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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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…?

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Gone Away: my scary story read by Julie on the radio

A while ago I wrote a scary story, Gone Away. This week, actor Julie Mullen read it on the radio. It is such a privilege to have my work featured on The Word Cafe, SoundArt Radio.

Julie is a talent: actor, poet, singer, painter, she is the compere and organiser of workshops and Word Cafe performances across the south west and beyond.

The atmospheric music is added by composer Martin Seager.

The programme also features another story of mine, The Driver, read beautifully by Michelle McHale.

The soap opera, The South Hams, written by Julie, is a weekly feature of the programme, which is every Monday at five o’ clock. Here is the link – enjoy.

Thank you to Julie and Martin and to Issy Mattesini and Michelle McHale.

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Short story about telegraph poles, read by Julie on the radio

Here is a short story about telegraph poles, recently read so well on Dartington Arts Radio by my friend, talented actor Julie Mullen.

I wrote it as a member of a writing group, where I’ve met so many other brilliant writers and artists. As a writer, I think it’s a real privilege to belong to a creative group, where all types of writers share their work and give feedback. So here’s a big thanks to Gill and the Totnes writing group and Peter and the Solitary Writers in Wellington. Groups provide us with a platform to make our single thoughts shared ones and to give our simple ideas the potential to become complex. Without the encouragement and dedication of group members, so many writers would be scribbling away alone.

 


Telegraph Poles

I see the crowd, a dozen people, all staring up. I push my way through to the front and look up, where they are looking. A dot of a green hat, a smudge of red anorak, a boy dangling.

Callum has the gift. His Daddy has it too, although he’d see it more as a curse than a blessing. His Daddy works away on the oil rigs most of the time and Callum’s Mammy is long gone, so the boy lives with me now. I thought the days were behind me when I’d be turning a teenager with a forehead full of acne out of his bed in the morning, but Callum only has me to look after him.

Of course, being fifteen is the hardest time for the boy. It was the same with his father, but I was younger then and I had a husband to help me and no rheumatism in the legs. Not that my Jacko was a lot of use to me: he’d spend most time in his arm chair with a Guinness in one hand and the horse racing pages in the other, but at least there was another breathing body in the house, another person besides me to patter around the place. Now there’s just me and Callum.

He is a bright boy, Callum. His teachers always said so. Of course, they said a lot of other things too. Like he was a bit mad, a bit different. Anti-social was the usual phrase. Just the same as his Daddy.

I first noticed the gift when he was two. I was reading The Irish Times and he was on my knee with a bottle of milk, sucking at the empty teat. Callum never let go of anything, especially his baby habits. He still sucks on the thumb now. Anyway, he’s on my knee and I’m reading The Times and he says ‘T- for Tiger, I for Ink, M for Monkey, E for Egg, S for Swan.’ I just looked at him. Then I realised it: he wasn’t reading. He was saying the letters from the alphabet book in his room. He’d memorised them. He could say them back to me, at two.

His nursery school teacher said he was incredible: she could send Callum to the library for any book. ‘Go and get ‘The Hungry Giant,’ Callum,’ she’d say and he’d come back with the right book. ‘Go and get ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ Go and get The Holy Bible.’

Every time he’d bring the right book back, and he was only four. He had seen all the covers and he remembered the colours, the words and the pictures.

Then came the Maths and we knew he was a genius. He’d counted a hundred and three telegraph poles between my house in Hamlyn Street and the school. There were sixteen lamp posts between my house and the corner shop. There were seventy two poles between home and The Flying Pig, where we’d go to find his Granddaddy on an evening. And then he’d add them all together.

‘I have seen 382 poles today, Grandmammy,’ he’d say.

Of course, Jacko would take him on: ‘No, Callum, lad, you’ve seen 191.’

‘Yes, Granddaddy, but that was on the way there- we came back as well. That’s 382.’ He was five years old.

The school said he was bright for his age. Then they said he was disruptive, then dysfunctional and finally unteachable. He bit Denis Brady so badly the blood dripped from his arm for ten minutes. He pulled Mollie Flanagan’s hair out by the roots because she called him weird. The head teacher told him to play football downstairs but she took exception to him booting the ball from step to step on the stairway and she was even more angry when she asked him what he was doing and he told her: ‘Exactly what you told me to do- play football down the stairs.’ He didn’t understand why she called him insolent.

