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.

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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

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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.

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You may like:  How to Stop Watching Kitten Videos

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.

 

The Versatile Blogger Award

Thank you to the weary blogger behind Tired Mind, Typing Fingers. If you take a look at her blog, you’ll see that she’s trying to get on with her writing (and the rest of her life) despite chronic illness. She’s also found time to nominate my blog for a Versatile Blogger Award, which is very generous of her. Thank you, TMTF.

Everyone can see a leg in plaster. Ill health can be much harder to deal with when it’s invisible. When in contact with others, there are only two possible options: pretend it’s not there, or explain it. As a doctor I know that both options have drawbacks. Check out Tired Mind, Typing Fingers for insights from someone in the know.

The rules.

According to the rules of this award, I must nominate ten blogs that I believe also deserve the award, then share seven interesting facts about myself. I’ll try to find some, but first this.

The ten blogs I’m nominating for a Versatile Blogger Award.

Sue Moorcroft

Sue is a best-selling author of romantic fiction, and a writing tutor, so there’s plenty to enjoy here, whether you want to read or write novels.

Debbie Young’s personal blog

Debbie writes both fiction and non-fiction (see her new Sophie Sayers mystery, as well as her terrific book Coming to Terms with Type 1 Diabetes), and helps other authors, notably through the Alliance of Independent Authors.

The Artist Unleashed

The word ‘versatile’ could have been coined for Jessica Bell, who’s a writing coach as well as an award-winning novelist and poet, singer/songwriter/guitarist and designer. She’s also the brains behind The Artist Unleashed, a blog that manages to be useful and a bit quirky.

This Itch of Writing

There’s always a lot to think about on Emma Darwin’s blog, which is all about fiction and what she calls creative non-fiction: writing it, reading it, teaching it and, as she says, sometimes hating it.

Jane Davis – virtual book club

Jane is an accomplished novelist whose blog features a virtual book club. It’s a lively interview series in which authors pitch their books to your book club.

Helen M Taylor- the right words in the wrong order

Helen’s career to date has had more twists and turns than a helter-skelter. Suffice to say she hasn’t yet made it as a rock star surgeon. On the plus side, her debut novel The Backstreets of Purgatory (in which Caravaggio wreaks havoc in modern day Glasgow) is out later this year.

Tripfiction

You know TripAdvisor? Well, Tripfiction was created to match a location with a book. Thanks to a searchable database, you can find a book relevant to almost any trip, however far flung.

Women Writers School Blog

Laurie Garrison is Founder and Director of Women Writers School, a project that aims to increase the number and visibility of women writers read, published and recognized for their talent. There’s lots of advice for writers, and much more besides.

Amna K Boheim’s blog

Amna took a roundabout route to her career as a novelist, a path that included eleven years in the City. Her blog is an interesting and eclectic read.

Slugs and Snails Tales

Nikki Roberts blogs on life with her boys, and to raise awareness of ADHD and epilepsy. Her posts are always enlightening and fun.

Finally, seven snippets about me.

1 I’m a fan of Liverpool FC. But, whenever I go to a game, they lose.

2 Although red is my favourite colour, I have lots of orange things.

3 My cat is called Mishmish. This means ‘apricot’ in Arabic and in Hebrew, so it describes her colour perfectly. She’s also one of four cats I’ve named after a fruit.

4 My first car was a VW Beetle which I drove for over twenty years. See my antediluvian glasses?

5 I used to do my mother’s tax returns when I was ten years old.

6 I’ve known my oldest friend (also called Carol) since she was born. Or possibly before then, since our mothers (both called Jacqueline) were also friends.

7 I did O-level Russian, but so long ago that I remember nest to nothing. до свидания!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Beer is an Aid to Diagnosis

With the FA Cup semi-final, pubs attract their fair share of crowds. Today I spotted a Spurs supporter with deposits of cholesterol around his eyes, along with a physique one can only get from eating all the pies.

This spot diagnosis took me back decades to my days as a medical student at the Middlesex Hospital, when we’d try to convince ourselves that time spent in a local hostelry was equivalent to the same amount of time spent poring over textbooks.  

Three essential texts

I say ‘we’ but the pub pathology sessions were a guy thing. There were just four women in my year. Swots that we were, however, we often tagged along to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything educational.

We didn’t just think of the pub as a causal factor in disease, though it must have been in some cases. One of doctors would regularly claim that the King & Queen had given him spider naevi (small blood vessel swellings typical of liver disease).

In the interests of presenting both sides of the story, I’d like to add that Steve from my year was convinced that impurities in the beer were to blame for all the complications of excess alcohol.

“Pints of Beer” by Simon Cocks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Anyway, someone would go, “That’s a basal cell cancer over there.”

“Where?”

“Guy at the bar. Left cheek. Don’t stare.”

“So it is.”

“Also known as rodent ulcer,” another student might offer.

“Doesn’t spread to distant organs,” said someone else at the table. “Not ever.”

“Unlike squamous cell carcinoma,” added a show-off.

“You’d never know I had PSORIASIS – SIROIL 1959” by Nesster is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A pint or two later, one of us claimed to have spotted psoriasis. All nodded sagely, even though at that stage we barely knew the difference between psoriasis, cirrhosis, and sclerosis.

It was like winning the jackpot when a man with a stomping gait entered the pub one winter evening. This type of gait occurs in late syphilis, when foot position sense is lost, so the person bangs the foot down hard at each step. Although it’s possible that the man was just been getting the snow off his boots.

I like to think that the fictional GP Geoff from my novels will have once given pub pathology a whirl. On the whole, however, education has moved on. Sitting in the pub is not a learning method I’d recommend to my current medical students. For one thing, misdiagnosis is common. For another, it’s rude to stare.

Though sometimes it’s impossible not to. In one saloon bar, there was a man with a massive swelling down there.  So ginormous did it grow that he needed a wheeled trolley to help him (and it) get around. He finally did seek expert advice, but, it was said, only when one of the wheels fell off the trolley and needed to be replaced.

One keen student was desperate for the chance to shout, “Let me through – I’m a medical student,” but we never witnessed a medical emergency. Lucky, really, as our life support skills at the time would have done nobody any favours.

We never saw anything as dramatic as the stripper and the snake, though we all heard about it, naturally. This particular lady had a snake as part of her act, until the night her sidekick decided to hug her neck a tad too tightly. She was rushed to A & E wearing little more than a sizeable reptile, where an anaesthetist injected the snake with muscle relaxant and saved her life.

Photo FreeImages.com/Marcel Herber

As I say, we all heard about it. But we missed it. We were in the pub instead.

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GP Geoff and other characters can be found in my novel Hampstead Fever.

You may also enjoy these posts:

What They Don’t Teach at Medical School

What Happens When You Become a Doctor

Hampstead Fever