Apparently editors Don’t Like Books About The Media right now. Which is a bit of a bummer, since that’s my background and the background against which my novel is set. I’d read that so-called ‘glamorous’ settings appealed to readers. Only, it seems, if you’re writing about those who appear in front of the camera rather than working behind it. Same with the music business. Which is another bummer, as two of my characters are a musician and his manager. Oh, and writing. Yes - you guessed it: I have two writers in my book!
So, dear readers, I have compiled a list of ten Forbidden Subjects which I’ve heard, from various sources, it’s best to Avoid Writing About if you want to get an agent/be published. Please add a pinch - or a cellarful - of salt as required.
Thou Shalt Not:-
Write exclusively about older women
About 70% of the bookbuying public are middle aged women. Yet Transita – a publishing house set up to cater specifically for this age-group – aren’t accepting submissions any more, which doesn’t bode well. The received wisdom is that if you are going to have a middle-aged or older woman in your book, make sure there are a range of other-aged women in it as well.
Write about people who moan or are depressed
Characters must be interesting, feisty, spirited. Or, if they must moan, they should be funny about it. Think Bridget Jones. Readers don’t want to hear about people like themselves.
Write about what you know
This is a tricky one. Apparently if you write about what you know, it’s all too easy to be
self-indulgent and give the reader info-overload.
Write about what you don’t know
Also tricky. If you write about what you don’t know, you may risk doing too much research and, er, give the reader info-overload.
Write about disability
Interesting one. A participant on an MA course was recently told that people didn’t want to read about disability (he was blind).
Include a lot of internal processing or reflection
Thinking is OK in literary fiction, but not in commercial fiction.
Or, if you do, best not to actually call it a Prologue.
Tiring for the reader to try to decode – best to just hint at an accent in the rhythm of the speech.
Include song lyrics
Song lyrics cost money to clear – if they can be cleared at all – hence it’s better not to use them.
Write in present tense
There’s a divergence of opinion on this one – some editors apparently hate it. So is it worth risking their ire and rejection over a simple matter of tense?
I’ve done every single one of the above in my last novel. My characters are in their fifties, and one is mildly depressed. I’ve written about what I know (television and therapy) and about what I don’t (plastic surgery). One of my characters is blind. My characters tend to reflect on their lives. I have a prologue, a Scottish character, song lyrics (though I wrote them myself) and the novel is written in the present tense.
On the upside, it’s strangely liberating to have unknowingly committed so many crimes against fiction. On the downside, I wonder whether the themes of my new one – painting, magic and rebirth – will, by the time I complete it, be on that list of Things To Be Avoided…
Anyone want to add to the list?
My mother breathed her last breath on Wednesday 20 May and I spent the week before sitting at her bed, watching every single breath. So what could I possibly say for Strictly Writing? The only thing that mattered had gone with that breath.
Then I thought again. This would not be the only inappropriate act on my part. My mother would not have wished for me to get drunk ten nights in a row – she hardly touched a drop. And let's not even think about the (temporary, I hope) resumption of smoking. Worse than that, I confess, even until the day she died I was taking notes. Unable to read, I must have attempted the same page of the Patrick Gale novel a hundred times and anything beneath the headlines on the newspapers quickly blurred - who cared about MPs' expenses? All I could do was watch her breathe and wait for anything she might say, or talk to my brothers and my father about whether we should call for another injection of Oxycodone.
Was it shameful that I was able to jot down notes? I wanted to capture some of her last utterances, it’s true, and that seemed a plausible excuse. It wasn’t just that, I must admit to hoarding details too – the name of the disinfectant in the plastic spray bottle at the end of the bed, a description of the pink sponge swabs we used to roll moisture along her lips, the hospital visitor with dementia who repeatedly lost his wife’s bed and had to be guided back – each morning they break the news to him anew. I can’t pretend I was storing all those for emotional reasons alone. You know my guilt: I’m a writer.
Then I thought a third time. After all, Mum was the one who taught us to love books. She read several thousand herself, scouring the shelves of the Upton public library and, years earlier, plundering the box of newly published Pans and Picadors that arrived each month because my father was a director at Macmillan.
Her vocabulary was immense. Whenever I craved the precise word for a story and the dictionary failed me I would dial her number. Even in her last days, profoundly sick and disorientated by high calcium levels and the elaborate cocktail of analgesics, when she had to force out every phrase, her precision in diction was commented on by many. Two days before she died one of my brothers came in and said, in that voice of forced hope we all used, ‘You're looking really well today, Mum.’ She replied, ‘There’s no need to talk to me as though I were an inebriate.’ My family all worked hard to suppress the laughter we often tried to mute so as not to disturb the other three patients in the ward. When I thanked her for acting as my telephone thesaurus, my ever self-deprecating mother said, ‘I was wrong to glorify myself in that way.’
And she wrote. Her letters were each a work of art, both the distinct writing voice and the crisp neat strokes of nib against paper. She accumulated thousands upon thousands of words in journals with grey cardboard covers. These she kept safe for decades, never showing them to a soul until, a few months ago, when she knew she was dying she passed them to my youngest brother to burn. She was confident he could be relied upon to do so without reading them, a temptation that might have been too much for me. Adam stood in his garden in the cold rain and tossed notebook after notebook onto a bonfire. How unpublished is that?
