Send tissues, soothing herbal tea and an electric fan!
One of my 2020 resolutions:
To not fall helplessly in love with male characters in books. 2020 is going to be the year where I remain as cool as a cucumber with male characters. They are not going to seduce me between the pages and they are not going to leave me feeling like a hot mess after several chapters. I am not going to fall for them. I am going to stay DISTANT!
On the 4th January: throw resolution out of the window and shout, “Zach, come and get me, darling!”
For goodness sake I lasted 4 measly days without experiencing a crush!
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
Thus begins John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In his introduction to the novel, Irving acknowledges the power of his opening line: ‘I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it.’ He goes on: ‘What makes the first sentence […] such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.’ Maybe that’s why that line has stayed with me. Certainly it’s one of the very few opening lines to a novel that I actually remember.
Writing a good opening sentence is something of a preoccupation for writers but opening lines don’t have to be memorable. Opening lines are barbed hooks. Launchpads! The function of that first sentence is to get the reader past itself and into the story. Even so, I do love a good opening line, and I love it even more if it stays with me. Here are three that have:
‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’
From Louisa M. Alcott’s, Little Women, this opener has probably stuck because Little Women was my mother’s favourite book from childhood, and because we’ve jokingly quoted this line to each other over the years when we’ve been doing the Christmas shopping. But looking at it again, I can see that whilst this line might not contain the whole novel, it does a lot of work. We immediately know that this Christmas is unusual, that in previous years there have been presents, so we can infer that for some reason Jo’s family has fallen on hard times. Not so hard that the floorboards are bare (she’s lying on a rug) but hard enough to make her grumble. The fact that Jo’s grumbling (not weeping), and the fact that she’s lying on the rug gives the reader the impression that Jo is a tomboy, and that despite the absence of Christmas presents, she’s at liberty to grumble and be herself. Immediately the reader senses that Jo is with her family, at home.
‘Mrs Dalloway said she’d buy the flowers herself.’
From Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway. The first time I tried to read this novel, I failed miserably but I did remember that opening line. Ten years later, I attempted the novel again and whipped through it, basking in the glow of a newfound admiration for and appreciation of Virginia Woolf’s writing. The line is short but weighty. It’s emphatic. It kindles curiosity about Mrs Dalloway. Would she usually leave the purchasing of flowers to someone else, and why, on this occasion, is she taking charge? Why is she buying flowers at all? And who is telling the story? The concise opening statement is a seed ready to burst into life. It’s kinetic. Maybe that’s why it’s memorable.
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’
From Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle, a brilliant opening line, the kind of opener that makes you stop and re-read, just to check you got it right. Writing while sitting in the kitchen sink? Why would anyone do that? It’s a short, sharp, rap on the knuckles. Straight away you’re invested. You want to know everything! When I was little, and we had a proper big sink – not one of the half-bowl affairs that everyone has now – I’d sometimes be bathed in it. Maybe that’s why this opening line has stayed with me; the image it provokes blends with my own sense of nostalgia.
I realise that I’ve been awake for a long time, running a dialogue in my head. It goes something like this:
“You might as well get up …”
“Nah … it’s warm and cosy under the duvet.”
“But you’re awake, thinking about your plot/characters/structure … You might as well get up and write it down.”
Tugging duvet tighter. “But it’ll be cold downstairs. And won’t it be weird, getting up to write at this unholy hour?”
“Err … no! This is exactly when you should be writing; when the ideas are coming. And you know how you always say you’ll remember it all in the morning but never do—”
“But I will remember this time.”
It’s not that I never sleep, but I’ve come to the conclusion that writing and sleeping are fundamentally incompatible. The thing about writing is that it fires up the synapses, gets the brain cogs turning, and once that engine’s running, it’s very difficult—I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible—to switch it off again. Yes, you can dampen things down for a while with worthy distractions like a great movie or any kind of cake, but the minute you switch off the light and snuggle down, that engine starts to rattle and hum. And I’m not even talking about eureka moments, the nocturnal epiphanies and ingenious plot twists that no writer minds being woken up for. It can be the darnedest little details that prod you awake, nag you until you find yourself having that familiar, merry-go-round conversation with yourself.
