Category Archives: Novel writing

Reality and character

I’ve been thinking a lot about reality, lately. Especially now, with all this talk of new normal against a backdrop of online shenanigans, decision making on coronavirus lockdown measures via news management and even threats from the POTUS to close down social media companies in retaliation to precisely the use of the kinds of moderation measures that make their platforms safe and reliable for people to use.

The core concept of my current work in progress centres (so far) on the issues of power and control that new tech throws up. Specifically, I’m looking at political and corporate power and the hold these have over people’s realities. How the powers that be control reality, sometimes for the greater good and sometimes for other reasons.

But I’ve been thinking. The draft I’m working on is too dry. There isn’t enough on the characters’ own journeys, on their hopes and fears, on the stories they tell about themselves, and the ones they want to hide…So,  maybe the novel should be more of a character study, a look at the power people have over how they present themselves.

Freud said that our sense of self was made up of the ego, the superego, and the ID. The ego is how we present ourselves, the superego the reasoning part of us – the voice of reason inside our heads – and the ID is the animalistic, instinctive part. Without consequence, people aren’t afraid of letting rip, and the ID takes over. In a virtual reality, what are the real-world consequences of our actions? If we already allow ourselves to behave on social media in a manner we wouldn’t dream of in real life, how much more extreme could this be in a VR? Many of us have seen our children, in lockdown, live entirely new lives out on Roblox, Sims, CIVs and other VRs, where they behave like terrifying mini dictators. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Looking at the kids, and then turning my thoughts to my work in progress, this throws up lots of questions. Considering the ego, superego and the ID, which of these come more into play outside a VR and which are more dominant inside it? Are the characters truer to their real selves inside the VR, unfettered by the bounds of presenting a picture of how they wish to be seen to the outside world? And if so, what are the implications of this?

Furthermore, there’s the question of what reality actually is. Take ‘No Exit’, for example, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre about 3 people trapped in hell. One reading of it could be that people without the context of other people don’t exist, so interaction with others makes our reality and defines us. ‘Hell is other people.’ Maybe. Maybe heaven is, too. Do we have a fundamental need for other people in order to show ourselves? As Karl Marx said in The Grundrisse (1857), ‘Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.’

So what is reality really about? To what extent are we already living in a VR? In modern society, we already have one foot in an artificial reality in that we are sometimes more about the stories we tell about ourselves. We no longer show our real selves to each other.

Could a VR, therefore, end up being more real than the real world?

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The point

I recently came across a useful post on concept revision on the Alliance for Independent Author’s website.

Written by chartered psychologist and writer, Rosalind Minett, it talks about what concept revision is and why you should do it.

She begins by saying:

Concept revision is what I call the process of thinking over recent writing, especially any sense of weakness or inadequacy. This also involves the ‘why am I writing this anyway’ thought, the stage where the story may be worked out or well on its way but the theme hasn’t really become evident.

And this resonates with me. The rest of the article puts forwards useful tips on how to think through this process. The article’s appearance comes at just the right time for me, as the editing of the first draft of my fourth novel, Zeitgeist, has forced me to get back down to the business of thinking about why I write. What’s the point? It’s something I’ve been avoiding for a while, well, for a couple of years or so whilst I usefully distracted myself setting up a business in gelateria coffee bars. Just before that I ran myself into the ground doing a 5 hour commute and tackling a job that was too senior and stressful for me. Probably a lot of this was to avoid thinking about writing.

But I’m back now!

Conversations with my other half

So having got to the end of the first draft of a fourth title, I ended up having the inevitable difficult conversation with my other half about why I write. His advice was unexpected, characteristically harsh but very useful. The conversation went something like this:

Him, ‘As with all things we want to achieve in life, often they go wrong because we fail to set out our objectives. Why do you want to write? What do you want to achieve through it? What’s your motivation?’

Me (after a long pause of several minutes), ‘I’m not sure at the moment. At first I just wanted to prove to myself that I could write a novel. I wasn’t interested in the money, nor in any kind of recognition. I just wanted to get to the end of a novel. But after I’d written my first novel with NaNoWriMo, I realised this wasn’t enough. So I went on a Faber Academy course and wrote my second novel afterwards. At this stage everything was still very experimental. I liked my second novel very much but lots of people said it was too cross-genre to do well – this has been borne out. But I didn’t care about that. I’d wanted to experiment with my writing, particularly with the themes I had in my mind at the time: those of reality, both physical reality in the scientific sense and the philosophical reality of the mind. And I’d wanted to tackle some issues I had with religious cults and the idea of the immense power people can sometimes wield when they tap into this.’

