Wahey! and Yippee! Roll of drums, if you please, maestro. My tenth novel is finished! Just awaiting a few more fancy frills and computing complexities from the technical team and then we should have blast off. Feels fantastic. But also makes me realise how much angst goes on behind the scenes that readers are completely unaware of. These moments of sheer exhilaration are few and far between.
Once upon a time I had a real classifiable career. Nurse. Midwife. University researcher. Tick-box choices. Job descriptions, targets, performance indicators. Bona fide qualifications, tangible credentials. Now I’m a writer, and boy, let me tell you, this is no easy option. Goalposts? What goalposts? Documented procedures, organisational structure, monthly pay packet, career pathway … hello?
A few examples will suffice.
A study conducted at the University of London a couple of years ago found that a typical professional writer earns just £11,000 annually; less than the minimum wage. Worse – 17% of all writers earn next to nothing even in that honeymoon period shortly after having their work published.
A few weeks ago a writer who’d won a major Costa award went public on his reality: even being publicly acclaimed – in the papers even! – and having a big publisher on his side, he can’t earn enough to pay his mortgage. He has to go back to a paid job outside the literary world.
Sitting targets for vitriol
In most jobs if someone doesn’t like what you do, negative comments are confined to your place of work, and relatively private. Not so for us. Our work is out there for any Tom, Dick or Harriet – with or without literary credentials – to see. And even though reading is a subjective experience, they can slate our writing publicly. And believe me, critics can be brutal! The most recent example I’ve seen is Dominic Cavendish‘s condemnation of a certain play, Sex with Strangers, as ‘two tedious hours and punctuated by excruciating simulated raunch. It’s fit only for theatrical masochists. I’d settle for a cup of tea and watching Question Time any day‘. Ouch. And there’s nothing the poor playwright can do to erase that comment.
Crippling self doubt
In most jobs, once you’re trained and experienced, you have confidence that you can perform the tasks your post requires of you. Writing’s different. There are no A + B + C formulae, no tried and tested procedures, to be followed slavishly towards guaranteed success. No set shift hours, no line management, none of the usual structure governing paid employment. No resting on your laurels. Every book is uniquely different, presenting new challenges, new unknowns, new misgivings. Small wonder then that self-doubt is a recognised hazard even for established authors. As best-selling horror and suspense writer Steven King says: ‘Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.’
It’s a sedentary, solitary occupation. Eye strain, tension headaches, backache, weight gain, repetitive strain injury … to name but a few of the risks. Depression, isolation and identity crises … And no occupational health department to bail us out. No watchful boss to ease the load in a crisis. No sick pay. No occupational Bupa subscription.
I could go on – the stress of living parallel lives (real and fictional), the burden of being deep inside the skin of troubled characters, the humiliation of finding an audience of two at a library event … But I won’t!
So why on earth do we do it? Compulsion, that’s why. An irresistible drive. I personally feel quite bereft if I’m unable to write for any reason.
And such is my desire to reach out and touch lives that, in spite of all the risks and negatives, I’m actually going to be giving away my tenth novel, Listen, as a FREE download. It feels wonderfully liberating. No need for any humphs and galumphs and caveats about the price. Or anxious scanning of the sales figures. Or worries about accessibility. Or … anything! It’s yours – anybody’s – for nothing.
This one has been the most fun to write of any of my books, the quickest, the least personally demanding. I’ve had some super feedback from my cohort of critical readers too. What a thrill it is to hear … I couldn’t put it down … It really made me think … It made me get back in touch with my Mum … It made me cry … I know [one of the characters] … Not many jobs bring that kind of reward now, do they?
Oh yes, there may be many negative aspects to my chosen occupation, but I’m already plotting my eleventh novel!
All except one of my trusted readers/critics have now given me their feedback on my latest book, Listen. Exciting times. But before I sit down for a serious edit, I’m immersing myself in some exquisite writing, beautiful language from the pen of a master, that will be a incentive to me to raise my own game – I hope!
