Friday, 23 December 2016

Merry Christmas

Although, as I sit and write this, the weather outside my window is looking far from festive, even if it is seasonal - ie strong winds and horizontal rain!  Oh well, perfect for staying indoors with a cup of tea and a mince pie :)   Like last year, I have a whole twelve days off work and, like last year, have lined up some quality reading material.

This holiday, I'm planning to revisit the wonderful works of Mary Stewart.  Written in the 1950s and 1960s, her books are now relatively historical, even a little dated.  But her clever mix of romance and suspense, her spirited heroines and enigmatic heroes, and the evocative descriptions of countries as far flung as Provence, Crete and the Middle East is the ideal antidote to the British Winter.

I'm also hoping that, after a long period of indecision and procrastination, a holiday and a Mary Stewart fest will spark some renewed energy and enthusiasm in my  own writing!  Maybe the New Year will indeed be tantamount to a New Leaf?

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and all good things in 2017.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Hay on Wye Winter Festival

Having missed the Hay Literary Festival in the summer, I was really excited to get the chance to work at the Hay Winter Festival last weekend.  Smaller than the famous summer one, it coincided with the Christmas Light Switch On by Ben Fogle, a winter food fayre and a vintage fayre, so the town was both busy and festive.

I was honoured to get a free pass to one of the talks by children's author Piers Torday, and also a complimentary copy of his book, There May Be A Castle.  His talk was aimed, naturally, at children but the message for clear for anyone, old or young, who is aspiring to write a book: write from the heart and never give up!

Hay is a lovely town, all winding streets, interesting shops and alleyways full of secondhand bookshops.  I didn't get time to browse the bookshops, sadly, but did get in a lovely walk along the river Wye on my first morning.  The weather was festive too, crisp and sunny, and the rolling landscape absolutely stunning.

Since I was there promoting nature, and birds in particular, I was really chuffed (pardon the pun) to spot Redwings, a Kingfisher and - best of all - a Yellowhammer, all of them birds I'd never seen, on farmland near the lovely guest house I was staying at a few miles away at Glasbury.

Hay is definitely a town worth visiting any time of the year, especially if you're a book lover! And if not, there's the very good coffee shops, the rather upmarket charity shops, the beautiful surrounding countryside and of course, the atmospheric Hay castle!

Friday, 14 October 2016

Location, location, location!

One of the things I most enjoy about being a romance writer is getting to visit beautiful and exotic places the world over - albeit vicariously through the eyes of my characters.  Having set books in South America, Saudi Arabia, Italy, France and the UK over the years, I've discovered that researching the various and unique characteristics of these far-flung lands has become a bit addictive as well as very satisfying. 

Fictional people, just like flesh and blood ones, are shaped and defined by the place of their birth as much as by the families they were born into. Some characters, the hero in particular, are born and raised in privilege and duty, like the Sheikh in his desert palace.  Others, although born into poverty, rise by dint of their ambition and efforts, to take their place among the rich and famous.  But do either of them ever truly leave their roots behind them? 

That is one of the questions I ask myself when researching the geographical background and experiences of my characters.  Who a person really is underneath, his or her fundamental beliefs and life experiences, will dictate how they think and behave when placed into a situation of conflict, which is the theme of the HMB Presents novel.  Knowing where they've come from helps me add layers to their characters that make them real to me to me and hopefully to the reader too.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first?  Or, to equate that to writing terms, which comes first, your characters or the story?  That's a conundrum that's been bothering me a lot lately as I seem to have acquired several characters but no story to put them in!  Apparently there are only seven basic plots out there but what happens if your characters won't fit into any of them?   Are they just too stubborn or is it simply a lack of imagination on my part?  Only twice in my writing career have characters and story popped up together, out of the blue, and it is only those times that the book has really flowed, almost of its own accord.  Is that inspiration?  If so, what do you do when, as is the case most of the time, inspiration doesn't strike and writing is just a matter of sitting down, putting your fingers to the keyboard and working at it? So many questions and no answers!

Foghorn Leghorn - the irrepressible rooster!

