Archive for the ‘writing’ Category




a new resolution, and some common mistakes

Filed under: writing | Tags: , ,

I’ve been rather neglecting my blog lately, and I certainly haven’t been writing much about my favourite thing to blog about: writing. I think the big main reason for that is that I haven’t been doing very many courses or talks about writing craft lately, certainly not since early this summer. One of the major benefits of teaching something is that you learn so very much. And though I’ve learned a lot about writing, and even more about the business of publishing which seems to be changing every day, I haven’t felt the need to articulate it here on my blog.

But. Next week I’m doing something completely new for me: I’ve organised my own writing course, a one-day course in Advanced Novel Writing. I have eleven talented participants, all of whom signed up before the ink was dry on the tweet where I mentioned I was giving it. I’m very excited about it. I’ve led lots of courses before, obviously, but this is the very first one I’ve organised all on my own.

Planning the course has got me thinking about writing craft again, and it’s made me resolve to spend some more time on this blog talking about writing.

First, though, I’m going to talk about critiquing. I’ve been doing some critiques for various reasons, mostly of the first few pages of unpublished writers’ fiction, and this has brought up two issues in my mind. One, is that many, many unpublished writers make exactly the same mistakes. Here are the most common I have noticed:

  • Starting the story in the wrong place. Overwhelmingly, the problem is it starts too early, though very occasionally it starts too late
  • Overload of exposition or backstory, which slows down the pacing
  • Problems with choosing the correct point of view(s) for the story
  • Difficulty in presenting a sympathetic protagonist
  • Lack of clarity about which genre or market this story fits into
  • Lack of tension or conflict
  • A sense that this has not been edited or polished, and is exactly as it came out in first draft form, with little sense of how a reader will experience it
  • Too much telling, rather than showing


These are mistakes that I’ve made myself. In fact several of them are mistakes I make on a regular basis, especially in first drafts. I believe that in a lot of cases what separates writers who are ready to be published from writers who are not yet, is not that the published writers naturally write better, but that the published writers have learned how to EDIT AND REVISE better. We have a bigger tool box with more strategies in it.

Which is encouraging, I think. You can learn this stuff. Of course, you can forget it all again, as I do…but then you can relearn it.

The second thing I’ve noticed is that I’m frickin’ mean. I will not hesitate to tell you in the strongest terms that your manuscript has any or all of the issues above, not to mention several others that may be unique to you alone. I’ll tell you what I like about it, too, but then I will wham you over the head with a hammer, steal your candy, and run off laughing.

Well, not laughing. I don’t actually like being mean. I have strong opinions, but I constantly worry that I’ll crush someone’s dreams with a bit of misplaced well-meant criticism. I don’t mean to; like I said above, I’ve made, and still make, a lot of these mistakes myself. But there’s a danger that speaking as a published author or a teacher, I’m setting myself up (in others’ minds, anyway), as An Authority or An Expert, The Final Arbiter Of What Works.

And I’m not, by a long shot. I’m still learning. Despite what I might say on this blog, or in your critique.

Quick link promo: I’m interviewed this week over at Free Your Parenting, talking about potty training, tantrums and living in the now. Much like writing, really. And drop by The Heroine Addicts and party down with us to celebrate Christina Courtenay’s new novel, HIGHLAND STORMS.





Another Light Raid

Filed under: writing

I’ve belonged to my local writing group, Reading Writers, for ten years now. I joined before I was published, because I wanted to meet other writers and do something that showed I was serious about my writing. Especially in the early days, when I was struggling to learn how to write something publishable, it was invaluable to me to have somewhere I could go and say, without question, “I am a writer.” Where I could talk about my hopes and fears and small steps forward without sounding odd.

In ten years I’ve seen members come and go. Several treasured members have died, including one who had belonged to Reading Writers for over 60 years. The group has been invariably welcoming, supportive and helpful. Reading Writers celebrate every success and I think that is the heart and soul of the group.

This spring we created a new anthology, ANOTHER LIGHT RAID. It’s got poetry, fiction and nonfiction, a wide variety of voices. It’s dedicated to the memory of our former secretary, Don Louth, and a majority of the profits from each sale goes to the Duchess of Kent House charity, who looked after Don in his last weeks.

