Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Marathon or a Sprint? by Beth Francis

Every marathon runner who completes the course will have a medal, only a few who complete a book will get published, but for both the finish line marks a great achievement to be celebrated with friends.

I spent my birthday cheering my daughter on as she ran her first marathon. After months of training she was ready, but as she set off with the other 10,000 plus runners I felt sick with apprehension for her.

Why a marathon? Why not another half marathon, or a 10k?

For the first ten miles her times showed she was running steadily, then nearing half way she slowed, the doubts set in, she knew, in spite of all the training, she could never reach the finish.

But her friends had come to support her, the route was lined with spectators encouraging the runners on. She kept going. Her pace picked up. She began to count the miles down. Then there was the finish line, the cheering of the crowds, the medal.

Waiting at the finish line, I was thinking about the novel I was about to start writing. 

Why a novel? Why not another pocket novel or a short story?

I know I’ll start off enthusiastically; the characters are already in my head clamouring for their story to be told. Words will flow freely; until I’ve written around ten chapters and doubts will crowd in. The plot is too thin, the characters unconvincing, others have already written this sort of story better than I ever could.

This is where I need friends who understand to support me, to encourage me to plod on, keep typing through the sticky patch. Once those middle chapters are written, the pace picks up. I begin to count the chapters down. Until I can type The End.

Time for celebrations!

My daughter said, 'Never again!' I said, 'Never again!' But if you run, you go on running. If you write, you keep on writing.

Next time I watch my daughter run a marathon, I hope to be well on my way to finishing another novel.

Beth Francis writes short stories and pocket novels, and has twice been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Award.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Northern Lights Writers' Conference 2017 by Sophie Claire

It's always difficult to report back on a conference because there's so much valuable information and advice to be gleaned from the speakers, and #NLWC2017 was no exception. The day's agenda was packed full with guest workshops and panel discussions with writers, agents and editors, as well as a keynote speech given by historical writer, Sarah Dunant.

Kicking off the day was a panel discussion on Genre Writing with Julie Crisp (agent & editor), John Jarrold (agent) and Cath Staincliffe (crime writer & scriptwriter). The discussion centred mostly around science ficiton, fantasy and crime (sadly, no romance/women's fiction), and I've listed below some of the nuggets of advice which came out of the discussion:

“Don’t write what’s current. Write what moves you.” (John Jarrold)

Be aware of the market but write what gets you in the gut.

Cath Staincliffe researched the crime genre after being told by an editor that the issues and themes in her sci-fi novel would lend themselves to crime. She read everything in the library’s crime section then put her own bent on the genre by setting her novels in her home town of Manchester, and featuring a single parent protagonist working as a private investigator (rather than the more commonly used detective or police professional).

“If it’s a good book it doesn’t matter what (genre) label is attached to it.” (Julie Crisp)

Readers are drawn to a writer’s voice.

What is the next big thing (in terms of genre)? – Nobody knows. Everyone’s hoping the Psychological Thriller will soon have run its course, but it still featured prominently at London Book Fair last week.


Later in the day Sarah Dunant gave an entertaining and thought-provoking keynote speech. Here are some of the highlights:

Sarah Dunant
Sarah considered the differences between literary fiction and all the other genres. Literary fiction’s first love is language. For Sarah, however, narrative drive is paramount. 
But this doesn’t mean she doesn’t love language too, and in her own work she uses the engine of the story to convey this as well as philosophical and political themes.

“Story is incredibly important.” It’s inbuilt in humans to tell stories. They help us make sense of life and our fears about the future.

Writing is hard, no matter how experienced or successful you are, and as a writer you need to constantly challenge yourself.
Sarah recounted how she had to pause from writing one book (60,000 words into it) and take a 5 month break because she felt it wasn’t working. However, the break gave her perspective and room to relax, and she was able to complete it later.

