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One of the more controversial events I went to at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival was a debate about YA fiction. For example, what is ‘Young Adult,’ as it potentially seems to go from before early teen to early twenties. Among the highlights were the assertions that ’90% of all books are c**p,’ ‘Nobody over 20 should ever be reading YA novels,’ and ‘Nobody should read John Greene books.’ Light-hearted, then.
My starting point for all this is that much of it is subjective. What you like I might not, and vice versa. And there are enough books that I’ve hated when I was younger, then rediscovered later and really enjoyed.
You might have noticed that James Patterson (and whoever he is collaborating with this time) is pulling a book based on Stephen King being killed, or at least someone trying to do that. James Patterson has sold more books that anyone else on the planet and Stephen King is quite something as a writer. But King said a few years ago that Patterson is ‘a terrible writer but he’s very successful.’ He also said that YA writer Stephenie Meyer – you’ll know her from the Twilight series – ‘can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.’
And of course Stephen King has written a book about writing. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, but you had probably better pay attention and not dismiss that much experience and talent. And he clearly has strong views on what is good and what is not.
Something that has plagued me from my school English days is the notion that some books are more worthy than others. The book I have the most vivid memories of from those classes? Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The worst thing I had ever had to read. Out loud in the class in most lessons, I remember that as well. But it was considered to have more literary merit than the countless other books I chose to read, none of which ever came up in English.
There is a spectrum of styles of books, from the impenetrable novels with forgettable characters who do very little, but are described in exquisite detail, using beautiful language. And there is James Patterson towards the other end of the spectrum, with a style which you really cannot stop reading. I know this having read three of his in two days, one just to see how he dealt with a particular structural issue I was grappling with. There is a reason he sells more books than anyone else, but you wouldn’t think of his books as pushing the boundaries of what the novel can ‘do’ (I heard that more than a few times at the Book Festival, apparently it’s what we should be doing.)
I’ll be honest. The books the literary critics love tend to be the ones I often struggle with, and am never quite sure they were worth the effort in the end. Sometimes I’m told they are books you have to read twice. I think, if I didn’t like it the first time round, why would I do it all again when I could read something else instead? Fine, so I’m probably a literary Philistine. I can live with that. There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve always been much more drawn to the interesting characters and the compelling stories than to the use of words. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the latter, it’s just that it can be too much, and get in the way of the story (= cardinal sin for me as a reader). For me, in the end, novels are storytelling, and that’s where you can’t teach the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world very much, even though their books are completely different in style and theme.
I am still making sure that I do read a wide range of books. You can’t subsist on James Patterson alone if you want to learn more about writing, but equally, Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky (who, according to the ‘nobody over 20 should be reading YA’ contributor we should be reading instead) are probably never going to make it onto my reading list.
So, on the YA point, why do I think it’s perfectly fine for me to read YA novels, and that I should not be restricting myself to the literary end of the market?
The obvious answer is that I will read them as part of a wide range of books. Yes, they can be pretty derivative. Dystopian world, boy meets girl, repeat. I would be concerned for my mental wellbeing if all I read – or wanted to read – were those kinds of books but, if nothing else, they are good for a break, a change of style and pace, and a story that trots along happily.
I think novels serve a wide range of ‘purposes.’ One of them – a good one, in my view – is to entertain. A life of constant challenge, forcing myself to get through books because they are supposed to be ‘good’ for me leads to reading less, and that can never be a good thing. I don’t read Twilight (yes, I was reading them well before they became famous) to see how language can be used differently, I read them for the fun story that I can zip through. And then I’ll pick up something set in Victorian England and experience what life might have been like for a young woman on her own. Different experiences for sure. I like the variety.
I have daughters who read these YA books. It’s nice to be able to talk about the books with them, in the same way it’s nice to watch some films with them that I wouldn’t personally gravitate towards. I’ve introduced the girls to the concept of ‘proper’ films and books, as opposed to lightweight but fun ones, and we try to vary what we watch and read. Balance is usually a good thing. Having conversations with your children is also a good thing, and talking about books is a great thing to be able to do. Even if one of them is about 2/3 of the way through War and Peace and I’m with Woody Allen on that one (I’ve told her this) – ‘I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.’
