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 Needless to say, it remains unpublished, and with good reason.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.




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.