Prompted by a recent conversation on one of the writers’ forums I follow, I thought I’d put pixels to paper and noodle a little on character names in modern fiction.
As a fan of “Round the Horne” and “The News Huddlines” I bow to no one in my admiration of Dame Osiris Gnomeclencher and Pokemon Stallone, but hey, aren’t there some weirdly-named characters out there? I except fantasy and sci-fi, of course; it’s mandatory to have other-worldly monikers in these off-piste genres! Some names in contemporary fiction, though, do seem to have been devised with the purpose of giving the eyebrows a good workout. But whatever the genre or quality of the material, the writing of a book is a gruelling task, and it would be crass of me to do the pointy finger thing at any author, especially if I haven’t read the work in question. There are blurbs in plenty, though, which throw up collectables.
Part of the trend is, I believe, a fashion thing. Florid handles in fiction were very popular after World War II, with the resurgence of romance. (Oh, how I wished I could be called Claude Duvall… In fact I did appropriate the name for many imaginary games, involving a good deal of leaping and sword-swishing.) My mother, an incurable romantic herself, lumbered the three children who followed me with a bizarre assortment between them, which included Fern, Jonquil, Leonore, Gabrielle and Swithin. Yes, Mother, guilty as charged! Later, with the kitchen sink revolution, we reacquainted ourselves with plain Janes and Joes as heroes, solid, no-nonsense, and often with a good working-class pedigree. But following that, the cult of individuality overtook the Western world, and although many writers sternly resisted names which might distract, others plunged into the can of Alphabetti Spaghetti and fashioned new names with great glee. Well, hardly surprising, with stars and celebrities throwing out the name book and condemning their innocent children to a life of signing autographs as Apple, Dweezil, Rain and Moon-unit. To add insult to injury, poor Apple will probably have to change hers anyway, to avoid copyright suits.
But I am on the side of the non-distracters, and would point out to writers that names which flow easily into the reader’s consciousness will provide fewer barriers between your fictional universe and reality. In some stories there may be room for a novelty name, but there should be a real point in dubbing someone Gervase, Eustacia or Beezo – it needs to tell the reader something in particular about this person. Or you may be tempted by the way a name rolls off the tongue – I love the sound of Hamilton Bohannon (a musician active in the 1970s), and once had a client with the brilliant title of Heaton McGuffog, but….resist! Resist!
Research is required when writing historical fiction, to avoid anachronism. At the very beginning of writing any retro story (even 1970, the year in which my current novel is set, is an era startlingly different from our own) it’s an idea to have a look at forenames popular at the time. Don’t forget that the adult characters would have been born twenty or more years prior to the action, so the top ten baby names of the year aren’t necessarily the most apt. With a good list, it’s a lot easier to fit names to the personalities who inhabit your tale.
Class and background are other considerations. Whether retro or contemporary, a name will often (though not always) say something about the wearer. There is a funny passage in one of Marian Keyes’s books in which the main character refers to her mother’s friends, who are variously called Mary, Marie, Mary-Ann, Marian, Maria and so on; a version of the Virgin Mary’s name would appear to have been mandatory for girls in the mother’s Irish village of origin. Even now, and I make no judgment here, it is probable that Kayci will hail from a less privileged background than Olivia.
Just occasionally, a character comes both fully formed and named. A beautiful psychopath in a story I wrote a while back, had to be called Christopher; both he and I knew it. But in fairness, it can often be a challenge, and I have had my share of problems. The name of the central character in “Out Late with Friends and Regrets”, for example, had to be changed two or three times before I felt it was right; it had to be a girl’s name that could be contracted into a single-syllable nickname which would reflect the metamorphosis she undergoes. I was very happy with my eventual choice, until I discovered that it was the same name/nickname as the main character in a well-established series of novels in a similar genre. One can’t avoid unwitting duplication entirely (unless you make something up, ha-ha) but this was entirely too close for comfort. A similar situation arose as I was selecting names for my two protagonists in the current book; I wrote many thousands of words in which one of the young women became known intimately to me by ‘the perfect fit’ name. Not outlandish, you understand, but neither forename nor surname was a one you come across every day. I was shocked (and not a little irritated) to be told that I had endowed my girl with the exact name of a successful children’s author, a writer unknown to me, but fortunately very familiar indeed to a well-read member of the writing group to which I belong. Needless to say, I nursed distinctly uncharitable feelings towards the kiddie-scribe in question, until the subconscious search-engine came up with a satisfactory substitute! But it was still strange, getting to know my character again after the rebranding. Isn’t it funny how our creations live so vibrantly in our minds that their names assume mystical importance?
