November 2013

‘I must write shorter books!’

It’s a wail that could be heard coming from my study in the early hours more than once when I was editing The Country Escape, due out next summer and consequently due in to the publisher earlier this month, a task that involved lots of all-night marathons. I’m now very familiar with the local fox population’s barks, the badgers crunching the fallen walnuts outside my window, and the owls’ cries that seem to echo my own: ‘Write shorter books!’

As family and friends point out, I’m not paid by the page and writing shorter books might mean they get to see me occasionally. Having now written fourteen big romps you’d think I’d have learned to listen to advice, but I’m terribly addicted to chunky, all-encompassing reads and so changing my ways is taking a lot of self discipline. I’m happy to report that I am gradually getting there. When I cut the the first fifty pages of The Country Escape manuscript, it quickly became scrap paper for my daughters to draw on.

‘Why are you looking at the back of my dinosaur angel picture, Mummy?’

‘This comedy Wassail ceremony is really rather good – perhaps I’ll put it back in.’

‘No! I want to add glitter glue and butterfly stickers and give it to Grandpa.’

Bowing to family pressure, I’ve left the morris men and mulled cider in the drawer with the Crayolla pens, and I’m sure The Country Escape is a much better book for that. Grandpa certainly seemed to think so judging from his shocked expression when he read the Herefordshire orchard orgy extract on the back of his handmade birthday card.

My addiction to huge bricks of total escapism is deeply entrenched, alas, and it’s what I love to read as well as write, relishing the weight of pages gradually moving from right to left hand as I stay suspended in the world of disbelief for as long as possible. I’m just the same when I watch films and television – an hour’s drama is never enough. Give me a box set of Downton Abbey and I’ll want to binge-watch the lot in one sitting, no matter how early I have to get up the next day. In the interests of research, however, I have started to read shorter books, although admittedly most of these are read out loud a chapter at a time at 7pm to two sleepy children, and I find myself muttering under my breath about the lack of an emotional narrative arc in Pixie Hollow. But others have been a revelation, and I’m increasingly excited by the brevity challenge.

My agent and editor have both been gently steering me to write shorter books for some time, and not only because I’m becoming an ever-more workaholic recluse in order to keep up the output. As they wisely point out, fiction trends have changed a lot since I first clicked my knuckles over a keyboard and eagerly introduced ten characters in the opening chapter of French Relations.  In those days, the bonk-buster ruled women’s fiction – minimum 600 pages, lots of characters leaping in and out of bed, rearing manhoods compulsory, goldfish optional. I absolutely loved reading them, but longed for them to be funnier and more down-to-earth, hence I wrote my own. In the two decades that have followed, however, the glow of television, computer and mobile phone screens has started to out-shine the humble page in many households, and long books have fallen increasingly out of fashion. Readers no longer have the page-turning time or concentration we once did. There’s a legion of other demands on our downtime, hundreds more television channels and instant playback, the Internet on virtually every screen in the house, social networking transforming solitary time. On top of this, there are a lot more books being published.  With BOGOFs in bookshops and 99p e-book deals online, the 700 page single read is no longer the bargain it once was, and reading it on a smartphone can give even the most compulsive texter RSI of the thumb. Retailers understandably express concern that thick books take up valuable shelf space and require continual restocking : ‘Your novels are three units wide, Fiona,’ I was told by one bookseller friend who went on to suggest, ‘if I published you I’d divide them up into trilogies and triple the turnover.’ Much as I admire his tenacity – had Fifty Shades of Grey been published a decade ago, it would almost certainly have been one huge bonk-buster, not three – I have an old-fashioned compulsion to give my books a beginning, middle and end rather than Part One, Two and Three. My task is simply to put the three much closer together. Now I’ve started to plot out my fifteenth novel, I’ve changed my screensaver to Less Is More.

‘Is that your new title, Mummy?’ asked my oldest last week.

‘No, darling. It’s Mummy’s new mantra.’

Apparently speculation is now rife at the school as to which of the Year Two mums will feature in ‘Mummy’s New Mantra’ and just how steamy it will be. I can’t reveal anything about that book just yet, except to guarantee that it will be shorter than my previous ones.

Meanwhile, The Country Escape is being professionally pruned and tweaked as I type, and it will be published in June 2014. I’ll write more about it in my next blog, and a gorgeous new cover look will be revealed on this site soon too. Also available from December 6th is an e-book collection of short stories, Season’s Greetings and Other Stories. Another collection will be coming out next March.

I wish you a wonderful build up to Christmas, and a big thank you to everybody who sends messages via this site and via Facebook and Twitter. It’s always a terrific shot in the arm and I’m enormously grateful.

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