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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The Process of Writing a Book When You Are Chaos Personified


How do you write a book, people ask me.  Well this is what I do.  There is no right or wrong way, just your own way.  My way is anarchic and chaotic but it works for me.  I cannot understand how most of the following happens, it just does.  I will not be holding seminars on how to do it this way - but it is here for your perusal. 


1              My editor asks me for a synopsis of my next book.  I am not a planner.  All I can give her is ‘The lead characters are X and Y and they live in Z.  They get together at the end.’  She needs more so I make something up.  The finished story will bear absolutely no resemblance to this synopsis.
2               I try to plan my book this time.  I take out a fresh block of post-it notes and write some details on them and stick them on a wall.   I see the joy in being able to do this and move them around purposefully and I want to employ this process SO much but I can’t make it work for me.  The few post-it notes stay on that wall until they either drop off or the dog nicks them to chew on.
3               I start to write.  Chapter 1. I break that sea of white with one word and one number – I’m in. I have no idea where the story is taking me but the lines cue up in my head and I just carry on writing until I realise it is time to feed the dog/cat/rabbit/teenage boys or wee. Occasionally I will have an idea about something which might happen further down the line and I jot it quickly down in a notepad. Or, if in the middle of the night, on my arm. 
4               I need a title because it has to mean something and the title has to be relevant to the book and blended into it, as surely as sugar is folded into egg-whites to make a meringue.  I am always a lot more relaxed when I get the title which either arrives in a blinding flash of inspiration at the beginning or a whirl of panic at the eleventh hour. Usually the latter.
5              About a third of the way in I realise I hate the book.  I have no idea what is going to happen next and I don’t know my characters well enough to have any opinion of them other than I hate them as well.  I have been here enough times to realise this is not a brick wall but an illusion – it is fog.  If I power through it, there will be light on the other side. There always is but in the thick of it, it is scary and I worry that this will be the time when the fog really is a brick wall.  
6              At the other side of the fog I am more invested in my characters.  I begin to like them a bit and know what makes them tick.  They oblige me by helping me progress the plot.  Nice characters.
7               I do not edit along the way.  I complete the first draft.  The first draft might have seven Saturdays in February and Andrew in chapter one has become Darren by chapter seven and Siobhan by chapter twenty-five. Green-eyed Mary might have blue eyes by the end of the book – and possibly brown ones in the middle.  I don’t care. I do not edit here.
8               I HAVE COMPLETED THE FIRST DRAFT.  TREAT TIME. Sparkling ice wine is ordered.  I deserve this lots.
9              Second draft. I make a timeline.  Easiest way to do this is by running off a calendar that I can write on, pin point on it where my last chapter ends, then I work backwards.  Shape is happening.  I now only have 4 Saturdays in February. 
10           No title yet?  I start to twitch a little.
11           Third draft. Continuity.  Mary’s eyes are sorted out.  I make sure that the features of my characters are set in stone.  Darren is Darren at the beginning, middle and end of the book and maintains his brown hair and 5ft 7” frame throughout. 
12           My work goes off to my editor. Whilst waiting for her to come back with her comments, my stomach is in spasm hoping she will not say ‘This is absolute crap, start again.’
13           My editor returns the manuscript, tells me to strip out a murder, cut back on Darren and beef up Mary’s story.  It feels a mammoth task.  I have to cut, whip out, add in and stitch up my story into a different whole.  Somehow this happens.
14           I send it back to my editor sort of assured that we are on the same page (chortle).  If we are…. Thunderbirds are go!
15           If that title hasn’t come yet, I am now flapping like a flock of sea eagles.  My editor and agent and I bat titles back and forth. I despair.  Four hundred suggestions and none of them fit.  Some are actually so bad they make me vomit and have bad dreams.  We need a title urgently.
16           WE FIND A TITLE. I can sleep. Wine helps.
17           Having had a couple of weeks away from the manuscript, when I see it again I spot mistakes and plot-holes everywhere.  I work on getting these right and anchoring that title deep into the story.
18            I then do another draft where I enrich the language, deepen the emotion, this is the fun edit.  The one where my creativity can flow.  This edit is like the glossy top coat of nail varnish. It is as near perfect as I can get it.  
19           Exciting meetings at Publisher HQ.  So much goes on behind the scenes – PR ideas, marketing, sales. We sit around a table and they all excitedly tell me what plans they have for the book, which supermarkets and shops have bought them and how many.  We plan and plot.  It all feels real and wonderful – and we eat buns. 
20           The cover comes from the art department and it is always a joy to see it.  Except that the artist has usually gone off my initial synopsis, which as we know is full of lies, so a bit of tweaking has to go on.
21           My work goes off to the copyeditor and comes back with a million notes on it.  Mostly pointing out glaring errors that I should have noticed, and highlighting awful grammar.  She is a marvel.  I feel as if she should be writing the book and I should be cleaning toilets.
