The Messy Guide to Making Stuff

I used to believe that everything I created – be it a book, a business, a relationship, a home – had to be perfect. And perfect first time.

As a result of this kind of thinking, writing my first novel was torturous.

Stopping and starting and deleting and cursing and ‘what’s-wrong-with-me‘-ing.

It was horrible.

My writing process was revolutionised the day I stuck a sign by computer which said:

IT’S OK TO WRITE CRAP!

Finally, I was free.

And surprisingly, once I’d allowed myself to create badly, what I created wasn’t that bad at all.

Recently, I’ve been reading a great book by John Williams called, SCREW WORK BREAK FREE.

The book is essentially a 30 day course to help kick-start a creative or business idea.

In it Williams stresses the importance of not getting hung up on perfection and just creating and launching your ideas into the world anyway.

I’d been using the course to make progress on a website idea but as a side effect of all the ‘screw it, just do it’ talk I inadvertently ended up becoming a vlogger too.

Now, I’ve never had any desire to make videos before. In fact, I’ve been pretty resistant to the idea. But one day I was sitting at my desk and I felt the urge to have a little video chat on my Facebook page.

I picked up my phone and started recording. No preparation, no torturous rehearsals, no repeated takes in the search for perfection. I pressed record, I talked and I posted.

The response I got was incredibly positive.

My Facebook author page, which until then had been a bit of a tumbleweed zone, suddenly came alive with comments and messages.

People seemed to really like what I was doing, in spite of – or maybe even because of – the unpolished feel.

So the next day I recorded another video.

And I’ve been making week-daily vlogs ever since.

They’re messy and rough around the edges.

And I’m still learning as I go but the feedback and engagement I’ve been getting has been so encouraging.

I could so easily have carried on dismissing video as something that just wasn’t for me.

I could have killed all the fun by demanding – and never achieving – perfection.

But by allowing myself to be messy I’ve discovered a whole new strand of creativity and a way of connecting with people, which I’m loving.

It’s been a great lesson.

And one I’d love for you to have a think about.

What have you been putting off out of fear that it just won’t be good enough?

What would you do if you allowed yourself to be messy?

Why not start doing it right now?

With the sole aim of having fun and seeing what happens.

I hope being messy with your creations is as fun for you as it’s been for me.

To imperfectionists everywhere!

Join the Facebook fun.

To watch my messy videos on life, creativity, business goals and daring to dream and to join in the conversation simply follow my Facebook page here.

I’d love to hear from you.

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The Art of Crafting a Great Second Draft

As Hemingway once said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’, and when I’m coaching other writers I always advise they give themselves permission to write badly first time round.

If you’re striving for perfection in your first draft and stop-starting to edit as you go it’s impossible for your ideas and creativity to flow.

Your first draft should be raw and rough around the edges and full of typos and grammatical errors and inconsistencies, as you focus on pouring the story on to the page.

But your second draft definitely shouldn’t.

Your second draft is where you start searching for the diamonds in the raw and sculpting your lumpy, clunky first draft into a far tighter, more polished story.

But how do you do this?

Here are my guidelines for crafting a great second draft…

Look at it with fresh eyes

Once you’ve finished your first draft, leave it for a while – at least a week, preferably more – so that when you do come back to it you’re looking at it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you spot when you’ve had a bit of time away. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

 

Print out a hard copy

When you’re ready to come back to it, print out a hard copy and sit down and read it through as if you were a reader who’s just picked it from a shelf. It’s amazing how much clearer you will see what’s working and what isn’t from reading a hard copy than from the screen.

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Make quick, hand-written notes

As you read your first draft through, highlight any issues in pen on the manuscript – but don’t spend too much time doing this. The key thing you need to do is read the story through in one or two sittings to be able to get a bird’s eye view of the whole thing.

