Monday, 31 January 2011

A place to write

Last week I was saying how important it is to find a place to write, a place where whenever you sit down and switch on your computer you’re in writing mode.  I’m lucky that I have my own study, but this is what my desk looks like at the moment! 

On the wall as I go into the study is a poster from an exhibition of paintings showing writers’ rooms – I love the calmness and lack of clutter in this picture, but never seem to be able to manage it in my own room. I am otherwise a rather tidy and organised person, and the rest of the house is fine, but my desk is always a tip when I’m working. 

It’s particularly bad at the moment as I’m writing a history that involves some research, but even when I’m in romance writing mode the papers pile up.  I hate the mess, but until I get to the end of a project I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.   At that point it all gets swept off the desk.  The books and files go back on the shelves, the nail polishes are gathered up and I find all the pens and emery boards I’ve been scrabbling around for over the last couple of months.  There’s always a credit card bill lurking in there too. 

Every time I start a new project I vow I’m going to keep my desk clear so that I can write in a serene space that will calm my mind and set my inspiration soaring, but every time it ends up like this.  I’d really like to be one of those people who can write in a café or isolated in a cottage overlooking the sea, but the fact is, the only place I can words down on screen is right here in the middle of all this muddle.

Do you have a special place where you write?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Starting to write: Why? What? How?

First seminar of From the Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells last night, and a full class.  It’s always a  nerve-wracking moment when you stand up in front of a new group, but it’s exciting, too, to think that the course might be one of the steps in a great writing career for someone there ...  As I told the class last night, I truly believe that while a measure of luck and a measure of talent obviously play a part in publishing success, a good part is also down to application and, importantly, to understanding exactly what you’re doing.

Before you even set your fingers to a keyboard, if you want to be published I think you need to ask yourself three questions.

First, WHY do you want to write? 

Do you have a book burning inside you?  Or do you want the independence of writing for a living?  The received wisdom is that you should never write for money, but that’s what I did and I (obviously) think it’s a perfectly valid reason for writing.  But if you are thinking about a career as a writer, are you prepared for the insecurity, and for how long it can take before you get any real income? 

Do you want to write a bestseller, or is it enough for you just to see your name in print?  And while having your book published may seem achievement enough to you right now, are you prepared to write another, and another, and another …?  It’s not just about being about to write one book.  It’s about being able to keep on writing, keep on making deadlines.  It may sound ungrateful, but it can seem relentless at times.

There are no right and wrong answers here.  It’s your dream, and dreams are private things.  But I think you should be clear in your own mind about what you want, because it’s going to involve a lot of hard work, and you need to know why you’re doing it!

The second question you should consider is: WHAT do you want to write?

I know it seems obvious, but it’s surprising how many people will tell me that they want to write a romance without knowing how many different kinds of romance there are out there.  Do you want to write chick lit or erotic historicals?  Medicals or romantic suspense? Regencies or paranormals?  If you want to write for Harlequin or Mills & Boon, you should be clear about the differences between the lines, and which one you’re targeting.  There are guidelines for the different series available on the Harlequin and Mills & Boon websites, which you should read carefully.  

And talking of reading, once you’ve decided exactly what kind of romance you want to write, it pays to read widely within that genre and understand what makes it distinctive.  And read new books!  It’s a common misconception that romances are all the same.  They’re not, and they change with the times.  Yes, it may be cheaper to buy them second hand at the market, but you’d be surprised how quickly stories date.  You need to know what kind of stories are being published now, not five years ago.   (And when you’re published, you’ll appreciate those lovely readers who actually buy your books!)

So identify your market, and be clear about exactly what you’re going to write. Until you know what you're trying to match, you won't know (a) how to fit into that category and (b) how to make your story different enough within those guidelines to catch an editor's eye.

This goes for other kinds of genre fiction too, by the way.  Are you writing a psychological thriller or a serial killer thriller? Is your crime novel going to feature a gritty cop or a cosy detective?  Is your fantasy set in Celtic Ireland or in outer space?

