In praise of… Natasha Solomons

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any writer in possession of a wish to get better at writering must also be in want of some awesome writers to read. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that in order to get good at writing you need to read a lot. But it’s also completely true. Unfortunately, it can also be equally true that the more immersed in writing as a craft you become the harder it is to disengage writer-brain and just fall in love with a story. There are some writers whose books reliably creep past my inner editor and make me love reading again, and so I thought a little blog feature celebrating those people might be a very lovely thing to do.

So the first author I want to sing the praises of is… Natasha Solomons. I bought Natasha Solomons’ first novel Mr Rosenblum’s List when it first came out but for reasons of massive To Read pile I didn’t sit down to read it for years after I bought it. And it was a treat. It’s amusing and easy to read, which sounds like damning with faint praise, but easy to read is often really hard to write. It can take a huge amount of effort to make something look truly effortless.

The joy of leaving Mr Rosenblum’s List languishing on the To Read pile for so long was that by the time I got to it Solomons had another two (and now three, soon to be four) books out. I ration my reading of Natasha Solomons’ books. I could devour them all, one after another, over a single long weekend, but instead I make myself wait until a moment when I really need to lose myself in something beautiful. And then I pick out the next one from the To Read pile.

And she always pulls me into the story. Her books tend to focus on family and relationships, often examining how one difference in character, or one decision, or one sacrifice can echo through the years of a character’s life. She writes characters and places beautifully. But it’s not the themes or the story, or the characters, or the settings, that so reliably pulls me in to her writing. It’s the writing itself.

In On Writing Stephen King quotes Amy Tan as noting that nobody ever asks commercial fiction writers about the language. It’s a question that’s reserved for the Rushdies and the Amises of the literary world. But language matters in all fiction. Language can create a tense, jittery dystopia or a warm, inviting world. Language can be made to work really had to show the reader what is happening on the surface and what is hidden underneath. And Solomons uses language exquisitely – her prose wraps around you and pulls you into the world she’s creating. You can touch the stonework and smell the flowers. You can hear the different rhythms of speech between two brothers grown together and then separated by education and experience. I’m in love with her writing.

Read this author to: get swept away by the writing

Start with: The Novel in the Viola (or The Song Collector or any of them really. They’re all great).

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JWTSB: Part 1 – there are no rules

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JWTSB is the abbreviated version of my single favourite piece of writing advice – ‘Just write the sodding book.’ I’ve essentially built a career as a writing tutor on that gem of wisdom and happily spend weekends shouting it at poor innocent developing writers. When they start to look a tad jaded I do occasionally mix things up with a jaunty cry of ‘Stuff has to happen’ or ‘Editing is fun!’ But, fundamentally, ‘just write the sodding book’ sums up most of what I tell new writers about how to write a novel. You can spend a lot of time and energy building your social media platform and attending writing conferences, and it will all be for nothing if you omit to attach bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and get the damn thing written.

That doesn’t mean that writers, at any stage of their career, can’t benefit from courses and advice and critique. That’s all part of developing your skills and honing your craft. So this is my new monthly* writing advice column. Please feel welcome to add your requests for topics you’d like to see covered down in the comments. I’ve already had requests for avoiding the dreaded info-dump, writing a synopsis, handling dialogue and how to make nice guy heroes super-sexy. Please do add your requests to the list.

This month though I’m starting by laying out my stall with the second piece of advice I want all my students to internalise, hold dear and understand. It’s beaten only by ‘just write the sodding book’ in the hierarchy of essential novel-writing advice. And it is simply this:

There are no rules

When it comes to writing a novel, there are no hard and fast rules. In my own writing I’ve been told with absolute certainty that you can’t have multiple points of view or multiple timelines in a novella; that you can’t start a novel with a character waking up; that you can’t start a novel with a dream; that you shouldn’t write first person; and that you shouldn’t write present tense. I’ve done all of those in books that were published, some of which went on to be award nominated.

There are things you can do that will make your novel more or less likely to find a traditional publisher, but taking creative risks doesn’t break any rules. For every ‘rule’ that says you can’t have too many point of view characters, there’s a Game of Thrones. For every declaration that boarding school books are out of fashion, there’s a Harry Potter. For every earnest edict that a novel can’t be to short or too long, there’s an Agatha Raisin or a Pillars of the Earth.

In novel writing it’s very rarely a hard and fast line of ‘you can’t do that.’ So it’s good to take advice, it’s good to understand the market you’re writing for, and then it’s up to you, the writer, to make whatever it is you’re trying to do work.

So that’s the ethos of these JWTSB advice posts – there are no rules. There is just the question of how on earth you’re going to make your crazy, unruly, disorganised mass of a half-formed novel into something that works.

For more advice for writers including courses and one-to-one critique and mentoring services click here.

