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.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Writing in the Now

Originally posted on the Pocketeers blog.

When I presented a workshop for the lovely Write Place Writing School at the beginning of November, I touched briefly on ‘writing in the now’ and wanted to explore that point further.

As it wouldn’t be fair to share my students’ idea I have come up with a scenario to explain what I mean.

Annie and James meet in university when they join the same band, with Annie as the lead singer and James as the lead guitarist/singer. They are each other’s first love, but at the end of university life they go their separate ways because James decides to move to America to pursue his musical career. Ten years later they meet up again, and James is a huge star, whilst Annie is a backing singer, working to keep a roof over her and her young son’s head. Annie is still hurt that James left her and thought his career more important than their love and she is also angry that he stole the song that they wrote together and which became his biggest hit. She has been too proud to sue him for her rights and is certainly not going to ask him now! It is revealed that James left because he had reason to believe that Annie was cheating on him and he had taken the song as revenge. When he meets Annie’s son, he automatically assumes the child is the other guy’s, but Annie knows better. Not that she’s going to admit that to James after he cheated her out of millions of pounds…

If you were writing the novel to this short summary, where would you begin?

When one of the students came up with a scenario that charted all her hero and heroine’s romantic life, I suggested to her that she would be much better starting the story in the now; at the point where their conflict is about to come to a head.

A chronological story that begins with the hero and heroine falling in love, maybe getting married or living together before conflict rears its ugly head may be more realistic. After all, in real life, falling in love and getting married is generally the easy bit. It’s only after when children and lack of money come along that conflict starts. But if you started at the very beginning, it would make the first chapters rather slow. Of course if your hero and heroine do meet and are immediately faced with a conflict, then it will speed up the pace. But if you’re describing a relationship that began then ended several years before for some reason, the time to start the story is when they meet again.

So if I were writing the story I’ve outlined above, I’d start where Annie and James meet up again, at a recording studio perhaps. I’d introduce the conflict from their past very quickly, whilst also avoiding flashbacks, which also slow down the pace of a story. Let the past come out in dialogue (whilst avoiding ‘information drop’).

There are some novels, particularly family sagas, in which you can start from the year dot – or when the heroine was born – but even they will hint at some conflict. Maybe the hero or heroine has displaced an elder sibling or cousin who was due to inherit. Or there is a question over their parentage that will inform the rest of their lives until such conflict is resolved. Even then the story will more than likely jump forward ten years or so at a time, missing out the boring bits.

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing historical romance. The ‘now’ is the ‘present’ time in any era. So in my novel, Loving Protector, the story starts when the heroine and her family are saved from a highwayman by the dashing hero. So yes, it is the first time they meet and then goes on to chart their romance, but it very quickly sets up the conflict (the heroine’s nasty stepsister) and hints at further conflicts. Plus the romance happens over weeks, not years. I’ve heard criticism about romances that happen too quickly, but to me that’s what writing romantic fiction is about. It’s about falling in love at first sight, but being faced with a conflict that tests that notion.

If every romantic novel had the same pace as a real life romance, then it would be very boring for the reader. It can be done, however. The film by Bernard Slade called Same Time Next Year, starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn, used the conceit of a couple meeting the same time every year to carry on an illicit romance, and it showed how they both changed over the years. But each ‘episode’ of the romance took place at the time they met – in the now - and missed out all the bits in between, simply feeding information to the audience through dialogue.

So try to write in the now, when the real conflict begins. That may well be at the beginning of a romance, but it may be ten years down the line when the hero and heroine meet again and are forced to deal with the problems that parted them before.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Romance Writing and reinventing the wheel

The recent case against Harlequin for plagiarism has brought up the subject of originality in writing romance. In that case, a wannabe writer accused Mills and Boon novelist, Kate Walker of plagiarising the wannabe writer’s romance in Walker’s own work, The Proud Wife.  The case was thrown out of court, with prejudice, and quite rightly so. The court document makes very interesting reading on the subject of the tropes using in romance, and I suggest you take some time to read it. It is long, but quite accessible for a court document.

As a friend said, when I mentioned the case in a private forum, the problem is that so many new writers believe they are reinventing the wheel and that every idea that comes from their head is brand new and brilliant. Well it is to them, but perhaps not to readers. One thing that occurred to me was that the writer does not appear to have researched the market, and she clearly had not read a lot (if any) of Kate Walker’s books. One of Kate’s gifts as a writer is in dissecting a marriage in crisis and then putting it back together again in an emotionally charged story. She has also dealt with the pain of child loss in her books before. Yet each book is different, because she is able to bring something different to each character and situation.

I’m deliberately not naming the wannabe writer here as I don’t want a witch hunt against her. She was naïve, that’s all. All new writers think that if they send their work off anywhere, the publisher will reject it then steal their fantastic and original ideas. I was the same when I started out.

The wannabe writer was also badly advised by her legal team, who did not know much about writing romance. Would it have hurt them to read a few more Mills and Boon books before bringing a case that not only brought untold stress to a lovely woman (Kate Walker) but also will leave the plaintiff seriously out of pocket? 

The fact is that if you write any genre, whether it be romance or crime, you are going to struggle to ever be entirely original. The TV Tropes page is a fantastic resource for all the tropes used in films, television and books, and it points up the universal tropes that many genres use.

