Breaking Up with a Little Help from Oasis

Journalist Harriet and charity worker Sanjay are two characters from my novel Hampstead Fever. Here’s what happened one afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Sanjay.

Another bad sign. Harriet already knew something was wrong before he came up to the flat. He normally looked full-on at the camera in the entryphone and gave a cheery wave or said, ‘I’m here with a friend. Can we interest you in a copy of The Watchtower?’ 

Today he’d ducked. He never ducked.

She buzzed him in. Then he sat next to her on the sofa, had the cup of tea she’d made him, and told her he’d been thinking. All the while, Be Here Now was playing. It had been one of her favourite albums for over fifteen years, but from now on she would always hate the Gallagher brothers and their grating Mancunian accents.

“Why, Sanjay?” It was the only thing she could think of. FreeImages.com/Thiago Felipe Festa

At first he stared at his feet. “Look. When we met, I thought I was a goner. Now I’ve got my life back, and… Well, I guess I want to be single for a bit.”

“I knew it!”  She’d even told him so about two years ago, as she reminded him. “We should have talked.”

He had the decency to look upset. “Yes, we should have. But we can’t seem to talk the way we used to.”

“Have we even tried?”

“I don’t know.”

Until October 25, you can get the kindle version of Hampstead Fever for just 99p/$1.30 right here. Or even right now.

Did a break-up ever put you up a particular piece of music? I’d love to hear from you.

Advertisements

Surviving a Social Media Detox

Something strange has happened to me lately. Even as a young child, I could concentrate for hours. But, as an adult, which I should be quite good at being, what with the length of time I’ve had to get it right, I can’t focus on any one thing for more than a few minutes. And then I promptly forget it. In short, I have the attention span of a gnat. A rather undisciplined gnat, at that.

Would a social media detox help my powers of concentration?

FreeImages.com/CanBerkol

I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve taken a break from social media, like fellow author Helena Halme who had a two-week holiday from her online world last year. My conclusion is that, freed from the constant babble of digital life, most people seem to feel a lot sharper and more refreshed afterwards.

So I’m planning to detox too. A short period of time without constantly checking social media, or dropping everything when I get a notification, will, I hope, help me focus on the things that really matter.

I won’t miss Facebook. Yes, it’s nice to post my photos, keep up other people’s news, and be part of some groups. But, while I enjoy the occasional dictation of pictures of babies or kittens, I don’t need time-sapping quizzes like Who is Your BBC Husband?

Besides, Grantchester is an ITV programme.

And I can do without exhaustive posts about strange symptoms which doctors haven’t been able to cure in a decade or more. Yes, there may be a need to share the frustration of having unexplained problems, but (call me biased) I can’t see how asking a bunch of non-medical people for their opinions will help, especially when most of them have never even met you.

Living without Facebook Messenger may prove tricky for me, though.  It’s my main means of communicating with one of my sons. Remember when mobile phones only did phone calls? Well, that’s what my son still has. His beloved mobile is so retro that it doesn’t do texts, photos, or even voicemail. Which would be fine, if he actually answered my calls. Hence Messenger.

A detox will also mean dispensing with WhatsApp, which is the principal way my two other sons and I keep in touch. Here’s the kind of vital communication they will be missing.

I may yearn for Instagram too. What will my day be like if I can’t post photos from my iPhone, or share my progress in Jenn Ashworth’s challenge of #100daysofwriting?   I won’t be able to see the Colour File’s fabulous daily posts, or pictures of eye-popping holiday destinations (talking about you, Deborah Cicurel). On the plus side, I may actually do some writing.

My blood pressure would probably improve without Twitter. It’s not just the constant unspoken drive for likes, retweets, comments, and follows, or the fact that it’s tough to be nuanced in 140 characters. It’s drivel like this.

Without social media, there’ll be more chance to live in the moment, as per Marcus Aurelius’s dicta. I will be able to dwell on the beauty of life without the immediate need to post a photo of it.

You never know, I may even reconnect with simple pleasures: smelling roses, pressing flowers, that kind of thing. My husband and I might even have an actual conversation. Once free of the pressure to share every moment, however insignificant, I hope that my brain will recover, and that I will become more productive.

