Can’t get your novel started? Here are my 12 top tips

I’m lucky to belong to several writers’ groups, including a brilliant local one and an online advice and support group. Before that, my regular writers’ group consisted of a bunch of genius poets and artists back in Devon. Before that, I belonged to an MA writers’ class where everybody was superbly talented. The world is full of great writers.

One day, in the MA group, out tutor sent us away for an hour and told us to write a thousand words on something vaguely associated with what we’d been studying. I went away and bashed happily on a computer and in due course we all reassembled, most students carrying coffee cups from the bar, where they’d been for the last forty five minutes.

‘So,’ our tutor said. ‘Did anyone write over a thousand words?’ I shot up my hand and looked around the room. I was devastated. I was the only one.

‘How many words, Judy?’

I kept my voice low. ‘One thousand seven hundred and …’

The tutor glanced around the class. ‘Anyone else do a thousand?’ Heads went down. He tried again. ‘Over five hundred? No….? Over three hundred? No…?’

Someone had written a hundred. Two people had thrown a paragraph of forty words together. One of our most gifted writers had thrown his three lines in the bin. One student grumbled, ‘I don’t see the point in doing this.’

The point was, apparently, to be able to write on demand, to fulfil a deadline. The point was, the tutor suggested, that so many good writers can’t do it.

Then this morning, in an online group, someone asked for help. ‘I’ve got a great idea for a novel,’ he said with enthusiasm. ‘I’ve designed the front cover. I’ve written the blurb. I just can’t seem to get started on the writing. Please can anyone advise me?’

It seems to be a recurring problem amongst writers: getting started, writing the first words, sustaining the first few chapters, not running out of steam after 20,000 words, avoiding the sagging storyline by the middle of the novel. So here’s some advice in the form of twelve tips. They may not all apply to you, but I hope that they will at least help.

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Tip One: Be honest – know yourself. If you are a procrastinator, a person who loses interest quickly, a person who loses self-belief, factor that in to what will happen when you write, and prepare for it before it happens. You will need to know what you’re dealing with up front. It makes the next steps easier.

Tip Two: If you are happy planning in advance, and it certainly will help you with direction and continuity if you fall into the group above, then get ready to plan for all you’re worth. That means that you cover an entire wall with a huge sheet of paper and start plotting. Work out what will happen in your novel in five sections or acts. The first act sets the premise, tells the reader who the characters are and what they need to change. It throws problems or difficulty into the mix, conflict. The final act creates dénouement, resolution, answers questions from the first act or deliberately doesn’t answer them. The final act can be everything the reader doesn’t expect. Then you plan the acts in-between, what will happen, what will go wrong. At this stage keep it flexible, prepare to change anything and everything. as you go. If your instinct says something isn’t right, scrub it and rethink.

Tip Three: Do research up-front. Decide on your characters. Write your character’s background, time-line, wants and needs, fears and problems. Draw or find a picture of them if you need them to be clearly fixed in your imagination. Work out their foibles and idiosyncrasies, their strengths, their flaws and their Achilles heel. You’ll need all this for your novel. Develop your protagnist and from there, work out what your antagionist is like and why there is conflict. Who are the other characters? If they are bland or they don’t make you interested in them, scrap them and start again.

Tip Four: Use anything for inspiration to find out about your characters and plot in advance. But it’s important to clear your mind first. Rid yourself of any blocks, worries, hurdles, barriers. Go for a run. Discuss your ideas with a friend. Listen to music. Go on holiday. Then research. Impersonate. Inrterpret. Borrow. Whatever it takes.

Tip Five: Don’t worry if someone says ‘It’s been done before.’ I remember being told that Matt Haig’s wonderful novel How to Stop Time was the same story as The Highlander. Who cares? His novel is brilliant because of the way he tells it. The Highlander is a watchable film with a great sound track. Who says we can’t have both? There are only seven ideas anyway, apparently.

Tip Six: When you start to write, tell yourself that you will write for a specific limited time or bash out a limited number of words. Then do it. Two hours. A thousand words – whatever, but don’t stop to edit or read through. That can all come later. Get immersed and put it down on paper or screen.

Tip Seven: Don’t be afraid to walk away, take a few hours off off, but set yourself a strict time when you will come back. After a  reward – a cup of coffee, a walk, a trip to the gym, a visit to a friend, chocolate – all of these together, come back and make yourself write for another set time.