The heroes in romance novels is always tall dark and handsome (and it was Kate Walker herself who told us in a workshop that this is because in South America they don’t like blonde heroes). I’ve lost count of how many of my heroines have red hair and green eyes. Or how many of my heroes were ridiculously rich with, if not a private jet, then a private helicopter. They are the trappings one expects of a rich man, and of the world into which the heroine is taken from her relatively normal life. Because that’s what you’re selling in a romance. It’s the fantasy of an ordinary girl next door who finds a man who is not only handsome and great in bed, but who can jet her off all over the world for rip-roaring sex. If Cinderella were told today, Prince Charming would have his own jet to go all over the world satisfying his foot fetish, and the shoes she wore to the ball would be Jimmy Choos (or whatever shoes are the in thing at the moment).

Bridget Jones was championed for being original, when really it isn’t original at all. It’s Pride and Prejudice for a modern audience. Only the voice and situation are original.

This post on another blog talks about the story of an orphan who finds out he has magical powers, and a male and female friend who fall in love with each other. 

Even in the crime genre, you’re never going to be truly original. There will be a dead body. There will be a murderer. The murderer will probably be the person you suspect the least. Sometimes the tropes are subverted, but in general they’ll be the same.

Horror also has its own tropes. There’s the ghost story, the haunted house story, the Lovecraftian monster story.

Because that’s what the fans of the different genres expect. They expect a dead body and a murderer in crime, a ghost or a demented creature in a horror story and, for the most part, they expect a rich man and ordinary girl paring in romance.

New writers need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and they should certainly stop thinking they’ve reinvented the wheel. Such a thing is not possible. If you write about a zombie apocalypse, you will be influenced by every zombie film or television show you’ve ever seen. Even if you think you’re doing it differently. What is Twilight if it isn’t Buffy and Angel with Buffy’s superpowers stripped away to turn her into a rather useless teenage girl? Admittedly no one saw the sparkly vampires coming, but otherwise it’s just the same ‘ordinary girl in love with an immortal’ fare that’s been around for years.

My own success in novels came when I stopped trying to be original and fell back on my love of Hitchcockian type romantic intrigues. I don’t pretend to be original, but I hope my stories are fun to read.

The best advice I’ve seen recently came from Kate Walker herself in an interview for my Love Notes column.

“Another piece of advice,” said Kate, “is to write as yourself. Don’t try to imitate any established romance writers.” She accepts that it’s hard ‘if not impossible’ to be completely original. However, “You can be authentic.”

So strive to be authentic instead or original and that way you might even fool people into thinking you’re original.


Sunday, 15 March 2015

Crossing over to the Light Side

Lighter writing is often denigrated as being insubstantial and fluffy. Those who write for the women’s magazine and light romance market are not always considered to be ‘proper’ writers amongst the more serious writers.

Yet, I would argue that writing light-hearted stories is no mean feat, and actually takes just as  much skill as writing gritty, misery-lit. You may have heard it said that easy reading is hard writing. I’d also argue that light or comic reading is hard writing. Douglas Adams, who wrote the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy reputedly had to be locked in a room to make him write.

I don’t think it’s a generalisation to say that the majority of writers start off writing autobiographical stories or poems. They painfully record every time their parents didn’t give them what they wanted, or every time their parents turned out to be flawed human beings just like everyone else, or every school playground slight, or every time the love of their life (for that week at least) turned them down. Anyone who has ever upset them is casually murdered in their stories in new and ironic ways. I know, because I was that writer. Most of my writing from when I started in the mid-nineties till at least the mid-noughties was in this vein. Even when I tried not to be autobiographical, I found that once the vein was open, it was hard to seal it up again.

As anyone who’s read my articles before will know, I’m generally a light-hearted person. I don’t walk around thinking ‘oh woe is me’. Yet when I started writing in 1994, I had a lot of stuff I needed to purge. I’ll spare you the miserable childhood, but it seemed that until I had written all that out of my system, I wasn’t ready to move on to what I was really good at, which is making people smile, and occasionally, I hope, making them laugh. I’ll admit I also wasted too much time thinking that I should be a deep and meaningful writer, because public opinion (or at least the opinions on several Internet forums when I was a newbie writer) insisted that it was the only way to be true to oneself.

Who is to say that someone who writes lighter fiction is less true to themselves that Salman Rushdie or Sarah Waters? The ironic thing is that I am more true to myself now that I’m writing what I want to write, than I ever was when I was churning out page after page of self-pity and murderous revenge. Not that I’m averse to throwing the odd character off a cliff nowadays if it suits my purpose.

That doesn’t mean light fiction comes easy to me. One market I write for, My Weekly Pocket Novels, has very specific requirements. The morals are very 1950s, if the 1950s really were like we see in The Darling Buds of May. I doubt they ever were, but this is what the readership enjoys. There’s enough misery in the real world, so when they open up one of the novellas, they want to escape into a world where morals were black and white, the good people were rewarded and bad people punished, but no one ever does anything truly wicked.

However, like many people, I wake up cranky and fed up some mornings, and that occasionally slips out in the writing. I also find it more difficult to create this rose-tinted world if I’m writing a contemporary story.

The 1950s, as we think of them through our hazy coloured spectacles, are probably a construct, brought about by shows like The Darling Buds of May and Happy Days, and the stories that my 75 year-old dad, who is still a Teddy Boy at heart, tells me. Yet it is easier for me to slip into that world, or an earlier one, where the morals were more certain. In a story set in 2012, I can’t imagine why a man and woman who fancy the pants off each other wouldn’t just hop into bed together. In 1950 or earlier, their abstinence becomes more realistic, because, back then, nice girls didn’t do such things.

