Why some of my protagonists are older people..

I’ve been asked the question a couple of times in interviews: why do you write about older protagonists?

My first reaction is that I don’t – I write about people, all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. I’m comfortable doing that, as long as I know what I’m writing about. This in itself is part of a debate I’ve heard many times: should writers from one social class or specific background write about people from other groups; should writers create characters of a different gender, sexual orientation, race, background to themselves? Is researching a character’s lifestyle good enough preparation or is a character only valid if the writer has personal life experience? That’s an interesting and complex debate for another time.

There is a woman I know – we were students together – whose academic work I admire, who wanted to write about women’s lives in the sex trade and so she integrated herself within the industry in order to discover what she wanted to write about. Not easy research. It’s a similar concept to the method acting work of performers like Robert De Nero, who worked as a taxi driver in order to give his role in the film an authentic representation. Research and knowledge about the character are important, whatever length an artist goes to in order to understand, but should we, in fact, only write about characters when we have first-hand experience? Certainly, for me, that’s a starting point. My protagonists could, arguably, be said to be composites of many people who have been an influence during my life.

My second reaction is that I write about older protagonists because they are perhaps underrepresented in the genre I write. Older women and men have been, somehow, perceived less interesting, less worthy of empathy, less attractive, less likely to be involved later in life in fascinating escapades, romantic or otherwise: less sexy and somehow less interesting. Of course, now that sixty is the new forty, we know that’s no longer the case and it’s a shame that it has ever been perceived otherwise. Age is just a number: we all know health and happiness are more important.

My third reaction is that writing reflects the world:  novels will contain characters of any age and background and older people are very much a part of the world. But it is true: I do like to create some of my protagonists as people in their golden years. Now they have no daily job, no growing families, no looming responsibilities, it’s time for them to make mischief. I enjoy winding such characters up and letting them go.

In my first novel, ‘A Grand Old Time,’ the central character, Evie, is in her seventies. She is witty, feisty and glamorous; she embarks on a journey of self- discovery which takes her through France in a campervan. She meets a septuagenarian hunk. Jean-Luc, who is difficult and brooding: but he has a private problem that will ultimately affect Evie. So yes, the two older protagonists are central to my story, but so too are the marital difficulties of Evie’s son Brendan and his wife Maura. The four characters have needs and problems, they have to bring about changes in their lives and they find themselves in situations which spark mischief, comedy and bittersweet action. I enjoyed writing about all of them.

Although my novels are perceived as being in the category of romantic or comic women’s fiction, I’m delighted for anyone and everyone to read them. I had a lovely comment from a man who read the novel and said that, although he valued Evie and her fun adventures, for him it was Brendan who struck a deep chord. In a job he dislikes, a loveless marriage and blaming himself for his hapless situation, Brendan is depressed and lonely. The male reader suggested that many men would empathise and he found Brendan’s plight moving. I was moved myself to hear his response and very grateful.

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My second novel, ‘The Age of Misadventure,’ is a story of four women of three generations, who go on the run together. The youngest, Jade, is twenty-four; the oldest, Nanny Basham, is eighty-eight. The other two women are in their fifties. Having the opportunity for the three generations to interact together gave me the chance to create comedy, but also to examine the difference between the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviour of the women. It’s true, most of the comedy comes from Nan, who is outrageous at times, but her character is inspired by the idea that dependent older people might be lonely and Nan’s brusqueness is a coping mechanism for how hard it is to live a solitary life. As Nan says, she’d rather be faced with the danger and death during their experiences on the run than stuck at home in a cold house eating dinners for one.

I’m currently embarking on a new novel. The main characters are two sisters in their seventies and a very bad man of a similar age. I’ll keep the storyline under wraps for now but yes, I’m writing about older protagonists who are interesting, who are not what they first seem, who are full of mischief and who have the opportunity to be a little iconoclastic. But there will be a whole range of other different characters in the novel, of all ages and backgrounds. I’m looking forward to writing this during the autumn and I know if I have a whale of a time creating the characters and the action, then there’s a good chance readers might enjoy the romp too.