That’s the idea, anyway. But I’m not looking forward to those three hours without my mobile.

Have you taken a deliberate break from social media? And what did you miss most? I’d love to hear.

Seven Deadly Sins of Newbie Writers

When I first blogged about the eight mistakes of newbie writers, I knew I couldn’t cover the whole subject in a few hundred words. Since then, fellow author Keith Dixon and other colleagues have pointed out several more pitfalls that would-be novelists really should avoid. That made it high time for this follow-up.

1 Beginning before the beginning

Many novice writers launch their story with a wordy description of the main character, or a biography beginning with that person’s existence long before the action in the book – sometimes even back to their birth.  The danger is that, unless you’re Dostoevsky, readers will ditch your prose in favour of a novel where something is actually happening.

bookshop

2 Using complicated variations of ‘he said’/’she said’

You might think ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are too dull to bear repetition, but the truth is that these basic dialogue tags tend to melt into the background, and readers barely notice them. On the other hand, they’ll certainly notice (and not in a good way) a regurgitated thesaurus such as this.

OK,” he agreed.

“That’s settled then,” she responded. “We’ll hit the road first thing.”

“Not first thing,” he protested.

“And what’s wrong with an early start?” she remonstrated.

“I wanted a lie-in,” he whined.

“Lazy sod!” she admonished.

“Not as lazy as you,” he muttered.

“I bloody heard that!” she expostulated.

3 Using too many adverbs

How many is too many? It’s a matter of opinion, but I’d say most adverbs are unnecessary, as here.

Shan’t!” the toddler said petulantly.

If you find you use a lot of adverbs, work on livelier and more concise ways to convey what you mean.

4 Letting characters prattle on

Once you’ve got an ear for dialogue, it’s tempting to fill acres of space with it, to the detriment of action, pace, conflict, and plot. Remember that every scene has to move the story on, so don’t get side-tracked.

notebooks and pen

5 Giving overly precise accounts of what characters are doing

Moving people in and out of rooms is a real problem for some would-be authors, as one of my fictional characters, a journalist called Harriet, discovers when she sets out to write a novel.

Suzi pulled the dress down over her distended belly and they all went into the living room.

Whether they walked or sashayed, they surely couldn’t all go through the door at the same time. The setting was only a 1930s semi, not a stately home.  And what were they going to do once they got to the living room?

Suzi sat herself by the window where she could enjoy the last rays of the sun and spy on her mysterious neighbour at the same time.

That was all very well, but if Harriet didn’t mention Theo, Martha, and Greg, wouldn’t the reader wonder whether they were all still standing around like lemons, while Suzi was the only one sitting down?

Theo and Martha shared the sofa, while Greg leant against the wall and puffed on his cigarette as if there was no such thing as a smoking ban.

The guy was a dick to smoke when there was a pregnant woman in the room. Harriet scratched her head. Fiction was ridiculously involved.

6 Using the passive voice

When the children had been tucked up in bed, the laundry done, and the dustbins put out, Trevor stretched out on the sofa and allowed himself to be lulled to sleep.

Yep, the reader might doze off too. Active verbs are far more compelling, and often shorter and more precise to boot. The passive voice has its uses, as in scientific papers (This formula is considered an acceptable way of estimating a child’s weight). It’s a turnoff in fiction, though, as with everything, there are exceptions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

7 Overusing semicolons

By this I mean using lots of them; you know, just because you can.

I believe there is a special place in hell for this sin. Semicolons are for connecting two independent clauses, each of which could stand grammatically on its own. It follows that you could, of course, use a full stop instead. Like this one.

Do let me know if you have any other Don’ts for new writers. Meanwhile, happy writing.

pencils in sixties mug

***

You may also like:

How to Write a Book Review

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

 

What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference?

Fresh from another Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I’m not sure I remember every single thing I gleaned from three hugely busy days. However, I’m perfectly placed for sharing my definitive list of all the things no conference-goer should be without.  It goes without saying you’ll need phone-charging equipment, and something to take photos. Here are a few items that you may have overlooked.

