On…. dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue. I really LOVE writing dialogue. If I ever feel stuck, I just start writing conversations between my characters. It’s like a creative enema: it unblocks everything. I love working out how characters speak; their attitude and humour and syntax and slang; how the structure of a sentence can change the entire meaning behind it… And so on.

In fact, when I’m writing – or, rather, when I’m writing easily – I can hear their voices in my head. Like a play.

Then the other day I couldn’t find my iPod. I hadn’t seen it in weeks. I think I had it on holiday, but now – vamoosed. ‘Oh, well,’ I thought. ‘C’est perdu. I guess I should get another one, though it’s funny how I never listen to it when I’m out and about anymore.’

And then I realised: it’s because I eavesdrop instead.

I do. All day. I’m a conversation scavenger, a tidbit collector, a little magpie for bon mots. I don’t know when I started, but it’s been at least a year. And in the past 12 months, I’ve hit a creative purple patch. (I’ll tell you more about all the things I’ve been growing in said purple patch if they ever flower.) And I think the two are directly related.

I think listening to an iPod essentially puts the pause button on my engagement with the outside world. No daydreaming, no idle observations and ponderings and wonderings… those are the times when I get ideas. And eavesdropping is part of that.
I listen to people on phones (“And then she said you obviously deserved it, and I said, that is completely unfair,”). I listen to conversations on buses (“I’m going to text him at like, 9 o’clock and say, hi, in case you lost my number, this is Janey from Saturday. Just casual, you know?” “Yeah… or, don’t”). I LOVE IT.

Eavesdropping gives tiny glimpses into people’s lives and relationships… it makes me think about human nature, and(apologies, cockeyed-optimist-type comment incoming) it really makes me love humanity. People are so funny and genuine and warm. Except, of course, those exceptionally annoying people who speak with the deliberate intention of being overheard (“We don’t talk with our mouth full, do we Andrew? Andrew! Listen to mummy, please! People will think we were dragged up!”).

Most of all, eavesdropping makes me think about how character can be revealed through dialogue.

One day last week, in the French Connection commission at Selfridges, I heard this very intense conversation take place between three girls, aged about 24.

Girl 1: The black dress. With the shoulders. But dressed up.
Girl 2: Really? Dressed up? With what?
Girl 1: You know… spangles.
Girl 2: Or the sequined skirt? Maybe?
Girl 1. Yeah, that would look amazing on you.
Girl 3: Sequins will cut your arse when you sit down.

And then they moved on and I snickered to myself, looking like quite the mad old bat. If I wrote that word-for-word, it’s funny. But if I was to transcribe it into a story, I might tweak it a bit to communicate character/intonation a bit more. I’d add ‘Trust me’ to Girl 3, as she really sounded experienced in the sequin-arse matter. And I might add ‘ooo yes’ to preface both of Girl 2’s lines, as it helps to establish how naive and excited she sounded (what event were they shopping for? Who knows. Hopefully something awesome).

Did you know that writing guides – for books and screenplays, ackshuary – say you should use adverbs (ie words that describe how people are saying what they’re saying – or doing, for that matter, but let’s stick with saying for the time being) as rarely as possible? Interesting, huh. Apparently it’s amateurish. Every now and again it’s probably necessary, but when a character is described as, for example, saying something ‘goofily’ then ‘merrily’ then ‘jokingly’ then ‘impishly’ on the same page, it’s overegging the dialogue pudding.

I guess their point is that the content, ie WHAT they’re saying, should be goofy/merry/joking/impish. That’s also, when you think about it, a sign of strong characters and story (if you already know the person is merry and in a merry mood, which you should, they’ll obviously speak merrily). I’m not sure if it’s something one should never do, though. After all, Jilly Cooper does it now and again, and she is awesome.

I worry that I probably overegged the dialogue pudding in THE DATING DETOX, but I can’t bear to open the darn thing and check. The dialogue in A GIRL LIKE YOU (out in six weeks! woo) is better, I hope, or at least it should be: I was a bit obsessed with dialogue by then, and checked every line a thousand times.

