Sunday, 27 April 2014


Engrossed in a good story...

In book reviews you read many things – how clever the plot is, how thought-provoking the themes, how beautifully written, inventive, subtle… but do they tell you whether it is a Good Story?  That’s what I want to know, because if it’s not I won’t enjoy it.  As Lizzy Edmondson is reported to have said ‘If they write well but there's no story, I don't want to read it. For profound thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I'll read non-fiction.  [Guardian, 21st April 2014]

I completely agree!  When I read fiction, I want an engrossing story line with engaging characters.  An interesting setting helps, too, but it’s the story and the characters that are essential.

So the next question is, how do we as writers create a) that absorbing story and b) the characters that draw readers in?

For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts on how to create a Good Story:
      -          you need a situation which requires difficult decisions to be made
      -          you need characters who don’t always (or even often!) make the right decision
      -          you need emotional impact, something that makes the reader care about your characters (and that is why fully-developed characters are so important)
      -          and, finally, you need conflict, either within one character or (more usually) between characters.  There has to be something at stake for the characters, otherwise there is no ‘story’.  This conflict should be resolved (wholly or partially) by the end of the book.

And for the characters:
      -          as the writer you need to know your characters completely.  This can be done either by thinking them through in your head or (if you’re like me and don’t have an infallible memory) by writing all the details out for yourself: how they look, what they feel and think, what they have experienced in the past, want in the future, etc.  Much of this won’t actually appear in your writing, but it is this background that will give your characters depth
      -          characters should be believable.  I know in real life some people just are too horrible to be true, but in fiction if you write them like that the reader won’t believe in them (this is also true for coincidences – the strangest coincidences happen in real life that are too far-fetched for fiction!)
      -          characters should therefore be complex, with both good and bad aspects.  If you’re writing romance, as I am, the main protagonists MUST be likeable.  They can have irritating aspects to them, but overall they must draw the reader in so that the reader cares.

If it was as easy as just following these few tips we wouldn’t all be battling so hard to achieve the perfect novel.  But I’ll try to bear them in mind as I struggle onward and upward.  And try to remember that, above all, it’s the story that counts.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

In my Head...or Out of It

Sometimes my characters need to take a good
long look at themselves.
Photo by Jurii, from Wikimedia
There are, I’m told, two types of writers. There are those who see the action they describe from outside, as if it were a film. And there are those who see it from the inside, who live they characters’ lives with them. 

I’m sure there are technical terms for these approaches though I don’t know what they are. But I do know that I’m the second sort. When I have an idea I move, for a short period at least, into a peculiar half-world from which my family are excluded (one day I must sit down with them and see if they’ve noticed). As I begin to get to know my characters I begin to think like them.

When I stop and think about it, I’m not actually sure that this instinctive approach is the best one for me. The main drawback is that I’m so busy living in the heads of my main characters that I don’t really have a lot of time to look at them from the outside. As a result I find that my minor characters are generally better described in physical terms, even if they aren’t always as fully-fleshed as they could be from an emotional point of view.

To combat this I have to be quite firm with myself. At the end of my first draft I have to take my main characters and look at them from outside. Having them look in a mirror is no use because they see what they want to see, not what’s there. (Like the rest of us.) And a suggestion from my friend and fellow blogger Jenny that I should write a description of them from their point of view, while it may suit some, didn’t work for me.

Jenny, I did try. At one level I was both surprised and disappointed that I couldn’t manage to benefit from this when it works so well for others but when I tried to work out why I realised it’s linked to this in-head approach. Though I write from the character’s viewpoint I also need to look at them dispassionately, see them as someone who is emotionally engaged with them, positively or negatively, will see them — not as they see themselves.

I know that one of the key weaknesses of my writing is the external viewpoint. That’s something that comes from what i think of as the film-maker’s viewpoint. 

How do you approach your characters? In head or out? Can you combine the two? And please please please…give me some tips!

Sunday, 13 April 2014

In praise of Indies and expanding our reading horizons by Mary Smith

A writing friend and I were talking – about books and writing – when she suddenly said: “The stigma attached to people self-publishing seems to have disappeared all of a sudden.”  

And she is right.

In fact we had both recently attended the launch of an eBook in the local library. The author, Vivien Jones, wasn’t quite sure what to expect without having any physical books to sign and sell. We weren’t sure what to expect either. Vivien read some compelling extracts from Malta Child and then the library’s IT people handed out tablets to the audience and explained how eBooks can now be borrowed from the library. It was a fascinating evening. 

