21st-Century Yokel

By Tom Cox

A nature book, but not quite like any you’ll have read before

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Some Thoughts About The Writing Of 21st Century Yokel

Now I've completed 21st Century Yokel, I've written a piece about some of the creative decisions I made during its creation, and why I chose to publish with Unbound. You can read the full piece by following this link, but here is an excerpt...

As I began to write 21st Century Yokel, I could see other potential commercial decisions ahead of me that had nothing to do with whether or not the book ended up in the Pets section of Waterstones. I had sold all of my previous eight books to publishers on the basis of a synopsis and two or three sample chapters. Being sensible and thinking about my own financial security, I would do the same here. But to do so I would have to package the book with a very rigid theme that appealed to a sales department. It would need to be honed: made into a “journey”. Unfortunately, the word “journey” - if used in any literary sense - makes vomit spontaneously appear in my mouth and I enjoy writing a synopsis roughly the same amount that I enjoy crawling about in heavy sleet cleaning up the contents of a split bin bag. I know why synopses need to exist but writing them is, in many ways, the opposite to writing books - or at least all the factors I most enjoy about writing books. It’s unfreeing, self-branding, corporation-pleasing. My favourite non-fiction books are on quite diverse subjects but tend to have one uniting factor: none of them would have made sense as a three thousand word pitch. I do not think it is any coincidence that my worst book, Educating Peter (reminder: don’t buy it), made for the pitch that was most exciting to a publisher. A book needs coherence and rhythm and theme but coherence and rhythm and theme are often a mystery that can be hit on only by doing one thing: writing that book.

So, after I’d picked myself up off the floor in the wake of my 23,000 word data disaster, I restarted 21st Century Yokel and pressed on, trying my best not to think about who - if anyone - would publish it or why. Along the way it became clear it could have been many books, all of which would have sounded more sexy to someone whose job it was to push to get a book prominently displayed in a bookshop. I decided to write none of them, but sort of write all of them at the same time, in a way that would hopefully make more sense than any of them would have done alone. Walking is probably the most dominant theme of the book. Ideally I'd have written it all on walks. I couldn't do that but I think the book has a lot in common with the walks I was on while I was composing it in my head: it's bewitched by fresh air, intrepid in minor ways, haunted by weather and old stories, restless, sometimes foolish, prone to a few detours. I could pretend that my mission to cover so many different subjects in 21st Century Yokel is solely a gesture of generosity to my reader but truth is that it’s a self-serving act: I get high on going for a diverse wander (not a journey, though - fucking hate those) while simultaneously balancing on the tightrope of a central point. I listened to a lot of psychedelia while I was writing this book and I became more interested in the idea of it: not as a hallucinogenic phenonemon or a short, exciting, strictly defined period in the mid to late-60s but as a way of putting a lot of colours together in quite an ambitious way but creating something that finds its own meaning and structure. I do think the book is more than a collection of essays, or true life stories, but it’s also not a book without a run-through narrative. Had I imposed a chronological structure or run-through narrative on it it would no doubt have made more sense on the outside, but I think that would have weakened the book and I’m more interested in it making sense on the inside than the outside. There is no linear chronology to the chapters but at the same time the order in which they are arranged is crucial, in the same way the order in which the tracks are arranged on a record is crucial. They can be read as stand alone pieces as each is a self-contained story, but they have a definite relationship with each other. They go to the same pub, put similar songs on the jukebox. At closing time a couple of weeks ago, I threw one out of the pub. I was considering having a lock-in, as the chapter was great fun to spend time with, but I’ve decided to save that for another time. That one extra drink is rarely a good idea.

I’ve noticed something about writing, after two decades of doing it: it’s often best when it feels like skiving, sometimes even when it’s skiving from other writing. An atmosphere of industrious skiving was something I created during the writing of 21st Century Yokel. In total honesty I should have been writing another book during the period I was doing it - a third in my trilogy of golf-books-for-ungolfy-people - but I didn’t, because I wanted to make both books as good as possible, and that meant writing this one first. What I was writing felt electrically true. Not that my other books weren’t true. Just that this one seemed somehow truer - in that scary way, where you learn about yourself as you write. I gave more of myself to it, not because I consciously thought “I am giving more of myself to this book!” but because it was the natural, and only, path to take. I realised I’d been patiently saving years of incidents and observations for it, with no guarantee they’d ever get the opportunity to be retold. They burst out of me, relieved to finally see daylight. I’d smuggled a lot of non cat stuff into the cat books but this was a different kind of freedom: even more excitingly, it felt like a path to greater freedom, in future books. But I was exhausted in a way I’d never felt before while writing a book. As a greater test, I dealt alone with the death of two pets during 21st Century Yokel's final stages. Would it ever be complete? At the beginning of spring, feeling thrilled but also like a collection of broken twigs in a sack who used to be a human, I realised I was not far off the end (“Just a fortnight!” I thought, again, mistakenly, but not quite so mistakenly) and still had no idea who, if anyone, would publish it. I could have sent the manuscript to a traditional publisher but instead in March I decided to sign a contract with Unbound, who crowdfund their books. This was risky: if the book failed to fund, it might never exist. I would also not see a penny from the project for over a year and would have to find other ways to survive financially until then. On the plus side, Unbound would give me more creative control: nobody trying to force the book into a more marketable shape to the detriment of its content, a cover true to the writing, a better royalty rate than traditional publishers offer, and a way for readers to choose to support me and an imaginative, not massively commercial publisher instead of funding the online behemoths of bookselling.



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