A God in Ruins

I haven’t written a book review in a while. This is partly because I’ve been writing instead of reading, and partly because I haven’t read anything good. But I just read Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which I thought was fantastic, and I happen to be plagued by insomnia (it’s currently five in the morning and I haven’t slept all night), so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, featuring the same characters, and while it’s best to read both I think this works as a standalone novel too. It relates the life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, before, during and after the war. There are many horrific flashbacks from the war but the novel largely focuses on Teddy in his old age, trying to cope with a future he never expected to have and a family who don’t understand what he went through – particularly his awful daughter, Viola. The book is clearly very well-researched – I remain in awe of anyone with the patience to write historical fiction – and feels authoritative, monumental even, without losing its closeness to its characters.

After reading a few underwhelming books, I knew I’d enjoy A God in Ruins. I’ve loved Kate Atkinson’s writing since I read Case Histories when I was a teenager and wrote this odd essay for my A-Level English class where I compared her to Dickens, based on the fact her characters are ‘quirky’, which now seems very tenuous. I dropped off at the Jackson Brodie novels, and was pleased when she returned to writing literary fiction. I liked Life after Life, but A God in Ruins is even better. One reason I like Atkinson’s writing is that she’s so effortlessly funny; I also love it when humour is mixed with tragedy, and I love novels about the Second World War, so the book ticked all the boxes for me. One of my favourite novels is Catch-22, and since Yossarian is also a pilot in the war, I suspect there were some homages to Heller (in particular, a grisly accident involving a low-flying plane and somebody’s head) which I appreciated.

Atkinson is a master characterisation. This is a long book, which gives her space to delve deeply into the lives of both Teddy and his family members, particularly Viola and his grandson, Sunny. Teddy is one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters I’ve encountered in fiction recently – almost inhumanly patient and kind – though Atkinson also explores the moral ambiguity of what he did in the war (for example, the bombing of Hamburg). For me, the most interesting character is Viola. She is absolutely awful to her father, bundling him off to a nursing home the second she can, and yet we also see the tough time she’s had, marrying a useless hippy and drug addict who forces her and their children to live in a commune and eventually kills himself by jumping in front of a train. I wasn’t a huge fan of the commune scenes, however, which contain a lot of clichés and caricatures; Dominic and the other hippies are very two-dimensional and seem only to exist so the author can poke fun at them.

Unfortunately, I spoiled the book for myself about halfway through. I have a bad habit of flicking to the ending. I like to pretend it’s for some profound psychological reason, but I think I’m just terribly impatient. Usually I don’t mind knowing the ending, because I read for the pleasure of the writing rather than to find out what happens. It was a big mistake in this case. My main piece of advice if you’re going to read A God in Ruins is: DO NOT flick to the end. The novel has an extremely powerful and emotional twist at the end, and knowing it affected the way I read everything before and completely changed its emotional resonance. I wish I could read it again without that knowledge. Unless you’re a monster like me, the ending will probably make you weep; it’s obvious once you get there, but also very clever – much more so than the ending of Life After Life, which is the ultimate cliché of all time travel/alternative reality novels.

I’d give this book something like 4.5/5, with my only real criticism being I felt it was too long and the pace a little too slow for me at points. I felt there were some scenes which, while wonderfully written, could have been cut without the novel losing any of its overall power, for example the unnecessary epilogue. I do get the sense, however, that Atkinson wants to stay in her world with the characters she’s created for as long as possible, and I can forgive her for that – especially since, as we all know, I struggle with brevity too!

Hong Kong: dim sum, dancing water, daring heights and other delights

I know I haven’t been around for a while – sorry. You must have missed me terribly. I’ve been busy working on my book, but I’ve also been on holiday to Hong Kong with Omar (who is no longer the Ruffian, which felt too silly – therefore his identity is revealed) and a couple of other friends. Let me tell you all about it!

