Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Reject

My earliest memory of rejection – and I mean real, sound-of-your-heart-cracking rejection – came when I was ten. I’d been away on a family holiday in September and I couldn’t wait to get back because the first school footy team of the season was being picked while I was away, with the game a few days after I returned.

We were starting our final year of primary – year six it’s called now – and it was our turn to fill the boots of the boys who’d gone on to secondary school. (There was one lad our age who’d made the team the previous year, although we were pretty sure he bought his way in with a Curly Wurly and a packet of Smiths’ square crisps.)

The first match was to be an eleven-a-side, although for the majority of the season’s games we’d be playing six-a-side, with a first team and second team. The lads in the school pretty much knew who the best eight or nine players were, and I was considered a shoo-in for the first eleven.

When I turned up at school on the first day back from hols, I was told I hadn’t been picked.
I’d not properly discovered girls at this point, and certainly not the weird things they can do to your heart, although I had spent a day or two pining for a young lady whose family had upped sticks a few months earlier and moved back to New Zealand.

So I had little with which to compare the feeling that I felt after being told I wasn’t good enough at football. For a lad who lived for the game – I’d just completed the Panini Euro 1980 sticker book, for Christ’s sake – it was an earth-shattering moment, and one from which I just knew I would never recover.

But recover I did. The eleven-a-side match saw us thrash our rivals 4-1 and by the time the six-a-side teams were picked, I was captain of the second team. The games teacher that year, a Mr Howlett (who claimed to have once trialled with Spurs, but we were never convinced) said he’d been pleased with the way I’d knuckled down in training (and lunchtime kickarounds).

Rejection is an ugly word. Rejection of any kind is a painful experience, but clearly the more personal something is to you, the more it is going to smart like hell.

Other than family and friends, the most personal thing in my life is my writing. Been that way for a long time. But here’s the thing – if someone doesn’t like a non-fiction piece of mine, I couldn’t care less. My time in journalism has taught me that no matter how good an article might be, there’ll always be a few lining up to have a pop at it. Goes with the territory.

But make that fiction.... and that’s a whole different ball game. I submitted some scripts in my late twenties, one TV series and a film treatment. They went off to a few production companies and, despite the odd nibble of interest, ultimately were passed over. The utter dejection I felt on reading the replies, standing in the hallway of the depressing little hole I was renting at that time, felt like every relationship break-up I’d been through rolled into one, with a dash of dropped-from-the-footy-team misery mixed in for good measure.

It was several years before I submitted anything else for consideration, this time the first chapters of a book, and when I did, it was another rejection. Age, thankfully, brings wisdom and understanding, because without it I’d be an emotional cripple. I’ve now more confidence in my work, although only time will tell if that is misplaced confidence. Yet I feel, finally, that I’m ready to take rejection on the chin and just plough through the pain, continuing to polish and submit work until I finally earn a breakthrough, or receive a collaborative letter from every agent and publisher I’ve ever submitted to, pleading with me to just quit, for pity’s sake.

The one thing I’ve not done in all this time is bitch and moan about rejection. Sure, it hurts. But there is little to be gained by putting your work out there and then jumping up and down when someone has the audacity not to swoon over it.
The only thing you can do is take it on the chin and try and improve. It might take a few months to get over it, or, as in my case, a few years. But it does get easier to deal with. Okay, I made that last bit up.

Accompanying John in the bath this week:

Fatherhood: The Truth, Marcus Bermann (absolutely essential reading for all soon-to-be-dads. And funny as hell to boot)

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Shadows and dust

On the face of it, a pretty straightforward question:
Why do you want to be published?

It was posed by a member of, a writers’ forum where I spend a bit of time each day picking up incredibly useful advice and information, and definitely not procrastinating.

There are several surface reasons for wanting to have books published (and, to a lesser extent, movie scripts produced). They include, in no particular order, to satisfy one’s ego, fame, money, the desire to entertain people and personal achievement. That’ll do for starters.

A quick glance at each:

Ego – there is nothing quite like the buzz you get when you see something you’ve written in print, and someone telling you they enjoyed it. Sorry, there are two things similar; one is the moment your shot hits the back of the net in footy, the other, well, that way leads to the patter of tiny feet (now just eight days away and counting, assuming Bump’s flight hasn’t been delayed and landing gear is in order).

Fame – linked to ego. I want people to read my books, I want my name to be known. Comes with the territory if you want to be a writer, although there are different levels – compare the metallic-catsuited Katie Price (granted, that’s stretching the description of a writer somewhat) and Thomas Harris, who rarely gives interviews, either in print or on screen.

Money – the idea of being paid for doing something you love? Absolute no brainer, assuming you can earn enough not to have to worry with the day job. And therein lies the problem. As only five per cent or so of authors earn enough money to live on, if money was my driving goal I’d be better off sending my CV to Sir Alex or plying my trade as a male gigolo. Either way, I wouldn’t be worrying the editor of the Sunday Times’ Rich List.

Entertainer – also linked to ego, this is over and above the simple elation of having your ego massaged. This is the knowledge that you’re making people happy, excited, petrified, sad, angry; in other words, keeping them entertained.

Personal achievement – as a writer, I doubt my ability. All the time. I’d started many projects over the years, not just in writing, but never had the wherewithal or the forward planning skills to complete a book. When The Manx Connection was published at the end of last year, the sense of personal achievement, and satisfaction, probably outranked all other emotions. It wouldn’t have mattered if every single reader had emailed me personally to say my writing sucked eggs big time and requested a refund. Ego would have taken a bruising, but I’d have still had the knowledge that I’d completed something that I thought was beyond me.

So, why do I want to be published? Take your pick.

But, as I said, those explanations are merely surface dressing. The real reason I want to be published lies deeper than that, in more ways than one.

