Friday, 30 March 2012

Learn to write: courses, cakes and a little book

OK, enough with the weather … anyone would think we never saw the sun in this country the way we’re all carrying on about our sunshine (me most of all).  

It’s time to get back to the serious business of writing, and to tell you about some advice on offer if you’re interested in learning how to tackle a romance or are looking to improve your technique.  There should be something here for everyone!

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First up, I’m offering a CRASH COURSE IN WRITING ROMANCE at the University of York on Saturday 23rd June 2012.  This is a one-day workshop specifically designed for those who have always thought they’d like to try writing a romance, but haven’t really known where to start.

The course will focus on how to invest a story with the emotional tension that is key to the success of any romance. We’ll be looking at how to create an engaging and sympathetic heroine and an irresistible hero, as well as a plot that will keep the readers turning the pages to a satisfying end. Working in groups, we will have created the outline of a story together by the end of the day. This is the social side of writing, and the most fun, so come prepared to participate!

For more details contact the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York. 
York is a lovely city to visit, so even if you’re not local, why not think about making a weekend of it? You'll find all the information you need here

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Have you already completed a book?  Then you might be interested in one of the fabulous Julie Cohen’s ADVANCED NOVEL WRITING courses held in Reading.

Julie is running two courses, one on 26th May (one place left) and another on 13th October, which is filling up quickly.  Courses are limited to 11 participants, who ideally would have completed at least one novel, and are closely tailored to the participants' needs; Julie usually asks them questions in advance and structure the day around what they need to know.  You can get a flavour of the course at a brief video here.  

The courses tend to cover things like structure, conflict, pacing, characterisation and revision techniques, as well as writing a synopsis and submitting your work, but they also take in discussions about the writing business, about planning your time, and about what it's like once you're published. They're highly interactive. “We have formal exercises,” Julie says, “but a lot of the learning also takes place in informal discussions. For me, the best compliment is that people keep on recommending me to their friends, and coming back again and again to review different aspects of their writing.”

And as if that wasn’t incentive enough, Julie offers a discount if you bring homemade cake! 

For more information get in touch with Julie at or see her website,

Switching genres has meant I’ve had to start again on the writing learning curve in lots of ways, and I’m tempted by a course like Julie’s myself.  Sometimes it can be really helpful to go back to basics and look at how to write with fresh eyes.

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For those of you who can’t make it to York or Reading, I can highly recommend Liz Fielding’s Little Book of Writing Romance.  Written in Liz’s characteristically easy style, it is illustrated with intriguing examples from her own books, every one of which makes you want to read on past the excerpt to the story itself.  PTQ at its best.  This is a beautifully clear guide to what you really need to know when you’re writing a romance.  

The Little Book of Writing Romance is aimed at beginners, but I have to say I found myself sucked into it as soon as I started to read, and wished I’d looked at it when I was struggling with my 59th romance recently.  It’s not too late, though.  I’m expecting revisions any day now, and I suspect I'll be very glad that Liz will be on hand, as it were, to set me back on the right track ...

Liz Fielding's Little Book of Writing Romance is available to download from Amazon now.

Monday, 26 March 2012

How not to write a book

View from favourite seat in Cafe Nero
Monday morning, and I was so full of resolutions for this week: healthy eating (a priority after seeing recent photos … a major aaarrrgghh there), strict writing timetable, admin under control etc. etc.  I’m sure you know how it goes. 

But it is such a beautiful day, things went astray right from the start.  I was lured out to coffee in town, where I remembered the photos and regretfully eschewed my usual pain au chocolat.  

It is too warm for winter boots, but my toe nails are unpolished at the moment (a job for this afternoon) so I wore my favourite black pumps, forgetting that they are so old and sloppy now they are impossible to walk in, in spite of heel grips, sole inserts and so on.  This obviously meant that I had to stop on the way back to buy new shoes.  There is a limit to how exciting black pumps can be, but I think these are rather sweet with their discreet bow, and, even better,  they sure are comfy. 

Blue skies in York, March 2012
Then I had to go and buy salad for all the healthy eating I’m going to be doing, and – oh, look! – the morning has gone.  But I HAVE started writing, and indeed, am ahead of my timetable, which is something of a relief.  I have turned my back on the siren call of the index cards, and am just writing a rough draft, which is what I should have been doing all along.  I’m not worrying about anything except getting the words on the page for now and am aiming for a 50,000 draft at first, with half for the story in the present and half in the past.  

