So I was a bit rusty…

by Dan Forrester

It was my birthday last week in lockdown. I spent a lot of the day writing, as I have done with most of my time throughout lockdown when not working. My birthday was an apt moment to reflect, though, on my writing journey so far.

It seems like I’ve been writing for ages, but when you’re in your forties looking back on anything feels like a lifetime. In reality, it must be around 6 or 7 years ago I first put digital pen to paper.

I used to love writing at school. I had a succession of English teachers who really encouraged creative thinking, letting the imagination run free whether it be a story or poem, and I was in my element. Words spewed out of me without effort, characters danced as I pulled their strings and fantastic worlds sprung up out of the ground. Looking back, I doubt Shakespeare would have laid claim to any of it, but it came to me so much more naturally than long division, periodic tables or cross-country running.

Speaking of Shakespeare, discovering him was a significant turning point in my writing journey. I wish I could say it was because I fell in love with his language, cried at his sonnets, laughed at his comedies. But I didn’t get it and in all honestly it still hasn’t clicked with me. I remember a moment in an art class when my teacher explained the thinking behind Picasso’s cubism, and suddenly it made sense to me. To use a tired cliché, it was like someone flicking a light switch.

That never happened with Shakespeare. We would spend hours in class reading Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each pupil reading a paragraph in a succession of bored, monotonous, enthusiasm-draining drones. Is this what I should have been writing? It seemed so irrelevant. And then the death knell, the last straw: Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Yikes. Maybe literature wasn’t for me.

As I turned to ‘proper’ subjects, I forgot about writing altogether and got on with the serious business of real life.

It was many years later than my wife and I were reminiscing about our respective school days and I mentioned I used to enjoy creative writing. It was a throwaway comment, but she seized on it immediately. ‘Why don’t you take it up again?’ she suggested. I was dubious – I had absolutely no idea how to craft a proper story or what to do with it when I had. I didn’t want to waste my time writing something if no-one would ever read it. But she convinced me: just start writing and see what happens, one step at a time.

For the first time in over two decades I wrote a short story. It was a thriller, and it was far too long, confused and lacked somewhat in the thrills department. I wrote a horror story that had more clichés than scares and tried my hand at poetry that I still insist has to rhyme or it isn’t real poetry.

But in all these attempts I was rediscovering my passion and, crucially, finding my voice. It wasn’t conscious; I didn’t know what a voice was, but it wasn’t time yet to learn the dos and don’ts; I needed to spark my imagination after all those dormant years.

Things began to fall into place when a comedy fantasy story won a competition; they judged it better than all the other entries – I had made it: I was an award-winning writer.

That meant I was ready for my first novel, right? I set to it enthusiastically. I had a fantastic title, and I would write my entire tome around that. I quickly thought up some characters and had them interacting with each other from the first page, straight into the action, no messing about.

I made it to perhaps six thousand words before I began to panic. I was losing the threads; the story wasn’t strong enough; the characters were bland; I didn’t know what the heck to do. To say the task ahead was daunting was an understatement; every new page was like a monster lurking in the gloom.

It dawned on me that writing isn’t just a matter of stringing words together to make a story; it is a craft with rules, and it was about time I learned those rules; imagination alone would not get me through it. I needed help. I read how-to books and learned about story types and character arcs, plotting and structure, and attended author talks and workshops for their tips.

As with anything, not all the advice chimed with me, but occasionally there was something that changed my entire approach. A couple of authors in particular have had a big impact on my journey and I thank them regularly (silently to myself, I’m not creepy). For what it is worth, that is my own advice to aspiring writers (other than to write, of course): attend author signings, Q&As, workshops, whatever and whenever you can. Authors are a generous breed and wisdom dies if it isn’t passed on.

I discarded my first attempt at a novel and started again, better armed and more confident. Two years later I had the finished draft of a comedy fantasy called HAVOCK. It was shortlisted in a novel prize and I won an online editing course run by Curtis Brown Creative. The timing was perfect and less than six months later the novel was finished.

By now I had my heart set on being traditionally published and that meant getting an agent. I read up on how to put a pitch package together, got myself the latest copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for a list of agencies and began my targeted campaign. I’m still pushing for that breakthrough, but I know how long the process can take.

During NaNoWriMo last year I started my second novel CRABS, a comedy spy thriller set in London’s seedy underbelly, and the first draft was complete within six months.

The change of pace was partly down to experience – this time I didn’t have the same paralysing fear of the task ahead that I had writing my first novel – but I also can’t ignore the part that lockdown has played.

No more time spent commuting to and from work. No more evenings mooching along the country lanes after work. No more trips to the cinema at the weekend, or being dragged around the shops. I closed one laptop, changed rooms, and opened another. Then I wrote, read, edited, cried and wrote again. The wife still talked at me, but I have long since learned to agree with her by judging her tone of voice and either nodding or shaking my head with a sympathetic tut.

But throughout it all, since the fateful day she nagged (I mean suggested) I write again, Angie has encouraged me through the difficult times, through the rejections and the brick walls, to keep going. To keep writing.

I have a lot of work ahead before CRABS is the finished article, and then it is out to the agent-sphere and onto novel number three which is impatiently knocking at the door. It never stops, this writing lark. I wish I had mentioned to my wife that day how much I love going to the pub.

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