Tag Archives: novels

Reading Reboot Part 1

bookshelf instag

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

 

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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.

How to Write: Write what you know, or not…

writing books

Most books on how to write will tell you this:  write what you know.

If you have some major area of expertise, they say, you should use that as a background for your novels.  Dick Francis, a famous jockey, wrote crime novels set against the backdrop of the horse-racing world, with spectacular success.  John Grisham was a criminal lawyer and politician before publishing fabulously successful legal thrillers.  Agatha Christie drew on her war work as a hospital dispenser when writing her detective fiction.  All of these authors, and many more, have made huge successes of writing about what they know.

BUT –

(And the word BUT has a bit of fairy dust in it that magically negates everything that comes before it, have you noticed that?)

I once heard novelist Rachel Cusk at a reading on the subject.  She was stridently against the idea of writing about what you know.  She said words to the effect of:

‘You know, we write fiction, and the clue is in the name.  Fiction.  It means we make it up.’

Take a moment to think about this:  the genre of science fiction would never have been invented if we only wrote about what we know.  No one has travelled across the Universe of the star ship USSS Enterprise, after all.  Fancy a world without ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Game of Thrones’?  That would be the logical conclusion.

And what about crime?  Yes, I agree there are a number of very talented writers producing procedural crime novels who have a background in criminal pathology or forensics, but how many truly great crime writers have actually personally killed someone? (None, we hope.)

‘Write what you know’ does not, therefore, take account of the most wonderful asset we have, the thing that makes human beings extraordinary amongst all the myriad of life on this planet:

Imagination

Imagination enables us to fly beyond the stars at warp speed, fight dragons with broadswords, fall in love with Benedict Cumberbatch and have him love us back.  And all in our lunch break.  Think about it –who really wants to write about their day job when they can write about this stuff?

There is, of course, a caveat.  Sometimes you need to do research.  And research is a double-edged sword on which you fall at your own peril:

I wrote a book set in London.  I have not lived in London.  I gave it to a friend to read, and he was a Londoner, born and bred.  He asked me about the car chase – Where are they?  Where are they going?  What road are they on?  He was frustrated because he knew the city well and he could not orient himself within the action.  I had not done my research and I did not know the setting well enough to wing it.  The novel collapsed for the reader as a result.

The opposite is true.  I wrote this story, set partly in Oxford, a city I know well and visit often.  I was able to undertake the depicted walk myself, just to be sure I had the details and the route right.  The result was a story that was adored by readers who knew the city too.  I had a personal email from one who was delighted that memories of her student days had been rekindled by my work.

So, getting the details right is important.  If you don’t, you can look like an idiot who doesn’t know what he is talking about, and the credibility of your story collapses.

BUT

(Fairy dust again.)

There is such a thing as having too much detail.  The first novel I wrote was set in the Iron Age, around 230BC, on the Newbury Downs.  It is not an area I know well, though I have driven through it.  And I have no background in archaeology or prehistory, so I had to research it all myself.  It took me seven years to finish it, and I gave up doing word counts after 250,000.  I knew too much.  I had too much detail – there are things I know about Iron Age saddles that normal human beings really shouldn’t know.  It’s doubtful that any reader would care.

And yes, you always get the odd accuracy fiend who emails you to say (puts on squeaky voice) ‘Er, the spoon your hero was using in scene 23?  Well, those kinds of spoons were not invented till three hundred years after the date you posit…’ etc etc.  But those are not your average readers.  Unless you write sci-fi, in which case you had damn well know your warp cores from your improbability drives.

“The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.”

-Benjamin Disraeli

The point I am trying to make here is this:  Ignore the advice.

Write what you want to write.

Write what you need to write.

(And if you have to, do the research.)

I promise to talk more about research in a future post, but in the meantime, do this:

Write the novel you want to read.

Happy creating,

EF