Callum doesn’t go to school now. He is home educated, but he is rarely in when Elizabeth Dooley comes round to give him lessons. And I can’t keep him in. He takes off to the fields and spends all day there.

Today’s no different. I woke him up at eight- he likes to be exactly on time-and he came down in his pyjamas, ate his four sausages and two eggs and one piece of buttered white bread, then went to the cupboard looking for the wagon wheel biscuits. His food has to be on the same plate, the same amount, and I’m not allowed to change brands – he’ll know it right away! He is six feet tall almost. Of course, with Callum it has to be exact. ‘I’m 1.8034 meters tall today,’ he tells me, and I believe him because he knows all about meters and I don’t. What I do know is he is tall for his age, he’s growing fast, he eats me out of house and home and his Daddy doesn’t send enough money back from the rigs in the North Sea.

So this morning, Callum puts on his red anorak, the one he chose that had to be red, and his green woolly hat that makes him look a little demented along with the little map points of acne that flare on his face, and his size ten trainers that are now too small but he won’t take them off and let me buy new, even though the water seeps in through the sole. And away he goes, goodness knows where. I imagine he is in the fields down by Massey’s Farm, as he comes back smelling of hay and cow dung and grass. There are a lot of pylons and telegraph poles down there to count and it’s quiet, not many people to disturb him, and I remember his Daddy used to spend a lot of time by the farm at his age and later too, when he used to take Susie Duggan over to the barns and he got her in the family way with Callum.

The day goes fast, what with me deciding to clean the oven and it wears me out so I fall asleep in the big chair Jacko always used to doze in, with the telly on. When I wake up, the air is cold and my skin is prickling, so I put on a jumper. I realise it’s gone seven and I’ve not started to make tea and Callum’s not back yet.

I feel a surge of worry, a little fist at my heart, as he’s always on time. My knees ache a little and my knuckles are swollen from cleaning the oven, but I put on a thick coat and go out.

I turn the corner to Massey’s farm and I see the crowd, a dozen people, all staring up. It’s growing cold but the people smell warm, of sweat and cigarettes, as I push my way through to the front and look up, where they are looking. A dot of a green hat, a smudge of red anorak, a boy dangling from a telegraph pole. He’s shinned right to the top and now he’s calling down at me, waving an arm.

‘I can see the estate from here, Grandmammy. Seven hundred and five houses, a hundred and twenty two bungalows and I can even see The Flying Pig. I can see all over the farm. There are seventy nine cows and fifty six sheep and that makes 540 legs in total.’

Then he lets go; the body falls in an arc and lands with a thump. The crowd are on the move and, despite my aching joints and swollen knees, I am running in front of them. Callum is lying on his back, and his green hat has fallen sideways over one eye, showing dark curls and a livid rash of spots across his brow. He smiles up at me.

‘Seven hundred and five houses, a hundred and twenty two bungalows. If an average of 3 people live in each house…’ His eyelids flutter. ‘…that’s two thousand four hundred and eighty one people…’ I see blood coming from his mouth. Someone has phoned for an ambulance: its whine is in my ears. I kneel down and take Callum’s hand. It is limp.

 

 

 

When a novel is finished, the editing starts…

Before I wrote my first novel, I used to think that ninety thousand words was quite a lot. Many people tell me that it’s a horrendous amount of work – I often hear people gasp when I say ‘I’m about half way through – I’ve done fifty thousand words…’

It isn’t that bad at all. I’ve written lots of things from scripts to dissertations, so thousands of words don’t really faze me, but a novel is a different animal. Although an essay, in any form, may need re-drafting, upgrading and improving, there is nothing like editing a novel to alter the word count considerably, both up and down.

Some novels will never be finished – they don’t deserve to be. I set myself a twenty to forty thousand word cut-off point with a novel, where I review both what I’ve written and how I feel about it. If I’m not enthused by it and desperate to write more, then I stop and file it away. If I’m not completely caught up in my novel, I can’t expect readers to be blown away either. It’s not a waste – an idea can always come back later in another form.

