Why writing novels is the best

Three years ago, I had a job that I loved; a job that I was so passionate about, that I never thought about leaving it. But it was hard work: early starts, never finishing until late into the evening. I didn’t care: I gave it my heart and soul and every day was filled with creativity, fun, friendship and exhaustion. I was happy. But one day, I realised I could keep on doing it until I dropped and then I’d be replaced by someone else who’d do the same. A light came on in my head. I knew I was a person who gave my energies readily and so fervently and was good at what I did. That defined me to some extent. But who else was I? That thought made me take the time to reconsider.

Now I realise the stick that was driving me on was in my own hand: the need to achieve something good every day. Three years ago, being the best I could be was based on external criteria I had little control over. Now, to a much greater extent, I can dictate what I do.

I left my relatively secure job, a role that made me feel appreciated by many and therefore pleased with myself every day, determined to write novels. It was an ‘I will do it and I don’t doubt that I can’ moment. I was sure that I could become a novelist.

Skip forward to finding a fantastic agent whose wisdom and common sense are totally appreciated, an intelligent, forward-thinking publisher, a lively and talented publicist and an amazing, strong team, and to having my first novel published. Fast forward further: radio interviews, press interviews, blog tours, book signings. It couldn’t be more exciting. I wouldn’t look back.

Of course, I’m selling being a novelist in the most positive way. That’s because for me, there are no down sides. As long as writing 100,000 words doesn’t deter you, then editing every word and phrase into the late hours, revising characters and settings,  meeting deadlines, reading reviews, listening to critics. But for me, all of that is part of the excitement, part of the journey and I wouldn’t change any of it.

I can get up when I like, not always at six in the morning. I can work the hours that I like, taking a couple of hours off to go to the gym or for a walk. I can make time to have lunch with friends, take an evening off to go to the theatre or to watch football. And I can work through the evening and into the late hours if I like, which is often therapeutic. I have more autonomy, a lifetsyle I didn’t have before; gone is the treadmill which sped up as the day progressed and the bells that constantly told me it was time to move to the next part of my day.

I am so lucky. Being a novelist is a privilege.

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Then there is the element of research, one of the greatest perqs of beng a writer. For A Grand Old Time, the novel being based on Evie’s journey through France, it was such an opportunity to go back and check the location. My second novel, The Age of Misadventure, is also a journey, beginning in Liverpool, a city I love, and ending in Sussex, where the scenery is wonderful. Being able to pack up the van and take off as part of my location research is a blessing in itself.

I’ve just been to the Loire valley to plan a third novel. It won’t be set there, but I needed an excuse to research one of the character’s background. The setting was beautiful: sunshine, rivers, open roads. While I was travelling, I met some fascinating characters: Marie-Ange who owned a farm, Bernard who gave me the loveliest rosé wine from his vineyard and some of the nicest English people, whose incredible wine- fuelled hospitality until two in the morning will certainly inspire mayhem and fun in future novels. I ate pasta and drank Armagnac under the stars at midnight and slept with the sound of the sea in my ears. Can there be a lifestyle better than that?

It certainly beats the old daily routine. Of course, writing’s not for everyone. I’ve heard all about the down side of being a novelist: writer’s block, carpal tunnel, headaches, deadlines, loneliness, excessive alcohol to fuel the late nights, cramping buttocks on unforgiving swivel chairs. But I’m grateful for every day of writing. As the seasons change and new ideas come and go, I know I’m really fortunate to be able to do what I love every day and to have time and energy to decide how I will do it. I just wish there was a magic wand I could wave where everyone could have a job they’d love and enjoy as much as I enjoy mine.

 

 

 

 

 

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If a vegan diet is good for a septic tank, then it might just be good for us…

I’ve just had an interesting conversation with a man who shovels poo for a living. More accurately, he has a machine which slurps waste from septic tanks and cess pits. Not the best job in the world, perhaps, but someone has to do it. On the plus side, it took him half an hour to stand by his machine while it sucked the smelly stuff from the septic tank in the field and  educated me on the vagaries of cess pits.

