Who do you want to be?

December already! How did that happen?

Never mind about Christmas, here am I, staring straight down the barrel at one of ‘those’ birthdays, the sort with a ruddy great 0 on the end. I’m not going to tell you the actual number. I’ll leave you to work that one out. If my social media mug-shot isn’t enough of a picture clue, here’s another:
queen-elizabeth-wedding

Are you with me? Good. To continue…

Given that nothing has yet been invented to halt the passing of time, I decided I might as well celebrate this birthday instead of trying to hide it. I’m lucky; my mother didn’t make it this far. I won’t be marking the occasion with anything drastic, like wing-walking, or bungee-jumping into a gorge full of crocodiles (yes, I’ve been watching I’m A Celebrity again!) I’ll just be spending time with my family (small though it is) because it’s what I love best. There will be a holiday at some point, next year when my husband catches up with me on the numbers, he being the ‘younger man’, you see.  I’ll also be having a weekend away with my three fab best friends from school, as we always do when the ‘big’ birthdays come round, and we’ll be giggling away just as we did in the first form of grammar school.

While I’m quietly congratulating myself on getting to this stage in one piece – well, as near as dammit – I’ll also be celebrating something very important, which is that I am now who I want to be; have wanted to be practically my whole life – a writer. And not only that, a published one, too. I’m not saying this in any boastful way, although I am proud of it, of course, and I’ve worked extremely hard to make it happen. What I’m saying is that it’s never too late to be who you want to be.

True, there might be the odd physical restriction if, say, you’ve always harboured an ambition to make the Olympic rowing team or train to be an astronaut. This is one of the marvellous things about writing; you can begin at any age and it doesn’t have to stop, not as long as you can put one brain cell in front of another and grope your way across a keyboard. (Long may that perfect state continue!)

There’s a flip-side to this. I came to writing late for reasons I won’t bore you with, but if you want to write, don’t wait for the ideal conditions or the perfect stage in your life. Find a way, and start now. As I said before, it’s never too late to be who you want to be. But it’s never too soon either.

Have a great Christmas, everyone! And on that subject, you might like to know about my latest book,  Christmas at Spindlewood which is 99p to download from Amazon, or free with Kindle Unlimited. It’s written under my pen-name, Zara Thorne.

snowfall

I must say it was fun writing this one.  What is it about Christmas books? Readers seem to have an unquenchable thirst for them, and very nice too.  Big thanks to everyone who has bought the book so far. I hope you enjoy it.

Deirdre x

PS. If you’d like to know more about me and my writing, check out my website.

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There are four thousand love stories in Central Park

Central Park has over nine thousand benches. You might wonder why I’m telling you this, but I promise it will all become clear. Most people who head to New York, can’t wait to hit the shops, take in a Broadway show, visit the Statue of Liberty, and look out from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I was no different, but what I didn’t expect, is that all of those things would pale into insignificance for me, when I fell in love. With Central Park.

At heart, I’m a country girl, so maybe it’s no surprise that I loved the oasis of tranquillity that Central Park provides in such a vibrant city. But it fired my imagination in a way that I’d never thought possible. And it was all down to those benches.

Over four thousand of them have been ‘adopted’, which means they’ve had plaques assigned – each one a mini love story in its own right. There were hundreds of them that touched my heart, and, if I’d had the time, I could have spent the entire ten days I was in New York, just wandering around Central Park, reading those plaques. There were proposals, dedications of love, and the marking of every momentous occasion you can imagine. But this was my favourite:

Isn’t that the most beautiful love story you’ve ever read, in so few words? I’d really like to know more about Meg and Wes, but what I do know is that they inspired the idea behind my latest novel The Christmas Shop at Central Park’. When Libby moves to New York to recover from the death of her parents, and takes a job working in a Christmas shop on Seventh Avenue, she reads a message on a bench – from Charlie to Grace – that changes her life.

The benches in Central Park weren’t the only things to influence the story, though. There’s a scene in the novel where the heroine can’t find the Empire State Building, even though she’s standing right in front of it. It happened to me, and I’ve never seen a police officer laugh so hard! But shrouded in mist, it didn’t look anything like I’d expected. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it… Just look how different it looked in these two pictures, taken on the same trip, I think it was a case of being too close to see what was right in front of me, first time around!

