I should point out for the sake of transparency that I am possibly the least sporty person I have ever met. Pouring myself another glass of wine is more than enough to exhaust me for the day.
I blame my Mother of course. She locked me in our house from the age of six and didn't allow me out until I had an offer from a Russell Group University safely under my belt. To be fair, we lived on a sink estate where every third teenager had an aerosol can up their sleeve and our next door neighbour left his upstairs window open so he could escape from the police with balletic ease.
My kids however, live such ludicrously middle class lifestyles that they are more likely to meet their doom at the bumper of a badly driven Rangerover. Thus they, unlike their Rapunzle like mater, are allowed out into the world and have consequently built enough muscle density to run.
And run they do. Like Greyhounds. Only cuter.
So I watched them doing their laps and it struck me that although running is essentially a solo sport, how much more they enjoyed themselves and how much more they improve from being part of their club. Obviously there's nothing stopping anyone training alone but there's nothing like a bit of encouragement to make those legs work harder.
And then, because with me all roads lead back to writing, it struck me that this is exactly why I love being part of a writing group.
Clearly most of my writing takes place alone ( fortunate considering I generally wear old trackie bottoms and a Luton pineapple). Hours and hours spent tapping away with only radio four for company. But what is indisputable is that when I release my work into the wild ie to my writing group it improves hugely.
Not only do my fellow writers provide insightful and helpful comments, steering me where I need to go and telling me in no uncertain terms when things are not working, they have, right from the start cheered me on. Unfailingly, they have supported me and pushed me forward.
I have acknowledged them in all my books so far and cannot see any reason why I would stop.
From the first session when they informed me that indeed I could write, to the night we cracked the bubbly when I got my first publishing deal I wouldn't be without them.
So for any aspiring writers I would urge you to find this priceless tool for your kit. Join a group or a club. Meet regularly and encourage one another. If there's nothing nearby go online and join a writers' community.
Cos there is nothing like safety in numbers.
2) Everyone has a book in them and therefore the potential to be a writer. Erm, correct! I’d agree that everyone does. But if this book is to be publishable, is to be page-turnable, then no, not everyone has the where-with-all to produce such a tale. We each have our own unique story, some narrative that defines our lives, and this autobiographical prose is often what a virgin writer puts on paper. But whether this should be made public in all its self-indulgent glory is quite another matter. Mine was written 4 years ago, a novel set in Paris, in the Eighties - Cue Monet, Metro stations and Merlot. Cue unimaginative characters based on people I once knew, speaking with Carry-on style French accents.
3) Writers earn a lot of money. Not unless their name is JK Rowling or Dan Brown. That is, writers who just happen to catch the public’s imagination on a grand scale. For the rest of us the financial prospects are a little more sobering. Advances are relatively small, as are royalties once the bookseller, wholesaler and publisher have taken their cut… In other words, if you’re lucky, you might earn enough to pay for a newish car, but forget those dreams of world cruises, shopping at Tiffany’s or giving up the day job.
4) Writers are sexy, interesting people. Don’t make me laugh! We all have writer’s arse and moan constantly about rejection. And we’ve got spots from too many keyboard chocolate fests and a red nose from too much comforting booze. What's more, we're self-obsessed and fixated with checking the post and emails.
5) Writers are born. No. I’d disagree with this. Yet I believe readers are and that often a childhood love of books, an adult writer will spawn.
6) Writers are the best observers of human nature. I think not - they are simply the ones to note it down. Point in fact is the builder presently working on my house - salt of the earth who took just a few days to suss me out: how to make me smile with his banter, how to explain things to someone who is as practical as a piece of fluff; how to ask for a cup of tea whilst making me feel it was no bother; how to get me to allay my irrational fears about fittings and dust. Anyone who works with the public has to understand and manipulate the diversity of human nature to get their job done. Writers are no more gifted at understanding what makes people tick, they are simply the ones to present those observations as the written word.
Elizabeth McKay lives in Ayrshire and has been writing for about twelve years. She works part-time as an admin assistant in a day centre for adults with learning disabilities and writes the rest of the time. As well as short stories she has also had a number of features published in magazines. She has several stories awaiting publication, mainly in Woman's Weekly and Fiction Feast.
My family think my writing is...
The best/worst thing about writing short stories for magazines is...
Long hand first or computer?
On completing a story I feel...
When I run out of ideas I...
Ideas come to me when...
My biggest tip for new women’s mag writers would be...
3 authors – dead or alive I’d like to invite to dinner would be:
Favourite writing outfit?
Favourite writing snack?
