Does Writing Make you Miserable?

According to some of our greatest writers, past and present, it does. In fact it makes you so miserable, only a masochist would take it on.

George Orwell, in his essay Why I Write lays on the agony with a trowel.

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon who one can neither resist nor understand.

More recently in her book On Writing, A.L.Kennedy says much the same thing with:

- don't even think about doing what I do for a living unless you are prepared to put up with money worries, back pain, labyrinthitis, loneliness, dislocation and a bad diet, furtively ingested in "brown" hotel rooms.

Clearly A.L has never stayed at the Premier Inn where the décor tends towards beige and lavender.

I know what she means about the bad diet though. I remember once (before I could afford the luxury of the Premier Inn) sitting hunched on an iron hard hotel bed prior to giving a reading, "furtively ingesting" a cold pasta in a pot thingy in case I fainted away mid-speech. I came to regret that pasta-pot later. I'll spare you the details. But at least the walls weren't brown, more a kind of dingy magnolia.

So why do any of us put up with this self-inflicted torture? Fact is, writing is only misery, when it isn't going well. When it flows the world might crumble around you. Saucepans burn, dog's sick on the Turkish rug, anything short of an asteroid hit and you won't even blink. If on the other hand your brain turns to sludge and your characters are like dead men walking, an hour or two scrubbing mouldy grout from the shower tiles can seem almost attractive.

Brenda Ueland, a well-known writing guru of the 1930s, reckoned the only way out of this state was to walk.

For me a five or six mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day. I have done this for many years. It is at these times I seem to get re-charged. If I do not walk one day, I seem to have on the next what Van Gogh calls 'the meagreness.' (Depression.) After a day or two of not walking, when I try to write I feel a little dull and irresolute.

And that just refers to the actual writing. Perhaps the next blog should be 'Does trying to get published make you even more miserable'? Time to dig out the dog lead, I'm off for a walk.

Spineless

Battered by the latest round of rejections, a writer friend of mine, who happens to be much acclaimed for her Y/A fiction, complained it was all because of the wretched F-word.

The F-Word? Well couldn't she just scrub it out, and replace it with 'O sugar' or 'Flipping Ada!' or something? No, she said, raising her eyes heavenwards, 'not that F-Word. I mean 'Feisty.'

Feisty? Yes, said she, they're all complaining that my heroine isn't feisty enough, and I'm sick of hearing the word.

I sympathized. I recently stumbled upon a book blog where the blogger regularly slammed novels for their spineless heroines. This, according to her, was the worst sin a writer could commit, to create a heroine minus a backbone.

You can see her point. A simpering female victim is as much a stereotype as the spirited gal who vaults over every obstacle in her path. That said, I find the F-Word scenario worrying for all sorts of reasons.

It's our job as writers to breathe life into all our characters, to think ourselves under their skin as real psychologically complex individuals. Real people don't conform to type. You can't buy them off the peg: I'll take the blue-eyed blond with freckles and make her feisty please. Real people may be feisty one day and shrinking violets the next. Much depends on events, on moods, on other people's behaviour, even on the weather.

There are even, dare I suggest, people who are naturally timid and introverted yet remain interesting. If they're well drawn, readers will understand and empathize with their fears. One example that springs to mind is the heroine in Mary Costello's wonderful debut novel, 'Academy Street.' Costello's heroine, Tess, is the very antithesis of the strong, fearless female protagonist. Traumatized by her mother's death at an early age, she turns inward upon herself and is so cut off from others that she's unable even to speak. Eventually she does find her tongue, but never quite loosens it enough to communicate freely. Even when she leaves her native Ireland to join family in New York, she remains isolated, painfully shy and lonely throughout her life.

Perhaps the blogger I came across would call her 'spineless.' Maybe she is. But she's also the most intriguing and emotionally compelling character of any novel I've read in a long time.

Don't think I'm averse to strong women in fiction. We all love to cheer on the cowering wreck who grows through adversity and discovers her inner Joan of Arc. But maybe it's worth remembering as we struggle to fit our heroines into a fictional corset, that real people come in all shapes and sizes and psychological types.

   

Taking Cover

Many years ago, when getting published seemed an impossible dream, my daughter suggested I have a reading with a psychic she knew.

The Psychic squinted into the middle distance, a glazed look in his eye: 'Yes' he said, 'You will get your novel published. I can see the cover. It's pink.'

'Sorry? Pink? Are you sure?'

'Absolutely sure. A really bright, flamingo pink.'

I didn't know whether to laugh or scream. Clearly the man was a charlatan. Pink was for romance, definitely not my subject matter.