 

Look for bigger picture issues

In this read-through you’re looking for the bigger picture issues rather than typos or grammatical errors. These issues can be broken down into the following three categories: PLOT, CHARACTERS and WRITING STYLE…

 

Plot

Use the following questions as a checklist for your plot…

  • Where does it sag?
  • What could be cut?
  • Does the dramatic tension build throughout
  • Is the dramatic climax at the end? (Your most exciting moment should not be happening in Chapter 3. The everything that follows will be an anti-climax)
  • Is everything resolved at the end? Make sure there are no strands or subplots left unresolved

 

Character

  • Which characters aren’t fully formed?
  • Are any characters inconsistent?
  • Who’s voice isn’t distinct?
  • Which relationships between your characters aren’t quite working?
  • Is any of the dialogue unrealistic?

 

Writing Style

  • Is your description vivid enough
  • Do you use all of the senses ie; smell and sound as well as sight?
  • Are any parts over-written? Time to kill your darlings.
  • Have you chosen the best, most-telling details in your description of place?
  • Is the author voice consistent?

 

I hope this helps and happy second drafting!

 

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You can find more advice on writing and rewriting in my book Dare to Write a Novel.

Find out more here.


What to do When Your Dream Bubble Bursts

Recently, my son and I went on a mini road-trip adventure in America.

My son is football-mad (soccer-mad for US readers) and has been following the fortunes of an American team called Sporting Kansas City for several years.

Sporting Kansas City are known for having some of the most devout fans in all of America and their ‘Cauldron’ stand is legendary.

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So while we were in the States we got on a bus to Kansas and went along to a game.

The Cauldron was everything the YouTube videos had promised it would be. The atmosphere was electric and the sound of the crowd deafening.

Several guys had stationed themselves at the front of the terrace, next to the pitch but facing the fans.

One pounded on a bass drum and one played a trombone. One was covered in tattoos and led the chanting and another wore a huge white feather headdress and danced around.

They proceeded to whip us all into a frenzy, like some very alternative cheerleaders.

It was hugely entertaining hearing British football songs with an American twist. ‘Vindaloo’ became ‘Barbecue’ and the opposition fans (from Philadelphia) were treated to a rousing chorus of, ‘You can stick your Philly cheesesteaks up your arse!

And whaddya know, as soon as we took our places on the stand – expecting to meet local Kansans – we got talking to a guy from Essex!

He’d been living in the States for a few years and was with a group of friends who supported SKC.

Much banter and hilarity ensued as the beer and margaritas flowed and the songs got louder and louder.

At one point my son suggested to Essex Guy that he should start a chorus of, ‘You dirty Northern b*****ds,’ a song which routinely gets chanted in UK football stadiums (with Northern substituted for Southern depending on the geography).

Essex Guy immediately agreed and began to chant.

He chanted and chanted … but no-one else joined in.

What had seemed like a great idea started to become a little embarrassing.

But Essex Guy was undeterred.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll have a word with the guys at the front and get them to start it.’

Off he disappeared into the crowd, heading for the alternative cheerleaders.

We waited and waited but the chant never came.

Some twenty minutes later Essex Guy reappeared holding a huge plastic recycling container.

‘I couldn’t get them to sing it,’ he told us, ‘but don’t worry, I’ve got this.’

He then turned the plastic container upside down and began hollering into it like it was a megaphone.

YOU DIRTY NORTHERN B*****DS!

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It was hilarious … but still no-one joined in.

And then a security guard appeared and demanded he give the recycling container back.

No way! You’ll never stop me!’ Essex Guy cried before disappearing off into the crowd again, with one last defiant chant.

This memory from my holiday popped into my mind recently when I was thinking about the dreams we have that don’t come true.

Although it’s a comical example, I think it makes for a great analogy.

You have a dream – in this case to share a funny football chant.

You get all excited imagining your dream coming true – in this case, an entire football stand singing your chant and being hugely entertained.

You pluck up the courage to take action – in this case, starting the singing on your own.

And then it all goes wrong – in this case, no-one joins in.

What seemed like a good idea starts becoming a little awkward and embarrassing.

Maybe you hang on in there and try a different approach – like using a recycling container as a megaphone.

But even taking a bolder step doesn’t work – the dream still doesn’t get realised, people still don’t join in.

It can be enough to make you want to curl up in a corner and never have a dream again.

I’ve felt like this at various points in my writing career.

I’ve had a dream about writing a book that will become a best-seller and inspire hundreds of thousands of people with its message.

So I’ve written the book and it’s been published – but then it doesn’t sell many copies.

