What the book I’m currently writing is about…

I always write a synopsis for my novel before I write the novel itself. There are two basic reasons for this: one is to communicate what I’m doing to the people I work alongside, so that they know what I’m writing. If my agent or publisher’s response was:  ‘Really? Are you mad?’ then I’d trust their judgement and rethink. Secondly, it’s a useful way of planning the ‘shape’ of the novel. Characters and situations may change as I write: ideas and solutions will become more apparent. But a synopsis is an interesting and useful initial exercise and one that is quite important in terms of an overview.

It’s quite hard writing a synopsis for a novel. First of all, you have to discipline your scattered thoughts, put events in order and give away all the good bits as it’s destined for the scrutiny of professional readers. It’s not a novel, where you create tension, where you might hint or signpost events to come or save the shocks until the end. You have to be clear, precise and factual. Then you have to consider how long you need the synopsis to be. The three-page synopsis has more detail than the 250-word synopsis, so what do you include and what minor points do you leave out? It’s interesting to write a synopsis in a sentence. Or explain the theme of the novel in five words. Or one. It all helps to make the writer become focused and clear about her or his intentions in the novel. I’ve written a synopsis for the novel I’m writing at the moment and it has helped me put my thoughts in order, enabling me to think not only about characters and action but about theme too.

A synopsis may be a brief explanation of the plot but it’s not, in essence, what the book is really about. A theme is what takes the storyline forward and gives it a perspective. Being clear about themes is important to me: it’s more about the emotional sense of the novel than the storyline. The storyline is led by the theme.

I’m 80,000 words into my latest novel, not far from the big finale, and it’s all chuntering along nicely. I know where it’s going and how it will end. I’ve known from the start that I like the characters and I understand their motivation, their flaws, their issues. In many ways, a novel is a journey. Characters go to places: they travel. I’m fond of travelling and, for me, setting and place are important, creating mood and giving me the chance to evoke an interesting location.

But characters also go on emotional journeys, journeys of self-discovery or they change their view of themselves or their world as the novel progresses. Moving forward is always a major theme in the book. Characters want something and throughout the novel, they seek to find it, whether ‘it’ is a second chance, a change of mind or simply that they are trying to make peace with themselves or with someone else. In many ways, all of my novels are about change and second chances.

The protagonists in this particular novel are a couple. It’s the first time I have focused on two people who are together in a relationship and are, mostly, happy. Their unhappiness doesn’t come from their partner; it comes from within themselves, from issues that need resolving. The protagonists’ story is a journey, a need for change: it’s about how people come to terms with the past and focus on enjoying the present.

The love interest in the novel is not only found in the two central characters that do, indeed, love each other and are fiercely loyal to each other: there are other characters who seek emotional fulfilment. There is a single lonely man who lives with his elderly mother: what would happen to her if he found love and left her alone? There is a married couple whose lives are bound by routine and they are deeply unhappy; they have unspoken issues to resolve based on their past and their inability to talk about it.

Another theme I often revisit is about judging and pre-judging. Prejudice arises from assumptions and fears and a lack of integration with or investment in the people who are misunderstood. One character in particular in my current novel is ready to assume the worst about others and he likes to find fault as it is only then that his own insecurities are temporarily masked: he is only comfortable when he can put someone else’s shortcomings into sharp focus.

Interestingly, I have spoken about what the novel is about without mentioning anything about the storyline. The story is the usual mix of humour and pathos I enjoy creating. There are, I hope, laugh-out-loud moments when the warm and loyal characters come together to enjoy mischief and frivolity. There are moments of sadness when characters have to deal with difficulties, human vulnerability and life’s ups and downs.

I have set previous novels in Dublin, the South of France, Paris, Brighton, London. The setting in this novel is not an exotic one this time, although I have a more colourful setting planned for the next novel and I’m currently researching it with the help of two intrepid voyagers. This novel is set in North Devon, against the backdrop of the ocean, sand dunes, country lanes and a busy terraced street of houses.

The ending of the novel is, as always, important in terms of resolution and the characters’ journeys and, at eighty thousand words, I will finish it over the next week. The synopsis deals with the climax of the novel in three sentences but I will enjoy the ten or fifteen thousand words it will take to bring the story to its conclusion.

Then comes the editing. I like to walk away from the computer, leave the novel for a while, and return to it freshly critical. Then I can go through it several times and see what needs changing.  If the novel is good, it will only be a matter of phrases, inaccuracies, details. If it’s not yet right, chapters will be shredded and characters will be overhauled. After all, it has to be as perfect as I can make it before it is edited again. Once a book is published, it’s no longer mine. I can’t change or improve it. It has been given away and, like all presents, it has to take the form of a gift that someone wants to own…

.

Advertisements

Several films I wouldn’t normally watch…

I work on the basic principle that novels and films are always valid if the person or people for whom they were created enjoy them. I’m not a fan of self-indulgence on the part of writers but I try never to criticise a genre because it isn’t for me, because there may be others who derive much more pleasure than I do from a film or a book and I’m simply not target audience.

My own taste in films is fairly broad. My favourite films range from Everything is Illuminated to In Bruges, from Withnail and I to Stuart: A Life Backwards, from Jean de Florette to Korkoro. I wouldn’t expect others to like the same films as I do. But, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I’m inquisitive, I like to watch things from other genres I might not necessarily like myself in order to expand how I view the world, although I do try to approach them positively and supportively.

