Friday, 18 June 2010

Trashionista Review of 'The Not-so Secret Diary of a City Girl'

And if my night at the Melissa Nathan Awards wasn't enough, yesterday I read the lovely review by Elle at Trashionista for City Girl. She even gave it a five out of five - hoorah! To read the review, please click here.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

The Melissa Nathan Award 2010

This was a truly amazing night. For starters, the event was being held at the Cafe de Paris, which was beyond glamorous; then there were the judges Jo Brand, Liza Tarbuck, Morwenna Banks, Sophie Kinsella and Joanna Trollope who are all, without exception, idols of mine; and finally there was the fact that the event is held not only to champion the genre of comedy romance (a genre sadly neglected by 'serious' literary people) but also to celebrate the life of Melissa Nathan - comedic novelist extraordinaire - and to continue the charity work she undertook during her life via the excellent Melissa Nathan Foundation: click here to see the work The Foundation does.

The evening began with champagne and canapes as the guests arrived: there were the other shortlisted writers to meet, old friends and acquaintances to catch up with and new friends to make - Melissa's family were there and I had two conversations with her mother who was wonderfully warm, encouraging and chatty. In fact the whole event had a lovely family atmosphere. There were two babies present: Shortlisted author Danny King ('Blue Collar')'s little girl who was ten weeks old and Sophie Kinsella's youngest, only eight weeks old. Also present was Melissa's son Sam (age 7) who, after the judges had summed up all six shortlisted books, gave an extremely moving explanation of the work of the Melissa Nathan Foundation that had most of the audience wiping away a tear or two.

We were called into the main auditorium where Jo Brand bounded onto stage to host the event. She was sensational. I saw Jo live in 1993 and my abiding memory was of my face aching with laughter - it only took about two minutes and it was aching again. We then had a performance from songwriter (and, as it turned out) singer David Arnold and then the judges each celebrated one of the shortlisted books. Jo Brand did mine, beginning by holding up a copy of the book featuring the image of my blonde, barrister heroine on the front and saying: 'As you can see, they put a picture of me on the cover...'

After a short interval we enjoyed a fantastic performance by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy who performed a selection of his songs ("I suppose you'll want me to do the one about the bus...") and then there was the announcement of the winner, who was...'Moon-Light in Odessa' by Janet Skeslien Charles. Huge congratulations go to Janet whose book Joanna Trollope describes as 'a book that stays with you for all the right reasons'. All the shortlisted winners received a beautiful trophy (mine is now proudly residing on my mantelpiece) and the evening ended with more mingling, canapes and champagne.

It was a real fairy-tale evening and I feel so lucky to have been part of such a wonderful experience. Melissa was a truly exceptional author and her Award and the work of her Foundation will ensure that she remains a powerful force for good for years to come.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Romantic Novelists' Association Summer Party

Last night was the 2010 summer party hosted by the Romantic Novelists' Association. As ever, it was a fabulous fest of old friends, new friends, sensational gossip, sensational shoes and the presentation of the 2010 Joan Hessayon Award for the best debut novel, generously sponsored by Dr David Hessayon and presented by the lovely Katie Fforde. This year the shortlist were:
Monique DeVere with her book 'Divorce Etiquette' published by Wild Rose Press
Georgia Hill with 'Pursued by Love' published by E-Scape
and Lucy King with 'Bought:Damsel in Distress' from Harlequin Mills and Boon.

The winner was Lucy King who, because she was both in Spain and imminently about to give birth, was not present to receive her award so she was telephoned with the news by Katie Fforde and we, the assembled, multitude shouted our congratulations down the telephone line to her! I wish Lucy - as well as Monique and Georgia - every success with her writing and hope she has a wonderful year as the Joan Hessayon Winner.

After that it was time for yours truly as last years' winner to do a little speech and, as soon as I'd got over the 'having to stand up in front of lots of people and make coherent words come out of my mouth' bit, I was able to really enjoy the party!
Lots of fabulous RNA writers were present and I also had a good chat with quite a few new authors who are currently on the New Writers' Scheme, run by the Association to promote and assist up-and-coming authors in the romantic genre. What a talented lot we are!

So, with the champagne, the shoes and the friends old and new it was another wonderful evening!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Chick Lit Reviews: Interview

Well, the sun is out, the sky is (less) blue (than it was now that the planes are flying again and there are vapour trails everywhere) and my interest in the General Election has increased dramatically since I found out we have Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King standing in our constituency as a candidate - although, as a friend of mine pointed out, does he actually need to be elected; can't some watery bint just chuck a sword at him and have done with it?

On another matter lovely Leah from Chick Lit Reviews has just popped an interview with yours truly up on her site, and I thought I'd put a link up. To read what I have to say about writing, the books and plans for the future, click here.

Friday, 16 April 2010

My Name's Ben Elton...

Not the usual writerly stuff, but thought I'd get a bit topical and mention the 'Leader's (so-called) Debate' that was on ITV1 last night. Not that I watched all of it (or indeed most of it - well, what do you expect, it up was up against 'Outnumbered' on BBC1) but I thought the polictical commentary on it was so startling that it deserved a mention. All the pundits this morning were not discussing policy, or what will happen to the economy if Buggins' party gets elected or anything that actually MATTERS, they are all concerned with 'who did best'. And again, that is not 'who did best and will pull this country away from the brink of a double-dip recession without decimating the NHS in the process' but 'who did the voters like best'. Well, pardon me for getting a bit shouty, but is this what it's come down to? Trench warfare with no actual policies but the winner being the person who got their coloured worm to climb the highest up the ratings for the greatest amount of time??? It's no wonder we have an apathetic electorate. Probably including myself, here. I am aching for some debate, some issues, even - to hell with it -some vision that can inspire us and get us debating and talking about stuff for the first time in years, not all this bunkam about what are, in effect, political beuaty pageants. Where will it all end? Sam Cam and Sarah B staging a cookie 'bake-off' for the media as they do in the USA? Arggh.
Actually, I'd probably just settle for a return of that 80s staple, 'Spitting Image'. Apart from the pleasing prospect of a David Cameron puppet dripping with slime (an homage, perhaps to the Kenneth Baker snail of the later Thatcher years) at least SI had the knack of getting right down to the substance of the matter and presenting it in a way that cut through all the spin-doctoring and political mud-slinging.
Or perhaps that's the problem: there simply is no substance any more and the most important issue in the election will be who has the cleanest shave and the best tie.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Stop Press

As well as having lunch with my old mates Clive and Clare AND it being my brother's birthday, today was the day that the shortlist for the Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance. Because I'm really clued up, I found out that 'Tug of Love' had made it on to the shortlist when I logged on to my FB page and found people congratulating me on my nomination. Nomination - what nomination? I said - and then spotted the name Melissa Nathan. That was about six hours ago and my hands are still shaking as I type this.

This is the press release:

We are delighted to announce the shortlist for 2010:
I Heart New York by Lindsey Kelk (HarperCollins)
Wedding Tiers by Trisha Ashley (Avon)
Tug of Love by Allie Spencer (A Little Black Dress Book)
Love Letters by Katie Fforde (Century)
Moon-Light in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles (Bloomsbury)
Blue Collar by Danny King (Serpent's Tail)
The Winner will be announced at a gala evening in London on 15th June and we look forward to seeing you there for champagne, canapés, fun and entertainment. All the short-listed authors will receive a trophy, and the winning author will receive a cheque.
The Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance (MNA) is the UK's only literary award dedicated to comedy romance. The judging panel features the writer and comedienne Jo Brand, mega-selling novelists Joanna Trollope OBE and Sophie Kinsella, actor and comedienne Morwenna Banks, and actor and television presenter Liza Tarbuck.
The inaugural MNA was held in June 2007, and the winner was Marian Keyes for her novel ANYONE OUT THERE? In 2008 the winner was Lisa Jewell for 31 DREAM STREET. THE MARRIAGE BUREAU FOR RICH PEOPLE by Farahad Zama was last year's winner.

