The Thing You Keep Asking Me

I spent a year tilting at windmills in the crime fiction community. A few of them were giants. And I’m tired. I know rumours are doing the rounds, questions are being asked. Am I giving the answers here? Not really. 

See, the problem with much of it, is it's not my story to tell. People keep asking me to speak up. And I do have things to say. But I’m constantly, constantly, aware that the weight of these stories falls differently on me than it does for the people who own them. 

I want to talk about a culture of people in power who will talk publicly about supporting #MeToo, but then privately question the motives of every.single.woman to speak up. Are they doing it to sell books? Are they doing it to grandstand? Have they simply gotten their story wrong? All these suggestions were raised. The validity of stories has been judged. And each one was a massive pull on my loyalties. Stay in the room to keep working towards the goal, or walk away to stop being complicit?

I want to talk about a culture where rules and precedent can be set aside to hand out opportunities to friends, but become all important when it comes to refusing to help out an indie author. I want to talk about a culture of standing by while authority figures are allowed to privately bully and publicly insult professionals within this industry. Of how evidence of this can be magically deleted soon after I forward a complaint about it. Of how other people in the conversation can tell me that evidence never existed, even as I tell them I saw it myself. I’d like to talk about how, when I was digging my heels in the sand, I was told that the person in the wrong had more support in the community than the person in the right. If people want the exact moment I lost the appetite to keep going, there it is. 

I want to talk about organisations that are sitting on hundreds of thousands of your dollars, and provide very little accountability or transparency about the decisions taken with that money. But if a suggestion for change comes from an author it means less, because it's a fan convention. Even if authors pay for registration, and their names are used on the website as a lure for readers to (pay) attend. 

I really want to talk about receiving a dog-whistle legal threat from an author who accuses me of trying to ruin his career. The Streisand-effect-level irony is that he keeps talking about something I’ve shut up about. Something I've never actually talked publicly about, and that each time he talks, more people ask what he’s mad about. If your career could feasibly be ruined by me (spoilers: it can’t) then you need to be honest about what level that career is at. 

I’ve learned a lot about personal responsibility this year. I take responsibility for the things I’ve handled badly. I would go about certain things differently if I could. People I trusted too readily. People I didn’t trust enough. But we need to see more people owning their own shit. We need to look at how a few willing volunteers, and a few people with no choice in the matter, can be left to carry the weight and blame of big, important issues. 

My point here is to say there's a dichotomy. My experiences of the past year are all my story, but at the same time, they're not at all my story. I can’t keep threading that needle. I’ve had a year in which I’ve gone through a load of stress and pushed myself to some unhealthy places, and I’d like to talk about that. I woke up recently in intense abdominal pain. At a level where I thought I needed an ambulance. And my first thought was of calmness, hey a whole bunch of problems will go away if this turns out to be serious. But talking about things also means co-opting other people’s stories, which I won't do. It’s been hard for me, it’s been much harder for them. 

There are people who judge me for doing too much, there are people who judge me for not doing enough. They're probably both right. 

There are some people I thought to be friends who vanished. There are others who’ve stood by me all the way. And I don’t make that easy. I’ve been an emotional drain on a small number of people, just as I’ve tried to give support to others. And there are people I’ve let down, too. People I couldn’t lend my vocal support to because I believed in doing the private good. There are also friends I’ve hurt or lost by being distracted, by not really listening to what they were asking for, because I was thinking about all of this. 

I think where I come out of it is this; I had a go. I can live with that. Some people hate me. I can live with that, too. I can’t change who I am. But I can accept who I am. I will always want to support and help. But I’m nobody’s moral arbiter, and I only have so much headspace. I can’t even tie shoelaces, for fuck’s sake. Velcro is about my level in life. 

We have a problem in this community. I’m talking a lack of collective responsibility. We want shit done, but we want other people to do it. We want change, but we don’t want to shoulder the burden of changing. Too many people end up shouldering burdens alone. And no, that bit isn’t about me. It’s about the people who still don’t feel safe speaking up. It’s about the people who have spoken up and been ignored. Its about the people who’ve been made to feel unwelcome in the community. It’s about the people who choose to stay silent or look the other way when bad shit is being said or done. 

If we all, as a community, don’t start owning a piece of these issues, then we’re leaving it to others. We’re leaving it to private conversations, to unqualified opinions, to unaccountable decisions. We can progress, but it needs to be a collective action. People can't shoulder it alone. 

Icarus Still Flew

"Life finds a way."
-Ian Malcom (Michael Crichton.)

Something I'm not going to do here, is try and tell you what storytelling should be about. In the age of hot takes and think pieces, I probably should. A definition of what story is for. What messages it should impart. Maybe I'd say the job of a storyteller is to 'hold up a mirror.' As a crime writer, it's ever in fashion to say we 'explore the darkness of the human condition,' or write 'social fiction.' Some people will insist storytellers have no responsibility to society, others will tell you we do. One writer might say, full of conviction, that we're about showing dark realities of our own compromised existence, their friend will say it's all about presenting optimism and aspiration, of the things we could achieve. 

I don't want to try and boil story down to one thing. Partly because, on any given day, all of the above is true. Sometimes in the same story at the same time. Life is too complicated to reduced down to one idea. You can take any of those positions, and be right, or wrong, depending on the day, and on your work. 

The main reason I avoid boiling things down to such simple ideas, is that these days my main focus is on telling a story to the best of my ability. I think that's my job. Do the best work I can. Create an interesting and involving story. Sure, I work with subtext, I've got ideas and themes. But I don't see it as my role to tell you what they are. That's the reader's job. The writer crafts the story, the reader engages with it. If I've done my part well, the reader can do theirs. 

