Let me help you

Or Are We Becooming Kinder to our Heroines?

There’s nothing that rachets up the pressure and tension in a novel than an evil secondary character. Just when the reader thinks the poor star of the show has suffered enough, she goes home and there is a wicked stepmother or an evil husband or nasty children waiting for her. Will she ever get any peace or relief? But I’ve noticed a trend. A tiny one. And not very scientifically observed I grant you but something unexpected nonetheless. And one that has made me stop and think. Secondary characters seem to becoming nicer. Normal, kind people who want to help our heroine in the way that us ordinary folk in real life are generally willing to be supportive and helpful to those we care about.

I first noticed it some years ago in Juno, the film about the teenager who became pregnant and sought out a couple to adopt her baby.  I braced myself for shouting scenes with disgraced and horrified parents in the kitchen etc etc but in fact her dad and stepmum (yes a stepmum and they are never, never nice ever in any sort of literature) were lovely people.  That was a one off for a while but then I sat down to read Elizabeth is Missing, a novel about an elderly lady suffering from dementia.  Ripe for fed up children desperate to dump her in a home or neglect her because she is just too difficult.  But in fact the daughter was lovely.  Worked so hard to help her mum and give her the  best care, like most of us would with our own mums. Even the grand daughter was funny and kind.  Happy to step in and help with her grandmother.  Not a teenage strop in sight.  And as I was reading, it struck me how much more believeable this scenario was.  It felt like this could easily happen to me, as my daughters and I would be horrified that my mum was suffering in any way and would do our utmost to help her.

I spotted it on a TV show too.  Catastrophe with Sharon Horgan was hilarious.  A single woman enjoys a fling over a few days with a visiting American.  Once he leaves she finds out she is pregnant.  He returns and they try and make the relationship work.  That has got to be prime conflict drama.  Lots of shouting, maybe a few things thrown.  Two people who don’t know each other trying to get along.  But that word lovely again.  The drama came from their situation and they seemed to genuinely like each other and were trying to be understanding and considerate.  (spoiler alert) When they finally had a shouting match in the final episode it felt all wrong.

Story telling is all about drama, showing our hero overcoming a series of ever increasing obstacles preventing her from achieving her goals.  But if to be convincing you have to make these obstacles believeable then surely that rule applies to all the characters in the story too? Is it too easy to introduce drama by setting your story in an environment populated by horrible people?  If we each took the heros of our story and made the secondary characters ie their friends and family, nice people as most of us are in real life, would that make us as writers dig deeper to find other areas of conflict?  Would that make a better drama?  A more convincing one?

Certainly, these reflections of true life made those art works feel so much more real for me and sucked me deeper into the story.  It also gave the hero space to focus on the real obstacles they were trying to overcome.  Just something to think about. But I am not ashamed to say I can’t bear a lot of shouting in the living room within the pages of a novel.

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Signal Failure vs Roadworks

Or why the train is always better than the car

Changing my job revolutionised my writing. And my job has nothing to do with getting my book written.  I used to drive 45 minutes to work and loved it. Not too much traffic once I was on the motorway, shouting at the radio, getting cross with John Humphreys for not allowing his interviewee to get a word in edgeways, applauding those who gave a damn fine interview without too much hesitation, deviation or repetition.

I’d spend a good portion of my day (certainly more than my employers would be happy with) mulling over ideas, plot twists, character traits, staring out of the window whilst pretending to be drafting important documents. If you scribble intensely in your notebook during a meeting, it is presumed that you are taking notes.  Maybe you are.  Maybe they aren’t about the meeting.

Then I would get home, the drive not so much fun on the return, rustle up the dinner, oversee homework, nudge the bedtime routine along and then sit down just after nine deciding that perhaps tomorrow evening will be when I will get the laptop out.

Then I changed jobs.  One that involves a thirty minute commute.  And crucially sees me getting on the train earlier enough in its journey to mean that most days I get a seat.  I am writing this whilst zipping along through the Surrey countryside.  Now I get an hour of work done every day over and above my actual work.

Granted I find I can’t do the writing itself in just half an hour – not really long enough to immerse myself deeply enough, but what I can do is loads of planning and research.  Really sharpen up those characters and create compelling back stories, take the time to consider the consequences of the plot twists and how they will play out, surf the web to check my facts.