Or it doesn’t sell enough copies to be deemed a commercial success.

This is the reality for most authors.

Last year I was advised that unless I got a celebrity to endorse my novel, The Moonlight Dreamers, UK retailers wouldn’t stock it in bulk, if at all.

I didn’t get a celebrity to endorse it and so the retailers didn’t stock it in bulk.

I’ve had exactly the same thing with its sequel, Tell it to the Moon.

Despite the fact that the books have got great reviews it’s not enough for most retailers in the UK to really get behind them.

It can be so crushing to invest so much hope and time and effort into a dream, only to be met with disappointment and frustration when it doesn’t come true.

There have been several times over the past few years when I’ve thought about giving up on my writing dream for good. Particularly after the whole ‘celebrity endorsement’ rigmarole.

But I won’t.

Because I’d rather keep believing and keep trying and keep daring to dream than give up and do f*** all with my life.

And anyway, writing is my passion. Always has been, always will be.

While I was writing this blog post I got the following comment from someone on Instagram:

Your book Moonlight Dreamers changed my life and made me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to.’

Reading it brought tears to my eyes and re-inspired me.

So what if UK retailers won’t stock my book in bulk because I haven’t got a celebrity endorsement?

Something I’ve written has made a total stranger feel like she can do anything she puts her mind to … and who knows where that might lead.

Which brings me back to my Essex Guy analogy.

OK, so his chant didn’t sweep across the stadium, causing much hilarity to thousands of fans.

But it did cause much hilarity to me and my son – and hopefully you reading this too.

It did provide us with a holiday highlight we’ll never forget.

I’ll also never forget his irrepressible humour and spirit.

That’s how I want to be in life – taking chances, working hard to make things happen (on my own merit), never giving up no matter what.

If you don’t like ‘the rules’ find your own way of breaking them.

That’s exactly what I intend to do.

Even when a dream doesn’t come true the way you’d hoped there’s always a silver lining.

You always will have achieved something.

You will always have a reason to feel proud – because you aren’t one of life’s quitters, you’re a dreamer and a doer.

And in the end, it’s far better to have dreamed and lost than never to have dreamed at all.

If you need more inspiration on not giving up on a dream play this song. And keep on keeping on.


Top Ten Tips for Young (or New) Writers

When I was a teenager I thought that my passion for books and writing was going to save me.

From the ages of fourteen to sixteen I’d rebelled against the system, bunking off school, going on protest marches, clubbing and drinking and taking drugs.

But then I had a reality check. If I wanted to leave the estate I’d grown up on – if I wanted to create a life I loved – I needed to start working hard to make that happen.

So I knuckled down and worked harder than I’d ever done before to pass my A levels so that I could get to uni.

I thought that a degree in English Literature and Screenwriting would be a passport into the world of writing.

As it turned out, it wasn’t.

I dropped out of uni two years into my course as I allowed the voice of fear inside my head to tell me that I didn’t belong in that middle class world.

I was wrong, but writing did end up saving me … just a few years later than planned!

I now care passionately about helping young writers believe in themselves and achieve their dreams.

So, if you’re a young adult with a writing dream, here are my top ten tips (PLUS some exciting workshop news at the end of this post).

Please feel free to share with any young – or new – writers in your life…

One: Write about what you’re passionate about

… As opposed to what you think will be popular. Don’t follow a trend, make a trend. It will help you stand out and your writing will be all the more vibrant and real. Plus, writing about the things that fire you up help give you the stamina to keep on writing.

Two: Start small.

If you dream of being a novelist but the thought of writing 70,000 plus words gives you a bad case of the dreads, downsize your writing dream. Not forever, just for now. Start by writing short stories or blog posts. Hone your craft in smaller, easier to achieve ways.

Three: It’s OK to be bad

Everyone is bad at first. Or, as the writer Ernest Hemingway put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ The main thing is that you write. Just like physical exercise, the more you do it, the better you become. So keep on showing up at the page and putting down the words one at a time, and hone that writing muscle.

Four: Write anyway

When doubt and fear strike, write your way through them. If your inner voice tells you that you’re not good enough, ignore it. It’s just your fear trying to protect you from disappointment. Focus instead on how amazing it will be when you achieve your writing dreams. Keep writing your way towards them.

