Sunday, 22 December 2013

In Which I Learn 7 Tip for Writing Faster and Read The Casual Vacancy

Thanks to
Well, I think we’re all agreed that life is way too busy as Christmas approaches, so I will keep this short. No news from the Mslexia novel competition, which means either 1) I haven’t been long-listed or 2) they have been overwhelmed with entries and haven’t finished the long-listing process, which I am assured is what happened last time. If it turns out to be 1), I need to rethink, because I have been pinning a lot of hopes on the competition and putting off working on a good query letter while I wait to see if the eggs in my Mslexia basket are going to hatch.

Thanks to

In the meantime, I have been working on a short story in the hope of getting it published and gaining some writing credits for that query letter I am putting off writing. I was really struggling to get down to the task. It seems much harder to feel motivated when you are starting afresh on a short story as opposed to sitting down to a novel you are deeply engaged with.

 Then I found something that has really helped, a post by Emily Benet giving 7 Tips for Writing Faster:
Have a look, not only if you want to write faster, but if you are struggling to find the motivation to write at all. Emily advises deciding on a writing goal for the week, whether it is a word count, a number of chapters or just finishing a section. Then she says to set a realistic work count: ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s only 100 words, what matters is that it’s achievable so you won’t be put off, and you will feel happy when you’ve completed them each day.’ This is the tip that has really worked for me. I decided on 250 words because that really isn’t many, but it can feel like real progress in a short story. Emily also advised to write ‘draft’ at the top of the page, because then ‘it’s okay if your writing is terrible; at this point you just want to get the story down. Don’t worry about editing until later.’

This new strategy has made all the difference; it seems less daunting to sit down to write as I am not aiming to spend major time or make huge progress in each session. I worry less about the quality of the writing, since the point is to make progress through the story and get the 250 words down. I now find I am much more motivated, the story is coming along nicely and I am around 3,000 words in.

In common with other writers, when struggling to write, I often turn to reading since it seems like a constructive thing to do to get the creative juices flowing. I raced through J K Rowling’s novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, and cannot recommend it enough. The characters are brilliantly written, provoking pangs of recognition in the reader as very British ‘types’ in what has been called a ‘state of Britain’ story, but also achieving depth, with convincing backstories and well developed motivation. The quaint, self-important town of Pagford is a brilliant invention and I found myself increasingly compelled to delve into the goings on there, as you are when you are hooked on watching soaps. The bitchy power struggle for a place on the council after the death of much-loved do-gooder Barry Fairbrother provokes a sequence of events that is darkly comical, but as you read on, you begin to feel that it is bristling with the potential for disaster. From the pompous burghers who run Pagford to the drug-addicted underclass who keep social services busy, every character convinced and fascinated me, the teenagers perhaps most of all. Most are so self-involved that by the end when darkness takes over events, the ‘casual vacancy’ of the title becomes an apt description for the place in a human heart where care for and interest in the plight of others should be.

My reaction to seeing the Harry Potter books on film was that the characters and scenes seemed to be almost exactly as I had imagined them from the printed page. Reading this adult novel, it struck me that J K Rowling’s genius is to create characters and scenes that spring to life in our imagination, and this works as well for the residents of a small town in up-to-the-minute Britain as it did for wizards in a half-magical world. I can just see the obese, self-satisfied Howard, the drug-addicted Terri and Fats, the Nietzsche-loving schoolboy.

You sometimes imagine that J K Rowling has taken her money and run away to the very remote, cloistered ivory tower of the successful writer, but The Casual Vacancy suggests that she hasn’t; from this evidence, she inhabits the same Britain as the rest of us, and she’s taking it all in.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Crushing Criticism or Rave Reviews – Who Should You Listen To?

I have read some great blog posts lately about how writers need to learn to cope with bad reviews after publication, and before that, discouraging comments from people who have read their work. The stories told both in the posts and the comments that followed revealed the barrage of criticism that writers endure, from the thoughtless to the downright malicious.
Thanks to

Of course, as writers we are hoping to find and please an audience, so to resist any criticism at all would be pig-headed and self-defeating. However, as one blogger pointed out, we need to be able to discern what motivates the criticism we receive. Is it honest and constructive, designed to inform us and improve our work, or does it come from a darker place altogether?

Thanks to

My day job is editing art and craft books, and as publishers, we occasionally have an author contact us, upset by a bad review. In a competitive market, we cannot afford to assume that all criticism is unfounded, so we always read the review carefully, get the book out and have a good look, to see if the reviewer's comments are justified. Sometimes we conclude that we could have done something better and that other readers might have the same issue with the book, and we resolve to put it right next time. At times, though, the comments are so unfounded as to be completely baffling, and it is possible to conclude that the review really is malicious. There isn’t much we can tell an author other than that we don’t feel the comments are justified, and it is best to put it down to experience and move on. In a world where a bad review from Tripadvisor or Amazon can scupper a business or book, it is also a good idea to encourage someone with more favourable views to go online and make themselves heard – but those early reviews can do a lot of damage.

All this reminded me of a bruising experience I had when trying to get an agent for an earlier version of my work in progress, Unspeakable Things. I had heard that it might be useful to get an endorsement from someone with writing credentials. I thought of an old family friend who has had many novels published for the teenage market. I played with his daughters from babyhood and we all grew up together, sharing Christmases and summer outings. He now lives near my parents, so I asked if he would be willing to read my work and write a few lines of endorsement, and he agreed. A while later, my Dad contacted me, sounding uncomfortable. The friend had written me something but, now that my Dad had read and reread it, he was concerned that it wasn’t very favourable in tone. My heart sank a little, but I asked to see it anyway.

What I read could only be described as an extremely hostile review. It was written in the tone of someone exasperated by an annoyingly poor piece of work. There was nothing constructive in any of the remarks, and I could not find even two lines in it that I could have taken out and used as an endorsement, and yet I had made it completely clear that this was what I required. I have searched through my filing cabinet for the review so that I could quote from it (honestly!) but something must have made me throw it away.

I struggled to think what could have motivated an old family friend to write something so unkind. I hadn’t even asked for a critique, but for an endorsement. If he didn’t like the work, he could have returned it with a few encouraging lines – perhaps, ‘I don’t feel I can endorse it in its current state, as it needs some work, but it shows promise, good luck with it.’ I did remember though that, as a teacher, this man had been notorious for his harsh criticism of students’ work, and as a father, I recalled his little daughter going to show him a drawing that we children all thought was good, and coming back completely crestfallen, saying that her father had said it was rubbish. Now, I’m not saying for a minute that my novel didn’t need work – clearly it did. But the moral of this story is that I asked the wrong man for a review. In retrospect, encouragement is not his forte.

My family were outraged on my behalf, and it turned out that my sister knew a novelist who was willing to read my work and give his opinion. He is in fact much better known than the family friend in question; he has had a novel turned into a cult film. 

Thanks to

He wrote me a lovely review, from which I extracted the following:

‘Couldn’t put it down… Had to read it in one hit… Really excellent in every way – pace, involvement with the characters, description, atmosphere, story… And always unease, fear and horror just that one half-step from safe normality… It has of course to end also as a film, which will be gripping classic drama.’