I’ve started in the past, and if I don’t try and think about how much there is still to be done, I can even enjoy seeing how the story is starting to emerge.  That is if I can ignore the sunshine outside my window which is just begging to be walked in …  This is how books don't get written.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Clan of the Cave Bear

Does anything beat that moment when you realise a favourite author has a new book out?  I was so excited when I saw that Jean M Auel’s extraordinary Earth’s Children™ series was at last coming to an end with The Land of Painted Caves, but I have to admit that the damning reviews on Amazon gave me pause.  I passed up on the hardback, which I would otherwise have bought, but picked up the paperback the other day and last night plodded to the end. 

Sadly, the reviews were justified.  This was such a disappointing end to a series that started so spectacularly.  The Clan of the Cave Bear is an amazing feat of imagination and I have bored friends for years about it. Auel takes the little evidence we have for the people who lived during the last Ice Age and creates an utterly convincing world so that by the time you get to the end, you feel that life then must have been exactly like that.  Isn’t that what we want from a historical novel?  

I first read Clan of the Cave Bear in Jakarta in 1984.  All of us in the house read it and passed it on, and by the time it was my turn, I’d heard so much about it, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.  I read it on this verandah, with the rain hammering down on the roof, and I only have to look at the cover now to be transported back to that wicker chair and the stifling heat and the cries of the street sellers pushing their carts along the gang outside the gate.

Lots of my favourite books are associated with places. Georgette Heyer makes me think of the outback Queensland.  Bizarre, I know, but I used to have a couple of hours off after lunch when it was too hot to go outside, and there just happened to be a shelf of books including hers in my room.  

I read my first Mary Stewart – This Rough Magic – in an big attic room I shared with my cousins and brothers in Scotland one wet summer holiday.  The roof was unlined, so there were just splintery rafters over head, and the boys played James Taylor’s Rockabye Sweet Baby James endlessly at the other end of the room.

The first Mills & Boon I really enjoyed was called Devil Within, by Catherine George, and I read that in Raffles Hotel in Singapore on my way back to Jakarta.  (That was a “light bulb moment” for me.  Until then, I’d only ever read them as a kind of joke, wrinkling my nose at those heroes who threw the heroine across the bed while she was shrieking ‘Damn you!’ but she ended up loving it really.  Devil Within made me realise that a romance didn’t have to be tacky.)   I’ve still got that copy and I can’t read it without thinking about that old fashioned room with the ceiling fan slapping overhead. 

Of course, I’ve got lots of favourite books that I’ve read at home, but they don’t have the same associations.  There’s something about being away, when you’re already in a different world, and you get transported to yet another, that burns the whole experience of reading into your mind. 

Do you have any books that instantly remind you of where you first read them?

Monday, 19 March 2012

The terror of the blank screen

Dog walking, so much easier than starting
Mother’s Day (36 hours in Scotland cooking and dog walking) – tick.  Desk tidied – tick.   Head on electric toothbrush changed – tick.  

Nothing, it seems, stands between me and starting time slip number 2.  Except the terror of the blank screen. I’ve even found myself hoping for revisions to drop into my inbox so that I can put off starting a little longer, which I may very well come to regret.  Be careful what you wish for!

I have an idea, and I even have a working title (The Memory of Midnight) and I know that all I have to do is to start a rough draft.  I need to rattle off scenes without worrying about how to link them together, without caring about punctuation or even making sense, without thinking much at all.  Because at the end of it, I’m just going to throw it away and start again.  I might retain a glimmer of an idea, or a snatch of conversation, but that will be about it. 

It’s frustrating, as it feels like such a waste of time, but it appears to be a vital part of the process for me.  After 60 books, I know this.  So I should just get on with it, right?  Instead I’m thinking about doing a story board, as suggested by the wonderful Blake Snyder in Save the Cat! 

I’m thinking that rather than sit here and start typing, I’ll pop along to Staples and buy some blank cards and carefully write out scene locations and character view points and what changes in the scene.  Then, the theory goes, I’ll pin them to my board and plot out the story arc, making sure I can tick off (more ticking off, my favourite thing) set up, catalyst, debate, fun and games, ‘all is lost’ and all the other points my story needs to hit.  Then I will have a perfect plan that I just need to follow.  I’ll give myself a timetable, and set off and in a month or two, the job will be done.  Easy.

I wish, wish, wish I could write like this.  I tried it with Time’s Echo, and successfully wasted a lot of time setting out a board that I never looked at again.  I blame the fact that a time slip has two parallel stories and it got far too complicated making them both fit the arc, but the truth is, I suspect that I’m just not a plotter. 

