How I Became A Single Parent …

I was nineteen and in the second year of my A levels when I found out I was pregnant. To say it was a surprise, would be an understatement. My boyfriend of two years – a soldier who was frequently away – was equally surprised, but initially supportive. I decided – in the iconic words of Madonna in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – hmmm, I’m gonna keep my baby. As she also sang, I decided, we can raise a little family, maybe we’ll be all right, it’s a sacrifice. Then my boyfriend changed his mind when I was six months pregnant. Aside from five minutes in a courtroom a year later – trying and failing to get maintenance for my son – I have never seen him since.

And so I became a single parent.

Just like that.

I lived at home with my single mother and three other siblings, in a small council house. I had no savings. Of course I didn’t. I was nineteen. Though I’d had summer and evening jobs since I was fourteen, I’d never expected to be a mum so young, and so suddenly, and on my own. I put my name down on the council housing list as it was the only way I might be able to move out and not have to pay a huge deposit. Nothing happened. No offer of anything. I wasn’t ‘desperate’ enough, which is absolutely fair, since I had a roof over my head, even though I was sharing a bedroom with my mother – not the best experience with a heavy drinker – because my twin sisters shared a tiny room and my brother, being now twelve, had to have the other.

My brother with my newborn son, January 1991.

My son Conor was born at the beginning of 1991. I fell completely and utterly in love. Despite a thirty-six-hour labour, and a whopping 9lb 9oz boy, it felt like magic to hold him in my arms. I’d been looking after my siblings since I was four so, really, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. He slept in a Moses basket baby on the landing. (My mother didn’t want to be disturbed by him in the night.) In January. In a council house with no central heating. But I’ve always felt this made him the hardy creature he is, very rarely ill. I’d often fall asleep there, next to that basket, feeding him in the night on the landing, both of us wrapped in a duvet, the sweet scent of him something I can still smell now.

Eventually, when Conor was nine months old, I’d saved up enough for a deposit and got a cheap rented property. There was no heating apart from one small gas fire in the living room, and no double glazing. But I made it homely. I looked for work. This was a time before the CSA enforced maintenance from absent fathers and so I had to pay for everything Conor and I needed. It was also a time before Tax Credits at least topped up low incomes and helped with childcare. Whatever I earned would have to pay the rent, childcare, bills, food and clothes – for two of us. There was no job I had a hope in hell of getting that would cover it. I had no experience. So I went on benefits. I got £80 a week. That was for everything. I wasn’t a scrounger. I wanted desperately to work. I went every month to the job centre to see if there was something that paid enough.

My gorgeous, smiley boy, aged about five months.

At times, I was lonely and depressed. All my friends were at university or travelling the world. My own father had not been in life since I was fifteen. Now I had a son with no father too. I had zero self-pity though. I’d made the decision to have my child, and that came with all the risks of ending up alone. But very few single parents end up that way by choice. Very few are scrounging or lazy. I used the words single parent rather than single mum as I know it can happen to anyone.

Once Conor went to nursery and then school – when childcare was therefore minimal – I went back to college and then got a job in a hotel. I eventually met my husband and had our daughter. And finally, when my son was eight, I got maintenance payments from his father.

My sister, me and Conor, aged five months.

Now, when I’m on the bus and see a very young mum with her baby, I feel huge compassion for her, and if there’s a chance, make a fuss of her child. She may not be alone. There may be a partner. I don’t know the full story. And this is the thing. We never do. But the fact is that behind every single parent there is an absent parent. And which is worse? A parent who is there – or a parent who isn’t?