Sarah sometimes shows her critical voice out of the room (literally – she gets up, opens the door, ushers it out, then closes the door!) if she feels it’s not helping the writing process. Later, she allows it to re-enter, usually when she needs to analyse the shape or structure of the book.
Kate Feld with Sarah Dunant

Asked about plotting, she said; “If you plot too tightly there’s no room for the unexpected.”
Characters sometimes take over, but they can also lead you into dead ends. As a writer, you must strike a balance between the technical and imaginative, and know when to use which.

The Northern Lights Writers' Conference is held annually at the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale, Manchester and you can find more information here.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Teashops and Time Lords by Juliet Greenwood

Last week, I travelled to London for the launch of Trisha Ashley’s latest heart-warming, life-affirming novel, The Little Teashop of Lost and Found.

Trisha Ashley
I left a chilly North Wales, with snow on the mountains and a few daffodils braving the wind, to a London bathed in spring sunshine. The blossom was out in St James’ Park, along with banks of crocuses and daffodils, and tourists speaking every language on earth (so it seemed) were out in force, as gleeful as ever as actually being in London.

I used to live in London, and I'm always surprised that it’s still the same buzz whenever I go back. This visit was made particularly special by Trisha’s launch at the wonderful Daunt Books in Marylebone. I was there as the unofficial paparazzi, clutching my new, still unfamiliar, camera, wishing my old faithful hadn’t just decided to give up the ghost. We arrived at dusk, and there in the window, we could see rows of Trisha’s books, taking pride of place, the pretty cover glowing out into the darkness. Daunt’s itself was just what a bookshop should be, opening up into Edwardian splendour, with a long galleried main room complete with an arched window and books everywhere you looked. A bookworm’s dream.

Trisha Ashley, outside Daunt Books
The launch itself was fun and relaxed. The large space soon filled with Trisha’s friends and supporters, and representatives from her publishers, Transworld. There was even a Time Lord, in the form of Peter Davison, accompanying his wife, author Elizabeth Heery.

Peter Davison, Trisha Ashley, Elizabeth Heery
Trisha signed books with style, chatted to everyone, making the many people there feel welcome, and was presented with a bag of teashop-related goodies from Transworld to celebrate. Thank goodness my camera behaved itself (apart from having to switch it off a few times when it did something far too sophisticated for me to understand), and the lighting in Daunt’s was perfect. Everyone there was so relaxed and enjoying themselves my paparazzi duties were great fun.

Margaret James, Trisha Ashley

Trisha Ashley, Poppy Stimpson

Trisha Ashley, Norma Curtis, Minna Howard

Trisha Ashley, Francesca Best
So, as you can see, it was a wonderfully enjoyable evening, and the perfect way to celebrate the launch of a new book. A new bestseller has been well and truly launched. Here’s to the launch of the next book!

Anne Bennett, Trisha Ashley, Margaret James

The Little Teashop of Lost and Found
by Trisha Ashley

Alice Rose is a foundling, discovered on the Yorkshire moors above Haworth as a baby. Adopted but then later rejected again by a horrid step-mother, Alice struggles to find a place where she belongs. Only baking – the scent of cinnamon and citrus and the feel of butter and flour between her fingers – brings a comforting sense of home.

So it seems natural that when she finally decides to return to Haworth, Alice turns to baking again, taking over a run-down little teashop and working to set up an afternoon tea emporium.

Luckily she soon makes friends, including a Grecian god-like neighbour, who help her both set up home and try to solve the mystery of who she is. There are one or two last twists in the dark fairytale of Alice’s life to come . . . but can she find her happily ever after?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

How to Write a Perfect Hero, by Annie Burrows

You may recall that I've been taking questions from the Ideas Jar of late, and the most recent one I've received is this:

Following on from your post on point of view – how exactly do you approach characterisation between the genders?  i.e. male point of view and female.  How do you research the male psyche?

Well, I had to have a bit of a think about this question, because it immediately made me feel as if I ought to research the male psyche.

But after a bit, I decided to ‘fess up.  I don’t really hold to the prevalent view that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.  We are all from planet earth.  We all react to the trials and tribulations that life throws in our paths according to many factors apart from our gender.  Our personality, background, previous experience of similar situation, the state of our health, stress levels, or even whether we’re hungry or tired or just plain in a bad mood for some other reason.  And while I find articles like this one, that is supposed to highlight the difference between the way men and women think very amusing, I don’t believe it really does demonstrate basic differences between the sexes.

