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The Writer's Life

Postcard of My Life


Writing at 6.00 am and I suddenly need reminding of the coldest of cold for this scene. I want to hear another writer’s description, what they chose to pick out among the myriad of details available.

Normally easy: I’d rush upstairs and retrieve Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams from my bookshelves. Lopez is a writer I return to for any reason at all, and Arctic Dreams remains among my favourites. It’s an enchanting exploration of the arctic.

But my husband isn’t feeling well and, even though he’s the reason I was up at 5.30am, fetching a hot drink and some painkillers for his sore throat, I’ll be damned if I will wake him. So instead, I read what I can of Lopez’s stunning book off the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. I get about six pages of it with Amazon, mostly about whaling.

However, even within six pages, I am reminded of the rest of the book, and of Lopez’s means of weaving story and discovery, of the place and people he describes, of the history that has been.  I feel the cold now; can write about it, and I’m where I need to be to continue my own chapter.

Something about this situation — it’s odd hour, my earnest efforts, the make-do nature of everything despite having what anyone would describe as abundance — is kind of what my life is like, but in miniature.



The Writer's Life

Let’s Study Philosophy In Ireland…


My sister and I are as different as can be, with opposing values and political views. She cares almost exclusively for things and very little for ideas, unless those ideas can somehow be monetised. I grew up reading poetry and novels while she read business books and Vogue. She’s always considered me recalcitrant and spiteful because I value ideas more than money. I remember telling her that I was going to study English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard and she told me I should study economics as it was the only useful degree that Harvard offered.


I didn’t think economics was for me. This was the early 80’s before people like Tyler Cowen,  Tim Harford, and Stephen D. Levitt made economics so interesting that we are all eager for their next book or blog. I wanted to be a writer—she thought that was a bad idea. A dreadful idea. I didn’t disagree it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t really an idea at all. For me, writing was a portal into ideas, a means of engaging, of joining the conversation if you wanted to, or sitting in the audience as a reader if you did not.


As adults, my sister and I have gone our very separate ways, but I was reminded of her today when reading this Guardian article by Charlotte Blease. It’s about the result of Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who has finally triumphed after a 3-year campaign to introduce the subject of philosophy into the school curriculum in Ireland. I am delighted by this decision, because I agree with Bertrand Russell that, while “philosophy bakes no bread”, nor draws definitive conclusions, it has a positive effect on those who take it seriously.


Let me start by saying my sister, like many Americans with her political beliefs, does not approve of reading the Guardian in the first place. I no longer receive reading advice from my sister, but on several occasions she has warned my daughter not to read The Guardian as it is way too left-wing. It has articles like this one, for example, that suggest that within the curriculum of secondary education we include philosophy, which at first glance appears far less useful than computer science, engineering and robotics. How is America meant to compete with China if all we do is consider useless, dusty old ideas?


I don’t mean to pick on engineering and robotics. I  just wrote a piece on big data, marketing analytics and robotics, as a matter of fact, and I kind of like the stuff.  I am not suggesting we ignore education that has practical applications, not at all. In fact, among my many contributions to the world of education is my singular tutorship of my second child, Nick, who is learning the programming language, Python. Let me make it clear: when it comes to learning stuff, I am game. I’m game to evolutionary biology, the history of science, psychodynamic theory, computer science, neuroscience, neuromarketing, politics, and linguistics…. I’m even game to game theory. If I can learn it, I want to learn it.


But here is the thing. I don’t consider art to be soft stuff. I don’t believe that intelligence can easily be measured on IQ tests (there are several good books on this topic) and I say this as someone who does well on those tests. I value my daughter’s ability to make make a film of a criminal bunny shooting vegetables in a market, and I value the syntax of required to code. It’s all good, in my book.


But philosophy is particularly amazing to me. As the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins said in November during a celebration of World Philosophy Day, Philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”


I don’t know that it is possible to monetise philosophy (though Derrida and Barthes managed to become rock stars somehow but I am delighted that Higgins looked beyond the immediate utilitarian notions of many in the field of education and understood that while we do, definitely need engineers, we need engineers who can think about something other than physics and computer models.


It is important to consider the question of the value of philosophy in view of the fact that many men under the influence of science or of practical affair, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.