So, maybe my mother wouldn’t mind me posting this memento. It’s no more inappropriate than the notes I took in the hospice. It’s no more inappropriate than the Bank Holiday sun that should not be shining today.
One day, if I have the will to make use of those notes in some fictional account of death, they might help pin down more clarity and detail than writing from memory alone. The books my mother loved were real, stories that boomed with emotion not by shouting about it, but by accurately depicting the circumstances that generate it: T S Eliot’s objective correlative. If I can manage even a little of that, my mother will forgive me.
For now, and for a long time there is no possibility for me to write well about these matters. All I can do is shout . . . Oh, my mother I miss you so much. I miss your example of how a human being should be. I type through tears, trying to stop them falling onto the laptop.
Picture: Mum with me and Matthew (before Daniel and Adam were born).
Today I'm listing my favourite strategies for getting going again when the going has got tough. You probably have lots more ideas I haven't thought of - if so, please add them in the comments and let's build up a resource that has something for everyone.
1. Fool your brain
I read somewhere  that smiling releases endorphins, so by making yourself smile, you trick your brain into feeling happier. Similarly, you can convince said brain that you're writing. I do this by copying out something I have already written. The act of scribbling makes it easier to carry on beyond the end of the scene, and before I know it, I'm writing something new.
2. Do the fun bit
Skip ahead to an easy scene, or one that's been occupying your mind so much that you can't get on with anything else until you've written it.
3. Tell the dog
Explain verbally what you're trying to achieve. Tell a pet, a tree, a cuddly toy, a tape recorder, or if you're very brave, a writer friend. Articulating the idea brings it into focus, and even if the dog just snuggles deeper into his basket in the hope you'll go away, you have made a statement of intent – once you've said it, you have to get on with it.
4. A change of scene
Try writing somewhere different – in the garden, on a park bench, in a café or library. Or try longhand when you normally use a computer, or vice versa. Break the habit of sitting in the same place staring at the same blank page.
5. Get off your backside
The word “exercise” strikes fear into the heart of those of us who remember shivering on a sleet-swept hockey pitch while a “teacher” with the world view of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (but a smaller brain) screamed “MOOOOOVE!” But it doesn't have to be like that. Exercise includes nice stuff like walking and gardening. Ignore the fact that lots of hugely talented famous writers were drunken slobs – exercise really does renew your mental and physical energy. Honest.
I am trying to convince myself of this more than I'm trying to convince you.
6. Shoot the crap-censor
Writer's block isn't just the blank-page phenomenon – sometimes it means looking back over every sentence with a despairingly critical eye. It all seems so, so dire that you never make any progress. Don't worry, just lower your standards. In fact, don't have any standards at all. Hell, you can even use adverbs if you like. Just bung any old crap on the page. [Caroline makes a superhuman effort to resist the temptation to add “It works for Dan Brown.”]
7. Don't be yourself
If you are not motivated and inspired, act the part of someone who is. Pretend to be a focused, well-organised, supremely talented writer, and get her/him to do the work.
8. Clock on
In a normal job, you must show up and get on with it whether you like it or not. Treat writing the same way for a while - turn up, slog through it, then go home. Others might view your writing as a self-indulgent arty-farty little hobby, and it's difficult not to internalise this attitude and feel that, because you're not guaranteed to make money, it isn't real work. Tell your inner guilt to take a hike, because it is important and it does deserve the time.
9. Tiny goals
Set a minuscule target – to write 100 words, or to edit one page. Every step is an achievement and is far better than neglecting your writing on the basis that you haven't really got time to get into it - with the result that the small amount of time you do have is aimlessly spent watching YouTube vids of funny cats.
10. Wait it out
Tides ebb and flow; so does the writing life. Motivation and inspiration need a rest sometimes – let them rest, and do something else while they take their time to regenerate. Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen – if you don't agonise over them or lament their absence, chances are they'll come crawling back when you least expect them.
Photograph by Warley Rossi.
Reading the story has convinced me of a long-standing thesis of mine: detective fiction is actually a branch of surrealism.
To quote one joyously surreal passage: ‘“One often wonders,” continued Colton [the blind detective] ... “why a stout woman, like that one two tables to our left, for instance, will suffer the tortures of her hereafter for the sake of drinking high balls in a tight, purple gown.”’
His assistant is understandably amazed. But as the blind detective explains, ‘”All stout women who breathe asthmatically wear purple. It is the only unfailing rule of femininity. And to one who has practised the art of locating sounds that come to doubly sharp ears the breathing part was easy.”’ And so on.
Stagg (who sadly died at the age of 26) was parodied by no less than Agatha Christie for his lack of realism. But I can’t help feeling Agatha is missing the point. The point is not that it’s unrealistic. The point is it’s fun.
Another surrealist masquerading as a detective writer is G.K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown stories I am also dipping in and out of at the moment. Chesterton was a master of the ‘impossible crime’, and an unashamed exponent of the puzzle story. In fact, back then, in the Golden Age of detective fiction, there was no shame in writing stories that were primarily literary puzzles.
