Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Why I Write -- Hugh McCracken

When I was first asked to speak to a Writers’ Group, I wondered what I should talk about. I’m a writer not a speaker and writing is essentially a solitary occupation – you lock yourself away from everyone else and snarl at any interruptions. Lyn and my family knew that.
    But there is another side. When you are not writing, you watch, you listen, you take note in writing or otherwise. These are skills I learnt and polished as a young adult in one of my early careers.
    When did I start to write? In one sense as long ago as I can remember. I was one of those children, irritating to other children, who as a small boy when playing make believe games with my friends was always the one who came up with the scenarios. I would become furious when the other ‘actors’ in the game deviated unknowingly from the ‘script’ which was only in my head.
    That stage of play ended as we twelve-year-olds moved into secondary school but not before it had resulted in fights when I, angered at my beautiful plot – again known only to myself – being ruined by the action of some stupid player, would shout, “You can’t do that!”
    “You’re not the boss,” would come the reply. “”I’ll do what I bloody well please.”
    And the fight was on.
   Ever since I learnt to read I consumed every book I could lay hands on and it eventually dawned on me that putting my scenarios on paper was probably a less hazardous procedure than trying to direct. However, the plots always grew so complex and convoluted that invariably I ended ripping up the sheets in disgust.
    Essay writing in school – a hated chore to my chums – was an opportunity to put my thoughts on paper for someone else to read. My mother wasn’t so pleased at the ocean of red ink on my ‘good’ essay jotter. (long before the days of spellcheckers).
    “How a boy who spends half his life with his nose stuck in a book can’t spell, I’ll never know,” was her comment.
    She wasn’t at all mollified by the comments at the end, also in red: ‘A good story’ or ‘Nice ideas, well presented.’ It was the: ‘Rewrite into some recognizable hieroglyphic, AND USE A DICTIONARY ‘ that always caught her eye.
    It was one patient English teacher, Mr Henderson, whose classes were undisciplined nightmares that taught me to set an essay aside for some time then come back to it to edit and proof. He also taught me an invaluable lesson in gauging what my editor wanted. A skill that stood me in good stead later as a freelance writer for periodicals.
    He had set the topic, A pleasant Saturday evening and emphasized the idea was to convey pleasure to the reader. I wrote an essay about wandering the streets of Glasgow having fallen out once again with my chums and seeking shelter from the rain in a school hall where there was a political meeting in session. I closed the essay with, ‘Some Saturday night, I’ve spent better evenings with the toothache.’ 
    I`m afraid my view of politics hasn`t changed.
    Mr Henderson made some very flattering comments about the style and tone of the essay and gave me an F, Fail. ‘Read the assignment.’
    Some of my teachers when I visited the school part way through my first year at university were surprised at my choice of Science and not English. However, jobs for graduates in the sciences and engineering were better paid than those for English literature teachers and I felt I could always write later.

