The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsley Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

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How does lockdown affect creativity?

I read something a few days ago about a writer who couldn’t work during the Coronavirus lockdown period because she couldn’t think straight with all the current change and restriction: basically, she said, her brain was in ‘flight or fight’ mode. She said that it was hard to concentrate on creating something new and exciting with her thoughts all over the place, anxieties about Covid-19, wondering how long the self-isolation will continue and what might happen next. 

That is very understandable: I can see how the writing process might be affected by anxiety. Her situation led me to wonder how the current situation and the separation and lack of social interaction might affect other people who work creatively. How much do we need to interact with other people beyond our households to be better creators? Is it possible that some people work best in isolation? Will our period of lockdown, however long it may last, result in a glut of exciting new novels, poems, art of all kinds, or should we be prepared for a dearth of them? (I heard from someone connected with the writing industry that there will be so many novels about lockdown romances and murders emerging in several months’ time. Why am I imagining gritty inner city crime thrillers about people visiting the local Morrisons twice a day?…)

Many of us who are writers or artists tend to work from home in isolation. There is an old stereotype of a writer wearing glasses, perhaps perched on the lower bridge of the nose, bent double over a clanking typewriter, typing away in a garret with a small slice of light seeping through the window. Complete the image with a wine or gin or whiskey bottle not far from view. It seems quite normal for writers and some other creative artists to work alone, to use what’s in their heads as inspiration for their work and from that place create something innovative. Should the lockdown change anything?

I have several friends who are painters. One of them has joined a national artist’s group to share her work on a website that helps to sell paintings; it’s a great idea, to support artists to make a living during these difficult times and to profit from the solidarity of a group of like-minded people. Another friend was finding stimulation difficult, being home alone, but by joining a scheme online in which a group of artists painted at the same time every day, she was able to respond to a schedule and she has produced some wonderful work. What both of these artists have in common is that a collective group has given them the encouragement or structure to work towards a common goal, despite being alone.

For writers and novelists, although many wonderful and encouraging collective groups exist, we find it easy to work in isolation once we have our initial idea. Editing and upgrading work requires focus and a clear mind but it is, for the most part, easy to do that type of work alone. Creating a novel from scratch, however, demands energy, enthusiasm and the belief that an idea can readily transpose itself on the page to something substantial, entertaining and satisfying.

For me, being outdoors is a great aid to writing. Ideas come quickly and blow through my mind as new and exciting thoughts when I’m outside; being able to roam around, surrounded by nature, is where I think best. And many of my novels involve travel or journeys; I like to be on the road, in the camper van, going to old places or new places, talking to people I’ve never met before, experiencing different locations. Ideas come from new things.

I’m sure some people will say that their ideas come from inside their head, from wide reading, from past experiences, from who they are, from dreams. All that’s probably true. But, for me, the richest resource is beyond that, the resource of new experiences and interactions.

I don’t have the necessary background in psychology or anthropology to understand what effect the lockdown will have on the creative mind of any individual. I am aware that enforced isolation will bring about loneliness, anxiety and all the ensuing problems for many people: we are all naturally social animals. But it’s interesting to consider what effect it will have on our potential to think, to innovate and to create.

I’m lucky – my next novel is out in June. I have already written the subsequent one; I’m editing the one after that to improve it and I’m 20,000 words into the one after that, so I’m well ahead of the game. I’m also good at working for long periods. I’m very focused and I seldom procrastinate. If I wake at four in the morning and end up planning for three hours, it’s not a problem – it’s part of the writing process. Similarly, if I take a day off and go for a walk in the woods to get an idea in focus or a character into perspective, it’s part of my working day. I never feel guilty if I do nothing at all if I’m allowing thoughts to ferment: it’s all part of the working process.

The lockdown has given us a chance to rethink who we are and what we do each day, to evaluate the times we used to enjoy, to look forward to appreciating the future when normality is restored. More than that, I think we are emerging with a better sense of the people we can be and, most importantly, the social animals we are meant to be. And that involves sharing with others, including them in our plans and considering their well-being more than perhaps we did before the virus.

Twelve protagonists? Why not?

Recently an author-friend of mine said a novel she’d written had been refused by a publisher because there were four central protagonists, which they said was three too many. There is a template in romantic comedy that requires one heroine, someone with a problem that needs to be solved, one handsome male who might do something to resolve it, and other interesting or quirky subsidiary characters that help to make up a full and well-rounded story. I suggested to my friend that, although we have much more chance of success if we stick to the rules, they are there to be broken. 

When I wrote Five French Hens, I was aware that readers would have five characters to get to know at the beginning of the book, rather than the standard one or two, and I introduced them carefully so that differentiation wouldn’t be too problematic for most people.

