Budding writer takes novel approach

A man is always a teller of tales. He lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others. So said Jean-Paul Sartre. But we’re probably more familiar with the old saw which states “everyone has a story to tell.”

I keep meeting people who tell me wonderful tales of their lives and experiences, even ideas they’ve dreamed up for novels. Unfortunately, most of them never get written.

As we retire from the workaday world, most of us will find we have more time to ourselves. And what better way to spend it than to record some of the notions and inspirations which are part of us?

I’ve always written for my own pleasure — an occasional short story, a poem, even a one-act play — but I never took myself seriously as a writer. When I stumbled into the journalist’s world of retirement and found my background in the music and entertainment scene — credentials enough to write about the arts — I was thrilled and still am.

In the back of my mind, though, was always the idea that I might write a novel. I’d thought about it throughout my life, but I never seemed ready to take the plunge. I know now that I was afraid. I didn’t want to find out that I couldn’write good fiction — better to keep pretending I just might.

Another fear was the work and discipline. Would I be able to stick to it for weeks, perhaps months, or would it join my boxes of other unfinished projects?

Don’t worry, dive in
Then fate intervened. Trapped in a boring supply-teaching assignment for three days with nothing to do but supervise, I grabbed some foolscap and started to jot down an idea I had for a short story. Three days later, I had 43 pages of set-up — but I hadn’t even got to the plot.

I almost scrapped it but, fortunately, something told me to bide my time. I mulled it over subconsciously, and before long I had a sketchy plot line for a longer piece. I bit the bullet, transferred my scribblings to my computer, and started to write.

One thing I learned in my career as a journalist was never to worry about the lead — the first line or paragraph. If you wait for that perfect opener to pop into your head, it may be some time before you even write a word. Dive in, start putting the ideas down and the lead will jump out as you write.

As I plodded through the preliminary chapters, I realized my style wasn’t consistent — chapter four sounded very different from chapter one. Before going any further, I began rewriting, with each subsequent rewrite tightening the package a notch.

Finding your voice
After six rewrites, it was quite consistent — I’d found the voice which would tell the story.
At this point, I knew I needed professional advice. A friend recommended a literary agent who would read my six chapters and give me an opinion.

Two weeks later she called and said, “Keep writing — if the rest is as good as this, you’ve got a novel. But don’t call me unless you finish it.” She knew the odds were against a first-timer actually completing a book. I’d begun writing from much of my own experience — one of the best things a writer can do, of course. But I also knew I couldn’t rely completely on memory and reference books, as I was writing an adventure story that had to feel authentic. It was set in Britain so I knew I had to go, cover the old ground again and experience the new.

This is when I discovered how helpful and co-operative people are when they find you’re writing a novel. British Aerospace, the British Army, the SIS, the U.S. embassy, the U.S. navy and even the Soviet embassy in London all co-operated fully. The only organization that wouldn’t answer any queries was the CIA.

Characters became friends
After scouting locations in France and Belgium, I came home to write in earnest — the most exhilarating period of my life. The characters became my friends. They were off on these wonderful adventures and allowed me to tag along. Many days I felt it was they who were writing the story — I was merely the chronicler.

My wife Gabriella was my greatest asset. After each chapter was completed, she would read it, offer encouragement, suggest some changes (she was never wrong) and I would edit before proceeding. She felt I should end each chapter with a hook to lead into the next, shorten the epilogue (I was trying to hold on to the characters after the story was really over) and helped me tighten the phrasing, the narrative, and especially the dialogue.

I’ll never forget the day I called her into my office to show her the two words on the computer screen — The End. I had done it, and in so doing, conquered my fears forever. I had no idea it would get published — that’s a crapshoot. I had written Debut for a Spy because it was something I had to do. It was for me. Publishing was the frosting on the cake.
Harry Currie is the author of Debut for a Spy, published in 1995.