Now, of course, this man’s encouragement was heart-warming, just as the other review was stinging, but this does not mean that I believe all criticism is bad and all praise is true. The bad review reveals a lack tact, let alone of awareness of the terms of friendship(!!) but the lovely endorsement may say more about the writer’s kindness and wish to encourage other writers than it does about my writing.

My next move, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a dispassionate critique of their writing, was to pay for one. I sent my work for a professional consultant working through a literary agency, and received an 18-page assessment of every aspect of my work, that then formed the basis for a comprehensive rewrite. The criticism was thorough and extensive, but the tone was sensitive, constructive and encouraging. In case you are wondering, none of the criticisms were the same as the exasperated comments I received from that first non-endorsement.

Thanks to

The writer of that hostile review is still a family friend. I send him a Christmas card every year. But I will not be asking him to critique my work again. And when I fantasise about getting my novel published, I sneak in a little imagining of the look on his face. George Orwell wrote that success meant getting his revenge on people who slighted him when he was younger. I’m no George Orwell, but you have to allow me to hope I’ll have that pleasure one day.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Writer's Wilderness

I’m in the writer’s wilderness. It’s that place when you’re not writing your main project, but need to get down to the nitty gritty other things involved if you want to get published. I need to get down to that query letter, and the two short story ideas I have bubbling away, waiting to become actual writing. I’m also in writer’s limbo, waiting to hear about my novel competition entry, my pitch for a feature article, my article on counselling and a poem that I have submitted to magazines.

Like all writers, I’m in it for the writing – the times when I can’t wait to get to the computer and spend every spare minute working away, with a clear task in mind and the creative juices flowing. The nitty-gritty stuff does not do that for me. It leaves me feeling that I’m in a wilderness between those true creative times when I feel that my brain is doing what it was created for. I’m sure it’s what T. S. Eliot meant when he said:

‘Ridiculous the waste, sad time
Stretching before and after.’

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

 All right that’s probably not what he meant, but at least I have shoe-horned one of my favourite ever quotes into this blog. Even if you get nothing else out of this post, you will have read that wonderful line and it will ring in your ears next time something so wonderful happens that everything before and after it seems unbearably mundane.

In my waste, sad time, in my wilderness/limbo (yes it’s tragic isn’t it?) I have been reviewing writing for other people – firstly an excellent query letter and first 30 pages from a dear friend in Hong Kong, which certainly left me wanting to read more.

Secondly, a brilliant first novel by a writer who I discovered through blogging. Below is a brief summary and my Amazon review. Buy this book – I really enjoyed it and was gripped and pleasurably frightened thoughout.

Krakow, 1585
Summoned by the King of Poland to help save his dying niece, Edward Kelley and his master, alchemist and scholar Dr John Dee, discover a dark secret at the heart of the Countess Bathory's malady. But perhaps the cure will prove more terrifying than the alternative...
England, 2013
Jackdaw Hammond lives in the shadows, a practitioner and purveyor of occult materials. But when she learns of a young woman found dead on a train, her body covered in arcane symbols, there's no escaping the attention of police consultant, Felix Guichard. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.

Rebecca Alexander has produced a blend of fantasy, historical and crime genres in this chilling, fast-paced novel. The story, of Edward Kelly in the past and Jackdaw and Felix in the present, grips the reader from the very outset and the pace never lets up after that. There were times when I thought, ‘right, they’re going to do a bit of sleuthing now and things will slow down’, but then the ever-present sense of jeopardy would explode into the foreground once more and the tension would be ratcheted up another notch. I am not usually someone who enjoys fantasy as a genre, but I found more than enough here in the themes of theological orthodoxy and heresy, love, loss, life, death and everything in between to keep me engaged, and the author’s examination of just what lengths we might go to in order to keep a loved one alive were particularly haunting. Having been led to expect a mix of three genres, I also found effective touches of horror; there are moments in the novel that are truly terrifying, and when I stayed up one night to finish it, it gave me nightmares. This in my view can only be a good thing, since a story that looks so long and hard at the boundaries between life and death, and our reactions to them, should fascinate and disturb as this one does. A really accomplished debut from Rebecca Alexander; if there is another one to follow, I will be first in the queue to read it.

That’s all from the wilderness. I’m going away to think of a way of getting, ‘Time held me golden and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea’ into my next post.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Great Tips for Writing Your Synopsis (in Which I Also Get Query Letter Envy)

Thanks to

The reason I dreaded writing the synopsis for my novel is that it is much too much like work, and not enough like writing. I love finding time to write, sitting down and letting the creating juices flow, or if I’m at the revising the revision stage as I have been lately, letting my nit-picking instincts ... well, pick nits. In my day job as a book editor, I love editing books but huff, puff and procrastinate when I need to write marketing copy. This reluctance stems from a similar root to my synopsis writing anxiety – the worry is that, if the book you are editing or the novel you are writing doesn’t come out sounding lip-smackingly irresistible, it may be because there is something lacking in the product itself – and you really don’t want to be discovering this at the copy-writing stage, when you have already invested a lot of hard work. This is why many novelists write a synopsis at an early stage, and revise it as they go along; and it’s why as book publishers, we write marketing copy when a new book is being proposed, then refine the vision for the book at an acquisitions meeting, and finally create a book to fit the glowing write-up with which we started.

When I sent an earlier draft of my novel, Unspeakable Things, to a consultant, one of the first things she asked for was a synopsis, and her strong recommendation was to access the free downloadable workshop on synopsis writing from Mslexia Magazine. I could not agree more; there are several great workshops here, and when I could put off synopsis writing no longer, I turned to this one:

The workshop explains exactly what the synopsis is for, who will be reading it and when. There is great advice on layout, structure and contents. What’s really good, though, is that the workshop takes you through an unthreatening series of exercises, and when you have completed them all, declares – there you go, put that together with that, add these bits where needed, and you’ve got a workable draft for your synopsis.

I launched in and soon found myself writing a 25 word ‘elevator pitch’ or summary paragraph for Sleeping Beauty, Pride and Prejudice, and a film of my choice. Here’s what I wrote – you have to guess what film is is (it’s my favourite – answer at the end of this post).

Thanks to:

 Here’s what I wrote:

  •      ‘A princess is cursed by a bad fairy to sleep for 100 years until a lover awakes her with a kiss.’
  •      ‘A lively, intelligent woman is annoyed by a fascinating man, but his pride and her family’s shame keep them apart, until a crisis unites them.’
  •       ‘A kind psychiatrist has failed a suicidal man and must redeem himself by helping a sensitive boy who is constantly terrified by visions of ghosts.’

I then had to write a 25 word summary for my own novel, including, if possible, the main character, his or her main quest of challenge, his or her main obstacle and the main setting. This was probably the biggest challenge, but the warm-up exercise had got me thinking hard about what the key elements of a story are, and made me assess my novel in a useful, summarising way. My summary paragraph went through at least six drafts as I worked out what was the really central dilemma driving my main character and plot. I settled on:
  •          ‘Pregnant editor Sarah is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Is the family secret darker still?’

When I had completed the draft of the synopsis, I had a few words to spare, so went back and refined it further to:

  •        ‘Pregnant editor, SARAH, is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Sarah must discover the family’s dark secret before her baby is born.’

