A creature of reading habit

I’ve made no secret on this blog of my love for physical books, how the story inside is often inextricably linked with where I read it, the state of the cover or the position I finally award it on my bookshelves. And yes, I’ll use any excuse to post pictures of my book shelves.

I’ve not yet posted pictures of the books I’ve read while this blog was on hiatus for several reasons, one being that I didn’t read much romance for a while, and another being that I’ve been reading more e-books – and having no e-reader I haven’t been able to take nice pictures of the covers as I have in recent years.

I have been reading romances since my teens, they date from the heyday of 80s excess (including big name bonkbusters) through the arrival of dual pov category romances and the proliferation of ever tightly defined subgenres – small town, family focused, romantic suspense, procedurals, inspirational, explicit and so on. I like to think I’ll read any romance and sometimes furrow my brow when readers claim they won’t read outside of their comfort zone, or find certain situations or protagonists “hard to relate to” (and yes, alas, I’m aware that that’s often code for “I won’t read books where the protagonists, or author, aren’t white”).

I certainly hope I’m not that blinkered (and I know that white privilege confers many unacknowledged biases) but I’m aware that almost all my romances have been from one publisher – Harlequin, and it’s many linked houses like Mills and Boon, HQN, the old Silhouette lines, eHarl, and Carina. I’ve bought recommended books from small publishers, and self-published authors, although I admit I was slow here due to the lack of a hand held reader and I get hot thighs when reading on my laptop – not an innuendo for once, or a comment on the books I read (although I know there are people who claim people only use e-readers to hide the covers of the books they are reading.)

I’ve no time for anyone policing someone else’s reading tastes, and I’ve also been saddened by the snobbery (to take a charitable view) against e-books. I hope I’ve been clear in previous posts that part of my love of my bookshelves and their contents is because I’m a very slow reader and because of how I picture each page as if in a film – well lucky old me, not everyone has that luxury of time, nor wants it. For those who read voraciously, the ease and friendliness of having your entire library at your fingertips and in your bag or pocket night and day is invaluable; never mind the ableist attitude of saying everyone should be able to hold a cumbersome book open for hours and strain their eyesight over unalterable, unilluminated, tiny text.

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A glass of wine and a read outdoors – in February in the UK. I should have enjoyed it but spent too much time thinking about global warming

So yes, I confess that I am a creature of habit in my reading choices and each time I break out it’s usually with delight – as a reader – and horror – for my bank account. There’s also the effect it has on my writing. Having so long read (almost exclusively) romantic suspense, I’ve been reading more contemporary and historical romances and envying the skill of those who keep the reader breathless without cliff-hangers and danger. And every time I read an erotic romance I go back to ideas I’ve had percolating for years and wonder if I should try those again…of course after a rejection that is a double temptation “I suck at this, let’s try that” or “ok, I’ll write something explicitly for this line following their wish lists more than my own inclinations” neither of which is necessarily the greatest reason for choosing a project. But the better and more varied my reading choices, the more inspired I get and I hurry back to my own stories and my own voice; contemporary romance, heavy on the suspense.

And meanwhile, I’ll still be posting pictures of my bookcases, and pictures like the one above when it’s nice enough to read outdoors, but there will also be dusty pictures like this one.

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These books may not be on my bookshelves, but I loved living every minute of them.

 

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Blog post number 42. Writing life, what is the universe trying to tell me and blocked drains

I was going to sit down today and blog about my second favourite piece of writing advice. It’s about getting the maximum use from the precious time we carve out of our busy lives. It was about not procrastinating or getting distracted, about not being a perfectionist or waiting for the muse to strike, it was about protecting and valuing writing time.

But I forgot all that advice and so this is about blocked drains.

I had such good intentions; an early start, get writing before even thinking about coffee – it could be my reward after an hour. But then I thought about toast…and had another cup of tea…and where had 45 minutes gone?… OK, now I was sitting at the laptop, better check my previous pots on writing advice…ah, so I’ve written a lot of what I was planning to write already…(is there a name for people who don’t even remember their own advice, let alone take it? Should I look that up? Could I get another blog post out of it? Shut up)…look how windy it is, a good day to dry stuff on the line…

OK, so now this was obviously just procrastination but I had been putting off the handwashing and I’d already lost so much time what was a little more? I know, I really am my worst own enemy, and I have no right to preach what I don’t practice.

