The savaging that Milo Yiannopoulos’ awful book received at the hands of its editor provided joy for many. But CHARLIE CONNELLY had a very personal, and pressing, reason not to join in the ridicule
Just before the turn of the year there was much merriment on social media concerning the manuscript of Milo Yiannopoulos’s memoir Dangerous. The laughter derived not from the book itself but from the comments on the manuscript by his editor at Simon & Schuster, Mitchell Ivers, posted online along with other documents submitted in connection with Yiannopoulos’s $10million lawsuit against his erstwhile publisher for cancelling his contract and demanding their whopping £200,000 advance back.
Few were expecting much in the way of great literature from the former Breitbart editor because the thing with your average media blowhard is that he or she has only a limited artillery of blurted slogans and derogatory epithets in their literary armoury. Eking that out more than 90,000 words is a challenge even the wittiest and most erudite crackpot polemicist finds themselves unable to meet.
What looks great on, say, the side of a bus tends to look a bit thin and lost on the page in 10-point Garamond. Hence it came as no surprise that Dangerous lacked depth, substance and any semblance of coherence.
Ivers’ comments meanwhile represented a real-time, almost line-by-line demolition of the manuscript, as if Yiannopoulos was the school bully and Twitter was the rest of the class gathered to watch him having his homework marked right in front of them.
Yet while social media fizzed with the highlights of Ivers’ increasingly exasperated commentary, and the ‘crying laughing’ emoji was employed so often it actually became red hot to the touch, I turned into the physical manifestation of the famous dolly zoom employed by Spielberg when Chief Brody first spots the shark in Jaws.
Each Microsoft Word ‘tracking changes’ bubble screengrabbed and tweeted gleefully into my feed contained a nugget of editorial comment that chilled my bones by roughly two degrees Celsius every time.
‘Citations needed.’ ‘Unclear, unfunny, delete.’ ‘Do you have proof of this?’ ‘This just doesn’t make sense.’ ‘You’re going to have to employ a lot more intellectual rigour than this.’ ‘The use of phrases like ‘two-faced backstabbing bitches’ diminishes your overall point.’
As an author these were all horribly familiar to me. Well, all except the last one, of course. OK, yes, there was that one time, but it was only in the ‘Acknowledgements’.
The reason I was overwhelmed by heebie jeebies rather than belabouring Yiannopoulos about the pate with an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick like everyone else is that I am currently staring down the barrel of a book deadline.
I certainly had no sympathy for the author and in different circumstances might well have snatched up eggs and cabbages and hurried cackling to the cyber-pillory, but right now any reference whatsoever to the publishing process is enough to have me gibbering, mashing my cap in my hands and tearing lumps from its brim with my teeth.
What compounds the agony is that many of the comments added by Ivers to the screed vomited by Yiannopoulos onto the page are exact quotes from my current internal monologue as I thrash away at the laptop keyboard fuelled by nothing but Red Bull and Wotsits.
I fear they will also pop up in Microsoft bubbles again, word for word, from my own editor as she reads my manuscript, all the while tutting, rolling her eyes and emitting lengthy sighs.
Then a couple of days ago I had a brief influx of messages pointing me towards the latest ‘ten tips from great writers’ listicle that someone’s put together, drawing together sage advice from some of literature’s greatest crafts-people, from Ernest Hemingway to Hilary Mantel. ‘Saw this and thought of you!’ the messages said. ‘You’ve probably seen this, but…’ they chirruped, and against my better judgement I read the piece. Sure enough each numbered nugget, all ten gobbets of sagacious advice, told me one-by-one that I’m doing it all completely wrong.
Writing a book is a traumatic process from the start. It’s debilitating, degrading and draining. You might think the increased threat of imminent nuclear annihilation is bad, or global warming, or all that plastic cluttering the oceans, or Ed Sheeran, but they’re all just so many midget gems in the paper bag of life compared to writing a book.
OK, I’m just messing there: obviously writing a book isn’t anything like as bad as that, and of course nothing’s worse than Ed Sheeran. But when you’re self-employed in a solitary occupation depending on a book based on nothing more than the contents of your own head to pay the rent you do sometimes feel increasingly panicky as the dreaded day draws near.
