Friday, 29 October 2010

Technology queen

Glen Trool

Mulberry vodka
 Home again after a few days on the Solway coast.  Much wine was drunk, dogs were walked, cards were played, and mulberry vodka sampled (much nicer than it smelt) but oddly enough no work whatsoever was done, in spite of my vow to do AT LEAST two pages every day.  Instead I spent a lot of time playing with my spanking new iPhone.  I do this every time, resisting new technology for years, digging in my heels and refusing to have anything to do with computers/CD players/video players/mobile phones etc etc, and then become a zealot overnight, just as everyone else is moving on to something new.

Roxy, much walked

Unlike most technology, though, this new phone is a thing of beauty.  There’s something positively sensuous about the way you stroke the screen to move around.  And it has an iPod!  This is also something I’ve spent years saying that I’d never use, and yet here I am addicted already.  I discovered that if I turn the phone on its side, all the album covers pop up on the screen and you can riffle through them (more stroking).  I was thrilled by this, but absolutely mustn’t, mustn’t, mustn’t show anyone else this trick or I will be an official phone bore, and after years of complaining about being made to admire other people’s phones too.  (But it is v cool.)

Going completely the wrong way
The stroking is lovely, but I don’t like the feeling that the phone is actually cleverer than I am.  I’d have thought texting was a basic function, but no! I had to get a 14 year old to show me how to do that.  It also has a compass, which I’m sure would be helpful if I only knew how to use one, and GPS, which ought to come in handy too.  We could have done with it at Glen Trool on Monday, where we had something of a boggy detour along the loch shore, and then got completely lost in the woods, knee deep in moss, before we finally found the right path.  (Hey, who spotted the metaphor for writing a book?  Or for life, come to that?) 

It looks innocent enough ...

I get that nasty sense of inferiority whenever I sit at my computer too.  Like most of us nowadays, I have a complicated love-hate relationship with my computer.  I wrote my first three books on an electric typewriter, and who wants to go back to the days of Tippex and carbon copies and renumbering all the pages by hand when you’ve only added a couple of lines?  But at least I was the one in control.  Now it feels like my computer is the one with all the power, and I am convinced it knows just how dependant I am on it.  The closer I get to my deadline, the more skittish it gets, freezing, closing down, refusing to connect to the internet, sending me smug error messages ….  My preferred technique is to bang the mouse around, clicking furiously and shouting at the screen, which amazingly appears to make no difference at all, and then I have to spend hours on the phone to some technical wizard, by the end of which I am practically weeping with frustration.   Am already feeling twitchy about the end of November (my next deadline).  Perhaps I should start making little offerings to keep the computer sweet … delete a few photos, or give it some more megabytes or ram (whatever they are) or at least dust the screen. 

Or I could stop rambling and get back to work on the book.  First draft done, so now it’s back to the beginning in the hope that it’s all going to come together miraculously …

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Cheryl and me

Cheryl Cole ... see the resemblance???

Very exciting news on Tuesday that two members of Team Jessica are through to the last round of Mills & Boon’s New Voices competition.  When I tried to explain my mentoring role in New Voices to non-writing friends, they all said, ‘Oh, you mean, you’re like Cheryl Cole in The X Factor?’  This may be the only time in my life that I will be compared to Cheryl (gorgeous, slim, with what seems like an exciting celebrity life that’s often splashed over the gossip mags) so I am encouraging the association, although the sad fact is that in my case mentoring doesn’t involve looking glamorous on television, but sitting here at my computer in comfy leggings. 

I may not have got to wear a sparkly dress, but I’ve enjoyed being a mentor anyway. I could see exactly why all ten chapters had made it through to the second round.  All had that indefinable voice that makes the words jump from the page, the elusive PTQ that makes you forget about inconsistencies in the characters or gaping holes in the plot.  Luckily, all three of the first chapters in Team Jessica were quite different in style - The Secret Duchess was intriguing and atmospheric, Secrets & Speed Dating had a lovely contemporary tone, and The Surgeon and the Cowgirl had great dialogue and a punchy style – and it was so interesting to see how the stories developed. 

