I WILL be myself ( if that’s ok with you)

I’m convinced that when I started out on this looong journey of novel writing I was a better writer than I am now. Okay, not better, better but more spontaneous, witty, interesting, full of verve and good ideas. But all of this wonderfulness didn’t add up to a good story which needed to be pared down, edited and put in to some kind of structure.

I guess that’s what ‘honing your craft’ is all about and it’s taken me years to understand why some things work and others don’t. Why a writing friend would cross out great chunks of my words and even long paragraphs ( it only made me cry a little!) and ultimately realise the importance of learning to edit your own writing. Use one word instead of three, don’t repeat yourself by saying the same thing in a different way ( oops have I just done that?) keep up the pace ( wake up- this bit is interesting!) Make it so riveting that your reader can’t stop reading, even though she has to be up at six the next morning, she’ll just have to turn one more page…

So I was learning all of this brilliant stuff, but somewhere along the way I got scared to be myself because all of this ‘how to’ knowledge  was dragging me down in my writing. I would start a chapter and then ponder for ages on which parts of it might offend someone or need to be re-written, which is not a bad thing I suppose- didn’t Oscar Wilde once say; “I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. …” so I was in good company. But worse was to come (I know, I haven’t learned not to start a sentence with “but” yet!) I think I took on board too much from too many writers, read too many conflicting guidelines and ultimately lost my own way because I was ALWAYS considering my potential readership -but didn’t really know who that was. I tempered my writing so much that I think it lost any sparkle it ever had. I didn’t dare to keep the opening chapter of one novel where the heroine was self- harming in case it gave someone in a vulnerable state ideas, thought that I would never get one novel published as a romance because it had someone taking cocaine,although I loved that particular piece of writing and he was a “baddie” so should have been allowed to be bad. I wrote a humorous piece that had me chuckling, but then read it so many times that I wondered why I ever thought it was funny. I put in a comment about Princess Diana and then decided people might not get it, especially if they were young- so I took it out again.

I was doing myself in being politically correct and trying too hard to be “right”- and it was wearying and damaging and made me lose the small amount of confidence in my writing I had.

I love it when writers say “I just wrote the story I wanted to write.”  That’s all I ever wanted to do. Which is fine of course, if you and Aunty Joyce are the only people who are ever going to read it, or you are a fantastically brilliant writer, and the story you wrote is the one the whole world wants to read. Rather evidently, I am not a fantastically brilliant writer yet and my sister is the only person I now let read my writing (apart from fellow writers) but I am learning to be true to myself, and hope that I am almost there in learning my trade and freeing up my spirit so that I dare to put in a bleeping swear word if I want to (okay, so I’m not quite ready for that yet!)

Jaxx

A moment in time

It can be fleeting, then gone. Or something so cherished, you will never let it go. What am I talking about? Memories.

Recently I went on holiday, to see relatives. Almost every stop on the underground had significance for me. It was amazing the thoughts and feelings that came back to me. At one point I felt a little sad, as I remembered what had been, but was no longer.

Writing is something we all love to do. Sometimes it can be painful, other times filled with joy. When that dreaded block rears its head, and there is nothing you can do! When the hands fly across the keyboard trying to keep up with everything that you know has to be written down. Still through it all we still keep on doing it.

The first memory I have of writing anything down, was when my rabbit died. It was a very sad time for me. I must have been about eight years old. The garden we had at the time was a large one. So we had one half for the rabbit, and the other for the dog. There was a large gate which separated them. Sadly one day the dog got into the rabbit’s side of the garden, let’s say it wasn’t a happy ending.

I was devastated. My lovely rabbit called Thumper had gone to the great bunny warren in the sky. The feeling was so painful, so I sat down and wrote it all down, the tears just fell as I began to put everything down on paper. After I had finished the sadness seemed to have lifted from me. It still hurt, but not as badly. As for my dog, I didn’t speak to him for a week. Then we made up. And he was a loving friend until he sadly passed away.

Next I started to write fairy tales. I remember my mum making up a title, and I had to write a story about it. The first one I wrote was about a white pearl that had been stolen by a witch. She had placed it in her garden, and it turned black. All the flowers in the world were dying.

I loved writing and still do today. When writing a novel we are in control. The characters we create can have powerful memories of their own, painful or otherwise. You decide who lives and who dies.

