To care or not to care, that is the question….

When I was in my teens, I had a boyfriend – let’s call him Alexander – who told me ‘You care too much about people who don’t matter.’ I was intrigued by that comment and, being a bit of a philosopher, I went away and thought about it a lot. The first bit, I accepted: I maybe do care too much. According to my mother, I was ‘too sensitive.’ I wrote poems, didn’t eat meat, joined political groups that campaigned for fairness, inclusion and equality. I cared, and maybe it was too much at times, but I was a teenager, and passionate. However, the next part of Alexander’s sentence bothered me a lot. ‘…about people who don’t matter.’  I gave that quite a lot of thought. Who decides who matters and who doesn’t? Why do some people matter more than others? What defines the ones who don’t matter? And doesn’t that mean that someone should start to care about those side-lined people? Needless to say, I was a bit unimpressed, and Alexander and I didn’t last very long after that statement.

Of course, I grew up and I realised that what he was probably talking about was simply learning to prioritise. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant that he thought I should prioritise the good people, family, friends, my boyfriend… People who were first in the queue as recipients of my kindness were those I should care about first and, if there was space left over, I could then offer a bit of thought and benevolence for those I didn’t know well, or at all.

Alexander’s criteria for judgement were not mine: I wanted to reserve the right to care about who I liked, to be charitable, thoughtful, to seek out people who I may want to care about for reasons that were my own. And that didn’t just extend to people I knew, but to hordes of people I’d never meet, but who have reasons to be considered and supported.

Through experience, I’m beginning to learn that, had Alexander substituted the word people for the word things, he’d have been spot on. I definitely am learning to care less about things that don’t matter. That’s so important. And I’m getting quite good now at deciding which things to prioritise and which to ignore, which to give credence to and which not to even think about twice.

In a room in my house, I have several inspirational posters, ranging from Just Write and You’ve Got This to quotations by Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath. But on my desk, I just have one inspirational message, that urges me in quite clear language to care less about things that don’t matter. In short, that includes everything negative that worries me, everything I can’t change, everything temporary and secondary, that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter. I might learn from these negative things, I might even consider them for a moment, but I won’t care. I include things like mistakes and criticism, (I’m only human and I’ll learn from them, but I don’t need to beat myself up,) negative opinions from people I don’t know, irrelevant things like cars and hoovering, that sort of thing. And it’s really useful to have that reminder on my desk when I’m stuck on the phone trying to talk to some provider or another, and I’ve been waiting for twenty-five minutes listening to the worst possible music. It’s not a priority. I leave the phone on speaker and go back to my typing. In those cases, caring less is a blessing.

So, back to Alexander, all those years ago. He was only young, and I’m sure what he meant could be summed in the words, ‘think about the effect that caring has on you yourself.’ Perhaps he was just being caring. And perhaps he had a point, but didn’t phrase it right. So, wherever he is now, I hope he’s caring about all the people in the world who matter. That’s pretty much everybody. And I hope he’s happy.

Note to myself as this time of restrictions comes to an end…

Like many people, I have dreamed and planned for a long time what I’ll actually do to celebrate when the time of Covid restrictions comes to an end. I haven’t spoken to most of these people face to face, of course, but at a social distance and, more times than not, over social media. There’s been a lot of talk about how we’ll enjoy throwing away face masks, meeting friends down the pub, hugging beloved and much missed relatives and going to gigs and theatre again. Planning holidays is a favourite topic – there are so many places we’ll be so desperate to go. And it’s no surprise. Once restrictions are lifted, it’s natural to want to live a little, a lot, to catch up, to make up for lost time.

Many people have started celebrating already – I have friends who’ve been to the theatre, to football matches, who have taken off on motor home holidays across the UK. Once we’re double-jabbed and we feel safer to be out and about, we’ll all deserve to have a good time. I’ve done my best to start getting back to normal – I’ve met up with relatives I haven’t seen in too long; I’ve organised to go away for weekends in the van.

But, as August approaches, something unexpected has crept in to slow my plans down. I just don’t seem to be able to organise anything. I’m a sociable person; there are so many people I’ve missed, so why am I not rushing to email, phone and text them to arrange visits, invite friends round for dinner? And the answer is very simple – torpor.

I don’t understand it. There are so many people I’d love to see again. We message each other regularly, exchange views about books, tell each other we’re dying to catch up and send streams of emojis. So why am I filled with a lethargy that tells me I can sort it all out tomorrow? It doesn’t make sense.

Unless, perhaps, the restrictions we’ve been living under have somehow seeped through our skin and made us feel that this old way of life, being separate and distant, is now normal. This strange hesitation to ring friends and throw our arms around them is due to the fact that we haven’t thrown our arms around them for far too long. Coronavirus has had the effect of continued electric shock treatment and, like the babies in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are afraid to reach out and grab that which we want in the fear of being stung again. What happens if there is another spike of the virus?

