7 Tips for being a Great Writer

(This is another literature network post that has been offline since the site disappeared. It's my favourite of the pieces and received some very mixed responses, which I quite liked. Some people thought I was joking, others thought I was serious. I'm still not certain either way)

More non-fiction books are sold about writing than any other subject, except for cooking and relationships. Most of these guides say the same thing – page after page of level-headed advice like ‘show don’t tell’, ‘write what you know’ and ‘find your voice’. They’re all encouraging, suggesting you can’t make yourself a literary genius but anyone can become a decent writer.

No how-to-write book would ever claim that you’ve got it or you haven’t. People are more interested in supportive encouragement. The appetite for guides like The Artist’s Way is massive. You see the same thing on the web, with thousands upon thousands of pages listing numbered tips on how to write. Follow all these guides and anyone can become a competent writer.

But I’m bored. I’m tired of stories with perfect point-of-view, clever use of theme and anorexic pared-down prose. I crave more. I want people to strive for greatness, even if ninety-nine-in-a-hundred fail. I want to read great books, not good ones, and there aren’t enough great books.

Nobody has written the how-to-write guide I want to see (although one friend used Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw as a template, with disastrous but compelling results). Life is too short for me to write my ideal writing guide, but here are the top seven tips I’d like aspiring writers to follow.

  1. Don’t write every day – write when inspired: there’s a macho cult about writing every day, grinding out work whether you want to or not. Instead you should only write when inspired. If you’re not inspired, don’t chain yourself to a keyboard: get into the world and get inspired.
  2. Read narrowly: most how-to books say writers should be voracious readers. It’s far better to read carefully. Get under the skin of great books. Hunter S. Thompson retyped A Farewell to Arms to learn how it worked. You’re better off reading a few books well than piling through thousands of books that have nothing to say to you.
  3. Write what you know: Imagination is a wonderful thing, but admit it – you too get a frisson from someone like Hemingway, Conrad or Burroughs, who lived one step away from what they were writing. However, writing what you know is boring if you work in an office, so make sure you’re living a life worth writing about. Your literary biographers will thank you.
  4. Shun writing workshops. Writing workshops are about consensus, about removing the difficult bits from potential works of genius. Imagine William S. Burroughs submitting to years of workshops and removing the strangeness and obscenity from Naked Lunch. Another reason to avoid workshops is that other writers will be less impressed by your creativity than civilians. It’s more fun to stand out from the crowd rather than hide in the midst of one.
  5. Quit your job: Most writing books warn against quitting your job. Dream all you like, they say, but writing won’t make you rich. Your aspirations for greatness should override such petty caution. You may end up in poverty, but you’re not going to make a work of genius wasting your days in an office.
  6. Drink. Alcohol is a killer and nobody wants to end their days like Hancock in Sydney. But think of all the exciting writers who liked a tipple (Fleming, Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway). There are probably lots of writers who don’t drink, but the fact I can’t name any shows you how unexciting sobriety is. As a bonus, if you’re having trouble with tip 5 then week-night drinking will help you leave your job.
  7. Be extreme. I don’t suggest being precious about your writing (as Chesterton said, “the artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs”) but you must slip loose the chains of modern life. Eccentricity and genius may be two different things, but non-geniuses can fool some people with cultivated eccentricity. Adopt peculiar restrictions on clothes or food; develop obscure phobias or hatreds, whatever it takes to make yourself memorable. People love to retell stories about Burroughs and the Beats – and Chesterton certainly wasn’t above courting attention.

These tips aren’t an easy way out. Following them will likely lead to years of poverty and hangovers. But greatness has its price, and you owe it to the world.

13: The Art of the Unseen


Imagine if the first live gig you saw was the Flaming Lips. You might think that every performance would be as rich and spectacular as that and be sorely disappointed to find out most bands just shuffle about a bit on stage. Or if the first superhero comic you read was Watchmen: you'd imagine that they would all be that good (spoiler: not even close).

Back in 1997 I went to see the Sensation exhibition. It was the first big gallery show I'd seen and it blew my mind. It was a publicity-baiting show, featuring works like Marcus Harvey's Myra (removed after vandalism before our visit), Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, whose A Thousand Years was amazing. The work was playful and fun and left me excited about art. 

The problem is that I've compared every subsequent exhibition to my memories of Sensation and few shows have come close. I wasn't sure if it was a problem with me or with art but I was certainly disappointed.

The Hayward Gallery's Invisible show has finally lived up to my expectations. The theme of the show was Art about the Unseen. I thought it might would be an austere show, appealing to the part of me that is currently ploughing through books of philosophy. Instead it was accessible and entertaining. People were laughing, enjoying the art and the games it played.

