Tag Archives: literature

Three Stupid Questions Writers Should Stop Asking The Internet


Question One

“So I  have this idea for a book and I’m not sure if it will be good or not –what do you guys think?”

Short answer – I think you should write the book first.

Long answer – This may come as a surprise to some people, but it’s quite difficult to form judgements about things that don’t yet exist. Also, as any writer who has ever written a pitch or synopsis will tell you, ideas in isolation tend to sound astoundingly shit. You may have gutted, reassembled, stitched together, slapped around and polished your book until it is your perfect, golden Frankenstein-baby, but the moment someone asks you to describe it on a single sheet of A4 paper your brain refuses to cooperate. The blank page has never looked blanker. Everything you thought was interesting and fun and perceptive about your book suddenly translates to “This is a pile of boring drivel that has been done a million times before by people who are better than me.”

Still not convinced? Still want to come back here and tell us all about your marvellous, wonderful idea? Well, let me show you something.

Better Books Than Yours – Expressed As Vague Ideas.

  • Two men go for a walk around Dublin.  No, seriously – that’s it. But there’s like symbolism and shit and it’s like the Odyssey but not. It’s like, earthy – there are fart jokes.
  • Um…so there’s this girl and this boy and they grow up and she marries some other guy and he gets really pissed off and bangs his head against trees and acts weird. And then she dies. Oh, and she has a baby, and then the baby grows up and gets married to the weird guy’s son who is sickly. And the weird guy hangs out screaming at windows and stuff, looking for her mother’s ghost. Yeah. Something like that.
  • So there’s this French woman – and she gets married and then reads a bunch of romance novels and kills herself. That’s kind of it, but there’s more to  it than that but yeah – it’s like a commentary on the bourgeoisie or something.
  • Couple of guys go out to the desert with a car full of drugs and they’re looking for the American Dream but there is no American Dream – just a burned out nightclub in North Las Vegas. I guess it’s kind of an allegory. With lizards. And they’re tripping balls the whole time.
  • Middle aged man kidnaps his twelve-year-old stepdaughter with every intention of raping her. And does. Repeatedly.

See what I mean? The first four sound vaguely foolish and the fifth one would make most sensible people cross the street to avoid you.

That’s the magic of ideas. Gene Wilder may have crooned convincingly about it, but in reality Pure Imagination won’t get you very far. You also need words. Now go away and write them and stop wasting everyone’s time.

Question Two

 “What books should I read if I want to be a writer?”

All of them.

I admit, this isn’t humanly possible, but there is no reason not to try. If you don’t recognise at least three of the examples in the last section then you’d better read some more books.

And if you don’t like reading books then why the squealing fuck do you want to write one? This has always bothered me – I honestly don’t understand this. Why the hell would you want to do something – ostensibly for fun – that you’re not that interested in and in some cases actively dislike? It would be like me wanting to learn to fly a plane, even though I get airsick at the slightest turbulence and it makes my ears pop. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Look, you don’t need a degree in English Literature. You just need to be a reader. You need to be well and widely read, emphasis on the second. While there are many useful how-to books out there to help writers avoid the common pitfalls of fiction there is no substitute for watching the masters in action. If you want to know how to create sympathy for an unreliable and unpleasant narrator then Nabokov and Anthony Burgess have books that can help. (Lolita and A Clockwork Orange respectively.) If you want to know how to convey the passage of time effectively then try Evelyn Waugh or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you want to communicate a quiet character’s internal struggles with the requisite subtlety then try Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf or George Eliot. You want to see character voice done well then read Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winner The Color Purple.

And don’t say you need to read those books because they’re ‘not your genre’. If you’re a genre writer then all the more reason to broaden your horizons – there are few things worse than writers who never explore anything outside their own narrow, obsessive spheres of interest. Sit around in your own fug for long enough and you’ll start to stink like the mother of all Dutch ovens.

It’s perfectly okay to hate the classics too – just so long as you know why you hate them. I know plenty of people who loathe Wuthering Heights for the very same reasons other people love it – bucketloads of pointless screaming, gratuitous ghosts and terrible people making life awful for one another. Personally I can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne – I think he’s a wordy fuck and about as subtle as a shovel to the back of the head. It’s fine – you’re allowed to love, you’re allowed to hate, so long as you read.

Question Three

 “Do you think there’s still a market for vampires/zombies/werewolves/yet another book about swapping bodily fluids with a billionaire?”

Okay – here’s what you do if you want the inside track on publishing. Do you want to know what’s going to be the next big thing? Is it going to be dystopian futures? Is it going to be billionaire vampire menage erotica? Unicorn porn?

Of course you do. So let’s get started.

You will need:

One small goat. (Alive. Preferably free from blemish so as not to offend the Gods.)

