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27 October, 2017 / Writing

10 Things I’ve Learned About Writing

Are you burning to write a novel but just can’t get the words on the screen? There’s no miracle trick, unfortunately – but here are some things I’ve learned along the way…

The hardest thing is getting started. There are always a million things you can do instead. It’s usually more down to fear – ‘What if it’s rubbish?’ – than being stuck for ideas of what to write. Bear in mind that, when you’re starting out, it’s just a draft – and no one needs to see it but you.

In fact your first draft will probably be a real pig’s ear. Don’t worry – you can go back and wrestle it into shape later. I normally edit my own books around four times before they’re in any fit and publishable form! My first drafts are mortifying.

You don’t need a fancy writing room or a silent house. If you have a fierce desire to write, you’ll find the time and space. I wrote my first book at night when my kids were in bed. A friend used to set his alarm for 5 am and write before his children woke up. If your home is too hectic, find a cafe, or go to the library instead.

Choose subject matter that interests and excites you. There’s no point in trying to identify supposed ‘gaps in the market’ – if your heart’s not in it, it will show. Be true to yourself.

You don’t have to try to be super-literary or overly clever. If you love pacy thrillers, write one of those. Ditto rom-coms or racy pot-boilers. Write the kind of book you love to read.

Experiment until you find the most conducive environment for you. For instance, I always have music playing when I write. I can now tell when I’m running out of energy and ideas, and when that happens I walk the dog, or go for a run – for me, it’s best to get out of the house. I also find cooking a great de-stresser. I’ll make dinner and then feel revved up to do more writing later.

Don’t keep twiddling with that first paragraph. You’ll drive yourself crazy. Get it down, then press on. You can come back and fix it later.

If you’re stale, take a trip. Trains are my favourite place to write. There is literally nothing else to do but sip coffee, glance out of the window occasionally and get on with the work.

Writing is hard. It’s bloody hard! You might feel as if you’re going a bit mad. Do other things – get out, see people, talk to humans, move your body about. Then get back to it. A lot of novel writing is sheer graft, but when it’s going well, and you think, ‘Actually, this is not bad at all!’, then it’s a joyous thing to do.

Loosen up, and don’t take yourself too seriously. In other words, have fun and let yourself go a bit with your writing. When I’m stuck, or tearing my hair out over a tricky chapter, I try to remind myself: It’s only a book!

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27 August, 2017 / General

For the love of make-up

 

My make-up bag is a precious thing…

Whenever I lose it – which is often – the accompanying panic is of a similar level to when I’ve misplaced my purse or flat keys – or am having one of those horrific dreams when I’m, say, naked in Sainsbury’s baked goods aisle.

Most women I know are the same. It’s taken us years to find our favourites, and to replace it all would be nightmare in terms of time, effort and cash. When I was younger, I hopped from brand to brand, whereas now – although I’m not averse to trying something new – I’m somewhat more faithful to my favourites. Here are the beauties currently seeing me through the day. The pic, incidentally, is my daughter’s kit. I’m on a mad book deadline at the mo and my favourites are scattered all over in various bags. Note to self: organise make-up! 

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Bare Minerals Complexion Rescue BB cream – recommended by Misha McCullagh, a BM consultant who gave me lots of helpful advice when I was writing The Woman Who Met Her Match (my main character, Lorrie, works on a beauty counter in a posh department store and I needed the inside info on what that’s like). I can’t bear a caked, claggy feeling on my skin, and haven’t worn actual foundation for years. This BB cream is sheer and light and gives just enough coverage to smooth out any wear and tear.

Bare Minerals Smoothing Face foundation brush. Brush application, as demonstrated to me by Misha, was a revelation. Before that, I’d just smeared on my base with my fingers. But brushing gives more even coverage and a really brilliant, professional result. I’m a total covert.

Benefit ‘That Gal’ Brightening Face Primer. Another counter recommendation (I really am a beauty salesperson’s dream. ‘Here I am! Have ALL of my money, people!’). If I’ve been working long hours and lack sleep and fresh air, my skin starts to look ashen. This magical stuff perks it up. Often, I put a blob on my hand, with a blob of the aforementioned BB cream too, blend them with a brush and then apply – so it’s a primer and BB in one. The effect is really light and brightening.

Clinique Stay-Matte Sheer Pressed Powder. Powder can be viewed as a bit ‘nana’ but I’ve worn this for decades (not the same one, obv) and always have that trusty green compact in my bag. 

Chanel Hydrating Lip Color in Rouge Coco. I’m having a ‘red revival’ after two decades of more subtle lip shades. Weirdly, I assumed I’d passed the cut-off age for a true red, but a counter lady persuaded me otherwise. This formulation glides on, is neither too matte nor too glossy, and lasts for hours as long as it’s applied with a liner. It’s amazingly easy to wear and it cheers me hugely. 

Diorshow Proliner – a twist-up liner which is far easier to apply, in my opinion, than the liquid type that comes with a brush. It’s  like drawing with a pen and gives deep, rich colour that lasts for hours. While I feel slightly too old for the liquid flick, this little beauty works for me.

