Friday, 9 December 2011

As I write, joyfully...common pitfalls in my writing

It's been a few weeks since my last post, because I met an agent at the RNA Winter Party who asked me to send her 'something' from my new novel. Consequently, I've been tidying up my first three chapters of my current novel and not writing new blogs. I'm not holding my breath, but it would be fantastic to get some kind of professional feedback.
Said three chapters now off in the post, I wanted to write something about adverbs and the use of 'as'.

I've mentioned it before, I'm notorious for putting in adverbs after 'she said', 'he said'. I think it probably comes from school, where I was taught never to use the word 'said', but rather 'whispered', 'shouted', 'announced'...everything that is condemned as bad writing when you reach adulthood. So, I now search through my writing for 'ly', and am finding that I'm increasingly getting better at avoiding them.

A new problem I've just learnt about is the use of 'as'. I use it a lot, and that is apparently a sign of an inept writer. *Sigh*

'As' should apparently not be used to mean 'when', 'while', 'because' or 'at the same time'.

I have used 'as' to mean all of these things. Hence, I shall add it to my list of things to avoid doing.

Monday, 14 November 2011

When the gab is not a gift

I'm currently in my favourite part of novel writing. It's the part where the story starts to work by itself, and new little tendrils of storyline sprout in unexpected directions when I'm in the shower, going to sleep, or out for a walk.

The words are pouring out, and my characters suddenly have a lot to say to each other. The problem is, I've just looked down at a page and realised that my characters have done nothing but talk for ages. Talk, talk, talk.

Ok, so there's the odd smile, the odd nod, the odd looking out of the window and thinking about stuff, but pretty much nothing is happening except the characters discussing things.

So how much talk is too much?

A quick google led me to this very useful blog, which led to a few others:

It seems I need to do the following:
- Get rid of any part of the conversation that is every day or commonplace (do you want a cup of tea? Why yes, thank you. Lovely weather, isn't it?)
- Use narration to connect scenes
- Add gestures, tones, thoughts to break up the dialogue, every three to five lines or so
- Use dialogue only for conflict, not for exposition. (I found this one tricky - you shouldn't use narration for exposition either, the old 'show don't tell' how do you get exposition across? I guess the answer is, you don't. You let the reader work it out. Sounds brilliant, in theory at least).

So, here I go. Out comes the red pen.

Friday, 11 November 2011

New writing business cards

I thought I'd invest in myself and get some business cards specifically for writing printed.

Well, today they arrived, and they're utterly gorgeous! I spent a little more than I should and got them printed with Moo, who always do a fabulous job. I chose a design that looks like little note books and they are oh, so lovely.

Now I just can't wait for the RNA Winter Party next Thursday, so I can distribute them to all and sundry.

Monday, 7 November 2011

A tenth of the way...

I've been writing my new book for the past few weeks, and it's finally starting to get somewhere. I've hit 10,000 words, which I'm telling myself is a tenth of the way. Nine-tenths to go, with the intention of finishing my first draft by 1 April 2012.

I'm taking a whole new approach to writing, and it's proving to be a worthwhile experience.

With my first two novels, I thought of a concept. For example, for my last novel I thought of the impact of a grandmother dying and leaving last wishes for her two granddaughters to broaden their horizons in very specific ways. Then, I pretty much started writing. The plot points came out as the story did, new characters emerged (sometimes unexpectedly), and even the endings were somewhat of a surprise to me.

With this novel, I'm trying to be much more strategic. An agent is only going to see the first three chapters, so I can't waste time getting the story started. I wrote a full synopsis, and then decided to start the story about a third of the way into my synopsis. With each chapter, I'm writing key points that the chapter needs to achieve. Once those points have been achieved, the chapter is over.

I think it's working, but only time - and eventually some feedback from others - will tell whether this book will go anywhere. Despite the strategic approach, this is a story I've long wanted to tell, and my heart is going into each (carefully constructed) sentence.