Ten years and a few manuscripts later, the first book of my teen trilogy, 'The Henry Game' written under my real name, Susan Davis, came out with Random House. Guess what? The jacket was pink. The kind of Day-Glo pink that makes you reach for your sunglasses. My publishers assured me this was the hot colour for teenage girls. The sequels that followed were dark blue and green. While those sweetie colours were fun I had little choice in the matter.

Times change. Cover designs have come a long way, and there are some real beauties out there. Who can resist the gorgeous designs of those Scarlett Thomas novels? I confess it was the scarlet and gold cover with its look of an arcane symbol which made me grab 'The End of Mr.Y.' The content lived up to its promise. Not all books do sadly. Conversely a lot of wonderful stories are let down by lazy or clichéd jacket designs. The plague of covers featuring a pair of lower legs and feet are a bit of a turn-off for me. I don't care whether the girl is wearing knee socks, trainers or stilettos, I'll probably pass. Please...puh-leese designer's, can you come up with something up other than legs? I appreciate they suggest vulnerability, a heroine we can root for, but they've had erm...a good run.

Naturally covers are subjective, just like their contents. I'm a sucker for gothic. Show me a raven or a house with windows glowing in the night, and I'm hooked. Arty covers are always tempting. Indie author Katarina West's 'Absolute Truth for Beginners' with its split design of a green-gold Tuscan landscape is so delicious you could eat it.

Eve Seymour's soon to be published 'Beautiful Losers' is another stunner with its city lights reflected in wet streets. It makes such a change from the usual thriller cover.

Back to my cover story. Fast forward to 2014, and the cover design for 'TOVT' was a whole new ball game. Three Hares Books had the brilliant Jennie Rawlings on board, and her imagination and flair blew me away. Jenny was a dream to work with. The only problem was I now had no less than four amazing cover designs to choose from. Should I go for the scandi-style version of the cat slinking towards the cottage, seen below? Or was it to be the totem power animal against a backdrop of script, taken from Vida's diary. I couldn't resist the latter. If you think I made the right choice, let me know!

What Will You Sacrifice?

I stumbled upon this question in Louise Doughty's excellent book 'A Novel in a Year.' In it she quotes Australian novelist Elliot Perlman's advice to aspiring novelists.

Before you begin to write, think what you are prepared to sacrifice.

It's good advice that set me thinking. A novel is a long haul, and writing time is precious. Once you've made that commitment, be sure that certain things have to go. I came up with the following sacrifices:

Career:

We've  all read about Lawyer-Novelists, and Actor/Comedian Novelists, but the reality for most is scampering home from some lowly Day Job to sit up half the night battering the keyboard. Supermarket check-outs, cleaning, and care work may be physically exhausting, but at least they leave you head-space to dream up your next chapter. Unless you have a wealthy partner, you'll probably need two such jobs in order to pay the bills. I've had my share. Jobs that is, not wealthy partners. Many years ago, stomping around a windy school playground dressed in a custard yellow nylon overall with a whistle clamped between my lips was my absolute low point. This for the princely sum of £30.00 a week.

Income:

As above.

Relationships:

Gossip with a pal over a cup of coffee and chocolate brownie is one of the joys of life. If you're stressing over a hole in your plot though, it's more likely to give you indigestion. When it comes to writer friends, a good whinge about the current state of publishing over a cuppa is undoubtedly therapeutic. On the other hand, your friend's latest horror story may put you off finishing your tome altogether.  Social media is one thing, but a real social life can be the novelist's worst enemy.  Unless of course you're using lovers, partners, offspring, mothers and friends as your raw material. If so you'll need to do more than give them a moustache and change their name/hair colour, or you may have some explaining to do.

Personal Grooming:

A TV documentary I once saw showed a well known novelist at her daily routine. In every scene, Ms X sat poised at her computer attired in a variety of floaty chiffon creations, sassy up-do and decked in enough jewellery to sink a galleon. (No it wasn't Barbara Cartland.) Could this just be for the benefit of the camera, you might ask?  In my experience, especially when midway through a novel, writing in your Jim jams, beanie hat, fingerless mitts and tartan rug over the knees to stave off hypothermia is closer to the truth.

Reading Novels:

Okay, good readers make good writers. That said, once you're off and rolling, filling your head with someone else's plot and characters can be distracting. This is when I turn to non-fiction: travelogues, poetry, literary memoirs are all good. Let the TBR list pile up for a reading frenzy when the last chapter is done. Bliss!

The final question is of course, was it all worth the sacrifice/s? That depends I guess on how your novel turns out and what happens to it. So - what would you be prepared to sacrifice?