Much of the surrealism of the Chesterton stories is tied up in the solution of the crime, which often pushes plausibility to the limit. Well, beyond it, if we’re honest. I can’t give you any specifics, because I would be giving away the endings, but it’s hard to beat ‘The Secret Garden’ for the sheer audacity and outrageousness of its denouement.
The surrealists themselves were fans of pulp crime fiction, most notably the Fantômas series of novels by Souvestre and Allain. The fascination shows in Magritte’s 1926 painting The Menaced Assassin. A woman lies naked on a chaise longue, blood streaming from her mouth. A man, presumably her murderer, listens to a gramophone. His overcoat and hat are on a chair, with a suitcase on the floor. Two men in lie in wait for him on either side of the doorway, one holding a net, the other a club. At the window behind him, three heads are shown peering into the room. It was that painting, and the desire to write the story it suggests, that inspired me to take up crime writing in the first place.
How will Fantômas escape? Answers on a postcard – or in a blog comment.
Detective stories link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Oxford-Book-American-Detective-Stories/dp/0195117921/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239207912&sr=1-1
Father Brown link: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780140097665,00.html
Reference for Magritte painting: http://robertarood.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/the_menaced_assassin.jpg
who has won a signed copy of Earth Inc by Mike Bollen. Well done Julie - the book will be on its way to you shortly.
For more info about Earth Inc, check out Picnic Publishing's website, where you can read excerpts from the book and Mike's guest posts for Picnic's blog. You can also listen to audio extracts on the Earth Inc MySpace page. Or, of course, you can just go and buy it.
Have a great Bank Holiday Monday everyone! Some of us Strictly Writers are taking up CarolineG's challenge of National No-Mail Day - wish us luck, as we'll certainly need it! We'll be back on Tuesday with a guest post from crime writer R. N. Morris.
In the time it took me to write that, about five million emails went whizzing around the world. It’s reckoned that about 210 billion are sent every single day. And even though many of them are offers for penile extension and requests from made-up banks, a very large number are genuine.
Rather too many of them are probably mine.
It’s hard to remember what life was like before email. I work from home and on the rare days when my program is ‘down’, I’m like one of those lions pacing around its cage at the zoo. I live on a quiet road and the ping of my inbox helps me feel in touch with the world outside. [My email doesn’t literally go ‘ping’. It doesn’t make any sound at all, but you get my drift]. Almost all my journalism commissions arrive via email and it’s the medium I use most to contact people in my job. I often set up interviews by email and sometimes even get to DO the interview by email, thereby by-passing the phone entirely. That means no transcribing of the conversation and a clear record of what was said for all concerned. Result!
I also love email as a means of keeping in touch with friends, from the ones that live just down the road, to the one who live thousands of miles away in different time zones. The great thing about this medium is that you can reply at your leisure, unlike phone calls that happen when your child is decorating the bathroom with their bottle of Matey bubblebath, or when you’re late for an appointment, or just can’t be fagged to speak right now. Sure, an answering machine serves that purpose too, but ‘screening’ calls always feels just a little bit furtive.
And yet…I’m wondering whether this need for control when it comes to communication is necessarily a good thing. I’ve become uncomfortably aware lately that I would almost always rather send an email than pick up a phone. I’ve always found it much easier to write about my feelings than say them out loud, and my email addiction feeds into this. Where will it end? I have visions of myself as a wizened old lady, tap-tapping away on my keyboard with my gnarled fingers while tumbleweed blows through my house and feral cats scavenge for scraps under my desk.
Then there’s the whole ‘watched pot’ problem. I have a handful of submissions to agents out there right now, all of whom are overwhelmingly likely to get back to me my email. Let’s just say I’m visiting my inbox at a rate that went beyond healthy quite some time ago.
So something must be done. I’m thinking of having a day soon where I switch off my modem from dawn to dusk. I’ll probably crack within the first 20 minutes but I’d like to know whether I’m made of strong enough stuff.
I’m going to call it National No-mail Day.
Anyone else out there care to join me and reduce that 210 billion?
While newspaper columnists are busy trying to predict when the recession will end, and others pondering when Starbursts will turn back into Opal Fruits, I thought I would delve into the world of literature and make a few suggestions of my own for 2009.
I'm no Mystic Meg, so rather than make predictions, I've thrown up a few ideas as to what titles I feel will make waves this year. Of course, I could be totally wrong in my assumptions put forth, but here goes....I must also add that the following books are not necessarily ones I've read, but they are novels which I feel will have an impact upon the reading public.
My first choice is The Vagrants by Yiyun Li.
I first heard this author being interviewed on a New York Times book podcast. She picked up the Guardian First Book award with her exquisitely crafted short story collection, set in and around China, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. This debut novel from Fourth Estate, is based on an incident in 1979, and looks at the ripple effect on individual lives in a provincial village when a young woman is sentenced to death for speaking out against the cultural revolution. The author grew up in Beijing and now lives in Oakland, California.
The second book I'm flagging up is Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín which follows the life of Eilis Lacey, an Irish woman who cannot find work at home. When a job comes up in America, she leaves her family and her home, and sets out for a new life in Brooklyn. With a strong female character, this is one which is being promoted heavily in bookshops, and one which I feel will continue to dominate the book charts this year.
