Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cakes and Novels

I've been making cakes all week for the street party we're having in our neighbourhood for the royal wedding tomorrow. I've also been working on my next book; I'm about 20,000 words in. Baking is a nice break from writing; it's satisfying and creative and of course you have a cake at the end of it. So I've been thinking about the ways that the two activities are similar, and different.

Why Baking A Cake Is Like Writing A Novel

  • It's quite a precise process. You have to concentrate. If you mess up or forget an ingredient or make an unwise substitution, the whole thing can turn out to be a sticky horrible mess, or possibly make someone vomit.
  • It's creative. After you've finished and it comes out well, you feel an enormous sense of pride.
  • A cake and a novel aren't quite complete until someone else enjoys them.
  • At some point, magic happens. A wet, shapeless batter rises, takes form, and becomes something wonderful.
  • You should always wait for a cake and a novel to cool down before you ice/revise them.
  • While you're baking or writing, your house will most likely be a complete mess.
  • They both require lots of butter. What? You say you don't need butter to write a novel? Have I been doing it wrong all these years? I mean, no, of course not. You don't need butter to write a novel. How silly of me. *hides butter under desk*

Why Baking A Cake Is Not Like Writing A Novel

  • If you muck up your novel, you can go back and fix it afterwards. With cakes, you're sort of stuck with the horrible sticky mess, unless you're good at emergency buttercream fixes.
  • Baking a cake, you have to follow a recipe, or at least a basic process, quite strictly because there's a science to it. You can improvise, but if you leave out the baking powder, you're in trouble. With writing a novel, every once in a while, you can break the rules.
  • You can bake a cake with a hangover.
  • You can let your children help you bake a cake, whereas if you let them help you write your novel, it will consist entirely of explosions, aliens and princesses in tiaras.
  • A cake tastes good at almost every stage of its process. But you wouldn't want to lick the bowl of the first draft of my novels. They are really, really crap before they're finished.
  • Novels have a lot fewer calories than cakes. In theory. I've never eaten a novel, so I'm not 100% sure (though I do seem to consume a lot of chocolate while I'm writing one). But cakes and novels are both very nice with a cup of tea.

Any other ideas?

(Come back on Sunday to hear from Anna, who has A Fine Appreciation of Cakes.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Damaged Heroes

On Friday I was chatting on twitter with Marg in Australia about one of my fictional men—Gareth in Named of the Dragon—for whom I've always had a "thing", and Marg agreed he was attractive. "Broody, damaged type," she said, and meant that in a good sense. Later on that night, in that serendipitous way that sometimes happens, I went to see the new film adaptation of Jane Eyre (starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, above) whose hero, Mr Rochester, could be the dictionary definition of the "broody, damaged type". And reader, I adored him.

Loved the film so much I went back for a second time today, to see it over. And with Rochester AND Gareth sitting brooding in my mind, now, I've been thinking about why I find some damaged heroes so attractive.

Notice I say "some", not "all", because with my apologies to Brontë-lovers everywhere, I have to tell you Heathcliff's not my type. I mean, there's damaged, and there's Damaged, and some brooders have gone so far to the dark side that the only thing to do, in my opinion, when you meet them is to run.

No, damaged heroes only work for me if they are of a certain type, like Rochester, or Mary Stewart's Raoul in Nine Coaches Waiting, or the Captain in The Sound of Music, men who aren't psychotic but are cut off in their way from life, grown cynical and disillusioned. Men who have the strength of mind and character to function well, to hold their own, but who inside are heartbreakingly lonely.

It all goes back for me, I think, to my love of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in childhood, with the kind and generous beast who needs the girl to save him. Only her love, freely given, can restore him to his true self.

In a way, that's true of all my favourite damaged heroes, only in the stories that I love the best the woman's not the rescuer so much as she's a catalyst, an independent equal who brings meaning back into the hero's life and gives him someone else besides himself to care about, and want to be a better man for.

Rochester, in the book, calls himself "Heart-weary and soul-withered", and says of being around someone like Jane that "such society revives, regenerates; you feel better days come back—higher wishes, purer feelings; you desire to recommence your life, and to spend what remains to you of days in a way more worthy..."

