Tuesday, October 31, 2006
On her blog last week, Julie Cohen addressed the importance of the opening paragraph, forensically dissecting one of her own and inviting authors and those hoping to be published to join in.
I wrote a fairly long piece on this subject a few years ago and talked about it at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference in Leicester. You can read the article on my website, but the books quoted are old and – with thirty more books under my belt since I wrote this piece – my writing style has evolved a little since then.
But like it says in the song, the fundamentals “still apply” so here’s the opening page of A FAMILY OF HIS OWN, which won the RNA Romance Prize last year.
I may not always use the “feet first” approach these days, confrontation on the first line to grab the reader by the throat and drag her into my book, but I do have to engage her, enchant her, make her want to read on. And for that I need a character who she can empathise with, who she’ll want to spend time with. So it’s still down to that first paragraph, whether it’s face-to-face fireworks with the hero, or something slightly less dramatic. Whatever I write, I won’t be indulging myself in a couple of hundred words of lyrical prose – not without burying tantalising chunks of information about the heroine at its heart.
It was hot for the end of September. A cloudless, still day with only the glistening fruit of the huge blackberries to warn that summer was almost over.
Huge blackberries that were infuriatingly out of reach.
I’d like to tell you that I used those blackberries as a metaphor for the unattainable. I wish I was that deep. I write what I see, what I’ve done myself, presenting a reality that I hope my reader will recognise. Been there. Done that. “...out of reach.” of whom?
Kay rubbed the sweat from her forehead, fanned herself with her tattered straw gardening hat and walked slowly back along the hedge, seeking out any fruit that she’d missed, trying to ignore the long brambles lolling over the high wall that skirted the far side of the lane. Brambles weighed down by berries, but which still just evaded the reach of her walking stick.
Kay. Instant answer. Enough with the “cloudless” stuff. Get the character on the page. No description, but that gardening hat tells you a lot about her. It’s “tattered”. It’s had a lot of hard use. This heroine isn’t a lady of leisure, she’s out there getting her hands dirty. And she’s blackberrying, which suggests she lives in the country.
‘Come on, Polly, this will have to do,’ she said, after scanning the hedge one last time.
‘Have you got enough?’ her daughter asked, looking doubtfully at the pitiful quantity they’d gathered.
And she has a little girl.
‘There aren’t any more. I’m afraid the harvest supper pies will have to be more apple than blackberry this year.’
And she’s putting herself through this, not for her own pleasure, but for the community.
Polly’s little face wrinkled up in a frown. ‘But there are loads up there,’ she said, pointing at the top of the wall.
‘I know, poppet, but I can’t reach them.’
‘You could get them down from the other side. Why don’t you go through the gate? No one lives there. Someone’s put up a For Sale sign,’ she added, as if that settled the matter.
How simple life was when you were six years old! But Polly was right about one thing. Linden Lodge had been empty for as long as she’d lived in Upper Haughton.
Okay, now we know her daughter’s six years old. And that there’s mystery surrounding Linden Lodge. And Kay is tempted.
From her bedroom window she had tantalising glimpses of the wilderness hidden behind the high walls. The roof of an ornamental summer house collapsing beneath the unrestrained vigour of a clematis montana. Roses running wild. Blossom on trees where, year after year, the ripened fruit was left to fall and rot in the grass. It was like a secret garden from a fairy tale, locked away, hidden, sleeping. Just waiting for the right person to venture inside, bring it back to life.
It would take more than a kiss, she thought.
And now the reader now knows what kind of story she’s bought into. Sleeping Beauty. But who is “Beauty”?
When she didn’t answer, Polly, with all the persistence of a six-year-old on a mission, said, ‘They’re for the harvest supper.’
Kay is distracted by the garden. She longs to open the gate, go inside.
Polly gave huge sigh. ‘The blackberries of course. Everyone in the village is supposed to give something.’
‘Oh, yes.’ That was the plan. Everyone contributed to the harvest supper that brought the whole village together in a celebration of the year; a tradition linking them back to the agricultural past of the village.
Her reluctance to try to the gate, a certainty that it would yield to pressure, was ridiculous, she knew. If she didn’t pick it the fruit would just shrivel up. Which would be a wicked waste.
‘You could put a note through the door to say thank you,’ Polly said.
What a nicely brought up little girl!
Kay found herself smiling. ‘A thank you note? Who to?’
And there you have it. Whose house? Whose garden? And is she going to open the gate and find out? What do you think?
Friday, October 27, 2006
The Husband She Left Behind has picked up the most votes as a likely title for my latest book.