My third choice is The Prayer Room by Shanthi Sekaran. Again, I was introduced to this book and the author via a literature podcast. The story begins in 1974, when young Englishman George Armitage goes to Madras, but instead of starting his Ph.D dissertation, he returns home with a bride named Viji. In her new American world, Viji seeks consolation in her prayer room at their new home in Sacramento. I'm eagerly awaiting the release of this book.
My fourth is Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury), a book which features central character Hiroko who is due to marry a man by the name of Konrad Weiss. As she steps onto her veranda, wrapped in a kimono, her world suddenly changes as a bomb is dropped on Nagasaki. The blast sears the birds from Hiroko’s kimono onto her back, a fusion of 'charred silk, seared flesh'. The story moves forward and two years after the bombing, Hiroko travels to Delhi where her life will becomes intertwined with that of Konrad's half sister, Elizabeth, her husband, James, and their employee Sajjad Ashraf.
All these books are strong contenders, I feel, for prizes. If you want to have a flutter on who you think will win the Man Booker International Prize 2009, visit the fun prediction website www.hubdub.com where you can stake virtual dollars on who you think will take the trophy. There are many other predictions which would be fun to make - perhaps Dan Brown will churn out another book in his series, or a Conservative MP will make it onto the X-Factor judging panel? And now the lottery numbers...well, we've run out of time, so I'll keep those to myself.
about a hunter called Peter. All my stories at primary school featured main characters called Peter. I’ve always hated thinking up names, so I guess that’s why. It wasn’t always appropriate though – Peter the Pirate, Peter the Pharaoh, and on one occasion an exotic Martian invader called Peter.
My family think my writing is ...
good, but not necessarily aimed at them. I think they’re excellent judges, on both points.
The best thing about writing novels is ...
finishing writing novels. Or that moment when, having written yourself into a corner, and having stared exasperatedly at that corner for days on end, you realise how to write yourself an escape hatch.
The worst thing about writing novels is ...
Longhand first or computer? ...
Longhand. The major advantage is that pads of paper don’t have distracting internet access. Or Solitaire.
When I run out of ideas I ...
walk away from my pad and don’t turn round and come back until I’ve had an idea. This method is quite expensive on shoes leather, but it does keep you fit.
Ideas come to me when ....
I’m in the bath and I can’t write them down or when I’m just about to fall asleep. Convenient eh?
My advice to new writers would be ...
it’s harder than you think. Even if you think it’s really quite hard.
Three authors (dead or alive) I'd like to invite to dinner are ...
PG Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Brown. Dan Brown is paying, he’s not allowed to say anything.
My favourite writing clothes are ...
When I’m stuck I sometimes put on a stupid hat, just to lighten the mood.
My favourite writing snack is ...
organic grapes and fat-free barley clusters. Or very occasionally some chocolate. Oh, alright then, just chocolate, always chocolate. I’ve eaten a Ritter Sport in the time it’s taken to answer this question.
The best book I've read during the last three months is ...
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. It’s a gripping detective story with a really simple sci-fi idea at its heart.
But it is a truth universally acknowledged that debut novelists have so many unpublished manuscripts under the bed that there isn't even any room left for monsters.
Without those character-building decades of agony and rejection, the writer whose first-written novel gets published is seen by the more experienced as a bit of noob who just happened to get lucky and isn't really ready for the cut-throat world of publishing or the terrifying prospect of writing a second book.
My book genuinely is the first one I've ever finished, and the first one I ever submitted anywhere. Sometimes that makes me feel a bit awkward and inferior. What if I can never write another one? What if it really was just luck and I've somehow elbowed my way to the front of the queue ahead of people who are more talented and have worked harder for many more years?
So, in attempt to convince myself that I have served my apprenticeship, I made a list of all the books I've worked on since I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I'm reassured to discover that, although unfinished, they amount to a reasonable body of words.
- My fictionalised autobiography, written when I was 14 (it's always good to get the autobiographical crap out of the way early, I think.) It had the sick-bucket title of Every Cloud has a Silver Lining.
- A comic novel about a beleaguered youth group leader in 1990s rural England. Except it wasn't very comic, and it never got to be a novel either.
- An early version of Kill-Grief minus the gin, the gory bits, the smuggling and the main character, but plus a lot of boring hospital politics.
- Two historical novels set in the 17th century – both about witchcraft but with different characters and plots.
- And my favourite – a YA novel set in 2039, where everyone who reaches the age of 12 is convicted of the crime of “Youth” and the teenage hero and heroine must plot their escape from the sinister penitentiary that aims to obliterate their capacity for independent thought and gives them drugs that turn all skin colours to a uniform shade of grey.
I'd love to know more about the stories languishing under other writers' beds, but it's understandably difficult to get people to talk about these early attempts. Partly that's because all that stuff is in the past now and a lot of it is embarrassing. Partly it's because we aren't supposed to hint at former failure while submitting or promoting our latest work, and partly it's because we were so absorbed by these ideas that it's discomfiting to think of anyone else knowing about them when they aren't ready to be seen.
But although these books fell by the wayside, I think they are important and worth acknowledging. We should celebrate every attempt – whether it was finished or unfinished, whether it was utter rubbish or just infuriatingly “not right for the market.” They are not simply stepping stones on the way to our individual goals, but valuable in themselves for what they've taught us, and for the excitement and inspiration we felt while writing them. And for the fact that – unlike most people - we had the courage to try to write a book at all.
