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Friday, 30 November 2012

You can see how a writer might just lose his mind...

All change again. Trying to make a living as a writer requires a certain dexterity. I look at all the different projects I have on the go just now and I’m reminded of those artistes you used to see spinning plates on top of upright canes, dashing from one to the next and back again - and always that tension, that fear that one of them will drop.

This week I’ve read three short manuscripts for the Literary Consultancy - two non-fiction, one from a novel - and written a 2000-word report on each. That sort of work takes more out of me than you might think. You have to engage not only with the work in front of you, but as much as you can with the writer behind it - the imagined writer, that is, because all I have is a name, occasionally a covering letter. It’s no good simply critiquing the words on the page. You have to think about the person who’s writing what is in many cases personal, often autobiographical, and in all cases very precious, subject matter. So you tread carefully. You look to encourage more than discourage. You take out the positives, and explain - over and over again with each new piece - that there are ways in which it might be improved. Sometimes, of course, you come across an absolute gem and there’s not a lot to say. Other times you’ll read a piece that is excruciatingly awful as a piece of writing, but one that deals, nakedly honestly, with a trauma or some other personal experience that you know has caused the writer a great deal of pain. You do not wish to inflict more. So, as I say, you tread very carefully. And when your report is completed, revised, rested, re-read and re-written, you go to bed, get up next morning and check it one more time, then send it off. Well, that’s how I work. And then you start on the next one.

The other plate I’ve been spinning week is to go over, yet again, a package of materials I aim to send out to an agent - although it’s also going to an editor at Hodder who’s kindly agreed to give it the once-over. This is the oft-mentioned memoir of my working life, latest title More Jobs Than Birthdays. I have conceived the notion that 2014 would be an ideal year in which to publish it. It’ll be fifty years since I started my first job. It’ll also be the year that I draw the state pension I’ve been contributing to, more or less continuously, since then.

I have been taking enormous care over this package. You have to. It’s your selling pitch. And you only get one shot at that. So, a two-page synopsis, a four-page chapter breakdown, three sample chapters and the usual CV. The synopsis is the most crucial part, it seems to me. And that I’ve re-drafted countless times. Countless. It’s the hardest part of the whole thing, and I’ve run it by three or four people to get a few ideas. A. has been particularly helpful and insightful, as has Sara Maitland, whose suggestion that I ought to refer to the most recent precedent for this kind of thing - Studs Terkel’s Work, published almost 40 years ago - I incorporated only yesterday.

It’s not easy to write in glowing terms about yourself and your own work in the third person. At least, I don’t find it easy. It seems uncomfortably close to acknowledging that you are indeed the imagined hero of your own fantasy life, with added hints that you really are rather marvellous (and didn’t my grandmother warn me about getting a swollen head?) However, I am slowly getting used to it. Had a lot of practice back in the days when I wrote for TV and was always having to pitch ideas wrapped around eulogies to my good self.

As to the actual content of More Jobs Than Birthdays, I keep going back to that, refining, tweaking, adding a line here, cutting a line there - especially of the three chapters I’m submitting with the proposal. I want - I need - them to be as near word-perfect as possible. One of those chapters I’ve been working on, sporadically, for ten years. And the trouble now, I find, is that it so so close to the state I want it to be in, so nearly the polished gem I first envisaged, that I cannot wait for it to be out there being read. It’s a new feeling, because generally I’ve managed to sell my stories, or have given up on them, after this amount of time. But this feels like a piece of fruit that’s ripened to perfection, and I fear that it’ll rot on the vine if someone doesn’t pluck it very soon. Ah yes… you can plainly see how an artist might lose his mind in the end.

Fortunately I have other projects that bring me back to earth, like Mike Pannett’s childhood. We’ve talked for years about doing a book on his early life, growing up in the Yorkshire countryside, and now I’m starting another of those dreaded sample chapters to hawk around to publishers. And I’m starting, as ever, with one of his audio tapes - no, two audio tapes.

Make that one-and-a-half: I got halfway through the first, flipped it over and guess what? The tape has severed itself from the cassette.

Good job it’s Friday afternoon.