Last year I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and it changed my life. Or my brain. Or something. It challenged me to think
while I read. It screwed my emotions tight and then didn’t let me go and then screwed them tighter again.
Those six books, the most incredible series I’ve ever read, were Dunnett’s learning-to-write books. I’ve just started her eight-book series House of Niccolo, which are her I-am-a-master-craftswoman books.
Special k always knows when I’m reading from the gasps and laughter and “Oh my God, Oh my God!
” that emanates from the couch.
But really, I want to talk about writing history.
In my last post on writing within a genre, I raised the question of how detailed a description I should give of the famous London gentleman’s club White’s. This sparked a fascinating conversation on twitter about how much detail is expected in romance, and whether this should be redressed.
And here’s one of the reasons I love twitter: Jo Bourne, who I cited in that post as the master of detail, was right there in the fray giving her thoughts on the subject. She made one statement that started fireworks in my brain:
You want to describe something at Almacks, you describe a moth on the window.
Just pause and soak in the brilliance of that statement. Instead of the particular wallpaper Almacks had that year – which would take hours of research, and come across as a researched detail, a historical
detail – we have a moth on the window: a right-now, visceral detail that connects me as a modern reader directly to the historical character. It’s a common experience between us.
It achieves what I ultimately strive for in writing in a historical setting, which is to evoke characters who live in the modern world, staring down change and industry and the sense that global disaster waits just around the corner. It’s difficult to do, because when we write history it’s through a lens, looking backwards.
This is where Dunnett’s genius comes back into play. More than any other historical writer, she places her characters right at the front of the charge into the future. Her lawyers know their law and are still part-student, her doctors are clever with their potions and her city council parades are tacky affairs.
One of the ways I’ve noticed she manages this (and trying to figure out how Dunnett does anything
is not simple) is that her details are completely unconscious of the modern reader. For example: There’s a short description of a woman sitting by a window, with a rug thrown over the sill. I suspect other writers would be tempted to explain the rug, because it’s a detail that’s alien and interesting to a modern reader. It would look something like, “As the windows had no glass pane, the window sill had a rug thrown over it to reduce the chill and as decoration.” In Dunnett’s world the rug is simply there, because that’s the way things are done. It is a complete world that doesn’t question or explain itself, just as I wouldn’t think, “I am sitting on the couch with my laptop because it is wireless and doesn’t require to be on a desk.” It just is.
I’ve been thinking lately about leeching – that old medical practice that seems barbarous, almost farcical to a modern mind. Of course you don’t take pints of blood from someone already weakened by illness.
In romance novels, I’ve noticed, you can tell whether a character’s supposed to be good or evil by their stance on leeching. No hero or heroine worth their salt would believe it to be a good idea.
I want to read a physician-hero who believes whole-heartedly it is the right thing to do. The mad-inventor heroine I’ll be writing a few books down the line is going to think the battery heralds a whole new world, with an unlimited power-source that will close the class divide.
I want people who are passionately, integrally of their time – visionaries who see not the future we know followed, but the future their world suggests to their imagination.
Anna blogs regularly at annacowan.com
My first three chapters are great—the best ever—and my lovely critique partners assure me they are. And then I just fizzle out, lose interest, and those voices disappear from my head.
This is where I start working on a new idea. But no more!!
I asked myself— where’s the excitement, the compulsion to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to write?
I started to believe I didn’t have thirteen chapters in me. However, when I looked back at my discarded stories I noticed they all had something in common—I stopped caring about my beautiful, sexy characters because I got bogged down in details while listening to that ever-present inner voice telling me I write crap. I thanked that voice for its opinion and set out to prove it wrong. Plotter/Pantser
I’ve tried plotting only to realize I’m a pantser who suffers the angst of thousands of rewrites. I’m also a perfectionist, though you wouldn’t believe that if you saw my house. I go over and over my writing, get stuck for hours looking for that perfect word, or just right emotion! Well, I’m here to say there is no perfect word, no just right emotion.
If your story drags the reader in and takes them on your characters’ journey, they don’t even notice the writing because they’re too busy racing through the pages to find out what’s happening to these fictional people you’ve made them care about.