I read this in Bertrand Russell’s 1912 book, The Problem Of Philosophy, on a page that discusses the apparent dichotomy between “the practical man” and one who considers ideas just as important, not because the ideas are of immediately material use, but because they change the one who considers them.


1912. Before Hiroshima and Nazi Germany and two world wars. In retrospect, we can see how philosophy, knowledge, the consideration of right and wrong independent of their expediency was so desperately needed then. Is it any less needed now?



The Writer's Economy

The New Freelancers


Earlier this year, The Financial Times reported that fifty-four million workers in the US are now freelancing for a living. The word freelancing, traditionally associated with writing and journalism, now extends to any job a person does as an independent contractor for a firm. Sometimes called the “gig economy”, or “agile talent”, freelancers come into a firm to conduct any kind of work – often technical work, research, or some sort of limited management function – and then they leave. They are paid for their work but with no further promise of employment once they’ve completed a project. They are not given any assurances, have no employee rights, no pension contributions and cannot expect any professional development or mentoring.


Writers are very familiar with “agile talent.” It’s how we get to write an article for The Sunday Times without actually having a job there. We pitch articles or get assignments and we know that after our 800 words delivered by Thursday, we have to look for another gig. My mother freelanced; I freelance. I don’t think I’ve ever questioned the practice of freelancing. Until now.


From the point of view of big firms, “agile management” is a great idea. In their book, Agile Talent, Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood describe the growing need for companies to “have expertise on tap” but also the problems inherent in the practice of temporary hires in which the expert is treated as separate but not equal, and most importantly, extremely expendable.


The global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Bob Moritz, told the FT’s Ben McLannahan in March 2016 that this new brand of freelancers allows him to “bring in the right talent in the right place at the right time.” What he didn’t add, however, is that the “talent” is a person, and that this person is not given any employee rights or benefits, let alone ongoing professional skills development, and that it is often this shift of responsibility that makes agile talent so valuable to an organization.


Nonetheless, Moritz sounds convinced that the “talent” wants it this way. “We know when you look around the world, that an increasing number of people will want to be more of an independent contractor than a full-time employee,” he said. Deloitte reports that as  much as a third of America’s workforce is now working as “agile talent” or “super temps”.


Nobody has to convince me of the advantages of working for oneself. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ve even freelanced for professional services firms, though not PwC. However, working as an “independent contractor”  is not unusual for writers.  Writers have been “agile talent” for publishing houses forever. That’s just the way that the publishing business operates.  I write a novel on spec, the editor either wants it or doesn’t want it (and is usually under no obligation to accept it), then makes an offer.  With very few exceptions I’ve only been offered single-book deals and for wildly different sums.


This financial arrangement is acceptable to me because, I suppose, I’ve always imagined that the financial risks of writing fiction must be borne by the novelist. We produce something with a value that is difficult to define, hard to signal to the market, and about which opinions vary tremendously. Also, the publishing house is investing in us, in our books, and in our careers. There is a deal defined by cash and commitment. The publicists and marketing people work hard on the novel’s behalf. If the book is published well it is a good deal for the writer. Of course, if the book is published badly, and the publishing house does not put enough effort into it, it is always the author who is blamed.


With businesses now defining themselves not by what they produce but by the solutions they provide (the company that makes my dogs’ food does not sell dog food, but solutions to my dogs’ hunger), the solution my novel can offer might be to help people think about a subject in a new manner, or about their own lives in a new manner. Novels feed a kind of cultural appetite.  In contemporary business parlance, I don’t sell novels but solutions to cultural hunger.


But it turns out there are a lot more novels out there than there is hunger for them, which is why my book has to be just that little bit better, or my publishers marketing of it has to be better, or I just need raw luck. Usually the last.


I might like it to be different. I might like more job stability, financial stability, a sense of being part of a larger organization and team, the feeling of being valued by my colleagues on a regular basis instead of every few years when I bring out a book (unless they reject it, which is always a possibility, in which I feel terrible). It would be great to be groomed for success the way I imagine that executives are taught, to be taken by the hand by a publishing house and given advice on how to conduct myself during interviews, speak on television and radio, how to build networks, or make good relationships with key media figures. But that just doesn’t happen. It’s not the way publishing works.


