This is the first post in a series by our colleague, James Blatch, who, in case you were unaware, is in the process of writing and having his first book ready for self-publishing. It’s been a journey fraught with fear, indecision and lonely hours spent hammering away at a keyboard. Hopefully reading about his experiences will help other would-be authors harbouring similar ambitions – and raise a smile of recognition with those who are dab hands at this writing and self publishing lark (don’t ever let Mark Dawson catch you calling it that). So without further ado, here’s James’ first message from the trenches.
Last night I hit send on an email containing the draft of my first novel. The email went to Jenny, who will be my developmental editor.
The fact that someone else is now reading my text has not yet sunk in. I actually feel mildly traumatised by it. Is that normal?
The book began as a NaNoWriMo project in 2010. Just after I got into the office I read a tweet from a friend’s husband.
“I’m doing this to stave off mental torpor…” he wrote, with a link to the Novel Writing Month rules. I opened a Word document and began to type.
I typed about an RAF pilot in 1966 at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire, the home of the UK’s test pilot community. My father served as a TP at that time, and since I grow older, typically perhaps, I search for more clues about who my parents were and by implication where I came from. So my father’s career has become a bit of an obsession in recent times.
The story started to flow, at least the ‘situation’ started to flow. NaNoWriMo is an extraordinary way to learn about writing. You have no time to read up on structure or format, you just have to write.
1666.67 words a day minimum.
Immediately I discovered that I don’t know how writing works. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure how to present quotes.
All that stuff about a new paragraph for a quote… did it apply every time someone spoke?
Did I always have to point out who was talking?
Can I write what someone is thinking about even if the book is not first person?
I had no idea. I opened novels on my shelf and scanned a few pages, trying to find answers to these basic questions. I’d read the novels, but hadn’t paid any attention to the detail.
As I set out the characters and tried to push the situation on, I started to realise that I also knew nothing about stories. Again, I’ve read stories, I’d spent twelve years as a BBC reporter telling stories in ninety seconds, but in long form terms, I was clueless.
I was ready to give up at the twelve thousand word point, but fate intervened. An old BBC friend called me. She was working on ‘You & Yours’ – a Radio 4 daily show – and she wanted the presenter to interview me about NaNoWriMo. I agreed, thinking that I could carry on for another day and then give up after the interview. But the interview was to take place the following week and transmitted the week after that. I couldn’t give up, otherwise I would be a FRAUD ON THE BBC
Honestly, it was the only reason I persevered.
The story was getting out of control. I’d started with my central character, his wife and a couple of bit players around him. By the 30k point I’d introduced the politician father-in-law who would play a crucial role in London in my as yet undefined denouement and more players in an increasingly complex story landscape.
I really, really didn’t know what I was doing, but, thanks to the BBC, I couldn’t give up. I finished the month with 52k words. I’d changed the title after hearing myself say it on the radio…I honestly can’t even remember what it was, something like “Sierra 4-2 Down”. By day thirty it was ‘Happy Hour’, named after the RAF Friday night drinking tradition. It was a suitably ironic title for a book that begins with a fatal air accident.
The month finished, the book was close to having an end, although it took me three further months to write the last 13k words.
I knew it was awful and it went into a disregarded folder on my MacBook.
In 2013 I left my 9 to 5 and joined two friends as co-owner of a video production company. In my mind I was to be freed of the time-zapping world of the working week. I could, if I wanted to, devote days on end to my book and other projects, in between the well-paying video production jobs that came in. But it wasn’t like that (of course).
The book remained an occasional hobby. I decided to undertake a major re-write to correct all the problems that came from developing the story as I went along, the word count climbed but so did the structural problems. I had 85k words, and no story to speak of.
Then the world of self publishing landed on my doorstep. A phone-call from Mark Dawson, an old work colleague, led to the creation of a new company, The Self Publishing Formula. We built an online course and created an amazing community of indie authors. Their lives were addictive, not just the ones who had been successful but the ones who dreamed of success and who were online with us because they wanted to soak up every last scrap of knowledge that might help them. I wanted to be alongside them, part of the fraternity of writers.
Inevitably, I started thinking more seriously about the manuscript that was still lurking in ‘My Documents’ on my Mac. I mentioned it to Mark and he was encouraging.
I purchased Scrivener and set out on another re-write, this time focusing on story structure.
Mark started to put public pressure on me. We began a podcast and the idea was that he was an experienced indie author while I was publishing my first novel. Later, he told me that my ‘novel’ would be the example book for a new course we were producing, Self Publishing 101 for new authors.
I said yes immediately to both of these developments. I have either a flaw or weakness, depending on how you view it, in that I constantly want to challenge myself. I have to be pushing at the limits of what I think I can achieve, even though most of this stuff (publishing a book, running my own company) scares me.
Problem is, the more I focused on story, the more I realised mine sucked.
Not only could I not think of a compelling story-line, I actually didn’t know what it was I was supposed to be thinking of.
What does a good story structure look like?
The podcast was a great opportunity for me. It was a front row seat as experts and heroes of the publishing world came by one-by-one for me to pick their brains. I was learning fast about attitude and approach and picking up clues about story.
Then a deadline appeared. An actual deadline…this wasn’t supposed to happen for first time authors who don’t have a deal. Mark needed a manuscript. I sent him a few chapters, and even that was a big deal for me. I still largely hated the book.
Mark arranged for Stuart Bache to design some covers. They were AWESOME. While I was on holiday with my family in Sicily, I had the surreal experience of seeing book covers for my unfinished novel, with my name on, followed by constructive comments from fellow SPF-ers in the 101 Facebook group. It now appeared that I was an author, getting an unfair level of exposure.
Still just the one problem: I had no book. I was properly stuck. I told Mark I was ‘finishing’ it, but I couldn’t finish it, because the story simply didn’t work. I might have been adding words, five to seven thousand a week, but I was making no real progress. In fact, I was deleting more than I wrote.
In a moment of desperation, I replaced Iain M Banks’ Culture series on my Kindle with Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid. My God, why didn’t I read that two years ago? I haven’t had time to finish it before the draft had to be submitted, but his early direction got me in the right mind-set. I lost the idea that there was some unattainable art-form that I was trying to reach for, and realised that stories followed formulas that were quantifiable and understandable for mortals like me.
The deadline was set for me to handover the book on Tuesday 11th October. Mark wanted to crowd source a better title to replace Happy Hour, which he thought didn’t work. No-one really liked my alternatives.
So I’ll leave this blog where I was last Thursday, five days from submission; down to 52k words and with the middle third of the book unwritten. Add to that the fact that I was not happy with at least a third of what was written and I was feeling about as stressed as I have been in recent years.
I was up a certain creek.
What on earth had I got myself into?