Now about some of these old rock song lyrics…

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

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

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

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bring with them the problem of their social history, specifically misogyny: some of the lyrical content is  extremely outdated.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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My Christmas past, present and future…

I always look forward to Christmas. I’ve been doing it for a long time, pressing my nose against shop windows, gazing at the twinkling lights in town, anticipating the fun and excitement of 25th December. Arguably, anticipation is a huge part of the whole Christmas package, putting up sparkly decorations, buying presents, going to carol services, listening to that Slade song you haven’t heard for a whole eleven months and watching Love Actually again on TV.

We know we’re really lucky to be able to enjoy Christmas as we tuck into that special dinner with our families, as we invariably remember of those who can’t share the joy: there are people in war-torn countries, others living in shop doorways. People have such high expectations of how perfect Christmas time should be that disappointment, loneliness and depression may go unnoticed and unsupported. Charity and kindness to others have always been an integral part of Christmas; in many ways we’re still living in the times of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim Cratchit.

This year could be my first empty nest Christmas and, after years of the festive season being mainly about the kids, planning for twelve months to make the celebrations great for them, the prospect of a silent house can be a strange thing to come to terms with.

If I think about it, Christmas has always been a full-pelt, manic time. I was reminiscing with my brother just the other day about how Christmases used to be when we were kids and it was one of those ‘if you told people nowadays they’d never believe you’ moments. Read on:

When I was about seven, the council moved us into a house. We had a bath, a toilet. Unprecedented luxury. Previously we’d had a moveable tin bath and a shared khazi in a field. Now we had a proper house with three bedrooms and a garden. No heating, no double glazing, no fridge, no phone, no carpets, but it was Buckingham Palace. We slept under coats – no blankets or sheets or duvets – and woke with huge icicles hanging inside the windows but we thought we were in paradise. We lived in the kitchen all year but on Christmas day our Dad bought a precarious paraffin heater and we were allowed to go into the front room to sit on the sofa. A real privilege.

We had very little money. Dad sold his Vincent Black Shadow one year, a motorbike that he should have hung onto, to buy us presents. But we had vegetables in the garden. My brother and I used to be sent out to pick Brussel sprouts in a wind so fiercely cold that our little fingers were numb and frozen to the sprout plant, which we hung onto to stop ourselves from blowing over in the icy blasts. Good times.

Christmas fare was about Mum plucking and gutting the pheasant our father had shot in the nearby woods while Dad uncorked a bottle of Bourbon he’d procured from some fella and drank the lot. We’d sit down to a cooked meal, everyone digging in except me,  experiencing early vegan tendencies, refusing to eat something dead and full of lead shot, expecting a slap for being ungrateful or ‘mouthy.’ Then we had to have Christmas pudding although nobody really liked it, and those orange and lemon segment jelly fruits that were still unopened in the wrapper well into January. It was tradition. It’s what people did, and we wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Christmas, once I’d become a parent, was about having a fun family time. I’d cook and bake for days before, take a hamper of goodies (and a bottle of Bourbon) and dinner down to my dad who’d refused to set foot in my house, then go back and start the festivities. My son and I would cook while the others watched the TV; we’d throw all sorts of creative things at the meal: crème de cassis in the gravy, vodka and chestnuts in the sprouts, and have a great time making vegan Yorkshire puddings, hoping they’d rise. Then four of us would sit at the table, pull home-made crackers full of gifts, eat too much and drink a bottle of sparkling wine. Happy memories.

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This year my son is in México for Christmas. He’ll have a great time and we’ll catch up on Christmas day for a chat on Skype. It won’t be the same but we can’t hang onto the same for ever. My daughter may come home if she can escape from the excessive workload she has and find a train on Christmas Eve. The offer is on the table: we could prepare food early in the morning, drive down in the campervan, pick her up and have Christmas dinner on the beach. An empty nest means you can do things differently, and I’m learning to relish change.

Next year, we’ve talked about spending Christmas in France. Choices open out like the pages of a new book. One day, I’d love to spend Christmas somewhere warm, although I can’t imagine how it would feel: I’ve been cold in December since year one. But it’s about grasping opportunity. Imagine spending a week in a log cabin with friends, surrounded by snow, fir trees, bears!

