Monday, April 20, 2009

My Writer's Journey - part one

Bang2Write and Miss Read have been blogging about their journey as writers. Being a shameless borrower of good ideas, I'm doing much the same, starting here. If that doesn't appeal, move along, there's nothing to see here. But if you're a weirdo like me who always reads the author's bio first [my favourite part of Reader's Digest Condensed Books was the author bios page], then stick around for some wittering about how I got where I am today.

I read a lot as a child. Wasn't sporty, tended to the precocious [and atrocious] and - when it came to books - the voracious. I seemed to read every piece of crap that came my way, so long as it hailed from the 20th Century. Enid Blyton inspired me to make up my own stories. Thanks to the Famous Five adventures I wrote lots of tales about caves, getting kidnapped and being tied up. [Start drawing your own conclusions and get out of the gutter - sheesh!]

My brothers are five and three years older than me, something that seemed a yawning chasm when I was five or eight or 11. But it meant I got to read all their books second hand. I was savouring Ian Fleming's snobbery with violence long before puberty, and - inevitably - wrote tales of James Bond 003 and a half. My love of pulp fiction, ripping yarns and page-turning prose was hardwired into my creative cortex by this point, I suspect.

If not, dozens upon dozens of Doctor Who novelisations by Terrance Dicks sealed my fate as a writer. Growing up in New Zealand, I often read the Target Book version of a Doctor Who tale long before I saw the original TV production. [When I did see the broadcast version, it rarely matched what Dicks' terse prose and my fetid imagination could conjure up. BBC budgets in the 70s and 80s were not match for the madness inside my cranium, oh no.]

By the time I finished high school [with the equivalent of six A levels], both my brothers have found the university experience not to their liking. Wary of repeating what they had done, I looked elsewhere for my future. My mother had been a teacher and I didn't want to spend the rest of my life doing homework, so that was out. [Oh, the irony of it - I'm now a part-time university lecturer and spend the rest of my time working from home.]

Having the gift of the gab and a way with words, I opted for journalism. Got into a high-pressure course at what's now called the Auckland University of Technology [then it was ATI, a glorified polytech]. About 300 students applied for the 24 places on the course I attended. Of the 24 who did get on, the head tutor proudly announced he wouldn't be satisfied unless at least two of us quit. Two did, and several more were deemed to fail.

By the end of that five-month course I'd had the personal pronoun thrashed out of me, learned to write in terse, pithy and objective prose, and felt no qualms at phoning up families to found out how they felt about a tragic death. Daily newspaper journalism requires a thick skin, bags of confidence and balls of steel. You have to write bloody fast, can't wait round for the muse to descend and learn to network like mad. Perfect training in some ways.

After five years I was ready to move into features, but couldn't get the gigs I wanted. I recognised the need to stretch myself, to find new challenges. I'd fallen in with New Zealand Doctor Who fandom at the time when the show was dying a slow, painful death in Britain. Having always wanted to write a book, I volunteered to write a fan novelisation of a TV story that had never been adapted. It was a chance to channel my inner Terrance.

I finished the novelisation not long before emigrating to the UK. It was the first piece of creative writing I'd done in years, and I enjoyed the experience. I wanted to do more, but was focused on making a success of my new life in London. Within six months of arriving I was assistant editor of a new launch called the Judge Dredd Megazine. Editor and mentor Steve MacManus foolishly encouraged my writing aspiration, bless his heart.

I wrote an allegedly satirical series for the Megazine called The Straitjacket Fits, a strip made bearable only by the brilliant contribution of artist Roger Langridge. I also co-wrote a series called The Soul Sisters, of which the less said the better. By April 1992 I was on staff as editor of the Megazine and felt it would be invidious to commission myself when so many talented freelancers were available. So my writing ceased for a while.

But later that year Virgin Books secured a licence to publish new, original novels based on the British comics icon Judge Dredd. They needed authors who knew Dredd, I was editing Dredd and eager to have a novel of my own published. So I wrote The Savage Amusement for Virgin, a mess of book with a few good moments amid the dross. I got up at five each morning to write 1500 words before going to work, plus Sundays and holidays too.

Took me ten weeks to produce 70,000 words on an electric typewriter [I couldn't afford an Amstrad PCW9512, the freelance scribe's weapon of choice in those days]. No revisions, no rewriting, hell, not even any backspacing. Despite all the flaws of that first novel [and my arrogant refusal to rewrite any of it], Virgin were both gullible and desperate enough to commission another from me in short. More early rising, and lots of late nights.

But something happened during my second Dredd novel: I discovered I could write. For a few sequences weird stuff appeared on the page about which I had no idea from whence it had come. Some of this was so creepy, it kind of worried me that I could even imagine these horrors, let alone show them to others. The characters did things I didn't expect, the narrative took on its own momentum. I wasn't writing anymore, I was channeling.

Alas, my third novel was a pile of crap written for money, rather than from any great creative spark or inspiration. [Never do this, it's torture - trust me, I know.] One sequence in that book did make me cry as I wrote it, but the rest was pish. By now work was getting intense as the 1995 Dredd movie loomed, and I didn't have much time for writing outside work. But I did develop my first proper Doctor Who novel, Who Killed Kennedy.

I must have written that in the summer of 1995, but grud knows how or when. I overcome all those years having the personal pronoun thrashed out of me to write the novel in the first person - and it remains one of the best things I've done. Personal, heartfelt and dripping with enough Who references to drown a TARDIS. The ending doesn't work, but WKK is still well regarded in Who circles [unlike my subsequent Who novel efforts].

Come Christmas 1995 I was made editor of weekly anthology 2000 AD and my days of writing novels outside work were over. I poured every ounce of creative energy and inspiraton I had into the comic, there was nothing left once I got home - I gave at the office. But as the year 2000 approached, I was itching to get writing again. I knew it couldn't happen while I was at 2000 AD. If I wanted to write, I'd had to quit my dream job...

NEXT TIME: what David did next, how to write nine novels in 27 months, and why on earth did he decide to try screenwriting?


Anonymous said...

Good stuff. As a frustrated (read:lazy)screenwriter/film-maker it quite inspiring reading this. I must pick your brain at Napier when I get the chance.

Tim Jones said...

This made very interesting reading, David - I'm looking forward to further instalments!