Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.

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Blown-Away Man

BAM final artwork

This is my current WIP. Coming soon, hopefully in early March…

Blown-Away Man – the blurb

Brought up in a sleepy Lincolnshire village by unassuming parents, Ed Sullivan has, since the age of eleven, been on a mission to live the fullest and most successful life he can.

Now 40, creative director at a renowned London ad agency and married with two young children, life has moved on and become a little too predictable for Ed’s liking. Bored, restless and starting to doubt his achievements, he finds himself wondering what his old school friends are up to now…

It’s not long before Ed sets off to Lincolnshire to meet a group of old classmates whom he hasn’t seen in almost 25 years. But the evening turns out to be more of a distraction than he’d intended, when one of his old friends makes a revelation that turns his life upside down.

Chapter 1

Present day

Bombshell

‘I’d better get going actually,’ says Lisa Dixon, reaching for her coat.

‘Well it was nice seeing you again,’ I say.

It’s an odd feeling, making polite conversation with the person you lost your virginity to nearly a quarter of a century ago. Luckily the subject didn’t come up, although I’m sure it’s as clear in her memory as it is in mine.

‘I would stay longer,’ she mumbles, ‘But my dog was sick this morning – I don’t want to leave her on her own for too long.’

It’s a lame but solid, pre-planned excuse to make an escape from our Class of ’87 reunion. Normally I’d have had one up my sleeve too, but as I’m the one who’s organised this get-together, I feel a moral obligation not to leave before last orders – which I’m guessing is still at 10.50pm as clearly nothing else has changed in this old dive in over twenty years.

The Horse and Groom in the small town of Chelmsby is like a teleport to the 1980s. The walls are still covered in a patchwork quilt of beermats, apart from behind the bar where the framed faces of comedians such as Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and Les Dawson grin down at you alongside their once sought-after autographs. The carpet is still brown and sticky. The only noticeable difference is the absence of ashtrays and smoke – a change the landlord, Bernie (an unapologetic chain-smoker), is still smarting about.

Lisa hitches her bag strap onto her shoulder and mutters goodbye. I stand up to give her a kiss on the cheek, but she only notices as she’s squeezing past me. She stops, and turns her cheek towards my face at the wrong moment so we look like a couple of nodding pigeons engaged in a mating ritual before she extracts herself and scurries off. That leaves about nine of us, which is roughly what I’d expected. Not everyone I’d tracked down was keen on the idea of a school reunion, but overall it’s been a nice evening. Interesting. Fairly predictable. No need to organise another one any time soon, but better than another night in watching crap telly or getting Gemma’s back up by surfing the ’net for hours on end.

What was I expecting though? Nobody’s really changed that much. We all look older, thicker round the hips, a bit wrinklier and greyer – or bald in Dogboy’s case. No one’s a millionaire. No one’s famous. No one’s committed a heinous crime and gone to prison. A couple of people have come out of the closet and fled Lincolnshire for warmer and more cosmopolitan climates, and one person who couldn’t make it, Jimmy Wild from the year below, has apparently gained so much weight he now needs a mobility scooter to get from A to B. Shame, because we always said Jimmy Wild made for a great stage name, but he ended up working in management at Chelmsby pea factory and is now on long-term sick leave.

‘My round!’ Ray stands up and takes orders from everyone. ‘What about you, Golden Boy?’ He nods at me coolly. It’s the second time he’s called me Golden Boy this evening. ‘Is it me or does Sully sound like a Londoner?’

‘Well he’s been there nearly twenty-five years, Ray, so it’s not surprising, is it?’ says Anita Bennett.

‘Another pint for me ol’ mucker?’ slurs Ray, his hard stare making it quite clear I may have been his ol’ mucker once, but I’m certainly not anymore.

I tap my half-full pint glass. ‘I’m good, thanks.’

‘By the way, everyone,’ he says with a hiccup, ‘you remember that deodorant advert he won the award for? You know that were all my idea, don’t you?’

Here we go. Dogboy groans. Jenny Nicholls (who now lives in Norwich with husband number three) glances at me sympathetically.

‘It were me who started singing my aroma to My Sharona. It were me.’

‘For the millionth time, Ray, you were singing My Sharona and Sully changed the words to my aroma. I were there and I remember it like it were yesterday,’ says Dogboy.

‘But I would never have had the idea were it not for Ray describing the deodorant’s “aroma” while we were all singing along in the back of Kev’s car,’ I say diplomatically.

Ray nods. ‘I inspired you. Don’t forget it.’ He stumbles off to the bar, grumbling something about Lisa being anti-social for leaving so early.

Taking her cue from Lisa, Jenny slips her coat on and says her goodbyes. She kisses me on the cheek. ‘It’s been so nice to see you, Sully,’ she whispers in my ear. ‘You honestly haven’t changed at all.’ I wish I could say the same for her. Us lads used to have such a crush on her – she was gorgeous back then. But her head-turning days are definitely behind her.

‘Good to see you too, Jen.’ I give her a hug and she squeezes my cheek affectionately. I know she’s remembering the days when I was putty in her hands and her breasts were putty in mine.