Other bits and bobs…

As for blusher, at the moment I’m using a swanky Chanel one – but only because I had a treaty gift voucher. I could just as happily use a bargainacious brand like Barry M or Boots No. 7. Ditto for pencil lip liners and eye liners – I don’t believe you need to spend a lot. And mascara-wise, I’m currently using Soap & Glory but I’m equally keen on Clinique and Benefit. I’m a bit of a brand-hopper, lash-wise.

And underneath it all? When it comes to skincare I’m currently wedded to Liz Earle’s Hot Cloth Cleanser (easily the best cleanser IMO), plus her Superskin Moisturiser and serum (called Concentrate for Night). The ladies at the John Lewis concession in Glasgow are super-helpful and I often come away with a few enticing freebies when I’ve made a purchase. Yes, it’s all a bit spendy, but these products last and last and are a joy to use every day.

Isn’t it brilliant to be a woman sometimes?

07 March, 2017 / Family, General, Parenting

Someone else’s kids being noisy? Try a little tolerance…

‘Your kids are out of control,’ the man barked. ‘It’s a disgrace!’ 

I’d taken my twin sons to an aquarium. A star attraction was the moving pavement, which took you along a tunnel through a giant tank of sharks. Actually, no – the real star attraction was the big red button that stopped the pavement moving. Of course my sons pressed it. What else would they do? They were seven years old. The button was irresistible.

An angry man marched towards us and threatened to report us to the staff. My cheeks burned and I sensed tears welling up behind my eyes. Naturally, angry man’s children were behaving beautifully, filling in the worksheets he’d probably printed out for them – they didn’t seem to have even noticed the big button.

It’s normal for kids to get up to hi-jinx in public places – and, fortunately, most people are understanding. However, we all encounter the odd individual – a member of the ‘your kids are out of control!’ brigade – who seem to believe that a child’s every move can be controlled by a parent, as if they were mini robots instead of unpredictable human beings.

How often have you heard a disapproving adult muttering, ‘Well, I blame the parents?’ Give us a break, people! We are trying our best, usually on a pitiful amount of sleep. 

It’s amazing how intolerant strangers can be when they witness a child being mischievous. Recently, I was asked to take part in a radio talk show, on which the subject was a certain cafe in Essex, whose owner had decided to ban children – ‘so they can’t spoil the experience for everyone else.’

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How terribly life-sapping, I thought, to be denied the chance to just sit and have a coffee that you hadn’t made yourself – and which, crucially, hadn’t been re-heated in the microwave five times. Some callers agreed that the no-kids ruling was rather ungenerous, and I remembered how grateful I’d be whenever I found a welcoming coffee shop, where I could sit with my young children and enjoy a hot drink and a slice of cake. Simple pleasures indeed!

However, according to the vast majority of listeners who phoned into that show, that cafe owner was quite right. ‘I don’t want to be surrounded by screaming kids!’ thundered one man. Perhaps he was the same man who barked at me for ‘letting’ my sons press the red button? As a home-based writer, I regularly take my laptop to cafes to get out of the house. In the twenty-one years I have been freelance, I have never once had my ‘experience’ ruined by rowdy children.

Oh, I know kids can be noisy and sometimes you just want a proper adult night out – but we were talking about a cafe, not a Michelin-starred restaurant. ‘The trouble is,’ the man wittered on, ‘kids are allowed to run amok these days. Mine never did that.’

Yes they did, Mister Perfect. You’ve just blotted it out.

29 December, 2016 / Drawing, everydaydrawing2017

Let’s draw!

Will my friends join me for a year of drawing?

Resolutions! I make them every year and they’re always along the same lines – run more, be more organised with work/deadlines, drink less wine, treat my body well, all that stuff… and it’s starting to feel a bit joyless and monotonous. I mean, take my iron pills. Is that the best I can do?

So I’ve been thinking about what I’d really like to achieve in 2017 – and most of it is the usual obvious stuff: work productively without tumbling into blind panic. I have two books to write: the 2nd in my Ellen Berry series as soon as humanly possible (it IS started!) and my next standalone novel by the summer. I’ll still run and do yoga, as without those things I get a bit ratty and cabin feverish. So all that’s fine. But it doesn’t feel terrible new and different. So I thought.. what would I really like to do? And the one thing is DRAW EVERY DAY.

Why? Because…

I just love it
It makes me notice ordinary things around me
It forces me to sit down and be still for a bit
I write all the time and drawing ISN’T writing (although it helps with writing!)
The only way to get better at something is to do it every day, right?
And I’d like to get MUCH better

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I pondered and pondered (I’m a terrible ponderer) about what a ‘draw every day’ project might entail, and how best to go about it.

What should I draw?
Should I use a big posh sketchbook or a smaller one for carrying around?
Should I share my stuff on Instagram and FB and, if so, how often to avoid friends getting sick of it?
What is the POINT of it?
What about all the other things I should be doing?
Should I have rules – ie, draw only from ‘real’ (ie, not imaginary and not from photos) or just do whatever?
What if I can’t keep it up?
What if it’s all crap?

