What I learned about writing from Arvon (and hope to take back)

Alison Mercer teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival

Photo: Dan Hall. Here I am teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015

Seventeen years ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge; this autumn I’m going back to Arvon, this time as a tutor. I’m so happy to be going back, and a big part of that is because I had such a good Arvon experience myself.

Back in 2000, I knew I wanted to write, but for ages I hadn’t – not since I was a teenager (although I kept diaries, which are still in a cupboard somewhere.) I think part of what I was looking for was permission – that crucial thing that you need to overcome all those negative voices in your head telling you that writing is a waste of time, getting published is impossible and it won’t be any good anyway etc etc.

And I got what I needed, though it was a while longer before I really committed systematically to writing a novel and making time every day to get on with it.

Alison Mercer in Paris

me circa 2000 (hot chocolate in Paris, Café Flore)

I had picked out a beginners’ fiction writing course, figuring that a) it wouldn’t be too intimidating b) my fellow students wouldn’t be too intimidating. In November I’ll at the Hurst in Shropshire with Elizabeth Enfield, leading a course on romance and love stories in fiction. I hope that when it’s over, our students will go back home fired up with enthusiasm and with a few new tricks to help them push on with their writing, as I did all those years ago.

Here’s a bit more about what I got out of my first Arvon experience, and if you ever sign up for a course I hope you’ll find the same.

The power of scenery. My first impression of Hebden Bridge was of how beautiful it was. I was living in SW2 and had barely left the city for months; here, everything was green. There’s something about being transplanted from your usual habitat that’s highly conducive to getting your pen moving across the paper.

Permission to write, big-time. Everything was geared up to make it easy for you and support you in your writing. In everyday life, pretty much the opposite is true. I was charmed by the different nooks and crannies available to write in, and the care that had gone into creating them.

Structure is your friend. The course was highly structured, with morning classes, afternoons for writing and one-to-one tutorials, a mid-week visitor and an end-week goal – writing something to read to the whole group on the final evening. The basic structure of most five-day Arvon courses is the same today.

I’m the kind of person whose natural inclination is to chafe against structure, but over the years I’ve learned how much I need it, both for writing novels and for day-to-day life. (I have an autistic son, so routine and ritual are big in our house.)

My Arvon course tutors in 2000 were Alicia Stubbersfield and James Friel, and our midweek speaker was Patricia Duncker, who I met again at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015. All of them are Arvon tutors still.

Get on with it. That was the heart of what my first Arvon experience taught me. If you put pen to paper, you’ll get something down, even if you only have fifteen minutes. And then you can revise it and improve it. You might even be pleasantly surprised when you read it back. This was a revelation to me.

There’s also something very powerful about a) reading your work aloud b) reading it to a group – in other words, suddenly finding yourself with an audience.

Other people make all the difference. My Arvon course had a collegiate atmosphere. For five intense days, we lived together, cooked evening meals together and ate together. We prepared the evening meal in teams – luckily, my team back in 2000 included some much better cooks than me. Someone had brought a guitar, and I remember late-night Sinatra singalongs and good use being made of the red wine honesty box. Our group met up a few times afterwards, but I drifted out of touch after I got married, had a baby and moved out of London.

My fellow students were supportive and convivial, and that made the process of writing and sharing what we had written much less alarming. When you’re up against a challenge (like writing), at some point you’re going to need allies – and other writers are the best.

Alison Mercer writing at desk

at work at my desk

There’s something for every writer at Arvon, whatever your form and genre, and whether you’re just starting out or already have a first draft you want to knock into shape. There are also grants available to help cover course fees and first-time Arvon writers are a priority.

I’ll report back after my return to Arvon in November!

PS. My favourite books on writing are:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead.

Negotiating with the Dead, by Margaret Atwood

I also like The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, who was Raymond Carver’s writing tutor.

More about tutoring and studying creative writing

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival

A tale of two creative writing courses

What makes a great love story?

Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream and the Cazalets: a writer tells her own story

IMG_3078 (3)Before I got started on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books I thought they might be too cosy and cream bun-ish for me. But then enough people sang their praises to prompt me to try them, and they turned out to be much sharper and darker than I’d anticipated. Yes, there are dresses and dinners, but also: sex, sexuality, secrets, infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, unrequited love, requited love, grief, unwanted pregnancies, children who long for lost or absent parents, marriages of all kinds, the tension between duty and desire, and the long friendships of cousins. All that plus a portrait of an extended family as a microcosm of social change before, during and after the Second World War.

So now I have just one Cazalet book left, All Change. It’s always rather melancholy to approach the end of a series. After the first four Cazalet books I read Slipstream, EJH’s autobiography, and that’s what I wanted to blog about. Any writer’s autobiography is of potential interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing, and this one offered up numerous insights that caught my eye.

Slipstream is comfort reading, of a kind – up to a point. It’s the story of a woman who survived acute maternal guilt and numerous difficult though interesting lovers to become what she wanted to be – a writer. There are lots of other writers in its pages, too, in various roles and relationships, including Kingsley Amis (to whom EJH was married for many years) and Martin Amis, her stepson – she gave him Pride and Prejudice and declined to tell him how it ended, so he had to read it for himself; he encouraged her to follow through on her idea for the Cazalet books. Here’s some of what Slipstream has to say about intuition, art, war, love, learning, the work and rewards of writing, age and truth.

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On intuition, art, the war years and learning

Premonitions bring with them a sense of powerlessness and guilt – what can be the point of even half knowing something about which one seems able to do nothing?

To sit for a painter was even better than being asked to turn pages of music for a pianist: it was being a kind of associate member of the arts, and I could think of nothing more desirable than that.

The war hung over our heads, but we hardly referred to it. Glass fell reluctantly from the roof of the school studio, and was kicked aside by earnest, sandalled feet… We were selfish, preoccupied and, I think now, we simply didn’t understand what was going on, as we never considered it long enough to find out. Behind it all was the feeling that we’d be dragged into it eventually so we had a kind of greedy desperation to get every drop out of every second of the time we had left to pursue our own ends.

Walking home, it was clear how very little I knew and how little I understood of anything I’d thought I knew. Even learning to type wouldn’t help me with his feelings, which meant that either education, as I’d thought of it, wasn’t education at all, or it was merely a preliminary, at its best, for something that was going to last for the rest of my life.

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On the preoccupation with love and wanting to write

Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love – intimacy, affection, being first in each other’s lives – I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don’t write this to imply I was unusual; most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think.

Furthermore I was lazy with my writing; I’d not yet learned the kind of discipline necessary for serious work.

There is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and this isn’t always obvious in the salad days of a writer’s creative life, and sometimes never.

I knew by now that a number of people regarded me as beautiful. But much in the way that rich people don’t want to be loved simply because they are rich, I didn’t want to be loved simply for my appearance…. I simply felt I was making a hash of it, and underlying that foggy conclusion lay the dread that I wasn’t anything else. I still had the desire to write, but depression leaks energy – like pain – and all that summer I couldn’t write.

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On the strange feeling of finishing a book and the knowledge of love

The feeling after completing a novel is for me like no other. It’s as though with the last sentence, I have released a great weight that falls away, leaving me so empty and light that I can float out of myself and look down at the pattern of the work I’ve made. I can see all at once what I have been pursuing in fragments for so long. It’s a timeless moment, a kind of ecstasy – a state of unconditional love – that has nothing whatever to do with merit or criticism. Of course it goes, dissolves into melancholy and a sense of loss. Parting with people one has been living with for so long and know so intimately is poignant; they are more lost to you than anyone you meet in life. They remain crystallized exactly where you left them. Altogether, it’s an occasion that makes one feel very strange for some time afterwards.

I began to understand that love is neither a conditional business nor an ever-fixed mark by arrangement. People always know somewhere inside themselves if they are not loved. No gestures, talk, conciliation, pronouncements can prevail over that deep instinctual knowledge.

This trip was a farcical failure… I was supposed to give a reading at Brentano’s bookshop at seven pm. When I arrived there was no audience.

(of Doris Lessing) We went shopping together, and I wanted a rather expensive jacket, and she said, ‘Go on. You’ve just finished your book, you can have a treat.’

