The Seeds that Sow a Book…

As launch day for my next book, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature draws ever closer, (Friday 5th October!!) I thought I would write a post about the various things that inspired this particular novel. As always, it is never just one thing, but rather scattered seeds of ideas that take root and then somehow weave together as the process unfolds. And it was a particularly long process for this book. I worked on it, on and off, for over three years, which is the longest I have ever spent on one novel. I expect that’s another blog post for another day, but for now, here are some of the things that inspired Elliot Pie.

Current state of the world.

I wasn’t so much concerned with dissecting it, or even asking why it is the way it is. I was more interested in the question, is it getting worse? And of course, it’s human beings I’m really referring to, not the actual spinning ball of mud itself. Are people worse? Is human nature crueler and more destructive than it once was? When you look at the issues facing us today, it’s easy to consider that they must be. We have rising homelessness, poverty, increasing inequality, fascism on the rise, endless wars, plastic pollution, and climate change and environmental destruction on a devastating scale. It’s not hard to see why some people think we are simply doomed. That it has all gone too far. That there is no turning this around. End days are upon us. It’s Elliot’s mother Laura who feels this genuine fear in the book, and if I’m honest, I think her character’s fears are exaggerated versions of my own. Like most people, I have days when the fears consume me. It simply feels like the world has never been a more dangerous place. This is a question Elliot asks repeatedly throughout the book. Is this the worst things have ever been? Or have they always largely been the same? Or is it actually not as bad as we think? It was my constant pondering over these questions that inspired the journey Elliot would go on in the story.

Human Nature.

Human nature is something I think about a lot. What makes some people kind and good and gentle, and other cruel and destructive? This is something both Laura and Elliot consider throughout the story. Laura is a cynic. She’s been hurt too many times and has no faith left in people. She genuinely feels that the majority of people are cruel and selfish. She feels utter despair when she watches the news every evening, and can’t understand why other people do not seem to be as upset and depressed as she is by the horror stories. Elliot, on the other hand, is an optimist. Part of this is obviously his young age. At twelve, he has yet to see the worst of human nature, unless you count his increasingly disturbing altercations with Spencer Reeves at school. Elliot is curious about Spencer and wonders what makes him get up in the morning and decide to bully people. He wants to prove to his mother that most people are good and don’t want to hurt you.

Strangers. 

This may have been the seed that started it all. I’m an introvert but I’m endlessly fascinated by people. I always have been. Even as a child, I preferred standing on the edge, listening and observing. I was always watching people and wondering about their lives and their motivations. I didn’t want to talk to people or interact with them. Even now, I probably hold most people at arms length. But I am curious about them, and in particular, those people you never see again. Glimpses through car windows, strangers that pass you on the street. People you speak to in a shop, in the bank, at the park, and then never ever see again. I always wonder about their lives and in the absence of knowing, I make one up for them. It’s this curiosity about strangers and their lives that inspires Elliot’s plan to help his mother. If he can befriend strangers and prove to his mother that not everyone is bad, then maybe he can encourage her to leave the house and start to live her life again.

Family.

To be honest, I think all of my books are inspired by the complexities of family life. It’s another aspect of humanity I find compelling. In this particular book, Elliot is an only child born of a one night stand. His mother, who has never had any luck with men, has now sworn off them for good. She never planned to be a mother and has never found it easy. This is perhaps because she is haunted by the relationship she and her brother Liam had with their father Pat, a man who in death is glorified by their mother Diane, but was a far darker presence in their lives than she will admit. Families are complex structures, simmering with resentments, jealousies, guilt and longing. I often think that at the heart of every human’s insecurities and woes, is the desire to be accepted and valued by their family. If a person never felt either, they inevitably struggle in life one way or another. Laura’s family secrets begin to reveal themselves as the novel progresses, and her attempts to unravel the past and understand it, are part of her own healing process. In truth, she had her own plan to get better all along, but as this is kept from Elliot, he has no idea.

Mental health.

Again, I think all of my books deal with mental health issues one way or another. From eating disorders and self-harm to depression and suicidal thoughts, I think I’ve explored them all at some point. In this book, Laura suffers from agoraphobia, and we eventually discover that her brother Liam, who is missing, once attempted suicide. On the surface, an extrovert and a clown, Liam has his own hidden scars, and at the start of the book, we learn that he has disappeared after a series of tragic events, including the stillbirth of his child. This tragedy has obviously had a huge impact on his mental health and on those around him.

Hope.

