Monday, 30 July 2012

Treasure Quest: The Book

Today, I’ve decided to carry on my recently-adopted and doubtless soon-to-be-abandoned practice of writing a post about something I mentioned during the previous one. Most of the pieces on here so far have concerned failure in one way or another – projects that were never published, and my writing career to date in general. So I thought I’d cheer things up a bit by telling the story of the one book I have so far had released into the wider world – Treasure Quest: The Book.

All right, so it’s not a novel. It’s quite small. And I wasn’t actually paid for it, given that it was done for charity. But it’s a book that was properly published and was written for the BBC, no less, which I think is something of which to be proud.

When not working on trying to become a professional novelist, I am lucky enough to have a day job working for BBC Radio Norfolk, based in Norwich. Among other roles, since May 2008 I have been the producer of a Sunday morning programme called Treasure Quest. Those of you who remember the 1980s Channel 4 television programme Treasure Hunt with Anneka Rice will find the format familiar – we have a radio car presenter and driver who have to travel around Norfolk solving four or five cryptic clues, with each clue leading to where the next one is located. The listeners at home phone, text, e-mail and Facebook in with their suggestions for how to solve the clues and where the radio car should head next, and the team have a little under three hours to crack all the clues and find the treasure envelope.

Some of the Treasure Quest team in November 2011. Studio presenter and station Managing Editor David Clayton, me, presenter Becky Betts and broadcast assistants Alexajain Wills-Bradfield and Lauren Tyson.

I plan the route each week, set-up the locations, write the clues, produce the programme in the studio every Sunday morning and have an on-air role as ‘the Questmaster’, explaining how each clue worked after they’ve solved it and occasionally going on to give them extra hints and supplementary clues if they’re lagging behind! The show is tremendous fun to produce, and very popular with the audience. We frequently beat every other station in the county in the slot, including the national ones, and we’re one of the station’s most popular shows of the week. We have something of a cult audience too, with a popular Facebook page and even a fan website set up by some enthusiastic followers of the show.

The fact that we have this popularity has allowed us to use it to help raise money for the BBC’s Children in Need Appeal every November. Since 2009 we’ve held an annual Treasure Quest Live! stage show at the Norwich Playhouse, with all the team engaging in various games and features. Being both a writerly type and also something of an anorak who likes to have the history of things written down, when we came to do the second stage show in 2010, I pitched the idea of us producing a printed programme people could purchase at the show. It would have a history of the programme, profiles of the team, photos, etc, and we could sell it in aid of Children in Need.

I wrote a few bits for this to pitch the idea to my boss – and Treasure Quest studio presenter – David Clayton. However, I found out that he had already started the ball rolling on a Treasure Quest 2011 calendar, for people to buy not just at the show but also online and in the shop next to the BBC Radio Norfolk studios in The Forum. Obviously it would be a bit beyond our resources to produce two pieces of merchandise – BBC Local Radio stations not really being set-up to produce tie-ins for the shows, and most of this being done in our spare time – so my printed programme idea went on the back burner, although David did say he liked the bits I’d written for it.

The calendar went well and managed to raise a fair bit of money for Children in Need. So early on the following year, sometime around March or April, we started thinking about what we could possibly do as a piece or merchandise to sell at the 2011 show. David and I had a chat where we discussed various possibilities, and the idea emerged that we should do a book. He knew that I was keen to do it, and I knew that I could write it and write it well. We left it open as a possibility, and I decided I was going to grab this opportunity – possibly the only one I will ever have – to get a book published. I decided to write it, print some copies and show them to David as a template for the sort of thing we could do.

It’s arrogant, perhaps, but I never had any doubt I could do it well. I knew it had to be quite a short book, no more than twenty or thirty thousand words. I knew the history of the show inside out, and had all the old programmes and my notes available to me to check any details. We had hundreds, possibly thousands, of photos taken along the way each week. And I knew that I was a good writer of non-fiction. I can write prose that, while not sparkling, can be clear, concise and engaging.

Most importantly, like many Doctor Who fans, I’d grown up reading behind-the-scenes and ‘making of’ books, and I knew exactly what the tone of the thing had to be, and what had to go in it. I was immensely pleased at the idea of being a part of something that could have its own ‘making of’ tome, and of celebrating all of the achievements of my friends and colleagues on the show. So I wrote a first draft in about a week in April 2011, and used the self-publishing site Lulu to create five dummy copies, to show David what the finished thing might look like.

My dummy copy of the Treasure Quest book idea, which ended up impressing people enough for us to go with it as a real project.

I have to admit I was pretty pleased with it, and David also seemed quite impressed. He quickly agreed that a book would be a good thing to do, and brought on board a wonderful lady called Elsje Stocker. Elsje used to work at the BBC in Norwich and sometimes comes back to manage special projects for us – she stage-manages the stage show, and ran the production of the Treasure Quest calendar. Elsje was able to find all the right people to talk to higher up at the BBC and at Children in Need to enable us to do the book, and also found the equally-wonderful Norman Macintosh and his company Charity Goods to publish it for us.

