Monday, 28 February 2011

The perils of redecorating

Why do I do these things?  I am juggling four projects that all need to be completed by the end of March, so I really need to lash myself to my computer and stay focused, but  no, this is the very time I decide I’ll have the woodwork downstairs repainted.  I thought it would be a quick job, but of course if you’re painting the windows, you need to take down the curtains, and then you might as well have them cleaned (and after 15 years … eeeuuwww) which means you have to fish out all the hooks and get them to the dry cleaner, which is not as simple as it sounds when the dry cleaner is in a pedestrian zone in York’s centre and you can only take a car in at certain times.  And then there’s the even worse job of putting all the hooks back in and rehanging the curtains – I’m not looking forward to that particular job.

Apart from the curtains, there are various ornaments and pictures that cry out to be cleaned.  It’s only when you take them down that you realise how dusty they all are.  I have been feeling very ashamed of my housekeeping skills and am seriously contemplating getting a cleaner – except that would take even more time to organise.  I was mortified when I caught the decorator, John, cleaning my brass door knobs, and was shamed into taking the Brasso to the old fender on the fireplace, which was so tarnished it was black, but which is now gleaming and looks very fine.  It was disturbingly satisfying too, and I spent ages on it when I should have been cracking on with my first draft.  Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about displacement activities, there is polishing brass …

That was just the dining room.  Now John is moving onto the sitting room.  Just the woodwork here means shifting two alcoves of books, that were piled on top of each other and spilled onto piles on the floor.  Also disgustingly dusty.  I am a bad, bad, bad housekeeper.  

The plan was to get rid of books I don’t read any more, dust the ones I want to keep and put them back neatly so that I can find them easily in the future.  A good idea that like all ideas is easier in theory than in practice.  So far I’ve shifted half a shelf, and have already been distracted by rediscovering books I’d forgotten I had.  There has been much remembering and flicking through pages, and it’s not looking good for getting rid of any so far.  Looking at History: Britain from Cavemen to the Present Day was one of my favourite books when I was a child.  The ‘present day’ was the 1950s, of course, and it’s an interesting part of history in its own right now. I loved all the pictures, especially the ones of people eating through the ages – obviously my interest in food and history started early! Obviously I can’t give that one away.

When all the books have been moved into the dining room and the dust has settled, I need to decide whether to put them back in an orderly fashion once the shelves have been repainted, or shove them in any old how the way I did before. I like to think of myself as an orderly person, but my books are always a terrible mess, piled on top of each other and spilling onto the floor so of course I can never find one when I'm looking for it,

I always admire people who have their books shelved in alphabetical order or chronologically, but how does that work when you get a new book?  Do you have to take one out to make room for it?  I have all my absolutely favourite books close to hand upstairs in my study, and when I had new shelves built recently I put all books by an author together, which was a big step for me.  But that system has already fallen apart as new books arrive, and I’m back to the old Scarlett O'Hara sort-them-out-tomorrow approach.  

What do you do with your books?  

Thursday, 24 February 2011

First pages

* I’ve just started a new book, and appropriately enough we’ve been looking at first pages and opening scenes in the Slush Pile to the Shelves course. 

Your first page is crucial when it comes to getting out of the slush pile, so it’s worth giving it a lot of thought.   Readers will often give an established reader the benefit of the doubt, but if you’re a new writer, you need to grab an editor or agent’s attention right at the  beginning and make them want to read on. 

Opening scenes have to do several jobs:

* Introduce the main characters.  In a romance, the hero and heroine.  You’ll read lots of romances when they don’t in fact meet until two or three pages in, but if you’re starting out, I recommend getting the hero on the first page if you can, and ideally the first line.

* Establish what kind of characters these are, and why we should care about them.

* Hint at the problem to come (their conflicting goals)

* Show something of the heroine’s ‘ordinary world’ that is going to change by the end of the story.  Where exactly are we?  A few telling details to convey a vivid setting are often all that’s needed to ‘anchor the reader in time and space’ (Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles & Ends)

* Intrigue the reader and make her want to read on.  What is going to be different about this story? 

* Establish the tone of the story.  Is it intense and passionate, or flirty and fun? 

