What I’m writing at the moment and the 30,000-word test

Each novel I write seems to follow a pattern at the beginning up to the point where I decide I’ll definitely write it. If it doesn’t pass this stage, then it doesn’t happen. First of all, I have an initial idea and, for the idea to take shape, it has to grab my interest really strongly. I write a brief synopsis, leaving the idea fairly loose, and let it sit for a while: I’ll be writing something else at the same time, editing something else and have another idea in the planning.

Then the time will come round to turn the idea into a new novel. So I make a start, not rushing it, having planned the beginning and the ending, and I’ll start to create my character. But at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 words in, I expect to be well-hooked into characters and action and plot and I’ll stop and check: if I’m not completely engrossed, my reader certainly won’t be and I’ll rethink the whole thing.

So, at the moment, I’m writing a novel for 2021 in which a character and a companion leave one place to stay in another. They have a few adventures there, then the protagonist takes off again, this time to somewhere completely different. I’ve allowed 20,000 words to embed the first section before the journey, 20,000 more in order to explore the second place and then the character can have 50,000 words in the final glorious location.

Once I’ve written the beginning, created the protagonist(s), given them something they need to find by the end of the novel – which might be an opportunity to develop or change, ior it may be something personal, something they don’t know that they want yet – I know I’m off and running. At that point, I can get down to detailed planning of the rest of the novel and organise the highs and lows, more fun parts and the episodes of conflict and development.

So, currently I’m 35,000 words into a new novel and I’m quite happy. I have my main character fairly well developed; she has flaws, energy and a great deal of positive points and she’s already shown her true colours. But the journey she’s on, which is not just physical but also self-discovery, has to be considered in detail if she is to be the person I want her to become, to have the experiences I want her to have and to become happier with life. There are people she’ll need to meet, some of them barely sketched in my head yet. So, at this point in the novel, I always stop and ask myself a big question:

Now I’m a third of the way through, do I love this novel enough to want to write it all?

Because if I don’t feel a real attachment and real commitment at this stage, it won’t work and I’ll drop it like a stone.

Loving a novel enough to write it goes a long way beyond commitment and stickability; there will be characters I’ll need to live alongside for months, take them into my life and to help them to grow. Obsession may be too strong a word, but I have to want them to move in with me and talk to me incessantly for a long time if I’m going to write them. They will wake me up in the early hours, fill my head during social occasions and frequently interrupt conversations.

So once I’ve written the opening chapters,  I read the first 30,000 words back out loud to myself to check it is effective and coherent and then I read it to other people I can trust and persuade to listen, and  monitor their reaction. I want them to be entertained, engaged, immersed, to like the character, to laugh, to be captivated, to care about what happens in the rest of the story. It’s one of the many points in the writing stage where I have to be tough. If the story-so-far doesn’t have the impact I want it to have, I’ll shelve it and keep some of the ideas for another novel.

As it turns out, the feedback on this one is positive; I’m very happy and I’m going to keep writing. I have to know I’ll enjoy writing it; that the journey will fascinate me and, despite careful planning, new ideas will jump in as I progress that are usually better than the ones I’ve already written down, which are more likely to surprise my readers.

So the current book, which is scheduled for 2021, is underway and I have two more new novel ideas that excite me waiting in the wings: one is likely to be a hoot, allowing me to push boundaries and create fun situations and characters, and the other will be a learning journey for me, based on the subject matter I need to research. But it’s all exciting.

I recently read an article by a writer saying how difficult the job was – that our lives are always full – we’re always writing a new novel, editing the last one, publicising the previousone, planning the next one and reading for inspiration and research all at the same time! But what a lovely position to be in. All writers strive for exactly this: it’s a great life. I couldn’t be happier.

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Now about some of these old rock song lyrics…

I work at my computer most days and listen to rock music on the radio on my smart speaker. I love a lot of the songs and I enjoy the DJs’ banter, the cheery voices and the sense of company as a happy voice rattles away in the background while I type. Most of the music is pacy and energetic, ideal when you’re writing a novel.

Of course, I am aware that there’s a down side of the radio station. The presenters are, reflecting the rock-music world, (bar one woman on the early slot on a Saturday and Sunday morning,) white and male. They seem nice enough guys but there isn’t much in the way of diversity, and that clearly needs to be addressed. The same is true when it comes to the music they play. But maybe other fans of the radio station would tell me that rock bands are mostly male and mostly white. I think that needs to change.

