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Mum

 

Have you been watching Mum? It is the most wonderful sitcom the BBC has done in ages. As well as being achingly funny it’s a really moving love story, as Cathy comes to terms with the death of her husband and her feelings for her old friend Michael. As well as battling their own shyness and fears they have to contend with constant toe-curling embarrassment in front of friends and family, such as the nightmarish Pauline who is a character that Jane Austen would have been proud of.  She’s played by Dorothy Atkinson who brings a really sublime megalomania to lines like ‘That was vodafone … they’re desperate to keep me’.

There’s nothing sublime or aspirational about Michael and Cathy’s relationship – it revolves around trips to the dump or the purchase of new garden chairs. But the stakes feel sky-high, partly because this is an older couple, who have been through so much already. Bby the end you’re watching through your fingers, desperate to know that they will get together. Stefan Golasewski, who wrote Mum, is also responsible for the brilliant Him and Her, which is also about an ordinary couple, in a tiny flat. He is a master at one of the harder things to do: making gold from the ordinary and everyday. Another lesson from Jane Austen …

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A really simple tip for making any romance novel better

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It’s all too easy, in any relationship, to see everything from your own point of view. It’s only human to put your own needs and desires first and overlook what the other person might be thinking or feeling. Guess what? the same can happen when writing romance. It’s easy to identify with your hero/heroine to the extent that you start to treat the love interest like a cipher – just there to turn up at the appropriate moment bearing flowers or a grovelling apology.

So we overlook the fact that the love interest is a person in his/her own right, with his own agency, past, agenda, hangups. Surprise; this does not make for gripping stories. So now, once I’m stuck into the story I try writing it out, start to finish, from the hero/love interest’s point of view. It’s one of those blindingly obvious things that it’s really easy to overlook, and amazingly effective in showing me things I’ve overlooked, giving me new ideas or revealing possible plot holes.

I imagine this would work in other genres – no doubt crime writers write synopses from their villain’s point of view too. Simple, but very helpful once it occurred to me. And works quite well in real life also.

If anyone else has a blindingly obvious tip I would love to hear it!

Also: if you are interested in the art of writing a synopsis, check out my day-long course on just that at City Lit, on Saturday June 24th. 

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Jane Austen, rule breaker

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Breaking rules isn’t something we normally associate with Jane Austen. In her stories, characters who stray from the unwritten rules of society – like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – do not come out of things well. But one of the things I’ve noticed is how many so-called ‘rules’ of creative writing she breaks. Here are just a few:

  1. Show, don’t tell. A very good rule, generally speaking. Don’t tell the reader what your characters are like: show them in action. But here is Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, in full telling mode:

‘Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.’

  1. Don’t over-use back-story. Back-story is used to denote events that happened before the story proper begins; they’re relevant to the current action but not a part of it. Generally, the advice is to keep back-story to an absolute minimum, and especially not to overload the reader with it in early chapters. Yet, the beginning of Sense and Sensibility is nothing but backstory, as we hear about the death of Eleanor and Marianne’s father, and their subsequent treatment at the hands of his second wife. Similarly, Emma’s opening chapters delve into Emma’s childhood, the loss of her mother and the remarriage of her beloved guardian.

         3. Have a likeable heroine. In Emma, Jane Austen wrote ‘I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.’ Emma’s opening lines show why she thought this: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence’ To present a character, a female character, who is doing very well and perfectly happy with herself, thank you very much – this is bold. Even the adjectives have a hard, almost masculine edge to them – ‘handsome, clever and rich’ strike a very different tone to ‘beautiful’ or ‘wise’. Few novelists today would use a female character like this as the protagonist of a romance: but Austen does.

