The Tricky Question of Backstory

Challenging my views of writing!

Challenging my views of writing!

Following on from yesterday’s request for advice and opinion, I need to ask about back-story. It’s the bane of my life, and Class Act is littered with it. Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes was, too, in the early drafts, and I solved the problem by starting the novel six months earlier.

That will work to some extent for Class Act, (lovely – another massive re-write! 🙂 ) but there are two incidents in the female protagonist Rebecca’s early life that impact on her current personality, and I don’t know how to integrate them. At present they’re written as flashbacks. Shudder. Unfortunately I actually like how they’re written so it’s easy to become attached to the scenes rather than put them in the bin where they should be.

The problem is I get defensive of my characters and want to explain why they have the flaws they do. But how much detail is necessary or desirable, and when should it be revealed? In The Radleys, by Matt Haig, the back story is cleverly integrated and is also overlaid with the character’s perception, so you start out with a half truth that colours your view of a character’s actions, and that view evolves and changes towards the climax of the novel. Masterful stuff. I’m pretty certain I’m not skilled enough just yet to pull it off without getting in a muddle.

The other problem is defining the novel’s inciting incident. Really, both bits of backstory are. Or the moment where the lead protagonists meet, which is where the novel currently opens. Baby Blues originally started with when the love interests meet, too, and after the rewrite that scene ended up a third of the way through the book. I like it, because you get to know the characters first, but then it blows wide open what the first turning point should be. We make decisions every day which, with hindsight, turn out to be inciting incidents. The job we take,   or the bus we catch that breaks down or gets blown up.

Incidentally, Jami Gold has a great post on the importance of getting these elements or ‘beats’ right in a novel and how defining them isn’t always straightforward! See Why Story Structure Matters. Unfortunately, even with her helpful Beat Sheets, getting the right elements into a story at the right time is (for me) the hardest part of writing.

So, right now my options are revelation through phone conversations with a friend (tricky), adding a prologue (generally advised against), or vague hints that might be missed or misunderstood. It was much easier with Claire in Two-Hundred Steps Home, as she didn’t really have a back story that mattered!

What are your views? Any great examples of how inciting incidents in childhood or early adulthood have been successfully integrated into a story? How much do you need/like to relive past experiences that have influenced a character? When do you need to know the details? Do you need to already care about a character, or do they help you care? Sometimes it feels like I’ve forgotten how to write a novel!

Time Slipping Away: 2013 365 Challenge #356

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Cobh Cathedral West Side by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

I must apologise to regular Claire followers if this month’s installments are a bit jumpy and disjointed (and longer than usual!) I’ve never been much good at writing to a word count, and my darling characters do have a habit of wandering off on their own.

I always knew it couldn’t be a month of real time writing, with only a day covered by each installment, because I needed Claire to get to the end of her three month assignment by the end of book twelve. Having only covered four or five months since the beginning of the year, it was always going to be a tricky ask.

Then Claire had so much fun with her nephews in volume eleven that not enough time passed, and now I’m having to dip in on the story to make sure it doesn’t all drag on into the New Year. It’s only meant to be a 365 day challenge, not 400. Still, there are so many things I want to write about. The B&B she stays in with Conor in Ireland. The hotel in Plymouth. Her adventures with the Brownies in Exmoor. I still know everything she’s doing, most of the places she is going to. Does it feel rushed? If so, I’m really sorry.

I’ve caught myself out a couple of times, too, by speeding through – for example moving Claire on to meet Maggie before Conor had a chance to invite her to the christening – and it’s frustrating not to be able to change it. But I’ve always had a rule that, aside from typos, I won’t go back and edit a post once it’s live. What you read is what gets published every month.

I’m trying to pace it, to keep it authentic, to tie up all the loose ends. Ah but it’s hard! Especially as I’m full of cold and writing anything is taking twice as long as normal. I can barely remember my kids’ names, never mind how many siblings I might have given Conor earlier in the story. Ploughing back through 275k words, even with a search function, is time consuming to say the least.

So this is an apology. To Jane and Angela and anyone else reading along as I furiously scribble out an ending amidst wrapping paper and snotty tissues. If it isn’t the ending you hoped for, and deserve, I’m sorry. I hope there will be a sequel. This is only the start of a new life for Claire. And maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll find time to turn Claire’s story into what I believe it has the potential to be.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire felt the ground shift beneath her feet as Conor led her towards the church.

No, not church; cathedral. Nothing that big can be called a church.

She looked up at the spire stretching towards the clear blue sky, with the water and hills as a backdrop behind it. Painted buildings lined the streets, their colours vibrant in the afternoon sunshine. All around them, people in suits and smart dresses streamed towards the building. Claire looked down at the outfit she’d found in a charity shop the day before, and grimaced.

What is the point of the boxes of gorgeous clothes I’ve got sitting in storage, if they’re not accessible when I need them?

She’d thought about driving home to find a suitable outfit, but part of her didn’t want Conor to think she was making too much effort, and part of her didn’t want to give her mother another excuse for an ear-bashing.

The flight over to Ireland with Conor had been short and uneventful. The last time she’d flown with anyone, it had been to go skiing with Michael, and the memories jarred in her mind. Conor was the opposite of Michael. He seemed to enjoy the flight; looking out the window, paying attention to the safety demonstration, chatting to the people sitting around them. He had none of the air of jaded traveller that Michael had. She guessed Conor hadn’t been around the world much, although he didn’t talk about life before moving to Swanage.

The inside of the cathedral was equally overwhelming. Claire stared up at the ceiling that seemed to reach the heavens, then down at the Celtic patterns dancing across the floor. All around, the soft Irish lilt of a hundred voices filled the air like the sound of waves on a pebbly shore.

She leaned in to Conor and whispered, “These aren’t all family are they?”

“Oh no, would you imagine? No there’ll be three or four babies getting their heads wet today, plus the normal mass service.” Conor laughed as she pulled a face. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep you from snoring. Come and meet my brothers and sisters.”

