Sometimes what’s outside affects what’s inside: on nature and inspiration

I decided to have a couple of weeks away from writing. It was a simple idea – it was summer time, so I’d write nothing, just let the summer shine in through the mind’s window and the brain bask in the warmth. After all, I have three new novels more or less completed – maybe four. Five, even – possibly six. And I’ve started a seventh. I have a bit of time to find inspiration.

As writers, we have sharp critical instincts about our own work – we think we know what works and what doesn’t. Of course, we may be completely wrong, but our instinct gives us confidence and direction, based on experience – years of reading, writing, analysing. I always abandon or file away anything I’m not totally enjoying writing, if it’s not working really well. And I’m prolific. I put the hours in. I don’t mind being at the computer at sunrise or writing into the early hours of a new day. I always meet deadlines, and usually beat them. I wake in the early morning to think about my next chapters and I ignore conversations at the dinner table because my mind is elsewhere, fixed on a character’s latest escapade. So taking time out in the summer is a good thing. And my instinct told me to take a break.

Of course, the weather wasn’t great at the beginning of June, so I’d started to tinker with my newly-finished novels. I couldn’t help it – the computer always pulls me in like a magnet and I’m soon reading my work back to myself out loud, checking it through: call it editing, if you like as mistakes pop up all the time demanding to be corrected and I’m desperate to make the story better while reading it with fresh eyes and asking myself if it’s entertaining and if it ‘works’ for the reader or in a visual way, as a film. It’s ‘tinkering’ by any other name.

June has been wet so far so I’ve found it hard not to tinker with the three novels that I’ve ‘completed.’ I enjoy reading them back, a sort of ‘quality control’ exercise. So I decided to do more walking, to take myself away from temptation. Living in the countryside, I have a lot of variety in terms of where to walk and so I’ve been across fields and through woods and along canal paths every morning before breakfast for the past four weeks. I haven’t walked far – between two and five miles, generally. But, rain or shine (and there’s been a lot of rain and a lot of mud and sludge, not so much shine,) it’s been interesting to be outdoors and surrounded by nature. I’m fascinated by what happens to creativity when it’s not asked to do anything except plod along outdoors at its own pace and take its own time to kick in.

I’ve already written the first two chapters of my next novel  about two characters I really find engaging, but I’m not sure which direction it will go so I need to take some time off and wait. I want to have written the new novel and have started another one by the end of this year: it usually takes three or four months to write a novel of about 90,000 words at a steady pace, allowing for editing as I go and when I finish. So I have an opportunity now to be away from my desk, a sort of holiday, and to a certain extent I can allow the weather to dictate when I will write: a hot July or August would mean time outdoors.

But walking in the mornings in all sorts of weather has been so interesting. Rather that asking myself to come up with ideas, I’m giving myself space to let them roll in at their own pace while I surround myself in a calm and natural environment. I’m asking myself to let go of work, rather than trying to find ideas, and I’m expecting nothing back but the squelch of mud underfoot.

Canal 3

It’s quite an interesting metaphor for life – when we expect little, we might be surprised by what good things come back in abundance. I’m simply in it for the exercise, the uphill struggles, the elation of downhill slides, the feeling of happiness, lost in nature with rainwater streaming down your face and into your boots. It’s a nice feeling.

And when I come home, I can reward myself with muesli or blueberry pancakes or beans on toast and hot tea. A shower. An hour in the gym. Lunch with friends. A cup of tea with a neighbour. A Spanish class. But I don’t have to work every day at the moment –  in fact, it’s an opportunity to take a breath. I am very lucky to have the freedom to let inspiration arrive at its own pace and to be confident that it will just pop up and that I won’t be left waiting for it.

Nature certainly has a way of inspiring. Soggy fields and rickety stiles that lead to nettle-crowded paths, or the rhythm of rain plopping onto canal water and the sound of gravel scrunching underfoot have given me the space to examine what characters I might create to provoke entertainment and mischief. For some reason, spending twenty minutes up to my ankles in muck in a boggy field while a herd of calves with number tags on their ears licked my hands with long rough tongues gave me a great idea for a riotous scene set on a ski slope. Surreal – but being outside really works.

