My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.

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Three authors, three ‘Russians’ and my own novel

I am fascinated by etymology and I enjoy juggling with words but, as a writer, I try not to create blatant stereotypes in my characters. The word stereotype comes from the 1798 French adjective, stéréotype, which is a “method of printing from a plate.” It has come to mean a set ​idea that people have about what someone or something is like, ​especially an idea that is ​wrong, or in some way a mischaracterisation or an unfair generalisation.

It is easier to add depth and layers to a major character than a minor one: in my novel ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder,’ I gave myself 92,000 words to develop the central character of Evelyn. Her daughter-in-law, Maura, begins as a stereotype but I took trouble to create empathy for her and to focus on her motivation as I wrote.

However, it is more of a challenge with characters who appear only briefly. In my novel, Peggy and Geoff, whom Evelyn meets momentarily in Dax, with whom she shares a bottle of wine and who are the recipients of her mischief when Peggy mistakenly thinks Evelyn’s accent is Scottish, are as close to stereotypes as I want to come. I considered how I wrote them them for a long time: I have met Peggys and Geoffs, people whose middle-class idiosyncrasy is defined by their ability to analyse the bouquet of wine in depth and who carry their own prejudices and proclaim definitions of everything they see, measured against how they wish to see themselves. And, of course, Peggy and Geoff are there for humour and light relief: they are the foil for Evelyn’s honesty as I demonstrate her capacity to be a little iconoclastic. But I try to be fair with my characters, never abusing them or mocking them too harshly, and I always try to avoid harmful stereotypes.

Perhaps Paul Murray had similar thoughts, as he was writing his book, ‘The Mark and the Void’. I wonder if he considered the impact on the reader of creating stereotypes in many of his characters. Being of Irish descent on my mother’s side, I wasn’t sure how to take the tirade against the Irish on Page 112/113:

‘blanched, pocked, pitted, sleep-deprived….drunken speeches, drunken fights, drunken weddings, drunken sex…their punchbag history, their bankrupt state, their inveterate difference.’

I know we are hearing this onslaught through the persona of rich, feckless, French Claude (!) and I won’t deny that I have spent time with lovely relatives who have shared a bit of a drink and indulged in a bit of a falling out, but I puzzle over whether this is a damning evocation of a race for humour’s sake, and I also wonder how it is received by readers. Is it just funny, which is fine, or seen as the mad rant of Claude, which is probably fine, or would anyone out there actually consider it a valid view which supports their own narrow judgement?

Murray’s minor character Igor is ‘a great hulking creature, almost seven foot tall, with a sloping forehead, and brawny knotted forearms that extend from an ill fitting nylon shirt.’ (p 76). This is a vivid description of someone who is both funny and fundamental to the narrative: Murray makes us quickly suspicious of Igor’s assumed role and of his motives: he is probably going to reveal himself as a thug and a crook. Here we have a stereotype of Russian males, seen often in the movies.

I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch,’ especially for the character of Boris. A brilliant contrast to the main protagonist, Theo, and a terrible influence, Boris is big-hearted, morally suspect, always loyal and a source of great humour. His desperate and ill-fated love for Kotku, his drug-fueled binges, his battles and his bad relationship with his father make him a well-drawn character against whom we measure Theo’s development and his failures, and whom we love for the comedy and mayhem he creates and for the poignant truth of his tough and vulnerable lifestyle. Boris is a secondary character and he is Ukrainian, but he is not a stereotype. I always prefered him to Theo and as I read the book, I found myself  perpetually waiting for the next episode with Boris.