It’s difficult, of course, at first, to come to terms with change: Christmas usually means family, tradition, being together, sharing, the same-old. But there’s a nettle to be grasped that might just be a twig on the tree of life. It’s the chance to reinvent. Christmas could become all sorts of things now: camping on the beach, helping out in food kitchens, inviting new people to share hospitality and a log fire, sitting at the top of a mountain with a baked tofu sandwich.

Being privileged is something I’m strongly aware of in this age of food banks and cardboard box homes. This time of year reminds us that we should put something back, and not just at Christmas. But with the opportunity to rethink Christmas and not expect it to be routine and humdrum comes the chance to find a different way of having fun and coming together, to avoid the expense, the narrow expectation and the commerciality.

So perhaps it’s time to dispense with the eye-rolling ‘Oh not this old song again’ and the ‘Oh no: I’ve got the family coming to Christmas and I’ll have to peel all those sprouts’ and start again with the celebration of life, enjoying each day for its sheer pleasure. Christmas can be just that, simple delight, whether you are five or fifty five.

So bring it on, with my very best wishes. Merry Christmas everyone, however you choose to spend it: have a wonderful day and may your 2020 be filled with good health, love and your heart’s desires.

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What a difference a play makes…

I’m open to going to see all sorts of theatre but I’ve never been much of a Noel Coward fan. His plays have never particularly struck a chord with me, perhaps due to the archetypical Englishness, the veneer of sophistication, the stylised repartee with just a hint of misogyny unsurprising in a play written in 1943. But I’m always prepared to take another look, so I went to see Present Laughter when it was streamed to cinemas. It was a breath of fresh air.

The director Matthew Warchus brought the play up to date by making the central character, flamboyant actor Garry Essendine, played by Andrew Scott, bisexual and by swapping a few the genders of the original characters. The original predatory female, Joanna, becomes Joe, an incorrigible cad whose presence threatens Garry’s little clique of chums.

The performance of each character is spectacular, as is the timing and rapport: there wasn’t a weak link in a very accomplished production, but Andrew Scott is central to the success. His dynamic performance of contrasts, pouting and peacocking and throwing tantrums is directed in order to amuse and entertain. As a successful actor, Garry Essendine is adored by clamouring fans on all sides and subsequently he is vain, charismatic and extremely lonely. But it is a play that makes an audience laugh out loud and then stop to consider moments of tenderness and poignancy. Beneath the comic surface is a play that deals with an individual who feels lost and alone despite being surrounded by sycophantic acolytes.

The result is hilarious comedy and powerful commentary. Indira Varma is excellent as Garry’s separated wife Liz, the one who watches from a distance, understands and deals with any crisis. Similarly, as Garry’s secretary Monica, Sophie Thompson creates an impactful character on stage, as does Joshua Hill as his overconfident valet Fred. Garry employs and exploits these characters, he abuses them verbally and he is lost without their support.

Andrew Scott is energetic and inspired. I saw him last as Hamlet and, on that occasion, I was bowled over by the intelligence, subtlety and depth of emotion. His role in Present Laughter is an equally impressive virtuoso performance. For me, the directing was exactly right. We have to laugh with the hilarious frenzy of Garry’s cavorting histrionics; we celebrate his highs in order to understand his lows. As a successful actor, Garry is incapable of doing anything other than acting constantly and, when we glimpse the man behind the superficial show, he is exposed and fragile.

Present Laughter is an entertaining play and stands up well as a memorable evening at the theatre; it is well-worth visiting. But it leaves the viewer with more than a just a smile. The characters are superficial stereotypes but there are also poignant moments that hit home, as we consider the fragility behind the charm. A brilliant production.

How I fell in love with Scotland.

It’s ridiculous, really, that I hadn’t been to Scotland. I love travelling. I love the excitement of exploring new places, of filling my senses with new sights and scents and experiencing new cultures. I’ve been to some fascinating places: India, Israel, China, Africa, Mexico. And there are lots of places I want to go to, places I’ve never visited: Peru, Thailand, New Zealand. But somehow, in all the fun I’ve had travelling, I forgot about Scotland.

