Write Happy

I was inspired to write this post after reading one on a similar theme from my writer pal, Ali Standish. Her first novel is due to be published next year, and you can read her brilliant post here: Some Thoughts On “Success”: Why Getting A Book Deal Doesn’t Guarantee Eternal Happiness.

Man, I wish that I had read this, or something like it, back when I was a baby novelist. Because, yes, at first you think you’ll be happy with just getting an agent, then you want a book deal, then you want a bestseller, then you want to win an award for your writing etc etc . . . The goal posts keep on moving no matter how hard you chase after them. Unfortunately, this is a principle that has taken me over ten years to learn.

I started writing my first novel when I was 16, finished it when I was 17, then printed it out and actually carried it around with me like a loon whilst I was on holiday in Edinburgh because I was paranoid that all my electronic copies might somehow get lost, and I was also convinced that this book was a masterpiece. A Masterpiece with a capital M, in fact. Needless to say, it remains unpublished, and with good reason. So I persevered with Book 2, which got me an agent when I was 18, but the novel was promptly rejected by all the publishers.

Perhaps this is where I started to become a bit intense about the whole thing. Pictures like this one got stuck on the wall above my desk:

Also pinned above the desk were various earnest, tortured quotes about writing from the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf et al (all writers who ended up committing suicide, by the way, so perhaps not the best people to be taking career and/or life advice from, now that I think about it.)

Then The Ninth Circle was published and well, you know, the reviews really weren’t that great to begin with. And, like many writers, I ended up having major problems with my second book. By the time my Ninth Circle advance author copies arrived, I was so unhappy with the whole thing that I couldn’t even look at them. For some time, they remained untouched in a box on my bedroom floor, which made me feel even worse – rather like a mother panda rejecting her baby pandas. And, trust me, no one wants to feel like a mother panda rejecting her baby pandas. That sucks big time.

This, perhaps, would have been the obvious point to reassess what I was doing and strive for a little bit of balance in my life. A sensible person certainly would have done so, but, after finally managing to produce a decent second book for Gollancz, I was out of contract and could feel the whole thing slipping through my fingers. To me, the solution was obvious: plaster the wall with more Ernest Hemingway quotes and write, write, write like you’ve never written before.

And it worked, I guess, because I did eventually, after many false starts, get another book deal, and then another, and so on. But when I turned 29 last year, it struck me that I had rather missed out on many of the things you’re supposed to do in your twenties. A single-minded determination to be published will certainly help a baby novelist to pull through that painful initial stage of learning about the realities of the publishing industry/dealing with the shock of bad reviews (someone didn’t think your work was an actual masterpiece? *gasp!*)/being out of contract and having novels rejected. But failing to celebrate successes along the way, and refusing to concentrate on anything other than writing does not for a happy life make.

Ernest Hemingway once famously said: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” Which is all very well but Hemingway, of course, ended up shooting himself in the head. So, you know, maybe bleeding all over the typewriter isn’t the best way to go about it. Maybe just chill out about the whole thing a little bit instead.

Last year, I decided to change my approach and swapped Ernest Hemingway for Chuck Wendig:

For me, this translates into: three days at the day job, weekends off (mostly) and two days of writing 2,000-3,000 words a day. Which still gets you a first draft in 3-4 months. You don’t have to be a tortured, depressed, hand-wringing artist to write books and publish them. No one wants to end up heartbroken and drunk and reaching for the shotgun. Writing happy is better for the book, better for the writer, and better for their poor, long-suffering family (especially this last one. Family: I am sorry).

I want to be a novelist, but I also want to spend time with my friends, and family, and most impossibly wonderful boyfriend. I want to be able to read, and binge-watch Nashville, and do Pilates, and learn how to make Spanish tapas if I feel like it. I want to work for the Citizens Advice Bureau because I think it’s a fantastic charity that helps a huge number of vulnerable people every year. And, yes, I still want, more than anything in the world, to write stories and have other people read them. But this new Chuck Wendig approach allows the joy of writing to shine through once again, and it means I’m perfectly happy to write books whether someone pays me to do it or not.

Sure, it does sometimes feel a bit like trying to juggle ten balls at once, but this is infinitely better than forlornly bouncing a single ball against the wall, over and over again, like an absolute lunatic. I think my days of buying multipacks of Red Bull and feverishly working through the night/refusing to socialise whilst I’m writing/resenting anything at all that pulls me away from my desk, are over. If nothing else, it simply isn’t necessary, and it certainly doesn’t help you to be a better writer. Trust me on this.