How, and why, does she do it? In the first example, the reason it works is because the telling is expertly balanced with showing. The passage about the Bennett parents comes at the end of the first chapter, which is mainly dialogue, in which we see or rather hear exactly what these two people are like. The ‘telling’ rounds off the impression, and leaves us in no doubt as to the impression Austen wishes to give. More than that though, the narrative voice, with its crisp, merciless judgments, provides a relentless moral centre to the book, that is quite astonishing in its confidence. Austen is not just showing, but telling it like it is.

Regarding back-story: the first thing to note is that Austen doesn’t over-use it, and she lets us know why we’re reading about it. A common mistake new writers often make is that they launch into back-story without making it clear why it’s relevant to the matter at hand. In Austen, our interest is first piqued by these characters in their current situations which means we’re seduced into reading about how they got there. It’s also important to note that Austen is writing in a more leisurely age, when readers expected to take more time to settle in to a story. Nevertheless, she shows how, used effectively, backstory can be every bit as absorbing as, well, story.

As for the unlikeable heroine: what Emma shows is that you can certainly have a character who’s somewhat unlikeable, provided that they hold our interest, and to an extent our sympathy. And it’s important that female characters, in particular, are not forced to be ‘likeable’. I wrote more about this here.

Taken together all these examples show something that I think is often slightly misunderstood when people talk about creative writing. The craft of writing is not about hard and fast rules that are either followed or broken. It’s just a series of tools that can either be useful to you or not so useful, used well or not so well. The important thing is to understand when you are using them, and if they are working to your advantage or not.

If you’d like to know more … check out my forthcoming course on romantic fiction, ‘Beyond Elizabeth Bennet: writing the modern-day romance’ starting 23 May at City Lit.

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Courses courses courses

I always forget that March is colder than November. Every year this takes me by surprise and makes me feel, well, indignant. Because cold is all very well in November when there’s fireworks and bonfires and we’re heading towards Christmas, but March? That’s meant to be Spring. Not this year! It’s been horrible. I realise this makes me sound like the Oldest Inhabitant but this winter is honestly the longest I can remember. It’s been a Game of Thrones extended-style extra-long one, and I’ve spent almost all of it sick (since January anyway).

However. There are signs of spring now and I’m so excited to be teaching some courses at City Lit in the very near future. The first one will be on May 19th, and it’s called ‘Edit like an Expert’

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/edit-like-an-expert

I was an editor before I was a writer, and I’m still an editor – repetition and meandering sentences drive me mad and sometimes I even find myself mentally editing books as I read them. In this course we’ll talk about how to make sure your manuscript is ‘clean’ in the industry phrase, whether you’re self-editing or working with a professional editor, and how to improve your work and your writing in general, by getting rid of dead wood. I hope we’ll also have time to discuss how to deal with criticism and whether or not you really should ‘kill your darlings’.

Then on 24 June, I’ll be teaching a class on how to write a synopsis: https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/how-to-write-a-novel-synopsis

I know that lots of people struggle with synopses – unfortunately, they are just one of those tools that are indispensable as most agents won’t look at your work without them. The good news is that they can also be a really good way of giving you a birds’-eye view of your work and can even illuminate plot problems that you might still have lurking (hopefully not, after you’ve edited like an expert!) We will also talk about the one crucial thing that people usually leave out of a synopsis …

Finally, I am teaching a 6-week course on romantic fiction starting 23 May. I COULD NOT be more excited about this. I have so many ideas about this and really can’t wait to share them with fellow authors and hear their ideas too:

https://www.citylit.ac.uk/courses/beyond-elizabeth-bennet-writing-the-modern-day-romance

See you there!

 

 

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News, news, news

Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been ten months (oh God) since my last blog post.

The trouble isn’t no news. It’s that this year has contained too much news and I have let it all accumulate until, much like laundry or washing up or tax returns, I don’t know where to start. My new book? New course that I am teaching at City Lit? Or even (gulp) new baby?