There are many different ways of telling a story. I find that seeing as many as possible can only be a good thing as a writer because we can learn from every other author. Even if it’s only just what never, ever, to do (yup, there are some dreadful books out there, but remember that it’s subjective, others seem to have enjoyed the same book I found appalling – wonderful!).
There are writers somewhere in the middle, who have found a way of dealing with complex themes in a very engaging style. Jodi Picoult always springs to mind. Douglas Kennedy is another favourite of mine and I’m never quite sure why he’s not better known. And Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes beautifully (even in translation) and tells wonderful stories.
There is plenty of space out there for different styles and approaches. I like keeping my mind open to everything that’s out there. And I am very clear that, in my own writing, I gravitate towards what I like reading. But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn a lot from the writers who play with the language in a way that just amazes me. Imagine if we could take the best of all of them. Maybe someone has and I just haven’t found that book yet.
Plagiarism is a big deal. Not just if you are the wife of the possible next president of the US. In the last few years, a surprising number of German ministers have been accused of, and in some cases guilty of, plagiarism in their doctoral theses, which turned out not to be quite as much their theses as had been supposed. And students’ papers can be electronically checked for possible plagiarism. You can even check your own papers for possible missing attributions which could be taken for plagiarism. Copying someone else’s work or holding it out to be your own remains a big deal of the negative kind.
But of course we all learn from, and imitate, others all the time. We are even encouraged to do so. At work, we learn the processes that have been found to work. We then apply them and are paid for doing so. We don’t claim, of course, to have invented the process. Perhaps to have improved it, but we never expect to credited with its origination. And we might be encouraged to read books by business leaders where, for the price of the book, they offer to share their insights with us, what made them worthy of a book deal, and often they suggest that we would do well to follow their example.
When it comes to writing fiction, the one thing you hear all the time is how important it is to read – a lot and widely. Osmosis can work. Unlike in a “normal” job, you don’t – at least not in the same way – have other people around you to point you in the right direction, take you to one side when you do something silly, share their experience, and pay you at the end of the month whether you get it right or not.
Instead, we have hundreds (there are thousands, of course, but that’s daunting) of extremely talented writers out there, many of them still writing today. And through their books we can get an idea of how they approach their work.
Take structure. Anthony Horowitz spend longer working on the structure of Moriarty than on the writing of the book (although that sounds wrong somehow, as both are part of the overall process). Sarah Waters did something ridiculously clever in Fingersmith, so much so that I played with doing something similar. Then the realisation hit me that she is Sarah Waters and I am me and maybe I should try something a little more straightforward for now. As well as the structure of that book, her mastery of detail is always stunning. Gone Girl must also have been meticulously planned out for it to work. And Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller uses an approach which I am finding incredibly helpful at the moment – I have it on the floor beside me, ready to pick up when the thought comes to me “how did she do that bit?” Does it mean I’m copying her? I couldn’t if I wanted to. But learn from her approach? Absolutely.
And how about writing style? Every single time I read something by Stephen King, I think, “that’s how it’s done.” And the same goes for Jodi Picoult, Maggie O’Farrell (next week’s blog), Douglas Kennedy… the list goes on. Each has a style of writing that is very different from the others, and each works – for them and for the reader.
I find it helpful to ask myself sometimes, how would so and so approach this, how would they write this scene? It’s still my words and it’s never going to be how one of them would really write it, but I find just thinking about the question helps me to find an approach which is better than what I might otherwise have done. In this way, I can learn from the masters just as apprentices in other walks of life have learned from their masters over centuries – they just experience it a lot more directly. When I see what some writers can say in a paragraph (sometimes a line) that I need five pages for, I just remember that I can get out the red pen later. But I can see how it can be done (and probably should be done – brevity is not easy). And at least I can sometimes see when what I’ve done is not right (sometimes while I’m writing it!). Without the treasure of existing literature, it would be a nightmare.
