All because of Aaron Sorkin: how the West Wing changed me

The internet is aflutter with excitement about Aaron Sorkin’s new television show, The Newsroom. All kinds of questions are being asked: how will Sorkin write a Republican protagonist? Where’s Bradley Whitford? Will The Newsroom air anywhere besides the US?

Here’s what I’m asking: will it change lives?

Because The West Wing changed mine.

For a long time, my friends in London had been telling me I should watch it. “It’s all about politics,” they’d say. “You like politics.” They were right. Once I gave in, the show took over my life. I began to get irresistible cravings for episodes. At the end of season seven, bereft and grieving, I began to tweet my sorrow at there being no new episodes, and that was the beginning of several beautiful friendships – with Twitter itself, and with several fellow fans whom I met along the way.

And something surprising happened in me as I watched: I fell in love with the English language.

As a child and teenager, I wrote prolifically — in French, which is my mother tongue. When we moved back to the UK, and English became my dominant language, I did not feel so inspired. French, I was convinced, was superior. It was beautiful. English was not.

But that was before Aaron Sorkin convinced me otherwise. His mastery of the language awoke something in me that had been dormant for years. “Oratory should raise your heart rate,” says one of his characters, and that is exactly what his words did for me.  I began to devour novels. I began to itch to write again.

Sorkin assumes an intelligent viewer, and yet still teaches them a multitude of things. He doesn’t shy away from difficult or controversial issues. And in the language itself there is poetry, too, and rhythm:

“Nice job on the speech,” says one character to another, Sam Seaborn, in the third season.

“How did you know I wrote it?” he asks her.

She quotes some of its phrases. “We did not seek, nor did we provoke… We did not expect, nor did we invite…”

“A little thing called cadence,” Sam replies, and you get the sense that Aaron Sorkin is winking at his viewers through those lines.

Sorkin is also skilled at developing complex and memorable characters, avoiding, for example, the liberal temptation to paint all Republicans as evil.  Life is not black and white, and nor should fiction be if it is to be believable.

Josh Lyman – deftly played by Bradley Whitford – is one such character: arrogant, brilliant, and deeply wounded. He is also at the center of a will-they-won’t-they storyline which kept many viewers hooked; I wanted my writing to do that, too. The restraint which Aaron Sorkin showed in not getting Josh and his assistant Donna together too soon – and the resulting tension – is one of the defining features of the show. I wanted to create characters as compelling as Josh and Donna; I wanted my stories, like Sorkin’s, to reflect the complexities of life in general and romance in particular.

So it was that walking home one summer Saturday after a morning of French teaching, an unexpected thought occurred to me: wouldn’t it be fun to tutor Bradley Whitford?  And that was the start of my first novel, in which someone very much like me teaches French to someone a little like him, who inspires her to move to Washington DC and (many years later) become a Senator.

Given the source of my inspiration, it was perhaps inevitable that politics would provide the backdrop to the story. My friends in London had been right: this wasn’t a new interest. I chose Sociology in my last two years of high school and almost studied Social and Political Science at University. I was once passionate about that stuff. And The West Wing prodded at that, too. Prodded and poked and awoke the beast.

And of course, I had to visit Washington, and the city stole my heart. Maybe it was the majesty of the monuments or the colors of autumn: we don’t have the deep, deep red of the maple tree in Europe. Maybe it was the surreal sense of stepping into a fictional world that had seemed only to exist on screens and in my imagination. Maybe it was eavesdropping on high-level conversations in classy restaurants. Maybe it was the abundance of literary events and of bookshops with names like Politics and Prose. Maybe – most likely of all – it was the fact that my writing feels intricately bound up with DC and the corridors of political power. Hard to tell. But I knew I wanted to live there.

Writing, by then, had become a serious passion; I began to dream about studying it full-time. And when I dream, I reach for Google. I typed in “MFA” and “DC”, omitting “two birds”, “one stone”. And it came up with American University, a place which not only offered exactly what I needed in terms of the course but which also –  oh, happy day! — was rated number one nationally for its political involvement.

I applied but wasn’t accepted. Would Donna Moss have let that deter her? No, she would not. I worked on my admissions essay and sent in a better writing sample the following year, and this time it was a yes.

I’ll be moving to DC in August. Perhaps to embark on a whole new chapter of my life complete with best-selling novels, a part-time voluntary job at the Democratic Party, and my very own Josh Lyman. Or perhaps just for a two-year adventure. But either way, it’s because of Aaron Sorkin. It’s because of The West Wing.