Photo: Some of the unfinished books under my bed.
Team Role Theory, as defined by Dr R. Meredith Belbin from his research at Henley Management College, explains the individual’s tendency to behave, contribute and interrelate with others in a particular way. We all have certain strengths and weaknesses, but get the right group of people together with the right mix of strengths and the weaknesses can be managed.
What sort of person are you? Belbin breaks down the roles in the workplace thus: firstly, regarding doing/acting.
Are you a shaper? A person with lots of energy and action, the one who always challenges the rest of the team to move forward? You’d be an asset but occasionally you can be a tad insensitive.
Or maybe you’re an Implementer? You’ll be a well-organised, predictable person who takes basic ideas and makes them work in practice. The downside? You can be slow.
Perhaps, like me, you’re a Completer/Finisher – someone who reliably sees things through to the end, ironing out the wrinkles and ensuring everything works well. The downside to this is that you’ll have a tendency not to trust others and worry too much.
Secondly, in the area of thinking/problem-solving, which category do you see yourself slotting into? A Plant solves difficult problems with original and creative ideas though s/he can be a poor communicator and may ignore the detail.
A Monitor sees the big picture. S/he thinks carefully and accurately about things but may lack the energy to inspire others.
A Specialist has expert knowledge they can apply to key areas but a tendency to ignore other areas outside their expertise that might be just as important to developing the project.
Finally, Belbin deals with People and Feelings. Team workers care for individuals and the team. They’re good listeners always striving to resolve social problems. However they often find making difficult decisions problematic.
The Co-ordinator is a respected leader, helping the rest of the team to focus on the task. They can be seen as excessively controlling, though.
And then there’s the Resource/Investigator. A great networker, who explores new ideas energetically. The downside is that this person can be optimistic and lose energy after the first initial bout of enthusiasm.
Teams in the workplace work best when there is a balance of roles and when team members both know what their roles are and stick to them. To achieve the best balance there should be:
One Co-Ordinator or Shaper (not both) for leader
A Plant to Stimulate Ideas
A Monitor/evaluator to maintain honesty and clarity
One or more Implementer, Team Worker, Resource investigator or Completer/finisher to make things happen.
Okay, so far so good. Seven people, each fixed in their role and comfortable with it. What a brilliant team! But what happens when you aren’t part of a team and you work at home, alone, at a computer screen, attempting to write your novel, short story or screenplay?
If it’s not working for you right now, maybe it’s time to figure out your own role and invite a few, new imaginary friends on board to even out the lumps and make progress towards your goal of publication.
Like I said. I’m a Completer/Finisher. So much so that I’ll flog away at an idea and write the story even if a little bit of me tells me it’s a rubbish one. I could do with a Plant on board to stop me getting bogged down in the detail and add a bit of sparkle to my writing. And I definitely need a Shaper for those Monday mornings where bed seems infinitely preferable to getting up and hammering out a new idea.
What about you? What gets in the way of your writing? Are you a Specialist who spends too much time on research only to find that your energy for actually writing the story has all fizzled out? An evaluator, constantly editing and re-editing the same 500 words and never moving forward? A predictable Implementer, who needs a shot in the arm to spice up their story now and then or, like a Plant, full of great ideas but with a limited amount of staying power.
You have to write your story by yourself and there’s no one in the office to bolster up your sagging bits. But maybe if you’re aware of the characteristics you lack you can say a little prayer to your Muse and ask for a few more members to join your team. Only if they complement your strengths though.
As a deeply immature, incredibly provincial teenager, I’d imagine myself as a ‘serious’ writer. It would involve me sitting in a café wearing a polo neck and smoking Gauloises, staring into middle distance wracked with ennui and occasionally scribbling furious thoughts, possessed by the need to say something important.
Happily, the smoking ban and a modicum of self-respect have stopped me from pursuing this image, though I do own a couple of quite nifty polo necks. And of course, as it turned out, writing was nothing like this. It was both more mundane and much, much harder work than my silly, pretentious teenage notions would have had me believe.
There is one thing I got right, though, was that part about saying something. We don’t like to admit it because, in all honesty, it sounds laughably pompous. But there are already so many words, so many stories out there. Why would any of us bother if we didn’t think we had something to say?
My first original TV series, Boy Meets Girl, premiered 1st May on ITV. It was an incredibly exciting moment and the culmination of many years’ sweat and anguish. Watching it go out live, I was trying to work out how it came about, why it worked when other ideas hadn’t, all that kind of stuff.
What dawned on me is that I think that, in many of the scripts I’ve had in development that never made the grade, I was trying too hard to ‘say something’, to hammer home a point of view. But the thing is, your beliefs, your values, the things that anger or amuse or disappoint you – they all come out in your writing anyway. For me, Boy Meets Girl isn’t really about a daft idea about a man and woman swapping bodies. It’s about the growing class divide. But that wasn’t necessarily what I set out to write – it’s just what it ended up being.
Boy Meets Girl was initially an exercise in developing an idea just to see what happened. I wanted to see if I could have a crack at a rather pat, Hollywood genre but write it in a way that wasn’t just a host of the usual clichés. I didn’t think about what I was trying to ‘say’, but once the characters of Danny and Veronica came to life, it became clear that this was going to be less about gender than class – because their status in life was at least as different as their sex. And I suppose that class is just something I’m interested in and it was therefore natural it would come to the fore when I was developing the idea.
