Welcome to the world, Andrea Michael

Okay, so technically those were probably the words my mother would have used 30 years ago if we were in an American lifetime movie, rather than the start to a blog.

However, I’ve been writing books for the last 6 years or so as A L Michael. During that time I’ve written literary fiction (Wine Dark, Sea Blue) and romantic comedies (the Ruby Tuesday series, the Martini Club series) and now it’s time for something new.

My forthcoming books are a little more emotional than my previous ones, with the focus on relationships, but not necessarily romantic ones.

I’ll be updating this blog with book news, reviews, tips and tricks for writing, and news of any new writing for wellbeing events. Stay tuned friends, and don’t forget to sign up to the newsletter!

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?

The death of the author in a world of influencers

Do you remember the days, before Twitter, Instagram, or even the internet, when the only thing you knew about your favourite author was the list of books they wrote and whatever they had written on the bio inside the book cover?

I didn’t know anything about my favourite authors except how their voices sounded on the page, and that I could trust them with my utter voracity. If they published something, I would buy it and love it and buy the next one and the next.

Perhaps I knew if they were English or American, or those tidbits you immediately forget, like if they lived with a husband, wife, kids, pets. I didn’t know their political leanings, how many selfies they took on a daily basis and what their views on the Great British Bake Off were.

Books used to stand by themselves, existing solely alone, rather than attached to the author. The author name was more of a tag to identify what kind of book it would be, the same way a distinctive cover would do.

Authors now are meant to be building a brand, be online to interact with their readers, to let them know what they’re working on, when the next book is out. Reviewing other books, sharing thoughts, being involved in conversation…engaging.

It’s such a different world now.

I like being online and sharing my thoughts, most of the time. But on the other hand, the internet is a loud, loud place full of angry thoughts and people selling stuff, and shouting and hatefulness and disagreements just for the sake of it. We’ve become accustomed to sharing every single thought we have. And the more I do that, the fewer I have to put in my books.

It’s perhaps different with those authors we studied at school, from a different time and era. Or authors with very interesting lives.

But I don’t have an interesting life. I have an incredibly ordinary, pleasant life. I save the interesting things I think about or notice for my books.

I sometimes miss knowing nothing more about my favourite authors than the fact that I could trust them. That I loved them solely for their books. That I didn’t know what they looked like, how they felt about things or how they spent their days. It was something close to God, I think. Trusting in someone invisible that you somehow felt you knew.

So, what do you think? Do you follow your favourite authors online? Does seeing their normality make you feel closer to them? Do you need to know anything about an author to care about the book?

Toxic relationships in fiction: what’s going on?

Toxic relationship stories are having a bit of a moment, and whether it’s realising that your partner is a gaslighting piece of shit, or coming to terms with life after a controlling ex, the stories to be told are varied and powerful.

The main books I’ve read that have covered this of late can often be dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘chick lit’, neither of which are good enough terms to show the depth and sensitivity they exude when dealing with a really delicate situation.

Toxic relationships can come in all forms (and not just romantic) and there can be relationships so toxic that you’re both bad for each other. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the ones that can be qualified as abusive. Where one party wants to control the other. It’s done so subtly in some ways you’d barely notice it – from calling you ‘crazy’ when you show any emotion, to flying off the handle unexpectedly, to punishing you with the silent treatment.

Relationships with a ‘bad ex’ aren’t just about being cheated on or finding yourself unappreciated – they’re experiences that need time and space to heal from. To undo the damage, figure out what’s real and unlearn all those strange behaviours.

In most of the books I’ve read that cover this area, the friends have struggled to deal with the emotionally abusive ex, either stating their dislike outwardly, encouraging her (yes, it’s usually a ‘her’, that’s not to say it always is) to leave him, or waiting around until she finally does (and realising it might take a few tries).

I always really feel for the friends in that situation, because you don’t want to leave your friend isolated, enthralled by someone who is bad to them, but you also can’t get through. You just have to wait.

Some brilliant books that dealt with abusive or toxic exes that I’ve read in the last year included ‘Don’t you forget about me’ by Mhairi Mcfarlane, ‘The Flat Share by Beth O’Leary, ‘How do you like me now?’ by Hollie Bourne and ‘Our Stop’ by Laura Jane Williams.

