Category Archives: novels

Do One Thing at a Time

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Focus.

In a world of multi-tasking, it something most of us have forgotten.

Stand in any street and you will see a mother pushing a pushchair, laden with shopping as well as her baby, perhaps another child or two trailing behind, with a mobile phone clamped to her ear.  This woman is doing at least three tasks at once, and is probably not able to concentrate on any of them properly.  The same is true of the man driving along the motorway, his mind on his business meeting to come, a bag of crisps in his lap to keep hunger at bay, talking to a colleague on his hands-free (I hope) phone.  I’m not saying mobile technology is the evil of our times.  What I am saying is that its so easy to get distracted that we rarely do one thing, and one thing alone.

You only have to look at my bedside table to see that I am the worst victim of this curse.  A glance at the picture above will show you that I have 32 books currently on the go!  (That’s not counting the magazines under the second pile in – there are actually four piles there.  Its also not counting the ones on my desk in the study.)  Another one arrived in the post this morning.  And the heap includes 6 library books, which of course can go back to be exchanged for more goodies.

I know, I know.

I have a serious problem…

On a side note, it is interesting to me that, as someone who claims to be a fiction writer, there are very, very few novels on this heap.  But more of that anon.

I really, really need to focus.  Finally becoming overwhelmed by my book pile yesterday, I made the decision.  This has to stop.  I am going to focus on ONE BOOK and read it till it is finished.  And then move on to the next.  And read that till it is finished.  And so on.

And I’m not allowed to buy any more books until this pile is finished.

Or go the library.  (Which may actually be more difficult, because hey, free books!)

You may remember that I made the decision earlier in the year, as part of my commitment to my writing, to start reading a lot more, and I’m really doing well at that.  The problem is that at the moment, most of what I am reading is non-fiction for research, fun and self-development, which isn’t going to feed my prose practice in the same way that quality novels would.  I’ve got shelves of novels that I want to read, but never get around to.  Research always seems more tempting.  I wonder what this says about what I really need to be writing?

Anyway, I decided that today I will make a list of all the novels I have outstanding on the shelves all over the house. And then I will work my way through the list one at a time.

I’ve even been toying with the idea of having a total-immersion week, where I commit to doing nothing else but reading (other than my diary), in the hope that this will establish in me a voracious desire for fiction that only regular reading will sate.

The weird thing is that I never have this problem with fanfiction.  I think its because its short.  I spent nearly five years writing solely in the Sherlock fandom, and that was where I did pretty much all my fiction reading.  It was a continuous obsession, which fuelled what I think is some of my best work.  I need to get that focus back, so I can write original fiction to the same pitch.

I’ll keep you posted as to how I get on!

Happy Creating,

EF

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Focus Shift

Desk May 2017

Something struck me today.  Normally on a Sunday evening (the time when I’m writing this) I have a little cascade of messages from AO3 and fanfiction.net telling me who has been liking and bookmarking my work, who has been commenting, and so on.  They come most days, but you always get a lot more at the weekend because more people have time to read at weekends.  It is like having a little round of applause at the end of the week, to spur you on into Monday, and as every fanfic writer knows, those responses to your work can become your addiction!

As I opened up the latest collation of ‘kudos’ from my works on AO3, I realised that these missives have become a lot more incidental to my world than they used to be.  I used to hang on every single one, checking my email obsessively to see what had arrived.  Fanfiction has definitely changed in its importance for me.  Now, I’m obviously delighted that people like my work, but my self-esteem no longer rests so strongly on it.  It’s a really nice little pat on the back, but its importance to me has lessened, and for one really crucial reason.

My focus has changed.

My main writing focus is now on my novel, on my original work.  Yes, I am still writing fanfics, still composing them in my head at night when I go to bed, but my main efforts at my desk are to do with developing original fiction.  My novel.  Or whatever this thing is going to be that I am working on.

This swap is a huge change for me, and realising it is so exciting.  It means that all the effort I have been putting in to developing a writing habit is actually working.  This is the payback.  I’m now on the yellow brick road that I want to be on.  I’m not saying the other yellow-brick road with all the gorgeous men having rampant sex isn’t nice.  It’s just it wasn’t the one I was planning to follow, that’s all.