If you know what you’re doing, you’ll find it easier to get back on track when you lose your way – and chances are, you WILL lose it somewhere along the line!  The rest of us do, so why shouldn't you?

OK, so you’re raring to get going, but before you flex your fingers and sit at that keyboard, take some time to think about a third question: HOW are you going to write?

Many aspiring writers lose heart before they ever get to the end of a manuscript.  Writing isn’t easy, and setting out to write a book is a brave thing to do.  It’s often so hard I don’t blame people for giving up.  But whether you’re taking a deep breath and trying for the first time, or are determined to make it this time, it’s worth giving some thought to the practicalities of writing and how to keep focused.

Coincidentally, there is an article by Maria Connor in January’s Romance Writers Report on this very topic.  Maria has some useful advice about how to get your writing back on track.   I particularly liked her recommendation that you give yourself SMART goals, that are:

Time bound

Goals are the way to go, but there’s no point in aiming vaguely at ‘write bestseller’.  Be realistic about what you need to do to get there, and break your dream into smaller, more achievable steps.  Aim to write a chapter rather than the whole book, a rough draft rather than a final one.

Personally, I make my goals even smaller.  I write myself a timetable and give each day a target of a number of pages or words, depending on what I’m writing.  I’m generous with myself too, usually starting my timetable after I’ve written a few pages, so I get the psychological boost of being ahead of my target, and then staying ahead of it. 

Set yourself a time when you write, and agree with everyone who lives with you that short of emergencies, that is your time and you’re not interrupted.  I’ve lost count of the people who’ve told me they’d love to write a book if only they had the time, and I always wonder how much time they spend watching television or on the internet.  Learn to say no (easier said than done, I know) Oh, and email and the internet are the biggest no-nos if you’re short of time.  The best advantage you can give yourself is to limit your time on both severely (and here, do as I say and not as I do!)

So, make a plan.  Find a time to write.  Give yourself a realistic timetable to reach short-term goals – maybe it’s just a page, every day, but the pages will mount up and you’ll realise you’re getting somewhere.  Don’t expect them to be perfect pages first time either.  Some writers polish as they go along, but I certainly don’t.  I knock out a rough draft that is just words off the top of my head – usually about 25-30 pages – and when it’s done I never look at it again but start on a proper draft.  This one tends to be pretty rough too, in all honesty, but for me it’s about putting words on paper and getting to know my characters.  I shape and revise later, and for me that’s much easier to do if I’ve got something to work with.  So don’t give up if what you’re writing isn’t any good at your first attempt.  Keep going and we’ll talk about revising later!

It’s also a good idea to give yourself a place as well as a time to write.  Again, it doesn’t matter where you write best – a café, the corner of a bedroom, a desk – but make it the place where you sit down and take yourself seriously as a writer.

Now you can start writing … Good luck! 

Monday, 24 January 2011

Romantic Yorkshire (and no, it's not a contradiction in terms)

Finally managed to get hold of the February 2011 edition of Yorkshire Ridings Magazine which has an interesting piece by Christina Surdhar on Yorkshire and how it has been used as the romantic backdrop in films.   

I’m always intrigued by vivid settings, especially ones which can become a character in themselves.  Lots of people think of Yorkshire as bleak, and Yorkshiremen certainly don’t have a very romantic reputation, but it is the most beautiful county, and even those bits of it that are grimmer than others have a strong identity.  There are some places that you can imagine very clearly even if you’ve never been there – think the Scottish Highlands or the Australian outback, or Paris or Venice or New York – and Yorkshire is one of them.  And when you get to those places, and they’re just as you pictured them … well, that’s romantic in my book. 

And funnily enough, that’s what I say in Christina’s piece, because, yes, I got to be interviewed, and some of the glamour of the earlier piece on romantic films rubbed off on me.  I particularly liked the photo of me channelling J.K. Rowling at one of my favourite York haunts, the bar at City Screen, where so much of my plotting takes place over a bottle of wine.  I am not generally very photogenic, so hiding behind sunglasses and not looking at the camera works for me, I think, and a cup of coffee has replaced the bottle and glasses, which looks so much cooler.  Must try it more often. 