Rope. Quite a lot.

Goat tranquilizers? (Check with your veterinarian.)

Possibly some kind of blunt instrument, just to be on the safe side.

No, you know what – fuck it. A gun would be kinder.

A quiet corner of the local abattoir.

Some kind of altar.

Several very large and very sharp knives.

  1. So  first shoot your…oh Jesus, no. Fuck this shit.

Yeah, okay. You probably get the point I’m making, right?

If you prefer the vegetarian option you can employ an equally Roman method of prognostication – simply gazing into a mirror in the hope of eventually seeing the future.* It’s as pointless and ineffective as sacrificing a goat and rummaging through its entrails for answers, but it is a hell of a lot easier to clean up afterwards.

Alternatively, you can take three little words to heart and stop worrying about the next big thing.

Repeat after me.

Nobody. Knows. Anything.


Once more, with feeling.

Nobody knows anything.

I can’t take credit for these wise words. They were the words of William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride. Goldman was talking about the movie business when he said this but he may as well have been talking about publishing, or any other branch of the arts driven by fashion.

Nobody knows a single, solitary goddamn thing.

You see, publishing is largely the business of throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. Occasionally if a really adhesive turd hangs a magical landing everyone goes into a frenzy and makes stickier kinds of shit to throw at that part of the wall. (Wow. I apologise for the incredibly disgusting metaphors in this section.) This is why publishers went crazy for Young Adult novels after the success of Harry Potter, or why every romantic hero these days has billions in the bank and a raft of unconvincing psychological issues that mean he has to have sex at least five times a day.

This is also why everyone is profoundly sick of vampire novels.

Does that mean you shouldn’t write a vampire novel? Well, fuck no. If you have a vampire novel in mind and you think you can make it work, do it. Write it. Trends come and go. Good stories have a habit of sticking around. Now go away and write one.


 * These fortune tellers were known as speculari, from where we get the word ‘speculate’. Most city speculators actually know about as much as their etymological forefathers, which is a nice thing to think about if you feel you don’t have enough grey hairs yet. That and asteroids.


Fifty Shades of Neigh – Part Four

In which Hanna makes a right mess of the D’Urbervilles and somehow manages to secure an actual date with an actual man.

Review: Queen of the Nude, by Peter Galen Massey

I’m a sucker for anything Shakespeare. He’s the reason I’ve spent over a year elbow deep in the gore and guilt of Macbeth, trying to transfer something of its essence to a quiet Sussex village in 1925.

It’s lazy of me, because Shakespeare’s tragedies are easily re-imagined – big themes, resonant emotions, uncomfortable stone-cold truths of human nature. The comedies, on the other hand, are a much more slippery proposition, and none more slippery than Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Midsummer Night’s Dream is a curious little play, a sort of meta entertainment within an entertainment. The last time I think I saw an attempt to update it was when the BBC did it some years ago, with Johnny Vegas as Bottom. There were love-potions and a Centre-Parksy sort of woodland retreat and I don’t remember much else other than it didn’t really come off. Good effort, but…meh. Naturally I was curious to see someone else have a go. Continue reading

Snap, heckle and scoff

Chapter Three of Fifty Shades of Grey is extremely boring.

I’ll break it down for you. You know that photoshoot they arranged while Christian was doing his American Psycho routine in the hardware store last chapter? You don’t? Oh well. That happens, anyway. This is how things go in this book. They talk about doing stuff, then they do that stuff, then they talk about some more stuff and do that and so on. There are no other plot threads – just this one, and it slouches miserably along from one thing to another. Some people take pictures of Christian and then Ana and Christian have coffee, except she doesn’t have coffee she has tea because she doesn’t like coffee and she has English Breakfast Tea, bag out and zzzzzzzzzz…

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the kind of teabagging I was expecting to hear about in a dirty book.

Kate is ecstatic. “But what was he doing at Clayton’s?” Her curiosity oozes through the phone.

That, on the other hand, is fucking filthy. If you can ooze telephonically then you’d do well to take your curiosity down to the clap clinic. Yikes.

So, yes. I’m afraid it’s all incredibly dull aside from Kate’s mysterious ooze. It’s just the usual inane ‘Oh no, does he like me do I like him why are my panties moist’ drivel – for another chapter. Sorry about that. We’ll just have to talk about something interesting instead.


No, don’t look at me like that. Dialogue tags are fascinating. They really are. Adverbs, said-bookisms – it’s a non-stop thrill ride.

Look, this is the alternative.

“Miss Steele, we meet again.” Grey extends his hand, and I shake it, blinking rapidly. Oh my…he really is, quite…wow. As I touch his hand, I’m aware of that delicious current running right through me, making me blush, and I’m sure my erratic breathing must be audible.