Or are there? Writers' block is easy to recognize, even though it comes in many forms from procrastination to denial, but it is very hard to break through. Eating chocolate, going for a walk, watching a movie, retail therapy, you name it, are all only temporary fixes, though sometimes that's all that's needed. Longer term blocks, however, can be so disheartening you wonder if you will ever write again.  Then a writing friend who you really admire emails to say she is in exactly the same boat and you realise it's not just you!  That people with real talent, who you know without a shadow of a doubt will succeed, suffer the same agonies of self-doubt and disillusionment too.  I don't hold with misery liking company but I am a firm believer in the power of friendship, and the mutual understanding and support that is found among writers is nothing short of a blessing.  And suddenly, just knowing you are not alone shifts everything from negative to positive.  It may still feel like pushing a boulder up a hill but having the encouragement and belief that you can do it makes everything possible.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Summer Shows

The summer months are a busy time for me as, in my day job, I attend a lot of agricultural shows, horse shows, food festivals and the like, both local and national.  One of my favourite events is the Aberaeron Cob Festival, which takes place right in the centre of this picturesque west Wales town every August. It is a showing of the Welsh breeds rather than a competition, so there are no prizes, though many of the horses there are regular prize winners in such prestigious events as the Royal Welsh Show.


The last two years, I've been lucky enough to have a ringside view of a packed programme, including the running of the magnificent stallions, the neck-breaking Welsh Mountain Pony Grand National, the Gentle Giants team of beautiful black shire horses, and the heart-stopping antics of the Galloping Acrobatics.  Many years ago, I spent several seasons working with horses and, although I rarely ride these days, it seems I've never quite lost the love of this noble and beautiful animal.  But whether you're a horse lover or not, it is an entertaining day out that is well recommended.

The Gentle Giants

Another plus side to my job is that I get to work four days on and then have three days off for writing, which is what I'm doing this week.  Having started something new recently, and after a slow and not-quite-certain beginning, things are becoming a bit more fluid now.  My characters are starting to become real to me and - more importantly - to each other, and the storyline is taking shape nicely.  I've only got one and a half chapters down so far, so a long way to go yet, but as always I've set myself a deadline for a partial submission in the autumn.  And, although the sunshine is glorious this morning and it seems that summer will last forever, I suspect that October will be here before I know it!

Saturday, 30 July 2016

A Fresh Start

Is it me or do the seasons seem a bit out of sync this year? It's nearly the end of July and already the wildflowers on my balcony are past their best bloom.  They still look pretty though, especially on a sunny Saturday morning, and they attract the bees and other pollinators in droves.  Insect-friendly plants are both attractive and essential and, in my work in conservation, I meet lots of people who are letting parts of their gardens 'go wild' in an effort to give nature a home when its natural habitat is under more threat than ever before. So go on, do your bit for nature and plant some wildflowers next spring :)

I find, like nature, my writing tends to go in seasons too. I usually start a new book with clockwork timing - January, May and September. This year, like the seasons, I am also a bit out of sync for several reasons.  Having put my last book to one side, and jettisoned my recent partial for the foreseeable future, I've taken a few weeks off to consider two very important questions:  1) Do I want to go on writing, and 2) If so, what do I want to write?  These aren't unfamiliar questions, of course, to anyone who's tried or is still trying to make it as a writer. And, if the answer to the first question is 'yes', then there is always hope of publication one day.  But that then leaves the tricky answer to the second question.

I toyed with several options - revisiting a book I began ten years ago, reworking a recent but unsuccessful submission, or starting something completely fresh.  And, in pondering these options and deciding  a new story was the way to go, I discovered that inspiration doesn't necessarily follow. Sometimes - a lot of the time, actually -  you just have to stare at the page until the words come. Or in my case, jot down reams of ideas until one of them takes root and begins to germinate.  Whether it will blossom into something as fragrant as the flowers on my balcony, however,  remains to be seen!