Copyright Christina Surdhar

Which places do YOU think make romantic settings? 

If Yorkshire does it for you too, Yorkshire Ridings Magazine are running a short story competition and offering a prize of £200 plus publication in the magazine.  Your story can be based on true love experiences or fictional ones, but it must be set in Yorkshire and be no more than 1,000 words. See the website or this month’s magazine for details.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Being a writer: a good day

Regent Street

For me, being a writer usually involves being slumped at my keyboard, staring desperately at a blank screen and fretting about deadlines.  But every now and then it’s much more fun, and yesterday was one of those days when I really loved being a writer. 

I went to London to meet my agent and new editor for lunch (how cool does that sound??)  The day started well, with the train bang on time.  Coincidentally, a friend had also booked a ticket on that train. She had an incredibly cheap advance ticket so I squandered the first class I’d extravagantly booked and slummed it with her.  But the carriage was practically empty, she had bought date and walnut cake to have with our coffee, and we yakked all the way to King’s Cross, so it was a very pleasant journey.

RIVA at Selfridge's
Lunch in Covent Garden was very jolly.  We started with a glass of champagne to toast my new deal, and I was relieved to discover that my new editor was lovely, with an infectious enthusiasm, so that I am newly inspired to finish my ‘time slip’ now.  We had some discussion about what my name should be (Pamela or Pam) and what the second book should be (the same but different -  no surprises there!) but otherwise it was really a celebration and getting to know each other lunch.  For you foodies out there, I had quail’s egg mayonnaise with truffle, followed by a little square of roast pork on some sort of basil salsa.  A momentary worry about the absence of vegetables was allayed when I discovered tiny slices of new potato lurking beneath some cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of basil oil.  Very yummy but I certainly didn’t feel stuffed when I left.

Hey, where's MY book?

Piles of RIVA books in the Wonder Room

The Wonder Room

After lunch, I walked up to Oxford Circus and jumped on a bus to Selfridge’s where the Wonder Room has an exciting display of the new RIVA titles.  It was indeed a wonder to see all the bright new covers flaunted on tables and displayed on shelves instead of being hidden away on the bottom shelf the way so many M&B titles are. I took some photos and bought Kelly Hunter’s With This Fling for the train on the way home (fabulous, but not nearly long enough –  after I’d devoured it, I  still had half an hour trying to keep my eyes open.  Next time, write more, Kelly!)  

From Selfridge’s, I thought I’d walk down to St James’s where I was meeting my best friend for more celebration.  I bought her a nail polish called Throb, and myself a lipstick called Maneater, which seemed suitably inappropriate for both of us, then set off down the back streets of Mayfair.  London looked wonderful in the fading light.  I love walking then, when the lights go on in the houses and you get glimpses of luxurious looking rooms, and can wonder who lives in those incredible places, and why they never pop down and invite you for a drink so that you can have a proper sticky beak.  I found myself walking through Georgette Heyer territory, too: Half Moon Street, where Sherry and Hero first lived in Friday’s Child, and along Piccadilly to St James’s Street where all those bucks used to lounge around in their clubs.

In fact, we were meeting in Dukes Hotel off St James’s, but it turns out that I don’t know how to use the GPS on my iPhone, as I ended up in the middle of St James’s Park, and had to ask a policeman the way.  He pointed me back the way I’d come, by which time I was so late, I flagged down a taxi, which, embarrassingly, drove me round the corner – the shortest taxi ride I’ve ever taken!  Never mind, it was worth it to get there and see Diana. We had the most fabulous martinis, which are made at your table by a white-coated bartender, who just shakes the vermouth at the frosted glass before topping up with gin from the freezer and a garnish of lemon peel.  Neither shaken, nor stirred, I noticed, but very delicious.  We had two, and then a gin and tonic, and then I staggered back to King’s Cross to get the train home. 

Buckingham Palace at dusk

So apart from getting lost – and even then the park was very romantic in the half light – a fabulously glamorous day, I felt.  But now it’s back to work, and to looming deadlines, so no more glamour for me for a while, I fear.    