Editor Meg Lewis and I had long chats on the phone about our team’s chapters.  In the second chapters, we wanted to see the emotional conflict developing, and to have a real sense of what the problem between the hero and heroine in each case was going to be.  This is a difficult trick to pull off when you’ve only got one chapter, and you don’t want to slow the pace by dumping in all the back story that would explain why the characters are behaving as they do.  Meg and I wanted to know about goals and motivations and conflict … and that was a lot to fit in. The more I thought about it, the harder I thought the task was, but Sharon, Leah and Heidi all did a brilliant job of responding to our comments.

I was so disappointed Sharon didn’t get through to the last round, as I loved the dark, edgy style of her Regency, but of course am thrilled for Leah and Heidi.  Now they’re writing their ‘pivotal moments’.  We’ve had some discussion about what those moments should be.  Every scene should show some change (hey, we all know that, don’t we?), so it’s about finding a really intense, emotional moment that shifts the relationship between the hero and heroine fundamentally – which is easy to say in theory, but a lot trickier to pull off in practice, especially when you’re trying to do it out of context. 

The whole experience has made me think a lot more about what I actually do when I write.  It’s usually a subconscious process, so I never sit down and think, “today I’m going to write a pivotal scene”, or “now I need to intensify the tension”.   When I get to the end of my first draft (the one I’m writing at the moment) I should be able to see where things are getting baggy – often in the middle where I tend to get bogged down in scenes where there hero and heroine are acting and communicating but somehow the story’s not going anywhere.  It’s always painful to cut whole scenes that have taken hours to write, but it has to be done.  Then comes the tightening/rewriting stage, but that’s another story … 

I’m off to Scotland again at the weekend for a few days of walking and talking and drinking red wine in front of the fire, so I’ll be AWOL for a while, but back to blogging next weekend.  Have a great week, whatever you’re doing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Monday mornings and psychological tricks

One of the best things about writing is never having that Monday morning feeling that I remember so well from when I had what my mother would call a “proper job”.  On the other hand, you don’t get the whole Thank-God-It’s-Friday buzz either, as chances are that you’re writing all weekend when you’re on a deadline.   Still, I never quite lose track of the days, and when I sit down at my computer on a Monday  it always feels like time to square up to a new week. 

I’m going to Scotland for a few days this weekend (I know, more holidays!) so had planned to keep this week clear to crack on with The Secret Princess, but it never works out that way: a drink here, a coffee there, some nifty juggling of the hats I wear for different roles - oh, and the absolute necessity to get my nails done (hey, I can’t go to Scotland with raggedy nails), and suddenly the days are filling up again.

So far, though, I’m sticking to my schedule.  I have one of those repressed Virgoan personalities that can only operate by ticking things off a list, so I always begin a book by writing out a timetable with a daily page target (highly recommended as a procrastination activity).  I’ve been very easy on myself for this first draft – 6 pages a day - and as always, I started the timetable when I already had five pages under my belt, so that I was ahead of myself before I’d even begun to tick the pages of the timetable, a little psychological trick that I fall for every time.  I’ve ticked Sunday off, as you can see, but in fact have notes up to page 59, so it shouldn’t take me long to reach Tuesday’s target.  I’ll then feel good about being ahead of my schedule in spite of the fact that I’ve been cheating all along.

In my experience, writing is all about tricking yourself into the right frame of mind.  Am I alone, or do you have any psychological tricks up your sleeve too?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Childhood favourites, or how to get your good mood back

A quick post today, as am feeling harried and distracted - not a good combination! - by sundry other projects, and frustrated by not being able to knuckle down to the book, which is otherwise coming along surprisingly easily.  Still, it's early days, and I'm nowhere near Chapter 7 - am bracing myself for the crisis then! 

Unusually, this book has a title already - The Secret Princess - as it's linked to the previous one, which is apparently going to be called Ordinary Girl in a Tiara (no comment).  I don't mind The Secret Princess, except it sounds like a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett - so much so that I've just had to go onto Amazon to check ...  No, she wrote A Little Princess and The Secret Garden - but you can see where I got the idea from!  I loved both books when I was little, but especially A Little Princess. 

Isn't it amazing how favourite childhood books stay with you forever?  I've still got my very first books: The Kittie-Poosies, which to my delight a friend found for my 50th birthday (I must have spent a long time boring him about it!); the Ladybird Cinderella (oh, that dress!) and my absolute favourite, Joan G. Robinson's Teddy Robinson stories.  I used to insist on getting these from the library van every week when I was four, and my parents would read them to me while I fell about on the bed laughing.  These were more books that were found for me years later.  Embarrassingly, I found I laughed at exactly the same places, which probably goes to show how mature my sense of humour is.  

