In the summer of 1990 I decided that I wanted to start writing. I had the means (a computer), I had a little time, and I had the desire to do something a little more creative than watching TV. So, being that sort of chap, I bought half a dozen books on the subject. The first few gave some thoughts on the wonders of being a writer, ran over some basic techniques, discussed Hemingway and Faulkner, and suggested some exercises which ranged from the interesting to the inane. They gave me some ideas to while away a few hours whilst making it perfectly clear that someone like me would never actually be able to complete a book, let alone get it published.
Then I turned to the two Writer's Workshop books, *Characters & Viewpoint and Plot*. Suddenly my interest quickened. These books were about writing real books and stories, the sort which are all around us, which people read everyday. They discussed the practicalities of making characters come to life, of planning and then controlling the plot. And, what was most important, they made me think that writing a book could be fun, something that even I could do, and something I would enjoy. Somehow the nitty gritty of how to put a book together seemed to make the whole activity much more exciting than inspirational thoughts on the trials and tribulations of being an author.
I couldn't wait to get started. But, I thought, I had better pace myself, write a few scenes, a short story or two. My first exercise was to write the opening scene of a novel. I wrote about the most exciting thing I could think of what had happened to me (coping with a large bond trade that went wrong), and then I exaggerated a bit.
After half an hour of clumsy tapping, I was hooked. Bugger the exercises, I wanted to write the whole book! So, I started a plan, much of it whilst I was munching a sandwich in a quiet courtyard just behind the Bank of England. Planning was difficult. I spent several weeks worrying over character and plot, and practical tips that eked from the pages of my two Writer's Workshop books were invaluable.
Eventually, I began writing. Much to my surprise, a year later, I actually completed a draft. I showed it to my wife and friends. The criticisms came flooding back; characters are too superficial, no sense of place, too many cliches in character as well as metaphor, not enough twists in the plot, the ending was no good, and many more. Depressed, I put the writing to one side.
But I missed it. Several months later, I dug out my manuscript and reread it. It wasn't all bad, and I could see what my circle of critics meant - I even agreed with them on most things. So, I set out to solve the problems. Once again the Writer's Workshop books were useful. How could I make my hero more sympathetic? How could I pace the plot better? The existing ending had to go entirely, what would work as a replacement? I found hints and clues that eventually led to answers.
To work again. Another draft, more criticism, yet another draft, and by the autumn of 1993 I had a book which was about as good as it was going to get. I wrote a synopsis and sent it off to some agents together with a couple of chapters.
I was fully prepared for a rejection. I knew that the odds were against finding a publisher for a first novel, however good, but I was willing to persevere, working my way down a long list of agents. But even if the book were never published the three years of hard work were well worthwhile. I had enjoyed writing it, my wife and friends had, eventually, enjoyed reading it.
I was lucky. The second agent on my list, Carole Blacke of Blacke Friedmann, liked my book. She sent it to a number of publishers with an enthusiastic note. Five of them began bidding against each other, and within a month I had sold *Free To Trade* to Heinemann for an advance which exceeded all my expectations. Carole subsequently sold the rights to thirteen countries. I can now afford to write during the day rather than in odd corners of the evening or weekend.
It would be wrong to pretend that publication isn't important; of course we all want to see our books in bookshops. But there is so much more about the process of writing a book that is interesting; rewarding and just plain fun, which I believe, is more important. I am convinced that it is the enjoyment of the writing process; rather than a desire for publication or an attempt to write what sells, which leads in the end to the creation of your book.
These books helped me understand something of this process, and made me realise it was something I wanted to do. I have subsequently read, *Dialogue, Setting and Revision*, all of which have an equally down to earth approach to the problems every writer faces. Read these books. Enjoy them. And start writing. It's fun!
© Michael Ridpath