I recommend that you read Simon Wroe’s novel, ‘Chop Chop’ – it’s really entertaining and also quite poignant. All characters have a deliberate element of the stereotype in their names and their initial composition, and it is a completely valid technique, as they are chefs working in a restaurant kitchen, so their knowledge of each other is limited to their hierarchical job status and ‘professional’ rapport throughout the daily mayhem of creating fabulous food. The novel’s purpose is humour, parody, riot and a tale of raucous behaviour, but the story works so well because all characters begin simply and are developed cleverly. Monocle, the protagonist, is a lowly sous-chef forced to take the job because he needs money and can find nothing else to do with his English degree. Racist Dave and Bob the Chef become much more than simple labels as their lives unfold and again it is the Russian Ramilov, deeply funny and deeply flawed, ‘a dyed-in-the-wool psycho, a universal soldier,’ who steals the show for me.

The novel is tightly structured and the characters are developed so well that there is depth and compassion in them as well as humour. We like Monocle: despite his highbrow diction, he is the lowest of the low in the kitchen, with a lot to learn about life from the dysfunctional band of chefs who create superb food and teach him both their trade and their philosophies. It is a hilarious yet tender story, combining the ecstasies of haute cuisine with the most degenerate human behaviour and Ramilov is both filthy and heroic. It is a dark, brutal, savage and iconoclastic story and, for me, the ending and Ramilov’s triumphant villany make the book a page-turner. ‘Chop Chop’ is a great example of how a book can begin with characters which are pure stereotypes of class and race with the intention of making a hilarious narrative and then, due to the skill and the empathic writing, create a strong and plausible story in which characters are drawn with affection and detail.

As a writer, I read as widely I can, not just to immerse myself in creative ideas and good narratives, but also to switch on the analytical bit of my brain and see what type of writing works for me and why, and what might work for a reader and how other successful authors ply their craft. In my first novel humour, empathy and the bittersweet mix of laughter and loss have been a focus for me and I have learned a lot from many other great writers such as Tartt, Wroe and Murray.

My second novel is in the research stage and is more likely to be a shocker than a side-splitting rocker, so I will have many more books to read and to blog about throughout the year. Watch this space.

 

When my novel is an unweeded garden that grows to seed

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

In actual fact, I am now on 81,000 words and coming to the part which should make a really good denouement for the reader: if my novel is un-put-downable, then it follows that my writing is incessant  because I am so engaged with my characters and their situations that I have to keep writing.

It is there with me when I go to bed: it wakes me up at two in the morning and it is there at breakfast when I drink my tea. So what is this blog post really about? Not the inability to write. As Orwell said, and Orwell is a kind of writers’ God:

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

At the moment I am certainly driven. It is seldom that I can’t think what to write or can’t be bothered. So, why the Hamlet reference about the unweeded garden? Exactly that: it is full of stuff which needs pruning, sorting out, editing and of course the seeds are sprouting out in all directions.

That doesn’t worry me: I can tame this garden and I l0ve the challenge of editing. The problem is deciding which is the best edit. A wonderful tutor on my MA course told me to follow my instinct and , of course, that instinct has to hold me up when I am not sure whether what I am creating works well enough.

The instinct also has to be there for me when I disagree with a reader’s comment. The vanity Orwell mentions, a kind of arrogance, lies between the writer thinking she or he is right, the instinct saying so and the crushing dismissal of a reader who says ‘I would do it this way.’or ‘I think you should do it that way.’

I have a lot of feedback on my writing. I welcome it. No, I really need it. I take it seriously. I always think about it and I mostly act on it.

I have lovely writer friends who always offer me an intelligent and balanced critique: mostly I listen to what they say because they are great inspirational writers and also honest, intelligent friends.

Sometimes, I ignore what they say because it’s not right for me to take on their ideas but it is always something to consider, especially in terms of my own intention and the ensuing clarity – have I got my point across, does the character behave or act how I intend to portray them on the page? Have I been accurate and clear and used the right words and the right amount of them? Will the reader get it?

I have submitted a couple of short stories recently and had them accepted for publication. One editor actually went to the trouble of annotating my story, and I agreed with every comment. I like concise writing and the editor had pointed out a place where I could have cut a line or two.