I don’t hold to the view that women, as a rule, would spend that much time dissecting their relationships – at least, not the kind of women I want to write about.

Nor would any hero of mine be so inattentive to the woman he is dating that he loses the thread of the conversation entirely.

When I write a hero, he will think, and behave, far better than that.  If he is going to be a swoon-worthy romantic hero, then he is going to have real goals, and a compelling motivation for thinking the way he does, for saying what he says, and for acting the way he does.  Because any heroine I write is most certainly not going to be feeble enough to fall for a man who is not worthy of her.

Having got that off my chest, I have to admit that when I write a story, I do tend to find it easier to imagine what my heroine is thinking and feeling, and often start by writing the romance almost entirely from her point of view.  And the hero I write for her has to be what she needs, specifically, rather than being a stereotypical hero in any way.

He also needs to have goals in which a modern reader can sympathise, and motivations that make sense.  He needs to be, first and foremost, a person.  A person that readers can relate to, and cheer for, and want to find a happy ever after.

Now that, actually, is where I do face having to make some tricky choices.  My hero needs to be the kind of man that will make a modern reader swoon, yet he also has to be a believable Regency male.  And because of the era in which he lived, he would have had a very different outlook in many ways, to a modern man.

Both he and his female counterpart would have known their place in the social hierarchy, which was much more rigid than ours today.  He might well have known what kind of life he would have lived, from his birth, particularly if he was born into the peerage.  He would have been closer to the land, more aware of the passing of the seasons, and familiar with handling animals.  He would have known how to ride horses and how to shoot pigeons, and would not have thought either pastime anything out of the ordinary.  He would have attended brutal bare-knuckle fights, and cock fights, but he would also have gone to church as a matter of course every Sunday, and been proud of being English (not British).  If he was from the upper classes he would have also had a working knowledge of Greek and Latin.  He would not have been ashamed of believing he was innately superior to women, (and most other men).  Nor would he have thought it unreasonable to pay a skilled man to spend his entire life taking care of his clothes, or spending a small fortune on getting a jacket that moulded to his shoulders, and breeches that outlined his fine, muscular legs.  He would also have consumed so much alcohol – since water wasn’t often fit to drink – that nowadays he might be deemed to have a bit of a problem!

And yet I still need to portray him as a person with whom modern day readers can empathise.

And so I draw a veil over the cock fights he attends, and don’t let the reader in on the fact that he probably consumes so much alcohol that he is slowly but surely pickling his liver.  Instead, I concentrate on his reaction to, and his treatment of, my heroine.

If ever he acts badly towards the heroine, the reader needs to see that his motives are not from sheer unpleasantness, but because he is damaged in some way by the blows life has dealt him.  And be able to believe that the heroine I write for him will be capable of bringing him healing, through the love he develops for her.  And that she bestows on him.

So, to sum up, when I write a hero, I want him to be believable as a character from his time period.

I want him to have the kind of character that a woman, from any time period, could find totally swoon-worthy.

And I also want him to be a perfect match for my heroine.

And it won’t hurt if he also looks like this!

Annie's next hero is Lord Ashenden, whose story will be told in "The Debutante's Daring Proposal" which is released in June, but is already available for pre-order through Amazon (and other retailers)

Monday, 13 February 2017

How Book Club Helped My Writing by Sophie Claire

Have you ever met a writer who doesn’t get excited talking about books? Anyone who knows me will know that it’s a subject I’m passionate about, and there’s nothing I like more than dissecting a story with friends, listening to their recommendations, and sharing my own. So it was a no-brainer to find a book club near me. I’ve been a member for 5 years, and each month we read and review a book which the library selects for us and supplies.

I love the thrill of receiving a book which I haven’t chosen, I look forward to our meetings and debates, and I’ve really enjoyed making new friends who share my passion for reading. But what I never expected was how much going to book club would benefit me as a writer.

