Becoming a writer

Confessions of an eleven-year-old

I was eleven years old when Confessions of a Window Cleaner first got me thinking about becoming a writer. It was less the book that interested me than the man who wrote it. Timothy Lea was the pseudonym of Christopher Wood, who lived in our village and whose two boys went to the same school as me. I remember him as a big bearded man in a long black leather coat who made his presence heard on the touchline of school soccer matches. He was quite unlike all the other parents at our Cambridge prep school and not just because he had the time to come and watch the games. None of the other fathers, to my knowledge, had a day job writing smutty sexual stories.

He had written his first novel while commuting on the train to his London advertising job. Its success enabled him to give up advertising and write a further eighteen confessions books, including classics such as Confessions of a Plumber’s Mate. Like us, the Woods lived in Mill House; unlike ours, their’s was a proper mill with a water wheel. Christopher Wood wrote a couple of James Bond screenplays and left the village to become a tax exile in the South of France.

I hadn’t, at that point, considered writing as a career option – my sights were set on professional football – but I registered, from Christopher Wood’s example, that there certain benefits to be had from a writer’s life: Wealth, beautiful house, attractive wife, and – most importantly – time to watch football.

Influences

The second writer to pique my interest was a friend of my parents called Sarah Harrison. She wrote a bestseller called Flowers in the Field, but that was much less interesting to me than her follow-up novel. Hot Breath was about a woman who embarked on a passionate affair with her local Greek GP. Our village at the time, rather unusually, had an Italian GP, and many of the characters in Sarah’s novel bore a striking resemblance to people we knew. I couldn’t help wondering what our GP, or more to the point, his wife, made of it all. Or, indeed, Mr Harrison.

A few years earlier, when travelling around America as an eighteen-year-old, I had found myself in the back of a Lincoln Continental Convertible with my friend Andrew and two women old enough to be our mothers. In the back of that car, caressed by the warm Massachusetts air and with nothing between me and the cloudless sky, it struck me that I wanted to be a paperback writer. It was a daydreamy kind of thought rather than a serious aspiration and was, undoubtedly, influenced by the book I was reading at the time – The World According to Garp. Mind you, as well as wanting to be a writer, Garp also had ambitions to become a professional wrestler, which, I have to say, was not something that featured in my daydreams that afternoon.

A tiny seed had been planted in my mind a couple of years before by J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson. He said of me, ‘he’s a poet but doesn’t know it.’ I certainly didn’t. I was an academic underachiever whose proudest claim was to be awarded every grade possible at O’Level, including an X. My single A grade came in English Literature, thanks, in part, to a paper marked internally by our Head of English, Michael Tolkien. I got the highest mark in our year, which was – quite frankly – astonishing. Michael Tolkien never taught me; as head of the department, he didn’t trouble himself with lower ability students like myself. His only experience of me came through this paper, and on the back of it, he pronounced me to be a poet. He was undoubtedly mistaken, not least because poetry was about as attractive a career option to me as professional wrestling. But who was I to disagree if someone with the genes of one of the world’s greatest-ever writers thought there was poetry in me?

A plan for life

All these random formative thoughts coalesced when sitting in amongst the Hindu temples of Khajuraho, smoking dope with my friend Andrew and formulating our life plans. Mine was to spend fifteen years in advertising, build my own business in my forties and then become a writer in my fifties. I envisaged that my business would be successful enough to fund my writing. I’m not sure if it was the quality of the weed we were smoking or divine Hindu inspiration, but it was a pretty damn good plan I came up with that day. It has determined the course of my life.

At some point, I finessed my plan to specify I would write a novel that made people laugh. I envisioned seeing a stranger on the tube chuckling over my book. (I didn’t have the foresight to realise that by the time my book came out, I wouldn’t be travelling by tube.)

Seduced by trappings

A press advertisement for an IBM laptop confirmed I was on the right track. It showed an open laptop on a veranda with a beautiful early evening view. The understated headline read “John Grisham’s pad.” If this was what a writer’s office was like, I had no doubt that’s where I wanted to be.

You may have noticed that my interest in becoming a writer had everything to do with the trappings of a writer’s life and little to do with the act of writing. I once felt quite jealous when a colleague won a short-story competition and gave up his job to focus on a writing career. But, despite his example, it still didn’t occur to me that if I wanted to be a writer, I should start writing.

Pen to paper

I read a review of David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, which observed that very few novels are set in the business world, and next to none of them are humorous. So I decided to capitalise on this gap in the market and write a story about a family business. I had long been intrigued by my two uncles, who ran a successful family firm despite their mutual antipathy. It occurred to me that there could be comic potential in a story about two brothers in a family firm who hated each other. Moreover, I thought there might be some humour to be had in making it a funeral business. 