My journey is only half an hour but every day by the time we pull into Waterloo something has slid out onto the page that I didn’t know when I got on the train.  Every day.  There is always a little nugget, a scrap of dialogue, an incident in my character’s past that explains their motives, a new event to drive the story forward.  I confess I am sometimes amazed at my brilliance.  Where on earth did that come from? I scribble away in my notebook or tap away at my ipad keyboard and out it pops, like a newborn from an unsuspected pregnancy I had been hiding with baggy jumpers. Fantastic.

Now, even if don’t fancy writing, don’t feel the love for it, have no idea what I want to think about, am tired, bored, fed up, demotiviated, I drag out my pencil nonetheless and prop my notebook on my lap and start to write.  I have never let myself down. Something unexpected is always let loose.

This has proved to me what most writers have said.  You can’t wait until you are in the mood.  Until you feel creative. Until you feel compelled to pick up your pen.  You have to force it out whether you like it or not.  Two half hour journeys add up to five hours writing a week and it is amazing how much you can get down in that time like it or not.

The result is that I don’t dismiss the odd half hour now.  If that’s all I have I will give it a go. Grab a pencil and start to write.  See what happens. As a consequence I have now fnished the planning for book number two.  I know my characters so well that I would recognise them in the street.  I know what happens to them and why they do the things they do.  I have pinpoointed the crescendos in my stories and the moments of quiet reflection.  In short I am ready to go.  I am probably the only one on this train praying for a signal failure.

Inspired or In Despair?

Or How Many of Us Are There Out There?

Mslexia. I look forward to it thumping through my letter box once every three months, shaking the foundations of the house with its satisfying heaviness. I know that squashed between those pages is plenty of information about writing, advice on how to craft a synopsis, features about the life of a writer. Useful, interesting, funny, helpful.

But sometimes it can be in my house a fortnight before I am in a sufficiently positive mood to read it. Because what I have discovered with Mslexia, and all the other places I have unearthed to find out about the best ways of writing a book and getting it published, is that there are so many of us out there. Hundreds. Probably thousands of us squirrelling away in studies and summer houses. Making room on dining room tables or hunching on the settee with the keyboard balanced on our laps. I know I should be inspired by this army of writing soldiers, churning out a never ending barrage of words each one of us aiming to hit the target. Each of us urging the others on. Hoping that one of us will breach the defences of the publishing world and blaze a trail for the rest of us.

I know that is how I should feel. Inspired and uplifted. But I don’t. Most of the time it fills me with despair. An energy sapping lethargy. Blimey there are people out there who have published their third novel and I have never heard of them. Are on their fourth book and still looking to get a publisher for their first. Goodness me. Researching this blog I found many many blogs from writers whose writing has never seen the light of day, apart from on their blog. That makes me depressed. With all these people out there fighting to get their book published what chance do I have? It’s like turning up at an exclusive party, knocking on the door to be let in then hearing a polite cough and turning to see hundreds of other hopeful guests in the queue with their party frocks on.

But what if they are not like me? What if they are happy? Perhaps not everyone wants to sit on the train and see someone in the seat opposite reading their book. But the fact that this is what I desire makes reading Mslexia difficult sometimes. I know I am feeling fed up and a little lost when I get home from work, trip over it on the mat and then place it in the basket which houses all my (constantly growing) pile of magazines and newspapers. It can sometimes sit there for two weeks before my optimism returns and I can pick it up.

But I always do eventually. And read it greedily, usually stuffing it in all in one go, winkling out little nuggets which I can use to make my writing better, increase my odds of getting where I want to be. It’s an odd position, pressing your nose against the window and watching the party inside, wondering if you will ever get an invite. For the moment I am Cinderella but rather than sitting my the embers of the fire waiting for my Fairy Godmother to make my dreams come true I am out there with the rest of us hustling, reading things like Mslexia to earn that invitation myself.

Cash, Wedge, Dough, Loot, Coin, Readies

Or How Much Money Am I Ever Likely to Make?

I love to write.  I’ve always done it.  I can’t not.  I have tried a few times but those words and stories keep ricocheting around in my head and won’t stop.

