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 Needless to say, it remains unpublished, and with good reason.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

 

 

 

Teacup Candles, TV Interviews & Book Signings

I went to the Winchester Christmas markets last week and found these teacup candles:

Are they not perfection? This pic is of a mulled wine candle but the one I bought was eggnog and it smells amazing and looks soooo pretty when it’s lit. I adore vintage teacups anyway but sticking scented candles in them just makes them even better. I am now officially in love with Creme Nouveau (http://www.cremenouveau.com/)

In other news, my little interview on the Kevin Moore show was on over the weekend. I have vetted it and, since it isn’t too embarrassing and I managed not to say anything grievously inappropriate, I’m putting a YouTube link up here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaFtc7p5H3w Everyone at the studio was so nice and really made my first TV experience a really positive one so a big thank you to Kevin, Joanna and everyone else who chatted with me, slapped make-up all over my face (because of the lights and stuff – not because of some sudden dreadful skin-problem) and generally made me feel at ease before we began.

And, lastly, one further reminder that I’ll be in Southampton signing at the wonderful Waterstones in West Quay this Thursday (8th December) from 5.30-7.30pm, along with several other fine authors. Apparently there’s going to be some sort of giant gingerbread house in West Quay that day, and I’ve been told that Waterstones will be putting on mince pies again this year, so do come along and say hello to us all and help us eat the pies!

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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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Library Event

Just a quick post to say that I will be doing a library event in Southampton next Wednesday at 3.30pm. The event is an open one so if anyone wants to come along and listen to me talking about Lex Trent and writing then feel free! Copies of the book will be available to buy and, of course, get signed, on the day. More details here: http://www.southampton.gov.uk/s-leisure/libraries/alexbell.aspx

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Two Things About Lex

Since Lex Trent came out I seem to have done loads of interviews for it. Or maybe it just feels that way to me because a lot of the questions I’ve answered have been replicated and so I find myself trying to think of new ways to answer the same question. I enjoy talking about Lex, so I’m not complaining. Taking time to do your bit to promote a book is a necessary part of a published author’s life.

But there are two questions that have come up a few times now, which I want to set the record completely straight on, and so I’m going to answer those two FAQ’s here on my site as well.

The first one has to do with the fact that Lex’s grandfather in the book suffers from a disease called the Soulless Wake. This is, essentially, a fantasy world version of Alzheimer’s. In almost every interview I’ve done about Lex, I’ve been asked where this came from and, more than once, people have suggested that perhaps it was because of Terry Pratchett’s diagnosis. I want to be completely clear about this: the inclusion of an Alzheimer’s type disease in Lex Trent has nothing whatsoever to do with Terry Pratchett. I have not – and will never – exploit another writer’s illness as a plot point in one of my books. In fact, at the time that I wrote the first draft of Lex Trent – back in my second year of university – Terry Pratchett had not even received his diagnosis yet. My grandfather, though, had been diagnosed with the disease two years previously. This is the reason that it features in the book.

I usually try quite hard to avoid allowing my own life to seep into my novels, but I suppose to some extent it is unavoidable. Everything – both good and bad – that happens to a writer, contributes to who they are. As Dan Simmons has his Wilkie Collins character state in his excellent book Drood: ‘I was a novelist. Everything and everyone in my life was material.’

It was not a conscious decision of mine to address the very serious issue of Alzheimer’s in what is, after all, meant to be a light comic fantasy novel. It crept in, somehow, on its own – I suppose because it was something that was very much on my mind at the time. However, once it was there, I decided to keep it, because it seemed to fit with Lex’s back story very well, and I don’t think that the odd serious scene detracts from the overall light-hearted nature of the book. If anything, I think such moments compliment the rest of it.  

I did not react to my grandfather’s illness in the cowardly way that Lex does in the book. I did not abandon him because he had Alzheimer’s – but I understand the temptation. It is not easy to visit someone you love very much indeed only to have them not really know who you are. My grandfather was still alive when I got my first publishing deal, but although he was told about it, I don’t think he really took it in. If his reaction when I won a short story competition at the age of thirteen is anything to go by, I know he would have been absurdly proud, and if I had signed my deal even one year earlier, then I would have been able to tell him about it properly. This remains one of the few real regrets that I have so far in my life.

My grandparents lived several hours away from us so when we went to visit, the trip involved a full day’s outing. We tried to make it there every six weeks. I went, but I had to force myself to go. My grandmother, on the other hand, cared for my grandfather day after day almost for the rest of his life, and however difficult it was for me to see him every six weeks for a few hours, for my grandmother this was a reality that she lived with permanently. She became his full time carer, despite suffering from health problems herself. The way that she was with him was one of the most brave, loyal, devoted things I have ever seen in my life. I would like to think I would conduct myself with the same grace and dignity if I were ever in her position but I seriously doubt I would be capable of that kind of selflessness. The point I wanted to hint at with Lex was that there are different kinds of bravery. Lucius, who is Lex’s wimpy, weedy, gentle twin brother, could not cope with the thrilling adventures Lex takes on, but he willingly stayed behind to look after their grandfather when he became ill – something that Lex simply could not do.

That is where the Soulless Wake comes from. It is a direct result of my own experience – not an insensitive exploitation of someone else’s suffering.

The second – and far less important FAQ – is people believing that I decided to call the main character Lex because that name is a variation of mine. This is not the case either. It is true that Lex and I share some similarities in that we were both law students; we both share a sort of dread of the idea of working as lawyers; and we both had grandfathers who had Alzheimer’s. But the reason I gave Lex his name was because of this man:

 This, as any Smallville viewer will recognise, is Lex Luthor, as played by Michael Rosenbaum. I was watching a lot of Smallville at the time, and I loved Lex as a character – I thought he was far more interesting than Clark. I also liked the fact that the name ‘Lex’ has instantly notorious connotations. That was the reason that I took it. Lex is therefore named for super-villain Lex Luthor. He is not named after me.

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