Embracing a New Year as a Writer & On Again-off Again Expat

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Typically, a new year brings new resolutions to mind, good intentions but often with little follow-through. The way I approached the New Year, was to reflect on how 2015 unfolded. It was an exciting year of change with a recent move back to Sweden and my debut novel being released in the spring. There is always a honeymoon stage with any change I suspect, and certainly in my case this has proven true. No matter how many moves I make over the years, and there have been a few having lived in six countries, one might think I’d be used to it—the curiosity, the thrill of meeting new people, seeing places you never knew existed or maybe reacquainting yourself with old ties, friends, family. Perhaps the ironic joy in any change is not being used to it whatsoever and maybe that’s why we crave it. Why ironic? Because of the uphill battle to get there.

For the first time, I discovered how moving back to Sweden was very much like the process of releasing my first novel. All the legwork had to be done; applying to schools for my children, selling the house in the U.S., returning to our house in Sweden and finalizing everything with our tenants, banks, taxes, moving company, purchasing new cars, selling the old ones, reconnecting with my school, colleagues, friends and family. All of this while I was in the middle of the publication process with my publisher in the U.S.

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It wasn’t chaotic in any way, mind you, busy, but not chaotic. Each task was handled with care. In the case of my book, several months of editing back and forth with my editor then the production of the book and releasing the ARC (advanced reading/review copy) was thrilling, a tremendous amount of work, but thrilling.

So 2016 arrived. My book was released and we have settled into Swedish life once again. But have we? Or rather have I? Asking myself what worked and what did not, what has been challenging and rewarding and what has not, is important if I am to make 2016 a success, both personally and professionally.

It reminds me of the film, Finding Nemo, when the fish finally escape the dental office in a plastic bag filled with water. After the bag plunges into the sea then bobs on its surface, one fish says, “Now what?”

That’s me in a nutshell. The kids are settled into their schools, the house has been arranged, my husband is busy with work life and back in his familiar, the familiar ring of his own culture and language. Despite the familiarity I have with Sweden, having lived here for many years before our three-year stay in the U.S., it is not really my culture or my language. There is an empty crevice somewhere in all the pandemonium that I sometimes think only people who have lived abroad can understand. No matter how full your life is, it is always there.

My book having been released into the world garners a similar feeling. The hard work, the excitement, the recognition, but now I’m Finding Nemo, “Now what?” It’s been a fantastic learning experience without any doubt, but what worked and what didn’t? That is what I’ve needed to address.

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First and foremost, living in a foreign country that is not English has proven to be tremendously challenging as a debut author. Unless you are well known in the English market, it is very difficult to get exposure in Scandinavia. I had to learn this the hard way by spending countless hours writing emails, making phone calls, meeting bookshop owners and distributors, all in the hope of introducing my English book to a Scandinavian audience. In the process, my writing suffered because I dedicated too much energy and too much time to running up a very slippery slope, one with no end in sight. When I could have spent precious time writing, I spent it marketing. Of course, the latter is important but a book on the horizon is essential. Had I been in an English speaking country, I am as certain as I can be, that I would have garnered different results.

In any case, it was an important lesson learned. I had to ask myself what I wanted most. It was an easy answer. I wanted to write. As a result, I have chosen to arrange my day differently this year. Writing must be my top priority. Emails and social media come only after I’ve written my word quota for the day. As a writer, I need to wake up with my story filling all those wonderful crevices of my imagination. The moment I open an email or check to see how my book might be fairing on Amazon or Goodreads, my story loses a part of me. That’s something I am no longer willing to jeopardize. My story deserves my full attention. So if I have posted fewer blog posts lately, that is precisely the reason.

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Instead, I am spending time wisely, getting to know my new characters and developing a plot that keeps surprising me. I am new to social media and I am still learning how to write—how to write well, how to write creatively, how to write intelligently and with heart. I hope I never stop learning. I am reading more. I’m reading novels by authors who inspire me, like Kate Morton and Susan Meissner. I want to sink into a story and fall in love with the writing, and one day, I hope someone will feel that same way about something I’ve written.

If my reviews are any indication, I know my novel The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley has touched some readers in a way that I will always treasure. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for these changes in my life. Travel with my family remains a priority to me and I will likely jump at the opportunity to move house and home once again, somewhere sunny where my writing can flourish. 2016 is about setting goals, one of which is to complete my current writing project. Having made a plan for that to happen is key. It’s well under way and it feels great.

A new year brings new challenges to everyone. Embrace change in your life, make a plan and follow it through—writers are no exception, expats are no exception. As tough as it might be, it’s all a grand adventure. Is it not?

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Do You Need to Like a Main Character?

I recently read an article on whether it’s necessary or even helpful to like a main character. Helpful to what end? Finishing the book, I suppose. The writer didn’t feel a particular need to like main characters. I suppose it can be rather engaging to love to hate a certain main character if he or she is written well. For me, the feeling is quite different. It’s one I wanted to share with you.

I’ve always had a tendency to put down a book and not pick it up for ages, saying to myself that I’ll return to those pages when I get the time. But what is it, what is the key to those books that lure me back? I can only speak for myself, but I suspect that I’m not the only reader who needs to feel connected in order to be drawn back into a story once I’ve put it down.

I completed a novel a few years ago that sits in its pool of misery somewhere deep in my computer, having been fully read by only two people – me and my husband. Why? The writing is fine, even compelling at times. When I asked my sister to read the manuscript, she happily agreed until she got a glimpse of my main character, uncomfortably resembling someone she knew well. It felt too real to her. The pages became heavier to turn to the point of immobility.

The answer to my question was one I think I knew all along. Something drove me to write that character in such a way. Once completed, I had to ask myself why it didn’t actually feel good to write her. What was it about her personality? Was she strong? Yes, but not in the way that sits comfortably with me. A strong woman is not one who shuts out reality but faces it head-on, bulldozing through the ugly bits of life while delicately crafting a positive attitude that feels good to her and the reader. As writers, we all know how invested we become in our characters and how real they become to us, with personalities that linger well beyond our writing day. Our characters become our company in many respects and we want to feel good being around them. At least I do.

It’s perfectly welcomed and often times necessary to have a selection of characters that get your blood boiling, but for the main character, I want that person to make me feel good. I want to get to know that person better, not necessarily become friends, but become more acquainted with what makes that person tick, what motivates him/her, what touches his/her inner core?

It was a hard lesson to learn, writing a whole novel only to learn how desperately I need to like my main character. I often ask myself why it took me a whole manuscript to learn such a lesson as a writer, when as a reader I’ve always known that’s what I needed. I’ve concluded that it needed to be a hard lesson, a lesson ground in late night and early morning writing, crafting of plot and subplots that weave around my character and how she reacts to events. It needed to be this way, so that I would do exactly the opposite in my next book.

I see now, that it was my non-likable character that stripped my writing of the energy needed for a story to feel alive and powerful and beautiful. As a writer, I need to feel an intimate connection with my main character, a connection that makes me feel good to the bone. I want to laugh with her, and hurt with her. I want to love with her and get annoyed with her. Quite simply, I can only do that if I like her. So I wrote my next novel with a main character who swallowed up my days and who has lingered beautifully on my mind ever since. I still find I want to know her even better and travel with her through more life experiences. She makes me feel good and I like to be around her, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley – a friend for life.