What readers want to know about writers (and Stop the Clock)

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Meeting groups of readers is the closest I’ve come to having the stuff I’ve made up and stuck in a book come to life. Here, suddenly, is a group of women (sometimes with a few men!) talking about my characters as if they’re real people, who might walk into the room and join us at any moment. It’s a salutary reminder of how much readers bring to a book, and what a strange alchemy reading is.

Inevitably, readers have different ideas about books, just as we all have our own views of what’s going on around us in real life – otherwise, what would book groups ever find to debate? But often there’s some consensus, and sometimes readers have similar questions to ask writers. Here are some questions that I’ve been asked by groups of book lovers (most recently the Oxford branch of the National Council of Women, who had way more life experience between them than any other group I’ve spoken to, and were as perceptive as they were good-humoured).

Do you really write every evening?

As the press release for Stop the Clock explained, it was written between the hours of nine and midnight. That’s most nights from spring 2009 to around January 2012. But, if I’m really honest, not all nights. Sometimes Homeland was on. And sometimes I fell asleep when I put my children to bed. And sometimes I had just finished a draft and gave myself a week off to watch a DVD box set (hello, Game of Thrones).

I know lots of writers say you ABSOLUTELY MUST WRITE EVERY DAY or you will turn into a pumpkin. I’m sure this is very sound advice, along with the guidance that we should all exercise three times a week and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I don’t always manage those either. (Ahem. I think I’m better at writing consistently than either keeping fit or consuming fruit.) So the honest answer to this question is, mostly, especially when in a deadline panic. But… not always.

How much do you plan in advance?

I know one writer (a screenwriter) who won’t allow himself to start work until he’s figured out absolutely everything that’s going to happen and can’t bear to hold back from getting on with it any longer. I don’t work like that at all, though maybe it would make my life easier if I did.

Stop the Clock started with characters rather than plot. I had a rough idea of what each character was going to go through, but although I gave them a bit of a steer, I didn’t know when I first set pen to paper exactly how it was going to turn out. What happened to them over time became apparent over successive drafts.

My work-in-progress had a slightly different starting point, a revelation scene – a revelation from the heroine to the reader – that I wrote very early on. Much of the rest of the process of writing the book was finding out how the heroine got to that point and what happened to her afterwards.

I think perhaps I plan relatively little, and then have no option but to plot: to scheme, manipulate, form alliances, and generally attempt to manoeuvre my characters – and the reader, who is just as unseen and imagined – into the parts I envisage them playing. As I go along, sequences of events present themselves and I scribble them down. Not so much planning as ‘plot and jot’.

I also listen to music. That’s my secret weapon. There’s nothing like a song for giving you a short cut to a particular mood. It’s amazing how music can bring emotions to the surface in three minutes flat that a book will toil away over hundreds of pages to elicit.

Do you do much research?

I think this is a very shrewd question. The flip-side of it is, How much do you make up, and how much do you draw from life? And it’s almost impossible to answer honestly, because just about everything is research. And at the same time, when it comes down to it, I make it all up.

The research aide I relied on most heavily for Stop the Clock – apart from my magpie memory and years of conversation with interesting friends – was a table in Sheila Kitzinger’s The New Pregnancy and Childbirth which is designed to help you calculate your due date. It was quite a headache getting everybody to reproduce within feasible timescales and when I wanted them to.

I also like asking myself ‘What if?’ and seeing what comes out.

What do male readers make of Stop the Clock?

I’ve been particularly intrigued by male readers’ reactions to this story, which is so much about women’s relationships with each other and women getting to grips with motherhood – or thinking that they would prefer not to. Some of the very earliest readers were male – my husband, the poet Ian Pindar, and the novelist Neel Mukherjee, who both encouraged me to set about trying to get it published.

Since then? The reactions have been unpredictable and surprising. I think the warmest responses have come from men of around my own age who have young-ish children. There was the twentysomething who gamely gave it a go, and diplomatically told me that he realised he wasn’t the target demographic. Though the truth is, there wasn’t really a target − if you’re at all interested, you’re it! There was also the older man who observed that it was ‘a bit birthy’. Which it is… But that’s life, I guess!

In general, amongst my very favourite reader responses are: the reader who cried; the reader who missed a tube stop; and the reader who promptly booked a holiday to Cornwall. (One of those was male, two female. The man cried.) That pretty much sums up what I wanted the book to do: to make you feel, to make you forget yourself, and to take you somewhere else.

