A Lockdown Challenge

When dancing was effectively closed down in early March I, like everyone hoped it would be a temporary pause in our dancing lives.  Sadly it soon dawned on me, and everyone else that it would be a long time before we would be allowed back on to the dance floor.  I put the time I suddenly had to good use by working through my backlog of blog articles.  By the middle of April, I was up to date.  My single life, that had allowed me to travel the UK dancing, suddenly looked very empty.  The lack of dancing was bad enough, but that I also had nothing to write about was likely to spark my own lockdown blues.

It was then that I decided to turn this virus imposed exile into something positive and use my time to achieve a dream I’d harboured for some time – to write a novel based on dancing.  I knew that I had some talent for writing but I doubted that I had the skills to write a novel that would keep a reader engaged for 300 plus pages.  I also had another hurdle to overcome.

I had the idea of writing the story of a woman who takes her first steps onto the dance floor as a way of creating a new life for herself.  Writing about the joys of dancing is one thing, but creating a credible female character that my readers could relate to and empathise with would present one hell of a writing challenge.

Start by reading a good novel, Paul

One night I found myself chatting with a female dancer friend about my ambition to write a full-length novel and the problem I faced with creating a central female character.  The lady was an avid reader and suggested a possible solution.

Why don’t you start by reading a novel where the author takes their time in developing a female character.  I’m sure it will help you.

Can you recommend such a book?

She recommended several but suggested I read one that she had particularly enjoyed, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine by Gail Honeyman.  It is a wonderful book, that slowly gives you insight into its central character.  It gave me one important lesson – take your time to develop the character.  The final part of Eleanor’s character is not revealed until you have read over three hundred pages.

We all have a secret backstory

Reading Gail Honeyman’s wonderful portrayal of Eleanor’s journey I realised something else.  I needed to give my own central character a backstory: some insight into her professional and family life and a reason for coming along to her first class night.  I have long been aware that I knew very little about most of the women I danced with.  Sometimes I knew no more than that they were nice people and nice dancers.  I knew almost nothing about the reasons that had led them to take up dancing and even less about their jobs and personal life.

I’m sure that it is the same for the ladies.  They know little about the men who ask them on to the dance floor and they are often more concerned to know whether we are a good lead or not, than anything else.  I wonder how many people would know that I was a carpet salesman for most of my working life.  Understandably I kept it to myself – it’s hardly the best chat-up line.

Everyone we meet on the dance floor has a backstory and it often explains why they took up dancing in the first place.  I realised that I had to create a pre-dancing history for my lead character and one that my readers could relate to, but I had one more important lesson to learn if my story was to grab the attention of my readers.  I found it in a book I downloaded onto my Kindle App.  Thank god I did, as I would have failed miserably without its guidance.

A novel is more than a story

How to write a novel in six months by Thomas Emson is for first-time novel writers and assumes that you have a full-time job.  It lays out a writing timetable that should see you finish a 50,000-word book in six months.  Back in April, I thought I would have about six months before I could resume my dancing adventure, so this book seemed just what I needed.

My basic idea was to tell the story of Ellie, who goes dancing as a way of building a new life for herself after being cheated on by her partner.  I imagined Chapter One would see her at her first Modern Jive class and she would slowly make friends and have a great time as she made the leap, first to freestyles, and finally to a weekender.  Emson suggested otherwise.  Such a plotline is perhaps a nice story but it is not the stuff of a novel.

It can’t be all plain sailing

One of the features of How to write a novel in six months is that Emson suggests you build your storyline around a proven structure.  He illustrates it by using the example of a heroine who sets off to slay a dragon (Ellie sets out to create a new life for herself).  The heroine has  a plan (so does Ellie).  Whether the heroine slays the dragon has to wait until the final chapter but it is not a foregone conclusion.  There has to be twists and turns along the way and the dragon will come close to defeating the heroine.

Oh dear, I saw my character sailing through life once she had found her feet on the dance floor.  She might struggle at times to follow her partner’s lead and her confidence would take the occasional set back but come the weekender she would be surrounded by her friends and the final pieces of her life would fall neatly into place.

No, that’s not how Emson sees a novel.  According to him, my central character should suffer a series of setbacks to maintain the interest of the reader.  What’s more these setbacks needed to be dramatic.  They had to leap from the page and the ending could not be a foregone conclusion.  I had to keep the reader guessing right up to the last page.

I wasn’t going to argue with him.  I now had to deconstruct my storyline and rebuild it around the structure that Emson suggested, with its two steps forward one disastrous step back formula.  There is a simple reason why this structure works.  It is the way most of our lives unfold, and I realised that my story had to replicate the lives of my readers in some form or other.  This novel writing wasn’t going to be easy.  Then another challenge popped up.