I do have sympathy with readers struggling to assimilate a large number of characters. It happens all the time in books and in films. I adored The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham but I had a hard time telling who was who among the townsfolk at the beginning of the novel. After a bit of perseverance, it all became clear. It was the same with the TV series Peaky Blinders: there were only so many men with variations on short-back-and-sides appearing on the screen before I had to ask, is he the brother or the son? But it doesn’t detract from what is a cracking series.

Lots of novels have multiple main protagonists, from Little Women to The Famous Five, and confusion is usually avoided because the characters look and behave differently (one could even be a dog?). They are often introduced separately or they interact together in smaller numbers at different times, which helps.

So when I started to read Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, I was intrigued by how she would introduce a cast of some twelve women without confusing her readers. The answer is, she does it very well, with a great deal of skill and panache.

The novel probably isn’t for everyone: I read reviews of it and some people were confused by the large cast of women. Others thought the scarcity of punctuation was difficult but I found it really easy to assimilate: after the first two pages, I didn’t need it and I didn’t look for it. In fact, the absence of full stops and capitals adds something to the style and the rhythm of the novel.

Initially, I wasn’t hooked; the character of Amma and her daughter Yazz were interesting enough but there were lots of peripheral characters to take on board and a lot of ‘telling’ about their pasts. For the first two chapters¸ I wasn’t engaged with the protagonists, although they were characters I felt some sympathy for, but there wasn’t much to distinguish them from lots of other people in the world and make them stand out for their own qualities.

But Evaristo’s master stroke is how she mingles the characters with each other throughout the novel, introducing one at an early stage as a subsidiary character and then putting her on the spotlight later to fill in gaps and then she develops each one as a flawed but fascinating individual. Suddenly, the novel clicked for me and became absorbing; the ‘telling’ of backstories became central to understanding the character and how she relates to others.

Characters such as Carole, LaTisha, Shirley, Penelope, Bummi, Winsome, Megan/ Morgan and Hattie are cleverly interwoven, each other’s mothers, daughters, friends, grandparent, so that by the time each one has her own chapter, we know her from a different context already and so her story comes into sharp focus, important and relevant not just to the other characters but to what she contributes to the world as it is now. Bernadine Evaristo shows that attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and culture have changed over many generations and are still changing. She makes it clear that change is ongoing and her observation of these changes and developments in women’s lives is pin-sharp.

It is an important novel on many different levels. Firstly, it reveals something about women’s lives, how experiences of the world have improved over time and how women are perceived now in a fairer and more equitable way: things are changing; they needed to change; the change is not yet complete; things are not perfect yet for these women but they have, over time, achieved a little more in the way of independence and they have been assigned some measure of higher status; at times they have been listened to and their needs have been addressed. Change is good, but there is still a long way to go; there are still difficulties that need sorting out.

It is an important novel because it tells us about the world as it is now for each of its contrasting protagonists and their story is told freshly, honestly and with style. Furthermore, a novel with multiple protagonists tells the story of many women who, for their own different reasons, deserve to be listened to. It’s not just a simple story of one women whose problems will be easily resolved by a new partner and, while that can in itself be a very valid story, Evaristo’s insistence on defying heteronormative expectations and telling the stories of a dozen strong and exceptional women defiantly living their own lives is to be applauded, celebrated and read. 

She’s come a long way from Mr Loverman (which I adore) and produced a winner of a novel which is remarkable and ground breaking. Evaristo proves that when it comes to protagonists, less isn’t necessarily more.

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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What I’m writing at the moment and the 30,000-word test

Each novel I write seems to follow a pattern at the beginning up to the point where I decide I’ll definitely write it. If it doesn’t pass this stage, then it doesn’t happen. First of all, I have an initial idea and, for the idea to take shape, it has to grab my interest really strongly. I write a brief synopsis, leaving the idea fairly loose, and let it sit for a while: I’ll be writing something else at the same time, editing something else and have another idea in the planning.

Then the time will come round to turn the idea into a new novel. So I make a start, not rushing it, having planned the beginning and the ending, and I’ll start to create my character. But at 10,000, 20,000 and 30,000 words in, I expect to be well-hooked into characters and action and plot and I’ll stop and check: if I’m not completely engrossed, my reader certainly won’t be and I’ll rethink the whole thing.

So, at the moment, I’m writing a novel for 2021 in which a character and a companion leave one place to stay in another. They have a few adventures there, then the protagonist takes off again, this time to somewhere completely different. I’ve allowed 20,000 words to embed the first section before the journey, 20,000 more in order to explore the second place and then the character can have 50,000 words in the final glorious location.

