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

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

‘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 Wuthering Heights (again)

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

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.

In which I offer a shout out to a Girl in Trouble

My excellent writing chum Rhoda Baxter has a shiny new book out today. Here’s what it’s all about: Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn’t need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren’t that reliable anyway. She’s got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn’t need to settle down, thanks.
Walter’s ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he’s losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she’s pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he’s ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart?
Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you’ll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot’s Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.

So obviously you should all run along and buy it. Off you go (and then come back and read the rest of my witterings).

*drums fingers*

*waits*

*Looks at a picture of Rhoda’s lovely cover to pass the time*


OK. Hopefully you’ve all done your buying and are back now for the wittering. Rhoda has thoughtfully handed out prompts to steer the book-celebratory blogging. Which is good. At the very least it should stop me from becoming distracted and talking about cheese. Mmmmmm cheese.

So here goes:

In Girl in Trouble the characters experience changes that they thing are bad, but turn out to be positive. Have you ever had a blessing in disguise?

Erm. Probably. *thinks hard*

It’s easy to think that probably change is bad. Favourite restaurants declaring a New Menu is always, absolutely and without exception bad. Pretty much all forms of political upheaval at the moment seem to tend towards the horrendous, horrible, terrible nightmare end of the spectrum. My favourite boots have a hole in – I am already pretty much 100% sure that whatever new boots I end up with will not be as good.

But current perfect favourite new boots were once the replacement for previous perfect favourite boots. Favourite burger place closing and being replaced by a plethora of trendy hipster* burger places, can lead to the perfection of the perfect burger in one’s own kitchen. And America electing an orange-skinned idiot show that…. No, sorry. On that one I’ve got nothing.

What is definitely true though is that change will happen. Old things break and fade away. Some of them we miss; some we’re delighted to see the back of. And that can be a useful thought to hold onto on days when everything just seems a bit too miserablist. This too shall pass, as a wise person once said.** And sometimes the really great things from the past come back and they’re better because you’ve had time to miss them. The Paddington movie, ballroom dancing on telly, actual left-wing politics – all things we might have thought we’d left behind, and all back retooled and reworked for the 21st Century. Now we just need to add simple burgers (bun, burger, slice of tomato, sad piece of lettuce, cheese, bacon maybe if you’re feeling fancy) to that list and life truly will be good again.

In the meantime, go read Girl in TroubleThere’s a good sausage.

 

*Trendiness has no place in relation to burgers. Some things exist beyond fashion. Having a trendy burger is like having a trendy roof. It just makes no sense to anyone attempting to claim any level of sanity.

** A wise Persian person apparently according to Wikipedia. Who knew?

In which I have thoughts about Doctor Who and writing

I decided at the weekend that this week I would blow the dust off my blog and get back into it. I was going to post my traditional ‘What I learnt at the RNA Conference’ post, where I would have talked about Jill Mansell writing long-hand and the importance of not stalking reviewers or literary agents. I would have illustrated the whole thing with this picture of me with my colleague, Janet Gover, and my agent, Julia Silk.

And it would have been very lovely. But since then I have become distracted by the news the next Doctor is going to be played by a woman.

This has been met by delight, indifference and horror in difference circles, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m delighted. The first thing to say is that I didn’t expect to be delighted. I’d sort of guessed from the last episode of the most recent series that they were going to take the plunge, and I thought that would be fine. I’ve never been a particular fan of the idea of pushing for specific roles to be played by non white male actors. I tend towards the view that diversity needs to be more diverse than that. It principally matters, I would have said, that Bond is always a white bloke, because there are so few comparable roles that aren’t. If there were more other films with Asian female super-spies, for example, Bond’s whiteness would matter less. So I figured the Doctor could be any ethnicity or gender and I would be equally fine – for me, I thought, it was more about the individual they cast.

But when I watched the announcement roll past on twitter and clicked and refreshed like a crazy person on my phone to find the video clip introducing Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor I did well up a tiny bit. I’m old enough to have liked Doctor Who the first time around – by which I mean pre-1989, not the actual first time around with Doctor number 1. I’m the lone crazy person who really liked Sylvester McCoy, and I really really liked his companion. She was Ace, and indeed ace. She was chippy and reckless and liked to blow stuff up. I very much wanted to be Ace. It only strikes me now that I didn’t want to be the Doctor. I wanted to run away with the Doctor, but I didn’t think I wanted to be the Doctor. Now the eleven year old me out there somewhere feels like she’s allowed to want to be the Doctor too. And that feels good. Really good.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments that the casting is gimmicky, or tokenistic. That makes me want to be shouty. I shall try not to be. Firstly, I don’t think we can know if something is gimmicky until we’ve seen the episodes. Secondly, there has been some casting in Doctor Who that has looked seriously gimmicky and has worked out fabulously. Two of the most successful companions of the post-2005 era are Rose and Donna. Billie Piper was best known as a teen popstar and former spouse of Chris Evans when she was cast. Catherine Tate was best known as a sketch show comedian. Either of those could have been described as gimmicky – both were brilliant. And Jodie Whittaker has serious acting class – nothing gimmicky at all about that.