*I mean I’m aiming for monthly. Last Thursday of the month, but y’know, it might just be sort of when I feel like it.

In which I think about Heathcliff and Isabella and what makes a hero

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Is Heathcliff a romantic hero? He’s dark and brooding and he dominates Wuthering Heights even during the long sections where he’s not on the page. And wherever two or three romantic authors are gathered in one place, his romantic hero status is a topic that’s highly likely to come up for discussion. And it’s one where I’ve always been firmly on the ‘Hell, no!’ side of the argument.

Team Romantic-Heathcliff will argue, quite rightly, that he is horribly mistreated and ostracized as a child and his adult anger is firmly rooted in a childhood of neglect and abuse. They’ll point out that Cathy is just as much at fault for the horrendous omnishambles of their relationship as Heathcliff. They’ll point out that he always puts Cathy on a pedestal and idealizes her throughout the story. And they’ll be right. They’ll generally go a bit quiet when we get onto discussing the whole ‘digging up her corpse’ thing, which even for the most ardent Heathcliff fan is tricky to sell, but generally all the points above are entirely correct.

But.

But I still can’t see Heathcliff as a romantic, or heroic, figure. And it’s not because of how he treats Cathy. It’s because of how he treats everyone else, and specifically how he treats Isabella. Without over-spoilering either Wuthering Heights or The Heights, let me gently remind you that Cathy isn’t Heathcliff’s only romantic entanglement. He also gets involved with Isabella Linton – when I reread Wuthering Heights before starting writing on The Heights, Isabella was the character that most resonated with me. Heathcliff doesn’t love Isabella. He doesn’t care about her at all actually.

And I think you can judge people by how they treat those they’re not emotionally invested in. I am completely comfortable with judging people in real-life based on how they talk to waiters and shop assistants. And so far as Heathcliff is concerned Isabella’s physical and emotional wellbeing is about as important to him as that of a waitress who once handed him a coffee and was never seen again. And he treats her horrendously – he brutalizes her – which can’t be excused because she’s not the love of his life. Excusing Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella by claiming that he treats Cathy better is in the same territory as defending a serial killer cos he was nice to his mum. I mean great for the mum and everything, but even she would probably have preferred the ‘not murdering’ option.

For me Isabella is the real heroine of Wuthering Heights and she’s a heroine for the #MeToo world we live in now. She’s the only character in the story who clearly recognises the abusive nature of her situation and takes definite steps to change it. If you come to Wuthering Heights looking for heroism, I don’t think Heathcliff has much to offer you. Isabella on the other hand is heroic. She tries to change her situation and she tries to protect her child. Whether she’s successful or not is something you’ll just have to read a book to find out…

 

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

The Heights is available now in ebook from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Google Play, and in audiobook.

In which I wonder about writing what you know

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‘Write what you know’ is a common piece of writing advice. The modern interweb isn’t even really sure where it originates. It could be Mark Twain, but most quotable nuggets could, at least according to the internet. If it ain’t Shakespeare or the Bible it was probably Mark Twain. Other corners of the web think it was Hemingway. He definitely did say ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ which includes many of the same words but is not, really, the same at all.

At face value the idea that you should ‘write what you know’ is silly. It would require all crime writers to engage in light serial killing, all sci-fi authors to actually build that damn time machine, and all rom-com writers to only ever settle down with a single partner for the gap between books, before throwing themselves headlong into yet another humourous love triangle when the next first draft starts.

But on another level the advice to ‘write what you know’ makes total sense. Your time-travelling sci-fi heroine might be doing plot stuff that’s way outside your own more pyjamas and sofa based lifestyle, but her shock, fear, determination and enthusiasm can be mined from the seams of those emotion inside your own experience. Maybe rather that ‘write what you know’ we could say ‘write what you know to be emotionally true.’ Which is less pithy but possibly more useful.

But even that is limiting. If you’ve never lost a partner or a child, does that mean you can’t you write the grief of a character who loses both? If you’ve only ever been in love with one person at a time, can you write the conflict of a character torn between two lovers? Well writers do, so I guess the answer clearly is, yes you can. You might not have lost a child, but you have experienced loss – grandparent, parent, friend, relationship, job – it would be an extraordinarily charmed life to never have lost something that mattered to you. So as a writer you try to distill those feelings and magnify and redraw them through the filter of the character you’ve created. ‘Write what you know to be emotionally true’ doesn’t have to be the precise emotion you’ve experienced – writing is an act of imagination twinned with empathy for the person you made up.