Daily Mail or Guardian?
Corrie or Eastenders?
Yet they had probably already chuckled. On unpacking my beach bag I’d discovered to my annoyance, that I’d forgotten my bikini bottoms. My husband had passed me his spare Speedos, insisting I’d look okay. Desperate for a swim I obliged, grinning as I came over all Daniel Craig and strutted into the brine in said swimming trunks.
Then whilst treading water as I chatted with my dad, something suddenly struck me, and our hoots of laughter echoed around the bay as I broadcast an imaginary – but perfectly feasible - newspaper headline:
“WASHED UP ON FRENCH BEACH, ENGLISH WOMAN STRUCK BY LIGHTNING, DRESSED IN MALE SPEEDOS, WITH A FISHING NET JAMMED OVER HER HEAD.”
You see, life really is stranger than fiction, yet so often we are told by agents or editors that something in our work isn’t realistic enough. Are they joking?!
Take my last book. One agent couldn’t accept in the main premise of a woman getting pregnant and not realizing until she gave birth. Yet fairly regularly I read about this phenomenon in some newspaper and often it’s a sensible, mature women going into hospital with stomach ache and coming home with an unexpected little one. And in any event, isn’t fiction all about escapism? There’s no rule, is there, that says a fictional work outside the genres of Science Fiction or Fantasy has to be totally based on reality?
Take my present book, a kind of chick lit Past Life Regression to Ancient Egypt – isn’t this just one step further on from the array of Women’s Fiction books out there inviting the average woman to escape into the impossibly unreal world of New York or Parisian romance and glamour?
Whilst I strive to base the emotional life of my characters on real feelings, so that it comes across as credible and gains empathy from the readers, I feel us writers should be cut some slack when it comes to plot. Life is strange and fiction should be allowed to reflect this. Who’s to say someone can’t be gobsmacked by unexpectedly giving birth? Who’s to say Past Life Regression is all guff? And does any of this really matter in the more straight-laced genres, as long as the story has an effective hook and the characters’ personal journey seems believable?
So next time someone reads your work and says ‘but that wouldn’t happen in real life’, hold back and think hard before you change a word. I reckon my French beach headline could double as the perfect opening for a murder mystery novel…
Over the course of the last few weeks the tension has been building in the Black household.
A hungry anticipation coupled with uncharacteristic optimism has taken over.
Yes, my friends, the start of the football season has arrived.
Those barren weeks of outlandish rumour are over.
Last season's disappointments are consigned to history. This year will be the one. There is everything to play for.
Those of us who follow a football team will recognise the wonderful feeling of the clean sheet. And those of us who write must surely understand that they are brothers in arms.
It seems to me that writing and following the footie are so similar I'm suprised Stevie G hasn't won the Booker.
Think about it.
The period before the season starts is where the imagination of every sports journo and humble fan alike runs riot. Grandiose plans are hatched. Winning the double seems all too real. It's not called the 'silly season' for nothing.
And isn't this just like those wonderful weeks for any writer before a project officially begins? Characters burn with joyous intensity. Subplots twist and turn like nude dancers. And the ending...
This story/book/script is going to be the best thing ever written. Hollywood is already on the phone.
Then the season kicks off. If the first few games go well then the promise of glory is ever nearer. If losses are sustained there is still time to fix things.
By Christmas things are less than rosy. The fan's unbridled hope has taken a battering.
The striker that cost more than the debt of an African state couldn't hit a barn door.
The writer too is at a critical time and feeling the strain. The MC has not glittered and the middle is flagging. The planned ending is starting to look a little overblown.
But the Writer ploughs on. He can change the formation, sack the goalie.
By the beginning of the Summer the footie fan is jaded. He can barely bring himself to turn on the telly. Not when there's an away game at Man United still to come.
The writer too is in the final stages. Things haven't worked out. At last he types The End and sends the thing off to his agent with the usual caveats. He takes a breather. Perhaps it's time to go back to the day job.
Then July arrives and among the sun screen he spies an idea. A fantastic idea. The sort of idea to bring the critics to their knees.
The writer starts to plan like a frenzied beast. Once again the silly season is here.
Then one day in mid August the writer sits at his lap top and starts all over again.
Afterall, there is everything to play for.
Standing at the Post Office counter, watching the Big Brown Envelope wave goodbye, I often wonder what goes through the agent's (or reader's mind) when he or she opens my submission – do they think it's a big pile of George Dubya Bush, or might it cross their mind that it's the best thing invented since the telly?
'Hello, is that Doris Lessing?'
