Monday, 29 November 2010

Snow and superficiality

Enough tinkering … I sent the book off yesterday afternoon while the snow swirled outside my window.  I didn’t think it was too bad think when I read it through, although I made such swingeing cuts that I began to get worried that I wasn’t going to have enough words in the end.  So that’s another book moved from my ‘to do’ pile to my editor’s, for the next few days at least. 

I’ve checked the proofs for the first book in this ‘royal’ duet too  - another job done.  Ordinary Girl in a Tiara will be out next June.  For a week or so I could keep my fingers crossed that William and Kate would plump for a June wedding and make for a fabulous tie-in, but I understand they’re going for April instead.  How selfish can you get? 

So today is one of the those days when I really love being a writer, i.e. when I don’t have to apply myself to the pesky business of actually writing.  I do have plenty of other jobs to do, but I awarded myself a day off anyway.  One of my oldest friends is staying for our annual Advent shopping trip.  We’ve been doing exactly the same thing for the past 18 years, and the whole two days has become a ritual that is an essential part of the year for both of us. 

We start with the Advent service in the Minster, which we stumbled into quite by accident that first year.  Poking our noses into the nave, we found a candle thrust into our hands, and then quite suddenly all the lights were switched off.  We were still wondering what was happening when a pure voice started singing, and a single candle appeared in the darkness as the choir processed through the shadows to the back of the cathedral where we were standing with our mouths open.  Slowly the huge nave filled with candlelight as the flame passed from one person to the next.  Magical.  It was especially atmospheric last night as we walked up through the snow.

After the service we come back here for dinner (for those foodies amongst you, last night’s offering was champagne and smoked salmon, a Cypriot lamb dish that Barbara Hannay made for me once and which I have been trying to recreate ever since, and St Clement’s cream, a deliciously fresh mouthful to end a meal).  Today was rather less spiritually uplifting, but enormously satisfying all the same: Christmas shopping, brunch at Betty’s (a York institution) and a frenzy at the Chanel counter.  I’m shamefully susceptible to smart packaging, and am usually a sucker for serums and complexes, the more nonsensical the better, but we were in make up mode today, and splurged on eyeliners and nail polishes.  Superficial R Us. 

After heavy snow yesterday, the city was looking like a Christmas card.  The snow looks beautiful when it’s pristine like this – here’s my garden first thing this morning – so I’m making the most of it before the inevitable slush.  Just like I've made the most of today before lashing myself back to the keyboard.  Tomorrow I'm starting a new book …

Thursday, 25 November 2010


Are there two more wonderful words to type?  So short but so sweet!  I finished Lotty and Corran’s story last night and rewarded myself with a Bailey’s on ice and a whole episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent instead of forcing myself back upstairs after the ad break as I usually do.  Completing a book is never quite as glamorous as it ought to be,  perhaps because it isn’t, in fact, finished yet. 

I am spending today doing other things, but tomorrow must steel myself to turn over that stack of pages and start re-reading – always a nerve-wracking moment.  Self-editing can be a brutal process, and there’s a constant tension between what you know you really ought to do (rewrite entire scene, change entire character) and what you can actually face doing at this stage.  I’ll certainly need to do some cutting, as revising nearly always involves adding extra words, and I’m already on 56,499.  I suspect there’ll be quite a lot of repetition of backstory.  The trouble with feeding it in instead of dumping it one fell swoop is that then you can’t remember what you’ve told the reader/other characters, so I’ll probably have to do a bit of work on that.  And I have a sinking feeling that I’ll need to look at that pesky last scene which seemed to go on for ever while I was writing it. Sigh.

Once I’ve done as much as I can bear to, I’ll send it off to my editor, and she might have some comments and changes.  Sometimes I get no revisions at all, which is obviously the best outcome, sometimes there are two or three tiny changes to make (oh, all right, if you insist …)And every now and then I get “tweaks”, as in: “just a couple of tweaks that will mean you have to rewrite the entire book”.   When I submit my manuscript I never have any idea  which of these three responses I’m going to get, so it’s fingers crossed time. 

