Books of 2017

I reread a lot of books this year. Mainly it was old favourites and I was trying to figure out what made them so good (turning reading into learning, fun!). I also started off the year by reading a lot of non-fiction, which is unusual for me but turned out great. I then ended the year on a more commercial note, when I just needed something to look forward to in the evenings when my brain didn’t want to work.

I’ve already written about some of the best books, this is the whole list (not including Harry Potter x 2.3 times). This year, with stars!

  • Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson ****
  • Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald****
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert ***
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance *****
  • 117 days by Ruth First **** After finishing this I was determined to read more about South Africa. That didn’t happen, but there’s still time! 
  • The year of magical thinking by Joan Didion *****
  • When will there be good news? By Kate Atkinson *** I think Kate Atkinson is great. So readable but not trashy at all.
  • Blue nights by Joan Didion ****
  • Dreams from my father by Barack Obama ****
  • The caged virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali ****
  • Stet by Diana Athill ***
  • Born to run by Christopher McDougall ***
  • Do no harm by Henry Marsh *** This is from the eighties, an account of being a neurosurgeon in Britain. It is interesting, and was a bit of a silly choice to read after my operation.
  • The husband’s secret by Liane Moriarty ***
  • Trio by Sue Gee **
  • Revolutionary road by Richard Yates **** I knew this story from the movie, but the book is so well written it didn’t matter. Unlikable characters but in such interesting ways.
  • Good me, bad me by Ali Land ***
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout *****
  • The English patient by Michael Ondaatje ****
  • Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee *****
  • Pride and prejudice by Jane Austen *****
  • The blackwater lightship by Colm Toibin *****
  • Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum *** A reworking of Anna Karenina apparently, which I didn’t realise until the end. Loved about the first two thirds of it.
  • On Chesil beach by Ian McEwan ***
  • Station eleven by Emily St John Mandel *****
  • The tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte***
  • The light between oceans by M.L. Stedman ***
  • Blindness by Jose Saramago *****
  • Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey *****
  • Conversations with friends by Sally Rooney ****
  • The futures by Anna Pitoniak ***
  • The naïve and the sentimental novelist by Orhan Pamuk ****
  • The circle by David Eggers ***
  • Wishful drinking by Carrie Fisher ***
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote ***
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett **** Loved this, one of the highlights of the year. A perfect opening scene. I need more Patchett in my life.
  • Reading like a writer by Francine Prose ****
  • Abide with me by Elizabeth Strout ****
  • The magician’s assistant by Ann Patchett ***
  • The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden ****
  • Swimming home by Deborah Levy *** I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, but it was a bit disappointing. The mysterious quirky loner girl trope is a bit old, even though it was written so well.
  • Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas ***
  • Only daughter by Anna Snoekstra **
  • Sense and sensibility by Jane Austen ***
  • Frog music by Emma Donoghue **** I don’t usually read historical fiction, but I love Donoghue and this novel set in San Francisco around a 19th century murder was great.
  • The misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky ***
  • Negotiating with the dead by Margaret Atwood ***
  • The Martian by Andy Weir ***
  • Position doubtful by Kim Mahood ***** Very interesting thoughts about land and life and connections in Australia.
  • Big little lies by Liane Moriarty ***
  • Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout ***** The perfect novel.
  • Hidden figures by Margot Lee Shetterly **** I saw the movie of this first, and then got annoyed when I read the book and realised how much had been unnecessarily changed. The writing style is very casual and a bit funny – like an aunt’s diary – but the amount of information is amazing. Also, I didn’t realise just how complicated segregation and its removal was.
  • The wonder by Emma Donoghue ***
  • Quartet by Jean Rhys ***
  • The dry by Jane Harper ****
  • The point by Marion Halligan *** I wanted to like this because it was set in Canberra, but Halligan fell for the 90s/early noughties fashion of not using speech marks, so I spent a lot of time being annoyed that I couldn’t follow who was speaking.
  • The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel ***
  • The good son by Paul McVeigh ****A boy growing up in Belfast during the Troubles. Often compared to Roddy Doyle, but I found it better – more sympathetic and genuine, with less caricatures.
  • The end of Eddy by Edouard Louis ***** I’ve been wanting to read this all year and it didn’t disappoint. Northern French working-class boy, gay, trying to figure out the endless violence and apathy around him. 

Lists from other years are here.

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Drafts, NaNo, Deadlines and Breaks

I’ve recently returned to editing Hold Back the Night after working through the comments made by my super helpful beta readers. I’m tying up loose subplots and energising the fizzly characters. I’m putting meat on the skeletal draft version and making the words crisper. I had paragraphs where every sentence started with ‘She’ (sorry, beta-readers!) – this is very satisfying to change.

