Writer’s Notebook: A New Type of Novel?

Novels are not being read in the same way that they were thirty years ago. They have remained part of the cultural conversation in the media, but there’s not the same level of excitement and buzz around books as when I was younger. This could be an effect of my own ageing, but a lot of the evidence seems to back it up.

But, at the same time, people are reading more than ever. Even with the push-to-video, a lot of people’s time is spent reading text-based websites. At some level, this is a zero-sum game. Every minute spent reading Facebook is time that could be spent reading a novel (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, once declared that the company’s biggest competitor was sleep). But it’s interesting how novels have failed to capitalise on this growth.

I wonder if part of this is that few novels reflect the way that people read online, the discordant, chaotic nature of it. How the threads of different stories are merged together, sometimes with wildly different tones – what the Content Mines podcast referred to as ‘structural dissonance’.

Some theories have it that people read novels to get a coherent experience that they are missing from life. I’m not suggesting that is done away with. Rather, I’m interested in a medium/style that reflects the stream, the way we are reading now. Having the narratives more broken up.

I’ve read some novels which reflected this, but they were intentionally written as novels about the Internet. The closest thing I’ve found are novels written as oral history, like Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant or Daisy Jones and the Six. I like that people can skip characters they are not interested in. They can follow the whole thing in different ways. Just like we do with the Internet. The text is more than a relentless line of paragraphs.

Writer’s Notebook: Live vs Dead Work

Craig Mod wrote about the death of Louise Glück, and quoted her saying to her students, “Write anything you want. Just make sure it’s not dead“.

I don’t know what qualities of language make a piece alive rather than dead, but I know exactly what Glück meant. Sometimes I read back a piece I’ve written and it has no spark, no energy.

A lot of the time, it comes about because I’m too focussed on an idea of a finished piece without thinking enough about the characters. A lot of the pieces I’ve tried to write for the South Downs Way have ended up like this. I’ve worked and re-worked some of them but they have not come to life.

I’m sure there must be something in the sentence structure that makes a piece come alive; or maybe it’s in the point of view.

Knowing that I tend to overthink ideas and kill them, I’m working more with the text. I’ve started writing more in longhand instead of just on screen. I try to think less about my goal and have more faith that I’ll end up there. Zen archery. I’m cutting down my distractions so I can give each piece more attention.

One of the most interesting things about writing is that what works for one person won’t work for another. Someone else’s methods will likely not work for you. But I am trying new things, and some of them seem to work.

Monthnotes: December 2023

December has been another month of feeling tired and fatigued. Looking back at my monthnotes over the last year, this has been a constant complaint, so I need to do something about it.

Christmas was December’s main event. Despite starting preparations in November, it still felt a little rushed. I had Rosy, Olive, Sally and Hannah come for Christmas celebrations early in the month, and cooked Christmas lunch for the family the following week. Christmas Day itself was spent in Hebden Bridge, enjoying some peace and quiet, followed by a lovely succession of visitors after Boxing Day.

Dan and I managed to get the Mycelium Parish News out so that the first copies arrived with readers in time for Christmas. A mention in John Higgs’ mailing list brought in an avalanche of orders and the necessary fulfilment, which I am still working through. I’m pleased with this project and have already started writing a document for the 2024 edition.

I’ve continued the Substack mailing list, but need to migrate this as Substack have doubled down on their support for Nazis. The work on True Clown Stories continues, with the pre-launch page now up – signup to be notified when the kickstarter begins!

It’s been another month of reduced steps and bad diet. I walked 236,064 steps in total, an average of just 7,614 a day. The highest number was 15,567, walking Libby the Greyhound in Hardcastle Crags. The one positive is that I’ve kept up with my physio exercises, but I now need to move onto actually starting the couch to 5k programme.

Her name is Sashimi, she’s a black cat in Blackpool

I’ve continued to struggle with reading, apart from Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X. After failing to get into this in May, I consumed it over a few days. Novels seem to be working better for me than non-fiction lately. I also read Nina Allen’s Conquest, which had rich and beautiful writing.

I’ve watched a lot of movies this month – 26 in total. As ever, I’ve reviewed all of them on letterboxed. Silent Night was the darkest possible Christmas movie; City of God was a compelling saga; and Influencer surprised me by how much I enjoyed it. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was fun and Infinity Pool was dark and twisted. Sherpa was an incredible documentary and there were 5-star rewatches on Christmas Day for A Ghost Story and These Final Hours.