Oh, and before I forget,  congratulations to Ros, who has won a copy of Isabelle Goddard’s new book, Reprobate Lord, Runaway Lady.  Ros, don’t forget to email me your address to and Isabelle will put the book in the post to you pronto!

Monday, 17 January 2011

Harlequin Historical author,Isabelle Goddard on the pleasures of research

Now, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for well over a year! I’m delighted to welcome Isabelle Goddard, whose first book for Harlequin Historical is on sale now. 

Under the pergola at the Watermill
I first met Isabelle under a pergola in sunny Tuscany.  She joined my romance writing course at the Watermill at Posara, but much as I would love to claim some credit for her success, I’m afraid I can’t – Isabelle had already submitted Reprobate Lord, Runaway Lady to Mills & Boon and was waiting to hear back from them, so she did it all on her own, without any help from me.  But all of us on that course were thrilled when she told us that she had had an offer for her book, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the others will get a similar call in due course – keep at it, girls!  (In the meantime, Isabelle, we want to know what happened to your dairy maid …)

Reprobate Lord, Runaway Lady has a real Georgette Heyer quality to it – and when it comes to Regency, you can’t say better than that!  Isabelle has a copy to give away, so read on for details … Here she is:

"Jessica’s course was great.  By the time I went to Tuscany, I’d been waiting for a final verdict on Reprobate Lord, Runaway Lady for over two years and was beginning to lose heart.  But the course kept my motivation from flagging and a few months later when I was snuffling miserably on the sofa suffering from flu – and real flu at that – the call came.  I had a two book contract!
So why choose to write an historical novel?  One of the reasons must be that I grew up reading Georgette Heyer and when I finally plucked up to the courage to try writing a novel myself, a Regency romance seemed to come naturally.  I could hear the characters speak in my head.  And I really loved the research involved: working out stage coach routes and journey times, discovering the protocols around the Assembly Rooms in Bath, understanding the way in which gambling was viewed at the time.  Regency England had an elegance – clothes, architecture, manners – which is fascinating but life could also have a darker undercurrent.  Sometimes it’s just mischievous high spirits, other times real wickedness, and it was into this heady mix that I decided to plunge my heroine.

 ©2011 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
I wanted a heroine who was feisty and brave and the character of Amelie sprang into being.  I had a vision of a high spirited young woman, living a sheltered if lonely life, who suddenly finds herself threatened by the darkest of fates.  She refuses to accept her father’s decree and meets the troubles that follow with determination and courage.  Naturally she has to have a lover who shares the same qualities: Gareth is estranged from his family, tough, courageous but with a strong sense of humour.  And naturally this unconventional couple have to meet in a very unconventional way!

Research isn’t just for historical novels, of course.  As soon as writers venture out of their own small worlds, they are faced with the need to discover.  So I wonder what’s the most unusual thing you’ve had to research for your writing?  A hardback copy of Reprobate Lord, Runaway Lady is on offer for the most interesting reply.

And while you’re thinking about it, do check out my website!"

Thanks, Isabelle!  As it happens, I've spent the day reading about medieval shipping but I feel sure there are more interesting research topics out there, so tell us what YOU have most enjoyed researching, and you could be in with a chance to read Isabelle's new book.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Hooks, Convenient Engagements and Latin account rolls

I’m in the throes of writing about religious guilds and merchants in medieval York.  Over the past couple of days this has involved a lot of staring at transcribed account rolls in Latin, picking out the few words I can understand, and guessing madly when it comes to the others.  Like Shakespeare, I have ‘little Latin and less Greek’ … and that must be the only time I have been able to put myself in the same sentence as Shakespeare!   It is, actually, much more interesting than it sounds, and time has flown, which is why it’s taken me until now to announce the winner of the ‘hooks’ contest.

I’ve got two copies of Convenient Engagements to send out, and having fallen back once more on ‘eeny meeny miny mo’, they’ll be on their way to Lacey and Ruchita as soon as they send their postal addresses to .