Claire’s Week in Books: 18th to 25th October

It’s all happening in my book world! My novel is on submission with editors; I’ve become an official Book Riot contributor; I’m frantically making as many book related lists as I can on The List App, and I’m even reading a little too!


diabetes with owlsLet’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

I really enjoyed David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day when I read it in Belgium years ago. I was teaching languages then, and his stories about learning French spoke to me on a deep level. And I loved this quote: Paris, it turns out, is where I have come to dream about America, not least because that was exactly what had happened, completely unexpectedly, with me and Brussels. I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy hear him speak – I’m not a huge fan of most comedians – but when my friend asked if I wanted to come and see him with her, I thought I’d give it a go. So glad! He was fun and smart and it was great being part of the test audience for some of his new material.

Family Life, by Akhil Sharmafamily life

Sedaris gave the first few minutes of his time on stage to Akhil Sharma, an author whose novel he blurbed. At first, I thought, oh how lovely of him to help a struggling new author! Turns out, Sharma’s not exactly struggling – his book was named one of the ten best by The New York Times in 2014. But I really enjoyed the few minutes we got of him, and so when the offer was made to bump us to the top of the Sedaris signing queue if we bought his Family Life , my friend and I took him up on it.

thirteen ways of lookingThirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann

The next day, I was back in another signing queue, this time at Politics and Prose for Colum McCann. I love his so writing so much that I wrote a scene in my novel in which the characters disucss Let The Great World Spin – one of my all time favourites. I got to tell him that, too. I have heard great things about Thirteen Ways of Looking – unsurprisingly – and I’m looking forward to reading this. I’m also quite excited about it being a novella and three short stories, because I’m having trouble finishing novels at the moment.

DC Trip, by Sara Benincasadc trip

While I was waiting for the Colum McCann signing queue to go down, I wandered around the store, and scared some fellow customers by squealing “That’s not supposed to be out yet!” when I spotted Sarah Benincasa’s DC Trip on the shelves. I’be been looking forward to it for months – it’s about a group of schoolkids who come to DC on a school trip – and since it’s not out as an ebook yet, I sprung for the hardback. Which is probably better anyway since that way I will have something for her to sign when she does her event at Busboys and Poets on publication day. I’ve read half of it already – in two days – which is fast going for me


Still shamefully empty…


So many. So many. Starting to despair that I will ever finish another book. Thank goodness for DC Trip, which has temporarily yanked me out of my reading slump.

Claire’s Week in Books: 11th – 18th October 2015

My reading slump continues to dog me, but at least this week I’ve written about books, even if I haven’t read them all that much.

4 x 4: ways to get an agent and what’s great about having one

IMG_3506My first even Book Riot post! I am so excited, and even more excited that I got to write about one of my very favourite books.

Political campaign novels

chocolate warsBooks about chocolate

And, most excitingly! The List App. It’s better than Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. It’s the best new app/social network ever. And I’ve written some bookish lists – including one about podcasts, which got featured. Achievement unlocked. Come and join me! I’m BookishClaire over there.

As to what I’m reading…


God is Closer Than You Think, by John Ortberg 

I’ve read this before, eleventeen times, but it’s a great refresher – easy to read and full of soul feeding truth .

What do You Think of Me? Why do I care? Answers to the Big Questions of LIfe, by Edward T Welch

A brand new (to me) book given to me by a lovely friend at Church. I think this, too, is going to do me good.


Shamefully empty.


I started reading Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This for work purposes, but I really want to finish it now! It starts where many novels about disappearing teenagers end: Justin comes home. And the family readjusts. Or not. It’s psychologically insightful, and beautifully written in places, but also quite dense so I’m finding it hard to wade through at the moment. Could be just me, though. It probably is. The author, by the way, was incredibly gracious and giving of his time when I interviewed him for my piece.

remember me

Claire’s Week in Books: 28th Sept – 4th Oct

My biggest book news is really life news. My little novel goes out on submission from my agent to editors this week! Eek. I’m excited, nervous, terrified, and getting ready for another round of the emotional roller coaster I am familiar with from my agent-querying days (are those really behind me? Still seems too good to be true!).

But in other book news, and borrowing from Book Riot’s Inbox/Outbox/In The Queue model, here’s what I’ve been up to this week.


ally hughesAlly Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, by Jules Moulin

I logged into my Audible account to check if they had Ferrante – they do, of course they do, what was I thinking? – and it warned me I was about to lose a credit. Audio book buying is a complex thing these days – I used to first check whether Scribd had it, then if they didn’t and I still really wanted it, I’d go to Audible. But since Scribd have switched to a one-audiobook-per-month model, that makes the calclulations a lot more complicated.