Recently, because it was raining and I was on a running machine for a long time, I watched a few daytime romance films on television. I’m not sure what I expected but I was struck by the sameness of them all. The main protagonists were all women, mostly in their twenties, although one character was approaching forty and a single mum. The women were all modern, long haired, attractive, middle-class slim Caucasians, all heterosexual, with mostly professional jobs: actor, writer, film maker, editor, business woman, model, PhD, wedding planner, cup-cake maker. They had few defining characteristics either in terms of their personalities or their appearances: no-one had bright red hair, spectacles, Asperger’s Syndrome, a wheelchair, OCD, shyness. They all dressed uniformly smartly, drove tidy cars, lived in nice houses and had friends. None of them was, in fact, like me or anyone I know. The one thing the women had in common was a failed romance and the thrust of the storyline was, generally, that they weren’t looking for love so, clearly, the viewer expected them to find it by the end of the film.

The ‘male interest’ was invariably of a similar age, usually a bit older, Caucasian, professional, middle class, smart, etc etc. There were a couple of traits the men had which the women didn’t: a tendency to conceal their emotions, not to admit their feelings, or to be stubborn (in an attractively needy way…) There were no awkward men, thin men, unintelligent men, myopic men, stutterers. Mostly they had thick hair, cleanly parted, and square jaws. There wasn’t a bald man although one had a beard but that was because he was the outdoor type! They were all physically strong, with clearly defined leadership qualities. I found all of them boring.

To accompany the above minimal character differences, the story lines were very similar. The couple met, they didn’t get on well, then they pretended they didn’t get on well to cover their attraction to each other, then they fell out over a mistake or a misunderstanding, then in the final five minutes they admitted that they had feelings for each other. The final shot in every film was a kiss – on a boat, up a mountain, on a veranda, at a wedding – but it was always the final shot. This left me wondering what happened next, after the film: their lives would probably be happily predictable and bland. There was a tangible lack of passion, lust or genuinely deep feelings. It was as if life has to be sanitised within the boundaries of an underexplored romance story. It wasn’t for me.

So my most recent film exploration has been a foray into (sort of) action movies, ones with a bit of bloodshed and violence, which is, I suppose, the other side of the romance coin. Many of the storylines are equally predictable. Male heroes in this broad genre are invariably in charge, fearless Alpha males, all demanding a high status, strong and brave in the face of all types of danger. Women’s roles range from the kick-ass sidekick to the needy damsel or the corpse.

To a certain extent, the success of the movie depends on main character and plot. Based on this, for me, all films featuring Steven Seagal aren’t worth pursuing, due to the egocentricity of his roles and the marginalisation of all female characters.

One film I enjoyed was Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which is one of those rare second films that is as good as the first one. Due to a lively script, clever humour and a sparky character played by Taron Egerton, it is saved from being simply a parody, and some of the action scenes are well staged and funny. The cameo from Elton John is hilarious.

Even better is Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, which has a clearly political motive and achieves everything it intends to spectacularly and in a very moving way. It is violent, intelligent, scary in places, but based on real people in the real world and it is very cleverly contrived.

Bad Times at the El Royale was a strange film, a little Noir and very violent in the Tarantino style. At the beginning, I found it slow, but it developed into a more interesting film and by the end I thought I’d enjoyed it, as it was explosive and surprising. It was an example of a film you have to embrace from the outset, to make excuses for tropes and stereotypes as it goes along and invest in the characters and storyline: in short, I had to cut it some slack. It is long and indulgent but, by sticking with it, I managed to get something positive from watching it.

Another film in the category of ‘move the boundaries of your expectations before you start to watch’ is Venom. The film would have been silly but for Tom Hardy who managed to create the title role with sensitivity and quirky humour. He made it watchable in the sense that the viewer sympathised with his vulnerable and fair-minded character and therefore tolerated the screeching cartoon figure who yelled in his ear. I’m not sure if I’d watch a sequel, though.

Finally, I branched into fantasy/ action and watched Aquaman. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was interesting. The film had a thin storyline with strong female roles who stood persuasively behind their hero. Aquaman himself was a hybrid between Atlantan demi-god and American goofball. Tenuous links to Camelot were a bit obvious – his name was Arthur; he pulled out the trident that no-one had managed to pull before. Multilingual, with a classical home-education derived from his human father the lighthouse keeper, the character of Aquaman didn’t quite work for me, although the ‘save the planet’ references were very pertinent. The greatest success of this film was the huge number of people who must have been employed to create the impressive CGI. I’m a sucker for all that clever animation stuff and, watched in the cinema, the fragmented story line and token characters wouldn’t matter: the film was a spectacular triumph of scenery, colour and action.

It’s an interesting exercise, trying different genres one mightn’t be normally inclined to watch. I’ve done this with war films, Hitchcock, horror, western, Noir, old movies, fantasy and epics. I’m not sure where to go next. Science Fiction is often beyond my comprehension and I can’t sit through a whole film of Chicago or Wayne’s World. Right: historical it is then.

Some of the great books I’ve read this summer…

I’ve read several good books over the summer months. Choosing from a wide range of genres and topics, here are seven books I’ve really enjoyed for a variety of reasons and I recommend them all. The list is random – there is no rank order implied. J

 

  1. Le Vieux, Biographie d’un Youyou. Azzedine Grimbou / Michel Kokoreff.

 

I was given this little novel for my birthday and I love it. What a character – what a life he led! It’s in French so it’s really helped me learn a lot of interesting new expressions…

 

  1. Nervous Conditions,. Tsitsi Dangarembga.

 

I love everything by this novelist. She writes with a beautiful voice about woman’s issues and coming of age. A very introspective, informative story.