Novels that Passed the Fidget Test

Writers are readers first, and I read a lot of novels last year. That's not to say I finished all of them. Sadly there were a few which had they been paperbacks and not downloaded on my Kindle, I might have chucked across the room. This is one of the drawbacks with reading from a tablet. No satisfying thump as the book hits the floor. A click of the keypad and the offending title is removed from sight, leaving only the regret of having wasted a valuable hour of one's life plodding through the first 50 pages.

Of the novels I finished, a few were such a pleasure to read, I slowed down the better to savour every sentence. Such moments are rare. That's not the fault of the novelist so much as the method of reading. Reading from a tablet is a fidgety business. Attention spans grow ever shorter. A few dull sentences, and it's hard to resist the urge to look in on Twitter or surf for yet more novels you probably won't finish. Books which passed the fidget test were of two types, The first were just too beautiful to want to rush. The second, those heart in mouth thrillers, where you can't turn the pages fast enough.

So which were the books I wanted to chuck? Knowing how much love and hard work goes into writing any novel, never mind the gruelling business of seeking a publisher, it would be unfair to name and shame. Here instead then, are my Top Tomes of 2014. Note, not all were published in 2014, there were several gems I was late catching up with. So here goes:

'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn was one of the few thrillers I read that lived up to the hype, keeping me super-glued to the last page. The ultimate marmite novel, those that hated it, blamed protagonists, Nick and Amy. How could you care about such an obnoxious pair? I could. I confess my sympathies lay with Nick. Psychologically complex and nuanced characters, dialogue that dazzled and a plot that kept me guessing until the final sentence. I couldn't fault it.

'The Play Date' by Louise Millar was another super-glue job which had me turning off the Wi-Fi on my Kindle and ignoring cups of tea requests from Mr.Vincent. As subject matter, young mums at the school gates would normally leave me cold, but Millar's treatment lifts the genre to a whole new sinister level.

'The Tenderness of Wolves' by Stef Penny moves from domestic noir, to the 19th Century Canadian Wilderness. Following a group of strong characters across the unforgiving landscape in search of justice kept me enthralled. It's also one of the rare novels which made me cry. The hype had put me off reading at the time of publication, but I'm so glad that I overcame may resistance in the end.

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tart is another marmite novel, (or perhaps we should change that to peanut butter) which I'm told many people were unable to finish. Yes, it is a might tome, but this is one advantage of reading the e-book. No cricks in the neck, or shoulder spasms. Okay, it might have benefitted from a tighter edit, and as an editor as well as a writer, this is something I'm always on the alert for. Somehow though when you're reading a work of art, the odd superfluous passages is more likely to be a bonus than a bore. Maybe it brought out my maternal instincts, but I was literally aching to give the protagonist, Theodore, who is 12 years old when we meet him, a hug. More than that, I wanted to adopt him on the spot! I couldn't help but follow his life's journey through all its tragic twists and turns. Another rarity that made me laugh and cry in equal measure.

'Winter' by Christopher Nicholson This was one of my slow-down and savour each sentence, reads. A beautifully understated fictionalized account of Thomas Hardy's later years with his second wife. The scenery and wintry atmosphere is spell-binding, almost a living presence. But it's the sympathetic portrayal of his wife which makes this so riveting. For a man who prided himself on mould-breaking heroines like Bathsheba Everdene, Hardy it seems gave both his wives a rough ride. This book had me turning to Claire Tomalin's biography in order to get the bigger picture.  

'The Poet's Wife' by Judith Allnutt is another fictionalized account of a literary icon, in this case the poet John Clare whose spells of insanity must have driven his poor wife close to madness herself. I discovered this book by accident having first read a riveting biography of Clare. On finishing I had one of those literary light-bulb moments. Wouldn't it be a great idea to write a novel from the perspective of his wife? Doing the research I stumbled upon Alnutt's book and cursed. Somebody got there before me! On reading however, I realized she'd done a fine job, better than I could ever have achieved. It's a lyrical, heart-wrenching account of a family who become virtual outcasts in the community, thanks to a lack of understanding about mental health problems. The rural setting is beautifully evokes and the historical detail utterly convincing.

Of the wild cards last year, Suzanne Joinson's 'A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar' ticked the boxes for me. Far from being an intrepid traveller myself, a character isolated in remote foreign parts is always hard to resist. I was expecting a whimsical, mannered style, like so many other titles of late, but not so. The authenticity of the heroine's plight, trapped in the desert with a deluded sister and her zealous missionary 'friend' is impressive. It also says much about the often unrequited nature of parental love.

