Monday, July 30, 2012

Reflective Moments

I loved that line Susanna shared in the previous post, didn’t you? It’s not just what it tells you about the heroine directly, but what’s implied by what’s not said, too. It has me rubbing my hands with glee about how she’ll use the things she has already learned… and how she’ll learn the things she has not yet been taught.

When I was thinking about writing this post yesterday, I thought I’d be talking about short stories I’m mulling over (and not writing. Hmmm. Please feel free to give me a kick up the butt for that one…) or further thoughts of the Conference. That all changed when I rummaged in the book heap (and I do mean heap, not pile, or stack, or anything so neat!) beside my bed and happened to pick up To The Hilt by Dick Francis.

Dick Francis was one of the authors (along with Desmond Bagley, Mary Stewart, Alistair MacLean and Georgette Heyer) I picked up when I became bored with Famous Five, there not being much in the way of Young Adult books when I was chewing my way through the stories of the world as a young bookworm. To The Hilt is one I’ve ready many times.

At one point, the hero is tortured for information. It’s information that won’t threaten anyone’s life. If he keeps it safe, it will benefit one of his enemies as much as his friends. He will gain nothing personally from keeping the information safe. More than that, he’s seen the corpse of the last man they tortured in this way. He decides, rationally, to give up the information.

But he doesn’t. He finds, at the sticking point, he can’t. So he suffers for it.

So far so usual. The hero, implacable, unbreakable, enduring.

But then the story delivers something you’re not expecting. With many of the external and internal plot lines still to be finally resolved, the hero, surviving the slow and painful healing process, quite deliberately goes out in the night to a place that’s special to him, and sits for hours thinking about what stopped him giving up the information. He has to face up to the fact that, to him, what stopped him was a character flaw, a weakness, not a strength. And it’s a weakness he’s going to have to reconcile himself to if he wants to go forward in his life.

Action –orientated reads don’t often deliver that kind of reflective moment in the last few chapters. Usually we aim to keep our readers on the edge of their seats, we want to rush them, breathless, to a satisfying conclusion. But somehow, that ‘still, small voice’ moment, that focus on the lessons that character had to learn, gives so much more emphasis to the action, and depth to the learning.

(I think Julie's stuck in the land of no-internet, so I thought I'd go ahead and post my contribution)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Moment You Know

Whenever I'm reading a book, there is sometimes a sentence that lets me know this is my kind of a story, a book I will love.

Occasionally ‒ very occasionally ‒ it will be the first sentence, the one that we're all taught as writers is the most important. More often than not, though, the sentence sneaks up on me, blindsides me while I am reading, and gives me that wonderful moment of knowing this novel will be something special.

A case in point: To reward myself for finishing The Firebird, I ordered a few out-of-print books by Dinah Dean (who wrote The Road to Kaluga, a favourite of mine). They arrived, and I happily sat down to start one: The Ice King, which starts with a very good first sentence, by which we're introduced to the young heroine, Tanya Kirova. The first page or so recounts Tanya's becoming an orphan and going to live with "The General", her great uncle, who had been an artilleryman and who set out to give her a broad education, shaped by his own interests.

"By the time she was eighteen, Tanya could calculate the charge and elevation necessary to fire a shell from a Unicorn howitzer on a given trajectory, or plan a route of march for an army from Brest-Litovsk to Barcelona, and could have found her way about the principal buildings of Moscow or St. Petersburg, if she ever managed to visit either city, which seemed unlikely as the General and his wife never travelled."

And that was the sentence, for me. I just knew, from that moment, that I'd love the book. And I did.

It's a random thing, really, and totally personal, but I still treasure the moment it happens. Do you have these moment of knowing, like I do? What tells you you're going to love a book?

(Sorry I'm late with this. Julie will be here on Thursday, with her next post).

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Dance Your Troubles Away

Belfagen Dancers
(photo courtesy of Liz Fenwick/dancers courtesy of Anna Louise Lucia)

I’m still in recovery from last weekend’s RNA Conference in Penrith. A weekend which has become my writing New Year’s Eve, a time and place for me to assess the last year and plan for the new. A place to learn as well as a place to talk too much, drink copious amounts and generally get up to mischief.