WOW! When you think about it our imagination is something special, we can create or destroy worlds with it. The beauty of it is that if we kill a character off, we can soon bring him or her back to life.

Can you remember the first time you put pen to paper?

On my journey page I talked about the first romance that I had ever read.

Is there a first novel that inspired you to want to write?

Memories can be powerful, they can hold you back from life, or move you forward. The good thing is we can choose to hold on to them or let them go.

Lorraine x

Time to call time on the traditional hero?

Heroes are getting softer.  Fact.  Or, is it not fact but wishful thinking on my part?  Have to admit I’m a bit anti-hero anyway, not the guy but the tag.  I prefer to call mine the male lead, but for my purposes today, let’s stick with hero.

 In the great tradition of romantic fiction, especially in the HMB world, heroes are at their physical peak in terms of height, fitness, hair growth (in all the right places) and general all-round strength.  Super-intelligent and uber-talented, they excel in their manly careers, run five miles before breakfast, slay the dragon before lunch and get the girl into bed by tea time where they put not a foot, nor anything else, wrong and perform their socks off for Britain.  Not that there would be socks.  Those would be discreetly tucked away inside their size 11 hand-made brogues, or Doc Martens if that’s your pleasure, not left strewn on the floor or, horror of horrors, actually worn.

 But is this kind of hero really what modern women want, or indeed, are getting?  I’m talking fiction here, not real life, or not necessarily…  I’m too lazy to look up any real references but I’ve noticed a definite shift towards the gentler type of hero, one who doesn’t indulge in extreme sports, or indeed any kind of sport, doesn’t look down on his heroine from a great, muscle-bound height and who slays his dragons, not with a yard-long sword and a lot of whooping and look-at-me posturing, but with the finesse of a kindly vet putting down a beloved cat.

 So, if we really are moving on from James Bond or Mr Milk Tray Man as our ideal hero – and it’s high time we did – what are the qualities you’d like yours to have, or will be giving him in your next novel?  To get you started, these are some of mine:

 He will have a sensitive, intelligent face and well-cut hair but doesn’t need to be tall or have a six-pack.  He may even be a tiny bit geeky.  He is good at his job, and ambitious, but he doesn’t need to shake the world; he may be a teacher, a writer, an artist or in the caring professions.  He has confidence, because, after all, that’s the sexiest quality there is, but isn’t over-confident and doesn’t hide his insecurities.  He may wear glasses, preferably the rimless type.  He dresses neatly but doesn’t care about clothes, although he will definitely own a white shirt or two because there’s no man on earth who isn’t improved by a white shirt.  He listens, but not necessarily all the time – I can go on a bit – and he notices, but not the bits I share with nobody except my GP (crossing fiction with reality here but it happens).  Oh, and he must be funny, by which I mean a sense of humour, not odd, although if odd does it for you then go for it.

 Time, then, to break the mould.  What do you think and who will your next hero be?

 Deirdre x

 

 

A Good End?

For the past week I’ve been working on the final chapter of my novel.  Following the advice of bestselling author and expert creative writing tutor Sharon Kendrick I wrote the end months ago.  But when I read it again it wasn’t right.  My character had hijacked the love story part of the book since then and it didn’t work anymore.   And that got me thinking about what makes a good ending. 

It’s pretty clear that readers want the hero and heroine to be together at the end of a romance novel.  Publishers, more cryptically, say they’re looking for an ‘emotionally satisfying ending’. 

When I started looking into it a bit more I found this pretty illuminating quote from one of my writing heroines, Jennifer Crusie: “I think romance novels, like any genre stories, must provide a reader with catharsis at the end, and that catharsis is usually found in a ‘just’ ending; that is, characters get what they deserve. The bad guy gets punished, and the good guys get the happiness they’ve been striving for because they’ve suffered and grown and struggled.”   Jennifer knows what she’s talking about.  Not only has she written half a dozen best sellers but she teaches creative writing at Ohio State University.

By Jennifer’s definition to have a happy ending both characters need to grow during the book.   If one of them doesn’t then you can’t have a happy ending.  I think Gone With the Wind would be a classic example of that.  Scarlett was, in my opinion, a spoilt brat from start to finish.  I’d have felt a bit let down if Rhett had stayed with her at the end. 