Leeds trip – Paula’s in the centre and I’m back left.

 

Four of the characters in the book are named after some friends I met up with on a trip to Leeds, and a throw away comment from someone when we were at that stage of the evening where rash promises are made! I’d gone on the trip with one of my best friends, Paula, and she was probably an even bigger influence on the story than those beautiful benches in Central Park. She’s an absolute inspiration, dealing with health issues which would stop most people, but somehow she keeps grabbing life by the scruff of the neck. One of the main characters in the story represents everything I love about her – intelligence, wit and the absolute refusal to do anything but live life to the full. I’d give Paula her own plaque in Central Park if I could, but for now she’ll just have to settle for having the novel dedicated to her instead.

If you get the chance to spend an hour or ten wandering around Central Park, reading those plaques, you won’t regret it. After all, you can go shopping in any city, but where else will you get the chance to read thousands of mini love stories, all in one place?

A New Look for Winter Tales, Our #charity #anthology

It’s hard to believe, but November is almost upon us, and winter is just around the corner. Shops are already filling up with Christmas goodies, and the dark nights are drawing in.

Social media has been full of promotional posts for, and news of, forthcoming or newly-released Christmas books. Some might say (and some have) that it’s far too early for all that, but the truth is, whatever your opinion, festive books are on sale and they’re proving to be very popular.

In a world that can sometimes seem harsh and uncaring, it can be a relief and a joy to settle down with a story set at the time of year when peace and goodwill to all men reign supreme. There’s something very cosy and comforting about Christmas books, and this year, the Write Romantics have a bumper crop on offer. You’ll be hearing more about that in future posts.

But first and foremost, the important news is that, as you can see by the picture above, we have given our anthology, Winter Tales, a fresh look, and we love the gorgeous new cover with the festive robin and the warm, cheerful colours. We released Winter Tales back in November 2014, gathering together stories from generous writing friends, who happily contributed their seasonal tales in aid of two great causes.

Winter Tales was put together for the benefit of The Cystic Fibrosis Trust and The Teenage Cancer Trust – two charities very close to our hearts. At the time, we were ten writers with only one publishing deal between us, and we knew we needed help from our friends! Luckily for us, the writing community is a big, helpful and friendly one, and before long we had contributions from plenty of lovely authors. We raised lots of money for our chosen charities, and we managed to garner some good reviews for the book.

It’s now three years on (I know! Unbelievable!) and, with it being that time of year again, we’ve decided to give Winter Tales a new look and try our best to raise more money for the charities. The new cover has proved very popular, and we had a brilliant weekend of sales, earning our anthology a bestseller flag on Amazon for the very first time. But we need to keep this going, so, in the spirit of Christmas, we’re just giving anyone who hasn’t bought the book a gentle nudge.  Winter Tales is just 99p at the moment, and here’s a list of all the stories you can find inside.

Not Just Another Winter’s Tale by Jessica Redland

Reserved by Rhoda Baxter

Seasonal Encounters of the Cafe Kind by Zanna Mackenzie

In All the Wrong Places by Jo Bartlett

Winter Melody by Deirdre Palmer

The Handsome Stranger by Alison May

Loving Mr Perfect by Holly Martin

The Other Side of Christmas by Sharon Booth

The Art of Giving by Sarah Painter

All I Want for Christmas by Jackie Ladbury

The Bookshop of Dreams by Helen Phifer

Muriel’s Christmas Surprise by Jennifer Bohnet

Wherever I’ll Be by Deirdre Palmer

Christmas in July by Helen J Rolfe

A Pistol for Propriety by Alys West

A Tooth for a Tooth by Terri Nixon

It’s a Wonderful Life by Annie Lyons

Something Blue by Linda Huber

Ghosts of Christmas by Sarah Lewis

Meet Me at Midnight by Rachael Thomas

Into My Loving Arms by Lynne Pardoe

An Early Christmas Present by Samantha Tonge

Butterfly Nights by Deirdre Palmer

So, you see, we have some really fabulous authors in there and some fantastic stories for your reading pleasure. We hope you’ll take a chance on this anthology and, if you enjoy it, why not leave a review, or spread the word to friends and family so that we can raise as much money as possible to help everyone affected by cystic fibrosis and cancer, who need and deserve our help. You can buy Winter Tales here.

