There are a lot of books out there that I would describe as ‘unputdownable.’ I’ve read a fair few lately – books that I’ve had to know the end of, that have kept me turning pages long into the small hours of the morning, or when I should be working, or when I have a million and one other, more important things to do, like, you know, eating.
But, there is a kind of book that has evolved even beyond this level. It’s more than unputdownable. It more than grabs you by the hand and drags you through its pages. It gets under your skin, it infects your mind, it consumes your thoughts until you don’t read it because you want to know what happens in the end. You want to live it.
There aren’t many books out there that do this for me, and there have been considerably less in my adult reading life than there were in my teenage years. I don’t know whether this has to do with being older, or if it’s simply because I read a lot of books with teenage protagonists, and I find it increasingly hard to want to be them. Or, if in fact that is exactly the same thing.
When I was about 11-15, the book I wanted to live – like so many other people at the time, and since – was Harry Potter. I more than needed to know about how the story played out. I needed to go to Hogwarts and fight epic battles with dark wizards and marry Charlie Weasley and live happily ever after in Romania looking after dragons. It was an obsession that my sister and I shared – and we would talk for hours about how books 6 + 7 would turn out if we inserted ourselves (cunningly disguised as other characters we thought we were very clever for inventing) into them.
I did the thing that so many other teenager obsessors do. I wrote fan fiction. I wrote quite good fan fiction after a while. Through the weeks of faithfully uploading chapters of my Harry Potter epic onto Quizilla, the fan fiction medium of the day, I got good at character and plot, and twists, and suspense and all that other stuff. And I got fans, who still occasionally message me and ask if I’m ever going to update – though you’d think by the nearly 5 year gap between now and my last upload, they’d have got the message.
The torch lit by JK was fanned by Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy. I wanted a daemon, I wanted to travel between worlds. I wanted a destiny and a purpose and a great armoured bear that would have my back. And in those moments before sleep I lived it.
Then I went off the Harry Potter boil a bit, and the His Dark Materials trilogy finished. I stopped writing fan fiction, stopped obsessing over it, and moved on to other things. Like X-Men. Because I wasn’t the sort of kid who spent hours deciding what their superpower would be, if they could chose. I was the kid who spent hours thinking about it, then further hours imagining a plausible set up for why I would have superpowers, then included my family, and invented love interests (all of whom were very good looking, charming, intelligent and madly in love with me) and plot lines. And then, I wrote them down.
The first ‘novel’ I wrote I finished when I was about 15. I was still writing fan fiction back then, and this was a departure from the world of Harry Potter, into the world of ‘what if my family had superpowers?’ I say ‘novel’ because it was, at most, about 25,000 words long. I re-read it the other day for a laugh. It was awful. No really. It was dire.
Away from the safety of JK Rowling’s beautifully imagined world, her wonderful characters, the plot so far, I floundered trying to find my way. The story was full of in-jokes only my family would get, and dreadful dialogue, and situations that stretched beyond the realm of coincidence to ‘you just needed that to work, so you said that it did.’ But I was 15, and I wrote it. I deal with a lot of 15 year olds in my daily life. I can’t imagine many of them having the discipline, the ideas, or even the notion to sit down and write a 25,000 word story. Even a shockingly bad one.
My love for all things X-men eventually lead me to Proboards RPGing forums. I created characters, lovingly, using the templates. Waited impatiently to have them approved. Got annoyed when the admins, correctly, told me that my characters were so powerful and amazing they weren’t flawed enough to be real. I learnt about balance, and about layers and dimensions. And I made a friend who was a lot older than me – probably as old then as I am now – who liked my writing and often started RPG threads with my characters and hers together.
I’m not sure she knew I was barely 15, because she talked to me a lot about things our characters would be doing – how they could have been together in the past, and the unresolved sexual tension that would cause – that I didn’t really understand, sitting there thinking that I was on my second boyfriend, who lived an hour’s bus ride away from me, who I didn’t really like, but he chatted to me on MSN most nights and told me I was beautiful, and I thought that maybe that was what love meant. But, random University of Bristol Graduate, whoever she was, stoked the fire a little more, and though the RPG board thing soon waned as I got fed up of the rules and regulations – of both the boards and the world of X-men – I left the experience with a set of characters half belonging to me, half her, half my sister, who I still spoke to about all these things in those moments between the ‘lights out’ order and actual sleep.