This year it hit me like a proper new year. With all the angst and fear and heartache that I suffer every 31st December. This last year has been full of ups and downs and beyond busy in a personal sense. I also realized (after being grumpy and various Heroine Addicts giving me great advice) that I haven’t been writing enough. Three hours of solid writing later and my mood was on the way back.

But what really got me in the new year spirit was something not directly connected with writing. The lovely Anna Louise Lucia is a morris dancer and asked her dance side to come and demonstrate to us on Sunday afternoon. They also taught us two dances. It was AMAZING! Everyone was grinning from ear to ear after we’d finished. All the cobwebs and problems were swept away as we tapped and twirled, dipped and swung.

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” Voltaire

“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking” Agnes De Mille

“It's the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.” Xiaolu Guo

“Life is sweet when you pay attention. When it doesn't seem sweet, put a sticker on your nose and do a funky dance.” Whitney Scott

Come back on Sunday to hear from Susanna (who we missed at the RNA)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Conference Love

I'm a day I write this the Newton Rigg campus in Penrith is nearly deserted and only a few romantic novelists remain, You can't hear the raucous laughter, the puns, the squeals of delight only the sounds of the birds...

I look forward to the conference every's my time. I can be among friends but very special ones - my writing ones...

Five of the Heroine Addicts were together. We missed Susanna but we know she was with us in spirit!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Taking Notes

It’s strange how our perceptions change with time.  I used to travel a lot with my family when I was in my teens and I was lucky enough to go to lots of interesting places.  We followed a sort of “wish list” of countries we wanted to go to – my dad and I chose historical sites like Greece and Egypt, while my mum and brother preferred safaris and beaches.  It was all great fun, but the trouble is that my memories of all these trips are very hazy.

Scribbling in Nagasaki
I remember snippets of course – standing among the ruins of the Acropolis, climbing up inside a pyramid bent double because of the lack of space, sleeping in a tent somewhere in a Kenyan safari park while elephants stampeded outside (!) and fainting inside the Karnak temple (it was 40 degrees Celsius in the shade and I was ill).  But I couldn’t possibly describe any of it in detail, more is the pity.

Not so when I travel these days.  Being a writer, I don’t go anywhere without a pen and paper, and my family frequently have to sit around waiting while I scribble furiously, trying to make notes about my surroundings - the sights, sounds and smells of whatever place we’re visiting.  I often wish I’d done that when I was younger!  But of course, I had no idea then that I would ever need specific details of the sights I saw.  I was happy just to have been there.

At the moment, I’m travelling again, driving towards Scotland, to be precise, for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s annual conference, which is just south of the border this year at Penrith.  (And see - I'm bringing my clogs, Anna, for the dancing!)  But as Scotland is so close, and I don’t go that way very often, I’m taking a slight detour to visit a friend near Dumfries.  And of course, I’ll be making notes along the way – perhaps stopping at Gretna Green?  I see every journey as an opportunity now, every place a possible setting for a future story.  You just never know and something I come across might trigger that all-important first flash of inspiration.  I love not knowing when it’s going to strike!

The best thing about travelling though – at least for me – is getting back home again afterwards.  By that time, I’m usually impatient to start writing again, having been away from it for a while.  And if I’m lucky, I’ll have brought home lots of new ideas as well – perfect!

Please come back on Sunday to hear from Liz (who is always travelling, right Liz?)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Baby Talk

I've been thinking about children's stories a lot lately (and the reason for that is Another Story, a very long one, for Another Time).

If you were starting from scratch, filling a bookcase for a little one, what books would you get them?

I can't remember many special truly young books in my childhood.  I had a freakishly high reading age, so I just about remember making the leap from Famous Five to Alistair MacLean.  Then there were the 'family' books, stories read together or read to us - Watership Down and the Narnia stories. 

I have fleeting memories of Ladybird books, though, strangely visual ones, so I can remember the exact shade of the golden ball the princess played with, before she lost it in the Frog Prince's pool.  I seem to remember Mister Men books - my favourite was Mr Tickle, I think.  But there was no Beatrix Potter in my childhood, and I don't think there was Winnie the Pooh, either (sacrilege!).

So building my imaginary children's library is a bit of a challenge.