If I’d sat down and started to think about trying to develop an idea about class divisions, you bet I’d have come up with something dry, boring and impossible to pitch to commissioning executives! So I guess what I’m saying is – don’t worry about what you’re trying to say. Worry about the ideas, worry about your characters. Make your ideas bold and brave. Ensure your characters are real, live people not a mere mouthpiece for your opinions. The rest will follow, because it’s being written by you, and only you believe what you believe; only you look at the world through your eyes. And only you can say what you want to say. That’s why you became a writer, right?
David Allison wrote and staged his first play in 1992. He started writing professionally for television in 1999. His first gig was on Hollyoaks where his finest achievement was undoubtedly creating a character called Bombhead. Boy Meets Girl is his first produced original drama. He is married with two children and lives in Leeds.
Becky Stradwick joined Darley Anderson Agency in November 2008. She is the Agent for Children’s Books. Most recently she was head of Children’s books at Borders UK and has worked in children’s books for 11 years.
Which 3 authors, dead or alive, would you invite to dinner?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Roald Dahl and Michael Rosen.
Rowling or Pullman?
It would have to be Pullman. His Dark Materials books are among the most extraordinary ever published. But of course I have huge affection for Rowling’s books and everything they have done to boost the Children’s book market.
When I was a child I read…
Everything I could get my hands on, from cereal packets to children’s books to Readers Digest magazines. I loved old fashioned classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables but was also a big fan of my brother’s comics like 2000AD and Eagle.
Favourite desktop snack?
Pickled Onion monster munch. Two packets minimum…
An enormously complicated subject and one that invites wildly differing opinions! Personally, I believe that book shops, publishers and marketing departments should be responsible for guiding customers towards the right book for their reading level. Printing a specific age on the back of the book automatically limits readership and is too exclusive. We are supposed to be encouraging reading, not prescribing it.
If I wasn’t an agent I would be…
I always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, writing reports from burning buildings whilst missiles rained down around me.
Email or phone?
Email, definitely. It gives you more time to think about your answer.
My biggest tip for children’s writers is…
There are so many possible answers to that question. Just keep writing is probably the most obvious one. It takes time to develop your voice and so the best thing is just to keep practising and keep producing words. Sooner or later they will fit together in the way that you want them to.
My pet hate in a submission package is…
People who call immediately to follow up and make sure that their submission has arrived, and then keep on calling. We receive a huge amount of submissions so people chasing us just takes away time we might spend reading them. But we are also very conscientious about replying as soon as possible, so we will get back to you!
Favourite work outfit?
Pyjamas – not that I ever really wear them to work but it might be nice one day.
Daily Mail or The Times?
The Times, I can't stand the Mail.
You really must read…
The Borrible Trilogy by Michael de Larrabeiti. I read it when I was ten and the magic has never left me. It has the biggest beating heart of any book I have ever read and it deserves a mainstream audience, not the relatively cult one it currently has.
Some day, in some far off land and time, some learned being will discover the creative section in the DNA strand, perhaps a single chemical synapse doo dah that is responsible for my urge to write.
My standard response to this inate urge used to be to stick my fingers in my ears and chant, ‘La La La La.’ I told myself not to listen to it, because I had a living to earn and a family to raise. Eventually, I strangled the urge and it became nothing more than an intermittent nag in the furthest folds of my brain. Still there…but definitely muted.
Now my two daughters, who have inherited the silly gene from my DNA, (hereinafter referred to as Strand Bits or SB) have flown the coop and are blissfully embracing their creative sides. Their Dad, my ever supportive, hard working, non creative husband, looks on all three of us smiling. But I know he’s secretly worried about them willing themselves into a life of potential penury. I know too that he wonders where the hell his SB scarpered to.
So why have I used the word ‘silly’ to describe the creative gene? It wasn’t just so you could sing the title to a well known Michael Jackson tune. I also wanted to evoke a harmless, innocent, sometimes misbehaving image - to describe a part of me that’s playful and spontaneous. But the words ‘blame’ and ‘fault’ also appear in the first paragraph seemingly implying that the writing urge is some defect or failure. Sometimes, particularly on receipt of one of the many rejection letters, it feels like it is. So if I could change it, would I? Progress in science already provides us with gene intervention. Would I have them erase my silly gene if I could?
Never. Not now. Not since I understand and embrace this part of my psyche. I only wish I’d been brave enough not to ignore it quite so well when I was younger. I love my job and yes because, as yet, I remain unpublished, it’s taken me a long time to use the word ‘job’ and to say out loud ‘I’m a writer.’ I am. I’m almost certain some yet to be discovered minute part of human SB plays its part in dictating this. And if having the silly gene proves to be my worst defect/failing, I’m a lucky girl.
Let’s get the biggie out of the way first (as it were): I love writing sex. Yes, I admit it. It’s one of the high points of my writing life. Even when I’m not writing about sex, I’m thinking about writing it. It’s part of all my novels, and some of my poems and short stories. Even when no sex takes place.
