Friday, July 28, 2006

Summertime... And the living is easy....?

Several weeks into the heatwave, and one long week into the summer holidays I'd like to take strong issue with Mr Gershwin. As the TV weather maps continue to glow scarlet and the temperatures achieve record levels (should that be CD levels these days?) the living here is far from easy. Sadly, in my world summertime means slimy skirmishes with suncream on small limbs and endless nagging about sunhats, incessant demands for meals to be eaten-- cooked even-- out of doors, and the evening routine of tidying up being further complicated by having a larger arena-- one which involves both sand and soil-- from which to retrieve Barbie shoes and jigsaw pieces.

There's no doubt about it, I was born in the wrong century and when the weather is like this my inner Edwardian comes roaring to the fore. In spirit, on an afternoon like this, I am wearing a fetching sprigged muslin dress (cunningly dispensing with the need to bother with waxing and fake tan) and reclining on a canopied steamer chair in the shade of a huge cedar tree at the edge of a sweep of perfectly manicured lawn. Afternoon tea has just been served and at a civilised distance the children are playing under the stern gaze of an extremely efficient nanny. There is no whinging and squabbling. Definitely no paddling pool, and therefore no reproachfully lithe, smugly perfect Barbies cavorting in it. Look, here comes my husband with a jug of Pimms. Wait a minute... that's not my husband, it's Rupert Everett. Lovely.

There's something about a hot afternoon in high English summer that has me craving the stillness of 100 years ago (of course, that would be the stillness of 100 years ago on the right side of the upstairs/downstairs divide...) and reaching for any books I can to feed that craving. My all time hot-weather favourite has got to be The Go-Between, for it's magical conjuring of the stifling atmosphere of England in the grip of a heatwave. There's romance too, and a dark undercurrent of sex and desperation, and one of the best opening lines in the history of historical literature. ('The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.') I think I read it every time we have a spell of hot weather like this, which not only demonstrates that 36 is not too young to develop these odd, spinsterish rituals, but also that it's high time I flexed my credit card on Amazon and discovered some new Edwardian gems to see me through the hot, dry season.

So, Summer 2006: Geographically, a week in a tent in Whitby, attempting to discover my inner girl guide. Mentally, six weeks in 1911 in a Brideshead Revisited style neo-classical stately home. With full staff. And Rupert Everett. Shall undoubtedly return refreshed and ready for romantic action.

Does anyone else feel the need to take a summer holiday from their usual genre and be gloriously unfaithful to it? (And that would be books I'm talking about Eva!)


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Lust at first sight

Brown eyes soft as velvet. A firm handshake and direct gaze. A tall, lean physique and true presence. Sometimes it takes but one conversation on the telephone—his baritone voice resonating through the phone lines to set my heart to quaking—or a mere handshake, fingers barely brushing, to recall that the world is populated by men who could have been the one.

For those of us who are married and are not about to risk all for the thrill of a new romance—the accelerated heartbeat and liquid warmth, the wonder, beauty and excitement of passion discovered anew—do romance novels fill the void? Is that what I should tell myself when I think of the man newly separated from his spouse who is selling his house to me? A romance novel, a glass of good wine, and a bath? Tell me, girls, what shall I think about after we've moved in and I sink into my new claw-foot bathtub, the same one he, too, no doubt enjoyed?


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Eyes - look after 'em

I am currently one very frustrated writer. Like most unpublished writers (and some published ones) I have to work to pay the bills (or, in my case, to keep my husband in the manner to which he has become accustomed - that is, a caravan at the back of a well-known supermarket - mock not - it's very handy for obtaining gratis groceries - supermarkets really do throw away an awful lot of jolly good food you know - plus, we get free air for our bikes).

So, as I was saying - apart from the writing, I have to go out to work. That work involves using a computer - every minute of every day five days a week (I'm a legal secretary). I usually fit in my writing at about 6 am before going to work and sometimes in the evenings too. I've been doing this for the past three years - and, for the past three years, I've also managed to get a cyst in my eye. The first year the cyst grew to the size of a golf ball and actually burst in my eye before I realised I needed to go to the doctor. Indeed, by the time I saw the specialist, it was too large for him to remove by the usual method (clamping my eyelids and removing the cyst from the inside) and he had to cut into my eyelid and remove it that way. Fortunately, the last two, I've acted upon more quickly and have managed to avoid the knife.

Now, those of you who know me know I enjoy injecting a bit of humour into my writing, but, right now, I am not laughing. I am also not writing. Because of the latest cyst. Undoubtedly the combination of this extraordinary heat (still hitting the high twenties/low thirties every day), dust and use of fans 24/7 (thus drying out the atmosphere even further) is not helpful to one with naturally dry eyes. But neither is fixing those eyes on a computer screen for 10 hours a day (and yes I can type with my eyes closed, but still need to read through what's been written). And, much as I love writing, I also love being able to see - so I'm taking a break and resting my eyes, hence this was going to be a short blog but I see, unusually, I've managed to ramble long enough for a first chapter.

Anyway, the point of this ramble is simply to say to the rest of you writers out there, don't take your eyes, or any other parts of your anatomy, for granted - and don't abuse them. Health is the most important gift of all - cherish it and nurture it.


