The Legendary Semi-Autobiographical First Novel

One of the best ways to commit yourself to a project that you suspect is going to be long and painful and will make you regret it every second that you work on it is to announce on the Internet that you’re going to do it. So here’s what I’m going to do…

Next year, it will be thirty years since I ‘wrote’ my first novel. It was something I’d been preparing for for at least eighteen months, and which I’d made a stab at in the summer/autumn of 1986, when I’d been severely disrupted by my narrator (i.e., the fictional version of myself) attempting to go off the reservation and seriously deviate from the detailed outline I had worked out when stuck in London for four summer weeks.)

I started a new job in January 1987, after an extended Xmas holiday caused by redundancy. I shared an office with my new firm’s Senior Partner, who split his day between the branch office n the morning and the main office in the afternoon. I did not have a massive workload to begin with and, for reasons I can no longer recall, I decided to use my time in writing.

Not very ethical, admittedly, although my actual clients and cases didn’t suffer any, but after a couple of weeks I had slipped into a writing routine that was getting me two complete chapters per week. On Monday, I would bring in the outline for my next chapter. In fits and starts throughout the morning, I would switch from work to writing, devoting about two hours to each. At lunch, I slipped notes and manuscript into my briefcase and concentrated solely on my job for the rest of the day.

And this was the pattern for the week, except that on Wednesday I would carry in the notes for the chapter and I would finish in mid-morning and the notes for the following chapter, and pick that up and carry on.

It was my first ever working routine and the smooth, even progress was fantastically reassuring.

There were, of course, hitches. I’d found the opening chapter impossible to set up so had taken the unusual approach of starting with Chapter 2. This headed a first phase of seven chapters, after which there came a time leap of several months. Though this hadn’t been planned, the second phase also came out at seven chapters, after which there was another time leap. On the other hand, the outline offered only another seven chapters, which I then had to build up, to a third and final seven chapter phase, that then doubles up into the final chapter.

And when I looked at the third phase – which, unusually, I did on Saturday morning, arriving in Manchester too early to rendezvous at the Crown & Anchor for the Pool Team booze-up: I didn’t usually even look at the book at weekends – I was horrified to find the whole final third inadequate compared to what I’d written so far.

It made for a fraught week. On Monday, I set out to completely rewrite the outline for the final third, to bring it up to scratch, with one more chapter than before, and then I had to write two full chapters in four, not fine days. It meant for more intense writing all five days, instead of the usual, clam and collected rhythm, and I was mentally exhausted by the end of Friday, but back on track.

Then another problem arose. I was due to go up to the Lakes for my April holiday, driving up Sunday morning, back leisurely on Friday, and spending as much of the time I was up there walking as possible. Where did that fit into my writing schedule? Only the last two chapters, that was all.

There was no question of cancelling my holiday, but what should I do for the best? Take the final two chapters with me and work on them in complete defiance of a working routine that had functioned smoothly to take me further into anything I’d written than I ever had before? Take a complete holiday and resume after a week’s break, risking a different but equally potentially fatal breach of routine?

Suddenly trying to write in the evening, in strange bedrooms, had the expected effect: by the end of Wednesday, I was still a long way from the end of the penultimate chapter. But Thursday dawned cloudy, putting the felltops out of reach, and despite a bit of driving round, looking for breaches, I wound up in the early afternoon parked at the head of Coniston Water, looking down the lake, and scribbling away behind the wheel until I came to the end of the chapter.

I returned to Ambleside and my hotel room. After a break, I made myself start the final chapter, managing most of a page before deciding I needed to get something to eat. It had been a useful session, short but something to give me a sound footing for where this last chapter would go. I left the hotel to walk up to the cafe/restaurant where I usually had my evening meals in Ambleside.

I had barely turned the corner and walked five years up the street when I had the incredible sensation of the entire chapter unfolding in my head. This had never happened before, nor since, but I had everything there, every line, so complete that I could have quoted from any ‘page’. It was incredible.

For a moment, I thought of rushing back and writing this, which would have killed off any chance of food that night, but I had the unreasoning conviction that I didn’t need to; that what had come into my head was so firmly lodged that I could go and have my meal (and a pint afterwards) without losing a single line.

And I was right. I got back about 8.30pm, grabbed my pen and began writing, pausing only every forty five minutes to either flip over, or change, the tape in my cassette player. Until 12.30pm when, for the first time in my life, and with a sore right hand, I added the incredible words, ‘The End’. I had never gotten anywhere remotely close to that before.

Of course, there was going to be much work required. I still had an opening chapter to write, but the first thing I wanted to do was just basic housekeeping. I had concentrated on a straight-through draft, without halting to check minor background details: street names, background character names, I’d just bung in a name with the intention of making the necessary corrections later.

One thing did surprise me. The story covered a twenty month period in 1979 – 80 and I’d taken from real life the fact that my two leading characters came into work early every alternate week to help collect, open and sort the post. This was colour, with no bearing on the story, and I’d referred to it maybe fifteen to twenty times, with complete unconcern as to what the routine should be at any given time. To my astonishment, every assignment of ‘earlies’ or ‘lates’ was correct. My subconscious had been monitoring the pattern where I had been ignoring it!

The thing was, as my ironic title for the novel made plain, the ‘story’, and the people in it, was based on events in my life over a two year period I’d lived and worked away from Manchester. Central to the story was falling in love with someone who didn’t love me, and having to live with that (at least I didn’t Annie Hall the story: I had too much pride for that).

I never could get myself to make a real, or even a pretend start on the second draft. Subconsciously, indeed quasi-consciously, I’d set out to write the story to exorcise certain ghosts, and I found that the First Draft was sufficient for that purpose.

Thirty years later, I still have the ring-binder with the manuscript in. I’ve occasionally thought about copying it up, just to have it accessible (a couple of the books I’ve published through are not for general sale: the only copies of those are for my bookshelf alone). Now, I’ve written all of this to trap myself into doing it.

It’s going to be incredibly painful. Quite apart from the physical aspect of copying up so many words (I do not have the least idea how long this piece of work amounts to but I know how tedious and wearying it is to copy something to a computer) and the question of how easy I’m going to find it to read my own handwriting from thirty years back (it should be a damn sight easier than if I was trying to translate my current handwriting), this is work that is thirty years old. I’m going to be wincing at practically every line. The temptation to rewrite it will be present in every paragraph, or maybe it’ll all be just so bad and I will be screaming to find a way out of continuing doing this.

Which is another good reason for posting this.

And when it’s all been copied, and I am recovered from the trauma, what then? At this point, I don’t know. I will probably try to write that long overdue opening chapter, no matter how incompatible in tone, style and approach it may be, just so I can get a hard copy to put on my shelves.

On the other hand, I may get a pleasant surprise. I might find there’s enough in it to try rewriting it, to produce a polished and possibly publishable completed version. Yeah, and Donald Trump will be impeached before he even gets the keys to the White House.

But whatever the long term effects, it’s way overdue that my initial effort should be preserved in a readable form. Even if I have to include instructions in my Will that any hard copies of it be burnt unread. I do intend to be cremated, after all, and that would be particularly fitting.

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