Writing fanfic has become something of a ‘warm-up’ exercise for me, the way ballet dancers practice at the barre before they get down to the nitty-gritty of doing the Dying Swan!  I love writing it.  It exercises the muscles, gets the lumps out of the prose, provides a field for juicy little metaphors to pop up that I can use later in something original.

Now the original work is where I am headed, I feel excited, free.  It is slowly evolving, this thing that I am writing.  I work on it most days, and it gives me clues, spits out little gems, turns its head and gives me a flirtatious wink or a little giggle every now and again.  It is starting to come into better focus.

I’m so excited.  And relieved.

I feel like I’ve got my voice back.

I shall never stop being grateful to fanfiction for all it has taught me.  I shall always love it, and read it, and no doubt continue to write it in some form or another.  But I’ve managed to step off the Sherlock and Lewis version of the M25, going endlessly around in circles and getting stuck in traffic queues.  Now I’m on the Great North Road, heading to Novel Land, and I can’t wait to see what I find there!

Happy Creating,

EF

Writing is from the Soul

 

p-d-james

The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

Reading Reboot Part 1

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Shelfie!

As part of my creative recovery journey, I’ve been trying to get back into reading.  Stephen King says firmly that:

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

(Stephen King, On Writing)

What the Great Man says has to be right, yeah?  So, if I want to write again, I need to resume reading.

I have to confess that in recent years, while I’ve been in dementia-survival mode, I’ve been reading for the purposes of distraction or survival.  Which means I’ve either been reading comforting, funny novels, most of which I’ve read before i.e. Terry Pratchett, or self-help. Or an awful lot (and I mean an awful lot) of fanfiction!  Now, as I emerge from the dark shadow, I need to remember what the hell a novel actually looks and feels like.

In working this out, I thought it might be useful to consider my history as a reader.  I have to admit that since I learnt to read as a child, I have been a complete addict.  I was the kid that had read the back of the cornflakes packet so often, I knew it by heart.  I devoured books.  I spent so much time lying on my bed reading that the neighbours believed my mother locked me in my room rather than allowed me out to play!  But I didn’t want to go out to play. I wanted to read Monica Dickens, and Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clares’ books. I adored Tove Jansson.

My parents encouraged me.  My mother was a voracious reader who introduced me to Jane Austen and the Brontes.  My father read to me most nights when he got home from work, and if he was travelling for his job, which he did often, he recorded episodes on an old cassette tape player for me to listen to every night – oh, how I wish I still had those episodes of him reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and doing all the voices!

So it was not surprising that I wanted to do an English degree for the sheer pleasure of spending three years reading.  There I discovered Virginia Woolf and Hemingway.

In my twenties, as I recovered from the rigours of academic analysis of texts, I was introduced to Terry Pratchett, whose common sense wisdom and humour left me in a kind of ecstatic daze.  I read Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, Garrison Keillor and Laurence Durrell.  And then I discovered Alice Hoffman’s early works, and was dazzled.  This was what writing should be, I thought.

In my thirties, powered by the reading list I received as part of my Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, I ventured into new territories.  Margaret Atwood, Helen Dunmore, Pat Barker, Iain Banks, Tracy Chevalier, and Michael Cunningham all delighted me.

But eventually, my illness caught up with me.  ME/CFS has created neurological symptoms for me that have caused me trouble with my language skills.  For a long time, I struggled to read at all.  Words jumped all over the pages.  I couldn’t remember what the start of a sentence was when I got to the end of it.  I would stare at the words for hours, recognising the shapes, knowing I ought to know what they meant, but unable to grope for the meanings.  The occupation that had once been a joy to me became misery.  No longer able to concentrate, my fiction reading fell away.  I fought on, but tended to concentrate on history, and more self-help books, because I could read them in short bursts.  Later, I began a slow recovery, and I read fanfiction because it was easy.

Clearing my late mother-in-law’s home since her death in September has reminded me of how much joy we shared in our reading.  She too was fascinated by books, and we often swapped volumes.  I remember going with her to see P.D. James, Colin Dexter and Alan Bennett speak.  Alzheimers sadly robbed her of the ability to read early on, but she was still passionate about buying books right up until her death, even though she didn’t know what to do with them anymore.  In sorting through her belongings, we have been faced with a gargantuan mountain of much loved volumes she treasured, a monument to a life spent reading for the sheer joy of it.

