Saturday, 31 December 2011

Smart Advice from the Smart Bitches


Santa in the silver haired, elfin form of my big sister Nin brought me a stellar present: “Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels” by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.

You might know the Smart Bitches.  If you don’t, jump on over to their blog, Smart Bitches Trashy Books and laugh yourself silly.  It’s brilliant.  Smartly brilliant.  Very, very funny and serves as both a cheerleader and a critical friend to the romance genre as whole.  Dimly remember a book but can’t remember the title?  The Smart Bitches community can identify it in a heartbeat.  Want to read some stomach-achingly spot on and laugh-your-socks-off funny reviews?  Smart Bitches is your friend.

I knew the book would be funny.  It’s also eye-opening.  As I’m flicking through the pages, laughing out loud and feeling that nice, warm fuzzy feeling a person gets from feeling part of a humungous worldwide fan-girl community, I keep having KERPLUNK penny dropping moments. 

I finished my first full length manuscript in 2011 – Merely Players.   But I know it’s problematic.  Writing the sequel, Boundless as the Sea (working title, highly likely to change), I know I’m going to go back to the drawing board with Merely PlayersBoundless as the Sea is easier to write.  It jumps from the pen onto the page. I’m enjoying it more.  But why?

Is it because I like the characters?  Well yes...

It is because their conflict is clearly defined?  Well yes...

But that’s not just it.  Then on page 75 a quote from Laura Kinsale (and if you haven’t noticed how much I LOVE Laura Kinsale, hop over to my Keeper’s Shelf AKA The Library.  She is the single best romance writer around today):

 “The man carries the book.”

The man carries the book.

Even when the heroine is too stupid to live, we can still stomach her if the hero is compelling.  And in Merely Players he isn’t.

Curse it, damn it.  It’s all about the hero.  I’m a voracious romance reader – why didn’t I know that?  Well the truth is, I did.  It was buried in there somewhere, but the iron curtain that sits between writer-me and reader-me somehow manages to place scales on my eyes.

The books I love the most are the ones with the most memorable heroes.  Of course they are (see below 'the evolution of the hero from Beyond Heaving Bosoms - love it!).



And knowing that, helps me to hone my focus. 

In Boundless as the Sea, Richard is much easier hero than Ghis in Merely Players.  He’s strong and pissed off, but he’s honourable and loyal and protective.  Ghis, on the other hand, is more difficult because he’s stroppy and self obsessed.  He needs a bigger redemption to make him palatable and a GREAT sense of humour to engage the reader from the offset.  Less drama, more laughs.

Ok, I have my marching orders.

Thank you Smart Bitches, you rock.

And Nin, you elf haired (see gratuitous picture of an elf) kindle obsessive, you rock too.  

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Inn Keeper's Wife: Seasonal Flash Fiction

This post is inspired by two stubborn, independent women who I love very much: my mum (age 77) and my daughter. My daughter is four. This week she had her first ever nativity play in she played the role of the Inn Keeper's wife. This was not without controversy. My baby had been convinced she was going to be Mary. No, she had been told she was going to be Mary. But the rehearsals had taken place whilst she was not there and on the Big Day she was the Inn Keeper's wife.

Cue major PR job. Did she know just how important the Inn Keeper's wife was? Without the Inn Keeper's wife Mary and Joseph would have been out on their ear. 

Later, I was recounting this to my Mum. "Funny," she said. "I was just talking about this with my sister today. I was wondering who delivered the baby? They never talk about that, do they? I mean, she didn't have any women with her. It must have been the Inn Keeper's wife."

 Faced with choruses of angels and gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Mary's birth experience does tend to be rather glossed over. Well no longer. This flash fiction is for all women who have given birth - and more than anyone, for the Inn Keeper's wife.





The Inn Keeper's Wife 

I had always liked the smell of the stables, the dusty sweet smell of fresh straw, and the warm bodies of the cows. It was my favourite part of the day, that pre-dawn hour when I crept out of the inn and fumbled in the darkness to milk the cow. It was a time of rich, velvety silence, bar the soft shuffles and lowing of the cows, a time for thoughts and prayers, a time to reckon up the accounts and then dream of the fields of my childhood, before I wed Jacob and the Inn.

Just before dawn it was my place, the stable. Not at night when the Jacob bustled about, helping travellers and brushing down hard-mouthed, over laden mules. Not when the stables were crowded with people shucking off their burdens and rinsing the dust from their feet.

I didn’t want to share it, not really. If she hadn’t looked so tired, if he hadn’t looked so worried. I remember that time myself. Feeling sore and huge, ankles swollen in the heat and face puffy, the baby weighing like a rock between your legs, ready to drop. No maternal exhilaration at that stage. No delicate flush of anticipation. Just heaviness and fatigue, aching hips and sore feet. I couldn’t turn her away, not in that state. So I let them rest, just for the night. Not in the rooms; Jacob was clear on that.  The rooms were for them that had money, had booked. Not for stray couples in threadbare cloaks with barely coin between them.

It was sometime in the night that I heard her cry, the gut-deep wail that told me her time had come. Jacob stirred, turning over, pummeling the straw-stuffed pillow beneath his head. I sat up. Listened.

 No woman should have her time alone.

 Wrapping my cloak around me, I inched my way through the dark rooms. I could hear the heavy breathing of wine-soaked men, the rustling of the hens.

She was in the darkness on her hands and knees. Moonlight streamed through the stable door, painting a stark portrait in black and silver. I could see her tunic was soaked with blood. Her husband knelt beside her, hands on her back. I could see his lips move, in prayer. Prayer! When what she needed was water.  Hissing, I shooed him away and knelt beside her, feeling for the baby’s head.

 “It’s soon,” I whispered. “Your babe will be here soon.”

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Blood Witch: A Dreadful Distraction and Other Temptations

There is an evil murky bog that lurks in the middle of a novel. Reminiscent of the Swamp of Sadness in the wonderful Neverending Story, it sucks you down, dripping with despair. It's a dangerous time. A time when you can be Turned From The Path and distracted by the delightful curse of new ideas.

Particularly when indulging in the odd flash fiction challenge like the recent, wonderful, Divine Hell Blog Challenge. One such distraction came upon me after I wrote my 150 word flash fiction on Heresy. A kind of Medieval Inquisition meets Misfits type tale, whose main characters, like Athena, sprang fully formed from my head some time in the middle of a shower.

