Friday, May 25, 2007

Coffee Break 19 - and Post 300

When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway
It's my 300th blog post today. I am sure that calls for some kind of celebration! Make mine an iced mocha, then...

I was trying to explain recently what the Novel Race was and I began by talking about the Coffee Break - and then realised that actually, this session is more like WeightWatchers in reverse, as we declare our weekly GAINS. Of course, unlike WeightWatchers, there's no objective weigh-in, but we're all far too honest to fib, aren't we?

The bookshelf rearrangement is a work-in-progress, mainly hampered by my discovery of books I haven't read in ages. Have been re-reading Mavis Cheek's Janice Gentle Gets Sexy, which is tremendous fun for anyone with writing aspirations or an interest in publishing, and has an interesting structure.

Now, characters! Liz asked whether I have a set questionnaire for interrogating my characters and I have just been developing one. Some of the questions come from my current fave writing book, the Billy Mernit Writing the Romantic Comedy one, which I've blogged about before. And some I just made up. But here are a few of the questions:

Objective view of appearance/lookalike:
Speech tics/tone:
Five words/phrases:
Describe yourself physically (are you attractive? In what way? What do you wear?)
What’s your philosophy? (attitude towards life, belief system)
Talk about family (parents, grandparents, kids, siblings)
How do you respond emotionally to crisis?
What are your quirks and contradictions?
Do you have any special talents?
What do you need? (conscious/unconscious)
What do you fear most?
What are the best and worst things you’ve ever done?
What do you need to learn? What is your journey? (the character may not know – author must)

It's still a work-in-progress, in that some of the questions seem a touch repetitive to me. I write it in the 1st person, which also helps me to get the voice. I had coffee with a writer friend yesterday who said he thinks it sounds exhausting and too much like hard work, but as I am writing two books a year, I feel it'll save me some time. I particularly want to work through the areas of conflict with the other characters at an early stage, to up the drama: so one person may respond to a crisis in a way that puts them in direct opposition to another, for example.

What do you do to develop your characters? Or do you prefer to get to know them as you go along?

Oh, we have two new novel racers, David (or DOT) and Rowan (who has set up a brand new blog to join us). Do welcome them to the club!

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A family library is a breeding place of character.
Graham Greene

*some books. Not my books. Generic books from the web.

Yes, it’s Post Publication time. The depression isn’t kicking in too much as I have been very busy. I went yesterday to do an interview for which hasn’t actually appeared as an internet channel yet but launches in July online and also via a Sky Channel. That was fun: proper make-up person doing my face (there’s a limit to what can be achieved, but she tried valiantly) and a ban on wearing green due to the ‘green screen’ behind us that they use to superimpose a giant copy of my book. I have quite green eyes and was very nervous that my eyes would seem demonic but it was OK.

They also sprung one of those nightmare questions on me, ‘what’s your favourite book?’ My mind goes blank whenever someone asks that and I ended up saying Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild which is a book I do love, but it seems very lightweight somehow to name a children’s book. I suspect other people will look much smarter by naming Tolstoy or similar.

Now I’m trying to return to normality. I’m doing character questionnaires for all my main people in Book 6 – new approach for me, but I thought it’d be fun to get their ‘backstories’ more sketched out from the start. I also have accounts to do and home insurance to organise.

Even more fun, we’ve had wall-to-wall bookshelves put into our living room so I am trying to organise them. My friend the fessingauthor has been talking about shelves lately and so did this chap in the Guardian. I am adopting a colour-coding approach, which looks fab…but then can’t decide whether to fiction and non-fiction separately. And is it naff to have some of my own books on the shelf?

Interesting aside regarding male/female books: most of the boyf’s books (biographies and non-fiction) have sturdy black spines with big white capital letters (or, sometimes, silver embossed letters). Most of mine are pastel.