So I have my Kindle loaded up with books for the next few weeks. Have Kindle, will travel and read at the same time. The great thing is that I get to read some fantastic books while learning my trade. That has to be worth something.
Despite the fact that I have literally piles of books upstairs which I want to read, I still found myself standing in the library and seeing a book that I thought I would just have a quick look at while the girls were looking for something to borrow. But this one was right at the front, and it was big. And it was by Jonathan Franzen and I had had in the back of my mind for a while that I should read his book “Freedom” because it created a stir for some reason, although I still couldn’t tell you what it was for. This one was new though, “Purity“, and the back cover told me enough – it had parts set in East Germany. So that was a “go straight to the top of the reading list”. I’ve come across a few books set there recently, none so far very satisfying although Douglas Kennedy’s “The Moment” is an exception, and he’s one of my writing heroes, not only because he’s the only writer who’s managed to get me to start yelling out loud at a character.
But back to “Purity”. I will start with a warning. If you believe that others should live by your personal moral code, and that writers should only create and work with characters who share the same values as you, you should not read this book. Just stop now. This is not for you.
If you want to know what this novel “means”, look elsewhere. For me, it’s about a bunch of characters and their stories. They connect, both the characters and their personal stories, and that’s the first thing that is done really well. At one point, however, I started to think the level of coincidence was just too great and had tipped into the incredulous. But then I realised that the seemingly disparate stories are all connected and that we are actually observing a story over generations through multiple perspectives, each adding something to the others, none of them having all the facts or context.
And it is in this way that a debt-laden American girl called Pip, her reclusive and bizarre mother, an accidental East German dissident hero, Andreas Wolf, who has turned himself into a cross between Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and lives in Bolivia, and a Colorado-based editor of a newspaper all tell their stories. And we start to see that what they are experiencing is far from a succession of random events, but a combination of the consequences of choices they have made in the past and of what is driving them now. None of which is simple, just as none of us in real life are simple creatures.
Each of the character’s individual stories could just about stand alone. They could certainly make wonderful character sketches. We know what they want – Pip wants to know who her father was and her mother refuses to tell her or give her any information which could help Pip. What Andreas wants changes – girls, fame, to be a hero? I don’t think he knows himself.
I think it is the intersection of the stories and the overarching narrative which makes the book’s length both justified and necessary for me. Franzen brings out the complexity, absurdness and often hilarity of human beings. We start to think about who the characters really are, who they think they are, and who they portray themselves as to others, none of which is simple and certainly not consistent. And that means that the characters grow closer to each other at times, then more distant, and we are as perplexed by this as the character whose voice we are hearing at the time. Only later when we have another character’s perspective does much of make sense and seem inevitable. And of course we go through life only seeing our perspective or what other people choose to share of theirs, so the story feels very real.
I loved the writing itself. It felt like a demonstration of how to write fiction. Strong characters that you would hate in real life but love in a novel. Clever plot which reveals itself slowly but relentlessly. And lovely images throughout. Not just at the beginning when you expect that, but right the way through. Here’s one short passage from very close to the end (it doesn’t give anything away) on rain:
The cabin was dark. Inside it was the sound of her childhood, the patter of rain on a roof that consisted only of shingle and bare boards, no insulation or ceiling. She associated the sound with her mother’s love, which had been as reliable as the rain in its season. Waking up in the night and hearing the rain still pattering the same way it had when she’d fallen asleep, hearing it night after night, had felt so much like being loved that the rain might have been love itself. Rain pattering at dinner. Rain pattering while she did her homework. Rain pattering while her mother knitted. Rain pattering on Christmas with the sad little tree that you could get for free on Christmas Eve. Rain pattering while she opened presents that her mother had put aside money for all fall.
