The Art of Male Multi-Tasking

It’s a very odd and hectic time at the moment. I’m simultaneously completing the final edits of ‘Quinton 3’, The Blast That Tears The Skies, ahead of its UK publication on 17 April, while also writing number 4, The Lion of Midnight, keeping a weather eye on the US publication of The Mountain of Gold on 17 February, and continuing the research for Britannia’s Dragon. (In fact, when this post goes ‘live’ I hope to be in the new Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum, getting on with work for the latter). Then there’s a book review, a conference paper, two talks, and the imminent arrival of the proofs of my essay in the latest Transactions of the Naval Dockyards Society, all to be done within the next few weeks. Fortunately I’ve never found it particularly difficult to juggle a lot of things simultaneously and can work very quickly, but all of the above has caused me to make a few fairly random reflections on my working methods and on the nature of what authors do.

The first lesson- Don’t say ‘yes’ to so many commitments. Something that seemed like a good idea six months ago invariably comes back and bites one on assorted parts of the anatomy. And double-check the deadline: misreading ‘2 February’ as ’28 February’ several months ago has caused not a little angst here in the Lair over the last couple of weeks.

The second lesson – Don’t assume a project is completed until the hard copies of it turn up on one’s doorstep. I’d blithely assumed that all of the edits on Blast had been put to bed; the same thing happened on The Mountain of Gold. The consequence of this is…

The third lesson – Always factor in time for the unexpected that’s bound to crop up.  If it doesn’t, great, take a few days off and congratulate yourself on the brilliance of your time management. But if it does…

The fourth lesson – I suppose I’d always assumed that writing was an entirely solitary profession, where one delivered one’s inherently perfect manuscript to a grateful publisher with a heavenly choir singing in the background. Well, it’s true that it’s largely solitary up until the time when the first draft is completed. From then on, though, the author becomes simply part of a team, all of whom are working towards the same goal, the success of the book, and it’s essential to flick an internal switch and go into ‘team player mode’. The critical readers, the agent, the publisher’s editor, the other publisher’s editor…everybody will have their say, and it’s important to react to this input positively. Apparently Patrick O’Brian reacted badly to any criticism whatsoever, so his editor, Richard Ollard, had to handle him with kid gloves; and much as I love O’Brian’s work, one of the biggest influences on my own, it has to be said that some of the books in the series could have done with rather more rigorous editing. In my case, I still remember the horror I felt when the major edits of Gentleman Captain arrived with suggestions to delete whole swathes of treasured text and to add new passages. But that editor’s input was undoubtedly wholly well-founded, and her changes made the book vastly better than it might have been. Which leads into…

The fifth lesson – A book is therefore a product of compromise, but that doesn’t mean surrender (on the basis that ‘these people have been doing this sort of thing much longer than me, they must be right’). With The Mountain of Gold, one of my editors wanted the deletion of three scenes. I was prepared to go to the wall over one of them, and in the end we compromised: I got to keep the scene I was prepared to spill blood for, while the other two went (to be replaced by newly-written scenes that, again, tightened the narrative and thus made it a much better book). So honour was satisfied.

The sixth lesson –  Not even ‘the team’ has a monopoly of wisdom. At dinner last night, a friend who’d read Mountain of Gold said that it would have been really useful to include a map of the River Gambia, and that he’d only realised the ship was sailing east when he read my description of Matthew Quinton watching the sun sinking through the windows of his stern cabin. I suddenly thought: yes, now I come to think about it, I really wish I’d included a map. Other readers have balked at some of the nautical language that I take for granted, although I hope not to quite the same extent as O’Brian did, so there’s a running debate on whether or not to include glossaries in the Quinton books. I’ve resisted thus far, hearing my previous incarnation as a History teacher of 30+ years say countless times ‘If you don’t know what something means, go away and look it up!’. But I can see the counter argument, too, and would welcome readers’ thoughts on whether such an addition would be useful.

Anyway, that’s enough reflection for now. After all, writing a weekly blog is another commitment to add to those I listed at the beginning, and I really must get back to the ‘day job’ proper!


  1. Jeff Ingram says:

    I really enjoy your books and eagerly await #3 here in the US. Like Mary, I’m a great fan of maps and charts in books such as yours.
    I hope to have a review of your latest on our library’s blog, Salmagundi, in the next week or so.
    Jeff Ingram
    Newport Library
    Newport, OR USA


  2. Mary Robins says:

    Please include a map if possible _ it helps the reader to make sense of a situation so much more easily. And if its beautiful to look at so much the better – it really lifts a book to another level.
    MR Glasgow


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