So what have I done to rectify my problem?
I’ve combined the best of both plotting and pantsing and I have charts! I can all but hear the groans.
To track my characters, I use charts borrowed from a workshop Fiona Lowe presented to the MRWG. Fiona is a sensational multi-published author and generous friend. She gives so much back to the writing community.
I also use another chart designed by me using Fiona’s teachings as a basis.
1. Maintaining the Tension http://fionalowe.com/articles.html
which I fill in as I’m writing. I go through and make a list of ideas that relate to my story.
2. My worksheet is a simple list of the turning points based on my ‘How-to Recipe for Writing Category Romance’ http://www.margaretmidwood.com/my-how-to-recipe-for-writing-a-category-romance.html
, which I also complete as I write and when those wonderful scenes spring into my mind.
Eg. Start with a pivotal incident Turning point one Turning point two Black moment Epiphany realization
Happily Ever After.
I use sticky notes to jot the ideas down and pin them to a whiteboard or large sheet of paper (because my writing is virtually illegible, I often type them onto coloured paper and cut into squares.) This might seem like a lot of work but the advantage is you can see in a line what’s happened and it’s very easy to shuffle the order around if it’s not working.
This wonderful idea was shared with the MRWG by the talented author Paula Roe at her workshop.
I believe Scrivener http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php
has a useful tool for this and might be worth looking at as long as you don’t use this as another avoidance tool.
Navigation pane/Document map in Word is another useful tool to track the points in my manuscript. A simple highlighting of a line here and there will allow you to jump to this section. (Find the menu where it says normal, highlight the section you want highlighted and you can mark it as heading one which I use for chapters, heading two which I use for my points and can be folded down using an arrow when viewing in Navigation pane/ Document map. Paula Roe has a helpful article http://www.paularoe.com/docmap.html
Now, I’ve bared my terrible secret for you all, I hope if you’re still stuck in your chapters, re-writing and dissatisfied, then some of my suggestions might help. The Goals
1. Write your first rough draft - ignoring that negative little editor in your head.
2. Have your manuscript critiqued.
3. Revise your manuscript, include or discard suggestions and changes.
4. You have your wonderful book!
May the words flow, the end of your story be near, and the contracts follow.
Useful links http://www.melbournerwg.com/on-writing.html http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/writers-block.html http://www.paularoe.com/docmap.html http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php http://www.margaretmidwood.com/my-how-to-recipe-for-writing-a-category-romance.html http://fionalowe.com/articles.html
At this time of year aspiring romance writers are spending time perfecting their pitches in preparation for the chance to impress an editor or agent at the Romance Writers of Australia Conference. If this is your first time, here are some ideas that might help.
Get comfortable with the territory
When you arrive at conference and receive your pitch appointment time go and find the pitch room. Do it now before you’re swept up in the excitement of catching up with friends and going to events. A pitch room will often be a meeting room tucked away from where the main workshop rooms are located and can be tricky to find. Last year a couple of frantic first timers stopped by the information desk with just minutes to spare, desperate to know where their pitch was being held.
Get comfortable with the Editor
Eyeball the editor or agent before your pitch if you can. If she’s speaking at a plenary or workshop, go along and listen. She might have something to say that affects how you pitch. If you’ve done your homework there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises about what she’s looking for but her comments may make you want to adjust your pitch a little so you hit the notes she’s interested in. And at the end of a pitch, an editor will sometimes ask if you have any questions. An intelligent question about something she talked about in her workshop is a lot better than ‘nope’.
Don’t shake hands. There are differing opinions on this but frankly if I was sitting in a room all afternoon I’d not want to shake every hand offered, especially in what is our prime virus season. The editor won’t offer so don’t put her on the spot by extending your hand.
Get comfortable with yourself
When the time comes, it’s quite all right to get up in the middle of your workshop and leave for your pitch then return when it’s over. The speaker won’t be offended nor the audience. You’ll see a small steady stream of people coming and going all day.