 So the book isn’t really finished until my editor takes it to the acquisition meeting – or until the advance lands in my bank account.  Still, this stage feels great, marking as it does the end of the long slog to get the words on paper, so I felt I deserved a little treat, even if it wasn’t wildly exciting.    I always liked that scene at the beginning of Romancing the Stone, where Kathleen Turner celebrates ending her latest romance by  garnishing the cat’s tin of fish with a sprig of parsley so Douglas got some extra munchies last night too, in spite of the fact that he was absolutely no help at all. 

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Perfect Hero

In spite of a number of cunning displacement activities which included cleaning the oven (always a sure sign that a deadline is approaching)I made it to the end of Chapter 9 last night.  That faint smudge of light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter … Just one more chapter to go, and I am already planning my reward.  High on the list of treats is to sit down and read the latest Jack Reacher thriller, Worth Dying For.  These are books to read in one gulp.  Once picked up, there is no putting down, so I have, with immense self-discipline, not even looked at since it arrived. 

I can never quite work out why I love Lee Child’s thrillers so much.  He writes in very short, simple sentences, which ought to be irritating but instead are a master class in PTQ (page turning quality).  I don’t understand why I find Jack Reacher such an attractive character either.  He doesn’t have much of a sense of humour and I don’t get the sense he’s a great lover – he’s not big on foreplay,  for instance, although he does seem to have a taste for capable women, which has to be good. And while there’s definitely something appealing about the travelling light thing – he doesn’t have any possessions and just buys new clothes when the old ones are dirty – I do find myself occasionally distracted from some high voltage scene by wondering whether it’s not time he changed his underpants ... 

On the other hand, here is a guy who is big and brave and strong and overwhelming competent – what’s not to like?  Competence is the one vital characteristic of a hero, I think.  Jack Reacher certainly has it in spades.   It doesn’t matter how sticky a situation you’re in, Jack can get you out of it.   He’s got lots of other heroic qualities too: integrity, intelligence, independence and the irresistible appeal of the maverick.  Oh, yes, he’s very, very attractive, and I for one would join the queue for a night of madness (I’m capable , Jack, even if I don’t wear a uniform)  But this is not a guy for a long-term relationship.  What would you talk about, for a start? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes the perfect hero recently – or at least, what makes my perfect hero, and I realised that there’s no one fictional hero who does it all for me.  My perfect hero needs the humour of Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, the assurance of Loretta Chase’s Lord Perfect, the loyalty of Richard III in The Sunne in Splendour, the body of just about any of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ heroes, the decency of Simon in Mary Stewart’s My Brother Michael (she barely describes him and yet you just know how incredibly attractive he is) and the practicality of Sir Tristram in The Talisman Ring.  Oh, and the sexual prowess of Phin Tucker in Jenny Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation ( I’ll meet you on the dock any time, Phin.) 

So why can’t I just take the best of all of them and roll them up into one perfect hero of my own?  Because perfection is boring – or as Jane Austen put it more pithily, ‘perfection makes me sick’ – and a real hero has the capacity to change.  He can’t do that if he’s perfect to start with. 

Have you got a favourite fictional hero?  I’d love to know if there’s a perfect hero out there I’ve yet to encounter!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hat Juggling

A page from Lincoln Cathedral: A Journey from Past to Present
Like many people I wear a number of different hats to reflect my various jobs.  Most of the time I’m in a frivolous confection suitable to a romance writer (probably with a huge brim and decorated with a lot of feathers) but sometimes I put on my teaching hat (a beret, perhaps) or  a rather fetching cloche to mark my transformation into an editor of illustrated books.  So yesterday it was off with the feathers and on with the cloche, a quick switch of names from Jessica Hart to Pamela Hartshorne (my real name) and I jumped on a train to Lincoln to mark the launch of Lincoln Cathedral: A Journey from Past to Present.  

Most of the time project editing is like herding cats, but not Lincoln (henceforth to be known as Lovely Lincoln).  It’s the most beautiful building for a start.  I am not a religious person in any way, but there is something about those great cathedrals that lifts the hairs on the back of my neck.  I especially love them in the dark, when they’re all shadowy  and the tourists have gone and the choir is singing.  Lincoln Cathedral  has a bit of everything:  a charming close, a spectacular nave, a dramatic choir, a cloister and the most beautiful library, all of which appear in the book of course.  And for everyone else who  read Anya Seton’s Katherine and was in love with John of Gaunt when they were 14, Katherine Swynford is buried there beside her daughter.

