Saturday, 6 August 2016

More catch up and an MA in Creative Writing

Sorry I've ignored the blog for so long. As you all saw in my last post, we've been battling with Den's cancer.

Three weeks ago he finished a course of radiotherapy, and since then it's been a bit up and down. He has started eating solids again, which is a good thing, but unfortunately he still has days when he can't keep anything down. We see the doctor again next week (on my birthday of all days), to discuss further options, including chemotherapy.

But at the moment we're taking the view that he's still here, he's still functioning fairly well, so we're not ready to give up just yet. We know he can't be cured, but we can work on keeping him here for as long as possible. It's a bit 'one step forward/two steps back' around here, but we keep on going and are trying our best to carry on as normal (whatever normal is).

With this in mind, I've signed up to do an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University, which starts in October. I have ten years to complete the course, so if I do have to take time out to care for Den, I can still return to the course later. The MA CW is something I've always wanted to do, and thankfully new funding rules have made it possible for me to do this.

I'm a bit excited and not a little bit nervous! I was talking on Facebook yesterday about whether my particular brand of genre writing will go down well with the more literary tutors/other students (I might have put it a bit blunter than that and used the words 'arty farty' and 'navel gazing' ... cough).

This is not an irrational fear. A long time ago I attended a poetry workshop at a Summer School and we all had to write a poem. I wrote mine and agreed to read it out in the class. After which the tutor looked at me aghast and said, 'Oh, it rhymes'. She quickly moved on to the next person, leaving me feeling like a burst balloon. How was I to know that rhyming poetry was no longer acceptable?

But I figure that in the end I have to be true to myself, and I don't want to try to write outside of my genre just to fit some ideal of what a literary author is. So I don't expect to do brilliantly, but as long as I pass and get my MA at the end, that's all that matters. It's the experience that's important and also proving to myself that I can do it.

I don't know what's going to happen. Obviously Den's health is still a major factor and the top priority for me, but the way I see it, I haven't hit a brick wall yet, so I intend to keep going until I do. And who is to say that if I hit that brick wall that I won't find a way over and around it? I've come a long way since that Summer School and nowadays I'd be more likely to argue that rhyming poetry is a perfectly acceptable art form, regardless of that tutor's personal tastes.

I'm hoping to keep an online journal of my studies, if I get the time with everything else that's happening in my life, so I can share my experiences and maybe inspire others to take that step forward in their writing. I will probably set up a new blog for that, in my own (real) name, as that's the name I'll be using for the MA.

Since writing this, I have set up a blog for the MA, under my real name. If you're interested, you can read it HERE.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

A difficult catch up post

It seems that my joy at sorting out my own health was to be short lived. I had only just been declared fit when we learned that my husband, Den, has Oesophageal Cancer. He'd had problems swallowing for some time, but refused to go to the doctors until I was sorted out. You can imagine how guilty I feel at the moment, though I've been assured that these things don't happen overnight and it's something he'd have had for a long time before symptoms appeared.

We've known about it for a week or two, and I have mentioned it on Facebook, but things have moved so fast, I haven't had a chance to share the news here. I now feel it's time to share it with those of you who perhaps aren't on FB.

Den has to have more tests, as they now fear the cancer has spread to his lymph nodes. I Googled that, and wished I hadn't...

As you can imagine, it's a very difficult time for us and it isn't over yet. Den is a fighter. Fifteen years ago, he survived an operation for an aortic aneurysm that he was told he had only a 2% chance of surviving. He was also run over - twice - before he was fifteen, and then got shot in the leg whilst in the army in the 70s. He's assured me he's going to fight this too. I've told him he'd better bloody do!

Because of Den's illness, I've resigned from the committee of the RNA and as party organiser. I've no doubt that they'll find someone brilliant to take over from me. Writing has also taken a bit of a back seat at the moment, but it will be there waiting for me when the time is right.  I need all my energy to look after Den, and to support my children and grandchildren, through this ordeal. If anyone has any going spare, I could really use it...

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Secret of Lakeham Abbey Out Now!

I am delighted to announce that The Secret of Lakeham Abbey is now published and available to buy.  You can order it from, and Smashwords using the widgets above.

There is also be a launch party on Facebook, where I promise to bring Chocolate flavoured prizes, but you'll have to work for them as I have some dastardly questions planned! I will also be appearing on some blogs, and into June, so watch this space for news.


When Percy Sullivan’s family take over Lakeham Abbey for the summer, it was a chance to get away from battered post-war London and be cossetted by the capable and pretty housekeeper, Anne Pargeter.

They soon learn that the Abbey conceals a dark secret; one that someone was willing to kill to hide. When Anne is convicted of murder and sentenced to execution, Percy is determined to do all he can to save his friend from the gallows.

He encourages everyone to tell their side of the story. This leads to some startling revelations, including a shocking secret that Percy’s mother tried to hide from him.

Will it be enough to save Anne’s life?

Monday, 25 April 2016

On The Mend and (gingerly) Raring to Go

Some of you may know that I've had a bit of a problem with my tummy for quite a few years. There was a lump above my belly button that just kept getting bigger and bigger. Of course, my first thought was cancer. Isn't that the way we all think? It wasn't. I was first told it was a divaricated rectus muscle, and that it was not hospital policy to operate on them as they weren't life threatening.  It wasn't exactly life-enhancing either! But I couldn't argue, as it was the policy.

I know I'm a big girl anyway, but it made me feel a bit freakish having this lump sticking out. Especially in the last couple of years when it got bigger still. The only positive was that I always got a seat on the tube as people assumed I was pregnant. I didn't disabuse them on the notion and was always rather flattered that they thought I was still young enough.  Luckily Fashionworld do a nice line in tents so I stocked up on those...

It didn't only look awful. It was uncomfortable too, causing me all sorts of aches and pains, and other tummy troubles. It felt as if the life were being sucked from me, and as much as I tried to do all the things I enjoy doing, like going to the RNA events and conferences, it always took a huge toll on my energy levels, and took me days to recover.