It was his conversation that interested me most. We had a lovely chat about waste: he knew all about it, the ups and downs, the best sort, the worst sort, what to put in a septic tank to make it function well and what never to put in. He was a real expert.

I’ve lived in the house for a year and had paid no attention to the bog-standard septic tank covered in nettles and briars in the field adjacent to my garden. I’m very careful what I put down the drains of course: no detergent, no washing powder, no cotton wool or plastic, just gentle stuff which biodegrades, a bit of food waste, water, that sort of thing.

So I uncovered the tank and invited out the man to clean it. What he said really surprised me. Not the bit about the tank being old, that he had no idea how it functioned so well at such a great age, that it would benefit from installing a smart new system, and everything else you’d expect him to say. What was really interesting is that he said ‘You don’t eat meat, do you?’

I was impressed: he could tell things about my diet from my cess pit? Now that’s a real professional.

It turns out that meat, the cooking of it, the disposing of residual bits of it through drains, the residual oils, all contribute to clogging and to the general bad condition of the system. Basically, it’s greasy and likely to make the drainage system function less well.

Now there’s an allegory.

If regular meat intake clogs drains and is bad for them, I wonder what it does to the human digestive system and to arteries?

I hear a lot from non-vegan people about vegan diets being inadequate and how do we ever manage to survive without meat. I am asked frequently what I eat and how I get enough protein, vitamins, how I maintain a high level of energy. I agree, whatever you eat, vegan or otherwise, it pays to have some understanding about the value of what you’re putting in your body. I take vitamin B12, and vitamin D in the winter. I consider what goodness I am getting from my food at each meal. I try to weigh up the balance of nutritional benefits and avoid foods high in sugar and bad fats, palm oil, too many empty calories. Doesn’t everyone?

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Nowadays, some people want to veganise everything, so they can enjoy burgers that bleed, authentic sausages, and cheese which tastes exactly like the ‘real thing.’ I can understand why these products are popular; it’s impressive when people who love meat and dairy give it up and it’s understandable that they want to replicate their favourite flavours and textures in everyday vegan fare. It’s useful to have ready-made standby foods in the freezer too. 

On social media, I read about a lot of vegans who are thrilled to find ‘sfv foods’: safe-for-vegan stuff is really just food not originally intended for vegans but that just happens to contain nothing which is non-vegan. Such ‘accidental vegan’ foods include things like Oreos, some makes of custard powder, pickles, some types of pot noodles, some crisps, bourbon biscuits, Skittles. Some vegans’ delight when discovering Oreos are vegan is touching. Vegan pizza has been a huge success, as has vegan ‘fish’ and chips. Now people can be vegan and not give up fast food and treats they crave from their pre-vegan diet.

 While I’m happy that ‘accidental’ foods like vegetable extract, baked beans, peanut butter and hummus are vegan, I’m cautious about commercial high sugar, salt and high fat foods and the long-term effects of eating too much processed fare, vegan or not. I’m happier cooking something from scratch, with simple ingredients that I know and that I can be confident are good for me. While I understand that people can live off a diet of bourbons and kettle chips and still be vegan, and that fast food takes less time to prepare and it’s great to have an indulgent cruelty-free sweet treat occasionally, ready meals are perhaps best as a stand-by.

Of course, it’s a different kettle of hummus when it comes to alcohol – in moderation. There are great vegan wines to be found, beers too, and supermarkets are starting to understand what makes alcohol vegan and label it accordingly. I still find myself in trouble in bars, restaurants  and shops when I ask ‘Is the wine vegan?’ There are still many places where I’m greeted with confusion, horror and the question ‘Why, isn’t all wine vegan?’ Why, indeed.

Back to the neglected cess pit in the field. What if our bodies are similar to septic tanks: we put stuff into them and they reflect our lifestyle- choice back by being in good working order or less so, depending on the nature of what we put in? The better the quality of ‘stuff’ that goes in on a daily basis, the better the tank functions long-term.

