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 (http://www.tvtropes.com) 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 http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-use-Past-Tense-Present-Tense-and-Future-Tense-in-Novel-Writing

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 http://www.suite101.com/content/points-of-view-a24900

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: http://www.accuracyproject.org/towns.html -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.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Writers Behaving Badly

I’ve been looking for an old blog post I’d written about behaving professionally as a writer. It’s there, somewhere, amongst my zillion files and folders on Dropbox, but I can’t find it. And maybe it’s time for an update, because since I wrote that, the Internet has become even bigger and more unforgiving of anyone who makes a mistake.  

As the popular meme says, ‘Thank God I made all my mistakes before the Internet’. Mind you, I made a few myself when I first got online. I was naïve and believed that everyone would be as nice as I am. I soon learned the error of my ways, and what the word ‘troll’ really means.

If you’re a writer, your behaviour online, and professionally, is even more important. There have been some notable meltdowns. Not least, Jacqueline Howett’s meltdown over a reasonably kind review of her novel, The Greek Seaman. I actually felt sorry for Jacqueline at the time, as although she had behaved inappropriately in her response to the review, the ensuing ‘pile in’ crossed the line into bullying a woman who was clearly vulnerable. The worst of it is that her ‘howlett’, as some called it, now has its own Wikipedia page. It is immortalised forever (or however long the Internet lasts).

So here are some things to remember to help you traverse the rocky waters of the World Wide Interweb and the even rockier waters of the publishing world.

Remember that when online you are always in publiceven in a closed group.

As an author, your product is yourself and your writing. How you present that product is very important, particularly online. As many of us have witnessed, there is no such thing as privacy online. Even if you have a closed blog, or fire off a snarky email to someone, people can and will take screenshots if they find something they want to share with the rest of the world. Emails can be copied and pasted, or forwarded to hundreds of other people. Think Mylene Klass and that email* about the birthday party…

I had a private email made public early in my Internet days, and it was excruciating, even though I hadn’t said anything unreasonable under the circumstances. But even that’s not enough, because there are so many different opinions online now that even if you have behaved reasonably, there will be those who twist your words into something else, just for the sake of it. You only have to read the Daily Mail comments section on any given day/subject to see what I mean.  

As a writer, how you behave can have a marked affect upon your career. Publishers and agents read blogs, they read Facebook pages and Twitter streams, particularly if something has gone viral. I know of authors who can’t get arrested now because of the way they behaved in online forums years ago.

*Incidentally, if someone sends you an email or private message, the copyright to that email/message belongs to them. It is not yours to use as you see fit in order to publicly humiliate them because they dared to disagree with you on the Internet.

Remember that writers talk to other writers

The writing world may seem huge, but in fact it’s tiny. I used to joke that there were twenty million writer profiles online and that they all belonged to twelve people. It’s not quite that small, but it is a close-knit community.

Writers talk to other writers, who then go on to discuss it with their agents and publishers. Everyone loves to gossip. Even people who pretend they don’t gossip will listen to it if it’s within earshot. Word gets around about someone who has behaved badly online and if there’s evidence, everyone can see it for themselves. It can have a marked effect upon a writer’s career. Most of us plod along as jobbing writers, picking up work here and there, so professionalism is crucially important.

Think about the image you want to give to publishers and agents, who are, in effect, future employers. They want someone who is reasonable and easy to work with. They want someone who will entice readers. The days of writers in their attics, not touching the populace, are long gone. You’re expected to market yourself as well as your work. Now if you’re Anne Rice, you can probably behave truculently (allegedly) to your readership and bad reviewers and still sell loads of novels. As a new author, you don’t have the luxury of the Constant Reader. You’re still trying to encourage your family and friends to read your work, let alone the whole world.

Any agent or publisher interested in your work will look you up online. Now if you have written the novel of the century, they probably won’t care what you do, but even that’s debatable in this age where even the writer is the product. It’s more likely you’ve written something they like, but think might be a hard sell, so they’re going to be relying on you to help them to sell it. If you spend too much time moaning on your blog or Social Networking, and too much time getting involved in petty arguments with others, they’re going to be wary. Because what they see, readers will be able to see when it comes time for them to Google you.

