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Foxy Thinking or Why Five-Year Plans Don’t Work

More than a decade ago I had the privilege of hearing Clem Sunter speak about scenario planning, and the book he co-wrote with Chantell Ilbury, called The Mind of a Fox: Scenario Planning in Action.

The occasion was a memorable day in itself – speech day and prize giving at Hilton College in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, with guest speaker Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, Mandela’s plane to Pietermaritzburg was delayed by bad weather and diverted to Durban, which meant that his entourage had an extra hour of road travel between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

In itself a fortuitous example of scenario planning, the school had arranged a back-up speaker in case of delays. The tall grey-haired man in the front row was introduced as Clem Sunter and he occupied our minds for the next 45 minutes.

Foxes, he explained, have many dens and are adaptable in their habits, which is why they are called wily, and they know how to survive no matter what Fate throws at them.

Hedgehogs, on the other hand, are not very streetwise. They live in the same nest all their lives, hibernate in winter, and hide from danger by rolling into a ball to expose their spikes in the hope that the danger will leave them alone. They talk big and make five year plans that go awry when a fox moves into their territory and disrupts their comfortable lives, making them afraid to leave their comfy holes.

Foxes often eat hedgehogs despite the spikes. The wily fox will find a way around the spikes.

The fox thinks on his feet, is intuitive and uses his imagination to show him the way. In life, we cannot predict the future. All we can do is try to be as informed as possible so that we can make the right decisions when problems arise along the way. Life is a series of small steps taken one at a time – often with little knowledge of what lies ahead – so it is a waste of time trying to plan every step in advance.

We know the route we will drive to work each day, but we cannot wait for all the traffic lights to be green before we leave home. If there are delays or road-works we will deal with each as we reach them. If we know our territory we can choose another road and get to the same place without too much trauma.

It is this choosing of an alternate option that uses our fox-brains and allows us to plan alternate scenarios.

Sunter explained to the school the relative simplicity of scenario planning, as if approaching a crossroads. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are your options? Which one do you choose? The better informed we are, the better decisions we can make.

Out in the wild, a fox does the same things. If he’s hungry and goes in search of food, he may find a hedgehog.

What are the rules? The hedgehog will roll into a ball and expose his spikes.

What are the uncertainties? The fox may go hungry, or he may trick the hedgehog into exposing his softer flesh. Or he may get a mouth full of spikes.

What are his options? Try the hedgehog or move on in another direction and find a bird or rabbit instead. Crossroads after crossroads, the fox will make the relevant decisions based on each situation and keep moving.

I’ve always loved hedgehogs and thought they were cute. I still do. I have a healthy respect for foxes, though, and have looked at their habits with fresh eyes since that Speech Day at Hilton College.

How does this relate to me personally? Should all delicate hedgehogs start observing foxes and learning from their habits? Perhaps we have already started.

In my first year of working I mapped out my first five year plan. Six months later it blew up when I took unpaid leave to travel around Europe with the love of my life. My priorities changed, so did my goalposts. When I returned from Europe I discovered that I hated my job. It wasn’t turning into what I had planned for my life. I was frustrated by the narrow thinking and the small minds that burrowed in the dark, finding fault with everyone else. Things they did were old-fashioned and petty, but that’s how they had done it for years. Everything they stood for seemed outdated or directionless.

I left that job and attempted training in a completely different field: pharmaceuticals. That lasted three days before I admitted I was wasting both my time and theirs. They appreciated my honesty and wished me well as I left. Faced with uncertainties, I weighed up my options. Within days I had begged a friend for a ticket to a theatre opening night, knowing that two production managers for two separate theatre companies would be there, and my plan was to quiz them both about prospective jobs. One was there, the other wasn’t, so I got talking to the one who was. He invited me to a meeting in his office a few days later, and I was hired.

My plan was to stick around for six months and see how it panned out. If I didn’t like it, I would find something else and move on. Already I was thinking like a fox and yet I would not hear of Clem Sunter for another twenty years. As it turned out, I really enjoyed that job. I found the less predictable atmosphere to be more creative, and I had much more fun there than in the first theatre.

