Wednesday 12 June 2013

So you want to be a writer

The song from the Bugsy Malone musical comes into my head. “So you want to be a boxer, in the golden ring. So you want to be a boxer better do your thing. You better quit if you haven’t got it." That’s not bad from memory and I haven’t dared to look it up as it has been many years since I last saw the film. The song ends with Bugsy’s friend the down on his luck, never fought in a ring before, big guy knock out the champion. The song ends with “yep he’s got it! The song stuck in my head and has been playing because I want to be a writer and not a boxer. I have always had plenty of creative ideas but apart from business reports and presentations that I have written then nobody important has seen or appreciated my literary efforts.

Theme tune - So you want to be a boxer
That’s not quite true, my wife and daughter who had first read and “critiqued” my work were the most important people in my life, but you know what I mean. In my O’levels I was given 2 A grades for English but I failed my English A Level because I discovered the joys of adulthood and did not spend enough of my time  reviewing the works of Keats and reading Wuthering Heights for enjoyment, which makes me a terrible candidate to be a writer. Ten yeas after my A Level failures I attended a night school class in Creative Writing but halfway through the course decided I would be better spending my time actually writing rather than listenting to somebody else spouting on about it. There is a University close to me that teaches a well respected masters degree in Creative Writing but now I have actually written and published one book of fiction I want to write another one.

I have in fact now written two books and the first one of 120K words was pretty unpublishable (which my spell checker says is a word that does not exist but which I know to be a good word). It was a turgid account of a hotel business that I bought and after four dismal summers needed closure on. I had a story to tell and I was going to damn well tell it. I changed names and tweaked the outcomes and progressed through the events like I was swimming through glue. It was a hard slog. Both the hotel and writing the book. I put so much information in that it was a danger of becoming a slog for the reader to plough through. But I finished it and with huge enthusiasm printed off the first two chapters and sent off to the first agent that I had ever heard of. I had read a book about the lifestyle choice of a writer moving to France and he had thanked his great agent for his amazing support. I did my research and wrote a cover letter saying that I was a cross between the Lifestyle Choice man in France and a famous thriller writer who was also on the agent’s books. In fact I had found my niche was the missing link between the two. Almost the Indiana Jones of failed Welsh hoteliers. How could they turn me down? As it turned out incredibly easily. I sent the required two chapters. Plot synopsis and information about myself in a padded white envelope and my hopes and dreams sped away for £4.50 recorded delivery (just in case it was lost in the post).  On a Friday lunchtime within 24 hours of receipt the response came back as an email. I looked at it on my laptop and all excited I stood up walked around the room and clicked to open the email. Thanks but no thanks. Oh!

It was such a quick response I didn’t even tell my wife that it had come back negative until the following week. I then sent one out to another carefully chosen agent found in the Writers and Artists yearbook and then investigated on line that fellow writers who were going to become my friends at the Christmas party get together were of a like minded type as myself. The next response took three weeks and then I scatter gunned it to three all together and then three more had despondently given up by the time the last negative reply came back. I have been a successful businessman and then I  bought a hotel, why wouldn’t they like my story, but obviously nobody did.

But that is not quite true either. I was an expert (a hard won description) in Orthotic and Prosthetic materials and Orthopaedic manufacturing (false legs, splints and insoles but that is another story) before I took a new direction and bought the hotel. The gatekeepers at Literary Agents are the readers, who every week receive hundreds of desperate pleas for attention (sorry, authors’ submissions). If I was a specialist in my field of expertise then they must be specialist in theirs. But they make mistakes, the stories are legion, they turned down Harry Potter for heaven’s sake. They are involved in a commercial operation and it was a long while before I realised that the first rejection within 24 hours of submission was as much to do with a glance through by a hard pressed Agency gatekeeper who wanted to clear his/her desk before the weekend. That realisation made me feel better about the large number of rejections. There were contradictions between the advice of the handbook and online “how to get an agent” discussions. It was a minefield and I didn’t have the map to show the way through to become a successful author. So what to do next?

In the end without professional acknowledgement I didn’t really believe enough in my story to self publish. It would be a vanity book and I didn’t want to lower myself to that and I couldn’t afford to buy the necessary number of copies to be published and would it sell. So I started to listen to another voice in my head from a character I had called Dan Richards twenty years ago. While each rejection notification limped their way back to me over the months I wrote my novel with its central hero who had developed in my subconscious over many years. It was liberating writing fiction and I was being productive and enjoying myself. To pay for my writing sabbatical I worked in bars and nightclubs at night as a bouncer and I could bring inspiration from the heroes and idiots that I met. I immersed myself in the story and added touches and nuances that would have not been there if I had been working in a normal higher paid career.

Then it came to a crossroads with my story. I had hit 90k words, the plot had come to a natural end but I still had more to tell and I hadn’t tied up all the threads yet. If I was going to be writing a literary work then I could have ploughed on for another few thousand words and published a heavyweight tome.

