Receiving criticism about your writing can be excruciating. It sometimes feels like a personal attack because fiction comes from the heart, from the soul. But learning to accept feedback graciously and even to welcome it is what will elevate your writing. Here’s my story on the Royal Literary Fund’s podcast:
Many of our most common and beautiful garden plants have come from far-flung locations throughout the world, brought to us by intrepid explorers who have literally risked life and limb in their search for the rare and exotic. Our gladioli originally came from South Africa, rhododendrons from the Himalayas, the monkey puzzle tree is indigenous to Chile, the regal lily was discovered in China and many of our most exquisite orchids originate in the Amazon. The stories of some of these men – for they were mostly men – who travelled the world in search of flowers, and got themselves into scrapes – attacked by bandits, gored by a bull, capsized from a canoe, fell off a cliff – inspired my story, The Priest and the Lily.
Set in 1865, just after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, on his radical theory of evolution, The Priest and the Lily is about a Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets sail from Bristol for Outer Mongolia. Joseph, passionate, idealistic and driven, wants to discover rare plants and animals and make a name for himself in scientific circles back in Britain. The young priest is accompanied a Buddhist monk and a horseman; as they travel across the steppes, he hears stories of an astonishingly beautiful white lily. Finding this lily becomes his dream. But to discover where it grows, he will encounter many dangers, for he will have to face the savagery of the White Warlord, a Chinese General intent on seizing power in Mongolia, as well as the far more powerful Yolros lama, the living incarnation of the Buddha. And in his quest for the lily, Joseph will meet a woman who will show him something far more precious than a flower.
I spent years researching my story – and travelled to Outer Mongolia, where I had my own mini adventure. We were due to spend three weeks travelling by jeep and horseback in order to meet the tribe I was going to write about in my novel. Unfortunately, my luggage ended up in Russia, and I had to set off in just the clothes I was wearing! Thankfully I was wearing my walking boots!
Mongolia is stunning: it is a country of seemingly endless skies and steppes, with incredibly hospitable people. At the time of writing this blog, we’re in the grip of COVID-19, and everyone in the UK as well as many other countries, is currently in lockdown at home. I hope that my novel can, in some small way, help take our minds off this situation, transporting us to a country and a time far from own immediate experience, and perhaps, too, allow us appreciate what Joseph comes to realise – that it is love, which is more important than anything else on this earth.
Thank you to Victoria Goldman for hosting this blog on her website: Off-the-Shelf Books.
Really excited to share my new novel with you – The Priest and the Lily. It’s now available to buy from Amazon as an ebook. The paperback is coming soon.
Here’s what it’s about:
In 1865, Joseph, a young Jesuit priest and plant-hunter, sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published, and Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolia Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured.
But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe.
And it is Namuunaa who will teach him the true meaning of his desire…
‘You will journey far beyond the boundaries of your imagination. You will meet and seize your heart’s desire.
It will be the death of your soul.’
An epic journey, a story of East meeting West, and of a love that transcends culture, faith and ultimately tragedy.
Let me know what you think!
When I was a rebellious teenager, I thought the ‘classics’ would be boring…and then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
In these troubling and heart-breaking times, I think we could all draw comfort and solace from immersing ourselves in classical literature.
I talk to the Royal Literary Fund about life-changing literature.
I feared these books would be dull, staid and part of the establishment that I was so busy rebelling against; and then I read Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
What have you read that’s changed your life?
What would you tell yourself if you could? The Royal Literary Fund recently gave me the opportunity to write and record a letter to my younger self.
I know your grammar is… idiosyncratic would be the kindest way to put it. But you can learn where commas go, you know!
Do have a listen and let me know what you think!
My most important advice to you is: please don’t be frightened of failing, of falling, of learning, & of acknowledging that you need help
The Royal Literary Fund has recorded a mini -podcast with me on how I write – with a black coffee, and some dark chocolate and then I begin!
‘Writing a novel feels like being an ultra-marathon runner, it’s going to be a gruelling slog to reach 90,000 words and I will be unable to pause, to breathe properly, to take in the view until then.’
You can listen here:
What do you think? Let me know how you write.
I’ve just returned to working for charity, First Story, this month. First Story’s aim is to change young people’s lives through writing, particularly those who might be disadvantaged socio-economically, and/or suffer from a lack of confidence. I had my first creative writing workshop with the school I’ll be Writer in Residence for last week. Before I met the group of students I’ll be working with, I was wondering what to tell them. I want to inspire them to be writers, as well as to give them the confidence to flourish, but I’m not sure that I personally feel like a teacher, or even know that creative writing can be taught. In spite of having published twelve books, I don’t have any qualifications in teaching and I have none in English past the age of 15.
So what I said was:
I am your space: I am your space in which to think about and practise the craft of writing.
I am your permission: I give you permission to be writers.
I’m never going to say to a single one of these young people that they are rubbish, that they cannot do it, that they need to demonstrate proficiency in key aspects of the curriculum, pass an exam or sit a test. I hope that having the time, space and permission to ‘have a go’ will help them blossom, both now and in the future.
Finally, I said:
I am your coach.
