Greater Minds: When writers wrote their writing tips

  • Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing are widely quoted.
  • In 2010, 28 other authors offered their own rules for the Guardian.
  • The value of technical rules depends on whether you’re trying to do what the rulemaker does.
  • There are some common themes on motivation, problem solving and receiving critique.


Elmore Leonard in 2005 (mtkr [CC / Flickr])

Elmore Leonard started it. His ten rules of writing have passed into legend or notoriety, depending largely on what one thinks of Elmore Leonard’s writing. For myself, how could I resist a set of rules that refers to ‘perpetrating hooptedoodle’?

A few years ago, someone at the Guardian picked up on Leonard’s article and asked 28 authors what their own list would look like. The resulting article is titles Ten rules for writing fiction, parts one and two, in honour of Leonard even though not all the writers came up with the full ten.

Evaluating writerly lists

Irresistible as I find such lists, I’m never sure how useful they are. Leonard himself added so many qualifiers that it’s obviously a description of his approach, acknowledging that different writers can make different things work. It’s telling that four of his ten rules refer to writing dialogue; if there’s one thing about Leonard’s novels that leaps off the page, it’s the dialogue. Other authors devote far fewer words to their dialogue and more to their description. Because approaches are so subjective, I’m not going to say much about the more technical points. When you look through the authors you like, their advice on description, structure and characterisation will either speak to you or it won’t.


(Thad Zajdowicz [CC / Flickr])

When I read an author’s advice on writing, I read it as a description of how they write rather than a generic approach to the writing process, so I get the most out of it if I’ve read and enjoyed their work. If I’ve been less than enthusiastic about it, their advice is not so helpful as they’re describing how they do something I’m not trying to do. Of the authors contacted by the Guardian, I’d tend to pay attention to the ones I’ve liked more than the ones I’ve been less keen on, and even less to the ones I haven’t got round to reading.

Now and again, I found a point jumping out as sounding incredibly pertinent but when I thought about it, I found myself wondering if it was a new revelation for me or if it simply phrased something I already thought in a particularly pithy way.

Writing on the fly

It’s also evident that some of the authors took the exercise more seriously than others. Michael Moorcock gives a practical guide for how a beginner writer can get started on their first project. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood placed her tongue firmly in her cheek with her guide to writing while flying:


Margaret Atwood in 2009 (peter pelisek [CC / Flickr])

1 Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2 If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

Personally, I find it hard enough to jam myself into the seat in a way that doesn’t disturb my fellow passengers or give me a cramp in mid-flight without trying to write as well, but then I take up more space than she does.

Roddy Doyle’s humour took a characteristically dark direction:

1 Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

Lost in the woods

Some of the more useful advice refers to what to do when you get stuck. It’s a feeling I know well: either I’ve taken my characters down a blind alley that I don’t know how to get them out of or worse, I’ve set up a situation that won’t lead anywhere interesting. Helen Dunmore says the solution is not likely to be found by staring at the page or the screen on which it must ultimately be put into words:

A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.


Portrait of Hilary Mantel, painted by Nick Lord in 2014 (Chris Beckett [CC / Flickr])

A sentiment echoed in more detail by Hilary Mantel:

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Saying it’s best to avoid talking to other people is an interesting insight into Mantel’s creative process. I often find that listening to other peoples’ lives can jog something loose that solves my writing problem, though not at the sort of party where people stand around making small talk.

It’s Margaret Atwood’s advice that comes closest to the solution I’ve usually ended up resorting to: if I can’t see how to get out of a situation I’ve set up, I usually end up changing the situation:

Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Motivation by skiving

I found it rather surprising how many of the authors talked about motivation and distraction. I’ll put my hand up to problems with both, but I’d tended to think that part of being a professional author was rising above such things. I’m both dismayed and


Geoff Dyer in 2012 (Chris Boland [CC / Flickr])

reassured by how many professional authors regard cutting themselves off from the internet to be necessary to concentrate on writing. Geoff Dyer finds the best way to sit himself down to work is to fool himself into thinking he’s avoiding work:

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

AL Kennedy takes a more uncompromising approach:

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

She sums up another theme that several of the authors touch on: writing is not performance art. The value of the writing lies in what is written, not in who is writing it or how they get it written. Sarah Waters says it more directly:

Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely


(annie_c_2 [CC / Flickr])

engineered pace.