I was never particularly good with numbers, could never balance my cheque book in my early years of working, and had found the management structure of my first job bewildering to say the least. My second job had one man at the top who made all the decisions, and a handful of us down below who carried them out, and things worked out reasonably well because we were all versatile and adapted easily to the constant changes.

Thinking back now, that second boss was a fox too, because he didn’t dwell on things that didn’t work. A forward-thinking entrepreneur who seized the moment, cut his losses, and was an excellent judge of his place in the market. I worked for him for three years, and only left because my father died and I returned home to stay with my mother for a few months.

For years afterwards, as I worked in other theatres around South Africa, something in me always wanted to do an MBA. During the 80s and 90s it became the “thing to do,” the thing you could swank about having done because it showed you were of above average intelligence. But for me, it was because I wanted to be able to analyse how and why businesses worked as they did. I wanted to find my own niche and make money doing a different kind of business. Something creative, in the craft line, but I wanted to go into it with my eyes open.

Eventually, after nearly 20 years in the workplace, I enrolled in the first level of an MBA programme. I found it fascinating. Various management models, types of structures, and so on – all very interesting. I finally saw clearly for the first time why my cheque book had never balanced! If only I had known it would be so simple…

In my second year of study, when we got to Business Research Methods, I began to see why theatre is such an unpredictable industry. You cannot take a sample and infer it on the whole. Yes, you can have all your ducks in a row, the best groundwork covered and all the research done to the nth degree, but it still won’t explain why audiences rush to see that particular show or stay away in droves from another that has all the same winning ingredients. I realised that theatre was different. Arts in general are different. Writing books is different too.

I am different and five year plans don’t work for me. If they did, I wouldn’t be sitting in Australia right now, loving the unpredictability of my life, and looking forward to the endless possibilities available. I’d be quaking in my boots somewhere, wondering what happened, why it all went wrong, and probably waiting for someone to rescue me.

Instead I am optimistic about my future and ready for anything. What are the rules? What are the uncertainties? What are my options? What will I choose? Even I don’t know yet, but I will work it out as I advance, and advance I will. The words of Australia’s national anthem Advance Australia Fair are ringing in my ears, ripe with opportunity.

Within a week of hearing Clem Sunter speak, I found and bought his book because his speech had left such a deep impression on me. In fact, that book is one of only two business books I brought to Australia with me. The other is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which was a gift from my best friend’s mother, before I began my MBA studies.

Why these two books, over all the others that I let go? Simple. They haven’t dated. They remain relevant. They are the best operational and strategic guidelines for life, and they make no false claims about hedgehogs following fantasy five year plans!

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It Started with a Picture

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Like most of my novels, this one started with an image, a setting. In this case, it was a picture in a travel book. Even back in 2011 I knew that my next novel would be set in Australia, because that was where my sister had gone to live with her Australian husband. They left South Africa in the middle of 2011 to settle in Melbourne, and I knew that I would follow them within a few years. Which I have now done, but that’s another story, so let’s backtrack a bit.

When my only sibling and her husband announced that they were leaving, my brother-in-law knew exactly where they would go – to Melbourne which was where most of his family lived. He had been to visit them there a few years before, but my sister hadn’t. She had no idea what to expect, and for both of us Melbourne was simply a place on a map.

As is my inclination when I need to research something, I headed into my nearest bookshop to look for books on Australia and, more specifically, on Melbourne. The book I found was a travel book, beautifully illustrated with loads of photographs of many places – Federation Square, Flinders Street station, the trams gliding through leafy streets, the Puffing Billy train that chugs through the mountainous area known as the Dandenongs, and an array of popular eating places, some of which were in a street called Lygon Street.

I realised that Melbourne was a beautiful city, filled with artistic, historical, sporting, culinary and cultural delights, and not some one-horse town in the middle of the vast red desert that made up the Australian outback in my mind. I bought the book and presented it to my sister.

The more she read it, the more she discovered and passed on to me interesting bits about her soon-to-be city. Before she left to live there, I bought myself a copy of the same book, so that we could both be on the same page, as it were, when she wanted to tell me about a place she had been to. It helped me to be able to picture her in a place that was accessible to me, even if only by book.

