Saturday, 31 January 2015

8 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Writing Category Romance

What is Category Romance?

Category Romances are a clearly designated series of books, usually around 50-55k words in length. Mills and Boon is the biggest publisher of category romances in the world, and their categories, to name but a few, include Modern Romance, Riva, Medical, Historical and Intrigue. The different lines are generally colour coded, each with a with recognisable ‘livery’. Their American arm, Harlequin, publish the same books but in slightly different lines and colour codes. For example, in America, Modern romances are called ‘Harlequin Presents’.  The books are published on a regular basis, with as many as four or five from each line being published each month. This means there are a lot of opportunities for writers who want to break into the category romance market.

How does category romance differ from traditional romance?

It doesn’t differ that much. Category romances are, for the most part, traditional male and female romances. The main difference is that the category romances tend to be more centred on the romance, with hardly any sub-plot. One tip I was given by a Mills and Boon writer was to keep it simple, but dig deep so that it’s all about the emotion and internal conflict rather than external conflict.

So what exactly does each category involve?

Different romance publishers have different categories and conventions, so I’ll stick with the main Mills and Boon lines for now. You’ll find that other publishers have very similar lines but give them different titles.

Mills and Boon Modern Romances are contemporary romances, usually involving rich men and ordinary girls (though sometimes it’s the other way around). They’re set in luxurious locations, and are pure escapist fantasies. The covers are generally royal blue, and the images are sensual in tone.

Riva have two categories within their line. One is for chick-lit style novels, and the other is what used to be known as ‘cherish’ for a sweeter romance. The newer covers tend to have a cartoon ‘fifties’ feel to them with pink ticker tape at the bottom. Much like the chick lit novels on sale in bookshops.

Medical romance is pretty much as it says on the tin. They’re set in hospitals or doctor’s surgeries, and it’s just as likely that the heroine is a doctor or surgeon. They generally have a cross motif on the cover, though the colours are varied nowadays.

Historical can encompass anything from ancient Scotland to World War II. They tend to be longer – around 70k – to allow for more historical description. Purple seems to be the main livery colour, but these are also becoming more varied, but with a recognisable ‘silk ribbon’ pattern at the top of the cover.

Intrigue, in the British line of M&B, can either include stories of romantic intrigue – cops, CIA agents, soldiers etc – or paranormal. Vampires and werewolves are very popular. In America, these are two different lines, Intrigue for the cops and robbers type story, and Nocturne for the Paranormal. Like the Historical, they’re around 70k words in length.

Check out the Mills and Boon website for other categories (

It’s important to stress that in all of the lines, the romance must be the primary story. Any subplots take second place to the development of the main love affair.

It’s a bit formulaic, isn’t it? Don’t they all end up with the exact same stories?

Not at all. Within those lines and genres are sub-genres. In Modern Romance this can include Greek Billionaires, Italian Billionaires, Arab Sheiks, Indian Maharajahs and so on, depending on reader’s favourite fantasies.

Then there are the sub-sub-plots. This can include the ‘amnesia plot’ and the ‘secret baby plot’.

Plus it isn’t unusual for the doctors or policemen in the Medical and Intrigue lines to be very rich, and also forget they’ve either fathered or given birth to a secret baby…

So far from being formulaic, there is a lot of scope within each line and always room for an author to bring their own voice to the proceedings. 

However, top Mills and Boon Modern romance author, Kate Walker, does offer this calculation for writing the perfect category romance:




‘Getting to know you’+

Lowest point (black moment)+


Happy ending


Other than that, Kate insists that it’s ‘all in the execution’.

Who writes category romance?

Anyone, including male writers. The late great Penny Jordan was one of the top writers, and managed to write several category romances a year for Mills and Boon at the same time as penning doorstopper bonk-busters. Joanna Trollope and Nora Roberts both started their careers writing category romances for Mills and Boon.

Can I make a fortune writing category romance?

It varies. According to a recent report in the London Evening Standard, M&B writers could make anything from £2000-£30,000 per book, although the M&B writers of my acquaintance were amused by the higher figure.  If you write category romances for a smaller publisher, particularly e-publishers, it’s nowhere near to that, and could only amount to a few pounds a quarter. But if you’re fairly prolific and Mills and Boon like your style, you could have four or five books a year published, which will make your earnings much healthier.

Are there any opportunities for new writers?

Mills and Boon are particularly supportive to new writers. They’re happy to take unsolicited manuscripts at any time. Once a year they run a competition, formerly called New Voices, but now called ‘So You Think You Can Write’ (SYTYCW), where unpublished authors are invited to load the first chapter of their novel onto a website where it is judged by the readers.  They also have ‘fast track’ submissions drives occasionally, where they promise to look at your submission within a month.

Where do I start?

It’s a good idea to read several books from each category, so you can decide which would be a better fit for you. You’re more likely to write well for the category you enjoy most. And Mills and Boon make it fairly easy for you to research their market, particularly if you have an e-reader. If you put ‘Mills and Boon Free ebooks’ into the Amazon search engine, it comes up with about eleven books, from across their range, which are free to download.

You can also find a Mills and Boon section in your library, and if you have a few pounds to spare, Tesco has a shelf devoted entirely to category romances.

Even if you don’t want to write category romances for Mills and Boon, their lines will give you an idea of what other publishers might expect.

Do make sure you research the very latest books. If you last read Mills and Boon 20 or 30 years ago and still believe that the novels include ‘punishing kisses’ and alpha males who indulge in a bit of corrective rape for the frigid heroine, then you’re very much mistaken.  The newer novels have more modern sensibilities, and the feisty heroines give as good as they get.

Friday, 30 January 2015

11 Things You Always Wanted to Know About Writing A Traditional Romance

The next few articles are part of a magazine series, called Love Craft, that sadly never came to fruition.

I've probably given a lot of the same information in previous articles, but this was a simpler way of presenting it. And lists are very popular on the internet!

11 Things You Always Wanted to Know About Writing Traditional Romance

There are many different types of romance out there, from historical to contemporary, from normal everyday life to paranormal. However, many of them have something in common. They are traditional romances. The styles may vary, along with the storylines, but as traditional romances they will all have conventions and the readership have certain expectations when they open up the books to read them.

There is always a hero and a heroine

Traditional romances are always about a hero and a heroine. Please don’t shout at me about this. As I said in last month’s column, there is a growing market for GBLT (Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender) romances. But if you see a market asking for traditional romances, then publishers want a girl-meets-boy romance. That doesn’t mean that all the other characters in your novel have to be straight. But the hero and heroine must be heterosexual.

Much of the advice given next also works for less conventional romances, including GBLT. However, for the sake of keeping things simple, I will continue to refer to the two main characters as the hero and heroine.

The romance is central

Whilst there may be a sub-plot, either a romantic intrigue or a family saga, in most traditional romances, the romance between the hero and heroine is the main topic of the story. It varies from publisher to publisher. The DC Thomson pocket novels are quite happy with a 70/30 split in favour of the romance, whereas Mills and Boon romances are as much as 95% romance, with very little sub-plot. They do allow a little more leeway in their historical and intrigue lines, which is evident in the longer word counts of 70k, whereas most of their predominantly romance lines are only 50k.

