My manuscript has a better social life than I do

I sent my completed MS to my critique partner and thanks to the wonders of Kindle it has been having an exciting week around London. So far it has been read in a coffee shop, the Design Museum and two different Pizza Expresses. Every time I get a text and photo I experience several emotions –including thirst.

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There is the “oh goodness I hope she likes it.” The “I wish I was there too” (and not just because of the wine, but a bit.) The “wow, it looks like a real book.” The “I should have edited that section before I sent it.” And did I mention the “what does she think of it?!” panic that sets me off in a cold sweat each time she mentions she’s reading it?

The comments she has sent so far have been mostly amused and teasing and occasionally admiring – I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get the odd snigger at the uses of “mount” and references to a good ride – we both know it’s referring to horses but we were also both raised on Carry On films. Even so, there is still the moment of paralysing fear at having someone else read my work. It doesn’t seem to get easier and maybe this is a little different as I have deliberately not said much about this story nor shared chapters as I go along as I have in the past, I wanted a completely honest and gut instinct response to the whole story. (No pressure eh gemmaw700?)

My list of questions that I am hoping for feedback on started with;

  • is it a romance
  • is it suspenseful
  • can you see these two people fall in love
  • do you care
  • is there enough keeping them apart

All of which is very basic when writing romantic suspense, but when you’ve lived with the character and story for so long it’s possible to get too caught up in the fine tuning of the prose, or the intricacies of the plot, or the beauty of the location and atmosphere and the basic essential elements of romance can get sidelined. I need to be sure my hero and heroine’s attraction and appreciation and admiration come through without it reading like a list of fanciable features.

(This is as far as I had written last week, hoping to post on Friday afternoon, alas, trying to sort out a niggling laptop problem with right and left click led to the loss of my task bar, and fixing that led to the blank screen of doom. Taking out the battery eventually restored things but by then my wonderful friend was here and the gin was open. The rest of this post is written with her critiques known to me.)

Of course, as soon as I had sent it and started to think what points she might raise, I began to wish I had changed things. Surely she would suggest I merged two chapters that were low on action but imparted important information (she didn’t.) I was spending too much time on that irritating but important secondary character, he needed pruning (she agreed.) That plot point that made sense 2 drafts ago stuck out like a sore thumb – it made sense but was given too much importance and could be scaled back (“Oh I wondered why that was there” said my wise friend tactfully – a very valuable lesson; I can remember all the plot strands or events I have deleted in different drafts and I think I have snipped off all the tendrils they wove throughout the story, but to someone reading it afresh an occasional reference or overreaction to a trivial point leaps out.)

So even before we met up I had made myself face the details that had niggled at me but that I had put off in my eagerness to get a second opinion – a friend might forgive this, an editor or agent might not. How often have I heard – You never get a second chance to make a first impression?

Fortunately, after enough gin and good food all the points that were made to me were extremely helpful and kind and insightful. I mostly agreed with them, or could explain why I had made that choice (and noted that I need to make it clearer in the MS – if it needs justifying to a friend you can be sure an unknown reader will want the full picture too.)

I am extremely lucky in having such a best friend; one who has read widely in many romance genres, who has entertained me for years with short stories and serialised fiction, who has taken a creative writing course, who has always had a better grasp of spelling and grammar than I have and has the humour and tact to point out my errors in a way that encourages me to learn rather than to sulk.

For all this, I will forgive the fact that she drank all my tonic water – and sent me this picture on her way home.

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My manuscript has travelled first class on a train – I’ve never done that!

Now to just ensure everything else about my work is first class too.

Seen in a different light

Most things are worth a second glance, whether it’s a person, a place or an object. Looking again can reveal hidden beauty, or unexpected faults – and as I type this I realise how much this applies to re-reading one’s writing! I’m in the process of editing a manuscript and every time I open it I find another mistake, or I find a piece of dialogue or imagery that makes me think “did I really write that?” (and not always in horror.)

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Oops, that’s was a very early diversion down tangent alley. I’ll admit now that this blog post started as an excuse to post two photos of the same spot but it evolved in my mind into being more about how characters in our writing see things on a second glance, or more specifically, how they have interpreted phrases that can have a completely different meaning years later when more information, or life, has been accrued.

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These two phots were taken at Dolgoch Falls in Wales, the first in March and the second in August 4 years later. It wasn’t a conscious duplication, just a perfect spot to capture the twisted ancient woodland that enthralled me the first time I visited – to me, those moss covered trunks and corkscrew branches reaching up from a deep ravine full of thundering water are the perfect embodiment of all secret woodlands described in books like the Hobbit, the Narnia Chronicles, Arthurian Legend and of course Susan Cooper whose Grey King is largely set just a few miles from Dolgoch.

Apart from being shocked by the weird coincidence of standing in the same spot over four years later, what else do those pictures make me – or you – think? I long to capture the scene in Autumn, or in snow. They make me want to go back and explore the gorge and the river further, away from the easily marked footpaths; but I also want to just sit in that glade and look closer at the ivy and holly clad trees, I want to see if the grass is as soft as it looks, if some of those fallen branches are still there, or have they rotted back into the earth? And just which picture do I prefer? Logically the autumn one has more colour and depth and life, but it was the stark silvery grey silhouettes of the trees that first captured me and which draw me now more strongly.

