The Makeover Montage

I don’t know about you, but this is my favourite bit of a film. In my opinion, they should give out an Oscar for Best Uplifting Montage in a Motion Picture. Think of some classics-Baby learns to dance in Dirty Dancing (then gets put in a corner)! That kid learns to fight in the Karate Kid (OK, I’ve never seen the Karate Kid). Bridget Jones falls off the exercise bike! Sportspeople train for something in some kind of sports film! They’re the classic ‘things are getting better’ story-telling technique. You might even choose to set your montage to the tune ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Sometimes, I wish life was more like a makeover montage.

If you dream of being published, you might imagine it as a string of montage-worthy moments – the agent phone call! Jump up and down! The publisher phone call! Scream! Singing the contract! Air punch! Seeing the proof copy! Holding the book in your hand! Seeing the book in a shop! All those exciting moments that should make up achieving your dream.

My first book, The Fall, is being published one week from today. I’ve been waiting for this pretty much since I first learned how to read and decided, ‘God, this Janet and John stuff is soooo derivative. I’m going to write my own book.’ So far there have been many milestones – seeing the book on Amazon, getting my first review, and taking delivery of a large box of shiny hardbacks.  Soon, I hope, I will see the book in a shop (ideally with someone buying it, but I’m not fussy).  Perhaps I’ll hear from readers who don’t know me. Maybe I’ll be featured in a paper or on the radio (I’ve had one print review, which was a big big thrill).

All these moments have been wonderful, and if I could watch them edited down to a two-minute loop, perhaps set to the tune of D:Ream’s greatest hit, I would also be punching the air and weeping with joy. But the truth is there is no montage. In between the great moments are days and days and days and hours and hours and hours and WORDS and words and words and more words. It all happens one line at a time, and one day you have a book. Then that book is edited and edited and tweaked and tweaked and then you have a finished book.  It’s lovely to mark these moments, but there’s a lot of other moments set around them.

To paraphrase John Lennon, life is what happens when you’re busy making makeover montages. The best way to deal with it is maybe to smile to yourself, perhaps give the book a quick kiss, then get on with whatever’s next. And maybe play yourself a little blast of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, just because, maybe, just maybe, it might be true.

Ghost Towns

What Nanjing looks like today

All towns are haunted for someone. Any street you walk down, something will have happened there – a kiss, a fight, a death, even a murder. In a city as old as London, the streets are laid over and over with ghosts.  Everywhere you put your feet is soaked in history.

This week I’ve been thinking a fair bit about atrocity (I know, a bit dreary, but bear with me). I just finished reading Mo Hayder’s Tokyo, set in the eponymous city but dealing with what happened in 1937, when the invading Japanese army advanced on the Chinese city of Nanking. I’d been wondering about how it works to use real-life horror in a novel, especially a crime novel, where the intention is usually to entertain and enthral. What do we have the right to write about?

I stake some small claim to the Japanese capital – I spent a week there, once, and it settled into my skin – but feel something more of an entitlement to talk about Nanking (now Nanjing). After university I spent a year living there, a place with more than its own share of ghosts. I was already mulling over these thoughts when I read this brilliant post from fellow crime writer-and friend! – D.E Meredith, who in her former job worked as a press officer in some of the world’s most harrowing war zones. This is her take on using real-life memory to write commercial fiction, which is well worth a read, and helped me formulate what it was I wanted to say:

I’ve felt for a long time like I wanted to write about China, about Nanjing, but the one I experienced isn’t the one in the books. The things that happened there are hard to take in, from my perspective now in a different country and a different time. It’s difficult to believe the stories that hundreds of thousands were slaughtered here over just ten days; days of blood-soaked madness, rape, and torture. Even the history is slippery as blood. No one quite knows how many died, or can verify the atrocities that took place. Some say it never happened at all. So it’s a haunted place, where the bones were never laid to rest, never archived into history, where the wound still festers.

But when I lived there, almost seventy years later, Nanjing was a city of glass and steel towers, thriving markets, stalls full of knock-off DVDs. The place had grown up around the massacre sites – some kept open, bones encased in glass, in the middle of the city –and really, it wasn’t haunted at all. My memories of it run from my first days there, when I was desperately hot (Nanjing is one of China’s ‘furnace cities’, where it can hit 40 degrees plus to the end of October) and desperately alone. Even language was estranged from me, it seemed, as I walked down streets whose names I couldn’t even read, let alone pronounce. I tried to make sense of it, obsessively memorising the way home, noting the dinosaur-skin mottling on a cartful of watermelons, the particular stink from the river near my flat. As the year turned, my Nanjing was somewhere you cycled through slow summer streets, hanging off the back of a friend’s bike, and stayed up drinking beer at roadside barbecues. An exciting, bustling place, coated in dust from incessant construction works. I can’t reconcile that with the same city where so many died in the snows of winter, 1937. For me, there weren’t any ghosts.

I felt the same when, on my way home from China overland, I stopped in Poland and visited the site of Auschwitz. I’d always imagined the place in winter, but instead I found myself on an ancient bus, trundling through lush Polish countryside at the height of summer. I’d never imagined being hot there, but as we trooped round the death cells, the crematoria, the endless horrors, sweat trickled down the  back of my vest-top, and I became more and more tired and thirsty. I resisted as long as I could, from some kind of respect, but however much I was horrified by the place, I was still a person alive there in 2005, and I was hot and tired and I needed a drink. Realising this, that Auschwitz, whatever else it is, is also just a place on the earth, was a bit of a shock. Outside the camp, there’s a wide grassy area, where families had gathered for picnics. There was a hot dog stand, and the air was filled with the sound of children laughing, all of this just a few yards from the famous gates to death. It was as if, with our memorialising and our preserving, we had tried to keep open the scar on the earth. As if to let it heal would be an atrocity in itself. But despite that there was sun, and children laughing, and ketchup. Something had healed, and once again, the ghosts weren’t there.

