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Inner and outer conflict

In every single first draft I write, I get the note that I need to introduce more conflict between the hero and heroine. Every. Time. I can’t help it. I write a nice guy, and a nice girl, and there’s a bit of disagreement but then they get together way too smoothly. Maybe it’s because I’m a sap. But it’s also because I think love should be simple. Ideally, when it works, it works – no messing around or decoding texts needed. When I hear someone say, ‘So I texted him, and he didn’t reply but then he DID Whatsapp me, but then I replied but he didn’t get back to me …’ I pour them a gin, and say, in the words of Mallory Ortberg, ‘I wish you a speedy recovery from your feelings.’

But. If love is simple all the time, then writers of romance go out of business. Darcy meets Elizabeth at the ball, they hit it off right away and there’s a double wedding on the next page. Harry and Sally have such a great time on their drive to New York that they don’t bother finding two apartments. Etc. Hence: conflicts.


Looking way too cosy for Chapter Two.

There are two kinds of conflict: outer conflicts, and inner conflicts. Outer conflicts come from characters’ circumstances. Eg: he’s got a girlfriend, or she has a boyfriend. She’s rich and he’s poor. He’s running an evil empire of megashops and she owns a tiny shop-around-the-corner. These are fine, even necessary as a starting point – but they’re not as powerful as inner conflicts, which come from deep inside us. In Four Weddings and A Funeral, the outer conflict is that he’s a bumbling Englishman and she’s a glamorous engaged American. But the real, inner conflict is that he won’t grow up, and that she doesn’t believe in love any more. These inner conflicts can be linked to the outer conflicts – maybe the evil empire CEO has lost sight of his true values, as represented by the heroine – but they remain even when the outer conflict is taken away.

When I wrote The Out of Office Girl, I knew I had to have a conflict between Sam, the hero, and the heroine Alice. So I made them antagonists at work: he’s the protective agent of Luther, the film star, while she wants Luther to tell all in his memoir. But that was too easily resolved. In my big major horrible redraft, I realized that to really drive them apart, I needed something deeper. The real conflict between them comes from the fact that deep down, Alice doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of Sam’s love, because she lacks confidence. More than that: she’s scared of getting involved with him, because he’s real, and Luther – her previous crush –  was just a fantasy. Sam, on the other hand, is a control freak who needs to change his lifestyle and trust other people more.  In this way I was able to tie their conflicts into their character arcs (but that’s a post for another day).

And that’s where I think the best conflicts come from – from deep inside the characters themselves. Yes, love should be simple, but sometimes, we are our own worst enemies. Sometimes we’re like Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, or Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids; on a hiding to nowhere and driving away nice guys.

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Change of location

One thing I love about romantic comedies (one of the many things) is how creatively they use locations. Because rom-coms are so dialogue-heavy, they would get very boring if they stayed in the same place. Instead, you get scenes where characters are talking, but they’re also taking a dance/exercise class (they often did this in Sex and the City), or browsing in a bookshop or (a bit over-used this one) strolling in Central Park.  One great example is in When Harry Met Sally, when Harry is telling his best friend about how his wife Helen has left him. They’re at a ball game and poor Harry’s story – with its punch-line, ‘She said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved you”,’ is constantly interrupted by him standing up to join in the Mexican wave. If they’d been sitting in a bar, it would still be a great scene, but the location makes it unforgettable.


After I wrote the first draft of If I Could Turn Back Time, I realised too much of the action was taking place in pubs, or inside the heroine’s flat– and it didn’t help that one of her love interests was her flatmate. So I got her off the sofa and sent her out to play tennis in Maida Vale, rowing on the lake in Hyde Park, dancing in a Spanish club in Hanway Street, and even surfing. Often, the key conversation didn’t change, but just changing the location added so much more variety and atmosphere.

The location can also help give a scene added significance. In Girls on Tour, Lily takes stock of her visa situation in America while standing inside the statue of Liberty and looking down over Manhattan. It sounds really obvious but this gave the scene more impact than in the previous draft, where she and Maggie were just discussing it over lattes. Not that every key scene has to take place with your characters on a lake or up a ladder or something, but you get the point.

So in summary, I suggest using locations as much as you can. You get all the fun and variety without having to worry about sets, parking, or getting permission for filming!


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Good News, Bad News

So, after my frozen phase of last week, wheels are starting to turn. The good news is: I’m starting to be able to write the book. The bad news is, lots of things are still eluding me including one of the main characters – one of the love interests. I want him to be a computer geek for various plot-related reasons. But I’m wavering between making him an arrogant, intellectual geek – kind of like Benedict Cumberbatch in Holmes –  or a socially awkward yet bizarrely attractive geek like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. But in these scenarios, it’s hard not to just make him a dick. So should I make him a sweet geek who still keeps all his Star Wars figurines in the packet? That’s a bit of a boner kill … Also, am I clever enough to write a character who’s meant to be a super intellectual maths/computers brainiac? Yes. Yes I am. Maybe.