Anyway, last year I went to my doctor and literally burst into tears, telling him how awful I felt about this lump and he agreed it was about time they did something about it. I was sent to the hospital again, and told that the original divaricated rectus muscle had actually become a large hernia. Oh joy. I was also told that they couldn't operate unless I lost 3st. I was to return in February 2016 to see how I was getting on. In fact, I've been amused by recent 'news' that overweight people are being told to diet before they have operations, as it's always been thus and to be fair, I don't think it's an unreasonable ask. And I was assured that if the hernia became strangulated, they would operate anyway, but they would prefer if it could be elective surgery.

Losing weight is not easy, especially when you do have other health problems. But I went back to my doctor and asked if I could go on Orlistat (Xenical) and I joined a local Live Life Better group. And a bit later, I also bought myself a Fitbit. The upshot is that I finally lost nearly 4st. It made no difference to the lump, unfortunately, which looked bigger than ever.

I returned to the hospital in February, sure that they must operate now. But no. The consultant (who was actually rather dishy in television doctor sort of way), said he wanted to take an MRI scan first, to ensure there was nothing else lurking. So of course, the fear of cancer reared its ugly head again. I had the scan in the middle of March and didn't return to the hospital again until 1st April. Finally there was good news! There was nothing else lurking (so they thought...) and they'd operate. "When do you want it done?" he asked. "Tomorrow," I replied. We settled on 13th April.

Several pre-admission appointments later, I was at the hospital, finally waiting to have my operation. It was 4pm when they took me down to surgery and 7pm before I was put on the ward. The first thing I did was look down at my stomach to find it had disappeared! Oh, there was still flab, but the lump had stuck out six or seven inches, if not more, and it was gone! They also told me that they had found a smaller hernia hidden behind the large hernia, and had repaired that too. No wonder I'd felt so crappy for so long!

I have to say that, despite the long wait to finally get the operation, the staff at Chesterfield Royal Hospital looked after me really well. The ward I was on was very warm and friendly, with a lovely atmosphere.

I've been home since Saturday 16th April, and whilst I'm still a bit sore around the operation scar, and have to rest a lot, psychologically I feel better than I've felt for ages. I've even managed to get into some smaller dresses! I'm also working on the notes for a new Christmas novel and may even get some of it written this week. But I'm not pushing anything at the moment. I still have to have my staples out and build up my strength. I also need to keep up with the weight loss. I can't afford to become complacent and risk another hernia.

But it feels worth dieting now that I don't have that awful lump sticking out. I imagine it will also be much more comfortable to walk, once I get my Fitbit charged up again.

Unfortunately I won't make the RNA Summer Party, as it's towards the end of my recuperation period, and I can't really be lugging suitcases around London or being on my feet all night. I'm also going to give the conference a miss, whilst I build my strength back up again. But come November, I'll be there, at the RNA Winter Party, welcoming everyone in and hopefully wearing a posh new (several sizes smaller) frock! Meanwhile here's a picture of me and my darling granddaughter, Gracie, taken yesterday at our favourite breakfast place, The Lock Keeper.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Short Stories and Going Back To My Roots

To those who have only known me in latter years, it probably seems that I’m all about the pocket novels. This is not entirely untrue. I’ve been writing them since 2008, when I penned The Secret of Helena’s Bay and tentatively sent it to Maggie Swinburne (nee Seed) at My Weekly Pocket Novels. I now have over 20 under my belt (not all published by DC Thomson, but all published by Ulverscroft in Large Print), and I have to say it’s my first love.

However, I started off writing short stories (actually I started writing fanfiction, but that’s for another day and is not about original work), and had some success in women’s magazines, with over 60 stories published. That took some time though, and I remember receiving 9 rejections in one day from one magazine. Ouch. I did okay, but never as well as my more talented story writing friends. I know I did much better when I was in the fantastic Story a Fortnight Group and learned so much from those talented friends. You can see our joint efforts in Tears and Laughter and Happy Ever After, the anthology we put together to show off some of the stories that did so well.

Then I decided to spread my wings and try pocket novels, which were 30k at the time. It was as if I’d found my niche. I not only loved writing them, but I turned out to be good at it. That first novel, The Secret of Helena’s Bay, was accepted and I’ve literally never looked back.

Not least, because I found it hard to switch from one discipline to the other, so the short story writing has suffered somewhat. And it’s fair to say, that despite my success with some short story sales, I’ve had far more success (around a 99% acceptance rate) with pocket novels. So it was natural that I stuck to what I thought I was good at. Especially when it pays the bills.

Over the past few months, life has been a little difficult. As well as health problems, there has been some personal family stuff going on that I can’t discuss on the blog. The writing that used to be an escape for me, has eluded me, mainly because my head is all over the place. I’ve been finding it hard to sit down and complete a novel, though I have lots of first, and sometimes second, chapters knocking around.

Then last week something wonderful happened. Maggie Swinburne telephoned me and asked if I fancied writing 7 interconnected stories for a My Weekly special. Once I had picked myself up off the floor, we thrashed the details out over the phone and I suggested an idea I’d had for a pocket novel that didn’t quite have enough to sustain a longer story.

For the first time in ages, I felt invigorated and excited about writing again. The ideas literally flowed from my fingertips and in a week I had all seven stories written and submitted (more of which later).

It all sounds pretty easy, right? Well as with all things, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. I have become used to writing on a larger canvas, so my first attempt at the opening story, which was to be 2000 words, ended up at around 2400 words. Eek! The first three paragraphs were me literally writing my way into the story, but did nothing to advance it. It told the reader lots of stuff (‘told’ being the operative word) they didn’t need to know but showed them nothing they did need to know. The story lacked focus and I wasn’t entirely sure how it should end. The idea was that I would write the first story and send it to Maggie, but I couldn’t work like that. I needed to write every story before I could say the first one was as I wanted it to be. By messing around with it, after I’d written the other six stories, I found my focus and my ending.

The next five stories had to be 700 words. The lowest word count I managed on the first draft was 749. One was nearly 900. By the final story, another 2000 worder, I must have caught on, as it actually fell 100 words below the limit on the first run.

Then there was the fact that whilst the stories were to be interconnected, they also had to stand alone, with a resolution of some kind at the end of each one. I’d never done anything like that before. I’d never even tried writing a serial for a magazine (that’s probably my next challenge…)  I used Love Actually as my inspiration, so that everyone was connected somehow, even if only in a fleeting way.