Watching Monarch: Legacy of Monsters has felt like a chore, given that the show simply does not have enough kaiju in it. I also watched season 2 of Oz, having picked up the complete show as a cheap DVD box set. It’s very weirdly paced, but I’ll probably be happy to watch a season every year or so. The return of Dr Who has been triumphant, which is a relief after some dodgy series in recent years.

  • My ongoing exhaustion led me to spend a few nights playing Ghost of Tsushima. The play loop of video games is compelling but ultimately most are banal, so I decided to give up on that.
  • Due to time pressure, our team’s Delivery Lead wrote the Christmas quiz using chatGPT. The team figured this out due to an incorrect answer and a couple of weird questions.
  • A couple of blog posts I wrote on UK politics: What does Rishi Sunak think about when he watches Star Wars and one on The 2024 General Election.
  • I finished the year with an early night, deciding I preferred a good sleep to welcoming in the new year.

Here comes 2024!

2023 was not a year of great achievements, but it was one of the most content years I’ve had. Life has felt pretty good, but I am also aware that there are a lot of things I need to get on with. So here are a few things I’m looking at doing in 2024.


Long-distance running was one of the great pleasures in my life. I took it up in my 30s but had to stop due to a recurring hip injury. During 2023 I started seeing a new physiotherapist and actually doing the exercises I was set. Now I need to move onto the second stage of this, which is to begin running, starting with a couch-to-5k programme. I also need to put much more effort into my diet as I’m carrying a couple of extra stone which seem more persistent than in the past.

When I come to the end of the year, I like to look back at my monthnotes and see how the year shaped up. There are patterns to daily life that cannot be seen day-to-day. And the main thing I’ve seen is exactly how much of 2023 was blighted by feeling awful. Headaches, tiredness, exhaustion. This has been an issue throughout my life, even when I was at school, and I’ve explored many of the possible causes. Caffeine and alcohol contributed, and I’ve cut out both of those. I now try to sleep eight hours a day, but even that is not enough. When I feel OK, it’s easy to ignore how wretched my headaches feel, and how often they come. But I can’t keep going on like this.


I’ve always struggled with writing, and I’m not sure if it improves my life or whether the effort I spend on it would be better spent on my career. The main focus for my writing in 2024 is the kickstarter for True Clown Stories. And, after that? Well, I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but I’ve also seen that as a waste of time, given the odds against being published – but I’m not sure I should be basing the decision on the odds of ‘success’ rather than the joys of working on something. In 2024, I want to look at making writing much more fulfilling.

Social Media

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2023 clicking through social media platforms. I’m not sure how well-spent that time was – I certainly find it hard to think of any benefits I have had from being involved in these sites recently. The main things that keep me going back are FOMO and a fear that I’ll lose a community – but the latter is ridiculous given how little engagement I get from these platforms anyway. Twitter is nothing like what it was in 2010.

So, for a few months at least, I am going to cut back on reading social media platforms. Particularly since the blogging revival seems to be gaining momentum, and I’m seeing more personal posts on my RSS reader.

Writing in 2023

2023 has been a mixed year for my writing. I started out planning to release more self-published work and, in the end, the only physical booklet I released myself was Memetic Infection Hazards. But I’ve published some good pieces online, my favourites being:

I’m pleased with the work in Memetic Infection Hazards, but it took me months between getting the cover produced and sorting out the printing. And then I barely promoted it afterwards. I’m not sure what all the resistance I face is, but it is something worth thinking about.

I also produced Fishscale, a double-page spread in Dan Sumption’s Krill magazine, which I was very happy with. This was an entire A4-sized short story collection, containing 12 tiny pieces of writing. I need to do another version of this in 2024.

In July, I started sending pieces out to a substack mailing list, concentrating initially on the South Downs Way collection. Publishing something regularly has been good for me, as it’s got me thinking more carefully about audiences. There are issues with substack’s politics at current, so I need to move platform, but I would like to keep on with some form of mailing list.

I’ve probably shared more work publicly in 2023 than any other year, and this can only be a good thing. It’s made me consider which work is worth finishing and sharing, and how many distractions I have. I’ve deleted a lot of half-finished stories this year, and I need to continue to avoid getting bogged down in old, half-finished ideas.

2023 has also got me thinking about what I want from my writing. Is it worth the effort I put into it, when I could be putting that effort into my career? I’m not sure it has justified the effort in the past, but I want to look at how it could.

