Where to begin. Writing a large novel is like raising a child – and I know all about that. Now.
Unbeknownst to most, I wrote my first novel in 2004 and shelved it. Sounds disgusting, right? That’s okay because it was a horror novel that took me about four months to write. I did it because a) I wanted to see whether I could and b) boredom. I’d just moved to Bathurst and was only working four hours a day at the local radio station. Not long after writing it, I got some fulltime work in the classroom and didn’t have anytime to write (or rewrite). Popular myth suggests teachers start at 9am and are done by 3pm. That’s not the case. The days of cruising ended during the mid ‘90s. And now with laptops – it’s become a twenty-four gig. I get emails from students and parents well after the Larry David cut-off.
But I digress. When I was finally able to sit down and look at the horror novel I’d written, I read thirty pages and nearly vomited – not because it was scary, but because it was absolute shit. And I didn’t feel like fixing it. By that stage the riots had happened and other ideas were swarming about. What I got out of it, though, was the knowledge that I could write a draft – finish a story and one day, hopefully, hold a finished book in my small, child sized hands.
Pretty much what follows is exactly what NOT to do as writer. Mostly.
I began to try and write the perfect first chapter and couldn’t move past it until it was perfect… (and for anyone doing this – don’t - it never will be perfect. You may feel good about it one moment and the next, hate it). I rewrote that first chapter, then the first five chapters, at least twenty times. I kept telling myself, I couldn’t move on until it was just right. That’s cray cray and will get you a nasty case of writer’s block.
I only wrote when the time was right and that was mostly on weekends, or when my son wasn’t screaming, which he always was. I only wrote when I ‘felt’ like it. It wasn’t a priority – it was a hobby; a cute little thing to do while passing the long hours in the central west. Other things that were in my perfect writing vision: coffee, writing in my study, listening to my perfectly crafted iTunes catalogue of songs that - wait for it - could only be from the era of which I was writing – 1992. That took months to do, I shit you not and could and should be another blog post because the music i listened to was freakin awesome.
By 2009, I had about 60,000 words. I continued with this approach until I moved to Shellharbour in 2010. By that stage, I had 130,000 words of what I considered to be a nearly completed novel. It wasn’t.
By this stage, I was more interested in surfing than writing. I was on my third child and for some reason I still only tried to write when it was perfect. Let me clarify a few things – when you have three kids under three, are teaching fulltime and trying to play in a band and surf – there is never a perfect time to write. But I was an idiot.
I began to go over the first draft and realised how awful it was – including the 'perfect' first five chapters. I still hadn’t told anyone I was writing and started to fear that the last three years had been a waste of time.
I stepped back to evaluate my situation. I was a father of three with a fulltime job, a bad surfing habit and an awful draft. I needed to be more organised and structured. What I felt would be a good solution would be to start reading books on writing – and I read heaps of them, Including all the recommended: Bradbury’s 'Zen and the art', Stephen King’s 'On Writing'. Strunk, Stein, you name it – I read it. I then decided it was time to begin again and use the ideas and the techniques found in these guides.
I wrote a few little mantra’s and stuck them about the place: Do or do not, there is no try. Thanks Yoda. This one was all about committing to the process – about finishing.
People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them.
George Bernard Shaw
This one was all about - you've guessed it - not making excuses, like 'I’m too busy, my kids, my job blah blah.'
And my own – Write, because your life depends on it.
This one is pretty logical. I didn’t want to fail – I hate failing; it’s not something I’ll ever get used to. When I boxed or fought, whether it was tornament or not - I hated losing. So I would have to repeat this one often, especially late at night, when all I wanted to do was watch TV, read, play video games, sleep…
I replanned the book. It needed it. I found subplots, other ideas, and an entirely different ending. At that stage I’d been with the story, the characters, for four years, maybe longer and I felt I knew them, but they needed more direction.
During that edit, I took myself out. Not completely, but I stopped the novel becoming a bloated memoir of fact and fiction. The character, Paddy, became a much better train wreck, because it was no longer me in any given situation. I took out characters and added others. I took two characters and turned them into one.
By the end of 2012, the first real draft was done. And I felt good. Until I read it. Again, you read the work you think is brilliant and it’s terrible, but this time, I knew I could fix it. I was the only one who was reading it – so it didn’t matter.
I read this: Self Editors for Fiction by Browne and King. I think this is the definitive book on writing. After all, writing, is rewriting.
I felt I had something in the first draft. It was like an out of shape professional boxer - bloated and unfit, but with some training and a hell of a lot of roadwork, could be lean and mean, and maybe even knock someone out.
