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 think about teaching

I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

I spent the weekend here:

The Fish Hotel

That’s part of the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds where I had the pleasure of leading a tutored novel writing retreat, with the awesome Janet Gover (my co-tutor and photo taker) and the lovely writers pictured hard at work below. It was a fantastic weekend. I love tutoring novel-writing – increasingly I find that I think of myself as a tutor who writes, rather than a writer who teaches. Either way, I’m stonkingly fortunate that I get to do both.

Farncombe 2015 students

And as a writing tutor, it irks me somewhat when I hear people saying ‘Well you can’t teach someone to be a writer’ or other words to that effect.

So that’s my question for the day? Can you teach novel writing?

Well yes. Of course you can.

Hmm… on reflection, this is turning out to be a really short blog post. I’m going to have to expand my thoughts a little, aren’t I?

Right then. Here we go.

The idea that writing is a special ethereal thing that springs forth from the great spiritual well and can not be taught be tawdry human means irks me, as a teacher, because I think it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Too often we think of a teacher as somebody who stands at the front of a room and imparts definitive knowledge. There is one right way to wire a plug. There is one right answer to 2+2. Those things can obviously be taught. There isn’t one universal right way to write a novel, so that’s just something people have to work out for themselves. Right? Wrong. Because standing at the front and saying ‘Do this. Do only this and always this,’ is a very tiny slither of what teaching can, and should, be.

Another way of approaching the question ‘Can x be taught?’ is to, instead, ask ‘Can x be learnt?’ Essentially if something involves skill or knowledge then those things have to be be learnt, and a good teacher can help a receptive student learn them more quickly or more effectively, because learning is a process. It’s a process of trying things, recognising successes and failures, revising your approach, and trying again. A large part of teaching is about suggesting what to try, identifying success and failure and helping the student revise their approach. All those things can be done more effectively with somebody, who understands both the process of learning and something about the thing you are trying to learn, holding your metaphorical hand or kicking your metaphorical butt.

What you can’t teach is passion. You can’t make somebody want to write a novel, but if somebody has decided on that path, then a good creative writing tutor can absolutely help them to get there. I was helped massively on my journey to publication by two incredible tutors – Deb Catesby, who is now a visual artist, and Julie Cohen. There are, however, a lot of not so good creative writing tutors out there, so here are my tips for finding a good tutor and the right course for you.

  1. Work out what you want to learn. Are you writing for personal pleasure or for publication? Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre? Different writing courses are different – some focus strongly on writing for publication, some give exercises in lots of different forms and genre to explore different types of writing. If you know what you want, then don’t be afraid to ask whether the course suits your needs.
  2. Ask about the tutor’s writing experience. We’ve all heard stories about tutors running ‘masterclasses’ in genres they’ve never written or published. Find out what the tutor’s experience in the subject they’re teaching is.
  3. Ask about the tutor’s teaching experience. Teaching is a specialist skill. Writing a bestseller or a Booker Prize winner doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. If you’re handing over money for a course then there’s nothing wrong with asking the tutor what they’ve taught before, or even asking if they have feedback from past students that you can look at.
  4. Be wary of tutors who promise to impart the secret to writing a novel/play/shopping list or who offer definitive rules on what you must and must not do to get published. There is no secret. The only rules are ‘write the sodding book’ and ‘make the sodding thing work’ and I’ve just given you those for nothing.

So there you go. There are my thoughts on tutoring writing and creativity. If you’re interested in hearing about courses I’ve got in the pipeline, including next year’s tutored retreat, then head over to the Contact Me page and drop me a message with your details to join my courses mailing list.

In which I muse on London Book Fair

Last week was London Book Fair, the UK’s annual gathering of the publishing industry where agents, publishers, and booksellers come together and do vast amounts of publishing industry type stuff. Essentially LBF is a massive trade fair, where agents and publishers tout their wares. Rights sales are the main order of business, and it’s a thoroughly busy and buzzy place to be, but the wisdom in times of yore was that LBF was most definitely for business not for actual writers.

Recently, however, the good people behind LBF have been making a concerted effort to lure more authors along, setting up a section of the show headed ‘Author HQ’ with specific events aimed at writers rather than publishers or agents. This year, for the first time, I bought a ticket and headed to the Big City to see what it’s all about.