I was a bit quick off the mark with putting Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide back up for grabs, as Serena couldn’t get in touch immediately - my copy is already on its way to Mary in Canada but Kate has kindly offered to send Serena another copy anyway – so I’ll be more patient this time!

It looks as if my course From the slush pile to the shelves: writing fiction that sells  at the University of York will be running this term after all.  That starts in a couple of weeks, so I’ll be putting up more craft posts as that goes along – so get ready to tell me more about your stories as we work through conflict, setting, situation, plot, dialogue, first pages and the nitty-gritty of the writing process.

Have a wonderful weekend.  Mine is going to be spent scratching my head over medieval politics, economics and the Hanseatic League.  Funny how, now that I have to get it right, it seems so much easier just to make it all up and write fiction, and yet the moment I have to start a new romance and am staring at a blank screen, I think it would be so much easier if only I knew what it was I had to say … 

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Jewelled shoes and cabana boys

My jewelled shoes share glory with a cabana boy
Much excitement yesterday when my editor sent me a copy of Mills & Boon’s Romance magazine with a piece by Kimberley Lang, Kelly Hunter, Nicola Marsh and me to mark the launch of the brand new RIVA series. 

There was rather less excitement one Wednesday  last November when the email dropped into our inboxes: would we each write about our books and why we were thrilled to be part of the new line.  Oh, and would we do it by the end of the week?  You know, right then, I wasn’t thrilled. I know I sound ungrateful but I was in the throes of my second royal romcom, and it wasn’t going well.   And I certainly didn’t have time to write 500 words or whatever it was in two days. 

Still, the four of us got together on line, had a little grumble, and then started to have fun. We decided that instead of us each writing a straight piece, we’d have a Facebook-esque conversation about our RIVA books, and once we got going, it worked really well, with the conversation ranging from ideal heroes to writing crises to cabana boys, from title envy to cabana boys to painting nails, and from cabana boys to jewelled shoes.  Did you get the cabana boy theme???  I was mortified to be the only one who didn’t know what a cabana boy was – I felt very frumpy and unsophisticated next to the other three, who are all young and glamorous, but my editor told me later that she didn’t know either, so I felt a bit better then!

We ended up having a great time. Kelly Hunter put it all together, and I think it looks really good , although our original uncensored version was the best.  And best of all, my lovely jewelled shoes make an appearance in print!  Here they are, sharing the page with, yes, a cabana boy.  Hard to pick the best photo, I think, but then I’m prejudiced!

I'll be back in a couple of days to announce the winner of the 'hooks' contest.  In the meantime, I haven't heard any more from the winner of Kate Walker's 12-Point Guide, so if you took part in that contest, I'll send the copy to the first person who sends an email to with their postal address!

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A winner, hooks and another contest

Having put my scientifically proven eeny-meeny-miny-mo system into action, I can now tell you that Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance has been won by ....drum roll ... Serena!  (Serena, do you want to send me an email at with your mailing address, and I will put Kate's book in the post to you next week?)

Very sorry I don't have more copies to send to everyone else who 'fessed up on the characters' names.  I enjoyed hearing about them so much that now I want to know more about your stories.  How would you feel about telling me your main hooks now?  And you do have hooks, don't you?

A hook is a story element that tells the reader what kind of story they're going to get, and the hooks are usually highlighted on the cover.  For instance, you can tell from the title that Juggling Briefcase & Baby is going to feature a baby and an office setting, and the new RIVA cover picks that up with the baby shoes, the glimpse of teddy bear and the tie (although I have to say that Lex wouldn't be seen dead in a pink tie) 

Actually, this story also has a 'lovers reunited' hook, and a 'marriage of convenience' hook.  The latter is my favourite, as it's such a good way to force your hero and heroine into an intimate situation.  It doesn't mean they literally have to get married, but at some point in the story they have to pretend to be a couple. 

Other popular romance hooks include sheiks, royalty/aristocracy, exotic setting, cowboy, Christmas, pregnancy, blackmail, revenge, secret baby, city girl and so on.  

