Welcome visitor you can log in or create an account

The Controversial Writer

  • Published in Writing

It takes slog to write an article, even more so a full length novel, but at this stage of the writing game you are in control. If you change your mind about something or are not sure of your facts you can scrub it and start afresh. When you are in your private world anything goes. I guess this is why many people put a protective arm round their work and don’t give in to requests by family and friends to “offer an opinion.”

Publishing for the world to grind its teeth on your words needs courage. Great courage. Especially if you are writing something that is likely to be deemed as controversial, a definition of which is: - of, relating to, or characteristic of controversy, or prolonged public dispute, debate, or contention; polemical. In other words you take an opposing view from the mainstream.

Let’s say you write a book on Fairies in Icelandic Folklore. If your narrative is supporting them then you risk ridicule by most of the world who don’t believe in the supernatural. If you argue they don’t exist, you risk the wrath of many Icelanders who set up road blocks to protest against a new construction which might disturb them. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/icelanders-protest-road-would-disturb-fairies-180949359/

See, your writing will be controversial to somebody the moment you wave your ideas above the parapet. We all want our books to be noticed in this screaming marketplace and that’s where the trouble begins. Too much bad language, sadomasochism, abuse and violence, bits from other writers slipped in and awful writing will draw attention to your work but not in the way you might want. High content is the mantra for novelists at the moment and sod the writing style. High content can mean writing a story about LGBT issues from a strong religious point of view with the character stating that gay people can be “fixed,” or it can mean sharing with the world a different kind of love.  Just writing about gay relationships can drain the blood from the cheeks of some publishers. Not everyone is prepared to take the risk of upsetting their regular readership.

Even the memoir is not without risk. Not everybody has enough stories in their life to warrant mass readership so maybe a little embellishment here and there isn’t going to harm anyone. Let’s say I write about being captured in the Middle East and held hostage. It’s partially true as I was held against my will by my former husband but that isn’t as dramatic as being held by the Druze militia or Al Shabab.

 Do I ham it up for my reading public and hope I don’t get found out? Not me but others might. Controversy sells especially today when there are facts and “alternative facts”. Lying seems to be de rigeur.

A book like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is considered a brilliant piece of fiction although opinions differ on the quality of the writing. He blended facts with fiction thus rattling the cages of historians with its alleged swarm of inaccuracies. I swallowed the whole story as a truth which shows how gullible I am.

Many publishers steer clear of controversy as a) it is unlikely to appeal to a wide readership if they can’t relate to the issue and b) fear of bad publicity. Having said that is there no such a thing as bad publicity but book retailers are risk averse. They like books on their shelves that are tried and tested and have a following: crime, romance, thrillers, and cosy village sagas with a soupcon of naughtiness.

What does that mean for writers? Should we stick to what’s safe just to get a publishing deal or should we risk writing from the heart about what matters to us but dress it  down to make it more palatable?

Andrew Smith’s powerful  novel, The Speech, is fiction woven around the very real but controversial Enoch Powell, who in the author’s own words, is usually perceived as a two dimensional character. Instead he chose to flesh him out as more rounded and therefore believable, balancing weaknesses against his strengths without underplaying his evil rhetoric against immigrants.

 All characters no matter how heinous their actions and behaviour are multi- dimensional but readers who have knowledge of Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech would not want to recognise some of the MP’s finer qualities. A classics scholar with a brilliant mind, he was as quoted in his obituary as, “hated by many, loved by many, but never regarded with indifference.”

What makes The Speech such a compelling read is that we are drawn into the fictional lives of some characters from that era who were affected directly and indirectly by the harm executed by Powell. We experience and feel the harm he did by firing up racism and intolerance.  

I too have staked my claim as a controversial writer. The Cruelty of Lambs is about the uncomfortable subject of domestic abuse which maybe doesn’t affect the majority of people but, let’s face it, we all know or suspect somebody that might be a perpetrator or victim but we prefer to turn the sound up on the TV than worry why the shouting next door has suddenly stopped and the kids are crying. 

My new novel, The Future Can’t Wait also challenges controversial themes; mother-daughter estrangement, terrorism and psychic addiction. Published by Urbane Publications September 2017. Some of us feel a strong urge to bring truth into the open and hang the consequences.


A day in the life of a writer

  • Published in Writing

I am at my most productive and creative between 8am and 2pm. After that my eyes are sore at staring at the screen and my neck and shoulders feel they’ve been put through a mangle.

