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Take It To The Limit

As the world held its breath for 'Vows and Watersheds', I found myself thinking back to the first thing I ever got published in a proper magazine (although it's not, curiously, the first writing I ever got paid for).

In 1986 I found myself on an international rock-climbing meet in the spectacular location of Meteora in Greece. I'd never climbed outside the UK before, and to add to my starry-eyed excitement I wound up doing my very first climb there with a famous climber called Dietrich Hasse.

To cut a long story short (because that is precisely what this post is really about) I did a massive head-dump of everything that happened, including pitch-by-pitch accounts of every single route we climbed during the week, typed it up, and sent it off to the UK's leading climbing magazine, 'High'. A few weeks later I got a call from the editor, Geoff Birtles. He wanted to publish it, because it was an area little-known to UK climbers, and because there had been an 'official' element to the trip, but…

GB: "Jon, it's nineteen pages long. I'm going to have to make some pretty drastic cuts."

JS: "But you're really going to publish it?"

GB: "Yes, if you're OK with me cutting it."

JS (wanting to dance round the room but limited by the phone-cord): "Please, please, dear Mr Birtles, go right ahead, whatever you think best, Mr Birtles, sir."

(This recreation of the conversation may not be verbatim: it was over thirty-seven years ago.)

Of course, when the thing appeared a few months later (early 1987), I was thrilled—but also a little bit heartbroken that many of the bits he'd cut were my favourites, where I'd waxed most poetic. Never again would I submit any piece of writing without finding out what the word count should be and sticking to it.

The lesson is: be your own fiercest editor.

On the subject of word counts, after more than 30 years of writing professionally for books and magazines, sometimes to strict templates and always with at least a guideline to length if not a precise limit, it is a relief to have the freedom that self-publishing brings. In fact, I suspect it’s precisely because so much of my non-fiction writing had been under such constraints that I am so resistant to applying a similar approach to my fiction. As I’ve mentioned before, my attempts at pre-plotting or outlining a novel have been woeful failures. It’s at least plausible to suggest that I subconsciously wanted them to fail (how would I know?) In fiction, I’ve happily embraced being a pantser.

However, this does not mean that all the discipline I’d learned through the years of writing non-fiction went out of the window. In a passage I come back to time and again, Ursula K Le Guin wrote: 'There’s a difference between control and responsibility.' The converse of this is that freedom need not, and probably should not, imply absence of responsibility. I’m not writing to order, or (shudder) 'writing to market', but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a responsibility to  my readers—however many or few they may be. In the thirty-odd years since I emptied my head onto the page after my return from Meteora, I hope I’ve learned to clear away the dead wood and trim the fat (and not to mix metaphors!). Good writing, I dare to suggest, is writing that’s as long as it needs to be, that will be impaired rather than improved by adding or subtracting words.

Vows and Watersheds is a long book, a third longer than Three Kinds of North or The Sundering Wall at 120,000 words. In the final few months before hitting the big red button marked 'launch' I looked long and hard for places where I could cut—and I managed to scrape away all of 3,000 words. It’s going to cost more to print and to post, which is going to eat into my margin on direct sales… but that’s my problem. My first ARC reader said she couldn’t put it down, which gives me great encouragement. I look forward to seeing what you think.

Remember at the start I said that the Meteora piece was the first writing I ever got published but not the first I got paid for? And you were wondering how that came about… well, weren’t you? Here’s another 'long story short' explanation.

Again, it’s all to do with rock-climbing, which was a big part of my life in the 80’s, and for a good while after. My Bible in those days was a coffee-table book called Hard Rock; I had, and still cherish, a copy of the second edition. There was also a companion volume, covering easier climbs, called Classic Rock. It seemed to me there was something of a gap between them and that there must be a lot of middling climbers like myself who’d be a ready market for it. So I wrote a cheeky letter to the editor, Ken Wilson, enclosing a piece I’d written on a couple of climbs in the perhaps unlikely setting of some Lancashire quarries not far from my home. And lo and behold he wrote back to say, yes, they were planning just such a book, and that the routes I’d chosen did merit inclusion… and enclosing a cheque for £20. That equates to about £80 now, forty years on, which is hardly a princely sum for 1500 finely-crafted words… but I didn’t care. Over night, or so I thought at the time, I’d become a professional writer.

It didn’t quite work out like that. The book never appeared (I have my theories about why, but don’t know for sure) and I didn’t get published or paid for anything else until the Meteora piece three years later. I didn’t give up the day job for a full decade after receiving that first cheque (1994), and when I did, I was earning significantly more from photography than from writing. (I always did both, and over time the balance did shift back towards writing, but that’s another story…)

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