Once I’ve written the beginning, created the protagonist(s), given them something they need to find by the end of the novel – which might be an opportunity to develop or change, ior it may be something personal, something they don’t know that they want yet – I know I’m off and running. At that point, I can get down to detailed planning of the rest of the novel and organise the highs and lows, more fun parts and the episodes of conflict and development.

So, currently I’m 35,000 words into a new novel and I’m quite happy. I have my main character fairly well developed; she has flaws, energy and a great deal of positive points and she’s already shown her true colours. But the journey she’s on, which is not just physical but also self-discovery, has to be considered in detail if she is to be the person I want her to become, to have the experiences I want her to have and to become happier with life. There are people she’ll need to meet, some of them barely sketched in my head yet. So, at this point in the novel, I always stop and ask myself a big question:

Now I’m a third of the way through, do I love this novel enough to want to write it all?

Because if I don’t feel a real attachment and real commitment at this stage, it won’t work and I’ll drop it like a stone.

Loving a novel enough to write it goes a long way beyond commitment and stickability; there will be characters I’ll need to live alongside for months, take them into my life and to help them to grow. Obsession may be too strong a word, but I have to want them to move in with me and talk to me incessantly for a long time if I’m going to write them. They will wake me up in the early hours, fill my head during social occasions and frequently interrupt conversations.

So once I’ve written the opening chapters,  I read the first 30,000 words back out loud to myself to check it is effective and coherent and then I read it to other people I can trust and persuade to listen, and  monitor their reaction. I want them to be entertained, engaged, immersed, to like the character, to laugh, to be captivated, to care about what happens in the rest of the story. It’s one of the many points in the writing stage where I have to be tough. If the story-so-far doesn’t have the impact I want it to have, I’ll shelve it and keep some of the ideas for another novel.

As it turns out, the feedback on this one is positive; I’m very happy and I’m going to keep writing. I have to know I’ll enjoy writing it; that the journey will fascinate me and, despite careful planning, new ideas will jump in as I progress that are usually better than the ones I’ve already written down, which are more likely to surprise my readers.

So the current book, which is scheduled for 2021, is underway and I have two more new novel ideas that excite me waiting in the wings: one is likely to be a hoot, allowing me to push boundaries and create fun situations and characters, and the other will be a learning journey for me, based on the subject matter I need to research. But it’s all exciting.

I recently read an article by a writer saying how difficult the job was – that our lives are always full – we’re always writing a new novel, editing the last one, publicising the previousone, planning the next one and reading for inspiration and research all at the same time! But what a lovely position to be in. All writers strive for exactly this: it’s a great life. I couldn’t be happier.

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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.

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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Novelists and Tour de France riders have something in common…

Authors read a lot – it’s part of our continued professional development, if you like. But it’s more than that – reading’s an obsession. I learned to read at three years old– my mum taught me and I was a receptive learner – I would read everything from cereal boxes and advertising hoardings to any magazine or paperback I could get my hands on. I read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mirror – if it had words, I’d read it. By the time I was eight, my favourite novel was the Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I found it in the school library, a tatty old red book with crumpled covers but  the characters, the tension, the setting transported me to a place I’d never imagined could be and I was hooked.

In Primary school, I read novels by Blyton, Coolidge, Montgomery – all the stories my mum read in her childhood and thought I’d love because they had role models of imaginative, intelligent and sensitive girls. At that point, I was still developing my literary tastes and I knew no better. It was a book so I lapped it up, enjoying some stories more than others but devouring every word from start to finish.

As a teenager, I experienced what happens when the angel of literature spreads her wings wide. Books leapt towards me from libraries, from junk sales and charity shops. I read Salinger, Harper Lee, Bashevis Singer, the Brontës x3, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Sartre, Donleavy, Kerouac.  I loved them all. And then I read Jane Austen and formed a strong opinion.

In my early twenties, I had a friend who adored Austen. She was a vibrant woman, a strong personality, from Puerto Rico, so she adored the eccentric Englishness of Austen. My friend loved to reflect on the role of women in British society at that point in time: their power, or lack of it, and the simple ways they could assert themselves. We had long conversations about it. She explained how she enjoyed Austen’s style, her pace, the language, the setting, the way the romances unfolded. I couldn’t see it at all. To me it was just a boring tale about privileged women with not much else to do except fuss over societal mores and wait around for a characterless man with a lot of money to pay attention to them.

