Reasons to be Cheerful (Part1)

I feel the need to find, Worzel Gummidge like, my Pollyanna head and list some reasons to be cheerful.

1. As an author you can lie in bed with your eyes shut claiming (sometimes legitimately) that you are not dozing but plotting…

2. Cafe Coffee and croissants post JK Rowling are a morally justifiable, if not a legally acceptable, expense.

3. You can still work in your dressing gown/birthday suit/wellies without anyone lecturing you on ‘inappropriate workplace attire’ or indeed horrific taste/cellulite

4. You can still feign shock at parties when nobody has heard of you: ‘Oh but I always thought you were very well read…’ or ‘well I suppose my books are rather demanding… ‘

You can also cause acute panic in certain types of parent with a raised eyebrow and a bemused: ‘Oh I’m surprised that (insert child’s name here) isn’t reading my stuff yet… How old did you say she was?

5. Nobody expects you to be on time or entirely sober as you are obviously an ‘artist’ of one kind or another. Similarly eccentric dress, erratic housekeeping and disgusting personal habits can be indulged with equanimity and people may be persuaded it’s all down to ‘creativity’.

6. You can avoid almost anything by claiming to be working and as no one knows what the hell you do all day, no one will contradict you (See 1 above)

7. If your year has been anything like mine you can expect a tax rebate. (See 1 above)

8. If you have an accountant and you’ve had a year like mine he/she may be fighting the impulse to send you charitable donations and/or food parcels…

9. You can take out your irritation by casting all your enemies as villains and put all the clever things you never manage to say into the mouths of your heroes.

10. You can go somewhere else, be someone else, do something amazing just by sitting down and writing. And it’s all free! This is a very good thing. (See 7 and 8 above)

Getting to the point

So where do you get your ideas from?

I know we all dread the question and, even though I know I’m going to be asked it, I still haven’t come up with a sensible answer. Philip Pullman (note name dropping ) told me and two hundred other people that he bought them at ‘Ideas R Us.’ I want to say that elves leave them on my desk in return for chocolate crumbs, but the truth is I often lack for any ideas at all.

I rarely think to myself: ‘I want to write a story about…’ That’s not how it works for me. I can’t wait for inspiration. I haven’t got the patience to wait for a bus I always set off walking so why would I wait for inspiration? Instead I start writing and hope the idea bus will catch me up. Often an idea will emerge within a paragraph, sometimes within a first line. Most of the time characters, places, situations, rebound like snooker balls on a billiard table and I discover that they have all arranged themselves in such a way that I can pocket the lot. Sometimes sadly, that doesn’t happen and it takes a lot of work and a lot of miscuing before I get to that point, indeed to any point that might count as a desirable destination.

My new book (out today as it happens) is one of those latter books where the ideas didn’t all come together either by happenstance or by gargantuan subconscious effort; they resolutely refused to arrange themselves within potting distance of a plot resolution. ‘Wolf Blood’ was the result of more of my blood, sweat, tears and foot stamping than is usual. It was not high concept. Give me credit. I tried to make it sound like it was (Oh – did I try!) ‘Roman werewolf meets warrior seeress with bloody consequences?’, ‘Roman werewolf meets Celtic firestarter?’ Nah. It really isn’t that kind of book.

It is hard for me to sum up because it isn’t one big idea, delivered neatly packaged by elves on a sugar high, but lots of little ones, colliding tangentially until somehow the game got resolved. ( I hesitate to say won.)

I do not give good elevator pitch. I don’t work like that. I can’t get to the point, the point of the book until after I’ve written it and sometimes not even then.

What I’ve learned is that you don’t need a big idea to write a novel, but you do need the confidence to carry on regardless, in the hope that one will arrive. Someday, eventually, it probably will. That small (and possibly inconsequential) message of hope to those lost in plot pits is the point of this blog.

Flaming Stories

I love this and it seems to me that it exposes the essential fearfulness of some of us writers. Don’t get me wrong I am right up there with the biggest cowards. It is my fear that fuels my fiction: fear of the dark and the weird things in it, fear of sharp objects, fire and flood, fear that I will fail to keep my children safe, fear of all the world might throw at them.

I am a primitive creature squatting by my fireside in the darkest of nights telling stories to hold back the shadows. I don’t believe in sympathetic magic: I know that battles won in fiction where courage, faith and honour are rewarded, do not mean that battles will be won in life. I know that keeping my heroes safe (ish) will not protect my loved ones. I know that I am not heroic because my characters are heroic. I know all this and yet somehow I still believe that in some small way the stories do hold back the dark.

