The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

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The third best piece of writing advice

There’s a lot of writing advice that sounds great but is not necessarily useful to everyone. Except this; anyone who wants to be published should read their finished work out loud before sending it out or self-publishing.

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I can’t find one specific person to credit it to as I’ve heard it many times over the years. The first time I tried it was with a chapter I entered for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition in 2012 so thank you to any Harlequin editors or authors who mentioned it back then. Unfortunately I only managed a few paragraphs before the sound of my voice and my self-conscious stumbling over words stopped me. “I’ll just read it really clearly in my head” I thought. Umm, no. That’s how I always read anyway and it’s amazing what tricks your mind makes when it half knows the text already – substituting the words it thinks should be there, smoothing over awkward phrasing, blinding – or do I mean deafening – one to careless repetitions.

And how do I know that’s what happens when you read it silently to yourself? Well for one, because that’s what everyone who gives the advice says. And for two, because when I read my finally complete and polished (I thought) manuscript aloud, I fund so many things to correct in the first few pages. Many were minor, a badly placed comma or a rambling sentence that needed breaking up into two – I think a lot of my changes were grammatical and I may still have got them wrong, but at least I’ve been consistent (I hope.)

I was more shocked by the typing errors that spell check couldn’t catch (or had mistakenly corrected in the first place) barley instead of barely. Then there were the repetitions of favourite words – I had done searches for the most commonly overused (I need help with my “just”s and “all”s, it seems to be an addiction – and I chopped a lot of seems too.) Doing earlier edits had alerted me to the fact that once a word is in my imagination I am apt to use it again in the same scene so I had been on the lookout for repetitions and substituted other words (oh thank you for thesauruses.) But only by reading aloud did I catch others – does the ear hold onto the echo of words better than the mind? How else can I explain all the similar sounding or looking words I identified when reading aloud? Not to mention finding two “squarely”s in three lines that I had previously missed.

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Which reminds me that when my critique partner suggested I had people feeling awe for each other too often, I changed one instance to read “not to mention admiration” and then spotted another use of “not to mention” a page later? I did a check and found the phrase seven times in a 75K manuscript which I think is rather too many. Odd how I wasn’t even aware it was such a favourite expression. Then there was the excess of sighing I found in one chapter – sure the characters are exhausted, physically and mentally, but there are more varied ways to show that.

I knew I had a fondness (weakness?) for alliteration and had put some in deliberately, all of which I kept except the most tortuously tongue twisting teasers. More accidental was discovering how many words like gilded, glisten and glimpse I had used, not all in one chapter, but I began to suspect I have an unusual fondness for G words in the this story. I had to check how often the hero referred to the heroine as his golden girl, not to mention her gleaming green eyes.  It’s possible this only seemed so apparent as the hard G sound is noticeable when reading aloud unlike softer sounds which may be used just as much, but I still changed and moved some of these – another person silently reading might not notice them but I didn’t want to risk jarring anyone else out of the story with an unusual rhythm or word choice.

Reading the whole book aloud took several days (and an enquiry from my three year old about who I was talking to) and none of the changes were necessarily enough to get the book rejected. But the overall tightening of my writing and the elimination of careless mistakes was invaluable. Above all else I want my work to be readable. I want the story to be gripping and emotional and satisfying sure – but the best plot in the world or the most beautiful prose can still be flung aside if it is sloppily presented.

So thank you very much to everyone who has ever passed on this brilliant advice and please, anyone else who feels self-conscious reading their work aloud, do persist, it’s amazing what you might find – including how good some of it sounds when the words take on a life of their own. Oh, and yes, you might catch an odd continuity error or two. Hopefully nothing as important as someone dismounting their horse twice in the same paragraph…

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In case you are wondering about the pictures, I wanted this to not be a text only blog entry, but what to use? I thought maybe some bluebell pictures as recently I’ve taken many photos even though I have folders full from previous years – it doesn’t matter how many I have, I’m always looking for one more perfect picture, or one that catches the true beauty of the massed flowers – or of their individual beauty. Just as read after read of the same work can reveal something new each time. Or, to torture the analogy even further – looking at the work as a whole, editing it silently, is to see the whole expanse of purple spread before you – only by reading aloud, savouring the feel of each and every word in your mouth do you break up the picture and see the intricate beauty, or flaws, in the close up detail.

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Or maybe I just like these pictures too much and wanted to share them.

 

The Romantic Suspense Plait

IMG_3154 (779x1024)Harlequin editor Leslie Wainger said that in a romantic suspense, the suspense plot and the romance should be so tightly interwoven that if you removed one strand the plait – or story – would collapse. This is the image that has fuelled every romantic suspense I have written and is the standard to which I hold those I read.

The reason for deciding to blog about this is that I often see some of the keenest and most widely read fans of romance saying that they have been burned too often by romantic suspense. One book review lead to a conversation in which people agreed that the main love story and characters were great, but that the suspense plot was unbelievable, manipulative and mainly there to keep the protagonists from falling in love too soon. One person said they liked the romance so much they skipped the suspense plot and ended up enjoying it far more.

While I have never read a book where the two plot lines could be so easily disentangled as to be ignored, I have read a few where by a little over half way the couple are more or less in love and the rest of the book is mostly solving the mystery and some cosy romance. I believe if any time before the last chapter either plot strand could be resolved and leave the other strand intact, they are not tightly enough intertwined and it’s not a true romantic suspense – it can still be a good book, a romance with mild suspense elements, or a suspense with some romance, but not what I was hoping for.

