…by my editor. No, you scandalmongers, it’s not as scandalous as you thought, but it did make me think.
You see, a month ago, I really wanted to finish my second book, Hidden Elements. The main body of the story was there and I was happy with it. The ending, however, wasn’t. The timelines of my books stick closely to the actual events of the Thirty Years War, which often gives me a framework within which I can work my plot. The end of Book II was no different – an ambush, against the run of the war, and the Emperor barely escapes with his life – it was there, served to me on a plate. Or so I thought…
The problem was, I was so desperate to finish the book, I didn’t think about whether that was the right ending. I didn’t care about what my readers would think, what questions would remain unanswered, so I wrote two chapters and pronounced the book finished. Until last night, that is, when my editor sent me an SMS saying she had deleted seventeen pages and I needed a new ending.
You can imagine my chagrin when I got that message, which only got worse when I realised she was right. This wasn’t my best work. Far from it, in fact. I remember a partner at Deloitte, (in a past life), refusing to even look at a report unless it was of sufficient quality. He would stare at me and quietly ask, “Is this the best you can do?” Eventually I cottoned on to the fact that all I had to do was say yes, assuming that it was indeed my best work.
I don’t know why I thought that writing a book would be any different. I’ve already written one, so it’s not the hubris of the beginner. I think I was so focused on the finishing post that I lost sight of what was important. Thankfully, my editor wasn’t going to accept second-rate work. OK, maybe she could tone down the aggression a little to save my ego, but she was 100% right.
I’ve now had 24 hours to reflect on the experience, and I’m grateful that someone cared enough to tell me the truth, even if it was painful to hear.
I just need to prove that her faith hasn’t been misplaced. Better get writing…
The journey in from the airport was worrying. Of course I knew that Prague had been part of the Communist Bloc for decades; that sort of thing is hard to miss. But everyone I knew who had visited the city said it was beautiful, full of churches and palaces, virtually untouched by the World Wars. That’s not the impression one got in the mid-90s, landing in a run-down regional airport and driving in a sixth-hand imported German car through concrete panel slums. What had I done?
After finishing university, I had moved to Sweden, where I had done very well on a couple of projects; so well, in fact, that my employer offered me free choice of where I would next be posted. Prague, said I, full of blithe confidence. The warning bells should have started ringing when their response was that no-one ever wants to go to Prague. Well, the warning bells were ringing loud and clear on that drive through the post-Communist rubble to the centre.
Things suddenly changed. After a tortured half-hour of run-down tenements, pondering my mother’s advice to look before I leapt, I looked up to see the Gothic spire and buttresses of St. Vitus’ Cathedral silhouetted against a rosy sky. For those of you who can’t picture what I’m talking about, imagine not one or two, but four angular spires thrusting up from a building whose ornamentation gives it a chitinous, armoured appearance. With the waxing moonlight vying for supremacy with the last flashes of the sun, it was easy to imagine bats (or worse) circling the bell-tower, ready to prey on the unwary.
As the road curved downwards, I was rewarded with one of the most dazzling vistas I have ever seen: that of Prague, known as the City of a Thousand Spires. From a jumble of ornate buildings, their pastel facades fading in the dim light, rose a field of man-made stalacmites, evidence of a dozen architectural styles. I was captivated.
I changed in that instant. As a schoolboy, I had been eager to drop History as soon as I possibly could. The subject is boiled down to a turgid series of events and dates with all passion removed. In that moment, I realised that a piece of the puzzle had been missing – I needed a backdrop to bring things to life, and Prague gave me that.
Over the following months, I found myself wandering dimly-lit alleyways that had seen little change in four centuries; knowing that my view was broadly the same as a medieval traveller would have experienced. I began to meet people who told me stories. Not history, as I would have learned it, but tales of the Church and its critics, of wine and war, royalty and rebellion, intrigue and invasion – all the juicy bits that the good schoolteachers in Ireland forgot to mention.
Eventually I started to write these stories down. Back then, I had no intention of writing a book. Now I’m working on my third, and I have more ideas than ever. But that’s another story…
Last weekend, twenty years after I left, I returned to my old university, or rather to what was left of it. As I walked around the campus, there was little to recognise: a building here, a fountain there. Even the old fire station has been converted into swanky accommodation for the students. Thankfully the main building was as solid as ever, and one of the pubs remained untouched, so at least I knew I was in the right place.
I was in the company of four friends from uni days, and our discussions fell quickly to the nature of progress. Our slightly Luddite stance (What on earth have they done?) was appropriate for a bunch of forty-somethings reliving the glory of their youth, but the problem was (or is) that none of us feel like we are in our forties. The heady days of lectures and pub crawls, of political activism and across-the-board experimentation are alive in our minds as if they happened yesterday.
Standing on a different campus, (for that’s what it is now), I realised that the university I went to, my home for a few years, no longer exists. I feel the same when I drive past my family home in Ireland, which I left last century. The house looks unchanged, but saplings I planted are now trees. Time has moved on, as have I.
When I raise this issue, nine times out of ten, people share the same sense of dislocation. In that case, where is home?
All the places I have called home have changed, and they exist only in my memory. Home is where the heart is, they say, and I think they’re on the right track, because I have my home(s) inside me. A childhood in Ireland, a roving university and post-university hedonistic period in a dozen countries, a career decade in Russia, and now a family life in the Czech Republic – these are all my homes, but, barring my current situation, they don’t exist anymore. I can’t go back.