Here’s what I've learned:

1. It encourages me to read more broadly:

Ok, that’s obvious, but no one has been more surprised than me at how much enjoyment this can bring! Granted, there have been books which I’ve gritted my teeth to get through, but by pushing myself out of my comfort zone I’ve discovered really talented authors whose books I never would have picked up if they hadn’t been on the reading group list.

It’s also clarified in my mind why I dislike certain genres, and why I adore women’s fiction and romance.
As a writer, broadening your literary horizons can only be a good thing.

I believe it keeps your writing fresh, and it’s pushed me to read more books each month as I try to fit in the book club book on top of my usual reading.

2. People rarely have the same reaction to a book:

There are usually around a dozen of us at each meeting, and I’m fascinated by how varied our reactions are to the same book. There’s usually one person who hated it, two or more who tried it and gave up within the first chapter, and at least three who loved it with a passion. It’s fascinating to hear all the different views and interpretations. And when we unanimously enjoy a book it’s a rare thing.
What does this teach me as a writer?

It’s impossible to please everyone all of the time, so write to please yourself. Write the story you want to read with characters you care about.

Which leads me onto the next point…

3. Characters are everything:

When we discuss a book we talk about the characters as if they’re real people. We judge them, we admire or pity or loathe them – we often respond to them in an emotional way. But if that emotional connection isn’t there, it follows that we don’t enjoy the book – or even stop reading. “I just didn’t connect with him/her…” is something I often hear at book club meetings.

As writers, we can get caught up in our fictional worlds and settings, and it’s easy to become tangled up in plot twists and complexities, but it’s worth remembering that what readers love is a character they can identify with or who intrigues them and they feel compelled to try and understand (Note: characters don’t have to be likeable, morally flawless or heroic to do this).

If you focus on your characters, they will drive the story and carry readers along with them, and exceptionally well-drawn characters will stay in readers’ minds long after they’ve forgotten the story.

4. It allows me to read the classics I missed:

There are so many books I feel I ought to have read or am curious to read, and of course I don't need to belong to a book club to do this. But discussing the classics at book club is more interesting than a solitary read because other people’s interpretations add to my own.
It’s also interesting to reread the classics I read as a teenager with an adult’s perspective. My reactions can be extremely different – but then, I’m a different person now.

Classics are the foundations of today’s writing, and it’s interesting to analyse them and understand why they've stood the test of time

5. I’ve learned to be patient and persevere with a slow start:

Despite all the pressure on writers to hook readers with the first line, there are a lot of books out there which haven’t immediately grabbed me (I know – this is so subjective). But what I’ve learned is that sometimes a story or its characters can grow on me. They may not start with a bang, but by midway through the story I’m totally invested in them. As a result, I’m more aware of the type of openings which hook me and those which don’t. In fact, the less effective the opening, the more obvious it is what doesn’t work for me.

Readers are the people we write for, and if you want to understand them, there’s no better place to learn than a book club.

Have you ever belonged to a book club? I’d love to hear about your experiences…


PS: My local library supplies book groups with free books each month. If you’re thinking of setting up a book group, it might be worth looking into this kind of service. The benefits for you are obvious (free books!) and you’ll also be supporting your local library. I've previously blogged about libraries here.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Getting it Done and Dusted by Cheryl Lang

I’ve finished my book, Lemongrass, a contemporary novel of approximately 85,000 words, set partly among the Greek Islands. I’ve read through and altered, deleted and added words and sentences I think might improve things. All this has been directly on the computer. Now I’m printing it out and going through it again. So why is it that reading the printed word throws up so many more anomalies?

I’m finding silly sentences like this: ‘The wind was stronger by the lighthouse and just offshore cormorants were drying their outspread wings on some rocks.’ It gave me a laugh, imagining the cormorants detaching their wings and putting them on the rocks to dry! There has to be some fun in the process. I have changed it now.

I also find that I have a bad habit of repeating a word, either in the same sentence or close by. The trouble is, I don’t always pick it up.