Don’t go too early. Don’t arrive too late. Getting there early is great but there’s only so much room in the waiting area not to mention a collective nervousness that can take over. On the other hand, sliding into a pitch with seconds to spare is also to be avoided.
Take a supporter if you want but don’t take a whole team. They will clog up the waiting space and a lot of nervous women make a lot of noise. They can’t help it. J It could also be counter-productive to keeping you calm.
If you get a request don’t squeal as soon as you leave the room (it does happen). Usually the door is still open while the pitch moderator introduces the next person to the editor.
Practice your pitch. The first year I pitched I went to conference totally unprepared. Because I sell for a living I planned to just sit down and sell my story. A lovely friend I made at that conference said, “okay so pretend I’m the editor, sell it to me.” Er…
Keep it professional and keep it in perspective. If you didn’t get a request maybe your project wasn’t for that editor. Did you do your homework about what they’re looking for? Listen carefully to what the editor says because she will tell you why she’s not interested and if it’s to do with your story (as opposed to it being not what she’s looking for) you may need to work on that point before you pitch to someone else.
Wardrobe. Be comfortable but present a persona that tells the editor that if they sign you, you’re presentable in public.
Don’t take your manuscript with you. Much as we all fantasise about an editor leaping across the table and demanding to read this masterpiece you’ve created, she will never ask for a copy on the spot.
And remember, editors and agents are there because they’re hungry for interesting new talent. They are always pleasant and they’ll listen attentively to your pitch. They’re used to picking through a pitch to find out if there are the elements of a good story and they will ask questions. Know your story back to front and be prepared to discuss it in depth.
So they’re my tips. What about you? Do you have any tips that have helped you when pitching?
On the other side of “the call”
by Emmie Dark
I realized the other day that I’ve just reached the year’s anniversary of the date I got my “call”. It’s been an amazing twelve months and I thought it was timely to re-cap some of the key moments of my journey. So, with a whole one year’s experience as a published author, here’s my recap on the year so far.
Things I expected:
There are lots of exciting things that come with being a first-time published author. Holding your book in your hands for the very first time. Seeing your book on a shelf in a store. The first time a reader – someone you’ve never even met – writes to you to tell you they enjoyed reading your story.
So is finally getting the call and seeing your dreams come true as exciting as you always thought? You better believe it.
Things I didn’t expect:
All the things I just mentioned become even more precious because of the blood, sweat and tears you put into your book AFTER the call. That’s right – unfortunately the hard work of polishing your manuscript until it glows in order to get it noticed is only the very first step in getting it out to readers. You’re going to have to polish that book until your fingers cramp and you’re so sick of every single word you never want to see it again.
Of course, I knew there would be work to be done – no book is perfect. But I don’t think I’d ever properly thought about what life would be like as a proper author, when writing was a job and not just a passion.
And that leads me to my third and final point:
Things I wish I’d known:
Unless you’re incredibly fortunate, odds are you won’t be able to quit your day job when you get your call. But you know what? Being a published author is pretty much a full-time job. So prepare to work two jobs for a while.
Sleep is overrated, isn’t it?
One other thing I should mention, and I guess it goes under the heading of “Things I didn’t expect”, is the pleasure of seeing your book under various different covers.
Cassie and Ronan’s story is out this month (July) in Australia and New Zealand as a “Blush” imprint from Mills and Boon. It has a pretty pink/mauve cover with a lovely, happy-looking couple who I’m quite happy to consider to be Cassie and Ronan.
I imagine the thrill must wear off for some of those authors with dozens and dozens of books in translation all around the world. But for me there’ a special thrill in seeing Cassie’s Grand Plan with a different cover – perhaps because it’s the Australian release, right here in my very own home town.
Reading: Cross Your Heart Author: Michelle Bardsley Genre: Paranormal Romance Reviewed by: Josephine Chiara
For Elizabeth giving up her comfy life hadn't been a choice.
But after the death of her beloved husband she returned to live in Broken Heart, Oklahoma.
To forget her problems she would usually drink a large blood martini. Yes being a vampire wasn't easy, but a vampire who is afraid of ghosts was almost comical.
