Tag Archives: novels

The writing life

Like many writers, I knew from as soon as I could clutch a pencil that writing was a thing I wanted to do. As a child, I wrote poetry and short stories. I fantasised about what it would mean to be an author – I think that’s common too. As I sauntered into my teens, I spent more time thinking about what I wanted to write than thinking about wanting to be an author, and I kept writing the poetry and the short stories.

It may be worth mentioning that I wanted to be a musician, too. I wanted to be Batman, I thought teaching might be interesting, I knew from as far back as I could remember that no one thought ‘author’ was a viable and sensible career path and that I’d need to keep my options open. When I was a kid it was far more feasible to be a full time professional author than it is now.

I wrote my first novel in my teens – I knew it wouldn’t be good or publishable, I just wanted the experience of putting down that many words and to get to know what a novel meant from the inside. I studied Literature at Uni, and I kept writing, poetry, short stories, novels. By the time I was in my early twenties I had a rejection slip from every major UK publisher.

At about this time I became bored with writing versions of myself and started paying more attention to other people, and what I could learn about the world. I think this is a really important shift in the life of any fiction author, although it doesn’t happen to everyone. We all start by playing out our personal fantasies, but good books usually require more than that.

I had a lot of fiction published in my twenties – mostly as ebooks in what was then a fledgling industry. I’d have to make an effort to figure out how many novels I’ve written, but, it’s a lot of novels. And of course I had that fantasy that I’d write a novel and it would naturally find its audience and magic things would happen. It isn’t like that, and finding an audience has taken time, and I’m still very small and obscure in the grand scheme of things. Success is a heady blend of luck and persistence, assuming you have something people want to read.

I got into writing non-fiction in my thirties, first with blogging and magazine articles, and then later with Pagan books. That’s been interesting to add to the mix and I enjoy doing it, but fiction remains my main passion. I’ve sauntered into graphic novel writing, game scenarios, and film scripts, and have no real plan for how any of this is supposed to develop.

Like most writers, I don’t earn anything like enough to live in. A reasonably successful author – full time, professional and with a mid-tier contract at a large publishing house, can aspire to make £10k a year. This is not generally considered to be good money in any other context. So I write poetry, and short stories, novels, graphic novels, scripts, and all the rest of it, and I work alongside that to stay afloat. I’m greatly helped by Patreon support (https://www.patreon.com/NimueB ). I’m ok with not being affluent, I’ve never been affluent, I have infamously low standards and limited interest in material culture. But, it makes me cross and unhappy that arts industries are increasingly structured so that only people who are funded by other means can participate – people with good pensions, supportive spouses, inheritance, and the like. It keeps the poorer folk out, it makes it hard for anyone not well enough to work a day job and create as well.  I don’t want creativity to be a hobby for the rich, I want it to be a viable line of work for those with talent and passion.

Out of love with novels

I read novels of course – usually one or more in any given week. I read widely in different genres, historical and contemporary. I’ve read disposable comfort fiction, although most of the time I prefer to be surprised. I’ve read the self-proclaimed literary stuff, although most of the time I prefer the work of thoughtful people who want to entertain their readers. One way and another, I have spent much of my adult life thinking about books, and novels most especially.

Child me wanted to be a novelist and wrote a lot of short stories. Teenage me wanted to be a novelist and started trying to write novels and novellas. Twenty something me got quite a lot of novels written and published as ebooks. Somewhere in my thirties I slowed down. I lost the drive, the passion and the love that had kept me writing and for a long time I wasn’t sure what was wrong. Yes, the industry sucks, and it is nigh on impossible to make enough money to live on. But, suffering for art, and putting your creativity ahead of profitability and doing it for love, and knowing there are at least a few people who appreciate what I write – that should have been enough, surely?

It’s taken me until the last few days to realise a few things. I have not ceased to love books and novels. I have not ceased to love storytelling. I am not out of ideas, and I am not out of creative impulses. I just don’t enjoy writing conventional novels anymore. The form itself no longer speaks to me as a creator. Looking back over my last few projects (stalled and languishing) I can now see what the common thread is. I can see my own resistance to the form, my trying to push for something else and not knowing what it was, much less how to do it.