Early in the exhibition there is a piece by the Art and Language group that consists of an air-conditioned room. Patrons responded with amusement. What does one do when faced with what is, essentially, a cooled room? For me the piece also raised a lot of questions. How does one transport a work like the air conditioning? Does one have to pay royalites? Customs fees? 

I've already written about my favourite piece, Tom Friedman's incredible 1000 Hour Stare, but there were many other highlights. Another Friedman piece, Curse, consisted of a spherical space above a pillar that was cursed by a witch. Again, the piece raises questions – how was the piece moved to the Hayward and did the curse come with it? Did it have to be cursed again in the new location? What do I think a curse actually is?

Many of the works provoked a direct response. Roman Ondak's work More Silent than Ever, was a space which the label claimed contained a listening device. My friend and I read the sign and immediately stopped talking, the suggestion of this device enough to silence us, even though we couldn't be sure the device was present or if anyone was listening to our gallery-chatter.

The invisible works could also be moving. Later in the exhibition there was another room, similar to the air conditioning one. The machines here were humidifiers. Our first response was amusement until we read the label. Teresa Margolles is an artist who "works with the physical traces of death" and her piece Aire/Air used water that has washed the bodies of unidentified murder victims prior to autopsy. The piece's label stated blankly "The water vapour is harmless" which seemed against the spirit of the piece. It was strange to inhale this water vapour knowing its history.

The exhibition's final piece was a participatory one, Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth. The work was set in a large empty space. Visitors put on a headset with an infrared receiver and set off to walk through the labyrinth, the headset buzzing when one hit a 'wall'. It was strange to watch people navigate this space, their steps faltering despite there being no visible obstruction. When I tried I finally found myself stuck, unable to remember the way out yet resistant to the idea of simply walking through the 'walls'.

One of the most interesting works was From New York to San Francisco to… by Bethan Huws. The name refers to the manner in which people in exhibitions "tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white wall/concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to…, so to speak, without noticing the surroundings". The work consisted of an actor moving among the gallery patrons "in such a way as to make the visible artworks disappear". Who was the actor? It might be anyone. What if it was my friend? Or could it even be me?

As the show's curator wrote "Whether visible or not, art ultimately comes to life in our memories and in our conversations with others…" I was excited to see a show of conceptual art that was as much fun as this, so that my memories of it are worth recounting. It's good to regain the feeling that contemporary art can be exciting, creative and moving.

12: Graffiti at the Beatles Ashram


This is another post that has been languishing in my drafts folder – back in March, I visited the ‘Beatles ashram‘ in Rishikesh, where the Fab Four had stayed in 1968. The atmosphere of the ruins was strange and creepy. Throughout the complex, people had left messages and paintings, some photos of which are below. Click on the images if you want to see larger versions.

Given the England’s grim, rainy Summer this year, I wish I was back in Rishikesh.


11: Thousand Hour Stare

On Saturday, at the Hayward Gallery's Invisible show, I saw one of the most incredible works of art I've ever seen.

'Invisible' displayed works of art dealing with the unseen. Tom Friedman's 1000 hour stare was hung in a room with several works, all of which were blank white sheets of paper of different dimensions. I once read about an imaginary exhibition of red squares that would draw attention to their subtle differences. This room did something similar with what appeared to be (and was sometimes physically indistinguishable from) empty sheets of paper.

Out of the works on show, the one that moved me most was Friedman's. The information for the work described the medium as "Stare on paper" with dimensions of 82.6 x 82.6. It had been carried out between 1992 and 1997.

The work is part of a series of works Friedman carried out on 'the invisible'. His work, A Curse, also in the show, is a spherical space above a pillar that has been cursed by a witch. According to Friedman, "one's knowledge of the history behind something affects one's thinking about that thing." Does this knowledge transform empty space, or a blank sheet of paper? 

A thousand hours is a long time to spend doing anything. Had the labour Friedman put into staring at this paper changed it? Unless the handling and storage of the paper over the five years of the work had changed or damaged it, a scientist could not distinguish between this work of art and another blank sheet. If I took the work from the wall, put it into a pile of similarly sized paper, it would be lost forever, all that work wasted. In what way had Friedman changed this one particular piece of paper?

And then there was the claim that Friedman had actually had performed that magical thousand hours of staring at this sheet. To put things on crass economic terms, was this sheet now worth a thousand hours of an artist's time? If I hired someone to reproduce it, paying minimum wages for every hour of their time, it would cost £6080. Yet the resulting 'work' would still be little different to any other piece of paper.