Him, ‘So you achieved that. These books aren’t Fifty Shades of Grey, are they, they’re niche. So if you want to write niche, be happy that you’ve done that and move on, and don’t moan about lack of exposure.’

Me, ‘Okay. But that was the first three books. I learnt a lot through writing and marketing them, but the fourth book is different. I didn’t write it to explore a theme, I wrote it as a pure story, a “coming of age” tale.’

Him, ‘So what? What’s so interesting about your coming of age tale, what’s the big deal?’

Me,’It’s a big deal because the events of the story – a couple of student protaganists who becomes embroiled the East German Stasi just before the fall of the Wall in 1989 – lead to the coming of age, the realisation of adulthood and what’s important therein.’

Him, ‘How?’

Me (exasperated), ‘Because the protags change as the story progresses and this change leads to their ultimate fate.’

Him, ‘So you think this will sell?’

Me, ‘No idea.’

Him, ‘You see, we’re back to objectives again. If you want big sales, then you write about things that sell – sex, violence, crime – otherwise, you are writing for other reasons, and you need to find out what those are. You wrote initially to explore themes, but this time you’re doing something different. However, what you’ve written is still a bit niche. If you’re writing a story for Young Adults, is is exciting enough?’

Me (thinking – maybe, but maybe I need to do some revising to make sure it is.)

What’s the point

So I’m back to concept revision again. For me this is:

  • What’s the story?
  • Why I am writing it?
  • How have I made it interesting – ie what’s the main character arc that keeps people’s interest in the protagonsits
  • So what? (What’s the ‘so what?’ factor)

Probably the most important point is the second one, ‘why am I writing it’, because this is the one that unlocks the other four and helps me write something that others might want to read.

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Be part of the storyOn a hiking expedition this week I stayed in the most remote hostel in the UK. For those in the know, Blacksail – as this hostel is known – can only be reached on foot via a number of mountain paths. I backpacked into the valley in which it nestles, carrying a large rucksack and a heavy heart. Having set out to show my two teenage boys (17 and 13) what real fell walking was all about, I reached the youth hostel at 6 p.m. on the first night of our stay there, exhausted and demoralised. I wondered to myself, why do teenagers argue so, why are they so happy for their parents to shoulder their (literal, in this case, as I was carrying a rucksack for all three of us) heavy burdens whilst professing to know everything.

‘I’m hungry,’ declared one whilst his brother dismissed him as a ‘moron’.
‘Well, go and see when dinner is available.’

Apparently my miserable tone, if you can call that miserable, would make the eldest want to kill himself if he ever married anyone like me. Great.

Young Adult Audiences

This is my new audience, the one I’m currently writing for, so I bear this suffering with the view that at least I live with young adults and have the privilege of getting into their mindset. Beats whipping yourself on a daily basis, anyway. On the plus side, walking and the forced separation from mobile phones and tablets this induces provoked many interesting conversations with my boys. We discussed Tony Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ which they dismissed as ‘trying too hard’ even though they admitted the writing was pretty damn good (well, suffice to say, I wish I could write like her –maybe one day when I’m old and grey). One things teens don’t like is ‘trying to hard’. It’s up there with preaching and being ‘down with the kids’. However, they were interested in the idea of freedom being in the mind and independent of external factors, which I think is part of Toni Morrison’s message.

It’s just that to get any kind of complex message across to teens requires tight and coherent story telling.
So on that first night in the middle of nowhere I spent some time thinking about how an author connects with people, particular younger ones. What makes a good story or an accomplished storyteller? What hooks a reader in and keeps them interested?

Sometimes I think good storytelling has very little to do with the mastery of the writing (that’s poetry, a different skill altogether, maybe). But then, bad writing gets in the way of storytelling. Tricky.

Writers v Storytellers

For me, I enjoy storytelling when the author gets out of the way and I am eased into their storyworld and into their story with masterful ease. Who does this well? When I ask myself this question, I don’t come back with obvious answers. For me, a great storyteller is Rachel Abbott, author of The Back Road, Nowhere Child and Kill me Again. Or Laline Paul, author of The Bees. Also Dan Brown -sorry folks, but I think this is why he’s so successful – not the most eloquent writer but a fab storyteller. And, of course, JK Rowling, the best storyteller of all. Not surprising she’s so popular with young adults.

I also think that whilst young adults will read complex texts they have low tolerance for convoluted ones – rightly so. There’s an important difference. They see straight through texts that are trying to be clever, just for the sake of it, preferring tighter prose. Again, the better the storytelling, the more respect they have for the author.