The Ferrante book are hours and hours long, and I suspect I would enjoy these more as a physical book anyway, so I went in a completely different direction. I heard about this one on the All The Books! podcast, the weekly show of “news and enthusiasm” about that week’s new books by Rebecca Schinsky and Liberty Hardy of Book Riot. Rebecca loved it. She says, among other things, that the pacing is perfect. She also says that Jules Moulin used to write for The West Wing, so, you know – there’s no chance I’m leaving this one on the metaphorical shelf. It’s the “hilarious and heartbreaking” story of a mother and daughter who both fall for the same guy, and it’s also about a long-lost love reappearing in someone’s life – this is what Book Riot calls my genre kryptonite, the thing I can’t resist reading about (or one of them, at least). It’s also one of the things I love to write about.


Drama, by Raina Telgemeierdrama

I surprised myself last week by spontaneously picking up a graphic novel at Strand Books. Crucial to my decision was probably its purple cover – and look at it, so cute! It’s about middle school theatre nerds, and I loved it! I really enjoyed the illustrations. My one quibble: if you’re going to have identical twins in the story, maybe help your reader out by distinguishing their names more completely? But that’s such a tiny nitpick. This was a delight, and a fun, easy read. Plus, I loved the ending, but I can’t say why without spoiling it. #BookNerdProblems and all that.


remember meSo many! My queue keeps growing. This week I’ll be binge reading Remember Me LIke This a 2014 New York Times Notable Book, so I can write about it for work. From what I’ve seen about it and the few pages I’ve read so far, it’s a literary thriller with emotional resonance about a boy who goes missing from a family and what happens when he is found.

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy BlumeIn the unlikely event

I have also been reading Judy Blume’s In The Unlikely Event for far too long now – I started a couple of months ago, then realised that a book whose plot is centred around plane crashes maybe wasn’t the best thing for anxiety-prone me to read before flying to the West Coast and back. I’m back in the swing of it now – mostly listening to it (thanks, Scribd) – and enjoying it. There are a few too many characters to my liking – I have trouble keeping them all straight – but it’s very engaging. And nobody, nobody writes teenage love like Judy Blume.

Claire’s Week in Books, 20th – 27th September


I don’t want to speak too soon, but it’s just about possible that I am over the worst of my book slump. It’s been two months of not really being able to concentrate on reading, for various reasons, but over the last eight days I have at least finished two that I’ve been reading for a while.


Charis, by Preston Sprinkle

charisThis is my one-chapter-per-Sunday book, so I’ve been reading it for a long time. It’s an exploration and illustration of what grace means – God’s unearned favour for the thoroughly undeserving, i.e. all of us. It’s a radical and life-changing thing when understood properly, and this book was a great way to remind myself of that.

Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton Tiny Pretty Things

A very different kind of grace in this one – the physical kind. Not much grace evidenced in relationships, though – lots of catty competitiveness among elite teenage ballerinas. Competition for the top ballet spots, of course, but also for boys and attention and love and identity. I would not want to be friends with many of these characters, but they were so fun to read about. And the ending was perfect, and I’ll be thinking about it for days.


My book buying had slumped lately, too, in part I think because of my guilt at never finishing books, but on Saturday I popped into the Strand bookstore in NYC with no clear intention of buying anything, and I came out with this pile (oops), plus a tote bag, Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours  (which, counter-intuitively, I came across because it was completely misshelved) and some pens, pencils and a colouring book – I want to see what all this fuss is about, and whether it helps me to relax and/or think creative thoughts…


dear mr writer guyI’d been intrigued about Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy since hearing Dinty Moore speak about writing on the topic of celebrities at AWP this year. The book was half price, and he had me at the first paragraph of the introduction: “Perhaps you are standing in this bookstore, scanning this introductory chapter wondering just what sort of book you have in hand. You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem only to accentuate your considerable charm. You are intelligent. And immune to flattery.”

Drama was a complete impulse buy, which is rarer than you might think with me and books. It’s a dramagraphic novel – I’ve never readyany – but it’s about theatre nerds at high school, and theatre and acting and that whole world is quickly becoming one of my favourite things to read and write about. And what the heck, it was only $9, and it seemed fun.

the dinnerThe Dinner was another one of those books I’ve picked up a hundred times and meant to read. My agent (have I mentioned I have an agent?) talked about it when I met up with her last month, so I thought I’d move it up the TBR. It was $7 – my general rule at the Strand is that I can only buy things that are cheaper than they would be as eBooks. (Though it’s a rule I break when necessary.) It turns out that one of the characters is named Claire – I’m not sure how I feel about this yet.