Meanwhile, here’s something else for NaNoWriMo. It’s Storytelling 101: also known as Good News, Bad News. It’s maybe the oldest/most basic kind of storytelling there is. You see it a lot in thrillers, particularly action things like Indiana Jones. Good news; Indy’s escaped from the Nazis. Bad news; they chase him to the river. Good news; he finds a raft and hops in. Bad news; the raft’s going over a cliff. That kind of thing.

But the interesting thing about GNBN is that it can be applied to almost ANY kind of story. Take Cinderella. Bad news: Cinderella’s mother dies and her stepmother banishes her to the kitchen. Good news: there’s going to be a ball. Bad news: Cinders can’t go. Good news: her Fairy Godmother comes, she gets to go to the ball and dances with the Prince. Bad news: she has to leave at midnight. Good news; she left her slipper! Etc.

This can be a fun party game – no, honestly – but I also find it a good first step in planning out a story and making me think through all the highs and lows of the story. Two things to notice: it’s generally best to start with bad news – or get to it quickly. And also, to build up to your worst bit of Bad News – your character’s lowest point or Darkest Hour – you can have the best news of all, or a few good things happening in succession. Right before you drop them flat on their face.

Have you used Good News, Bad News? Or do you have another way of plotting? Share!

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Horror of the blank page Part 2: How to overcome it

In my last post I wrote about the horror of the Blank Page. Today, in honour of NaNoWriMo, I’m sharing a few things I’ve found useful in overcoming it:

  • Set yourself up to work. In other words ‘go through the motions’ – literally – even if you can’t do anything. There was some writer, I forget who, who used to just sit in front of his manuscript, and look at it, for a set period every day. If he could write, great, but he couldn’t do anything else. No internet, no dusting, no admin. It’s brutal but it works.
  • The internet is not your friend (aside from this post of course). Use Mac Freedom, turn off the router, or go to a café where you don’t know the WiFi code. And turn off your phone.
  • If you’re stuck for ideas, use the Pixar trick of ‘What wouldn’t happen?’ to get you started. I did this when I was totally stumped in the first chapter of If I Could Turn Back Time. It opened with the heroine working in department store, secretly broken-hearted over her ex. I thought, ‘What would she not do?’ and came up with a list of nonsense including her running out of the store. And then I thought: that would actually really work … and I made her run out of the store.  (Of course I had to give her a reason for doing this. To find out what it was, you’ll have to read it …)
  • Challenge yourself to write the most awful, terrible nonsense that you can. Set out to write a terrible first draft. This should help remove the performance anxiety a bit.
  • Remember, inspiration follows action and not the other way around. So don’t worry if you don’t have any ideas yet. If you build it they will come.

And if all else fails, there’s always coffee.

Does anyone else have any tips? I’d love to hear them … And good luck with NaNoWriMo!

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The horror of the blank page


This post is almost TOO topical, because:

  • It’s nearly Hallowe’en and also nearly NaNoWriMo.
  • I am starting a new book right now and it’s TERRIFYING.

I have an idea that I’m really excited about, I know more or less what’s going to happen and who the people are … And I know that I’ve done it before, several times, so hopefully I can do it again. But I still don’t know what I’m doing and I spend a lot of time staring blankly at my cursor. It’s like throwing a tiny thread of rope across an abyss. Horrifying.

So what’s so scary about a blank page? There’s fear of failure obviously, and of looking like an idiot even if it’s just you and your laptop. But I think mainly it’s the fact that before you’ve started writing it, your book is pure potential. It exists somewhere out there as a sort of platonic ideal book, a cross between Dickens, Harry Potter and The Iliad, on a golden bookshelf with unicorn bookends. And once you start writing it, you have to make peace with the reality which is a pile of dreck taking up valuable megabytes.

BUT there’s no way around it. Because without those first few shaky pages, which turn into your first few ropey chapters, you’ve got nothing. But if you keep on throwing out your tiny threads, they become a kind of tightrope that pulls you across the abyss. By which time you’ll be totally obsessed with your story.

Now I’m off to stare at that blank page again. Happy Hallowe’en!

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Hello! I’m back. I didn’t fall off a cliff in Japan (although we were in an earthquake. A fairly big one, 6 on the Richter scale I think, but because their earthquake-proofing is so good we were totally fine. We were so busy browsing in one of their amazing food halls – Japan has the most beautiful food halls I’ve ever seen – that we barely noticed it. A packet of biscuits fell off the shelf, that was about it.)

Anyway, I have been busy putting finishing touches to MY NEW BOOK

It’s called LOVE AND OTHER MAN-MADE DISASTERS and it will be out next summer from Orion. It’s officially for young adults. AKA teens. But actually, I think it’s pretty similar to my current books – except the main characters are younger. And it’s definitely a romance.

Here is the blurb:

Juno is scared of a lot of things: climate change, urban foxes, zombies – the usual. So when she goes on holiday with her mum’s adrenaline-mad husband and his tearaway twins, she doesn’t hold much hope of surviving.

Then she meets Boy. Gruff, hairy and thrill-seeking, he’s everything Juno doesn’t like. Or is he?

Juno’s about to discover there’s nothing more scary than falling in love . . .

I really hope you like it *bites nails* and I can’t wait to share the cover with you because it is brilliant, possibly my favourite so far. More soon!