Or maybe Friedman was lying. The artist explicitly decided not to document the process, because of the tension that added to the work. Was he lying or not? Did it matter to me or not?

I stared at the work myself, trying to puzzle it out. Which raised the question of how the stares of the passing visitors affected the work. If I stared at it too long, maybe came back day after day, would I taint it in some way? Would my stare somehow be mixed in with Friedman's?

I'm certainly no expert in art theory, but I found 1000 Hour Stare provocative and approachable. It raised obvious questions and was also, in its own way, very moving. There was something incredible about the thought of the artist coming back to this blank sheet day after day. Or that he might have lied to me. All this, from what appeared to be a blank sheet of paper. Whether Friedman had put a thousand hours into the work or not, he had done something magical, transforming the empty paper into 'art'.

10: Do you want to read a story?

Last week I wrote about my stockpile of stories and how it was time I did something with them. So I've printed out some copies of one of them, Tales of the Occupation. If you'd like me to post you one, leave your address in a comment (don't worry, I won't publish it). I bought some stamps the other day, and will send copies until the stamps run out.


Tales of the Occupation is a short story (~1000 words) written around 2007. I think only one person has read this so far. I wouldn't claim it's a life-changing story, but it's the sort of thing I'd like to read, blending Brighton with a Lord Dunsany-style vision of the Arabian Nights. It also has a political inspiration, but that should probably be left to speak for itself. The quote at the start is taken from Dunsany's A Tale of London. Dunsany at his best is an incredible short story writer and unjustly overlooked nowadays.

I've wanted to experiment with sending out stories by post before but never got beyond the idea or the initial announcement. This time I have the stamps and envelopes and print-outs all ready to go, so it will definitely happen. 

9: Indian Museums and bad taxidermy

India contains some wonderful museums, from the massive ones in cities like Kolkata or Delhi to those in smaller towns. 


The Haveli Musuem in Udaipur contains puppets, restored rooms, and the world's largest turban. The turban has been designed so that, viewed from different angles, it is tied like different types of turban:


There were also a couple of rooms filled with polystyrene models: 


Kolkata's Indian Museum is my favourite museum in India so far. It took me half an hour to find someone to give me a camera permit, but I persisted because I had to take some photographs. It was the most atmospheric museum I've ever been in, with rows of wooden cases filled with exhibits.  




Dad spotted the exhibit below, the Tools of a Field Geologist.


Among them was a 'stuffed bird'. I have no idea why a geologist would need a stuffed bird.


Most Indian Museums contain taxidermy. Some of it is excellent, but there are the occasional examples that don't look entirely life-like:





8: Will Self vs Creative Writing

Via a tweet from @piratemoon I found a fascinating interview with Will Self. As the final question, Self is asked "What do you feel a writer should use his twenties for?" His reply is strident:

"Just read a lot of books. I certainly did, and still do. Do anything, really. Anything which brings you into contact with the world. The big crisis for literature today is creative writing [courses], which is ludicrous at every level. It’s like these cunts like Cameron, who have never done anything but be a politician. And there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates’ in most cases mediocre lucubrations. You are educating people to be writers who can’t make a living, who will go on to teach more writers who can’t make a living."

It's a great end to an interview but Self's rant has an interesting contradiction, claiming that creative writing is a "crisis for literature" while "there isn’t a market for these creative writing graduates". I think the crisis produced by creative writing courses is mostly confined to the field of creative writing courses. I've spoken about this a little in other blog posts (see, for example Creative Writing is a Pyramid Scheme). Literature seems able to take or leave the ouput of creative writing courses which is why there is no market for them.

Do I regret the creative writing courses I've attended (the CCE Certificate and MA in Creative and Critical Writing at Sussex)? While the professed promises and aims of both courses may be questionable, they have been very worthwhile experiences. Will Self questions the idea of "educating people to be writers who can’t make a living", but this assumes that employment/profit is the only reason to study something. While CCE (in particular their novel-writing stream) made little movement beyond the link between writing and 'success', there should be more to creative writing than publishing.

The Creative and Critical Writing MA frequently questioned the idea of Creative Writing. The course is not to everyone's taste, but I found it exciting and refreshing. How does writing relate to the publishing industry? To people's lives? This was a course that had some very big questions to ask rather than focusing on how one writes a best-selling literary novel. Why not question the meaning of life? Why not read incredibly difficult poetry? 

