Have we really all got a book inside of us?
I love clichés and especially one-liners, but I sometimes wonder whether they are really true. "I always knew I would be a writer," or "We all have a book inside of us," are things said with the benefit of hindsight, or to put it another way, a convenient way of explaining something that is probably not that obvious at all.
When I was young, I liked playing with words, but I found it a frustrating experience. My spelling was (and is) terrible, though my grammar was okay, and my handwriting was simply illegible. Actually, it is much worse now and I never write longhand unless it is for a shopping list. My grades suffered as a result and I, and all my contemporaries, had our creativity squashed by a train of teachers who thought precise spelling and grammar was so much more important than a child's imagination. They were crap teachers, to be honest. English to them was something mechanical and they turned the artform of communication and storytelling into a bland prison stuffed with abandoned ideas and crushed egos.
I gave up in school when we were reading Don Quixote. This is a book written by a Spaniard, about a Spaniard and originally in Spanish, though we were reading the English version. I, when it came to my turn to read out loud, pronounced his name Kee-oh-tay. I did it automatically, without thought; it was how the Spanish would say it, more or less, and was how it was said in the film. I was yelled at by the torturer at the head of the class. "It is Don Kwik-sot, stupid boy! We get quixotic from it!"
So, although I loved words, none of us left those lessons with any idea that one day any of us would become writers. Some teachers are just wonders and inspire minds and ideas. Others crush them. I think I went to school during a particularly bad period in education.
Learning to listen
A musician at heart, I ended up in the media industries and, as a consequence, found myself having to deal with words on a daily basis. I played with a band and wrote and performed songs (bad ones), and I also used to write comedy and poetry and did a few open mic evenings. At work, I was dealing with corporate communications, advertising, some drama, lots of news and so on. I needed to listen carefully and was part of the list of people who made sure the message was clear and positive, most of the time.
I think a lot of writers poo-poo the advertising and corporate industries, but they really are a lesson in how language works; they should not be ignored. Some of the cleverest communicators are copywriters, especially those challenged with the shortest of advertising spots. They understand that language, in all its forms, is nothing more than a communication tool; it is how we sell one thought from us to another. Oh, yes - it is always selling. When you talk about Soap, you are selling soap. When you tell a story, you are selling the plot and characters. When you read the news, you are selling the event that happened. It is a completely natural instinct in humans and our highly developed language centre of our brains is designed for exactly that purpose. The difference between a copywriter and a novelist, is that a copywriter has to take that idea to its ultimate conclusion and make the magic work in just thirty seconds.
I was inspired by the cleverness of words. I was particularly heartened by those that broke and messed with language without a teacher to yell at them. They were finding new ways of expressing themselves and their ideas, and I still love that, particularly in young people. There is something about the teanager who can use terrible grammar and the wrong words and yet sound uplifting and passionate. Nice to get the words right, but not at the expense of killing all that fun.
I never went through a "I am going to write a book now" phase; not really. I simply started playing with ideas for the hell of it.
I used to read a lot. I commuted into London on the tube, breathing in second hand cigarette smoke, and devoured pulpy sci-fi and fantasy as well as the occasional erudite tome. I like Dickens and I would often dip into his books just to enjoy his language; I didn't always read the whole book, just laughed at the names and touched the tortured souls. I liked reading the graffiti written by talented artists with no sense of place, of perhaps a better sense of place than me.
So, inevitably I had a go at doing something that was not an attempt at a song. I can't quite remember my first attempt, but I think the character was called Tomas Christian, or something like that. I don't think I wrote more than ten thousand words, did not plan at all and it is lost in an old box somewhere.
Then I had a shot at some kid's characters. I invented a people who were humanoid versions of various animals. That one was a bit better and I made the story Nature vs Technology, sort of. I lost the plot, quite literally, but I kept what I wrote and one day I may go play with it again.
I then had a go at a sort of fantasy set in Russia, for some reason. I wanted that to be a literary heavy-weight and it was a complete load of rubbish. However, it was the first book I ever planned properly, and that was an education in itself. I now take planning to a ridiculous level and my notes can rival the final volume for size.
Oh, I then did another children's story, this one a sci-fi, but I ground to a halt on that one for some reason.
This has been a particular problem with me and, I suspect, with everyone else. When you first start writing a book, you go like the wind. You type phrase after sharp phrase, rattle though hard hitting dialogue, paint huge landscapes and.... well, you don't keep it up. After a while you have other things to do and getting back to the book keeps slipping down the todo list.
Then I started The Stink. I did a lot better with this one and I had a better plot too. I was writing from my own knowledge as a Londoner and that helped; I had the inspiration for the story around me. Then, that too, fell off the Todo list...
Back on Track
Then my life changed.
I won't go into details, but I found myself with some time on my hands. One of the things I decided to do was some mass-deletion and archiving of my computer. There was lots on there that I was never going to use again; strange pics from the internet, some bad photography and ... The Stink.
I am not sure what had really happened, but when I looked at the date on the file, I realised I had not touched it for nearly three years. It was just over fifty thousand words in length and it seemed a bit of pity. So, I sat down and read it.
The first thing I spotted was some bad plot decisions. For some reason I had added ghosts and a bit of magic to something that was a teenage romp through North London in the nineteen seventies. Just idly, I started taking these out and added a murder instead. Then I changed the names of some of the characters, added notes of racial tension, moved it to the hot summer of 1976 and .... I had it. I had the bug!
I just could not put it down. It was like being on drugs and I tore this thing apart and started rewriting it. My plot ended up all over my desk, my emails were getting ignored and I just wrote and wrote and wrote.
Suddenly, I was writing the words "The End" and my word-count meter was showing just over 130,000. I had done it. I had written a novel.
MUM! I HAVE WRITTEN A NOVEL!!!!
It was an odd thing. It really was crossing a line from stumbling around and playing, to actually completing something. It had taken me fifteen years? Proably longer, if I think about it. I had possibly been messing with this whole thing from a child, one way or another, but just had not put it into thought. No, I had never decided to be a writer, but I had just finished a novel.
Pushed by the Bug
But writing is a beast and for me it is an addiction, far stronger than when I used to smoke tube trains for a living.
I finished the Stink just over a year ago, though I did not hit the publish button on Amazon till spring this year. I wanted to try for an agent first, though I knew my chances were very slim in that department.
But I also had to do something about this addiction. So I spent a day writing ideas for books. Eventually I wrote this one line about a lad that goes chasing across the sea on a dragon who talks and with a magician who doesn't seem to do any magic to rescue the lad's sister. That was the total of the idea. Oh, I gave him a name which was nod to Dickens - Johnson Farthing.
That was it and I was off. I planned like mad, dreamed up names, thought about language (I have ended up stealing from Anglo Saxon and Welsh), came up with the idea of a culture for Dragons and then, most importantly, came up with the underlying theme for all the books - the search for a place you can call your own home.
Over the last year, I have written a million or more words, 600,000 of which are now published as Dirt, series one. I write every day and I love every minute of it.
I don't find it easy and my spelling and typing skills piss me off regularly, but I love the stories so much and am in love with my characters and I just cannot bear to be without them.
I think that is the trick of becoming a writer, or more to the point, a novelist. You will finish a book not because "you had one in you," or because you were destined to do it or even wanted to from being a child. You will finish your first book when you allow it to become an obsession; an addiction.
That is what happened to me. I let myself be obsessed and I wouldn't change that for anything.
Glad I gave up smoking though.