 

  1. How Not to Die. Michael Greger, MD.

 

This book underpins my own philosophy on eating cleanly. It is a wonderful idea, that we might be able to eat ourselves fitter or at least avoid certain complaints by eating certain foods! The writer has a nutritional science background, so it’s a useful lifestyle handbook. His style is colloquial and easy to read.

 

  1. The Marble Collector. Cecelia Ahearn

 

A friend of mine gave me this book, saying she ‘couldn’t get on with it.’ For me, this  demonstrates perfectly how negative reviews often don’t mean anything more than a mismatch between writer and reader. It’s a great story and so well written. I love it.

 

  1. The Summer of Second Chances. Maddie Please / The Drowned Village. Kath McGurl

 

Two books by two novelists I know and respect as writers. One story is bubbly, light-hearted and a fun summer read – the other is haunting and beautifully crafted.

 

  1. What Blest Genius? Andrew McConnell Stott.

 

This is a witty, well-researched and clever account of the 1769 Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee that brought Shakespeare to the foreground. It has an exciting cast of characters, including David Garrick and the ghost of Will himself.

Autumn is here – what will it bring, though?

I have to admit, I’m a summer person and the warmer months always seem to pass too quickly. It’s good to be outside in the sunshine, walking in the countryside, travelling to new places in the van, enjoying the open space on the beach. I love to cross the channel, go to France and beyond to favourite places. In spring and autumn, it’s still possible to do all these things, ignoring the extra layer of clothing you have to wear against the cooler weather, or just braving the elements. In winter, of course, it requires a mind-set change to enjoy walking in the cold and damp, but it’s possible to find joy in squelching mud and wet hair. I think that’s a good metaphor for life, trying to adjust to the climate, to external conditions and learning to celebrate them.

But September brings the autumn months and with it, Brexit. It is difficult to accept changes that almost half of us didn’t vote for, with the prognosis of food shortages, prescription shortages, higher prices, possible job losses and a great deal of uncertainty. A no-deal Brexit looms as a possibility. As a firm Remainer, I fear for the stability of my European friends in this country, for the stability of us all. I have enjoyed the right to be European for a long time. Those who voted Leave had no idea what quitting the EU would entail when they made a choice and there must be so many regrets from those voters now, since many people chose to leave Europe based on misinformation, lies and empty promises. We are living in difficult times where division of opinion, whatever party you support, is becoming the norm. There is anger, confusion and bitterness.

So, as winter approaches, I feel the need to search for positives. Cold weather, incessant rain and dark evenings don’t necessarily bring optimism. Open fires, crumpets, brandy and hot chocolate are temporary fixes, although those of us who have homes are ever fortunate to be warm, dry and under shelter. A good book will always lift the mood for a while, an engrossing film or an evening spent with good friends.

Winter months can also bring loneliness and solitude. Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night and Christmas festivities are family times and it is a pleasure to share and celebrate with loved ones. A huge family, a tribe, is something special and belonging to an extended family is a privilege and a joy. Having parents, children, a circle of relatives, people who welcome each other into their houses, to their tables and into their clan is a priceless thing – ask anyone who doesn’t to belong to such a group. Families and friends are like a blanket protecting us from being alone and without them we are diminished. Winter is a cold time to be alone.

The cooler months are for me a time to write prolifically and I am blessed on that journey. I have several books in the pipeline, several finished, a great deal with a brilliant team and two new books ready to go next year. I am lucky that, when it’s cold and damp outside, I can sit at the computer and create new characters, new worlds, and to write stories that I hope will entertain others. I am lucky to have something positive to occupy me.

It’s a long time from now until the spring and it’s easy to be demoralised by the grey skies and bitter winds. But each month brings its compensations. I love the mists of autumn, the blackberries to be picked, and then the sloes. I love it when the skies hang heavy with snow and we can go out in scarves and gloves. I love sitting outside, warming hands in front of an open bonfire, gazing at stars. Christmas lights always do it for me too; although the words commercial and artificial may echo in my ears, I’m a sucker for the bright twinkling colours and the simple songs about winter wonderlands and merry little Christmases. Nowadays, I’m at the point where Christmas needs redefining; gone are the times when we enjoyed family fun around the table, the kids pulling open presents and laughing. But something else will take its place – life has to be celebrated while we can, every moment of it.

Then a new year will arrive, with much to look forward to, more to celebrate – a new spring, then summer. It’s important to believe that we are on the verge of exciting new beginnings over which we have some control or choice, even if there are changes afoot that we can’t predict or prevent. It is easy to see the end of summer as the end of warmth and freedom and the arrival of winter as something cold and sad as the year comes to an end. But, even in these worrying times where precious institutions such as the health service may be under threat, where supermarket shelves may become emptier and the everyday things we took for granted may become less affordable, we have to remain positive. We can write letters to leaders, sign petitions and demonstrate in our cities, and we can vote – that in itself is a positive.

Hope and joy will keep us alive. The summer may be fading, but each season brings its own gift, however cold the weather. Whatever we may feel about the end of an era and the prospect of uncertainty and changes we cannot prevent, we still have each other and we can still retain friendship, solidarity and humanity. Whatever may come, we must insist that there will be good times and laughter, happiness and opportunity. A new chapter may be beginning, but we can write our own story within the confines of a blank page.

The new football season is here – an old friend is coming home

It is really like welcoming an old friend again, now the football season has returned. I always feel a little bit sad when the season ends in May, even though this year my team did really well and we went out on a high. Now the new season has started, there is a kind of fresh optimism, a hope that we’ll win the League this year, the Champions League again, and there’s the sure knowledge that we’ll experience highs and lows, wins and losses, times when we were robbed and times when we ground out a victory we didn’t deserve. That’s football. It’s all about the emotion.

