Saturday, 10 November 2018
'Where do you get your ideas from? Oh for a ten pound note for every time I've been asked that. I've now had over 300 short stories published, plus serials, articles, and now my eighth novel is to be published next month. I can't say I've ever analysed where my ideas come from, but for the purposes of this blogpost I thought I'd give it a go. CHRISTMAS AT STRAND HOUSE is set, well, at Christmas. a time for families and friends to get together. What if you have no family? Or friends, only acquaintances? Could you make a happy and memorable Christmas from less than happy circumstances? So I decided to take four disparate characters with nowhere to go and no-one with whom to spend Christmas and over 80,000 words try to knit them together. I'll take Lissy first as the house in the title is now hers, willed to her by her godmother. I am a godmother. A not very good one - two Roberts and an Emily. I often think of them but I'm not the best present buyer and I certainly won't be able to will any of them a house. But a friend of mine was willed the most fabulous house by her godmother and it got me thinking .... how might something like that change your life, especially if you are now on your own, post divorce, and desperate for change? (I've never been divorced but know many who are) It was a bit of a light bulb moment and I thought I might be able to get a book out of it.
Saturday, 3 November 2018
|Beautiful stars... (public domain)|
No, not those stars. Not the ones that twinkle in a clear summer sky. I’m talking about the ones that corrupt and compromise you, the ones that make you feel bad about yourself, the ones that hammer home your own irrationality and, days, weeks or even months later, leave you riddled with guilt.
They’re the stars that review sites insist you allocate before you leave your thoughts on a book.
Generally speaking I avoid giving star ratings, but as I’ve recently tried to do a lot more reviewing, on the grounds that it’s a way to help writers and also help readers find books they want to read, I’ve been forced into it. When I review on my blog, I don’t leave a star rating, but Amazon, Goodreads and Netgalley, which are the places I’m now regularly posting, won’t let you get away with that.
I find it a huge problem. Not because I hate giving a bad review, because that’s easily dealt with purely by not reviewing a book if I can’t give it at least three stars, and preferably four. But reviewing is subjective, and while you can build that into the text of a review, the raw star rating doesn’t allow it.
So on what basis should I score a book on a scale of between one and five? Because it’s a good book? But we’ll almost certainly differ on what constitutes a good book, and I can think of a lot of good books I haven’t enjoyed, and some bad ones I did.
Some of the differences between four and five stars may be nothing to do with the book itself. They might include:
- whether I’m in the particular mood for that particular book at that particular time
- whether I like the place it’s set, or find a well-written character irritating
- the frame of mind I’m in when I read it (gritty, violent, scary books will get a lower score if I’m feeling frail and in need of cuddles, whereas you’ll probably always get a higher rating for something feel-good)
- whether I’ve read a book with a similar plot that was better.
I’ve reached an uncomfortable accommodation with my soul over this. I read books for pleasure, so my default position is that I would expect to give every book I read at least four stars. If a book falls short it might get three. But the difference between three, four and five stars probably isn’t one of quality but is all about me and my expectations.
I might as well admit to my inconsistencies. I’m too old to grapple with a qualitative rating system so I’ll give stars for enjoyment, and I reserve the right to be inconsistent.
Saturday, 27 October 2018
Sex - a topic that's not been covered on this blog before. So here goes ..... first up is Victoria Cornwall. 'I don't have a problem writing sex scenes, partly because I find describing the easiest part of the writing process. I am also a former nurse who taught sex health promotion to teenagers for several years so if I can cope with that, I can cope with most things. However, I don't use graphic names to describe a mechanical process with what might be considered modern language. There are some very successful authors who write historical romance, use this approach and have legions of very loyal fans. However, every reader is different and books like those are not the sort of historical romances that I enjoy. I write lovemaking scenes which concentrate on how the character feels - their nerves, confidence, anticipation, desire and the consequences they may face afterwards (whether it's good or bad). Some of my novels stop at kissing or the foreplay stage, whilst others go all the way. With the latter scenes it might stop at the bedroom door or go on to describe a very passionate session. I want the reader to wonder 'will they or won't they', but be equally satisfied whichever way it turns out. Writing a sex scene is not about the act, it's about the "almost" moments too, as the build-up is as important, if not more so. I could never write erotica however I try to make my novels realistic to the period they are set in and, as we all know, women have had to fight (and are still fighting) for respect in this department. At the end of the day, my greatest fans are my close and extended family and friends and at the back of my mind I know that one day they will be reading it. Maybe this is why I write like I do and erotica, graphic and mechanical description is most definitely off the table.'