My day starts with a cup of strong tea with soya milk and one home-made ginger biscuit. Gluten and fat free. As somebody who suffers with gastric problems I find the ginger helps to settle my stomach. The Today programme helps me keep in touch with what’s going on in the world but if John Humphries slips into bullying and talking over people I press the off button. I guess my tolerance levels have dipped since I’ve got older.

Today I am working in my spacious dining kitchen where it is warm. I am usually a tidy worker but today I'm in a bit of a creative tailspin. That’s because I am editing my second book and need to spread out my notes and ideas across the table.

The thought of restructuring parts of a novel is daunting but once I am into it I find it therapeutic. Like pruning or mowing the lawn. It’s got to be done if you want the best results.

Editing gets confused with proof reading. It isn’t as easy as casting a careful eye looking for typos or punctuation errors. It’s about ripping sections out that slow down the pace of novel, condensing dialogue from a ramble to something more snappy. Anything that on a second, third or fourth reading sounds clumsy needs to be rewritten to help with the flow. You might need to shuffle paragraphs around to a different part of the book or get rid of them all together.

Today I’ve gorged a hole in  two chapters that now need to be rewritten and introduced a new concept to replace the old. It’s hard slog  tiring but ultimately satisfying when you see the improvements.

By 1pm I’m word blind so it’s time for my daily adventure into the outside world. Living in Malvern gives me quick access to all sorts of walks where I can exchange pleasantries with early morning dog walkers on the common or engage in some serious hiking on North Hill which lies behind my house. I’ve just returned from a trip into Great Malvern where I get to people- watch in one of the many coffee houses. The town attracts a lot of writers and people who work from home so there is usually somebody to natter with.

Lunch is usually vegetable soup and a lie down for an hour. I don’t know how President Trump keeps up his schedule! 

I’ve recently taken up painting so this afternoon I shall make a start on a scene I photographed in the Peak District at the weekend. Churchill said that painting was a perfect way to relax an overworked brain. I failed art at school but having  attended an art therapy class in town I was encouraged to keep trying.  Sometimes that’s all you need.  I love daubing landscapes in acrylics using the techniques and the approach of the impressionists. If I think it looks like a tree then it is a tree!

My friend will be calling in around 4pm for a gossip and to tell me her thoughts on The Cruelty of Lambs. I do know that she had to keep putting it down for a breather as she found it very intense.

Tonight I am singing with a local choir that meets in Malvern every two weeks. I squeeze in an hour of reading during the day as writers do need to read across a range of books. At the moment I am enjoying Lost in Static by Christina Phillipou published by Urbane Publications. Being an early riser (6am) I find myself flagging around eight o’clock. I’m a radio addict so it’s always a treat to listen to Radio 4 extra for some of the old comedies or a play.

Before I drift off, I shall exchange my daily email with my friend in Chicago. She’s a democrat and has her regular rants about Trump and the state of the nation. I’ve learned more about American politics in the last year than I ever needed to know.


Are you a flexible author?

  • Published in Writing

Publishers know what sells as do book shop managers and the two rely on each other to bring a book to the market place that customers will buy. The industry is noticeably risk averse especially when it comes to debut authors and feel safe buying the tried and tested writers who have proved to be good sellers. That’s the bottom line.

This is tough for those of us trying to create a platform for our work and I would say to newbie writers that if you’re not prepared to put in the work, develop resilience and a heap of patience then this might not be the career for you. Most of us don’t earn a squeak in the first year never mind the year or two before publication in writing the thing.

If you’re hoping for a big advance with promises of best seller stardom then talk to other writers and get a reality check. You’ve really, really got to want be in it for the long haul.

Suppose you’ve written a novel that’s a bit off the wall and you’re not sure who the audience might be. If you’re vague about its marketing strength it doesn’t augur well for sales. It’s a tough one as you thrash out 80,000 words of a novel that really means something to you only to find that your readership might be turned off by an aspect or a theme and so never finish it. That means that they are less likely to recommend it as opinion can colour buying decisions.

 Maybe you feel so strongly about your storyline that it’s publish and be damned. Integrity matters but your agent/publisher is taking a risk on you in the hope that your book will make money for both of you.  The bald truth about writing novels is that they are a product which are racked alongside millions of others all clamouring for the reader’s hard earned spare cash. Millions of people have never heard of you and are less likely to take a risk on a book that’s out of their comfort zone.