Thanks to everyone who took part and congratulations to Sierra who wins a signed copy of The Valentine Bride; it'll be in the post as soon as my copies arrive.
I guess you'd all like to know what the title is actually going to be?
REUNITED: MARRIAGE IN A MILLION -- August 2007
and the other two books in the trilogy are to be called
NEEDED: HER MR RIGHT by Barbara Hannay, September 2007
FOUND: HER LONG-LOST HUSBAND by Jackie Braun, October 2007
We still don't have the linking name for the trilogy, but editorial and marketing are burning the midnight oil and I'll keep you posted!
Meanwhile, there's more about The Secret Life of Lady Gabriella on my sparkling new website!
Sunday, October 22, 2006
If you haven't read the excerpt from my trilogy book, until now known as The Journey Home, check it out -- two blogs ago -- and vote on the titles that have been suggested.
I apologise for the lack of apostrophes -- apparently polls don't do them. And for any other weird things that appear. This is my first attempt at a poll and I may have bungled it!
Inline Frame Enabled HTML Code (Alternative Option)
Saturday, October 21, 2006
What exactly is writer’s block? There’s a quote in my Pocket Muse by Monica Wood from someone called Ray Blount, Jr in which he says that “...writer’s block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible.”
Mmmm... Not horrible, exactly, but just not good enough. It’s the fear that I’m going to fail the reader, especially after a book that has magically gone the extra mile (crazy when I’ve written six books since the “special” one that raised expectations ridiculously high). Whatever the problem, I can’t disguise the fact that since I delivered the ms for my latest book – another of those tough ones with a heroine who was all wrong, but just wouldn’t quit -- I’ve been grabbing any excuse to avoid getting down to writing that opening scene, committing myself to one of three story ideas I’ve fleshed out.
The days slip by and the excuses not to write the opening scenes begin to sound like, well, excuses. I really have to post something on my blog. I need to make purse calendars for some events. Then there’s the new website that needs a heap of stuff. And when I’ve done all that, there’s still the sack of bulbs that need planting.
Not one of these things is as important as starting the book – now, if I’m to finish before everything shuts down for the holidays: already I find myself thinking that maybe mid-January would be more realistic.
I’ve got three ideas, each one (well two of them, anyway) ready to take flight. Some interesting characters. That’s too many. If I had only one idea, two characters, I’d be pushing myself to make it work. Instead I’m cleaning my office, ordering stationery, making calendars, thinking about Christmas (actually you can blame that on the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue which has just arrived in the post). Putting off the decision, afraid that I’ll get three chapters into the book and realise I’ve chosen the wrong one.
Here’s another quote from the Muse (dipping into this is just another way of avoiding the book)...
A college student asked visiting writer, Ron Carlson how one knows if one is really a writer. “... Carlson delivered an entertaining riff about the distractions that writers put in their own way, all the day, all the time: leaving the room to get coffee, check the mail, get coffee, walk the dogs, go to the bathroom, get coffee, look something up, get coffee. Then, dead serious, he summed up the whole enterprise in one line: ‘The writer is the one who stays in the room.’”
Actually, no. The writer is the one who stays in the room and refuses to get distracted by the Muse, the stationery catalogue, PR stuff and whether to buy an Alpaca kit (that’s for taking care of the alpaca, not an assemble yourself job) or a practical Condom Kit as a gift to the world for her best-beloved.
So will it be Princess Katerina, Sheikh Zahir or Count Giorgio whose story I tell? I already know whichever story I decide to write, three chapters in I’ll wish I was writing something else, I always do, and that’s paralysing, too.
I guess there’s nothing for it but to toss a coin, write, “Once upon a time...” And stay in the room until I get to “... and they lived happily ever after.”
Monday, October 16, 2006
I’m still referring to my newly finished, revised and tweaked manuscript by that name. It’s the first book of a trilogy -- stories of three women who are each making the mental journey back to a place where she made the wrong choice, took the wrong fork in life’s road – and I’m hoping that I’ve sold editorial on the idea of using it as the linking cover flash for the three books. (But I may be fooling myself...)
It would make a good title for a mainstream book, but it isn’t really hooky enough to be the title of a “Romance” – one that will sell the book to a harassed woman doing the weekly shop, kids in tow, with all of thirty seconds to make her choice. Hence all the “buy me” bride, baby, bachelor titles that give an instant plot summary. The Journey Home doesn’t give you any real clues as to what the book is about.