My gob is well and truly smacked. And wow. Thank you. Wow. (Stumbles off into incoherency...)

Radio Devon

Had a lovely few days down in Devon last week including another go on the BBC Radio Devon 'Good Morning Plymouth' show hosted by the mighty Gordon Sparks (who my brother - an ardent Plymouth Argyle fan - says is a god). As well as chatting about 'The Not-So Secret Diary of a City Girl', I managed to get the question about the theme tune to 80s computer games wrong, which just shows you shouldn't commit yourself on public record without checking your facts first: Manic Miner was 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' by Greig, and the Can-Can was (apparently) a game called Mr Ee. And if you don't have any idea at all what I've just been talking about, it's probably for the best.

To listen to my interview click here

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Finding Monsieur Right - book review

I hope you all have had a good few days. Amazingly, we still have unopened Easter eggs sitting on the side in the kitchen and (even more amazingly) my chocolate consumption has been limited to a few choccie buttons and a tiny piece of egg. But oh - isn't Easter egg chocolate just the most delicious chocolate in the world? And the unopened egg means there is something to look forward to when I finish my diet (he he evil laughter).

Anyway, to keep myself distracted from the confectionery fest of the past few days, I've been reading 'Finding Monsieur Right' by Muriel Zagha. It is a witty, elegant, beautifully crafted rom com, focusing on the lives of two girls: Daisy who is English and Isabelle who is French. The pair room-, city- and life-swap for a year: Daisy moving to Paris to further her career as a fashion writer and Isabelle coming over to London to pursue her PhD research - and each finds their lives, love-lives and expectations turned completely upside down. Zagha obviously knows both London and Paris intimately, and moves between each city with huge flair and panache. More importantly, she also knows people and creates brilliant, diverse characters who leap off the page at you. As well as the wonderfully drawn main characters and their various love interests, she creates an amazing supporting cast of treacherous friends, uber-cool fashionistas and, my favourites by a long way, a collection of good-hearted goths who save the day on at least one occasion. The writing is polished, elegant and very funny and the plot twists and turns masterfully, bringing surprise after page-turning surprise to the reader and keeping them glued to the very end. I loved it - and am sure you will too!

Monday, 5 April 2010

More News on City Girl

An absolutely stonking review from Leah at Chick Lit Reviews for City Girl - thank you, Leah xx - and an interview with yours truly at Trashionista (who describe CG as 'blatantly unputdownable'). Yay!

For the review click here

and for the Trashionista interview click here

Friday, 2 April 2010

Novelicious - Interview and Review

The fabulous Novelicious site published the first review of 'City Girl' - on the day it was launched - together with an interview with yours truly. To read them, click on the links below.

For the interview click here

For the review click here

We Have Lift-Off

So yesterday was the release of 'City Girl'. To kick start the proceedings came a lovely review of the book on the Novelicious site, giving it a stonking 9/10 (thank you Debs!) . Then, after an morning of manic cleaning, and an afternoon of general (but still manic) busy-ness, the official launch party got underway. My evil hand - really sore the night before after an unspecified cleaning injury(!) was less evil than it had been and I could happily hold a pen and sign a few copies of the new book. It was, essentially, planned as an evening of chilling, chatting and champers and a chance for me to say a heart-felt 'thank you' to all my friends who have given so much support in one way or another to me and my writing - I simply couldn't have done it without their back-up, encouragement, emergency childcare and general good-heartedness. Thank you! We even raised a bit of cash for the local pre-school whilst we were at it. It was a lovely night and I had one of those evenings where I never had an empty glass but, bizarrely, never felt in the least bit tipsy. I want to know how this happened - and how I can make it happen again in future!! Thanks again guys, you are the best. xx

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

One Day To Go!!!

'The Not-So Secret Diary of a City Girl' is officially released tomorrow and I am very, very excited. Although, it feels a bit weird because Amazon and have been shipping the pre-orders for well over a week now - this does mean, though, that I've had some lovely feedback from people who pre-ordered which is calming my jittery nerves a bit!

I've palnned a party to celebrate City Girl's release and have been cleaning manically (including the front of the cooker which I cleaned so thoroughly I managed to remove all the numbers on the temperature dial - arrggh!) and then, just after I'd put in an online supermarket order for frozen party food, wine and fizz - the fridge freezer packed up: everything in the freezer section defrosted; everything in the fridge section froze. Double arrgghhhh! However, through a combination of sheer determination and a lot of good luck, a new ff has just been delivered from John Lewis (a mere 14 hours after we realised the last one had died) so hopefully the show - and the party - can go on! I'll keep you posted but I just need a little lie down in a darkened room so my stress levels can subside! xx

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Pure Passion Awards 2010

This was always going to be a very special event. Not only is 2010 the RNA’s Golden Anniversary, it is also fifty years since the Romantic Novel of the Year was first awarded. A fabulous party was obviously in order – and fabulous parties are something the RNA does with aplomb! The champagne reception before lunch was a glamorous melee of writers, agents, editors, and the other great and the good of the publishing industry; the meal a sophisticated three-course affair of melon, guinea fowl, and a specially created chocolate dessert; whilst the tables were beautifully decorated with artfully stacked pink gift boxes and sprinkled with Galaxy ‘Minstrels’ and golden heart-shaped chocolates.
It was fitting to have someone of the stature of Barry Norman (possibly the ultimate contender for the title of ‘Thinking Woman’s Crumpet’) to present the awards. Barry is no stranger to the world of publishing, and has not only written a number of books himself but is married to Ariana Franklin, the historical novelist. He told us that writers were the group of people he admired most in the world – even more than his sporting idols – and described the assembled audience as ‘the José Mourinho’s of the written word’.
The presentation of the awards themselves also had a number of fresh twists: as well as four new prize categories, those short-listed for the main award each gave a little pre-recorded speech and these were then shown in between the other presentations. This increased the (already overwhelming) sense of anticipation and gave the audience a chance to get to know the nominees a little – a splendid innovation.
The afternoon was rounded off with goody-bags containing more scrummy chocolate and an edition of Loves Me, Loves Me Not. As Chairman Katie Fforde aptly put it, this was ‘an extra fabulous event for our Fiftieth Anniversary’. Well done, RNA.

The People's Choice Award: Missing You by Louise Douglas (Pan)

Love Story of the Year: Animal Instincts by Nell Dixon (Little Black Dress)

Romantic Comedy Novel of the Year: The Nearly-Weds by Jane Costello (Simon and Shuster)

The Harry Bowling Prize for New writing: Fear No Evil by Debbie Johnson

Romantic Film of the Year: An Education by Lynn Barber (Penguin)

Romantic Novel of the Year: Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts by Lucy Dillon (Hodder and Stoughton)

There were also lifetime achievement awards for the wonderful Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope.