Or perhaps the torpor is really not torpor at all, but a learned lethargy? We’ve sunken into a habit of slobbing around the house in pyjamas, taking zoom calls half-dressed. Someone told me recently that they were nervous about going back to work in an office because they hadn’t worn ‘normal clothes’ in so long. Being among people again and relearning the codes we readily accepted before may be more difficult to assimilate than we realise. It’s as if the skills to socialise and the impetus to resume a normality have become temporarily dormant.

Of course, so many key workers put their heads down and worked on while many others of us have stayed at home: thoughts of getting back to normal are not happening to them because they’ve had to run on the treadmill of a strange new normal for the last eighteen months. For that we will all be eternally grateful.

But what about my social life, the one that I’ve left on the shelf to sort out tomorrow, or soon, or some time in the future? I have so many friends on social media that I talk to regularly, but that’s no replacement for real life eye-to eye contact, that exciting buzz of live meeting of minds and sharing of thoughts and ideas. I’ve said too many times, ‘we must meet soon,’ ‘we must get together.’ Now I need to actually do something about it. I need to invite people round, meet them for coffee, dinner, walks, whatever. I need to get my old life back, and soon, while I can. I’ve used work, deadlines, time frames, distance and Covid as excuses for far too long and that has to stop.

So, whether it is lethargy, torpor or the fact that I need to change from the old tattered vest and shorts into proper clothes and actually put some shoes on, I need to be active. Then, and I’m sure everyone understands this feeling, when I’m back to normal and laughing and enjoying the company of friends, I’ll wonder what held me back and why it took me so long.

The Triumph of the England Football Team

Like many people in England, I stayed up late to watch the exciting match between England and Italy and, like many people, I have been aware of the aftermath this morning on the news: I usually listen to a sports channel in the gym and the programme was full of regrets because the team lost and bad news because a minority of fans have been disrespectful.

England lost. They played well, especially in the first half, and they held their opponents to a draw in extra time, meaning that there woud be a penalty shoot out, the most random coin-tossing way to end a game. Then three young English men, two in their early twenties and one just nineteen, took the last three penalties and failed to score.

Of course, after a game, the mamager takes all the responsibility on his shoulders and pundits are ready to criticise the fact that three youthful and less experienced players were left exposed to failure. Southgate himself, when he was a player, missed a vital penalty in an important match, plunging his team into a situation where they lost the game.

Against that background, and I’m sure Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, are smarting today, there has been horrendous online racial abuse and camera footage of fans breaking into Wembley and behaving badly. Who’d be proud to be English today?

The answer is, the England team and the whole country should be proud of the achievement. There are so many positives to be taken from one narrowly lost match. We should not spend time and give credence to the negative behavour that accompanies the beautiful game. Thesr people are a minority, and do not represent the sport at all, although I hope the online abusers are taken to task and given a thorough programme of re-education – it has to stop.

I’ve never been a great England fan, although I do support my own Premiership team. But England as a team never really grabbed me. In my youth, the national flag didn’t signify much to me. I don’t need to mention some of the negatives that have come from certain flag wavers in the past. So, while I was happy when England did well, I wasn’t particularly moved by their losses.

This England team are different. They promote values that England, or any other national team would be proud of: Marcus Rashford’s tireless work for families in food poverty; Mason Mount visiting sick children in hospital; Jordan Henderson’s rainbow laces in his boots; Kalvin Phillips wearing a shirt with ‘Granny Val’ on the back, in memory of his grandmother. This team are a flagship for inclusion, equality and fairness in society and for me, that is England’s triumph. Forget the foolish few who still use sport as an occasion to be unpleasant. We should celebrate the positives. We have a team of young men who are heroes. They played heroically and the three young lads who stepped up to take those penalties demonstrated three singular acts of bravery.

As a team, England were seen as a united, inclusive and supportive group of men. Gareth Southgate, their manager,was a spokesman throughout for positivity and fairness. The players spoke lucidly about the values they promoted and I couldn’t help but admire them and get behind the team.

England will play again and become a better team for this experience: they are a young squad and they promote a culture where failure is not simply failure, it is a step towards success in the learning process. Yes, it hurts now, but they will be stronger and better for it. That doesn’t help much today – the team came very close to lifting a trophy, incredibly close. Today they will lick their wounds and wonder, if only…

But some of the images that come from the England fans, not the negative ones but the ones that make me cheer, are so important. The Muslim primary school kids in the classroom cheering the team on. The woman in the hijab who said that she suppoorts England because the team represent her. The woman who spoke on TV about being Raheem Sterling’s neighbour, how he used tho kick his ball over her garden as a kid and politely ask for it back. The England team have brought humanity, equality and fairness to football and they are a team who truly represent a country: they are brave, humble, tenacous, focused, fair, survivors.

