The Genius of Voice

Have you ever read a book where not very much happens, there isn’t any particular narrative drive or mystery or puzzle to be solved, but regardless you still find yourself desperate to know what’s going to happen next?  This often results in trying to explain the wonders of the book to a fellow reader, but whatever you say sounds a bit dull because not very much happens and there’s no mystery or puzzle to be solved so you have to say, you’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.

imagesThis is where I find myself with The Genius of Little Things, by Larry Buhl.  The good thing about the lack of plot means I can summarise in a sentence.  Geeky orphaned teenage boy with obsessive behaviour does whatever it takes to get into the college of his choice, while trying to emancipate himself from his foster parents.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  Of course things happen, he gets a job in a care home, has to take a cocktail of prescription drugs to stay awake or go to sleep, and has a faltering romance with the lovely Rachel.  But none of this is what kept me reading.

The key to this novel is the voice of the main character, Tyler.  He is one of those rare narrators that has a slightly different view of the world, and manages to convey an array of neuroses with an entertaining turn of phrase and a naivety that sometimes had me shouting at him as though he was right there beside me (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory but more endearing).

Here’s an extract, a scene with Tyler and his foster mother (or FoMo to use Tyler terminology):

“How was the first day of school?”  I noticed Janet and Carl often asked the same questions separately.  I wished they would be in the same room at the same time so I could avoid redundancy.  I stopped next to an enormous Indonesian cabinet and told her nothing terrible had happened.
She laughed.  “No bombs went off?”
I assured her no bombs had exploded.  I didn’t know what was funny about bombs.  I wondered whether there had been bomb threats at Firebird High in the past.  I made a mental note to research that.
She started talking about her day.  After a minute, it still wasn’t clear what her job was.  I narrowed it down to something sales-related.  My small talk session with Carl hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, so I tried to be more proactive in chitchatting with Janet.  “The bees are still dying,” I said.
I explained colony collapse syndrome, in which honeybees were leaving their hives and dying by the billions.  The latest research showed that the die-off could be caused by anything from an undiscovered fungus to cell phone signals that mess up their internal radar.  I segued into an explanation of why bees were so important.  For the record, they pollinate a huge variety of crops.  Take away the bees and you take away up to one third of the human diet, from almonds to zucchini.
“Guess we’ll have to live on granola bars pretty soon,” she laughed.
I was silent.  I could have pointed out that some granola bars have almonds, but chose not to.

It is this voice as well as Tyler’s thoughts on life and the people around him that for me is what drives the story forward.  There is something reassuring as well as exhilarating for a reader when you believe in someone so much that it doesn’t matter what they do or where they go, you will follow them anywhere.

images-2images-1Other compelling first person narrators that stand out to me are Rose and Ruby Darlen in The Girls, by Lori Lansens, and Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith.  What is common in all of these books is the off-kilter way the main characters view the world around them and the way they express themselves.  They think differently to me, and this helps me to view the world and my place within it in a different way too.  The ability to change a reader’s perceptions is a powerful one, and goes a long way to explain why stories and novels will exist for as long as we do.

So for anyone interested in character-driven stories with a quirky and original voice, give The Genius of Little Things a try.  You’ll just have to trust me, it’s good.

How to Live a Writer’s Life

Now, I realise the title of this post is a bold statement because let’s face it, finding the best way to live a writer’s life is the Holy Grail of all writerly quests.  It’s one of the reasons I started writing this blog in fact, after having no end of sleepless nights trying to juggle teaching and still be a productive practitioner.  My feeling was, and still can be to a certain extent, that I’m not giving full commitment to either, and therefore I’m failing at both.

Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs.  A true multi-tasker.
Anthony Burgess composing and smoking after stacking the chairs. A true multi-tasker.

But in order to look at this issue with some kind of perspective, it helps to step back for a moment and look at the lives of others.  At the MIX Conference a couple of weeks ago, Sophie Rochester talked about the writing life of Dostoyevsky, scraping a living doing a variety of jobs to support his writing, and often having to self-publish to get his work into the public domain.  Throughout history the story is the same.  Anthony Burgess, as well as being a genius with words was also a teacher and a composer of music.  TS Eliot worked in a bank, Arthur Conan Doyle was a doctor, Dickens was a journalist, and most intriguingly JD Salinger organised entertainment for a cruise liner (now that’s an evening out I’d like to experience).