Anyway, I must dash. I have eavesdropping to do.

EDIT: I started reading Stephen King’s On Writing yesterday, which is brilliant, and this morning on the bus read the chapter where he talks about this very same issue. He says ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’. Which is veh amusing.

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On… getting away from it all

I’m back from a break with Fox (aka my husband) in New York and Turks & Caicos. It was [insert your favourite positive superlative HERE], particularly since we haven’t spent more than three nights in a row together since we got married in April (he’s been working in Zurich from Monday to Friday, and I’m still in London. So it’s been fun, because every weekend I get really excited about seeing him. But it also sucks because, well, you know, it sucks). Anyway, rather than bore you senseless with a rundown of exactly what it was like (you’ve had holidays, you know they rock), here are the top ten best things about the last three weeks.

1. Swimming in the sea on Turks & Caicos. That isn’t exactly an original thing to say about a holiday, and I swear I don’t mean to be one of those appalling holiday show-offs (I have zero interest in seeing someone else’s holiday photos – show me a pic of your crap tube ride into work, and I’ll take a look, you know?), but you need to see this beach to understand. It’s the shit.

2. Beating Foxy at pool whilst drinking margaritas at a barefoot local bar called Sharkbite. (Every element of that sentence works for me.)

3. Sleeping. I am boringly ferocious about sleep, probably due to this pesky waking-early-to-write habit; I can get tearful if I’m up past 11 on a school night. I binged on sleep like a fat kid on Snickers at Hallowe’en.

4. Deadwood. Brilliant. Buy it, watch it, love it, fall seriously in lust for Timothy Olyphant. Next on my list of things to watch is In Treatment, and if you have any other recommendations, bring ‘em on. I also read a suitcaseload of books, and in fact was forced to visit the Unicorn Bookshop on Turks twice, but more about that in another post.

5. Browsing New York bookshops, especially McNally Jackson in Soho. US book covers are infinitely superior to UK covers: discuss. (I may do a compare and contrast blog in a few days to demonstrate my point.)

6. The Black Label burger at the Minetta Tavern in Manhattan. Perfect pattie, slightly sweet bun, crunchy-salty fries.

7. The martinis at Raouls. This French restaurant is deliciously, iconically New Yorkified, and the martinis were particularly good. That’s why I decided to have three, with predictably disastrous results.

8. The entire meal at Locanda Verde, which started with crostini and sheep’s milk ricotta and ended with near-tears when I realised I had no room for dessert. (I ALWAYS regret not having room for dessert. I still regret not having room for peanut butter and jelly chocolate cake at DBGB last time we ate there. Even thinking about it makes me wince with sadness / greed.)

9. The wedding we attended last Saturday, at the very end of our holiday, when Fox – who never, ever dances – went bananas to a 90s tribute band. He put his tie around his head and jumped around ecstatically like a teen at a school dance, screamed ‘This is my SONG! I KNOW ALL THE WORDS!’ when House Of Pain came on and then – inspired by memories of the 90s, I assume, or confused by my encouraging cries of ‘Nobody puts Foxy in the corner!’ – sat on my lap pretending to be Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost, using an ice bucket in place of a clay urn. And yes, by the way, that was Fox as Demi and me as Patrick.

10. Being with the Fox. I really do like his company more than anyone in the whole entire world. Which is fortunate, given the whole till-death-do-us-part thing… And I don’t really talk about him on this blog much as, well you know, he probably doesn’t want the attention (admittedly, point 9 belies that statement) and it’s pretty boring for you guys, but let me just say it once and for all: he rocks.

PS. It occured to me, with mild horror, that the last point might come across a bit, what’s that phrase again? Oh yes. Smug bitch. I hope it doesn’t. I wrote The Dating Detox from personal experience. I had my heart broken, mildly bruised, and thrown away like a worn-out shoe more often than you can say ‘I don’t think we should do this anymore’. And le Fox and I can fight with the best of them (you haven’t had a shouting match till you’ve had it with an Irishman) and we’re not lovey-dovey all the time. But hey, it was a dang nice holiday. And I was feeling very loving when I wrote it. Nuff said.