Read first scenes of most popular stories and note how often they start with an indication that something is about to CHANGE (always a key word?)  Perhaps the character discovers some new information or arrives in a strange place or meets someone new.  Or perhaps something happens that will lead to change.

Starting at a point of crisis is often an effective way to suck the reader into the story.  Starting in the middle of a conversation can  also give an immediacy to the scene.  If you can do both it’s even better!

Finding the right point at which to begin can often be difficult.  Many of the manuscripts I’ve read get bogged down in backstory and setting up the situation.  If you think this might be your problem, ask yourself if the story wouldn’t be stronger if you began it at Chapter 4 instead.  Cut out all the explanation and move straight to the point of crisis and change.   

Sometimes it takes ages to find the right first line, but in the book I’m just starting I had it in mind from the start; ‘No.  No, no, no, no, no.  No.’ (Repetitive?  Hmmnn, maybe, but what I hope is that the reader will think ‘No, what?  No, why?’  And I’ve already decided that the last line of the book is going to be ‘Yes’ – and in case you haven’t had the point rammed home quite enough, that’s a very obvious way of showing that this character has CHANGED!)

Every story makes an ‘implicit promise’ at its start: read this and you’ll laugh/cry/sigh/be intrigued/moved/excited/scared and so on.  The reader wants to know that you can make good on the promise the title and cover makes, and the first page will reassure her that she’s in safe hands and can give herself up to the enjoyment of the story.  So take the time to get the whole of the first scene right.

I’m at the rough draft stage so am just blocking my story out for now, but I’ll be going back and polishing those first few pages, because once they’re right, the rest of the story tends to fall into place.  

Or that’s the plan, anyway.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Jessica Hart hits NZ (sort of)

Aha!  So I CAN upload an image from my new Mac ... it's only taken me a frustrating hour to try and work out how to do it, and of course, I'm now not sure how it actually happened!  But I'd better post it now, in case I never manage it again. 

This picture comes all the way from New Zealand, so many thanks to Louise for taking the photo and proving that Juggling Briefcase & Baby has been over the Equator!  I'm very impressed to see my cover on a Kindle.  I haven't got round to tackling an e-reader yet, but everybody seems to be talking about them at the moment, and I suspect they're going to be like PCs or mobile phones, that I come round to just as everyone else moves on to something new.

I should have asked what these wonderful flowers are: you certainly don't get anything as spectacular in my York garden, and certainly not in winter, so for me it's a fabulous glimpse of another, exotic world where it's summer right now!  There were a couple of days last week when it felt as if Spring might not be an impossible dream, but we've been right back to winter this weekend, so the flowers have really cheered me up.  Thanks, Louise!

Meanwhile, I've started my new book and have done the first page ... hurrah!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Engaging Characters

Last week passed in a frenzy, but it seems positively laid-back compared to this one.  There comes a point when something’s gotta give (Isn’t that the title of a film?? Has to be a more interesting story than my life at the moment, which is spent lashed to my keyboard day and night!) and in my case it’s been this blog … but having said that, I’ve got half an hour, and a chance to strike something else off my list, so here goes with a quick whizz around writing engaging characters, as promised.

I talked in my last post about the importance of giving your characters strong goals and clear motivation, so that the reader understands exactly why the hero and heroine behave the way they do, and why they both believe a relationship between them could never work.

At the same time, you need to make your characters engaging, so that the reader likes them and cares about whether or not they’re going to be happy. 

My four top tips for creating engaging characters:

Jane Austen said: ‘Perfection makes me sick’, and how right she was about that, as so many things!  I don’t know about you, but when I read about a heroine who is beautiful and kind and sweet and good and plays the cello and speaks six languages, I want to throttle her.  What is there for me to identify with in that?  And if she’s perfect to begin with, what is she going to learn?  She needs to be different at the end of the story, she needs to have changed, and how can she change if she’s perfect to begin with?
Don’t go the other way and make her ridiculously stupid, but give her a weakness: maybe she’s nosy, or bossy, or distrustful, or snappy and easily irritated.

