Saturday, 22 September 2012

Book review - We Can't All Be Astronauts

I’ve mentioned Tim Clare once before on this blog, in a post about my days as a member of the Creative Writing Society at the University of East Anglia. Tim’s a good couple of years or so older than me, and I didn’t know him particularly well, but enough to chat to from time to time. He was, and I’m sure remains, a very nice chap.

I was always very impressed with him as a writer when he read out excerpts of his work at the CWS feedback sessions. He always seemed like someone who would have no trouble in going on to be professionally published.

I’ve owned a copy of his book We Can’t All Be Astronauts for a little while now, but it was only earlier this month that I finally sat down and read it. Nothing against either Tim or the book, but it was a mixture of having other things to read and to do, and also the fact that I always end up feeling jealous of anybody who I’ve personally known who’s had a book published. Who’s been allowed in through the sacred gates, onto the hallowed turf of publication.

I’m not alone in this. I know this both from having spoken to other people to have the desire to write, and specifically in this case from Tim’s book in and of itself. We Can’t All Be Astronauts is the story of Tim’s yearning, desperation even, to become the author he had always wanted to be, and the misery it reduced him to as all his friends and peers seemed to acquire lucrative book deals, leaving him feeling left-behind and a failure.

In one sense, it’s actually comforting to read about Tim’s struggles, his occasional self-loathing and chasms of doubt about his chosen ambition. Because it’s all so familiar – so much of this had me thinking “That’s how I feel!” The knowledge that having a book published, becoming a novelist, is the only thing that will stop me feeling as if my entire life has been an enormous waste of time and effort. Coupled with the gnawing, sapping paranoia about what might happen if that never occurs. If I never reach a standard that’s good enough, or never have that moment of good fortune where a well-written book meets an agent and a publisher who are receptive to it.

It’s also comforting to know that, however bad things have felt for me, I’ve never had it quite as bad as poor Tim. Unlike him, as detailed in the book, I’ve never been medically diagnosed as being depressed because of my bleakness over not being a writer. Some of you may snort with derision at the idea of not having a novel out being something to get depressed over. Many of you would say millions around the world would happily swap their lot for the “depression” of such a life. But it’s not specific to wanting to be a writer, I think – it’s any ambition, any desire, anything you’ve wanted to achieve in life but are worried you never, ever will.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel all that sorry for Tim, because however hard his struggles related through the book, however grim his prospects of becoming a proper writer seem, you know that it all works out because of the simple fact you are holding his published book in your hands. He made it. He did it. However much you might give this book to someone as a warning against wanting to be a writer, it will only add fuel to that ambition, because this is someone who struggled and succeeded.

It’s also a sobering thought to consider that Tim struggled, almost gave up, faced a brick wall seeming to separate him from publication forever, then just about made it... And he’s a far, far better writer than I could ever hope to be. I know this not simply from reading this book – with its wit, its eloquence, its insight – but because I know him. Or used to know him, at any rate. And if even he struggled, if even he almost gave up... Well then, what chance do I have? If a writer of his quality can be driven to despair and the point of surrender, why should I think I have the faintest hope of making it?

The fact is though, as Tim’s book makes clear, you can’t give up. It will always be in you, and it will always be there. If you’ve ever decided you want to be a writer, it will never go away. It will gnaw at you and not allow you to quit.

There’s much in this book to enjoy, and that will provide a knowing smile of familiarity to anyone who has ever wanted to write. I particularly enjoyed the bit at the end where, after an emotional conversation at his dying grandfather’s bedside, Tim confesses he was thinking all the while: “this will make a great ending for my book.” I think it’s something all writers do – absorb real life and use it to fuel their work.

There is nothing either good or bad, only source material.

I met Tim again, for the first time in years, a few months ago when he was a guest on an edition of our drive time show. I was producing drive that day, and he was in to talk about a poetry event in Norwich. I didn’t expect him to remember who I was, but he claimed to do so after I introduced myself. I wish I’d read this book before then, so I could have said something to him about it.