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On… my newsletter

Seems silly to call it a ‘newsletter’ when I’m not a big company, I’m just me. But, whatever you want to call it: I send an email out about once a month, and here’s the latest. Want to get the next email? Just email gemma@gemmaburgess.com and put ‘Email me!’ in the title.

Why, hello.

I think I’ll blame the cover of A GIRL LIKE YOU for the lateness of this email, as I kept thinking ‘I’ll wait till that puppy is ready to yap before I write a newsletter’.

Then the cover was seriously late. Like months overdue. I began to resent it the way you resent a friend who always breezily turns up an hour late for coffee. I got twitchy, couldn’t sharpen my newsletter banter claws, pacing and fretting endlessly.

I shouldn’t have worried. (How many times have you said this in your life, seriously? I’m starting to think I should have the whole worry gland removed entirely as it’s such a waste of space.)

The A GIRL LIKE YOU cover rocks. I can say that without fear of sounding boastful as I had nothing to do with it. (Some authors have a say in their covers, but in chicklit, we take what we’re given.) I’ve attached it so you can check it out – the cover girl is clearly doing a Walk Of Shame, the naughty little scamp. She’s barefoot, drinking champagne from a bottle and what appears to be a pair of knickers are peeking out of her bag. Rock on, little cover girl. I like the cut of your jib.

Winning free stuff

A GIRL LIKE YOU launches at Christmas (woosquared) so I’ll be in touch with the chance to win free copies and vouchers for places like MAC and Reiss (I know the way to your hearts). More about this… soon. It’s getting great feedback from people so far, although my mother is unimpressed that there’s a bit more sex in it than THE DATING DETOX. “How can you write about one-night-stands when you’ve never had one?”… uh, yeah.

The A GIRL LIKE YOU trailer

I’m not sure if you’ve seen The Dating Detox trailer (it’s www.thedatingdetoxtrailer.com). I wrote and filmed it with a few friends for, more or less, the cost of a few bottles of wine, threw it out to the internet and it’s had over 20,000 views. Which isn’t bad.

Now it’s time to make the trailer for A GIRL LIKE YOU. I’ve had an idea. I’d love you to be involved. And any girls you know with a penchant for showing off and having fun. In my next email I’ll let you know all the gory details, but it’ll be pretty damn good. Everyone who participates in the trailer will get free advance copies of the book and, erm, anything else cool I can get my hands on.

Stay in touch

In case you don’t know, by the way, I write a blog at www.gemmaburgess.blogspot.com and I Tweet. Now now, don’t look at me like that. Twitter is not quite as dorky as everyone thinks. There are a lot of very funny people who aren’t saying things like ‘I’m eating porridge again! Totally love porridge!’ etc… I shimmy on bashfully, say a few things, immediately delete one or two of them in a fit of irritated self-editing, check out what everyone else talking about, reply to a couple of people and skip away. Twitter is fun. I’m @gkateb. If you come and play, I’ll introduce you to some funny people you may enjoy.

What are you reading?

I’m about to go on holiday, and would love your advice on what to read.

I’ve got the new Jilly Cooper JUMP! (gasp of excitement), AMERICAN WIFE (I heart Curtis Sittenfield), Last Night At Chateau Marmont (trashy fun), P.S. BAD MARIE (someone on Twitter said it was good), LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET (I love Victorian melodrama) and FROM THOSE WONDERFUL FOLKS WHO BROUGHT YOU PEARL HARBOUR (it’s a Mad Men thing).

I eat books, so those’ll be done in about three days. Any recommendations? Will truly read everything from paranormal teenlit to Russian novels (Ruskylit?), so bring it on…

Gem x

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On… perfumes. And blogging. And… oh, stuff.

