Writing Lessons

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I am a late learner, always have been: late to walk, late to talk, late to read, late to tie my shoe laces and late to tell the time.

It does not surprise me at all to find that my writing also shows every sign of a late development.

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Here’s a potted history of what I laughingly call my writing career:

When I was twelve I confided in a friend that I wanted to be a novelist. I began a novel (in secret) about diamond thieves when I was thirteen and gave up after completing a single chapter.

All through school I earned easy praise for my stories and, perhaps as a consequence, never really pushed myself. Stories came too easily. I had been telling myself stories for as long as I could remember, my brain just seemed wired in a way that endlessly generated them: why would I need to work at something that came as naturally as breathing to me?

Entering my late teens, I developed an interest – scratch that, an obsession – with poetry. Now I wanted to be a poet, although I had only the haziest idea of what a poet might actually be, or indeed what a poem actually was. In my imagination a poet was something like a Master from the School on Roke, poems were magic spells, and I might one day become Archmage.

The obsession followed me through four years as a university undergraduate where, after absorbing Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in my first year, I dressed like Raskolnikov and murdered verse rather than landladies.

I worked hard at poetry, drafting and re-drafting, trying to master rhythm and meter, experimenting with form, reading poetry and dreaming poetry. I must have written upwards of two hundred poems in this time. I was very serious, and a bit pompous. My poems were uniformly terrible.

I once went to see Andrew Greig, writer in residence at my university, for his opinion. He sat in his office in David Hume Tower with my sheaf of papers in front of him, and tried to find positive things to say. After a while he talked about what a poem was. Then, picking up one of my shorter prose poems, he asked, did I ever write straight prose? I said no, poetry was my bag. He asked me to come back and see him after the summer with some prose stories. I never did. Being young and arrogant I decided I knew better, and continued to bludgeon the unfortunate Muses for a few more years.

The obsession ended with the shock of graduation, when I found myself suddenly unemployed and totally without a plan. I had been too busy writing poetry and dreaming of my future Archmage status to pay any attention to a career.

I was living back in my parents’ house with time on my hands when I wrote my first short story in four years. That story was hell to write, and when it was finished even I could see it was no good. Stories no longer came easily to me; the process was like wading waist-high through treacle, with each word a profound struggle to come by. I no longer had a clear sense in my mind of the shapes of the stories I wanted to tell. It seemed my one innate talent had deserted me.

But writing is all about practice, and it is all about confidence, and practice breeds confidence. Nothing you write is ever wasted, not even bad poetry. Instead of giving up I carried on, using what I had learned about crafting language and making concise observations in a few words and wrote story after story, day after day, most bad, but each an improvement on the one before.

I returned to university for a postgraduate diploma and continued to write stories in my glum student room while hungover and lonely. I graduated for a second time and started temping in strange little jobs in strange little companies in strange little nooks of the city, and wrote strange little stories in the evenings when I could barely keep my eyes open.

Eventually I took a permanent job in a financial company and my adult life happened: I met and fell in love with the woman who would become my wife, bought a house with a mortgage and eventually became a father, all while writing stories in the evenings that hardly anyone read and that I never sent to anyone.

I never sent anything out because I felt there was something unsatisfactory about my stories: they all seemed to end just at the point where they were getting interesting. My best friend and most loyal reader kept telling me: ‘I want to know what happens next!’ I had been writing short stories for six years before it dawned on me what they actually were: the opening chapters to novels.

At twenty-eight I was back where I had started at thirteen, writing a novel. A short story called Hell Money kept growing and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Every evening for five years I sat down at my desk and this story kept sprouting off in different directions and it was all I could do to keep it under control, dead-heading where necessary, training the unruly growth of material into a coherent whole.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing: it was really bloody exciting.

It was my wife who suggested I submit Hell Money to a national competition for debut children’s authors called ‘The Wow Factor’ (it dawned on me typically late that I was writing for children and young adults), the first serious piece of work I had ever sent anywhere. By some miracle I found myself shortlisted. Suddenly there was the terrifying chance that I might be published, and that I might have to make an appearance on This Morning. Then there was the deflation of not winning, and not being published, and not appearing on morning television. (Still, at least I can boast Phillip Schofield has read my work.)

I took my two hundred pounds of book tokens from the experience and, more importantly, the advice of the book-buying expert at Waterstones, who advised me to keep going, to concentrate on the characters that really worked, to develop the plot and to always keep to the forefront of my mind the reader’s experience. Her advice was gold.

I kept working on the novel, rewrote it from top to bottom, and was rewarded with a greater understanding of how a long piece of fiction works and how it can be vastly improved through editing and redrafting.

