How to Become a Writer

I first tried writing a novel when I was ten. At the time, my family and I lived on a farm in Zimbabwe and books were as precious as jewels to me. The nearest proper bookshop was over an hour’s drive away and my parents had very little money so every couple of months when I did get two or three books I’d read them obsessively over and over again. Often, I restarted a novel the second I’d finished the last page.

One day an English visitor gave me a boxful of second-hand books, including a horse encyclopedia, which I still have, and a guide to stargazing. Among them was a novel by a thirteen-year-old. This blew my mind. A kid not much older than me had written a book and had it published. I immediately resolved to do the same.

As a child, I was obsessed by animal stories and besotted with animals in general. I had a fat, blind pony, an orphaned calf called Daisy and four or five orphaned lambs that I fed morning and night. I filled a notebook with a story based on my favourite lamb, Snowy. All I remember is that it was about a sheep and a snake in a woodpile. Back then we didn’t have computers, and I was quite certain a publisher would not take an interest in my work unless it was neatly typed. I begged my mum to take me to a neighbouring farm, where there was a typewriter.

Over the course of one dispiriting afternoon, I used up half a ream of paper and a bottle of Tippex attempting to type the first page without error. Eventually, I gave up. However, the dream of becoming a novelist now lived in me. I tried again when I was seventeen and also when I was nineteen before finally getting my first book commissioned – a non-fiction book called Shooting at Clouds about life on the PGA European Tour – when I was twenty-two.

For the next decade I had an amazing life as a Sunday Times journalist and author, following the men’s golf tour around the world and riding across America on the tour buses of country stars like Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks and writing a series of books about them, but I pined to be a novelist.

From time to time I wrote a woefully poor short story (none published) and in my mid-twenties I wrote a full-length novel that effectively cured me of the desire to write novels. It was uncomfortable to write, for starters. None of the characters felt real. They were like chess pieces I had to move around a board. I found dialogue impossible and wondered if I could somehow get away with writing a novel that didn’t have any. I became convinced not only that I lacked imagination, but that I had none.

In 2005, when I was ready to give up on writing altogether, I was walking down the street on my way to do Christmas shopping. Out of nowhere, an image of a girl on a giraffe came into my head. When I was a child I had a pet giraffe (a real one called Jenny) and I thought: Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing on earth if you could actually ride a giraffe? And right then and there, the whole story for The White Giraffe came into my head, including the name of the main character: Martine. I went home and jotted it down on a bit of paper. I thought, one day when I retire I might have a tinker with it.

But the story wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t not write it. In the end, I set aside the project I was supposed to be working on and wrote The White Giraffe in a month. It took me numerous rejections and rewrites and eighteen months to get it published, by which time I’d come up with the ideas for the other three books in the series. Now I find that characters and stories fight to get out of my head. I sit at my desk and their worlds and stories live in me. I never take what I do for granted. I feel fortunate and blessed every single day. After years of trying, I somehow got to become a novelist.