Thank you! And Merry Christmas. xx

Five things I wished I’d known before I was published by Rhoda Baxter @RhodaBaxter

As part of our series on this topic, we’ve asked Rhoda Baxter to join us today and share her experiences.  Today is also publication day for Rhoda and there’s more information about her new book, Girl in Trouble, at the end of this post.  So I’ll hand over to Rhoda to explain more… 

Other People Will Read My Books (and have opinions about them)
You’d think this would be a fairly obvious. At some level, I knew this was going to happen, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer awesomeness of it.
When my first book came I braced myself for negative reviews. What I didn’t prepare for was positive reviews. It somehow escaped me that it was possible for someone I didn’t know to read my book and like it. When I got my first review (which was a lovely 4 out of 5 stars) it was hard to process and I burst into tears.
There have been other reviews, good, bad and indifferent for my books since then and I still have a little fizz of excitement that the thing that was once existed only in my head has now moved, via screen or print into someone else’s head.
One of the most amazing experiences of my writing life was when two colleagues from my day job started arguing about two of my characters as though the characters were real people. Obviously, I feel my characters are real people. I lived with them in my head for a year and I know them pretty well, but to hear someone else discuss them in that way… mind blowing. Also, very cool.

You have to learn about Marketing
I used to think that selling books was about quality. If you write a good book, it will sell itself. Er … no. A good book with no marketing will sink without a trace. A bad book with good marketing, might sell well. The holy grail is a good book with good marketing. I can write. I spent years learning how to do that and I’m improving with each book. But marketing? I knew absolutely nothing about that.
I had assumed that publishers would take care of all that. Maybe, in the dim and distant past, they did, but now they are so stretched and the world of book selling is so competitive, they can’t do all that much.
So now I’m reading marketing books and trying to learn this voodoo that is marketing. One day I might even get the hang of it.

There will be more ideas
It took me three years to write my first book, I thought that was the only book I would ever write. It was, as my first NWS reviewer said, clearly a book of my heart. Write another, she said. Write something you’d read for fun. I had a moment of panic. I’d had my idea. That was it. Story written, that idea was now tied down. How did I find another one? How did you get the muse to strike again? As every wannabe writer asks whenever they get the chance where do you get your ideas from?
I eventually dug out an old idea (and I mean really old, I’d started writing it as a teenager). It was a weak, thin fragment of a thing. All I really had were two characters, one male, one female. She was cooler than he was. Not much of a story, really. I gave him a problem (he wanted a promotion at work). I gave her a problem (she’s hiding from something). I drafted a plot – thin and weak, but it was a start – and sent it to my writing partner. She came back with a load of questions. Slowly, slowly a plot emerged.
Writing book 2 taught me that ideas rarely come to you fully formed. They take work. This was a liberating thought. All those pathetic looking fragments of ideas have the potential to be fully fledged. I may not have many fully formed story ideas, but I’ve got TONS of unformed storylets.
Nowadays I look back at the Where Do You Get Your Ideas From terror of a few years ago with amazement. These days, my problem is not the lack of ideas. It’s deciding which of the half formed storylets that are clamouring around in my head should be developed next.

Writing Friends

I got my head around the fact that you need to network to succeed in this business (thank you Sue Moorcroft for that invaluable piece of advice). I’d always thought of networking as a tedious, superficial thing. Now, several years on, I have a circle of writer friends whom I’ve met only because of my writing. Most of them are members of the Romantic Novelists Association. They are personal friends now and we talk about all sorts of things that have nothing to do with writing. Joining the RNA was probably one of the best decisions I ever made – not just for my writing, but for my happiness in general.

You Never Stop Learning
I’ve written bits of stories since I was a child and I thought I knew how to write. In my mid twenties, after I’d handed in my PhD and got a real job, I thought I’d start writing fiction again. I found the BBC Get Writing site. It was a great place where experienced writers mentored newbies and gave good (sometimes harsh) feedback. I learned how to write at sentence level. I learned about the really important basics like word choice and impact and rhythm. I practised it and practised it until it sank into the bone. My writing improved.
Then I started hanging around the Harlequin message boards. I learned about plots and character arcs, black moments and denouements. I joined the RNA – where I learned even more about theme and resonance and plot. Each of these lessons have made me a better writer. I still read books on writing and go on courses. Essentially, I’m still learning how to write better. The day I stop learning is the day I’ll stop improving. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

Girl In Trouble – Published today! On special offer of 99p until 15th October! 