Tip Eight: If you are, like I am, a ‘pantser’, (some people prefer the phrase ‘an intuitive writer’) then forget the part about planning too carefully and just throw the first few chapters down as soon as the idea comes to you. We ‘pantsers’ are the ones who don’t seem to have a hard time getting started because we ‘fly by the seat of our pants.’ I never plan the whole novel before I start. I have an idea, a rough understanding of where I’ll be by the end, and I run with it. Once I realise where I’m going, I imagine a line graph – the rise of the tense parts of the story, conflict, new characters; the dip or contrast of comic moments, tragedies; more hardship, puzzles, unanswered questions, catalysts, more contrasts, more conflict. Then I use the graph to move the action forward and try to surprise myself at every turn. For me, the mental graph works brilliantly to keep the novel varied and balanced.

Tip Nine: I have a 20,000-40,000 word cut-off rule. If by that point, the characters aren’t lodged somewhere in my psyche and don’t keep me awake at night, invisible friends chattering and asking what will happen next, then I scrap the novel, or at least shelve it. If it’s ok at that point, I know I’ll finish it. Didn’t the Bee Gees say it perfectly? It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away. If it doesn’t affect you, as the writer, emotionally, then how will the reader ever become engrossed and moved?

Tip Ten: Keep the negative critics and thoughts away at this stage. There will be high points where you think, ‘I love my novel to bits.’ There will be low points too. ‘Is this working? Does it feel right? Is it total banal rubbish?’ As long as you’re on track with your idea and your protagonist still captivates you, work through the downbeat  moments by keeping on writing in the knowledge that you can edit later. It won’t be perfect. Not yet. Not ever. Even when it’s in print and on the shelves, you’ll think ‘I should have changed this part to…’ So keep the stamina, the energy and the impetus going. Avoid the voice that says ‘You can’t write. You’re no good. You’ll never make it.’ Leave all that to the one lonely person out there whose life-breath it is to give writers one-star reviews on Amazon. But remember that everyone else might like it or even love it: they might be entertained, moved, made to feel happy. They matter most. You will get there.

Tip Eleven: Don’t fret over the idea that J K Rowling’s Harry Potter was turned down lots of times before she found an agent and a publisher and tell yourself you’ve no chance. Focus on where she is now. Of course you’ll need resilience and determination. It will be an interesting journey. But you need to write the novel first. Believe. Give it a go. It’s only words.

Tip Twelve: There will be hard times, times where you need to walk away, take a breath, work things out, come back. A novel is like any other close relationship. You fall in love. You fall out over something silly. You work hard to get things right. You come back together again and then it’s even better. Don’t give up. Don’t ever stop trying. Plan. Don’t plan. Edit as you go, don’t edit as you go. Find the way that suits your personality. But don’t ever stop trying. Keep the words flowing across the screen. Write every day, write most days, and write a lot. Be kind to yourself but strict with your characters and the flow of your novel.

Give it your best shot – nothing is ever perfect, but it can be special. And good luck to you. You’ll get there. Don’t doubt yourself. Believe and it can happen. And you never know – you might even enjoy the journey.

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My Top Tips for Writers’ Block…

I have heard a lot about writers’ block. I’m not entirely sure what it is but I think it means that writers can’t write because something is holding them back – they experience a temporary lack of inspiration or fluidity. The reason I’m not clear about what it means is because I don’t think I’ve ever had it. It might mean that a writer has no fresh ideas. ‘What shall I write my next novel about?’ It might mean that a writer is trying to devise a new episode. ‘My protagonist needs to meet her arch enemy but how am I going to contrive the meeting?’

It might suggest that there will be difficulty creating a solution. ‘Hyppolita is surrounded by zombies. How am I going to get her to safety?’

It might imply that an idea is not working, and may not appeal to the readers. ‘Oops, I shoudn’t have made Dulcie shoot the man of her dreams in chapter two. What shall I do now?’ It might be that the writer can’t get started at all. ‘Feisty, newly single, Imelda works in a newspaper office with six other women and one man. So what?’

For the  sake of this blog post, I’ll just assume that writers’ block could stem from any one or all of these problems. The writer doesn’t know what to write. She or he is ‘stuck.’

I’ve been asked by other writers about how to deal with the problem of writers’ block and I’ve given it some thought. I’m not sure why I have never had it, or whether I might get it at some point, but on reflection, here are five tips which I think might help, based on my own experience. Or my lack of it.