I love editing: I’m the one who gets to set the deadlines and everyone else does the writing for a change.  We used to have meetings in a fourteenth-century house in the cathedral close where the walls were so old they were made of linen, and we’d have coffee and cakes sitting around a gorgeous antique table.  Once the text was in – and they were fantastic about meeting their deadlines, I have to say – we started to fit the images to the words.   The most exciting part of my job was being taken round the cathedral with the photographers, over the ropes, past doors marked private, and up spiral stone staircases to see behind the scenes.  In the library, an eleventh-century silver seal was unwrapped for us, and manuscripts opened to show medieval doodlings … I was breathless with the privilege of it all.

The (blurry) nave

Once we had the photographs and older images scanned, I sat down with the designer and we put it all together.  This is also a really exciting stage, and in the case of Lincoln (of course!) we had so many wonderful photographs to choose from.   I’d be in the middle of my royal romcom, and then break off to decide on the perfect image for the choir screen, or to pick out just the right shot of the verger setting out the altar, or the ladies in the refectory making sandwiches.   The layouts had to be checked and we did some tinkering, but most of my job was done before I went to Australia. 

Steep Hill
Last night was the official launch, in the crossing after evensong on St Hugh’s Day.  I don’t know why I think I don’t like winter, because actually it can be very romantic when you’re in the right mood.  It was dark when I got to Lincoln, and I walked to the cathedral up a very steep hill called, er, Steep Hill, which is cobbled and lined with very old buildings.  The tourists had gone and it was very quiet, and all the lights were on in the shops.  I tried to take a picture with my phone, which is a bit blurry, but that’s what it was like somehow. 

The south transept

Evensong was still going on as we set up the books for subscribers to collect, and I took a few more blurry photographs.  Then everyone poured out of the choir and milled around with a glass of wine and admired the book, and I was able to catch up with everyone I’d met while I was working on the project. There were a couple of brief speeches, with a very graceful acknowledgement from the Dean of my role too.  Standing in front of the choir screen, looking down that vast nave, was a real shivery moment for me.  One of those moments that get preserved in amber and last forever.  Others may pick Paris, but I’ll always have Lincoln …

The West Front
Ah, well.  The cloche is off for the time being, I'm adjusting the feathers once more, and now I’m back to Chapter 8.  It’s SO much easier when you just have to tell someone else what to write!

Monday, 15 November 2010

The four Cs that make for a great weekend

Well, here we are at Monday again after an excellent weekend which was long on self-indulgence and short on sleep, but packed some of my favourite things: conversation, cooking, cards, champagne.  Friday night was curry night, and my contribution was an aubergine dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s wonderful book, Indian Cookery.   There’s something so satisfying about cooking curry – a pinch of this, a bit of that, whizzing up ginger and garlic, chopping and peeling  … It's a good thing to know what restores you most and for me it’s cooking.  It would be helpful if it were writing, of course, but when I'm feeling overwhelmed or off balance, planning a menu, writing a list (I’m a Virgo, after all) shopping and then putting all the ingredients together does it for me every time.

So I was very happy pottering around my kitchen, and was so delighted with my ingredients I even took a picture.  Aren’t those aubergines beautiful?  I love food – I love thinking about it, and preparing it and eating it – and I can’t relate at all to people who can’t be bothered with it.  My current hero is one of those men who just eats for fuel.  He doesn’t care what the food is like as long as he doesn’t have to do the cooking himself.  Totally alien to me!  And Lotty is one of my few heroines who isn’t obsessed with food and can’t cook.  I’ve even included a scene where they share a ready-made meal they’ve bought from a supermarket (hey, who says I can’t do glamour?) I wrote it with my face averted from the screen and my nose wrinkled with distaste.  

More cooking on Saturday, which kicked off with kir royale, followed by tomato tartlets and roast duck with avocado salad (yum, yum) while we played bridge – absolutely my favourite kind of evening.  And in the course of the conversation, we even developed an idea for my next book.  When it comes to getting ideas, you can’t beat sitting down for a good old chat with friends – oh, and a glass of champagne never hurts either!  

