The Novella Version
One of the privileges of being ‘of a certain age’ is that when I look back, there’s quite a lot to look back at. The thing is, though, it doesn’t necessarily make looking forward or knowing what’s going to happen in the future any easier than it ever was.
For all the things I have done I don’t think I would ever have predicted, when I was doing them, that at some time I would become an author. Although, if I look back carefully enough, I can find hints. As a child, I always loved being read to and being told stories; especially if they came with caricature voices. I was an avid reader myself, and enjoyed reading all manner of books and stories. I was always inclined towards the sciences, but enjoyed languages, wordplay, listening to great raconteurs, hearing impersonations and even doing a few impressions and a bit of acting myself. At times throughout my life, I’ve had the feeling, as many people have, that there was a book in me. I just didn’t know what it was, or when I would have the time and the inclination to find that out, or even if I would eventually get on and write it. It could have stopped there. And, for years, it did.
After University, I spent many years as a military Engineer; I left and became an explosives engineer; then, suddenly, I found myself at a loose end. I took matters in hand and I trained qualified as a science teacher. Then, again something of a surprise, I found myself a stay-at-home dad wondering what it was that I was going to be next; even more than that, what it was that I wanted to be next and most of all whether there was anybody who offered what I thought I wanted to do and who would offer me the opportunity to do it. None of that was ever part of the plan. Becoming an author seems to have been an accident—let’s call it an unanticipated occurrence—waiting to happen.
Writing a book is more than just writing. Writing a book is a lifestyle process and, more than anything else, it’s a journey. I hope it isn’t a surprise to you to be told that. I coined the term ‘Bibliogenics’ to describe the art and science, the process and the journey of going from nascent brainwave to ready-to-read book. ‘Bibliogenics’ is, unsurprisingly, the name of my own imprint: my own self-build, one-author publishing house.
So far, all my thinking, researching and writing have been compelling but, I must confess, a little solitary. Creating something meaningful and enduring for other people to enjoy does, however, bring its own rewards. It’s why artisans and artists do what they do. Here’s another non-surprise for you: books are only books and not just writing if they have readers or, for that matter, listeners. Finding and engaging with them is the hardest, but hopefully it will be a highly rewarding element of the Bibliogenics building process. It’s still proving difficult to carve out my niche and to get a readership whose members like what I offer. It always was going to be difficult with one book. And, indeed, it was. It remained difficult with two and three. Perhaps it will remain difficult with four. Hopefully, with more on the shelf, as a portfolio becomes an oeuvre, it will get easier and things will develop to become bigger and better.
And that, in a nutshell, is My Author Journey so far. If you are so inclined, the tree that the nut came from is below. It would be my privilege and pleasure if you spent a few minutes browsing it. I would also be honoured if you would sign up to learn more about John Quentin Books, so that you know what’s in the pipeline and when it might pop out. (Hint: they emerge at a rate of about one a year so that’s not much mail you’ll be signing up to!)
The Novel Version
‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean; neither more nor less.”’
Having a fragile egg with a poor sense of balance and a highly developed sense of entropy as a consultant etymologist is a luxury I don’t have. At least not yet, anyway. I imagine that if there is more than one such egg out there, they are few and far between and that very likely all are damaged beyond the ability of man and horse to put them together again. Thankfully, I do have the luxury of being able to use words to mean just what I choose them to mean. More or less, anyway. I cannot, however, assume that when I do, my readers or listeners will instinctively understand, adopt and share my definition. Being misunderstood in that sort of way is incompatible with communicating effectively, or at least trying to communicate effectively. Although, I must confess, being unintentionally misunderstood is something that I must endure from time to time.
The English language benefits from loose and forgiving grammar. Its spelling may seem a little strange sometimes: English has what is described as a ‘deep, opaque orthography’. But the language is also very forgiving; not just in its grammar but also when it comes to spelling, both of variations and of errors. Honest misspelling rarely causes significant problems with meaning or understanding. Words seldom appear singly; with context, mistakes are easily identified, overlooked and forgiven. This makes English a very good language for indulging in wordplay. Or word play, or plays on words, or playing with words… you get the picture.