On the receipt of advice

Join a writers’ group and it’s only a matter of time before you meet someone who doesn’t get that. They’re often more interested in the air of gravitas they think goes with calling themselves a writer than in writing anything. Sometimes they’re trying to come to terms with something that has happened to them, and sometimes they’re just pretentious. Wherever they’re coming from, that person is not likely to take criticism well and so they’re not likely to improve their writing. As Margaret Atwood says:

You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

Neil Gaiman offers what I’ve found to be one of the most useful guidelines for evaluating critiques:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost


Neil Gaiman in 2010 (dtd72 [CC / Flickr])

always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

His advice ties in to Margaret Atwood’s advice to backtrack to find a solution. I often find that if a critiquer says that something isn’t working for them, the problem is often lurking several hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem the critiquer has identified. For example, if a critiquer tells me that they didn’t think a certain character would perform a certain action and that they’d be more likely to do something else instead, my first thought is likely to be something like ‘but…but… they have to do that! The plot requires it!’

If I’ve managed to retain any sense, I will neither speak nor act until the second thought, which should be that the solution is likely to lie in how I’ve set up either the character or the situation they’re in. With a bit of editing that may be hundreds or even thousands of words before the problem that the critiquer has identified, I can often have the character do what the plot demands without changing a word of them doing it.

The accountants’ employment scheme

Most of the advice focuses on the writing itself, though Richard Ford throws in some advice about life in general:

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.


Don’t have children.

Two pieces of advice that few of us are likely to follow all of.

Hilary Mantel recommends getting an accountant though there are far more of us who


Ian Rankin on the right, 2014 (byronv2 [CC / Flickr])

dream of getting to the stage where an accountant would be of any use than who would benefit from the services of one.

Perhaps Ian Rankin offers the best advice about how to get to that happy stage:

Get lucky.

Followed by

Stay lucky.

Richard Ford advises seeing other’s good luck as encouragement so if you, like me, are trying to write better and to be read more widely, I’ll say this:

Good luck.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification, Writing

The Tricks


(David, Bergin, Emmett and Elliott [CC / Flickr])

The evening didn’t turn out as planned. I’d polished my shoes and had my best suit dry cleaned. I splurged on a minicab so I wouldn’t meet her with a lump of chewing gum stuck to the seat of my trousers, which is what happened last time I took a bus to a first date.

The trick is to get there ten minutes early, but make sure you don’t look annoyed when she breezes in twenty minutes late. It gave me time to make sure the restaurant hadn’t lost the booking and to check the wine list in case she wasn’t sure what to order. It also gave me ample time to practice my nonchalant look in the reflection from the window. The longer I waited, the more practice I’d need.

Another trick is to ignore any buzzing and chirping noises from your phone. The last thing I wanted was to have my nose or my ear buried in a chunk of plastic when she came through the door.

That’s why I was sitting there for two hours before I saw her text telling me it wasn’t me, it was her.

I took the bus home.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Caresaway is being given away

coverCaresaway is a novelette about a man who recovers from depression by becoming a psychopath. Psychopaths never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves so it’s fortunate that Melanie Nelson of Annorlunda is not a psychopath. In fact, she’s so far from being a psychopath that she’s giving a copy away. If you’d like to be in the running for it, head over to its Goodreads page and click the ‘Enter Giveaway’ button.

Good luck!


Author notes

Caresaway at Annorlunda Enterprises

Caresway Kindle edition on Amazon

Caresaway hardcopy on Amazon

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Publishing news

Inspirations: Bringing the science of fear up to date with PTSD

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder often affects people after traumatic experiences.
  • Assault, sexual or nonsexual, is the trauma most likely to cause PTSD.
  • Men are more likely to have traumatic experiences but more women have PTSD.
  • High oestrogen levels or injections of hydrocortisone may protect against PTSD.


(Pauline Yu [CC / Flickr])

If you’ve been watching this site over the last couple of months, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been developing an unhealthy interest in the science of fear, from William Myers’s coining of the term ‘shell-shock’ in 1915 to Solly Zuckerman’s work on British civilians during the Blitz and how the fiction writers among us might use the psychology of the Blitz to give our readers a satisfying fright.