Sensible writers keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. I’ve tried that because I’m all for sensible solutions, but deciphering my handwriting is tricky at the best of times so trying to make sense of my nocturnal scribblings come breakfast time is generally a fruitless exercise … I mean, do the words “chin breaking, fave, mns blloomnsinds” make any sense to you? You can see my problem!
At three a.m. this morning, I might have been scribbling this note to myself: “You’ve got her leaving from the wrong place you idiot!! She wasn’t living in the flat then; she was staying with her Mum and Dad!”
Needless to say, I didn’t reach for my notebook and pen. For once I gave in to my know-it-all alter ego. I got up, put on my dressing gown and creaked down the stairs. In the kitchen I filled a tall glass with warm water and a squeeze of lemon then tiptoed into my office and fired up my computer. I added an edit note to my manuscript, and then bizarrely, I had the notion to write a blog post about sleep and writing because I’m up anyway, and it’s kind of peaceful in the still of the night.
New Year’s Day, 2020. I’m moving round the house taking down the Christmas decorations, little bits of tinsel shedding onto the carpet, and it strikes me that I’ve never taken down the Christmas decorations on New Year’s Day before. It’s not traditional is it, and isn’t there something about it being bad luck to strip the halls before Twelfth Night?
Bad luck …
I don’t want to invite bad luck. Who does? But I’ve been thinking about tradition quite a lot lately, the hallowed rituals we follow, blindly for the most part, and maybe it’s because today isn’t only the start of a new year, but the beginning of a new decade in an increasingly fragile world, that I’m scrutinizing tradition.
This Christmas (which is now “last” Christmas) I called time on the time-honoured tradition of crackers. Christmas crackers have bothered me for years. The cheap ones feed landfill straight away. The fancy ones feed landfill a week or two later when you realise that you already have three small sets of screwdrivers in the drawer and you prefer your cardboard bookmark to the sharp silver plated book clip or whatever it is that fell out of your luxury, embossed, hand-finished cracker. This year, I got everyone a lottery ticket instead. Nobody won (damn!) but at least the money goes into the lottery fund which hopefully helps to finance good causes and worthy projects, and the five paper lottery tickets can be recycled.
And talking of recycling, I gave the glittery Christmas cards a miss this time. Like most people, I’m sending fewer cards these days anyway, but anything with glitter or lurex (don’t get me started on why “festive” PJ’s and slippers seem to require lurex thread and sequins) can’t be recycled. I did the “brown paper packages tied up with string” for the few presents I did buy. Curmudgeonly? Miserly? Not at all, but as a family we agreed that this year we’d focus on the joy of being together … and if that all sounds a bit Little Women, I should add that we spent a jolly afternoon malt whisky tasting!
The traditional New Year’s firework displays around the world also trouble me. Sickening to see Sidney going all out while bush fires ravage Victoria and New South Wales … but every city is to blame. Year on year the spectacle grows more and more spectacular. In Edinburgh the firework display went on for ten whole minutes … money going up in smoke, smoke choking an already asthmatic world. Going forward into this new decade, I would like to see governments around the world curtailing these displays. Mark the New Year, yes! But a three minute display would suffice, wouldn’t it?
So, as I tuck my decorations away for another year, on the “wrong” day, inviting goodness knows how much bad luck, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to unhitch myself from the wagon called tradition because whilst tradition is laudable in so many ways, it can also bind us to outmoded ways of thinking and doing. As we stand at the edge of a new decade, in a world on the brink of catastrophic, irreversible change, it’s time I feel, to hit the “refresh” button on some of our traditions.