Alright, alright, I can hear you all scoffing from here. We may well know that illegitimate children were born in the past, and that there was a lot of poverty, domestic abuse, injustice and illness, but in our heads there is that golden moral glow that only distance can lend to an era. We believe that people were nicer to each other, that life was better and we were all happier, and ignore the fact that racism was a national state of mind, women were expected to stay home and make babies and there was a class divide that created a glass ceiling for the majority of the population.

Of course novels do deal with these things. Andrea Levy’s A Small Island covers pretty much all of them and to wonderful effect. The market I write for has tighter requirements and a readership who buy them to be cheered up, not made depressed. As Maggie Seed, editor of My Weekly Pocket Novels said in an interview last year, she doesn’t care if lots of people died in any particular historical era, neither she nor her readers want to read about it.

That doesn’t mean one can’t dig deep. My characters have dealt with heartbreak, grief, the loss of their livelihoods and the odd murder or two. The trick is in pitching it so that nothing distresses the readers. So grief is there but the characters tend to be plucky and work through it. Murders are always ‘offstage’ and generally the victim is someone that the reader has not come to like too much. Heartbreak is followed very quickly by the happy ending the characters have come to deserve.

This is where the hard writing comes in. It takes several edits to change things so that they’ll be accepted by the editor at the other end. Sometimes the changes happen in the initial writing stage. A story that I’m working on at the moment is set in World War II. I started with the premise that someone was slashing ladies’ stockings at night. I immediately realised that slashing with a knife is a bit too violent for the light-hearted story I had in mind, so I decided the ‘slasher’ was using a stick. I saw straight away that this was ludicrous, and didn’t really take away from the sexual element of the crime. It isn’t a sexual crime. It’s intended to be a jealous crime. So then I changed it so that stockings were being cut to pieces whilst on the washing line. The next day, before I wrote any new words, I went back and changed it again so that the slashed stockings were stolen from the lines instead.  It’s still a crime, but it feels as if it’s less of a violent crime. A stocking stealer feels more appropriate than a stocking slasher and probably lends itself more to moments of comedy during the story.

You may well wonder why it should matter if the stockings are stolen or slashed as long as no one is harmed, but I’ve learned to be very careful. I still bear the scars from the time I discussed writing a werewolf romance with an editor, got the go ahead, wrote fifty thousands words and then found out, when I sent it in, that what she actually wanted was a werewolf romance with no actual werewolves…

Writing ‘light’ is a balancing act, made up of regularly altering the language used, toning down dialogue, even changing the plot as one goes along, if things start to get too dark. I’m sure Stephen King works just as hard on making his language frightening, heightening the terror and making sure he stays on the dark side of his plot.

I’d argue that both Stephen King and I have to work equally hard not to let real life in. His fictional world, with its creepy clowns hiding in every sewer, is no more real than the 1950s innocence of the world I write about. He inhabits the dark side. I inhabit the light side. Whilst I’m not in any way putting myself on King’s level as a writer, I believe it takes skill to do both.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

When Mary Sue met Marty Stu

Mary Sue could hardly believe it. She was on her way to college when she woke up right in the middle of Middle Earth. She spied her favourite elf, Marty Stu, in the distance. “I know you,” she said, “You’re Marty Stu, the unsung hero of the Fellowship of the Ring. The one who truly did defeat Sauran in Tolkien’s unwritten fourth book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.”

“Oh my goodness,” said Marty Stu, instantly struck by her beauty and forgetting to ask why she wore strange clothes and carried a mobile phone which still had Wi-Fi access so she could ring her mum. “Who are you fair maiden? I have only known you three seconds yet already you are the most beautiful, gracious and intelligent woman I have ever met.”

“I am Mary Sue and we were clearly meant to be together, on account of me getting hit by a truck on the way to my myths and legends tutorial and waking up here.”

“Yes, my love,” said Marty Stu, “I think you are right. It is our destiny to be together. Of course I will have to end my affairs with Arwen, Legolas, Aragorn and several of the hobbits, but you will be my bride. But first I must ride valiantly to Mordor, where Sauran has once again started his evil plans to take over Middle Earth.”

“I shall come with you, my beloved,” said Mary Sue, “only appearing to hinder your progress until I destroy Sauran with a few well chosen words and you realise that this whole story was about me all along.”

extract from When Mary Sue Fell Into Middle Earth by Sally Quilford

I would like to say I’d exaggerated the above extract, but it is probably indicative of many fan fiction stories out there in the Internet ether. If you Google ‘Worst Fanfiction ever’ you’ll find a story called ‘My Immortal’ which makes my sorry effort look as if I were channelling Tolkien.

‘Mary Sue’ is a recognised term for a fanfiction character which is clearly based on the author. It can also denote a character that is so perfect that their only reason for existence is to be adored by others.

The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is a ‘Marty Stu’. He is everything a man should be. Brave, handsome, a hit with the ladees, and the one who invariably gets the Mary Sue at the end.

It is not only in fanfiction that Mary Sues and Marty Stus abound. A Mary Sue in particular is a staple of many classic novels, written when women were only there to be protected and rescued by the hero. Laura Fairlie from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is passive to the extreme and seems even more so alongside her half-sister, the witty and proactive, Marian Halcombe. Laura is only there to be protected by both Marian and the hero, Walter Harcourt, both of whom treat Laura almost as if she is an imbecile child. When Laura wants to help them make money, she paints pictures. Marian and Walter store the paintings away, arbitrarily deciding they are worthless. They give Laura a few pennies out the money they’ve made by their supposedly more worthwhile pursuits, pretending that she has indeed sold the paintings. It’s akin to putting a penny from the fairies under a child’s pillow when they’ve lost a tooth.