See? You can’t expect me to parse this mess. It’s barely even English.

So. Dialogue tags.

Chapter three is a dialogue heavy chapter. Most of the dialogue is bad because Christian is Edward Cullen and consequently talks like a sheltered Mormon housewife’s idea of a sexy Fin de Siecle vampire. To anyone who has spent time around human beings he just sounds like a pompous dickhead.

And obviously Ana doesn’t have anything interesting to say because she’s Bella Swan and when she opens her mouth it’s to say things like “My mother has had lots of husbands. I like books.” The only consolation is that is that it’s a lot better than her internal monologue, which basically goes ohmygodhessohotandimsomousyohmygodohmygod.

This gets quite tiresome after about five minutes.

The dialogue is rendered even worse by a heavy-handed garnish of some unlikely said-bookisms.


Said-bookisms are basically substitutes for the word ‘said’ in dialogue. At one time they were quite fashionable and people in novels exclaimed, expostulated and even ejaculated with alarming regularity. These days they’re largely frowned upon as a sign of sloppy, mauvish writing.

Some beginners bust out the said-bookisms because they’re worried about too many saids on the page. Don’t worry about that. They don’t call it the Invisible Said for no reason. Readers eyes slide off saids – they’re par for the course. They’re much more likely to react strongly if your characters are all bellowing, howling and grunting like the residents of Regent’s Park Zoo. There is a magic trick for radically reducing the number of saids but I’ll show you that later. Instead let’s see how exuberantly E.L. James screws the pooch.

In chapter three there are seven incidences of the word ‘says’ used as a dialogue tag. Not bad, you might think, but wait.

There are eleven asks, six murmurs, five mutters and a scoff. Characters also snap, prompt, whisper, cry, groan, snort, speculate and shrug. When they’re not doing that they’re also nodding, announcing, smiling, begging, breathing, demanding, retaliating, calling, sighing, squeaking and finishing off with an unlikely but interesting blurt.

My list of said-bookisms ended up a thing of surreal beauty. Not only did it contain more mutters than a Dusseldorf mother and toddler group and enough murmurs to interest a passing cardiologist, the mixture of snap, squeak and scoff left it looking like the world’s weirdest advertisement for Rice Krispies.

Now, some of these aren’t entirely terrible. People occasionally snap. Sometimes they scoff and even blurt. Nobody sane is going to tar and feather you for an occasional ‘ask’ even if the question mark in the dialogue renders it redundant. Not all said-bookisms are evil. Sometimes they even add colour and variation to a page, but they’re one of those things that’s best in extreme moderation, sort of like saturated fats.

The said-bookisms that get people’s backs up tend to be the ones that are physically impossible. Take the last sentence and shrug it. Smile it. Nod it.

Difficult, isn’t it? It’s so much easier if you just say it.


Adverbs are the ly words that hang off the back of saids – softly, bitterly, angrily etc. Sometimes they’re useful, other times they’re a fast track to absurdity.

“What, Christian?” I snap irritably after he says – nothing.

See what I mean? You can always combine an adverb with a said-bookism for extra redundancy. If she’s snapping we can infer that she’s irritable – we don’t need to be spoon fed.

Of course, you can also be silly with a simple said.

“Did you come by train?”  he said, inquisitively.

In this case the question itself renders ‘inquisitively’ useless.

Adverbs are best used to qualify speech when you want the tone of what’s being said to contradict the actual content.

“If you don’t sit quiet and finish your vegetables I will tear off your head and piss down the neckhole,” Aunt Iphigenia said sweetly.

How To Avoid Said Altogether 

Here’s the magic trick. Do you want to know how you can write dialogue without worrying you’re using too many saids, and worrying that your said-anxiety is leading you off the straight and narrow and making you do dirty, inappropriate things with adverbs and said-bookisms?

Course you do. The alternative is blurting, and nobody wants that.

Like most magic tricks it’s so simple it’s almost sad, but learning to perform it beautifully can take a lifetime of practise.

I’m talking about character voice, that sleight of authorial hand which makes one character’s dialogue distinct from another’s.

Jane Austen was brilliant at this. Terry Pratchett is also something of a modern master of this art. If you removed all tags from his dialogue and just read it straight the chances are that even if you didn’t know the characters you would ‘hear’ the distinct voices of Gytha Ogg vs. Esme Weatherwax, or Vimes and Vetinari. They have their own turns of phrase, rhythms, speech patterns and catchphrases. Pratchett is also a great one for a good, unvarnished said, although occasionally some of his characters bark and bellow. But they’re allowed to – they’re wizards.