Well, there you go ... having gone up to the attic to find these books to scan, I've been looking through them nostalgically and laughing and suddenly I'm in good humour again!  Who says displacement activity doesn't work?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Juggling Briefcase & Baby

I keep forgetting that I'm supposed to be promoting my books here, and it was only when I was scratching my head this morning and wondering what on earth I could blog about when I remembered - duh! - that I have a book out this month.  Of course, we're half way through October already, but I'm not sure it makes that much difference.  There was a time when a book was on the shelves for a month, and if it didn't sell within two weeks that was probably it.  But now between Amazon and e-books that doesn't seem to be so much of an issue - although it's always depressing to look at Amazon, as I've just done, and see that while Juggling Briefcase & Baby isn't in fact published until tomorrow, there are already second hand editions for sale.  Ah, well, as long as someone's reading it ...

Things are complicated even more for this poor book because it's not out in the UK until January 2011, when it is one of the launch books for the new RIVA line, along with books by Kelly Hunter, Nicola Marsh and Kimberly Lang.  So there are two very different covers for exactly the same book.  I like the idea of more contemporary covers for RIVA, but have to confess that I'm not entirely convinced by this one.  It looks a little cold to me somehow.  But I'm not a marketing person, so what do I know? 

What do you think?

Anyway, let's get past the cover.  Those of you who read Oh-So-Sensible Secretary will recognize Lex, Summer's workaholic boss, and Phin's brother.  He didn't have much of a role in Oh-So-Sensible Secretary, but I always had a secret soft spot for him, and it seemed to me that he needed his own happy ending.  Juggling Briefcase & Baby is Lex's story.  He might be a tough, uncompromising businessman, but he's no match for Romy or her baby, Freya. 

There's an extract below, which you can read while I go back to the Highlands ... sadly, only in my imagation, but I'm loving being there nonetheless!