The answer to my question, then, is yes –I do write about older protagonists, giving them the opportunity to misbehave and go on adventures, to fulfil their expectations of life. But they can’t do it alone. The world is full of all sorts of people: it’s a rich tapestry of diverse characters. Ideally, that’s how I’d like my novels to be.

 

 

 

 

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Why writing novels is the best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Why the World Cup is like a novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How many words, Judy?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Top Tips for Writers’ Block…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How I became a novelist – the journey so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s looking forward to the next chapter.

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Is there a novel in all of us?

A friend of mine sent me a lovely piece of writing this week and asked my opinion on its worth. By coincidence, I’d just read a bestselling novel by someone I worked with a few years ago. I was pulled in by the intrigue and the characters of both stories straight away.  Although the styles and genre were very different, I enjoyed both pieces of writing on their own merit and not because the writers are people I like.

Another talented woman I know has just had a novel turned down by an agent – refused very politely and with encouragement, but it was her life’s work, her magnum opus, so I hope she perseveres.

I belonged to a vibrant writers’ group for over a year and I collaborated with talented wordsmiths in my master’s group. I’m surrounded by some inspirational novelists and poets and I read all the time, so I’ve a good idea of what works, up to a point. So after my friend, a novice writer, offered me this wonderful story to read, she asked me the question ‘Am I good enough to be a writer?’ I said yes, of course. She has energy, enthusiasm, talent in bucket loads. But that started me thinking about the old saying that everyone has a novel in them and I wondered: is it true? Can anyone be a novelist?

It depends what the question means. If it means can anyone physically sit at a computer and bash out 90,000 coherent words, then yes, that’s just endurance and editing. If it means can anyone get published, that’s a question of resilience, luck and the good fortune to create a saleable product. Does the question ask if all writers have talent? Subjectivity is an issue here up to a point – one person’s favourite book is another’s bin liner, although readability is an important factor.

There is so much talent waiting in the wings, ready to dive into the spotlight. I know two brilliant poets who are yet unpublished although I believe they both have the potential to rock the world. I know three novelists who could easily take the bookselling charts by storm. I’ve also read my share of really disastrous writing by people who believe that bashing out a sequence of random pretentious words makes them Gerard Manley Hopkins or Virginia Woolf. Not at all. But they can learn. We all learn as we go.

After some thought, I’ve reconsidered the answer to the question about whether anyone can write a novel. The answer is no.

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So many people don’t have the time. Full-time jobs, responsibilities, hobbies, tiredness, commitments all get in the way of being a writer. Many people don’t have the desire, the patience, the resilience, the inclination to sit for hours bashing away at a computer. It may be that some people don’t have the spare thinking time to come up with and develop a novel idea, or the opportunity to find quiet time or space to write. Some people don’t have a computer or a pen. Some people are not interested – they’d never make a novelist. Why would they even want to? They have a life.

That aside, writing is not an exclusive profession. A writer’s talent isn’t measured or assessed against other writers’ work; it’s not even equal to the success or enjoyability of the novel. It may not even be a hugely important factor in the novel’s popularity, although it does help to have a love of words and the ability to tell a story. There are some useful rules to be aware of as a writer – the show don’t tell, the avoid using too many adverbs, or clichés, the vary pace and sentence length, the create characters you are interested in and a novel you’d like to read yourself advice. But all these things are teachable and learnable with experience, and all writers have to continue to develop their skills.

My friend wanted to know if the short story was good enough. What on earth does good enough mean? There isn’t a sliding scale which suggests that the better writers (whoever they are) will have more enthusiastic readers and sell more books. I can think of competent writers who have sold millions of novels and they are hardly James Joyce. But these writers satisfy what many readers want – a good story, a gripping journey swathed in interesting words. We have help at our fingertips – spellcheck, Google research, writers’ groups, buddies, editors. There’s no reason why someone shouldn’t be able to write a novel which stands up well. Anyone who wants to should go ahead and do it and believe in themselves. Without self-belief, the going will be a lot tougher.

