Persuasion

Today’s blog should have been

a) Posted 12 hours ago

b) About one of my top 5 books

However, my tangential thoughts went even more spectacularly off piste than usual. I could see it might end up needing to be split into two posts and now it’s turning into three. Suffice to say I’m stopping myself from posting in a rush and then blogging again correcting myself, for now I suggest instead of reading my waffle you go and read or re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen, or preferably go and hunt down the 1995 BBC film version and watch that. On no account watch the 2007 version unless you want the best scene in the book completely ruined.

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Part of what caused the failure to get my thoughts sorted in a way that does justice to the book was an attempt at a brief summary of the plot. I made the colossal error of describing it in contemporary terms – a reunion romance where they are forced into reluctant proximity and where overheard conversations and malicious or innocent misinformation creates resentment and jealousy. That’s all fairly accurate but does the book such a disservice and I ended up defending the story when its brilliance should never have been in doubt in the first place.

I will start again for next week but it has brought me back to a problem I often hear expressed; that of finding it hard to enjoy books as easily as we once did after we have begun to analyse our own writing in great depth. When goals, motivation and conflict have become something we obsess about in our writing, they are woefully obvious when they are missing in another’s book. I usually only have this problem when reading contemporary books – I am lucky that the harlequin romantic suspenses I read are all of an extremely high standard – but reading older romances, even ones I once adored, can now be a trickier task; it’s harder to switch off my critical writer’s eye (ear? mind? I hear the stories I am reading and see them played out before me) and just enjoy an escapist read.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining. The more we learn, the more enjoyment we can get. I just think that looking at Austen, even for a moment, through the eyes of a modern romance reviewer was wrong; not because she fails any of the criteria I hold for contemporary writers – she after all helped create those tropes that are now so familiar – but it has distracted me from her charm and skill and wonderful characters. I was also simply forgetting to explain why it is one of my all time favourite books.

Does anyone else have this problem? Being unable to switch of their inner editor when reading? And is it wrong to apply modern standards or creative ideals in writing to authors and books or another era?

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The single best piece of writing advice

Give something up.

There you go, that’s it. I did write a longer introduction but so many blog posts like this are click bait and here you can see the advice without even having to open a link on twitter. But if you do want more, and to read about the brilliant teacher who gave me this nugget of wisdom, do please read on.

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I haven’t written a lot about writing here, partly due to feeling unqualified and partly due to seeing too many “the x number of things you MUST do to achieve y” blog posts. However, I am a writer and part of the reason for starting a blog was to share and give back some of the amazing support, advice and laughter I’ve found in the romance community

One of the earliest people to exhibit all this was Julie Cohen whom I met in 2002 online at the Harlequin community forums, and then in person at an RNA meeting which went from bar to restaurant and back to a flat and falling asleep during Fifteen Candles and waking up with a book/wine/John Cusack hangover. Which is actually how most of our most of our meetings have gone. She has links on her blog to much of her brilliant writing advice – warning, she is a Post-It pusher and I have learned many things from her, such as; it’s tricky to inflate a Dalek in the middle of Reading shopping centre, fresh coriander can be edible and even nice, internet searches for “nude Canadian hippies” will bring you more blog visitors than you ever imagined (see also sucking big hairy donkey balls – actually no, don’t try and see that.)

Here’s a photograph of her and an amazing opportunity to get a critique from her and a signed copy of her latest book. You also have until Monday to bid on this auction, although I may well have tried to buy it for myself. A great cause and many wonderful members of the writing community offering superb items.

At some point, probably in our first meeting, before she was published, I asked how she had completed and submitted three books to Harlequin in such a short space of time – she worked full time as a teacher then and I couldn’t imagine how she found time to write with so many claims on her time

She simply said, “I gave things up.” Specifically watching tv and spending any amount of time cooking food.