Of course, I wish the weather had been better so far this month. There has certainly been a lot of moisture drenching the woods and on the footpaths and, of course, drenching me. But we’re due warmer weather, surely. So I’m wondering about the quality of inspiration that might drift in if I walked in the sunshine on dry earth in shorts and a vest and trainers rather than through squelching bogs in wellies, a beanie and a weatherproof jacket.

I think I ought to find out. I’m seriously thinking of having another week or two off, away from the computer, doing explore beaches and coastal paths. After all, it’s worth taking time away from work. There is no need to feel guilty – it’s still work, in a way. Even if I’m not at my desk writing, I’m still thinking. After all, who knows what ideas will rush in when I allow my feet to tread…?

Canal 6

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

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

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

 


Telegraph Poles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

When a novel is finished, the editing starts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Judy Leigh -26b

Three recommended books to celebrate International Romani Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Larger than life characters hang in the balance as I write a novel or two

A strange thing has happened to me this week. I’m 20,000 words into writing a novel, and I’m enjoying creating the story of five women who become friends and take on an unusual project. I’m not offering any spoilers at this stage but, as usual, I have written the beginning, I’ve planned the surprising end and now I need to slot in the exciting stuff in the middle. Then all of a sudden – this is the strange thing – a new idea came into my head for another story and I went off on a tangent, writing 5,000 words in two days.

The dilemma is – I like both stories and I want to write them both equally. I’m keen on the characters and when characters get under a writer’s skin, you just have to keep going until the story is told. But, strangely, I want to write both at the same time.

The five women, all older protagonists, have their own journeys to make throughout the novel; they have their own lives to carve out and, as usual, they embark on some rebellious mischief in order to arrive at their destination and to achieve something they didn’t expect at the beginning of the novel. But the problem is that the two main characters from the other story have just butted in.

I didn’t mean it to happen, but all of a sudden I’ve created this crazy couple, Dawnie and Billy, who are outrageous, warm, funny and up for a riotous time. I’ve dropped them into a situation with a mixture of other people. I’ve set up conflicts, problems, situations that will need resolutions and, having written the first two-and-a-half chapters, I’m away and running.

Writing two novels at one time is ridiculous, a bit like when people make excuses for their amorous misdemeanours – I’m in love with two people. I couldn’t help it. It just happened. And the rest of us stare in belief and think no, not really – everyone is in control of what happens to them- they could have chosen a different path. But for me, I have two novels on the go, one shouting in each ear, and I’m going to have to write them both. I’m not sure how: a day spent on each, alternating? A week concentrating on one, then spend time on the other? Or maybe I’ll just see how the inclination takes me – type out 10,000 words on one and then 20,000 on the other when I feel inclined?

It’s exciting, though. I know I’ll be in for an interesting ride. As I write, characters absorb me. They fill my head, talk to me in the early hours of the morning, shout at me, ask me questions about what will happen next and demand resolutions. They imprint their speech patterns, their backgrounds, their likes and dislikes in my head and they demand that I have feelings for them in return. I do my best.

But now I have two books to write at the same time, I’ll have two sets of characters battling it out; two stories to plot; two settings to create. But I’m not complaining. Writers’ block it certainly isn’t. And the characters make me laugh, cry and feel loyal to them. I’m enjoying this.

I’m, also not worried about taking a break from work because I find that time off away from a novel gives it space to breathe and throws more ideas and conflicts into the mix. Both sets of characters visit various destinations so it’s an excuse for me to get the camper van out, distance myself from the project and do a bit of research. (I have another idea for a novel I want to write further down the line that will involve a mammoth journey, but it’ll take me a while to save up enough to go there and if I’m desperate, I’ll have to make the journey virtual…) It’s not a bad life, where you get to go and visit all the places your characters visit, take a notebook and jot down details of setting, the senses, impressions. I certainly can’t complain.

