graphing paper with text
Blog, Writing

Resolutions—Broken, or Kept?

We’re now seven weeks into 2022, so the New Year isn’t so new any more. I don’t know about you, but my resolutions are already pretty dog-eared. “I will stop snacking between tea and bed” was the first one to go, closely followed by Tech Sabbath.

sweet macaroons and pink carnations placed on table
Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

My willpower is non-existent when it comes to dipping into the biscuit tin before bedtime. The obvious answer is not to make or buy cake and biscuits. The problem is, I keep telling myself it’s not fair to deprive the rest of the family when I’m the only one with no willpower.

I have a great set of dog-walking waterproofs which fitted perfectly before lockdown, but I can now barely fasten them up. That is a powerful incentive to sit on my hands each evening, but will it be enough? I’ve decided to definitely give up snacking for Lent so pancakes on Shrove Tuesday (1st March) will be my last foodie treat until Easter. I hope…

For better or worse I get my news from the BBC World Service, or Radio Four. I don’t need to trawl the internet. But then, there’s always some cute cat video, or “celebrity” gossip popping up online that the BBC is far too sensible to cover. That’s why a Tech Sabbath (switching off my computer at 5pm one day per week and not switching it back on again for twenty-four hours) is very hard for me to achieve. I really need to know about all the local houses for sale, even if I’ve got no intention of ever leaving Tottering Towers!

One resolution I have managed to keep is to write every day. My target is a thousand words, and so far I’ve managed to complete several short stories already this year. I’ve also tried writing Flash Fiction for the first time. I’ve been helped to achieve all this by the methods set out in The Organised Writer by Antony Johnston. You can find out more about that book here.

If you’ve signed up for the Romantic Novelists’ Association‘s New Writers’ Scheme this year, you’ll know the deadline is 31st July. It makes life a lot easier for Janet Gover, the scheme’s co-ordinator, if you don’t leave it to the last minute to submit your manuscript.

open white notebook near pencil and eyeglasses beside laptop computer on white surface
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com

As a Reader for the New Writers’ Scheme, I’m keen that everyone’s entries are submitted in plenty of time. It’s lovely to read new stories and discover fresh voices, so please try and have your work ready for submission long before the end of July. You’ll need to spend plenty of time editing to make sure your work is as good as it can be, so the polishing process should start in early summer.

The minimum word count needed for the New Writers’ Scheme is 10,000 words. That may seem a lot, but if you were to start with a blank page this morning and write only a hundred words per day for the next fifteen weeks, you’d have a first draft of at least 10,500 words by 4th June. Then you could spend a whole month editing your work, and STILL make Janet smile by getting your entry in well before the closing date!

Francis Close Hall,
University of Gloucestershire

When I started university as a very mature student (you can read about that here) my daughter gave me an invaluable tip about deadlines: make a diary note well in advance. Try and get everything done by that date. Then you’ll never get caught out. If your work is finished early, great. If you hit a snag, you’ll still have plenty of time to put it right.

If you want some motivation, I’ve got some advice for kick-starting your next writing project here.

woman in white long sleeved shirt holding a pen writing on a paper
Blog, Writing

Writing Romance —How To ACE It

I began my writing career by producing photographs and non-fiction articles for national magazines such as The Lady, and the Royal Horticultural Society’s The Garden. Then I was seduced by romance, and started working in the genre. Twenty-one novels later I’ve sold nearly three million books, which have been translated into lots of different languages. On the right you can see the cover of the recently-released Manga version of my Harlequin Modern Romance, Weight of the Crown.

For the past few years I’ve been acting as a reader for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme. Members of the Romantic Novelists’ Association who are unpublished submit their work to be assessed by professional authors like me. Graduates of the scheme include a fellow member of the RNA’s Marcher Chapter, the lovely Jan Baynham. As an unpublished author, Jan submitted her novel Her Mother’s Secret to the NWS. It went on to be published, and Jan’s career took off.

You can find out more about joining the Romantic Novelists’ Association here.

If you want to write romance, start by reading everything in the genre that appeals to you. Once you’ve got a feeling for the type of stories you like best, three letters will help you craft your own romantic novel. They are A.C.E:

Audience and Atmosphere

Characters and Conflict

Expectation and Experience

A is for Audience. Always keep your reader in mind. Reading romance is an escape, so whether your story is historical, contemporary, conventional, or alternative, give your audience what they are looking for — a story with plenty of Atmosphere. The swish of skirts and glitter of candlelight against silverware sets the scene for an historical novel. Sun, sand, and champagne sipped on a yacht supplies the glamour every contemporary romance needs.

