For thirty years I imagined life as a professional writer. Here's how it is for me, after twenty years. There's plenty about publishers, agents and work in progress, a whole lot more about the things that feed my creative process.
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.
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,
(a) sending me substantial chapter outlines on a regular
(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
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.
There’s a lot more I could say about our hike in the
Norwegian Arctic. But really, the pictures tell most of the story.
It wasn’t the greatest weather when we set out; indeed, it
was quite brooding. The trail was marked by a red splash of paint on the rocks
here and there, and with cairns –
not all as visible as this one:
As I mentioned in my last post, the huts are what made the
whole thing practicable from our point of view. Here are the huts at Gappo,
which was almost a village: two residential (or was it three?), an earth closet
and a woodshed. I think we had five other people (plus a dog) staying the night
when we were there. Sometimes we had the place to ourselves.
Here’s an inside shot of a typical hut. Despite the mild
weather we were grateful for the log stove on a couple of occasions after we’d
got caught in a late afternoon thunderstorm.
A feature of day 3, after we left Gappo, was that we managed
to convert a 20-kilometre hike into a 32-km slog. We set off towards this very
recognisable mountain and only after marching 5-6 km did we realise that we
were heading west when we should have been heading southwest. Nothing for it
but to retrace our steps and start again.
We expected to meet reindeer, and indeed we had to move
through one herd that was several thousand strong – and were simply too
exhausted to get the cameras out. But this sight caught our eye: a small herd
apparently grazing on a snow-bank. A.’s theory was that this was the grown-up
reindeer explaining to the youngsters what lay in store in the coming winter.
That evening we met a couple of Norwegian women in a hut who explained that the
reindeer didn’t like the kind of heat we were experiencing and were in fact
cooling off; also, on the snow they would briefly be free of the mosquitoes.
Despite the rocky landscape, wild flowers were everywhere.
It wasn’t always apparent what they were feeding on, but they seemed to thrive.
Here are some harebells, doing well in an unlikely habitat.
… and a teasel:
With no supplies available in these far northern huts (the
Trekking Association have many huts further south where groceries can be
bought, or even prepared meals) we had to carry everything we would need. As
well as having loads of cereals, home-made muesli, nuts, dried fruit, etc, we
took our own dried ingredients for soup. We also made up batches of dry mix for
tortillas and pancakes. At night we’d cook up enough for our supper – greasing
the pan from our little phial of olive oil - and the using the leftovers for
the next day’s meal.
When we got to the huts one of the first chores was always
to fetch water. In the case of this place, with the supply 200 yards away, they
provided a handy yoke. Note that I am wearing me midge veil: a vital piece of
equipment up there.
The area where we were walking was staggeringly beautiful,
but the truth is… there were few more wonderful sights than a hut coming into
view after a gruelling day’s hike.
Actually, there was another very welcome sight we looked out
for each morning, namely a suitable place to bathe after we’d worked up a sweat
over the first hour or two. So here’s your blogger at his daily toilette – at a
discreet 200 yards’ distance. I have a vivid memory of that lake. We’d just
walked through one of the lowest-lying parts of the hike, through a marsh and a
stunted woodland – and we’d been ravaged by mosquitoes. The feeling of cold
water on our skin was sheer bliss.
We crossed rivers every day – sometimes a dozen or more, and
very few caused us any real difficulty. This one, however, was a bit of a
challenge, but with gaiters in place, and using our poles, we got across with
Just back from an eight-day hike in the Norwegian Arctic,
and to tell the truth it’s hard to find the words, yet, to tell the full story.
Let’s just say that in a hundred miles (158 kilometres) of walking over eight
days we saw not a single gate, nor a fence, nor a motorised vehicle; not even a
light bulb. Just mile after mile of superb mountain scenery with the occasional
fellow hiker – perhaps one or two a day.
THE REMAINS OF LAST WINTER'S SNOW
At altitudes no greater than 1000 metres, and often nearer
500, the weather – despite the ever-present snow-banks – was what you’d expect
in an English summer, the temperature varying between 15 and 23 C (60 to 73 F).