But I also have bills to pay.  The usual stuff.  Nothing fancy. Mortgage, bills, car, food, haircuts, gin.  So although it might not be fashionable to say this, I would sincerely like to earn some money from writing my book. Proper money.

Just typing those words feels like a betrayal.  I know us creative, arty types aren’t supposed to be interested in anything so vulgar as being paid. The joy of creation, the outlet for our expression is supposed to be all the sustenance we need.  But I can’t eat air.  I can’t build a house from air. And as un-arty as it might sound I like to wear reasonably nice things and go out for dinner once in a while.  Not much to ask.  I don’t hanker to throw teles out of the window or bathe in champagne.  But even the most basic pleasures I can’t do on creative expression alone.

But no matter how many Google searches I do.  No matter how many books and  blogs on writing I read, no one, really no one, ever mentions how much money books earn.  I have written all my life with the one golden goal of getting published and I have no idea whether I would earn £10 or £10,000 or £100,000 (fingers crossed for the latter).  Can you imagine retraining as an aromatherapist or a life coach or an interior designer without knowing what your earnings are likely to be once you’re qualified?  Yet I seem to be content to give up my evenings, weekends and annual leave to get my book finished with no idea whether it will be worthwhile.

Why is that?  I know there are those at the top of the publishing tree, super authors who can light their Cuban cigars with rolled up fifties so much have they earned through their writing. And I am not expecting that (not going to turn it down either.  I have heard Cubans taste so much finer having been lit with a freshly printed fifty) but there must be the next two or three rungs down the ladder.  Maybe one good seller, a couple of modest ones.  How much do those books earn?

I see that Gillian Flynn is in the amazing position of being one of the world’s top earning authors (see my previous post on learning to be happy for authors more successful than me). But where was she on the list before Gone Girl?  Digging around in bins at night searching for food or chugging along happily going on a fancy holiday once in a while?

How many books would I have to sell to be able to clear my bills and have enough left over each month for a hair cut and colour and a bottle of Gin Mare – it’s the simple things I would be grateful for. Just to write books and be home to take my girls to school and collect them. To not have to schlep into London every day on a stuffed commuter train.  Modest ambitions I would say.

It’s a curious conundrum.  A mystery.  A dark art.  If anyone has any answers I would be grateful to know.  In the meantime I will just have to wait for a scrumptious surprise or a stomach churning shock when I finally start negotiations with a publisher.

No Team

Or Working from Home No One Can Hear You Scream

Floating downstairs in your nightie. Fresh coffee brewing. Wholemeal toast just browning nicely. The sun streaming in through the French doors. Contemplating whether to focus on character development, plot twists, structure or sharpening up some dialogue.  Decisions, decisions.

Adele Parks, J K Rowling, Maggie O’Farrell etc – That’s how I imagine you start your day. Safe in the knowledge that whatever you do will be greeted with awed pleasure and delighted applause by first agent then publisher as the deadline for delivery of the next book approaches.

I can also choose to spend a day on back story or research or the narrative arc. But I have to also choose whether to take a day’s annual leave to do it.  And the thing I find hardest is that I have no idea whether or not its worth it. I will always choose a onesie over a nightie but I will easily (and happily) spend all day with my phone on silent, in the world of my book. Concentrating on whether the choices I have made for my heros are true to character, whether each scene adds something to the story and moves it forward, culling adjectives (-ly words are the sneaky ones I have to be on my guard for apparently).

But when the sun goes down and that first gin and tonic will be ignored no longer, I have no idea whether or not I have wasted my day.  I don’t have an editor or an agent to discuss plot points with, to email drafts to for a solid opinion, to take me out to lunch and tell me how wonderful l am.  I just turn off my laptop, rub my eyes and get my lunch prepared for work the next day.  And then when my colleagues ask me if I enjoyed my day off and what did I get up to I have to decide whether to lie or tell the truth and see that odd faraway look which often drifts into people’s eyes when you explain that you are writing a book shortly before they shuffle away.

I suppose I must believe I am good enough.  That I can craft my thoughts and ideas into a book which deserves its own pile on the tables in the entrance to Waterstones.  But sat alone at my desk, cold because I don’t like to put the heating on during the day when it’s just me, I find myself staring out of the window and wondering what on earth I am doing.