Stop the Clock quick quiz #1: are you Tina, Natalie or Lucy?

If you’ve read Stop the Clock, you’ll have a pretty good idea about who Tina, Natalie and Lucy are, and if not, you will have by the time you’ve finished this quiz!

At one point when we were working on different ideas for the covers I came up with a long list of accessories and clothes that might work for each of them. It was really good fun – a bit like a grown-up (ish) version of dressing-up dolls. Yes – that’s the kind of research I like doing – scouring the internet for Tina’s watch, Lucy’s engagement ring, Natalie’s friendship bracelet… (I’m guessing male writers very rarely end up doing this kind of thing…)

So, here are some quick questions that will help you work out whether you’re more of a Tina, Natalie or Lucy. I initially turned out to be perfectly evenly balanced mixture of all three, which is probably only fair… But then I added the final tie-break question, and although I love all those films I am a particularly big fan of It’s a Wonderful Life, so that makes me a Natalie!

1. Your ideal working wardrobe consists of…

A Pencil skirt, killer heels, feisty attitude

B Comfy old favourites – loose trousers, big cardigans, things that don’t pinch when you sit down

C Your family is your job now. For the school gate, you dress in knee-high boots and skinny jeans in winter, or floaty skirts and sandals (and pedicure) in the summer

2. Your overall look could be defined as:

A Melanie Griffith post-makeover in Working Girl

B The girl-next-door in jeans and beat-up Converse

C Betty Draper

3. Your favourite perfume is:

A Dior Poison

B Soap and water, perhaps with an occasional squirt of something from the Body Shop

C Chanel no 5

4. Your ideal night out with friends would be:

A Cocktails at the Cobden Club/Atlantic Bar/Sketch

B Lager down the local followed by karaoke, just like the old days

C Everyone round to your house for supper – something out of Delia Smith (tried and trusted) followed by a screening of Mamma Mia

5. Your ideal date would be:

A Dinner at Moro followed by hot sex in a boutique hotel (though you won’t want to get too carried away and end up being late for work the next morning)

B Holding hands in the cinema and crying over a film… then being whisked a little out of your comfort zone for hot sex that catches you (almost entirely) by surprise

C A long country walk in the Cotswolds, a pub lunch, and hot sex back in the beautifully appointed holiday cottage. Someone else would be minding the children back in London, obviously

6. You read:

A A bit of whatever everyone’s talking about, plus the odd pageturning thriller/crime novel

B Chick lit and romance

C Historical fiction. If it’s Tudor, chances are you’ll love it

7. (The tie-break!) Your favourite old movie is:

A His Girl Friday. This black-and-white Howard Hawks film about a supersharp journo, with its famously rapid-fire dialogue, made you want a career in newspapers – shame you’ve never had an editor who looked like Cary Grant

B It’s a Wonderful Life. Small-town James Stewart in near-despair and Clarence the angel trying to earn his wings. Still gets to you every time

C The Sound of Music. Romance, music, lots of children, and you have a secret soft spot for Christopher Plummer. Plus you still sometimes put on ‘I have confidence in me’ when you’re getting ready to go out

Mostly As – you’re Tina, a career-focused siren. You like to be in control, but life has a way of turning your best-laid plans upside down – still, if anyone can cope with chaos and come out on top, it’s probably you.

Mostly Bs – You’re sweet-natured, supportive Natalie, an idealist who perhaps hasn’t quite yet found what she wants in life. You don’t particularly care about social status – what you yearn for is a sense of purpose. Perhaps you don’t realise just how strong you are, but anyone who underestimates you does so at their own peril.

Mostly Cs – you’re Lucy, the domestic goddess. Others may brand you a yummy mummy, but that’s not how you see yourself; you’re just trying to do your best for the people you love. Actually, you’re tough, resourceful and resilient, as becomes apparent when the going gets tough. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘a woman is like a tea-bag – you never know how strong she is till she gets in hot water’.

A week in the life of Stop the Clock

launch of Stop the Clock

Me with the owners of Mostly Books

I’ve always fought shy of public speaking, but no longer! Just over a week ago, I gave a thank you speech to a lovely group of people at the launch of Stop the Clock. The launch was hosted by Mostly Books, a brilliant independent bookshop in my hometown.

It’s funny how you can end up feeling physically nervous even if, in your head, everything is hunky and dory. I couldn’t have wished for a warmer, more encouraging audience, and I knew exactly what I wanted to say, which was along the same lines as my last blog post. I wanted to thank everybody for coming, acknowledge the help and support I’d received both from the people present and from some who had been unable to make it, and let everybody get back to their wine. Yet, when it came to it, it was – not intimidating, exactly, but definitely a little tremble-inducing!