A brilliant event to celebrate brilliant books and, as nominee for Love Story of the Year Nina Harrington put it, the real prize wasn't winning, it was simply being shortlisted for such a prestigious award. Huge congratulations to all those nominated - winners or not - you are all fabulous!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Funny You Should Write That: Part 2

Some of the tricks mentioned in part one for structuring individual jokes can be expanded and applied to creating the perfect comic storyline. However, before I start discussing how best to do this (and how I personally go about structuring a novel) I want to look briefly at the two forms of non-novel writing which I find the most useful when thinking about the structures of my books.
Two Act Sit Com with Multiple StorylinesThe basic structure for a sit com, whether British or American, is essentially that of a two act play. The viewer is quickly introduced to the ideas and themes which will be explored in the episode; a crisis occurs roughly at the midway point (just before the ad break if the show is on commercial television); this is often temporarily resolved or (more likely) suppressed in some way, only to escalate further later on. Finally there is an enormous crisis, and this is either resolved (on the whole, US sit coms like tidy endings), or we fade out on a scene of complete and utter chaos (think back to almost any episode of Fawlty Towers where we leave Basil in the most hideous mess). Within this basic two act structure, the writers will be weaving a web of storylines – usually at least three. The main storyline, known as the ‘A’ story, dominates the episode; and there will usually be two lesser plots running alongside it (‘B’ and ‘C’). Sometimes, if there is a very strong ‘B’ story, a minor plotline known as a ‘runner’ (sometimes not much more than a running gag) will be used to break up the action. This use of different storylines is important in creating pace and tension – you flip from one to the other leaving the viewer desperate to know what happens next; and for creating peaks and troughs of interest at different times in the different storylines. It is easy to see how this use of multiple plot lines criss-crossing each other is excellent fodder for the novelist. Marian Keyes is a brilliant exponent of this technique. She will have at least two main storylines running in a book, sometimes set at different points in time, and flip between them every few chapters leaving the reader with a cliff-hanger each time she does so. Thus, in Rachel’s Holiday we switch between Rachel’s life in the re-hab centre and her previous life in New York, being given just enough time to become fully absorbed in one setting before we are snatched away and deposited in the other. The result: a complete and utter page-turner.
Alan Ayckbourn once said that the aim of farce was to take the audience to a completely ridiculous place by way of a carefully constructed series of entirely logical steps. The audience have to be able to say ‘yes, I can see how that would happen’ at each of those steps, or they will never be able to suspend their disbelief enough to accept the dénouement that is awaiting them. Farce has to be planned; there is no way (unless you have a brain the size of Einstein’s) that you are going to be able to sit down and write one off the top of your head – you need to know in advance who your characters are, what their conflicts are going to be, where you are going to begin and – most importantly – where you want to end up.
Farce thrives on muddles, mistakes and lies. Take the Feydeau farce A Flea in her Ear: this begins with a wife mistakenly thinking her husband is having an affair. To test him, she gets her best friend to write him a suggestive letter inviting him to an hotel with a seedy reputation and goes there (with the best friend) to await his arrival. The husband, however, believes the letter is meant for his best friend, hands it over and the friend quickly heads off to the hotel where, of course, the husband’s wife and friend are waiting. The husband then shows the letter to the wife’s best friend’s husband who recognises his wife’s handwriting and runs off the hotel vowing to kill her. We are nowhere near the end of the play but you can see already that the whole thing is completely out of hand – and, importantly, how Feydeau draws us in by making sure each step builds on what has preceded it. Sophie Kinsella is an author who draws brilliantly on this tradition of farce: Becky Bloomwood, largely through her own inability to say ‘no’, repeatedly finds herself in ridiculous dénouements with the reader wondering how on earth she is going to extricate herself – and yet, when you come to think back through the chain of events that led her there, each link in that chain is a logical progression from what has gone before.
Now let’s look at a few of the ‘joke’ techniques that can be expanded to add structure to your novel.
The Rule of Three
Just as when you are writing an individual funny, the Rule of Three can be useful in plotting a novel. Like the individual joke, you will need to create a ‘list’ of three linked ideas, although these will be events or scenes rather than a few words. For example, maybe one of your characters’ goals could be worked into a sequence of three scenes that are dotted through the novel – maybe a proposal of marriage (two failed attempts before the question is successfully popped), or perhaps a request for a promotion (the boss refuses to listen or disaster strikes each time the character opens his mouth the ask for the pay rise). Remember that the first two events/scenes of your list of three can be similar but a twist will need to be applied to the third for it to work successfully.
The Subversion of ExpectationAgain, as with an individual joke, this can be used to comic effect in your plotline. For example, you could build up one character as a super-villain, only to have him exposed at the end as a big softie. Or maybe the heroine suspects the hero of having an unpalatable aspect to his character, only to find out at the crucial moment she has been wrong all along.
Funny Characters
Everyone from Jane Austen to John Cleese uses characters who are in some way amusing. Occasionally these play to preconceived stereotypes (although of course the clever author will subvert the reader’s expectation that it is a stereotype!) or use characters with an obvious comic defect – Mrs Malaprop, for example, and her numerous literary descendants. In my opinion, though, one of the cleverest ways to create a comic character is not to go for the obvious, but to play your characters’ goals and conflicts off against each other to create comic moments: think Basil Fawlty with Manuel, Blackadder with Baldrick and Martin and Frasier/Niles. I recently read Twenties Girl and noticed that this is something which Sophie Kinsella does with aplomb (particularly at the start of the book) by setting up Lara and Sadie’s goals as a sort of battle of wills and waiting to see who wins – with hilarious results. As with individual jokes, simply being mean to a character (particularly if they are weak or disadvantaged in some way) is never funny; and I do think it is terribly important that rom com heroines are strong, capable women rather than pathetic wrecks without any sense or chutzpah who only just manage to muddle through. Remember that the funniest characters will always be the most original, or those which approach their goals and conflicts in a fresh way.
How I Structure my BooksI like to start with a hero and heroine who have some fundamental conflict between them – even if, like Mark and Lucy in Tug of Love, it takes a chapter or two before you find out what it is. Then I try and ‘double conflict’ my heroine by putting her in an awkward position outside of the main love story so she is now fighting on two separate fronts. With my main characters’ goals now in place, I know where I am heading and set course for a pre-planned mid-point. At this mid-point (mid-points, by the way, are the perfect device for avoiding the dreaded saggy middle) I try to create a scene which contains the potential for the hero and heroine’s problems to be resolved – only I’m not going to let that happen! Instead, in a hopefully comic manner, I dangle it tantalizingly for a few pages before whipping it away again. About three-quarters of the way through, comes the moment when the reader needs to think there is no way things can ever work out – the Point of No Return - when things for ther heroine are looking as bad as they can possibly get. However, because I write comedy, my books have to have a happy ending: so, somehow, the heroine has to save the day and triumph wonderfully over adversity. Then she and the hero resolve any outstanding issues between them before riding off romantically into the sunset.
Of course, none of this is set in stone, but I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going. This structure gives me flexibility whilst at the same time nagging me to make my moments of crisis and resolution are properly spaced out within the narrative and well balanced. It’s a structure I’ve scavenged from a number of sources, including Hollywood rom coms and the great Jane Austen herself (she loves her mid-points, does Jane!)
Whilst this is in no way supposed to be a definitive tutorial on How You Must Structure Your Rom Com, I hope it has helped. I find that sometimes one can be carried away by the creative flow and, by having this (or any!) structure in place in the back of one’s mind, it can the pace and balance of one’s writing. I do think comedy needs more forethought and structure than other genres (detective fiction perhaps excepted) because culturally we have a strong expectation and feel for the rhythms of comedy – and as a writer you might as well play to those expectations. Whatever you are writing though, enjoy it – because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Happy writing!

Thursday, 4 March 2010

A lovely review from Debs at Novelicious!

Both Debs and Kirsty really liked the book and gave it 10/10. Wow! To read the review, click here

Friday, 19 February 2010

Twenties Girl

I've not done a proper book review on the blog before but now is the time! I was given 'Twenties Girl' for Valentine's Day and began reading it about ten minutes after the wrapper (or, because this is my husband we're talking about, the Waterstone's carrier bag) came off - and I had a hard job putting it down again. For those who are unaware of Sophie Kinsella's latest offering, the novel concerns a girl, Lara, who is attending the funeral of her great-aunt, a seriously elderly lady who died alone and unloved in a nursing home - only to find herself accosted by the twenty-three year old ghost of that same relative. No one can see or hear Great Aunt Sadie apart from Lara (although Sadie does have certain powers of persuasion and influence over the unsuspecting living!)and together they embark on a quest to find Sadie's missing necklace; a quest that turns Lara's world completely upside down.
The book romps along with more twists and turns than roller coaster ride, accompanied by Kinsella's brilliantly witty prose. However, as well as some really funny moments, it also had a depth and poignancy that moved me - hard-baked old cynic that I am - in a way that none of her previous books have ever managed to do. It was as if her already superb writing had been shifted up onto another level. Of all her books, I think this has got to rate as my favourite and one I shall definitely be re-reading before too long. If you haven't read it then - BUY IT NOW! Or you'll be missing a real treat.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Not-So Secret Diary of a City Girl - chapter one