How To Be Scared…

They say you should challenge yourself. Stretch yourself. Do things that scare the bejesus out of you. I don’t know who they are, but in the last three weeks I’ve done three things that scared the bejesus out of me – four if you include having to cut my mother’s toenails – and one that set my bowels aquiver, but wasn’t quite as bejesus-y as the others. Why on earth did I do them? For the reasons above, to stretch like a laggy band and be challenged like a Krypton Factor contestant? Well, yes, actually. Yes, partly

The first bowel-contracting thing I did was take to the stage. Become a thespian. Tread the boards. Break a leg. Friend Chloe, who I work with at Hull Truck Theatre, has written a beautiful script, I’ll Bring You Flowers, which was being showcased at The Roundabout in Lincoln, and she needed an actress in her forties. Having only actor friends much younger, she turned to me. Obviously the first thing I said was that I’d have to age up significantly, that people might not believe I was older than thirty. The second was that I’m not an actress. The third was a nervous yes.

The four of us, in rehearsals for I’ll Bring You Flowers

So we rehearsed. Amelia, the other actress, suggested after two read-throughs that we go off-page. Off-page? Without the page? Without the words in front of me? Already? I put my script aside like I was abandoning life-saving medicine; then stumbled through while the other girls spoke with grace and confidence. On the bus, I listened to a recording of us to help me learn. At home, I listened to Chloe’s lines and tried to respond with mine in the gaps. I didn’t want to let her down. Look like a fool. Then we spent a weekend in Lincoln, rehearsing over and over and over, for hours and hours and hours. I realised something. I was enjoying it. I knew my lines. I was the character. But then we had to go on an actual stage and actually do it for actual human people. I waited in the wings for my cue. And went on. And bloody loved it. The buzz. The audience. The adrenaline. The applause.

Will I go on stage again? Never say never.

The next bowel-contracting thing involved being thrown wildly into the air, risking life and limb. Well, maybe not exactly like that, but I want you to read on. On a weekend walk around Hull Fair with husband Joe – where palmists who have ‘done’ celebrities like Mavis Riley, Jack Duckworth, and Sonia Fowler, will tell you your future – I suggested we go on the Big Wheel. This isn’t just a big wheel – it’s a fuck-off, mahooosive wheel. I’m petrified of heights but thought I’d get a nice snap of the view. Nope. I just clung to the central post like a really crap pole dancer and begged Joe not to move, not to breathe, not to speak, because then we would fall to our deaths.  We didn’t. I recovered and got a bag of brandy snap.

Will I go on a Big Wheel again? Never.

The next bowel-contracting thing I did is something that most people fear. Public speaking. Can there be anything more stomach-churningly horrifying than standing in front of eighty people, alone, and talking for an hour? No. And guess who did, last week, for a Ladies Group? Me. Just days after the Big Wheel. Could it be worse? Actually, no. There was tea and good biscuits, for a first. There was a prayer at the start, for a second. Then I walked up to the front, thinking, ‘You’re not going to die, you’re not going to die … well, unless that huge cross falls on you.’ It didn’t. And the ladies could not have been more welcoming. I ended up loving it.

Will I do a talk again? Yes.

Signing books for the ladies of Barton…

Now, the other thing. The thing not quite as bowel-quivering or bejesus-y as the others. On Friday, I interviewed another writer as part of the Festival of Words literature event. I loved the book so much – a beautiful memoir called I Never said I Loved You – that I was only excited to chat to Rhik Samadder about it. That excitement almost eclipsed my fear of public speaking. Almost. I still felt fluttery in the green room beforehand, but Rhik was so warm and kind and funny, that it was like going onstage with a long-time friend.

Will I interview anyone in public again? You bet.

I wonder now what it is I’m actually so afraid of. I guess, I’m afraid of failing. Of being criticised. Of being an idiot. Of being laughed at (for the wrong reasons). Of being ugly. Of being stupid. Of being utterly vulnerable. Don’t we all feel that way though? Is it just me?

So was it worth it, doing things that scared the bejesus out of me? Did I learn anything? Yes. I’m still alive. Yes. I felt chuffed for succeeding. Yes. Proud that I stepped out of my comfort zone. But has it prepared me for the next scary thing? The scariest thing of all. I’m not sure. I’ll only know when I click Open on my new Word document. On the file called Daffodils. On what might be my new book. On my own words. Not fiction. Not escape. Not adventure. Just me. A memoir.