Piers Morgan’s factchecking failures

I’d always intended to look at some more up-to-date research but it was Piers Morgan who persuaded me to get my head down to it. I won’t say he inspired me, as I can think of few less inspirational people than Piers Morgan. What he did was respond to Lady Gaga’s statement that she had post-traumatic stress disorder after been raped by tweeting that only ‘soldiers returning from battlefields have‘. He then added hypocrisy to ignorance by adding ‘I come from a big military family. It angers me when celebrities start claiming ‘PTSD’ about everything to promote themselves‘.

One wonders what his family had to say to him in 2004, when he was fired as editor of the Daily Mirror after he was taken in by faked photographs of British soldiers apparently abusing Iraqi prisoners, and published them on his front page. His disparaging tweet suggests that whatever his views on the army, he has not got any better at fact checking.

I bring this up not because I enjoy commenting on celebrity twitter spats or even because I enjoy being rude about Piers Morgan, though the latter is a fringe benefit. I comment because Morgan’s grasp of the science of fear appears to be where I left it in my last few articles, when it was still focused on the effects of combat. The story of PTSD brings the science up to date, via some very dark places. Before you follow me any further into them, it’s only fair to warn you that sexual assault is going to be a major theme.

The common misconception that PTSD is only caused by combat may be due to its being the intellectual offspring of shell-shock. As the diagnoses of psychiatric disorders are usually based on clusters of symptoms, definitions inevitably evolve over time. Hence


(Michelle Robinson [CC / Flickr])

‘shell-shock’ was replaced with ‘combat stress response’ by the beginning of the Second World War and revised again in the late 1970s, when American psychologists noticed similar symptoms were very common among soldiers returning from the Vietnam War.

What is PTSD?

The first proper definition of PTSD was in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-III to its friends, published in 1980. It described a diagnosis of PTSD based on symptoms including anxiety, depression, isolated, disconnected, panic attacks brought on by a psychological trauma. While most people are likely to have some of those symptoms after a trauma, PTSD is defined by their lasting more than a month and being severe enough to cause ‘functional impairment’: if you’re not doing something you would otherwise have done because of those symptoms, it’s PTSD.

The definition and diagnosis were revised for the DSM-IV in 2000 and the current definition was published in the DSM-V in 2013. Most of the studies I quote here were using the DSM-III or DSM-IV definitions, though the revisions are minor enough that it’s unlikely to make any difference to the findings.

While research on PTSD may have started with American Vietnam veterans, it was quickly recognised that you don’t have to go to war to be traumatised. In fact, psychiatrist Fran Norris showed that being assaulted, sexually or otherwise, is about six times as likely to cause PTSD as combat some 25 years ago.

Hunting the definitions

Surveys of PTSD are notoriously difficult to do, and Norris’s study illustrates some of the difficulties. For one thing, there’s the question of how serious an incident must be to count as traumatic. Norris’s work identified motor accidents as a significant cause of PTSD, but how serious is a serious motor accident? In a survey, someone who had PTSD from an accident would say they had experienced a serious accident. Someone else may have shrugged off an identical accident, and answer that they had never been in a serious accident. Norris’s survey question was whether they had been in an accident serious enough to injure at least one person, but that just shifts the question to how serious a knock counts as an injury. Does a cut scalp that bleeds all over everyone and requires stitches count as an injury? Ask different people and you’re likely to get different answers.

One category that is not subject to so much vagary is sexual assault. The question asked was, ‘did anyone ever make you have sex by using force or threatening to harm you? This


Causes of PTSD after Norris (1992)

includes any type of unwanted sexual activity’. Under current definitions, that’s not sexual assault but violent rape. It places the definition of ‘sexual assault’ at the more serious end of the scale than the other traumas, but also excludes a lot of serious, and hence traumatic, experiences of being sexually assaulted. It risks over-estimating the percentage of people who have been sexually assaulted who have PTSD, but under-estimating the percentage of people within the population who have PTSD after being sexually assaulted.

Another problem that arises is that Norris’s survey assessed current PTSD but asked about any and all traumatic events the respondents had ever experienced, so there were probably people who did have PTSD but had recovered from it. It’s a problem particularly pertinent to the experience of combat. The survey was carried out in the USA, presumably in 1990 based on the fact that it was carried out after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and submitted in 1991. Most of the combat would have been experienced during the Vietnam War around two decades earlier, while the other traumatic experiences mentioned could have been long before that or could have been a few weeks before the survey. Based on the figure that around two thirds of people with PTSD recover from it, it’s possible that the lifetime rate for combat-related PTSD was as high as 6.6%, but we can’t make a similar calculation for other traumas because we don’t know how recent they may have been.

