Monday, 28 December 2015

Dull Cinderella: the problems of a not-very-interesting protagonist

Ho on earth do you make Cinderella interesting?
Oh, Cinderella. How dull you are.

I mean it. Not in an unpleasant way, but as a statement of fact. You work your fingers to the bone in the house, cooking, washing, cleaning. If you have any time off — and let’s face it, you rarely do — you don’t go out and meet anyone interesting, or indulge in hobbies, or have an adventure. You sit by the fire, staring into its glowing heart, too tired even to put together a plan of escape. How did anyone ever write your story? Or more to the point, why did anyone ever want to read it?

These days we need interesting characters. We need action and excitement from the first page. We need a hook to get the reader in, because people keep telling us that the paying public these days has a short attention span and won’t waste time of a slow run-in. And where’s the hook in some plain child doing the dusting and then sitting down by the fire? 

I’m so familiar with Cinderella that I’d never really thought about this before. That was until I found myself writing a version on the theme for myself. It’s the third book in my Lake Garda series. Giorgia, my heroine, is not quite Cinderella in the sense that she’s a very wealthy young woman indeed, but she is tied into a life of drudgery, albeit one she thinks she’s chosen. Since she was old enough to wait at tables she’s worked in the family hotel which she will one day inherit.

Now, thanks to a combination of circumstances which developed earlier in the series, she finds herself, at the tender age of twenty-two, running the hotel almost single-handedly. Her brother is leaving. Her father is heading for a breakdown. There’s no-one else to help her. She has no life, no friends. When she has time off she’s too exhausted to do anything with it. Poor little rich girl. 

How very, very dull. How very unreadable. 

Reader, how on earth do I hook you into Giorgia’s story? 

These days I venture that we wouldn’t be telling fairy stories the way they’re traditionally told, from once upon a time to happily ever after. We’d be getting in right in at the action. Maybe we’d start Cinderella with the appearance of the Fairy Godmother, or perhaps even on the stroke of midnight as she tears herself away from the arms of the handsome prince. (Why is she doing that? What has she got to hide? Who is this mysterious girl whose name no-one knows and who has taken the ball by storm?)

I don’t know that I can take that approach with Giorgia, because the book is the third in a series and the previous two have begun at the beginning and ended at the end, without any complicated flashbacks or time-hopping. It remains a problem, on that I think will take me some time to solve. But I’m onto it, and at least it’ll give me something to occupy my thoughts over the festive season. Though any suggestions would be welcome. 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Sense of Place: A Salzburg Sunrise

I’ve gone on at great length in the past about the importance of location in fiction and I daresay I’ll do so again. But sometimes — just sometimes — you come across a writer who so obviously loves a place so much the just can’t help writing about it. 

I picked up Liz Ringrose’s Favourite Things on a Kindle promotion a while ago. (That’s how I find a lot of new authors, whose book I then go on to pay full price for, and quite a few whose other books I’ll never buy, but that’s another blog post.) Favourite Things is a novella set in around a Sound of Music tour in the Austrian city of Salzburg. It’s a light, fun read, thoroughly enjoyable and cleverly written, keeping the reader (well, me at least) guessing until the very end. 

Somehow, through a mutual friend in Australia if I remember correctly, Liz and I become friends on Facebook and that was how I first found out about her next book, A Salzburg Sunrise. I bought it straight away but, life being what it is, I only just got round to reading it. Loved it, of course, as i knew I would. Liz writes so fluently that it’s a pleasure to read her work.

A Salzburg Sunrise is different, longer and more complex, the story of a young woman rebuilding her life after her husband leaves her for another woman. Natalie visits Salzburg and it’s there that she eventually chooses to rebuild her life. But cutting herself off from her family proves almost as difficult as learning to trust again. And there’s a family secret to uncover, too…

Natalie loves Salzburg. And you know what? It’s pretty clear that Liz loves it, too. Her description — not just of the city’s centre and sights, but the suburbs where Natalie finds both a home and new friends and the surrounding areas where she uncovers the truth about her grandmother are vividly drawn. So are the characters. Nathalie’s emotional fragility is balanced by her determination to start again; fun-loving American Connor and sympathetic widower Leo are believable and — even when they make the inevitable mistakes — likeable. 

