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In which I Have Thoughts about disability, writer-world and publishing

This morning a friend drew my attention to a twitter thread started by Sam Missingham. Sam is a bit of a publishing industry legend and the founder of Lounge Books amongst a gazillion other things. She’s also a great advocate for under-represented voices in publishing.

Her thread today (which you can see here) was asking about experiences of disability in terms of wider accessibility and also in terms of writing events and publishing. And those are things I think about quite a lot when I’m wearing my Vice-Chair of a major writers’ organisation hat. But they’re also things I think about just as Alison. And just as Alison I started to type a reply, and then I stopped, because even in the modern world of multi-tweet threaded epics I couldn’t martial my thoughts down to a tweetable size. So instead, here I am, blowing cobwebs off the unloved corners of the blogosphere like it’s 2013 or something.

So let’s kick off by outing myself. I’m a disabled person. The most common response I get to that statement is generally in the area of ‘Oh but not like, y’know, really disabled…’ Here’s what the Equalities Act 2010 says a disability is… ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.’ So yeah – in those terms really disabled.

Amongst other things, I have IBS – a label I have lots of issues with – which basically means that I have chronic digestive pain and problems caused by nothing that GPs or consultant gastroenterologists can definitively identify. They can definitively rule out lots of things – bowel and stomach cancer, colitis, Chron’s disease, coeliac disease for starters – but can’t definitively rule anything specific in.

I’m not personally a huge fan of the term IBS. It stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and I find it sort of creates the image of one’s bowel as a kind of grumpy old man* – a Victor Meldrew figure – bitching and moaning at whatever food happens to get chucked his way. As well as causing pain, IBS can also cause constipation and diarrhea, or, for a lucky few of us, both (sometimes within the same 30 minute period). For me, at least, a more accurate term would be Over-reactive Bowel Syndrome. Everyone’s digestive system reacts to the food we eat – if they didn’t we wouldn’t all share an understanding that beans make you fart – mine just has significantly more dramatic mood swings than most, and sometimes reacts to entirely unexpected things, like ‘it being Tuesday’ for example.

As a result I have to modify my diet – red meat, for example, is pretty much a no no – and I have developed the ability to know where the nearest toilet is to the level of it basically being a superpower. I carry a radar key for disabled toilet access and am getting more brazen (although not fully shameless yet) in the face of the ‘you don’t look disabled’ whispers and glances when I have to use the damn thing. It also makes losing weight a real challenge. Pain levels vary from day to day but on flare-up days, doing exercise is a non-starter. If you can imagine your digestive system as a bottle of fizzy pop and then think about the shaking effect of a vigorous 45 minutes of HIIT or Zumba you’ll get a good idea of the issues there. And on flare-up days the only foods that don’t make things worse generally fall into the ‘beige carbs’ category. Again, not ideal, for maintaining a healthy weight. I get bloating to the point where I’m pretty much guaranteed a seat on the Tube on suspicion of being about seven months pregnant. If I get too hungry I get stomach pain. If I eat even slightly too much I get stomach pain. Sometimes I do everything ‘right’ and I get stomach pain.

The amount of pain varies a lot and, like most chronic illness sufferers, I do a lot of powering through. Because you can, up  to a point, but it takes a toll. Powering on through pain is knackering. I have friends who have chronic illnesses where fatigue is a major symptom – I can only imagine that the exponential impact of the fatigue of powering through fatigue must be horrendous.

So that’s me. And now, I’ll try to drag myself back to the point I originally intended to talk about… What would I like to see change in writer world and publishing in relation to disability?

Obviously these are just my personal thoughts…

  1. Events with multiple food options please…  It’s great to be asked about dietary requirements before an event – I have multiple weird food allergies so it’s good to get them down in advance –  but realistically a lot of days I don’t know what I’m likely to feel ok about eating until I’m there. Buffets are good. Menus with choices are good. If there’s only one option, staff who are understanding about me leaving half of it are good too.
  2. Enough toilets… men’s, women’s, gender neutral, disabled – in a pinch I’ll use any of those. It’s just nice when there’s more than one cubicle for the massive room full of people.
  3. Stop telling stories where disability is a metaphor for the character flaw the protagonist has to get over please… Disabled people can be delightful. Disabled people can be dicks. Most of us are somewhere in between. Like, you know, people. What disability and chronic illness definitely aren’t are flaws to be overcome. Powering through pain isn’t a great personal victory – it’s a choice. Staying in bed isn’t ‘giving in’ to weakness of mind or character. Both of those actions are entirely value and morally neutral.
  4. Ask disabled people what they want and need… disability is a massive range of stuff. Sensory impairment, mobility limitation, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, mental health and a billion other things besides. I can’t speak for someone with, for example, a sensory impairment, but they can speak for themselves.

