In Between Tangoes

Photo on 2014-03-27 at 15.01

I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.


Other Writers I: Writing Friends

me n dots focus

When we’ve finished a piece of writing, there’s only one thing we want to know. Is it any good? 

When you’re beginning, and sometimes far into your writing career, you often can’t tell by yourself. You’ve looked at a given piece of writing so long, and have written it over and over. Sometimes you just can’t see it any more.

If you give it to your mother, or your best mate or your sweetheart, they’ll tell you how wonderful it is, and how wonderful you are. But that’s not what you needed to know. You needed to know, is it any good? And they can’t tell you.

Usually they can’t tell you because they don’t know all that much about great writing. But sometimes they can’t tell you because they know too much about great writing, but not a whole lot about how writing and writers develop. And sometimes they can’t tell you because your whole relationship is in the way.

This is where other writers come in handy.

Writing groups are not a new phenomenon. Think about the Romantics…the Lake poets, brother and sister Wordsworths, Coleridge, Southey, de Quincy. Think about the Beats…Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso. Think about what Dorothy Wordsworth did in terms of editing and encouraging other people’s work. Think about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great Beat poet, and publisher. Dorothy and Lawrence wrote themselves, of course, but they were also great enablers of writing…we owe some of the best work of the last century to the energy and vision they brought to their writing groups.

I met with my own writing group two nights ago. I don’t go as often as I need to. I don’t participate as much as I’d like. Sometimes I can’t read everyone’s manuscripts. Sometimes I don’t submit my own writing early enough or at all. But although manuscript critique is important, in the end the place to talk about your writing can be even more important.

What happens, when writers get together to enable each other’s writing is an explosion of creativity. No one knows this better than Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life. The group she’s gathered in Geneva, Switzerland fizzes with energy, and they give each other incredible support. Clubbing together, they are able to bring in writers from all over Europe to help and inform them. Like my own writer’s group, the members write many different styles and genres…and are achieving a remarkable publication rate.

The best academic writing programmes do this, too. At my university, twenty years ago, three English academics showed each other their own writing. Finally, they decided to offer a creative writing module in the English degree. Now, there’s a BA, three MAs and a PhD programme. There are over 400 students on two campuses, engaging with writing, and out of the MAs have come literally dozens of prize-winning poets, novelists and children’s authors.

One writer plus one writer does not equal two people writing. It does something else. The writing gets cleaner, the energy gets stronger. They take more risks. They work harder. They get…well…better.

Reading for Writers


A little while ago, I talked about how revealing it is to write. It’s true…you can’t hide when you are writing. What and how well you think, what and how well you feel – it’s all there, all over the pages. 

And what’s also visible is how much and what you’ve read.

Every author I know would rather read than breathe, if they were only given a choice. I read, I recently told a third year class, about a novel a day, or two or three days. And that’s with my busy life as a writer, teacher and mother. When I was their age, I usually read one in the morning before classes and one in the evening. They looked at me as though I’d suddenly sprouted antennae. 

I read very quickly, but I have excellent retention. Sometimes I forget the name of the author, or the title of the book, but I remember the characters, the setting, the plot and whole segments of text.

And that latter bit is very important. Every time we read, we are unconsciously absorbing technique. We see how the author handles the technical challenges of fiction. We’re not only enjoying the story and the beauty of the writing…we’re building a library of technique. 

Some of my undergraduate students worry about writing too much like the authors they read. In fact, some of them use it as an excuse not to read. But the answer to that is to read more, not less.

The more widely you read, the more and different approaches to the technical challenges of writing fiction you absorb. How Jane Austen uses punctuation is much different to how William Burroughs uses punctuation and you never know when the perfect solution to where you put that tricky comma will come from one or the other. 

But of course the real value of reading widely comes from that connection between reading fiction and empathy. The more you read, the more empathy you can feel about different kinds of people. Young women, pressured to marry if they are to avoid poverty, for example. Or a junky trying to survive in a menacing and unknowable world. 

And that means the you that is revealed in your writing is a better you, with every book you read. 