Frustrating as they are, these problems are impossible to avoid in population-based surveys and they are not damning criticisms of Norris’s methodology so much as a description of necessary constraints. As it’s not ethical to deliberately traumatise people to see how they react, such surveys are the best available way to the truth.

Why do more women have PTSD than men?

Perhaps for these reasons,  different studies tend to report different figures for how many people have experienced trauma and how many have PTSD, although studies from the UK, USA and Australia are in broad agreement that between 1% and 4% of people have PTSD at any given time. They also agree that around three times as many people have experienced


(Moonlight 徐宇峰 [CC / Flickr])

PTSD in the past than will have had it at the time they are asked. That’s good news in that: two thirds of people with PTSD recover from it. It’s also bad news: a third of cases become ‘chronic’, meaning that they persist for years or in some cases, decades.

Why do more women have PTSD than men?

While the precise estimates vary, one pattern that emerges consistently: men are more likely to have experienced a traumatic event, but women are more likely to have PTSD.

Likely reasons for that fall into two categories: either there is a biological difference between men and women that affects their response to trauma, or they tend to experience different types of trauma.

The latter possibility was tackled by clinical psychologists David Tolin and Edna Foa in a 2006, when they combined the results from 290 earlier studies. They found that different types of traumatic event were not equal. The most traumatic trauma was sexual assault which, for the purposed of the study, included rape. Women were far more likely to have been sexually assaulted than men, which the authors concluded accounted for the discrepancy between PTSD prevalence between men and women. Women who had survived a sexual assault were no more likely than men to have PTSD, but there were a lot more of them.

However, as Norris showed that physical assault was almost as traumatic as sexual assault and Tolin and Foa showed men were more likely to be assaulted nonsexually than women,


A good way to get PTSD (ER24 EMS (Pty) Ltd. [CC / Flickr])

sexual assault is not a complete answer.

When Tolin and Foa considered different types of trauma, they found that women were more likely to develop PTSD after some types of non-sexual trauma, specifically serious accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, major fires and witnessing death or injury. However, they did acknowledge that even within their categories of trauma, men and women may not have equivalent experiences. For example, the nonsexual assault experienced by women was more likely to be domestic violence by a family member or partner, which may be more traumatic.

The veterans of Somalia

Another study looked at men and women who had been part of the American military deployment to Somalia in 1993-1995. Women were more likely to have symptoms of PTSD even though they saw less combat, but overlaying their experiences was a great deal of sexual harassment. In fact, 52% of women and 12% of men were sexually harassed while they were deployed. Combined with the Tailhook and Aberdeen scandals of the early to mid-1990s, it’s evident that the American military had some serious problems with sexual abuse at the time. Given that more of the women who experienced combat also experienced sexual harassment, which is potentially traumatic in itself, we can’t conclude that the higher prevalence of PTSD among women was due to their reacting to combat differently to men.


(Marines from Arlington, VA, United States [Wikimedia Commons])

The Somalia veteran study started in the same place as many studies of PTSD: for soldiers and emergency services, potentially traumatic situations are part of the job description so it would be useful to know how to prepare people in such a way that they don’t develop PTSD. The study then ran into a commonly encountered stumbling block: there are so many ways for different people to have different experiences that it’s impossible to isolate one to work on, beyond the obvious: if you don’t want your soldiers to get PTSD, stop sexually harassing them.

The ideal experiment would be to assess people before and after they are exposed to a trauma. Unfortunately, militaries tend to take a dim view of their soldiers being experimented on while on deployment and research ethics committees take a dim view of experiments that turn their subjects into gibbering wrecks.

Oestrogens and fear conditioning

The closest that has been possible was in a set of experiments led by Mohammed Milad. He designed an experiment in which volunteers were conditioned to expect an electric shock when a coloured light came on. Their level of fear was measured by the conductivity of their skin. While there are obvious limitations in studying PTSD using a protocol specifically designed not to cause PTSD – the electric shock is described as ‘highly annoying but not painful’ – he could at least look into whether there were biological differences between men and women.