Having dreaded writing the synopsis, I found myself enjoying it, fascinated by the process of cutting through to the very essence of the story and laying it bare. I hope the synopsis will be needed because I’m hoping that the judges of the Mslexia Novel Competition will want to see it, along with the whole novel. If not – gulp –  I’ll at least have a strong synopsis to send out to agents. And I’ll be looking up Mslexia’s advice on writing the opening pages, and the query letter...

With all this going on, I also agreed to read and assess a friend’s combined query letter/synopsis for her first novel – yes, can you imagine, she has been advised that US agents want the query letter and synopsis squashed into one page! Have they no attention span?! It was when reading my friend’s writing credits that I became distracted by what I can only call query letter envy. My friend has writing credits. She has had short stories and essays published in a Hong Kong-based anthology, and in a book about expat women in Asia. Having written for most of my life, novels and screenplays and poetry (as a teenager), for the most part my writing hours –  weeks, well let’s be honest, years – have been spent crafting long, much rewritten works that have not seen the publishing light of day.

 I realise that I have to put this right. I was asked to write an article for a counselling organisation’s magazine, but never quite got round to it – well, I have written it now, and hope they still want it. I have written an article on coping with OCD in the family – I’ll be looking for a support website to send that to. A screenplay I wrote would make a good short story. I will pitch an article to Mslexia Magazine, and write a poem for their latest theme, Troubled Minds. My mind is buzzing with ideas – that workshop helped me get my synopsis out there, now my query letter needs to sparkle like my friend’s!

With thanks to
The answer to the film synopsis quiz was of course, The Sixth Sense.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

How to Get a Job in Book Publishing

As well as being a writer working towards that first break into publication, I am a book editor with over 25 years experience. (‘Publisher – publish thyself!’ you might well advise, but sadly I don’t work in the same area of publishing that I write for!)

Picture courtesy of

Here then, are a few tips for those wanting to get work, or an internship, in book publishing.

1)      Brush up your CV – but don’t overdo it! I don’t know who is advising people these days on CV writing, but again and again I find myself reading CVs that suggest very strongly to me that someone is giving out wrong advice. Of course, you need to describe your experience in a positive light. However, so many of the CVs we see are ridiculously spin-doctored and overblown, with every Saturday job described as though it qualifies the applicant to be Governor of the Bank of England, at the very least. As a result, we have to put on a shrewd, cynical state of mind that cuts every overdone statement down to size in order to glean what the applicant has actually done. Sadly, the effort put in to titivate the CV has the opposite effect to that intended and leaves the reader slightly less well-disposed towards the applicant. Likewise, if we have to trawl through three pages of A4 to find the few nuggets of information we need about you, we will already be put off. One and a half pages of A4 is the maximum. One page of relevant information – even better (see below).

2)      Make your CV relevant. This means researching the publisher you are applying to join. What type(s) of books do they publish? What is their speciality? What new books/series are they publishing around now?  I work for an art and craft specialist, and you would be amazed how many CVs we receive for both jobs and internships that make no mention of any interest in art or crafts, either in the work history or the hobbies of the applicant. We would almost always discard such a CV as unsuitable, because anyone with absolutely no interest in our subject is going to get very bored working for us. You don’t have to be the world’s best knitter or have worked your way up through four other art and craft publishers , but some passing interest is essential. Emphasise the parts of your CV that are relevant to the publisher you want to join. Personally, I played the ‘My Dad is an art teacher’ card when I applied. Presumably, if you’re applying, you are actually interested in what they do. If you are just applying to every publisher you can think of, without reference to the material they produce, you will not stand much chance.

3)      If you are applying for your first job, some relevant work experience or internships will really help. Increasingly these days, applicants all have similarly good school grades and qualifications, so we turn to early work experience to set apart the best. We don’t necessarily feel that it’s fair that young people need to jump through such hoops to find work, but this is the situation we are faced with, and we need to make a choice. The best applicants for the last internship we offered had done several internships already, often unpaid, sometimes losing money because of having to spend it on travel. It was a little bit heart-breaking to hear about, but it spoke volumes about the applicants’ determination.

4)      If you are applying for an internship, we will not expect you to have had four relevant Saturday jobs and a proven track record in publishing. However, even here, we get lots of good applications, so if you can show that you have done some relevant work experience while at school or university, this will really help. It’s all about showing an interest, and just saying that you like books isn’t enough. There is another rule for internships and it’s:
Be realistic. If you are proposing to commute hundreds of miles to work every day or get your own flat nearby for the duration of a 6 months internship, we will worry that this isn’t really viable. We want it to work for you as well as us.

5)      The interview. There is plenty of advice out there, but to summarise:
 Dressing smartly is always the safest bet. We have employed people who didn’t, but their application and the rest of their interview needed to be fairly spectacular.
Be interested, enthusiastic and well-informed about what the publisher does. One of the first questions we ask is, ‘Do you know our books?’ This isn’t some kind of mind-game test question. We are about to invest time in telling you about what we do, and what the job entails. It really encourages us if you show a genuine interest, and have made a little effort yourself.
If you are applying for an editorial position, be ready to do an editorial test. We do this to everyone. Once again, it’s not to frighten people or to turn the interview into an exam – we use it as a tool to separate applicants who have a genuine aptitude for editing. You can have all the interest and relevant experience you like, but if you are not good at nit-picking detail, you will not be suitable. Don’t be put off, though, we don’t expect you to get everything right.
Be confident, but don’t over-do it. To be fair, the latter is rare in interviews, but a colleague and I did once sit opposite an applicant who made us pull back in our seats because she was so alarmingly over-confident. She dropped into conversation that she ‘had a novel with a London agent’, and when we noted that she had done a little PR work, she drawled, ‘Well, one does, doesn’t one?’ You can be as suitable as you like, but you won’t get the job if people can’t bear the thought of working with you. Likewise, we expect a certain level of nervousness in interviews and allow for it, but extreme shyness would be a concern, so be ready with some questions to ask and some statements about yourself if these are not likely to flow naturally.
Try to make a strong first impression, but for the right reasons. First impressions are strange things, and an odd one can be hard to overcome. I was once put right off a candidate because she smelled overwhelmingly of talcum powder. I know, that sounds really unfair, but I couldn’t get over that whiff. If your first impression is a powerful smell, even a not unpleasant one, what does that say about your judgement? I have also interviewed someone who I am convinced was under the influence of something speedy in the drug department. This too, was a hard first impression to overcome.

Picture courtesy of

6)      Apply for jobs you are actually suitable for, and that you want. I know, it sounds obvious. I have made the mistake myself of thinking, ‘I just need to get some work, I’ll go for that’. It became glaringly obvious early in the interview that I wasn’t interested in doing PR work for the local sports centre. I fell down at the first ‘how would you advertise a new badminton club?’ question. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. I couldn’t disguise this fact. Seriously, the most impressive thing about a job application is always that the person displays a genuine interest in the job, has some relevant experience, and shows the ability to learn the rest.

