Saturday, 31 January 2015

Women's fiction - should we be ashamed of it?

I was all set to blog about how much we use our own life experiences in our work, when I got diverted by this excellent article in The Huffington Post.  It's an issue that niggles away in my mind all the time.

Last week my publisher released the fourth book in my Heartlands Series,  People We Love. I happened to be in India at the time, in a magical retreat called Philipkutty's Farm in Kerala. It's a homestay - a kind of cross between a B&B and a guest house. I think in most homestays in India you are provided with accommodation separate from the family, but part of their property, and the food is also provided, although you don't usually eat with the family. Philipkutty's Farm follows this model. It's run by a courageous woman called Anu, who took up the challenge of building some traditional Keralan bungalows on her farm to fulfil the dream of her husband, who died tragically young after a heart attack. She does this with the help of her mother. A venture of this kind run solely by women is rare in India, and Anu deserves real plaudits for what she has done.

Anyway, at the homestay we found ourselves in the company of another ten – very interesting – couples. One couple were on their fifth visit, another their seventh. Both couples used it to refresh themselves and to write or work on projects. (If you really want the perfect writing retreat, I promise you, this is it! Just a pity it's 7,000 miles away.) When I learned that People We Love was out, I couldn't resist telling everyone. I was excited! Everyone was really interested, and asked me what kind of book it was.

So then I hit the problem. I don't write literary novels, though I like to think they are well written. I don't write chick lit or romance, though my books have elements of both. I don't write anything that's simple to define, such as crime or thrillers or fantasy or sci fi or historicals. No – unfortunately, I write what is best described (I suppose) as 'commercial women's fiction'. I tell them this.

Cue knowing smiles.

Aha, chick lit you mean.


Body rippers, then.



Not according to the trade definition, certainly, no.

What then?

I write multi-layered stories about the complexity of everyday life, primarily the lives of women and the challenges they face in their work and at home, as lovers, mothers and career women. But the moment I add that word 'women's fiction' I can see the men's eyes glazing over and a look of disdain crossing the faces of women who don't like admit they read 'that kind of stuff'.

I feel  their attitudes are degrading and demoralising – but are they right? Is what I write inferior to crime, thrillers, or even 'literary fiction'? Does it deserve scorn? Should it be ignored? Go unreviewed?

Please read Hannah Beckerman's article. And let me know what you think.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Early spring cleaning by Mary Smith

I offered to swap blog posting dates with co-blogger Jenny Harper who is somewhere in the south of India this week – not jealous, not jealous, not…oh, all right, I admit I’m green with envy especially when I look at the window and it’s wet and grey and cold.

You may be thinking it’s not even the right time to start on the spring cleaning but I assure you there is not a duster or tin of polish in sight. No, I’m spring cleaning draft work on various places on my computer and in notebooks of which there are several scattered around the place. I never seem to finish one notebook before I start writing in another. I always intend to but I misplace them or I buy new ones and start writing in them immediately. I have some which I try to keep for poems but if an idea for a story strikes when I have my poetry notebook by my side then, of course, I’m not going to risk the idea disappearing into the ether while I find the correct notebook.

On my computer, I have several chunks of NaNoWriMo novels – abandoned part way through November. One of those starts with a woman clearing out her mother’s loft, finding an old address book (her own, not her mother’s) and spots the phone number of a man with whom she had an affair many years ago. She decides to call him. The story jumps to her standing by the fountain in a shopping centre, waiting for him to turn up. He’s late and while she waits she thinks back to their relationship. It was shortly after this I gave up writing – he sounded so utterly obnoxious I couldn’t believe my heroine (or anyone else) would embark on a love affair with him. And, I had absolutely no idea where the story was supposed to be going. My finger hovered over the delete button for a moment – gone.