Instead of pursuing my novel (currently sitting at its NaNoWriMo Goal of just over 50,000 words) I wrote the first page of this other story. Working title: Blood Witch. This is it.

anime medieval Pictures, Images and Photos

BLOOD WITCH

It was stifling hot, full of jagged shadows and darkness. Smelt like dust and droppings, dead things. Caetlen gripped herself, pinching her thin arms between fingers and thumbs. Holding herself together. She had always liked the darkness, the quiet times of the night. No one to stare if she drifted into one of her dream-talks. Just Hallie cuddled up against her, her warm body solid as a block, hair like spring grass; a tangle of chubby arms and soft snores. Hallie! Terror clutched at her then, as real as a vulture’s claws. She had lost Hallie. They had taken her away, somewhere within this black-stone labyrinth. Her rounded face had been blank with shock, not even tearful. She hadn’t understood that she was being taken, hadn’t understood what it meant being Caetlen’s sister. She would have been better off left a foundling on some convent doorstep than in Caetlen’s care.

Caetlen the witch-girl, Caetlen the heretic.

She knew what they did to witches’ families, even the little ones. They’d trick her into saying she had seen incubi rollicking in Caetlen’s virgin bed, watched Caetlen cast spells and summon demons. They’d find a way to do that. And if they didn’t, they’d torture her. Five years old. They’d torture her until she bore witness.

God, let her confess straightaway. Let her think it a story, a good joke. Let her think it a game. But she remembered the confusion in Hallie’s face, round circle of horror that her mouth made before she began to cry, and despair scraped at her, trapped her in a black pit that was worse, almost worse than the chamber.

“Think Caetlen, think,” she tried to whisper. A little whisper, a noise to drown out the rustling in the shadows, the drawn out silence of apprehension. “Think.”

But she had never been much of a thinker. Not a clever girl, not wise or savvy. No solutions presented themselves. She sat down on the floor, on an old piece of sacking and stared at the smoke-stained walls.

She was deep below the monastery hemmed in by four foot stone walls. Thick walls that would dampen sound, silence screaming. She had seen them before in one of her drifting, inconstant waking-dreams. Stepped into them, close enough to touch. Felt their heat, saw the machines. Heard screaming. It had been her own voice. She realised that when she came to and found herself outside the baker’s, clutching her throat. People stared at her in the street, crossed themselves. They thought she was possessed, and maybe she was. It had been just one week ago. She should’ve known that They would come.

And They did.

She looked up at the machinery. It was a cacophony of cogs, ropes and wheels, wood and metal, black-stained. Blood she supposed. Machinery to stretch and tear, machinery to cut and slice. Machinery to hurt, but not to kill. Not yet. Killings were public fare, entertainment. She’d watched them herself, betimes. Acrid smells, like burnt beef. Black smoke. Crowds stiff with anticipation, hungry to see devils exposed.

Oh God.

She heard them then; footsteps on the corridor growing nearer. Huddling, she gathered herself together. Knees pressed close against her thin chest, arms wrapped tight around her knees, the rough wool of her skirt scratchy against her skin. Chin lowered, hair tumbled, tangled across her shoulders. Invisible, that’s what she wanted to be. To disappear into the shadows, melting away like a moonbeam. If she was a witch, that’s what she’d do. If she was a witch, not just a stupid girl plagued by dream visions, shifting pictures of the future. But she wasn’t a witch, not so far as she knew. Didn’t know a demon from a damson. Could barely read, never mind write incantations. Not a witch. But she’d be burned as one anyway. No one was taken and then released. The Brotherhood didn’t do that.

Friday, 9 December 2011

#DivineHell: Roll of Honour



Having been guided through several circles of hell thanks to the redoubtable Lady Antimony's #DivineHell blog challenge, I thought it would be timely to highlight a few of my fellow travellers.

All of these people took up the challenge to write a 150 word story inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The Circles of Hell we were given as a prompt were as follows:

Limbo
Heresy
Fraud
Violence
Treachery

You can read more about it on milady's blog.

The Challengers

Timony Souler: new pen name for a classy lady of enormous versatility. She regularly provides fellow writers with the opportunity to challenge themselves and to share their work. My favourite of her stories was Limbo - a laugh out loud take on the place. @TimonySouler

Rebecca Clare Smith: I really look forward to reading Rebecca's stories. Each one is like an amuse-bouche to a nocturne bite, only better written. Check out her treachery story for an example of perfect description. @jocastalizzbeth

David Ludwig: Besides being one of the most generous and thoughtful commenters around, David also uses Blog Challenges to build delicate, thoughtful fantasy worlds. You can read his stories over at his blog. @DavidALudwig

Jeffrey Hollar: Often dark and twisty, Jeffrey's stories are marked out by a strong voice and a bold style of telling. My favourite of his #DivineHell stories was Only Following Orders, a take on violence which is utterly convincing. @Klingorengi

Emilia Quill: Ok a little "squee" here because I found Emilia's work through earlier blog challenges and loved her whimsical fantasy writing BUT her work for #DivineHell is completely different and EVEN BETTER. It's sharp, funny and modern. I'm hoping it turns into a book. My favourite is Heresy - laugh out loud funny. @Emilia_Quill

Zombie Cowboy: New to me this this time round, I'm pleased to have stumbled across ZC. His stories are really versatile in tone and range - I'm torn between the domestic humour and description in Treachery and the sheer rage in Heresy. You decide. @RalphRudd

Stevie McCoy: Empress of the #TuesdayTales and flash fictioner extraordinaire, glittering Stevie McCoy chose to do a longer take on the #DivineHell prompt. Check out the sinister, conversational tone her anonymous narrator takes... @theglitterlady

Hugo Van Zijl: I'd never come across Hugo's work before this challenge but I love the slant he put on #DivineHell. His daily stories link, building a picture of a hard-bitten cop with a thankless task and a pointless murder to deal with. Brilliantly done. Read them here. @HugovanZijl

Magependragon: Magependragon brings poetry even into her prose. Her work is evocative and luminous. I think my favourite of her stories is Limbo - she brings the place starkly to life for me. @magependragon

Craig Smith: Craig's #DivineHell stories are full of winks and wry humour. There are combusting sale goers, horror pigeons and bad friends. I think my favourite is Treachery for its slam dunk ending. See if you agree. @craigwfsmith

#DivineHell: Treachery

It's Friday and that means we've made it to the last day of Lady Antimony's Dante's Inferno inspired blog challenge.

For the grand finale, her ladyship has chosen none other than the ninth circle of hell, home to the treacherous - the most famous of which is Lucifer himself. Check out the description of Lucifer in the 9th Circle here.

After the strung out abstraction of Thursday's story about Violence (Suicide) I felt a lighter touch was in order.





TREACHERY


“Don’t believe me then.” His face was the colour of lemon tart, lickable almost. One of his faces. Barry shrugged.