PS – Back to my mother’s toenails. No. No. Never again. Well, until she asks me…

PPS – I also went to the dentist, but let’s just keep things simple.

Finding The Story By Writing It

I’m endlessly fascinated by other writers’ processes; by how the story forms for them, by whether they plot or don’t, by whether they know where they’re going when they set off. But then I also love the idea of this process being a total mystery and I don’t want to ruin the fantasy that some magical, impossible-to-explain thing occurs when we write. To be honest, it feels a little that way for me, and I guess I’m ultimately wondering if I’m the only one.

I find my stories by writing them. The act of physically writing delivers the novel to me. I don’t plot. I don’t know exactly where I’ll end up or how I’ll get there when I do. I might vaguely have a destination and a few stop-off points in my head, but some of those don’t happen, and others occur as I go. It’s a bit like getting on a bus for a mystery trip. Maybe I’ll know the region we’re heading for, but not the exact town. And I’ll have no idea how long it’ll take to get there.

I feel like if I know the full story before I set off, I won’t have those wonderful moments where a reveal or surprise naturally occurs. I feel like I won’t listen to my characters and let them lead. I believe the words my characters say when they say them and so hopefully on the page, for the reader, they ring absolutely true as well. So if I learn something new about a character along the journey, the shock I feel is raw and that hopefully goes directly into the prose.

I do begin a new notepad with each novel that I write. I still have most of them. They are full of random scribbles; of ideas that came to me in the night; of things I thought of on the bus. There is no order or pattern. I’m OCD everywhere in my life except in my writing. I’m OCD about my surroundings, my plans, my cupboards, my lists, my shopping. I guess my writing is the only place where I’m truly free.

When I started my current novel, I Am Dust, I knew it would be set in a theatre. I knew there had been a murder and I could see my main characters. I had a feel for it rather than a clear vision. I didn’t know who had killed the lead actress in my show until I was at the halfway mark. Then it was like I had always known, somehow, on a subconscious level. It takes the writing of the story to open that information up for me. Today, at the 55,000 words mark, I realised that one of my characters has been lying to me. I was as shocked as if a friend had done so. But because I didn’t know until now, everything I’ve written about them will seem true because I believed it was when I wrote it.

Am I ever afraid that the story won’t come? That the white page will remain blank? No. It always happens. I guess if it doesn’t, then my writing days will be over. How about you? Do you plot carefully … or do you just set off, loose ideas in your head, fingers on the keyboard, and trust in the process?

The Beauty of #BlogTours

One of the huge highlights of having a new book out is the blog tour – or perhaps that should be #blogtour since these things can go viral, and are all about social media. With most people’s lives being lived online today, it’s the perfect way to share the #booklove. But these tours involve a lot of very dedicated people – and I’d like to thank them here.

Thanks to the sixty-plus people who came on the #CallMeStarGirl tour, it ended up trending. Thanks to the sixty-plus people who read and reviewed my first #PsychologicalThriller, other readers told me they now had to read the book too. Thanks to the sixty-plus people who shared and retweeted each other’s blogs, my timeline was full of glorious stars.

Bloggers, know that authors are so very grateful to all that you do, for nothing but the pleasure of it; for taking time out of your own busy lives, and writing the reviews with such passion and joy. I felt I had to take a moment out of my life this morning and thank you. Thanks for putting #CallMeStarGirl on the online map. Thanks for making April a bit magic.

Thank you also to the magnificent Anne Cater for arranging it all. I saw how she personally thanked each blogger. I saw how she shared and quoted each blogger. I saw how she commented on their websites thanking them too. She has her own busy life and she did all this and changed mine. My publisher Karen Sullivan does the same – she shares and thanks and comments on all the posts, not leaving a single person out.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you.

Daffodils

On the morning I took this beautiful picture I was walking along the river. It was exactly two months ago today. I went for a walk that I regularly take, hiking along the banks of the river, passing underneath the Humber Bridge, and then weaving through the leafy country park.