The hero and heroine are morally sound

Both hero and heroine should be ‘nice’ people. Neither should act unkindly to others, and they should always be nice to children and small fluffy animals. That does not mean that they’re perfect. They’re allowed to have faults. But the faults must be forgivable and/or have a good reason. For example, Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre is ready to commit bigamy. As he is bound to an insane and violent wife at a time when he would not have been allowed to divorce her, the readers are ready to forgive him and permit him his eventual happiness with Jane.

The hero and heroine should not be involved, sexually or otherwise, with anyone else in the course of the story

The lovers in a traditional romance must be the centre of each other’s universe. They are the love of each other’s lives, and the story needs to reflect that. There may be an ex hanging around adding to the conflict, but before your hero and heroine can consummate their relationship; the ex must be dispensed with. And the hero or heroine should never, ever, commit adultery with each other.  I was asked recently whether it was permissible, for a certain line of romances, for the hero to sleep with the heroine when he was engaged to someone else. My answer was a resounding ‘No!’ In the real world, such things happen, and there may be mitigating circumstances, but when you write a romance you are writing a fantasy for a mainly female readership. In most women’s fantasy, the hero is not the sort of man who would cheat on any woman.

Sex scenes can be of varying degrees of heat.

It’s always wise to read several books from a publisher’s range to find out what they’ll take regarding sex scenes. Some of the Mills and Boon Modern range are very sexy indeed, whereas People’s Friend Pocket Novels leave sex at the bedroom door (or even avoid it completely).

But in most traditional romances, as the previous section suggests, the sex scenes, whether it’s tame or involves jumping from the top of the wardrobe in a Tarzan outfit, are only between the hero and heroine.

It needs a conflict

All romances, whether traditional or otherwise, require a conflict that keeps the lovers apart until the end. This conflict can be internal or external, but is more often a bit of both. An internal conflict, as the name suggests, comes from within. It is something that the characters have in their psyche, either a flaw in their character, or fear because a previous experience has left them unsure of relationships. The external conflict comes from other people or situations. It could be the mad wife hidden in the attic, or a crime in which either the hero or heroine could be implicated.

Many writers make the mistake of thinking that conflict consists of the hero and heroine at each other’s throats in a slap-slap-kiss relationship. This isn’t the case, and is actually frowned upon. After all, few people fall in love with someone they’ve spent most of the past few weeks or months arguing with.  In which case…

It needs ‘getting to know you’ scenes

All romances need getting to know you scenes. If your hero and heroine are arguing all the time, you need to think about how they’re going to overcome this. The conflict may still be there in the background, but for the moment it’s put aside as the characters work together, either to solve the crime or sort out a family problem. In my novel, Sunlit Secrets, I had the hero and heroine bond over the care of an orphan child.

There is a pivotal moment

At some point in the story there will be a pivotal moment. This is when the heroine might realise she loves the hero or vice versa. It may be their first kiss, or some tragedy that has made them realise they cannot live without each other. They may not be ready to tell each other this yet, but it is there and the reader will know that things have changed.

There is a black moment

After the pivotal moment, sometimes straight after, there is a black moment when the two main characters think they can never be together. It may be that she thinks he does not love her, or, for those who watch Downton Abbey, he may be dragged off to prison accused of killing his first wife.

There is ALWAYS a happy ever after

Traditional romances always have a Happy Ever After (HEA). The hero and heroine sort out their differences, clear up any misunderstandings and declare their love for each other. If you’re scoffing at this, then maybe writing romance is not for you. But an HEA is what the readers expect when they pick up a traditional romance.

Who publishes Traditional Romances?

The list is endless, so these are just a few publishers of traditional romance. Check out the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook for more. Please note that some are ebook publishers and some are based in America. Always read several from a line of romances to get an idea of what the publisher is looking for.

Mills and Boon

DC Thomson (The People’s Friend Pocket Novels and My Weekly Pocket Novels)

Avon Romance

Robert Hale

Carina Press


Thursday, 29 January 2015

8 Things you Always Wanted to know about Writing Romantic Novels

Originally published in Writers Forum as part of an intended series called Love Craft. Sadly this was the only article published, but I will be publishing the other, previously unpublished articles, on this blog over the next few days or so. Whilst many cover subjects I've already dealt with, they are in a different format, and I hope will be of interest anyway.
8 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Writing Romantic Novels
Romance is big business. Mills and Boon sell around 100 million books a year, releasing up to five new titles a month. Fifty Shades of Grey, whatever your private thoughts about its literary quality, has put romance back at the top of a bestseller chart. So what opportunities are available for new writers hoping to break into this market? Top Mills and Boon novelist, Kate Walker, kindly helped me to answer some of your questions. Please note, that whilst Kate concentrates on Mills and Boon here, because she writes for them, the advice she gives is valid regardless of which romance publisher you want to write for.
Have I got what it takes to write romantic fiction?
If you enjoy reading love stories, especially in the current market, then the chances are you will be able to write romance. Kate says, “My advice would be to respect the genre. Don’t to think of it as something that you can ‘churn out’ very quickly to make a lot of money. If you don’t write a romance seriously it will show. Kate goes on, “You’d be amazed how many people think they can just ‘dash off’ a ‘little romance’, without ever reading any of the books the publishers are buying right now. They have no idea what a contemporary romance is like because they have never read one or they read one once 20 years ago and think they are still the same.”
I like reading romantic fiction, but I’m not sure what type of novel I should write.
Kate said that it’s helpful to read as many different types of romance as possible. “In romance it is particularly important to know the line/ style of romance you’re aiming for, the sort of books the editors buy, the tone of the emotion, the sort of characters, plots and conflicts they want. Choose the type of romance fiction that speaks to you best – the one you feel you most want to write – and really study that. Kate also suggests that you need to know what level of passion you’re most comfortable with writing. For example, the Mills and Boon Modern romances tend to have quite explicit sex scenes, and the fans of that line expect this. If you’re uncomfortable with writing about sex, then you may be better writing for a sweeter romance line.
It’s all a bit predictable; girl-meets-boy, girl-hates-boy, girl-loves-boy, isn’t it?
“Remember,” said Kate, “that ‘romance’ is not just one style of genre fiction but a very wide umbrella that covers a huge range of different styles, all with the romance element at their core.” A growing genre in romance is GBLT (Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender). So it doesn’t even have to be girl-meets-boy anymore. It can be boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl. I’ll be looking in detail at the many different forms of romance over the coming months.
I’ve heard that publishers like Mills and Boon won’t even entertain manuscripts from men. Is it worth me bothering?
That’s a very old myth and not at all true. Many men write romance, using female pseudonyms. Emma Blair was the pseudonym of romantic saga writer Iain Blair. On the other hand, Nicholas Sparks is an American writer who is renowned under his own name for his romance novels (Message in a Bottle, The Notebook). If you’ve got a romantic story to tell, write it, and don’t worry about what the blokes down the pub say.
Do I need an agent?
The good news about writing romance is that a lot of romance publishers are happy to take unsolicited manuscripts, so you don’t necessarily need an agent. I know of bestselling romantic authors who’ve never had an agent. But it does depend on the market, so always check first.
Will it make me rich?
At the lower end of the pay scale, DC Thomson pays £300 for a 50k novel, and then you can earn more for Large Print rights. Mills and Boon pay around £2,000 advance, plus royalties. One newspaper reported that M&B authors earn about £100,000 a year. All the M&B authors I know thought that was hilarious! E-publishers don’t pay advances as a rule, but they do pay royalties of around 40%. The earnings from that depend on sales and the company may not be as prominent as M&B. Many writers supplement their income with workshops and talks.  It’s fair to say that the majority of romance writers just love what they’re doing.
How long will it take me to become a published romance writer?
It depends how determined you are, and how well you understand the market to which you’re submitting. Some authors told me that they submitted several books before they had their first one accepted.
What other advice can you give me?
Kate has one specific bit of advice. Read, read, read.” She is often stunned by the people who want to write romance but don’t read it. She continues, “Read a lot of novels but not just for the story they tell. Read to see how it’s done, how a book is put together.  People ask me the most basic things in my classes, like how many words should there be in a chapter. Reading across the genre will help with this.”
“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.”
Kate suggested that you think about the things you know and what you can bring to your novel. “Courses, workshops, professional critiques can also be extremely valuable but you do need to be sure that the person running them knows what they’re talking about.”
Kate runs romance writing workshops in Caerleon and Fishguard ( Her 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance is a good starting point if you can’t get to the workshops.
Mills and Boon often run free (or very cheap) workshops at local libraries to coincide with their writing competitions in August/September. I’ve attended several and they’re very good.
Kate also suggested the RNA’s New Writer Scheme ( Unpublished members pay a reading fee and submit a manuscript. This is critiqued by a professional. It’s usually an author who is published in the line that the writer is aiming for.”
The 2012 fee was £120. Interest in the scheme is high and membership is on a first come first served basis.
Busy mum, Teresa Morgan, who recently joined the scheme, spoke of the benefits. I attend my local RNA chapter meeting, which enables me to meet and get advice from some great authors, plus swap notes with new writers like myself. The feedback through the scheme concerning my novel, although initially seeming harsh, pushed how thick my writer skin truly was.” However, Teresa says it was ‘invaluable’ and she now feels she has something to work towards.
Kate Walker ended with, The best and most valuable advice is to write and keep writing. No editor is going to buy any book unless it’s finished.”