As mentioned umpteen times before, I often don’t know what to write on this blog. I’m not going to bore you with stories from my day-to-day life (“And then i was like, I am SO not pleased with the standard of that drycleaner, and she was like, I KNOW!”). There’s only so much one can say about writing (“Read, write, edit. Repeat”). And I’m not just going to talk about the career side of writing the whole time, either (“So, the German rights have sold, and I’m hoping for the Dutch soon clunkzzzzz”).

Actually, I think that author blogs are like a little pulse check. As in: yep, I’m still here.

And this is also a hello to anyone who just read The Dating Detox. Yep, I wrote that. Yep, it’s pretty much my 20s in 400 pages. I lived in Pimlico (though I’m now in Notting Hill). I was permanently dumped (now married but only very newly so it hardly counts). I was a copywriter (I still am, some of the time). I sometimes named my outfits (I’m pretty consistently French Schoolboy these days, I don’t know why but it seems to have stuck – a lot of little shorts and crisp white shirts, peacoats and brogues).

And yep, I have a second book coming out in December. It’s called A GIRL LIKE YOU. It, too, is another tale taken from my life, but more of a how-to-regain-single-confidence-after-a-long-time-in-a-relationship kind of thing. And lots of drunken mistakes and high jinks and crazy parties and you know, all that good stuff.

Sometimes I think writing novels is the most self-involved, solipsistic thing a person can do. It’s like ‘this is ME and here’s what I THINK and things I’ve OBSERVED and now let me ENTERTAIN YOU and make you LAUGH and/or CRY! TA-DA!’. I’m not really that showy at all in person. Whenever I meet people who’ve read the book before they actually meet me, they spend the first few hours watching me carefully, as though expecting me to keep up a running narrative commentary (I am doing that, of course, but only in my head) or jump on the table and start doing shots and air guitar (ditto) (okay it still happens but rarely).

So my blog, I think, is really just mostly news, and every now and again, a little chatty piece like this.

Yeah. So. Solipsism is an awesome word, n’est-ce pas? It means extreme self-obsession. My friend Sarah and I went through a phase of making up pretend perfume names and straplines. Like SOLIPSISM. Strapline: ‘It’s all about you’. PATRIARCHY. Strapline: ‘Daddy knows best’. And APATHY. Strapline – actually, there was no strapline, just a shrug and a sigh.

I love perfumes. I wrote a paragraph somewhere in The Dating Detox about the intense rush of memory a scent can provide, and I named a few that mark my progress through my teenage years and 20s… I think the list was pretty much the truth (which shows how lazy I am, as does the fact that I’m too lazy to actually check the book to see if it is or not.) My first scent was Miss Diorissimo, then Benetton Colors, then Anais Anais, LouLou, Jean Paul Gaultier, Chanel No.5, Gucci Envy, Gucci Rush, Sisley Eau de Soie, L’Eau de Guerlain, Shalimar, Balenciaga Le Dix… If I smell any of them now, I nearly pass out from the olofactory memories. My friend Alex freaks out when she smells LouLou as it reminds her so strongly of me and first year university. I’d like to go through and tell you the exact boyfriend or lifetime period that each perfume represents, but I feel kind of bad talking about ex-boyfriends in this blog. I respect their privacy. (The cockmonkeys. ) (Just kidding! Some of them were nice.)(Ahem.)

At the moment I have several favourites, I don’t know why. Perhaps because my taste is more complicated than it used to be. Or – and this is far more likely – because I’m more flighty. Also, I read this amazing book called PERFUMES, THE A-Z GUIDE by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. If you’re not a flighty perfume addict before you read it, you will be afterwards.


This is the newest addition to the Burgess scent family. I bought it rather cheaply after reading about it in the book PERFUMES. They describe it as a vanilla-vetiver hybrid “like Arthur Miller arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe”. I think it’s damn interesting and manly and spicy-lemon.


Clean, green, sharp with that soft ambery woody drydown… Argh! I love this one. I don’t know why, but for the past three years I’ve worn this perfume constantly in April, May and June and then I stop. The Perfumes book calls it “sleek, dependable, perfectly proportioned… basically perfect”. But the bottle is the size of St fucking Pauls, which makes it hard to travel with.