I came up with what I considered to be a great opening line – “I was conceived in a coffin; this gave me a certain outlook on life.” Although a good fifteen years ahead of plan, this line kick-started me into action. The trouble was I had no idea what I was doing: I didn’t have a plot and hadn’t thought about my characters. I quickly ran out of steam.

The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came when I learnt that Alan Ball – who had just won an Oscar for the brilliant American Beauty – had written a new darkly comic TV series about two brothers who inherit their family funeral business. As good as Michael Tolkien thought my writing was, there was no way I could compete with Alan Ball. To this day, Six Feet Under remains my all-time favourite TV series.

I filed away my scribblings and, reverting to plan, started a business instead.

Written in the plan

My first business wasn’t a great success, but it did allow me to write a couple of business books. These didn’t make anyone laugh – at least I hope they didn’t – but they gave me the confidence that I could at least complete a book. 

In 2004 we moved to the States. I began to write more regularly with my monthly emails from America, the thoughts of an Englishman trying to make sense of America. Returning home three years later, this evolved into a blog – Meanderings of a Middle Aged Man on a Bicycle – the musings of a man trying to make sense of the world in which he found himself.

Much to my great surprise, my second business did rather well. There is no explanation for this other than it was written in the plan. It grew to employ over ninety people, which meant I eventually became superfluous and found myself with time on my hands. The other benefit of this venture was that my partner and I disagreed on practically everything, which gave me firsthand experience of workplace conflict that I could draw from when creating a story about two business owners who didn’t see eye-to-eye.

Just fine

Having pulled back from my business, I began to wonder what I might do with all the extra time. I remembered my life plan. By then, I was fifty-seven and a half years old; I needed to get on with my first novel to meet my earlier commitment. I signed up for a three-hour workshop at the Guardian – A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming a Novelist. Those three hours taught me everything I needed to know: how to go about my writing day, structure a plot, develop believable characters, and get feedback. By the end of the morning, I knew how to write my book.

One of the many invaluable pieces of advice I took from the workshop was that giving feedback on a manuscript is a professional job, best done by those who are qualified to do so. Tim Lott, who ran the workshop, recommended not seeking feedback from anyone until the manuscript is complete and then, when it’s ready, only get someone who knows what they are doing to appraise it. Whatever you do, he said, think twice before sharing your work-in-progress with your friends and family.

I took his advice on board and, fending off my friends and family, didn’t share a word with anyone until it was complete twelve months later. I then contacted Tim Lott to ask if he might be prepared to appraise my manuscript. He asked to see a few paragraphs to assess my writing. This was unnerving. What if he says it’s not up to scratch?  

The next day I heard back from him. ‘Your writing seems fine,’ he wrote. Fine? Only fine?

Moment of truth

I sent Tim my manuscript. I had no idea if what I had written was any good; I hadn’t shared it with anyone. The first person to pass judgement on it was going to be an award-winning writer and celebrated writing coach. I suddenly realised quite how much was at stake. What if he pats me on the back for the effort and asks what made me think I could become a novelist? I was reminded of waiting for my O-level results. (They often say the waiting is the worst part, but that wasn’t the case with my O-level results. The waiting wasn’t the problem then; it was the results that were the problem.) 

Tim’s email arrived.

The tension as I clicked on it felt like the final kick of a penalty shoot-out. And the relief as I read it replicated the feeling of the ball hitting the back of the net and knowing your team had won. (I should add that, as a Cambridge United fan, this is an imagined feeling rather than a lived experience.)

Tim wrote, ‘Your novel is terrific. It’s intelligent, well written, funny and compelling. I really haven’t got all that much to teach you. Sorry if you thus consider this reading a bad investment!  But I do have a few pointers as to how we might tweak it. Otherwise it is ready to submit to agents. By the way, in case you think I am flattering you,  I almost never say this kind of thing to my writers – certainly not on a first submission. Congratulations SImon, this deserves to be published and be a success.’

I spoke with Tim a couple of days later. His so-called tweaks were more what I would describe as open-heart surgery. They involved cutting a favourite subplot and finding another title. I had thought Family Unfirm was brilliant. Tim didn’t. He said it was terrible. 

Rejection

Tim warned me that the next step, securing an agent, would be challenging. I heard him but didn’t imagine it would be that difficult. After all, I had a glowing endorsement. What agent will be able to resist that? I soon learnt that Tim had understated the scale of the challenge. He might as well have said, ‘it’s fucking impossible’.

