Maybe it’s just me, but a chart of this writer’s writing life would probably look a lot like a seismograph during a quake hitting 7.2 on the Richter Scale, or a polygraph attached to Janet Evanovich during an interrogation during which she was asked if she really believed - like, seriously now - that four of her novels were worth an advance of fifty million dollars, or thereabouts.
(What bugs me about the Evanovich demand for $50 million advance - I’ve never read any of her novels, so I’m in no position to say if she’s worth it, although it’s fair to say that you’d need thumbscrews to truly convince me - is that if she’d only asked for $49 million, there’d still have been a spare million left over to divide up between a thousand or so other writers, giving them not necessarily a living wage but the hope that some day, they might just be able to earn a crust from this gig. And you’d have to imagine that, out of that thousand, at least one would be able to come up with something a little fresher than a tired reworking of a raddled old post-feminist parody. But I digress.)
Anyway, that seismograph chart - the life of a struggling wannabe writer is one of rapid and violent ups and downs, and far more downs than ups. That goes with the territory, puts fire in your belly, and if nothing else, gives you an overwhelming desire to succeed even if it’s just to prove the bastards wrong.
The last week or so has been pretty much typical. A little birdie whispers the very bad news that one of the best Irish crime writers has had his / her American contract cancelled for lack of sales. Shameful stuff, totally unexpected and utterly depressing, given that he / she is a terrific writer who is never less than entertaining and also pretty illuminating about the world we live in right now.
That’s the biz, I suppose.
For me personally, it’s been a decent week. I got a green-ish light on a project I’ve been working on for about two years, of which more anon. I also heard that there are two US publishers taking a good long squint at BAD FOR GOOD, and that initial reactions have been very positive. Not that that amounts to a molehill of beans, in real terms, but still, it’s good to know that someone out there is reading it, and liking it.
I’ve also been doing quite a bit of writing, largely because I joined a ‘writing group’ last month. Four people, decent skins all, coming together to pool resources and give one another a helping hand over the various humps and hillocks that get in the way of putting words on paper. We all have our own agendas, and we’re all at different stages of the publishing game, which will be very healthy, I think. For my own part, my needs are threefold. One, that said decent skins apply shoe leather to my skinny white ass and get me writing again; two, that that process will help me rewrite a novel currently labouring under the weight of its 149,000 words into something more taut, elegant and accessible; and three, that I can get back to writing the way I used to write in the good old days before I ever got published, and start telling stories just for the fun of it.
That might sound a little naïve, but during the last two years or so, I’ve started at least five different novels, investing anything between 10,000 and 30,000 words in each. Every time I came grinding to a halt, worn down by the constant process of second-guessing the industry, particularly the bean counters to whom most editors have to answer these days, worrying if what I was doing was commercial (very probably), or commercial enough (hard to say), or if I wouldn’t be more profitably employed shouting down a well (very probably).
Fun. Not a word you hear very often when people talk about writing in particular and the publishing industry in general. But it’s why I started writing, way back when, those halcyon days when the process of putting words in their best order was enjoyable for its own sake. A very serious kind of fun, of course, given that writing is a serious business, whether or not the business takes you seriously. But fun.
My little girl arrived home yesterday from crèche with a paper folder full of drawings and doodles and paintings and sparkly stuff, my favourite of which you can see above. Bright, colourful, bold, fun. Was Lily worried about what anyone thought about her picture when she was painting? Hardly, given that she’s only two years-and-a-bit old. Had she any idea that when her silly old sentimental Dad saw it, his heart would feel like it might explode? Probably not. Did she just get stuck in and splash the paint around and do the best job that fun would allow? I’d imagine so. Will anyone ever pay for it? Not that I’d ever sell it, but no.
The ‘writing group’ met for the first time last month, and the plan is that we assemble in mid-September with 2,000 words each to show for our efforts this month. The good news there is that I’ve already racked up 15,000 words in the last three weeks, although the bad news - given that I’m supposed to be rewriting the damn thing - is that said 15,000 words are all brand new and freshly minted. Mind you, the process of writing that section has allowed me to identify not only a massive, glaring flaw in the novel, but also how to rectify it. I’d say that that 15,000 words will save me about 40,000 by the time I get into the heart of the story.
Anyway, good news / bad news. This week it’s mostly good, and high-ho for upward and onward, at least until next week, when I’ll very probably plummet off the precipice again.
The main thing, though, is that it’s all good, that I’ve started to rediscover that sense of fun again. Maybe, given the fact that none of my previous offerings have overly taxed the boys ‘n’ gals at Nielsen, I’ll have to send out the redrafted novel under a pseudonym, as I’ve discussed before. And maybe (very probably) it’ll never see the light of day, because I’m already a beaten docket as a published writer at the age of 41.
And so what? What I get from writing - fun, joy, self-worth, all the good stuff you tend to forget about after too long at the coal-face - is far too precious to entrust to the publishing industry, or at least the publishing industry in its current, ultra-conservative incarnation. As the quote from Isak Dinesen I’ve tacked to my PC monitor says, “I write a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
Lately I have been mostly reading: DEXTER IS DELICIOUS by Jeff Lindsay; COLLUSION by Stuart Neville; FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French; RIVER OF SHADOWS by Valerio Varesi; DON’T BLINK by James Patterson; TIGERLILY’S ORCHIDS by Ruth Rendell, STARTED EARLY, TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson, and THE DOGS OF ROME by Conor Fitzgerald.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.