‘I should’ve stuck with you, Sully,’ she sighs. ‘I always knew you were going to make something of yourself.’ Then she pats me on the back and heads off into the night.

The compliment warms up my insides like brandy. Coming here and seeing everyone has confirmed what I’d always suspected – that I’d done something worthwhile with my life, whereas they… not so much that they’d wasted theirs, but they hadn’t exactly strayed far from home or done anything out of the ordinary. Dogboy has worked as a mechanic at the same local garage since he took on an apprenticeship there after leaving school. Ray works at the sorting office. Lisa’s a secretary for a local building firm, Anita’s a full-time mum, and Jenny – who to her credit once spent a year in Magaluf working in a bar – now runs a small cleaning agency.

I get a little buzz of satisfaction from knowing that, unlike my old peers, I’ve got something to show for the last twenty-five years. I’ve travelled, explored, built a successful career. I’ve not wasted a single day nor a single opportunity. Normally I’d deem it pointless to compare my achievements with those less ambitious than myself, but for the time being, while life’s a little sluggish and compliments and ego boosts are thin on the ground, I can’t help but feel rather good. Or smug, as Gemma would no doubt say.

I check my watch: 11.30, an acceptable time to make a move in my opinion. I decide to visit the gents before saying goodbye and making my departure. It’s been nice to see everyone after all this time, my curiosity’s been satisfied and I’ve re-established contact with Dogboy and a couple of others, which feels good. But it’s time to go, before Ray gets any drunker and the atmosphere turns sour.

‘So you caught up with Lisa, then?’ Anita intercepts me as I leave the table.

‘Yeah,’ I say, glancing at the cuckoo clock above the bar. Bernie winks at Anita, his beer belly resting on the counter. He’s been teasing us all evening, reminding my old classmates of every occasion they’d ever embarrassed themselves in his pub – stories that usually involved someone being sick all over someone else.  I’d already left Lincolnshire by then, although I would come back now and again to meet up with the lads in here. But after a year or so, contact fizzled. My fault. I came back less and less. And when I did, I just couldn’t be bothered to see them. We had nothing in common anymore. I’d moved on, while they were happy to stay put – something I just couldn’t, and still don’t, understand.

Anita stares at me, her lips slightly parted, revealing those infamous gnashers. I wonder why she never got them straightened. Still, she’s married with three kids now, so why should she care?

‘She didn’t tell you, then?’ She frowns.

‘Tell me what?’ She’s got my attention now. She’s looking serious and slightly baffled.

‘Oh, never mind.’ She bites her lip.

‘Tell me what, Anita?’

Anita fiddles with her large gold hoop earring. ‘I don’t know if it’s my place to say.’

‘Say what? Is Lisa ok?’ Now I’m confused. Lisa had seemed fine, if a little nervous. But then we were all a bit nervous – some of us hadn’t seen each other since we were sixteen.

Anita takes a big breath. ‘She didn’t mention anything about Ryan, her son?’

I’m all ears now. Lisa and I had talked for a good half-hour and she’d never mentioned she had a child. We’d talked briefly about my mum, my wife and kids, my career in advertising, her career as a secretary, her passion for dogs, my passion for travel. Then, when we’d run out of things to say, she’d looked at her watch and used her exit strategy.

‘She has a son?’ I say.

‘She had a son.’

Now I’m staring at Anita, who’s shuffling her weight from one foot to the other and twiddling that earring for all it’s worth.

Had?’

Anita swallows. ‘He died.’

My face drops. ‘Jesus.’ I don’t know what to say. ‘God, that’s so awful. Poor Lisa.’ I picture Lisa as she was just five minutes ago, sitting next to me at the table, chatting away nervously. She’d looked good – better than I’d expected. She’d lost weight and dyed her hair a rich brunette. She had a few wrinkles now of course, but somehow her crow’s feet were sort of becoming – especially when she smiled, which she’d done a lot as we’d sat side by side catching up on old times. Perhaps she still found it too hard to talk about. God knows her life was hard enough already back when we were kids.

‘When did he die?’ I ask.

‘1993,’ says Anita.

1993?’ For some reason this isn’t the answer I was expecting.

‘He was six.’

‘Christ.’ I’m properly sober now. ‘That’s tragic. That’s just…’

Anita watches me as I take it in.

‘It seems so unfair. It’s not like Lisa didn’t have her plate full already what with her mum and dad and all that…’

She says nothing.

‘She didn’t mention a partner. I’m guessing she’s not with the father anymore?’ I ask.

Anita shakes her head. ‘She’s had a few fellas over the years. Nothing too long-term. But she’s never told anyone who the father was. It’s strictly taboo.’ She looks me in the eye.

‘How come?’ I ask.

She shrugs. ‘I have a theory.’

‘Yeah?’