But then again, what would I have said? What could I have said? Probably nothing more than: “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

Which is how I feel about all published writers, really. Talented, achieving, bastards.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Where to next?

I’m still not sure what to do next, writing-wise.

I’m awaiting further responses from agents regarding The Wicket in the Rec, and still studying the Yearbook for further candidates to submit it to if these end up being rejections. But as to what my next actual novel project will be...

I’m torn between two ideas, as I think I’ve mentioned on here previously. Two very different types of novel, which reflects the fact that when it comes down to it I’m not entirely sure what sort of thing I am best at writing.

One idea is for a novel called Time Engine. It’s a science-fiction story, and an idea I’ve had going around my head, and have played about with in note form, for two or three years now. I even started writing it once before, a few thousand words in early 2010, before decided it wasn’t working and abandoning it. In recent months I re-conceived the story, realised a much better way of doing it, and became excited about it again.

It sort of mixes influences from two of the great fictions I really enjoy – Doctor Who, and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels.

I adore Sharpe, and have done since I was about nine. I’d like to say I was reading the books before the TV series began in 1993, but I think I actually started reading them just after the first two adaptations were shown. Dad had been a big fan of the novels for years, and had many of them on his bookshelves, for me to happily plunder.

(It’s an interesting experience being at Primary School and doing a reading-out-loud with a book when it contains words like “whore”...)

Sean Bean did a very good job, but for me this will always be what Richard Sharpe looks like. (This was the edition of this particular Sharpe novel that dad owned, and indeed owns still, and which I have read a few times now!)

Bernard Cornwell is a master of writing entertaining historical adventure fiction. The Sharpe novels are very much the Cadbury’s Crème Eggs of literature – they contain almost no nutritional value, but are immensely satisfying to consume. Tightly-written page-turners that, at their best, are as good as absolutely anything else you could ever hope to read. If I had to say I wanted to be like any writer, I think I might well pick Cornwell – successful, rich, highly-regarded and with a string of novels that are just bloody good fun and excellent reads.

The trouble is, I’ve never been entirely sure I’m much good at writing adventure fiction. I’ve tried it a few times, and wrote quite a large chunk of a novel called The Chronicles of Sir Cedric Black back in 2007. It told the story of an eighteenth century ghost hunter, and I was very excited about it at the time, but abandoned it when I felt I’d lost my way with it, and it had become stodgy and difficult.

However, last year I was having a look through some of it, and was struck by how... Well, how entertaining, I found it. Time and distance had made it feel like someone else’s writing, and some of the completed sections may actually be among the best stuff I’ve written. So perhaps I should give it another crack. I’m not sure whether I’d go back and finish The Chronicles of Sir Cedric Black, but maybe I should have a proper run at Time Engine.

But then there’s always the feeling I somehow should be writing something else. Something more... serious.

Because I’m never sure if I want to writing adventure stories of the Bernard Cornwell type, or something more... ‘literary’, I suppose you’d call it. And I do have another idea for a serious, real-world, contemporary fiction piece. A novel that, when I thought of the storyline idea for it back in February, I was literally bouncing up and down in excitement about it.

It’s called Another Life, and all I’ll say here – for fear of giving anything away! – is that it involves a woman who becomes a regular attendee at public health funerals. ‘Pauper’s funerals’, as they’re often called.

I told my colleague Emma about the storyline, and she said I should write it as it was the sort of thing she’d love to read. I told my friend Thordis about it, and she almost seemed to demand that I write it.

All well and good. But the problem is, I tried writing it earlier this year. Did over 20,000 words of it... And it was heartbreaking. The story I was so pleased with, the idea I was so convinced was a winner, turning to dreary mush at my fingertips.

That was one of two strands of Another Life. I am thinking of having a go at the second strand, and then trying to back and deal with the first again. But I don’t know... Another Life may be the stronger, more original, and possibly more rewarding idea... But Time Engine will almost certainly be the more fun to write.