In truth, I suppose you never really ‘finish’ a novel until it comes out in print. More to the point, there are probably several stages of ‘finishing’ a novel. The first time you ‘finish’ is when you write the last words of the final chapter of the story, add the full stop and then breathe out: ‘Ah yes, that’s the ending I wanted.’ Of course that’s a false finish, one of many false finishes. In some ways, you’ve only just started.

The next stage is editing. I always edit as I write, going back to read through what I’ve written to check for sense, clarity, effective storytelling, style, continuity. That’s part of the revisiting process inherent in writing a novel. But when the work is completed, it’s important to read through the whole thing again, preferably aloud, to check for everything from silly typos, errors of continuity, to tension, character, voice, style and impact. Usually, there’s some dead wood to take out – unnecessary phrases, descriptions, repetition. Often, though, I need to add more words. I’m not an indulgent writer – I often tend to write just the ‘bones’ of a novel, so during an edit I have the opportunity to expand a situation and develop a character or a setting further to improve the effect.  I usually edit the novel twice at this stage and then I walk away for a day or two.

Later, having moved my mind away from my work, in the middle of an inane task an idea usually comes to me about the novel, one that I hadn’t previously thought of – an opportunity to add something that will make the impact even stronger or clarify a character. So I go back, include the new idea and re-read the chapters around it, checking that it’s integrated and that it makes sense in context.

After a couple more edits, it’s time to ask others to comment so that I can edit again, although it’s nice to have a reader ‘on the journey’ with me to test the effectiveness of story and character as I write and to make sure the tension works. I believe in the ‘other heads are better than just mine’ rule, or the ‘I don’t want to get anything wrong so I’ll check everything as much as possible’ rule. I am lucky to know people who always bring something special to my novel.

My partner, Big G, will suck his teeth and shake his head when he reads a certain passage and I’ll gasp ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ and he’ll sigh and say ‘In this paragraph, the (insert any type) car/ plane/ engine/anything mechanical, you’ll find that the engine/ exhaust/ wings/ anything mechanical/ nature/ chemistry/ physics won’t work the way you’ve said, it will work like this… (insert a long explanation I won’t understand…) etc. etc.’ So I change what I’ve written slightly to make the science right. Great to have an engineering perspective and I make the most of this resource all the time.

My agent is brilliant, sharp witted, intelligent, with boundless medical knowledge, grammatical knowledge, literary knowledge: her advice is a priceless resource I always benefit from. I try out chapters on family and friends to check that I’m getting an emotional response when I need one. One of my best responses was where my daughter read the scene where Nan comes to the rescue in The Age of Misadventure, and she clapped and cheered. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

Then there are more edits. Everything from genre to gerunds comes under scrutiny, not to mention the legal perspective that could cause a very awkward situation if there is something in a novel that isn’t allowed to be included. It’s useful to work with professionals who understand marketing too. A clever editor might suggest ‘This novel will be out in the spring – you’ve written it to take place in the autumn. Can you change the seasons to coincide with the release date?’ It makes absolute sense when you think about it.

The advice that writer Stephen King gives about ‘killing our darlings’ (*) is good: we should never be afraid of rejecting whole chunks, characters or chapters if it’s not making the novel the best it can be. It doesn’t help to cling on to what we’ve written unless we are sure it is for the good of the whole finished novel. Flexibility is so important when we’re involved with editing. Most things we eventually change in our novels make total sense in terms of the overall package. If a writer thinks ‘But I’d rather keep this character or scene this way,’ we have to be sure it’s for the readers’ benefit and not because we, as writers, have developed a false illusion of its worth, which is very easy to do as a creative artist, always emotionally involved in the process.

Then there’s the incredible moment of realisation that the draft has become a real novel: it has a release date, a title, a front cover. But it’s still not finished: after line edits, word edits, type setting, there’s still one final chance to go through it all again. I always find that last edit quite scary: it’s the last opportunity to make changes before it’s too late.

I’ve just finished another novel this week and I’m pleased with it. It’s a great feeling, a bit like how it must feel to have constructed a newly-designed model aeroplane and now it’s about to be tested on the air. Are the conditions right? Will it fly? Will there be bumps on the way? Is it made of strong stuff to take any knocks and to withstand all weathers? Do I need to make some modifications or are any radical reconstructions needed before it can take off and soar? It’s at this point that I have to believe that it has strong wings and isn’t filled with lead. Self- belief comes from the instinct that what is on the page works and the knowledge that I’ve edited well.