So what to do?

If your editor/publisher/agent comes back and says they like the main theme of the book but they want you to rip out a large section which to you is the heart of the book there’s little point standing up indignantly to defend it. It’s not a PhD thesis. You have to ask yourself a few searching questions. Do you trust your publisher to know what they’re talking about? Do you want this book to sell?  Are you serious about being a writer? Are you in it for the long haul? Can you swallow your pride and do as you’re told? J

You might find you write more saleable novels for a different audience. In fact there’s a lot to be said for not getting locked into a genre like a Coronation Street character. It’s all about being flexible, listening to those with the experience, being a bit humble but not ever, ever giving up.

I’m not a great believer in overnight success. To me if there has been slog, grit and determination ( and in my case a lot of swearing, shouting and lap top tossing J) then the rewards are so much sweeter.

I’m 61 next week (groan) and I’m determined to leave a best seller behind me whatever it takes and the money can go to a support group for writers who regularly tear their hair out. I believe the condition is called trichotillomania.:)  

So if you see a balder version of me in months to come you’ll know why!


Is Writing Cathartic?

  • Published in Writing

Much depends on what you’re writing, your intended audience and why you’re doing it. Some of us feel such a compulsion to express our thoughts, ideas, feelings and visions in the written word that a day without tapping out a few hundred words is like going without our beverage of choice.

Does that imply writing is a drug? In a way I suppose it is but a healthy one. If you are overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings then keeping a journal is one way of making sense of them and it provides a reference point for when you feel better. I’m not a diarist, partly because I no longer write legibly by hand but I am a list maker and someone who likes to jot as the very act of seeing words appear before my eyes helps alleviate stress and tension.

Back to my original question. What does catharsis actually mean?  Providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis. Like tears.

When I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs and more recently my new novel, The Future Can’t Wait, I experienced catharsis by the letting go of anger and hurt through my characters. It allowed me to pour everything out then stand back and assess their responses to some terrible situations nobody wants to find themselves facing. Some of this was definitely an outpouring of my subconscious and there were times I had to stop writing because despite it being fiction I could relate personally to some of the events and I know other people could too. Some reviewers described The Cruelty of Lambs a painful read. It was meant to be because only by getting under the skin of people who have personal experience of a situation can we find empathy with them.

I think it’s empowering to incorporate a difficult period in your life in your novel even if you don’t think it’s very much – you know the argument- well people have had it worse than me. Readers are often looking for ways of handling difficult periods in their own life and can be inspired when they see your suffering character finally find relief and hope.

I devour psychological thrillers like I do my morning cornflakes – greedily and left eyeing up more! The fact that someone faces grave danger, comes face to face with their deepest fears, biggest nightmare or suddenly wakes up to the fact the way they are being treated really isn’t normal or right can resonate with most of us. Ask any novelist if there is something of them in their books – a broken heart, failed marriage, teenage angst etc and they are most likely to say ‘ well a bit maybe.’ When pushed they will also tell you it was a relief, better than therapy and it has helped them find closure. That’s certainly true of writing both of my novels.

I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs during another bout of depression. Instead of ruminating on past injustices or traumatic thoughts, I channelled them onto the screen which helped give them shape, order and a semblance of objectivity. We write because we want to make sense of the world even if it’s through fun children’s books, a How-to guide or a personal journal.

The memoir is the ultimate in writing for catharsis I think. We take a period in time, usually something that was challenging at the time and write our way through it. The experience can evoke old feelings about that time which become easier to process the more time passes. In some cases, memoirs are written for family alone, as a record of the period but many memoirists want to share their experience for the benefit of others.

Diving into a dark, skeleton- filled pit isn’t for the faint hearted.  Don’t write painful stuff if it’s going to trigger unhealed trauma. I waited 15 years before writing my first novel after being diagnosed with ptsd.  Have someone close at hand you can talk to about what you’ve written or are about to write. Think carefully about whether you want to go public or not. The misery memoirs and true life stories are still very popular from A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer to Damaged by Cathy Glass. Writing this kind of book provides a healing for the writer but it can cause tremendous pain for whole families, relatives, friends and even unsuspecting strangers once the book hits the stores and moreover the press.

Subscribe to this RSS feed