I’ve got two short stories in it—one being the very first piece of fiction I ever had published, and another one which is quite a departure from my normal writing. And there’s fifteen other authors’ work to explore and enjoy.

It’s available as an ebook and in print. Please do check it out here.

Another Light Raid





Is your heroine boring?

Filed under: writing

I love it when people ask me questions to talk about on this blog. I love it even more when the question is something I’m struggling with as well.

This is a long-ish question from the lovely Lisa, so I’m going to break it down a bit. Unfortunately I have no answers, but I do have some thoughts that might spark something in Lisa’s brain, or maybe someone else has more ideas. Lisa’s writing a women’s commercial fiction novel, and her problem is that she’s afraid her heroine is boring.

The heroine is Grace. She’s an interior designer with a passion for her work and period properties. She’s a mousy, studious person, committed to her career without much of a social life. There’s no doubting she’s cautious but I need her to be like this because her issue is she’s afraid to fail. She needs to be in control and she can do that in her work but she can’t in relationships and so she’s had a few brief flings which have fallen by the way side in the past because what if she trusted one of those men and they had broken her heart and the relationship had failed?

Okay. So the problem here is that the heroine’s main inner conflict is that she’s cautious and afraid to fail, and this has made her a bit dull. Which is fine in real life…but in commercial fiction, we tend not to want dull heroines, because we’re reading this for entertainment, right? The challenge, then, is to discover a way to get the reader hooked into the heroine, while still keeping her inner conflict. (I’m assuming you know, Lisa, WHY Grace is so afraid of failure, and what she thinks the horrible consequences of failure will be, so that you can raise the stakes for her as high as possible.)

By the way, I like how Grace’s need for control is manifest in her job, where she makes order out of chaos and decay. How does she reconcile the risks you need to take to be a successful designer, with her fear of failure? This could be an added layer to her conflict, for now or later.

So within the first chapter I establish her as the studious, dedicated, passionate-about-her-career person that she is, climbing to the top of the career ladder where she’s aspired to be, in charge of the artistic design of a 18C Georgian Townhouse. Then I bring in the inciting event: her boss takes the project off of her and gives it to his wife to handle, leaving Grace tasked with her pet hate; bog standard interiors on a development of new houses.

I think I’ve got all the ingredients there to make the reader want to read on but the person in my critique group has a point; if the reader finds the character boring, they won’t read on. So my problem is how do I make it more interactive for the reader? I’ve written it in the third person so I guess having a go in the first person might make it more immediate?

I think there are a few potential problems going on here, so I’ll look at them separately, but you might find in the end that it’s a combination of things that might work.

Act One problems
In a traditional three-act storytelling structure, which is what most commercial fiction uses, Act One is the (usually brief) set-up section, where you establish things like setting, the main character, and their underlying issues. This is what you say you’re doing in your first chapter. But since Act One is about setting up, rather than getting the story moving, it can be a little boring. That’s why many narratives actually start with the inciting event, plunging us straight into conflict and filling in all the Act One stuff as they move forward.

It might be as simple as skipping ahead in your story and starting at the moment of the inciting event. Or, less drastically, by cutting your Act One down to a couple of paragraphs, half a page to a page max. It’s worth a try, anyway.

However, sometimes you do need an Act One, to orient your reader. I began the draft of THE SUMMER OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY with the inciting event, and my editor thought I was too quick off the bat. She wanted a little time to establish who the heroine was before she started living dangerously. Unfortunately, my heroine, like yours, was in a rut—and ruts are boring.

So how did I create an Act One without (I hope) being boring? I used humour and voice, for one. That can help pull a reader in. I also gave my heroine a quirk or two—not annoying ones, just little things that make her unique. I tried to make the rut itself actually a little bit interesting—you could do that yourself with your heroine’s job. Also, I made sure that I wove in some conflict from the first line, showing that my heroine is bored with her rut, and establishing within a page that her best friend was emigrating.

First person might help, too, as you suggest. Can’t hurt to try; maybe using first person would add things like humour, voice, conflict, and interest that I mention above.

Passive heroine
Your other problem could be that the inciting event here forces your heroine into a passive role. Her boss is taking the project off of her and she can’t do anything about it, at least not at first. Passive heroines aren’t as interesting as active heroines.

What can you do to make Grace active in her own problems? Maybe you can start with her making a mistake, which leads to her boss taking away the project? This would tie in with her own fear of failure, too, giving us a good strong sense of her inner conflict and raising the stakes.