Surprisingly I had learned a lot from writing novels, including the ability to chop and change ruthlessly, which I’d never been very good at in the past. Whereas before, I’d have been afraid of moving one piece of the tower, in case it all fell down, now I find myself able to look at my work with a more subjective eye. So those first paragraphs were deleted with extreme prejudice, along with any unnecessary storylines. I also managed not to add too many characters, having learned that even in longer fiction, everyone has to earn their place in the story.

I did shed a tear. That was when I got to the very last story, and the big reveal I had been leading up to could be … well … revealed. I always take it as a good sign if I cry whilst writing (as opposed to crying when the writing is just not working), but I still knew my short story writing skills were rusty. Nevertheless, I polished the stories up and sent them off. I had to remind myself that it sometimes takes up to six months to hear about story submissions – whilst at the same time I kept refreshing my inbox, just in case... It had been so long since I’d written a short story, let alone sold one, I was in no way confident that they’d be accepted.

The good news came in a telephone call, just over a week after I’d been given the initial commission. Maggie loved the stories, and says her editor did too. So I will have 7 stories, under the umbrella title of The Little Shop of Lost and Found in the My Weekly Special which comes out on 30th June 2016.

When I first started writing, I used to dream that editors would ask me for my work, but soon realised that almost never happened unless you were a ‘big’ name, which I am definitely not. What I never dreamed was that I’d be invited to have 7 of my stories in one magazine, because such a thing didn’t seem possible. Yet somehow it is a dream come true.

It’s actually given me the short story writing bug again. As well as those stories, I’ve written two more. I sent one to another magazine and though I haven’t had an acceptance yet, I had a really lovely response from the editor who remembered me from when I used to send stuff to her all the time.

I won’t be giving up the pocket novels anytime soon. They’re still my first love. But it’s great to find I can still write short stories as more instant gratification.

What’s more, it’s got me over a bit of a dark time in my life, and that’s why I started writing in the first place. As an escape from the bad stuff.  

Monday, 28 March 2016

In Praise of the Happy Ending

I like a nuanced ending to stories as much as the next person. I’m an intelligent woman so I know that there isn’t always a ‘somewhere over the rainbow’. Neither in real life nor in fiction.

Yet nowhere are happy endings more vilified than in romantic fiction. A fellow romance writer recently linked to a review of her novel, which, quite apart from suggesting my colleague was ‘frittering’ away her talents writing romance (talk about damning with faint praise!), also dismissed happy endings in romance, as ‘boring as hell’ (I won’t link to the review as I suspect there’s some subtle trolling going on).

As many other romance writers pointed out, no one complains when Poirot gets the killer the end of an Agatha Christie novel. Okay, someone is dead, and others have probably died too. But for the purposes of the sleuth having solved the riddle, it is, to all intents and purposes, a happy ending. The bad guy/girl is punished and the worthy get their reward (usually the fortune left by the deceased).

At the end of a Jack Reacher novel, when he’s beaten up and/or killed all the bad guys and moved on, it’s a happy ending. Reacher is back where he wants to be, on the road, and he has left good people safe. Yet no one makes sniffy comments about Lee Child novels.

In films, time and time again, there is a ‘happy’ resolution at the end, because we mostly want to see that justice has been served. John McClane defeats the terrorists and gets back with his wife in time for Christmas – or later is reunited with his children. The rebel forces defeat Darth Vader’s Stormtroopers and blow up the Death Star. The scientists, or sexy men on motorbikes, escape the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. George Bailey realises that his life is indeed wonderful.

Time and time again, romance is singled out for criticism, and usually by people who admit they don’t usually read it. They mock the idea of a happy ending, completely missing the fact that this is what the readers want. Whatever crap is going on in their own lives, for a few hours they can lose themselves in a world where everything works out okay in the end. They (we) are under no illusion that real life is in any way like this. But for a few hours, we can pretend it is. In just the same way as James Bond fans pretend they’re really in a spy story, western fans can pretend they’re riding the range, and Middle Earth fans can imagine they’re helping the Hobbits to rid the world of Sauron. But for some reason, because we’re (predominantly) women, questions are raised as to whether such fantasies are good for us. Hell yes! Why not? We’re not the idiots that some people make us out to be. Also, just because someone enjoys reading romance, that doesn’t mean it’s the only genre they ever read. I read romance, crime, horror, non-fiction, historical, science fiction, YA, the back of the cornflake packet…

I write for a market, DC Thomson Pocket Novels, which is resolutely hopeful and slightly rose-coloured, and do you know what? I love it. Not least because I also have crap going on in my life. I don’t just get to lose myself in a story. I can create my own story and make a world where others can escape from their problems for a while.

I’m under no illusions that my stories change peoples’ lives. I just hope that, at least for a couple of hours, I can help someone escape from anything bad that’s happening to them. It’s the best any author can hope, no matter what they’re writing.

Meanwhile, leave our happy endings alone. If they’re not your thing, fine, but don’t criticise anyone else’s right to lap up as many happy endings as they want. There’s enough horrible stuff going on in the real world and we’re all acutely aware of that. It’s because of the horrible stuff that, more than ever, we need happy endings.



Friday, 18 March 2016

New Releases on Amazon Kindle - Big Girls Don't Cry (Bobbie Blandford 3) and Eye of the Storm

I'm delighted to announce two new releases on Amazon Kindle today.

Big Girls Don't Cry is the 3rd instalment of my Bobbie Blandford series, telling the tale of a 60s policewoman. The novel was published as Big Boys Don't Cry by My Weekly Pocket Novel, but I've decided to go with my original title for the Kindle Version. Loosely inspired by the Great Train Robbery, Big Girls Don't Cry sees Bobbie face a criminal gang and prejudice in 1960s Derbyshire.

Eye of The Storm is set in Egypt, and inspired by the Saturday Matinees I used to love as a child (and also a little by Indiana Jones!). Nadine Middleton joins Countess Chlomsky (who has appeared in two previous novels as Mrs Oakengate) as a companion, but she has other fish to fry. She intends to find the mythical Eye of the Storm, a jewel that will clear her father's name. But she first has to deal with Lancaster Smith, a sexy archaeologist who has discredited her dad.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Case of the Ex in Romantic Fiction

A writer friend sent me a message the other day, asking my advice on how to dispense with her heroine’s absent husband. Should she kill him or just send him off to another country? It set me thinking of the tricky business of dispensing with the ex-boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse in romantic fiction.