But because of a parcel I went an hour and a half earlier than I usually would. It wasn’t even my parcel. On his way out to work, my husband asked if I’d be in all day to sign for it. I said I wouldn’t, that I absolutely had to take my walk, after all yesterday I’d been on a mental health awareness course at work, and it had reiterated what I already knew – that physical exercise is up there with good sleep in combating depression and anxiety.

We argued half-heartedly, the way you do when you’ve been married almost twenty years, and in the end I said that if I went for my walk there and then – at just after 8am instead of at 9.30am – he could hang about for the ‘bloody parcel’and just go into work late.

On the walk, in the early mist, I saw these gorgeous daffodils by the water. I took the picture, intending to maybe share it on Instagram or somewhere.

I never did.

That afternoon my phone lit up with my sister’s name. She lives in Grantham and I knew she was at work, so I frowned, knowing it must be quite important. She said, ‘She’s OK,’ first and I knew it was bad news. Someone must be in trouble, but alive.

Then she said, ‘Mum jumped off the Humber Bridge.’

I don’t actually know how I felt immediately. It’s a bit like the misty picture of the daffodils where you can’t fully see the water, and nothing of the opposite river bank. She garbled the facts, clearly in shock. Mum jumped this morning. She’s at the hospital now. A miracle she’s alive. Life-changing injuries. I called my other sister. It took ages to get hold of her because she too was at work, and with every ring I dreaded changing her life the way mine had just been changed. I’ve always liked to protect my siblings, but there was no protecting them from this.

We rushed to the hospital. My brother was waiting there. We have been together, the four of us, through so much, and this was no different. The rest is a blur of medical staff and cups of tea and lists of injuries and standing around a bed and hearing the machines and having to tell my mum’s only brother in Australia.

If I had gone on my morning walk at the usual time, I might have seen my mum walking up to the bridge and changed things. Or I might have seen her on the bridge and been able to do nothing. Or worse. And this haunts me every day. Thanks to a parcel – that never actually came that day in the end – I wasn’t there when she was.

Four days after it happened, I had to go away.

Until the day before, I wasn’t going to, but my family persuaded me that I should, that I could come home if anything else happened. A good writer friend told me to go and be Louise Beech the author, which really helped. I had an awards ceremony in London that I couldn’t miss, and a book tour that despite everything, I didn’t want to miss. I did it. I smiled and did it. But I really was broken inside.

I like making other people happy. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my mother’s feet when I was perhaps six or seven, trying to make her smile. She was depressed. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know that nothing would have made her smile.

So it’s two months on.

And I found the photo of the daffodils on my phone, with the date 28th February.

Daffodils symbolise spring and rebirth. If you look up their meaning, they also represent memory and forgiveness. They belong to the genus narcissus, a name that comes from the Greek God Narcissus. He was so enamoured with his own reflection in the river that he drowned trying to capture his reflection. The daffodils growing along stream banks took on his name, due to the beauty of their reflected image in the water.

Anyway, I’m writing again, like I always am.

And I’m smiling again, like I always am.

But just like in the photo, there’s always way more to it.

My Ten Rules Of Writing

Since I’ve seen some writers creating many a Ten Things About Writing list – from what you should and shouldn’t write about, to where you and shouldn’t have been, to what you need to have experienced, seen, studied etc – I thought I’d have a go at mine. So, for your enjoyment, scattered with some of my favourite pictures from my writing journey, here are my ten rules of writing…

  1. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
  2. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
  3. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

4. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

5. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

6. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

7. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

8. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

9. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

10. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

Amazon Should Do Zero Stars

Amazon Should Do Zero Stars

Just no.

Mediocre.

Just no.

Too much of a stretch.

I really did my best.

I should have stopped at 30%.

Should never have reached the end.

I wouldn’t have missed

much.

Amazon should do zero stars.

Colin and Ken bored me to tears.

To tears.

It could have been so much better,

with an injection of tension or fear.

Dire.

It’s a terrible book.

One star.

