Writing and Travel: exploring new places in fiction

So many of us love books because they give us an opportunity to enter a new world. Whether that’s a magical, alternative world or a country you’ve always wanted to see, fiction can take us there. I’d argue, in a way that non-fiction doesn’t.

Seeing characters you know experience and explore somewhere gives us an emotional insight as well as a practical one.

One of my favourite books (if not my absolute favourite ever) is Shadows of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron. It’s set in historical Barcelona and it’s so incredibly magic, so that when you go to Barcelona, you can see it in all the mystery of the book.

Places tie us in fiction. Whether it’s a comment about Kings Cross station platforms, or the description of a seaside resort you visited once as a child, fiction can make us feel connected through recognition.

So when the time comes to write books, it makes sense to take inspiration from the places you’ve been to, and the places you dream of.

My upcoming book, The Book of Us, was a mixture of these places for me. It’s a story about two friends going on the trip they’d always meant to do after university, but had never managed because they had a falling out.

In one instance I took some wonderful memories I had of touring Australia and put my characters in a surf camp on the Gold Coast. I visited Surfaris about 10 years ago and it was magic. It was my first time travelling alone, having to make friends and spending my time saying ‘Yes’. I loved surfing and always wanted to go back to surf camp. So I sent my characters there instead.

Another place featuring in the book is Seville. I set the book there and wrote it knowing that I was due to go in February last year. I came back and made a few changes, based on what I’d learnt and added in a few images that I’d loved. I would never have guessed how much Flamenco was being performed in the streets, for example. So I added that in.

I definitely found that using real experience made it more real. Which was why I was a little concerned writing about the third place….Finland.

Mainly because I’ve never been. I’ve chased the Northern Lights (unsucessfully) in Iceland. I’ve been snowboarding in some lovely places. But I’ve always wanted to go to one of those beautiful glass igloos. So I spent time researching as if I was going on that holiday myself! I can’t say it was difficult!

What books and places do you love? Are there any places you discovered through fiction that you went on to visit?

Your writing goals for 2020

Well hello there! Happy new year!

Are you thinking this is the year you write that book? Maybe you’ve been doing that for a while already, but you’ve got new goals a’brewing?

Or maybe, like me, you’re not entirely sure what your writing goals are.

So many writing goals are based on things we have very little control over – it’s not up to you if you get published, or get an auction over offers, or get an agent. All you can do is THE WORK.

So, is 2020 the year you do the work?

Here’s some things you can do this year to make it a successful writing one:

  • Keep writing! Anything at all. Short stories, poems, lists, reviews, morning pages, drunken scrawled notes on your phone app. Whatever it is, don’t stop writing!
  • Stop comparing yourself – I know, I know. It’s hard. We all say it, none of us do it. There’s bee a lot of looking back at the last decade instead of just the last year and there are so many authors who have achieved loads! Think of it as a long game! Whether you win this year, or reach those goals in 5 or 10 year’s time – you’re still going to be writing, right? So take the wins where you find them and keep going.
  • Enjoy it! If you’re not enjoying that form of being creative, then find something else!
  • Take a risk! Whether that’s writing something outside of your comfort zone or ordinary genre, submitting to an agent or publisher, joining a writing group, making new friends…who knows where it could lead?!
  • Be polite! The writing and publishing industry is small. If you get rejected, take it with a touch of class, thank them for their time and take whatever feedback forward. Onwards and up!
  • Read! I know well enough that if you’re doubting your writing ability, reading some excellent books can really make you feel particularly rubbish. BUT, being a reader is going to make you a better writer. Never met a great writer who wasn’t a passionate reader. The more you read, the more you naturally understand story, rhythm, character and what your audience wants.

Whatever your writing goals in 2020, I wish you quiet time, inspiration, support from the people who matter and excitement at those voices in your head. And for the love of all things holy, BACK UP YOUR WORK.

Happy writing!

Andi

What is The Book of Us?