I believe the England team will be a force to be reckoned with in the World Cup next year. And, whether they are successful or not, each team member should be proud of his achievements. Who says football doesn’t represent the best of a country? These young men were certainly some of the best and I am impressed, not just by their heroic performance, but for the people they are and the positive values they have made England’s throughout their campaign. Long may it continue.

The treasure inside the nutshell: talent that goes unnoticed.

It’s interesting to think about talented people and to stop for a moment and really take in just how good they are, in terms of their skills being so much more than what we know as average. I often use myself as the average against which to compare others, but in many ways, I don’t even make the average mark.

I like running a bit, not a lot: I can run along a beach for a mile or so, simply because of the freedom and the fresh air and the sound of the sea – it sort of buoys me along. But at speed, or for the duration of a marathon? No way. I look at the Paula Radcliffes of this world with awe – I’d never be that good, not if I trained for a millennium. And other sports men and women amaze me: Trent Alexander Arnold is only 22 years old – do you remember that perfect corner kick against Barcelona? And look at Tour de France riders, each gruelling day in the heat and the mountains, and those scary descents? I’m not even average when it comes to a comparison with those fit and courageous people.

Let me try and find an average – I have an A level in Art. I’m an average painter, perhaps. Or I used to be – I’m way out of practice and I never considered myself to be particularly good. So, if I go to an art gallery, it doesn’t matter who I look at – Turner, Van Gogh, Tracey Emin – the artists have so much more skill than I do. Or Music – I love music, and I dabble very badly and inconsistently. Then I consider the skills of real musicians, classical, rock, jazz, and I’m way below average. Again, I’m awestruck by the jaw-dropping skills.

I’ve just read Sarah Winman’s novel, Still Life. Utterly gob smacked. She’s taken her writing to another level. True talent absolutely sings.

Which leads me to wonder whether those special people, those with huge talent, magnificent skills beyond us all, will always rise to the top. Talent always shines, of course. But is it necessarily the case that everyone will see it?

No, it isn’t. Van Gogh, the ‘misunderstood genius,’ only sold one painting in his lifetime. Emily Dickinson’s incredible poems were edited furiously to conform to society’s norms and then only seven of them were published. Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t afford food, and died an impoverished alcoholic, yet he was one of the first to introduce the world to his stylised detective-fiction stories. My favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, published only a few of his poems during his brief life: he died of typhoid in 1889, his last words being ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’ He was bipolar and had battled depression. But his poems are stunning.

So, it follows that there are some super-talented people out there who are seldom noticed. At least Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson became famous for their genius, albeit after they had died. But there are many incredibly talented people whose skills remain unsung. I’m sure of it – I taught theatre to so many kids who had no idea of their potential and little in the way of self-belief to push beyond the expected ceiling they felt kept them and their expectations low.

My brother is one such person – a blinkered secondary school ignored his many abilities. He can do things that amaze me, both in terms of painting and engineering and in logical thinking, but of course that goes unrecognised when the only expectation of a  student is to be quiet, to conform and to copy from a book. No wonder he was a rebel.

And there’s a friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention as it will embarrass him. We worked together for years. He was a lowly paid technician and jack-of-all-trades who was asked to perform appliance tests and fix small electrical faults. But on sports days, open days, publicity opportunities or at theatre events, a huge burden of work was thrown at him because of his talent, because he was the only one capable of shining. It was seldom recognised, apart from a bit of fleeting thanks or a brief flurry of quickly-forgotten compliments, but the man was a genius. He produced lighting sets, films, recordings of exceptional quality without the proper equipment; sometimes he resorted to using his own equipment, or even having to buy it. The world took him for granted. ‘Oh, could you just… it will only take a minute.’

Then this exceptional man, a gifted musician, a film maker in his own right, would be given a mammoth task, a short deadline, no financial recompense, no change of status, and he’d come up with breath-taking work beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He was way, way beyond the average, and he certainly surpassed his pay grade and everyone’s expectations. Let’s hope he’ll be remembered for it properly at some point…

Unsung geniuses are amongst us everywhere. They may seem insignificant to others, like the small kernel of a nutshell, but they are made of solid gold. I could mention a musician I know who is such a focused maestro he can’t operate a mobile phone. I know writers, actors, editors, teachers, nurses, engineers, people whose gifts are magical and a joy to behold, and yet these people remain humble, unaware of the extent of their gifts and often underappreciated.

So, this blog post is for you all, those of you who maybe don’t even know how special you are, how strongly your gifts shine, how you are so far beyond the average, you are solid gold, you are diamonds. I can’t remember who said it, but this quotation puts you right up there, where you should be. And thank you for sharing your gifts – you make the world a wonderful place.

‘Skill reaches the ceiling, talent reaches the mountaintop, excellence reaches the sky, but genius reaches the stars.’

