Thursday, September 29, 2011

I have a great idea...

My non-writing friends tell me fairly often that they're amazed that I can keep on coming up for ideas for novels. I'm not sure why people pick up on this particular aspect of writing, because just about any writer can tell you that the ideas are actually the easy part.

Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are in every news programme, in every magazine, every journey and every chat with friends. It's getting the right idea that's hard.

It has to be something that your agent will be happy to sell, that your publisher will like, and also your publisher's marketing department. It needs to attract booksellers and the press. In this market, it needs to be catchy enough to be able to be described in a sentence or two, and yet complex enough so that it's not a barefaced cliche. Preferably it will lend itself to the perfect title and type of cover, too. If it has a nice marketing hook that the press can latch on to, that's even better.

It also needs to be something that you, the author, will be happy to live with for about a year at least while you're writing it, and then not be sick of it when it comes time to promote it. Probably it will appeal to your core themes, the sort of thing that you tend to write books about and which you come back to again and again and again. I know that there are lots and lots of ideas out there that are good, but for me, an idea that zings has to touch, in some way, my core themes of identity and perception. Otherwise, I won't be interested in writing it.

That's why it hardly ever works when someone comes up to you and says, "I've got this great idea, you can use it if you like." It might be great, but it's not your idea. Therefore, it won't work. I usually suggest to the person that maybe they'd like to write it themselves; if it appeals to them, they'll do a much better job with it than I ever could.

Some ideas seem good at the time, but then when you get down to working with them, when you start getting your hands dirty, you discover that actually they're not very good at all. Likewise—though it's much rarer—sometimes you have an idea that seems so blatantly obvious that everyone and his dog will have done it already...but they haven't. It's up to you.

Some ideas are really good, but you've put them in the wrong place. I've given my characters the wrong jobs before, for example. The jobs were awesome, they were really great to write about, except they just didn't fit.

And some ideas, you come up with when you've had a few too many glasses of wine. You scrawl them down and your handwriting is nearly illegible. The less said about those ideas, probably the better. I found a Post-It with "STAIRCASE" written on it the other day. I have absolutely no clue what it means, but I do remember that it seemed like utter brilliance at the time.

Best and worst of all, ideas don't come on demand. You have to wheedle and coax them. You have to catch them while they're not paying attention, by watching them out of the corners of your eyes. You can wait and wait and think damn, I'm never going to write another book again, and then BOO! They'll jump out at you and get you in a headlock until you can't think about anything but writing them.

Those are the best kinds of ideas.

Check back on Sunday for Anna's post.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


cute puppy pictures
see more dog and puppy pictures

Last week I got stuck in a scene.

It's not a thing that happens very often, which is good because it's frustrating. I'm not the world's fastest writer, but I do like to end the day with some sense of accomplishment, and that's hard to do when I'm constantly writing the same page—and sometimes the same sentenceover and over and over, deleting the whole thing and starting again...

What happened last week wasn't writer's block. I was still writing. It just wasn't getting me anywhere. It felt like I'd driven out onto the ice with the wrong sort of tires and was sitting there spinning my wheels.

Stubbornness kept me from jumping ahead to a new scene that might have been easier, partly because I don't like admitting defeat and partly because I knew it was only a matter of finding the right words, the right phrase, the right bit of dialogue...finding that one patch of grit that would give my wheels traction.

Experience has taught me the important thing for me to do is keep the car in drive. It's only by sitting there day after day at the keyboard and typing that I come unstuck, even if in the meantime I have to create and delete several pages of story.

Most of the time my subconscious is simply not happy with how I'm approaching the scene, or it's busily working on some other problem (I rather suspect that, most times, it's the latter, since when I get stuck I invariably end up getting lots of new ideas for a scene that happens later...) (sigh).

It's good to know the effort isn't wasted.

But I still confess I felt relieved when yesterday I finally wrote a sentence that felt right, and then another, and the whole entire story seemed to shift and creak and start to roll ahead again.

I'm curious to know if any other writers here get stuck, and if so, how they deal with it? And readers, have you ever come across a point in any book where you believe the writer got bogged down? I always wonder, as a writer, if those spinning wheels leave marks behind...

Come back Thursday, to read Julie's next post.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I reached another milestone recently. After eight years I being a member of the Romantic Novelists Association’s (RNA) New Writers Scheme (NWS) I have managed to get my manuscript put forward for a ‘second read’.