Kath McGurl has this to say. 'When I got my first book deal, my younger son - then 16 - was horrified. He sat me down one day, for a serious talk. 'Mum, if you ever decide to write, you know, erotica and all that smutty stuff, promise me, promise me, you'll use a pseudonym, and you will never, never, tell me what that pseudonym is. I just don't want to ever know your sordid little sexual fantasies, all right?' I promised him. Of course I did - what else could I do? And actually, I don't write erotica, under any name (well, if I did I could hardly admit it here, somewhere he could trace back to me, could I? But I do put a little bit of sex into my novels, when it's needed to advance the story. Just a bit. No squelchy details, nothing my son could call 'smutty stuff'. Nothing that would cause him to squire with embarrassment.. He doesn't read my books anyway!'
Saturday, 20 October 2018
These days we all know if we want to make a career out of our writing or, whisper it, even to make some money, we have to treat it like running a small business. We also have to put ourselves out there on social media - something I personally fail at dismally most of the time, much too far out of my comfort zone. We also know, especially if we’re traditionally published, a lot of things are out of our control and down to our publisher and those dratted things on Amazon etc known as algorithms.
Having run several small catering businesses in the past I know how hard managing a business can be. But running a writing business isn’t like running any other business. Even though I spent a lot of time working in the kitchen when catering, I had helpers and I’d meet the customers. I had social interaction within the course of my working day. Writers invariably work alone for hours at a time in front of a screen these days getting the words down without a lot of input from other people. The real business of writing starts after the book is finished.
These days it’s all about networking and making useful contacts with fellow authors, bloggers and readers, doing guest posts, having an up-to-date website - the list goes on, for both independent and traditionally published authors.
Reading the blog of friend and fellow RNA member, Alison Morton this week, I realised just how much effort and time has gone into her success as an independent author publishing her award winning bestselling Roma Nova thrillers. She makes my current paltry efforts on Twitter and Facebook look . . . well even paltrier to be honest.
Alison lists everything she still has to do or organise after the book is written - and it’s a huge amount of work: commissioning a cover design, editing and proofreading, formatting. Granted if you’re published traditionally the publisher takes responsibility for a lot of these but these days they do expect authors to do a lot more marketing than back in the day. I found Alison’s pre-launch routine as a part of her marketing campaign particularly interesting:
‘While you’re waiting for copy-edits or structural edits or beta readers and at least 4-6 weeks before publication date, you spend days at the email coalface contacting all the friends, fellow authors, bloggers and reviewers you know to ask for their help launching your treasure. You will have set up a spreadsheet, of course, to track it all to include name, email, website, what you agree on after a little negotiation (guest post, review, Q&A), date agreed, date drafted and date sent.’
Now I do try to do most of those things but I have to admit the phrase that scared me half to death was the one containing the word ‘spreadsheet’. I do of course keep records but it has never occurred to me to use a spreadsheet. I’ve always thought of spreadsheets as being the preserve of accountants and the like. In fact I confess I didn’t know and honestly couldn’t see how it would work for keeping the kind of records writers need to keep. So I took myself off to Youtube and watched a couple of videos hoping to learn and be inspired. All I can say is that my brain froze. Can I just say I am in awe of anybody that can create, update and understand a spreadsheet. As for me I shall just have to keep to my tried and trusted method of pen and diary - and a simple back up document on the computer.
I’d love to know how everyone else keeps track of all their social media and marketing skills.
Here’s the link for Alison’s very informative blog - its well worth a read: https://alisonmortonauthor.com/blog/
Saturday, 13 October 2018
What do 1976, 1984 and 2018 have in common? Along with a few other occasions, these are years when the Haweswater reservoir in Cumbria has dried out so much that the ruins of a village are exposed.
Mardale Green was demolished in the 1930s to make way for the reservoir, which is the main source of water for Manchester. A dam was built, and the small lake that had graced the valley expanded. A whole community was lost – farms, homes, roads, a church and a pub.
The villagers were compensated, but all had to move out after the dam was built , to see their homes destroyed and then lost beneath the water. Even the dead were moved – graves in the churchyard were exhumed and reburied elsewhere.