There is a fledgling form, somewhat akin to the Japanese light novel – a form mixing prose, illustration and sequential art. It’s a young form, there are no hard rules about how it is supposed to work. I’m excited about it. I think it would free me up to find new ways of presenting and exploring stories, worlds and characters. It would allow me to work collaboratively with my husband, and it would mean if we shift to this form, that he isn’t spending 6 months a year full time on graphic novels. We’re going to do the two remaining books in the Hopeless Maine graphic novel arc, and then that may be it for us with big comics projects. We’d have more time, we could tell a story faster and with more depth and breadth than comics allow. We could tell stories with more visual interest and with all the artistic magic a regular novel does not permit. We can have fun with this.

It’s going to be an adventure!


Creative trajectories, novel issues

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time will know that I’ve had a fair few meltdowns about creativity. Some of it is simply because publishing is highly problematic, and for a good 95% of us involved, doesn’t pay enough to live on. Some of it, I have recently realised, is about my attitude to novels. Now that I’m looking at it with a critical eye, I’m not sure why novels loom so large in my mind. It is usually my failure to write novels that gets me down. Or my failure to get them out there (I have a few lying around waiting for something to happen to them).

I feel very strongly that I want to write for other people, not simply for myself. I can’t really justify the many hours of work that going into a novel if that novel does nothing. I want to write for people in a way that readers of my work will get something from. It doesn’t have to be about numbers or economics – if one person finds a blog post useful, I feel I’ve achieved something important.

In terms of engaging with people, this blog is the biggest and most important thing I do. There are some four thousand of you subscribed to it now. This might be the most useful, relevant and valuable form I work in.

The poetry I write also has good scope for connecting with people. I post it on here, and over on patreon, sometimes I make films around it and much of it goes out to live poetry spaces for direct sharing. I like how all of this works.

The graphic novels engage people, and the colouring work I’m doing on those seems to be a good thing, but I take it less seriously, am less willing to own it. I see those as my husband’s project on which I help out with writing and colouring. He doesn’t see it that way. I need to rethink all of that.

Why do I treat novel writing as the pinnacle of writing? It’s been an unquestioned assumption for me, that novels are somehow best, and that writing them is the best sort of writing. It’s not a form of writing that enables me to quickly engage with anyone else. It’s not a form with which I can do anything economically productive for my household. It doesn’t have the scope for direct engagement like a poem or a mumming play. Certainly, novel reading is a big part of my life and has helped me in all kinds of ways, but it’s a form with all kinds of issues.

You can’t write a novel without conflict in the lives of its protagonists. Increasingly, I want to write about simple, good things that work. I want to write about landscape and seasons, the beauty of the wild world. Poetry lends itself far better to this than novels do. Non-fiction can carry it well.

I’m in a process of re-evaluating the forms I work in, and what of that does what I want it to do. My fixation on novels doesn’t make any sense to me at the moment. It’s not what’s needed, it’s not what I’m inspiredo t write. I want to write things for people. There will no doubt, be more novels, and I need to work out what to do with the ones I’ve already written, but I need to get over it as a form, and give myself more room to enjoy what I most often do, and what clearly has most impact.

Girls who are too good for this world

In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books, quite accidentally, with some similar themes. They were, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, and The Queen of Love, by Sabine Baring-Gould.  The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, The Queen of Love was published in 1894, and I think the dates are important because the options for young ladies with complicated romances in their lives were pretty limited – you married them, or they ruined you, or you were forever alone.

Both novels feature a young lady who is wild and original and lives on her own terms and to her own standards. Both of these young women fail to please or appease the people around them, who are revealed as hypocrites by contrast. The young ladies are authentic, passionate, wholehearted and fundamentally good. The people who think ill of them are mean spirited, obsessed with social appearances, and oblivious to the true value of what’s in front of them.