With adult jobs, writing became reports and analyses with little time for thinking of fiction. It was not until the mid-1980s that I started to write short stories again and it was not until 1992 that I started to think seriously about writing and publishing fiction. After all most of my superiors in different walks of life considered my reports largely fiction anyway.
    So in 1992 when I retired from teaching I became a freelance writer. 
    One of my early assignments for a monthly magazine for the building trade was a 1,400 word article on recent innovations in plumbing. When I protested to the editor I knew nothing about plumbing his encouraging reply was: “Right, those who do know about it can’t write. Educate yourself.”
    Armed with my tape recorder I visited every plumbing warehouse in Winnipeg interviewing plumbers and their suppliers. The article came to over 2,000 words and the editor threw it back. 
    “I’ve got space for 1,400 words,” he said. “I told you that.”
    Mr Henderson’s ‘F’ grade came back to my mind. I rewrote the piece and I never again missed my assigned allotment by more than plus or minus 50 words.
    I wrote for that magazine for the better part of four years on a variety of building subjects I knew nothing about before I started the articles. I used the same technique of going to the sources and much to my surprise at a party for one builder, celebrating winning a contract, their architect congratulated me on the articles saying, he and his partners found them very useful for keeping up to date with new products.
    However, the writing bug had settled well in – for it is an affliction, I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing – and although articles and writing speeches brought in cash it didn’t satisfy the bug. I wanted to write fiction.
    One of my stories, Rules of the Hunt, started off as a short story. On the Island my sister lives on, a wood is closed to the public by its owner for twenty-four hours each year. This is to prevent it from becoming a public right-of-way, but local children tell the tale it is haunted for that time and any who enter when it is closed, vanish. Three twelve-year-old boys, neighbours of my sister, told me the story. The characters ‘grew on me’ and before I knew it the short story had become a novel. It was largely written in my last year as Headmaster – Principal of a private school. At monthly Board Meetings I scribbled furiously in my steno pad in shorthand. Board members were sure I was conscientiously making notes, but, in fact, I was writing a novel.
    Doing this at one Board meeting took my mind back almost forty years. I had been taught a form of shorthand, although at the time I felt I didn’t really need it. (See Heads up for Harry.) Sitting on the top deck of a London bus I was scribbling – practicing really– on a steno pad when the conversation of two rough looking characters in the seat in front of me caught my attention. It struck me as incongruous they should be discussing holiday resorts and the food in the terms they were using when suddenly the words Broadmoor and Peterhead came through – two of His Majesty’s prisons for really serious criminals. At that point they looked back at me sitting pencil-in-hand poised over the steno pad. 
    I never left a bus, before or after, so quickly, jumping off when it slowed only slightly rounding a corner.
    I smiled at the memory and the Board member who had been speaking said with a frown: “Did I say something amusing?”
    Other books followed although Kevin and the Time Drum managed to get published before Rules of the Hunt.

The Hunt series was originally marketed as a Young Adult but several readers and reviewers have compared it favourably with Lord of the Flies and suggested it is more of a general readership book. The third volume of the series was just released in August of this year. The final draft was completed in Dunoon the week before Lyn died. She had been bugging me to: “Get the damn thing finished,” but when she read the draft she said: “No, that won’t do. You can’t end it like that.” I had closed the series killing off one of the characters, Davey, and for some reason Lyn had a soft spot for him, rogue that he was. So the final two chapters had to be rewritten plus an epilogue so that as Lyn said: “That’s better. It leaves an opening for Davey to have a book of his own.”
    I always enjoyed reading detective novels and police procedurals and The Knotted Chord came from some conversations with RCMP officers of my acquaintance – over drinks I must admit. The publication history of Chord was not without its complications. I had sent it to a publishing house in London and their reply, although encouraging as to the writing ended with: “A little too ‘meaty’ for our readers and the provincial setting unfamiliar.” The setting is Toronto! Mentally I replaced ‘provincial’ with ‘colonial’. But I did learn a lesson. Research what the publishing house actually publishes – that is, its target market.
    With the second publisher in England the manuscript reached the final proof, a cover was selected, then the company went bankrupt! I had a nine-months battle with the Receivers in Bankruptcy to regain my rights before I finally published it through Bewrite under my pseudonym Alistair Kinnon.

The use of a pseudonym arose when I realised that anyone who read The Knotted Chord or the sequel, The Tangled Skein, would certainly never buy a book by that author for a teenager. When I finally finished Heads up for Harry my older son, David, on reading it said it should also have been published under a pseudonym. My failure to realise this gave rise to an amusing incident at Lyn’s funeral. My niece, at the reception after the funeral, was telling me that since her twelve-year-old son had thoroughly enjoyed Rules of the Hunt, her father-in-law had given him another of my books. At her reply, Heads up for Harry another guest almost choked on his whisky. At his explanation of what that book was about, Susan’s comment, “That explains why the book has vanished. It’s hidden somewhere in Scott’s room,” started him laughing again. Susan did start speaking to me again some weeks later.

Following publishing through BeWrite I was asked to become one of the partners and senior editor which I now am.


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