I tried to write my next novel with these characters. It was ambitious. It was told from the perspective of a future historian, researching events that happened in my present. There were vampires and werewolves and demons and banshees, and a quest for them to be accepted by the human race at large. In the future they were accepted, and the historian was researching those pivotal moments in the past when the balanced tipped, and those people who did the tipping. It was also a love story between an electricity demon and a water/ice demon, and a vampire and a werewolf. There was a subplot about a lost sister – the first of many of my characters to take the name Kate. I’m still not sure why I’m so fond of it. I do have a cousin called Kate, but none of the characters have ever been particularly like her.
I finished the first ‘part’ of the novel. I think there were to be about 4 parts, all told. I never finished it. I still didn’t understand the idea of sexual tension between characters, and too many of the situations the characters were in were too ‘adult’ too outside the realm of what my 15/16 year old self knew.
I showed the story to my mother, who said she didn’t think it would be my first published novel, but I would look back on it fondly one day. She also said my two teenage characters had real chemistry. A high compliment. I took it, and went back to fan fiction.
X-Men: The Last Stand came out, and to most people it was a bit of a flop, but I loved it. Always have been a sucker for films with less brain and more explosion. I wrote an X-Men fanfic in which the main character was, for the first time, not a self-insert in any way. She started doing things that I didn’t want her to do, and having a voice of her own.
I cried a lot at that time, for various reasons, one not small one being my University choices had to be made, and I had no clue what I wanted to do. My endlessly patient Head of Sixth-form gave me a hundred pounds and free rein on the Open University taster course website – a move that would shape my life completely.
I often wonder if I would have made the same choices if it wasn’t for her. No one else got given that opportunity. I was a bright student, had worked hard without making a fuss all through my school and college career, collecting a string of As and A*s at GCSE and on my way to completing the triple A in Maths, English and Chemistry A levels. I was also going through a personal wringer, which I never openly complained about, tried not to let interfere with my school life – though the edges blurred occasionally, one notable occasion being when my poor, poor tutor must have seen something she didn’t like in my eyes and asked if I was okay, only to have me promptly burst into tears in the inconsolable ‘suicide risk’ sort of way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so frightened before or since.
Which of these facts about my school career, my life, lead the Head of my Sixth-Form to giving me that cheque and that choice, I don’t know. I looked through the options – most of which I could have done with my A Levels, and probably would have been good at. But my eyes kept returning to the Creative Writing module. It was the instruction to ‘try something I hadn’t done before, anything at all that interested me’ that rang in my ears as I signed up.
I bodged through it. I was a lot younger than most of the people taking the course – lacked the life experience they had. I also had that teenage arrogance that I was going to change the world, do something never seen before, become a millionaire over night. I did the work on the old computer in my mother’s bedroom, on a shaky countryside dial-up connection, before the days they piped broadband everywhere. I passed, not with flying colours, just comfortably, but again, the inferno was being fed.
I stopped crying about my university choices and picked Creative Writing, which had the double benefit of narrowing my potential places to go down to a mere handful. It made the decision easy. I made it for all the wrong reasons, but it was the right choice, and I’ve never looked back.
At some point in the three years that followed, I stopped crying about the other things in my life that sucked, and funnily enough, they stopped sucking. I grew up a lot, learned new things about myself, passed my first year by the skin of my teeth, despite getting high 2:1s in most of my modules, due to a diary I failed to write. I started to live and breath writing. I wrote a novel that was novel length. It was still pretty rubbish, but it was closer. Another step on the journey. I passed my degree with a First, also by the skin of my teeth.
I think it was Stephen King who said to be a writer you have to write a million words, then you might start getting some that are good. I think I’ve written my million over the years in fan fictions, RPGs, bad novels written in notebooks, to slightly better novels written on laptops, book reviews, articles, blog posts. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m starting to think that it’s not so impossible that one day I may write something good.
And maybe someday, I might write something that gets under someone’s skin, that lights a fire, that starts a ball rolling, unstoppable, down a hill to a blog post like this one.
Or maybe not. One can but dream.