At dinner parties, the one question I’m often asked is when did I first discover I could write?
Does any writer discover they can write or is writing something we all start doing? For me, the moment I discovered books I wanted to tell my own stories. It really is as simple as that. I can’t have been much good at it in those early years because I can only remember, when I would thrust my scrawly hand-written efforts under my parents noses, their hands tapping me lightly on the head as they murmered something like, “That’s lovely, darling.” Well, they were busy. We didn’t have much money and they had three hungry mouths to feed.
So the first time I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! I must be good at this!” was when I received my first and only A plus for an English homework assignment. One morning whilst on the school bus a pretty, freckle-faced girl sat next to me casually said she’d found the English essay hard to write. My mind froze in terror! I’d forgotten all about writing an essay on my view of heaven. We weren’t a religious family and now I’m an atheist and resent the indoctrination that had been imposed upon my brain at such a young age, but on the bus that morning I quickly scratched out a four line poem that read: “Bells are ringing in the world above, Angels singing songs of love, Jesus sits at God’s right hand, Watching over the mortal land.” It’s hardly the essay requested, but, as I said, the teacher gave me an A plus and I felt very pleased with myself.
After that I wrote poetry at every opportunity and, as I’m Welsh, I dreamt of being the next Dylan Thomas.
I never did become the next Dylan Thomas. I joined the army instead. My life in the army became the memoir, In Sights: The Story Of A Welsh Guardsman, a book that was published by The History Press in 2013.
In Sights came about due to a girlfriend’s persistent demands I write the anecdotes I kept recounting down. The only memories I felt were marketable are my recollections of the Falklands war, so I sent a draft of my experiences to my agent, who promptly told me he wanted the story behind the story. In short, he wanted to know how I’d found myself in the theatre of war. So, my girlfriend got her way and I ended up writing all those anecdotes down. The book begins with day one of signing up to the end of the Falklands war and in between I tell about the time I stepped on Princess Diana’s toe and the time I found myself in the Queen’s bedroom. I tell of my days in Berlin guarding Rudolf Hess and my memories of marching down the Mall to the music of the military bands and I tell the story about showing off to girls as I strode into Buckingham Palace after a night on the town. And I also tell about the greatest day of my life when I walked along a dry river bed seeking out the wildlife in Kenya. I was unarmed and alone. I realise now it was very dangerous, but after a regular diet of Tarzan books in my teenage years, it was intensely thrilling.
After the army I joined the BBC Wales Film Unit as an assistant cameraman. Almost as soon as I stepped through the reception doors of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s head of drama in Wales, John Hefin, asked me if I’d consider making a film with him about my experiences in the Falklands war. The result was broadcast as The Play For Today, Mimosa Boys. It was whilst working on Mimosa Boys I really learned to write. Ewart Alexander wrote the screenplay and I worked closely with him on details and dialogue. It was a wonderful period when I found myself surrounded by creative individuals, many of whom were among the very best in their chosen field and, to my naive amazement, I fitted in perfectly. I went on to make many more dramas and films for the BBC. Top producers were phoning me almost daily requesting my services on this play or that film. I was usually a military adviser and reworked dialogue and scenes to be more realistic. Of course the film unit wanted me back as an assistant cameraman, the role for which I was receiving a monthly salary, although I’d hardly spent any time behind the camera as a cameraman’s assistant. I finished my BBC career working with BAFTA and Emmy award winning director Norman Stone on the film New World, starring James Fox and Bernard Hill. I’d met Norman whilst he was editing the BAFTA award winning Shadowlands. We struck up a friendship and I worked on New World as a member of the film crew.
I left the BBC to focus on my own writing. Friends and family were aghast I could walk out on such a great career, but, now my creative juices had matured and were in full flow. I needed to write my own material.
But alas, I spent years in the literary wilderness. I did manage to write bits and pieces, but earning money and a string of girlfriends meant I was in a permanent state of distraction. I did have some literary success. I won a short story competition and I wrote another short story that was commissioned by the BBC as part of an arts series. But I really wanted to write the big screenplay.
When I did find the space and peace to write the big screenplay it ended up being the novel Raw Nerve. At this time I’m a single guy living in rural Wales and had pretty much opted out of the rat race. The idea for Raw Nerve came to me when I asked myself the question: Why didn’t Colin Powel run for the White House? And upon that question I began to write and the story unfolded. The first scene was originally written in script form, but I quickly realised this was a story I wanted cemented onto a page before I let producers, directors and actors loose on it. During my time in the BBC I’d been one of the people who set about rewriting a script the moment it was received. The rewrites could be for many reasons, with budget consideration being top of the list. I knew immediately this was a film that would demand a big budget, so it seemed sensible to write the novel first. A successful novel could attract a big budget and I was thinking Hollywood. Yes, I’ve always been ambitious. If you’re going to reach for something, it may as well be a star.
During writing Raw Nerve I learned that writing a novel isn’t that different to writing a script. As I’ve already mentioned, once a producer has commissioned a script it gets reworked by the director and producer and possibly a script editor. Very quickly into writing the novel I learned I had to work with characters who had their own ideas about the story “they” wanted to tell. I remember on one particularly memorable occasion Gideon, the main protagonist, did something that changed my plot. “Hey!” I shouted out loud. “You can’t do that!” Gideon turned to me and snarled angrily, “Shut up and just keep up.” That is the moment I learned I had to take a back seat and allow the characters to explore the stage I’d set. So now, even though I generally write thrillers, all my novels are character driven.
Upon completing Raw Nerve, I sat my father down in front of the ream of paper that was the manuscript and asked for his opinion. He took almost a week to read it and refused to make any comment until he’d finished. I was a nervous wreck during that week. When he did finally turn the last page, he simply said, “That’s excellent. Now get it published.”
