Thursday, 23 June 2011

Warning - your reading habits may ruin your life

Another day another attack on women from the UK's bestselling tabloid. We're too fat, too thin, over indulge our children and neglect them as they get over sexualised by the TV we stick them in front of as we binge drink. Working mothers are evil, stay at home mothers lazy and as for single mothers, obviously they are too blame for everything that's wrong in society. Women sports stars/actresses/singers are judged on looks and bodies, men on their talent.
Anna Kournikova - the media were less than interested in her tennis skills

Yesterday they told us not to retire before our husbands because the poor dears can't cope if there isn't a good woman at home to care for them (actually, that one is even more insulting to men, my father does a great job of being retired. He even, shock, cooks and does the shopping although admittedly washing up is beyond him). Today they told us that we are ruining ourselves for real men with our dependence on trashy old romance novels.
Yes, as one poor city trader (a real man, ladies) angrily bit out “These books are responsible for the ruin of my last relationship!” Women today, eh? Apparently we expect men to bring us chocolates and flowers and to discuss feelings and know what we're thinking. As their 24 year old romance reader tearfully confessed she rushed her last boyfriend by expecting a house, dogs and land rover too quickly, thus bringing about the end of the relationship.
Well little Miss Romance Reader, aspirations are good but surely your aspirations are more those of a WAG than a romance heroine? Heroines today often have their own business, house, dog, car taking inspiration from Beyonce than Kanye West's Gold-digger “The watch I'm wearing, I bought it!” The Wag lifestyle may exist in a few bandwagon jumping novels but it's a lifestyle fetishised by reality TV and tabloids – just like the one publishing this article – rather than romance writers and readers. We like our heroines to be independent, sassy and ready to do whatever it takes to succeed in life and love, we don't want a passive kept woman whose Happy Ever After is a middle class, school-run utopia.
I'm not going to discuss the original pop-lite academia-with-an-agenda that prompted this article, look it up yourself and draw your own conclusions but I am going to ask – why women? Why is our every popular taste derided, pulled apart and sneered at? One non-standard romcom movie a year comes out aimed solely at women and its success is always a subject of amazement while Bromances, gross out comedies and action films starring scantily clad lovelies are two a penny and no one worries what they does to men. Men are allowed to read thrillers and SAS books where the beautiful heroine will always fall for the flawed hero, watch Top Gear andbe trusted not to drive their cars like reckless boy racers. Must be that sensible X chromosome.

Except of course this is nonsense, women are more than capable of distinguishing the difference between fantasy and reality, we do it every day. We read fantasy, paranormal, crime, travel, classics and lots of literary fiction. Many of us like to read all the genres, our tastes depending on our mood, and some of us like to stick to the tried and trusted. Just like the rest of our lives,
I will however leave the last word to the tabloid whose article provoked this rant. Women who read romance, apparently, are more likely to stay married than those who don't. I think that's one-love to the romance readers, don't you?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Shiny and new

So, we know what we are writing and who we are writing for. Fantastic. Our hero is clear in our head, all tousled hair, sharp cheekbones, a soupcon of arrogance and tight-fitting breeches (optional), our heroine has the right amount of sassiness mixed with a dash of vulnerability and at least one killer outfit, even if she doesn’t know it yet. And we have a scenario, a “What If” ready to pluck these two characters out of their ordinary world and throw them together so that they can meet, interact and, eventually, fall in love. Brilliant, job done. Goodness, this writing business is a doddle.
Gratuitous shot of hero in breeches:

If you are anything like me then this is the easy part. I love the thinking up of characters and throwing them together in some uncomfortable way. I spend my time day-dreaming up “What ifs”, rewriting TV programmes, books or films - although obviously I have grown out of casting myself in the major role. Who wants to be a vampire slayer or a kick ass spy anyway? Quickly moving on…
What isn’t so easy is working out what happens next.
This isn’t a blog about pantsing versus plotting because there are hundreds of blog posts on that very topic all written by people with a lot more experience than me. Besides, I fall untidily in between. I know exactly how the first three chapters are going to unfold and I know how it’s going to end; it’s just getting there that’s the tricky part. This explains why I have three partials and only one finished novel sitting in my reject files. No, this is a blog about ploughing on through and just writing the darn thing because whether you are a plotter with hundreds of neatly arranged index cards, a collage board and a chapter by chapter synopsis or not, at some point you are going to have to sit down and actually write. Not blog, tweet, or make another cup of tea. Write.
I love writing, that’s why I do it; nothing makes me happier and starting a new novel is a completely giddy experience – the first sentence, paragraph, page, chapter. This giddy feeling stays with me all the way to Chapter 3, and then the doubts set in. Is he consistent, is she behaving naturally or has she turned into Heroine 101, is their conflict real, is there any emotional depth? And the worst question of all – is this the dullest non-story ever written? As I start chapter 4 I am convinced that yes, this is terminally, irretrievably dull. Panic. Meanwhile all the other scenarios and characters start jostling for attention. They will be easier to write, they promise, why not start something new?
In a category romance this is particularly dangerous because, unless you are writing a historical, paranormal or crime based romance then plot wise nothing much does happen, the bulk of the novel is your hero and heroine interacting with each other. No car chases, traitors or grand quests, no amusing secondary characters with problems of their own to deflect attention for a chapter or two. Just two people. For 50,000 words. Jessica Hart once described one of her books as “two people, trapped into marriage going to live in a tumbledown castle. They decorate it and go into a city for a day.” Not the most enticing blurb in the world and certainly not how the reader would describe Newly Weds of Convenience and yet plot wise that pretty much is what happens; but the book is so, so much more. Because it is completely character driven.
Writing character driven books is NOT easy especially for those of us at the beginning of our writing journeys, Like many first time writers my first Standard R (the 3 chapters that exist anyway) is a shining example of how not to write a romance: Too Much Plot, Heroine 101 and Hero 101 pushed together by a series of contrived situations and manipulated by an entire cast of secondary characters. If I tell you that this work of genius included an estranged father, a runaway bride, a lost daughter and a jealous lover you'll get the idea. Goodness knows what I would have poured into Chapter 4, maybe it's a mercy it never got finished.
So in my current WIP I have gone back to basics. No jealous relatives, secret letters or dastardly cousins; just 2 people, a past and an attraction. Of course it may be woefully, endlessly dull, if it ever gets finished in time for the New Writer's Scheme I am sure the reader will soon tell me so. Of course the only way I will ever find out is to ignore those doubting voices and keep writing...