She takes a big glug of Jack Daniels and Coke and leans towards my ear. ‘She moved away from here about three months after we left school. She left suddenly. Only told me a week beforehand that she was going. Remember her aunt had moved in with her when her mum started going down hill? Well later that summer they all packed up and moved back to her aunt’s place in Grantham. She kept in touch – just. You know, the odd letter here and there. Never a word about having a child. Never phoned me, never wanted to meet up. It wasn’t till she moved back again, about five years ago, that she told me about Ryan. She got pregnant the summer we left school. She said she never spoke to the father again, that he didn’t even know she’d got pregnant, and she wanted to keep it that way.’

My mind is whirring. The noise of the pub fades into the background. The music, the slot machine, the chatter of forty or so punters, it all goes mute. My hand trembles as I place my pint on the bar.

‘Are you all right?’ asks Anita.

I clear my throat. ‘Do you have any idea who the father was?’

Anita stares at me. ‘Well, she’s never said anything, but I wondered if maybe…’ she steels herself, ‘if maybe it was you?’

My jaw hangs open. I’m about to reply when Dogboy comes over and slaps me on the back.

‘She’s not telling you that bloody birth story, is she?’ he blurts. ‘The first time I heard it I reckon my face looked like that an’ all.’

Anita groans. ‘Very funny, Paul.’

‘You all right, mate?’ Dogboy looks at me. I struggle to reel my mind back into the pub. My legs turn to jelly. I stuff my hands into my pockets so no one can see them shaking.

‘Yeah,’ I nod. ‘That’s a cracking birth story, Anita.’

Dogboy laughs. ‘Still, you’ve got nippers now, Sully. You’ve been there.’

I’m not listening. He punches my arm. ‘Earth calling Sully?’

‘Er, well I wouldn’t say I’ve been there, I just held her hand and watched.’

‘But that’s worse! I mean, they don’t get to see what’s going on but us lads, we have to watch all the blood and gore – not to mention the other, Christ! No one warns you about that, not it?’ I smile weakly at “not it”, a turn-of-phrase I dropped like a hot potato when I moved to London.

‘I don’t think Sarah would appreciate you sharing that much detail, Paul,’ says Anita.

‘She’ll tell you herself next time. So what do you think – next time we bring partners and kiddiwinks?’ Dogboy beams.

Personally I can’t think of anything worse. Anita’s not jumping at the idea either.

‘Think about it.’ Dogboy pinches my cheek. ‘Going for a slash.’ He squeezes past us in the direction of the gents.

Anita and I stand in silence, her theory hanging in mid-air. I’m conscious I need to say something, but my mind has gone again, back to that night when Lisa and I left the school disco early. We’d walked out of the school gates, my arm around her shoulders. She had somewhere we could go, she said – a neighbour had gone on holiday and asked her to feed their pet chinchilla. She had the key in her pocket.

‘I think I need to speak to Lisa,’ I say, my voice barely audible.

‘Might be a good idea,’ agrees Anita.

‘Can you give me her number?’

Anita considers this for a minute before pulling her phone out of her pocket. We swap details and Anita forwards Lisa’s number to me.

‘Do you think…?’ She trails off, unsure how best to put it.

‘I’ll call her,’ I say. ‘I’m going to head off now…’

‘What?’ Dogboy overhears me on his way back from the gents. ‘You can’t leave now – the night is young! Haven’t the licensing laws changed down south, Sully? And Ray hasn’t told you about the bones they found under his patio yet, has he?’

‘They were dog bones, as in bones that dogs chew on, nowt to do with human remains,’ Anita explains.

‘Cheers Anita. You’ve just ruined a classic yarn.’ Dogboy scowls at her.

‘Save it for next time,’ I say, pulling my jacket on. ‘I’ll be back for the christening.’

‘Promise?’ Dogboy holds out a hand. ‘I can’t wait for you to meet Sarah and our Zak. I know it’s short notice, but I wanted to be sure, you know?’ He looks at me with pure joy in his eyes and throws himself at me for a manly bear hug.

‘I’ll be there, I promise,’ I squeak from within his bulky embrace.

‘Are you sure you’re happy to be godsquad to our nipper?’

‘Sure,’ I gasp, the breath being squeezed out of me. It’s not as if you can say no to such a request, is it?

‘This reunion was long overdue.’ He prods me with a finger. ‘We’re staying in touch from now on, Sully. You hear me?’

‘I wouldn’t have it any other way.’ I slap him on the back and he karate-kid punches me on the shoulder – his signature move from our prepubescent years.

After I’ve said my goodbyes, I leave the pub and walk out into the cold, damp autumnal air. The streets of Chelmsby are dark and empty. As I walk to the taxi rank next to the Happy Garden takeaway, I check my watch again. Back at Mum’s house, a couple of miles away in Aldersby, Gemma isn’t expecting me home for a while yet. I take out my phone and look at Lisa’s number.

I slump back against a wall, my head full of noise. Adrenaline is racing around my body. Usually I love the feeling – it makes me feel alive. But for the first time ever, it’s making me feel nauseous. I try to calm down and think. Lisa’s son can’t be anything to do with me, surely?

After a moment’s hesitation, I press Call.