However, if you are looking to learn from one of the most brilliant dialogue writers ever to breathe oxygen, then run, don’t walk to the nearest P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse used surprisingly few dialogue tags despite a huge volume of dialogue, basically because his character voices are just that good. The slow, stately tones of Jeeves contrast with the excitable, verbose Bertie Wooster. Languid Drones, marauding aunts, nervous fiances and red-faced American millionaires all give distinct voice.

Perhaps the most intimidating thing about Wodehouse is when you realise that his sparkling dialogue is not only providing laughs and flawlessly framing character but it’s also performing the heavy lifting work and facilitating some of the most intricate comedy plots in fiction.

‘We part, then, for the nonce, do we?’

‘I fear so, sir.’

‘You take the high road, and self taking the low road, as it were?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I shall miss you, Jeeves.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?’

‘The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.’

‘It’s the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don’t mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?’

‘Not at all, sir.’

See what I mean? You will never be this good.

On the other hand, with a bit of luck, some good books and a stiff following breeze you may never be this bad.

“Shit, Ana!” Grey cries. He tugs the hand that he’s holding so hard that I fall back against him just as a cyclist whips past, narrowly missing me, heading the wrong way up this one-way street.

This is the one line in chapter three in which something nearly happens – Ana nearly gets run over by a bicycle. She doesn’t, of course, because that would be unduly exciting for the reader and everyone knows if readers get too excited they start setting fire to their own heads for the sheer dumb thrill of it, or daubing rude graffiti on the library walls. Maybe. I don’t know. Three chapters into this book and I’ve already forgotten what excitement feels like. I think it’s probably something to do with the fact that our neurasthenic heroine spends so much time describing how much she’s quivering and shivering and trembling and gasping and verbing and run-on sentencing that I am numbed to all descriptions of excitement. She must be waist deep in her own panty-pudding by now and he hasn’t even so much as kissed her.

But wait, what light from yonder paragraph breaks? Could something else be about to happen?

Like any good romance heroine, Ana has fallen into Christian’s arms.

He has one arm around me, clasping me to him, while the fingers of his other hand softly trace my face, gently probing, examining me. His thumb brushes my lower lip, and I hear his breath hitch. He’s staring into my eyes, and I hold his anxious, burning gaze for a moment or maybe it’s forever…but eventually my attention is drawn to his beautiful mouth. Oh my. And for the first time in twenty one years, I want to be kissed. I want to feel his mouth on me.

And here the chapter ends, because you don’t deserve more than one significant event per chapter, even if the other significant event was not-being-hit-by-a-bicycle and wasn’t really significant. If authors start spoiling you demanding hoardes with too many events you’ll start demanding plot; and well-rounded characters and interesting situations. And then we’ll all be in trouble.

Holding Out For A Hero (Or just someone who doesn’t make me vomit – I’m not picky.)

Lesson Three – Your Hero

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing – an unforgettable hero is one of those things that takes your book from the ordinary to the extraordinary. There are hundreds of historical novels about the Julio-Claudian dynasty but only one C-C-Claudius. There are many, many tales of teenage delinquency but Anthony Burgess’ Alex remains all on his oddy-knocky.

A strong, well rounded hero is a mainstay of good fiction. When it comes to romantic fiction he is absolutely vital. (By the way, I’m not offering short shrift to the ladies – we will deal with heroines, at some point when I can be arsed to attempt a closer examination of the twitchy cardboard wretch we’ve been handed in lieu of an actual female lead.)

The romantic hero is a big character, the Darcys, the Heathcliffs, the Rochesters. These guys are so iconic they get taken out several times a generation, dusted off and rehashed to lend cultural chops to the newest crop of startlingly photogenic idiots.

It’s no wonder. A love story is (unless you’re really sticking your neck out on this) essentially a story about two people. Your hero has to carry the weight of half a book on his shoulders, sometimes more if he’s playing opposite inconsiderate heroines like Catherine Earnshaw, who cark it and leave him taking up the slack. And if his opposite number is a wet weekend like Ana Steele then he’s going to need all the bloody help he can get; the corpse of Cathy Earnshaw had more animation in one maggot riddled eye socket than Ana has in her entire dank, nerveless body.

Also, and let’s not be too delicate here, you want a hero whose name you’d feel good about screaming when you come.

In this respect, La James has probably succeeded. Countless Rampant Rabbits have probably been renamed Christian* by strange women who need to read more good books. But let’s leave that aside for now – I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of Twihards and I suspect I’d need a degree in psychiatry to do so.

Let’s get down to what’s really important. How do you introduce this man? How does he make that all important first impression? How does he burst onto the scene?

Well, if you’re E.L. James you stick him a room with a wet lettuce and have said wet lettuce invite him to talk about himself. It’s not exactly hard work on the author’s part, but we wouldn’t want her to strain something, would we?

