Trail in Namibia Trail in Namibia

The Lost Material – Some Thoughts on Writing

Some sentences are blessed. They leap onto the page, flick their hair and then go through editing life without a care. Months later they bounce onto the printed page, breezy and insensitive to the pain of other sentences. Most words lead different lives.

Cuts are part of editing any book – some writers have even argued that ‘writing is cutting’.

It can be painful, often isn’t, but nearly always feels right in hindsight. It is surgery and we don’t undergo that for fun, but because it is the right path to a better outcome.

By the time any chapter reaches my publisher, even as a first draft, it has undergone drastic cuts and rewriting by my own hand.

But then the scalpel may need to come out again. Editing is not something any author can do perfectly tout seul. There’s a sentence that would see the blade, if it survived long enough.

20,000 words disappeared quite quickly from my first manuscript of The Secret World of Weather, cut from the first draft that my publisher read. If you are setting out as a writer, that may sound discouraging,

“****, it would take me many months to write that – and then it goes in the bin!”

But actually we can find it encouraging, because nothing is more likely to make you seize up as a writer than the belief that you need to reach perfection before anyone reads your words. We can aim for perfection, work hard for it, but we must not let that goal scare or scythe us. As another author once said, ‘writing is rewriting.’

And nothing ever goes in the bin. If a paragraph is never published, it has still done the important job of revealing what should survive. The stone chips on the floor by the sculpture are not trash, someone pretentious maybe said once but probably didn’t.

The original opening to The Secret World of Weather was way too long and discursive. And by original, I mean the submitted version, not the first one I wrote.

Instead of banging on about the process, let me share a particularly extreme example in action.

Here is the Introduction from the submitted first draft of The Secret World of Weather. And, below, I’ll show you what survived and made it into print.

Introduction (First Draft)

Nothing is random. Every shape, colour and scent has meaning. Each cloud is a clue and every breeze a sign. All landscapes offer up a tapestry of these telltales.

Even if in our hearts we know this to be true, there remains a great temptation to believe this code must be unreadable. There are many wandering the lanes and pavements convinced that that their senses feed them nonsense. But they are mistaken. Each scene greets us as a mystery, but one that invites a solution.

This, you will be aware already, is an unorthodox book about the weather. It is a book that cares mores about meaning than names or convention. We will focus on the phenomena worth looking for during our time outside and what they reveal about our present, past and future weather.

The future in this case means the next days or week at a maximum. It is about the weather signs changes we can expect discover today and tomorrow as we walk around a tree or down a street, which and this takes us deep into the little-explored, but wonderful realm of microclimates.

Reading weather signs is not difficult, but I can only say that now that I have found an approach that works. For many years I could not have said that there was a straightforward method, because, honestly, I found the weather maddening. Weather was not a backdrop to the outdoors, it was a fiend. And trying to understand it was a foolish enterprise.

The approach to outdoor knowledge that had served me so well in other areas failed spectacularly when it came to the weather. It stubbornly refused to be corraled in any way. For more than a decade, I found the whole subject and the methods of explaining it felt like cabalistic gibberish. If someone had told me that weather knowledge was controlled by the Freemasons it would have been a relief.

I have taken a few weather exams over the years and one of the hardest was the same one taken by airline pilots. In 2002 I needed to pass this exam to get a qualification that would make my solo flight across the Atlantic legal. This exam would drag me to a soulless portacabin near Gatwick Airport and then beat me repeatedly about the brain with multiple choice questions.

There were other exams that I had to pass, in such dull matters as Aviation Law and more arcane things like ‘Human Performance, Factors and Limitations’. Did you know that accelerating with our eyes shut makes us feel that we are tilting upwards? Before pilots were taught this gem, it killed a lot of them and their passengers. But weather was the only one I feared. This was my nemesis exam.

Before heading to Gatwick, I had taken a correspondence course which many hated, but it suited me. I’m a terrible classroom student, but good at self-study and exams – a pain to teach, but get good grades. But weather, or Meteorology (see what I mean?) mocked me and I was not at all sure I could pass. Somehow I had to.