Chapter One

A sound like an incoming missile alert sliced through the air and threw me into a state of confusion. Up until then, I’d been asleep and dreaming about a man hitting me on the back of the head with a sledge hammer; now, however, even though I was awake, my dream not only seemed to be carrying on but the pain was getting worse.
I groaned.
What was going on?
“For God’s sake turn the bloody alarm clock off!” muttered a voice next to me, half-muffled by the duvet.
I reached an arm out from under the covers and smacked the clock hard. So hard, in fact, that it shot off my bedside table and into the outer darkness over by the wardrobe.
I groaned again and tried to open my eyes, only to find that they were glued shut by a combination of excess alcohol consumption, extreme sleep deprivation and Lash-a-bility – ‘the mascara that keeps on working while you party!’
“If you don’t turn the alarm clock off,” the voice next to me said, “I shall do it myself. And after that, I shall be forced to execute you for crimes against humanity.”
Frankly, death seemed pretty appealing right then (as opposed to the ‘death warmed up’ option, which I was currently experiencing). However, I was never one to shirk my duty, so I threw back the covers, crawled on my hands and knees towards the noise (which now seemed to have an added pneumatic drill-like quality to it), picked up my hairdryer and aimed it the offending timepiece. There was an almighty crack – one that felt as though it sliced the top of my skull open – and then peace, blessed peace, reigned supreme.
Exhausted, I lay down with my head on the carpet and the throbbing in my temples subsided slightly.
“What time is it?” muttered the occupant of my bed.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I can’t actually open my eyes.”
“Are you alright?”
“So long as I lie down flat it’s okay,” I said. “If I try to stand up, I feel as though I’m going to slide off the floor. How about you?”
I prised one eye-lid open with my fingers and was rewarded by the sight of Polly, my friend and work colleague, draped over the edge of the bed with her normally sleek, black hair standing up on end.
“I was well and truly mugged by the beer gorilla last night,” she whispered.
“You mean the Long Island Iced Tea Gorilla,” I reminded her, rolling onto my back to see if that helped at all, “who was accompanied by his cousins the chardonnay chimpanzee and the Tequila Slammer Orang-utan.”
Polly groaned and put a pillow over her head.
“I hate you,” she said. “It’s all your fault; it was your birthday.”
“It couldn’t have been,” I said, wondering who’d turned up the wattage on the streetlight outside my window and wishing I could reach my sunglasses. “My birthday’s on a Wednesday this year. We would never have got this drunk on a week night.”
“But it was your birthday,” Polly struggled up briefly onto her elbows before collapsing back onto the mattress, “I know that because we all went to the pub after work and then you invited everyone back here after last orders.”
Vague, swimmy recollections of catching the tube to Hammersmith with fifteen of my closest friends and co-workers swam into my addled brain.
“Oh God,” I mumbled. “Are they all still here?”
“No, you sent them all home.”
“So why are you here?”
“Because I spilled tequila on my shoes and put them under the shower for half an hour to clean them off. They were wringing.”
“And why are you in my bed?”
“You said I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the spare room because I had to stop you calling Tom in the middle of the night and yelling at him.”
“Why, what had he done?” Yelling at anyone was certainly not my usual M.O.; I must have been pretty far gone to have even contemplated it.
“He’d – oh, fuckadoodle, Laura! Have you seen the time – we are so dead!”
I peeled open my other eyelid just in time to see Polly drop my mobile phone onto the bedside table as though it had scalded her and sprint into the bathroom.
“It’s Thursday!” she yelled, her words cutting through me like blades on a scythe, “Thursday the Tenth of March and we’re late for work.”
“Shit!” I murmured and staggered after her, pausing only briefly to throw a couple of Neurofens and half a pint of water down my gullet.
Thursday the Tenth of March was not the day to be late. Thursday the Tenth of March was not the day to be turning up at work with a raging hangover. Thursday the Tenth of March was the day they were announcing redundancies in the Analysis Department of the Metropolitan and Provincial Bank and the last thing either of us wanted to do was give the powers that be any encouragement to send the Curse of the Job Centre in our direction.
Three quarters of an hour later, with our arms linked together to keep us vertical and each clutching bottles of mineral water, Polly and I lurched up Cornhill in the City of London, before hanging a right into St Andrewgate where the Metropolitan’s head office was situated. Five years ago, this street had contained nothing to mark it out from any other City thoroughfare (some low-rise, low-grade office buildings; a white, slightly scary Hawkswood church at one end and a couple of take-away sandwich shops); but now, thanks to the profits made by our bank (the bank that wants to make you smile!) during the boom years, it was now home to The Screwdriver – the newest and biggest super skyscraper in town. We rounded a corner and found ourselves squinting as the spring sunlight bounced energetically off its glass and chrome structure. Considerably fatter at the base, it’s angular sides tapered thirty-five floors later to a rounded point that would have had Sigmund Freud rubbing his hands together in glee, it was so striking and cutting-edge that it made every other building around look as though it needn’t have bothered turning up.
I always felt a little thrill of excitement as I trotted up the four pale York Stone steps that flowed out from the base of the building like ripples on a pond. I might not earn as much as Tom on his trading desk; I might secretly think that churning out endless reports on company performances and share movements was not the most exciting job in the world; sometimes I might even dream of spending doing something really off the wall like being a big game warden or monitoring dolphin numbers in the Bahamas – but I totally loved the fact that I got to work in the hottest building in town.
No, scratch that.
The hottest building in the world.
People applied for transfers from our New York offices just so that they could work at The Screwdriver. The guys in the Paris office said ‘mais non’ to the Left Bank and begged to be allowed to work amongst les rosbifs here in London. Applications were also up from Tokyo, Singapore and Honk Kong: the kudos of the Screwdriver outweighing the charms of life in the Far East; and even the Aussies were queuing up in droves to leave sunny Sydney so that they could work in the British rain at the ‘Screwy’.
As for me, a country girl from a no-mark village in darkest Wiltshire, it was so awesome I felt as though I was doing something vaguely illegal sneaking in here every day.
“Morning Dennis,” I croaked to the man in a deep, clarety-red morning suit and top hat who was standing at the top of the steps next to the automatic door.
“Morning Laura!” Our Doorman deftly tipped his hat a quarter of an inch in our direction. “Morning Polly. Passes?”
We waved our laminated security passes in his general direction and he pushed the revolving door open, allowing us to glide into the cool (and mercifully shady) marbled expanse of the foyer. We gingerly click-clacked our way across the polished floor, past a desk so huge it had to be staffed by three receptionists, and into one of the glass-and-chrome lifts that shuttled up and down the see-through frontage of the first twenty-five floors of the building.
I leant my still-pounding head against one of the cool, steel ribs that encased the elevator pod and closed my eyes.
“Remind me why I’m here,” I muttered, “and not at home sleeping it off.”
Polly mumbled “Floor Twenty” into the lift’s voice-activated control panel.
“Because we not only deliver the best – we are the best,” she trotted out our departmental mission statement.
“Bollocks,” I said, clutching my temples as the lift rocketed upwards, leaving my stomach behind somewhere between floors ten and eleven.
“Okay,” she conceded, “we’re actually here because if we call in sick we’ll get redundancy for sure; and if that happens we’ll never get another job ever again because everyone now thinks that bankers are the anti-Christ and we’ll be forced to move back in with our parents until we finally die in our old, pink bedrooms with peeling posters of Robbie Williams and Damon Albarn on the walls. That’s why.”
I shivered. The idea of going home to the bosom of my family (or my mother anyway; my parents had divorced not long after my Dad’s business had disappeared down the u-bend) was enough to convince me of the importance of dragging myself into work come hell or a hangover. In fact, I would even have been willing to wear the bilious lime-green Metropolitan baseball cap and t-shirt to client meetings around town if it gained me any brownie points with the HR department.
“You’re alright,” I said mournfully, “you could always shack up with Archie. If I lose my job and I can’t pay the mortgage I’ll have to move home.”
The sound of Polly choking came from somewhere over by the lift door.
“Oh God,” she said in a strangled voice, “ohgodohgodohgod. Are you serious? Me? With Archie?”
I opened one eye and saw her having some sort of seizure over by the door. Archie was a tall, thin chap in our department who had had a thing for Polly since the moment he’d first walked through the doors of our office and saw her lovely face illuminated by the light of the photocopier.
“After you put your shoes in the shower, you spent the rest of the evening playing tonsil tennis with Archie in the kitchen,” I informed her.
“Floor Twenty” announced the lift in a voice that sounded almost like Professor Stephen Hawking; and we crawled out of our glass pod.
We found ourselves on a carpeted corridor bounded on one side by huge glass panels held together by a spider-webbed network of chrome frames and, on the other, by a seemingly-endless curving white wall containing a number of identical doors. Polly leaned against the latter and put her head in her hands.
“Oh God,” she breathed again. “That’s why there were ten messages from him on my voicemail this morning.”
She looked up at me, obviously expecting the worst.
“I didn’t – tell me I didn’t – with him – with Archie?”
“After I’d turned off the shower and put your shoes in the airing cupboard, I found you asleep in the hall under the coat rack fully clothed,” I reassured her. “Your virtue remains intact.”
Polly closed her eyes with relief.
“But you still haven’t told me why I wanted to yell at Tom,” I added, thinking that yelling at anyone right now would have serious consequences for my headache.
“Because he – oh, shit, Laura; it’s gone eight o’clock. Get moving.”
Ignoring the impressive cityscape pooling out below me through the glass panels, I scurried off along the corridor behind Polly feeling like a Twenty-first Century Alice in Wonderland heading down the Rabbit Hole. We passed door after door after door; some with brass name plates announcing the occupants to be ‘Smithers and Company, Insurance Brokers’, or ‘Carridan and Lacey, Solicitors’; until we stopped at one with the Metropolitan’s logo on it, swiped our passes through an electronic card-reader and walked into a large office area. Croaking ‘hello’ to various colleagues, we made our way through rows of desks topped with computer monitors, in-trays and telephones; hung a left down a wide corridor lined with photocopiers and then turned right through a pair of double doors. This was our patch, our home territory. It consisted of a small open-plan room containing fifteen identical work-stations separated by brown desk dividers a foot or so in height, a small kitchen area and, on the far wall, two very large flat-screen televisions respectively blasting out Bloomberg and the less well-known, but eerily prescient, Financial News Today. The latter broadcast from a small set of studios two streets away from the Screwdriver but were often in there with the breaking stuff before the big boys at the BBC or Sky had time to reshuffle their scripts.
I found my desk, dumped my bag and coat, booted up the computer and then shoved off to the kitchen to concoct the super-strength, forty-thousand-volt espresso that was needed if I was going manage anything more productive than lying with my head on the desk, drooling out of the corner of my mouth.
A phone started to ring.
My temples throbbed.
Nobody picked the phone up, so it carried on ringing.
My headache got a hundred times worse.
It didn’t stop.
I began to hate the person who owned the phone.
Still it continued.
I put my hands over my ears.
Another phone joined in.
I screwed my face up to try and block out the sound and...
...realised that my jacket pocket was vibrating.
Sheepishly, I put my hand into my pocket and pulled out both the mobile I used for personal calls and the BlackBerry I had for work.
The screens told me that both callers were Tom.
The fuddled state of my brain found this difficult to understand; but nevertheless I gamely pressed a phone to each ear.
“Tom?” I said. “Why are you doing ringing me twice? In fact, how are you ringing me twice?”
“I rang your mobile with my mobile but you weren’t answering so I called your BlackBerry with my BlackBerry at the same time and waited to see which one you picked up first.”
I realised that I could only hear his voice in my left ear so I switched my mobile off and stuffed it back into my pocket.
“Okay,” I said, having very little idea of what he’d just said but being profoundly grateful that the noise had abated, “what can I do for you?”
“I wondered whether you liked it?”
Oh shit; my birthday present.
It all came flooding back to me: that was why I’d wanted to ring him at one o’clock in the morning.
“It was a man’s watch, Tom,” I said with remarkable composure.
“No, it wasn’t; it just had a few gadgety bits on it. It’s the last word in Swiss design and it cost me an arm and a bloody leg.”
“Tom, listen to me: it was a man’s underwater watch capable of telling me the depth of dive, water pressure per square metre, temperature and it came with an optional shark-proof reading light attachment. When, exactly, in my hectic life of spreadsheets and City finance did you think I was going to use it?”
“I don’t know – couldn’t you use it to start conversations with important clients at drinks’ parties?”
I took a very deep breath.
“The strap is so big the whole thing keeps sliding off my wrist and anyway, you know perfectly well analysts don’t get invited to any client drinks’ parties.”
“Okay, fine,” replied Tom wearily, “I was in such a rush when I picked it out I must have gone for the wrong thing. Sorry.”
Last year my present had been a ticket for a World Cup rugby match at Twickenham – in the stands; none of your corporate-hospitality-with-free-champagne-and-a-three-course-lunch milarkey. At least with jewellery he was heading in the right general direction, even if he couldn’t quite manage the gender specifics.
“Go on then,” he continued, as though he was doing me an enormous favour, “keep the refund and get yourself something else.”
I bit my lip. Choosing my own present with a refund from a useless watch wasn’t as romantic as having my boyfriend lovingly select the perfect gift to celebrate my twenty seventh birthday – but it was probably the best I was going to get.