Metaphors aside, finishing a novel is also about changing headspace and leaving the past work behind. It’s about clearing the mind, moving away from the story and the characters and doing something else, preferably outside, preferably in the sunshine, walking in the woods, lazing on a beach or travelling in the van.

There are two benefits to taking time out, other than the ‘I deserve it’ moment: rewards are something I don’t do for myself often enough. One payback is that when I return to a novel and read it freshly, if it feels good, makes me laugh and cry, entertains and moves at a cracking pace and makes me happy: then I know I’m on the right path. And secondly, taking time off from writing has a replenishing effect. One set of thoughts are blown away and a space is cleared for a new idea and project to float in. It’s a kind of spring-cleaning of the mind and the emotions that every writer needs – permission to move forward, if you like.

The truth is that I already have my next novel idea in my head; I’ve thought up the tension, the characters and setting. I just need to give my mind time and space to fill in a few gaps before I go back to plan a bit and then move to the computer and hammer it all out on the page, another ninety thousand words. Then the process starts again.

(*) ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

My unconventional relationship with the sofa, based on Dr Who and the Champions’ League semi final game

 Perhaps I should start by saying that the only time I sit down conventionally is when I’m writing at the computer. And that is hardly conventional sitting – my cat, Colin, is behind me on my chair, occupying three quarters of the seat, so I am perched on the end, which isn’t a bad thing as it leans me myopically closer to the screen and the keyboard. Colin is purring, I’m typing away, so it’s a symbiotic situation that leaves me with a warm butt and Colin with a feeling of being connected to the person that feeds him.

Most of the time at home, I sit on the floor. At mealtimes, I am sometimes at the table, sometimes on the move, but for the purposes of reading or watching TV, I’m on the floor or on the exercise bike.

So – the situation with the sofa is as follows. I have one – a sort of soft sofa that visitors or family can lie full-length on with a cup of tea, nodding off if they wish, with a cat stretched across their torso. Sofas provide comfort. But, for me, a sofa provides more comfort than simply a place to stretch out and relax. A sofa is a sort of safe grandparent figure.

I only had one grandparent, and that’s a story for another blog. My Nanny Leigh was lovely but she wasn’t your conventional grandparent who lived in a conventional place and did conventional things. I certainly wouldn’t have crawled onto her knee for comfort. She’d have giggled and said something to me I wouldn’t have understood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that sofas are places I go to seek solace.

It started when I was a child, the first time I watched Dr Who and the Daleks. I was petrified. So, of course, I hid behind the old sofa and peered out at the scary metal creatures with the protruding stick arm that killed everyone with a blast of radiation and turned them into skeletons.

The good thinking about a sofa, and hiding behind one, is that it is big. You can duck behind it and just listen to the scary sound effects, or you can peek round the corner, having a huge barrier of safety, a wedge of furniture between you and the terrifying thing on the screen. It is also soft and giving, like a big hug, so you can lean against it and believe you are getting support from something larger and therefore less vulnerable than you are. Its solidity is solace itself.

Years later a student of mine, Magic Dave, recommended Gothika as a film he said I’d enjoy. Enjoy is one of those peculiar words. I did enjoy Gothika, but in the way that I’d have enjoyed having my toenails plucked out singularly for the fun of it. I watched the entire film behind the sofa, scared witless.

Peering out at Halle Berry’s psychologically terrifying and thrilling performance was even worse than the daleks. I took out my contact lenses and hid behind the sofa, peering out blindly occasionally to guess if the screen was safe enough to watch. I’d formed a habit now – the sofa was a shelter, a den and a giant brave grandparent all rolled into one.

And, of course,  there was the question of football. I’ve even put squashy cushions behind the sofa now, a duvet, pillows, a flask of soup, for watching football. Istanbul, the Champions league final of 2005, found me camped out for the entire 90 minutes plus extra time plus the heart-stopping Dudek heroics of the penalty shootout. And, cowardy custard that I am, I’ve hung out behind the sofa for most Liverpool games this season, both Premiership and Champions’ League.