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Conventions of Traditional Romance

Originally posted 24th October 2012

So what are the conventions of writing a traditional romance? Below is the handout that I give to my pocket novel workshop participants, but I've added a few clarifications here as normally these are covered by the discussions in the workshop.

The Conventions of writing a Traditional Romance

* Hero and heroine are morally sound, 'nice' people, even if they have flaws. This is particularly important. When I submitted my novella Let Me Be Your Hero for Siren's mainstream romance, I was told that as my heroine, Georgia, is a compulsive liar, it would not fit under that imprint. Whilst I believed (and still do) that Georgia is noble, despite her tendency to lie, I had to respect their judgement. So it was 'sexed up' and turned into erotica - hence my other pseudonym, Elise Hart!)

* Traditional romances are always about heterosexual relationships between a man and a woman. (Please don't shout at me, I don't make these rules!)

* Hero and heroine do not have sexual and/or romantic relationship with anyone else during course of the story. Adultery or cheating on another partner is a complete no-no, even if the hero and heroine are clearly meant to be together. This is not to say they can't be at the end of a romance when the story begins, and you can get away with a lot with careful writing. For example, in one of my novels, the hero is engaged to someone else. But I made sure never to show her, and then I had the hero explain (truthfully) to the heroine that the engagement was one of convenience, not love. In another story, I had the heroine 'promised' to someone else, but found a deft way at the end to make sure that when she had fallen in love with the hero, she had, in fact, been free to do so (for reasons I don't want to give away!). In the past there was a bit of a double standard about this though. I love reading Barbara Cartland and I'm not ashamed to say so. However, I noticed that she often had the hero sleeping with another woman at the beginning of the novel, and sometimes even after he had met the heroine, presumably in an attempt to prove his virility to the readership. By today's standards, the hero in that case often looks quite shallow, as he's shown as unable to resist the lure of a naked woman wearing pearls.

* Traditional romance can include sex scenes, or be sweet and cosy. The heat rating varies. People's Friend romances are always of the sweet and cosy variety. At the moment it is uncertain if the Easy Reads Caress line will follow that route, but all signs point to it being that way. Mills and Boon modern romances are hot hot hot. However, the language used in sex scenes is always tasteful, and whilst many of the sex scenes are erotic, they're more soft erotica by today's standards. I'm guessing (though I don't know for sure yet) that the Liaison imprint for Easy Reads is along the same lines.

* Story concentrates predominantly on the relationship between the hero and heroine. A rough guide would be 70% romance to 30% sub-plot. However, Mills and Boon novels are more like 95% romance to 5% plot.

* There is a conflict which keeps hero and heroine apart until the end. Can be internal or external. Please see my post on the Pocketeers' blog about conflict for information on internal and external conflict . This is hard to get right, and I've often had my hero and heroine declaring their feelings much too soon. Heck in The Thirteenth Passenger , they're in love after knowing each other only a few hours (then again I do explain why that might be later in the story).
* There is a pivotal moment when all changes between them. (could be the first kiss or the moment they realise they're in love)
* There is a 'black moment' when all seems lost and it looks as though they can never be together. This does not have to be as dark as it sounds, particularly in a light-hearted romance.
* There is always a Happy Ever After (HEA) between the hero and heroine, with the promise of a firm commitment (such as marriage). So no Romeo and Juliet type scenes of them dying in each other's arms or the hero floating off to sea to drown near the sinking Titanic because the heroine is too selfish to budge up on the raft.

A lot of people have insisted that all of the above implies a formula, but the truth is that knowing what needs to go into a traditional romance does not mean that it has to follow a formula. It is simply a guide to let you know what readers expect. How you interpret each part of the guidelines is up to you.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Midchester Memories Ominibus - FREE download - Today Only

My Midchester Memories Omnibus - 5 novels in 1 - is FREE to download TODAY only. With a saving of £2.50 off the omnibus and nearly £5 saving if you bought the books separately, it's a bargain not to be missed!

Page Turning Quality

Originally published 31 October 2012
I feel duty bound to share this information, and I hope that the people I got it from don't mind me doing so. I've heard through the grapevine that Maggie Seed is not looking for historicals 'at the moment'. (please note that this is very old information and may well have changed since 2012). But she is looking for stories with adventure and excitement. (This is the same and has never changed in all the time I've known Maggie!)

