Sunday, 26 January 2014

Writing: What's In My Head

Aged 3. Already quite weird.
When you’re a kid, there’s always a moment when you look around at the world and realise how incredibly peculiar you and your family actually are. For me, it happened aged six, when my friend told me that when she grew up she wanted to become a doctor.

 I couldn’t even process this. I knew perfectly well that everyone in the world wanted to be a writer, because writing was the point of existence. My father was a writer. My grandfather was a writer. My aunt was a writer. My grandma was a writer. My mother had not written a book yet, but I figured that was just because she was a late bloomer. With all those stories that I knew must be in everyone else's head, the way they were in mine, why would anyone not want to be a writer?

Of course, since then, I’ve realised that not everyone's brain is like mine - not even all other writers'. I know writers who began writing as fairly mature adults, who’d never even thought of doing it before that moment. I know writers who disliked reading as children, writers who dislike reading even now, and even writers who don’t really enjoy the act of writing - to them it's a 9-5, Monday-Friday thing. There are writers who can drop themselves into their story, write it (brilliantly and beautifully) and then disengage from it entirely.

Basically, there are as many ways of being a writers as there are writers themselves, and what I've learnt is that these are all equally valid. There is no correct way to write, and there is no Platonic ideal of a writer - all of the methods I've described are equally likely to lead to the creation of wonderful books.

For me, though, writing isn't a job, or a chore, or even a conscious decision. It’s just something that my brain does automatically. I wake up, I eat breakfast, I make up stories. They're always there, swimming around in my head - and trying to ignore them just makes me stressed. When I don't write for a while, I begin to feel incomplete, like I'm moving through the world with one hand tied behind my back. I have to write. It's the way I process life.

What I look like when I'm writing (note: not really)
So when I was recently asked to write a few lines for the Author Allsorts blog about what I do for leisure, between writing projects, I was a bit confused. Not because I don't know what leisure is (though some days I feel like I'm only dimly aware of the concept), but because, for me, writing is what I do for leisure.

It's how I switch off, how I relax, the place I go when the rest of the world is just too much to handle. When I start typing, I can feel myself breathing out. I write myself calm, every morning on the way to work, and then I've got something to go back to throughout the day. I keep picking away at the puzzle of what happens next - and by the time I open my laptop the next morning my head's stuffed full of my next scene.

I do wonder whether there's a connection between why I write and the stuff that comes out onto the page when I do. You see, although murder in the real world is a nasty business, murder in fiction is absolutely the opposite. It's actually one of the safest and most measured plots to deal with. As the author, you have a set number of suspects, in a set environment, with only a certain amount of clues that must lead to only one single correct solution.

Detective fiction (as opposed to thrillers, which can be extremely wide-ranging - probably why I don't write thrillers) is all about leaving the rest of the world behind. It's not important. What matters are the little details that exist within the perimeters you have set yourself in your story. The texture of this scrap of cloth left hanging on this particular nail. The way this particular window has shattered. The exact depth that this parsley has sunk into this pat of butter on one very special hot day in summer. It's really quite beautiful.

Detective fiction is all about simplicity and calm - the trick that the author is really playing on their readers is in making them believe that the story they've put together is even slightly complex. My genre is basically authorial therapy.

But all the same, if I didn't write crime fiction, I know I'd just start writing something else. There are writers who can stop - but I'm not one of them. The idea of taking time off from writing is never really going to work for me. For better or worse, I am who I am because I write.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

New Year's Excitements and Writing Resolutions: 2014

Hello and welcome to 2014! A lot has changed since I wrote out my year's goals in January 2013.

Did I achieve any of them? Well . . . 

2013: the year that I ended up here
- I got an agent for my crime novel. In fact, Murder Most Unladylike, the first in my middle-grade murder mystery series featuring Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, will be coming out in the UK in May this year (it'll be out in the US in spring 2015). So, you know, I'd say I pretty much ticked that one off.

- I also finished that other book I was writing. It's not Hazel and Daisy at all, but I like it, and one day (in the far, far future) I'm hoping that you might get to like it too.

- I certainly did not get 25% of the 1001 Books project read last year. I feel a bit bad about that. But I did have a few other things going on.

- I don't think I wrote something every day. I certainly didn't write fiction every day. Raymond Chandler would be ashamed of me (sorry, Raymond Chandler). But I wrote quite a lot, and I'm proud of a fair to middling amount of it, and I think that's probably all most writers can ever truthfully say.

- I did begin to plan my books before I wrote them! Sort of, anyway. In 2013 I discovered spreadsheets, and now I love them. I also got much better at cutting the boring bits and getting to the action. When I was revising Murder Most Unladylike, I took to muttering INCREASE THE PERIL! as I typed, and that was very helpful. Everyone loves a bit of peril.