I supposed I should explain for non-RNA types what exactly this all means. Every year 250 unpublished writers can join the NWS and it means that they can submitted a manuscript anytime between January and August which will be read by an anonymous reader. The reader is a published author who has a background in whatever genre you are writing in. They read your manuscript and then write a report on it, telling you what works and what doesn’t. Which completely rocks whichever way you look at it. Even if the report leaves you weeping in your beer. I still remember my first one… I cried all night but hugged the thought that although everything else sucked I could write a good kiss.

But if you get more than the kisses right, if the reader likes your manuscript. I mean LIKES it and thinks it is ready they send it back to the organiser recommending it for a ‘second read’. This means yet another anonymous reader gets your manuscript. They read it and if they LIKE it too, the RNA will approach agents or publishers on your behalf. It is like having an RNA kitemark added to your writing.

Mind you even just having it under consideration is amazing. I mean someone somewhere who I haven’t bribed with wine (well I could have at an RNA event but it wasn’t done deliberately) actually thinks my work is almost there.

Eight years. And a life time of dreaming.

Come back on Sunday to hear from Susanna 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Turning Points

At the Emirates Airlines Literary Festival last March I was the moderator for a workshop by Louise Doughty and in it she spoke about turning points. These were key ones where there was no way the story could go/slip back - irreversible change. She said in effect it almost became a different story. She spoke of films and Sid Field's The Screen Writer's Workbook. Then she mentioned the film Truly Madly Deeply -1/4 bereavement then boyfriend comes going back.

So what had me thinking about these things was not the current book or even the one I'm editing but yesterday. Yesterday I took my eldest to university. As my husband and I drove back in sun and rain and times watching the most amazing cloudscapes and rainbows I had ever seen...we had just experienced a major turning point - ours and his. Yes, he would still come home and want to be fed and so on, but it would be different. Holidays will no longer be planned around us, decisions made would be about his life and not our family. Life from this point forward will be from his point of view based solely on his needs until another big turning point happens in his life...

Yesterday really put turning points in a story into goes on but differently. From my point of view as a mother I have to let go....from his everything is possible....

Come back on Thursday to see what Biddy has to say.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Being Bossy

Have I told you already that I’m a Leo? Probably. And although not everyone believes in horoscopes, an awful lot of the basic character traits associated with each star sign seem to fit most people. With me, it’s the Leo “leader” trait, combined with a slight Virgo tendency to want everything to be neat and tidy. I say slight, because it only surfaces occasionally, but I blame that on the fact that I’m born three days away from the Leo/Virgo border and who wants to be a Domestic Goddess anyway? My cupboards certainly don't look like the one in the photo below!

Anyway, I don’t mean I aspire to being prime minister or anything like that, but I do like to organise things, people and events. Being bossy, others might call it (and frequently do!) – my best friend, who I’ve known since I was five, always complains that I bossed her around when we were kids. I maintain she should have stood up for herself and not let me, but that’s another story ... The fact is, I enjoy any kind of organising!

Take the school PTA for instance. When my daughters were in junior school, I wanted to get involved because it seemed like a great way of being part of their school world. I quickly found out that not many other parents felt this way and that if the PTA members wanted anything done, it was a lot faster to do it yourself than to ask anyone to help. I did a two-year stint as chairman with very little thanks (except from the school staff, who appreciate all the help they can get) and a lot of hard slog. Even so, I enjoyed it immensely. (And yes, I know things are different in the States and Canada – the PTA seems to be a lot more important over there.)

Now my girls have grown up and left school, and I have moved on to a much nicer committee – that of the Romantic Novelists’ Association. I’ve been on it for more than four years now and I’ve loved every minute. As we all know, being an author can be lonely, so it’s great fun to be a part of the running of an organisation such as the RNA. You get to meet some lovely people, help make decisions that affect us all and best of all (for me) I get to organise things, like awards and events! (Right now, I'm helping to put together a Regency Day, which Julie and Biddy will take part in as well, which is great.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it can be very rewarding to get involved, even if sometimes it’s really hard work and you know you should probably be concentrating on other things (like actually writing something!) instead. This week the RNA committee welcomes Anna on board and I hope she will enjoy it as much as I have and still am. And anyone else who is hesitating – I would highly recommend joining whatever society or group you’ve been debating about, I'm sure you won’t regret it!

Anyone else like to be “bossy”? Or do you have any of the traits typical of your star sign?