To my mind this is simply part of being human. We’re all physical and sexual (or at least with the capacity for being sexual) people, and including that aspect of our lives within literature is a celebration of being alive and of being who we are.
Not that you’ll find sex on every single one of the pages of my novels. You won’t. Not by a long way, though I do like to think that my darker writing nonetheless remains erotic in nature. My characters are, after all, physical beings within their world. In fact, one reviewer mentioned the lack of described regular sexual activity in A Dangerous Man (Flame Books, 2007) as a negative point, bearing in mind that my main character has been a part-time prostitute.
And it’s here that the essential balance of sex writing must be considered. Above all else, sex is character. It’s not there (primarily) to titillate. It’s there to reveal. If sex is doing its job properly, it should reveal character in a way that nothing else can. TIP: If something else at that point can reveal your character better than a sex scene, then DON’T WRITE THE SEX SCENE – write the “something else”. It should also reveal the relationships of the characters involved in the sex scene to each other in a deeper way. (NB The previous tip also applies here). Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally – where it counts. Good sex writing shows the people you’re writing about being themselves most clearly and most closely – and that kind of intimacy with a character is what the reader – and the writer – wants.
A case in point is this: in my upcoming mystery novel, The Bones of Summer (Dreamspinner Press, late 2009), my main character Craig starts a relationship with Paul from Maloney’s Law (PD Publishing, 2008). In the midst of everything else that happens to them, it’s natural for them to have sex – it’s new and exciting for them and a way of getting to know each other, as well as being a way for the reader to understand them and something about their pasts more fully. I hope it works, and I’m reassured that my first editor, Sara Maitland from The Literary Consultancy, noted that: you handle the sex so well – open and realistic without being excessively “in your face.” That said, however, when I was going through it again prior to submission to my publisher, I removed one section of erotic writing as it neither deepened the sense of character nor moved the story forward. Nice sex, maybe, but verging on the pornographic and I therefore didn’t need it. The scene is more true to itself without it: more balanced, more human, more real. If you ever read it, I hope you’ll think so too.
Because good sex writing isn’t porn. It’s not about what the bits look like and where they go. It’s about the people to whom those bits belong and how they feel and think and change. Recently, a colleague at work joked with me about how she “couldn’t write porn like you do” and I was very much taken aback and really rather hurt by her assumption. I know for a fact that she’s never read any of my published novels (nor any of the drafts either!) and I hope that, if she ever does, that assumption will be changed. I’m not even sure that what I write can be classed as erotic fiction in its truest form. It’s fiction about people who have sex only where it fits their character and the story. Much like life really. Enjoy.
An Essex girl at heart, Anne now lives in Surrey and is a successful author of novels, short stories and poetry - do visit her website and blog at:
We live in a world in which we are surrounded by an obsession with size. Size double zero is the new size zero, according to the Americans. And you only need to look on the cover of OK or Hello magazine, or indeed any of the glossies, to see a story about someone's weight. You can have two size ten dresses, bought from different shops, and both may vary widely. Not because the manufacturer has made a mistake, but because size simply varies. And then there's food - you can choose the 'super-size' meal option at many outlets - presumably then, you won't be a double size zero though! At the vast majority of these fast-food eateries, it's not about the quality of the food, but the sheer quantity which appears.
When it comes to books though, you have to ask yourself, does size really matter? When you're in the throes of plotting the storyline or getting down to the nitty gritty of your WIP, what consideration do you give to length? Do you have it all plotted out before you start? Or do you simply leave it in the hands of the literary gods?
In the end, a novel should be the right length for itself. A publisher would much prefer a novel of 70,000 words in which every word counts, instead of a tomb measuring 150,000 with unnecessary fluff for padding. And length varies with genre too. A sci-fi or historical fiction novel will understandably be longer than a book of the literary genre.
There are some novels (not novellas) which are rather short in comparison to others, and one in particular which springs to mind, Disgrace by JM Coetzee, also happens to be one of my favourite all-time books. Not for one minute while I was reading it, did I believe I was cheated out of my £6.99 or whatever it was I paid in Waterstones. This is a perfect example of a novel being the right length for itself. And I remember feeling truly satisfied when I'd closed the book.
Also in the slim volume category are The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, The Catcher in The Rye by JD Salinger, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve, and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. There are many more which fall into this category, all of which are not simply cut short by the author, but instead are allowed to breathe. By contrast, there are lengthy novels which hold this reader's interest too, including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ulysses by the legendary James Joyce.
My advice to writers is to go with the flow (although do make sure your word count is within the 70,000 to 150,000 or so guide word length, depending on genre), and simply allow the novel to finish itself. Then, there's War and Peace by the great Tolstoy....how many of you have read it? Come on, tell the truth.....
Most writers, once they've plucked up the courage, show their work to a trusted friend or family member once in a while. But the harsh truth is that the vast majority of friends and family members don't really review our work. They read it, clouded by the knowledge that it has sprung from the pen of someone they will have to face in social situations for many years to come. Perhaps they're blinded by its brilliance, simply because they can't believe that someone they know is capable of writing a book. Perhaps they think it's awful, but can't bring themselves to blurt the words out. Either way, the end result is usually much the same: a bright smile, an enthusiastic "I really enjoyed it!" and perhaps a couple of diffident criticisms about the odd comma here and there before boomeranging back to praise. All very nice, but not perhaps a robust enough preparation for the big bad world out there when you become published.