So those are my thoughts for the day. I probably have more, but this is quite a lot of ‘reckoning stuff on the interweb’ for one afternoon. Probably ought to do some real work now. Toodle-pip.

Oooh… actually one more thing  before I go. If you’re about to type a comment that starts ‘Have you tried…’ then please don’t. I know it’s well-intentioned but seriously I was diagnosed in 2012. If you thought of it in the time it took to read this post, you can probably assume it’s been covered.

*No. No idea why I think my bowel is male. That’s probably a whole year of therapy right there.

In which I think about a whole lotta history

This Friday is release day for the brand new book from my alter ego, Juliet Bell. The Other Wife is out in ebook this week and paperback in January. And you can pre-order either (or indeed both) right here.

Outback Australia, 1981

After a terrible childhood, Jane comes to Thornfield as nanny to the adorable Adele, watched over by the handsome and enigmatic Edward. Plain and inexperienced, Jane would never dream of being more than his hired help. But swept up in the dramatic beauty of the Outback, she finds herself drawn to Edward. And, to her surprise, he seems to return her feelings.

But Jane is not the first woman Edward has pledged to make mistress of Thornfield.

As a child, Betty was taken from her English home and sent for adoption in Australia. At first, no-one wanted her, deeming her hair too curly, and her skin too dark. Until the scheming Mr Mason sees a chance to use Betty to cement a relationship with the rich and powerful Rochester dynasty…

When Jane discovers Betty’s fate, will she still want to be the next Mrs Rochester?

One of the most emotionally challenging parts of writing The Other Wife was researching how Betty ends up in Australia all alone after being born in England to parents who love her. Betty’s story echoes elements of the real stories of thousands of children who were sent to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and other countries, by the British authorities who were supposed to be taking care of them. The fictional version of Betty’s childhood isn’t a particularly happy one  but it’s a lot happier than many of the children who were sent overseas. Betty is adopted. The majority of British children who were sent to Australia ended up in children’s homes or in work programmes that were unsafe for children of a young age. Many suffered physical or sexual abuse. Children were told that their parents had died, when this was often untrue. And this practice continued for centuries, well into the second half of the twentieth century.

I’m white. I’m British, specifically English. I’m sort of middle-classish. Historically people like me have not consistently been the good guys. I also have an MA in Modern History, so that means I’ve done five years of secondary school, two years of A-level and four years of university studying history, and from all that study a lot of the time you’d still think that the British have been universally enlightened and virtuous across time. When we learn about Britain’s relationship with the rest of the world what we learn about a lot is Britain as saviour, Britain as last bastion of freedom, Britain as driving force in ending evils like the slave trade. What we learn about less is what the British did to establish a global empire, about Britain as driving force in maintaining the Atlantic Slave Trade through the eighteenth century, and about Britain as a country that routinely deported children thousands of miles across the globe to an unknown fate.

And that matters because you can’t understand the world as it is now, and Britain’s place in that world, without understanding Britain’s history in that world. And that means understanding the good bits and the bad, because no person and no country is just one thing. I’m very definitely a British person. I can’t imagine living anywhere else – I’m really not sure my sense of humour would translate. I’m proud to have been born into the country that abolished slavery in 1833. I’m proud to be part of the country in which so many owe so much to so few. But if you embrace the idea of being culturally British, I think you have a responsibility to understand the darker parts of our shared history.

Because that history continues to colour our present. Why is there a common travel area encompassing Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Why is English an official language in sixty seven sovereign states across the planet (including Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada, the USA, Pakistan, Jamaica, Botswana, Kenya)? Why is the British monarch also head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth realms? All of those are questions that impact on how Britain interacts with the world right now – they colour things like why people choose to migrate to and from Britain, and why the British/Irish border remains such a massive issue if Britain wants to leave the EU – and all of them have long and complex answers that encompass some of the darkest parts of our history.