I signed up with Jericho Writers, an organisation whose purpose is to help writers get published. From their database of agents and The Writers & Author’s Yearbook, I compiled a long list of ninety agents from forty-two different literary agencies, who I thought might be interested in my book. I then ranked them on a five-point scale, based on the type of author they represented, whether they were interested in family or humorous novels, and actively looking for new authors. I ended up with a shortlist of seven ideal agents. I speculated how many of them would enter a bidding war for the right to represent me.

The process of submitting a proposal to an agent is archaic, inefficient and sole-destroying. The advice is to submit proposals in batches of no more than five or six at a time. Generally, agents say they will review submissions within six weeks, although some want as long as three months, and that if you don’t hear back, it will mean they’re not interested. They tell you not to chase them for a response. Consequently, you end up kicking your heels, waiting weeks for a rejection that may or may not come. And when it comes, it’s a standard rejection, so you never get any indication of what you might do to improve your submission. I contacted twenty agents over the next year. I got twelve rejections. Eight didn’t respond.

I found out that literary agents receive, on average, a thousand submissions a year, from which they will take on two new authors. I’m no gambler, but I like to place a bet on The Grand National. I generally pick a relative outsider, maybe a horse with odds of between 20:1 to 40:1. I would never ever consider putting money on anything at 500:1. Tim Lott had said the odds of getting an agent were further stacked against me as an older white male. I had replied that’s fair enough, given I’ve been the beneficiary of white male privilege for all my life, but I didn’t then realise that 500:1 was the starting point.

Plan B

I started to turn my sights towards self-publishing. While the odds of landing an agent are vanishingly small, I learnt that self-publishing has become increasingly easy.

Embarking on a self-publishing route, I commissioned a copy-editor and looked for a cover designer. I reviewed all the winners in the book cover design awards of 2019 and pulled out a handful of designers whose covers I particularly liked. One of them, Jamie Keenan, had also won the most awards. Even though I assumed he would be far too elevated to work for a novice like myself, I contacted him.

Much to my surprise, he said yes. Then he read my manuscript and was hugely complimentary – ‘I loved your book! It reminded me of Jonathan Coe – a gripping and easy-to-read story on the surface with lots of other deeper questions slipped in almost subliminally.’ Jamie came up with a design that felt just right.

Finally, a bite

Someone had suggested I should also contact independent publishers as a number of them accepted direct submissions. I did my research and came up with a long list of forty. Again I ranked these on my five-point scale, which gave me a shortlist of four. I sent off my submissions and four weeks later received my first bite. RedDoor Press asked to see the full manuscript. I tried, not altogether successfully, to keep my hopes under control. Two months later, I received an email from Clare Christian saying she liked it but had some buts. I’ll come on to the buts; they were like Tim Lott’s tweaks.

I called Clare. The first thing she said to me was that she had been speaking to a TV agent about another project and that she could see my novel as a six-part Netflix series. She wanted to know if I agreed. I wondered if this was a trick question to flush out unsuitable head-in-clouds writers. I said I was concentrating on seeing it as a book.

One of Clare’s three buts involved a fundamental plotline, something that had been there right from the very beginning. My initial reaction was that I couldn’t make such a change. I spent a few days agonising over it, feeling devastated to be so close and yet so far. A way of addressing it then came to me. I still didn’t agree the change was necessary and wasn’t completely confident in my solution, but on balance, I wanted a publisher more than I wanted to save that storyline.

The other casualty of my book deal was the cover. Although Clare liked Jamie’s design, she wanted the title and the author’s name to be more prominent. I suddenly found myself in familiar territory: I was back to being an account man in an advertising agency stuck between a creative team who are hellbent on protecting their idea and a client who wants a bigger packshot. Jamie threw his toys out of the pram. He said he wouldn’t charge me for his time, but there was no way he would make these changes. He wished me luck, and we parted company.

Just in time

So, here I am, thirty-eight years after my drug-induced commitment to write a book; twenty-five years after deciding it would be a humorous novel about a family business; two and a half years after starting to write it; one and a half years after completing the first draft; six months after securing a publisher; and a few months before my debut novel hits the bookshelves, finally claiming to be a writer.

It gives me particular pleasure that The Better Brother will be published four months before my sixtieth birthday. It means I can tell my twenty-one-year-old self that I made it; I honoured that commitment.

Just.

Postscript

I googled Christopher Wood, the man who, in some small way, started me on this journey. Not only did I learn that he had died six years ago, but I also saw on his Wikipedia page that his daughter Caroline is a literary agent.

Her name rang a bell. I then realised she was one of my seven ideal agents. How perfect would the symmetry of my story have been had she agreed to represent me?

Sadly, such an ending was not to be: She rejected my submission. 

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