English also has an extraordinarily rich vocabulary drawn from numerous sources. It is the ideal language for Humpty Dumpty and anyone similarly inclined when it comes to using words whose meaning they have chosen for themselves. That said, and generally speaking, there’s an English word for just about anything and everything. Where one does not exist, English considers it perfectly acceptable to borrow from another language where one does exist. Thereafter the borrowed word invariably becomes just another English word. There are, however, occasions where only a Humptydumptian ‘chosen meaning’ or, perhaps better, a completely new word—to illustrate the general principle, a neologism—will do.
I wanted to find a word to describe best, according to my interpretation, what it is I’m doing when I start with half an idea and finish with a complete story in the form of a book looking for readers. I couldn’t think of one. That’s not to say the right word doesn’t exist in English; it’s more a matter of me not knowing what it was. Despite looking, I haven’t been able to find one if there is one—or more—in English. Nor have I found anything specific or suitable to borrow from a helpful lending language. It’s possible I didn’t look hard enough. In the end, I was left either applying the Humpty Dumpty criterion or coining a neologism. I think that was actually the situation I had hoped to be in.
I sat on a wall to think, and to indulge in some pedantic semantic antics. While balancing there, I thought of many things before I thought I was going to have a great fall. Then, just before I did, and to ensure that I didn’t because there was no Royal Cavalry anywhere to be seen, I thought that the best option was to think of a new word that would mean what I chose it to mean. With a little explanation, that word would then mean the same thing—more or less, anyway—to anyone and everyone else who heard, read or used it. It would then become another bona fide English word. There we go again!
I looked close to home, then a little further away for inspiration. It was necessary to ensure that I wasn’t thinking I’d coined the right new word, whereas what I had done was found that as-yet elusive existing word—English or not, or not yet English—by other means. It was, in the end, to the classical languages that I looked for something that could then be anglicised over the course of a few minutes. There is considerable precedent for that process, but there seemed little merit in waiting centuries for it to evolve, as many modern words had to. I was, after all, just coining a word inspired by other words for my own use that would mean what I wanted it to mean; no more or less than that. However necessary and appropriate it may have been, it seemed ironic, given the wealth of available English and borrowable non-English English language vocabulary.
From my Anglo-Classical word-mint came the likes of ‘Syngraphics’, ‘Historiographics’ and, getting closer, ‘Historiogenics’. But however classically inspired they might have been, none were quite inspired or inspiring enough, or classic enough, or had quite the right English-language sound, feel or meaning. Finally, I alighted on ‘Bibliogenics’ as best describing the process of travelling from Brainwave to Book. I have chosen it to mean the art and science, the process and the journey taken to create books from thoughts. I suppose that makes me an aspiring Bibliogenicist. Which just goes to show that you can wait a long time for the right word to arrive and, when it does, a second right word comes along right behind it.
‘”When I use the word Bibliogenics,” I am now able to say, in an earnest tone, “it means just what I have chosen it to mean.”’
So, having got the right word to suit my purpose, I thought it might be worth taking a walk down ‘Bibliogenics Lane’, to share with you my journey from Books at Bedtime to Books in the Bookshop. Every time I look back down the lane, to the end where I started, I often wonder whether, to get where I am now, I would have started from there. But I did and, having started there and walked this way, this far, here I am. And, as you’re reading this with me, here we are. Let’s continue our walk together.