If I wanted stability, if I’d wanted continued professional development, I’d have to go into a different profession, a more stable profession. If I didn’t want to have to always be pitching, selling and looking for the next gig, I’d have traded in my jeans and kitchen office for a crisp suit and a job at an international professional services firm, a place like PwC. After all, it is an enormous, profitable firm, the most prestigious accounting firm in the world.


Oh, except maybe I wouldn’t. Now that companies like PwC are building their “Talent Network”, so that they don’t have to offer anything more than short-term contracts, it seems that a “regular job” is becoming a rare thing, indeed. And being a writer has become no riskier than any other profession.


The Writer's Economy

The Write Way: Dream, Create, Reject, Repeat…



For writers to become any good, we must be allowed to experiment and expected, at times, to fail. We have to try out different stuff if we are ever to write a book of value. These efforts are what I’ve call “necessary failures.” But is embarking on The Great American Failed Novel, one that is never seen in print and never read, an important part of our growth as writers? Should we indulge ourselves in wild endeavours that we later kill?


The technology world has a new notion that it is important to “fail fast” and “fail often.” Astro Teller of Google X*, gave a TED Talk in February in which he encouraged businesses to create environments in which their employees feel comfortable working on big, risky projects, many of which are likely to fail. Google X, a company that has been voted number 1 in Best Companies To Work For seven times over the past ten years, has a unique working environemnt. Teller says, “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong,” he explains with a joy that makes it clear he loves his job. “We make it safe to fail.”


Teller even rewards his staff for abandoning a project due to evidence of its eventual doom as a product or service. Whoever heard of receiving a bonus for proving your idea is a bad one? And yet, this is exactly what Google X gives its employees who kill their own projects. What are the reasons a project is killed? Too expensive, too unwieldy, doesn’t produce the desired results, atrociously uneconomic, or outright dangerous, to name a few.


Not every business adopts the “fail fast, fail often” model. Despite being reliant on innovation and genius ideas from its authors, publishing is the very opposite. Most authors, lucky enough to be published in the first place, have possibly two books to prove their commercial value. If these books don’t sell well the author may struggle for a contract on the next.


Publishing is a “fail & you’re fired” environment, at least if you are an author. And if we aren’t being warned directly of our tenuous place on a publisher’s list, we can read about our doom every day in the trade papers. I often feel like one of Henry VIII’s wives, just waiting to either be banished from the kingdom or publicly executed.


The Big Picture

Sometimes, you can sell well and still piss off a publisher. If your book doesn’t sell as well as the publisher expects, for example. I remember a good first novel by Douglas Kennedy,  The Big Picture, that was sold for a six figure sum to a major American publisher in the late 1990’s. I loved the book and was surprised when Kennedy told me years later that he’d had a hell of a time after that novel, because while the book had sold very well, it hadn’t made the astronomical numbers that had been expected of it. As a result, he’d had a difficult time getting back into the American market. Since then, of course, he’s sold 14 million copies of his books in 22 languages. He is considered very much a “selling author”, so let that be a lesson in tenacity for writers feeling undervalued. Kennedy won in the end, as talent and hard work usually will, but would a different man have given up? Possibly.


I don’t feel a lack of commercial success is a writer’s fault. Smashword CEO, Mark Coker, tells us, “Publishers can only guess at what books readers want to read and mostly they guess wrong.” So, if they are guessing wrong, how can writers be expected to always guess correctly? We cannot. But it is we who will pay the price for commercial failure.


Some publishers buy books they love, not expecting instant commercial success. Those rare birds include one of publishing’s most acclaimed editors, Nan Talese, whose own imprint is part of the giant Penguin Random House. Nan represents such giant critical and commercial successes as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Pat Conroy. She once cheered me up by saying, “Ian McEwan took many books to get any real sales. I can remember back when he was selling 9,000 copies.”  Sadly, few publishers have the patience of Talese, whose authors adore her and whose books largely succeed. But they are out there, if you are lucky enough to find them.


Creating Our Own “Safe To Fail” Environment

As the reading market dwindles and more books flood the market, we authors may find it difficult to allow ourselves the room we need to invent our best stories and develop our best characters. We may feel led to abandon our attention to language in an effort to produce a page-turner. Or hop onto the latest trend, however little interest we have in fifty shades of ugly.  Ours is not an industry that tolerates failure, but we must give ourselves space to try things out.