We live in a world that feels increasingly split down the middle politically. That’s dangerous. It reduces things to simple positions. Very few things about our history, our culture, and our nation are simple.

Child migration is just one example of the darker side of how the British have treated the vulnerable within our own country. We’ve also done great things – we invented the NHS and the national insurance scheme to protect the most vulnerable. We, as a country and a people, are not just one thing and we never have been. History, politics, culture – these are big complex amorphous things. If someone is selling you a simple version of any of them then they’re either lying or they’re an idiot. And you don’t want to be following a liar or an idiot.

So that blog post wandered a bit from the original topic. Sorry. Ah well, if you want to know more about child migration this is the place to look. 

And if you want to follow Betty’s journey to Australia you can order The Other Wife right here.

In which I wish I’d been asked a particular question

With every book I’ve written, except for All That Was Lost, I’ve been asked at some point during the book promotion run which actors I would want to play the main characters if the book was ever made into a film or TV show. And every time I’ve been asked that I’ve ummed and aaahed and basically been unable to come up with a good answer. Which makes it all the more annoying that no-one has asked about All That Was Lost because for the first time ever I actually have ideas! As I was writing All That Was Lost it felt incredibly visual, so for the first time, I was picturing particular actors as I was writing.

So now I’m going to pretend that someone has asked me and answer the question anyway and because this is my personal corner of the internet over which I have total dominion nobody can stop me. So here we go…

Patrice Leigh

Patrice is a stage clairvoyant. She makes her living selling the idea that she can talk to your lost loved ones. Her biggest asset, which she makes great use of, is that she’s unassuming and unthreatening. She’s almost homely. People trust her. They feel safe with her. But she’s also highly intelligent and an astute observer of people around her, and she’s ambitious, single-minded and determined.

The performance I see in my head when I think of Patrice on screen is Julie Walters. She has the warmth but also the steel, I think, to bring Patrice to life on screen.

By Ibsan73/Flickr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Patience Bickersleigh

Patience is very young, a bit naive, romantic, but also intelligent and thoughtful. Persephone Swales-Dawson springs to mind. She has a brilliant mixture of innocence and hardness. I also Ramona Marquez but, as I think I’ve written elsewhere before, she might be more of a Cathy from The Heights rather than a Patience. And I want someone who looks young, because Patience is so young – that informs and explains nearly all the choices she makes.

Louise Swift

Louise is incredibly vulnerable when we meet her in the story. She’s raw with emotion and everything is on the surface, but later in the story she learns to paint on a more controlled face, even with all the same emotion going on just underneath. Don’t tell anyone, but I think she might be my favourite character. But keep that between us. I’m not sure that having favourites is really the done thing.

By S Pakhrin from DC, USA (BAFTA 2007Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I was picturing Anne Marie Duff in my head while I was writing Louise, but, although she is brilliant in every imaginable way, she’s probably slightly too old to play Louise now. Hayley Squires would be a great alternative, or maybe even Billie Piper.

By Florida Supercon from Ft. Lauderdale, USA (MCCC_00790) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Leo Cousins

Leo is where my claim to have mentally cast this whole imaginary movie breaks down. In my head while I was writing Leo was white, dark-haired, with stubble and a slightly worn down attitude about him. But I can’t think of an actor who fits that physical description. And the name that made me go, ‘Oh yes… that would work,’ as I was scrolling through my mental rolodex of British actors in their late forties or early fifties doesn’t fit that look at all, but does have exactly the right ability to play both Leo’s pain and his charm and his fundamental ordinariness. So for Leo my dream casting is Adrian Lester.

So that’s all sorted then. If someone would like to make a film or tv series of All That Was Lost now that would be marvelous. In the meantime, please do buy the book. It’s available from all these lovely places… Amazon, Google Play, Kobo, and Hive, and is available to order from all good – and some deeply suspect – bookshops.

In which I have a brand new book

A very brief post today, just to say that I have a brand new book coming out very soon. This is very exciting for a number of reasons, which I shall innumerate for you now.

