Saturday, 13 December 2014

The End of All Things

We know how it begins: with once upon a time. And we know that it all ends happily ever after. That’s all you need to know about writing a romance, isn’t it? (Apart from the bit in the middle, but let’s not worry about that just now.)

I don’t fear the beginning but I approach the end of a novel with the dread of one heading for their destination and now knowing if they’ll recognise it when they get there. And in fact that’s exactly what it’s like. I get to the end of the story…I think. But maybe I haven’t.

It’s bothering me particularly at the moment because I have a novel in draft and I can’t end it. After all the stresses to which I’ve subjected my hero and heroine in the course of the book we conclude with a dramatic scene in which all is revealed and they can live happily ever after.

Except they can’t because the denouement which bring them together causes problems elsewhere. Love may conquer all but it doesn’t do so at a stroke and by resolving the problems between themselves they create others with their families (yes, it’s set in Italy and there’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet, so a quick acknowledgement to William Shakespeare here). They have each other but what happens then?

In reality these things reverberate for years. He’s chosen her over his family but is there a rapprochement, forgiveness? If there isn’t, how will he cope with the isolation? If they choose love and poverty how will they cope when there isn’t enough money for what they want and need?

My good and wise friend Jenny advises that a satisfying ending should rest on resolution, which I interpret (with some relief) as meaning that we don’t have to tie off every single end of the story, especially not those which will take time to sort out. It’s most important to solve the big problems and we can leave the little ones as long as they are resolvable. But equally we cannot leave too many questions unanswered.

I’ve read a few books which take you past the point of resolution (and I’ve written a few as well).
In romance, there’s a requirement that the couple end up together, even if they’re only happy in the short term rather than for ever. But how to do it? You can only walk off into the sunset so many times.

In all my time of writing I’ve only ever been satisfied with two endings for novels. Neither has been published (though one will be out next year). My usual approach is to write it all and then chop off the bit where two years down the line they get an anniversary card from her mother or whatever it might be. But any other tips and hints for knowing when the story’s over will be gratefully received!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

NaNo, No, NO!

My NaNoWriMo novel this year is set in Italy...
NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a terrific concept. The idea is that you write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November. You get support from your friends because you’re all in this together and you can moan and groan and cheer — or even celebrate — together.

I always run at NaNo on the basis that it’s a sprint not a marathon. Last year it took me five days (and if you want to read it you’ll find it here, because it was published last month). This year was a little less successful, certainly quantitatively speaking as I didn’t type those wonderful words ‘The End’ until the 10th.

I think this year’s may be qualitatively deficient, too, for all sorts of reasons. The main one is that I wasn’t quite ready to get started but alas, November wouldn’t wait. I like to approach these things with a plan and work to it. If the plot changes then so be it; if the characters decide the want to do their own thing I have to go with them. But this year the plan was at best sketchy, partly because I’d just finished a draft of a novel and that had taken up so much of my energy that I didn’t really think I had much left in the tank.

But one thing leads to another. My recently-completed draft had two characters whose story cried out to be told; so this year’s NaNo was about them. A variation on Romeo and Juliet had Nico and Leona falling in love despite their feuding families. (Hardly, original, I know, but no plot is. It’s how you handle it that matters.)

So I did finish but it felt very unsatisfactory. The main benefit wasn’t in the novel itself but in how it informed the previous one. Even as I wrote it I realised that I needed to change things in the first one (thanks heavens it’s still at draft stage!). Most significantly it informed my characterisation — that almost all of my characters had secrets revealed in the second that needed to be hinted at in the first.

Never having attempted a sequel before I’ve struggled with a lot of aspects of it — not least how to make two books about the same set of characters set over in a short period of time stand alone and yet not repeat large chunks of back story in book two — but I think I’ve learned a lot.

I haven’t finished yet, of course. Just because you get to 50,000 words doesn’t mean those 50,000 stay still. The keep churning in your brain, multiplying like bacteria. I’m now reasonably certain I have the plot for book one but that for book two is still evolving. And I’m excited.

Can’t wait to get on with the editing…

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Strange Days Indeed

I’m chuffed. With the publication of my new book my friend and fellow writer Allis Gordon has reminded me that I now have ‘a corpus’. Does a body of work make you more of a writer than just single piece? Does it mean that you don’t count as a one-hit wonder? (Okay, neither book is what you can call a hit but you know what I mean.)

The funniest thing about the publication of No Time Like Now (yes, I know I need to work at my titles) is the time and effort it took. Because I just hosted a launch party. A digital launch party. On Facebook.

Strange days indeed.

It’s a digital book in a digital age and much of the promotion is digital. It makes perfect sense. I took to promotion like a duck to a sandpit and my attempts were probably even more comical. But I loved the party. Virtual food (Amanda, the cake was delicious), virtual drink (has Gilli left any champagne?) and plenty of chat.

My friends came along from all over the world. They came from Singapore, from the States, Canada, Germany. One even popped in from just down the road. People who’d never met tried to guess the theme tune for the book and compared their favourite islands. A long discussion ensued about whether or not science, and scientists, can ever be sexy; though quite why the discussion went on for so long I don’t know as we were agreed that they certainly are.

