…at the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s 2018 Conference? Held at Leeds Trinity University over the weekend of 13th-16th of July, this is a perfect excuse to meet up with like-minded writers.
I’m a poor traveller, easily confused and frequently lost. Luckily the chairman of the local chapter of the RNA came to my rescue. She met me at Leeds station, and we travelled to the university together. Knowing that I was certain to get to the venue (and back to my homeward train after the conference) was a huge weight off my mind. I could sit back and relax.
The Committee and helpers of the RNA do a fantastic job each year, putting together a programme of talks, panels and entertainments that provide something for everyone. The only problem is, there are often two sessions I’d like to attend which are on at the same time. Lots of note-swapping goes on so it’s easy to catch up on handouts, but I really missed out on one session. I thought From Baby-Wipes to Burlesque sounded like a ho-hum talk about a housewife branching out into erotic writing. I left my friend to nod off in that session, while I went off to listen to rags-to-riches self-publishing story.
That was a BIG mistake! Full of Sunday lunch and in a warm, windowless room, I was the one in danger of nodding off while listening to a cosy talk. In contrast, the Baby-Wipes to Burlesque session turned out to be practical, rather than theory! My friend and the other delegates tumbled out pink and giggling after learning how to dance alluringly. Balloons were involved. And glitter. If that wasn’t enough fun for a Sunday afternoon, they had a dressing up box, full of silk scarves and spangly things. I was so disappointed, I tried to get the happy burlesquers to teach me how to floss. I was so bad at it, flossing is something I’ll only do in the privacy of my bathroom from now on…
I can’t believe that I’ve been home from the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Conference for almost a week. Six days of unpacking, clothes washing, lugging soapy bathwater out to spray the runner beans, catching up with emails—oh yes, and that little thing called work!—mean I’m all behind. I’ve got three days full of appointments next week, and I’m expecting the next set of proofs for Struggle and Suffrage any day.
Right now I’m playing a waiting game with the short story I’ve written for the Costa Short Story Award. I’ve finished the first draft, and put it away to mature for a few days before I attack the re-writes. While that is simmering at the back of my mind, I’m working on the follow up to Love Lies Bleeding. It’s got the working title of River Girl, and here’s the opening:
In three hours’ time, I’ll be with Sophia and studying the menu in Purslane.
A Sarah Jarosz soundtrack was DI Josh Miller’s only company as he followed diversion signs along the Ripple valley. He’d shrugged off freezing rain on the way to testify in court earlier, only to watch a second-rate defence brief stare down a novice prosecuting counsel. That had made leaning into sleet on his way back to the office harder to take. Gloucestershire could throw bad weather in your face whichever way you were walking. Josh hadn’t experienced that trick since he’d prowled the canyons of Canary Wharf, but the prospect of dinner with Sophia had insulated him all afternoon. Once she was qualified, she’d show them all at Crown Court how it was done.
At last he was on his way home. The orange lights of a gritting lorry flickered through the dusk. Josh eased off the Skoda’s accelerator. He wasn’t mad enough to overtake in these conditions. Staying well back as the t-junction with the Brackenridge Road drew nearer, he saw the gritter swing out, straight across a motorcyclist. There wasn’t time to wince. In the confusion of horns and brakes, a stone thrown up from the newly-resurfaced road shattered Josh’s windscreen.
In a house high above the road, Sally woke. She didn’t bother opening her eyes.
There’s no point.
The bedroom would be as black as her heart, her thoughts and her future.The Prospect was a long way from any streetlight, but William insisted on blackout curtains in all the upstairs rooms. He said they made it easier for him to sleep.
William said a lot of things, when he wasn’t working.
He had been away for one whole day.
A cortege of thoughts passed through the snore-free silence while she waited for sleep to return.
She uncurled her lower leg, pushing it experimentally down between the cotton sheet and the duvet. Relaxing felt wrong, to begin with. After a minute or two, she extended her other leg.
She opened her eyes, searching the dark. Nothing. Her mobile phone was only inches away on the bedside table. She’d know ifWilliam was trying to contact her.
He’d packed a few things and moved into the Brackenridge Travelodge, conveniently close to his CEO’s home. With snow forecast, William was in the perfect place to cadge a lift into work.
Shrewd, he called it. Very shrewd.
Commuting with William. Why could she remember doing that, when so much of her life since she stopped work at Atkinson Burrell blurred and seeped out of her mind like watercolours?
She grabbed her phone. William was bound to know…
…but then she would have to tell him Consuelo didn’t come back after going to the supermarket yesterday. If William thought lightning was going to strike twice, he would drive straight home to make sure she had company.
She dropped the phone, then heard his voice inside her head.
I’m good like that.
Yes. He was. Everybody said so, so it must be true.
She reached for the phone again.
Everybody says so, so it must be true.
She rolled onto her back. Then she eased her way into the middle of the emperor-sized bed.
Nothing bad happened.
Consuelo knew where the spare back door key was hidden. She could let herself in.
But what if she never came back—
never came back never came back never came back…I never came back for Jake and Mia. So they went looking for me, and….
Sally curled into a foetal ball again.
She closed her eyes.
But she didn’t sleep.
Josh snapped on his warning lights, shut the car’s vents and punched a big enough hole in the crazed glass to give him a view across the junction. The other vehicles were disappearing into the dusk. His car was the only casualty of the near-miss. Squinting into the icy breeze, he pulled over and parked.
The temperature inside the car dropped like sterling in a crash. Josh tried his phone. No signal. He got out. The winter air was full of knives.
The little Ripple was a tributary of the Wye, cutting through steep Forest rock to join the bigger river here, near the great horseshoe bend of Symond’s Yat. For most of the year, this was the perfect place for water sports. Uninterrupted by calls or texts it would seem, Josh thought as he paced about, searching for a better signal.
