Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Who are you?
What do you call yourself?
I mean, here on Strictly we’ve already said that if you write - whether for profit or pleasure or to get your own back on that bitch who stole your boyfriend back in 197 – blah! (writers and elephants have long memories!) - then a writer is what you are.
But are you a poet, a children’s writer, a crime writer, a novelist of lit fic, chick lit or would you, like me, rather not nit pick? A writer is a writer is a writer. Throw the word “genre” to the critics, and leave them to fight it out between them.
Deciding which genre to write in is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. When I took my first tentative steps at writing a story, all I wanted was to write something that pleased first myself, then my teacher, then the rest of my writing class. So I wanted to create something to capture their imaginations, with neat dialogue, rollicking humour, great characters and – which is a thing I’ve chased ever since – heart. Not the slushy, mushy stuff, but the little nugget of truth that emerges when you’ve read to the end and that points up the world from a different angle. A work in progress, that one.
If we attend beginners’ writing classes then we do tend to be encouraged towards the short story, which I was. And we do tend to be encouraged to write for adults, which again applied to me. But then I joined another group where the task was to write something longer on the theme of “a secret”. “After Harriet” became my first novel – though more properly it would be described as a novella, as I guess it was only about 50,000 words in length.
Maybe because of that fact, and also because it was a “coming of age” story, about a 17 year old girl who blames herself for her sister’s death and the subsequent break up of her parents’ marriage it came to be seen as a young adult novel and I came to be seen as a writer for young adults. Although by the time I’d bagged an agent I’d already been writing short stories for women’s magazines for quite a while.
Did I think, when I started “After Harriet” that I was writing for teenagers? I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind. I was writing a story I wanted to tell and it just so happened that the main character was 17. I went on to write two more novels for young adults but I don’t think in either case that I put the audience before the story.
Having got into writing through the women’s magazine market I was already well-trained in avoiding bad language – in fact I probably got away with more bad language in the YA novels than I ever would when writing a woman’s magazine story. And I’d learned about starting the story immediately and introducing plenty of drama and tension early on from writing stories as short as 1200 words.
Even the themes were similar – guilt, jealousy, love, fear, suspicion, lack of confidence, triumph and disaster - all the usual suspects and all within the context of the family or friendship group.
I tried to avoid teenage slang, knowing how quickly it dates, but the kind of stories women’s mags take often tend towards the colloquial and chatty, with lots of dialogue and very little in the way of overlong description and here again was something I could transport from one genre to another.
I no longer write for teenagers. Though that’s not to say I never will. I don’t write novels either, but maybe I will one day, when the kids are finally off my hands for good and making their own living. (I don’t think I could afford to write a novel right now!) Nowadays I write stories and serials, but when people ask me what sort of stories, it’s impossible to answer. Romance? Yes, sometimes. Comedy? Definitely. Family drama? Tick. One day I found myself writing a crime story. Me! Who is total rubbish at plotting and could never guess whodunit in a Poirot no matter how many clues were laid down. Since that first foray into crime I’ve lost count how many I’ve written in serial or story form. I’ve even ventured into sci-fi with a bit of time travel.
Many writers feel that the genre chooses them and not the other way round, but I do wonder if occasionally we are kidding ourselves. I wrote short stories initially because I didn’t have great chunks of time and the length suited me. I don’t write novels for adults because I only tend to read literary ones and since I couldn’t write one as good as any my favourite authors have written then I’d rather not enter the race. Similarly I don’t write poetry because I am too scared.
But it’s good to stick your toe into the genre pool and try something different. You never know, you might discover that all this time you’ve been dutifully writing your literary novel and suddenly you discover your real talent lies in writing scripts, or graphic novels or historical fiction.
The world of words can be a big, scary one. But writers are in charge of their own destinies. Maybe we should all stop being intimidated by the genre word, step out of our comfort zones and show it who’s boss.
Now, to that screenplay I’ve been contemplating. Scene 1. A dark and stormy night…..