As he led her deep into the building he added, “And don’t let them wind you up. They’re full of stories; most of which aren’t true.”

Something in his tone made her shiver. She pulled her shawl around her shoulders and trotted after him.

*

Time moved like treacle as Claire tried to follow the service. When Conor stood to take his part as Godparent it felt like someone had opened a door and let in an icy draft.

One of his numerous relations gave her an encouraging smile but it only served to remind her she still had the ordeal of the party afterwards to endure.

At last they were back out in the sunshine with kisses and laughter, greetings and photographs. They walked en-masse to a nearby hall that was laid out with buffet and dance floor. It was clear the party was intended to last well into the evening. Conor stood with his fingers laced through hers, as he responded to hails and answered questions in a broad Irish brogue she hadn’t heard since he’d tried to charm her mother.

Conor seemed to be able to morph from role to role without conscious effort and she wondered if even he knew who the real man was underneath. Feeling like a child on her first day at school, she hovered behind his shoulder and aimed for invisible.

She found it hard to follow the conversations, as hurried words flew over her head like a flock of startled starlings, impossible to grasp. After a while she went to find a plate of food and a chair and took her phone out to take pictures. A young woman in a two-piece navy suit came to sit beside her and Claire searched her brain for a name.

The woman took pity on her. “Laura. I’m Conor’s youngest sister. It’s so lovely to meet you. We were all surprised when he said he was bringing a date. You know, after–”

She stopped and seemed to realise she’d been indiscreet by the look of bewilderment on Claire’s face.

“After what?” Claire prompted.

Hesitant, but encouraged by Claire’s nodding, Laura said, “Well, you know, after his wife left him and went to America.”

She seemed to take Claire’s wide-eyed expression as interest, as she continued to talk, learning in towards Claire. “Everyone said they married too young. Not that I remember; I was only a child. They said she was only interested in being a director’s wife so when he refused to join the Board she found someone new.”

The room span around Claire as if she were drunk. It was worse than some lurid romance. The questions tumbled one over another and her face felt numb. She saw Laura look up guiltily and followed her gaze. Conor stood in front of them, but he didn’t look angry.

Reading his expression, Claire realised it was the whole reason they were there. Unable to tell her about his past himself, he’d let his baby sister do it. With her cheeks flaming and her hands in fists she stalked past him and left the room.

*

Claire sat in the dark hotel bar with her head in her hands. The ringing in her ears muffled all sound. In her mind she pictured a young Conor, hand in hand with a faceless beauty, wandering happily down the streets of Cobh. She found if she focussed on it, she couldn’t feel him sitting next to her, trying to explain: couldn’t hear his cherished voice trying to find justification where there wasn’t any.

“I’m sorry,” she heard him say for the fifth time, and ignored it with all the rest.

“It was stupid of me.”

When she didn’t respond he said in a louder voice, “Please, Claire, at least talk to me. Yes I was married, but it’s not important, it’s ancient history

“Then why not tell me yourself?” she hissed, conscious of the other people in twos and threes around them. The double gin she’d downed on arrival slurred her words and she regretted the need to drink it. It was hard enough figuring through the mess without muddled senses.

“What is it with you blokes and your secrets?” She spat, running her hands through her hair.

“Claire, I’m not a saint, I have a past, just as you do.”

“I’ve never been married.”

“What if you had? Would that change you as a person? There were no children.” He stopped and Claire wondered if that was a lie. She gave him a penetrating stare and he ducked his head. His words were mumbled but she heard them as if they’d been yelled.

“She said she was pregnant when she left, but that she lost the baby. We were divorced inside a year of signing the register.”

A baby, too.

The world lurched sideways. She tried to hold on to something. “You loved her,” she said, hearing the truth in his voice. “Laura pretty much said you’d been pining ever since.”

“Yes I loved her.” He emphasised the past tense. “And, no, I didn’t find anyone I liked half as much, or anyone I dared trust, until I met you.”

Claire thought of her doubts, of Maggie’s job proposal, and realised she had her own secrets. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. Now wasn’t the time to discuss it, but it did make her recall something else Laura had said. “And the Company? That you didn’t want to be a Director for?”

“The family business. Mum and Dad always hoped I’d take it on but it’s not my thing. I prefer something on a more personal level. A bit like you decided, when you turned down the counter proposal from AJC.”

“How did you know about that?” Claire glared at him, feeling wrong-footed by the revelation.

“Carl put something snide in the email when he sent your reference.” He looked at her as if to say, we all have secrets.

“That hardly compares,” she said, turning away from his green eyes.

“I didn’t say it did.” He sighed. “Please don’t be mad. I’m sorry; I made a mistake in not telling you myself. I just didn’t want anything to come up later that might break us. I couldn’t go through that again.”

She looked into his eyes, shining turquoise in the gloom, and felt the sincerity in his words. Reaching a decision, she took his hand. No more secrets.

“I might have a job in Cornwall after I finish your assignment. Nothing certain, but as we’re being honest, you probably should know.”

The pain welled in his eyes, turning green to black.

***

Getting into the 80s Groove: 2013 365 Challenge #353

Can't beat the 80s rock vibe

Can’t beat the 80s rock vibe

To get in the mood to write today’s Claire installment, I listened to some 80s covers by a band called Ashes to Ashes (which, incidentally, were playing at a pub in Plymouth on 17th August, the day Claire and Conor visited. Isn’t that handy and isn’t the internet amazing?) You can listen to their cover songs here.

I don’t normally listen to music while I’m writing. I often read blogs and articles about authors and the soundtracks to their books: the songs they listened to while writing or to get them in the right frame of mind or mood. I find music distracting and only use it to drown out even more distracting noises (the neighbour’s barking dogs or the kids screaming downstairs.) I have a playlist that I know so well it’s like white noise. Or I play Ludovico Einaudi, which makes soothing background music.

