The story so far…

  • Like all those good American series we can now watch in the comfort of our own home, it’s time for a recap for new converts to the blog. Just like Game of Thrones, where the first five series are being shown night after night so that people can catch up, here’s the story so far. A new post will be on its way pretty soon…

 About the author

I have been hiding my shame for too long. Up until now, when people have asked me who I am and what I do the words just won’t come out. I want to tell them I write novels, but stutter over the answer before eventually blurting out “journalist.”

It’s not a lie. For 35 years newspapers have been my day job. I’ve worked on small, country titles where every headline began “Ye Olde” and the sub-editing standards were such that an alarming rape case was once labelled “Unacceptable Behaviour By Youth”. From there I moved on to evening newspaper titles in larger towns, beginning with the salubrious post of Wrexham Football Writer on the Evening Leader followed by a sports writer/sub-editor on the Swansea Evening Post.

To complete the Welsh triumvirate, I later became sports editor at the Wales on Sunday newspaper in Cardiff before eventually trying my hand on the nationals.

In all, I’ve worked for six different national titles at all ends of the spectrum from the broadsheet Independent and Independent on Sunday to the red-top tabloids before reaching what I perceived to be the peak of my career: Welsh Sports Editor on the biggest newspaper in Europe at the time – The News of the World.

I know what you’re thinking, but I arrived too late to do the phone hacking courses and I can assure you I’m not the Fake Sheikh. To tell you the truth I thought I was made. The novels went on the back burner as I set about my task. Then the phone call came while I was on a hard-earned week off. “Mate, they are shutting down your paper in 48 hours,” said a pal as I juggled baby and cooking dinner (not literally juggled, you understand, that would be a tad dangerous). I called him a liar but when he told me to turn on News24 there it was in full technicolour: Rupert Murdoch announces he is shutting down the News of the World.

I never went back into the building. The police marched in to confiscate my computer so that they could fully analyse my Fantasy Football selections, while I was handed all my worldly goods in a black binliner at a poorly attended ceremony in a Wapping car park.

Perhaps, with hindsight, I should have taken my redundancy and written that bestseller. It was too scary, though. Instead I threw myself on the kindness of strangers (and, more to the point, begged friends) in order to get casual work on the Daily Star and the Daily Star Sunday. Well, I had a wife Liz and young baby to support.

That was three years ago. Since then we have moved to London and I am finding enough down time to write purely for myself. I have written, polished and edited a novel “Crossing the Whitewash” and I am determined to publish it. Five agents have already turned me down, but publish and be damned I say. I’m getting advice from all sides and filtering through it to decide what is the best way to go, the most economic but most professional.

In the early hours of this morning I decided people might like to share my journey. This blog is going to be about every step of the process from the first line I wrote to the finished article and on to the marketing, sales etc. I will link you in to aborted efforts, earlier novel attempts, comments from ‘experts’, useful books, helpful people, organisations and websites, bad advice, distractions, sleepless nights and costs. I hope you enjoy the ride…

1. Don’t write shit!

John Fine (director of author and
publishing relations, Amazon. Nov 29, 2014
)

I guess that’s why he gets paid the big bucks and the reason I coughed up 90 quid of my hard-earned to attend the Writers & Artists Yearbook Conference into Self-Publishing in the Digital Age. “No Shit, Sherlock!” would have been a suitable reply but I kept it to myself.

More than 100 prospective authors gathered to hear the gospel according to Mr Fine at an office building just around the corner from Euston railway station. He was taking us through the advantages and pitfalls of the publishing trade.

Self-publishing is a vastly expanding industry. Five years ago you might have had two men and the proverbial dog attending such an event. It was considered a bit of a seedy business. Ads for firms inviting you to “Become an Author” could be found next to “Suspenders-wearing Headmistress Wants to Spank Naughty Boys” in the back pages of the National newspapers.

 They called it Vanity Publishing and it did what it said on the tin. If you were still vain enough to think your book was any good after being rejected by a vast array of agents and publishing companies then you went for it. What did these so-called industry ‘experts’ know anyway? Your book was the next bestseller and if they couldn’t see it, then tough! The next thing you knew you were handing over a small fortune to Ripoff Books with a promise that the royalties would soon be flooding in and you would be doing book signings at WH Smith in a matter of months.

I must admit I was one of those people. Write shit? Don’t you know who I am? I had won the Sports Writer of the Year award for the Merseyside and North Wales NUJ Press Council in two consecutive years in the 80s and had a lifetime of journalistic experience behind me. I even gave up work at one stage to concentrate on my novel writing. I produced a bestseller, a book that all the Hollywood Moguls would be competing for, and sent it off waiting for the offers to roll in.