Hotel Living comes recommended by Christina Haag, who is one of my favourite writers and one of the hotel livingbest people you’ll ever meet. She says “it’s about sex, loss, the glitter and emptiness of high living, and the search for what connects us”. Um, yes please.

&Sons is another one of those I’ve thought about reading so often it’s almost embarrassing. As far as &sonsI can tell, it’s very much a book about, and for, the literary élite of New York City. And let’s be honest, I kind of aspire to be part of that. Plus, the weather was gorgeous in NYC today, and I enjoyed my walk through the West Village after my deliciously British brunch at Tea and Sympathy, so I was feeling all I-heart-NY-ish, and warm and fuzzy about reading about the city. I didn’t even notice, but this one is signed, too – a bargain at $7.

I was down in the memoir section looking for Arthur Miller’s Timebends – which wasn’t there – when I Come-to-the-edgespotted a copy of Christina Haag’s Come to the Edge. If you’ve talked to me about books for longer than five minutes at any point in the last three years, you’ll know that this book deserves to be much better known – yes, I was skeptical about celebrity memoir too, but this one is a gem. The writing is gorgeous, the emotions authentic, much like the writer herself, and honestly, it’s almost incidental that the story of love and loss is related to American royalty. Anyway – this copy was signed, and in pristine condition (less so after I dropped it from a great height along with a whole pile of others: careful with your Instagramming out there, people), and it felt wrong to just leave it there. I much prefer the hardback version and that’s the one I always buy as a gift – I feel like the cover is a much better reflection of the tone of the book than the paperback cover is – and I always have to do that through Amazon, which quite frankly I would rather not. So now I have a spare one for someone I love – I don’t buy this book for just anyone. It feels like I am giving away a little piece of my soul when I give this book, so I choose carefully.

our townOur Town caught my eye as it sat on a table close to the cheap fiction. My knowledge of plays is shameful, and I’ve been meaning to remedy this for a while. Once I’d seen Our Town, I got out my To-Reads list on Goodreads and found as many of the “I should really read this” as I could – hence also The Real Thing, Doubt, A Streetcar named Desire and Sweeney Todd.

I’m not entirely sure what I was looking for or why I was in the M section, but Paul McLain’s The Paris the paris wifeWife called out to me. One of my friends has told me that I would like it, and she has read quite a few that I’ve recommended to her, so it seemed only fair to pick it up. Especially at Strand prices!


I’ll be reading Remember Me Like This for work reasons: I’m going to be writing a piece on the book and its author for The Writer’s Center, where is has just won a prize. fates and furies I’m also hoping to start Fates and Furies soon. My Twitter feed seemed to be exploding with love for this one on its publication date a couple of weeks ago – and with love for its author, too, which always makes me more likely to want to read a book – and then when Rebecca Schinsky of Book Riot mentioned it on the All The Books! Podcast too that day, I figured this was one bandwagon I would jump on. It’s about the complicated twists and turns of a marriage from the point of view of both the husband (fates) and the wife (furies) – I love that stuff, the psychology of love, and it sounds like it’s great and there’s a big twist in the middle. Lauren was a delight to listen to when she talked about her book at Busboys and Poets, and she high fived me about getting an agent and said she couldn’t wait to read my novel, so now of course I’m even more excited about reading hers because it feels like we have some kind of bond. I know: there’s nothing logical or even particularly real about this, though I do think that connecting with an author can enhance the whole reading experience so that what was a good read becomes a great one and what was a great one becomes unforgettable.

Claire’s week in books: Big News!

I don’t have much book news at the moment, if by book news you are expecting the usual reports on books bought, read, looked forward to. On the other hand, I do have my biggest book news ever, which also happens to be life news.

I have an agent!

Agents are, by and large, the people who sell books to editors at publishing houses. They are the gatekeepers, the spam filters. To take your first steps on the publishing ladder, you basically “apply” to an agent by sending them what is known as a query letter – a pithy summary of your novel, a paragraph about yourself, a compelling reason why they are the best agent for your work. Some of them want the dreaded synopsis. (I say dreaded, because think about your favourite film; now think about how much fun it is to have someone else recount the events in the film for you rather than watching it yourself. See?) Most of them want sample pages from the book, but the number can vary from 5 to 50, and, in one case that I came across, the whole manuscript. That’s extremely rare, though. Usually, you have to be “asked for a full”. This happens, for context, almost never. My first novel, Inevitable, which was by no means terrible, got a grand total of zero full requests.

Unscripted is better, though, or at least more publishable, and easier to make into the aforementioned pithy paragraph – or maybe I am just better at it now. I started querying it in April, and on 16th June, after what may or may not have been my 42nd query, I got my first full request. It was a proud moment. It was followed by three more.