Of course wild emotion, blind devotion and hot-headed passion are not always good things. I find myself often having to explain to people why I love football. Many of my friends can’t see the point in the game and they offer me a salvo of reasons why I shouldn’t like it: footballers’ salaries, high ticket prices, homophobia, racism. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to shrug off the negatives and justify the beautiful game.

Years ago, I was a student, watching a derby game. The man standing in front of me swore at a player on the pitch: in one sentence he managed to create an insult that fused misogyny, racism and homophobia. I was shocked by his words and puzzled by his sudden aggression. After all, the player was on the team he was supporting and all he had done was give the ball away.

Football generates such passion. Standing at the kop end, listening to fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, surrounded by banners lauding players and ex-players and honouring the Hillsborough 96 always brings tears to my eyes. It’s an incredibly powerful moment in which tradition, ritual and intense loyalty bind a whole crowd of people together as a family. In some ways there’s nothing to beat it, from kick-off to final whistle. I always say to those who don’t understand the point of the game, echoing Camus’ words, that football is pure theatre. Being a fan at a match brings such a strong sense of belonging, despite and sometimes because of the ups and downs of each game.

I’ve just related one single negative incident of aggressive racist behaviour at a match, but there are so many positive stories I could tell. There was the time a man next to me gave me a grin and said ‘Eh, girl, do your kids like crisps?’ and stuffed a six-pack of Smiths into my hands for my two children, who were ten and nine. There was another time at a different game when a huge man in the seat in front of me leapt to his feet to applaud and one of the fans next to me patted him on the shoulder and mumbled ‘Sit down, mate – this girl and her kids can’t see if you stand up.’

I came out of a game once – I think it was against West Brom and we’d just won 4-1 –and a woman I’d never met before caught my eye and came over. She hugged me, her face beaming, and said ‘What a fantastic game that was, eh? Didn’t we play great?’ We chatted for about ten minutes and she was a lovely person. How often does that happen outside of football, a complete stranger making conversation? It should happen much more frequently – it is so rewarding. Football can bring people together.

Racism is a huge cloud hanging over the beautiful game. Yet again this week, just a few days into the season, there have been attacks on Twitter, abusing players such as Tammy Abrahams and Paul Pogba. It is shocking that this still happens.

In the same way that a fan can ask someone to sit down because they have leaped up and blocked kids’ vision, we as fans have to ask people not to be racist. The abused players’ safety and feelings come first and there are ways to change behaviours and protect the players.

My friends often cite the negatives when they ask me why I enjoy football. Sometimes they’ll suggest something trivial to explain why I watch a game: it must be because of the twenty two men in shorts – how else could I tolerate ninety minutes of kicking a bag of wind? I tend to shrug off such comments and remember the good times – cheering in the Kop, being hugged senseless by someone I’ve never met because our team has scored; being in a crowd where I can listen to several accents all crooning the same song; hiding behind the sofa because we have a penalty shoot-out after extra time. But racism and homophobia don’t belong in football.

Football is about ninety minutes of suspended normality, where rivalry and skill and the lottery of goals and the vagaries of VAR come into play, but at the end of the game, that’s all it is, a game. Football’s about laughter and banter, belonging and hope, supporting and solidarity, cheers and fears and tears, but it can never be about hatred and derision in any form. The friend I welcome home at the start of each season is one with a good heart that understands fair play. It’s a lot of fun, a tense performance of two halves packed with suspense and thrills, winning and losing. But the beautiful game of football reflects the diverse beauty of the world, no matter which team we support. There is no place for an unfriendly face or violence or words that wound.

Huge thanks to Toni Morrison for my torchlight tremors

It is always sad to read that a longstanding heroine has passed away. For years, when asked ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I’d answer ‘Toni Morrison’, seconds before I wondered if I should have said ‘Jeanette Winterson’ or ‘Cormac McCarthy’. But Toni Morrison was always the first name on my lips. So when I heard that she had died, it made me feel sad: even though eighty eight is not a bad age to go, there is still a sense of loss when someone who was so huge in the world of literature and so important to my own literary education dies. She developed and extended the black American literary canon and she championed black writers for more than ten years as an editor at Random House. She was my favourite writer for years. I loved her stories.

I’d read so many of her novels: The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Tar Baby, The Song of Solomon, Sula, and The Origin of Others. My goodness, that woman could write! She could transport you to incredible places with her words; she could evoke characters you could believe were real and she could certainly mangle your emotions. For me, this was evident in all her novels, but nowhere were my emotions mangled more than in her book, Beloved.

 Beloved is a book about slavery, about grief and trying to forget the horrors of the past. Beloved is the baby daughter who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, desperately trying to prevent her child from being snatched into a life of slavery. Years later, she turns up at her mother’s home, a grown woman. Her name, Beloved, comes from the unfinished etching on her tombstone. As a concept, the idea is a spine tingle in itself.

I was drawn in from the first chapter, where Morrison explains that Sethe’s house is haunted by a ‘haint’; the spirit of the murdered child is not at rest and she is angry. Sethe’s sons run away in fear. Only Sethe seems to accept the presence of Beloved’s ‘lively spite.’ So when her daughter returns home in the flesh, Sethe wants to make amends and to love her daughter above herself. Of course, Beloved does not make life easy for Sethe or her younger sister, Denver, or Sethe’s man, Paul D. Beloved is charming, angry, needy, spiteful and vengeful.

