Thursday, September 30, 2010

Teaching and learning

I've just come back from a few days teaching a residential course on writing commercial women's fiction. It was held in the Oxfordshire countryside, at a manor house which is over 700 years old in parts. Now it's a Quaker retreat, and it's a quiet, contemplative, inspiring place which I love returning to.

But I was most inspired by the authors on the course. Most of them were working on their first novel, though some were on their second or third; they were all looking to learn the techniques and craft that would help them get their work published. It was my job to teach them.

I'm crazy with work right now; I've got a 500-page novel to revise, with a tight deadline and a lot of research to feed in. But it's just so good to spend time with hard-working, passionate people, talking about reading and writing. I love going through the basics of our craft: the essentials of character, conflict, pacing and style. Talking about process, the high points and the low points. I know all this stuff already, or I wouldn't be teaching it, but every time I do teach it, I learn something new.

At several moments we were talking about someone's work and suddenly the air fizzed with ideas. That weird and wonderful alchemy when creativity and talent and graft pool together.

I'm feeling energised and ready to get back to my own work, now, and that tight deadline.

What's helped you to learn the most, recently?

Come back on Sunday, when Anna Louise Lucia will be posting.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Princes in Disguise

Recently, over at All About Romance, a thread started up about happier endings and tragic ones, and the discussion digressed, as it sometimes will do, to a lively debate about Jo in the book Little Women -- specifically, whether Jo's choosing Professor Bhaer over the younger, more passionate Laurie was really a true happy ending. I argued it was. And not only because he was played in the movie by Gabriel Byrne, so that now I imagine him looking like this..

...because let's face it, Laurie was not such a bad-looking guy in the film, either.

No, it's because the professor is one of those heroes I love best: a prince in disguise.

I coin the phrase from Carly Simon's lyrics to The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of, in which she claims the 'slow and steady fire' can outshine 'shooting stars', and asks straight out, 'What if the Prince on the horse in your fairytale/Is right here in disguise?' Those lyrics impressed me so much, by the way, when I first heard that song, that I hid my next hero in plain sight in front of the reader (and heroine), just to see whether they'd notice. Most didn't. The heroine nearly walked past him herself.

She was looking, as we all so often are, for what the fairy tales have promised us: a dashing, handsome, charming prince, with style and status, money and a white horse (or at least a flashy car).

And while we're looking for him, often we don't see the prince in front of us: the one without the flashy car. The one whose charms are quieter. The one who doesn't need to call attention to himself because he's self-assured and solid and dependable.

I've loved these men so often now in fiction, from Jake Waring in Lucilla Andrews's The First Year to "the guy who gets the girl" (can't spoil it) in Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, that I nearly always spot them when I see them, standing patiently and waiting.

And I always love the moment when the heroine turns round and sees them, too.

What about you?

Come back Thursday, for Julie's next post.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Refilling The Well

No matter how wonderful writing is. No matter how much it feels wonderful when it is going well, sometimes you find the well is dry. Or if not dry at least a little low.

Now it is tempting when the well is dry to start digging to see if you can't find some underground reservoir. You dig deeper and deeper but all you do is stir up mud. Instead why not sit back and think of ways of filling your well.

There are many different ways of filling the well. There are the basics; sleep, food and exercise... never underestimate these, if you are physically drained you won't be in a fit state to keep the well filled. Other than that there are a variety of different ways to fill the well going to the theatre, watching films, listening to music and of course the most important reading.

My favourite ways to fill my well other than reading and watching films are spending quality time with people. Hanging out with good friends chewing the fat or in the case of this weekend ogling Tudor dudes in tights with Julie Cohen. Another of my favourite ways to fill the well is to get away somewhere for the weekend, I highly recommend Cumbria (and Anna's hospitality). Oh and who can forget the well filling joy of kayaking on Frenchman's Creek?

So how do you refill your well?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Spark

The past week I have been assisting a book festival find authors to attend. This in itself is a tremendous treat, but not what this post is about. The topic came from a discussion with one of the possible authors. She asked me what would she talk about...