'Yes,' I say to the agent.
'I've had a chance to read your first three chapters and I must say I am very impressed,' adds the agent.
'Thank you,' I say, pre-empting the next request.
'Can you send me the full MS?'
'Certainly,' I say. 'I'll get that off to you today.'
We hang up.
I'm sure there have been many times when we wish we had been born 'Mr J.M. Coetzee' or 'Mrs Toni Morrison' (wouldn't that look cool on a passport?) but let's ponder, with envy, some of those classics which have graced our bookshelves. Here are some books I wish I'd penned, and in that respect, long to be the brains behind those amazing first three chapters.
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
I only recently read this Man Booker shortlisted novel but I was really swept up in the story. Set in Ashford, Kent, it's an examination of the way history plays jokes on us, incorporating comedy, art and displacement. It's incredibly original and unlike any book I've read before. Do persevere with it – it's worth it.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This is the first novel by the Mississippi writer and it tells the story of a closely knit group of classics students at an elite Vermont college. In the opening chapter, the reader is told of the death of student 'Bunny' Corcoran, although few details are given initially. Unusually, the story explores the lasting effects of his murder on the group of students.
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi
This is a work of witness and a fascinating personal narrative by Italian author Primo Levi. It was influenced by his experiences in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the Second World War. This is not a self-dramatising piece; instead it gives an insight into his strength of character and opens readers' eyes to the horror of the unimaginable.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Another Booker prize shortlisted novel, it is set in a dystopian Britain and follows the life of Kathy H, a young woman who is boarding at a rather unusual school. Here, human beings are cloned to provide organs for transplant purposes, and Kathy and her classmates have been created specifically to be donors. Again, a novel of startling originality.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This story is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible, inspired by Ellison's own life. The story is told from the narrator's present, looking back into his past.
Pop Co by Scarlett Thomas
Smart and funny, almost zeitgeisty, the story follows Alice Butler, an employee in a global toy company which creates kits for children who enjoy code-breaking and espionage. Alice becomes aware of her employers' ghastly ethics while confined at a camp on Dartmoor. She is under orders to develop a great product for teenage girls - go on that journey with her!
The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse
This is on my list because it's the book that any new author wishes he or she had written. With prior knowledge that Lucie is a literary agent, I nevertheless put aside this fact to concentrate on the story, and enjoyable and well-written it is too. But I couldn't simply ignore the fact this is written by an agent who knows how to construct a plot while keeping the reader engaged.
What would it feel like if you were the brains behind one of these books? These are a few I've picked myself, but I'm sure you have many personal faves which you wish you'd written. But don't be disheartened, you, yes you, could be The Next Big Thing.
A simple enough job you’d think. I shouldn’t be able to cock that one up. Then, as I searched the bedroom, I realised I had no idea what her current pair looks like. It’s me that needs my eyes tested. I found some that were vaguely familiar: rectangular lenses and a walnut coloured frame (see, I can describe them when they are sitting on the desk). I asked, rather sheepishly, if those were the ones. They were: success. In a minute I’ll stop writing to you, jump in the car and whiz into Ealing to deliver them. I’ll shake off the faint dusting of embarrassment at not being able to recognise an object I see every week, an object that is habitually located directly in front of a pair of eyes I find irresistibly attractive.
Being this unobservant is no help to a writer. In Myers-Briggs personality language I’m strongly N rather than S. I don’t think about what’s actually out there in the shouting, stinking, strokable, savoury, seeable world: the information available to my senses. If you are N, the nitty-gritty of colours and shapes, which jacket someone is wearing, the type of car they drive, all bore you. You’d make a hopeless police witness. Proof reading makes your eyes sweat. Instead, you think about the stuff cavorting inside your head: possibilities and ideas, the inner meaning of things rather than their physical appearance.
One simple test to find out if someone is N or S is to show them a painting and get them to describe it. Froggy, for example, the tree-frog I bought from a local artist in Costa Rica. The painting on my office wall. I show it to you for a minute then take it away. Now tell me what you saw.
If you are S, you will tell me that it’s a painting of a frog perched at the tips of two leaves or stalks. Unusually, the leaves are bright red and so are the frogs eyes. Its legs are blue and the background is completely black. The eyes are jutting from the extreme sides of the face. The frog has three toes to each of its legs in a sort of orangey colour. The hind legs are blue but its front legs are green, which makes them look like arms. The face is the same pale green. You might mention that the artist used pastels.
