Four parcels arrived this week, by three separate deliveries. I – that live in an isolated house, on a lonely road; which dawdles through a remote Hebridean island – get quite excited to see a parcel come through the door.
If there was any disappointment attached to the deliveries – and I admit that there was some – it was only that they were all addressed to my neighbour, and had come to me by mistake. I handed them over when I saw him tending his sheep in the field by our house.
‘And did you see who woss drivin’ the vaan?’ he asked, confused as to why after 70 years on an island where everyone knows everyone else the driver had forgotten where he lived. Four times. But you never see who it was – because they don’t trouble you; they just open the door, walk in, ‘clump’ the parcel down on the first surface which will bear its weight, sign the chitty in your name, call out a cheerful ‘Nay Bother!’, and then leave.
Then a parcel arrived which was for me – 120 copies of my book Phoenix from the Ashes which will be launched on Thursday. If by chance you find yourself on the Hebridean island of Islay on March 1st – at 7:30 pm; come along to the Lagavulin Distillery where I’ll be signing copies. It’ll be great to see you.
The book tells the story of our house fire, and the boat we built as amateurs for a new home – but it’s actually about the people we met on our seven year journey.
When someone publishes a book, I’m always nosey about their ‘writing process’ – from first idea to finding a publishing house. A lot of people who are interested in ‘writing’ are – so here’s my process:
To produce the 90,000 words in Phoenix from the Ashes, I wrote 9 million. The letters wore-off my keyboard leaving me to guess which was which. Half the 9 million words made me feel smug; half made me cringe – but knowing that I would soon boil them down to extract any juice meant that for now I didn’t have to worry whether it was good or bad – leaving me free to just write. Brutal editing – that takes the most time; having struggled to put some words onto the page, I begin to take every word out that fails to add anything to my story; at first it was like pulling teeth, now I’m resigned to it.
Out goes all the padding – such as lengthy descriptions of familiar objects; all the words which moderate or amplify the one which follows, like quite good, or very large; I take out all the bits which I’d slipped in to make me look good, sound scholarly, or ‘save-face’ – the latter particularly when I’m trying to justify myself after describing something stupid that I’d done… and, God knows, there are no shortage of those; I took out everything that told the reader what he ought to be thinking… and left it up to him to think as he pleased; then I took out all my jokes, leaving the humorous bits to tell their own story. After that, of course, there was bugger-all left.
So I wrote more words to replace those I’d lost. Actually – it’s like boiling-off a pail of sea-water to get a spoon of salt… yet I would always get my salt.
I try (but don’t always succeed) to remain aware of how irrelevant I am, to write with humility, and to own my vulnerabilities – it’s painful sometimes, but it’s all done in enlightened self-interest: when you read something written by someone clever, you forgive them their pomposity – when you read something written by me, you don’t.
In the book I tried to maintain a balance between humour; drama; and action – and constantly got the balance wrong… but I found that it helped if I put it away for a week, then came back to it ‘fresh’, and read it again, when it would be clear whether the passage was too long – or not long enough… whether it took the reader up a side-road; or introduced him to an interesting new subject which needed to be more fully explained.
And I discovered late that the whole story comes together – gels – if each apparently disparate passage is linked to the next. Continuity announcers on the radio are constantly forced to link the un-linkable, such as when an interview about a near-miss asteroid is followed by an item on home baking. Yet linked they must be; well-linked passages allowed the story to flow. And if two passages couldn’t be linked, they turned out to be in the wrong place, and one or other of them was moved.
I struggled, frequently, to set down the emotions I was trying to convey – of course, I wanted my descriptions to be brief, to sparkle, and be immediately understood – like the punchline of a clever joke; but instead they’d come out long-winded and vague. I find it’s an education to read ‘classic’ literature, and poetry (taking recommendations from John Drinkwater’s long out-of-print The Outline of Literature). I discovered that there is nothing anyone is capable of thinking or feeling that hasn’t been distilled into a few brilliant words by some intellectual powerhouse at some stage over the last four thousand years.
When the book is written, the real work begins. And it’s distressing to find that that is so. To find a publisher, or agent I looked up the most successful books I thought mine was like: McCarthy’s Bar; Driving over Lemons; and A year in Provence; and found out who’d published them; or who’d acted as ‘agent’, if the publishers didn’t accept manuscripts, and approached them. I sent my targeted enquiry letter (by email) made sure that it contained no spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors, and told them why I thought it would interest them, and their readers. No one refused to see it; many refused to publish it. But with each refusal I re-worked the script until I began to get refusals which explained (vaguely) why they were refusing it – and then I knew I must be getting warm.
When a publishing offer came, in my excitement I couldn’t see how bad the offer was… but eventually my excitement turned to militant outrage. So I got an agent, then an offer from a second publisher; and a contract which was fairer naturally followed.
I’d be very grateful if, when you’ve read Phoenix from the Ashes, you would let me have your applause or cristicism of it. Naturally I hope you’ll enjoy it – but it will be both more painful and more useful to me if you also point out any parts which don’t ‘work’ for you. I begin with an advantage: Having a house fire and then sailing along the coast for seven years in an unusual-looking boat, meeting strangers by the shore as you forage for your dinner at low water is bound to produce some interesting stories.
Now I come to think of it, among my deliveries last week there was a bag of kippers from a well-meaning friend… I pray to God that he may be forgiven.