Novels He Wrote
It is July 2003 and I have taken voluntary redundancy from my job as an engineer at Marconi. Two days a week down the library using their Internet connection to search for jobs, a few hours at the learn-as-you-go IT workshop to brush up my skills and the rest of the time is my own. How to fill it?
Didn't I start writing a novel a while ago on my son's computer? Let's have a look. Ah yes! Here it is. A medieval novel. I've always liked history. The story of a 13th century friar becoming an unwilling participant in the struggle between Henry III and the English barons and being pursued all over southern England. A sort of cross between Cadfael and The Thirty Nine Steps (one of my favourite books). I smile at my clever comparison. A pity no-one else is around to appreciate my wit.
I resume writing in earnest, using every available hour to advance the plot. When the words are flowing my two-fingered typing is almost a blur. But the story doesn't always run easily and I hit mental blocks. Then questions arise. Should I have planned this better? Would it make it clearer if I drew a flow chart of the plot? Would it help to map out my hero's escape route? Do I need more characterisation? How do proper writers do it?
I start reading writing magazines and find books in the library which offer invaluable advice to the aspiring novelist. The more I read, the more I realise there is no wrong way or right way to write. Some published writers claim to plan everything out to the last detail so that when they write they know exactly what will end up on the page. Others admit to having the barest inkling of an idea which means that, when they begin writing, they haven't a clue how the story will end. I decide that my way is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of literary creativity and am thus encouraged.
It no longer bothers me that I don't write my chapters in a straight sequence. Some days I want to pick up a dramatic scene towards the tail end of my story. I go back later and fill in the gaps. I worry no more that I am modifying the plot as I go along.
While all this literary energy is being expended I find local help is at hand and join the Trowell Writers' Trust. I am back in full time employment by now and cannot attend the meetings but I enter their annual short story competition and achieve third place. So someone is of the opinion that I can write a bit! The next year I come first and am thus encouraged to try other competitions and women's magazines. I also extend my repertoire to scripts for stage and television.
At last it is finished! But is it long enough to be called a novel? I do a count – 77,000 words. How long should it be? I do some comparisons. Some of these 2-inch thick blockbusters are obviously a heck of a lot more. But what about some of the classics? I get out my trusty Thirty Nine Steps and notice it is only about 100 pages. What's that? Barely 50,000 words? I remember I read it in an afternoon. Not bad for a book that has spurned three films and a television adaptation. (None of which has been true to John Buchan by the way – maybe there's another article there).
Now what to do? Back to the magazines and the overwhelming consensus of opinion appears to advocate going down the agency route. So it's back to the library and trawling through Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. I end up with half-a-dozen likely candidates and eagerly post the first three chapters and a covering letter to the first one. A few weeks later back comes the standard rejection letter. To be honest I didn't expect any other outcome. From what I can gather it takes several attempts to get accepted. A friend gives me encouragement (?) by informing me that the script for Four Weddings And A Funeral was rejected over ninety times. It seems I may have a long way to go.
Five more rejections without a word of feedback and I'm beginning to wonder if there is much call for straightforward historical adventure stories these days so I decide to do a bit of research. It is almost time for our annual holiday and my wife has stocked up on her poolside reading. I pick up a Corgi paperback and peruse the front cover. The words 'romp', 'racy' and 'fun' on the front cover blurb offer a clue as to the artistic content but I am not prepared for what two characters are doing to each other in the bedroom before I've reached the bottom of page four. Is this what it takes to sell books these days? What the hell. It's not what I ever intended to write but I decide to give it a go. I soon come up with a vague plot and begin to type. I continue my contemporary novel with pen and paper while on holiday and transfer it all to computer on my return. I find that the raunchy parts come to mind surprisingly easily. Being a qualified engineer with a logical mind I create a list of euphemisms for male body parts and a female equivalent list. I then just select different ones to use in different circumstances. A sort of pick-and-mix human anatomy.
Within a few months I have 86,000 words (I'm unemployed again by now). I still have doubts inasmuch as I have written what I think the market wants and not what particularly interests me. Nevertheless, it's complete, I enjoyed creating it and I go back to the Yearbook. One rejection later I'm still waiting to hear from my second targeted agent.