There is a second apparent contradiction in the Will Self interview. "Just read lots of books… [Do] Anything which brings you into contact with the world". How does fiction relate to the real world? The two are not neccessarily in contradiction, although Self's comment here doesn't consider that; but fiction is an important part of many people's real world. Julian Barnes wrote an essay in the guardian about his life as a bibliophile, the ending of which is worth quoting:

The American writer and dilettante Logan Pearsall Smith once said: "Some people think that life is the thing; but I prefer reading." When I first came across this, I thought it witty… The distinction is false… When you read a great book, you don't escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape – into different countries, mores, speech patterns – but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life's subtleties, paradoxes, joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.

Without wishing to sound self-helpy about it, creative writing should be lead its students to become better readers living richer lives. Creative writing offers an opportunity to deepen one's experience of life, regardless of publishing success – education should be about more than vocation. The Oxford philosopher, John Alexander Smith, apparently opened a 1914 lecture course with the following words: "Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life – save only this – if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education."

7: In Defence of Tourist Photographs


Ralf Potts wrote a beautiful essay, Tourist Snapshots, which describes the author's relationship with travel and photography. In fact, if you're short of time, you should read that essay rather than this post as it's full of interesting quotes and idea. My favourite bit is the observation from an Anangu guide in Australia who told Potts, "When [the Angaru people] first encountered tourists, they assumed there were people in the world whose job was to travel around in groups and take pictures of everything."

Photography has become intrinsically linked to tourism, both positively and negatively. It's difficult to balance the desire to record an experience with the feeling that photography gets in the way of truly experiencing the moment. Susan Sontag, quoted by Potts, describes tourist photography as a defense mechanism: “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture.” Potts also recounts Paul Fussell's observation about anti-tourists, who ostentatiously don't carry camera in the hope they will be asked about it and can explain their superiority to other travellers. As Jarvis Cocker pointed out, "Everybody hates a tourist".

I wrote a little about this sort of thing in relation to my visit to the Taj Mahal in 2010. The datacard containing the photographs I took was accidentally erased by an Internet cafe. I wasn't too sad about this. Since I was alone in Agra, there was little linking these photos with me and The Taj Mahal is one of the most photographed buildings in the world (which reminded me of the Most Photographed Barn in the World in Don DeLillo's White Noise, which is also quoted by Potts).

I returned to Agra earlier this year, this time visiting the Fatehpur Sikri. Of course I took many photographs of the sights and found myself thinking again about tourist photography. The tourist experience is already mediated. When you visit old palaces, you don't see the sewage or the servants, only a series of settings designed to show the place off to modern visitors. Your residence in a hotel has little relationship to the daily life of the people living in the country. Indeed, the writers of the Rebel Sell, a critique of anti-consumerism, claim that "the only 'authentic' form of tourism is business travel". It is not taking photographs that reduces tourism to something inauthentic.

As I walked around the main palace, framing scenes with my camera, I thought about Claude Glasses. These were tinted mirrors used by 18th century tourists to frame a landscape and give it a tinge more like a painting. It is easy to mock this idea of making the landscape to look more artificial but, once you surrender the possibility one can ever authentically experience a tourist site, this becomes fascinating. The view-screen of a digital camera gives us a way to subtract elements from scenes, focusing attention on detail and becoming mindful of the environment. Even if one doesn't save the digital photographs, the digital camera offers a creative means of experiencing an environment.

6. You’re Not My Babylon

One of the greatest songs ever recorded is You're Not My Babylon by These Animal Men (video on youtube). Released in 1994, it peaked at number 77 in the UK charts.


It makes me sad that some of my favourite songs are almost unknown. Songs from bands like Leicester's Perfume, who I heard a few times on Radio 1, bought a single, and never heard of again. Or Nilon Bombers, a band whose Britpop-era support slots blew me away but never went beyond a first album. And These Animal Men, a Brighton band who wrote one of the greatest songs ever.

The Animal Men were part of the New Wave of New Wave, described by Wikipedia as "a sub-genre of the British alternative rock scene in the early 90s, in which bands displayed punk, post-punk and New Wave influences". It has been cruelly mocked by John Harris as "Britpop without the good bits".

The time before Britpop was fascinating. The British music scene was flooded with American imports but in the background something was happening. The music press were desperate to create a scene and jumped the gun a little when they invented the New Wave of New Wave which roped in bands like Sleeper, Echobelly and Menswear who later successfully jumped ship to Britpop.