A modern example of a Mary Sue could arguably include Bella Swan from the Twilight series. She is of no interest to anyone, either male or female, until a vampire called Edward Cullen falls in love with her and suddenly the lives of every supernatural being within a five thousand mile radius revolve around her. In a way, Bella Swan fulfils a young girl’s need to be popular in school. If she cannot be popular amongst her schoolmates, she will be popular amongst vampires and werewolves (even if a good majority of them only want to drink her blood and/or kill her).

Marty Stu characters are harder to pin down. The website TV Tropes ( suggest that Mary Sue’s are mostly passive because at one time that was the extent of most women’s roles in stories. Marty Stu “is the personification of action, action and more action.” TV Tropes also argue that Marty Stus are forgiven more for being what they are “because they upheld stereotypically male virtues such as toughness, courage, and heterosexual promiscuity.”

Marty Stus which spring to mind for me are Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Both are tough, resourceful and very popular with the ladies. Yet we forgive them, because they do more to solve their own problems, whereas a Mary Sue’s problems are often solved by others. Even kickass Leeloo in The Fifth Element needs Bruce Willis to help her save the universe.

You’ll probably have a hard time thinking of a film or novel in which the ‘Mary Sue’ hero is saved by a heroine who personifies all the traits of a Marty Stu. However, Doctor Who often plays with that trope by having the Mary Sue type companion save the Doctor from some awful fate. And the appearance of the brave and sassy River Song will ensure that the Doctor gets saved for some time yet (at least until … oh sorry, spoilers).

That is not to say that either Mary Sues or Marty Stus are bad things per se. The Woman in White is one of my favourite novels despite Laura Fairlie’s passivity. Whilst I don’t much like James Bond, I’m a huge Jack Reacher fan and if Bruce Willis insists on helping me to save the universe whilst looking hunky in his orange vest, tell him I’m mostly free on Tuesdays.

But how can we avoid creating Mary Sues and Marty Stus in our own writing? I write romance, and it’s fair to say that every one of my heroines is a younger, prettier, wittier, slimmer version of me, though I pride myself on giving her faults too. I don’t know how Lee Child’s mind works, but since he is around six foot five inches and Jack Reacher is six foot five inches, I’d hazard a guess that Reacher is the man that Child would like to be. The irony is that male authors are not given such a hard time when they create superhero versions of themselves.

I would argue that most writers’ heroes or heroines are based, in part, upon themselves. When we create a character who is meant to be the good guy/gal, we tend to give them our best traits, along with other attributes of which society approves. What society wants from a hero or heroine has changed over the years and it helps to keep this in mind. In The Children of the Damned, George Sander’s Mary Sue wife is having a perfectly reasonable emotional breakdown on account of giving birth to a white haired demon child. His response is to slap her on the face so she shuts up. Way to show empathy, George! But at the time the film was made, it was not unusual for the hero to give the heroine a slap to bring her into line. Even Elvis Presley spanked a girl in Blue Hawaii (in fact he spanked a schoolgirl, which is rather more worrying). Such behaviour in films and in real life would, quite rightly, be frowned upon now, but at the time it was seen as acceptable.

Nowadays a hero is depicted as basically honest, brave, resourceful, not afraid to have a fight, and whilst he’s lucky with the ladies, and seldom turns down any reasonable offer of sex, he treats women well and respects them as people in their own right. Even an amoral hero like James Bond must always be kind to children and small fluffy animals. He may kill Blofeld in a suitably ironic fashion, but he would lose all his fans if he so much as harmed a hair on Blofeld’s cat’s head.

A heroine cannot be as promiscuous as the hero (double standards still abound sadly) and she must be basically honest and brave. Depending on the genre, heroines don’t really fight much. They tend to use their intelligence to get them out of problems. Hence my spoof Mary Sue’s assurance that she’ll sort Sauran out with nothing more than a good talking to. If the heroine has been promiscuous, a tryst with the hero will turn her into a born-again virgin, a la every bad girl James Bond has ever taken to bed, as satirised in the spoof Casino Royale (1967). The drawback being that she has to go away (often dying in the process) so that the hero does not have to choose between torrid sex with her and vanilla sex with the chaste primary Mary Sue. This can be seen in nearly every western or film noir from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But it goes back as far as the novel, Ivanhoe, who is clearly in love with the exquisite Jewess Rebecca, but marries the more vanilla Lady Rowena because society, i.e. the readership of the time, expects it of him.

The important thing to remember, when creating any character, is to make them fully realised. Admittedly if it’s the hero or heroine, you will probably make them better people than anyone that you or I will ever meet, but as long as they have some faults too, they won’t come across as Mary Sues/Marty Stus. The TV Tropes page suggests that if you give a character a fatal flaw (or even more than one) it negates anyone’s right to call them a Mary Sue or Marty Stu. One example is Bruce Willis in the original Die Hard film. His fatal flaw, to begin with, is that he does not like his wife being more successful than he is. It makes him seem human and fits in with the attitudes of the time without making him completely unlikeable. We see that he genuinely loves and cares for his wife but is just a bit of an emotional dinosaur.