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Jilly Does Japan?

I’m heading to Japan!! Currently turning this …


Into this.


We are planning to go to Tokyo, Kyoto, Naoshima (above, an island full of art museums that was also the setting for a James Bond novel!), and Kanazawa (an ‘undiscovered’ Kyoto, below!)


Then we go to Nagano which has Snow Monkeys! Here’s a snow monkey texting. (Or something).


We are missing cherry blossom season, sadly, but I am sure there will be tons of other fascinating things to see, eat, do, plus also owl cafes and Samurai castles. Watch this space. Or this video of a robot restaurant.

[By the way : one question I’ve been asked a few times recently is: can I claim taxes back for trips abroad if I’m going to write about them? Short answer: not really. Stop reading now if that’s all you need/want to know. Have a picture of some snow monkeys cuddling.

Still there? OK. According to the Taxes Act (fun times!) you can claim trips if they are ‘wholly and exclusively for the purpose of business’. So I could claim if I were going to Paris to talk at a literary festival, but not if I’m going for a fun weekend with A.

Arguably there’s a grey area when it comes to ‘research’. In theory I could have booked myself a week in LA to ‘research’ Lily Does LA. BUT … I’d already been to LA so I didn’t really need to go again. And by the time I wrote Lily Does LA (in the autumn/winter of 2013) it was really a bit late to start claiming for a trip taken several years ago. I have no plans to write about Japan at the moment and even if I end up writing about it in a year or two, I think it would be a bit dodgy to start claiming for it retrospectively. Also, you know, right at this moment, avoiding taxes doesn’t feel to me like the best priority. So there you go! Sorry if that was boring. But I do get asked.]

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GIRLS ON TOUR came out yesterday!!!!  After 9 months of little ebook scans, the entire bouncing baby book was published yesterday in paperback and in ebook. It’s got all 5 novellas and EXTRA STUFF – short chapters between each novella, and an epilogue; an extra 50 pages in total. So you can find out what happened when Lily bought Alice and Sam two Koi Carp, or when Maggie and Rachel went on their first ever friendship date. Those are actually some of my favourite parts.


Publication day is great; it’s like an extra birthday. I got my hair done. I received flowers from Headline and my agent and many nice tweets. And I had a party!


With my fabulous agent Rowan and editor Sherise (out of her Maggie costume)

I had a great time and in fact I’m feeling a bit ropey as I type. It was in Nanna’s in Highbury: we ate canapés, and we drank prosecco and Kirs (which are both a bit of a theme in the book). I did my first ever reading. I finally met the wonderful Sophie whose reviews of my books have made me very happy. Oh: and my publishers all arrived … dressed as Poppy, Lily, Maggie, and Rachel.

L-R: Sherise as Maggie, Beth as Rachel, me, Christina as Lily and Fran as Poppy. Amazing.

L-R: Sherise as Maggie, Beth as Rachel, me, Christina as Lily and Fran as Poppy. With baguette.

You can’t really beat that, can you? Special props to Sherise my editor for wearing ski gear on a pretty hot (for April) evening … I’m glad that Fran (as Poppy) at least gets to eat part of her costume.

Today I’m over on Erin’s blog talking about the inspiration behind the series. I’ve also been on blog tour this week – discussing Poppy with Kevin, Lily with Sophie, Maggie with Kirsty, and Rachel with Jill. Now seems as good a time as any to say THANK YOU to everyone who’s read and reviewed the stories, or emailed or tweeted me about them. Every single one helps more than you know and you are all honorary girls (or boys) on tour.

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The Girls Take Manhattan is published today!!!

Girls take Manhattan colour3.jpg-2Announcement: THE GIRLS TAKE MANHATTAN, final part of GIRLS ON TOUR, IS OUT TODAY!! Klaxon! You can download it here.

I feel like I say this every time but this really is my favourite novella of the GIRLS ON TOUR series. It  brings all the girls together for a final adventure in – where else? – New York. I really enjoyed writing it and it’s the one where I laughed out loud the most to myself at my keyboard. (That is, during the second draft: the first draft was a total mess because I tried to divide the narrative into 4 different voices, which, shocker, does not work in a novella. Anyway. We’ll draw a veil).

I know there is nothing more annoying than when authors say ‘the characters took over and wrote it’. They definitely didn’t do that. Nor did they do my tax returns or my laundry for me. But, I know all the girls pretty well at this stage and it was both easy and fun to show the four of them together.

I’m really going to miss spending time with these characters, but I can’t wait to hear what people think, especially those who’ve read the whole series. NB: there are a couple of twists in TGTM. I’m not saying that Lily turns out to be a chimpanzee or that Manhattan gets invaded by aliens; but still, you might want to avoid reading too many reviews in case of spoilers. Though most reviewers avoid spoilers anyway so it should be FINE. Don’t worry. Read with confidence. Download it here.

Enjoy it and please let me know what you think!

Oh: and if you’ve only read one or two of the series, you could buy this one OR you could wait and buy ALL 5 TOGETHER in one volume, with brand new extra material, pre-orderable here. Or, you could do both …