Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Writing a book: Part two, The first ten months or so.

This blog is the second installment of a series about a book I'm writing with Russell Payne.

I was pretty reluctant to begin writing. Part of it was fear of failure, part was because of time restraints. I was afraid that Russ Payne, my co-author, having had a book published and who wrote for a living, would find I was hopeless and the whole project would die before it began. So I put it off.

Russ assured me, this was back in the summer of 2014, that he'd begun writing and that it was going well. I researched. My part of book one is based in the past so I needed it to be authentic. I had a basic knowledge of the time period I was covering but not too many specifics concerning the actual year or about the historical figures who were living at the time (several who make cameos in the story or are actually a part of the narrative in some way)  I acquired books, listened to audiobooks, watched some dvd's (a mix of fiction and fact but the settings were pretty authentic and helped visualise some scenes in the book). I bought a map of old London so that the streets would be authentic to the time period...and all the while put off actually writing anything.

I was reasonably sure I could write but was still concerned that I'd be awful. A lack of confidence has always dogged me except for a few random years at college when I was pretty irritating in hindsight. Russ was pretty worried too, in fact it was still his main concern. I suppose if I'd have had more confidence in my abilities then I'd have written the book by myself! I'd never had an issue with coming up with ideas, they formulated easily but I'd never written anything of consequence. I even got Russ to ghost my biography for comic cons and when I needed something for Marvel Comics as a brief biography for collected editions...

The initial plan, at least in my mind, was that we'd each write half the book, between 40 and 50,000 words and then edit one another's chapters. I was comfortable with this set up as we can both be absolutely honest with one another regarding our work. It's refreshing to be able to be brutal occasionally instead of wasting time by pretending that absolute rubbish is fine 'but perhaps this sentence could do with some tweaking.'

We decided to write for the young adult market. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that I'd like my kids to read and enjoy the books. It's not a case of dumbing down the language or making the plot really basic, I think that insults the intelligence of the kids, teens or young people reading literature. It's more a case of making the subject matter suitable.

I had an operation in October 2014 (I'm sans a gall bladder) and a couple of days later went away to Leadhills in Scotland with family and friends for a peaceful week of recovery. It was there that I decided to put pen to paper at last (I was initially determined to write the old fashioned way). I was reading the new CJ Sansom and Bernard Cornwell books at the time (both were out that week) and was intimidated by the prospect of writing something that didn't seem inept in comparison. I do that with anything I attempt, compare it to the best, or who I consider to be the best anyway. It helps in realising how far I need to strive to attain anything half decent (More on writers and books I rate later, well, go on then, follow the asterisk*). I used to study Norman Rockwell works and compare my own paltry effort to the work he was producing when he was my age. I stopped after I had kids, there just wasn't enough time to care as much anymore. Back to October 2014! I ended up writing plot breakdowns of each of my chapters on the holiday. I'd made a start on the book but still hadn't actually written any of it when we left for home.

Russ was flying so I was eventually left with no choice but to begin, despite my reservations. I was certain not only would he laugh at my attempts at writing but be waiting for me to finish as well. It was time to see if I could write.

I found an area of our back room at home that I felt comfortable in and set to work with some A4 paper and an artist's pen, the same kind I use to ink with. For some reason I can't get it togetheer anymore with biros. I sat on a green rug next to a green wall using a footstool to rest my laptop on. I found straightaway that I had to write in pretty much total silence so I began to spend an hour or so each night working on the book when everyone else in the house was asleep.

I began typing up the first chapter on my laptop and found it so much easier than the pen and paper process. Here are some things I quickly figured out: I write in a progressive way and then go back into it once I've written a chapter. I like to rewrite a chapter as soon as I've finished the initial draft, tightening up the narrative, making the conversations flow. I'm not that interested in grammar or spelling as you can probably tell from reading my blog. That can be sorted later. Hopefully by Russ. It's the idea I need to get down. In the future I think a dictaphone may be handy, my brain works too fast for my fingers. And then I forget stuff. I can't cut and paste at all. I write sequentially. I like to write a synopsis at the start of each chapter. As you'll discover in subsequent blogs, Russ has a totally different way of writing...

Russell Payne. At this point I still hadn't seen any of his writing but from what he told me, it sounded good. I showed him what I'd written and he was actually surprised. He'd expected that it'd be awful but admitted he wanted to read the next chapter. I took that as a good sign. Outside of my inept use of punctuation and 'stabby' sentences, he really rated it. I took that as a massive compliment (we throw those around like cement bags) as he can't stand historical fiction.