Some places you visit fill you with a sense of belonging there, even if you’ve never been before: there’s some kind of connection you can’t explain. I remember visiting Africa and the scent of the sun warming the land as I stepped from the plane was incredibly familiar. When I visit Dublin or the west coast of Ireland or Liverpool, there’s always a welcoming feeling, like I’ve come home. When I go to Europe, I’m always conscious that I’m European. But for some reason I can’t explain, I never really thought about Scotland that way, although it’s really only just up the road.

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I suppose first of all that I never thought of going there because I have no real connection to Scotland. There are no Scots in my family history that I know of; I have few Scottish friends and, if I’m honest, it’s the warm weather that often attracts me to a place and I know Scotland has a reputation for being cold.

But last week, all that changed forever.

I flew to Inverness. It took an hour: the same amount of time that it took me to travel to the airport. So, of course, the Highlands are on my doorstep. Why did it take so long for me to realise that?

The people were welcoming and friendly. I hired a car and took off towards Loch Ness. That was when it all fell into place. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. As I drove towards the place I was staying, mist was rolling on the loch and the surface of the water was calm, a sheet of glass. I slept in a bed that was so big I needed a ferry to cross it. The view from my window was of fog shifting around pine trees in a palette of so many colours that I couldn’t find words to describe most of them. Then there was the water merging with the sky, the mist and the mountains.

I drove to the Isle of Skye the next day and just kept catching my breath as I rounded each corner. Snow-capped mountains, stretches of water, trees and hills and a landscape any artist would be challenged to paint and represent the sheer beauty. Skye even has a beach and a walk to the top of hills so high you can see the Hebrides.

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The next day, as I took off to the west coast I was greeted by a wild boar trotting cheerfully down the road on my side. Of course, I slowed down to let him continue. The sun shone and the frost glittered on the grass and in the hedgerows. Again, the views were stunning.

I decided I had to write a novel set in Scotland and, because the air is so pure and the ambiance so calm, ideas were flowing faster than the whisky in the lodge where I was staying.

So I went out for a night ramble to take in the local stories and places. Castles, circles of stones, waterfalls, everything still and spectacular under a star-crammed sky and a low-hanging moon: ideas came thick and fast. And then I drove into a glen filled with deer, their eyes shining diamonds in the headlights, their antlers raised and their faces calm in contemplation. The serenity was overwhelming.

When I flew back from Inverness, I was changed somehow. My head was full of thoughts like ‘  When can I go back?’ and ‘Why don’t I live in Scotland?’ and ‘I want to go again with family and friends so that they can share the experience too.’

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I can only imagine how fresh Scotland will look in the spring, or how exhilaratingly cold the Highlands are in the depths of winter under snow. The autumn is a stunning time to visit Scotland and, like most addictions, I suppose, it starts with an overwhelming first experience quickly followed by the desire for more. And I could easily become addicted to Scotland.

I am currently thinking about an imaginary trip somewhere, soon, but my destination is now fraught with confusion. I might go to Majorca or Scotland, or Portugal, or Scotland. I am possibly going to France in the summer but I may go to Scotland before then, or afterwards, or both. I plan to go to South America some time but I will definitely go to Scotland before then, at least once. You see the problem?

It’s a place I can’t imagine ever having too much of. I have no idea why I left it so long to visit. But I loved it, everything about it, and it won’t be long before I go back to visit the Highlands again. I think I left a little bit of my heart there…

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Seven stages of writing a novel

When I first began writing A Grand Old Time, I was a master’s student. A 30,000-word opening to a novel plus a 20,000-word analytical document wasn’t a great ordeal. I’ve never been troubled by a word count. However, despite researching a range of novelists and considering their advice about writing, I was a novice and so the process of planning and writing a novel of between eighty-five and ninety thousand words was a learning curve.

Now I am about to have my third novel published, with a couple more novels written and waiting in the wings, and another two in a slightly different genre pre-edited, I have more experience of the process of writing a novel. It has to be said that the important place to start is to know yourself as a writer: we are not all the same in terms of our preference of planning, writing, editing, researching, being inspired and we do not all share the same work ethos. Once we know our foibles, fallibilities and strengths, we can steel ourselves against the rocky moments that might happen during the novel writing process, promise ourselves that we’ll be gentle with ourselves, and make a start.