It’s a pity she didn’t concentrate on one subject

or the other

but then she wouldn’t have had enough material

to write two novels.

Am I missing something?

Amazon should do zero stars.

I could not carry on reading.

Okay, not great.

Can’t use language? Don’t write a book.

What the fuck?

Contrived plot.

Too long.

Needs a judicious pruning.

Worst thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read lots.

It’s not you, it’s me.

There’s too much good literature out there to

waste time reading

such shit.

Amazon should do zero stars.

I hope my review saves people the pain

and wasted time

I have endured again.

Mediocre.

Full of clichés and predictable.

Don’t waste your time on this

drivel.

Not a man’s book.

It’s written like a children’s book.

What the fuck?

Make your mind up.

A children’s books,

and not a good one at that.

Amazon should do zero stars.

It’s not often I don’t finish a book

But this time I have been

defeated.

Perhaps this should be repeated –

defeated.

This book wasn’t for me.

I’m unable to find any positive comments

to make.

Oh, try. Do try.

Two stars – I was enjoying it

until I stopped halfway.

Lions are my favourite

but the facts are all wrong.

It’s too long.

Amazon should do zero stars.

This book arrived late.

It did not fit on my bookshelf.

It is not what I thought.

It is not what I bought.

She is not quite right.

This is not quite right.

You are not quite right.

Just no.

Amazon should do zero stars.

And The Swans Began To Sing – Blog Tour

And The Swans Began to Sing by Thora Karitas Arnadottir

In this gorgeous creative nonfiction, Thora Karitas Arnadottir writes with aching beauty, gentle simplicity, and raw truth about her mother, Gudbjorg Thorisdottir. About the appalling abuse she endured at the hands of her grandpa. About how she spent half of her life trying to forget it. The book is a journey – that of a woman who did not seek professional help until she was forty-eight-years-old for the ‘ugly secret’ she had buried most of her life until then, a secret that caused acute claustrophobia.

“It does no good,’ my mother said on her deathbed, ‘carrying your past around on your back. Write your story: the good and the bad.’

As someone who also has many buried memories, these words resonated so powerfully with me. But oh, there is good as well as bad in this story. There are beautiful scenes of the love between Gudbjorg and her mother – memories of suckling at her breast, then looking at her loving face, recallingthe absolutely joyful and perfect emotion. There is her absolute love of poetry and stories. There is a love of the land where she lives, so vividly evoked in the prose.

Thora Karitas Arnadottir

‘I hardly ever cried when I was a child, however I remember one summer night when I uncharacteristically lost control, and my emotions burst out frighteningly. I was about six.’

The book explores how shame silences the brightest child. How silence then was Gudbjorg’s worst enemy for most of her life. How this silence created a chasm between her and the rest of the world. The abuse began for Gudbjorg at the tender, tender age of one. She knows this because of the particular dresses she wore with knee-highsocks. She even told her own mother that her grandpa had kissed her ‘with his tongue’ but cannot remember that anything happened as a result. When her mother then saw them together, in a painful scene in a bedroom, nothing happened. As a reader I felt such sadness and anger at how Gudbjorg, therefore, continued to bury her pain.

The writing is exquisite – nothing is lost in the translationfrom Icelandic into English. There is such a gorgeous sense of place, enchanting imagery, and every emotion is evoked in deft strokes. The message of survival and forgiveness is strong. Gudbjorg says she is aware that she was definitely ‘bent and contorted’ from her abuse but that she had an inner strength that helped her have a ‘normal’ life, one she is aware many don’t achieve.

‘Stories heal the soul. There’s relief in giving the wings of fiction to life’s secrets and watch them trailing up to heaven like an offering of incense.’

I’ve always felt that stories are powerful. That in fiction we can explore what is too painful to look at directly. So And The Swans Began To Sing really sang to me. It’s a stunning book that I won’t forget for a long time.

ABOUT THE BOOK

And The Swans Begin to Sing by Thora Karitas is published by Wild Pressed Books on 10th January 2019.

