Thursday 21 January 2016

A word with myself, by Andy Frazier

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.

Saturday 16 January 2016

New knees please

Well that soon went by. Not just the month, but the last ten years, which is how long it is since I left Britain’s shores to seek my fortune. I’m still looking! Yes, this time a decade ago I was heading to Amsterdam to live and work, something I did for 8 months before retreating to France for a bit more peace. I can’t say I really miss the place, Holland nor England, for that matter. OK, the beer and the rolling hills around my ancestral home do get me a little nostalgic from time to time but generally I am happy with my lot, and that’s all that matters. Each year sees a few more funerals but I suppose that is inevitable once you pass 50 and start spiralling towards the prospect of Saga holidays and incontinence. 60 is the new 40, they tell me, which I assume means 80 is the new 60 and I won’t see a penny of my government pay-off until I am four score years and five. Does this also imply that the Queen will no longer send out telegrams, or emails, or whatever medium they now use, until we reach 120? Oh well, it will save on the ink, I suppose.
Anyway, after three weeks of constant rain, the sun is shining here before breakfast at Chauffour, backlighting the sheep in a golden glow amidst a covering of white frost. On mornings like these it is hard to imagine anything wrong with the world. Long ago I stopped taking a daily newspaper and now I even refrain from seeking the news on TV or the Interweb, else it might spoil the illusion of tranquillity and satisfaction. Occasional news does filter to me eventually, via post, text or social media, the former about the financial problems, mine in particular, and the latter either about more funerals or what one of my cyberfriends is having for lunch. I will admit that Facebook and Twitter are an unwelcomed distraction from my busy schedule, which currently includes getting a 60,000 word novel out of my head and on to paper, after two years of cluttering up my mind. However, at present I am writing a true story about an American, which involves me looking up jargon online, only to be presented with adverts for things I bought for Christmas. Yes, the online marketing people are now so smart that they now know what I have been recently buying. Here’s a tip, Amazon. If I have just purchased some bath taps, a new pair of shoes, and some loft insulation, why the hell would I want to buy more of the same? Surely you would be better offering me some cheap paint and socks? Or better still, the services of a reliable plumber. Oh no, I forget, they are as mythical as unicorns and Boris Johnson’s hairdresser.
The reason for the urgency in my latest literary panic is that at the end of this month we are heading off to the slopes for a week and, following that, I have another stint in Scotland sorting out some business. Then comes lambing, a few month’s building work, the summer visitors, and all of a sudden it is next Christmas and the page is empty. As the confines of my desk allow me no more exercise than the shake of a wrist, and my ski suit doesn’t fit, I try and find time to get half an hour each day with the cross trainer. No I don’t mean Reme Garde – sorry, had to get an Aston Villa joke in somewhere – but a piece of apparatus that allows me to run like hell, without getting anywhere – a bit like Villa, actually (ha, that’s 2, Ed!). Only problem is, in an attempt to build up a few extra leg muscles that will carry my weight on the snow, I find that my knees are not getting stronger, but weaker. And they hurt like hell. After a word with a friendly doctor, I ascertain that the joints in my knees are, to use a technical term, buggered, and grinding them away with physical movement isn’t helping. A wee touch of arthritis comes to us all eventually, for one reason or another, and mine can be wholly attributed to years of kneeling down in cold damp sheds, lambing sheep. Damn things should carry a health warning!
Going back to my earlier point about online shopping, here’s one for you marketers: when I bought a new pair of ski goggles from, you could have checked my age and then offered me some new knee joints as well? Because that it is what it is coming down to, since all the doctors have gone on strike because they have been asked to work weekends, that we can buy pretty much anything prosthetic online these days and jump the 15 year NHS queue. I kid you not, there are dozens of websites out there pedalling everything from a plastic toe to a whole new abdomen. From a link alongside that, you can make an online booking into a clinic in Korea that, for the price of a London suburb, will fit the bits while you wait, a bit like that twelve year old apprentice outside Halfords who will attach your new windscreen wiper-blade for you.  Not only that, but with some pre-ordering, you can go green too when your new carbon foot print will actually be made out of recycled bits of Natalie Bennett, or Bono. It’s a win-win for everyone.  I’ve already got my name down for a new liver made out of Janet Street-Porter’s teeth!