Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A love affair with antiquity...

Maybe it's because I studied Classical Civilisations at University, or maybe it was an early diet of Indiana Jones film (peppered with Clash of the Titans) but I do have a soft spot for novels featuring treasure hunters. Or Egyptologists. Or even the humble coptic script scholar. Frankly, having a heroine with a brain in her head and a modicum of practicality is a good start.

Here is a run down of my top three romances-with-a-touch-of-antiquity (in reverse order):

3. Louise Allen's The Notorious Mr Ravenhurst
I like Louise Allen and I've enjoyed pretty much all of the Ravenhurst series. But this one I love. I love the way Nell Ravenhurst blossoms and becomes her own woman; I love Theo Ravenhurst's broad-mindedness and good humour and I love their blossoming friendship which slips into passion. Both main protagonists are misfits in their own way but they are also brave, resourceful and funny. Furthermore the book's stuffed full of treasure-hunters, dungeons, priceless sex toys and the odd random minor royal. What's not to love?

2. Loretta Chase's Mr Impossible
I only just finished Loretta Chase's Mr Impossible which was absolutely top notch stuff - endearing characters, witty dialogue and pacy plotting. The minor characters are funny and well drawn, there are mummies and murders; crocodiles and corruption; a touching, sweetly unfurling and very funny love affair between two opposites who are a perfect fit. Loretta Chase at her absolute best. I'm now officially A Big Fan. It was a slowly kindled love affair with the Chase canon - I read Lord Perfect many moons ago and hadn't been that taken with it mainly because I felt that Bathsheba - the heroine - lacked gumption. Lord Perfect has hovered on my keepers shelf, because I'm not sure how I feel about it - I liked it, but I didn't love it. However, after all the raves on Smart Bitches Trashy Books and a sneaking suspicion that I was Missing Out on Something, I decided to give the lovely Loretta another whirl. It turns out benevolent fate was giving me second chance. A box of books from my big sister brought me Mr Impossible and I was hooked. Hurray for that! If you like your tomb raiding served with a side order of wit and verve, Loretta Chase is your woman. Straight in at number two.

1. Connie Brockway's As you Desire
Connie Brockway describes As you Desire as her favourite and also her least successful book. The latter I just do not understand. As Ms Brockway herself says: it's a damn fine book. Based on a romance between an egyptologist heroine and an dyselexic action hero, As you Desire caught me from the first few pages. Its beginning turns romantic conventions on their head, tickled my sense of humour from the offset (romantic dream hero turns out to be unromantic childhood friend who is secretly the romantic hero) and did a fantastic job of establishing romantic tension. Furthermore it contains the absolutely most romantic speech I have ever read a hero give to/or about a heroine. It sent shivers down my spine and butterflies to my stomach. I practically wept. I would have given my eyeteeth to have written it myself, but I am almost equally as delighted to have the pleasure of reading it. Highly recommended!

Of course I'm keen to immerse myself in that whole world now. I now have the following books on my 'to be read' shelf (and kindle virtual shelf):
Egypt: How a Lost Civilisation was Rediscovered, by Joyce Tyldesley
The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris with Lary O'Connor
Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers by Jane Robinson
Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole

I'm trying to hold off from plunging into them because what I don't need is being sidetracked yet further from focusing on my work in progress. I get sidetracked into exciting new projects too easily and so I am repeating a mantra to myself: I WILL finish this one!

So far I have part written a romance about vampire spies; a romance about elven assassins; and a romance about a selkie and a witch. Sigh (you can guess where I rate on a Belbin Personality Test... 0 for completer finisher). And then there's my current work in progress; a romance about a methodist and a playwright.

I WILL finish this one!

To facilitate my writing progress, my trawl through anecdotes of women travellers and egyptologists will have to wait. However in the meantime, I would happily and gratefully receive any book recommendations for romances in this vein. Romance reading is of course not a distraction, it's crucial to the maintenance of a sanguine mind (especially when augmented by a hot bath). A good romance plus a hot bath is the formula for a relaxing evening: better than prozac, laughing gas and a tickle all rolled into one.

Especially if it features an egyptologist!