I also have a hard-drive recorder full of programmes to watch, including Ian Hislop's Scouting for Boys: it deals with the boy scouts' handbook, a very similar book to the manual I quoted from and used as the basis for Brown Owl's Guide to Life. I came to the conclusion, reading the old Guide manuals (subtitled, 'how women can help build up the Empire'), that there was a definite element of subtle feminism to the early days of the movement (alongside the colonialism and the strange hygiene obsessions).

Now, a plea from Liz Fenwick who has been doing a great job profiling the Novel Racers: if you are one, and you haven’t submitted a profile, then do go onto her site and find out how. It’s fascinating reading about everyone involved.

Oh, incidentally, Rowan – I’ve seen your request to join and we’d love to have you but I don’t know how to contact you. if you send me a message via my website, I will email you just to explain the details?

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Saturday 19 May - Wannabe a Writer Event

Very quick service announcement for anyone in reach of central London...tomorrow, between 12 and 4pm at Borders, Charing Cross Road, there's a Readers and Writers launch event for Wannabe A Writer, a witty insider's guide to the wonderful world of publishing.

Come and meet Jane Wenham-Jones plus many other writers, agents, journalists and publishers - including yours truly. The book is full of insight from Jane, and other contributors including Katie Fforde, Carole Matthews, Kate Long, Adele Parks, Judy Astley and our fellow novel racer, Bernardine Kennedy.


Coffee Break 18

Bad literature of the sort called amusing is spiritual gin...
George Eliot

I have found the secret of travelling by Tube (or, in fact, on any public transport): carry an enormous bunch of flowers. People smile at you and it's almost as if, by default, you become as appealing as the flowers, an aura of benevolence surrounding you wherever you go.

My publishers bought the flowers (some of the most beautiful I have ever seen, a pink explosion, with delicate rose fragrance) when we went out to dinner last night. The sun came out - as did the cocktail menu - and it was generally extremely jolly. The previous night I'd gone out with friends to celebrate too - and thank you for your messages and reports of sightings. Weeks like this make it all worthwhile.

So - after the hangover subsides - I am going back to planning book 6. The more I write, the more bouquets of goodwill I will deserve, eh? Obviously there are limits to this. If I really churn 'em out then the quality of flowers will tumble until I am lucky to get a spray of garage forecourt carnations...

How's everyone else doing this week?

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Story Time!

Frail book, although there's room for you to stay
Snug on my bookshelves, you'd rather fly away
To the bookshops and be published
Martial, AD C.40-C.104

Well, the book has now been spotted in Waterstones in Richmond-upon-Thames, and in a couple of Borders stores and by Kate Hardy in Norwich Smiths...Yippee. Official Big Publication Day is Wednesday.

About two-thirds of the copies out there have the fluffy cloud covers, and a third don't - there's a good reason for this - to do with how long it takes to make them fluffy - but of course, all the words inside are exactly the same! Thanks to everyone for the encouraging comments: am moving from PPT (Pre Pub Tension) towards PWE (Publication Week Euphoria)...

Even though I have my work cut out finishing edits AND writing a new book by the end of the year, I am very tempted by Script Frenzy, which is the drama/screen-writing equivalent of the National Novel in a Month program. And this BBC Radio Drama/Script Factory scheme also looks like a great opportunity: have been working on an idea over the weekend.

We have another new racer: welcome, Chris. See, it's never too late to join up...

Oh, and also, the fantastic people behind the Pure Passion campaign in North West Libraries would love people to go to their site and post their favourite romantic reads and also comment on the titles they've picked (including one of mine!) - it's a really eclectic and fun selection but there aren't too many titles there yet so, go on, add your suggestions!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Coffee Break 17

I like to feel that a writer is perfectly cool and detached, regarding other people's feelings or his own, like a God who has got beyond them.
T.S. Eliot

So far, I am having a very uninteresting week. Sorry, but it's true. I am also in the throes of Pre-Publication Tension, a particularly nasty condition which is inevitably followed by Post-Publication Depression. They don't mention those in the British Medical Journal.