So I’ve come to a conclusion and the answer is, to people who want to write – yes, start now. You can do it.

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Books are brilliant. Hard copies, kindle, audio books, books which could become a TV series, a stage play, a film. Books which thrill, which entertain, which intrigue. There are all sorts of readers, even people who don’t know they are readers yet. There can never be enough books so it follows that there can never be enough writers. If someone wants to write a novel, they should be sure about the commitment involved – a writer needs to spend a lot of time, energy, emotion. But it’s a whole lot of fun – a privilege to step into another world, to stay there for a while and to be responsible for how it shapes up.

I’ve found the writing industry fascinating and wonderful. Agents, publishers, publicity managers – they are a breed of guardian angels and each of them is a brilliant companion on the journey to completing a saleable novel. Such people with experience and ability are to be cherished for their skills and advice. The chance to sit and write is a blessing and it’s an opportunity I would so gladly share with and recommend to anyone else. I’m 25,000 words into a fifth novel and my first is published next year, pre-orderable on Amazon. I love writing and I love books. What could be better?

So, back to my friend who asks me if her work is good enough, I want to scream YES. Her writing is entertaining, thoughtful, it has strong legs and I believe it can sprout wings and fly. I’ve heard all the warnings about how writing is an isolated profession, how it’s steeped in anxiety; how there wil be problems with writer’s block, patience, focus, crushing deadlines. But I’m shaking my head as I type. It’s a chance to work with ideas, with words, with imagination, to share something exciting with others.

There are many people who wouldn’t want to write. That’s fair enough. I can’t build houses, grow wheat, perform open heart surgery. But to those people who sniff the hint of a desire to create that novel, there’s only one answer. You are good enough. Don’t hold back. Don’t deliberate and don’t doubt yourself. Just do it.

Novels are like good friends

There’s something heart-rendingly sad about my statement, that novels are like good friends. It begs the question: but what about real friends, real people, not ones who are imagined and made up? The life of a writer is essentially solitary, so the idea has developed that we are a lonely  bunch of individuals who have no-one to turn to in the long silent hours while we’re typing away. We are friendless, forced to seek solace in fabricated characters. The only excitement in our lives is found at in a new placid character we control ourselves; happiness is at the bottom of a plot. Or a glass. Such is the stereotypical image of a writer’s existence, a singular single person, focused entirely on the process and then the product we are desperate to complete before we begin the next novel.

There is some truth in the idea. There is not a great deal of instant cameraderie when you write alone at the desk each day; there’s  no office culture, no management structure, (thank goodness!) no banter. No one to share lunch breaks and jokes with at coffee time. In that sense, writers are solitary people who must seek their social lives away from the computer screen.

But when I suggest that our novels become our good friends, I am talking about the warm fuzzy feeling felt through constant interaction, through increasing familiarity. We go through a lot together, we writers and our novels. It is sometimes love at first sight, but we know pretty quickly whether we will get on together, whether we have a future, or whether early separation is inevitable. I’ve started novel number five twice, after delaying it as long as possible. The first time, I liked the new idea. I threw it away. It wasn’t good enough. The second idea clicked, started to rev like a formula 1 engine and I’m now up to 12,000 words, which is the point where I know I will write it all.

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Our novels are our friends because we get to know them slowly but we will eventually know them completely. We know their flaws and their strong points. We know where the relationship will lead but we don’t know every twist and turn. That’s an exciting part of the journey, discovering the bits we don’t know yet but we know they’ll fall into place in time and surprise us.

We know we will have disagreements with our novels, but we’ll work it out. Our friendship will survive. We will cut and paste and delete chunks, chapters, whole characters. The novel will keep us up at night, arguing with us whle we scratch our heads for a pact, a solution which won’t pop in until dawn, just before we fall asleep smiling. It will cause us headaches, researching, changing, editing, aiming for the perfect phrase, the exciting plot moment, the thrilling and unexpected dénouement.