If you are N, you won’t notice any of that stuff, apart from possibly the scarlet eyes. You’ll say, the frog looks as if he’s about to jump out of the painting straight into the room. You’ll say that his eyes bulge in a slightly ominous way but his wide wide mouth gives him a more friendly look. You’ll admit that you quite like the picture but might find it a bit disconcerting to have that beady-eyed frog watching you while you work.
I’m biased and probably make the N preference sound more exciting than the mundane thinking of the S. But I’ve often been struck by how we need both modes, as writers.
N is how you dream up an idea for a story. How you link your narrative to some big bold themes, to the universal human condition that the reader relates to. It’s how you let the imagination run wild and think up whole new worlds or adventures beyond your own experience, letting the mind fly into new realms.
S is how you convey all that. The show not tell. The pinpoint description and vivid detail that brings it all to life in the imagination of the reader. Without that precision and concrete language it all becomes vague and is lost somewhere between your fertile pen and the page.
A psychologist friend who knows her Myers-Briggs commented on this when she read one of my stories, saying she was surprised by all the detailed sensory data, the sights and sounds I’d described. She didn’t know how laborious that was for me; I even found it difficult to do the S description of Froggy who, like that pair of glasses, I see almost every day. I couldn’t have written it without the painting in front of me.
Recently on a writing forum I saw a thread where people posted their MBTI types. Of thirteen writers who responded to the thread, 11 were N rather than S. Also, 11 were F rather than T (perhaps I’ll blog about that one later). The other two scales were fairly evenly split.
So I’m not the only one. I wonder if you have to force yourself to notice what's going on in the real world, too. I’d love to think more about this, but, aarrghh, I’ve just noticed I’m late to pick up Jess.
Today, at 8:30 am, The List began as follows:
1. Change bed.
2. Put wash on
3. Ironing pile
4. Write synopsis
5. Drop West Wing off to Fiona (The DVD not the building)
6. Make healthy breakfast muffin thingys
7. Bring bottles to recycling (without getting arrested)
Did you spot it? Lurking there in the middle…..the only thing that I really have to do today?
I am in ‘S’ Word Denial. I know what I have to do but there’s a part of me resisting. In fact, when I read Susannah’s post of yesterday, the fear she described when jumping out of an aeroplane mirrors the knot of anxiety currently munching my solar plexus. I would rather go to the dentist, learn how to jog, be hung upside down from The Tower’s rafters by my toenails, explore the antartic in a tee shirt. You get the gist.
I know it has to be done. I’d just rather it didn’t.
I know what has to be done. I’d just rather I didn’t.
I know I can do it. I just wish I’d get on with it and stop faffing about thinking about it.
It’s now 10:42 and I’ve amended The List from this morning.
9. Write synopsis
10. Drop West Wing off to Fiona (The DVD not the building)
11. Make healthy breakfast muffin thingys
12. Bring bottles to recycling (without getting arrested)
Quite a productive morning! I’ve been a busy bee and frankly, I’m exhausted. And I’m just off to do the recycling and drop the West Wing off. When I get back it’ll be time for lunch so I will amend the list again accordingly.
9. Write synopsis
11. Make healthy breakfast muffin thingys
Okay then....... Anyone for muffins?
Looking back, the effectiveness of the martial-style training alarms me. In half a day they’d cauterised our instinct to ask why or how. We couldn’t change our minds, they’d stripped us of minds to change. When my number was called I crawled obediently to the front of the aircraft and crouched in position. There was no door, just a square hole between me and open sky. The wind muscled in as though trying to push me back inside the plane. There was comfort in that. Then the engine cut out. The air was still. The plane was still. I wondered how it didn’t drop like a stone. A red-moustached fireman barked at me to loosen my grip on the doorframe but my bones and muscles felt like they were retracting inside me. I was inhuman, unreal. There was nothing left of me but fear.
The instructor swore later than he hadn’t helped me along, but when he yelled for me to go I sensed something light, like a fingertip at the base of my spine, tilting it forward, and suddenly I was out there in the immense, clear blue. I looked up at the plane racing away from me, then it was obscured as the chute opened with a roar of coloured silk. The harness yanked as the parachute took my weight and the world around cleared and stilled. A woodpigeon flew past, so close it felt like a companion. And the ground below grew larger and more distinct.
Please forgive the evangelical preacher tone of this post (ain’t Faith jes like that parachute jump!) but right now each time I sit down to write the sensations of that jump return. Paralysis at the enormity of the task, physical terror at writing to what feels like an impossible deadline.