I truly believe that appropriate character names are an important aspect of fiction writing, worth spending some trouble on. Even though, like housework, it’s an art barely noticed unless you do it badly!
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Prompted by a recent conversation on one of the writers’ forums I follow, I thought I’d put pixels to paper and noodle a little on character names in modern fiction.
Absolutely, you’re right. I never expected it would be this long. But, you know, stuff happens.
So a big thank-you to Caren Werlinger http://cjwerlinger.wordpress.com/ for thinking of me. A helpful kick up the bum!
As coincidence would have it, I have just written a new, unprompted blog (on reading in public), because it recently hit me that I was letting time slip away and nothing was getting done – not the novel, no short fiction, no blogs, no competitions, nu’hin. The dreaded DRIFT had set in, and I had been floating ever closer to the great goodnight while trying to keep up with loads of stuff which shrieked and jostled for priority over writing, most (but not all) unavoidable – scary! Not that I intend popping off any time soon, you understand; but I’ve been taking writing time, future, for granted. And that’s a terrible sin. So I’ll put up my tip-top-tips on doing readings (“Swatting the Butterflies”) blog as well. And I’ve got back into the novel – Halleluia! Managed only 1250 words on this week’s Writing Day, which is less than half my ideal rate, but the old novelising muscles have become flabby with lack of use. It will get better.
And now, friends, The Writing Process.
1. What am I working on?
The WIP has the dull working title of “House Advantage”, which I must change at some stage – well, I certainly hope I can come up with something a bit more stimulating!
The story begins in the London of 1970. The sixties have swung their last, and Britain is struggling with seismic political and cultural change. Sex has become commonplace with the pill now well-established, and there is plenty of experimentation going on. London still buzzes with the excesses of the fashion and entertainment worlds, but amongst its police corruption is rife, and in some boroughs nattily-dressed gang leaders rule their fiefdoms with oddly skewed but sternly enforced moral codes.
But at heart, this is still a conservative, buttoned-up country. The central characters are two young women, Nina and Georgie, who apply for jobs as trainee croupiers in a casino company. Nina is initially shy and has been brought up to assume that her husband knows best. She is still grieving for the baby she miscarried. Georgie is a fun, flirty girl who would love to have swung through the sixties, but she is sole carer and provider for her mother, an ailing ex-actress with whom she lives in a grim, draughty flat; there is never enough money.
The lives of Nina and Georgie change utterly when they start work at the casino; its tawdry glamour has a transformative effect. Plenty happens as the girls experience a new sense of freedom, enjoy friendships, party, mix and match, and see a darker side of Swinging London.
My own ten years of experiences as a croupier and later a pit boss have been a huge source of inspiration, but I see the book as having a feminist undertow. Although the movement had its formative years in the seventies, with Grier, Friedan and Steinem amongst its heralds, the sexism which women still faced daily was deeply ingrained, and by today’s standards, mind-boggling. We may not be 100% there yet, but by God, we’ve come a helluva way.
2. How does my work differ from others in the same genre?
Hmm, now what genre would that be? It isn’t just me; some of my predecessors on the Writing Process Tour have had similar issues with this question. “The market” (Agents? Publishers? Readers? Amazon? Waterstones?) loves these arbitrary confines, probably because it makes life easier for its arrangers, not to mention its accountants! (See my blog “A Plague on All Your Genres!”)