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It’s exciting, especially as I’d like to have it finished by the end of the year, ready to start submitting to agents in January.

But the premise makes the endless rereading even harder than it normally would be. A woman recovering (a bit) from sexual assault is distressing to read, even when I wrote it. It’s worse when I go from working on it – trying to find new ways to express shame and terror and revulsion – to reading about Harvey Weinstein, to reading the pages of #metoo stories. It’s become urgent – I want this story out there, but my standards remain stubbornly high. I don’t want to leave the writing floppy just because the marketability is suddenly soaring. The story deserves better than that, as do those wonderful (infuriating) characters.

I’ve realised that not only do I have to give it time to mature fully, I have to give myself breaks from it. I can’t be an emotional mess in the rest of my life just because I’m spending hours in the company of damaged characters. I’ve worked on all the chapters, I’m happy with the story, the words are getting stronger. I need to break my writing life up a bit.

Low and behold, this ‘break’ coincides with November. And we all know what that means…NaNoWriMo! Or, for the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month. 400,000+ people around the world attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during November. It’s mad and fun and the communities that spring up around it are the best bit.

I wasn’t going to do NaNo. I don’t need any encouragement to write daily, nor to write quantity over quality (hello every first draft ever). But perhaps this is the break I need. I have a first draft I’m saving to work on during a Writers’ HQ online editing course, and I have half of another draft. But you can never have too many first drafts to bash into shape, particularly when you work full-time and can’t luxuriate into ideas organically but need to vomit them out wherever possible to then chisel away in bite-sized pieces.

My list of novel ideas contains nothing that could be called ‘fun’, but maybe I’ll think of something. I have four days, after all, that’s 64 waking hours and 32 hours of dreaming. Loads of time.

 

What to do when you’re not publishing #2

A while ago I wrote a post about what to do when you’re not publishing. I read it again recently because, low and behold, I’m still not publishing! I think it needs an update though, because I have discovered many new things to do that are more energising. The worst thing about constant rejections is their tendency to sap energy for everything – writing, work, life in general – and so finding things that can feed you (metaphorically, though delicious food is a good distraction as well) is life-saving.

11. Watch TED talks. They may be a bit cliched, but motivation is only lame when you don’t need it. It can be surprisingly effective when you’re feeling low.

12. Discover new artists. Artists of any kind, though my favourite is musicians. Find amazing art created by people who just got on and did it, and built an incredible back catalogue of work while apparently being ignored. My current anthem is Don’t Come Easy by Patty Griffin.

13. Try to find community. This is hard, though my recent discover of Writers’ HQ is helping me. They have free short online courses, cheap(ish) longer ones, they’re active on social media, and they run retreats in England if that’s your area. They also have a wonderful way of making it all seem fun, probably because of all the swearing.

14. Find some writing you love and type it up. It’s amazing how much more achievable it seems when it’s typed in Word rather than printed in a printed book.

15. Submit. Whatever you have really. The rejections (let’s be realistic here) won’t come in for months by which time hopefully you’ll be feeling better, and the little spark that comes with pressing ‘submit’ will do wonders right now.

16. If you haven’t already, download Scrivener and spend hours figuring it out and imagining how much easier it will be to do really good drafts in the future.

17. Take a weekend off. You’ll be dying to get back to it on Monday.

18. Imagine you’ve been given a death sentence (I mean weeping-in-a-courtroom, choosing-a-last-meal kind of imagining). What would you work on? Do that now.

Time for me to crank Patty, load up Scrivener, and find some old work to submit to something.

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Top 10 books of 2017

I love books and I love lists of fun things and I’ve just found this website, Broke and Bookish, which has top ten book lists every Tuesday! The most recent one was post your top ten books of 2017.

I’ve reread a lot of things this year so it’s good to go back and look at what’s stood out so far, among old and new favourites. In chronological order of when I read them, because that’s the way my mind works.

read all the books

  1. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

This book has been talked and written about a lot since Trump was elected, since it’s apparently about ‘his’ voters – disadvantaged, frustrated, rural, white people. The nostalgia is strong. There is a theme of: we were violent and poor in the past but at least we had a work ethic! Vance seems to blame the welfare state and drugs for ruining his people’s sense of purpose, but he is also scathing of parents treating their kids badly, not putting enough emphasis on education, and allowing potential to be wasted out of disinterest or a kind of reverse snobbishness.