I have always enjoyed listening to good raconteurs and good storytellers. Even with personal stories and accounts, I generally don’t mind knowing that artistic license is being applied; even to non-fiction and fact. If the story is good, funny and well told, I can overlook and excuse factual distortion and bluffing. I can even turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to outright lying for effect if the effect is good but harmless. The creation of fiction often requires not allowing the truth to get in the way of a good story, after all. My exception to that generally forgiving rule is to be less forgiving and accommodating where work that claims to be informed, factual and authoritative shows clear signs of shallow research and poor understanding. Sometimes, it’s better just to invent stuff. If it’s your invention, while you may not be right, you also can’t be wrong.
As a very young child, my dad read to me from all sorts of books. I can’t really remember any of them now, but I can vaguely recall him sitting by my bedside, reading and putting on funny voices. I would lie there in my bed, letting the sound of the words wash comfortingly over me. He also made up his own stories which were wonderfully inventive and exciting. He was a joiner—a creative artisan—who worked very hard. Already tired, my constant demand for more and longer stories must have worn him out completely sometimes. I imagine, though, that he enjoyed not only making these stories up and telling them but, more, seeing the enjoyment that they gave. If you’re a creator of things, however ephemeral, you just can’t get away from the desire to create, or from taking pleasure in seeing your creations appreciated.
Once I could read properly and I’d progressed through the literary rites of passage of the time, I began to read more widely and voraciously. Nothing that was necessarily classical or high-brow, or old beyond my years; just good, interesting, fun stories. Despite my reading independence, my dad still read to me and made stories up for me because it was our time and opportunity to share our enjoyment of stories together. It was our ‘quality time’, long before Humpty Dumpty even thought about coining the phrase.
Both my primary and secondary schools had well-stocked libraries which complemented the extensive collection of books that we had at home. Somewhere, somehow, there was always a story to be enjoyed. In those days, where I lived there were just three television channels with limited broadcasting hours. There were no personal computers or mobile devices. Just imagine! Reading for education, pleasure and entertainment was not just an expectation; it was a necessity.
At secondary school, I was interested mostly in the sciences. With them, English language and literature, Latin and at least one modern foreign language were all compulsory. This ensured that even those pupils whose interests tended towards the natural sciences were given an appreciation of language and literature: inarticulate scientists are not true scientists, after all. The corollary was that those whose interests lay with the arts and humanities were given an appreciation of objective, scientific reality. For those studying science for the most senior examinations, the school was very wise in adding into the weekly curriculum several non-examined lessons in Art and Literature. While I enjoyed them, at the time I couldn’t see why they were necessary. Now I know. And, decades later, I’m still grateful for them. They may not have been strictly necessary, but they were wholly appropriate.
As an undergraduate science student, and then in my early career, I confess to reading mostly dry, technical, historical and professional type literature. That was necessary and appropriate at the time: it was also quite narrow. The more senior and experienced I became, the more I began to see that I might have benefited from less specifically scientific and technical education and more from a broader understanding, including of the arts and humanities. Actually, both ends of the spectrum were necessary and appropriate most of the time, but I felt that I was better at objective factual analysis and dry reporting than esoteric erudition and discourse. Inevitably, the best of my professional colleagues excelled at both.
Of all the many positive things about being a military Engineer, the most positive one was People. My service gave me many memorable experiences and allowed me to spend time with many memorable people – not all of them military. Reminiscing, storytelling and yarn-spinning are military social and professional institutions. If the time, the subject and the audience were right, I was a leading actor. If they weren’t right, I was usually an avid, front-row member of the audience.
After a career as a military Engineer, I embarked on a subsequent career as an explosives engineer helping to design, develop and test explosive tools for use in bomb disposal humanitarian demining. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it played to my strengths and interests. Times were hard, though; being made redundant as a consequence was a hard knock. The process of job-seeking from no job, despite having plenty of amazing experience in all sorts of roles, and not being short of either qualifications or accreditation, was not a pleasant experience. Despite numerous applications and far fewer interviews, none of it led to anything. It seemed that I had an odd-shaped face that didn’t seem to fit anywhere I cared to try to fit it.