Perhaps by acting out my fears on paper I am a little less neurotic in life, perhaps even a little bit braver? For how do we learn about courage except from stories about the courageous? How do we come to believe that right can prevail except through those tales in which it does?

I absorbed a lot of my moral values from my own childhood reading, from Reepicheep and Biggles as much as from Jo Marsh and Anne of Green Gables. (This probably accounts for some of the more bizarre inconsistencies in my personality.)

In their various ways all the fictional characters that live in my head have shown me ways to be and not to be, given me choices. In my fiction even my most confused and uncertain characters choose, in the end, to hold back the shadows.

It would be nice to think that fearful as I am, readers see not the horrors but the victories in my fiction, that they see the courage of my characters not the cowardice of the writer. Maybe you have to fear the dark to evoke it with any conviction, dread it in order to overcome it with any sense of triumph?

Sailing through and Ploughing On

There are several things I like about lecturing : I earn a little extra cash ( and I mean a little), I get away from my desk, my dog and my laundry basket and it makes me think.

Last week a student confessed to being a farmer not a sailor. I must have looked particularly blank as she immediately explained that she was a farmer because she ploughs the furrow of her own life, her own feelings, her own familiar milieu. I was startled at first. It’s not an analogy I’d heard before and it seemed counter intuitive that someone of so little experience should focus on it so exclusively. Then I remembered: at nineteen I think that’s all I did. Back then I only wrote truly abysmal poetry inspired by my ‘A’ level texts: TS Eliot, John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins – an inevitably unhappy menage a trois. As you can imagine it was all about me, but with obscure references, sixteenth century vocabulary and sprung rhythm.

Is this a stage? Is it a function of that unhelpful adage ‘write what you know’ or do we as young writers believe that the function of ‘the artist’ is to transmute leaden adolescent angst into literary gold? Are we more inclined to narcissism then or are some of us always more inward looking?

I don’t know. I can only speak for myself,(still a narcissist then, ed.) I ditched the poetry around the same time I cut my Kate Bush hair, discovered that southerners had funny accents and (horrifyingly) that I wasn’t that interesting. Maybe inward looking people have better furnished interior lives – more Corbusier then DFS – or, to switch back to the original metaphor, fascinating farms. My farm is notably poorly managed and has never yielded anything more inspiring than the common spud and a spud is still a spud even if you dress it up as ‘Gratin Dauphinois’. It is just as well that when I took up writing again many years later, it was as a sailor. These days, in my writing if not in my blogging, I travel as far from myself as I can get, journeying back in time, or sideways to alternate universes, switching gender, age and species. I don’t explore the depths, but the ocean is wide and unpredictable and you never know what you will find beyond the curve of the world and that has to be better than spuds.

In Memory

Today would have been my father’s birthday – a once forgettable date, lost between Christmas and New Year which led to rather a meagre birthday present haul. I never forget it now. He died twenty years ago, a few months before his 58th birthday and I still miss him desperately.

He was a painter who gave up painting for twenty years – from my early childhood until his early (and too brief) retirement. He gave up because it was impossible to combine painting with earning enough to support us. He was good at what he did and exhibited widely before I was born. Would he have ‘ made it’ if he’d carried on? Maybe. Did he regret the sacrifice ? I don’t think so.

Anyway, the struggle to find time to teach, paint, and be a family man was too much. I still have a portrait of me he began when I was about four. I outgrew the dress I was wearing before he was able to finish it, which says it all. Consequently, I grew up with the knowledge that doing what you love is a privilege not everyone can afford.

My father always fostered my ambitions, even my mad decision to give up teaching, study for an MBA and become a business woman. He thought I was bonkers, but supported me none the less.

He died before I discovered what he had always known – that I wasn’t really that kind of person. I began writing only after his death, when suddenly life seemed short, precarious and altogether too precious to waste on work I hated. I had always wanted to write ‘one day,’ but dying days are certain and ‘one days’ aren’t.

He never saw me published and never met three of my four children.

Whenever things go badly with my writing, which if I’m honest is often, I wonder what his advice would be. Would he tell me to stick with what I love, to seize the day, or to face up to economic realities as he had to do?

I have no answer to this particular conundrum: I only wish I could ask him for his.

Living Narrative

Do you live in narrative? Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting, describing, novelising your daily life?

If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist. I now think the most usual answer is c) but as a child I did worry that it was a) or b). No one ever talked about it and, fearing that this endless descriptive flow was at worst mad and at best pretentiously self indulgent, I never raised the subject. I identified with Joe Marsh and Ann of Green Gables, and even most disturbingly with the ghastly girls of the Chalet School and as they apparently thought in well structured sentences so did I.