This means that I'm trashing my idea of the village murder mystery and have a thriller type story in mind. At the moment I'm thinking trains, McGuffins, stuff that explodes. You know, the regular Bruce Willis type stuff! I'll be in my element! However, I may use some of the characters I've already created, as I think I can easily transpose them from one plot to the other, but just give them different motivations. It will also save me coming up with all new characters!

One of the things that Maggie told my contact is the importance of chapter endings with a hook. So I thought that's what today's subject should be.

The best bit of advice I've ever received was from Mills and Boon novelist, Kate Walker. Kate said that you should never end a chapter with 'She turned the light out and went to sleep'. Because, as Kate said, that's exactly what your reader will do. What you need at the end of each chapter is some sort of hook so that your reader wants to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

It could be a genuine 'cliffhanger' style ending, where someone is hanging from a cliff by their fingertips or just about to defuse a bomb. Or it could be  someone delivering a message or finding a body or the hero or heroine learning something they had not known before but which changes everything that's gone before.

Try to avoid cliches such as 'She wondered what tomorrow would bring' or 'What would tomorrow bring?' That doesn't mean you can't set up a question in the reader's minds. Maybe someone comes to the main character and says 'I've got something really important to tell you'. That way the reader will carry on to the next chapter to find out what that important thing is. Or your main character could enter a room that's been locked to them till that moment. You don't reveal at that point what's in the room. You save it for the next chapter.  It doesn't even have to be that active. It can be a thought process.

Here's an example from my novel Bonfire Memories (available on Kindle!). It's the end of the first chapter, and the hero has just met the heroine:
He could not afford to get side-tracked by a pair of pretty blue eyes. Those same eyes would no doubt turn cold when she found out the truth about him.
My hope is that the reader will also want to find out the truth about him and read on.

This is the ending of the next chapter, which is a little more active. It takes place just after the heroine has found a man dead in the street:
A hand touched her shoulder and a vaguely familiar voice said her name. That was when Cara really screamed.
And the ending of the next chapter:
The man, whoever he was, coughed softly, almost as if he was covering up some emotional outburst. He walked on, disappearing into the fog.
They're just a few examples, and not intended to be the be all and end all of chapter endings. But I hope that even they have sparked your interest, if you don't already have the book. Consider all the books you read. Regardless of genre, there will be something at the end of each chapter that makes you want to keep turning the page, even though you know you've got to get up in the morning and get the kids ready for school and/or go to work. And that's what you're aiming for when you write. It's called Page Turning Quality.

So just browse through and have a look at the endings of each chapter in a book you've already read and see if you can identify what made you want to go on to the next chapter. Of course, you need more than a good chapter hook at the end. Because if you end on a hook, you have to deliver on that promise at some point, and reveal what the hero's deep dark secret was? Who was touching the heroine on the shoulder? And who was the man in the fog? (It doesn't always have to be revealed in the next chapter by the way.)

Don't worry about it too much, as you write. These hooks can always be added in the second draft.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Crime Writing and Romance

Crime Writing and Romance (originally posted on 26 October 2012)
If you're planning to write a romance novel with a crime or intrigue element, the important thing to remember is that you still need to have a relationship at the heart of it. The crime must impact in some way on the hero and heroine, even if they're only investigating. As I said on my Conflict post on the Pocketeers blog, they need a vested interest in the outcome.

That said, you'll still be working in the normal conventions of crime writing. Here are some tips to get you going. Most are aimed at murder mysteries, but the conventions are pretty much the same, even if you're you're writing about a non-violent crime.

Choose your sleuth

One of the most important people in a crime related novel is going to be the sleuth. This is the person that the reader is going to spend most of their time with. The reader will want to feel some connection with them, even if they don't particularly like them. So are you writing a police procedural, such as Morse or Jane Tennyson (of Prime Suspect)? Are they a professional detective, such as Sherlock Holmes? Or are they a small town sleuth, such as Miss Marple or Agatha Raisin?  I tend towards the latter, and leave the police working quietly in the background.  It could be that your crime novel is really a psychological thriller, where the focus is not so much on solving the crime, but on your characters dealing with the actions of a criminal. For example, your heroine may be being stalked, or threatened in some other way.

If you write a police procedural, you really have to know about police procedure, and you can't get it off the telly, because they don't always get it right. They cut corners for reasons of time and/or dramatic effect. For example, in the CSI series, DNA always wins the day, but in real life it needs a bit more than that to convict a killer. Finding someone's DNA at the scene of the crime is not proof that they killed the victim. It just proves they were there at some point. On the other hand, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. If whatever you write is plausible enough, most readers will accept it, even if you don't have the procedure exactly right.

Is your sleuth going to have a sidekick? This is where a romance is ideal, as the hero and heroine can be each other's sidekick. A sidekick, even if it's just a pal, is handy for your sleuth to bounce ideas off, thereby informing the reader of what they're thinking at regular intervals.

It helps to introduce your sleuth as quickly as possible, even if it isn't immediately apparent they are going to be the sleuth.

Your sleuth will generally be morally sound, even if they have flaws and foibles.

Choose your victim(s)

Your first victim is going to be the second most important person in your crime related novel. There will be a reason that they were murdered. Either they were universally disliked, or they had found out a secret about the murderer, or they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Either way, finding out who killed them is going to take up a large part of your novel.

Like the sleuth, the victim needs to be introduced quickly.  They also need to be dispensed with relatively quickly in the novel. I've read somewhere that most crime fans expect a murder in the first chapter. That's the hook that keeps them reading on. Anything the reader then finds out about the victim is in hindsight.

Your murder does not have to have taken place when the story begins. It can have happened sometime in the past, but something brings it back into the spotlight (another murder is always handy for that!). If it's not a murder, then it could be some other crime that's taken place, either in the past or present.

Choose your suspects

Note that I don't say 'killer/criminal' here. Your suspects, even those who turn out to be innocent, are the ones who are going to keep your readers guessing. They need to be fairly distinguishable, so it's wise to choose them from all age groups, and class, gender, ethnicity etc and give them distinctive personalities. It also helps if you introduce them gradually, as too many names all at once can be confusing for a reader. In a 50k novella, you're not going to want more than about five or six suspects. And don't forget that your hero or heroine can also be suspects, even though they may turn out to be innocent.

You'll choose your criminal from these suspects. The conventions of crime are that the perpetrator is the person you least suspect. They may be shadowy figures. Or they may be (or seem) really nice and sympathetic, making it hard for the reader to believe they could do such a thing. Or they may be everyone on the train!

I've heard crime writers say that they sometimes don't know who the killer is until the end. This has happened to me and it does help to keep everyone as a suspect. It can be difficult not to drop too many clues when you know who the killer is. So don't worry if you haven't decided on your killer straight away. As long as it's plausible that they could be the killer by the end, you'll be okay.

What is your killer's motive?

This is another important point. What is your killer's motive? Why did they kill the first victim? Was it to keep them silent? Was it a crime of passion? Was it an accident? Will they kill again to protect themselves? Most killers in crime novels do kill again, as this adds to the tension.