When the reservoir dries out, the remains of walls are revealed, the outlines of cottages, dry stone walls marking old field boundaries, rusty iron gates. There’s even an intact stone bridge, that crossed the stream that ran through the valley, revealed when the water drops low enough.
I’m a long-time lover of the Lake District, and visited Haweswater in the spring of 2016, when the reservoir was full and the valley at its most beautiful. There was snow on the mountain tops and the previous year’s brown bracken on the slopes. Downstream of the dam the fields were lush and green, filled with the season’s new lambs.
|Hiking up the Old Corpse Road above Haweswater, the inspiration for my novel The Drowned Village|
We parked in the car park at the top end of the reservoir. There’s a faded information board there about the history of the valley, and as I was reading it my friend said to me, ‘Hey, Kath, you could write a novel about this!’
For the rest of the day that was all I could think about, and by the time we came down from the mountains I had the beginnings of a story idea in my head. What if, my novelist’s brain suggested, a secret was hidden in the village, lost when the valley was flooded, only to resurface in a drought year? Something important, something that would resolve an ancient mystery...
That idea eventually became my novel The Drowned Village, which was published by HarperCollins in September 2018. I seem to have predicted the summer’s drought – my friends are all now asking me for next week’s lottery numbers.
It’s not the only time life has imitated art, or at least, imitated the plot of my books. In my first book, The Emerald Comb, an ancient skeleton is revealed when a tree blows down in a storm. A year or so after publication, a friend sent me a link to an article about how a thousand-year old skeleton was revealed when a tree fell down in County Sligo, Ireland.
Hmm, what will come true next, I wonder? Let’s see, what’s in my next book...
Friday, 5 October 2018
I’m going to break with tradition today and share a blog post that Heather Webb wrote on WritersUnboxed.com. I read this post once, twice, and a third time. The writing is stellar – not surprising. Heather is a master. She handles this potentially incendiary issue with grace and insight. I’ve provided a link to WritersUnboxed at the end of the post, along with more info about Heather and her amazing books.
Happy writing, friends. May the muse be with you.
Can You Write a Modern Woman?
By: Heather Webb
Posted on WriterUnboxed.com on September, 27, 2018
This is one of those topics that’s sticky and tricky and I have to admit, I had my qualms about posting it. In the end, it seemed too important a topic NOT to post. Important in today’s climate and mostly, important to those of us who want to be the best fiction writers we can be. (I also thank Therese Walsh, who quietly nudged me to be brave.)
Recently, I worked on three different client manuscripts written by male writers. One of the writers in particular, showed very skillful writing. It was gripping, well-paced, and had interesting metaphors. In fact, I was happily reading along with few comments until about page eight when something happened in the narrative that made me realize—oh, crap, THIS CHARACTER IS A FEMALE. I scratched my head, trying to figure out what was missing. The character was a little rougher around the edges, an anti-princess if you will, which was great. I love a rough-and-tumble female character with a side of badass, so this wasn’t the problem. I started reading from the beginning again, looking for clues. How had I missed this?
And then it hit me, on my second read. This protagonist, in fact, all three protags from the client books I mention above, were missing the same thing. A fundamental piece of being a woman was absent.
The protagonists lacked both body and spatial awareness.
What does that even mean, spatial awareness? Being proud/ashamed of your body and/or your physical skills is certainly a part of spatial awareness, but it extends far beyond this. It’s something that is deeply programmed in our psyches, as women. A message that grows louder as we gain experiences, most of them negative, but some good, too.
And then there’s our relationship to men, and how it relates to this awareness.
It doesn’t matter the male’s size, shape, or ethnicity, his clothing or social status. A male’s age might matter some, but that’s about it. When confronted with men they do not know and in an exposed situation, most, if not all, women feel like a rabbit hopping through a field littered with foxes and coyotes and hawks and eagles. The predators may look different, but they ALL want to chase that rabbit. Rabbits are food for many species after all. Some rabbits are wily and escape, some are just plain fast and get away, and some have strong hind legs and kick the crap out of the predator to fend them off. None of these things change the simple fact that women are still rabbits. They are the prey.