So, head full of writing ideas I stepped outside with my wet washing, and wondered why there was a pool of soapy water over the paving slabs. It took longer than I like to admit for me to realise the drain had over-flowed. I remember Prof J saying we needed to check the drain was properly in place after some building work….a year ago…I moved a bench, had a look, recoiled from the sticky sudsy morass and went to put the washing on the line.

After which, the water hadn’t gone down at all.

Everything was fine in the house, no dirty water backed up. Do I call I plumber? OK, I’d better have a look myself first. Prodding the water with a stick had no effect so I plunged my arm into the greasy sludge – and pulled out pebbles. I’m pretty sure they shouldn’t be there. Then I found some broken roof tiles – it’s a big drain. More stones, more unidentifiable sludge whose stench made me gag – and I have a very poor sense of smell.

Eventually the water started going down and as far as I could see all that had happened (all? ALL?!) is that a bucket full of stones and debris had somehow slipped under the plastic drain cover and blocked the grill. It could have been much worse, it was still baffling, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do – some of the lumps I removed were of suspiciously fatty slimy things – I have never flushed a wet wipe down a loo, let alone a sink, but I’ve read about the fatbergs in British sewers and this drain leads from the kitchen so some cooking fat might have escaped. (Trust me, I’m careful, I never knowingly tip away fatty liquid and I have a plughole filter to catch waste)

But by now of course I was mulling over the possibilities of linking this to my writing – if I hadn’t procrastinated with the washing this wouldn’t have happened (until another day). Terrible puns were swirling through my head; Sense and no sense of smellability, drains on your writing time, getting blocked – don’t worry, I won’t use any of them.

There is something oddly fitting about the fact that I wanted to write about protecting writing time and using it in the most productive way possible, and instead I feel sick and I stink. I mean really stink. I’ve washed my hand three times with different soaps, scrubbed it under scalding water, sprayed it with perfume and I can still smell the indescribable smell of blocked drain. I’m not sure even fetid or rancid do this justice, it’s not quite as bad as when I have to get cat poo out of the vegetable patch, or week old decomposing mouse (which is actually oddly sweet) but I cannot get rid of this smell, it’s stuck in the back of my throat and not even scalding coffee has shifted it. I can’t imagine how bad this would be for anyone with a normal sense of smell.

Anyway, that’s my morning so far. This was going to be filed under advice and writing but maybe it should just go under “about me” as it tells you far too much about my lack of domestic skills. I haven’t taken any pictures of the drain and resulting sludge (every shade from fatberg-white to peat-bog-black – names coming to a paint range near you soon) and instead I shall show you the first (sadly out of focus) wild violet that I found this Saturday. Don’t worry, that’s not the finger that’s been in the drain.

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Oh, and it started raining before I even finished unblocking the drain, so not writing and putting out the washing instead was a really good call. Now I’m off to wash my hand again.

Pacing, Post-Its, and whose story is it anyway?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a rejection or a critique often highlights the one thing you already suspected you needed to address. I’ve read that so often from other people and before I submitted my MS, I was tempted to do a Post-It plan – but I resisted.

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Come on, I said, I’ve prevaricated enough, I’ll never send this off. Look at my detailed chapter and scene breakdowns, why do I need coloured sticky posts? Well, the genius that is Julie Cohen could probably have told me why, here’s an earlier post where I credited her with the best advice I ever received.

Julie’s post it seminars and tutorials are legend, that’s the one that most often gets linked to,  but I remember this one first with handwritten cards  – that was far more to my taste – is this the point to mention my irrational hatred, almost fear, of sticky paper? I’ve always had it, I detest labels, I used to have slice them off apples rather than peel them off – that sticky residue touching my fingers, urggggh!!! OK, so I’m revealing too much here, and you just try having young children these days who want to put stickers on everything, they get all over the house, is there a pair of socks without a sticker stuck to it? And when they come out of the washing machine all mangled and manky….I’m sorry, where was I?

Ok, my dislike of Post-Its is illogical, and I could have used coloured cards, but I was also at that “please get this story pout of my sight” phase and so I sent it off. And got “uneven pacing” as a rejection point. So I did what I should have done before and wrote out all the most important information that needed to be revealed in the story for each character, and laid them out as they currently chronologically occurred. I filled in other Post-Its with a breakdown of the most important internal and external plot points for my H & h, and then I looked at this mess up above.