You can probably think of other ways to make her active in this situation, too.

The other conflicting factor could be that I introduce the secondary heroine, Izzy, in this scene too. Izzy, is very young (19), vibrant and with a lot to learn. Still living at home, her motivation is to become independent. My idea is that as the story evolves both heroine and secondary heroine will learn from each other; Grace will learn from Izzy that it’s okay to make mistakes, to go wrong, so long as you can put it right – essentially Izzy will help Grace become less ‘mousy’. Perhaps I should leave her out and just concentrate on the inciting event to start with – get the reader hooked?

It’s always a danger with a ‘mousy’ heroine that she’ll be overshadowed by a more vibrant secondary, and it sounds like that might be happening here. You might be right to trust your instincts and save Izzy for a little bit later in the book, when your reader is already on Grace’s side, and when they can see her for what you mean her to be—the heroine’s foil and a way each of them can learn. Or, you might find that trying one or more of the suggestions above makes Grace interesting enough so that she can compete with Izzy for the reader’s attention.

In GETTING AWAY WITH IT, there was a very good reason why I didn’t introduce spiky, sarcastic, difficult heroine Liza at the same time as her sweet, considerate, sunny twin sister Lee. I wanted my reader on Liza’s side before we see her much nicer twin.

I’m wrestling with an issue very like yours, Lisa, with my current WIP. My heroine, Fern, is super-nice. She’ll do anything for anybody, and while that’s one of her strengths, it’s also one of her weaknesses. I need to start my story showing this trait and conflict—which means that I need to start with a) Fern being put upon (ie passive) and b) Fern helping one of her friends, whose situation is necessarily more dramatic and therefore interesting than Fern’s.

I’m trying various ways of solving this problem, most of which I’ve mentioned above, though I’m not 100% sure I’ve cracked it yet.

Anyway, does anyone else have any other ideas of how to solve the dilemma of the boring heroine?






Filed under: The Summer of Living Dangerously, writing

You would think that coming up with a title for your book would be an easy thing for an author. After all, the author is the one who’s lived with the story for a year or so, who knows every word and every character. I write down the themes and journey and key bits of symbolism/imagery for each of my books, so I know that, too.

How hard can it be?

Well, actually it can be pretty damn hard. Turns out I’m not all that much a whiz at titles. Let’s see…I’ve sold 14 books now, and I’ve kept my own titles with five of them.

When I was writing for Mills & Boon, that wasn’t surprising. Nobody, or hardly anybody, chooses their own titles for M&B novels. The titles have a style and keywords of their own and that style and those keywords are seemingly set in stone by the marketing people—at least until they change their mind. This is one reason why, as a reader, you shouldn’t be put off by these titles like The Billionaire Sheikh Cowboy’s Secret Baby Marriage of Convenience of Revenge, because underneath that horror of a title there is most likely a really good, exciting, touching story with hardly any sheikhs or revenge in it, and which was probably originally titled Ouch! Get Away From Me With That Thing!

Or similar.

Anyway, as I said, I’m not so good with titles really. The provisional title for one of my M&Bs was Remarkably Penetrative Sperm, and I persisted in calling another book Who’s Your Daddy? until my agent renamed it One Night Stand. The title that is widely agreed to be my best one to date, Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom, was mine but it was originally a joke, a working title that I would not have believed I would be allowed to keep in a million years.

Now that I’m writing for a mainstream imprint, the title selection process for the past two books has gone something like this.

1. I come up with a working title. The working title for my next paperback was, at first, THE WATERLOO SUMMER, which I liked and my agent also liked but we both agreed that it wasn’t much of a title for this type of book, especially when I changed the date of much of the imaginary action to 1814, when the battle of Waterloo hadn’t even happened yet. So I changed the working title to THE REBIRTH OF MISS ALICE WOODSTOCK, which was a line from the novel.

2. I submit the novel and my agent and my editor both tell me the title is bad. The novel then becomes called UNTITLED. (My novels spend a lot of time being called UNTITLED.)

