Should writers read, read, read?

A participant on one of my recent writing workshops told us that she’d got stalled with the book she was working on, possibly because she had grown disheartened after reading several particularly wonderful books in the same genre.

It made me think about the advice most authors give new writers, to learn from the best and read, read, read.

I realised that although I do read a lot, it’s never in the same genre as I’m currently writing. When I was a new graduate working in a public library, I gorged myself on children’s fiction, catching up on all the books I’d missed as a non-reading child, but when I started writing children’s fiction in my late thirties, I  moved away from reading children’s books and immersed myself in adults’ books about self-help and popular psychology.

By the time I started writing self-help for children in my forties, I’d stopped reading it and moved on to books about spirituality, dreams and the creative process.

Over the last few years, when I’ve been writing mostly about dreams and creativity, and working on my first dream-inspired fantasy fiction, my reading has been mostly memoir, and I have a few ideas for autobiographical writing firming up in the back of my mind at the moment, which I think may be my next big writing project.

Of course, by the time I start to write any memoirs of my own, I’m sure I’ll be reading in some new genre altogether.

I think I’ve always instinctively avoided reading the same kind of book as I’m writing, in order not to be influenced or discouraged by other people’s work. I’m inspired by it, but usually in the months and years before I decide to have a go myself.

I’ve no idea what my longer-term future writing will be,  but it occurs to me now that the clue will be in whatever I find myself reading while I’m working on these fiction and memoir ideas.

This is how it works for me, and my first advice to would-be writers would not be read, read, read so much as write, write, write. Diaries, articles, poems, stories – write whatever you fancy writing. Write your way into your own voice.

Read whatever you fancy reading too; don’t feel you have to stick to the same kind of thing as you want to write, because you never know where inspiration might come from. Enjoy other people’s writing, but take a break if it puts you off doing your own.

When it comes to what I’m reading and writing at any given time, I prefer different genres. How about you?

 

The glimpse is the gift

Last night, I had a dream about the rewards of writing, and when I woke I thought, I can blog about that. When I turned on my computer in the morning, I discovered this quotation in my Facebook timeline, which was a delightful synchronicity to start the day.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Because this was my dream.

I am in a wild, upland place, being taken to see a wonderful plant. I’m given just the briefest glimpse of tall stems with early blooms of the most intense purple, and I realise it’s the colour that I’ve been brought to see. Usually, I am brought to see the indescribable aqua, but this time it’s this purple.

I’ve been writing something, and it’s a test – if I pass, I can come back and see this purple in all its intensity, in full flower. But this time, I have not passed and I will have to go back and start again, and try with another piece of writing.

This is the work, and I’m grateful for it. I don’t feel disheartened by failure, because the work itself is my reward.

It was always like this. I look back at all my writing, so many books I poured my heart and self into that never saw the light of day – real work, hard work – and I never achieved any kind of fame or recognition, but I don’t regret any of it.

Like the family years. I remember the sense of pride I took in the tasks of the household and childcare, which felt important, and a privilege, to be able to live in service to the work. I never felt bored or resentful, or that what I did was unimportant.

I had work, and I wanted to do it as well as I could. Not everybody is given that sense of purpose. I’ve glimpsed the colour, and one day I might see it in full flower, but the glimpse is the gift.

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Dreaming purple

 

The shortest book review ever

The book: Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

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The review: Wow.

***********************************************************************

That’s it. Everything I want to say.

Can I tell you what happens? I don’t want to tell you what happens.

Can I tell you about the writing style? I don’t want to tell you about the writing style.

Am I glad I read it? No, because now I’ll never be able to come to it new again.

If you haven’t read it, you can come to it new, which is why I don’t want to tell you anything about it.

So there you have it.

Wow.

 

 

A must-read for would-be memoirists

Last week, I mentioned a brand new book edited by Meredith Maran called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature . I was hoping it might help me develop my thinking about the issue of whether it’s OK to tell your story when in doing so you will almost certainly intrude upon the privacy of those closest to you.

I’m happy to say that it has.

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Most of these thoughtful essays about memoir writing address the problem specifically, with many of the authors saying that they send the relevant pages to anyone mentioned by name before they go to publication.

Several say that if the person had any objection to being named they would either disguise their identity or omit the passages concerned altogether. Others say they make the judgement on a case-by-case basis.

I like this approach from Sue Monk Kidd:

Whenever I use someone’s name or reference them, I send them the relevant page or pages of the manuscript before turning the book in. They are usually close friends or family members. I tell them, ‘This is what I’m saying; if you have problems with it, let’s talk about it. I won’t necessarily change the content, but I’ll change your name ~ Sue Monk Kidd

I think a definite upside to sending the manuscript to anyone you’ve mentioned would be that there wouldn’t be any surprises – you’d have had the discussion before you decide how to proceed.

No surprises for the person who is mentioned and none for the author either: several of these essays mention the experience of expecting someone to find a particular thing intrusive and finding they’re fine with that, but have taken serious umbrage about something else the memoirist never dreamed might be problematic.

Related to the question of whether it’s OK to expose other people in telling your own story is the question of why we want to write the memoir at all. The point is made that since memoirs  pretty much always risk hurting people, what could make that a risk worth taking?

The most common reason the writers here give is the desire to help or inspire other people who may be experiencing something similar to what they have lived through. This made me smile, since one of my writing goals for this year is ‘Let go of the drive to be helpful in my writing.’

How can I make my writing better, deeper, truer? Is it true to my voice and my vision? Questions like that often consumed me. They were vital; they still are. But as I got older, the point was not only how I served my work; it was about what my work served ~ Sue Monk Kidd

But I guess this drive to be helpful may be another aspect of my writer self that makes me quite well-suited to memoir writing, besides the mix of fiction and non-fiction I write and the examined life that I mentioned in my last post.