I posted excerpts from the book — more tricky than you might think, because you don’t want to give too much away. I did quizzes (not such a good idea in the age of Google); we took every chance to mention Rafael Nadal, even though neither he nor tennis gets a mention in the book; and there were prizes.

All in all I was at the computer for pretty much the whole day. It was emotionally exhausting yet my brain was buzzing so much that even when I fell into bed it took me ages to fall asleep. Was it worth it? Well, who knows? In terms of book sales, maybe or maybe not. In terms of building a brand (ugh) or developing an identity as an author (ugh again) I suppose no harm can come of it.

But I’d do it again because it had all the benefits of a real party. I got to chat with my friends and they got to chat with me. I got to know some of them better and they made new friends. I may at last have found an aspect of promotion that’s fun and doesn’t feel self-serving. I can’t wait for the next launch party.

I’d better get writing that next book…

Monday, 4 August 2014

Life, sport...or a plot in the making?

Greg Rutherford meets with triumph at Hampden Park
Whew! Sport, eh? Bloody hell, as Sir Alex memorably said on that day when he wiped the sweat from his Premier-League-and-Champions-League-winning brow.

Almost everyone who was at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will bend your ear about how wonderful the atmosphere was, how cold the burgers were (room for improvement there, Hampden) and how they were almost swept way by that great tidal wave of mutual love, for everyone and everything from the Cook Islands’ lawn bowls team to the fastest man on the planet. Sport brings people together. That’s the message of the Friendly Games.

For the novelist (writer or reader) there’s more to it than that. Real life weaves all our stories together, sprinter and spectator.

My own favourite moment, probably because it was the one I saw at closest quarters, was Olympic champion Greg Rutherford taking on the world in the long jump.

Since his triumph in London, life has been tricky for Greg. He left the Olympics as a surprise winner, with whispers that his victory was a fluke. Subsequent performance lent their support to that theory and then there were the injuries. Safe to say that he wasn’t expected to achieve…which made it all the ore special when he did.

Elsewhere in the sporting world, another young man was battling with loss of form, loss of confidence and public criticism. England cricket captain Alastair Cook was out of the runs and his team hadn’t won a test match in almost a year. Pundits and the public called on him to quit. But Cook came out fighting, just missed a century in the first innings ad finished the second 70 not out as his team thrashed their previously-triumphant opponents.

It was (if I may mix my sports) a Roy-of-the-Rovers storyline, just like Greg Rutherford’s. Sport lends itself to that because it pits its heroes not just against their opponents but against themselves. By challenging them with disaster after disaster — not just defeat after defeat but their own self-doubt — it demands that they reach deep into the well of courage to emerge. And it’s why sports fans care so much when Alastair Cook shakes the hands of the umpires with the broadest of grins as he leaves the field victorious; and why Greg raises his arms to acclaim the crowd just as they acclaim him.

A bit like the story arc for a novel, in fact…

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Remind me of Morning Glory

Two things struck me today over my morning coffee. The first is that my life is far duller and more conventional than I ever imagined. The second is that, no matter how extraordinary a character I may create, no matter that a reader puts the book down with a tutted “unbelievable”, there’s always someone out in the real world who has far more claim to be the invention of a fevered mind than anything I can produce.

Today’s Daily Telegraph carried the obituary of one Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart - not, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, her real name (which was the rather less exotic Diane Moore). And her background appears not to be exotic; her upbringing seems pretty straightforward.

Maybe Morning Glory decided one day that her life, like mine, was just a little too dull; or maybe she was always a wild child. Anyway I won’t go into detail (the obituary does it far better than I do) but who could resist the siren lure of the strap line: “a witch who raised unicorns, taught mathemagics and spell-casting, and preached the gospel of ‘polyamory’”?

Morning Glory was married to the man who went on to run “the world’s only registered wizard academy” (Hogwart’s is clearly not registered, unless the Telegraph has got it wrong). His name was Oberon, in real life Tim — although that, as they say, is quite another story but one of which those who think Tims are slightly wimpish and ineffectual might wish to take note. Reading their life together, with its tightly-woven network of complicated relationships, had me shaking my head. No, really? Unicorns? And I’d no idea you can study eclectic shamanism.

I wish I had invented Morning Glory, though I suspect you wouldn’t have believed her if I did, at least unless I recast her into a fantasy, in which case she might have fitted in quite well. Yet I’ve no reason to believe that anything in the obituary is incorrect. Morning Glory, nee Diane, proves that you can be anything you want to be if you have the courage. Goddess, high priestess, published writer — she was all of those.

By the time I’d finished reading I was completely bemused by the enmeshing of real life and fiction, the believable and the unbelievable. Oh, and the plot twists that life furnishes, clearly illustrated by the fact that her first child turned her back on the witching life, changed her name from Rainbow to Gail and went off to live with her father (for literary neatness, I like to see her settling happily in the suburbs).

Fiction stretches credibility in a way that real life doesn’t. I think that’s a pity. And if you ever hear me say I don’t believe anyone would behave like that - remind me of Morning Glory.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Sweating the Small Stuff: the Importance of Detail

I like a cup of coffee with my breakfast. That’s another way of saying that I can’t function without one. And it has to be a large one. (Take a note because that’s important. Detail matters.)