My main plan for 2024 is to release the book True Clown Stories. I’m currently preparing the kickstarter with Dan from Peakrill Press (sign up here to be notified about the launch!). This project has been over 13 years in the works, but I am enjoying the collaboration with a publisher.

I’ve a few ideas about what to do after True Clown Stories, but whatever it is will involve a different approach to my writing than in the past. One that focuses more on the joys of creation and sharing my work.

My favourite books of 2023

I read 63 books in 2023. It felt harder to concentrate on reading this year and I found myself bogged down in a few books that I should have abandoned.

Here are my ten favourite books that I read in 2023, in alphabetical order of author’s name:

Jonathan Ames’ The Come Up was an oral history of hip-hop, released for the genre’s 50th anniversary. It’s a sprawling story, and Ames managed to hit most of the important points, including giving time to neglected acts such as Above the Law and Digital Underground.

Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean was a recommendation from Tom, which I posted about back in March: “It starts out as a novel about a queer HP Lovecraft, and then becomes something even more wonderful. The book does not shy away from Lovecraft’s faults, but still manages an empathic portrayal. There are also appearances from William Burroughs and some wonderful jokes about fandom. A beautiful book about long, sad lives.”

I bought Katherine Hale’s book Slenderman expecting a dissection of Internet culture and creepypasta. Instead, I found a book focussed on the human stories in the Wisconsin stabbing case. Hale unfolds this as a tragedy, showing the appalling impacts of America’s lack of mental health care.

I was inspired to buy Catherine Lacey’s novel Biography of X by a review in the Guardian. It’s a deeply strange novel, a biography of a fictional character, but directly re-using elements from non-fiction about New York artists. And then there is the whole alternate history aspect. It’s a book that should not work, but very much the sort of thing I want to read more of.

The Art of McSweeney’s was the first book I finished in 2023, and it was a history of McSweeney’s publishing. The book goes into a lot of detail about how their magazine was published in strange and innovative formats (including one issue that was a pile of junk mail). It tells a fascinating and inspriring story about producing art.

Jay Owen’s book Dust is a mix of first-person journalism and expert summary. Arising from Owens’ pandemic mailing list, the book is full of surprising details, and some evocative descriptions of history, such as her chapter on the water of LA. It’s also unavoidably a book about the anthropocene, and as I wrote a few weeks back it works as a piece of cosmic horror.

I read Aaron A. Reed’s 50 years of Text Games as a series when it was published as a mailing list, but I also found time to read the whole book when it was compiled as part of a kickstarter. Reed foregrounds some interesting and neglected works and produces a curious history of literature in the computer age. There’s something striking about how it details forgotten artists, and shows how important literary work is not always respected at the time.

There have been a number of books written about or using LLMs, but by far the best I’ve read is from poet Hannah Silva. My Child the Algorithm starts out similar to other such books, but becomes a beautiful account of Silva’s life and experiences raising her son. It’s a book that deserves more attention than it has been given.

Studio Moniker’s all the minutes is very much an avant-garde novel, produced for 2014’s NaNoGenMo, an annual competiton to generate novels using software. I reviewed this novel in July. The book is composed of tweets, one for every minute of the day, and produces a striking and moving portrayal of the Internet’s emotions. It’s also a reminder of the sort of things we lose when platforms are not open.

I posted about Darcie Wilder’s literally show me a healthy person back in May. It’s a twitter novel but somehow managed to feel as vivid and messy as Twitter used to be. It’s a brisk read, but an enjoyable one.

The 2024 General Election

At some point in the next year the UK will have a general election – the last possible date is 28 January 2025, but I can’t see anyone wanting to campaign over Christmas. Most speculation has the election being a resounding victory for Labour. I even read a post discussing the possibility of the Tory party being eradicated.

I think its going to be closer – the Tories are good at the messaging, good at sounding strong, and good at mocking their opponents. That’s something that has worked for them: most people would rather stand behind a bully than beside a victim. And, on top of that, Labour are not offering a radical improvement – Starmer does not produce the same excitement as Blair. His current popularity rating is -22 compared to +19 for Blair at the same time.

As much as I disliked Corbyn, his results in the 2017 election are inarguable – he brought out voters who normally don’t bother. He offered people something different. While I don’t think Corbyn was capable of delivering his policies, Labour is refusing to learn the lessons from his increased support.