“Well I don’t. You don’t look like the Devil. The Devil has pointy horns and goat feet.” They both looked down at the thick layer of ice which circled the monster’s navel, turning his ragged skin black with cold.

A tear rolled down his blood-red cheek. It reminded Barry of ice-cream dribbled with raspberry sauce.

“I might have goat-feet, under here,” the Devil said. “For all you know.”

“Why are you stuck here then? This is hell. You’re supposed to be in charge. I want to sell my soul to the boss man, the big kahuna. You’re stuck in ice. And you’re ugly. The Devil’s meant to be hot. Handsome devil and all that.”

The Devil looked at him calmly. “Fuck off Gabriel.”

Barry grinned, wings sprouting. “How d’ya guess?”


#DivineHell: Violence

Having fallen asleep at 8pm due to my lingering wannabe consumption, I completely missed posting yesterday's Dante-inspired flash fiction. To see the origins of this pop on over to Lady Antimony's blog.

Thursday's flash fiction was to be inspired by Dante's seventh circle of hell: VIOLENCE.




VIOLENCE


Bone-white twisted.

The scent of nothing in the air.

Bodiless, but not formless.

I have form.

Spectral branches, a lacework of knuckles and bones. Dog-chewed, sun-bleached. Thorns like stiletto-blades. Untouchable.

No soft, sighing flesh. No solid sunshine. No smiles. No humanity.

But it always felt like this, inside.

Bare, broken, twisted. Burned away by ferocity, husk-scorched by tears.

Different.

Apart.

If I had known would I have dragged the whipcord around my neck? Would I?

Of course.

I never believed in blue skies and fat angels. Not me.

Air-ripped. Screeching. Terror.

Thorn-thick, paper-thin my arms spread, quivering in protection. The sky turns black, thunderous with wing beats.

Terror should have been left behind trapped in the noose. I wanted nothingness, an absence from pain. Not this. Not torture. Not punishment for discarding the body I loathed.

Not a harpy, tearing at my branches. Licking blood from my broken limbs.



One of the things that shocked me a bit when reading about the seventh circle of hell was the inclusion of suicide. Suicide has long been considered a sin by the Church, but I hadn't really put much thought into how that could be manifested. Dante's depiction shows the cruelty of their fate: eternally denied bodies (because they threw their bodies away), transformed into thorn bushes and feasted on by harpies.

There is something particularly cruel about the concept of someone trying to escape pain and finding an eternity of it.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

#DivineHell: Fraud

So... I've finally caught up! And for Lady Antimony's Dante inspired #divinehell challenge we have 150 words on the 8th circle of hell: FRAUD.



MEDEA

“I like Christianity,” Medea leaned over the blazing edge of the sun-chariot. To touch it was death to a human. She was no longer human. Far below, deep beneath the mountains, the dark chasm of hell yawned. She smiled.

Helios glanced back, his brow furious with sunlight, bright gold. “Heresy!”

“Pooh!” She slipped her arms around his burnished neck. “Grandfather, really. You should see what they do to him there.”

“Him?”

“Jason,” she whispered into his ear. “Marching like the ant he is. Back and forth, whipped by demons.”

He snorted, trailing vapours in the bright light. Sun God, sun glorious. It hurt to look at him sometimes. “Do you imagine Hades couldn’t have done better? Think of Tantalus! Sisyphus! Or better still, Prometheus. Imagine an eagle tearing at his unfaithful guts, child. You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

“No,” she said. “He’s a nonentity in Hell. I like it.”




The last two circles of Dante's Hell punish sins that involve conscious fraud or treachery. These circles can be reached only by descending a vast cliff. The fraudulent—those guilty of deliberate, knowing evil—are located in a circle named Malebolge ("Evil Pockets"), divided into ten Bolgie, or ditches of stone, with bridges spanning the ditches.

In the first, panderers and seducers march up and down whipped by demons. One of these is JASON, as in "of the Argonauts." Jason is the unfaithful husband of the glorious MEDEA, the subject of my all time favorite Greek tragedy by Euripides (you can read it here). Amongst other things, Medea is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun.

One of the all time greatest productions of the Medea featured the amazing Fiona Shaw (below). I have never in all my born days seen anyone with her raw power. Phenomenal.

#DivineHell: heresy

Still catching up, I've only just made it to heresy, which all of Lady Antimony's writerly heretics nailed yesterday. For background to this #divinehell December flash fiction challenge, check out the rules Lady Antimony's blog.



HERESY

The room was heavy with silence, tomb-cold. He could be quiet though, he was good at that; a child of the shadows, creeping and watching. Winter sunlight kissed the worn tiles of the chamber, lit the stark faces of the tribune. Hungry, the boy thought. They look like they want to eat her.

Faded tapestries hung on the walls. Funny faces, saints had. Two black holes and a line for a mouth.

The inquisitor stood. “Tell us what you see.”

The woman looked up, thin-faced, wide-eyed. “He comes at night and his breath is sweet, so sweet.” Her eyes filled with tears and she held out her hands, red-stained. Bloody holes. “He loves me. He says he loves me.”

He saw them shift in their seats, murmuring. It was like excitement, the boy thought. Like a party. A party for maman.

“Witch!” Hungry eyes. They had hungry eyes.




"Anyone who attempts to construe a personal view of God which conflicts with Church dogma must be burned without pity."
- Pope Innocent III


There were a number of inquisitions over the centuries, possibly the most famous being the Spanish inquisition in which 3000 - 5000 people are estimated to have been put to death for the crime of heresy. Today the inquisitions are generally viewed as dark periods in the history of the Church. For the sake of balance, here's one view: The Horrors of the Church and its Holy Inquisition and another: Inquisition from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

What it undoubtedly true was that many men, women and children were tortured and died as a consequence of the Church's zeal for hunting out heretics. Families were torn apart and children of the accused suffered greatly and were sometimes accused themselves.

This story is inspired by the witch-hunts that followed two papal bulls, Summis desiderantes affectibus and the notorious Malleus Maleficarum or "Hammer of the Witches".

Omnia per carnalem concupiscentiam, quae quia in eis est insatiabilis - All [Witchcraft] comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.


- Malleus Maleficarum

#DivineHell: Limbo

I'm playing catch up! Still suffering from my pseudo consumption (Balzac eat your heart out) and lurking in London, I completely missed the start of fabulous Lady Antimony's exciting Dante-inspired December flash fiction challenge. But better late than never sayeth I.