I hope this is helpful to you if you are looking for a job or internship in publishing. It shouldn’t be so hard to get in – it’s not The X Factor! However, it is a fulfilling career and I do wish you all the best. Get in touch in the comments below if you have any questions; I will be happy to help. And if you do get an interview – well done and good luck! But go easy on the talc.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

In Which I Discover Hilary Mantel and Decide Not to be a Failure

Just so you know, I am a successful writer. OK, I haven't actually had anything published yet (apart from some of my blog comments in Mslexia magazxine, and a letter in the Guardian), but this does not make me a failure. In fact, after the couple of weeks I have had, the very fact that I have written this post is enough to make me feel proud. Oh and I have been over a paragraph or two of my novel and made the odd prodding tweaking change. You see? A roaring success. Pass the award!

I have read a couple of excellent posts recently about the importance of viewing each small step along the way to achieving your writing goals as a success in itself. Otherwise you focus on some pie-in-the-sky dream of being a successful writer, and continually berate yourself for not reaching it, or worse, give up altogether. I think this wise advice has helped me more than any of the great writing tips I find in writer's blogs.

I believe I have unconsciously avoided reading any Hilary Mantel before, perhaps because I am childishly resentful of writers who win prizes, but recently I picked up Eight Months on Ghazzah Street in a charity sale, and loved its brooding atmosphere of danger and secrecy and its brilliantly drawn heroine, who finds herself a fish out of water among both expats and locals in Jeddah. Reading a bit about the author at the back, I was struck by how many setbacks, disappointments and downright disasters dogged her steps before she eventually found the success I was churlish enough to resent. It was also clear that the novel grew out of a difficult time in Mantel's own life; she answered the cheery question, 'What has been your happiest moment?' with the curt answer: 'Leaving Jeddah'.

So you find me this week
1) determined to count it as a success that I have managed to post this despite feeling exhausted and beleaguered, and
2) hopeful that good things will come out of a difficult time.

What's difficult about it? you ask. To summarise, my husband continues to suffer the effects of stress-induced depressive illness. In the meantime, life has been incredibly busy. My older son recently came back from Uganda, and we had a day or two's chaotic turnaround with him at home, then spent last weekend making the 12-hour round trip to Falmouth to dro him off at his new shared house for his 2nd year at university. It was a pleasure to see him happily settled, and when we rang to see how things were going (meaning, had they got the cooker working and been to that nice greengrocer's we saw nearby?) we were reassured that things were awesome: 'We've got Grand Theft Auto 5 and I've found room for all my DVDs'.

The trip was exhausting and left us with very little time to organise our younger son's 18th birthday this week. This also went off well, however, and even though ten of his friends spent a day and a night here, I have found nothing more sinister than a few cider cans in unexpected places and evidence that someone has rolled a cigarette (at the very least) on my copy of Mslexia.

All this has been tiring, as I struggle to cope with my husband being ill, and try to be part of the solution rather than making things worse with my own emotional cocktail of sadness, worry and at times sudden bursts of anger. Add to this a busy time at work, some evenings out that we were too tired for but couldn't get out of, and some nights with hardly any sleep, and you will see why I am cheering myself on for writing this at all. As with today's housework, I have told myself, it doesn't have to be perfect; just good enough. I'm a writer, I have written this - there you have it - success!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Words Matter; Meaning Matters – An Editor and Writer’s Rant

There is some hilarious material out there about how much punctuation matters  – it gets bandied around by book editors like me, who recognise our own obsessions and have a good laugh at ourselves, without ever doubting for a second that we are right – punctuation does matter!

I am now standing up to make the same bold claim for the choice of words, and for consideration of their meaning. Words matter. Meaning matters – and not just to editors and other pedants.

My husband is back at work as a teacher, having had some of last term off through work-related stress. On the first day of the new term, the teachers gathered to set targets for the school. One of the targets they set was this:

All children should make outstanding progress.

Sorry – all children have to be outstanding? How is this possible? How is each and every child supposed to stand out from the rest with its stunning progress? Even if you give the target a slightly different meaning, how is each child supposed to achieve a continuous level of progress which at all times stands out from its usual level of progress?

The problem is the misuse of the word ‘outstanding’, but it runs deeper than an imprecise use of English that only a nit-picking editor would worry about. It cuts to the heart of what is wrong with our education system. The word reveals how much Offsted haunts the teaching profession; it says, ‘We want Offsted to say we are outstanding.’ Yet in choosing this word, in this context, the school have set a target that is, by definition, impossible to reach. In this use of the word ‘outstanding’, the meaning of something that stands out from the rest has been elided into another meaning, that of a standard that gains the highest seal of approval from a regulator.

This slippage of meaning reminds me of the slogan from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’. Here the original biblical meaning of equality is mismanaged into a new sense, which looks in a sentence like the same usage, but is disastrously changed: now ‘equal’ implies a privilege that not everyone is allowed. As with the school’s target, the misuse of the word, so brilliantly satirised by Orwell, points to a much deeper problem that is cultural and political.

I hold my hands up and admit that all editors are control freaks. I confess that I recently corrected a poster advertising ‘plastic’s, because I could not bear to walk past it every day and see the pointless apostrophe that wasn’t even the right way round. 
How it looked...

How it looks after my guerilla editing job...

But I make no apology for my nit-picking about the misuse of a word in this context. The teachers at my husband’s school have started the term by deciding to aim for something that cannot be achieved. I wonder how many of them left the meeting already feeling demoralised – before even setting foot in a classroom to meet the thirty little individuals whose progress all has to be outstanding this year? I wonder how many of them will succumb to stress this term?

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Stress, Anxiety and the Thriller Writer

It has not been a good weekend. My husband, who a few months ago fell into a pit of anxiety and depression caused by work stress, has been making a slow recovery, but has had a rough couple of days. My teenage son has a chest infection and coughed most of last night, so no one has had much sleep. I sympathise with both of them, but at times my nerves are stretched to breaking point, and I have been known to rant and rave at the poor man from my own fear and frustration, then hate myself for making him feel even worse. On a lighter note, when I drove my son to the out of hours doctor to get antibiotics, he decided to follow her advice and wait a few days before resorting to using them. It was on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘Take them now! We need the coughing to stop tonight!’

Thriller writers have an interesting relationship with anxiety.  In one sense, it is what we do; we create anxiety in the reader – but the enjoyable, fictional type that gives a frisson of excitement, not the debilitating type that ruins lives. If you are someone who enjoys reading, watching or writing thrillers, the chances are that you are not someone who experiences serious stress yourself. When a friend of mine who suffers from anxiety read through an earlier version of my novel, Unspeakable Things, she asked incredulously, ‘What made you want to write it?’ which perhaps wasn’t the reaction I had hoped for. Soon though, I remembered that she tries to avoid any kind of entertainment that might be disturbing, looking instead for the type that is comforting, uplifting or funny.

People who like thrillers are like those who seek out dangerous sports: their adrenaline levels are less likely to rise than other people’s. This leads them to go looking for experiences that cause the exhilarating feeling of an adrenaline rush – the thrill of free-fall, the novelistic tension ratcheted up to breaking point, the moment in the movie when everyone jumps. That’s me. My default setting, I have realised lately, is not worried. As my sons have grown older and sought out various dangerous adventures, my assumption has remained that they are all right, unless I am given serious cause to doubt it. When one  went on a school trip to Tanzania, some of the other parents wanted a phone call to reassure them that the flight had landed safely. I told my son that I would assume they had landed safely unless I heard otherwise on the News.