Out for breakfast for a holiday treat with number two child, I found myself in an upmarket(ish) eatery in central Edinburgh. Oh, the breakfasts! I watched as the waitress carried them past me to other tables. Vibrant smoothies, plates piled high with waffles and crispy bacon, all over-ridden by the heavy fragrance of the full cooked.

We ordered. “Large black coffee, please, milk on the side.”

“Would that be a long black?”

“Yes, if that’s a large black coffee. With milk on the side.”

And so to the breakfast, the thick granary toast with pristine poached eggs bursting, buttercup-yellow, onto the plate. And the coffee.

Ah, the coffee. “Excuse me, I thought I asked for a large black coffee.”

“You ordered a long black coffee madam. This is a long black coffee. It’s the largest we have.”

The coffee was black, at least. But it was half the size of a normal cup of tea (albeit slightly larger than the tiny espresso which graced the next table) and it packed a real punch, a shot of caffeine that could wake you from a coma. It was a brutal, mean-minded sergeant-major of a coffee; and I like to be eased into my mornings.

I got over it. Sort of. The rest of the breakfast was terrific but that small-minded, vicious blast of caffeine undermined the experience. It’s detail you see. Detail is a vital thing, something which can make or break a narrative or a character just as much as it can make or break a relationship or a holiday. (That view of the car park when you wanted one of the sea? It’s a detail you overlooked.)

I confess that I can be sloppy about the details in my writing. I should take more time to see my characters clearly, more time to think about what they do and why they do it - and how. But today was a revelation and one that I don’t think I’ll forget until I find somewhere that can serve me a large black coffee to caress me awake.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

News on the Next Book

Who wouldn't be inspired? Majorca rocks...
So…almost a year after my first novel, Thank You For The Music, was accepted by Tirgearr Publishing, and just five months after its publication, I’ve signed a contract for my next novel.

Did I think it would be different? Did I think I might be blasé about it? (“Hmm…oh, yes. Just another contract, nothing to fuss about.”) No, I didn’t. It doesn’t feel quite the same because, let’s be honest, NOTHING beats the buzz of first understanding that you’re going to be published except for that moment when you actually are. But oh, it still feels good.

I’ll tell you a little about this one, just as a teaser. No Time Like Now is, like Thank You For The Music before it, set in the north east of Majorca, this time just outside the town of Puerto Pollensa. Unlike TYFTM it’s romantic suspense rather than plain romance. Our heroine is a housekeeper at a university field centre but when a researcher turns up for a month’s fieldwork, her cosy life is disrupted…because he’s her old flame and the two of them broke up very, very nastily some years before.

It brings together a lot of the things I love. Romantic suspense fiction is the first of them. I still have all my old Mary Stewart books, tattered and read to bits. (Maybe I should think about replacing them.) I like to read and write in all sorts of genres but Mary Stewart caught my attention early (The Moon Spinners is the first I read, and still my favourite) with her exotic locations and desperate situations.

Majorca is the second, happily fulfilling the requirement for an exotic location while giving me the excuse to justify a holiday with the writer’s claim of ‘collecting material’. I have good ideas there, usually when I’m sitting in the sun and staring across the Mediterranean, too idle to do anything but let my imagination run wild in those otherwise barren hours between the afternoon ice cream and the pre-dinner drinks.

The third is rocks. Geography, geology, earth science…whatever. And Majorca has lots of rocks. It has lots of caves, too, and lots of secret places (some of which I’ve invented but I’ll talk about that at a later date). Add that to the mix and see what you get.

So it’s a sort of new venture for me. I just hope, when it comes out, that you like it.

Friday, 6 June 2014

(Not) on the Road Again

No cycling for me today!
Image credit: Paul Downey
I used to be a regular, enthusiastic, cyclist. By ‘regular’ I mean five times a week and by ‘enthusiastic' I mean at least 15 miles a day. I would see the children out of the front door on the way to school, hop on my bike and do all my various errands. I’d cycle to a supermarket (not always the same one and quite often one on the other side of town). I might pick up someone’s new glasses or return some library books or meet a friend for coffee and I’d do it the long way round. Come rain, come shine - though if it was wet AND windy I might think twice.

It was a bit over the top, I suppose, and in the end I couldn’t really justify the time so I started going to the gym instead - much more efficient. There I found my gym buddies and began to meet them, five days a week, come rain or shine. And so the cycling, so to speak, fell by the wayside.

This morning, on a beautiful sunny day, I got my bike out of the garage, pumped up the tyres and, all set to go, gave the brakes a quick check. And that was the end of my bike ride as somehow something had caught my front brake as my bike rested quietly in the garage - and ripped it right off.

As I sat drinking my morning coffee and musing on my frustration, it dawned on me that one of the reasons I used to love cycling so much was that it had a hugely enhancing effect on my creativity. I might be cycling for a couple of hours a day, mainly on quiet paths where not  lot of concentration was required.

I saw things I don’t normally see. I saw a man standing on the bank of the river practising tai chi. I saw squirrels and birds and (occasionally) rats. I may have seen a mink (or an otter). I looked down into people’s back gardens as I whizzed past on the old railway. Once, over a period of several weeks, I saw a woman sitting in the same place on an old railway platform. Every time I passed she was there, just sitting. Middle-aged, smartly dressed, she was always there when I cycled out and gone by the time I came back. Then one day she wasn’t there and I never saw her again. What was that about?