However, to the task: I suppose if I must cite distinguishing features, I think I write in a particularly English way. Not that I’m unique in that, of course. But I have been surprised and delighted to attract any attention at all in the US, let alone sales, let alone some benevolent reviews. My humour tends to be dry and occasionally a little whimsical. I don’t always couple-up the obvious candidates. I like characters to have less fashionable flaws than hot tempers, rebelliousness, addictive behaviour and so on; often awkwardness, vanity, carelessness and repression rather better suit who they are.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Naturally stories spring from subjects which interest me: domestic abuse and control issues, the sexuality spectrum, personality disorders, feminism, the adaptability of people faced with radical change, and the psychology of relationships, for example. And although I used to regret not having been to University, I now see the breadth of experience I have (not always!) enjoyed as being hugely beneficial for material.
Besides working in the gaming industry I have spent time running a business, becoming knowledgeable about gemstones and jewellery and their care and repair; I have spent many a late hour labouring over an engraving machine, inscribing sports trophies, or tokens of love; I have cleaned toilets, worked in a factory, sold door-to-door. I have committed crime. A great education for a writer.
And like most writers, I collect people. In crowds, on the bus, across the counter. I watch, hoovering up their quirks and mannerisms, their magnificent story-faces, their humour, their style, their humanity. A few long-lost people have been transferred almost complete to the page; I need to express my love and regret by bringing them back. Others are composites. But they all live, and have full lives outside my story. Writing makes Frankensteins of us all.
4. How does my writing process work?
As Stephen King, author of the essential “On Writing” points out, a story can start with a mundane, maybe static scene, and a “what if”. This can work particularly well for a short story, and has done for me. But for books, I want to recycle reality.
In both “Out Late with Friends and Regrets” and “House Advantage”, situations and incidents are based on experience, but the story is a story. It’s quite a job convincing people at times that although the book may have autobiographical foundations, the architechture above ground level is a construct of the imagination!
Scenes from the rough head-draft tend to play out like film clips in front of my inner eye, and when characters talk and interact I need to catch them in the moment. So I often end up with a file full of scenes and dialogues which may require some shuffling before finding their proper place. It doesn’t sound very organised, does it? And I like to be organised (OCD, some might say) in other spheres – see my lists! But book writing is a strange and individual process.
Logging the writing accomplished on Writing Day is a habit. Word count, cumulative total, a sentence on content and sometimes plot notes are useful, and these are recorded in an A4 spiral-bound notebook.
I admire writers with a brisk workrate, especially those who can write evenings and nights, sometimes with a family and/or breadwinning job to contend with too. My process is exasperatingly slow, with one day per week (more if possible) set aside for the task. Creative Writing lore usually advises the writer to blast through the first draft (“The first draft is always shite” as one of my open studies course tutors, an engaging Irishman, used to say) and do a heroic job of slash and burn second time round. Why can’t I do that? Because not, that’s why. Writing even half a page compels me do tweaks and edits, and I have to go over and over it till it reaches its initial, but far from final, stage of rightness. And that’s not the end; the perfect word or phrase can offer itself when I’m teaching a fitness class, or in bed asleep, or on the loo. My writing brain is the workaholic that I am not.
I gather that I am unusual in that I like the radio on, pop and rock, when I write. I’ve got to be able to see out (desk facing a blank wall? Are you mad?) and I like the door open to the rest of the house. Alone is good, but isolated is not.
So like the wheels of God, the writing process grinds exceeding slow. It would be good to have the first draft of House Advantage done by the end of the year. Really good. Wish me luck.
Next on the tag list: Andrea Bramhall, http://andreabramhall.wordpress.com/ – Keep it going!
Ten Tip-Top Tips for Surviving an Encounter with an Audience
So you’re published! Well done, and enjoy the moment.
And now you find that the most difficult part of writing a book is persuading people to read it. You’ve probably jostled with others on social media and publicised yourself as much as you dare, knowing that even a rationed little can quickly become too much.
Then one day you get the invitation; somebody wants you to read at an event! It may be a small gathering at a local library, a book group, or if you’re very lucky a bookshop launch or a literary event. You may be sharing the stage with others, or – scary stuff – you may be the main attraction. Eek!
Don’t turn it down. Being a bit apprehensive is perfectly natural, but there is nothing to beat real contact with your readers, and each appearance may send the magic network in a new direction.
Having had experience from both sides of the table,here are my top ten tips:
1. Don’t let being nervous worry you. It’s OK. Most readers/speakers are.
2.Wear something you feel both good and comfortable in, nothing that’s going to malfunction or pinch. That’s one potential anxiety out of the way.