The author? Patrick Gale. The book? A Place Called Winter. A sad, tender, compelling tale of Harry Cane’s battle with his own demons, the taboos of his day, and the wild wastelands of a new country. It’s an intensely personal novel inspired by a true story from Gale’s own family history: one gay man reaching out with sympathy and deep feeling to another (his mother’s grandfather) across a century of social change.
Harry Cane is born into privilege, raised to ‘believe that what mattered was to be unmistakably a gentleman’. He rides horses; others muck out their stables. His soft hands remain idle while callouses build up on the palms of his social inferiors. But his childhood is emotionally impoverished, with his mother dead and his father absent, schooldays punctuated by all the trials upper class boys can inflict on those they see as weaker prettier mortals. Consequently his life is centred on his younger brother Jack. It’s Jack who drags his shy insecure brother into society after their father’s death and introduces him to Winifred Wells, his future wife. Theirs is a gentle undemanding relationship which reluctantly produces one daughter before it settles into platonic coexistence.
The time is the early 1900s; apartheid is unchallenged; class distinctions rule; abortion and homosexuality are unlawful, the latter punishable by hard labour and utter disgrace; ‘treatment’ for psychiatric illness and ‘deviance’ is draconian. When his brother-in-law discovers Harry’s guilty secret, Harry – now an exiled ‘unmentionable‘ – signs up for a new start in a new country, Canada, one of 511 passengers on a ship sailing to the unknown.
The vast impossible prairies are simply waiting to be tamed, and after serving his year-and-a-day apprenticeship to a Danish farmer, Harry commits himself to converting 160 acres of wild wasteland into a self-sufficient thriving homestead within three years. Setting out with simply the map coordinates SW 23-43-25-W3, and directions to a place called Winter scribbled on the brown paper the cheese was wrapped in. An English innocent in a harsh unbroken landscape where there is ‘not much call for cash‘, and ‘neighbour is a relative term‘.
His closest neighbours are a brother and sister, Paul and Petra Slaymaker, whose lives become intimately entwined with his own. Beautiful relationships are established which are tested in the cauldron of gossip, violence, war and illness. But their peace is threatened much more by the reappearance of a common enemy whose actions and knowledge cast a long shadow over their lives.
Gale’s writing is superb. His characters are beautifully realised, their emotions are captured with tenderness and palpable truth, and the abiding fear of loss, disgrace and exile haunts every hour of reading. Much as I revelled in the writing, though, I had a powerful feeling of desolation at times. Harry’s apologetic personality, his sad acceptance of the degrading things that happen to him, his gentle resilience, his innate decency even in the face of extreme provocation, stand in sharp contrast to the militance and ferocity of modern day campaigners for individual and collective rights. I wanted to reach out to him with compassion, understanding and reassurance.
But it’s a novel. I must instead give you a flavour of the lyrical prose:
… hot breakfast rolls as soft and pale as infancy.
… torn rags of sentences.
… they gave the impression of having emerged, fully formed, from eggs, as brittle as the waxy shells they had discarded.
There’s the heir and the spare and the heiress-beware.
A horse is ‘like a sofa with hooves‘.
‘Vaccinated by this cruel loss of his first daughter, he approached fatherhood the second time round with a certain reserve. He did not consciously harden his heart, but he loved with hands metaphorically behind his back.’
‘… war was declared in August, when harvest preparations were at their height. The news was sown swiftly, shaken from pulpits and scattered by posters and threshing gangs.’
I rarely give a book 5*s – this novel reminds me why. It wholeheartedly merits them. Highly recommended.
With this week’s news that certain people are to be banned from entering America on the grounds of their race/faith, coming on top of the ongoing shocking stories we keep hearing about the plight of Syrian refugees, it seemed somehow appropriate this week to read a book about illegal immigrants, whilst simultaneously knitting garments for refugees – doing both together helps me concentrate for longer.
Cleric Jakob Ahlbin sums up the challenge: ‘I don’t think we need worry that there are vast numbers of people in the world wishing they lived on a sink estate in Stockholm with no work or permanent housing. What we really must think about, on the other hand, is this: is there anything a father will not do to make secure provision for his children’s future? Is there any act a human being will not commit to create a better life for him- or herself?’