2. The year of magical thinking by Joan Didion

At the beginning of the year everyone seemed to be talking about Joan Didion in that infuriating way of presuming everyone knows who she is and what she does. So I decided to read her and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read her before. This book is a beautiful, surprisingly lucid account of the grief after her husband dies and her daughter is very sick. I’ve read a couple more since this one but Magical Thinking remains at the top.

3. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

An old favourite. I haven’t read much of Coetzee in a while because the most recent one (The Childhood of Jesus) was very disappointing. It was good to return to this. It amazes me when protagonists can be unlikable without making the novel unlikable. His characters seem to have more than three dimensions – is it possible to have a six-sided character? Because that’s what they are.

4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Another old favourite that I read while in Winchester, as seeing Austen’s grave made me want to reread her. This was the first Austen I read and while I have since come to prefer Persuasion, I am appreciating P&P more and more as the TV show grows distant in my memory. The TV show is awesome, but there are extra layers in the novel – and I’m possibly liking Lizzie less and less without Jennifer Ehle’s bright eyes to make her inspiring.

5. The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

I read this year’s ago and had it mind as a great Toibin book. I’ve felt the more recent ones – Brooklyn, Nora Webster – were missing something which Blackwater and The South had. A deeper immersion in life, perhaps. Other than a random flashback section at the beginning which I didn’t like, this was as good as I remembered. Families in all their tense, judgmental love, complicated by the fear and grief of AIDs and the moodiness of the Irish seaside.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

A new book! It was listed for the Bailey’s Book Prize this year. I have this idea in my head that I don’t like sci-fi, and then I realise most dystopians are counted as sci-fi and I love a good dystopia. A flu epidemic, unlike anything that’s come before, wipes out 90% of the population. What I loved was how the structures of modern life were adapted despite the lack of modern conveniences – I mean, of course an airport would be a great place to set up a community, even without electricity. I should see how far away Gatwick is for when the apocalypse strikes.

7. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Another dystopia and one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’d heard great things about it, and although it took some time to get into the style (no names, rare paragraphs, no dialogue tags, long long sentences), it’s reputation is well deserved. What would happen if everyone went blind? What a question, even without all the disturbing allegorical layers to it. The chaos is quick and brutal and disturbingly believable. I don’t think Saramago has much faith in governments and after reading two dystopias in a row, I might not either.

8. Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey

This movie came out and everyone started talking about it, but I didn’t realise it was a YA novel from a few years ago. Small Australian country town in the sixties, prejudice and frustration and cricket – it all feels very recent and could easily have been set now. The mother was thoroughly unlikable, full of petty anger and tending towards masochism, and I can’t wait to see Toni Collette play her in the movie (when I get round to it).

9. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Another new one. This is on lists of ‘best debuts in 2017’ so I thought I’d give it a go (I am trying to read more debuts). It’s about two university students in Dublin who befriend an older, semi-famous couple, and begin a mixed-up mess of relationships with them. All the characters were so enigmatic, and while that seems a little unbelievable, it also felt like one of those cliques of famous people a la the Bloomsbury group or Taylor Swift’s posse.

10. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose

I’m cheating a bit with this one because I haven’t quite finished, but it is amazing. It’s just really good examples of different types of writing – and writing that is good for different reasons – with super enthusiastic analysis of why it’s so good. It encourages readers/writers to slow down and sink into words, which I have been finding hard lately. Writing and reading frenetically around full-time work does not scream ‘spend an hour on each sentence!’ so this is a really good reminder which I will have to read over and over again. I also love that the author’s name is ‘Prose’.

Suggestions for the second half of the year are very welcome!

 

 

 

 

Calling all volunteer readers

We all have moments when we’re reading books and we think, wait what? What is the author doing? WHY DID THEY WRITE THAT? I WISH I COULD TELL THEM THAT WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA!

Now is your chance!

I need readers. I have a manuscript called Hold back the night. It’s 74K words, which is slightly on the shorter side of standard for contemporary fiction.

The elevator pitch, blurb, or whatever you want to call it, is:

New Year’s Eve 2015, Dublin, a young Australian woman is sexually assaulted by a man she sees on a daily basis, in a bar, in front of a camera. Her instinct is for silence but, as she is continually exposed to her attacker, the pressure builds, and she must learn to accept the support of those around her or risk blaming herself forever.

If you’re intrigued, I’m happy to send the first chapter so that you can see if it’s something you would like to read. I will not be offended at all if you read it and say no!

