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My new novel, Perfect Responses, has a controversial character in it, in the the shape of Corrinne Walker, a self-help author. Corrinne's theories in her book Staying in Neutral, Responses to Change Your Life, form the backbone of the book as three different women are encouraged to deal with significant life challenges by using her advice.

Corrinne believes in straight-talking, and isn't bothered if she offends people along the way to get her message across. I expect you've come across people like this in your life. They might have rubbed you up the wrong way, or perhaps you grudgingly admire them. Either way, they aren't people who often get ignored.

Here's an extract from Corrinne's (fictional) self-help book.

Extract from: Staying in Neutral, Responses to Change Your Life by Corrinne Walker.

You’re late for work because someone has thrown themselves onto the railway line. You feel sympathetic, glad it wasn’t you up there, finding the courage to leap.

But then it happens again, the next day. And the next. They’re like lemmings up there, with their shitty lives, waiting to jump. And always in the rush hour. Never at 10 a.m., or 11 a.m., when it’s just the tourists en route for the London Dungeon, or their free trip up the Cheese Grater to see the view of the Tower of London like a model far below them.

No, they’ve got to make the most possible impact with their final gesture, and they couldn’t care less about your blood pressure, sat there helpless on that train, somewhere between Colchester and bloody Kelvedon.

They couldn’t give a monkey’s that you could lose your job because you’re consistently late. That you’ll no longer be able to afford the au pair, and you’ll have to bake cakes and do voluntary work and pretend to the world you’re happy being an earth-mother-stay-at-home-mum. And all while your husband’s at large in the world with his immaculate suit and Creed aftershave, and never so much as a whiff of baby sick or mustard-bum poo.

He’ll return home after a day of exciting deals and flirtatious banter, expecting a tasty, well-presented meal and willing sex, and it will be as much as you can do to growl something primeval at him before you head for the bath tub in a vain attempt to scrub away your frustration and resentment. You’re so suffused with them both, the bath water fairly fizzes, and much of the steam on the expensive floor to ceiling mirror has come out of your own ears.

And all because of a string of suicides by some selfish, down-on-their-luck losers. The injustice of it all makes you want to scream. Either that, or grab your coat, put it on over your bath-wet body and clomp down to that sodding railway bridge yourself.

Sisters, stop.

We’ve all been there, with that spiral of self-destructiveness. We’ve all blamed others for our misfortunes, and slumped with despair and self-pity. But unless you want to be a martini-quaffing martyr or a hatred-haggled harridan, flailing at the injustice of the world and watching your former friends cross the road to avoid you and your negativity, you need to take action. You need to do something about your reactions to the bad, the irritating, the stressful and the downright disappointing happenings of life. To understand that, if you’re alive, shit happens.

Because this is life we’re living, not some happy-ever-after movie. Your car will break down on your way to the airport for your dream holiday. You’ll be the only one at your Weight Watchers group to put on weight. Your boyfriend will always be busy when you call him. You’ll get gout. You’ll be first in the queue for the Liberty’s sale and a security alert will force you to vacate the area.

Shit. Happens.

Let me tell you, the day I realised that – truly embraced the fact and decided I would no longer let it affect me – was the day I really started living.

When shit happens, we have two choices. We can let shit have power over us and our emotions and responses. But who wants shit to have power over them? Not me. Alternatively, we can keep hold of our power and choose our own reactions. Because all those shitty things that happen to us are events, just as all the good things that happen to us are events.

You find your daughter’s lost hamster alive and well under the fridge. That’s an event. You give an amazing presentation and win your company a lucrative contract. An event. You get the flu and miss a music concert you bought the tickets for a year ago. An event. Your mother dies. An event.

Yes, I know what you’re saying. That missing a pop concert and your mother dying are hardly in the same league. Well, I guess that depends to some extent on the quality of your relationship with your mother.

Only kidding! Of course one outweighs the other. But they are both still events, and I put it to you that we can – and should – choose how we wish to react to events.

Events – and this is very important – are neutral things. Like a closet full of beige clothes. The trouble is, many of us have such chaotic closets – colours all jumbled up, red next to lime green, summer dresses next to winter coats, jeans we’ll never fit into again next to shorts that make us look like geriatric ramblers. And when shit comes calling, we reach into the mess of a closet to snatch up something red or purple or angry orange, and we wrap it closely around us until it feels like a part of our skin. When actually, what we need to do is to stand back, and give ourselves a little space. Keep hold of our dignity and our emotional control. Recognise that shit for what it is. A stinky, unwanted interruption in our lives.

Note from Margaret K Johnson:

I hope you enjoyed the above extract from Corrinne's book! Corrinne has more advice in my upcoming novel Perfect Responses. Here's the blurb:

Three women are about to face the biggest challenges of their lives. Janet has been mistaken for a sex tourist after being abandoned by her fiancé in Africa. Debbie is hell-bent on a hopeless affair with Adam, her married boss. Pregnant Kate has just married the love of her life only for him to turn into a distant stranger overnight.

The three don’t know it, but self-help author Corrinne Walker is depending on them to use her advice to sort themselves out. In fact, her whole future depends on them making perfect responses. But will they be able to do it?

Perfect Responses is coming very soon!

Cheers!

Margaret

10 Comments

I recently carried out a survey about women's fiction and the 132 responses made for fascinating reading.

There were the ordinary, useful questions about reading habits and demographic etc, but as a writer, what interested me most were the responses to questions I posed about the nitty-gritty of the writing, because this gave me a real flavour of what makes people read a book compulsively.

