. And I'm a pretty good bike courier.

I keep talking about good and bad advice. I could put it into a different context by talking about earned and un-earned opinions. We see that everywhere. We're in the middle of a culture right now where we lost the distinction between an opinion that has been earned, and one with no weight behind it. Where someone on Facebook feels their opinion on any given issue is equal to a scientist, journalist, or expert who has studied that issue. It's everywhere. But we fix everywhere by starting here. If we begin to insist again on distinguishing between earned and un-earned opinions on writing, we can do out bit to make a larger change. 

None of this is to say there should be no advice. Like the comedians, there are people out there who will help other authors out. There are people who can set you straight. I've been given invaluable advice at key times by people like Ray Banks, Al Guthrie, Lee Goldberg, Reed Coleman, Jacque Ben-Zekry, Johnny Shaw. I have each of these people to thank, at one point or another, for helping me avoid a serious mistake. In each of these, the help came from people who have earned that opinion. And none of them ever tried to tell me how to write, they gave me guidances on choices I was making. 

I've spoken with a number of authors this year who've not had the benefit of that kind of guidance. For varying reasons. Some have come into the community from a background that didn't prepare them for publishing, some have come in and been given bad advice.

To an extent we all learn by making mistakes. But we need to accept that mistakes don't cost us all equally. I'm working class, from a town that doesn't produce writers. I was the only kid at my school who listed 'writer' as an ambition, and I have a learning disability that means I need to work harder just to pass for literate. Someone from a middle class background, or who comes from the 'right' town, or who grows up in closer proximity to publishing, would have more contacts and be able to make more mistakes than me. But even still, I'm a CIS, straight, white man. So by default, I'll have more chances, I'll be allowed to make more mistakes, than someone coming in from a different background. Some authors, for no fault of their own, may only be allowed to make one mistake before their career is over, whereas they might see me striding on past, burning a second or third bridge.

For these authors, for the people who might only get one swing at bat, we need to help them out by clearing away this culture of un-earned opinion, of bad advice. And sure, we can say it's on every writer to do their research when entering the community and to realise who to take advice from, and who to ignore. But we're not making it easy. How is a new person supposed to read the room? 

Those lines are clear in comedy. Not so much in crime fiction. We need to change that. We need to make it much more obvious. We need to make it uncomfortable for the people giving un-earned advice, because they're hurting other people. 

A Tree Falling In The Woods.

I think I’m taking a stand. 

Hopefully not a last one. 

Not exactly the boldest or bravest of positions I can take. 

I’m going to try blogging again. Using this little corner of the web. I’m hanging my shingle out and saying, let’s party like it’s 2007. 

Seriously. This ‘social media’ thing. It’s neither a sickness or a cure. It’s a placebo. Whatever you want it to be, it’ll be. But here’s the catch. In the difference between our conscious and our subconscious, in the difference between our text and our subtext, I think social media is our Id rather than our Ego. It forms out of what our basest instincts want. 

I’ve developed a theory that the real narrative journey, the real story we all want to tell, is not about characters who change, but rather about characters who become better or worse at being who they always were. I think there’s something intrinsically Elmore Leonard about that. And if something was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. 

Social media enables me to be very bad at who I am. 

We're all in each other's face. Each other's space. Standing on each other, and shouting. There are people who need to be heard, but we're not adult enough to make room for them. And content is about shares and likes, ultimately playing by someone else's rules. I think we lost something important when we took our communities into these shared spaces. We lost our breathing space, our individuality, our self-control. 

And I’ve learned some interesting lessons about the crime fiction community in the past year. Maybe I’ll be sharing some of that. Or maybe I’ll just revert to type and write about Paul Westerberg and Tom Waits. 

Who knows?