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