One of the questions asked respondents to choose statements about women's fiction they agreed with, and to add some of their own. Many people went on to make some very interesting and insightful suggestions, and I really wanted to share these results with you.

So, to start off with, here are the responses to the statements I provided myself:

It's important that I care what happens to the main character in a book and almost feel as if the events of the story are happening to me. 75.76%

I like to feel extremes of emotion when I'm reading - both happy and sad. 55.3%

When I'm reading, I enjoy being taken to places and experiencing situations I've never experience before. 76.52%

I'm happy for a novel to include an element of magic, or events that might never happen in real life, as long as the author makes me believe in it. 57.58%

A romance of some kind is essential in a book in order for me to enjoy it. 17.42%

I like a book's main character to grow and to learn something during the story. 63.64%

A book must have a happy ending, otherwise I feel cheated. 10.61%

It's not a problem to me if the main character is someone I don't particularly like. 39.39%

I like to feel I have something in common with the main protagonist. 25%

And here are the statements that respondents added themselves - the ingredients and factors that are important to them in a satisfying women's fiction novel.

  • I don't like loose ends, need to know what happened to all characters
  • Furthering women's causes
  • It has to feel realistic and not too cliched.
  • Not too far fetched...
  • Needs to grab you in the first chapter, dialogue is important
  • Well written prose.
  • It doesn't always have to have sex. Geez already.
  • Anything to keep me interested and page turning. A good storyline.
  • Helps me learn or appreciate something new
  • I like some humour
  • If I'm not supposed to like a main character, I need something bad to happen to them.
  • The main character should have some kind of intelligence, I get bored by ditzy girls, they have to be smart or witty or work things out
  • A good beginning that draws me in!
  • A sense of suspending disbelief or of an idealised reality being portrayed- country cottage, independent woman, seaside etc
  • Location. Books,based in a city with a bit of a story about the city interest me.
  • That the supporting characters are also fleshed out and have a story
  • The characters and their responses to situations must be believable.
  • Inner conflict
  • Good quality prose
  • Intelligence. Please expect that I am intelligent and need brain stimulation.
  • I prefer heroines who aren't weak, who can save themselves or others
  • Humor is so essential for me to thoroughly enjoy an MC or supporting characters. A book needs to take me away from the BS of everyday stress, the new and political mumbo jumbo. It needs to be a true, enjoyable or fascinatingly interesting escape!
  • Great characterization and good writing is a key
  • I am discouraged with novels crammed with over detailed descriptions of superficial things
  • Well written with relatable 3-dimensional characters
  • Good writing with realistic dialogue. An element of truth in the theme that I can relate to.
  • Right or wrong, that she be strong 🙂 (#StrongWomenWrite hashtag on Twitter)
  • Needs to be believable, must like the hero or heroine and care about them.
  • The author doesn't insult my intelligence by telling me everything.
  • Expect the unexpected
  • I love to get into the mind of the character - and I like novels with suspense, ie. Gone Girl.  I am more interested in the writing and how the writer creates rich and complicated characters.
  • Words chosen in writing should be easily understood by most people. Grammar is very important.
  • No misogynistic cliches please. I'm so fed up with Women as victims. Women don't need men to rescue them. They don't have to be superhuman - just real!

To sum up, (and this is my interpretation of the results) most people want a strong character who draws us in because we're intrigued, and prepared to invest in finding out what happens to them. We might be prepared to suspend our disbelief in the process, but we want to have our intelligence respected. We also want to have work to do - to have things to work out, and that actively engage our imaginations and our thoughts. We don't want to be handed everything on a plate like a bland meal, but we're happy to be entertained. We want good-quality ingredients, but a novel doesn't need to be so good for us it feels like a meal we eat when we're on our best behaviour.

I'm so grateful to everyone who took my survey. Their answers have really given me an insight into what people want from a great women's fiction novel. I'm off to apply all the advice!

Bye for now.

Margaret

 

Hello, everyone

I don't know about you, but I'm a huge Cecelia Ahern fan. I always get the feeling she's writing exactly what she wants to write, following whatever path her inspiration and her imagination take her on. From love stories like PS I Love You, to stories including elements of magic like The Time of My Life, to the more gritty The Year I Met You, I've read and enjoyed them all.

Some writers consistently produce a novel a year, and their readers look forward to a new release, confident that it will include the same key elements - for example, a story from the past with old secrets to be tracked down; secrets that will help someone to find happiness in the present day.

With these types of authors, I often imagine the expression of dismay on their editor's face if, after a year or more of waiting, they were to discover that their author has broken from habit to write something entirely new. There is a lot of pressure out there for writers to give readers what they want, and readers often more of the same.

Cecelia Ahern, however, seems to trust her readers to follow her as her books evolve and change. But that's very much harder to do when a writer not only changes the type of book she writes, but who she's writing for. Cecelia has done just that with her novels Flawed and Perfect, which are written for a new, younger audience, hungry for dystopian novels about a bleak, future way of life. An audience that is most definitely not me.

I'm sad, I have to say. Cecelia is doing what she's always done - following her inspiration and her imagination, but it does feel a little as if a door's been slammed in my face. Of course, who knows what she might write in the future? Hopefully our paths will cross again, and in the meantime, I'll do my best to feel happy for the lucky young readers who are discovering the worlds she creates for the first time.

How about you? Have you ever felt bereft when your favourite author has changed direction? Let me know on my Facebook page or in the comments below. I'd love to hear about it. And stay tuned for the results of my Women's Fiction Survey and prize draw, coming soon!

Have a great weekend!

All the best.

Margaret