What I mean by resolving one strand would be someone’s boss suddenly appearing and saying, “hey, we caught the villain, he confessed and there’s no more threat, take some leave.” What do the hero and heroine do then? If they smile and say thanks and jet off for a fortnight making love on a beach there wasn’t enough romantic conflict. In my writing and in those books I adore, at least one of the protagonists would turn and run away as fast as possible – solving the suspense is all that is keeping them alongside the other person and by doing so they find out enough about themselves and each other to move forward to love and a hea.

Maybe I love forced proximity stories too much, or reunions where there’s a lot of baggage, or enemies to lovers. But in my opinion solving a mystery or a little shared danger isn’t enough for a hea, I want real personal gaols and motivations keeping them apart, not a deranged killer. It’s having to work together to find a solution that forces them to face their internal emotional conflicts, makes then appreciate the other’s strengths – and weaknesses – and makes them reluctantly fall in love. The suspense is actually pushing them together, inadvertently creating character growth and strength, rather than being a device to stop them falling in love too soon or creating artificial tension.

That’s how I like the romance to be dependent on the suspense, but it needs to work the other way as well – to keep the plait taut in all directions. What if half way through the book the H&h decide they are in love and go to the boss in charge if the suspense investigation and say, “we’ve had enough of this danger, get some other cops/spies/scientists/soldiers to solve this while we go off and make out for a week.” If the boss says, “sure, have fun,” then the suspense plot could belong to anyone. It needs to be personal to this particular H&h. There has to be a reason why they are determined to find answers, why are they putting their lives in danger, why is this story being told?

I’ll admit that this aspect only became clear to me fairly recently, but it’s why so many suspense books have a protagonist in danger such as being a witness or survivor of a serial killer – they will never be safe until the bad guy is caught. Or it’s someone out to clear a family member’s name, or get justice for a murdered partner, or to right something they feel guilty about, or because someone close to them is in danger. Of course there doesn’t always have to be a personal link to the suspense plot and I have read a few brilliant examples where the H&h just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but on the whole the braiding together of the suspense and romance is made stronger when at least one of the protagonists is personally invested in the suspense. Can any moment be darker than when a choice has to be made between solving the mystery to which they have dedicated their life or saving the person they have reluctantly fallen in love with? The ultimate romantic suspense dilemma.

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Of course a plait, or braid, has three strands, not two. For me that’s perfect because in Harlequin Romantic Suspense they like the romance to be of more importance than the suspense, they used to specify 60% romance to 40% suspense and while I don’t think it’s that rigid any more it’s the kind of balance I try to aim for. So, what is the third strand in my plait? One is the suspense or danger or mystery plot. One is the romantic conflict, the inner reasons why they can’t instantly fall in love, the cerebral romance and barrier if you like, the past history and all the things that keep them at arm’s length – even while they acknowledge that there is a connection or an attraction there. So the third strand is showing us, and them, that attraction. It’s the awareness, the sensual details, the touches and glances and reluctant appreciation that they can’t help even though mentally and emotionally they know it’s a bad idea.

And of course these are the moments that happen while everything else is going on. When you’re on the run from bad guys there’s no time to stop and date or get to know each other as we would in “normal” life, everything is heightened and fast and pressured and that’s why suspense stories are great for bringing people together who would never work under any other circumstances – whether they are warring exes, childhood best friends or Montagues and Capulets – the suspense throws them together and all the while they know they can’t be together they are watching each other solve clues, adapt under pressure, be cool under fire, be resourceful and brave and compassionate and no matter how hard they fight it they start to grudgingly appreciate the other while they are solving the suspense plot. It makes them see each other in a light that they wouldn’t without the suspense – the strength in someone’s fingers as they hot wire a car, the gentleness as they bandage a wound, the way they bite their lip as they try to solve a puzzle, or the impatient way they push their hair out of their eyes even while having the kindness and time to calm a scared child. All of these are the little moments that make up a romance almost before we’re aware of it and that can happen literally under fire. When the danger has passed, then is the time for the cerebral strand to come back to the fore and for the doubts or reasons not to fall in love to have the upper hand, but then the suspense is upped again giving a moments respite from romantic dilemma, and so on, constantly twisting and highlighting one of the strands while the others are still visible, holding it all in place.

I doubt that I have stated this as clearly as I would like, but it shows what I hope for as a reader and aim for as a writer. I believe that Leslie Wainger has now retired from Harlequin although her “Writing a romance novel for dummies” book is still available. I was fortunate enough to discover the forums at harlequin.com in 2001. Leslie was the senior editor of the Silhouette Intimate Moments line (published in the UK as Sensation) and she had an “ask the editor” thread where she dispensed nuggets of wisdom, humour and Buffy (mostly Spike) appreciation. I think I had already realised that Intimate Moments was the line that most suited my reading and writing taste and so I lapped up every bit of advice and have some saved in clunky document files. This was how she phrased it:

It also helps to think of your book as a braid. Many new authors think of plot and romance as the side rails of a railroad track, going on together, parallel but never really crossing, though occasionally there are switches that connect them. But in a braid, you have many strands woven together to create a whole. Remove one and the whole thing falls apart.

20170504_195502 (622x1024)And that’s (just one reason) why she was a genius editor and entertaining giver of advice. I hope some of it causes a few lightbulb moments for other romantic suspense writers and that I have applied it correctly to my current work. If I haven’t, I leave this image as a warning of what happens when a plait goes wrong.

*Post edited on 15 May when I realised I had mispelled Leslie’s surname. I did a last minute check of her name against her book on Amazon UK and it picked up the incorrect spelling from a  review as my top search. So much for attention to detail… dammit.