Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Critique partners: yes or no?

I’ve just been out for lunch with my critique partner, to celebrate a positive response from the very first agent she contacted about her manuscript (and yes, she did follow all the advice I gave in my last post!)  

The whole notion of a critique partner was new to me until a few years ago, when I started hearing other HM&B authors talking about them on the loops.  I remember thinking to myself that I would never let anyone read a draft of mine. Even my plotting team don’t get to read the stories until they’re published.

Isn’t there some saying about how it’s better not to know exactly how sausages and the law are made?  I feel the same about writing a novel.  One of my recurring nightmares is being knocked over by a bus while a story is still at draft stage.  I can see that the quality of my writing would probably be the least of my executors’ concerns, but I have made them promise to destroy any manuscript pages hanging around in my study without reading in that eventuality. I can’t bear the idea of anyone not realising just what a change there is between shitty first draft, shitty second draft and the draft that I eventually submit, and have no intention of the last response to any words of mine being ‘oh, dear, oh, dear …!’

Anyway, I told myself I would rather stick pins in my eyes than let a fellow writer read my stuff before my editor, but it just so happened that someone I met at a conference came out of the closet about the book she was writing just as I was embarking on my ‘time slip’, and I was so far out of my comfort zone that none of my usual hang ups applied. 

We’ve been meeting for lunch every couple of months or so ever since, and I have to say it’s been much more useful than I’d imagined - once I’d got over all the apologising and self-justification and defensive explanations about how ‘it’s just a draft, honestly’, of course.   It’s been fascinating to see her story taking shape and I am quite unjustifiably proud that she’s had such a good response already. 

It’s not easy giving or getting feedback.  There’s something very exposing about letting someone read what you’ve written before polishing, and I can’t imagine doing it with anyone I didn’t respect and trust. I still write my romances on my own (apart from brainstorming with my plotting team, of course!) but I’ve found it really helpful to have constructive criticism while trying to break into a new genre.

How do all you other writers out there feel about critique partners? 

Thursday, 24 March 2011

And finally ...

OK, in the last post we talked about revising a manuscript.  When you’re sure your story is as good as you can make it, you’re ready to submit it!

Now, I don’t have any experience in finding an agent for myself, and it’s so long since I first approached Harlequin Mills & Boon that the best advice I can give you is to read some of the excellent articles available on line.  Best of all, in my opinion, is the wonderful Jenny Crusie’s article, It’s all about you: The First Step in Finding an Agent

“The smart writers is not concerned with getting published quickly; she’s concerned with getting published well,” is Jenny’s sound advice.  I really recommend you read this first, and indeed all the other essays on Jenny’s website, which are not only useful and entertaining, but beautifully written.

There’s good advice from agent Kristin Nelson here on how to write a query letter, and you can  find lots of other helpful advice online.  I came across several good sites, like Agent Query just by Googling. 

The only use I am, I  is to reiterate the importance of READING THE GUIDELINES before you submit anything.  If you’re writing for Harlequin/Mills & Boon you should have read the guidelines for each line before you started writing (you did, didn’t you???) but you should also read what they ask for when it comes to submitting your manuscript.  They’re available online at Mills & Boon and eHarlequin.

So when you’re ready to go, ask yourself these questions:

Have I drafted a cracking synopsis?

Have I - all together now - CHECKED THE GUIDELINES of the agent/publisher I’m approaching?

Do I know the name of the agent/editor I’m approaching, and have I ensured that it is spelt correctly?

Have I written a query letter that shows that I know exactly what I’m doing?

And finally …

Have I made a note of Jessica’s email address - jessica@jessicahart.co.uk - so that I can tell her when my novel is accepted for publication?  Because I’d really like to know!

Good luck!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Revising a manuscript

Very sad to say goodbye to my Slush Pile class last week.  The final session was about what to do after that wonderful moment when you type THE END.

First, congratulate yourself!  Getting to the end of a manuscript is a terrific achievement on its own, so crack open a bottle of your favourite tipple and bask in the glow of having made it.

Next - and here it is do as I say and not do as I do, as I’m always in too much of a panic about deadlines – put the manuscript aside for as long as you can. Stephen King recommends 6 weeks, but at least a week would be OK.  This will give you some distance from the story and mean that you can look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. 

Now, reread your story, asking yourself some hard questions as you go.  This is the checklist we drew up in the class:

Am I clear about what kind of story I’m writing?  What is it most like?

What implicit promise am I making the reader?


What are my story’s hooks?

What is the situation in my story?

What is the problem?  Is it primal?

What is at stake for my characters?

Whose story is it?

Am I clear about my lead character’s goals?

Do I understand his/her motivations?  What is his/her greatest fear?

How does my character change in the course of the story?

Why can’t s/he walk away from the problem?

Is my lead character engaging and sympathetic?

Do I know my characters’ backstories and what has made them the people they are and made them behave the way they do?