Being happy and healthy and out and about in the world is good for the books. No one gets ideas when they’re closeted away stubbornly being a hermit and wallowing in creative self-doubt, or, at least, I don’t. I’ve tried writing sad and it really isn’t much fun at all. It might be a do-able approach for a short-term sprint, but not a long-term marathon. So if you want to publish one book and then quit whilst you’re ahead, then fine – go ahead and do the Red Bull working-through-the-night thing, then nurse yourself back to health afterwards. But if you want to stay in the writing game for the long haul then I think you absolutely must find a way to be balanced about it.

And that’s hard because writing is an all-encompassing passion that pulls you in and, like a particularly needy baby panda, wants all of your attention all of the time. So it’s not that easy to say no to it sometimes, and I can’t pretend I’ll always get it right. Just last week, for example, I was trying to have lunch with my grandparents but, in the end, I just had to say: ‘Look, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to go. I can’t stop thinking about piranha’ (for my upcoming middle-grade explorers book). But one can strive for balance, at least, even if you don’t always quite achieve it.

I think, as Ali says, that it’s worth sharing the experience of what the reality of being a novelist is like because perhaps it will help other writers, especially those who are just starting out and – if they’re anything like I was – labouring under a great many misconceptions about how it all works. I certainly wish I had read a more experienced novelist’s cautionary tale when I was 18. Perhaps I would have had more fun at university then, instead of hiding away in the quietest corner of the library, scribbling frantically away at my novel . . .

But, oh, who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I would have done no matter how many cautionary tales I had read. But we don’t always have to practice what we preach, do we? So my advice to new novelists would be this: for goodness sake, write happy, and don’t waste too much time and effort on writing sad.

 

 

 

Story versus Style

What’s more important – that a book is well written or that it has an engaging story? I’ve always been firmly on the side of story. If the story isn’t compelling then it surely doesn’t matter how beautifully it’s been written. That’s what I’ve always thought, at least. However, I am now reading a book that’s making me rethink my position. I managed to get my greedy fingers on not one, but two, of the titles for World Book Night, one of which was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is 348 pages and I am up to page 116, and I am completely and utterly gripped – not by the story, but by the writing. It is one of the most exquisitely written books I have ever come across – and I do consider myself to be pretty well read. There is an effortlessness in every sentence and I feel like this book is showing me just how great the written word can be.

So far this year I have read a lot of just-released books, and have found many of them to be insipid and bland, and now that I am reading Marquez, those other books seem even more insubstantial and unsatisfying – like having a glass of water for dinner as opposed to a three course meal. Time of Cholera is something to really get your teeth into and, right now – just over 100 pages in – I feel like the book is nourishing my reader’s soul. I am not massively engaged with the characters or their story (although I suppose that could still change), but, with this book, it honestly doesn’t matter. I feel almost hungry for Marquez’s words. How refreshing to read a book that is not a fast-driven frenzy of activity from beginning to end. What a welcome change for there to not be some sort of fight scene or car chase on every page. This is a book that allows itself to breathe – and is all the better for it.

Pace is something I am painfully aware of with my own writing. I’m aware of a constant pressure to make sure the action doesn’t slow down, even for a second, in case – God forbid – the reader gets bored, and the reviewers begin baying for your blood etc etc. Surely we have not sunk so low as a society that all we want to see is pretty people running away from explosions? It is a notion that I dislike intensely. Not so much for Lex Trent or other comic fantasies because they’re naturally more fast-paced – but for serious adult books I find it very frustrating that there should be such a single-minded focus on grabbing the reader’s attention by doing the writing equivalent of bashing them over the head with a heavy object. Personally, I generally dislike books that start with action scenes or fights or chases. They bore me. If I don’t know the characters yet then I couldn’t care less what happens to them as they run madly through the house whilst being pursued by a werewolf/man with gun/love-sick sparkly vampire. Still, I am told that this is what most people want in an opening chapter.

In the story versus style debate I would hold up Dan Brown as a brilliant example of the former. I realise it’s dreadfully unfashionable of me to like Dan Brown, and many people (some of whom openly admit to having never even picked up one of his books) seem to almost fall over themselves in their eagerness to proclaim that the man cannot write, or that his writing style is clumsy at best. I do not accept this. I think Dan Brown is a very skilled and intelligent thriller writer, and no aspirations to literary snobbery will make me say otherwise. Dan Brown does not write beautifully but the stories he tells do not require that he should. I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code but I absolutely loved The Lost Symbol. I devoured it because every time I got to the end of a chapter I couldn’t wait to learn what was going to happen next. It gripped me very differently from the way Time of Cholera is gripping me now.