At the university where I teach, we have lovely gardens. In fact, we have listed, conserved gardens. This September, after the lovely summer, they looked absolutely spectacular. ‘Wow,’ I said to one of the gardeners, ‘it looks amazing.’

She sighed and leaned on her spade. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I wish we didn’t have to have to students back.’

I just smiled and kept walking (I frequently hit the gardening staff up for cuttings), but inside i was thinking, ‘You wouldn’t be here without the students. The place might not have survived without the students. The students are the whole point.’ 

And it’s the same with readers. I’ve just had an email from an undergraduate student. Her novel is turning out experimental. She’s horrified that her tutor wants her to think about readership. I hope I can straighten her out on Friday…convince her that the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Some writers never think about their readers, ‘I write what I want to read,’ they say. ‘If I like it, I know they will.’ And that, of course, works…if there are enough people a lot like you. If you are plugged into the zeitgeist in a personal, fundamental way. But it doesn’t work for all of us. It especially doesn’t work if your reader is ten. Or fourteen. Or two. 

Readers aren’t just there to react to your genius. Readers make up half of the book. You don’t write the story world…you write signs that point to it. The reader makes up the rest in his or her mind. You say someone, ‘has a beard, baggy corduroy trousers and a vacant expression’ and they add the rest to make a whole person.

Take a moment to read that description again: What do you see? Is your person’s hair thinning? Do they stoop a little? Do they wear half-moon glasses down on their nose? Mine does. Yours might not. And that shouldn’t matter. 

A good relationship with your readers means that you are both making up much the same book. That you aren’t ruining the book they are making up as they read and they aren’t ruining the book you are making up as you write.

Good agents and editors understand readers so well, that they can often guess where readers might have problems with a writer’s manuscript. They help the writer build little bridges of meaning across the soggy bits. 

I’m going to talk to the Editor O’ My Dreams about my manuscript at the end of the week. I’m going to talk to my agent tomorrow…and I’ve just sent her two new manuscripts. I’m getting several people to read my Adventure Story With Dog – people with Army backgrounds to see if I’ve hit the right note. Lots of new readers, reading lots of new things. 

It’s pretty scary, sometimes. 

But it’s also very satisfying. Because the story doesn’t happen without the reader, the words on the page are not the story. The story only becomes real when the person reading it makes up their own corduroy-clad character, maybe one with bushy hair and a lop-sided bowtie. That’s when it lives, when it stops being ‘your book’ and becomes ‘their book’. 

Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of marks you’ve put on the page. It might be pretty. It might be just like you liked it. But there’s nobody smelling your roses. 


On Hiding



It’s not quite eight am and I’m already at work. My hair is still wet because I spent too much time writing to dry it. I think I might be about to deliver two manuscripts to my agent this week. One she’s seen and I’ve rewritten to her notes. The other is something brand new. 

For years, I’ve hardly given her anything. And now it’s all boom-boom-boom. 

The fact, is, as I finally realised last week, I’ve been hiding.

The writing life can be painful. Writers have lots and lots and lots of ways to hide. My way, for the past few years, has been not finishing anything. If I don’t finish anything, then nobody can publish anything and I don’t have to go through any more publishing pain. That’s been my (totally unacknowledged) strategy. 

My first hiding strategy as a writer was to write texts so entirely unreadable that they defied analysis. They twisted and turned with dizzying complexity. I was showing off, of course. But I was also hiding. 

I see this in my MA students all the time. The most common way to hide is cramming in any number of unnecessary opacities in character and story…usually because the writer is hiding what they fear is an inadequate plot. Then there’s hiding behind characters or a strange point-of-view. Then there is the failure-to-commit-to-one-manuscript. The ‘I won’t write an ending, I’ll let the reader decide what happened,’ is perhaps my least favourite of the many ways writers hide, but it’s hard to say. The ways we hide are endless.

Writing reveals the limitations of your intellect. It reveals what we used to be comfortable with calling ‘your soul’. It reveals how you think and feel. If you do it properly, there’s really no hiding place. 