That perfume book famously called this scent ‘dirty knickers’. When I wear it, I just want to feel myself up. Seriously. That’s how deliciously sexy it is. A Muji salesguy followed me around his shop the other week and said ‘I HAVE to tell you, you smell CAPTIVATING’ which has never, ever happened before and doubtless never will again. (Obviously he was gay; a straight man would never use the word captivating. More’s the pity.) It’s musky and salty and sweet and smoky, all at once. Amazing.


When I’m feeling clean and uncomplicated, I wear this. But, like plain white cotton knickers that I also put on when I’m feeling clean and uncomplicated, this perfume is surprisingly sexy. You can buy it in a little rollerball pen, which is ideal for nights out and travelling.


Like being slapped by a big fat man-eating flower. This smells so aggressive that I wear it very rarely, and only on a big-time night out, when I’m wearing the highest fuck-off heels I own, a very tight and/or short dress and feeling uber-confident. Seriously. It never wears off; one spritz lasts all night, and it never really softens and becomes that little skin-hug like most perfumes do. When I wear it, I think of Brigitte Nielson in Beverly Hills Cop II, when she’s at the rifle range. I also think of Jllly Cooper’s Rivals, because Cameron wears it. Yep, that’s how often I’ve read Rivals. Daisy in Polo wears Je Reviens, by the way, but I’ve never managed to smell that. Anyway. I’m digressing, as usual. In fact, this whole blog is one long digression.

I just smelled Serge Lutens Chergui today and now I cannot stop sniffing my wrists. And I think it might be the smell of Winter 2010. Argh! So good. Dark and spicy and honey-pipe-ish.

Anyway. The point, if there is one, is that I love discovering new perfumes. What are your favourites and why?

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On… my new cover

This is the cover for A GIRL LIKE YOU (coming out December 2010).

I am so happy with it, I want to clap my hands like the ex-Brownie geek I am.

The title really pops and the colours work, but above and beyond all that good stuff, the girl is clearly doing a walk of shame. She’s barefoot. She’s drinking champagne from a bottle. She has what appear to be knickers popping out of her 2.55.

Plus, I really like her jacket. Pale grey is awesome.

All in all, this is a girl I could hang out with.

What do you think?

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On… failure

My friend Sarah is a psychologist and journalist. She’s also impossibly beautiful and hilarious. I am friends with her despite these massive flaws.

She emailed last week saying she’d been tasked with writing about ‘famous failures’. People who overcome huge life-changing fuck-ups and go on to become bigger and better, like Nicole Kidman post-divorce and Al Gore post-election.

My first reaction (after ‘Nicole Kidman is ‘bigger and better’? When was the last time anyone watched a movie she was in? And anyway, is it called ‘failure’ when the marriage contract simply expired?’) was that there are a lot of them. In fact it’s hard to think of anyone successful who hasn’t overcome fuck-ups.

For example – and this is just the ones I thought of in a few minutes, so I know you can probably think of loads more – Hugh Grant got a blowie from a pro but used the incident to make him look less foppishly fey. Victoria Beckham was a singalong robot till she discovered her love of design (and Roland Mouret’s dressmakers, ahem).

Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks was cancelled and he went on to make Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, etc. (Freaks and Geeks being cancelled while shit like Two And A Half Men is still slopped out on our televisual plates like week-old spagbog is a travesty, by the way, a fucking travesty, and don’t even get me started on the utterly needless cancellation of Firefly and just-finding-its-feet Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and the best show of our time, Arrested Development. Amen. At least we have True Blood, MadMen and 30 Rock. And now we come to the end of my viewing favourites tour.)

Where was I? Yes. And then we have a long, long list of people who didn’t quite fail, but took a while to find their success boots, from Kevin Costner (cutting room floor of The Big Chill) to Dustin Hoffman (was a jobbing actor for as long as I’ve been wearing a bra). Or JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter manuscript was rejected, what, 22 thousand times? And so was John Grisham’s first manuscript. (I don’t read John Grisham either, darling, but he has done rather well.)