You can see some more pictures of the launch on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AlisonMercerwriter and on the Mostly Books blog.

Tip for handling speech nerves: kid yourself it doesn’t count!

A work friend googled nerves about public speaking  and sent me a good tip (it’s funny how google has become the first port of call when potential problems arise – google is the oracle). The tip was that it’s actually counterproductive to build up to something and steel your nerves and tell yourself how desperately important it is. Instead, if you kid yourself that the stakes are low and it really doesn’t matter, you’ll be much more relaxed and confident.

This reminded me of the advice we were given on hitting high notes back when I was a child singing in the South Berkshire Music Centre choir: you were meant to imagine yourself falling down onto the top notes like a cat landing on its feet, rather than straining up as if they were on a high shelf out of reach. I tried to remember this when I did my first ever radio interview at Radio Oxford on Bank Holiday Monday.

Sex on a Bank Holiday Monday… with a lion on the loose

As it was a public holiday, most people were off work when I went into Radio Oxford – I had to go through the car park to the back door to be let in. I’d never been in a local radio station before, and was reminded ever so slightly of a hospital – it had that functional, conscientious, public service feel, where things tend not to get chucked out for the sake of it, as long as they still work.

The green sofa I perched on while waiting for my slot could have been in a parents’ room off a children’s ward, and the big notice reminding staff to ask listeners to send in their pictures reminded me of the signs you get everywhere in hospital, exhorting everybody to go and wash their hands.

I had somehow managed to kid myself that the interview was going to be pre-recorded, and it wasn’t until I was sitting down at a little desk with a big green baize-covered microphone in front of me (there was a lot of green baize) and saying ‘Good afternoon’ that I allowed myself to realise I WAS NOW LIVE ON AIR! Actually, we had a nice chat, and it was all over very quickly.

And so I got to talk about sex via a public service broadcaster at lunchtime on a Bank Holiday Monday. Well, sort of. We chatted about 50 Shades and how the girls in my class at school didn’t think the family saga I wrote as a teenager had enough rude bits in it. I giggled quite a lot. You can hear my Radio Oxford interview here, for the time being anyway  – my bit kicks in at 1:07:25 (after Saturday Night Fever!) It’s about 10 mins.

The big story of the day was the lion on the loose in Essex, which turned out to be a big cat. I left the studio and found I had a very cheery text message of congratulation from my husband. Then I went home and ate a very large slice of caramel cake to celebrate.

What they’re saying about Stop the Clock

Here are some of the comments that have appeared in mainstream print media about Stop the Clock:

‘Mercer has a satirical eye which she puts to good effect in describing such cornerstones of middle-class life as private antenatal classes and bitchy newspaper columnists. A funny, promising debut’ Wendy Holden, Daily Mail

‘Effortlessly readable and sharply realistic, this is grown-up chick-lit at its very best’ Closer

‘Funny and moving, this is a fab debut from Alison Mercer’ new!

There have been some great amazon reviews, too, and some lovely blog reviews:

I also did a guest blog post on Shaz’s Book Blog which sets out my dream cast for a film adaptation of the book

And, on a slight tangent… here’s the Guardian article I wrote about birth scenes in fiction. (Birth does feature in Stop the Clock!)

I was particularly chuffed to hear about my friend’s mum who read Stop the Clock in six hours straight. Once they get started people seem to read it fast!

Happy first book birthday to Stop the Clock

Dreams don’t come true without a bit of outside help; someone else has to wave the magic wand and give you permission to go to the ball. My debut novel, Stop the Clock, is published on Thursday 16 August, a big day for me which wouldn’t be in the offing without the hard work and encouragement of numerous other people along the way.

The publication of Stop the Clock represents the culmination of more than three decades of wanting to be a writer, and an awful lot of pens, printer ink and paper. I’m very grateful to my agent and to my editor and the rest of the team at my publisher, Black Swan, for transforming my manuscript into the finished book that will hit the shelves on Thursday. It’s been one hell of a ride – now for the final fast downhill run!

None of it would have happened without the back-up of my husband, the poet and writer Ian Pindar, an editor par excellence who always has a cool head in an IT crisis. Ian has a sharp eye for a redundant word, and a disciplined attitude to work that I’ve tried to emulate. It’s always very reassuring to have him look over something before sending it out into the world.