So I told the writer in question she could talk about why she wrote the book or how the idea for it came to her. This author writes non-fiction which is a slightly different kettle of fish to fiction but...the spark, the trigger could be similar. The magic of inspiration has been on my mind since most of mine comes from Cornwall and being physically present there works a treat by seeming to pull random pieces together.

A strange incident in evening dusk occurred in our garden (after enjoying some wine with my husband), which gave me the title for a book I didn't know I intend to write...once I knew without a doubt what this title was...well other pieces seem to fall into place - almost like magic.

This hasn't been the first time. August Rock, my first book (that I'm willing to own up to) began by looking at the marine charts in our boat. The scene was a glorious summer's day as we were bouncing across Falmouth Bay at the mouth of the Helford River. I shout to my husband, "What's August Rock?".

He pointed to a green buoy in the distance.
"So, what is it?"
"It's a rock that only appears above the surface of the water in the very low tides of August."
"Sounds like the title of a book." I said.
"It does." he agreed.

That was the seed, which over the next two weeks in Cornwall grew (from drinks one evening at house overlooking the Helford, a ghost, and my daughter's lavender pin-tuck dress). So that by the time I was driving back to London they had mingled in my brain and I had basic plot of the story of August Rock in my head.

Having clearly explained how simple it can be, it never ceases to amaze me the alchemy that occurs in writers brains. I never tire of hearing how a story got it's spark or how 'the uncle' walked out of the closet and took over the story at the half way point when he was never planned in the first place....

For writers do your sparks come out of the blue or when you do some activity or visit a place...? For readers is there a book for which you would love to know where the inspiration came from?

Please stop by on Thursday and when Biddy is in charge.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Canines take over

Recently someone asked me whether the two dogs mentioned in my novel are based on my real life pooches. Of course they are! It’s so much easier to write about what you know after all. I didn’t really mean to include them though, they just kind of crept into the story when I wasn’t looking. This made me wonder how many other authors are tempted to include their pets in their manuscripts? Or even include pets at all? I can think of lots of books that feature dogs, but hardly any where a cat plays a leading role or a hamster, guinea pig and so on. The only one that sprang to mind starring a bird was Kiki the parrot from Enid Blyton’s Adventure series, but I’m sure there must be lots of others.

Dogs can so easily steal the show in books. Man’s best friend only needs to make a tiny appearance, and we remember them, sometimes long after we’ve forgotten the other characters. There is something so very appealing about them and they stand out on the page even though their actions have to do their talking for them. And I suppose because they’re easier to train than some other animals, it’s possible to utilise them more to help with the plot. They’re our guardians and loyal companions, they give us sympathy when no one else will and they love us unconditionally no matter what.

Some authors have brilliant canine characters and I think Georgette Heyer was especially good at creating them. Take for example the dog in The Reluctant Widow, who decides to “guard” the heroine to the extent that he won’t let her out of her own study! Then there’s the so called Baluchistan hound (whatever that is?) in Frederica, who causes havoc in the hero’s house because he won’t go with anyone other than the heroine’s brothers. Both wonderful plot devices used to great comic effect.

Katie Fforde’s novel Practically Perfect features greyhounds and who could fail to fall in love with those gentle creatures? They bring the hero and heroine together, as dogs often seem to do in real life (I’ve never had as many strangers talk to me as when I first bought a puppy!). Then there’s Lucy Dillon’s recent Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts, which won the RNA’s Romantic Novel of the Year Award this year.
It features a whole cast of canines, who all win you over, especially the boisterous Basset Hound who makes you want to own one yourself. Apparently Lucy based him on her own Bassett, which might be why it stands out from the others.

As a child, my absolute favourite was Timmy from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series – I made my parents name our first dog after him even though we chose to buy a collie because of the gentle creature in Lassie Come Home. And as an adult, another favourite was Tricki Woo, Mrs. Pumphrey’s fat Pekinese in All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, who had to go on diet “holidays” at the vet’s just to be able to move. Whenever I see Pekes now, I think of him and smile.