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  1. Don’t worry about writers’ block. Worrying can cause writers’ block or, certainly, make the problem worse. If you think you’re going to get it, you probably will. If you think you won’t be able to shake it off, you probably won’t. It’s just that, a block in your mind which stops creativity and it will fill all the empty space, sort of like concrete,  and stop ideas coming in. If possible, start believing that writers’ block  doesn’t exist. A bit like a ghost. If you don’t invest in it, then it’ll just remain a figment of a fertile imagination.
  2. Avoid sitting in front of a monitor or a blank page, staring at the screen or into the emptiness thinking ‘What shall I write?’ Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Thought Fox’ suggests that, when a writer stare at blankness, like a fox in snow, the prints start to come, but you might just simply get a headache. Walk away. Drink water. Go for a run. Sing and dance. Eat chocolate. Phone a friend. But don’t think about the emptiness and the lack of words. Move your thoughts to a better place.
  3. Read a good book or watch an exciting film. Fill your head with someone else’s words and images.  Play music. Let your mind drift. Then, when you least expect it, an idea will pop in. But you have to let go first. Really let go. Which is why I suggest a walk in the open spaces, the countryside, with the wind blowing through your ears, clearing  the dust which may have settled in the mind. Let new ideas in. Don’t keep the block locked inside – empty the space.
  4. Laugh, chat to friends, family, share a glass of wine, then say ‘I’m writing this novel but I am not sure quite how to enable Jessica to escape from a burning building by herself.’ Or ‘I’m writing a historical fantasy fiction which deals with the problems of loneliness. Any ideas?’ Then write all the suggestions down, walk away again, sleep on them. My ideas often wake me up at three in the morning and start chatting inside my head. New protagonists. Invisible friends…
  5.  Stop writing altogether. Take a week or two off completely and have some fun. Give your crowded thoughts time to become  a big empty space and keep your mind stress-free so that you aren’t worried about your creativity drying up. Be tough on old ideas which aren’t your best ones. Throw away anything which doesn’t really grab you. If it doesn’t excite you, it won’t excite your reader, because your struggle to make it almost work will show through. I filed 20,000 words of a novel away in the bin once because I wasn’t in love with my protagonists enough to justify keeping going. I need characters who will spur me on, make me laugh, keep me awake and make me think about them all the time, consciously or subconsciously. If they don’t do that, I have to shelve them because they aren’t good enough for my readers. So the deal is simple. Be inspired or start again. It’s tough love and relates exactly to Stephen King’s statement about killing your darlings.

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6. Then when you are ready, just write, just go for it. Scribble, bash out words. Be prolific and don’t stop to think too much – you can edit later. Let the ideas rampage over the screen. Enjoy it. Let the action take over. Let the characters riot. The important thing is to write and to believe in yourself as a writer. Hit the page running.

Occasional self-doubt is natural. We writers are tortured artists, creative souls and it’s normal to think ‘What if I can’t ever ..?’ or ‘What if my reader doesn’t like..?’ But don’t let doubt stand in the way for long. There will always need to be revisions, structural rewrites, edits. That’s natural and part of the process, and no reflection on a good writer. It’s how we strive to be the best we can be.

We can’t please everyone either. We should expect the odd negative review amid all the kindness and praise. Our writing is for a specific audience and there will be readers for whom our novels won’t ever work. I read a one-star review of a superb Jeanette Winterson book the other day. ‘My wife hated it…it didn’t make her laugh… ‘ I laughed, I’m afraid. The critic didn’t match the novel, couldn’t understand the genre.  We can’t aim to please everybody, just the people who will enjoy our books. For my part, when I read a novel which isn’t ‘for me’, I either stop reading and leave it for those for whom it’s been written, or put myself into the shoes and eyes  of readers who will like it and try to understand what makes it so successful…

So don’t stunt your creativity with doubt and worry, and especially don’t waste time fretting about writers’ block. Ideas will soon flood in. And if they don’t arrive straight away, nourish yourself with a positive and fulfilling activity which is not writing, but is something completely different. Yoga. Dancing on the beach. Fun and laughter. That way, the good stuff will have chance to flow back. It will come in time. You will  be energised again, enthused, prolific. A two-thousand- word chapter before morning coffee is just a warm-up for the day’s writing.

Unless of course you have looming deadlines, important and unavoidable ones which are bound to stop creativity as quickly as a scrum of screaming otters lining up in a narrow riverbank. Deadlines are something else, guaranteed to make the writer freeze with fear and suddenly become incapable of thinking of the next sentence. But top tips about how to handle deadlines will have to be the subject for another blog post.

For now, remember, fear not the block, for it is just a symptom of a creative brain which needs to stop, recharge and breathe…

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My novel is out today! But how should I celebrate?

In complete harmony with my rock and roll lifestyle, I’m keen to celebrate my novel coming out in paperback today. Available at Waterstones, Tesco, Amazon, at all good bookshops throughout the UK, ‘A Grand Old Time’ has finally hit the shelves.

I have been on book tours, had radio interviews, been featured in newspapers, on social media, done a talk at Loughborough university, and I’m ready to launch into party mode now. It is an exciting way to live and I believe in taking every opportunity to celebrate.

My novel ‘A Grand Old Time’ has had wonderful reviews. The response has been better than I could have imagined. Here are just a few excerpts from bloggers and readers’ thoughts from Amazon.