I read Beloved while in Israel many years ago on a semi-professional trip, travelling and meeting people by day and reading avidly at night. I’d be tucked up in a tiny bed in Jerusalem, under the covers with a torch, reading the pages while my roommates snuffled softly in the bed opposite. I couldn’t put the book down. Morrison’s incredible writing, at times economic, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, had me hooked. The plot took my breath away; I understood the dilemma. A mother’s boundless love, a mother’s guilt and the desire to put her child first, combined with a spirit-made-flesh who will suck her parent dry. It was chilling, thrilling and all-engrossing.

Then, in the middle section of the novel, Toni Morrison did something truly amazing. Beloved starts to talk. In a language which is jumbled, poetic and terrifying, the character who could not speak when she first arrives at Sethe’s house tries her voice and we begin to understand what she is, why she is. I have never trembled so much under blankets at the end of a torch’s beam. It was truly powerful.

Beloved is a novel with many themes: mother’s love, the psychological impact of slavery, regret, pain and guilt; it is about what it means to be a mother and it is also about the conflict between manhood and motherhood. It is probably the most impactful book I have ever read. In some ways, it is the most important. It unveils horrors and it is traumatic, disturbing and beautifully written.

Toni Morrison is believed to have said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I wonder if Beloved was that book for her? For me, it was a life-changer, a novel in another class above most other novels I had read. And now Toni Morison has died, I want to express how much I loved her writing, and how especially I adored Beloved. It was a tale for which I felt the most respect, the most admiration; it was my favourite novel for which I felt the fattest love.

For, as Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’

Colin, come home…

 A few nights ago I was doing my Wuthering Heights impression, running around the garden in my pyjamas, shouting and waving my arms, screaming into the darkness as a storm blazed overhead. Cracks of thunder rumbled in the hills as lightning split the skies: everything was illuminated white and then swallowed in shadow again. I yelled and yelled, raising my voice above the battering rain. ‘Colin! Colin! Where are you, Colin?’

Even my wonderful neighbours heard me two fields away as they sat outside in the warm air enjoying the thrill of the midnight thunder. I expect they thought I had lost my wits. In fact, I had lost my cat.

It’s a harsh world sometimes in the countryside. Life is fragile and often cut short – it’s a common sight to see a rabbit or a badger, a pheasant or a squirrel pounded into the gravel by a passing piece of farm machinery. I’d been living here for three months when a neighbour handed me the limp body of Pushkin, my best cat ever, who had just been killed. We all know that moment of stunned disbelief when a life suddenly slips away. She’d been sitting on my knee an hour before, watching my daughter unwrap her birthday presents. She was a real familiar, Pushkin – we had an understanding. Then all of a sudden, she was gone and there was a huge gap which couldn’t be filled, not even by my other cat, Colin, who has been with me for at least eight years and is a lovely cat, albeit a bit bonkers.

My daughter, ever practical and wise, told me to adopt another cat. I tried the ‘nothing can replace Pushkin’ thing and was reminded firmly that another cat needed a home. So eventually I contacted the local animal rescue sanctuary and brought home two cats: Monty, now nicknamed TC, and Murphy. They are brothers, inseparable, once feral and, when I agreed to adopt them, they were not more than two years old. Colin hated them, but they soon all settled to live their separate lives of grudging tolerance.

TC and Murphy follow me everywhere. We go for walks in the fields. Locals call them the feral peril. They hang around me constantly in case there is any food going spare. They steal my breakfast. They can’t forget their feral roots, although they are both affectionate and sweet. Colin still hates them. He’ll spit at them, sit on my knee, growl at them both and a battle for ownership is constantly wavering between the cat camps.

Colin has never been a normal cat. He does this weird thing. If I’m in the bath singing Country Roads by John Denver, which I’m sure we all do regularly, Colin will leap onto the edge of the bath and swipe me with his paw, gently but with a clear intention to shut me up. So I sing it again, louder, and he yells at me, pretends to try to bite me and won’t leave the room, clearly impassioned by my singing. It’s hilarious. We caterwaul together for the entire duration of my bath. Colin is weird, bonkers and loveable.

I haven’t seen him since Monday; he hasn’t been home for four days. He’s been missing before for a day or two but hunger always brings him back. He belongs here. He sleeps on my bed – some mornings I wake up and he’s under the sheets purring. He’s a nice cat, Colin.

Hence, there was a need for the Wuthering Heights scene during the midnight storm, me in my pyjamas, running round in the rain yelling his name. ‘Colin, come home to me, Colin.’ But he hasn’t come home. Not yet.

I’ve asked all my local friends if they’ve seen him, driven round the roads where the farm machinery goes, checked hedges, the garden, home, under beds. No Colin. Not yet.

The cat ownership yo-yo has been in the ‘up’ position since I adopted Monty (TC) and Murphy. They are adorable, as is Colin. Of course, I still miss Pushkin and you may know the tale of Magick Cat who, when I first moved house,  packed his bags and decided to move in with new people a couple of miles away because he felt like it. They love him and he is so settled. Rejection is hard to take, as is loss. And it’s not easy, simply not knowing where Colin is.

Colin the cat may be a little bit low in the IQ department but he’s my cat – he’s streetwise (country-wise, really,) and a bit antisocial: he takes care of himself, shunning people he doesn’t know and avoiding anything motorised with an audible engine. He has a healthy appetite too – four days away from home will leave him starving, although there are a lot of feral cats nearby who survive very well on wildlife.

It’s difficult, not knowing whether he’ll be back at any moment, whether he’s shut in a wood store somewhere or lying under a hedge, shot by someone aiming at rabbits. He could come back today and I’ll grab him and shout ‘Colin, you’re back,’ and shower him with kisses, which he’ll hate but grudgingly tolerate so that I’ll feed him.