The immersion technique – it’s one way to write your next novel…

I have a friend who claims to have completely cured her arthritis by swimming in the sea, whatever the weather. Her pains completely disappeared, and she swore that it was because she immersed herself regularly in freezing water. I recently saw British athlete Mo Farah and Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo do something similar on TV, sitting in a bath of ice so that they could recover quickly and remain toned and fit. I have read that ice baths bring so much benefit to fitness: apparently, regular immersion in ice eases sore and aching muscles, helps the central nervous system, limits the body’s inflammatory response.

I have to confess, I like the heat more than cold: saunas, sunshine, jacuzzi baths, hot water bottles. I prefer to immerse myself in warmth, although I’m sure there are no benefits, other than that lovely feeling of sumptuous luxury and pampering, the sense of indulging in something that makes me feel good.

Like a relaxing hot stones massage, a glass of wine or two, the company and conversation of beloved friends and family stretching into the early hours of the morning, immersing oneself in something to the exclusion of everything else is really therapeutic and brings benefits, both to physical or mental health and wellbeing.

So, what if it is the same in writing? I know so many writers who claim they can’t get started on a new novel, or they can’t continue once started: they run out of impetus and enthusiasm, or they run out of time.

Then again, I know so many writers who don’t: an idea grabs them and they run with it and keep going and going. So begins the writer’s immersion technique.

I am one of those people who begins a project and, if it grabs me, I can immerse myself in it. I don’t mean doing labours of necessity like domestic chores, gardening or hoovering, things I have to do but they are, honestly, only done because if I don’t do them, we’ll starve or the house will collapse. I mean, when something really grabs the interest, it’s hard to put it down. When I write a novel, the computer is like a magnet and I can’t pull myself away. I have to immerse myself in the characters and their escapades until I’ve finished, then I go back and edit over and over.

But my last two novels have been, even more, about complete and utter immersion. I wrote one in six weeks not long ago: the three characters just wouldn’t leave me alone. It was the first time I’d worked for seven days a week, ten hours a day, since I was teaching theatre and that was complete immersion too. It was exhausting, writing non-stop, I’ll admit – 100,000 words in six weeks, or forty-two days. But the novel really grabbed me and I missed meals and TV and a social life to write it. No, it was worse that that: people would speak to me and I wouldn’t reply – I didn’t hear, I was so involved in what I was doing, nothing external had a chance. The characters woke me up in the night to debate their next move; writing their antics on the page came out faster than my fingers could type and I just couldn’t walk away from it all. My shoulders were knotted, my eyes blurred, but I had to keep going. And now it’s finished, I’m pleased with it: readers can decide for themselves if they like it when it comes out in winter.  As yet I only have a working title… three very different women, a staycation or two…

Then there’s the ghost novel I am writing, which involves lots of research. Immersion again – more missed meals, more unresponsive conversation, more typing and reading and rubbing of sore eyes from dawn to midnight. Immersion is such good fun and, like a good book, it’s unputdownable, although it’s also antisocial, and the level of absorption can’t really go on indefinitely or there would be consequences to things like marriage and friendships and cats being fed.

But, like Mo and Ronaldo’s ice-filled bath, it’s very refreshing and a wonderfully intense way to work, a therapy that has the benefits of a whole rush of ideas and enthusiasm, and leaves one feeling like a happy kid at the centre of their own birthday party.

Being involved in a project to the exclusion of everything else is great fun; it brings results in terms of output and productivity. I have a book that I’m pleased with, two, in fact, so I can give myself permission to take a breather now. Like a sprint, it is fast and full-on, then afterwards time is needed to recuperate and become fresh again, ready for the next full pelt.

But immersion can only be a temporary and sporadic thing. Writing can be a selfish occupation: I’ve even been at social events where my head has been plotting the next move when it should have been fully attentive to other people. And selfishness isn’t good, nor is obsessive devotion to just one thing. I’m all for immersive writing – it works for me and as a writer, you have to do just that, gauge what works for you and follow your own path. We shouldn’t seek to be the same as each other or influence others to tread the same road just because it works well for us. But now it’s time to let go, walk away, to do something else for a week or two, chill out a bit and get a life.

Because, as we all know, the benefit of time away, relaxation and mental stillness will bring in new ideas, new plots, new characters.

Then I can start all over again…

What I’m writing at the moment…

I know I’m blogging here about the novels I’m currently working on, but let’s not start with what I’m writing just yet – I’ll get on to that in a moment – let’s just set the scene first. I’m lucky to be way ahead on all writing schedules and outside right now, the weather is gorgeous; it’s just vest and shorts all day, and I’ve lost my pink crocks somewhere so I have no shoes… what else can I do but laze around in the sun with the cats? Colin, Monty and Murphy, by the way, are rolling in the dust like three unhappy slugs – it’s too warm for black cats.