I had already seen the oft repeated advice of “butt in chair, hands on keyboard,” “you can’t edit a blank page,” “write every day,” “Make it a habit,” “if you don’t respect your writing time no one else will,” and so on. I had listened to the idea of “make time to write” and while I am the very opposite of a morning person I had set my alarm early and tried to write for an hour before leaving for work. It took a while for my sleepy brain to kick in and then when it did I was enjoying it so much I almost missed my bus. I tried writing in the evenings but was frequently too tired. I tried lunchtimes, but again, I would get so caught up in my writing that I would be late back to my desk and have to stay after hours and then fail to recapture the mood when I got home.

So many excuses.

Julie was the first person to not talk about “making” time that wasn’t there. She didn’t spell it out for me this baldly – give up something you love – but the matter of fact way she talked about her writing showed that she absolutely knew what she was doing and that she was going to succeed. I don’t know why it took me so long to follow her advice but she was, and is, a shining example of “if you want it, make it happen, it’s in your hands.” If you want time to write and are working full time and have family or other commitments, yes it’s hard – but if you want to be a writer find what you can cut back on to make it happen.

I balked at Julie’s examples back then as cooking each evening after work was my way of unwinding. I also didn’t watch much telly but did read avidly every night. Only this year when I was determined to finish a book I had been working on for far too long did her words truly sink in. I have only recently managed to carve out some precious reading time alongside life with small children but I switched it to writing time and Finished The Damn Book (another of Julie’s maxims.)

Maybe it had to be that I gave up something I really enjoyed? Giving up housework didn’t seem to inspire me the same way (my partner, Dr J, would argue I don’t do enough in the first place to give up, and he has a point.) Julie’s advice coalesced a lot of the other favourite quotes – by giving up what I loved I valued that time even more, I used it ruthlessly, every second, no re-reading or editing, I just wrote and it did indeed become a habit and it became easier and I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write, no long minutes gazing out of the window wondering what to type next (ok, fewer.) Treating my book and my writing with respect made my view of myself better too, and when over the summer I lost that writing time I missed it and plotted and schemed for how to get it back. It had become more than just a habit, it was a necessity. It was mine. It was me.

I have finished the damn book, I now need to edit it and make sure shit has happened – to (badly) paraphrase another of Julie’s nuggets of wisdom. I believe Nora Roberts is usually credited with saying “you can’t edit a blank page.” Julie’s version was “give yourself permission to write crap, a crappy draft can be polished later.” Sadly one radio interviewer cut her off before she could finish her thoughts and she was worried that it sounded as if she was saying it was ok to write a crap book. Anyone who has read her books knows this isn’t true.

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When I gathered my copies of her books together to photograph for this post I realised that as well as not having yet bought her two most recent books, I need to get back my copies of The Summer of Living Dangerously and Dear Thing. I am also on my second copy of Spirit Willing and my third Honey Trap – this is the danger of lending her books to friends; you may not get them back.

Thank you Julie. Even for the coriander.

The start of the affair

Three weeks ago I fell in love. It’s been a long time since that happened and I was unprepared for the rush of excitement and passion, the overwhelming sense of “Yes!” of recognition along with the thrill of so many new discoveries to be made. Two weeks later, weeks in which my mind had constantly been drawn to my new object of affection, my partner asked what I would like to do for my birthday and I unhesitatingly said I wanted to return to the spot where I had fallen in love (I didn’t quite phrase it that way) and he kindly agreed. After a two hour drive, mostly through rain, the sky lightened and patches of blue welcomed us back to Dunraven Bay and this:

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A walled garden. By the sea. All that is left of a country house built on a cliff and once known as Dunraven Castle. With the ramparts of an Iron Age Hillfort towering over the garden walls. If I had to create the most perfect place for a story, for inspiration, or to encompass the maximum number of items that I love to explore and write and read about – well I think I would have dismissed all this as just too much.