When we arrived in Hong Kong, we hadn’t had any sleep on the 12 hour flight and had no idea what time of day it was – but knew we were hungry. Our hotel was in Mong Kok, the hectic centre of Kowloon crowded with market stalls and street food, so that’s where we ventured out in search of dinner. I was slightly delirious and overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of Mong Kok: muggy heat, raw fish, flashing shop signs, roaring traffic, the chatter of Cantonese. We stumbled into a restaurant we’d found recommended online, which specialised in Hakka cuisine, and were reassured to see we were the only tourists there. Eating like locals, we thought – but our smugness disappeared when we attempted to navigate the menu. Going by the prices, we ordered what we thought a reasonable meal in London would cost. Mistake. An embarrassingly huge banquet was laid out in front of us: a mountain of salt-baked chicken, a cauldron of rice with chicken and prawns, a vat of bean curd, vegetables drowning in a lake of sauce… though we barely made a dent in it, it was all delicious. We’d learnt our first lesson about Hong Kong: food is both cheap and good, an impossibility in London.

The next day, still jet-lagged, we eased ourself into sightseeing by wandering around the city, soaking in the atmosphere. We began with brunch at the Tasty Congee & Noodle Wunton Shop, a very different brunch to the avocado-and-egg affairs we’re used to in London. Congee is a kind of rice porridge or gruel which sounds disgusting, but is actually delicious. Accompanied by noodles and wantons in broth, it fuelled us for a day of exploration. We took the Mid-Levels Escalator – a bit like a normal escalator, but half a mile more fun – up to the Mid-Levels, which I can only describe as Hong Kong’s Soho, a trendy area full of international cuisine and hip coffee shops. Here we stumbled upon the Man Mo temple, the oldest in Hong Kong, built in 1848 to honour the god of War and the god of Literature (so of course I had to step inside). Dark and smoky, with giant incense coils burning slowly overhead, it was a peaceful oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. Afterwards, we walked around Victoria Park and the surrounding shopping malls, where I was introduced to Gudetama, an inexplicable children’s character whose tortured expression seems to represent a prolonged cry of existential angst and suffering.

‘Please, someone have mercy…’

To cheer ourselves up we had a drink on a rooftop bar (there are many in Hong Kong) and Japanese pork cutlets. We scrubbed up in our hotel before hitting the tallest bar in the world: Ozone, on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the International Commerce centre. This building makes the Shard look diminutive, although it’s only about tenth in the ranking. The bar is so high that the view wasn’t that good, since we were literally in the middle of a cloud, but if you go on a clear night the views will be spectacular. Cocktails are about £18 each, which is similar to any London bar with an inferior view, and they’re good – the kind that don’t give you a headache the next morning.

Having grown accustomed to the life of luxury, we kicked off our next day with lunch in a Michelin star restaurant: Tim Ho Wan, which is sadly no longer the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, having been beaten by some place in Singapore. My friend’s Cantonese parents ordered for us, meaning we could sit back and be presented with an array of wonderful dim sum. The steamed and baked pork buns were a highlight, and we also tried some more unusual dishes like water chestnut jelly and a sweet steamed egg cake. After this we hiked the Dragon’s Back trail, a coastal walk across the bumpy hilltops (hence a dragon’s back), which wouldn’t have been so strenuous had it not been for the 28 degree heat. Although drenched in sweat, we savoured the beautiful stretches of deep blue island-studded sea and cloudless sky, and especially the occasional ruffle of sea breeze. You can end the hike at Big Wave Bay and take a dip in the sea, but we got the bus back into town and opted for food instead: milk tea and thick slices of toast slathered in peanut butter and condensed milk, which I felt was well-deserved.

The view from the Dragon’s Back hike

This was a busy day: next we headed up to the Peak to take in the view of Hong Kong’s skyline whilst the sun set and the skyscrapers lit up. It was heaving on the viewing platform, and we had to do some aggressive elbow-jostling to get a good spot, but it was worth it; the views of the glittering bay really are spectacular. Finally, we saw the skyline from a different angle by sitting on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and watching the laser light show, A Symphony of Lights, which takes place at 8pm every day. I’ll admit we found this a bit of an anticlimax, but still worth seeing if you’re in the area. To finish off the day, we went to the Garden of Stars (usually the Avenue of Stars, but it’s being refurbished) to visit the Bruce Lee statue and join the queue to do bad imitations of his pose, like the typical unimaginative tourists that we were.