Encouraged I continued writing to the point where I'd written half of my chapters and yet had still seen nothing from Russ. I was becoming concerned that when I did read some of his it would blow mine away and I'd have to get him to do a heavy rewrite on my chapters...so I wrote with an element of fear pushing me ever onwards. Also, the plot was changing, the characters too...which I've discovered is inevitable in writing a book. One character I used in an early chapter as a figure of authority now has become a main protagonist and has their own point of view chapter towards the end of book one.

Our book summits (they used to be at least once a month, usually on a Friday) now took place on the inevitably long journeys to and from comic cons, Russ having left the Civil Service and become self employed (thus having less free time as he was no longer being paid for doing nothing) found time to be at a premium.  The collaborative process between us is great when we brainstorm, a sometimes symbiotic understanding, a mix of blunt honesty and trust.

Another aspect that we had to agree upon; were we going to approach a publisher, try and get a literary agent, or self publish. I was initally all for aiming for a publisher like Harper Collins. Aim high, don't settle for the average. After reading extensively on the matter, and one account from a writer in particular, I could see the benefits of self publishing. The 10p per £20 hardback in royalties, spilt between the two of us is pretty persuasive. We're not 100% sold on the idea but we're both excited about advertising the book ourselves and the control we keep if we go that route. I readily admit that we both need to look into this in a lot more detail.

In the summer of 2015 Russ let me read a couple of the prologues he'd written. It was good, really good, if a little bleak. Then I got the first four chapters from him. It was, for the most part, a comedy. I have no idea why since it hadn't been a comedy since the Randomers days. One chapter was from the point of view of a woman called Barbera who was obsessed with lines and order and was waiting around in Stanley Park in Blackpool at 8AM for a job interview. It wasn't the real Stanley Park either. Russ visited the park for research but then decided to create a different place anyway.

We had a few chats. Russ wasn't happy about an incident in one of my chapters where the main character intentionally breaks another man's wrist. I thought it was appropriate to the time period and also the situation the characters were in (a tavern brawl). I wasn't happy that all of Russ' characters thought in the same comedy inner monologue. Except one character who was mentally insane. Oh, hang on, he thought in a comedy inner monologue too.


September 2015. I finished my half of the book. By this I mean the first/second draft. I was going to the Baltimore Comic Con around the third week of the month and Russ had decided that was a suitable deadline. He needs a little pressure to create impetus to work! The day before I left he dropped off some printed pages. 25 of them...after a year he'd written 25 pages. Never mind, he'd rewritten them, cut out the comedy, they were bound to be awesome...

*Writers I enjoy: I don't think you can say that everything a particular writer (or artist or musician for that matter) does is brilliant, but these are some authors I really enjoy and whose next book is never published soon enough.

Bernard Cornwell. His Warlord trilogy is my favourite. Brilliant re-imagining of the Arthur legend. Never been able to get into his Sharpe books though! Been enjoying the Saxon books.

Hilary Mantel. To be fair I've only read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but both are amongst the best fictional literature I've experienced.

C J Sansom. I've still not read A Winter In Madrid but each of his other books are recommended. The pay off at the end of Lamentation is great! Been waiting for his next book for a while now...

Jane Leavy. Perhaps not that well known to UK readers but her biography of Mickey Mantle is the best sports biography I've ever read.

Roger Kahn. More sports stuff, The Boys of Summer is both a biography of the Brooklyn Dodgers and of Kahn himself, an excellent writer and observer of people.

Glyn Iliffe. Always been interested in the Greek myths since I read Roger Lancelyn Green's Tale of Troy as a kid and Iliffe really brings the story of Troy and Odysseus to life.

Rory Clements. I got into Clements by accident when my wife borrowed his second John Shakespeare novel off a friend and I read it. I soon was looking out for new releases. His next book is set in the 1930's. Out in June!

David Mitchell. Genre crossing, thought provoking. Multiple voices, surprising plot twists. Never boring. Black Swan Green captures exactly what it was like growing up in the early 1980's.

Jeff Pearlman. Consistently good, well researched sports biographies. 

Mark Lewisohn. The First book in the Beatles trilogy is brilliant. I've read a lot of other books on the Beatles but the research and depth of detail adds so much to the story (and that's not even the double sized special edition!)

Not an all inclusive list but, as I mentioned, some writers that I look out for!

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