Yet, it’s not so very long ago since people were really sniffy about self-published authors – and publishing an eNovel was quite beyond the pale. It meant their work wasn’t good enough to be taken on by a ‘proper’ publisher. Plus, there was a lot of criticism – unfortunately, often well-founded – of work not being properly edited, shockingly bad grammar and terrible formatting. 

There has been a huge sea-change. I don’t believe it is only because some big names who were previously published by the big traditional publishers decided to go indie, or that some indie writers were so successful they were suddenly sought after by the very same publishers who had rejected them. I think a growing number of readers are looking out for the kind of books they want to read – not the books the big trad publishers insist they should be reading. Also an increasing number of good writers are writing books they want to write as opposed to writing books they hoped the big publishers would want.

It is about expanding horizons – for both writers and readers. I was recently invited to join eNovel Authors at Work, which was set up by novelist Jackie Weger. The idea behind it is very simple: Indie authors paying it forward. In other words we all help each other to promote our books.
Writers need each other. Indie authors have to learn how to promote their work. Actually, more and more authors, even those published by ‘proper’ publishers, are having to learn the same lessons. Indies have the advantage – we support each other, offer advice, pass on tips on everything from virtual book launches to innovative ways to make your books stand out from the millions of titles on Amazon.

Jackie Weger has become my guru and I sit at her feet (virtually) soaking up all she can teach me. Linda Lee Williams, another eNovel Authors at work writer has also passed on some great advice and interviewed me on her blog. I was invited to take part in a blog hop. Being terribly green about most aspects of this kind of thing I fumbled my way through it – and it gained me some sales on and an amazing number of Twitter followers.

And as for those expanding horizons - my tbr pile has increased dramatically since I became a member of eNovel Authors at Work. Each member has a page on the website (set up and managed by the amazing Carolyn Steele) and while browsing to see what other folk are writing I was amazed by the variety of genres out there: historical fiction, sweet romance, romantic comedy, novels which focus on mental health issues, vampire novels  ( I’ve never read a vampire novel – then found myself reading the blurb  Linda Lee Williams’ Old Town Nights I saw a mention of hybrid vampires (who knew) and the story sounded so fascinating I had to add it to my tbr list. Jackie Weger’s The House on Persimmon Road is a romance which has a ghost called Lottie who cooks and cleans – and I want a Lottie in my house! Jackie wrote for Harlequin for years before going Indie.

The authors in eNovel Authors at Work are amazing writers. They are not second-class citizens because they are Indie authors. They are the writers who are sweeping away the stigma attached to self-publishing – and I’m proud to be one of them.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Are 'how to' guides helpful, or a hindrance? by Jenny Harper

You know the kind of thing – 'How to write compelling stories', 'How to plot', 'How to make your characters real'. They're endless. And some of them are very good. They might come in the shape of a book (there's enough of these to build a city from), or they might be blogs.

Here are links to a few.
The secret to crafting high stakes
Character arcs
Writing the perfect scene
First or third and how to decide
How to plot a novel

Some of them are great, there's no doubt about that. My problem is, I've found that I simply cannot adjust my thinking to such formats. Take Randy Ingermanson's blog on scenes, for example. Each has to set out the Goal, Conflict, Disaster. Sounds simple, doesn't it? I try. I then spend hours trying to decide if I have included all three elements successfully, and what I should do if I haven't.

Or again, take Suzanne Lakin's analysis of how to up the stakes. It's perfectly clearly explained – but how can I get my heroine's stakes to rise as high as Amy's in Fly Away Home? And if I can't, how can I possibly move forward?

I love this map of the relationships between characters in Pride and Prejudice. Boy, could I waste hours drawing a similar one for my books! Or then again, I might just get depressed about how inadequate mine looks in comparison.

I've tried every method known to writers: plotting and panstering (or writing into the mist), but experience has taught me that if I try to get too analytical it seems to kill my creativity stone dead.

I look at the lovely Vermeer portrait of the lady writing (top) and rather envy writers who sat with a pen and paper and produced, well, books. Without the aid of 'how to' books and blogs. But then again, they must have been very gifted people – I need aids. Or do I?

I'd better poke around on a few more blog sites and see if I can find the perfect answer to my needs. ... Or maybe it would be better just to get on with some writing!

Do you learn from blogs or books, or do you think just getting on with it is best? Please let me know!