What I read in 2015

I’m normally about ten years late reading most novels (in some cases 150 years late), but here’s the fiction and non-fiction I made my way through in 2015. For the first time in ages there wasn’t a book I gave up on due to boredom.

Should be compulsory reading for every man, woman and child in Britain:

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

The Establishment by Owen Jones

I loved it but you might not because you have poor taste:

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood

The Adult by Joe Stretch

This Boy by Alan Johnson

Going to Sea in a Sieve by Danny Baker

Predatory Thinking by Dave Trott

Recommended:

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Restless by William Boyd

I don’t care how much you worship it, I found it unsatisfying:

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Straight White Male by John Niven

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Interesting idea but that’s about it:

I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay by Toby Litt

I love cricket, you probably don’t so this wouldn’t interest you:

The Plan by Steve James

Generic sports autobiography bought for £1 in a charity shop:

The Test by Brian O’Driscoll

Autobiography that I’d urge you not to waste your money on because it gives next to nothing away about the author:

Only When I Laugh by Paul Merton

What you should know before you write a book

‘Everyone has a book in them,’ say people who have never written a book. Before you put finger to keyboard to begin a novel or that biography of Moira Stuart the world has been waiting for, read these wise words.

  •  It takes bloody ages

Think writing your university dissertation took a long time? A book may be anything from six to fifteen times as long, so unless you’re in it for the long haul, don’t even consider starting.

  •  Fail to prepare…

Some writers like to pretend they sit in front of blank screen and type the first thing that comes into their heads. This is because it gives their work a sense of creative mystery. The reality is that without planning a rough story arc, developing characters and doing research you’ll probably hit a wall after ten thousand words.

  • Finishing the first draft is only the beginning

You’ll spend more time editing and rewriting than you did writing the first draft. It’s painful but necessary. Your story will thank you for it.

  • You’ll suffer from literary snow blindness

After reading your book for the twentieth time you’ll start to question whether the changes you’ve made have improved it. Try not to lose faith in your own judgement.

  • You must get it finished

I’ve never seen a half-finished novel in Waterstones (apart from all the half-finished works by already famous authors who died during the writing process).

  •  You’re unlikely to ever see your novel in the shops

The odds are against you getting published. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The odds were against you ever being born.

  • You’ll never stop rewriting the story in your head, even after it’s published

This will drive you mad but eventually the voices will stop.

  •  Getting publicity is tough

There are thousands of books published in the UK every year and limited review space in newspapers and magazines. Do whatever you can to drum up publicity on social media. If all else fails, throw yourself in front of the king’s horse on Derby Day or go on a gun rampage.

  •  You won’t become rich and famous

Your life is unlikely to change, however you will have something more interesting to put on the bottom of your CV than ‘I ran the London Marathon’.

  • People who have written awful books, far inferior to yours, will become rich and famous

The talentless, money-grabbing bastards.

  • But the general public are lovely

An unexpected email or tweet from someone you’ve never met but has read and enjoyed your work is a hit of pure happiness.

Clapham Lights paperback now under £5

Approaching the second anniversary of the release of Clapham Lights, the book is now just £4.98 on Amazon, saving you an incredible £7.01 from the RRP. What a ruddy bargain. If you want to find out what the world* has been talking about click on the link in the top right hand corner of the screen, buy it and get reading.

It’s also only £1 on Kindle too. No wonder I can’t keep up repayments on my yacht.

*mainly my family.

How to become a literary superstar

Do you dream of becoming an A-list author whose name is on the lips of everyone from Hay-on-Wye to Hollywood? Follow these steps and start climbing the ladder to literary stardom.

1Quit your job. Want to be writer but not sure what to write? Start with a resignation letter. Writing requires one hundred per cent commitment and a mentally draining full-time job will prevent you from fulfilling your potential. James Joyce wouldn’t have made it as a writer if he hadn’t ditched his music hall drag act and Will Self regrets his years as the assistant manager of the Muswell Hill branch of Topshop. You may be consigning yourself to a life of poverty but the experience will fuel your writing and the depressed/penniless/suicidal writer is one of life’s great romantic figures. Once you’ve quit and dedicated yourself to literature, treat anyone who works full-time with a mixture of pity and suspicion, unless you’re asking for money.

