I had always wanted to write, that's probably an opening line that every writer, successful or otherwise, uses in interviews. Well, I was already a writer when I started to write, if that makes sense. Having somehow found myself in the computer industry, I firstly taught myself to write Visual Basic, a mathematical coded language telling computers to do real things. It was fun, challenging and, for some reason, I was quite good at it. Oh, and it paid well. After evolving in a business analyst, whatever one of those is, and commuting in and out of big cities in a suit, I got board of writing dull documents and yearned for the outdoor life I once had. Unlike many others in my plight, I took the plunge. That was 2006 and I was 45.
My first novel was the one we all have in us, based on life's experience, in my case about cows, or one cow in particular. Told through her eyes it was fast paced, humorous, heart warming and, as it happens, a rip roaring success. That is not to say it went global, but achievement is all relative and, after arrogantly punting my brilliant novel to a hundred agents, with no rewrites or editing, the constant rejection led me to go down the self publishing route. Pah, what did they know? There is a simple reason why this book sold a hundred copies in its first month, and a thousand in a year, 3000 in the next, and that was because I wrote it specifically for a targeted audience.
Buoyed with the fact that writing novels was piss-easy, I had been told that this kind of work, talking animals etc, was more suited to a children's style. So, over the next year I wrote not one, but 4 more novels about the same animal, taking the dialogue down to the level a nine to eleven year old could read. I tested the books on a few classes of school children who all said it made them laugh and cry, the two essentials of any story. So back to the critics I went, sending samples and synopsis to every children's literary agent in the country, expecting to be hailed as the next Mike Morpurgo. The rejections were hard to take, some of which gave me faith in my skills, all of whom said the children's book market is flooded with great writers and new ones are hard to sell into that age bracket, especially about talking animals. They were bang-on, of course, but it still hurt.
No yet completely deflated, I had written a biography of my father, then in his late eighties, and given it him as a present. As a spin off from this I extended a story about him growing up during the war in our local town into another children's book and this one had a better reception. Getting great reviews from a dozen or so who trialled it, after just a couple of 'no-thank-yous' from the agency world, I again self published, and soon the copies started flying off the shelves in the local tourists centres. It even got a write up in the local paper and I did my first reading at a book festival. In my mind, it may be the best book I ever wrote. The interest waned after a year, probably due to my inactiveness to do any more promotion whatsoever.
Now back on the horse, I picked back up on my favourite subject, humour and animals, with a long and hilarious tale about a pig that kept getting into trouble. Hearing folks guffaw with laughter when reading you own words is a great tonic for any writer but, sadly, it was a difficult one to sell as it fell between two stools, they say, being neither quite children or adult genre. It still remains my favourite.
Another children's book was already underway, when I had tried to get some history on an ancient windmill which sits across the field from our house in France. When nothing was forthcoming, I made up a rip-roaring adventure about two boys on holiday there, complete with time travel, templar nights and, of course, cows. It took a while to write and I think that shows in the book's lack of enthusiasm, compared to my earlier work. To be honest, I didn’t even try to find a publisher and probably only 100 people have ever read it. They all liked it though, so they said.
In a bid not to confuse the boundaries of my children's writing, I then penned a couple of quite funny stories under a pseudo name about a poor confused man called Trevor Hard. I will admit reading a couple of Tom Sharp novels whilst on holiday blatantly influenced these two books and, although never doing justice to the master, they came out quite well. I picked up one of the very few printed copies the other day and re-read it in a day, laughing my socks off the whole way through. That is when writing is at its most fulfilling - a career that the great Terry Pratchett described 'the most fun a person can ever have on their own'. Anyone who ever reaches that goal of making themselves laugh time and again has made it as a writer, regardless of whether they have sold one or a million copies.
Along the way, the initial lesson of 'know your audience' kept haunting me and, after a time of procrastination based on failure, I picked up the keys again, penning something some of my old pals had been baying for: my own life story. Writing an autobiog can be as humbling as it can be smug but I was only picking out a certain era, that time that I spent in the cattle years, two of the best, friendliest, most rewarding and hilarious decades of my time on earth. The book, entitled In Bed With Cows, really hit the spot with a close nit crowd of cattle enthusiasts, many of them concerned that their own antics may have been spilled onto paper. It got dozens of reviews, made it into hundreds of Christmas stockings, and had lot of people laughing. Still does. Using a formula I had stolen from Nick Spalding, I wrote to the reader on a one-to-one. The book was swiftly followed by the more risky In Bed with Sheep but inevitably it was difficult to get sales outwith the close farming community and, let's face it, not many of them read anything other than the farming press. These books still haul in good sales around the end of each year but it was never any use trying to put them out to a 'real' publisher when my own life history needed to sit alongside the literary genius of supermodel Kate Moss or Tony Blair on the shelves!
After that I sort of gave up for a while. A friend persuaded me to write a novel for Nation Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) in 2012 which I knocked out in 28 days. It was one of those that are great fun to write, where you have no idea where it is going and the characters develop themselves, some jumping out off the page screaming to take the lead role. Loosely pointing the finger at Scotland's bid for independence, I subtitled it a 'political satire, with some sheep in it, obviously!'. It is doubtful I will ever have as much fun writing again and equally doubtful that a half-man half-sheep riding a Harley through the hills of Scoutland will ever see the literacy light of day.
Deep Breath! Having written a column for a local magazine in UK about my life in France for the previous five years, something which I actually got paid for, some small publisher picked up on my blog and asked me if I fancied writing some travel guides about our area. In a simple formula, I sent them one 10,000 word ebook but then soon found their antics less than professional and that some of their other writers were being prosecuted for plagiarism. Just before I signed a contract with them, I decided to instead put the book out under my own banner, etravellers guides. Here was a chance to build a small brand and it got me to travel to nice places, eat loads of food and then write about it. The real win-win was that people actually bought my books, in their thousands. OK, I only made a quid a copy but this was proper writing and great repeat business. In all I wrote ten and wish it had been a hundred. I vow one day I will complete some more, travelling around the world in a camper like John Carrowack.
I will own up to being nothing if not tenacious and here's the thing about tenacity. Once I found a little writing success, purely by chance as it happens, I got a phone call out of the blue to write something else. This time it wasn’t just a few words on the local restaurant and how clean the toilets were, but an entire history book, thick as a seam of coal, on my own chosen subject, cows. Even more importantly, I wouldn't have to market it, I would just get paid to write the tome, and then sit and sign copies at National events. Admittedly, in my excitement to agree the contract, I slightly underestimated the time that conducting 100 interviews, sourcing 1200 photos and writing 200,000 words into coherent factually correct chapters would take me, eg: nearly three years, but I did it. I fucking did it. And you know what? I don’t think it is over yet, because from that little job arose another one, this time a true story so far-fetched, it even makes sheep on motorbikes seem day-to-day. And, just for once, this one may have a commercial value.