The best we can do is create our own Google X environment at home in which the concept of “fail fast, fail often” works well. Google X creates prototypes quickly, figures out what is wrong, then feeds back into the R&D process. They fail again and again until they get to where they want to be and consider the failures badges of honour. This is the “business model” I use for my own writing. I will try something every which way, put it on a shelf and forget about it for awhile, then get it out and re-think it through. I will throw it out, rekindle it, transform it or abandoned it. I am allowed to do anything in my space of invention. And while I don’t congratulate myself for killing a book altogether, I do sometimes breathe a sigh of relief.


Am I doing the right thing?  The economist, and University of Chicago professor, Steven Levitt, thinks that I am. “I always tell my students to fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chance you have…to eventually find the thing you don’t fail at.”


The Perils Of Ambition


As a writing tutor at the University of Oxford, I’ve often talked with students who were determined they had to complete market-ready books during their master’s study or else their time on our program was wasted. I’ve had to talk students out of their ideas to give themselves four-month deadlines to write a novel start to finish, or who insist they are “writing a bestseller” ,or whose stated goal is to make a living from writing.


“All that is bullshit,” I tell them. “Who is putting such ideas into your head?”


These writers are young, talented and driven, but they often drive themselves right into a wall. The better ones labour ferociously on a scene, revising and re-writing, unable to see the scene’s faults, unable to see how it doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel at all, becoming seduced by the sunk costs of their own labor and now too emotionally attached to the scene to cut it altogether.  The less gifted slop through several hundred pages so impressed by their ability to produce a novel-length manuscript that they will need a dozen or more agent rejections before they ask whether a love story about sea monkeys really has a place in today’s market.


Am I, myself, ever guilty of keeping alive works that ought to be put in a manuscript box and buried in my cupboard? Yes, of course I am, which is why I have a great deal of empathy for these students and all writers. My awareness of my own faults and idiosyncrasies, the touching silliness of my dreams to become better than I can be, my faith that the only talent that can’t be improved is one that never existed in the first place, is what makes me a good (I think) teacher, and causes me to write the very words you are now reading.


*let me help you with that: this is the name of a man followed by his place of employment 

The Writer's Economy

Necessary Failures



In 2006 Hilary Mantel and I went on a book tour together. This was back before she became an untouchably famous, extremely revered double Booker prize winner and was just ordinary famous and touring with her novel, Beyond Black.


I was promoting Daniel Isn’t Talking, my somewhat autobiographical account of the early days of discovering my little boy was autistic. We were an unlikely pair, Hilary with her ghost story of a fortune teller, populated by dead or half-dead people, and me with my difficult drama of a mother’s fears about her small son’s future. But we were very jolly together. Hilary is a warm, loving woman as well as being a splendid writer. And both of us love an audience.


But that was just it—the audience! It was hit and miss. We’d show up to a big room full of pretty flowers and chairs all lined up, and see some empty seats. Actually, quite a number of empty seats. Given Hilary’s draw, you’d expect a full-house.  And where were the men? We had good attendance at the afternoon library events but most of the time we were speaking to all female audiences.


And then we discovered why. The 2006 FIFA World cup was on television. We were competing with the allure of international soccer. Hilary and I had some awareness of  football in the offing—we’d notice the abundance of cars strung with bunting, pubs full with men and the televisions on. We’d simply overlooked its impact on our tour, which was a more quiet success than Hilary is used to.


All of this brings me to my point, which isn’t about soccer and books tours but about publishing a book in the first place: Is there any way we can predict its success?


The queen could die on publication date and every interview you have is wiped off the magazine pages.  A war could break out and the book section of the newspaper goes unread for months. But barring these kind of catastrophes, is there a way of testing out whether your novel is a good idea before you put a year or two (or more) into writing it? This blog, and the one to follow explores this question.


Failure Is Your Friend

Last year, Freakonomics Radio re-broadcasted a podcast called Failure Is Your Friend. The idea was simple, if you can determine early that the task you are about to attempt is a bad idea, you can abandon it quickly. Finding out early saves time, money, energy and heartache. The broadcast used an extreme example of a project that ought to have been abandoned but was not: the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that resulted in the death of the crew, including a school teacher from New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first civilian in space.