Norman’s been putting out merchandise to raise money for Children in Need for many years, usually in partnership with BBC Radio 2, and he was absolutely brilliant. Without him and Elsje and their tireless efforts the book would never have happened, but one thing that quickly became apparent was that we’d need to hand over the book to Norman for publishing as ready-to-go PDF files. Meaning whatever we sent him would be what was printed – we’d have to do all of the design and layout in-house ourselves.

I hadn’t expected this at all, and was a little daunted given that I have absolutely no design experience. On the plus side, however, I was rather pleased that it gave me almost complete control over the project, in terms of being able to constantly tinker with it over the summer months of 2011, refining it and fixing it and getting it right, and checking over and over again for mistakes and typos. I spent many, many hours poring over it, before by September it was finally ready to go to print.

(Incidentally, my not being in any way a designer meant that the interior of the book was all laid-out in Microsoft Word, and the cover in Microsoft Publisher. Not tools a professional would ever use, and if a proper publisher ever reads this I can imagine them wincing at the very idea. But I flatter myself to think I managed, with Norman’s help, to get both cover and interior looking, if not great, then more than good enough to pass muster).

One little coup I was able to pull off during all this was to get BBC Radio 1 DJ Greg James to write an afterword for the book. Greg did work experience at Radio Norfolk during his time in Norwich at the UEA, and in August 2011 he played – for the third time! – on his “Best Bit of the Radio” slot a famous clip from Treasure Quest of our clue hunter Becky Betts having to go up in a helicopter. Taking advantage of his cheekiness in having used the clip yet again, I dropped him an e-mail asking if he’d like to write a piece for the end of the book, and he said yes!

That nice Greg James from BBC Radio 1 wrote us an afterword for the book.

The book came out in October 2011, and I couldn’t have been more proud. When I got my hands on a copy, I couldn’t stop looking at it, holding it in my hands and flicking back and forth through the pages. A real, proper, actual book with “by Paul Hayes” on the front. (This, incidentally, was down to David – I’d assumed we’d put it out without a name, but he said I should have the proper credit for writing it). I was so enthralled by having a proper book out that I even memorised the ISBN number, rather pathetically! (9780956077714, since you asked).

When the shop next to our studios put out their large display of the books, I was so taken with it that I took one of the online team’s cameras down to take a photo. In reception I bumped into my colleague Jacqui Burgoyne and waylaid her to take a photo of me posing with the books – fortunately she’s also an aspiring scribbler, so she well understood my excitement!

 Me, shamelessly posing with the copies of the book on display in The Forum shop in October 2011!

Our news online team did a piece on it, there was an article in the local paper and even our TV colleagues at Look East gave us a quick mention. We did a book signing in the BBC Radio Norfolk reception in early November, which was extraordinary, especially seeing so many people queuing up to meet us. They were there to see Becky and David, of course, but I was there too and actually signing copies of my own book. Extraordinary.

“Sorry, who are you again...?” A bemused member of the public gets her book scribbled in by me, after she'd got the signatures she really wanted from David and Becky!

At last year’s Treasure Quest Live!, which I produced, they brought me down from the theatre’s production gallery at the end of the show to present me with a framed copy of the book’s cover on stage, which was very flattering and touching. And then earlier this year, a group of listeners were invited in by David to surprise me during an edition of the spin-off show Treasure Quest: Extra Time (which I present), to give me a copy of the book they’d all written in, in celebration of the 200th Treasure Quest.

I know I’ve gone on a bit about this, but I am very proud of Treasure Quest: The Book. I think it’s a good behind-the-scenes book, and I’m very glad it’s there as a record and celebration of the programme and those who have worked on it. We sold out all the copies we had printed, 2000 of them, and raised over nine thousand pounds for Children in Need.

Being presented with a framed copy of the cover at Treasure Quest Live! in November 2011.

And on a personal level, I will always know that, come what may in my efforts at a writing career, I at least had a taste of publication, once. I did it. I had a book out, with my name on it, and people bought it and liked it. There are many people who want to write just as desperately as I do, even more desperately perhaps, and never get that opportunity. Everything fell into place and I took the opportunity, and I’ll always feel fortunate at having been able to.

But that said, I would still prefer it not to be the only book I ever have published!

My book!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

City of Literature

In my previous post, I mentioned how I wrote my rather forgettable third novel, Local News, in the summer between finishing my A-Levels and heading off to Norwich to start my degree at the University of East Anglia. Which got me thinking about my time there, and the writers I knew, particularly as a member of the university’s Creative Writing Society.

There’s no set career path to being a writer. You can’t just leave school and head down the job centre and say “Hello – I’d like to be a novelist please.” There are no interviews, no formal qualifications you particularly need, and no positions as writers of fictional prose advertised in the situations vacant columns of the local paper. You’re pretty much on your own, and have to make up how you go about doing it as you go along.

However, there is Norwich. And there is a certain type of person – let’s face it, a predominantly white, English, rather bookish, usually male sort of a person – to whom Norwich in general and the University of East Anglia in particular is a writing Mecca. The UEA’s creative writing minor and MA are legendary for producing authors of great renown. It’s the university of Bradbury, McEwan, Ishiguro, etc... If you want to follow in their footsteps, head for Norwich. Earlier this year, this reputation saw Norwich named by UNESCO as England’s first ever “City of Literature”, and one of only six in the world to have been bestowed the title.

So, as I say, for a certain type of person, if you wish to be a writer, this is where you come, for better or for worse.