Jane Austen and Barbara Cartland had it much easier as their heroines were always unmarried maidens who usually fell in love with the first truly handsome man they met so didn’t have to be written out of a bad relationship. There might be a false love interest, such as Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, but there was no romantic relationship to speak of.

It’s an unwritten rule that where there is an ex involved, either for the hero or heroine, it must be the ex’s fault that the relationship ended. In the past it was also required that the dead spouse of a heroine/hero had to be less perfect than the new lover, though thankfully that’s not the case anymore. One thing I love about Kate Walker’s novels is that if there is a dead spouse, Kate doesn’t immediately demonise the deceased. She accepts that we can have more than one love in a lifetime. But it’s still important that where there’s been a broken relationship, it’s got to be the other party’s fault, so that our hero and heroine are not seen to be heartlessly breaking someone else’s heart. So the heroine has to have been abandoned or cheated on.

In films we see that happen time and time again. The hero or heroine will dump someone just to be with the love of their lives, and sometimes it’s not always certain that the other lover is at fault. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan dumps Bill Pullman for Tom Hanks. Now personally I’d have gone the other way, but it was fair to say that there was nothing wrong with Bill Pullman’s character. He was a nice, decent man and he even gets a touching speech where he tells Meg that he doesn’t want to be someone she settles for (or words to that effect). They had a good relationship, which had admittedly fallen into a bit of a rut, yet she throws it all up to go and meet a man that she has only heard on the radio talking about his devotion to his dead wife. Yes, it was lovely and romantic. But was it the kind way to treat poor old Bill? And what will she do when her and Tom’s relationship goes through a boring patch? Go and meet someone else at the top of the Empire State Building and hope that he’s the love of her life?

Usually in fiction (films, books or otherwise), the main character is just escaping a relationship in the doldrums for something new and exciting, yet no relationship can exist in the height of passion the whole time. Real life sets in and it’s working through those problems that makes a relationship strong. Yet in fiction, we’re told that if you’re not getting what you want from a relationship in terms of passion and excitement, it’s perfectly alright to just go for someone who seems even more exciting.

None of this answers the question of what to do with an ex when it’s important that they’re out of the way, but their existence is necessary (for example where there’s a child involved).  So here are some tips to help you on your way and, hopefully avoid cliché.

Kill them off

This is by far the simplest way to get rid of a previous lover/spouse. Someone who is dead is unlikely to be too much of a competition to the new lover. But beware of how long they’ve been dead before your heroine falls in love again. I know it’s not the rule to wait a year till someone’s dead before falling in love and marrying again nowadays, but if someone rushes into a new relationship it begs the question of why. There’s also no need to demonise a dead spouse in order to make the new love seem more important (unless it’s a plot point that the dead spouse was a wrong ‘un). We have enough love in our hearts to share with lots of people, our family, our friends, our lovers, and loving someone deeply does not mean you’re unable to have those same feelings for someone else.

Have them move away

An ex who is out of the picture is much less likely to be in competition. Another country is always good. Maybe the heroine and her ex wanted different things. At least that explains why they’re in different countries. Also, an ex who is still very much in the picture, or at least the same country, can end up dominating proceedings. I recently read a novel where the heroine spends all her time wondering what her ex is up to, even though she claims not to like him (and he’s written in such a way that one wonders why she ever did like him) and yet our hero is supposed to be her main focus.

Avoid the cliché of making the ex the bad guy/girl

We all have exes, that when we look back, we wonder what the hell we ever saw in them. But it’s important your reader doesn’t do that. I’ve read about exes who were so heinous, that one wonders why the hero or heroine ever fell in love with them. Yes, a lot of people have abusive relationships, but even abusive partners have their moments of charm. Give the reader a reason why the hero or heroine was once in love with that person, but without making it seem that the ex is still in the running.

In my novel, Take My Breath Away, my heroine, Patty, still had a good relationship with her ex-husband who was the father of her son, but I killed him off in the first chapter after establishing their friendly terms. I made him charming, and rather pathetic in a sweet sort of way (he was inspired by Richard Burton after all), so that the reader could see why she’d been drawn to him when she was a young actress. But he was just not right for her.

It is so easy to get it wrong and in trying to demonise the ex, you end up showing the hero or heroine in a bad light. In another novel I read recently, the hero kept sleeping with a woman he did not even like, because the heroine was giving him the run-around, which made me hate the hero with a passion. At no time was it addressed that he was actually leading this poor girl on, whilst openly despising her (and we were obviously supposed to hate the girl too), and he just forgot she existed as soon as the heroine decided she did love him after all.

To be fair, Norah Ephron probably got it right in Sleepless in Seattle. She didn’t demonise Bill Pullman’s character. She just made him not right for our heroine. In another movie, Bill would absolutely deserve to get the girl (or save the world from aliens – one or t’other).
Just look at him. How could anyone ever love that face?

Meanwhile you still have to try not to let it be the hero/heroine’s fault

In real life, sometimes it is our fault that relationships don’t work. We fail to put enough effort into them. We take our partners for granted. We’re not always as kind to them as we should be. We snap. We nag. We bicker and argue. We leave the top off the toothpaste. And, one of the hardest truths is that we simply stop loving someone as we did in that first great wave of passion.

Sometimes people will cheat, for a variety of reasons, some of them perhaps understandable. In romantic fiction, however, which is about devotion and true love, this is a hard thing to pull off whilst still retaining sympathy for your main character. Adultery in fiction, for many readers, is a deal breaker, even if it’s the hero and heroine sleeping with each other whilst married to other partners (If he can do it to his wife, he can do it to our heroine, right?).

Readers can be quite puritanical when it comes to heroes and heroines, and expect quite high standards of behaviour from the main characters in a romance. I once witnessed a conversation online where readers insisted they went right off a hero because he smoked! (I immediately wrote a smoking hero into my next novel!) Therefore, characters tend to be conveniently widowed, divorced or broken up before they will sleep with the new lover, and it’s unlikely they’ll have cheated on their previous partner.

Similarly, the relationship will always have ended because of something the ex did (or failed to do). I’m not sure I’ve ever read a romantic novel or watched a film where this wasn’t the case, so I have no examples of how it could work out whilst still retaining sympathy for the hero or heroine. Does anyone else?