So no spoilers at this point, but my plan is to finish the first story about the five women and the other one about the crazy couple before the summer sun becomes too much of a regular visitor to my window. Otherwise I might just have to put these larger- than-life characters on hold for a short while and go and have a life of my own. After all, it’s easy for writers to live constantly in the world of make-believe but sometimes we all need to get out there and have a reality check, travel about a bit, seek out some sunshine, before we come back to the computer desk and write up more chaos.

In praise of audiobooks

Today is world book day and I’d like to bring up the topic of audiobooks. Life is a learning journey and it is good to have the opportunity to reconsider and sometimes even change our views. I’ve always loved reading – I’m usually stuck to the pages of a book, often multi-tasking, reading while I eat, cook, hoover, travel – anything that doesn’t require an active mind or great dexterity is better with a book on the go, clutched in my hands, my eyes not on the task. However, I’d never really thought about audio books as a choice. Then an artist friend of mine told me she was into audio books in a big way while she worked. A light came on almost immediately. Of course – it is so much easier to do those tasks that have to be done when you are listening to a book. I’d never really thought about audio books before but oh, what a joy they are.

Then another flood of realisation rushed in. Think of all those kids at school, the ones who didn’t like books, those who are dyslexic, those with concentration problems, the ones who’d been switched off reading at an early age, being able to enjoy a good story. And people who don’t see well enough to read print  – how important it is that they can access a library of books through their ears.

As children we love to be read to. We read to our own kids. It often helps us to access sleep – not because a book is boring but because a voice is soothing and safe and we are transported on the wings of our imagination. How nice to go to sleep listening to a story being read to us!

Then A Grand Old Time came out, as a novel and as an audio book, read beautifully by Aoife McMahon. She narrated the story with warmth and humour, bringing out the character of Evie Gallagher perfectly. I was so impressed. And in a review, someone wrote that she’d enjoyed the audio book so much; that the narration was so skilful and Evie’s occasional expletive wasn’t offensive at all, because the voice of the reader was Irish and it sounded so beautiful. That made me smile.

When The Age of Misadventure came out, I listened to Julie Maisey read the audio. I was blown away by her skills, as I was with Aoife McMahon’s. Julie Maisey had a Liverpool accent, not intrusive (although I adore the full-on Scouse voice) but with studied accessibility to all people, including those who might find accents difficult. The characters, action, settings were so well evoked by an actor who, apparently, is asked to achieve the whole thing in virtually one take. What impressive skills these actors have and, to the best of my knowledge, they are rarely known for their performances unless they are a big name.

So here’s my chance: thank you, Aoife and Julie and all the brilliant unsung stars out there that bring a book to life and send it singing into the earplugs of all of us. We who listen to audio books in the gym while pounding the treadmill, while walking coastal paths, while doing mundane domestic tasks and while driving or relaxing in a comfy arm chair with our eyes closed or while imagining the most exciting places and people with our heads on pillows, are truly grateful.

I have realised what a treasure an audio book is. I’m now aware of the skills and thought that go towards producing audio books. Audio books are the ears’ equivalent of block buster films, voices creating powerful visual images, and they are so impactful for so many people, including me now. So thank you, to all those involved in audio books. You are rock and roll. I am looking forward to my next sortie with the hoover, my next thirty mile bike ride in the gym, my next sleepless night when I can wake and in an instant be taken to a thrilling place by a warm and accessible voice.

Of course it’s a personal choice and I will always choose to hold a book, turn the pages, and stare at the words on the page in my own time. But audio books are now important too – they are right up there with all the fiction and non-fiction in my library.

 

 

 

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Celebrating the Age of Misadventure

My new novel, The Age of Misadventure, is out today. I really hope everyone will enjoy it. Grateful thanks to all the people who are with me on this journey – wonderful professionals, family, friends and so many people I am so glad to have come to know through writing novels. I have always wanted to write and I’m living the dream every day. I’ve just finished writing another novel, which I’m really excited about, and I’ve plans to write two more this year. They all contain characters in their golden years along with other characters too, of course. We live in a wonderful, diverse work and, although I want to have a diverse cast, I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to create an older protagonist or two who have arrived at that age where they care little about what others think and revel in their own capers for the sheer joy of it.