“Alright. I’ll meet you after work and you can give me the receipt. Then you can buy me a belated birthday drink to make up for not coming out with us last night – and what about a belated birthday candlelit dinner for two whilst you’re about it?” I suggested hopefully.
Tom had texted yesterday to say he had to pass on my party because of an emergency team meeting at work. A journalist on Financial News Today had broken a story about the investment bank he worked for, Davis Butler, having massive undeclared losses. Their share price had fallen like a stone and it was currently touch and go as to whether they would survive.
From the other end of the phone came a silence so uncomfortable, it might as well have been wearing jeans three sizes too small.
“The thing is, Laura, I’m a bit busy tonight.”
“Yeeees?” He’d better have a bloody good excuse...
“It’s England versus South Africa tonight so me and few of the lads were going to catch it on the big screen at the pub,” he concluded sheepishly.
“But you missed my birthday party!” I protested. “You owe me a night out.”
“I know and I’m really sorry about it but – oh, shit! Laura, I’ve got to go; the boss wants to see me. Later!”
And he rang off.
I shoved my BlackBerry back into my pocket and turned to see Polly leaning against the fridge.
“What?” I barked, busying myself with the espresso function on the coffee machine. Polly raised her hands in submission: “Hey, I didn’t say a word.”
“He said he was sorry about blowing me out last night,” I said, slamming cups around and then cringing as the noise re-ignited my thumping headache. “And you know things are difficult for him at the moment after that news story broke: they’re still talking about massive redundancies. Oh, and he didn’t mean to buy me a crap present, he was just stressed out.”
Polly’s visage softened – but only marginally.
“So he’s taking you out to the Ivy to make up for it?” She asked, opening a tin of biscuits and shoving two chocolate digestives in her mouth at once.
“Whisking you away for a romantic weekend in Florence?”
“Replacing that stupid watch with an engagement ring and suggesting that the pair of you start house-hunting first thing Saturday morning?”
“Don’t be daft. You know he’s living with his Mum and Dad till he’s got enough money saved for a deposit.”
Polly frowned.
“That boy could afford a down payment on Windsor Castle, but there you go. So when are you actually going to see him? ”
“I’m calling briefly into the Lamb and Flag to throw the diver’s watch at his head at about a quarter to seven this evening. After that it’s all rather up in the air – soon, anyway.”
Polly’s eye-brows shot skywards and she helped herself to another biscuit.
“I don’t know why you put up with it,” she mumbled through a mouthful of biscuity mush. “You can’t have seen each other properly for ages.”
I shrugged and helped myself to a custard cream.
“It won’t be like this for ever,” I said. “It’s a phase. A blip. We’re both flat out a work and we have a healthy range of interests outside our relationship.”
Polly gave me a look piercing enough to open a can of beans at fifty paces.
“You need a healthy range of interests inside your relationship too,” she reminded me. “When you first got together he couldn’t leave you alone for five minutes – texts, phone calls, flowers; the whole nine yards. Now you’re lucky if you see him from one weeks’ end to the next.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Like I said, it’s not for ever and anyway, we’ve been together for over a year now, part of it’s probably our relationship moving onto the next stage – you know: less of the uncontrollable passion, more of the need to make sure the bills get paid and the suits get picked up from the dry cleaners.”
And I looked away and fiddled with the filter on the coffee machine for a bit.
It was true what I said – well, almost true. Over the past few of months Tom and I had been spending less and less time together, but I’d sort of blocked it out. To be honest, I couldn’t think of a night in the last six weeks when we’d actually been together, but it wasn’t as though I’d spent our time apart sitting alone at home in my pyjamas, drinking chardonnay on my lonesome and sobbing into a tissue.
Well, the sobbing into a tissue bit, anyway.
However, apart from being crap at present buying Tom pretty much ticked every box I could think of (and even a few that I couldn’t). Not only was he tall, fair and so achingly gorgeous both in a suit and out of one, that my knees still went a bit bendy when I saw him; but he was also financially secure and came from a pretty-much together, traditional family – both things that had been painfully absent in my own upbringing. So I told myself that it would all be okay as I smoothed over the missed dates and the forgotten phone calls; forgave him when he almost always needed to work late and reassured him that I understood the pressures that came with his job. After all, this was me, remember: the girl who would rather run a mile than have a stand-up row and who, if such a thing existed, would win the Nobel Prize for biting her tongue.
I fished a jammy dodger out of the tin and turned back to Polly.
“Oh, what do I know anyway?” she gave a big, heartfelt sigh. “I haven’t had a boyfriend in so long, I probably qualify as some sort of neo-virgin.”
“There’s always Archie,” I reminded her, pouring Polly’s cappuccino and switching the function to ‘espresso’ for myself. “He’s nuts about you.”
Polly shrugged.
“Yeah, but he’s – well, he’s Archie, isn’t he? He’s sweet enough, but he jumps about like an over-enthusiastic Labrador puppy with its tongue hanging out and I don’t know if I could handle that full-time.”
“It’s only because he’s nervous,” I replied, putting my mug under the hissing spout of the machine. “Anyway, I think you should try it; he might just give you a pleasant surprise.”
Polly took a sip of scalding coffee and fanned her mouth violently.
“Oooh-er, missus,” she replied. “Anyway, we better get back there. The Firing Squad are due down in five.”
We walked back out to the office area, took our seats and booted up the computers so that it would look as though we were doing something vaguely constructive when the posse from HR made their appearance. We knew the form from the whispered tales that wound their way from department to department like quick-growing jungle creeper: a small number of Human Resources staff would appear; there would be a general announcement about the ‘rationalization of staff numbers’ and the need for ‘down-sizing’ given the ‘non-advantageous economic climate’; then the name of the first victim be read out and they would slope off to a small, soundproof office with Sophie Spink, our Head of Personnel, to be given their marching orders. After that another name would be called and the pattern repeated until the cull was finished. It was a horrible, degrading process and always made me think of us, the powerless employees, trembling like a herd of cornered wildebeest, whilst a pack of Human Resources lions prowled round the outside picking off as many as they could get away with.
We didn’t have to wait long. Before I’d even been able to get Spider Solitaire up onto my screen, the double doors burst open and in marched Sophie in a tight tailored suit and heels so long and spiky you could have used them to harpoon whales.
We all sat bolt upright at our work stations and a terrified hush descended on the room. Eyes darted from colleague to colleague and then back again to Sophie as we tried to second guess who would be first up for the walk to the scaffold.
Despite the fact that she seemed to be operating without her usual entourage of minions, Sophie didn’t waste any time in getting to the point.
“You all know why I’m here,” she said, each syllable issuing from her mouth like the crack of a bullet exiting a gun barrel. “But I am pleased to tell you that there has been a slight change of plan.”
Gary down at the end gave a whooping cheer but Sophie silenced him instantly with a scorching glare.
“We have obtained four voluntary redundancies from the Private Client Department,” she continued, her tone of voice making it sound as though she’d extracted those personally through the use of thumb-screws and a torture rack. “And therefore the disruption to Analysis will be minimal.”
The collective fear of fifteen people which had been cresting above us like a huge, dark cloud suddenly rolled away and the sun shone once again: we were saved! We all lived to work another day! Yippeee!
Sophie stood regarding our palpable relief with a steely gaze: she hadn’t quite finished.
“So if Laura McGregor would like to follow me, please, the rest of you can get on with your work.”
And she twisted her mouth into something that, on Planet Spink, might have passed for a smile.
At that moment, I swear that my blood turned to ice. In fact, if you had severed one of my arteries, tiny red ice crystals would have come clunking out and spilled over my desk. I sat, rigid with disbelief; my right hand still gripping my mouse and my left lying comatosed in my lap.
Sophie shot me a gimlet-eyed look.
“If Laura McGregor would like to follow me,” she repeated slightly louder than before, “the rest of you can get on with your work.”
Somehow my body managed to raise itself up out of its seat and take the five steps across the carpet to join her. I could feel the stares of my colleagues – pitying, relieved, even genuinely distressed – boring into my flesh as Sophie and I then made our way over towards a tiny room situated next to the kitchen.
Once inside, she shut the door, pulled down the blinds and gestured for me to take a seat. However, I found I couldn’t actually make my knees bend and my bottom place itself on the low plastic chair positioned opposite hers. My pulse was thumping in my throat and my palms were beginning to sweat. Sophie shrugged and pulled up a chair for herself before slapping down a large, beige envelope on the teeny tiny table between us: it was my personnel file.
“Right Laura,” she began, her tone of voice indicating that our meeting represented a rather tedious low-point in her otherwise action-packed schedule of personnel management. “Let’s get to the point.”
I closed my eyes and tried to resign myself to my worst nightmare: I was about to lose my job. Without my job I would lose the preferential mortgage rate the Metropolitan offered its employees, and without that I would probably have to sell the flat. It might take months – if not a year or two – to get another job in finance; and in the meantime all I would have to live on would be a dwindling pot of money from the sale of my home and whatever the bank decided to cough up as my severance package. Polly’s scaresville scenario might even come true and I’d have to move home with my mother.
However, before I could get round to grappling Sophie to the ground and using one of her dagger-like heels to slice open my wrists, I became aware that she was still speaking.
This struck me as odd; I mean, if all she had to was tell me to put my stuff in a box and make sure I was out of the building by nine o’clock, she was being rather long-winded about it. Maybe...perhaps...possibly...
“If I might – just – for one moment,” I began tentatively.
Sophie gave me a withering look.
“Yes?” she snapped, sounding as though she would rather eat live spiders than give me the right of reply. (Although to be honest, I wouldn’t be that surprised if they used that sort of thing as a training technique to keep them mean ‘n’ focussed up in HR)
“I have been with the bank since graduation,” I said, fear of the grisly fate giving me little option but to put the case for the defence, “and in that time I have become one of the most profitable members of my department. My line manager comments favourably on my work and I have always exceeded my performance targets by at least a margin of thirty per cent. I would suggest that given those performance indicators I am not the obvious choice for redundancy within my department.”
Blimey! Had that been me? Had I really just opened my mouth and made those particular words come out? I was impressed. The question was, would Sophie be too...
“Is that all?” she said, unblinking.
My spirits sank. She might as well have said ‘So?’ or ‘whatever!’; her voice told me that her mind was already made up. I was doomed. Dooooooomed, d’you hear?
I took a deep breath and waited for the ritual humiliation of the handing over of the P45.
“As I was saying,” Sophie resumed pointedly, “you are to report to Will Barton in SunSpot Hedge Funds. You will be working with him for the next few weeks in addition to your usual role.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “would you repeat that please?”
I was totally convinced that what she had actually said was ‘please ensure you leave by the main doors and surrender your pass to Reception’ but it hadn’t sounded like that.
“Really, Laura,” Sophie grumbled, “you need to pay more attention. I’ve told you to report to Will Barton at SunSpot. There’s a new hedge fund coming on-line in a couple of months and Will needs someone for a few weeks to oversee the data that’s going to go into the prospectus and help with various bits and pieces. There will be some analyst duties but it’s basically a bit of a mixed bag – still, I’m sure you will rise to the challenge.”
For about ten seconds, I forgot to breathe.
“Will Barton?” I gasped, feeling as though I had somehow died and gone to heaven.
“Will Barton,” Sophie confirmed brusquely, lining up her papers and tapping them together on the top of the table. “He’s expecting you for a preliminary meeting at a quarter to nine. He can answer any questions you might have then. That will be all.”
And she stalked out of the little room on her harpoon heels, leaving me staring moronically after her.
“Will Barton,” I breathed once again, still unable to process this piece of information.
Will Barton was a legend in his own (and everyone else’s lunchtime). A hugely successful hedge fund manager in New York, he had been lured across the Pond four months ago to be head of the Metropolitan’s ‘alternative investment portfolio’ – aka more hedge funds – with a transfer package that would have made Alex Fergusson wince. While other banks had been jettisoning hedges faster than you could say ‘the market may go down as well as up’, it seemed that anything Will Barton touched turned – almost literally – to gold. The boy could do no wrong.
And I got to work for him!
As soon as I regained the use of my legs, I walked back to my desk and sat down heavily. Polly rushed over.
“You okay?” she whispered.
I nodded dumbly.
“I’ve got a friend at The Royal Bank of Wales,” she whispered. “There’s a maternity leave position coming up in the analysts’ department. Do you want me to ring her?”
I shook my head.
“It wasn’t the sack,” I breathed. “It was Will Barton; he’s my new line manager.”
Polly’s eyes grew as wide as bistro pasta bowls.
“You get to work with Will Barton?” she said. “You jammy cow.”
The envy in her voice was almost tangible.
“That would be ‘work with him’, Polly,” I reminded her, “not ‘go out for lots of dinner dates with him’; and he wants to see me in – shit – he wanted to see me two minutes ago.”
I scrambled out of my seat clutching at a pad of paper, a biro and my bag.
“Good luck,” Polly called after me, “and if he needs a plus one for any of his posh corporate functions, you can give him my number.”
I legged it over to one of the lifts situated on the interior of the building and pressed the button to open the doors.
“Floor eighteen,” I panted into the voice operated thingie – and we were away; my stomach left thirty feet above me on Floor Twenty and my mind racing as I tried to envisage what life in the world of the hedge funds was going to involve.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Funny You Should Write That - Part One

