2017: It’s All About the Novel

New writing

As we’re now a week into the new year, it seems like a good time to tell you of my plans for 2017. There are going to be some changes around here!

I’ve been writing my Book Diaries blog for two years now and am about to embark on my third. This, however, will be the last. It’s been a rollercoaster ride: the book of Year 1 is due to be published very shortly (Kindle elves permitting), and I still intend to produce books of Years 2 and 3 in due course.

The purpose of the blog has been to get me to make changes in my life, taking inspiration from each title I read. These changes have been hugely varied, from the practical to the abstract, but the one thing I’ve always maintained is that the more frequently you make the small changes, the easier it becomes to make the big changes.

The time has now come for me to make a big change.

For years now I’ve been planning and plotting a novel. I’ve mentioned it occasionally in the Book Diaries, and I have a teaser page on my website that gives a sneak preview of the plot (note: this may change!). Since my big holiday in September (which gifted me a month away from the daily grind) and, more recently, the Christmas break (when I had time to stop and reflect), it’s become inescapably clear to me that this is the work I need to focus on.

The Book Diaries have been incredibly illuminating, and I will continue to read new books on a regular basis even when I stop writing the blog – but I’ve realised that what it has all been leading to is this: the novel; the work that is deep inside me begging to be let out. And I need to honour it and give it the attention it deserves. It may even be that the novel is merely the starting point: I really have no idea exactly where this will lead, but it’s thrilling to have a blank map waiting to be filled in…

This means that I will be changing the focus of what I post on (a) my website and (b) social media. Specifically, you can expect the following:

  • I’ll be publishing more blog posts/status updates on my writing process and progress.
  • I’ll also be writing posts/updates on elements of my subject matter: what I’m tentatively calling ‘supernatural medical fiction’.
  • The Book Diaries will continue throughout 2017, but instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’ll be looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing.
  • I’ll be reinstating my monthly newsletter, which will contain general news, updates on the novel, and exclusive insights into where my ideas come from.
  • I may even try out other pieces of writing, e.g. short stories, to polish my technique and get some of my non-novel-related ideas on to the page.

In short, expect the unexpected. I may not post frequently, as my time will primarily be spent on writing the actual novel, but I anticipate being too excited about it to keep all my thoughts to myself!

The first of my new monthly newsletters will be out at the beginning of February, so if you’d like to keep up to date with my progress, sign up here.

If this new direction doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, then you can of course unsubscribe/unfollow me, and there will be absolutely no hard feelings. Thank you for your support so far.

If, however, you’re intrigued by what ‘supernatural medical fiction’ might mean, and want to find out more, then hang on to your hats and enjoy the ride…

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

Title: Fahrenheit 451
Author: Ray Bradbury
Publication date: 1953
Genre: Dystopian fiction

What’s it about?Fahrenheit 451

In this dystopian version of America, books have been outlawed due to their potential to cause unhappiness and dissent among citizens. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job it is to burn any books found, but his position is compromised when he himself is discovered to have hidden a number of volumes at his home. The novel follows what happens to him and his hopes for the future.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Rather ironically, I wasn’t able to get hold of a print copy of this book from either of the two libraries near to me, so I ended up downloading it on to my Kindle app. Given that the novel deals with the unpleasant consequences of technological innovations overtaking books as a leisure activity, this feels very wrong! So at some point I intend to go out and purchase a print copy, to take pride of place on my shelves.

What did I learn from it?

I got a sharp reminder of the many ways we can be prevented from being alone with our thoughts. This is frowned upon in Bradbury’s vision of the future, because having space and time to think means we could potentially come up with criticism of the way the country is governed and take action against the powers that be.

The situation described in the book is extreme, but even now we suffer from multiple distractions. Television, radio, and of course the internet chafe away at our peace of mind, tempting us to be ‘always on’, to constantly seek out the next hit of soundbites, connection and noise, to feel we are keeping in touch with the world. Who has time to stop and think when there are tweets to be sent to complete strangers about our lunch, cats or political opinions?

Of course, it’s possible to resist succumbing to this never-ending stream of status updates, but Fahrenheit 451 is a salutary reminder of how easy it is to become attuned to this white noise and believe it normal. Even as I write, I am wearing earplugs, as my neighbour is singing very loudly to herself in her back garden, destroying my ability to focus. Cars are whizzing past, the television is humming away downstairs, and soon the ice cream van will come jingling round the corner in all its irritating, high-pitched glory.

It takes effort to distance oneself from the ongoing babble of modern life, but if we are to retain any control over our lives and our futures, it is vital that we at least try.

How did it make me see the world differently?

One of the reasons given for the burning of books in this novel is that they make people unhappy. In other words, stories are written about things that some might find difficult to contemplate. And the government of this fictional society has declared that, because people just want to be happy, they should not be exposed to views that upset them, whether politically or emotionally.

This reminded me very much of trigger warnings, which we see much more frequently these days than I recall seeing in the past. While, on the one hand, this is likely due to an increased awareness of the real harm that can be caused by forcing people into potentially traumatic or combative ‘conversations’, there is another school of thought that believes people should not be protected from attitudes they find objectionable, because this is life: it is full of differences of opinion, and being able to challenge any views we consider misguided is only possible if we know these views exist.