A publisher wants to see the whole book by the end of August. Some of it is so ragged it may as well have been written in tongues, and my kids are waging a guilt war against the computer, standing outside the study during my allotted hour of writing time which they feel is rightfully theirs, to stage whisper to each other, ‘She won’t play tickle tournaments. She only wants to write her book.’ Each day I sit terrorised for what feels like hours but may only be minutes or seconds, staring at the black insects of words on the screen or page, unable to decipher them, and then suddenly I’m airborne, senses restored, able to appreciate a bit-part character or recognise how a scene must be re-pitched. But it’s that moment of sheer terror before beginning, that white-out of the mind that comes from pressure to perform which I need to overcome. Walking out onto the page is like stepping into thin air. And sometime a self-imposed martial command is necessary to tilt us into it, so we don’t scuttle, defeated, back to the safety of family and Facebook. But once there, the sensations are exquisite. It’s worth the risk.
Catherine and I have been together for nine months now and we have come to know each other pretty well. So well, in fact, that we are now almost inseparable: she’s there in my head when I’m walking the dog, when I’m chopping vegetables for the kids’ tea and even (see how intimate we are!) when I’m lying in the bath.
Fair enough, you might say. Good characterisation is premised on our ability to know our characters inside out. My problem, though, is that we are almost too close. I have begun to lose my ability to tell where my thoughts end and Catherine’s begin.
The key to writing good fiction, we are told, is ‘voice’. We have to develop our own individual style of expression, because that’s what will make our work fresh and original and distinct. But our characters, we are warned, need voices of their own, too: also distinctive, also unique. For me, with this book, the two have begun to blur in my mind. My voice and Catherine’s – which is which?
It ought to be easiest to tell us apart when I’m writing dialogue. If Catherine is speaking, using her own words, then that’s her own voice, right? But even then it’s probably 2 or 5 or 10% me. Across characters and across novels, it should still read like my writing, shouldn’t it? Mr Darcy doesn’t talk like Colonel Brandon, nor Emma Wodehouse like Anne Elliot, but in the speech patterns of all four we nevertheless recognise a unique Jane Austen style of dialogue.
Then there’s the narrative – all that undifferentiated other stuff that’s not in inverted commas. That should be in my voice, yes? Or should it? Because if I’m in Catherine’s viewpoint, and seeing events with her eyes, shouldn’t the narrative be partly her as well as partly me?
I think the percentage of each of our voices present in the mix varies across different parts of the narrative.
Sometimes I’m absolutely inside Catherine’s head, and what I am saying about events is more less entirely in Catherine’s own words, just as if it were external dialogue. (Some authors use italics or even tags – ‘she thought’, etc. – at such points, to indicate it’s the character’s own internal musings. But in ‘free indirect style’ which most of us now adopt, we don’t need to bother, right?)
At other times, although I’m telling the story from Catherine’s point of view, I’m more detached from her immediate thoughts, telling them from the outside. Here I use my own narrative voice far more, my own choice of words and patterns of construction more than hers.
Those are just the two extremes, however, and there is a whole muddled spectrum of shades in between, where the me-to-Catherine ratio swings to and fro, often with bits of me and bits of her thrown in cheek by jowl without any tidy separation. Small wonder if she and I suffer an occasional confusion of identities!
How about this little exchange, as an example? Catherine is talking to her ex-husband, Graeme, who has just split up with his second wife, Suzannah.
Catherine laid her hand on top of his, where it still rested on her arm. ‘And how about you? How are you doing?’
Without Suzannah. She genuinely wanted to know, and she knew he knew it.
‘Not too bad. I guess we both saw it coming, but it didn’t make it any easier.’
Is this what remained, eight years after a marriage? A residual loyal watchfulness; a fearfulness for each other’s hurts.
Some snippets of the commentary which frames the conversation are 95% Catherine. ‘Without Suzannah’, for example. Or the two sentences beginning ‘Is this what remained…?’ Those are her reflections, not mine.
But when I say ‘Catherine laid her hand on top of his’, that’s pretty well 100% me. Similarly, ‘She genuinely wanted to know’ – although it’s still from her viewpoint in that I am giving the reader access to her thoughts – is probably 80% me, because those are my words. She wants to know, but she isn’t thinking with her conscious mind, ‘Ooo, I genuinely want to know.’
Whereas that phrase ‘she knew he knew it’ is, I’d say, close to 50:50. On one level it’s me saying to the reader that he knew she knew, but it’s also a characteristically Catherine-like phrase – and actually, because we’re in her viewpoint, I’m also indirectly letting the reader know that Catherine knows that he knows she knows…
Confused yet? I thought so. And if you’re confused about what’s what and who’s who, then you are coming somewhere close to understanding my chronic identity crisis!