Today, though, bopping to Walk Like An Egyptian really helped me imagine that I was standing with Claire in the cobbled square listening to a live band, rather than sitting on a sofa next to a snoring dog, feeling bunged up and poorly, and irritated after a morning of Christmas chaos (forgetting to take broken toy back to the shop when I collected the new one, so having to buy a second one instead. Sigh.)

What I found interesting, though, was realising I have no idea what kind of music Claire would choose to listen to. I don’t tend to create fully formed, three-dimensional characters in a first draft. I like to get to know my characters as I write, just as a reader does. I know it breaks all the writing rules – the standard view is you should know everything and anything about your characters, from their date of birth, background and schooling to favourite colour and first boyfriend. I’m lucky if I know their age and surname by the end of a book.

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Writing to an 80s groove with Ashes to Ashes

Maybe it’s lazy writing. Characters are often based on an element of me to begin with, so when they make decisions I kind of know what they’re going to do. As the novel grows they separate from me and become themselves, but I know no more about their history than I do about the mummies I see every day at school pick up. We chat, we get on, we share anecdotes and agonies, but I don’t know if they like Megadeth or Mozart.

When I’ve finished a first draft I compile a character template, listing all the things I have learnt about my protagonists through our journey together, and I add in a few more to make the stories more three-dimensional.

Of course, with Two-Hundred Steps Home, I’ve had to fill the template out as I go along, to try and maintain consistency and authenticity. I’ve made a few mistakes – Robert’s children are a bit old, Kim’s character has wobbled a bit (to me anyway) and I haven’t yet decided how many siblings Conor has (which I need to know soon). I know that Claire went to a private school and did an Arts degree, but I don’t know when she had her first kiss or whether she reads chick lit or sci fi.

I would be interested to know if any readers, who didn’t know about the challenge when they started reading THSH, have noticed the lack of depth, or have discovered any inconsistencies. As for whether Conor or Claire would like 80s music (or if Robert would have listened to it in his teens) that’s another question entirely. As my taste in music stopped in the mid-90s, if she likes twenty-first century music I’m afraid she’s on her own!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire held Conor’s hand tightly as he led her down the street towards the noise. To their right, three huge stained glass windows loomed in the gathering darkness, reflecting the street light. They passed a café, where people sat at tables outside, trying to talk over the racket from further down the road. Ahead Claire saw the crest of the magistrates’ court, and wondered exactly where Conor was taking them.

They’d met in Plymouth for lunch and Conor had asked if he could choose their evening entertainment, saying with a twinkle, “I’ve let you try and drown me in the surf and walk my feet off on the cliffs. It’s my turn to introduce you to my thing.”

Worried by the glint in his eyes, Claire had reluctantly agreed. Now, as her ears protested against the battering of loud music and shouting voices, she wished she’d pressed him for details.

“What do you think?” he yelled, over the wail of an electric guitar. “A great craic, yes?”

Claire stumbled slightly, as the tarmac turned into cobbles, and grabbed Conor for support. He wrapped his arm around her and looked down, as if gauging her reaction. Sensing something was required, she tried to process the scene before her. A bar was just visible in the corner of the street, its black arched windows obscured by milling bodies. Next to the bar were the steps to the magistrates’ court, and on top – using the entrance as a kind of stage – was a band. Every other square inch of available space was packed in with bodies.

Feeling as if she was standing beneath a waterfall, Claire leant in to Conor and concentrated on breathing. Six months ago this would have been a normal night out. But months on the road, often with only the stars for company, had erased the memories from her mind. The music travelled up through the cobbles and into her feet, vibrating through her body like she was a gong.

“Sorry,” Conor said into her ear, “I shouldn’t have brought you. We can go if you like.”

Claire looked up eagerly, ready to assent, and caught the disappointment in his expression. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek, then said, “Don’t be silly. It looks great.” She was about to ask for a gin and tonic when she noticed the mobile bar near the impromptu stage. “Mine’s a pint of Guinness.”

Her words were rewarded with a wide grin. He turned towards the bar, pulling her along behind him through the press of people. Claire tried to work out what music it was, as she responded to the pressure on her arm to stop and move as the crowd dictated. Conor dropped her hand to get to the bar, and she backed up against a railing to avoid getting crushed.

Slowly, as her ears tuned into the music, she realised she knew the tune: a cover of an ’80s rock song. Around her, people jumped in time to the beat and she felt her own feet responding. It wasn’t really her era, but Robert had gone through a phase in his teens, and she recognised the songs.

Sensing movement out the corner of her eye, she saw Conor returning with two pints of black liquid. Accepting hers, and wondering when she’d last drunk from a pint glass, Claire stood by Conor’s side and watched the band.

The music wormed in deep. The riffs were basic, the vocals a reasonable mimic of the original, and the crowd extremely enthusiastic.

When did I last go to a gig? Apart from in that bar in Swanage, when I bumped into Conor?

She and Kim had gone a few times when they were younger, but her adult life had been more about wine bars and restaurants, with the occasional venture to the theatre. So much more passive than watching a live band, dancing and singing along. She looked over at Conor and saw that he was watching her rather than the stage. She felt self-conscious, as if she were eighteen again. He leaned forwards to kiss her. Her tummy squirmed and the years fell away.

*

As they walked back to their hotel, fingers entwined, Conor looked down at Claire and laughed. “The look on your face when we turned the corner was priceless.”

Claire dropped her head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be a grouch. I’m out of practice.”

“You looked like you found your groove, bopping with the best. Very sexy.” He stopped near a shop window and pulled her close. “I know we like different things, you and I,” he said in a low, husky voice. “But don’t let that convince you we have nothing in common.”

A shiver ran across Claire’s skin, despite the warm evening. It felt like he’d crept into her mind and read the deepest secrets. The gig had worried her, made her wonder how they would spend their time together, wonder what kind of a future they could have. She realised she didn’t even know how a relationship functioned, away from the routine of working week and playtime weekends.

Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face because Conor brushed his hand across her cheek. “Don’t overthink it. You’ve spent a lot of time on your own, finding your place in the world. You and I; we work. Don’t try and figure out why, or you’ll go nuts. Just trust that it’s true.”

He leant forwards and kissed her gently. Her mind resisted and she told it to shut up. Lacing her arms behind his head, she surrendered to the kiss.

***

Stuck in a Writing Cul-de-sac: 2013 365 Challenge #287

I've lost my way..

I’ve lost my way..

Argghh! I’ve written myself into a cul-de-sac with Two-Hundred Steps Home and I can’t think of a way out. It seemed such a great idea to have Kim travel with Claire around Cornwall. It’s easier to write dialogue and keep scenes moving when Claire isn’t by herself. But, having experienced depression myself, I know for certain it doesn’t make for happy times for those around me.

I’m not sure how many more posts I can write with Claire and Kim both feeling rotten. But, if I were to suddenly have them carefree friends again, that wouldn’t be authentic.

I can’t send Kim home to Jeff because the new Claire wouldn’t do that. I’m also a little tired of researching a new town every day and having Claire visit it. I need a better story line than that; one that allows Claire to continue to develop as a person. She’s come a long way from the shallow, materialistic person she was back in volume one. But she still needs to find her dream and make a sacrifice to pursue it. I just don’t know what that is yet.

This is the first time I’ve really, truly been stuck with the daily novel. I don’t tend to write myself into cul-de-sacs in my first drafts, as I spend time (usually while walking the dog!) thinking things through to make sure they make sense. While I do move chapters around and develop themes further in second drafts, I don’t change the overall story that much.

The scene outside my house!

The scene outside my house!

Unfortunately, having now reached 218,000 words, Two-Hundred Steps Home has gone long beyond my usual story line format. And, wham, I find myself at my first dead end. If it was possible, as part of the challenge I’ve set myself, I’d go back a few episodes and either leave Kim behind or maybe not have her attempt suicide. But it’s happened now, and Kim, Claire and I all have to get on with it. As Claire said yesterday, one foot forward.

Update: I’ve had a great chat with hubbie about the rest of Two-Hundred Steps Home and I have a plan! Sometimes it’s great to bounce ideas off other people and get a fresh perspective. It was strange, as hubbie kept trying to come up with endings for Claire that weren’t true to her character or her journey and it made me realise I know her better as a character than I thought I did. But it does demonstrate that, no matter how isolated you can become as a writer, two heads are always better than one. I hope you like my three-point-turn out of the cul-de-sac!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Hi, Jeff, it’s Claire.” She looked over at the sleeping form on the bed behind her, and lowered her voice. “Is it okay to talk?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I’m worried about Kim. I don’t think she was ready for this trip.” Claire hesitated, then rushed on. “Or me, for that matter. I’m not exactly a bundle of joy these days, and I think we’re bringing each other down. I don’t know what to do”

She heard Jeff suck air in through his teeth. “What do you want me to do? I’m back at work this week. I don’t think the boss will appreciate me taking any more time off.”

The curtness of Jeff’s tone surprised Claire. She’d always envied Kim for finding a man both handsome and understanding.

“What about her parents; could she stay back home for a while?”

Jeff’ let out a bark of derision. “She’d relapse for sure if she stayed with her mum for more than five minutes in her current state. Even at the hospital her constant fussing got on Kim’s nerves. You know what she’s like.”

Claire frowned, trying to match Jeff’s words with what she knew of Kim’s mother. When they were growing up, she’d always wanted a mother like Kim’s. Her own mother had shown little concern for anything Claire did, provided it had no impact on her, while Kim’s mum had watched over Kim’s every move. Was it fussing, or was it just being a caring mother?

“I don’t know, Jeff. I think Kim probably needs someone to fuss over her. Make sure she’s taking her tablets and eating, that kind of thing. Someone who won’t fall out with her if she fights back or mopes.” She thought guiltily about her outburst earlier in the day. She couldn’t imagine Kim’s mother saying anything so harsh.

Jeff’s sigh echoed down the phone. “Why are you ringing me then? Take her to her mother’s, if she’ll go.”

Claire wanted to ask Jeff what his problem was. He was a different man from the one she’d spoken to at the hospital.

Maybe he’s just had a bad day at work. This has all got to be pretty tough on him, too. A few months ago they were a normal carefree couple. Now they’re married and his wife is suffering from depression.

Forcing a lightness into her voice that she didn’t feel, Claire said, “Sorry, Jeff. I should have thought of calling her mother first. I’ll send you a text to let you know what we decide.”

As she hung up the phone, Claire hoped Jeff wasn’t having second thoughts about his new wife.

*

“I don’t want to go to my mother’s. She’ll fuss around me every five minutes. You should have seen her at the hospital.” Kim pouted.

“Yes, that’s what Jeff said, but– ”

“You called Jeff?” Kim’s face grew darker.

“I wanted to pick his brains, that’s all.”

“I don’t want you all talking about me behind my back, like I’m a child.”

Claire took a deep breath. “We’re just worried about you, darling, that’s all. I don’t think a road trip is the right thing for you at the moment. It’s tough, moving on every day. Lord knows I’m sick of it, and it’s my job.”

“Doesn’t seem like a hard job to me.” Kim folded her arms and glared at Claire.

Forcing herself to remain calm, Claire went to sit on the bed next to Kim. “You’ve only done one day, and we’re in a B&B. Some of the hostels aren’t particularly soothing places to be, especially if you’re sharing a room with some noisy blokes or chattering girls. You’re mum’s place is lovely and peaceful and I’m sure if you ask her to give you some space, she will.”

Kim stared at the floral pattern on the carpet and Claire forced herself to be silent. After a long pause, Kim sighed. “I guess you’re right. At least Mum won’t try to get rid of me.”

