When I was young, it never actually occurred to me that people could actually be writers. I read voraciously, and of course I knew that people actually wrote books, but if I did have any concept that people got paid to do it, it didn’t cross my mind that they were ever going to be people like me.
I’ve documented previously an encounter I had in the early 1980s with the poet Liz Lochhead, who our school brought in to try to give us a bit of culture. We, as children, were awkward and embarrassed and probably a bit obnoxious:
I suppose that was the first time I’d ever met a writer. Someone who described themselves as a writer, a poet. That was what Lochhead did, that was what she was. A door creaked open slightly, allowing just a crack of light through. I wasn’t tall enough for the police, after all, had no desire to go to Northern Ireland with the army, and didn’t particularly want to go down the pit. But people could actually be writers … ?
Once I realised that people could be writers, I thought it might be a nice thing to be. So at some point in my late teens I decided to write a novel. It was a portal/secondary world fantasy somewhat awkwardly titled, if I remember correctly, The Renegade’s Stone. It had orcs and cross-dimensional chases and really tragic sex. I finished it when I was about 17, and I don’t think I did anything about it because suddenly life was less about orcs and other dimensions than beer and branded sportswear. Really tragic sex, or at least the pursuit thereof, still played a part, though. The Renegade’s Stone, written on a bulky old beige word-processor with green characters, was duly printed out and stuffed into a battered little leather case. It’s in my attic, my Dorian Gray novel. I intend never to take it out and gaze upon it ever again. It’s utter crap, as a fantasy novel written by a teenager should be.
At some point in my late 20s I decided to try to write again, this time without orcs but with some measure of other dimensions, and of course the still-tragic sex. The thing was, where once it had never occurred to me that I could be a writer, at this point it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. Not getting published simply didn’t cross my mind. So much so that I was probably an insufferable brat when I sent out my query letters (printed out! with a stamped, self-addressed envelope for return postage!). I still shudder at getting a letter from one literary agent (I won’t say who, but they represent Anthony Burgess’s estate) offering some constructive criticism on my manuscript and inviting me to resubmit once I’d had another go.
I wrote back and told them that thanks, but I was quite happy with how it was and I’d probably just send it somewhere else, if it was OK by them.
Yeah, I know. Well, I know now; perhaps my perceptions were skewed by me sending the ms off to an agent at a massive agency after reading about how she’d made a million for her client (Jenny Colgan, by the way) in a Guardian feature. I sent her the requisite three chapters and a synopsis and wrote, “Yeah, I’d like a million, too. Where do I sign?”
She actually phoned me a week later and said: “Are you sitting down? This is going to be a blockbuster.”
It wasn’t. Nobody else liked it. That manuscript eventually became Hinterland, which a lot of people liked but nobody really bought.
It was then I realised that yes, you could be a writer, but no, that didn’t mean anyone would want to publish you.
So I noodled on, and lost heart, then thought of a new idea, then got excited again, then lost heart. And so on, and so on.
But I kept writing.
Because you can’t be a writer unless you, y’know, actually write stuff.
Eventually John Jarrold took me on as a client, even though I kept sending him books that no-one in publishing wanted to buy. But I kept sending them, and eventually, someone did buy them. I think Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is… the seventh manuscript I gave to John? I’ve honestly lost count.
And the point of all this? If I could go back in time and talk to that kid who vaguely wondered who the names were on the covers of his favourite books, what would I say?
One, that branded sportswear isn’t going to do you any favours. Really.
Two, yes, you can be a writer. No, you have no entitlement to be published.
But if you don’t put the time in, then you’ll never know.
Am I a writer now? I don’t know. I write. I still feel like a massive fraud, like I’m going to be found out any minute, like everyone’s going to point at me and say What the hell do you think you’re doing? How did you expect to get away with this? But, I write. So, number three, young David: Yeah, people like you can end up with your name on the front of a book.
I know. It’s bloody great, isn’t it?