Hairdryer

Many conferences are in colleges and universities. Nowadays student accommodation often has en suite facilities (what a pampered lot today’s student body is) but hairdryers are rarely part of the deal, so bring your own if you want freshly coiffed hair day after day.

Comfortable shoes

By all means dress up to the nines with eight-inch heels for the gala dinner, but by day your toes may appreciate some wiggle-room. You may even want to venture out of the conference building for occasional fresh air.

Converse trainers

Yes, I’ve mentioned ‘fresh’ three times. Last weekend’s RNA conference was at Harper Adams University. There’s something very special about rural Shropshire, especially when they’re spreading pig manure. For those of you that think this smells like horse or cow manure, let me assure you it doesn’t. It’s roughly the difference between the nappy contents of a milk-fed baby and those of a baby who’s weaned onto solid foods.

Shorthand pad and pencils

Make sure you can jot down the pearls of wisdom gleaned from speakers, from colleagues, or just from propping up the bar. There may be a notebook in your conference pack. On the other hand, it may only contain books and chocolate hearts. 

Business cards

A must for everyone who’s got them, whether you’re a speaker or just attending the conference.

Cushioning for the bed

The condition of the mattress may leave something to be desired. Like sleep. I never regret bringing along an old duvet to use as a mattress pad.

Corkscrew

 Essential kit for the nightly kitchen parties, unless you stick to Prosecco. Consider supplies of tea and coffee too. Then again, I suppose there’s always Prosecco.

ibuprofen

Disposable glasses

All veteran attendees bring these – see above. Why is it ‘attendee’, anyway? Logic suggests it should be ‘attender’.

Earplugs

For when you’re a party-pooper and absolutely have to get in some zeds before dawn.

earplugs

A smile

A great conference always sends attendees home with a smile, but why not bring one on arrival? It makes all the difference when meeting people.

Over to you. What’s on your conference list? I’d love to hear.

 

Psst! Want to Hear about my Secret Project?

If you’ve been anywhere near social media in the last year or so, you must have noticed many writers announcing their secret projects.

Or maybe it’s a tweet like

“Forthcoming news about the Secret Project – watch this space!”

“Celebratory champagne is on its way for my secret book news….”

Such mentions are most often found on Facebook and Twitter, but these days even LinkedIn profiles boast of secret projects.

While the words may differ, the meaning is the same, whether it’s a secret collaboration or a new project the person can’t possibly tell you about just yet. Of course, you’ll get further instalments designed to generate excitement.

“I can tell you very soon – you won’t need to be patient much longer.”

Unfortunately, by the time the word is out, the excitement may have gone, washed away by further waves of secret projects from dozens of other authors.  

It is a kind of fakery no better than those TV shows where there’s an overly long pause to heighten the drama before one of the contestants is thrown off the dancefloor or chucked out of the kitchen.

Does it even work? I have my doubts.

But writing is a strange profession. It can be lonely and isolating. The internet is the obvious place to go when you need to communicate with someone other than your overburdened family, or the characters in your book.

To tell or not to tell? It’s obviously different for every writer.

Sometimes spilling the beans is forbidden, as when something is not yet signed and sealed. And, even when the ink on an agreement is dry, there may be contractual reasons for keeping it all under wraps. But, in that case, why not just treat it like an embargoed story and say nothing?

Keeping shtum about one’s writing is a time-honoured tradition. Even when there aren’t commercial pressures to keep quiet, there’s the widespread feeling that talking about a work in progress can bring all manner of disasters. It’s best to keep the authorial powder dry and save energy for writing rather than risk sabotaging the whole thing.

Hemingway famously maintained it was bad luck to talk about writing. He didn’t just shy away from discussing his WIP. It extended to saying anything about writing because, as he put it, that takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.” Eventually, though, he gave in and wrote a whole book about it, though I’m not convinced he talked about his books before he wrote them.

The rise of social media brings constant pressure to share things. I get that. But there are other things to post. The mere existence of a secret project whets my appetite a lot less than a photo of a sandwich, and is far less engaging than a kitten video.

You’re working on a secret project? Shut up already.

***

You may like:  How to Stop Watching Kitten Videos

You Said it, Diane Keaton!

I must admit Diane Keaton made me livid at first. It’s what she said about the part of London in which the film Hampstead is set.

