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Warning Signs You Might Be Living in a Book

I was heading into work this morning, down a busy London street, when I noticed the footprints of a giant cat (bigger than tiger size) splashed in white paint across the road. I looked up to note that the digital temperature display ahead of me was reading -93°. At this point a man walked past me with a huge hawk on his arm.

I think it’s fairly clear I’m about to be an urban fantasy heroine.

So, while I’m waiting to develop my magic powers and pre-planning my sassy put-downs, here are some other warning signs that you might be in a book.

Warning sign: You’re walking home at night after working late, alone, your heels sounding loud on the street. A tramp holds out a hand, mumbling a request for money.  You ignore him, hurrying past with thoughts of a glass of chardonnay with your lovely partner and kissing your sleeping child.

Book alert: You’re in the prologue to a serial killer book. You are not going to make it to chapter 1.

Warning sign: You are required to marry someone you’ve never met before in order to conclude a business deal or satisfy an elderly relative.

Book alert: Check your surroundings. If you’re in a boardroom, fictional Arab kingdom or luxurious Italian villa, this should work out very nicely. If you’re in unflinchingly realistic India or China, you’re screwed.

Warning sign: You are called any of the following (capitals required): the One, the Lost X, the Chosen X. You have a mysterious scar, brand or tattoo. You don’t know your real parents. A sword may be involved.

Book alert: This is going to take anywhere between three and seven volumes to sort out. Bring snacks.

Warning signs: A lawyer summons you to his dusty office to reveal that an unknown great-aunt has bequeathed you her isolated old house.

Book alert: If you’re under 12, this should be brilliant. Watch out for the invisible servants and don’t trust the butler. If you’re a single woman of marriageable age, brace for the incredibly handsome yet horribly sexist asshat of a neighbour. If you’re a novelist suffering from writer’s block, don’t go.

Warning sign: People address you by your name in every second remark they make to you. You take an inventory of your features every time you look in a mirror, instead of just checking for jam smears. You find yourself thinking of people as ‘the tough-talking yet kind-hearted Irishman’ instead of, eg, ‘Jim’. You like to do a critical assessment of the art and architecture of major European cities while running for your life through them.

Book alert: You’re in a thriller of the [Famous Arty Dead Person] [Mystery Word] type. If you just accept that the villain is your beloved elderly mentor, like the readers are screaming at you to do, we can all get through this a lot faster.

If you’re an overworked magician falling for a gorgeous tattooed nobleman, you’re probably in The Magpie Lord, out on 3 Sept. Comment here before 7pm GMT on 24 Aug to enter the draw for a free electronic copy!

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.

‘Argh, They’re Watching Me!’ Thinking about Readers.

Writing copy has a solid rule, whether it’s back cover blurbs or catalogue copy: think about the audience. What do they need to know, what do they want to know, what will persuade them to buy your product.

But can you think about the audience while writing fiction?

There are many people who write to order, of course. Writing series books to a set brief is a thriving art. And publishers’ search for the Next Big Thing usually entails trying to reproduce the Current Big Thing, so if you can knock out a quick and competent The Michelangelo Cipher or 49 Colours of Red on demand, you will probably make a nice living, and more power to your typing fingers.

But if you’re trying to tell your own story, the thought of an audience can be paralysing. There are people who never send their work to a publisher because they’re terrified of what someone else will say. I didn’t show The Magpie Lord to anyone before sending it to Samhain – I needed to have a publisher’s imprimatur before I had the nerve to tell anyone, ‘I wrote this, and actually, at least two people think it’s quite good.’

Plenty of people don’t write because their awareness of a ghostly audience, of eyes on their work, is so crippling that they stop before they begin. What if my boss thinks I’m a psycho? What if my mother reads the sex scenes?! If I wrote something else, would it sell more? People say, write the book you want to read. But what if I’m the only person who wants to read it?

Of course, the standard writing-tips response is, don’t think about the audience, just write from the heart, etc. But that’s only partially true, because stories exist for an audience. An unread/unheard tale is like an unconsummated love affair, or an uneaten cake. It might be a thing of beauty but it hasn’t achieved its point. And if you entirely disregard your audience while writing, you may well end up with an unreadable book.

Essentially, you have to entirely ignore the question of ‘Will anyone want to read my Edwardian country-house spy romance?’, while focusing hard on, ‘Will readers of my Edwardian country-house spy romance find this plot point gripping, this conflict compelling?’ Ignore the invisible audience that might hate your work, and focus on doing your best for the invisible audience who will love it…if you do it right.

Of course, as soon as you get published, you have an additional, even more crippling worry: not only might people read it, but, worse, they might not read it. But that’s another blog.

Are you aware of the invisible audience when you write? Tell me how you handle it!