3. Don’t eat (or drink!) too much, too close to speaking, and ask to have a glass of water handy, if your hosts haven’t already provided one.
4.You may have natural good posture, but if not, practise standing (or sitting) tall with your shoulders back and down without leaning back. Good, relaxed posture will ensure that you present as confident and authoritative.
5. Remember that the audience is there because they want to be; they are interested in you and your book, and know they will be expected to buy one! That is, of course, if you have copies for sale. And if so, keep the pile on the table small, with spares in a box or bag underneath. It could be embarrassing being left with horribly obvious stacks of unsold copies, although you don’t want to be caught short either.
6. Use eye contact. Be familiar with your material to such an extent that you can keep looking up without losing your place, and exploit the intimacy of a small audience to your advantage. Unless you are on a stage where the light is shining in your eyes, the audience is visible. Use this fact, and glance briefly at individual faces. Not the same ones every time!
7. Focus outwards, send your rays out into the audience. Look at the faces, react to the expressions with little nods and smiles or eyebrow movements as appropriate. Don’t be afraid to move around, unless there’s a static mic (usually isn’t), or even come round and sit on the front of the table (this says “I like you, and want to be closer to you”). You love your book; let that enthusiasm carry you.
8. Don’t rush it. Many readers gabble through their reading, racing to get the thing over with. This can ruin a reading; I’ve heard seasoned authors canter through a piece at such speed that their listeners can’t get hold of the meaning, let alone enjoy the nuances and finer points of the writing. After all, you know what it’s about, but this is the first time most of them will have heard it. You are there to entertain them, so don’t be afraid to enter right into the spirit and act it, as if you were telling a child a bedtime story. Perhaps omit the animal impressions.
9. Rehearse the pieces you plan to read. Practise aloud, again and again and again. You don’t have to know it by heart, but it really does help to know what’s coming next, and to be aware of when the audience might laugh, sigh, gasp, need to digest, etc. A technique I use is to mark the text where I’ll need to take a vital breath, and where it might be easy to stumble or emphasise the wrong word – it can be a lifesaver! And if you go wrong, if you trip up or make a mistake, so what? Smile briefly, say sorry if you must, forgive yourself instantly, and continue. Nobody will mind, or remember afterwards.
10. And go in with a positive attitude, telling yourself you’re going to enjoy your time in the spotlight. Your pleasure will transmit. You will never again have a first book, so make the most of it.
Break a leg!
THOUGHT IT WAS OVER, BUT IT’S NOT
Or, The Morning After the Just-Been-Published Party
Euphoria! Made it! Found the one person on the planet who thinks my book is brilliant, and is prepared to put out good money to publish and market it! At last, at last, after all those dogged submissions and polite rejections, the partial rewrite and the constant patch-up job on the self-belief, it’s happened. My book is in print (all one and a half pounds avoirdupois of it) and on Kindle, soon to be on all the other e-readers too.
A tough couple of years. No one will grudge me a breather to look around and wave to all the cheering fans, surely?
No, not at all, because no one’s noticed. There are no cheering fans. And although friends and family are supportive and full of congratulation, a fair proportion of them are simply too busy to read the book right now. And those organisations and publications I was certain would instantly show interest in reviewing it have simply ignored the press releases. Yes, there was a big splash in the local paper, but I can still go into Asda without being recognised. Handy in a way, I suppose, since I assumed that from then on I’d have to put make-up on every time I went out!
All this sounds pathetically vain, but I never contemplated publication with an I’m gonna live forever! attitude; I always thought I was quite a modest sort, as authors go. But… let me tell you something about the aspiration curve. Once upon a time, I truly thought it would be enough to get published; sell maybe fifty copies to readers who didn’t actually know me. Yes, that’ll be vindication enough, said I. But once the book is out there, a mysterious burgeoning of ambition takes place. You want your book to do well. As well as possible. As well as beyond possible. And it still isn’t about the money; anyone with a rudimentary grasp of maths can guage that writing books which are largely sold in e-format pays one of the worst hourly rates in the world.
