It’s National Novel Writing Month, so we’ve asked Jane Hill to tell us about the joys of doing just that.
I think I’ve always made up stories. Does everyone narrate their own life in their head? I spent half my childhood lost in multiple storylines in which I was the heroine. I was the descendant of the Russian royal family, or I was Donny Osmond’s sister (not girlfriend – I was eight), or I was picked to star in a Hollywood movie. I even imagined sums as stories – Three is invited to Seven’s party but they don’t want Four to come (the answer’s Six, by the way).
I became a journalist because it was the best way I knew to tell people’s stories. But in my evenings and weekends I scribbled away at short stories, novels, screenplays, anything – there were voices in my head with stories to be told. Characters came to me, with names and looks and personalities already attached, and demanded to be written.
Aged 30, I wrote a sort of novel, sent it out and got eight rejections. Actually, I got nine rejections, but that last one came with a covering letter telling me that he was “enthralled by your taut prose and impressed by your skill in characterisation.” I was a good writer, and should stick at it. I still have that letter in my files.
“‘Your book wasn’t what I expected from the cover,’ said one fan accusingly – as if I’d personally designed the cover myself deliberately to mislead her.”
Another eight years of writing and I got a second book done – Grievous Angel. I imagined some people and events, and I typed them into life like some kind of creator god. It gave me an amazing sense of power and achievement.
The book got published by an actual proper big publishing company. My weirdo narrator got described as unlikeable and even unhinged. Some people thought she was me. One fan told me he liked the book but not the ending, so he wrote his own: my first piece of fan fiction.
I had a two-book publishing deal. My second novel The Murder Ballad was more traditional, more structured, more written-to-order. Oh, writing’s easy, I used to joke: just making things up and typing. But although the second book was easier than the first, it was still like tearing off great lumps of my skin, only this time not as many layers.
I got a second two-book deal.
I loved my third book, Can’t Let Go. I felt I’d approached a depth unusual in genre fiction. I felt it was almost literature. But no one bought it.
I sat at a table of crime fiction fans at the Harrogate Festival – fans who’d applied for the chance to get a free book to read followed by dinner with the author. I wasn’t the person they wanted to meet, and as it turned out, my book wasn’t the book they’d wanted to read.
“Your book wasn’t what I expected from the cover,” said one fan accusingly – as if I’d personally designed the cover myself deliberately to mislead her. I’d always hated the hardback cover, with its images of blood and broken glass, but felt powerless as a mere author to reject it.
The paperback cover was much better. It had a phone on the floor in an empty room with big windows, and rave reviews from Mark Billingham and Sophie Hannah. But still no one bought it. This writing malarkey was starting to be a lot less fun.
And then it deserted me. My fourth book flapped and flailed around. I hated everything about it. The characters wouldn’t be pinned down – I felt I didn’t know them. Worse than that, they refused to come to life. Even worse, I found myself completely unable to daydream.
Maybe it was the menopause and the accompanying depression. Maybe it was simply social media – I was no longer narrating my life in my head, I was narrating it on Twitter. Or maybe I’d just run out of stories to tell.
I quietly gave up on the book. Watch Me Fall still has a ghost presence on Amazon where it’s ranked “9,492,444 in Books” – no mean achievement for a work that doesn’t exist. It has been published in Germany – one Amazon reviewer, giving it one star, said simply “Grottenschlecht.”
I’m a storyteller. It’s what I do. The spark is there again now, I think, if I can just capture it. There are some characters floating around – I can see them out of the corner of my eye – waiting for me to pin them down and write them into existence.
And I’m writing this, because I love writing.
All fired up to write your own masterpiece? Then read author Julie Mayhew’s tips for how to go about it here.
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Jane Hill is a novelist who also does standup comedy. When she’s not doing either of those, she works for the BBC on local radio projects. She lives with her partner in rural Leicestershire and once reached the Mastermind semi-finals.