Of course there are the exceptions. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t white and he was one of the best rock guitarists ever. Janis Joplin wasn’t a man and she was one of the best vocalists, although her songs, influenced from a blues background, are chiefly about men doing her wrong: just listen to the heart-breaking Ball and Chain and Piece of My Heart.

Old rock classics are being played all the time on the rock radio station I listen to and some of the older songs bring with them the problem of their social history, specifically misogyny: some of the lyrical content is  extremely outdated. The 1980s wasn’t a great time for women being perceived as equal to men: anyone who has watched an episode of The Professionals on TV or seen Legs and Co dancing on Top of the Pops , their faces stretched in an everlasting grin of pseudo-enjoyment, will know exactly what I mean. There was a time when a modicum of racism and sexism were tolerated by some people more than they should have been. And a lot of songs on the rock station come from this era and reflect this problem. But we can’t tolerate all that silliness now.

Rock isn’t the only musical genre not to cover itself in glory when it comes to misogynistic lyrics. But the station I listen to every day, that I enjoy listening to, will occasionally play something that makes me shake my head with disbelief. I tolerate Hendrix’s Hey Joe, even though ‘he shoots his woman down’ for ‘messing round.’ I put up with ZZ Top’s reductive Legs and the Rolling Stones’ inappropriate Brown Sugar and Under My Thumb, simply because they have been around for so long, but I remain unimpressed with the absurd lyrics.

I can even tolerate Neil Young’s A Man Needs a Maid if I ignore the lyrics and just listen to the tinkly tune: apparently, Neil meant ‘maid’ as in ‘Maid Marian’ and claimed that it was a genuine love song. That’s fair enough if you know the context.

I actually like Dire Strait’s song Lady Writer despite the subliminal inference that being a writer is normally a male profession and Marina Warner, whom I’m guessing the song is written about, breaks the norm by actually having a brain and writing about history. But some rock songs are lyrically off-the-scale-silly.

For example, listen to Jack and Diane by John ‘Cougar’ Mellencamp. This one beggars belief. It’s about two sixteen year-olds sitting in Jackie’s car. He dreams of being a football star while she gapes vacuously at his suggestion of running off behind a tree and letting him ‘do what he pleases.’ Really? I know this is an old-fashioned 1982 song but the lyrics convey an archaic message about choices for young girls and submissiveness shouldn’t be a choice. Try reversing the genders in the lyrics and see how farcical it all sounds.

Then there’s Bryan Adams’ Run To You. According to the song, he has found a hotter woman to two-time his cold partner with but it won’t hurt her if she doesn’t know. Bryan should have spoken to Jimi’s Hey Joe about the rock-consequences of ‘messin’ around’. Hilarious!

Meat Loaf’s Dead Ringer is another of those songs about the passive, compliant woman with nothing better to do and, the most laughable yet perhaps, is Rainbow’s All Night Long. Just check those lyrics! It’s the same deal as Rod Stewart’s Stay With Me: women as a one-night sex-toy. Was it ever acceptable? I didn’t think so when I heard the songs at the time – it struck me as being misogynistic nonsense and nothing’s changed. As for the suggestion that AC/DCs Whole Lotta Rosie is about celebrating the larger woman! I don’t think so. We’ll just leave it there.

Clearly, my beloved radio station needs to clean up its act, embrace the spirit of the new decade and employ more presenters who reflect the diversity of the world. They need to insist on a playlist that doesn’t denigrate women and encourage some poor men to think that unless they conform to an unpleasantly outmoded mindless priapic male-stereotype, they fail to live up to the presupposed potency of their guitar-grinding gods.

There are plenty of brilliant male guitar heroes out there playing professionally who think differently, who value women for their brains and their personalities and who wouldn’t be seen dead popularising versions of  the well-worn  ‘shag them and leave them and treat them mean’ story. I know several rock musicians personally and they are great guys, feminists even!

There are plenty of other good rock songs, plenty of good tracks from the long-forgotten past that admire women without demeaning them: I like Natural Born Bugie from Humble Pie which came out in 1969 as it’s a great song and not disparaging in its glorification of female beauty. There’s Hendrix’s melodic Little Wing which is a romantic song with great guitar and vocals. I have no problem with songs about sex; Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love and Lemon Song imply that the female in question has a modicum of choice in the arrangement and isn’t duped into a brief night of passion and then quickly discarded.