So do you use your dogs or other pets in your novels and do you find this happens without you even thinking about it, as mine did? And what’s your favourite canine character in other people’s books? I’d love to know. (Also, can anyone think of a novel where a cat saves the day? I can’t, but that might just be because I’m a dog person and therefore slightly biased.)

Don’t forget to come back on Sunday, when Liz will be posting again.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Holiday Reads

I'm very excited, you know. This time next week we'll be on our first proper holiday all year. Oh, the bliss! Discovering new places, spending relaxed time with friends and family. The food, the drink... the sleep.

And the books.

Like most avid readers and writers, I have a To Be Read pile. Once, it was extensive, spread over several bookshelves, boxes, and piles, threatening world domination. These days I seem to have less time, and am a little more discerning with my book budget, so the TBR is a little more manageable. But it still has an important sub-set: the holiday read.

To me, the holiday read isn't a particular genre of book. No, it's all about quality. Those special books I've been waiting for, or from an author I know I'm going to get a great experience from. I want to have space to enjoy them, I want to have guilt-free time to read them in, I want to be relaxed and indulgent and wholly absorbed.

When we go on a camping holiday, the books take up more space in the car than the tent.

This year's holiday reads pile is a mixed bag, historical romance (usually my favourite - I write car chases but I read carriage rides) cheek-by-jowl with contemp women's fiction, sci-fi competing with male-orientated historical adventure. I think I'm most excited about reading Lousie Allen's The Lord and the Wayward Lady and Scot Oden's The Lion of Cairo.

Of course, sometimes my willpower simply isn't up to reserving a read for later: Susanna's Mariana didn't make it as far as the holiday. And, oh, it's good. I mean, really good. *shivers*

So how about you? Are you hanging onto any good books for a special occasion?
Don't forget to join us again on Thursday, when Christina will be posting. See you then!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Wow, it’s nice to finally catch up with you all and post on The Heroine Addicts! I’m in the middle of revisions of my latest wip right now, and am therefore by definition as mad as a box of frogs, but I’ll attempt to make a modicum of sense. Maybe.

A very talented author (who shall remain nameless, but might possibly not be unrelated to this blog—I shall say no more) said to me recently, that she was worried about beginning a project, because she wasn’t sure she could do it justice. It was perfect in her mind, she said, but she was worried that it wouldn’t work in the execution.

I think this is a familiar situation to a lot of us who are creative. We think up a story, or a picture, or a tune which seems utter perfection in our mind. It’s deep, it’s multifaceted, it’s beautiful. But when it comes to writing it down, or drawing it, or picking out the notes, it becomes something less than a dream or an idea. Something real. Something that can fail, and probably will, because how can any reality be as beautiful and perfect as a dream?

My stories always start out like a fizz in my head. They’re vague on details, except for some which are razor-sharp. They’re structurally incoherent, chaotic, exciting, full of infinite potential. And after writing several novels, I feel that my job isn’t to capture exactly this fizz on paper. If I tried to, I’d be endlessly chasing my tail, trying to make something good out of something that’s shapeless and doesn’t really exist. My job is to create something that is similar to the fizz, that has the same feeling to it, that is realistic, that has structure and plot and grammar and that works.

It’s always going to be a bad representation of what I dreamed it would be. The act of creating is, to some extent, always the act of failing to create what you really wanted to.

This could seem sort of depressing, and maybe it is, but actually I find it exciting. As writers, we can strive for perfection, but we can't always reach it. Maybe we never will. We have to do the best we can, right now, and always write with the possibility that we’re going to revise to make it better. Very often, the act of writing refines your original perfect idea, makes it sharper, or more unusual or interesting.

And in lots of important ways, the imperfect reality is better than the perfect dream. A dream stays inside your head, known by you alone. But you can let a real story go into the world and have readers experience it. And—here’s the best bit—a reader never saw your original dream. They don’t know your own personal version of what perfection is. All they see is the little bit of the fizz that you managed to get down on paper.

And maybe that little bit of the fizz will be perfection for them.