Monday, 17 October 2011

True love and inspiration

On Saturday night, the women of the Ciren Writers Group - joined most thrillingly and unexpectedly by the lovely Katie Fforde - headed out for a spot of dinner and the True Love session at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The session featured Jill Mansell, Adele Parks and Penny Vincenzi in a panel interview. Jill Mansell was the key attraction for me when I booked - I think she nails perfectly the funny end of women's fiction - but I'm now also keen to try some Adele Parks as she was simply charming on the stage.

The session was full of interesting anecdotes and pieces of advice from three very successful novelists. Rather than summarise the whole thing, I thought I'd just put down the bits that are sticking in my memory now...

Jill Mansell's hand-written manscripts are typed up by her daughter (formerly her mother), so there is no, um, you know, in her books. I'd never noticed so they clearly don't suffer from the lack of them.

For Adele Parks, true love is all about forgiveness for the daily little things. I couldn't agree more with this. Sometimes I'm utterly horrid to my husband and he's still here, being supportive and generally wonderful. Similarly, I stick around, even though he always leaves the makings of his after work snack on the kitchen bench...

Penny Vincenzi's suggestion for writing ensemble novels is to construct a list of names of the characters and place a tick next to them when they're mentioned. In this way, you can see when you're forgetting someone. I haven't tried an ensemble approach, but it seemed like a useful tip.

Thanks to these women and the encouragement of the writing group, I came home and spent my baby's nap time on Sunday working on my main character for my new novel.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Your voice - stick to it or branch out?

My writing group met last night, and one of the topics that came up was about voice and style, and whether you should follow the market or just do your own thing. It's an interesting question and one that continues to remain unanswered in my own head.

I have completed two books so far, both of which have been written in a light-hearted, funny, chick-lit style. So far, they remain unpublished. But, I've also written a lot of short stories, some of which have been closer to the literary end of things (I'd say the literary/commercial divide, rather than pure literary). Quite a few of these have been published. So what's my voice?

In my experience, it depends on my mood and what I'm writing. I find the light-hearted stuff easier to write. But, according to the current publishing industry, chick-lit is just not being bought at the moment. One of my writing group last night was saying that rising food costs have led to the Tesco book purchase being the first thing to be dumped from the weekly shop, which has had an impact on everyone. So, I'm currently trying to write something else.

I feel instinctively if I can find the right voice for this book, it will start flowing, but I'm currently still struggling. Is this because I'm trying to write in a voice that's not my own, or is it just because I'm still learning how to be a writer? I feel and hope that it's the latter.

And perhaps, if I find a new voice for myself, I might meet with greater success. After all, anything that's worth having rarely comes easily.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Writing stories for magazines

Over the past year or two, I've tried to hone my craft by completing short stories for the few magazines out there that still publish fiction.

At the outset, I had no idea what I was doing. Pulling together a few stories I'd already written, I sent them off to magazines that published fiction. Of the first nine, just one was accepted. I realised I had a lot to learn, bought some more magazines, did some online research, and started over.

Of the online information available, Womag ( is the unsurpassed Queen of How to Get your Short Story Published. Her blog has all the guidelines from the different magazines that publish fiction and she and her 450+ followers are involved in campaigns to keep the short story slot in magazines.

Thanks to Womag and my ever-patient husband who reads everything I write, I'm getting a much better hit rate. Every acceptance makes me feel like I've won the lottery. In the midst of agent rejections and the continued absence of a bidding war over my latest novel, seeing my name in print and receiving a few pounds for my efforts feels amazing. And, in the process, I've found that short stories are really helping me to learn how to manage my time, come up with new ideas, and adapt my voice.

Now, I read each magazine carefully, think of stories that might appeal to their demographic, and write specifically for that publication. The People's Friend, the Weekly News and Yours magazine have accepted my stories, and I feel like I now understand what they're looking for. Women's Weekly is still proving elusive, but I'm going to keep trying.

Wish me luck!

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Cirencester Writers' Group

I mentioned last October that, after the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was setting up my own Writers' Group. I thought I'd take some time to put down the two common pitfalls of writers groups - both of which I've tried to avoid in my own.