Given that this is the season for ghost stories, I'll end with the collection 'Ancient Sorceries' by Algernon Blackwood. To call these ghost stories, is to do Blackwood a disservice. There are none of the chain rattling phantoms beloved of the genre. I discovered Blackwood as a teenager, and devoured his entire works, scaring myself silly in the process. Of this collection, the two outstanding stories are 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows.' They're not so much about disembodied spirits but of the spirit which haunts a wild landscape, the particular fear which can take hold in an isolated and unfamiliar setting. The foreword of this collection describes them as 'psychic adventures' and that's exactly what they are.

A brief apology to my writer friends whose novels I enjoyed last year. It would be unfair to single out one or two, so among the living writers included here, I confess that none of them are personally known to me.

 

Driving in the Dark

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as the headlights but you can make the whole trip that way. E.L.Doctorow.

Or can you? It struck me stumbling upon this quote the other day that there are two kinds of novelist. I'm not talking about the commercial/literary divide here. I refer to the two very different approaches to writing a novel of any genre.

A couple of good writer friends divide into two distinct camps. The first, let's call her Millicent, drives in the daylight. She knows her destination and never sets out without the sat-nav. Talented, hard-working, prolific, she'll wake up with a fully-formed plot in her head and away she goes. By the time she sits at the keyboard, she'll have a premise, main characters, motivation, key plot points, and a do or die moment to head towards. Millicent has seven novels, all cracking page-turners to her name and three more in the pipeline.

The second, Miranda, is the driving in the dark kind. Miranda had no idea what she was writing until she'd written the final paragraph. She locked herself away for three years, assembling fragments, wondering if they would ever fit together. Somehow they did, and to wonderful effect. She has just signed a contract with a top agent. I foresee a bright future for her.

So which approach is best? Neither one. It depends which works for you. Driving in the dark is not without its dangers. The beams from those headlights pick out all manner of strange shapes and shadows along the way. You may go round in circles. You may need to turn back halfway. If you don't keep the faith, you could wind up in the ditch. But the rewards when you reach the end may surprise you.

For my latest novel at least, I belonged in the second camp. 'The Testament of Vida Tremayne' was a Mystery Tour from the start. Where would it lead me? What would I find? There were many detours along the way, and when I finally arrived ,the destination was nothing like I'd imagined.

In the novel, writer Vida Tremayne is also driving in the dark, but without the headlights on. Big mistake. She finds things in that darkness that it's difficult to escape from.

Yet this darkness continues to beckon: 'Only in the darkness can I see the story' - Haruki Murakami. Where is the Narrative? It's in the dark - Margaret Atwood.

About to launch into writing my new novel, I plan to chart a middle course. This time I'll be driving not in the dark, but in the dusk. Less strain on the eyes, but just enough room in that mysterious half-light to find the unexpected.

 

Tweeting Not Bleating

Back in the dark old pre-Amazon ages, when tweeting was strictly for birds, and the phrase 'have you blogged yet?' was somebody with a cold enquiring about your toiletry habits, I was lucky enough to have some books published by a mainstream publisher.

A bright young woman named Pansy was assigned as my publicist. It was Pansy who trotted out press releases, arranged interviews and lined up book signings. In those days we had places called Book Shops in which to sign books, and even meet our readers face to face. There were lots of them. Shops that is. At least half a dozen major high street book chains and an independent on every street corner.

Happy days you might think. But were we writers happy? Like hell we were! What a discontented bunch of whingers we must have been. Get two or three novelists in a huddle, and the odds were they'd be griping about Pansy or Poppy having the nerve to take maternity leave in the midst of a campaign. (This happened surprisingly often.) If your novel didn't hit the bestseller lists then it was all Poppy's fault for failing to plan her family around her author's literary career. How could she be so thoughtless? Editors too seemed similarly disposed, and you prayed yours wouldn't deliver her twins until after you delivered your final draft. Once that was done, novelists did what they liked to do best: retire to the ivory tower to write more novels.

Fourteen years on and the landscape has changed. 'The Testament of Vida Tremayne' comes out in a month's time. This time there's no publicity team, no Pansy to blame for failing to get my book in Smiths. It's all down to me. With publicity budgets shrinking for mainstream publishers, it's not just the tiny independents who expect their authors to go it alone. Writers can no longer afford to cringe behind the computer. We have to get out there and strut our stuff on Social Media, like it or not.

But where to begin? Confronted with a variety of platforms to get my head around, apart from the inevitable Twitter and Facebook, I begin to feel dizzy. There's LinkedIn, Library Thing, Good Reads, Pinterest, Instagram, Galleynet and that's just for starters. Then there's the peculiar lingo, the rule books, the etiquette to tackle. For someone who has only just gravitated from the exclamation mark to the smiley face, this represents a steep learning curve.

