Regular readers of The Dabbler will remember Gareth Rees of The Marshman Chronicles. Today Gareth returns as “Newly published author, Gareth E. Rees” to reveal how he put an end to 20 years of writing awful, half-arsed, unfinished novels.
I’ve just turned 40. My first book, Marshland, comes out at the end of this month. This is an unexpected turn of events. Eighteen months ago I had no intention of writing a book. There couldn’t have been worse conditions for doing so. My failing home business took up most of my days, evenings and weekends. My two children, 2 and 3, were urinating all over the house, which my wife and I were trying to decorate – in those brief periods when we weren’t following them from room-to-room, clutching pairs of tiny pants, holding back tears.
From this chaos, somehow, emerged a novel-length book, blending weird fiction, travelogue and local legend, set in East London’s marshes. It took me just fourteen months to go from nothing to a final, typeset draft.
What was most surprising was that I’d spent my twenties and my early thirties dabbling in novels to no avail. It was a period of my life free of commitments, in which I was mostly single. I had a job as a copywriter that finished at 5:30pm, leaving me plenty of time free to write. Even factoring in the heavy drinking, I should have been able to come up with at least one book in that time. A novel I started when I was 21 was the furthest I got, but by the time I finished a first draft at 23 I was too embarrassed by the piss-poor characterisation, flaky plot and meta-fictional pretension to waste my time on a second draft. So it went into a drawer, along with all the subsequent attempts I made, usually once every couple of years.
Each time I was positive this would be ‘the one’. I’d bang on endlessly to my friends about what I was planning. In my head there was a sure-fire masterpiece waiting to be written. How hard could it be to simply channel the genius?
After about 15,000 words I’d always run out of steam and it would end up in the Drawer of Doom with the rest of the crap. Embarrassed by my failure, I’d swear to attempt the next novel in secret. But I couldn’t help myself. It’s like joining a gym. For that first few months you’re driven by boastful enthusiasm and a sense of superiority. Then you stop going and try to pretend it never happened, while money keeps seeping from your bank account as punishment for your vanity.
The unexpected turning point
It all changed after I got married. My wife got pregnant. We bought a flat, a dog and a car. Two kids came along quickly. Now I was up to my neck in commitments. To escape I’d take the dog out onto the marshes of London’s Lea Valley, ten minutes from my flat. I fell in love with its eerie mixture of ancient pastureland, Victorian ruins, filthy waterways and pylons. When I attempted to describe the topography of this overlooked London wilderness to friends I got blank stares. So I retreated to the internet, creating The Marshman Chronicles as a place to post notes about my walks and share them with like-minded folk on Twitter.
After two years I had accumulated an online stockpile of notes and story fragments: the first British aeroplane flight, trekkers escaping from Blitz bombs, a 19th Century sex cult, railway line cottagers, oddball wanderers, sightings of crocodiles and bears, Lea river zombies, a yuppie couple haunted by a factory and paranoid rants about murdered swans.
The Marshman Chronicles blog
When Influx Press asked me if I’d be interested in turning the Marshman Chronicles into a book, I said ‘yes’ without any idea of how I could possibly achieve such a thing.
I started out with trepidation, but this was far easier than previous writing attempts. When I was younger I started books with no research, no notes, no mental map. I’d invent a rough plot in my head, inspired by other book plots I liked, with no particular sense of place. This time I had a clear vision of the place I was about to describe. I also had 30,000 words worth of notes already written on my blog. These were stories that were already out there – commuted to me by a place for which I had a genuine passion and knowledge accumulated over five years’ worth of walks.
It’s the richness and depth of the stock which makes a good soup, not what you chuck in the pot. In the same way, this book was rich and deep with material before I wrote the first word. Only now did I realise the secret that had eluded me for two decades – there’s a lot of writing to be done before you start writing.
My only obstacle was time. So I set about developing a writing routine. I’d wake at 6:30am and do an hour of writing before the kids awoke at 7:30. I’d always written in the evening but this was a revelation. Without the accumulated burdens of the day, my head was clear, mind sharp.
Of course, I won’t pretend it was easy. One misjudged creak on the stairway at 6:30am and it was as I’d snagged a tripwire – the dog suddenly whining, kids crying out, wife grumbling, lights flickering on. I’d run to my study where I’d slap on my headphones, turn the ambient drone up to “11”, and try to forget the carnage outside the door.
I had to work or look after the girls during daytime, but on my daily dog walks I had 90 minutes of mental space in which ideas came flooding. I’d type them into my iphone as I walked. In late evenings after my domestic duties were done, I’d play around with edits or – lubricated with wine – try some crazier speculative ideas.
Slowly, but surely, the chapters took shape. Thanks to the pressure of family commitments, noise and financial stress I’d stumbled upon a method of writing perfect for me. The act of writing the book became a pleasure in itself – far better than writing sales copy to pay off a whopping debt, pleading with my accountant, painting walls, mopping up piss or negotiating with screaming toddlers. It became hard not to write. I couldn’t wait to shut the door of my office and get on with the next chapter. Compared to the chaos of my life, this was something I could control. Finally, after fifteen years of half-arsed attempts I was writing a book which I knew – with absolute certainty – that I would finish.
For what it’s worth, a writer’s tip
I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all writing tips but if you’re a budding author with no book yet, there’s one lesson I learned: start writing stuff down first – anything that comes to mind. Do it habitually, every week, without worrying about a plot or an end goal. Get it out there. A blog is a great way to force yourself into regular bursts of raw material, no matter how variable the quality, no matter how chaotic your life is at the present time.
After a while a book idea should take form. All you have to do is recognise it when it happens.
Gareth’s book Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London is available for pre-order here on Influx Press. It will hit selected London bookshops from October 28th.