On… ten seconds that will make you laugh

My favorite moment in While You Were Sleeping.

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On… talking to a nearly-four-year-old

Earlier today, I was singing ‘Consider Yourself’ to Errol while he did a poo (oh yes, the benefits of working from home are many), and then I said ‘when I was a little girl, I loved that song.’ (actually, I was 15, but musical theatre is REALLY COOL.)

Errol: ‘When you was a little girl, and you was so little just this big’ (holds hand ten inches off the ground) ‘you sang that song?’

Me: ‘Yes, I sang it all the time’

Errol: ‘And you was a little baby and you sang it and i was your mummy?’

Me: ‘Um… no, Grandma was my mummy.’

Errol: ‘I thought i was your mummy. I was the mummy and you was the baby.’

Me: ‘No, I don’t think so. I’m your mummy and Grandma is my mummy.’

Errol: ‘Are you sure you know what you are saying?’

Me: ‘Not usually.’

Errol: ‘Don’t be so silly, mummy.’

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On… my books

I just finished the last copyedits of my fifth book THE WILD ONE, and I’m feeling all nostalgic, because thanks to all the lovely screenwriting work I’m doing now, I think it might be my last.

I started writing books, on a whim, a few years ago, just because I wanted to write a book about a girl like me and my friends – you know, funny and flawed and real.

I didn’t have a long-held desire to be an author. But I read a lot – classics, literary fiction, YA, anything except crime or horror. And sometimes I wanted to read something that was just easy and funny and smart. But I knew Bridget Jones’s Diary and Heartburn almost off by heart, and I was sick of trying a new so-called comfort read that turned out, halfway through, to be fucking stupid, about a friendless fluffy-headed loser who can’t stop eating cupcakes or buying handbags or whatever, and who is in love with a rich Ken doll with no charm, charisma or cojones.

I kept thinking ‘Where are the cool girls in love stories? Where are the funny, interesting, real girls? Where are the girls who are shouting with laughter while they sneak a cigarette outside a bar? Why can’t a heartbroken girl be funny instead of pathetic? Why do these girls in books never have any real friends? Why can’t romance in a book be as funny and awesome as it is in real life?’

So I wrote one.

THE DATING DETOX (Harper Collins, 2010)

Synopsis: Perennially unlucky-in-love Sass swears off men and dating, just as she meets the annoyingly funny and flirtatious Jake.

My first book and, like most people’s first books, the most autobiographical. It’s got the most me in it – if her mind wanders and she’s musing on something random, that’s my brain talking. It’s also the least complicated in terms of plot – c’mon, it was my first try! I just sort of head-butted my way through to the finish, put as much personal experience in there as I could – parties, weekends away, big groups of friends all being silly and Richard Curtis-y. I tried to entertain and charm the reader at every turn, and made it feel as real to my London life as possible. It’s pretty obvious she’s going to end up with Jake, but I figured readers wouldn’t mind knowing the destination as long as they enjoyed the journey. It probably needs a good edit, but like your teenager boyfriend in the sack, what it lacks in finesse it makes up for with enthusiasm.

A GIRL LIKE YOU (Harper Collins, 2011)

Synopsis: Abigail breaks up with a long-term boyfriend and learns the rules of singledom from her womanizing new roommate Robert.

I crammed everything I knew about love and dating into this book. I wrote it in 2009 – I was engaged and happy, but I had a lot of shitty dating experiences to share. It might sound strange, but the main thing I remember writing this book was how much it made me laugh – I was more detached from the heroine, so I could do things like get her hammered and have a one-night-stand that she regrets, without getting stressed out about her. (Does that sound crazy? Probably.) I also planned it more beforehand – I had all the plot points and set pieces in advance. I knew I wanted to do a little Cyrano de Bergerac / Pygmalion thing, I knew I wanted to end on a wedding speech, I knew I wanted to write about male/female friendship, and I knew I wanted to get her to fall for a total asshole that the reader KNOWS is a bastard but kind of loves and lusts for, too, while simultaneously dying for her to fall in love with someone else. And I wanted to write a male character who would make you tingle and fizz the way I do when I read Darcy. So that was all fun to try. It’s a VERY long book – maybe too long, too episodic. But it’s pretty funny.

BROOKLYN GIRLS (St Martins Press, 2012)

Jobless. Clueless. Topless on Facebook. Not necessarily in that order.

I pitched the book series now known as Brooklyn Girls to St Martins Press while on honeymoon in 2010. I wanted to write a book series with a different book ‘by’ each character in a group of girls, like The Babysitters Club, and I wanted to write a book following girls living together in their early 20s, as it seemed to me to be a uniquely challenging, eventful and overlooked period in a woman’s life, and I’d just read The Group and The Best Of Everything and was feeling all girlpower’n'shit. Plus I was looking back over my 20s and thinking of all the things I’d done and learned… and fucked up.

