Despite being the author of two mildly successful books*, I still have regular crises of confidence as I try to bring together a third manuscript. I am working in the non-fiction field, so it is not really writer’s block or blank page syndrome that I am talking about. Nor is it issues of plot or storyline (which I imagine novelists might have). No, it is about flow or style. I have usually got enough to write, but it is HOW to write it that I struggle with. I know that if I need to write more, then I must research more, or do another interview, both of which are tangible and usually achievable.
But quite often one can’t help thinking “well is this garbage writing”? Some say that authors don’t (or shouldn’t) read reviews of their own work. Well this one does. I have seen reviews that say my writing is “clunky”, or “academic” (the latter usually meaning ‘dry’, I guess). I tend to assume that those reviews that appear in magazines, etc., are giving the reviewer’s honest view, so I tend to give a measure of respect to that view. On the other hand those reviews by readers on Amazon may be less credible, as you do get some quite vindictive/vitriolic types who haven’t a good word to say about anything (cf Tripadvisor – where I would guess dis-satisfied customers are more likely to post than satisfied ones).
I did have one unsolicited comment from someone that my second book had a more natural flow to it, which I suppose shows some progress! But now I am working on Book III and it is biographical, rather than the previous two, which have been historical. It needs a different writing style. I need to define and find that style, which I haven’t done yet.
Much of the material I am working on comes from interviews with the two main protagonists. So, I am wondering to myself, ‘How much should be in quotes and how much converted to third person?’ This train of thought just leads to more and more questions. ‘How to be dispassionate?’ Bear in mind they might just be heroes of mine. The subjects are both very much alive and I am conducting a series of interviews with them. ‘Might it be easier to write about people after they have passed on?’ Then having written up, interpreted and contextualised what they say to you, ‘Do you show everything that you write to the book’s subjects?’
Then there is the thorny ‘How much of me goes in to it?’ I also keep asking myself, ‘Have I analysed things enough?’ Or is my attempt to critically analyse just producing stuff that will come across as ‘pop or cod psychology’?
In order to get a broad picture I am trying to seek the views of a number of family, friends or associates of the main characters. ‘What if I come across something about the subjects that is highly critical of them?’ Do I exercise caution, and stand accused (by myself not least) of censorship?
‘What if independent commentator on events says something I don’t agree with, or I think is inaccurate?’ As much as possible I am cross-referencing sources and checking, certainly being mindful that memories can be distorted unwittingly. Much of the action takes place in the 1980s and even earlier, so memories fade.
Bearing all this in mind I am finding writing this manuscript to be a very different process to previously. This time I will compile the material and then WRITE the manuscript. I expect this to involve some sort of ‘writing retreat’. It may be a virtual retreat, or it may be a hermit-like removal of self from my ‘normal’ life. Either way, I plan to address the style issue by trying to (re)write consistently throughout the manuscript in one go, and achieve an appropriate ‘voice’ that will make for a readable account of these two fascinating people’s lives.
* The day I was writing this posting I saw an article in The Independent called How to be more Zen about our failures and learn from our disappointments. In this an editor at Picador tells Giles Coren in his upcoming TV documentary Giles Coren – My Failed Novel (part of a season on Sky Arts looking at different aspects of failure) that: “Failure is about 800 [hardback] copies”. My first book ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ sold over 1900 hardback copies, which is why I said “mildly successful” at the top of this post. NB: The paperback is available again (via link above). And the second book ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ is well on the way.
Two great reviews of ‘The Round’ have recently appeared on the Amazon page for my book. It is always nice to hear of readers enjoying something you have put a lot of yourself into writing.
One goes (in part): “What makes Steve Chilton’s book stand out is the numerous first person accounts from runners, as well as their pacers and supporters: authentic voices, describing real experiences. Either through interviews, or use of diary entries and other contemporaneous accounts, the author builds up a detailed picture of both the landscape and the characters of those who have responded to the challenge it sets. The book’s centrepiece is an exclusive interview with fell running legend Billy Bland, who in 1982 completed the BGR in 13 hours and 53 minutes – a record no-one else has yet come close to. This and other interviews make this book an essential document in the history of the BGR in particular, and endurance challenges in general.”
The second includes: “I’d been looking forward to The Round with great anticipation. In every way, it exceeded my expectations. Further to his first book ‘It’s a Hill’, Steve Chilton has yet again managed to describe with intrigue and passion the rich history of a fascinating and unique facet of fell running. Yet also, and importantly, The Round takes you on a journey, deep into the minds of those brave enough to attempt, or even simply involve themselves in, the Bob Graham Round. It is this clever first hand narrative throughout the book that drew me in, leaving me inspired.”
Someone asked me the other day how the second book has gone compared to the first. It is not easy to say, and my gut feeling was perhaps that it hadn’t gone as well. I have just got the first sales statement from the publisher which possibly counters this guesswork. In the period from book launch in mid-Sept to 31 Oct the sales of ‘The Round’ have been just over a third more than those that were achieved by ‘It’s a hill, get over it’ in the exact same period after its launch in 2013. The task is now to keep up some momentum. What I have noticed this time around is that I have achieved less reviews for book II than book I. I have also not had a series of book talks to back up the launch this time. So, I feel there is a task to be done to get ‘The Round’ out there and noticed by more potential readers.
As a diversion to all this I have been recently encouraging a friend to blog about her own athletic experiences. It is based on a first trip to train at altitude, in this case at the Lornah Kiplagat HATC in Iten (Kenya). The trip is along with another Barnet & District AC clubmate, and they are both hoping for good times at the London Marathon. As someone who is working with both of them I will now frighten them by putting it on record that I am confidant that if they both run well they can break the respective female and male Club Records. I really would encourage you to drop by the On track. On tour blog to read how the training has gone and to hear some light-hearted stories about mixing with the GB internationals and ‘training with the Kenyans’.
Footnote: if anyone goes to Amazon to purchase ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, they haven’t got paperback copies of it any more. Other shops and online suppliers may still have them. I have copies myself and they can be purchased direct from me for £6-99 (inc p&p).
Postcript: after writing this note I have just heard that Sandstone Press are printing another 1,000 copies of ‘It’s a hill, get over it’, which will be available from end of month. The above offer still holds though.