When the things that define you are taken away, do you fight? Or compromise?

Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn’t need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren’t that reliable anyway. She’s got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn’t need to settle down, thanks.

Walter’s ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he’s losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she’s pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he’s ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart. 

Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you’ll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot’s Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.

Buy link: books2read.com/u/4Doy6r

Girl in Trouble is on special offer at 99p until 15th October, after that date the price will increase to £2.99. If you buy the book before the 15th of October you will also get a book of short stories and a companion recipe book (containing recipes from the prequel Girl Having A Ball) absolutely free.

Rhoda Baxter writes contemporary romances with heart and a touch of British cynicism. her books have been nominated for a variety of awards. She lives in Yorkshire with her young family and is on a mission to have afternoon tea in as many cake shops as she can.

You can find her wittering on about science and romance and cake on her website (www.rhodabaxter.com), Facebook or on Twitter (@rhodabaxter). Do say hello.

Jessica does Christmas. Twice!

What a busy, exciting week I’ve had! I’ve released two Christmas books and started a Masters in Creative Writing. Well, when I say started, I’ve popped into my tutor group forum to say “hello” and have read some guidance information, but I’ll start studying in earnest next week.

My first Christmas book, Charlee and the Chocolate Shop, was released on Monday and Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes was released on Thursday. Both books see a return to the North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitsborough Bay and Castle Street, which is the setting of my very first novel, Searching for Steven.

Charlee and the Chocolate Shop is the result of an idea I’ve been developing for a while but Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes came out of nowhere. In Charlee, I happened to mention another business on the street in passing – Carly’s Cupcakes – and, when I was editing the book, suddenly an idea for a story based around the owner popped into my head. I wasn’t planning to launch two Christmas books, but I simply had to tell Carly’s story. Thankfully, Carly was one of those rare books that wrote itself, so I was able to squeeze it in. I really wish that happened all the time.

I have to thank a couple of my fellow Write Romantics, Jo and Sharon, who were absolute stars and beta-read both of the novels for me very quickly. What stars they are!

If you love Christmas, the coast, chocolate and cake, you might love these …

Charlee Cover (Amazon)Charlee and the Chocolate Shop is a heart-warming tale of family and friendship.

Master chocolatier, Charlee Chambers, has plenty to be excited about as Christmas approaches. She’s moved in with her boyfriend, Darren, and she’s about to open a chocolate shop, following in her late granddad’s footsteps. If only Darren would show more interest in helping her refurbish Charlee’s Chocolates ready for a December opening.

When water starts pouring through the shop ceiling, and Darren can’t be contacted to help, emergency plumber Matt comes to the rescue. From that moment on, Matt does more to support Charlee in achieving her dreams than Darren ever has, and she finds herself drawn to him. But Matt’s engaged and Charlee loves Darren … doesn’t she? And Darren loves her … or at least, she thinks he does, but he’s been behaving a little strangely recently.

Then Charlee discovers that Darren has a secret. But so does Matt. And so, it seems, does the woman who abandoned her at birth …

If you’d like to see some of the inspiration behind this book, please visit the Pinterest board for Charlee and the Chocolate Shop here.

 

Christmas at Carlys Cupcakes Cover (Amazon)Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes is a cosy heartwarming tale of friendship, family, putting the past behind, and embracing the future.

It’s Christmas in Whitsborough Bay. With fairy lights connecting the shops and cafés on either side of the cobbles, Castle Street seems magical. And in such a magical place, surely Christmas wishes can come true.

Carly Travis, owner of Carly’s Cupcakes, has two Christmas wishes this year. Her first is for her younger sister, Bethany, to focus on the positives in her life, including her Christmas wedding, instead of writing herself off as a failure. Bethany’s attempts at cake-decorating aren’t going to win any awards, but she’s certainly great with customers. Carly’s second wish is for her best friend, Liam, to come home for Christmas.

When Liam calls to say he’s been granted leave from the army, Carly makes a third Christmas wish. It’s the one she’s made every year since she was a teenager and, if she’s really brave, could this be the year when it finally comes true?

