My Writing Journey (part 1)
At the recent launch of Paradise Girl someone asked me, ‘How did you get into writing?’ I can’t remember exactly what I answered, but it’s a question I’ve thought about a lot since. So here goes. I’m not going to talk about how I came to write Paradise Girl because I covered that in my last blog. Rather I’ll deal with the processes of getting into serious writing, my experiences since, and particularly how I ended up self publishing and what’s involved in that. There’s a lot to say, and to keep it manageable this will extend over more than one blog.
Begin at the beginning. Although I was an early talker (I’m told) I was a late reader. I can remember the penny suddenly dropping when I was 8, and all those funny squiggles on the page at last making sense. I began to read everything, practicing my new skill everywhere.
Despite this slow start in the subject, English became my favourite. I was from a bookish home and at school I developed a talent for written expression. My essays (called ‘compositions’ in those distant days) always got good marks. I wrote stories and anecdotes and contributed to, and then edited, the school magazine. I owned a lot of books, but of course (and I’m afraid it is ‘of course’), being a boy I was much more interested in non-fiction than in fiction. Kind relatives sought to encourage me by giving me copies of classics, but I preferred to read about planes, ships, spaceflight, real adventures. I’m ashamed to say most of the fiction went straight on to my shelves, where it remained. Only recently I disposed of a copy of Ivanhoe, the gift of an aunt, which had never been opened (I did read the work in the end, but not that copy). I didn’t pick up the habit of reading fiction widely and critically (essential for any writer) until later.
At college, where I studied English, I was one of a bookish group whose members met, drank coffee and talked endlessly about what they were going to write. My recollection is that we all spent much more time talking about writing than actually doing any. I started a couple of novels and got a few thousand words into them before deciding they were no good and binning the manuscripts. The problem was that I had not yet found a voice, which meant that what I produced was a pale pastiche of what happened to be impressing me at the time – John Fowles, Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, William Golding, Graham Greene. The pattern was consistent: I didn’t write much, and what I did write was poor. This continued in the years immediately after leaving college, when I was a teacher in the East End of London.
I didn’t write much because there was always something getting in the way – work, marriage, family, the need to take on a second job, always something. I set myself targets but they never worked. ‘I’ll get up at 4 every morning and write a thousand words before going to work’ was a particularly misguided one. The problem with self-imposed targets is that they are just that: self-imposed. That means that unless you have a will of iron, slippage is inevitable. A thousand words a day became a thousand words a week, or even a month, and on a cold winter’s morning the duvet was far more attractive than the writing desk. Failure to meet targets produces guilt, and I suffered from that, too. The result of all this was that although my passion for reading remained, I drifted away from writing. I had lots of ideas (I’ve never experienced writer’s block, at least not yet) but they remained stories I told to myself and they stayed inside my head. It was more comfortable that way.
This phase lasted many years, prolonged by the fact that in the late 1990s my wife and I started our own business. For ten years we worked 80+ hour weeks, and when we were able to take holidays they were spent inert on a beach. Reading was a welcome release, but there was certainly no energy or inclination for writing. That didn’t come until we disposed of our business and ‘retired’. Suddenly I had the luxury of time.
Now I’m well aware that there are people who manage jobs, households, children and other dependents, elderly relatives, pets, friends and still find the time and energy to write. I have enormous admiration for them, because I couldn’t. The downside for me is that I’ve come to writing late. And now I’m doing it, I can’t think why I ever did anything else!
In my next blog I’ll tell you about my first serious efforts (two longish novels, so far unpublished), my experience of literary consultancies and agents, why I decided to self publish – and what I’ve learnt from all this.