Lygon Street covers a relatively small area in Carlton, just north of the city centre, near the Melbourne Museum, but it’s tightly packed with Italian restaurants, Gelateria, fashion boutiques and gorgeous cake shops, interspersed with parks, trees and small lanes. The restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl, with their tables and chairs spilling out onto the pavements, their hosts declaiming about their mouth-wateringly delicious food to all passers-by.

My sister found it to be an exciting, unique place on her first visit and, during one of our Skype sessions, told me on which page of our books to find a photo of it. She promised that we would go there when I came out to Australia on holiday. I stared long and hard at the picture in the book, at its neon signs illuminating the leafy green trees spreading above the tables, and the inevitable happened: I began to imagine characters other than us hanging out there.

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I took my first trip to Melbourne when my sister had been there almost six months, but long before that I had created images in my head of how Lygon Street would look in reality, and how one of my main characters, Bobby, would run a bar set in a basement below one of the many vibrant restaurants there, and he would live… oh, I don’t know – in a house somewhere in the same area.

The reality, when I visited it with my sister, was quite different. There were no basements leading down from the street level, but most of the buildings were double storey. There were also plenty of small lanes between buildings, leading to other lanes and what had once been alleys, I suppose, but had been prettified. Best of all was a lane leading past a restaurant to an inner courtyard in which we found a modern clock tower and what looked like a set of upstairs apartments.

This was good. This meant that people actually lived in between all these restaurants. But it wasn’t quite what I had been hoping for. I liked the clock tower, though…

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Further in, we found a few gates and garages behind the clock tower, as well as homes above some of the shops. There was a whole world of quaint, attractively painted shops and small businesses rubbing shoulders with private dwellings, and this was just what I needed for Bobby. In my mind I appropriated the restaurant in the lane leading to the clock tower for Bobby’s piano bar, and I gave him an apartment above, overlooking Lygon Street itself.

The bar was small, but I needed the apartment to be large enough for Bobby to have a spare room that contained old family junk, so I obligingly created an Italian restaurant in front of the bar and a very large and well organised stockroom behind it, with the apartment stretched luxuriously over the whole lot. I also gave Bobby a hired garage a few lanes away for him to house his car which he doesn’t often use, but does need for one very important trip about halfway through the novel.

I’ve been back to Lygon Street many times, and on each visit I check to see that I’m still on track in my imaginary version of it. I usually take more photos too, which is probably silly, but I do like to be able to cross reference things.

It’s been a long road, writing this novel. There have been too many interruptions, too much upheaval in my life, but the novel is finally reaching the end of its winding road. All it needs now is a final read, a cover, some formatting for Amazon, and then it’ll be ready to go out in the world and carve its own path.

Watch this space…

An Open Letter to Sir Peter Jackson

Hi there – you don’t know me, but I wish I knew you. I sometimes feel as if I do, but maybe that’s because I’ve seen many of your films, and we share a birthday. Well, technically we don’t – I was born two days before you in South Africa and you were born in New Zealand and given the time difference that probably makes me closer to three days older than you. Anyway, never mind that. Let’s just say that we were born a few days apart in the same year.

And we both grew up loving movies.

Growing up loving the movies – what better place for a child in the 60s! By the end of the 70s, as I was nearing the end of high school, I was hooked on plays, drama, ballet, art and movies. And then came Star Wars. Yes, the original. Not Episode this or Episode that, but the one and only. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Suddenly I had a new hero. I was ready to give up all my dreams of drama and university and run away, stow away on a ship or plane to America, hitch-hike across that land from New York to California, find my way to Van Nuys and throw myself at the feet of George Lucas at Industrial Light and Magic. I would do anything – sweep the floor, make the tea – if he only allowed me to be close enough to the demi-gods of special effects; the archdukes of animation; the moguls of model-making and stop-motion. I could have lived on the very crumbs of knowledge that they discarded, if only I was allowed to exist in the same place as those immortals whom I yearned to watch creating their masterpieces…

But it was not to be. Instead I went to University, worked hard and began a career sweeping the floor and making the tea in some of South Africa’s best theatres. Thirty years later I’m still doing it. (I have five really great brooms, several mops and an awesome squeeze-mop bucket contraption that I guard with a fanaticism reminiscent of Smaug over his hoard of dragon gold!)