After a few weeks, the first one came back with a no – which was a little disappointing, because there wasn’t even a note as to why. This is par for the course with queries – many agents just tell you on their website that if you haven’t heard from them by x date, you may assume thanks but no thanks. Many others send a form rejection – some of which don’t even bother with your name. Really? I wanted to write back. You couldn’t spring for the software that would automatically insert our names? This is all a bit soul destroying, considering the effort that goes into each query letter, and considering too that a little piece of your heart goes out with each of these query letters. It does mean, though, that any hint of a personalization on the rejection note – “this is great writing and an interesting premise; maybe try my colleague?” – is supremely encouraging. Anyway, I had assumed that when people rejected your full manuscript they at least gave you a line or two as to why. Turns out, no they don’t.

It wasn’t as depressing as it could have been, though, because by the time they rejected me I had had another full request. And this one was promising – I had been referred to this agent by a friend of hers, whom I had met on a writing course and who had liked my work enough to consider it worthy of her attention. I sent this agent a letter, mentioning the name, and got an instant and friendly reply, then the hoped-for full request.

I didn’t count my chickens, though. I noticed that July seemed to be a good month for getting replies from agents, so I doubled, quadrupled, my efforts. My aim was to get to 100 agents; after that I would re-assess. I think that I secretly thought that the quicker I got to 100 with no success the quicker I could self-publish and get this book off my to-do list. Self-publishing was never the dream; traditional publishing has always been what I have aimed for. But while I thought Unscripted was good, or at least not bad, no-one on MFA programs ever says to you, “Listen, this is of publishable quality.” It’s actually very hard to tell from people’s comments at a workshop whether a piece is brilliant or utter trifle, because no matter the quality of the piece, it has to be both praised and criticised. Plus, I’ve been through this process before, with a novel I really believed in. So I was hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst. I made it to 70 queries and then one morning (3rd August to be exact) I woke up and I had an email.

This agent had “absolutely adored” Unscripted. Did I have time to speak that day? Um, yes. I thought I could probably make the time. (!!) We played phone tag for a few hours. I sat by my phone until 3 pm, unable to shower or go out to buy milk for coffee just in case that was the moment at which she rang, and certainly unable to concentrate of anything remotely productive. We spoke for two hours. I came off the phone thinking that maybe she loved my novel more than I did. It was amazing. And surreal after all these weeks, months, of not even a bite from other agents, and all these years of having other people opine in workshops as to what I should change, to have someone else “get” my novel, not want it to be anything other than it is, and believe it can sell.

And I get it now, the rejections – some of them, yes, despite what agents’ polite auto responses will tell you, are indications of insufficiently polished writing or ill thought-out plot. But many of them are simply this: the agent didn’t fall in love. And that’s okay. We don’t all fall in love with every book. (Much as I wish everyone would share my impeccable taste.) You don’t want an agent who likes your book and thinks it can sell. You want an agent who loves your book and believes in it more than you do and will go out to bat for it. Who will say to editors, and mean it, you don’t want to be the one to turn this novel down.

I’d been advised to email the other agents who had a full – and, to be safe, basically all the other agents who hadn’t yet explicitly rejected me (and some of whom sprang into action, suddenly wanting to read the book they’d had sitting in their inbox for months). So I had to wait for them to say no before I could officially say yes to Mel, my now agent. I went up to New York to meet her face to face on 17th August. I felt like I was a character in one of my own novels. So surreal. So amazing. So unbelievable that it had finally happened.

The next step – which we’ve just embarked on – was for her to send me suggestions for edits. Both comments scribbled on my manuscript itself at the sentence level, and also broader points, like “we need to know more about x” or “maybe you want to rethink the relationship between these two characters”. The aim at the moment is for me to get these edits to her by the end of September, and then she’ll do another read through, and then I might do a bit more polishing. And then she’ll start pitching publishers. It could all happen comparatively fast. (I could have a deal by October!) It also might not. There might be deals for translations; there might be deals for an audio version; there might not be. But I’m cautiously optimistic.

And, oh my goodness, what having an agent does. It’s so much more than maybe getting a book deal, which is obviously the whole point of everything. It’s validation: someone who knows the industry has declared that you can write, and not only write, but write stuff that others might pay money to read. It’s your friends congratulating you and hugging you and celebrating with you even if they don’t quite know what an agent is or does or why they’re important. It’s being able to hold your metaphorical head high on Twitter when you engage authors in conversation. It’s being able to look straight into someone’s eyes when they ask what you do and say, “I’m a writer”. And that? That is worth every minute of poring over those query letters.