It’s difficult not knowing whether to refer to him in the present tense or the past. TC and Murphy haven’t missed him. As long as there’s food available on demand, they are happy, and I suppose they think there is more for them with him gone, and more space on the top of the bed. But I miss Colin. The yo-yo of pet ownership has taken a plunge down again and it’s currently swinging in the balance, not sure whether to rise or to slacken. But I haven’t given up on Colin Feral coming back. Not yet.

 

Eight days later, Colin’s back – hungry, drenched but purring. And I’m hugging him and dancing round the room – he’s home!!

Novelists and Tour de France riders have something in common…

Authors read a lot – it’s part of our continued professional development, if you like. But it’s more than that – reading’s an obsession. I learned to read at three years old– my mum taught me and I was a receptive learner – I would read everything from cereal boxes and advertising hoardings to any magazine or paperback I could get my hands on. I read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mirror – if it had words, I’d read it. By the time I was eight, my favourite novel was the Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I found it in the school library, a tatty old red book with crumpled covers but  the characters, the tension, the setting transported me to a place I’d never imagined could be and I was hooked.

In Primary school, I read novels by Blyton, Coolidge, Montgomery – all the stories my mum read in her childhood and thought I’d love because they had role models of imaginative, intelligent and sensitive girls. At that point, I was still developing my literary tastes and I knew no better. It was a book so I lapped it up, enjoying some stories more than others but devouring every word from start to finish.

As a teenager, I experienced what happens when the angel of literature spreads her wings wide. Books leapt towards me from libraries, from junk sales and charity shops. I read Salinger, Harper Lee, Bashevis Singer, the Brontës x3, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Sartre, Donleavy, Kerouac.  I loved them all. And then I read Jane Austen and formed a strong opinion.

In my early twenties, I had a friend who adored Austen. She was a vibrant woman, a strong personality, from Puerto Rico, so she adored the eccentric Englishness of Austen. My friend loved to reflect on the role of women in British society at that point in time: their power, or lack of it, and the simple ways they could assert themselves. We had long conversations about it. She explained how she enjoyed Austen’s style, her pace, the language, the setting, the way the romances unfolded. I couldn’t see it at all. To me it was just a boring tale about privileged women with not much else to do except fuss over societal mores and wait around for a characterless man with a lot of money to pay attention to them.

Later, much later, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I loved it. It was an exceptional novel and I enjoyed every moment. Particularly, I adored the character of Boris, who was unpredictable and funny. The story was well told, pacy and plausible. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, a laugh-out-loud, glue- your-eyes to-each-page book. So I sought out two more books by Donna Tartt – The Secret History and The Little Friend. I wasn’t really motivated by one and the other I couldn’t finish. I pondered a long time on why I loved The Goldfinch and didn’t like the others and I decided, finally, that it was simply just me. Liking books is a subjective thing and while The Secret History might have been ideal for some readers, it was just not my type of book.

This led me to think about the huge respect I have for any writer, whatever their genre, whether they are published or still at the stage of writing a novel. It is a task of incredible resilience akin to running a marathon, cycling the Tour de France or climbing Everest. There are highs and lows, joys and trepidation. It takes stamina and guts to finish 100,000 words of A novel, then go back and rip loads of it out again to make it better in the hope that someone will read it and like it.

I was at a writers’ meeting last week. An experienced and intelligent woman, who writes historical stories was talking about her methodology, how she uses a flexible formula to make her style work. Another bubbly woman, a writer of popular romcoms, was explaining how piqued she felt when an editor was critical of her story. I said little and listened a lot. These writers were discussing the vagaries of creating a popular novel. The historical writer mentioned a trope she’d used in her first novel and her intention not to use it for the future because someone had said they didn’t like it in a review. This led me to think how many books I had read, loved and yet I’d never paused to say so in any forum the writer might read. There is a whole different blog post waiting to be written about reviews and how we should respond to them as writers.

Good reviews are wonderful and I’m so grateful for people from across the globe who have said wonderful things. The Swedish lady who wanted one of my novels to become a film and wrote to my publisher to say so was the highlight of my week not so long ago. I hope someone in a position of film-making decisions is listening! Of course, there are reviews that are less complimentary, some we can learn from and some that have little use. For example, someone once wrote in a review about the best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English Language. I doubt whether Gail Honeyman gives a monkey’s – I certainly wouldn’t, in her place. (And it’s a great book!)

Last week, I read a novel by an author I know, whom I like as a person. I loved it. It sat perfectly within its genre, the characters were well-drawn and it made me laugh out loud. But I wonder what I’d have said to her had I not liked it. I always feel a bit bad when I don’t like a book. It feels disrespectful to admit it to someone after they’ve put so much work into it that it hasn’t moved me at all. But there are some novels I really can’t get on with.  I read one ages ago, a romantic novel about a woman in her fifties who meets a new man: it was recommended to me. I hated it so much – I thought the main character was feeble, underdeveloped and the male romantic interest was a facile twit. The plot was banal and the setting unimaginative.

I felt so awful about being negative. I went back to my response to the novel and tried again. The plot was valid enough, the pace was ok, the characters inoffensive, but the outcome was still predictable and I couldn’t see any point in reading it: I’d gained nothing, finding no way of immersion in the story.