Nevertheless, in order to write characters who are going through terrifying times, you do need to empathise with those who suffer. You need to describe the feelings of being nervous, tense, shocked or terrified in ways that resonate with readers and provoke a reaction in them. And of course, I am not immune to feeling anxious. Lately my resilience has been under serious strain, though of course this is nothing to what my husband is going through.

 They do say that if you are a writer, nothing that happens to you is wasted, and I have found that my experience of watching a loved one going through a difficult time has come through in my writing. In Unspeakable Things, Jim is bewildered by Sarah’s mood when she finds out shocking things about her mother’s past.

‘He began to steer her away from the whole Mary subject and tried to get her to focus on more positive things, and for a while he hoped that she was beginning to calm down. But in the evenings, he would speak to her, or glance at her as he laughed at something on the TV, and he would see her brooding, intense, hardly aware of him. In the mornings he woke up to find her sleepless, staring ahead. He found himself missing her as though she had gone.’

I hope I have not sounded callous, examining the subject of anxiety from such a writerly perspective  - but this isn’t the place for an in-depth unburdening about what the past few months have been like. I just hope that soon the brooding fear and the nail-biting tension will be back on the pages of my novel and that my husband and I, who once jumped out of a plane together, will be happily thrill-seeking again.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 4: Make Setting Work For You

Setting, as the consultant who delivered a report on my novel in progress noted, is a tricky one. Modern readers are much less tolerant of long, detailed descriptions than, for instance, the Victorians were. Reading Dickens today, we can become weary of the sheer volume of description and end up thinking, ‘I just want an impression of that area of London – not so much detail that I could find my way around it blindfolded!’

Once again, the consultant’s advice has been vital to my rewrite:

‘What you want isn’t bulk, but a few telling details. Setting is never just a place where things happen: it always conveys important information... Decor signals taste, social class, income and even the inhabitants’ likely world view: black granite backed by glass and bristling with steel gadgets? Gingham curtains, home-made bunting and shabby chic? Old –fashioned groceries such as lard, tripe, white flour, Bisto, Bird’s custard, Abernethy biscuits?... In real life we are constantly picking up and decoding these signals, which is one reason why entering someone’s house for the first time is a step towards greater intimacy: we can read the signals they have chosen for themselves. Their puce-coloured bath with gold taps (or their conservatory smelling of cat pee, or their immaculate minimalist living room, or their collection of ceramic thimbles) will influence our opinion of the kind of people they are.’

Before I learned this valuable lesson, I had barely hinted at the settings in which my characters found themselves, and thinking much harder about how they would express themselves through their surroundings made me realise that the characters themselves needed more thought. The search for those ‘few telling details’ taught me to define the characters more carefully, and not to waste a word on random or irrelevant detail when describing the settings.

In the latest version of Unspeakable Things, the difference between Deb’s mantelpiece and Sarah’s points to a deeper contrast between the two friends and their lives. Attempting to tidy her chaotic house before Sarah and Jim come round, Deb notes  the overcrowded mantlepiece and the general mess:

...’these rooms were a mishmash of styles and influences, souvenirs of disparate places, piles of magazine clippings Mum gave her that she never had time to read, books of her Dad’s and stepmum’s, and on the walls, posters from films and comedy clubs mixed in with an array of photographs, old and new: the chronicle of her large and complex family.’  

Going back into her own ordered house after Jim goes off on a trip, Sarah notes:

 ‘...there was their sofa, where she lay in the evenings with her feet in Jim’s lap, facing the mantelpiece which she kept spacious and uncluttered; with just a vase in chunky recycled glass in the centre, holding Calla lilies.’

After Uncle John lets her into the attic treasure trove full of mementoes of the mother she doesn’t remember, Jim returns to find a transformation:

‘She had framed the wedding photograph and the one of Mary with her and David, as well as a couple of others of the twins, and these and many unframed prints were crowded on the mantelpiece. It had lost the stylish, minimalist look she used to favour and was suddenly inhabited by numerous faces staring out.’

But Sarah is about to discover that families are not a neat and tidy affair; it is not only her mantelpiece that has become messy and out of control...

I can’t leave a discussion of setting without alerting you to an excellent post by blogger Kristen Lamb on using setting to deepen your characters: If you are here looking for writing tips, I can’t recommend Kristen’s blog highly enough, and this post sent me rushing back to my novel with a new zeal for using setting to show, rather than tell what a character is all about.

Glancing around my surroundings now, I wonder what they express about me... festering tea mugs, piled up notebooks and index cards, a teetering pile of undone ironing; pens on the floor (oh that’s where they all are!) and a cushion, inexplicably, on the printer. Is this the setting for a lazy, disorganised character who is barely coping with life? No no, I tell myself firmly, it’s a writer’s room, that’s what it is.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 3: Listen/Don’t Listen to the Voices

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given on writing came towards the end of a creative consultant’s 18-page assessment of my novel in progress Unspeakable Things. It was under the heading ‘Suggestions for the Revision Process’, and it read:

“Distinguish between the loud, bullying voice that sneers, ‘You’ve got no talent! You’re making a fool of yourself!’ (this is the voice all artists must strangle into silence) and the quiet, persistent voice that says, ‘Chapter 10 still isn’t right, you know,’ which is the one you must always listen to.”
I had never read such a profound, knowing description of the split personality of the writer. We all hear that bullying voice, and it make us cringe, plunge into despair, freeze into inaction or even give up altogether. At the same time, when we have spent a lot of time and effort on a piece of writing, a strange arrogance can take us over and make us wilfully ignore the quieter, doubting voice that niggles away, telling us we need to make changes.

This advice came to mind this week, when I was on holiday with the extended family in Wales. I had taken the previous week off work to finish the revision of my novel so that I could prepare it for entrance to Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition – Mslexia Women's Novel Competition 2013 – deadline September 23rd. Having a look through the entrance criteria, I found that the novels are initially judged by the first 5,000 words only. Meaning that the first 5,000 words need to be the most compelling, striking, impressive, publishable words in the whole novel. Having finished a revision that, after over a year’s work, I was pleased with, I was suddenly plunged into doubt. The bullying voice was as loud as ever. I had no talent. I was making a fool of myself. My first 5,000 words were no good. Yet even as I agonised, the other voice muttered that I just needed to do another, stringent revision on my first 5,000 words to get them up to scratch. But no, I argued. Those 5,000 words were inextricably linked to the rest of the novel. To try to change them after all that work would only undermine the whole thing. I should leave them alone and then if my novel didn’t get shortlisted, I could feel aggrieved at the unfairness of being judged by your first 5,000 words when all your really good writing is near the end.

 I didn’t write at all on holiday, and to be fair, I probably needed to get a bit of distance between myself and the mood-swinging, doubt-filled writing process. Then during a walk on a Welsh cliff, my 19-year-old son, who had recently read my first chapter, remarked that he couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and wondered what was going to happen to them. I was filled with sudden hope. One of the reasons I have stuck with this project for so long (I started the screenplay it grew out of when I was pregnant with the very same son!) is because I feel so compelled by the characters. Dare I hope that this actually came over in the writing? Would the competition judges feel similarly haunted by my creations? I pictured one of them getting up in the middle of the night and stumbling downstairs in her dressing gown, to take my first 5,000 words off the ‘rejected’ pile and give them another go.