Right now the country is in a terrible state. Health experts have warned that “universal dental care has likely gone for good”. There are horrific stories of people being trapped on trains. Privatised companies are paying shareholder bonuses while providing poor service, filling rivers with sewage. Labour are offering nothing better than managed decline. They can’t even stand against a ridiculous policy which is spending more than £1 million per person to send 200 people to Rwanda.

British politics feels like it’s about getting everyone used to things being shit. Labour offering to hold the spoon feeding us this shit does not improve things much.

Writers Notebook: Do you need to be an influencer to be a writer?

Jason Pargin is a successful writer who emerged from Cracked and has gone on to publish six novels. He also has a substack, and his recent post Celebrity Worship is Weird and Will Only Get Weirder discussed the strange situations that he’s in as an artist.

While Pargin has a big readership, it’s not quite large enough for bookstores and publishers to do his marketing for him. In order to let people know he has a new book out, he needs to keep an audience around ready for that announcement. Which means he has a newsletter, but that needs to be entertaining rather than just containing adverts for new books. He’s also had some success on TikTok, but that platform requires regular updates. A significant amount of Pargin’s time is spent maintaining an audience that he can market his books to.

As Pargin writes: “I literally cannot write novels as a full time job unless I turn myself into a multimedia influencer that posts daily to a large, loyal, highly-engaged audience.”

Writing a novel takes a substantial amount of work but, at the end of it, you then need to take it to readers. I’m guessing this was never an easy thing to do. But in the past you were dealing with human gatekeepers, but now the gatekeepers are algorithmic. You either need to build an audience, or be amplified by someone who already has one.

The obvious case of the latter is how a twitter review of This is How You Lose the Time War by someone called Bigolas Dickolas boosted the book to the top of the charts. It’s a lovely story. But Robin Sloan compared this to ‘the breath of the gods’, pointing out this is not a very efficient system. You either spend a substantial amount of time cultivating your own audience, or hope to be picked up by someone else’s.

You can complain about this state of affairs, but you still need to think about it. Writing a novel takes a large amount of time. Finding people have want to read a novel requires either hard work as an influencer or trusting to luck.

What does Rishi Sunak think about when he watches Star Wars?

One of the revelations in Ben Riley-Smith’s book on the Tory party, The Right to Rule, was that Liz Truss loves karaoke, and that one of her favourite songs is Common People. The idea of Truss singing that song as a Conservative party minister makes me think that Pulp should have made the song much less ambiguous.

I’ve been thinking a lot about some blog posts by Paul Watson about whether art can be revolutionary. Initially, he was inspired by Star Wars tie-in Andor and how some genuinely radical stories seemed to be emerging from huge corporations, but he’s also been looking at how easily these stories are recuperated.

When Rishi Sunk became Prime Minister, the newspapers made much of him being a Star Wars fan. The BBC described him as The Star Wars fan turned political force. He apparently has a collection of lightsabres and tweeted a picture of himself at the cinema with Savid Javid to watch The Rise of Skywalker, describing Javid as his ‘Jedi Master’.

Star Wars is all about revolutions against oppressive government. The Tory government is hardly the Galactic Empire, but I wonder how Sunak can watch Star Wars and then participate in a government that argued against providing meals for poor children, or that has been responsible for a huge rise in poverty. Star Wars might be a simplistic, Manichaean universe, but that should make its politics only more obvious – and which side Sunak is closer to.

So what does Rishi Sunak think about when he is watching Star Wars?

Mycelium Parish News 2023

I’ve just published a new zine, The Mycelium Parish News 2023, in association with Dan Sumption of Peakrill Press. The Mycelium Parish News is a collection of things that have happened in our particular corner of UK counter-culture over the last year and features a list of podcasts, books, websites, events and more. It’s available on Etsy for just £2.30 including postage (£5 for overseas).

What is the mycelium? It’s the word coined by Daisy Campbell for a loose network of creative people, across the UK and beyond, which emerged from a knot of discordians, KLF fans, Robert Anton Wilson afficionados, arts labs and magicians. We’ve also included lots of links that will be interesting to people we know. One inspiration for this is the counter-culture readers in the 90s, where you could pick one up and find half-a-dozen links that might change your life.

We print the zine as a hard copy as we think it’s important to have a physical artefact of the year, and we work to keep it as cheap as possible. Once we’ve distributed the print copies we will put the PDF on the Internet archive (you can currently read last year’s edition).

And, yes, we are already collecting things for the 2024 edition.