Friday, 15 July 2016

RNA Conference 2016

The annual Romantic Novelists' Conference is one of the highlights of my calendar, and this year was no exception. Held at Lancaster University, the venue was lovely even if the weather wasn't exactly sultry and summer-like.  Getting together with good friends over a bottle or three of Prosecco was the absolute high spot of a wonderful couple of days. The sessions were interesting and inspiring, among them HQ Harper Collins 'Reaching the Top in Commercial Fiction,' Vasiliki Scurfield on 'Writing the Foreign Hero' and Kate Walker on 'Emotional Punch.' One of the most illuminating sessions, from my point of view at least, was Sonia Duggan's workshop on 'Rekindling your Romance with Writing.'  Having been writing for almost ten years and as yet unpublished, this one really struck a chord with me.  Sonia gave us an exercise on composing a Dear John letter to our writing and what I wrote both surprised and shocked me and, for the first time, I was able to view my relationship with my work as just that - a relationship.  And, like any long term love affair, keeping positive during the low points, going on believing and investing in it, can be hard for published and unpublished authors alike. So I came away from this eye-opener with the realization that my attitude and commitment towards my own writing could do with some serious TLC. A wake up call is never a bad thing for a writer! 

Writing friends Rachael Thomas and Gina Hollands at the HQ session

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Experimental Writing !

I should have been working at the Hay Literary Festival this week but, due to a pulled back muscle, I've been off sick and housebound instead for the last seven days  :(   I couldn't do much for the first couple of days except lie flat or, alternately, hobble around feeling bored. But by Wednesday, thankfully, I was able to get down to doing some writing - albeit standing up at my breakfast bar.

Having kicked my last book into touch for a while, I decided to take the opportunity to try something a bit different.  Would a new work station and view spark some fresh ideas and approaches?  It would and it did!  I'm one of those perfectionist type of writers who go over and over the same paragraph, line, or even word sometimes until it is  just right, at least to my mind.  To an editor or reader, of course, it might come across as completely wrong.

Too many times, when layering my story and digging deep into emotions, I've found myself not being able to see the wood for the trees. Writing pal Sarah Snowdon  took the words right out of my mouth a few days ago when she said "The more I think about my story, the harder I try, the worse it gets."  I know exactly how you feel, Sarah!

So, in an attempt to get my work flowing freer and faster, and to break my habit of overwriting, I'm actually drafting two, very different chapters for the RNA conference industry appointments next month.  One is a new book, which I'm aiming at HMB, and the other is a rework of an old story, which I'm aiming . . . well, anywhere really.  I'm also setting myself a goal of 1000 words minimum every day, achievable so far and hoping to still reach that target when I pick up the day job again next week!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A new beginning . . .

To a new book, that is.  Having submitted a full manuscript to Harlequin Mills and Boon recently, I'm hoping they'll like it enough to ask for revisions. In the meantime, however, I'm in the wonderful position of being able to begin a new story with no immediate pressure of a deadline - at least not yet!  And, while I never begin a book without the intention of eventual submission, I'm enjoying letting this one slowly grow.  I'm definitely a half-plotter and half-pantser type of writer and I always start with a character sheet and plot synopsis, though inevitably these are never set in stone.  For a writer, characters are real and, as human beings, they change and develop as the story progresses, reacting to and growing out of the emotional situations they are forced to confront, while remaining true to the people they are.

Every new book is an adventure and a journey of exploration for a writer, as much as for the characters.  Keeping the emotional intensity high and the motivation clear and authentic, right from the first page, is a must.  As I was writing this morning, and events were unfolding as per my loose synopsis, I found myself constantly asking 'why?'  It's not enough just to put a character in a situation with another character without knowing why they are there, or even - as I had to learn today - why they'd go there in the first place if they didn't want to, with a person they didn't know or particularly like! Thank you, Kate Walker, for planting that all-important question 'why?' eternally in my vocabulary!!

Italy is the location for this story, a place I've visited twice and  always intended to write about one day - and what more stimulating and enjoyable way to rediscover this beautiful country than setting it in a romance novel?  As an incentive, I'm planning to revisit it in person next year, which is just about the best sort of deadline any writer could have :)

I've also started to brush up on my very rusty Italian, not only so that I can immerse myself in the culture for real next year, but also to enable my new hero to whisper some bona fide - and very sexy - words into the as-yet resistant ears of my heroine.

I wonder how long she'll hold out . . . ?