22           Magic occurs. Something happens to my brain and it turns me into a copyeditor too now.  A very anal one.  This is usually panic-driven because I am terrified of overlooking errors.  I trawl through every word of my manuscript, realising that I have written ‘just’ 42 times on one page.  I take ALL the ‘justs’ out:  675.  I read it again and have to put some ‘justs’ back in.  My copyeditor’s hair turns white.  This is my favourite part of the process because someone else reads it objectively in detail and you can work very closely with them as they are the first real pair of proper reader eyes.  But you can work too hard on this.  My copyeditor tells me it is okay to have a little natural duplication and working through a thesaurus changing every ‘said’ to a different word is counter-productive because the eye smoothes over many words that are doing a filling in job and don’t need to snag the eye.  She’s right. Again. As always.  
23           I like to look over the finished clean manuscript with all the mistakes ironed out. Still, you always miss a couple because you are poring over it so intensely. My brain now starts to wake me up at 4am. ‘Oy, Darren can’t be found in the park because in chapter 5 you said it was closed for a month.’  I have no idea how my brain does this but in the background it seems to be constantly scavenging for things to torment me with.
24           I start to panic that there is a deadline and I’ve just discovered something that is out of place and it has a knock-on effect to other stuff.  That deadline is too close.  I have a massive repair job to do suddenly.  My record is sitting down at 9am, determined not to go to bed until I had made sure everything was sorted.  I was still there at 9am the next morning.  I was still there at 15.45 that afternoon.  My eyes were out of focus and watering and on the verge of bleeding.  I put one foot on the step to go to bed as my son entered and asked if there was any chance of a bacon buttie.  The answer was ‘no’.  But with more ‘f’ sounds. 
25           I back away from the book, off it goes to be typeset. Whilst I am in limbo I can catch up with some jobs like shaving my legs/moustache, talking to the family, drinking something that isn’t espresso.  I try to relax and have a day off but I have lost the ability to know what to do with spare time.  I start designing bookmarks/bags/pens.  I am the Queen of Merchandise for this reason, because I am now obsessed with my book.  I trawl the internet for promotional goods that will look good with a sunflower/owl/Christmas pudding on them.
26           The typeset version comes back.  I need to have an eagle-eye to spot any errors and really have to try not to alter anything that does not need to be altered.  Yes, ‘packed’ would have been a better word that ‘put’, but keep it to the absolute bare minimum please.  No one else will be thinking, ‘I’d have put packed there myself if I’d written that not put.’ I spend 15 minutes worrying if a sentence makes sense when a reader’s eyes would just drift across it.  My stress levels are spiked.  I spend half an hour looking at the word ‘was’ and thinking it looks as if it is spelled wrong.
27           By now I am so sick of Mary and Darren I wish they’d jump off a cliff.  Familiarity breeds contempt.
28           The typeset manuscript is prised from my hands.  It has to go to be bound into a book.  NOW. There is no more time to edit.  In the words of Frozen Elsa: ‘LET IT GO’.
29           Another editor has also been looking at the manuscript to make sure all is well.  She will flag anything suspicious.  I love this woman like my own mother.
30           The book is printed.  I see it in all its magnificence and I am thrilled.  Another to add to the shelf and I stare at them all and wonder if I really did write all those or am I actually the conduit for a dead spirit who was denied the time on earth and hunted around for a body with a vacant brain to write them for her. 
31           Whilst I am preparing to launch the book into the world, I’ve started the next one. The editor asks for a synopsis…
32           The book is sent off to some lucky (I hope) buggers.  One can just hope that the first reviews in are nice as they serve as a suit of armour for that first ‘This is terrible.  Do not waste your money’, which inevitably comes.  I only look at the first reviews to make sure the book is hitting the spot.  Yeah course. 
33           Mrs Outraged writes a review telling people how appalling my book is and encourages everyone NOT to buy it.  I look at her other reviews.  If mine is the only one she has commented on, I presume she is an evil twat from my past. But no – Mrs Outraged has 500 other reviews to her name and she has hated the books of every other female writer on the planet, which gives me some comfort.  Also she has called the Bible far-fetched and thinks the Brontes were talentless. Although she has given her wart remover 5 stars, so she can be pleased by something.
34           We wait to see the public reaction to my new book baby. Will it make the top 10 - if it does… that’s bliss.  The pressure is always on.  If it got to number 5 last time, number 4 would be good.  But then if JK Rowling has released 7 more Harry Potters on the same week as mine is out… my chances are the opposite of slim – they’re fat! 
35           I have a busy schedule of meeting readers, signing their books, having pictures taken with them.  It’s a joy, I feel exhilarated.  I feel someone. Plus people give me a lot of scones.  People feed writers and give them Prosecco.  
36           I go home from being feted as an adored queen of romance to find that the cat litter tray needs changing, the ironing needs doing, I have no milk in the cupboard. And I have the next book to carry on writing… 


