Society, Media & Politics

In which I have thoughts about Doctor Who and writing

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I decided at the weekend that this week I would blow the dust off my blog and get back into it. I was going to post my traditional ‘What I learnt at the RNA Conference’ post, where I would have talked about Jill Mansell writing long-hand and the importance of not stalking reviewers or literary agents. I would have illustrated the whole thing with this picture of me with my colleague, Janet Gover, and my agent, Julia Silk.

And it would have been very lovely. But since then I have become distracted by the news the next Doctor is going to be played by a woman.

This has been met by delight, indifference and horror in difference circles, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m delighted. The first thing to say is that I didn’t expect to be delighted. I’d sort of guessed from the last episode of the most recent series that they were going to take the plunge, and I thought that would be fine. I’ve never been a particular fan of the idea of pushing for specific roles to be played by non white male actors. I tend towards the view that diversity needs to be more diverse than that. It principally matters, I would have said, that Bond is always a white bloke, because there are so few comparable roles that aren’t. If there were more other films with Asian female super-spies, for example, Bond’s whiteness would matter less. So I figured the Doctor could be any ethnicity or gender and I would be equally fine – for me, I thought, it was more about the individual they cast.

But when I watched the announcement roll past on twitter and clicked and refreshed like a crazy person on my phone to find the video clip introducing Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor I did well up a tiny bit. I’m old enough to have liked Doctor Who the first time around – by which I mean pre-1989, not the actual first time around with Doctor number 1. I’m the lone crazy person who really liked Sylvester McCoy, and I really really liked his companion. She was Ace, and indeed ace. She was chippy and reckless and liked to blow stuff up. I very much wanted to be Ace. It only strikes me now that I didn’t want to be the Doctor. I wanted to run away with the Doctor, but I didn’t think I wanted to be the Doctor. Now the eleven year old me out there somewhere feels like she’s allowed to want to be the Doctor too. And that feels good. Really good.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments that the casting is gimmicky, or tokenistic. That makes me want to be shouty. I shall try not to be. Firstly, I don’t think we can know if something is gimmicky until we’ve seen the episodes. Secondly, there has been some casting in Doctor Who that has looked seriously gimmicky and has worked out fabulously. Two of the most successful companions of the post-2005 era are Rose and Donna. Billie Piper was best known as a teen popstar and former spouse of Chris Evans when she was cast. Catherine Tate was best known as a sketch show comedian. Either of those could have been described as gimmicky – both were brilliant. And Jodie Whittaker has serious acting class – nothing gimmicky at all about that.

Ultimately though the part of me that wants to defend this change so passionately is the writer. The assumption seems to be that this is a casting that has been made for box-ticking or PR reasons. Until we’ve seen the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall’s, episodes with his version of the Doctor, I think it’s right to keep the faith that this is a creative, writerly decision. Recently the Doctor has seen his oldest friend regenerate as a woman. He’s seen his newest friend transformed into a Cyberman and choose to die rather than live as something other than herself. He’s lost his wife. He’s beyond his original regeneration cycle. He’s lived through more selves than he was ever supposed to have. And, for the Christmas special, it appears he finds himself face to face with the very first incarnation of himself – the old man who used to be a young boy who stole a blue box and ran away. We’ve also seen a Doctor who appears to have more control over the regeneration process than we’re used to. Capaldi’s Doctor was able to choose to resist and slow the regeneration process in the closing episode of the last series. David Tennant’s Doctor was able to choose to regenerate the same body.

Is it fanciful to think that a man that old, a man whose seen that much, might choose to start afresh in a wholly different new body? As a writer, that feels like a perfectly well thought out character arc to me.

Of course I could be wrong. The Christmas Special could play out quite differently to that. But I’m excited to find out what happens and what happens next.

One last thing – some of you will be thinking it’s silly to care about Doctor Who because it’s for children. Well, yes – it is silly. But caring about the Handmaid’s Tale is also silly. And caring about Lizzie and Mr Darcy is silly too. They’re all just made up people at the end of the day. Silliness is brilliant. Do try not to grow out of it if you possibly can.