How do the stories you’ve written measure up to your dreams of what they will be? When you finish a project, do you feel that you’ve done everything you’d dreamed of doing, or is it a wonderful compromise?

Stay tuned till Sunday, when Anna Louise Lucia will be posting.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


The first time I ever showed a manuscript in progress to my mother, she read it through and handed it back to me with a question about my heroine: "Why," she asked, "isn't her mother calling her?"

The book was Mariana, and my mother, as usual, was absolutely right. I'd had my heroine, Julia, selling her London flat, buying a house in Wiltshire, and having all sorts of adventures, without ever once ringing her parents to tell them about it. In the real world, I knew, my parents would have had quite a lot to say if I'd done likewise. My father, an engineer (shown above with a rather more adorably younger version of me) would have made a close inspection of my newly-purchased house to test its structure, and my mother would have turned up ready to help with the cleaning and wallpapering.

In what amounted to a writerly epiphany, I realized that my characters weren't moving in a real world, where their actions were affected and determined by their families, as my own were. Reading the manuscript over again, even I began wondering why Julia's mother wasn't calling her, and I had to rewrite to account for it. (In the end, I had to send Julia's parents on holiday to New Zealand for part of the story, where they could have opinions but not change the plot..)

Since then, I've tried to take more care when writing so my heroines (and heroes) don't move in a vacuum. Whether the influence of family is positive or negative, it should always be there, even when the family members themselves are absent.

While planning for this post, I asked my mother whether she could think of any great romantic novels in which families played a vital role. It started an interesting discussion, and after considering and ruling out stories where the family was the focus of the story, like The Shell-Seekers, we settled on a book we both loved: Mary Stewart's This Rough Magic.

The heroine, Lucy, is in Corfu to visit her very pregnant sister, Phyl, and although Lucy manages to be Very Busy during her holiday, she can't simply go off and do what she wants when she wants without checking in with Phyl by phone, or giving some account of where she's been. By the same token, the hero, Max (one of my favourite of Mary Stewart's men, I must say), is himself restricted by the fact he's taking care of his recuperating father. Both characters move in a very real world, and their respective family members move the plot forward in very real ways.

What are your favourite families in romantic novels? Do share.

And be sure to check back again Thursday, when Julie Cohen will be making her first post!

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I have been thinking hard about feedback and how to handle it. If you are an unpublished writer and a member of the RNA this feedback is something you get used to it year in year out as a member of the New Writers Scheme (NWS). This scheme means that every year you have the opportunity to submit a manuscript to the scheme to be read by a published author. They give you feedback in the form of a report. If they really love it and think it is ready it gets put forward for a second read which means another author reads it and if they agree with the first the manuscript is forwarded to an agent or a publisher by the RNA. An instant introduction.

This year for the first year ever I actually managed to have a completed manuscript to send in and other than being the first YA novel they had ever had through the scheme I got my feedback very quickly. And this year I had some very good feedback. Things I can work with to take my book further.

But what happens when your feedback isn't what you've hoped for? This can happen through something like the NWS, from a critique partner, an agent or even a publisher. I think learning how to process not so great feedback is one of the biggest learning lessons of being a writer. My first NWS report was a stinker. The heroine was unsympathetic, the hero was wooden, the plot ridiculous but there was one grain in there which kept me going... I could write a kiss. Phew! But I do remember crying as I read the report. I remember throwing it across the room. I just about remember getting drunk at the pub. A few days later I picked it up again and read through it again. And this time I took it in. I understood that the report was exactly what I needed to see. I had a long way to go.

Over the years I have learnt more from having people comment on my work than I have from anything else. When someone highlights that one problem that you hoped you had hidden with sleight of hand and a fancy smokescreen and you have to admit to yourself that you still have a long way to go. Or to that wonderful feeling when someone tells you they loved something you wrote.

However I have heard some horror stories of people not dealing with feedback very well. Of sulks and temper tantrums. If you don't agree with what someone has said thank them politely and then ignore it.

Do you ask for feedback? What do you do if you don't agree with it?

Come back on Sunday when Susanna will be posting