I’m also, hopefully, aware of continuity. It’s a bit disconcerting when you get halfway through the story and wonder if you’ve changed a character’s name or given too much information in one go.

Once I’ve been through the printed version, I’ll transfer it all to my kindle and read it on that for a different perspective. I hope to pick up any inconsistencies at this time and check the timeline is tenable. At this stage I hope to have a viable story.

And oh, the doubts! Is my male character strong enough? Likeable? Is the heroine's story interesting? Is the whole thing workable? Have I given enough background for the pair? Too much? Too little? Have I trickled it through the story and not as an information dump? It’s her story, told from her point of view, but should I make it dual points of view?

Doing the research is something I really enjoy. I'm drawn to exotic locations and love finding out facts relating to the area I want to write about. That usually leads me down further, diverse paths, but I have to be careful to only pick out details which are relevant to the novel I'm writing. There is so much information out there. I love it when I have a sudden question, like, where would I be able to dock a super yacht in the Mediterranean? Somewhere that has depth of water, sea room - a marina perhaps? Or a harbour big enough and with facilities. If I dig deep enough I usually find the answers I want.

Photos are particularly useful. When you’ve never visited a place and want to set a scene there, there are endless sources for photos and videos to help you out. However, travelling to a location is far better, as long as you make notes.

So, for my next novel, I’ll really need to visit Malaysia, or maybe, Vietnam or Mauritius! The list goes on.

Friday, 13 January 2017

How Running Helped My Writing by Sophie Claire

Remember the post I wrote here on filling up your creative well? Well, last summer I followed my own advice (no.2) and set myself the challenge to get fit. Why? I’d put on a bit of weight. Not much, but enough that my clothes didn’t fit any more and I didn’t feel good about myself.

‘You could eat less cake,’ my husband suggested. (Anyone who follows me on Instagram will understand what a dangerous suggestion that was!) 

How bleak would life be without cake? 

No, I decided, I would simply exercise more.

So I joined a gym.

One night I was telling my son how hard I found the treadmill – I could only run for two minutes before feeling like I was going to die. It was no surprise – I’ve had asthma since I was a teenager and I’ve never been able to run without struggling for breath. ‘You need to run slower,’ my son said, with the matter-of-fact wisdom of a fourteen year old who has asthma himself, but has always been a keen sportsman. ‘Imagine you’re setting off on a marathon and you’ve got to keep up that pace for several hours.’

I tried it.

I felt self-conscious running so slowly I was practically walking, but it worked. I ran for six minutes without stopping. It sounds like nothing, but I’d been trying and failing for weeks – for me, this was a breakthrough. I worried it might have been a one-off, so I tried it again and ran ten minutes, twenty, then forty! And the sense of achievement – to have done something I’d always found impossible – was enormous.

It wasn’t all plain sailing. One day I limped home dejected because I’d been so tired I’d had to walk most of the way. ‘Don’t worry,’ said my husband (who runs marathons); ‘We all have off days.’

Now I look forward to running (never thought I’d type those words!) It’s the fastest way I know to burn calories so it doesn’t cut into my writing time too much, and afterwards I’m positively glowing with pride. 

So how does that affect my writing?
  • Well, for starters, that sense of achievement has been good for my confidence. Most writers would agree that writing is a challenging occupation. It can be difficult to find time to write when you’re juggling a career or family commitments; there are days when inspiration doesn’t come readily and writing is a slog; it can be dispiriting to receive rejections from agents, publishers or readers in the form of bad reviews. But if you can crack one challenge, it sets a precedent in your mind. You’re less likely to accept defeat, more likely to think, ‘I can do this’. 

  • Just do it. This is the attitude I take to running: my focus is on getting it done rather than running fast or far. And most days I’m pleasantly surprised by the results. So it is with writing: whether I write anything good or not is frankly beyond my control so I simply make sure I show up and write something. Anything.

  • Good habits yield results. Like keeping fit, the habit of writing every day builds the writing muscle, and the cumulative effect is huge. Write 500 words every day and you’ll have a first draft (75,000 words) in 5 months.