The baby can be blamed for most of it, of course. I have only had one for 3 and a half months but I have already discovered that babies make the most marvellous excuse for just about anything. I need never go out again. She began as she meant to go on during my pregnancy when I was so exhausted from about 3 months that I could hardly lift my eyes off Netflix and the John Lewis website. I had grand plans of being one of those women who buzzes around doing Pilates, painting flats and climbing mountains at eight months pregnant, but most days I went no further than my local shop for Jaffa Cakes.

In any event, the new book came out in August and like many a younger sibling it’s been a tad neglected. But I have had nice feedback for it so that’s all good.  And so far they play well together.

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Most exciting now is that I am teaching a course on writing romantic fiction, starting 9 November in City Lit, central London. I COULD NOT be more excited about this. I have so many ideas about romantic fiction and now I get to talk about them with anyone who cares to join me for two hours a week, every Thursday from 2.45 pm, for 6 weeks. There are still places available for the ridiculously bargainous price of £109 (£44 concession). Sign up now!

More news soon I promise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How writing gave me chronic back pain … and how I recovered.

TLDR: I had chronic back pain (piriformis syndrome) for nearly two years, caused by writing hunched up in an armchair. I got rid of it through doing at least 20 minutes of Pilates every day for eight months, with particular reference to the suggestions in this article.

This month, though it’s not so great in global terms, is a bit of a miracle for me. January 2017 marks the two-year anniversary of when I first started experiencing chronic, excruciating, can’t-do-anything-except-lie-on-the-floor-with-a-hot-water-bottle back pain. And … drum roll … I’ve now been pain free for about nine months. It’s hard to describe how that feels but it’s a little like this:

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If you are, as I once did, googling ‘how to get rid of back pain’ in the middle of the night, you probably don’t want to hear all about how I got it or all the things that didn’t work. So feel free to scroll down to the section on What did work. But if not, sit down, settle in, get a cup of tea and let me tell you ALL about my back pain.

How I got it

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Writing in a cafe. Great for coffee, not so good for back pain

Before 2015, my only real experience of back pain was hearing other people talk about it. Whenever I heard anyone mention it, I said sympathetic things but I privately thought it was surely not such a big deal, and would probably go away if they did ten minutes’ stretching every day. I also thought it was something that only affected really old, unfit people, and would never happen to me. Ha, ha.

I first noticed some twinges over the summer of 2012, when I was writing my second book. I did this on my laptop, curled up for hours on end in an armchair that had as much support as a giant marshmallow. (When I later described to a physiotherapist this method of working, she put her face in her hands).

I stepped up my yoga and the problem seemed to resolve itself, although I did have a couple of quite bad episodes in the summer of 2014 – I remember being at a friend’s wedding and having to go and stretch halfway through the reception. But, again, I went for a swim the next morning and it went away. No big deal.

It was very important to me that it should remain no big deal. I was young and healthy and NOT the kind of person who would ever get back pain, and even if I did, it was nothing that a bit more yoga wouldn’t sort out. There was quite a lot of denial involved at this point, which it turns out is not the best way of dealing with back pain.

In January 2015, I was sitting in a café writing, when the pain in my lower back became so bad that I had to leave. On the way home, I googled chiropractors and made a panicked appointment. Then I texted a friend in caps saying, HOW DID YOU GET RID OF YOUR BACK PAIN? He was horrified that I was seeing a chiro and recommended a physiotherapist instead.  This is an area of big debate among back pain fans – a bit like Oasis versus Blur. My friend was adamant that chiros are quacks. My take, for what it’s worth, is that chiros can be good if you’ve done one dodgy thing to ‘throw’ your back out, but that if it’s a chronic problem that’s taken time to develop, you really should see a physiotherapist.

I cancelled my chiro appointment and instead I saw an excellent physiotherapist (Nicole at Physio Solutions in Angel). She swiftly diagnosed piriformis syndrome: a very common complaint, caused by too much sitting, also associated with running, more prevalent in women, and generally appearing in people in their thirties. Tick, tick, tick. The piriformis touches the sciatic nerve, which means that as well as being literally a pain in the butt it can also radiate down the leg and into the lower back and take over your entire life.