So I should just flex my fingers and start writing something, anything.  And I will, just as soon as I’ve run through every other justification for not plunging right in.  I could do character descriptions, I could research.  I could brainstorm motivations and goals. 

Or - I know! - I could read books on how to write.  I’ve still got Robert McKee’s Story and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to study.  Why didn’t I think of that before? They’ve been sitting there on my shelf for months, but whenever I’ve picked them up before, I decide they look too hard to get to grips with, and I put them back.  Excellent. I’ll get them down right now.  That’s at least a day before I have to square up to the blank screen again.  Phew.    

How do you get going on a new story or project?  Do you faff around like me, or just plunge in?  All tips welcome!

Friday, 16 March 2012

Time sucks and photographs

One of the very many things they don’t tell you when you get your first book deal is how much time you spend as a writer not writing at all. There are accounts to be totted up, contracts to puzzle over, proofs to check, dues to pay, research to be done, books to post out, emails to be answered, contests to enter and judge …

And then, of course, there is the dreaded promotion, the biggest time suck of all. Somebody recently described my generation as ‘electronic immigrants’: we’re doing our best to fit in and be part of it, but it’s just not our language.  There’s always going to be something alien about social media for me, but I’ve got the message: it has to be done. 

Kippa Matthews, a patient man
So I am having two new websites designed at the moment, one for Jessica Hart and one for Pamela Hartshorne.  I spent most of today having a new author photo done for both, and my jaw is now set in a frozen smile.  There’s something very unnatural about smiling at a camera rather than a person.  I don’t know how models do it.

I suspect I’m too vain to photograph well.  I’m always too worried by what I’m going to look like and is the scar on my nose going to show and what’s my hair doing, and is my smile too gummy - all the kind of things that nobody else notices at all – so I never relax.  I’ve noticed that a lot of men, who don’t care what they look like at all, look great in photos.  

Anyway, it’s done, so I’ll see the results next week  In the meantime, I have done my talk on medieval shipping in the wonderful 14th-century Merchant Adventurers’ Hall here in York, so that’s another job off my list.

Funnily enough, one of the characters in my next time slip is going to be getting on a ship so on this occasion I got to combine promotion with research.  For all those of you wishing you could have been there to find out ALL about medieval shipping (and I know there must be hundreds of you out there, even though not a single one of you sent me a picture of a keelboat as I asked so nicely), here's a picture of a 15th-century hulk or carrack.  It's absolutely amazing where these ships got to, mostly without charts or compasses, not to mention watertight decks.  

Monday, 12 March 2012

Black holes and heroic professions

I’m still getting over the loss of The West Wing on my evening viewing front, and can’t quite into watching anything else yet – although I was grateful for all the recommendations I had.  When I was in London last week, I saw an advert for Castle on the Tube and was very excited to think that it had made it across the pond after all.  Apparently it’s on its third season too! Sadly, it was on a channel I’d never heard of, but maybe it’ll make its way to Freeview on of these days, and I’ll be ready for it!

In the meantime, I have been grouchily channel-hopping, with only one programme that caught my interest long enough watch it.  Bizarrely, this was a documentary about black holes.  This was a bit like The West Wing in that I was riveted without having a clue what they were talking about.
There’s something incredibly attractive about those cool theoretical physicists, all so clever and articulate about extraordinarily complex subjects.  

Mouth open in admiration, I watched them scribbling out formulae on blackboards or leaning forward eagerly to explain particle physics.  An astronomer put together a virtual telescope the size of North American continent to look for evidence that might throw Einstein’s theory of relativity into question, and then got very excited about graphs with lot of wiggly lines on them.  I was agog.  They were talking about time and space, and if only I could have grasped it, I felt as if I might had a brilliant idea.  As it was, I was just impressed.

I’ve been wondering ever since if I could have a hero who was a theoretical physicist.  The wonderful Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a great heroine who is a physicist – Dr Jane Darlington in Nobody’s Baby But Mine.  I love all her books, but that’s one of my absolute favourites. I’m ashamed to say that I’m not very adventurous with my characters’ professions, largely, I suspect, because I’m too lazy to research but now I’m inspired to try harder.

What is the most unusual profession you’ve come across in a romance?  Are there any that would be turn offs for you, or that you particularly like come to that?  I’ve still got copies of We’ll Always Have Paris to give away, so if you leave a comment and haven’t read it yet, do email me your postal address ( and I’ll do another post office run.