This list is just a snapshot, and not just that but a snapshot of a narrow and privileged band of writers that made it into the big time.  And they still struggled to make a living by their writing.  So if these writers have to juggle, compromise and scrape by, what about all those other writers, mid-list, low-list, self-published and just plain hopeful?

The main thing I take from this knowledge is that even though I’m constantly juggling, sometimes well and sometime really not, it doesn’t mean I’m failing.  There are times when I feel despair that I don’t have enough time to write, that my work isn’t good enough, that I’m not helping my students in the right way, and this doesn’t even broach the tricky business of being a mother too.  But a writer’s life isn’t just about sitting in a room and tapping away on a laptop.  It is about being human too and this means living a full life, feeling the determination when faced with adversity and doubt, using the elation of every small success to push you forwards, being a part of other people’s lives, and knowing that ultimately, this is what will make you a better writer in the future.

Oscar Wilde famously said ‘Those who can do.  Those who can’t teach‘, but Joanna’s presentation and my own experience confirm what I’ve suspected for a while now, that for writers around the globe, those who can do, and those who still can’t make a living from it teach, as well as finding a whole host of other ways to just keep bloody writing.

Listen… Can You Hear The Stories?


As anyone who read last week’s post will know I have recently come back from three days at the MIX Conference, run by The Literary Platform and Bath Spa University and showcasing projects that combine writing and digital technology. I’m still in recovery and need some kind of post-conference rehab program to integrate me back into society, but while I’m battling through the re-adjustment process I’ll tell you about the final day.

This was the Making Day, an opportunity to do a hands-on workshop with experts in their field.  I joined The Object of the Story, run by Barney and Lucy Heywood of the Stand + Stare Collective who are based in Bristol.  The purpose of the workshop was to create and record a story using objects as inspiration.  This recording would then be attached to the objects using RFID technology (Radio Frequency Identification Device), as though the things themselves were telling their own history.  My love of radio drama came into play here, although I had to work through the fear of recording my own voice, an uncomfortable exercise for most people I think.

My partner in this workshop was Michelle Newell (visit her fascinating blog where she writes about Mass Observation) and we bonded over writing for teenagers, turning up too early for festivals and buying second hand goods on market stalls.  We started by prayer_candlechoosing from a collection of objects.  Michelle decided on an antique compass, and I chose a candle in a glass jar with a prayer printed on the back.  I’m not a religious person, but something about the words appealed to me and the idea that someone in need would be grateful for a ready-made prayer.  I also like the duality of candles.  They are functional objects but also have the ability to transform feeling, within a person and a room.

We had just over an hour to write and record the story, and being YA writers we both liked the idea of a dystopian scenario, using dramatisation to show the characters’ situation.  The compass and candle fitted with the idea of two strangers flung together by circumstance, hoping to find the right path despite their differing personalities.  We took a character each and quickly developed a script, thinking about how we could show the story with only dialogue and sound effects.

Recording is a strange process.  Your senses suddenly focus on the slightest sound, the noise your body makes as you move, the sound of placing the candle on the table, the acoustics in the room, the disintegration of the whole process when you fall into a fit of the giggles.  But finally, and in a remarkably short period of time, we had a couple of minutes Unknownof audio drama, and when each object was placed on a wooden plinth, that section of the story was played.  We only had time for a couple of takes and there was very little editing, but if you can tolerate my dodgy acting and sticky shoes (it was a very hot day) you can listen here for the candle, and here for the compass.

There were many fascinating stories created in this workshop with some genuinely compelling voices, and it reminded me how multi-faceted objects can be as a starting point.  Whether it’s a personal memento you carry with you every day or an impulse buy from a market stall, there is something about a concrete thing with scuffs and scratches, marks and dents, that can trigger unconscious connections in the brain.  It may trigger a memory, it may remind you of someone important in your life, it may be a relatively random association, but whatever connections you make the most mundane things can become full of possibilities.