3. All of us—me, agent, and editor and also assorted helpful people at my publishers—start brainstorming new titles. These titles need to fit the book, sound snappy and appealing to the target audience, and not have been used very recently by anyone else. It has to look good on a book cover, too. We come up with lists and lists. Lots of them are rubbish (you can guess who usually comes up with the rubbish ones) and some of them are actually quite good. When we get a good one, we share it with each other and if someone doesn’t like it, we scrap it and start again. It turns out, it’s actually quite difficult to please three people with the same title. This can be frustrating, but the thing is, that my agent and my editor really know their stuff, unlike me, so I trust them implicitly and know that eventually, it’ll happen. This process can take months.

4. At some magic moment, someone (ie a person who is not me) will come up with a title that makes all of us cry, “That’s it!”

5. This happy time immediately becomes a nail-biting time whilst you wait to find out if the shiny new title will be approved by the editorial team, and then by the sales and marketing team. If not, you’re back to the drawing board.

6. If everyone likes it, then you have a title! Hooray!!

Having been through this entire process, I can now very happily confirm that the title of my next novel will be THE SUMMER OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY.

Nice, isn’t it?





interesting little things

Filed under: research, writing

I’ve mentioned earlier that I’m in the middle of doing copy edits for my next novel, and I’m enjoying being really picky about my work. One of the joys of copy-editing this particular novel is that in it, the characters are historical interpreters in a stately home that’s re-creating the summer of 1814. So although the story is set in the present, the characters spend a lot of time talking and dressing like characters in a Regency novel.

This was, as you can imagine, fantastically fun to write; it was like writing a Regency romp but with a sort of knowingness to it, in that all of the characters are actually modern and are just pretending. It meant that I needed to know more about modern perceptions of Regency customs, than the actual Regency customs themselves (if that makes sense). I needed to mention the little things that actual Regency people would take for granted, but that 21st-century people pretending to be Regency people would notice. Such as knickers, or lack thereof. Or what it feels like to wear a corset when you’re used to a bra. Or how difficult it is to embroider.

Anyway, because of this, today I’ve been researching various bits of 1814 minutiae. For example, mourning periods and when one can go into half-mourning for a parent, or marry after the death of a sister. The permissible colour schemes for a hall, saloon and drawing room. The weather in the summer of 1814. Slang for “exhausted” or “beautiful”. Who would be introduced first in a room full of people of equal rank. And the precise amount of minutes one can stand still at the end of the set during “The Duke of Kent Waltz”.

One of the great parts of research like this, is that I actually know people who know the answers to these questions, or know where I can find them. People in the Romantic Novelists’ Association are hugely knowledgeable, and I’ve also met people through my research who can help me—historians, interpreters, re-enactors, dancers, costume experts. As a writer, it’s invaluable to have kind, helpful people in your corner. And I love being able to email people out of the blue and ask them about historical knickers.

Have you learned anything interesting lately?






Filed under: writing

May the Fourth Be With You!

When I was a teacher, my students always used to groan when I did that joke. But I didn’t care. Bad jokes are part of the metaphorical grease that makes the school days go more quickly and happily. And I knew that my persistence was justified when one 4th May I forgot to crack the joke, and one of my students chirped up, “Happy Star Wars Day Miss Cohen!”

See? I did teach them something after all.

I’m feeling quite happy and justified at the moment. I’m halfway through doing the copy edits for this book (which may even have a title, quite soon—keep your fingers crossed!) and I’ve discovered that I really, really like it. I’m laughing and crying, sometimes at the same time. I’m falling in love with both of the heroes. I’m cheering for my heroine. All whilst crossing out commas.

It’s difficult to read your own work like a reader, and this is the first time I’ve done it with this book. And it might sound quite immodest to say that I like my own novel. But it’s true, and I think it’s important. While I’m writing the damn thing, I have quite a few moments where I hate it, and swear at it, and feel like it will never be any good. It’s all worth it if, at the end, I can look at the big stack of paper, words and ideas I’ve created and think, “Yeah. I’m proud of that. It was a lot of hard work, but I created something that I like.”

You’ve got to stop and pat yourself on the back every now and then in this business. Not too often, but once in a while.





copy edits

Filed under: writing

I’m going through copy edits on my next novel. Writing is hard, but copy edits are fun. I love being intensely picky and looking at things at a word level, checking inconsistencies (like my having named both a person and a cat Maggie), and crossing out commas and repetition. And using a red pen. I never get to use a red pen any more, now that I’m not teaching. There is something quite satisfying about using a red pen.