As if that wasn’t enough in the way of treats, an excitingly large box was delivered to the front door on Saturday.  It turned out to contain a beautiful orchid from Mills &Boon for  being the winning  New Voices mentor – so thanks, Leah, if you’re reading this!  A lovely surprise: what could be nicer than getting flowers unexpectedly?   Here it is, bringing a touch of the exotic to my kitchen window sill.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The wrong kind of page

Because I can't work out how to copy my Facebook page

When my first book was published back in 1991, all I had to do was sit at my electric typewriter and write.  It never occurred to me that there was anything more to it.  I eventually graduated to an Amstrad - a fine machine that was far less trouble than all these clever clog computers that have succeeded it - but still, it was just a question of banging out the words.

Then came the internet, and suddenly everyone was talking about websites.  The message came out loud and clear: all authors have to have a website.  So eventually I had one too, thanks to my good friend Isabel, who designed it for me and spent hours when she should have been writing up her thesis setting it all up.  My big innovation for my website was a writing diary. I was rather pleased with this idea until I discovered that everybody else was doing exactly the same thing but calling it a blog. 

New message: authors need a website AND a blog.  Fine.  I gritted my teeth, changed the name to a blog, and failed conspicuously to keep it up until recently, when the lovely Barbara Hannay demonstrated how easy it would be to update it myself on Blogger.  And she was right.  Much to my surprise, it IS easy.

Now, just when I'm thinking I might have the whole knotty blog issue under control, there's a new message from Harlequin.  Websites and blogs are fine, but what authors REALLY need is a Facebook profile. Social networking is the way to go. With much huffing and puffing, I did in fact set up a Facebook page recently, and of course was instantly seduced into wasting hours trawling around in search of friends or reading about everybody else's lives which all seem so much more interesting than my own. 

Now it turns out that rather like British trains grinding to a halt because of the wrong kind of leaves on the line, I have set up the wrong kind of page.  Aaarrgghh.  Last night I attended my first ever "webinar" which was intended as an introduction to Facebook.  This involved sitting at my computer, the phone clamped to my ear, listening to three of Harlequin's digital media team talk through the slides that were appearing on the screen.  I have to say they sounded absolutely charming, with a very chatty, approachable style, but the amount of information was overwhelming.  They talked about finding your own URL and setting up a fan page, about links and widgets and badges and transferring friends and creating lists until I started to hyperventilate.  It didn't help that my phone's battery is clearly running low and keeps beeping in my ear. 

Now I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be doing.  All I know is that what I've done so far just isn't enough and that at some point I'm going to have to sit down and read through the slides which Jenny Bullough very helpfully sent to me afterwards to see if I can make sense of it.  There aren't many things I that I wouldn't rather do as displacement activity when I'm on a deadline, but self-promotion is one of them.  Life was so much easier when all we had to do was write (she says pitifully).  Sometimes I miss that typewriter. 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Crossing bogs

Apart from a blip last week, I’ve been working steadily on a full draft of this latest book and am just embarking on Chapter 5.  This is a tricky phase, with the yawning danger of a sagging middle ever present.  One of Georgette Heyer ‘s heroes, faced with a tricky situation, has a wonderful line about the need to get over rough ground lightly  (of course I can’t remember which book, and if I stop and look it up I’ll never get my book finished ) and I always think of it when I get to the middle three chapters.  I aim to cross by leaping lightly from one tussock to another but am all too prone to landing in the bog instead, where the story wallows around, sinking deeper and deeper into  pointless dialogue or irrelevant situations. 

The first draft that I was feeling so relaxed about turns out (surprise, surprise)  to need major rewriting, but I am going along with the help of some Scottish music to keep me in the mood.  Every book has a soundtrack.  I tend to listen to one CD obsessively while I’m writing the book, and once it’s finished never put it on again.  Now that I’m at one with technology, that’s all changed, though.  iTunes has changed my life, and I can now create a special playlist for each book on my computer.  For this book  I’m listening to a mixture of Runrig (a new discovery)and the soundtrack to Local Hero, plus a recording of Flower of Scotland – schmaltzy, I know, but there’s something about it that always brings a lump to my throat.  Must be my Scottish genes coming out.