I am not sure when and where exactly I first became aware of Norwich’s reputation as a great literary city. I have a dim recollection of an afterword to Paul Magrs’s Doctor Who novel The Scarlet Empress, wherein he talked about his life and his work lecturing in creative writing in the city. When I arrived at the UEA in the autumn of 2002, I recall having a lecture from him on Angela Carter. Carter was a central plank of the UEA’s English Literature degree at the time – indeed, doing said degree almost at times felt like doing a degree in her work alone.

(Magrs, incidentally, later buggered off from the UEA moaning about it being too middle-class, seemingly on the basis that someone had once turned up to one of his seminars wearing a beret).

Wherever it was I first heard of Norwich’s literary background, certainly by the age of seventeen I was convinced that this was the place for me to go to university, and I never seriously considered going anywhere else. I applied to study English Literature with Creative Writing, but to my disappointment didn’t get on the creative writing minor. You had to send in a sample of your work, and the short story I selected – a rather gruesome piece called Fight From the Inside (yes, named after the Queen song – I was a fanatical fan of theirs as a teenager) about a baby killing its mother from within the womb – obviously didn’t impress them very much. This was an early indication that I was perhaps not quite as good a writer as I thought I was...

I later heard the statistic being bandied about that 300 people applied for the 15 places on that year’s creative writing minor. I have no idea of the accuracy of that, but in the end decided to accept the offer they did make me, which was to study plain English Literature. This was on the basis that studying how other people did it would surely help to make me a better writer, and just the act of being in Norwich and soaking up its authorly ethos still seemed a better bet than heading anywhere else to study anything else.

In the event, I did end up doing a couple of the creative writing units as part of my degree, including the prose fiction unit under Doug Cowie. But what really sticks in my mind from my time at the UEA, and indeed formed some of my most enjoyable experiences of the place, was my membership of the Creative Writing Society, who would meet twice a week in one of the large rooms upstairs in Union House to engage in writing workshops and share their work for feedback from their peers.

When I was at the UEA from 2002 until 2005, it was the era when the self-described “poetry boyband” Aisle 16 were in their pomp, and their members were among the leading lights of the CWS. I have never harboured any ambitions to be a poet, but I greatly admired and envied the Aisle 16 members for their linguistic skills and the enormous self-confidence they seemed to have about their writing.

 You can still find traces of Aisle 16’s guerrilla advertising around and about in Norwich. I took this photo yesterday, opposite the Catholic Cathedral, where Earlham and Unthank Roads meet.

I don’t think it’s an uncommon experience for people to go away to university and find they’re not actually as good at something as they thought they were. You’re used to being among the best and brightest in your sixth form or college, and then you find you’re actually bang average when put alongside the best and brightest from all the other places across the country. That’s certainly how it felt for me when I started going to CWS meetings at the UEA. At school I’d been pretty sure I was one of the best writers I knew among my peers. When I sat in CWS feedback meetings, I rapidly realised that compared to these people, I was average-to-poor.

It was always the feedback meetings I used to attend, rather than the workshop ones, because in my experience the latter tended to always revolve around poetry and improvisation, things I am not blessed with any talents for. I did always enjoy the feedback sessions, however, and even on one memorable occasion got a rather pleasing round of applause from my assembled fellow scribblers after reading out a short horror story called Cake, about a young girl who accidentally kills her mother.

That latter story was included in a small anthology put out by the society in 2004, which I sadly don’t have a copy of to hand. In my parents’ attic, I think. I also wrote three chapters of the collaborative novel organised by Andrea Tallarita. I did not, though, appear on the society’s naked calendar, thank goodness...

The UEA Creative Writing Society on the beach at Great Yarmouth in November 2002. The number of these people who have since been published is frankly sickening.

I did however, in a rare display of socialising, go on the society’s jolly to Great Yarmouth in the autumn of 2002, from which I find I have a few photos of some of my peers who have already gone on to be published writers, the talented bastards. I have kept an eye on how some of my fellow CWS members have done down the years – I know I shouldn’t, it only makes me feel worse about not having had a novel published yet, and these people were always better and much more talented writers than I was. But I can’t help it – and can’t help but feel jealous of their success.

Joel Stickley was the president of the society in the first year I was there, and although we were not close friends or anything and I didn’t know him well, he was a writer I greatly admired. A member of the Aisle 16 gang, it wasn’t just that he seemed a nice chap – which he did – but to me he felt like a grown-up (complete with impressive beard), and wrote fantastically well in poetry or prose, and when I was eighteen I thought he was the finest writer I had ever personally met. The internet tells me he has since gone on to hold such positions as Writer in Residence for the Town of Corby and Poet Laureate of Lincolnshire, which sounds like nice work if you can get it.

Luke Wright and Joel Stickley on a dancing machine in Great Yarmouth back in 2002. A few short years later they’d be asking “Who Writes This Crap?”, something they may well ask of this blog if they ever come across it.

Joel was the first person I noticed from the society getting a book out, Who Writes This Crap?, co-written with fellow society member and poet Luke Wright. Luke is still in Norwich and makes semi-regular appearances on our afternoon show at work – I went down and said hello to him one day when he was in, although he didn’t remember me, which isn’t surprising as we didn’t know each other outside of the society meetings.