As expected, the appearance of the light heightened the fear response in people who had been conditioned to associate it with the electric shock but for women, whether the


(Philippe Put [CC / Flickr])

conditioning stuck or not depended on where they were in their menstrual cycle. Women in the middle of the cycle, when oestrogens are high, were less conditioned than women in the early stage of the cycle who were not different to men.

Milad went further, showing that women with a naturally high oestrogen level were less likely to retain the conditioning. His experiments suggest a biological difference between how men and women respond to fear, but there is a problem: high levels of oestrogens apparently make women less likely to be conditioned to fear, which contradicts the epidemiological evidence that more women have PTSD.

To extrapolate from Milad’s experiments to the lived experience of PTSD, we have to assume that conditioning someone to an annoying electric shock is a milder form of the process by which traumatised people develop PTSD. If we accept the assumption, Milad supports Tolin and Foa’s inference that the difference between men and women is not that


Who is likely to be comforting who? (marc cornelis [CC / Flickr])

women are more prone to PTSD but that they are more likely to experience sexual violence which is inherently more traumatic than anything else.

Can oestrogen protect from PTSD?

Milad’s results lead to a further question: if high levels of oestrogens prevent women becoming conditioned to fear, could raising a woman’s oestrogens protect her from PTSD after trauma? Raising oestrogens is something that many women habitually do with hormonal contraception and in fact, women taking contraceptives do suffer less post-traumatic stress symptoms after sexual assault than women who didn’t. To be clear, that’s not to say they did not suffer at all. The study assessed a range of symptoms rather than whether or not the women met the criteria for PTSD and six months after the assault, they all had at least some of the symptoms of PTSD even if they didn’t qualify for the full diagnosis.

Once again, the problem of confounders raises its head: women on contraception were more likely to have been drinking at the time of the assault and also more likely to seek therapy after it. Any or all of the three factors, hormonal contraception, alcohol or therapy, could have alleviated their suffering less six months later. What was more clear was that women who took emergency contraception, the so-called ‘morning after’ pill, suffered less PTSD symptoms than women who did not.

Steroids and psychotherapy

There is therefore an argument for offering women an injection of oestrogens as part of the emergency treatment for a trauma, but it’s unlikely to be of much help to men who would respond to them in a different way. It does beg the question of whether testosterone, which is a chemically similar steroid hormone, may be of some help. I cannot find any research on testosterone levels at the time of the trauma, although there is no difference in PTSD levels between men with and without PTSD. There are websites advertising testosterone injections as a treatment for PTSD, but then there are websites offering testosterone as a panacea for any ailment you could think of without any evidence. Based on the information available, treating PTSD with testosterone probably does nothing at all, and is as likely to make things worse as better.

More encouragingly, a team at the Chaim Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv, Israel, tried injecting accident victims with hydrocortisone when they were still in the Emergency Department. Three months after the accident, no one who received the hydrocortisone had PTSD while 30% of people who received the placebo did. It’s a considerably better


Should this be where treatment for PTSD is started? (Paul [CC / Flickr])

result than was observed with emergency contraception, although it’s also true that accidents are far less likely to induce PTSD than sexual assault. It was a small study, but it does look like a straightforward treatment that could benefit a lot of people.

It’s not widely available in most places so anyone with PTSD is left depending on psychotherapy and possibly antidepressants. It’s not clear that medication adds much to psychotherapy, but PTSD often goes hand in hand with depression. As around two thirds of people with PTSD recover from it, anyone who has it can take some comfort that it’s probably not a life sentence.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

I Remember Red


(Latina Power [CC / Flickr])

In the dark, I remember red that I cannot see. I remember the red dress she wore. I remember red staining the sky when we held hands and watched the sunset. I remember her red lips the moment before I kissed them.

Red was her favourite colour.

I never used to have a favourite. It seemed wrong to pick one colour when there was a whole rainbow to choose from.

It was the red glow of flames filtered through smoke that we woke to. It was red fear that reached through our window and painted its warning on the walls, carried by the crack crack crack that had yanked us out of sleep.

It was her red blood that mixed with mine when we ran out of our door into the boys wearing red headbands.

There was no red in the truck they threw me into; not once they slammed the doors. Just the sound of whimpering and the terrified smell of the bleeding men they packed me in with.

She is why I fill my sight with red in the dark. I cling to it until the light comes back on and I can no longer hide from the cube of white tiles containing me.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Caresaway is Here

coverCaresaway will cure your depression.