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In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

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The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I think about the lack of recent blogging

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I’ve been a bit lax about blogging lately. After resolving last week to get back into it, I find myself, this morning, staring at a blank screen devoid of blogging inspiration. And that’s been a problem a lot recently. There are plenty of subjects I could opine my little heart out about. Just yesterday I overheard someone talking about the refugee crisis, and saying ‘I’m not racist but…’ And yes he actually said that in real-life – it’s the sort of line I’d edit out of a book for being too cliched but she really really said it. Anyway, ‘I’m not racist but,’ he said, ‘what they have to understand is that they’ve got to earn our trust back. You know, after Paris and everything.’

Now I have Views on that statement. By golly do I have Views?* But I increasingly find myself weary of sharing those views on the interweb. One thing the internet does not lack is people who reckon stuff about things. Whether you like to be irritated and get into twitter fights with people you vehemently disagree with or whether you prefer to create a perfect little social media echo chamber of people who entirely agree with you, the internet offers a ready supply of opinion for you to be enraged or cosseted by.

So I could write you lovely blog posts about novel writing instead, but again, blogs about how to be a writer are not in short supply. There are blogs that will tell you how to write, edit, submit and promote your book. And, here’s my one piece of writing advice for this post, reading them can be interesting and lovely, and a fab way of meeting and interacting with other writers, but it’s also probably procrastination. Writing themed procrastination, which is the highest form of procrastination, but procrastination nonetheless.  There is no substitute for just writing the sodding book. Harsh, but true I’m afraid.

So that leaves me wondering what on earth to blog about on weeks when reckoning something about the news of the day fails to fill my heart with inspiration. And I’m genuinely wondering. Suggestions and ideas more than welcome in the comments… Otherwise I might have to abandon all pretense of coherent thought and just post pictures of baking. Mmmm… baking.

 

* They are about the ignorance of othering, and the general heartlessness and stupidity in mentally dividing the world into us and them, and grouping the them together based on race/religion/nationality.

In which I get my feminism on and feel a little bit weary

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Today Elle magazine’s #MoreWomen campaign has been making headlines because of this rather pithy little video demonstrating how few women there are at the top in a range of different fields. It’s a neat visual way of making the points that most of us are already aware of – women are 50% (actually slightly more than 50%) of the UK population but less than 30% of Westminster MPs, only around 23% of major business board members, and are outnumbered my men 4 to 1 in news and current affairs programming.

And that should make me angry, but increasingly it just makes me sad, because I grew up genuinely believing that none of this stuff would be an issue for me. Yes – there was still sexism when I went to school. I remember my primary school reading books being big on sections where Peter helped Daddy do something fun and adventurous while Jane helped Mummy make the tea. I remember the maths teacher who accused me of cheating because a girl couldn’t be that good at maths. But what I also remember was being absolutely certain that all of those attitudes were a hangover of an era that was already gone.

I grew up as part of the first generation whose mothers routinely went out to work, whose grandmothers had been able to vote as soon they were old enough. I was born ten years after abortion was legalised, seven years after the Equal Pay Act was passed, three years after family planning clinics were allowed to prescribe the pill to single women. I grew up being taught to expect that my opportunities would not be defined by my gender. The big battles, it seemed, had been fought and won. I was part of the generation that would reap the benefits.

And we still find ourselves in a position where time and time again women’s representation gets to about a third and then stalls because somehow we’re visible enough by then. We have a cultural landscape where the idea that something might only be of interest to women is used as a belittling notion, whereas ideas that are mainly interesting to men are just ideas. And I simply don’t now how on earth we’re still here. I don’t know how it is that I’ve twice been in job interviews and been asked whether I thought a young woman could be taken seriously in the role. I don’t know how it is that ‘like a girl’ is a derogatory term. I don’t know how it is that I get introduced as a ‘lady author’ (Author. The term is author. Just author. Thank you).