With Liam coming home, the shop having its best year yet, and a wedding to look forward to, it’s shaping up to be the best Christmas ever for Carly. But for Bethany, things are starting to unravel …

If you’d like to see some of the visual inspiration behind this book, please visit the Pinterest board for Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes here.

(York) Tea for Two – and a Whole Host of RNA Writers

(York) Tea for Two – and a Whole Host of RNA Writers

Official tickets! Exciting. Or scary!

So there we were, Julie Heslington and me, standing outside The Royal York Hotel, all ready to go inside and brave our first “proper” Romantic Novelists’ Association event. Julie had been to a couple of conferences before but, for me, it was my first RNA event, full stop. The York Tea. A gathering of well-known, well-established romance writers, who would wonder who on earth we were, and how we dared to darken the doorstep of this place and rub shoulders with the elite of romantic fiction.

Well, that’s what we thought, anyway, in our darkest moments. “On the other hand,” we decided brightly, “they might be nice. We have to try, at least.”

Squaring our shoulders, we marched purposefully forward. Julie sailed into the hotel. I got tangled up in the revolving door and it took me slightly longer. Typical. Then, heads held high, we walked up to reception, where Julie immediately asked where the toilets were. Priorities and all that. As an afterthought, we enquired where the RNA Tea was being held, and a rather bemused looking man told us we were in the Garden Room. So, a few minutes later, we approached said room, only to be told by a young woman that no, we weren’t in there at all. We were at the end of the corridor, if you don’t mind. So off we went again and, as we approached, it became clear that we were finally in the right place. Little things gave it away – like the big table covered in dozens of name badges with RNA written on them. Yay! We’d made it.

Sadly, he didn’t talk to me. Elegant, though.

There was a  heart-stopping moment when Julie couldn’t find her name badge. Would it, she enquired, be under Julie Heslington, or Jessica Redland? Huge relief when we spotted it. Turned out, it had both names on it. The RNA cover every eventuality! So name badges were collected, coats handed over, deep breaths taken, and in we went. The room seemed enormous, and there were lots of large, round tables, each elegantly adorned with silver candlesticks that reminded me of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.  If only, I thought wistfully. I’m sure Lumiere would talk to us and be kind. We hovered and dithered for quite some time as, around us, groups of writers chatted to each other as if they were best friends.

“Oh dear,” we said. “This is worse than we thought.” We’d selected a table in the middle of the row, but I had a panic suddenly. “We’ll have to squeeze between people every time we get up,” I pointed out. “And it’s a long way from the door.”

“We’ll sit near the door,” Julie decided, heading over to the first table in the room. “That way, we can get out easily enough.”

“So if no one speaks to us, we can escape,” I said, feeling suddenly more cheerful. There were, after all, dozens, probably hundreds, of places to eat in York. We could soon make our getaway and have our own afternoon tea, if we needed to. It didn’t have to be a complete disaster.

The room filled up. As we headed to the door to collect our complimentary glass of wine, I spotted Lizzie Lamb. Lizzie Lamb! I was thrilled to see her, as Lizzie was the very first writer I ever approached, years ago when I was just beginning my writing journey. I’d seen something she’d written in either Writing Magazine or Writer’s Forum – I can’t remember now which one it was – and she’d mentioned the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme. I plucked up courage and messaged her on Facebook, asking for advice about joining. She was brilliant, and so kind, giving me information and encouragement. I’ve never forgotten that, and I am such a big fan of her books, so it was wonderful when she came over to me and hugged me. It felt like she was an old friend!

Lovely Erin Green/ODwyer Author and her equally lovely hubby

Then a lovely couple came over. They knew Julie, but I’d never met them before. When Julie told me who the lady was, I realised I actually knew her from Facebook – from her ODwyer Author account and her Erin Green Author page. She’d brought along her husband, and we had a lovely chat with them both. They really helped break the ice and eased us into the event beautifully.

Julie looking very glam x

So, I had my very first glass of prosecco. I rarely drink alcohol at all, but, you know, it was free and it seemed rude to say no. Besides, it might help calm my nerves. I sipped it cautiously, being no fan of wine. Any wine. Hmm. That was actually quite nice. I finished my very first glass of prosecco.  I glanced around the room, recognising various faces from social media and Romance Matters, the RNA’s magazine. Would I ever dare speak to any of them, I wondered. Probably not, was the dismal, if realistic, reply. I hate social events. I’m a bag of nerves and I didn’t think a whole bottle of prosecco would be enough to see me through this.

