Friday, 6 April 2012

On Writing My Book

I’d feel a bit pretentious if I declared that writing is in my blood or that it’s my consuming passion; I don’t have to write to live. I can survive on chocolate, if it comes to it. But it’s a marvellous means of expression, a wonderfully creative and fluid medium for the ideas that rattle around my head. Being a comedian and comedy writer (and ex-solicitor, but we don’t talk about that), I can express myself on stage or in a script, but both forms are necessarily limited by what audiences – who offer a very instant response - or terrified-for-their-jobs TV/radio producers demand. Novels, though, unfurl slowly; they allow you room to breathe, to lay things out, to establish rhythms, to colour every character in, right from the opening sentence. I suppose the people who read my book will tell me whether I’m doing it right but, so far at least, they seem to approve. 

I’m an avid reader – contemporary fiction with a humorous bent being my favourite genre – and I always felt I could ‘do’ a Nick Hornby or David Nicholls if I put my mind to it. Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Well, as I discovered, it is that hard. In the way that comedy is hard. I was always the quite amusing guy amongst my friends, the guy with the quick ripostes and funny voices, but I was a million miles from being a guy who could make a roomful of strangers laugh rather than throw something heavy at me. It took me a while – and the odd bruise - to bridge the gap between the two.

The dialogue in Song In The Wrong Key came fairly easily to me, but structure, story-lining, pacing, knowing when to cut out the distracting quips, avoiding the self-indulgence, were elements of the writing process I had to learn mostly through trial and error. Every time I thought I’d completed the definitive draft, another ‘quick’ read-through convinced me there was still work to do, cuts to make, bits to shift, commas to add. In truth, you can refine a draft ad infinitum, but at some point you have to say ‘that’s the one’ – it’s never an easy task to let go, like watching your child go off to university.

Song In The Wrong Key is my second book. My first, Losing It, was a psychological thriller based, loosely, on something that happened to me as a young man. I started it about 18 years ago, left the first 50 pages in a drawer for 10 years, then started again. At the time I’d been reading a lot of grim, gory thrillers and felt I had it in me to emulate the genre. It was a difficult process for me because the tone of the book is fairly po-faced...and I’m not! Even so, J K Rowling’s then agents took a shine to it and offered to represent me, provided I made some changes. Which I did, but not entirely to their liking. Stupidly, I refused to make more changes and nothing came of it. In a fit of pique, I published through Matador, sold 400 copies and forgot about writing for a few years.

It was about 4 years ago when I decided to write something more in keeping with my natural comedic bent. I’ve always been drawn to stories about nobodies suddenly rising to prominence and, having been a wannabe pop star myself, Song almost wrote itself. The first draft flowed – I’d say it took a couple of months to finish - and I took great joy in writing a story with which I connected personally and was predominantly a comedy. Needless to say, the first draft was over-written, lumpy, occasionally illogical and chronologically confusing. Writing – good writing - as I’ve already suggested, is bloody hard work. But it was something to work with and I think the ‘stream of consciousness’ approach brought out the best in me from a comedic perspective. Structure, character and story-sharpening came later. I particularly enjoyed getting my teeth into the breakdown of the protagonist’s family and the central love story, both of which, hopefully, will tug at the heart strings (I get a bit misty-eyed watching Love Actually, so you know where I’m coming from). Some readers have already owned up to shedding a few tears which, as someone whose principal aim is to make them laugh, is a huge compliment.

Like most writers, I drew from experience. As the father of two girls, Millie and Katia were easy to write (mine are called Molly and Katie – that’s imagination for you!). And there’s something of my own life story in the protagonist, Mike’s, obsession with the former love of his life (I’m over her now, darling). And it’s through Mike’s voice that I was able to express many of my own attitudes and ideas. Friends who have read the book tell me it’s like listening to me prattle on, grumble, grouch and attempt to amuse. Mike is a heightened version of me, as is the protagonist of my follow-up novel, Standing Up – about a solicitor who becomes a stand-up (where do I get my ideas?).

My aim is to stick with edgy romantic comedies for the foreseeable future. But I shan’t put the cart before the horse. If no-one buys Song In The Wrong Key, though, I can always revert to gory thrillers.  

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