I love comedy and try to inject as much humour as I can into my books. Since I began writing seriously, I have discovered all sorts of tricks of the comedy trade and thought they might prove as useful to other people as they have done to me. This post is intended as part one of two, and looks at how you can inject individual jokes or humorous moments in your work. In part two I will be suggesting how to structure a comedic storyline and how best to develop humorous yet realistic characters. Even though I write novels and assume that most people reading this will do too, I’m going to be pulling in examples from books, sit com and films. And finally, if some of these ideas seem painfully obvious then I apologise – often I find it’s the simplest, most ‘no-brainer’ rules which are the hardest to follow!
Structure, Structure and More Structure.
However anarchic it seems, comedy is anything but haphazard. There are several set forms of joke (see below) but one thing they all have in common is that the writer eeds to spend time honing and polishing to make them as good as they possibly can be. In particular, make sure you pay as much attention to the set-up as you would on the punchline: if your audience don’t understand where you are coming from, they won’t understand the joke. The funniest jokes are also often the simplest, so make sure your ideas are clear and the language you use is straightforward – that way your audience can focus on what you do say rather than wondering what on earth you are trying to say.
Simile and Metaphor.
This is an easy way to inject humour into your writing. Rather than just saying ‘her face went white’, be adventurous and try something like: ‘she went as white as a polar bear in a bucket of bleach’. It doesn’t matter that the literal truth of this would involve a. catching a polar bear; b. finding an improbably-sized bucket; and c. manhandling the said bear into the said improbably sized bucket and administering some Domestos – what is important is that you have taken the basic (slightly boring) idea of a pale face and turned it into something more inventive and even slightly surreal.
Amusing Words.
Some words are funnier than others. Some words can be funny in one context but not another. Some will always be dull – and it is our job as writers to sift through the possibilities and find the mot juste. In a recent interview, Victoria Wood talked about how difficult it can be to find that elusive ‘right’ word but said that when you do, it will make all the difference to your writing (she confessed to once anguishing for hours over the names of various types of biscuit, before settling on ‘gypsy creams’). As a basic rule of thumb, any word with a hard ‘c’ or ‘k’ sound will be funny. Thus, (according to my friend Sarah Jane), ‘cans are funnier than tins, concrete is funnier than cement, and kumquats are positively hilarious’.
Where in the Sentence?
Once you have your amusing line (probably a metaphor involving kumquats if you’re following this post to the letter), you need to decide where you are going to put in. Standard advice from the world of screenwriting says that for maximum impact, you should try and place your funny right at the end of a piece of dialogue. For novelists, this translates to putting your jokes (where possible) at the end of a sentence and preferably at the end of a paragraph. If you really want your funny to stand out, give it its own mini-paragraph. Kathy Lette and Marian Keyes both use this technique of allowing the punch-line to stand alone for maximum impact – although do use it sparingly: if you do this for every joke in the book, it will disrupt the otherwise smooth flow of your writing and annoy your reader!
The Rule of Three.
For some reason, the human brain is especially receptive to lists of three, whether it is items on a shopping list, cross-examination questions in court or joke writing. The thing to remember when you are structuring your group of three, is that whilst all of them need to be linked together in some way (otherwise they wouldn’t be a list) they cannot be identical. A man running into a door twice might be mildly amusing, but you need to vary the theme for the third and final time to make a comic impact – for example, have someone open the door so that he falls through (a classic, slapstick gag). It all also helps if you look on the first two items in your list as feedlines for the third (the punchline). One of the easiest ways of achieving this is to use the first two items to set up an expectation in your reader’s mind and then subvert this with the third. A (very) simple example of this would be to describe a male character as being ‘tall, dark and horrible’: you have a list of three, the final element of which surprises the reader who is expecting the word ‘handsome’.
Subverting the Reader’s Expectations.
This leads on nicely from the Rule of Three and, whilst it is often used in conjunction with the Rule, it functions very well by itself. It is a very simple format and, as you would expect, relies the writer establishing a premise and then undermining it. Thus, in Blackadder the Third the eponymous hero is reading the Situations Vacant column in the newspaper: ‘Ruthless, unprincipled cad wanted to be King of Sardinia. Must be non-smoker.’ Or (to Baldrick) ‘I would like to say how much I am going to miss you – but as we both know that would be a complete an utter lie.’ The level of comic effect lies in the originality of the juxtapositions/subversions you can come up with.
At its simplest, this can mean a good pun; a more complex example would involve whole sentences. My all-time favourite example comes from an episode of Frasier where Frasier and Niles are hoping to be elected to a swanky private members’ club:
Frasier: This is my brother Niles, the eminent psychiatrist.
Niles: My brother is too kind: he was eminent when my eminence was merely imminent.