C is for Characters. Focus on quality, rather than quantity. When it comes to romance, the fewer speaking parts, the better. Bring in other people only to enhance the reader’s understanding of your principal characters, or to deepen the Conflict between them. In this instance, the word conflict refers to the dramatic tension between how a character feels and the public face they adopt. For example, Pride and Prejudice has a whole raft of characters, but each plays a vital role in exposing the real Elizabeth and Darcy. Those two central characters are confined within the rigid class structure of their era, while their strong emotions create the inner turmoils which drive the plot.

a couple in white dress standing in view of the mountain
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

E is for Expectation, which brings us back to your audience. Anyone choosing a romance to read is looking for a central character they can relate to, who is swept off their feet by their idea of a perfect lover. There’s no satisfaction for your reader if the path of fictional true love runs smoothly, so make it a roller coaster of Emotion (another E!) and Experiences. Let your central characters be faced with situations that test them in the same way your readers are tested in their own lives. Readers love to follow the journeys of heroes and heroines as they come to terms with hardship, pain, separation, and every other kind of disaster before finding their Happy Ever After.

Love conquers all is a cliché, but it’s perfect in this situation as it describes what readers like to read about. Your job as a writer is to give them what they want.

Next time I’ll be talking about how you can avoid the three common mistakes that get a manuscript rejected without being read. Subscribe to my blog by using the button above, so you don’t miss out!

people toasting wine glasses
Advent, Blog, Writing

A Present, An Award, and Publication…

Guess what—Christina Hollis isn’t my real name!

I’ve had quite a week, so I’m hoping to spend this weekend recovering with a good book!

Monday was the day I’d been both looking forward to, and dreading. I graduated with an MA (distinction) in Creative and Critical Writing in October 2020 but the graduation ceremony was cancelled due to Covid. We finally got our chance to get togged up and go on parade at The Centaur auditorium in Cheltenham Racecourse this week, along with all the the 2021 graduands.

My social anxiety was in overdrive while driving to the venue, getting robed, photographed, and making that long walk across the stage to bow (no handshakes, thanks to Covid) to the University of Gloucestershire’s Pro-Chancellor Sir Henry Elwes. Thank goodness I was in the good company of my fellow MA students, Rosie, Carole, and Hayley. Congratulations again, girls!

On Tuesday, Alex disturbed a wild boar when we were out on a walk. It must have been asleep in the bracken brash which covers the woodland surrounding our house. It jumped up and huffed at him furiously. I would have done the same if Alex’s cold wet nose had woken me up when I was fast asleep! Alex bounced straight back onto the track unhurt, but he was careful to hide behind us while barking furiously at the retreating boar.

The People’s Friend, Edition No. 7905

On Wednesday, my story Raining Cats and Dogs appeared in The People’s Friend. Although it’s completely fictional, the setting is based on my daughter’s tiny home in Tewkesbury. She took me with her when she first went to view it. I fell in love with the place the moment we went up the (high) front steps and over the (raised) threshold. It’s a beautiful little house, built hundreds of years ago as “infill” by some mediaeval entrepreneur to unite two rows of traditional black and white cottages. Despite being on the river bank it has never flooded—although all the properties keep special flood gates at the ready!

Ever since I got my results in October 2020 I’ve been dithering about whether or not to do a PhD. There are lots of reasons why I should (personal satisfaction, increasing human knowledge, getting to wear am even fancier cap and gown on qualifying, etc)…and lots of reasons why I shouldn’t (cost, time, effort etc).

On Thursday, all that dithering had to stop. My husband announced that he’d told his work colleagues he was looking forward to taking a back seat at office parties when we’re introduced as “Dr and Mr Hollis”. He’s hoping that curiosity will divert attention away from him, for a change!

DD, Looking Great On My Big Day

Friday brought a welcome message from Lucy, my lovely editor at The People’s Friend magazine. She told me that I’d had another story accepted for publication. This one has the working title The Self-Help Switch. I don’t know when it will appear—probably some time in the New Year—and the title is almost certain to change. I’ll let you know when I have more details.