So, I trained for a year and qualified to teach school science. The process was fascinating and an excellent life experience, but it left me totally exhausted. I had a great deal of fondness and respect for my own teachers. Although those who are still alive are long-since retired, I have even more respect for them now than I had then, which says a lot. I also have profound respect and admiration for my son’s teachers. Teaching children is an enormously rewarding role and it among the most important for the future of our society; and of our species, to be frank. Teaching and teachers are valued by most pupils, but most often only in retrospect, while society in general tends not to give enough respect or credit either to teachers or to teaching. To do it right, and it must be done right, it must be right for you; and it wasn’t something that was right for me at the time. What was not so much right as necessary at the time was, perforce, another paroxysm of self-reinvention.
At this point in our journey, I must take another quick glance back down Bibliogenics Lane before we proceed.
It was when my son was very young that I experienced the renaissance of my own interest in and enjoyment of storytelling. At a very young age, he developed a voracious but very discerning appetite for stories. When I was being begged insistently for ‘… just one more chapter,’ and sometimes one more whole book, I knew how my own dad must have felt. I really enjoyed doing the caricature impersonations when reading—I still do—and I also found that making stories up spontaneously night after night was an excellent way of remaining mentally agile and alert. The brain fatigue it brought on, like muscle fatigue after vigorous exercise, got me off to sleep just as effectively as the stories got him off to sleep. I was often first in the race to the Land of Nod.
However much I thought that my young listener might occasionally not be listening as attentively as he might, his immediate identification of inconsistencies, inaccuracies and incongruities always took me by surprise. I was perpetually amazed and impressed by his ability to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words, to expand his vocabulary and even to coin his own words while listening to stories and interrupting them with genuinely impressive questions and observations. He may be an Anagnosiphobe, but he is undoubtedly a Historiophage and a Bibliophage. When I use these words, I have chosen that they mean, no more or less, that he may be reluctant reader, but he is a nothing if not a devourer of stories and books. I think that’s five neologisms in this piece so far …
One evening, the inevitable happened. He said to me, “Dad, I think we ought to write a book.” The look I gave him captured my feelings of surprise, amusement and agreement. “When I say ‘we’, obviously I mean you,” he added with a smile worthy of Machiavelli. “If you read it to me and I like it, maybe other children my age will like it, too,” he added. He made an excellent point and without knowing it, had identified the principle and practise of target audience peer review. I started a book. I finished it. I circulated the synopsis and manuscript excerpt to as many literary agents dealing in children’s literature as I could find. Naïvely, I waited.
I took two things away from the whole ‘pitching’ to literary agents experience. The first was that being accepted by a literary agent is a lottery in which luck plays no small part. The second was that not having your first book accepted by a literary agent is a rite of passage for an aspiring author and no reflection on the ideas behind the story or the quality of the writing. Their principal concern is commercial viability. Rejection is not an absolute and authoritative opinion on that, either. In many ways, rejection can be an indicator that what you have is something worth pursuing, because it doesn’t fit easily into any prescribed category or genre or style. That is, when it’s not a polite, if perfunctory and ultimately unhelpful way of categorising the submission as rubbish.
My son’s Headmaster at the time also kindly read what I had written when I submitted it to him. He admitted that he had not laughed at anything quite so much for a long time. That effect had been its purpose. He believed that its appeal would extend from children to adults. It was, he suggested, something children could enjoy reading on their own, with adults or, equally, they would enjoy listening to an adult reading it to them. It was the sort of book, with the sort of characters, events and language, that the children would probably talk about as adults themselves. He had described my intentions precisely, although I had not told him what they were. It seems that they were obvious from his reading of the work. If it were available as a book, he said, he would be delighted to have it in the school library. Next, he imagined I was having trouble finding someone to take it on, as it was not easily categorised, nor easily compared directly to anything else currently on offer. After all, it was humorous nonsense and it did not deal with magic, schools for witchcraft and wizardry, dragons or youthful angst in its many manifestations. It was as if he had read my mind and not just my draft manuscript.