And all these things - and my cycling, of course - tied themselves up into ideas and scenes or even just flash images which appear in my fiction. Some are stories still to be written, characters still to be created.

I don’t want to abandon my gym buddies, but I think I might have to get back on that bike.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Old Fashioned or Badly-Written?

Often, when I’m struggling to motivate myself to write, I take the obvious step. I read.

This week it was PD James and Death Comes to Pemberley. As it’s a long time since I read any PD James and even longer since I read Pride and Prejudice, I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

I should say at the outset that this isn’t a book review, but a rambling reflection on writing. PD James is a terrific crime writer but it did seem to me, as I read on, that she seemed to be breaking every rule in the book.

Never use passive voice. Unless you’re PD James, it appears, in which case Darcy and Elizabeth can settle down once logs have been thrown on the fire. Those who know better than I do repeat the mantra (I do it myself) of show not tell - but DCTP is full of telling not showing. And reported speech instead of direct speech… the book is awash with that.

Actually, I’m not sure that it’s any poorer for any one of those things, once in a while.  I’m not hung up on the rules that people constantly turn out for writers, because not only can you always find places where authors break the rules and it works (or adhere to them so painfully that it quite clearly doesn’t) but because the rules change.

Take adverbs, for example. These days the adverb is a sinner, the devil we should excise from the detail of our work. But I like adverbs, in moderation. Of course they can be unnecessary (she whispered quietly) and of course sometimes we use them because we’re too lazy to think of an alternative. But occasionally it occurs to me that it’s more elegant to use a single word to express oneself. ‘Angrily’, I would argue, is probably at least as good as ‘in an angry voice’ and so on.

Back to PD James and the writer’s rules. Death Comes to Pemberley struck me as an old book, rather dated, perhaps lacking a little in drama with all that reported speech. And of course there’s a problem in writing a sequel to a classic like Pride and Prejudice because the reader will expect the same characters even though (like Charlotte Lucas) they are irrelevant to the story. Nevertheless the author has to include them, and their background, and so they become part of a back story that can’t be left unsaid, even though the book might be improved if it were.

It did strike me that the way we write changes rapidly, almost too rapidly. Readers expect things and we have to deliver. I enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley, for all its old-fashioned feel (in its style, not in its substance); but I can’t help wondering whether, had it been written by an unknown, it would have found a publisher.  Though I have to say, I’m glad it did.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Cinderella, You Shall Go to the Ball!

This is not a question I ask very often…but what am I going to wear?

It’s less than two weeks until the Romantic Novelists’ Association summer party and Cinderella is going to the ball. Yes, I have my ticket booked down to London and I’m off to meet up with a few old friends, several virtual friends and (I hope) make a whole host of new ones.

Sometimes being a writer is a lonely business. I’m lucky. I have plenty of boots on the ground, so to speak. There’s always someone in an online group who will offer me advice or sympathise with a rejection, and when I’m in that land of the lost dark Alone where only writers go I can always find someone to meet me for a coffee and keep me company in the wilderness.

So far, however, I haven’t been a great networker. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never really thought of myself as a writer and so the trip to RNA or other events in London, or even in Penrith, are just too much of an indulgence in terms of time and money. Of course I wanted to, and of course I looked at the calendar and thought ‘maybe I’ll go to that…next year’. And, of course, I never did.

This year is different. Coming through the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme means that Thank You For The Music is eligible for the annual Joan Hessayon Award. And so I get a ticket to the summer party in London. I get to rub shoulders with some terrific romantic novelists. I get to meet all this lovely people. I get to have my photograph taken with the other lovely contenders. And that means I get to panic about what to wear.

My purple sparkly dress. I love that. But is it too purple? Is it too sparkly? Is it a little too Christmassy? And the blue check one -  I like that too but maybe it’s a little bit frumpy? That lovely fuchsia one I had for Rebecca’s wedding doesn’t fit any more and actually I don’t wear dresses very often so if there’s anything suitable in the back of the wardrobe the moths will have got it.

So that means a shopping trip. Shame, eh? A dirty job but it has to be done.

I’ll let you know what happens…

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Too Much Information - More Thoughts on Historical Research

I said I’d come back to the subject of historical research and here I am.

At the moment I’m reading Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms, about the mystery of Belvoir Castle. I’m about a hundred pages in and to be honest most of those first hundred pages seems to have been about her research process rather than what she found. I confess: I’ve starting skipping bits so that we get to the mystery more quickly. (Do we really need to know what the weather was on that day she first skimmed her card through the automatic door into the National Archives at Kew? Or where she met the Duchess for an interview?)

Research is a funny thing. If you’ve done it properly your reader shouldn’t notice. If you’ve done it badly, we certainly will. Ms Bailey is writing non-fiction, of course; but she made me realise that in both fact and fiction you shouldn’t allow yourself to intrude. I want to know about the people involved in this great mystery and we’re slow getting to the point.

Up to a point I sympathise. After all those hours of research it must be tempting to use as many fascinating snippets of information as possible, even if either they aren’t directly relevant to the project in hand, or you have five quotes which will illustrate your point (especially if you only need one).