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
Double Entendre.
I reckon this is a tough one to carry off unless you are Sid James or Julian Clary and my personal recommendation is to use DEs sparingly. That said, however, they can effectively to illustrate a character’s true state of mind – is someone desperately trying to disguise how they really feel and the DE is really a Freudian slip?
How Many Jokes are Enough?
This is really a matter of the writer’s personal taste; however, a book which contains gag after relentless gag runs the risk of exhausting the reader and turning him/her off. It can also limit the opportunities for creating believable characters (human beings are not continuously funny in real life) and developing the storyline. There is a rule of thumb in the American sit com scriptwriting business which says that there should be two ‘smile’ and one ‘laugh out loud’ gags for every page of script (roughly one minute of screen time), but even this may be too intense in a novel, where readers expect the tone and pace of a book to vary. As a writer, you need to understand the rhythm of your writing and learn to ‘feel’ when the narrative needs a bit of a lift. Trust your instincts and – very importantly – if you need to, don’t be afraid to kill off some of your jokes to allow those left behind on the page to flourish.
What isn’t Funny?
Humour is a personal thing, and what gets someone laughing like a drain will have the person next to them asking ‘what’s so funny?’ However, I do think there are a few issues of taste and good sense that are fairly much universal. As a basic law of comedy anything that involves cruelty or exploitation is unacceptable, as are outmoded stereotypes. As an intelligent woman writing for an audience of intelligent women, I believe it is important that my heroines are not imbecilic butterfly-brains – a trait which seems to be increasingly popular in Hollywood rom coms at the moment. Yes, a heroine must have flaws and she will probably get herself into scrapes (otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a storyline) but she shouldn’t be stupid: ultimately she needs the brains and chutzpah to get herself out of whatever mess she lands in, without a man doing it for her. On a different issue, I would beware of packing any particularly moving or serious scenes with jokes. This can undermine the gravitas you are trying to create and make you come across as flippant or uncaring. Having said that, however, tragedy and comedy are opposite sides of the same coin and black humour has long been part of the writer’s armoury, so don’t rule it out completely if you feel it is appropriate. Marian Keyes is particularly adept at negotiating this tricky tightrope and Is There Anybody Out There? is an amazing book where the black humour does not detract one iota from her subject. My personal rule is that you can laugh in a serious situation, but not at it – but please use sparingly!
I hope this has been helpful. In my next post I want to look at how you can work comic themes into the structure of your novel and develop your characters so that their comic potential shines through. I’d also like to talk about the idea of farce, and how that can be taken out of the theatre and included in your novel to great effect. Happy writing!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Finding Monsieur Right