5☆ I Loved Evie… She has a Passion and Zest for life… I want to go travelling with her!

I loved this book cover to cover

I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant story. I laughed and cried in equal measure

Made me laugh & cry- lovely book!

A lovely book about an older person finding a new lease on life.

It is being sold abroad in many countries incuding Canada, Sweden, Croatia, India, Denmark, Italy, Japan. It is all so thrilling. I have book signings coming up;  it’s totally rock and roll.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is about an older woman, a widow, Evie Gallagher, who has moved to a care home in the hope that she will have some company, but Sheldon Lodge is not for her. She wanders into Dublin one day, talks to strangers and enters a betting shop. One thing leads to another and she takes a plane to Liverpool, a boat to France, buys a camper van and sets off on adventures.

Her son, Brendan, who is struggling with his marriage and his job as a Sports teacher, decides to bring her back home, believing she can’t cope independently. Brendan’s unhappy wife, Maura, insists on tagging along and their parallel adventures begin.

The novel is character-led. Evie is feisty, full of mischief. She pretends to be a porn star, drinks too much and collapses, lies to the police and sings on stage in an Irish Bar. She meets a French septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Meanwhile Brendan and Maura discover that their marriage is in real trouble and inevitably, changes need to be made to their lonely unfulfilled lives.

The audio book is read beautifully by Aoife McMahon, who brings the characters straight from the page to the heart.

So, back to the celebrations, the rock and roll. I wanted to have a huge party, a band playing in the garden, champagne, a barbecue, a hot tub. Dancing on tables, singing up at the stars until four in the morning. Guests wandering lost in the rose bushes, stragglers asleep in the fish pond at dawn.

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I thought I’d have a Prosecco breakfast in the morning, ask the neighbours round for buckwheat banana pancakes, sharing jokes and good craic on the patio. Then there will be an open house all day, in which people I don’t see often enough roll up, have a glass of punch and a big hug and we talk about old times. Friends will jet in, land on the helipad: people I haven’t seen for ages, from India, Italy, Ireland, France, London, Liverpool, Cornwall and Totnes will duck the whirling blades and rush into my arms, tears on their faces and a bottle of Moët clutched in their fists.

My agent, publisher, publicist, the whole lovely team will be there under the rose-clad pergola, holding martinis, looking cool, laughing and reminiscing, chatting to novelist celebreties nibbling canapés.

Then as the evening dwindles, the perfume of jasmine and night-scented stock warm on the air, I will leave the happy throng and slide away for quiet chat with my family and a smooch with my significant other to something romantic, like ‘Pretty Vacant’ by The Sex Pistols. Then it’s back to the party,  moshing beyond midnight.

Of course, that’s all in my imagination. What is more likely is that I’ll wake up with the cat, have a piece of toast and read the paper in my pyjamas. My neighbours might pop round for a cuppa and then I’ll work at the computer all day. In the evening, I might go out.

An ex-student of mine has kindly sent me a thank you present of a meal at a local restaurant. He is now embarking on a psychology degree and I know he will reach the stars. I’ll toast him and Evie when I sit quietly in Flavours with a glass of Romanian red and a plate of vegetable wellington.

Then I’ll start planning the special launch party, which will happen one day, however retrospective. It might be on the beach this summer, or in my camper van in France, or round the table at Christmas time when the crumbling walls have finally been plastered, or with breakfast at the top of The Shard as the sun rises in a winter sky. Why not? After all, it has to be Rock and Roll.

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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

Like most writers, I started young, with a pen and any paper I could find to scribble on. I wrote my name on the kitchen walls when I was two and had a slap for my efforts. I penned poems on empty Corn Flakes boxes. I filled jotters with an assortment of stories. In my spare time, I composed some shocking song lyrics on the back of scraps of paper.

My teachers, the nice ones anyway, said they expected to read my work in print some day and I thought I’d achieved it when I had a non-fiction book published about Drama teaching.

Once I’d made the decision to write full-time, however, I concentrated on being published anywhere I could. Niche is good. I made money from having all sorts of short stories included in all sorts of publications. I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers. I entered competitions, being placed in a few, including a second prize for a story about a hedgehog cake and a second place at The Winchester Festival for a piece about a woman searching for the same man throughout time. I liked the idea so much I wrote it into a 90,000 word novel last summer: it’s the only serious one I have ever written and I think it is both tragic and uplifting.

A year ago, I was a hopeful writer, with an ambition to be published. I had written my first novel, found a great agent and believed I could actually do what I had dreamed of for so long: I would see a work of fiction with my name on it for sale in a book shop.

It didn’t take long for my agent to find me a two-book deal with HarperCollins Avon, and I was on my way, hardly believing my luck. I had always intended to do it and I suppose I always believed that I would.

