Writing a book
The book ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle’ has been in the writing for two and a half years. I never thought I would write a book, but I had lots of positive feedback from the readers of my blog, so about six months after I returned from my adventure I decided to go for it. I went on a writing holiday – ten days in the Lake District – to start to turn my blog into a story. I thought it would take a few months. A year later I went on another writing holiday – ten days in Oban and the Isle of Mull – to complete what I thought would be the finished manuscript. It was fifteen months later that I actually finished it, and it has taken a further six months to reach the stage where the manuscript is ready for proof reading.
I owe a lot to Jennifer Barclay who was working for Summersdale when she contacted me: “I’m enjoying your blog. Is there a book in this?” I responded saying, yes, as it happens, there was. I excitedly sent her my first draft. “Unfortunately as a book manuscript, this doesn’t really fit our bill, I’m sorry to say,” she wrote. It was too ‘bloggy’ – too much chatter about the practicalities of the ride, and not enough development of the characters, least of all me. There began two years of soul-searching – how do I write about myself? Making my voice come across in a meaningful way was the hardest part of the writing, and the thing that most of my test readers throughout that time highlighted.
I had some very candid and useful feedback from my friends, most notably Richard Gibbens, who had the unenviable task of trawling through some very badly-written early drafts and trying to tease out a sense of character and narrative from my writing. My friend David Charles (a proper writer) gave me some very useful tips on character and dialogue. My dad was my first copy-editor. I had never before used the terms “as if” or “fewer” or “bored with” and I’d ended far too many sentences with a preposition. I’d always thought I had a good grasp of the English language, but writing has taught me so much, and my spoken English is better because of it.
About three further drafts were rejected by Summersdale (Jennifer had left by this point, so I was liaising with Claire Plimmer), and after much to-ing and fro-ing I was finally offered a contract in June 2014. When I read the email I jumped up and down squealing on the deck of my boat.
One of the clauses of the contract was that the manuscript should not exceed 60,000 words. I had already written 110,000 and wasn’t quite finished. I negotiated 80,000 as the final word count. The final submission was 85,000.
Cutting that many words was hard work, but very useful. I really had to put myself in the reader’s head – some parts that I loved were deleted because, though they meant a lot to me, they would be inconsequential to someone who didn’t know me. And that process was essential for turning it from a barely-readable door-stop to something that people might pick up from the shelf and actually reach the final page. I found it similar to what I imagine film editors must go through – I’ve watched the deleted scenes of many of my favourite films, and though the scenes are enjoyable, they are by no means essential to the story. Making that distinction when deeply involved in the writing is very tricky.
Many characters didn’t make the final cut. I felt terrible about doing this but I had to be brutal: I met so many people during the course of the ride that I couldn’t possibly work them all in to the book in a way that was meaningful.
So, apologies to Sarah Wise, Wendy and Michael Norman, Laura McGinty, Chantel and Andrew, Julien Masse, Flora Lawrie, Martin and family from Arran, Frank and Judy Brzezinka, Jan Rees, Mary Kelland, Simon Wallis, Marianne and Sandy in Llangrannog, Andy Ashman, Huw Evans, Tim Anfield, Julie and Alan Frecknall, Tom Sutcliffe, Nick Ratcliffe (and extra apologies to Nick because he hosted and rode with me and I’ve omitted all that!), Adrian Balletto, Mr and Mrs Sherratt, Hannah and Nathan Gardner, Graeme Willgress, Colin and Kenny who I met in Acharachle, Tristan who rode with me to Western-super-Mare, and all of the people who rode me out of London on the first day: Will Smith, Dad, Georgie Fyfe-Jameson, Andy Casson and Juanita Hard.
I changed a couple of names to avoid repetition, so Martyn Wells, you are now Matthew, to avoid confusion with my ‘uncle’ Martyn, and Pete, you are now Patrick, to avoid confusion with my colleague Pete, and Sarah Varney, you are now Libby, to avoid confusion with my twin sister.
Once I had the manuscript down to a workable length, I was assigned an editor. I was thrilled that this was to be the now-freelance Jennifer Barclay – a lovely symmetry given that it was she who had initially introduced me to Summersdale. She gave me guidance on the continuity of story lines, the development of characters, and clarity of some of my descriptions (what do you mean here, give us a little more detail here, etc). Her input was brilliant and I am tremendously grateful to her, for both her excellent editing, and for contacting me in the first place. Had that not happened my book would probably not have been published (I sent the MS to many companies, but very few accept unsolicited manuscripts). I could always have self-published, but now the world would be burdened with a very dry and un-imaginative 110,000 word-long book.
The manuscript was then copy-edited (which involved checking LOTS of facts, including the spellings of all the place-names, of which there were many) and is now back at Summersdale for final proof-reading. Then the whole book will be finalised: cover design, acknowledgements, illustrations and endorsements – ready to hit the shelves in March.
It has been an interesting experience, to constantly re-live something that happened quite a long time ago now. It was August 2011 that I set out on my bike ride around Britain. It was a relatively short adventure (ten weeks) but has taken up so much of my life since. I’m really excited to be finally sharing my story in a proper book. Many people have asked, “What will you write next?” and I have been adamant that I’m not going to write another one – while enjoyable, writing this has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But then again, I didn’t think I’d write this one – so watch this space!