In one of these books, the young lady dies. I won’t say which one, because it’s the only way I can talk about this and avoid spoilers. She dies, because there’s really no way out for her that allows her to remain true and good, aside from death. The girl who lives does so because there are some good people around her, not just the mean spirited hypocrites. The good people shelter her, and she is able to build on that. The girl who has no friends, has no options. They really are girls, too. One is fifteen by the end of the book, the other is seventeen during most of the action.

I think characters like these are ancestors of the manic pixie dream girl. They’re too good for this world, too pure of heart for the impure interpretations of those around them. All too often, people who create such characters cannot imagine a viable future for them, or a way of life in which they might get to be happy and secure. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a similar figure – a woman who is inherently good in herself but betrayed by all the key people in her life. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth offers another in the same vein.

Older books tend to punish fallen women by killing them. Women are not allowed to come out of love affairs unscathed – even the most innocent love affairs (with all due regard to The Mill on the Floss). Women who give too much of themselves and do not pay enough attention to social norms, are punished for it in much of our older literature. We seem to have replaced this wild, social misfit with new, similar figures who also have no future, and no imaginable life. They come into stories to shake men up, to re-enchant and re-inspire and then they slip away – they don’t die as often as they used to, certainly, but they do still die. And yes, I’m still angry about Bridge to Terabithia.

It makes a pleasant change to read an older novel in which a girl who is both wild and good, comes out on top in the end. The prejudice of those who judge her is revealed for what it is. The true virtues of the girl shine through, and she is not killed to protect the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than her. I wish there were more stories of this shape. I think these are stories we need, in which wild women are allowed to live on their own terms. Women who are allowed to be passionate, and sexual, and true to themselves, and who are not crushed by society for being as they are. Alongside that we need the room for actual women who are actually wild and unconforming and I know from firsthand experience how much judgement and prejudice remains in the world for women who don’t behave in just the right way.

The power of local stories

In the last few weeks, I’ve read three books set close to where I live. Two – Mirror Dead, and The Axe the Elf and the Werewolf I’ll be reviewing next week. The third was a friend’s work in progress and you’ll have to wait for that one. I noticed, reading this trio, how affirming I find it reading fiction set in my own landscape.

As a child, I had some local folklore and tales about landscape features. I had some local history, but I didn’t have novels. The real action always seemed to be somewhere else. Adventure would mean leaving my place of origin; that much was clear. And now Dursley has The Dursleys, and that probably doesn’t help.

We need stories to show us unfamiliar things, to widen our view. However, we also need to see ourselves reflected, to be good enough to be part of a story, to know we are worth telling a tale about. Girls and women need to be more than prizes and motivators in male dominated stories (film industry, I am looking at you!). With over a hundred thousand new books published every year, there is clearly room for diversity. We need characters of different race, age, religion, sexual and gender identities, class and location.

The implications didn’t hit me until I read these three stories that are in part set in Gloucestershire. It gave me an enormous feeling of belonging. I felt affirmed. One of the books offered me bisexual and polyamorous characters as well, and even though they were guys, I felt deeply affirmed by their presence, too. I find monogamous, hetranormative romance alienating, and if I read too much of it, depressing. It is not easy to look at worlds where you do not exist.

A novel set in your immediate landscape is a chance to get excited about home. It’s an opportunity to see the land through someone else’s eyes, to see it anew and to be excited about it. Making your landscape into a location worthy of a tale elevates it. So many UK novels seem to be set around London, or non-specific places. Seeing the details of a town or city is much more engaging, seeing what I already know reflected back in a way that is unfamiliar, I can get really enthused.

It’s worth asking why some locations seem more worthy of stories than others. It may be the sense of anonymity. In a big city, anything can happen. Your story won’t run headlong into reality too often. And yet, a big city is a specific place full of real details and real people. It may accommodate a fictional addition or two, but something different happens when we impose our fantasy onto a setting rather than working with the setting. Neither is invalid, but the effects are different and it’s worth thinking about what happens to us as readers when encountering each of those.