That’s what critics mean when they say a narrative is ‘honest’. It’s not that it’s non-fiction. It’s honest because the writer is not trying to hide.

Hiding is a pointless exercise. It’s like a big neon sign showing the way to your imperfections…and you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to do the best you can. If that was good enough for Homer and Milton and Austen and Byatt (who are all imperfect, too) it’s also good enough for you. 

And me.

So Little Time


I’m sorry not to write lately. I haven’t wanted to write much of anything. 

I’ve evidently got a heart condition – who knew? I’ve felt breathless most of my life, but I’ve been a bit extra breathless lately. Then I phoned my doctor to say I had some chest pain and the next thing I knew I was in the back of an ambulance. I have angina…and on Monday I’ll find out if it’s take-a-few-tablets angina or open-heart-surgery angina or something in between. They told me the finding out procedure kills one in 1000 people who have it. It starts heart attacks in 20 more. And in some, it causes strokes. 

I’m waiting for this procedure. I’m also waiting to find out if Editor O’ My Dreams likes my latest manuscript. 

I hate waiting.  I’ve already died once, in a car accident when I was fourteen. I constantly feel time ticking away. And Monday seems to be rushing towards me. 

So I started wondering – do I really want to spend the time in between writing?

And then I wondered: Do I really want to spend the rest of my life writing at all? My writing life isolates me. To fund it, I work in a stressful environment (doing what I love, teaching other writers, but in the increasingly competitive academy). To really succeed at the combination of them both, it’s not enough to write well enough to be published. I must try and write world-class, award-winning fiction. The whole thing really is quite stressful – I haven’t had that big break-through book and might never have it. It means my place in the academy and in publishing is always uncertain. The whole thing can’t be good for me or my heart. 

After all, I don’t just live for me – I have an eleven-year old child and a husband and an elderly mother. It might be actually selfish to keep writing. 

Since I had time to think, I’ve thought. I’ve thought about the great relief it would be just to live – to go to work and come home and make dinner. To see my friends lots and keep my house nice and have parties…to GO to parties. And then I thought the parties I really want to go to are usually other writers’ book launches. And that I’ll still be reading. And that I doubt very much if I could actually stop writing altogether. 

Then I went to breakfast with a friend who talked about one of my books with such fondness that it made me cry. And I read a few fan letters. And I read this article from Science. And I thought some more, about why I really write and how if it helps just one person, just a little bit, it will all have been worth it.

My life will all have been worth it. 

So I started writing again. 



Don’t Listen To Anybody – For David and Susan

Photo on 2013-09-20 at 15.28


Writers make millions of decisions. Some are easy…should I use double quotation marks or single?… but some are tough. One of the toughest is about listening to advice.

Advice on the single or double quotation mark question might be very useful, especially if your publisher has a house style. Advice on whether or not anyone is picking up on a subtle plot hint is useful, too.  And if everyone who sees your book hates the main character or the narrative voice or the way you’ve used third person, it’s time to rethink.

But when someone tells you what to write or what not to write, you really shouldn’t listen.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, don’t write X. Nobody wants to read X anymore,’ to an emerging writer. Sometimes it’s an agent or a publisher, who really believes that the X form is dead. Sometimes it’s a next door neighbour, who heard someone say it on Radio Four. Sometimes it’s someone who couldn’t sell their own X project.

It doesn’t matter. What’s nearly guaranteed is that sometime in the next five years, someone will have a big hit with X. And if that poor writer actually listened, they’ll be gnashing their teeth in the wilderness, looking at their abandoned manuscript and moaning that it could have been them.

We have to write what’s in our hearts and write it the best we can. The next big thing might be X or Y or even Z. Nobody really knows.

But we do know it will be really good. It will have meant everything to the person who wrote it. He or she will have been unable to stop themselves from telling that particular story. And it’s absolutely certain that someone, sometime, somewhere, will have told the next big writer not to bother, that nobody wanted that kind of book, that they should write something else.

But they won’t have listened.