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.
It’s been a lively day. Shortly before lunch there was a
knock at the door and there was the postman with a parcel containing ten copies
of my latest book (above). I mean, of course, the one I ghosted for ex-PC Pannett, A Likely Tale, Lad.
An hour later I was able to email to my current client the
completed, revised and edited version of Chasing
Black Gold. He wants to have a final read through before forwarding it to the
agent and the publisher.
I was rather touched when he emailed me this morning and confessed
that he was having withdrawal symptoms, having agreed last week that we had finished
tinkering and that it was now down to me to apply the final polish. So, he
asked, could he have a wee look at the first chapter, to which I had applied
the most alterations. ‘I need a fix,’ he said – and no sooner had I sent it than
he was asking whether I was up for drafting
a film proposal – and an outline for a potential American publisher. The guy
obviously has the bug.
With that out of the way I am now free to think about a raft
of other projects I have in mind, none more urgent, it seems, than my
preparation for the residency in Taos
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
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
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.
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.
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
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 there’s a lot of geopolitical
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
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.
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 mist 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.