There are two more issues that spring to mind when I think about writing what you know: cultural sensitivity and what people will think you know when they read what you wrote. So…

Cultural sensitivity covers a whole universe of issues, but essentially comes down to the problem of one group of writers (or artists or directors) depicting a group they’re not part of, often in a way that screams of a lack of cultural knowledge or understanding. Given that publishing generally tends towards the white, the able-bodied, and the middle class, there is a problem here when those voices overtake and overwhelm all others, meaning that other experiences aren’t depicted at all, or are depicted in cringeworthy cliche. We’ve all read examples of an author writing outside of their own experience really badly – the male-authored heroines who spend weird amounts of time considering the perkiness of their boobs, the female-authored heroes with a tendency to notice what shoe designer the heroine is wearing before anything else, the white-authored black man who talks like a ‘My First Gangsta Rap’ how to book – those are the products of writers writing what they don’t know, and not recognising their own lack of knowledge.

Personally I don’t hold to the view that white, middle-class authors should only write white, middle-class characters. I think that adds to a boring homogeneity of output, and cultivates the sense that we are all intrinsically different rather than striving to find the truths that are universal. My advice to writers would be to remember that your character is an individual first. Being gay or straight or bi, or being able-bodied or disabled, or being black or white or asian or mixed race – those things all affect our experience of life. But alongside them we might also be stubborn or naive or brave or scared. People are individuals first – write what is true for that individual. (And also, if you’re white and middle class and you’ve managed to make it as a published author, remember that however hard it was, it’s probably harder for others, so don’t pull up the drawbridge behind you. Because, purely from a self-interested perspective, writers are readers too – and more varied, more diverse books makes for more interesting reading.)

My last little bit of this particular round of wittering on is about readers and what they will think you know from reading what you write. My next book, currently titled All That Was Lost, is out in September, and I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I know that there’s stuff in that book that some readers, the readers who know me a little bit but not that well, will think is autobiographical. The novel is about a young woman growing up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. I grew up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. My character, Pat, rebels against that experience in a fairly extreme way and we see that life through her eyes, which isn’t always a flattering point of view. I, on the other hand, had a very positive childhood. I loved the sense of belonging and community. So I’m writing what I know, but filtered through the point of view of a very individual character.

Will readers see that or will they assume that Pat is me and I am Pat? I don’t know. And ultimately I can’t control that. Once the book is done and published it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to readers. They get to draw their own conclusions about whether what I wrote was emotionally true, whether I’ve trampled all over someone else’s cultural experience, whether I sound like I know what I’m writing about. And some of them will assume that Pat is acting out a rebellion I wish I’d had. Which I can live with. And if some of those people give my parents a touch of side-eye because they’re wondering if Pat’s horrible, messed-up family life is based on my own, then very sincerely I am sorry mum, but, this time, I really did just make it up.

In which I think about why I’ve had such a long blog break

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I used to be a jolly enthusiastic blogger. Not always reliable in the posting every week on the same day sense, but I posted moderately frequently and could generally come up with something to pontificate on at relatively short notice.

And then I sort of stopped. I didn’t stop dead. I stopped over months, or possibly even years. The posts slowed down, and by the middle of last year they’d all but dried up.

And now, it being January, and the year being all fresh and new I’m thinking ‘I shall get back into the habit of blogging in 2018.’ And as a first step I’m thinking about why I stopped.

I think that ultimately having an opinion on stuff started feeling a little bit pointless. I’d say I’m economically generally pretty left-wing and socially pretty liberal. And there have been moments – quite a lot of moments – where it’s felt like those things were fairly pointless things to be in recent years. It’s been easy to feel like the world us hippy liberal types thought we were building is slipping away. The morning after the Brexit vote I felt physically ill. The only reason Donald getting elected was any better was that by then I’d sort of conditioned myself to expect the worst.

Now, I’m a liberal leftie who grew up in the north of England during the eighties so I’m by no means unused to the feeling that the political tide is sweeping away from me. That happens. But this feels worse. Possibly it is worse. Possibly it feels worse because there are millions of voices all over the internet magnifying the horror.

And the magnification isn’t just people I disagree with shouting loudly. It’s people I agree with shouting loudly too. It’s the fact that on the internet so much of the time we’re all set to transmit. We listen only in order to work out how we’re going to argue against, rather than to try to understand. And that makes being just another voice set to transmit feel like a very bad thing to be.

But maybe in that context quiet voices, popping up once a week, and muttering ‘I think it’s a bit more complicated than that,’ or ‘You know those two points of view your vociferously arguing from aren’t actually mutually exclusive,’ or y’know ‘Hey guys! Why can’t the farmer and the cowman just be friends?’* are even more important.

So in that spirit I’m stepping back into the blogosphere. Be warned – it will, as ever, be eclectic and random. Posts will be based solely and entirely on what shiny thing has caught my attention in the current second. And 90% of the time the conclusion will be either ‘It’s complicated,’ or ‘Everyone just play nicely,’ and sometimes I will break my own rules about not just shouting into the abyss and get a little bit ranty. Apologies for those weeks, but even in those weeks, I think I’ve decided that it’s better to engage and converse (even on a tiny corner of the interweb that barely anyone will ever see) than to sit quietly and feel overwhelmed by the dark.