I’ve honed my tea-making skills over the years too, and I’m more house-proud about my stage than I am about my own home, but sadly the only painting I do is not connected with model making or animation. After every production in the theatre where I work, it’s my job to repaint the stage floor to a low-sheen black before the next show moves in. Exciting stuff, huh? Welcome to my world…

…and then came Lord of the Rings.

Of course I’d read the book way back when I was young, and I’d even seen the Ralph Bakshi animated film of the first book, but for me it hadn’t matched up to the images Tolkien had created in my head. Like many people of that time, I had believed that a film of such an epic story could never be made. Again, like many people, I re-read the three volumes every few years just to remind myself of how great Tolkien’s vision was, and each time I re-read it, I learned new lessons at my stage in life that I hadn’t thought about before.

But I digress. Not unusual for a dreamer like me. Back to you, Peter Jackson. Sorry, that should be Sir Peter Jackson.

When your first LOTR movie hit the screens, I was amazed that someone had not only dared to do what couldn’t be done, but I was even more blown away by the fact that you had succeeded where so many others might have failed.

Not since my teen dream of running away to join Industrial Light and Magic had I fallen so utterly for the notion of running away, giving it all up and throwing myself on the mercy of someone in the movie-making business. Yes, I would have followed you, Peter Jackson, in a heartbeat. I would have followed you, my brother, my captain, my king…

But this time it wasn’t just for the special effects, the model-making, the revolutionary motion-capture or even the exotic locations. No, it was for the writing. Yes, Tolkien had penned a wonderful story, but it was what you did with it that made it come alive.

For the first time I began to research the nature of screenwriting, and why some things that work in books don’t translate to the screen. Along with your two co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, you had worked tirelessly to capture the essence of what the story was about in terms of individuals in a world beyond their control. Despite the film’s grand scale and epic tale, the very human-ness of the characters was what propelled the story.

The words that Sam says to Frodo near the end of the second movie, “There’s some good in this world, Mr Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for” became a sort of mantra for me. I’m not completely certain whether these are Tolkien’s words or yours, but either way they echo Tolkien’s sentiment and you stayed true to the book.

I began to read all the books about screenwriting that I could get my hands on, because they gave me a deeper insight into the nature of story and storytelling.

Eventually, of course, this led to novel writing. I still use screenwriting structure for the novels that I write, and when I read a great novel that later dies on screen, I analyse the film in terms of that structure to find where the problems are.

Since becoming a Jackson fan, I’ve also tracked down some of your other movies. I loved Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners but I wasn’t that wild about King Kong. Maybe that’s because I’d never particularly liked the story. The romantic novelist in me has this notion about happy endings, and we all know that no matter what you do with it, you can’t give a story like that a happy ending.

(Ditto The Lovely Bones which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t seen for the same reason. Please don’t feel bad; I couldn’t get through reading the book either. I won’t attempt the book again, but maybe I will watch your movie of it one day.)

Oh, and by the way – I just love what you did with The Hobbit. Yes, all three movies. I have the first two on DVD and will get the third as soon as it comes out where I live.

Sometimes I’d still like to run away to New Zealand and throw myself at your feet, Peter Jackson. Not because I’m a crazy stalker lady, but because I’d love to learn from you everything that you have to teach me about storytelling. In the meantime, I would happily give my all to sweeping your floor and making the tea at Weta Digital or Wingnut Films. Heck, I’d even get out the broom and rake and apply my sweeping and tidying talents to the gardens of Hobbiton if I could. I’ve been there as a gawping, bug-eyed tourist and loved every second of my visit.

So, Sir Peter Jackson – how about it?

Wonder-Filled Inspiration

As a teenager I dreamed of overseas travel, yearning to see not only the scenery, but the artworks and architecture of the world.

I was fourteen when television started in our country, and one of my most vivid memories is of watching Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. The series was almost ten years old by then, but it didn’t matter. Each episode fascinated me, and there was plenty of time to mull it over before the next because they were broadcast every alternate Sunday evening. During the weeks between, I searched the school library, looking up the artists and the buildings, hoping to see colour pictures, because our television was – of course – black-and-white!

Yes, if you’re wondering how I was able to appreciate such things on an ancient monochrome television (of if you’re baffled by why I took the trouble to page through actual dusty books to see tiny reproductions), let me assure you, it wasn’t a chore!