It was one of her final gifts to me that boxes of dusty Agatha Christie, Ngiao Marsh and Margery Allingham volumes reminded me that reading was something I also loved.  I will forever be grateful that she has given me back the delight in novels that I had forgotten.  I plucked a couple of C.J Sansom books out of her stash and waded in.

And it was wonderful.

So I set the intention to resume reading fiction.

Voraciously.

Does any of this feel familiar to you?  Could you tell your own story of a reading life somewhat derailed by life?  Do you remember a time when you consumed books like other people get through teabags, when nothing made you happier than to get to the end of a doorstop-sized novel, having lived it every step of the way?  Are those days long gone for you now?

In the next post, I will tell you how I managed to reinstate good reading habits, so that you can do it too if, like me.

Happy Creating – and Reading!

Love EF

 

The Book List

Some books here are waiting to be read.

Some books here are waiting to be read.

The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.

So far so good.

But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?

My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.

So here is my list (verbatim):

“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”

I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other.  I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett?  The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.

And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.

And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.

I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!

There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)

Writers must read.

It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.

“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”

Virginia Woolf.

When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)

I need to do the same again.

This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.

So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The White Princess Problem

the white princessI’m undergoing quite a lot of shifts in my creative work these days, and as a result, I’ve been reflecting on my reading habits.

Bit not good, as Sherlock would say.

I read woefully little fiction. My bad.

If you want to be writer, you need to read. And read lots. And I do read lots. Its just that most of what I read could be loosely classed as ‘self help’ and history. Let me explain:

A little while back, everyone was raving about Philippa Gregory’s Cousins War novels, which tells the stories of the women involved in the Wars of the Roses, during the late Medieval period. I’d read Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ when it first came out, because I’d read something similar by Jean Plaidy as a girl, and liked it well enough. I tried the first book in the series, The White Queen, but couldn’t get on with it. So, on the basis (again) that I had read something similar by Jean Plaidy, I decided when The White Princess came out, with its plot about Elizabeth of York, mother of Henry VIII and wife of Henry VII, that it was for me. I bought the book and settled down for a good read.

What a miserable book.

I have clawed my way wretchedly through it. I’ve only got a few chapters left, but every time I pick it up, I am seized with a bout of miserable gloom and depression that can go on for days. I just can’t stand it. I’m determined to finish the beastly thing, just on the basis that I refuse to let it beat me, but dammit if it isn’t the most spirit-crushing book I have ever read. And I’ve read ‘Middlemarch’! Now everyone is telling me that I must read Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’, and I just know that’s going to have the same effect on me.

Is it any wonder that I return repeatedly to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books?

I want a book to entertain me, and leave me panting for more. I want to be riveted by every turn of the page. Its not that I don’t want conflict. I love conflict. Conflict is what makes a plot irresistible. Without it, fiction is just a mushy mess.

But why does every book that gains acclaim have to be so bloody depressing?

Is it so much to ask for something to be a bit witty? Is it so hard to make a book hopeful in some way?

Maybe it is that I read mostly first thing in the morning, to help me wake up and while I wait for the day’s medication to kick in, and last thing at night before I sleep. What you read first thing can set the tone for your day, which is why I try to choose something uplifting. And late at night, you want to read something that will help you sleep, not leave you lying awake worrying about death and betrayal and being hung, drawn and quartered.

I have a heap of novels that friends have lent me. They seem to be mostly about the Second World War and the Holocaust, which doesn’t bode well. I tried reading Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’, but it felt too cheesy, and worryingly like Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’, which is the only book I’ve ever actually physically thrown at the wall in disgust because it was so badly written. (How that man has the gall to teach creative writing beats me!) I love historical fiction, but I want to read good work that is recently published. And I’m fine reading contemporary set books. Why is it so hard to find something that isn’t going to make me want to slash my wrists?

Maybe I’ll just see if I can get the latest Alice Hoffman from the library. I used to read her. She was good. But if you have any recommendations that fit the ‘positive’ bill, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about your favourites.

In desperation,

EF

UPDATE: went to the library and found Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure’. First few chapters are beautifully written, even if it’s a dark story. I’ll let you know if I’m inclined to slash my wrists at any point.