In all my novels, the main characters are people I like. I meet them in my imagination and I respect and admire them; I know their flaws, I believe in the honesty of their thoughts and actions. It’s indulgent, because I have written them, created them. But it’s also about finding out bout who they are, growing together, bonding, love: I am often at their mercy, as I have no choice but to follow their impetus. They make me laugh out loud. They make me cry. I feel sorry for their  sadnesses and I cheer when things go right for them. I root for their triumphs and I fear for their safety from page one until the end of the novel. And that’s what friends do.

But I don’t want to keep them to myself. It’s not a secret relationship, forged between brain, keyboard and blank screen. It doesn’t exist without a ménage à trois. The third person. The reader. In fact, I’m aiming for the biggest friendship group I can muster. I want lots of people to love my protagonists, and to enjoy their journey within the pages of a novel.

The important thing is that, although I write chartacters from imagination and don’t base them on real people, I’d love them if I met them. They’d be good friends. They are plucky, feisty, mischievous, women who deserve the good things which happen to them in the novel. And they don’t deserve the tragedies. I love them because of their stories, their backstories, for what happens to them and how they survive and are resilient, quirky, funny, strong.

But it’s not just the characters who are my friends. It’s the novels themselves. It is as if each one has forged itself into my subconscious, metamorphosed into a being, become real and I feel loyal. I owe each novel thanks for existing, for allowing me to work it so hard and dsipte my constant nagging, it still comes out the other end valid and credible and worthwhile.

Perhaps then, going back to my opening statement, we writers are a sorry solitary lot with only flying fingers, whirling words and made up people for comfort.

But that is only during working hours. The rest of the time, we’re all scintillating social creatures. Party animals. Table dancers. Exciting conversationalists. Midnight movers. Our lives are full, fecund, fruitful and our friends are real people we value, trust and hold close to our hearts. Writers are just like every one else.

Of course, the problem would arise if the world we created and then inhabited became more tantalising than the real world. What if our characters, our imaginary literary friends, became more important and vital to our existence than our real friends? Then what would we do?

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At this point I go back to the stereotype, the lonely writer focused on the screen. She’s  blocked, frustrated, waiting for inspiration, seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle, alone and tortured and friendless. Perhaps that’s what makes a genius. Or maybe that’s just a myth…

Who do writers really write for?

I recently read an interchange on social media, a discussion by writers about who they believe they write their novels for. A gifted writer who I’ve met, for whom I have much respect, said he always wrote for the reader. That’s another reason why I respect him. Someone else disagreed strongly. This person wrote for himself. If he was happy with his writing, then so would his readers be. He suggested that it follows that people who liked his writing would be like him, sharing his tastes, and anyway his enthusiasm would shine through in his novel. He has a point. I  went away and thought about this one. It’s not the first time I’ve comnsidered this dilemma, nor will it be the last, but I have a strong idea where I stand in the discussion.

I’ve read many books. I used to read each one to the end, even if it was a challenge, mainly because I always thought I could perhaps change my mind: I mightn’t like the book at first, but I might like it later. I’ve stopped doing that, especially now I write so much myself. I don’t expect my reader to persevere beyond chapter three if he or she isn’t engaged with the story. If I want my own writing to leap off the page, then I’d like to be at least interested in what someone else writes. If I’m inwardly groaning or, more likely, bored by the fifth chapter, I put the book down and read something else. In fairness, that doesn’t happen often. But I live and read by the principle that there are so many more books out there to be read.

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I don’t like indulgent writing. Writers who write purely for themselves in an egocentric, self- pleasing way. I don’t mean ridiculously intelligent writers, novelists who are genius word-spinners and weavers of incredible ideas, the Martin Amises of this world. I’m referring to writers who create characters who are themselves but in another parallel universe. A vicarious creation of heroes. Characters who resemble the writer a little bit too much but are perfect, or flawed in admirable ways and then invariably have greatness thrust upon them. Usually, writing is weighed down with so much cumbersome and overblown description that nothing is left to the reader’s imagination. As I read, I feel controlled and  force-fed by someone indulging their own ego. I can sniff it out at any distance and it’s pungent and not pleasing. It stinks of self-satisfaction.

