I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Bookshop Bliss

Waterstones PiccadillyI passed an absorbing couple of hours yesterday mooching round Waterstones in Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

Apparently now Europe’s biggest bookshop, Waterstones Piccadilly is a paradise for the reader.  Its five floors are an abundance of every kind of book from any genre you care to think of, categorised both systematically and creatively, and topped and tailed with comfy areas to kick-back with a drink and a bite to eat.

I headed straight for Fiction on the first floor.  Bypassing the helpful shopping baskets (I didn’t see them) I was soon loaded with armfuls of paperbacks.  I’m an avid audiobooker, but if I’ve enjoyed listening to a book, I need to own the paper too (I blogged about this a while back, here). Consequently, I keep a running list of books I need to buy, simply so I can go back through them and enjoy them… differently, and of course, possess them, in real leaf-through-the-pages format, as nature and the publishing world intended.

So I picked up three from my listened-and-enjoyed list:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach – an eclectic group of oldies retire to India
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – dark but comic, about a deliciously weird, damaged girl
  • Smut by Alan Bennett – two unseemly short stories in Bennett’s inimitable style (narrated for audio by the author himself)

But it didn’t end there.  With the able and enthusiastic assistance of the… um… assistants, I tracked down another five from my must-read list.

  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Red House by Mark Haddon
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Yes, I know I’m arriving at one or two of these a little late in the day, but there’s just so much reading one woman can do.  Especially when the thing she most wants to do with her spare time is… write.

I read all over the genre geography.  I enjoy the kind of books which fall into what’s variously called  lit-lite (yuk!), accessible literary, crossover or even, I saw the other day, ‘Richard & Judy’.  I particularly enjoy edgier psychological suspense – that’s what I’m writing, after all.  I’m not into romance, historical or sci-fi, but I meander around the fringes of crime/police procedural, thrillers, chick-lit and full-blown literary as the mood takes me.

I get leads from Goodreads and I buy loads from Amazon as it’s convenient – who can argue with that?  But an afternoon in a bookshop is an indulgence and I loved every minute of it, especially being so warmly and professionally served by people who really, properly know their books.

Grammar purists like me bemoan the demise of that apparently outdated possessive apostrophe, flushed away from Waterstones’ (ha!) branding as of last year, for reasons of… practicality.   But given the pleasure quotient of a meander around their floors, it seems churlish to dwell.

I had lunch with a friend, took my time over a coffee and dreamed.  I’ll be back again, to shop.  But just maybe, one day, I’ll be back there to do a reading and a bit of meet-the-author.  How’s that for a star to shoot for?

One Lovely Blog Award!

one-lovely-blogIt’s been wonderful, seeing ‘follows’ on my blog increase so much since I was Freshly Pressed.  Another delightful outcome has been that one of my new follows, Robb Walker/Robert Miller and his blog Shadows and Java has nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award. Thanks Robb, I really appreciate the shout.  Robb’s blog is worth a visit, particularly if you’re into horror, fantasy, science fiction and geekery.  He’s hinting he might participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo too. Go Robb!

The One Lovely Blog Award requires I offer you 7 facts about myself and nominate another 5 recipients.  Robb also offered 5 writing quotes, and since this is a blog about writing, I thought I might try something like that too.

So without further ado:

Seven facts about Julie:

  1. I started writing fiction just over 3 years ago, having put it off long enough.  But I’ve been marketing/copywriting for business for years – mainly for technology companies.  It’s a far cry from psychological storytelling.
  2. My first short story, Singled Out won Writing Magazine’s monthly prize in June 2010 and was printed in the magazine.  Strangely, but only because it’s absolutely the best name for my first novel, I’m recycling that title – but this time for a very different piece of writing.
  3. I don’t eat chocolate.  I love it – I just don’t eat it.
  4. I don’t drink tea.  Yes, that’s right.  I’m a Brit who hates tea.
  5. I’m a paper-crafter. I love playing around with inks, rubber stamps and other crafty stuff, and seeing how much the people I care about enjoy receiving a hand-made card.
  6. I’m left-handed.  Apparently, that means I’m better at divergent thinking – whatever that is.  I’m good at brainstorming, but mind-maps are a mystery to me. Go figure.
  7. Be still my heart. There are only four degrees of separation between me and George Clooney.

