Monday, 10 August 2015

A writer's pep-talk

Think of this as a pep-talk.

It’s a pep-talk for me really, but feel free to take advantage of it.

Sometimes writing comes easy. Sometimes you hit your word count target in less than half the time it normally takes and feel like you can carry on at that rate for hours. There’s hardly a pause in your typing, no going back to perfect the awkward sentence – no need.

But then, there are the times when writing is like wading through treacle. Each word is hard-won. There are so many clumsy sentences that you have to go back and reword. You’re afraid to leave the keyboard because anything, anything will distract you enough to keep you from coming back. And yet you would really, really like to abandon your work, right this minute because it’s too hard and it’s rubbish and who do you think you are writing novels anyway?

This is where the pep-talk comes in.

They could be rubbish, those few words you managed to squeeze out today. You might have to delete them all. But it could be that writing them made you discover what you don’t need to say, or what you don’t want to say. Or maybe you can use those words somewhere else. Perhaps, when you come back to them, those words you deem to be rubbish now won’t seem so bad. A tweak here and there will sort them out. Maybe something you’ve written, some sentence, some phrase, is perfect.

After all, when you come to reread the whole of what you’ve written, it’s generally impossible to tell which bits flew from your fingers and which bits you sweated over. So maybe, when you think you’re stuck, you’re not really stuck at all. You’re just slow. Don’t worry about it. Just plug away.

Today was a slow day for me. It’s the final chapter, so everything matters so much. The rate I’m going, it’ll take me a week to write the necessary two and a half thousand (ish) words. But I’ll get there, even if it’s three words written and two deleted. I’ve written the last sentence already, and it looks pretty good to me.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

A teller of tales

My dad was a teller of tales. He knew that the truth, the actual facts about anything, needed honing and shuffling about to make a story. He loved an audience. He’d sit at the head of the table when we had visitors and tell the same old stories, the ones that made Mum and me roll our eyes, because we’d heard them so many times, and because we were almost always the stooges. And sometimes Dad would slip in something new, and you’d listen as he told it, thinking ‘what’s this, I haven’t heard this one,’ and in the end it would turn out to be a joke embroidered with reality to keep you listening.

He was much in demand to give speeches at conferences. If his performance was anything like the speech he gave at my wedding, he deserved his reputation. Imagine the perfect father-of-the-bride speech. You get the silly stories and the little digs: at me, at my new husband. You get the references that take in every group in the room, so that we’re all in it together. You get his pride and his good wishes. I’ve got his speech on video somewhere, and now that he’s gone I’d like to find it, to watch him in full flow, notes he scarcely looks at in one hand, gesturing with the other, looking around to involve everyone in the room.

I get being a reader from my mum. She’s a book-a-day type reader. I’ll never keep up with that, but it was she who nurtured my love of books and my constant need for new and involving stories. Dad was never a reader. Reading fiction simply wasn't his thing. But I think perhaps I get being a storyteller from him. Certainly I feel I'm having a Dad moment when I’m telling my children about something that’s happened and I find I’m framing and adjusting the facts so that there’s a satisfying punchline. And when I'm writing and I realise that I’ve woven into my entirely fictional narrative some real event or experience which has been crying out to become part of a story, maybe that instinct comes from Dad too.

Thanks Dad. Miss you.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Curse of the TBR* Pile

 The pile of books beside my bed is growing. There are the ones I bought for my new reading project (the one I haven't started yet). There's the bunch my sister-in-law lent me the last time I was there (six months ago). There are the freebies. There are the books other writers have lent me because I've just got to read them. There are the writing guides and reference books I'm currently browsing when I can't get my head into fiction. Oh, and there are the books I've bought myself because not only can I not pass a bookshop without going in, I pretty much can't pass a bookshop without buying at least three books (four always seems to be overdoing it, though, when I have my daughters with me, we generally come out with four, theoretically one each, but we will all read each other's).

The TBR pile is a beast. It makes me feel guilty when I buy new books and they skip the queue. Some books are never going to make it off the pile. I feel guilty about them too. Occasionally I slip the odd one into my husband's pile, which feels slightly less like I'm rejecting it.

You'd think having a great stack of books to read would be a joyous thing, but somehow it's not. It's off-putting. Like having a vast heap of food on your plate. You'd probably eat more if you started with a small helping and then took more. So maybe what I need to do is to rethink my TBR pile. maybe I should put them on a shelf somewhere, not too far away from where they are now, but far enough that they don't feel like they're nagging at me. Maybe then they'll look at appealing as they did when I bought them or was given them. Maybe then I'll browse through them for the next thing to read with more thrill than at present.

There's only one problem...

 .... no spare bookshelves.

*To Be Read (but surely you already knew that)

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Writer seeks audience

There are few things as thrilling as having someone you don't actually know tell you they love your book. It's not a thing that's happened to me much yet. Not because people don't enjoy my writing, you understand, but because not all that many people I don't actually already know have read it yet.

