Sunday, 15 March 2015

Crossing over to the Light Side

Lighter writing is often denigrated as being insubstantial and fluffy. Those who write for the women’s magazine and light romance market are not always considered to be ‘proper’ writers amongst the more serious writers.

Yet, I would argue that writing light-hearted stories is no mean feat, and actually takes just as  much skill as writing gritty, misery-lit. You may have heard it said that easy reading is hard writing. I’d also argue that light or comic reading is hard writing. Douglas Adams, who wrote the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy reputedly had to be locked in a room to make him write.

I don’t think it’s a generalisation to say that the majority of writers start off writing autobiographical stories or poems. They painfully record every time their parents didn’t give them what they wanted, or every time their parents turned out to be flawed human beings just like everyone else, or every school playground slight, or every time the love of their life (for that week at least) turned them down. Anyone who has ever upset them is casually murdered in their stories in new and ironic ways. I know, because I was that writer. Most of my writing from when I started in the mid-nineties till at least the mid-noughties was in this vein. Even when I tried not to be autobiographical, I found that once the vein was open, it was hard to seal it up again.

As anyone who’s read my articles before will know, I’m generally a light-hearted person. I don’t walk around thinking ‘oh woe is me’. Yet when I started writing in 1994, I had a lot of stuff I needed to purge. I’ll spare you the miserable childhood, but it seemed that until I had written all that out of my system, I wasn’t ready to move on to what I was really good at, which is making people smile, and occasionally, I hope, making them laugh. I’ll admit I also wasted too much time thinking that I should be a deep and meaningful writer, because public opinion (or at least the opinions on several Internet forums when I was a newbie writer) insisted that it was the only way to be true to oneself.

Who is to say that someone who writes lighter fiction is less true to themselves that Salman Rushdie or Sarah Waters? The ironic thing is that I am more true to myself now that I’m writing what I want to write, than I ever was when I was churning out page after page of self-pity and murderous revenge. Not that I’m averse to throwing the odd character off a cliff nowadays if it suits my purpose.

That doesn’t mean light fiction comes easy to me. One market I write for, My Weekly Pocket Novels, has very specific requirements. The morals are very 1950s, if the 1950s really were like we see in The Darling Buds of May. I doubt they ever were, but this is what the readership enjoys. There’s enough misery in the real world, so when they open up one of the novellas, they want to escape into a world where morals were black and white, the good people were rewarded and bad people punished, but no one ever does anything truly wicked.

However, like many people, I wake up cranky and fed up some mornings, and that occasionally slips out in the writing. I also find it more difficult to create this rose-tinted world if I’m writing a contemporary story.

The 1950s, as we think of them through our hazy coloured spectacles, are probably a construct, brought about by shows like The Darling Buds of May and Happy Days, and the stories that my 75 year-old dad, who is still a Teddy Boy at heart, tells me. Yet it is easier for me to slip into that world, or an earlier one, where the morals were more certain. In a story set in 2012, I can’t imagine why a man and woman who fancy the pants off each other wouldn’t just hop into bed together. In 1950 or earlier, their abstinence becomes more realistic, because, back then, nice girls didn’t do such things.

Alright, alright, I can hear you all scoffing from here. We may well know that illegitimate children were born in the past, and that there was a lot of poverty, domestic abuse, injustice and illness, but in our heads there is that golden moral glow that only distance can lend to an era. We believe that people were nicer to each other, that life was better and we were all happier, and ignore the fact that racism was a national state of mind, women were expected to stay home and make babies and there was a class divide that created a glass ceiling for the majority of the population.

Of course novels do deal with these things. Andrea Levy’s A Small Island covers pretty much all of them and to wonderful effect. The market I write for has tighter requirements and a readership who buy them to be cheered up, not made depressed. As Maggie Seed, editor of My Weekly Pocket Novels said in an interview last year, she doesn’t care if lots of people died in any particular historical era, neither she nor her readers want to read about it.

That doesn’t mean one can’t dig deep. My characters have dealt with heartbreak, grief, the loss of their livelihoods and the odd murder or two. The trick is in pitching it so that nothing distresses the readers. So grief is there but the characters tend to be plucky and work through it. Murders are always ‘offstage’ and generally the victim is someone that the reader has not come to like too much. Heartbreak is followed very quickly by the happy ending the characters have come to deserve.

This is where the hard writing comes in. It takes several edits to change things so that they’ll be accepted by the editor at the other end. Sometimes the changes happen in the initial writing stage. A story that I’m working on at the moment is set in World War II. I started with the premise that someone was slashing ladies’ stockings at night. I immediately realised that slashing with a knife is a bit too violent for the light-hearted story I had in mind, so I decided the ‘slasher’ was using a stick. I saw straight away that this was ludicrous, and didn’t really take away from the sexual element of the crime. It isn’t a sexual crime. It’s intended to be a jealous crime. So then I changed it so that stockings were being cut to pieces whilst on the washing line. The next day, before I wrote any new words, I went back and changed it again so that the slashed stockings were stolen from the lines instead.  It’s still a crime, but it feels as if it’s less of a violent crime. A stocking stealer feels more appropriate than a stocking slasher and probably lends itself more to moments of comedy during the story.

You may well wonder why it should matter if the stockings are stolen or slashed as long as no one is harmed, but I’ve learned to be very careful. I still bear the scars from the time I discussed writing a werewolf romance with an editor, got the go ahead, wrote fifty thousands words and then found out, when I sent it in, that what she actually wanted was a werewolf romance with no actual werewolves…

Writing ‘light’ is a balancing act, made up of regularly altering the language used, toning down dialogue, even changing the plot as one goes along, if things start to get too dark. I’m sure Stephen King works just as hard on making his language frightening, heightening the terror and making sure he stays on the dark side of his plot.

I’d argue that both Stephen King and I have to work equally hard not to let real life in. His fictional world, with its creepy clowns hiding in every sewer, is no more real than the 1950s innocence of the world I write about. He inhabits the dark side. I inhabit the light side. Whilst I’m not in any way putting myself on King’s level as a writer, I believe it takes skill to do both.


  1. It's odd isn't it how some genres are considered less important, less 'proper writing' and far easier to do than others. Even in writing groups I've heard people suggest work is too good for womag markets or that a writer is good enough not to bother with romance. Don't suppose any of these opinions come from the writers of these genres.

    1. I know what you mean. I remember suggesting to someone once that a story they'd written would do well in a womag, and the person actually seemed to take offence!


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