Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Greetings from Tuscany

My apartment - spot the laptop

I’m sitting in my apartment at the Watermill.  Outside the sky is blue and the trees are just stirring in the breeze.  My window is open and I can hear the sound of the mill race below.  The first night, the ceaseless sound of rushing water kept me awake, but now it feels very peaceful.  There s jus the water and the clang of the church bell marking the half hour.   

It’s Wednesday, and a day off from the rigours of the course.  Breakfast at 9.00, a session 10.00 to 1.00, followed by a delicious lunch, and afternoon writing and then a feedback session between 5.00 and 6.00, before gathering again for drinks under the pergola and another fabulous meal.  The food is cooked by a succession of local ladies, I gather, and has been absolutely wonderful.  Every day I think, “ooh, that was the best pasta ever”, only to be forced to reconsider the next day.  Last night for a first course we had a sublime risotto, creamy and golden, with tiny pieces of courgette ... my mouth is watering just thinking about it.  As you can tell, it’s been tough.

Hard at work

We’re a small group, but that’s been working very well.  This course is about writing commercial/genre fiction rather than just romance, and everyone is writing something different, which is great.  So far we’ve considered the three key questions to ask yourself before you start writing anything:  WHY am I writing?  WHAT – exactly – do I want to write?  and HOW am I going to write.  We’ve looked at getting and developing ideas, character and conflict, motivation (why, why, why ... and why not?) and how to structure a story. 

And we’ve had a trip to the local town, Fivizzano,  for a wander round the market followed by coffee and a picnic in the shade of some fine plane trees overlooking the valley.  Lovely. 

Still to come: first pages, scenes, dialogue and process, including writing a synopsis and submitting a manuscript, but I expect I will be able to stagger through the rest of the week.  This is the first time I’ve tried updating the blog while I’m away - not entirely sure it’s a good precedent to set, but I’m going to have a go, so we’ll see if it works. 

The Watermill at Posara

View from my bedroom window

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Photocopying and packing

Oh, dear, I seem to have lost control of the blog recently, but sometimes something just has to go … and naturally, that something can’t be trips away.  After Brighton, I had a weekend in Scotland, and came home via Cumbria, and this weekend I’m off to Tuscany to teach ‘Writing Fiction that Sells’ at the Watermill at Posara.  A dirty job, but someone has to do it.

I’ve spent today sorting out my notes, and tomorrow will have to trot up to the photocopy shop to have all my handouts copied.  It is a rather alarming pile, so I’m a bit worried that I won’t have much room left in my suitcase for the essential lotions and potions that I drag around wherever we go, regardless of the fact that shampoo and moisturisers can be bought in most places.  I would so love to be the kind of woman who can  live in a T shirt and a pair of jeans, with perhaps a little cardigan against the night chill, and whose ablutions consist of dragging her fingers through her bouncy curls or splashing cold water over her perfect skin.  Instead, I have to carry around a complicated wardrobe that covers all temperature eventualities, not to mention a figure that could most generously be called … well, generous. 

And as for the lotions … I’m a sucker for expensive-smelling pots of cream, the more extravagant the packaging the better (I know, it’s very bad of me, but I’m a very superficial person and I love the surfaces of things).  Look at this lovely pot of moisturiser - you can't see, but it's got a little bee on the gold top. How could I resist? Think up a ridiculous name, preferably involving ‘serum’ or ‘complex’ and slap it on a pretty jar, and I’ll buy it.  Then when it comes to going away, I have a whole collection of miniatures that I buy whenever a special offer is on, because obviously I can’t spend a week away without my ‘wrinkle lifting corrector’ or my ‘synchronized complex’ for eyes at night.  And now, of course, we can’t take any of these things on a plane, so they all have to go in the suitcase, so between potions and photocopies, it looks as if my wardrobe in Tuscany is going to be severely limited.

Still, I’ll be working SO HARD it won’t matter what I’m wearing, will it?  I’m off on Saturday so think of me slaving away under that pergola in the sun, with only the prospect of an Italian meal and a glass or two of Tuscan wine at the end of the day to see me through.  But don’t you worry about me.  I’ll stiffen my shoulders and bear it … 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Food, food, glorious food

Water, wine and kir royale

Just back from a weekend away in London and Brighton, and feeling so much better for the break, if a little ashamed at how little I have to show for it other than a few extra pounds piled on.  One of these days I’m going to learn how to do a proper city break.  I’ll wander round galleries and museums, I’ll admire historic monuments and go to the theatre.  I will be sophisticated and super-cool and my clothes will reek of metropolitan chic. 

