Quick Update

All good things have to come to an end. Much as I find editing satisfying, it was time to call a halt, bite the bullet and send A Novel Solution onto my lovely publisher, SRL, for their verdict. That happened yesterday. My nails are now chewed down to the quick. Hope they love my characters and story as much as I do.

What’s next? Write another novel, of course!

Editing, I Love It!

I just luurve editing, though I know some writers hate it. I can see their point. You’ve written a book. Typed ‘the end’ at … well, the end. You sigh with relief. It’s over. It’s done. Another one under your belt. But it’s not. Not by a long chalk.

Because, unless you’re the Mozart of writing and produce a perfect, error-free manuscript at the first attempt, then comes the editing process. I understand how it can feel tedious, nit picking and an anticlimax after the excitement of creating that first draft but, for me, editing is where the real magic happens.

My first drafts, you see, are rough around the edges, written in short bursts as ideas come to me. I do my editing in – meals, sleep and family commitments permitting – longer, more continuous writing sessions. This means working long hours, often unwashed, sometimes still in PJs. I edit late at the night, wake early and put in a couple of hours, or sometimes stay in bed til lunchtime.

This half-awake state seems to suit me. Inconsistencies and repetitions jump out. Typos become glaringly obvious. Plot holes loom into view and, with luck, are filled in. New, more lively ways of expressing a thought pop into my head. In short, my rough story becomes a more polished and professional creation.

I suspect other writers feel the same. I seem to remember reading that Daphne du Maurier said something along similar lines: that when she first starts to write, all that comes out is rubbish but if she keeps at it, keeps producing rubbish, eventually the rubbish turns into something rather good. Well, it worked for her!

That’s where I’m at now. Producing something, I hope, that is rather good that will become my second comic fiction, A NOVEL SOLUTION. The next stage – and this is a really scary one – is sending the manuscript off to the publisher, in my case SRL, for an editor’s verdict. And after that? Probably another round of polishing but I don’t mind. As I say, I just luurve editing!

When satire becomes reality

Singer Sam Smith strutting his stuff in a Harri-designed black latex outfit on the BRITs red carpet has been grabbing plenty of headlines. No-one had heard of anything like it before. Apparently. I hate to break it to Sam but he isn’t the first to go for this look. Eloise Slaughter in Note to Boy got there before him with her Anti-Fashion Fashion. Not to mention, David Bowie’s 1973 Aladdin Sane costume. 

Here’s a description of Eloise’s creations:

‘Big bulges, humpbacks and pot bellies, lolloping bums and carbuncle-y swellings … designed not to disguise imperfections in the body but to exaggerate them … With Anti-Fashion Fashion body shape was irrelevant. The tyranny of striving for unattainable physical perfection was over.’

Could it be that Sam Smith’s motives were the same as my own in writing the novel? Wait long enough and satire turns into reality!

Comic fiction Note to Boy just 99p while stocks last!


New Year, new hip, new book

I have exciting news.

Fanfare please! it gives me great pleasure to announce that A NOVEL SOLUTION, the story of a life-long people pleaser who finally has had enough, has been signed to SRL Publishing, an amazing publisher. As well as being award-winning, SRL is the world’s first climate positive publisher.

I couldn’t be more thrilled to join the SRL family. For lots of reasons, 2022 was an up and down year for me but, I’m glad to say, it ended rather well. In October, my creaky old hip was replaced by a shiny new NHS one and as the new year began, my new comic fiction is embarking on the journey to publication. I look forward to working with the team at SRL.

A happy, belated New Year to you all. I hope yours will be a good one.

The Things I Do For Art!

Did you know … ?

…. that gin is actually flavoured vodka? That archaeobotanists use straw from the thatched roofs of old buildings to research ancient heritage grains? That indeed, there is such a job as an archaeobotanist?

These and other gems I discovered on a visit to The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD). Once again, the lovely old barn that is TOAD’s home was the venue for a gin-flavoured hour of information and inebriation. Well, someone’s gotta do it!

All in belated celebration of the publication of Note to Boy which, you may have noticed, features quite a bit of gin tippling.

Tipples, nibbles and giggles were on the agenda, as we listened to our guide Sarah, who provided just the right mix of historical context and (increasingly) hysterical laughter. My thanks to her and the rest of the TOAD crew, and to Sheila, Louise and Michael for their company, and for backing me over the years.

TOAD is well worth a visit if you’re in the Oxford area. While you’re there, don’t miss the picture of our new king, complete with improvised crown, being let into some of secrets of TOAD gin making.

Sarah explains about the copper gin stills and how they are cleaned. (Someone climbs inside!)