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Endless variations of a synopsis

A week after the RNA conference, my feet have finally reconnected with the earth and my mind has had time to reflect on the information gleaned therefrom (by which I mean that I've managed to decipher the shorthand notes I took during the workshops I attended and almost made sense of them).

Like most writers, one of the skills I find most difficult to execute and to find any really good instructional books about, is writing a synopsis. Now, I can't claim to have cracked this in one weekend, but I can claim to now know exactly what it is an editor/agent actually wants - almost.

Some editors/agents want a short, approximately 200-word synopsis, that does NOT include the ending (so they can judge whether it captures their interest enough - in the same way we read the blurb on the back cover before deciding whether to buy a book); whilst others prefer a more detailed, 3-4 page synopsis, including the ending. And, by the way, Mills & Boon do it their way, Frank, which is diffferent again. At first I thought this was about as helpful as a street light to the sun, but, having thought about it, I realise that all I have to do is phone the editor/agent, enquire which they prefer, and send that one. Alternatively, I could simply send them one of each and let them decide! See? Easy when you know how.

However, (I do love that word, don't you? It always brings hope surging back into my almost-human, breast) there was one thing the editors and agents were agreed on - and that is that they always read the first three chapters BEFORE they read the synopsis. Hence, the most important thing is to make sure those chapters not only hook 'em, but reel 'em in so far that they're cleaned, gutted, steamed and on your plate (with a nice slice of lemon on top) before they've finished reading the first paragraph! When you think about it, this does make a lot of sense - after all, they're not going to have to try and sell the synopsis, are they?

I realise the above doesn't actually tell you how to write a good synopsis - that would take far too much space for a mere post on a blog. However, (lovely), I will leave you with probably the most succinct advice I ever had in connection with writing a synopsis -
Focus on what your characer wants to achieve, why she wants to achieve it and what is standing in her way; tell the emotional story, showing how your character struggles, grows and learns along the way; mention only the main characters and don't include too many scenes.

Got it? Good! Now go write it. And yes, I'm talking to you, Annie.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Merrily Deceived: A Book Review

One of my all-time favourite romance novels, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss's Shanna, opens with a prison scene. There is something about a dark prison and a shadowy, taciturn male hero, not to mention a desperate female, to engage the interest.

Nicola Cornick's recently released Deceived (HQN Romance) starts out similarly. To escape two unpleasant fates, debtors' prison or exile to Europe, Isabella Standish marries a man she believes safely shut away in debtors' prison, a man she jilted at the altar years ago in favour of a European prince. Widowed and left with enormous debt by her wastrel husband, Isabella is unaware that Marcus Stockhaven is no pauper and has vengeance in mind for the lovely princess.

A battle of wits ensues when Stockhaven appears on the scene, disconcerting the remarkably composed heroine. Cornick, a master of the Regency drama, delights the reader with innuendo, double entendre and tonnish scenes aplenty, all rife with tension and suppressed passion. The intervening years have not diminished the chemistry between the characters; in fact, the sexual tension is palpable, as is the pain, distrust and fear of loving again. Isabella and Stockhaven are complex characters battling the events of the past; fortunately, they are totally likable and refreshingly authentic.

In the end not a single soul is deceived, least of all the reader.

Keep an eye out for the other romantic subplots, particularly that of Isabella's sister, known by the ton for her beauty, wit, and acerbic tongue. (A girl after my own heart.)

By the way, few of Woodiwiss's novels have remained on my keeper shelf over the years. My tastes have changed and I have little patience these days for flowery prose. Cornick's novels, on the other hand, are every one of them keepers.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Romance aboard the Orient Express

Picture the Orient Express in its heyday. Forget the cramped couchette car, the noisy German students partying to all hours, or the disapproving matron forced to witness clandestine berth-hopping between twenty-year-olds.

Picture instead a private wood-panelled compartment with an opulent bed piled high with down comforters and swathed beneath in sheer silk, paintings harking back to Europe's splendour before the wars — think Paris, Budapest, Prague, Istanbul — plush Turkey carpets to tempt a sultan, and toiletries the envy of an Italian prima donna. Imagine champagne, strawberries and chocolate. La Perla lingerie and nothing but nature's own bounty for him. Later there is a late-night dinner with linen, crystal, silver and a discreet French chef. Munich flies by, Vienna, until finally we reach Budapest, the land of our youth and a city rich with culture, history and nuance.

Imagine a train ride the prelude to the pleasures of a weekend spent abroad.

(The truth is the only locomotive we hitched a ride on this weekend was a Via Rail train bound for Montreal. I literally had to flag down the conductor as we were late and the train seconds from pulling away. Luckily he took pity on a luggage-laden mother and her panicked daughter and lowered the steps for our private embarkation.)


Monday, July 10, 2006

Annie goes to Hollywood

Actually, being an honest soul (unlike some I could mention) I went to Penrith and stayed in student accommodation at Lancaster University, where the rooms were so sophisticated they actually had wet rooms - which meant you could go to the toilet, shower and wash your hands all at the same time. I'm having one fitted in my own home even as I blog. However, unusually, I digress. Geographically, it might not have been the big H, but with so many wonderful, famous authors, editors and agents flitting around, overcoming their nerves to chat to me, it was glitzier than the big H could ever be.