And that’s the important point. Even fatal flaws have to be forgivable to readers. Most importantly make sure Marty Stu doesn’t slap Mary Sue after she’s given birth to a demon child (or at any other time for that matter), or I’ll be around to give him a good talking to.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Common Mistakes by New Writers

I’m always a bit wary of doing things like this because similar online articles become ‘rules’ and then writers start feeling they can’t do anything right. These are not rules, or things new writers should do. They’re just things to beware of when you first sit down to write. I’m not discussing grammar and spelling, because to be honest if someone has real problems with spelling and grammar only a course on basic literacy is going to help them. I just don’t have the space to deal with that here and also whilst I’ve learned to use fairly decent spelling and grammar, I couldn’t even begin to explain the technical terms. I just sort of ‘know’ if I’ve got it right.

So now we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, what are the most common mistakes made by new writers? We’re talking craft mistakes by the way, not how new writers behave publicly. Though reading a sample from a certain ebook much in the Internet news lately may have inspired some elements of this post.

 Please note all examples used are made up by me, and not taken from anyone else’s story though they may be inspired by what I’ve seen around and about.

They Write As They Speak

This is a common problem amongst new writers. They write as they speak. By writing like they speak, I mean in this way: There was this girl, see? And she went on a trip with her friends. And you’ll never guess what happened next. Sometimes this can work, giving a nice colloquial feel to a story, and often does work in first person or epistolary stories, but it can look amateurish if it’s overdone.  I’ve seen it done in third person stories by amateurs and it doesn’t work. It looks too self-conscious.

Children write as they speak a lot, but it’s amazing how many adults do. In a comp I judged, open to adults only, one story was full of such language which spoke directly to me the reader in a way that I found patronising. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that when later matched the story to the cover sheet, the author had also explained the story. In case the judge didn’t get it. What such language does is tell the reader ‘you’re really too stupid to get this so I’m going to flash a headlight – you see? - every time something important happens.’

I’m not talking about dialogue, with which you have a little more latitude for colloquialisms, but narrative. If you listen carefully to someone telling an anecdote – not a joke – you’ll notice that they’re all over the place. They might start “I was in Marks and Spencers … but before that I went to Primark and got that new top I showed you … anyway, there was this really strange woman … In Marks and Spencers I’d just come up the escalator when I saw her … standing near the knicker rack. Her. Not me…” Their speech is disjointed, but you somehow get the point of the story from their tone of voice (or maybe you don’t!).

This doesn’t work when writing a narrative. Your reader will soon get bored with your narrator’s diversions to visit Primark or go up the escalator and may give up reading. Even if you’re writing in the first person, you need to put some distance between your narrator and your reader. Bridget Jones Diary is full of Bridget’s most private thoughts. But even she doesn’t write as she speaks. Even when she’s being particularly ditzy, there’s a focus and formality to her narrative.

That’s not to say that a writer should never write in such a familiar, colloquial way. But it has to be something they’re stylistically aware they’re doing, and not just because it’s the way they speak.

They don’t understand what a story is 1.

By this I mean new writers will often write a joke and try to pass it off as a short story. Or they may write an anecdote about something that really happened to them. Neither of those makes a short story. Short stories not only has a beginning, middle and end (not necessarily in that order), it has a conflict and a plot. So the story of the day you lost your purse but found God on the number 9 bus is not a proper story – unless you were really conflicted and had the devil sitting behind you saying ‘take the number 10, it gets there quicker’. The joke your mate told you in the pub last night isn’t a story either, even if you do add more characters and give the barman more lines beyond ‘we don’t serve spirits in here’ (boom boom).

When I was judging recently I read a lovely piece of writing that was the writer’s remembrance of their mother. But, getting away from the fact it was obviously true, and the comp was for fiction, it wasn’t a story.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t turn a true story into a fictional piece of writing. The trick is in finding a kernel within the true story that resonates and then weave a fictional element around it. I often hear established writers say that they had a story turned down by a magazine as being ‘unbelievable’ even though it’s been based on a true story. Tom Clancy sums it up neatly: “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.”


There is also a problem where an anecdote, otherwise unconnected to the story, is included because it’s something that happened to the author and they thought it was worth mentioning as being amusing/interesting. If it adds nothing to the story then it isn’t. Leave it out.

They don’t understand what a story is 2

I’ve put this separately as it deals more with the format in which a story is submitted rather than the content. I’ve often seen it on writers’ forums where newbies congregate. In fact when I was a new writer hanging around fanfiction forums I saw it so often, and saw the authors praised as being fantastic writers that I wondered if I was doing it wrong. The truth is that some new writers can’t seem to decide if they want to be prose writers or playwrights. They present their story in the following manner:

Kathy was walking down the street, feeling really fed up. She’d lost her job, her boyfriend had dumped her, and she had to find a new flat.

Fred: Hey, Kathy!

Kathy turned around and saw her friend, Fred. He used to work with her, but had left the office and become a multi-millionaire at the age of twenty-seven.

Kathy: Hey, Fred. How are you?

Fred: I’m fine. What about you?”

Kathy: I’m fed up. I’ve lost my job, my boyfriend’s dumped me and I have to find a new flat.

Fred had always fancied Kathy, so he thought of asking her to move in with him.

Fred: You can move in with me if you like.

Kathy had never really fancied Fred when he worked at her office, but she had to admit that he had changed since he lost all his spots, and bought some new clothes. She heard he owned a fabulous mansion next to the lake. Suddenly she was in love as she’d never been in love before.

Kathy: Oh yes, that would be great, thanks.

Kathy went back to her flat happy that all her problems had been solved by Fred.

