In those desperate early noughties, I had a crack at chick-lit.
I noticed that even people who weren’t normally into reading bought and read these books – and lots of them. They all seemed to have the same covers and the same plot.
I’ve never looked down my nose at the genre – I read novels about prehistoric sharks eating people – but I supposed that these stories were all written to a strict formula, and if I followed it, I couldn’t miss.
As you’ll see… not the case.
I didn’t have a title but I had the name of my main character: Minty McGee, a red-headed TV property show presenter. She meets someone she doesn’t get on with at first, but eventually sparks fly, etc etc.
More interestingly, I didn’t tell the story from her perspective, but from that of a runner/gopher called Jess – Sancho Panza to Minty’s Don Quixote.
For obvious reasons, I didn’t send my sample chapters to anyone. So this post is an act of literary masochism; but even so, I cannot bear to include the subsequent chapter where we meet Minty’s gay best friend. That would be an act of literary sadism.
I guess you can write novels to formula, and people have made plenty of money doing so for their entire careers. But you can’t reduce them to that. They’re horribly complex things to put together, regardless of whether they’re about giant prehistoric sharks or kooky interior designers. Luckily I didn’t persevere with Minty for too long before taking this on board.
Do play along at home with your “a man wrote this” bingo cards. I’ve got my head in my hands at the part where I say Minty has “a long skirt”, and leave it at that.
I’m not sure what was going on in my mind with Minty McGee. Could she have been a fantasy figure – like Red Sonja, or Sarah Beeny as drawn by Frank Frazetta? There’s definitely an element of that in there. I was careful not to describe her body in any great detail: I thought the hair was enough for the imagination to work with.
In 2004, as now, I thought property renovation shows were the very devil. So many nights I sat at the other end of the sofa, grinding my teeth, as people on television became anxious that their £400,000 budget for a bit of painting and decorating might not be enough.
This was when people talked about a “property market bubble, heading for trouble,” but not too seriously.
I guess it’s all to do with building a secure and comfortable dwelling place, one of the most basic human impulses. But there are other impulses, and as my time as a property TV show widower went on, I began to pay attention to these. I found it difficult to get Sarah Beeny off my mind, or that lass with the red shoes. Kirstie?
I didn’t really fancy her, but I used to fantasise about a night out with Kirstie. She’d start off by telling you about her ex-boyfriend and how badly she missed him. Then she’d get horribly pissed, far too soon. Some bloke called Phil would send her dozens of texts, their tone becoming increasingly desperate, but after a while she’d ignore these. She’d launch herself at you in the taxi queue. You’d participate out of a sense of fascination rather than lust. Disgusted onlookers would tell you to get a room. I think they call this cognitive dissonance. And maybe I had a night out like this, once or twice.
My Sarah Beeny fantasies were more focused on a night in, rather than a night out. How big a house, and how much work would it need? We could convert the loft. I’d spend a lot of time re-plastering the twin room. We could investigate the basement. And so on and so forth.
The garden is strictly Charlie Dimmock’s domain, though. I’d meet her there at dusk. You wouldn’t need a drop of drink. The plants would sigh with the dying light. The air rich with scents and buzzing with invisible activity. You remember Charlie? She had red hair. There’s a lot of Charlie in Minty’s DNA. I have no aptitude for gardening whatsoever.
If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s: don’t write something if your heart isn’t in it. Perhaps even more pertinent: don’t try to write positively and without irony about something you hate.
Had I continued with this folly I might have called it The Ballad of Minty McGee. It’s a better title than it deserves…
“Minty, don’t you think this is a bit-”
The car lurched over a speed bump. Jess’ chin touched her chest.
Minty slid her sunglasses down her nose and winked at Jess. Her red hair burst out behind her in the wind, streaks of flame flickering against the sunburnt paint of her convertible.
“We’re going to be late,” Minty said.
“We’re not going to be late. Minty, I think I saw sparks there.”
Minty smirked. “Well. You’ve got your seatbelt on, haven’t you?”
“That’s hardly the point,” Jess said. “If we crash and explode, they’ll hardly say: ‘Well, at least they died with their seatbelts on’.”
Minty barrelled through amber lights. Behind other windshields, Jess could see open mouths, bared teeth, bulging eyeballs. “Don’t you like this car?” Jess said. “In one piece?”
“We’re going to be late,” Minty said again.
“We are not going to be late,” Jess said, exasperated. “We meet Jim-Bob and the crew outside the house at one o’clock. It’s ten past twelve. It takes ten minutes to get there. How can we be late?”
“We’re taking a detour,” Minty grinned, her hair caught in the slipstream like a fighter pilot’s scarf.
Jess glanced at the organiser in her lap. “A detour to where? Minty, you know you have to film today, then later on you’re meeting Peter. What detour is this? When did we organise this? Jesus, what was that?” The car lurched again, stuttering over some small obstacle on the road. But Jess hadn’t seen any speed bumps. “A dog? Or a child?”
Minty looked unsure for a moment, biting her lip. “A hole in the road? I dunno.” She glanced at the mirror and wrinkled her nose. “Poor design, that’s probably all it was.”
Jess shook her head. “Okay, so where are we going on this detour?”
“We’re taking a drive. Up the Boulevard.”
Jess snapped shut her organiser. “The Boulevard. Why?”
Minty turned off onto the main road. Trees appeared by the side of the road, brilliant green in the afternoon sun. “This is why. Look at all this,” she said, smiling. “Greenery. Now this is good planning.” The trees lined up on either side of the road, planted in perfect symmetry, all roughly the same height. The road tapered off towards the horizon, white lines shooting forwards. “This is design Jess, my love.”
“Now I know you’re mad,” Jess said.
“Just look at it,” the girl driving the red convertible said as they hurtled down the neat, ordered rows. “It’s all so simple.”
“We’re late,” Minty said, sliding out of the car. She took her time about it too, smoothing down the long skirt, tousling that hair. She slid her sunglasses back on top of her head and clicked a button on her key ring to activate the alarm. Jess always expected this car’s alarm signal to purr, the contented sound of a lean cat curling up on itself. But it simply gave out a cheerful boop and the hood stretched itself out, wrinkles straightening, the soft top resolving itself into hard angles and leather sheen before clicking into place.
Minty watched all this coolly. Then she looked around the street she was parked in. Terraced houses, dirty red brick, sparse patches of grass with concrete bald spots. “Does it say which number we’re supposed to be going to?”
“Well it’s not exactly a number,” Jess said, turning pages back and forth in her organiser. “It’s a house name, but I can’t make out…I can’t even read my own writing… here, what does this say?”
Minty peered at the slanted lettering. “Hmm. ‘Pick up two pints milk, cotton buds, baby wipes’,” she said.
“That’s why I’m the one on TV, honey.”
“Look at the other part of the note,” Jess said. “At the bottom.”
“Ah. The house is called ‘Rhiannon.’ That’s nice.” She looked around the street. “Celtic. Earthy.” Here she bunched her shoulders – “I like it.” She spotted the Orions and the Fiestas, the Puntos and Saxos and Cinquecentos and Bravas. “Not sure if it fits into this neighbourhood, but I like it. Rhiannon. Yes.”
“‘Yes’? Wasn’t it Fleetwood Mac?” Jess said.
Minty took a few seconds, then pretended she got it. “You’re the one who should be on the TV,” she sighed. “Okay. Suppose we’d better get looking. And you should take your time, love,” she added, as Jess began to root around in her bag, trying to find a slot for the organiser among the threaded hairbrush, the torn envelopes, the fingers of lipstick. “We’re late already. That means we have to take it slowly. We don’t rush.”