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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:


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


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.


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.


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?


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 …

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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats – and why I add an 8th

In my last three posts I discussed the 7 Romantic Comedy Beats, as defined by the screenwriter Billy Mernit, and how I’ve used them in my books. Here, I’m going to explain why I add an extra one at the end.

A rom com – a good one, anyway – isn’t just about the heroine getting a man. It’s about the heroine’s personal journey, or her development into her better self. The key is to show her taking that final step towards becoming the person she needs to be. So in this 8th beat, I try to show that regardless of what happens with the romance, regardless of whether or not she is going to get together with that particular man, the heroine is on path to a better life. I call it the ‘I’m Gonna Make it Anyway’ step.


Gone With the Wind: not quite a rom com but the sentiment is the same.

I should point out that this step is missing from most earlier romantic comedies – including When Harry Met Sally and the early Jilly Cooper books. But for me, and for most contemporary romance writers I read, it’s vital.

One of the ones I most enjoyed writing was in The Out of Office Girl. [Warning: spoilers].

Alice, unemployed and heartbroken, has returned from Italy (the Magical World of the novel) with her self-confidence and career in tatters. However, she forces herself to go to an art opening to support her friend. There she sees someone who she would like to network with, to salvage her career, but she’s too scared to cross the room to speak to her.  At that moment she comes to a similar Blinding Realisation as in the romantic strand of her story:

‘Standing there, I think, not for the first time, that all my problems – Sam, work, everything – stem from my crazy lack of self-confidence.’

Note that she says ‘not for the first time’. Alice has long been aware that this is a problem, she’s just found it hard to do something about it. To change yourself is a long and painful process – we take one step forward and two steps back, in fiction as in life.  This moment is different because all of Alice’s experiences throughout the story have combined to show her that she can do this. That moment – when she crosses the room to speak to this professional connection – looks small but it’s the most significant of the whole book.

Work is often a key symbol of the heroine’s inner journey. Sometimes, though, this final step of self-development can be shown another way. Maybe she finally stands up to her family, or maybe she rejects a toxic ex. There is a great example of the latter in the Nancy Meyers film The Holiday. Iris has a surprise visit from the terrible  Jasper, who’s been toying with her for years. When he delivers a classic mixed message – offering to take her to Venice despite the fact that he’s getting married to someone else – she finally snaps:

IRIS: ‘You broke my heart. And you acted like somehow it was my fault, my misunderstanding, and I was too in love with you to ever be mad at you, so I just punished myself! For years! But you waltzing in here on my lovely Christmas holiday, and telling me that you don’t want to lose me whilst you’re about to get MARRIED, somehow newly entitles me to say, it’s over. This – This twisted, toxic THING between us, is finally finished! I’m miraculously done being in love with you! Ha! I’ve got a life to start living.

[Picks up Jasper’s jacket, walking to the door]

And you’re not going to be in it.’

Brilliant. I don’t think anyone, witnessing Kate Winslet deliver those lines, would doubt for a minute that whether or not she gets together with Jack Black, or A.N. Other, Iris is going to make it anyway. Which is how we should feel, ideally, at the end of every romantic comedy.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-series on rom com structure. And I’d love to hear from you. Would you use these beats in a novel? Or do you prefer to freestyle it?

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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part Three

In my previous two posts, I looked at the 7 beats of a rom com in screen writing terms, as defined by Billy Mernit, and how they can translate to books too. The final one is the resolution or, in Mernit’s lovely phrase, Joyful Defeat.


Cher, having her Blinding Realisation moment complete with illuminated fountain

I find this breaks down into two main parts. The first step here is the Aha moment where the main character realizes how they really feel and who they really love. If we were being fancy (or just giving rom-coms their proper due?) we could say that this is what Aristotle calls the anagnorisis; the moment of truth. We can also call it the Blinding Realisation moment. For Harry (in When Harry Met Sally), it’s the realisation that, ‘When you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’ Possibly one of the greatest rom com lines of all time?


Although this is an interior step, it’s mostly brought on by an outer event. Jealousy is a classic motivator: in Jane Austen’s Emma, the news that her friend Harriet is after Mr Knightley is what supplies the insight:

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before.

Note the visual reference here: Austen describes Emma’s insight as, literally, seeing something. Though it’s an interior step, you need an exterior sign too: a bit of overt symbolism never hurts here. In Clueless, they camp this up really nicely with Cher standing in front of a fountain that’s suddenly illuminated as the music reaches a climax. In Love and Other Man-Made Disasters I use a concrete symbol (a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Kit) to show Juno exactly what Boy means to her, and just as importantly what she means to him.