Are you ready for your first glimpse of our hero?

Hold onto your gussets, girls.

So young – and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt and black tie with unruly dark-copper-colored hair and intense bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.

So, he’s tall.

He’s wearing a grey suit and a white shirt. He is also wearing a black tie with unruly dark-copper-coloured hair and intense bright grey eyes. Even if you disregard the fact that the tie is peering shrewdly at you, that’s still a pretty fucking weird tie.

I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.

Try this. It’s hilarious.

“You’re very young to have amassed such an empire. To what do you owe your success?” I glance up at him. His smile is rueful but he looks vaguely disappointed. 

“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivize them. I employ an exceptional team, and I reward them well.” He pauses and fixes me with his gray stare. “My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that. I make decisions based on logic and facts. I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good, solid idea and good people. The bottom line is it’s always down to good people.” 

“Maybe you’re just lucky.” This isn’t on Kate’s list, but he’s so arrogant. His eyes flare momentarily in surprise.

There you go. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. He’s the kind of prattling, hollow bell-end usually seen at the business end of the stubby, pointing finger of Lord Alan Sugar.

I think I already hate him even more than I hate Ana. Incentivize? Ugh. Horrible little man.

I don’t want to spend my life dwelling on the quality of E.L. James’ unholy word sputum, but it’s impossible to avoid. Just typing that short passage above sent my brain into open revolt – I kept trying to correct the comma usage and turn the sentences into something approximating actual human speech. It. Is. Just. So. Bad.

This is a woman so cack-handed she can’t even grasp ‘show, don’t tell’. If she wanted to demonstrate that Christian was arrogant and hot then just have him deliver his sub-Randroid business gabble from inside a giant clamshell perched atop a rotting pile of dead poors. Yes, it would be fucking ridiculous, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.

Instead we get this.

Sentences In Which Christian Is Hot

So young – and attractive, very attractive.

I wonder if it reflects the personality of the Adonis who sinks gracefully into one of the white leather chairs opposite me.

Why does he have such an overwhelming effect on me? His overwhelming good looks, maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me?

And for some reason I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze. His eyes are alight with some wicked thought.

I stop breathing. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking.

His gaze is intense, all humor gone, and strange muscles deep in my belly clench suddenly.

Moving with lithe, athletic grace to the door, he opens it wide.

He really is very, very good looking. It’s distracting. His burning grey eyes gaze at me.

One gets the impression there might have been more of these if Ana knew what those ‘strange muscles’ were up to. I’m getting the distinct impression that Ana is not that bright.

Sentences In Which Christian Is Arrogant

He’s so arrogant

“Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele,” he says without a trace of humor in his smile.

I am staggered by his lack of humility.

But holy crap, he’s so arrogant.

“Though there are people who say I don’t have a heart.”

His tone is stern, authoritative.

All of these examples are from about five pages, not even half a chapter. For the second time in the chapter I’m reminded of Ayn Rand, and not just because of the tedious, ubermenschy dickhole and the gratuitous money-porn. E.L. James also utilises one of Rand’s favourite narrative tortures.

  1. Make point.
  2. Make point again.
  3. Repeat point in case the audience didn’t catch it the first two times.
  5. Seize audience by hair, rub their faces in point and call them ignorant fuckheads for not getting it. Oh, they say they’ve got it, but they lie. They lie.

Obviously, this is a very bad way to get your point across. It gets annoying after about fifteen seconds. If you want to reach a wider audience than the kind of repetitive bores who never stop going on about weed and Ron Paul then you’re going to have to learn how to write simple, elegant character sketches.

Nobody did this better than Jane Austen.

Contrast and compare Ana’s first meeting with Christian with the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice.

“You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room,” said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennett.

“Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.”

“Which do you mean?” and turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me.”

Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him.

The word ‘arrogant’ is not used once, but here we see that Darcy is arrogant – arrogant enough to look Elizabeth in the eye and do everything but start singing ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’. What a shithead.

This not only establishes the misunderstanding on which Elizabeth and Darcy’s faltering one-step-forward-two-steps-back relationship begins, but also establishes the plot for the entire novel.

“But I can assure you,” she [Mrs. Bennett] added, “that Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and walked there, fancying himself so very great! Not handsome enough to dance with! I wish you had been there, my dear, to have given him one of your set downs. I quite detest the man.”

Mr. Darcy may have ten thousand a year but as far as Mrs. Bennett is concerned, he can eat a bag of cheesy dicks. Well, for a bit. Until she calms down and realises she can be prepared to just tolerate him if he comes as a package with the wealthy and adoring Mr. Bingley, who would be such a good match for Jane…

The first few chapters of Pride and Prejudice make up one of the most brilliant and economical pieces of writing in the English language. In those few pages, often using little but dialogue and character voice, Jane Austen expertly sketches the put-upon Mr. Bennett, his overwrought wife, gentle Jane, canny Lizzy, silly Kitty, priggish Mary and flighty Lydia. All of the Bennetts emerge fully formed in two chapters, which in my edition amount to all of four pages.