This book explores some upsetting topics but Elliot is the optimist, carrying the light. He’s determined to help his mother, find his Uncle Liam, and learn something about human nature as well. He also feels that as a member of the younger generation, he will not give up on this world just yet.

Nature.

This was also a major theme in The Tree Of Rebels, and as these two books were written and worked on during the same time period, it’s no wonder that it crept into Elliot Pie as well. It’s mainly explored through the character of Frank, an elderly man who feels we have all become too far removed from nature. And as Laura locks herself away in her home for safety, Elliot begins to explore the great outdoors, riding on his bike from one area to the next, discovering new places and people. He begins to feel the opposite to his mother, and feels the urge to be outside as much as possible.

 

So, there you have it. The themes that weave a plot together. The interesting thing about themes and ideas is that you not always aware they’re there until after you’ve written the book. I know one of my earliest thoughts about this book was that I wanted to write a book about a boy who felt intrigued by strangers and wanted to follow them. This obviously led to questions. Why was he so intrigued? What was it about his own life that drew him to strangers? And the rest began to unfold as I wrote it. Funny how all those little seeds get planted along the way and grow into a book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Message and Themes; What Are You Trying To Say?

When I was at school, English Literature was always my favourite subject. I was a total book-worm who dreamed of becoming an author, so you can kind of see why I adored English Literature. Reading books, talking about books and writing about books was my idea of heaven. Having said that, there was always one part of the subject that annoyed me at times. When analysing a text, the teacher would often ask us to think about what message the author was trying to get across. It was a question akin to the equally confusing one; what are the themes of the novel? I remember thinking, I bet the author didn’t know there was a message or a theme, or that we would try to work one out. I always considered that Shakespeare, Bronte and Steinbeck just wrote books because they had great ideas, great characters, and could string some pretty awesome sentences together.

But English Lit demands we find the messages and the themes, and yes, when you pick apart a text and analyse it within a classroom setting, you do tend to find them. But were they intended? I suppose I’m asking, did the author write the book with a theme or a message in mind? Or is it the reader who later determines what the potential messages are? I mean, did Steinbeck write Of Mice and Men because he had something to say about society or human nature? When I was a kid, I thought not. But it turns out I was wrong;

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry
I remember trying to distinguish the themes of the novel when I was at school. What seemed so obvious to the teacher, had to be pointed out to us. I haven’t read the book since then, but it is on my to-read list as part of a reading challenge I’m undertaking, where one of the books has to be one I read in school. But I think I will see things differently now.
Why? Because I am approaching my fourth decade and I’ve seen enough of life, love, people and society to know that Of Mice and Men is not ‘just a story’ as I once mistakenly believed. It’s a book about dreams and aspirations, loneliness and solitude and the author had plenty to say about all of these things. I am now the writer I hoped I would be, and writing books is a fascinating process, which involves the seed of an idea germinating into an intricate plot full of characters who become real to you and set up camp in your head. But more than that, writing is about what you want to say to the world.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately after I received feedback from a beta on my still unfinished novel Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature. One of the things she picked up on was the messages or themes of the book, and in particular, her observation that some of the characters had views very similar to my own. She felt this at times made the narrative somewhat preachy, or at least, it was in danger of heading in that direction.
I had to stop and think about what she meant. None of the characters are me, or based on me, or anyone I know. I plucked them up out of the thin air to build around the character and story of Elliot, who I really did know and believe in.
However, I have to admit that unintentionally, or at least sub-consciously, bits and pieces of the writer and the writer’s viewpoints seep into the writing. I knew what this book was about, and I knew from the beginning what I was trying to say, so as you can see, I have come a long way from my previous scepticism that books did not contain deliberate messages. On the contrary, I have had something to say in all of my books, and I think it very much depends on what is going on in my life at that time. For this book in particular, Elliot and his mother are like the two sides of me. One side is heartbroken and terrified about the state of our world and wants to withdraw from it all, while the other side is perpetually hopeful and joyful, determined to the best in everything.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think my beta was right to point out the danger of appearing preachy in the narrative. I certainly don’t want my books to come across that way. I have to be sure it is the character’s viewpoint being explored, not the author’s. I have to be conscious of what is being portrayed as ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ So at the moment, I am going through the book again, with the beta’s notes beside me. Sometimes it just needs a tweak, some words rearranged or deleted. Sometimes I don’t need to do anything because I think the character truly believes in what they are saying, and in doing so is remaining true to character.
This brings me to another question, though. Do people pick up books looking for messages or themes? Do most readers notice them, even if they are supposed to be there? I suspect that what one reader picks up as a message or theme, is very different to anothers. Do readers want to be spoken to in this way? I don’t think many people pick up a book looking for clarity or persuasion. I think they pick up books looking for stories. And stories involve people and their messy human lives, and messy human lives contain messages, whether intentional or not. Because they are written by one person, created by one person, and whether they were totally aware of it or not at the time, that person had something to say.
So, what do you think? As a reader, do you choose a book because of the message it seems to be conveying? Do you notice the themes of a novel as you are reading it, or do they become obvious to you afterward? Do you ever feel like the writer is trying to tell you something about the world or about life? Does this every feel like you are being preached to?
And what about you writers? Do you know what you are trying to say before you start to write the book, or does the message reveal itself to you in time? Are you aware of any themes in your book, and again, are these intentional? Do you ever worry that you are trying too hard to get a message across?
Please feel free to join in the conversation!