“I’m not trying to get rid of you, silly! I just want you to get better so we can go have some fun.” She held her breath, worried Kim would resent the idea that she needed to get better.

Eventually Kim unfolded her arms and put one around Claire’s waist. “Me, too.” She laid her head against Claire’s shoulder. “Promise me we’ll go on a girly holiday, somewhere hot, just you and me? When I’m better.”

Claire smiled for the first time that day, and returned her friend’s embrace.

“You’re on.”

***

The Never-ending Edit: 2013 365 Challenge #241

Paper flowers (Mummy to the rescue!)

Paper flowers (Mummy to the rescue!)

Today is my daughter’s last day at nursery. A sad day for me, an exciting day for her.

We spent yesterday shopping for flowers for her nursery staff, writing cards and making tags. Little man wanted to get involved, so – after some frantic searching of the craft drawers and a few tears – we also made paper flowers for his key-workers, as he moves rooms now he’s nearly three.

Today also marks my last full nursery day, ever! Readers of this blog will know I view this with fear: I like my eight-hour days twice a week to have some head space and get my writing done.

Knowing this is the last one, I want to make it a productive one. Of course it won’t be. What I really wanted to do was finally to put Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes to bed. Hmmm not sure that’s ever going to happen.

Flowers and tags

Flowers and tags

In my two hours of preschool time yesterday, I finally finished going through the proof reader’s amends on the Baby Blues manuscript. Hurrah! you might think. Except it wasn’t. Because I’ve realised why you normally have an editor and then a proofreader go through your manuscript.

My lovely proofreader, Sarah Nisbet, actually did more of a light edit than just a check for grammar and spelling errors. As a result I ended up rewriting scenes. Which leads to more potential errors.

I happily loaded the new manuscript to Smashwords just as I was about to collect the children from preschool, only to immediately spot two typos. Given how tired I’ve been for most of August I’m sure there are plenty more. So now I have to read it through again and try to spot mistakes, which is fiendishly hard in your own work! I’m also scared to read the book through again, as I’ll want to change more and more things. I know this isn’t the best book ever written and, following on from the free book debate, I feel like I’m letting down every other self-published author if I publish a book that isn’t outstanding.

I long for the day when I can afford a structural edit, a final edit and a proof read, though I can’t see when it’s coming.

Shopping for flowers

Shopping for flowers

The general view on the cheap and free book debate was that it goes hand in hand with the poorly-edited mistake-ridden books of the self published author and how both are potentially career ending. Maybe I should have published under a pseudonym, thus giving myself the option of a fresh start should it all go wrong.

In the meantime I’m seriously considering having the book converted to an audio book so I can at least save my eyes when I run through it again. Has anyone ever done that? I’d be interested to hear your views. I have so many books I want to read right now, mine just isn’t one of them. I know how it ends for a start!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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All around was chaos. Children screamed, parents shouted and still the ship rocked. Claire dug her fingers into the arm rests and concentrated on not vomiting. She sensed Bethan looking round, calmly assessing the situation, trying to ascertain what was going on. A tiny part of Claire’s mind envied the girl’s calm, while the rest was grateful for it. At least one of them could stay together in a crisis.

Eventually Bethan got up and went to peer out of the window, gripping onto chairs for support as the boat pitched around like a fairground ride. Claire closed her eyes and waited for her new friend to return. When she felt a touch on her arm she jumped, and Bethan’s squeal made them both laugh.

“Sorry, you scared me,” Claire said through gritted teeth. “What’s happening?”

“We’re in Picton, as far as I can tell, but we haven’t docked. It looks like we might have hit the wharf. They’re scurrying around out there like rats.”

Claire glanced around the ferry. “Not much difference in here.”

She stopped talking as a voice came over the loud-speaker. Straining to hear the words above the hubbub, Claire groaned as they sunk into her foggy brain.

“We apologise for the delay. We are unable to dock due to some damaged sustained to the docking equipment. Please remain seated and we will keep you updated.”

Dropping her head back against the seat, Claire heaved out a sigh.

Great.

*

Two hours passed, and then three. The same announcement came across the tannoy, asking them to remain calm, informing them that every effort was being made to allow them to disembark. The children around them had mostly fallen asleep, or were plugged into iPods and tablets. Claire was surprised no one was handing out free drinks or food, not that she could have eaten anything. Despite its lack of forward motion, the ferry still rolled around until Claire had forgotten what it meant to be still.

When the tannoy crackled into life again, Claire barely heard the words, until one stood out.

“… Wellington. Once more we sincerely apologise for the inconvenience.”

The cabin erupted. All around her, adults began talking, gesturing, demanding to see a manager. People talked of missed appointments and events. The children, sensing adventure, came to life, adding their yells and screams to the mayhem.

Claire turned to Bethan for more information and saw the girl grinning. Is she ever bothered by anything?

“Why is everyone so upset?” Claire stretched, conscious of just how long she had sat in the same chair, without food or drink. “Aren’t we getting off? I need to pee.”

“No, we’re not getting off.” Bethan laughed, quietly, drawing frowns from the passengers around her. “We’re going back to Wellington.”

***

Rainy Day Play: 2013 365 Challenge #213

Painting with feet. I said "feet" only!

Painting with feet. I said “feet” only!

Today I had the chance to remember what it is like to have two preschoolers requiring entertainment because of the weather.

They went to preschool this morning for a few hours (shorter than usual because it’s the school holidays) so I started formatting Dragon Wraiths for print. I’ve already done most of the front cover, but I think I need to put the brakes on because – if I’m going to ask people to spend all that extra to get a printed version (even though my profit will be much less) – the book needs to be in tip-top condition. Which means finding the money to have my proofreader go over it.