Four pages.

When you think about it it’s enough to make you cry. It’s genius. It’s perfect. You will never be this good.

Still, that’s no reason not to try, because when writers stop trying we end up with characters doing things like this.

He places his elbows on the arms of the chair and steeples his fingers in front of his mouth.

Yep. Our hero tents his fingers like Mr. Burns. These are our main players, folks – Monty fucking Burns and a twenty one year old woman who probably still refers to her own cunt as her ‘twinkle’.

It’s going to be a hell of a ride, isn’t it?

Pass the sick bags.

* They previously answered to ‘Edward’.

But is it chicken or tuna? I don’t understand!

Good morning. Welcome back to Fifty Shades of Shit, an attempt to wade our way through the most inexplicably popular pile of crap since Richardson’s Pamela beat 18th Century readers over the head with the same repeated plot point for about forty million mind-numbing pages.

Now, I know what you’re all thinking – grammar is all very well and characterisation is very important, but when do we get to the bit where we point and laugh at the hilariously shitty writing?

Well, it’s your lucky day. Let’s roll around in the stink a little, although not entirely without purpose. Remember I asked what the problem was with the paragraph we crudely repaired last time?

The problem, of course, is Ana. Ana has been living with Kate for some time. Ana knows Kate has been trying to arrange this interview for the past nine months. Nine months of conversations about school and work and boys and grades and the student magazine. Nine fucking months, people. And Ana still doesn’t know anything about the subject of this much sought after interview? Either this girl’s skull could be used to armour plate a presidential limo or this book already makes no sense at all.

Lesson 2 – How To Make Your Writing Make Sense.

 This is really simple. Make it make sense. That’s all. That’s literally all you have to do. Why can’t you do this, E.L. James? It’s not hard.

Okay, so we’ve established that Ana and Kate are bee-eff-effs forever, despite Ana apparently not paying attention to anything Kate has said for the last nine months. How do we know this? Well, there was a well worded and realistic dialogue exchange peppered with relevant detai…oh, who the fuck am I kidding?

There was this. This.

I cannot believe I let Kate talk me into this. But then Kate can talk anyone into anything. She’ll make an exceptional journalist. She’s articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative, beautiful – and she’s my dearest, dearest friend.

You know, whenever I want to say something nice to my friends this is the way I always go. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like barfing up some bastard cocktail of a boilerplate eulogy and the advertising copy for an upmarket feminine deodorant.

And this makes no sense either. Kate? Make an exceptional journalist? Are we talking about the same Kate who is currently snuffling into her pink pyjamas and crying off the interview she’s been pursuing for nine months? Because of a nasty cold?

Have you ever heard of a journalist who pulls shit like this? Of course you haven’t, because they don’t fucking exist. They get fired. Journalists crank out terrifying quantities of verbiage on a daily basis. The competition is fierce, even for insufferable Guardian articles about where to find the best handmade pesto in Liguria. There will always be a younger, leaner, hungrier pestophile chasing your shadow, so you’d better get down to some serious rhapsodising about pine-nuts, fucko. There’s no room for colds and flu in the cutthroat world of classic pasta sauces.

Anyway, finally we’re moving and Ana narrates her drive to the interview-she-knows-nothing-about-despite-being-roomates-with-the-journalist-for-nine-months.

My destination is the headquarters of Mr. Grey’s global enterprise.

I don’t know how she does it. It’s such a weird talent that I’m almost in awe. There can’t be many people out there who can take a simple sentence and make it look as though it has passed through the guts of a Doberman pinscher.

It’s a huge twenty-story office building, all curved glass and steel, an architect’s utilitarian fantasy, with Grey House written discreetly in steel over the glass front doors.

See what I mean?

Ana signs in and then spends the next page drawing an unfavourable comparison between herself and Christian Grey’s blonde receptionist.

She hands me a security pass that has VISITOR very firmly stamped on the front. I can’t help my smirk. Surely it’s obvious that I’m just visiting. I don’t fit in here at all. Nothing changes, I inwardly sigh. Thanking her, I walk over to the bank of elevators past the two security men who are far more smartly dressed than I am in their well-cut black suits.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just relishing the prospect of spending a whole book in Anastasia’s tepid, self-loathing company. 

The elevator whisks me with terminal velocity to the twentieth floor.

Not a Physics major, obviously.

The doors slide open and I’m in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman dressed impeccably in black and white who rises to greet me.