Of course, there’s no scientific correlation between the cleanliness of a septic tank and the health of the human digestive system; I’m being facetious: it’s just a thought. I’m delighted that the meat-free septic tank is hanging in there. I will continue to feed it a diet of biodegradable waste, detergentless cleaners and good vegan manure. I certainly won’t be adding any Oreos and custard into the mix, but there may well be a recycled glug or two of good vegan Merlot every so often.

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Pausing to think about The Stopping Places

I read Damian Le Bas’ book The Stopping Places in two days.

It’s the sort of book that should be available everywhere, on all shop bookshelves, in libraries, schools and universities, and widely read. It offers a first-hand account about the Romani people, the culture and their experiences in society, in history and in the community.

It touches on something I’m always concerned about, that there are so few books written by Romani writers which depict real Romani people, as opposed to the romanticised or demonised stereotypes so often used in novels and folk-lore.

Moreover, there are so few realistic books about Roma issues and lives available to children in schools and to older readers, so books like The Stopping Places enable Roma readers find themselves represented in literature and non-Roma readers are able to broaden their understanding.

Damian Le Bas writes beautifully, with clarity and warmth. He is also able to bring the situations in which he finds himself and his emotions to life: much of what he writes resonated with me. In particular, his experiences at school, the conflicting attitudes of his family and those outside his family, and his sense of difference being something he should keep quiet about.

I enjoyed reading about his mother and father, and his Nan in particular reminded me of my own Nanny: her sayings, her cooking, her positive attitude to life and the present.

By tracing the old stopping places, the atchin tan of travelling communities, Le Bas is looking to find out more about himself, his heritage and his identity. I empathised with his desire to discover; I shared his quest for knowledge and followed the journey in his van through the South East to the South West and then upwards, to North Wales and Scotland, with interest.

I was fascinated by the people he met: those who welcomed him, who challenged him and those who would rather stay separate. His experiences at Halden Hill in Devon and at Appleby Fair did not surprise me.

I am familiar with the suspicion which follows travelling communities. Le Bas writes without comment or judgement, but not without emotion. We understand his reactions to moments of intimidation and we rejoice in the recognition and affirmation he receives from kindred spirits on his journey.

The description of Romani values, customs and language struck a chord with me. Le Bas tells it as it is, with warmth and affection, and he evokes a community where allegiance and tradtions run deep, where the struggle for survival has been paramount amidst prevailing suspicion, mistrust and misunderstanding for centuries.

There are no answers; he is not seeking to justify or explain: his book is a journey of his own, a way of understanding his past and present.  For me, there is one clear resolution which jumps from his book, and that is the importance of education. Erudite and articulate, Le Bas demonstrates the power of the written word, the impact of experiences shared, the need for research and understanding, the joy of empathy and ongoing discovery.

The Stopping Places is a book which is long overdue; it has taken too long for such a celebration of identity to reach the public. It should be read widely. It has its place on my shelf, in between Ian Hancock’s The Pariah Syndrome and Cecelia Woloch’s Tsigan. It is an important book, and one which can only open doors to more of the same writing.

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Why the World Cup is like a novel

Coverage of major sporting events is difficult to escape: whether it is the World Cup, the Six Nations, Wimbledon or The Tour de France, it is regularly in front of our eyes, on the television and in the newspapers. It is the main talking point in the news, perhaps more than the NHS crisis or halting Brexit negotiations.  Players’ names and faces become familiar; results are publicized far and wide and key events quickly become assimilated in our culture. The tournaments begin with people selecting favourites: a national team, a vital player or a big personality, and then the show begins. For me, it’s like any good novel: there are heroes, villains, injustices, triumphs, laughter and tears. We have underdogs, someone to root for and someone who is dangerous, whom we will fear: the opposition. We hope and pray that things will go the way of our heroes and we hold our collective breath as they set forth on their quest for victory. There will be adversity on the way – offside goals, penalties, red cards – but we hope that it will all end happily ever after for those players we support.