In most subjects taught in schools today, the educational model we follow is that you attend classes, practise, learn, graduate and then make your way on your own. But in sport, the model is that you are never, ever done. Everyone needs a coach. Even the greatest football player or Olympic athlete needs a coach. There isn’t a fool-proof path to become a premier league player, nor to win a gold medal at the Olympics. What players do is that they learn, they practice and they are coached. It is a never-ending process of attempting to improve under the guidance and tutelage of a person who has your back. The way to become a great cyclist, gymnast, football player or even a writer is with help. It is not, as someone tweeted at me recently, about reading a few articles online and doing it by yourself.
As Atul Gwande, surgeon and author of Checklist, says, ‘Coaches are on to something profoundly important…They build on your skills and address your weaknesses.’ Gwande, who is seen as being top of his field in general and endocrine surgery, hired a coach, thinking that this fellow surgeon, would have little to teach him. After the first session, the coach had made pages of notes on how Gwande could become a better surgeon. Two years later, Gwande’s techniques had indeed radically improved.
For me personally, I’ve benefitted greatly for the coaching I’ve received from my agent, Robert Dinsdale, my many editors over the years, and my writing buddies. In my role as a Royal Literary Fellow, I frequently receive training and coaching from other fellows. I still believe that I could benefit from more help and dedicated coaching for my thriller writing. (Any volunteers?!) As Gwande says, ‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you’re going to be that really matters.’
Last week I gave the keynote speech at Sidcot School’s Peace Festival. It was a double honour, because it was also the launch of the James O’Connell Peace Field. Named after my Dad, the field is full of wild flowers and several yurts, which are spaces for meditation, reflection, doing a bit of homework, as well as being part of the Peace and Global Studies Centre that Dad inspired.
My brother, Pat O’Connell, said a few words about Dad, and my mum, Rosemary O’Connell, cut the ribbon.
The day was about identity and I talked about how we find our identity as we’re growing up (or even as grown ups!). Identity, I believe, is formed by where you come from, who you love and who loves you, but you can also shape it yourself. Your origins do not have to be your destiny. And as you grow and change, your identity changes too.
My two favourite quotes from the talk are by Coco Channel:
A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.
…and Dr Seuss:
Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
What do you think forms and shapes your identity?
BE – WELL DRESSED OUTDOORS – It is tricky to find outdoor clothes that do what you want – keep you warm/dry/cool – and are ethical and stylish (I kept a blog for the Independent newspaper on the challenge of dressing ethically for a year). If you’re watching or filming wildlife, you’ll also need apparel and equipment that blends in with countryside colours – no fuschia-pinks or
scarlet-reds, I’m afraid.
As I’ve recently been working as a presenter on a BBC series called The Urban Jungle (due out in August), what to wear outdoors/on camera has been on my mind. Over the years – I filmed several series for the BBC on British Wildlife with Chris Packham – I’ve narrowed this down to:
THE URBAN JUNGLE – Last week I finished the programme I’m presenting in the series, The Urban Jungle. It’s 11 half hours, each one produced and filmed in a different British region, on wildlife in our cities. The series is due to be broadcast in August on BBC2.
We were filming the introduction and links to the documentary in Martin’s Pond, Nottingham: a perfect example of a wildlife haven in the city centre. In between takes I spotted a pair of coots with their nearly adult chicks, a moorhen building a nest, some damselflies and a group of long tailed tits performing acrobatics in the willows overhanging the pond.
JUST WRITE! – I’ve been thinking about what advice to give someone who is starting to write – I’m going to be teaching a course on beginner’s fiction at the Arvon Foundation in October – so it’s been on my mind. You can still book a place if you’d like to come: it’s a wonderful, week long retreat in Devon with time to write, writers to talk to and workshops run by me and fellow novelist, Christopher Wakling.
So what would I say to someone who wants to write a novel and is just starting out?
MORE TOAST PLEASE – For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on a radically low carb, relatively high protein diet. When I say low, I don’t mean, cutting out the odd slice of bread, I mean, a total of 20g of carbs a day. That means most vegetables (unless they’re green and watery) and most fruit (apart from rhubarb and occasionally raspberries) are too high! For someone who loves toast, chocolate and has an apple a day habit, this has been somewhat hard.
I noticed many years ago that I had an intolerance to wheat and that if I had high glycemic index carbs (anything white basically!) I would have awful blood sugar swings, migraines and put on weight. So I cut down on carbs and now try to only eat wholegrains, such as brown rice, wholemeal pasta, granary bread. Last autumn I saw nutritionist, Jamie Richards, who specialises in training athletes and is a proponent of low starch diets. I said that I want to be healthy, slimmer with more muscle definition, and have plenty of energy. I need the fuel from carbs for my runs, but then I don’t burn off enough calories to make a difference. Jamie checked my iron and vitamin D levels (both low) and recommended SpaTone, which is iron-rich water from a spring in Wales and doesn’t cause digestive problems like constipation. He advised taking Bio-D Mulsion Forte vitamin D drops and Allicin – a high dosage garlic supplement to help protect me from all the bugs my two year old daughter ‘shares’ with me.