So was it worth it? Well, yes and no. I had a fun time. I went out for lunch with my publisher and editor, and a fab group of authors who either write for Choc Lit as well or are chums through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. It’s always nice to go out for lunch, and it was particularly nice to meet my editor, who, despite have worked on for four separate books, I’d never actually met in real-not-on-the-internet-life.

I also went to a Dragon’s Den style pitch-the-agent event where ten very brave authors pitched their books to a panel of agents and editors in front of a live audience. It was interesting to see the sort of feedback the agents gave, and also hugely impressive to see the authors involved lay themselves and their book-babies out for criticism so publicly. However, I’ve been to a number of talks by agents and editors, and I follow quite a few industry blogs (Lizzy Kremer’s Publishing for Humans is my current favourite) so there wasn’t a huge amount in the feedback that was unexpected.

Apart from that the Author HQ talks I saw were fine, but at a fairly introductory level. There would probably be some interesting stuff for new writers trying to decide whether to pursue a traditional publishing route or self-publish, but for as an already published author looking for progress my career further still, I didn’t find a huge amount at Author HQ for me. So my personal conclusion on LBF for writers: go if you think the price of the ticket is worth it for the buzz alone, but it’s probably not the best place to pick up information and ideas for developing your writing or writing career. Personally, I think I’d probably only be tempted to go again, as an author, if I had a specific must-see event to go to, or specific people I needed to meet. Of course that’s just my opinion- here’s an alternate view from Liz Fenwick.

So that’s London Book Fair. ‘What other interesting events for writers are coming up?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s jolly funny you should ask that, because I myself am in the process of plotting an awesome event for developing writers. This October, I’m teaming up with Janet Gover to tutor a weekend writing retreat at the beautiful Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds. There’ll be lots of writing time, one-to-one tutorials, group workshops, and the price also includes your accommodation and plenty of lovely yummy food. The full cost of the retreat is £350, but if you book in before the end of May we’re offering a 10% early booking discount, so you pay just £315. All the details and the retreat booking form are here. It would be lovely to see some of you there.

In which I scrape the layer of dust off the blog and finish a book

Ahoy there, good morning, merry greetings and hello. I have been away from the blog of late due to having got myself into something of a pickle with the writing of novel 2 and ending up having to spend the last six weeks ignoring all activities that weren’t actually writing the sodding book. The sodding book (possibly not its final title) has now been sent off to my lovely publisher, Choc Lit, and I’m permitted to not think about it for a while, or at least until they send it back and tell me to have another go.

So, here I am with an unfamiliar sea of free time rippling in front of me. All sorts of excitements await. When I’ve finished here, for example, I am going to put some laundry in and then – and this is an exciting one – I’m going to wash my hair. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to live.

Before all that though, there’s some bloggy bloggy blogging to get blogged, which is tricky because my brain is still stuck in the imaginary world of novel 2. That’s one of the oddities of writing as a job, as opposed to being a lollipop lady (or lollipop gentleman) or managing a premiership football team. Writing is a freakishly blinkered affair. You invent a whole world, and people it with people (at least in my case – you can of course people it with elves or dragons or sentient lever arch files – the choice is yours), and then you live in that world for however long it takes to transfer that world and that story from brain to typing fingers to screen to page. That means that once the manuscript is done with and sent away, you find yourself in something of a lull. It’s what fellow Choc Lit author, Janet Gover, describes as the post-book meltdown.

With all the other jobs I’ve had the periods of stress usually came when there were too many diverse things to think about, competing for time and attention. With writing, at least when you’re in the final lead-up to a deadline, there is only one task: Write the sodding book (still not the final title). That single-mindedness is, for me at least, what leads to the meltdown. At the moment I’m at the crawling into the light stage, and I keep catching sight of all the things I’ve  been putting off for the last few weeks: the form that came in the post at the start of March that I haven’t filled in yet; the piles of laundry that need putting away; the things in the back of the fridge that I’m not sure I can throw away without breaching the federation’s Prime Directive. All these things will need dealing with, before I regain the power of sufficiently complex thought to write you a blog post about something more interesting that the fuzzed up state of my brain.

Hopefully, that will be next week’s task, alongside starting the next book and doing it all again, obviously. I shall see you all there.

 

And as always, if you want to buy any of the lovely things I’ve already written, this is the place.