So the first book was ‘by’ Pia, who, like me, grew up everywhere, and who makes a series of very bad decisions – she posts topless pics on Facebook, gets fired from her first job, starts a foodtruck business with a loan from a shady guy, and well, all hell breaks loose. With this book, I was trying to show that the real fun and excitement of being in your early 20s starts when you realize that you’re truly independent, that you’re responsible for your own decisions in life, and that love isn’t the ultimate answer for happiness, your friends are. (Of course there’s a love story there because, me.) I’m not completely gaga about this book – there were a lot of cooks on this one, editorially-speaking, and the broth isn’t exactly to my taste. But it still has some funny bits, so that’s good.

LOVE AND CHAOS (St Martins Press, 2014)

Broke, broken hearted and bored, Angie is a regular poster girl for Generation Screwed. What happens when having fun stops being, you know, fun?

I love this book. I really do. I mean, I still cringe if I read a page, and wish I could edit it again, because that’s just the way I am, but I love the protagonist, Angie. She’s the first character I’ve ever let say the things I think and never say aloud. She’s a headstrong party girl who wakes up in a hotel room with $3,000 in an envelope on the pillow next to her, and no idea what happened the night before, and well, from there, it was just an easy book to write. I put a much bigger love story in this book, too, which was a lot of fun. I set myself a challenge to finish on an emotionally satisfying uplifting note that didn’t end with the heroine and hero kissing (my previous three books basically all did) and (spoiler alert) actually ended with them saying goodbye, but you still feel good about it. I think it worked… maybe.

With this book series, my St Martins Press editor kept saying ‘don’t tell me what they THINK, make them DO something, give me MORE ACTION and DRAMA’. I can literally hear his voice in my head as I write that – a constant refrain. So whereas my first two books were set in – and written in – London, and a plot point was – literally – going to a bar with your friends and being funny, with the St Martins Press series set and written here in New York City, I obediently threw in everything from car chases to gun showdowns (still not sure about that one, but hey ho, too late now) to fights to yacht kidnappings to drug overdoses to self-mutilation to abortions to secret identities to superstorms to flash floods to oh, God, everything. I really learned how to plot on these two books – I worked so damn hard at it. These days, I’m obsessed with structure and outline everything I write, before I start writing it. Once you have your structure in place, you can do anything. (Without structure, telling a story like trying to hang up your clothes without a coat hanger. They’ll all be in the closet, but it’ll be a big mess.) And of course, you still have a lot of banter between the friends and silliness and messing around because that’s just my bag, baby.

The next book is called THE WILD ONE , it’s out later this year.

THE WILD ONE was challenging to write – it’s Coco, who is a more insecure character, and so automatically that’s difficult. Figuring out how to write her authentic voice without making her sound whiney and a downer was hard. Doing it while still making the reader laugh and – so important – like her, was very hard. And figuring out her plot took forever. A character is easiest to write if they WANT something. Basically, invent a person, make them want something, and then throw a million obstacles in their way. That’s how to write a novel. But Coco is such a shy little homebody, so passive, and I wanted to make her the driver of her own bus, you know, she had to be the one who actively changed her life, not someone else changing it for her. (It couldn’t just be a vampire turning up at her high school to make stuff happen to her, for example.)

Plus, by the time I started Coco, I’d done an awful lot with these five girls – so much fucking plot over the previous two books – and I didn’t want to repeat myself. But I also couldn’t do anything to introduce new energy, like a new non-love-interest central character, or change the location or themes or whatever. The parameters were set. So that was a challenge. And I wanted to make it fun and, because I think this might be the last book in the entire series, I wanted to wrap up each of the other four girls’ stories nicely and end on an emotionally satisfying, but open, high note. So… yes. Challenging. (Does any of this make sense? I have a feeling this is the most boring post ever.)

What I love most about storytelling is plot, dialogue and character. I write in first person present tense, and it’s considered the cheap and nasty narrative, by some authors – but for me, it’s the most intimate / fast / immediate / direct / satisfying narrative. And yet it became kind of an anchor weighing me down by the last few books, because of the constant presence of the person telling the story. (Coco or Angie or whoever – ie, when you write FPPT you’re not just describing a room or an event, you’re describing a room or an event in character. Trying to do that while be snappy and smart and funny and real and move the story right along…. exhausting.) I kept wishing I could tell the story as a movie, instead; take the narrator out of the story – so much faster and more immediate and satisfying. But that’s screenwriting. And that’s a whole other blog post.

 

 

 

 

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On… UNREAL

Are you watching this? You should be watching this. Seriously, watch this.

UNREAL

Everything about this show is wonderful. It’s a dramedy set behind-the-scenes of a The Bachelor-type show.

I love the world, I love the writing, I really, really love the characters and most especially I love Rachel, the protagonist. When was the last time you truly loved a female comedy protagonist? Or watched one who felt like a real, living breathing person, not a comedy caricature designed to deliver non-sequitur one-liners written by manboys? It’s been a while, right? Exactly. Even with the TV sitcoms that I love, I’ve grown to accept that the women mostly won’t feel like someone I’ve ever actually met (and dude, I have met a LOT of people).