Come back on Sunday to hear from Liz


We've just got back from a camping holiday. I am looking forward with anticipation to cooking dinner whilst standing, rather than crouched or kneeling over a single-burner stove. I am salivating at the thought of the hot shower. The non-damp bed. Wearing clothes I have not lived in for five days.

We pitched in strong winds (we pegged the tent to the ground before we'd even laid it out properly, to prevent it disappearing over the Welsh hills) and torrential rain. When we'd got the outer up, and I'd crawled inside to put up the inner tent, I had to take off my sodden waterproof coat, and strip off my dripping trousers so as not to make dry(ish) things more wet.

We cooked and ate inside our little, no-standing-room tent because the weather never let up. It was constantly windy, more often raining than not, and universally grey.

Grey, grey, grey.

We had a GREAT time.

Husband said something about it on the way home (driving home through gale-force winds, no less). About how it could have been unremittingly awful, but somehow the golden moments shone through. Like picnics snatched between rain showers, strenuous hikes leading to spectacular places. Thrashing Husband at Monopoly (only at the fourth attempt, sadly).

I like writing stories where I take my characters to hell and back. But it's always a bit of a balancing act to make sure the golden moments are there, to move them forward, to strengthen the bonds between them, to provide contrast so that the grey, grey, grey is even more dreary and hard-work.

I've read some books, one or two, where the grey is unremitting. And I've read some where everything is somehow too good. Both were unsatisfying, to me.

Without the grey, golden is just... a kind of yellow. Without the golden, grey will never be a GREAT time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thirteen editors

(Note: This is rather a serious-type business-type post, so forgive me. I just can't compete with Biddy's cow story.)

I was having a Twitter conversation recently with some fellow writers who started out at about the same time I did, and they mentioned that they had both been with the same beloved editor since their very first book.

I was incredulous. I sold my first book seven years ago, and since then, with the three different publishers I've been with, I have had thirteen different editors.

Thirteen. Thir-fricking-teen. I had no idea how many editors I'd had, until I just counted them up right now.

I don't think it's my fault. My editors have stopped editing me, temporarily or permanently, because they've moved publishers, or switched to a different editorial office, or left to have a baby, or left the country, or decided not to be editors any more. Or, I've stopped writing for their list because I wanted to move on to something else. None of this, as far as I'm aware, is because it's been so horrible editing me. I don't think. I've stayed in touch with the majority of my editors, and count them as friends, so I don't think I've ruined their lives by writing for them.

I'm definitely not responsible for the babies.

Whenever your editor does leave, though, for whatever reason, it's always the occasion for mild-to-desperate panic. If you've had a good editor (and I can tell you, all of my thirteen editors have been very good indeed), you will of course be terrified that your next editor won't get your work, won't like you, won't be understanding, will demand insane revisions, or maybe even drop you from their list. These things do happen; I've heard enough about it.

Even if you don't fear for your book and your career, you do know that this very important professional relationship will inevitably change. And that's worrying. Maybe just a little bit, but it's worrying nevertheless.

However, it's also always an exciting opportunity. Every one of my editors has or had their own editing style, and a slightly different way of working. Which means that I've learned lots of different procedures for pitching stories, giving in manuscripts, doing revisions, looking at queries, handling proofs. Most importantly, every one of them who's had hands-on work with my manuscripts has taught me something about my own writing. Both my strengths and my weaknesses. And that's one of the most precious things that can happen to you in this business.

I'm lucky to have worked with thirteen amazing women so far.

(And PS: Congratulations to my current editor on the birth of her baby! Hurray!)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Being There

One of the wonderful things about writing is that there are really no rules, and we all do it differently. What works for one person might be of no help at all to another, and each of us has our own habits, our own individual process.

Part of my process is seeing the settings I'm going to write about; physically being there, even if all I can manage is one or two days on location. From the first, when I was working as waitress, I would plan and save to take those all-important trips, not because I couldn't imagine the setting without seeing it, but because I knew that seeing it would help me make it real in ways I couldn't have imagined.

I could, for example, have probably hunted down photos of Ieper's main square, even fudged my way through a generic outdoor cafe scene in that square based on other cafe's that I'd eaten in elsewhere, but if I hadn't gone in person I'd have missed the neon splendour of the carnival set up there, with its dragon-headed roller coaster. Nor would I have known the way the wind felt, or the way the floor bounced underneath the table when the serving staff walked by, and I would have never met the little black-and-white cat who will doubtless work her way into the current book somehow.