I decided to just get on with it – no one’s going to complain or criticise and the only thing that matters really is doing it. Even if I don’t manage every single day, there’ll still be tons of drawings I wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Anyway, I will NOT FAIL!

Children are great at this sort of thing. Give them pens and paper and they’ll just make a picture and not care. They know there is no such thing as a bad drawing. I was like that as a kid, prolific and unselfconscious – all I really did was ride my bike, collect nerdy things like stamps, coins, fossils, gemstones and old bottles I’d dug up from the tip – and draw. At Christmas, nothing was more exciting than receiving a massive tin of coloured pencils, all razor-sharp and arranged in perfect rainbow order. And then I grew up and lost all confidence in drawing, painting, making things. Or maybe motivation. So many other things clamoured for attention – like the thrill of moving away from home and living in Dundee, then London, and working on magazines and having a family of my own. I got stuck into raising three children and writing novels, and forgot about how lovely it feels to just sit down and draw something.

Then a couple of years ago I was inspired by friends’ drawings on Facebook and tentatively shared a few things from a long-ago holiday sketchbook. Friends were amazingly kind about them which spurred me on. I started drawing again and it felt great.

So that’s that – my resolution for 2017: DRAW EVERY DAY. These are a few things I’ve drawn this week in the big run-up to 2017:

Leftover Christmas condiments
Bananas
Ben

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Let’s do this!

No rules. No worrying about the fanciness of the sketchbook or what the heck to draw – if there’s nothing but a banana sitting in front of us then let’s draw that. If there isn’t even a banana, then nip out and get some.

And let’s share and not be shy!

Fiona x #everydaydrawing2017.

09 August, 2016 / Family, General

Elizabeth is Missing

I am on holiday and loving Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing. I know I’m late to this, and that this debut novel has attracted huge praise, and I can see why. I have it in paperback at home but happened to find a well-thumbed copy on the well-stocked bookshelf in the little house we’re staying at in Deia, Majorca. 

What a book! I have shied away from reading it as the protagonist, Maud, is an elderly lady with some form of dementia – like my mum. Too upsetting, I thought, but it’s not at all, due to Healey’s wonderful writing. 

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Somehow, she manages to channel the confused and meandering thoughts of a person for whom the world is becoming an increasingly frustrating place. She injects humour and writes with such credibility about why someone with such a condition might try to piece together snippets of rational thought and logic, aided by pockets stuffed with hand-written notes. 

I’m seeing much of myself in Helen, Maud’s daughter, who is clearly at the end of her tether a lot of the time, particularly when her mother insists that her much-loved friend Elizabeth is missing, that something terrible must have happened to her, and that she herself has been burgled. My mother imagined numerous burglaries and, like Maud in the novel, visited the police station time and time again. She was insistent that silverware and her broken spectacles had been stolen. I am loathe to liken a person with dementia to a small child but I found myself trying to be patient, just as I had when one of my three children had refused to eat something I’d cooked, or to settle down to sleep at bedtime. I’d coax and cajole and, occasionally,  I’d lose it.

In Elizabeth is Missing, Maud repeatedly goes out wandering, despite being told not to – often to try to find her ‘missing’ friend – and smashes a cup in a restaurant in frustration. Mum’s insistence that people had broken in her house began to drive me to distraction. Our extremely kind GP came to her house and, together, we tried to talk to Mum about how her doors were locked at night and how on earth would anyone have broken in? 

‘They’ve been again!’ she insisted. ‘D’you think I’m a liar?’ 

‘Mum, please believe me, no one has broken in. You didn’t actually have any silver and, look, here’s the handbag you said they took.’ 

‘They broke in. I saw their faces. Why won’t you believe me?’ 

I felt my emotions bubbling up and, to my shame, kicked her waste paper basket across her living room. Bits of paper flew everywhere. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mum was terrified and burst into tears, and I did too. Who hasn’t thought, ‘I’m a terrible parent’ after shouting at a child? There’s the, ‘I am a terrible daughter’ version too – someone who yells at an elderly lady who has a clearly frightening mental illness. I hurried home and dived on a bottle of sauvignon in the fridge. 

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I am loving reading Elizabeth is Missing because Helen’s frustrations come across clearly and are utterly understandable. I’d love to report that, in the four years since Mum’s diagnosis, I have been a model of calmness and understanding – but it wouldn’t be true.

Mum’s condition is now more advanced than Maud’s. She lives in a wonderful care home and I am no longer the daughter who visits daily with meals and reminders for her to stop buying litre bottles of Irn Bru or multiple purchases of toner from the Clinque counter in John Lewis. I no longer have to deal with the crashing waves of guilt that followed any losing of the plot on my part (e.g., the waste paper basket incident).

I am so glad I picked up Elizabeth is Missing as it reminds anyone with a loved one with dementia that we are not only daughters, sons or carers, but human beings too. Yes, sometimes we lose it and behave in ways that are perhaps not ideal. But we try, we do our best at that precise moment, and that’s all we can do. 

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