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Hiding my truths within a fiction based on a truth

Sailing along the Nile… in a land of make believe.

At dinner last night* the father had all these questions about my novel. That’s my third novel for anyone who’s keeping count (probably only my father), which is a prequel to my second novel (which currently exists as two chapters – the first and the last – but was once 100,000 words long) and is nothing to do with my first novel which once had a youth orchestra play a piece composed for it. None of these novels is published of course. None of them have ever got to a point where anyone who isn’t my father might believe them finished.

This third novel is not quite like anything that I’ve written before.

It’s not like the first novel

The first novel was set in space. It was told through the eyes of a journalist because I was trying to get some space between me and my characters. I named my protagonist after a girl I’d disliked in primary school and made her a very reluctant hero. She spent the first half of the book trying not to be involved with the story line. The real main character was of course an intergalactic princess. My sister suggested that maybe she was too rebelious.

The father – my number one fan – read the book in tears on a transatlantic flight, and although he might well now deny it, had one critique. He said it lacked sex.

He was right

So much of human motivation stems from our need to have romantic relationships, or at least get a physical kick from being with someone. However, and this is quite a large however, sex is hard to write into a book at a stage in your life when you haven’t ever had a real boyfriend. And I don’t mean real as in not imaginary, I mean real in this context as someone you have a relationship with and don’t just label with the word because it’s convenient when it comes to surviving the hostile world of the school playground.

For the second book I came back down to Earth

I wrote it in my final year at university when I ought to have been mathematically modelling solar flares. It’s set in Ancient Egypt. My father read it of course. He loved it. He thought that I should quickly get it finished, published and make lots of money from it. He has great faith in my writing. (He’s an excellent father and amateur literary critic.) And at least that was my impression of his opinion. The sex, however, he said made him uncomfortable.

You really can’t win when you’re a daughter writing a book read by your father but I believe it serves him right for embarrassing me the first novel round.

So, the third book

I haven’t let my father read it. In fact, I have been avoiding writing it. When I’m writing a novel I get consumed by it. My mindneeds a huge amount of space to write, and it hasn’t exactly felt spacious recently.

It’s often the getting started that’s hard, and not because I have writer’s block – that thing is alien to me thank goodness – but because to write it I have to read it and to read it means I’m confronted by what I’ve written. And it’s not just a case of lacking self-confidence.

I’ve tended to pour myself into writing it at points over the last couple of years where my mind has desperately needed to expel thoughts and feelings but was too ashamed to put them straight into my diary. This does not lead to a tidy, structured novel, and restructuring and cutting has been an ordeal. That said, those horrible moments, now rewritten, make up the backbone of the novel I wanted to write  and proved uncuttable.

To write the third book I had to switch to the third person. I couldn’t write in the first person. I couldn’t put myself though such an agony. And all the things I wanted to write, I couldn’t have made happen to one character. I feel it’s much too much feeling to believe from one character, even if all the character’s feelings do in fact stem from me.

And the sex? Well. Not too surprisingly I’m not currently the biggest fan of sex. Although since it’s a book set in the royal courts in Ancient Egypt sex is hardly something I can just skip. I’m sure there were some asexual people in Ancient Egypt, but this isn’t a novel about them.

At dinner last night the father kept asking when he gets to read it

I read it myself at the beginning of this week and have been writing it obsessively ever since. He’s noticed and become excited that it may, finally, be finished. Meanwhile I keep wondering what he’s going to think of it all. I wince when I’m reading it, and I wrote it. I know what’s coming up.

But one of those cliche phrases points out that you should write what you know, and I’ve come to know things I would’t want to read. And yet maybe the reason I write this novel and these characters is because they can house much stuff that people shy away from, yet make it a bit more palatable. It’s a story about people keeping secrets and holding themselves in shame. It’s a book about not talking, not trusting, and the power of one human being over another.

It’s not autobiographical, yet it is a reflection of what I know.

And yet, all that ‘stuff’ is part of me. If it’s not seen, if these feeling aren’t recognised and accepted, then I’m not either. Which is why, eventually, I’ll have to let it be read.

*I wrote this post a week or so ago.

Do you write, and if so, why?

The Highly Conventional, Unconventional Path To Becoming A Writer

Why write a blog? Why write at all?

Battling grammar, learning how to use a semi-colon and spell ‘necessary’ with one collar and two sleeves, is a time-consuming business.

What’s more, it’s never-ending. However much you write, there will always more you can do. It’s a skill that can never truly be obtained, and for some reason, rather than finding that threatening, to me, it’s reassuring.

When you write, you share a bit of yourself. Publishing your thoughts and feelings to the world is a vulnerable position to put yourself in. But yet people do it with an unrelenting obsession.

Why write at all?

I have no sensible answer for this question. Instead I can only describe how the germ of writing grew within me.

In the beginning was time

It was September and I was thirteen. Of course I’d written before that, short stories and such like as children do, but in the September when I was thirteen I was finally gifted an extensive amount of free time with nobody to tell me what to do.

I wrote in blue fountain pen on white A4 printer paper using a handmade line-guide and stripy paper-clips.