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Holding out for a hero

One of the nice things about smallish children is that you can still influence their music tastes to a certain degree. Despite being a Disney popette at heart enough exposure to my C.D.'s means that, although the seven year old may resist The Stone Roses, she's rather partial to Pulp and completely loves the few eighties bands I still listen to. Yesterday we were listening to Aha as we drove through the Yorkshire countryside both singing along lustily while I reminisced about My First Crush. Ah, Morten.

Was it the octave spanning voice? Was it the cheekbones? Was it an utterly winning combination of the two? Whatever the reason his posters adorned my walls, I wore leather bands twisted round my wrists which tightened uncomfortably when they got wet, listened to the music over and over. And I wrote. Maths was confusing, boring, far more fun to spend double lessons writing a never ending saga in the back of my workbook starring myself, clad in a Dynastyesque red sparkly dress, split up to the thigh and Morten, debonaire in a tux, rakish in a leather jacket. Mostly I swept down grand staircases or rode in sports cars, I was a very innocent thirteen year old. But one thing I did know, you have to fall in love with your hero. And as a romance writer you need to make sure your readers love your hero just as much as you do.
And fall in love I did - with Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Gilbert Blythe, a whole array of Heyer heroes from the boyish to the rakes.
The best romantic novels give the reader heroines they want to be friends with coupled with heroes they want to sleep with. Take Jessica Hart's latest book, "Ordinary Girl in a Tiara". Lovely as Kate Middleton may be it's hard to imagine having a giggly glass of wine with such glossy haired perfection but Caro with her bright, vintage clothes, love of food and open, friendly nature would be a great person to spend a girly night with. And Philippe, principled playboy, lost little boy, angry young man doing the right thing, handsome, charming,is a prince we can all lose our hearts too.
Writing our own heroes and heroines is not so easy, Making our heroines real, likeable women, our heroes flawed yet sexy, men we can imagine running away with is harder than seems possible, especially on the third or fourth rewrite when all you want to do is lock them both in a big box and send it to the bottom of the sea. I know my latest hero and heroine, their childhoods, their dreams, aspirations, hopes, favourite food, hobbies, fears, I like her, I fancy him but so far no reader has met them, questioned their motives. They are untouched by the outside world. Exposing them to readers is a step neither I, nor them, are ready to take just yet.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Fits & starts

I know, I know I'm not the only person manically juggling work, family, home, a few desultory attempts to stay somewhere close to a healthy weight and what used to be called volunteering & is now called keeping-essential-services-open-under-guise-of-a-big-society with writing but sometimes it really feels like it. And somehow when I stagger under the weight of all my obligations it is always the writing that loses out. Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about writing, advises us to have a place and a time where we always go to write. Always. Christmas, Thanksgiving (if you're American, we don't really do Thanksgiving in the UK, not sure what the equivalent is?) whatever - go to your place and write. And at the same time every day. Now I am fully aware that Mr King followed his own excellent advice when he was living in a trailer with two small children washing gruesomely stained sheets for a living, wedging himself in a small passageway every evening to type away, I am also aware that a certain very famous romantic novelist locked herself in her bedroom telling her young sons to only disturb her if they were bleeding. I on the other hand am soft and spend my evenings chauffeuring 7 year old around, feeding her, reading to her (Milly Molly Mandy at the present time to the great enjoyment of us both)falling onto the sofa just after 8 capable only of tweeting and drinking copious amounts of gin.
And then I'll get my mojo back. I will write whilst watching Swedish Wallender (not a clue what happened, turns out writing and watching subtitles is impossible even for a multi tasker), I will write in the car outside gym club, I will write while my husband cleans to a standard I have to make myself accept with a false smile on my face. It all feels doable for a while and then... life steps in again - birthdays, cub camping, school assemblies, work events and it all goes pear shaped for a while - until the next spurt that is.
There has to be a better way, suggestions on a post card please! And with the deadline for the New Writer's Scheme scarily close and 35,000 words and an edit to go please make them good (offers of cleaners/chauffeurs/large sums of money will be gratefully received).