Friday, 1 June 2018

Hello My Name is Milly Johnson and I am a Writer of Commercial Fiction.

There is a rise in celeb-led book clubs.  And I did make a comment on social media that I hoped they would feature more commercial fiction in their choices.  And though these book clubs are starting to include books of our genre (two of my friends have their lovely books in them - Julie Cohen and Rowan Coleman.  Read them both and they're gorgeous and should be shouted about from the rooftops)... the problem is that there just aren’t enough of them.  And where’s the HUMOUR in the lists?  Where’s the books that make you laugh out loud?  They don’t feature.  

Humour doth not automatically a light book maketh, so said Shakespeare or maybe I dreamt that.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made me snigger in places, but it was also one of the grimmest books I ever read.  Life is full of humour, we need it to counterbalance the dark times.  But, in this world, give a reader something to laugh at in a book and it turns it into ‘a beach read’ ‘easy read’ ‘chick-lit’. Unless you’re a man and then your tome is an ‘amusing literary classic.’  I had humour in one of my books alongside assault, racism and kidnap.  ‘A light read’ so said Amazon reviewers.  Book by woman + laughter = froth. It would still have been judged the same had I thrown in a buggered Alsatian as well. 

 There’s a lot of snobbery in the book world.  Women writers of commercial fiction – and I include the saga and historical writers in this – feel it doubly.  Had a woman written ‘One Day’, it would be consigned to the file of ‘chick lit’ (not an original observation by me - I've stolen it as it's a brilliant one) but, guess what girls, we have a long way to go before the playing field is flat so just get on with your writing and forget the politics.  The broadsheets will favour literary books for a long time to come... sea changes take a while.  Still, I can’t think of any writer I know who has an inverted snobbery about those books.  We don’t look down on them because we don’t compare with them: they’re different. Which do you prefer: a fillet steak or a goosedown duvet?  It’s not right or wrong to prefer one to the other.  Steaks and duvets can co-exist happily in the world. It’s not a contest.  We can say 'we want more' without it meaning 'but we want you to have less'.