 

* Extra musical-theatretastic brownie points for everyone who gets that reference.

In which I think about Wuthering Heights (again)

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Yesterday was publication day for The Heights, my first collaborative novel, co-written with Janet Gover. And in it’s honour I’m blogging for the second day in a row! I have definite strong intentions that in 2018 I will definitely blog at least once a week. But we all know that ain’t gonna happen, don’t we? So I’m taking the two in two days as a small victory for now.

Anyway, The Heights is an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and is the third adaptation I’ve written so far, after Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams.

Rereading Wuthering Heights when we were planning this novel was a strange experience – I wittered on a bit here about that. So why write a whole novel based on a book you have a love-hate relationship with?

Well largely because of that love-hate relationship. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating book. It’s not at all the book that we think it is in our shared popular imagination. It’s a book that’s encapsulated in many people’s minds by the image of Heathcliff and Cathy running towards each other across a misty, atmospheric moor. But that image doesn’t in any way sum up the book. Really that image doesn’t even sum up the Kate Bush song.

Wuthering Heights is about Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s also about passion. But I don’t think it’s about love, at least not in the sense that most stories that we’d describe as love stories are about love. If it is about love, it’s about love gone wrong, turned bad, turned in on itself. And it’s about families that go the same way. And about abuse, and the way that abuse ripples through generations.

And those generations form a whole chunk of Wuthering Heights that’s often forgotten. Cathy, the wild beautiful heroine, isn’t even in the second half of the book. That’s all about her child, and Heathcliff’s child, and Hindley’s child, and how the toxicity of their parents’ lives reverberates through the next generation.

Wuthering Heights is a big, unconfined, almost indefineable, beast of a novel. It ranges across time and across themes. In writing it Emily Bronte achieved a staggering feat of imagination. Her novel is almost infinitely open to interpretation. And maybe that’s what made us want to write The Heights – because when something is that unconstrained and open to exploration and reimagining, you need a whole novel’s worth of words to try to understand it.

Adapting an existing story forces you to identify the central theme and plot. Those become your touchstones, your pillars that can’t be messed about with. Very early on in the process Janet said to me, ‘This is a story about obsession.’ And that became our watchword, our obsession if you like, while we were writing. But it’s fascinating to think that another author could take the same ingredients – Wuthering Heights, Thatcher’s Britain, the miners’ strike – and write a wholly different book, simply by fixating on a different interpretation of what the story is about. If you set off on an adaptation of Wuthering Heights thinking ‘The story is about loss,’ or ‘this story is about abuse’, or ‘this story is about family,’ or ‘this story is about love,’ then you’d be just as right as we were when we landed on ‘obsession’ but your story would be quite quite different.

Emily Bronte’s genius is that her story manages to be about all those things.

The Heights is out now on kindle, iTunes, kobo and Google Play.

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.’

In which it is publication day and I have a whole new name

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It is a new year. A new day.* And I have a new book out under a whole new name. Which, frankly, is a lot of shiny newness to get one’s head around.

So let’s focus on the new book and the new name. And I’ll do that by telling you all a little story of the birth of that new book and new name…

Once upon a time, in a land far far away** the Romantic Novelists’ Association held a conference and I did get up at that conference and give a little talk on adapting classic literature into contemporary fiction.

Adaptation talk
Me talking. With PowerPoint. And excitable hand gestures.

After the talk I was chatting to Janet Gover who said, ‘I’d like to adapt Wuthering Heights but they’re all Northern and I can’t write Northern.’ (Because she is from Australia which is a really very long way South.) And I thought ‘Lawks!’ and also ‘Aha!’ Because I am from North Yorkshire which is very much more North than Australia. So we agreed we should write it together. We were only joking of course, but then we drank quite a lot of wine which made the whole thing seems like an absolutely marvelous idea.

So we did it. And we finished it. And the lovely publishing people at Harper HQ thought it was a marvelous idea too. But they looked at us closely and noticed that there are two of us, and decreed that a new joint penname would be a jolly good idea too. So here it is –  a new book and a new name – inspired by an absolute classic of an old story:

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

The searchers took several hours to find the body, even though they knew roughly where to look. The whole hillside had collapsed, and there was water running off the moors and over the slick black rubble. The boy, they knew, was beyond their help.
This was a recovery, not a rescue.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

 

So that’s The Heights. You can buy it right here for your kindle. Also available from iTunes, kobo, and Google Play. I’m super excited for people to read this book. Wuthering Heights is a book that still inspires fierce debate – is Heathcliff a hero? Is Cathy a heroine? Is the story a romance? The Heights is our interpretation – our version of Heathcliff and Cathy, and I can’t wait to see people discussing how our idea matches up with their own.

*A new Wednesday to be specific.

** Telford. It was near Telford.