It was for my mum, Irene, that I wrote my previous novel, A Grand Old Time. She loved to read so many books – they helped her to escape the daily routine. She was my Evie Gallagher, or at least, she was the Evie she could have been in another time. I’d have loved it if she’d been able to take off to France in a campervan and have those adventures. She’d have been just as feisty and as mischievous, and I knew exactly how Evie would behave because my mum would have been that way too. I haven’t finished with Evie entirely – she’s irrepressible, and I have a feeling she may be back.

In my new novel, The Age of Misadventure, I wanted to suggest that everyone should have fun, whatever their age. Georgie, at fifty five, has tried to harden her emotions, having been disappointed in love. She reminds me of so many women I know and respect – strong, gritty and independent, tough in order to shield herself from being hurt again but by the end of the novel, she has softened. There is a second chance for her. But it is the character of Nanny Basham that I really hope people will take to their hearts.

I wrote the character of Nanny Basham with my Dad in mind. I lost him a couple of years ago. He’d been living on his own, managing to be independent until the last few years. Then, like Georgie in The Age of Misadventure, it fell to me to cook his meals, do the shopping and sort out most aspects of his life. Many of Nan’s disgruntled words at the beginning of the book are his too. Being old and living by yourself, eating meals for one in front of the TV and not putting on the heating because it’s expensive is no picnic, and it’s often difficult for people in that position to feel positive about life.

So I wanted to allow Nan to have some freedom, and to enjoy herself. Inside the lonely woman living from day to day is a woman who has another life to live – she craves company, fun – she likes to party. And I wanted The Age of Misadventure to be exactly that, Nan’s chance to party.

Of course, a frail older lady now, Nanny Basham has a past and she has loved and lost. Her life is to some extent about memories. But I want my older characters to believe they have a present time to enjoy and in The Age of Misadventure, Nan has the time of her life, both on the road trip and in Sussex. She lives a completely different lifestyle: surrounded by people, she feels pampered, important and she is happy. It is no wonder that, at the end of the novel, she says that she would rather be on the run and in danger and have fun than go back to sitting in front of the TV by herself with a meal in a box.

The Age of Misadventure is a road trip, an adventure, a comedy romp and the story of three generations of women finding out what they want from life. As ever, each day is a lesson and from the difficulties we experience comes learning. Bonnie is a much more likeable character by the end of the novel, when she has learned to be independent and when she discovers who she really is, rather than being content to reflect what her husband wanted her to be. Similarly, when Georgie puts her guard down, she is warm, loyal and funny, and yet she remains a lioness, fiercely protective of those she loves. Jade, still very young,  moves to the next stage of her life, becoming independent and carving out a future with her new partner. Nan relishes being with others, having company, and by the end of the story we hope she will enjoy herself now, living each day in her own riotous way but with a heart of gold.

Having been through an adventure together, all the characters are ready to celebrate life in the present. I believe that we should try to celebrate every moment in our lives whatever age we are and whatever our circumstances. It’s not always easy though, but books can help, as they helped my mum to dream when her life was all about routine. And that is where the older protagonists come in, having characters who misbehave, who enjoy every moment, who – even in their older years – refuse to fade into the background and be quiet. Hopefully we’ll all become older people as life expectancy increases. And perhaps we’ll benefit from characters like Nanny Basham and Evie Gallagher: new role models, older characters in novels who are flawed, who fight against adversity and come through triumphant, perhaps a little scathed, but positive and having learned something important about life.

So I’ll continue to write about fun characters that are in their golden years, as well as some other characters that are not. Perhaps that’s how the world is and should be – it’s about inclusion and celebration. To some extent, Nanny Basham was written for my Dad, Tosh. But really and truly, she is written for all of us. May we all live long enough to enjoy our later years when, like Nan, we have earned the right to be who we are – funny, feisty, a little outrageous and very much ready for some misadventure.