(Let me know if you've read any good ones)

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Trial by Fire: Scrivener for Windows (beta) Reviewed

I've been curious about writing software for a while. By which I mean, writing software which goes beyond straightforward word processing and which is geared towards supporting a novelist in crafting their creative writing. Having googled about on t'interweb I came across Scrivener, a neat and reasonably priced piece of work crafted by a chap who seems to know what he's talking about. I had a good read through Scrivener's key features and I was impressed by what I saw. The software features useful little tricks such as:

  • a digital corkboard complete with virtual index cards

  • an outliner tool, for easy viewing and editing of synopses etc

  • the ability to edit in sections on in one composite text

  • full screen editing mode for times you just want to focus

Like many funky and creative things, Scrivener is created for Mac users. Sadly, I do not have the budget to embrace the magical world of Apple (though my iphone is the thin end of the wedge) and so I am restricted to Windows XP on my netbook. Happily, the clever people behind Scrivener have recognised that there are a group of us writing in the technological equivalent of a garret and have reached out the hand of friendship: Scrivener for Windows (SfW) is in Beta testing phase, due to be released in April.

Excited by this development I decided to take the plunge and to give the Beta version of SfW a whirl. In the same instant the thought entered my mind, my fingers were busy on the keyboard downloading this piece of technological magic and minutes later SfW was installed and ready for action.

The first thing I did was to import my work in progress (see last post). The actual import itself was relatively easy to do but was followed by a fairly laborious manual process of copying and pasting the 40,000 word long manuscript into different sections to take advantage of Scrivener's outlining tools. I don't think there is a quick and easy way to do this but it was worth the time and effort, because support with outlining and structuring is - I think - Scrivener's strongest suit.

Scrivener for Research and Planning
One of my (many) weak points is plotting (not in the conniving way). As I have mentioned before, when I start a new work in progress, my starting point is usually a scene or a situation: a ancient Greek antihero appearing in a girl's bedroom; an overheard conversation; a girl seeing a parrot for the first time; a hungover man being upbraided by a methodist temperance advocate. A situation anyway.

I usually mean to just note down the afore mentioned situation, but I start writing and before I know it I'm three chapters in and sailing uncharted waters without map or compass.

Here's where I find Scrivener useful: I'm 40,000 words in and I'm struggling to remember what all my character's look like; I need to know what their backstories are and what their first cousin twice removed is called. I could type all this out in word and save it to a file but it's a pain referring back to them all the time. I could write it out longhand, stick pictures to the paper and put it in a ring binder, but it's too static - it doesn't allow for the evolution of my character's, or for their emerging characters. Sometimes I only find out an aspect of that backstory part the way along. I want to have the flexibility to allow for that. Enter Scrivener.

In Scrivener I can write out character summaries and stick them into my project. I can refer to them and update them whenever I want, flicking between my notes and my manuscript whenever I like. I can attach images to my notes too, which helps enormously when trying to write authentically about the appearance of one of my protagonists. Here is an example:

I like this functionality!

Scrivener for Outlining
Now let's go back to where I was, 40,000 into my novel. Not only are my characters morphing and wriggling but my plot is shaky too. I had a vague idea of where I was going - a general direction, if you like. But I'm getting stuck. I'm also concerned as to whether my manuscript is balanced - whether I'm getting a good distribution between my character's points of views and whether the emerging romance is being given enough of a priority. Scrivener to the rescue! Scrivener allows me to split my novel into chapters and scenes and to make notes on each element. I can look at this information in multiple ways - via the cork board or the outlining tool, or just in the left hand binder. Once I have analysed it, I can rearrange it - trying scenes out in different orders and inserting missing scenes where they are needed, to build up my characters as required.

Here are a couple of views of my work in progress:

There are some great excel-based outlining tools around for free download from the internet, but Scrivener makes the process much more intuitive - and I love that it can be played with and altered as you go along.