Your killer may not have a motive. They may just be a psychopath. This is fine, but be careful not to give clichéd reasons for their psychopathy. As I've said before, not all abused or deprived children grow up to be serial killers. One example I gave to one of my workshop participants recently was Ted Bundy. He was born in a home for unmarried mothers during the fifties, when such things were frowned upon. This is often cited as a possible reason for his behaviour. I don't know how many other children were born in that same home - probably thousands - but I do know that only one of them grew up to be Ted Bundy, rapist and serial killer. If more from the same home had been serial killers, you can bet we'd have heard about it! It was something within Ted Bundy that made him the way he was. A fatal flaw, if you like.

But you could just let your killer be a psychopath and not explain it. They're just made that way.

Remember the clues and Red Herrings

As you write, you'll be leaving a trail of clues and red herrings. These clues can be physical, as in things left at the scene of the crime, or documents that shed light on what's happened. Or they could be verbal; based on the things people say (or don't say). Your clues and red herrings could also be suggested by the way people behave. Remember that even the innocent suspects may lie for some reason, because they're hiding something else that's happening in their life; an affair, a shady business deal, another lesser crime that has nothing to do with the murder.

Readers like to be in on these clues, and to follow them, so sprinkle them liberally, but remember to have an explanation for them all by the end!

Beware of giving the solution too soon

Your reveal - that is who the killer is - should be as near to the end of your novel as possible. As you're writing a romance too, you can have the reveal come just before the couple declare their feelings for each other, or just after. It's up to you. But both need to happen within the last 5000 words, and it can be difficult to juggle them if you are writing a story that has two genres. You could have a false ending, where the reader thinks it's all sorted, then the killer comes out of nowhere. This is great, but beware ending fatigue. Your killer can only come out of the shadows to attack your sleuth once. More than that and it becomes a bit tedious.

If you're writing a police procedural, then the clues will probably lead to an arrest. This won't happen with an amateur sleuth, though the murderer may well be arrested at the end, and then give a handy confession. One favoured way for the denouement is to have everyone in a room together and the sleuth go around them all saying why they could or couldn't be the killer.  Usually at that point, the killer does something to prove they are guilty (so everyone knows your sleuth got it right), and then the police come in. Or you could have the killer realise your sleuth is getting close to a conclusion and then try to pre-empt this by attacking your sleuth (of course there'll be someone on hand to save them). It is important that, for the purposes of the pocket novels, that the killer or other criminal is brought to justice.

Remember the romance!

The romance is still is an important part of your plot. The DC Thomson editors still wants a relationship in the novels, because they're aimed at women. So do remember, whilst you're killing people off and setting clues, that your hero and heroine need to fall in love. You can do this by making sure the crime brings them together for some reason and maybe even tears them apart if one of them is a suspect. Your heroine may distrust the hero, or vice versa, but at the same time they're starting to like each other and fall in love.

You will need some 'getting to know you' time, and the same elements (pivotal moment, black moment) as you find in most traditional romances. Again, you can use the crime to do this. For example if your hero and heroine are locked in a house together, hiding from a crazed psycho killer, it's a great way to bring them together! Or they could decide to solve the crime together. In my novella, True Love Ways, I had my hero and heroine as rival sleuths, until they decided to pool their resources. In another of my novellas, I had the heroine working to clear the hero's name.  In a police procedural, it could be that the detective is attracted to the main suspect, which brings its own problems.

As long as you remember that as the crime solving progresses, the relationship has to progress too. And that does work better if you link them together in some way, so that they're part of the same story and not two separate stories that just happen to be taking place in the same novel.

I've written all this off the top of my head, so if you have any questions that I haven't yet answered, please do ask and I'll do my best to give you the answers.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Characters extra - piling on the Angst

Characters Extra – Piling on the Angst (30 October 2012)


The part on character history in the previous post had me thinking I may need to clarify or build upon it. This is aimed mainly at the romance genre, rather than crime (suspense, intrigue), but I do think the advice probably goes for both in the pocket novel market.

It is too easy, when you create your heroine (or hero) to pile on the angst in order to make your readers sympathise with them. My own heroines are often orphans, but I generally put their sad events way back in the past so that by the time the story begins, they're still orphans but they're also getting on with their lives.

It can be too easy to pile on the angst so much that in the end your reader actually thinks, 'No? Really?'

Recently I read something in which the angst was severely piled on. (I'm not saying where or when, only to clarify that it wasn't in one of the recent pocket novels I've been reading for research and nor was it in any of my workshops). However, I'm going to be pretty vague here about what story it was in case the author does happen to pop in.

The story detailed everything horrible that had happened to the main character from the day they were born. By the end of the list of really unfortunate occurrences I was actually in tears of laughter, despite this supposedly being a terrible back story designed to make us root for this character.

It reminded me of that old joke about the man who was told that his house had burned down, his wife and children had died, and on and on.  In the end it becomes a travesty of tragic occurrences that just makes the audience laugh, thinking that no one could be that unlucky (I think the punch line was about the delivery of the bad news or maybe it was that the dog survived).

Now, don't get me wrong. I know some people have dreadful lives where awful things do happen to them, and I'm not undermining that. But that's the thing about real life and fiction. Fiction has to make sense, real life doesn't.

Having said that, the human spirit is indomitable, and people do survive the most dreadful things. But if you dwell too much on the bad stuff in your story, it's going to be hard to get on with that story because your reader is going to wonder how the main character can even manage to get up in the morning. Also, if you're writing a light romance it doesn't work if all your character's family were junkies and they were put on the game at the age of 12 (not a real story - as far as I know). Despite what Pretty Woman promised, most prostitutes don't end up with Richard Gere.

Remember that you're writing romance to entertain readers. Some of those people may have gone through, or be going through, the bad stuff you write about, hence their need to escape into a fantasy world, so I think we have a duty to ensure it's handled with subtlety and sensitivity.

It helps to have any bad stuff  in the past, but also to limit what that bad stuff was to one or two things. That way by the time the story starts, the character may still be haunted by what happened, but they're far enough away from it to be surviving from day to day.   For example, if your heroine was in an abusive relationship, it's enough for the reader to know that, and that it makes her afraid to start new relationships. You don't need to chart every slap and punch and broken nose that her ex inflicted on her, because then it becomes gratuitous. Readers can fill in the gaps.

This is not to say that you can't deal with serious subjects. In one of Penny Jordan's novels, the heroine was the daughter of a prostitute who died of a drug overdose when the heroine was little. It was just dealt with in a subtle and sensitive way so that it didn't overshadow the main romance, even though it clearly had an effect on the heroine's self-image. By the end of the book you know the heroine deserved her happy ending, but you didn't feel that her life had been a vale of tears. She had overcome the bad stuff to become successful (even before the hero came along imo).

So keep it subtle, keep it sensitive, and beware piling on the angst to the point that the reader is taken out of the story because the character's bad luck seems too ludicrous to be real.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Character Building

Character Building (originally published 30 October 2012)

First published in April 2009 Writers Forum

...  here are a few tips on building a memorable character.