Back to Ullapool Museum and Mrs Fraser’s records of the men of Lochbroom who went off to the Great War. She included, as far as she was able, every single one of them. We know their war records, their families, their education. For some of them we know very much more.

The Fowlers of Inverbroom Estate lost two sons. Because they were the gentry their deaths were more extensively reported than those of the estate workers (unfair, I know, but this is a piece about historic research not social justice). Captain Alan Fowler’s life and his return in death are outlined in a long and detailed piece in the local paper. The grieving widow, the assembled dignitaries, the elderly gardener who served three generation of the family at Inverbroom House - they’re all there in Ullapool Museum.

On the way back south we passed Inverbroom Lodge. You can just about see it through the trees. And if you have the imagination you can see the community assembled for the funeral, the perfect set
ting for a story, perhaps, about those of whom we know little.

I’m still not sure that I have the staying power for that kind of research, but I may yet give historical fiction a go. Fact or fiction, however, I’ll try not to let the many things I discover over-ride the story. Catherine Bailey - please take note.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Just Too Lazy To Write Historicals...

I don’t write historical fiction, or not at great length; and I have nothing but admiration for those who do. It isn’t that I don’t find inspiration in historic places, or characters, or time because the opposite is true.

I’ve had a couple of short stories published with historic settings and over the years I’ve invented plots and crafted characters in Jacobite Scotland and in post-World War I England, alongside a rather nifty (if I say it myself) time-slip. But even as I amused myself on car journeys by indulging in quite complex characterisation for these ideas, I knew that I would never even attempt to write any of them.

It’s because I’m too lazy. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this elsewhere. I regularly read books set in the past and I pick out the anachronisms, some of them horrendous. Sometimes I even go and look up the date that the first snowdrop was imported into the British Isles (it’s the early sixteenth century by the way, so your Celtic hero couldn’t have handed a bunch to his love).

These mistakes irritate me and I don’t to be someone who makes them, even though I’ve never been one to let a minor detail get in the way of my plot and I regularly shift geography round to suit my purposes. But I can’t bear the idea of galloping through a full-length novel without knowing what kind of saddle belonged in what place at what time, or how long it would take to travel from Paris to London in 1820; and the effort involved in following these up is just too great.

I won’t say all this changed on a recent visit to Ullapool Museum, way up in the north of Scotland, but I did stop and think. With time to kill I sat down on an old church pew and began to leaf through some of the documents available there. It’s an amazing resource. Photocopies of old parish records, school rolls, newspapers, bills, fishery accounts, old maps and so on, all valuable to the public for reference.

I’ll write at a later date about the detail of what I found in those fifteen minutes or so, but  was very struck by its richness. Here’s just one example: in 1921 a Mrs Fraser collated information on every local soldier lost in the Great War - their photos, their war records, names of other members of their families who served, comments for their friends and excerpts from the letters sent by their commanding officers (many of whom will have met the same fate in their turn).

Both moving and richly rewarding, it’s the kind of thing that made me think that historical research is not so dull and dry after all.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Novel in a Nutshell - the Curse of the Synopsis

Trying ot get your novel in a nutshell? Good luck!
Photo by potkettle, Wikimedia Commons
Oh, how I hate synopses!

You have, say, 90,000 words in your novel and the synopsis is to be no more than a page (two, if you’re lucky). Say that’s a 500-word synopsis. You have to lose 89,500 of your total, precious words that you’ve spent the last several months crafting into something worthy of the name ‘novel’. Ditching the words for numbers for once, that means you have to cut your novel to less than 0.6% of its original length. Ouch.

Let’s just think about your story. How many characters do you have? Maybe twenty? And okay, only two of those are the hero and heroine but then you have the villain and the hero’s vengeful ex-girlfriend and the heroine’s ailing mother, not to mention her needy best friend and the false romantic lead. So that’s seven, the absolute minimum you have to get in those 500 words, all of whom have to be introduced.

Oh, and you can’t tackle the key plot twist without introducing that other character (perhaps the hero’s twin brother who’s in the army and is unexpectedly home on leave) who isn’t in himself significant but who has to be in there because without him and his background that clever twist you introduced to the plot will just sound plain implausible.

Even allowing for this it might not be quite so daunting if it was a straightforward telling of the story but it isn’t. You have to make sure that you get the character’s motivations in, otherwise the stupid and misguided things they do will just appear… well, stupid and misguided. (because obviously he only did whatever it was because his childhood experience of poverty leads him to place a false value on money which our heroine has to understand before she can help to overcome him.)

My particular bugbear is that I have to give away the clever twists in my plot. Whether I’m approaching a publisher or submitting to a competition - how can anyone recognise my talent with the twist in the tale or appreciate my cliffhanging situations when they know what’s going to happen in the end? I only pray they read the synopsis last.

So how do you tackle this monstrous task? There are those who say that you should do it first so that you can get to the crux of your story. Then there are those who say you should do it last because your story is bound to change out of all recognition and you’ll just have to do it again. I’ve tried both ways; I’ve even tried writing it in the middle. Trust me; no way is any easier than any other.

It’s a necessary evil, of course, but word for word it takes more effort and energy than that full-length novel. A whole novel, in less than the length of a blog post? Of all the parts of my writing it’s the one I hate most.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five Star Me!