So, Time Engine? Or Another Life? Or something else entirely...?

I’m not sure. Further pondering is required.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A two letter day

I got home from work this evening to find two identical-looking envelopes having been delivered for me in the post. They were very recognisable as they were both SAEs which I had included in submissions sent off to agents scant days ago, at the end of last week.

Perhaps an optimistic sort of person might have hoped that said agents had regarded the submitted material – a synopsis and sample chapters for The Wicket in the Rec, the novel I am currently hawking around to people – to be so brilliant that they just had to see more, right away. Sadly, however, I was fairly sure that were this to be the case then they would have phoned or e-mailed me, rather than sticking a letter into the enclosed envelope.

They were, of course, two rejections. And not even good rejections. One was a very brief form letter of the usual kind – “...isn’t quite the right book for our list... having to be very selective...” The other wasn’t even a letter in and of itself, or even a compliments slip, or even a post-it note – it was simply my own submission letter with a line of rejection scrawled in biro at the bottom.

Very sorry, this is not one for us. Good Luck.

These are always the worst kind. I mean, I know agents and publishers are busy people with large slush piles to get through, but it somehow feels all the more dismissive when you just get your own letter back.

I’ve had about a dozen rejections for Wicket now, and I’m wondering for how long to keep persevering with it before filing it away with all the other failures from down the years and concentrating on whatever the next novel might be. (I do have one or two ideas brewing away, but haven’t yet started any serious work, just a few brief notes).

None of the rejections I have so far received for Wicket came after a request for either the full manuscript or even further sample chapters. I’ve had one single personalised response, and that’s it. This feels like a backward step. I’ve had agents ask to see more before.

But not this time.

So there we are. You get used to his kind of thing, of course you do. I expect it. I don’t think I have some divine right to be published, and I don’t think I am an unrecognised genius. I just live in the hope of one day writing something good enough to make it past the level of hasty, scribbled rejections.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

My Novels: 1963

“So life was never better than,
In nineteen sixty-three,
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban,
And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Philip Larkin ‘Annus Mirabilis’

(I’d forgotten this, but my diary for 2005 reminds me that I did briefly consider calling it November Spawned a Monster, after the Morrissey song... Fortunately, good sense prevailed!)

Word count:

(Again, too long, but at least it didn’t feel as dreary as Tales Willingly Told)

February to July 2005

A little self-indulgent blurb I wrote at the time...

Toby joined the BBC because he thought he could change the world.

Gillian joined the BBC because she thought she could escape her future.

Neither of them ended up getting quite what they bargained for.

It is the London of 1963, before the decade started to swing. Toby is stuck writing episodes of a Sunday afternoon serial in a cold caravan in the Television Centre car park. Gillian is facing up to a working life spent doing little more than typing out production budgets on the Corporation’s secretarial staff. Both feel very far away from the creation of the black and white images keeping a captive audience of millions transfixed on one of only two television channels.

But when they become caught up in the complex and bizarre internal wrangling surrounding the creation of a new drama series, they are drawn towards both each other and an association with a little bit of television history.

From the least promising of beginnings, a little bit of magic is about to happen – providing nobody calls the whole thing off first…

 The original leading cast of Doctor Who and producer Verity Lambert (centre) celebrate the show's first anniversary in 1964.

Gillian was bored.

The people at the other tables seemed to be having such a better time than she was – couples enjoying romantic dinners, groups of friends laughing and joking together. Even the occasional old, fat regular diner eating alone amongst the purple curtains and pure white tablecloths seemed to be content. Gillian, though, had no lover or boyfriend to while away the time with. All she had was a pen, a notepad and an increasingly tipsy selection of men she worked with and for.

The wine was good, there was no denying that, and the food thus far had been excellent. Dessert was on its way and the conversation was flowing, but still nothing useful seemed to have been achieved. She found herself distracted by the warm smoothness of the dark brown wood the restaurant seemed to be entirely furnished and decorated in, or glancing at the vibrant late night street outside as the cars dashed past.