Yeah, yeah, I know that story has LOTS of problems. I’ll discuss exposition repetition and deus ex machina later. But the point I’m making is when writers mix up prose and script and think it makes a short story. It doesn’t. It doesn’t even make a script. It makes a clumsy hybrid that fits nowhere. It also suggests that the writer has never actually sat down and read a book, because if they had they’d know how stories are told even if they didn’t get it perfect first time.

They can’t decide whose story they’re telling

We’re all capable of waffling on and writing ourselves into a story. When I recently judged the Write Space comp there were some perfectly good stories that would have been just as good if the writer deleted the first few lines. But some new writers start off in one point of view and then we move away from that character and find out we’re being told someone else’s story.

I read a story some time ago which started in ‘Fred’s’ point of view (not the real name of that character) and went on in Fred’s point of view for several paragraphs – almost to the bottom of the first page - but then we found out that ‘Kathy’ was telling Fred her story and it was actually all about Kathy going through a sad personal experience and the story ended very much in her head. This isn’t even about a clumsy pov change (I’ll get to clumsy pov changes later). It was written in such a way that Fred as a character was completely redundant. He didn’t even come back into the story near the end to say ‘there there, Kathy’ after she’d finished emoting. Which leads me to:

They have too many redundant characters

In a novel one can have quite a few characters, some of whom may not actually be essential to the plot but just add colour to the story. In a short story there’s no room for a character who doesn’t earn their keep. So there’s no need to name the taxi driver who takes the heroine to the airport or to tell us his life story (unless he’s going to turn out to be the new love interest that is). Same with the woman in the newsagents who sells the heroine her morning paper. In fact you could leave both out altogether and just say ‘Kathy bought a morning paper before taking a taxi to the airport’. Or words to that effect.

They can’t decide what story they’re telling

This is harder to explain, and has nothing to do with the characters, though it may include not knowing what you’re going to have your characters do when you start writing. What I mean is that the story has too many elements to it; an abundance of plots and sub-plots that make the readers’ head spin. In a novel there’s room for a sub-plot or two. But even then it needs to be tight and have a central conflict.

 Decide before you start writing what story you’re going to be telling. If you’re writing a romantic intrigue, is it going to be about how your lovers meet, and the criminals and events that keep them apart? (most of mine are) Or is it going to be about their honeymoon and the criminals who threaten their lives and their relationship? It may be about how they met, married and then went on to have an adventure together (whistles nonchalantly and insists she’s not talking about any particular novel…). You need to decide before you start writing as that will dictate where your story starts.

 I’d argue that if it’s going to be about the honeymoon and the ensuing danger from criminals, then it’s best to begin the story as your newlyweds are boarding the plane or the yacht or the train. You can always add any conflict that might affect their relationship, as well as their lives, as you go along. Does she think his family hates her and might turn him against her when they go home? Does he think she only married him for his money?  Or is he still in love with his old girlfriend and only married our heroine on the rebound Meanwhile they’re fighting off the bad guys and working towards realising they do love each other very much. Or not as the case may be.

The mix up their tenses

Past tense, present tense, future tense, pluperfect tense. It’s enough to make your eyes water trying to remember. But it’s a common problem amongst new writers – and one the hardest things I had to learn – that they mix up their tenses, moving from present to past to future to pluperfect at random. I can’t begin to explain. Like spelling and grammar it’s one of those things I’ve learned to get right without understanding properly how it works. So I’ve found this webpage that explains it better

They mix up their points of view

Points of view can relate to two elements of writing. Who’s telling the story (First, second and third person) or whose head we’re in (focalisation) at any given time, even if the story is told in the third person. The differences in first, second and third are explained here

But changing points of view using focalisation is problematic, as it’s easy to slip from one to the other. Here’s an example: Kathy glared at Fred, furious with him. He was bloody furious with her too.

If you write several paragraphs explaining Kathy’s fury, remember that she can’t ‘know’ what Fred is thinking though you could write ‘Kathy looked at Fred, who was clearly angry’ (this is just an example. Obviously in a story you’d show Fred’s anger in some other way).  Then you could go on to write several paragraphs describing Fred’s anger and what he thinks she’s thinking (though I’d advise about going over the same ground and describing the same scene simply from a different point of view).

At one time it used to frowned upon to even change pov for a couple of paragraphs at a time, but this is less frowned upon, as writers like Sarah Waters and Sadie Jones have done it in recent bestselling novels. In Mills and Boon novels it’s quite common for sectional pov changes. However, I’d advise against changing pov for a sentence at a time within the same paragraph. It makes your writing look all over the place.


They repeat information

New writers have a tendency to repeat information (Dan Brown does it too, so it can be done with some success – or not depending on how you feel about Brown). In my script/prose example above, it’s mentioned that Kathy has lost her job and her flat and her boyfriend, and then she goes on to repeat that information to Fred when they meet. There’s no need to do that. You can either describe why Kathy is fed up at the beginning, then later when she meets Fred say ‘She explained to him what had happened’, and move on with the story, or you could hold back on why Kathy is upset when we first meet her at the beginning of the story, then have her explain to Fred (and the reader) in dialogue what’s happened.

Now a lot of novels and longer stories, particularly crime and thriller novels, may have a ‘catch up’ part, for the benefit of readers, in which the characters discuss what’s happened so far. In crime stories it’s usually the sleuth explaining to their sidekick what they’ve learned so far by questioning the suspects:

No, you’ve got it wrong as usual, Watson. Lady Elspeth couldn’t have been in the parlour when Colonel Blimp died because she says she was meeting Lord Cedric in the summerhouse and he confirmed that. At the same time, Minnie the maid says she was talking to George, the butcher’s boy, at the back door. She didn’t hear anyone come in through the front door.’