On age, happiness and truth

…it’s often difficult to feel your age. Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure what this entailed, in many ways I didn’t feel my age. Like one’s appearance or handwriting, one retains an earlier impression of oneself and takes it for granted, no longer sees what one is.

Nearly everyone I’d known who’d had cancer had died of it in the end. It was extraordinary how all my values shifted – as though I’d shaken a kaleidoscope and all the little segments, though still there, had made an unrecognisable pattern. Unhappy, lonely or a failure I might have been, but even those ingredients of my life now seemed precious – even desirable.

On the ninth morning, I had to go into town to buy food, and suddenly – walking down the street to my house – I lightened completely as though, without warning, I’d emerged from a heavy fog into clear sunlight. I felt extraordinarily, irrationally happy.

Liars destroy the currency of all words: there was no single fragment of truth I could hang on to.

I’ve slowly learned some significant things – perhaps most of all the virtue, the extreme importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be continually searched for and treasured when any piece of it is found.

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Writing my next novel

IMG_0175I’ll be hard at work on my new novel over the next few months, so I won’t be posting on this blog for a while. I’ll be back in the spring, by which time the grapevine will look like this.

I love blogging – it’s great to have the freedom to write about whatever catches your fancy – and I look forward to getting back to it in due course. Thank you all so much for reading and so long for now. xx

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival: a feast of books, music, conversation… and cake

Photo: Dan Hall

Photo: Dan Hall

I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.

I’m left with a blur of impressions: a marqueeful of primary school children laughing themselves silly at Christopher William Hill; sitting round the table at the farmhouse where most of us authors were staying, eating the most delicious poached pears; the moon rising over St Endellion Church, where we gathered for evening music of surprising and non-ecclesiastical kinds; lounging round in sudden sunlight on Sunday lunchtime when my workshop was done (you can see a photo of me with Patrick Gale and Neel Mukherjee at this point in this blog post about NCBF by BD Hawkey.)

There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience.  There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.

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bloggers @charlottemsabin and @beakheads

North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore

Moray Laing busy booksigning Photo: Dan Hall

Moray Laing signing autographs
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the events I went to:

At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.

Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale
Photo: Dan Hall

The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)

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St Endellion Church

Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…

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My workshop: handling romance in fiction

At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.

the hero(ine)'s journey

We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
workshop

Photo: Dan Hall

These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:

  • The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  • Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
  • The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
  • Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham

And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).

Characters

  • Lottery winner
  • Someone who missed last train
  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Single parent on benefits
  • Soldier with PTSD
  • Coffee barista
  • Dog
  • Santa (someone dressed as)
  • Ex-vicar
  • Bailiff
  • Make-up artist
  • Policewoman
  • Depressed Hollywood star
  • Antiques dealer
  • American yoga teacher
  • Bank robber
  • Weather forecaster

Places

  • Fancy dress party
  • Camping site in the rain
  • Traffic jam
  • The moor at dawn
  • Edge of a cliff
  • Therapist’s waiting room
  • Manhattan rooftop
  • Village pub
  • Launderette
  • Smoking shelter
  • Ferry to a Greek island
  • Billiard table (full-size)
  • Purgatory

All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.

Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.

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the flowers in each author’s room

Litfest events I have loved

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and the writer as psychic

Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

On my desk right now: Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.

After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.

Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?

In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?

Slippery doubles, twinship and writing

Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)

There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’

She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’

The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.

Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)

And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.

It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)

The art of making it real

Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.

Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.

It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.

For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories),  James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.

More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.

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.

The archetypal story you’ll end up telling, whatever you set out to write

I’ve been working like a mad thing on my second novel (title tbc) over the last couple of months. The second draft is now done, so I thought I’d take advantage of the respite to write about a book that I discovered thanks to the poet Ian Pindar, my other half, who has a knack for unearthing interesting things.

This particular find is called The Writer’s Journey, and it’s by Christopher Vogler. It’s primarily aimed at screenwriters (it discusses various films, from Star Wars to Pulp Fiction) but would probably be interesting for anyone who aspires to tell stories, because it looks at the mechanics of how stories work.