I got Baby Blues back from her today and I’m too scared to open the document. From the sample I’ve seen already, I have quite a lot of work to do! I know it took longer than she expected, so I anticipate her fee may increase significantly for the next one! 🙂

Bob the builder jacket as apron

Bob the builder jacket as apron

So, after potentially wasting several hours wrestling with Word Styles (a hangover from when Dragon Wraiths was written in multiple fonts) I had two hyped-up children and no energy.

We were meant to go and see the new calves at Sacrewell Farm, but I was still wearing a skirt, despite a change in the weather, and couldn’t quite face it. So I bribed them home with promises of baking and indoor painting with feet.

Big mistake, big, huge. With a thunderstorm lingering and humidity at 80% all I wanted to do was sit still and keep calm, not run around after two whirling dervishes hell-bent on destruction!

I learned the importance of the little things, too. Like having a stock of aprons. Trying to find two aprons so we could do baking took half an hour and all my patience, including a tantrum from little man (one of MANY today) when I said “well, you just won’t do baking then” because he was refusing to wear an old t-shirt of my daughter’s instead. In the end he wore his Bob the Builder hi-vis jacket back-to-front.

Indoor painting with feet. I said feet!

Indoor painting with feet. I said feet!

Indoor painting nearly ended in disaster, too. Despite repeated instructions to “Only use your feet”, little man painted his entire body. Again. Only this time we were downstairs in my kitchen, far too far from the bath for comfort.

So, as I have done many times this summer, I filled the paddling pool with bubbles and carried them both bodily outside, uttering the immortal words, “At least it’s not raining.” Big mistake, big, huge. The heavens opened. I put the kid’s picnic table over the paddling pool while I got drenched scrubbing the rest of the paint off them (I’d post pictures but feel funny putting nude pictures on the blog, even with bubbles protecting their modesty.)

Today I have read stories, built mega-block bus stations and towns, assisted in the creation of an alien, baked cookies, facilitated large-scale craft, alfresco bathing and puddle jumping, cooked healthy meals and played painful games of snakes & ladders and hide & seek. My reward? Endless tantrums.

Look what the postman brought!

Look what the postman brought!

Why is it the more attention you give the children, the more they push you and push you, until you want to go back to ignoring them while you design a CreateSpace front cover?

Little man was on a mission today to force me to be that kind of parent who follows through on their threats (See discussion on post #211 with Scottishmomus). He refused his lunch and his tea, despite his sister getting sweets and home-baked cookies for her dessert. (To give him credit, after the initial ten minutes of screaming, he took it well.)

At every opportunity he pushed it until he had a time out or a reprimand or a simple, “then we’ll put the game away,” which always ended in a bout of screaming and tears.

Normally this behaviour results in beautiful behaviour from the other sibling. Mostly it did. My daughter delights in being the good child. But by bed time they were both at it, until I felt like Mother Gothel in Tangled: “You want me to be the bad guy? Now I’m the bad guy.”

Sigh. The amazing thing is, it still felt like a great day. Because I know I gave the kids my attention, and I do that far less than I should (can’t imagine why!). Whatever they took from the day, I’ll take a gold star and go to bed happy. Besides, they’re at nursery tomorrow! 😉

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire’s ears rang with a hum she heard through her skin rather than her senses. A background buzz, like white noise, that filled the cavernous space and turned the cacophony of voices into a dull roar. Airports always gave her a headache.

The plastic seat refused to provide any semblance of comfort, no matter how much she shifted. Eventually she stood and rested her shoulders against the wall. Time had lost meaning hours before, marked only by the intake of coffee and the necessary trips to the ladies’ room.

Against her will, Claire’s mind dredged over the events of the last twenty-four hours: a horror movie remembered in flashes despite the need to forget. Kim’s face held the strongest sway, filling Claire’s mind until she thought it must be imprinted on the inside of her eyelids.

She could still recall her own reaction: the blood draining from her brain, causing her to crumple. Jeff running to offer assistance and her shrill command that he go after his wife. Lying on the dew-damp grass, adding salty tears to the soil. If it hadn’t been for Sky, she’d probably still be lying there now. But Sky had woken when Jeff left her, and had called out in alarm, lost in the dark.

Funny how the cry of a child can bring you back from the deepest pit.

Claire remembered pushing against the ground with heavy limbs, stumbling to her niece and finding a voice in the desert in her throat. Somehow she had managed to get her niece home and to bed, before collapsing in exhaustion on her sister’s sofa. In the morning she’d smiled her goodbyes, driven the Skoda to her parents’ house and left it in the street without waking them. A taxi to the station, a train to the airport, and she had been here ever since. Waiting.

“Miss Carleton?”

Claire’s eyes snapped open and she peered through the fog to locate the source of the voice.

“Yes?”

“We think we have something. Please come over to the desk.”

Claire shouldered her rucksack and followed numbly, barely registering the young woman’s smart uniform. She was only conscious of the click-click of the woman’s heels, and followed the sound like a blind person.

“We think there might be a space on the next flight. It’s economy class, will that be sufficient?”

Claire nodded. She would have sat in the hold if that meant getting away from the white noise and the clattering thoughts in her brain.

“The flight changes at Singapore. You’ll have a six-hour stop-over, I’m afraid.”

Claire shrugged. Six hours was nothing. She’d spent twice that waiting already.

“Can I have your passport, please?”

A dart of alarm pierced the fog and, for a moment, Claire’s brain went clear. Then she remembered collecting the passport from her mother’s a fortnight before, the day after Kim’s wedding. Has it only been two weeks? Shaking away her disbelief, Claire retrieved the burgundy booklet from her handbag and slid it over the counter.

The woman told her the cost of the flight and asked for payment. Praying there was enough room on her credit card, Claire handed it over.

And then it was done.

“Your flight leaves in thirty minutes. I’ll need to take your bag now, so we can get it on board. Please proceed directly to the gate.”