And I find it rather interesting that in each story—Beauty and the Beast, Jane Eyre, The Sound of Music, and Nine Coaches Waiting—the heroine not only leaves, but runs away...returning later of her own free will to give the hero what he needs to become truly whole again: her love.

Of course, in my own damaged hero book, the heroine stayed put after she'd left until the hero came to her, but that's just me. And if I ever meet a real-life Heathcliff I'll be getting that restraining order...

What are your thoughts on the damaged hero?

(Don't forget to come back Thursday, to read Julie's next post)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid

via YAY! Everyday website

One of the cardinal rules of writing is of course KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. I have a key scene in a library in my book. It is pivotal. The heroine meets the baddy for the first time and also starts discover strange powers and the power of the Stone. So pretty much THE SCENE!

Personally I thought it was a brilliant bit of writing. Some incredibly descriptive bits that are my darlings of the whole book (kill them, you say? Never!) Keeping this in mind I sent draft 2 of the book to Julie Cohen to read. Of course she was going to tell me it was the most amazing piece of fiction she had ever read and how I should send it out to agents ASAP! I am also delusional and given to grand dreams if you didn’t already know. She called me back once she’s read it and I came to earth with a bump. She gave fabulous feedback all of which I agreed with one exception. I had too much going on in the library scene and I should probably simplify it.

Ha! Simplify it? Hadn’t she read it? Didn’t she realise the blazing importance of the scene? Everything in there HAD TO BE THERE! I conceded that I could clarify it better and deepen the conflict. But simplify! Was she CRAZY? I did a quick re-write and sent it back to her, settling back with a smug grin waiting for her to come to her senses. It came winging back saying that it was still too complicated and she really wasn’t sure what was going on.

The woman was OBVIOUSLY STUPID! I mean really… it was all there in black and white! Was she BLIND? I obviously replied in softer terms than that and she should realise a, b and c because it was all there in the scene.. Well that isn’t what came across she replied. Honestly… some people.

Determined to prove her wrong I threw myself into Draft 3 of the book and soon stumbled into the library scene again. I rolled up my sleeves. I’d show her!

At the end of that weekend I was floundering. The deeper I dug the emotion the more complicated the scene became. I had bodies being taken over supernaturally, I had people being mind controlled… all by different entities. But still EVERYTHING had to be in that scene, I knew best because it was MY story and I could make it work.

The next weekend I went back to the same scene, digging deeper and realising how much better my writing was becoming from having to do this. Maybe Julie could have had some point about this whole revising thing but I wasn’t simplifying. Have I mentioned I can be a tad stubborn?

I finished the scene but it left me with a bitter aftertaste… I knew it wasn’t quite right. So I left it and my book for about a month and when I picked it up again I decided I wouldn’t worry about that scene just yet. However like a scab I couldn’t help picking at it and I rewrote it again.

By this time the scene was about three times the length of the original scene and me and the heroine were heartily sick of it. I had left her pinned to the floor of the library by a supernatural force for much longer that she expected and it was making her cranky. But I wasn’t going to be beaten! And about two weeks ago I got my heroine out of the library. YES! In your face, Julie Cohen, the scene was done! To celebrate I took myself off to the cinema to see ‘Source Code’. Halfway through the movie I had this feeling of dread trickle down my spine. Good storytelling needs clarity in each scene, a need to keep it simple (Source Code does this well, I think).

And as I watched Jake Gyllenhall blown up for the fourth time I realised Julie was bloody right. The scene WAS too complicated. I needed to have either a body snatcher or a mind controller but not both in the same scene.

I dragged myself back home and opened the book again. My heroine screaming in my head to not make her go into the library! Not again! I made notes of what needed to be cut and slowly moved on with the rest of the book. The scene is still there though, fat and bloated and bloody complicated all because I failed to follow Julie’s advice:

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid!


Sunday, April 17, 2011


Over on my blog I wrote about feeling restless and several writer friends explained that this was perfectly normal. The lovely Marika Cobbald called it ‘post success stress disorder.” After years of working hard to write books and wanting to sell them, it all happened rather quickly. I signed with my wonderful agent on Valentine’s Day and on St Patrick’s Day I knew that the Dutch wanted A Cornish House. Last week while away on holiday in the Maldives, I knew there were several German publishers in an auction for it and then I heard that Orion wanted me for a two book deal. Suddenly I felt like I had been upgraded from my normal old me to a new me. It was a bit like going from a Fiesta to a Ferrari and instead of bumbling along I was doing zero to sixty in seconds not years or even months.