He’s also a dab hand with a camera. He took the photo of me on this blog, which makes me look at least five years less tired than I really am.

A big thank you to my ideal readers

Ian was one of the book’s first readers, but there were others who helped to get it through the early stages too. Books that give advice about creative writing often talk about how, when you’re writing, you should imagine the ideal reader, the sympathetic audience that is receptive to what you have to say, and willing you to say it. It’s a bit like the scenes in the film The King’s Speech where George VI speaks directly to his speech therapist rather than to the terrifying masses. I was lucky to have just the right reader at each stage in the development of my book. They take pride of place in the acknowledgements.

Stop the Clock is a book about friendship, and I wouldn’t have been able to write it if it wasn’t for my friends, though I’m grateful that we haven’t had quite such a fraught time as Natalie, Lucy and Tina.  Thanks are due to my family too, and my children, without whom Stop the Clock would never have got started.

My experience of working on the book over the last three and a bit years has been bound up with what has been happening in my family, in particular my son’s diagnosis with autism. It’s been a strange, intense time, but while the future is always uncertain, I think we feel much better placed to face up to it now than we did a couple of years ago. So thank you to all the people who have cared for and taught him, and advised us on how to help him, and to our lovely, supportive local community.

I’m really looking forward to the launch of Stop the Clock in our home town week after next. Finally the time has come for the book to make its way into the world! I feel like a mother on a child’s first day at school, waiting at the gate, peering at the playground and realising that what happens next is out of her hands.

Part of parenting is letting go. So goodbye and good luck to Tina, Lucy and Natalie, the three main characters who originally existed only for me and a handful of others, and now are ready to tell their stories to anyone who wants to read them.

The cover of Stop the Clock

Here’s the final cover of Stop the Clock, my debut novel, which is due to be published on August 16. Let the printing presses roll!

I really hope everybody likes it… I think it’s a beauty. You know that moment when you finally make it to the café, and get to sit down with your cappuccino and have a read? (For me it would probably be a latte, a chocolate brownie and The Fear Index by Robert Harris, which is what I’m reading at the moment.)

It’s just such a luxury: that little bit of time. That’s what this image makes me think of. Also, I like her pink nail varnish!

My other half tells me that in France, they have historically had a quite different attitude to the whole business of covers, and been quite high-minded and gone in for plain white with a title on – though apparently this is beginning to change. Personally, I think the cover is part of the fun of owning the book. Here’s a shortlist of five other covers I really like – you’ll probably remember them, because they’re all the sort that stick in your mind:

  1. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding – the slightly sepia-tinted chick with the curls and the fag
  2. One Day by David Nicholls – so good! The silhouette of the lovers’ profiles
  3. Riders by Jilly Cooper – a model behind looking very fetching in white jodhpurs
  4. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger – the red high heel turning into a devilish trident
  5. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières – anyone who was in London in the mid 90s will remember when this jolly blue-and-white cover, which looks like a naive painting, was absolutely everywhere on the Tube.

The cover of my other first novel, which I wrote when I was at primary school, has suffered a bit from the passage of time, but you can still just about make it out – here it is!

the cover of my other first novel

Before Stop the Clock: my other first novel


We marched down the aisle, my head on his shoulder, the white dress trailing behind me.

“At last,” I said. It was only a whisper, but it stated a lot of things…

And that was the beginning of the end of my very first novel, finished in, er, circa 1982. I think someone did point out at the time that you might get unromantic neckache if you marched down the aisle with your head on your husband-to-be’s shoulder. But never mind.

Inspired by a blog post on Novelicious.com,  I thought I’d drag Solitude (illustrated and published, with hand stitching and sellotape, by the author) out into the light of day. I was proud of it at the time… I still remember how astonishing and heady it was to get through to THE END, and how I never quite believed I’d get there before I did.

I think that still holds good – I felt pretty much the same way when I finished Stop the Clock. Though I promise you it doesn’t end with a heroine with neckache.

Anyway, you have to start somewhere, and for me the start was Elizabeth Davis and her faithful servant companion (!) Dorrie, traipsing round Europe at the beginning of World War I in search of Elizabeth’s beloved Edward. Not quite sure where he had gone or why, but I think it turned out to be something to do with a mad wife in an attic and a house burning down. I was quite immune to Anxiety of Influence.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Stop the Clock is also about women looking for what they think they want.. but then getting it doesn’t turn out at all the way they might have expected.