I write, I read. I review. The first is easy, the second less so. The third is the most difficult of the lot.

It ought to the the easiest, because someone else has done the hard work and turning out a review (Amazon likes them short but I don’t think this does a book justice, alas) takes very little time. Yet somehow, it’s something I don’t seem able to get my head round.

In real life, of course, I review all the time. “You must read this book,” I tell my friends; or, if they ask me what they should take on holiday I might think about what I’ve just finished and shake my head: “I don’t think I’d bother with that.” Or (because reviews like this are very personal: “I loved it but I don’t think it’s your type of book.”

I was brought up with the mantra that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. So, if I can’t in all conscience give a book five stars I won’t review it. This brings problems of its own because I don’t really have time time to review all the books I’ve read so there are plenty of five-star books out there that I haven’t got round to reviewing - and not a few friends will now be chewing their fingernails thinking I didn’t like their book when actually something else came between me and the Amazon page just at the wrong moment.

At this point I’m in a trap of my own making. If I only give books five stars, and I only review books by my friends, then then it looks as if I’m giving the book five stars because they’re by my friends. But because I choose books I think I’ll like, most of the books I read would get a review of at least four stars anyway. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother.

The first book I reviewed was Anne Stenhouse’s Bella’s Betrothal. I didn’t intend to read it because I’m not really into Regency but I bought it because Anne’s a friend and when I read it it surprised me and made me laugh. Five stars. Then it was Jenny Harper’s Face the Wind and Fly. I’ve watched this book creep through different edits and different tiles, battle with self-publishing and emerge the other side. And it’s a good book. Truly it is. Five stars again.

Two more five stars are coming up, for Myra Duffy’s Endgame at Port Bannatyne and John Erwin’s The Last Will and Testimony of Jedediah P Carpenter. And maybe I’ll try and extend my reviewing, and try and be a bit more brutal as I do so, or even review books by complete strangers. Watch this space…

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Who Do You Think You Are?

No cats were harmed in the process of writing.
Sometimes you have to laugh.

A friend bought my book and sat down to read it. Her boyfriend was sitting next to her. The conversation, as I understand it, went something like this:
He: “What are you reading?”
She: “Jennifer’s book.”
He (looking at the cover): “But…I thought you said she went to church.”

They do say that you should write about what you know and the corollary of this is the old question: is it about you? Now, to be clear. My book is not a dirty book; it’s not even a naughty book. In technical terms it falls somewhere between 'sweet' and 'sensuous'. And what you see on my lovely cover (I can say that because I didn’t design it) is actually pretty harmless. A couple, he with his arm around her. Okay, she’s wearing a skimpy top but then again it’s Majorca in the summer so anything more would be odd. And what you see on the cover is pretty much what you get in the book.

The question of whether a book is autobiographical is a fascinating one. In my case the answer, which is obvious to anyone who knows me, is a clear no. Abby’s story is not mine.

But the thing which intrigued me about the conversation above is not the autobiographical-or-other debate (though I suspect I’ll return to that regularly in the future because there’s much to be said about it). It’s the implication that you can’t write about certain things if you’re a certain (other) type of person.

Well, I’ve written about murders and I’m not a murderer. I’ve written about suicides and I’m still here. Essentially what a writer does is take human nature and explore it; and human nature is on a sliding scale. For example, most of the time I internalise my frustrations and though sometimes I take them out on my nearest and dearest, I’ve never yet kicked the cat. But I can extrapolate those feelings to kicking the kitty and worse if my plot requires it.

I would say that you don’t have to experience something in all its horrors to be able to write about it - though I’m sure some people would disagree. But it may be true that you write about it better if you have.

If you read my book you might think you recognise me in Abby but you won’t. Actually I am in there, but I don’t think you’ll spot me. And maybe there are people out there who recognise themselves in my writing but aren’t there either. But, reader, that’s for another post…

Friday, 7 March 2014

Stuck for a plot? Listen...

Jimmy, are you there?
Image by Callflier001 from Wikimedia (CC licence)
Two weeks on, I’m still wondering about some of the snippets of conversation I overheard on my train journey. Did Debs’ dad ever confront her sister to her face, or did Debs have the courage to do it for him? Did Jimmy lose his job in the carrot factory? And - perhaps more immediately - did he ever find his way to the pub in Preston?

I would guess he didn’t, as he was a little hazy about which pub he was supposed to be going to and he seemed to be having some trouble getting through to his friends on his phone. He wouldn’t have got off at Preston at all if some kindly onlooker hadn’t reminded him that it was his stop; and actually he was lucky to make it to to the right station (assuming it was the right one, of course) because he was nearly left behind at Carlisle after stepping out onto the platform for a quick smoke.

On such strange and sometimes shaky foundations, plots are built. They change. Of course they change. Instead of a middle-aged male drunk, choose a bereaved/jilted/unwell young woman. The kindly passenger of fact is a trickster in fiction. And the stop that could have been Preston is a village in the middle of nowhere with fog rolling in from the moors. Oh, and and there’s no train out until next Wednesday.

Is it a romance? Is it a thriller? Is it a ghost story? Is it Wuthering Heights for a digital age? As a reader you’re at the mercy of your author but as a story-teller (and, by the way, anyone can be a story-teller whether they write it down or not) you have control.