Lex was left nervously eyeing the baby on the floor.  Freya sat on her bottom for a while, looking around with wide-eyed interest, then to his alarm, she crawled under the table. 
Now what?  He sat dead still, afraid to move his feet, but after a moment, he bent his head very carefully to look under the table and see what she was doing. 
Freya’s expression was intent as she patted his left shoe, apparently pleased by its shininess.   Then the small hands discovered the lace, and pulled at it experimentally.  Delighted to find that it came apart if she tugged at it, she looked up to find Lex watching her under the table, and she offered him a gummy smile.
The smile had an odd effect on Lex, and he jerked upright once more and snapped his computer open.  Where was Romy? He was terrified to move his feet in case he kicked the baby by mistake, but if he was stuck here, he could at least try and get some work done.  He would pretend everything was normal and that there was no baby undoing his shoelaces under the table.
‘Where’s Freya?’ Romy asked when she came back at last.
For answer, Lex grimaced and pointed wordlessly under the table, and Romy peered beneath to see that her daughter had undone both his shoes, and was sucking one of the laces with a thoughtful expression.
‘I thought it was an unexploded bomb at least!’ she said as she scooped Freya up and straightened. 
‘I would have been just as nervous,’ said Lex grouchily.  ‘You were gone ages.  What have you been doing?’
‘I didn’t even have time to brush my hair this morning,’ Romy pointed out, settling back into her seat.  ‘I was still in bed when Tim rang.  I had a real panic to get here, and I’m still worried I left something vital behind.’
‘How could you have left anything behind?  It looked as if you brought the entire contents of the house with you!’
She sighed. ‘ You should see what I left behind!  It’s not easy to travel light with a baby.’
‘You’ve changed.’
It was a careless comment, but suddenly the air was fraught with memories.  There had been a time when Romy would have packed everything she owned into a rucksack. 
‘Yes,’  she said, turning the bracelets on her wrist.  ‘Yes, I have.’  She eyed Lex under her lashes.  ‘And you?’
‘Have you changed?’
He looked away.  ‘Of course. I’d hope we were both older and a lot wiser.’
Much too wise to run off to Paris for a wild affair, anyway.  The unspoken thought hung in the silence that pooled between them until Nicola appeared to offer coffee and biscuits.
‘Thank you.’  Romy was grateful for the interruption, but even more for the sustenance.  She hadn’t had time for breakfast that morning.
Freya’s eyes lit up when saw the biscuits and she set up a squawk that made Lex wince until Romy gave her a piece of shortbread to shut her up.  This was promptly mangled into a soggy mess, watched in horror by Lex, and Romy rushed into speech in an effort to distract him.
‘You never got married.’  It was the first thing that came into her head, but as soon as the words came out of her mouth, she wished she had stuck with the soggy biscuit. 
Lex raised his brows. 
‘The last time we talked, you said you were going to marry Suzy Stevens,’ Romy said with a shade of defiance.
Lex had almost forgotten Suzy.  Romy’s mother, Molly, had remarried about a year after that week in Paris.  As her godson, he had had little choice but to go to the wedding.  Romy, of course, had been there too.  She had just started her first year at university.  After Paris, she had got herself a job in some bar in Avignon.  Lex had heard it from his mother, who had it from Molly.  Romy had had a great time, he had heard.
He had been determined to show Romy that he was over her.  Suzy was everything Romy wasn’t.  She was calm and cool, elegant where Romy was quirky, sophisticated where Romy was passionate.   She was suitable in every way.
But she certainly hadn’t been stupid.  She had seen how Lex looked at Romy, and broken off the relationship when they got back to London that night.
‘It didn’t work out,’ Lex said shortly.
No one had worked out.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Romy.
‘I’m not.  It was all for the best.’ 
Lex’s pale grey eyes rested on Freya, still sucking happily on her shortbread.  Her fingers were sticky, her face smeared and there were crumbs in her hair and dribbling down her chin.  
‘I don’t want any family responsibilities,’ he said.  ‘I’ve seen too many people – like Tim today – compromise their careers because of commitments at home.  Children are a constant distraction, as far as I can make out.  Even a wife expects attention.  You can’t just stay at work until the job is done.  You’ve got to ring up and explain and apologise and make up for it by taking yet more time off … Relationships are too messy and demanding,’ said Lex briskly.  ‘I long ago came round to your point of view and decided that marriage wasn’t for me either.’
He looked at Romy.  ‘It’s just as well you wouldn’t marry me.  It would have been a disaster for both of us.’ 
A disaster.  Yes.   Romy turned her bangles, counting them like beads on a rosary.  She had eleven, in a mixture of styles, and she wore them all together, liking the fact that they were so different and that each came with its own special memory.  Beaten silver. Beaded. Clean and contemporary. Ethnic. 
One came from the suq in Muscat, another from Mexico.  One was a gift from an ex boyfriend, another she had bought for herself in Bali.
And this one … Romy’s fingers lingered on the silver band.  It was inlaid with gold and intricately carved.  An antique.
This one Lex had bought for her at Les Puces, the famous flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt.  They had spent the morning wandering around hand in hand, bedazzled by the passion that caught them both unawares.  Whenever Romy looked at the bracelet, she remembered how intensely aware of him she had been, as if every fibre of her being was attuned to the feel of his fingers around hers, to the hazy excitement of his male, solid body. 
A disaster?  Maybe.  Probably. 

From the book: Juggling Briefcase & Baby
By: Jessica Hart
Imprint and series Harlequin® Romance™
Copyright © 2010
By: Jessica Hart

® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
For more romance information surf to:

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The joys of brainstorming

We’re coming to the end of the first round of the New Voices competition, and the top ten are busy polishing their second chapters, which will go up on Monday morning.  I’m loving being a mentor.  It’s been so interesting to see how the three stories develop. 

All three ‘mentees’ (if that’s a word) on Team Jessica have very distinctive voices, which is good because it makes it impossible to pick a favourite.  I’m intrigued by all the stories – too intrigued possibly, as I know I have a tendency to get carried away when it comes to brainstorming.  It’s just as well editor Meg Lewis is there to rein me in!  I’m keeping my fingers firmly crossed for all three stories.   Sharon Siddoway (The Secret Duchess), Leah Ashton (Secrets & Speed Dating) and Heidi Hormel (The Surgeon & the Cowgirl) all have what it takes, I know, so go, girls! 

