Last weekend I was at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference up in Sheffield. As always it was a brilliant event, fully worth the six and a half freaking hours I spent sitting motionless in traffic on various motorways in order to get there. It was great to catch up with friends and learn more about writing, publishing, and (dare I say it) drinking wine.
I gave a workshop on Using Theme In Your Novel and afterwards, several people asked me to put up my presentation online. I’m not exactly going to do that, because I’m hoping to sell it as an article to various writing magazines, but I’m happy to summarise it here, and to share my process with my own novel, Dear Thing.
I decided before I started writing Dear Thing that the theme would be PARENTHOOD. That is, the book would focus on issues about parenthood, and therefore all the settings, characters, sub-plots and imagery would be connected, in some way, with this theme.
(I do this with every novel, by the way—even when I was writing shorter novels, although I find it even more useful when writing longer stories because it helps keep me focused. The theme of The Summer of Living Dangerously was ESCAPE, and particularly ESCAPING THE PAST. The theme of Getting Away With It was IDENTITY. The theme of my current novel is WHAT IS LOVE?)
Once I decided what my theme would be, I did some brainstorming about it. This isn’t the actual brainstorm…my real one was much messier, and much more random, with lots of threads I didn’t end up using, but this is one that actually contains stuff that exists in my novel:
Once I’d thought about different applications and contexts of the idea ‘parenthood’, I used these to come up with the characters, secondary characters, plot, subplot, setting, and imagery for my book.
For example, one heroine Claire, who’s infertile (MAIN PLOT), has a job as a teacher in a secondary school (CHARACTER), where she’s tempted to become a parent figure for one of her students (SUBPLOT). And the other heroine Romily, who’s a single mother and a surrogate mother (MAIN PLOT), works as an entomologist with knowledge of social insects and their parenting behaviour (IMAGERY), and has a dilemma involving the father of her child (SUBPLOT) and whether she fits in with the mums at the school gate (SETTING).
It gets much more complicated than that, because of course each character has multiple relationships and roles.
Can you do this for your own novel? Sure. Identify your theme, brainstorm it, and try to see how you can use this theme, in different ways, to make your novel deeper and richer.
As far as the conference goes, there are some brilliant posts about it here on Janet Gover’s blog and on Miranda Dickinson’s vlog.
DEAR THING is out in hardback today! And to celebrate, I’ll be giving away two signed hardback copies of the book, along with a copy of Claire’s lemon drizzle cake recipe. (Which is seriously yummy. Claire makes good cakes.)
One giveaway is on Twitter. All you have to do is tweet who your dearest thing is…the person you love the most right at this very moment…with the hash tag #dearthing. I’ll choose a winner at end of day today.
The other giveaway is for my newsletter subscribers. If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you don’t have to do a thing. I’ll choose a winner and email them tomorrow. If you’re not a newsletter subscriber, all you have to do is sign up for the newsletter today, by filling in the handy form on the right of this page here. —————–>
Both contests end at midnight tonight, 11 April 2013. Winners will be chosen at random.
Here’s what the novel is about, and one or two early reviews:
This is the story of Claire and Ben, who are perfectly in love – in fact, who are seemingly perfect in almost every way. Except one. They can’t have a baby.
It’s also the story of Ben’s best friend Romily, who after years of watching Ben and Claire suffer, offers to have a baby for them.
But being pregnant stirs up all kinds of feelings in Romily – feelings she’d rather keep buried, but can’t. Now there are two mothers – and one baby who belongs to both of them, and which only one of them can keep.
Thought-provoking, heart-rending but ultimately uplifting, Dear Thing is a book you won’t be able to put down, until you pass it on to your best friends.
Dear Thing is an emotional read, as it covers guilt, love, hidden feelings, jealously, sorrow and hope among many others. It is a complex novel with many layers to unravel and devour, and it is a truly gripping read that will have you turning the pages desperate to know what is going to happen next. —Reading in the Sunshine
I loved the writing style, the plot and the characters and would recommend this to fans of Jojo Moyes and Lisa Jewell. —Random Things Through My Letterbox
‘A compelling, fascinating and deeply affecting tale of two mothers, and a baby that only one of them can keep. Julie Cohen is an expert at making you care about her characters, and feel every nuance of emotion as they do. A truly brilliant writer who kept me gripped until the end.’ —Rowan Coleman
‘A gripping reading experience, where one is compelled to unravel the results. The emotional reality for each character is beautifully drawn…Vivid and psychologically convincing’ —We Love This Book
Well, Dear Thing comes out on Thursday in hardback, and I am sort of excited. Well, really excited. It’s even more exciting because Saturday is my birthday.
On Thursday evening, though, I will be celebrating with my friend and fellow Reading Writer, Claire Dyer. Claire’s first poetry collection, Eleven Rooms, is also published on Thursday the 11th by Two Rivers Press. Claire is a fantastic poet and novelist (her debut novel, The Moment, is out this autumn, in fact on the same day that Dear Thing comes out in paperback) and one of the most dedicated writers I know. It’s a privilege to share publication day with her.
Meanwhile, I’ve put up a short excerpt from Dear Thing on my website here, and I’m putting it on my blog as well.
‘Do you have children?’
Claire shifted slightly on Lacey’s sofa to face the woman who was talking to her. She didn’t know most of the women in the room. Two of them were from school—Lacey had just started teaching geography last year, ironically to cover another teacher’s maternity leave—but the others were Lacey’s friends or family. All of the guests had been seated around the room according to birth sign; it was supposed to help break the ice and help them get to know each other.
‘No,’ she answered, doing her best to put on a gracious smile, as she always did when asked this question by someone who didn’t know. Today, it was a lot easier.
‘No wonder your skin is so gorgeous! All that sleep.’ The woman leaned forward. She had straightened hair and blue circles under her eyes. ‘Tell me—do you get to go to restaurants?’
The woman let out a long stream of a sigh. ‘Oh, I dream of restaurants. Ones that have proper cutlery. And menus that aren’t designed for children to colour in.’
‘I get excited about a bowl of chips at the soft play centre,’ added the woman on the other side of Claire.
‘Tell me about it,’ said the first one. ‘Do you know how Paul and I celebrated our wedding anniversary? Tub of Häagen-Dazs at the cinema during a Disney film.’
‘I forgot about ours,’ called another woman from across the room. ‘Harry and Abby both had the chicken pox. I remembered two days later and it hardly seemed worth it.’
‘Does your husband give you flowers?’ the first woman asked Claire.
‘Er…sometimes.’ There had been a bouquet on the table when she came downstairs this morning.
‘I got flowers for Valentine’s day last year!’ said the second woman. ‘Ellie ate them. We had to go to A&E. I didn’t get flowers this year.’
‘Were they poisonous?’
‘We were mostly worried about the cellophane wrapper. She didn’t do a poo for three days. I was terrified.’
‘Once, Alfie didn’t do a poo for two weeks. I shovelled enough puréed prunes into him to choke a horse.’
‘You have all this to come,’ said the first woman to Lacey. Lacey sat in a flowered armchair in the sunny, cramped front room of her flat, her hands laced over her protruding stomach. She smiled as if the idea of shovelling puréed prunes into a baby’s mouth was just about the best thing in the entire world.
Claire thought that probably wasn’t too far from wrong.
‘Wine?’ Lacey’s mother, who was a sweet lady with very red hair, was circulating the room with a bottle of pinot grigio. Claire shook her head and held up her glass, already full of mineral water. ‘That’s a beautiful cake you’ve made,’ Lacey’s mother said. ‘And so delicious. Aren’t you having any?’
‘Thank you. And no, I don’t really eat cake.’
‘Are you gluten-free?’ asked the first woman. ‘No wonder you’re so slim. I just look at a piece of bread and I gain half a stone.’
‘I just try to eat healthily,’ said Claire. ‘But I love making cakes, so.’
‘What’s the baby going to be called?’ someone asked Lacey.
‘We’re calling him Billy.’
There was a collective sigh of appreciation.
‘I like the simple names,’ said the first woman. ‘There are too many trendy names around. There’s a girl at Alfie’s nursery called Fairybelle.’
The women launched into a discussion of their children’s names: what they were almost called, what they were glad they weren’t called, what they would have been called if they had been born the opposite sex. The woman whose daughter had eaten the cellophane off her flowers got up to use the loo and Georgette, the other St Dominick’s teacher, slipped into the place next to Claire.
‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘It’s all baby talk.’
‘It’s okay. I’m used to it. Besides, it’s Lacey’s day. She looks wonderful, doesn’t she?’
They both looked at Lacey. She was generally the sort of person who didn’t call much attention to herself: a hiker, a camper, a good teacher.
She looked wonderful.
‘Still,’ said Georgette, ‘I think that people could be a little bit more sensitive. Not everyone wants to talk about babies all the time.’
Georgette had two children. Claire remembered when the youngest had been born; it was about the time Claire herself had gone through her third and final IVF treatment that had been allowed on the NHS, before they’d gone private. Claire had been given an invitation to the christening, but there was a little hand-written note in it: I’ll understand if you don’t want to be around babies.
She hadn’t gone to the christening, not to avoid the babies but to avoid the understanding.
The women in this room were complaining about their lives, but underneath they were happy. Claire could almost smell it, with the nose of an outsider. They exuded warm yeasty contentment. It was the same way, she noticed, whenever women with young children got together. The conversation revolved around little sacrifices or disasters, about mishaps and made-up worries, but its function wasn’t to communicate information: it was to establish relationship. To mark out common ground.
We are mothers. We do battle with nappies and Calpol. Look upon our offspring, ye mighty, and despair.
The truth was, she would give up anything to be like the women in this room. She was tired of feeling the sharp stab of pain every time she passed a playground. That raw drag of yearning at Christmas. She was tired of feeling like a failure, once a month, like clockwork.
But that didn’t mean she wanted to talk about it. Or to be pitied.
Well, we’re in the new house now. It’s taken some time, and we’re still not all settled (I’ve spent all evening painting the kitchen, for example,a beautiful warm subtle green) but it’s feeling more and more like home. I write, now, in the loft—which I refer to as my Writer’s Garret. I’ve got a heater, a window, and a view of a gargoyle’s bum.
A gargoyle (back view)
It’s been pretty cold, so Rock God has nailed up some silvery insulation to keep the heating in around me, and it works, though it makes me feel as if I’m shielding my brain from the alien transmissions.
The Writing Garret
A side effect of moving house is that my brain has been entirely taken up with packing and then unpacking boxes, redecorating, deciding where the books will go, and worrying. So I haven’t had many little grey cells to spare to think about writing. However, last week I did some thinking and some planning and as a result the WIP is going much more smoothly. Of course, now it’s the Easter holiday and I have no time to write, but at least I’m not completely overwhelmed by crows of doubt. (Though I occasionally see a magpie or two through my garret window.)
The hardback of DEAR THING comes out in two weeks, and though no one buys hardbacks anymore and therefore this is only a faint bit of excitement before the paperback comes out in September, the review copies have gone out and real readers are actually reading my book. This is always a terrifying feeling, especially before any reviews come out, but I am bravely ignoring my utter horror by means of chocolate and wine. My friend Ruth likes it, though. My friend Ruth likes it! (Ruth is in fact a book reviewer and a librarian, so this isn’t quite as bad as saying that my mum likes it.)
Speaking of horror, I ran my Beginning Novel Writing course a couple of weeks ago and I noticed a great sigh of mighty relief when I confided in the participants that this fear about writing and not being good enough? You know the one? It never, ever goes away, and it’s completely normal.
Sometimes it’s good to hear that everyone else is shit scared, too.
Anyway, nice to be back on the blog. I’ll put up one or two things about Dear Thing, though not too much as it’s only hardback time. Anybody else have any news?
We’re moving house on Friday. Not far—less than half a mile away, still very close to Fecklet’s school—but far enough so that it will be a new neighbourhood, new shops, a new route to town.
We moved into this house in 1999. We spent the first year of our married life in a shared house, and then we lived in a rented basement flat, and then we bought this little house. We liked the fact that it was in a cul-de-sac. We liked the big corner bath. We liked the south-facing garden, and the streetlight outside, and the way that the house never, ever gets dark. We liked the big windows that open right out, all the way. We liked the school playing fields nearby, and the tree filled with birds at the end of the street. And despite the textured walls, the horrid carpets, the ugly curtains, the draughty bathroom, we liked that this house felt good. It felt friendly. It felt warm.
After we moved in, we discovered that we liked the neighbours, and the proximity to town and the local shops. We ripped up the horrible carpet and did our best to smooth the textured walls, though we never managed to get them very smooth. The spare bedroom was used as my husband’s work room, full of guitar parts and bits of electronics, and I set up my computer on the dining room table downstairs and began to write.
When I got published, the computer moved onto a proper desk, though still in the dining room. When our son was born, the front room became his, and my husband built himself a treasure trove of a shed in the garden.
Our son has moved from a moses basket to a cot to a toddler bed to the top bunk of bunk beds. He learned how to walk on these painted floors. He was conceived upstairs. We have sworn at our neighbours and turned to them in crisis. I have spent sleepless nights, typing, imagining. I have fallen asleep trusting this house and its doors to keep us safe. My husband has travelled the world and come back here. Home.
This house has memories and the weight of experience. We’ve been very happy here. We know the quirks and the noises. I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to it.
Except for the dust that’s been underneath our washing machine since 1999. That, I won’t miss at all.
My lovely publicist at Transworld (@LynseyDalladay) has just tweeted a photograph of a proof copy of DEAR THING, which they are sending out to press and bloggers now ahead of its hardback publication in April. Looky-looky:
I’m completely blown away by this. It’s like this letter, to Dear Thing, which I wrote as part of the book, which was the first part of this book I wrote in fact (and which is on page 1 of the book by the way), has been put into handwriting and put on the cover and now it is real, a real letter, which one of my characters really wrote. I can see my character writing it, in blue ink, on white paper. It’s quite an extraordinary feeling for me. It feels as if my imagination has come to life.
It’s also pretty extraordinary to feel that this book, which has been such a journey for me, is on its way to readers. Which is how a writer’s imagination really comes to life.
I hate starting to write a new book. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, because it’s a perennial problem. I have, to date, started a fair number of them—including the ones that haven’t been published, it’s at least 21 or 22, maybe more—but it still never becomes any easier or more pleasant.
There are too many things that can go wrong. I know, from experience, that these things will work themselves out in time. I know that I can fix anything that’s wrong, and if worse comes to worse, I can start over. (I wrote close to 20,000 words of Getting Away With It before realising I’d done it wrong, so I had to cut it and start over. And then start over again. And then again.)
I know that the act of writing a book teaches you how to write a book, and that therefore there’s no better way to start a book than to start it, even if you do it wrong at first. Nevertheless, starting a new book is a huge leap of faith. Even if you know the idea is good—even if you’ve discussed it already with your agent and editor, and they’re enthusiastic—that still doesn’t guarantee that you can do the idea justice. There’s a very good chance that you will spend weeks, maybe months, writing something you’ll end up deleting. And although that’s okay, the doubt is still enormous.
Whenever I start thinking about a book, I have a huge, miraculous idea in my head of what the story will be. The act of writing it down inevitably reduces my idea, makes it finite, makes it smaller. And that’s okay, too: as a reader, I’m more interested in small, concrete ideas embodied in actual people and events than in big, abstract, vague ideas. Even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about taking one’s lovely vision and subjecting it to the limits of one’s own ability, making it fit the size of a page.
When people ask me how to get started writing, I usually tell them: ‘Just write.’ And yet, for me, just sitting down and starting a book requires a particular state of mind. I have to be full enough of the story not to care that I might be mucking it up. I need to be determined enough to keep on writing words that I may well delete. I need to be swelling, pregnant, desperate to get this story down and out of my head.
Because otherwise, it’s too frightening. It’s too much hard work. I would rather spend my time researching, doing character quizzes, getting ready.
Strangely enough, once I have started, I never have any trouble whatsoever carrying on. It’s as if there’s this wall I have to break through, and once it’s down, it stays down. Writing the middle and ending isn’t hard for me. I enjoy the routine of sitting down and picking up the threads of the story, forging ahead, 1000 to 2000 words a day. If I could start the novel in the middle I would probably find it easier, but unfortunately I’m a chronological, accumulative writer so it would be just as bewildering.
Anyway, I’ve been putting off starting this latest novel for a few weeks, but last week I sat down and I started it. It was difficult. I whined a lot.
And then something miraculous happened: the characters took over. It happened on about page four. And now, suddenly, I’m not at the beginning any more. I’m in the middle of the beginning. And I can’t wait to write more.
page proofs of Dear Thing
I got the page proofs for my new novel, DEAR THING, in the post yesterday. This is always an exciting moment. It’s nearly as exciting as seeing the finished book, because this is the first time I’ll see the chapter headings, the font, the way it will look on the page.