Getting beyond myself

Recently when I wrote about finding a voice for performance, Lorna Smithers raised the issue of finding voices that are not your own. I think this is a really important developmental stage for anyone working with words, and that it merited a follow up.

I’ve worked in publishing for about twenty years now, which has given me a broad perspective on what authors do. New authors tend to write autobiographically. This is one of the reasons first novels are often best left in a drawer! Write what you know is perfectly good advice for getting started, but it’s rarely enough to give you a great book. New authors will dramatise their own hopes and fears, revisit their own experiences and cast themselves as the unlikely hero.

Some authors never move past the autobiography stage. Some find they can’t, and drift away from writing as a consequence. The authors who will go on to do really good work will start to find things other than themselves interesting. They’ll wonder and ask questions, and start writing about things they did not know. Research and experimentation may replace casual experience. They may visit locations, swot up on subjects, observe others, and use this to fuel their imaginations.

In fairness, I have read some really good semi-autobiographical first novels. They tend to come about because the author has learned something from personal experience that they want to share. It’s not a form of wish fulfilment, but a desire to express something significant.

These days when I’m developing ideas for a novel, I spend time exploring the first person voices of many of the main characters. I try to get in their skin and see it all from their perspective. I’ll usually put that down to write in third person, but it helps to individualise characters and establish what makes them tick. It’s a bit like sketching.

Making art is often a curious balance of things. Imagination coming from within, inspiration coming from without. Working with what we know and feel, and with what is unknown and can only be speculated about. Grounding in known things and letting fly into realms of speculation. It’s in the tensions between these things that it becomes possible to create something original and exciting.

Taleweaving: teaching tales

A guest post by Elen Sentier

Folk and fairy tales have come down to us through the ages. They continue to be birth themselves today with modern authors like Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife, and Patricia Wrede’s Talking to Dragons.

What is a folk tale? They can be hard to describe but one thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re teaching stories. They all have a point and teach how to be and work with otherworld through the actions of the characters. They show us how the world, the universe and everything works and have done since our ancient hunter-gatherer told tales and to help their younger folk to learn the ways of the world. They show us ordinary folk (show not tell!) how to be and behave when we meet otherworld.

And this is what I write, magic/mystery/romance. The novels are set in the present and involve ordinary people and revolve around a female protagonist. They also have an important male second-lead who also has to learn how to be with otherworld. Both the woman and the man have a relationship that needs lots of work from both of them if they’re going to make it. They have lives, problems, wants, needs, frustrations, all the usual stuff of life that we all have, but they also have connections to otherworld even if they’re not quite convinced about this! Sometimes they reject this otherness … and then have to backtrack in order to go forward. They find themselves asked to do something they don’t understand but which grabs them by the heart and the gut so they have to follow, do it.

My first two novels, Owl Woman & Moon Song, do just this. Both have female protagonists who both have to stretch themselves beyond their limits in order to achieve their quests. Both women have difficult relationships that they have to “grow into” … and so do the men! They have ordinary, everyday difficulties as well as otherworldly ones. Their challenges happen in both thisworld and otherworld at the same time, for this is how it is in real life! Magic intermingles with our everyday life but mostly we’re afraid to look, afraid to see it. Both Vicki in Owl Woman and Isolde in Moon Song manage to do this. They’re human, funny, annoying, daft, brave, and full of grit, guts and determination, they are strong women. They show you how to work with otherworld.

I’m working on the third novel – Whispering Bones – with another female protagonist and her difficult relationships with her father and lovers. She and they have to learn how to be, how to work with otherworld. It’s what our stories do and how we learn best for we are Taleweavers and we love to listen to them, hear them, and learn from them.

You can find out more about Elen and her books over at http://elensentier.co.uk/

Fictional solutions

Since last November I have been wrestling with trying to write a novel. This has featured long sections of block, bouts of despair, existential crises over the point of fiction, gloom over the state of the industry, frequent absence of faith in myself and other entirely unhelpful things. The novel has yet to achieve first draft status.