So stop for a moment.  Look at the objects that surround you.  Some will already have your stories attached to them and some will have the stories of other people layered beneath your own.  Either way they are all there, waiting to be heard.

The Nature of Art and Words

What do you do when you’ve been working hard on a project and it feels like you’ve run out of words?  Do you persevere, force the words out from their dark hiding places however unformed and jumbled they seem to be, or is there another solution that doesn’t involve stick-your-fingers-in-your-eyesockets agony?

Last weekend I decided the answer was to get the hell out of the house and see what was happening in the Frome Festival, always an eclectic mix of things to do and see including art, music, performance and literature over the ten day period.  One of my favourite events is the Open Studios, where artists show their work in various galleries and shops, with exhibitions varying from painting and sculpture to textiles and ceramics, so I picked up a trail map from the library and off I went, happy not to think about work or words for an hour or two.

Yellow Hammers, provided by Julia Manning

One of the spaces I visited was tucked away on Catherine Hill, and I was immediately drawn to the images of wildlife hanging in the circular gallery.  It was the work of Julia Manning, who is clearly passionate about the natural world and birds in particular, using wood and lino cuts and other printing techniques to create striking images full of movement, colour and light.

What also interested me were some of the labels that gave the title of the piece and often a short description.  It seems that many artists see these details as a straightforward and practical necessity, but Julia’s had more depth than that, using lyrical and visual language to give an insight into the moment the image was captured.  Now, I realise the point of my excursion was to get away from words, but the heart wants what the heart wants, and there was one line in particular that made me stop.

Isn’t it amazing how this happens?  You are doing something exterior to yourself, adjacent to your own life, but then you hear something or see something that you suddenly connect with internally and even if you don’t know what it means at the time, you know it means something.

Marloes Mere, provided by Julia Manning

This is very often the way I get ideas, and in this case I saw Julia’s description as a beautiful opening to a short story.  Luckily Julia was around to talk to and I very cheekily asked if I could have the line, which she graciously agreed to.  With some embarrassment I realised I’d come out with no writing materials so I had to borrow a pen from her and scribble the line on the back of her flyer.  We talked for a while about her work and the places she finds inspiration, and I realised I had one of her cards I’d bought long ago for someone’s birthday, but had never actually parted with because I loved it so much (a picture of her own dog, Pearl).

I didn’t go to the festival that day looking for inspiration, I just wanted a break.  If anything I was rather closed up with regard to creativity, but it reminded me to be open to the world around me.  It’s so easy to become focused on one piece of work (essential if it’s going to be a good piece of work), sitting at home and expending energy and imagination in one direction.  But we have to remember to fill up again, to go out in the world and be nourished by what it has to offer, listen and watch and live, so that creativity is never stagnant, is always an ongoing and constructive process, and then the words will come into the light to play on the page and remind us why we love being writers.

I recommend a visit to one of Julia’s exhibitions (in Frome until the 14th July), or at the very least see an excellent selection of her work on her website.  Either way, remember to take a notebook and pen with you.

The Art of Book Covers

While researching cover design for my YA novel The Big Deep, I stumbled across a brief imagesbut fascinating film about the cover of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer: BBC Entertainment and Arts.  It gives an insight into the vision behind the design and the various interpretations the art department at Harper Collins came up with.  This was very much a collaborative process, with the Art Director, the illustrator (Charlotte Farmer) and Filer himself talking about its development and how ‘connecting to the feel of the book’ was one of the most important aspects (although it’s unclear how much input Filer had on the final decision).

A good cover does a lot of work on the writer’s behalf, giving a flavour of the story, almost a promise of what is to come, and I’m all too aware that I don’t have an art director to help steer this delicate balancing act.  I do have Mrs Editor Lady though, and we spent an afternoon looking at YA novels in Waterstones getting ideas of what we liked and didn’t like (original illustrations, striking colours good, generic photographs of teenagers from a distance, gold/silver lettering not so much).