But by this time I had immersed myself in the Literary world. I had done a taster day at a local writing centre and met my first real life professional writer and I had looked online. Self Publishing had moved on in the 6 months that it had taken me to bury my first book and write my second. There were still vanity publishers wanting unwitting authors to spend money with them but there was also more honest advice about the business of Writing and publishing. Indeed there was a welcoming community of bloggers and fellow writers who had been through the same experiences and wanted to share. I had felt my way through the minefield of Agents and traditional hard copy publishing. Perhaps the world of Petronellas and Tarquins was not one that I would be comfortable in. Perhaps that is unfair but I had certainly felt out of place, out of my depth and above all I had not been “lucky”. So I retraced my steps through the minefield and sidestepped the barriers and started on a new path (I know mixed metaphors).

Now I have control over my own destiny. I am a published writer and I have even sold a few books in ebook and Pay on Demand. I think I have realistic expectations but after hitting the reef with my first book I am sailing my own course through the shallows and I am enjoying the voyage as much as anticipating the destination.

I prepared my first book (Splinter) for publication and carried on with ideas for the second (Personal Space). created plans for a series of Dan Richards books called “The Facts of Life” because that is the story of life lessons learnt that I wanted to tell. I did send the Novel off for submission to Literary Agent’s with the same negative results but this time I was a bit more immune to the rejections. I took a bit of time out from the novel and the story kept developing inside my head.  I realised that the first part of the book about a younger Dan was getting in the way and I could split it off to a separate novella, which I could self publish myself as “Dragon”.

Then I realised that my book was quite racy with rather a lot of sex and violence. Did that get in the way of the story that I wanted to tell, which was another crossroads. I didn’t want my daughter to read what some of the sexy bits of what I had written but she wanted to read my book. So thanks to the the miracles of modern technology I copied the whole book then pasted it into a new word document and edited the sexy bits out. What would Emily Bronte have said about that.  

When I had done the editing out of the sexy scenes. I had an internal dialogue berating myself for not having the confidence of my convictions that sex and violence is part of everyday life that I saw every weekend that I worked on a nightclub door. It should thus be part of my story. But again with the new world of technology then I realised I could publish both versions together and use a certificated from the film world declaiming that the reader could purchase the 18 version or the shorter edition with the same plot but was less likely to cause offence.  

Then with reference to friendly advice from my new community of independent authors and my own experience of sales and marketing I double checked the plotlines, worried about the grammar and passed the whole manuscripts out to so called Beta readers for feedback. Then without delay I went online and became an author.  The phone has yet to ring with an urgent call from an agent saying how sorry they are for passing me over and if it does then I am not sure I will take that call…

The great thing is that I have written a book, that book is a product and that product is accessible to my audience so I can get off my backside and sell it. If I can do it for Orthopaedic materials then I sure as hell can do it for my own published book.
Back to Bugsy Malone, the champion is on the canvas of the ring and the new boxer stands stunned with everybody congratulating him on his knockout punch. Have I got it as a writer? 

You tell me.

JR Sheridan

In answer to whether I would take an Agent or Publisher’s phone call then of course I would,  its hard work and lonely being an independent author living off my wits with nobody to hold my hand


  1. I want you to know that, as a fledgling writer, I relate to so much of what you share here. I am commenting anonymously because I do not have a 'Comment As' persona. Reading your blog inspires me to start my own. I have begun a few along the way but they become tangled and I trip over them and then they steal focus from my writing & research and so I delete them. Today, I will start another and keep your approach to the blog in mind. Thank you for sharing the writer's experience with such straight-line honesty. Roberta

    1. Hi anonymous Roberta. Thanks for your kind words.

      I have mixed feelings about blogging, at times a post helps me unload a contentious point and helps to clear the mind. Other times they are a distraction and a chore, more like homework for teacher than a happy hobby.

      There has to be of a certain standard of self editing and reflection before posting as they could possibly be seen as part of my career portfolio...if anybody was interested.

      I also have a number of posts written "in anger" and not posted up but I have kept them all saved in a hidden file that might spark a thought for a future blog or even a story.

      I was certainly pleased with my response to the "psychology of the put down blog", which has had my best response and number of shares. Watching the numbers click up was great validation but it also helped me as a writer to form up my thoughts on the put down itself. It might have sold some copies of my first novel too but I can't be sure.

      As for the online superstar persona there is much written by more experienced people than me about on line presence for writers. I've replied on a couple of writing blog posts and forums, where I felt qualified to make a contribution. Then I have also learnt to take a breath and delete written comments before posting rather than becoming active in a debate or argument. For me there is a danger of it all becoming a self perpetuating cycle of navel gazing. Writers spending hours pontificating on other writers musings doesn't build the word count for the next book and rarely sells more books to real life readers.

      FYI. I am a big fan of Joanna Penn's website. She has had some great interviews with writers, editors, designers etc. Her Podcast page is a fantastic resource and I cherry picked some useful nuggets of information that really helped me. I also had the pleasure of writing a guest blog from my experiences working in nightclubs.

      Hope that helps.

      Best Wishes