The horrors of public speaking. Or not.

I recently graduated from my Faber Writing a Novel course (did I mention I was doing a course?). The graduation day was mainly a celebration of the things we’d achieved over the six months and I was looking forward to it, but also approached it with trepidation. Why? Because it involved that horror of horrors: public speaking. We had to read out extracts from our novels, not just to our beaming classmates and tutors, but to a room full of literary agents. Cue sweating, shaking and the sudden onset of pubescent voice-wobbling.

Writers are often scared of public speaking, perhaps because we tend to be shy, thoughtful types. I wrote as a child because I didn’t have the confidence to express my thoughts and ideas in speech. When I put pen to paper the words flowed, but in front of an audience I’d turn red, my lips flapping uselessly around simple words, making embarrassing spoonerisms and Freudian slips. People seem surprised when I tell them this, because they think I have good elocution in conversation (read: ‘you’re posh’). Well, yes, because I’m not utterly terrified in everyday conversations (though I do become ludicrously even posher when nervous, as if doing a comedy accent.)

Nerves are nothing but self-sabotage, and yet although we all know this, so many of us struggle to tell them to get lost. A successful writer is probably going to have to speak in public fairly often – I doubt the ‘mysterious, reclusive’ writer cuts it in our world of media personalities – so I knew I had to overcome my stage fright.

In the hours before before my Faber reading, I started to worry, but I wasn’t worrying about the reading itself: I was worried about the fact I wasn’t worried. Why not? What was wrong with me? I worried that if I didn’t worry beforehand, worry would rugby-tackle me the moment I stood at the podium – ‘Thought you got away with it, didn’t you?!’ – and as I blathered barely coherent English I’d wish I’d practised my piece 700 more times.

Except that worry never showed up. The reading was fine; enjoyable, even. I’m not sure what changed me, but I put it down to a few reasons.

Firstly, growing confidence. I’m bad at many things – using tin openers, for example – but I’m confident I can write well, and don’t believe I’m being arrogant when I say that. Trusting my writing would speak for itself took the pressure off me speaking for it. All I had to do was make my voice loud enough to be heard. I‘ve also come to realise the value of my own writing; I have something other people want and enjoy. The agents didn’t turn up to do us all a favour, or because they were bored and wanted something to do. They’re all already incredibly busy, but they took time out of their days because they wanted to look for new talent among us. That talent could be me.

Secondly, practice. As an editor, my day job doesn’t involve public speaking, but it does involve presenting book projects to our publishing board. That means putting together a convincing presentation and not bungling it when I read it out to a room full of people who decide whether my book sinks or swims. There’s a level of personal investment, although admittedly it’s not the same as reading my own prose, which feels rather like doing an intellectual strip show. The first time I did a book presentation, I was timid, hesitant, dithering. Now I go in and say: here’s my book. I think it’s great. Do you? And they always do. I don’t think practice makes perfect, because perfect isn’t a thing human beings can achieve, but practice makes much, much better.

Thirdly, this TED talk. I found it a few days before my reading when I was listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast. One of the presenters, Deborah Frances White, mentioned how she never directs anyone to her TED talk because she hates her haircut (and feels guilty about this because she’s a feminist and shouldn’t care about her hair). Hair aside, I thought it was a great talk. I love it when she talks about how,when you’re speaking, you shouldn’t worry about how your audience perceive you: you should focus on what you have to say that will change their worlds. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go, ‘Er, guys, is it, um, OK if I tell you about this dream thingy I had, maybe? *cough*’ He said, ‘I have a dream,’ and people listened. Obviously you don’t have to believe you’re Martin Luther King Jr. – you’d be deluded if you did – but you have to believe that you’ve got something worth saying, or you won’t be able to convince anyone else.

I’m just going to say it: I think my novel is worth reading.

Or it will be, once I’ve finished it.

Finally, the room was full of supportive friends. I know I’ve said this ten times before, but as soon as you realise other writers aren’t out to get you, and that they want you to succeed, everything becomes so much easier. I focused on them. Surround yourself with people who love the same things as you do and all will be well.

On Being Finished

The first draft of my novel is done! Finishing was, I’ll admit, a little underwhelming; I expected to write my final line to the triumphant blare of trumpets, but instead it was more like a deflating party blower. That’s not to say I don’t feel happy and relieved, but I recognise this first draft is just the beginning of a long process. There’s a lot more to be done before I can say the novel is ready to inflict upon unsuspecting friends, fellow writers and literary agents.