I am not going to do what Amanda Ashby did and name-drop, suffice to say, Katie Fford, I loved chatting to you in the coffee queue, and Kate Walker, it was great to put a face to the name, and especially nice of you to introduce me to your good friend, Michelle Reid, whilst Penny Jordan, I must say you looked more gorgeous than ever. As for you, Jan Jones, I have never seen anyone seem so relaxed and look so happy whilst working so hard for so long. I could go on, but none of Imogen's new slinky dresses are quite the right shade of green to go with her skin tone any more.

So, how can I sum up what the RNA conference 2006 meant to me - a first timer and unpublished (apart from a few bits & pieces - I only mention that in case there are any potential agents/publishers reading this - optimist? Moi?) writer? It meant workshops run by professionals who had given up their time not only to attend the conference itself, but to prepare for the same; it meant meeting established authors, editors and agents who invited attendees to chat with them on a one-to-one basis at any time during the weekend - even during coffee and meal breaks; it meant making new friends and sharing our hopes, dreams and aspirations and promising to meet up again next year, so we could greet each other in the lobby with hugs and smiles like all those who'd been before us. But most of all it was a lesson in just how hard the RNA work to help those like me who dare to dream that one day we might be published authors too. I, for one, cannot thank them enough for giving me one of the best weekends of my life.

As yet, I cannot put anything back in, but I can ask, on behalf of the RNA, whether anyone reading this has any contacts in the business world who might be interested in sponsoring the RNA's Romantic Novel of the Year Award, as last year's sponsors are no longer involved. If so, please contact the RNA direct.

Oh yes, and Jenny Haddon, I meant what I said - it really was the best RNA conference I have ever attended.

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Wow! What a Weekend!

Lunch at The Ivy on Saturday, followed by an afternoon shopping in the kind of shops where you have to ring a bell to be allowed in. Cocktails with gloriously suggestive names served by straight-faced waiters at The Ritz. A quick flight in a private jet over to Paris as dusk was falling, and dinner on the candlelit terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Seine. A suite at the Georges V. Champagne breakfast in bed and a wander round a gorgeously eccentric flea market before long lunch in dark little backstreet bistro, reeking of garlic and good food. Home in time for nice cup of tea before beginning to unpack purchases-- delicious pair of pink satin shoes, many glamourous little flippy, slippy dresses in ice-cream shades, several cashmere cardigans, pint-sized bottle of perfume, lovely antique mirror from brocante as well as a few v. tasteful and amusing presents for the daughters (nothing plastic or bearing the word Barbie in other words...), case of Perrier Jouet ( the one with the painted pink flowers on the bottle), fabulous extravagant cache of goodies from Paris deli, enabling swift assembly of simple, stunning dinner-- not to be eaten slumped on sofa sulkily watching World Cup Final....

Just thought I'd get this in before Annie gets back and posts about the RNA conference. Jealous? With my glamorous life? Perish the thought.

(Oh dear, am just too honest. Don't tell Annie, but I spent Saturday at the school fair and Sunday decorating the hallway. Weekend not entirely without glamour though, as I did pay a pound to have my nails painted at said fair. Anyone else who didn't get up to Penrith care to make me feel better?)


Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reporting back

A few blogs ago, I promised to report on Jacqui Lofthouse's 'The Writing Coach' programme, so here I am doing just that. For those of you who missed my earlier blog about this, Jacqui is a published novelist, teacher and writing coach who is planning to publish an e-book entitled '30 Days to Conquer Your Self Doubt and Procrastination and Have 30,000 Words Under Your Belt'. Jacqui drafted the book on her blog and invited writers to work through it with her, writing 1000 words every day for 30 days, whilst commenting on the programme generally.

Well, the 30 days are now over and I'm pleased to say I did write 1000 words a day, sometimes more. To be honest, I probably would have done this anyway. However, what I wouldn't have done was had the benefit of using Jacqui's exercises, which she included every day as an alternative to progressing a wip and which I found very helpful if stuck with my own writing. By taking one of my characters and putting them in the scene that Jacqui had set up, I found that, even though I would probably not use the scene within my book, it kept the flow of writing going and also helped me to get to know my characters better.

One other thing I learned (which I should probably already have known after 7 years of writing!), was that it's not necessary to plan the whole book in advance. Of course you can if you want to and undoubtedly you need to have some idea of where it's heading - but alternatively (or as well as) you can plan one chapter or scene at a time - each time asking yourself what is the point of the scene, how will it progress the story, what will your characters learn and/or how will they change? As someone who hates planning anything, cutting it down into 'bite-sized' pieces, has given me much solace in my non-planning world.

And that's it. Now I must motivate myself once more and plan each scene as I go. As for Jacqui's e-book, I would recommend it to anyone who seeks one-to-one coaching, inspiration and motivation.

Next blog I post will be my report on the RNA conference this weekend - see you then green buddies!