At night, with the sun up for 23 or more hours a day, it never dropped below
about 10 C (50 F). We had one thunderstorm, which drenched us, but the joy of
this trip was that, as members of the Norwegian Trekking Association, we had a
key to their beautifully equipped huts.
THE HUT AT VUOMA; I'LL SHOW SOME INTERIOR SHOTS NEXT TIME
Each hut had a four-ring propane stove for cooking on, a
large wood-burner with log-stack, and bunks with mattresses and pillows. All we
had to carry was a sheet sleeping-bag, a change of underwear, some foul
weather-gear, and all the food we would need. (More on that in a day or two)
DRYING MY WASHING
The scenery ranged from grassland to long stretches of
glacial boulders and the occasional woodland at lower levels. The abundant
rivers and lakes provided clean drinking water and a daily opportunity to bathe
and do a little laundry, using a suitably ecological detergent fluid.
ONE OF MANY BOULDER-FIELDS WE HAD TO PICK OUR WAY ACROSS
There’s an awful lot more I could say, but it’s late on a
Sunday night and tomorrow morning I must be a ghost-writer again. So I’ll pick
this up later in the week and throw in a few more photos.
OUR WAY HERE LED BETWEEN THE TWO LAKES AND OVER THE FIRST MOUNTAIN
It’s only a week or so till we head north to the Arctic
Circle, somewhere above Tromso, so today we shouldered our packs
and had a practice hike, carrying precisely what we will set off with: a bare
minimum of spare clothing, a set of waterproofs, and mounds of grub.
Yesterday we laid out all our supplies on the kitchen table.
It does rather look as though we’ll be living off trail bars, but since we took
the picture we have performed miracles with the bags of flour and other dry
ingredients (see below).
The hike takes eight days and takes us close to the point
where the borders of Finland,
Sweden and Norway
meet. The trail, we understand, is well marked, and our overnight accommodation
will be in very basic wooden huts, situated at 15-25 kilometre intervals. Each
hut has a stove for cooking, mattresses for sleeping on… and that’s your lot.
Water along the route has to be taken from lakes and rivers; there are no
refreshment stops at all. If we miscalculate, our last couple of days are going
to be very hungry indeed. But, looking on the bright side, our packs will be
We have spent a long time thinking about what to eat. Weight
is the big issue, along with calories. Breakfast each day will be a measured
portion of our trusty, bog-standard home-made muesli: oats, nuts, coconut,
sunflower seeds, raisins – and the magic ingredient, dried milk. Add water and
it’ll be a little like being at home. We have plenty of coffee, of course, and
a bag of Earl Grey tea-leaves.
Main meals have caused us the most concern. We have a
selection of packet soups, some herbs and spices, and three staples:
packs of mixed lentils, rice, spices and dried onion – plus seasoning. That should
cook in 20-30 minutes and make a hearty soup to a recipe we have tested and
of plain flour, baking powder and salt. 3 packs, each big enough to make 8-10
tortillas; that’s been tried and tested over many years.
of self-raising flour, dried egg and milk powder, which will make a substantial
pancake. Again, 3 packs. We tried these last week, and they certainly stick to
a guy’s ribs.
We also have a few sachets of dried egg and milk powder. We
tested that too, the other day, and the scrambled egg it made was… well, we
agreed that after we’ve walked 20 km we’ll probably tolerate it.
Along with the staples, plus a few odds and ends like
oatcakes, some canned sardines and dried banana, we have a number of treats:
– and dozens - of trail bars, or flapjacks
that promises to convert into vegetarian sausage
Oxo cubes – which make a very tasty drink
freeze-dried ice-cream I was given for Christmas
of dates, nuts and dried apricots
couple of tubes of vegetarian pâté
if we get lucky in Oslo, where we have half a day on the way up, some smoked
mackerel. The Norwegians are very good indeed with fish.
With eight days of austerity looming, we thoroughly enjoyed
today’s pickings from the vegetable garden: