Archive for the ‘reading’ Category




The Courage to Write

Filed under: crows, reading, writing

I’m reading a book called The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes. I picked it up because, let’s face it, I have The Fear. There are crows permanently camped outside my window, telling ghost stories and making s’mores and having a grand old time. So I thought this book might have a little magic formula for making me more fearless.

It doesn’t. It talks about why writers are afraid to write—for example, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of exposure as a fraud, fear of exposing too much of their faults and inner feelings, fear of what writing can do to one’s family and life. It mentions why fear can be a good thing for your writing—how it’s a sign that you’re being truthful and challenging yourself, how you can use the intense emotion of fear and channel it into your writing. And it talks about how writers write despite their fear—by following rituals, by making a dirty draft, by having deadlines, by developing friendships with other writers.

the courage to writeNone of it is particularly new stuff. In fact, I found myself nodding in recognition when I read a lot of it. But it’s one of the best books on writing I’ve ever read, and I’ll recommend it to others, precisely because it is familiar. Because it gives me this message:

Fear is normal. Keyes says, and in italics, too: “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”

To me, that’s liberating. In a sort of annoying way, of course, because fear is not something you want to voluntarily put yourself through, it’s actually pretty damn awful, and I am not a pleasant person to be with when my only thoughts, running over and over through my brain, are This book is crap, I can’t write, the story is the same as my last book, my editor will hate it, I suck, nobody’s going to buy it, what if I’ve got too much in there what if I haven’t got enough, it’s crap, how do I fix it… Ad infinitum.

Keyes’s message is that courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s carrying on despite fear. Maybe even because of fear.

He teaches creative writing and he says, quite interestingly, that the main purpose of creative writing courses isn’t to teach skills, so much as to give the students courage. That’s something I’ll be thinking about when I lead the Cornerstones women’s fiction writing course next month.

He talks about how writers can be nightmares to live with—grouchy, surly, selfish, full of anxiety. When I was reading that chapter, I turned to my husband and said, “You should read this book—he says all writers are miserable like me, I’m normal!”

“It’s supposed to comfort me that there are more like you?” he grumbled.

I’ll try to find time to post some of the interesting examples from the book of how writers cope with fear. Meanwhile…are you a nightmare to live with, too? And have your crows actually started singing “Kumbya” outside that damn window yet?





reading outside my habit

Filed under: reading

I’ve been trying to read a lot, especially by using the library as much as possible. I have a routine at the library lately.* I tend to gravitate toward the new releases shelves, picking out women’s and other commercial fiction. I have to ration myself on these new books, though, because they’re limited to a week’s loan and I spend too much time working and taking care of Fecklet to read several books in one week. If I don’t find anything there that appeals, I check out the general fiction, then maybe the graphic novels and fantasy (DH and I are on a Neil Gaiman glom), or maybe the thrillers (I’ve got a couple of Val McDermids to catch up on).

The last book I picked up though was a historical—Sophia’s Secret by Susanna Kearsley. I had dinner with Susanna back in February, though I didn’t know who she was, or that she’d been one of the finalists for the Romantic Novel of the Year award. (And I was, er, drunk. Sorry, Susanna.)

I don’t normally read historicals, that is, unless they’re written by someone I know. I just never think to read them. My own knowledge of history is sketchy and I just don’t feel like I’m bringing much to the table, I guess.

But every time I read one, I find myself enjoying it—not in spite of the historical aspect, but because of it. Especially if the characters are caught up in big historical events where the stakes are much higher. In a contemporary novel, a heroine might run the risk of not getting the job and life she wants, or finding love, or getting herself out of some mess or another. In a historical, the heroine might run the risk of being killed for treason, of ruining her reputation forever, of having her loved ones taken from her. And running behind this lies the fate of the country and the course of history. Excellent stuff.

Habits are hard to break, so I’m not certain I’ll gravitate toward the historical fiction aisle as a habit, but I’m glad I’m dipping in.

Have you discovered, or re-discovered, any reading that’s outside your habit recently?

*It goes without saying that the first thing we do at the library is go to the children’s section so that Fecklet can run around, look at the books, talk about the fish painted on the wall, play with the computer and generally be much noisier than one is supposed to be in a library. After that I have roughly eight minutes to select the books I’d like to read before he gets bored.





the hair test

Filed under: reading

I’ve just discovered a sure-fire way of telling whether I can be bothered to finish reading a book:

Get the said book from the library and read till about page 75, when I notice several short dark hairs caught between the pages. Brush the hairs off and read the rest of the page, turn the page, see more hairs. Look forward in the book; there are hairs everywhere. Gross.

Is the story worth de-hairing the book? Or do I put the book down with distaste, continue no further and take it back to the library?

In this case, it was the latter. I just didn’t care about the story enough to deal with someone else’s hair, and to think about why so much of it is in the book. Reading at the hairdressers? Alopecia? Or a (shudder) pubic trimming session?

So it’s going back.

Though I’ve just had a horrible thought: what if the librarians think that’s my hair in there?





cake, dinosaurs and effortless Janes

Filed under: crows, parenthood, reading

Well, we’re on the fourth day of Fecklet not being well. He’s got some sort of tummy bug, and though he’s over the fever now and he’s having some cheerful moments, his appetite isn’t good and he’ll suddenly turn from cheerful to crying and needing cuddles. I’ve definitely noticed a pattern, in that he feels much better after eating something and then has a dip, so I’m trying to make him eat little and often.

Anyway, this morning we baked a cake to prolong a cheerful moment. He loves dumping ingredients in a bowl and mixing. We made an eggless cocoa cake, and then after we’d licked the bowl we decided the pan was too big for the cake so we made half an invented recipe of eggless orange cake and marbled it through. The batter tasted wonderful and it smelled great in the oven. The finished cake is pretty lopsided (I think the orange batter rose more as the OJ reacted with the baking soda) but I’ll slap some frosting on it and it will do wonders to cheer us up this afternoon, I’m sure.

And I also just had a brainstorm and remembered the carrier bag full of plastic dinosaurs I bought from the charity shop and was saving for a rainy day. Fecklet is now obsessed with dinosaurs, and I do believe that even though it’s sunny outside, this might be a metaphorical rainy day.

All of this means I’ve had very little time to write, though I did finish a chapter last night and now have to find out what happens next. I’ve just read Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon and am now reading The Beach House by Jane Green (I obviously had a subconscious thing about Janes when I visited the library) and the thing that gets me is how effortless their stories feel when you’re reading them. Like the Janes never had to rack their brains to find out what’s going to happen next in their books in between changing really disgusting nappies, doing endless laundry and calming down a red-faced two-year-old. Obviously for the Janes, the stories flow beautifully from their fingers, with nary a crow or a moment of grossness to deter them, and immediately become best-sellers.

Or maybe, just maybe, they have to scrape it and work it and shoo away crows as much as I do, and it just comes out seeming effortless because it’s taken so much effort. (And possibly cake and dinosaurs too.)





2008, book-wise

Filed under: reading

The new year is a time to look back and forward, and I’ve been thinking about my reading and writing this past year.

I wrote two books, both for Little Black Dress. Girl from Mars will be out in May 09, and Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom will be out, I’m guessing, late in 2009 or early in 2010. That is, after I get it in to my editor next week.

In June, I started keeping track of the books I’ve read, which tells me I’ve read 44 books, though some of those are the picture books I’ve been reading with the Fecklet.

I’ve got a confession to make. Whenever I go to a person’s house, I check out their bookshelves right away. I love going to someone’s house and seeing they have shelves full of books that I’ve read and loved, and lots more that I’d like to discover. I’m also interested when the books are things I’ve never heard of and would never think to read. Looking at bookshelves can tell you who a person really is…or maybe, if they prune their bookshelves, who they’d like you to think they are.

Anyway, in the interests of being completely honest with you about who I really am, here are the books I’ve read in the last six months, listed in order since June, leaving out the ones I’ve just read to Fecklet.

1. The Other Boleyn Girl, Phillipa Gregory
2. Any Way You Want It, Kathy Love
3. This Charming Man, Marian Keyes
4. Pillow Talk, Freya North
5. Silver Bay, Jojo Moyes
6. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards
7. Run Among Thorns, Anna Louise Lucia
8. Pandora’s Box, Giselle Green
9. Glitterwings Academy: Flying High, Titania Woods
10. The Self-Preservation Society, Kate Harrison
11. Watchmen, Alan Moore
12. The Ungarnished Truth, Ellie Mathews
13. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
14. Challengers of the Unknown Must Die!, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
15. Holly’s Inbox, Holly Denham
16. Tell Me Something, Adele Parks
17-20. the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer
21. Falling for Mr Dark and Dangerous, Donna Alward
22. Blue Remembered Heels, Nell Dixon
23-31. The Sandman series (9 books), Neil Gaiman
32. The Sweetest Taboo, Carole Matthews
33. Duma Key, Stephen King
34. Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
35. The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
36. The Rules of Gentility, Janet Mullany
37. Trashed, Alison Gaylin
38. Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore
39. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, Brian Augustyn
40. Batman: Tales of the Dark Knight by various
41. Cherrybrook Rose, Tania Crosse
42. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

It’s a lot (16) of commercial women’s fiction, which makes sense, and also a lot (14) of graphic novels, which also makes sense as one of the books I wrote this year is about a comic book artist. But I’m a comics fan anyway. Four nonfiction, which is less than usual. Only one category romance, which is way less than usual. Nothing literary, though I did read some more literary stuff in the first six months of the year. Eleven of the books are by people I have met, and of those, several are friends.

I like keeping track of the books I’ve read. It reminds me of the kind of time I’ve had while I was reading them, because your experience of reading isn’t just to do with the book; it’s about everything that’s going on in your head while you’re reading it.

So I remember that I read Watchmen first in 1991, and picked up my copy again this summer while I was at my parents’, and read it on the couch on rainy days listening to the rain on the roof and the lake lapping the shore. I read Twilight on a train and cried, and though I was disappointed with the sequels, I read them like I eat popcorn, munching as quickly as possible and knowing I’ll regret it when the salt shrinks the inside of my mouth. I gulped down the Sandman series just as quickly, but went back to savour it afterwards, and it haunted my dreams for weeks. I read Glitterwings Academy after going to the launch party, where everyone was dressed as fairies. I read Pillow Talk after it won Romantic Novel of the Year at a glamorous party where I was on the shortlist for the Romance Prize.

What book has carried memories with it for you, this year?





recommend some reads?

Filed under: reading

Hey, I’m compiling a reading list for the Cornerstones course I’m leading in September, on Writing Commercial Women’s Fiction, and I need your help!

What’s the best commercial women’s fiction book you’ve read in the past 12 months? It can be romance, comedy, historical, bonkbuster, literary…as long as it’s aimed at women and it’s commercial. Recent British publications are a bit better for my purposes, but I’ll take all recommendations.

I’ve read a lot of good women’s fiction this year, particularly pure fun stuff by Jill Mansell and Carole Matthews. But I think my favourites were of course, my personal goddess Marian Keyes with This Charming Man, and also I loved Eva Rice’s Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. Both of them hooked me by the gut, kept me reading to the detriment of doing anything else, and gave me a glimpse into a different world from my own.

How about you?

(If the comments box doesn’t come up for you because my blog is broken, email me using the link on the right and I’ll post your recommendations for you.)





reading and learning

Filed under: reading

I’ve been a bit flat and crow-ridden for the past week or so, for a bunch of reasons. I had some last revisions to do on Honey Trap, and then I tried to jump right back into writing Girl from Mars without a break, which was a stupid thing to do. Then between one thing and another I haven’t had much time to write. In general, writing begets writing, so when I can’t do it I start to feel disconnected from my ms. It sounds a little bit weird, to be saying in one breath that I needed to give myself a break and in the other saying I can’t be away from the writing, but it’s one thing to take a deliberate break and quite another to be prevented from writing by outside stuff. I failed to do the first and found myself in the second.

I had a great workshop with my writing group on Wednesday, but in general I was feeling rundown and tired and dispirited.

And, of course, I’d reached the place in my book where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. This is always tricky and entails much moaning and whining on my part.

However. I’ve taken some steps to climb out of my funk. First off, I’ve been taking vitamins and this might be a placebo effect, but I’ve immediately felt better physically. I got my hair cut and it’s amazing what that can do to make you feel better. I’ve had a bit of time to write, and I’ve got the story started again; more than that, I’ve started planning a bit and so I have a general shape of where I’m going (though it is very general).

I think what’s helped the most, though, has been reading, researching, and absorbing stories. Liz Fenwick posted on her blog today that reading Freya North’s Pillow Talk (which won the Romantic Novel of the Year award this year–it’s on my TBR list) has helped her see a way forward with one of her mss. I went to the library and got out several graphic novels to help inspire me with my comic book artist heroine, all of which I devoured in a matter of hours. I also went to Smiths and bought the latest 2000AD. They reminded me of tight story structure, and of the particular constraints and strengths of visual storytelling–an important theme of my own novel.

I’ve spent some time exchanging emails with a guy who writes comics scripts for DC, and he’s got me thinking, too, about visual storytelling, and some of the issues that my hero and heroine are going to have.

I also got, on the recommendation of my agent, The Rose of Sebastopol, which I started yesterday and have hardly been able to put down; I’m now about a third of the way through. It’s about a very conventional Victorian woman who finds her world challenged by her cousin and the Crimean war. One thing that is really striking me in that book is the sense that things are bubbling under the surface, that the narrator does not understand all that is happening, or is perhaps holding something back. There’s also an excellent sense of two very different worlds colliding, or about to explode onto each other. It’s fascinating and makes me turn the pages.

Last night I deliberately didn’t try to write; instead I watched Bobby, which I loved. It’s the connected stories of several people in the Ambassador hotel on the night in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and it showed me some valuable lessons about drawing characters quickly and sympathetically, especially the lovely and understated relationships between the characters played by Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen, Sharon Stone and William F Macy, and Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood. What it really hit me with, though, was how these individual relationships were played out against a context of a tragedy that affected the whole course of US and global history. It’s a good lesson about how to raise the stakes in a story.

So…I’ve learned some stuff. Raise the stakes. Make worlds collide. Look at bigger things. Even in a romantic comedy about a comic book artist, I can use these lessons.

What have you learned lately from your reading?






Filed under: reading

Hey, Dumbledore is gay.

I’m about two chapters from the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and what I thought was going to happen hasn’t happened yet! I wonder if it will. I did cry at one point, which is new for me with Harry Potter. The middle of the book is slow (that said I whizzed through it), but the ending is explosions, excitement, and emotion aplenty.

I had to put it down to take care of the Fecklet and can’t wait to finish it with dinner tonight.

It’s nice to know that Dumbledore is gay though. I didn’t really suspect it. I guess it was his haircut that fooled me.

I have some quibbles with JK Rowling’s writing style (especially her use of punctuation!! AAGH!!) , but I like her world and her characters and that she knows lots more about them than she reveals in her books.


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