It can be hard to be reasonable all the time, and we’ve all got involved in online spats, me included. There were times I cried myself to sleep over things that had been said to me online. I learned the hard way that it was better to walk away, put the kettle on, cuddle the dogs, eat a meal. Anything that helps me over that first burst of anger at something I have read so that I don’t fire off a snappy response.

Behave with professionalism towards publishers and agents

There are rules about dealing with publishers and agents. Most of the rules are on their websites. Agent, Carole Blake, has written an excellent article on 29 ways not to approach an agent.  

I’d also add, don’t stalk publishers and agents on Twitter. Follow them by all means, but don’t bother them with requests for them to read your manuscript. That information is on their websites. Don’t turn up at an event with your manuscript and expect them to carry it home with them. Imagine how they’d feel if 20 people did that and they were left carrying all those manuscripts home on the tube. Similarly, don’t hand your manuscript over to other writers, in the hopes they’ll get you a book deal. I refuse to take manuscripts off people, simply because authors have done that in the past, thinking they were being kind, and were then accused of plagiarism when they inadvertently wrote something similar.  

Think about what you are saying online and how it appears to others

You would think that writers know better than anyone about the power of words. Yet it’s amazing how many writers fire off a response to something, and then say that they didn’t mean what they said, insisting that others are reading it wrong. You are in the business of communication. You should know at all times what you are saying and what the response might be if you have not chosen your words carefully. It doesn’t matter if you disagree virulently with what someone else has said. It doesn’t matter if you think they need to be ‘brought down a peg or two’ (a phrase I hate). What matters is how you come out of it.

Even if you’re careful and say exactly what you mean, people will read what they want into your words based on their own prejudices and agenda. I refer you again to the readers’ comments in the Daily Mail.

Don’t respond to bad reviews

This is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, especially with Amazon reviews and sites like Goodreads. Readers don’t care about your career or even your feelings. They only care if you’ve written a book that they like. If they don’t like it, they will say so, and often tell you why in no uncertain terms.

Now their dislike may be a matter of personal taste, or they may have got the wrong end of the stick about your novel. But you cannot tell them that, as much as you may be itching to. Because once you respond, others, who probably haven’t even read your novel, will pile in with 1* reviews. Readers have given 1* reviews to one best-selling author because of his religious views on homosexuality. This is without even reading the book.

On Goodreads they warn writers not to even respond to good reviews. I think that might be going too far, but I can see their point given the rabid nature of some trolls on the Internet.

Keep a Dignified Silence when others attack you online

This is a hard one to do, but it’s something sadly lacking in today’s society. There’s a lot to be said for a dignified silence. If you keep quiet about something, no one can copy what you’ve said and show it to everyone else on the Internet. No one can misquote you if you haven’t said anything. Then gradually (and hopefully) with no more fuel for the fire, everything goes away and your reputation is intact. More importantly, you don’t show up on every search engine as someone who’s always fighting with other people. It does happen. I know of a writer who, because of insulting behaviour in the past, shows up on all Google searches in a forum post where their behaviour is documented in detail by everyone they’ve ever upset.

When people Google your name, what you need them to see is your blog, details of your successes and instances of you being decent to others.

Try not to moan every five minutes about giving up

We all know rejections are hard to deal with and I’ve had my moments of despair. I once had 9 rejections in one day. Agents and publishers are looking for writers with staying power, who can deliver them several books. If you throw your arms in the air, delete your FB/Twitter accounts and your blog every time you get a rejection that is not showing staying power. You have to prove that you can go the distance.

Obviously, if you’ve really had enough of writing and want to try something else, then by all means give up. It might well be that writing is not for you. Just don’t make a big song and dance about it, in case you want to go back to it again in the future. Then you can pretend that you've been busy writing your masterpiece.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

How Do Ghosts Kiss? (and other important questions for the supernatural novelist)

Previously published in The New Writer Magazine
The supernatural romance is big business in publishing. This is partly as a result of Stephanie Meyer’s phenomenally successful Twilight series, which charts the lives and loves of middle-class, teenage vampires. A sort of Beverley Hills 90210 - with teeth. I suspect that Meyer’s success was built upon the interest in the occult that was created in the wake of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Best-selling novelist Marian Keyes new novel, The Brightest Star in the Sky also touches on the supernatural, as does Sophie Kinsella’s Twenties Girl. Now major romance publishers like Mills & Boon are getting in on the act, with their Nocturne imprint; a world away from the fluffy romances that made M&B successful. The world famous ‘punishing kisses’ have been replaced by white-hot vampire love bites. Though, they tell prospective writers, the favoured hero still must be an alpha male.