You’re only as good as your last book, as they say, and publishers don’t exactly strew new contracts around like roses from their hatband in a 1930s musical.
Hence, with just weeks to go before I have to confidently submit a polished, structured manuscript worthy of publication, I could have done without comparing myself to Milo flipping Yiannopoulos and having ten of the world’s best writers effectively peering over my shoulder, raising their eyebrows, backing out of the room and quietly closing the door.
There is a lot of writing advice out there, much of it contradictory, much of it ill-informed but some of it pretty sound.
What works for one person will be nonsense to another and the best advice is probably the type that’s painted in the broadest strokes. Hence the only authorial guidance I ever presume to give people who ask is to have something interesting to say, not to try and sound like anyone else and above all to trust themselves and their instincts.
This last one is the most important and also the one that I have the most trouble with whenever I’m approaching a deadline. The larger the circled date looms the more convinced I become that I’m writing a terrible book, can’t string three words together to save my life, have hoodwinked everyone involved into participating in a dreadful fraud and am best off throwing a few things into a bag, doing a flit to Switzerland and spending the rest of my days living high in the Alps as a yodelling milkmaid called Greta.
That’s not a viable option of course. For one thing I’m scared of heights. And cows. No, there’s nothing for it but to limber up both my typing fingers and vow that next time I won’t have a relationship with my deadline like a fairground motorcyclist has with the Wall of Death.
The single piece of advice that gives me any kind of comfort at a time like this came from the American author Gene Fowler. ‘A book is never finished,’ he said, ‘it’s abandoned.’ It’s the only writerly aphorism that has ever resonated with me, yet its universal truth is rarely cited when quotes are collated in order to encourage you to sit down and write that book.
A writer friend of mine once told me he submitted a book to his publisher three weeks early. That’s three weeks before his deadline. He’d reached a point where he thought ‘yep, I’ve nailed that, I can’t make it any better so I’ll send it in now’. I was absolutely aghast. Having written 15 books I can confidently say I’ve never finished a single one, at least not in the sense that I’ve thought to myself, ‘that’s it, done, that’s the end’. Instead I work increasingly frantically right up to the deadline and usually beyond, rewriting, reshaping, restructuring and regretting. All my manuscripts have been submitted reluctantly, wrapped in self-doubt and sealed with anxiety.
It’s the moment you’ve been working towards for months, the reason you’re wired to the moon on sickly sugary drinks, the reason your fingertips are nicotine-yellow from all the Wotsits, the reason you’ve not communicated with your spouse for weeks beyond the odd feral grunt and a bit of pointing, the reason you’ve been promising yourself the carrot of an entire day doing nothing but watch Deputy Dawg cartoons. Yet there’s no real feeling of relief or accomplishment. After all, the book has not been finished, just abandoned.
There’s not even any sense of ceremony when you finally dispatch your work to the publisher. You compose a brief e-mail mostly taken up with apologies for lateness, attach the Word document, press ‘send’ and that’s it.
No bouquet, no brass band, no bunting, no handshake from the mayor. You sit there for a moment drumming your fingers, not quite sure what to do with yourself, and then the worrying starts again. The worry that you could and should have done so much better. The worry that the bits you left out should have gone in and the bits you put in should have been left out. The worry that your publisher will come back and say, ‘we can’t publish this rubbish, we want our money back’. The worry about the day a couple of weeks hence when the manuscript appears back in your inbox with all those little bubbles containing your editor’s comments. Comments like, ‘Citations needed,’ ‘Unclear, unfunny, delete,’ ‘Do you have proof of this?’ ‘This just doesn’t make sense,’ and ‘You’re going to have to employ a lot more intellectual rigour than this’.
It’s not rocket science, it’s not going down a mine, it’s not working on the frontline of the NHS, but the pressure of an approaching book deadline always causes me to question myself, my abilities, my choice of maize-based cheese snacks and sometimes even my sanity.
When you don’t have the bulletproof self-regard of a Milo Yiannopoulos it’s difficult to accommodate even my second favourite literary aphorism, which came from Douglas Adams.
‘I love deadlines,’ he said. ‘I love the whooshing noise they make when they fly past.’