Doug Johnstone

  • 25 July 2006

This article is from 2006.

There are a million manuscripts sitting in British publishing houses, destined never to see the light. So how do successful first novelists actually get their break? Doug Johnstone, in this painfully honest essay, explains how he went about it

They say everyone's got a novel in them. I don't know who 'they' are, but that's the biggest load of bollocks I've ever heard. What 'they' probably mean is that everyone has a story to tell (i.e. their own lives), but that's a very different basket of frogs. And anyway, most people's lives are incredibly boring day by day, mine included, and if someone made the mistake of turning them into novels you'd have to be insane or an extreme masochist to bother trying to read them.

So. Not everyone has a novel in them. And that phrase is misleading anyway. It implies that novels are sitting around somewhere, fully formed, just waiting to be born into the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. You have to create a piece of fiction out of thin air, you have to put pen to paper, or start typing, whatever - anything to banish that bloody blank page.

As you might have gathered by now, I've written a novel. Actually, I've written two, but only one is (so far) being published. The fact that I've written two novels while also earning a living and supporting a young family fills me with dumbfounded amazement every day, but there it is. And if I can do it, there's hope for all the other hapless buffoons out there daft enough to think that writing fiction is a good idea. Which it is, actually, on the whole.

I should probably tell you a little bit about this novel of mine. It's called Tombstoning. It's a darkly comic literary thriller set around a school reunion in Arbroath, where I grew up. There's romance and violence and dead bodies and a shit load of booze and even a boat chase in it. There are people jumping off the local cliffs for kicks, that act being the tombstoning of the title.

The inspiration for the book came, I guess, from the Friends Reunited craze a couple of years ago. I found that whole thing so spectacularly weird that it made my teeth itch. Apparently, at one point the UK divorce rate was increasing, and Friends Reunited was being blamed, as people dissatisfied with their lives got back in touch with a past they thought they had, hooking up with old flames and all that. The idea of a school reunion is exactly as freaky and compelling as rubbernecking a car crash. It's horrible, but you can't help yourself.

I wanted to write about how the past affects us, whether we can ever really escape it. I've hardly been back to Arbroath in the last eighteen years, and before I started writing this book I rarely thought about the place consciously, yet it's where I spent the formative years of my life, so surely it has shaped me into the person I am today? Or has it?

This is the question at the heart of Tombstoning. I decided to set up two main characters with opposite viewpoints on the matter. Conflict is the key to all decent stories, after all - who wants to read about a bunch of folk getting on? So, David is a hapless, thirtysomething slacker originally from Arbroath but now based in Edinburgh (sound familiar?) who thinks that you can reinvent yourself anew every morning. Nicola is a strong, independent thirtysomething single mother who is more in tune with her Arbroath past.

David left the place fifteen years ago when his best mate was found dead at the bottom of the local cliffs, but when he gets an invite to a school reunion from old flame Nicola he follows his dick, basically, and against his better judgement returns to his hometown. When he goes back, another dead body appears at the cliffs and - da da! - there's your plot.

That's all very well, but how the hell did I actually get it written? The answer is annoyingly banal, I'm afraid: I planned it, then I started writing it, then I kept writing it, and then I finished writing it. It took about nine months. It's not what aspiring novelists want to hear, I suspect, but that's the truth. There is no magic to it, just dogged determination.

I guess that for every ten people who sit in the pub saying they're going to write a novel, one actually starts doing it. For every ten who start, one finishes. For every ten who finish, only one novel is any good. For every ten that are any good, only one gets seen by the right publisher or agent at the right time. And then there are all sorts of other problems, like whether the marketing department think they can sell the book, whether book shops will stock it etc, etc.

I realise I've been incredibly lucky. But, as the football cliché goes, you make your own luck in this game. I did my homework. I read up about the publishing industry. I bought the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and swotted up. I surfed the net for days, finding out about agents and publishers who dealt with authors I loved. Even then, I got a shit load of rejections.

I mentioned earlier that Tombstoning is actually my second novel. My first effort was politely rejected by dozens of publishers, and something like 60 agents. And those are just the ones that replied to my email about taking a look at it. There were hundreds who didn't. Some of those who looked at it just plain didn't like it or get it. There's no point getting het up about such things. You have to just remind yourself that it's only one other person's opinion. A lot of people didn't even give a reason.

A couple of people loved it, but for various reasons decided they couldn't publish it. It's a war of attrition, trying to get published. Take any feedback on board, but don't take criticism too much to heart. You have to just stick in there. This, again, is not something prospective novelists want to hear, I suspect, but it's the truth, at least, it was for me.

Judy Moir is an editor with Penguin, and she has been crucial. Without her, I wouldn't be a novelist. She loved my first book, her encouragement spurring me on to keep going at a vital time when I felt that everything I wrote was utter shit. When she read the second book, I got an offer within a few days, a fact which I still can't really get my head around.

I still sometimes feel that everything I write is rubbish, although there are other times when I think Tombstoning is pretty decent. That's probably the kiss of death for a writer's work, like Radiohead admitting in interview that their new album is mince. I recently did my first ever book reading, and struggled to find a four-page section of the book which didn't make me cringe.

I have a feeling that writers don't finish novels, they abandon them. Any author who says they're completely satisfied with their new work is either a total moron or hugely, self-importantly delusional. Either that or they're simply a much better writer than me. I'm not completely satisfied with Tombstoning, not by a long chalk, but I am immensely proud of it, and I think that's about all any writer can hope for.

Simon Biggam, Doug Johnstone & Stephen Thompson: First Fiction, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, Fri 25 Aug, 7.30pm, £5 (£3).

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