It certainly showed I needed newer Post-Its that didn’t curl up so quickly, and a better choice of colours rather than having to use yellow for general plot and pink and blue for my protagonists(forgive me). But more importantly it showed me that I had too many big revelations happening too close together. I should add here that while searching Julie’s archives I had found this post about not holding information back from the reader for too long and this follow up one. I’ll admit that it had made me pause all those months ago but I ignored it – I think I knew even then that I was falling for the old trick of keeping secrets to build suspense and I had too many revelations in the second half. But where else to put them without upsetting the balance of the whole MS?

Yeah, OK, I shied away from what I deep down knew, my pacing was uneven. The post it’s showed me what I feared, a lot of work was needed – no major rewrite, just rejigging the times when information was revealed – no biggie huh? Except of course each move causes a knock on effect of reaction and new action and later revelations are also impacted. I knew the story worked as it stood, it could just work so much better….

So thank you Julie, again, for giving me the tools to improve my work. My messy Post-It work-in-progress isn’t very close to Julie’s at all, but that doesn’t matter; it’s what it’s made me see and think and feel that’s important. For instance, there’s a couple of blue notes stuck to the side – they were big information reveals that turned out to never really featured in the MS, my synopsis and gut feel about the book made me think they must be vital, but in the actual telling and the post it outline, they didn’t feature.

Which tied in to the lack of blue notes in several areas and the revelation that I’d been pitching this book – to me, and to others – as the Hero’s story, well he is the one with all the hooks and tropes after all. But the Post-Its showed me very clearly that it’s my heroine’s story. I don’t mean that it’s woman’s fiction, it’s still very much a category style romance with equal time and importance given to both main characters. But my heroine’s lack of tropes had made me forget how much she was driving the story, it was all there on the paper (ok, screen) and in the synopsis and pitch.

Maybe it’s that #metoo has happened since I finished and sent off the MS. Maybe it’s the state of the world in the years since I started blogging with election and referendum results around the world drowning out marginalised voices. Maybe it’s the many examples of women who even with all of the above, “nether the less, persist.”

Whatever it is, it’s made me look at my whole story afresh. My heroine was always determined to do things her own way, and the hero saw and respected that and only offered help or advice on her terms. Just because he had more frequent rejections to overcome in his life, it didn’t mean their impact was greater than those she revealed. I knew that; the only time I cried when writing was over one of her scenes. This new way of looking at it as her story is just the final impetus to make the story the best it can be. So, yet again Julie; my heroine and I thank you, and we (not too grudgingly) thank the Post-Its too.

 

Could you write a squirrel killer?

I can never see the body of an animal at the side of the road without terrible pangs of sadness and regret – no matter that their death had nothing to do with me. I know that I’m soppy about all things small and furry, or fluffy or feathered (except spiders, and the mouse that ate my crème egg, and the magpie that killed a baby sparrow – ok, there’s quite a few exceptions) but many drivers must pass roadkill without a second thought, many probably don’t see them.

I started reflecting on this after seeing a dead squirrel while I was driving along thinking about a character in my current wip who has elevated himself from a bit part to being fairly vital to the story. The brief sketch of him I had in my head was fine for his previous role but now I need to know more and be sure he’s not a cardboard cut-out or nothing more than a hastily assembled handful of characteristics – or worst of all a harmful stereotype – just because he’s a villain doesn’t mean that that that’s all he is.

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I read some marvellous advice recently that I heard before, but when you see it a couple of times close together it really sinks in – although that also means I have no idea whom to give credit to. It’s most usually applied to villains as a way to avoid clichés and it’s to simply remember that in his (or her) own story, the villain thinks they are the hero. They don’t sit around twirling their moustache and throwing puppies on the fire to flag up how evil they are – they get home on time to have dinner with their wife, take the dog for a walk and read their kids a bedtime story. They aren’t always in their lair plotting world domination, or if they are, they should have a better reason that wanting to destroy things – you only have to have look at prominent people in power at the moment to see that many of them (and their supporters) truly believe that they are doing things for good reasons and are making the world a better place; they see themselves as the hero saving the world, while we see them as destroying our future.