I have over the years written more than a dozen novels, most of which have been published with small houses. Technically I know how to do this. The question of what has been going wrong, and why a thing I once loved and defined myself through has become a form of torment, has taken some considering. Some of it is because you can spend months of throwing everything you have at a project and sell half a dozen copies – most writers cannot make a living, and that can get demoralising.

Things are better at the moment, and I’ve been writing a few scenes most days. I test these on Tom as I go, which means I have some confidence that it’s not total rubbish. So, what’s changing?

One of the answers is that I have greater financial stability. I’ve picked up other work that pays steadily, the flat is bought, the mortgage is cheaper than renting was, so I’m under a lot less pressure to produce commercially successful work. Rather than trying to write something that will sell, I’m rediscovering something I had in my teens and early twenties, and lost in the need to make writing pay. I’m putting the words down like my life depends on it, not my livelihood. It’s much more emotionally exposed, and a little bit like going mad in an organised way, but I am now giving this book everything I have, and I feel better as a consequence.

The other issue, is time. I can’t switch from my blogging, marketing press officer day job head to creating fiction at the switch of a button – I have nothing lined up to write about, and if I stay at the computer, things from my other jobs will flow in and I end up doing those instead. I have learned it is critically important to make spaces, every day, where I can think about what I’m going to write next. To do that I have to get off the computer, but then what? I can’t just sit round waiting for inspiration to strike.

The answer appears to be crafting. I love working with my hands, so that’s a happy thing all by itself. If I’m making something I’ll pay it a fair amount of attention, but it leaves some bits of my brain free in a way that encourages ideas to pop up. Working on developing ideas is nothing like as effective as holding the right pace, not working at it and letting things pop up in their own time (or me). If I’m crafting, there is space for that to happen, but it’s fine if nothing comes because I was doing something anyway. I’ve made two rag rugs and am working on an appliqué wall hanging, and around this a book is slowly getting written. I’m much happier. For now at least I have found a solution to the writing side of the problem. In terms of the commercial – I’m going to do what I love and see if anyone will buy it. I just don’t have what it takes it write fiction for a market, and there is no point pretending otherwise.

While I was writing this blog post, I got into a conversation about a possible joint project for next year. There are a few things in the pipeline, so long as I can keep my head clear enough to see them through. I’m going to need embroidery silks, and dead t-shirts, apparently.

A quest for poems

I was very young when I started writing poetry. I was encouraged at school and at home, and as it did not require so many words or so much plot as a story, there were obvious appeals. I learned something of structures. In my teens, looser verses became a way of venting and managing my emotions. Poetry as therapy isn’t unusual, but it’s often best if that material never falls on anyone else. I went to poetry classes at uni, both studying poetry as a writing form and getting opportunities to have a go. There were more structures to learn.

While I’ve worked hard with other writing forms, I confess that poetry has mostly been a hobby. I’ve used it as a place to pour out emotion, and to try and make sense of things. I’ve used it on occasion to court people (not always very effectively). It occurs to me that I haven’t written poetry for other people in the way I write short stories, essays, novels and non-fiction books.
A whole other voice comes into play in the poetry I like reading. It bypasses the banal in search of an essence. It speaks from soul to soul, and is more innately spiritual than story telling. Evocative, sometimes moving towards incantation, it breaths life as well as ideas.

I’ve started to think of poetry in terms of a desire to communicate with other people. Not just in a ‘would like to get in your pants’ sense. That in turn raises questions about what it might be worth saying. What can I not capture effectively in a blog post? What wouldn’t be better told as a short story? Sometimes the answer lies in the brevity. There’s a lot more intensity in a small poem than in pages of text; a sense of distillation and focus. If I really want to make a point, then sometimes the limitations of a poem are vastly useful in terms of getting right into the topic. There are issues of utility, too. I can take a poem or a short story to a ritual, but not an essay or a novel.