According to The Times, the American star who plays the main character found Hampstead a bit of a disappointment. “I thought it was charming,” Keaton is quoted as saying, “but I thought it was going to be slightly more unusual.”

For my money (there’s less of it since I moved to Hampstead, mind), this neighbourhood has the lot. Yes, it’s congested as well as expensive, and you can forget about parking.

But I’m sticking up for Hampstead. For one thing it’s cosmopolitan. Ambling down the High Street last week, I heard no fewer than eight languages spoken. NW3 is liberal, inclusive, and intellectual, with a rich literary heritage that takes in writers as varied as Keats and Ian Fleming.

There is, in Keaton’s words, “nice architecture”. The streets are also awash with blue plaques, as anyone can see on a short stroll – details here.

One house, two blue plaques: both Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud lived here

Hampstead’s renown goes back a long way. John Constable moved his family here in 1827 as the area was said to have cleaner air than Suffolk. He lived in Well Walk, where he found he could unite a town and country life. His bones now rest in the graveyard of St John’s parish church, a cemetery crammed with notables.

The Constable family tomb

Hampstead Heath, where the squatter of the film lives, is an ancient parkland of 320 hectares. It’s an oasis of biodiversity and an area for sports. From here there’s an impressive view of London. The Whitestone Pond at the top of Hampstead Village is technically the highest point of the capital.

One of the ponds on Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath Pond Number One

Even if you don’t set foot on the heath, Hampstead is a delight. There are great pubs and it’s a foodie’s paradise. I don’t know where the scriptwriter shops, but I’ve yet to spot a shrivelled apricot in Waitrose.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, Rosslyn Hill

You want unusual? This is Britain, yet open-air swimming on Hampstead Heath is legendary, with its ladies’ and men’s ponds being the only life-guarded open water swimming places available to the public every day of the year.

And how’s this for offbeat advertising in the heart of the village?

Just take a card from the little box near the top.

On reflection, however, Diane Keaton was right when she said Hampstead was nothing special. But I reckon she meant the film, not the area.

The movie’s basic premise – a well-turned out widow falling for a man who literally pops out from behind a hedge – is flawed, the hermitic heath-dweller is improbably hygienic, and, if you’re generous, you might call the acting uneven.

Worse, I found the character of Emily Walters irritating. She looks terrific (this is after all Diane Keaton), but she’s vacant and ditzy. Emily admits to being bad with money, so no wonder she can’t make ends meet. She seems to have no education, occupation, or aspiration, and her “personality” can be summed up in two words: goofy grin. She does however deserve a Brownie point for working in the Oxfam shop, and perhaps some credit for raising such a presentable son (James Norton is always easy on the eye).

Hampstead the area deserves better than Hollywood pap.

***

You may also like:

Talking Location with Author Carol Cooper

Why Hampstead is Literally an Inspiration

… and next week: Progress on the Secret Project

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

Can one be taught how to write a novel? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped creative writing courses from springing up across the land – as well as in some lovely locations overseas. While you’re unlikely to go home with the first draft of a novel under your belt, a long weekend on a writing course can help hone some useful skills.

I’ve been on a few of these, from Devon to Norfolk. Here are seven things I took away from my experience.

1 I always forget something vital. Like deodorant. And the nearest shops are invariably miles away.

2 The loo is almost as far as the shops. And at night the floorboards creak worse than the rigging of the Black Pearl.

3 The tutors can be awesome, even if you don’t plan to write in that genre. The encouragement I got years ago from the legendary Ruth Rendell has been priceless.

4 The other participants can be awesome too. No matter how polished your prose, at least two of the other writers in the group will be just as good as you. 

5 Reading your work out loud in a group can be scary (see 3 and 4). But it’s an essential rite of passage and can help tune the ear. Afterwards, you may find yourself reading aloud to yourself far more often to help with editing.

6 There are new friends to be made (especially if you trek out to buy deodorant).

7 The local beer is stronger than anywhere else. Or is that just the heady atmosphere?

So, while you can’t become a novelist in three days, you can boost your writing powers and have fun as well.

Next blog post: Progress on My Secret Project.