A six tonne, 40-foot predator roared at me the other day. I could smell its meaty breath as it bore down on me, its razor-sharp teeth the size of bananas ready to slash me to pieces. OK, I may be exaggerating about the breath and the bad intentions – but I really was that close to it, even if it was just an animatronic T Rex made of steel and latex. It was part of the stunning show Walking with Dinosaurs at the O2 centre in London. Having dinosaur mad children is not essential and I urge anyone who’s been hesitating to buy a ticket straight away.
But watching these huge, realistic beasts close up got me thinking about the nature of monsters. Namely, how easy it is to start thinking they’re waiting behind corners in real life. I’ll explain. I’ve been fretting about a particular work project for several weeks now. I felt out of my depth in the subject matter and had to do a fair amount of bluffing to turn it out, all the while worrying that I was going to be ‘found out’ and shown up in front of respected peers. It’s been a constant low hum of anxiety in my brain and yet it all ended up just fine. You could argue that I needed the adrenaline to ensure I gave it my all. But did it really help to worry so much? I doubt it.
And then there are other ‘monsters’ hovering at the edge of my consciousness. Like, what happens if my second children’s novel – currently being read in full by an agent – goes nowhere, like the first? Will I have to give up and take up a different hobby, like knitting jumpers with dinosaurs on the front? That beast has been too scary for me to look in the eye but that gives it half its power. You’ll have heard the phrase used in writing circles, ‘kill your darlings’. Well, I’m proposing that you spend some time slaying your monsters. Start right now. Whether it’s, ‘I’d love to do something with that story idea, but I’ll only muck it up’, or, ‘I’d like to try writing a novel, but the commitment scares me,’ or even, ‘I wish I could tell my family to give me space to write,’ why don’t you just walk right up to the monster, and roar right back at it? You never know, you might start seeing where the strings were hidden all along.
Ladies – and the odd gent if it applies - ‘tis the season to exchange your shorts for thermals, your courgettes for Brussels sprouts and your Pimm's for a nice warming glass of port.
Yes, Christmas is just around the corner – so if writing stories for the women’s mags is your hobby, profession or aspiration, then you need to eschew thoughts of sea, sand and Sangria and start thinking tinsel, toasting chestnuts and trees – the Norwegian pine variety. (Sorry, my alliterative outburst failed me at the last moment.)
I know it doesn’t seem as if we’ve even had a summer yet – unless you count Wimbledon fortnight, which, frankly, went too far the other way temperature-wise; I was wrung out after that men’s final and that was just from watching.
But magazines run on a different schedule to the one mere mortals live their lives by, and if you want to be at the front of the pack, then you should already be getting your head round the challenge of the 12-day turkey marathon.
Over the years I’ve written so many Christmas stories that each time another one rolls round I wonder if it’s possible to squeeze any more out. Just the word Christmas screams cliché. And magazines hate clichéd stories. Have you ever had one of those nice letters or emails from the very charming Clare Cooper at Woman’s Weekly? The one that goes: “Nicely written but I’m afraid this is a well-worn theme with us.”? If you have, you’ll know what I mean. You can almost hear her sighing, can't you?
The danger is making the mistake of assuming you can palm any old rubbish off on the mags at Christmas as long as it has a happy ending with a few tears along the way and in the last sentence it starts snowing. Surely, after a few sherries, a mince pie and a Christmas bonus, they’ll drop their guard and let your mediocre story in because they’ll be overflowing with Christmas spirit and, anyway, at leas you've got the theme right?
No, I don’t think so. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the opposite is true. Writing a Christmas story is the ultimate challenge. It has to be different enough to stand out yet still in the spirit of the magazine you’re writing for. So no axe-murdering Father Christmases or motorway pile-ups, please.
Some of my best Christmas stories - those rare ones where you just sit down and write them in one or two sittings – have been inspired by modern day dilemmas of the sort you might read about in The Guardian’s Weekend, for instance. Someone wrote about how they hated those Round Robins some people send at the end of every year, where they boast about how marvellous their children are in a mock-disparaging way and boast about their wonderful lives - the implication being that yours is crap. That inspired a round robin story of my own, written by a much less confident mum.
Then there was the article about the extended family and how the hell you share out Christmas between all of them, which inspired the triangular tale of a woman, her new lover and his daughter. I’ve done a story about Secret Santa and one about a modern day guardian angel who needed looking after himself. I’ve done lonely Christmases and convivial ones and several others beside.
