My first novel
In the summer of 1990, I was 29. I was working as a bond trader in an international bank, buying, selling, gossiping on the phone, never thinking about anything for more than a few minutes at a time. The most I ever wrote was my initials on a dealing ticket. I wanted to do something a little more creative in my spare time than watching TV, something that would absorb my attention for more than a few minutes at a time. So I decided to start writing. I had the means – I had just bought a PC. I knew I didn't know how to write a novel, so, being that sort of chap, I bought half a dozen books on the subject. They were a mixed bag. Some extolled the wonders of being a writer, ran over some basic techniques, discussed Hemingway and Faulkner, and suggested some exercises which ranged from the interesting to the inane. They gave me some ideas to while away a few hours whilst making it perfectly clear that someone like me would never actually be able to complete a book, let alone get it published.
Others were more encouraging. These books were about writing real books and stories, the sort which are all around us, which people read every day. They discussed the practicalities of making characters come to life, of planning and then controlling a plot. And, what was most important, they made me think that writing a book could be fun, something that even I could do, and something I would enjoy. Somehow the nitty gritty of how to put a book together seemed to make the whole activity much more exciting than inspirational thoughts on the trials and tribulations of being an author.
I couldn't wait to get started. But, I thought, I had better pace myself, write a few scenes, a short story or two. My first exercise was to write the opening scene of a novel. I wrote about the most exciting thing I could think of that had happened to me (coping with a large bond trade that went wrong), and then exaggerated it a bit.
After half an hour of clumsy tapping, I was hooked. Forget the exercises, I wanted to write a whole book! So, I started to plan, much of it whilst munching a sandwich in a quiet courtyard just behind the Bank of England. Planning was difficult. I spent several weeks worrying over character and plot, and scribbling my thoughts on little index cards.
Eventually I began writing. It was hard at first. I was used to reading books written by professionals. My own was written by an amateur, and it showed. Much of the prose was stilted, the dialogue unnatural, the sex scenes excruciating. But I persevered, writing and rewriting to smooth out the prose.
Much to my surprise, a year later I actually completed a draft. I showed it to my wife and friends. The criticisms came flooding back: characters too superficial, no sense of place, too many clichés in character as well as metaphor, not enough twists in the plot, the ending was no good, and many more.
Depressed, I put the writing to one side. But I missed it. Several months later, I dug my manuscript out and reread it. It wasn't all bad, and I could see what my circle of critics meant – I even agreed with them on most things. So, I set out to solve the problems. How could I make my hero more sympathetic? How could I pace the plot better? The existing ending had to go entirely, what would work as a replacement?
To work again. Another draft, more criticism, yet another draft, and by the autumn of 1993 I had a book which was about as good as it was going to get. I wrote a synopsis and sent it off to some agents together with a couple of chapters.
I was fully prepared for rejection. I knew the odds were against finding a publisher for a first novel, however good, but I was willing to persevere, working my way down a long list of agents. But even if the book were never published the three years of hard work were well worthwhile. I had enjoyed writing it, and my wife and friends had, eventually, enjoyed reading it.
I was lucky. The second agent on my list, Carole Blake had recently broken her leg on holiday in the South of France, and had more time than usual to read unsolicited manuscripts. She read mine, and liked it. She sent it to a number of publishers with an enthusiastic note. Five of them began bidding against each other, and within a month I had sold Free to Trade to Heinemann for an advance which exceeded all my expectations. Carole subsequently sold the rights to thirty countries. I can now afford to write during the day rather than in odd corners of the evening or weekend.
Carole has recently written an excellent book on the business of getting a novel published. It is entitled "From Pitch to Publication", and is published by Macmillan.
Every writer is different. But I think there are some lessons I have learned that would apply to most aspiring novelists.
Firstly, write for fun. It would be wrong to pretend that publication isn't important; of course we all want to see our books in bookshops. But there is so much about the process of writing a book that is interesting, rewarding and just plain fun, which I believe is more important. I am convinced that it is the enjoyment of the writing process, rather than a desire for publication or an attempt to write what sells, that leads in the end to the creation of a good book.
Secondly, ask for, and take criticism. It is difficult to accept criticism of something as highly personal as a novel. It is very hard to separate criticism of the book from criticism of the writer. But you have to do it. It is the best way to learn.
Thirdly, write and rewrite. It took me several years to get it right. I believe it is impossible to write a good first novel in one draft with a few corrections, however brilliant you are.
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