Women went on hunger-strike, tied themselves to railings, burned their bras, so that their daughters and grand-daughters wouldn’t be in this position, and yet we are. And tomorrow I shall get back to being angry, and I shall get back on my special equal rights horse and charge back into the fray, but today I’m tired and feeling a little bit cheated, because I genuinely grew up thinking it wasn’t going to be like this.

(Song by Jules Gibb, sung at VIVA! concert November 2011 by combined cummunity choirs ‘Move On Up’ Pershore and Winchcombe, soloist Bev Harrell, musical director Alice Robin)

In which I wonder if I’m over twitter now

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I posted a couple of months back about how I don’t really have a strategy for social media and how, apparently I’m very much supposed to have one. Well since then, nothing has really changed apart from that I’m starting to think that I really really don’t want to be a person who knows How To Do Social Media, because, I suspect that people who know How To Do Social Media are might be killing* twitter.

I love twitter. I wasn’t a desperately early convert, but I joined just before the numbers of people, and particularly writers, on there went stratospheric, and back then, back in the good old days, twitter was a completely different place. At least my twitter feed was. It was smaller for one thing, so it flew past at a much more manageable rate. And it was mainly people chatting. Sometimes people who already knew each other. Sometimes random strangers who happened to be watching the same thing on TV or be struggling to put together the same piece of flatpack furniture. During that period I *met* lots of people on twitter who I would now consider friends, most obviously Lisa Hill who responded to a tweet about Croome Park being on TV, which started a conversation which somehow ended up with us agreeing to meet up at Croome and have a scone, which we did, and it was lovely because scones are lovely and Lisa, despite being a random person met on the interweb, is not a serial killer.

I can’t imagine that happening now simply because the percentage of people on twitter who routinely ‘chat’ rather than simply share and RT links and motivational sayings seems to be in terminal decline. I sort of know the four or five people who are likely to reply if I post something that’s just a comment or thought rather than a link to a post. For most people, I suspect, their twitter feed is now such a fast-moving stream of links that the odd chatty post gets lost in the haze.

So what to do? On the one hand writers are under great pressure – from agents, publishers, other writers, the tiny voice of self-doubt inside their head – to be on twitter and to be actively using it to sell books. On the other, if everyone’s doing that, the net benefit for each author must be reduced. One person standing on a table in the middle of a restaurant and shouting over the diners quietly chatting is notable – if what they shout is dull or offensive then that’s rude; if what they shout is funny or clever then they’re a visionary. If everyone’s shouting, nobody notices whether they’re rude or incredible, AND nobody gets to have a conversation.

None of which answers the question of what to do. I want my twitter feed to be a place where interesting people say funny and insightful things, and where there is an appropriate amount of discussion about Celebrity Masterchef, and the links that are posted are only to unusual and interesting things, but maybe the glory days are gone, and I just need to learn to move on. And now I’m going to go and tweet a link to this blog because if you can be part of the solution, you might as well be part of the problem.** Or something like that.

 

Yeah. I’m over-dramatizing. I’m a writer. What did you expect?

**That’s not right is it? It doesn’t sound right…

In which six is the magic number

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My publisher, Choc Lit, is six years old today, which is lovely. Well, it’s lovely up to a point. Beyond that, having a publisher who doesn’t want to discuss your edits because they had too much ice cream before they went on the swings and so now they feel sicky is less than ideal. Despite those reservations, a birthday is still a thing to be celebrated, so in the spirit of ‘sixiness’ here are six things I’m thinking about right this second…

1. Turning to crime

Not actual crime. That would be bad. Being bad is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of actual crime, but I am thinking about fictional crime. Yesterday I went to see a panel of frankly awesome crime writers talk at the Worcestershire LitFest. The panel was made up of CL Taylor, Sarah Hilary, Clare Mackintosh and Alex Marwood, all of whom are bestsellers and utterly brilliant writers. A couple of things really stood out – both CL Taylor and Alex Marwood started their writing careers writing books that were marketed as chick lit before turning to crime, and Clare Mackintosh actually turned down a potential offer to publish an earlier book before her astounding breakout debut hit, I Let You Go. All of which made me think a lot about writing and publishing as a career and how easy or difficult it is to switch genres or to write in multiple genres and hmmm… well… thoughts.