At the deserted canoe slipway, he found one. Before he could dig out his breakdown membership card, a distant gunshot echoed along the valley. The sound came from the direction of the Kneller’s smallholding, on the other side of the Wye. Noisy rooks catapulted into the sunset. It was legal for farmers to shoot foxes and crows, especially so close to lambing. They had to protect their stock, but the noise sharpened his senses. An owl quavered. He looked up. An apparition was moving through the trees scratched against the slope ahead.
It was a woman. She was moving toward the water.
Why she was drifting about this Godforsaken place, looking like Kate Bush on YouTube was anybody’s guess.
Josh went to find out…
There’s a lot of work to be done on River Girl yet (not least, discovering how to disable double line spacing in WordPress!). That means my mind is full of characters and twists when I should be concentrating on doing the watering. I managed to tip half a can of water over myself last night. At any other time, that would have been an unpleasant shock. During the long hot summer of ’18, it was quite a relief!
Writers vary in the amount of planning they do before starting to write. Some use software systems such as Snowflake or Scrivener to guide them. Others plunge straight in. Both systems have their good and bad points, so it comes down to personal preferences.
When you’re first grabbed by an idea, plan as much or as little as you like but don’t get bogged down in too much detail when it comes to working on your first draft. Fiddling with tiny details makes the challenge of writing a whole book seem much harder than it actually is.
As long as you’ve done your groundwork on characters and conflicts, try charging straight through your story, writing only the dialogue. Scribble away as fast as you can, getting down on paper or screen all the juiciest exchanges you’ve been dreaming up. Start the beginning, and work right through to the end. You’re not looking to write the whole 60,000 words or whatever at this stage. You’ll probably change a million things about your manuscript before you’re satisfied with your final draft, but right now you’re concentrating on the basics.
What you want at this stage is a sure-fire way to boost your writerly self-esteem. This first, dirty draft will capture all the edge of the seat stuff – the interplay of character and conflicts that first attracted you to your idea.
Once you’ve got the basic scaffolding of your story in place, you can go back at your leisure and create a second, cleaner draft. Refine your work with more description, lots of character development and some crackling conflict. Polish your story until it’s a perfect read!
Your readers rely on you to get things right. Do your research carefully. The internet is a great place to start, but don’t rely on it as your sole source of information. Instead, use it as a springboard to find experts in their field, and works of reference.
Never say, “I can’t be bothered”. Check everything. When I’m writing non-fiction such as Struggle and Suffrage, I write a quick ‘dirty draft’, which sketches out broad chapter topics. This highlights the places where I need to find specialist help. I put key words in bold capital letters, so I can list subject areas easily. In second and second and subsequent drafts, I include more facts and figures as I gather them.
When you’re writing non-fiction, the final step is to include all your sources in footnotes. That way, anyone who wants to find out more knows which other books to read, and who to contact. There’s no need to do that in such detail when you’re writing fiction, but include a list of useful links, or thanks to people who have helped you, at the end of your book.
No matter how obscure your subject, you can bet there’s an expert among your readers.They’ll pick up on the difference between the figures you quote for the spices traded in eleventh-century Constantinople, and the statistics they’ve collected for themselves. Include only a fraction of your research in your fiction writing. You might find yourself fascinated by mediaeval drainage techniques while you’re planning your romantic novel. That doesn’t mean your readers want spadefuls of information about sewers shovelled into every chapter. Use a light touch. When fiction needs to have some facts included, less is more!
Use social media to create a “street team” of readers you can trust to give you honest feedback. Bounce ideas off them. Make it clear you’ll always listen, but you reserve the right to make all final decisions.Give credit where it’s due, but be careful. It’s a short step from naming a character after one of your friends on social media, to have them claim you’ve used their life story without their permission. It’s very rare, but it does happen.
When anyone takes the trouble to email or write to you about your work, always take the time to reply to them. While most people are lovely and offer only compliments, there’s always the odd person with an issue. Never argue with trolls or sock-puppets. Reply with “Thanks for getting in touch. Your concern means a lot to me.” and move on. That way, you aren’t stooping to their level, or giving them any ammunition to use against you. They can’t moan that you’ve ignored them.
Never stop writing. That way you’ll have your next book well under way when your first is ready for publication. Make sure you don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. As always, make every word count.
Popular media has pruned the average attention span down to a few minutes. Pressure of work means reading time is often limited to an uncomfortable commute, or a few minutes before bed. It’s human nature to think I’ll just read to the end of this chapter. If you end each one with a hook or a piece of really strong, vivid writing, you’ll keep them keen.
Vary the length of your chapters as an incentive, to keep your reader turning the pages. If they find it hard to tear themselves away from your book, they’ll be raring to go next time they get a minute to relax. If they know they won’t necessarily have to set aside enough time to read a 4,000 word chapter, they’ll be even keener.
Varying the pace of your writing keeps your reader on their toes. Descriptive passages slow things down. Dialogue speeds it up. Plenty of white space leads them on, while too many dense pages of text encourages them to throw the book aside. Strike a balance. Give them with plenty of colourful, exciting jam with their textual bread-and-butter.
Never pad out your work with pointless description or backstory. If you’ve written a trilogy but two-thirds of it is info-dump, condense it into a single title instead. Don’t think of it as lowering your sights, or compromising your literary integrity. It’s about improving the experience of people who read your book. Make every word a wanted word.
If your story is absorbing and your dialogue is well-written, you don’t need to identify every speaker every time. Too many “he said/she said” tags interrupt reading pleasure. Don’t use too many long words. Occasional technical terms in dialogue or scene-setting are fine as long as they leave your reader wiser, and move the action along.