Of course, what we were forgetting was that I’m publishing an ebook, not a paper book, so while many of the considerations are the same, this is not a ‘cover’ in the conventional sense.  What I’m really doing is creating an image for Amazon, where prospective readers will see a thumbnail that will hopefully be intriguing enough for them to read the blurb, then maybe buy the book itself.  So actually, one of the most important considerations is how it will look as a small image.  Will it pack enough punch, give enough suggestion, tick enough metaphorical boxes for the reader to want to know more?  Another consideration is use of colour.  While images on the Amazon website are in full colour, once it’s uploaded to the Kindle it becomes black and white, so it needs to work in this respect too.

I’ve been working with The Illustrator for quite a while now, and we started by discussing ideas.  Visually I wanted something unusual and striking, original and non-generic.  I want it to have a sense of threat too (as the story is a psychological thriller), as well as showing something of the motivations of the characters.  I realise this is a tall order but eventually we had a first draft, which was pretty close.  It did need further development though (luckily The Illustrator is as much of a perfectionist as I am), so there have been many conversations with me saying I think we should include this, and then I think you should take that out, (sometimes it’s the same thing) and she’s been extremely patient with me while I’ve been indecisive, dictatorial and open to her suggestions within the space of a single conversation.

I think we now have a working final draft.  This is the nervy doubt-ridden time while I wait for the finished version, hoping that it will say what I want it to say, worrying how it will look when it’s the size of my thumb nail.  I’ve found one of the best ways to check this is to photograph the illustration, upload it to my laptop and size it right down to check if the image is still clear and the title and name still readable.  The decision making at this point has been if you can’t see something clearly, does it earn its place?

As with The Shock of the Fall, this has been a collaborative process.  I’m sure my experience has been more full of worry and insecurity and rubbing out, but I have been my own Art Director and this level of input and creative decision-making is the thrill of becoming an indie writer.  I have full control over my own work and how it is presented.  I can connect my own vision to the feel of the book, and I will own what I do wrong as well as what I do right.  And that is truly empowering.

Here is a random selection of book covers I love, ranging from classic to contemporary, with varying degrees of success as a thumbnail.  I always love hearing from you, so let me know what book covers stand out for you, and why…

images-5images-3images-4the road finalimages-1images-2IainBanksComplicityEarlyimages-3

My Top 5 Writer’s Websites

One of the jobs on the list for this summer is to create a website.  I’m pretty illiterate when it comes to technology (although I keep doing technology-related things so maybe I won’t be able to say this for much longer), and I’ve discovered that with WordPress I can build my site around this blog.  As I’ve found setting up and maintaining this relatively straightforward, the do-ability factor has significantly increased.

In my search for ideas on visuals and content I’ve been reasearching other writer’s websites (with a specific focus on writers for teenagers), so I thought I’d bring you a selection of the ones that stood out for me.  They are numbered but they aren’t in any particular order, it’s just because I like to number stuff:

images-11.  Julia Green (Blue Moon, This Northern Sky) — Now, I’ve said I’m not giving preferences here, but just between you and me this is my favourite for illustrations and the concept of how you move around the site.  In the middle of the home page is a spiral-bound journal, with tabs that go from page to page.  This is surrounded by sketches of boats and seascapes that link to the settings of many of Julia’s books (click on her name above to see for yourself).  Excellent blurbs on her novels, with interesting background on the writer herself as well as writing tips.  Charming and informative.

images2.  Neil Gaiman (Coraline, Anansi Boys, The Graveyard Book, Stardust and too many others to list as well as comics, films, TV… I’m exhausted just thinking about it) — A site that’s not so interesting visually but for sheer quantity and quality of content it is impressive.  There’s a personal journal/blog, free short stories, videos and essays alongside the usual details about his work.  He’s active on social media too so all the links are here, including access to Mr Bobo’s Remarkable Mouse Circus, his website dedicated to younger readers.  Very cool guy who clearly loves engaging with his readers.

images-23. Michael Grant (Gone, Hunger, Lies, and other one-word titles) — Straightforward layout/ graphics, etc, but what I like is the way he addresses his readers directly.  You get a real flavour of who he is as a person and a writer, and he gives great advice on starting a career in writing.  In the Links section there are some videos where he talks about his work, and he has some interesting things to say about the conflicting way teenagers are treated in today’s society.  No-nonsense approach from a no-nonsense writer.