I now pick up books from genres I don’t usually naturally gravitate towards. It keeps me open minded. There was a time I read books by writers I liked, choosing subject matter I knew would suit my tastes. But it’s humbling to read YA novels, graphic novels, non-fiction, historical or crime stories and think Whew! How well written was that! I want to be aware of good writing, whatever form it takes. I can still return loyally to my favourite writers at any point.

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I also read books that are recommended to me. I have friends who read a lot and one friend in particular, who is erudite, critical and a skilful wordsmith herself, will say ‘Have you read…?’ and I know that whatever she recommends will be brilliant. I have another friend, a crazy ex-dancer  who is completely opposite to me in terms of literary experience and taste, and without her, I’d never have read Neil Gaiman or Robin Hobb.

I write for the reader first. There. I’ve said it. I remember an incident in the second novel where I wrote something and burst out laughing. I had entertained myself – I thought I was hilariously funny. But, seconds later,  I reminded myself that my sense of humour isn’t everyone’s and I made a mental note to check it with my reading group. If faces remained straight or perplexed when I read it back, it would be edited out without a second thought. It wasn’t, but I was ready to raze it for ever if it didn’t work for others.

Working with good editors is so beneficial. When I write, I try to be cinematic, to create something visual, so that my reader can imagine what I’m trying to evoke really clearly without telling them everything, leaving them space to make it their own picture. I also try to focus on detail, emotions, moments of impact. But when an editor says ‘tell the reader more at this point…’ ‘explain…’ ‘The reader needs to understand…’ then I know there are gaps to fill and I’m only too happy to embellish. Working with an astute editor is an education in itself and, as writers, that’s part of how we develop our craft. We continue to learn, to reconsider, to improve.

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I treat my readers with respect. First of all, I know some of them won’t like what I write. They won’t like the genre, the subject matter, the characters. That’s fine. Subjectivity and variety of taste are a reader’s prerogative. But what I do expect of myself at the first hurdle is to write well, to be lucid, accurate and to offer an interesting journey. If nothing more, my writing should be clear and readable.

I know there are readers who won’t think as I do. Readers who might not understand why I write about characters who are quirky, eccentric, mischievous. Readers who want flailing heroines and masterful heroes who snatch them from the jaws of danger probably won’t like my feisty independent women and responsive sensitive men. But that’s ok; there are plenty of other novels out there which those readers will enjoy. And, even if my whacky lively characters are not for them, then at least they might read the book and enjoy it for the langauge, the wit or the descriptions.

I write for readers who want to come on a journey: a physical journey or a journey of self- discovery. Sometimes both. Readers who like strong characters who are properly flawed, real, funny and eventually resilient. My readers want to believe in a character, an interesting place, powerful action. They want words that jump off the page, a story that intrigues. They want surprises along the way. They want well-written, evocative language. They want to smile, to be entertained, to be sad sometimes, to be asked to think a little about life, love, luck. They want to put the book down on the final page, after not wanting to put it down on the previous pages, and then breathe out and smile.

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Someone who read my first novel in an earlier stage said it made them laugh and cry. Can I ask for better engagement with a reader? A reader of my second novel liked a male protagnist so much she said ‘I could do with meeting a man like that.’ I was happy that I’d created someone with traits she could fall in love with. A reader of my third novel said ‘I admire the main character. I like her. I feel like she is a close friend.’ I’m delighted. My character is credible, likeable, empathic, warm and funny. A reader of the fourth novel said ‘I was totally shocked when… happened.’ As a writer, I am so pleased that I can create twists and turns which my reader won’t see coming and then I can generate a powerful, emotional reaction. That’s what I’m after.

My quest is to continue to learn what readers want and then to provide it for them in an entartaining and innovative form, if I can. I’m a conduit to others’ enjoyment, not simply a reveller in my own craft. To some extent, I do believe if I write what I like, with enthusiasm and relish and it entertains me, then it’s possible my reader will be entertained too. But that, by itself, isn’t nearly enough. As I write, I have to be aware of a perpetually moving periscope which swivels to view my readers’ thoughts, tastes, needs. I have to consider their reactions to each sentence that I write and to continue to find new and exciting ways to supply more thrills and spills. That’s all.