After so much time waiting, the suddenness left Claire reeling. Her glacier-slow thoughts sped up, like a movie on fast forward, and she ran through the things she would need for the 30-hour journey. Grabbing her wash-bag, iPad, phone and clean underwear from the rucksack, she handed the rest to the helpful woman, and prayed she would see it again.

The button remained on fast forward as Claire scurried to her gate, clutching her boarding ticket and passport. The departure lounge was empty as she arrived, and the uniformed women at the desk ushered her through. Along a long tunnel and up and down stairs until she was aboard the plane that would be her home for the next twelve hours.

The hostess showed her to her seat. Claire’s heart sank as she saw her travelling companions; two hulking men either side of her middle seat, both with arms already spread over the arm rests. Beggars can’t be choosers. Hopefully I’ll sleep.

With apologies, Claire slid into her seat and fastened the belt. Only then did she allow herself to breathe. Her limbs began to shake, and she wondered if she might be sick. The plane felt hot and there didn’t seem to be any air. Claire fiddled with the air vent but nothing came out.

“They won’t turn it on until the plane is off the ground.”

Claire turned to face the man to her left. He smiled, white teeth shining from a dark face, and held out a hand.

“Name’s Darren. This your first time on a plane?”

Claire took the hand reluctantly, and shook her head. Not wanting to be rude, but equally not wanting to have a chatty companion for duration of the flight, Claire pulled out her iPad and opened a book. She felt the man hesitate, then went limp with relief as he turned back to his paper.

The tannoy reminded passengers to switch off their phones. Claire retrieved hers from her bag and noticed a text message. Her hands trembled as she opened it, hoping and dreading who it might be from. It was from her sister.

Mum’s noticed your car outside this morning, and wondered how long you’re leaving it there. Ruth.

Ignoring the glares and tutting sounds from the man to her right, Claire tapped out a quick reply.

Have gone away on a last minute business trip, will tell you more later. Tell Mum the car will be there for a couple of weeks, but I’ve posted the keys through her letter box so she’s free to move it. Talk soon. Claire.

She hit send, then turned off the phone and her iPad, as requested. Pulling the eye-mask out of the bag of freebies in the pocket in front of her, she blocked out the world and pretended to sleep.

***

Enlightenment: 2013 365 Challenge #206

A lightbulb moment

A lightbulb moment

I had a great discussion with a fellow author recently. We discussed, among other things, my inability to be mean to my characters. In response to my saying, “I actually have a huge capacity to imagine the worst that can happen, especially since having children, I just don’t like to write about it.”

Vozey said,

“Then, look at yourself. Sometimes it isn’t that we are being mean to our characters, than that we are reliving and remember things that are important and painful to us.”

This was a lightbulb moment for me. This was my (slightly edited) response – Most of my Chick Lit protagonists are a version of me, in one form or another. My YA novel, on the other hand, has a lead protagonist that is nothing like me (not intentionally, anyway!) and it was easier to have bad things happen, particularly the kind of things that a 16 year old might think bad (boyfriends, parents and stuff). I really want to try my hand at Middle Grade Fantasy fiction – I love reading it precisely because the bad things that happen are more external than internal.

He also gave me a great pep talk: “Doubt. I’m sure at several points you’ve thought you wouldn’t finish a novel. You did didn’t you? I know I think that sometimes, but I know that I will.”

I’m back where I was five years ago when I thought I’d never write a novel, and yet now I’ve completed two. I can learn to plot, and structure, and be mean. I maybe need to stop using me, and people from my own life, as base templates. Or maybe I do need to stick to YA and MG. I’ve just had to leave the lounge because the programme hubbie is watching got too violent, and still the images linger in my brain. Since having children my (already minimal) stomach for anything violent, mean or nasty is non-existent. Becoming a writer has in some ways made it worse: I can write different endings, people in the real world can’t.

I think, the more fertile the imagination – the more acute the empathy – the harder it is to live in reality! The world can be a tough place to live, I want to make it better, not worse! Perhaps I should learn how to write endearing children’s picture books instead…

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire stared at the email until the words blurred. Blinking fast, she checked it again. If this number isn’t set in stone, it means there could be even more on offer. The figure in Carl’s email was twice her current salary, with a bonus to make her eyes water, as and when she completed her tour of all the YHA hostels.

Speculation sprinted through Claire’s mind. This can’t be just because of writing a few blog posts. There must be something else going on.

With a few taps of the screen, Claire loaded up her blog stats. She hadn’t looked in a while, because the paltry figures were demoralising. The graph bore no resemblance to the one she had last viewed. The little bars built exponentially. The viewing figures for that day alone were in the thousands.

What the…?

Scrolling back, Claire tried to see which post had sparked the increase. It was impossible to make sense of the numbers on her tiny phone screen. Her heart fluttered like a new-born child, fast and shallow. Trying to jump down from the wall, the trembling in her legs gave a pre-warning before she collapsed into the sand. Sitting in a tangle of legs, Claire laughed until the tears ran down her cheeks.

What a mess. Why didn’t I check my stats before I resigned? She thought about it, as the chill of the sand seeped through her jeans. Would l have done it? Her eyes widened in horror. Does Carl think I only resigned to force his hand; to get more money?

She thought back to their conversation, when he had asked her why she was leaving, intimating that the lure of a fancy car had precipitated her resignation. All the mirth drained away, and she shuffled across the sand to lean her shoulders against the wall.

Her words came back to her, barely audible through the tinny sound of the amusement arcade music still playing behind her, only partially muffled by the wall. No man, no money, no shiny car or bigger office. Just an opportunity to make a difference; to be me. To live a little in the real world.

Claire shivered and pulled herself up, walking along the beach to the steps. This isn’t just a bigger car. This is a chance to save a significant amount of money, to fund my future. That amount of cash going into my account, while I live in hostels on expenses; that’s life changing. I could help Ruth, I could fulfil any dream, if I only stick it out for a year.

