Thursday, 15 December 2011


(yes, I know that's Porcelain, but it's from the album Play :))

It's that time of year again. The reflective one. Last year I brought you both contemplation and a simple message: live. I've been thinking a lot about what to say this year. So much has happened from the extraordinarily good (Blackwell's favourite Oxford novel! Sell out show at Stoke Newington Literary Festival!) to the almost unbearable (my mother getting diagnosed with cancer, my best friend withdrawing altogether from the literary stage). Maybe there's a place for it all.

But that place isn't here.

Last year brought a simple message that remains as true now as it was then.

And this year's message is equally simple.


The best, and possibly the only valid, response to a year that might have left me (often did) more jaded than a Chinese art warehouse.

Last month I wrote what I imagined to be a provocative piece where I, um, might have not so inadvertently called pretty much every author on the planet a soulless hack. In fairness, my point wasn't to dismiss what writers spend much of their time doing so much as to encourage them to do something else. This was the core of it:

"Forget keeping your nose in “how I sold a gazillion copies of my ebook”, forget the endless round of commenting on everyone’s evangelical how to be an indie revolutionary blogs, forget the ambition to “get out, get anywhere, get all the way to the FBI” (but if my references seem just weird spare the time for a quick read of The Silence of the Lambs).

Spend a month remembering that nothing matters but the storytelling. And with that in mind, forget the words on the page and go find yourself an open mic or a bookstore near you and Read. Out Loud. To a group of real people. It’s how stories have been told for tens of thousands of years. It’s the most rewarding experience a storyteller can have. And if your kdp reports really mean more to you than following the whites of a person’s eyes as you drag them through hell and back again, for pity’s sake have the decency to call yourself a hack like any of the rest of us working 9 to 5s to make rent and don’t pretend to be a storyteller."

Now that's all pretty limited in scope. A month. Reading out loud. I want to open that up and get you to make a resolution with me:

In 2012 I will not think, not once, about how to make a single penny from my writing. In 2012 I will devote myself to playing.

There, that was easy, wasn't it!

But wait wait wait. Why why why? Well, think of it as a sabbatical. Or a gap year. Or, go on, why not, think of it as just plain fun!! But you need to make a living out of your writing? Wow, you're making a living out of your writing, fabulous! The 0.2 people I know who can do that may be duly excused and head back to the desk job their writing has become. You see, that's one of the problems with setting out to have writing as a career. It may seem so much better than spending 40+ hours a week tied to a whatever and getting home knackered having to do all those other things you do at home and desperately trying to squeeze in a few minutes at the laptop - but the moment you make writing your day job money *has* to be your focus (unless you're lucky enough to have independent means, of course). And whilst that may incidentally involve all sorts of other fun things to make your writing more likely to sell, there's been a fundamental shift. Which is why I'll stick to the poorly paid job that almost covers my bills and not bring my writing into it.

If you're honest with yourselves, I think you'll find that most of you are in the same boat as me. Writing is your passion. You do it because you have to. Because you have a truth you have to express. A story you have to tell. Something you just have to lay before the world. Your aim. Your goal. Your dream. The thing that stopped you sleeping all those yeas and makes you catch your breath when you think about it. That's not "to bank some pounds from my writing in 2012." Is it? Really?

So, what I want you to do is write down what that was. That thing. That made you feel like a lovesick teenager whose hand has just been grasped, sweatily and expectantly for the first time. And devote 2012 to that.

Only make your devotion loose. Experimental. Have a kind of Bloomsbury-ish relationship with your goals. Be willing to consider anything once. Or twice. Out of curiosity that it may be useful. Last year, for example, I stumbled on cell phone novels and slam poetry and had a fabulous time. As well as learning things about editing and rhythm. And little handmade booklets. Whcih taught me about care and craft and space. And were fun.

Play at least once a month. Write something you wouldn't have considered writing. Go to a part of the web you wouldn't have considered visiting and say hello. Go to an event you wouldn't normally go to, or a gallery you wouldn't usually be seen dead at. Try teaching someone something writery (for free). Try volunteering for someting writerly. Try making something. Try leaving cards with a haiku and a URL on tables in bars.

Just try it.

Without expecting anything but fun and that goosebumpy anticipationy what-might-happen-nexty kind of excitement. By all means tell the world what you're doing. And by all means put your work out there on sale. Charge $100 a paragraph on Kindle if you like, but don't try and sell it.

Play not pay. There. Simple. Now, shall we have some fun together?


  1. Oh good, I can go playing, I can have another gap year. And this time it's all your fault and I don't have to take an iota of responsibility . . .

  2. Here's a good game to play.

    Pick a number between 1 and whatever.

    Pick a book/newspaper/back of DVD case/etc. at random. Open it to any page, at random.

    Count down the words until you hit your number (if you picked too high, go back to top of page and start again)

    Whichever word you land on - your next story/poem/whatever must start with that word. No ifs, no buts, no moaning its ungrammatical. Just write that word, then another, then another, and see where it takes you...

  3. I like this idea Dan. To play, to experiment, to be and for the writing to be an expression of this rather than a desire to achieve paper lies. One of my literary resolutions is to give the spoken mic a go next year.

    I said on twitter earlier writing without risks frightens me. Life without play is worse, it is death.

  4. Lovely advice, Dan. As I head into my fourth year of non-gainful self-employed wastrelhood (otherwise known as writing) I'll be happy to let the family know you TOLD me to do it ;)

  5. Jo, I remember loving at school when teachers gave us free rein at the end of term - I think I still managed to go too far though!

    James - I love that sort of game. Funnily enough I've seen Oulipo crop up a lot recently in conversation - and at a slam on Tuesday one of the poets started talking about Oulipo and then read a poem that contained only the letter e of the vowels - that kind of restriction can unleash all kinds of creativity.

    Andy, there's nothing quite like reading to an audience. I'd have to say you're one of the most fearless and creative writers I know - long may it continue

  6. Sessha - I can see one of my forms of play next year will be as whipping boy - I rather like the sound of that ;-)

    I'll most definitely be keeping a play diary

  7. Dan, can I just say: I LOVE YOU.
    I've been getting more and more despondent as sales dip, and the other authors I know thrash around trying to find a way to boost theirs with promo and whatnot. My two dayjobs are both in jeopardy, and I'd hoped that the initial surge of interest in my books would continue to grow. Not so.
    So, play it will be.
    And I am still mulling over the article I promised you about storytelling...will do it, but now I think the playful angle may come more to the fore.

  8. :) I'm so sorry to hear about your jobs - I know just how stressful that can be. My thoughts will be with you going into the New Year and I'm very much looking forward to reading what you have to say - your blog posts are always insightful and inspirational

  9. I will endeavour not to worry too much about the sales of my books in 2012...

    ...oh, wait - I haven't written any :(

    I do have a series of posts on '1Q84' that you may be interested in though ;)

  10. Marvellous - I thoroughly enjoyed the first. Brilliantly put together!

  11. Hi Dan, I enjoyed reading this post. I've been dallying with this library form which needs to be completed to get a slot for doing a reading of my book. You may laugh at this, but I have not gone behind the mic before. But I hear you. We have to do storytelling in the old-fashioned way, face-to-face, interacting with the audience. I'll push that form out right after this post :D

    Could you share more, or have you already shared on cell phone novels and slam poetry?


    Su Yin

  12. Hi Su Yin,

    I wrote about cell phone novels at - I think they'd really suit whta you write. You should definitely give it a try once the deadlines have passed. I don't think I've written about slam poetry yet, so I'll do that next - if you get the chance to read aloud, take it - it's so rewarding. Again, 'I think the lyricality of your writing would work well read out loud


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