My writing course changed my understanding of what a first draft is. I used to think a first draft had to be polished. For previous novels, every time I finished a chapter I would go through it three or four times and edit it until I thought it was ‘perfect’. Then, when I got to the end, I’d read through a couple of times, make some overall changes and correct typos, and ta-da! The novel was supposedly complete – except that it felt like a series of disjointed chapters with a stilted narrative, uneven structure and poorly developed characters. I’m not surprised my last novel didn’t go anywhere.

This first draft is very, very different to those previous ones. It is rough, by which I mean word vomit, and most chapters I didn’t even read through after completing them. No going back is my new rule. For some people, a sketch of the novel’s scenes on a single sheet of paper, without a word of prose being written, constitutes a draft. Others might write some prose but leave lots of gaps (‘They have an argument’, ‘Insert philosophical musings here’, ‘Note to self – make this scene better’). I’ve written out my scenes properly, but it’s far from my best writing. Reading back parts of it makes me cringe, but it’s fine. The writing itself isn’t going to be my primary focus until draft three or four. First, I’m going to look at the structure, plot and characterisation – then, once those aspects feel watertight, I’ll start perfecting the prose.

For now, though, I’m going to take a break. I’m an impatient person, and in the past I’ve leapt into editing straight after finishing, but I’ve realised it’s important not to do that. You need to take a break of at least a few weeks so you can go back to the novel with fresh eyes. So, I’m giving myself a month off. I can’t wait. For the past year, 6am starts have been the norm, no matter how little sleep I get, and any free evening is automatically dedicated to writing. For a month I’ll be free to do anything I want with my time, although I feel slightly bewildered: what do people do with spare time?

Here are the things I want to do while I’m taking my writing break:

  1. GET SOME SLEEP. Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
  2. Hit the gym, hard. Over the past few months I’ve been convincing myself that I need extra food to fuel my creativity. Also, cake makes writing that difficult scene so much more bearable. I think it’s time to make amends for that – plus I’ll need another means of releasing all that pent-up energy.
  3. Cook and eat proper meals. Cooking takes up precious writing time. I’ve been eating meals involving the least effort possible – so much spinach and ricotta tortellini the sight of it makes me queasy now – but I’m looking forward to lingering over a risotto, or slow cooking a stew on a Sunday and then eating it sitting at a proper table instead of at my desk, stuffing food into my mouth with one hand and typing with the other.
  4. Emerge from my cave and socialise. Sorry, friends, but there may have been times when I said I wasn’t free to hang out because I’d planned to write that night. It wasn’t a lie – I still count a writing night as being busy – but not everyone understands. Now I’ll have to use some other excuse to get out of social occasions (joke: now I will gladly attend any social events I’m invited to, during which I’ll constantly say, ‘Oh, did you know I’m writing a novel?’ until I stop getting invited to things altogether).
  5. Read more. I used to read about fifty books a year; now it’s half that. I mostly blame having a job (grr, necessity), but it’s also because I spend far more time writing these days, which is slightly ironic, because I believe that to be a better writer you should read constantly. I’m going to cram as many books as possible into my brain over the next few weeks – I’ve got to get some inspiration for novel number two, after all – and perhaps write a few book reviews for this blog too.
  6. Just relax, for goodness’ sake. I’m not very good at relaxing; paradoxically, it stresses me out, because it feels like wasting time when I could be doing something productive. I need to train myself to be content just doing nothing. I attend a yoga class weekly, and important part of that is being able to lie there in stillness and silence, not thinking or worrying about anything, which really does make me feel less anxious; I’d like to transfer that into my everyday life. There’s nothing wrong with watching a crappy show on Netflix, or reading random articles I find on Twitter, or just staring out of the window like a cat. Cats have got it all sorted when it comes to stress-free living.

All of the above notwithstanding, I’m going to have to do some writing. It makes me happy and keeps me sane. Even though I only finished yesterday, I’m already feeling the urge to write something, which is probably why I’m writing this blog post. I suspect it’s like when you finish eating a massive three-course meal and declare you’re not going to eat again for a week, then wake up the next morning with your stomach rumbling. Just like starving yourself for a week is a bad idea, it wouldn’t be healthy for me to not write at all for a month, would it?