Maybe this is a silly analogy. Certainly, there are wonderful people and horrible people out there, weak and strong, regardless of their sexual orientation, and great and weak writers regardless of their gender. There are also many wonderful men. This is not a male-bashing post, not at all. That’s not my point. Neither is my point that it’s always the men whose female characters lack this body and spatial awareness in their stories—though it’s much more common, and I’ve got a stack of edited manuscripts to prove it.
My point is about craft.
Do your characters reflect this body and spatial awareness? We writers need to take note of these concepts to create the most believable, effective, unforgettable characters we can, so let’s look at some tips to help with this.
Women compare themselves to each other, in large part because of growing up in a world that bombards us with ugly messages, but it’s also part of our hard wiring to compete for a male in order to procreate and further the species. (Not to go all anthro on you, but anthropology helps us understand these impulses. Also, check out The Female Brain and conversely The Male Brain by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine.) These factors can create an inferiority—or superiority–complex but it can also explain why there is so much emphasis on how women look. This develops into an acute awareness of the way others regard their bodies, and how that changes over time. Women internalize these messages and it becomes a part of the way we, in turn, view ourselves. This could be quite negative or positive.
A female character will notice how she feels. I’m not referring to straight-forward emotions that result from some event in the character’s life. I’m referring to hormonal surges and changes in both mood and physique due to these hormones. They’re cyclical in a woman’s body so it makes sense that we would have constant awareness of these things. Examples of physical changes include aches and the way her body changes after having children—and not just their hips and thighs. Perhaps now she has developed migraines or weird allergies or skin issues post-pregnancy or post-menopause. These sorts of things. We are always on the look out for something shifting and changing inside of us, and how that will affect us on the outside as well.
Females are very aware of who is walking in front of them, behind them, beside them. They take note of the distance between them and any male nearby. If they have a choice, they will often move to the side of the street next to another female or select a seat on a bus/train/plane/theater next to other women. It’s safety in numbers and in distance, you see. These are things we think about every single day.
Even in my quaint, wooded little town, I keep my front door locked when my husband isn’t home, and I don’t answer the door when a male I don’t know rings the bell. When the lawn guys are around the neighborhood, I’m keenly aware of where they are and how close they are to the house. If I’m out at night or walking through a parking garage, I tend to find someone to walk with at a distance, or I have my phone at the ready and literally dart to my destination, walking as fast as I can without appearing like a total spazz.
Women are always at risk. We are extremely aware of who and what is around us and the minute we stop paying attention could not only be dangerous, it could be LIFE-THREATENING.
I can’t emphasize this enough. Your female protagonist, therefore, will not walk through a dark parking lot without listening for footsteps or looking over her shoulder, or at least taking stock of the environment around her. If your female protagonist gets into a car with a strange man, or goes home with a strange man from a bar, etc, be careful how you depict her motivations. She must be very naïve or drunk or have a death wish because of pain in her past that has heavily damaged her self-worth to do such a thing. Or maybe she’s a cop or an assassin and knows she can take down anyone. There has to be a strong motivation that is valid, because we’re not buying it. Most women know they must watch their backs at all times.
Disclaimer Note: I need to add in an important note here. Gender is an incredibly nuanced social and biological construct, and as society grapples with accepting all kinds of people (at last!), some of these “expectations” or “normalities” are shifting. Sure, men can feel like prey as well, in particular if they have been a victim of assault or trauma, but for men it isn’t a constant, and it’s less likely, whereas it never changes for women. Not ever.
Regardless of what gender our protagonist is, it’s our job as novelists to burrow deeply into our characters’ minds and hearts. A large part of this involves their view of the world and how they move through it, and not just as a reaction to what has happened to them in the past, but through their programming as males, females, transgender, or gender neutral. This a complex issue, but an important one to analyze and apply.
Time to talk. You may have a different opinion on writing authentic women. You may have seen other shortcomings, and have your own observations. I’d like to hear all of that, but please let’s take extra care to be respectful about how our opinions are conveyed. There are no villains here, only observations from this field called Life. Over to you.
Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels, including her latest Last Christmas in Paris, The Phantom’s Apprentice, and the upcoming Meet Me in Monaco set to the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s wedding which releases in summer 2019. Her works have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail bestseller and also won the 2018 Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. When not writing, you may find Heather collecting cookbooks or looking for excuses to travel. She lives in New England with her family and one feisty rabbit.