In my upcoming novel, ‘Before We Part’, there’s no doubt that Loll’s husband Darren is a nasty piece of work (although he’s always capable of sinking lower in people’s estimation – arsehole that he is). He’s never explicitly abusive, and to many readers I’m sure he’ll just look like your standard ex – pretty shit.

What makes the relationship more complex is how Loll feels about it – how she’d built her life around someone else’s opinion of her without even noticing. How she’d forgotten to be herself, because it was easier to be someone who made him happy. When someone chips away at us, day after day, when they identify the things that are ‘wrong’ with us, until we start to believe we really were irrational, or unfair or overreacting…it’s hard to claw your way back to ‘normal’. It’s hard to even see what that is anymore.

My story is not about Darren, and actually, what I love is that he has screwed over two women and neither of them let their story be about him. Because it’s about them – their friendship, their love, their growth, their history. Their adventures. And that takes guts.

So, tell me: have you read a book with a toxic relationship? Have you read a romance where you thought it seemed unhealthy? Have you read any of the wonderful books I’ve listed above, and what did you think?

Satisfying female narratives: do women get what they deserve?

I was having a think about the end of Game of Thrones (again). Now, wherever you stand on the final few episodes of one of the most popular television shows in recent years, I think we can all agree that endings matter.

I’m not sure anything is capable of evoking such disappointment or elation as an ending. And when it comes to Game of Thrones, I just kept thinking about the three main female characters (beware, *spoilers* ahead):

Dani’s ending was the most disappointing for most, mainly because her descent into madness was so far from the place she’d come from, as a kind, caring and balanced leader, focused on freedom from oppression and good lives for her people. She started to believe in her own destiny, her ego overtook her mission. It made sense, it just suddenly all happened very quickly at the end.

Cersei’s storyline, whilst she could be a nasty piece of work, was always motivated by love of her children above all else. She was the quintessential helicopter mother – her children were the priority. They deserved the kingdom, they deserved control, they deserved the best. It was that cut-throat determination that was her downfall. Her ending was probably the one I had the biggest issue with, because they’d tried to humanise her before her ending. She didn’t get what she deserved. She’d always been strong, unyielding and despicable to get what she needed, to survive. Her ending didn’t reflect that.

But Sansa, there was the ending that saved the show for me. A woman who had grown from a selfish young girl who expected nothing beyond being cared for and looking pretty, to a leader who put her people first at every turn. Sansa was for the North, above all. Not ego, not personal gain, but power enough to give her people a voice and a seat at the table.

I was reading about the idea in fiction that women who have dealt with abuse become fighters because of what they’ve dealt with. On the outside, that looks like a sensible argument. After all, when we’ve had to fight to overcome trauma, that strength can push you forward.

But that gives the power to the trauma, or the abuser, not the person. And something about that feels uneasy.

We are all made of what happens to us and what we make happen. We are riding waves and we sink or swim. But in the story of our lives, do we really want to give power to the worst things?

I don’t have an answer to this, I just recognised that in fiction, in order to transition, often some bad shit has to happen. From frothy, joyful romantic comedies that start with being broken up with or cheated on, through to thrillers where mistreatment, alcohol abuse or physical attack occur, women are put through the ringer. We see this as character-building, fighting from victim to hero.

In my upcoming book, Before We Part, each woman is dealing with their own trauma. Loll is dealing with the husband who left her just before Christmas, her best friend Cass is still recovering from the biggest mistake she made years before, the one that left her with her daughter, Veronica. Vee’s trauma is yet to come, losing her mother to cancer.

Are we defined by our trauma? Does how we deal with trauma say something about us? What if you don’t have grace under pressure, what if you respond to pain with cruelty or harshness? I think the best characters, like people, are imperfect.

Characters are going to have to go through awfulness to learn a lesson or grow. That’s just narrative storytelling. But like real people, we need to avoid labelling characters by the shit they’ve gone through. We have to let them grow and be and move beyond what we’ve known them as. In a series like Game of Thrones, where years and years have passed with these characters, it’s natural to put them in boxes, the same way your parent always remembers that disgusting thing you liked to eat as a child.

The important thing to me is that each character doesn’t have to be symbolic of an entire group or a whole situation. They’re just one person.

What do you think? How do you write and read female trauma? Does it ever put you off?