A ‘thing’ or a quirk or a mannerism will make your character more individual.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing: a fondness for shoes or silly earrings, pinching the bridge of the nose when exasperated, or an unexpected interest.  Campbell (Last-Minute Proposal) is driven, competitive and generally a typical outdoors kind of guy, but when pressed he admits to an embarrassing interest in Roman history.  Summer (Oh-So-Sensible Secretary) likes everything ordered and under control, but has a weakness for doughnuts.  Romy (Juggling Briefcase & Baby) wears bangles that she has collected on her travels, and fiddles with them when she gets nervous.  You get the idea.

Blake Snyder called his book on screenwriting Save the Cat! after the key moment in a script that makes us identify with a character.  Your hero or heroine doesn’t have to save a cat literally, of course, but if you can put in a moment which shows them doing something kind or generous or thoughtful or funny, the reader will want them to succeed.  Who remembers the film Romancing the Stone?  There’s a tiny scene at the beginning of that where the heroine, Joan Wilder, is in a hurry to deliver her manuscript to her agent when she meets an elderly neighbour hauling her shopping trolley up the stairs of the apartment block  Joan scolds her for not using the lift, but nonetheless turns round and carries the trolley up the last stairs for her neighbour.  It only lasts a few seconds, but it’s enough for us to see that Joan isn’t the kind of person who rushes past neighbours without noticing them, and we like that about her. 

Make sure your characters believe in something - work, family, justice, love – that we can admire and believe in too.

Friday, 11 February 2011


Life has got a bit away with me this week, so I’m late with this post, but here’s a taste of what we did in this week’s Slush Pile to the Shelves: Writing Fiction that Sells session.

When you’re starting a new story, or revising a manuscript, ask yourself the following questions:

Do I understand exactly which market I’m targeting? Have I read the guidelines?
Does my story have hooks?
Do I have a clear idea about who my hero and heroine are?
Do they have conflicting goals?
What problem are they going to face?
Is that problem an emotional one that women around the world can relate to?

If you can answer all these questions to your own satisfaction, you’ve got a skeleton of a story that you can begin to flesh out, and the best way to do that is to think more about character.  The plot and the situation are the EXTERNAL issues that force the hero and heroine together, while character is about the INTERNAL issues that are going to drive them apart.

This means thinking less about their personality than about their MOTIVATION. You’ve decided on your hero and heroine’s conflicting goals.  Now you need to know why those goals are so important to them.  And they must be important.  The goal must drive them to act in the face of the problem you’re going to present your characters with.  If neither of them really cares about the goal, they can just walk away from the situation, and if they can do that, you’ve immediately lost any tension in your plot. 

Create a situation in which your hero and heroine HAVE to engage in order to achieve their goals.  Sherry Lewis put it very well in an article on motivation in Romance Writers Report a couple of years ago: “Give your characters something at stake, something they’ll go to great lengths to achieve, save or protect.  Then put that thing into jeopardy.”

We’re not talking complex psychoanalysis, but the reader needs to understand why the characters are the way they are, and why they behave the way they do. It’s not enough to say ‘oh, s/he’s just like that’!

So you need to have a clear idea about your hero and heroine’s backstory.  If your heroine’s goal is a home of her own, ask yourself WHY that is so important to her.  Alice in Barefoot Bride had hippy-dippy parents who dragged her around the world when she was a child, and as a result she yearns for the security of bricks and mortar. 

Campbell, the hero in Last-Minute Proposal, fears failure and is very competitive.  When I was thinking about that story I asked myself what would give someone that drive to succeed.  Yes, he fears failure, but WHY?  I decided that he had had a distant father who never praised his son.  Nothing Campbell did was ever good enough, and so he grew up constantly trying to do better in an attempt to get his father’s attention.  It’s not a particularly original scenario, but that doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that the reader understands why he is like that, and can therefore sympathise with his dilemma when acting on his feelings for Tilly would mean giving up the ultimate deal that would establish him as an unqualified success.

Michelle Douglas, another author who has written helpfully about characterisation     asks her characters questions:

What do you want?
Why do you want it?
What’s stopping you from getting it?
What will you learn?
How will you change?

