I knew I was in trouble quite early on. The warning came from an unexpected source.
I’d just written my first draft. Eighty-five-thousand words. I’d smashed through it in six months. To celebrate, I took a couple of weeks off to enjoy the warmth of early summer, before getting stuck into the editing process. Even though I hadn’t read the book back to myself yet, I knew it was pretty solid stuff. Editing would be a formality. Two or three months, tops. Immensely pleased with myself – and my ability to churn out high-quality prose at lightning speed – I spent the ensuing fortnight lazily slumping about like a bumble bee sweetly soused on pollen. My spirit was aglow with that giddy satisfaction which only comes after a burst of creativity. My ego was so inflated that the slightest summer gust could have tossed me into the neighbour’s garden. I consolidated my sense of worth by purchasing a hat, just so I could tip it at people.
It was in this happy haze of self-congratulation that I accepted an invitation to a garden party. It’s not often I go to garden parties. Mainly because I’m not a character in an Agatha Christie story. But I took up the invitation gaily, even going so far as to wear my new hat (to tip at people). Whilst there, amongst the rose bushes and dahlia of merry middle England, I started talking to a vicar. We discussed writing. He told me that he occasionally penned frothy dispatches to the local benefice newsletter as well as composing some choicer verse which would remain forever private. I told him I usually wrote non-fiction but was currently working on my first novel.
‘How marvellous,’ he said, sitting down on a rustic iron chair, lit by a shaft of afternoon sun. ‘What’s it about?’
Between sips of tea, I gave him the gist of the plot. That it was a comedy set in 1992 and involved a man going to stay on an artist’s retreat in Norfolk and, whilst there, getting roped into pretending to be a primary school teacher during an inspection. ‘It’s a love story really, though,’ I said, and awaited his overwhelmingly positive response.
‘That,’ he said, ‘sounds bloody awful.’
I almost choked on my Victoria sponge. ‘Well. Yes. Yes. No. It needs a lot of work,’ I said, caving instantly. My ego gained a few pounds; a summer gust couldn’t toss me if it tried. Stuttering, I attempted to defend my masterpiece, but everything I said made the plot seem even stupider.
‘It sounds damned implausible,’ the vicar said. ‘I don’t buy it.’
When even a vicar isn’t willing to humour you, you know you’re in trouble. After all, vicars are professional humourers. I believe I’m right in thinking that the art of humouring takes up almost all of year two of ecclesiastical training college. And it’s no secret that, once qualified, vicars will then spend the bulk of their professional careers perfecting their humouring skills; they become expert in the art of vacantly smiling as half-witted stragglers from their flock give them the latest on their bad knees or the durability of their new sheds. But would this professional humourer be willing to humour me at all? Good Lord, no.
‘I don’t buy it.’
I can’t tell you what a kick to the nuts it was. This is a man, remember, who has devoted both life and afterlife to a book about resurrected corpses, people living in the bellies of whales and demon-possessed pigs jumping off cliffs. Oh, yes, he’s willing to buy into the plausibility of all that. But he isn’t willing to buy into the plausibility of my light-hearted pastoral romp.
Stung by our exchange, I spent the next few days carefully thinking back over other people’s reactions when I’d told them what my novel was about. I must have blanked them all out at the time, but suddenly I could remember a lot of responses along the lines of ‘Oh, right’ and ‘Ok’ and very few along the lines of ‘What a great idea for a book!’
Things worsened when I actually sat down to read my first draft. It was a shambles. A soppy, long-winded, confusing, stupid, dull, uneventful shambles. Even I got bored halfway through and I wrote the pissing thing. So much for my creative blitz. And so much for two or three months of editing, tops. I had to near-enough tear the whole thing up. That garden party, folks, was eighteen months ago. My book has taken me three times as long to re-write as it did to write. Eighteen bloody months. Just editing. In that time I’ve sat through two football seasons, seen several new Star Wars films and voted in about six General Elections. I could’ve had two babies if I’d had a partner (or a womb).
As much as I grit my teeth at modern fiction (or ‘literary’ fiction, if you will – whatever that really means), I’ve always maintained a love of comic stories. Of my many daydreams, the one stood out – and does still – was that I’d write a collection of comic novels and set them all in Nelson’s County. Norfolk to me could be what Wessex was to Hardy, or, to a lesser extent, what Northumberland was to Catherine Cookson. At the rate I’m going, however, it could take a couple of decades before such a ‘collection’ ever sees the light of day. Non-fiction may slow the writing process down by bounding you to the truth, but fiction ties you up in all different sorts of knots. Every little edit tangles things further. It’s high-risk stuff. It’s effectively a massive game of Jenga. One teeny prod and the whole story topples over, collapsing into itself.
Finally, after two years, the book is now complete. Whether anybody besides me will think it has any merit, God knows. But I’ve loved doing it. In a shop the other day, the radio played a song that features prominently in the story. It’s my female protagonist’s favourite song. Hearing it, I thought about her and wanted to talk to her. Then realised that I couldn’t because she doesn’t really exist. But then again, she sort of does. If I opened my laptop, I could speak to her once more, I could get her opinion on anything. That’s the magic of writing. For all my past disdain for fiction (and there’s been a lot), it’s quite something to create a world of make-believe that you and you alone are in complete control of. It’s like a verbal Minecraft.
As much as I support self-publishing, I will try and get my novel released through a publishing house. I need to extend my reach. It would be nice to have a publisher’s clout and reach a wider audience. In the new year, I shall be sending it out to agents who will decide its fate. According to latest industry figures, I’ve picked the worst possible time to join the fiction game. Sales have never been so low. Publishing houses are folding. Agents are being laid off. Even Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro have had to pick up part-time bar work to make ends meet. And into this world of chaos come I. This must be how those Berlin schoolkids felt when they joined the Nazi party in April 1945. Like them, I could either get my head blown clean off or be made Senior Lance Corporal by afternoon playtime.
If all else fails, I’ll publish it myself and see what happens. I suppose one ought to take the rejection letters as a sign that the book isn’t much to write home about (or write a book about), but I truly believe in it. I’m happy to put it out there. Self-publishing is such a familiar process to me now: from the desperate Facebook pleas to the promotional article on page 64 of the regional newspaper (‘Local Author Goes Back To School With New Book’) and so on. I’m more than willing to step out of the arms of a publisher and into the arms of the gods. As long as I can keep well away from their vicars.