Knowing when it’s time to leave the party

Making a dignified exit is such a valuable life lesson and is very important for us writers.   It’s much better to end on a high and bow out gracefully while the going is good than keep flogging that dead horse.  I was recently dismayed on reading the latest book from one of my top five authors: it was hackneyed, samey and the plot was practically identical to her last three novels; reviews showed other readers felt the same.   Surely it’s better to quit while one is ahead before your writing becomes as unappetising as that stale leftover biscuit nobody wants. Keeping writing fresh and original is a vital part of the writer’s job.

This reminds me of the brilliant and peerless Fawlty Towers.  Each of those 12 episodes is a masterpiece and the series is still revered, cited and loved today. Contrast that to ITV’s Benidorm series which, in my opinion, started off fantastically but dragged on years after it stopped being funny.  We should all aim to create a Basil Fawlty rather than a Mateo the barman.

So it is time to resign from my newspaper column.  It has been three and a half years since my first was published and my last is now on the newsstands;  I’m their longest serving columnist .  I’ve loved writing my column and hope my readers have enjoyed it too but I simply feel I’ve said all I can and it is time to move on to other projects.  I’ve discussed subjects as diverse as men in flip-flops and Lycra, adopting a rescue dog, ghosts, tattoos, commuting, homesickness and the high cost of being a wedding guest.  But now I’m leaving without fanfare and just slipping away.

Whether it is a party, relationship or job, there’s an art to knowing when to move on with your head held high.  The worst exit I ever made was on leaving a job after being headhunted.  Resignation tendered to my shocked colleagues, I swept towards the door – and my new, bright future – with all eyes on me, only to realise that as I had handed in my pass, I couldn’t actually get out of the door. The humiliation of having to turn round and ask for someone to let me out still burns to this day!

So watch this space for my new projects.  I’ve been asked to be a guest stylist on an interiors magazine, I’m ghostwriting for a dog website and I WILL stop procrastinating and finally finish that book!

Is it OK to use people you know as your characters?

IMAG0156“Am I in it?” friends and colleagues have often asked of my Work In Progress.  Is it ever OK to use someone you know as a ‘fictional’ character in your novel or short story?  Some bestselling authors auction off their characters for charity: if you are the winning bidder then a character in their next novel is named after you, or you at least get a small ‘walk-on’ part. Marian Keyes and Jojo Moyes have both done this and it’s a great idea: who wouldn’t want to star in a top ten bestseller?

But what of us mere writing mortals?  Can we use real people without getting sued?  My WIP novel is set in the legal profession so I am going to have to be doubly – if not trebly – careful that nobody in my book bears the faintest of resemblance to anyone in real life!

My answer, though, is of course you can use real people for inspiration.   Observing people is one of my great passions in life.  How we interact, our relationships, the complicated dynamics of family and friendships, our character quirks, even office politics: people just fascinate me.  In another life I perhaps would have been a social worker or a psychologist; I even have the sociology degree gathering dust.  In fact, I spent years wanting to retrain as a prison psychiatrist.  The depths of evil in the human psyche amaze me, but that’s another blog post.

The trick is not to copy wholesale but to use snippets and observations from here and there, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster to create the whole character.  Borrow a single character trait from a colleague by all means, but change their appearance, job, age and even sex.  The chances are most people won’t recognise themselves anyway but be extra vigilant that none of your fictional characters instantly bring to mind a real person – especially if the character is an evil one. When people ask if they’re in your novel or story, they always envision themselves as the romantic hero: nobody wants to appear as the vile mass murderer who skins puppies alive! Tempting as it is to take revenge on those I don’t like by casting them as the villain of the piece,  I try not to offend.

What about family?  Three years ago when I had a short story published featuring a woman at the end of her tether who stabs her evil mother-in-law to death, (Mother-in-law’s Revenge, Best, January 10 2012 issue) I had to hurry round to my in-laws to reassure them it wasn’t based on real life!  Luckily, my late mother-in-law had a great sense of humour (we joked about her not coming near me when I was wielding a potato peeler!) and I can state here with confidence she was nothing like Maggie.  Was Maggie, the mother-in-law character of my story, someone I actually knew?  No, she was a hybrid of several mother-in-laws about whom friends and colleagues lamented , with a dash of two women I once met thrown in.

For my novel which is based in the courtroom, I am thinking about little bits and pieces of the people I’ve met over the last 18 years. Like tiny glittering jewels, these characteristics will be strung on the necklace of my story to make what I hope is a dazzling whole.  Some of those I’ve encountered are wonderful, some are hideous, with just about everything in between.   Take judges, for instance. We all think of the stereotypical out-of-touch, dust and crabby old man in a wig, but in my experience many are charming, warm, friendly, compassionate and very switched on to the modern world. And maybe I’m getting older but a lot of judges are looking younger!

Another rich seam of material for characters is those who own, show or work with dogs.  Since becoming the owner of a rescue dog four years ago I have been plunged into a whole new world: groomers, vets, behaviourists, dogsitters, breeders and other dog owners.  I also volunteer at an animal shelter.  Although I maintain that dog lovers are the nicest people ever, and I have made some great friends, there are also some very unusual characters out there and it could definitely be the subject of a book!

Good luck with your characters and if you have a tricky mother-in-law, bite your tongue and stay away from the potato peeler!

 

 

 

 

The Woman Who Stole My Life (or the writer’s inspiration)

IMAG0153Inspiration for my writing can spring from the weirdest of places and as a writer, you need to constantly be asking ‘what if?’

Over Christmas I ordered a personalised iPad cover.  That’s the one on the left. Instead, the one on the right arrived  – for the wrong Rebecca.   A simple mix-up, but I was immediately intrigued (after recoiling at the unforgiveable spelling of karaoke!)  Who exactly was this Other Rebecca? It felt a bit like I’d stolen her life.  What if we were to swap lives?  Gin and fish are two things I loathe and my karaoke days died along with my job as a holiday rep.  What about the mysterious Mr Webster?  Is he a partner, a man worshipped from afar or even a dog?  Is there a story there? The Other Rebecca would doubtless hate my life too. Presumably she was sent my iPad cover in error: dogs, tea, Coronation Street, writing … (it really is as boring as it looks and she probably thought: bloody hell, at least my life isn’t as bad as hers is!) We are both creative but what brand is her creativity?  Does she knit or paint or is she just creative with the truth?

There was definitely enough material here for a short story and possibly a novel. The idea of life-swap isn’t a new one but the idea of stepping into someone else’s ready made life always fascinates.  What if I tracked Other Rebecca down?  Is she really a gin-soaked, fish-eating box set fanatic extrovert?  Would we be friends or would the hackles rise on sight?  And I do really want to know who Mr Webster is. Eventually the correct iPad case was sent but the mystery lived on in my imagination.

There are so many elements of everyday life that can light of touchpaper of a writer’s inspiration.  Overheard conversations, newspaper articles, chance meetings, something on the TV.  Life is a very rich seam to be mined.  On my dreadful commute to the Day Job I often scrutinise the weary faces of my fellow travellers and wonder about their lives, hopes, regrets and secrets.  And the Day Job itself is a great source of material, soon to be a book if I can finally make 2015 the year I turn my work in progress into a physical novel rather than a rough draft.  Watch this space!