Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Never having been accused of punctuality, I gain a certain satisfaction from approaching this latest task two days late. I learned that I'd been nominated by Misha Herwin and Jan Edwards, two conspicuously talented authors, to take part in the #MyWritingProcess international blog tour. After reassurance that this was not one of those nominations that requires me to neck a pint of Brobat with a (temporarily) live echidna in it I put the task into my to-do pile.

Where it stayed.

I could justify this failure by... no I couldn't. The fact is that no one should ever throw me a ball in the unjustifiable hope that I'll catch it. So with the hope that my characteristic tardiness hasn't derailed the whole process, here's my take on this solitary and seldom rewarding process of writing...

1) What am I working on?

After completing The Larks (click here for or here for, I felt I understood the demands of creating a full-length novel. It's an exhausting process and I didn't feel adequate to the task of starting the next. Not just yet anyway. So the project now is to write a collection of WW1 short stories. While researching The Larks I constantly found snippets of unrelated events and recollections, many of which tried to find their way into the main story. Trouble was, most of them just wouldn't fit.

But they were just too great to waste. Sometimes it would be a single sentence, often a personal recollection that would fire off a thought process that had me asking "I wonder, what's the story behind that?"

The collection doesn't yet have a name; that will come by itself, but the process of creating it has been a genuine joy. The Larks is predominantly an aviation novel, but with these new stories I've found myself in the warm, airless fug of a French dugout, driving an ambulance for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or - go with me on this - watching a ballet dancer from the freezing squalor of a winter trench. Everywhere I've wandered on these battlefields I've found an irrepressible humanity that shines like a beacon across this short century that separates us.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Does it differ? I don't know. This question worries me a little as it's asked so frequently by publishers and agents. Why should being different be an indicator of worth? And if it is, why do the aforesaid publishers and agents exhibit such reluctance to commission anything that actually is different?

I can think of no other branch of the arts where being different is regarded as a virtue in itself. How does Boticelli differ fundamentally from Raphael? De Niro from Di Caprio? Dylan from Cohen? That they all do differ is undeniable, but the difference is in the complex interpretation of their art, not in an advertising-style one-word USP.

But enough of answering one question with a string of others. If my work does differ then I hope it's in the depth and reality of the characters. Our world is shaped and structured by people, and nowhere is this more sharply demonstrated than in war. When I write I find that my cast of characters take control, so in the case of The Larks, the Great War is a backdrop, not the principal subject. Anyone who buys a war novel is hoping to find graphically described action, and I've worked hard not to disappoint on that score. But even in the most frenzied battle, I'm always asking myself, "How does this person feel at this point?" It's my hope that this makes the experience more real and accessible to the reader.

I've also striven for accuracy, not just in making sure that the aircraft are correctly described and their flying characteristics realistic, but also in the minutiae that populate my worlds. Brand names of the period, as much a part of conversation then as i-Pad is today, crop up, usually without explanation (Would you know what to do with a tin of Zam-Buk?), allowing the reader to gain the meaning from context, and become more immersed in the period.

My aim has never been to be different. In fact the opposite; I wanted The Larks to read like the intense personal accounts of the Great War. That this comparison has been made by several reviewers I take as a great compliment. The WW1 collection should evoke the personal memories recorded in superb works like the magnificent Forgotten Voices series of books. If it does, I'll count the exercise a success, and to hell with being different.

3)Why Do I Write What I Write?

The question should possibly be "Why do I write at all?" It's something I've enjoyed ever since Mrs Coulton showed me this magical code of letters in a small Sutton Coldfield primary school. Numbers, their Teutonic scientific brethren, held no magic; they were simply machinery. But words... these incredible tools were gigantic brushes that could paint the dazzling colours that swirled in my childish brain. But even then it was machines of the air that captured my imagination. Spaceships, moon rockets and aeroplanes zoomed, swooped and rat-at-atted through story after story. By the time Mrs Barnett inherited responsibility for my random and uncontrolled creativity I was ready to lock horns on the correct spelling of "Messerschmitt". When I protested her correction to "Messerschmidt" and was later proved right, the future of my principal writing genre was set in stone. The unfortunate effects of the event on my ego were a by-product that has proved less positive.

But I don't just write about flying. I don't so much choose a subject for a story as discover it. I'll read a passage in a book or newspaper, overhear a conversation on a train or possibly pick up an isolated snippet from a guide in a stately home. Then - very often in the car - a story will arrive, almost fully formed. Once that's happened I have little choice but to write it down.

4) How does my writing process work?

Erratically. It happens when it happens, not when I sit down to do it. I have the greatest admiration for those who can attack NanoWriMo with any prospect of success. Writing 1600 or so words every day is a stark impossibility to me. I understand the principle that it's about getting the words down and going back later to turn it into good writing. But I just can't do it. I'll sit for two hours and write half a sentence. Then delete it. Then spend a further two hours researching where the apostrophe - if any - would have appeared on a bottle of Daddies Sauce in 1916 (Before the "S" by the way).

Part of the problem is that I'm not a structured writer. I can't write by building the scaffolding first and filling in the gaps. When I develop a plot it's a very vague sketch because I find that often my characters won't cooperate in taking me where I intended to go. That probably sounds hideously pretentious - in fact it is hideously pretentious, but it's true nevertheless. They become as real to me as members of my family, and they operate according to their own personalities. If I try to force them down prefabricated corridors they lose definition (I'm talking about my characters here, you understand, not my family). To me a novel is a fragile reality that bursts apart as soon as someone acts outside their character. I know things about my people that never appear in the story, but that govern their every reaction. It's the water they were boiled in, and it makes them unpredictable, even to me who created them.

So the plot doesn't always go where I intended. Some years ago I began a screenplay based on life in an advertising agency. It was intended as a sit-com, based on my personal experiences in such an environment. It ended up as a drama series about the rise and fall of an amateur band, because these buggers I'd invented insisted on strutting and fretting their own hours. Before you ask, it disappeared into the commissioning maw of Channel 4 and never emerged from the other end, but you get the general concept. 

I start out with only the roughest idea where we're going, and let my actors lead the way. Like one of Douglas Adams' characters who follows people who look as if they know where they're going, we rarely end up at the intended destination. But we often arrive somewhere far more interesting.

So there you go. Job done and baton retrieved from under the sideboard. I'd now like to pass it on to a writer I've admired for some time, and with whom I hope to cooperate on a forthcoming short story collection, the splendid Malcolm Havard. Give him a few days - he's a busy chap, but I can promise that what he'll contribute to this tour will be worth reading.

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