The reason for the disaster? NASA did not test the O-ring seals of its rocket boosters to ensure they would stand up to the unseasonably low temperatures being experienced in Florida that year. Despite warnings from their own engineers that they should abandon the launch, NASA ignored the risk and went ahead on the morning of January 28th, killing seven people and derailing NASA’s space shuttle program for years go come.


Some speculate that NASA continued with the launch due to what is called “go fever”. “Go fever” is the attitude of being in a rush or hurry to move on with, or complete a project, while overlooking potential problems or mistakes.  I see it expressed in novelists and aspiring novelists all the time, including myself. The “sunk cost” we’ve already made in writing a hundred or two hundred pages of a book compel us to continue writing the thing even when it is likely to fail.


When It Comes To Books What Can We Truly Call “Failing”?

Of course, we have to be careful with the term “failure” when talking about contributions to the arts world. A commercial success can be a critical failure and vice versa. A book can receive a whole lot of unfair reviews by people who just don’t get the book at all, and still be a pretty good book.


I am really referring to what I call “practice novels” (it could be “practice non-fiction). These are books we are going to write to completion, or near-completion, even though at some point we may feel they are not publishing-worthy.


Handling big manuscripts is as much of an art as handling a single scene and practicing novel-writing may lead to a few necessary failures, if they can be called failures at all. I’ve written two novels I have no intention of bring to market. They served their purpose of teaching me a bit more about writing and helped me make my way toward something sharper, more vivid, more accurate and alive.


Unfortunately, many writers spend years on manuscripts that ought to be considered “practice novels” or “necessary failures” and then, because the thing has amassed several hundred pages and looks like a viable manuscript all stacked neatly on the desk, they feel an obligation to publish it. Given how little we know about what makes a bestseller, one can understand that they may believe they have as good a chance as anyone (and maybe they do).


OMG, That Was A Bestseller?

That bestsellers can be truly dreadful books is a phenomenon so common there is an entire website and podcast devoted to talking about bad New York Times Bestsellers. The website, run by an aspiring children’s author and a librarian, is called The Worst Bestsellers, and it offers the following warning: If you are a publicist who wants us to review your client’s book, please think twice. If you are an author whose publicist is pitching your book to Worst Bestsellers, you might want to get a new publicist.


It’s a brave endeavor, all that reading of books they hate. I bring it up only to make the obvious point that “failure” is so hard to define when we are talking about books.  If the actor, Rob Lowe, can be a NYT bestseller with Stories I Only Tell My Friends, a title I would like to abridge to read, Stories I only Tell my Friends or Anyone With A Credit Card, why shouldn’t you give your novel about your fifteen cats and their distinct personalities a whirl? If one of your cats becomes a film star you might have a good shot at a bestseller.


I’ve mentioned in my blog Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller that the London literary agent and managing director of Curtis Brown, Jonny Geller, gave a TED talk called What Makes A Bestseller. It was a great title for a talk, and you should definitely listen to what Jonny has to say. However, to my great relief, it was less about making bestsellers and more about writing good books.


Fail Fast, Fail Often

In the end, all we can be expected to do and all that we ought to do is this:  Write good books. If you set out to write a bestseller, or to become famous, or to be recognised as a writer, you’ve taken a step in the wrong direction. You will do better to be rigorous in the practice and improvement of your craft, true to the notion that the only thing that matters is the work. Not what every random reviewer might think of the work, not what you might get paid for the work, or who might make a film of the work, but the work itself.


What is the best thing to do with some of the novels you are likely to write or even finish on the road to becoming a great novelist? Know when to cut your losses. Don’t perform heroics if the novel is dead on the page. Fail quickly and get onto your next project. Be happy you are one step closer to the novel that you always wanted to write.


Or, practice the essential art of revision. All writing is creative, even revision, and improving your ability to detect what is wrong and fixing it may be one of the most valuable skills you develop as a writer. By chance, you may not only breathe life into the work, but envisage it so freshly it metamorphisizes into a hell of a book.


My next blog will look at whether writers ought to adopt Silicon Valley’s idea that we must fail quickly and fail often. If you want to be an innovator, you need to be a allowed to fail. A lot. But how do we determine when a work should be put aside? Or shall we adopt Pablo Picasso‘s notion that, even in the best case, “art is never finished, only abandoned”?