I sent the manuscript to one agent in New York and two in London. All the agents wanted to represent the novel and they all got back to me within a week. I went with the agent in New York because the story is set in the USA and within a couple of weeks I found myself flying to New York to sign a deal with HarperCollins….
Okay, I could go on forever about how enthusiastically Raw Nerve was received by the traditional publishing industry in New York. It really is a long story… Suffice to say Raw Nerve wasn’t published. One vice-president of one of the major publishing houses accused me of stretching credulity to breaking point and beyond, and a president of another publisher pulled the plug on Raw Nerve because she couldn’t have her company associated with riots in the streets. I believe they were referring to my suggestion America would ever have a black president. And it really wasn’t that long after this debacle that Barack Obama arrived on the scene.
But Raw Nerve wasn’t published. I did self-publish in 2012, but that was for a very short period. I wasn’t happy with the format of the paperback copy my sister bought and so I unpublished pretty damn quickly. Recently I have republished Raw Nerve, but this was only after I’d self-published Delphian and learned that indie publishing had grown up… Considerably.
Raw Nerve not being published knocked me sideways. It was and is a great story and I knew that, so the outcome was I lost confidence in the publishing industry as a whole. Raw Nerve was perceived to be controversial, I get that, but, in my opinion, an industry in the creative arts has to embrace controversy. It is my opinion that a business pursuing an original creative product that is afraid to take risks declares itself redundant. That remains my position.
After the storm around Raw Nerve had subsided, I met a woman and again disappeared from the literary scene. She had children, so it was for a prolonged period. I re-emerged with In Sights, but you’ve already heard that story.
Writing In Sights was always intended as a stepping-stone into the publishing industry. On one hand I’m amazed at the success of In Sights, which really is just a very short and small period of my life, and on the other hand I’m appreciative at the stunning opportunities that experience has offered me. That whole period was pretty awesome, but then again, so was the time I spent with the BBC.
But it taught me that, like a book, life is a series of chapters and at the end of each chapter you begin with a clean page. And the next chapter for me was a determination to write another novel. It was the novel I titled Delphian.
I loved writing Delphian. It’s a novel I set in Wales at a location I know well. The main protagonist, Vincent, is certainly my alta-ego. In Delphian I wanted to expose the hypocrisy that is vivisection, yet I accept the argument that if I had a child dying of cancer I would be desperate for a cure. Thus the story begins with someone’s child being used as a vivisection subject. The idiosyncratic characters that people the story add layers of colour and sub-plot threads that emerged so naturally. The characters really did write Delphian, not me. I finished the book on one hundred and seventy thousand words.
But when I sent the manuscript to my agent he, without reading a page, told me I had to get the novel down to one hundred thousand words maximum. He explained the publishing industry had changed dramatically since I’d written Raw Nerve and publishers no longer risked big print runs to get the price point right until the author had a name that would sell books in vast quantities. It was another shock. In Sights was supposed to get my hoof in the door and Delphian was supposed to cement my position as a successful author. I suddenly had a huge problem. Either I listen to my agent and tore out the heart of the novel or I stood my ground? I decided to compromise. Compromise has never been a good fit for me, but it didn’t take much research to discover he was right and that traditional publishing truly is an industry afraid of taking risks…
So what did I do to compromise? Well, I set about writing a novel that fitted in with the new traditional norm of debut novels being no longer than two hundred and fifty pages. Again I hit roadblocks. The new novel is peopled by characters who feel a strong need to express their own honest opinions and one character loudly states his opinion with regard religion. So I now find myself having to defend my characters right to free speech? This is due, I suspect, because my agent is a devout Christian. We haven’t had the conversation, and perhaps we should, but the novel I’d targeted below a hundred thousand words, wasn’t received with the enthusiasm I’d expected. I knew this wasn’t about the quality of the writing or the story, but about the moral message contained therein.
I must admit, WTF is an acquired taste. It is the literary equivalent of Marmite – the reader will either love it or hate it. WTF is a novel I wrote in six weeks, which is alarmingly quick for me. The story had started life as a screenplay I’d written years ago and when I found the mouldy, yellowed pages of the script in an old draw at my parents house, I re-read it and knew it is too good a story not to redraft into novel form. Actually I rewrote the piece entirely because I gave it a contemporary setting and so much has changed in society and technology since I wrote the script. But the core storyline remains the same. It is the first novel I have written in first person and that probably explains why I wrote it so quickly. It’s about a SAS-type soldier whose life is turned upside down as he crashes from one drama into another against a background of national news headlines. I make no apology for the strong opinions expressed and, although Steve is only twenty-one, I think he sets the stage for a great debate the novel has the potential to provoke. Writing believable explicit sex was a challenge where I stretched myself as a writer, but the sex is, in my opinion, necessary as the motive for why James falls in love so quickly and easily – it was certainly true of myself at twenty-one. Yes, I’ve drawn heavily on personal experience whilst writing this novel.
Now I’ve adapted both Delphian and WTF for the TV screen and look forward to a long awaited returning to the film set.
And recently I’ve started writing the next novel. It’s another thriller with a huge, international storyline that again features Vincent and that is all I will say about this novel for the moment…
So now that I’m on my fourth novel, can I consider myself a successful writer? Well, it has always been my view that a successful writer is a writer who finishes a book and starts the next. And I’ve discovered that old saying is true: life isn’t about the destination, it has always been about the journey… And even though my journey has been along a very twisty path with more than a few hair-pin bends and too often I found I had a monkey on my back, it’s always been fun and I haven’t stopped smiling …
Thank you for your time.
You’ll find all my novels at my Amazon author page here: http://author.to/TimRees