I loved the book. And promptly ordered “Freedom”. Which has joined the piles upstairs as I am currently reading “Her Fearful Symmetry” by Audrey Niffenegger (think “The Time Traveler’s Wife” – wonderful book, pity they ruined the film by changing the one part of the book that made me cry – I sat through the entire film waiting for the ending… and it wasn’t right. Read the book. I cried just explaining to the girls how the story actually ended, so all was not lost with the film.) This book has been recommended by Stephen King – there is a list of such books which will keep me busy for a while, but you can’t ignore the ones he says are worth reading, can you?
My sobering thought for today is that it’s now been six months already since I devoted some proper time to writing. Last week, a number of people asked me ‘how’s the writing going?’ Here’s the answer. Or answers.
Since some time before Christmas, I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day. That means every day without exception, including Christmas Day (it was a late finish that day). What was at first a nightmare prospect (you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve said in the past ‘The last thing I want to do when I get home from work is start writing, I’m just too tired’) has now become a routine. And I don’t think I’m any more tired now than I was when I wasn’t writing in any meaningful way. Instead, every day I have a little victory, either because I sat down and was finished before I knew it or, more likely, because I just kept at it until I was done for the day. I’m sort of rotating routines, sometimes I get up at 6 and try to have it done by 7 when everyone else starts to appear, or I wait until the house is quiet in the evening and then disappear for an hour. Or longer.
What I don’t do now is watch much TV. In fact, other than a weekly ironing session, almost none. This last weekend was a nice exception because the girls had borrowed a DVD they were desperate to watch, so we planned that in for Friday evening when I got home (it’s amazing how fast everything gets done when they are motivated!) and then we were at the library on Saturday and seemed to pick up a couple of DVDs while we were there (I know, DVDs from a library… not in our day etc etc), one of which we watched as a family as a Mother’s Day activity (funnily enough, it wasn’t the mother who chose the film.)
Daily writing is a lot better than trying to have Monday as the writing day. You can’t leave a week between sessions, it just doesn’t work. For me, at least.
So 1,000 words a day must by now equate to over 100,000 just since December and well more over the last six months. Does this mean I’m almost done? Nowhere near. If this were a marathon (and at least they’re over and done with in only a few hours) I think I’m currently walking towards the starting pen with broadly the right kit on, but not quite sure what to do after mile one or two. I think the last six months have been more akin to base training, trying things out, seeing what works for me and what doesn’t. I have a long list of what doesn’t work, a rather shorter one of what does. But it’s a start.
My experience of writing fiction is nothing like writing non-fiction. The facts matter, but they are in the background. Sometimes… often… they jump out into the foreground and you know you’ve lost it again. A few times, I’ve just stopped when I realised I was describing, getting all theoretical, too many facts, and asked myself ‘how would [insert name of good writer] approach this?’ then tried that. So thank you Stephen King, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Kennedy, Harlan Coben… and the rest of you. Reading great writers’ work is like free tuition classes. And more enjoyable.
At the moment, I’ve got some characters who need some life putting into them. And series of events that seems to have varied somewhat over the last six months. Things just happen to these people that I wasn’t expecting. Some of it is helpful. Some of it is relevant. Some of it might even get used. But it’s all good practice and experience. And it’s somewhere to start from.
There are good days and bad days. Which is why just getting my 1,000 words done is sometimes the only way forward on a bad day. I read something really helpful about running years ago – ‘running tomorrow is as important as running today.’ There’s no point in overdoing it today if you end up injured, and a bad day today might lead to a good day tomorrow. And I find that ‘writing tomorrow is as important as writing today.’ Who knows what tomorrow will bring? If I go back over the last six months’ worth of material, there will be some things in there that I can use – edit heavily for sure, but use – among all the thousands of words that I will happily dispatch to the ‘nice try, but no thanks’ pile. But there will be no going back, editing or otherwise reading any of that until I get to the end of the first draft. Just keep going. It really is like a marathon. One step at a time and one word at a time.
And the three word answer to the original question is ‘I’m loving it.’ Just don’t show me the stat that the average income for a professional writer is £11,000 a year.
This week’s photo from my other project – this time a building in Edinburgh’s city centre which I think will shortly be demolished.