The book

Competitive book writing

Exciting news – I am reading a book. It was a Christmas present, and it’s taken this long to get around to it, because it was just too distracting while my own book was embryonic. Hemingway warned against reading anything in the morning:

Hemingway … resisted reading anything before he started writing. He believed that reading other people’s words would fill his mind with their ideas and drown his own true voice.”

For me this seemed to stretch to any book, any time, and it’s not much better now. My book is finished, it’s a pdf on my computer, the words are locked down, the number of pages decided on. There will be no more changes! Except… Well, I could make some changes if I really wanted to. Maybe I should have another go at the first few chapters? Maybe I don’t psychoanalyse Chico enough? Maybe I’ve not been as deep as I could be… as deep as readers can handle. Have I dumbed it down too much? Maybe I am just dumb. Why didn’t I spell things out more? Or maybe I should have been subtler.

My fingers are itching to open the document and go skimming through to check I said what I meant to say.

The big issue here is that I’m reading the superb H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a book that is doing phenomenally well, and out of the blue. It won the Costa Book Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize last year, and was on the bestseller lists for months. It’s about the author struggling with the death of her father, and training a goshawk as a kind of self-administered therapy, as a refuge in the sharp, clear, single-mindedness of the hawk’s world and mind.


It’s just a little bit too much like my own genre – human and animal trying to understand each other. Only hers is a fearsome goshawk, and she’s wrecked and broken with the misery. And mine’s just a jokey little story about not getting on with a donkey. Hers is literature – it must be, it won prizes. Hers is made out of paper. Mine is sitting in an email to the printer, unsent day after day, in case I decide to make some changes.

I am feeble minded! I’m determined to finish her book, but it’s torturous. Every perfect adjective crushes me, every slightly clunky one makes me soar. I want to be delighted that this genre exists – and it really is having a big moment – and each book adds to it, up to a point. It’s not like there’s only one space of the shelf, and the brutal, incisive hawk leaped in there first, leaving the fuzzy, farcical old donkey out in the cold.

Clearly the only cure is to print the damn book and release it into the wild. But some of the holdup is down to a new state of affairs that will go a long way to explaining my competitive writer state of mind: I got an agent.

She is busy sending my book around all of the publishers, the industry that has crowned Helen Macdonald. I am being scrutinised, and it’s a bit uncomfortable. More on all of that next time…


  1. aghh.. you touched on a few things wife and I have both written books on our agents, no published in sight..we concur with your ‘self doubts’ but hey cant wait to read your book. There is LITERATURE and there is also writing. I don’t write LITERATURE I write what moves me and it seems you do cant be pompous when youre travelling with a donkey!
    good luck! ye

    • Cheers Ye! What are your two books about?
      I’ve been trying to work out what literature is – I’m not sure it’s pompous, but I think it might be kind of generally serious-minded…

      • I’m in a poetry group at the moment and it is very serious…not sure how long I can last. I’m too intuitive. I’ve always been into impro ie playing alto sax ad then drama.I work as a dramatherapist but I really want to be a writer! My first job was in a library but then I got the travel bug. ‘It began with a youth hostel holiday in wales…’ Novel one at 120 000 words is about regime change change in Burma brought about my therapy, food and magical reality, there are hundreds of Birman cats in it..Novella two is about bereavement and near death experiences seen from a teenage view pointmostly..
        hard to categorise..where and how do you find an agent who knows what ‘genre’you are and who your readers are. Now reading ‘Stallo’ an odd choice for me a Scandi horror about trolls…
        I’m supposed to go to a writing group tonight…
        Last time I wsa in wales I climbed Snowdon it was fab..Wales and donkey your book will be a winner!

  2. Don’t forget to breathe. You stated, “My book is finished.” Perhaps it is. You must have thought so once. Here’s hoping you don’t second quess yourself too much. I can relate. I do the same (question my work) when I “finish” a painting or sculpture. It helps me to remember that perfection is unobtainable. I like how you write and your story / journey is one of great interest to many. Good luck!

    • I’ve made changes at every stage of the edit, but over the last months those changes have been small, tidying jobs. For all that I’m dreaming of changing it all (perhaps cut-and-pasting H is for Hawk and then switching all ‘hawk’ for ‘donkey’?), I couldn’t any more – it’s already the book of an earlier me, in a way.
      Thanks for the message – we’re SO CLOSE!

      • Namaste Sunshine. All is as it should be. Your next book can be representative of the more recent you. Onward.

  3. Hilary Matthews says:

    Just got in from seeing Helen MacDonald at East Neuk Festival. And there was you fb post! HM was funnier, younger and livelier than I had imagined, and obviously very surprised at the success of Hawk. I would imagine that she would love your story, you should send it to her and see if you can get an endorsement. She was talking a lot about the relationship between animals and humans, and training versus taming, you have a lot in common.

    • Ha – no way! Well, of course – it makes perfect sense that she was great. All the envy is only in my head, nothing whatsoever to do with her! It’s one of my favourite Desiderata lines:

      “Do not compare yourself with others or you will become vain or bitter”

      but identifying it and actually internalising it are two different things…
      Right – I’m going to email her, right now. We didn’t get this far without a little boldness, after all!

  4. Strong feelings of empathy here. I finished writing the 71,079 words of my book last Tuesday. I’ve also revised much of it and there is still a long way to go.

    Wishing you well.


  5. I’m sure there are countless fine stories of how relationships with animals soothe and heal our human souls. Written, and waiting to be written. The more the merrier.

    You may want to check out this post about Anna Blake’s upcoming self-published contribution to the burgeoning genre. Her blog is amazing, so I’m expecting great things from her book too.

    You’re in the home stretch – congratulations. Looking forward to my copy. 😀

  6. I love this book! It distracted me from my own book last Christmas. :)

    I just heard your story on BBC–while driving through Wales–and I’m looking forward to reading YOUR book now. Best of luck!

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