So here you go. Inspired by Limbo, the first ring of hell is my 150 word piece:




The ground is rough now, thick with wild grass. No crosses, no mounds. I kneel down and spread my hands upon the dew-soaked ground. It feels wet against my hot palms, as though the earth is weeping. Is this the place? Oh God, is it?

Panic. Fist clenched, I thrust my hand against my belly. I want to crunch it, crush it. My eyes close. Gone. She’s gone. I can’t find her, even here. She’s lost, floating. Unsanctified.

They say fairies come to this place, dance across the unmarked graves. I wish she was a fairy, my Bridgeen. She looked like that. Pointed chin, silvery pale. A wee angel. No, not an angel, she’ll never be that.

She was so light in my arms, barely there at all. Such a fragile babe. They took her from me almost at once, still bloodied from my womb. Took her to Limbo.


My story is inspired by the cillín - the unconsecrated infant burial grounds. Years ago I went to a heartbreaking exhibition about the cillín which highlighted the distress and folklore around the places where unbaptized babies were buried. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for the mothers of those babies, the double grief of losing that child and then believing they would never see it again in the afterlife.

My mum is a catholic and this was a very real fear for her, the idea that child lost in miscarriage would never go to heaven. The Catholic Church as now changed its ruling on Limbo, but generations of catholics had to live with the distressing concept that their stillborn infant would rest forever in Limbo.

Seamus Heaney wrote an amazing poem on the subject which haunts me still. You can read it here.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Travelling to 19th Century Paris


My recent NaNoWriMo effort, Boundless as the Sea, is set in Paris of 1816. As mentioned in my previous post, this posed me with endless questions that required authentic answers.

I needed to know where my hero (an English Earl of wealth and status) would stay. I needed to know where he might go to gamble for high stakes; what venues might be deemed scandalous; what currency was used; and what might constitute a fortune. I needed to know where a lady might shop and which parks were open to the public. I needed to know STUFF.

Thankfully, due to the awesome cornucopia that is Google Books, I found a huge swathe of primary source material at my finger tips. For free. For NOTHING. Here are some of the best (click on the title to read book):

A new picture of Paris; or, The stranger's guide to the French metropolis By Edward Planta (1827)

This book is the 19th century equivalent of the Rough Guide to Paris. It covers everything. Currency, travel, accommodation... it was reprinted many times, with each edition expanded. It's a time capsule for the English traveller to 19th century Paris.

Extract:

At the furnished hotels ('hotelsgarnisJ, near the Palais Royal, the most splendid apartments may be hired; but at others, in the quarter of the university, and in the suburbs, the accommodation is more simple and less expensive. L'Hotel d'Angleterie, Rue des filles St. Thomas; L'Hotel du Prince de Galles, Rue du Faubourg St. Honore; and L'Hotel de Boston, Rue Vivienne, are commodious and reasonable.


"Wood is universally burnt in Paris, and few even of the most elegant apartments are furnished with the luxury of a carpet."




A visit to Paris in 1814: being a review of the moral, political, intellectual and social condition of the French Capital By John Scott
Extract:

The crowds of the Palais Royal are thus formed, and it puts on its air of bustling dissipation, and lounging sensuality, at an early hour of the morning. The chairs that are placed out under the trees, are to be hired, with a newspaper, for a couple of sous a piece — they are soon occupied. The crowd of sitters and standers gradually increases, the buzz of conversation swells to a noise, the cafes fill, the piazzas become crowded, the place assumes the look of intense and earnest avocation,—yet the whirl and the rush are of those who float and drift in the vortex of pleasure, dissipation, and vice. The shops of the Palais Royal are brilliant: they are all devoted to toys, ornaments, or luxuries of some sort.




Paris as it was and as it is: or, A sketch of the French capital illustrative of the event of the French Revolution by Francis Blagdon (1801-1802)

Extract:

...there is not, at the present day, one tenth part of the number of carriages which were in use here in 1789-90.... However, if private equipages are scarce, thence ensues more than one advantage; the public are indemnified by an increased number of good hackney coaches, chariots, and cabriolets...




The New monthly magazine, Volume 4 (1815)

Extract:

The Rue Vivienne is the sanctuary of fashion ; a visit to the first-rate vutrclumdes des modes and to the mop asms de nouvcautes is one of the most inviolable laws of the petites-waitresses of tbe Chaussie d'Antin, who by an extraordinary freak of chance meet at the hour of their visit to these temples of supreme ban ton which etiquette has fixed at 3 or 4 o'clock, with young elegants of their acquaintance whose taste they consult in tbe choice of their purchases.




Observations made at Paris during the peace By Edmund John Eyre (1803)

Extract:

...we engaged two inside places in the Paris diligence, which sets out every morning and evening from the Golden-Cross, CharingCross. The proprietors engage to provide a conveyance from London to Paris (the passage across the channel included) for 4l. 13s.; luggage above fifteen pounds weight, is charged at the rate of threepence per pound, and each passenger pays the port-duties, and every other incidental expence upon the road.



Sunday, 27 November 2011

Three Lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011


Hey! Just in case you haven't noticed I'm a NaNoWriMo WINNER! Which means I wrote more than 50,000 of a novel throughout November's thirty days. Okay, rewind a moment. I'm writing a historical romance and my estimated end word count will be 80,000 - 90,000 words. I haven't written a finished novel. I've written half a first draft of a novel.

But DAMN it feels good!

So what have I learned about speed writing.

1. Your plot is organic.

In a NaNoWriMo pep talk writer Chris Cleave (twitter @chriscleave)offered this wondrous nugget of wisdom:
"You learn more about your protagonists as you write them. If you are not very often forced by your characters to bin your masterplan, then you are a wooden and a formulaic writer indeed."

YES. Say I! Or in a When Harry Met Sally esque moment. YES! YES! YES!

I have seen the detailed outlines produced by author JK Rowling. I have plotted outlines on post it notes, index cards, excel sheet and notebooks. In short, I've wasted time.

In this novel I started with two characters I knew well (secondary characters from Merely Players), a concept of the conflict and some ideas of how to test them on the way to true love. About 20K in I wrote an outline - for the first few chapters (already written) and the last few. I had a blank middle. So I wrote. And as I wrote stuff happened. I got bored by my own scene, so I threw a reversal in. I got excited by my own scene and the writing flowed out of my fingers.

All the time I thought about the bigger picture. Is this developing my guys? Is it progressing them towards their goal? Are they tested? Are they growing? Is it entertaining? And if the answer is YES in it goes.

Organic. Not pre-ordained. Characters make their own choices, I just write them down.