The other twist on the happy ever after is the ‘duty’ or ‘noble sacrifice’ ending as in Roman Holiday.  It’s one of my all-time favourite films and it makes me cry every time when Princess Audrey choses her duty to her country over her love for Gregory Peck.  Another film classic would be Casablanca.  If Ingrid Bergman hadn’t got on the plane would that have made a better movie?  I don’t think so.  Somehow it’s enough to know ‘they’ll always have Paris’.

But there are romances where the ending seems anything but ‘just’.  For anyone who hasn’t seen or read One Day by David Nicholls I suggest you stop reading now because there will be spoilers.  The book charts the friendship of Emma and Dexter who meet on the night of their graduation in 1988.  Following their lives for just one day each year we see how that friendship progresses and eventually turns to love.

I saw the film before I read the book.  About three quarters of the way through when Dexter and Emma were happily married I thought ‘this isn’t going to end well’.  I was absolutely right.  Five minutes later Emma gets knocked off her bike and dies.  Yes, dies!  How could this heroine, who we’d come to love, die?  It just wasn’t right.  And no amount of quality father/daughter time four years later was going to make me feel any different. 

I felt cheated.  I’d gone to see a romance.  I didn’t want to come out crying.  And Emma deserved her happy ending.  She was good.  Dexter was a bit of an idiot but she loved him and together they’d suffered and grown.  They should have been together.   

However (and there’s more spoilers coming up) even if the hero and heroine don’t both live to see the final scene the ending can still have that required emotional quality.  Me Before You by JoJo Moyes has an incredibly moving ending.  I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much at the end of a book.  It was heart breaking but I understood.

It seems to me that books with endings that aren’t emotionally satisfying are seen as more serious.  They take the book out of the romance genre and lift it to something more literary.  That’s the author’s choice but it’s not a route I want to go down.

I want an ending that makes my characters and my readers happy.  My characters have definitely suffered (by the way does anyone else find themselves apologising to their characters for what they’re going through or is that just me?) and I’m pretty sure they’ve grown.  They deserve a bit of happiness.   And my readers have stuck with us.  I want them to close the book feeling happy too. 

So now I know what I’m aiming for.  Only time will tell if I can actually pull it off!

I’d love to hear what you think.  What do you want from the end of a romance novel?  What are your all-time favourite endings?  And what makes them so good?

Alex

x

Genre-lisations

I am writing my second book, which is quite a departure from the first, and have begun thinking about how I might categorise this novel when it comes to my NWS submission, at some point over the next four months.  Okay, so I know I am getting ahead of myself here, the thing is only one third written, but at this rate the genre description might match the total word count of the book itself!  As far as I can work out it is a:

  • Young adult
  • Time slip
  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Suspense
  • Supernatural novel
  • With elements of magic

I am not sure about the supernatural bit, if I am honest, perhaps it’s paranormal instead?  I just don’t know…  What is the difference and how much does it really matter?  To me, the answer is “not that much” but, like all labels, genres can be quite emotive tags.

When I started pursuing this journey to publication more seriously, I thought I enjoyed reading and writing Chick Lit best of all.  As far as I was concerned that meant feel good, escapist, contemporary romance, with a guaranteed happy ending thrown in for good measure.

Then I discovered that mentioning the phrase ‘Chick Lit’ was tantamount to referring to the Scottish play by its real name.  If I was serious about publication, and was going to call my work Chick Lit, it was as fool-hardy as rushing into a theatre on the opening night of a Shakespeare production and shouting the word Macbeth at the top of my voice, as well as wishing the cast good luck – instead of telling them all to “break a leg”.

Apparently, I absolutely have to ensure that I never utter the CL phrase and always refer to my first novel as a Rom Com.  But why?  It doesn’t change what it is, any more than it changes the books in this genre written by some of my favourite authors, who were still my favourite authors back when they wrote Chick Lit…

Confused? I know I am!  We’re also told these days to ensure that we write deeper themes and I’m all for that.  In my early forties, I certainly know that life is about more than bagging a man and my next adult novel, which will still be a Rom Com (or CL if you dare), tackles Alzheimer’s as one of its themes.  Yet isn’t there still a place for the frothiest of light heartedly Chick Lit out there, it people want to read it?  Or is the genre really dead, just because someone, somewhere, says it is?

So today I’m rebelling and, like those who refuse to label their sexuality or gender, I’m asking if labelling our genre is just as subjective?  Of course, I’m sure I’ll back down by the time the submission deadline rolls around and I’ll also be rocking my lucky pants then – just in case!

