From ChickLit to True Grit

Where did your writing begin? What type of story did you set out to write? Is that what emerged, or did you, as I did, end up somewhere completely different?

CactusI first fell into the grip of my fiction writing habit in 2010, a few months after my 50th birthday.  When I went on an Arvon Foundation writing course, I hadn’t a single word of fiction to my name, aside from a handful of playful Coffee Break Stories which I had penned for a client as part of their marketing.  I had an idea I might try something a little more adventurous.  I wanted to stretch myself, test my creativity and find out if I had an imagination.

I’d booked on the spur of the moment and I arrived with an unblemished notepad, a sharp pencil and an open mind. I thought the course (tellingly titled Starting to Write) might at least give me something to think about, or even (the clue’s in the name, I guess) help get me started. I had absolutely no idea what I would write about.

One of the tutors, the poet and writer Catherine Smith offered me some help in choosing my debut project.  I told her I felt drawn to writing light, humorous fiction, an escape from the serious business of copywriting.  We set off down the ‘write what you know’ road – it’s as good a place as any to begin, I guess.  During our conversations it dawned on me there was one thing about which I knew quite a bit, which offered the potential for light and humorous writing.

In my 30’s and 40’s, I’d been on a number of singles holidays to the Greek Islands and Turkey.  As I wrote in my post ‘A Singular Sort of Holiday’ I thought this might be fertile ground for an amusing, chick-litty angle – a wry commentary on the sort of people who go on singles holidays (ahem… myself included); the comic potential for mishap and misunderstanding, the awkwardness of strangers thrown together; that sort of thing. Think, Bridget Jones takes a Vacation, and you’d be on the sort of lines I contemplated.

The seed planted and back home again, I began to write.  First a couple of fluffyish short stories, and then the first few pages of what would become Singled Out.  I ploughed forward with little idea of what I was doing.  I was like one of those people who sets off for a mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat – no compass either.  Eventually around 40,000 words in, I realised I had blundered into nowhere-land.

The key problem, I discovered, was that it wasn’t enough to write in a light-hearted way about a collection of characters, even if some of them were curious or quirky.  Something had to happen.  Yes, that’s quite a breakthrough, isn’t it? I realised that for a story to be, well, a story that anyone might want to read, I had to make stuff happen.  And a bunch of people lazing about on sun loungers having a bit of a chat just didn’t cut it.

So one day I introduced a fox into my henhouse, just to see what sort of a stir I could create.  And that’s where everything changed.  Because I realised how much I enjoyed writing my dark, malevolent character.  I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.  I found I loved engineering the scenarios in which this character conceals their true nature, causing others to stumble in, unawares.  I loved the idea of creating a story where the reader would know where the peril lay and would watch it playing out.

As I wrote forward the tone of my narrative changed, as it wrapped around this warped individual. It became a story, rather than a series of chirpy episodes.  Other characters acquired their own private pains, rages and challenges as the atmosphere darkened.  You may be the judge one day, but to me, Singled Out mutated from a pina colada into a whisky sour.

If I give the impression that this was a smooth linear progression, a seamless segue from ChickLit to Psycho-drama, I’m misleading you. I developed a split personality, bouncing back and forth between the two for a while and generating no small amount of frustration in my mentor.  This resulted in a certain loss of confidence in yours truly.  Eventually my mentor called me to account.  ‘You have to decide,’ she said, ‘what kind of a novel you’re writing.’  She was nice about it, but I felt the sting as the end of her tether snapped at me.  But it proved to be an important junction – a ‘pee or get off the pot’ moment.

So I decided, and I committed to grit and malevolence and a dark story where very bad stuff happens, even though all around is beautiful and languid and sultry.  And the more I applied myself, the more I enjoyed writing the pain and the peril into my narrative.  I found myself somewhere I didn’t expect to be, but it was an exciting landscape – for me as a writer at least.

