A decade or so ago I was invited by a publisher to pitch ideas for film-orientated books. Not too shabby, I recall thinking at the time. And not the kind of thing that happens every day, even to writers.
Yet whilst I ended up delivering a book I remain proud of, there has always been the nagging feeling of being slightly cheated, because the publisher’s first choice was actually at the bottom of my list.
This, then, was my “slate”, an idea borrowed from freelance movie stars in the 1970s when seemingly everyone was a free agent and beavering away on an array of projects that had to be ready for “go” status if suddenly funding became available.
As far as books go, it’s the way I’ve always worked. And if I actually gave up the day job to write books for a living I’d like to think that my diary would be full for at least five years on a variety of undertakings.
As it stands, I’m in the midst of a book at present. Then there are at least two others bubbling away in embryo. Busy, busy, busy.
So what, I hear other writers say. We all do it. At least the good ones. Yet I remember talking to Deborah (Tulip Fever) Moggach and Nicholas (Safe Haven) Sparks, both of whom told me they only ever focused on one book at a time.
But they’re novelists. And I ain’t no fiction writer, at least not in the long form.
The notion of the slate came up again last week when I attended Sheffield City Hall to graduate with my Masters degree. I’m being encouraged to follow up with a PhD and need to lock down a subject area that’s suitable, relevant and deliverable.
I enjoyed a wry moment in Sheffield when the orator announced the title of my thesis, which investigated film and TV representations of real-life British serial killers. A tangible ripple ran through my fellow students accompanied by a somewhat nervous collective laugh. Better a titter than a scream, I thought.
In looking at a doctorate I don’t really want to walk in killers’ footsteps again. Instead I have something in mind about the actor Richard Burton. Yet an overview of Burton’s film output was one of the potential books turned down a decade ago and, in the years since, no one’s wanted it.
And so I find myself chalking up ideas on that virtual slate, mulling over content and direction, research opportunities and study, and weighing up options whilst balancing what I want to do against a viable subject area that offers up something fresh, new and unexplored.
Right now I have a hit list of four ideas. I know what I want to do but I suspect that when it comes down to it, the choice will be the edgy, off-kilter or plain quirky one.
And Mr Burton won’t get a look in.