Death and a Quick Pen

I write fast.

When I start a novel, I write two thousand words at a sitting, twice a day. There was a time when I wrote every day until I finished whatever I was working on. Now, older and married, I write five days a week and keep the weekends free. That still means that writing four thousand words a day I chalk up twenty thousand words a week. I complete the first draft of a novel in four or five weeks.

Admittedly, I feel pretty jaded by then – but the hard work is done. All that remains to do is the fiddly work of the rewrite.

And the reason I write so fast is that, when I was sixteen, I thought I was dying.

I’d left school at fourteen when my parents and I emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. At that time, in the mid-seventies, pupils could leave school in Victoria at fifteen. As I was not in the slightest academic – let’s face it, I wasn’t very bright – I opted not to tread the groves of academe, but work in my parents’ corner shop instead.

I was fifteen when I discovered Agatha Christie, and knew instantly that I wanted to be a writer.

But how did a working class lad with ne’er two brain cells to rub together, with no formal education to speak of – and whose first attempts at writing a story dispensed with commas and full stops – hope to write books that people might want to read?

Well, I didn’t ask myself that at the time. With a degree of ignorance and blind faith which in retrospect is frightening, I began scribbling short crime stories set in the English countryside that, sequestered in the outback, I missed so much.

I began my first novel a year after discovering the works of Agatha Christie, and a week later developed wracking chest pains and cramps. I was convinced, with the unshakeable certitude of the hypochondriac that I would remain for the rest of my life, that I was not long for this world. In fact, I gave myself six months.

Now I’d read somewhere that most novelists took a year to write their books… and a quick calculation brought me to the realisation that my magnum opus – a murder mystery set aboard the Titanic – would still be unfinished at the time of my early passing.

Galvanised, I alternated between periods of morose teenage melancholia and bursts of frenetic writing activity in a manic effort to finish the novel.

I did, all sixty thousand words of it – and I even outlived my self-prophesied six months. In fact, I had time to rewrite the novel, which I did too.

Then it came to me – when the chest pains abated – that I’d written a novel pretty damned quickly. And that ability to write at speed has never left me.

And the novel of fiendish multiple murder and cunning detection set aboard the doomed passenger liner?

It was terrible, and languishes still in my files – probably the worst whodunit in the history of literary creation, but a manuscript which I think of with fondness and gratitude.

Now the bouts of hypochondria visit me rarely, but I still write like a man possessed. When an idea grips me I make copious notes, daydream for hours on end, and live with the characters and their travails until the pressure builds and I can no longer hold it in. At which point I sit at my desk – a big, old 1950s Baird radiogram – and start writing.

I’d like to go back in time and tell the sixteen year old that I was – homesick for England and suffering the certainty of an early death – that nearly forty year later not only would I still be in the land of the living, but that I’d be a published novelist and a reviewer for the Guardian newspaper. I’d tell him that he had nothing to fear but fear itself, and thank him for teaching me that it’s fine to write fast, despite what the literary elitists might say.

And I like to think that he’d be proud – after he’d overcome his initial disbelief, of course.


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