I decided two things. First, to persist with fiction pitched at somewhere not too far beyond my son’s age. Second, not to sack my reviewer. Always my sternest critic in everything I think, say or do he was always very positive about what ‘we’ were writing. Son or no son, he was a child giving me a child’s view of children’s books, so I kept him ‘on the books’, as it were. I tried an action adventure story; a mystery adventure story and another humorous story; all intended as the first in a sequence based on following the main characters’ exploits.
The reception they got from literary agents was not what I wanted, but it was not all bad, either. One or two responses were very personable and very positive and encouraging. It was all they could do to avoid saying that they might just be able to take the work forward, but not from an unknown author. Or so I delude myself. There is, nonetheless, more than a grain of truth there. Somebody suggested especially kindly that my humorous story was very original, witty and funny, but the humour was perhaps a little too sophisticated for what was believed might be the target audience. Cold comfort, that. I did wonder if that made a fair case for rejection, or whether it would have been easier for me and better for them to have adjusted the aim onto a slightly older and slightly more humorously sophisticated audience. But you get one chance only and I’d had it and, therefore, so had that particular book.
This might all sound like sour grapes. And what do sour grapes make? A sour wine, of course. Make that a sour whine and… But that’s not the case. What I have just described is an experience familiar to authors since the advent of printing and publishing and, of course, literary agents. It’s familiar even to authors whose names are familiar, and even to those whose familiar names are of the ‘household’ variety. For authors fortunate enough to make the journey from anonymity to such public acclaim and recognition that they might sometimes wish to be anonymous again, I imagine it can also be a great source of schadenfreude (an English word that needs no definition or etymological explanation) to have been rejected by many yet propelled far forward by one. Literary agents are somewhat like lawyers, inasmuch as they are easy to dislike and dismiss right up to the time when you really need a good one who’s on your side. But, that’s life or, to use a well-known English phrase, c’est la vie.
Rejection is an experience that can be dispiriting but it can also be galvanising. I decided that I would be galvanised rather than dispirited. Being galvanised would, if nothing else, stop me from going rusty. Erring still as I do towards science and technology, I then decided that perhaps something more scientific and technological, aimed at an audience that would be sufficiently sophisticated for my offering, would be my next.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was then, as we are now, starting to walk along what I like to think of as Bibliogenics Lane.
A chance conversation at an end-of-year school party finally cracked the shell on an idea that I had been incubating for some time, and brought on the hatching process. I bought some books and I started doing online research. I became informed, then better informed, then better informed still. I also became a little confused and somewhat overwhelmed by it all. It felt something akin to doing the literature survey for a degree dissertation. That was when I began writing Fourth World Man which, at the time, was called ‘The Outlier’. Some considerable time later, I stopped. Then, for the first time, I decided to consult an editor. It was a very wise decision.
He was uncompromising and quite radical at times; especially initially. It was, I suspect, a test to see if I was willing and able to accept critical observations and suggestions. I must have passed the test—probably not by much but by enough—because he continued to offer me advice on how to refine the story. I confess to spending as long amending, reworking and rewriting it after getting editorial assistance as I had spent on my own from starting to what I thought was finishing. I am better in many ways for the experience. Clearly, we passed each other’s tests because, although he is uncompromisingly hard and critical and may see me as a work in progress, if not a lost cause, he and I have continued to work together on and off since then.
I needed help with other things. I hasten to add, just to make it clear, that the help I needed was to do with the creating a finished book and getting it published. I needed somebody to get me into the online world which I had always avoided. I needed somebody to design a cover for my book and I needed someone to take my picture sympathetically. All the experts I co-opted to help me are profoundly good people and they were a pleasure to work with. I still work with them, too.