Here is my seven stage guide to novel writing. It has to be said, not everyone will share the same experience, but if my guidelines help anyone else, I’m delighted.

Stage 1: Thinking. The idea of what to write, stotyline, themes and characters come first for me, and inventing them is not something I have ever worried about. Ideas come from all around us and the hard part is turning an experience, a headline, a conversation, a place, a moment into an inspiring story. I know other authors have asked friends and family for ideas about what they should write; some people draw inspiration from photographs, travel, from reading: whatever works for the individual is fine. Once you have an idea, it may be best to let it sit for a bit. Stir it around and let it ferment. At this stage, I usually ask myself to think outside the box. Do I want to start from this point? Is there another way the story might be more impactful, surprising, unusual? So not rushing stage one is important.

 

Stage Two: Scribbling first thoughts down. I usually work with a wheel, or a ‘clock’ shape. Twelve o’clock is the start and the finish, and I plot events around it. I assume that six o’clock will be around forty five thousand words. Then I look at my scribbles as a tension graph. Is there a good mixture of ‘up and down’, comedy and pathos, action and reaction? My ideas are tentative at this point and not ever fixed, not until a novel is published. I find it useful to know how my story will begin, how it will end, and to plot a few important points of tension or change as the novel progresses. Flexibility is important, the opportunity to change my mind as I write. But I start with a plan and, because I like to invent as I go, I keep it loose. This allows me to respond to the needs of the novel, the characters, the action and to change direction and surprise myself as I write. This isn’t a perfect plan: people who like every detail on paper before they start will not work this way: it will feel far too much like flying by the seat of your pants.

 

Stage Three: Making a start. I try to start somewhere interesting, at a point where the reader will want to find out what will happen next and I write the first thirty thousand words. How much I write can vary but it isn’t hard to write two thousand words a day; I have written six thousand on some days when I have the ‘bug’ and I can’t leave the novel alone. At this point, I don’t know if the novel will ‘grab’ me: there may be some exposition at the beginning, a lot of getting to know the characters myself, but I want to make the story’s development as interesting as I can. So the first ten chapters are written to make the storyline and characters as good as I can make them on the first writing, then I stop and read it back. If I’m not motivated at this point, I won’t write any more. It’s shelved for another day, one that may never come, or I may just steal an idea from it another time. It has to be said, it’s rare now that I abandon something at this stage: I’m getting better at knowing what I can work with.

 

Stage Four: Doubts and fears. This is the point where doubts creep in and you have to be quite resilient and follow your instinct. Writers are human and they are creative sensitive beings, so it’s natural to doubt the novel’s appeal and potential when you’re only forty or fifty thousand words through writing it. Sometimes, I wonder whether I’ve got a character ‘right’, whether the story ‘sings’ enough, whether it will work as a whole novel. I find it helps to have a friend or a colleague who will read it as you progress: it’s a fair indicator, as long as you trust the person, of the story’s power to intrigue and absorb. Choosing the right person is important: not everyone will like your novels, so you need someone  who understands you and who likes the genre. And you need to trust yourself, your skills, your ability to create something worthwhile and you need to believe that you can see it through to the end because, if there is a point where you doubt yourself, this is often it. You are too far in to stop, too far from the end to believe you can make it to the finish. But you can.

 

Stage Four:  The second half of the novel. Writing the rest of the novel, based on your initial plan, is not too hard now from about fifty thousand words, especially if you have organised your story plan in the earlier stages and allowed it to change as it needed to. Once you arrive at seventy and eighty thousand words, you are usually clear about what will happen at the end. At this stage, writing profusely and eagerly is part of the impetus that carries the characters and the action to its conclusion, whatever that may be. I enjoy this stage a lot.

 

Stage Five: Writing the ending. The last few chapters should not be predictable unless you have made that decision for a good reason. All loose ends need to be tied up, and it’s always nice to finish a novel in a place where the reader feels satisfied that they have had a good deal from the story and the characters: they haven’t been cheated of whatever they invested in from page one. Conclusions are important and although less may be more in terms of the final few paragraphs, and a writer may want to leave an opportunity for a book two, the ending should always enable the reader to stop at a point where their quest, the quest they have shared with the main protagonist, has been in some way fulfilled. There has to be a sense of fairness that the writer has held the reader in safe hands throughout the story. It usually takes me ten to twelve weeks to write the whole novel, even more if the sun is shining and there’s a beach nearby.