I spoke to two rising stars of the genre, Cally Taylor and Tamsyn Murray, to find out why supernatural romances have become so popular, and whether the British treatment of the theme differs from the American.


Cally Taylor’s novel, Heaven Can Wait, (ISBN 1409103234) was published by Orion on 15 October 2009. Cally told me about her novel, “It’s a supernatural romantic-comedy about a woman called Lucy who dies the night before her wedding. In order to become a ghost, and be reunited with her fiancé, she has to find love for a total stranger in twenty-one days.” The novel has been described as “a fabulously warm, funny and romantic novel that will have you laughing and crying in equal measure.”


Tamsyn Murray’s My So-Called Afterlife (ISBN:  978 1 84812 057 0), is due for release in February 2010. Tam said, “(it) is a bittersweet supernatural teen novel about a fifteen year old ghost called Lucy who haunts the men’s toilet on Carnaby Street. The story revolves around how she comes to terms with a complicated afterlife following her murder. With psychics, psychos and sidekicks ... who says death is the end?”


I asked them why they chose to write a supernatural novel, as opposed to dealing with more earthly subjects.


Two reasons really,” said Cally. “The first is that I was compelled to write the book as soon as I came up with the idea. I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucy, Dan and the other characters and found myself constantly jotting down ideas for scenes and plot twists. I couldn’t wait to start writing it. Secondly I’m a huge fan of films and TV dramas about the supernatural, or anything a little bit out of the ordinary - everything from ‘Harvey’ where James Stewart talks to an imaginary rabbit, to Harry Potter to True Blood – and it felt natural to write something in a similar genre. If I find a novel exciting to write hopefully the reader will find it exciting to read.


Tam started with a slightly different premise. “The novel grew when I wondered about what happened to ghosts if the place they haunted was knocked down – did they haunt whatever was built on the land or did they have to find a new home? As I was picturing the ghost of a sixteenth century Lord or Lady finding themselves haunting a public lavatory, Lucy arrived in my head along with a corking first line for the book. She was such a strong character and very much dictated the subject and tone of the book!”


I wondered how difficult it was to find a publisher, given that the genre seems to be more popular in America.


“I think I was lucky because it wasn’t especially difficult,” said Tam. “I joined Antony Harwood Literary Agency in October 2008 and Piccadilly Press was one of the first publishers to receive the manuscript. We agreed terms in March 2009 so it only took a few months to find a publisher, something that’s due in no small part to my agent, Jo Williamson.”


Cally didn’t find it quite as easy. “I think some of the publishers my agent approached were definitely nervous about taking on a supernatural romantic-comedy as there’s no proven sales record for that genre in the UK,” she said. “That said there was interest from four different publishers in the UK and I was delighted when Orion gave me their full backing and support.”


Both Cally and Tam’s novels have a strong vein of humour, whereas Stephanie Meyer’s novels tend to be very earnest, charting a darkly obsessive love. Why did Cally and Tam choose to inject their novels with humour?


“As well as being interested in supernatural films and TV dramas,” said Cally. “I’m a big fan of romantic comedies and I wanted to write a book that was a combination of the two. Writers like Sophie Kinsella and Helen Fielding have both written hugely successful comedy novels whilst films like “Just Like Heaven” have married the supernatural and comedy, but there aren’t many supernatural romantic-comedy novels around. “Heaven Can Wait” could have been very dark, particularly as the main character is dead, but I wanted to see if I could inject some humour into the subject and make it an entertaining read rather than a depressing one.”


Tam said, Again, I’d have to lay this at Lucy’s door. She had such a witty personality, a typical sarcastic teenager in a lot of ways, that it would have been impossible not to include humour. I was also aware that the subject matter of the book is often very dark and humour enabled me to touch on some painful topics without depressing the reader. That’s not say Lucy isn’t obsessive about her love-life but it’s probably the only thing which goes smoothly after her death!”


I wanted to know if this was a quintessentially British trait. As a nation do we prefer to deal with dark subjects in a humorous way?