This advice of course holds for every character in a book, they are the hero of their own story. Sometimes this is obvious in a series where past and future protagonists show up; the fact that the author knows everything about them shines through, their voice and motivation are assured, their physical description is neither heavy handed nor sketchy or inconsistent, they leap off the page (occasionally to the detriment to of the supposed lead characters.) I’ve been guilty of having speaking characters who could just be farmer 1 and farmer 2 but that’s what later drafts are for, fleshing out those people and thinking what their story might be. It won’t impact the current story at all, but their voice will be more authentic. Even the person who shows up to deliver one piece of important news and is never seen again – we may not even know their name but they have a full life off page waiting for them to return.

Jennifer Crusie wrote a blog post some years ago when she was trying to nail down a character – I have searched for it to no avail, I think it was on a blog for one of the collaborative novels she wrote and looking for it means I have lost most of this morning reading the archives at Argh Ink, I’d almost forgotten how much great writing advice was there, along with possibly even greater humour. The gist of the post as I remember it was that Jenny asked “what would this character do if they hit a squirrel with their car?” I remember thinking “well I’d be horrified and upset – who wouldn’t? What character could I write who’d not feel that way? They’d be a monster.” Jenny went on to say that her character would feel remorse, but (possibly, I can’t quite remember) also annoyance and it gave her the key to that protagonist as being a reckless driver – not dangerous or cruel or unkind, just going a little too fast and not looking ahead for the pitfalls on the road, or in life.

I hadn’t used that particular device before when thinking about a character but it’s been invaluable this week. Many writers talk about interviewing their characters or have long lists of their likes and dislikes and taste in music, clothes, food etc. I have tended to plunder their pasts to see what made them this way, to ensure their motivation is strong enough, and I wrote about how what was on their book shelves or how they decorate their room can show the reader so much, rather than telling them.

I would never have thought I could write a character who wouldn’t care if they killed a defenceless animal by accident, even though I have written villains who have killed humans (always for what they think are valid reasons.) Maybe it’s the senseless nature of hitting an animal with a car, it can’t always be avoided but then most people would feel remorse or guilt. But what about the person who has just had such terrible news that they see nothing but the goal towards which they are driving? The parent dealing with squabbling children in the back seats? The lorry driver concentrating on some precious or fragile load? And conversely, just because an assassin is on their way to their next kill, they might still feel sadness or remorse if an animal starts across their path, as might the ruthless CEO who has just axed 500 jobs – or will he be more worried about his paintwork and coldly inform his chauffeur to clean the car as soon as possible?

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There are many questions or scenarios to consider when fleshing out a fictional character and Jenny Crusie’s example has always stayed with me, even if I hadn’t used it. But as I pondered my secondary character and how vital he is making himself to the plot, I wondered how he would react if a squirrel darted in front of his car? I already know that his key emotions when dealing with my hero and heroine are selfishness and carelessness – the sort of person then who might not give a squished squirrel a second thought – but no, I knew that he would care, would be frustrated and annoyed at the incident, angry at the waste of life (even though he’s a man who shoots game birds competitively and for food.) Why would he care about a squirrel more than the effect he is having on my lead characters?

Selfish and careless; how he has become like that is not as important as what happens when he sees himself like that, when he finds out how others see him and what he has become by tiny steps – he doesn’t want to be an accidental squirrel killer, he wants to be the one who stops and takes it to a refuge to be healed – no, more than that, that’s what he thought he was, he does a huge amount for charities and good causes, but in his day to day life he’s forgotten to care. The book literally ends with him stripping naked, remembering the man he was, the one he thought he was, and the one he plans to become, discarding the trappings of power and revealing another truth he has hidden from himself, and from us. And meaning I have to write his story as well now.

So I have gained lot of character background and new insights into my villain, and therefore new thoughts about how he impacts my hero and heroine and how they will react.  Everyone’s’ goals and motivations have been sharpened and more focussed as a result, and I’ve gained a sequel. All from looking at a deceased squirrel. Maybe its death wasn’t totally in vain.

 

Books as an escape

A book can transport you anywhere; to worlds both real and unreal, to lives and loves better or worse than our own. Every unread book holds the tantalising potential to make us see and feel something completely new. They can offer insights into everyday matters that we may be struggling with, or they can offer a brief escape from our day to day existence.