I used to experience it growing up – the Northern Ireland you may have seen on TV, all bombs and walking behind coffins, that wasn’t the one I grew up in, not entirely. I couldn’t reconcile the two in my head. And it’s the same for places stamped on our memory by atrocity –it isn’t the setting at all that matters. My geography is not the same as yours, because on a very basic level, geography is memory. Everywhere’s haunted for someone, and for someone else it may be just a building, a patch of grass, a street where something happened, once, long ago.

I haven’t answered my own question of what we are allowed to write about. I think it can only be a good thing if we remind people of the past, allow them to feel the true horror of it, so we don’t forget. It’s very difficult to keep horror alive through museums and facts  -maybe writing the emotions of it will help us remember? I don’t know.

The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Writers


It’s that time of year again, for making resolutions and promising to rid ourselves of our disgusting habits, purge ourselves of seasonal excess, and emerge on the other side as glowing and pure as the blank page. It’s the second week in, and for me the first back to work, so now’s when resolutions made bleary-eyed on January 1st are truly tested.

In past years, I might have made resolutions to find a new job, or learn a new language, or do more exercise. But this year I’ve realised that rushing round to night classes isn’t going to make me happier, and I can survive quite contentedly without ever learning Pilates. When making improvements to my life, I’ve found it’s best to focus on small things I can do every day. Accordingly, many of my resolutions are about writing. So here’s the bad writing habits I need to detox from in 2012. If anyone has a raw-juice diet of pure motivation, let me know.

Getting Distracted

I was disconcerted last year when, on leaving my job, I found that I didn’t, in fact, have the discipline to work at home all day on my own and be entirely productive. Before this I’d always thought of myself as fairly self-motivated. It’s true I tend to sit at my desk all day and I don’t watch daytime TV or anything like that, but I waste far, far too much time on emails and other distractions. I need to stop. Maybe I’ll go out, or switch off the internet (imagine!). BUT I’ve been ill this week so it hasn’t gone quite as well as I’d hoped. Maybe tomorrow.

Being Insecure

It’s a nice thing about writers that everyone is very supportive and pleased when someone else does well. And it’s all genuine – it’s lovely to see success. But sometimes I wonder if the supportiveness is the whole truth. It’s like there’s a taboo on saying we ever feel insecure, or threatened, or jealous. And I know that we’re bloody lucky to be allowed to do it at all, and I often tell myself this to try and buck my ideas up. But all the same it’s sometimes hard not to compare yourself to others and feel a bit wibbly as you Google yourself obsessively and check your Amazon ratings for the thousandth time that hour. I mean the book isn’t even OUT yet. This is foolishness taken to new extremes! This year I will try to focus only on the words and not even notice when other people get million-pound film deals/win the Booker Prize. I’m sure this will go very well indeed. Uh huh.

Being Lazy

Writing a book is hard. Pushing yourself to be better and better is hard. When I used to go to the gym I tended to coast along on the same speed and incline, unless I had a target to work towards. I would think, Oh well, I’m reasonably fit, I’m reasonably slim. I don’t need to be the best. This attitude might be fine when it comes to fitness (‘have one doughnut not two and go for a walk’ seems to generally work for me), but in writing we have to be better and better. I know that getting a book published doesn’t mean I don’t have to keep working and learning. I’m an apprentice. At the same time though, I don’t often hear writers talk about continuing professional development. Does anyone still take classes or do any form of study?

Being Afraid

As with exercise, going outside of your comfort zone can be difficult. I write novels because I think I know where I am with them. I’ve spent decades reading them, so it’s natural that when I write, that’s what comes out. But what about other forms? What about screenwriting, short stories, or even journalism? I’m going to start a screenwriting course next week, and it feels like starting at the bottom again, but in a way I think I’ll enjoy that. It will remind me of how much I still have to learn.

Being Disorganised

Here’s one thing I learned last year: it’s truly astonishing how much, and how little, you can get done in exactly the same space of time, depending on how scared/pressured/distracted you are. I resolve to organise my time better so I can fit in writing, work, online faffing (I can’t give it up altogether), and all those lovely hobbies you’d like to do but never have time, like learning to make your own felt or dance the rhumba (Damn you, Kirstie Allsop).


This may seem like a contradiction in terms to my next point, but bear with me. Being self-employed is mostly lovely, but as I won’t have to pay tax till next year (note to HMRC: if I’ve got this wrong do let me know, ta), I’ve so far been spared the worst aspects of it. I’m quite organised in some ways, but when I open a letter and see a form it brings me out in a rash and I have to go and lie down for a while.  This year I vow to grasp the nettle and also the bull by the horns (will I have enough hands for this?) and sort out all that horrible tax, pension, and savings stuff that is the dark side of lovely days spent ‘researching’ grisly ways to kill people.


Just as I could do with worrying more about my admin, I should worry less about the future. I can’t control what’s happening in publishing and I have no idea how long I’ll be able to do this for. I suppose none of us do. So I better just enjoy it while I can and be grateful for the chance to earn my living while wearing fingerless gloves. It’s either that or open my own scrapyard.

Happy New Year and may all your writing resolutions come true!*

*Unless it is to win the Booker Prize while also getting a million-pound film deal. That one is MINE.