There is currently no consensus on whether trigger warnings are a good or a bad thing; as with most nuances of opinion, it depends on your personal circumstances and experience as to whether you believe they protect or mollycoddle. I will simply say that Fahrenheit 451 offers a somewhat chilling vision of what the future might look like if all dissent and offensive opinions were banished or burned.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I don’t think there’s been a single book during this challenge that I haven’t enjoyed to some degree – but I will admit that it is usually difficult for me to make myself pick them up and get on with them. Once I’m reading, it’s fine – the story carries me away – but getting started is generally a problem. ‘Oh, I’ve got to read my next Book Diaries book…‘ I usually end up squeezing them into weekends, which can be annoying if I have other plans.

Until this one.

I can’t remember the last time I was so carried away by a book, but I found myself wanting to pick it up and devour the next few pages even if I only had minutes to spare; consequently, I got through it much, much quicker than I was expecting to. Early weekday evenings were my best time for reading: the time I’d usually put my feet up after work, pour a glass of wine and scan the news (yup, that technological distraction…) – all that got put aside as I tore my way through this book.

It made such a pleasant change from my usual routine that I’ve decided to try and stick with it. If I can get in an hour every evening, I’ll free up more time at weekends, and with my freelance work taking over more and more of my week, I’m going to need my Saturdays and Sundays if I’m to do anything even vaguely creative. And I think this could be my way of grabbing back some time.

A musical interlude

Initially I thought I’d be able to find a song about books, but none of the ones that came to mind hit the right note. Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello? Great song, but not quite there. I then, almost flippantly, was on the verge of picking The Trammps’ Disco Inferno – but, again, I decided the vibe was (not surprisingly) completely wrong.

My wonderful subconscious then took over and presented me with my final choice: The Unforgettable Fire by U2. The song title references an artwork about the bombing of Hiroshima – not inappropriate, given the events that occur in the last few pages of the novel (that’s not as much of a spoiler as you might think). Fire is also an obvious connection with the book’s subject matter. And the song itself is not flippant, not trite, but hauntingly beautiful, which I feel is a fitting tribute to one of the very few books I have ever given a 5-star rating to on Goodreads.

Don’t just listen to the song, though. Go out and read the book.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Title: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Author: Washington Irving
Publication date: 1820
Genre: Short story; speculative fiction

What’s it about?The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Set in 1790, the story revolves around Sleepy Hollow, a secluded glen in the countryside near New York. Legends abound regarding the ghosts and spirits that are said to haunt its byways, in particular the spectre of the Headless Horseman, who is often seen riding out at night.

Itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane comes to live and work in Sleepy Hollow – his superstitious nature finding much of interest in the many myths and legends – and sets his eye on local beauty Katrina Van Tassel, only daughter of a wealthy farmer. Ichabod’s rival in love (and fortune) is Brom Bones, who regularly plays pranks on the schoolmaster in an attempt to see him off.

One night, after a party at the Van Tassels’, Ichabod is rejected by Katrina. As he makes his dejected way home, he is surprised by none other than the Headless Horseman, who first chases him and then throws his severed head at him.

The next morning Ichabod is nowhere to be seen, and, along with his horse, saddle and hat, the only relic of the night’s adventure is a shattered pumpkin…

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Yet again I resorted to the internet. However, for a change, I decided not to obtain this on Kindle, but went to the Project Gutenberg website, where I was able to view the entire text for free on a web page.

What did I learn from it?

I learned – or was reminded – that short stories can be a welcome change from full-length novels! Not just because I’ve been hammering the classics this summer and am craving an easy read or two; but because short stories have a charm all of their own. Their brevity means that they have to employ very different techniques to get their message across – and yet the thoughts and feelings inspired stay in the mind no less after a short story than after a 1000-page opus.

I also learned that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is not, technically, a ghost story, as it is implied at the very end that there is a distinctly non-spiritual explanation for Ichabod’s terrifying experience. However, as the tale plays on the fears and superstitions of those who do believe in ghost stories, I think it still deserves its place in the canon of classic supernatural fiction.

How did it make me see the world differently?

At first I was disappointed with the ‘unhappy ending’, as the ‘hero’ seemed to have ‘lost’ to his antagonist: when Ichabod vanishes (or is driven from?) from Sleepy Hollow, the way is left clear for Brom to marry Katrina. However, we are then given an update of what is believed to have happened to Ichabod afterwards, and he is said to have had a successful career in the law and politics – which he may well have been better suited to than matrimony.

So I guess, for me, the moral of the story might be that even if we don’t achieve what we think we want, that may just mean there is something better out there waiting for us. This is certainly a message I can get behind: my own tendency, when I hit an obstacle that appears unmovable, is not to fight it but to try and find another way round.

In other words, if you can be persistent and determined even in the face of the greatest provocation, there need be no limit to what you can achieve.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Other than taking on board the above message about persistence (which I can never hear too often), the main impulse this story has left with me is, again, a creative one. I’m aware that there is a TV show entitled Sleepy Hollow, which I believe is a modern reimagining of Irving’s original tale; and this has inspired me in two ways:

  1. I’m going to see if I can catch up with the series from its beginning (it’s now in its third season). I do love a good supernatural show; and I enjoy watching different versions of familiar stories, to see what aspects are pushed centre stage, and what changes are made and for what reason.
  2. I’ve been fired up with renewed enthusiasm for writing some more adaptations of my own. I recently co-wrote a theatrical version of Pride and Prejudice, and found the process of adapting a classic novel for the stage absolutely fascinating. There are several more stories that I’d like to look at ‘converting’ into different formats, and reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow may just have been the kick I needed to get cracking on another one.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!