I face a big writing challenge

Over the last few years, my writing has been restricted to reviewing dancing for my blog.  While I’ve developed my style to convey more accurately the passion and emotion we experience while dancing, I now had to write about non-dancing events with equal measures of emotion and added drama.  Many nights I have stared at the screen of my laptop with varying degrees of writer’s block as I was challenged to write about scenarios that I had little experience of ever writing about before.

But I had perhaps a bigger challenge to overcome – I was writing about a woman.  Could I, as a man, even begin to understand how a woman would think and more importantly put her thoughts into credible and believable dialogue.  The answer was a big fat no.  Enter my editor, Gaynor.  I should explain that Gaynor had never done anything like this before but she grew into the role and has been a great help

Gaynor is the lady I was due to dance with at The Modern Jive World Championships in Blackpool.  Sadly that event was cancelled just ten days before we were due to take to the floor in our sparkly outfits.  Emson was right; all journeys have setbacks and they don’t come much bigger than practising for months on end only to be denied the opportunity to put all that hard work into a performance at the last minute.  I now had an idea of just how heartbreaking Ellie’s setbacks had to be.

My editor takes charge

As we both entered lockdown, I kept in touch with Gaynor and was soon telling her about my novel project.  To my great delight she took an interest:

I’d love to have a read of it.  Will you send me it when you’ve written a few chapters.

I did just that and Gaynor was very positive about what she read.  However, she found herself making the same comment over and over again.  It went something like this:

Paul, a woman would never think that, let alone say it.

It seemed that my limitations as a writer had been exposed.  I quickly decided to take on board the many suggestions Gaynor made and found myself continually rewriting long pieces of my female characters’ dialogue.  I have also been sending drafts to other friends and I’d like to thank them and Gaynor for all their positive feedback and suggested edits.  Hopefully, as I settle down to write the second part I have a better idea of how women talk to each other.  Then again, may be not!  Thankfully Gaynor and my other female friends are still available to help.

I need all the help I can get

In an early part of the story Ellie spends most of a particularly traumatic night crying and getting very little sleep.  The next morning she has to somehow make herself look presentable to go to work.  I knew of course that make-up would be her salvation, but I had no idea how.  I knew the words Concealer, Foundation and Blusher but in what order were they applied was going to be a bit of a guess.

A few weeks later, I sent the half-completed story to another dance friend, Karen.  It seemed she enjoyed it but made this comment:

Paul, should I be worried that you know the correct way to apply lady’s make up?

No, Karen, you don’t need to worry, as I haven’t a clue.  Again, I was helped by my dance friends Debbie and Clare, who told me one night during a video call, the exact order that makeup is applied.  I should also admit to having help when it came to writing about Ellie’s clothes.  I know that ladies spend a lot of time thinking about what to wear for different occasions.

In one early chapter, Ellie is looking through her wardrobe and pulls out a particularly elegant dress.  I use the dress as a metaphor for how Ellie sees herself.  I knew it was important to describe the dress accurately.  Here I asked the help of another dance friend Margaret, who loves designing and making clothes.  I found a picture on the internet of the dress I needed to write about and Margaret identified the fabric and gave me some accurate styling notes.  I’d love to take the credit for writing this description but much of it goes to Margaret.

The dress was a soft lilac colour made from a crepe-de-chine material.  The bodice had sleeves down to the elbows and was decorated in a delicate beaded tulle.  The dress fell away from under the bodice in loose swathes of material with a waterfall frill and overlapped at the side to give the hint of a split.  The result was a softly romantic gown that exuded a sensual femininity and confidence that she was not used to displaying in public.

My thanks also go to Marion, Gail and John for all their suggested edits.

So is it any good?

I hope so, but I have learnt one important lesson.  No matter how good it may finally be judged, it is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.  A lot of people, that I know through dancing, have expressed an interest in the story.  It’s understandable, as it will be the first-ever novel set in the world of Modern Jive and I am sure that people will be looking for glimpses of themselves or their fellow dancers in the characters I have created.  Wanting to gauge how well it reads I’ve sent it out at various times to people in the dance world for their feedback.

The first part is 184 pages long, which is some commitment to read, so whenever I have sent it out I do so with the caveat that I will not be offended if it is never read in full.  It’s never going to be to everyone’s liking and that probably explains why I sometimes don’t hear back from people.  However, one brave soul did tell me that it was too lightweight for her to get any real enjoyment from it.  Such feedback is welcomed and I’m constantly revisiting sections of the story to see if I can improve it.

Stop messing about Paul

At the other end of the scale are people who couldn’t put it down and have subsequently read it over three consecutive late night sessions.  One common comment goes something like this:

I can’t wait to find out what happens next.  So, Paul stop messing about and get the final part written.

That’s when I politely point out, that what took them three days to read took me three months to write.  But it’s great to have such encouragement as I face another three months sat in front of my computer day and night trying to get the female dialogue right and keep the drama unfolding.