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And did I mention the beach? Sand for building castles and dams, rock pools in which to hunt for scuttling wildlife and amazing rock strata in the cliffs to explore for fossils. The sunset picture at the top of my last blog post was taken as I tore myself away from the beach three weeks ago; it had been a perfect day and people were heading onto the beach with barbeques and drinks to watch the setting sun, still more had climbed to the banks and ditches of the hillfort to see the sun reflected on the sea and the gleaming sand.

That first visit had been primarily to look for fossils with my dinosaur-obsessed seven year old, we were going to try to find the steps down to the supposedly more secluded beach but I dived straight through the gothic doorway into the gardens – so often on days out we have said “we’ll explore it later” only for darkness to fall or for gates to be locked. That first glimpse of the gardens was more of a forced march but it left me longing for more, as did the view once we had left the garden and climbed through the woods to the other side of the peninsula.

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No steps were obvious so we walked back through the few remains of the castle and on over the hillfort earthworks and back to the beach where a delightful afternoon of swimming, splashing, sandcastle and damn building was enjoyed by all, plus a picnic on the rocks broken up by catching shrimps and my toes being nibbled by a one-clawed crab.

Two weeks and one day later we returned. The school holidays were over and even though the sky became almost as cloudlessly blue, the heat had gone; autumn was in the air – although it didn’t stop us all from paddling in the sea. I’ve never swum on my birthday before. There were more surfers than swimmers this time due to the impressive waves and you could feel the force of the water tugging us towards the Devon coast across the hazy water. (I’ve forgotten to mention where Dunraven is, haven’t I? South Glamorgan, the wonderful Heritage Coast in south Wales. The beach is also known as Southerndown.)

In the weeks since our first visit I searched on line for pictures of the missing castle/house to find out why it had been demolished in the 1960s. There are many beautiful black and white photographs of it but I have no wish to steal someone else’s images.  Here are some, along with the history of the area and in someone else’s fascination with the castle here  However, on this visit we went to the Heritage Centre behind the beach (it had been closed two weeks earlier) and while reading the many panels about the house and grounds and the history, what struck me most was an aerial view showing the circle of the hillfort as it would have been before the cliffs crumbled away and suddenly the effrontery of building a country house inside a two thousand year old hill fort hit me. I don’t know why. I don’t find the village built within the earthworks at Avebury – and using some of its ancient standing stones for building material – shocking. “Baffled and amused at the very British practical vandalism” was how I described it elsewhere on this blog but somehow, a house built for one family’s grandeur seemed wrong as I read about the history of the 500BC hillfort, possible Roman occupation, Saxon raids, its gifting to a Norman Lord after 1066, rumours of Wreckers and the original Tudor Mansion. I’m not saying I’m glad the house has gone, I would have love to have seen it high on that cliff, although given the coastal erosion I wonder how much longer it would have safely lasted? I don’t know why the aerial shots had this effect on me, there are many here on the wonderful website Coflein, an online catalogue of archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage in Wales with a whole page devoted to Dunraven hillfort. The ones in thick frost make me long to visit in winter and this one with the deep shadows of early morning show the ramparts at their best, you can see how at least a third of the hillfort has been swallowed by the sea. You can also see the long point of the peninsula, called Trwyn-y-Witch or Witches Point, because obviously the place just wasn’t magical enough.

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After lunch I finally made it back to the gardens. I’m sure I can write a whole ‘nother post about the allure of walled gardens, but to have four rising up the gentle valley, to feel the temperature rise by several degrees the minute you step inside the sheltering embrace of the walls, to hear the waves if you listen hard enough, and to have the two and a half thousand year old battlements of a hillfort rising over you makes this place very special. The gardens are being restored, very carefully and unobtrusively, and you are free to roam all over them. That first hot sunny day we arrived at high tide and there was no sandy beach to play on, the families simply decamped to the gardens to picnic under apple trees or on the many benches along the walkways, or to play ball games. The freedom to explore, the higgledy-piggledy growth of the plants, trees and shrubs, the formal lines of the paths and the walls that break the gardens up enticed and enchanted me the first time and did not disappoint on a more leisurely visit. I saw my first quince tree, alongside several figs. There weren’t that many flowering plants but colour was everywhere in countless shades of green, in the stark grey crenelated walls and in the blisteringly blue sky overhead.