(As an aside, this is why I'm a late convert to loglines. I used to roll my eyes at the very idea of them. Reducing a whole book or movie down to an elevator pitch? How crass. I'm an artist. If I could tell my story in one line, I wouldn't have written a book. Now I see that's actually the beauty of them. In knowing my logline, in being able to boil down the plot to a one or two sentence pitch, I'm able to sell you my story without having to break the magic and tell you what it's really about. )

So, we're agreed, I hope, that I'm not here to talk about what stories should be about?

Good, because I'm here to talk about what stories should be about. 

If you're a regular listener to the Crime Friction podcast, you know we're currently working on a series of episodes that look at the process of adapting books to films. We've already recorded an episode discussing Jaws, and I've prepared for one on Jurassic Park. And in re-reading the latter, I noticed something that got me thinking about story. 

See, I read the book as a teenager. It was possibly one of the first full novels I read. I enjoyed the hell out of it. What wasn't to like? Dinosaurs running around attacking people. Lots of fake science to make me feel clever. Also, there was a lot of it, so I got my money's worth.  Revisiting it now in my late-thirties, I found something else going on. 

A key detail here, is that somewhere in the intervening years, (hint: it was on a friend's podcast) I learned that Michael Cricton was a climate change denier. Now, in the #MeToo era, the conversation about separating art from artists has a much more important role, but for little judgemental me, my thought process upon opening the book for the first time in over twenty years went like this; "Can I still enjoy this, knowing the author was crazy?" The answer was: "Yes, kinda, but I have some thoughts."

Twenty years of pop culture, and the ever-cooky Jeff Goldblum, have worked a fun trick on us. For the movie-going public, Ian Malcom is the good guy. Walking around unflappably in sunglasses and leather, quipping about the size of poop, firing into Ellie Sattler. He even likes kids, and is willing to use himself as a human distraction to save them from a dinosaur. The movie version of Ian Malcom is a far cooler, and better, person than I will ever be. 

For the early stages of the book, I found I was still reading with Goldblum in my head. The first couple of times the character went on 'life finds a way' speeches, I would smile and think, 'hey, uncle Jeff is doing his bit.' But as the story progressed, it became clear there was more to it. By the end (or...near the end....spoilers) Ian Malcolm is going into full-on science hate. The planet is fine, he's saying, the planet will always be fine. Humans need to stop having the ego to think we can change things. And, with my new-found knowledge of Crichton's views, it became impossible not to see this both as the point of the story, and as the author speaking directly through Ian Malcolm. Spielberg aside, this is a very cold and cynical book, that fundamentally believes scientists are arrogant and dangerous, and that we should stop pretending we have any say in how the planet progresses. 

Which is where my brain started firing. 

Why is so much of our myth, so much of our storytelling, based around cautionary tales? Why is so much of science fiction (not all, obviously, don't send me hate mail) based around telling humans not to 'play god' and to know our place? Where is the aspiration. Where is the notion that, actually, we can achieve great things if we work at it, and if we trust science? 

I'm sure many people reading this now will be screaming the words Star and Trek at me. And I agree. Trek has always been at its best when its subtly telling us to embrace aspiration and work together, and is always at its worst when it tries to deal with failure and cynicism (or tell us that 9/11 was an inside job...)

But again and again, encoded deep and early by religion and ancient myths, is the idea that we can't get ahead of ourselves. That there are certain ambitions we shouldn't have. Certain knowledge we shouldn't strive for. And, to transgress these boundaries in fiction is to get eaten by our creations, or destroyed by science, or felled by an invading force. The 'mad scientist', the 'evil wizard,' Doctor Frankenshteeeen. The meme repeats over and over. 

And, as we tell these stories on repeat, is it any wonder that we have a culture where nobody trusts experts? Where half the planet can be on fire, and we still debate whether the climate is changing? Where people stop vaccinating their kids? Where we still have laws made based on books from thousands of years ago? 

I work hard at optimism. And it gets harder all the time. But I still think science can probably save us. If we fund it, if we embrace it. We can start to beat off the various forms of cancer. We can figure out ways to stop Alzheimers. People with HIV can already live relatively normal lives, what break throughs could be achieve with focus? With a serious level of funding, collective work, and organisation, we could mitigate the effects of climate change. We could work out ways to feed people, and to leave fossil fuels in the ground. There's nothing to be ashamed of in wanting to figure out how we can live longer, reach higher, achieve more. 

The quote everyone remembers from Jurassic Park is that life finds a way. And it's delivered as a cautionary statement, a warning against our own hubris. But not all of our myths need be told this way. The story of Prometheus had a god teaching us how to make fire, for which all the other gods started to persecute us. And we can tell this as a story about needing to know our place, or needing divine guidance. But we can also choose to tell is as a story about how, whatever spark of divinity exists out in the heavens, it also exists in us. We have the fire, and we can do great things with it, and maybe the gods were scared of that. 

The story of Icarus tells us of a man and his son, who built wings, and defied nature by learning to fly. Icarus flew too close to the sun, and fell back down to earth. And again, sure, we can tell it as mankind needing to know it's limitations. Or we can choose to say that, in the short time he had on this earth, Icarus flew. 

Life does find a way. Ian Malcolm was right. Michael Crichton was right. But where I think they're wrong, where I think so much of our storytelling might be going wrong, is in forgetting that humanity is included in that life. We can find a way. And I think we should tell that story more often. 

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?