2. Make notes. Keep your eyes and ears open and carry a notebook everywhere as you never know when you’ll overhear a conversation or witness an incident which will spark your imagination. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes so whether you’re driving an articulated lorry down the M1 or reading a eulogy at a colleague’s funeral, have a pen and paper to hand and be prepared to drop everything.

3. Read, a lot. You should have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the most successful books and authors in your chosen genre. Copy their techniques and learn from their mistakes. Aim to read at least one book a day and don’t worry about blowing thousands of pounds on Amazon as most popular fiction can be found in – and stolen from – charity shops.

4. Tell everyone you’re writing a novel. Unlike a barbed wire tattoo or a lesbian experience with a supply teacher, writing a novel is nothing to be ashamed of. If you can’t tell people you’re writing a book, how are you going to make an acceptance speech when you win the Nobel Prize? It’s also a great motivator as most people will scoff and secretly hope you fail. My uncle Trevor told me I was ‘full of shit ideas’, but I’m now a published novelist and he’s still pushing trolleys around Morrisons car park at the age of 73. Who’s full of shit ideas now, Trevor?

5. Drink heavily. Dylan ThomasF Scott FitzgeraldGeorge Best; all geniuses, all heavy drinkers. Dan Brown’s favourite tipple? Soya milk.

5. Get on with it. You’ve written a detailed plan, told everyone you’re writing a book and you’re drinking 30 units of alcohol a day – now you actually have to sit down and write. Work out a routine and stick to it. Lee Child only writes during the hours of darkness whilst hovering in a helicopter one mile above the centre of Manhattan, whereas Bill Bryson works in a series of subterranean tunnels he’s dug in the fields surrounding his Suffolk home. Have a daily word target (somewhere between 500 and 25,000) and avoid using adverbs and, if possible, verbs. Your first draft should take no longer than 8-10 years to complete be at least two million words long.

7. Re-write, re-write and re-write again. If you think your first draft is good enough to send to literary agents, you’re either deluded or a genius, and you’re probably not a genius. Ask for feedback from people you respect and gauge public opinion by making impromptu readings in bus shelters or on long-haul flights, but be prepared for criticism as most people either can’t read or like Fifty Shades of Grey so are unlikely to appreciate your finely-honed literature. Cut out all superfluous words and delete any bits you think readers might skip, which will probably be around 95% of it.

8. Get an agent. Ignore the classic ‘send three chapters and a synopsis’ guidelines. If you’re confident your book will be a bestseller, turn up at an agent’s office or home, present them with the complete manuscript and tell them to take you for dinner at an expensive restaurant – they’ll admire your confidence. If you and the agent get along, quiz them about the financial dealings of their other clients and find out what cut they take. Don’t accept anything over 1%.

9. Sign a publishing deal. Once you’ve got an agent, a publishing deal is a formality so start hunting for a new house, dump your husband/wife and go on a long holiday. For a debut novel, you should expect around £250k, and £500k for every book after that. Publishing is a notoriously violent industry so if more than one publisher is interested in you, expect to be visited by thugs who will attempt to torture you into accepting a contract with their employer. In 1978, Hawkhurst Books had crime writer Peter McAllister’s family kidnapped and killed, which is why today most authors employ a team of bodyguards.

10. Cash in. You’re now a famous author with a bestselling novel under your belt – it’s time to cash in. Unlike reality TV contestants or air crash survivors whose time in the spotlight is intense but fleeting, an author has to prepare for a 60-year career in the public eye. Overexposure can be fatal so limit your TV appearances to one a day and only give interviews to the newspapers and magazines you feel fully appreciate your immense contribution to the cultural heritage of humanity.

If you want to make easy money, the literary festival/bookshop/hospice circuit pays handsomely. All you have to do is turn up, read a brief extract of your masterpiece (80-90 pages), help yourself to as much food and drink as possible (even if it’s not free) and get out of there. Unfortunately you will have to talk to members of the public who will often ask dull or inappropriate questions. If this happens, sneer silently until they feel ashamed for having spoken – a trick Zadie Smith has mastered – or punctuate your answers by yawning. Some people will attempt to touch you in the vain hope your magic will rub off on them, so be prepared to activate your personal alarm and/or taser at all times. Refuse all requests for photos, and don’t initiate conversations with anyone unless they’re attractive members of the opposite sex (or the same sex if you’re gay) who your PA should be instructed to bundle into the boot of your limousine.