Ultimately though the part of me that wants to defend this change so passionately is the writer. The assumption seems to be that this is a casting that has been made for box-ticking or PR reasons. Until we’ve seen the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall’s, episodes with his version of the Doctor, I think it’s right to keep the faith that this is a creative, writerly decision. Recently the Doctor has seen his oldest friend regenerate as a woman. He’s seen his newest friend transformed into a Cyberman and choose to die rather than live as something other than herself. He’s lost his wife. He’s beyond his original regeneration cycle. He’s lived through more selves than he was ever supposed to have. And, for the Christmas special, it appears he finds himself face to face with the very first incarnation of himself – the old man who used to be a young boy who stole a blue box and ran away. We’ve also seen a Doctor who appears to have more control over the regeneration process than we’re used to. Capaldi’s Doctor was able to choose to resist and slow the regeneration process in the closing episode of the last series. David Tennant’s Doctor was able to choose to regenerate the same body.

Is it fanciful to think that a man that old, a man whose seen that much, might choose to start afresh in a wholly different new body? As a writer, that feels like a perfectly well thought out character arc to me.

Of course I could be wrong. The Christmas Special could play out quite differently to that. But I’m excited to find out what happens and what happens next.

One last thing – some of you will be thinking it’s silly to care about Doctor Who because it’s for children. Well, yes – it is silly. But caring about the Handmaid’s Tale is also silly. And caring about Lizzie and Mr Darcy is silly too. They’re all just made up people at the end of the day. Silliness is brilliant. Do try not to grow out of it if you possibly can.

In which I am writing a new book

When I venture out from my lovely purple writing room and go into the big wide world to do authorly type events, it’s quite common to be asked how I approach writing a novel. It’s something other writers are often particularly interested in. We tend to view each other’s methods like a weirdly judgmental anthropologist meeting a new culture – we’re interested, fascinated even, but ultimately convinced that all these strange alien ways of doing things are Very Wrong. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of how I do the writing thing…

I’m currently around about 15000 words into the first draft of my new book. For those of you who don’t routinely count the words in every novel you read, a finished commercial fiction novel is likely to be somewhere in the 80-100,000 word region, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

And here’s something I very rarely hear writer-chums say about this early stage of a first draft: It’s truly horrible. I hate it.

There is no one right way to write a novel, but my approach goes something like this:

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Make lots of notes and convince self that idea is good.
  3. Start writing book (completely ignoring all those notes).
  4. Watch as idea slowly grows and develops in weird, unexpected and uncontrolled directions.
  5. Spend period from around 2000 words to around 70000 words hating the whole idea and deciding it’s too random and amorphous and will never form a nice coherent whole.
  6. Abandon whole idea.
  7. Cry.
  8. Reread idea so far, work out which bits are salvageable, write lots of new bits, edit all the bits with a viciousness that in any other context would be something of a worry.
  9. Submit book.

From stages 4 to 7 hating the book is normal – at least it is for me – but stages 4 to 7 are still essential because they’re the way that my brain gets to stage 8 where the book actually gets written. And I can’t do it the alternate way where you plan the whole book in detail before you start writing, and thus avoid the feeling that the story is an uncontrolled amorphous blob. If I do that then I basically have no interest in writing the book because I already know everything that happens.

So what I have to come up with are novel-writing coping strategies and plans to get myself, and my poor innocent unsuspecting book, through stages 4-7. The first of these coping strategies is nicked from the very wise and awesome Julie Cohen and is simply this:

write-crap

That’s the whiteboard next to my desk this very morning, and it’s a reminder that it’s fine for what I’m writing to be awful at the moment. In fact it’s essential. It’s part of how I write. The book will be bad before it’s good. And that’s ok.

The second thing I always tell myself is this: ‘If you’re at less than 65,000 words it should still be getting more complicated.’ This is because I tend to try to wrap things up too simply and write too neatly from A to B – that’s part of the reason planning too much doesn’t suit me; I end up writing the most direct and efficient route from plot point 1 to plot point 2 which isn’t necessarily great storytelling. The blob of the book should still be getting messier and more amorphous. However h0rrible that feels, it’s right and good and essential.

And finally, I remember that I always feel like this. I’m a writer who routinely ditches tens of thousands of words from draft manuscripts and adds new scenes at the final edit stage. That’s just how I work, and it’s always horrendous in the midst of the ‘writing crap’ phase. But if I keep going and write enough crap, then I get to edit, and, again unlike a lot of writers, I do very much like to edit. So, must get bad words down so that I can make them better later. You can’t edit a blank page.

So there you go, a little snapshot of this particular writer’s mind. Other writers will do it differently, probably more sensibly, and that’s fine. There is, after all, no one right way to write a novel.

If you are a writer and you’d like help finding your personal right way to write a novel, then take a look here for details of upcoming courses. There are still places on the Spring Writing Retreat where you get the benefit of not just one writing tutor’s approach but two, as I’ll be co-tutoring with the much more organised Janet Gover.

And if you’d like to get a book that’s in its shiny, polished, (hopefully) non-crap stage, then there are some here.