Playing around with ideas is absolutely my favourite part of writing.  Obviously it’s better done over a bottle of wine or walking, but even virtual brainstorming can be fun.  You can still get really involved in the story and its endless possibilities.  Brainstorming was the best part of the course at the Watermill at Posara in Tuscany which I enjoyed so much last year.  It’s fascinating to watch how the germ of a story grows and gets pummelled in and out of shape until it all starts to fall into place, and there’s no doubt that knocking ideas around is easier when you’re with a group of like-minded people and your only worry is whether it’s too soon to move into the shade, or whether you feel like red wine or white … 

The course at the Watermill is running again this year from 24 September to 1 October 2011.  This time there’ll be a broader focus, and we’ll be talking about writing commercial fiction generally rather than just romance. Ever since tackling a ‘time slip’ I’ve been interested in writing across the genres, but the principles of structuring a successful story are the same whatever you’re writing, I think.  The course is called From the Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells, and every writer who pays their deposit before the end of 2010 is eligible for a £75 discount.  Contact the Watermill at Posara for details.

As it happens, I’ll be teaching  a similar course (without the sunshine and the wine, sadly) over 8 weeks at the University of York.  From the Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells begins 26th January 2011, so if you’re anywhere near York, why don’t you think about coming along?  Click here for details.  And if York’s too far to come once a week,  I’m also offering one day Crash Course in Writing Romance on Saturday 21 May 2011.  York is a great city to visit, with lots to see and do, so why not make a weekend of it? 

Right, that's enough promotion. I'm back to my rough draft.  Only on page 15, but I'm getting a real sense of Lotty and  Corran and so far (picture me frantically touching wood) it feels all right ...

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Firsts and favourites

I’m feeling very frustrated because I can’t post on the New Voices site, where there’s a lively discussion going on about the first M&B everyone really loved, so I’ll have to have my say here instead.   

The first M&B that made me sit up and think, ‘Hey, this is really good,’ rather than sniggering was Devil Within by Catherine George. I loved the setting – a mining camp in Brazil – perhaps because it felt very familiar to me.  I’ve never been to South America, but I spent quite a lot of my childhood in places like that, in Africa, Papua New Guinea and Oman, and I could picture the house and the garden and the club exactly.  I vividly remember reading it in Raffles Hotel in Singapore, in 1984, but I’ve no idea now where I bought it.  I’ve still got it on my shelves: the cover has lasted pretty well, don’t you think?  Of course, Saul would never have worn a pink neckerchief (what was the artist thinking???) but I love the suggestion of a market behind, and check out the Land Rover!  The ultimate romantic car (my first real kiss was pressed up against a Land Rover, and I’ve never got over it!)

Another book I remember really enjoying was by Mary Wibberley.  It was called something like Gold from Peru, and it was about a heroine who was stuck in South America and disguised as a boy, and she and the hero ended up pretending to be married, or maybe they actually got married with the idea they would divorce as soon as they got back to England.  Can’t remember now, but there was a terrific sexual attraction between them and he was sort of engaged to a very nice girl at home, so there was a Big Problem.  I’ve always thought that a really nice other woman is much more of a threat than the manipulative bitch.  An exotic setting, a marriage of convenience, great characters … what was not to like? 

My favourite cover ever

I wish I still had a copy, although sometimes that can be a mistake. I once paid quite a lot of money for an out-of-print copy of Lucy Walker’s A Man Called Masters, which I loved when I first read it.  Lucy Walker started my love affair with the Australian outback, and I devoured any of her books that I could find  in the library van that used to come round to our village, but oh, what a disappointment when I read it again a few years ago!  Where had all the simmering sexual tension gone?  Where was the vivid description of the outback?  And I was sure I remembered a scene when they were driving home in the ute, and she sleepily pressed a kiss to his throat and he slammed on the brakes.  I think that must have been another of her stories, as it wasn’t there when I reread it.  

Ah, well, sometimes it’s a mistake to go back.  And the truth is that I owe Lucy Walker a lot.  When I couldn’t find her books any more, I tried to recreate the feel that I remembered so vividly in my own outback stories like Woman at Willagong Creek, Outback Husband and the Creek series (Baby at Bushman’s Creek, Wedding at Waverley Creek and A Bride for Barra Creek).

Anyway, I'm always interested to know which books other people really love.  It’s amazing how possessive we all feel about our favourite books.  I always get really cross if other Georgette Heyer fans, for instance, don’t like my favourites (The Talisman Ring, The Grand Sophy, Friday’s Child) and insist that Venetia or These Old Shades are better … I mean, how wrong can you be?