Okay, don’t listen to me sitting here trashing female television characters, go watch UNREAL.

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On… Swingers

Just watched this again. Still amazing.

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On… tone of voice

Someone just emailed asking what I meant when, over on Cup Of Jo, I said I needed to find ‘my voice’ in my 20s.

Okay. I didn’t mean finding the ability to speak and have an opinion and be me. It’s got nothing to do with confidence or realizing that what I said matters, any of that shit. (Very little of what I say matters. Fact.) When I say ‘voice’, I mean something far more literal. Voice is how you say what you say. It’s your personality – or the personality that you want to project – coming across in the words that you write.

I used to be an advertising copywriter. Writing something ‘from’ British Airways – a letter, an ad, a brochure – ‘sounds’ a particular way; that’s the brand personality. For British Airways: plain-spoken, intelligent, understated. Like an old friend who went on to become headmaster at a very good school. I also wrote things ‘from’ Virgin Atlantic. Virgin is – across all Virgin brands – flirty, tongue-in-cheek, something they call ‘Virginess’, the ‘cheeky chappie’ Branson personality. Virgin only sounds like Virgin, British Airways only sounds like British Airways. That’s called their tone of voice. It’s, arguably, the most important part of advertising, and it’s, unarguably, the part lots of brands get wrong, in their attempt to appeal to everyone.

So, from a writing-books-and-screenplays point of view, I just had to work out how to only sound like me, consistently. My favorite writers all have very distinctive tones of voice – from Helen Fielding to Hemingway, Nora Ephron to Dave Eggers. I didn’t aspire to sound like them – you can’t, really, it’s impossible, and anyway, I wanted to sound like me. But on the few occasions when I tried, early in my 20s, to sit down and write something just ‘from’ me, it always sounded false. So I felt blocked. Totally and utterly blocked. I didn’t spend much time worrying about it, mind you – I just went out and had fun with my friends instead.

But then.

After I had completed, I estimate, about 10,000 hours of copywriting (based on eight years of 250 days a year doing five hours of real writing a day, which is all anyone in advertising really does, if they say otherwise they are either lying or incompetent), something happened… Apparently, it’s called the ’10,000 Hour Rule’. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that ‘the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours’. So, obviously, ‘world class expertise’ is, frankly, fucking pretentious silliness when it comes to copywriting, which is simply selling people shit they don’t need, but yes, something happened at that point. I just got it. I was able to write exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it, with no gap between my brain and the page. I could do it for any company, any brand, and suddenly, I could do it for myself. So for me, that is what writing is. Everything else is just spelling.

Once I could write, all I had to do was figure out a story worth telling. Over and over and over again…

x

PS If you want to read more about tone of voice for business, read this and this and this and most of all, this.

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On… TV

I’ve written about TV shows before, here and here and here and here and oh, loads of places. Just in case you need some new recommendations…

Scrotal Recall

I know! I know. The name made me roll my eyes too. But it’s SO FUNNY. It was on Channel 4 in the UK last year and now it’s on Netflix here in the US, so if you live somewhere else then just… find a HideMyAss-VPN type thing and voila. It’s about a guy who discovers he has chlamydia and has to tell all his ex-girlfriends, one by one, and relive their relationships. It’s fast and funny and British, and kind of the slightly-less-naughty-sister-wife to You’re The Worst, and you KNOW how I feel about that show. (Um, I love it.)

Younger

This is a comedy about a 40-year-old woman who has to pretend to be 26 in order to get a job in publishing, and it’s just lovely. Funny and emotional and gentle and clever. A warm bath of a comedy. It doesn’t ever go for the obvious laughs, and it’s just really, really good. I love Sutton Foster, the lead, she’s always thinking and just seems smart and lovable. And she really does look so damn good. Every time her knees come out, I shout “HOW ARE HER KNEES SO YOUNG? HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? SHE IS OLDER THAN ME. MY KNEES LOOK LIKE AN OLD MAN’S CHIN” at the TV. (The TV doesn’t care.) It’s on Hulu. Go. Watch it.

The Comedians

Very, very, very funny. It’s a behind-the-scenes show about a sketch show starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. It’s on FX.

I am mildly obsessed with the relationship between the insecure head writer Mitch and the terminally self-confident production assistant Esme. I am not sure why. It just really, really pleases me, and I think about it all the time. I can’t find a clip of the scene where Mitch is telling her that the writers are hungry and want pizza, but he’s too nice (or weak, whatever) to tell her directly to do it, and she’s like “pizza sounds ameeeeeehzing, I’m gluten free but like whatever you guys want is fine?”

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On… Take A Chance, Abba

I would do anything to make a shot-for-shot copy of this music video.

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