It does this in two ways: it discusses a number of archetypal characters, and then it sets out the different stages of the archetypal journey that any hero (even an anti-hero) goes on. If that sounds reductive, it isn’t – the book makes it very clear that it’s all in the telling. Part of what creativity is about, after all, is putting together elements that are familiar and shared (and what is more familiar and shared than language?) in new and unexpected ways.

I won’t set out to précis the whole book, because the edition we have runs to more than 400 pages… and if you’re keen to explore what it’s all about in depth, you’d probably be better off getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. But here’s a selective taster.

Heroes: not always heroic, especially to begin with

The hero is usually confronted with an initial call to adventure, and to start off with, often resists or refuses the call. The hero(ine) of my work-in-progress does a fair bit of this – it really takes a lot to get her over the threshold and into the next stage. It’s as if there’s a force acting to keep the hero in place, to preserve things as they are, and it takes extra impetus to get them to go forward and to begin to change.

At this point the hero may encounter a herald, who announces the call to adventure; a threshold guardian, who makes the barrier between the hero and the next stage – the special world of the adventure – even harder to get through; and/or a mentor, who is there to help the hero on her way. All these roles are fluid, so the same character might take on more than one function in the story at the same or at different times; they are like costumes or masks that may be put on or discarded.

The mentor: the quasi-parental figure who disappears when no longer needed

The mentor can be a teacher, protector or guardian, serving a quasi-parental role; they are there to give the hero whatever insight is needed for the next stage of the action. The mentor’s part in the story may come to an end as soon the hero has taken sufficient information on board.

So, for example, in Game of Thrones, Sylvio Forel teaches Arya how to fight. His last piece of advice to Arya is to run, and she does, as he holds off the soldiers who have come to capture her. We don’t actually see him die (I don’t know whether any more detail emerges about his fate later on); we assume that he has been killed, but Arya thinks back to all the advice he gave her about how to be stealthy, alert and brave throughout her time on the run, so it is almost as if he is still with her.

Arya’s not the only character on a heroic path in Game of Thrones, mind you, not by a long chalk – it’s an epic spaghetti junction of individual journeys, at least some of which end in death. I’m only on the second book, and that goes for two of the heroes already.

Sometimes whole stories turn on the hero-mentor relationship – the film The King’s Speech is a good example. And sometimes the mentor function’s of imparting knowledge is partly accomplished by the hero spending a couple of hours on the internet, as in the sequence in the film of Twilight when Bella does her research and figures out what Edward really is.

Mentors aren’t always lovely and kind and inclined to do the best for their charges, either – they may not even want to let them go. Jeremy, Tina’s blunt and rather appalling boss in Stop the Clock, is a mentor of sorts, as is her married lover, but they are not exactly straightforward role models, and the lessons she learns from them are ambiguous and uncomfortable. Perhaps they both include a tinge of shadow (of which more later).

The special world: different to the ordinary world, not always in a good way

On to the next stage: the hero’s arrival in the special world. I love this concept: the special world is the world of the story, the place where change is possible, but it isn’t necessarily magical – it’s just different to where the heroine started out.

So, for example, Sara in A Little Princess starts off rich, and finds herself reduced to poverty and servitude, from which she eventually emerges having learned, among other things, how differently some people will treat you when you’re well-off compared to when you’re not (in the words of the song, Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.)

Jane Eyre goes through more than one special world: Lowood, Thornfield Hall, the moors after her flight from marriage to Rochester, and St John Rivers’ house. For Thelma and Louise, the special world is the road trip; for the king and the therapist in The King’s Speech, it’s the treatment room.

Once you’re through to the special world, you’re particularly likely to encounter allies, tests and enemies, and the shadow may make a particularly forceful appearance. Jane Eyre’s already had Mrs Reed and John, her horrible cousin, to deal with: in Lowood there’s Mr Brocklehurst, shadow par excellence, whose hypocrisy and cruelty represent a kind of false goodness – false Christianity, even – that Jane will set herself against as she learns to trust her own heart and instincts.