Jo x

Castles in the sky… to believe, to dream, to try and try and try!

castle in the sky

Following on from Helen’s post about wishes coming true, I thought I’d post about those times when disappointment or self doubt can wrap us in a cloak of hopelessness.  I’m sure most writers know exactly what I mean.  It might creep up on you whilst you are reading back through something that you initially thought was insightful, ground-breaking writing and which now makes you doubt you should even be let loose writing a shopping list!  Or perhaps it arises from the spine chilling sound of the rejection envelope hitting the doormat or the ping into your inbox of yet another “thanks, but no thanks” email.

However it comes, I think it does come to all writers at some time or another.  I know I have been there and, just this week, a writer friend of mine emailed to say that she felt like she’d had enough.  I hope she hasn’t, but I can understand why she might.  It certainly isn’t an occupation for those with a fragile ego and rejection comes with the territory.

So, when is it time to give up on your dreams?  I posted about this on a writer’s forum once and was told that, as long as it remains your dream, you should never give up.  When you stop loving the act of writing, or writing because you simple have to in order to truly live, and when your dreams no longer bring you pleasure in the imagining of their coming true – that’s the time to stop.

Until then, believe, dream and try, try, try – drawing some inspiration from those who did and found those castles in the sky:

  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach was only picked up by Macmillan publishing, in 1970, after eighteen other publishers had rejected it. Within five years it had sold over seven million copies.
  • Who can forget that all time classic Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell?  If the twenty five publishers who rejected it before it was finally accepted had got their way, none of us would ever have heard of it.
  • Remember MASH the movie and spin off TV series about the Korean war?  The author of the original blockbuster novel, Richard Hooker, spent seven years tirelessly working on it, only to see it rejected by twenty one publishers.  Morrow eventually decided to publish it and the rest, as they say, is history.
  • The original Chicken Soup for the Soul book from the now hugely successful series was turned down by a total of one hundred and twenty three publishers across the US, including thirty three in New York alone, for being ‘too nice’.  Health Communications Inc, who finally made ‘The Call’ to publish it must be laughing all the way to the bank.  The first book alone sold eight million copies and spawned a series which now has thirty two titles and has chalked up fifty three million sales in thirty one languages.
  • Who doesn’t love that anti-hero The Grinch?  If Dr. Seuss had listened to the twenty seven publishers who rejected his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, before it was eventually published by Vanguard press, selling six million copies, that green harbinger of Christmas gloom would have forever dwelled in Seuss’ imagination, along with the Cat in the Hat, Horton and hundreds of his other characters.
  • The first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers for, among other reasons, being far too long for a children’s book and the series has gone on to make an estimated 25 billion in book sales, movies and merchandising.  JK Rowling can now literally afford a castle in the sky
  • Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest selling paperback of all time, but only after EL James had her dreams and pride battered by rejection from literary agents.  She took her dreams into her own hands, however, and word spread about the book via the Writer’s Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher in Australia. The phenomenon it became must have surpassed even EL James’ wildest dreams.

The message is simple – don’t give up!  After all, the world would be nothing without dreamers.

Jo x

The above examples of dreamers who never give up was compiled by excerpts from various sources including Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, www.weboflove.org, http://sellyourstoryuk.com.

When wishes come true…

First of all I would like to say a heartfelt thanks to everyone who has commented and wished me well. No-one is more surprised than me about my offer of a two book deal with Harlequin’s Digital Imprint Carina.  In my heart I know my novel is good enough to be published because over the years I have read some that actually kept me going they were so bad and had found publishers, but I never actually believed it could happen to me. I thought it was something that would always happen to everyone else. I keep thinking it all might be a mistake, once my contract arrives I think I might actually believe it’s true and then I’ll give everyone a full update.

You know there is a garden centre we visit every couple of months up at Ambleside and outside there is a wishing well type thing with a bell that you throw your money at to see if you can hit it. It has become a Phifer family tradition now that none of us can walk away until we hit that bell at least once and make a wish. My wishes these last two years have been, please let me finish my book, please let me find an agent or publisher, please let the lovely editor I met like my book, please let the lovely editor buy my book – you get the idea. I think it might be time for another trip up there to make another wish but I’m not sharing that one unless it comes true but whatever you do with your writing and no matter how disheartened you may feel – don’t ever give up.

Helen P xx