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Thoughts on writing ‘All or nothing at all: the life of Billy Bland’

I began seriously thinking about this fourth book on fell running at the beginning of 2018, after having a bit of a break after my third book ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’. By the April I had a single file in my folder called ‘Areas to investigate’. This was a pointer to the structure that would develop for the manuscript and acted as a prompt for the various avenues of research I was starting to pursue in order to start writing it.

In July 2018 I submitted the synopsis to Bob Davidson at Sandstone and waited for his thoughts. Encouraged by the response, including the statement that: ‘It will all be in the writing’, I got cracking on the research phase. By September I had a potential structure in place for the narrative, and now had a file called ‘Chapters’ which detailed that plan and the components of it.

I had drawn up a list of people that I hoped to interview, including members of Billy Bland’s family, his friends, workmates, and running contemporaries. This process started from the end of September 2018, and involved a fair amount of travel as I prefer to do face-to-face interviews rather than by phone or email. Chatting in person you can ‘feel’ the responses and see when supplementary questions might just reveal a nugget of information or an interesting story. Alongside this, the topic allowed much to be done at home, via for instance the online archive of The Fellrunner magazine for results, reports, and other factual information.

Another aspect of this book is that it is not just about running. Because Billy Bland has lived and worked in the Borrowdale valley all his life, it also details life there in earlier times, his work (as a quarryman and stone waller) and changes that have happened in the valley – particularly with regard to wildlife, farming, tourism, and the impact of the World Heritage Site status that the Lakes now has. I enjoyed the specific research that thread involved, and hope that having those aspects of life covered will open the book up to a wider audience. Incidentally, I absolutely love the interviewing and research process, way more than the writing process. Possibly not a surprise from someone whose whole working life was in academia.

I was asked recently about my writing process. Well, writing is a funny game. I have no formula and no pattern that I can identify. I have to be in ‘writing mode’ (maybe that should be mood) to start writing on any given day. Sometimes it doesn’t happen for days. I also have to have a start point or spark to work from. This is usually an interview transcribed or some data recently uncovered. One strange thing that I do (and it makes no sense as it is counter-productive really) is to start a spreadsheet and record the word count of each chapter as it is being drafted. This gives me a running total of the words written. Seeing that number going up steadily seems to incentivise me to make it happen. Weird, or what? Have writer’s block and I am in big trouble though!

Writing non-fiction, I certainly don’t write linearly through a manuscript. I do tend to research a good deal of the topic and then start writing, but sometimes it works as well to write it completely as I go. What I do though is jump around chapters, as the research tends not to follow a nice linear pattern. It is worth noting that the chapter composition, and even the structure of the book, can change considerably as you go on – and even after you think the manuscript is finished too. This time I dropped a whole topic/chapter after thinking I had the manuscript wrapped up.

This is my process for finishing a manuscript. I think of it as a jigsaw, and to me it is finished when all the pieces are in place – but you have got to be savvy enough to recognise that situation! Then. at that point I have always had a critical friend lined up to read the first draft. Their input is vital as they see the whole thing with a) a new set of eyes, and b) a reader’s head on. A good critical friend won’t shy away from being honest about over-writing, repetition, deviation or the inclusion of stuff ‘just because you have got it’. Then the re-write takes place. If that goes well, the draft might go to the editor, who will probably tell you more things that are worth considering changing – which actually means ‘change these’. Then re-write number two and finally the day it actually goes to the publisher.

Putting your work out into the wild opens you up to criticism, which as an author you have to take on the chin. Constructive criticism from your critical friend reading the manuscript or your editor feeding back on it is always welcomed and acted on, even when sometimes you want to say, ‘are you sure?’. Criticism from reviewers and readers is a whole other matter. Waiting for the book to come out I want to see what others think of my work, but equally dread finding out. Getting a really bad review can really hit your ego hard. I have had my fair share of poor reviews, and have sometimes had to resist a natural response to defend myself against the accusation of not being ‘exciting enough’. I am thinking: ‘Hey this is non-fiction. It is a history of a sport, it NEEDS those facts and figures to tell the full story.’

Enough of this rambling. I will leave you with my worst ever review. It was of my first book ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. The reviewer just said: ‘If you want a copy, mine is in the bin at Geneva airport’. That hurts, but now I just use it as a story to tell against myself.

Steve Chilton

Steve Chilton

Steve Chilton