Being published has taught me so much. I didn’t realise how my thinking had changed until other writers handed me their work and asked for an opinion. I suddenly started hearing the voice of my editor and suggesting important details which would upgrade the readers’ enjoyment. There is much more to writing than interesting words and characters. I now think much more visually about what the readers will see in their imaginations. I’ve always been a bit of a cimematic writer  but now I focus totally on what images the reader will experience.

The same goes for feelings. I’d assumed if a character sighed, for example, every  empathic reader would automatically know how she felt and be able to understand her plight. Now I focus much more on inner dialogue and thoughts, what has led to emotions and how they manifest themselves.

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The most interesting part of the journey in many ways has been to do with my character’s impact on the reader. Evie Gallagher, the 75 year old role-model in ‘A Grand Old Time,’ is inspirational, as she takes off on a road trip in a camper van, having adventures. She learns a lot about the world and even more about herself, and develops her capacity for enjoying life independently.

Interviews and questions are part of writing a book. I have loved the opportunity to go on the radio, talk to newspaper reporters, complete questionnaires, write articles and guest blogs.

The question I’m asked the most is ‘why did you write about a 75 year old woman?’ This makes me smile. I wonder if Thomas Hardy was asked why he wrote about 16 year old Tess, or if Vladimir Nabokov ever explained about why he invented 12 year old ‘Lolita’? Age is a number. It defines my character less than traits like a sense of humour, altruism or a positive attitude. Yet repeatedly, people are fascinated by a 75 year old protagonist who defies stereotypes and has a tendency to behave badly.

I couldn’t be more delighted by the responses to my 75 year old role model as she takes off in a camper van and has crazy adventures. Reviews have said things like ‘I want to be Evie’ and ‘I want to go travelling with Evie.’ Someone else said they ‘laughed and cried in equal measure’ and, honestly, there can’t be better praise than that.

One woman wrote that her mother is 75 and has recently embarked on a jaunt to Amsterdam, just to behave like Evie. Another person said that her mother was delighted to read a book about an older person living life to the full and now had a role model.

However, I believe readers who will enjoy the novel won’t just belong to the category of women in their seventies and beyond, although I’m delighted that older people have a trail blazer in Evie. There aren’t enough stories about brilliant people enjoying their golden years.

I have farmed early versions of the novel out to friends, including  young men in their twenties, who’ve found Evie hilarious and upliftingly iconoclastic. They decided that the scene where she pretends to be a porn star is hilarious and, equally, when she sings karaoke, gets drunk and lies to the police officer, they loved her sense of mischief.

But there are tender and poignant moments in ‘A Grand Old Time.’ Evie finds love where she least expects it. As a widow, she’d had no thoughts of meeting her soul mate, but when she does, this part of the novel is both comic and touching.

Now I am a full-time writer, and published, with a real novel I can hold in my hands, I can reflect on the past year, going from aspiration to publication. Yet I’m still aspiring. That’s the point of a journey: you never get there. There is always so much to find out, to learn, to reconsider, to aim for and to try again.

‘A Grand Old Time’ is out in paperback on 3rd May. It’s already an ebook and an audio book, read gorgeously by the talented Aoife McMahon. I’ve written several other novels and the second one is currently at the editing stage, scheduled for publication at the beginning of 2019. I’m living a dream.

Like any journey, any dream, I have no idea where it is going, but as long as I’m in the driving seat with the wind in my hair I know it will be a blast. I have many people to thank for this first year: my agent, publisher, publicist, reviewers, all the loveliest of people. Kind and encouraging friends, the very best family. It is good to feel blessed and it is great to get up every day to do something you love doing. There may be many more novels out there. I hope so.

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

Happiness is about enjoying the small things. It’s about getting the most from each moment and not letting an opportunity pass to feel grateful and blessed. Of course, there is happiness to be found in the big things: presents, promotion, pastimes, but perhaps real happiness is something we can connect with every day.

It’s true, external things bring pleasure. We aspire to something and then when we attain it, we believe we are happy. Why not? I know plenty of people who are exhilarated by the excitement of a new job, or a shiny car, a new relationship, a new home, a holiday: all these things bring the possibility of happiness and fulfilment. For me, completing a novel, beginning a new one, holding my finished book in my hand with its wonderful front cover design and title has the capacity to make my heart sing.

Things which happen by accident make us feel blessed. Winning the lottery, for example, would open up many new doors, offer new horizons and the chance to change. Things which happen to us externally, which are not fully of our making, are exciting because they present us with instant opportunities to make life better. Similarly, a promotion to a better job defines us as successful and it’s natural to feel that our achievements make us more exciting or more complete people.