Thora Karitas is an Icelandic actress and author and this is the English translation of her Icelandic debut. It’s a narrative non-fiction about her mother’s life in Iceland.

THORA KARITAS ARNADOTTIR studied drama in Britain and is best known for the award winning TV series, Astridur, in her home country and for hosting Unique Iceland, a highly popular travel magazine show about Iceland.

Thora is currently working on her first novel, which will be released in Iceland in 2019.

Have you written your best book yet?

Deep down, I think I’ve finally written my masterpiece. And it scares the living shit out of me.’ – Truman Capote

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And there’s my brother, loitering, with all his profound questions …

At my recent book launch – a split second before I was about to end the Q&A to go and sign books with my glorious, hand-crafted wooden pen shaped like a lion– my brother asked me a question that I only answered briefly, but that has haunted me ever since.

Do you think you’ve written your best book yet?

Do I? In that moment, my immediate answer was no. God, no. An absolute no. No, definitely not. No way. No, no, no. Please accept my first answer only. But is this quick response because of the abject fear that I have? A fear that I’ve already peaked with book four and the only way to go is down. No one wants to have been their best, they only want to be it now, or in the future.

Author of When I Find You, Emma Curtis, said ‘not by a long chalk’ when I posed the question to other writers. ‘Once you think your best book is written, you might as well stop,’ said Ellen Alpsten, writer of Tsarina. ‘No way,’ said Joel Hames, author of Dead North. ‘The moment I don’t think I can get any better I’m putting the pen down.’

I thought some more about it. Was my answer instinct and truth, or raw fear? The reviews for my latest novel – The Lion Tamer Who Lost – have taken my breath away. Readers have said it’s their favourite so far. All writers want this. To have improved and learned and grown. But the pressure on those two little words – so far – is immense. Will the next one continue that trend or am I going to fall off a cliff and cut my poor, curly-haired, hardworking head open?

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My magnificent, hand-crafted lion pen…

I talked to my husband Joe about it in the car late one night after I’d finished work. ‘It’s a bit like Michael Jackson,’ he said. ‘Is it?’ I asked. ‘Yes. Everyone wondered where he could go after Thriller. And Bad was fantastic, but was it another Thriller?’ True. Was it? How does one succeed an album that spawned seven top-ten hits, sold 40 million copies, and won eight Grammy Awards?

Have I written my Thriller? My magnum opus? My defining work?

(Not that The Lion Tamer Who Lost has been shortlisted for any Grammys or sold 40-million copies … yet.)

The answer after much consideration is still no, I don’t think I’ve written my best. The reason for that isn’t only that I’ve learned so much during this publishing journey – about editing, about pacing, about point of view – but that I’m too self-critical. I want to push my limits a little more each time. These limits scream at me every time I sit down to write; then there’s this voice that whispers to me that I’m stupid, not good enough. If it ever disappears, where will the fire come from?

So I asked a few more writers how they would answer.

Will Dean, auther of Dark Pines and Red Snow, said, ‘I bloody hope not. My whole writing process is based on fear. Fear if I stop and reread, I will lose confidence. Fear if I slow down on a first draft, I’ll lose momentum. Fear if I look at my work too closely, I’ll lose all hope. I always look forwards and don’t want to try to judge my own work. I just want to keep writing and keep having fun with it and let others decide.’

Author-Portrait-Will-Dean
Will Dean and his lovely hair.

That fear word again. In many ways the whole writing process is about fear. Fear of not finding any words – or as Truman Capote said, of not plucking them from the clouds. Fear of forgetting how to do it. Of running out of ideas. Of not being good enough. (Perhaps the latter one is only me?)

Conversely, Claire Allan, author of Her Name Was Rose, said, ‘I think yes. So far. I think there are two books in particular that stand out for me. But I’d hope to give you a different answer in five years’ time. I think we’re always striving to improve.’

I’ve used the word fear a lot, and yet writing is my joyful place. Despite the niggling, critical voices – they are not mine, I know that – I feel quite unwell if I don’t write regularly. I’m free here. If I ignore the nagging voice, I know exactly what I’m doing. Language fascinates me, the rhythm and flow of the words, the secrets they reveal.