What's In A Name?

A name can say a lot about a character, in terms of age (or era), gender, class, status and sometimes personality. Think about all the different names friends, relatives and strangers use for you, including pet names and diminutives. It’s possible different people will also address your character differently.

Dickens was the master of unusual names, which told us everything about that character, like Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times. This is a man who puts children on an educational treadmill, grinding facts into them, so they make the grade. More recently Sarah Waters, in her novel, Fingersmith, has the character of Mrs Sucksby, who is not only a wet nurse, but also someone who suckers people into her schemes. However, it's rare for modern day authors to use this device and I’d advise caution unless it really does fit the tone of your story.

You might want to use the name of your character to challenge expectations, and this is a good idea. If you do call a modern 7-year-old Ethel, do let the reader know pretty soon that you're dealing with a child, unless it’s meant to be a twist at the end. It can drag a reader out of a story to suddenly realise the person they’re reading about isn’t who and what they thought they were.

Do avoid names that start with the same letter, or even the same group of letters. Imagine how confusing it would be to read a story involving three women called Mary, Marian and Marjory.

The Roles People Play

Think of all the roles you play in your life. You might be a husband/wife, son, daughter, mum, dad, granny, employee, employer, friend and lover. Hidden among all the things you are to other people, is the person that you are to yourself.

Now give some thought to one of your favourite fictional characters and the roles they play. One of my favourites is Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus. Rebus is an ex-husband, father, friend, lover, heavy drinker (and whilst some may argue this is more of a character trait, I also believe it's a role that Rebus plays up), football fan, and finally a policeman. It's this last role that he plays to the detriment of all the others. But if Rankin hadn't let us know about all these other roles, we'd have no sense of what Rebus was giving up for his career.

So make a list of all your character's roles. Are they as alive as Rebus? Are they as alive as you? If so then they'll be alive for your reader too.

There are several schools of thought about whether writers should describe their characters in their stories. Some people feel it's trivial. Novelist Kate Long (The Daughter Game, Picador) said, 'It has everything to do with personal choices as a writer, your own style and voice, how the characters come to you, what aspects of them you want to throw into relief or play down, plus narrative pacing.'

Should you want to describe your character it's not as simple as saying: Fred is 6ft tall and has blue eyes and blonde hair. I think we'd all agree that's pretty boring. It helps if your character's appearance also says something about their personality or status.

In my story, The Donkey Driver's Wife, set during the 1980s miners' strikes, I wanted to suggest that the loyalties of one character, Matt, could go either way. Rather than just tell the reader 'Matt's loyalties could go either way', I had the narrator, a miner's wife called Sheila, describe her first sighting of him:

Matt was a good-looking lad in his thirties (any man under fifty was a 'lad' in these parts). One forearm bore the legend 'Julie', the other 'Debbie'. His fingers had 'Love' and 'Hate' tattoos above the knuckles. I remember wondering if he ever made up his mind about anything.

The reader may not know the colour of Matt's eyes, or even what he's wearing, but I hope that description gives a sense of what type of man he is, and that the reader will go on to fill in the blanks, creating their own image of him.

Even if you don't use it, write down a description of your character for yourself. If you know who they are, then it'll be easier to transmit that to your readers.

Light and Shade
We are all many good things and we are also some bad things. Hopefully, we're mostly good things. However, a fictional character who is all good or all bad can be pretty flat. It's up to you as a writer to ensure that doesn't happen. Even if a character is the villain, there must be something more to them than their desire to make the world an unhappy place.

It's important not to generalise or simplify. 99.9% of abused children grow up not to be serial killers. So if you've written a story in which the main character is a killer, it helps if your character has a fatal flaw, and a trigger that turns them to the dark side.

Shakespeare's Othello is a good man with a fatal flaw. This flaw is his jealousy of his beautiful wife, Desdemona. Left to his own devices, Othello might have settled into his marriage, becoming more secure in Desdemona's love for him. After all, not all jealous husbands become killers. But along comes Iago, with his own agenda, fuelling Othello's jealousy with insidious hints and schemes. Iago is the trigger for the events that turn Othello into a murderer.

As a brief exercise, write down two things about your character. One good thing. One bad thing. The bad thing doesn't have to be completely polarised from the good thing - the flaw needn't be fatal - but it needs to be something that would make them behave differently to anyone else facing the same crisis.

Character History
Think about your character's history. It's unlikely that she popped out of nowhere, age 30, with all the skills needed to repel evil. Well, unless she's Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. Your character may just need a bit more development. It's important your character isn't born only to service the needs of your story.

In film, The Wizard of Oz, our part in Dorothy's story begins on the day the tornado hits. But there are enough hints, during the black and white sequence, to give the sense that Dorothy wasn't just born in that moment. She's living with her aunty Em on a farm in Kansas, so we guess without being told, she's an orphan. She's lost her parents, and feels adrift in the world, unsure of her place. There#s an existing relationship with the three farmhands, nasty neighbour, Miss Gulch, and the travelling salesman, Professor Marvel. All of which inform Dorothy's adventures in Oz, when they become, respectively, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, The Wicked Witch and the Wizard. Incidentally, this doubling of characters is not used in the novel but I can't help wondering if L Frank Baum wishes he'd thought of it as it works perfectly. But I think we all agree that, as young as she was, Dorothy was a character with a history.

Of course, you're not going to list, in a short story, all the things that have ever happened to your heroine. That would be boring. But it helps to give the reader some sense that this person has a history. A good exercise is to go through a short story by one of your favourite authors, and make a list of all the things that happened to the main character before the story begins. This can be a life event, or something they've done. What does the author tell you about them, without actually telling you?

Now do the same with your own story. If you can't find any evidence that your character existed before the story, then perhaps you might need to look at how you can give them a history. Throw in a few choice hints to show this is a person who has lived a life before your reader meets them.

It's also a good idea to read lots of novels and stories, or watch film and television, to see how other writers suggest character history. I hope the few ideas I've given you will help you to create richer characters.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Approachable Heroines and Rewarding Heroes

Thanks to the wonderful Sue Barnard, I can bring some of my old blog posts from my other blog(s). Sue saved a lot of them and let me have the files so I could re-stock this blog. So for the next few days, I'll be revisiting them. Some may be out of date, as far as some of the information goes, but they are still helpful. I hope!

This post was originally published on 29th October 2012.

Approachable Heroines and Rewarding Heroes

Whilst it may not be everyone's glass of Pinot Grigio, category romance (cat-rom) is big and a great way to make that step to becoming a novelist. Joanna Trollope started her writing career with Mills and Boon, who over 100 years after they started still sell millions of books a year. The prolific and talented (now sadly deceased) Penny Jordan wrote several novels a year for M&B in between penning blockbuster novels. My Weekly and Peoples' Friend each have very successful pocket novel lines, which could be seen as M&B's more chaste cousins.  The Internet is awash with romantic ebook ranges, and Salt Publishing, previously a publisher of poetry and literary shorts, have just launched a new cat-rom imprint called Embrace.