My husband asked me the other day if it really mattered if no one ever read what I've written and I didn't know how to answer. Yes, I thought. Of course it matters, but it's hard to say why. 

It would be nice to earn pots of money and have people offer huge sums to make movies of my books or stand in mile-long queues to get me to sign their treasured collection of my complete works. (It happens. I can dream!)

It would be nice if people thought enough of my books to pay me sufficient money that I could do nothing but write. Of course it would.

But of course it's not just about money and being able to afford to spend your time doing what you like best.

I need people to tell me they've enjoyed what I've written. I need to know how they loved or hated the characters, how I made them cry or how I was right or wrong about something. What I need is to get people to respond to what I've written. 

Why is that hard to explain? I suppose because what I'm seeking is affirmation. Perhaps, if the writing is good, it should satisfy me in itself, and not require affirmation. It doesn't though. I am writing for me but I'm writing for other people too. I'm a storyteller and a storyteller needs an audience.

And the best thing anyone could say to me?

'I can't wait for the next one!'

If you're interested, you can read a taster of my YA novel here.
I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

A foot in both camps

I have a head full of YA at the moment. That's Young Adult for the uninitiated who might stumble upon this blog. There's the YA novel I've just published, What they don't tell you about love in the movies (you can read a sample here), and the big wide world of YA on the internet that becomes your constant companion when you are looking for a YA readership, joyful, moaning, opinionated, passionate, open to new ideas, just like the houseful of teenage (and nearly teenage) daughters I have around me.

There's so much YA around now. There's plenty of its younger sibling, Teen, too. But there wasn't any such thing when I was a teenager. A couple of publishers brought out imprints for older readers, but nothing really stuck around for long, and booksellers and librarians mixed these books in with the children's books anyway. Penguin had Peacock; I know my Little Women and I Capture the Castle were Peacock. Then later on they had Puffin Plus. So I was wondering was what I read when I was a Young Adult. Some of it is, of course, lost to me. I used to read all the time. I read books I borrowed from the library. I reread books I already owned. I read other people's books. I didn't buy all that many books because I didn't have the money and, being in boarding school most of the time, I didn't have the opportunity. So all I've really got to go on is the handful of books still on my shelf that I've written the date in.

Step into 1979 with me. The year I was 14. Here we go.

Here are some of the books I bought that I suppose might be labelled YA these days.

Or maybe Teen because they’re less edgy than a lot of YA. There’s no sex here, no teen ‘issues’. What makes them YA is that they’re about people on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Other books in these series are about adults. Thinking about it, publishers might struggle to place these books now. Today’s YA characters are pretty much always teens. You could think of these as crossover I suppose, because they start with teen characters and lead them into the adult world, like Little Women, like Jane Eyre, though no one classed those children’s books when they were published.

Interesting that so many of the books I’ve kept are series. Series fiction, ever a favourite with publishers, is the mainstay of YA. Catch your audience once, and you can sell them a whole lot more of the same. No, not necessarily the same, that’s not fair, but you know what I mean. The difference with Flambards and the Earthsea books and Barbara Willard’s Mantelmas books is that each book can stand alone. I’ve wittered on endlessly in my blogs about my feeling that books should have proper endings, but I’ll just say it again because I can’t help myself: books should have proper endings! You should be able to read them in any order!

But look! I was buying children’s books too!

And I was definitely rereading all the children’s books on my shelves already (not in public though, not at school). I would have bought The Growing Summer because I already loved Noel Stretfeild. I expect I bought The Didakoi because I saw it on TV. There was a lot of good children’s drama on TV in the 1970s.

And at the other end of the scale, I dabbled in adult books. I wasn’t buying many of them yet. There were too many adult books on the shelves in a bookshop. I didn’t know where to start. I read them at school because that’s all there were in our school library. And I edged my way into adult books, picking up things my mother had borrowed from the library, looking at other people’s shelves, searching for adult books by children’s authors I already knew, reading stuff that had been on TV. Funny though, I can’t imagine my 14-year old daughter finding The Happy Prisoner appealing.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the other hand, is your ultimate crossover novel. Me and one of my friends loved it so much that, when called upon to create a magazine to sell for charity at school, we put nothing on the front cover but the word ‘PANIC’ in large letters in homage to Douglas Adams’ genius.

What do I take from this survey of my 14-year old reading? That I’m glad there’s YA today for my kids because it’s much easier to find something you want to read when it’s out there with a label on it. But I wonder if today’s YA needs to burst out of its teen bubble and allow some of its characters to grow up. And if it did, maybe some of these books might reach a wider audience. I read that KM Peyton didn’t think Flambards was a children’s books when she wrote it. I’m sure the TV series, which was primetime rather than in a children’s spot (such things used to exist, dear younger readers…) enlarged her audience, but if not for that, would it ever have reached an adult readership? The trouble with labels is that although they make it easier to find things, they also restrict.