 My son and I began to chat about the first chapter. He gave me his view on which bits worked, and I admitted to parts I wasn’t sure about. We concluded that it wasn’t clear enough at the outset that Sarah is the heroine. Two of the other characters have quickie sex in a hotel room at a wedding during the first chapter, so she has a lot to compete with! I began to think the chapter through in my head, and I was amazed to find how completely it was stored there, despite the fact that I had gone away to forget about it. I was able to re-order and tweak it as I walked along, enjoying the view. 

Today I have had another crack at those first 5,000 words. I stifled the first, bullying voice, but I listened to the second voice, the one that says, You haven’t finished. This still needs work.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 2: Get the Characters’ Motivation Right

Welcome back! I had a creative consultancy assess my novel in progress, psychological thriller,  Unspeakable Things, and here I continue sharing the top tips that I found most useful. Editing and revising are hard, but vital, and we all need all the help we can get.

In my assessment, the consultant brought up the tricky issue of motivation. She wrote:
There is some dodgy or non-existent motivation. Sometimes the characters appear to do things because you need them to, rather than because they need to. The effect to aim at is the other way round: the characters are the emotional heart of the book and the plot grows out of their longings, virtues and shortcomings. Writing a plot and forcing the characters through it produces characters who aren’t psychologically coherent or believable. If the characters don’t feel believable, the reader can’t make emotional connection with them, and although Gothic has elements of stylised fantasy, it also runs on emotion.’

I wonder if your work in progress might suffer from this problem? The consultant went on to say, ‘You’ve written in a state of creative excitement, a stage common to many writers, where ends are not always joined up... some of the non-sequiturs haven’t yet become visible to you, despite rewriting. This is where another person’s beady eye on a work can really help’.

She then detailed some of the points in my novel where motivation wasn’t convincingly explained, which I won’t bore you with here. The problem was partly related to Tip 1 from my previous post: the characters were not adequately fleshed out and developed, so their motivation was left unclear or taken for granted. Other problems were more related to the plot, which needed adjusting to become more believable.
The consultant’s central point was crucial: if the characters and their motivation are not believable, the reader will not engage with the plot. In a way, the more outlandish the plot, the more we need to be led through it by well developed, consistent characters. In a thriller full of secrets, shocks, surprises and elements of Gothic horror, it is all the more necessary for us to experience the journey through the eyes of characters we believe in and relate to.

Reading this, I was reminded of one of my favourite films, The Sixth Sense, written and directed by M Night Shyamalan. The film has a plot that could leave the sceptical filmgoer scoffing and unconvinced: the boy in the film sees dead people, all around him, all the time. They don’t know they’re dead. A psychiatrist is trying to help him, but meanwhile the boy is constantly visited by terrifying and dangerous ghosts. Despite this potentially unconvincing premise, the film so convinced me that after I saw it I was unable to go to the toilet in the night, despite having drunk a bucket–sized drink in the cinema. My disbelief was so thoroughly suspended that I believed with all my heart that my hallway was thronging with dead people.

What I love about this film is the writing. It is thoroughly consistent and believable, because the characters are fully developed and their motivation is clear. At the beginning of the novel we see that the mother and son have been having a hard time. The mother is newly single and grieving for her own mother. Although she is loving and caring, the message she give her son is that she needs him to be doing well. She can’t cope with strange happenings or his reaction to them. She just needs him to be OK. The boy has taken this on board. Although he suffers appalling terrors, he knows he needs to appear to be OK in front of his mother. If this were not developed so well in the writing of the two characters, the filmgoer would just say, ‘But why doesn’t he just tell his Mum?’ The motivation would be unclear; the characters would not be believable, and the suspension of disbelief needed to go along with a horror plot like this would come crashing to the ground, and the movie with it.

M Night Shyamalan has said the film is about communication. Towards the end, the boy has received enough help and encouragement from the psychiatrist and even from some of the apparitions that he feels strong enough to tell his mother the truth. ‘I’m ready to communicate with you now,’ he says, sitting in the car with her, stopped in traffic by an accident. It seems an oddly stilted statement for a young boy to make to his mother; but this is no ordinary young boy. The character’s unusual sensitivity, maturity and level of empathy have been carefully established throughout the film, so that the phrase rings true. So does the fact that the boy has recognised a perfect opportunity to tell his mother his secret in a situation in which she will believe him. He tells her that the victim of the accident, a cyclist, has died, but the boy can see her; she is standing by their car window. With this truth out in the open, the boy is able to give his mother a message from her own mother that could only come from her.

I’m ready to communicate with you now. My message is this: get the characters’ motivation right, and your readers will believe almost anything you tell them. Good luck with your rewrite!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Top Tips for Revising your Novel No. 1: Flesh out your characters

I have spent the past year working on revising my novel in progress, Unspeakable Things, having had it assessed by a Creative Consultancy attached to Annette Green Author’s Agency. I paid for this service with a certain amount of trepidation since, if someone is making money out of you, you always have that niggling suspicion that they may be serving their interests rather than yours.
I now feel that going to a consultant was the best thing I could have done. What returned was a detailed, 18-page assessment that was like a mini-course in creative writing, but focused entirely on my novel. It was honest, impartial, clear, no-holds-barred and yet sensitively worded and always encouraging. When I sent the work out, it was like calling out from my writer’s closet, with very little idea as to whether my writing was going well or not. In the year since then, I have pored over every word of those 18 pages and worked to correct every flaw. I have come out of my closet to write this blog, which I even tell people about. In public!  Thanks to the assessment and the work of revision it has inspired, I have a new confidence in my novel. I can see that it is working better, and I know why.
Since I trawl other writer’s blogs in the hope of finding helpful tips on writing, I thought I would share the best tips I received. Although the assessment was directed specifically at my novel, the basic pointers in it are universal, and will be helpful to anyone embarking on a full-on revision. Let’s face it, at that vital stage of writing, we need all the help we can get!
Tip 1 Flesh out your characters. The consultant went through each character in turn, but beginning with my heroine, Sarah, commented, ‘As a character she needs more depth, more fleshing out... To some extent this is true of all the characters. They read as if you have given them just enough inner life to make the plot work, whereas memorable, fascinating characters give the impression of having a life outside the page.’
 I had converted the story of Unspeakable Things into a novel, having first written it as a screenplay, and had very much enjoyed writing what I thought of as the ‘interiors’ of the characters, which in a screenplay can only be suggested through dialogue or stage directions. Now I saw that I had not created these interior lives fully enough. I needed to think through every aspect of my characters’ pasts, motivation and relationships so that their responses to the events of the story would make perfect, believable sense. The reader needed to feel, when a character behaved in a certain way, that yes, that is exactly how they would respond, for many valid and credible reasons.
I began a dossier on each character and worked on each of their backstories. I developed their working lives, gave them relevant and telling childhood memories, quirks of speech to differentiate them from other characters, preoccupations going round in their heads as they woke up in the mornings or went about everyday tasks. The dossiers began as a mass of notes made from brainstorming sessions, but were sifted, developed, honed down and refined into useful documents defining each character, which could be consulted as he or she appeared in each stage of the plot.
My consultant pointed out that screenwriters are advised to ‘always know what your characters are doing when they’re not onscreen.’ As I worked on the fleshing out of my characters, I began to have this sense of a relationship with them, of an imagined life for them beyond the confines of the text, so that I could work out at any given point in the story how they would react. The characters took on life. Forgive my upstart cheek in including a picture here of Dickens with his characters...

