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.

 

 

Don’t write about sex, politics or religion?

What gives a Brit the right to have an opinion on the US presidential election? I’ve seen such sentiments expressed a few times lately and the most common answer – apart from opinions are free and everyone is entitled to them – is that the election result does indeed affect the whole world, not just the US. Global warming. Nato. There are many effects, both big and small.

But the main reason I have an opinion is because the result affects people I care about. They are afraid of getting hurt. They are being hurt.

People I care about but who don’t even know me. People who, mostly, I haven’t met. People who have educated me. People who have made me laugh, and cry, often at the same time.

I’m talking about the romance community, mostly about authors but also editors, agents and readers. Over the years I’ve watched people argue, inform and campaign about; plagiarism, shady publishing practices, racism, diversity, authors bullying readers and reviewers attacking authors.

When I started on Twitter I followed comedians, actors and authors that I liked, and editors that I thought might offer valuable information (they do). I followed the bloggers who had previously impressed and informed me and I followed authors I hadn’t read but whose work I had seen praised on those websites, or whose names kept cropping up in interesting discussions. Thus I found out that as well as writing brilliant books and blogs, a lot of the romance community were bloody funny, witty, compassionate and passionate – about so many things. I could list my entire Twitter feed but the ones I look forward to hearing from every day include; Bree Bridges, Julie Cohen, Alyssa Cole, Victoria Dahl, N K Jemisin, Susanna Kearsley, Colleen Lindsay, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai and Carly Silver. Their willingness to educate others about writing and publishing romance is amazing (I often wonder how the heck they find time for their other jobs).

This year these ladies have written tirelessly, fearlessly (although I know many are deeply deeply fearful) and honestly about the election. They have been tweeting or retweeting for years about race, religion, LGBQT and neurodiversity issues whether or not those are subjects that impact them personally. (Edited to add that they have also written about disability issues – it might just have been simpler to list things they don’t discuss – because I can’t think of any. I suppose what I was trying to illustrate is that with many of these women I have no idea of their race, religion, sexuality or any disabilities that might affect them, but they still speak up on behalf of others who are being marginalised or targeted.) They write about them because they are important, because there is so much injustice out there (in the romance world and of course elsewhere). They have made me realise so much about my own deep-seated unconscious prejudices and how much I take for granted, I have started challenging lazy perceptions in others in a way I didn’t before because every small step is important in challenging bias and privilege.

And because of their bravery in speaking up for their community, their families and friends, these women are attacked on line regularly and many fear attacks in the street any day soon. The election result has made life unsafe for people because of how they look, live, love and believe. It has made me afraid and angry on their behalf and that is why I will feel free to have an opinion on American politics and why I am retweeting so much that makes me so angry and so afraid. Not just because of the effect globally or in Europe. But because of the women to whom I owe so much.

I should add that I started thinking about this post as soon as the election result was known; I wanted to howl my horror and disgust at the moon, but feared I had no right. Over the next days as I read the gut wrenching despair of these women my own revulsion seemed pitiful in comparison with those who are going to live with this open hatred and prejudice and fear every day for the next four years. I wanted to offer support but it seemed puny in comparison with the phone calls and demonstrations being organised on line. Then someone in the UK posted one of those “10 things writers mustn’t do on line” lists and on it was “Don’t talk about politics, sex or religion (unless you write about those things in your books)” and I was incensed. How can it not be in our books when it’s everywhere in the world being shoved in our faces whether we like it or not? How can a rise in hate crimes not affect everyone who hears about them?

I’ll admit I’d already unfollowed an author or two in the last weeks. Such bad luck if you had a book release scheduled and need to try and do promo while people’s worlds are crumbling around them. Many have managed it tactfully and respectfully while acknowledging how the world has changed, and is still changing. But if you tweeted eight links to your book or glowing reviews with not one tweet about current affairs? I’m not really sure there’s going to be anything in your book to interest me. Yes, authors are not their books, you can have wildly different politics to mine and I may still enjoy your writing – especially if I have no idea what your politics are, so yeah, keep quiet about it. But I notice your silence, and my admiration for you has diminished and I will remember it next time I see one of your books. No, I am not trying to shame anyone into sharing what they don’t wish to, I have never told anyone how I have voted in any general or local election and nor will I; but I will speak up on horrors like a President elect with no respect for women or people of colour, the ongoing crisis at Standing Rock and anyone who claims all romance books show that women secretly long to be grabbed by a masterful man.