Predictable is another lazy insult if you favour a happy ending. A woman once wrote a review on Amazon that she could predict the end after reading four pages of my book.  I asked her for next week’s lottery results (naughty Milly, do NOT leave comments).   Well, yep, I ride that predictability bus.  I like to leave people with some hope that their dreams can come true.  Mine did. I dreamt of being an author.  I dreamt of having £10 spare at the end of my pay packet so I could buy a weekly video.  I dreamt of having my own office. I dreamt – big dream – of one day actually having enough brass to GO ON A CRUISE.  I’m dreamt of meeting Mr Right and I did. I’m there. It happens, dreams do come true – as Gabrielle so rightly foresaw.  Anyway – Agatha Christie is predictable:  There’s a crime, Hercule or Jane solves it and the bad guy gets put away in prison.  I can put up with that sort of bed-mate.

Commercial fiction holds its own against the insults and all those Japanese knot-weed rumours that it’s dying, that it’s ‘on its arse’.  Actually, never has it been so strong.  Never has the world, in such a total mess, needed commercial fiction as much to give our brains some respite. And, in case you’re wondering, what I mean by commercial fiction is: books whose main purpose is not to challenge you intellectually or show off how many synonyms for ‘sybarite’ the author can muster up but books which give hope and comfort to people who need some time out of their zone, books that entertain and sweep up the reader into their pages.  Books that celebrate friendship, community, love and family, that bruise your heart and then slap arnica on it, books full of characters that readers identify with – perfectly imperfect people who get their happy ending and make YOU realise you could have it too because carers of the elderly, teachers, dinner-ladies, people who work in Asda, stay-at-home mums all have a crack at a happy ending in life, it is not a prerogative of special individuals.  Authors write these books primarily for readers to enjoy and their readers are legion and they speak with their purses.  This is big business.  'It’s called commercial for a reason: because it sells' (quoted from Cathy Bramley).

Oh and just because something sells and becomes popular, that somehow serves to devalue it.  As if 'niche' only is desirable.  Well that might be the case if Van Gogh had churned out 10,000 identical Sunflower paintings but with books, I'm not sure it's quite the same. Even if it is, I don't care.  I write for the masses, not to have one book exhibited in a glass case.  I want to be like E.L. who must be so upset by the derision from lofty quarters that she has to take a break from counting her millions. She has so many critics she could build a mansion from their livers, but they're far FAR outweighed by her readers who love her. 

But we live in an age where 15% of adults in the country have the literacy age of an eleven year old.  Surely making people feel ashamed that they like a story that doesn’t make them reach for a dictionary every second word is wrong, isn't it?  Surely a life-affirming story about people that readers can identify with is no bad thing?  One that captures their imagination, has them reading on, improves their literacy levels because they’re so engrossed in a story?  There is NOTHING WRONG with a book that is easy to read or has a sparkly cover that calls to you from a shelf in Tesco.  Not everywhere has a swanky bookshop.  Buying a book from a supermarket is no different from obtaining it from ‘Jago and Dashwater’ with its mullioned windows in the centre of Oxford (I made that name up).  A book is a book is a book and commercial fiction books can change lives.  

Readers of mine will be familiar with a story of a taxi driver that took something from one of my books that made him and his wife quit the rat race and live out a dream existence in an Inn in the most gorgeous part of France.  And here are some direct lifts from many of the emails that I’ve kept from people.

 ‘The Queen of Wishful Thinking inspired me get away from my controlling husband, I won't go into details, so after a horrible 9 months divorce is nearly complete along with moving into a lovely flat on my own hurray!! Just need a couple of rescue cats for company!!’

‘You wouldn’t believe it but we just literally booked a cruise in the Mediterranean for this September....You can take full credit for that!’  (ahem… I do)

‘I am sitting at the side of my husband who has dementia and your books take me to a place where I can breathe. Thank you.’

And one hot from the press that came as a response to this article: 'Charles Dickens hasn't helped my mental health but your books have.'