It’s the first time an author sees her book nearly as a book, as a thing out there in the world. Right now it’s still a pile of paper, but one day…
According to Goodreads, I read 61 books in 2012. When I came to choose my favourites of the year, I noticed that they all had one thing in common: they surprised me. With all of these books I remember reading them obsessively, usually in two or three days, not knowing what was going to come next, and hardly able to wait.
This is the way I used to read when I was younger, before two degrees in literature, ten years of teaching it, and several years of writing novels. I used to get fully caught up in the story, not being able to guess what came next. One of the down sides of understanding how stories work is that you can usually predict how a novel is going to end. You see the gun in chapter one and you know it’s going to fired by the end. You see the heroine hesitating between two men and you know before she does which one she’ll end up with. You’re fed a seeming irrelevant fact or introduced to a character who doesn’t immediately fit into the story and you start to try to figure out why that fact or that person has been introduced.
This isn’t a criticism or a complaint. I’m sure my own books are equally predictable, especially if you know how I think. And there’s a lot of pleasure in reading a well-written predictable book. You can relax, you know you’re in good hands, you know everything will turn out just as it should. Sometimes the predictability of the plot is a positive strength, for example when you know two characters are perfect for each other and you want to enjoy their journey in getting together. Or when you see something horrible happening and you know it’s inevitable, and the inevitability makes the book more emotional, more effective. This year I really enjoyed Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You, for example, even though I could guess what was going to happen. In fact the ending was so inevitable, so entirely logical and necessary, that I would have been seriously pissed off with Jojo if she hadn’t followed it through. No other ending would have been right, and her skill lay in making the inevitable seem not heartless and cruel, but life-affirming.
But these books kept me glued to my seat, dying to know what was going to happen next.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (children’s/YA fiction)
Complicated, dark, emotional, unflinching, beautifully-written book about loss, fear and strength. I actually knew how this book would end as soon as I picked it up; it’s one of those inevitable, tragic endings, and it needs to be for the book to work. But I was surprised by what happens in the middle. Ness takes some well-worn tropes and traditions from children’s fiction and folk fairy tales (absent parent, bullying at school, a monster seen only by a child, evil step/grandmother, fables) and turns them around to create a morally complex story.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (thriller)
A complex, gritty, character-driven thriller with two unreliable narrators and an ending which truly surprised me. It’s one of those books you finish and then have to go back to the beginning to read again, to figure out what exactly was happening. I can’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil it.
When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood (memoir)
Well, I sort of did know how this one would turn out; the author’s sister (who features in the book) was my English teacher in high school, and she married our former next-door neighbour, and the book is set across the river from where I grew up. It’s the story of a family in 1960s Maine whose father dies, and how the family deals with their grief. It’s also the story of a town and an industry, tracing the boom and decline of the Maine paper industry and the towns that depend on it. I know stories like this, and people like this, and my own history is reflected in the book’s pages. But the writing was so rich and surprising; the emotions so deep and unexpected in how they evolved; I was ambushed by tears and laughter all the way through.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (novel)
Reading the back of this book, I thought it was going to be a retelling of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it is, sort of: it’s about a female doctor who goes into the Amazon rainforest to find an elusive scientist who has cut herself off from the world. But it’s so rich, so exciting, and the ending is both surprising and inevitable, which is a hard trick to pull off. Not a retelling so much as a riff on some of the same themes from a female point of view, adding science fiction, classical allusion, and good old-fashioned adventure. As a mother, I was touched by the exploration of different types of parenthood. A wonderful novel.
Although I loved being surprised this year, I also loved good old comfort reading. I reread several James Herriott books, which I still have memorised from when I was thirteen. I reread Georgette Heyer, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King and Susan Cooper. In rereading, knowing what’s going to happen is a huge part of the pleasure, especially with books you haven’t read since you were a teenager. I read a few books with the hero-or-antihero-sacrifices-himself-for-others theme; I love this theme and it’s actually better to read these books knowing the ending, because you can appreciate Sydney Carton, or Cyrano de Bergerac, or Johnny Smith (from The Dead Zone) even more.
Do you have any suggestions for books that surprised you, or which you loved even more because they were predictable?
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Filed under: Uncategorized
My agent likes my new book idea. My editor likes my new book idea. I also like my new book idea.
I’m not writing it yet. I’ll write it soon. But meanwhile, I’m mostly writing about cake.