Someone who rather surprisingly did remember me when I encountered him at work was Tim Clare, another nice chap who I chiefly remember from the society’s feedback sessions reading out sections from a children’s novel he was writing about a couple of characters called Pally and Sanskrit. He came in for an interview on an edition of the drivetime show I was producing earlier this year to talk about a poetry event in Norwich, and I was taken aback to note that he did remember me from the UEA days.

 Tim Clare celebrates a well-skimmed stone on the beach at Great Yarmouth. He too has subsequently gone on to enjoy the greater joys of publication.

There are plenty of others – my BBC colleague and fellow aspiring author Jacqui Burgoyne was at the UEA at the same time as me, was a society member for a while, and when she first started at the BBC we did wonder where we had seen one another before... And Beth Settle, who works in the library in Norwich next door to the BBC, who I regularly bump into when coming or going to and from work, and meet up with for literary discussions over hot chocolate once in a blue moon. Fellow happy inhabitants of Norwich’s velvet coffin – like the fictional Royston Vasey, “you’ll never leave...”

The Creative Writing Society at the UEA was a very positive experience for me, I think. It taught me some humility and realism about the extent of my writing talents. It gave me the chance to meet and interact with some very fine writers. And it was possibly the most enjoyable part of three years at university which, while not a waste, weren’t the great formative or enlightening experience that other people seem to have.

 Chris Farnell was president of the Creative Writing Society during my final year there, 2004-05. His first novel came out just a year later, and I remember being very jealous to hear him interviewed about it on Chris and Kirsteen’s afternoon show during my first week of work experience at BBC Radio Norfolk in the summer of 2006.

Chris, as I recall, got everyone on the Great Yarmouth trip to sign a wooden chip fork. I wonder if he still has it? It might be worth something some day, at the rate this lot are going...

Joe Dunthorne consults with Noddy in Great Yarmouth in 2002. Possibly getting tips for his acclaimed novel...

Probably the most important thing about coming to the UEA, though, was that it brought me to the city of Norwich. And if I hadn’t come to Norwich, I would almost certainly never have ended up working for the BBC, and in turn would never have had published the one book which I do so far have to my name.

But that’s another story.

 Me on the beach at Great Yarmouth in 2002. And look, it’s a book, all right? It counts!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

My Novels: Local News

Local News

Word count:

July to September 2002

I find that back in 2002 I actually wrote a blurb for this novel, presumably just for my own amusement. I’d forgotten all about having done it, but fortunately it says more about the story than I am able to remember ten years later! It goes thusly...

Leaving his job in London with a top broadsheet newspaper after his career takes a dramatic nose dive, journalist Sebastian Cook arrives in the sleepy town of Amford to take what he believes will be a relaxed job as Chief Staff Reporter on the small-time local newspaper, a chance to keep his head down while he works to rebuild his reputation.

However, Cook soon discovers that life on the Provincial Weekly is not all that it seems. What is the secret of the bizarre Stylus family, who pass the paper down from generation to generation like a family heirloom? What is the reason for the employment of the apparently superfluous Mrs Egg? And most importantly of all, what happened to Cook’s vanished predecessor, Chris Marshall?

As Cook starts to dig deeper into this series of strangely connected mysteries, he uncovers a sinister conspiracy that spans the decades…

“Of course, all of the best writing comes from the heart.”

The statement took me by surprise. I had only just entered the room and sat down for the interview and was hardly expecting this as an opening line. Some form of introduction or welcome perhaps. Maybe an enquiry about how my journey had been, or why I wanted the job. But not this sudden and unprovoked theory on the nature of good writing.

“Um… excuse me?” was all I could muster in reply.

“I said, all of the best writing comes from the heart,” he repeated. The writing on his door and the sign on his desk both identified him as ‘John Stylus – Editor’, but I knew that already. He was a little older than I had anticipated – perhaps around fifty? – and he had the look of an ageing hippy, his light brown hair cut in what resembled a mullet now streaked with grey, and a kind of dazed yet wise look to his face. He was dressed in brown trousers and a blue shirt, with a purple tie very loosely hanging around his neck. It was his footwear that really interested me though – large, brown buccaneer boots that looked like something a pirate captain might wear in some great swashbuckling adventure movie of the nineteen-fifties. They seemed quite incongruous at the bottoms of the legs of the editor of a small English local newspaper.

I didn’t write any novels at all during my two years at sixth form – or rather, I didn’t finish any. I wrote Coming Apart at the Dreams during the summer beforehand, and Local News in the summer afterwards. I must have written it pretty quickly – my notes from the time tell me I started it on the 11th of July and finished it on the 11th of September, but for two weeks of that I was away in Gran Canaria with some friends, as we holidayed to celebrate the end of our A-Levels and our emergence into the world after school before we went our separate ways.

I still considered myself to be an aspiring novelist while I was at sixth form, but I had a lot else going on. I became a little bit more of a social creature, mixing and making friends with a larger circle of people than I had done before, and of course there was a lot of reading and studying to be done for the A-Levels themselves. I did write quite a few short stories during this time, and also started work on a few novels that were never finished – although many years later the lead character from one of these abandoned projects, as well as some of the setting and atmosphere, did end up in The Wicket in the Rec.