Julie had gone to the bar to get us more drinks. I’d decided to stick with soft drinks. Alcohol has a most unfortunate effect on me and, sure enough, I could already feel the tell-tale burning sensation in my face. It seems to mimic a mini-menopause, making me red-faced and giving me terrible hot flushes. I could never be a secret drinker, that’s for sure. With no Julie to talk to, I clutched my empty glass, looked around me and tried to appear as if I was relaxed and chilled, not a quivering wreck who just wanted to go home.

Julie and me, with our lovely neighbours Dorinda and Rowena. Fab company!

“Hello, is this seat taken?” I looked around and a lady, whose face I knew from Facebook, was standing beside me. “Only, my friend and her sister are coming, and they’re going to be a bit late, so I wondered if it was okay for them to sit here?” Perhaps it was the sheer astonishment that someone had spoken to me, or perhaps it was the prosecco, but I nodded enthusiastically and said, of course, it was fine. Then I remembered that a writer Julie knew, from her home town of Scarborough, had said she was going to be a bit late, and she was bringing her sister. Could it be? Turned out, it was the same people that this lady – who introduced herself as Julia Ibbotson – was reserving seats for. What a coincidence. As it happened, it was a very happy coincidence. The ladies in question were Dorinda Cass and her sister, Rowena, and a nicer couple of neighbours I couldn’t have wished for.  We had a blast, talking non-stop, and my nerves vanished. Julie was engaged in conversation with the neighbours on her left side. Across the table from us sat Julia Ibbotson and another lady called Karen Critchley/Violet Fields. Next to them were two more ladies. One of them looked familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to the face. We all got talking, and she said her name was Janice Preston. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Oh, I know you!” Of course, I didn’t, but I knew her from Twitter and Facebook, and I knew of her books.

After that, conversation was buzzing. We had quite a debate about scones/sconns. Julie says “sconns” and I say “scones”. Jenni Fletcher, who was sitting next to Janice, insisted it was “sconns”. She demanded, “Where do you come from?” I replied “Hull.” Her jaw dropped. “Never!” Turns out, she lives just up the road in a local village. Who’d have thought it?

Rhoda Baxter, with Jane Lovering, who I didn’t pluck up the courage to speak to. Gutted!

Rhoda Baxter came up to chat. Another face I knew instantly from social media. I knew Rhoda was local to me, and I knew she attended the Beverley Chapter meetings, where another Facebook friend, Ellie Gray, was a member. Rhoda was lovely and friendly, and told us all about her new adventures in indie publishing. I asked if Ellie was coming. “She’s here,” came the reply. “Come and meet her.”

The lovely Ellie Gray and Anne Williams.

Feeling a bit nervous, I followed her over to the other side of the room, and there was Ellie, who I recognised immediately. Nerves vanished. I was so pleased to finally meet her, and she was just as lovely as I’d imagined she would be. We chatted for ages and I promised I would join the Beverley chapter and attend as much as I could, work hours permitting – and will definitely attend when I leave my day job and write full-time.

Afternoon tea. By the time Lizzie took this, Julie and I had probably cleared our plates.

Seeing some activity and a flurry of movement suddenly, we hurried back to our table. We were officially welcomed to the York Tea by organiser, Lynda Stacey, and then food was served. You know, it was only when we had nearly finished stuffing our faces that Julie and I realised a) we were the only ones who had eaten just about everything on the plates, and b) we’d been so preoccupied with the food that we’d quite forgotten to take a photograph of it to show you. Luckily, Lizzie Lamb had the foresight to snap hers, and she’s very kindly lent me a picture for your delight.

The fabulous Milly Johnson

“I wonder if Milly Johnson’s here yet,” I said, to no one in particular. I am such a huge fan of Milly. Back when I was wondering if I could really write contemporary romance/romcoms, I decided to read as many books in the genre as I could find, so I trawled Amazon for appropriate titles, and Milly was immediately recommended. Her book, The Birds and the Bees, was the first I read, and I remember feeling so excited about it. I quickly read The Yorkshire Pudding Club and Here Come the Girls. Here were books about women I recognised. Ordinary, working class women with accents like mine, and families and worries and problems I could relate to, and a sense of humour I could really understand and enjoy. Milly’s books gave me hope that, just maybe, you didn’t have to be middle class and posh to write books, after all.