11. Have a breakdown. You’ve got it all, now self-destruct and lose everything in whirlwind of booze, drugs and rent boys. Write a second novel based on your experiences and sell fictionalised accounts of your madness to the tabloids. Use the money to fund a second breakdown/third novel. Repeat ad infinitum.

Good luck!

Clapham Lights now just 79p

Clapham Lights is now just 79p on Amazon Kindle. Yes, you did read that right, 79p. I know what you’re thinking, ‘79p? That’s a ridiculously small sum of money; that’s the kind of loose change I throw in the bin on a daily basis; that’s such a meagre amount that anyone dropping it into a church collection dish would be sent straight to hell; that tiny sum is an insult to the thousands of hours of effort it takes to write the ‘‘finest comic novel of the last decade’’*.’

I hear what you’re saying and you’re dead right. Just to emphasize what amazing value Clapham Lights is for seven hours of top quality literary entertainment, here’s what 79p buys you out in the real world:

  • A Waitrose white tin bake loaf. Shelf-life: five days.
  • The first 105 pages of Fifty Shades of Grey (hardback). Potentially enjoyable if read as a comedy about declining standards in society.
  • 2.8 seconds of a first-class BA flight from London to New York. Prepare to be ejected from your seat to your inevitable death somewhere over Heathrow.
  • 79 second-hand copies of Babylon Zoo’s critically unacclaimed 1996 album The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes. Overpriced.
  • Half a litre of diesel. Use as fuel for your van or pour over spinach and rocket for a tasty starter.
  • A thimble of beer from any London pub. Even a nun wouldn’t get drunk on that.
  • Twenty minutes of sleep in a youth hotel dorm room. Just enough time for someone to rob you of all your possessions.

See, Clapham Lights is a bargain. Buy it here.

*Nobody has actually said this, I just thought I’d put it in quotation marks to give it an undeserved air of gravitas.

The five greatest Christmas books

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

The most influential Christmas story ever written. First published in December 1843, A Christmas Carol is the tale of embittered miser Ebenezer Scrooge who vows to change after visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.

The novella helped rejuvenate old Christmas traditions like plum pudding and turkey fighting but whilst it’s full of warmth and joy, it also portrays the darker side of Victorian London with graphic scenes of prostitution, drug-taking and death.

The characters Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and Rumpy Groper are famous the world over and as a result of the book the phrases ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Bah! Humbug’ have become embedded in the public lexicon.

2. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

Set in a world where kids didn’t spend Christmas sat on their backsides stuffing their faces and playing computer games but were out pounding the streets trying to earn a living, the little match girl is a penniless young entrepreneur living in fear of her violent stepfather.

After a hard day at work in sub-zero temperatures, she takes shelter and lights her remaining matches to keep warm. In the flames she sees visions of a Christmas tree, a feast and her dead grandmother, but unfortunately she runs out of matches and freezes to death. A great Christmas story but one so depressing even EastEnders wouldn’t use it.

3. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

The book that spawned an Oscar-nominated animated film about a young boy who builds a snowman that inexplicably comes to life one winter’s night. The boy befriends the snowman and the pair have a meal, unsuccessfully attempt to steal the family car, then fly to Brighton. Tragically, when the boy wakes up the next morning the sun is out and the snowman has melted, a final scene the Daily Mail believed was a metaphor for the unsustainability of immoral fly-by-night relationships between young boys and plump older men.

Despite the fact the book doesn’t contain any words, its sympathetic characters, strong storyline and emotional depth make it vastly superior to the majority of Booker Prize-winning novels.

4. Home Alone 2: Lost in New York by JD Salinger

An iconic novel about teenage rebellion and the complex issues of alienation, identity and sexuality. Not to be confused with the 1992 film of exactly the same name starring Macaulay Culkin.

5. The Bible by J. Christ

Religion, war, natural disasters, creation of the world, talking animals – this historical epic has everything. Part-fantasy, part-misery memoir, The Bible has been a bestseller since it was first published in 4AD.

It is best known for containing the original Christmas story but don’t expect snow, Father Christmas and presents around the tree; this is the tale of a ruthlessly ambitious carpenter whose extraordinary claims and self-serving publicity stunts get him in deep trouble with the authorities.

There are plotting and characterisation issues and with a good editor the book could be five hundred pages shorter, but it’s a timeless classic which has been lauded by The Guardian as ‘The Wire meets Lord of the Rings in the Middle East’.