Dissenters often dismiss cat-rom as formulaic and, with its alpha males who take what they want when they want it, demeaning to women. It has to be said that when questioned, the dissenters will admit to having picked up a Mills and Boon book twenty years ago and read a few pages. Some dissenters have never read them at all. They just instinctively 'know' that cat-roms are a bad thing.

But things have moved on in twenty years. Yes the males are still alpha. They also ridiculously rich and successful, whereas the females are sometimes a little lower down the social scale. What's important to remember is that what's being sold here is a fantasy, in much the same way as Star Wars and Avatar are fantasies. To suggest that cat-roms give women an unrealistic outlook on romance is to suggest that women are too stupid to realise the fantasy element. The women I know who read romances are highly intelligent but looking for escapism.

What's more, the heroes and heroines have changed a lot in the last twenty years. If you think you know about cat-roms, then be prepared to have your misconceptions challenged.

In the past, romantic heroines were generally quite passive. Things happened to them. They were often  kidnapped, assaulted, double-crossed and generally downtrodden. Their problems were solved for them, usually by the man, leaving them with just the job of being extremely grateful in bed. Modern heroines are given no such breaks. When problems come their way, their mettle is tested, and they do all they can to rise to the challenge. I write pocket novels for My Weekly, and I pride myself on the fact that my intelligent and sassy heroines go all out to solve their own problems. They may start off from a point of weakness, but somewhere along the way they stop retreating and meet their problems head on. It is also possible that the hero comes along and helps them at the last minute, but that does not alter the fact that the heroine is ready to solve her own problems. She's intelligent, witty, but she has flaws. One of her flaws might be the failure to ask for help when she needs it. In that case, the story ends with an acceptance that we all need a helping hand sometime. It doesn't make a woman a little 'girlie' or a failure as a female when she asks for help, despite what some feminists might have you believe.

So where does the hero come into this, if he's not going to be the one to fly in on a vine and save her from the vicious wolf? Or scheming property developer? Or nasty ex-boyfriend? When I create a hero I think of him in terms of being the heroine's reward for solving her problem. She has gone through the dark days, perhaps with him at her side for the last part of her journey, and now there is this handsome, rich, successful man to tell her how clever and wonderful she is just before giving her the time of her life in bed. And no, he doesn't necessarily have to be rich.

A man can be a postman, bus driver, paramedic, cop, cowboy, doctor, prince. It has to be admitted that in category romances there aren't many postmen or bus drivers. Incidentally, when I suggested to my husband recently that my heroines tended to end up with a successful (often rich) man, I was accused of being a snob. And this despite the fact that I did marry a bus driver so he should know better!

It's not about being a snob. A category romance is a fantasy, and I'm sorry to be blunt here, few women fantasise about ending up with the postman (certainly not in the shorts they wear around here in summer). For that to work in cat-roms our postman would have to be an undercover cop, rich man or prince. No, I don't know why a prince would be moonlighting as a postman either, but there?s an idea...

What's really important is that the hero is successful at what he does. During a conversation with a friend on Twitter about the ultimate alpha male, Holby City's Anton Meyer (George Irving), my fellow tweeter made the point that watching someone who is very good at what they do is a powerful aphrodisiac. She's right. We all admire someone who's good at their job. That's why medical dramas like Holby City throw in lots of sexy technical language when their male doctors are saving a patient?s life.

Does the same go for a heroine? Does she have to be successful? I think a heroine has to be intelligent and appealing, but I did make the mistake once of creating a heroine who was a virtual superwoman, by giving her a really cool job which involved stealing back expensive items for an insurance company. I think, though I may be wrong, that women like to think the heroine is just like them. She may be a bit prettier and slimmer, and have a slightly more successful career, but I think she also needs to be someone the reader feels she could sit down and have a glass of wine and a laugh with.  The heroine needs to be a slightly more glamorous version of the reader. My girl was practically a female James Bond and nigh on invincible. In short, I hated her.

That doesn't mean the heroine can't have an interesting career. In the Mills and Boon medical romances, the heroine is often a doctor. But there needs to be something else about her that makes her seem approachable. She might have been born poor and worked as a waitress to pay her way through med school. Or overcome some other difficulty. Usually the sort of difficulties the reader copes with every day, like the loss of a loved one, making ends meet, juggling childcare and a job, dealing with an abusive parent or partner. Anything so that at some point the reader might think 'yes, that's what happened to me' or 'that's what happened to my friend'.  That way they're pulled into the fantasy, because they can relate to the heroine.

Then when you bring in the hero, your reader will believe the heroine deserves a man who treats her well. But always remember whilst writing your cat-rom that he's the reward for her overcoming her problems rather than the answer to them.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The big 'I Am' - writing in the first person

The last three books I have written were all composed in the first person. Two of those books, The Last Dance and Runaway, were the first two books in my Bobbie Blandford series. The third, The Dark Marshes, is a gothic romance that came to me just before Christmas and just wouldn’t go away.

I had written quite a few short stories in the first person, but only one (unpublished) novel, which I wrote one year for NaNoWriMo.

Writing a longer piece in the first person is not an easy option. In fact, when I started writing The Last Dance, after being asked by My Weekly Pocket Novel editor, Maggie Swinburne to write a five part series about a sixties policewoman, I began it in the third person. Three grinding chapters on, I felt that I didn’t know my heroine at all, and the novel did not have the warmth and humour that I imagined it would have.

As it’s set in the early sixties, I wanted it to have a cosy, humorous tone that would appeal to those who lived through that time. I was born in nineteen-sixty-three, so I lived through a lot of the sixties too, and as decades are never really defined by the first year that begins with a nought, the early seventies were very much still the sixties. It was a time I felt I knew, even if I had been very young.

So it was my belief that nineteen-sixty, when Bobbie’s story begins, was really the end of the fifties. The sixties themselves hadn’t really gained their own identity just as my heroine had not yet found her own identity. I wanted to combine the two in the story, so that as the sixties grew to maturity, so did Bobbie. But none of this was coming through in the third person telling of the story. To tell the truth, it was dry and lacking in emotion. I was beset with the worry that I would have to email Maggie and say ‘Sorry, I can’t do it’. Too embarrassed to do that, I worked on ways to make it come to life.

When researching the lives of policewomen in the 50s/60s, I read several autobiographies. One thing that struck me was the warm, self-deprecating tone of their stories. They knew they were trend-setters, but they also knew that they had a lot to learn about surviving in a man’s world. Naturally both autobiographies were told in the first person.

That helped me to work out what I wanted. And what I wanted was for an older Bobbie to be writing about her life, and how naïve and sometimes foolish she had been, but with a hard-won wisdom that came across in the telling. So I decided to go back and change all the third person narrative to first person. I’ll get onto the problems inherent in that later, but it worked for me and for Bobbie. By the time I got back to Chapter Four, I had found the emotion in my story and Bobbie had found her voice.