I am in awe of Marquez’s writing – literally, I am in awe of him – but I’m still more likely to take a Dan Brown book on holiday with me, or reread a Dan Brown book, or rush to the cinema to see a film adaptation. I am still more likely to eagerly seek out other work of Brown’s that I have not yet read – not because I think his books are better than Marquez’s but because, for me, story is still more important than style. I read Brown’s books – and others like them – for a different reason. Fundamentally, I read those books to enjoy them as a reader, whereas a book like Love in the Time of Cholera I’m reading mainly as something to aspire to as a writer – a fondly nurtured dream that perhaps if one worked at it solidly for fifty years or more, one might become even half as good.  

And now, as a post script to this post, for anyone who hasn’t heard about this yet, my good pal, and blogger extraordinaire, Amanda Rutter, along with several other very fine people, have organised and set up an auction in aid of the Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Appeal. I’d like to encourage you to head on over to http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/ where you can bid on all manner of exciting things, including rare signed books, critiques from authors and the chance to have your name in an author’s upcoming book. There is some super exciting stuff up for grabs – and, as a genre fan, some of the lots have left my fingers itching to reach for my credit card. As an example, if you’d like to be a baddie who dies horribly, but has some great powers (and who wouldn’t?!), in my friend Suzanne McLeod’s upcoming Spellcrackers novel then go here http://genreforjapan.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/item-27-appearance-in-the-next-suzanne-mcleod-novel/ and place your bid. I’d bid on this myself if I hadn’t just donated to Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support. Sadly, animals tend to get overlooked in natural disasters of this type but they are just as much in need of aid as their human counterparts. If I and my whole family were killed in an earthquake and my spoilt, pampered pets were left to fend for themselves I would hope to God that there would be someone there to help them. If you’d like to donate to their ongoing efforts on behalf of animals in Japan then you can do so here: http://japanearthquakeanimalrelief.chipin.com/japan-earthquake-animal-rescue-and-support/

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Mr Darcy versus Mr Bingley

I’ve recently been reading Jessica Morrell’s Bullies, Bastards and Bitches, which is, ostensibly, about writing villains, but also discusses heroes, unsympathetic protagonists, dark heroes and bad boys. It’s a fantastic book, nicely set out, with some very interesting observations about characterisation, and I would highly recommend it to any aspiring (or, indeed, professional) writer. At one point it talks about alpha males and beta males and uses Mr Darcy as an example of the former, and Mr Bingley as an example of the latter. Morrell suggests that women want to marry a Mr Bingley but want to read, and fantasise about, Mr Darcy. It’s an interesting and, I think, accurate suggestion.

Mr Darcy – and most of the romantic male leads in the Madeleine Brent books – are, in some ways, anachronistic. Women do not depend on men in the same sort of way in the modern world, and marriage is not a woman’s sole preoccupation. When I studied A Level Sociology, we looked at articles from the 1950’s giving advice to wives and I remember being particularly horrified by a passage suggesting women take a nap shortly before their husbands were due to arrive home so that they would be suitably refreshed to receive him. They were then to change their dress, put a new ribbon in her hair, and greet the husband at the door with his slippers. In addition, they should not be the ones to instigate conversation because the husband has had a long day and might be tired etc. That being the case, the last thing he wants is a chattering wife bleating dull, domestic trivialities in his ear. Garghh! It’s just too awful! And only fifty years ago!

So, this is a problem with some male romantic leads like Mr Darcy. It might have been fine back then, but modern women do not want such over-bearing coddling. The feminist in me revolts against this character type.

And yet . . .

Who can deny that there is an appeal in spite of all this? I have recently watched the excellent Lost in Austen and am now re-watching the definitive Pride and Prejudice (of Mr Colin Firth renown), and I will admit that I am as much enamoured with Mr Darcy as the rest of the female audience/readership. I will also admit that I am an avid reader of the Madeleine Brent books, even though I feel they are something of a guilty pleasure. I feel I ought not to like them – being modern and all – but I am hooked regardless.

But much as I enjoy Darcy’s character in the book and TV adaptations, a real life version is really the very last thing I would want. And that is because, for me, a Darcy ceases to be interesting as soon as he professes his love. As soon as he does that, he is no longer cold and immovable but just another silly sap mooning after a woman. The book has to end with the marriage because nothing would be interesting after that. You want the characters to get to that point but have no interest in reading beyond it. Nobody likes gooey love, after all.