Basically, I was busy pretty much having a good time and enjoying one of the best periods of my life. When it was all over, in the long summer between finishing my A-Levels and heading to Norwich to start university (such was my arrogance the possibility of not getting the grades I needed frankly never entered my thinking), I decided to have another bash at a novel.

I can’t tell you where the storyline or the ideas came from, save that I do remember it was originally intended to be a bit... odder than it turned out. I had some notion of what literature students might call a “magical realism” sort of a plot, but it ended up being set very much in the real world, and probably all the duller for it.

Looking back:
Of all the novels I have written, this is the most forgettable – I wrote the thing, and ten years later I can barely remember anything about it. I do recall forcing myself into a regime of writing for a little while, having a routine every night of trying to squeeze out three or four thousand words and then treating myself to re-watching another episode of Our Friends in the North (one of my favourite things ever) on DVD.

Reading the description of the character of John Stylus in that opening section reproduced above, I suspect I was probably somewhat basing him on my A-Level English Literature teacher, Jon Harley, a legend to many students of The Angmering School over the past thirty-odd years.

This is the first novel I wrote in the first person. I have always, I think, been a better writer in the first person as it helps get into the character and the feel of the piece and means you need less of the omniscient description which I’m perhaps not so good at. The problem with first person is it limits what you can do with the scope of the plot, so I haven’t always played to my strengths by using it.

I’m not sure whether Local News was appallingly bad, but I do think it was fairly anonymous and forgettable. But I would soon be off and onto other things – I was on my way to Norwich, to the University of East Anglia, where you went if you wanted to be a writer.

I think I did send this to a few agents and / or publishers, but nothing came of it – just form letters back, no personal notes.

Monday, 23 July 2012

What I'm up to

It occurs to me that I have mostly used this blog so far to talk generally about writing, why I write and the history of my writing, rather than giving any actual updates as to what I’m up to at the moment. I’m not sure whether you’re actually interested in such details, but in an effort to convince both you and myself that I am not completely lazy and inactive, I thought I’d give a little update as to how things currently stand.

Earlier this month I finished the first draft of a 60,000-word short novel called Forced Feeling, set in the year 1912 and concerning the relationship that develops between a suffragette and the doctor who is supervising her forced feeding in prison. This was written in a very great rush, only started in late May, as a private project, a birthday present for a close friend of mine. However, said friend has given a positive response and encouraged me to try and do it properly, so we’ll see... I may give it a proper go, although it would need a lot of work to bring it up to scratch.

Aside from that, my most recent completed novel is a 97,000-word piece called The Wicket in the Rec, which tells the story of a cricket match suspended on the day the Second World War broke out finally being played to a finish fifty years later, on Christmas Day in 1989. I completed the first draft of that in November last year and have been working on improving it ever since, and since the start of this year have also been submitting synopses and sample chapters to various agents and, for a change, publishers.

I haven’t tried publishers directly for a while, but after having no joy with agents I decided to have a go at submitting it to a company called Myriad Editions, based in Brighton. I chose them as they seemed the only Sussex-based published of novels that fitted, with an interest in putting out locally-related works (Wicket is set in West Sussex, in fact in my home village of Clapham).

Myriad turned the novel down, but very nicely – I had the below rejection letter from them, one of the most encouraging I’ve had for a while. I take heart from it as I’ve learned enough over the years to know that agents and publishers aren’t going to waste their time saying nice things to you if they think you’re entirely useless – it only encourages further submissions from the hopeless, and they have enough of those to be getting through as it is.

“Polished and engaging” isn’t bad, don’t you think...?

So Wicket has been turned down by everyone so far, but I’m not losing heart just yet. Today I’ve sent off my latest submission for it, to an American publisher called Atticus Books, who were recommended to me by my friend Tim. Having read a couple of their novels I think Wicket would actually be a good fit for them – despite its cricketing theme, you don’t actually need to know anything about the game to enjoy the story, it’s simply the catalyst which sets events in motion and brings the characters together.

So I shall wait and see what happens with that, while looking through the latest Yearbook to choose further agents and publishers to submit Wicket to in the event of a rejection. I also have two other possible novels brewing in my head – one a serious, contemporary fiction piece, the other a science-fiction effort called Time Engine which is sort of a cross between Doctor Who and Sharpe and I suspect might be good fun to write. Both of these are projects I have previously started and then abandoned, but I do make a habit of recycling ideas, mainly because I have so few half-decent ones that I can’t afford to waste them when they come along!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

My Novels: Coming Apart at the Dreams

Title: Coming Apart at the Dreams

(I was rather pleased with this. I’ve always been quite pleased with my titles, on the whole – often the best part of my books! Obviously a play on the phrase “coming apart at the seams”, and referring to the fact that the two main characters split up because of their differing hopes and dreams and ambitions).

Word count: 78,694

Written: March to August 2000

Story: Michael and Catherine, a young couple in their early twenties, arrive in his home village, having recently become engaged. He’s English and she’s Australian, and he’s brought her home to meet the family. However, when an ex-boyfriend of hers and her brother turn up from Australia, she begins to doubt whether Michael is really the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with. It all ends up fairly miserably for poor old Michael.

Opening: “It’s still raining.”