Caresaway will make you successful beyond your wildest dreams.

Caresaway will make you into a psychopath.

And more to the point, Caresaway is now published in hardcopy and Kindle editions. If you’d like to know what happens to people who choose to take the pill, that’s where to find it.

There is a Goodreads giveaway coming up soon, which I’ll post as soon as it starts. Whether you choose to wait for it or not, I hope you enjoy it and as ever, I always appreciate a review.

Many thanks to Melanie Nelson at Annorlunda for publishing it, and to Nerine Dorman for editing it.


Author notes

Caresaway at Goodreads

Caresaway at Annorlunda

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Publishing news

Non-fiction Review: The Snowden Files by Luke Harding

thesnowdenfilesThis book should be subtitled The Paranoia Manual. But is it paranoia if they really are listening to every word?

As you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t reasonably familiar with the internet superstate, you’ll already have heard of Edward Snowden and the thumbdrive full of National Security Agency files he absconded with in 2013. His own story and the facts he revealed have been widely reported, and occasionally misreported, so I found the compilation of the relevant facts between one pair of covers made it a lot clearer for me. Luke Harding does a superb job of presenting The Snowden Files in a way that is both informative and easy to read.

The first chapters cover Snowden himself, from the opinionated young man who appeared online as TheTrueHOOHA to his years with the CIA in Switzerland and at the NSA listening station in Hawaii. It traces the erosion of his belief in the benign nature of the American intelligence services to his disillusionment when he discovered the extent of domestic surveillance conducted by the NSA, and by its partners in the ‘Five Eyes’ program, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The Snowden whom Harding presents is a shy man who is uncomfortable with the attention he has received, and who was motivated by a patriotic urge to protect his fellow citizens from an over-reaching government agency. He does not appear as the narcissist that some of his critics have painted him as. He’s spent the last three years in Russia, which embarrasses the US government wherever it can, so he could have his face all over Russia Today if that was what he wanted.

Nor does he appear to be a Russian agent, which he’s also been accused of. When he left Hawaii, he flew to Hong Kong to meet with Guardian journalists and only escaped to Russia because the Hong Kong authorities were, probably intentionally, slow to act on an international arrest warrant. He claims that he made his material not only unavailable to the Russian security services, but to himself in case he is ever coerced. Had he been a Russian agent, he could easily have escaped directly to Russia and met the Guardian journalists there. As the Guardian has only released a carefully curated selection of Snowden’s material, it’s safe to assume that the Russian government would be using the files to maximise embarrassment if they had access to them.

As Harding himself has been expelled from Russia after his reporting on the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent poisoned with polonium in London, it’s unlikely that his writing on Snowden is coloured by any pro-Russian bias.

Snowden himself largely disappears from the book, as he disappeared from everything else, about half way through, and the emphasis shifts to the story of the files themselves. Perhaps because Harding is a Brit working for the Guardian, which is still a primarily British newspaper in spite of its American and Australian sections, he balances his discussion of the NSA with discussion of its British counterpart, General Communications Headquarters. The much vaunted ‘special relationship’ between the USA and UK is less to do with trade and military links, as many in the UK seem to think, than on the close co-operation between their intelligence agencies. Harding presents GCHQ as a part of NSA in all but name, albeit a part that is unconstrained by a written constitution guaranteeing individual freedom or any prohibition on spying on American citizens.

The story of Snowden’s leak and the worldwide reaction that is perhaps best summed up by the German coinage, Der Shitstorm, contains several incidents that seem more Johnny English than James Bond. One particularly high profile gaffe occurred when the Bolivian president’s aeroplane was forced to land in Vienna because someone ran away with the idea that he was smuggling Snowden out of Moscow. Another was the smashing of the hard drives the Guardian had used to store the files, supervised by spooks from GCHQ. Harding is vague, probably intentionally, about whether the GCHQ hammers actually destroyed the files or not. Given that the story was broken by Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil and was never on the Guardian staff, and that the Guardian partnered with the New York Times to report on them, there are almost certainly copies around somewhere. The smashing looks more like an exercise in the surreal inspired by Ned Ludd than a serious attempt to contain the information.