So those are my big takeaways from this book, but there’s so much in it that I’m sure anyone who’s thinking about writing memoir will find the answers to their questions too.

Have you ever considered writing about your own life? Why might you want to, and what holds you back?

Is your life story yours to tell?

I’ve always suffered from this odd inconsistency as a writer: I love reading memoirs and I  have lots of creative ideas for writing one myself, but it’s never felt acceptable to me to go there because you can’t tell your own story without involving other people.

I got round this in the memoir sections of Writing in the House of Dreams by focusing on my inner life and barely mentioning anyone in my day-to-day except my older sister, who had been dead for forty years, but it was a struggle and meant I had to leave out some of my most powerful dream experiences because they involved other family members and close friends.

I only realised this week that I’ve probably been put off writing autobiographically by a particular kind of memoir that seems to dominate the market, even having its own section in many bookshops – so-called inspirational lives, or more commonly, misery memoirs.

I’ve never actually read one of these. I don’t like the idea. Writing about traumatic childhood experiences feels like something that could be very therapeutic, but therapeutic writing is private writing for me. Therapy is about healing, and publishing this kind of book feels like something that’s more likely to put existing rifts beyond healing.

(Having said that, and in passing, this article by ghost writer, Andrew Crofts, on the excellent Authors Electric blog makes an interesting case for the misery memoir as lifting the lid on child abuse and paving the way for the current exposure of people like Jimmy Savile.)

But there are lots of different motivations for writing autobiography besides therapy or a desire for justice, and I’ve had to give some thought to those in planning my upcoming Writing Your Life workshops.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the owner of an examined life, I suspect that writing memoir may be my natural speed. It’s certainly the kind of writing I feel most alarmed by, and the things you fear almost always turn out to be your greatest opportunities.

I’ve got some ideas for telling some of the stories of my life which feel exciting and intriguing but, in the meantime, I’ve just bought a book called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. I’m hoping it’ll help me develop my thinking. I’ll let you know if it does.

Any thoughts?

 

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

As I mentioned a few months ago in my blog post When was the last time you felt really happy? I’ve been reading a lot about the craft of writing autobiography lately, and when I posted about this on my fb author page someone recommended Joy Harjo’s wonderful memoir.

IMG_2180It’s beautifully written, short but perfectly formed, with the text divided into four sections named after the directions – East for sunrise and beginnings, North for difficult teachings, West for leaving and being left, and finding your way in the darkness, and South for release.

I love the voice, so thoughtful and steeped in the spiritual traditions of Harjo’s ancestors, and the way the story begins with her journey towards being born, which gives her the opportunity to describe the lives of her parents before they became her parents.

The story is embedded in its time and place in such a way that it evokes her whole social situation, bringing it alive even for readers like me, who may have known nothing at all about the Mvskoke/Creek Nation.

Much of what she says really chimes with me, such as this idea, that has informed my life in every area, especially my writing:

I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.

 I’ll be blogging about other great memoirs and books on memoir writing over the coming months, while I’m planning my workshop days on ‘Writing Your Life’ and pondering my own next autobiographical adventure.

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

 

When does a book need a new title and cover?

A few weeks ago, I attended a webinar organised by the wonderful Alliance of Independent Authors, in which Joanna Penn said we shouldn’t be afraid to rebrand our  self-published books as we begin to understand our market better.

Shortly after that, I came across her article On Changing Book Titles And Covers: My Own Experience And How You Can Do It Too, and those two things got me thinking about what I’ve learnt about my market in the months since I published my most recent books.

I think what I may have learnt is that choosing a cover and title isn’t about what I like, but about telling the customer exactly what they’re going to get, in the couple of seconds they’ll spend glancing at it in amazon or wherever.

I’m not sure, which is why I’m blogging – I would really value your feedback.

Here’s the cover my editor, designer and I came up with for my YA novel about sibling suicide, Drift.

9781910300084The rationale behind this choice of cover was that most current YA top-sellers seem to involve artwork rather than photography, and art is one of the themes of the book.

But does that image really suggest sibling suicide/angst/grief and depression? Are there really any clues as to what kind of story it is? And does it have a real impact that makes you feel curious to read inside?

I like the cover, but I’m not sure it works. So last night I mocked up a completely different one in canva . I don’t like it as much, but I do think it might do the job better – here’s the sketch so far.

drIFTWhat do you think?

The other book I brought out last year was When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow. I’ve typed that title enough times to be starting to feel it’s too long! Besides that, before I published it, an author friend of mine, Kelly McCain, said she felt a more positive sounding title might be more appealing.

I think she was right, and I’m leaning towards re-titling it something like Writer’s Block: Beat it, Be Published and Find Your Flow or How to be a Happy Writer: Beat Your Blocks, Be Published and Find Your Flow. Which title would you be more likely to buy?

Although it pains me, I think the cover image might not be helping the book either. I like it a lot – I love all Hilke MacInyre‘s work – but I’m not sure it tells the reader in that one-second glance, what kind of book they’ll be getting.

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The rationale behind this one was that I wanted a brand-look with Writing in the House of Dreams I thought the two might help each other in the market. But I’ve discovered that most readers who have read both seem to have liked one but not the other (that’s me reading between the lines – my readers are too nice to actually say it!)

Writing in the House of Dreams isn’t your run-of-the-mill writing or dream book, so I guess the cover image is probably OK, but most practical books on writing like When a Writer Isn’t Writing have covers with more text and smaller/plainer designs.

Neither of these books have sold a huge number of copies, so what do you think – worth a revamp? Or should I give them a little more time, just as they are?

Creative dreaming, creative writing

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