Saturday, 23 April 2016

A Writing Weekend in Cirencester

Well, truth be told, not much actual writing was done, as last weekend was another of Malaga workshops fabulous courses. This time it was at the Royal Agricultural University  at Cirencester,  an idyllic setting in the beautiful Gloucestershire countryside. The college itself dates back to 1845 and is the oldest agricultural college in the English speaking world.   Its long history was evident in the mellow stone buildings and old oak beams, and everywhere had an austerely welcoming feel to it. The rooms were rather lovely and the Tithe barn bar quite stunning and we had it all to ourselves on the Friday night, when much wine and good conversation was enjoyed.

The course tutor was Kate Walker  and, as always, she had a wealth of  knowledge and experience to impart. We were working on beginnings, middles and ends, which was great for me, as I usually hit a sticking point somewhere around the middle of my books. So a lot of attention was given to plotting and pace and Kate handed out some useful worksheets to keep on us track during the whole process of writing a romance novel, or any novel come to that.


I also managed to get some final editing done on my current WIP  while there, ready to submit the full ms to Harlequin Mills and Boon the following Monday.  Getting up at six am, making a coffee and settling down for a couple of hours of editing in my spacious and comfortable room was a pleasantly productive way to start the day.   Back home, I intended to have a couple of weeks off writing before starting something new, but the best laid plans . . .  Inevitably, I came away from Cirencester full of energy and enthusiasm and so I've given in and have begun making some notes for my next book - with a sexy Italian hero this time ;)

Friday, 1 April 2016

Easy as A B C ?

Anybody who's a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond will know Peggy the Cookie Lady, who prior to the annual cookie fundraising sales, drums her Brownies in their ABCs - Always Be Closing!  When Ray pinches her selling spot, the best in town, she soon shows him she's not a woman to cross!

However scary her character, Peggy's ABC mantra is a very useful one for a writer  - if you change the words to Always Be Completing.  I've heard many an aspiring author talk about their drawers full of first chapters or partials and I can never quite understand this strategy.  Writing is a learning curve, an ongoing process, and how is a writer supposed to develop if they never get past the first chapter or two?  Every novel has a beginning, middle and end and, while they might get brilliant at honing that vital first chapter, or even the first three, what about the rest of the book?

Having completed five unpublished novels to date, I would always recommend finishing a story once you've started it.  Even if you've submitted a partial, and it doesn't seem wise to carry on until you've heard back from the publisher or editor, leaving it to one side and, worse, starting something else is a mistake, in my opinion.  What happens if they like your partial and request to see the full?  It has to be finished, honed to the best possible version you can do, and ready to go.  Even if it is rejected eventually, it can always be reworked later down the line, or it might just be that an editor asks you do revise and resubmit and it still gets rejected.  That's not always as negative as it seems on the surface, because in the process, you'll have learned a lot and grown as an author, and those lessons can be applied to your next book.

It's important to enjoy the journey towards publication, and completing your novel, giving your characters an end to their story, is part of that enjoyment. It's also an achievement to be proud of!  Completing is hard work, yes, but for me anyway, it's crucial and getting there is one of the most satisfying and empowering things about being a writer.  Anyone else agree with me?


Friday, 4 March 2016

The delights of editing

Editing is one of my favourite things and I usually find it easier to edit a book than to write it in the first place!  So I've been enjoying doing the revisions on my latest WIP, especially as they've cooincided with a three week holiday off work :)  It's been lovely, doing almost nothing but writing every day, although - holiday or not - I'm definitely a morning writer.  My preferred routine is to get up around six, make a cafetiere of good Italian coffee and retire back to bed with my computer. Writing feels so much more relaxed when one's mind is uncluttered and there's no need to stop when things are flowing or dash out to work at a crucial point.  As a result, my revisions have come along nicely and I'm almost ready to re-submit a partial in the next week or so.

Also this week,  I met up for lunch with my good writing friend, Sarah Snowdon. We went to Dylan's in Criccieth, an Art-Deco-like building designed and built in 1954 by Clough Williams Ellis, the architect-owner of nearby Portmeirion. Dylan's Restaurant - who also have an eatery in Menai Bridge - took over the Council-owned building in 2015 and it's really worth a visit, not only for its unique architectural style and stunning seaside location but, naturally, for its wonderful - though not cheap - food.