  • Getting fit has helped me feel healthier and brighter. My concentration is better, I feel more positive and I know I’m more efficient because I get my work done faster.

  • And finally, running gives me thinking time. Some days my mind is immersed in my fictional world and I take the opportunity to mull over ideas or new scenes. Other days I switch off and simply observe the landscape around me, the changing seasons, the light, the sounds, people in the street and the little snapshots I get of their lives as I pass them. (You don’t need to run to enjoy this; a daily walk would bring all these benefits too).

 But, best of all? I get to still have my cake and eat it. 

What helps your writing? I’d love to hear about your experiences…


Thursday, 5 January 2017

New Year's Resolutions. Are they a good idea? By Annie Burrows

As the New Year bursts into life, I've been thinking about resolutions.  And challenges.

Last year I set myself two challenges - the first of which was a reading challenge.

I found it on Goodreads, in the Harlequin group, and it really intrigued me, as it was an A - Z one (and those of you who've been following my blogging endeavours know how much I like doing things in alphabetical order.)

The first reading challenge I signed up to was to find a female lead in a romance book for each letter of the alphabet.  And then, in a fit of enthusiasm, I signed up to a male lead, an author, and a title for each letter of the alphabet as well.

Through the course of doing this reading challenge, I learned two things.

First, if you want to really stand out on the bookshelves as an author, choose a pen name beginning with Q, U, or Z.  Because you will be almost unique.  I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find a romance written by somebody with those initials.  In the end, I remembered that Julia Quinn writes Regency romances, and bought "Dancing at Midnight", but then was still stumped for a U and a Z.

Another person doing the reading challenge suggested some Z’s, and I plumped for “Gnome on the Range” by Cindy Zane, an author I’d never heard of before, but who can resist a title like that?  And it really did feature garden gnomes, too, so it was a win/win situation.  And was a fun read.

That left me with only an author starting with U to find.  I wondered if my local library would be able to help.  But even the librarian with her computer couldn’t find anything in the romance section by anyone beginning with U.  In the end, I picked a thriller with a romance thread (though it turned out to be a lesbian one which came as a bit of a shock!)

Anyway, with the help of other readers doing the same challenges, the librarian, and a website called which lists books alphabetically by themes, I managed to complete three out of the four challenges.

Which brings me to the second thing I learned.  Which is about myself.

Even though I completed three out of the four challenges, I didn’t manage to find and read a male lead beginning with a Q, a U, or a Y.

So although my score over the year was 101 out of 104 completed, instead of feeling proud I’d got 97.1 percent (verified by my handy mathematician) I feel as if I’ve failed.  Because I’m a perfectionist.  I set high targets for myself.

Which probably explains my almost constant state of feeling disappointed with myself, and what I’ve managed to achieve.  Instead I think of all the things I haven’t done.  Should have done.  And constantly beat myself up about them.

So maybe my challenge this year should be to focus on achievements rather than failures.

My other “resolution” was to get my weight under control.  Since I reached a certain age, my weight had started to climb no matter how little I ate, and I realised I was going to have to confront the dreaded “e” word – exercise.

A friend of mine recommended a local zumba gold session, (which is a polite way of describing a class designed for the more mature citizen).  She promised me that the music would not be too loud, and that nobody there would be under the age of 40, nor superfit, nor dressed head to toe in designer sports wear.  So I tried it.  And didn’t hate it.  And managed to keep going for the whole year (apart from the weeks I was out of town on holiday)

And I did get my weight under control, getting right back to my pre-certain-age weight.

And now it’s January again, the time to make new resolutions.  And do you know what?  I can’t face taking on another reading challenge which will make me feel like a failure for only getting 97.1 percent.

Nor, to be honest, can I face going back to zumba.  Even though it worked, it wasn’t an activity I got any pleasure from.

So – what do you think?  Should I take on any challenges this year?
Or should my resolution be to maybe just accept myself as I am?

Annie's latest release, "Once Upon a Regency Christmas" which features a heroine who also believes she is far from perfect, can be found at Amazon and other etailers.