Michael couldn’t suppress a thin smile. He looked at Catherine, an expression of restrained amusement crossing his face as he did so.

“You were expecting something else?” he asked sarcastically. “After all, this is England. You knew what you were letting yourself in for.” Catherine returned his gaze with one of those long, withering looks that only women can give, and he turned away chuckling.

“Yes, but does it have to rain so much?” she asked, looking up and down the length of the station in mock desperation. She then looked at her watch. “And the trains don’t run on time.”

Background: At the age of sixteen, I had one of those ridiculous, intense, angst-ridden crushes on a girl who was in my year at school. Absurd and pointless, but it felt important and dramatic at the time, as these things tend to do.

One day in March 2000, said young lady showed me a short story she had written for her English homework, to get some feedback about it. (Friends and acquaintances have often been kind enough down the years to regard my drive to write as somehow qualifying me to give advice and criticism on their own writing). It was very good, and I liked it, and said to her how I ought to show her some of my work in return.

I was sitting in the school library the following day, flicking through The Guardian’s education supplement, when I came across a piece about a writing competition for a 3000-word short story on the theme of “The Perfect Journey”. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, and I wrote a story called Home, about a young couple on a train journey, both for the competition and to show her.

I never heard anything back from the competition, of course, but the object of my unrequited affections went into raptures about it, saying how good it was and how much she’d enjoyed it, and how I had to carry it on. Well, of course, what else could I do? The following month I started turning it into a novel under the title Coming Apart at the Dreams, with the original short story as the opening chapter, carrying on the story of the young couple.

I spent much of the summer working on it, and when we returned to school to start sixth form in September, presented it to her as a gift. Goodness only knows what she made of that, but when she eventually read it she was gracious enough to claim that she’d enjoyed it. She was always very kind to me, although of course I only took that as encouragement to continue my ill-advised declarations of adoration.

Looking back: Ye Gads, it’s dreadful. I don’t hold it in any of the affection I have for Fatescape, although that might be because it’s tied up with all the teenage angst I had going on at the time. I do feel rather embarrassed when I look back at the way I behaved with my crush on the girl in my year, and my feelings about Coming Apart at the Dreams are all part of that embarrassment.

It doesn’t help that it’s an incredibly self-indulgent book. It’s basically a 78,000-word love letter, when all’s said and done. Filled with less-than-subtle allusions to the situation between her and I, and ham-fisted attempts to show what a perceptive and interesting and sensitive and intelligent sort of a guy I am. The central character, Michael, is of course a version of me that “thinly-veiled” would be far too generous a description of, and the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything remotely interesting.

If I’m looking for something to say in its credit, then I suppose it was at least my first attempt to write something grounded in the real world, and be a bit more mature. (If you can call writing a novel to try and impress your teenage crush in any way mature). It’s also set in barely-disguised versions of the places I lived and knew at the time, the first time I was writing about my own background and upbringing. I felt embarrassed about this as I thought it betrayed a lack of imagination, but later on I’d come to embrace it, on the basis of thinking “why shouldn’t these places have novels written about them?”, and that eventually led to a more recent effort of which I am more proud, The Wicket in the Rec.

What’s also interesting is, looking back at my diaries of the time, I wrote that I didn’t feel anywhere near the same sense of achievement in writing Dreams as I had with Fatescape. I didn’t remember that, but I suppose it’s true – nothing else since has felt like as great an achievement. As if once the first one is done, nothing else matters until I write one good enough to be published. Which I haven’t yet, and Dreams certainly wasn’t.

Submissions: I did submit it to some agents and publishers, but never had anything other than form letters back from any of them. Which is not surprising, really!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Once More Unto the Yearbook

I don’t really have a very good explanation for why I buy a new copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook every single year. (Or indeed why, as you can see from above, I’ve hung onto my last few years’ worth of copies).

It’s not as if the listings change a great deal from year-to-year – the vast majority of the publishers and agents therein still have the same contact details and submission guidelines as they have done for donkey’s years. And it’s not even as if buying it has ever done me all that much good. Over the years I have bombarded dozens, possibly hundreds, of agents and publishers listed in editions of this book with synopses and sample chapters of my novels. Carefully going through, circling the likeliest candidates who publish similar books or the right genre, and crossing them off as the rejection letters come in.

There’s been the occasional positive contact with the odd agent via the book, but of course nothing that’s ever led to publication, only kind words and encouragement. (Which are still no mean things to get from agents, admittedly).

In fact, the only copy of the Yearbook which has directly led to me getting something published remains the very first one I ever had, the 2001 edition, which was given to me as a 17th birthday present by my friend Lauren a frightening eleven years ago now. (I ended up getting paid to write some features on TV history for The Stage newspaper after getting their contact details from that book).

But as I say, I still waste my money buying the new edition every year. Perhaps because it gives me the psychological feeling of getting closer to achieving something. Makes me feel a tiny bit like a ‘proper’ writer... Mind you, it can also be a bit depressing – all those people publishing all that material, and still no room for me? I must be really crap...

Oh, and one of the articles in the new edition is all about why it’s okay to self-publish, complete with a list of very famous writers who resorted to it at one time or another. Hmmmmm... Get thee behind me, Satan!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

My Novels: Fatescape

Title: Fatescape

(No, me neither. I think I was going for something along the lines of it showing the great sprawling, metaphorical landscape of the fates of the various characters. Either that or I just thought it sounded good).