Clearly not an English major either. This book reads like it was dictated by the author’s sat-nav. I don’t even know how it’s possible to get things this wrong.

I sit down, fish the questions from my satchel, and go through them, inwardly cursing Kate for not providing me with a brief biography.

So why didn’t you ask, dipshit? The only question she asked Kate before leaving their apartment was “Nyquil or Tylenol?” which was nice of her but not terribly helpful to her or Kate. A real friend might have reminded Kate that real journalists don’t get to have colds.

Veteran BBC journalists like Kate Adie and Orla Guerin have reported from some of the worst places in the world –Iraq, the Unholy Land, Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Kate Adie in particular tells a hell of a story about sprinting across Tiananmen Square with a videotape in her hand. People were dying all around her and there was nothing she and the camera crew could do to help them. So, in her helplessness she fixated on the videotape. This footage, she told herself, had to leave China. The world had to see this. The world had to see the truth about the massacre.

As she ran she felt something jog her elbow. The precious videotape went flying out of her hand. She scrambled to pick it up and kept on running through the bullets. It was only later, much later, after she’d filed her story, that she realised the thing that had jogged her elbow had been a bullet. She’d been winged.*

You, on the other hand?

You have a cold. Now huff some Olbas oil, pour yourself a glass of your best non-drowsy and get dressed. I’ll drive.

Of course, none of this happens because for the purposes of this book Ana needs to go to the interview and meet Christian so that she can fall in love with him from the waist down. It’s a massive, glaring contrivance. I would actually like this book better if they simply and literally bumped into one another (and their towering piles of gift parcels) while Christmas shopping in a department store.

Sure, it would be a cliché, but at least it would make sense.

I know nothing about this man I’m about to interview.

Why? Haven’t you picked up even the smallest detail from your roommate over the past nine months? Are you really that obtuse? And if you are, why the dancing pink fuck is your roommate trusting you to do this interview? I wouldn’t trust you to change the spare toilet roll. Instead of asking me which recycling bin I use for the empty cardboard tubes you’d just stand there blinking, smirking and complaining that you didn’t belong anywhere. Ugh.

He could be ninety or thirty. The uncertainty is galling and my nerves resurface, making me fidget. I’ve never been comfortable with one-on-one interviews, preferring the anonymity of a group discussion where I can sit inconspicuously at the back of the room.

Why would you send anyone this timid to conduct an interview? It makes no sense.

To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library. Not sitting twitching nervously in a colossal glass and stone edifice.

We’re supposed to believe Ana wrote this. It’s a first person narrative, she’s the narrator. Ana, the English Major, is apparently responsible for these tortured, ugly sentences.

It. Makes. No. Sense.

How does a woman work her way through the canon of English Literature without picking up a single correct sentence construction? Bear in mind this is the same oblivious fucking idiot who managed to spend nine months in the company of a woman trying to arrange an interview with Christian Grey and still failed to absorb a single sodding detail – not even an overheard ‘phone call.

Nobody is this stupid. Nobody. It’s impossible. Even the philosopher Jessica Simpson posed the cosmic question “But is it chicken or tuna?”

And yet she is. Our heroine, ladies and gentlemen – she’s an insecure mouse who talks in Hallmark cards and is apparently incapable of asking simple questions like “What’s does he do for a living?” or “How old is he?”.

These aren’t qualities that are immediately attractive to the average man, but as you’ve probably heard, Christian Grey is no average man.

Oh yeah. You know what I mean.

Lube up the love-eggs and change the batteries, babies, because next time we’re finally going to meet Mr. Christian Grey.

* For more stories from Kate Adie, check out her autobiography ‘The Kindness of Strangers’.

And this is only the first page

So I finished Fifty Shades of Grey.

I almost love it. It’s magnificent, in its own way. I heard it was bad, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality. It’s so terrible it’s almost art, a sort of masterclass in How Not To Write A Novel. (Read it, learn it, love it.)

Ah, but you say, it sold, didn’t it? The author is now papering her downstairs toilet in banknotes, still has enough money to put her kids through college debt free and she’s been on Newsnight.

Well, yes – perfectly true, except she’s an outlier, a freak. There are literally hundreds and thousands of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey out there. If you’re going to crank out a book as cack-handed as this one, you’d better pray it ‘goes viral’ amongst the sexually frustrated bookclub set, because the rest of them are languishing in slush piles from which they will never again emerge to see the light of day.

Anyway, if you want to make a fortune from your writing and top the bestseller lists and go on Newsnight, then good luck to you. I’m not talking to you anyway. I’m talking to you. Yes, you – the writer who strives to be good.

For you, this book is a smorgasbord of wonderful examples. I know I’m always saying that the best way to learn to write good books is to read good books, but you can also learn a huge amount by reading bad books.

