This is a blog about the writing process of a book that I have just started working on.
A long telephone call with my agent Robert. My editor at Harvill Secker, who published my previous two books, ‘How to Catch a Mole’ and ‘Seed to Dust’ has made an offer for my third book and we have agreed to accept their offer. I now have to write it.
The offer has come at the end of a long process. When I started writing the first book ’Mole’, I knew there would be three books in the series. As well as writing books and essays and the odd poem, I’m a gardener, I plant things in threes or fives or sevens, good things come in threes I think. Goldfish in bowls should be in threes. It is a lovely harmonious number, a beginning, a middle and an end. There may well be more books I’m pretty sure there will be, but these three books have been for some time, everything to me; my life, my income, my love, my art and my poetry and I am deeply proud of them.
This blog is the story of the third.
Each book has been sold to the same publisher as a ‘one off’. When I sent the first book off, I thought it was finished. I had a lot to learn. It was far from finished, it was little more than a proposal, nevertheless they saw something in it and bought it and then sent me away to finish writing it. There have been no ‘two-book deals’, just one book, then I offered another which they liked and published, and now the third. This book and the last one have been sold before they were written. This is usual in the world of “Non-Fiction” They are sold on proposal. (More of that later). It’s like buying a new house ‘off plan’.
In reality I have already written thousands of words, some of these will end up in the final book. Most of them won’t. These notes have helped me to define what this book is, what it is about, what the story is, what the themes are, where it starts and ends. The notes were started about a year ago, immediately after I had finished editing my most recent book 'Seed to Dust'. They are in various notebooks, on bits of paper scattered about the place, in my phone and 70,000 of them in a file on my computer, some of them are duplicated in two or more places. My notes are a mess, my notes are always a mess, I like them being a mess, pulling them together is part of the creative process, finding connections that I had not noticed as things appear out of sequence, it keeps my mind questioning, accepting and rejecting. I write my notes wherever I am on whatever is to hand when they come to me, at three in the morning when I wake up or walking in a field or driving to the shops. I wrote most of my first book on my phone, it dictated the style of the book, little short sentences, many of them in the 5/7/5 syllable format of the haiku although you wouldn't notice unless you were looking.
I knew there was a third book, but I did not know clearly what it looked like. I knew what it ‘felt’ like, I knew its mood and tone and 'flavour' I knew its subject but very little else and so I had to go exploring, trying different avenues, experimenting with ways to tell the tale until I found one that intrigued me and that I was confident about. At that point I contacted my agent (Robert Caskie) and asked if he was ready to receive another book from me, ‘Seed to Dust’ had just come out in hardback. The UK and the rest of Europe was in tight lockdown. The bookshops were all closed and no foreign rights were being bought, so I was not certain that he would. He said, ‘send me a proposal’, so I wrote about two pages outlining my idea, ‘not enough’ he said, ‘tell me more about the structure’ and as I tried to write about the structure I realised that I didn’t have a story at all. He is good like that, he saw what I in my closeness to my work, had missed. Structure is everything in a book. Not just everything but EVERYTHING. And this was unwritable, junk, the meandering thoughts of a lunatic. In my excitement to get on with the new book I had rushed ahead, not given myself time to really absorb the idea and let it bubble around in my head, give my subconscious enough time to crawl through all the nooks and crannies and find the structure.
I went back to the drawing board and after about a month the story began to reveal itself as I built it up and carved it down again. This is how it usually works, for me anyway. It's like making a clay bust of someone, you add more material and the more you add, the more obvious the flaws become so then I have to scrape it down and leave the bits that work if I can, without undermining their structure, then adding more material and the likeness begins to get closer and over time closer still until something sparks and I can say THAT'S IT!
So I wrote another proposal, another two pages and two pages of samples from the first few chapters. These were based on my notes that were starting to form into a structure that was approaching what I wanted to portray. He came back and said ‘not enough’ tell me more. So I added and scraped some more, digging more deeply into the idea and he said ‘Great! I love it!', and I felt a spark of hope and he sent it off to my editor at Harvill Secker who published my last two books. I grew increasingly nervous for about two weeks.
Writing has historically not been considered an occupation, most writers have another source of income, whether that be a partner or a career. My partner is also a writer, so we support each other, we were writers when we met over 30 years ago, books are one of the things that drew us together, we write different things but have an intensely creative relationship, we talk about our writing constantly, we are that vital second pair of eyes on each others work. A supportive partner is really helpful, whether that be financially or as in our case, creatively.
In the pandemic no bookshops were open, publishers were not buying books, people didn't feel like reading and foreign rights were not being sold, life was static and I needed money to continue my not very lavish lifestyle. So as I say, I was nervous for a couple of weeks. Two weeks later my editor came back and said ‘I love it - but tell me more. I want to know how the chapters pan out, what is in them what’s the story arc?’ So I rewrote the proposal, moulded some more sample chapters, indicated the arc, outlined the beginning and the end, my lovely agent said ‘brilliant! I love it so much’. He sent it back to my editor who takes a couple of days and comes back saying ‘perfect. I love it so much, I need to see what the publishing team make of it, and then if they like it it will go to another meeting where we will decide if it fits into our plans, and if we can make an offer (based on how your other books have sold)’. A month passes, half-term intervenes, home schooling of locked down children and I begin to consider my long term future and joining a buddhist monastery, I can grow vegetables and sit immobile for hours so I would be good at that.
My work is classed as ‘Non-Fiction’, occasionally described as ‘memoir’ or ‘nature writing’ depending on who you are talking to but I don’t see it that way, I think of myself as a novelist who writes about real stuff, events that really happen in people's lives and about the conflicting feelings and understandings that go along with those events, how we justify, explain or just plain live with our inconsistencies. In much the same way as Jack Kerouac and Jeanette Winterson write about real things, human journeys that define who we are. I am their love child, my great, great grandfather was the poet John Clare, (not really though - I made that up). It is rarely up to the writer to decide what box we get stuffed in and there is a lot of pressure to keep reproducing your first success. That is easy for me, I am a one trick pony, I write about the bitter sweetness of life and how to be a happy old man.
So Harvill Secker made an offer. They are going to publish. Cue running out to the local spa to buy whatever fizzy booze they had to celebrate with. Publishing is a weird business, most people are in it because they love books, the pay is not mind blowing, the work is hard but it seems fun. My publisher, Harvill Secker, is an imprint of Vintage, which itself is an imprint of Penguin Random House. So there is a massive team of expertise in that system and some very talented designers and editors and sales and marketing people who are there to make it beautiful, get it noticed and make it sell so we can all have a living. I feel very privileged to be with them, they are a serious publisher who manage some very serious writers who I am in awe of.
As I was lying in bed this morning nursing the hangover, I was thinking about the process and about how every time I go to a literary event, whether it is mine of somebody else’s, there is always an interest from the audience about how you write a book, what a writers life is like, what the process is, and as there are no literary events right now I thought I would write a blog. This blog. So here it is, this is the story of writing a book, from beginning to end, the story of my writing day, of how it is going, the ups and downs. The book will take a year or more to write another year to edit and then the long publishing process. By the time the book comes out and is born into the world I will have started the next one and will have forgotten all about this one, I’ll struggle to remember what happened.
Today it is sunny, nearly spring. I am going to put old clothes on and do some gardening, turn the idea taps full on and let all the wonders begin to flow. I have been holding it back for a while in case there was ‘no deal’ and I would have to come up with a ‘Plan B’. It is full on ‘Plan A’ and I am a very happy writer. I might order a new pair of shoes later.