- I did not manage to cut out the dogs from my writing. Nor did I get rid of the murder element in my plots. I'm realising that both might just be inevitable. I did not write any short stories, or enter any competitions. And I did not get a pet lion. But I do still have a pet bearded dragon . . .


And now, some new writing resolutions for 2014.

- I am going to finish Murder Most Unladylike 2, which at the moment is called Arsenic For Tea. I admit, this is less a resolution than a contractual obligation, but hey, whatever works. I am also going to make it a lot better than it is right now.

I shall mainly be channeling the work (though not the life) of this person
- When Arsenic for Tea has been finished, I am going to rework the Secret Project mentioned above, and see what happens to it.

- I am going to do school visits. And I am going to make them be awesome.

- I'm going to try again with that short story thing - I definitely want to write some, probably set in Hazel and Daisy's world.

- I'm going to try to keep reading as many different genres and types of book as possible. Now that I work with children's books as my day job, as well as being a children's writer, it can get difficult to step back and try new things, but I know that it's important. Plus, I love it.

- I also want to do more rereading. I need to remember that trying to read every book ever published is unachievable, and sometimes it is better to just pick up I Capture the Castle for the eleventh time.

- I want to help other writers achieve their goals. I'm part of the awesome Author Allsorts group, as well as SCBWI, and they're both fantastic support networks for UK children's and YA authors. But of course, they only work if writers do support each other, and work together - and that's what I want to do more of this year.

- And I want to champion children's and YA writing however I can. I want to celebrate the brilliant writers working today, and help spread the word about what fantastic children's books are out there.


And finally, on to (some of the very, very many) upcoming 2014 titles I'm currently getting extremely excited about. 

- On January 14th, Hollow City, the sequel to Miss Peregrine's School for Peculiar Children, will finally be published. I have been raving about Miss Peregrine - a crazy, creepy fantasy illustrated with terrifying found photos - since I read it last year, and I am beyond excited for this.

- In February there's a new Helen Oyeyemi book called Boy, Snow, Bird. I absolutely love Helen Oyeyemi (she wrote Mr Fox, a gorgeous take on the gruesome Mr Fox fairytale), and I would quite like to be her friend. But since I can't, I'll make do with reading her books.

- In March, Non Pratt's debut YA novel Trouble will be out. I am lucky enough to know a huge number of incredibly talented people who are all releasing books this year, and I am excited about every single one of them (Liz de Jager's Banished! Emma Pass's The Fearless! Katy Cannon's Love, Lies and Lemon Pies! So many others that if I listed them all this list would stretch to forever and potentially break the Internet!), but I got to read Trouble at proof stage and was absolutely delighted by it. It's so funny and sweet, and it manages to make the beaten-to-death teenage pregnancy plot point seem fresh and interesting. It's going to be a hit.

- March is also the publication month for my most anticipated non-fiction title: Did She Kill Him? by Kate Colquhoun. I love Victorian murders, the Maybrick mystery is fascinating, and Kate's Mr Briggs' Hat (about the first railway murder) was great. I can't wait for this.

- Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls amazed me and freaked me out in equal measure last year, so I'm very excited about her new book, Broken Monsters, which publishes in May. It sounds a bit like sci-fi crime-novel Frankenstein meets The Island of Doctor Moreau, so obviously I will be reading it as soon as it comes out.

- In June, Leigh Bardugo's Grisha trilogy concludes with Ruin and Rising. Once again, I am restraining myself from simply listing every single one of the fantastic books that Orion will be publishing this year (Tess Sharpe's heartbreaking thriller Far From You, the cosmically brilliant new 5-8 series Pets from Space, and many equally worthy others), but this is just SO EXCITING that I have to talk about it. Concluding a series is obscenely difficult to get right, but Leigh's absolutely done it. I can't wait for you all to go absolutely nuts about this.

- In July, Rainbow Rowell's next novel Landline is out. I love Rainbow Rowell. Have I said that enough? Every one of her books is nuanced, thoughtful and absolutely beautiful - and also an amazing love story. I'm bouncing off the walls about this one.

- In August, Ali Smith's got a new one out: How To Both. Ali Smith never bothers with things like nouns or verbs, and a lot of her books don't entirely make sense, but I like her writing a lot, and so I'm very excited for this.

- September can only be the month of a NEW SARAH WATERS NOVEL. Oh my GOD. It's called The Paying Guests, but for all I care it could be called The Very Boring Book of Nothing Happening. It's written by Sarah Waters, and that means that I'll be buying it anyway.

And one final date for your calendars - in May 2014, my very own book, Murder Most Unladylike, will be available to buy from all good UK bookstores. Isn't that exciting? And weird? And amazing? I'm hoping to be able to share the UK cover with you very soon (I've seen roughs, and it's going to be wonderful), and I'm also hoping to run a giveaway on this blog when the proof copies are in - which, again, should be very soon! So stick around.

All in all, I've got a really good feeling about this year.