When Milly was introduced, I felt my heart thud with anticipation. There she was. I was actually in the same room as Milly Johnson. She gave a wonderful speech that made me laugh, but also moved me to tears at various points. It was worth all the anxiety and stress and sleepless nights the thought of attending this event had caused me, just to see and hear Milly in action. My job was done. Or so I thought.

When the food was cleared away, another familiar face loomed into view. Anne Williams! Anne is a book blogger, and she has written some amazing reviews for my books, Baxter’s Christmas Wish and Resisting Mr Rochester. I was so grateful to her, and told her so. We had a lovely long chat, and she introduced herself to Julie and told her one of her books was on her to-be-read list. Anne was just as friendly and chatty as I knew she’d be, and I was so pleased to finally meet her.

Me and the truly delightful Lizzie Lamb.

Then, as Anne walked away, Lizzie came over, camera in hand, and asked for a photo of the two of us. Julie very kindly took one of us both, and then we launched into conversation as if we’d met loads of times before and had known each other for years. It was fabulous to talk to her properly. She was every bit as lovely as I’d heard she was, and we chatted for ages.

When we finally parted, I turned round to go back to my chair and nearly fell over with shock. Sitting next to Rowena was none other than Milly Johnson! I gaped at her, my heart hammering. Milly was sitting in the next chair but one to me. I think my mouth dropped open. She looked up, gave me a puzzled sort of smile, then resumed her conversation with Rowena as I plonked into my chair and tried to look as if I was used to this sort of thing. When she got up to leave, she hugged Rowena, and wandered off, and I gaped at Rowena. “What?” she said. “That was Milly Johnson,” I said – rather unnecessarily, I feel, in hindsight. “I know. Isn’t she lovely?” “I wouldn’t know,” I replied. “I’ve never met her.” Her eyes widened. “Why didn’t you say? I’d have introduced you.” Jeez. Probably a good thing she didn’t. I might still be unconscious.

The lovely Janice Preston, with Alison May, another one I wish I’d had the nerve to speak to.

Later, Jenni Fletcher came round to our side of the table. She told us all about the Beverley chapter, and Julie and I both agreed we would love to join. She was bubbly and friendly and made us laugh. I realised, suddenly, that not a single person we’d spoken to had been unfriendly or stand-offish at all. Everyone had been absolutely lovely to us – a fact confirmed when Janice came over to talk, and we had a fascinating conversation about clothes shops, among other things. Then Nicola Cornick came over to talk to Dorinda, and she was another friendly, warm person. Yep, the room was full of delightful, kind, funny, interesting people. What on earth had we been so worried about?

Me. Really. This is what one glass of prosecco does to me. Totally out of focus.

As we were leaving, I handed over my badge and waited for Julie, and John Jackson wandered over to hand in his. I introduced myself and thanked him for all his Friday Follows on Twitter each week, and congratulated him on his forthcoming book. He took out his camera and snapped me there and then. When I saw the photo later, I looked a bit blurry and out-of-focus. That prosecco must have affected me more than I realised!

Julie and I headed for the front door, passing Julia Ibbotson, who was being interviewed in the lobby. As I heard her discussing her work with the reporter, I thought, I can’t believe this is my life now. How lucky am I to mix with such amazing people, to meet authors whose work I really enjoy and respect, to be able to chat about books and writing to my heart’s content, and to make such wonderful friends? I feel so blessed to be part of this world.

We  left the hotel and headed back to the station to catch our respective trains. We both agreed we’d had a fabulous time. We’d chatted to Facebook friends in person for the first time, found new friends that we’d never spoken to, even online, before, and picked up tips and information. We’d heard a wonderful speech by a fantastic author, had lots of laughs, and a pretty cracking afternoon tea. All in all, it was a fabulous event, and we were both really glad we found the courage to attend.

But it’s still scones.

Sharon xx

Many thanks to Lynda Stacey for organising this event, and thank you, too, to Julie Heslington, John Jackson and Lizzie Lamb for the use of their photographs.