This is why I think that Jessica Morrell’s suggestion above is an accurate one. Marriage to Darcy may sound great on the face of it, but in reality? Surely one of the most important aspects of a relationship is that you are able to have fun with your partner. For example, I’m not sure that I could have a long-lasting relationship with a guy who refused to wear a silly hat at a Christmas party. There is always one whose vanity forbids it. And there is always one who collects the spare hats, and ends up wearing two, or even three silly hats all at the same time. The cold aloof Darcy routine is fine for creating mystique etc, but it might start to wear a little thin once you were actually married.

So although at first it seems quite odd to suggest that women might prefer one kind of man in dreams, and another in real life, I think there is definitely some truth to this. I don’t know if the same thing applies to male readers having an ideal female character in film/literature but quite a different ideal woman in real life. Presumably the same principle might apply, although I haven’t seen as much evidence of it.

I suppose the point is that characters like Mr Darcy drive the story more, so they are far more exciting and entertaining to read about. Characters like Mr Bingley (or, say, John-Boy Walton, or George Bailey), whilst being ideal husband material, are not exciting, so they do not get to take on the smouldering romantic roles in a book (or film). Perhaps the difference is that real life cannot be exciting all the time – and who would want it to be? As Morrell points out, alpha males are not going to be the types to stumble out of bed to see to the baby in the middle of the night, or clean out the cat tray – or, indeed, take great delight in wearing lots of silly hats at a party. And, much as I love Mr Darcy in the context of his own little fantasy world, in real life I would always rather be with the guy wearing three hats rather than the guy who is too far above himself to even pull a cracker with someone, let alone wear the paper hat inside it.

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The Great Gender Debate

Recently I have been thinking about this question of gender in relation to authors – and science fiction authors in particular. I’ve read that J.K. Rowling was asked to use her initials rather than her actual name because her publisher was worried that teenage boys might not pick up a book that had been written by a woman. This seems a bit mad to me. I would never be influenced to buy – or not buy – a book, based purely on the author’s gender.

Having said that, I do remember being quite disappointed when reading the marvellous Falco books in my teens to discover that Lindsey Davis was a woman. Since her first person narrator was male, I think I was sort of hoping that Lindsey Davis was, in fact, Marcus Didius Falco, and that when I looked him up online there would be a dashingly handsome author photo that I could drool over. I found that I read the books in a slightly different way once I knew the author was a woman.

I was also taken aback on first discovering that the Madeleine Brent books were actually written by a man (Peter O’Donnell). The author’s gender shouldn’t overly influence the way you read a book but, for me, I find that it does have some impact, if only at the back of my mind. After all, you usually find some of the author themselves in their work. If there was a novel currently in the shops that had been written by the first ever alien novelist then wouldn’t that change the way you read it? Wouldn’t everyone rush out to buy it simply because it had been written by an alien?

When people see my name, they usually expect me to be a man. Indeed, there was this one time at school when a French exchange teacher refused point blank to let me into the classroom to take my French oral exam because she said that Alex Bell was next on the list. I finally got through to her that I was Alex Bell, but it took some rather emphatic insistence on my part.

My full name is Alexandra, but no one has ever called me that (except for this violin teacher I had once who simply could not be dissuaded from it). It therefore never occurred to me to be anything other than Alex on the books. Because my name is gender neutral, I’ve never had to worry about someone declining to pick up one of my novels in a shop because they’re put off by a female name. I was glad that Gollancz didn’t overly market me as a female author, for the simple reason that I just don’t think it’s relevant. It’s like saying: “Here is a great new book that has been written by – wait for it – a person with green eyes!” Well, so what? I feel that if gender is made a big thing of in the marketing, it’s like saying – this is a great book considering the fact that it’s been written by a woman.

So I’m glad that I haven’t really had all that much of that as most people don’t realise I am not, in fact, Mr Bell. But one thing I have had quite a lot of is all this “young author” business. When I first started sending work to agents and publishers when I was eighteen, I never put “Miss” or “Ms” on the SAE, and I certainly never mentioned my age. This was simply because I wanted as much anonymity as possible. I was quite dismayed when my (now) agent first phoned me rather than writing because the cat was then out of the bag. If the agents/publishers didn’t know anything about me then they would judge my work on its own merits rather than judging whether it was any good for a woman, or for a teenager. I wanted to be judged as a writer only – not as a female, teenage writer.