I am never on the side of indulgence and I am always ready to cut. But I also have had a reader who suggested that I need to evoke all the details of the place: the reader can’t see it, so I need to paint the full picture. I disagreed with him: I had already created the ambience of the location and it was active in the reader’s mind – I checked with 3 readers – and I didn’t want to overegg it by interfering with or dictating to their personal imagination.

I like to create an idea but let the reader fill in their own details at times.

The same reader then went on to say ‘I would make this character more attractive…’ It was at that point I stopped listening to him. Vain and selfish I may be, arrogant too, but add discerning and wilful and you have an author who is writing her own stuff, not someone else’s.

I’d never preface any critique with ‘I would…’. All you can say is ‘You might consider… because…’. This is something else entirely, because you are offering a rationale and sharing ideas, not trying to control someone’s keyboard.

Worse still, the critic who doesn’t read the writing properly. The one who  says ‘You could have told the reader that…’ when I have blatantly said it once, maybe twice and don’t need to say it again. At this point I tell myself again, not every reader will like my books.

And that is ok: writers don’t seek widespread popularity, although it is great if people like your stories, but we seek to please some people a lot of the time. After all, I’m not an Austen fan and she is really good: I love Cormac McCarthy, but not everyone finds him as uplifting as I do!

So back to the unweeded garden. I am about to do something quite amazing with two of my protagonists and it is going to change the flower arrangement in my plot quite significantly; the weed killer is out and the rotavator is digging deep. I am not going to find this section easy and I’d like to thank a the brilliant author Matt Haig for a superb piece of advice, which I will gladly share.

He told me to face up to tough moments like this for the reader’s sake: don’t pussy foot around but crash headlong, make a mess of the garden, throw it all in the air and watch the soil settle. You can’t avoid the carnage of tension, and so I will be making a really big deal of the scenes I write this week.

It would be safer to not write them; it would be more comfortable to skirt around them but these scenes are not subtle and hinting won’t work – thanks, Matt – I am up to my neck in brambles in this one and I will dig my way out. It is so exciting to be writing action and emotion and I am well up for it.

So, the latest update on my novel is that I am going for some seriously powerful scenes at the moment then it is time for the big edit, where I will have to strip out sentences and upgrade whole sections. I am looking forward to it.

Then what: when it is all done and the story is over? I have a few seedlings ready to germinate in another plot in my allotment of ideas.

On writing my novel: ‘Older, Wiser, Wilder.’

My novel, Older, Wiser, Wilder is up to 57,000 words. My protagonist, Evelyn, is at a point where she has a life changing decision to make about what she will do in France. Her son, Brendan, is still trying to track her down but he has been temporarily held up; his wife, Maura, is not speaking to him and things look bad.

There has been binge drinking, bed-hopping and karaoke – not bad for a septuagenarian protagonist.

I find it is easy to write daily: what I write sometimes makes me laugh out loud and I have a valued group of readers who regularly check that it does the same for them. My critics span all personality types, genders, ages, many backgrounds and cultures and this is an incredibly useful way of gauging whether a reader will be interested and immersed.

Reading good books is a must for me. I know some writers say that plagiarism will loom if you read others’ stuff while you are writing but I believe the inspiration of reading well written prose is well worth taking time out.

Write while it rains and have fun while the sun shines is also a great way of working. It follows that you can write lots in any season unless you live somewhere hot.

Write or don’t write, guilt free. It is important not to spend the time you don’t write feeling bad that you aren’t at the computer. Time out is always good time. It is thinking time and inspiration time. Time well spent. And if it takes you on a walk, or to a friend’s or down the pub, well, that’s fine.

Writing from passion and love is also vital. I have sympathy for all my characters, even the ones you might not like much at some point in the novel; they all have their own perspective and they all have their own worth. Plus it makes for an interesting bubble in the novel cauldron.

I am not giving any more away for now: however, the novel is packed with humour, mischief and mayhem. More to follow in this genre-bending tale of travel, romance and bad behaviour.