What I need:

People who like to read, who can read it in a month or so, and can make critical but useful comments. I have thicker skin than it might seem, and I need it to be good. So bring it on! I’m specifically looking for:

  • As much information as possible about scenes/paragraphs/sentences that you like or don’t like, and why
  • Any time you are confused
  • Anything that seems clichéd
  • Anything that seems unnecessary
  • Anything that you want more information about (particularly subplots or characters)
  • Anything that would make you stop reading and why (e.g. boredom)
  • Typos, clunky sentences, bad grammar (only if that’s your thing)

What you will get:

  • My endless thanks
  • Book vouchers! Because who doesn’t need more books in their life?
  • (If you actually don’t need more books in your life, this can be exchanged for something more useful)

Things to know:

  • It’s a draft, there are mistakes
  • It’s about sexual assault, right from the first chapter, and may not be for everyone
  • It’s fiction, please don’t look for yourself, people I know, or me
  • Projects are fun, and if you like reading and/or writing, something like this can be quite rewarding!

So, for an obligation-free sample of the first chapter (as the salesmen on TV say), send me an email (alison.gibson87@gmail.com).

Also, if you’re wondering where the title comes from, check out the haunting Ms. O’Connor.

 

 

June: the month I went crazy, made a plan, and got impatient for July

 

 

It’s been a really tough few weeks, made tougher by the fact that I was expecting to feel all kinds of wonderful.

I went to Manchester for work. When I travel for work, I get to write a lot. Hotels are inspiring, somehow. But Manchester was in lock-down and even though I was as productive as I’d hoped, something about the atmosphere crept into me. Writing the climactic scenes when your novel is about a woman recovering after a sexual assault is traumatic enough, but editing them over and over while in a city with armed police on every corner was worse.

It was only a few days and I did what I had planned – I finished a draft. I had promised myself to put the manuscript away for a month, and expected to feel elated. Instead, I felt lost, empty, and like I was abandoning it. I tried to distract myself by researching literary agents and the publishing world. There was a lot of encouraging advice around but all I could think was – I’m not ready.

I wanted to get straight back and start editing again, but I’d already entered the first three pages in a competition and paid for feedback. I felt like I couldn’t do anything much with it until I received the feedback, and then I found two more competitions I wanted to enter it in before the end of June. My month of marinating started at least one month too early.

For three weeks, I stubbornly stuck to my plan even though it was increasingly making no sense and I felt rubbish. Why would I get out of bed if I wasn’t going to write? The strangest thing is that when I’m not writing, I find it very difficult to do my normal work, or anything much. Life is low, basically. Finally, I gave myself permission to look at the manuscript again. The problem with not writing very much is it’s difficult to start again, it really is like a muscle that needs to be used. I read paragraphs and knew they needed to be changed but had no energy or inspiration to change them. It started to feel like I would never get it to the next level.

And then I realised – the competition is announced this Saturday. If, as is entirely predictable, I don’t win, chances are high that I won’t want to look at it for a while. So I panicked, and in my panic I found my motivation. The things I have been thinking about adding or changing, I suddenly need to do before Saturday and the expected slump. I work well to deadlines. So I will do what I can before Saturday, slump a bit, then hopefully receive the feedback and work on the first three pages ready to submit to the two competitions by the end of June.

Hopefully, in July, it will truly be ready to sit quietly for a month so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. I am impatient to read it cover to cover (so to speak) and then start the process of finding beta readers (volunteers welcome!). And then, I will start using all my research and find me an agent. Who would guess I also have a full-time job?

When ‘good’ rejections are the worst

16511061-little-girl-crying-Stock-Vector-cartoonA couple of months ago, two story ideas came together and I sat down and wrote. I changed one or two things the next day but essentially it was done. I loved it. Magic happens sometimes.

I sent it to Kill Your Darlings, a literary magazine run partly by Hannah Kent, an author I admire. I have been determined to be published in this magazine for a while and this, finally, seemed like the time.

I recently received the rejection email. When you research submitting short stories, there is lots of encouragement to rise above rejections, but there is also advice to take ‘personal’ rejections as compliments, or even as successes. Rejections are usually templates, but occasionally an editor will write an actual email. The email I received from Kill Your Darlings said:

Yours was [a submission] that we seriously considered as it captured the chaos and senselessness of grief beautifully, and while in the end it wasn’t quite right for our upcoming issue, we would be keen to see more of your work in future.

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a little golden nugget compared to most rejections. It is still hard to take, however, despite all the advice. In so many ways it actually seems worse. If it was actually that good they would have published it anyway, or kept it for another issue, or changed this issue so that it could fit. This is when I go into toddler mode, stamping my feet and going red in the face. But I WANT it.