I have developed a normal rhythm to my writing life. I write one new book a year; normally in the autumn after I submitting to the RNAs New Writers’ Scheme and the rest of the time I’m revisiting and rewriting books that haven’t made the grade. A sort of forward/backward dance while working around the kids, the husband the cats and the flights…

Now I find myself waiting to hear from my editor on changes she would like and oh…the second book looms. I wondered if she would want one that I’ve written already or something completely new??? Should I work perfecting the old? Write fresh synopsises??? Maybe take up a new hobby like putting my head in the sand?

I couldn’t settle…I should be knee deep in revisions in my normal yearly schedule…but I didn’t know what to revise.  I couldn’t focus on anything. This was not good. I was not happy. I like my schedule. I like working – weird I know. Then I decided to start something new…I picked up my Cornish legends book and read until that spark hit…my mood lifted and oh that magic of a new book began.

So restlessness has gone and a new notebook is being filled…characters are forming, research lists growing, devious twists are being debated and a silly grin has returned to my face. Some days I just love being a writer…

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Collective Buzz

Like Anna, I usually spend days thinking about my next blog post and polishing it to within an inch of its life, but this week I just haven’t had time. There were two reasons for this, both of them (as it turned out) very enjoyable.

Last Saturday I had my first ever book signing in a book shop, which was very exciting, but also scary. ‘Captain Paranoia’ inside my head kept saying things like “what if no one turns up?” or “what if no one wants to buy your books?” or even “what if they book shop manager has forgotten you’re coming?”. All potentially embarrassing situations. Why do our brains do that to us? It’s cruel and, as I should have known, totally unnecessary.

The book shop was small and not an awful lot of people turned up, but those who did were great and a few even bought my books :). I was doing the signing together with a fellow author, so I wasn’t on my own, looking like Billy-No-Mates. Best of all, the manager was brilliant and enthusiastic and I had a great time chatting to people. It didn’t really matter whether I sold anything or not, it was just good fun being out there, talking to potential readers face to face. Now I can’t wait to do it again!

The second reason why I’m winging it today is that I’ve spent the last three days helping out at the London Book Fair. It was my first time, so I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be really interesting and again, huge fun! I got to talk to so many different people and it was fascinating just to watch everyone going by the stand. I heard there were something like 23,000 people attending over the three days – it’s unbelievable how many people are involved in the publishing industry in one way or another!

The greatest thing about it though was the buzz, a sort of collective love of books that was almost tangible. Everyone there was at least interested in books, if not absolute book lovers passionate about the written word, and you could feel it in the air. The smell of newly printed books, the murmur of voices as deals were made, translation rights sold, and new collaborations agreed. I was soaking it up and came home fired up, wanting to write so I can keep on being a part of it all. It was amazing!

When I thought about it afterwards, it was a bit like when you attend a conference or any gathering of authors and readers. It’s that same communal spirit, because we’re all in it together and we’re bonded by our love of writing (and in our case, romance). Everyone else’s enthusiasm spurs you on and makes you want to go home and write even better books.

So that’s what I’m going to try and do now – is that how you all feel too?

Please come back on Sunday to read what Liz has to say – I think she’s had an even more exciting couple of weeks than I have :)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Just a Perfect Day

Usually, when I blog, I've thought about it for a while beforehand. Then I've drafted it, then I've spent several hours wrestling blogger and cursing photos.

No photos today, no premeditation. I'm in a mellow, thoughtful mood, sitting in my dressing gown with the sun slanting in through the window beside me, and the doves cooing outside. Occasionally, dust on the laptop screen makes me think I've punctuated a sentence when I haven't...

I'm home at the moment recuperating from a not-quite-minor-not-quite-major-operation. (No, it's nothing serious, and yes, I'm fine - really!) I've been home a while, and I'll be home until the 20th this month. This tends to make one rather... introspective. I've been thinking a lot. And I've been wrestling with what I ought to do, what I ought not to do... Then, one day this week, I had a Perfect Day.