Pen friends united


This is me and my pen friend, meeting for the first time.

Everyone who met Rachel when she was in London thought this was a cool story, so I thought I’d share it with the world.

I don’t know if pen friends are still a thing, since I doubt many people write letters anymore, but it was certainly a thing when Rachel and I first met online twelve years ago. Yes, twelve years. This was back in the day when you had to ask your parents for permission to use the Internet (with a capital I) in case they wanted to use the phone, and then sit listening to the dial-up tone (which will be forever embedded in my mind: beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep… drrrrRRRRRRRR). Rachel and I met on a children’s game site which shall not be named because it’s too embarrassing. This website allowed you to create clubs of users with similar interests, so I created one for artists and writers. Rachel joined and we hit it off. We chatted first on the website forum, then on MSN Messenger (du-du-DUM! ~*~!Emma!~*~: lol brb!), then via email, then we wrote letters, then Facebook, then finally in person.

I don’t know whether it was actually safer to meet a person online in the early noughties, but it certainly felt that way. My parents didn’t bat an eyelid when I begged to go online to chat to my online friends. They didn’t care when I gave out our address and we started receiving letters and packages containing mysterious objects from the USA. They thought it was great that I was meeting people from around the world. If I had a daughter, would I let her do the same things now? I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable, but I also wouldn’t want her to miss out on friendships like mine and Rachel’s.

My friends made the expected jokes: ‘Are you sure she isn’t a creep? A fifty-two-year-old truck driver called Buck? Yes, it’s been twelve years, and there’s a Facebook account full of photos of her, but what if Buck’s just very patient and playing the long game?’ Nonetheless, I was fully confident Rachel was legitimate (and vice versa, I hope!); in fact, after all those years of letters and emails, I felt I knew her better than friends in England I’d only known for a year or two. When she said she was coming to London as part of her grand tour of the art galleries and museums of Europe, I obviously jumped at the chance to show her around the best city in the world.

More of a worry was that we wouldn’t ‘click’ in person like we had online. What if we ran out of things to say and it was horrendously awkward? What if she didn’t like London? What if she didn’t like my house, my friends, my life? What if she didn’t drink tea?! But I wasn’t too worried. When you’ve sustained a friendship over such a long distance for such a long time, it’s a testament to the fact you’ve got a lot of stuff in common. Rachel wanted to come to London to see art and to experience my life; she didn’t want to visit Madam Tussaud’s or the London Dungeons, or take selfies in front of red telephone boxes, or make me say words in my funny accent like those American girls in Love Actually. That alone made me confident that we were going to be good friends.

My confidence turned out to be correct: neither of us were truck drivers or socially awkward, we got on wonderfully, and we had a fantastic four days hanging out together in London. We went to the Tate Modern, the Tate Britain, the National Gallery, the British Museum and the V&A; we strolled along the Thames and took in the view; we went for afternoon tea in the Wolseley and ate lunch in Borough Market; we visited Westminster Abbey and took part in the Evensong service, which I’ve never done before. For me, it was a chance to rediscover the city I live in. I spend so many weekends locked up in my room writing, forgetting what natural light looks like, that I don’t do the things on my doorstep (or, since I live in Zone 4, 30 minutes from my doorstep… still). I live about twenty minutes from Hampstead Heath and never go there, for goodness’ sake. The same goes for Highgate Cemetery. When this novel is finished, I’ve promised myself that I’ll do all these things again, and more.

So I have Rachel to thank for much more than her excellent friendship. Our friendship restores my enthusiasm for modern life: yes, there’s a lot of rubbish on the internet, and a lot of sketchy characters, but there are also wonderful things and people and opportunities. Having a pen pal has been such a normal fixture in my life for the past twelve years that I never realised it was quaint, or twee, or unusual, or awesome. Now I’ll appreciate it more, and I’ll certainly make sure we never lose touch.

A letter from my main character.

Dear Emma,

I suppose I should say thank you for bringing me into existence. However, since you’re a megalomanic writer and not a benevolent creator, you seem to think I’m a plaything which exists only for your amusement rather than a fully realised person. I think there are a few things we need to talk about.