So this was my big mistake. The process of getting to the stage of holding my beautiful shiny newborn was immensely tough, and the focus on this goal incredibly intense. So standing out from the crowd after publication must surely be the easy bit. Especially as the book’s storyline was unusual, and didn’t follow a generic formula. (Did I stop to wonder why millions of dollars were considered well-spent on Deathly-pale Teen Vampire-nibbled Nymphos VII ? No!) And who knew there were so many books out there? Writing a novel is such a stupendous achievement that writing one and then finding that most people on the planet have also just written a book (and are jostling elbow-to-elbow to sell it, usually more aggressively than oneself) comes as somewhat of an anti-climax.
However, time to swing the positives. The new status of author demands new attitudes, new study, new skill-sets. And new humility. The starting-point of most debut authors is at zero, or pretty near; I am fortunate in having a publisher in paddysdaddypublishing.com whose main man Mark Wilson is very marketing-savvy, and who got the reviews ball rolling nicely for me with his own contacts and insider knowledge. I thoroughly recommend his blog: “Are Indie-Authors becoming the Whores of Social Media?” which has great marketing advice, not just for independents. Another good source is a blog called “Are You an Author or an Authorpreneur?”, by Kristen Eckstein on a site called Future of Ink. This sets out in no uncertain terms the difference between the way things used to be done in the old days (i.e. not that many years ago), and the new realities. At the 2011 Edinburgh Book Festival, I went to a talk which counselled the newly-published not to forget to thank their hardworking publicist. Chance would be a fine thing, I (unpublished, yearning) thought. And still do, but now knowing that the well-staffed publishing house is an endangered species, and travelling along a different planetary orbit from most of us. But Eckstein points out that although the author is no longer looked after by agents and publishers in the same cosy way as in days gone by, a bit of personal proactivity by the author is actually bracing and beneficial. Action always scores over inaction – who the hell enjoys sitting and waiting for phone calls?
And now, as Mark says, it’s the long game. When it comes down to it, it’s surprising to find just how many people you know, and whom you can politely ask if they would kindly read and review your book. Some will. Social media is essential, but must be used prudently (see Mark’s sound advice). I have found online forums good, too; they’ll often welcome a guest blog. It’s all about networking. Attending literary events (and getting to read if possible) has limited effect on sales short-term, but can increase your recogniseability factor. “Building a brand” sounds like the worst type of corporate-speak, but we are authorpreneurs now, and need to be loud in shouting our blandishments to lure passers-by to our stall.
So it may not be about Fame! and going to live forever. But it sure as hell is about Remember my name…
A PLAGUE UPON ALL YOUR GENRES! Standing up in that large gathering of women, when the nice lady from BSB had been assuring aspiring writers that their editors were happy to provide feedback and advice with their rejections, and hearing myself saying, sorry, but you didn’t give me any… was hard. “Oh. What’s your name?” (Gulp) “Suzanne Egerton.” “Erm… oh yes, I remember. I’m afraid it… just wasn’t romance.” Dear friends, never underestimate the importance of research. I knew that romance figured large in their titles of course, but the thought that a big, nurturing company was actively seeking writers had focused my eyes on the pages of the website that spoke most eloquently to my ambitions. I never tumbled that they were a genre publisher. Duh! Many rewritten words ago, when my book was still called “My Proper Place” (ugh, but there was a good, lyric-based reason for it – though not everyone is into the Velvet Underground, granted), I spent over a year painstakingly crafting submissions to the exact requirements of agents and publishers various, logging every one and later inserting the rejection date against each. I’ve just looked in that small red notebook; twenty-four polite rejections or time-outs in all. Of these, only one very sweet Irish agent took the trouble to give me the invaluable information that, though she really did like the sample, she just wouldn’t know where or to whom to market it. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t write to a formula; it should come from the heart. But it sure helps if your story happens to fit comfortably into one of the popular genres. I was in the position of having edured a long, elephantine gestation, only to find that my baby would have to struggle through much hostile terrain before finding an environment capable of sustaining life. I always wanted “Out Late with Friends and Regrets” to be a crossover book, not a novel aimed exclusively at lesbians. But Contemporary Women’s Fiction is a vast, amorphous genre, and is heavily populated by that upmarket sub-genre, the Literary Book. Nothing against literary; I have enjoyed many literary books. But then scan the remaining available boxes, and tick them off on your fingers: Romance. Crime (God, I wish I could write crime!). Thriller. Historical. Family Saga. YA. Children’s. Sci-Fi (let’s include Specfic and Steampunk, shall we?) Fantasy. Erotica. Memoir. Biography. Autobiography. Political. Hey! Humour! Yes well, mine’s got plenty of humour, but also sorrow, difficult stuff about relationships and family, lust, food, friendship, getting drunk…you know, real stuff. And yes, the main character does discover that she’s gay, after being in an abusive heterosexual marriage from far too young an age. (No, she isn’t stupid; read up the psychology – these charismatic controlling men are typically attracted to bright girls and women, and unpick their personalities over the years until every last thread of the woman’s confidence and independence is shredded. And then there’s the complication of children…) This scenario seemed to me to offer a wealth of potential for dramatic tension: when Fiona finds herself alone and long separated from friends and family, she has the struggle of relearning social skills as well as coming to terms with her previously unsuspected sexuality. She never had the chance to learn the rules of the dating game first time around, so imagine how scary her first night out with another woman feels! Oh yes, and I’ve made her a convent-educated Catholic as well, just for good measure. Authors can be so cruel… So there they are, a hundred and eleven thousand words shuffling around in a phalanx, muttering under their combined breath and wondering which way is home – which genre will have them? My wonderful mentor, Helen Sedgwick of Wildland Editors, who read the ms and told me bluntly which parts weren’t working and had to go (twelve thousand words slain at a stroke! Never fear, they’ve been cryogenically preserved and I just may recycle them sometime in the future – writing is so planet-friendly) suggested “Coming-of-Age”. I can see how it might be a fit, but since my girl is thirty-seven when the story begins, it could be slightly misleading to those seeking teenage kicks. And the “Journey” category has been well shagged into a tattered cliché by all those X-Factor contestants. You may have seen my bio, in which case you’ll have noted that I’m a fitness instructor when I’m not writing. When you go to instructor college, the tutors teach you (amongst a heap of other stuff) to devise your own choreography and exercises. However, much of the fitness market today is occupied by multinational franchise companies, who supply music and choreo to those instructors willing to deliver classes identical to every other instructor of that class in the world. Sorry, that isn’t for me. It stifles creativity, doesn’t allow for client (or instructor!) error, and robs a class of its USP. We upstream-swimmers are known as freestyle instructors, and I guess my natural writing genre, if any, could be termed freestyle too. Despite the sexuality-unfolding storyline of “Out Late etc.” there are some important straight characters, and gay men too, amongst the lesbian and bisexual women; I have been very chuffed by the compliments I’ve received from mixed audiences of all sexes and sexualities when I’ve given readings from the book. It’s significant, I think, that when my submission finally found that special person who fell in love with the sample chapters, and who sat up most of the night to read the rest, it was a young, straight, family man; a man who decided to be a publisher because he cares more about the writing and the story than about the commerciality of the genre. I guess my book is essentially about the freedom to be yourself. Here’s to freedom.
The Next Big Thing
The Next Big Thing
Helen Sedgwick kindly tagged me to take part in The Next Big Thing, which appears to work like a champagne fountain of information about the latest book each taggee has written. Answering the questions has been a most pleasant exercise; good practice in knowing what to say in interviews!
Q: What is the working title of your next book?
A: OUT LATE WITH FRIENDS AND REGRETS
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?
A: It surprised me to read that numerous people discover their true sexual orientation late, often as late as in their thirties. I thought that if I combined this with the problems of social isolation and a personality suppressed and undermined by an abuser, my protagonist would have an interesting road to travel.
Q: What genre does your book fall under?
A: General (women’s) fiction. Probably.
Q: What actors would you choose to play the part of the characters in your book?
A: Ever since seeing her in the brilliantly surreal ‘Green Wing’, I’ve earmarked Tamsin Greig to play Fin; she has the gawky watchfulness required, underpinned by an inner strength, humour and intelligence waiting for opportunity to awake them. Ellie should be played by Josette Simon, whom I saw in my head as I wrote the character – gorgeous voice, too. I’ve just noticed that she’s in fact a bit older than Ellie, but could easily pass for forty-minus.