This leads me to the Barcelona game last Wednesday, the game we lost 3-0 and still played very well. I was shivering behind the sofa singing ‘He’s Virgil Van Dyke’ at the top of my voice, clutching my flask of soup, hiding, peering out for a few seconds then diving back when the going got tough.

So, this Tuesday, with a 3-0 deficit, the game at Anfield, where will I be watching the entire match? I’ll be behind the sofa. I have no idea what will happen in terms of the final outcome, but I’m hoping for a miracle, a good result, the way my team often succeed by doing things the hard way and respond to adversity with heroics. We might score the first goal, a second before half time and then the second half is poised for a third goal. This will evoke memories of Istanbul, (seen from behind the sofa.) Messi may not turn up and maybe Mo Salah will. Maybe he’ll be fit and Sadio Mané will be on a roll and I may even be able to crawl out from behind the big sofa and watch some of the action before ducking back and shaking like a leaf, screaming ‘I can’t watch, I can’t watch’ at the screen.

Statistically, given that we’re three goals down, it’s possible that we’ll lose and I may emerge from behind the sofa to watch it all, Messi scoring the first, Suarez the second, and I’ll sit and watch the heroics of my team, playing well, missing sitters, not being quite incisive enough to score when we should have nailed it, but deserving to have found the net for a goal or two. I imagine I’ll sigh and be philosophical and say ‘Well, on another day we’d have won.’ ‘Who can play against that kind of Messi free kick?’ ‘We played much better than the result shows’ and ‘Next year, we’ll be there…’ I won’t need to be behind the sofa if we are five down on aggregate – the result would be a foregone conclusion, so therefore there’d be no tension, no fear. I’d be safe sitting on the floor in front of the screen in the knowledge that we’d lost.

But at least, although my air-borne dreams of football and trophies will have been dissipated, the sofa will be there in all its avuncular firmness, and I’ll be able to hide next season when, of course, my team will be beak with a vengeance, fully fit, ready to win the league, the Champions’ league, even do the treble.  The duvet and pillows and flask of soup will be at the ready and I’ll be able to dive behind for safety at any moment when a penalty is given, listening for the roar of the crowd to tell me whether we’ve scored or not before I can creep out safely and cheer.

I have a lot of reasons to be grateful to my sofa. But sitting on it is the last thing I use it for – unless guests come round and they’re not in my house to watch horror films or football.

The joys of research for a writer- and the scrapes…

As writers, we are often told that we should write about what we know. That much is true – we write about people, places, relationships and the vagaries of the human condition. So much of what we write is based on what we know already. But sometimes our writing ventures into places and areas we know nothing about. I don’t know everything. Sometimes I think I don’t know much at all.

Knowledge comes to us in many ways and one way to understand the world is through experience. So if I need to find out about a place I know nothing about, I pack up the camper van and go there. Research has its positives, and travelling is a huge opportunity. I’ve been to various locations in the UK and Europe to find out how it feels to be in such-and-such a place, as well as to understand the geography. Currently in the early planning stages, one of my future novels involves a road trip in the US, so I’m saving up for that, but it’s not cheap so it won’t happen this year – possibly next. Of course, when everything else fails in terms of actual physical research, there’s always the internet.

As a student years ago, the first time round, libraries were the places where much of my research happened: I spent hours leafing through books, files, documents, letters, trying to find the information I needed. There was also empirical research – direct or indirect experience or observation. But in those days, there wasn’t the immediacy of going on Google and having so many choices thrown up in seconds, which I discovered was a great benefit in recent years and during my master’s. The internet is a writer’s dream and I’m grateful for it every day.

However there is one drawback. I’m sure all writers will tell you this: we become victims of algorithms. It’s hilarious. When I was writing A Grand Old Time, I wanted to find out how much Evie would pay for a second-hand campervan in France. So I researched it on the internet. For the next month, I was inundated with spam emails asking: Are you hoping to buy a campervan, Judy? Look no further.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I wanted to write about an older woman who tried to find love on a dating site. So, having no experience of dating sites except for the sound advice of my twenty-something-year-old son, I delved into the internet to find out exactly how it happens. It was really successful research – I found loads of information. I sifted through it all with a smile on my face and sent my character on an internet date or two with fascinating results. I loved writing those scenes. Then I received excessive amounts of spam about internet dating sites and did I need to find love now that I was over forty? I was even offered a Russian bride, a suggestion that was received with much humour from my partner Big G who, it has to be said, is tolerant beyond belief.