It was an expensive setting, far more expensive than her wage would ever normally have allowed her, but she may as well have been in a drab boardroom anywhere within Television Centre.

What, she wondered to herself, am I doing here…?

Dara O Briain has a joke about being an atheist, yet still somehow culturally Catholic. “You could run away and join the Taliban,” he says, “and you would merely be regarded as a very bad Catholic.”

It’s like that for Doctor Who fans. You may, perhaps, come to a stage where you think you’ve put such childish things behind you (although I never have), but you cannot ever completely leave it behind. It’s culturally ingrained within you, programmed from childhood, and no matter how mature and sophisticated you think you may have become, it’s there. You’re not like other people. You do not think like them. If you should see a mention of the Georgian State Dancers in the culture section of the broadsheet newspaper of your choice, then you’re not put in mind of Soviet-era artistic displays; you’re thinking of Mark III Travel Machines.

I love Doctor Who. I always have done, and I always will. In many ways, it’s part of the reason I write – you only have to look at the people who have ended up running the show since its revival to see that Doctor Who inspires creativity. I’m also, as I have mentioned on this blog recently, fascinated by the history of broadcasting. It’s a general trait of Doctor Who fans to be as interested in the history and production of the show itself, the mechanics and stories of how it was made, as we are by the fictional stories told on-screen. It’s why Doctor Who is quite possibly the best-researched and most written-about series in the history of television, and why it will in decades and possibly even centuries to come be the case study for how British television drama was made.

One of the many, many excellent books to have been written about the series down the years is The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker. The final section of this book comprises of a wonderfully-constructed narrative of the genesis of the series and its early years, from Eric Maschwitz’s first suggestion of a science-fiction series in the spring of 1962 through to the departure of William Hartnell in October 1966. It’s all put together from quotes from memos, letters, format documents, etc, and it tells a narrative of the difficult beginnings of the series.

When I first started thinking about writing a novel set around a momentous event in television history, somewhere in 2004, it wasn’t actually Doctor Who that initially came to mind. That year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC’s famous Kneale and Cartier adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I did have a few tentative ideas about writing a novel set around the production and broadcast of that, to be called 1954.

However, it got swept away when the idea of writing a novel around Doctor Who’s beginnings came to me instead. It was a very exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan. The return of the show had been announced in September 2003, production began in the summer of 2004 ahead of the first broadcast in March 2005, and suddenly all the things we’d waited such a long time for were actually happening. So out went 1954, and I took some of the ideas for characters I’d come up with for it, stayed in Lime Grove Studio D, took things nine years on and came up with 1963.

I must also acknowledge here that I must have been influenced by Mark Gatiss’s 2003 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, just before the return of the show was announced. I don’t recall being directly inspired by it, but I would certainly have read it, and in there he spoke about how he’d pitched a birth of Doctor Who drama to BBC Four for the fortieth anniversary, but they didn’t take the idea up. Now, of course, ten years on with Doctor Who very much alive and kicking and turning fifty next year, and following the success of The Road to Coronation Street, BBC Two have finally commissioned it, and it will be shown in the autumn of 2013, probably sometime around the show’s anniversary on the 23rd of November.

Gatiss, I suspect, will create his drama entirely from the actual historical figures. I wasn’t quite so brave, and made my two main characters a fictional productions secretary on the show, Gillian, and a made-up possible writer for it, Toby. Around them the real events happened, and some of the apocryphal ones.

Verity Lambert offers a friend a fag on the set of her last Doctor Who as producer. Hang on, isn't this meant to be a children's show...?

There’s a lot of other stuff around at the time which you can put in as well – the fall-out from Profumo, the assassination of Kennedy the day before the first episode was shown, the rise of The Beatles and the first stirrings of the Swinging Sixties. Even people who aren’t Doctor Who fans can see 1963 as a watershed year, so they’re rich cultural waters to explore.