And Liz kept me guessing. That’s an art. Even after Nathalie had chosen the right man, even after she’d uncovered the family secret, there was a twist in the tale of her fraught relationship with her mother and the breakup with errant husband Adam. Perhaps there were too many twists and turns in Natalie’s growing relationship (I won’t say who with or I’ll spoil the first part of the book), too many predictable misunderstandings which one or other protagonist really  ought to have sorted out. That’s a minor gripe, if it’s a gripe at all. I loved the book and can’t wait to rejoin Liz in Salzburg in the pages of her next one.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A thin line between hero and villain

Macbeth - a villain who could have been a hero
I’m musing on villainy this week — always the most interesting aspect to work with. Think Holmes’ Moriarty. Think Captain Hook. Think Bill Sykes or Flashman or Voldemort or (Shakespeare’s version of) Richard III. Take your pick. Some of them are truly evil and some are undeniably attractive. Some of them could make a case for being a hero, too and some heroes come very close to stepping over the hero-villain line. 

For the writer there’s nothing like a good villain, and I like to think I’m working with a potential cracker right now. Eden is tall, broad-shouldered and ruggedly handsome. He’s more than a bit of a rebel, yet he’s a leader. He’s all man, yet, when it suits him, he dares to show his feminine side. He’s highly principled and his courage is legendary. Women are drawn to him by his charm and his attentions. So I was (I think) highly flattered when one of my writing buddies, coming across him for the first time, sighed and shook her head. ‘What an utter bastard!’ she said. ‘I can’t understand why Bronte’ (the heroine) ‘could ever fall for him.’

In fairness, Bronte isn’t quite such a wuss as that makes her sound, because at the opening of the book Eden is her ex-boyfriend and she'd got rid of him sharpish as soon as she realised that all of his considerable qualities are completely negated by his inability to stick to one woman at a time or, indeed, to really care about any of the women he dates. But like most villains he won’t go away.

I was struck when writing the book by the fact that the line between a hero and a villain is very fine indeed. Marcus, my hero, has many of Eden’s qualities, though a little less so in some cases. He’s equally handsome and equally courageous, almost as principled, though perhaps he lacks some of our villain’s legendary charm. 

What he has that makes him a hero is what Eden completely lacks. Empathy. Eden is driven entirely by self-interest: his principles are so strong that everyone around him must be subject to them. No-one is important enough to persuade him to change his attitude or to do something that deviates in any way from his plan. And it ends — of course it ends — in tears.

It occurred to Marcus, as he looked at her and saw the desolation in her face, not just of abandonment and betrayal but also of pain and fear, that the secret of Eden’s strength was not, after all, in his bravery but in his inability to care for others. You might not question his commitment but you couldn’t ascribe it to courage. As long as no threat came to himself then he wouldn’t be dissuaded by anything that happened to anyone else.”

Do you prefer a truly villainous villain? Or would you rather have one tormented by light and shade? And out of all literature, who’s your favourite?

Monday, 7 December 2015

A Sense of Place: The Ecology of Lonesomeness

There’s something almost luxurious about a book set in a place you know, especially one you know and love. David O’Brien’s The Ecology of Lonesomeness is set in one of my favourite places in the whole world, the area around Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. It begins with the hero, Kaleb, going to the chip shop in the village of Fort Augustus, which frustrated me intensely, because everybody knows that the best chips actually come from the pub on the corner.

Never mind: this is a book chat, not a tourist information post. But the point stands — David knows his area, even if his taste in chips leaves something to be desired. As a reader, location is important to me. I need to feel where I am and I need to understand it. Okay, I know the area; but even if I didn’t I’m pretty sure I would have been able to see it and feel it, smell the pine woods and hear the birds and the wind in the trees. 

Enough of the setting: to the plot (forgive me if I’m vague but I’m trying to talk about it without giving you the dreaded spoiler). Kaleb is an American biologist researching what we geeks would call the carrying capacity of Loch Ness, in an effort to prove beyond all doubt that the loch is incapable of supporting a monster. He meets Jessie, a local lass, who works in the chip shop and the two fall in love (despite the rather old-fashioned opposition of her parents). 