Anyway, I’d better get listening … Think of me floundering through the bog towards the quagmire that is Chapter 6!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Social Network

Had a night off last night and went to see The Social Network, armed with my new experience of being on Facebook.  Not that it helped me understand how the site worked - there was quite a lot of rapid talking about, er, I'm not sure, but it sounded technical - but you didn't need to understand to follow that plot, that was for sure.  I always liked Blake Snyder's rule about keeping a story's theme primal - make it something a caveman could understand - and this film certainly did that.  They might have been talking gobbledygook, but the story is such a clear parable about friendship and the longing to be accepted as part of a group that it's hard to believe it's a true one.  I don't, myself, understand why anyone would want to join one of those exclusive fraternities where you have to humiliate yourself to be accepted, but even I could see that wanting to belong was a driving motivation for the two main characters.  

The Social Network is written by Aaron Sorkin, who was responsible for the wonderful West Wing (also completely baffling in its details, but riveting the human interest) and who knows a thing or two about story telling.  I thought it was very cleverly done and very well acted, but it was a film I admired rather than enjoyed.  There was no happy ending for a start - unless you count all of the main characters ending up with millions of dollars - but I guess that's the drawback of a true story.   I feel much the same about a lot of books I read: I can see that they're beautifully written and that the stories are powerful and they have realistic characters, but for sheer reading pleasure that I go back to again and again, give me a romance any day. 

The first thing I ask when a friend suggests going to a film is 'Does it have a happy ending?'  It doesn’t have to have them getting married at the end  but I do like to see that all the problems in the story have been resolved.  And I like to be able to follow the plot.  For what it’s worth, my absolutely favourite films are The Hangover, The Year of Living Dangerously and Ghostbusters II. 

I’m not good with ambiguity.  This puts me out of step with most of my friends, who like meaningful, art house films with obscure endings where you don’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time (I Am Love, anyone?) and as I hate going to the cinema on my own, I miss out on a lot of films.  But I should use my City Screen membership for more than a discount at the bar, because when I do go to a film, I always end up thinking about the story and why it did or didn’t work, and how I can apply that to what I’m doing. 

Making the most of my City Screen membership

So I came home last night reminding myself to check that my characters have primal goals (hhhmmmnnn, have to work on that - I think my heroine’s may be a little too complex), to give the story a really authentic feel like the film’s, and unlike The Social Network, to make sure that the ending is hugely happy and satisfying (he’s going to gatecrash a palace function the night before a royal wedding).  In fact, what happened to that ticket?  I should keep it for when it comes to doing my accounts, and claim it as legitimate research.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Good news!

I spent all of yesterday checking Mills & Boon's New Voices website for news about the winner, and had just decided that I'd got the date wrong when a message popped up on Facebook (just as well I've launched into social networking, or I'd still be in the dark!) to say that Leah Ashton had won with her story, Secrets & Speed Dating.  That was fabulous news for Leah - and of course for Team Jessica, too!  I am so delighted for her, and sorry only that the prize couldn't be shared with Heidi Hormel, who also did brilliantly, I thought.

New Voices has generated lots of interest in romance writing, which is fantastic. I don't think I'd realised quite what a community of aspiring romance writers there was out there - and how much potential. 

Being a mentor was a great experience, although I had to keep reminding myself that all they needed to write was a chapter, and not the whole book, which is a different thing entirely.  In the context of a competition, the quality of the writing carries the day, but getting a story to publishable standard means thinking about the overall structure.  The thing about writing is that it's about more than writing.  It's about rewriting and reshaping and structuring and making sure that your story makes sense.  Leah has done fantastically well to win through against such stiff competition, but I think she knows that far from getting to the end, she's now just at the beginning!  There's a long way to go before her story is ready for publication, and the final result may well turn out to be very different from the story that won New Voices.  I'll be really interested to read it when it's published to see how her characters and their motivations have developed.

Oh, and another bit good news: Oh-So-Sensible Secretary has been nominated by the Romantic Times for Best Harlequin Romance of 2010.  A nice way to start a Tuesday morning!