1. It has the most beautiful cover anyone anywhere in the whole wide world has ever seen. Look at it. Just look. See how simple, yet elegant it is…

All That Was Lost_High Res cover

I properly love this cover and am thinking of asking it to run away with me to the South of France and open a guest house near the sea. It really is that pretty.

2. This book is a proper book of the heart. It’s a book I’ve had bubbling away in the back of my head for years and years and years. Because of the weird two-speed way in which publishing works – either lightening fast or fossilization slow – I actually finished the bulk of  the writing and revising two years ago. So it’s been a long journey, and now it’s nearly here. I’m super excited for the world to meet Patience, and Patrice, and Leo and… anyway, here’s the blurb:

In 1967 Patience Bickersleigh is a teenager who discovers a talent for telling people what they want to hear. Fifty years later she is Patrice Leigh, a nationally celebrated medium. But cracks are forming in the carefully constructed barriers that keep her real history at bay.   

Leo is the journalist hired to write Patrice’s biography. Struggling to reconcile the demands of his family, his grief for his lost son, and his need to understand his own background, Leo becomes more and more frustrated at Patrice’s refusal to open up. 

Because behind closed doors, Patrice is hiding more than one secret. And it seems that now, her past is finally catching up with her.

3. It was the first book my fantastic agent, Julia Silk, sold for me and it was the book she offered me representation based on. And Julia is a very wise and very brilliant so for her to love this book was a proper moment of joy in my life.

I’m excited to be getting close to being able to share All That Was Lost with readers. It’s out on September 6th in ebook and paperback, and you can order your copy right now.

JWTSB: Part 3 – The Fear

Ok, so this post is a bit late in the day. I hope you’ll forgive me – I hit a tiny little itty bit of a deadline to get the first draft of Juliet Bell Book 2 knocked into good enough shape for my co-author to take a final look before we send it into our editor at Harper HQ. In order to further earn your forgiveness though, I’m tackling one of the biggest and gnarliest topics for any writer, whether they are brand new and shiny or jaded and wading through the draft of book seventy-eight. Today I’m going to talk about The Fear.

What is The Fear? The Fear can take many forms. It can be the feeling that you’ll never be as good a writer as the author of whatever awesome book you’ve just read. It can be the feeling that the idea that felt so golden and shiny six months ago has turned to dust under your fingers and you don’t have the skill to bring it back to being something wonderful. It’s the feeling, when an idea first strikes, that the story is too big or too important or too complex for a little brain like yours to be able to tell. It’s the feeling when your last book got rejected EVERYWHERE that you might as well not bother writing the next one. It’s the feeling when your last book got a really good deal and then sold slightly less than the publisher was so obviously hoping and you think you’ve blown your chance and clearly don’t have what it takes after all. It’s the feeling when your last book went perfectly – it sold to a great editor, it was marketed beautifully, you were garlanded with awards – that you’ve peaked and whatever you do next will be a horrible disappointment to all the people who’ve put their faith in you so far.

The Fear is the feeling that stops you writing and The Fear happens to us all.

Sometimes The Fear is contained to the feeling X thousand words into your draft that this novel is crap and you will never be able to make it good. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a writer that doesn’t feel like that at least once (and usually more than once) during the process of writing and editing each book.

Sometimes The Fear is bigger and more amorphous. It can masquerade as normal procrastination to start with until you get to the point where you realise that you’re ironing your guest pillow cases ‘just in case’ and you haven’t actually opened your manuscript file for three weeks.

So what can you do?