The final big decision to make for that first foray into having a book actually published, let’s call it arriving outside Number 1, Bibliogenics Lane, was whether to try my luck with agents again or to publish independently. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that I opted for independent publishing. I once got a rejection for one of my children’s book pitches thirteen months after I made my submission. I was not inclined to wait that long until I was quite sure that the decision to try to go it alone this time had, in fact, already been made for me by other people long ago. I can’t say I had great success but the book has been well received by those who have read it so far. I know there is a bigger audience out there that deserves the originality and quality I’ve delivered; I just haven’t got it to them yet. That was my fault back then and remains my problem still.
COVID-19, the UK’s national lockdown and the consequent home working and home schooling put a brake on my writing activities. I paused work on what is now my third book, The Galathea Legacy. Between bouts of home-learning supervision and home decorating—different kinds of creativity—I snatched the few available opportunities to get some PC-time to progress what became my second book, Ex Libris. It was ready to go just as we were ready to go away over the school summer break, and I launched it with no fanfare and no adverts. Number 2, Bibliogenics Lane went on the market but with no ‘For Sale’ sign outside. That was a big error on my part. I wanted it out there, so I put it out there because I could, but without letting anybody know I’d done it. It’s a modern classic, a departure from what I explored in Fourth World Man, and indeed a departure from others in its genre. It deserves to be read but without anything to attract readers or pique their interest, it was always going to be obscure. I admit that I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m still learning. I think I’m in the ‘lifelong learner’ category.
Once school started back and the ‘new normal’ was established—before the second lockdown was imposed, and with it came the ‘new not-quite-as-normal-as-it-was-going-to-be’—I decided to focus on getting The Galathea Legacy finished. In addition to editing and design, I was able to consult a globally renowned expert to offer comment on the scientific and technical aspects of my story. I had made approaches to experts previously and even sent out goodwill copies of Fourth World Man—signed, no less!—to a few luminaries, movers and shakers but to no effect. Mostly to no acknowledgment of receipt, actually. Like situations of poverty and wealth, the obscure stay obscure until the right bold, helpful someone shines a light or exerts some illuminating influence. That’s when you might just get a bit of luck in the lottery.
I weakened briefly and sent the relevant snippets of The Galathea Legacy to a selected few literary agents. ‘If you’ve heard nothing from us after 12 weeks we’re not interested and you won’t be hearing anything’ leaves some time for other things while you wait for no reply. Once freed from the tyranny of actually writing for a while, which seems a strange thing for an author to say, I turned my attention to my previously much-neglected website. This revised and recently re-revised novel-length version of My Author Journey is part of addressing that neglect and, I hope, like the rest of the site it is recognisably similar but is better than it was previously.
I heard nothing and so released The Galathea Legacy to the usual understated and unheard fanfare of me blowing my own trumpet quietly. At least, if nothing else, I had walked as far as 3, Bibliogenics Lane. Not only did I manage a little online ‘housekeeping,’ I also used my time waiting for no replies to start a sequel to TGL: The Vernadsky Ultimatum. After a similar process of researching, writing, editing, revising and getting a foreword, I finished it. I can barely believe it but here I am at 4, Bibliogenics Lane with an idea and a name for Number 5!
Looking ahead, along the lane, it seems to go on beyond where I can focus clearly—it may continue over the horizon or it may take a turn; I can’t yet see round corners. Wherever it leads, it still seems like a good road to be walking. As you’re standing here with me, feel free to stay with me, and walk with me as far and for as long as you want to. It would be good if you were to sign up to learn more about John Quentin books. It won’t commit you to anything and you’re unlikely to hear much from me. If you do hear from me, it will be to tell you what I’m up to and what you might be able to expect from me next. It stands to reason that if I’m not up to much, I won’t have much to say about it. Realistically, I manage one book a year. So, no pressure. Most of all, I want you to be a reader of what I write for you. I want the pleasure and the privilege of your company on our walk together along Bibliogenics Lane.
And that, in a nut-tree, is My Author Journey so far. So far, so Good!