Sobering questions. And a tough call for any fiction writer.
Ohlsson knows exactly how to build tension. She begins fifteen years ago, with an innocent young country girl being brutally raped in a flower meadow behind her parents’ Swedish home; the crime goes unreported, the victim silenced. Fast forward to the present (2008) and we have a series of sinister situations … the vicar mentioned above, known for his passionate campaigning on the migrant question, discovered dead beside a hunting pistol, a murdered wife and a suicide note … an illegal Iraqi immigrant being imported into Sweden to carry out a crime, found dead in a lake … an unknown man driven over deliberately outside the university, also dead … a young woman whose life is spinning out of control in Bangkok … mysterious unnamed individuals caught up in some highly secret project …
Numerous dark strands but somehow all connected. A motley band of police officers, each grappling with their own demons, painstakingly assembling the jigsaw.
Sounding complicated and confusing? It is. But not so unfathomable as to make it impossible to follow, or even to guess a few solutions before they’re revealed. The pages keep turning, the brain keeps whirling.
This is the kind of tension and narrative pull I want for my eleventh novel (working title Killing me Gently); something that grips the attention and doesn’t let go till the last page. So I’ve been trying to be very analytical as I read. And after Ohlsson’s little masterclass, I can now go back into my own writing with renewed energy and focus.
Having said that, there are things about her writing I wouldn’t wish to emulate. Literary irritations – probably blips in the conversion into English – and some dead ends and threads that were rather unconvincing. But there are also occasional gems not lost in translation:
The hospital smell – ‘as if death itself crept into the ventilation system and was breathing on everybody in turn’.
A first-time father of almost sixty – ‘very likely not to be the stuff of which nests were built’.
Worthy and dubious alike, all part of the challenge, and most useful to me as I continue to learn the art and craft of thriller writing.
This week a research report by the insurer Aviva revealed that around one in 10 people do not own a single book. And if you home in on the 18-24 age bracket, that number rises to one in five! A fifth of young adults! Can you imagine a house with no books? I would feel totally bereft. But presumably these are households dominated by electronic gadgetry and they wouldn’t understand my love/hate relationship with technology. Hey ho.
Added to that, of course, so many good books have been adapted for stage and screen, so it’s possible to know what a book is about, and even what its underlying message is, and discuss it with others, without ever touching a paper copy. I was an avid fan of Thomas Hardy in my teens and read all his novels. I studied one of them – Under the Greenwood Tree – for English Lit O-level at school. I loved his stories, and nothing in my view can really compare to losing oneself in the written form …imagining …feeling …being, but I can well understand why many people would be quite content with the film version, unaware of what they’re missing. I myself was given the DVD of Far from the Madding Crowd this Christmas and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The sad fact is that most people remain oblivious to the original source of these films. Do you, for instance know who wrote the book behind the new series, Apple Tree Yard, currently airing at prime-time on the BBC One channel? It’s being much hyped as a ‘provocative thriller’ and is being widely discussed on review pages, but precious little is said of the book behind it. I happen to be aware of the author’s name and credentials because Louise Doughty ran writing courses in the Telegraph a few years ago and I followed them. Otherwise her name would not be on my lips either, I’m ashamed to say; I too would home in on the merits or otherwise of actress Emily Watson‘s performance as the scientist Dr Yvonne Carmichael who is on trial for a crime we don’t yet know about.
But in my case films are not ‘instead of’ reading. Indeed, our house is home to thousands of real hold-in-your-hands books, two rows deep on each shelf in my study – currently seriously in need of cataloguing and re-shelving to create some order, it must be admitted. Last week I was dismayed to find I couldn’t lay my hand on We Need to Talk about Kevin, and to discover two copies of one of the fattest Harry Potter books. So I need to do something about it. But preferably something more than moving X from A to B.