Five writing quotes:

  • ‘Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve’ – JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
  • ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’ – Anton Chekhov
  • ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings’ – Stephen King
  • ‘He didn’t want to please his readers. He wanted to stretch them until they twanged’ – Martin Amis
  • ‘It would have been nice to have had unicorns’ – Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

My five ‘pay it forward’ One Lovely Blog nominations:

Practice. Practice. Practice.

IMG_0385I was given a copy of ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves at Christmas. Not out of the blue – it was on my Amazon wish list – but it was the perfect moment to receive this treasure.  For those who don’t know, ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ is a guide and encouragement to write, to develop your creativity and practice your craft.  At its heart is an urging to ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’  The book is designed to help the novice writer develop a regular writing habit, and it includes topics for a simple 15-minute daily writing exercise.

I write copy almost every day for clients, but my creative writing – still essentially a hobby – gets squeezed into the odd hour here and there and weekend afternoons.  I’ve never tried daily writing practice but I thought, it’s probably a good idea, it can’t hurt and it would certainly be a helpful discipline to establish, given that I cherish the ambition to become a celebrated and successful novelist (dream it, believe it, achieve it… right?).

But this exercise is about creativity, and I was faced with a dull brown notebook.  Judy Reeves says keep the notebooks cheap, because you’ll get through a lot of them.  It’s a good point, but I’m a paper crafter and to me, a plain brown cover is a surface which cries out to be crafted, elevated beyond its humble origins.  So it was that after Christmas I took to my paper and card, rubber stamps, embellishments and sticky stuff, and pimped-up that plain old notebook in time for the New Year – you can see the result above.

Then, on 1st January 2013, I began, following Judy Reeves simple guidelines (write freehand for 15 minutes without pause or review) with the first random topic: Things that enter by way of silence.  And almost one month in – 26 topics, 56 pages of illegible scrawl laid down – I’m revelling in the experience.  Almost every day, it has surprised me.  Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I have surprised me.  Many times I think I’m writing drivel, but when I read it back, I find it has unexpected qualities, depth, surprising insights, interesting conjunctions of words and phrases, scenarios, senses and observations that seem to have come from nowhere and landed on the page. Not always of course – sometimes I’ve written genuine drivel – but remarkable things have emerged on to the page often enough to spur me on to keep practicing.

I’ve discovered other things too, like after a lifetime’s use of keyboard over pen, my left hand can’t tolerate the speed at which my mind races when the thoughts begin to flow – it floods with cramp-like pain after less than half a page.  Judy says you’ll be surprised how tight you’ll grip the pen, and she’s right. I’m learning to let go a little, and my hand lasts longer after 26 days, than it did on 1st January.

So I plan to stay with this surprising experience, at least for now. It’s nurturing my creative confidence and it’s throwing up a diverse assortment of treasures – ideas, images, imaginings and truths – and any one of these could be the germ of a great idea….

“As you know…”

I’m around 25% of the way through possibly the most poorly written novel I’ve ever read.  I was off on a short break and was seeking Kindle-based reading matter; this particular story cost me less than £2 to download.  I know, I know, that should have been a clue.   But it had a ton of 5-star reviews, so even though it hadn’t been recommended by anybody I know (that’s my usual lead-in to a new author) I figured it was worth a look.

It started well, but as I read, my astonishment grew.  How come there were so many solid 5-star reviews praising the quality of the writing, plotting and so on, when to me it felt clunky and characterless?  Worst still, it was swamped with the sort of sudden-death contrivances which cause editors to throw manuscripts across the room in despair – the as-you-knows and all that.

In theory, anybody can publish a novel on Kindle.  So, in a world where the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected by traditional publishers, should we novice authors be excited by the possibility that we can get our books out there without the support of agents, editors and publishing houses?  Or should we dread the tsunami of self-indulgent, shoddily written, unedited narratives that will be the inevitable result of such freedom?  Might they not overwhelm the traditional printed book and dumb-down the reading experience?