Go back and change any element of this embryonic plot - perhaps it isn’t a village station but a bustling city where your protagonist doesn’t speak the language - and it’ll take you somewhere totally different. Or use the elements as they are and change it going forward. It snows/there’s an earthquake/she gets run over by a horse and cart and wakes up in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter. Do what you want. It’s your story now.

So, here’s my writer’s tip for this post. Never waste a snippet of information.  You don’t have to look far for a plot. Look at the people around you and think ‘what if?’; and don’t be afraid to change what you heard.

But Jimmy, if you’re out there…I’d love to know whether you made it safely or whether your trip to Lancashire turned into a real adventure.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

All About The Journey

Image credit: Elliot Brown (via Wikimedia Commons)
Why is it that when you have time to write…you can’t?

I don’t often travel by train, much though I love it. And the idea of two six hour train journeys in rapid succession fulfilled some of my (rather odd) fantasies of being unencumbered. No chores, no distractions. Just time to write.

I got nothing done on the first of these journeys but that was okay. I didn’t have a table seat (though I’d specifically requested one) and in any case there were too many people around having interesting conversations. Some of  them I engaged with; some of them I just listened to, my mind boggling, from behind my paper. (Note to self: always take a broadsheet on the train because no-one can see you listening.) “Deb’s just so two-faced. Even Dad says she’s a bitch. So why does nobody ever listen to me?” Well, I was listening, though I didn’t like to say so.

On the return journey I got my table seat. It wasn’t even crowded. I could spread myself out  bit. This is a writer’s dream world, encapsulated on a Virgin train. I opened up the work In progress, the one that’s been marinating for a month or so and was ripe for revision. Turned to page 1.

Let me tell you something I bet you didn’t know. Northamptonshire’s an interesting place. Pretty wet, like the rest of the country at the moment. But it’s green, too. And a bit of water lying in the fields really shows up the contours of the landscape.

That low sun, too (I was travelling in the late afternoon). It cast just the right sort of shadows, those long low ones. You can see the lumps and bumps in the fields; those are the remains of medieval three field systems. Bet you didn’t know that. It’s an old landscape and for once, from the train, I could see it. And that’s funny - there was a whole field, a huge field, full of caravans. And next to it was a canal basin full of parked narrowboats.

The train followed the canal. Time was too precious to waste as the scenery flashed by. Blink and I’d miss it. I could write when I got bored of the scenery. And if I didn’t get bored I’d write when it got dark.

And so on, and so forth. I didn’t get bored and by the time it got dark (somewhere near Warrington) I was too comfortable to sit up straight.  And anyway, the seat height on these trains is wrong for typing at the table height. Even sliding the mouse around on the table (it stuck, by the way) brought on a tightness in my shoulders which I knew wouldn’t take long to morph into pain.

So I never did get any actual writing done. I just sat back and listened to everyone around me, closed my eyes and did that thing that writers do when they’re doing nothing. I gathered material.

Still, at least I got  blog post out of it….

You’ll find me on Twitter as @JYnovelist, on Facebook, on LinkedIn….

Thursday, 6 February 2014


It’s D-Day. Or, more accurately, P-Day. That’s P for Publication, by the way, not Pay or Party or any other P. (I’m sure you can think of some of your own.) It seems no time at all since Thank You For The Music was nothing more than an idea in a coffee cup on a holiday in Majorca and now it’s available for anyone with an e-reader, for less than the price of a magazine.

P is also for promotion. These days publishing isn’t enough. I suppose that’s progress, and maybe it isn’t a bad thing. We aren’t in the Victorian era, when individuals published interesting monographs at their own expense and circulated them widely among their friends. There are so many books available now - self-published or otherwise - that if you want your work to be noticed you have to tell people. And we all want our work to be noticed. We want our work to be admired.

Times change and we move with them. To tell l the truth I’m a little bit scared of promotion. There’s Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, and author pages on Facebook and Amazon and Smashwords. There’s blogging. But actually I like blogging; it’s just like writing a diary.

When I stop and think about it, digital media are the way I find out about books I want to read, even if I go into a bookshop to buy. They’re the way I find out about other things that interest me, such as whether my my team conceded the usual last-minute goal or what the current state of thinking is on the rogue wether we’ve been having. And it’s how I find out what my friends are doing too. And if I don’t want to know something I don’t follow it through - but I can’t say it isn’t there if I ant to see it.

In fact, if I want to know something these days, the chances are it’s digital media I turn to first. If I use these sources to pick up information, why not use them to communicate it? What’s left to do but embrace it?

You’ll find me on Twitter as @JYnovelist, on Facebook, on LinkedIn….

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Counting Down...

I’m counting down. Right now it’s less than a week until Thank You For The Music is available on Amazon. Five days until I stop being a would-be writer and become a real one. With an author page on Facebook and one on Amazon and, and a book that anyone with access to the Kindle Store can download for more or less the price of a glossy magazine.

I don’t mind admitting that I find that more than a little scary. It’s bad enough putting your darling out to agents and publishers and having them turn it down, even when it’s turned down with rave rejections. (And let’s face it, rejection is the bedrock of every writer’s life experience.) And then the moment comes when someone likes it. It’s as if your little one has won the bonny baby contest, the moment that you know that it isn’t just you who thinks that what you’ve produced is, after all, publishable.