I know that a couple of women quit their jobs and set up a business calling themselves ‘2 Woman and a Mop’ because they wrote and told me so.  Another set up a cafĂ© after reading my books. I’m not alone in getting these stories.  I know plenty of my contemporaries have similar stories to parade. So not worthless fluff then?  Not ‘lesser books’.  We write powerful, inspirational books.  Even the New York Times has a romantic novel round-up! (thank you Pernille Hughes for this.) And if it's good enough for them... https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/books/review/summer-reading-romance.html

When a book in our genre becomes so successful that it can’t be ignored, it is reborn as ‘Up-Lit’.  It’s like the kid in school who writes an essay so good that he’s whisked off to the swanky grammar school up the road.  He isn’t allowed to stay in his friendship group, he has to learn to mingle with the cool kids.  Up-Lit is a new genre, they say.  Nope.  It might not have had the fancy moniker but I was reading Carole Matthews and Sue Welfare way before I’d even thought of my first plot and they were wonderful uplifting reads that left me with a smile on my face at the end.  (Presently waiting for one of mine to have the 'Hollywood' fairy arrive with her million pound contract.  Then I will be sanitised and relabelled 'Pit Lit'). It’s okay for a book to be a good read and still be commercial fiction. I’m not ashamed of what I write.  It’s okay for me to leave a reader with a sloppy contented look on their face rather than a ‘what the f – happened?’ and wondering if they’ve been sold a book with some missing pages.  As my friend Debbie Johnson points out: books about community spirit and heart and imperfect people overcoming personal struggles in life to rise victorious are absolutely nothing new.  Anne of Green Gables embodied that sentiment in 1908.  Aaaand the most perfectly imperfect heroine of them all (IMO) Jane Eyre - 1847.  Not new then. 

'I read commercial fiction,' a lady told me after reading the first draft of this article, 'but I've got a degree and I'm intelligent.'  NOOO... that's nearly an apology.  Just because you read 'genre fiction' does not make you thick, indiscriminate.  Where does this split in the world come from?  Literary fiction readers = art appreciation, business class travel, Waitrose, interest in lofty history programmes, Radio 3 listener.  Commercial fiction readers = watches Coronation Street on a continuous loop, holidays in Benidorm, wouldn't know Madame Butterfly from a Butterfly King Prawn, shops in Aldi.  (Incidentally one of the poshest women I know shops in Aldi and has a villa just outside Benidorm).  You can enjoy a chip butty whilst reading an Ian McKeown novel (incidentally the man is a God - I love his work. It's allowed). That's part of the problem, we've been made to feel apologetic for reading something that lifts our hearts, ashamed of our choices.  And I know many authors in our genre who can wipe the floor with most of the literary lot for their beautiful use of language.  Read 'The Man who Didn't Call' by Rosie Walsh and see what I mean - a masterclass of  beautiful prose.  Had Rosie been a man, she'd have...  I'll leave you to fill in the rest! 

I’m doing well.  I’m a million quid short of the castle I want to buy but I’ve worked hard and long and I sell in bookshops and supermarkets all over the place.  But a lot of my contemporaries don’t because it’s harder and harder these days to sell into shops and you need sales to flag up your presence to buyers – a vicious circle. So celeb-led book clubs with their long reach are a gift.  They too could change lives by shining a well-needed spotlight on a new talent, one that might not even be with a mainstream publisher.  I have brilliant writer friends who left the ‘Big Five’ to self-publish. Sue Welfare, Matt Dunn (yes a man), Tracy Bloom amongst others. 

I did actually make the broadsheet papers last year.  Someone decided to clone my name and flood Amazon worldwide with fake titles.  In a crazy way it was flattering that my name was deemed big enough to pin their scheme on.  Even more bizarrely that means I’m appreciated more by a global criminal fraternity than I am by the book reviewer of the Sunday Times, even when I'm shining on the page in the number 5 Sunday Times bestseller slot. 