Once the hero or heroine has had that realization, what then? Typically it will seem like it’s too late to win the beloved – but because those feelings are so strong, you have at least try. So the second step, once you’ve had your Blinding Realization, is what screenwriters call Storming the Castle. This is something we commonly see in action/sci fi; the hero(ine) gathers together all his/her weapons and allies for a final effort at defeating the enemy.

Rom coms do this too. But instead of throwing grappling hooks onto a castle wall, the hero(ine) might rush to the airport (bit of a cliché, this one), or crash into a wedding venue and make a heartfelt speech.  In Love and Other Man-Made Disasters, Juno gathers her friends together and borrows a jeep with snow chains to make it to see Boy before she leaves. You want that effort and struggle to be represented with action.

Often, you’ll have an audience for at least part of this. This is fun because it makes it extra embarrassing for the main players. But the audience isn’t just there for laughs. They’re there, I think, for a pretty ancient, primitive reason which is that in every romantic comedy, from Shakespeare onwards, a romance is as much about the community as it is about as the couple. Just as the community witnesses a wedding, it’s a powerful thing to have them there to witness the final resolution.

Simon Pegg als Jack

Simon Pegg in Man Up, nearly being squashed by his audience for the final resolution.

Whatever form your final resolution takes, the characters will need to heal misunderstandings, which will involve probably explanations on both sides.  Ideally, the person who’s been most in the wrong will do some groveling – and some explaining.

This is often our opportunity to hear the story from the love interest’s point of view – where the hero, say, explains why he acted a certain way. I think of this scene as being like the one where the detective explains how the crime was committed, or the villain boasts about how they did it. That’s why I find it useful to write the love story from the love interest’s point of view – so that you know exactly what’s been going in in their head, even while it’s been baffling to the heroine.

And that’s pretty much it. Except for one thing. In a good rom com, the heroine’s journey isn’t just about meeting a man – it’s about becoming the person she wants to be. This step requires an extra beat – which is why I make it eight beats, not seven. But that can be a post for another day …





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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part Two


Kristen Wiig, heading right for her All is Lost moment

Yesterday I posted about the first four Romantic Comedy Beats, as defined by Billy Mernitt: the Set Up, the Meet Cute, the Sexy Complication and the Hook.

Here are the last three:

  1. Swivel: Second Turning-point

This is the moment after the hero and heroine have become closer, when their conflict comes back again, in a different form. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s when the two of them have sex – re-introducing the theme that men and women can’t be friends. In Prudence, it’s a new conflict: Ace turns out to have an old flame, Berenice, who’s coming to visit him. This is also a reiteration of the old conflict, because Berenice is everything Prudence is not: driven, successful, glamorous and very very humourless. If Prudence is Ace’s opposite, Berenice is terrifyingly suitable (this is often a device with Mr/Mr Wrong).

Note: Jilly Cooper always has a scene, before this second midpoint, where the hero and heroine have an idyllic day together. Nothing romantic has happened yet, necessarily, but they get away from all the other characters and share their innermost hopes and dreams. I love this device so much that I shamelessly borrowed it in The Out of Office Girl, with Alice and Sam’s day out at the beach. Then you can plunge them down to earth with a new iteration of the conflict. In the case of Alice and Sam, it’s a surface misunderstanding that’s really about the deeper conflict between them (see my previous post on Inner and Outer Conflicts).

  1. The Dark Moment: Crisis Climax

I think of this as the ‘All is Lost’ moment. Cinderella has left the ball; the coach has turned back into a pumpkin. In When Harry Met Sally, it’s the montage where Sally carries her Christmas tree home alone (recalling the happier Christmas last year when she and Harry did this together). Bridesmaids has a whole series of Dark Moments where Annie goes mental and alienates Lillian, gets fired from the jewellery store, ruins her romance with Chris O’Dowd and gets kicked out by her flatmates.

Jilly keeps her Dark Moment simpler. Pru realises (or thinks) that Ace and Berenice are now a couple. She slinks back to London, and is steeped in misery.

‘For the first time in my life, I became familiar with real hell. You don’t need a pitchfork and demons, just take someone away from someone they love – that’s enough.’

In Jilly Cooper, this feeling of despair is normally connected with a change of place. The heroine is taken away from Yorkshire, the main fairytale setting of the novel (also known as the Magical World in screenwriting) and plunged back into reality. You really can’t make this moment awful enough, I think.