I haven’t been quiet about revealing my new book. After almost a decade spent writing novels, this is the one I’m so incredibly excited about. I’ve spent the last two years working on it, and I remember the exact moment the idea struck.

I was hoovering my flat, (shocking in itself) thinking about these two best friends who had fallen out, and how they’d send letters back and forth to each other as they tried to rebuild their friendship.

Of course, as is the way of these things, that’s not what this book looks like at all any more. But it is about female friendship and trying to rebuild something once it’s been broken, and the years have passed.

It’s so easy to take those youthful friendships for granted, cemented by routine and consistency and knowing each others’ families and histories. It becomes harder to make friends as you get older, to truly commit to people and reveal who you really are. To have the same types of friendships you had when you were younger.

So what happens when that person you loved most in the world betrays you? What if you chose the wrong side? What if you spend ten years holding a grudge but they might not be around much longer to bear it?

The Book of Us is about two friends with their complicated, loving (and sometimes toxic) friendship. How it fell apart and how they’re trying to rebuild it before time runs out. It was inspired by movies like Me Without You and Beaches, where the relationship between two friends is more important than romance. Where sometimes jealousy and love and pride can form into something painful, but you can’t quite let go.

Sometimes you need to lose your friends to grow up, but sometimes you need to find them again to remember who you were.

It’s currently available on netgalley, and the story starts just after Christmas, so it might be the right time to get into it! Let me know if you’re reading with the #thebookofus on socials!

The responsibility of the author

In my class on Writing Romantic Comedy last week, we discussed recognisable tropes, and when they were comforting and when they veered into stereotype.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a trope. Give me a ‘hate-to-love’ romantic pairing, forced to share a room with only one bed in the middle of a storm in December – I will read the heck out of that.

But what about the romantic tropes that haven’t aged well? How do we walk the line between what romance is, calling out bad behaviour and not writing ‘woke’ characters just for the sake of it?

I guess it’s about perspective.

I’ll give you two examples:

There’s this guy who is head over heels for this girl, but she doesn’t know he exists. He goes back to the coffee shop she works at a couple of times a week, just hoping to get the chance to talk to her, and even if he doesn’t, just to see her smile and laugh with her colleagues makes his day feel a little brighter. He teases her, and she always bites back with something sarcastic, he takes it as a good sign. She might not realise he’s been trying to ask her out for the last three months, but he’s hoping eventually she’ll realise.

*

There’s this guy who is head over heels for this girl, but she makes him feel like he doesn’t exist. He goes back to the coffee shop where she works every day, he’s memorised the times she starts and ends her shift, eager to get to talk to her. He waits until she’s finished work and locking up, because he wants to talk to her alone, without any of her stupid colleagues who always stop him from talking to her, or insist on taking his orders instead. She flirts with him, she smiles and nods when he makes jokes, so she must be interested. She’s said no every time he’s asked her out, but he’s just not asking the right way, clearly. When he does, he’s sure she’ll say yes.

There’s a distinct difference there, right? At least, I hope so! The first one is how I met my soon-to-be husband. The second is the start of some creepy stalker story.

The difference? Misreading signals and ignoring the word ‘no’.

With so much focus on consent and power, along with a big focus in fiction right now on emotionally abusive relationships (See: Our Stop, The Flatshare, How Do You Like Me Now?) it’s important to remember to represent a good kind of love (if that’s what your story is about). If your romance is unhealthy, it’s going to be hard to get behind. Just because your leading man is hot, doesn’t mean he’s not a creeper.

A good way to check this is to see if the same dialogue and actions could be carried out by someone you didn’t consider an attractive male lead – does it still seem dominant and appealing, or does it seem forward and creepy?

There are so many of these actions in older books, films and TV that just don’t hold up now – look at so many of John Hughes movies. Getting a girl drunk and swapping her for a different girl with some guy. Making a deal in return for a girl’s underwear. Inappropriate touching without consent.

There’s so much creepy stuff that we just kind of accepted as part of the story. Luckily, I’d say we have a much higher level of expectation for what’s acceptable in life as well as on screen, but that means your story has to keep up.