This brings us to the drag club scene I was writing this week. I’ve never been to a drag club, although I’d love to, and I think it’s the least I can do to make my research as authentic as possible. But, for the time being, pre-editing, I did the research on the internet and found out pretty much what I needed to know to write the scene. But then the emails that came into my spam box this morning… No, no, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

There’s a novel to be had from all this: a writer is researching the internet perfectly innocently for a new book, but the trail left by the algorithms points to… dah, dah, daaahhh!!!

I’ll give that one some thought. Meanwhile, I’ll keep up the researching – it makes me laugh every day and it’s great to be writing with a big smile on my face.

 

Judy Leigh -26b

Three recommended books to celebrate International Romani Day

 It’s long been a belief of mine that kids of all ages should see themselves reflected in and represented by the curriculum taught in schools. Too often novels and historical books can inadvertently leave out groups of people so that many learners never find people like themselves in aspects of their own education. Of course, there are many sociological and historical reasons for this and I’m not blogging about patriarchy or dominant cultures today, but it’s really important for everyone’s education that there is a ’just like me’ moment for every learner in the classroom every so often, so that all kids understand where they come from and that they are represented, they have role models, so that they know they have a valid and important place in the world. I’m sure many of us understand this experience or the lack of it from our own education.

If I asked you to name a book that dealt with the experience of Romani people, you might come up with Zoli by Colum McCann, or perhaps Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy or Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. You might even have read something by Damian Le Bas. Hopefully, you wouldn’t say ‘What about The Hunchback of Notre Dame because of the Esmerelda character?’  That’s one stereotype too far but, sadly, that’s just one of the ‘types’ some people are familiar with.

Many books about Romani people are written by non-Romani people – I don’t have a problem with that – but it’s good to read other books written by those who have personal experience, and that is where writers such as Walsh and Le Bas have so much to offer readers.

So here are three books on International Romani Day that I adore, and that I believe might have an important place in the classroom too. They have each influenced me so much in their own ways, both in terms of my own writing and in terms of my experience of the world today, and I’d love to see them as frequently used resources on the curriculum.

I have heard lots of discussion from teachers about teaching Roma children, opinions that often reflect the sense of difference rather than the embracing of diversity. I’m not going to comment on it in this blog, except to say that many Romanichal children can feel invisible in the classroom in more ways than one.

The first book on my list is The Pariah Syndrome by Dr Ian Hancock. What an inspiration that man is! I knew a fair amount about the history of the Romani people and their journey across Europe from India before I read his book, and I knew about the various attitudes of others towards them and how that impacted on history, the subsequently ostracised way of life and the need for distance. But the detailed documentation of the slavery and the ill-treatment across time cited in Hancock’s book was so shocking that it gave me nightmares. It is a part of history that everyone should know about and understand. Dr Hancock has also been a powerful influence on my own writing, especially in one novel that deals with events from a historical period.

The Pariah Syndrome is an important book; it should be read widely, not just by Romani people but by anyone interested in justice and the impact of centuries of mistreatment. Dr Hancock is an incredible man, and his lifetime’s work is so important. He’s honest; he pulls no punches: his writing is well researched and completely readable. Also, he highlights how important education is to everyone and especially to those of us who don’t start from a privileged position. The Pariah Syndrome is my first recommendation – in fact, anything written by Dr Hancock is wonderful.

Louise Doughty’s Fires in the Dark may be most people’s go-to novel about the Romani people because it deals with porrajmos. Books and films about the holocaust of World War Two don’t always focus on the 500,000 Romani people slaughtered, and Fires in the Dark is a powerful novel that highlights the horrors and realities of Romani experiences. (If you want an excellent film that does the same job, do look at Korkoro, a 2009 French drama film written and directed by Tony Gatlif.)

