What do you do when adversity strikes unexpectedly and the comfortable life you have taken for granted is suddenly in turmoil? Thirty years ago, I was dealt a double blow when my then wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer and a few months later, our family business ran into financial difficulties and I found myself without a job.
My charmed childhood, growing up in the leafy suburbs of north-west London, had left me woefully ill-equipped to deal with those devastating events, but writing was eventually to help me cope. Where the ability to write came from is still a mystery. There was nothing in my school years to indicate that I showed any promise in that department. Nor did I have a particularly fertile imagination – at least, not one that went beyond my own brand of self-deprecating humour. That humour, I came to realise, was what I used to mask the traumatic experiences that I still hadn’t come to terms with. And I had no idea that when I wrote, I would subconsciously call on those experiences and work through them in my fiction.
It took a prod, fifteen years ago, from a friend also called John, to start the process. He encouraged me to add to the half-a-dozen or so original quips I had come up with for the range of greetings cards that I had created in my spare time. Unfortunately, the cards were not sufficiently popular to become best-sellers.
Unwilling to be deterred, my next project was a film idea I had developed. I was introduced to a chap named Ray Kilby, a film director by profession, who thought the piece had potential as a comedy for the stage. Immediately hitting it off, we set about writing a script – not that I had the slightest notion what this entailed. I learned on the job about how to write dialogue and stage directions, and six months later a play emerged, entitled In the Balance. It opened at the New End Theatre in Hampstead In November 2008. The result of this escapade was some good press, but as the producer, I had lost a fair amount of money in the process and was unable to recoup my investment since the play wasn’t considered a sufficiently elaborate production for a tour or for transfer to a larger West End stage.
The problem was, I had now got the writing bug and was determined to carry on. Against both our better judgements, a second play was written by Ray and myself about a banker who lost all his money in the Financial Crisis at that time: it had the evocative title of W for Banker. This time, cannier about the economics of a production, I went for a shorter run, limited to four weeks, and a cast of three. Although losses were considerably reduced, getting into the black was still a long way off. Unless, of course, we could come up with a monologue with either one of us in the leading part, working for free!
Another comedy was written that got as far as a few readings in the West End, but unable to attract another producer with deeper pockets than either of ours, Ray and I decided to go our own ways – he finally coming to the conclusion that I was no longer able to provide the finance to re-launch his career, and me needing to find out whether I was capable of writing on my own. You see, at this point, although I hadn’t informed my family, I really couldn’t envisage doing anything else. With a little capital behind us from selling our house and moving into a rented property, I calculated there was enough to keep us going – at least for a while . . .
A chance introduction to a publisher, shortly afterwards, led me to a change of direction. Although I had never written anything that came close to a novel, one of my plays about a gladiator who became a famous sage was, I thought, a good place to start. It had, I considered, some reasonable dialogue; it just needed expanding – easier said than done when a book had to be at least three times the length!
I set about my new task enthusiastically, having naively underestimated the amount of work involved, and unprepared for the first major set-back when the initial few chapters that I had submitted were returned to me with more red lines through them than my worst essays at school. The odd thing was, I went straight back to the drawing board, making the amendments required to turn my work into a decent piece of prose as if there were an outside force driving me on. A year later, I had completed the first draft, which to my delight didn’t need anything like the same number of changes as before. As we proceeded to the final edit, however, I experienced a genuine sense of loss, since the work I had immersed myself in for the last year was coming to end. The prospect that the characters I had created – and who had become like a second family to me – were no longer exclusively mine, left a vacuum that needed to be filled.
Shimon, my first novel, was published in 2014. I had a website designed under the name of Steinberg Stories and went about aggressively promoting the book to newspapers and social media with the intention of being taken seriously as an author. Apart from some reasonable reviews and the usual encouraging response from friends and family, the results of my fulltime endeavour were not quite what I had in mind. Vowing to succeed next time around, I started on a second novel.
Fortunately, Shimon had received a positive response from another publisher, and this gave me the confidence to proceed with my story about a young German woman’s journey of conscience in the aftermath of World War Two. Blue Skies Over Berlin was published in October 2016 by Silvertail Books. A third novel, Nadine, about a failing theatre producer, was published in 2019 with similar aspirations of having it adapted for film/TV.
Now for 2020…
With two further projects programmed for this year, the prospects for 2020 were looking good – that is, until the pandemic hit. The question of how to respond to a crisis this time didn’t just confine itself to me but to millions of others who had found their normal lives thrown into turmoil. Whilst not underestimating its many difficulties the lockdown has, I believe, created opportunities for those with previously busy lives. The extra time at home has given some people the chance to start putting pen to paper to write the novel they have always had inside them.
How do you make a start? you may ask. It’s easier than you think. Here are a few tips.
First, choose an original subject that you consider will make an interesting story. Open a file on the computer and give it a working title. Then, set out a one-page synopsis of the story. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds as it will inevitably change as the book evolves. Some writers spend a lot of time planning and doing research, others like me tend to get going straight away and allow the story to develop as they go along. It’s your choice.
Once you’ve made the decision to give it a go, the secret is to keep at it. But what about writer’s block? I imagine it happens to everyone at some time or other. The difference is how you deal with it. For me, the best way is always to edit my last piece of work, which will usually throw up a multitude of new ideas and with them, inevitably, a new set of problems involving plot or character that have to be solved. I learned a long time ago that writing is a hard and often tortuous process, but as the saying goes: Where there’s no pain there’s no gain. Writing, for many including myself, has provided a sense of purpose and well-being that were missing from my previous career in commerce.
Once you’ve got something to show, the importance of getting yourself an editor to help you on your way cannot be overestimated; in my experience, this is far more useful than any creative writing class you may have contemplated joining. Another myth that needs dispelling is that writing is a reclusive occupation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Solitary, yes – but because the characters you have created are alive within you, you are never lonely!
Should you run out of patience pinning your hope on a traditional publisher, there’s now far less stigma attached to self-publishing, with many companies in the field that can turn your property into a reality for a reasonable cost. Just make sure you do your research.
The day you receive the first copies of your book off the press makes all your hard work worthwhile. So what now? The answer is that, provided you are not overly burdened with unhealthy expectations of conquering the world with your maiden novel, it’s probably time to think about embarking on a second book and another new adventure!
© John Steinberg 2020