As Jane Austen said: If a book is well-written, I always find it too short, and that thought has led to my creating a 2017 reading plan. First, home in on writers whose style I know I enjoy, whose books I shall gallop through, wallow in, find too short. And hopefully the sheer exuberance of reading will aid my own writing. Transferring the volumes from the tbr section to the hbr will clear some space, both physical and mental. Then I can tackle the row of worthy but denser volumes which I know I should read, but which don’t have the same immediate appeal.
Happy hours ahead! And hopefully order out of chaos.
I’ve been giving myself a stern talking to this week. After a concerted burst of frenzied writing, I’d just sent out novel number 10, Listen, to my first raft of critics … I should have been feeling elated, yes? Well, I was … for about two days. But then the lowering thoughts started, the doubt, the gloomy prediction. My earlier books have had such generous reviews; what if nobody likes this latest one? Is there anything of value in it? What if I’ve gone past my sell-by date? What if I’ve lost my own powers of discernment?
And believe me, in the solitary world of a writer, it’s all too easy to sink into a trough of self-doubt. I’m my own sternest critic, always seeking to do better, never satisfied. But then, quite unsolicited, several unconnected people spontaneously commented on one or more of my books. Positively. You will never know what a welcome lifeline you threw me, folks. Thank you hugely.
My sane dispassionate self tells me that, of course, no author anywhere is going to please all the people all the time. Not even the best of the best, and I’m a million miles away from that pinnacle.
I’ve just finished ploughing through Mark Haddon’s The Red House. I really really really disliked it – the thin plot, the linguistic pretension, the whole thing – and had to force myself to complete it. Whereas I loved his The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Same with Sarah Waters, Lionel Schriver, JKRowling, to name but three famous authors. Fingersmith, We Need to Talk about Kevin, are among my top 50; I’m in awe of Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books. But some of their subsequent writings left me unmoved.
So, I’m working at convincing myself that the world as we know it will not disintegrate if one or more of my critics doesn’t like this latest work. It might not be time to bin all ideas and drafts. To give up. It might simply be a question of taste; this particular book doesn’t appeal to this particular reader. Get over it!
It’s a very good thing that former apprentice painter and decorator from Coatbridge in Scotland, Brian Conaghan, didn’t give up, even after 217 rejections by publishers and agents. He persevered, he believed in himself, and he’s just won the Costa Children’s Book Award! I might re-read this paragraph every night before going to bed by way of therapy!
Quite a responsibility on our shoulders then. And of course, my own eye goes straight to ‘writers’; my brain inserting ‘fiction writers’.
‘Fiction is the most humane and magical of acts – it’s healing, restorative, exactly because it shows us a way across those chasms. We can never know what it’s like to be someone else, ever, except through fiction. People always talk of fiction as if it’s an escape from the world, but it’s not that, or not just that. It’s an escape out of ourselves and into the world, too.’ (in All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell)
We all know what it’s like to be immersed in a good book; in a totally different place; feeling the emotions and thoughts of someone else. If we let it, this absorption can offer us insights which in turn help us to empathise with other people, understand another point of view, maybe be more tolerant, more afronted, readjust our moral compass, be better equipped to support and help. To be more specific, my own novels take the reader inside the skin of characters grappling with some of life’s big questions and issues. Fiction allows us to do that in an enjoyable form, and I do believe that if we all allowed ourselves to truly walk in other people’s shoes before judging them, the real world would be a kinder, gentler and more peaceable place. The kind of world I want my grandchildren to inherit.
In my academic life, I always said I wanted to go out on a high, not fizzle and fail, and now I’m a novelist, I have to ask myself periodically, when will it be time to quit? Every end of year I take stock. OK. And this year? Well, I’ve decided I should continue writing fiction for now, the compulsion is still there. I have two books on the go at the moment; I’m keen to finish them. I’d be bereft without this driving force in my life. So watch this space …
But for the moment, in this the first blog of a new year, I want to say a very big thank you to all of you who follow my posts, and especially those who get back to me with comments and reactions – by any route. The discipline of writing something every week does me good: it keeps my writing and editing muscles toned; concentrates the mind; makes me think through issues/arguments; allows me to share writerly and occasionally personal experiences. Knowing you too gain something from it is a real thrill. So, it only remains for me to wish you all an excellent year 2017, joyful, peaceful, healthy. And if life is tough for you at the moment, I hope you’ll find the strength, courage and determination to overcome.