images-34. John Boyne – (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) — Boyne writes for adults and children so it was interesting to see how he combines the two on his website.  He’s gone for an elegant and clear layout, very open that he writes for both markets on the Home page (there’s a lot of debate about crossing markets and how to engage all readers effectively), although it could be argued that the layout and tone are too austere for teenagers to spend much time here.  There is also a wide selection of short stories, some for free but the most recent asking for donations.  Overall a good compromise to showcase his work, but maybe more for his adult readership.

images-55.  Sally Gardner (Maggot Moon, I Coriander) — A great front page that shows the inside of a house, with an illustrated version of Sally herself sitting at a desk writing on her laptop (I like to think it’s a silver  MacBook Air).  On a page titled Sally’s Story, she talks about her struggles with dyslexia and how this affected her school and work life.  There are also links to Youtube so you can see her talking about her books, as well as showing an animated page video of how it might feel to be dyslexic.  Fascinating stuff.

So what have I learned from this trawl through the websites?  Well, firstly it’s important to let your voice come through, give a bit of yourself, because if you take the time to engage with your readers they will want to engage with you.  And secondly provide good content too, with information about yourself, your books, and maybe give an opportunity to read some of your work.

The websites above also give me something to aspire to.  Great graphics and a strong site concept (Gardner and Green) come from professional website builders and obviously come at a price.  I’m not in a position to do that at the moment, but hey, who said you should get everything you want straight away?  So while I’m slowly working my way through the list of things to do, I’m also creating a new one for the future, and as regular readers know, a good list always makes me happy.

I’ve barely touched the surface of all the amazing websites out there, so let me know your favourites for adults or teenagers…

How to Survive The Lifelong Learning Curve

It is a well known fact that writing is a long and slow process.  Writers have to be determined and resilient, as well as innovative and flexible, which is quite a high wire act to pull off over a long period of time.  You would hope that after writing five novels, three radio plays and too many short stories to count, I would have some idea of how to do this, but the high wire still feels a little too high for my liking.

This feeling of being on a constant learning curve has intensified since I changed my approach to the whole issue of publishing.  I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’ve decided to publish my YA novel, The Big Deep, as an ebook in a couple of months, and now the teaching year is over this project is in full swing.  My to-do list is longer than ever and the scary part is that every single thing on the list is something I’ve never done before.  Whether it’s designing a book cover, writing the blurb or building a platform (yes, I have a whole new vocabulary too), I am out of my comfort zone and consequently feeling rather vulnerable.

2610290104002(What I like about this diagram is the suggestion that if I don’t improve I’ll have to die, which is always a good incentive, possibly even better than cake)



So thank goodness for Mrs Editor Lady.  She is also a friend and my go-to person when my insecurities get the better of me.  She isn’t a comfort blanket though.  I trust her judgement because she isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

A perfect example of this was the lunch meeting we had recently, where she said Sal, you need to do one more read through just to check for mistakes.  Now, we did a final edit a few months ago and I was confident that the manuscript was as good as it could possibly be, so my immediate reaction was Nah, we’ve done that, it’s as good as it can possibly be.  But because she isn’t afraid to tell it like it is and I trust her judgement, I did it anyway.

And guess what?  This final polish which started out as checking for spelling mistakes, glaring grammar howlers and continuity oversights, turned into a full blown edit because about half way through I realised my writing was really irritating me.  This is not a good thing.  If it’s irritating me, it sure as hell will irritate my readers, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t the reaction I’m looking for.

I’ve always known I have writing ticks, those words and phrases that I use repeatedly without even noticing them.  It’s a symptom of lazy writing, going for the most obvious, but what I realised in my read through was that many of these words and phrases were also caused by lack of confidence.  I wasn’t sure the reader would see the scene as I saw it, so I’d better spell it out.  Laziness and insecurity are a dangerous combination.  So I did what I often tell my students to do (and forget to do myself).  I did a cutting edit.  Went through the whole thing (60,000 words), just looking for things I could cut, and what I thought would take a day or two actually took eight days straight with one afternoon off for good behaviour.

And my reward?  The manuscript is now 55,000 words long, the narrative is leaner and cleaner, and the ticks have been well and truly ticked off.  Oh, and I hope I trust my reader to see what they want to see.