2. Don't write when you're exhausted or uninspired.

When you're halfway through November, your word count is just about 15K and you have a horrible chest infection, NaNoWriMo is not looking good. I had authorial advice ringing in my ears. Write every day. Write when it rains or when it shines. Write through that block. Write anything, but YOU MUST WRITE!

As I wrote in an earlier post, that ain't my style.

I’m boom and bust, famine and feast. When I am on a roll, I can charge through 8,000 words in a day. When I’m uninspired I can piddle out 200 and hate them. For me, when the muse departs it is way, way better to lay down my netbook (just doesn’t sound as good as pen does it?) and go do something else instead. Bake cakes. Swim. Have a bath. Catch a bus somewhere. Talk to a friend. Daydream.

As I have said before, do not underestimate daydreaming. Daydreaming is the feedstock of novel writing. It’s where plots are unlocked, characters develop and decisions are made. Daydreaming is valuable time.

During NaNoWriMo I found it kind of essential to give myself days off between bursts of activity. I needed to work out happened next and why, how the characters would react. Once I got it, then it would flood out. The days when I was fearful of being below that line on the NaNoWriMo stats graph (I am obsessed with that graph – competitive, me?) I would try to shoulder on through, but my writing was limp.

I completely deleted and rewrote one scene twice - an action pretty much verboten in NaNoWriMo where the ethos is more, don’t look back: plough on! But the scene was shit. I wasn’t ON it. I needed a sleep. And a daydream.

Take a break. Take however long you need. It’s good for you.



3. Research can kill you

I am writing a historical romance. Research is CRUCIAL to a historical romance. You need to know how people got about, what they were and how they swore. You need to know that whilst it is unacceptable for a woman to go into a coffeehouse in early 19th Century Paris, it’s cool. You need to know what constraints your characters work within, because those parameters shape them. You need to be able to paint a picture of the scene, evoke and conjure the tangled medieval backstreets. To do this, you need research.

But research can kill you.

Two night ago I spent the valuable 2.5 hours I had clawed back from my evening researching hotels in early 19th Century Paris. I wanted to know the most exclusive hotel in Paris, so I could plonk my hero there. I had discovered – to my horror – that in 1816, the hotel of my choice was actually still located in Calais.

As I wrote on Twitter #researchfail (is it worrying that I now think in hashtags? I think so)

Would anyone reading this have given a toss? Probably not. But we historical romance authors have our pride. So off I set. I skim read four primary source travelogues about Paris. I looked at original advertisements. I googled myself to death.

I didn’t write a word.

In the end, I identified a suitable hotel, located it and put my hero in it. And then, a couple of days later, I erased all mention of the hotel and placed him in a private house that he had bought in an extravagant fashion on his arrival in Paris. Why? Because I am the GODDAMN AUTHOR so I CAN. And also, it helped to underline an important aspect of his attitude to being in Paris.

There is an important lesson here. I could have:

1. Stuck with my inaccurate original location

2. Made up the name of a hotel – perfectly acceptable

3. Extensively researched this one tiny detail thus wasting hours of writing time

4. Come up with an alternative solution

In the end I went through three of these options before realised that – THIS IS WHAT DRAFT TWO IS FOR! If you don’t know the answer, put in a place holder. But get the story down, imperfect in its detail but full of verve. Because ultimately your book will win or lose on the strength of its story and characters. The rest is window dressing.

I LOVE research. But it can kill writing dead. So make a wise choice. Is this particular piece of information crucial to the plot? If, for example, your plot depended on the hero travelling from Paris to Calais in 2 hours, research would stop you from making a hideous error. But the name of a hotel? The height of a waistline? That stuff can wait.

Just for laughs here are some of the things I have researched this month:

1. Early 19th century hotels

2. Street plans in the Ile de Cite, Paris (what were the streets called?)

3. Ghettos in Paris (Where were they? Were they like London ghettos? Is it conceivable that gentlemen might go there to gamble or wench?)

4. Images of Ile de Cite (what did the houses look like? The streets?)

5. Walking and evening dresses from 1816



6. Travelling carriages and coaches in the early 19th Century (what did gentlemen use? Could they fit four people? Where would the servants go?)

7. Public transport in early 19th Century Paris (how many people could fit in? Where would they be found?)

8. Duelling and places to duel in Paris in the early 19th Century (fields or woods? Where? Any landmarks?)

9. Men’s hats (were they wearing tricornes or beavers?)

10. Rococo interiors (what did an aristocratic 18th Century bedroom look like?)

11. Cafes and gambling houses in the Palais Royal (where was the play the deepest? Which were the most scandalous?)



12. Parisian opera companies in the early 19th Century (where there any in the Palais Royal? What were they called?)

13. Piquet and Hazard (how many people play? What are the rules?)

14. Cravat pins (can they be used to stab someone?)



So there you go. Three lessons.

1. Your plot is organic – let the characters lead it

2. Don’t write when you’re uninspired – let your muse take control

3. Don’t let research kill you – or your novel

Even when it’s fun.

Monday, 21 November 2011

To BANG or whisper - what makes a good first line?



One more than one occasion I have been known to claim that the best first line of all time belongs to Homer's Iliad. I firmly believe that it does. There's something about Homer's words which sound like a cymbal in my head and capture something of the glory and tragedy of what is to follow.

All in one line.

But of course, I haven't studied ancient Greek for years. I'm talking about the Iliad in translation and that means that the first line in question belongs not only to Homer, but whoever interpreted his words to bring them to us.

How on earth do you go about translation? Do you focus on conveying the words literally, or on capturing what you believe to be the essence, the emotional flavour? How do you capture the rhythm and structure of poetry? What is compromised in order to get your readers the best possible understanding of what is happening there? For a really great perspective on that have a listen to Peter Meineck's superb lectures on Greek Tragedy.

I don't think there is a single right answer. You just have to go for the version which strikes a chord with you. And there is lots of them to choose from, which gives us a great excuse to consider what makes a good first line!



The Translations:
George Chapman (1598)

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique...

Alexander Pope (1715)

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!


Richmond Lattimore (1951)


Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians...

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous...

Robert Fagles (1990)

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses...

Stanley Lombardo (1997)

RAGE:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain....

Herbert Jordan (2009)

Sing, Goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles’ anger,
ruinous, that caused the Greeks untold ordeals...



Which ones jump out at you? Which make you sit up in your seat and hear the clarion sound of swords crashing against shields? Which make tears choke in your throat, feel the poignancy of the moment? Which make you want to read on?

I grew up on Richmond Lattimore's fairly literal translation and I love it. I love the note that "Sing" strikes, clear as a bell. I love the rhythm of the words which follow. Lattimore was a poet as well as a translator. I think that comes across in the way his words flow across each line.