Loch Ness
Jessie has a secret and, almost inevitably, Kaleb’s research leads him closer to it than she’s comfortable with, leaving them both with difficult choices. It’s a rollicking read, though I’m a delicate flower and for me there was a bit too much (unnecessary) swearing. There was quite a lot of sex in it too, and although I’m no prude I did find that it got in the way of the plot. Sorry, David — I skipped some of those scenes, but you can take it as a compliment because I was more interested in what happened next than in who was putting what where back at the caravan. 

I’m coming back to the location, though, because scene-setting is important, to me at any rate. I enjoyed the plot, the characters were real and the setting is beautifully done. For the most part it’s accurate, too, although I’m pretty certain that there are some bits David made up to suit himself (unless I don’t know the old place as well as I thought). That doesn’t matter: the whole thing is entirely convincing and the setting is the perfect frame for the plot.  

David O’Brien is a fellow author at Tirgearr and he and I chatted a bit on social media before the book came out, so it’s absolutely no exaggeration to say that I was desperate for the book to appear on my Kindle so I could read it. And reader: I wasn’t disappointed. Have a look and see what you think.

Friday, 4 December 2015

An awfully brief adventure

In an earlier blog post I detailed my decision to try self-publishing. I didn’t come to it lightly, though motivated less by a fear of failure than by a phobia of formatting. I foresaw a whole series of blog posts on my trials and travails. And do you know what? The book (if I may presume to call it that) is available on Amazon. So what have I learned?

It’s as easy as falling off a log

Well, almost. From the moment I decided to embark on this self-publishing adventure to the book going live was less than 48 hours. From the moment I sat down in seriousness to do it (excluding the faffing about and panicking and watching YouTube videos) to the moment at which I pressed ‘publish’ was less than an afternoon.

Either the formatting is very straightforward or else I’m more skilled than I thought

Formatting is common sense. Almost two decades ago I did a couple of courses in Word, and although Word has changed almost beyond recognition in that time, the fundamentals still apply. There really is nothing to worry about. I never even read the book I downloaded to guide me through the process.

The most difficult part is the admin

This did take time, and the peak moments of panic. I’m still not sure I got it exactly right in terms of setting up the tax information and complying with the US regulations, reading through all the legalese and ticking (I hope) the right boxes. I filled it in to the best of my knowledge and ability. I hope that’s enough.

Doing it properly will require more effort

This was an experiment. I didn’t revise the short stories and I didn’t pay for a proofreader or a cover. The results? A few errors but not as many as I thought, and a cover that’s okay and original to a degree (my own photo with standard formatting) but nothing special. To self-publish seriously will require a lot more effort on that front and a cost, too. There are decisions to be made there about how much to invest.

And finally…

The last lesson I learned is one I know well and should have applied a long time ago. As with so much else in life, so it is with self-publishing: there’s nothing to fear but fear itself.

You can download it from the Kindle store here

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Thinking about books: Going Against Type

I never did like star systems. How do they work? If you give a book five stars it has to be perfect, right? So if there’s one tiny thing that irritates you, do you have to take off a star?

Sorry, I’m a bit niggly in the wake of my worst-ever review, marked down (heavily) for a couple of things I did deliberately in book 1 to allow for plot development in book 2. Writing’s a long road and bad reviews are the potholes in it. In fairness the criticism was constructive so I won’t complain. You live and learn.

After that, I needed a laugh and I found it in Sharon Black’s Going Against Type. It’s clever, it’s witty and it’s beautifully written. Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Regan is a sports reporter, sole woman in an office full of men. Derry Cullinane is a fashion journalist, sole man in an office full of women. Skilfully set up to begin with, the pace escalates as their relationship develops in real life while, professionally, they engage in a raging weekly row through their (anonymous) columns in their respective newspapers. 

There are no real plot twists but the book doesn't need them. It’s inevitable that they’re going to find out at some point that they’ve been abusing each other in print and the skill is in the writing — in setting up their meetings and balancing that against their professional fallouts. When will they find out? What will happen when they do? And it doesn’t disappoint. I loved the Dublin setting, I revelled in the writing and I even fell a little bit in love with the hero. That doesn’t happen often.