This writing business can be isolating, sitting alone and making up stories, but the writer’s life is changing with social media and technology having an ever bigger impact not just on the way we write but also the way we publish and market the finished product.  So having other people we trust involved in this process is crucial.  It gives us an honest perspective, it pushes us to improve, and it makes that long list of challenges slightly more achievable.

So this is a thank you to Mrs Editor Lady.  You’re the best, and in the lifelong learning curve of writing, you help me to be better too.

The New Children’s Laureate

Malorie Blackman has been appointed as the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate, a two year post that images-2will see her banging the drum for children’s literature, with a special focus on encouraging reading throughout the age groups.

One of Blackman’s best known works is the Noughts and Crosses trilogy, set in a dystopian world where the hierarchy of races has been swapped.  The Crosses are black skinned and the dominant force in society, running government, business and other positions of responsibility.  The white skinned Noughts are second class citizens, forced to take servile roles with few rights and little control over their own lives.

This world is utterly convincing and Blackman writes about her two main characters, Callum and Sephy, in a way that makes the reader fear for their safety from the very start.  But what really works for me are the little details that bring this world into stark focus.    images-3For example, if a white character cuts himself, the plaster he has to use will be black because that is the colour of the majority.  This situation in reverse happened to Blackman herself, and I can only imagine how this type of seemingly commonplace occurrance would feel, undermining a person’s place in society on a daily basis.

This is what literature has the power to do, with the strongest messages not necessarily coming from someone on a soapbox shouting slogans.  Instead, Blackman takes the time to show an alternative viewpoint.  The truthful reality she portrays is what has the power to change minds, which is why she is such an exciting appointment for children’s laureate.

In her interview with the Sunday Times last week, she talked about what she hopes to achieve.  Her main mission is to ensure every primary school child has a library card and is read to for ten minutes every day.  You would think this is an achievable target, but with libraries closing on a regular basis and the school curriculum ever more test focused (even at primary school level) it could be harder than you think.  She also wants to use a variety of media to encourage children’s interaction with stories, including film, music, and art, as well as supporting the use of ereaders.

images-4Now, being the relative Luddite that I am, I am constantly playing catch-up with the various platforms available nowadays.  I have to remind myself that children have grown up with this technology, so they don’t have the same learning barriers as me and feel comfortable reading from a screen.  I’m sure there will be the usual cries of indignation if children are not reading conventional books, but hopefully the more they have available to them, the more they will be prepared to experiment with what they are reading, whether that’s comics or graphic novels, short stories or poetry.  I don’t care if they read on paper or on a screen.  I just care that they’re reading.

A statistic that Blackman quotes in the interview is that ‘17% of young people would be embarrassed to be seen reading by a friend’.  But that means 83% of young people wouldn’t, which is a far more encouraging number, and I have high hopes that Blackman’s passion for literature and interest in new technologies will make this percentage even higher.

Under the Influence – Part Two

Following on from last week’s post I’ve been thinking about the books and writers that have affected my work, and my approach to writing.

images-1The very first influence has to be Conan Doyle’s The Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes.  I was lucky enough to study it for O’level and loved the brilliant mind of Holmes and the macabre plots that were played out in the smoggy streets of London.  For homework we had to write our own crime story and mine seemed to grow and grow as the plot became ever more complicated, and while I don’t remember anything about the crime or my sleuth, I do remember the pivotal piece of evidence that solved the case.  For some reason the criminal had written a sinister message on a bedroom wall, and the indents left by the heel of her shoe were so well preserved the crest of the shoemaker could even be seen.  There were only a couple of pairs of this particular shoe made and of course the shoemaker kept excellent records.  Case closed.

This was all very Holmsean and the teacher said so with a palpable tone of disappointment.  I realise now that imitating the stories you admire is often how writers begin, and my experience was very possibly a comment on how creativity was treated in schools.  The fact that imitation is part of the creative process wasn’t recognised (or possibly understood) by the teacher, and I get the impression nothing has changed, thirty years later.