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In terms of the 2018 World Cup football tournament in Russia, the English media and fans are hopeful that their team will make a respectable showing. Fans will never lose sight of the iconic memories of 1966: Bobby Moore hoisted on top of the victorious team of cheering players, his fist clutching the Jules Rimet Trophy. The moment 52 years ago that England last won the World Cup is fixed in the minds of the English fans, whether they are old enough to remember it or not, because it has been so long since England had a football team who could go close to emulating Moore’s men. They long for football to ‘come home’ again.

Of course, there are the football haters who echo Guy Martin’s words: ‘I have nothing against football. It just seems very wasteful losing 2 hours of my life to watch 22 millionaires on TV chasing a bag of wind in their underwear.’ Martin has a point: he is a motor cycle racer turned TV presenter and it must be frustrating to adore and participate in such a thrilling sport where coverage is marginal. Footballers are paid a great deal of money and live a life of luxury. That is the case for many people and we are all aware of the gap between rich and poor. The difference in salary between the Premier League and lower leagues is huge. In the Championship the average salary is between £7.500 and £8.500 a week. The top players in the Championship can earn around £80.000 a week. The average salary in League One is between  £1.700 and £2.500, and in League Two it’s between £1.300 and £1.500. Still above average, but hardly enough for a life of luxury.  Many working class boys around the globe practise football skills from an early age in the hope that they can one day live the dream of being a sporting hero. Few achieve it.

This brings me back to the World Cup. Before this year’s tournament even began, the media machine was underway, thrilling us with episodes from the soap opera which is football. We held our breath wondering whether Mo Salah would start for Egypt, given the arm wrench he received from the dark lord of tackles, Sergio Ramos, in the Champions League final. We witnessed the sacking of Spain’s national coach. England’s Raheem Sterling was criticised over the gun tattoo on his right shooting leg, until it was revealed that  he’d vowed to  ‘never touch a gun’ after his father was shot dead when he was a boy.

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The World Cup has historically had its fair share of memorable controversies. 1986 brought the ‘hand of God’ moment where Diego Maradona, one of the greatest players ever, cheated by handballing a goal. In 2006, English referee Graham Poll booked the same Croatian player three times in match against Australia. (Two yellow cards constitute a red card sending off.) In the same year, Zinedine Zidane of France was sent off in his last-ever match, for butting an Italian player in the chest in retaliation to a verbal provocation, apparently about his mother. 2006 was a red card year for England too: Wayne Rooney was given his marching orders for stamping on a Portuguese player’s foot in the quarter finals, thereby contributing to England’s low chances of progression beyond that stage.

So there’s no shortage of best-seller material – scandal, horror, violence, tragedy, intrigue – but what about the romance, the love interest? I suppose that is where the supporters come in. We see them on the television, throngs of happy singing men with their shirts off, their whole national flag painted over their faces and bodies. Gone are the days of simply waving a rattle – this is full-on passion. And of course, like all mindless passion, it is about the heart ruling the head. When the team win, they are adored, idolised, their names chanted in songs which laud their prowess and promise eternal devotion. And when they lose, they are brought low, deemed flawed, despised, their names dragged through the mud and of course, all fans are technical experts and know what was needed to win, to alter the outcome, to change the game.

Albert Camus said that football is like theatre, and it is. A play in two acts, two halves. The players are centre stage for all to see. Fans live through the comedy and the tragedy, waiting for the final outcome. I think football is also like a novel:  each moment is a page turner, each game another episode leading towards the final game, the denouement where it all kicks off, where the climax happens. And of course, when the novel ends, it may be the best one yet or it may be one of the less satisfactory stories. But there will be more games, the next sequel, and more opportunity to invest emotionally, another chance to watch, to analyse, to give our opinions and offer our own interpretation. We will always continue to hope that our central characters win the day and become the memorable heroes we all aspire for them to be. And when it all becomes completely unpredictable, someone will breathe a sigh of amazement and say ‘You couldn’t write this stuff!’
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Can’t get your novel started? Here are my 12 top tips

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

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

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

‘How many words, Judy?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Top Tips for Writers’ Block…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved this book cover to cover

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

Made me laugh & cry- lovely book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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Revelling in life’s little pleasures…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Five inspirational writers on International Women’s Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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