The way it worked was this: I paid my money and was sent a series of unbelievably fat heavy folders full of printed notes. I could email or call a tutor, but rarely did, because in a ridiculous British way this felt imposing and rude. Then, a few months later, I would be invited to travel to meet the tutor before each set of exams to iron out any areas that were problematic.

There were many early mornings and late nights spent bashing my head against the thick blue files of notes. A week before we were due for our final meeting prior to the exams themselves, I rang the tutor.
“How have you been getting on?” Rick asked.

“Fine, I think. Most areas seem OK, except…”
“Meteorology. I’m really struggling. I can’t seem to make any sense of it. I don’t get anywhere near the right level on the mock papers.”
“It’s OK. Don’t worry at all. We’ll sort that when you come up next week.”

The tone of his voice was reassuring, but soon after ending the call, I was worried again. We would meet for only a couple of hours and had a lot of subjects to get through in that time. How did he think he could make this large problem vanish in that time?

We met in an office next to the runway at Coventry Airport. The airport was home to a mysterious organisation called ‘Air Atlantique’ that somehow made a living by flying car parts between the UK and the Continent in some of the oldest large planes in use in the world. As Rick and I began our conversation we had to pause as a Dakota, a DC3, began its loud angry takeoff roll. This was an aircraft type that made a big impact in the 1930s and 40s and had a cameo in the final scene of the 1942 film, Casablanca. What it was doing trailing smoke and carrying cargo out of Coventry in 2002 I never did fathom.

After my precious time with Rick was almost up, he closed a file labelled ‘Radio Navigation’, and turned to me,
“So, looks like you’re all set. Was there anything else?”
“But… But… we haven’t even touched on Meteorology and it’s the only one I’m really worried about!”
“Oh, yes. No need to worry about that at all. Here is the secret to Met. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I said and leaned forward.
“If it’s warm it rises and expands. If its cool it sinks and contracts. Next subject.”
Rick rested his hands on his knees and grinned. I did not. I scratched my head.
“Wait a minute… that may be true, but it doesn’t help me pass my exam!”
“Of course it does. Give me a question.”

Over the next quarter of an hour I fired some of the examples that had been troubling me at Rick. He broke them down patiently, translated some of the gobbledegook like, ‘adiabatic lapse rates’, into English and showed how each and every one had its roots, meaning and, critically, answer, in very basic principles. Warm air rising and cool air sinking didn’t account for everything we covered, but equally simple and related principles did.
I walked out of Rick’s office happily dumbfounded. It was like that moment when you realise that your home plumbing might possibly just be tanks, pipes and taps.
“Why don’t they put it like that in the books?” I asked.
“And deny the meteorologists their six years of studying? That wouldn’t be very nice now would it?”

Shortly after our meeting I passed that exam.

But if truth be told, a box had been ticked, but I didn’t feel that I had in any way mastered weather. All I had done was jump through a hoop. The fluctuations of the weather I saw all around me were not a whole lot clearer. This did not surprise me, because a lot of aviation meteorology rests on deciphering the reports of others, once it has been wrapped in another layer of code.

This is literally how pilots are told that there will be a gentle southeasterly breeze with a chance of some mist in the early afternoon:

051130Z 051212 14008KT 5SM BR BKN030 TEMPO 1316 1 1/2SM BR

I love a code as much as anyone, but the codes I treasure are not the ones concocted by humans, but those written by nature.

Over the couple of decades since that head-aching time in a Gatwick portacabin, I have wrestled with the weather in lots of different ways and places. And we now have a good working relationship, based on a simple method. The aim of this book is to share this method through a straightforward approach. We will learn that:

1. 1) Weather happens on scales, from global to backyard.
2. 1) There are basic principles that cause the weather on each of these scales.
3. 1) All weather is a relationship between the sun, atmosphere and surface of Earth.
4. 1) There are signs to look for in each setting that allow us to read and make sense of our weather.

