Thursday, 31 March 2016

Short Stories and Going Back To My Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 28 March 2016

In Praise of the Happy Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Friday, 18 March 2016

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Case of the Ex in Romantic Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kill them off

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

Have them move away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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