Plus, I’ve been reading a lot: novels by Louise Doughty, Matt Haig, Sarah Winman, Ali Smith, Owen Mullen, Shari Low. I have a must-read pile as tall as I am, (… not very tall but it’s still a huge pile of books,) and basking in the sunshine with a book is my idea of heaven, or at least one idea of heaven – there are so many more…

Plus, the Euros (UEFA European Championships) are on TV and the radio in the afternoons and evenings, and it’s a big temptation to watch or listen to the football commentary. I read almost all of The Midnight Library while listening to the Scotland v Czech Republic game and willing the Scots would score. I have no drop of Scottish blood in me, but after so many years of their absence from world championships, I really wanted to see the Tartan Army get a goal.

So, here I am, lazing around in tattered grey shorts and a vest that proclaims me the best bass player in the world – (I can play the bass to Thin Lizzie’s Dancing in the Moonlight on a good day, but I’m way down the pecking order when it comes to skill, and I don’t practise nearly enough, mainly because I’m too busy writing…) – and I’m doing well in terms of deadlines. The edits have been done for Lil’s Bus Trip, which is out in August. That’s the story of 82-year-old Lil and her daughter Cassie, two feisty women who go on a bus trip to Northern Europe with a bus load of interesting characters and, while they are enjoying the journey and getting up to mischief, they find out a bit more about themselves and what they want from life.

I’ve written the next novel, which hasn’t a title yet but I wrote it in a can’t-keep-away-from-the-laptop fit of passion and I’m very happy with the story of three women who emerge from lockdown with the intention of celebrating their freedom. More of that one soon, except that it’s out later this year, and I’m so excited about it. I’ve also written the next novel after that, but I’ll keep that for another blog as it’s not out until 2022.

Then, here’s the big one from me, I’ve just finished a novel in another genre. 109,000 words of something the wonderful Boldwood Books have encouraged me to write, something that I hope will appeal to readers who enjoy two timelines and a shiver or two down the spine. I have thoroughly enjoyed, relished and adored the opportunity to write this new novel, which will be under a different name (one similar to my grandma’s,) and I’m currently editing it like mad. I can’t say just how thrilled I am to be able to write this type of book and I do hope everyone will love it. Updates coming soon.

Summer brings distractions, and that’s why I write for so many hours in the winter. When the sun is shining and the road is open, and I can go walking or take the van or find a beach, it’s a temptation to be outdoors, especially since many new ideas come to me when I’m in calm and beautiful surroundings.

Also, I’ve had both vaccines now, with interesting side effects. The first one made me giggle non-stop at any opportunity for two days, just like being drunk but without the hangover. The second made me fall asleep all the time – I was truly shattered for half a week. But now, I’m back, full of energy, changing up what I eat so that there’s more protein and more colour in every meal, less alcohol (really!!) and I’m ready to enjoy the summer.

Last weekend, when I was out walking in the local woods with Murphy, one of my cats, a new idea came to me involving something local, that I’ll keep under wraps for the time being – I’ll let it ferment for a few weeks, let the characters form, and then I’ll sit down when the weather isn’t so hot and the football isn’t on, and I’ll write and write and write.

Of course, by then we may have live music and live theatre – there will be so many distractions.

 But there’s nothing as distracting as a new idea and the mad desire to write it all down….

On the Road Again.

This week the sunshine came at last and promised to stay for a while: I spent the weekend sorting out the van, with the hope of getting back on the road soon. My year usually starts in early spring but there have been a few universal problems with getting out and about for a few months…

There was a lot to be done, too: there were masses of dead flies like spilled raisins all over the floor, lodged in every crevasse; the fridge was empty, holding a sour smell and a few splodges of something unappetizing, green mould blotching the yellowing white plastic interior. I washed all the stale bedlinen, fixed the drooping blinds and dusty curtains. The winter rain had seeped through the corner of the over-cab bed, leaving a green smudge that stank of old potatoes against the ceiling. Windows and doors were flung wide to encourage fresh air to fill spaces: everywhere was hoovered, including dusty rugs, crumpled cushions and seats, even the tiny shower cubicle.

Long-lost things were discovered again: books, a bottle of rosé wine, Marmite, knickers, a sock. My note pad and pen that I use to scribble down any bright ideas that might come my way while I’m travelling were stuffed in the cupboard alongside several tins of beans and a bag of rice: all needs must be catered for when I’m away, and that includes food and food for thought – which reminds me, I’ve bought a DAB radio and the next job will be to install it.

I have various trips lined up, many already planned to research locations for a new book. There will be a trip to Cornwall, one to South Wales, another to North Yorkshire. I want to go to Scotland again. I have clear ideas about what will happen in each place, and I know the characters that will be involved. All I need to do now is to stand on a beach somewhere and let all the thoughts come together, like a stirred pot.