Five: Use a character questionnaire

This is probably the tool I recommend most to other writers. Not only does it help you create interesting and well-rounded characters but it should give you a ton of ideas for your plot too. You can find a character questionnaire here. Feel free to add your own questions to it.

Six: Focus on your reader

When you start writing it can be really easy to forget all about the person you’re writing for. Remember your reader. When you’re coming up with ideas, fleshing out characters, creating a plot and writing a scene, ask yourself: what will my reader get from this? Make sure they’re getting something.

Seven: Do the right writing

There are many different types and genres of writing. Make sure you’re doing the right one for you. In my next novel, Tell it to the Moon, one of the main characters, Amber, is really struggling with writer’s block. She just can’t seem to find the motivation to write. But when she starts writing a play she just can’t stop. Experiment with different types of writing until you find the right one for you.

Eight: Don’t let the dream-busters get you down

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that whenever you have a dream you will encounter ‘dream-busters’. These are people who will try and put you off your writing dream with sly put-downs or passive aggressive remarks. This is usually down to their own unhappiness or jealousy. Try not to let it hurt you – let it fire you up and make you all the more determined instead.

Nine: Learn from constructive criticism

Writing is such a personal thing – even when you’re writing fiction it still feels liking you’re pouring your heart and soul on to the page. So if you receive criticism it can really sting. But – if the criticism is constructive – try to learn from it. Even best-selling authors get notes from their editors telling them how to improve their work. And ultimately, that should be your main objective – to make your writing the best that it can be.

Ten: Write for joy

Don’t write for fame and fortune, write for the pure joy of it. I used to think writing success and talent was measured in book sales, now I know for a fact that this isn’t true. Now I measure the success of my books in terms of how much joy I had while I was writing them. You should too – it makes the whole writing thing SO much better.

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Bonus tip: Come to my young writers workshop

I’m running a workshop for young writers (age 11 – 15) on Saturday 27th May at Brighton Festival.

We’ll be going into all of the tips featured here in a lot more detail.

And it will be a lot of fun.

Find out more and book your ticket here.

 

Young writers wanted…

I’m looking for young writers to write guest posts for the Moonlight Dreamers website.

Topics I’m looking for posts on include:

  • Achieving a dream
  • Writing
  • Sexuality
  • Bullying
  • Friendships
  • Political causes / activism

Or you can pitch me an idea of your own.

If you’d like to find out more or pitch me an idea, simply fill out the form below…

 

Tell it to the Moon_hi res

Coming August 2017

Tell it to the Moon, the Moonlight Dreamers sequel, is available to pre-order on Amazon here. Perfect for writers, dreamers and people who want to be the change.


In Celebration of Celebrity Publishing

I’ve been invited to take part in a panel discussion on celebrity children’s publishing.

One of the questions up for discussion is:

“Books by celebrities are often looked on as less worthy than books by ‘proper’ authors. Is this part of a culture of snobbery in children’s publishing?”

My short answer to this question would be, ‘yes’.

My longer answer goes something like this…

In my recent blog post, Be Proud of Where You Come From, I talk about what it was like growing up on a council estate and an excruciating lunch I had once with a group of publishing people, who openly mocked those living on estates.

I’ve worked with many different children’s publishers over the last few years (nine in total) and I can tell you it is an extremely middle-class and privileged world. And I can count the number of non-white people I’ve encountered in children’s publishing on the fingers of half a hand.

I have no idea exactly how many working class or non-white writers are commissioned by these publishers but I’m willing to hazard a guess that, historically,  it’s been a small percentage.

Until the advent of ‘celebrity publishing’.

Celebrity publishing has meant that people from working class and ethnic backgrounds, who’ve achieved success in less elitist areas such as sport, or music, or the online world, have been given a chance to share their stories through book deals.

And more importantly, when it comes to children’s publishing, to share their stories with young people who might have come from similar backgrounds. Young people who might not have automatic access to a library of books. Or even a single book. Young people who’ve never been encouraged to read.

When I was a kid, none of my friends on the estate I grew up on had bookshelves in their bedrooms. None of them had books in their bedrooms.