Only they didn’t. The rejection slips did.

Ridiculous. Couldn’t these people see that modern Nazis taking over a unified Berlin was a masterpiece the literary world was crying out for? I slunk back to the day job cursing my bad luck.

The itch festered. For 15 years I dabbled. I wrote fantastic first sentences, but couldn’t think of a way to carry them through. I thought up brilliant endings but struggled to work out the rest of the plot. I dreamed up fascinating characters then cast around in vain for a scenario in which to place them.

Then it came to me…

I had worked on the regionals, then the nationals, then the regionals… then was on the way back to the nationals. Having been in an environment in Wales where you couldn’t enter a pub or club or coffee bar or public convenience without someone mentioning rugby, I had begun to believe that this was the lifeblood of society. Then I went back to London where it didn’t even register on the sporting Richter Scale. The big boys only played with big toys… and that was Premier League football.

I had a boss who was particularly dismissive of the Welsh. “Hey Rippers, what are the Taffies up to this week?” he’d ask in his cockney accent, clutching his West Ham mug close to his chest.

“Well, Wales coach Warren Gatland is thinking of recalling…”

“zzzzzz.” He was feigning sleep, for heaven’s sake!

It got me wondering, how would a character loosely based on my boss handle being transplanted to Cardiff and, for arguments sake, what if a Rugby World Cup was about to take place. Better still, what if Wales were going to win it?

Far fetched, I know, but I had my character, I had my hook, and now I just had to come up with a title and write the book. Easy… Write shit? This was a bestseller.

Here is the first chapter of the first draft of my novel…

The first draft

2. Sending off samples

So I had my plot and I’d written my first draft. Now all I had to do was send it off to the agents together with a synopsis and a little bit about myself. I thought my letter was pretty impressive, the sample material was everything they would want it to be – neat, well-formatted and free from grammatical faux pas – and any moment now my phone would buzz with the offer of a five-book multi-million pound deal. Or maybe not.

Digging through the Writers & Artists Yearbook I picked out a number of agents I thought might be interested in my material. It is a key point: You don’t want to be sending thrillers to an agent who specialises in Sci-Fi or Chick lit, and this is an immense resource when seeking representation. It gives you a full list of agents, what they are interested in and what they require from a debut novellist making their first approach.

An example of my letter is here…

Dear Olivia,

                  I am one of the fine, upstanding former News of the World journalists you read and hear so many good things about. To be honest, I wouldn’t have a clue how to hack someone’s phone, having missed all the courses, but I was quite enjoying my dream job as Welsh sports editor on the Screws until hearing on BBC News 24 that Rupert Murdoch had closed us down. I never did go back into the building, though I picked up a nice souvenir bin liner when the contents of my drawers were ceremoniously handed over to me in the car park. Still, the time out gave me a chance to progress my other love, writing.

Recently I completed a novel which I think may be of interest to you. I would perhaps categorise the content as faction as it uses the 2011 Rugby World Cup as a backdrop and provides a “what-might-have-been” scenario with the upshot that Wales actually win the tournament. Far-fetched, you may think, but I know plenty of Welsh men and women who would read it and dream.

            It is a comedy, basically, and I hope you’ll think it has potential when you read the synopsis and sample chapters. That’s not to say the target audience should be restricted to Wales. The Rugby World Cup has grown into one of the world’s biggest sporting events. TV audiences for the 2011 tournament topped 4 billion as it was beamed to 207 countries including Libya, Algeria and Mongolia. The event was even broadcast to the 13 staff at Scott Station in the Antarctic. Of course, there are big markets also in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. Not bad for a “minority sport”.

I can’t think of any fiction books based around Rugby Union so perhaps there is an untapped market here, though I appreciate there aren’t too many successful examples of the sports fiction genre in the UK once you get past Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. Rugby, though, plays only a very small part in the novel. It’s a character-driven story based on a hard-bitten cockney national journalist suddenly finding himself in charge of the sports department at a parochial Welsh Sunday paper declining in circulation. I think if Henry Pratt of Pratt of the Argus fame had extended his career in journalism, turned to sport and progressed to the nationals he would have turned out like my main character Micky Biggs, not so much a cynic but a realist with a few skewed moral values.

I believe the characters to be strong enough to provide plenty of follow-up material, perhaps taking the idea of “what might have been” and extending it to the football World Cup, the Ashes and other global events.

Please look at the synopsis and sample chapters and let me know if it is an idea with which you can work.