And now I’ve got to do it all again. I’ve got two in mind, very sketchy, so far but I hope, a bit zeit-geisty. I’d love to share, but, well, if I did then I'd have to tie you up in tinsel and shove you in the cupboard under the stairs until January 1st.
Anyway, off to stick my head in the freezer and to light a pine candle for a bit of inspiration – not at the same time obviously. Good luck with your own Christmas stories, everyone.
This month, Geraldine has a story in Woman’s Weekly Fiction Special; Part Three of her serial “Curtain Up” in Woman’s Weekly and a love story in Fiction Feast. She's also had a story accepted by Bridge House Publishing. For their Christmas anthology! It’s a good month!
So in the absence of divine inspiration, I moved away from the desk, sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, closed my eyes and allowed myself to think of my next book. I allowed the characters to have an informal meet and greet in my head. I allowed myself to allow them to be a big part of the process, maybe take the story where they want to – allowed them to live from the folds of my brain. I found myself transported into a world that five minutes before I’d only ever had rough notes on. I could see where they lived, who liked who and why and where the conflicts may arise. I rolled the title round and round in my head and felt a surge of excitement that’s been missing for months.
My immediate instinct was to find my notebook, write it all down – quick! But I stopped myself, terrified that if I let myself get too carried away with book three, that the final hurdle of book two will suffer. And I’m on page three hundred and sixty one of three hundred and ninety seven pages. Nothing can interfere with that. I put the cup in the dishwasher and sat in front of the laptop, the manuscript for book two staring at me. Waiting.
Then a strange thing happened. Cal and Chrissie started talking in my head. They started talking about something which is important, based on a pivotal crisis in book three. They had a full conversation, Cal and Chrissie. I dived for the notebook, riveted at the scene playing out in my head. I wrote it down, made another cup of tea and found myself grinning stupidly, grateful to Cal and Chrissie for potentially solving a problem I didn’t even know I had! And Cal and Chrissie? Well, they hadn’t even featured in my cast of characters ten minutes earlier on the sofa. They do now and note to self – may have to ‘murder a few darlings’- as Stephen King so succinctly put it, in order to make room for them. They’re important now, Cal and Chrissie - my new best friends for at least the next six months.
I guess this brings me to what I think this post may be about? Aren’t we lucky, we writers? It’s not often we write about the tiny spurts of excitement we feel as a result of what we do. Too often, certainly from my own point of view, I moan about the submission process and how hard it all is. But I love what I do and I’m blessed to be able to do it. I’m not sure I do it well enough for market, but today, that doesn’t matter. Today, I’m still grinning at the joy of meeting two interesting people when I was least expecting it. And I’m grinning because I made them up, made them ‘real’.
Now, back to book two's manuscript for that last surge. There are other characters that need a final massage before I kiss them goodbye like an old lover, knowing I have a new exciting love affair waiting in the wings.
My teacher always used to tell us that the exam room was a 'quiet room.'
Well, it's true, isn't it? This was in response to a class of pupils who, during valuable revision time at home, listened to AC/DC full blast, sang along with Kylie Minogue and watched re-runs of Falcon Crest out of the corner of his or her eye.
As much as I loved the old Radio One back in the day with Simon Bates, Gary Davis and Steve Wright in the afternoon (look, I can quote the whole schedule), I always had to turn it off when studying for my GCSEs and A Levels. When I needed to knuckle down to A Level French, the radio, I found, was a real distraction.
As a result, the writing room is always a quite room for me. No noise, no music, no chat, and no distractions - I need to think, please! And no eating either. Eating something makes me focus on the act of chewing and tasting. And Lord help us, if it's a bumper size bag of crisps or a family pack of Maltesers - think of those evil grams of fat sneaking their way into your system. The crumbs go all over the place anyway - they get stuck between the keys and the screen gets all greasy if you happen to touch it with an oily crisp finger - believe me, I have done in the office.
I do however confess to having the television on in the background, but the volume has to be turned down to a rather muted 'one' on the Sky handset. The programme will almost always be factual - it's usually a property show which is a repeat, or I might put on Sky News. But I can't watch or listen to MTV, or else I end up singing along.
And I can't have people talking to me either. However, it's very different in the office where there's constant to-ing and fro-ing of people, chat and calls and radio. I don't seem to have a problem when it comes to factual writing, but when fiction is calling me, I need silence.
I never understood people who could listen to music while writing. If anything, I would take a ten minute break and put on a tune on my Ipod and listen to it really loudly while feasting on a packet of cheese and onion crisps. Then it's back to the drawing board.