I suppose we all have a picture of what “being a writer” looks like. Your visions might include a cute little writing nook. Instagram is great for feeding this fantasy … you imagine yourself in an isolated cottage somewhere, tapping away at your typewriter, warming your toes on the stove and feeding your inspiration with huge pots of tea and warm scones dripping with butter and bramble jam. Or, perhaps your writerly daydreams tend to the exotic … a tropical island! You see yourself on a cool balcony overlooking the sparkling sea, laptop whirring softly …
As we all know, the reality is rather different. Most of us
fight for a bit of laptop space among the toast crumbs and utility bills on the
kitchen table, or we might head off to the nearest café where we’ll settle ourselves
at a too-small table with a coffee large and strong enough to bring on a
I’m lucky enough to have an office but it’s not very Jane Austen. As I write, I’m surrounded by cameras, hard drives, chargers, printers—all the black, chunky, ugly accoutrements of my day job. When I find myself wishing for a more “conducive” writing space, I force myself to remember what Annie Dillard wrote in her writer’s companion, The Writing Life. ‘One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.’ Addendum: years after publishing The Writing Life, Dillard disowned the book, so maybe she was seduced by a pretty view in the end.
Ideal writing spaces aside there are other aspects of the writer’s life that have come as a shock. Other writers, feel free to put your hand up when you see where I’m going with this …
I’ve always been an avid reader. Each
month I get through whichever book my book group has selected, as well as any
number of other books, short stories, poems and essays. I buy books all the
time. Recently, Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn because it’s a novella
in flash (I’m working on my own novella in flash so I thought it would be useful
to read someone else’s) and, Cold Water by Gwendoline Riley because Riley
was recommended to me by Sara Baume (Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither and A
Line Made by Walking). Riley’s novel features a twenty-year-old
protagonist, as does my own work in progress, so I thought it would be interesting
to see how Riley handles her subject.
Of course, I don’t only read books to inform my own writing. Like all writers, I simply love to read. Long, tall, short, epic. Fiction and non-fiction. I have shelves of books I’ve yet to read, stories I can’t wait to devour, but what no one told me about being a writer is that establishing wonderful friendships with other writers effectively doubles your “to read” pile.
Suddenly you find yourself
battling a condition I’ve come to think of as “reading stress”!
It’s not just that I want to read the books my writer friends have written. I also want to read their blogs … and blogs contribute to even greater “reading stress” because blog posts often cite articles, other blogs, other writers and other books which I absolutely have to check out as well.
If you are a writer friend, it’s likely that I already have your book on my e-reader. I might even have a signed copy if I’ve attended your book launch! I will read your book, and yes, I will leave a rating and a review on Amazon and Good Reads … I just can’t say exactly when that will be because you see, I’ve come across this rather interesting link to …
Not only was this book my first reading experience of Ella Hayes, but also it was my…..FIRST EVER Mills & Boon. I feel like I have come of age as a romance reader.
Before I read this book I was going through a reading bad patch; I was struggling to fall in fictional love with the male characters in the books I was reading. *All romance readers looking at this blog take a sharp intake of breath* Yep, tough times! It had been weeks since I’d had a satisfying fictional relationship with a handsome male character and I was starting to question whether this genre was for me. *All romance readers looking at this blogs shake their heads in disbelief*
So I wandered aimlessly into the book wilderness, feeling incredibly frustrated and wondering whether I would ever fall head over heels in fictional love with another male character ever…
A Review of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … how the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.
Last month’s Book Group choice was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. Having only a scant knowledge of Homer, Ancient Greece and Greek mythology, I was grateful for the potted version of the story cited in the front matter and quoted from The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Achilles and Agamemnon are at loggerheads: ‘It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’ Briseis is that girl and in The Silence of the Girls, Barker gives her a voice.
The story opens with a Greek invasion. Women and girls have been incarcerated for their own protection. Briseis describes the heat and fetid atmosphere of the rooms, her own attempts to help the other women, and then she describes what she sees from the roof of the citadel as the invasion unfolds.
I saw the flash of the upraised spear, I saw my brother lying on the ground wriggling like a stuck pig. And at that moment Achilles, as if he had all the time in the world, turned his head and glanced up at the tower […] Then, with a kind of fastidious precision – I wish I could forget it, but I can’t – he put his foot on my brother’s neck and pulled the spear out. Blood spurted from the wound, my brother struggled for a full minute to go on breathing, and then lay still.