Word count: 83,245

(I can remember being terribly pleased that it clocked in at over eighty thousand words, as I’d read somewhere that this was the standard length for a novel; so I felt as if I had written an actual, proper novel, the right length and everything!)

Written: October 1998 to September 1999

Story: In the far-flung future, a bunch of Baddies, the Urkan Empire, go to war with a bunch of Goodies, the Galactic Republic, for... er... reasons which aren’t entirely clear. After much of the Republic’s space is invaded in a lightning attack and their military forces are in disarray, it falls to Commodore Haile Tripps and the crew of the heavy cruiser Redemption to save the Republic from certain destruction.

Opening: “The Menrax system was usually a quiet, tranquil area of space. Its two uninhabited planets spiralled distantly around their sun in a lumbering, lazy orbit. It was far from the established space lanes and borderlines of the Galaxy. It was not particularly close to anybody’s territory, and the two planets had hardly any natural resources that were worth anything, at least, none that couldn’t be obtained much more easily and cheaply somewhere else. In fact, most people, even highly experienced spacefarers, hardly even knew that the place existed, and those that did would hardly have any intention of going there.

But today was different...”

Background: Fatescape actually began life around Christmas 1995, when I was in Canada and had just been given my first PC. It had a word processing programme on it, WordPerfect for DOS, and of course I excitedly wanted to use this to do some writing, and ended up bashing out something that later resembled the prologue to Fatescape, and already had that title straight away.

I think that got forgotten about for a little while after we got back to England in the New Year, but later on in 1996 I had progressed up the word processing food chain to Microsoft Word 6.0, courtesy of a friend of the family, and this inspired me to take up Fatescape again. Over the summer holidays of 1996 I finished a 20,000-word version of the story, which felt epically long to me as a twelve-year-old and which I had enormous fun writing!

I’m not sure why, but a couple of years later I decided to go back to Fatescape and attempt to do it “properly”. A fourteen-year-old’s grasp of characterisation, plotting and descriptive prose are not typically great, but they are sufficiently better than a twelve-year-old’s to enable me to end up, over the course of the following year, writing something that at least resembled a “proper” novel in structure, shape and – yes! – length.

I don’t think I worked on it solidly, but in fits and starts with typical teenager’s procrastination, and I finished it in early September 1999, now aged fifteen. I remember printing it out on the old dot matrix printer I had (complete with that paper with the tear-off strips of holes down the side), which you had to be very careful to keep adjusting and only printing off  a few pages at a time as the paper size wasn’t in sync with the page size on the computer... Anyway, I was very proud to take it into school in a big plastic folder full of paper at the start of the new term, and excitedly showing it off to my friends and teachers – “Look, I’ve written a novel!”

Looking back: Well, it’s crap, obviously, but on the other hand... It does have a rather charming innocence to it. There is nothing at all pretentious or pseudo-intellectual about Fatescape – it is space opera pure and simple, unashamed storytelling and entertainment. For the writer, anyway – not sure about the reader!

I remember reading Dave Owen’s Doctor Who Magazine review of Lords of the Storm by David A. McIntee, where Owen made the point that great big science-fiction space battles are, in novels, “heaven to create for the author, but hell for the reader,” and I think he’s probably right. I was having a whale of a time writing Fatescape, and probably to this day it remains the novel I enjoyed writing the most.

As it was the first novel I ever completed, I think I’ll always have an affection for it, and I remember the storyline and characters far more clearly than I do some of my later ones! I even still pick it over from time to time – there’s a 4000 word document sitting on my computer that’s an entire biography of one minor character from Fatescape, written purely for my own amusement... last year!

Submissions: I think I did actually send off submissions for Fatescape to a few publishers as a rather hopelessly naive teenager, although of course it never got anywhere. Who knows, though? Maybe I’ll go back to it again someday, and “do it properly...”

Monday, 9 July 2012

Counting words

There’s a bit in Regeneration by Pat Barker – which I haven’t read since I was sixteen, so please forgive me not quoting it verbatim – where Owen approaches Sassoon for advice about how exactly to go about writing. And Sassoon basically tells him that you simply have to get down and do it – make yourself write. Force yourself to do something every day.

Owen replies, a little ruefully but with some knowing irony, that this doesn’t exactly go along with the idea of the poetic muse. Sassoon replies that you have to forget about any such ideas as that, and get on with it.

Despite it being twelve years since I read the book, this part has always stuck in my memory – more than anything else in the novel, pretty much – because it came as such a relief. I think for a long time, as a teenager especially, I was under the impression that all other writers found writing incredibly easy, enjoyed every moment of it and were blessed with constantly living and breathing artistic creativity.

So it was a bit of a revelation to find – as I have found more and more since, from seeing and hearing interviews with other writers – that not only is it quite difficult, most of them actually don’t enjoy doing it. Hence Dorothy Parker’s superb quote, which always sums it up so well for me:

I hate writing. I love having written.”

There are so many other things you could be doing instead of writing. So many distractions, so many excuses to put it off. My friend and fellow scribbler Tim recently drew my attention to a quote from Zadie Smith, where she gave some writing advice, part of which was that you should always do it on a computer that doesn’t have access to the internet.