Nicole gave me some simple stretching exercises to do. They were very boring, but I did them. The pain lessened, until by April, it was completely gone.

So what did I do?

I stopped doing the exercises, of course!

Nicole had also strongly suggested I take up Pilates, but I couldn’t find a decent class, and anyway the pain was gone and I was young and healthy and not the kind of person who would ever really get back pain so …  You can guess what happened next.

The lowest point

In May 2015 I went on holiday to Japan. It involved miles of walking every day, which I assumed would be great for my back, so no need to do any stretches. Most of our hotels had hard floors, so stretching was out anyway. During the second week of our holiday, the pain reappeared, so bad that I couldn’t sit for longer than half an hour.

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The above picture was taken while we were staying in a traditional onsen, an inn with traditional baths and a sunken bath in our room. We were meant to be having a six-course meal, but I could only stay at the table for three of them. That entire night I spent either in the bath or else curled up on the floor, until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. The next day, we made an unscheduled stop on our bullet train to find a pharmacy. There I scored a sweet, sweet drug called Loxoprofen, which is similar to ibuprofen except 1,000 times better. It was hands down the best drug I’ve ever taken. The catch is that it’s only available in Japan, Mexico and Brazil. I can’t tell you how many times, over the next year or so, I wished I had bought more of it. At my lowest point, I googled ways to buy it over the internet, but I stopped myself. I was happy to gulp down paracetamol, but I didn’t really want to be buying contraband prescription drugs over the internet.

As soon as we got home, I went back to the physio with my tail between my legs, and confessed that I had stopped doing the exercises and the pain was back.

‘Did you take up Pilates?’ she asked.

I shook my head. She sighed and gave me some basic Pilates exercises to do. We also looked again at the layout of my desk, and talked about everything from shoes to sleeping position. I was learning that when back pain takes over your life, everything becomes a possible culprit. Like someone who’s just been dumped, you mull endlessly over what you did wrong. As David Mitchell wrote, trying to get rid of back pain is like trying to solve a country house murder mystery, while being slowly murdered in a county house. Around this time, I bought David Mitchell’s book Back Story. I really enjoyed it but I am probably one of the few readers who would have appreciated a bit more detail on his back pain and how he got rid of it.

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My study, complete with ergonomic chair

What didn’t work

As I continued to go to the physio the pain got slightly better, but it never went away completely. With an injury caused by running or tennis, you can eliminate that activity while you rehab. But piriformis pain is aggravated by sitting, and it’s impossible to eliminate sitting completely and live a normal life, especially when you’re a writer.  (I still can’t quite believe that I still managed to complete two books during this time.) I was also trying to find a good Pilates instructor which, first world problem alert, is surprisingly hard (that’s a whole other post). Essentially, I had ignored the pain for too long that now it had become, not just chronic but savage and seemingly untreatable.

It would be too sad to itemise all the ways in which my back pain affected me. I turned down invitations from friends because I knew that socialising while sitting would aggravate my pain. I had to stop running. I avoided the cinema – one of my favourite things in the world. I still don’t know how the Steve Jobs film ended, because I had to leave halfway through. It wasn’t that bad all the time, but I had at least ten days’ pain out of every month, and sometimes more, which is plenty. During those spells, I was on the maximum dose of paracetamol, and the pain would still wake me up at night and keep me awake for several hours. Back pain was quietly, if not ruling my life, then having a very strong say in it.

I didn’t really tell many people – except my long-suffering husband – because it was boring, and also I was embarrassed. Back pain wasn’t something I wanted to have. Instead, like many people with chronic conditions, I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos, miracle products, gurus and magical cures. I tried the Egoscue method, the Gokhale method, TENS machines, tennis ball massages, myofascial releases, traditional massages and trigger point releases. Most of them contained one helpful element or suggestion. But nothing was a complete cure, and the only thing that really helped was the TENS machine, hot water bottles and baths. Like a stalker or bad boyfriend, my back pain kept on coming back. Until November 2015, when the curve went upwards.

