Monthly Archives: November 2009

On Name That Bastard

Here’s the thing.

I have huge trouble with names. Even minor characters can prompt a 20-minute slack-jawed space-staring spell. Baby name sites don’t help, and if I start looking through other books for inspiration, I just read them. If I think of a friend’s name – Marcus! Jackie! – then I think, holy shit, I haven’t spoken to that friend in ages, I should really send him/her an email, then I start an email in my head, then I go and write it properly and then I come back to the story and I read the name again and think, Marcus isn’t the right name for this character at all, goddamnit.

Now, this won’t mean anything before you’ve read the book, but: Mitch was originally John. And Rick was Cain (and before that Leo and Mitch and originally, JJ). Minor characters changed names with every draft. There were good reasons for every change, too. Note: a ‘good reason’ can sometimes mean ‘my whim’. (By the way, Jake was always, always Jake. After Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Of course.)

The girl herself – the protagonist – had no name at all, as it was impossible to think of one when I started so I thought ah well, this story’s never going to be published anyway, I just won’t worry about it. And then the story turned into a book and I thought, hey ho, perhaps the reader can pretend to be her. Yes. (Lazy me.) So she was nameless until well after the book deal with Harper Collins, when we realised it was very hard to talk about the book without a name for the protagonist. (“There’s this girl, right?” etc.) I made lists of names I liked, like Nina and Amy. None of them were right. Everyone thought the girl needed an unusual name, and I thought of my friend Sass, short for Sarah. Which is both unusual and awesome. Problem solved. (I didn’t get a chance to thank her in the thanks page of the book, as I’d already written that by the time the naming thing happened, so thank you Sass. You rock.)

God! That paragraph was exhausting, wasn’t it? The point is: naming is hard.

I was so fed up with naming that towards the end of The Dating Detox, when I decided that I had to change the name of one character for long and boring reasons I’ll explain some other time, I decided to see what name was statistically the most bastardy of all names.

So I emailed my friends asking for help to ‘Name That Bastard’.

Brilliant, angry emails poured in from them and their friends and sisters and colleagues. “Use Ted, please, I would be ecstatic”, or, “Dick. Normally refer to him as Poison Dwarf”. There was also lots of Phils, several Ryans and a Nigel. (A Nigel! Who would have thought he had it in him?) And that’s how I ended up with Rick. (Best said through clenched teeth.)

And now, the point of this blog post. For the second book, I need another bad guy’s name, and I’m throwing it out to you. Skip on over to where I’m compiling the results of my totally unscientific study. The most popular name – or most awesome story, I’m not sure which – will be the anti-hero in my next book. So check out the blog or just email

On comfort

I read an interview once with someone who said he read Bleak House every year, at Christmas. The sophistication! Kind-of-but-not like how I used to read Polo by Jilly Cooper every time I was dumped.

Now these days, I’m with a nice young man and we’re getting hitched, but I still read Polo about once a year. All the Jilly Cooper books are dear friends by now, and I have to be careful when I’m writing, because I’ve read them so often that entire sentences from them can appear in my fingers and on the page.

Not quite Bleak House, but then again, I sometimes find reading Dickens like talking to someone extremely quick and self-consciously clever. It’s brilliant, but I feel a bit tired afterwards, like I’ve been holding my breath till the end of each sentence. Jilly Cooper, on the other hand, is equally fast and smart and amusing, but also kind and observant and bitchy-in-the-good-way and a bit naughty. Someone with whom you could play hooky from work and drink a bottle of wine. Someone who, no matter how bad the thing is that’s happened to you, will make you laugh by the end of the first drink.

And so, because there is no new book news on my front (other than, The Dating Detox is coming in January, and when it does, please buy it), I think I’ll list other books I read for comfort. Books that will be your best friend and sit with you for hours and make you laugh and sigh when you’ve just broken up with some asshat, had a shit day at work, fought with your sister, made a fool of yourself or anything else that results in a blue soul. These are books with wit and warmth and smarts and optimism that I find easy to get into – even when most of my brain won’t let go of my problems.