Let’s start with the superpowers, shall we, since that’s your Big Concept? Everyone loves superpowers, you thought. They’re totally awesome, you thought! Except that when you ask someone what superpower they’d like to have, it’s usually flying or mind-reading or the ability to conjure cheesecake out of nothing. It’s not vague and random destructiveness every time they walk into a room, ruining their own life and the lives of everyone around them. Thanks for that, pal.

Let’s also talk about the vagueness. Do you maybe fancy laying some rules down about what I can and can’t do? Because at the moment it seems like you’re just making it up for giggles. I’ve got no idea what I’m going to do next: will I cause a cataclysmic earthquake, or knock someone’s drink out of their hand? On the subject of spilled drinks, that’s happened about eleven times now. It’s getting boring. Please think of something else to fulfil your need for slapstick, because there’s a lot of perfectly good tea going to waste right now.

Also, just wondering, what exactly do I do all day? You gave me a job in a coffee shop because I needed some way to buy food and the bus ticket, except I never seem to actually be there. I’m always wandering around Hackney Wick agonising over my problems or sitting on the sofa arguing with my friends about the latest disaster we’ve caused. You clearly have a poor understanding of how a calendar works, since every other day is a Saturday and I’m out raving. What about the others? Do they have jobs? How do they afford all that booze? Only millionaires could sustain drinking habits like theirs, and yet they’re supposed to be these down-and-out losers. I don’t want to rain on your parade or anything. I enjoy not having to do my job. I’m just thinking about the practicalities, is all.

Oh, and do you want me to be grateful for giving me a love interest, because Everyone Loves a Good Love Story? Well, just to let you know, I’m not particularly enjoying it at the moment. You’ve shacked me up with some guy who has a dark and shady past you haven’t actually invented yet, and the extent of his wooing is kissing me aggressively every time he’s pissed off about something and then ignoring me for a week while I wonder what on earth is going on. Care to add more substance to that? If I’m not buying this irresistible but mutually self-destructive primal attraction thing we’ve apparently got going on, do you really think readers are going to?

Speaking of my passivity. Earlier in the book you had me do some pretty awesome things. I left home because my mother was being awful to me. I chased a guy down the street because I saw him pickpocketing my friend. I made a valiant attempt to resist being kidnapped. Since then, though, what have I actually done (other than that unspeakably awful thing I won’t mention here)? All these insane things are happening one after the other and I’m sitting there analysing them for the benefit of the reader. Hello? I’m the MAIN CHARACTER. I’d like to have some kind of impact on the plot, please, rather than witnessing a string of events which just so happen to involve me. If you don’t start giving me things to do, I’m going to start ad libbing. And trust me, you aren’t going to like what I get up to. I’ve got apparently limitless anarchy-causing superpowers. Hey, you can’t blame me…

One last thing. My mother is supposed to have had a profound impact on my life, psychologically damaging me, causing me to develop weird supernatural powers and turning me into the messed-up adult I am today, right? (I slow-clap the nuance of your armchair psychology.) Well, where has she been for the last seven chapters? Everybody loves her. She’s hilarious. Please bring her back and make her start ruining my life again (see, I’m not just being selfish – I have the greater good of your novel in mind!). And no, her occasionally sending me a scathing text message doesn’t count as a cameo appearance. That’s just lazy, Emma.

Well, I’d better get back to lying on my mattress staring at the ceiling and asking myself a string of rhetorical questions, which according to you is one of my favourite activities. If you need me for anything – like being a driver of incident, for example – I’ll be here, ready to go.

Oh, and my name. Let’s not go there for now. All I’ll say is, did you really use a random surname generator? That’s just embarrassing.

Yours sincerely,


[N.B. This is an excellent exercise for helping you delve deeper into your main character’s mind and identify some of the problems with your novel, although it’s somewhat painful, since they rarely have anything nice to say about you…]

The end of one thing, the beginning of many more.

This post is overdue, but I needed some time to recover. My heart is aching, you see, because last Tuesday was our final Faber evening. Wine was drunk. Chocolate was guzzled. Feelings were shared (maybe too many feelings). A tear or two was shed. Plans were made. Friendships were cemented.

And yet I can also remember that first day vividly: walking into Faber’s event space, extremely nervous but trying to pretend I was bursting with confidence, to be greeted by a group of strangers (and thinking, oh my goodness, these people all seem like real writers…). Where has the six months gone?