I have dabbled in putting poetry out in public, there are some print collections over at Lulu (free downloads in the book section of this site). They were written as and when they occurred to me, with no particular intent. I’ve depended on emotional energy and inspiration as and when it turns up. I’m experimenting at the moment with setting out to write poetry, and I do have overall intentions to guide what I’m doing. So far it seems to be going along passably well. I’m learning how not to feel too precious about first drafts. In any other form, the first draft is just a jumping off point, but I’ve tended to either hatch a poem at first try, or give up on it and move on. Learning how to go back and work at it is interesting. I’m learning to take notes, jotting down odd lines, phrases and ideas when they occur to me, and seeing if I can connect them up in a meaningful way at some later point. It’s a bit like sketching.

What any of this achieves remains to be seen, but I like to feel that I’m stretching myself and trying new ways of writing. Whatever else comes of the poetry, I know that focusing down on my use of words will improve me as a writer, and exploring other forms of expression helps keep me fresh, and stops me getting into ruts and habits.

I’m also taking it as a prompt to read more poetry, because I feel very strongly that if you don’t read in a subject or form, your scope for writing it well is much reduced.

The silliest job imaginable

This week, I read an Alain De Botton book about work. What I found most interesting was the author’s evident belief that work was something he would have to observe other people doing – author, academic and philosopher not being normal or ’proper’ jobs. There was some comfort to be had in knowing it’s not just me who angsts over this.

I can make a case for the not-fiction work being useful. Not least because every now and then, someone comments to precisely that effect. I suspect a fair amount of time though, I am preaching to the converted – I think those of you who read my stuff already have a predisposition towards wondering and questioning. I may offer useful things to throw at that now and then, but you were already much of the way there. The difficulty is that so many people are not – especially those with material power. I am never going to get whole governments or business leaders to sit down and listen to my ideas, and therein lies the problem.

Most of the time, writing fiction feels like the silliest job imaginable. The fiction author invents that which never was and probably never will be, and spends many hours on this. Once thrown out into the world, the novel, (or other written forms of amusement for that matter) will entertain its victims for a few hours and then, for the greater part, will be forgotten, having done nothing more significant than used up a modicum of paper and time.

And yet… according to Neil Gaiman, China is now seeking to develop a fantasy and science fiction genre. Forms that had previously been banned (too decadent and bourgeois, I assume) are now required. The Chinese have made a link between the presence of speculative thinking, and the presence of innovative industries. They want the latter, therefore they conclude that they must have the former.

Fiction has a capacity to get in under the radar. It can prompt us to think and feel in unfamiliar ways, precisely because we do not take it too seriously. In many ways, a fiction work has more potential to change the world than a non-fic, because it can sneak in and travel further. Consider the relationship between Frankenstein and genetically modified food. Consider how a culture of space-opera-adventure feeds our collective desire to reach for the stars. Think about how Disney taught us to equate beauty with virtue and ugliness with being evil. Consider how JK Rowling has gone some way towards reversing that. There is power in those unreal things.

Religions are made of stories – often quiet implausible ones at that. All aspirations for the future are stories we tell ourselves, and we process the past into coherent narrative form, too, turning the chaos into meaning. We are story telling creatures, and we respond to narrative. So while writing fiction often feels like the most pointless, ineffective thing I could try and do, I also know that it is the thing I do with most potential for real impact.

I did not aspire to be an author because I craved fame and fortune. As a child and young adult, I wanted to write because I wanted to make a difference and I believed in fiction as a medium for delivering ideas. The trouble was that at that stage I didn’t really have any ideas, I didn’t know enough, hadn’t lived or thought or felt or empathised enough to have any clue at all about what needed saying, much less how to say it. For a while I stopped believing that I could write a book that would touch people. I lost faith in the process when I should have just recognised that I was too young and inexperienced to pull it off yet. I’m still probably too young and inexperienced. But I’m starting to think it may be possible after all, to do something meaningful that is made of fancy and impossibility. I’ll keep you posted.