Later, when I was older, I became concerned that this measured ( third person) narrator’s voice mediated my experience, distanced me from living in the moment and prevented me from responding instinctively to people and situations. I am not sure that was true, but nonetheless ‘I resolved to give it up’ ( I am pretty sure of that because back then I definitely was the kind of girl who ‘resolved’. )

Fast forward thirty years and in a series of tentative, cautious conversations with other novelists I discover that this literary voice endlessly forming sentences as an hour by hour commentary on life is not so unusual. Lots of perfectly sane people do it. Who knew?

While I can’t say I regret its loss overmuch, I do think it was incredibly useful. I grew up writing and even in the years when my pen never touched the paper, I thought in prose. I was probably more fluent, more literary as a young woman than as an old working writer. When as a student I needed the words they were always there, tumbling out of me, faster than I could write: clause and sub clause unrolling like a carpet under my feet, taking my argument wherever I wanted it to go.

Of course it isn’t like that now. Words elude me all the time and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of incipient mental decay or if it’s because I no longer live in narrative: I just live. What about you?

Write up and write downs

I wouldn’t say being a writer is an emotional roller coaster because 1) it’s a cliche and 2) neither flying pigs, wild horses nor any other improbable kind of animal incentive would get me to ride on one. I don’t like what roller coasters do to my guts and my inner ear, but I do like being a writer in spite of its impact on my emotional health. ( A polite way of saying it makes me bonkers.)

If it weren’t for the reasons given above there would be some mileage in the metaphor. Writing is full of dips and troughs, sudden highs when you believe you are a genius and gravity defying plummets when you realise that not only are you not a genius but you can’t even write an interesting sentence. You hurtle along what may or may not be a safe, pre planned path with terrifying switch backs, hairpin bends and expectation defying changes in speed and then comes the sudden terrifying recognition that you don’t actually know whether this wild journey will end in a happy resolution or in some dire tragedy. Being a writer you can even imagine the headlines, the article and the death toll.

Personally I am OK with the doubt and the uncertainty. I love the moments of delight and elation when you feel just out of control enough to enjoy the journey, but I expect them to be followed by vertigo and vomiting. I am able to cope with the sense that it has all gone horribly wrong and the feeble structure in which you have invested such high expectations cannot support your ambition, is badly engineered, has wet rot, metal fatigue and is about to teeter and fall. I can cope with all that. It is the hope that gets me. Every time…

Five ways to do it

There are many ways of writing a novel . A brief poll established that of writers I know the top five locations for novel writing are

1. in an office or shed, (everybody’s doing it ) The great thing being that simply going there convinces everyone that you are working even though you might just be internet surfing, napping or rearranging the garden tools.

2. At a kitchen or even a dining table, for those without a room of ones own. Manuscripts tend to get coffee stained and muddled up with the gas bill which can add an interesting post modern frisson to the offering blurring the distinction between reality and fiction etc

3. In bed I have tried this and always fall asleep, but apparently it works for some people.Writing and dreaming are sometimes indistinguishable anyway

4. In a coffee shop – particular good for fantasy writers on low incomes ( isn’t that all of us?) Tends to lend itself to excessive caffeine consumption and if its a local coffee shop and you know lots of people a very low word count per hour.

5. In some fantastic exotic location. Whenever I’ve tried this I’ve decide that the location is far too nice to waste time working.

There are also five preferred tools:

1. typewriter only good if you can type as the damned things don’t have a delete, copy, paste or insert button. Only for the very clever who don’t make mistakes and have very strong finger muscles ( ie not modern day degenerates.)

2. Pen and paper – I get cramp just thinking about it but great for those with legible handwriting who are unlikely to leave the only draft on the train.

3. Pencil and paper – for those with legible handwriting but less certainty.

4. Stone tables and chisel for those with the same qualities as 2 but more time.

5. Word processor – for those who can’t type, haven’t got legible handwriting, who are quite likely to leave drafts on the train and make lots of mistakes.

And five top tips for writing a novel without all the work.

1. Plagiarism, picking up some obscure book that miraculously isn’t on the internet and copying it This is a criminal act that can’t be condoned and only included here for completeness. Besides any book obscure enough to be a candidate for plagiarism probably isn’t that great anyway.

2. Calling on the muse. People’s techniques for this vary. Some involve alcohol induced trance like states, others involve reclining on sofas eating grapes and I have heard that a vigorous walk across wild country can startle a muse into manifesting. I’ve never had any luck with this myself long walks tend to produce nothing more useful than detailed to do lists and blisters.