I also remember when I sat down to write an application for the Writing a Novel course. I’d never thought about doing a writing course before, but recent events had made me seriously doubt my ability as a writer. I’d finished a novel and decided to be brave and send it out to a few agents. I hadn’t really expected anything to come of it, but was still hurt when the inevitable barrage of rejections began. I had to admit that there was a small part of me that had hoped at least one of those agents might respond; that even if they didn’t like that novel (and there was plenty not to like about it, I realise now!) they might encourage me to write something else. Nobody did. It crushed my self-esteem, which was already fragile. After being an overachiever for my entire academic career, I felt substandard. I thought I was a failure.

So I didn’t think I’d even get a place on the Faber course, but I applied anyway. The Ruffian had finished the course a few months previously and had a great experience; I’d also spoken to friends working in trade publishing who said their ears pricked up when they heard a potential author had done the course. If I was turned down, I figured, I’d know I wasn’t as good a writer as I’d thought and could give up on my novelist ambitions (I was kidding myself: trying not to write would be like trying to hold my breath forever). But, to my surprise and delight and also terror, I got a place. I was going to be in Richard Skinner’s class. I was now going to have to actually write the novel I described in my application letter. The mad one about people with superpowers. Eek.

Which brings me back to that first Tuesday evening when I walked into Faber’s event space. Maybe it was just me, but I think we were all sizing one another up on that first night: who’s been published before? Who’s done a course before? Who’s already started their first draft? Quickly establishing that we were all just normal people who had cool ideas, that fell away and we became friends and fellow runners in this crazy marathon of novel writing. My classmates are people I probably wouldn’t have met in my normal walk of life, and I’ve learnt so much from their experiences and perspectives, as well as from reading (and being inspired by) their writing. More than that, I’m glad to have them as friends. We’ve been through an important stage of our lives together – we’ve followed strangers around Bloomsbury together! – and that creates a bond pretty quickly.

I learnt so much on the course that I won’t go into it; it would take up too many words. Yes, I could have learnt some of those things from a book on creative writing, but it wouldn’t have been the same. Faber gives you all of that, plus talks from industry professionals, plus an amazing support network, plus critique sessions, plus – and this is the big one for me – the confidence you need to call yourself a writer. That’s possibly the main thing that’s changed about me since I started the course: I take myself seriously now.

Richard, our tutor, treated us as serious writers from day one. We’d got onto the course, so it was a given that we were all good writers. Some of us were polished writers with a lot of experience, but who still had more to learn; others had raw talent but had never tried to write a novel before – but with enough hard work, we could all get published. There was never any, ‘if you’re lucky enough to get an agent…’ but instead, ‘don’t necessarily go with the first agent who’s interested.’ That was a huge confidence booster, as was the feedback from my classmates. The peer presentations – where you share your work with the group and discuss it for 45 minutes – were priceless. I can’t thank my classmates enough for their encouragement, enthusiasm and critiques. They, too, treated me like a serious writer, even though I was the baby of the group.

I began the course determined not to treat it as a quick route to getting published. I just wanted to finish a novel I could be truly proud of; a novel that wouldn’t be consigned to my desk drawer immediately upon completion. Although I’m only 2/3 through my rough first draft, I’m feeling good about it, although I’ve promised myself not to be disappointed if it doesn’t get published. That said, the course has showed me that getting published isn’t as impossible as I felt it was when receiving those rejection emails. The talks from authors, literary agents and editors made me realise what should have been obvious: they’re all just people. Nice, reasonable, approachable people who love books. On top of that, there isn’t a mysterious ‘X factor’ you need to be a writer. Of the previous students who have found success, the pattern isn’t that they were the ‘most talented’ in their classes – they just worked really, really hard. So I’ve been working really bloody hard. I get up at 6 most mornings. I turn down social events to write. I’m always tired, and I know I wouldn’t put up with it if I didn’t believe in my core that it’s worth it.

The formal Faber evenings may have finished, but we’re going to continue to meet up and critique one another’s work, so really, this is just the beginning of a new stage: the word count sprint. And then, who knows? I hope we all finish our novels. I hope we get them published. I hope we’ll still be talking about the Faber days when we bump into one another at literary soirees in the future. First and foremost, though – because being a writer is such a daunting thing that I can only think about it one step at a time – I hope I manage to tame this novel into submission and make it to the finish line.