Obviously the second glance, or the reassessing look is a common trope in romance – not just the cliché of how beautiful the spinster looks when she takes off her glasses and lets down her hair. I’m thinking of the fish out of water scene that often occurs, or the “this is going to be uncomfortable but actually we’re really turned on by the end of the evening” scene. How often do characters have to attend a ball or dress function, or a family meal with everyone on best behaviour? Or the boss and secretary end up in a casual situation and realise how different each looks out of the usual business suit. These are all familiar scenes or plots because it is often exactly at such moments that we see someone we had a fixed view of in a completely different light and have to reappraise our opinion of them; not just the surface looks, but a deeper understanding of their character. Modern romances are not simple enough to fall into a “clothes make the man/woman” cliché but a change of scene or situation can tell us a lot about both the character being seen in a new light, and the one doing the seeing.

I’ve blogged before with pictures of the same location in different seasons, that time I was trying to explore the way seemingly inconsequential memories can add depth to a character, how backstory can be given in fleeting glimpses rather than an info dump, or how the different things two characters see in a room can tell us about their background and expectations. Where I was planning to go this time was to reflect on my current manuscript where both protagonist have had their lives shaped by a key phrase – and by the end of the book they have come to see, or rather to hear, the words differently.

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This is of course something we writers try to do a lot, straightforward seeming conversations can be imbued with subtext for the other characters or for the reader who may already be party to a secret that one of the protagonists doesn’t yet know. I personally love it when a secret or something from the past is revealed and I go back to an earlier scene to reread it in the light of the new information and see a character’s reactions in a whole new light. It is again a crucial tool in giving insight into plot, conflict or motivation.

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I hope I handle it less clunkily than I am trying to explain it now. In my manuscript learning more about the background to the situation, or the people who said the words that shaped their lives is only the start of my character’s dilemma. How do they take that knowledge? If someone else’s words have been so important in shaping their lives, how will they now reshape themselves? A second glance, or fresh light on a familiar view can be refreshing, or terrifying if it reveals aspects we had no idea were there. Balancing the expected with the new, the known with the subtly altered is tricky enough in everyday life, let alone when it is with characters we have created and whose worlds we are turning upside down. But it is exhilarating and literally life changing for them.

Those last two pictures were taken on the same day, I came across them last week when I was looking for photos to illustrate the precise shade of green that I had been coughing up for weeks. I remember that mossy wall deep in Coed y Brenin forest and how the stones looked as soft and inviting as pillows. These were simply taken with different exposures or with and without flash, but they show two completely different scenes. In one the wall is as emerald as I remember it and the rest of the wood could be dressed in springtime. In the other the wall no longer catches your eye, it is the autumnal golds and russets that leap out at you, and the fairylike sparkles of rain caught in the camera’s glare. Each tells a different story, which would you rather read?

Why does everything taste disgusting?

Or

If this pressure in my sinuses builds up any more my eyeball will explode

Or

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Nothing that shade of green should come out of my body. Ever.

Or

Why am I shivering? I can’t stop shaking, I’m so cold, I’m – I’m sweating buckets, I’m on fire!

Or

My chest shouldn’t bubble and crackle each time I breath should it?

Or

Coughing up blood isn’t good it is?

Or

What do you mean there’s no internet? It’s half term

Or

Thank goodness for Lego. And dvds.

Or

What do you mean the tv’s broken? It’s half term!

Or

Thank goodness for all the hundreds of pens and crayons scattered about the house

Or

Did I mention I hate antibiotics?

Or

The joy of permanent indigestion/nausea

Or

My fingernails have never been this long. Why?

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At least I’m getting some reading done

Or

Why am I still sleeping in the day even though I go to bed before 9?

Or

I can’t remember what it’s like to have an appetite

Or

How can we have run out of tissues when we bought 4 boxes yesterday?

Or

There has been enough mucus produced in this house to float a battleship. Or to sink one.

Or

I am fed up of having to sleep sitting bolt upright

Or

The children are glad to go back to school to escape sickly parents

Or

Thank goodness for freezer meals cooked in bulk and for tomato soup and ice cream (not all together)

Or

If I stand up for more than ten minutes I get back ache

Or

Even tea tastes wrong

Or

It has been ten days with no internet

Or

I have had two gins in two weeks

Now you know how serious it is. I had forgotten that I had already written one post about a cold distracting me from blogging and writing and editing. I think this is the same cold, there has certainly been very little respite since January. The third member of the family is now on antibiotics and the two of us who had a course over a week ago are still suffering and producing new and varied shades of green and wheezing like old men on 40 cigarettes a day. Blogging, or even checking the writing community of twitter has been far from my thoughts – not to mention impossible with no internet – and only in the last two days have I returned to my editing – this book was supposed to be sent off by now! Oh dear, that’s two exclamation marks in one post, I must be ill. On the plus side, I have read 4 Harlequin Romantic Suspenses and finished reading 1984 which I started last July. On the downside no housework has been done for almost 3 weeks. However, the sun is out and just the promise of a little vitamin D on my skin is making exercise and cooking and eating seem possible again. Here’s hoping…