I had a couple of niggles, because no book is perfect. I thought there were too many minor characters flitting in and out, most of them not actually moving the plot on at all; and I’m not entirely sure the dilemma between their personal relationship and professional vendetta was satisfactorily resolved, but maybe that’s because I was so keen to find out what happened that I read on long after I was too tired to concentrate.  

If I gave stars I would have given this five, so Sharon Black can be quietly annoyed with me for cheating her of that, though I suspect (I haven’t checked) that she’ll have plenty of 5* reviews already. Lucky her.

You can find Going Against Type on the Tirgearr Publishing website. You can also find A Portrait of my Love there, to see if you really think it deserves just 2.5 stars. 

Bitter? Moi? Never.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Can't resist a challenge

I’ve never thought of myself as a self-starter. I know strange things happen as you get older but I really didn’t see this one coming. Perhaps I should have done, because I don’t like mysteries and I don’t like not being able to do things that ought to be fairly simple. (Or, as my mother might have said, I can’t resist tinkering with things I don’t understand.)

I never saw myself as a self-publisher, either, because why would I? I love my real-life proper publisher (winks towards Tirgearr). But just as I made myself do a quite unnecessarily complicated statistical exercise as part of my Masters thesis, I suddenly realised that I wanted to self-publish something. The same reason applies in both cases. I want to see if I can do it.

I see this as an ongoing process and I feel more than just a stand-alone blog post coming on the back of it. There’s so much to learn. I may have the raw material, in the shape of five rather old short stories with a broadly similar theme, but that’s all I’ve got. I don’t have formatting skills. I don’t have computer skills. I don’t know what to put in as the front matter or the back matter. The thought of producing a cover fills me with dread. I don’t, as yet, even have Word for Mac — although I do have a book and several YouTube videos. 

So let’s start at the very beginning, with the title. Quintet: Dark Tales With a Twist. How does that sound? Enticing? They’re a bit of a departure from my usual: two love stories, two war stories and a couple of hauntings (yes, one fits into two categories). How does that grab you?

All of them began life as prompts from a writing class I used to belong to. I’ve a whole mine of material (another blog post in the making, there) some of which found its way to publication in women’s magazines and one of which even led to my first novel — not that you’d recognise anything of it in the original 500 words. 

I haven’t edited them, other than taking out the extraneous spaces. That’s not to say they don’t need editing but I rather like the idea of preserving a style and a voice from a few years ago. They all share a twist, quite unlike the usual romantic approach with its yearning for a happy ending. I only managed to rustle up one even potential happy-ever-after between the five of them. But they’re different from my normal output and I think I benefit from the reminder that I can write the dark stuff too.

Theres nothing to link to yet, of course, but I might just tease you with a taster. As I settle down, grim-faced, to read my manual, I have a sense it might be a while before you get to read the rest.

She’s dead. I saw it in the paper. And now I’m somewhere I’ve never been before: I’m in Hell. 

You’d never think it to look at me. Every day I stand in front of the large mirror in my Harley Street consulting rooms, checking that there’s nothing out of place, noting that I’m looking sleek and prosperous — Savile Row suit, silk tie, exactly the right amount of matching handkerchief in the top pocket. I’m your perfect therapist, your instant best friend. You trust me, because you have to — because I know everything there is to know about you. As I did about her.

Now she’s dead.”

From Emily Garlock’s Nightmare

Monday, 23 November 2015

Whack-a-mole on social media

Reviewing and book promotion have become a bit like a game of whack-a-mole these days. As soon as you find something that works, it changes.

I’m not just talking about markets, either: I’m talking about platforms. Facebook allows people to create groups with the prime purpose of authors promoting their book and then deletes posts from authors who promote too heavily (whatever that means). Amazon, in a well-intentioned but heavy-handed attempt to crack down on the (real) problem of fake reviews, is taking down reviews from people who know each other. 

I get where Amazon, at least, is coming from, but it doesn’t address a key problem for a lot of authors. We tend to be friends with a lot of other authors and read their books. Our author friends read our books because they are part of a shared interest. We have shared interests because that’s what friends do. And we review each other’s books because there’s a value to reviews. This is not the same as paid-for reviews or, indeed, review swaps.