The next day Omar forced me to eat a McDonald’s breakfast, which is apparently much better than McDonald’s in the UK (I will not admit to secretly enjoying the trashiness). We then took the cable cars at Tung Chung to see the Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery in the hills. The cable car is expensive but necessary unless you walk, which you don’t want to do if you value your legs. (Interesting side note: we were in the cable car with a horrified Japanese businessman watching his stocks plummet as Trump’s victory was revealed.) The monastery isn’t as peaceful as it should be due to all the tourists, but the enormous bronze Buddha statue, although built in 1993, has a quality of age-old wisdom and stillness that is awe-inspiring. We also had vegetarian meal in the monastery, which since I’m normally pescatarian I really valued, since it’s hard to come by a good vegetarian meal in Hong Kong. From there, we were going to get a bus to Tai O village – a glimpse of a more traditional world of stilt houses and fishermen – but sadly ran out of time.

The mesmerising view of Hong Kong’s skyline from the Peak

Instead of a proper dinner, we decided to hit the street food stalls of Mong Kok and eat on our feet as we browsed the stalls of the Ladies’ Market, where you can buy a variety of knock-off designer goods and souvenirs. I also enjoyed walking down the streets selling pets (I had to be dragged away from the kittens in the shop windows) and the Goldfish Market where the shops have bags of live fish hanging outside. This area felt very different to the polished and more Westernised world of the malls full of designer brands and expensive restaurants, and I preferred it for that.

The next day, armed with our passports, we took the ferry to Macau. Like Hong Kong, it’s part of China but an autonomous territory, but it feels very different to Hong Kong; it was a Portuguese colony for many years, creating a unique fusion of Portuguese and Chinese culture. It’s also known for being the ‘Vegas of China’ and contains several massive super casinos. While it was an interesting experience, Macau wasn’t for us. We enjoyed strolling around the old town, looking at the crumbling Portuguese buildings and sampling the local specialities (including the custard tart), but casinos were pandemonium and we found their grandiosity and extravagance rather evil. The highlights were our Portuguese dinner – the African chicken is a must-try dish – and the House of Dancing Water show, a water-based circus show featuring divers, gymnasts and (bizarrely) motorbikes. If you’re going to Macau, you should book a show or a nice dinner, otherwise you might not feel it’s worth the journey.

Our last full day began with a visit to the Hong Kong Museum of History, which covers prehistory through Hong Hong’s time as British colony, the Opium Wars and Japanese Occupation during the Second World War, up to the present. The lesson I took away is that Hong Kong has been through some bad times, but the residents always seem to just get on with things. We then had another Michelin star dim sum experience at Din Tau Lung, a Taiwanese restaurant in a shopping mall (the food in Hong Kong malls is very different to the sorry fast food offerings we get in the UK). This was followed by my favourite activity of the week: cycling in the New Territories, Hong Kong’s suburbia. We wanted a more local experience, so hired bikes and cycled the paths that run for miles alongside the waterfront, until the skyscrapers became hills and smaller blocks of residential flats. After about three hours, by which point we were ravenous, we ended up at a local barbecue restaurant. You pay for a table outside with your own barbecue, then choose from unlimited skewers of meat and stuff yourself with as much meat (and garlic bread, vegetables, barbecued bananas and pineapple) as you possibly can. We talked, laughed and drank beer, and it felt like a chilled evening in the summertime; a fitting grand finale to our week of extravagant  and unashamed consumption.

A traditional Cantonese barbecue – all the meat you can eat!

The next day we just about had time to zoom around the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Lian garden. It’s a traditional Buddhist temple surrounded by a peaceful garden containing lily ponds and an elaborate red-and-gold pagoda, which felt more like the temples I remember seeing in mainland China or in Japan. The contrast of the elegant wooden architecture of the temple with the skyscrapers rising in the background summed up Hong Kong for me. I wished we’d had more time to relax in the gardens, but since we had a flight to catch we had to do power laps; I’d allow yourself a couple of hours to stroll around the complex instead of the 45 minutes we gave ourselves.

One more allegedly superior McDonald’s chicken burger in the airport and we were heading home. 12 hours is a long flight to endure for a week-long holiday (particularly when you’re sandwiched between two grumpy strangers) but I think Hong Kong is worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves food, which I hope is everyone, or for anyone making a first trip to Asia, since it’s fairly small, easy to navigate and has some home comforts, but you can also have a very local experience if you want to – and there’s plenty to do, as the length of this post would suggest!

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.