Bella has James, the tracker, on her trail – and he finds her at the conclusion of a sequence which confirms her (sometimes unstable) alliance with the Cullen vampire family (when they go out to play baseball – what an all-American ally scene that is! – showing that they’re on the way to becoming a team.)

Here’s an interesting point about something that often happens at this stage: the visit to the watering hole – often, literally, a bar, as in the fantastic alien space bar sequence in Star Wars, which is probably one of my favourite film moments ever. The watering hole is a place where characters can clash (or flirt) and the truth may be revealed, like the cafe scenes in Stop the Clock when Natalie finds out more about Adele. (Allies – the pack of friends – have a huge role to play in my work-in-progress, and it has a lot of watering hole scenes.)

The shapeshifter: doubt, suspense, romance

Adele in Stop the Clock is a shapeshifter – Natalie is never really clear about what she wants, or intends (but then, Natalie is uncertain about her own desires too). Shapeshifters often crop up in romance: Mr Rochester even goes so far as to dress up as an old gypsy woman. They may be lethal (the femme fatale type). They bring doubt and suspense and are a catalyst for change (Adele is most certainly that).

The Twilight saga is full of shapeshifters, obv. I guess Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades books fits the bill, too, with a bit of mentor and shadow thrown in – is he a lover, or a horrible controlling sadist? He’s certainly in charge of an occasionally alarming special world.

The shadow: depending on your point of view

So… what about the shadow? Shadows aren’t necessarily all bad, and, indeed, in their own eyes, they may be perfectly reasonable (I’m sure Mr Brocklehurst thought of himself as a good man, a hero even, and regarded Helen Burns as a repository of villainous tendencies). Their function is to challenge and oppose the hero… and the hero may behave in a shadowy way himself at times.

The shadow’s story may be the inverse of the hero’s, with moments of triumph when the hero is at his lowest. I’ve just seen the film of Les Misérables, and was struck by how the relationship between the implacable policeman Javert and the former convict Jean Valjean follows this pattern.

Valjean goes on to forge a new identity, but Javert cannot bear to let him go. Valjean’s freedom torments him just as the prospect of a return to captivity torments Valjean. They represent wholly different and incompatible views of the law – Valjean believes in forgiveness, mercy and redemption, Javer only accepts the rule of right and wrong, and cannot contemplate the possibility that someone could be capable of change. Ultimately, one of them will have to be extinguished in order for the other to survive.

Shadows may come in unexpected (shapeshifting) forms; Cordelia in Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye is a monstrous shadow whose activities very nearly lead to the destruction of the heroine.

Ordeal and climax: life and death – twice over

Stop the Clock has a crisis scene that draws together the major characters about two-thirds of the way through. But that is not the end of the story, the final unravelling of the knots; for each character, there’s still a further confrontation to come, some more unfinished business to be dealt with.

The Writer’s Journey makes an interesting distinction between crisis or ordeal and climax. It quotes Webster’s definition of a crisis: ‘the point in a story or drama in which hostile forces are in the tensest state of opposition’. The ordeal effects a brutal and irrevocable transformation in the hero, and is a scene of death and resurrection. This is subtly different from the climax, a final confrontation, showdown or test which shows how the hero has changed and been reborn.

In Les Misérables, the crisis of the battle at the barricades puts Valjean and Javer on opposite sides of the uprising. It is followed by an astonishing sequence in which Valjean carries the injured Marius – his adoptive daughter Cosette’s hope of future love – through the sewers of Paris, emerging into the light to find Javer waiting for him.

There is a further climax to follow: Valjean must overcome his shame and tell Cosette who he really is. In doing so, he brings back not only Cosette’s mother Fantine – as if they have actually been a family all this time, separated only by death – but also the wider family of the comrades on the barricades. It’s like the sequence at the end of Titanic in which Rose returns the jewel to the sea and reclaims not only her long-lost love, but everybody else who was on board.

It may be that the point of the crisis is that it resurrects the hero, while the power of the climax is that it brings life back to everybody – even the reader (or viewer), creating a strange emotional rush that will send you on your way conscious that you’ve been somewhere else, and are now back in your ordinary world, but subtly changed.