Yours faithfully,

Nick Rippington

The synopsis, which must give the whole story with no hidden plot twists so that the agent or publisher knows how it pans out, went like this…

1-page synopsis

What feedback did I get, I’ll let you know in the next post.

3. Wading around in slush

SO the novel is written: a sure-fire bestseller. It’s got everything – humour, action, mystery, suspense, so many twists, infact, that even Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle would find it difficult to keep up.

Any moment now my phone will ring and the auction will start, London agents streaming in to offer me big, fat advances to throw in my lot with them. I know this is the way it happens because that was the way my friend Laura Kemp, author of the Mums chicklit series of novels (Mums Like Us, Mums on Strike and a third in the pipeline), told me she got her deal. I’ve images of my book sitting proudly in the window of Waterstones between Lee Child’s latest Reacher novel and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter box set.

Then I woke up. While I’m dreaming of a world where a reader at a top agency is engrossed in my every sentence, the truth is my superbly crafted prose are lying around on the floor of some office, jammed between someone’s hard-drinking private detective novel and another person’s Revenge of the Fairy King fantasy adventure. My poor old hero Micky Biggs is going to have to shout louder than an entire store cupboard of other leading characters to get noticed, and though Micky has plenty of Del Boy in him it’s a hard task. The full extent of the hard sell hits home for me when the rejection slips come rolling in.

First, though, a word about the title. It is going to be the first thing the agency sees of your novel apart from, perhaps, your introductory letter. In fact, I’m not even sure if they look at that before or after they’ve studied the sample chapters to make sure you can actually write. As my novel has a pretty heavy rugby-related theme I also wanted to inject a bit of the humour aspect into it from the word go so I began with “Rucks, Mauls and Sausage Rolls” – a play on words based on the old Ian Drury and the Blockheads single Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll.

Here are some of the replies I got… all very pleasant but when others responded in the same way a pattern was developing. Thank you… Enjoyed reading… won’t fit in with our list.

curtisbig newbigreject

Lowering my sights, I thought perhaps the Welsh publishing companies would go for it better. After all the Welsh love rugby, and sausage rolls and… I tinkered with the title. It became “Sex and Rucks and Sausage Rolls”. There wasn’t a massive amount of sex in the book, to be honest, but if EL James has taught me one thing it’s that sex sells.

Surely I would get someone to at least ask for the whole manuscript in Wales?

4. A Taff sell

SO the top English agents don’t want me, but I’m only just starting to appreciate what the competition is like out there. Never mind, the novel is largely based in Wales and the Welsh know good writing when they see it. At least they keep telling me that: “Dylan Thomas this… Dylan Thomas that”. Perhaps I can use my honorary Welshness to find a publisher. I’m lucky here, too. I have an “in”. OK, it’s only a slight one, but I used to work with Penny at the Western Mail and Echo news organisation in Cardiff and she now works for Seren, an Independent Welsh publisher which has a growing reputation. I also know that she is quite a sports fan, which is bound to help when my novel involves a. a Welsh newspaper and b. sport, in particular Rugby Union, a Welsh favourite. Where can it go wrong?

I make contact, usual stuff… cover letter, sample chapters and, yippee! Penny gets back to me and says she likes it. Not only that but she asks to see the full manuscript. I’m on a roll. Or so I think. Then the bombshell drops a couple of weeks later.

seren letter 001

… that’ll be a ‘no’ then. Bloody Welshies, what do they know about good writing? They spent hours walking around, smoking pipes, dripping angst into their pint of Old Scrote and for what? God, I am starting to sound like my character Micky Biggs now.

Anyway, I can’t give up yet, and at least Penny has given me some good tips. I get in touch with some of the other publishers she mentions, but some don’t even reply and one in particular puts my nose out of joint. The bloke at Gomer is far too busy to glance at my work, while one of the others – from out Swansea way – suggests I might benefit from a creative writing course. Me? How very dare he? Don’t these people know who I am?

I need a more discerning reader for my material, someone completely independent but with an eye for genius writing. I know, the wife! Mrs Rippers is ideal, being a journalist, sub-editor and expert on the grammar front. I hand over in excess of 400 pages of A3 and she dutifully ploughs through it, though I sense the subject matter isn’t really to her taste. When she gets to Chapter Nine I get the first really positive feedback… “This is really good, funny and well written”. I look at it. It’s when my hero meets the ex-rugby player known simply as The Legend, who trawls around the hostelries of Cardiff recounting tales of the 70s in turn for drinks. Brainwave: Why don’t I rewrite the novel, bringing Chapter Nine to the front, and work from there. Brilliant.

Back to the drawing board I recraft my masterpiece so that The Legend’s appearance in the story is at the forefront. Click here to read it…

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