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My top ten reasons why I love writing novels…

I’m an avid reader. I’m the sort of person who will read everything: all genres, crisp packets, adverts on buses. I have my preferences, of course – I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson, Ian Hancock, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Winman, the Brontë’s, Zola, Turgenev, Cecelia Woloch, Kamila Shamsie and lots more. Reading is fuel for the mind, the imagination and the emotions. I can’t read enough.

Reading also helps me as a writer. I start from the place that someone has written something as a gift and as a reader, I have the joy of unwrapping it. It has taken them a long time and their work has come from a special place in the writer’s creativity. I extract everything I can from it, like a nutritious meal. Mostly I love lots about others’ writing and, if I don’t, I can still learn about the style, the craft. Other people will love a book I don’t get and so I seek to find out what it is about the novel that hits the mark with readers. Very rarely, if I can’t get into it at all, I put it aside, like some people do with Brussel sprouts. It’s not for everybody but it’s not my style to be negative.

Then, of course, writing books has given me so much to be grateful for. I’m learning about the craft and the industry all the time. My next novel The Age of Misadventure is out this month and I’ve just finished writing another novel I have so much love for, so it is a good time to reflect and pick my top ten reasons why I love writing. Putting them into an order has been difficult, and of course, I will find more reasons as time goes by and there may be a top twenty. But here we go. My top ten:

10 Holding the baby. It is a powerful moment when the novel stops being a series of pages on the PC and first takes the form of a book. The writer can actually hold a copy, touch the printed pages, read the familiar first lines and the acknowledgements and think ‘Wow – this is real.’ To be able to take the book in your hands is incredible, turning it over and realising that you did this yourself – (well, not entirely by yourself – more of that later.) Then the book arrives and it’s in German, Czech, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, and the Canadian edition. I’m so grateful to so many people.

9 Being asked to talk about the novel. I’m quite a humble soul really and to be asked about my book is something that triggers a strange reaction. I’m being allowed to talk about something I’ve created and people are really interested in it. It takes some getting used to. I’ve done radio interviews, which I love, and a few signings and talks at book shops and universities. It’s a little bit scary and a little bit surreal when people ask How did you think up that character…? And why did you make this happen at the end..? But I’m overwhelmed that people have invested the time and interest to read and think about my novel. It’s a real honour.

8 The cover. Being shown an artist’s visual interpretation of your novel, and design which an expert believes will encapsulate the story and persuade others to read it is a great experience. My daughter is a talented illustrator and I’m always overwhelmed by people’s artistic talents and interpretation, and the time it takes to create the final piece. It is a joy to reveal a cover, and quite an emotional moment. Then, seeing the way the cover is designed for release in other countries is an experience that takes my breath away.

7 Being outside and being inspired. One of the greatest joys of writing a novel is that I have the freedom to choose how I schedule my working day. I’m quite driven, so I don’t spend lots of time in the bath or gazing at the sheep in the fields but I do make myself stop, in order to think and to recharge. The beach is a favourite place to go for thinking time, or on the moors, where ideas will blow through like clouds and I become clearer about what I want to write. I’m lucky to have a campervan so that I can travel, research my work and just let thoughts move around.

6 Laughing out loud at my own story – and even crying. If my own writing can move me, then it might move a reader. I find myself laughing aloud at what I’m typing sometimes and that’s a good measuring stick. Characters such as Evie Gallagher and Nanny Basham, and the three main characters in my latest novel, have all made me guffaw. When I’m editing and I know the story so well, it is another good time to test the waters. I shed a tear at the end of A Grand Old Time and Nan’s story about her past in The Age of Misadventure made my heart ache. I think the central issue is that I care about the characters – always flawed, dented by life’s experiences but optimistic and feisty, they deserve something special and that’s what I’m aiming for by the end of the novel. Of course, it won’t always be a happy ending for all of them…

5 Starting a new novel. Like a first date or a new love, a new novel grips the writer and you can’t get enough of it. I just want to write all the time, I’m so full of enthusiasm and energy to tell the story. Of course, I have dumped a few novels on the way at 20,000 words. Filed might be a better word. But if I’m not bursting with excitement, then probably the reader won’t be.