Julie’s/Jessica’s latest book, Charlee and the Chocolate Shop, is out now, and you can buy it here.

 

Secrets of Structure by Alys West

When I first started thinking seriously about writing a novel, I asked the successful local writer whose evening class I was attending how to structure a novel.  She said to me, “I always struggle with structure. I’ve got a friend who helps me with it.”  It wasn’t the most helpful of responses but because she didn’t give me the answer I needed, I had to look elsewhere.  For a long time it felt like there was a conspiracy of silence about structure and novel writing as if novelists are just supposed to know.  When I started doing my MA in creative writing I discovered that if I wanted to know about structure then I needed books written for screen writers.

The reason for that is that every Holywood blockbuster you’ve ever seen conforms to the same basic plan.  You can dress this up in different ways and call it a three act structure or a five act or Freytag’s pyramid but when you look closely you’ll see that all stories have some key building blocks.

First of all there has to be an inciting incident which is the thing that happens to kickstart the story.  In crime fiction, it’s the murder.  In a James Bond movie, it’s the discovery that someone evil (either with or without a white cat) is threatening world peace.  In romance novels it tends to be something a little less dramatic.  In Pride & Prejudice it would be Darcy saying “She is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt me” at the Mereton assembly. In Sleepless in Seattle it’d be Annie saying ‘magic’ at the same time as Sam.  It’s the inciting incident which introduces the protagonist to a new world (for Lizzie, the world of wealth and privilege Darcy inhabits) and starts them on a journey.

The midpoint isn’t just what happens in the middle of the story, it’s the point where the protagonist changes.  It’s where they realise that there’s no way back to the old life they used to live.  But at this point, the protagonist is pretty confused by their new knowledge and doesn’t know how to handle it correctly. In Skyfall its when Bond has Bardem in his custody and realises the strength of his enemy before Bardem escapes and the tube train crashes through the roof of the M15 hideout (I love that bit!) In Pride & Prejudice the midpoint is when Lizzie gets Darcy’s letter and realises she’s had him wrong all along.  But not only does she not know what to do with this new knowledge, she doesn’t realise that she’s falling in love with him.

The crisis is where things go really badly wrong.  It’s when all hope passes away. It’s the moment when you’re yelling at the screen ‘Oh no!’ It may be a death (often of someone close to the protagonist) or in a romance the point where it seems the couple can never get together.  For Lizzie, it’s when she realises that Darcy is the perfect man for her but through Lydia’s marriage to Wickham, they are forever separated.  The function of the crisis is to prompt the protagonist to ask themselves what kind of person they are. It’s a test of character. In Casablanca, it’s when Rick realises he has to change his essentially selfish ways and let Ilsa go.  

The climax, as you’d expect, is the final showdown with the antagonist.  It’s what the story has been building up to.  It’s the moment when the protagonist faces the antagonist and everyone comes out fighting.  In Skyfall it’s the battle at Skyfall House with Bardem.  In an Agatha Christie it’s when all the suspects are gathered together and Poirot talks them through the investigation and then reveals the identity of the murderer. In Pride & Prejudice it’s the moment Lizzie stands up to Lady Catherine De Burgh and, without realising it, gives Darcy hope that she does actually care for him.

After the climax is the resolution which is the final judgement after the battle (physical or metaphorical) of the climax. James Bond saves the world and gets the girl. In Sleepless in Seattle it’s the moment Annie and Sam finally meet.  In romance fiction it’s the happy ever after and Pride & Prejudice gives us a good example of that as we have Darcy’s second proposal and acceptance by Lizzie and also her saying (because she’s learned some things as all good protagonists have to) “She remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin”.

This is a very quick overview, of course but I’ve found it really helpful to break structure down to these building blocks.  If you’d like to know more I strongly recommend Into the Woods by John Yorke which is a brilliantly clear book on structure and how stories work. If you’re in Yorkshire then I’m doing a workshop on stories and how to tell them on Sunday 17th September at Owl & Monkey in York and you can find out more about it by clicking here.

My novels Beltane and The Dirigible King’s Daughter are available from Amazon as ebook and paperback.  You can find out more about me on my website or can follow me on Twitter at @alyswestyork.

Images reproduced courtesy of the BBC, Tristar Pictures, MGM and Warner Bros.