Guest Post: Shalaena Medford on why your blog is not about YOU!

Last Friday I introduced you to my new look blog and explained why I had renamed it and focused it on a theme that connects my writing and reading habits. I promised you a guest post from the indie author Shalaena Medford who inspired and helped me with these changes, so here it is! Over to you, Shalaena…

Hello readers and fans of Chantelle Atkins! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to read my guest post to this very lovely author’s blog.

You read in her previous blog post about changes she has been making to her website. I also have been making changes to mine according to the things I’ve learned in my New Media course at Southern New Hampshire University. (Yep, you read that right, I’m a darned Yank from the States! Don’t worry, I will not be tossing any tea. I love tea.)

Right off the bat we learned one major thing, which is that this is not about us. Yes, our selfish little scribbler’s hearts, with its ego-centric blinders focused on arguing “But it’s MY book, and MY website about ME!!” Yes, this is true. But when we treat it that way it’s like sitting down with that one friend we all have that somehow makes everything about them.

“Oh, I just bought this lovely book and—”

“Well I saw the movie twice and I don’t think the book is worth picking up.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to hit speaker number two for three reasons. One: don’t interrupt, you egocentric prat! Two: Who cares that you’ve seen it twice? No one asked for your opinion, anyway. Now sit down and let the other person finish telling you about this book! Three: You’re not going to read the book because you saw the movie? That’s the point where I (in the words of Ryan Reynolds) “have trouble listening to the rest of our relationship.” Seriously, you’re going to judge the book by what you saw in the movie? Excuse me. I have to go do…something else.

So reading that MY website isn’t about me was jarring. Then I realized, it’s not that it isn’t about the author, it’s that it isn’t FOR the author. My website isn’t for me. It’s for my fans. It’s for you guys! You fabulous readers who pick up bound sheaves of tree skin with tattoos on them (most wonderfully colorful description of a book I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading) and get lost in the worlds that we, the authors, have created for you. So why wouldn’t our sites be for you? A place where you can sit down and explore all the nooks and crannies and feel right at home.

So then I had to stop and think about not just my steampunk series, but all of my works. What they’re about, who the main characters are and who they speak to. Who are my readers? Chantelle writes about outsiders. I realized my main characters, and my readers, are misfits, or what I call the “socially abstract.” But my characters are at that point where they’re looking for the place where they fit in, or at least still trying to accept that they will always be on the outskirts of most social circles. My characters, like my readers, are still growing and learning to become comfortable in their own skin.

Once the reader type had been established, it was only a matter of finding out what they would like to see and what would engage them. I’ve set up a “share your story” page for those who have triumphed in their own small way (i.e. coming out, standing up to a bully, etc.), and I share their stories in my blog. In their own words. Because we all deserve a voice, no matter how insignificant we feel.

When I had a good grasp on what I was doing for my website, I decided to pass along the information to Chantelle. I’d been reading her articles for ages, which led me to follow her on Facebook, and eventually message her (mostly to ask who does her fantastic covers! I’ve since hired the same artist for one of my upcoming novels) and try to connect. It’s only recently we began talking more, and I am so glad we have. Chantelle is a genuinely wonderful person. While I haven’t had the pleasure of reading more than a page of her works, I think her writing is absolutely wonderful. But I’m sure you already know that!

So, here’s to Chantelle, for gracing us with her words.

And here’s to you, the readers of the world, who give authors like us a purpose. Enjoy Chantelle’s page (or mine if you really want to pop in and see what sort of crazy is going on in there). Because it was made for you.

Thank you for reading!

Remember to always stay abstract!

