Hand-written "£10 ono"

On the money

Take a look at this, please, and spot the one ridiculous part of it:

I’ve been flown out to St Tropez by a swimwear fashion company that is desperate for me to model their Summer collection. We’ve taken test shots with me pointing at things out of frame. Some of us have taken coke, some of us have taken Pepsi. And now it’s down to the real business: I ask what they’re willing to pay me.

The fashion CEO takes out a pen and a piece of paper. She writes a figure down and slides the paper across the table to me. As I read it, my eyes widen and I try to look calm.

Sometimes you’re rotten to me. The thing you were supposed to think ridiculous is that stuff with the paper and the note about the money.

At no point in the history of any negotiation with anyone about anything has a single soul written a sum of money down on paper and slid it across any surface to anybody ever.

Yet we see it in TV and film drama around once a month.

I think the shows might have a mind to the drama’s prospects for being repeated on ITV4 for the next several decades. The Six Million Dollar Man, for instance, could now just be somebody working at the top of the BBC pay scale, at least so long as it is a man.

Or maybe the makers are thinking of international sales and how never actually saying or showing the figure in Sterling or dollars or whatever it is might be a distraction.

There is one last possibility I can think of and it’s that the writer has not had the same level of experience in fashion modelling that I have and so doesn’t have a clue what an impressive figure would be. In either sense.

I have a solution. Say the figure aloud. We’re already supposed to get that it’s a big number because of the recipient’s reaction, we’ll still get that it seems a big number to him or her in exactly the same way.

Whereas when it’s this note slid across a table, I’m out of the story. I’m seeing a constructed piece of artifice, I’m not seeing characters I’m engaged with.

How about them Apples?

I do think it’s interesting and of course it’s newsworthy that Apple has just made more profit than any other public company ever. Weirdly, though, none of the many, many news reports I saw about this mentioned that it’s inspiring for writers.

Now, making lots of money could be inspiring for anyone, but I’m not actually thinking of the cash here. I’m talking inspiration and I’m thinking heartwarming. Seriously.

Apple just made $18bn, that’s £11.8bn and that bn is billion. Billion. I’m suddenly wondering if that’s a US billion or a UK one, but either way, it’s a lot. Doubtlessly, it is very easy to find the idea of lots of money inspiring if only because the idea of lots of not having to worry about bills is pretty great. Yet if you are driven by money, if you are drawn by money, you haven’t gone in to writing.

Here’s the thing. What none of the news reports really mentioned was that Apple nearly died.

There was a point when this company was within 90 days of going bankrupt.

Ninety days.

You and I are used to working under pressure but imagine being ninety days from bankruptcy while having thousands of staff on salary. As writers, our business is comparatively easy as we usually don’t have staff and we very rarely have any stock in warehouses. So imagine the staff and imagine having warehouses full of computers that aren’t selling.

This is where Apple was around the time that it brought back its co-founder Steve Jobs. So now imagine coming back to the company you made into a success and was ousted from in a boardroom fight by a fella you’d lobbied to bring in to the firm. No wonder there’s going to be a film about this guy.

Run the list with me. Immense pressure. Close to death. And deeply, personally invested in this firm. The degree and the volume and the sheer loudness of each of those must be more than any of us will ever face but we all face all of them. We all also have one specific problem that Apple did: our media and publishing seem to be these fast-paced worlds yet we know it takes centuries to make anything happen. Computers are this whizzy-fast technology revolution but pretend you’re designing fridges instead. It takes a lot of time, an immense amount of money, and with the technology available to you the very best you’re going to do is make a fridge that is slightly better than someone else’s. Then you have to get thousands of them made on spec and do everything you can to get those fridges in front of buyers.

Preferably in ninety days.

There was a lot that Apple could’ve done and there was a fairly infinite supply of advice from other companies and the technology press. They boiled down to two things. Sell the company or allow other firms to make Apple computers too.

What Apple did instead was hard and it was what writers need to do too. They simplified and they gambled on making something new that they thought was right.

The simplification was radical at the time. I don’t know how many different computers Apple had then but it was a lot. If you’ve ever asked a salesman or woman exactly what the difference between these six PCs are and they’ve recited something to do with gigahertz, that’s where Apple was then. A mess.

They dropped everything and instead planned to make just four things. A desktop and a laptop for consumers and the same again for professionals.

And for the consumer desktop computer, they designed the iMac.

I didn’t like it. The semi-translucent, brightly coloured, bulbous computer was garish but I admit that at least it wasn’t another grey box. Microsoft’s Bill Gates mocked it, saying that Apple was now the market leader in colours but he had a feeling PCs might just be able to catch up.

I don’t believe that Gates really thought that, I don’t imagine the man really missed what Apple had actually done. Yet he didn’t or couldn’t do anything then to compete with it. For what Apple had done with this (to my mind) ugly machine was to make it appealing. Computers weren’t appealing before: their audience already knew they wanted computers. Now Apple was reaching people who needed to be convinced to buy computers – and it convinced them. A lot.