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None of that is going to be news to anyone who reads regularly, and especially those who read romance. One of the most oft quoted appeals of romance novels is the escape they offer; it’s why over the top premises with billionaires, royalty, vampires, or FBI agents are so popular – protagonists that we are unlikely to meet in everyday life, can for a few hours, seem like people we could meet, know, like and fall in love with; people and plots we would hate to cope with in real life but which are exciting on the page at a safe remove. Then there are the romances with more prosaic day to day lives and loves and problems, they offer hope in their familiarity but with a guaranteed Happy Ever After – something most of us still work at every day.

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It’s why books have been even more important to me, and to so many others, in the last year or so. As disaster after disaster has occurred and the political norms around the world have shifted, people will seek escape and hope wherever they can. I’m far from the only writer to have found it hard to sit down and create tales of people falling in love against the odds when acts of terrorism have been taking lives all around us and when peace between nations seems to be an increasingly fragile thing. Can I still believe in Happy Ever After when so many lives are being cut short and families ripped apart? Well I have to. Hope and love are two powerful forces and they may be what separates us from those who want to destroy our way of life – whether they be terrorists or politicians.

I’ve personally found it almost impossible to write in the last ten days given the appalling verdict on the death of Philando Castile in the US and what has happened at Grenfell Tower in London. Not even the amazing heroism of the firefighters can stop me from thinking of the people trapped and knowing what was going to happen….no, can’t do it. So I have been reading far more than usual these last few weeks and decided to post a few pictures of my years reading so far; if nothing else to remind me of how much pleasure books have brought me, how much of an escape they have offered, and to help me get back to my own writing, no matter how hard.

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The first photo is of the Harlequin Romantic Suspenses I have read so far this year; it’s already almost as many I read all last year due to my giving up my reading time to write regularly back then. This year I’ve got better at managing my time and have also sacrificed tv watching to get back some precious reading time. I also didn’t read that many books in the latter half of last year as I (foolishly) decided that the way things were going politically and globally, it would be a good time to re-read 1984 and be reassured that things weren’t all that bad. Wrong. I posted a few thoughts while I was still part way through and I hope to write a longer post about it soon. As I also hope to do about The Secret History, a book I have been meaning to read for years and finally did and that (mostly) lived up to the almost impossible weight of expectation. It reminded me that this was why I started reading the classic Greek tragedies in 2015 – I knew I ought to have read the Bacchae before starting the Secret History but I became so caught up in the joy of reading the originals that I forgot to move back to the book that had inspired me! Again, the delightful morning spent in Foyles in London comparing translations of Euripides deserves a longer post.

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Having bought the last Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I went back and re read the previous Tiffany Aching book, I then struggled to read the Shepherd’s Crown, partly because of the thought that once it was finished, that was it, there would never be another Discworld novel; but also due to the slightly diminished style of the writing. Terry Pratchett was taken from us far too soon and I treasure all his books, even when his flashes of brilliant wit were fading and finally cruelly stopped before he had finished his last book as he would have wished. I can still remember the day my mother first gave me one of his books to read – Equal Rites – and how impatient we got for each new book (and ended up buying them in hardback as we just couldn’t wait.) It feels so wrong to have outlived the series. Indeed, because I was struggling with the Shepherd’s Crown I started another book – back when I lived alone I would have 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time as I discussed here, when talking about how I read, and I also said that the last Ian Rankin I had read had been a rare book where I could read a hundred pages a day – and it happened again. I think I read it in 5 days which is possibly a record for me, although it’s also a sad reflection on how much in the real world I was trying to forget.

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How is everyone else’s reading year going? I am currently stuck trying to decide what to read next. After the Secret History I feel I need something where every sentence doesn’t make me pause to let its beauty sink in – I  loved it and almost want to read more by Tartt right away, but I know it’s too soon. I have many books by authors whose writing inspires a similar – desire I suppose! Their writing makes me fall in love with the written word, and make me long to write half as well. But I still think I need a change of pace, the Rankin and the Pratchett gave me that a bit but I need to be in the right frame of mind to immerse myself certain books – it’s why I delayed the Secret History for so many years. I was reminded today of the Greek Classics, maybe it’s time to re-read Aristophanes for something a little lighter, or back to Aeschylus. It will be interesting to see what my end of year list looks like.

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And most importantly of all, the blessed moments of respite, escape, hope, love and laughter that I have found in reading other people’s books have driven me back to writing my own; maybe I can offer someone else a few hours happiness further down the line.

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.