But I am also attracted to Stanley Lombardo's translation. The guttural roar of RAGE which is pulled up, a line above the rest. It dominates like a battle cry, interrupted by 'Sing, Goddess..." Lombardo designed his translations to be delivered orally. He writes in a vernacular style, which brings you close to the action.

The other versions don't do it for me in quite the same way.

Let's take Fagles for example. He starts with "Rage" but goes straight into "Goddess, sing".

Why doesn't that work for me?
It's because word order underscores what is important. "Rage - Goddess, sing" places the Goddess above the song in the hierarchy. But to me the song is what is significant. One of Homer's important themes is about the price people pay to become immortal, to become part of a song. The Goddess is secondary. She is the vehicle of the song and thus should be coupled to it, but always placed behind it, as in Lattimore's version "Sing, Goddess".

Fitzgerald lacks oomph for a different reason: word choice. "Anger" is not as powerful a word as RAGE or WRATH. It doesn't stomp its foot or bellow. It's more moderate. If the angry word is to be your opening gambit, it needs to be the strongest angry word you can find.

Word choice and word order are what strikes Jordan off my list two. He places Peleus above anger in his first line ordering and his word choice generally errs on the side of moderation.

Rage and the Song are what it's all about. That's where the drama is for me. I want them up front, slapped in my face. I want to be plunged right into that. I want immediacy.

The lack of immediacy is what puts me off the older translation by Pope - why start with 'The' when you can plunge right into to 'Wrath'?

I do however have a sneaking affection for Chapman. There is something about "Achilles’ bane full wrath resound," which is so very grand. But his text is denser than the text of Lombardo and Lattimore and harder to access.



So what then can I conclude about first lines from this?

I think the main point is that everything counts. In poetry that is a given: the structure of a line, its relationship to the body of a poem, every word choice is spare and defined.

But it counts in prose too. To think about that for a novel of 90,000 words is intimidating. Its most likely what got James Joyce in a pickle when hunched over his writing desk. But it's also what makes a novel rich, individual and meaningful. It's craftsmanship at its finest. It's why writing is hard and why it is rewarding. It's worth learning those lessons from poetry.

And if you are going to apply it anywhere, apply it in your first few lines. Hit hard. Slap your reader in the face. Start with a whisper or with a bang, but capture your story in distilled essence in your first few lines.

Flash Fiction is a GREAT discipline for focusing down on this. I recently judged the Tuesday Tales flash fiction contest over on the Glitter Word Blog and my top picks all had that winning combination: structure, word choice, rhythm.

In summary, my golden rules for a good first line:
1. It captures the distilled essence of a story
2. Its word order and sentence structure underscore key words
3. Its word choices are strong and appropriate

If you want to explore this more, here are some links...

Fiction Writing: Word Choice and Vocabulary

How crafty word order can instantly improve our writing

How Flash Fiction can help you become a better writer

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Does writing fast mean writing crap?

The world is ablaze with fingers tapping furiously on keyboards (or quills on parchment, whatever is your bag). It's November and these days that means two things:
1. Moustaches (if that makes no sense, google Movember)
2. National Novel Writing Month.



I'm a woman in my early thirties. Thankfully, moustache growing is a few years off yet (all things in good time). But NaNoWriMo?



Now that's tempting. However, commitment-phobe that I am, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I flirted with the website, posted my registration and then promptly disappeared. I was disappearing under an avalanche of work. My baby had a cough. I was too busy to write.

So I didn't. I daydreamed. Or twilight-dreamed to be precise. It's what I've always done in that lilac time just before sleep comes, when my muscles are easing back and my head is floating. I play with stories. Tease out characters. Dress them up, dress them down, given them trouble.

I've got a word for it now that I didn't know before. I call it composting. I've stolen that from someone, Stephen King perhaps (I liked On Writing a lot).

In the times when I can't write, I dream. I weave the stories and allow the idea to come. I build up a world in my head. Until at some point it just spills over and I sit down and write. Words come out of my finger tips, racing like ants. The page fills. I can write 5000 - 10000 words in a day.

At the beginning of November I had written 5000 words of Boundless as the Sea. At this midway point I've written nearly 30,000 of Boundless and about 5000 of Daughters of Leda. I've written on approximately four or five days, which means averaging 6000 words each of those days. Not bad.

Question is, is it crap?

And the answer is - no. Or at least I don't think so.

So let's take the month of November. Lots of folks are writing every day. They're clocking up their word count, making time. At the two thirds point they're on their way to hitting their goal.

Steady, planned. Getting there.

I have never, repeat, never been able to work like that. Not in my day job, not in my academic essays. I'm boom and bust, always have been. I'd cram my head full of reading, assemble pages of brightly highlighted notes and then I'd mainline coffee and write a five thousand word assignment right through the night. And it worked. At least for things of that length. I got the marks, good marks in the main. Firsts, sometimes.

The downside is, you burn out. You live for deadlines and then you flop. You can't sustain it over long periods (dissertations for example). Unfortunately, real life goes on. When your fire is more of a damp squib you still have to get your arse out of bed and go to work. And the world doesn't work to your schedule. Stuff needs done, delivered. Children need parenting, meals need cooking. Everything doesn't stop just because you're on it and the muse is calling.

There's a balance.



So some days I write, some days I don't. I go to work. Some weeks I'm on fire, some weeks I'm not. I paint, bake and do the mummy thing. But sometimes we just huddle up and watch cbeebies.

I'm thinking that this is okay. It might not be how it's supposed to work and from the outside it might look a little bit like chaos. But it works for me.

So I'm taking a stance on the 'you must write every day' brigade and indeed on the 'you must stick to one thing' police. I'm saying be a jack of all trades if it pleases you. It helps to keep the balance. Let your wordsmithery starve one week and then feast the next if it works for you. Why the devil not? Flick between two stories if your mood demands. Put your novel on the shelf for a few weeks if you need to, it won't go anywhere.

Just keep composting. Keep turning it all over, thinking it throw, exploring the angles. It's still writing.



You just haven't written it yet.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Being Plagued by Plaguery

This has NOT been a good month for blogging.

I've been struck by the plague. For two solid weeks I've been coughing up some sort of ectoplasmic substance worthy of an Exorcist remake whilst looking like the vanguard of the zombie apocalypse. Any day now someone is going to dash a red cross on the front door and wall me in.

It's a lowering thought to realise just how crap an old person I will make. I don't deal with illness in a dignified manner. I rage at it. I charge on through, downing lemsip and REFUSING to let it take me down.

