What I should write (learning to listen to my public)


Jack Shackaway here. Of Kicking Dogs fame.

It’s true, as Collin says (here and here). Nearly everybody’s a writer these days.  And — given all the media interest in current publishing-industry convulsions — the few who aren’t writers are experts on publishing and books.

I used to tell people I was a novelist. I don’t anymore. That’s as interesting to your average citizen as saying “Every night I go to sleep.” Who isn’t writing a novel?

But if they nevertheless do get wind of this idea you’re writing novels for some reason, they ask you whether you know how much 50 Shades of Grey has minted as of that very morning, and then they tell you exactly how much before asking how much you earn from this pursuit.50 shades cover

So you mumble a bit and gesture skywards and say, “Do you think it’s going to rain?”

Next they ask you what kind of novels you write. And, if you tell them, chances are they’ll respond by telling you what class of narrative you should be writing instead. One nice Thai woman, for example, asked me at a cocktail party recently why I didn’t write romantic novels. A European entrepreneur in a suit asked me last week why I didn’t write like John Grisham. Yeah, and a cute girl looked at me funny on the Skytrain this morning. Maybe she was a groupie. (Joking.)

Learn to pay attention

At the risk of offending you, I’m now going to reveal related advice I got from a woman some years ago.

This cruise-boat hostess, who was a piece of work, passed me a book entitled The Amber Anklet and said, “This is the kind of book you should be writing.”

Inclined to skepticism, once home again I nevertheless left it on my night table, thinking, who knows, some fine morning it might serve as hangover fodder.

So lo, and verily, in the course of time a contingency of that very nature did indeed arise. And I was lying there thinking I needed something to distract me from the pain, and what should I discover on my bedside table, buried not too deep under cold pizza and other things, but The Amber Anklet. So I picked it up and started reading.

potboiler cover“He was gigantic,” the first page began. “Gigantic in every way. ‘Oh, please!’ she cried, as he tore the flimsy evening gown from her sleek body. “Don’t.”

Despite her pleas, the heroine was abused on at least three occasions before the end of the first chapter, by which time she was being loaded aboard a pirate vessel manned by Turks, all of whom were gigantic in every way. By the end of chapter two I was struck with a wild surmise, and got to thinking about the how the cruise-boat hostess had kept touching me and sighing and so on, and this soon had me rummaging through the mess of old name-cards that had fallen down behind my desk.

I called the cruise company only to find that she had left their employ some months earlier and they had no idea where she was or what she was reading at this time.

There was a point to that story, but now I forget what it was. Something to do with why people tend to believe I should be writing every kind of book except the ones I’m writing, except for those who think I shouldn’t be writing any kind of books at all.

Fallback positions

My own father never used to tell me what kind of books I should write. He said I should study engineering because then, if I failed to get my degree, I could always work as a draftsman.

Of course digital technology threatens to make draftsmen just as redundant as writers will soon become.

I hasten to add that I can’t imagine writing books of The Amber Anklet class. For one thing I don’t approve of rape under any circumstances; in fact I’m personally incapable of even pretending to rape someone according to the script of someone’s fantasy. Not that this opportunity has ever actually materialized. In fact 50 Shades offends me with all of its rough sex, though I speak mainly on the basis of heresay in this matter, having found the quality of its prose so offensive I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages to see for myself.

Full disclosure: Whoever wrote 50 Shades makes considerably more from her writing than I do.Harry Potter Covers

Not only that, I don’t know what I would’ve said to that cruise-boat hostess supposing I’d managed to contact her. Maybe did she want to borrow my copy of Infinite Jest.

grisham cover


infinite jest