So I got cutting. I enjoy editing. The process of slicing and dicing appeals to me – I’m an English teacher after all. And so I smashed through the first round of cuts and it produced a much tighter draft. Characters were finally saying what they meant. I removed more history and introduced more conflict, more fiction. I cut entire chapters that repeated fights, themes and character actions. This was both liberating and horrifying – some of those chapters had taken months…
After that draft, I took a small break, with the plan to write a few short stories. Instead, I created an online business (accidently - I swear to God) and became immersed in that. I still managed to write, but again, my focus was elsewhere. There was still all the other things with life: kids, work, surfing, band, and now I was running this quite successful little business – every night until midnight and all bloody weekend. I finally had money! I could pay for renovations at home; buy whatever surfboards, wetsuits, guitars, amps, PlayStations etc. But like the man says, ‘money can’t buy you happiness.’ Actually, I’m pretty sure shitloads can. However, for me, it was eating into things I wanted to be doing.
By this stage, I’d acknowledged that I would never get a traditional publishing deal. That no-one would probably ever read the book. That no-one cared if I wrote a book. As the months drifted by, I became miserable. And I learnt something important: I discovered that writing isn’t really a choice - it’s a compulsion. Well, for me, anyway. Financially, it didn’t make sense, but I didn’t care. I sold off the business and focused on finishing my novel.
I smashed through two more drafts. I wrote, edited and rewrote constantly. On the writing journey I have learnt - there is no perfect time to write. You do it whenever you can. I wrote in the middle of the night, in the morning, at lunchtimes, during meetings (my favourite time). I wrote with a sick kid, or even two sick kids on my knee. For the average writer, you won’t have the capability to sit down for even two-hours straight and write without distraction (if you can – then do it). I would get up at 0500 to write – and sure enough one of my kids would get up at 0515. Or I’d write at midnight and sure enough, another kid would have a freakin night terror or something equally as weird. But I still wrote; still kept working through the drafts.
Last year, I handed it over to some people – the ideal readers. My mate, Burnsie, made some corrections and we had many hours of talk about characters and plotting, but he loved it – he thought it was real page-turner and that gave me a buzz. My other mate, Macca, told me straight up, he enjoyed it, but it needed a professional editor. I concurred. My wife was a solid critical reader as well and so she should be – she’s an academic. She was ruthless with certain characters, Lee in particular, and this helped me strengthen that end of the story. I’m not convinced that she liked it though. But that’s okay. She still likes me. I think.
At this point I began to look into digital publishing and found that it was booming. If I’d finished this thing in 2010 – who knows - maybe I’d be living in a mansion in Kiama…probably not though. When I started the book, there was no eBook publishing, but by 2014, it was the real deal and the stigma of self-publishing was slowly fading as ‘real’ money, fame and fans dragged down the traditional barriers. I also discovered that you could do really well if you were writing five books a year, in a series, in the romance genre. I was doing none of that, BUT, I felt that SOTS had a good angle around both the Cronulla riots, and in particular, a novel geared towards surfing culture. Most importantly, it was a story I believed in.
My good mate at work, Dom, is a talented bugger and we’d paired up for the last business venture, so I was really keen to get him to do the cover and inside artwork. I sent him a synopsis and some images of Cronulla from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Then I stepped back to let the magic happen.
He created the moody cover over the course of a number of drafts. I love the tiny speckle of Sydney sitting on the low slant of the last great Kurnell sand dune. I’m also drawn to the oil refinery, just like I am every time I’m at the beach. The Alley Cat mark – splattered in blood, and the three surfers walking towards the rising sun on the rear cover captures the spirit of the novel.
With the cover done, I handed the last draft over to my editor and friend, Chris, who did his thing. Jesus, I thought I had a handle on English, and boy, did I get schooled. It was amazing to have what I considered to be clean prose returned with more red pen than I dish out to a year 9 kid with literacy issues (that's actually not true - i use green pen). I guess that makes it ironic, too. That said, my novel was complete.
Sidenote: If you are a writer that’s nearly finished, no matter what you do – you must have an external editor read your work - no matter the cost. An editor can do different kinds of work on your manuscript and it’s up to you to decide what your story needs – but they will find mistakes that you won’t. A great copy edit is the difference between a professional novel and an amateur book. I read comments from lots of writers and readers on forums who don’t mind making mistakes; who don’t use editors – it’s the story that counts. Now, this might be my first time around the block, but I couldn’t put something out there, let alone a pricetag on something that hadn’t gone through a rigorous process like a copy edit. I just think that’s shit and lazy and conceited. But that’s just me. The market will continue to be flooded with unedited books that sell well. Cray Cray.
The rest is history, as they say, or did say – ‘cause it’s history…I won’t bore you with the digital publishing, formatting, website and other stuff, but let’s just say, it’s hard work…writing is much more fun!
Anyway – if you’ve read ‘Sons of The Shire’ – then please review it! You can do that from wherever you purchased a copy: amazon, kobo, iTunes etc. Reviews add legitimacy! Even if they are bad ones… or jump onto: good reads
And add your review there.
I plan on offering the novel for free coming into Christmas for a few days, so all you cheapskates can grab it and hopefully review it. Also, the print copy should be available in the next month.
So tell your friends, tell your neighbours, tell your second cousins, to grab a copy of ‘Sons of The Shire’.
Oh and if you haven’t done so, sign up for my newsletter and get a free horror story!
Until next time...
I am actually writing in that photo - laptop just out of shot.