One of my most exciting Christmas presents this year was a dress circle seat for Scottish Ballet’s production of Hansel and Gretel, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh on 19th December. It was utterly fabulous – costumes, music, story telling, dance, everything. And I appreciated it all the more because I’d looked at all the videos about what went on behind the scenes; so much vision, so much expertise, so much talent.
Returning to my own Christmas production, Herr Doktor Schrinkenfeldt and Friends, was something of an anti-climax. But then I don’t have a vast team of experts at my disposal; I personally double as scriptwriter, artistic director, costume designer, scene setter, makeup artist, sound effects technician, Uncle Tom Cobley and all – master of none. Which is entirely appropriate given that our audience is limited to nine people, the budget is low and it runs for one day only.
This year the story/play (performed yesterday) revolved around four cousins who find themselves invited to visit a house full of monsters – well, 6 actually – allegedly friends of their Great Aunt Olga, all of whom have wisdom to impart and fun activities to offer.
Along the way the children tasted de luxe sandwiches, made soup from revolting ingredients, adopted fairy companions, painted ceramics, sent magic lights 40 feet into the night sky. As they met each monster, they also learned that they themselves are uniquely special, strong, brave, compassionate and talented. And that parents aren’t actually monsters erecting barriers to communication.
Suddenly after months and months of preparation, my seventeenth Christmas story/play for the grandchildren is over. How does the artistic director of Hansel and Gretel feel as the curtains close for the last time, I wonder? Exhausted but satisfied, I imagine. And already thinking of his next production.
Christmas. Time to make contact. Time to appreciate friends. Time to give gifts. Time for a little gentle reflection …
You’ve probably seen the posters:
Comparing what the season means to us here in the fifth richest country, (foreign visitors please substitute your own ranking), with what it will bring for those people caught up in world conflicts and humanitarian crises, it’s all too easy to sink beneath a burden of injustice, maybe even guilt, isn’t it? We see the horrors everyday on our screens, in our papers; our contributions feel all too meagre. Today, however, I don’t want to dwell on the depressing aspects of our global inequalities, rather I want to send out a positive message.
Let’s go back to the beginning of my thinking … I read somewhere (can’t now remember where) that David Cameron is charging £120,000 per hour to give talks about Brexit. That’s £2,000 per minute. Hello? He was only getting £143,462 per annum when he was running the country! – OK, I know, I know, that was his basic salary; he had sundry other substantial incomes alongside that. And don’t get me started on the obscene salaries sportspeople
earn rake in, or models, or … Yes, yes, you get the picture.
Instead, let’s turn to face in another direction, and consider the unsung heroes in our society; contrast their incomes with £2,000 per minute.
The average wage for a carer patiently looking after our elderly and demented relatives, is £7.25 an hour.
A school teacher educating our precious children gets a starting salary of £19,600.
A qualified nurse with our lives in her hands can expect to take home £21,692 a year at the start of her career.
A fully competent trained fireman putting his own life on the line will get £29,345.
I could go on.
They aren’t on the front cover of glossy magazines, they aren’t being pursued by the paparazzi for celebrity shots, they aren’t winning Nobel prizes, they aren’t wowing us with their luxury homes/yachts/cars/handbags/jewels, they aren’t attracting mega bucks. No, but they are helping to create/preserve the caring society I want for my children and grandchildren. They are making the world a better place. Indeed many of them will be looking after our relatives and friends instead of being at home with their own loved ones this Christmas. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by such people, ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, and I see at first hand the extra miles they go, the difference they make, the quiet satisfaction they get from a job well done. I want to take this opportunity to comprehensively salute them all and wish them joy and contentment, not just at this festive time, but every day.
As Tiny Tim would say, ‘God bless them, every one!’
Let’s all resolve in the coming year to truly value excellence, dedication, selflessness and service.