Michael Malone, writer of After He Died, answered the question this way. ‘I really hope not. While I’ve still got something to say – and a desire to commit it to print – I hope that I’ll find even better ways of engaging my readers. I believe we are always learning, as writers, primarily from reading and observing people around us. There’s also the feeling that it is in some ways in the hands of our readers. Different themes/ subjects/ characters will engage them to greater or lesser degrees, regardless of how my skill as a writer has developed. I’ve already had people say that was good, but not as good as X. We have to pray that along the line it all marries up – technique/ character/ story – or continues to in a meaningful way.’

Adding to this, Phoebe Locke – author of The Tall Man – said, ‘I’d like to think I’m always improving but then I hope that will always be true no matter how many books I write – so yes and no, I guess! It will be fascinating to see what others say.’

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With Phoebe Locke at the Festival of Words event.

The novel I think could be my best scares the bejesus out of me. And that’s a good thing because I won’t write it until I’m ready, which of course I might be never. I’m not even sure it’ll be a novel, and I’m even less sure anyone would want to read it. Because ‘best novel’ doesn’t necessarily mean bestselling. Some of the best novels in the world didn’t sell well.

Will Carver said, ‘I’d have to say both yes and no. Good Samaritans is my fourth book to be published and I think it’s my best so far. I certainly learned from the things I did right and got wrong in the first three books. However, I have other projects on the go and I think I’ve learned from the things I did with Good Samaritans to make my next one better. So, when I’ve finished a book I have, at once, written my best book and not written my best book – because the next one should be better. I wrote the shit out of my second book but publishing cold feet meant that I changed a lot of it to suit people who were never going to read it. But if your question means have I written my magnum opus, the answer is no. I’m still discovering myself and what it is that I really want to write about. My best book, the one I deeply want to write, is locked up somewhere. It’s there but I haven’t written it yet. I want to find my Gatsby, of course. But I’m fucking miles away from it, right now. All I can say is that I learn with each book and hope I can continue to improve.’

I agree – I’m always trying to write the best thing I’ve ever written. I want to stretch myself, hence the genre change with my next book. I also don’t want to write what people expect from me, which after Lion Tamer is tragedy, tears and tissues. I want to surprise and maybe even shock. I never want to be lazy, churning out form books, one after another. I’d rather never write another word again.

Carol Lovekin – author of Snow Sisters – agrees about her best book being locked up somewhere. ‘I sense it’s hiding in my heart, waiting for me to decide, once and for all, that I’m good enough to take real risks. I still, sometimes, feel like an impostor. And I agree – once you write your best book, where do you go?’

Laura Pearson, author of Missing Pieces, said, ‘I hope not. It would be really sad to be always trying to match previous skill or success.’ Elisa Lorello, author of The Second First Time, said, ‘I always want and hope for my next book to be my best book yet. And then the next, and then the next…’

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Is it my best novel? I hope not.

As I write my sixth novel – currently called We Are Our Own Ghosts – and am at that excited stage, just over halfway, where the characters are shouting me in the night and the ending is starting to form, I feel sure THIS is my best. I hope it is. Because it’s a couple of years from being released.

After it’s out and I’m on my seventh? Then I hope it isn’t…

So writers – have you written your best book yet?

Switching Genre When You Weren’t Even In One In The First Place Is Scary …

Most of us read a next book based on an author’s last book. I know I do. But what if that next book is very different to that last book, even if the writer’s very recognisable style is still there, their voice, and their certain way with words that we love? Would you be excited at the change, annoyed at not getting what you thought, or just go with it and what the hell because you trust in the writer?

I’ve read a few blogs/posts recently by writers who have switched genre. Even micro genre, as in a genre within a genre. Whether that’s under pressure or by choice, the fear remains the same; is this a risk that will pay off or will it end my career for good? I talked to Miranda Dickinson and Barbara Copperthwaite about this at Harrogate Crimefest recently, and how we all have books written that might be our ‘risky’ ones. We love them, but will anyone else?