 

2. I bloody love teaching

I’ve been properly snowed under with work recently. I’m marking a lot at the moment, promoting one book, trying to finish writing another and I’ve recently joined the committee of the RNA, which is brilliant but also time-consuming. And then on Saturday afternoon I had an afternoon off. Well not actually ‘off’ – I had an afternoon standing at the front of a class with a flipchart talking about plot and character and trying to help five developing authors get to grips with their own works in progress, and it was immense fun, so much fun that, compared with the days and day of bum-on-seat time I’ve had recently, it almost felt like an afternoon off. Brilliant students, an excellent worked example of a character arc interacting with an external plot (courtesy of Terry Pratchett and Guards! Guards!) and a generally all round lovely afternoon.

 

3. My new book baby is out there in the world

Midsummer Dreams was published on Friday. You probably didn’t know that. I barely bang on about it at all. The early reviews have been lovely and positive though, which is always a huge relief. Until the first reviews appear there’s always a possibility that nobody else on the planet will understand what on earth you were trying to do with a novel, but fortunately at least some people seem to love this one. Happy dances all around! If you’d like to download a copy for yourself this is the place.

 

4. The Labour leadership contest is getting me down

So it’s fairly well documented that I’m a bit of a lefty, well ok, quite a lot of a lefty, so I should be following the Labour leadership contest with great interest. Unfortunately all I’ve been able to muster so far is great disillusionment. I can’t even bring myself to type a proper rant about how disappointing the candidates all are. That’s how disillusioning the whole thing is. *sigh*

 

5. Fatness and cake

I’m currently on attempt 728 to get my weight under control. My current system involves good old fashioned bribery as the incentive, as EngineerBoy has been persuaded to sponsor me £1 for every 1lb I lose. So far I’ve made £4. Yeah baby!

The current biggest downside of the weight loss plan is that it really curtails the amount of baking I can justify doing. I love baking – it’s like magic for people who don’t have sufficient attention span to actually learn how to cut a lady in half, or, if you prefer, it’s like science for people who only have eggs, butter and flour to experiment with. Baking is awesome, but it very often leads to cake, and cake, very often, leads to fatitude. Again *sigh*

 

6. And finally, I am thinking about Christmas

Because my current work-in-progress is the third (and possibly final, but never say never) Christmas Kisses book, so for the third year in a row May and June have been soundtracked by White Christmas and Band Aid. No spoilers about the book other than to say it will be Christmassy and there will probably be some kissing.

 

So there you go. There are six things that are on my mind right now. What’s everyone else thinking about?

In which I reflect on the morning after the night before

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So it’s the morning after the general election. The Conservatives have won. The SNP basically own Scotland. Labour had a bad night, only made less awful by comparison with the Lib Dems who did exactly as well as you’d expect for a party who’ve spent the last five years doing pretty much the precise opposite of everything their followers believe in.

But apart from those obvious things, what can we learn from the 2015 election? Well, I’d suggest these things:

 

1. Polling in a multi-party election using a constituency-based first-past-the-post system is tricky. Really really tricky.

There’s a lot that polling organisations have to try to factor in when trying to forecast the result of a general election. There’s how well the votes for each party actually hold up on the day; there’s whether the undecideds split in a predictable way; there’s the popularity of specific local MPs or candidate that might differ from a national average; there’s how the parties’ popularity is spread around the country, and about 1001 other things beside. There are also specific known phenomena like the ‘shy tory’ which is the effect caused by conservative voters being less likely to disclose their voting intention.