And Marc Jacobs designed the infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 91 or 92, I think it was, then he was fired, but then it went on to be like the biggest influence in fashion evah and he became his current, utterly amazing, ridiculously awesome self.

And so on.

As I was wittering thusly in my email reply to Sarah I began to think that no one’s trajectory to success is seamless. Success takes a shitload of work and luck and the ability to bounce back and keep trying when you fuck up.

I think that’s why I hate the word ‘failure’. It’s deflated, bloodless little sigh of a word that implies ‘you may as well stop trying, there’s no point, you’ve hit rock-bottom and you’ll never succeed from here’. I would happily say I’ve fucked up in my life. Many, many times. But I’d never say I’d failed.

And sometimes, my fuck-ups result in a high-five.

I hope this doesn’t sound too Pollyannaish, but let’s take a look at a few examples of Gemma fuck-ups-turned-high-fives… (this is especially for you Andrea, who requested ‘more personal stuff in your blogs!’). I hated boarding school (and it hated me). But that made me more independent. I failed French at university. But I had to make up the extra points and graduated with a triple major in English, History and Theatre. I was cheated on by my first boyfriend and dumped by several shallow bastardos. But I can sniff out a cockmonkey at 20 yards and got a lot of good stories. In my first houseshare in London, my flatmates stole £600 from me and left the country. But I got wiser and tougher and lived in a series of far nicer places (with occasional nutjob flatmates who stressed me out but made for even better stories). I was made redundant. But my boss was a fuckwipe and I immediately found a far better job. I broke up with a guy I was living with after three years together, which was excruciatingly sad. But then I felt truly invincible, because I’d been (retch, apologies, cliché incoming) true to myself, and found someone who was (retch, again, apologies) really and truly perfect for me. I had a very painful back injury and was bedridden for a few weeks. But then I wrote the first few chapters of The Dating Detox and discovered the joy of Pilates. And so on.

As Mummy Burgess (yoga-teaching, cocktail-loving little hippie) always says: everything happens for a reason. No matter how unhappy or stressed I have felt in the past, everything has worked out fine… sometimes as a result of being unhappy and stressed.

I need to caveat here that I know my bad times really haven’t been that bad, and if I was talking about genuine tragedy or loss, I would never be so glib.

And – second caveat, as usual, I love a good caveat – not that I’m all happy-happy-joy-joy all the time these days either. I get insecure and weepy. I enjoy regular ‘I suck’ moments when I want to just lie down on the floor and wail, and/or burn everything I’ve ever written. I fight the eternal desperate need for reassurance that plagues every creative. I worry that everyone will hate A Girl Like You. I wonder if anyone will ever option The Dating Detox and think that dagnabbit, the script I wrote is really funny and it’s just sitting there, and then wonder if any of the other projects I’m working on will ever work out. It’s all pretty damn pathetic, I can tell you. But then I tell myself to shut up and stop whinging. Because life is good. And most of the time, as long as I keep trying, I feel like I’m doing okay.

I say we should embrace our fuck-ups. If nothing ever happened to us, we’d be so boring… and so bored.

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On… cows

I love cows. Isn’t she beautiful?

I’ve been in love with her for months. She’s been hanging at the Whitewall Galleries on Westbourne Grove and I’ve been visiting her whenever I walk past. And now, she is mine.

It is perhaps odd that I love her so much, considering that I a) have zero affiliation with or affection for real cows, farms or the countryside b) grew up in Hong Kong and live in London and am avowedly the most city-loving person you could ever meet and c) get nervous in the country because of all the nature, which gives me asthma and makes my skin itch, and silence, which makes me feel alone. But I do.

I haven’t named her yet – maybe Bessie? (Too cliche?) What do you think? She’s definitely a girl; she has long eyelashes. Suggestions welcome…

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