But the problem with chasing happiness is exactly that: we are always seeking the next buzz, the next chance of fulfilment. While there’s nothing wrong with that, there has to be interim happiness which doesn’t depend on luck or someone else’s benevolence.

The base line  for happiness is our own good health and the health of those we love. Bereavement or constant worry about sickness will put a huge barrier in the way of happiness.

However, if we are blessed with life and energy, happiness can be found all around us. It is about taking the time to relish in the small things that promote sustained happiness. I suppose it’s back to the old concept of the half empty glass, and whether we can celebrate that it’s half full.

Today, it’s cold and raining. Usually, that doesn’t initiate a feeling of euphoria. But to be able to put on warm clothes and step outside, feel the wind, the water on your face, to come home and have the luxury of a fire in the hearth, a warm cup of steaming tea in your hands. That’s happiness.

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It’s easy to let immediate opportunities for happiness pass us by. We struggle through each day, busy with deadlines looming, technology pulling us in and absorbing us. How often do we take time to watch the sun rise or set? If it’s only when we’re on holiday, then maybe that’s not often enough. Maybe we should do it more frequently, taking a small drink, breakfast  or supper with us, and think about savouring every bite.

We have music all around us, but when do we stop everything we’re doing, turn up the volume and really listen to every note? We see people we love daily, but how often do we enjoy deep conversation or the time to take someone’s hand, look into their face and completely appreciate every moment we share?

As a fan of the beautiful game, I find it easy to fall into the trap of being governed by the lottery of  a result. If my football team win, I believe I’m happy. If we lose, I’m disgruntled and look for someone to blame: the ref, the goal keeper, the manager, the weather, the fixture list. Perhaps that’s a metaphor for life: it’s too easy to invest in superficial things we can’t control and which don’t really matter, then fall into the trap of blame and anger when it doesn’t go our way. But it is the people we love and the beauty within the moment which really make us happy.

Doing things for other people, making them smile, being kind, positive actions and thoughts towards others makes us happier, not just because we bask in being good, but because there is genuine pleasure to be found in making others’ lives better. Joy lies in reciprocating and sharing more than in allowing some external gratification to wash over us in a passive way.

Unless it is a beach, the waves from a vast ocean washing over us in the warmth of the sun. Or climbing hills, playing in the snow, squelching our boots in mud, alone or shared with others whose company we love. Not much beats grasping each transient moment life gives us, inhaling scent, savouring the taste and listening to the unique sounds. Perhaps nature is always there for us, offering us the opportunity to enjoy being alive in the present.

If that is so, if we can find joy in the duration of each moment, then we are truly blessed.

 

 

 

 

Five inspirational writers on International Women’s Day.

 Image result for international women's day 2018   For International Women’s Day, I’ve taken five writers who inspire me. I have chosen them because their use of language is unique and thrilling and because they do not follow other writers’ rules and conventions. They are iconoclasts, writers who write their own way, in their own style, and the result is stunning. Have a look at the list below and see what you think. 

Ruth Hogan. I’ve just read her book, The Keeper of Lost Things. It’s a clever book, unusual, well structured, an excellent concept and I adore her crazy sense of humour. A debut triumph.

Cynthia Bond. I raved about Ruby when I read it a year ago. I recommended it to friends, who either adored it or couldn’t finish it. A brave, brave novel which many will find challenging to read because of the protagonist’s experiences, but it’s so brilliantly written. One I think all women should read.

Cecelia Woloch. One of my three favourite poets. I love the way she uses language and creates images. She is special, gifted, an important poet, unique and exciting. I give her books away as presents all the time. Beautiful, moving writing. Check out Tsigan or Earth.

 Aphra Behn, born in Canterbury in 1640. She was an amazing poet who broke down cultural barriers and wrote ‘scandalous’ works which she claimed would not have been deemed improper had a man written them. Read The Disappointment and decide for yourself.

Jeanette Winterson. I’ve read most of her novels and every time I am even more amazed at her skills as a writer. I recently read A Gap in Time and it blew me away. I didn’t want it to end. She breaks rules, writes boldly and it seems not only to amaze but also to redefine genre and brilliance.  

Of course, there are so many more. However, for today, I’ve concentrated on writers who stand out from the crowd, who do their own thing, unafraid and unique, unapologetic. Thanks to them for the inspiration.

 

Campervans, cherry clafoutis and my novel…

Last night was lovely. Perfect ingredients: London skyline, champagne, a real home-made cherry clafoutis (baked with love,) a giant cut-out campervan. A team of Avon angels, lots of smart independent booksellers and hundreds of great books. Wine. Canapes. Speeches. And me.