I have found beginnings of what might be short stories, the first few pages of novels written in a variety of styles from chick lit to a kind of fictionalised memoir. Started and abandoned – and I think now I know why. It is because none of these pieces are the start of anything I would feel comfortable writing. There is no trace of my voice in any them. Deleted! Well, not entirely. There’s this curious little piece:

“When her mother came into the room, Maggie held the photo towards her. ‘You’re just in time to tell me who this is.’ She watched, alarmed, as the colour drained from her mother’s face.
‘I didn’t know she’d kept it,’ she whispered.
‘Mum, what’s wrong? Who is this?’ She shook the photo at her mother who sank down onto the bed. She held her hands out for the photo frame.
‘Jawad. His name was Jawad. He was your gran’s,’ she paused for a second, continued, ‘your gran’s friend. A long time ago.’
Maggie took back the photo staring down at the handsome face. ‘Oh,’ she whispered, ‘walnut man.’” 

I’m keeping this – it will go in a file labelled Possibilities, along with part of a short story about a man preparing to take a photo of a monkey when a small boy throws his sandal to chase it away and is rewarded with a torrent of abuse from the tourist. There is a line in it which says the boy had realised the monkey’s intentions – was he going to bite the man, grab his camera?

I have bits of monologues, some of which I’m deleting, some I might keep. In notebooks are draft poems by the score, not all complete, but many containing a nugget of something worth working on. I’m going to type them up and file them under ‘poems in progress.’

By the time my turn to post on our blog I should have done my spring clean and have some idea of exactly what writing projects I am going to focus on. Is everyone else much better organised than I am?

Saturday, 17 January 2015


.....and a roll of drums, please. The third book in my 'Emma' trilogy is out! The bubbly has been cracked open! 9th January 2015. Published by Choc Lit. It's been a long journey for Emma and me. I didn't set out to write a trilogy. But when I finished writing TO TURN FULL CIRCLE - which can stand alone - Emma 'told' me her journey wasn't over. She still had hopes and dreams for her future. So I wrote on, thinking a sequel would sort things for her. EMMA:THERE'S NO TURNING BACK could have ended when Emma has made her choice to go to Canada with Seth and his infant daughter, Fleur. But just before leaving, the charismatic Matthew Caunter has come back into Emma's life - what might her future be with him? And again, there was that deep need in Emma for something Seth was unable, despite his deep love for her, to provide. EMMA AND HER DAUGHTER almost wrote itself. Of the three this is the one I most enjoyed writing. In the first two books Emma had run baking businesses - she was queen of the crab tart and the tarte Tatin. but I thought it would be a bowl of pastry too far if she were to do that in the third book. So I turned her into a dressmaker. Now, I'm not a dressmaker, so why, I hear you say, have I filled this book with fabrics and fashions and shoes and bags and fancy hats? Well, it's often said we should write what we know and my childhood was filled with all those things because my mother was a very gifted dressmaker. She'd been taught tailoring by her grandfather and could copy a garment just by looking at it ... well, that and cutting a pattern for it out of anything she had to hand - newspaper, tissue paper, a roll of wallpaper once I remember. I've set EMMA AND HER DAUGHTER in 1927 indulging myself more than a little with that because goodness, did I have fun researching fashions of that time. Emma makes a wedding dress for one of the characters in the book, and a headdress rather than a veil.
In the first two books which were set between 1909 and 1913 Emma's clothes were ankle length, and rather less than glamorous for the most part. But the 1920s means the Charleston and flappers and I had a lovely time trawling the internet for photographs to inspire my writing.
So, what's next? Emma now has her heart's desire in more ways than you might suspect. Her story has ended here. But Fleur? What will her future be? And in this book I've introduced a new character, Stella Martin - she, too, could carry a book on her own, I think. Hmmm..... back tot he keyboard, then!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

READING HABITS? by Gill Stewart

I think all of us have differing reading habits, and ones that change as we grow older. I sometimes think my ‘way’ of reading must be quite odd, but maybe I’m wrong. I’ll tell you how I like to organise my reading and would love to know how others arrange theirs.