Breaking down the work in this way makes it much less intimidating. When I see holes in my story, psychologically I'm not thinking about a full scale rewrite (yet) but zoning in on bite size pieces. For example, I realised that I needed to include two characters from my heroine's chapel so that the reader could benchmark the scale of her religious fervor and get a sense of where she is coming from. I was able to stand back from my text and take an overview of where in the novel Ernestina and Fortitude should be placed. Inserting the scenes was a doddle - I didn't feel like I was messing with a great big monolithic text but just having fun with a scene or two.

I'm now using Scrivener to map out the steps I need to take to get to the end of my novel. I feel more confident in mapping out the plot because I don't feel like it's a straightjacket - or something that will become redundant almost as soon as it's written. I'm strongly led by my characters and sometimes they just don't seem to want to do what I decided they should when I started writing. I need to reflect, adjust and reconsider the direction of the action. Scrivener's outlining tools enable me to do that quite effectively.

I'm hoping that this will be the one that I finally finish!

And Scrivener with Bugs and Black SpotsIt's not all joy though - this is a beta test version and there are bugs to be ironed out and features I would like to see. I would love to be able to colour code the folders and scenes in my binder, so that I can see at a glance which characters 'own' them. I would like to be able to view character notes and images at the same time, and look at them parallel to my text (I see in one of the case studies, the author does this by using two computer screens). I would like to see arrow commands at the foot of the binder - it would make shifting folders about more intuitive. Most importantly, I would like to see the formatting improved.

I imported my work in progress in rich text format (exported from word). When it imported it looked kind of as though the font had been made bold and the only way I could change that was by copying and pasting the style from other parts of the text. Scene by bloody scene. When I compose in Scrivener, it automatically imposes an indented paragraph, whereas the text I imported wasn't indented. I don't seem to be able to remove the indent in the new text, or to add the indent in the imported text - when I export to word for final formatting, I'm sure this will be sorted but in the mean time it's messy and a bit annoying. I would like the text throughout to be formatted the same way. I'm not sure whether this is a beta bug or a Scrivener thing or my own stupidity - it's something I'm going to look into.

The Final VerdictOverall, Scrivener gets a resounding thumbs up from me. I wish I had had it when writing other intimidatingly long and complex documents - it would have been invaluable when writing my Masters dissertation, for example (but in those days I was practically writing with a quill and ink pot, technology luddite that I was).

I would be interested to hear about other people's experiences of using writing software and how you think it might have helped - or hindered you. What do you use it for? What do you find helpful and unhelpful?

For those who are interested, I just came across a really interesting blog post on people publishing direct from Scrivener to Kindle (I'm guessing the Scrivener 2 Mac version) - my two new loves come together!

Friday, 11 March 2011

My Story, My Collage

I recently read an essay by Jennifer Crusie which really caught my fancy (you can read it here). It was on the art of collage making as pre-writing inspiration.

I like art. I have a near-forgotten GCSE in the subject and have dabbled with acrylics and oils over the years. And when I say dabbled, I don't mean I'm a self-deprecating secret Picasso, I really mean dabbled. I'm not particularly good, but I enjoy it. For quite a long time I've fancied trying a collage. I like artworks which look visceral, textured and tactile. I have a friend who is brilliant at creating stuff like this. She will capture a image and transform it into something multilayered and fascinating using nothing but a few pairs of old tights and some fishing wire. She can see things other people don't see. I'm not as creative as that, but I loved what Jenny Crusie had to say about using art to bring out the themes your subconscious is trying push in your story - so I thought I would give it a go.

The story I wanted to focus on is a half-written novel I'm calling Merely Players. It's set in 1821 and centres on the relationship between an aristocratic playwright and the daughter of a primitive methodist preacher. My heroine, Rachel, has been brought up on the bible and spends her days working in the slums of London. In the novel she is caught between the glittering and somewhat tawdry world of the theatre and her father's mission in the slums of London.

I started writing this novel a month or so ago when my poor, beleaguered fantasy historical ground to a halt because I couldn't make the behaviour of the characters correlate with what I felt their personalities to be. My fantasy historical and I parted company, due to irreconcilable differences. I will rescue my heroine from it at some point because I love her dearly, but she deserves better than I am able to offer her right now.