Why not cheer yourself up on a grey January day with a bit of love, laughter and Paris in the summertime. Muriel Zagha's wonderful debut romantic comedy has just come out and is guaranteed to banish the winter blues once and for all! The blurb sums it all up thus: Daisy has just landed the perfect job: spending a year in Paris writing about fashion. Swapping home with French student Isabelle seems like the perfect arrangement. Studious Isabelle, however, finds London bewildering. But all her assumptions about crazy English guys are overturned when she meet hunky gardener Tom. Meanwhile, Fun-loving Daisy discovers that Paris is the City of Love, and there could be more than one Monsieur Right!

Absolutely brilliant and pure rom com heaven!

Click here for the Amazon link!

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Experiment

I was lucky enough to win a month's free membership of a local gym in the pre-school raffle this Christmas; and, last Thursday, I duly rolled up in my new (clean) trainers and running gear, filled in a questionnaire to prove I was not about to drop dead of a heart attack on their premises, and headed off for the treadmills.
As I've only got a month's membership, I'd already decided to make the most of it and go as often as I could but now I'm wondering, should I make the whole thing a bit more interesting and see if a whole month of exercise makes any difference at all to my shape. You'll notice I'm not talking weight here. A couple of years a go a got some bathroom scales as a Mothers' Day present (I kid you not) and took up running. I ran 5k a night for a whole summer and I lost - one pound. Depressing doesn't even begin to describe it. So this time I'm not getting on the scales but I will be looking at other indicators to find out if the new, fit me is in fact a new, slimmer/fitter me: a notch or two on the belt would be good, and I'd like to end up being able to run for more than 5k at a go. Yesterday 3 k almost killed me.
I have already fallen in love with the rowing machine. It's great - you get to sit down for starters; and rather than looking out of the window over a carpark on a dank, January Sunday, you can imagine yourself shooting off up the Cam on a summers' day - all good uplifting stuff. The only downnside to this is that the rowing machines are right next to the weights and there was a man there this afternoon who, frankly, sounded as though he was in the second stage of labour and waiting for the head to crown. It wasn't pretty.
Anyway, by February 14th, I will either be a slimmer, sylph like version of my current self or I will have proved (in my totally non-scientific-but-still-true way) that exercise is a rubbish weight-loss plan (my current working hypothesis) because it makes you so hungry you go home and EAT MORE. We will see.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Tugging it Right

Tugging it Right

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A really lovely review of 'Tug of Love' - thank you Anu Prabhaker of the Khaleej Times and yes, Jonathan was supposed to be like that!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Snow Joke!

Guess what - it's snowing! Once more with feeling as the white stuff drops from the sky on what is, traditionally, the coldest day of the year. Brrrrrr. As far as I'm concerned yes it is a nuisance, it can be dangerous (we know at least two people with broken bones as a result of the cold snap) but it is also quite fun. The supermarket on Saturday was a re-run of Christmas Eve - no veg, milk, eggs, beans tinned soup or bread. At Tesco, they had even sold out of bread FLOUR - we were obviously facing a disaster of apocalyptic proportions! The Frenchman ahead of me in the four-at-a-till deep queue was totally bemused as he unloaded butter, Camembert and salad from his trolley whilst watching people virtually coming to blows over the last packet of baking potatoes. And in case you were wondering, I was buying chorizo and olives rather than sliced white and milk: my strategy for getting through the cold is to munch my Mediterranean nosh and pretend I'm basking in the sun of a Spanish orange grove...

And the reason for all this snow? According to my brother, who probably deserves the Nobel Prize for interesting but strange snippets of information, it's all due to sun spots. We were due to start a new cycle last winter, but they still haven't materialized and there is good evidence to show that the snowy winters of the Nineteenth century (immortalized in Charles Dickens' novels) also occurred at a time of low or non-existent sun spot activity. So there you have it!

Stay warm xxxxxxxx

Monday, 4 January 2010

So that was Christmas, then...

We finally dismantled the tree yesterday and, apart from a straggly bit of holly up behind one of the pictures in the living room, the house is back to normal. I managed to be ill before AND after Christmas this year - rather than just after as normal - but cunningly wangled a week or so in between so I could cook the turkey, wrap the presents, beat my way through the pre-Christmas supermarket shopping hell, attend various nativity plays, do the refreshments at a couple of performances of 'The Wizard of Oz', go through the proofs of 'The Not-So secret Diary of a City Girl' etc etc. Handy.
The best bit of being ill is definitely lying in bed listening to the radio. This is something I don't get to do any more unless I have a temperature of at least 100 degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously) and legs that are incapable of staggering downstairs, but even so, it's something. I learned (courtesy of Woman's Hour) that Victorian households had twice as many servants than their predecessors in the Seventeenth century; that one of the unintended consequences of London's Congestion Charge has been an increase in motorbike accidents and that Stuart Maconie (him off Radio 2) collects Rupert Bear annuals. Fab. I even got to listen to the Great God Garrison Keillor.
Do check this one out, though, if you are of an Austen-ish persuasion (ha! no pun intended)Broadcast on Saturday morning, 'Jane Austen's IPod' was wonderful listening - especially the revelation that she altered the words of a Robert Burns song to put herself in it as the heroine. Marvellous. Worth every Beechams cold and Flu capsule to be able to catch that one!