My first Indie event with HarperCollins Avon was such great fun. I met the charming CEO, brilliant authors such as Cecelia Ahearne, the fabulous Bosh! boys and some really lovely people. I had the opportunity to introduce my novel, A Grand Old Time, which is out in April. I talked about the novel’s origins and development and it was so nice to have the time to chat about my protagonist, Evie Gallagher.

My novel is about Evie, a woman who is seventy five, but it’s not just a book for older women any more than Wurzel Gummidge is a book for scarecrows or Pooh is a book for bears. Evie goes to live in a care home by mistake and runs away. She gambles, drinks too much, misbehaves, buys a camper van and goes on a road trip. Of course, her son and daughter- in-law think her behaviour is inappropriate and they follow her, to bring her back. But, trapped in a car together, they realise they have problems of her own.

On her travels, Evie meets a septuagenarian hunk and sparks fly. Of course they do – she is feisty, wickedly provocative, unpredictable and a bit of an iconoclast. She’s bound to have adventures.

But A Grand Old Time is a novel for us all. It’s about having an appetite for life and not being afraid to take a big bite out of the present. In our so-called ageing society, we may all expect to live to be seventy five and more, and we certainly won’t want to be on the scrap heap. Evie says of her own mother, ‘She was done at forty. I’m seventy five and I’m  damned if I’m done yet.’

The novel is for all our mothers and fathers who, bless them, endured society’s concept of age as something which should slow you down, which limits you and makes you behave yourself. In fact, it could be an opportunity, a freedom, the time to do something wonderful. It is a chance to turn the mundane into a road trip. Like Evie, I hope we’ll all live to a ripe old age and then, I hope, we’ll take a leaf out of her book and find ways to have A Grand Old Time of it all.

My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

Is nostalgia good or bad?

Christmas is over and we have finished celebrating the arrival of a new year. It’s now a time when we can look forward to the wonderful gifts 2018 can bring. We all hope for health and happiness for ourselves and for those we love and we wish for world- wide peace and an end to discrimination, disease and destruction. We consider changes to our lifestyle, wanting to be instrumental in making positive developments. We decide to eat healthier food, join a gym, spend more time outside, and help others. Such plans are admirable: we all know of people who will run a marathon in 2018, land a new job, find the perfect partner, raise money for charity or, simply, be more content with their lives. It doesn’t really matter if it’s January or July, looking forward confidently and with optimism is a good thing.

Yet we spend so much time looking back. Christmas time is a good example. We all love White Christmas, the archetypal festive 1950s film showing how perfect life used to be, and the Irving Berlin song dates back to 1942. We sit around the dining table, reminiscing about previous Christmases, missing people who are no longer with us, and old childhood memories of past years are stirred up and savoured. Many people yearn for aspects of bygone times, when food tasted better, everything was cheaper, we were less focused on commercialism, and people’s lives were less complex and perhaps in some ways happier. I remember as a teenager hearing a woman in her seventies talk about the Second World War with fondness. I was horrified. What about rations, bombs, the sacrificed lives? But she simply looked misty-eyed and said ‘Ah, but you had proper neighbours then. We all looked out for each other.’

I wonder if nostalgia is a bad thing: if we are always looking backwards through rose-coloured glasses, does it prevent us from looking forward clearly and determining our own destiny? But then, there are things we learn from the past. Life experience enables us to make decisions focused on a knowledge of likely outcomes. But the future is ours to determine, so why would we want to hold on to memories which have long gone? Perhaps that is it: like an old photograph, a letter or a school report found at the bottom of a drawer, the pages yellowed and the ink faded, perhaps the past provides us with a soft fuzzy feeling that makes us happy.

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Finding joy in nostalgia is not always easy to achieve. I have returned once or twice to the place I grew up and several times to towns and cities I have lived in. Much has changed and I feel no impetus to relive the past there. Yet I spoke to someone recently who went back to a town they left just over a year ago and they were filled with a sense of having belonged, having grown up there, having developed and become the person they are today against a backdrop which was important, which was in some ways formative. Memories such as those are tangible, important and cannot be taken away.

Music and the media are quick-fire ways to start a nostalgic conversation. Hearing The Clangers theme tune takes me back to childhood. Certain rock songs remind me of adolescent mischief. I know exactly where I was when I heard about The Twin Towers tragedy. Similarly, smells take us back to happy times, whether it is the lavender perfume of Grandma’s handkerchief, the smell of hot dogs at the fairground or the aroma of Mum’s apple pie in the oven, we are transported instantly and memory is picture- clear.

But is nostalgia good for us? A 17th Century medical student first used the term nostalgia for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It was thought of as an illness, caused by demons. The word derives from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (pain), suggesting suffering due to a desire to return to a place of origin. However, modern thinking is that nostalgia makes people feel more socially connected to others.  This social connection boosts people’s positive feelings about themselves.