This isn’t necessarily because their parents didn’t understand the importance of reading.

When you’re struggling to find the money to feed and clothe your kids, books become a luxury item. A luxury item you simply can’t afford.

I once did an author talk to several hundred high school students in Wales. The students had been bussed in from all over the region – some were from affluent areas and others were from very poor communities.

I’m afraid the kids from poorer areas probably won’t be able to afford to buy your book,‘ one of the organisers told me at the beginning of the event.

When I was doing a book signing at the end it broke my heart to look into the auditorium and see whole blocks of students – all from the poorer schools – still seated, having to look on, while the richer kids queued up to buy books.

So, what exactly does this have to do with celebrity publishing?

I know for a fact that many, many young people from poorer backgrounds have got into reading after their favourite celebrity has published a book. I’ve heard this from young people during school visits time and time and time again.

And whenever I’ve heard it, it’s made my heart sing. Because I know what a big deal this is. Because I know that this, sometimes very first owned book will be a treasured gift. A gift that may well spark a life-long love of reading that might otherwise have gone undiscovered.

So, when I see snooty articles and headlines about celebrity books being ‘turkey twizzlers for the brain‘, or responsible for dumbing down an entire generation, it makes me sick.

It’s such a lazy bandwagon to jump on.

So easy to join the chorus of negativity without even knowing – or bothering to learn – the truth.

So-called ‘celebrities’ aren’t Dick Dastardly style characters, rubbing their hands with glee while they plot the intellectual downfall of our kids.

They’re ordinary humans, who’ve worked hard to achieve extraordinary success. And, when they’re given books deals as a result of this success, they work extremely hard to make sure that their books uplift and inspire their fans.

I know this to be true – not only from the celebrities that I’ve helped but from other writers who’ve also helped celebrities with their books.

I also know from publishing friends that a large chunk of the money made by celebrity books gets ploughed back into commissioning new and unknown writers and mid-list authors. So it simply isn’t true to say that celebrity books are stealing opportunities away from writers – it would appear to me that they’re actually funding opportunities.

I’d urge anyone who feels that celebrity children’s books are ‘less worthy’ than books by ‘proper’ authors to go and spend some time on a sink estate – or in a run-down school.

Talk to the fans of these celebrities about what their books have meant to them – the positive difference they have made. And how these celebrities’ stories – both real-life and fictional – have given these young people hope and inspired them to dream. 

Instead of mocking and joining the latest twitter witch-hunt, shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, in this increasingly online world, young people are still reading?

And shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that celebrity children’s publishing is making the world of books accessible to a large section of young people who have traditionally been under-represented and ignored?

Tell it to the Moon_hi res

Tell it to the Moon, the sequel to The Moonlight Dreamers, is available to pre-order on Amazon now. Perfect reading for dreamers … and anyone who wants to be the change they want to see in the world.

 


The Gritty Truth About Writing

It was a Saturday night.

My head was thumping and my eyes were sore.

My entire body ached – especially my shoulders, which were knotted tight.

How much longer will this go on for? I wailed into the darkness.

I thought of the rest of the world all out enjoying their Saturday night – dancing, laughing, drinking cocktails with fun names like Tequila Facelift and Vodka Orgasm – and it made me want to weep into my glass of water.

But I wasn’t ill that Saturday night.

I wasn’t stricken down by the flu or in the grips of a migraine.

I was writing my first novel.

And I was wracked with exhaustion and despair.

I had no idea if what I was writing was any good.

I had no idea if I’d ever get the plot to work.

I had no idea if my characters were likeable or even believable.

Basically, I had no idea.

I felt like giving up practically every single day but somehow – thankfully – I kept going.

And I kept going because I had grit.

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Writing a book takes creativity and imagination … but it also takes a huge amount of determination.

It’s easy to dream of writing … but quite another thing to keep on showing up at the page, day after day after day after day.

Or, in my case back then, as the mother of a young son, night after night after night after night.

So, how do you find the grit to get the words down on the page?

How do you overcome the nagging doubts that sit on your knotted shoulders as you type, telling you you’re not good enough?

The answer is, you have to want it really bad.

And you have to get crystal clear on why you want it so bad.

