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Thursday, 16 October 2014

I Declare This Day a Holiday (and after five books in less than two years, why not?)

I slept till eight; I got dressed at eleven; I felt no huge compulsion to dash to the keyboard and edit, edit, edit. I reckon I must be on holiday.

The fact is, yesterday afternoon I packaged up a big fat manuscript, hopped on my bike and took it down to Ushaw Moor post office. Considering that I didn’t start work on Chasing Black Gold until the final few days of June, and that I took two weeks out to go tramping around the Arctic Circle, that ain’t bad progress, is it? Thirteen weeks,  roughly sixty working days, and 93,000 words. No doubt about it: my client and I work well as a team.

The completed book – my fifth in 22 months - isn’t on its way to the publisher yet, nor the agent. We have fifteen more days before it’s due at The History Press. Instead, we’ve decided to send it to my good mate Joan Deitch, who will read it through and give us an opinion as to whether it’s working. Nobody asked us to do that, but both I and the guy I’m ghosting for felt it was worth paying her for some independent feedback. We will meet up next week in Edinburgh to discuss her report and give final consideration to any late changes. And I may yet re-write an opening passage which, I feel, falls short of the pacy, exciting stuff that follows.

Quite often when I’ve finished a book I feel huge relief. Sometimes it’s, ‘Thank God that’s over!’ In this case I feel rather like those characters who jump off cliffs in cartoons and hang suspended in mid-air. Gravity isn’t going to kick in until the realisation of where they are hits them. A number of very large fly-wheels in my head are still thrumming away; my metaphor- and image-detectors are still on full alert, and I keep thinking of fantastic bits of material that didn’t make it into the latest edit. I also feel… bereft. I have enjoyed writing about this guy – have relished the opportunity to adopt a voice for him and live, albeit vicariously, the life of a freebooter.

Already I find my mind buzzing around like a fly in an empty jam-jar, trying to decide which of the many ideas that are pressing in on me I will tackle next, while another part of me stands to one side, chin in hand, saying, ‘Would you just form an orderly queue, please.’

I was reading a column penned by footballer-turned-pundit Robbie Savage this morning. He spoke of his final playing days, when he would wake up after a hard game feeling fit as a flea – only to find that the next day his limbs and joints cried out in pain. Maybe that’ll be my writer’s brain tomorrow.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Whoops! I Almost Forgot. Got a New Book Out Today.

I've been so wrapped up in the revisions of Chasing Black Gold that it escaped my attention. Today saw the publication of the Mike Pannett book I was working on earlier in the year.

It's quite shocking to realise how relaxed one can become about a new book. This is somewhere close to my twentieth - and there's another thing: I'm losing count. Too busy to tot them up. I never thought that that would happen.

I think it's a good read. I've tried to evoke the atmosphere of the childhood adventures I had in the 1950s, and apply them to Mike's memories of the 1970s. And, as with all the Now Then, Lad series, it's the feel-good factor we're after. Whatever happens, there's always a safe place to end up in, and a good meal waiting.

It's available from good bookstores, and of course amazon. Give it a try.

Yes, this is one very fuzzy image. When I get my free author copies in the mail I'll take a picture and replace it.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

Coming to the end of another book

Today, three months after starting it, I will be writing the final short chapter of Chasing Black Gold, (due out with The History Press early next year). It’s already reached the target length of 85,000 words, so I’ve been going at a decent lick, but of course there’s a lot more work to be done before my October 31 deadline. The more books I write, the more convinced I am that the opening and closing passages cannot properly be composed until the whole thing’s done and revised. That’s when you finally know what tone to set, and, more importantly, where you’re heading as you usher your reader into that crucial first scene.