Do I work like a genius?

According to this article in The Guardian about Mason Currey’s new book Daily Rituals, there are six traits that link the daily routines of many of the world’s greatest minds. How does my day compare to geniuses of yesteryear and what, if anything, could I learn from the likes of Beethoven and Flaubert?

Lesson 1: Be a morning person
Like who? Mozart, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Me: Some people get up with the lark but I like to rise just as the lark is winding down, around 7am. I start the day with an ice-cold shower (I’d like a warm one but can’t afford the gas bill) and have a large bowl of Special K and two pints of black coffee. I then dress in warm, casual clothing, logon to my laptop and start work. Unfortunately the cold shower and excessive amount of coffee frequently cause violent headaches which make writing anything before lunch incredibly difficult.

Lesson 2: Have a day job
Like who? William Faulkner, TS Eliot, Franz Kafka
Me: As covered in this blog post, you should ignore this advice. Paid work just gets in the way of your real work, although having lived in relative poverty for five years I’m beginning to change my mind.

Lesson 3: Take lots of walks
Like who? Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Ranulph Fiennes
Me: I make the effort to walk everywhere, especially when I’m indoors, and a five-mile stroll around the streets of London can be a great source of inspiration. One afternoon I was sitting on a secluded bench in Battersea Park when I overheard three men discussing a plan to rob a Bond Street jewellers. I scribbled some notes, took down the men’s names and did what any responsible citizen would do – I went home and wrote a short story.

Lesson 4: Stick to a schedule
Like who? Immanuel Kant, Gustave Flaubert, WH Auden
Me: Having a routine is crucial and I like to plan my day to the minute. After recovering from breakfast, I write five words a minute for four hours from 10am, break for lunch between 2pm and 2.45pm, spend thirteen minutes in the bathroom, two minutes making myself more coffee and then the next four hours writing at six words a minute. At 7pm, I retire to the bathroom again for six minutes, cry for three minutes, have an eight-minute shower followed by a three-minute towel-down. I then watch television for one hour, take an aspirin and sleep for exactly 10h 40min which includes a psychologically disturbing nightmare between midnight and 3am.

Lesson 5: Practise strategic substance abuse
Like who? Ayn Rand, Charles Bukowski, Brian Clough
Me: I don’t take any stimulants so unlike the three names above I can’t booze or drug myself to greatness. However when the words aren’t flowing I find an episode of Homes Under the Hammer and a double shot of Toilet Duck sparks my imagination.

Lesson 6: Learn to work anywhere
Like who? Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts
Me: Blaming your environment for your lack of output is an excuse which often separates the amateur from the professional. I only need my laptop and a comfortable chair and as long as I have them, I’m ready to work. But of course like any right-minded creative I also need silence, three litres of purified cantaloupe water and a sea view. Once I have these, and as long as the room isn’t too warm (I don’t like to be in direct sunlight) and I’m not within twenty miles of a flight path or ten miles of a prison, I can bed down and get on. As long as I’m no less than fifty degrees west of the International Date Line, can feel grass between my toes and wearing my lucky green jumper.

Conclusion:
If getting up early and going for a walk makes you a genius then I’m well on the way. If producing works of genius makes you a genius, I’m unlikely to be considered one.

How to write a brilliant best man’s speech

I’ve written a lot of wedding speeches and often get asked for advice on how to bring the house down without coming across as a mumbling wreck or incurring the wrath of the bride and her unforgiving family. If you want to get big laughs and are bored of listening to cliche-ridden speeches packed full of awful jokes stolen from the internet, then read on. Although you might want to start by watching Stephen Merchant showing you how not to do it in I Give It A Year. You can’t be any worse than this.

Stage one: Pre-writing preparation

Start planning at least one month before the ceremony. The more time you give yourself to write and rehearse, the more confident you will be on the day. Remember, there’s only one thing scarier than speaking to a roomful of people: speaking to a roomful of people when you’ve not prepared what you’re going to say.

Email the groom’s friends and family and ask a few questions: What does the groom’s wife-to-be see in him? What was the groom like as a child? What are his good and bad points? They don’t need to provide fully-formed anecdotes, just anything they consider funny or interesting.

Also, start making some notes about your relationship with the groom. How did you become friends? What did you think of him when you first met? How has he changed over the years?