1 Heartburn by Nora Ephron
Like a heart-to-heart with a warm, confiding, wise, self-deprecating, sarcastic and absolutely stomach-achingly witty friend. After you read this, read I Feel Bad About My Neck, which has only one fault: it isn’t four times as long. I wish Nora Ephron would start a GOOP.

2 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
When you’re feeling stuck and bored and worried about your future, this is the book to read. Oh, or if you have a hangover.
My sister did this cover, by the way, when she was working at Penguin Classics. No, she wasn’t allowed to do my cover. I wish she had.

3 Mariana by Monica Dickens
Makes you wish you grew up posh in the 20s.

4 The Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford
Makes you wish you grew up posh in the 20s in a family of sharp, bored eccentrics.
This cartoon cover is about as good as cartoon covers get.

5 Persuasion by Jane Austen
In the mood for spine-tingling confessions of love? Forget Mr Darcy. It’s all about Mr Wentworth.

6 The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
She’s an American living in Paris in the 50s, she wears ball gowns all day and she gets drunk and has inappropriate affairs all night. What’s not to love?
Fab cover, too.

7 Nightingale Woods by Stella Gibbons
Yes, Cold Comfort Farm by the same author is sharper and funnier – but can the uber-sensible Flora ever really console when you’re feeling down? She never makes a mistake. The heroines of Nightingale Woods, however, start out lonely messes and end droolingly happy. The perfect book if you feel like a lonely mess.

8 The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Rip-roaring adventure: sex and swashbuckling and intrigue and D’Artagnan. My crush on him is severe. Corset-ripper with balls.

9 Polo by Jilly Cooper
If you’ve never read them, start with Riders, then Rivals, Polo, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous. Then see if you can stop. And go back and read Prudence and Harriet and oh, just trust me. Makes you wish you were rich, bored and libidinous in Gloucestershire in the 70s.
Such brilliant covers, too. For the reprint, some fool photoshopped out half the original covers so they look all uneven and odd – just a bit of his knee remains.

10 Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
I heart Bridget.

On writing

So, someone asked me the other day if I’d always wanted to write a book. And the answer is no, I never really wanted to write a book, but I always wanted to write. I’d write anything. When I was little, we moved around a lot, so I wrote letters to everyone I knew from previous places we’d lived, then when I ran out of people I knew (ie, pretty fast) I researched the family tree and wrote to second cousins and great-aunts and uncles. I wrote to Harold from Neighbours (my sister wrote to Gran. We were odd kids). I even wrote to the Queen. Eight times, in fact. (My mother stole one – sorry, ‘saved’ one of the letters to the Queen and read it out at my 21st. It began “Dear HRH”.)

Writing paper was my heroin. I constantly begged my parents to buy my next fix and sometimes ended up writing on that weird 80s printing paper with the perforated holes at the sides. As well as letters, I wrote cartoons and little stories and a newspaper for the dogs of the neighbourhood. (When I ran out of dog news I filled up the lines with woofwoofwoof – the lorum ipsum of the canine world.)

Eventually I went to boarding school, which was filled with composing long unhappy letters that I will never reread, and then to university, where I was far too busy having a very very good time to ever write everything. Even the essays I was supposed to be writing. (Creatively, university was my fallow period.)

After university I fluked a job as a copywriter (you can’t do much with a Bachelor of Arts; I think that when someone asked what I could do I paused for a long time and said ‘spell’). As a copywriter, words were my bitch and I was their daddy. I didn’t really care if no one read what I’d written, or if the client changed every line. I was pretty damn happy to get paid to write. Even better was the discovery of the endless email discussion. I don’t know how people passed the time in their first jobs before email, but I’ll bet it involved sniffing White-Out and making friendship bands out of typewriter tape. Ie, desperately boring.

Then at some point I started wondering if I could write a book. And then I did. More about that another time.