Number 3 is worth a pause. As we will see, the pervasive idea that the weather sits above and apart from the landscape it hugs is a great folly. The land and water shape the weather and the weather shapes the land and water, on all scales and in ways we can read. And it helps to be confident reading in both directions.

The UK government recently invested £1.2bn in a new weather supercomputer, it is hoped that this will improve rainfall predictions. We will be taking a different approach. As readers of signs, we are practicing an art. We all get better with practice, but there will remain much that we cannot do and it is healthy to remind ourselves of that. I would never claim anything close to infallibility. But where nature is gracious and prepared to offer us the keys to unlock our surroundings, we can accept that gift.

This book will introduce you to the phenomena and signs worth looking for. Introduction is a good way of putting it, because my hope is that you will come to know these signs as I have, as characters. By studying their habits, behaviours and known associates, the signs come to life and the meaning reveals itself. From this flows an ability to read what has happened, what is happening and what is about to happen.

Some of weather signs we are about to meet have an ancestry in lore. Weather lore is popular partly because it helps us remember what hard-to-miss signs might mean. It is an effective verbal system and we will touch on it at times, but it has limits. It is notable that lore helps us with things as bold and blatant as a red sky, but fails with the dozens of shapes and shades within it.

What I have set out to do in this book is provide a system that is more sensual. The signs we will be meeting can be thought of as ‘weather lore for the senses’ – through them we learn to spot the details that few do and read the meaning within them. We come to remember them because we recognise them as characters and know what they bring. We don’t need rhymes to recognise the hellraiser or painfully shy friend at a party, nor the sad or joyful member of own family. Weather signs are no different. As fridge magnets like to remind us, strangers are only friends we have not met yet.

Every weather phenomenon in this book will be revealed by something that we can look for and find meaning in. This a book for those who immerse themselves in their landscapes. Those who like to sense the richness and depth of the landscapes we move through, who rejoice in small observations and finding meaning wherever we can.
This a book for those who immerse themselves in their landscapes. Those who like to sense the richness and depth of the landscapes we move through, who rejoice in small observations and finding meaning wherever we can.

I hope you enjoy the journey!


Introduction (Hardback)

This is an unorthodox book about the weather.

My investigation sidesteps the charts on screens and instead focuses on the clues we find as we walk around a tree or down a street – and what they reveal to us about our present, past and future weather. This path will take us deep into a little- explored, but wonderful realm: microclimates – it is time to rejoice in small local observations and celebrate the weather signs that few notice. They are out there, in the sky and throughout our landscapes, waiting for us. Many are within touching distance.

I hope you enjoy the journey.


Yes, I was sad to see some of this material cut. But I could see the wisdom of it very quickly. However fond we once were of clothes we have worn, we rarely miss them when they’re gone.

The reason that cuts are made vary, but there is one little discussed truth. The popular belief goes like this: bad writing must be cut, but good writing will survive . But it is more complex than that. Sometimes the writing is fine, but it has no place. There are many good scenes from popular movies on the cutting room floor. I’m no moviemaker, but I’d happily wager that a pro could guess the quality of the final movie by the quality of the cuts.

In this one particular case, the valuable feedback was that I was taking too long to get into the subject, to get the book started in earnest. A digression, good or bad, is still a digression. And a long one will always struggle for a home.

With thanks to my editors, Rupert Lancaster at Sceptre and Nick Cizek at The Experiment.

Did you spot that the smallest cut was the final exclamation mark? If you’re struggling to work out where to make the first cut to your own work, cut the exclamation marks. And the emojis. Go on! 🙂

If you are wondering why there is a photo at the top of the page of me holding a pine cone in my hand…

Sometimes we come across interesting or beautiful things and we want to share them, but there is no neat place to do that in the piece we are working on. These are the parts that will be cut if we try to squeeze them in. The pine cone doesn’t really fit here, but I don’t have an editor on my blog. So there is nobody to suggest that I cut it. Cue demonic laughter.