 

Stage Six. Edit like mad. I like to leave the novel for a day or two if not more, and then go through it and edit it several times. I’m looking first of all for howlers, big mistakes, things that don’t work in the story or the characters. Then I’m looking for expression, phrases, readability, making sure that the novel flows well. I want to weed out any inaccuracies of place, time, person, or any factual inaccuracies. At this point, I will ask others to read through and I will consult technical experts. It’s useful to have an editor or reader with a keen eye who will say ‘that won’t work because…’ (My agent is a genuis and a huge asset at this stage.) Then of course there are the typing errors, stupid things you can’t believe you wrote, flying commas and apostrophes, ridiculous repetition and the senseless sentence that occurred when the cat put his backside on the keyboard.

 

Stage Seven. Let go of the reins. The minute your novel is accepted for publication, a team of experts will work alongside the author and it’s important to go with the flow. In my experience, if an editor says ‘I think you should change that…?’ she or he is probably right and you should change it. There will perhaps be an odd occasion where something is really important to the writer and you can have a discussion about it but my general belief is that an experienced editor knows the market, the genre and the industry, so I tend to trust her judgement. The editing process is remarkable and I find it a real opportunity and a privilege to learn from people with vast amounts of skill and experience. I really enjoy the editing process, and my interaction with professionals influences for the better the way I will work. Copy editors and proof readers are invaluable: they pick up all sorts of embarrassing mistakes, calm down the excessive hyphens and they always know exactly whether everything is all right or alright. They do fascinating work, and theirs is a job I certainly couldn’t do, not having their infinite patience and great eyesight.

 

At this point, your novel has been on a long journey and it may be ready to go onto the shelves. So, you might think about starting another novel and then the seven stages begin again, but that is a blog for another time perhaps.

Cover Reveal: Five French Hens

I’m excited to reveal the cover for my next novel, Five French Hens, which is available from December 10th. It’s a story about people seeking fulfilment and it shows that sometimes life’s routine appears fine until you move away from it and take a look from a different angle.It is a novel about celebrating life, having fun, being resilient and unafraid of embracing change.

The plot concerns Jen, who is a widow. She meets Eddie, a widower, when walking alone on Exmouth beach on Boxing Day and they strike up a conversation. A friendship develops; they meet regularly and find they have much in common. In many ways, they are the ideal couple; they look good together, they enjoy each other’s company and they both know that living with each other would fill a hole in their lives so, when Eddie proposes to Jen on Valentines’ Day, she accepts and a date is set for an early spring wedding.

Her four friends from aqua aerobics are surprised at the news of Jen’s sudden engagement but they are all delighted for her and so, when Eddie announces that he will go to Las Vegas with his son for his stag party, the friends convince Jen to have her ‘hen do’ in Paris.

Jen’s four friends have very different lives. Tess is full of fun, but unhappily married. Della is happily married, wise and caring but with a mischievous streak. Pam is independent and happy living alone, although she has her adorable spaniel Elvis for company. Rose is a lonely and somewhat under-confident widow who teaches piano lessons to uninspired children and hates it. The unlikely group of friends embark on the hen party to Paris with the intention of enjoying themselves, but they have no idea how the trip will develop or how it will affect the rest of their lives.

Paris brings glamour, mischief and excitement: galleries, casinos, clubs, restaurants, shopping, and the five friends have a whale of a time. The women hit Paris and they are outrageous, romantic, funny and the events that occur make them rethink the course of their lives. But it is a very different group of women who return home several days later and, of course, when they arrive back in England, much has changed for each of them.

I hope readers will find Five French Hens hilarious, poignant, but with a strong sense that life is out there for the taking and, no matter what your age, you can try to find another chance at happiness.

 

For more information, go to https://www.boldwoodbooks.com/contributor/judy-leigh/

 

What the book I’m currently writing is about…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Several films I wouldn’t normally watch…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. Nervous Conditions,. Tsitsi Dangarembga.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. The Marble Collector. Cecelia Ahearn

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

  1. What Blest Genius? Andrew McConnell Stott.

 

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