In this case I have about five weeks in which to look for any missing components in a complicated narrative; to make sure, once we are certain where the story ends, that all the sign-posts along the way are pointing in that direction; and of course to change all the names, lest we provoke legal action. The story incorporates a lot of criminal and sub-criminal activity, as well as a great deal of corruption involving politicians, business people and public servants. At the heart of the book is an account of the early days of Nigeria’s black-market oil business, a trade that has blighted the country physically, tainted its politics and brought suffering to thousands of people in the Niger Delta region. It will be interesting to see how the book is treated by reviewers and critics. It’s quite a rip-roaring tale, but it there’s a lot of geopolitical content.

With the end of this one in sight, although not quite in focus, I find other projects emerging from that cool, dark place where they’ve been laid up as I wrestle with this one. It’s only four months now before I travel to Taos, New Mexico, and take up a three-month residency, courtesy of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. A few weeks ago I booked a return flight to Chicago. Yesterday I arranged the remainder of the journey which I plan to do by train. Amtrak have a leisurely service that takes twenty-three hours to cross Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. At Lamy, N.M., a shuttle bus takes passengers over to Santa Fe, where there’s another bus up to Taos. Even with a night in Chicago, both outward and upon my return in April, this was a better deal than the journey I originally planned, by plane to Albuquerque. Not only is it cheaper, but more relaxing. I travelled that same route way back in 1980, en route from Toronto, via Detroit, to L.A. It’s a different way of travelling, alien to most Americans, but really very pleasant.


A part of my mind is now throwing up ideas on the work I hope to do in Taos. The plan is to go through all the travel journals I’ve compiled over the last 35 years (I mean travel in the western states), to transcribe a number of audio recordings made in Nebraska and along the Lewis and Clark Trail, and to distil a few stories out of them. The Nebraska recordings relate largely to my interest in Mari Sandoz (above, immortalised in bronze, Chadron State College), and include two interviews with her sister Caroline, who died in 2011, another with her biographer, Helen Stauffer. There’s a remarkable woman of Bohemian origin whose father had worked on the railroad and knew Old Jules (Mari’s father) in person. As soon as Mari’s master-work was published he sent his daughter to Hay Springs on the train to buy a copy. He then read it in a single weekend, pronouncing it a faithful evocation of the man, the times and the frontier mores.


Among the Lewis and Clark Trail recordings are some significant statements by Native people: their take, for example, on the ‘celebration’ of what was a cataclysmic event from their point of view. Ponca, Nez Perce, Mandan Hidatsa, Chinook: they, and several other peoples, are represented. Quite how I’ll incorporate it all into a series of short stories I’m not sure, but that’s the challenge I’ve set, and that’s what seems to be brewing at the back of my mind. But the idea of spending three months with that material, plus diaries from my time with the veteran rodeo circuit, the bike-ride across Nebraska, and the drive up and down the Hundredth Meridian… well, it’s not a bad way of kicking off the year.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Sleeping Under the Stars above Ullswater


Just now an outing to the countryside is a mixed delight. Our trip to the Lake District last weekend exposed us to some gorgeous late summer weather, some of our country’s most beautiful scenery, and gave us one last chance to sleep under the stars before autumn closes in. On the other hand, it was a disruption to my current writing routine, and the truth is that at this moment a part of me resents anything that tears my mind away from the job in hand. I have reached the stage when this current book is all suspended in my mind like a huge, unwieldy blob of jelly, supported here and there by slender certainties, its ultimate viability still shrouded in doubt.

Did I just write that? Very well, then; I wrote it. Maintaining a grip on all parts of a narrative – and I am now 70,000 words into this one - requires a mental dexterity that does indeed stretch your abilities as a writer and puts unusual demands on your intellect. Within a week or ten days I will have reached the end of the story I’m putting together. The first draft will be done. That gives me four or five weeks in which to liaise with the subject – the guy I’m ghosting for – and make sure that we have recorded everything that belongs in the story, that it all makes sense, that the characters seem real, and that the tone and voice are as they ought to be. Voice is quite an issue in this book: I am dealing with a guy who operated almost as a pirate, certainly a buccaneer – in commercial fishing, in treasure-hunting, in shipping, and in black-market oil trading; and he smuggled dope, did time in jail, made millions and surrendered millions in order to buy his freedom. So, in writing in the first person, I am having to develop a voice which suggests the worldliness, the scepticism, the particular wit that I hear every time I talk to this guy on the phone. I realise – because he tells me it is so – that I am getting there in these later chapters. Hey, he says, you’re writing it the way I see it. My task, when we get to the end and start revising, will be to go back and make sure that that is true right from the beginning.