I keep intending to write reviews and one of the excuses I make to myself is that I don’t want the ones I write deleted because I’ve overstepped an invisible -- and constantly-shifting -- line. I say excuse because it could be that I’m just lazy. So I’ve come up with a solution - I’ll review books here, on my blog. Maybe deep down I always thought I would — the clue’s in the name of the blog!

It’s not a book review blog. It’s a blog where I might occasionally discuss books (and talk about them in the same breath as my own, because it’s my blog and I can). I won’t do review swaps. I’ll only review books I buy, and like. I won’t be tied down by a star rating. And if I want to review books by my friends and fellow authors, because they’re my friends and fellow authors, then that’s what I’ll do. 

There are no obligations and nothing in it for me. I don’t even have ads on my blog. If anyone wants to read it, share it, link to it, it’s up to them. But I’m tired of endlessly chasing my social media tail. I just want to read and discuss books, from time to time.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Introducing the Lake Garda series...

I’m getting to feel like an old hand at publication days. The excitement still mounts but the sense of panic that came wit the first book (What if it doesn’t actually publish? What if there’s a technical problem? What if nobody likes it? Worst of all, what if my kids read it?) is missing. (And in any case, misplaced — my children still haven’t read it, or any of the others.)

Today is publication day for my fourth book; and it’s a departure from the previous three, all of which were stand-alone. (I do confess to a continuing niggle from book two, No Time Like Now, where Tim and Megan’s relationship still has some way to go before the happy for now turns into a happy ever after.) A Portrait of my Love is the first in a series — the Lake Garda series.

It tells the story of Skye Ashton and her adventures on an Italian holiday with her wealthy friend Leona in the lakeside resort of Sirmione (blurb below so I won’t reproduce it here). I originally intended it as a standalone novel, just like the first three, but I wasn’t far into it before I realised that just wouldn’t happen. Although Skye’s story is self-contained, the subplot, involving Leona, is left unresolved. 

I knew early on that I’d have to tell the story of Leona and her beau, Nico, who ended the first book on very bad terms indeed. As soon as I had Portrait drafted out I plotted the sequel — so soon after that I almost wrote the two together (which was a good thing, because I ended up going back and changing several things, such as introducing a couple of characters who would come in later). When I had the two done in draft form I polished up Portrait and sent it off and went back to the second (Going Back).

At that point it became apparent that another of the onlookers in the first two, Nico’s downtrodden younger sister Giorgia, was itching to break free of her Cinderella existence and likely to do so very unsuitably indeed. So I plotted her story as well. Couldn’t help it. Some stories have to be told.

At the time of going to press, as they say, A Portrait of my Love is ready to drop in to your kindle. I’ve signed a contract for Going Back but as yet have no publication date. And Giorgia’s story, so far untitled, is in its first set of heavy revisions. If you buy Portrait, I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you care enough about the characters to want to read the rest. 

A Portrait of my Love

"Terrified of commitment, Skye Ashton ditches her artist boyfriend, Zack, and disappears off to Italy with her best friend, the fascinating and fabulously wealthy Leona Castellano. When Zack turns up, Skye realises how much she really cares for him. But she has a fight on her hands, because Leona has taken an instant fancy to him, and she’s used to getting what she wants.
When Leona sets out to uncover the true story behind an old family feud, she puts herself in danger, and Zack finds himself drawn into an attempt to save her.

Will his intervention in Leona’s life lead to him losing Skye, the girl he really loves?"

Buy it here


Sunday, 8 November 2015

Silencing your inner editor

No guarantee of quality...
You hear a lot about the inner editor these days. 

For those of you who don’t know, your inner editor is the voice in a writer’s head — a kind of literary conscience, if you like — that won’t let you get away with things that are wrong. (Yes; I know some people have a more highly-developed inner editor than others.) Mine is a pain. Sometimes when I’m writing I hear her whispering. Is there something missing there. Or: Do you think that’s too much backstory too soon? Sometimes she gets very shirty and raps my knuckles. Cliche alert! Or: Repetition! Or (on very bad days): Stop right there!

Your inner editor fulfils a very valuable function in keeping you on the rails but she (or he) isn’t always your best friend. Sometimes she can be persistent, niggly and downright off-putting. Nothing’s ever good enough for her. That’s when she can be your worst enemy. But there are ways to deal with her.