Q: What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A: Fiona survives an abusive marriage only to discover that she’s gay; and despite being hopelessly ill-equipped to cope is determined to embrace her new identity and rebuild her battered confidence.
Q: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A: I’m trying small indie publishers first.
Q: How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
A: Sections and scenes randomly over about four years; another 6 months once I decided to write to a target wpw.
Q: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
A: I honestly don’t know.
Q: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
A: The conviction that there are few things more precious than a second chance.
Q: What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
A: Readings from it have been extremely well received by surprisingly mixed audiences; there’s a lot of curiosity out there! The book dispels a few myths and signposts some bridges; but mainly it seeks to entertain and to engage the reader’s sympathy with the main character’s struggles.
…because that would be so, so rude. But did I at least get your attention? Yes? Good! Initial job done. Because, darlings, I’m here to save you from yourselves, and the ravages that can be wrought as a direct result of your talent.
The term “sedentary lifestyle” might have been coined for writers, right? Roll these words around your brain for a bit: hunched, black coffee, dark circles, pallid, gaunt, fags, stiff, depression, mental exhaustion, sleep deprivation, wobbly concentration, headache, bad temper, more coffee, muffins, muffin-top, occupationally-generated fat arse gluteal adipose accretion. Any stirrings of recognition?
In my other life I am a fitness instructor, besides an occasional public speaker on health and wellbeing (see ‘About’ page); and I produce a monthly newsletter on same for all my class clients. I also send it out to those email contacts who enjoy a regular gee-up about looking after themselves, and it usually includes healthy recipe, a spot of amateur life coaching and so on. As it happens, I really do care about keeping you (and everybody! See my swivelly eyes!) in good nick – menssana in corpore sano, and all that. But I do make it a rule never to grip the lapels of good folk and evangelise at close quarters unless clearly invited, so don’t worry on that score if we ever meet.
So let’s get to it, to the improving the physical side of your writing life, shall we? Are you sitting comfortably? Good place to begin. Posture, whether sitting or standing, is the basis of fitness. Think about it: if your skeleton is aligned properly, the all-important globby bits (organs etc.) will sit nicely and function better for a start. Try this. Sit with your back against the back of the chair, and put your shoulders back. Too far away from the keyboard? Pressure behind your thighs? Place a wee cushion to support your back, and experiment with a low riser (box, dictionary, etc.) under your feet. Now where’s the screen in relation to your eyeline? Eyes level with the top of the screen is usually recommended. If your chair is uncomfortable, change it, stick a pillow on the seat, whatever it takes.
Mslexia magazine recently did a survey on what writers wear when they write, which may have been a lighthearted exercise (options ranged from “My special writing outfit, of course” to “Nothing!”), but it’s worth a word or two. You may feel most ‘in the zone’ in your skinny jeans and slash top, especially if you are a YA author; but honestly, I’d go for comfort if I were you, whether that’s druidic robes or well-kneed joggers appliqueed with baby mush. Sitting for hours with a tight waistband cutting into waist or abdomen isn’t my idea of writing fun, and it can badly affect productivity.
Finally: move! You need your blood supply to be carrying nourishing oxygen to your brain – keep that circulation lively! If it’s going to be a long session, try long-haul style foot-rocking, shoulder-shrugging, knee-lifts etc. every so often. Better still, put a kitchen timer on your desk, set for every forty minutes or hour, and interval the typing with a minute or more of activity, using as many muscles as possible – I recommend dancing (bad dancing is particularly enjoyable, I find). A more sedate walk around, with a few tiptoe stretches, hip circles, etc. might suit some of you better. And especially if you write full time, do try to get out into the fresh air for a brisk walk every day, whatever the weather. Even a few minutes can help to solve plot knots and freshen ideas. Bonus: exposure of your skin to daylight (whether it’s overcast or not) can improve your intake of Vitamin D, which is vital for bone health and joint and brain function.
There is a school of thought very prevalent in the writing community, that an unhealthy lifestyle somehow has an intrinsic artistic merit. Yeah, right! I’d definitely rather be too cool for that school!