I know I live in a different country to that in which I grew up, but even for those people in my hometown, things are different than they were. People come and go, priorities change, and hey presto – life is completely different. They can no more go back than can I.
If you’re lucky, the one thing that can remain constant is why your friends are your friends. I don’t know my friends’ current situations as well as I should, what joys they celebrate, what challenges they face, and yet, as the drink flowed on Saturday evening, I found myself falling in love with them all over again.
They’re different people than they were twenty years ago. I am too. But we seem to have moved in the same direction; what brought us together in the first place is still there.
As I looked around at their faces, worn by the passage of two decades, I knew I was home.
There’s a parallel universe where I am a millionaire. That’s where someone has given me a dollar every time I’ve heard the words, “I could never write a book”. There are two reasons I want to live there: first up, I’d be rich and could buy a lot of gin; and secondly, there would be less competition for my books.
You see, I firmly believe that everyone does have (at least) one book inside them, but maybe Christopher Hitchens was right when he said that’s where they should stay. Not because people don’t have the ideas, or the talent, or the wherewithal, but rather because there is such a huge difference between a book and a good book.
In my business career I underwent regular psychometric testing. You know the stuff – NLP, MBTI, etc. – you answer twenty questions and they tell you if you are a serial killer. When I started to work with such tests, I learned that they don’t describe a person’s ability to work in a certain way; they focus on the person’s preference – how easily they can work in that particular way.
Writing a book is the same. What no-one tells you before you start is that it’s harder than it looks. In fact, it’s not only difficult, it’s all-pervasive. I find myself playing Lego with my boys and thinking about medieval torture or execution by beheading. And they’re not even badly behaved… It’s just that when you create a world in your mind, it takes on a reality that is somehow separate from you. When my characters started doing things I hadn’t planned for them, my author friends nodded wisely and mumbled something understanding.
It’s a difficult process and it’s a long journey. Having an idea is like having a seed. Having people read your book is more akin to that warm, full feeling you get when you put your knife and fork down after a great meal. There’s the slog of writing – great some days, dreadful the next; even worse when you type like a drunk rhino, like yours truly. The brutal intimacy of the editing process, baring your soul for some to tear to shreds, is my personal bete noire. After that, you have a manuscript and you embark on one of two paths: self-publish and therefore self-market; or find an agent and a publishing contract. Just remember, the grass is always greener on the other side.
The likes of J.K.Rowling or Hudd Howie don’t mirror reality for most people; you would be better served by using someone like Joanna Penn as an example. She’s tireless, not just as an author, but as a businessperson: writing, blogging, interviewing, speaking, learning, sharing. And she’s not on her own, either – there’s a real community of authors out there, willing to help, courageous enough to ask for help.
When I speak with people in business circles, I often ask them why they want to embark on a major project, what they hope to achieve, what success would look like. I see no reason to treat new authors any differently. The reason to write a book could be anything: a bucket-list, vanity, or because you think you’re the next Hemingway, but it must be something; there has to be a reason for you to give birth to the idea that is burning inside you. That drive will have to be very strong, as it’s the only thing that will accompany you on every step of the road.
So yes, I believe that everyone has a book inside them, but you have to decide if you really want to bring it out.
I was walking through the park on the way to work this morning and I stopped to breathe in. The air I breathed wasn’t city air, the wind had carried from the country, clearing out the sweat of the past week, carrying with it the scent of nature.
I noticed it, sadly at the edge of my perception, right at the front of my nose, like a song with too much treble and not enough bass. I breathed in deeply, again and again, and felt that part of my olfactory system come alive, drinking in the verdant odour, causing my mind’s eye to see trees, to smell grass and flowers, to be fenced in with hedges, not buildings.
It made me realise that we spend so much time tuning things out, that we forget to tune in. Had I not stopped and breathed, opened that part of my senses, I wouldn’t have died. I wouldn’t even have noticed, which saddens me. We lose so much as we grow, teaching ourselves to ignore the stimuli that we deem less valuable, trying to focus on what we think is important.
I watch my kids and it makes me smile. They exhibit an unbridled passion for everything, a pair of golden retrievers in human form. Their experiences make them laugh and cry (and everything in between), often in the same moment. They are so open to their senses that they are truly alive. Does that mean as we grow and these senses dull that we are actually slowly dying?
There are many studies about happiness, attempts to measure the unmeasurable. I love the Mediterranean concept of multiple generations of the same family living together, the old fogies kept young by the antics of the grandkids, even great-grandkids. But we only take notice when the media report a lower rate of Alzheimer’s in those countries. The Dutch are jumping on the bandwagon with their nursery school/ old people’s home concept, and it’s working.
I hear parents talk about their kids’ schedules and shudder. OK, some of my distaste is that it highlights my parental laziness in not organising origami lessons in Mandarin, but mostly it is because the kids have no time to just play. Using their imagination not only keeps it alive, but makes it grow. Having complete intellectual freedom means they can wire their brain however they choose. If the Jesuits are correct, and our characters are already formed by the age of seven, then I’m going to let my boys play as much as they want.
And I’m going to join in. My writing career has coincided with my boys being around. Doctors will speak of synaptic pathways being fixed; brain motorways that are nigh on impossible to re-route, and yet kids do it all the time. It’s still possible for adults to do it, just a lot harder than when we were young. This ability to think laterally, getting from A to C via G and T, is key to creativity, be it in commerce, science or the arts. So I’m going to get down on my knees and play, in the hope that they won’t just keep me young, but help me remember what I have almost forgotten.
For the first time in a long time, I’m really enjoying what I do. And I might have my kids to thank for that.