What do you recommend?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

why vacuuming your house = getting a review

My house is for sale. I've never sold a house before. We've been in this one for over ten years now. It was our first proper house together as a married couple. I started my writing career in this house, typing my novels on the dining room table—that was when the dining room became an office. We brought our  son home from hospital when he was born—that was when the spare bedroom became a nursery. We've stripped carpets, painted walls, replaced boiler and windows, fixed roofing, laid turf, built a shed. We've talked, played music, eaten, entertained guests, slept, argued and made up, created life. My husband goes away for weeks on end for work and when he comes back, this is the home he's been missing.

But we need a bigger house. I need a proper office, not a dining room that's on the way to the kitchen, and I'm tired of eating all our meals on the coffee table because what used to be a dining room table is now a desk.

I am very slightly obsessive, and so whenever anyone is coming to view the house, I clean it from top to bottom. I'm doing this on average twice a week, so the house is cleaner than it's ever been, but I am also distracted from my writing and tired of wielding a vacuum cleaner.

The thing that I wasn't prepared for, though, was how personally I'd take it when someone comes to see the house, our home, our nicely-decorated and quirky and clean home, and decided they don't want to make an offer. Sometimes they give reasons, but it doesn't matter to me. Every single time I think, "What's wrong with you? Why don't you like MY HOUSE??"

This is, of course, ridiculous. Everyone has different tastes. Everyone is looking for a place that will suit them, which will become their home. Just because I've been happy here, doesn't mean it will automatically be good for someone else. I know this in my rational mind.

My husband has a different reaction. He says, "Hell, I don't want to sell my house to someone who  doesn't like it. If they don't like it, they have rubbish taste. End of."

What does this have to do with writing, you ask? Well, it struck me today that I have a similar unhealthy reaction to reviews. If I get a negative or merely lukewarm review, I should, rationally, think: "Oh well, the book didn't suit this reader. That doesn't mean it's no good."

Or, possibly, if my battered ego needs boosting, I should think (privately, of course): "Hell, I don't want people who don't like my books to buy them. If they don't like my books, they have rubbish taste. End of."

What does in fact happen, however, is that I take the review personally. Like my house, my book is something I've lavished with care and love. It's something I've lived in, for at least a year of my life. So my knee-jerk reaction is to be much more affected than I know I should be.

I know the answer to this problem because it is blindingly obvious: don't read reviews, or just get over it. Just like I possibly should not spend every waking moment of my life before a house viewing folding the tea towels or picking every last speck of dust off the bathroom floor.

(Come back on Sunday for Anna's post.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Illusion of Choice

funny dog pictures - Cyoot Puppy ob teh Day: So Many Puppies!!!
see more dog and puppy pictures

When I was twelve years old, my parents finally gave in to my years of constant pleading, and said I could have a puppy. Being an engineer's daughter, I immediately read up on the proper way to choose a strong and healthy puppy, beginning with how to pick the puppy up and examine it, looking for signs of disease, for the right sort of features and temperament, all of that. I was Prepared.

When we arrived at the breeder's, the strong, healthy puppies were running around, playing, wagging their tails while I studied them, trying to choose. And while all my attention was focused on that, one small puppy detached herself quietly from all the rest, ventured over and sat down and looked at us.

She was the runt. She was small, and unsociable, not bouncing round with her brothers and sisters. Her jaw was not properly aligned, so her bottom teeth stuck out in an underbite. She didn't meet any of the guidelines I'd just read about. But when I saw her, I knew she was Mine. (Well, all right, Ours. My mother did most of the training and feeding and work). And for 16 years that little poodle was part of our family.

Did she choose us, or did we choose her?

And more importantly, why, on a blog about writers and writing, am I going on about puppies?

Well, being an engineer's daughter, I don't reach the end of one book without having a well-formed idea of what I'll be writing next. I knew, when I finished The Firebird, what book was meant to come afterwards. I'd even started the research, and made a new ring binder for it, and looked into travel plans. I was Prepared.

But while all my attention was focused on that, a new story idea came quietly out of my subconsious and sat there, the characters forming and taking shape, "looking" at me in a way that I recognized. It's not perfectly formed, and it carries some challenges, but when I saw it, I knew it was what I was meant to be writing, and so did my editors.

Sometimes it isn't a choice, what I write. Or at least, it's not my choice. The book chooses me.

Has this happened in your life, with novels (or puppies?)

(Come back and read Julie's post, Thursday)