You don't have to have a hook (Last-Minute Proposal didn't, but look what a nothingy title it ended up with!) but if you do it will help when it comes to writing a synopsis and selling your book.  A hook is not the same as a conflict - which maybe we'll get to later! - but it's a shorthand way to tell the editor who reads your submission what kind of story yours is, and anything you can do to make her job easier is bound to stand you in good stead.

So, what's your hook?  Do satisfy my curiosity! I haven't got  such a good prize to offer this time, but I do have a spare copy of Convenient Engagements up for grabs.

This anthology, out now, is a re-release of the City Brides series, Fiancé Wanted Fast!, The Blind-Date Proposal and A Whirlwind Engagement, based around three girls sharing a house in London - and there are no prize for guessing the hook that links all three! 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance

Hands up everyone who made a new year resolution to finish that manuscript in 2011.

Keep that hand up if you’re writing a romance and you haven’t yet read Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance. 

For the last few years I’ve been a reader for the New Writers’ Scheme run by the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association.  This is a really wonderful opportunity for new writers to get constructive feedback on their manuscripts.  As a reader, it’s a privilege to get a glimpse of all the potential that’s out there.  I read lots of stories with distinctive voices, but the most common problem is the lack of a strong emotional conflict.  I try and write a really detailed report, but at the end nearly always find myself recommending Kate’s book as a follow up on my comments.

As many of you will already know, Kate Walker is a very experienced and popular writer, and in her 12 Point Guide she  offers a wonderfully clear guide to the nitty gritty of writing romance.   This is what you really need to know:  how to create emotion, conflict, dialogue, sensuality, characterisation, endings and so on, plus there’s a useful section on practicalities.   Especially helpful, I think, is the checklist of questions to ask yourself at the end of each chapter. 

So successful has the 12 Point Guide been that it’s now in its third edition.   If your hand is still up, and you’re serious about writing romance in 2011, I have a copy to give away! 

All you have to do is tell me below what your hero and heroine are called (or are going to be called if you haven’t written your story yet!)  I had thought I could just suggest you left a comment, but I’m nosy that way.  Once I’ve satisfied my curiosity about all those characters out there just waiting to get into print, I will apply my advanced technological selection process (otherwise known as eeny-meeny-miny-mo) and choose a winner.

So what are you waiting for?  Satisfy my curiosity and tell me your characters' names - and don’t forget to check back at the weekend to see if you're going to start the year on a winning note.  (I’ll need you to email me your address so that I can put the book in the  post to you next week). 

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Getting a grip

Christmas 2010 ... walking in Narnia (aka Kippford)
  Happy New Year!  It’s Sunday evening, and I’m sitting here with a glass of wine (because clearly I have to finish the bottle before the new year’s healthy living regime can start) and contemplating the year ahead.  The holiday is over, and tomorrow it’s back to work.  I have all sorts of projects lined up for 2011, and am full of resolutions about managing my time, keeping my head down, putting work first and all sorts of other sensible activities.

After seeing in the new year with friends, the last champagne has been poured, the last indulgent meal enjoyed.  Now it’s ‘Get A Grip’ year for me … so naturally the first thing I did was to try and plan my holidays, around which all the serious work will have to be fitted.  Scotland and Minorca (or possibly Majorca) are pencilled in, and my best friend and I are going walking again.  Currently we’re dithering between the Dingle Way in the west of Ireland, and the Lycian Way along the coast of Turkey.  I know I should be drawing up a timetable and setting deadlines, but actually I keep flicking between websites and dreaming about summer and feeling a sea breeze in my face and the sun on my back.  Getting a grip is clearly going to have to wait until tomorrow, but then, really, honestly, absolutely, I am going to knuckle down.  I am, I am.  I am.

I have grand plans for this blog too, with less wittering and more advice on the writing front.  If one of your new year resolutions was to finish writing a romance, do come back on Thursday, when a copy of Kate Walker’s 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance will be up for grabs. 

And if you’re interested in writing fiction generally, why not think about joining me in Tuscany in September?  There are still places on From the slush pile to the shelves: Writing fiction that sells (Lesson One: get a grip).