Every one of the women I have mentioned above has voiced their anxiety (to put it mildly) in the last two weeks, but they have also continued (with a lot of effort) to write, edit and publish books that give pleasure to millions. They have helped me to remember that when hatred and fascism are on the increase, the love and hope in art is needed more than ever for the promise it gives us all.

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.

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.

A trip down memory lane

This post came to me while I was driving last week. My sister took us to a woodland nature reserve that I’d never visited where the kids and her dog could splash and play in a shallow stream, she described it as being near a village but as we drove further and further I realised the wood was in fact in the middle of Inglestone Common, a place I hadn’t visited for at least thirty years. When it was time to leave I was sure that going on over the common and along the edge of the Cotswolds was a quicker way and so I headed off, much to my sister’s amazement – she was convinced I’d get lost. I didn’t, and every mile was crammed with memories.

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I have walked up and down this lane thousands of times in the last six years; in deep snow and gushing floods, on days when the cool green shade felt like a caress and one autumn day when I kicked a cider apple all the way down it until I was intoxicated by the bruised smell of the fruit. No matter how often I walk it, different things catch my attention – a new violet opening in spring, different bird song and glimpses of their plumage, a stronger gust of wind making the pine trees sing or sigh, a silent buzzard resting in the apple orchard. Twenty people could walk that lane a day and describe it differently, just as hundreds of romance novels are published a year but all tell the same basic story of two people meeting and finding love and making it work against the odds.

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The same lane in thick snow. It’s actually taken from almost the same spot – look at the leaning fence post on the right and the ivy-clad trunk on the other side of the road

I read something on twitter this week – I can’t find it now and hate to not credit it properly. Its gist was that all stories are about someone wanting something; in popular fiction they achieve it, in literary fiction they don’t. Given the flak that women’s fiction gets, especially romance, that made me smile a lot (and yes I do read literary fiction – I think. I rarely even think about how a book is classified until I have trouble locating in it a book shop (Really? Euripides in history rather than classics or poetry or drama?)). Romance readers and writers have to develop a thick skin, or a serious headache from all the eye rolling we do each time we hear that the books we love are formulaic, clichéd, repetitive and all the same. Do hill walkers and ramblers get told that all walks are the same? You end up back at your house or car, tired and possibly muddy after seeing some countryside, just like you did on your last walk, why do you keep doing different walks? Or even worse, why do the same walk again? Because as I tried to describe above, it changes every day, heck every hour.

No romance and no book is ever the same. There are familiar rituals and goals, but the accidental tangential diversions and the deliberate off-piste excursions described in my post two weeks ago can make them come alive in different ways, revealing each author’s distinctive voice. Just as the flower that made me smile yesterday can be eclipsed by the sight of a fox crossing my path today, so the breath-taking moonlit roof top chase in one book can be replaced by a champagne supper on a Mediterranean beach the next time, languid lovemaking between crisp cotton sheets in one story and frenzied still-half-dressed passion in a dusty cellar the next. I don’t need to tell other romance readers and writers this, but as well as the variety of plots, it’s the tiny details that count towards making the bigger picture different from author to author and book to book.

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Higher up the same lane in a freezing fog that was as thick as snow on the trees

What’s even better is that those tiny details can tell us a lot about the character experiencing them. Everyone notices different things depending on the situation and their background. A city girl and a country one will react to the smells and sights of a farmyard differently, a hero and heroine might react differently to a bathroom in need of a good clean. The words they use, the descriptions, especially the comparisons they draw and the memories that are invoked are deeply personal and can tell us so much about the character as well as the location. It can tell us what they are experiencing right now as they look around them – that patched old sofa covered in dog hairs will look disgusting or inviting depending upon how exhausted or in danger the character is.

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That same stretch of road in January sun, over a mile from home and our cat still accompanying us

The recollections can also be incredibly important. I’ve been guilty in the past of writing pages of backstory and then having to cut it. I still let myself sometimes because just thinking about a character or what has shaped them isn’t enough, I have to start physically listing it on the page or keyboard and then it comes alive and my fingers can’t keep up with scenes and anecdotes that have made that person who they are. Those passages will never end up in the finished work, but they are there for me and they inform everything else I write about him or her, I may allude to them, or show a brief snapshot of that moment in how they react to something in the present.