The Forest of Dean is supposed to catch the edge of Storm Arwen over the weekend, but this week has already given me enough excitement, thank you very much! I’m planning to spend my time curled up in front of the fire with the workbook my sister gave me as a graduation present. It’s The Writers’ Advent by Portland Jones, which gives a prompt for every day leading up to December 25th. The first one supplies the opening of a detective story, and challenges you to supply the next 200 words or so. The book’s subsequent prompts cover all kinds of genres, one for each day, with suggestions for blog posts, limericks, horror stories, and more. I’ve never used a prompt book before, and can’t wait to get started.

Have you used a book like The Writers’ Advent? Did it persuade you to try a new writing journey?

Blog, Writing

Spring Has Sprung…

…and I’m finding it VERY hard to settle down to any writing work. April here in Gloucestershire was dry, bitterly cold, but mostly sunny. Although I’m working on a new book (you can find out more about that here and here), at this time the natural world has a powerful pull.

If these flowers poking through the fencing turn into cherries, deer as well as birds will be having a feast! Photo: ©Christina Hollis

Wild cherries in the wood are hung with snow, as A.E.Housman put it, and here in the orchard the Morello cherry is an absolute picture. It’s about twenty feet high and almost as wide, and when I took this photograph it was humming with all kinds of bees and other insects.

It produces tonnes of fruit each year, but we’re lucky if we get to eat more than a few kilos. The tree is far too big to net properly, and the birds love those cherries as much as we do!

Morello cherries are too sour to eat raw, and we like them best cooked gently for a few minutes with sugar and a little water. This makes a delicious sauce to pour over warm chocolate brownies, or vanilla ice cream…or you can do as we do, and top a brownie with a scoop of ice cream, then drizzle warm cherry sauce over the whole lot. That’s a really indulgent treat!

Boar damage
This is what two wild boar managed in one night, a couple of years ago. Photo: ©Christina Hollis
Bluebells dug up by boar
Wild boar regularly trash the wild bluebells like this. Photo:©Christina Hollis

Yesterday I went to check the greenhouse at 6am and disturbed a sounder of eighteen boar and their piglets, who were grubbing about in the wood which lies on the other side of our boundary fence. They scampered away through the trees, leaving behind ploughed earth where yesterday there had been a carpet of bluebells.

It’s such a shame the boar are so destructive as now there are few free-roaming sheep to eat the local wildflowers, orchids, ladies’ smock, primroses and cowslips were beginning to seed themselves around. They won’t survive for long with the concentration of boar we have here now. The medieval wild boar only had piglets once a year. The creatures running wild in the forest now are hybrids, which have been developed to breed all year round. With no natural predators, their number have exploded.

That’s why my garden is surrounded by a good fence, with barbed wire buried at the base to stop the pigs heaving up the wire and posts to get in. It means I can grow all sorts of things without worrying about finding the place trashed at regular intervals.

The heroine of my current work in progress loves growing plants and when her family hits hard times has to find a way to turn her hobby into a business. I’m off to the greenhouse now to do some detailed research. Well, that’s my excuse!

scenic view of night sky
Blog, Writing

A Few of Our Favourite Things…

Last week I told you about how I was trying to create a fictional English village as the setting for my next book. Lots of readers contacted me, either here or on social media and gave me ideas for features to include in the perfect fictional English village. The things mentioned most often were:

From the Royal British Legion Website at http://bit.ly/rblmemorial
  • Pub
  • Church (which surprised me, as rural congregations have dwindled over recent years)
  • Somewhere to sit and watch the world go by (preferably with ducks to feed!)
  • War memorial (another surprise, although the popularity of soldier silhouettes probably explains it)

Lots of people suggested things other than buildings that went to create a village atmosphere. As a writer, I found those ideas equally useful. The things that cropped up most often were:

  • Local characters – there’s at least one in every village, ready to give you the gossip, or a long-range weather forecast
  • Peace and quiet, interrupted only by…
  • Birdsong
  • Dark skies with no light pollution, perfect for romance under the stars
The view from my kitchen window. The ultimate in peace and quiet! ©Christina Hollis, 2019

and two of my favourite benefits of country living,

  • A little local shop
  • Friendly locals (rather than the more unusual characters)

We have great examples of both right here in the middle of our village. Pip’s shop really is open all hours, and shuts only twice a year: on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. It’s within walking distance so you don’t need to bother with the car, and it’s saved my bacon (and milk, and tea bags, and coffee!) any number of times when there’s been a last minute call for school cookery ingredients or bits for science project.

Pre-Covid, our village shop was a meeting place as much a shop. It was somewhere you could find out all the local news even quicker than it featured on Facebook! All that changed with social distancing and face masks.

It’s very sad. I hope things can get back to something close to normal soon.