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The first garden has a greenhouse, I imagine it once had many, there are the remains of seed beds and the interior walls are almost obscured by climbing plants. A secretive set of mildly treacherous steps led up into the woods and the recent rain cast a fresh scent throughout.

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The second garden had rows of fruit trees, although they seemed as if planted by chance with their low spreading friendly shade.

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The third was wilder, shrubs I didn’t recognise and a wild overgrown hedge. Oh, and some ruins against the wall, because a lost house/castle and the possibility of a separate lost Tudor mansion simply wasn’t charm enough.

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I think it was this garden more than any that made me long to stop and sit. For two weeks I had been spinning tales in my head based on this impossible mix of histories and archaeology and nature; all I longed for was a few hours with a laptop or pen and paper to sit and scribble as fast as I could, to soak up the atmosphere, to capture it’s beauty and mystery in words rather than simply with my camera. I began to fantasise about coming here for a break, staying anywhere nearby and spending entire days writing and plotting and dreaming. I could feel my muse both thirsting and being quenched at the same moment as I explored that tangled paradise.

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And the fourth garden is a mostly level expanse of grass, maybe for tennis? Bowls? It brought to mind a place for jousting, but that may have been the wooden barriers as if to keep back crowds and the pavilion for courtly ladies to sit and watch. Oh, and of course the tower that was built over the ice house. Part folly? Part showing off? Pure plot inspiration.

Then on, through the darkly dappled woods via a squelchy path with the smell of rain on ancient trees refreshing us after the heat trapped within the walled garden. This is where people think the Tudor house could have been – how do you lose a Tudor Mansion? Up to the breath-taking view of the coast towards Cardiff and then doubling back to where Dunraven Castle stood, where its formal gardens and terraces gazed towards England, where the even more impressive and far older bulwarks of the hillfort bar your way. I haven’t explored those ramparts yet, or the Witches peninsula, neither seem too safe with two children under eight who run off the moment you glance away. Sitting on the beach later you could see people enjoying the view, they were probably well back from the cliff edge but from below they seemed in imminent danger of tumbling over.

I know I will go back, I don’t know how soon or if I can sneak some writing time there alone. As it’s our nearest beach I’m hoping for a few trips next summer, although I also long to see the gardens in their winter colours. I’m not sure when a place has grabbed me so totally and refused to let go. There are others that have inspired me and made me long to return and that have rewarded repeat visits – Castel-y-Bere, Longtown, Symi, Dolgoch Falls, Cregennan Lakes, Kingley Vale yew forest – but none that mixed so many elements of history, nature, ruin, loss, myth, archaeology – oh, and outstanding beauty. And fossils. And crabs. And there’s a small shop selling ice cream and tea. Didn’t I say it was perfect? Now to finish the book I am writing and start just one of the many plots this place has inspired.

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This is the look of a woman who does not want to leave. Have any places captured you so totally?

5 reasons not to blog – and 1 reason to do it

I considered calling this post “To blog or not to blog” but it seemed so obvious I thought it must have been done before – and a quick internet search confirmed that. I have very few regular followers of this blog, but far more than I expected it when I started it at the beginning of May. So I shall apologise to anyone who wondered where my weekly posts had gone over the summer. It surprised me as much as you. I had written posts ready on books, writing, reading and ripped-off toe nails – something to look forward to there – but it felt odd to post them when I wasn’t active with other aspects of my writing.