I shall attempt to distract myself from certain disastrous political events of late by recounting something positive: the wonderful, relaxing and productive week I recently spent writing my novel in a cottage in Yorkshire.

For a long time I’ve wanted to do a writing retreat. Although I love adventurous holidays in far-flung locations, the busier my life gets the more I’ve been dreaming about a holiday where I do absolutely nothing but write; where I have not just the time but also the mental space to devote to my novel. There are lots of excellent-sounding writing retreats available which offer tuition, structured writing times and sometimes even meals in a beautiful location, but if you can’t afford those, you can also do it yourself. All you need is a cottage and some pretty scenery – oh, and lots of self-discipline.

I hereby introduce my trusty writing sidekick, henceforth referred to as the Ruffian. The Ruffian is writing a novel which is even better and more important than mine if you can believe it (he’ll tell me off for saying that), and also doesn’t have as much time as he’d like to write it, and so off we went together to the Yorkshire Dales. A four-and-a-half hour drive to a cottage in the middle of a field, with no Wifi and nobody but the sheep to hear us scream… It was wonderful, and nobody was murdered by the end of the five days.

Going somewhere isolated is important, as you don’t want to be surrounded by too many distractions. We had the option of going for walks – which we needed to clear our heads, get some vitamin D and also some perspective – and there were pubs to drown our sorrows in over the inadequacy of what we’d written at the end of the day, but apart from that, few distractions and a lot of peace and quiet (bleating excepted). The pouring rain forced us stay glued to our laptops. The lack of Wifi was disconcerting at first – how could I do extremely important Google ‘research’ on space disasters, which is totally relevant to my novel, OK? – but quickly became liberating. When we got to the pub, the first thing we did was ask for the Wifi password and then sit frantically checking emails and social media. Typical millennials…

My overly ambitious plan was to write 15,000 words: 5 chapters, 3,000 words each. You’ve got to go into these things with optimism. It’s intimidating to sit down in front of a blank document with nothing ahead of you but hours of writing: trudging through the icy tundra of that white page with no shelter in sight. You think you’ve forgotten not only how to tell a good story, but also the basics of the English language. But you put one foot in front of the other, one word after another, and before you know it you’ve got 1,500. The retreat showed me that my idea of my ‘muse’ is largely a myth; writing is about sheer discipline. If you force yourself to sit down and write, even if you don’t feel like it, the ideas will start to flow. Because they have to, unless you want to sit staring at a wall for four hours instead. By the end of it, I’d written about 5-6,000 extra words, which it would have taken me weeks to do normally, cramming in a few hundred words here and there between work, the gym, my choir and church and friends and life admin.

Most importantly, I tackled the doubts I had about my novel head-on, thought through its problems and tried to fill its plot holes. The Ruffian is a thoughtful chap who loves playing devil’s advocate. During our long walks I would explain my plot to him, and he would say things like, ‘But isn’t that inconsistent with X?’ or ‘Does that create enough narrative tension?’ or ‘Do you think readers will find that ending satisfying enough?’ until I wanted to push him into the nearest creek and feed his remains to the sheep (again, going to be told off). But I was grateful for it, really – it’s better for him to pick those holes in my book now than the reviewers later (if I’m lucky enough to get published). I was told on my writing course that you’ve got to shake your novel until it doesn’t rattle anymore; I did a lot of shaking in Yorkshire, and I’m not sure I could have done that alongside the franticness of my London life. 

I also gained a new appreciation for the British countryside. Admittedly, I was slipping into the generation Y mindset that it’s not a ‘real’ holiday unless it involves a long-haul flight and a backpack the size of your own body, so this was a great reminder that my own country has so many beautiful and varied landscapes, and they’re no less of an experience than Thailand or South America. I’d like to be inspired by more of them, and write in more of them.

Retreats are fantastic. Despite all the hard work, I haven’t felt that relaxed in a long time (after a week of reality, I already feel frazzled!). I hope this post might be relevant to more people than just my writing friends. Whatever the hobby you don’t have time for is, whether it’s yoga or cooking or art or music, everyone would benefit from taking some time out to nourish their talent – as nauseatingly sunshine and rainbows as that sounds. If only I could have another month out, I could get my novel done… but hey, real life calls.