Six months after I graduated from university with my arts degree, I went to Europe with my boyfriend – a man I met soon after graduation, and with whom I shared a passion for theatre, art, literature, old churches, galleries, castles and in fact, anything of historical interest. We did the whole Grand Tour, just like the Victorians but in different clothing (and in slightly more modern transport). We also fought a lot, but the good memories outweigh the bad…

Anyway, back to the art. We walked around Michelangelo’s magnificent David, saw his Pieta from a distance across the crowd, and were able to get up close and personal with his Moses on that first trip. Together we stood beneath Juliet’s balcony in Verona, took a gondola ride through Venice and watched the glass blowers on the island of Murano. We picked our way across the stones of the Acropolis, gawped up at the Parthenon and saw a modern day performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus. Later, in the Louvre, we craned our necks to see the Mona Lisa and walked unimpeded around the Venus de Milo. We crammed a lot into six weeks!

A few years ago when I found Lord Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series on DVD, I bought it immediately. Didn’t even check the price. I took it home and wallowed in the luxury of the entire thing once again – bit by bit, usually on a Sunday night, and with my own collection of art books and overseas photographs to hand. It’s a toss-up as to whether the most striking thing was the ability to rewind, pause, zoom and relive the best bits, or the fact that I could now see it all in glorious colour, and on a bigger, clearer screen!

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Much of the series I had forgotten in the intervening thirty years so I was able to feast on its delights anew, but I also realised just how much had remained in my subconscious during that first trip to Europe, guiding me through the Uffizi gallery and the Louvre, up the leaning tower of Pisa, and past Michelangelo’s timeless works.

Six years after that first trip, I took a second one and I’m not ashamed to say that I revisited many of the same places with my three travelling companions – even managed to drag two of them up Pisa’s leaning tower, back in the days when one could still go up it and stand in front of the huge bells on the top. Something about those incredible, old places fired me up and inspired in me all sorts of romantic and creative dreams. It was as if I couldn’t get enough of the roots of western civilisation. In retrospect it was just as well that I stored all the memories up inside me because I’ve never since been able to afford to go back.

After twenty years of not venturing beyond the borders of my own continent, my family’s circumstances changed a few years back. I’ve now been to Australia three times. On my first visit I feasted on Shakespeare under the Stars, drank in Melbourne’s unique architecture, mosaics, domes, arcades and bridges, and shed tears at the Shrine of Remembrance. In Federation Square I visited Melbourne’s monument to film: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), and later sampled the culinary arts of Lygon Street.

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I gazed at bronze and marble sculptures all over the city, contemporary graffiti in the lanes and sand sculptures in Frankston.

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On my second visit to Melbourne two years later I listened to local pianists tinkering on the keys of brightly decorated pianos left out in the open for an initiative called “Play me, I’m Yours.” IMG_0999

I drifted around the Tyabb Packing House with its acres of antiques, wore down my shoe soles in the Melbourne Museum and both venues of the National Gallery of Victoria. In the larger of these, I found myself gazing in wonder at Impressionist paintings, as well as sculptures by Rodin and Henry Moore. Two visits to this gallery weren’t enough to see everything so two days after arriving back in Melbourne on my third trip, I legged it down St Kilda Road in the pelting rain for another drool!

So what does this have to do with writing? Nothing on the surface, but it has everything to do with inspiration. I am well aware that not everyone shares my passion for European history or western civilisation (or whatever other name you choose to call it, particularly in my home country where anything western is now regarded as the work of colonial devils) but it has always been – and will always be – a part of my long-ago heritage, my current mental make-up, and my inspiration for the novels I write.

History evolves as fast as it’s created, but some things linger longer in our subconscious than others. Certain stories resonate or touch us more than others. My great triggers are the Trojan War, related tales by Homer and the Greek playwrights, ancient Rome, the bittersweet romance of Romeo and Juliet, Renaissance art, the First World War and absolutely anything to do with theatre.

