Battling Bosworth onto a page

Written by Chris Skidmore MP on 6 June 2013 in Culture
Chris Skidmore, MP and author, shares the pains and literary pleasures of writing a book

This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics

Writing a book isn’t for the faint-hearted. For three years, I’ve juggled my political commitments, attempting to spend the hours I probably should have been recuperating from the politics of the coalition with my mind in the 15th century. Having signed a contract in 2010 to write a book on the rise of the Tudors, Deadline Day looms large in the back of your mind. You’ve promised the publishers the Earth with the proposal – the literary equivalent of the party manifesto – and now you have to deliver. While everyone may have a book inside them, only a few manage to get it down on paper. Those who don’t are probably the sensible ones: the entire process, from agreeing to write a book and it being published, can take you on a torturous journey you sometimes wish you’d never embarked upon.

Having spent two years reading – skimming through, at least – every conceivable book, article and accessible manuscript source, there comes a moment when you realise that, with the deadline looming, you can no longer put off the inevitable; you have to write the book. Two books down, I’ve come to realise that the most sensible thing to do is to write the odd paragraph here and there as you carry on the research, perhaps a battle scene, a famous death, or a coronation scene, depending on your mood. At the same time, if you’re using a lot of direct quotations, letters, speeches and other similar primary sources, get them down on paper first. Or rather, on the laptop, where they can be cut and pasted at length until they form a seamless block of text set out across your chronology. That done, you’ll find you probably have at least 50,000 words of a 150,000-word book already done. Perhaps look upon it as the slab of marble from which you are now going to attempt to carve out your literary David.

The day you begin that final assault on the book will become etched onto your soul. For me, 10 July 2012 was when I took the plunge with Bosworth – once you begin, you can’t get off the ride until it’s done. Looking into the summer recess last year, that meant 2,000 words a day, every day, seven days a week, until I’d reached my aim of circa 150,000-ish words around the end of August. If you look at writing a book as lots of blocks of essay-length texts, it somehow makes it seem manageable. Just. To maintain the momentum, I recorded how many words I would get down each day. If I wrote more than 2,000, I could go easier the following day. If I wrote 4,000, I could take a break the next day etc. Of course, it didn’t work like that, so on days when I’d managed a paltry 1,300 words, I’d condemned myself to 2,700 the next day. To encourage my efforts, I would print off my daily offering. That would then be stacked up in a lever arch file, its widening contents proof that this literary ‘diet’ was paying off.

I don’t write chronologically from A to B – to do so would be to leave one open to the dreaded writer’s block/ inertia/ laziness that comes from the tedium of ‘one damn thing after another’ – so I tend to mix around, darting from, say, Owen Tudor’s illicit affair with Katherine of Valois to the moment when Richard III has his skull brained in on the fields of the battle of Bosworth. It may not pass the Michael Gove test of a chronological approach to history, but I find getting the detailed ‘set pieces’ down on the page first ensures that I get the pace of the book right, crucially making sure that I don’t run over the word limit by the end of the book.

The question I always get asked is where do I find the time to write? The answer lies in the witching hour, and two or three hours after that. Whereas Trollope could knock off 2,000 words each morning between 5am and 8am, or Boris Johnson could dash off his books on Rome, London and 72 virgins before he’s finished breakfast, I can barely function before 9am. Instead, burning the midnight oil is the only way I seem to be able to write. I try and make sure I’m in bed by 3am, latest 4am. Past then, it feels as if part of your brain is dying. I always end up writing in summer – I don’t have the energy for it in the winter months – so aiming to be in bed before the dreaded first sound of the birds is always sensible if you want to sleep.

Then, out of nowhere, when all of these various segments are finished, you suddenly realise it’s done. This is no epiphany; rather the “with a whimper” from Eliot’s Hollow Men comes to mind, because while you may have ‘written the book’, in fact you haven’t. You’ve completed the first draft. If I could impart one piece of advice it’s that writing isn’t about the writing itself, it’s about the re-writing and the re-re-writing, not forgetting the line-by-line proof edits that take place afterwards. Nine months will then pass, with every sentence undergoing scrutiny as your editor polishes the rough draft like a pebble. If you can’t take criticism well, then forget ever trying to write a book. A thick skin may be a necessary attribute for a politician; you need armour plate to withstand the knocks you’ll get during the editing process as your beloved masterpiece gets torn to pieces and you’re asked questions such as, “Do you think you can re-write chapter two again, only with 6,000 fewer words?”

Eventually, you become sick of even looking at what you wrote with care just a few months ago. I certainly can’t stand to look at the finished text when it finally comes through. The day arrives, however, when suddenly, from the brown envelope in the post, you pull out the book and gaze down on it, wondering whether it was worth it for the three-year gestation. Three books along, and about to start on my fourth, I guess I’d say that it is. Once it’s on the shelves there’s no going back, and you have to be prepared to face that next crippling stage, the wrath of the reviewers. But unlike politics, where the events of one week can seem very ephemeral in the next, a book will always remain, testament to that long summer when you gave up sleep and a life to leave something that can also make a difference.

Chris Skidmore, Conservative MP for Kingswood’s Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20

Tags: Bosworth, Chris Skidmore, Issue 59

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