Untouchable – a film that warms my stony heart…

Nothing screams ‘free time!’ like watching a film I’ve already seen, just because I can. Granted, I should probably be writing in my (near-mythical) free time – but on rare occasions I do allow myself to relax, I find few things more relaxing then revisiting a favourite film where I can shout ‘I LOVE THIS LINE!’ before it’s been spoken and annoy everyone else: like the journey to work in the morning, I can switch off my brain and go into autopilot. Except this is much more enjoyable than the journey to work.

Over the bank holiday weekend I watched one of my favourite films, Untouchable, for the umpteenth time, and loved it as much as always. It’s about a rich paraplegic, Philippe, who – fed up with the parade of bland, nicey-nicey carers employed to look after him, who are unable to put up with his eccentricity and short temper for long – hires Driss, a black immigrant freshly released from prison, who’s only applied for the job so he can keep claiming benefits. You can guess what happens next: an unlikely, heart-warming friendship develops and the two men change one another’s lives for the better. Predictable, yes; cheesy, yes. Why, then, since I hate anything that tries to obviously yank at my (extremely taut) heart-strings, do I love it so much?

I think it’s because it’s just done so well. Good dialogue is something I struggle with in my own writing, and I think the dialogue in Untouchable is perfect: sharp and hilarious but also realistic, and there’s genuine on-screen chemistry between Philippe and Driss during their quick-fire exchanges. Driss does and says whatever he wants without applying any filters. Rather than tip-toeing around Philippe like the previous carers, he treats Philippe’s disability with an irreverent humour that any other man might have found mortally offensive (‘Where do you find a paraplegic? Where you leave him.’) Fortunately, Philippe loves it. He wants to be able to laugh at himself. Both characters’ ability to find humour in dire situations is one of my favourite things about the film.

At a time of fierce debate about the value of immigrants to society – a debate which sometimes seems to forget they’re people – I also like the film’s portrayal of Driss as somebody whose life is a mess not because he’s intrinsically a lazy benefit scrounger and a criminal, but because his socioeconomic background has never afforded him the opportunity to do anything good. Then, Philippe gives him a chance, not in a patronising fairy-godmother way, but seemingly on a whim or even to irritate Driss. In turn, Driss shows Philippe how to live joyfully again. This has probably been done a thousand times before, but both men are such well-drawn characters that I see the film as being about their friendship, not about ‘themes’ – another thing I’ve learnt on my writing course. Nobody wants to read about themes. They want to read about people. There’s nothing new to say under the sun, but Untouchable demonstrates perfectly how to tell an old story in a memorable way.

Ultimately, whether in books or films, the thing that ‘gets’ me is great characters. I don’t have to like them, or even ‘relate to them’ (that old chestnut) but I have to find them fascinating. Driss and I have pretty much nothing in common, but his character is the best thing about the film. Despite having few reasons to be joyful, he is one of the best examples of living joyfully I’ve seen. He’s been in prison. He’s never really known his parents. His aunt has kicked him out of their tiny, overcrowded flat. He has no home, no job and no prospects until Philippe hires him. Later in the film he’s faced with the possibility of going back to that life, but not once is he self-pitying. He has no pride or sense of entitlement. He sings at the top of his voice in the bath, dances alone to Earth, Wind and Fire, devours Nutella from the jar and constantly cracks jokes. Is he idealised, his problems trivialised or pushed into the background? Maybe, but I see the film as being more about his attitude than his problems. He inspires me to drink in life until I’m heady the way he does. He also has an absurdly good heart – he’s a far better person than I am – which is the quality Philippe draws out of him: his ability to care for others. At the end, he sets up Philippe with the woman he’s been writing to for months. The exuberant smile on his face as he leaves them together gets me every time – a big achievement, since you all know what a heart of stone I have.

I’m not a film buff and I don’t really know how critically-acclaimed, well-respected or popular Untouchable is, but I also don’t care. It’s my go-to feel-good film, just enough to satisfy my very small appetite for cheesiness, and watching it over and over is one of the few ways I can fritter away time without feeling guilty. Plus it’s French, so it makes me look vaguely cool. Most people have probably seen this film and I’m being terribly conventional in singing its praises, but in case you haven’t seen it – do!