Becoming a novelist

Illustration: a dead body.

With my first novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, being published by Bloodhound Books next month, I’ve been reflecting on how I clawed my way to this point over the course of several decades.

The first step, I think, was when I wrote a story that took up eight pages of my creative writing book in Miss Morris’s third-year class at junior school in Bridgwater.

The story was about aliens fighting Saxon warriors at Stonehenge and each page had about 20 words (bottom half) and a pencil drawing (top half).

When I reached three pages and the story still wasn’t done, other kids started to gather round: “He’s going on to a fourth page!”

I decided to aim for six, smashed through it, and by page seven everyone was willing me on.

They cheered when I wrote THE END and I was famous for a day or two after.

Then at secondary school – a comprehensive lurking at the bottom of the league tables – Mrs Newton, an English teacher who expected a lot of us regardless of our backgrounds, decided we were all going to write novels during the summer holiday.

Mine was a cliched sci-fi piece, probably amounting to 5,000 words, about a city under a dome.

I’ve a feeling the US Navy turned up at some point, too, because I’d been reading a lot of Tom Clancy. I typed every word on a word processor on my Commodore 64 and printed it on a whining, chattering dot matrix machine.

(That printer, long-gone to landfill, was important. Once I’d told my parents I wanted to be a writer, they spared no expense or effort in helping me realise it, even though we were, frankly, poor and have never doubted that I’d make it one day. The same goes for my very supportive little brother.)

After school, there was a long stretch in which I wrote dissertations, poems, short stories, sketches, sitcoms, and the opening chapters of about 375 different novels, all the time getting a bit better at the business of putting words together in interesting ways.

The next milestone was non-fiction: in 2006, a few years out of university, 30,000 words on The Beatles.

I invented this project to release the pressure of the day job and to test myself – could I, for once, actually bloody finish something substantial? I did, and got interviewed on US radio, and reviewed in Rolling Stone. I felt my spirit expanding.

Next, it was back to fiction, via NaNoWriMo. This once-a-year exercise in getting-to-done isn’t without controversy and won’t work for every writer but, crikey, did it ever work for me.

I hammered away at my project before work, during my lunch break, and on the commute home – 800 words here, 500 there, adding up to 1,600 every day.

A stream of consciousness historical-horror-fantasy was the output – absolute rubbish, but 50,000 words of rubbish. And if I could manage that, why not 80,000?

So, approaching 30, I started writing crime novels in earnest. It wasn’t much fun. In fact, it was torture.

I’d have an idea, get excited, and then decide I hated it by chapter five. But with NaNoWriMo in mind, I didn’t give in – I finished them anyway, like a runner pushing through the pain barrier.

The first one was bad, I think, but it was 75,000 words long, and had a decent plot. The second, Fears Grow for Missing Sam, was better. The third… Well, Local Man Found Dead, I think, had something about it and I there were entire stretches of which I felt proud. A couple of publishers expressed interest, albeit not quite enough. I’d like to revise it again one day and maybe see it in print.

Meanwhile, I’d slowly been turning my way with words into a living, writing papers, letters, speeches, leaflets, articles and so on, in central government. I was getting paid to exercise my writing muscles, essentially – absolutely priceless.

When my partner, Jess, got a job in Cornwall, the chance to write more of what I wanted to write presented itself. I wrote and edited full time for six years, sometimes to contribute to the rent, sometimes with a view to getting published, but always at my desk from 9 to 5. One way or another, I turned out 2,000-5,000 words most days.

During all this, I co-wrote with Jess several non-fiction books on beer and pubs, which won awards and garnered general acclaim, further boosting my confidence. I started to think of myself not as ‘someone who does a bit of writing’ but as A Writer.

From being A Writer to being A Novelist is only a short hop. Between corporate blog posts, magazine articles and rewriting other people’s books, I used my time in Penzance to write and rewrite five novels, including The Grave Digger’s Boy.

Now, it’s being published, and I can’t tell you how excited I am – it feels like the end of a long slog with a heavy load.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to indulge myself by sharing some insights into how it came to be – the real life crimes and personal experiences that inspired it, my connection to the settings, and how my study of crime fiction over the years influenced its shape and structure.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a novelist

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