It’s National Novel Writing Month right now, when writers all over the world challenge themselves to write a draft of a novel of at least 50,000 words during November. This is a lot, if you’re writing with the IE sitting on your shoulder like an angel with a fixation on perfection. 

NaNoWriMo is one of the best ways of shutting her up. Its emphasis on numbers is perfect for the target-driven (like me). You can jump straight in and get on with the story. If you come to a difficult scene you can skip it, or skimp it, or just make notes. If you suddenly realise you need a new character who should have been introduced earlier, you just write them in and worry about how to introduce them later. Ditto the character you’ve already introduced but no longer need. Don’t bother with them any more. Keep writing and worry about them later. 

The important thing is to get to the end, and quickly. To do that, you can’t afford to listen to the inner editor, because you don’t have time. Which is hard, because she does know what’s right. T

The struggle I had to subdue mine was long and deadly, so much so that you won’t see her again until the police come to dig up the patio. 

I love NaNo, purely because to gives me permission to be bad (in writing terms, of course). I’ve made all the mistakes she nags me about and some she wouldn’t dream I’d ever make. My characters appear in impossible places given where they were five minutes before. They scream, they cry, they shout, they make rash decisions. They change their hair and eye colours and are painfully inconsistent in their thinking and their speech. My story, riddled with factual inaccuracies, starts in the wrong place, sags in the middle and comes to a shuddering and abrupt end.

But it’s done. And now I need to sort the plot. And the characters. And the stylistic howlers. And the inconsistencies… Pity I did away with the only one who could help me. 

Wanted, one inner editor. Must have at least nine lives.

Monday, 12 October 2015

A monument is worth a thousand words

Love him or hate him? Doesn't matter - he's a character
This is a tale of two characters, a hero and a villain.

Not that long ago, I was down in London doing the tourist bit and visiting one of my favourite places, Westminster Abbey. I come away with a different thought every time I visit and this time was no exception. This time I was struck by a tale of two politicians. Forgive me if they seem a little obscure but they are old friends from my A level history. I’ll tell you a little about them. 

George Canning and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Contemporaries, born less than a year apart in 1769 and 1770 respectively. Castlereagh was a scion of the aristocracy and Canning, according to Wikipedia (yes, I know) was “the son of an actress and a failed businessman and lawyer”. Both spent almost three decades in the high offices of state,with Castlereagh reaching the dizzy heights of Foreign Secretary and Canning equalling and exceeding that by becoming Chancellor and, eventually Prime Minister.

It’s fair to say that, though colleagues, they didn’t get on. Canning refused a cabinet post because he didn’t wish to serve in the same government as Castlereagh — probably wise, because at one stage when they were both were serving in the cabinet their enmity became so bitter that they fought a duel at dawn on Hampstead Heath. (The aristocratic Castlereagh wounded the novice Canning, who had never fired a gun before). 

Both men have their monuments just inside the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Canning’s caught my eye, so much so that I had to write down what his contemporaries thought of him. He was, I noted down on the back of the business card that was all I had to write on “endowed with a rare combination of talents, an eminent statement, an accomplished scholar, an orator surpassed by none…he united the most brilliant and lofty qualities of the mind with earnest affections of the heart.” And then I ran out of space on the card.

His predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, stands opposite him. His epitaph is as cold as the stone from which it’s carved. I didn’t write it down but it was quite short and went something like this: “History will record that he reached the highest offices of state.”


If you know anything about Castlereagh, it’s probably the cruel little rhyme that circulated about him during his lifetime: “I met murder on the way/he had a face like Castlereagh”. Or perhaps you know Byron’s jaw-droppingly scathing: “Here lie the bones of Castlereagh/Stop, traveller, and piss.”

Ouch again.

Castlereagh, his mental health deteriorating, eventually took his own life while Canning went on to become the shortest-serving PM the country has ever had, dying of a fever in 1827 having succeeded in alienating seven cabinet members and 40 other members of the government. I’m not quite sure how that ties with what’s on his monument. Perhaps he had the better spin doctor?

I think I feel a novel coming on…