Until the ectoplasm kicks in and I crumple on the sofa in a fit of coughing and finally, finally ring in sick, fretting all the time about the work that will mount up and feeling, frankly, extremely sorry for myself.

Of course, you're never ill in isolation. My little girl and I sound like a baritone version of a particularly poorly frog chorus. Cough, Cough, Cough AYAYYYYA. And my husband has taken to his bed, feeling wretched.

If there's one thing worse than illness, it's COMPETITIVE illness. Clearly we both believe ourselves to be iller than the other. I have the galloping consumption, he has man flu. Or not.




There is nothing like a nasty cold to leave you wishing for a mum to bring you tea, toast and cosy sofa blanket. You deserve those black and white films. You deserve that bottle of lucozade. You deserve being waited on hand and foot.

Unfortunately when you ARE the mum it just doesn't work out that way. And if I can't ENJOY being ill, I don't want to be ill.

I hate being ill because it means I waste time. I want to work. I want to play with my daughter. I want to function. And I want to write.

Instead I feel like I'm operating with half a brain.



And to add insult to injury my beloved netbook, which appears to be symbiotically linked to my immune system, is DOWN. It's buggy. It's spitting out win32 errors. It's refusing to let me access my control panel. It's losing it's internet connection. The poor baby is stuffed.

Well BOO to that.


I'm nailing it. I've taken the time off work. I've made a doctor's appointment. And I've got some bad ass antivirus software. For me, for him and for my netbook.

Or a lemsip, whatever.

But I have written nearly 20,000 words of my new story. Not bad for half a brain.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

#TuesdayTales 13: NaNoWriMo and Jaundice

This evening I got home at 7pm after working late, cooked the tea and spent the next hour or so dealing with tantrums of the 'nonononono I don't want to brush my teeth' variety (NB I was not the one having the tantrum).

By 9pm I'd fallen asleep putting my overtired baby to bed and thus didn't write the business plan I'd brought home. I had however, between stirs of my cheese sauce, managed to write my 100 word entry for this week's #TuesdayTales on the notepad my iPhone. The two prompts were:

1. The word JAUNDICED

2. A yellow hued picture of two empty chairs facing each other (you can see the image on @theGlitterLady's blog)

You can read my entry below:

It was a plague year.The pestilence had spread everywhere. Cassandra could smell it in the dank air, in the blank, jaundiced windows of empty houses and in the silence. The silence was the worst. Lifeless playgrounds, deserted streets. A yellowed poster hung, tattered and flapping on the townhall: 'Ambrosiol: Live Forever'. The wonder-drug of big pharma. Reverse aging. Become immortal.

Ambrosial. People couldn't get enough of it. Gods at last.

Hubris.

She'd told them all punishment would come. Cataclysmic. Cruel. No one believed Cassandra. Not until the first child died. Be immortal, the gods whispered. Suffer.


The exciting thing about the 13th #TuesdayTales wasn't @theGlitterLady's cleverness in having her Halloween week contest be number 13 (see what she did there?). It was the fact she turned it into a NaNoWriMo launch. Lots of this week's entries are the openers for NanoWriMo - a month long novel writing challenge. And the quality is HIGH.

I find myself jealous. There's a GREAT buzz of writerly excitement around NaNoWriMo. Twitter and the Blogosphere are alight with chat about it. There's a vast and supportive community forming and I WANT TO PLAY. But unless I make like Annette Benning in the wonderful 'Slipper and the Rose', wave my magic wand and declare 'Well why not? I'll just make time!' with the full force of my fairy godmother powers, I'm stuffed - because the aim of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Tantrums notwithstanding, that's a lot of stirring of the cauliflower cheese.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Back in the Saddle again

For the last few weeks my cup hath runneth empty. As I wrote in my last post, my output has been zilch. I've gone from writing 2000 words a day (or so) to writing nothing. Nada. Not so much as a squeck of flash fiction. Damn, I've barely known that it was Tuesday, never mind writing a tale for it!

I think it was a good time to take a holiday. After the wrong turn with New Voices and working like a demon in the day job, I'd kind of lost my mojo.

But it's back.



And hooray for that. I've got a few people to thank for bringing me back round but the main person is - and not for the first time - the fabulous Andrea Walpole (@AndreaWalpole), critique partner extraordinaire and walking inspiration. Not only does her writing go from strength to strength, but she's solid in her encouragement to get back in the saddle. So I have.

I've jettisoned the ill-favoured Star-crossed and embarked on the story of Sarah and Richard, two support characters from Merely Players who have always deserved a story of their own.

There's something particularly enjoyable about working with characters you already know. I know their family backgrounds. I know how they behave when they're under stress. I know their back story inside out - because I wrote it in Merely Players. The danger in that is that because I know them so well, I don't put in the information a reader needs to get to know them.




I've taken a break from Regency London and moved my novel to Paris. Why? I fancied a change. I wanted them to be out of their comfort zone. I wanted sensible Richard to be in a place he could cut loose far from his responsibilities and famous Sal to be in a place she was a nobody. Plus I have a soft spot for Paris, engendered by an abiding affection for the infinite wonders of These Old Shades - one of my favourite Georgette Heyer books of all time.



I'm being guided around the Paris of the early 1800s by two fine gentlemen, Paul Hervé and M. Gaglignani who wrote the exceedingly useful The new picture of Paris from the latest observations which is available to read on google books right here. God, I love google books.

This weekend I wrote chapter one, 4,500 words. I'm calling the new novel Boundless as the Sea - another Shakespearian reference, to keep with the theme established in Merely Players.

I would like to think that following my experiences with Merely Players, I would have carefully plotted this book. I haven't. I've dived right in with nothing but the most rudimentary roadmap to show me where to go. And I'm loving it.




I know that I no longer have much time to write, but I hope that when I do find the time, it's always as satisfying as it has been today.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Input versus output


I recently increased my working hours to full time. Previously I was contracted to work three days a week, but was working full time hours (the curse of the part time worker) now I'm contracted to work full time and thus am working full time and then some.

Plus of course, being a mum, which is always full time.

The impact of this, inevitably, has been on my writing. From writing three or four hours a day crammed into every moment available, I've gone to writing.... nothing. My head is entirely occupied with weaving strategies, setting stuff up and writing proposals.

But fiction writing is important to me - isn't it? It's the thing I want to do - isn't it?

Well yes, it is.

But it's a question of capacity. Not of hours in the day. I can prop my eyelids up with matches if I need to. It's to do with creative capacity and mental energy. When I was spending more time in the home and working primarily on work I was familiar with, my creative output was underutilised. I had to put it somewhere.