Anyway, from that unpromising beginning, my reading seemed to develop in phases.  I had my sex-and-shopping bonkbuster phase (anyone under the age of thirty-five won’t know what I’m talking about)  which involved copious amounts of Jackie Collins and the quite brilliant Lace, by Shirley Conran.  Then came the epic war phase of Lord of the Rings and Catch-22.  I was introduced to Tolkien by my work mates.  I was a laboratory technician at the time, and during our lunch break we would sit around a table in our white lab coats and read.  As you can probably gather I’ve been a geek for a very long time.  Then I went on to read The World According To Garp and became a John Irving addict, going through all of his novels and waited desperately for him to write the next one.  Then there was the time I wouldn’t read anything unless it was Thomas Hardy or Oscar Wilde.    Yes, that’s right, from Jackie Collins to Wilde in a few short years.


Looking back I can see I was searching for something in this very eclectic mix.  Not necessarily what kind of writer I wanted to be, because I don’t think I had a firm idea of what that meant back in my twenties, but more about the kind of stories I was interested in.  The novels that I mourn when I think back to the great book-giving-away of 2005 reflect the dark stories that I’m still drawn to now.  Can anyone read Jude The Obscure without feeling a deep howl of needless loss?  And what about the destruction of Dorian Gray, a reflection of how we could all potentially let our desires grow beyond our control.  I find the light and darkness of human behaviour compelling, as well as all the shades in between, and this twist in the human heart comes out in the stories I write too.

If I think about the writers that have affected my writing more directly, it has to be when I was doing the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.  The most challenging module of that year was The Poet’s Eye, taught by the wonderful Tim Liardet.  This is a module aimed at prose writers who want to bring the poet’s acute observation to their work, so alongside poetry we looked at Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, and the Selected Short Stories of Virginia Woolf.  I am still amazed by Nabokov and infuriated by Woolf in equal measure, and they both taught me how to use concrete and specific detail to build visual scenes. The image of Miranda sleeping beneath the apple trees and the box of tissues in the back of a car on Humbert Humbert’s journey with Lolita both stay with me.

More recent influences have been Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Now, this is actually a images-2writing advice book, and sometimes you can read these and not feel you’ve learned anything new by the end.  But this book is something else.  Her writing is personal and insightful, and she has a way of finding the exact simile that perfectly illustrates what she is describing.  She made me realise I had to relax my writing and let it breathe.  She also helped me to see I should stop trying to be a perfectionist, because perfectionism is ‘based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die… people who aren’t even looking at their feet are doing a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.  Stop looking at your feet.’  This is what I tell myself when things aren’t going exactly as I want them to.

Stop looking at your feet.

And then finally I have to mention the most recent influence on my writing.  I was struggling with the voice of the main character in my YA novel The Big Deep.  Throughout the story she is experiencing paranoia and has a rather confused state of mind, but this just wasn’t coming across on the page.  She was too ordered, too controlled.  So I went back to look at House of Leaves (again), by Mark Z. Danielewski.  This book has multiple storylines that are told in different voices and forms, as well as an unconventional layout that reflects what is going on in the house.  I experimented with the idea that the words on the page could in some way mirror her confusion, changing the visual appearance to show something the usual block prose can’t.  Compared to other mediums, the novel is the closest form we have to depicting the workings of the mind, and while I’m well aware it can never convey its true complexity, I’m hoping this method works as a fictional representation at least.

I am currently reading The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer, about a man living with schizophrenia.  It has a strong first person voice and the story is told in a variety ways (no surprise that it appeals to me then), and I have a feeling it’s one of those books that’s so good I’ll want to jack it all in and pull on a white lab coat again.  I kid myself pretty much once a year that I’m going to give up writing and get a real job, but then I think back to Sherlock Holmes and wonder if Dr Watson would have given up writing about the cases they solved together, because let’s face it, Holmes didn’t make it easy for him.  But Watson enjoyed the writing.  He had something to say and he wrote about the things he cared about, and if he ever suffered from self-doubt he’d just sit patiently and listen to Holmes playing the violin while they waited for the next case, all the while hoping for well organised and efficient shoemakers.

I bet his teachers were never disappointed in him, and if they were, I bet he didn’t care, he just kept on writing regardless.