 I now enjoy their company. I worry that I will miss them when the novel is finished. (Ha! Like that’s ever going to happen.) Working out their every influence and reaction, their thought life and the legacy of their past, has made me feel that I know them the way I know real people. I know that Sarah has always fussed over how her cutlery drawer is organised; that David would scoff at his sister’s relaxation tapes and make jokes about ‘whale noise’; that Deb longs to be with people who knew her before she had a child; that Kim grows her own herbs and watches rubbish on TV when she is tired; that Mary is profoundly affected by having her hair done; that Jim bristles at the suggestion that he might put up a satellite dish; that John Briers touches his receptionist’s palm as she hands him the post and is gratified by her disquiet, but wants to slap away her look of revulsion.
Knowing all this, and more, I could work out how each character would react when under intense stress, or during a calamitous crisis. I could imagine Deb furious, Sarah fighting for her life, John having sickening nightmares, Mary losing the will to live, Kim trying to assess her own brain injury; David crashing out of the house in outrage; Joe sweating through his pyjamas in terror.

Beware, being too thorough in your character development, however. Fleshing out your characters can make them so real to you that it affects your decisions over their fate in the story. When I had finished developing one character , I liked her so much that I was no longer sure I could bear to have her come to the end I had originally intended. She was meant to die horribly, but I didn’t want to kill her, in fact, I wanted to meet her for coffee. Did I stick to my guns? You’ll have to wait and see...

Monday, 24 June 2013

How do we write a good row? Five pointers to better conflicts

As I was revising (endlessly revising), my novel in progress Unspeakable Things, I became aware of the importance or writing rows. Rows are dramatic and unpredictable events, but they need to ring true in our writing, otherwise we will lose that all-important connection with the characters in conflict. I am currently going through the novel one character at a time, assessing their development, and I was struck by the centrality of two rows between characters: Sarah and Jim (our heroine and her husband) and Deb and David (Sarah’s best friend and her brother, who are also married.) I also noticed that, despite the fact that I don’t enjoy rows (I promise!), I had very much enjoyed writing them, in the same way that writers enjoy creating characters we would avoid like the plague in life. Perhaps both exercises allow us to delve into the ‘bad’ parts of ourselves that we normally keep well hidden.

So what makes a good fictional row?

1 The row needs to be consistent with what we already know about the characters. Our conflicts reveal deep things about what makes us tick. The roots of conflict are not always easy to discover in real life; it may take many sessions with a counsellor to reveal them. However, in our writing, we need to be absolutely clear what those roots are, since they should add depth to a character. People rowing over one being untidy and the other fastidious is not going to be that fascinating – but what if the behaviour of one makes the other feel threatened for reasons they are not aware of, but that make sense in the character’s development? Reasons perhaps buried deep in the past? Now you have an interesting row.

2 The row needs to reveal where the characters are on their developing character arc, in which they change throughout the events of the story.

3 Fictional rows need to have the dangerous, unpredictable feel of real ones. In rows, we do and say things that are ‘out of character’ for our usual everyday selves. This is partly because rage, and swearing, have their roots in a primitive part of the brain that doesn’t practise restraint or rational discourse. The rows we write need to have this wild edge, and should to convey the strange, sometimes childish or self-destructive impulses that drive us when we have ‘lost it’.

4 A row should reveal how the characters and their relationship are under strain; and you must be very clear about why this is so, even though the characters are probably not. We don’t want to hear ‘As she threw the pot, she noted that the whole dynamic of their relationship had shifted since she started finding out about her family’s past.’ Nevertheless, the changing dynamic needs to be believably and consistently portrayed. If, like me, you are writing a thriller, there are all kinds of delicious reasons for the characters being under intense stress, since it is your job to torture them. Be ruthless and precise in your methods.

5 To write a good character and a good row, you have to be fascinated by people. I would never advise consulting psychology textbooks before writing your characters, because they need to spring from a much more creative place than that. You are not writing a case study, but creating a fictional world. However, you had better be riveted by the way people behave and interact if you want to write fiction. This is why I find some reality TV so compelling; the first few series of Big Brother had me riveted all summer long, and my excuse was that I am fascinated by people and the dynamics of groups. Who could forget the confrontation shown below?

Once your characters are fully formed and their rows written, and you are perhaps honing and revising (endlessly revising) them, a quick look at some psychological writings will do no harm, as I found when, researching for this post, I found this article on why couples fight: which shed some light into my (already written) rows.

In chapter 11, Sarah comes home late from work, and Jim nags her because her blood pressure, revealed on a wrist monitor, is high, and she is supposed to be taking it easy because of her pregnancy. She is grumpy, and then reasons with herself that the distance between them isn’t really Jim’s fault.

She felt a rueful warmth for him as his weight rocked the sofa beside her, and opened her mouth to apologise.
   ‘Maybe you should give up work early.’
   Her eyes flew open and she stared at him, outrage and the pressing concerns of her job flooding her head.
   ‘Have you got any idea how much I’ve got to do before I go on leave? It’s been so busy, I haven’t had time to brief anyone on anything, I’ve got –‘
   ‘But you’ll end up in hospital if your blood pressure gets any higher!’ Jim leaned towards her, gesturing towards the wrist monitor with a rigid, open hand. It shocked her to see him like this, as fervent as she was and in direct, furious opposition; his accent slipped into the sharp angles of his council estate past. She thought suddenly of Pat bustling around in her little domestic realm, of Jim’s cosy family life, and the dim view he must take of her upbringing – the dark unknown; the unholy mess of it – and all at once she could hear the blood rushing furiously in her ears.
   ‘It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? A little wife at home, like your mother.’ She was shocked at the venom in her voice.
   ‘No! Don’t be stupid! I’m just thinking of you and the baby.’
   ‘Well I’m not going to be your mother!’ Even as she said it she was thinking, What am I talking about? It was as if she had lost the thread of the argument and was raging at something inside her own head. The look Jim turned on her, straight into her face, had a nasty edge of contempt, and then he pushed up from the sofa and paced away. She thought for a moment that he was going to walk out, and sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him, but then he turned around and looked at her, also apparently searching for words.
   ‘This – just isn’t you, Sarah.’
   ‘What do you mean? I’ve always loved my job. We always planned I’d carry on working as long as I could.’ But the righteous feeling of her fury was ebbing away, and with it the last vestiges of the idea that it was him who was being unreasonable.”