As a digital communications manager I worked in several sectors – commerce, government and charity – and in all of them I found that digital storytelling was the most effective way to get any kind of message across. Whether you’re selling tax compliance, the services of sight loss support officers or gelato, the method is the same – tell the audience a story and they will listen. Give them a bulleted list of information and they will switch off. Never is this truer than now, given the amount of conflicting information we consume on a daily basis and in a wide variety of formats. And never is this truer than for Generation X.

So I sat in my bunk pondering all of this. I’ve published three books to date, and my readers’ favourite isn’t my own. My own favourite is the most layered and complex, probably a book which is quite difficult to understand. My readers’ favourite is a more straightforward tale, with an obvious supernatural bent. For a long time I wondered about this.

See if you can guess why.

The Borderliners Trilogy is available on Amazon. Each novel can be read as part of the trilogy or on its own as a standalone story – you decide.

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On location with WorldCult

One day, over twenty years ago, my twenty-two year-old self packed her bags and booked a one way ticket to Rome. She landed in the warmth and low-slung brilliance of the late October Mediterranean sun and never looked back.

WorldCultTrue, I didn’t stay there forever (and maybe I should have done), but Rome stayed with me. I built a family with a Roman man and stayed connected to the heart of the city, tied forever by invisible threads.

In particular, those early days of discovery stayed with me: how I soaked up the ancient soul of the place that sat determined and resolute alongside the decadent brand of modernity that now underpins it.

I wanted my readers to sample this, to immerse themselves into the metaphysical vibe of the place, to feel that juxtaposition between the ancient and the intangible future that simmers in every nook and cranny, tantalising with promise.

When in Rome you feel something over and above the everyday, something other-worldly and multi-dimensional that doesn’t exist anywhere else.

When in Rome you don’t just exist in the here and now, you exist in the past, present and future all at once.

From the air, the historical centre resembles  a giant Roman forum, glued together by high rise apartment blocks and the ever-present pine trees that stretch their shadows across the sun baked cobbles till serving as roads and pathways for modern cars to slide over and stilettos to get stuck in.

The intense energy of the place is akin to what you feel when standing next to an imposing old oak tree.

The beginning of Elena’s (my protagonist) journey takes her from the infamous via Giulia – a medieval road that with its elusive and well-heeled residents has always sat just out of my reach – through to San Giovani, where my husband grew up.

The rough diamond of Rome, San Giovanni is so central you can see the Colosseum from some parts of the quarter. But it was deeply working class until recent years. Everyone knows everyone there and there is still an element of Sophia Loren’s Naples to the place: grandmothers yelling across courtyards to each other at 5 in the morning as they go about their errands, RAI UNO blaring from open apartment windows, cars honking through gridlocked traffic round Piazza Re Di Roma. Part of me hopes that – despite the astronomical property prices that now adorn properties there – it will never become gentrified.

Of course, Elena is soon forced across town to the Vatican City, for what metaphysical tale set in Rome could be complete without the heavyweight player: the Catholic Church in all its might and glory?

A state in its own right, the Vatican is a mysterious entity. Protected by Swiss guards in their multi-coloured uniforms who sweep their Aryan gaze over you as you pass by, wondering what they might do if you tried to get past them, it harbours arguably the most powerful man of our planet’s recent history: the Pope. Of course, these days his power is diminished, a fraction of what it was 1,000 years ago, but still. That feeling of supreme and intangible power emanates. It gleams in the gold that adorns the domed ceilings of St Peters and it waits its in the silent shadow of the statued saints whose white marbled spectres circle St Peter’s Square. Who dares to take them on?

Somebody does, and to find out who, you’ll have to read my book.

WorldCult is available on Amazon to buy in either ebook (Kindle) or paperback format.



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What if… this Christmas you discovered a different reality?

Borderliners box setBorderliners…

It begins in a small village in the English heartland, where all is not as it seems. Elena Lewis, a psychotherapist, discovers that which has the power to change her, transform and consume her is lying in wait just beneath the surface.

Split Symmetry…

What if our lives were made up of infinite possibilities, all of which were happening simultaneously, until the observer – you – decided to pin one down? One choice, one life. What is the answer to the riddle, and does Elena find it in time to save herself, to save her friends?


Elena discovers that dark forces are at work as the world stands at five to midnight. She stands at the centre of a buried prophecy and in the way of a destiny that could change everything.

But in that destiny is both darkness and light. Will she stand and fight?

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