It sounds as if Holmes is having to tell Watson because the good Doctor is stupid, but really it’s because the reader needs to be reminded of what’s gone so far (incidentally, the above example is not from a real Sherlock Holmes story. I made it up). But your readers don’t need reminding every other page that the hero and heroine are on the run from the bad guys. The reader will have got that point when you mentioned the bullet whizzing past the hero’s ear as they were jumping into the getaway car…

They Use Exposition

New writers tend to use a lot of exposition in their work. This is not the same as being predictable, where the reader guesses what’s going to happen, perhaps because the author has used a common theme. Exposition involves pretty much laying out the story in the first paragraph or chapter or at some other early point in a novel. In fact Dan Brown does it in The Da Vinci Code, where halfway through the novel he has Prof. Hampton conjecture what does turn out to be the ‘twist’ at the end, which rather took the edge off the twist. Or it did for me. The best way to build up tension, especially if you want a twist, is to mention to the reader everything but the truth, so that you’re always nudging them away from it. Hints are fine, but having your sleuth think ‘I wonder if she’s the great (x10) granddaughter of…?’ in chapter 15when there are 15 more chapters to go is not good…

But for new writers it can be a bigger problem, in that they’ll start a story with something like ‘this is the true story of the day I nearly died on the way to work’. Whilst I’m aware a dead person couldn’t possibly be telling the story anyway (though nowadays, post-Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones anything is possible.) it does rather take the tension out of the story when you know the main character survived. Or they may start ‘this is the story of when Carla went on holiday and met some bad guys and they nearly killed her’. Again they’ve removed the tension, because we know that Carla survived, so why would we read on? Unless there was some other conflict, like Carla’s husband perhaps ending up dead and we don’t know that until the end. I should add again that it isn’t just children who do this. I’ve seen stories written by adults which make the same mistake.

Maintaining the tension in a story is like playing poker. You bluff for as long as possible and only show your hand when it’s absolutely necessary.

They fall back on deus ex machina too often

The deus ex machina is the ‘God in the machine’ or a sudden and unexpected event that solves all the characters problems. For example, Kathy and Fred are having marital problems and we see that most of the problems are down to finances (Fred obviously having lost his multi-million pound business and house by the lake). Suddenly at the end, Great Aunt Marge (who hasn’t been mentioned thus far) dies and leaves them all her money, thereby solving Kathy and Fred’s problems. There are a couple of issues with this. First it’s a con, because the reader had no idea from the story it was going to happen. Secondly, it hasn’t allowed Kathy and Fred to solve their own problems, perhaps teaching them that they don’t need money to be happy together.

The most cringe worthy example I ever read was where a homeless dude, who just happened to be a writer, saved a man’s life. But would you believe it turned out the saved man was a publisher? The publisher went on to give homeless dude a publishing contract (without ever having read his work! But luckily it was a good novel anyway and an immediate bestseller – phew!). Because that’s exactly how it happens and how you become a famous writer (though there is the homeless guy who’s become a radio presenter in America so perhaps not so improbable…). There was too much of an element of wish-fulfilment in the story.

It’s best, if possible, to let characters solve their own problems. That doesn’t mean they can’t have help, but it must come from the story, not anything sudden and unexpected or a big shot publisher in disguise. In It’s A Wonderful Life, we spend a lot of the film wondering how George Bailey is going to get out of the pickle he’s in regarding the missing mortgage money. At the end, he’s saved from disgrace by all the people he’s helped through the years turning up to help him in his hour of need. It’s not a deus ex machina because in a sense he has solved his own problems by being the kind and generous small town man he’s been all his life. His kindness and generosity is simply repaid in kind.

That’s all I can think of for now (and my hands are aching). I may revisit this subject in the future, if I think of any more ‘mistakes’.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

A Cheat's Guide to Writing Western Romances

Of all my old blog posts, this was one of the most popular. It also appeared in The New Writer Magazine.


Having written two whole western romances – Bella’s Vineyard and Just Like Jesse James  – I feel I’m in a position now to share my experience of writing cowboy love stories with the world. And when I say cowboy love stories, I’m not talking about Brokeback Mountain here. I’m talking about a man with a big Stetson and a girl in a gingham dress. What’s most amazing about my success in selling a western romance is that I was born in Pontypool, South Wales, and have lived in Chesterfield for over thirty years.  What’s more, I have never set foot on American soil. One of the librarians at Chesterfield Library has also written dozens of westerns. I’m guessing he probably got out more.

But here are my tips on how a British woman – or man – can write a western romance without ever having visited the United States.

Watch classic westerns – Most peoples’ experience of the Wild West is from watching old films. The Magnificent Seven (pauses to think of Yul Brynner … sigh), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (pauses to think of James Stewart – yeah, I know it’s amazing I get anything done at all), True Grit. The cowboys were always clean and handsome and the western towns quaint. This is the image you’re selling. You might think that Paint Your Wagon was more realistic – well apart from Clint Eastwood singing to trees – but this is not what your average western romance reader wants. They want the fantasy of the tall, dark handsome stranger who rides into town, saves the day and wins the girl.