FB: https://www.facebook.com/msheatherwebb/ (Heather Webb, Author)
Link to Writerunboxed.com: https://writerunboxed.com
Saturday, 29 September 2018
Last week I received the exciting news that my short story, The Whole Hog, is to be published in Northwords Now – the literary magazine of the north. I’m a writer - I’ve had a short story accepted – what makes that so special? Well the reason I’m thrilled is because it’s the first short story I’ve written in Doric.
WHAT IS DORIC?
But what is Doric? Unless you live in Scotland then it’s unlikely you will be familiar with the term. In the past, even the majority of Scots paid little attention to its existence. Yet earlier this month Doric shook off its status as a local dialect and was officially recognised as Scotland’s third language, to be acknowledged alongside English and Gaelic.
WHERE IS IT SPOKEN?
|Cullen Viaducts, courtesy of|
Neil Donald Photography
Doric is the native tongue (or mither tongue) of northeast Scotland, being spoken from just north of Dundee to around Elgin in Morayshire. In the 2011 census, 120,000 people – half the population of Aberdeenshire – identified as Scots/Doric speakers, compared with only 57,000 Scots who use Gaelic.
Doric is a fabulously expressive language. It is the language I speak at home with my parents and in-laws but, as a school child, found it was banished to the playground, strictly forbidden in the classroom. For my parents’ generation, communicating in Doric in front of a teacher led to them receiving several whacks of the belt.
For years the use of Doric has been on the decline and, as young people moved away from the northeast to study or find employment, was probably even considered a dying language.
A dear friend of mine, and Professor of Sociolinguistics at Glasgow University, Jennifer Smith, has made studying the changes in the use of Doric throughout the generations, a major part of her life’s work. My relatives and friends, from the area, have spent hours with her research team – happy to help.
But the good news is that in recent years the decline in the understanding of Doric has slowed.
WHY THE RESURGENCE IN INTEREST IN DORIC?
There are a number of reasons for the resurgence in interest in a language that can be tricky for non-speakers to understand. One of the main contributing factors is that now it’s compulsory for Doric to
|Joyce Falconer starring in Morna Young's Doric|
play Aye, Elvis
Aberdeen University recently launched a series of Doric night classes, as well as Doric writing workshops. In March of this year, it hosted a performance of Handel’s Messiah sung in Doric.
This summer, MornaYoung, a young playwright from the northeast, took Doric to the International Edinburgh Festival with her critically acclaimed play Aye,Elvis, starring River City actress, Joyce Falconer.
Dr ShaneStrachan, recipient of the prestigious Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, has written his debut novel, Quines at Sea (Girls at Sea), partly in Doric. It is currently with leading literary agent Jenny Brown, being considered by publishers.
Speaking, writing and reading in Doric is no longer confined to northeast Scotland.
THE HOLLYWOOD EFFECT
|Doric embraced by Hollywood|
in the Pixar movie, Brave
In fact in 2012, the delights of listening to Doric were brought to a worldwide audience by Grey’s Anatomy actor, Kevin McKidd when he voiced the Young MacGuffin in the Pixar movie Brave. Pixar suggested that McKidd use nonsense Scots words, but instead he opted to use Doric, the language of his hometown that he learnt from his grandfather. Pixar loved it. Hear from McKidd himself on this You Tube clip... listen now.
LEARN TO SPEAK DORIC
So why not give it a go? It’s a wonderfully rich language, written, for the most part, phonetically. As a simple starting point, the letters WH are often replaced with the letter F.
What become Fit
Where becomes Far
Why becomes Fit wy
When becomes Fan
Here are some of my favourite Doric words …
FAVOURITE DORIC WORDS
Footer – to mess about , waste time ‘Fit are you footerin aboot at'
Pellan – a fence ‘He climt the pellan’
Bosie – a warm cuddle ‘Gis a bosie’
Skelp – a slap ‘He’s gan to git a skelp’
Splooter – to spill ‘Fit a splooter yer makin’
Red up – a mess ‘Fit a red up!’
WANT TO LEARN MORE…
I hope I’ve piqued your interest in the Doric language. To learn more, a fun place to start is the Doric Dictionary online.
And if you’d like to read my FREE short story, The Whole Hog, written using the pseudonym Isobel
|Northwords Now -|
available as a newspaper, Kindle version and online
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sma introduction to Doric.
Dinna bide awa! (Come back soon!)
I'd love if you'd leave a message or get in touch on Twitter @Rae_Cowie