Which brings me back to Ingelstone Common. Last week, it all looked unfamiliar and then I recognised the very first road junction I came to; I hadn’t been that way since I was fourteen or fifteen and I had been on a horse, not in a car, but I knew it at once. The rest of the journey was one of crystal clear memories: the pace where my sister fell and broke her collar bone, the wide grass verge that provided the only place to canter for miles, the corner where there used to be a pig farm and our pony could smell that distinctive odour long before we did and would start snorting and shying. There were houses where I remembered fields, and houses that I had seen being built now looked tired with the paint peeling on window frames, the small village shop where we sometimes bought ice lollies was now a house. As I changed down to third gear for a particularly steep and winding hill I relived the moment that a thunderstorm passed over me and my horse and the thunder and lightning happened in the same split second.

I live in the countryside where every other house seems to be called the Old Forge, Old Schoolhouse or Old Post Office; on that drive I passed the Old Bakery and felt even older as I recalled how we used to drive there on a Saturday morning and bypass the shop to go into the actual bakery and wait for the fresh loaves to come out of the huge ovens in the wall. I remember flour covering everything and the dim light coming through ancient leaded windows and the stifling heat. We had to wait for the bread to be cool enough to eat but it was best when still warm and soft and springy, by the afternoon, the top of a cottage loaf would have hardened to iron and when you bit it the crust would shatter and lacerate the roof of your mouth. I knew the bakery closed years ago due to the cost of modernising it, but it was still a slight shock to realise I am old enough to remember a place before it became the “Old” in a house name.

If I put any or all of the above in a book it would add colour, but also read like too much irrelevant padding/backstory, all it tells you is that I’m past the first flush of youth and I used to ride a lot in the British countryside. But just one anecdote alluded to, or given a wider context can add vital individuality to a fictional character. If the heroine knows her fear of thunderstorms is irrational, but only recalls later riding through that storm and her horse nearly bolting in fear; it gives her more motivation and rationalises her dread.

So my trip down an accidental memory lane made me think of my writing and back stories, about picking the right detail, and how when it’s done with skill I can read the same authors telling me tales of falling in love again and again because every time they show me something different and make me want to take that journey with them.

I do know how to spell tangentially, honest

Does the world really need another writer’s blog? Let alone an unpublished writer? My goal is not so much to share my path to publication (positive thinking) as to share thoughts on all aspects of being a reader, a writer and someone whose other interests – walking, mountains, ruins, gin, tv – may also be worthy of mention. Anything that makes you laugh and cry and think and feel is never going to be wasted.

Hence the title of my blog, Tangent Alley (not simply a misspelling of tangentially). I have never knowingly written anything too brief, not even text messages or tweets (just take a look at the “about me” post below for a dizzying mix of run on sentences complete with comma, semicolon, parentheses and dash abuse). But sometimes what looks like a random diversion or detour can bring unexpected rewards, new vistas and ways of looking at the old. And in truth, when walking, riding or driving I have always gone out of my way to make it interesting; I would far rather allow extra time to drive the back routes rather than motorways, or head off without a map altogether (such an attitude meant I once drove from Heathrow to Gloucestershire via Guildford (on purpose) and I can still picture some of those villages and empty lanes in the afternoon sun)

I have been around long enough to remember when authors first started advising each other to have blogs, it was at the same time that they also debated the merits of facebook or myspace. Yes I’ve been around that long. Blogs sprang up everywhere and I dutifully bookmarked and followed many – hardly any of which are still with us as authors have moved on – to Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and probably many other areas I am unaware of. But perversely, having decided all those years ago that it would be too scary and hard work for me personally, I find that blogs are still my favourite place to go to follow authors, preferably as part of regularly updated and easy to navigate websites.

The received wisdom 10 – 15? – years ago was that you had to blog daily, always be interesting, always end with a question to make people post answers and try to use images to catch peoples’ eyes. A lot of that put me off, the discipline needed to post that often, surely it would take away from writing time – as if I needed another excuse to not be working on an actual wip. I didn’t even have a digital camera at the time and I didn’t own a mobile phone either, not that they would have cameras for some time

Advice and “rules” about the image you portray as a writer, or to put it more bluntly marketing oneself, change all the time. The best advice I have seen is to do your research and do what suits you and your needs at this time.

I am planning to post a blog once a week on a Friday, in my old 9 – 5 job that was always the time for my “hooray its nearly the weekend” relaxed trawl through varied websites.  Maybe people will find and respond as time goes by and having a back catalogue of thoughts and writing will show my voice and for now, the idea of writing into a void is liberating.

Until next week, hello and cheerio to anyone out there. Indeed, as it’s Friday, cheers; this more than any other day is sure to have a gin in it. I should warn readers with sensitive livers that gin will get a lot of mentions here. And wine. And tea. And coffee. A Romantic Suspense writer’s life is full of lubrication.

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Writer fuel (“tasteful” 1980s kitchen tile optional)