3. Calling on the pixies. Some leave chocolate out in the hope that good new words will appear on the pc by magic. I’m afraid I eat all the chocolate so never have any to experiment with. At best I would describe this as unproven. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are better at making shoes in any case.

4. Automatic writing. This is a bit like getting in touch with your muse only harder as it involves contacting the dead. Given the low rates of literacy in the world over time and the even smaller number of english speaking literate dead, the chances of finding one who is both a decent writer and interested in hanging round writers who probably have among the least interesting lives for dead voyeurs, seems remote.

5. Employing a ghost writer – less like 4 than you would think. Works brilliantly for ballet dancers, footballers and topless models.


I like myths: I depend on them. They are the source of much of what I write and the foundation of my writing. My personal myth is as necessary to me as the air that I breathe or the coffee that launches my writing day. My personal myth is that writing is easy, fun and unimportant. ‘You just sort of sit down and type and eventually something will happen and then a story sort of arrives and you just write it. I quite like it, but you know it’s not essential to me. I haven’t always written and I was perfectly happy back then and you know I’m only part time so I’m not really a writer…’ I’m not saying I don’t believe this because, as we all know, myth expresses truth, but the deeper truth is that I know that if I allowed myself to admit to caring about my work, to taking it seriously, I would be unable to do it it all.

I don’t know but I suspect that we all use little personal myths to help us write, odd takes on the world that allow us to keep doing something which I have to see as essentially ridiculous. Some people use the myth of the struggling artist to inspire them. They buy into the necessity of pain in order to produce something worthy and sometimes see the value of a thing as being directly proportionate to the amount of suffering involved. Some wannabe writers seem to believe that to be ‘real’ writers they need to develop a borderline personality disorder, alcohol/drug dependency or a problem with personal hygiene. Others see writing as a battle in which their self worth is tied to their personal courage and grit, their ability to absorb all the difficulties and disappointments this business throws at them in order to come back bloody but unbowed and still fighting.

Writing is difficult because it requires skill, persistence and luck. It is hard to earn a living, it is hard to gain respect: sometimes it is just bloody hard. It is not glamorous, it is often isolating and isolated. Is it any wonder we need our personal myths to protect our egos, to make our daily struggles more heroic? Or is that it just me?

Teaching Myself

What do you think of when you think of a creative writing tutor? I summon the figure of an older woman with wild hair and a ‘sensitive’ nature and come up with Margaret Rutherford’s medium in Blythe Spirit. I try again and produce Emma Thompson as Professor Trelawney, in short, faced with the words ‘creative writing tutor’ I rather fear that my imagination supplies an image of a charlatan. Oh dear.

You see I now teach creative writing and I don’t believe that I am a charlatan. I may be heading in a Professor Trelawney direction sartorially, but I’ve got it under control. However, if responses to my new career are anything to go by, I am not the only one whose first instinct is to mistrust the very idea that creative writing is teachable. Those who write already are suspicious – I mean we all just write don’t we? We read lots of books and liked them so much we started writing them for ourselves – what is there to teach?

Rather a lot as it turns out.

‘Ah but you can’t teach talent,’ as several people have said rather sniffily. I think that is probably true, but you can encourage, stimulate, challenge and direct it. Most people have a spark of it and it is kindled by enthusiasm, by the opportunity to work with people who take writing seriously. Where can you get helpful feedback on a mss if not from my peers and teachers? Agents and commissioning editors rarely have time these days. Who cares enough to discuss whether something works better in first person or third but those selfsame teachers and peers?

It struck me recently that we treat writing as something quite unlike the other arts. There is nothing strange about being taught to dance, or draw or sing and yet people (often the same people who send their children off to tap and modern, piano and Saturday art classes) find it very odd that people should be taught to write. Could it be because people think it is easy? That yes indeed anyone can just write a book and it will be a good one? Maybe.

I fear I have fallen into the same trap. I used to believe that nobody taught me to write, which is of course ridiculous hubris. Back in the day I was encouraged to write all the time, story writing was an essential part of the curriculum. I wrote stories every day for years not just in primary school but at least until I was sixteen. Teachers read my stories out in class. I was taken seriously and I was encouraged, stimulated, challenged and directed.

I don’t know that many young people get that kind of teaching these days. I don’t know that creativity is valued as it should be.

I do know that the undergraduates and graduates I work with have things that they can learn and those things are, by and large, things that I can teach them. I must say I love it.

It is a cliche to say how much I’ve learned too, but it is true. I think the most significant revelation

has been how little I have valued the part my own teachers played in fostering my creativity and

taking my writing seriously. So it’s a bit late and some of them are probably dead – but thanks all of

you! I would never have become a writer without you.