But the book had sold well, the author was quite popular. So I concluded from this that I was just not target audience. There are certainly a bunch of people out there who have bought and loved this book – it has given them that feel-good transportation to another person’s world and they have benefited from it. I should just shut up. Maybe the people who loved that book would hate stuff by novelists I adore – Dostoyevsky and Winterson, Shamsie and Doyle. My opinion is simply that – just an opinion, one person’s opinion amongst many others, and so I have to conclude that, although that book’s not for me, the novel would be a crowd-pleaser to someone in a different crowd. It would be wrong for me to dismiss a book on the grounds that I think my response is the right one or has the right to be prevalent over others who might actually enjoy it. It’s best to say nothing at all.

So I continue to read widely and enthusiastically: books I love are books that teach me something, or take me to a new place or introduce me to another way of thinking. Books I don’t like are still part of my education – I need to consider why I don’t like them and what sort of audience would relish every word. Alright, so I spend more time thinking about why I don’t like some books and less time on others – that’s natural. But I’ve now resolved never to be negative about a writer, to keep my opinions of books I don’t enjoy to myself. I don’t want to influence anyone else.

Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not in my nature to jeopardise someone’s accomplishment or spoil their pleasure.  I wouldn’t shove a stick into the spokes of a Tour De France rider while he or she was huffing and puffing up Mont Ventoux. I might even extend a hand and give them a helpful push along, or some words of encouragement: Allez, allez!  Or I might simply watch them go on their way to the finish line and hope they enjoy their journey. The going is hard enough for them – they may be a winner, achieve a strong finish or they may fall off onto hard gravel. So similarly it is with writers. I wish them all the best. There will be no harsh words from me.

 

CSC_0851

It’s so easy to slip into the antisocial writer stereotype …

The sun’s out. It’s got me thinking. I’m spending too much time indoors at the computer. Isolation and summer sunshine don’t go together. I need to drag myself away from the next novel. But it’s a writer’s lot, hunched at the desk, eyes on the screen, typing just one more line, just one more chapter. I don’t need discipline to write, I need discipline to walk away from the writing. There’s a whole world outside the window and I’m stuck inside, in the shade planning, typing, editing. I should change.

I need to think more about all the people I should be spending time with right now. It’s easy to be sociable and spend time with friends and family, enjoying their company, relishing good times. But writing is like a magnet and I’m always pulled back; I’m too readily immersed in a current novel rather than going out and making new memories. Having a social life requires discipline too.

Eight hours a day at work, five days a week should be enough for most people. But like many writers, once I’m involved in a story, I’m ‘in’, and I can’t put the work down. There is another character to write, another chapter, another moment of comedy or tragedy, another twist. It’s an obsession. Friends suggest an evening out – the beach, a party, a live band, theatre, dinner, and it’s so much easier to say ‘I’m quite busy right now – another time, maybe?’ It becomes a frantic cycle, so that the next evening I have another chapter to write, then there is another novel, and too much time has passed. The opportunity has been lost.

People tell me I’m ‘lucky to be so focused’ but I wonder if this intense concentration on a project is just a bad trait I have, or if it’s a natural phenomenon for many writers. I’m not an introvert, not at all reclusive – I can be a real party animal – but this behaviour conforms to the plausible stereotype, the image of the writer staring at a screen, blinking myopically through thick lenses, typing away into the early hours, a recluse with a half-full bottle of whisky and an empty life. There will always be more to do, another current project that is magnetic and all-consuming.

It may be the same for people who are not writers – from athletes to zoologists – it’s easy for us to crowd our time with seemingly-important things that really aren’t the only priority in life. We can justify the immediate importance of peripheral tasks such as cleaning the kitchen, digging the garden. I wonder at which point it became easier to immerse ourselves in work, believing that people we care about will wait in the wings and still be the waiting there the next day.

A lovely friend of mine told me about her grandfather, who’d saved up a collection of fine wines for a nebulous special occasion in the future and then died before he’d even opened one bottle. It’s a good metaphor, full of wisdom – don’t delay the important things in life – have a daily glass of the good wine, or drink a whole bottle once in a while. But don’t put people on hold, just in case– they won’t always be there. We know this is true – every one of us who has lost a dear parent wonders if we really told them enough times how much they mattered to us or did we just swan off and do our own thing, believing it was all going to be fine? It’s a case of benign neglect: just do nothing and hope all will be well next time.

A while ago, I was in a café in Islington looking for breakfast and a brilliantly outspoken  waitress wrinkled her nose at my request for something vegan and said some profound words: ‘Vegan? What is wrong with you? You should change.’

While I have no inclination to alter my lifestyle and start consuming bacon sandwiches, her words resonated with me like church bells, simply because change is a universal option we always have. It was a wake-up call to consider life beyond breakfast. Work shouldn’t be like trudging on a treadmill: it should be a breathless hike up a snowy Alp or a dance, whooping on a sun-soaked beach. It’s easy to spend each day and evening at the computer writing and forget I have good friends to celebrate with. Don’t get me wrong – I am as unlikely to give up writing as I am to give up being a vegan – but I need to be circumspect about my all-consuming need to work. I definitely need to think about positive change and to develop the discipline to stop. Too much work and no social life can make us less effective as writers.

Taking time off makes us more interesting, more rounded. Opportunities for new inspiration are all around: the world is crammed with fantastic people, wonderful places to visit, new experiences. And every day is a chance to tell someone that you appreciate them. It’s a chance to let fresh air blow through. We can try something few haven’t done before, find exciting opportunities. Important moments can’t be allowed to slip away like a dripping tap or water through fingers.

So change I will: I’ll say yes to the all-night party on Saturday when it would be so much easier to sit typing at the computer by the fire with the cats and a glass of brandy. I need to say ‘Let’s go on that journey, visit friends, seize that opportunity.’