PC stands for Personal Computer and this was suddenly personal. Apple put a handle on the machine not so you could lift it but so that you just instinctively understood that you could touch it. This was yours. And it was Apple’s: it wasn’t a commodity slapped together at a budget price, it was crafted and it was personal to them as well as to you.

When we’ve had umpteen rejections as writers, that’s what we need to do. Cut down on the number of projects we’re trying. Focus. And then write something new, something very personal, something if not with colour necessarily – this romcom needs more purple! – then definitely with vibrancy.

One more thing. That iMac was such a giant success that, yes, of course all other computer companies followed suit – or thought they did. They slapped a blue plastic bit on the front and waited for the money to roll in. They’re still waiting.

Apple isn’t. That ugly original iMac begat many variations and a couple of generations but then Apple chose to end it. They do this a lot. Make a hit and then kill it. Replace it with a better one. The brightly-coloured iMac became the plain white one and then iterated through I don’t know how many variations until it’s reached the beautiful one on my desk. I don’t use the word casually: this screen and this iMac are a pleasure to look at and since I might be looking at it 16 hours a day, it matters.

So there’s another thought. Write something you can bear looking at for 16 hours a day.

I like Apple products, I very much like their approach to design, but $18bn is so huge that I don’t think I can really imagine how much it is. Consequently I’m not that interested. Yet watching all those news reports, I really did find it heartening. You can be at death’s door and pressing the bell and you can turn that around completely by ignoring your critics and carrying on doing what you think is right.

Fortune and glory, kid

I’ve only been thinking about this for two weeks. There was a book event at the Library of Birmingham and I was listening to the speakers, half wondering if I could steal how funny and charming they were, when a guy asks a question.

Actually, no, it was more that he stated a fact but added a question mark. He said to these authors: “But the point, the aim of it all is to write a bestseller, isn’t it?”

There are two answers to this and they are both no.

You can have the very short ‘no’ or you can have the longer, more considered, let’s have some tea, kind of no which you already know is what’s happening here. He stated this fact and every part of me thought no. It was that immediate, that certain, and it has not taken me two weeks to think about it. Because I haven’t finished thinking about it yet. I’m hoping that talking it over with you will sort out my head.

I think all that I’ve been churning over comes down to a split between people who write and people who don’t. There are two types of people in this world and they both intend to write novels. I suspect that when you don’t write and therefore don’t know what heavy spade work it is, you only ever hear about writers when they are interviewed. Writers are interviewed almost exclusively only at the point when they have a new book out. This would be because perhaps the only thing more boring than watching video of a writer typing is watching a video of the much longer periods where they aren’t.

But still, the result is that we see writers when they have something new out and inescapably, then, it looks pretty easy to have something new out. They were only on the telly the other day with the last thing, weren’t they?

Then because news wants facts and because there isn’t a gigantic amount you can ask a writer about their new work that won’t spoil their new work, we get the topic of money. This is especially true when the writer has earned some amazing amount.


It’s easy and they make a lot of money.

Maybe it’s natural, then, to think that the point of writing is to make money.

Now, certainly, I write for a living and I like to eat occasionally, I prefer sleeping indoors. And actually I have very often been described as a commercial writer because I like thrillers and Doctor Who and magazines. But I used the word ‘like’ there. I could’ve said “because I write thrillers and Doctor Who” but I said ‘like’. I am a commercial writer but it is because that is where my tastes lie, it is not because I have a spreadsheet saying these are more lucrative jobs than publishing five lines of poetry every ten years.

I do make a living and writers can still make a lot of money, even today, but the answer is still no.

If you go into writing to make your fortune, it is conceivable that it will work, but it is bloody unlikely. So unlikely that doing this for that reason is simply stupid.

Plus, it’s a funny thing, writing: your secret intent has a way of becoming very apparent to the audience. If you’re doing it for glory, we can tell. I interviewed Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight the other week and he was talking about how he as all these film and TV projects that mean a lot to him but there are also these many others where he’s been the writer for hire. But, he said, whatever it is, you have to do it as if it is the most important thing to you.

That’s not a definable thing. You can’t have a formula that says 10% more effort equals 10 times the success of a piece. Yet hack work stands out very clearly.

So you have to write what matters to you and you have to hope that it works out enough that you can survive.

Maybe the real barrier between writers and non-writers is that the nons can’t comprehend that anyone would be so stupid as to do this. They’re right. There’s no question but that writing is a stupid thing to do.

Yet I’m okay with being stupid. I’m used to it in everything else, I might as well enjoy it here. And it’s not as if I seem to have any choice in the matter, but I am glad that I am over here on this stupid side. Because it pains me, it actually causes me pain, when I hear someone being surprised that, say, JK Rowling has written another book. The genuine incomprehension you hear sometimes, the idea that she’s daft when she’s done all those Harry Potter books and made her fortune.

She is daft. We all are. Of course she keeps writing. How could you not?