However, the Lake District….

We drove to Glenridding, at the southern end of Ullswater, and hiked up to Angle Tarn. There we unpacked our steaks, our red wine and potato salad, laid out our beds and made supper as the sun went down.


It was a chilly night, without any wind, the landscape illuminated by a moon that was one day short of being full. In the morning there was ice on our packs. On the lake a moist had formed, a mist which soon caught a faint breeze and swathed the adjoining hill.  


We brewed coffee, shouldered our packs and set off on high walk that would take us back to Glenridding for lunchtime. Along the way we came to the spectacular pass which connects Windermere with Ullswater.


It’s no good: I cannot summon up the right kind of poetic language to describe, adequately, a glorious hike. In twenty minutes from now I’ll be writing words designed to spoken out of the side of the mouth – about cops, and prison cells, and briefcases full of dollar bills, about guns being dismantled and hidden under the door panels of a getaway car. I think I’m resigned to leaving the pictures to do the work for me.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Once You Have Good Material Assembled, It Won’t Take Long to Write Your Book

I’ve been making rapid progress with this latest book. Since I began serious work on 26 June, and despite having had two weeks away in Norway, I have got 48,000 written. That’s well past the halfway mark, meaning that I'm averaging 1500 a working day. I am reminded of the days when I was writing corporate histories and could occasionally polish off 3-4000 at a sitting. But I was younger then….

This rapid progress is all down to one thing: starting each day with good research material in front of me. The fellow I’m working with right now has been thinking about his long and adventurous life for some time. I think he started to reflect, seriously, when he was doing time in a very unpleasant Federal Penitentiary. As we searched for a buyer for the book we took great pains to come up with an outline and chapter breakdown. Of course, we have deviated from the original outline – that will always happen - but they’ve been useful guides, and we’ve kept in mind the factors that sold the idea: namely, my subject’s early forays into black-market oil trading in the Niger Delta, a field in which he was the first operator, some twenty-plus years ago. Along the way, he’s kept up his end of the ghosting deal, namely:

(a) sending me substantial chapter outlines on a regular basis;
(b) whenever I ask a question, sending a swift and detailed reply - be it a physical description of a minor character, information on the private banking system in Lichtenstein, where he hid substantial cash deposits, or an explanation of acronyms like AHTSV (Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel) or VLCC (Very Large Crude Container).

Having now known my subject for four years – that’s how long ago it was that we first discussed a book about his life in dope-smuggling, deep-sea fishing, treasure-hunting, deep-sea diving, black-market oil trading and running shipping fleets in South America and West Africa – I can often flesh out a chapter purely from my own recollections of the many remarkable stories he has told me. Some of those won’t find a place in the main story, but it’s always a great help to have this accumulated background knowledge when you’re writing a biography. It means that in the course of any narrative section I can get into his head and have him reflect on matters that may be tangential to the plot but are pertinent to his own personality and character. Call it light relief.

Would that all ghost writing were this easy, and this enjoyable. I cannot help but reflect on other projects, when I’ve had to conjure a 6,000 or 8,000-wprd chapter from half a page of notes consisting mostly of ‘He was a fantastic character’, ‘It was unbelievable’, or ‘We had an amazing time.’

Harrumph. An outline of Chapter 13 has this minute arrived in my Inbox, and I am promised Ch. 14 in short order. I must to start on my half of the job.