It made sense that the second Bobbie Blandford novel, Runaway, was in the same first person tone. Returning to Bobbie was like meeting up with an old friend. She was still self-deprecating, but had grown a little. That didn’t mean that she didn’t still make mistakes. She did, and probably will again! But that’s what I love about her.

When it came to The Dark Marshes; a gothic romance which came to me whilst I was shopping for Christmas food in December 2014, I suppose I must have been in the first person zone, as it naturally began that way. But there was a major difference. The Bobbie Blandford novels are all told from Bobbie’s point of view. The Dark Marshes is told from several points of view, but still all the first person. It is basically an epistolary novel, made up of journals, letters and notes gained during an investigation.

I had real fun writing it, and working out how I was going to create those different first person voices. For example, a pair of elderly identical twins write as ‘one’, and everything is ‘we’ including their dialogue, where they always say ‘we said’. Then I have a heroine who may or may not be mad, and I had to make it that even she is not sure about it. There’s a maid, called Nan, who has to ‘speak’ very differently to the heroine and the twins, so she uses a lot of contractions. Finally, there are a couple of male narrators, and they have to sound a bit different from each other. I have made it a bit easier for the reader by putting sub-titles stating who is seeing what. But the real trick was in trying to write it in such a way that the reader will know that the voice had changed.

So they are my credentials for writing a blog post about writing in the first person. But what you really want is tips on doing so. I don’t have tips, but I do have pros and cons. Will that help?


It’s easier to stay in pov when writing in the first person. When writing in the third person, it’s easy to switch from one to another without realising you’ve done it. Now you’ll probably read loads of novels published in the third person that switch all over the place. But the fact is that those people know what they’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can just look messy. So if you can write in the first person, you can stick to that one person’s pov and you’ve solved that problem of head-hopping.

You can have an unreliable narrator, who misleads the reader, and either lies or withholds important information. This adds to the drama of the story, and can lead to some great twists at the end.

A first person narrative feels more intimate. You are in someone’s mind, and therefore you can help your reader to feel everything your character is reading. You can also have the benefit of the character writing in hindsight, and this helps when writing cliffhangers. Your character can hint that they know what’s going to happen next, whilst keeping the reader on tenterhooks.

Think of series like Call the Midwife, where Vanessa Redgrave’s warm tones tell us what’s going to happen, then ends by telling us what has happened. That bookend works so well in the context of a drama, and makes us feel as if we’re sitting by the fire with Vanessa as she reminisces about her life as a young midwife. Writing in the first person narrative does that with your reader.

This is what I’ve tried to do with the Bobbie Blandford books. I’d like to think that my readers imagine that they’re sitting with an elderly Bobbie, perhaps having a cup of tea and some of her favourite date and walnut cake, as she tells them about her life as a young policewoman. It also allows for the odd anachronism. In one novel I have Bobbie musing that ‘In those days we didn’t have Sat-Navs’. I felt that was a good way of connecting the modern reader with the sixties.


The main con is that not all publishers like first person novels/short stories. It’s always best to check their submission guidelines.

If you write in the first person, your main character can only know what they know. They can’t know what other people know or are thinking, and neither can they know, first hand, about events that happen when they’re not there. This can lead to…

The narrative can be quite ‘tell-y’ in nature. If your character is not there for an event, then they have to be told by others, and/or they have to relay what they’ve been told. It is impossible for them to be everywhere at once. This can sometimes lead to…

A contrived situation where your main character just happens to overhear every conversation, or witness every crime/event as it happens. To be fair this can happen in third person narratives too. Like Hercule Poirot, who just happens to be sitting in the next booth as a young couple plot a murder. In real life the sleuth doesn’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

In my Bobbie Blandford books I have tried to make the latter work for me, so that the things Bobbie does not know become important to the story. And even if she’s told something, it may not be what actually happened. We all know about the effects of Chinese whispers. A lot of times she’s not told or involved in things because people underestimate her and/or treat her as the young probationary policewoman she is. As her sergeant says to her in the first book, she can’t expect to nab a big murder case in her first year of probation!

Sometimes a story just comes to you in the first person. If it does, go with the flow. Occasionally you may start, as I did, in the third person, and find you want to change. That can cause problems when editing. It is important to alter all the pronouns and tenses to suit the new first person narrative. It is much easier to start with first person, but don’t let that put you off changing if that feels right for the story. Just make sure the story is word perfect before you send it out.

Sometimes you may want to mix it up a bit and have some third person narrative and some first person narrative. That’s fine too, as long as you’re clear about the reasons you’re doing it.

Recently I read a novel in the first person where the narrator did seem privy to conversation that s/he could not have known. Somehow it worked. But again, I think it’s because the author knew what s/he was doing, and those sections worked seamlessly. It could have come across as a bit clumsy.

A big ‘no no’ used to be that a first person narrator could not turn out to be dead. Novels like The Lovely Bones challenged that somewhat, though it’s still a bit of a cliché if the twist at the end is that the narrator is dead. The Lovely Bones makes it plain from the beginning that the narrator is dead. There are ways around this problem. If your first person narrator has kept a diary or written letters, this can be used to chart their path up until the moment they died. The first person novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo had the main character telling their story right up until they were just about to die. A bit like an opera singer belting out that last song before dropping dead!

Even in third person, your main character can’t know everything that’s happening around them, but it is possible to switch to another third person pov to show the reader what is happening elsewhere.

Any choice you make needs to suit the story you’re writing. Use the points of view to inform the story, so that if it’s first person, it’s because the narrator can’t know everything that’s happening around them.

These are my own thoughts on writing in the first person. Please do share your own tips and tricks, or any problems you’ve encountered when using this form.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Long time no blog post

I have been away a long time, haven't I? My last post was August of last year. You may notice that the blog has changed titles and urls. It is now So it's more about me, and not some vague notion of writing romantic intrigue (though there will still be some of that!)

I've been around, on Facebook. But sometimes I think I say so much on there about one thing and another, I leave myself nothing to say on my blog. I am hoping to change that and intend to try and post at least one blog post a week. It might be useful. It might just be waffle. It might even be useful waffle.

So what have I done since I last posted?

I've completed the second Bobbie Blandford novel, called Runaway. That's out with My Weekly Pocket Novels on around 12th March 2015. However, you can pre-order it from Kindle, and it will be released as an ebook on 1st April 2015.

I have also had an acceptance from Ulverscroft for the large print version.

I've also been very busy with Romantic Novelists Association duties. I've just finished organising the RoNA Rose Awards. That was great fun. I have also been organising the parties (hic). My favourite bit of that is choosing the food, and I'm assured that everyone approved of my choices at the last party.

I've also spread my writing wings by writing an epistolary gothic romance, called The Dark Marshes. That will be on Kindle on 1st March, but I haven't completed all that needs to be done to it yet. I know I had a fantastic time writing it. And choosing the cover, which Blogger is not letting me upload at the moment, but I will when I get to a different browser.

So anyway, that's as much waffle as I'm doing at the moment. I'm going to try and find something interesting to say in my next post. Let's hope I come up with something before another five months has passed!