So are you a writing-snacker? Or not?
The opinion frequently crops up on the web that undeserved praise is wrong, not only because it involves lying (which we would never do in any other situation), but more importantly because it doesn't help the other writer to improve. What's the use of family and friends falling at our feet and telling us we're the next Emily Brontë and they can't see a single flaw in the entire 250,000 words? And that the twist at the end, where the narrator turns out to be a cat, is pure genius!
No, proper writers need tough, tell-it-like-it-is advice. For those on a contract deadline or battle-hardened by the submissions process, wishy-washy praise is useless. They want to know, preferably NOW, what works and what doesn't.
But I think there's a time when it is helpful to dole out that wishy-washy praise, and that's when a beginning writer shows his or her work for the first time.
There is just not much to be gained, in my opinion, from criticising a writer who is just starting out. Even suggesting the removal of a few adverbs can be downright mortifying to someone who has newly experienced the passion and excitement of creating a story; that wire-to-the-heart feeling that seems too perfect to have produced anything bad.
It is odd, now that I'm constantly strewing words left right and centre through novel-writing, blogging, and social media, to remember how terrifying it once was to show people anything I'd written. But I do remember. I was sick with nerves, and vulnerable. Vulnerable because it felt as though I was exposing my own thoughts and feelings; that people would think the characters were all me – yes, even the murderer. They might say it was rubbish. They might read the whole thing with no change of expression and then point out one typo. But worst of all, they might laugh at the idea that this silly deluded kid thought she could ever become a writer.
When people complimented the story, that was the best thing that could have happened for me, even though deep down I knew they were only being nice. (It was crap. Really, really crap.) Their politeness – OK, lies – gave me the confidence to try another story, to improve naturally on my own, to start to know from experience what worked and what didn't and, later, to seek and accept genuine criticism.
I can't tell whether I would have given up writing in the face of an early knockback – probably not – but it would have been difficult to maintain the excitement if the spectre of other people's criticism had been hovering above my pen.
Some say it's cruel to get people's hopes up – it just feeds their delusions and leads to crashing disappointment. But I think it's great if we get our hopes up. Hope is a Good Thing. Encouragement gives people the self-assurance to develop their talent, to bring more work out into the open, to risk discussing it with others and to realise how it can be improved. An 'honest' critique for an early piece of work could, by contrast, inhibit someone's potential to become an excellent writer.
Anthony Trollope (because he really loved and wasn't alarmed by strong, independent women); Scott Fitzgerald before he became a hopeless drunk (because he was so good at having a good time) and Barbara Comyns (because she was devoid of self pity, and so unexpected and original in every way and would have livened things up no end).
My advice to an aspiring author of Women's Fiction would be...
Write with passion and don't flinch at the reality of our physical and emotional selves (as you understand them). And avoid mush and cliche and safe linear plots. Take a few risks with your characters and write about what you love. And read and read and read... sounds obvious but a surprising number of aspiring writers don't see the need.
Favourite writing snack...
Amazon or bookshop?
Both, in fact anywhere that has books in it online or in the real world, acts on me like a magnet on iron filings.
Win Booker Prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Hollywood film deal (as long as I was allowed a lot of control over the script, casting and locations). I have been casting in my head for years, and my latest choice for Guy is Tom Huddlestone
You really must read...
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns (Virago). One of my favourite books.
If i wasn't a writer I would be ...
The best thing about being published is...
Having other people agree with you that your book is entertaining.
Character first or plot?
Character first. Because plot emerges from fully realised characters.
Email or phone?
Email every time. I like to talk with my fingers - I love instant messaging.
The worst thing about writing is...
Rejection letters that subjectively state that what you have written is unbelievable; or that there is 'too much detail'.
I dealt with rejection by...
Getting writers' block for years without even realising that that is what had happened to me until after One Apple Tasted was accepted for publication by Elliott & Thompson.
Favourite writing outfit?
Jeans, thick socks (my feet get freezing even in summer), tatty cashmere jumpers; essential computer glasses.
My journey to publication was...
Long and rather lonely and strewn with thorns, high walls with spikes on top, deep rivers, burning deserts, ominous storm clouds pregnant with hail ... but then the sun came out and I had a ball with meetings that went smoothly, input into cover design, an excellent editor who pointed out some regrettable lapses in logic and time management, culminating in reaching No 10 in Amazon's Hot Future Releases before publication and a lovely launch party. Now I await with bated breath One Apple Tasted actually being published at last on 7 August 2009
Thanks, Josa, and congratulations on the launch!