June 21st is a landmark day. I’ll have had both vaccinations, so I could travel anywhere in England as long as I’m sensible. My first trip will be to get up at ridiculous o’clock and drive to somewhere that I can climb up a hill and watch the sun rise. Solstice is a time I usually make a big wish and this year I’ll go in the van, because I can. Then it has to be breakfast on a beach somewhere or, who knows, maybe even in a café. A year ago, who’d have imagined what a massive treat that would be – I haven’t had breakfast ‘out’ in more months than I can count on both hands.

The absence of travel has prompted me to think how important it is to make the most of each precious moment. Time is too busy to stand still. There are places to see, people to meet, fun to be had, memories to make. I won’t go abroad this year, although I’d love to. But there are so many beautiful places to visit in this country, some I’ve never been to, and other places where there are dear friends I haven’t seen in far too long. I’m even thinking of paying a visit to the small place where I was born and smile at how much or how little has changed – I haven’t been back for too long. Wherever I go, I will take happiness and laughter with me – that’s my only rule.

If it’s sunny, I’ll celebrate and if it rains then I’ll dance in puddles. The joy of it is all…

On Writing: why writing comedy can be so fascinating

Based on my radio interviews with SoundArt Radio and the wonderful Julie Mullen, here’s a blog post about writing comedy, whatever that might mean. I’ve been told that one genre I write might be termed ‘romantic comedy’, and so I’m always interested to talk about what makes people smile, what is uplifting, what is a laugh out loud moment and what, in fact, is one person’s idea of totally hilarious and not another’s. Comedy is such a diverse and fascinating subject, so here goes….

Recently, I watched a film at home on TV. It was called What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson, a romantic comedy in which Mel’s character is suddenly able to hear women’s private thoughts and respond by changing his behaviour, making him a much more attractive prospect. It wasn’t a film for me, although it’s very popular, but I didn’t find it funny at all. While others might have found it hilarious, I thought the main character wasn’t very engaging, but a little arrogant and disrespectful, and therefore I coldn’t invest in his relationships, even though he did become more empathic.

The same is true for other comedy films that have entertained millions: I didn’t enjoy Blazing Saddles, The Man with Two Brains, Porky’s, Bruno, The Forty Year Old Virgin. They are all popular and celebrated comedies, but I couldn’t raise a smile. Everyone’s idea of what is hilarious is not the same.

Then again, films that make me laugh include In Bruges, Withnail and I, Duck Soup, The Birdcage, The Dressmaker. I wouldn’t expect everyone else to find them as funny as I do: humour is a very personal thing. What one person finds warm, amusing or side-splitting, another person might not understand why it is comic.

It follows then that writing comedy for a novel is a very personal thing and not everyone will be similarly tickled by a particular character or a scene. My background in theatre taught me exactly that: Malvolio rushing on stage in yellow stockings or Widow Twankey rushing off stage in a blue wig and curlers will not make everyone smile. Some people won’t ‘get’ it; some may actively dislike it. What some find hilarious, others may find pointless, annoying or even offensive: just think of the Carry on… series as an example. Humour may be all about character, context, timing, language, but it’s also incredibly varied and personal: I recall one time trying to explain to ten mystified seventeen year old boys why Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard was considered a comedy and having to redefine what comedy means. Not anyone’s finest moment.

Talking recently to several writers in my writers’ group about comedy recently made for a very interesting discussion. We started to discuss books that made us smile and why. I adore novels by Roddy Doyle and Jonathan Safran Foer: they keep me entertained in very different ways, although with both writers, the humour comes from character, language and context. There seem to be less funny women writers, if you don’t count novels by comediennes and actors.

For me there are several lines I don’t want to cross when writing amusing scenes: I don’t like mocking a character or making them appear foolish; I don’t like humour that is schadenfreude, that enjoys others’ downfalls or problems. Bawdy humour doesn’t always raise a laugh for me and needs to be used sparingly. After that, I’m happy to embrace most techniques to make writing amusing.

Perhaps comic writing starts with tone: humour can be gentle and tentative, raising a smile, or it can be in-your-face situation comedy. Both can work well in the same novel, as variety is quite important. Laughing out loud is great at times when a novel offers mischief or a really comic moment – think Bridget Jones at her most wildly ridiculous – or when Dilly pulls down the instructor’s salopettes (Heading over the Hill), or when Bisto bares all for Barbara at the fête (The Old Girls’ Network).

Not all humour has to be racy. I like poignant, gentle comedy: think of Notting Hill or Cher’s Moonlight. Warm humour doesn’t have to be raucous: when Evie first meets Jean Luc and they banter and share a drink in his vineyard (A Grand Old Time), or when Rose goes on stage to perform with Greta Manchester in Paris, (Five French Hens) it may simply raise a smile. I like humour that comes from language, such as Nanny Basham’s malapropisms (The Age of Misadventure), or from ludicrous farcical situations, such as Barbara’s bedroom strip, (The Old Girls’ Network), or Molly dressing as a fish, (Chasing the Sun).