I’m writing for non-dancers too

I’m sure the largest audience I’ll find for the book is those people who already make up the Modern Jive community however, I also find myself writing for the many non-dancers out there.  I would love it to be read by those people who might consider going along to a dance class but worry that they can’t dance.  To this end, I paint a picture of Ellie as someone who only ever dances when she’s had a little too much Prosecco.

I also address the issue of people being uncomfortable with the idea of dancing with a member of the opposite sex.  I remember having to overcome this feeling.  A man’s ego is a fragile thing at times and the embarrassment of not being able to lead your lady partner through a move can leave it dented sometimes.  Another issue I deal with is the problem of not having a partner.  Of course, the beauty of Modern Jive is that you don’t need one.

I hope, more than anything that should my novel get a wide readership it will encourage more people to join us.  I’m constantly made aware of the need to encourage more men to sign up, so while my main character is a lady, she is eventually joined by four men who are also new to partner dancing.  This allows me to deal with the issues that hold men back from coming along to a class night and staying the course until they have a few moves under their belt and can start enjoying themselves.

A taster of the plot

The book opens with a Prologue, where I give my reasons for writing the novel and a little bit of the storyline.  I hope this little taster will whet your appetite for reading the final version.  At the beginning of each new month, I will be publishing further extracts from the novel on my blog.  I hope this will maintain an interest in my literary lockdown project.

The Prologue

Ten years ago, I was taken along to my first Modern Jive dance class.  I’d like to say that it was easy but that first lesson was at times a little scary.  I had to keep to the beat while at the same time leading my partner smoothly through the moves I was being shown.   Somehow, I survived with my confidence intact.  Over the next few weeks, with the help and patience of my fellow dancers, I slowly put together a sequence of moves that would get me through a three-minute dance track, with a bearable level of stress.  I eventually learned to relax a little and slowly started to enjoy myself.

My progress was slow, but I was determined to achieve the same fluidity of movement that I saw in more experienced dancers.  It took a lot of classes and encouragement from the ladies I danced with before I finally achieved a standard, I was happy with.

Modern Jive is a fusion of many different dance styles from Rock ‘n’ Roll, through Salsa and Tango to Street Dance.  While most people find, as I did, their first few lessons a bit of a challenge, beginners are given a lot of support, and the lessons themselves are fun.  Compared to the more well-known partner dance styles, Modern Jive is relatively easy to pick up and is a great way into other more traditional partner dances.  For this reason, it deserves to be much better known.

It wasn’t long before I realised that, out on the dance floor, many individual stories were unfolding.  Many revolved around a boy-meets-girl plotline, but I would sometimes be told how the social scene, built around this dance format, provided a platform for people to rebuild their lives after they found themselves alone, following divorce or breakups.

It is around the shattered life of Ellie Grant that this story is built.   When her partner of almost ten years leaves her for a younger woman, Ellie’s distress is compounded by the fact that her whole friendship group cruelly stand by her cheating partner.  In trying to create a new life for herself, Ellie goes in search of a new group of friends.

It’s never easy to build new lasting friendships, but from somewhere Ellie finds the resolve and energy to resolutely build a new friendship group of like-minded people.   Ellie’s energy is increasingly sapped by her role as a department head at GJP Logistics, where she has to manage the introduction of new technology designed to save costs at her company.

Her journey to replace her disloyal friends starts at a wine tasting class, but it increasingly revolves around dancing.  Along the way, Ellie meets several other women and men, who are also trying to create a new social life for themselves.

Perhaps you think that dancing isn’t for you.  That you had two left feet, or just didn’t have any rhythm.  Maybe the only dancing you ever did was at the office Christmas party, fuelled by an overindulgence of Prosecco.  That summed up Ellie’s thoughts about dancing until she took her first tentative steps on the dance floor.

Modern Jive is a dance style that attracts people of all ages and this is reflected in the music.  It is predominantly danced to music from the charts, but the DJs constantly dip into the dance music vaults.  The result is a soundtrack of music that pulls from every genre and spans all the decades from the fifties to the present day.

My own dance floor journey started in the days when Motown and Disco dominated the dance halls and clubs but I have loved dancing to all the evolving genres of music, from ‘70s Funk, through Northern Soul, Euro Disco, House Music, ‘90s Club Anthems to the latest contemporary hits.  I hope the reader will excuse my indulgence, as I find excuses to slip many of my favourite tracks into the story.

If you want to find out more about the tracks I’ve included and the role they play in Ellie’s journey to rebuild her life, then please visit the supporting novel website https://wouldyouliketodance.co.uk/ You’ll also find details of how to find a local Modern Jive class and some background on how I came to write this story of a New Life created around dancing.

We look forward to welcoming you to this wonderful dance scene.  Oh, and don’t worry if you can’t dance, nor could Ellie and some of her friends that we meet as her story unfolds.

The book cover

My thanks to my daughter Rayna for coming up with the idea for the cover and my good friend Tel Jenkins for putting it all together.  It looks like a real book!  I just hope my writing is half as good.