But each novel is another chance to provide something which will come closer to what I aim to achieve. After all, who doesn’t relish a challenge and the opportunity to progress?

Music to write a novel to…

On a recent Radio 4 programme, Marlon James was asked if he’d listened to reggae as he wrote A Brief History of Seven Killings. He suggested that reggae was the last music he’d have listened to: the novel was set mostly in Jamaica around the ‘Bob Marley era’ and of course he didn’t listen to reggae: his head was probably full of it already. As if Agatha Christie would have listened to the Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives and Douglas Adams had The Planet Suite set to replay.

Of course, the most fascinating aspect is what writers choose to listen to while they are writing that brilliant novel, not what they don’t listen to, and even more interestingly, why do they choose to listen to a particular type of music? Do writers need serene music, to clear their minds of all other thoughts, or do they want something fast and energetic to get the fingers typing fast?

Then there’s the question of what is intrusive. When you’re working on that precise edit, do you really need AC/DC belting out Girls Got Rhythm or Aerosmith’s Dude (Looks Like a Lady)? Do you need anything at all, or is silence worse, that incessant emptiness which offers no pace or energy, no distraction, no clarity or inspiration?

A friend of mine has just published a fabulous book of poems called Pillars of a Dateable Man. I guessed he’d been listening to Leonard Cohen’s Thin Green Candle, as his writing is deeply sensitive, often iconoclastic, sometimes morose and always insightful. But no. He listens to jazz, always music without lyrics. It makes sense – jazz epitomises the jangling of powerful emotions but each note has the precision of poetry. He adds his own clever words to the abstract canvas, using the motivating musical energy of jazz as inspiration.

Of course, each author will have a personal preference. Impressively, Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, listens to a Canadian Band called Arrogant Worms. J. K. Rowling listens to The Beatles. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, he insisted on a sound proof flat, his rationale being that he had ‘no ear for music… I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate?’

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Most of us choose to listen to music when we write. Whether it inspires us or promotes a feeling of wellbeing and calm is debatable. Lyrics can be important, inspiring writers to achieve their best subliminally, by channeling the feeling that success is possible and achievable. Best to avoid the wonderful songs of The Smiths  then when writing a lively bestseller. I Know It’s Over, with lyrics like ‘Oh, Mother / I can feel / the soil falling over my head,’ are not going to inspire a greatly needed feeling of increased fluency, positivity and power flowing from the brain to the fingers to the keyboard.

Writers constantly peer into others’ heads and reach out to empathise with characters’ emotions in order to write successfully. Mozart’s Lacrymosa would be perfect to help someone write a tragic scene and Pink Floyd’s Breathe in the Air might inspire pages of pastoral beauty. But many writers suggest that they can’t concentrate when music is playing. Some are even irritated by the purr of the cat or the hum of the fridge.

This leads me to wonder whether Creative Writing courses ever use music to support and improve writing. Certainly, during my MA, there was no delving into the use of music to promote better outcomes and no investigation of the psychology or rationale between using music  compared to the need for silence to promote concentration. (At the moment of writing, I’m listening to Planet Rock playing Black Sabbath’s War Pigs, and I’m perfectly capable of erasing Ozzy from my ears completely if I need to.)

But it’s an interesting and perhaps under-investigated subject. Do writers write better with music or not, and why do some choose background noise and others shun it? As I finish my fourth novel and complete the edit of my first, I have to admit that I’m better off with Spotify than without it. My moods dictate which playlist to select, as does the type of writing I’m doing. The beginning of a novel demands something very different from the final chapters; focusing on the rigour of an edit would suggest a totally different choice to the music I’d pick when I’m on a roll and smashing out 2500 words in a sitting.

It’s at this point that I’ll invite others’ opinions. Who’s a writer who needs background music and who isn’t, and why? I wonder whether it affects outcome – what we write, how we write and how we feel as we do it? Fascinating. I hope someone will think about it, take it further and let me know. At the moment, I’m too busy writing and listening.

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