The difficulty of containing information is a running theme. NSA got hold of Google’s customer information because GCHQ tapped the cable they were using it to share between their American and European hubs. We know they did it because GCHQ shared the information with NSA, in the course of which is was accessible by many employees from both agencies, one of whom told the Guardian about it. The more information is disseminated, the more difficult it is to limit its dissemination or, to quote a catchphrase from the 1990s, ‘information wants to be free’.

The tendency of widely distributed information to leak begs the question of who else it may be leaking to. If Snowden’s reasons for turning whistleblower are controversial, it’s because they are public. The sheer scale of the NSA, GCHQ and presumably the other Five Eyes listening operations makes it very likely that they are being abused in less public ways. Snowden himself reported on cases where analysts used the systems to spy on their romantic partners, a practice common enough that it was given an informal name: Loveint, a play on the abbreviation Sigint for ‘signals intelligence’. He further reported on cases where analysts passed around nude pictures they had come across in their trawling through other peoples’ data.

Egregious as these incidents are in themselves, they point to a dangerously laissez-faire attitude to security among the people who can read our texts and emails. A few years before the Snowden files broke, the Guardian broke another story about certain British newspapers bribing police officers for information. With that door closed, what would an enterprising and unscrupulous journalist do but hang around the pubs of Cheltenham in the hope of bumping into an analyst with an out of control overdraft? As GCHQ has expanded over the past decades, the more likely it is to be employing a bribable analyst.

Perhaps the most surreal moment in The Snowden Files is the visit of Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to the Guardian ‘war room’, the highly restricted office where they handled the leaked files. Having asked how many Chinese or Russian agents were on the Guardian staff, he gestured out of the window to a row of flats opposite the office, perfectly placed for anyone who wanted to peer into the office.

“I wonder where our guys are,” he said.

Heywood appears to have been a master of subtle intimidation. Perhaps he learned from the most famous previous incumbent of his post: Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Prime Minister infamy.

Heywood’s apparent understanding appears at odds with Harding’s descriptions of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee’s poor understanding of what it was supposed to be overseeing. Its members are selected as the people who won’t rock the establishment’s boat, and Harding suggests that they tend to be of a generation whose grasp of the internet is at best tenuous. At the time The Snowden Files was published in 2014, the ISC chair was a former minister, Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The following year, he was forced to resign from Parliament after he was covertly filmed offering to sell his influence to Daily Telegraph reporters posing as representatives of a Chinese company. It is hardly evidence that he was the right man for the post, or indeed for the chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee which he occupied before he moved to oversee the securocrats.

Since then, moves to legislate the security services in the UK have tended toward giving them more rather than less room to manoeuvre. Last year, Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, or Snoopers’ Charter as it is widely known, with very little debate. Not only does the act expand the security service’s powers to conduct targeted surveillance, but it compels internet service providers to retain our records for a year, where they can be accessed if necessary. Snowden himself called it ‘the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy’. Parliament passed it with very little opposition, suggesting that Harding’s view that it is unqualified to rein in the security services remains as valid today as it did when he wrote it two and a half years ago.

Which means that you and I have just been ‘contact chained’.

Hi there.

For a succinct precis of the Snowden Files and their import, it’s worth listening to what Snowden himself said at a TED conference:


And to the response to NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett:


Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Under the Hooked Cross – 17: Seamus Silversmith

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Under the Hooked CrossThe duty officer droned on. “Brundtmann?”

“In the canteen. All safe here.”


“Observatory. All safe here.”

Silversmith grinned in anticipation. Any minute now…

The duty officer paused in his roll call, and when he spoke again his urgent tone was replaced by something closer to panic. “Henkel?

Silversmith relished a vision of Henkel jerking like a landed trout as he tried to get at the intercom.

“Henkel? Henkel, answer immediately!”

The thought of the ruckus at Peenemünde control made Silversmith laugh again.

The intercom fell silent, which meant the duty officer had gathered the other two Luftwaffe crewmen together and they were on their way to the communications pod with at least a couple of SS browbeating them onward. They would have to open four emergency doors before they got to him, which would take at least ten minutes. Somebody could shut off the broadcast stations on the ground, but Silversmith doubted that anyone would take responsibility for switching off the Führer’s favourite program until several people had demanded what the hell was going on from people who wouldn’t have a clue. A few minutes were all he needed to show the Reich the cost of its dominion in the stars.

He changed the film for one of a man undergoing slow decompression. He pulled himself back to the door to retrieve his bag, as much to get away from the images as because he needed his bottles to hand.