The first (possible) oddity is that I never read only one book at a time. My real preference is to have 3 books on the go. These usually fit into the following categories:

·         1. Serious reading – this can be ‘literary’ fiction, or non-fiction such as biography or a topic I’m particularly interested, usually psychology or linguistics. The book I’m reading currently fits into the literary fiction category, and  is Americanah by Chimanda Ngochi Adiche. It is a beautifully written book which raises serious questions about modern attitudes to race. These are books to be read when my brain is fully awake, so usually over morning coffee or lunch. They are also a good contrast to my own writing which I usually do in the morning – no danger of me subconsciously adopting these styles!

·         2. Light reading – almost always romance. I could say this is market-research for my own writing but mostly it is just for pure pleasure. I’m currently reading Born In Fire by Nora Roberts, but other writers who I love include Sue Moorcroft, Katie Fforde, Jayne Ann Krentz, Christina Courtenay and Sarra Manning to name but a few. Cosy crime also fits in here. Lesley Cookman being a great favourite. These can be read at any time of day when I have a time to spare, or when I’m waiting for someone or using public transport, or over a glass of wine in the evening.

·         3. Bedtime reading – I have a particular requirement for this third category. It has to be something with no gore, no tension, not be a page-turner that will stop me putting it down and going to sleep. For this I usually turn to books from my childhood. Currently I’m re-reading Heather Leaves School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Rosemary Sutcliffe also fits in well here, as does Elizabeth Goudge who I never read as a youngster but have recently been introduced to.

      And what format? My preferred format for reading is a paperback and for the first and third categories above I really like to own the book. This tends to lead to rather over-crowded bookshelves… The middle category, where I probably read the most voraciously, can also be a library book or on Kindle. Kindle is very useful but somehow not quite as satisfactory as a real book – to me!

     You may ask – how do I have so much time to read? The answer is, I watch very little television and only rarely watch movies. I prefer a good book, and there are so many of them out there still to be read.

     I’d love to know how, when, where and what do others read?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My Writing Resolutions

Here we go again... Image from Wikimedia
It’s that time of year again, when I sit down and write my long, long list of resolutions, only to throw  them up in the air to see how many (if any) will stick. Usually at least one of them does; it’s how I managed to crack my computer solitaire habit, and also how I stopped biting my nails. Of course many of them fall by the wayside, but that’s the law of averages for you.

This year I’ve taken a slightly different approach and I’ve drawn up a list of writing resolutions. All are admirable and all — with a little bit of discipline — are achievable.

I will treat writing like a business.

Because it is a business. Because what divides the good writer from the successful writer boils down to of a professional approach, a lot of hard grind and hours spent telling people how wonderful your books are. I may not like doing it, but it has to be done.

I will write every day. Or edit. Or plot.

Actually I think this will prove the easiest of my resolutions to stick to, because I almost do it already. I haven’t set myself a word count and I’m not limiting myself to fiction. But if there’s one thing I learned from the annual stampede that is NaNoWriMo, it’s that there are no excuses for not doing it. All it takes is ten minutes with pen in hand. I’ll think of it next time I’m toying with the idea of that killer sudoku puzzle. I’ll do the puzzle. But not until I’ve done my ‘daily write’.

I like this one because it’s quantifiable. A green sticker in the page of my diary for every day that I’ve made progress. This blog counts, so that’ll be three out of three already. Aren’t I doing well?

I will be less sensitive to criticism.

This is the most difficult, and also the most important, of my resolutions. No-one likes to think they can’t take constructive criticism (I prefer to describe myself as defensive) but I rely on my fellow writers for good advice and insight and they aren’t going to offer it if I can’t take it, especially because I’m not shy of dishing it out. So this year I’ll listen and I’ll digest before i reject anything out of hand, because even the comments I disagree with probably have a good deal of sense behind them.

Some criticism isn’t constructive, of course. Some of it isn’t meant to be. Out in the big wide world you put up your baby in the book-beauty-contest and some untouchable soul will give it a one star review just because they were reading it when a stranger spilt coffee on them on the 9.45 to Croydon. Or — heaven forbid — a reader might not actually like my book. Do you know what? That’s okay. I’ll learn to live with it.

I’ve made other resolutions, but these are the ones which will offer me a serious challenge and, even if I’m only partially successful, improve me as a writer. And if you have any more suggestion feel free to challenge me.

Jennifer Young