“I think the supernatural is a growing area of interest in the UK and there’s no shortage of people who believe in the paranormal,” said Tam. “But Brits often approach difficult situations with humour and since death is one of the most harrowing experiences we go through perhaps it’s no surprise we use humour to help us deal with it. Or maybe it simply allows us to cope with things beyond our understanding.”


In Cally’s experience, “some Brits take the supernatural very seriously. I recently went to a Psychic Fair to try and get some ideas for novel 3 and the people there took it very seriously indeed. TV programmes like ‘Most Haunted’ seem to get a very loyal following too although I’ll admit that most Brits are quite sceptical about anything to do with the supernatural. Earlier this year the BBC broadcast a programme called ‘Being Human’ that mixed humour with the supernatural and seemed to get a very good response so maybe there is something in the ‘Brits take a humorous take on the supernatural’ theory.”


We all know that research is important for any novel, and it’s also a good idea to know what’s out there already.  However, Cally admitted to being fairly new to the genre in novel form, although has she has already told us, she’s always been a fan of films dealing with the supernatural. “I have to admit that I hadn’t read any supernatural romances prior to writing my own book as, as you said earlier, it isn’t a huge genre in the UK yet. Since writing my book I’ve read the whole Twilight series, which I enjoyed – particularly the fourth book which was more plot lead than the previous books – and am planning on reading Sophie Kinsella’s book Twenties Girl about a 1920s ghost visiting a modern day young woman.”


Tam had read supernatural romances, and it led to her asking some interesting questions about her own characters. “Although romance is only one strand of the plot to My So-Called Afterlife, I’ve read several supernatural love stories and really like the genre. I love the freedom to explore the traditional aspects of love, which the supernatural element gives – do ghosts kiss? How? Plus there’s great potential for comedic value; ghosts can wreak a witty revenge on a cheating ex and get caught up in all manner of other funny events!”


I asked them what the good and bad points of the genre were. Cally said, “I don’t think I can really point out the good and bad points of the genre without reading a more varied range of books.”


Tam pointed out some of the problems that might arise. “…it’s easy to fall into the cliché trap, with chain-rattling ghosts and convenient magic. Also, sometimes the author doesn’t make the parameters of the supernatural world clear to the reader, which can lead to confusion and weakens the plot.”


Finally I asked them what advice they had for writers wanting to break into the supernatural genre.


Tam said: “Be fresh with your ideas and treatment of traditional supernatural elements. Make sure you know the rules of the world you are creating and be prepared to spend time thinking about the fine details – how does your ghost cope with the material world and where does a werewolf find clothes that fit when he changes back to a human? Above all, avoid lucky coincidences (something that applies to all writing!) and have fun experimenting.”


Cally stresses the importance of being unique. “I think it’s important to write what you want to write whilst also thinking outside the box. In the same way that lots of writers started writing books about wizards and witches after the huge success of Harry Potter there’s bound to be a glut of vampire novels arriving in agent’s inboxes after the success of the Twilight series. It takes so long to write a novel, find a publisher and then get it published that what’s ‘hot stuff’ now might be out of vogue in two years time. Make your characters memorable, your ‘hook’ unique, your plot compelling and, if you’ve got a strong voice, agents and publishers will sit up and take notice.”


So the time to start writing your supernatural romance is now!


Monday, 9 March 2015

The Cheats' Guide to Writing Science Fiction

Previously published in The New Writer Magazine

The Cheat’s Guide to writing Science Fiction


I decided a while ago that I enjoy writing science fiction (SF), or speculative fiction as many SF writers prefer to call it nowadays, more than any other genre. There was one major drawback. I know nothing about science. I can’t tell you what’s on the periodic table, or why it’s only on there periodically. I don’t know how the positronic brain works, but I know that Data on Star Trek The Next Generation had one and it got him into all sorts of trouble. And I’ve no idea how to get someone from one era to another, except that it usually involves people going all wobbly or flying off into the distance in a DeLorean before killing their grandfather and stopping themselves from being born.

Despite all that I still want to write SF. It really came home to me how ill-equipped I was when I decided to write a novel set on a space ship. Not just any old spaceship; one about eighty storeys high and in the shape of a cathedral. Thinking I was being a good SF writer, I asked myself, ‘Where would it be built?’ ‘How would it get off the ground?’ Just so I could get the novel started, I decided I wouldn’t try to answer either of those questions unless they somehow turned out to be relevant to the plot. So far they haven’t been relevant at all. Because everything happens inside the ship, and it’s happening to the passengers who have no more idea of how the ship got off the ground than your average Easyjet passenger knows how a 747 stays in the air. In other words, I’m cheating.