Torn between two men, running from a ghost she had me in stitches. Reading: Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) Author: Jenny Lawson Genre: memoir Reviewed by: Ebony McKenna
By turns hilarious and painfully raw, Jenny Lawson (The Blogess) takes us on a vertigo-inducing ride through her life, from childhood 'highlights' such as a hand puppet made from squirrel road kill through to recently fighting off vultures in her back yard in rural Texas.
Rattlesnakes, mental illness, nearly breaking her arm inside a cow's vagina and running into a freshly hung-up deer carcass. These are all normal events in Jenny's life. It's too much in one go, that's for sure. That's why there are chapters. So the reader can take a breath and have a cup of tea and a lie down before they go back for more. This is a train wreck, and it's impossible to look away.
On one hand, Jenny sure has led an interesting life. On the other, this is completely normal. What makes it I so captivating is the telling, and this is a great story incredibly well told.
I love people like Jenny. They're unflinching and honest. They can't ever hope to set a good example, so instead they serve as a horrible warning. Reading: Sister Pact Author: Ali Ahearn and Ros BaxterGenre: Contemporary Women's Fiction Reviewed by: Louise Reynolds
When long estranged sisters Joni and Frankie are thrown together by the will of their deceased grandmother, they must compete as a team on a reality survival program in order to receive $1million each from her will. These once close sisters are as different as it’s possible to be. Quirky Joni with her green hair and pet ferret and cool, up-market Frankie are poles apart but they’re both desperately in need of money. Set on a survivor-style island in the Pacific and full of delicious characters and witty dialogue it’s the heartfelt love these sisters rediscover that warms. This is my top pick read of the year so far.
Author: C J Sansom
Reviewed by: Sara Hood
C J Sansom’s books were recommended to me by the youngest sister of a friend of my Dad’s. She lives in Utah and runs a bookshop, and despite never having met we’re firm Facebook friends. I happened to post that I adored Wolf Hall
and was hanging out for Bring Up the Bodies
, and she said I expect you’d like C J Sansom then. Her bookshop specialises in matching readers with books, so I hit Google, as you do, and there he was: A crime writer who sets his plots in Tudor England. The man has a doctorate in history and then became a lawyer, so there was the risk he’d be terribly worthy and dry, but keeping an open mind I sent off for Dissolution
, the first in what is now a five book series.
And loved it. I’m really demanding of books. Sentences must make sense. Logic must be followed. If they’re historical then they have to be accurate, or accurate enough to make me think they’re accurate. No dress ups, please. Characters have to be real people, with motivations, and demons, and flaws. Don’t make them do things that are out of character or just plain daft so you can advance the plot, or I shall scare the dogs by throwing your book across the room. So don’t have the detective tell Madam that her life is in mortal danger and she must never leave the house, but if she really has to then she must take these two armed gorillas with her, but then she has a slight tiff with the upper housemaid and flounces out into the dark ALL ALONE. Sigh. Scream. Book flung at wall. Barking dogs.
C J Sansom is not like that at all. Characters are treated with respect. They’re fully formed, warts and all, and meeting them is like making new friends. Well, not the baddies. Of course, I wouldn’t want to make friends with them what done it. And places, they’re so vivid. You can see the triangular sails of the wherries, criss-crossing the Thames as the 16th century equivalents of taxis. Smell the stench of the London streets. Well, almost. You get the point. Tudor London stank. And be alert, be very alert, to keep up with the stories as they whisk along at breakneck speed, twisting and turning all over the shop. Revelation
is the fourth book and less twisty-turny than the earlier stories, but is much more bleak. Eeeeuw. How the baby dies. That’s not for the weak of stomach. And (spoiler alert) I do think it’s about time that the protagonist, Master Shardlake, is allowed to find someone to love him back. Heartstone
, the final and most recent book, is on the bedside table waiting to be opened. But the sooner I start it the sooner it’s finished, so it will wait a little while longer. Let’s hope it has some requited love. Dear Matthew Shardlake deserves a bit of happiness after all the sleuthing he’s been up to.