As usual, Sarah and I took full advantage of an extensive menu and talked shop for five hours. Getting together regularly with writing friends is a must for me, whatever stage my work is at. Whether airing plot problems or talking through character conflict, getting the opinion of a trusted fellow writer is a real blessing. It's equally pleasant to listen to someone else talk about their work too, and Sarah is such a talented writer that it's always exciting to hear about her latest novel or short story.


Saturday, 6 February 2016

Evolution and the Sheikh

Ever since Rudolph Valentino smouldered down from the silver screen in the 1921 silent movie 'The Sheikh', tall, dark and handsome desert heroes have been the epitome of romance fantasy and a mainstay of romantic fiction - and quite right too!  But has the most Alpha of Alpha males changed very much over the decades?

In 1919, Edith Hull's novel was an overnight sensation and her virile desert warrior made women everywhere go weak at the knees. Shrewdly, she penned a number of successful sequels featuring brooding Arab heroes, and her books paved the way for later romance writers. The Sheikh is still a firm and popular hero of romantic fiction, and one of my own particular favourites, but the world has moved on in the last  hundred years. Readers, and film-goers too, expect a different sort of hero these days and, consequently, for an author, he's not always the most straightforward of characters to write - as I've discovered in my latest work in progress.

Creating a strong yet sympathetic desert hero who traverses traditional middle eastern society and the modern arena of romantic fiction is a subtle process.  Because a Sheikh is the absolute status symbol.  He carries a heavy burden of duty and responsibility; he oozes regal power, wealth and fame; and, of course, he embodies the red-hot passions that characterize this type of hero. What female could possibly resist such a charismatic and complex combination of Alpha maleness?

Any woman worth her salt, actually, if his Alpha traits aren't balanced with a caring and permissive nature that is far removed from the chauvinistic Sheikhs of old.  Heroines in the past may have swooned and withered under his flashing gaze but the modern girl not only holds her own in this autocratic and  oh-so-sexy man's world but tames him too along the way! 

Writing a believable, page-turning story in a breath-taking yet fictional desert kingdom is both a delight and a challenge.  Which is why, as well as doing some online trawling, I'm reading a wide range of Sheikh books at the moment, including revisiting some of my favourites by Lynn Raye Harris and Sarah Morgan, in order to get some background information and authenticity.

And I've noticed that a number of recent books, like Andie Brock's The Sheikh's Wedding Contract (HMB 2015), have been well researched while others merely portray a modern hero who just  happens to be rich, handsome and a monarch to boot!  And, even though the central relationship is at the core of all romance novels, the reader needs to feel herself fully immersed in the characters' world or else she will come away with a happy ever after, yes, but possibly an otherwise unsatisfactory and lacking reading experience.

So my task list for the next few weeks is :

1 - Hone my hero to make him no less powerful but a little more sympathetic and progressive.
2 - Infuse some of the elements that make the desert setting truly authentic.
3 - Indulge in some reading and online research - and no, that's not an excuse to oggle muscular bronzed male bodies - or is it??  Oh well, all in the name of necessity  . . . :)

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Happy 2016

I'm not really one for making New Year resolutions and this time round isn't an exception.  I did, however, resolve to submit my work in progress in early January and, today, I did just that.   It felt good hitting the send button but now begins the weeks or even months of waiting to hear back, trying not to think how I should have written certain passages differently, or cut something out, or put something in . . . the second guesses are endless and Romance writers nothing if not perfectionists!

The time ahead won't be wasted however;  I'm already mulling over my next book and, in February, I'm going to beautiful Fishguard, on another of Writers Holiday's  fabulous and friendly courses. This time, however, I'm delving into short stories by way of a change.  And, unlike previous years, I'm looking at the weekend as a mini-break too, going earlier and staying later, and hopefully getting time to walk a bit of the Pembrokeshire coastal path, weather permitting naturally.  As I write this, the hailstones are plummeting down from the north Wales sky and it looks like winter is finally on the horizon!

Wishing You A Happy New Year !!