Now I’m going to share some of my own cheats with you - or how to write SF without a science degree.


Don’t have scientists or space captains as main characters. That’s just asking for trouble. Because if you have ‘Einstein’ or ‘Kirk’ in your story, he’s going to have to know what he’s talking about, isn’t he? Which means you’ll have to know what you’re talking about. Just have everything that happens happen to ordinary folk, like you. They don’t need to know that the space ship is going to crash because the main thingamyjig has fallen into the wotsit and Scotty can’t get the parts. All they need to do is sort out any issues with parents/ex-lovers/siblings/children, save their fellow passengers, apart from the obviously evil ones who must die, and then bail out in time to start up some new issues for the sequel.


Don’t explain. Have all your technology as you want it. Time travel, speed of light, other dimensions. Space ships shaped like cathedrals. Just don’t bother trying to explain how it all works. If your story is strong enough, and the technology reasonably plausible, or so extreme, that plausibility isn’t an issue, people won’t notice.


Set your story in a post-industrial era. Society has broken down. There are no more machines and humankind has gone back to living off the land. It cuts out all that worry about what sort of technology we have in the future. Create a world that’s gone back to nature, whilst characters allude to some Big Disaster that brought them to this point. To create authenticity and familiarity, have the characters find a Starbucks coffee cup or the odd CD disk, so that the reader knows this is the future they’re dealing with. Examples of post-industrial speculative novels include Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse and Will Self’s Book Of Dave.


Set it in the near future. You can probably guess, by looking at the new technology available now, what’s going to be out in five, ten or twenty years. It’ll just be smaller and more expensive. Also bear in mind that few people can afford to upgrade regularly. My printer is 18 months old, my tower system just over 2 years old and my monitor is at least 5 years old. So what’s wrong with your future people owning similarly outdated technology? Just have them kicking and banging their computers a lot and saying, ‘I’ve had this heap of junk since 2008 but since the evil robot emperor took over and put VAT up to forty per cent, I can’t afford a new one’. Or something like that. There is even a recognised offshoot of SF for this. It’s called Mundane SF, which is based on the idea that the laws of physics, and therefore technology, can’t evolve much beyond what we already know. So you might be pushing it a bit having an evil robot emperor. An excellent example of Mundane SF is PD James Children Of God.


Beg, steal or borrow ideas. Not for one minute am I suggesting plagiarism, but there are some well-known plot devices that originally started with one author, and have gone on to be recognised as standard science fiction fare. Like HG Well’s time machine, which countless writers have used, only varying the design and method of time travel. The makers of Star Trek The Next Generation took Asimov’s idea of the positronic brain for the android Data, and Asimov, in his turn, got the word robot from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. Asimov’s creation, hyperspace, is a means of space travel that has become standard for many writers who want to get their characters across the far reaches of the universe. The trick is to make these ideas seem fresh. But, whatever you do, don’t use the idea of warp drive, as apparently real SF buffs will immediately label you as an amateur.


Characters and themes. The best science fiction stories are really about the characters and ideas, not the technology. Blade Runner (the film of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) is not about how the replicants were created. It’s about, amongst other things, how much like us they are, and whether that gives them the right to live.  Asimov’s robot stories aren’t just about robots. They’re about how we treat each other, dealing with themes of prejudice and alienation. The best SF stories, regardless of if they’re set on another planet, in an alternate universe or in some hazy future are about the fears and concerns we have today. So use those fears alongside compelling characters.


Research. Well you didn’t think you’d get away with doing no work at all, did you?  Look things up, online or in the library. Unless you are writing hard SF, there’s no need to know everything about the technology your story needs, but it helps to learn a bit. Just throw in enough so that people think you know what you’re talking about. You can do that by searching online, or reading books of popular science, or just by watching science and ‘extreme nature’ documentaries, which offer up some good ideas.


The most important advice I can offer is just to enjoy imagining the world you’ve created, write your story, and don’t worry too much if it doesn’t fit in with accepted SF conventions. For all you know, you might be the SF writer who breaks the mould.