Understanding what makes a title a winner (The Best Man & the Bridesmaid was perfect!), doesn’t make it any easier to find the right one for this book. In my experience they either leap in to the mind unbidden (see TBM&TBM above – it does what it says in the title), or they don’t and the more emotional the book, it seems, the tougher it is to find a title that works.
One of my personal favourites is “Sophie’s Bakery for the Broken Hearted”. It was the title that sold me the book. In the US it was called “Good Grief”, which one colleague preferred, but which I loathed and would never have bought. (Broken-Hearted works so much better than Grief, for me.) So titles are really important.
I imagine “Marketing” are already working on it. They have been doing a fantastic job with artwork and advertising lately, so I know they’ll do their best to get it right.
Barb had the working title FOR HER EYES ONLY, which I think is absolutely brilliant, for her book. Short, memorable, it ties in with her story so well and says so much about the truly, madly, deeply love that we write about. Jackie is, I suspect, struggling, as I am, to find the perfect title that can sum up a story in six words or fewer.
Belle and Ivo’s story is about the past, hidden lives, secrets. About the fear of telling someone stuff that places your entire life is in their hands. About keeping your distance so that you can’t be hurt. And discovering, too late, that there is no distance far enough. And it’s about loving someone so much that you’ll sacrifice anything for them. All suggestions welcome :)
Email me your ideas (link to my website on the sidebar) and I’ll put them on my blog and take a vote on the best – there’ll be a signed copy of The Valentine Bride for the best. Sadly I can’t guarantee that it’ll be used, that’s not my decision, but it’ll be fun to hear what you’d like to see on the cover.
Here’s a taster to give you a feel for the character, with a picture of Hugh Jackman (are we all fixated on HJ?), in the role of the uber cool and detached Ivo Grenville,
‘You’re usually home long before this,’ Ivo said.
‘Today wasn’t usual. I’ve been away and there was a lot to catch up with. And I had a couple of meetings that ran on.’
A bit of an understatement that, Belle thought wryly. Having done the hard one -- telling Ivo that she was leaving him – her calm announcement that she wouldn’t be renewing her contract to anchor the breakfast television show had been a piece of cake.
And yet here she was making excuses like some kid justifying herself for being late home from school. Not that she ever had been. School had been a dangerous luxury, something she’d had to steal…
It was time to remind Ivo, as well as herself, that she had to make excuses to no one.
‘And then I bought a car,’ she added, as casually as if she’d was telling him she’d bought a new pair of shoes.
Which was when her very cool and detached husband became distinctly heated.
‘You did what!’
Not so much a question, as a man displaying outrage that a woman – his wife, no less – had the audacity to believe herself capable of making that kind of decision for herself.
It had, actually, been quite a week for decisions:
Left her husband.
Had her hair cut.
Bought a car.
So far, it was the car that had got the biggest reaction so she stayed with that.
‘It’s a BMW convertible,’ she told him. ‘Silver. Only 22,000 miles on the clock. It’s being delivered tomorrow.’
‘It’s not new?’ First outrage, now concern. ‘Has it been checked? Please tell me it’s not a private sale.’
Extraordinary. If she’d realized it would get this kind of response she’d have bought a car before. Several of them. Maybe gone into the used car business…
‘Would that be bad?’
‘I’ll need the registration number so that I can run a check. It could be stolen. Or a couple of stitched together wrecks. And the mileage is undoubtedly fake. Have you any idea --’
‘Oh, no,’ she assured him. If he was going to treat her like a dumb blonde, well – new hair colour notwithstanding – she’d had plenty of practise playing the role. ‘I’m sure it’s fine. I bought it from the brother-in-law of a taxi driver I met yesterday.’
He didn’t actually groan, but he didn’t look impressed. He wasn’t meant to.
‘Give me his name and address.’
‘The taxi driver?’
‘His brother-in-law,’ Ivo said, not quite through gritted teeth, but she could see that it was a close call.
It served him right for acting as if she was too stupid to live, she thought. If he’d watched her show once in a while he would have known that they had, on more than one occasion, run features on all aspects of buying used cars.
‘Oh, Mike!’ she said, determined to rub it in. ‘Such a sweet man. Hold on, I’ve got his card somewhere.’ Her bag was lying on the hall table and she opened it, produced a business card, offered it to him.
Ivo took it, looked at it, then at her. ‘Mike Wade is the taxi driver’s brother-in-law?’
‘Yes.’ Then, ‘Is there something wrong?’ Beyond the fact that, too late, he’d caught on to the fact that she’d been winding him up since Mike Wade was a senior representative at one of London’s premier BMW dealerships rather than some dodgy character selling used cars off the street. ‘He asked to be remembered to you,’ she added. ‘Said you’d been in to talk about exchanging your car for one of the smaller models. Very green...’