In the end, I just advised my friend the best I could, as I have no easy answers to this conundrum, other than to make sure your heroine is always a virgin who has lived in a desert island all her life just across from the hero, who lives in a monastery on another island. Or you could make her Anastasia Steel…
My latest novel, Eye of the Storm, is now in the shops. You can buy it from Tesco, Asda, Sainsburys, WH Smiths and larger newsagents.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

A Tortured Hero Versus a Hero Who Tortures

Orson Welles as Mr Rochester

The tortured hero is the staple of romantic novels. Mr Darcy, perhaps a mild version of the tortured hero, felt awkward in public situations, giving Lizzie Bennett the idea he was a bit of a dry stick (I still find him a bit of a prig, I’m afraid). Mr Rochester (my personal favourite) was tortured by an ill-conceived marriage to a woman who turned out to be insane.

But it seems to me that there is a worrying trend amongst romance writers to create heroes who are not just tortured, but who, as a result, torture others, particularly the heroine. I don’t necessarily mean physical torture, unless we’re talking Fifty Shades, but certainly emotional torture. Christian Grey is the epitome of this type of hero, with his emotional abuse of Ana Steele. I’m told, though I have no personal knowledge of this, that American readers in particular will forgive a hero anything as long as he turns out to be a nice guy at the end.

Because we all know that in real life all an abusive man needs is a woman who loves him enough to put up with being treated like crap until he decides he doesn’t want to abuse her anymore…

I find that the ‘hero who tortures’ trend is becoming more prevalent, particularly amongst new writers. But I also think that some are mistaking the tortured hero for the hero who tortures, and they are not the same thing.  

So what do I mean? I’m reluctant to name and shame authors, particularly those just starting out, so all examples are mentioned from this point in very general terms so as not to identify anyone.

In the first chapter of one novel I read several years ago, the ‘hero’, threatened the heroine with the police (on some trumped up charge) if she did not comply with his demands, and also called her a ‘whore’. We were assured by the author that the hero would be redeemed and that he was really a nice guy deep down. Nice guys really don’t call the heroine a whore in the first chapter. Years ago, it might have been acceptable for the hero to slut shame the heroine because he believed (always mistakenly) that she had slept with his brother/best friend/some other bloke. Such slut shaming, even if she has slept with another man, is not acceptable in a modern novel and any decent hero should be able to accept that he might not be the first man in a woman’s life. Obviously if he believes she has cheated on him (and he must have good reason, other than him just thinking all women are whores), he has a right to feel aggrieved, but even then how he reacts will say much about him as a hero. Hurt, yes, but abusive, never.

A tortured hero internalises his pain. It may make him reluctant to begin a relationship, and unsure if he can trust the heroine, or trust himself to love her, but he never crosses the line into misogyny. Yet I’ve seen this happen in more than one romance novel. One book, by a very well known (now deceased) author, had the hero immediately assume the heroine was a  high class hooker because he saw a man giving her money in broad daylight, at a wedding (the guy was the heroine’s friend and had borrowed money from her). Even when he found out she was a virgin, he decided that she was using her virginity as a bargaining chip. The poor girl couldn’t win! From that moment, I hated the hero, and believed he was completely wrong for the heroine, yet he was ‘redeemed’ by the end so the reader was supposed to think this was okay.

There are limits even to what a tortured hero can do to show his torture, and not just to the heroine. To himself too. Drug addiction and alcoholism seem very popular in a lot of straight to eBook romance lines. Neither addiction can be cured by love, yet too many authors think they can. The problems behind addiction are very complex, and whilst it would be great if love solved everything, realistically it doesn’t. Yes, romantic novels are fantasies, but the people who read them may well be living with the very problems you’re solving, and they’re probably thinking it’s a load of rubbish because the person they love is back on the booze/drugs again and no amount of moonlit walks on the beach has helped them to stop.

A hero’s behaviour towards others is also an indication of his status as the tortured hero. It goes without saying that no hero should ever hurt small children and puppies (and I know of some readers who wouldn’t put up with a hero who smoked!), but a friend was telling me that she read a novel where the hero was very rude to another woman in the story, and it put my her right off him. I don’t like heroes who use other women and throw them away like old tissues the moment the heroine comes along. For me a hero has to treat every woman with respect, even if he’s not romantically involved with her.

Your hero may be abrupt and arrogant as he hides the pain of his existence, but he will always behave well to others. I’m reminded of another romance where, during an interview, someone asks the hero to repeat what he has just said and he snaps ‘Are you deaf?’ Not only was it uncalled for, it was very rude and beneath a man who was being presented as the urbane and sophisticated CEO of a major company, but it was also an insult to anyone reading who might suffer hearing difficulties (me included!)

Much depends on the market and one’s own tastes, I suppose. We all like a different type of hero. Some tend to the more ultra-Alpha male of yesteryear, whilst others prefer a more beta hero. I like a mixture of both, but even the Alpha part has to have a gentle side.

Personally, I don’t think it’s enough that a hero is redeemed by the end of a novel. I know of one editor who hates it when, after raising concerns about the hero’s behaviour, writers tell them, ‘Oh wait till the end of the novel, and you’ll see that the hero is really lovely then’. The editor wants to feel that the hero is lovely from the very beginning, even if he does make mistakes, because that’s how the reader should feel.

As with all writing, it's all in the execution. Can you convince your reader that this man is worthy of the heroine's love? If your reader doesn’t think your hero is right for the heroine, they won’t be invested in the happy ending. No last minute redemption, after 200 pages of emotional abuse, is going to convince them otherwise.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

Back Story and Angst - How Much is Too Much?

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
I have touched on this subject before, in relation to conflict within a romance. But I thought it was a topic worth visiting in depth.

It is a tendency of newer writers – myself included way back when – to give their hero and heroine rather convoluted and angst-ridden back stories. It is, after all, how we gain sympathy for them and get the reader on their side. Even now I will often make my heroines orphans just because it's a quick way to establish her need to love and be loved.