This row is a pivotal moment in Sarah and Jim’s relationship. Sarah’s obsessive delving into her family’s past leaves Jim feeling protective but helpless (partly due to events in his own childhood), but the issue of why her mother apparently went mad and tried to kill her is central to Sarah’s attitude to her own pregnancy; she is unable to ‘let it go’. Here, this central issue is at the root of the row about Sarah giving up work. I hoped to convey the slightly skewed emergence of the real conflict in Sarah’s confusion, as if she had ‘lost the thread of the argument.’ I also relished the slightly childish ding-dong nature of rows in which we lose our usual adult restraint, when Sarah ‘sought stupidly for something stinging to call after him.’

As the row proceeds, things move on into a new phase of desperation for Sarah, as Jim’s rebuke, ‘This just isn’t you,’ leads her to realise how anguish has disrupted her previously robust sense of who she is, and from now on she begins to dread that she, like her mother, is losing her mind.

Interestingly, long after writing and revising this, I read the article mentioned earlier on why couples row, and found something that well described Sarah and Jim’s torment: ‘Lovers fight when they believe their partners don’t care about how they feel. They fight about the pain of disconnection.’ Later things get even more specific: ‘Confronted with the anxiety or fear of a woman, a man typically responds with protection/support. But if he does not know how to protect/support or, more commonly, feels like a failure as a protector, he is likely to turn the aggression on to her...’ It is reassuring to read this after writing Sarah and Jim, since the sadness at the heart of Jim’s character is that he desperately wants to do his best for Sarah, but fails her anyway.

In chapter 14 we find Deb and David having their own stinging fight. Joe has been deeply upset on a sleepover at Sarah and Jim’s, and their explanation is confused and partial. Deb is furious but Deb has stood ineffectually by, failing to support her. In the morning we find Deb exhausted but in a more conciliatory mood:

 “She found him standing in the kitchen with his back to a pile of undone washing up that towered from the sink. The surprising brightness of a winter morning poured sideways through the dirty window, giving everything the oddly significant look of a photograph. David was wearing the same clothes as the night before, crumpled and sagging. He looked up and seemed for a moment to be about to come towards her, but then he hung back, his expression dark, closed. Like a big, awkward boy, nursing his resentment. Her sudden feeling of rejecting him took her breath away. His silence, then his rebukes came back to her from the night before with stinging force.
    ‘I can’t do this on my own any more, David.’ He looked at her and opened his mouth as though about to reply, but thought better of it. She had an urge to break his silence with unkindness, to force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her. ‘I thought that when I went back to work, you’d come down from your ivory tower and be a proper Dad.’ The words swept ahead of her, but when she heard them, she knew they were true.
   ‘I am a proper Dad. I look after Joe!’
   ‘You’ve been like a zombie, since Sarah started with all this Mary stuff.’ Venom was bursting out of her, after months of trying to help and understand them all, trying to make it work.
   ‘Well, do you think I wanted that?’ He was angry now; whatever he hid in the depths of him, she had driven it to the surface. ‘Do you think I went looking for it?!’
   ‘Well then you’ve got to let her get on with it, and stop getting involved!’
   ‘I’m not involved! I don’t want to be involved!’
  ‘Then why do you pander to her? She’s just starting to leave you in peace – why does she have to have Joe just because she wants to?’ She was in full flow, and building towards a niggling resentment that she had tried and failed to reason away. ‘And the minute you left the room after seeing his bruises, you were straight on the phone to her!’
   David stared at her. ‘I had to call, to find out what had happened! And it was Jim I spoke to, not Sarah. I explained to you about Joe falling and her catching him.’
  Deb had to gather her thoughts here. She had been relieved to hear a plausible explanation for Joe’s bruises; it took some of the terror out of the night they’d been through; it had allowed her finally to go to bed and sleep. But his sobbing; his sweating; the strangeness of it all – and her standing there, the only one speaking up for him; she couldn’t quell the sweet, violent flow of her outrage.
   ‘I know that. But something is not right with Sarah, and she’s trying to suck you into it.’ Exhaustion was catching up with her and she slumped into a kitchen chair and ended hoarsely, losing the thread of her argument: ‘And I’ve had enough.’
   ‘You’ve had enough!’ There was a teaspoon in his hand with coffee on it and he smashed it down on the draining board with a great crash of crockery. ‘You’ve had enough?!’ She was shocked at his vehemence, at the noise; and stared in awe at what she had awakened; then he swept past her and she was abruptly alone. A moment later, his slammed exit reverberated around the house. She sat wondering with an odd detachment if she had broken something that couldn’t be repaired. She thought, who will I turn to if I have?

Deb here is the worm who has finally turned. The daughter of two divorced and remarried parents, she has always been the ‘fixer’ who smoothes things over for people, but this role is under severe stress as Sarah’s search for her family’s past sends David into a state of sickness and withdrawal. Now her child has been hurt and her usually yielding nature explodes under the pressure of stored up stress and resentment. I wanted this row to reveal the sudden nature of the change; her relationship with David is ruptured and under intense threat as she issues her ultimatum and accusation. This is make or break time for Deb and David. Her frustration with David’s withdrawal from her and from Joe, which is worsened but not begun in the present crisis, makes her abandon all restraint and goad him: ‘To force him from cover and shock him into dealing with her.’ I hope this attitude of Deb’s will spark recognition in readers; it stems from my own occasional row behaviour in which I hurl sometimes overblown or irrational accusations because of a need to flush something real and important into the open. Of course, I am only ever aware of this dynamic with the benefit of calm, post-rage hindsight.

Once again, the article on why couples fight had an insight that reassured me when revising this scene, and Deb’s character development: ‘Anger or withdrawal by men often stimulates anxiety or fear of isolation in women, even when his anger or withdrawal has nothing to do with her.’ ‘Awoman is likely to be critical, defensive or contemptuous if she experiences (or is reminded of having experienced) fear of farm, isolation or deprivation)’. I hope my portrayal of Deb shows that her ‘fixer’ role has often been played while her own needs have been left unmet, meaning that years of rage are waiting to emerge in David’s rather hapless, unshaven face.

We rejoin David after he has stormed out: “David paced to the end of their road, where absurdly, a peaceful Saturday morning was happening; blurred shapes at the corners of his vision were a Dad and son going off for football, but if someone spoke to him, he thought he might snarl in their face. Fuck her. What did she think she was saying? Not a proper Dad. Stop getting involved. He should have stopped for his bastard coat; it was freezing. Where was he going anyway?”

I was reaching for the blundering physical motion of rage, and its lack of connection to our rational selves here. Sitting on a bench, David relives the trauma of the night before, which revives a terrible memory from his past; and this reminder of his childhood vulnerability means that he is at last able to empathise with Joe’s fear, and with Deb’s anger. “It was awful to think of it now, of that happening to Joe and him not being there to save him. Not coming running. He dropped his head further and a taste, salty and bitter, flooded into his mouth. Deb was right, he was no fucking use.”

Here I hoped to show how people during rows hear things that the other party has not actually said, and how thoughts and emotions develop as rage subsides. The reader does not know, at this stage, whether this row will make or break the couple; whether David’s sense of shame will lead to further withdrawal, or a resolution. I can reveal though that it does lead to further isolation and torment for my heroine and victim, Sarah.

However peace-loving and conflict-averse we are in life, where would our writing be without the ‘sweet, violent flow’ of rage, revealed in a good row?