And Fifty Shades of Grey is bad. Wow, it’s bad. It’s just straight-up stinky. We may as well get started here and now because the book opens with a doozy.

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.


Damn my hair – it just won’t behave,

Oh God.

and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.

I want my mother. Mummy, make it stop!

I remember laughing at Dan Brown for hauling Robert Langdon out of bed and over to a mirror so that he could describe himself. E.L. James doesn’t even bother getting her heroine out of bed – she plonks her straight down in front of a mirror so that Anastasia Steele can helpfully tell us what she looks like.

I roll my eyes with exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.

At this point, I give up. Sorry. It’s like four whole chapters of Ayn Rand-level awful distilled into one astonishingly ugly sentence. You’re on your own. Bye.

I’m joking, of course. Let’s look at the pertinent details this sentence conveys.

Ana has large blue eyes.

Ana has unruly brown hair.

Ana apparently has the ability to stare, gaze and roll her eyes all at the same time. She should probably see a doctor.

And I should stop boggling at this sentence. Picking out ill-constructed sentences in this book is like shooting Fifty Kinds of Fish in a barrel.

Let’s be serious. What does it mean to you to know that the heroine of a book has blue eyes, brown hair and a frizz problem? What does her having brown hair and blue eyes reveal about her as a person, other than that she has brown hair and blue eyes?

For contrast, here’s another famous book which opens with a description of the heroine.

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realised it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. But it was an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel, starred with bristly black lashes and slightly tilted up at the ends. Above them, her thick black brows slanted upwards, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin – that skin so prized by Southern women and so carefully guarded with bonnets, veils and mittens against hot Georgia suns. 

That’s a chunky old lump of description right there, usually the kind of thing that stops a narrative in its tracks, which is maybe why Margaret Mitchell decided to make it the very first paragraph of Gone With The Wind, just to get it over with.

Now read it again. List the things this paragraph tells us about Scarlett. It doesn’t just tell us that she has fair skin, green eyes and dark hair. It tells us that her skin is coveted and cosseted and that she’s not just charming one man but two – the Tarleton twins. And what does that square jaw suggest about her character?

This is a great description. Whatsmore, it’s relevant. Margaret Mitchell is not telling us what Scarlett looks like for the sheer hell of it – Scarlett knows she’s attractive. She’s a vain, self-centred flirt and her self-serving vanity is at the core of her character driven story. You can’t separate Scarlett O’Hara from her green eyes and magnolia skin any more than you can separate Jane Eyre from her Quakerish frocks.

Let’s take a look at Jane, while we’re on the subject. Here’s a heroine who’s in the same first person position as Anastasia (The ‘I’ character.) Does Charlotte Bronte plop Plain Jane down in front of a mirror in order to describe herself?

Well, yes she does.

Listen, then, Jane Eyre, to your sentence: to-morrow, place the glass before you, and draw in chalk your own picture, faithfully; without softening one defect: omit no harsh line, smooth away no displeasing irregularity; write under it, ‘Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain.’

There are no rules in writing that you’re not allowed to break, so long as you break them well. It’s not that Jane Eyre goes to the mirror to describe herself to the reader – Jane goes to the mirror to draw a self portrait, to compare herself unfavourably to the beautiful Blanche Ingram, with whom Mr. Rochester is said to be fascinated. This is relevant to Jane’s character. This is Jane calmly but firmly punishing herself for not looking reality in the face. It’s also an ironic paragraph because the portrait of Blanche she plans to draw for comparison is drawn only from the servants’ descriptions of the beauty – she hasn’t actually met Blanche yet. Jane is prone to imagine that her ‘betters’ are a damn sight better than they really are. The passage underlines both her steadfast honesty and her naivete, two of the core traits that have made her such an unforgettable heroine.

Obviously this is not the only reference to Jane’s appearance in the novel – her appearance is often referred to by other characters, from the horrible relatives who call her ‘a little toad’ to Rochester himself, who is impressed by her air of stillness and calm.

Your other characters are people too. They’re a godsend if you’re writing a first person narrative. You needn’t stick anyone in front of a mirror – just let the other characters react to your narrator’s appearance. Let them react naturally. A pretty character is going to be used to people seeing them as pretty and vice versa. Scarlett O’Hara makes men act like fools so often that she’s infuriated and fascinated when Rhett Butler manages to keep his head in her presence. Similarly, Jane is so accustomed to being treated as the human equivalent of dry rot that she’s incredulous when Rochester turns his affections on her.

There is so much more I could say about descriptions in fiction but I’m slightly scared by how much I’ve already said. And this was prompted by the first half page of this buggardly awful book.

Worse? It’s a fucking trilogy.