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Most of the books I’ve read by these genre-switching authors have been incredible and seem to be doing very well. Among them is Claire Allan’s Her Name Was Rose (she went from romance to psychological thriller, and how) and John MarrsHer Last Move, which I had the privilege of reading in its early form and is ‘more police procedural than previous.’ Judging by the great advance reviews, no one is complaining. But I wonder if some ‘risk’ books sink, and we never know about it, and that’s the fear. No one wants to sink.

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Having never belonged to any genre, I didn’t think this was a dilemma I’d ever face. It was due to the fact that I couldn’t be pigeon-holed or put into a clearly-labelled box that it took ten long years (and four novels and about twenty-eight million rejections) to get a book deal. It was also due to this fact that I’ve always felt free to write what I choose. I can’t write any other way. I just can’t.

It isn’t down to stubbornness or being awkward or trying to be pretentious – it’s simply the way I do it. All writers have their way. Some plot. Some don’t. Some like the confines of genre. Some don’t. Some eat eighty-four custard creams before starting for the day. For me, the story occurs, and I write it. I can’t force that story to fit a form. Okay, maybe I’ll admit here that word is won’t rather than can’t; I probably could if my children had been kidnapped and it was the only way they’d be returned to me.

But here’s where I now understand this big fear of changing direction as a writer. Here’s where I might have switched genres when I wasn’t even in one in the first place …

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I wrote book five last year. Star Girl. The use of girl in the title is a risk in itself – come on, all the girls are gone or on trains or in windows or in certain apartments, and we’re probably sick of them – but I humorously refer to this trend within the novel, and therefore I might just get away with it. Besides, there simply was no other title. You’ll see why if you ever read it. (My stomach just turned over at the very thought.) Only two people have so far and they are related to me and probably very scared of me therefore.

The story came to me as vividly as my other novels did. I saw Stella McEaver working her final late-night radio show; isolated within the studio walls; coping with a mother who has returned to her life after fourteen years absent; obsessed with a boyfriend who likes to dabble in very dark games; knowing that whoever killed local pregnant woman, Victoria Valbon, is still out there; taking calls from a man who says he knows everything.

When I finished the first draft, I realised it was a psychological thriller. I never intended this. It was dumb of me to not to click when there’s a murdered woman at its core, and one of five of the main characters may or may not have been involved.

And I realised (with abject terror) that it is very different to my other books. Which people have said are all different to one another too. But maybe this is more different. I don’t know. I just know I’m scared. It’s pencilled in for 2019. But do I pencil in the book I’m now writing for next year instead, and move Star Girl to 2020? Do I give readers another emotional-drama-type-thing first (no genre name for that) or risk my risky one first?

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You see, just to be awkward, this year I’m writing book six, We Are Our Own Ghosts, and it’s more of an emotional drama again. This one involves a young autistic man’s relationship with a high-class escort. No one is murdered, at least not yet; I can never know for sure as I don’t plot. There’s likely to be tragedy. There’s plenty of sex, which my publisher adores. (She doesn’t.)

After some amazing early reviews of The Lion Tamer Who Lost I fear that readers will expect more tears from me. More heartbreak. More tragedy. Not murder. Not which-one-did-it, as opposed to whodunnit.

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I can’t promise that I’ll deliver what you expect. There’s a rebellious side of me that doesn’t want to do that. A side of me that wants to write erotica. Wants to write a ghost story. A horror. But I can promise that every single book I write I give a chunk of myself to it. Every character I create, they are as real to me as my own family or friends, even though I don’t tend to treat them very well. Every word I string together will be with care and effort and endless rewriting.

Don’t oppress me, my books scream at me.

So I don’t. I write what comes to me. Bugger where it takes me. I’ve had fun. It was an absolute blast writing Star Girl.

God. I just hope it’ll be a blast to read in 2019.

There I’ve said it.

2019.

What the hell.