Last month, I completed a seven-year journey, when my debut novel Gorgito's Ice Rink was published.
It is set in Russia, and started life as an exercise for NaNoWriMo in 2007 although at the time, I only managed about 6,000 words. [National Novel Writing Month happens every November, when writers all around the world challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in one month.]
In August of the same year, I had attended the Writers' Summer School in Swanwick for the first—but certainly not the last—time. During the communal mealtimes 'What do you write?' was the most frequent start to a conversation.
I spent three days apologising for not being a 'proper' writer as I'd only written a few short stories and had nothing published. It was only after attending a session on writing non-fiction that the penny dropped
I had written hundreds of thousands of words: textbooks on pharmaceutical manufacturing sold on Amazon; training modules presented to hundreds of students; and innumerable audit reports on factories worldwide. I knew I could write reasonably well: succinctly, grammatically — above all, accurately. Every word I ever wrote was true.
And that's where the difficulty lay. I was a writer, but to me, a proper writer was one who writes fiction (and before every non-fiction writer reaches for their pen or their keyboard to protest, I know that's not true; it's just the way I felt at the time).
For twenty plus years, I had travelled extensively on business, witnessed many events, gathered anecdotes and had a few close shaves. I wondered if I could weave my experiences into fiction. Hence the attempt to write the novel.
Elizabeth Ducie 2014
Over the next three years, I worked on those six thousand words. I edited them and rewrote them. They were polished to within an inch of their life; the order of the chapters was changed three times. I wrote short stories periodically and even won a couple of competitions. But there was always a reason why I couldn't write more: too much work; too much travel; too many other things going on at the same time.
In 2010, I decided to stop making excuses and just get on with it
I applied for a place on the MA course in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter and gave myself two years to complete the novel and start looking for an agent. 'If I can't do it in that time, I will admit that I'm not a novelist and stick with short stories,' I vowed. Ever the scientist, I saw things in black and white, although, as we all know, life's not really like that.
My intention was to use different chapters for each of my assignments. However, one of the tutors insisted I produce something different for his modules, promising me that my novel would be all the better for this approach. Initially annoyed by this, I now realise he was right.
I took a module in Screenwriting, primarily to avoid the alternative of poetry (my apologies to all poets out there)
I started the module by admitting I had no interest in writing scripts, but acquired a neat plotting tool which I have found useful ever since. I had the whole story of the novel described in a few pages of 'film treatment' which made it easier to write chapters going forward.
I was unprepared for the feelings of inadequacy that initially swept over me every time we had to read out our work. Public reading was not something new to me. I have been a member of several writing groups; I have addressed public meetings with tens or even hundreds of my peers during my day-job. I am quite fond of the sound of my own voice. So why did I spend forty minutes during the first seminar staring at my book, avoiding the tutor's eye and screaming 'don't let him pick me' in my mind?
I was surprised by the low level of contact time (two hours per module per week). However, the day-job meant I wouldn't have had time for anything more. I had to scrabble to get the reading and pre-seminar work done on occasion
One day in September 2011, I was on a teleconference with some colleagues in America when I had a Damascene revelation: I didn't care any longer about manufacturing quality or engineering specifications; I needed to get out. And just like that, a thirty year career in the international pharmaceutical industry was over. Although, in practice, it took me six months to complete all my projects and disengage myself, it was always a foregone conclusion. On 1st April 2012, I was no longer a scientist, I became a full-time writer.
I was now writing daily rather than occasionally and although I failed in my objective to complete the manuscript by the end of the course, I had more than 60,000 words finished and knew I'd be able to see it through. The changes in the publishing industry over the past few years have made independent publishing a much more viable and acceptable option, and this is the route I chose to take.
Looking back on the seven years, I've learned a lot and made lots of friends in the writing world
Would I have done things differently? Probably not. The MA was very beneficial, although not necessarily in the ways I expected, and the independent route, while hard work, means I maintain ultimate control over the success (or otherwise) of my books. However, I might have given up the day job sooner. And this month, I'm taking part in NaNoWriMo once more. I'm already 11,000 words into novel number two, set this time in Africa. But I'm hoping this journey will be closer to one year than seven!
Gorgito's Ice Rink is avaiable now on Amazon.