Invariably, when I'm on location like this, I'll stumble over some small place or thing that grabs my interest and becomes the basis for a scene that I would otherwise have never thought to write.

For instance, walking past these Georgian houses each day on my recent trip to Edinburgh created an entirely new subplot in my novel that will influence the ending in a way I hadn't planned.

And stopping overnight in Eyemouth, a setting I'd used years ago for The Shadowy Horses, gave me time for a walk on the middle pier, letting me test out a couple of sightlines, which ended up making me choose a new setting for one vital scene in the current book.

I used to think that my wanting to be on-site had more to do with my needing the sensory details: the smells and the sounds and the feel of things. But it goes deeper than that. It's a part of my process, the way that I work. I don't think I could write what I write without being there.

What about you? If you write, what's the key to your process? And if you're a reader, is setting important to you, or do you focus more on the story and characters?

Oh, and just because Brigid, in ending her Thursday post, brought up the subject of our little meeting in London last month, here's a photo that shows one more reason why I love my research trips.. :-) (And of course, Brigid, I'll never divulge just how much wine we actually drank!)

Come back Thursday for Julie's next post (if she's not being hit by a hurricane...)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cows: How Our Heroine was Inspired by a Rabid Herd of Cows

Photo is pose by model cows - no cows were hurt in the writing of this blog post

I believed Anna when she said there was only one field of cows to go through on our walk last Sunday near her house.  Cows have never particularly scared me in the past but recent reports of people having been trampled has made me a tad wary.

So I stepped out happily from that first bovine field believing that was that. The cows in that field were lovely. They kept their heads down and grazed and most importantly kept well away. The wind was blowing through the hedgerows and Anna and I were chatting and I was mulling over some writing stuff in my head. A lovely Sunday stroll. We climbed a stile and came across yet more cows. These were even more laid back than the first, didn’t even flick an ear to notice our passing. We crossed their field avoiding the bog and clattered over a tiny wooden bridge across a brook into the next field.

The footpath signs were a little misleading at this point, I think they pointed diagonally across the field. Not a problem if a massive herd of, yes you are right, cows were not in the way. Anna and I decided to skirt the field, keeping a small copse of hazel and blackthorn on one side of a barbed wire fence to our right sides. The edge of the field was muddy, it sucked at our boots but the cows nearest us were happy. I kept my eyes ahead and stumbled on.

And then SHE caught sight of us. Even from a distance we could read her eyes. She lifted her head, stamped her back feet and then raced off to tell her friends. Suddenly every cow in the field was watching us. Anna and I sped up as much as you could in the mud. Then Devil Cow started to bring her gang round us. We were almost at the corner of the field. We would climb the fence into that field and get away.

It was a great plan. A stupendous plan, even until we saw the large, inquisitive herd of cows in the other field coming at a fast lick to find out what the fuss was about.

Anna and I stood at the point where the two fields and the copse met. Devil Cow’s eyes gleamed with malice as she slunk closer, her gang of bovine bullies behind her. Reinforcements from over the fence moved in tandem with them. We had one escape route. We took it. Anna swung her leg over the barbed wire fence and using whatever handholds there were dropped into the copse.

I could almost feel hot breath on my neck as I scrambled for the fence. Denim caught on the wire. They were coming to get me. They knew I was a city dweller pretending to be a country type. Anna was giving me sensible suggestions for where I should be putting my hands. Somehow I still ended up with scratches. And then I was over. We turned to see Devil Cow giving us the evils as she realised her plan had been thwarted. About twenty cows stood looking at us. A Mexican Standoff. Or so they thought

Anna and I smiled at each other, we were safe, for now. But how did we get home? We were off the footpath and in a small copse. I could see Anna’s eyes light up. I almost expected her to produce a machete and hack us a path. Instead we ducked and dived, unhooked hair from blackthorns and eventually found our way back to the little wooden bridge. We sat, legs dangling swigging whisky from a hip flask eating chocolate. We had survived the Attack of the Rabid Cows.

Fortified we were retracing our steps back to another path and were halfway across the field full of nice cows when I let out a yelp. Anna turned quickly, I think I saw a flash of the machete; she said she reacted quickly because she thought we were under attack again.

I turned to her and said.

“I think I know how I’m going to re-write the beginning of my book. There are these cows…”

Come back on Sunday to hear what Susanna has been up to (and hopefully she won't spill the beans about how much wine we drank on her one night in London)