The sun is out – and so I will go out too. No more excuses about deadlines. Just do it. We can’t take it with us. It really is now or never.

By neglecting social opportunities, we are neglecting others, and we are neglecting ourselves. So thanks for the wake-up call, Martina in the bistro in London, whoever you are, who gave me a single field mushroom on brown toast with a grin and who will never know how profound her words were. ‘You should change.’

She’s right. I can get more balance into my work/ life schedule. I can seize the moment. Carpe diem and carpe noctem, that must be my motto. It’s possible to change for the better. I will certainly try. Work can be wonderful, exhilarating, fulfilling, joyous, but it isn’t everything. Let’s immerse ourselves in life’s sunshine and see what will grow.

 

CSC_0937.JPG

Sometimes what’s outside affects what’s inside: on nature and inspiration

I decided to have a couple of weeks away from writing. It was a simple idea – it was summer time, so I’d write nothing, just let the summer shine in through the mind’s window and the brain bask in the warmth. After all, I have three new novels more or less completed – maybe four. Five, even – possibly six. And I’ve started a seventh. I have a bit of time to find inspiration.

As writers, we have sharp critical instincts about our own work – we think we know what works and what doesn’t. Of course, we may be completely wrong, but our instinct gives us confidence and direction, based on experience – years of reading, writing, analysing. I always abandon or file away anything I’m not totally enjoying writing, if it’s not working really well. And I’m prolific. I put the hours in. I don’t mind being at the computer at sunrise or writing into the early hours of a new day. I always meet deadlines, and usually beat them. I wake in the early morning to think about my next chapters and I ignore conversations at the dinner table because my mind is elsewhere, fixed on a character’s latest escapade. So taking time out in the summer is a good thing. And my instinct told me to take a break.

Of course, the weather wasn’t great at the beginning of June, so I’d started to tinker with my newly-finished novels. I couldn’t help it – the computer always pulls me in like a magnet and I’m soon reading my work back to myself out loud, checking it through: call it editing, if you like as mistakes pop up all the time demanding to be corrected and I’m desperate to make the story better while reading it with fresh eyes and asking myself if it’s entertaining and if it ‘works’ for the reader or in a visual way, as a film. It’s ‘tinkering’ by any other name.

June has been wet so far so I’ve found it hard not to tinker with the three novels that I’ve ‘completed.’ I enjoy reading them back, a sort of ‘quality control’ exercise. So I decided to do more walking, to take myself away from temptation. Living in the countryside, I have a lot of variety in terms of where to walk and so I’ve been across fields and through woods and along canal paths every morning before breakfast for the past four weeks. I haven’t walked far – between two and five miles, generally. But, rain or shine (and there’s been a lot of rain and a lot of mud and sludge, not so much shine,) it’s been interesting to be outdoors and surrounded by nature. I’m fascinated by what happens to creativity when it’s not asked to do anything except plod along outdoors at its own pace and take its own time to kick in.

I’ve already written the first two chapters of my next novel  about two characters I really find engaging, but I’m not sure which direction it will go so I need to take some time off and wait. I want to have written the new novel and have started another one by the end of this year: it usually takes three or four months to write a novel of about 90,000 words at a steady pace, allowing for editing as I go and when I finish. So I have an opportunity now to be away from my desk, a sort of holiday, and to a certain extent I can allow the weather to dictate when I will write: a hot July or August would mean time outdoors.

But walking in the mornings in all sorts of weather has been so interesting. Rather that asking myself to come up with ideas, I’m giving myself space to let them roll in at their own pace while I surround myself in a calm and natural environment. I’m asking myself to let go of work, rather than trying to find ideas, and I’m expecting nothing back but the squelch of mud underfoot.

Canal 3

It’s quite an interesting metaphor for life – when we expect little, we might be surprised by what good things come back in abundance. I’m simply in it for the exercise, the uphill struggles, the elation of downhill slides, the feeling of happiness, lost in nature with rainwater streaming down your face and into your boots. It’s a nice feeling.

And when I come home, I can reward myself with muesli or blueberry pancakes or beans on toast and hot tea. A shower. An hour in the gym. Lunch with friends. A cup of tea with a neighbour. A Spanish class. But I don’t have to work every day at the moment –  in fact, it’s an opportunity to take a breath. I am very lucky to have the freedom to let inspiration arrive at its own pace and to be confident that it will just pop up and that I won’t be left waiting for it.

Nature certainly has a way of inspiring. Soggy fields and rickety stiles that lead to nettle-crowded paths, or the rhythm of rain plopping onto canal water and the sound of gravel scrunching underfoot have given me the space to examine what characters I might create to provoke entertainment and mischief. For some reason, spending twenty minutes up to my ankles in muck in a boggy field while a herd of calves with number tags on their ears licked my hands with long rough tongues gave me a great idea for a riotous scene set on a ski slope. Surreal – but being outside really works.

Of course, I wish the weather had been better so far this month. There has certainly been a lot of moisture drenching the woods and on the footpaths and, of course, drenching me. But we’re due warmer weather, surely. So I’m wondering about the quality of inspiration that might drift in if I walked in the sunshine on dry earth in shorts and a vest and trainers rather than through squelching bogs in wellies, a beanie and a weatherproof jacket.

I think I ought to find out. I’m seriously thinking of having another week or two off, away from the computer, doing explore beaches and coastal paths. After all, it’s worth taking time away from work. There is no need to feel guilty – it’s still work, in a way. Even if I’m not at my desk writing, I’m still thinking. After all, who knows what ideas will rush in when I allow my feet to tread…?

Canal 6