The change of tempo and resultant overhaul across a series of edits has taken over 3 years, but I know what kind of a writer I am now, and I have my first novel – or at least the manuscript thereof – which is now in search of an agent.

Whatever it is, one thing is certain, it’s not ChickLit.  And I’ve discovered I do have an imagination, and it’s not bursting with sunbeams and sugar sprinkles.

11 thoughts on “From ChickLit to True Grit

  1. Sunbeams make you squint and sprinkles get stuck in the teeth. it’s your less salubrious characters that give it bite.

  2. Love it, ” from a pina colada to a whiskey sour.” I hope you get a bite on your book. I don’t write, but I’m experiencing the journey vicariously. in the meantime, (don’t hit me) have you considered working it into a screenplay while you’re waiting?

    1. It’s funny you should say about the screenplay. It seems very presumptuous of me, an unpublished writer, but I have dared to imagine it might work on film, perhaps a TV mini series . But all that depends on getting a bite from an agent to get the whole game started, and so far, no bites. Still trying…

      A quick PS, just for you: I did once, maybe two years ago, imagine who might play my various characters on screen – it’s hard to resist doing this as a story begins to flesh out. I gathered photos from the internet, to get a feel for how I visualised my characters. I’d forgotten I’d done this until you reminded me with your comment, so I went back to those crazy musings – and guess whose picture I found…. 😉

  3. I can relate to this so strongly, especially:
    ” I liked finding words for what was going on in their psyche. I enjoyed working my way into their disturbed, sociopathic mindset.”
    It is one of the reason I’ve had to warn a number of friends that my book is nothing like my blog. But it’s so much fun exploring a completely different mindset. In a way, writing is a lot like acting; you have to be ‘in character’ to write effectively, allow the character to completely absorb you. There was one scene in particular which, after writing, left me in a foul mood for the rest of the day, so involved had I become with my characters.
    Great post. I know I’ve said this a number of times, but I can’t wait to read your book.

    1. It is fun stepping into the shoes of a character who is so unlike oneself. I wonder if I’ve already read the scene you speak of in Second Chance – I think I might have. And when you read my book, you’ll see I wrote myself into scenes like that too, the ones where you need to ‘prepare’ those who know you, because it won’t be what they expect of you. Oooh… cryptic 🙂

      Still pressing on with agency submissions, but slowly, as it takes time to research and prepare each one. I in turn, can’t wait to learn more of your experience with self-publishing.

  4. Great post Jools. I love your ‘mooch around the Outback with a half litre of water and no sunhat’ and ‘pina colada to whisky sour’.

    My difficulty is the opposite to yours – I have so much happening in my novel that I received a suggestion on a writing course to split it into two or possibly three books.

    Like you, I prefer to write about the darker side of life. My novel begins with a ‘social cleansing’ death squad on the rampage in Colombia which some say is so violently off-putting that readers won’t want to progress any further. One friend said he’d never see me in the same light after reading my first chapter!

    Like Dylan’s, the tone of my novel is a bit different from my blog, which is non-fiction, though even my blog is perhaps getting a bit grittier: my last post included comments on the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’.

    I agree that it is essential, and can be fun, to get into character when writing even (or especially) the bad guys.

    Good luck with your search for an agent. I look forward to reading your book in its entirety.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed my post! Part of the joy of reading is to be put, vividly and compellingly, into a different context; whether that be a different historical time, a different place, or in the company of different people, the point is to bring new experience to the reader by immersing them in the world of your story. Your death squad episode is breathtaking – visceral and shocking – and it drags the reader right into the bleeding heart of that world. It’s incredibly powerful, and I can completely understand your friend’s response. But that shows you have a vivid imagination and a powerful way with words – and isn’t that what good writing is about?

  5. So nicely done my lady. As usual I enjoyed your words and of course the use of them greatly. You have a beautiful mind my dear, and I believe your book will reflect many aspects of you. Could not be more pleasing.

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