Have I thought about the structure of my story?

What is my lead character’s “ordinary world”? 

What causes the disturbance that leads to change?*

What is the catalyst that forces my lead character into action to deal with the problem? (the first doorway)*

What happens to make my lead character resolve the problem? (the second doorway)*

Does my first page start at a point of change?  Is it intriguing?  Does it introduce my lead characters or establish tone?

Have I thought about a knockout ending? 

What has my lead character learnt by the end of the story?

Do my characters speak and act in a real and believable world? (using the five senses) 

Is the dialogue appropriate to my characters?

Does the dialogue say something? Does it advance the plot, reveal character, reveal motivation, substitute for narrative or establish the tone?  If not, why haven’t I cut it?

Have I varied ‘he said/she said’ with action tags?

Have I revised my manuscript with a view to checking that every scene has a function?

If you come across a question you can’t tick immediately, this is your chance to change things.  The revision stage is when I actually write.  Everything up to that point has been a draft, but this is when I make sure the emotional conflict is strong enough, my characters clear enough, my dialogue realistic and so on, and I find it's when the words come together too.

We also talked about approaching an agent/publisher on Wednesday – but I’ll cover that in a separate post.  I’ve started writing my next romance at last, and am only on Chapter 2, so had better get back to that for now!

* For the disturbance and two doorways approach to structuring your story, see James Scott Bell, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure: Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Plotting: the unofficial version

Above Malham
For the most effective plotting, forget everything anyone has ever told you about structure.  Instead, take one good friend, well-trained in the art of brain-storming, and go for a walk, the longer the better.  

My Chief Plotting Advisor and I were supposed to be walking round Keilder Water in Northumberland this weekend, but we made the fatal mistake of checking the weather forecast on Friday as we were packing our rucksacks with Second Skin and wine gums.  Heavy snow was forecast, so after a bit of dithering, we decided to cancel and do two day walks from York instead.

Chief Plotting Advisor near Runswick Bay
On Saturday we walked along the coast from just north of Whitby to Staithes.  I still haven't managed to work out how far it was, but there and back sure felt a long way - 14 or 15 miles, I'd guess.  Not a brilliant day, weatherwise, but there is something uplifting about walking by the sea, and it didn't rain until right at the end of the afternoon.  And now I've got a real grip on my next heroine, who had been rather eluding me up till then, so I'm raring to go on the book.

Limestone pavement above Malham Cove
The way down 
Malham Cove
Malham Tarn

We headed inland to the Yorkshire Dales on Sunday, and got the best of the sunshine in the afternoon as we walked from Malham village up to the tarn, and then down past the famous limestone pavement above Malham Cove.  

It was the most beautiful walk ... and we plotted the sequel too, so I didn't even feel guilty at taking the time off work.  

Thursday, 10 March 2011


Meanwhile, back at the Slush Pile to the Shelves course, we were looking at dialogue this week.   Everyone knows about ‘show not tell’ and the importance of using dialogue rather than long chunks of narrative. Wherever possible, yes, use dialogue in place of narrative, but remember this simple rule:


I have read a lot of manuscripts where the hero and heroine are chatting madly away about  what to have for dinner or what they’re going to do that day but the scene isn’t going anywhere and the pace and tension  inevitably sag.  Avoid banal conversations for their own sake.

Dialogue should

1) advance the plot
2) reveal character
3) substitute for narrative
4) establish tone or mood 
If it doesn’t do any of these, you can probably cut it without affecting the story.

Tips to Improve Dialogue
  • Show where your characters are and what they’re doing as they talk.  They’re not just facing each other like blocks of woods.  During their conversation, make sure the reader knows what they are seeing, hearing, smelling, and so on to bring the scene to life.  This is where your five senses come in!
  • Use action tags instead of ‘he said/she said’.  Action tags can reveal a lot about your character.  Is she fiddling with her bracelets as she’s talking? Is he running a finger around his collar?  Sometimes what a character does can tell us a lot more than what they actually say, so use their gestures to tell the reader about their character and what they’re feeling
  • Interrupt long passages of dialogue with beats or interjections from other characters.  Remember, just because it’s in quotation marks doesn’t mean you’re not telling not showing.  Don’t give your characters long speeches they would never make in real life.
  • Keep attributions to a minimum.  The reader needs to know who’s talking, but if it’s obvious,  you don’t need to add ‘he said’ or ‘she said’.
  • If you do need to make it clear, ‘said’ is usually fine.  Be very careful about working your way through the thesaurus with variations: grated, growled, muttered, barked, exclaimed, cried and so on.  It’s very easy to end up sounding like a pastiche!
  • Likewise, don’t overdo the adverbs.  If your dialogue is strong enough, you shouldn’t need to explain any more.  ‘Go to hell!’ is already angry; you don’t need to add, ‘she said angrily’.   
  • Make sure your characters are talking in a realistic way, but not so realistically that we can’t follow the conversation.  The occasional ‘um’ or ‘er’ or unfinished sentence is fine, if it tells you something about the character, but too many and you will just irritate the reader. 
  • Unless you have a particular reason for wanting a character to sound stilted, use contractions (don’t, won’t, rather than ‘do not’ or ‘will not’) and don’t forget interjections that can give dialogue a natural feel: Look, well, hey, oh, for God’s sake, and so on.