The list is long and should provide me with plenty of ammunition to conjure up stories to write for the rest of my writing career, but for anyone out there whose triggers are gratuitous violence and destruction, chemistry or science, corporate banking or politics, the wonders of accounting, mathematical skills, motherhood, babies or courtroom drama – well, I think you’ve probably guessed by now how I feel about those. Everyone has their own favourite corridors in the library of life, so you won’t find too many of those subjects in my book bag.

If everyone loved the same things I do, I’d be a better-selling author by now because more readers would be as enthralled with my subject matter as I am. I’m old enough to know and accept that this will never be the case, and I don’t write the type of high adventure favoured by Dan Brown, John Grisham and James Patterson so my mysteries are more whimsical, more romantic and consequently a lot less popular.

For those loyal readers who worry that I might change my style and jump on bandwagons that include fifty shades of erotica, sci-fi or fantasy, police procedurals or vampires, fear not! I will always be here with my own peculiar brand of history-soaked, romantic mysteries.

Following hot on the heels of my three previous works (the stories of a South African set designer and a Greek inspector of antiquities; a World War I letter writer and the two soldiers in her life; an art teacher and an Italian sculptor) comes the story of a romance in Melbourne between a travel agent and a Lygon Street pianist.

Watch this space…

Refusing to Make Do

Due to the large number of public holidays we’ve had in recent weeks, I ended up with more afternoons and evenings off than I usually have. So in true Indiana Jones style, I’ve been raiding my own lost ark… Sorry, archive of DVDs.

There’s nothing quite like settling down on the couch with a large bowl of popcorn, a litre of iced tea and a good movie. I like my popcorn mixed with Jelly Tots, and I drink my iced tea from a dark blue goblet that catches the light and makes me feel extra special. Some of you probably think that’s a bit sad, but let’s remember that this is MY way of indulging and you’re welcome to mock me, imitate me or follow your own paths of quirkiness.

So what’s been on my DVD menu? Obviously the first three Indiana Jones movies – I’ve always been a huge fan of watching a youthful, toned and sexy Harrison Ford win the day against all odds. Watched on three separate nights with all the bonus materials on the nights in between, that was a feast which kept me going for a week and provided a lot more nourishment for the soul than the courses dished up to Kate Capshaw’s poor character at the banquet in the second movie.

Other nights saw me enjoying A Fish Called Wanda, A Good Year, A Room With A View, Becoming Jane, Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice. Yes, my favourite movies are stored in alphabetical order right after the box sets, and the shelf with A and B just happens to be at eye level. Isn’t that how all obsessive compulsives store their movies?

Anyway, by last weekend I had worked my way through to the shelf with H so I watched How To Steal A Million. This was good timing because the 4th of May would have been Audrey Hepburn’s birthday.

As a writer I feel the need to justify any indulgent time-wasting by passing it off as a writing exercise. Every time I watch a movie I hope that something about the story structure or characters will strike a chord. So what was my Eureka moment in this recent burst of movie-watching? It happened while browsing the Internet reading titbits about the movies I’d enjoyed. I found a quote on IMDb by Hepburn’s How To Steal A Million co-star, Peter O’Toole, in which he talks about the best roles to act: “The good parts are the people who don’t make do. They’re the interesting people. Lear doesn’t make do.”

I’ve often thought that writing a character involves the same process as acting one. Both require research into what makes that character tick; an exploration of the motivations behind his or her actions and reactions; and an understanding of why the conflicts in the plot cause that character’s goals to evolve in that particular way between the start and finish. O’Toole is right – Lear doesn’t make do, and neither does Indiana Jones. Or Wanda and Otto, or Lucy Honeychurch, or the British girls who play football, or any of the heroes and heroines who make our movie-viewing special.

When I look at the single biggest reason why my first two trunk novels have remained in the trunk, it’s because all the characters in them made do. They settled for less. In fact, it now looks as if they shrugged at me when I wrote them, and said: “Okay, the trunk is where we’ll stay because that’s all we’re good for.” If those characters are ever to get out of that trunk, they need to be re-invented and become driven, three dimensional people who refuse to make do with what life (and their author) throws at them.

This in turn means that the author – er, that would be me – needs to rework those plots in order to give the characters as much conflict to overcome as possible, so that you – the reader – can get more enjoyment and entertainment from characters who refuse to make do with something just because it made the writer comfortable.

This could take a while but – as I always say – watch this space…