One odd thing about 1963, which I’ve never tried again since, was that I wrote it out of order. I tackled the bits I was most interested in or thought would be the most fun to write first, then filled in the gaps afterwards. I thought it might make the whole process of writing a novel easier, but in the end I don’t think it made much of a difference.

Looking back:
The creation of Doctor Who is a great story. I don’t think I did it justice in 1963 – I should have been bolder, making the events first and foreground, rather than making them the background to Toby and Gillian’s romance. 

 Sydney Newman

What’s so extraordinary about Doctor Who is that it’s a camel of a show – i.e. created by committee. Yes, Sydney Newman was the driving force behind it and without him it wouldn’t have existed... But if it had been only him, it would have been unrecognisable from what turned up on-screen, and probably would not have lasted as long as it has. Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Donald Wilson, CE Webber, Anthony Coburn, Waris Hussein, and many more... Take any one of them and their ideas away from the mess and the muddle and confusion of the beginnings, and the magic might not – probably would not – have sparked.

 Waris Hussein

It’s also fascinating that you have this most ‘British’ of cultural institutions, created in an era when you’d expect the BBC to be very much the old school tie, boys’ network... And making it happen are a Canadian, a couple of Australians, the Corporation’s youngest and only female drama producer, and a young Indian director out to prove himself. It’s a hell of a melting pot, the creation of Doctor Who.

It’s a story that should be told, and I am extremely glad that Mark Gatiss will be telling it to a wider audience in his drama, An Adventure in Space and Time, next year. Those of you who are not fans may perhaps think that I was rather deluded in thinking it might have any wider interest, but I would say in return it’s certainly no more niche than, say, The Damned Utd.

I can’t remember the exact circumstances of how I came to be in touch with him, but the well-respected TV historian and Doctor Who expert Andrew Pixley kindly read through a copy of 1963 for me, and was very generous about it. It feels, now, like a novel that could have been a success had I come to it later, as a better, more mature writer... I might even have had another go at it at some point, but now Gatiss’s effort is finally making it to the screen, it seems rather redundant.

1963 is important for me in that it’s the first novel I submitted to agents and publishers where I received replies that made me think I might not be entirely wasting my time.

I kept a spreadsheet tracking all my rejections for 1963. I find that I received forty-two replies from various agents and publishers. (Yes, forty-two, but he doesn’t come into Doctor Who’s history until a lot later!) Eight of them asked, on the basis of my initial pitch letter, for a synopsis and sample chapters, while I had a few more kindly rejections telling me things like it “sounds a fascinating topic.”

One of the requests I received for sample chapters was from a lady called Laura Morris, of the Laura Morris Literary Agency. I sent her a section and we exchanged several e-mails before she eventually decided not to take on the work, but it was very exciting for me because it was the first time an agent had engaged me in correspondence. The first time I felt like I was being treated like a real writer, someone who wasn’t wasting the agent’s time and may have some potential in me somewhere.

I’ve never met Laura, but in the years since she has read several more of my submissions, and even on one occasion been kind enough to read an entire manuscript. She’s never been quite convinced enough to take me on, but I take heart from the fact that everything I’ve read about agents says they’re not going to waste their time talking to you if they don’t think you have something going for you. So 1963 was the first time I experienced that hope, that optimism – the first time I was able to pretend, albeit briefly, that I might yet make it as a novelist.

This was particularly heartening as the rest of life was a bit dispiriting at the time I was submitting 1963 to people. During the writing of the book, in the summer of 2005, I’d graduated from the University of East Anglia, and then spent the next few months hanging around Norwich being unemployed and wondering what was going to happen. In November that year I started my first full-time job, as an admin assistant at Norfolk County Council, and it was absolutely bloody awful. Depressing, boring work, and I was left thinking “Is this it? Is this all there is for the next however many years? Putting paper into photocopiers and sending books of accident forms out to care homes...?”