The sun was shining. I got out into the garden and did a little light gardening, transforming a weedy patch of plants that didn't survive this last unusually severe winter into a patch of fertile, open ground ready to receive new plants. I sat and read a book for an hour or so. I had a good, healthy lunch. I went for a (short) walk. I sat down and wrote for a couple of hours, 1,000 new words and plenty of edits and ideas. I spent time with Husband and the cats. I cooked. I cleaned. I responded to e-mails and tweets.

And when I went to bed (not too early, not too late) I felt like I'd both achieved things and looked after myself.

So, my Perfect Day needs to contain time outside, gentle exercise, good, healthy food, writing and contact with friends and family. What about yours?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Empty Time

I'm starting a new book, and it's going very slowly. For one thing, I don't really know what it's about yet. Well, that is, I do know what it's about—I have the heroine and the hero, and I've got the premise, and that's all written down in a blurb which I've given my agent and which she's approved. And I know that the theme of the book is knowing yourself and being accepted, about realising that even good people make mistakes, and more specifically it's about a woman who is trying to make up for something she did wrong many years ago.

So I know the big things. But I don't know the little things. I haven't got snatches of dialogue, or a picture in my head of the heroine's home. I don't know most of the characters' names and I'm not really sure what's going to happen on a page-by-page basis.

Discovering these things takes time. I discovered yesterday, for example, that my heroine keeps stashes of chocolate in her house in case her friends come round with a crisis. But that secretly, she comfort-eats it herself when she's alone. The details of her life, and her friends' lives, will emerge as I get the story down into real words, rather than big ideas.

But discovering these things takes more than just writing the real words. It takes lots of staring into space. Walks, and baths, and those five minutes lying in bed while the house is quiet. Empty time. Unfortunately, I've also got a new paperback out which means that every free minute is taken up with promotion, or also obsessively checking Amazon to see if it's selling. My husband isn't working, which is nice because I like seeing him, but is difficult because he assumes that unless I'm typing, I'm free for a conversation about guitars and/or whether we have any cheese. My son's funded nursery hours are stopped for Easter, which is also nice because we get more time together, but I have absolutely zero chance of thinking about anything but him (and Top Gear, and Lego) when he's around.

So I have been cranky. Craving empty time. And not able to appreciate the full time I do have.

Fortunately, next week is my birthday. And as my present, we are going to the seaside for a week. For five days, we'll all be together and I won't be working; it will be pure, guilt-free, family holiday time. And then, on the day after my birthday, my husband and son will go back home and leave me in the cottage on my own, for two days.

Five whole days of full time. And two whole days of empty time.

I can't wait.

How do you snatch your empty, thinking time?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why a Book is Like a Suitcase

Well, they're both rectangular prisms, I suppose, but it goes deeper than that. I've been packing today for my trip to Los Angeles, and in the course of my folding and rolling and stuffing I realized my books — or at least my first drafts — are like suitcases, really.

Some of the things I'll put in, I won't need. And some of the things that I'll need, I'll forget to put in.

In all my years of travelling (and writing) I have never yet perfected this. I've tried, believe me. I've refined my packing technique so I can usually fit what I need in one carry-on, but even then there will always be one shirt or one pair of pants that I could have left home, just as in every first draft I've written there's always been one scene (at least) simply taking up space.

Which is nothing, of course, when compared to the bother of getting to the end of the first draft and realizing I need to add a whole new scene or subplot (the equivalent of having left my hairdryer at home, instead of packing it).

In my latest book, The Rose Garden, I wrote a lovely scene in which my heroine and one of the past characters sat talking on a hillside on a quiet Sunday morning, and another scene in which she met two ramblers on the coast path. Good scenes, both of them, but totally unnecessary to the plot, and so although I packed them into that first suitcase they were never used.

On the other hand, I found I had forgotten to put something in the middle of the story that was necessary, so I had to add it in.

It seems no matter how I try to learn from past experience, this always happens. Even though I've laid my clothes out carefully and taken half away, the way I've learned to do, I know there will be something that will languish in the suitcase all this week and not get worn. And in my current work-in-progress I know I'm creating scenes that won't be in the final draft.

Maybe one day I'll be able to spot them straight off, and save time. Anybody out there have some tips to offer?

(Come back Thursday, when the lovely Julie will be posting.)