Laughter took him again as he loaded another film. Even if they turned off the broadcast in the Reich, the ring of relay satellites would continue broadcasting across the entire world, in America, China, India, the Japanese empire. Some of the images were bound to find their way to the partisans in Arabia and Russia. And to Argus. Silversmith wished he’d see what he was starting. Or whether he was starting anything at all. He pushed that thought away. He’d never been more than a small cog in the mechanism of resistance, and it wasn’t the lot of a cog to know what direction the machine was moving in. He could only change the film and abandon himself to a vision of the Reich crumbling beneath the rage of its own citizens. If only…

A door slid open. A pair of black jumpsuits hurtled into the pod. He recognised their electric truncheons from the films.

Pity it didn’t last a bit longer. He smashed the thiocyanate bottle against a bulkhead and followed it with the hydrochloric acid. There should be a good cloud of cyanide gas around him in time to welcome the two SS officers. The fumes began to burn his throat.

“Welcome to the party, boys.”

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These other stories by DJ Cockburn available online: Steel in the Morning, Newgate Jig, The Endocrine Tyranny, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, Foreclosure, Cassandra’s Cargo and Mars One.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

Under the Hooked Cross – 16: Broadcast

Previous instalments: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Under the Hooked Cross“James? What happened? What are you doing?” Henkel tried to struggle, but couldn’t reach anything to push off. He twitched in mid-air as he slowly rotated. Silversmith couldn’t suppress a snigger. The cabinet door sprang open and he laughed aloud.

He kicked back to Henkel and bundled him toward the hydroponics pod. Henkel still didn’t seem to understand what was going on. “What in the name of the Führer are you doing, James?”

Silversmith pulled him so that they were face-to-face. “My name is Seamus Silversmith and I’m half Jewish. I’ve been spying on your space program for fourteen years and I pray every day that you never hoist that filthy flag of yours on Mars. The sooner idiots like you grow up and see Heydrich for the evil bastard he is, the better.”

It felt so damn good! He had to cut himself off before everything he’d wanted to shout for fourteen years came gushing out.

Silversmith shoved Henkel into the hydroponics pod. He hauled himself back to the communications pod and hit the emergency button. With a hiss of hydraulics, the doors at each end of the pod slid shut. Now every other pod would be dimmed with emergency lighting only, and every inessential system would be shut down. The broadcast was classed as essential, so the film kept ticking through the transmitter. If a faulty battery poisoned the crew with chlorine or a micrometeorite left them breathing vacuum, nothing would interrupt the flow of enlightenment to the Reich.

Silversmith laughed as he hurled himself back to the cupboard of secret films. He was twelve years old again, hiding from the farmer whose orchard he’d raided. The trick to enjoying those childhood escapades had been in not thinking about the consequences, and he’d rediscovered the trick exactly when he needed it. He pulled out the tapes and held them up to the red light. Even the grotesque images couldn’t dull his euphoria.

The intercom crackled into life and the duty officer started calling names. Silversmith stopped the tape of the documentary about solar flares and replaced it with film of a woman whose skin had been flayed by one. There was no explanation to be broadcast with it, but she floated in a way that could only place her on the Dancing Penguin. He hoped anyone watching would associate her with the phenomenon they had just been learning about.

Next week: Under the Hooked Cross concludes with Seamus Silversmith

Full story available from Amazon in Kindle format.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson

These other stories by DJ Cockburn available online: Steel in the Morning, Newgate Jig, The Endocrine Tyranny, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, Foreclosure, Cassandra’s Cargo and Mars One.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Under the Hooked Cross

Seasonal Greetings from the Eclectics


(DJ Cockburn [CC / Flickr])

And with that, the Eclectics are taking a seasonal break. The last two instalments of Under the Hooked Cross will post on the next couple of Mondays, but Hooptedoodle and Pontification will be having a very boozy party until the new year.

Here’s hoping you enjoy yourself as much as they plan to.

Posted in Notification
Follow Cockburn's Eclectics on

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 434 other followers

Stars Shine, Stars Sell

Christmas in Red

Bowl of Light

Presents for the Patrician

Feather and Phone

Peacocked Lights

The Red Cross of Retail

Wreaths of the Ritz

Christmas at the Ritz

Retail Season on Sloane Street

More Photos