Sleepless nights stressing over the use of hash tags seem inevitable. How much is too much? Too many is a bit shouty. Too little and you might as well stay holed up in your ivory tower for the rest of your twilight years.

But I'll get there. Friends assure me this can even be fun. Indeed, the people I've met on Twitter, seem welcoming, friendly sorts. Soo...time to exit the nest and stop flapping. That said, Pansy, if you happen to be reading this, come back, all is forgiven :)

Journey of a Novel

Everyone knows about the tortuous path to publication. You've written a book, you hope to see it published. Simple. Yet the destination remains tantalizingly out of reach. This is one mystery tour which may well wind up at a dead end. No matter how much you study the map you can never be sure if you'll reach your goal. And you can't rely on a Sat Nav to get you there.

The journey of this novel was let's say circuitous. Imagine taking the wrong exit at the Welcome Break and heading hopelessly down the motorway in the opposite direction for hundreds of miles. It's dark, it's raining, you run out of petrol and end up in tears on the hard shoulder.

How could this be? You'd think someone who'd had three novels out with a mainstream publisher and had been writing since she was knee-high to a daisy would have no problem. Not so.

In fact, I began writing Vida's story back in the autumn of 2005. It was in the wake of a rocky time with my publishers. The Y/A market was shrinking. My confidence was at an all-time low. I doubted I'd ever write another novel again. Having turned editor I spent my time advising on other peoples' manuscripts.

As for my own writing, I wasn't sure I had a novel at all. Vida's story came in fragments, scribbled almost in a dream-like state over a period of months. The story began to go in wild directions. A character turned up uninvited; events took a distinctly weird turn. So weird in fact that on completing a first draft, I decided it was too bizarre ever to see daylight, and shoved it in a box-file. I went on to write another novel, which still lies in the drawer to this day. I forgot about Vida.

Around a year or so later, Cornerstones, one of the literary consultancies I work for, were giving a party for their editors. Kathryn Price the then managing editor got me into a corner.

'So, what are you writing these days?'

'Nothing,' I said.

'Nothing? What about your short stories?'

I assured her my writing days were over. I was happy enough helping others over the hurdles to publication. End of story. Kathryn wasn't convinced. Well, she said, I must get back to writing. When I'd written my next novel, she'd read it.

We left it at that. I gave it no further thought for the next year. About that time we decided to convert the falling down coal shed at the back of the house into a small office. The move from the box room was the chance for a clear-out. All those ancient files of manuscripts, my own and those of past clients, all went in the recycling pile. Or most of them did. Among them I found Vida's story in a battered folder. I dusted off the cobwebs. Might be worth reading I thought before consigning to the bin. And so I did. I read all that evening, unable to put it down. Did it have something? Why on earth had I hidden it for so many years? This shows how the mood of the moment can affect our judgement.

Installed in my new coal shed office, I set to work on a revision. There was much work to be done, and still when I'd finished, I wasn't sure. Something wasn't right. Something I couldn't quite put my finger on.

It seemed ludicrous. I could pinpoint the pitfalls in my clients' work no problem, but when it came to my own I was fumbling in the dark. Meanwhile my agent having lost interest during my decade of silence, declined even to read. We parted company. Back to the box file then. Or was it? Then I remembered Kathryn's offer.

The value of a good editor should never be underestimated. Kathryn has a rare ability to get the best out of writers, drawing on strengths you barely know you have. In my case, her expert eye uncovered a central flow with the structure. It's no exaggeration to say, this turned the book around.

A further year of hard work followed. Any novelist knows that endless re-drafting goes with the job. How many drafts is enough? There are no rules. I know of successful authors who swear by seven: others might get away with three or four. By this time I'd lost of count the drafts 'Testament' had been through. Enough to say that the first revision with Kathryn was the transformative draft which moved the story to a new level.

A further polish and Helen at Cornerstones was ready to read. Her enthusiastic reception was heartening. Within a week, she had found me representation. Every editor has their own vision for a book. Nelle Andrew made some brilliant suggestions which added much to Vida's testament. The book was ready to go out into the world.

There followed a nail-biting period of rejection and close-runs. My epic journey appeared to have hit the buffers. Just as I was contemplating the box file, rescue appeared from an unexpected quarter in the form of new independent, Three Hares Publishing. Helen's wholehearted support for the book had never faltered. She introduced me to Yasmin Standen of Three Hares.

'You know,' Helen said, 'I think Vida has finally found her home.'

I think so too.