4. Waking up at 2 am. I love it when I wake up and characters are sitting at the end of my bed, yelling ‘So, what happens to me next? How do I manage to resolve…?’ and I spend hours working it out. Early morning is active brain time for me but I don’t mind. It’s productive and fun, so I roll with it.

3. Finishing a novel. It’s a great feeling but not a simple one to explain. Finishing a novel goes way beyond ‘Yahoo, I’ve finished – bring out the bubbly.’ There is a feeling of immense satisfaction, because I’m pleased with it and I’ve brought the novel to a conclusion and all the characters have a resolution. I know I need to go through and edit and re-edit, and I enjoy the process of improving what I’ve written. But there’s also a bitter-sweet tinge of sadness. I have to let the characters go now… they move from the smaller place of my life and into the wide world. But like children, you have to let them grow, move on and find their own way…it is a good feeling to have brought them this far.

2. The support. I can’t praise enough the people who help me with writing novels. I know lots of writers advocate self-publishing and I admire their expertise and focus. But I am blessed with the invaluable support of experts. From my wonderful agent to cheerful and skilled editors who are so experienced and helpful, to the exuberant publicist who works non-stop, I am truly lucky. The encouragement and love I receive from friends, neighbours, ex-students from my theatre-teaching days, even people I hardly know, is immense. I’ve had some really touching messages and incredible support from all over the world. It’s mind-blowing and truly wonderful. And then there is the encouragement I get from my family. At the end of The Age of Misadventure, my daughter whooped out loud and cheered at Nanny’s brave actions. My son knows every plot twist and my partner will read a chapter or two of a first draft each night, offering me technical advice about anything that has a motor engine. They are special people, my family, and I can’t thank them enough.

1. Readers. I’ve left readers until last because a book has no purpose without a reader. The readers are in my mind all the way through the writing process…will the reader enjoy this? How can I entertain, move, grip, interest, surprise my reader? It is an honour to be in the position of offering something I’ve created to someone else. And it’s not something I’m anxious about: it’s a privilege. Whoever and wherever the readers are, male or female, new to my books or not, whether they are bloggers, editors, people who’ve picked up a copy in a shop (someone told me they’d bought it on a whim because of the title and had no idea if they’d like it,) whether it features in a reading group or it’s an audio or on kindle or in paperback, I’m so grateful that I have such wonderful readers. It’s what it’s all about, the process, the ideas, the crafting, and the editing. The reader is the prize at the end of the race. So whoever you are, thank you.

 

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What I learned about writing a novel from the TV detective series Luther

As a writer, I try to learn about the craft of writing a novel from every source I can. The obvious source is reading and I try to read all the time. Each day I’m perched on my exercise bike for an hour, devouring anything I can get my hands on, and even if I have no more time for reading that day, at least I’m getting in the literary and physical miles at the same time. My favourite novel last year without a doubt was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, the retelling of the Antigone story. Shamsie is a writer who clearly knows how to craft a clever story.

But I am on a mission to learn and to improve my writing all the time, and that means seeking out all other means of refining my skills. And this brings me to the fifth series of Luther on TV, written brilliantly by Neil Cross. Now it has to be said that Luther is a terrifying programme. That shouldn’t be a problem for me: I was brought up with scary films and books. My mum loved everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie. She loved the thrill of danger. It was escapism. (It has to be said at this point that my dad did not read, nor could he shift his stance from a stubborn belief in only that which he could see and touch at any moment of time, the real, the mundane.)

