Conformity

The brilliant Matt Haig posted on Twitter yesterday. Anyone who follows him will know this is hardly unusual, but this particular tweet stood up, grabbed the microphone and shouted ‘Faye! I’m talking to YOU.’

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Deep, huh? It immediately made me think about the past few years, of moving country and returning to London, and of my determination to ‘fit in’ with people I thought I had things in common with. On paper, fitting in should have made me happy, but instead I managed to accomplish a whole new level of invisible within the environment I’d placed myself, simply by attempting to conform. When Matt wrote ‘The moment you fit right in, you disappear’ I could immediately identify with it, and when I thought about it in the context of writing, I realised the conundrum was also true of books as well.

In fiction there are always trends coming and going – think unreliable narrators, vampires and, if my tween-radar is pointing in the right direction, llamas – and it would be fair to assume that the easiest way to get a publishing deal might be to write to a particular trend. For example, my Twitter feed has been overflowing for a while now with books displaying threatening titles in BIG CAPITAL LETTERS about women with revenge issues. There have been some chillingly great books written in this genre in the past few years. But the original thing we all liked about them was the twist at the end, the unexpected violence, the shocking revelation. Conformity to the genre has rendered invisible many of the books sitting within it. Now we all know what to expect when we pick up one of these books, and we look for it, which makes it less exciting and therefore less attractive to the reader who no longer feels the thrill these books once offered.

I’m not saying it’s not important to write within a genre. If you don’t conform to something then most people are going to struggle to identify what your book is about, whether they will like it, and most importantly, whether they will buy it. If a reader likes books about llamas, chances are they’ll buy more than one of them, too, which is why you generally want your book to sit on a shelf next to lots of other books about llamas. It’s why agents and publishers always look for books they can categorise, preferably one that’s right in the sweet spot of the ‘genre du jour’ so they can ride the wave and max their sales.

As an author, you need to conform to the genre you are writing in so that you can compete. But as soon as you do, you become invisible, so you have to make sure you have something extra to offer. You must write (and write extremely well) in a recognisable genre, whilst maintaining something different about your novel that makes it stand out from the crowd. As a new author in particular, that’s hard, because you’re also sitting in the slush pile – somewhere you definitely don’t want to ‘fit in’.

My novel, The PTA Assassin, sits squarely in the behemoth that is ‘Commercial women’s fiction’. Personally, I think this genre sounds as appealing as cold custard on broccoli, and when I’m submitting to agents, I like to emphasise other qualities of the book that make it different. It’s a spy novel. A middle-aged woman is the protagonist. It’s humorous. Actually, someone told me not to describe it as funny in case it wasn’t – comedy is notoriously hard to pitch – but the rebel in me refused to conform so for better or for worse, I left it in anyway.

Possibly for the better. At the moment my full manuscript is sitting with an agent. Whether the writing is good enough, whether the story holds up, whether the agent believes it will sell, remains to be seen. But it gives me hope that I got off the slush pile, that maybe the book was just different enough to be noticed without being out-and-out weird. Which come to think of it, is exactly how I’d like to be thought of, too.

 

 

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Write what you know

When you first start out learning the process of writing, a lot of people will encourage you to ‘write what you know’. Feeling I had loftier ambitions than writing about being a 40-something housewife from London, I decided that for my first novel, I’d saunter directly into the unknown world of a fantasy sci fi, and write from the point of view of a fifteen year old girl from another dimension. I lasted about 20,000 words before I realised it was like the writing equivalent of trying to play Minecraft for the first time: an infinite world where anything was possible but I had no idea how to even open my inventory, never mind create anything of any meaning. I wasn’t ready to write the unknown. I needed to start from a more comfortable spot and see where that took me. So I thought about what I knew, and imagined a story filled with characters and places I was far more familiar with, and The PTA Assassin was born.

Granted, I had to Google a fair few things: what the difference is between MI5 and MI6, the inner workings of a Zippo lighter, how to tap an iPhone, what a luxury yacht looks like, how to do an arms deal and whether Dalek costumes are readily available on the internet. I could go on, and I’m pretty sure there’s a drone poised permanently over our house watching to our every move thanks to the less salubrious searches I performed. But despite all the crazy things I had my characters do, for the most part, I wrote about their feelings in ways I could identify with. I wrote what I knew.

