Patrick Neate won a Betty Trask Award for his first novel ‘Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko’. A year later, he won a Whitbread Award for ‘Twelve Bar Blues’.
His tireless output, sardonic look at British life and ability to tell stories that interweaving time, space and character have made him one of the more respected authors in the country. Patrick Neate spoke about how he got started, his writing career, and how to succeed as a novelist:
Becoming a writer
"I started writing when I was at college because it was an opportunity to do something creative. I never really had an aspiration to be a writer, as opposed to another creative form.
"I went to Cambridge, and the fortunate thing is you can really play at whatever it is you want to do: student journalist or sportsman or writer, the facilities are amazing. So I wrote a couple of plays and directed some jaw-droppingly awful stuff, but it gave me the taste.
"When I left college, I realised I was pretty much unemployable so wrote a novel and found I had the right facility for it."
Dealing with rejection
"Loads of people tell me how they’ve written something and it’s been turned down... they’re not writers. Writers carry on. Writers keep writing."
"If you don’t get used to it, don’t bother. You always hear stories about some 19-year-old who gets a quarter of a million pound deal for their first ten pages they wrote in their spare time doing their A-levels. Those are few and far between. My third novel was my first published, the other two are sitting around somewhere."
"The thing that taught me I was going to be a writer was having been knocked back twice. I wrote a third novel and that took a degree of self-confidence, because I was unemployed for two years writing those two novels and no-one wanted to publish them. Yet I was brave enough to write another one."
Finding a literary agent
"I’ve looked at loads of covering letters for friends and there is a tendency to agonise about it too much.
"An agent that represents writing you like is important. There’s no point sending a thriller to an agent representing children’s fiction. Five lines about why you chose that agent, five lines about the plot - basically the ‘film pitch’ - and then five lines about why you’re an amazing human being. That’s enough.
"The synopsis should always be the flavour of the novel, not the whole story – make me want to read the novel. Too often you hear about people trying to cram a 400-page novel into one page. I want a pitch. Sell me the novel."
Using the internet to promote yourself
"Rejection - if you don’t get used to it, don’t bother. My third novel was my first published, the other two are sitting around somewhere."
"We’re living in an age of self-publicity like no other. I have a blog and have done for a while, but I started it as a published writer. People read it with that in mind.
"If I’m booking a poet, I always look at their website and if the writing’s crap, or it’s not a good site, it is detrimental. It means they’re not spending enough time on it and they don’t regard it as a piece of work.
"You can oversell yourself though. There can be an advantage to being unknown, as opposed to everywhere. The equivalent used to be that there were writers who were at every publishing party talking to agents, schmoozing reviewers and they did themselves more harm than good. This idea of always creating brand ‘me’ can be unattractive."
A typical writing day
"Jerusalem was more haphazard than previous books. I’ve slightly run out of steam - I was so driven at points, especially before I was published, and could sit down for days at a time. I find that harder now, partly because my ambition for success has gone so I have to find joy in the process, which is harder. I am relatively disciplined.
"The principle is 1,000 words a day, minimum. I write best in the mornings: I start at 9am and try not to move till I’ve done my 1,000 words. It used to be 9am-1pm and 5pm-9pm. The 5pm-9pm appears to have fallen by the wayside.
"In terms of planning, an idea for a novel is a weird thing. It’s rarely a narrative, often it’s an emotion or taste and you set about trying to capture that taste. I never plan it.
"I write. I write. I write until I’ve written 25,000 words. Then I look at it and I bin some and I start to make a broad structure of the book, but that’s no more than a piece of A4 with chapter headings and markers for what happens where.
"I write in a jigsaw puzzle way, my books are fragmented, moving around in time space and voice."
Advice for writers
"There’s a great writing mantra: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’
"Write, write, write. Loads of people tell me about their ideas for a great novel or how they’ve written something and it’s been turned down... you’re not a writer. Writers carry on. Writers keep writing.
"I’ve been working on some film scripts and there’s a thing called ‘save the cat’, which comes from movies where you have a ‘bad boy’ hero - he has to save the cat in the first 15 minutes.
"If you’re creating a character, they can’t be totally unsympathetic. The idea of the guy climbing the tree to save the old lady’s cat, you have to give him something that makes the reader relate to. I think that’s absolutely true of books too, so when I’m writing, I’m always wondering ‘when is he going to save the cat?’"