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The reason was simple, school holidays and 2 young children underfoot all the time. This meant lots of day trips – I’ve taken over 1300 photos in 7 weeks so be very afraid of future blogs – and very little time for writing or editing. I’m not a (total) fool and had hardly expected to get much done over these weeks, hence having blog posts ready in advance, but I wasn’t reading other blogs that I follow, or keeping up with twitter. I wasn’t even reading. And that is something new. I usually manage a few chapters in the bath at the very least but I think this summer, I wanted so very badly to be writing that when that proved impossible I switched off from all things that reminded me of what I was missing. Deep down I’m grateful for this; that my writing habits have become so ingrained that their thwarting also stifled other creative outlets and made me focus on this blessed day when school restarted and I could properly get at my laptop again.

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The perfect picnic spot at Grosmont Castle

So again; I am sorry if anyone missed this blog, and I hope no one is sorry to see it return to its usual levels of activity. It has also reminded me of why I started being more interactive with readers, writers and bloggers. Mostly it was selfish reasons, wanting to start building a platform or identity for when I’m trying to catch an editor or agent’s eye, and then for future readers. But it was also to share knowledge and information – not just my own – but all the helpful, wonderful and funny things that have been shared with me over the years and that are still being put out there for free every day. If I’m not commenting on other blogs, heck, if I’m not reading them and thinking and being inspired – or enraged – then why would I even want to put out thoughts of my own? So many writers say they started writing because of wanting to emulate a book that moved them, others were horrified by a book and thought “I can do better than this.” With blogging it was more that I wanted to add my own voice to the mix after whiling away so many tedious hours at work with illicit internet sessions, and also to try and collate some of the valuable writing tips I’ve absorbed over the years.

It’s the same with twitter. I signed up when Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition started having twitter chats, I had no idea what I was doing and before I knew it I had a follower and so I tweeted randomly and followed actors, writers, editors and comedians and retweeted things and drifted away for a bit when I found it sucking up too much of my time. When I started taking my writing seriously and setting up this blog I decided I wouldn’t tweet as well. Sure I’d keep my account and follow all the useful industry people and bloggers, but I wouldn’t communicate back, I’d be an anonymous lurker. And then in one week I retweeted (to my handful of followers) 2 really good articles and it hit me how selfish I would be if I kept taking advice from twitter and never really sharing it.

I know there’s no rule that you have to participate or share or comment. But isn’t it nice when people do read and respond? It was partly feeling hurt very early on on twitter when people didn’t react to a tweet or notice if I replied that I backed away from it, I know it’s a lottery of time and luck if people see some tweets, it’s not personal (I am the sort of person who can obsess very easily over such things.) Oddly enough, once I stopped caring and just retweeted more often with my own comments, I had far more interactions and far more fun. Twitter actually is fun, as long as you don’t follow to many people doing the hard sell or meet too many trolls (which is true for all social media, and indeed the real world.)

All of which is a rambling (I’m out of practice) way of saying why I didn’t blog when I wasn’t fully immersed in the writing word this summer and how happy I am to be back. And why I think sharing, even random pieces of advice or inspiration, can be so important; you can never know what small piece of information, or anecdote, or stunning picture, might be just what someone else needed to see today. You can just be sure that if I find it, I will share it, and will thank you.

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I enjoyed building dams on the beach, even when the children lost interest

And now, according to Dr J with whom I live, I have to write something about wanting to be in a spooky tower, eating cake, waiting for a spy. That, apparently, is what he has gleaned about me from reading this blog. Which is obviously rubbish. Drinking gin in a ruined tower waiting for a spy yes. Not eating cake. Unless it was gin flavoured.

(But seriously, if that’s all he’s taken from previous posts I need to crack on with more posts about writing and books and fewer mentions of alcohol. I’m not cutting back on castle pictures though.)

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Longtown Castle

Oh yes, I promised 5 reasons not to blog – holidays, children, not writing, too busy enjoying a sunset, not wanting to lose the pleasure of blogging. And too much gin some nights, always gin. 6 reasons….

And 1 big reason to blog –it feels like belonging.