But writers, as everyone who’s ever had to live with one is only too acutely aware, are sensitive souls, insecure to the point of paranoia. We lurch from crisis to crisis, every up followed by a down. Now there’s a new challenge ahead. The public.

Fine, the publisher liked it. The editor liked it. My friends who read the early drafts liked it (or they said they did) and I know without being told that my mum will LOVE the final version, if only because she’s my mum. But what about you, the person browsing the Kindle store for a good holiday read, seduced by the blurb and the cover. Will you like it?

I want you to love it. I want you to settle down on a grey February afternoon or evening, e-reader in your hand and a box of chocs at your elbow like a modern-day version of Jo March from Little Women. I want you to be lost in it, be transported to the sunny climate of the Mediterranean. I yearn for you to agonise with poor jilted Abby, root for her when she has to choose between stable, sensible Edward and idle charmer Rafa. And I'm just desperate for you to tell all your friends how much you liked it and for you - and them -  to keep checking to see when the next book is out.

Why? It isn't vanity, or commerce. The reason writers write is not to make money. It’s because they can’t help it and in order to justify their very existence they need someone to tell them that everything was worth it. They - and I, because now I’m one of them - just want to be loved.

I’ve done my bit. And now it’s over to you...

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Monday, 6 January 2014

My Writing Process Blog Tour

This week I’ve been invited to join the My Writing Process blog tour by my friend Kate Blackadder. Kate writes short fiction and is widely published in women’s magazines: you’ll find her at

I don’t often think much about how I write so the questions the blog tour asks proved very stimulating.

What am I working on?

I’m looking forward to the publication of my first novel, Thank You For The Music, on 20 February (Tirgearr Publishing) and so I’m starting to deal with the promotional and admin side of the publication process - watch this space for a peek at the cover!

In terms of the writing side, at the moment I’m coming to what I hope is the end of my NaNoWriMo novel from November. Tentatively titled No Time Like Now, it’s a romantic suspense - my first in the genre - set in Majorca. The hero is a geologist who discovers something very nasty during the course of his research, and ends up relying on my heroine for rescue. Pity they fell out, very, very messily, some years before…

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m going to say that I think I write about real people. I know everybody says that but I’m trying to move a little away from the stereotypes usually associated with romantic novelists and make my characters a little more real. Of course this runs the risk that they may not meet readers’ expectations of a romance novel, but I’m prepared to take a chance.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I can’t help it! I’m very strongly influenced by places and often find that when I arrive somewhere new - whether it’s on holiday, on business or just by accident - I want to write about it. (I have a background in geography and Earth science and I do some travel writing so perhaps that’s inevitable.) But as for writing what I do - I write pretty much anything. In my life I’ve tried everything from literary fiction to romance to crime, with varying degrees of success. But romance and romantic suspense is where I am right now, and I’m loving it.

How does your writing process work?

Just as the nature of my writing varies, so does the process. Sometimes I’ll spend many months teasing out characters, writing, rewriting and changing my mind before abandoning the whole project. Other times I sit down and write a novel. (It really is as simple as that.) For my current piece, I had the idea while on holiday, when two characters from many years before finally met and found a plot. I roughed out the synopsis, started on November 1 and had the first draft finished within two weeks and revised by the end of the month. Pity it isn’t always this easy….

Who’s up next? 

Well, it’s two of my colleagues from Tiregearr, Troy Lambert and Kate Robbins.

Troy Lambert began his writing life at a very young age, penning the as yet unpublished George and the Giant Castle at age six. He grew up in Southern Idaho, and after many adventures including a short stint in the US Army and a diverse education, Troy returned to Idaho, and currently resides near Boise.

Troy works as a freelance writer, researcher, and editor. He writes historical site characterization reports, software instruction and help guides, and edits both fiction and non-fiction. His true passion is writing dark, psychological thrillers. His work includes Broken Bones, a collection of his short stories, Redemption the first in the Samuel Elijah Johnson Series, Temptation the sequel to Redemption, along with the horror Satanarium, co-authored with Poppet, a brilliant author from South Africa and published by Wild Wolf Publishing. He has stories in several anthologies including the partially for charity Happily Ever Afterlife published by Untold Press. His newest novel Stray Ally will be released by Tirgearr Publishing this spring. 

Troy lives with his wife of twelve years, two of his five children and two very talented dogs. He is a skier, cyclist, hiker, fisherman, hunter, and a terrible beginning golfer. 

Author Website:

Kate Robbins writes historical romance novels out of pure escapism and a love for all things Scottish, not to mention a life-long enjoyment of reading romance. Her journey into storytelling began with a short screenplay she wrote, directed, and produced which was screened at the 2003 Nickel Film Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She has also written and directed several stage plays for youth.

Kate loves the research process and delving into secondary sources in order to give readers the most authentic historical romance possible. She has travelled to Scotland and has visited the sites described in her Highland Chiefs series.

Bound to the Highlander is the first of three books set during the early fifteenth century during the reign of James Stewart, first of his name.

Kate is the pen name of Debbie Robbins who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada with her hubby, the man-beast, and her two awesome boys, the man-cubs. You’ll find her blog at