However, even given all that the polls leading up to this election were quite consistently wrong, and it’s that consistency that ought to concern pollsters and politicians in the future. Polls have a margin of error on them, and you should always expect there to be a few outlying polls during any campaign, but actually during this campaign the public polls were incredibly homogenous, and looking at the politicians’ initial responses to the broadcaster’s exit poll, it seems like the parties internal polling was much the same. Either Labour or the Conservatives could be the largest single party, and the share of the vote between Labour and the Tories was too close to call. Neither of those things were true. The next few days and hours are likely to be dominated by party leaders falling on their swords – there are probably a few senior poll designers wondering if it’s time for them to do the same.

 

2. All the parties struggled to win outside their heartlands.

The Tories did best, and they took a couple of unexpected seats in the North of England, most obviously from Ed Balls, but they also lost seats like Wirral West. A lot of the Tory gains were from the Lib Dems in the South West of England. For Labour the former heartland of Scotland turned away from them, and they didn’t make inroads into the Tory vote in the south. And the Lib Dems don’t really have a heartland – they paid the price for that lack of ‘unloseable’ seats last night. What does seem to be happening is a fracturing into a SNP block in Scotland, a predominantly Labour stripe in northern England, and a big Conservative wodge in the south. David Cameron used the phrase ‘one nation’ in his speech in his constituency, and has a massive challenge now in holding the nations together. Is David Cameron the right person for that job? An Eton and Oxbridge educated, English, career politician is a tough sell in northern England, let alone Scotland. It’s going to be hard.

 

3. The Conservatives will need to get better at Commons party discipline

In 2010 the coalition government held 363 seats at Westminster. With that number of MPs on side, the government still lost votes on the EU, military action in Syria, and a number of smaller issues. At this election David Cameron is likely to have 328 or 329 MPs – that’s a tiny majority. It would only take a couple of bad byelection results to destroy it altogether, and Cameron will need to get all his MPs out to vote on every key issue. That’s going to be a challenge. The hard right-wingers and the EU sceptics on his backbenches will expect their backs to be well-scratched in return.

 

4. Rumours of the death of print media have been exaggerated (also known as: Twitter is a bubble)

Most of the mainstream print media in the UK has a right wing slant. There are exceptions – The Guardian amongst the broadsheets, and the Mirror amongst the tabloids – but the general mood is on the rabid end of Tory. In the closing days of this election campaign much has been made of the reprinting of pics of Ed Miliband eating in an untelegenic sort of a way, and of the personal attacks on Miliband’s personal life. Over in social media land though there has been a fightback with hashtags like #JeSuisEd and #milifandom and lots of hyperbole about how this was the social media election. But. But your twitter feed is a very narrow and selected. We all tend to follow people who are fundamentally like us, and the rest of the world is full of people who might not be like us, and those people have valid opinions too, whether they create a humourous hashtag for them or not.

 

5. The campaign for 2020 starts now. Sorry. But it does.

Because actual three week long campaigns are meaningless. The Question Time programme with the party leaders demonstrated that. The audience was properly angry, but largely angry about things that happened between 2007 and 2011 – the financial crisis, the recession, the start of austerity. If Labour want to win in 2020 they can’t repeat Ed Miliband’s strategy of keeping his powder dry until election year. Miliband was criticised throughout the parliament for being indecisive and not taking clear policy positions. Whoever is Labour leader when the dust settles needs to decide what Labour is for and start being that party straight away. One key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in this election, and between Labour now and Labour under Blair, is that Labour recently haven’t seemed proud of who they are and what they stand for. They need to fix that now, because voters decide early who they trust.

 

So there are my thoughts. I could probably come up with at least five more if I sat here long enough (stuff like – having a referendum really doesn’t close an issue down, does it? Proportional representation, Scotland anyone?) I shan’t though. I need to sleep. Good night (or morning or whatever it is) all.