 
What did work

I stopped writing curled in an armchair, obviously. I did my physio exercises, daily. I found a brilliant Pilates instructor online and did at least 20 minutes every day by myself, starting with this video. Once I had the basics I took classes with Tony Watson at the Life Centre who I consider the best Pilates instructor out of the dozen or so that I’ve tried in London. And crucially, during one of my late-night google sessions, I stumbled on this key piece of advice from a physiotherapist based in the States. Her advice was to work the glute muscles harder, in order to decrease pressure on the piriformis. So I worked my buns off. Because I had let the pain get so bad, it took maybe six months of daily exercises before I saw results. But eventually, it worked. I’ve now been pain free since last spring.

If you have back pain, all I can say is: I feel you. I can’t promise that what worked for me will work for you. I would personally suggest seeing a physiotherapist who can show you the Pilates basics, and then seeing a proper Pilates instructor. Start with the video below, if you can’t do anything else – if your problems aren’t too severe, doing it daily might be all you need. You could try reading this post, also by a writer, for some suggestions.

And don’t give up hope. The worst thing about a chronic condition, in my very limited experience, is the fear that it will never go away. With some conditions, that is the case. With others – and I feel very lucky that this applies to me – it will, with patience and persistence, finally become a memory and a lesson to be more careful in future. Good luck!

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Multiple discovery: or, why you should write your novel now before somebody else does

A couple of years ago I was having a drink with a friend, and we were talking about how few novels there were about the suffragettes. She said she thought their story would make a really great film … and we got enthused about researching their stories and writing a screenplay together. It was one of those great ideas you have over a drink and then forget about, like inflatable gym equipment or an app that chooses your outfit for you.

Sadly, the acclaimed 2015 film Suffragette was not written by us. But, given the slow pace of film production, it’s very probable that someone else was having the exact same idea at the same time as us. Maybe even in the same area; almost certainly in the same city. Except they took their idea a bit further than we did.

A similar thing happened when my second book If I Could Turn Back Time came out in 2013. A few weeks after it came out, I heard about a new book by Ali McNamara called Step Back in Time. And then Richard Curtis’s film About Time came out. These stories are all totally different, and none of us could have known anything about each others’ ideas – yet there they were. You wait years for one time-travelling romantic comedy and three come along at once.

This is just one of the many examples I’ve come across of multiple discovery – people having the same ideas at the same time. The term comes from science but it definitely happens creatively as well. In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert posits an intriguing idea about this. She imagines ideas as being animate – in other words, they’re around in the ether and are essentially looking for hosts. It sounds trippy, but it’s not dissimilar to Richard Dawkins’s theory of the cultural meme:

‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain’ The Selfish Gene

Of course Dawkins was talking about existing ideas which are out being shared in the world, whereas Gilbert is dealing with ideas that haven’t yet materialised but are looking for a way to do so. This does sound a little crazy – but how else do you explain the independent invention of calculus by Newton and Liebniz? Or the time-travelling rom-com pile-up of 2013?

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The most persuasive part of Gilbert’s theory, I think – whether you take it literally or figuratively – is that ideas are looking for receptive hosts. If you just think, ‘that would make a great story’ and then forget about it, the idea will go and find someone else who will work with it. (Gilbert has a totally fascinating example of this in Big Magic, relating to State of Wonder by Ann Patchett which is one of my favourite books). Whichever way you want to explain it – whether you see it as downright telepathy, or just something in the cultural water – it definitely happens.

All of which is to say … If you’ve got an idea for a book, or a play or a film, which has caught your imagination, especially if it seems a little different or quirky: write it. Write it now. Don’t worry about making it perfect, or even good – that can come later. Just get it down on paper – because if you don’t somebody else will …