Forget the gritty realism – As mentioned above, Paint Your Wagon may paint (excuse the pun) a more realistic portrait of your average western town, with its mad dash for gold, whore houses, spittoons and streets teeming with mud, but that isn’t the stuff of romance. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Oklahoma are your reference for all things pretty in a western setting. Jane Powell in her cute little homemade patchwork dresses. Shirley Jones in gingham pretending she’s not remotely interested in Gordon McCrae (no pause there. I never quite got the Gordon McCrae thing). Or if you want your setting to feel a little more in fitting with those times, Hugh Jackman (pauses etc etc) singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning in Sir Trevor Nunn’s re-imagining of Oklahoma. Now there’s a man who can look big and tough and still hold a tune. Hugh Jackman that is. Not Sir Trevor.

Leave out the cattle – I hate to be blunt here, but cattle smell. Really bad. And they’re a bit noisy. There’s also the danger of your heroine stepping in a cow pat when she’s dosey doe-ing across the field in her new gingham dress. No, pick a prettier setting for your heroine. In Bella’s Vineyard, I chose … well the title says it all really; vineyards in the beautiful Sierra Nevada. In Just Like Jesse James, I’ve chosen the orange groves of Southern California. There is a ranch mentioned (owned by the hero) but the cattle don’t get much of a look in. I am now hunting around for the next pretty setting for a western romance. I’m thinking apple trees in blossom or maybe New England in the autumn (no I know that’s not ‘western’ but it’s still darn pretty).

A gun is just a gun  – Men reading westerns like to know all about the Winchesters and Colt 45s and six-guns, how many rounds they shoot. I find women on the whole are not so interested. So just keep it simple. The bad guy is either holding a rifle or has pulled his gun from his holster (which tells the reader it’s a handgun).  The ironic thing about me giving this advice is that I’m married to an expert marksman, who could tell me everything I needed to know about weaponry. But needing to know and wanting to know are two different things…

Make your heroine British – there’s a good reason for this. It means that you can get away with writing your western romance in British English. So you can use colour instead of color, and flavour instead of flavor.  Also it gives your British reader of western romances someone to connect to. They can put themselves in the heroine’s place and imagine they’re the ones attracting the attentions of the Yul Brynner or Hugh Jackman look-a-like.

Have an old-timer – It’s important in a western setting to have at least one old timer, male or female it doesn’t matter, who talks about ‘the time afore the railroad came to town’. It adds colour and gives the impression that the town has been there a long time, but is now civilised so your heroine doesn’t have to worry about accidentally walking into a whorehouse on her first day there or being scalped by Native American Indians (who, of course, don’t go in for that sort of thing in westerns written since the late 20th century anyway.) In Just Like Jesse James, I made my old timer, called Old Tom (look clichés are allowed in westerns, alright – more of which later) the town chorus. He was the one who said what everyone else was thinking.

Have lots of barn-raisings and barn dances. They’re great situations to bring your hero and heroine together, putting your heroine into a pretty non-gingham dress, as well as being a place trouble might start when the bad guy rides into town.

Make your hero a fine, upstanding … killer  - Your hero must be a good man, but also capable of killing another man in a shoot out. It’s what your heroine and your reader expects. That’s not to say that he’ll do it. But it must be clear that he would and could if he had to. Especially if his gingham-clad sweetheart is in danger. But do make your hero a ‘man with a past’. This isn’t my advice. It’s my dad’s and you just don’t argue with him on such matters. So there.

Make up the town – If you’ve never been to America, then make up your town. It’s easier and stops people from saying ‘that can’t have happened there, because it doesn’t have any mountains around it’. Louis L’Amour famously said that if he wants a tree to be in a certain place, he puts it there and I tend to agree with him.  If I want mountains, it has mountains. If I want a beach three miles away, I put one there (clearly the town would have to be near one of the coasts for that to happen). I do try to keep crops, such as vineyards and orange groves specific to an area, but this is because even a novice western fan would know it’s unlikely that one could grow grapes in Alaska (unless anyone can tell me any different?). When you make up your town, find an old English town on the map of Britain and name it after that. Obviously Milton Keynes doesn’t work, as it wasn’t around in the 1800s, but I did name the town in Bella’s Vineyard Milton (after the poet). Or if your location is further south and to the west, look up an old Spanish town on a map of Europe and call it that. French maps cover anywhere around the New Orleans/Deep South area, German and Scandinavian maps most places in the mid-west. Or pick a nice foreign word that says what the town does. In Just Like Jesse James I named the town Ocasa, which is Spanish for sunset (at least I hope it is now otherwise I’m going to look a real prat). This is because the town is based on the Southern California town of Ojai which, I’ve read, have fantastic pink sunsets and I thought that was a good setting for my romance. America also has some pretty weird sounding town names listed here: -so you could make up one from any two random words and it wouldn’t be considered wrong. Though I may give ‘Spunky Puddle’ a miss.

Clichés are allowed so have fun with them. Oh yes, clichés are allowed in western romances. Because as I stated at the beginning, the majority of readers’ image of the Old West is going to be based on what they’ve seen in television and films. So don’t be afraid to use those clichés as a shortcut to helping people understand what’s going on. Of course, turning those clichés on their head is just as much fun. Let your reader think they’re getting one thing then give them something else entirely. Did I mention that the ‘old timer’ in Bella’s Vineyard turned out to be a lesbian? Well she was, and she was one of my favourite characters ever.

So now you know how to write a romantic western, right? As you can see, I don’t take it too seriously, and that’s the important thing with any type of writing. Just have fun with it.