There are wonderful rockers who are great musicians and vocalists who happen to be women too, from Joan Jett to Joanne Shaw Taylor, Samantha Fish, Beth Hart, Joanna Connor. There are also very promising modern male rock bands: Greta Van Fleet’s Highway Tune is a nice example of a raunchy song that is inoffensive to women, as all songs should be.

And for real diversity, let’s have more of The Hu, a Mongolian heavy metal band formed in 1996, whose song Yuve Yuve is about the respected ethics of their ancestors. All these are much more appealing lyrically than the outdated topic of how many schoolgirls a rock singer can line up to have sex with in one night as he ogles them from his vantage point on the stage.

Although I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, there’s a letter to be written to someone who makes decisions about playlists on my favourite radio station. Gone are the times when this laughable stuff was acceptable. We’re in the twenties now. So I’ll continue to listen to rock radio but I’m not putting up with inequality or lyrical offence. The days when that sort of stuff was grudgingly accepted as being part of a male-orientated genre have well gone.

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Happy New Year. 2020, a new year, a new decade and new beginnings…

I love the moment when a new year begins: it comes with a feeling of optimism, new opportunities, out with the old: we start anew with a clean slate. And there’s a new calendar, a new diary, clean pages with nothing written on them yet. But oh, I wonder what will we write on these blank pages in 2020?

The last year and the last decade mean different things to different people. My heart went out to a friend of mine on Facebook who ended the year with a post that said 2019 CAN JUST F*CK OFF! I sent messages of positivity. I know my friend has had a life-changing bad year and I hope that everything will improve and happiness will return.

We don’t always have control over what will happen to us in the future and we have no crystal balls (mostly…), which is why it’s both exciting and a little bit scary. But we do have choices and we can take things into our own hands, to choose what we do based on the hand of cards life deals us.

The last decade has been wonderful for me: I left a job I love for the excitement of doing an MA in order to become a published author. I was determined that’s what I would do and I was lucky; I wouldn’t have it any other way now. I love writing novels and writing occupies a great deal of my time, giving me the opportunity to be creative, which is so important to me.

In the last ten years, my kids grew up, left home, embarked on their own lives and now, at the beginning of the new decade, I am attempting to reconcile the empty nest with the thrill of independence and having a great relationship with two adults whom I truly admire, not to mention their wonderful partners. But I still miss them like crazy at times and I’ve decided that is my right as a parent: I won’t feel guilty about those terrible moments when out of nowhere I suddenly want to mourn their absence. It has very little to do with feeling pleased about the great humans I’ve raised: it’s a natural process of coming to terms with change.

There were a few down times in the last ten years: I lost my dad and that’s been tough. My mum died in the previous decade and I still haven’t got over that. I’m not sure we ever do recover from the loss of loved ones.

I moved from the place where I’d lived for 20 years and brought up a family. I’m now in a house I actually like for the first time in my life although putting down roots is still hard and I keep wondering if I should move again. I suppose some things will never change.

But I have an incredible family, great friends, wonderful neighbours and a job I adore. Simply being healthy, happy and loved means that I am truly blessed and long may it continue.

So during the next decade, although I may not know exactly what will happen and there may be changes I can’t readily predict, I hope I’ll still be writing novels. Two books have already been finished and there are others waiting in the wings. I hope to travel, to continue to grow and learn, to be healthy, to spend time with those I love and to have fun, a sense of mischief, laughter and interesting conversation.

The world out there is beautiful; if we can ignore for a moment the savage injustices and inequalities, the waste, the greed and the cruelty, it is indeed a wonderful place to be. Many of us hope and strive for things to get better for everyone. Working together towards poositive change is the only way to be alive.

So 2020 begins and with it the new decade, the roaring or rocking twenties. Let’s be positive; let’s hope for healthy, happy, exciting times. That doesn’t mean burying our heads in the sand and ignoring threats and dangers: quite the opposite. Solidarity brings all sorts of rewards and it is time to stand strong. But we also have to keep ourselves and others safe, and that means being cheerful, positive and reaching out.

We don’t know what will happen, but we will make it the best that we can. So I’m starting the decade by sending good wishes to all who read my books, check out my blog or who just want to receive my best hopes for the twenties. I wish for happiness, health, laughter and love for you all. May you be blessed. Zhan le Devlesa tai sastimasa.

 

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