After such a dramatic opening, I anticipated being drawn into the story, but although the writing is engaging and often vivid, I found it difficult to connect with Briseis. For me, her voice was too restrained. For example, when Achilles cannot be comforted after the death of his best friend, Patroclus, she considers her position in a cool, measured way:
Returning to the women’s huts, as early as this, would let everybody know I’d fallen from favour […] Nobody would be nasty, but everyone would take note […] I told myself it wasn’t too bad. He hadn’t hit me, hadn’t lashed out in frustration – in fact, he hadn’t done any of the things he might well have done.
Briseis cares nothing for Achilles but fears that falling from his favour will propel her into the lowest form of slavery. She frequently references the fate of female slaves but there’s a detachment about her that keeps the reader at arms’ length. The opening lines of the book suggest that Briseis is spirited and disdainful, but sadly, we don’t see those qualities in her as the story progresses.
I experienced other frustrations with this book. I struggled to picture the camp and other settings because they are never fully described. Perhaps the author assumed that her readers would know already, or maybe she was deliberately using a tight frame to underline how restricted women’s lives and viewpoints were. Certainly, Briseis knows little of what goes on in Achilles’ head. This might explain why there is an unexpected narrative switch which has Achilles taking up the story.
Whether Achilles should have been given a voice in what Emily Wilson has called “a feminist Iliad” (The Guardian, 22nd August, 2018) is a question beyond the scope of this review, but for this reader, after Briseis’ somewhat unemotional narrative, I found Achilles’ thoughts refreshingly fiery, especially those concerning his friend’s death. Barker convincingly evokes a depth of feeling which borders on the sexual…
… all the time thinking about Patroclus. Not thinking, craving. The shape of his head, that little dent just below the bridge of his nose, the lopsided grin, broad shoulders, narrow waist, the biscuit-brown smell of his skin. The way they were together.
To conclude, in spite of my frustrations I did enjoy reading this book. It was educationally satisfying and might prompt me to read The Iliad in future. In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking that with a title like The Silence of the Girls, the author should have given Briseis a much louder, more stroppy voice.
I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft
of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I
was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even
when writing felt like drowning.
Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a
writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The
problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if
things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your
palms get sweaty. You panic.
When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she
advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an
hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make
me feel like I was making progress in
Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.
I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.
When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!
A few days later I remembered something I had read a few
years ago―Jess Walter talking about
his novel, Beautiful Ruins.
He said that Beautiful
Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen
years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write
until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I
start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”
It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.
As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.
Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon
Review, July 2012)
There are times when you just have to pinch yourself. Hurtling through the Kolkata traffic in the back of a crazy yellow taxi, in the company of top literary agent Jenny Brown, acclaimed crime writer Lin Anderson, and Esha Chatterjee, my Indian publisher, has to be one of those times!
We were on our way to the Kolkata Book Fair (the world’s largest) for the launch of the Indian edition of Bone Deep at the British Council Pavilion and a whirlwind of panel discussions. Such a far cry from Carnoustie, I think I can be forgiven for thinking I’d stepped into someone else’s reality!
It all began with an invitation to the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters, in Kerala. Never having visited India before, this was an incredible opportunity, and I couldn’t have wished for better travelling companions. Jenny and Lin have both visited India several times…
Dundee rocks! I got my first degree (history) at Manchester Uni in 1984, but 2017-2018 I did a Master’s degree in Writing Practice and Study at Dundee Uni! It was hard, but that’s because I did it in one year whilst running my photography business AND writing my debut romance for Mills & Boon – so it was a heavy load to carry. The course was great though – took me into reading and writing territory that was new and exciting. I particularly enjoyed the lyrical/creative essay form and poetry.
Ella Hayes – Okay, this is sort of tied up with question 3 – path to publication etc. I’d been writing for a while. I wrote a romantic suspense novel, then a coming of age story set in Scotland but getting an agent, getting published seemed so hard. I wanted feedback on my writing, so that’s why I…