~Shalaena Medford: Author, Editor, Designer, Weirdo~

(Blushing! Thank you so much to Shalaena for writing this guest post for my blog and for helping me so much lately! I know she would love to connect with you also on her blog Socially Abstract. You can also follow her page on Facebook and link up on Twitter. And if you’d like to check out her work, here is her page on Pronoun.

This is the first guest post I’ve published to my blog and thanks to the wonderful writers I have connected with over the years, there will be many more to come! If you would like to submit something to post on my blog then do get in touch. If writing related, then any topic is fine. If it’s fiction or non fiction then something along the outsiders theme would be brilliantly received. See you on Friday!) Please feel free to comment below! 

New Name, New Blog? Well….

If you follow my blog, you may have noticed I’ve been a bit absent lately. Not that I was ever a rigidly regular poster (although that all may be about to change!) I was always more of a write when I have something to say kind of blogger…

So, questions?

Where have I been and what have I been doing?

Why have I changed the name of this blog? What does it all mean?

Stay with me, and all shall be explained.

Firstly, I’ll blame the absence on two things. One, writing books. Or more to the point, struggling with what feels like the millionth draft of one particular pain the arse book…yes, you’ve guessed it, I’m talking about The Tree Of Rebels. Long story short; it still needs more. It needs more detail, more meat, more clarification, and it also needs the sequel to be finished.  (More on this another day!)

The second thing to blame my absence on, is actually a person. The brilliantly quirky indie author Shalaena Medford. We connected recently on social media, and got talking about selling books and building an audience. Luckily for me, Shalaena is currently studying book marketing as part of her Writing and Publishing course, and she was happy to share some articles and some knowledge with me. She showed me how she was updating and revamping her blog, making it appeal to the type of readers who would enjoy her work. (Don’t worry, I have roped her in to write a guest post explaining how and why authors should build an author platform. She’ll be able to explain much better than me!) There are many strands to this, and lots of advice to take on board, but the one I’ve been concentrating on is re-branding the blog.

Now, I know that all sounds rather cold and corporate, but it’s actually very sensible and even quite fun! So, why have I re-branded my blog and what does that actually mean?

When I started this blog I hadn’t published any books. I simply wanted a way to share my works in progress with my Facebook friends. I called it Life In Words as a temporary name while I tried to think of something better. A few years later, with published books under my belt, I started to put more effort into the blog, listening to the advice of others, and adding pages and blogging more often.

Anyway, after chatting to Shalaena, I realised that another blog overhaul was badly needed. And this time it had to be serious. I needed to think about what my books had in common. Who were they about? Who were they aimed at? Who would like them and why? It slowly dawned on me that they all had a common theme, which was the main characters being outsiders. They are all, in one way or another, rebels and non-conformists, individuals who aren’t bothered about fitting in. I then had a further revelation. The kind of books I like reading are the same! A whole list sprang to mind, and I realised that it’s always the characters I am looking for, and it’s the quirky, the weird and the rebellious that draw me in. So my work and my reading list had a common theme! It was time to think up a new name for the blog and gear it towards that theme. Now this is not a rigid thing. Just an acknowledgement of a theme that runs through my work, and through the books I read, the politics I believe in, life experiences and so on. It was all already there. I just needed help to see it.

Untitled design (4)

 

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks. Revamping the blog. Re-branding it! Helping to streamline and focus it, with the intention of attracting the kind of people who will genuinely want to read my work and hear what I have to say. I’ve added some new pages! I now have a Recommended Reading page, where you can find my favourite books, old and new. I also have a brand new Character Bios page, where you can find out more about the characters in my books.

And I have goals and intentions!

I aim to blog once a week, every Friday in fact. I’ve been too lazy about this in the past, and of course, it goes without saying, that if you want people to engage with you, you’ve got to show up regularly and put the work in. Every Friday I will post something. It might be about my week, my writing, books I’ve read, thoughts I’ve had, who knows? But I will be here!

There will be guest posts! These will be mostly from writers, but also other people with something to say. There may be extracts from novels, works in progress, and opinions on writing, publishing and marketing.

And I am asking for submissions! I need you too! I need your input. Your book recommendations, your favourite authors, your own thoughts, your own stories. I am open to anything, so just contact me. As long as it is somewhat in keeping with the outsiders theme, OR is generally writing related, then I am interested!

My guest posts will run on Mondays from now on, starting with the wonderful Shalaena explaining how  and why she has been working on her own blog identity.

But for now, it’s over to you. Do you have a blog for your writing and if so, how did you choose the name? Does it have a theme that relates to your own writing or not? If you’re a reader who follows blogs, which ones attract you and why? Please feel free to comment below! See you next time!