I think this is a really useful checklist.  If you can answer all these questions, you will be well on the way to understanding what motivates your characters.  Keep asking WHY?, WHY? and WHY NOT? until you have built up a complete backstory for both hero and heroine.  Some writers like to use character questionnaires, like the example Kate Walker gives in her 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance. Another technique is to draw up a character cluster by putting the name in the middle and noting goals, motivations, strengths, weaknesses and so on around it. 

Personally, I like to use my friends to play around with ideas (this is the fun side of writing as far as I’m concerned) and get them to tell me why someone would behave in a certain way  After a brain-storming session (Tip: this works best over a bottle of wine) I sit down and write a stream of consciousness about a character, asking and answering my own Why/ Why not questions and filling in any gaps off the top of my head.  When I send my editor an outline, it consists almost entirely of backstory and the situation. 

Whatever technique suits you, make sure you give both characters clear goals and strong motivation.  This will provide the emotional tension that will drive your story.  Be careful about basing your conflict on a misunderstanding or the hero or heroine making assumptions about each other.  If they can sort out the problem by asking a question and getting an answer, it isn’t a strong enough difficulty to sustain the conflict and chances are your characters will just seem silly. 

Your heroine needs a very good reason for believing that a relationship with the hero could never work, and the best possible reason is if he’s told her outright, and he’s told her why.  If they understand that their goals are apparently incompatible, and why those goals are so important, then the reader will understand too.  Not knowing how these two characters, who are so obviously perfect for each other, are going to work out this big problem between them, will keep her turning the pages until the end.

Next time: creating engaging characters.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

What's the problem?

My particular problem today is that, having switched to an Apple Mac desktop, I now have no idea how to do things like upload new photographs and so on, so I'm spending a lot of time staring at the screen and thinking '????????' and occasionally 'Aaaarrgghhhh'.    But I'm meant to be talking more about a problem in the context of a story, so I'll try and put my computer angst aside for now ... 

I talked last week about finding and developing an idea, which is always the fun part of writing, I think.  But once you’ve got that idea bubbling away, you need to give it a shape.  All stories need some kind of structure.  The most common kind has five stages, as explained by Elizabeth Lyon in her very useful book, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore (New York, 2008)

1.  A character has a problem
2. Complications arise and conflict intensifies
3. Crises culminate in a climax
4. Problem is resolved
5. Lead character learns something about self or life

So when you’re thinking about how to harness all those wonderful ideas buzzing around in your head and turn them into a story, your first step is to decide: Whose story is it? 

If you’re writing a Harlequin/Mills & Boon romance, you’re going to need a heroine and a hero, which is fine but two lovely, rounded characters aren’t enough on their own.  Every story needs a PROBLEM. 

The problem is central to the story structure, and the harder it is for your main characters to deal with it, the better.

It’s a common misconception that a romance is about how the hero and heroine fall in love and get married.  It’s not.  It’s about why two characters who are powerfully attracted to each other not only won’t say ‘I love you’, but feel that they CAN’T.  In a romance they can get married, they can have great sex, they can save each other from desperate fates, but the story doesn’t end until both of them can say ‘I love you’ and admit that they need each other.

At the same time, we need to know that these two characters are perfect for each other and are meant to be together.  So if we want to keep them apart, we’re going to have to give them a really good reason for believing that a relationship between them could never work. 

We structure a romance by taking two characters (and it doesn’t matter if they’re a man and a woman, two people of the same sex, a werewolf and a vampire), putting them in a situation that forces them together, and giving them a problem that pushes them apart. 

The problem is created by the fact that the hero and the heroine have conflicting GOALS.  These goals need to be  emotional ones, and related to an issue that women all over the world can understand: children, family, security, independence, home, trust … the kind of themes that, as the late and wonderful Blake Snyder said, ‘tap into our common humanity’.    So, a heroine can’t want money just because she wants to buy things, but she might need money to give her security, or to provide for a child, or to support an elderly relative, or to pay hospital bills …  If a hero is driven to succeed, it’s not to buy himself a Porsche, it’s because he needs to be in control of his life. 

(And of course your next question is to ask yourself ‘Why?’ or ‘Why not?’  but we’ll be looking at character and motivation later.)