In the past couple of months, my novel, The Art of Losing, has been reviewed by the Independent, the Guardian, and the Financial Times, amongst others. I was ecstatic to learn that the "big boys" thought my novel worthy of a paragraph... and yes, the reviews have - thankfully - been pretty good. But it's amazing how your eye flies, like a precision bullet shot at point blank range, to the most negative thing you can find. Forget the endorsements that the novel was "gripping", "finely-crafted", "tautly written" and possessed of a "curdled sensuality" (I particularly liked the sound of that, actually)... They thought it was "too clever"! They thought the "twist" was "predictable"! It's incredible how much emotion a few little words can provoke. First there is grief (if you'll permit a little hyperbole). Sobbing, hair-tearing, all that. Next is anger. "It wasn't even meant to be a twist! It was meant to be predictable! Oh they've TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT."
But then, thankfully, comes acceptance. Grudging acceptance, maybe... but ultimately, I found myself falling back on the inevitable realisation that not everyone will unreservedly love your work. In fact, probably hardly anyone will. How many books have you read, of which you have absolutely no criticism at all? Not many, I'll bet - and if you do, please share which ones so that we can all expand our reading! Reviews may hurt - but after the first shock has died down, you'll be able to look back and find the compliments you first missed. And then when a rave does come along, it's all the sweeter.
Of course, that's just professional reviewers. Don't even get me started on the evil amateurs of Amazon...
In those days I didn’t believe statistics about all the people out there trying to get published. This was clearly a lie designed to put off anyone who wasn’t serious. Having once dealt with reader letters on a newspaper, I also thought that the majority of manuscripts would be in green ink, with the occasional random capital letter in the middle of a sentence. They wouldn’t be as good as mine, no siree!
I had one bite from a top agent who requested the whole thing. I was such a rookie that I thought it would be a nice idea to get the manuscript semi bound at the printers. [The shame!]
Needless to say, I really believed this was it. I was on my way.
A whole year later, she rejected me outright. I had been quite busy in that time it’s true, what with not being allowed to sleep or eat a meal in peace, but even so, it didn’t occur to me that I had any say in the matter of my long wait. This incident has now been filed as what my husband calls A Harsh but Important Lesson.
A certain birthday came and went and no one died because I failed to reach my goal of publication before I hit 40.
I’m now on book number 3 and just as hopeful as when I sent out my very first submission. I’m a little more cynical perhaps, especially as economics have made the whole thing even harder. But in case this sounds like a big woe-is-me, there’s been plenty to celebrate in these years. I’ve made some fantastic friends. I’ve discovered (online and in person) a whole community of people who really understand this compulsion to put things down on paper. I’ve won a writing competition and been on some stimulating courses. Hopefully, I’ve picked up a little bit about the craft of writing too.
But most of all, I’ve learned that I’m no fly-by-night. I haven’t stopped writing through the good times and the bad, even when that much wanted break has been snatched away from under my nose. I’ve got through my long dark nights of the soul and pitched up at the keyboard once again.
So I’m raising a glass to everyone out there who doesn’t give up on their dreams.
Cheers. And many happy returns to you all.
The first is the day I sat down at the computer and started to write. My youngest had started school several months earlier, and after years of toddlers group and afternoons in the park - all of which I wouldn’t change for the world – part of my brain suddenly twitched. I needed to write. And write I did. Polished a bit, puffed out my chest and then I remember, like it was yesterday, interrupting my husband on the toilet (he’s going to kill me for writing this.) I knocked and ignoring his indignation, prised open the door a couple of inches and slipped through a sheet of A4.
“Read this,” I said, nervously. “Do you think it is any good?”
Silence. Prompting from me. More indignation then: “It’s good. I like your turn of phrase.”
Phew! He hadn’t laughed. I went back to the computer.
The second episode, nine months later (they say every novel is a baby) involved the bathroom again (bit of a theme here, I’m afraid.) Me lying starkers under the water, husband sat on the loo (lid down this time, you’ll be relieved to hear), him holding a rejection letter that had just come through the post. Very short, two lines long but those magic words… “You write well.” I was officially a writer now!
The third fortunately didn’t involve nudity and was about one year later when an agent requested the full of my second novel. Deep joy! I embarked upon an email frenzy telling anyone who will listen that my moment had come! I look back on that episode with nostalgic sympathy. ‘Bless,’ I think, ‘she did well but should have known better.’ I’m not quite so green now.
Episode four was a rejection of the full of my third novel. It was no holds barred - the worst I’d ever had. There was much wobbling of my bottom lip and many tears. Thank God for Cadbury’s and White Zinfandel. But I came back - discarded that work and moved onto the next. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The trick is also not to get bitter.
The last one brings me up-to-date and is more a visual image in my mind of this vibrant green blog - my hard-working colleagues, you lovely readers, it’s a rewarding achievement that every day, grows in front of my eyes.
So, if - or rather when - I die, the frames of film-reel that roll before my eyes will doubtless include the above. What about you? Care to share the ups and downs of your literary life? The ones that have considerably influenced your writing career? Go on, I dare you! Give us a flash!