Pitfall one: amateur hour
Let's face it, nearly everyone has plans to write a novel at some point. We all fancy ourselves as expert graspers of the English language (is 'graspers' a word? Oh well) and believe that we have something to say that will thrill everyone else. However, most people with such a dream fall at the first hurdle, which is to put anything down in writing. A goodly number fall at the second hurdle, which is to put anything down in writing that is readable. Then, nearly all the rest fall at the third hurdle, which is to put anything down in writing that is publishable.

People who are going to fall at hurdles two or three are those who tend to attend writers' groups. I have, however, met a woman who wanted to join my group, despite telling me that she was an artist and had no plans to be a writer...she just liked 'creative people'. Oddball. Anyhoo, I wanted to find those people who were on the way to the finish line, rather than those who were never going to make it past hurdle two or three. After all, if I want to make it, I want advice and support from people who are likely to make it themselves.

So, when I asked people to join my writers' group, I specified that it must be for people who are serious about their writing. Only those who were intent on reaching that finish line of publication were invited.

Pitfall two: style wars
I want to write commercial fiction. I see no shame in this. Why on earth should I? Wouldn't all writers want their work to be read and appreciated widely? Well, no. Unfortunately not. Many writers (even published ones, but I've personally found many unpublished ones to be worse about this) think that the sign of good writing is that nine-tenths of the population have no idea what they're rabbiting on about. Not me. The last thing I wanted for my writers' group was a wannabe writer looking down their nose at the rest of us while we groped our way through their muddy prose, informing us that we didn't have the intellect to understand.

So, when I asked people to join my writers' group, I specified that it was for people who wanted to write commercial fiction. And, by commercial fiction, I meant anything that sells well.

The story so far...
So far, it's gone really well. I started off with fourteen names and email addresses at the Cheltenham Festival, and ended up with seven people turning up regularly.

Like all groups who gather, we tend to wander off into chat when the opportunity presents itself, but I feel like I've learnt so much from each of the people who've joined. We each share our work and invite comments, and I've found that I put time and effort into the feedback I give as well. One of our number has even secured an agent! (yes, I admit, I'm madly envious, but it just spurs me onwards!)

And, you never know, perhaps in a few years, a publisher or agent somewhere might wonder about how it came to be that so many new authors hail from around the Cirencester area...

Sunday, 10 July 2011

The RNA and the future

I've just returned from one day at the Romantic Novelists Association's (RNA) annual conference. With a three-month-old baby it was always going to be a struggle to get there, but I made it for the Saturday (thanks to a week of diligent pumping...tmi?...and a very supportive husband who willingly hung out in Caerleon with the baby, bringing her to me at lunch for her midday feed and juggling bottles and hot water for the interim ones).

It was well worth the effort. Not only did I get to rub shoulders with some impressive authors, agents and editors, but I also attended various workshops that helped get me back thinking about how to make my book 'the' one for publication.

Earlier this year, I submitted my novel (currently titled Sister Swap, previously More to Life, previously the Sisterly Conspiracy, previously the Golden Rule...can you tell I have trouble choosing titles?) to the RNA's New Writers Scheme. For the bargain price of £103, you get membership to the RNA and a full critique of your entire manuscript. Although the feedback is anonymous, you are guaranteed to be read by someone who knows what they're talking about. I received about four pages of written feedback plus comments all over my first three chapters. Excellent. I have been rewriting it in the odd minutes my baby sleeps but have since come to the conclusion that I need something more...

And that's a hook. A really good, grabbing hook that means any agent or editor who looks at my cover letter not only goes 'hmm...' but 'wow'. So far, I am sorry to say that this has not been the case.

I don't think there's anything terribly wrong with my book. I think it's quite funny, interesting and light. But it's not a first novel. Not yet, anyway. So, I have to decide whether to rehaul it (current options include shelving an entire character, and hence a third of the book) or starting over.

I have a lot to think about, but I'm determined to remain positive. After all, if I can come up with a good enough hook and a new book, perhaps Sister Swap can be my second novel...? :)