So Merely Players commenced. Not a fantasy - I lost confidence in my world building - but a straightforward historical romance, taking a theme which is closer to home for me (a very religious father) and written from the heart. I started by writing a scene, which is how I always start (I have a scene in my head I want to get down on paper). Then I wrote from there, allowing the story to flow and not doing too much plotting or research. I just wanted to get it out on paper.

The problem with my method, is that sooner or later I run aground. I find myself having to skip back constantly to check for consistency and having to rewrite bits because I'm getting to know my characters and find I understand better how they should behave. So it is at this interim stage of 40,000 words or so that I find myself stopping and digging into research and deciding to make a collage.

Here is the finished product:

Like I said, not Picasso. But it did tell me some interesting things. For example, the largest part of the image has ended up being a makeshift impression of 19th century Whitechapel (where my heroine lives). I wanted claustrophobic narrow streets, dark housing and factories coughing up smoke. This is the first part of the picture I completed. In the context of the whole collage, this part of the picture enables the viewer to peek at slum housing through the frame of an archway. When I think about it, the arch looks not unlike the proscenium arch of a stage. That wasn't intentional. I put that in because I liked the composition, but when I think about it, perhaps there is something in my story about people being actors in spheres beyond the conventional stage. It's interesting that the slums spread so far across the image. When I thought about the story, they were merely a footnote - a reason perhaps for Rachel to be in London. In fact, in putting together the collage I realise that poverty and its influence is far more integral to the story than I had realised.

The slum part of the picture was built up from stripped out cardboard, brown paper and (taking a tip from my friend) old tights. One thing personal touch was to use some pages of one of my Georgette Heyer books (Frederica). The book was yellowed with age and had fallen to bits, beyond the point of repair. Sacrilege or homage, who can tell? I then stippled and sponged dark paint over the whole. The execution is far from artistic but I know what I mean. Here's a close up:

The next part I put together was Rachel herself. In my mind's eye, Rachel has a look of Clare Danes in teen series My So Called Life - though not her personality. She is pale, dark eyed and red haired with a certain gravity about her. In the story, I have perhaps been making Rachel too timid. She has more depth and maturity than I have been giving her credit for. She is wearing her trademark cap and dark cloak (made of a doily and, you guessed it, woolen tights). It gives her a puritan look, almost nun-like - but also mysterious and a little alluring:

I wanted to add a touch of the theatre to the collage, but no more than a touch. When I was trying to visualise it in my mind's eye, I considered making the theatre the backdrop, all gilded and glorious. It felt wrong. It looked wrong. The slums are the backdrop, the theatre is merely spice. So I added a theatre curtain, just at one side. It partly obscured Rachel and that's part of the story too - the theatre becomes a place to hide. The curtain is made from an off cut of sari silk - it represents something exotic in Rachel's life:

I wanted to have a cluster of jewels on the collage. I'm not really sure why, but my suspicion is that they will work their way into the story at some point. I have a brooch and a cluster of "emeralds" and also a gold ring, though you can't see that on here (it needs reattaching). I'm almost curious about why they are there - but I feel sure that they should be and that these were the right jewels to pick. I had a load of beads to pick from but I was drawn by these:

Lastly, running across the image is a swathe of translucent white material which divides Rachel, the theatre and the jewels from the dark poverty of Whitechapel. Again, I'm not sure about where this choice came from - it just seemed right. I wanted to have something like a veil floating across the collage and I wanted it to drift a little, hiding and revealing depending on where it lay. There's something in this about hiding, deceiving, separating and revealing - all of which I think will be worked into the story.

I don't think my collage has written my story for me, but it has helped to crystallise my emotional response to the story that is unfolding. And it has enabled me to get to know my heroine. I feel like I know her inside out now - what has made her become the person she is; what her subconscious drivers are and what attracts her too. It's like the moment of falling in love.

The only problem now is that I feel like I have such a strong impression of Rachel that my hero, Ghis, now seems a bit insubstantial and indistinct.

Back to the drawing board!

More seriously, I would be curious to know what you see in this picture (and I'm not referring to artistic merit) - other perspectives might help me to pick up on themes and symbols I haven't yet noticed myself.