Is it the idea or how it’s written?

Moving on from my first novel is not as bad as I was expecting as I have started to get all fired up about the next. There is regret and a little bit of embarrassment – can’t keep the Britishness out of the girl no matter how hard I try. The first one isn’t published, didn’t even get close, wasn’t shortlisted for any competitions I entered it into although a couple of agents I met were kind. However I had paid for their advice so maybe that’s why.
Anyhoo. Having spent the last year immersed in the world of amateur writers I have made my peace with the fact that I am going to keep going. I have tried to stop writing for the last twenty years and have failed to give it up as comprehensively as I have failed to get published.

So as I am scribbling notes about plot and structure and characters those pesky questions begin to creep in. I start to wonder whether the idea is any good. It is a big departure from the last one (probably a good idea and something in its favour) and there is nothing like it out there that I have seen. This leads me to draw two conclusions: it’s unique so it will stand out, it’s too odd to get anywhere. Do I go for it or find a new, more sellable idea?

We are told that books these days have to have marketability, they have to be easy to sell, readers need to quickly understand what they are about. Especially for a debut author without a bank of fans who who are eager for your next one. So anything too complex or off the wall is likely to be sent whizzing into the trash. Yet some of the most stand out books are the ones which I would have thought were not a very easy sell: a young girl in 17th century Holland has a dolls’ house, an elderly lady descends into dementia – I am paraphrasing for effect of course. The Miniaturist and Elizabeth is Missing are both wonderful books and stand out because they stand out. They are not a murder mystery, a courtroom drama or family saga.

I have considered abandoning the idea for my second book in favour of something a little easier to explain. As I am not a professional I don’t have an agent or a publisher or an editor to have a chat with who can give me a business like opinion of the story’s chances. I have to take a gamble. And that’s a big decision for any of us who are writing whilst working. Time is precious. If I decide to go for it, writing this book will absorb all my spare time like a massive car sponge. It will take me months to complete in the little scraps of half hours and the odd day here and there. I am reluctant to invest all that time in something that doesn’t have a hope of even getting looked at because the idea is no good.

But despite all my doubts I know in my heart I will give it a go. I am excited by the idea, I love my lead character (a man by the way for anyone who has read my previous post) and I can’t wait to find out what is going to happen because I know for a fact it will turn out different to how I have planned it. That passion and excitement should be revealed in my writing if I am any good and ought to be the thing that makes it shine. Maybe with one completed novel under my belt this one will be even better and will have the double whammy of a stand out idea and great writing. Another thing I have made my peace with over the past year is that this giant leap into the dark and huge investment of resource without knowing how it is going to end up, is the mill stone and also the thrill of the amateur writer.

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Should the Lead be a Woman or a Man?

A survey recently revealed the top ten all time favourite movie heroes and heroines and the heroines won out with more ladies in that list than men. At the same time movie star Charlize Theron claimed in an interview the reason Hollywood doesn’t make so many films with female protagonists is because punters don’t go and see them. I wonder if there is a poll (and I am sure there is, there is a poll for everything) which shows how many bestsellers which have women as their heroes have been made into movies? I am guessing there is probably more books out there which lead with a woman and more films from books which lead with a man. Curious.

When I think back to my childhood in the seventies, all orange sofas and flared cords, racism and homophobia were pretty standard. No one batted an eyelid at Love Thy Neighbour or Jim Davidson’s jokes about Chalky White, we laughed along. I didn’t know any gay people and if two chaps or two ladies lived together it was quietly accepted without anyone actually acknowledging it. A veil was discreetly drawn.

When Christopher Biggins won I’m a Celebrity, at the end of the rope bridge to greet him amongst the fireworks and paparazzi was his boyfriend. How lovely. Embracing with the joy of seeing each other again after three weeks apart. As it should be. Shows like Don’t Tell The Bride and Grand Designs have plenty of same sex couples, all perfectly ordinary with no fuss and fanfare. Yet despite there being a few more girl bands on MTV than there were on Top of the Pops it feels like we haven’t taken such great strides forward in equality between the sexes. There is still the pay gap, women are in more of the lower paid jobs than men, the bulk of childcare is left to women, there are fewer women than men on the boards of top companies. On Sunday night Chris Rock presenting the Oscars questioned why we had to have separate categories for male and female acting. I think we all know why.

I was reminded of a conversation I was having with some girlfriends recently. We all work and have important jobs yet those who were married confessed frustration that despite the fact that their roles were of an equal status to their husbands’ they were the ones assumed to be staying at home when the children were ill or there were appointments at school. Despite parity of seniority and pay, their jobs were perceived to be the less important of the two. There were two things that struck me as out of place here, firstly that the assumption was made in the first place, and secondly that their womenfolk allowed it to happen. Why didn’t they stick up for themselves? Have the conversation about sharing the burden of childcare responsibilities?

I have just started the monumental mountainous task of writing my second novel. The story is about a parent deciding whether to run away with their child. My first set of notes had the mother as the protagonist. After a while I realised that this was too obvious and it made a better and more compelling story if it was the father contemplating this act. But there was also a little part of me quite delighted that it made a better story because I felt that the audience would be wider if the protagonist was a man and not a woman. More men would be likely to read it.

Perceived wisdom has it that women will read books and watch movies with male leads but men are less likely to do the same if the hero is a heroine.

I was a journalist at the time when Royal paparazzi stories ruled the front pages. There was outrage at the behaviour of some of these reporters and photographers (I knew quite a few of them) but the defence of the newspaper editors was that this was what people wanted to read. When they put a juicy story about a royal on the front then sales went up. They were only responding to the demands of their readers they claimed. I guess Charlize Theron is making the same point. Hollywood is a business and will only consider films it believes will return a big profit and to date those have been the blockbusters with male leads. But I wonder whether or not this is because these are the only kind of films we can get to see in the multiplexes? The number of superhero comic books films being churned out at the moment is overwhelming but I feel quite sure that if a few of these had female lead characters then the boys would still be very happy to go and watch. I never thought I would consider Lara Croft as a pioneer!

I applaud the news that star actresses with a bit of clout like Sandra Bullock are asking that scripts be rewritten to change the male lead to a female one and that these films are going on to be great successes and, most importantly, money makers. I don’t want to feel that when I am writing a story I have to make the lead character a lady to make a point, or wave the flag, I want to do it because it is best for the story.

It still amazes and frustrates me that in the 21st Century with such great strides in equality being made in so many areas of life that we still feel we need to have these conversations about parity between men and women.