  1. Joyful Defeat: Resolution

This is Billy Mernitt’s phrase to sum up the end of a romance. I love it. It’s a defeat because (generally) both parties have to climb down and admit that they were wrong; but it’s joyful because, well, love! It’s the end of the romantic war and the beginning of a loved-up peace.

It’s also such a big topic, it deserves a post all to itself. Typically, in an early draft I always spend way too long getting to the end of a book, and then end up wrapping it up too quickly. Which is what I’ve done here. So I’ll leave it for tomorrow – and then I’ll explain why I like to add another step …

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The 7 Romantic Comedy Beats: Part One  

I am a bit of structure geek; I love thinking about narrative formulas. Recently I read Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, which talks about the Seven Basic Romantic Comedy Beats in screen writing. These are rules for film obviously, but they can apply just as well to books. In fact, I found that I’d used them in my own books, without knowing exactly what I was doing or why I was doing it.


Cher and Josh in Clueless, enjoying their Set Up. Source 

Obviously, it takes much more than a formula to write a successful story, whether on page or screen. But I think it’s still important to know the rules, so that you can break or subvert them; even the most unconventional indie films do this. ‘Formulaic’ is of course the ultimate insult. But a symphony uses a formula; so does a ballet. Depending on the execution, a formula can be painting-by-numbers or it can be a magic spell. There’s something deeply coded in these patterns that we respond to, the same way we do when hearing music or watching a dance. We don’t quite know the rules, but we instinctively recognize them in action.

As an example, I’ll take Jilly Cooper’s Prudence, one of her fabulous early romances which you must read if you haven’t already.  I would bet that Jilly has never heard of the Seven Beats of the romantic comedy but she knows exactly what they are, and uses them to brilliant effect.

  1. Set Up:

This is what it sounds like. We meet the heroine and hero* and learn what their problems are. Pru is a scatty, jokey girl who goes away with her uptight barrister boyfriend Pendle, to visit his family in their crumbling Lake District house. His step-brother Ace is a successful journalist and widower, recently returned from South America. The family, who are a load of overspending party animals, are terrified he’s going to whip them into shape. So the set up is: Opposites Attract. Prudence is fun-loving but looking for love. Ace is too serious for his own good – can he find love again?

  1. Meet cute/Catalyst:

Thanks to The Holiday, we all know about the meet cute: it’s the memorable first encounter between hero and heroine. Here, Ace walks in just as Pru is kissing Jack, Pendle’s other brother. Not all meet-cutes have to be cute; sometimes they introduce the central conflict. Here, it’s that Ace thinks Prudence is a flirtatious lightweight and Pru thinks Ace is an overbearing bully. Who’s right? They both are! I love rom coms.

  1. Sexy complication/Turning-point 1:

I think of this as the scene where the two characters have their first proper clash, or where the conflict between them first comes out in the open. In When Harry Met Sally, it happens during their drive to New York, where Harry makes his famous observation about how men and women can’t be friends. Sally is outraged because she thinks that he’s making a pass at her although he’s going out with ‘my good friend Amanda’ (who she later totally loses touch with).

In Prudence, it’s a reiteration of the initial conflict, but stepped up a notch. Pru is devastated that Pendle, who’s meant to be her boyfriend, is clearly still in love with his ex Maggie. After a fireworks party where Pru wears a very outrageous culotte dress (so Jilly Cooper) and flirts with Jack throughout, Ace takes her to one side and warns her off Jack. Pru is too proud to tell him about Pendle and screams at him instead. It’s their initial conflict all over again, with added chemistry. I always like it when you get a sense, in these clashes, that both of them are right. It’s not a question of one of them having to change to fit in with the other; both of them will have to change.


500 Days of Summer – an unconventional rom com that still uses these rules

  1. The Hook: Midpoint

I think of this as the ‘he’s not that bad’ moment – the moment when the heroine first sees something she really values in the hero, which takes her by surprise. Or when she first feels a glimmer of real attraction to him. Ideally, you’ll have both. When you have a flicker of attraction, that’s immediately damped down, you know you’re at the Midpoint.

This can also be the moment when two ‘friends’ first see each other in a new light. In When Harry Met Sally, the hook is the famous orgasm scene. After Sally’s amazing display (however faked) Harry is forced to see her in a new light, as a sexual being. Now he wants what she’s having.

In Prudence, it’s a moment of vulnerability that brings out the hero’s caring side. Poor old Prudence develops flu. Ace surprises her by being incredibly kind and even brings her a kitten from the stables to cheer her up. SOLD. Prudence tries to tell herself, ‘He won’t be nearly as attractive when his suntan fades’. HOOKED!