In Dickens times, such angst was the staple of the novels he wrote in serial form. Poor little Oliver Twist was born in a workhouse, treated abominably by the people who were supposed to care for him, and then walked all the way to London alone, before being taken up by Fagin and his gang and terrorised by Mr Monk and Bill Sykes. He had a lot of angst to go through before he found his happy ending. Despite that, Dickens managed to include humour and to keep Oliver resolutely cheerful and hopeful, albeit in a ‘pathetic urchin’ way.

Too many modern authors, particularly of romance, take their characters’ angst to the nth degree. In workshops I often tell the story of a novel that I read where, in the first three paragraphs, the heroine (speaking in the first person) tells how she was born to a crack whore, had a drug-dealing father who died in a hail of bullets, was sexually abused in various foster homes, had some crap love affairs, before, by the fourth paragraph, suddenly turning up in a bright modern building meeting the handsome billionaire who was, supposedly, going to make all this right for her.

As I started to laugh (sorry) it reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy’s watcher, Giles (played by the eternally gorgeous Anthony Stewart Head) had been away for a while. Buffy fills him in on all the horrible things that have happened since he went away. Giles’s response was the same as mine to the above novel. He burst out laughing and soon Buffy was laughing with him. Because it was ludicrous that anyone could survive that much misery.

When I started to write I was guilty of exactly the same thing. I gave my heroines the most pathetic back stories imaginable. The problem with doing that is that by the end of the novel, all that has to be solved. And in this day and age, the hero cannot be the one to do that. The heroine has to do it herself. My own preference is to make the hero the reward for the heroine solving her problems, not the answer to them.

The main problem with giving the heroine too much angst to begin with is that it can create a rather maudlin story, as she tries to come to terms with it all. When we write light romance, or even slightly darker romance such as Rebecca, we are not writing Angela’s Ashes. Our readers know our heroines may have suffered, but they don’t want to be dragged down into a mire where they feel like slashing their own wrists. A romance is a fantasy, and it’s hard to create a fantasy out of constant death and despair.

Of course, people in real life do survive the most dreadful tragedies. But the most upbeat woman I have ever met was an elderly lady whose daughter and son-in-law had been murdered by a mentally unstable neighbour. Even when she told me, she didn’t cry, but she was concerned that the man who killed them was about to be up for parole (he didn’t get out). Despite that, she’d laugh and joke and get on with life, chatting to everyone on our street as she walked the mile and a half into town every single day. Everyone knew her, and everyone smiled when she passed by. I remember her telling me how much she loved Kojak, followed by her saying, ‘Who loves ya, baby’, which had me in fits of giggles (you probably had to be there).

Did she cry a lot of tears when her daughter and son-in-law died? I'm sure she must have. And I'm sure there would be times when she cried in the privacy of her own home. But the face she showed to the world was one of courage and resolute good humour.

I think of her when I’m writing my heroines, so that no matter what they’ve been through, I don’t make them too maudlin or self-pitying. A heroine who bursts into tears every other page is going to try the patience of the readers very quickly.

It's similarly clumsy to show someone going through a tragic event and somehow being completely untouched by it. Even then, readers don't want pages and pages of angst. Anger is a good emotion to use in that situation. Anger and a resolve to put things right.

The best way of using angst that I’ve found is to pick one difficult moment in a heroine’s life and work with that. It can be losing a parent, or a lover, or some other tragedy.  Concentrate on her breaking through that angst. At the same time, she must be seen to be getting on with, and even enjoying life, despite this darkness in her past.

The same goes for the tortured hero, who is a staple of romance novels (Mr Rochester is my particular favourite). Even then, one must be careful not to give him a problem he cannot solve within the context of the novel. For example, alcohol and drug addictions are very difficult to carry off in romance novels. A hero cannot simply be saved by the heroine’s love, any more than she can be saved by his. Addiction is a far more complex problem. That’s not to say he can’t be a recovering alcoholic or drug addict. But don’t have him going back on the Jack Daniels/heroin without working out the consequences of that action. He won’t just be able to suddenly stop again just because he finds out the heroine loves him after all, yet I’ve seen that happen time and again in romance novels. Sadly alcoholism and drug addiction can’t be cured by love. If that were the case, societies like Alcoholics Anonymous would not be necessary. It also doesn’t bode well for their romance if he’s going to hit the bottle/needle every time they have a row and he doubts her feelings.

I started by asking how much back story is too much. It really does depend on the novel and how it’s handled within the context of the novel. But if you have your heroine constantly crying over every loss she’s ever suffered from the year she was born, or the hero and heroine spending the last part of the novel solving all these problems one by one, instead of just getting on with their happy ending, then it’s possible you’ve over-egged the pudding a bit.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Language of Love

© | Dreamstime Stock Photos
The language of love in romance novels is important in order to set the scene. It has also changed much over the years. Gone are the flowery purple passages of Barbara Cartland novels, where heroines swooned and ‘touched the stars’, or whatever other euphemism Barbara used to describe an orgasm. Love scenes now use more realistic language, sometimes explicit, sometimes not, depending on the market and intended readership.

But I’m struck by how some authors get it completely wrong. A  Facebook friend recently pointed out the blurb of a novel which describes the heroine’s ‘sexy snort’. Even in the film Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock’s snort is shown to be an unattractive aspect of her behaviour. Though with Sandra Bullock being so beautiful, I think most men would probably forgive that! But such a snort cannot be described as sexy. At least not with a straight face…

I have also read novels where the designated hero ‘leers’ at the heroine, or whilst they’re involved in love making, language is used that is not realistic in the context of the novel, but also downright vulgar. I’m not taking a prudish standpoint here, by the way. There’s nothing wrong with frank, erotic language in a book aimed at an audience who would appreciate it.

But I recently read a novel aimed at the mainstream romance market which was full of delicious, elegant prose about the heroine’s town and her inner feelings. All this was instantly ruined when the meetings between her and the hero used much less elegant language. The author had him leering at the heroine’s boobs and thinking he’d like to have sex with her in the sort of crude terms resigned for the lecherous playboy who we all know is not right for our heroine. When parts of the hero and heroine’s bodies started to itch (as opposed to a line where the characters think of an ‘itch they can’t scratch’ whilst leading up to an orgasm) I immediately wanted to send them both to the STD clinic.

I understand how hard it is to come up with new ways of describing how a hero and heroine react to each other, and without resorting to the sort of purple prose of yesteryear. I struggle with it all the time. I’ve seen authors who somehow manage to use the same terms in every novel and they’re very good at it.