At the time the New Wave of New Wave seemed contrived. For a start the name was unwieldy – even the abbreviation NWONW was unwieldy. It might have gone better if New Wave of New Wave had a snappier name – like, say, Britpop. (Or, um, Romo, another synthetic scene that didn't fare at all well but somehow has a much longer wikipedia page than New Wave of New Wave (although, to be fair, history has proved Simon Price right))

(The pre-history of Britpop is more interesting than Britpop itself, filled with characters like Luke Haines who toured with Suede in 1992 and lost the first Mercury prize to them in 1993. By 1995, as the country revelled in fake cockernee celebrations, Haines had moved to darker places. His Christmas 1995 release was an EP featuring songs about child murder, followed by a funk concept album about terrorism. Haines' contempt for commercial opportunity seems heroic).

These Animal Men were one of the bands who failed to move from New Wave of New Wave to Britpop. John Harris's history of Britpop, The Last Party, makes a single mention of the band on page 98, in a section about the retro bands that were around pre-Britpop. In a list of bands it mentions These Animal Men, "whose camp macho poses were redolent of the Clash".

I wasn't a huge fan of These Animal Men as a band. Their interviews were funny but they seemed an example of style over substance. It didn't help that their early single, Speed King, was a tabloid baiting hymn to amphetamine use. Still, they were entertaining enough and I saw them once supporting Carter USM at Sussex University's Mandela Hall. Most of the stage was taken up with Carter's equipment but These Animal Men used the cramped space they had as if they were the Who at Wembley. (Carter's gig was reviewed by Everett True in that week's Melody Maker. True ignored the gig itself in favour of reviewing a discussion he'd had with Carter beforehand about authenticity or something, which seemed a little unfair).

I may not have been a fan of These Animal Men, but I love their single You're Not My Babylon. It tells the story of Billie Frechette, who spent two years in jail for hiding the notorious bank robber John Dillinger. I don't really know the story, and I have no idea what it means to be someone's Babylon, although it sounds epic and important. The lyrics tell a story of last stands, misplaced loyalty and domestic violence, looking back on the past with sadness.  

When I hear the song it brings back a flurry of memories of being younger, with a million futures bursting from every moment. You're Not My Babylon is as great a song as Halleluliah or Hey Jude. It is a greater song than any single track Nirvana ever wrote; a song as great as Hole's Malibu or Le Tigre's Eau de Bedroom Dancing or the Beach Boys singing Wouldn't It Be Nice or Luke Haines singing Bad Reputation. It is one of the greatest records ever made.

The song reached number 77 in the charts. And I wonder how many songs I would love as much as this one if only I'd heard them.

This could be the greatest moment of your life: don't make it your last

5: Is there any future in blackmail?

In his post The Interactive Blackmail Squad: NEW SERVICE!, Will McInnes suggests an upcoming business opportunity: "You give us a list of up to 25 up-and-coming people you think will be movers and shakers in the next 10 years… we immediately start collating as much of their digital footprint as possible." Once the targets become successful, the investors have access to a huge pool of blackmail material.

What happens to the indiscretions and errors documented on social media? In August 2010, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal claimed "apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends' social media sites."

Which seems like a lot of trouble to go to. When everyone has 'youthful hijinks', any one person's indiscretions will seem less interesting. Gossip is boring unless you know the people well and with a whole Internet of novelty you have to do something pretty extreme to stand out. The Claire Swires email of 2000 would seem boring today. Now you have to re-enact the Tauntaun scene from Empire Strikes Back using a dead horse while naked to stand out. 

At the recent launch of Sussex University's Centre for Creative and Critical Thought, Peter Boxall delivered a paper that quoted from JM Coeztee's novel Diary of a Bad Year:

"There are to be no more secrets, say the new theorists of surveillance, meaning something quite interesting: that the era in which secrets counted, in which secrets could exert their power over the lives of people (think of the role of secrets in Dickens, in Henry James) is over; nothing worth knowing cannot be uncovered in a matter of seconds, and without much effort; private life is, to all intents and purposes, a thing of the past."

The loss of private life sounds threatening but it will be replaced with new rights and new responsibilities. Much of the comment on privacy is based around the idea that the rights were have now are universal, throughout space and time. Yet these rights have always been changing – privacy is not a right that  people have claimed throughout history and many languages have no word for the concept. As important as privacy is, such rights will always be in negotiation. 

In the future, novels based on secrets may come to seem anachronistic, but new stories will come to fill the void. Our current problems with surveillance are unlikely to tip us into a distopian future but the resulting world will be very different.

UPDATE (18/8/12) An interesting post by Charlie Stross on similar issues, "The Internet is for Porn": Blackmail in 2033. Stross also points out how the Internet makes it easy "to construct social networks among people with minority interests", that people can now easily meet other like them, no matter how obscure their interests and passions. There are communities being built now that would have been very unlikely to form in the past.