A rapt audience learns about base spirit and botanicals – and immediately forgets everything they’re told!

TOAD’s lovely old barn.

The Three Muskgineers! Making the ultimate sacrifice for literature – Louise, Sheila and your author.

Charles III and his improvised crown.

Friends of Sonning Common Library are well named

Thank you Alison of Sonning Common Library, Alex of Fourbears Bookshop in Caversham and all those who turned out to the very cheery Sonning Common Library on a dark, damp night. They listened attentively as I burbled on about Note to Boy and my time as a BBC comedy writer, laughed at my humour (mostly) and asked some trenchant questions. The Friends of the Library certainly lived up to their name and made me very welcome indeed.

Hope to meet you again when my next novel is published!

Some snaps from the evening.

Two new names to remember – reviews

Do you review the books you read? I don’t mean the blockbusters whose names crop up with predictable regularity. They are managing quite well without our help, thank you very much.

I mean, if you discover a new name among the bookshelves, take a chance on their book and find you thoroughly enjoy it. Do you then take the time to write a review, even just a few lines? You should because reading what other people think is how undiscovered writers are, well, discovered.

If a novel’s already got a gazillion ratings and reviews, I don’t usually trouble myself. But if I read a book and I think it’s great and only a handful of others have reviewed it, then I always write a quick comment. I used to think I had to take ages penning a long treatise, impressing with my literary knowledge. I soon put a stop to that. These days I go for an honest reaction, shortly after finishing reading and leave the PhD theses to the erudite book bloggers and academics.

One other thing, call me a softie, but if I don’t get on with a book, I don’t waste my time penning a one-star review and breaking some writer’s heart. I know how much courage and stickability it takes to write a book, any book. It might not be to my taste but it probably will be to someone’s.

This preamble is to introduce my reviews of two books I enjoyed recently by novelists I’ve never come across before. Indeed, I believe they’re both debut authors. Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions is hilarious and very well observed. A new comic voice on the block. A Spell in France by M C Clary is a well-constructed thriller, set partly in Nice, featuring an unsettlingly distant older husband and his naive, much younger wife. I thought I was heading for Manderley, then it all went in a different direction.

Maybe give them a try. Oh, and please review afterwards!

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters by Jane Ions

To write a comic novel with lovable, relatable characters, a gripping plot and lines that are actually laugh-out-loud funny is no mean feat; to achieve this as a debut novelist is nothing short of a miracle. But Jane Ions has cracked it. The voice of Sally Forth (I know!) is hilarious and appealing from the off. There is so much to enjoy: Sally’s teenage son and his troop of oddball girlfriends; the lean-to constructed from rubbish at the side of the house: a running gag about the tabloids’ love of labelling all older women ‘Grans’, and Sally’s long-suffering husband Bill, an MP and – unusually in these strange political times – the only proper grown-up in the household. If you like the Nina Stibbe style of well-observed comedy with a heart, you’ll love this. A very worthy CWIP short-lister. I look forward to reading the next Jane Ions novel. 

A Spell in France by M C Clary

Shades of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca in this thriller, set mostly in Nice. Sylvie, a new and rather naïve bride, is on holiday with her much older, rather distant, husband Trevor when he collapses in the street and is taken off to hospital. Confusion surrounds what takes place next. We follow Sylvie over several years as she attempts to unpick what really happened to her husband. The Cote D’Azure and the art world in which Sylvie finds herself working are nicely recreated, as is the character of Sylvie herself, our narrator for a good part of the book. All in all, a satisfying thriller.

Page-turner vs. literary – does it have to be a choice?

Having read a couple of so-called literary novels recently, I’m now very much enjoying a more mainstream title. Of course there are different books for different moods and tastes but I’m increasingly exasperated by novels that encourage you to stop and admire their cleverness at every turn.

My real beef is that the authors keep inserting themselves between the reader and the story – as if holding up a mirror and saying, ‘look at me, look at me!’ – while for me the writer should be transparent as glass. Is this a new trend or am I turning into an inverted snob or just a lazy reader?

Or maybe it’s byuuecause, as a writer myself, I’ve lost the ability to read purely for pleasure. I’m too distracted examining the nuts and bolts of the writing to get lost in a book. But I refuse to believe that there’s no such thing as a literary page-turner. Or indeed, a page-turner with great literary chops.  

To my mind, a good read should not be self-conscious, drawing attention to its clever technique, sometimes at the expense of a gripping plot and engaging characters. It should connect directly with the reader, providing immersive enjoyment, as well as being intellectually satisfying. The best of authors, whether typecast as high or low brow, manage this balancing act.