Then, exhilarating as it should have been to discover that Ivo was not made of stone, that it was possible to wind him up, she found herself regretting it.
He was just looking out for her. Making sure that she was okay.
Wednesday, October 11, 2006
I’ve been playing hooky this week.
Having dealt with the first round of revisions for Book 1 of The Journey Home trilogy (Books 2 and 3 are by Barbara Hannay and Jackie Braun), and waiting for feedback on ideas for my next book (editors are human, they have days off too!), I took advantage of some seriously gorgeous weather to spend a day at the coast with my family.
We’re not very far from the sea and we’re spoilt for choice for beauty spots so it was tough choosing between The Worm’s Head on the Gower, or the endless beaches at Pembrey, but finally we plumped for the pretty old walled town of Tenby on the Pembrokeshire coast(where not only is there a fantastic beach, but a different set of shops to explore *g*)
It’s October, but the day was warm, the still sea reflecting back the bright blue of the sky, the sand firm and perfect. Here’s a picture to prove it.
(pictures by N J Allsopp)
...AND ANOTHER CHEF
But just to prove I have been paying attention, I have noted that Julie Cohen has seen my Giorgio Locatelli and raised me with Jean-Christophe Novelli. Okay, Julie, I'm prepared to match you with Tom Aitkens who has been lurking in my pictures file just waiting for this moment.
Friday, October 06, 2006
In line with my earlier promise to provide pictures of good looking men to keep you amused, I have spent hours scouring the internet for a photograph of Giorgio Locatelli, that I think does justice to the man.
It's not a pretty face. It's lived in, but full of humour, Italian warmth, that wonderful touch of the fallen angel that women just can't resist. This woman, anyway *g*!
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Drawn to test what kind of day person I am by Kate Hardy and Natasha Oakley, I discover that, like them, I am a sunrise person. I'm normally pretty sceptical about this kind of thing, but waking up to the sun -- something I learned in Africa -- is the perfect start to my day.
|You Are Sunrise|
You enjoy living a slow, fulfilling life. You enjoy living every moment, no matter how ordinary.
You are a person of reflection and meditation. You start and end every day by looking inward.
Caring and giving, you enjoy making people happy. You're often cooking for friends or buying them gifts.
All in all, you know how to love life for what it is - not for how it should be.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
I have a pile of books on my bedside table. A Medical Romance, THE ITALIAN DOCTOR’S BRIDE, from brand new author Margaret McDonagh, a luscious sheikh, AT THE SHEIKH’S COMMAND, from Kate Walker, THEIR CHRISTMAS DREAM COME TRUE by the lovely Kate Hardy. The November Bella Brides story (a Romantic Times TOP PICK), MARRIED UNDER THE MISTLETOE, by Linda Goodnight (just the thing to get me in the mood to start planning for the holiday) and How I Write, by Janet Evanovitch.
The last is irritating me. I’d anticipated an exuberant book that shared the experience of writing the Stephanie Plum stories; too late, I’ve discovered that this is no more than a rehash of answers to questions from readers and writers on her website and that I could have read it all for free. Entertaining, and I’m sure it will be hugely useful to new writers; it just wasn’t what I expected.
What I did read yesterday – I’d finished the revisions on The Journey Home and I owed myself a treat – was ACCEPTING THE BOSS’S PROPOSAL by Natasha Oakley. And treat is the word.
The cover, I have to say, doesn’t do this book justice. Those skyscrapers, that “city slicker” look suggest something chick-litty that, to be honest, put me off buying it. I should have known better – I’ve had some clunkers of covers of my own -- and when, on another blog I read this snippet from the moment when Miles, the hero, wished the ground would open and swallow him whole ...
“It was up there in number one slot along with the time his mother had given a television interview explaining that he’d been conceived in a moment of ‘peace and meditation’...”
... I knew he was a hero I had to know and clicked the “Romance”link at Mills & Boon link and pressed the “buy now” button.
I am so glad I did.
This book is engaging, warm-hearted, in turns funny and touching as it shares the journey of two brittle people discovering that, despite all evidence to the contrary, till-death-us-do-part love is a possibility. This isn’t a book that turns on a sixpence. Incredulity was not stretched. There’s real growth here. A real “Romance”. Definitely a keeper.
I’m sorry I judged your book by its cover, Natasha. Next time I’ll just look at the name and know I’m in for a good time.