However, my favourite novel of Doherty’s is Stone Cradle. The main two characters, Clementina and her son Elijah, and the documentation of their lives strike a chord with me. I feel that I know both characters and their children. Since the novel is historical, dealing with three generations, it fills in some interesting gaps about the changes of the travelling lifestyle and the subsequent impact on the lives of Romani-descendant house dwellers in England. It reminds us about the old language and old ways that may have eroded over time.  I found Stone Cradle deeply moving on many levels, as a story, as a depiction of realistic characters and as a record of the way things used to be.

My third choice is Tsigan by US poet, Cecelia Woloch. I’d recommend all of her poetry books although they can be a little difficult to get hold of in the UK and Europe. I love her use of language, her ability to tell stories and to evoke images and emotions. Her poems are a celebration of the lives of people who have suffered generations of disempowerment, poverty and exile. Often the poems are deeply reflective and personal.

Her work should be on the Literature curriculum in schools: in fact all three books from my list enable readers of all ages to achieve a better understanding of Romani people, their lives and their legacy. I recommend them to you.  Baxt hai sastimos tiri patragi…

When we walked out one spring afternoon…

I popped round to my friends’ house yesterday, five minutes away, just up the hill, for a cup of tea and a chat. It was a completely normal nice activity. The weather was glorious so we sat in the garden. Birds twittered and the sun filtered through branches; little clenched buds were beginning to open. We were talking about the usual things – a local pub closing down, chain saws, cider. My friend’s little dog was jumping up, keen to stretch her legs. Then all of a sudden, Murphy turned up, strutting through the garden as if he owned it and my neighbour said with a grin, ‘There’s your bad cat. He’s always round here. He had a pigeon last week.’

Murphy is the smallest of my three cats but he’s the most independent and he has a bad reputation locally. He’s always prowling around the neighbourhood. Recently a feral female was on heat and Murphy, despite having insufficient equipment to see the situation through, saw an opportunity. He is affectionate and sweet at home but, once outside in the wild, he’s an avid rabbiter. He slaughtered one in front of me a week ago.

I drank my tea and kept my eye on the little dog, but she didn’t seem to mind Murph as he came up to rub against my ankles. In fact, the dog ignored him as he sidled too close, looking for a reaction. There was none so Murphy stayed, despite my suggesting gently that he went home. He ignored me. He’s a cat, after all.

Then my neighbour suggested we took the little dog for a walk across a few fields so, despite being inappropriately shod in crocs (pink ones) I agreed and off we went: two people and a dog. The little dog scuttled alongside us, sniffing everything, as we crossed a road, took a narrow path, cut through a hedge and looked out at an open field. Then I glanced behind me and there was Murphy.

‘Are you coming for a walk, Murph?’ I asked him and he surged ahead, his little paws padding effortlessly on the dusty ground.

We walked on, an interesting group of four: two humans, one in pink shoes, a little terrier and a black cat with white paws. We strode through another field with great views of the valley down below, then up into another field and across a footpath. The little dog bounded ahead. Murphy was at my ankles, then a few steps behind before he would surge in front.

A mile later, we climbed through a hole in the hedge, meters from my neighbours’ house. We hugged goodbye – the humans, not the animals – and Murphy and I walked home. I was a little more concerned because we were on a road where vehicles often zoom past – farm machinery, cyclists, silent electric cars and too-fast drivers who doesn’t expect to see animals out for their afternoon constitutional. But Murphy didn’t seem to mind. We strolled home together and into the house, where Murphy demanded immediate sustenance before crawling onto an arm chair and going to sleep. He was worn out, poor thing.

Our cross-country walk has prompted me to plan our next sortie. Murph and I will take to the fields again soon. Next time we might even ask TC to accompany us – he could do from a break from eating. (TC is Murphy’s brother, the one who scoffs curry and crumpets and anything else he can pilfer.) The exercise would do TC good.

Colin won’t come. He sleeps on my office chair most afternoons -or the keyboard or the laptop. He likes to alter my novels, to upgrade them as he sees fit, which is mostly a series of skedjpdcnb1ihfgbcanopqcu01. Colin considers that a good edit.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining outside and Murph is giving me that look – are we going out or what? All right, Murphy – I’ll just get my keys and the pink crocs and we’ll be off.