But above all, don’t forget that dialogue – all together now! – must SAY SOMETHING.  Sure, your hero and heroine can have a stilted conversation about the weather, but this will only work if they have, for instance, made mad, passionate love the night before and now are both desperately NOT talking about what happened.  Here, what they’re not saying is almost as important as what they are, but in this case you need to be very careful to balance this with what they’re feeling.

Make sure the your hero and heroine talk about the problem between them.  Think of your plot as a series of conversations which test the feelings they have for each other. 

Dialogue is also the best way to get the backstory across, but again, avoid long speeches where they explain things to each other. 

Finally, having a character hiss dialogue when there’s no "s" in it is apparently a pet hate among a lot of editors and agents.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with, e.g. ‘Keep quiet’, he hissed, but there’s no point in irritating an editor if you don’t have to, so try and find a different word if you can.

I’m off to walk around Kielder Water in Northumberland this weekend … they’re forecasting snow so I’m about to dig out my thermal vest!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Looking the stress beast in its cold, dark eyes

I’ve just been reading an article about writer’s stress by Linda Thomas-Sundstrom in February’s Romance Writers Report. ‘We start by telling ourselves we have time to get this book done, and then life gets in the way, as it always does.  We now are looking the stress beast in its cold, dark eyes.’  Ugh, lots of resonances there.  

As Linda points out, a lot of stress is self-imposed, and we choose to over-commit ourselves, and I am certainly guilty of that. In the middle of all the conflicting deadlines, I chose to have my downstairs redecorated, which any fool could have seen was going to cause trouble.  This is what my dining room looked like on Saturday.  I spent most of Sunday moving all the books back into the sitting room, and pulled a muscle in my neck in the process.  Infuriatingly, I can’t blame anyone but myself.  Anyway, the rooms downstairs are more or less in order now, so that’s something. 

I also managed a quick trip to London last week.  Again, not the best idea when deadlines are coming at you like freight trains, but it was a great break.  I finally got a picture of Oh-So-Sensible Secretary in London, too.  I’ve been meaning to take one in Trafalgar Square for ages, but either forget to take a book or run out of time, but here it is in front of the British Library (where I’m fairly sure it won’t be found!)  The library is wonderful inside, though, and not just because of the nice cafĂ© either!

Much more exotic is this photo of The Blind-Date Proposal in Fiji!  Thank you, Nas, very much for sending this. I know the weather wasn’t perfect, but I can practically smell the warmth, and love that palm tree swaying in the hot wind …. A gusty sigh from a sunny but crisp York!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The pleasures (or otherwise) of snail mail

So few people write letters nowadays that the post is usually very dull: bank statements, insurance reminders and notes about interest rates on a credit card I’m fairly sure I don’t possess.  I also get a regular dose of guilt with reminders about the next blood donor session.  I know I should go.  I know how important it is.  For years I was told I’d been to too many places with suspect bugs, but then they said they had a test, so I had no further excuse and I duly went along to spend about two hours being cross-examined about my travels again. When I got to a couch, it turned out that the veins in my arm are very deep, so it took the nurses some time to find one, and then guess who is one of the miniscule percentage of people who react badly?  Yes, I was the one passing out and being made to lie down when everyone else had gone and they were closing down for the night.  They wouldn’t let me go home on my own, so I had to drag a friend away from a football cup final – let’s just say I wasn’t very popular.  It was all very humiliating but I must get over myself and go again.  I must, I must.

How did I get onto blood?  Oh, yes, the post.  The only really interesting packets that drop through the doors are the foreign editions of my books that arrive randomly.  In theory I get two copies of every foreign edition, but as they come from London and Toronto, in practice I often end up with multiple copies in Turkish or Hungarian or Korean.  It’s always exciting to open an envelope and see books translated into another language, and it’s not always obvious which book it is.  Sometimes the names are changed (Perdita in Promoted: To Wife and Mother became Susannah in Une bouleversante attirance, for instance), and who knows what goes on in the Arabic, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, Japanese and Korean editions?  I love flicking through those books and marvelling that somehow those mysterious squiggles make up one of my stories.  

Most fun of all are the manga editions from Japan, where you can work out some of the story from the pictures.  I recently had a manga edition of Oh-So-Sensible Secretary and was delighted to see that the doughnuts made an appearance!  

I’m off to London tomorrow but will be back for the weekend, and will try and put up another craft post soon.