I’m petrified of dying. Woody Allen can joke all he likes about not being scared of dying, just not wanting to be around when it happens. I am scared, and sure as hell don’t want to be around when it happens.

More specifically, it’s the idea that I might cash in my chips without leaving my mark on this world. Yes, you can be a nice chap and have great family and friends who remember you fondly when you’re gone. We all want that.

But this runs to the very core of how I view life. As the late great Oliver Reed said in Gladiator, "We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust." We can leave children behind to carry on our bloodline, but in fifty years time (assuming I’m still in the game), will those who don’t know me through friends and family be aware of my existence?

If folk can walk into a library or bookstore several decades from now and pick up a copy of one of my books, and hold something which I’ve crafted, I’ll look down on this world (or up, as the case may be) and know that I made my mark, even if it was barely a scratch on the literary world.

Then I'll be able to say, that’ll do, Quirk. That’ll do.

Entertaining John this week will be:
Airman, Eoin Colfer

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Wanderer returns

She’s back.

It’s been a while since she showed her face.

She was certainly around last autumn, helping me defy all odds known to bookmakers to get The Manx Connection to the publishers bang on deadline, deadline being the day before I walked up the aisle. And she’s been back since, fleetingly, teasingly. At least I think it was her; a flash of inspiration here, a spurt of writing there.

Yet this time, when I really need her, she’s answered again. And she’s pulled up a chair and seems happy to hang around. If I could shackle her and inscribe my study door with magic wards, I’d be sorted. But you try putting cuffs on a muse. Damn tricky business.

It’s good to have her back. A relief, in fact. The deadline for The Manx Giant is mid-September and the last few months have been rife with fits and starts, research reading and note-making. As the weeks slipped by, I wondered how the hell I’d managed to complete one book, never mind be about to attempt a second.

And then there she was. Pitched up at the weekend, she did, without so much as an apology for doing a runner before Christmas. Still, I can’t complain. I’ve been trying to work out what makes her tick. What entices her to appear at a particular moment. A writer friend of mine suggested that it was this blog that did it – I put my first post out there on Thursday, and two days later I’m jumping tall buildings in a single bound. He could be right.

But, if I’m honest, while the idea of a muse sitting at my shoulder, silently guiding my fingers over the keyboard, forging a lightning strike connection between mind and ten stumpy digits, is all very quaint and appealing, it’s also utter codswallop.

There is a muse, and her name is deadline. Any journalist will tell you that. Hell, same goes for a 101 other professions. It’s all the inspiration you need when you can feel the flames of a deadline licking at your heels. I’m not sure why a particular time or date kicks in and makes you quit making excuses and get your head down. There seems to be an unspoken cut-off point which I instinctively know that I need to get working by, otherwise it will be too late.

As a journalist, if the news editor gave me two weeks to write an article, she’d get it in two weeks’ time. If she gave me a day, she’d get it within a day. It’s one of the unwritten rules of journalism.

So, with mid-September now exactly two months away, the heat is on. The Manx Giant is taking shape, slowly but surely, and is gathering pace. It will be a relatively short book, as biographies go. Not a huge amount is known about Arthur Caley, and much of what is recorded was hearsay or fabrication.

With muse firmly entrenched in my corner, I’m confident said deadline can be met. The trick, of course, is finding a way to keep her around after the book has gone to the publisher. Because there’s plenty more writing to be done on several projects, but there will be no official deadline to meet.

Self-imposed deadlines, yes. But muses don’t pay attention to them. As if.

On John’s bedside table this week:

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Satanic Writes

Welcome to Midnight. The Witching Hour.

The most magical time of the day.

The moment when my muse is most likely to appear at the study door, whispering those special words that inspire me so: “Get a bloody move on, Quirk. Deadline is looming, and you’ve got mouths to feed…”

Of course, don’t mention this particularly effective muse to my other source of inspiration, the real muse, who is usually fast asleep (and slowly creeping her way, Triffed-like, across to my side of the bed) by the time the clock strikes twelve.

If only we could capture this beautiful moment called Midnight, and play it endlessly on loop. Infinite writing time, no interruptions. No more alarm calls for work. Bliss.

I’ve been in love with Midnight for as long as I can remember. As a young kid, around seven or eight, I would lie on my bed at weekends, watching The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and the rest of the Hammer House of Horror Double Bills into the early hours of the morning.

As I teenager, I found my best studying was done late at night (and, on occasion, all night), and so, as I’ve grown older, it’s been natural that the one time of the day when I feel totally wired, in the groove and capable of just about anything, is Midnight. I’ve tried mornings, but, well, no.

It’s ten before Midnight as I type these words, and the posts that will follow this maiden voyage into bloggerdom will all be penned in the darkness of The Witching Hour.

There’ll be no gimmicks or zany revelations. The journey I’m inviting you on won’t be about a writer’s battle with the impending arrival of tiny feet, sleepless nights and shitty nappies, and everything else that goes with it. My muse may be expecting in three weeks, but I’ll try to avoid the baby talk here (although don’t hold me to it). And it won’t be about religion or politics, because there are plenty of other better-informed folk doing just that.

What The Witching Hour will be about is writing. Pure and simple. Okay, let’s make that writing and reading. Oh, and publishing. Books in general, then. How’s that sound?

I’m in the throes of writing my second non-fiction book, The Manx Giant, the deadline for which is looming. Mid-September, or there’ll be no Weetos on the breakfast table.

If you’ve got a few minutes spare each week, it would be a pleasure to have you along for the ride. Because there is one downside to this Midnight malarkey. It can get damn lonely.

For homework this week, John read:

A Quiet Belief in Angels, by R.J. Ellory (a fine, haunting book)