Humour works best for me when there’s contrast in the rest of the novel – it can be hard work, non-stop laughing. I like to balance comic moments with moments of pathos, wisdom, contemplation or realisation. My novels are generally about older characters’ journeys, about self-discovery, the importance of fun and adventure, the capacity to grow and the opportunity for new chances. It is logical then that there will be amusing moments and moments that aren’t funny at all. It’s a balance I enjoy in novels I read – even in the saddest stories, there can be a moment that makes us smile. 

In The Color Purple, a powerful novel that deals with racism and domestic violence, there is a moment of pure joy when Celie gleefully says of Old Mister, ‘Next time he come I’ll put a little Shug Avery pee in his glass’ (of lemonade). Humour takes many forms and can be hugely cathartic. In this instance, it hints at Celie’s strength, resilience and ability to stand up for herself against misogyny.

For me humour can be effective in many forms and it’s best when it feels natural and relevant to the character or the situation, and when it’s kind. I’ve never liked programmes like You’ve Been Framed, where people’s accidents or misfortunes create comedy. I like to write comic scenes where it’s part of a bigger picture, part of a character’s warmth or their dilemmas, their flaws or their emotional journey. Yes, there may be a bit of slapstick, perhaps the occasional racy moment, but there shouldn’t be anything that will threaten the kindness or positive philosophy that I hope will be the basis of the story. 

Of course, I am learning all the time, reading books, watching films, analysing what seems to work for me and for others, and what doesn’t. I try to expand horizons and discover new ideas. I won’t always get it right and I won’t always please everybody, but that’s in the nature of humour: it has a different appeal to different people.

I’m always warmed by the wonderful comments I have from readers, people who like my novels’ humour and who enjoy being entertained while also immersing themselves in a book about someone who is flawed, humanly vulnerable and who is chasing something important: the chance to start again, to change, to rediscover themselves. 

And if I can write something that is uplifting, feel-good and gently humorous, if I can create characters that entertain but are also, as one reader so kindly put it, ‘like dear friends,’ then that’s what I want to do more than anything.

On Writing: What the editing process is like for a writer?

Based on my radio interview on CakEhole last week with the wonderful Julie Mullen, I decided to write a blog post about editing. We discussed it on her show, as so often writers think it must be an awful process. The belief is: you’ve written it, so it must hurt to change it, right? Not at all. It’s about creating the best novel you can and a careful process and expert help is the best way to achieve it.

I really enjoy editing: I edit my work as soon as I start writing a novel, and during my writing, as I go through every chapter and check, revising and upgrading. I try to improve the novel as I go, and again after I’ve finished. There are even more improvements when an edit for the completed book comes back to me from the publisher. The later editing process can be a light task or sometimes I’m asked to look again at something more specific, like doing a little more work on a character. But editing is a mental exercise I absolutely love.

One of the questions I’m often asked by other writers in writing groups is about how authors react to being asked to edit their work. Some people seem to think that having an editor make suggestions for improvements is somehow a criticism or an invasion of the creative process, that an outsider is interfering with some precious finished piece of art. That’s not at all the case: writing 90,000 words of a novel means that it won’t come out perfect the first or second time of checking through and all writers want to make a story as good as they can for their readers.

Some writers use beta readers; they’ll ask trusted friends, family, or they’ll pay professionals to read their work and give them feedback. The first consideration is that the story, the characters, setting and the themes will work for a reader. Then the written style of the piece will need to be improved: all writers make mistakes. Repetition of words and phrases may occur, or important exposition details may be omitted and will need to be added in for clarity and the best effect. Then there are the sentences that don’t sound right: a better choice of word may make all the difference. That’s before we start on the typing errors and the flying commas.

Working towards deadlines can be stressful, and perhaps sometimes writers fear that their current book won’t be as exciting as their last, or that they’ll never be finished on time. But that’s what our editors are for – to keep us safe from getting things wrong. 

Editors are great people: I work with editors who are really better than great, who mix positivity with honesty so that I’m alerted to how I can make my story the best it can be. After all, the most important thing for any writer is that readers enjoy the finished story and can relate to the characters.

The writer does all of the work to think up an idea, a theme, characters, then shapes and creates the novel. I’ve had edits where I’ve hardly had to change a thing. A clean edit is wonderful as there only remains basic work to do, but a story and a style can always be improved. 

On occasions an editor might say ‘Have you considered…?’ Then there’s always a penny-dropping moment, the total realisation that two heads are better than one, a concern that has already been wriggling in the back of my mind comes to the front and it’s really clear that a small change is the big difference that will make a more satisfying outcome. 

