How a 10,000 mile bicycle ride home to Norfolk helped my journey into fiction.
Riding bikes and writing books have at least this in common: they both involve long hours sitting on one’s backside.
There is this too, I suppose. Both begin with an idea, a reason that one should bother with the whole business in the first place. The reason has to be compelling enough to prompt you to set out at all. But once you do, however compelling, the idea soon gets subsumed into the larger reality of the journey – or indeed the writing, which is a kind of a journey – itself.
Certainly the biking helped the book writing. I think without it I never would have attempted to write any kind of novel, let alone an epic historical fantasy like A Mighty Dawn as a first effort.
My reason for setting out on my bike journey was that I needed a goal. Any goal would do – the more basic the better. And there are few goals more basic than the desire to go home. To go from “A” to “B”.
Back in 2010, I had reached a point in life where my goals had become a little murky. Legal career: stalled and soul-destroying. Love life: empty and (let’s be honest) a little heart-broken. The pervasive sense of stagnation, even of being left behind by a life that had moved on without me. These were the problem. A 10,000-mile bike ride from Hong Kong to England was my solution.
And do you know, it worked!
The problem, it turns out, was not having no goals. It was not having goals that were big enough, and an appreciation of how to achieve them.
Lesson number 1 – learned when I made the colossal error of laying out all the maps that would take me back to England on Day 4 in southern China. The exhaustion I already felt, the minuscule distance traveled (at least on my first map), the vast tracts of land populated with thousands of names of unrecognisable towns and cities that lay between me and the end of China, let alone Europe and finally home – all these had me almost in a panic attack, questioning whether I could possibly do this. Not physically but emotionally. I soon realised comparing how far I had come with my ultimate destination did more harm than good. The old adage – take each day as it comes – was a much better approach. Perseverance, yes. But above all, patience – at least as far as the end-goal was concerned. Keep putting 70 or 80 miles on the dial each day, and after three months I had crossed China. After six, I’d crossed Asia. After nine (on the road anyway) I was trundling into my folks’ farmyard in Norfolk – the unassuming destination of this epic adventure. (Where I was briefly mauled by my parents’ dog. Another story…)
Needless to say – patience is required when writing a book too. Particularly a first novel. But once you have the general idea of where this story is going, the near-sighted approach may be less demoralizing. Keep turning up at the blank page. And look, you have a sentence, and now a scene, and now a chapter, and now a first draft of a whole novel, by gum! (That’s when the real work begins, I discovered – at least for me.)
Of course, if you hate the process of writing, why try to write novels? Or if you hate cycling, why try to cross continents on a bike? You have to love the process. And the process will nearly kill you – whether with endless, gale-swept desert wildernesses, bone-chilling nights on high altitude passes, furnace-like heat with not a scrap of shade in sight; or else gaping holes in your plot, characters who speak like robots, reject letters, prose that makes your toes curl and the stark realisation that writing “The End” has very little to do with finishing a book.
But then there are those glorious vistas over dawn-lit peaks, silver-sheened Alpine lakes, reaching “the other side” of deserts, oasis towns, lush green pastures daubed like paint across the horizon, the wind at your back; or the tingle in the blood when you re-read a scene, dialogue so alive you hear it whispered in your ear, characters who make you laugh like an old friend, or the little details of plot that fall into your mind when you least expect it like raindrops from heaven.
Ah, yes - these are all very good.
If you want to read more about my bike ride from Hong Kong to Norfolk, click here.
Or at least do the 4-minute tour…