My characters started off as strangers, with a traits and feelings I borrowed from my own library of experiences. I created people who I liked, and some who I didn’t. Actually, I liked all of them in the end, even the bad guys. An improv teacher of mine once said that the longer you hang around people, the more attractive they seem. You become familiar with them – the way they look, the way they dress, the way they laugh – and your brain starts to think about them in a different way. I thought this was his own discovery but it turns out it’s a well known psychological phenomenon called ‘mere exposure effect’. Well, that happened with me and my characters. They went from names on a page to real people: a glorious mash up of human kind, each with their own unique footprint, and I loved every moment of their creation.

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The world my characters inhabit grew from knowing them, too. I could tell you which of the works of art adorning the walls of the Koslovsky house were curated, and which were chosen personally. I could tell you where Vicky keeps the mugs and that the curtains in her bedroom are never quite pulled back. I could even file the paperwork for Matisse in the cream linen magazine files that line the top shelf of her personal office. It was amazing, once I knew my characters, how easily I could build their world.

I’ve had people ask me if they are in the book, and although I could never write a person I knew – because really, how can you presume to know anyone well enough in real life to give them a voice on a page? – I think everyone I’ve ever met contributed in some way to the characters I created. But I’ve learned that ‘write what you know’ isn’t meant to be literal, it means to write what you feel: The love you have for your partner that spans decades of time; the low self esteem that creeps up with the loss of youth; the sadness you felt when a friendship came to an end. It doesn’t have to be attached to the person who made you feel those things to make the feelings real.

The PTA Assassin is on the path to publication now, one way or another. The manuscript is finished and I’ve handed it to editors and agents to dissect and decide whether they believe in the people I’ve created. It’s hard to say goodbye to some of the characters, knowing when I come to write the sequel, that they won’t be there. But I’m looking forward to inventing new characters who will grow and mature into old friends, and now, I trust that I can. Writing what I know is really about believing that me and my experiences are enough. My inventory is plenty full and I can go ahead and build new worlds over and over, wherever and whatever they may be.

The one about winning.

Last month, I wrote about failure at some length on my business blog. I’m a big fan of failure. HUGE fan. I’ve done a lot of improv comedy in the past five years and it’s not something you can enjoy or get good at without accepting that you’re going to have some unfeasibly bad moments, usually in front of a lot of people. When I teach, I teach that failure is good, and I believe it. I get itchy when I see stuff like this, especially when it’s attached to a ‘Motivational Monday’ hashtag:Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 09.11.25

because I don’t find it the least bit motivational, and don’t get how anyone else could either. What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Not much, I imagine.

Failure is how we learn. It’s a way for us to understand how we can be better. If you never take a risk, if everything in life is handed to you on a silver platter, wanting, or needing success – striving for it in every possible way – would become unnecessary. Everything we said or did would be ‘safe’, and consequently, we’d probably say or do very little. A world where you couldn’t fail would be a very boring world indeed.

There are days, though, I think that boring might be quite nice. Days like yesterday, where I just seemed to fail over and over again, culminating in the fastest, most cut throat book rejection I’ve had to date. And I’m going to be honest and say that on top of an already shitty day, it hit me really hard.

Let’s get this into perspective: the sort of stuff I’m talking about isn’t the huge crushing blows of a shark body-slamming me. It was more like jack frost nibbling at my toes. I’m super aware there are people with far bigger problems. But yesterday, for whatever reason, my failures got to me. They made me wonder whether I’ll ever achieve anything past the level of mediocre, and getting past that to more familiar ‘fuck ’em’ territory has been unusually difficult. ‘I’m usually much better than this’, I think, and realise I’m failing at failing now, too.

But the life coach in my head (hey there, tough lady) keeps on telling me none of it’s worth getting upset over, that things will be better for finding the right people and paths to tread and these ‘failures’ were just things that weren’t meant to be. And whereas yesterday I was trying not to cry with frustration, today I am busy getting over myself and getting back to business. It’s not nearly the end of the world, and there are plenty more days to fill with successes and failures of all shapes and sizes. And that, in itself, sounds like winning.