Later, much later, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I loved it. It was an exceptional novel and I enjoyed every moment. Particularly, I adored the character of Boris, who was unpredictable and funny. The story was well told, pacy and plausible. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, a laugh-out-loud, glue- your-eyes to-each-page book. So I sought out two more books by Donna Tartt – The Secret History and The Little Friend. I wasn’t really motivated by one and the other I couldn’t finish. I pondered a long time on why I loved The Goldfinch and didn’t like the others and I decided, finally, that it was simply just me. Liking books is a subjective thing and while The Secret History might have been ideal for some readers, it was just not my type of book.

This led me to think about the huge respect I have for any writer, whatever their genre, whether they are published or still at the stage of writing a novel. It is a task of incredible resilience akin to running a marathon, cycling the Tour de France or climbing Everest. There are highs and lows, joys and trepidation. It takes stamina and guts to finish 100,000 words of A novel, then go back and rip loads of it out again to make it better in the hope that someone will read it and like it.

I was at a writers’ meeting last week. An experienced and intelligent woman, who writes historical stories was talking about her methodology, how she uses a flexible formula to make her style work. Another bubbly woman, a writer of popular romcoms, was explaining how piqued she felt when an editor was critical of her story. I said little and listened a lot. These writers were discussing the vagaries of creating a popular novel. The historical writer mentioned a trope she’d used in her first novel and her intention not to use it for the future because someone had said they didn’t like it in a review. This led me to think how many books I had read, loved and yet I’d never paused to say so in any forum the writer might read. There is a whole different blog post waiting to be written about reviews and how we should respond to them as writers.

Good reviews are wonderful and I’m so grateful for people from across the globe who have said wonderful things. The Swedish lady who wanted one of my novels to become a film and wrote to my publisher to say so was the highlight of my week not so long ago. I hope someone in a position of film-making decisions is listening! Of course, there are reviews that are less complimentary, some we can learn from and some that have little use. For example, someone once wrote in a review about the best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English Language. I doubt whether Gail Honeyman gives a monkey’s – I certainly wouldn’t, in her place. (And it’s a great book!)

Last week, I read a novel by an author I know, whom I like as a person. I loved it. It sat perfectly within its genre, the characters were well-drawn and it made me laugh out loud. But I wonder what I’d have said to her had I not liked it. I always feel a bit bad when I don’t like a book. It feels disrespectful to admit it to someone after they’ve put so much work into it that it hasn’t moved me at all. But there are some novels I really can’t get on with.  I read one ages ago, a romantic novel about a woman in her fifties who meets a new man: it was recommended to me. I hated it so much – I thought the main character was feeble, underdeveloped and the male romantic interest was a facile twit. The plot was banal and the setting unimaginative.

I felt so awful about being negative. I went back to my response to the novel and tried again. The plot was valid enough, the pace was ok, the characters inoffensive, but the outcome was still predictable and I couldn’t see any point in reading it: I’d gained nothing, finding no way of immersion in the story.

But the book had sold well, the author was quite popular. So I concluded from this that I was just not target audience. There are certainly a bunch of people out there who have bought and loved this book – it has given them that feel-good transportation to another person’s world and they have benefited from it. I should just shut up. Maybe the people who loved that book would hate stuff by novelists I adore – Dostoyevsky and Winterson, Shamsie and Doyle. My opinion is simply that – just an opinion, one person’s opinion amongst many others, and so I have to conclude that, although that book’s not for me, the novel would be a crowd-pleaser to someone in a different crowd. It would be wrong for me to dismiss a book on the grounds that I think my response is the right one or has the right to be prevalent over others who might actually enjoy it. It’s best to say nothing at all.

So I continue to read widely and enthusiastically: books I love are books that teach me something, or take me to a new place or introduce me to another way of thinking. Books I don’t like are still part of my education – I need to consider why I don’t like them and what sort of audience would relish every word. Alright, so I spend more time thinking about why I don’t like some books and less time on others – that’s natural. But I’ve now resolved never to be negative about a writer, to keep my opinions of books I don’t enjoy to myself. I don’t want to influence anyone else.

Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not in my nature to jeopardise someone’s accomplishment or spoil their pleasure.  I wouldn’t shove a stick into the spokes of a Tour De France rider while he or she was huffing and puffing up Mont Ventoux. I might even extend a hand and give them a helpful push along, or some words of encouragement: Allez, allez!  Or I might simply watch them go on their way to the finish line and hope they enjoy their journey. The going is hard enough for them – they may be a winner, achieve a strong finish or they may fall off onto hard gravel. So similarly it is with writers. I wish them all the best. There will be no harsh words from me.