It could be that you’re desperate to share the message of your book with the world…

Get crystal clear on why that is. Who or how would you be helping?

It could be that writing is as essential to you as breathing…

Get crystal clear on why writing makes you so happy. Make your writing all about enjoying the journey, stop obsessing about the destination.

It could be that you love the idea of entertaining or inspiring or thrilling or scaring readers with your words…

Get crystal clear on how happy this would make you feel. Picture your words lighting up others all across the world.

If it helps, free-write your answers to the following prompts:

  • I have to write because…
  • My dream life as a writer would involve…
  • If I don’t follow through on my writing dreams I’m afraid that…

 

Back when I was writing my first novel my main motivation was the financial freedom a book deal would give me.

When I had moments of doubt and despair like on that Saturday night I’d remind myself of exactly how badly I needed to make it as a writer.

Making it as a writer would put me back in control of my own destiny again, doing something that I loved, and really, who doesn’t want that?

So, I kept on showing up at the page, learning my craft from my many mistakes as I went.

And a couple of years later, my first novel was published.

I’ve since had ten other books published.

And one thing I’ve learned more than anything else is that it’s grit, fuelled by desire, that makes writing dreams come true.

 

For more writerly inspiration please visit the Dare to Write section of this website.


The Gilmore Girls Guide to Great Writing

The only good thing to come out of my bout of flu earlier this year was that – in my desperate search for something to watch in my feverish, bed-ridden state – I came across the show Gilmore Girls.

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Gilmore Girls is a comedy-drama series about a young single mum and her daughter, set in the fictional small American town of Stars Hollow. It originally aired from 2000 – 2007 and all seven series are now available on Netflix PLUS a Gilmore Girls revisited special.

Each series contains twenty-two, forty-five minute episodes. It’s a Netflix binger’s paradise. And – in my humble opinion – a masterclass in great writing.

To anyone interested in writing, I thoroughly recommend you watch it. Here are my takeaways from a writing point of view and why I think it’s so good…

 

Great, nuanced characters

Gilmore Girls has a huge cast of characters, all of them colourful and well-rounded. It’s a great example of how it pays to spend time developing your characters before starting to write. Take time to flesh out their backstory; to give them interesting quirks and traits and to develop their own distinctive voice.

 

Whip-smart dialogue

And speaking of voice, Gilmore Girls excels when it comes to dialogue. There’s a lot of dialogue in the show but it’s razor-sharp, funny, pacey, and packs a punch. The verbal sparring between the characters is brilliant and each of them have their own distinctive verbal ticks.

 

Wonderful world

The world of Stars Hollow has been so well realised you want to slip through your screen and live there too – or at least I did! The funny traditions, the town meetings, Luke’s Diner, the store, the town troubadour(!), the writers have created a wonderful world for the show. Take time to develop the settings for your stories so that they become characters in their own right.

 

Perfect balance of humour and poignancy

Although Gilmore Girls is way more funny and feel-good than sad, it still has its very poignant moments. This contrast between light and dark makes it compelling viewing. You become emotionally invested in the characters because the writers show us their vulnerabilities and make us truly care. Make sure your own story contains light and dark. Play on your reader / viewer’s emotions to make them care.

 

Realistic relationships

The relationships between the characters in Gilmore Girls are believable and compelling. Even the closest relationship in the show – between Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory – is tested at times. And when they become estranged in one of the series it made for gripping viewing. On-off romances, mother-daughter tension, professional and love rivalries, friendship, fallings out – Gilmore Girls has it all and handles it all in a way that’s engaging and believable.

 

Well-developed secondary characters and ‘baddies’

Even the minor characters in Gilmore Girls are interesting and well-developed. The same is true for the occasional ‘bad’ character. We’re shown why they’re troubled and as a result feel empathy for them. The writers haven’t been lazy or taken any shortcuts and this greatly adds to the richness of the viewing experience. Take the time to fully flesh out all of your characters – it will really pay off.

 

Full of heart

As a result of all of the above Gilmore Girls is full of heart. You feel better for watching it; warm inside and more hopeful and optimistic about the world. It’s like mug of hot chocolate in TV form but without being too sickly-sweet. I can’t recommend it highly enough…