Because the demon of procrastination will get to you again...

I often feel guilty for not writing. And I always feel pleased with myself if I have managed a day where I have written a few thousand words. They may not be very good words; or at least, while all perfectly good and acceptable individually, not especially pleasing when assembled in the particular order I have chosen for them. But at least they’re there. At least I’ve done something.

As another famous old saying goes, “To write well, first you must write...”

You can always change and edit and improve later on. Or at least try to.

Probably also when I was about sixteen, Tim gave me a book about writing by John Braine, of Room at the Top fame. This contained two particular nuggets of wisdom which have also stuck with me. The first because it gave me hope – Braine claims that very few people, if any, are capable of writing a decent novel before the age of thirty. (The aforementioned Zadie Smith disproves this notion of course, but anyway...)

The second thing in this book which struck me was Braine’s assertion that “a writer is someone who counts words,” because that very much rang true for me. If I have a day where I have written two or three or four thousand words, then that feels like a good day. A productive day. A day where I haven’t wasted my time and the oxygen I’m using up.

But it needn’t be that daunting. You can write a novel very easily, if you do it a little at a time. If you wrote only 200 words a day, you’d have a novel of 70,000 words or so in a year. 200 words is, frankly, a piece of cake. I’d got to over 200 here in this blog entry by the time we reached Dorothy Parker.

I am a word counter. I fully admit that. It might not make me particularly creative or artistic. It might make it sound like I’m reducing writing down to the level of mathematics. But at least I get something done. I may not have the talent, but at least I make the effort – if I do end up becoming a professional novelist, at least part of it will be down to the fact that I kept going when other, more talented, writers simply couldn’t be bothered.

There’s a standard old joke along the lines of “You’re writing a novel? Nor am I....” So many people claim to be or want to be writers, but they never get anything done. Or they pick and paw at a single project for decades, never finishing it or submitting it or showing it to anyone, or doing anything at all with it.

“Oh I’d love to write a novel...” or “Of course, I’d really love to be a novelist...” But they never do anything. They concentrate on other things, allow the rest of life to distract them, and they never write a word.

If you want to do it that much, sit down and do it. Just write something. It may be terrible, but you can improve.

And it starts by counting words, day after day, until you get there.

I’ve just written nearly 900 in a quarter of an hour on this blog entry. If I did that every morning, in three months I’d have a novel. What’s your excuse...?

Friday, 6 July 2012

What I wouldn't give...

I don’t wish to use this blog to bore you with the details of what I get up to in my life outside writing. But suffice it to say that I had a bloody awful week at work. It was a very important week for us, with everyone going above and beyond the call of duty and putting in incredible amounts of effort... Except for me.

I managed, through a spectacular display of incompetence that can only be blamed on me and me alone, to royally screw up what ought to have been an important moment for us. If you think I am being overly hard on myself, trust me – I’m not exaggerating.

So that’s made me fairly miserable over the past couple of days. But it also got me back to playing with a little thought that often comes to mind if I’m feeling down. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe in gods or angels or geniis or fate and destiny or anything of that nature. But it is diverting, every now and again, to just play that game of thinking: “Yes, but you’d accept this if it were the price to pay for you having a novel published, wouldn’t you?”

As if I were in some grand universal bartering system, and could accept the low point of my incompetence at work in return for it guaranteeing publication one day. It crossed my mind the other week as well, after England were knocked out of Euro 2012, on penalties, as always. “Yes, but you’d take that in exchange for having a novel published, wouldn’t you...?”

Of course I would. I wonder how much I would give, though... For instance, I am lucky enough to be in the position of having an interesting job that I enjoy. Would I give that up for twenty years of misery pushing paper or stacking shelves, in return for knowing that if I worked hard at my writing I’d get a novel out eventually?

Hmmmmmmmm. Not so sure... But in the end I suppose I would say yes. I’d take the swap. Surrender my good, creative, interesting job for a lifetime of drudgery, for the sake of the novel.

Actually, that’s a pretty miserable thought in itself, isn’t it?

Fortunately, we live in the real world, where such choices and exchanges do not have to be made. Nothing happens for a reason. Nobody has a destiny. And – sadly – I can’t barter or swap my way into publication.

On the subject of which, I got home this evening to find another rejection e-mail from an agent for my current novel, The Wicket in the Rec. Not as nice as the last one I had – nothing personal this time, just a form reply.


Monday, 2 July 2012

I am Steve Claridge

Not literally, obviously. That would be a little unexpected for you.

But I once, in conversation with a colleague, came up with what I thought was a rather nice little analogy for my writing abilities. Never one to waste something on mere conversation when it can be written down and recorded, I thought I'd share it with you here.

I will never be a great writer, creating beautiful and moving passages of prose, perfectly matched with intricately constructed plots and characters who spring off the page as if they were alive. If writers were footballers, I could never hope to have anything remotely approaching the silky skills of the finest - I am not a Maradona or a Pele.

No. I'm Steve Claridge.

A hoofer, a clogger, a journeyman. Usually competent, but by no stretch of the imagination inspired.

However, if I'm lucky, if all the elements come together and I am blessed with being in the right place at the right time, I may - just may - one day shin one in from thirty yards...