Is your male lead strong and attractive, or is he bullying and obsessive? Is he rude and teasing, or is he negging? Is your female lead giving into her own desire, or is she being manipulated?

Consider whether the kind of relationship you’re giving your main characters is one you’d want your kids to be in. If it seems like an epic romance for your character, but if your daughter bought that dude home you’d kick him five ways to Sunday, it’s not woke enough.

What do you think, do writers have a responsibility to write good romance? Are there any examples of good or bad romantic relationships that have made you pause?

Mid-list authors and the curse of invisibility

I was at a conference this week, where I happened to mention I was an author. The person I spoke to immediately asked: ‘Ah, self published?’

Dear reader, this is not the first time this has been said to me, automatically. It also takes a superhuman sort of strength not to deny this vehemently, and try to show off about your achievements as an author.

Which, of course, does nothing but make you feel worse and like you’re a fraud.

But I wanted to unpack that automatic assumption about self publishing.

There is, obviously, nothing wrong with self publishing, and the authors I know who are most financially successful, and most savvy, are self-pubbed. For those in the writing sphere, we know that self publishing is the way to excellent money for those who are smart, hard working and willing to put in all the publishing work on top of the writing work.

But that’s not what people outside the fiction circle think.

When someone’s first response is ‘Oh, you’re self published?’ what they’re really saying is, ‘Well, I haven’t heard of you.’

This is because, dear reader, mid-list authors are invisible. If you have not heard of me, I cannot exist. I cannot possibly have sold tens of thousands of books, I cannot have written multiple novels in the last ten years.

This is because the story of publishing shows us two options: the failed writer, never publishing, sitting amongst their rejection letters and unfinished manuscripts, and the successful author, being part of a six-way auction for their debut novel which goes on to sell millions.

We do not see the mid-list authors, working away year after year, releasing book after book, and doing well! Doing well! You do not need to sell millions to be an author. You do not need to be famous, or a household name. There is a whole wide world of readers out there, and you can have your corner of it.

Mid-list authors are invisible because they don’t appear in books (no, we write ourselves the fiction we want, of fame and fortune) or movies or television. Even the marginally successful authors in TV have book tours, or ridiculous advances.

This industry is a strange one, but I hope that this realisation offers hope and is comforting – there is not simply ‘bestseller’ or ‘never makes it’. There’s a whole group of authors who are selling and writing and making deals and seeing their words in other languages, and finding new readers every day. There are writers who make this their life’s work, without quitting their day job.

They are still writers. They are still doing this wonderful work. Just as there is always room for readers, there is always room for new writers. So whether you’re starting out, or have been doing this a while, whether you’re hoping for a big break or happy with your lot, whether you’re self pubbed or trad pubbed, I want to celebrate mid-list authors.

Because we may not often be seen, we’re trudging on every day, creating worlds and words, and I think there’s something incredibly beautiful about that.

Anxiety, Curiosity and Writing Fiction

I have had this feeling for a while now, that being anxious is actually part of writing. It’s both a cure and a cause.

For me, anxious thoughts start in the same way my ideas do…with ‘what if’. Sometimes those ‘what ifs’ are bad and disturbing and upsetting. What if everyone I love dies? What if I fall off my bike and the glass lense shard goes through my eyeball? What if that child wanders into the road? What if everyone hates me?

You could do it forever, terrifying possibilities splayed out like every fork in every road from here to eternity. But there are other ‘what ifs’.

What if the mother felt responsible for that baby? What if the person who died was lying? What if you discovered a secret much later? What if you couldn’t forgive?

It has been on my mind for a while now that curiosity and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, both coming from this ‘what if’ space. The unknown is anxiety inducing, the black space where our brains have to fill in the blanks. And yet, it’s also the space where brilliance arrives. Because when you start from nothing, you have somewhere to go.