Oh and a couple of years ago, I made the top twenty books most borrowed in this country for libraries.  Above John Grisham - ahem.  Three women in the list - Paula Hawkins and her train, Harper Lee with her Watchman and there - at number 12 - me with my book about a bunch of cleaners in Barnsley sitting happily amongst the Lee Childs and David Williams.  What a chance to celebrate!  Women!  Commercial fiction! But nope - it was classed as an aberration, an anomaly, an Northern elephant in the room and conveniently ignored. Nothing to see here folks, let's move quickly on. Which might make me sound bitter... so read on friends to 'Bitter-gate' below.

On the strength of the Twitter comment about wanting a celeb-led book club full of commercial fiction, I was invited to go on the radio and talk with a high-profile male, and female presenter and I was delighted.  ‘Did I think that our books were the equivalent of bubble gum songs?’ asked the Producer before the interviewer.  Churned out, easily forgettable?  No, I bloody don’t think that.  (He actually said 'like Taylor Swift songs' which, as Lisa Jewell pointed out was not actually the insult it was meant to be because she 'is a hugely talented young woman who makes writing and performing high quality pop music look so much easier than it is.')  I was introduced as 'Now Milly, you're bitter...'.  Something, as least, I was prepared for just in case they couldn't tell the difference between a genuine call for a celeb-led book club with more of our novels in it and me  bleating that I'm not a Richard and Judy choice (yes it would be lovely if I were, but it won't ruin my life if I'm not).   

'Now Milly, you're bitter...' 

And it went downhill from there. For some reason the female presenter presumed I was on there for advice about how to get my books out there if I wanted to be successful.  

'If you look at a book it’s a product and I completely understand before social media it was very difficult to break into the publishing world but you only have to look at JK Rowling, look how many books got refused.  So my point is, if you are absolutely passionate about getting your books to be read by the wider audience then actually you have to be a business woman and you have to use social media and you have to get your audience because you can’t rely on TV celebrities and people like… you know… critics, you have to go out there and make it happen yourself.' 

Funnily enough, I broke into that publishing world in 2006 and I do run it as a business: vat, accountant, assistant, petty cash tin, BIG hole punch.  My books are read by a very wide audience - I even have my own shelf in Tesco. And as for social media... even my pet rabbit Alan tweets. But you're wrong, we DO need TV celebs and 'critics' in newspapers, that was the whole point of me going on the programme, not for tips on how to post a photo to Pinterest!  How come it's okay for other genres to need them but not us?  We all write books.  We all enjoy exposure because we have to sell those books, that's how it works, Mrs, whether you write crime, literary, saga, romance, historical, recipes...

Then my hopeful heart sank further...

Male presenter:   'I know, I know what you’re talking about, it’s just flashed up in my mind. Coming up to Christmas on Channel 5, or some channel, it’s always a Christmas channel, do you notice that, and they’re full of romantic films of a man who’s a lumberjack in a town, a teacher  who goes for a new job at a school and her husband has just been run over by a bus in New York city and she relocates out into the country and he’s hunky and she always has a teenage daughter or son who doesn’t like the lumberjack.  Isn’t this the sort of thing we’re talking about?'

My bubble of hope burst.  I tried, folks.  Bitter?  Yes.  But only about a failed perfect chance to address a very serious issue that really does affect livelihoods. Ironic considering Marian Keyes was in the studio talking too about the snobbery of the book world as she was being hailed by said presenter as a superstar of fiction written by a woman, for women, featuring women.  Note to him:  Marian is us. I wonder if he realised that he was calling Marian's books Lumberjack Fiction too? (Pick-Lit?).  

But, in the words of that great philosopher Baldrick, we already had a cunning plan in place… Please keep your eye on this Facebook site.  And if you are a writer of commercial fiction, we may be calling on you. https://www.facebook.com/auntyacid/.  It has a reach of 43 million people around the globe.  That limelight is warming up for you as we speak.