Note: sometimes these beats are singles scenes, sometimes they’re whole sequences. It’s definitely the latter in Prudence.  Ace does a few kind things for Prudence but it’s the kitten that stands out … Irresponsible pet ownership but very romantic. He also learns a lot about Prudence: like, how kind she is to his neglected niece Lucasta, how intelligent she really is, and that she and Pendle are definitely over. In The Out of Office Girl, there are a whole series of Hooks, where the attraction and friendship between Alice and Sam gradually builds and builds – culminating in the infamous (to me anyway) Pool Scene.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about the last 3 classic romantic beats, as defined by Billy Mernit: the Swivel, the All is Lost Moment and the Joyful Defeat.

*Note: I’m using ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ in this but obviously that’s subject to change.


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Are you a teen (or anyone) worried about the world today? Then this is the book I wrote for you.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I started reading the newspapers. Big mistake. Murders, bombs, genocide in Rwanda; I was terrified, but I couldn’t stop myself from inhaling it all. Until one day, I came home from school, got into bed and basically refused to get out again until the world was a better place.

That plan was nixed. (Just as well, clearly, as otherwise I’d still be there waiting.) Instead, my mum told me to remember all the places where war doesn’t take place, all the people who don’t murder each other, all the planes that take off and land safely. (I still think of this, every time I get off a plane).

It was good advice. I got over it. I grew up, and became sensible – or complacent. And it’s been many years since I’ve threatened to go on strike until the world improves.


Juno, in Love and Other Man-Made Disasters, is like me aged fourteen, but on steroids. She’s scared of climate change, war and terrorism.  (She’s also worried about the zombie apocalypse, urban foxes, and her mum being killed while riding on her new stepfather’s scooter.)  She’s the sort of girl who seriously worries about what skills she could use in a post-apocalyptic scenario. The story is about how she learns to live in the world with those fears, without letting them overwhelm her.

These kinds of fears can hit teenagers harder, because they have access to so much information about the world but have limited experience of it. When I started writing the book, around two years ago, I assumed I had outgrown Juno’s fears. Certainly I found the news worrying but it didn’t keep me awake at night. Now … well, let’s just say the zombie apocalypse seems a lot closer. But I still find that the things she learns, over the course of the story, are the same ones that I remind myself of these days, to keep me sane.

  • Keep perspective. It’s essential to remember that there ARE good things happening in the world. For example; with the tragic exception of Syria, war is actually at a historic low. So is absolute poverty. Increasing areas in Africa are now malaria free. Global carbon emissions have flatlined. (And yes but Trump, but still). Our brains just aren’t built to deal with all the world’s horrors; we need balance. Juno starts to realise this when she meets Boy, who’s able to tell her a few nuggets of good news, including about a robot arm that will help people who’ve lost a limb. (You can read their conversation here). It’s not a total cure for her anxieties – far from it – but it’s food for thought.
  • Self-care: it’s not just a marketing tool! Sleeping enough, eating properly, exercise, Netflix, time with friends: these aren’t selfish, they’re vital to being an effective advocate for your causes. You can’t help anyone if you’re falling apart yourself. It’s no coincidence that Juno starts to be able to relax more while she’s discovering a new physical activity (skiing). Which also involves facing her fears (though see 4, below).
  • Take action, however small. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but even the tiniest action – volunteering (I volunteer for this organisation), campaigning, donating, joining a political party – instantly makes me feel better and less helpless. Juno makes a big decision, towards the end of the book, about her future that will mean she can actually do something about her worries instead of being consumed by them. And yes, all these individual actions are drops in the ocean. But as David Mitchell puts it in Cloud Atlas, ‘Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?’
  • Be patient. I gave Juno quite a harsh lesson to learn, which is that overcoming her fears isn’t one magic moment that fixes her for good; it’s something she’ll have to work on forever. As a friend of mine said, these life lessons we get are pay as you go; you have to continually top them up. But it gets easier.

The other thing that helps balance out Juno’s fears is falling in love. It’s hard to recommend this as a cure-all for everybody, but it does help. It means that all her intense feelings find a new outlet, or get diluted at least. But I was also trying to show that it’s important to develop your own life instead of feeling you have to fight the good fight all of the time. It’s OK to build relationships that are meaningful to you instead of trying to devote yourself to the world at large. And, as Boy says, when the apocalypse comes they can be on the same team.

You can order Love and Other Man-Made Disasters from your local bookshop, or read the beginning and order it here.