That year I devoured three fountain pens, and filled a drawer with my words. I didn’t know what I was doing. I picked up notebooks and occasionally wrote in them too, but this was harder because I was scared of getting notebook writing wrong. Printer paper was plentiful and disposable.

Sometimes I kept a diary, but I’ve never been great at keeping a diary. Why it is that a diary filled with embarrassing white spaces is more tragic than a diary filled with embarrassing truths?

Sometimes I wrote about someone else’s life, often I wrote about my own, but with the added excitement of an alien abduction or the end of the world.

And then came the words

In school we wrote a story called Escape from Kraznir. A fantasy adventure inspired by Lord of the Rings. We were provided with an outline of where each chapter should be set, but the writing was all our own. Being a school project, it had to be finished and submitted.

Writing ‘the end’ was a major achievement.

Later, I learnt Microsoft Word had a word count. Over the Christmas I turned 16, I wrote 20,000 words. Maybe my parents thought I was revising for exams?

I flitted between writing on the computer and writing by hand. I gave up the fountain pens as they couldn’t cope with my aggressive hand and switched to a resilient black ballpoint pen.

I started wondering how much I’d have to write to really have a novel. I imagined hundreds of thousands of words. From the internet, I concluded 80,000. Easy. I stopped starting a new piece of writing every time I sat down and instead focused on what I was sure would be my novel.

The contradiction of education

School was as separate in my mind as the futuristic lands I wrote about. I aced my GCSEs and slid into sixth-form with ease. Maths and physics were where I excelled, they were filled with mysteries and offered problems that could be solved. I wanted to understand the solutions and knew that maths wasn’t something to fear, but was something beautiful. I loved my father’s tales of solving real life problems with calculations.

Maths can make a measurable difference.

With English I never knew what success looked like. Some nonsense about Miss Havisham’s depression.

There was no expectation that what I wrote would be read. No connection in my mind between the English we studied at school and the writing I kept hidden in the back of my cupboard. All I’d done was take childhood games and as everyone else grew up I continued playing them on my own, through the written word.

Like switching from reading out loud to reading  in your head.

And from reading to a parent, to reading with a torch beneath your duvet.

The power of supportive readers

The Midget was the first person to read my stories. This is unsurprising as she had been my original Watson. She found it amusing,  and said it was all rather rebellious. At 40,000 words the parents were given a copy to read. This was partly to justify the volume of printing they were paying for, it was also because I was slowly transitioning from solitary writing to wanting someone else to share it with.

Which was when I first decided that I ought to learn to write proper.

And is why, over the weeks of my A-level exams, I was also writing assignments for an Open University course on writing fiction.

To put all this in perspective. I told the Mother that the Open University course deadlines were two weeks after they actually were. This is the biggest lie I’ve ever told. I imagine I’m going to get a phone call from the Mother after publishing this.

Why I publish my writing on a blog

I started by reading blogs on writing fiction. Authors, and wannabe authors, have a lot to say on the art of writing. There’s a lot of people out there who are working really hard to learn to write. They, like you and me, crave feedback and appreciation for their efforts.

They’ve got some amazing advice.  Writers blog about the struggles of writing. Literary agents blog about the struggles they witness writers having.  There’s fan-fiction writers, poets, and grammar know-it-alls who will tell you how to use a semi-colon. Traditional published authors and self-published authors. Many people adore writing.

I was amazed by all of them.

And suddenly I was no longer writing alone.

The gap between my writing and writing that’s smooth enough to read fluently still existed, but I knew how to improve.

I timidly began asking for help and started this blog to join them.

How I got paid to blog

It shouldn’t have been surprising that after three years studying physics, and with two drafted novels, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I imagine the education system, at least in England, is really great if you’re the sort of person who works in a linear fashion. But that’s not me.

I graduated and a bit of a wobble ensued. I wasn’t a writer because I wasn’t a good writer. I wasn’t a physicist because I failed to care enough.

The careers advisor despaired and suggested counselling – I’m not joking.

Eventually, after much pacing, driving to Naples and back and a lot of writing, I got a job in marketing. They wanted someone who would be great at website analytics and not daunted by a little HTML. I wanted to keep writing. It seemed like a great compromise.

What’s more, it meant I could also live near the man I love.

When real life practice really counts

A Canadian woman sat beside me in the office. I was immediately in awe. She had a thorough education in creative writing. She could proofread, with fancy marks, in different styles and to the requirements of different continents. She was also tasked with editing what wrote and making it publishable on a corporate blog.

What’s more, she had written a novel, self-published it and was making money from it.

Time passed. I started debates about Oxford commas, and judged magazines who wanted me to buy advertising from them on whether their sales representatives could punctuate.

I became the one who did the editing.

Knowing about content marketing became an obsession. I read books on writing. I received, devoured and critiqued email newsletters and became an advertising critic. I even listened to podcasts.

I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote.

And battled this awful literary constipation where I write a hell of a lot and struggle to hit publish.

The Writer

I write every day. I’ve seen my work in print, I’ve seen it online. I’ve seen it with my own name, and I’ve seen it without.

I am a writer. A fact which would have astounded me when I graduated.

Which is something to remember when you’re dreaming your own dreams.