Caution: contains Brexit

Author Joe Abercrombie answers a tough question about writing on Twitter: 'How much wasted work do you think you have in every book?'

Well, none, in a sense, because you couldn't get to the finished book without doing that work. To use a film metaphor, if you shoot five takes and pick one, those other ones weren't wasted, they were part of the process of getting the one you wanted. 

This is a lovely perspective on the value that comes from the process, as well as the result. 

First of many tangents, and stay with me, as I tell this story alot, but it has stuck with me. About ten years ago, I heard editor Simon Spanton answer a fairly 'softball' question from the crowd. "How do I get published?" Rather than focusing on the procedure (query letters, agents, prayer), Simon turned the question around. What do you want? Is the goal 'to be published'? Because that's a very different goal from 'to be a writer', or even 'to write a book'.

The conflation of those objectives makes for - broken record time! - confused, and arbitrary, definitions of success. A self-published author is angry they're not in a bookstore; a traditionally-published debut is disappointed that they still have their day job; someone who worked for a decade completing their secret novel feels like rubbish because it doesn't have a publisher. Letting others define your success is predestined failure.

Abercrombie's take also shows the murky relationship between success and 'middling'. If the goal is to be done, everything that's not on the direct path to completion is, by nature, wasted work: counter-successful. If the goal is, however, to be donewell - to get better - time well spent - then the process is successful, even before it reaches its completion. 

This sounds like a preachy little self-help video, but I'm not actually interested in the fuzzy inspirational  poster. As much as I'd like every journey to be as valuable as its destination and other such bollocks, that's clearly not the case. Middling is not inherently meaningful.

Which leads us to Brexit! (Watches subscription numbers plummet.) Let's set aside whether or not Brexit is a success worth achieving, and look at the one thing that everyone - from the hardest Leaver to the most ardent Remainer can agree on: the process has suuuuuuuucked. There's simply no other way to put it. Britain Thinks' latest research summarises this as 'absolute despair at the whole political class', with 83% agreeing that 'the entire political establishment has failed'.

The British public's opinion of every category of the 'establishment' has gotten worse, with net perception down across the board: Tories (-49%) and Labour (-46%), May (-32%) and Corbyn (-51%), the EU (-41%), Parliament (-64%) and, well, even the British public (-18%). That last one is particularly amazing - the past two years have been such a muddle that the British public no longer even likesitself. Edelman's Trust Barometer shows that over half the 'mass public' thinks that system is failing them, with over 70% expressing 'lack of confidence'. The process has undermined the system as a concept. The impact of Brexit's middling, irregardless of its ultimate outcome, will be felt for generations. 

(If there's a 'silver lining', it is that the world, as a whole, is pretty despairing, so the global baseline is pretty crap. Globally "only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them". I'm not sure how reassuring it is to know that everyone is collapsing out of civil society, but, well, there you go. Hang in there.)

How is Brexit like writing a book? Or, to go back to Abercrombie's advice writing a book? With apologies to any authors in the house, one is simply a great deal more complicated than the other. The latter argues that the struggle can be meaningful, but the former shows that, in some cases, it can turn sour, with horrific repercussions. How do we gauge when our effortis'wasted'? What measures of success do we have for the process itself, to ensure that, even with no end in sight, the middle is still of value?

Get: Gamblers
To: Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run

By: Robust process evaluation

Further reading:

  • I've just finished writing an article on the Western classic, Lonesome Dove. Our two (doomed) protagonists, accompanied by a host of (doomed) companions, drive cattle from Mexico to Montana - an 800 page gauntlet of Biblical terrors. Then [spoilers] they basically turn around and go home. What's, you know, the point? Is it about the journey? The destination? Or, as I argue (less succinctly than this), the reward was simply fulfilling the desire to move. For the cowboys of Lonesome Dove, middling is to be. To end is, well, to end.

  • Do communities middle?An analysis of Reddit looks at how groups change over time.As groups grow, turnover increases and participation is 'dispersed'. That is, the bigger they are, they less of a 'community' they become.

  • Literal middling. Great ad.

 The Outcast Hours is out today (in the UK, Americans have had it since Tuesday, the lucky so-and-so's). You can buy it, like, everywhere: Amazon / / B&N / Foyles / Blackwells / Waterstones.

Signed copies will be available through Forbidden Planet after tonight as well.

Come join me - and more importantly, a bunch of amazing authors - tonight and next Thursday.

Outcast-flogging will be minimised after this email. (And my next book isn't until May, so, who knows, there may be meaningful content between now and then. Although I'd hate to over-promise.)