All this stuff about ten years of Blair is also making me feel very old...It's the first political 'era' I've lived through entirely as an adult and we've all aged a bit since '97 (though Blair more than most, surely the man could afford a sunblock? Then again, Gordon Brown can't afford Stop 'n' Gro for his bitten nails.).

Enough politics. I have been mainly dodging dust, painting walls and editing novel 5. Unusually for me, it's been less about cutting bits out, and more about adding the odd scene, i.e. actually writing entirely new bits. Including a kissing scene which made me go pink in Costa Coffee as I wrote it. So, novel racers, do your scenes ever move you/make you cry/turn you on? And if so, is that a good sign or does it feel self-indulgent?

Two more bits. Following last week's 'vote,' Liz Fenwick will be the lucky winner of our Novel Race prize - Zinnia was technically there first but as it was a second draft, it didn't quite fit the criteria. Well done to both, however. A prize should be on its way very soon, Liz.

I think we carry on now along parallel lines - so we have our original racers, who will still receive due credit when they finish. And then anyone who wants to get going on another book (I'll be doing exactly that next month, with a November deadline!) can begin all over again.

The other thing I wanted to link to was Billy Mernit's site: his Writing the Romantic Comedy book has proved invaluable for me lately. In the latest blog post, Mernit applies Kurt Vonnegut's writing rules to screen-writing, and it's excellent stuff, even if you're not writing a love story.

See you all next week - or possibly before, if the building work ends. And, oh, if you're short of something to read, The Self Preservation Society goes on sale next week, of course!?! I'd love to see any sightings - despite amazon claiming it'll take them six weeks to post it you, I am sure they will send it next week if you get your order in! Red magazine say it's hilarious, which is nice of them!

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Coffee Break 16

When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand...
Raymond Chandler

There's sawdust everywhere. Not the metaphorical sort, the result of chipping and honing away at my second draft. No, this is the real fluffy blond wood pieces, the result of chipping and honing away at floorboards. I'm not honing. But I am looking forward to it being over, as building work AND working from home don't really go together.

On the plus side, I've now had my notes from both editor and agent and they're a) not at all radical, b) very specific, and c) have really made me re-examine some slightly 'convenient' plot points. And having brainstormed them, I feel the plotting will be much better - much more believable, in fact - in this new version.

I admit I felt quite anxious about two pivotal plot points, because I was thinking if I couldn't come up with a more credible twist in the first draft, why would it be different now? And though editorial comment is an essential part of the process, you do feel protective of your ideas. I guess the closest would be having a new, radical haircut that you love, but you're slightly unsure about, and a good friend saying: I do love it, but I think it'd be even better if you changed the colour/changed that side parting into a fringe. That'd make it perfect.

And of course, part of you is grateful for their honesty, but part of you feels incredibly nervous about the colour and the fringe, because you really did think this was the best look you could achieve - and here your friend is asking you to go further and it's nerve-wracking. There's a real feeling of jeopardy if you get it wrong...that you'll damage things and it'll take ages to put it back as it was (or for the fringe to grow out).

I think I've extended that metaphor quite far enough. Anyway, I brainstormed and I found a way of changing the plot, subtly, to increase the tension and our understanding of the character. I'm about a third of the way through doing that now and I have a good feeling about it. It also gives me confidence for future books: I've always been more of a character over plot author and yet this is nifty and neat. I had another lovely phone call yesterday about the new book from someone really senior at the publisher's and generally everyone seems to be very excited about the novel.

The novel I started on this Race! So thank-you guys...

So how is everyone else getting on? Are there parts of your plot, or your characters' motivations, that you secretly know aren't quite as they should be?

Incidentally, as you may recall, Lucy and I had arranged some books from Lucy's publisher as a prize for the race-winner. I feel a bit bad about taking those given that I was one of the founder racers. Am happy to award these to the next person in line - would that be Zinnia or Liz? What do you think?

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