I believe that readers and reviewers can sometimes be unduly influenced if they know too much about the author. For example, I’ve noticed that a writer’s age is only mentioned by a reviewer if they already know that the author is young (I’ve seen this in reviews for Christopher Paolini and Cecelia Ahern’s books as well as my own) – i.e. because the reviewer knows that the author is young, they can’t help but see youth in the writing.

It puts me in mind of a gag Candid Camera did once where wine connoisseurs were invited to try several different types of wine and comment on them. The connoisseurs discussed at great length which wine they felt was superior and why only to find out at the end that each of the five was, in fact, exactly the same wine. They only found differences in them because they expected to. One might even go so far as to say that their desire to appear sophisticated, and come up with something to say about the product, prevented them from seeing it as it really was. I can’t help thinking that if an older author was mistakenly marketed as a young one, then critics would still say things along the lines of: “A good novel, to be sure, but the author’s youth/naivety shows through from time to time” etc. Perhaps that is overly cynical of me, but I doubt it. 

In short, then, I don’t believe there’s anything at all wrong with reading a book in a slightly different way depending on whether the author is a man or a woman, but I don’t think a reader should become so preoccupied with the author that they start reading things into the novel that aren’t there.  And if you’re browsing in a bookstore and you put a book back on the shelf simply because of the author’s gender then, I’m afraid, you are a total moonfruit.

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My Name Ain’t Gabriel

When my Dad joined the merchant navy (in the brief time before deciding that stockbroking was the way forwards) he was told that there were three subjects that must never be discussed in the officers’ mess: religion, politics and sex. If you don’t want to upset people then this is generally sage advice wherever the conversation happens to be taking place. Obviously I endeavour to ignore sage advice whenever possible on principle. And, indeed, the above rule is why I was very often shushed at any dinner party my parents threw for clients back in the day (although admittedly this was more because I wanted to talk to them about religion and politics rather than sex – even I am not quite that odd).

The point is that religion is a tricky subject. People get upset much more quickly when talking about religion than they do discussing, say, Hungry Hippos (although I guess it depends on how competitive you are at games). It’s therefore not my intention to go into great detail about religion on my blog, nor do I plan to respond to reviews (be they good or bad) for the simple reason that I find blogging about my animals and my love for strange headgear more entertaining.

But I’m going to make a bit of an exception with this post because I’ve seen – a couple of times now – reviewers state that Gabriel’s religious views in The Ninth Circle are clearly my own. When I talk to people about the book they often expect this to be the case as well. This week I spoke to a book club about The Ninth Circle. I’ve never done this before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They were a lovely bunch of people who asked me some very intelligent and thoughtful questions about the book. I did, however, get the impression that some of them expected Gabriel Antaeus to walk through the door rather than me. Hopefully by the end of the session they realised that we are two entirely separate people – after all, at no point during the evening did I attempt to attack anyone, or suggest we engage in group prayer (that I can recall).

But – for the record – I am not Gabriel.

Gabriel is a fictional character that I made up and just because the book is told in first person does not mean that I’m simply writing down everything that I believe. It’s probably unavoidable that a little bit of the author seeps into the character, but it’s something I actively try to avoid even to the extent of deliberately distancing myself from my characters (this is another reason why I generally prefer to write male protagonists).

Gabriel is a fiercely religious man, but I do not believe in God. I’m not an atheist, but I am an agnostic. In its attitudes towards women, slavery, gay people, working on the Sabbath etc, I think much of what the Old Testament says is utter – utter - nonsense. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of good in the Bible too. But I would never blindly accept every word it says even if, much of the time, Gabriel does.

My name is not Gabriel, chaps. When I write about his faith I’m not writing about my faith, but imagining his. The first thing they always told us in creative writing classes at school was “write about what you know.” I’m afraid I would have to dismiss this completely. Where’s the fun in that? I might even go so far as to say “write about what you don’t know.” I don’t believe that I need to be religious to write about a religious character. Much in the same way that I don’t think I need to cut off my own hand before I can appreciate that it will hurt. Surely you can conceive of these things using your imagination alone.

It’s not that I would ever be offended by people mistakenly believing me to be religious. Far from it. Nor do I get offended when people see my name and automatically assume I’m a bloke. It’s not insulting; it’s just that it isn’t true. But considering what an odd character Gabriel is, it concerns me a little that people sometimes think I am him. It should be a common sense thing, really, and I’m sure most people don’t believe it. Otherwise no one would talk to me at the author parties (or at family get togethers, for that matter). But for those people who do suspect that I am Gabriel, I guess you’re just gonna have to take my word for the fact that I’m not. Honest.

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