In typical me-fashion, I decided to cancel my subscription. I immediately sent the story to six other places. I started writing another one, a better one! Which isn’t better at all because, while magic does happen, it doesn’t happen that often. This one will take work, which is fine. Luckily, I still remember that glorious feeling two months ago when I thought I’d created something a little bit perfect.

How big is a hole?

Digging ManFor the past two months I have been working rather feverishly on the basic plot of my novel. After the manuscript assessment, I started reading about plot and tried to use what I was learning to help guide my revisions. It turns out that an awful lot has been written about plot.

I read two books and reworked the whole thing, cutting out more than half of what I had and adding and adding and adding more back in. I read through the whole thing the other week, start to finish. It was okay. I had hoped for it to be a near-final draft but clearly it isn’t, because I want it to be more than okay! Rather than a couple of months of editing left, I think it will take me into winter again.

The first half seemed good but then something happened. It drifted and I couldn’t understand why. So I’ve read more and I’ve written lists and I’ve paid much closer attention to novels that I’m reading to understand how they do it. Why do we care about people who don’t exist? Why do we stop caring?

The characters were lost in plot holes because I didn’t want that part of the plot to matter, or because I hadn’t thought of why it should matter. I hoped it wasn’t obvious but of course it was. If I’m treating parts that matter like they don’t, it is very easy to start seeing the whole thing as something that doesn’t matter.

It is back to the drawing board with my shovel. I will fill in those plot holes and god damn it, it will be better than okay when I’m finished with it.

A lesson in compassion

After the manuscript assessment, I cut my 60,000 word draft to 25,000, and have since built it back up to 40,000, with a pretty good idea where the rest is going to come in. Before I go any further though, I have made a drastic decision:

I’m going to change it from first person to third person.

This is a painful exercise and one I have been avoiding for a long time. I did the same with A Perilous Margin but at a much earlier stage. First person is a great way to get a feel for a character at the beginning when you’re unsure who they really are, but after a while it can feel like it is holding the book back. There are fewer angles, and, honestly, the main character can start to seem really annoying because they are always there.

After switching the first chapter, I have come to a new realisation.. When writing in first person, the character is judging themselves, and those judgments can be harsh. I’m not sure how many people in the world really like themselves, but writing in first person makes all those little personal criticisms tangible, like they are facts rather than opinions. Switching to third person, all of a sudden the narrator sounds mean for judging the main character like that, even though when the character was judging herself it seemed perfectly normal. All of a sudden I need to add compassion and understanding to what is happening.

I wanted to give this woman a hug because her harsh inner monologue seemed perfectly normal, yet when it was no longer inner it was unimaginably cruel.

Why are we so much less forgiving of ourselves than we are of others?

A test then, next time you think you have acted badly, or are generally unhappy with who you are. Write down something you did, including how you felt about it, and then switch it to third person. It is truly astounding.

Verdict

I know everyone has been eagerly wondering what the result of the manuscript assessment was. As I mentioned last time, I had a long wait. When the wait was over, my overwhelming thought was: oh yes, I thought so.

She liked my writing style. She thought it was accessible. She thought the characters were multi-dimensional and their relationships believable. All this is good.

She also thought at least a third of the plot was unnecessary, and that huge areas were missing. She said it was great that she cared about the characters and what was happening to them. But she sounded frustrated that she didn’t know more about why it was happening to them.

It is very similar to the feedback I first got on A Perilous MarginPlot, I have come to accept, is my Achilles heel.

Which sounds ridiculous, as it is a pretty fundamental thing for writing novels. That, I think, is the problem. For years I have thought of myself practising writing, not writing novels. But writing 13,000 well well-crafted sentences does not make a novel. It makes a whole bunch of pleasant sentences and a very frustrated reader.

It is easy for people who don’t read genre fiction to scoff about plot. If it’s not a thriller or a romance, does it even have a plot? Many books feel like simple, realistic stories about simple, realistic people. No serial killers, no longing gazes over candlelight. When a novel feels real it often feels plotless because it is so like our lives, and our lives certainly don’t have a plot. That is what the best writers do. It may be disguised among ordinary actions but if it’s not there at all then you really do just have a bunch of people who kind of like each other sitting around. It is painfully obvious, and it doesn’t get published.

So I am embarking on a new learning chapter. Since I can afford neither a degree in creative writing, nor a proper online writing course, I am doing the next best thing. Reading books about plot. I will teach myself, because whatever instinct or natural talent I may have clearly does not extend to understanding things like tension, or pacing, or narrative arcs. And if I’m going to write about a bunch of people sitting around, I’d like to at least know why they are sitting around in that particular spot on that particular day.

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Words to live by