One of my neighbours has an old Ford Cortina she wants to sell and another neighbour longs to buy it, as it was the first car he drove when he was 18. Of course, he could own a modern car, one which is much easier to drive, more economical, but the idea of owning a defunct banger matters, quite simply, because nostalgia makes people feel good. Nostalgia is not merely for the older generations, either; I have heard twenty year olds wax lyrical about Pokémon, Beyblades, Wispa bars. People are nostalgic because reminiscing makes them feel happy about old times, and it allows us to share common feelings and experiences.

But nostalgia isn’t real, is it? Every time we recall an experience, the memory becomes a little distorted. It can be more positive, more negative; we even have the capacity to change things unintentionally. As time passes, the memory becomes further out of touch with reality and so it is hardly accurate or reliable, especially where emotions are concerned. But sentimental recollections often include anecdotes and memories of loved ones, which reinforce the social web that extends across people and across time. There is also evidence that nostalgia works towards counteracting depression. The act of reminiscing has been shown to neutralise loneliness and anxiety. When people speak fondly of the past, they also tend to become more hopeful for the future. So nostalgia can in fact be a healing and a bonding experience.

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So, on that note, I’ll wish everyone the very best for 2018. But when you find yourself reflecting back on your life, on those special moments, remember that you are finding value and meaning in it. You are reminding yourself that life so far has not been unfulfilled and you are looking forward to creating more fond and wonderful memories. So, enjoy remembering the past: and here’s to the future!

Amazing production of ‘Mother Courage’. It should be on national TV.

I took time out last weekend to see Josie Lawerence in Mother Courage. It was in a lovely little theatre in Southwark. I had front row seats, which is ideal for a Brecht play, to be able to take in every facial expression. I couldn’t understand why the theatre was three quarters full: tickets were only ten pounds each. But the play was a real gem.

Mother Courage and her Chidren is a play by Bertolt Brecht, set in  Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Mother Courage is a canteen woman who pulls her cart with her three children, Eilif, Kattrin, and Swiss Cheese. Following the army, she lives by trading with the soldiers and attempting to profit from the war. To her, war is her living but making money costs her dearly in the long run .

The play is typical of  Brecht: his epic theatre was a phenomenon arising in the early to mid-20th century,  responding to the political climate of the time. It educates through the medium of entertaining; it’s political theatre.

I once directed The Mother, another play by Brecht and it was greeted by two typical responses. One was from audience members who thought that it was a serious play, too political, dull, lacking frivolity and entertainment. The other was that it was pertinent, moving and important.

Josie Lawrence’s Courage straddles both audience viewpoints. With lively music and lots of laughs, she and her cast entertain as Brecht intended, but the strong political message about capitalism and profiteering, poverty, war and exploitation is central.

I remember as a teacher of theatre, working hard  to enable students to understand the individual style of Brecht. I wish I could have taken them to see this production. Mother Courage embodied all Brechtian theories, from Gestus to alienation. It was funny, poignant, tragic and beautifully performed by a team of talented actors, headed by the superb Josie Lawrence.

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There were magical moments, from raunchy song and dance routines, to Courage’s devastating silent scream when Swiss Cheese dies; from Kattrin’s martyrdom to the final seminal image of Courage pulling the cart, her personal ball and chain. With the fourth wall broken, the actors would share jokes and biscuits and eye contact with the audience. There was one wonderful moment where Mother Courage put out a hand towards the person next to me, begging for support, as she trudged on alone.

The production has now finished but I hope someone decided to film it. I hope it’ll be streamed to cinemas. Apart from it being full of accomplished performances,  it is an important play. The storyline is gripping and Brecht’s words are perfectly translated by Tony Kushner, a playwrite I adore for his best works, Angels in America and A Bright Room Called Day.  (Apparently, he’s currently busy writing a play about Donald Trump.)

I hope Mother Courage tours the country and packs huge theatres. It’s one of those plays I’d love everyone to see. Sadly I suspect this production won’t be seen again. I’d love it to be on TV over Christmas, so that everyone could watch it from the comfort of an arm chair. But I fear it wouldn’t compete with Corrie or Strictly.

Brecht intended his plays to be for the masses, so it’s ironic that only a few theatre-goers will have witnessed this brilliant and thought provoking production. But then that’s the moot point, isn’t it? Audiences for whom it was intended will never see it.

I’ll leave you with some ironic lines from Mother Courage and let my readers decide if it’s still a relevant must-see play after almost eighty years. Does it still resonate?

What they could use around here is a good war. What else can you expect with peace running wild all over the place? You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization. And when do you get organization? In a war. Peace is one big waste of equipment. Anything goes, no one gives a damn.