Within a week you’ll hopefully have a stack of emails and some decent tales of your own. Collate the best material into one document and be absolutely brutal in chopping anything you don’t think fits – even if an elderly relative has written 4,000 words about a the groom’s first caravan holiday in Bognor Regis.

Also, find out about the composition of your audience. Are the two families raucous hellraisers or ultra-conservative religious fanatics? Whoever they are, you need to get an idea of what you can and can’t say.

Stage two: Get writing

Getting the structure of the speech right is crucial, and like any good story it should have a beginning, middle and an end.

Firstly, introduce yourself and get the formalities – ‘It’s been a lovely day; doesn’t the bride look beautiful,’ – out the way. If you think you’re likely to be nervous, pre-plan an ad-lib or self-deprecating joke as audiences love vulnerability and initially it’s more important they warm to you than find you side-splittingly funny.

Your job is to give an insight into the groom’s personality, not tell his life story, but work in chronological order as it’s a structure the audience will feel comfortable with. Feel free to exaggerate for comic effect – it’s more important that your stories are entertaining than 100% accurate. Try not to use swear words, don’t steal clichéd lines from the internet, and avoid in-jokes – you need to entertain everyone, not make oblique references to something only ten people will understand.

If you’re feeling creative why not pretend to have stolen the groom’s diary or hacked his email account to use his own words against him? Or perhaps invent some quotes from his old bosses or teachers.

If you have any R-rated stories, make them as family-friendly as possible, and save them for towards the end. By this stage, there’ll be such a warm feeling in the room after those innocently amusing yarns from the groom’s childhood that you could probably commit an animal sacrifice at the top table and everyone would fall about laughing. NB: Don’t under any circumstances commit an animal sacrifice, and remember the aim should be to mildly embarrass the groom not humiliate him.

Avoid potentially divisive material like ex-girlfriends or the bride’s father’s GBH conviction and if there’s a story or joke you’re unsure about, drop the bride an email – you might be surprised how liberal she is. This is also a great way of absolving yourself of the blame if anyone complains.

Finish on a high, and don’t worry about sounding sentimental – a little sincerity goes a long way. If you think the groom’s a great bloke and you’re really happy for him, say so. If you hate his new wife, just say you think he’s a great bloke. End with the toast.

Stage three: Practise, practise, practise

You will get a natural feel for the words and if any parts are difficult to read or don’t flow, tweak them. Perform your speech to a friend and ask if there were any parts they were bored by, or try recording yourself and note any parts that sounded muddled. It’s better to deliver a short snappy speech than drone on for twenty minutes. If in doubt, cut lines out. If you feel your delivery lacks charm and sincerity, watch this clip of Nigel Havers on YouTube and copy how he talks.

Stage four: The Big Day

Pre-speech: Have a full copy of the speech with you. Note cards can be useful but unless you’re an experienced public speaker, you might forget how one part links to another. There are no prizes for memorizing it (although if you’ve practiced enough you will be able to recite parts from memory) so have the whole thing in front of you; this is your safety blanket. If you want a drink, have one, but definitely don’t get drunk.

The speech: Stand up straight and attempt to look confident. Speak slowly and clearly, leaving gaps for laughs and for you to breathe; there’s nothing worse than a best man who hammers through the speech like he’s reading it to himself in the bathroom mirror. Make sure you project your voice, it’s far better to be too loud than too quiet. Can the person in the furthest corner of the room hear you clearly? If not, speak up. You will never talk to a more receptive audience, everyone in the room wants you to be funny and you will get laughs in places you don’t expect. Try to enjoy it. You will. They’ll love you.

Post-speech: Once you’ve been carried shoulder-high around the wedding venue and congratulated by everyone there for delivering the most brilliant address since the Sermon on the Mount, retreat to the bar, find out which of the bridesmaids are single (don’t do this if you’re already married or have a girlfriend/boyfriend) and drink yourself into oblivion like the hero you are.

 

Still not confident? Hire me to write the thing for you via the Contact page.

Clapham Lights review in the Londonist

I would never dare compare Clapham Lights to Money by Martin Amis, but if anyone else wants to, like the kind people at the Londonist, then I’m all for it. Read their review here (scroll down the page, it’s the third book down). It’s probably the first book review in history to include the word ‘cockend’.

If you haven’t read Money then you definitely should, it’s incredible.