Years ago a friend and I read some novels in order to research a particular market (I shan’t say which). In one novel, the heroine was called Nora. I know several ladies call Nora and it’s a perfectly nice name. Except that during lovemaking scenes the author kept referring to the hero fondling ‘Nora’s nub’, which had both me and my friend in stitches. I really don’t think that was the intended response to such sexy scenes…

Not long ago, another friend was sent a list of possible words she could use in her novel to depict the hero and heroine’s lovemaking as she’d been a bit coy about that part, leaving everything at the bedroom door (which is also perfectly acceptable). That list also gave us much cause for mirth. Out of context the words ‘manhood’ and ‘love shaft’ bring out the ‘Carry On’ in all of us.

Another novel, reviewed on a romance site, had an alien hero who had barbs on his penis. Can you imagine the love making? I can, and it only makes me want to cross my legs.

It is important that any language used is in keeping with the rest of the novel. It is also important that no matter how frank the language becomes during love scenes, it is still appealing to the reader. It’s equally important it doesn’t have the reader bursting out laughing (or saying ‘ouch’ in the case of barbed penises).

What’s the funniest or most inappropriate language you’ve ever read in a romance novel? No author names or titles, please. It’s not my wish to publicly shame anyone, because we’re all capable of getting it wrong. Me included…

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Crooked Cats, The Mousetrap, RNA Winter Party and an Epic Yarn set in Egypt

I’m only just getting my breath back after an action packed November. You’ll be able to read about some of it on the RNA blog soon as I tell Elaine Everest all that goes into arranging the RNA Parties.

So to my big news regarding my writing. I had two acceptances in November. One was from exciting and well-respected publisher, Crooked Cat, who have accepted my crime novel, The Secret of Lakeham Abbey. It is an unofficial sequel to The Dark Marshes, but set about a hundred years later, just after World War II. It will be published some time in 2016 so more details when I have them.

I also had another acceptance from the wonderful Maggie Swinburne at My Weekly Pocket Novels for what Maggie calls an ‘epic yarn’, Eye of the Storm, which is set in Egypt at the dawn of World War II (yes, I know I obviously have a thing about World War II...) and inspired partly by the Saturday matinees I used to watch at the pictures as a child and partly by the Indiana Jones films (with a hero called Lancaster Smith, how could they not be?). I’ll give more details of that nearer to publication time..

On the 17th November I travelled to London for the RNA Winter Party, which was held on the 18th. As I’d sold some other books not long ago, I decided I would treat myself to a ticket to go and see The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre. It was one of the few Agatha Christie stories I didn’t know, and I wanted to complete my AC education! (You all know she’s my absolute heroine in writerly terms, right?) It was such a joy to see it ‘in the flesh’ so to speak, and its cosy setting went well with the cold November air. I wasn’t so keen on the perpendicular seats way up in the gods, but I soon forgot about the nosebleed and thinner air as I got into the story… I do wish they would televise it, but I suppose that would stop people from going to see it. It’s been on over 60 years, and long may it continue! As is asked at the end of every performance, I won’t give away the ending and I ask that anyone commenting on this post doesn’t do so either.

L-R Sally and Elaine Everest at the RNA Winter Party.
Photograph reproduced by kind permission of Nikki Moore

The Winter Party was a huge success. It had the highest attendance of any party since I started organising them two years ago, and sadly I had to refuse some people tickets, which I hated doing. But the party itself was great, and we had the inaugural Industry Awards which added a great buzz to the evening (mainly I think because we were all wishing that Aiden Turner would arrive to collect the prize for best romantic television/film adaptation!) He didn’t, which is his loss as now he’ll never know how good the mini cream scones are at the Royal Over Seas League.

I was lucky enough to have a chat to Maggie Swinburne, my My Weekly Pocket Novels editor, and Liz Smith, My Weekly editor who is retiring soon. It’s always lovely to see them both and great that they travel all the way from Dundee to see us all. DC Thomson always has a family atmosphere and that shows in the lovely, warm people they employ. 

Everyone said nice things about the fact I’ve lost weight (you wouldn't know it from the picture above!). I have now lost nearly two and a half stone, with only 8lbs to go to the weight I need to be for them to finally do my hernia operation. I return to the hospital on 5th February 2016 and hope to have a date soon after that. I also hope to have lost a bit more than 3st so will have to be a bit careful over Christmas. I’ve already had a mince pie or two (or three!) but have counted them in my calories so hopefully I’ll be okay. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without mince pies!

I’m now in that strange void between novels, and it’s a place I hate being no matter how productive I’ve been all year. I have two more Bobbie Blandford books to complete, but as the publication of the third has been put back to 2016, there’s no rush at the moment. I do have a couple of ideas brewing. One Christmas story and one Western romance but the best ideas are those that keep me awake at night and/or arrive in my brain fully formed, as The Dark Marshes did last Christmas Eve. I’m guessing it’s the traditional Christmas Eve Baileys at work, so will be breaking the diet to have some in the hopes of coming up with another story that just won’t go away.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Catch up: Weight loss, book/writing news, The RNA Winter Party and The Mousetrap

Hello folks. I really ought to keep this blog updated more often, so this is my attempt to do that. I don't normally write about my day to day life on my blog, as I'm mindful that I owe privacy to others in my life. But I figure I can keep everyone updated more regularly as long as I don't get too personal about others.

Since 9th August I have been on a healthy eating plan as I need to lose 3 stone so that I can have an operation on my hernia. Those who have met me in the past year or so will have seen it, as it sticks out a mile (not quite literally, but it can feel like it at times). Sometimes people think I'm pregnant, which is quite flattering, considering my baby-making days are long since gone. However, as I tend not to disabuse people of the notion, it does get me a seat on the tube whenever I'm in London.

For me the lump just brings to mind John Hurt in Alien, lying back on the table as his stomach explodes... It looks awful (to me) and I have to wear dresses that are two sizes larger just to allow room for it.

The good news is that I've already lost 1st 10 and 1/2lb. I've been attending a Live Life Better course run by Derbyshire Primary Care Trust, which is a 12 week course, where we're weighed (privately, we don't have to share our weight with anyone) and we discuss making small changes to our diets to cut out fats and sugars, whilst increasing our intake of healthy vegetables and fruit. On the course women are allowed 1500 calories a day and men 1800, so it's quite generous and I seldom feel hungry. I've been losing around 2-3lb a week (though I am also on Orlistat/Xenical which is helping).