Want some examples? Leaving aside the classic novels I’d consider fall into this category, from Dickens and Chandler to Conan Doyle and Wodehouse, these are a few of mine. You’ll have your own.

Barbara Kingsolver

David Nicholls

Philip Roth

Thomas Keneally

Anne Tyler

John Boyne

Reasons To Be Cheerful – a review

This review of Nina Stibbe’s comic fiction, Reasons To Be Cheerful, appeared in the excellent Writers Review blog.

Writers Review is a weekly blog hosted by authors Adele Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery. It gives reading recommendations by published writers and independent booksellers. In the six years it’s been in existence, it has built up an impressive guest list. A-listers contributing include Tracy Chevalier, Amanda Craig, Bridget Collins, Patrick Gale, Joanne Harris, Jill Paton Walsh, Jane Rogers, Diane Setterfield and Val McDermid.

And now me! I was honoured to be invited to add my two penn’orth.


I love all kinds of comedic writing – novels, plays, films, TV shows, stand-up routines – bring them on! However, one thing I can never get my head around is why comedy is so often dismissed as a lesser art. As anyone who’s ever tried writing it will confirm, humour is as hard – some would say harder – to pin down on the page as so-called serious stuff. I know. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying! That’s why, when comedy works, it is such a joy.

In Reasons To Be Cheerful, Nina Stibbe manages the extraordinary feat of writing a comic novel that makes you laugh, while reflecting quite deep thoughts about what it meant to grow up in the English provinces in the 1980s. I’m aware, as I write this, that all views on books are subjective, and those on humorous books particularly personal. What tickles my funny bone, may bring yours out in a nasty rash. You may not agree but, for me, Reasons To Be Cheerful is that rare thing, a comedy triumph.

I picked up Stibbe’s book up during the darkest days of the pandemic mainly, I confess, because of its title. In dire need of cheering up, I hoped this tale of eighteen-year-old Lizzie Vogel, aspiring writer and guerrilla dentist, as she navigates the tricky passage to adulthood, might hit the spot. I wasn’t disappointed. I laughed – once I read the description of trousers worn hoisted high in the “European way” I knew I was in for a treat – but I was also bowled over by its moments of insight.

Winner of both the 2019 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for Comic Fiction and the 2020 Comedy Women in Print (CWIP) prize, Reasons To Be Cheerful takes Lizzie, also the subject of two of Stibbe’s earlier volumes, Men at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, to the brink of womanhood.

The book teems with entertaining, richly observed characters and absurd situations, mainly centred around the goings-on in the dodgy dental surgery in Leicester. The characters are comic creations, true, but comic creations with depth and heart, whom you mostly care about and are invested in.

Lizzie herself is wonderfully bright and idiosyncratic, rivalling Adrian Mole for endearing naiveté and know-it-all pretension. Like him, she has ambitions to be a writer. I might be wrong, but I feel her character was inspired, at least in part, by the young Miss Stibbe, since they apparently share a love for words and an interest in teeth.

The story, told in Lizzie’s voice, chronicles her chaotic family, and a disparate gang of friends and work colleagues. These include: Adèle, her gloriously uninhibited mother, who believes, “a thoughtful visitor should aim to be fifteen minutes late …  and slightly drunk”; Lizzie’s boss, Mr Wintergreen, a monstrous and incompetent dentist who employs Lizzie as his assistant and creepily insists she holds his cigarettes to his mouth for him as he smokes; and Andy, the boy who delivers the dental plates, and becomes Lizzie’s first boyfriend and the object of her sexual desire, though he prefers birding.

The less pleasant side of the 1980s is acutely and dryly observed, from the fashions – one character sports “apricot hair and matching lipstick” – to odious Mr Wintergreen’s racism and Lizzie’s sexist-but-hilarious list of Things Men Don’t Like Women Doing, which she fantasises about sending to a women’s magazine. It includes: “… having a dog, talking about sport, laughing loudly, spending money on fripperies, disagreeing with them, chatting on the phone, climbing trees, talking about dogs, mowing the lawn in flip-flops …”

Stibbe has the knack – shared by writers like David Nicholls and Kate Atkinson – of holding up a humorous mirror to everyday life without teetering over into caricature. She clearly loves her characters and wants you to root for them – apart from Mr Wintergreen. And every now and then she drops in a line or two that touches your heart and, mid-guffaw, you find you have something in your eye.

To be able to locate that bittersweet spot where absurdity meets truth, and a belly laugh catches in the throat is a gift given to few writers. Nina Stibbe, I believe, has it.

A lesser art, indeed!