God, though, but I’m comma-happy when I write. There are so many commas in this book! And so many of them are not necessary. I think I was taught to put a lot more commas in my writing than strictly needed. As a result they bloom on the page like dandelions. (Or should that be—”As a result, they bloom on the page like dandelions”?)

Anyway. I think it’s fun to sit on your bed in a patch of sunshine, going through a thick manuscript and correcting errors. This may make me a freak, but I do not care. I also haven’t seen these characters since March, so it’s nice to meet up with them again.

Back to work.





writers’ block

Filed under: writing

Rose asked me on Facebook if I’d do a post about writers’ block.

I’ve never actually had proper writers’ block, so I don’t know whether I’m a good person to talk about it. Or that is, I rarely get writers’ block for more than a few days, and as I know it won’t last long, I’m not usually consumed by fear, worry and paranoia about it. (Not to say I’m not fearful, worried and paranoid…but not a whole lot more than I am the rest of the time on a daily basis.) So this post is from my own perspective, and it’s just about what makes me not able to write for a little bit. For me, it usually comes down to one of three reasons.

1) I don’t know where I’m going with the book I’m writing, or I don’t know how to start a new one.

This has happened with every book I’ve written, sometimes several times per book. I’ll be writing away and writing away, thinking it’s all fine, and then suddenly—SCREECH. The whole thing shudders to a halt, and I realise I’ve been going in the wrong direction for ages without realising it. Or I’ll write and write, and then cut and cut, and realise that I’m trying to do the wrong thing. Or everything will be going fine, and then I’ll stop, because there’s a big brick wall of not-knowing in front of me. I don’t know my characters, or my plot, or my purpose.

This isn’t a block, though; it’s an obstacle, and I’ve learned it’s a vital part of my process. It’s time to stop and think. I’ll ring one of my long-suffering critique partners to brainstorm. Or I’ll start getting out index cards and Post-Its and start plotting different ways that the story might go. Or I’ll do my sure-fire trick of listing everything I can think of. Or I’ll get out the character books, or the craft books, and read about how it’s meant to be done.

This usually gets me fired up and enthusiastic, once I’ve discovered the solution. And then I start writing again.

2) The Fear.

The Fear comes in many guises. Here are some of them:
Fear of Failure: “If I finish this book, it’s bound not to be as good as I want it to be; nobody will want it and I’ll fail.”
Fear of Success: “If I finish this book and somebody does want it, I’ll be put on the spot and open to even more criticism.”
Fear of What’s Inside Me: “This book has some themes that are really close to home and painful, and I don’t think I want to explore them right now.”
Fear of What’s Out There: “I’m going to offend or hurt my mother/my spouse/my kids/most of the universe with ths book and everyone will hate me.”
Fear of Hard Work: “This book looks like an insurmountable mountain and I’d really just as soon watch Judge Judy.”
Fear of Facing Up to Your Own Inadequacy: “Who am I joking? I can’t do this. I suck and there’s no point.”

With The Fear, I’ve found you basically have to face it and understand it, and then do your best to put it aside. The practise of writing a crappy first discovery draft really helps me. I tell myself my first draft is just for me; nobody ever has to see its crap-ness, and therefore I have nothing to be afraid of.

It can also help to write something completely unrelated to The Big Thing That Really Matters To You. A diary. Letters. A short story. A poem. An outraged Letter to the Editor.

Sometimes, though, you’re not ready to face The Fear, and that might be at the following time:

3) There are just more important things to be doing in my life than writing right now.

(And by this, I don’t mean Judge Judy or the ironing. I mean important things, things that are more important than your job, because writing is your job, or at least one of them, right?)

Sometimes, in a crisis, writing helps. It can offer escape, something you can control. Sometimes, writing doesn’t help at all and it’s just another thing to beat yourself up about. Sometimes, you need not to write. You need to take time out to deal with your real life. Or maybe you just need some time to rest and feel what you feel, instead of what your characters feel.

When that happens, I’ve found it’s best just to listen to the block. Let yourself live, rather than write.

Anyway, these are the reasons I’ve been blocked, but as I say, I don’t have a lot of experience, because my technique is usually to carry on typing any old kind of rubbish, in the full knowledge that I will delete it later.

What have you found that blocks you? How do you get out of it?

(Thank you, Rose!)


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