When you know what your heroine wants, make sure your hero wants the opposite.  If they want the same thing, you’ll have no problem, no tension, and no story.  So if your heroine craves the security of a settled home, give your hero itchy feet and a deep seated fear of commitment (Oh-So-Sensible Secretary).  If he needs control, make her a single mother with a baby who can’t understand rules (Juggling Briefcase & Baby).  

Then put them in a situation that forces them together.  Make it impossible for them to ignore or avoid the problem between them, and make sure neither can walk away.

At its essence, this is what a romance is: establishing an attraction between the hero and heroine, establishing a good reason why they can’t act on it, and then forcing them into a situation where they have to confront the problem that is keeping them apart, and that can only be resolved by both characters changing … but that’s another story (or blog).

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Ideas: where do they come from?

I’ve been forced to tidy my desk as an engineer is coming this afternoon to set up my new iMac computer … thought I’d better do a quick blog in case it takes me a little while to get to grips with an entirely new system!

Second seminar in my Slush Pile to the Shelves course last night, and everybody turned up again, which must be a good sign.  This week we looked at the question which is much pooh-poohed by some writers, but which I think is an interesting one: Where do you get your ideas from? 

The great thing about writing is that whatever you do, you can legitimately call it research.  Lying on the sofa watching telly, eavesdropping on the bus, catching up on the news, talking to friends, going to see a film, walking by the river, dreaming … there’s no telling when that light bulb will suddenly start flashing.

A couple of days ago I was telling a friend about a reference to stage players looking for somewhere to perform in 17th century York that I’d come across while wearing quite a different hat, and he said ‘you could use that for your next timeslip’.  Technically this makes it his idea, I know, but if you can get your friends to have your ideas for you, all the better.  I’d been quietly fretting about what I would do for my second book (as opposed to noisily panicking about finishing the first one) but suddenly I was bouncing up and down on the sofa, squeaking ‘ooh … ooh … I know!’ 

You don’t have to wait for the inspiration to strike.  I often start very prosaically by deciding on my hooks, and then thinking of how I could use them.  However that first idea flashes, you’re probably going to ask yourself: ‘What if ….?’

What if your ex was getting married and you needed to save face at his wedding? (Fiancé Wanted Fast!)

What if you went on a blind date and ended up meeting your boss? (Blind-Date Proposal)

What if you fell in love with your best friend?  (A Whirlwind Engagement)

(Oh, and it just so happens all three books are now available now in one volume, Convenient Engagements – yes, it’s a plug)!

A germ of an idea is all very well, but it’s a long way from a story.  You’re going to have to develop that idea, give it some structure and then write it.

For me, playing around with an idea is the fun part of writing.  I find it helpful to bounce ideas around with friends, but that doesn’t suit everyone.  Have you tried making a collage?   If you haven’t already, read the wonderful Jenny Crusie on collage as pre-writing.  I was totally inspired when I read this and even had a go myself, but I was hopeless at it.  Maybe I’m not visual enough, or maybe too repressed, and I was so disappointed when it just didn’t work for me.  (Thinks: could it be because glass of wine not involved?)

There are lots of techniques out there, all designed to let your subconscious bubble away at that first idea, so find the one that suits you.  Whatever it is, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to sit down and write.  Write even if your idea doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Write through a lack of plot, write through a dearth of inspiration, write through block (aaarrgghh).  It doesn’t matter what the words are at this stage, just get them on the page and somehow your idea will start to take some kind of shape.  I think this is what Stephen King means when he talks about ‘excavating’ a story with the help of what he calls ‘the guy in the basement’.  You’ve got to put in the hard work before inspiration does its bit.,
“This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.  Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ‘til noon or seven ‘til three.  If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start         showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.”   (Stephen King, On Writing, (London, 2000), p.180)

Oops, this was supposed to be a craft post, but I seem to be going on a bit long (when, when, when am I going to get the hang of a brief blog?)  We talked a lot more last night, about back cover blurbs, character, situation and, most importantly, making sure your story has a problem, but I think that’s enough for now - and that computer guy is due any minute.  If I'm not back for a while, it's because I can't work my new system!