But since the screening of the Luther episode of the killer in the street wearing the luminous mask, I won’t to go out in the dark to put out the bins. Neil Cross deliberately targets our potential to be afraid and he unleashes the power that lies in our dread and anxiety about the unknown. He said ‘So all of the bad guys are avatars of my fears and anxieties, and once I have isolated that fear – the guy under the be- that’s a shared anxiety with so many of us – once I’ve got that initial spark of anxiety, then I begin to think about the character that could exemplify it… Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? What does he want? But that ultimately comes second to the scary stuff. You start with the fear and work backwards.’

Character is always important. Idris Elba’s John Luther is a sex symbol of our time, but more importantly he’s a maverick, a flawed genius who steps outside the rules, a man of the law who sails close to the wind, breaking convention. Other characters shine. Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan is brilliantly contrived – a ruthless unpredictable psychopath who turns up unexpectedly and behaves outrageously.

William Faulkner said ‘In writing, you must kill your darlings’ and Cross does exactly that in Luther. Justin Ripley’s death shocked us all, as if we thought someone so loyal, so important and good-natured was exempt from being murdered, and when he was not, we were stunned and we mourned. And then came the demise of Benny, the tech expert – another martyr. Neil Cross underpins my belief that the reader should be surprised by what happens next – no character is safe, no eventuality should be predictable. And the importance of complex likeable central characters with the potential to amaze but who bring empathy and warmth and human vulnerability is not to be overlooked.

An impactful setting is something we all strive to create in our writing. Luther is firstly a visual medium, but it works on the same principle as writing. Whether it is from a camera angle or the written word, whether we are following a victim onto a bus or watching someone take off their shoes from a killer’s viewpoint under the bed, setting can create emotional impact and needs careful consideration. Cross’ work prompts me to ask myself if I can make the setting more powerful, more relevant or can I find an alternative setting that is more surprising and unexpected.

Neil Cross excels at twists and turns in storylines and having several threads unravelling at the same time. He leaves vital questions unanswered, which draws the viewer in, and he misleads us deliberately to add to the surprise at the moment of anagnorisis. My background in both theatre and writing tells me how vital it is to suspend disbelief, to keep the interest of the audience strong but to draw them out of the comfort zone and keep them guessing. In series 5 of Luther, we wonder what will happen to George Cornelius’ kidnapped son, but we don’t expect what Alice does or when and how she’ll do it. We are interested in how new DS Catherine Halliday will fare working with Luther – the signs are mixed, a tentative novice but with a cool head. It could go horribly wrong. And DSU Martin Schenk is on to Luther – he now has real evidence of his dangerous liaison with Alice.

Then there are the murderers – Vivien Lake and her evil, strange husband, Jeremy: the luminous horror mask, the needles, the eyeballs, and that incredible moment where the patient was talked through her impending heart operation by the psychopath doctor and he slipped the shocking phrase ‘diseased whore’ into the professional dialogue, much to the patient’s – and our- revulsion and incredulity. Cross is offering a master class on suspension of disbelief, terrifying the audience, misleading them and keeping them guessing, interweaving threads of characters’ action and contrasting story lines in an intricate way so that the outcome will never be clear until the shocking moments of catharsis.

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Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

I got into Luther late, and scared myself silly by watching all the earlier series in a week. Series five is no exception – it’s horrific, brilliantly contrived, the stories unfolding expertly. Most importantly Neil Cross, like any good writer, knows how to channel and manipulate his audience’s emotions, how to create the dynamic interplay between fear and hope, relief and shock, admiration and sadness and dread. He knows how to pull us in to the plot and keep us there, how to make us take sides and invest in the characters, how to force us to feel sympathy, empathy, antipathy and to steel ourselves against a huge barrage of horror. And he knows how to keep it coming.

There is a lot to be learned about writing a novel from a television series, and in particular, from Neil Cross’ Luther. Series five was excellent, and although the action is often about male killers and female victims, I still focused on the belief that the horror was real and spent a lot of it watching through the gaps in my interwoven fingers. But, like every great novel, it leaves me sad when it’s over and waiting for more, although I’ve no idea what the next series might hold. But I’m looking forward to the superb storytelling and how it can help me to refine my own writing.