Then I put Hell Money away and started something new, determined to put all I had learned into practice. The something new petered out after a dozen chapters; my heart just wasn’t in it. I didn’t know what direction to take next, and so for a while I did nothing.

My father died. Six months later I had flu, and was watching a documentary by Simon Armitage on television about Gawain and the Green Knight (he had just published a superb new version of the anonymously-written medieval poem). In my feverish state Gawain’s tale resonated with my grief, and I saw how I could use a modern retelling of the story of the Knights of the Round Table to examine the relationships between sons and fathers, while creating an exciting adventure full of knights and swords and daring deeds.

Hardly able to contain myself, I wrote seven feverish chapters in seven days before reality asserted itself. After that I faced a long, slow, hard slog over six years of evenings to write what would eventually become my second novel, The Dead Men of Pendragon House, sustained on the excitement of that first flash of inspiration.

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Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I have been writing for a long time, gradually feeling my way to the medium that I can best express myself in (the novel) and the genre that excites me most (children/young adult fiction). As I have said, I am a late learner, and this has been a tortuously slow learning curve.

Now let me bring this story up to date.

This year has been an exciting year for me, but also a year that has shown me how far I still have to travel and how much I still have to learn, even at my advanced age of forty-something.

In January I was gobsmacked to receive a New Writers Award for Young Adult Fiction from the Scottish Book Trust. It was my second application for the award, and I used the opening chapters of Dead Men in my submission. I was honest in my personal statement, describing where I was with the novel, owning up to my lack of experience, and asking for the help I felt I needed to further my development. I said I had taken my work as far as I could by my own efforts, and now I sorely needed guidance.

The Trust hooked me up with a mentor, freelance literary consultant and editor Claire Wingfield, and we discussed my novel and my ideas at our first meeting. I came away fired up with fresh enthusiasm and new ideas.

As part of the award I spent a week on the west coast of Scotland at an artist’s retreat called Cove Park. This was the longest period of continuous writing time I had ever enjoyed and I structured my time carefully to make the most of it. Every day I wrote for three hours in the morning, starting at nine o’clock, and three hours in the afternoon. It was my first taste of what life might be like as a professional writer, and it was exhausting. By the following weekend I was almost burned out, but I had edited the entire opening section of my novel and re-written some key scenes.

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Above, the view from my writing pod window at Cove Park Artist’s retreat, April 2016

During our second meeting, Claire asked me questions about the novel’s plot and main characters. In essence, she was calling me out on some of the areas where I had been lazy in my thinking. Claire has a wonderful way of teasing out of you what you have been reluctant to admit to yourself, gently bringing you to a point where you can acknowledge the weaknesses as well as the strengths of your work. It helped that the areas of weakness she had identified were precisely the parts of the novel I had been uneasy about but had failed to question.

I generally leave our meetings buzzing with new ideas and enthusiasms – so many ideas that I need to go and sit down by myself and think them through in my slow way. I have found that a few suggestions from Claire can set me off on an exploration of many new avenues, where different vistas on the novel open up and exciting possibilities are discovered. It is my job to decide which direction to take and what changes to make, and already I feel the novel is becoming tighter, that I am weeding out the overgrown passages and cultivating more interesting plants in their place.

After five months of this process I am beginning to sense where the next level of writing is, and how I might start climbing to reach that level. It is the difference between the talented amateur and the writing professional. It is by no means easy to see where this level is, let alone to set about getting there. It involves shifting your mind-set, seeing the work from entirely different perspectives, attaining a whole new depth of concentration and letting the writing loose. It is a daunting but exhilarating challenge to face.

I suppose the greatest gift the award has given me is confidence: to know that these professionals are taking me and my work seriously and have decided to invest time and money into my development encourages me to take myself seriously. I don’t want to let them or myself down. I want to give them a return on their investment; I want to show them that their faith was not misplaced.

Which means a lot of incredibly hard work, and confronting areas of a modern writer’s life that I am not yet comfortable with, such as self-promotion and marketing. In the first six months of the award my confidence has been all over the place, but that is a natural reaction to an unfamiliar situation. I feel I have embarked on an exciting new journey. I’m not sure where it is taking me or even if I have the skills and dedication to reach the destination, I am just taking it stage by stage and enjoying the views as I go along.

As I keep saying, I am a late learner, but the nice thing about being a late learner is that when you do finally begin to catch up you catch up quickly, and often run with what you have learnt. I’m hoping I can run all the way from here.

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To learn more about the Scottish Book Trust and how to apply for the New Writers Awards, visit their website at http://scottishbooktrust.com/

For more information and contact details for Claire Wingfield, visit her Editorial and Literary Consultancy website at http://www.clairewingfield.co.uk/

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