 

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It’s so easy to slip into the antisocial writer stereotype …

The sun’s out. It’s got me thinking. I’m spending too much time indoors at the computer. Isolation and summer sunshine don’t go together. I need to drag myself away from the next novel. But it’s a writer’s lot, hunched at the desk, eyes on the screen, typing just one more line, just one more chapter. I don’t need discipline to write, I need discipline to walk away from the writing. There’s a whole world outside the window and I’m stuck inside, in the shade planning, typing, editing. I should change.

I need to think more about all the people I should be spending time with right now. It’s easy to be sociable and spend time with friends and family, enjoying their company, relishing good times. But writing is like a magnet and I’m always pulled back; I’m too readily immersed in a current novel rather than going out and making new memories. Having a social life requires discipline too.

Eight hours a day at work, five days a week should be enough for most people. But like many writers, once I’m involved in a story, I’m ‘in’, and I can’t put the work down. There is another character to write, another chapter, another moment of comedy or tragedy, another twist. It’s an obsession. Friends suggest an evening out – the beach, a party, a live band, theatre, dinner, and it’s so much easier to say ‘I’m quite busy right now – another time, maybe?’ It becomes a frantic cycle, so that the next evening I have another chapter to write, then there is another novel, and too much time has passed. The opportunity has been lost.

People tell me I’m ‘lucky to be so focused’ but I wonder if this intense concentration on a project is just a bad trait I have, or if it’s a natural phenomenon for many writers. I’m not an introvert, not at all reclusive – I can be a real party animal – but this behaviour conforms to the plausible stereotype, the image of the writer staring at a screen, blinking myopically through thick lenses, typing away into the early hours, a recluse with a half-full bottle of whisky and an empty life. There will always be more to do, another current project that is magnetic and all-consuming.

It may be the same for people who are not writers – from athletes to zoologists – it’s easy for us to crowd our time with seemingly-important things that really aren’t the only priority in life. We can justify the immediate importance of peripheral tasks such as cleaning the kitchen, digging the garden. I wonder at which point it became easier to immerse ourselves in work, believing that people we care about will wait in the wings and still be the waiting there the next day.

A lovely friend of mine told me about her grandfather, who’d saved up a collection of fine wines for a nebulous special occasion in the future and then died before he’d even opened one bottle. It’s a good metaphor, full of wisdom – don’t delay the important things in life – have a daily glass of the good wine, or drink a whole bottle once in a while. But don’t put people on hold, just in case– they won’t always be there. We know this is true – every one of us who has lost a dear parent wonders if we really told them enough times how much they mattered to us or did we just swan off and do our own thing, believing it was all going to be fine? It’s a case of benign neglect: just do nothing and hope all will be well next time.

A while ago, I was in a café in Islington looking for breakfast and a brilliantly outspoken  waitress wrinkled her nose at my request for something vegan and said some profound words: ‘Vegan? What is wrong with you? You should change.’

While I have no inclination to alter my lifestyle and start consuming bacon sandwiches, her words resonated with me like church bells, simply because change is a universal option we always have. It was a wake-up call to consider life beyond breakfast. Work shouldn’t be like trudging on a treadmill: it should be a breathless hike up a snowy Alp or a dance, whooping on a sun-soaked beach. It’s easy to spend each day and evening at the computer writing and forget I have good friends to celebrate with. Don’t get me wrong – I am as unlikely to give up writing as I am to give up being a vegan – but I need to be circumspect about my all-consuming need to work. I definitely need to think about positive change and to develop the discipline to stop. Too much work and no social life can make us less effective as writers.

Taking time off makes us more interesting, more rounded. Opportunities for new inspiration are all around: the world is crammed with fantastic people, wonderful places to visit, new experiences. And every day is a chance to tell someone that you appreciate them. It’s a chance to let fresh air blow through. We can try something few haven’t done before, find exciting opportunities. Important moments can’t be allowed to slip away like a dripping tap or water through fingers.

So change I will: I’ll say yes to the all-night party on Saturday when it would be so much easier to sit typing at the computer by the fire with the cats and a glass of brandy. I need to say ‘Let’s go on that journey, visit friends, seize that opportunity.’

The sun is out – and so I will go out too. No more excuses about deadlines. Just do it. We can’t take it with us. It really is now or never.

By neglecting social opportunities, we are neglecting others, and we are neglecting ourselves. So thanks for the wake-up call, Martina in the bistro in London, whoever you are, who gave me a single field mushroom on brown toast with a grin and who will never know how profound her words were. ‘You should change.’

She’s right. I can get more balance into my work/ life schedule. I can seize the moment. Carpe diem and carpe noctem, that must be my motto. It’s possible to change for the better. I will certainly try. Work can be wonderful, exhilarating, fulfilling, joyous, but it isn’t everything. Let’s immerse ourselves in life’s sunshine and see what will grow.

 

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