I love the mental challenge of editing: it can be quite emotional though, as a writer has to immerse herself fully in the whole novel and it’s always hard work, reading the same chapters over and over and upgrading until it’s right. But it’s a pleasure, not a chore. More than that, it’s a chance to learn. Writers pick up on their own regular mistakes and therefore will make them less frequently; they pick up on habits and rethink them. And as my mum used to say, practise makes perfect or, in my case, it makes progress. I love the idea that I get to know myself better as a writer through the editing process, and that I can become a bit better at what I love; I can become sharper. 

An edit is to be embraced, not feared. It’s really very enjoyable and therapeutic, like spring cleaning the house but without all the boring cleaning. So, for all writers out there who are anxious about the editing process or think it may be onerous, please don’t worry. It’s our chance to shine brighter, to learn to hone our skills, and to work with gifted and experienced professionals whose one aim is to support our work, to enable the finished article to be even better. I believe editing is a blessing, not a bane, a lesson, not a chore.

Bring it on! It might even be fun.

On Writing: the importance of setting

Once a week, on a Wednesday, I appear on a community radio show, ‘CakEhole with Julie Mullen,’ and we talk about all things to do with novels and writing for fifteen minutes. It is one of the highlights of my week as Julie is so much fun to chat with. Based on our conversations, I thought I’d blog a little about the craft of writing.

I’ve belonged to several writing groups over the years and for me, it’s important to be part of a collaborative group that shares both the process and the end product of writing. During the MA, I realised how much better a writer I might become by working with other skilful, creative people. At that time, five years ago, I was lucky enough to know a group of writers that included performance poets and artists. I made great friends and was truly inspired at the same time. 

Then I moved house and sought out a new group to share ideas with. I fell on my feet when I discovered a local group, all keen, talented, and super-supportive. They write in a variety of styles and genres, which gives me much to think about and learn. They astound me every time I hear their work, helping me to consider the impact of my own writing and to constantly strive to make progress. At the moment we can’t meet regularly, but we post our writing on a Facebook page to each other once a month.

Recently I joined a Zoom writing group and that has been a really useful opportunity. Led by an experienced author, we share our work each week and we encourage each other to develop and learn. At the moment, we are discussing the importance of how writers use setting in novels and I’ve enjoyed listening to the many viewpoints. A book of our shared work will be published imminently.

One person in the group said she loved stories about locations she knew well: she found it satisfying to read about a familiar place, one that she’d visited herself. Someone else suggested that a completely new setting might be more interesting, dicovering a different place, a fresh experience. Then people considered fantasy settings, exotic settings and, of course, in this lockdown time, places where we dreamed of being.

Our discussion moved to how a setting can tell us something about the inhabitant, and we attempted the fun exercise of creating any setting we wished, then we would choose someone else’s location and create the character who might exist there. It was really interesting to read everyone’s ideas.

I selected another writer’s choice of a garden, where a hungry visitor had come to forage. It was, probably intended to be the home of an animal such as a fox or hedgehog, so I created a completely different character who was standing at the edge of this grassland, looking for food to feed her or his young.

Here is my response to the above stimulus:

He tugged the blanket around his shoulders as a blast of icy wind sliced through the thin fabric. The woollen hat warmed his scalp but his eyes watered and he still shivered. His skin was leathery now; the days in the camps, the exposure to wind and rain, then harsh sunlight, had made him tougher, leaner, and deprivation had brought a strange gleam to his eyes.

At least there was grass here in the garden. Back at the camp, it was just mud, tents and heaped rubble, little to eat, meagre shelter from the rain. Mahmoud and Amira needed food, they cried during the night and here, at the edge of a farm, there might be pickings. He was desperate; the raw, aching hunger in his belly was constant now.

He gazed down at his legs, thin as poles in torn jeans and, as he passed a hand across the roughness of his face, he recalled that back in Damascus he had filled his clothes well: he had taken pride in his trimmed beard and glossy hair. Even without a mirror, he knew that the itchy bristles beneath the hat held dirt, his cheekbones were sharp: a front tooth was missing: he rarely smiled now. But, even worse, pride, dignity had slunk from his shoulders, and a hunched man begging for food stood in his place at the edge of a desolate farm in Calais. Farid held himself stiffly against the cutting wind with no idea of what he would do next.

The reason I love working with this writing group so much is that we can examine the importance of elements of writing, like setting. We considered how much location influences us as writers, then we considered the impact of what we’d written on readers. We honed our own skills, shared our work and developed understanding of how setting can influence the readers’ experience or enjoyment of a novel.

A strong setting can transport a reader to a place where new and exciting experiences may readily happen: a setting may inspire dread or delight. Creating an interesting and appropriate location is part of a writer’s toolbox, to fire the reader’s imagination. In my latest novel, Chasing the Sun, setting is all-important: in these times where travel abroad is limited, a story where the central character has adventures in Spain and Mexico can transport readers to a sun-soaked destination where the sights, the food and the culture are absorbing.

As a writer, it’s really good fun to try and evoke different places, then the next step is to consider the characters who might inhabit them……