Now I'm engaged with new work, which requires creativity, strong focus and lots of mental energy, my output is exhausted and all I can do is suck creativity in. It's a curious balance I've noticed in myself. If I'm working at a burn-out high level of productivity in the workplace, at home all I want to do is read fiction. Or paint. Or draw. Or bake. I can't write fiction anymore.

When workplace productivity is on a downward dip (mundane work, or work I know well), or when I'm at home being a mum, my head is simmering with words which need expression.

I don't think my writing is going to die. I haven't given up on it. It's composting. Pretty soon the pendulum will spring and my creative brain will burst out of hibernation and into blossom.

And hopefully, it will be better for having had the break.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Spotlight on.... New Voices Historical Romance

Today I want to put the spotlight on two great new voices who are currently featured in the Mills & Boon New Voices contest. Firstly...



Andrea Walpole, author of To be Married in Haste

If I waved a magic wand and transformed To be Married in Haste into food it would be delicious sherbet; light, frothy and fizzing with fun.

Andrea's descriptions of clothes (drawing on a professional background in tailoring) are mouth-watering superb. Her characters are well drawn. Her heroine, Betty, is smart and gutsy and her hero, Edward, is romantic, idealistic and whimsical. Most importantly Andrea's dialogue and prose are laced with humour, as in this scene:

“Take care sir!” She stepped forward, closing the gap between them, her arms outstretched in a futile gesture as her hands would barely reach his knees. The man cocked his head, moonlight falling upon his chiselled jaw.

“Have no fear my sweet, I have the feet of a cat.”

He swept her another bow, deeper than the first. Losing his balance, one arm flailed for the security of the lamp post and his body bucked back and forth before he steadied himself.

She spied a glint of white even teeth. A grin? Betty clenched her fists. “More like the brains of a cat,” she muttered.

“Too harsh of you, my sweet, although I think I underestimated the importance of possessing a tail."


Edward isn't an alpha male. If bristling muscles and thunderous tempers are your cup of tea, this might not be for you. But if what you enjoy is regency wit and sparkle, reminiscent of Georgette Heyer's Cotillion and you like reading Loretta Chase or Julia Quinn then get voting for To Be Married in Haste.

Read Chapter One here.



Helen Kolacevic, author of Shameless.

There are three things I love about Shameless:

1. The warmth and believability of the relationships between the characters. The opening scene starts with the heroine, Martha, speaking to her cousin Beth. They are both great characters. Martha, who appears confident and determined, has a great deal of hidden vulnerability. Beth, who appears dreamier and less confident, has a great deal of hidden steel. She is the perfect foil to Martha and remains so throughout the book. The interplay between the male characters is similar and Martha and the Duke are a wonderful pair of duelling protagonists who find they meet each other's needs in ways they don't expect.

2. The dialogue between Martha and the Duke: it's poised, witty and charged with tension. Wonderfully done.

3. The sensuality of the relationship between Martha and the Duke. Helen does a great job of building up mental and emotional tension, in tandem with physical tension making each intimacy part of the relationship and its mental and emotional challenges. It's really well done.

If you like the novels of Anne Gracie (such as the Merridew Sisters series) or Nicola Cornick then you'll love Shameless.

Read Chapter One here.

I have my fingers crossed that both Andrea and Helen succeed in progressing through to the next round of Mills & Boon's New Voices contest. They both have talent and originality and craftsmanship and their work deserves a wide audience.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

On trusting your instincts


It is, they say, a lady's prerogative to change her mind. Not two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Writing What you Love". In this I declared I wasn't entering New Voices, because I was bored by the story (Star-Crossed) I had in mind for it.
"I wrote the first scene and I loved it. Then I wrote the second scene and didn't love it so much. Then I wrote chapter two and sort of enjoyed it but frankly, felt a bit bored."

And I meant it, really I did! Only then I found my lovely, talented critique partners (more on them in the next post) submitted and I started chatting to some great folks (*waves to @katherinelbone and @valkyriesedge*) on twitter and I got that feeling. That I DON'T WANT TO BE LEFT OUT feeling.

Blame my parents. I'm the 11th of 12 kids. I am practically phobic of missing out. I live in a permanent state of wanting to sit at the big kids table. I want to play.

So I did it.

I submitted Chapter One of Star-Crossed.



Now let's pause for a moment. Merely Players was a year in the writing (give or take) and the first chapter was re-written more than ten times before I was happy with it. It was tossed back and forth between two critique partners and several beta readers. And it still needed work.

Star-Crossed had a first draft, a polish (with a few experiments with different second scenes) and then I chucked it in the pool.

Which smacks of arrogance, lunacy or not giving a toss - and maybe a little of all three.

I don't *think* I'm an arrogant devil-may-care lunatic, but there is a little bit of me that likes a gamble. The same streak that buys a lottery ticket every week and is drawn to big gift fundraising as a career. That feeling that you don't know what's round the corner, that if you put your hat in the ring you might, might just get lucky.

On the whole I think it's a good trait.

But maybe not when crucifying yourself in front of an audience of romance readers. It is (ongoing) a salutary experience. So here are five things I have learned from taking the plunge with Mills & Boon's New Voices contest:

1. Trust your instincts. Assuming you're not riddled with self hatred, if you're not sure about something you have written and you think it's not up to scratch - it probably isn't.

2. Don't underestimate readers, especially romance readers. They read voraciously. They are discerning. They have high standards. Refer back to salutary lesson #1.

3. If you put yourself out there, be prepared to take your feedback on the chin. Be dignified, be appreciative and understand that if you go public you have to take the flack.

4. Find people who can give you support and encouragement. Not just your mum. Lovely twitter folks, writers and mentors, critique partners - people who can help you to learn and grow from your experiences (thanks here to Helen, Andrea, Katherine, Remy, Joanna and others).

5. Give support to others. You're not the only one exposing your baby to the world's cruel eyes. Give some love. If you think someone is good, say so. If you know what they can improve, tell them. What goes around, comes around my friend.

Having given it such a good sell (ahem) if you would like to read my premature baby Star-Crossed, you can find it on New Voices.

Not all have had my dismal performance however. Here are some sparkling new voices to check out (and I hope they all do well!):



Historical

For witty dialogue and comic timing go and check out Andrea Walpole's To be Married in Haste.

For wonderful characterisation and sizzling sensuality check out Helen Kolacevic's Shameless.

Paranormal

For a bad-ass heroine and demons galore check out Blue Remy's From Hel, with love

Passions

For old world italian sensuality meets sharp american business woman, see Katherine Bone's Lost Treasure, Captive Princess.

Enjoy!