  1. Take a break. Sometimes your brain simply needs a rest from the thing that is stressing it out. Walk the dog. If you don’t have a dog, walk yourself. Take a bath. Go to the gym. Do something creative but small – something with an achievable end point. Baking is good, because at the end you will have cake. I’m told by people less cake oriented that painting, knitting, and sewing have similar properties (but less calories).
  2. Let yourself write stuff that isn’t brilliant. Very often The Fear tells us that we’re not good enough – it mentally highlights every slightly cheesy, ill-phrased line in a manuscript and tells us that it will never get better. Well on this point, The Fear is wrong. Cheesy, ill-phrased lines can be rephrased. Sometimes their cheesiness might even tell us something about the character who’s speaking them. Stuff doesn’t have to be perfect straight away. If the stuff in question is a novel, it won’t be perfect straight away and that’s all right.
  3. Break things into bitesize chunks. The Fear can put us behind schedule, and the enormity of getting back on track can be overwhelming so we end up doing nothing. Just do something, even if the something is simply opening the manuscript and reading what you wrote last time. If you’re editing, break it down into steps and tick off one step at a time. A novel is massive. There will be lots that doesn’t work  – don’t let the scale of the problem overwhelm. Break it down. Baby steps. Doing something tiny is way better than doing nothing at all.
  4. Talk to people. You are not the first writer who has felt like this. You will not be the last. Just hearing people confirm that helps.
  5. Believe that you will get through this. In my very personal experience, ultimately you can’t go around The Fear. You can’t jump over it. The only way is through. That might mean that things get worse before they get better. That might mean moving from fearing that your manuscript is a mess to knowing with certainty that your manuscript is a mess. It might mean admitting how sad you are about how things turned out with the last book before you’re ready to move onto the next. But you can get through those feelings. And you will. Believe that you will.

And hopefully over time what happens is that The Fear diminishes down into a fear and finally into a memory of a fear. Good luck.

 

If you’re suffering from The Fear, or any other writing quandary, and would like some more personalised support please either contact me or check out my For Writers page for details of courses and manuscript critique services. 

JWSTB: Part 2 – the saggy middle

Another last Thursday, time for ‘Just Write the Sodding Book’ (my very sensibly named advice for writers series) part 2.

The saggy middle is the death of many a good novel idea. We start with an awesome concept and, if we’re lucky, a clear idea of where the story is ultimately heading, and then somewhere in the middle the lovely, crisp, focused words we’re writing turn to into a sludgey, mess of boredom and unnecessary subplots. This, lovely reader, is what writers refer to as the saggy middle.

In my experience, both as a writer and writing tutor, most early drafts have a saggy section somewhere. And they are nearly always fixable. Here’s just a taster of the ways to fix, or avoid, a saggy middle in your manuscript:

1. Stuff has to happen

Have your characters stopped doing stuff? Have they retreated to a coffee shop/ballroom/spaceship/base camp (well I don’t know what your book is about) and sat down to have a jolly good think about how they feel?

If so, that might be your problem. Try to make sure your characters show the reader who they are and how they feel by what they do. So make them do stuff, not just think about stuff. Which brings me neatly to point number two…

2. Show don’t tell

A good old writing tutor cliché and a subject for a whole JWTSB post in itself one day. But look at your writing to see if it feels as though events are unfolding in front of the reader. Is your reader experiencing the stuff that happens alongside your characters, or is it being relayed after the event one step removed? The more the reader feels like they are alongside your characters experiencing what they experience, the less saggy your story will feel.

3. Have you gone wide, instead of deep?

‘Go deeper, not wider’ is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received and something I still mutter to myself regularly when I’m revising a manuscript and trying to resist the urge to bolt on extra whistles and bells. Unfortunately I can’t actually remember who told me it – it might have been Sue Moorcroft – and Sue is certainly very wise, so I’m happy to give her the credit for this one.

The idea of going deeper rather than wider, essentially means – try to focus on your main character(s)’ emotional journey and make that as real and immediate as you can, rather than throwing more and more external stuff at your story. When we feel like a manuscript is flagging it’s very natural to add another subplot, or a big dramatic external event. And sometimes, that will help. But more often what helps even more, is really drilling down into the central character(s)’ emotional situation. One really common problem in early drafts is a character who has a huge emotional event – a bereavement, a long-held secret revealed, a rejection by a loved one – but there’s no emotional punch for the reader. The emotional pain of the event doesn’t play out on the page.

‘But, wise Alison,’ I hear you say, ‘you just said characters shouldn’t just sit and emote.’ And you’re right I did say that. You still want to aim to show us the emotional depth of an event by what your characters do in reaction. If they do something that shows their emotion, that should have the effect of sparking off further plot developments in reaction to whatever it was they did. And this makes more stuff happen, further shoring up the saggy parts of the novel, with action that is rooted in the emotional journey of your main characters. Hence many many birds killed with one little stone.

And here endeth today’s lesson. For more information on my courses, manuscript critique service, and mentoring for writers take a look here. And if you’ve got a topic you’d like to see covered in a JWTSB post, then let me know in the comments.

In praise of… Natasha Solomons

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).