I spend a lot of time writing through those anxious feelings, talking down those voices, shaking them away or outrunning them. Journal pages are the space for reality, for cold hard facts: not everyone you know hates you. It’s incredibly unlikely for A, B or C to happen. Where’s the evidence for that thought? But journals are also the space for possibility, for being the creator of your own reality. So you don’t waste it on the negative. You conjure big dreams and plans to outshine the uncertain greys.

I think anxiety has a big part to play in writing novels. If my brain wasn’t jumping to those ‘what ifs’ I never would have wondered about the girl left behind when her father was dying (Prosecco and Promises), the rockstar mother who wrote her top hit about abandoning her daughter (Cocktails and Dreams) or the girl who disappeared into one night friendships and ecstasy to escape the mundanity of London life and cultural distance (Wine Dark, Sea Blue).

I certainly wouldn’t have wondered what would have happened to two friends with an imbalanced relationship, a terrible betrayal and a final journey together before their thirtieth birthday without those anxious and curious thoughts. (That’s my new one, Before We Part).

What do you think – where do your ideas come from? Anxiety, curiosity, memories, people you know, things you’ve seen?

The unexpected complexity of a perfect romantic comedy

We all know the snobbishness the genre faces. People think romcoms are ‘frothy’, ‘easy’ and ‘all the same’. They make judgements about the readers and their intelligence levels. Even more so, those judgements apply to the writers.

But those of us who love, read and write romantic comedies know just how powerful they can be. Re-reading my favourite romantic comedy is like a comforting hug, taking me back to a different time and reminding me that happy endings exist. They evoke a sigh of contentment. They are infinitely satisfying.

At this moment in time, where politics, environmental issues and disagreements make the world a dark and stressful place, I don’t think it’s at all surprising that people are reaching for books that make them feel good. That let them escape for a few hours with likeable characters, solvable problems and personal growth. Love, as always, conquers all and everyone gets what they deserve.

What’s so wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing! But romantic comedies are so much more than that. In putting together my syllabus for my writing course this autumn in how to write romantic comedies, I was briefly stumped. There wasn’t that much to it, surely? A loveable main character, a strong storyline, a love interest that made you swoon…

But no, I realised as I tried to find a semblance of order, there was so much to it. There was building tension between the couple, and getting the pacing perfect so that readers could gallop through to the conclusion, or pace themselves like nibbling at a delicious cookie, savouring every crumb. There were the sub-genres and the tropes you expected. There are the moments and storylines you can see from a mile off, and the skilful writing that makes them enjoyable and believable. There’s the funny characters and the embarrassing moments. There’s the learning and the journey and walking a fine line between who your characters are and who your reader wants them to be.

It’s easy to write lazy and bad romantic comedies. We see enough of them as failed movies. They fall back on stereotypes without paying homage. They don’t strive to find something new or make anyone lovable. They expect you to accept what’s happening because you like the genre and that’s what you expect.

There is true skill to writing a romantic comedy that makes the characters come alive. That makes a reader feel they have full escaped and replenished whatever part of themselves needed a breather. As Stephen King says, easy reading is hard writing.

My go-to comfort reads, my ‘perfect’ romantic comedies are ‘Faking it‘ by Jennifer Crusie, ‘You don’t have to say you love me‘ by Sarra Manning and pretty much everything by Mhairi Mcfarlane (but particularly ‘Here’s looking at you‘, ‘It’s not me, it’s you‘ and ‘<a href="http://<a href="https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B01N3SW6UZ/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&linkCode=li2&tag=almi-21&linkId=4c5928b8b47c1bfec56775e26b2d4686&language=en_GB&quot; target="_blank"><img border="0" src="//ws-eu.amazon-adsystem.com/widgets/q?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=B01N3SW6UZ&Format=_SL160_&ID=AsinImage&MarketPlace=GB&ServiceVersion=20070822&WS=1&tag=almi-21&language=en_GB" ></a>""Don’t you forget about me‘).

So tell me: what are your romcom comfort reads, and what would you say to romcom critics?