Pause at the Royal Pavilion

As it was, I by-passed all London’s cultural attractions while in Brighton I’m ashamed to say that we did little more than a pause outside the Prince Regent’s fantastical Pavilion, familiar to anyone who’s read Georgette Heyer’s Regency Buck.  We did quite a bit of walking instead, around the Lanes, along the famous pier, and through the crowds massing along the seafront for the Brighton Burn Up. We felt a teensy bit out of place amongst all the motorbikes and black leather, I have to admit, but it was a great atmosphere on a bright, blowy day and eventually we left the crowds behind and could walk with just the sea and a lone gull for company. 

Brighton Burn Up - a lot of bikes!
All that walking was just as well given how much we were eating.  We worked our way round a selection of the world’s cuisines – French, Korean, Italian, Thai, not to mention a food and drink festival – in barely 36 hours.  Sometimes I wish I didn’t like food so much.  It must be so much easier to lose weight when you look on food as fuel and don’t eat unless you’re hungry, but I get fretful if I have to skip a meal, and my nearest and dearest have learnt it’s easier in the long run to feed me at regular intervals or it all gets very nasty.  And a biscuit or a crummy sandwich just won’t do.  Not only do I insist on eating, I want to eat what I “feel like” eating (not always easily defined), and not just what’s available.  It turns out, in fact, that I am not nearly as easy as I think I am. 

Why isn't lunch always like this?
However, as this was my birthday weekend, I was indulged, and had a very happy time drinking champagne and kir royale,  cold beers and hot coffees, and eating self-indulgent meals.  But now I’m home, and it’s back to work.  No more wandering and breathing in the ozone, no more stopping for little (or not so little) somethings ….the holiday is over. 

I may not be looking quite so happy tomorrow ...

Tomorrow, I’ll be polishing my first five chapters in the light of comments from wonderful friends who’ve been reading what I’ve done so far, and I’m hoping that a few days away will mean that it all suddenly falls into place …

Monday, 5 September 2011

Theory vs. practice

I can’t believe it’s only a week since I sat down to re-read my complete manuscript.  I feel as if I’ve been rewriting for ever!  This is the point at which all the theory goes out the window and it comes down to good, old-fashioned slogging.  I did reread Elizabeth Lyon’s book Manuscript Makeover, which is excellent, although her advice on revising time slips with a parallel plot is rather daunting: “Double the story lines and double your trouble.  Double the protagonists and double your trouble.  You have written two books.”  Oh, yes, and why did I think that would be a good idea??

“One frequent problem is that the reader may find one of the stories, or protagonists, far more appealing than the other.  The development, stakes, setting, or personality of one hero may be weak by comparison.  For whatever reasons, your writing might come alive in one story and not in the other.”  Weird.  It’s almost as if she’s read my manuscript.  For reasons I don’t quite understand, my story in the past is much stronger than the story in the present, although it was the historical aspect of the story I was most concerned about when I started.  But that bit just wrote itself.  I’ve hardly changed anything from the rough draft, while I have been struggling to make my contemporary heroine likeable and her story engaging, in spite of the fact that I have taught whole courses on how to do it.  It's so easy in theory, but in practice ... aaaarrrgghhh.  

All week, I’ve been polishing the first five chapters which I have promised to send by the middle of September, but I’m about to go back and rewrite them yet again.  A very good friend who knows a lot about the sixteenth century and, indeed, about fiction generally, has manfully read the whole draft, and last night I braced myself for the feedback.  Essentially, the past got a hurrah, the present a resounding boo.  Even though I already knew that, and I knew - and he knew - it was just a draft, it was still a rather crushing experience.  But it was also  incredibly helpful to have a fresh perspective on the plot, and he gave me a couple of ideas that I’m going to run with.  I also had to come home and slash a major part of the plot that I’d had from the beginning, and which I’ve been resisting cutting, but I know he’s right (curses).  It’s a horrible feeling deleting great chunks of writing you’ve spent ages honing, but there is something cathartic about it too.  I will tuck those pages away and who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to use them in another book one day. 

In the meantime, though, it’s back to Chapter 1.  I’ve got a busy week coming up, and I’m away for my birthday this weekend, so I’d better get ON with it, as my mother would say.