I've also got 12 weeks free membership to the gym at Staveley and I had my first session on Tuesday. I'll be off again tomorrow. Added to that, I've downloaded the Map My Walk app onto my phone to log my day to day exercise. I've started parking further away at Tesco or any other supermarket I visit, just to log up those kilometres and calories. It links to My Fitness Pal so I keep everything in place, and that encourages me to try harder.

So far, so good, but I know how diets go, having been on and off them for most of my adult life, so I'm taking nothing for granted.

In book news, Ulverscroft/Linford Romance Library have just accepted three books from me: A Christmas Moon, Big Girls Don't Cry and The Dark Marshes.

I'm now working on a novel for Maggie Swinburne at My Weekly Pocket Novels, which we're hoping will be published on New Year's Eve. It's an epic 'Indiana Jones' style adventure set in Egypt called Eye of the Storm. It has a plucky heroine, and a hero called Lancaster Smith, which has to be my best hero name yet!  When I started writing it, I was reminded of the Saturday matinees I used to attend at the pictures as a child; particularly Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.  Every week, Sheena would be left in some dire circumstance and we would have to wait a week to find out if she got out of it. Let's face it, being children we didn't understand the importance of her name being in the title... The last time I saw her, she was literally hanging off a cliff. Or off a rope bridge off a cliff. You get the gist. For some reason I didn't go back after that - we moved around a lot when I was a child - so I never knew how she got out of that one. I still imagine her hanging from that cliff for eternity...

I've tried to imbue my story with the same heart-stopping cliff hangers on a regular basis, and with the epic feel of an Indiana Jones film. I've had the most fun thinking up the many boobie traps left behind by those who built the temples in Egypt.

My next project, when I've finished this novel, is to finally write that 'straight' western I keep promising/threatening to write for Robert Hale's Black Horse westerns. I have a title and an idea, and I have a masculine pen name (Pep Tracy). Now all I need is the story...

To show that not all my writing life is full of success, and that even I have disappointments, I entered the So You Think You Can Write comp on Wattpad, hoping to at least impress Mills & Boon. Sadly they continue to be unimpressed with my writing, so I've now sent the novel elsewhere (I shan't say where as I don't want to put that publisher on the spot). Failing that I will put it up on Kindle as it's a follow up - of sorts - to The Dark Marshes.

This is also the time of year I'm dealing with the bookings for the Romantic Novelists Association Winter Party, which takes place on 18th November 2015. I have plenty of tickets left and non-members are welcome to come without a member if they would like to see what we're all about. If you're interested you can download a booking form HERE.

As I'm travelling down the day before - because I have a meeting with the rest of the RNA committee quite early in the day - I have booked myself matinee tickets to go and see The Mousetrap on Tuesday 17th November. It's an Agatha Christie story I don't know (so please don't put spoilers in the comments!) and I've always wanted to see it. The tickets were the cheapest so I'll be so high I may get a nosebleed, but at least I'll get to see the play!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Changing Point of View and What it's Meant to Achieve

This post has been inspired by the recent release of Grey, the latest blatant money-spinner, sorry, novel, from E.L. James.

The novel tells the story of the original Fifty Shades of Grey, but this time from Christian’s point of view, not Ana’s. My first question when I heard this was why is Stephanie Meyer not suing? She did exactly the same with Twilight, from Edward Cullen’s point of view. That novel was stolen and leaked online, so Meyer didn’t publish it after all. Wouldn’t you know that just days before Grey was released, that too was ‘stolen’.

I’ve had fun reading some of the reviews of Grey on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s definitely a Marmite type of book that people either love or hate. There’s very little middle ground. I’m not going to rubbish the book here (much…). I’m only going to talk about it from a craft point of view.

One of the biggest criticisms is that the book is basically a cut and paste job of the first  novel in the series. Actually basically is the wrong word. The word being used is literally. Some sections are definitely cut and pasted. When the reviewers criticise this, fans jump in and say ‘Well what did you expect? It’s the same story but from his point of view.’

What most readers expect when the point of view changes is new insight into what’s going on in a character’s mind. Yes, the basic details may be the same, but there should be something different to learn. Now I haven’t read Grey, so I’m only going on what I’ve read about it and various sections posted on Twitter etc. But it seems that, aside from the fact that he seems to have a fixation with his penis (which seems to be a character all on its own), he’s thinking exactly what women fear a man is thinking when he looks at her. That all he’s interested in is getting her clothes off and shagging her over his desk in a no-strings sexual encounter.

If a female character believes that the male is thinking she’s a klutz, and then the point of view changes to show that he is thinking she’s a klutz, then nothing new is happening in that story. If, however, she thinks she’s a klutz, but the scene from his point of view shows that he thinks she’s adorable, then you have new insight. It shows the reader that she is misreading the signals and also that he is not nearly as judgemental as she believes him to be.  It can really help to soften up an alpha male to show that he’s actually quite amused (in an affectionate way) by the klutzy heroine’s shenanigans.

When there’s an accident or crime, the police often have to deal with witnesses who see things in very different ways, from the appearance of the perpetrator to the car they drove to what exactly happened. Occasionally they’ll see the same things, but it will be coloured by their own experience and vantage point (and there’s a good film of that name which uses that trope).

In many ways, changing point of view in a novel should have that same effect as witnesses telling the police what they saw. Each character should bring their own slant to the scene, even if it’s exactly the same scene. Their opinion will be coloured by their own life experience and any prejudices they might have against the heroine/hero/victim.

A good way to make sure that you don’t cover exactly the same ground when switching point of view is to have the new section start off from where the last section finished. So for example, if your heroine has just flounced out of the room believing that the hero has wronged her in some way, start the hero’s point of view from when she’s slammed the door behind her. Then you can begin afresh with his reaction to the scene. Is he hurt? Confused? Steaming mad? As long as it tells your reader something different to what the heroine was thinking, you’re on the right track.

I recently advised someone that every scene and/or chapter should move the story on. That goes for changing point of view too. If every section, regardless of point of view, tells your reader the same thing, then your story is going nowhere.