With a jolt Claire realised she didn’t have a dream. Aside from a vague interest in travel writing and an impulsive urge to visit the other side of the world, there was nothing in her future to pull her forward.

Walking blindly, Claire didn’t realise she was lost until the change in sound alerted her. The noise filling her ears was no longer the grating tone of the amusement arcade, but the mellow tones of a man singing, with the twang of an electric guitar.

Dragged from her reverie, Claire looked up and saw she was outside a pub. The sight reminded her of her intention to call Josh; that she’d only gone for a walk to kill time and to get something to eat. Carl’s phone call had driven the thought from her mind, and her gurgling tummy reminded her that she still hadn’t eaten.

Without hesitating to wonder whether going into a local pub alone was a good idea, Claire pushed through the door and found herself in a dim, cosy interior that smelt of sweat and beer. The low-ceilinged room felt crowded, but she was able to get to the bar without making eye contact with any of the punters. The entertainment was set up in a corner, and most eyes were focussed on the singer.

Shouting over the music, Claire asked if the pub served food. With a shake of his head, the barman indicated that crisps and pork scratchings were all he could offer. Cursing her stupidity, Claire ordered a gin & tonic and two bags of crisps. While the barman prepared her drink, she looked around to find an empty table. Her heart rose when she spied one in the corner, shielded from the live music.

Claire wove her way to the secluded corner, praying no one accosted her. When she reached her destination unmolested, her overwhelming sensation was surprise. Are people really polite in Swanage, or are they ignoring me because I’m not a local?

Glad of the anonymity and the loud music drowning out her troubled thoughts, Claire ate her meagre dinner and tried to formulate a plan. Was a dream essential, to enjoy life? She was pretty certain no-one she knew had a burning ambition to do anything more than pay the bills and buy the things that made working bearable. Now she thought about it, the fact struck her as sad. Aside from Ruth, who at least had Sky to focus on, the only person she knew with a dream was Kim, with her ambition to become a famous actress. As unlikely as it was, at least it was a tangible goal.

Thinking about Kim increased Claire’s sadness. She would see her friend in two days, but what kind of greeting would she get? Kim hadn’t answered any of her calls or messages since the wedding. She couldn’t believe their friendship was irrevocably broken, but it was starting to look that way.

If Josh’s wife forgave him for running away to the other side of the world, surely Kim can forgive me for revealing her secret to Michael? It wasn’t my fault he blurted it out to everyone.

All the elation from earlier seeped away, as Claire drained the last of her gin. She was still contemplating whether to drink another and drown her sorrows completely, when a familiar voice hailed her from near the door. With a start she looked up, unable at first to see who had recognised her in this backwater place.

Her searching gaze met a smiling pair of glass-green eyes, and her heart gave a lurch. Conor, that’s all I need. As if I haven’t got enough to think about. She was tempted to drop her head and ignore his hail, but knew it was too soon to burn any bridges. Tempting as Carl’s offer was, it wouldn’t hurt to keep the options open.

She raised her hand in greeting, and Conor threaded his way through the crowd to her table.

“Enjoying yourself? I told you Swanage was a great place.” He leant close, to allow his words to be heard over the music.

Claire inhaled the overpowering scent of his aftershave and leaned back slightly as the man filled her personal space.

“Can I get you another drink?” Conor nodded at her empty glass.

Claire didn’t want to stay; her mind was jumbled enough without being on friendly terms with the man who wanted to be her boss. Unable to think of an excuse without appearing rude, Claire nodded her head.

“Yes, please.”

As she watched him take her glass back to the bar, Claire fought an overwhelming urge to cry.

***

But, Therefore: 2013 365 Challenge #205

My Mammoth Research Session

My Mammoth Research Session

In my mammoth research session yesterday into plotting and planning, I came across this great article on Janice Hardy’s blog, The Other Side of the Story.

Janice shares the two tips on plotting that she wishes she had written, both to do with cause and effect. The first one particularly made an impact on me because it helped me identify what I know to be a weakness in my writing.

I don’t want to rewrite Janice’s whole article – she has written it far better than I ever could – but the essence is about how to know you are moving your story forward with every scene.

Summarising advice from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, she writes:

Every scene in your story is connected, and how you connect them will determine whether or not they’re moving the story or just showing stuff happening. If you can say “and then” between them, they’re not advancing the story. If you can say “but” or “therefore” then something happens that forces a conflict or a decision and the story advances.

This really brought home to me why Baby Blues lacks punch, particularly when compared to Dragon Wraiths. Because Dragon Wraiths is written in the first person, and starts In Media Res (albeit it with back-story in the form of diary entries), the scenes are linked far more with But and Therefore, rather than And Then.

12-year-old Leah does a lot of running away

12-year-old Leah does a lot of running away

For example, in the diary segments (where most of the action sits at the beginning), it is Leah’s 12th birthday. She wants art supplies, therefore her family take the car rather than the train to town, therefore their enemies are able to attack them on the way home. Her mother tells her to run and keep running, therefore Leah leaves her behind and runs, but she collapses from exhaustion. Her goal is thwarted by her weakness. Therefore she ends up in hospital, but she doesn’t tell anyone who she is, therefore she ends up in care, but her mother told her to keep running. The story progresses because of Leah’s decisions, or the machinations of her unseen enemies.

In Baby Blues, on the other hand, the scenes are much more ‘and then’. Helen hosts a dinner party, and then sleeps with her boyfriend, and then realises she’s late for a photography shoot. Or maybe that’s a ‘therefore’? She stays up late because of her duty to Daniel, therefore she is nearly late for a photography shoot. However she isn’t late, so there is no cause and effect. No conflict. If she had missed her photography shoot and her career had been blighted by it, her resentment of Daniel might have been greater and the first third of the novel have more punch and pace.

As you can see, it can be tricky to identify the ‘but’ and ‘therefore’ points. Janice offers some key things to remember with this technique:

  • When you’re identifying your but, make sure what happens is in conflict with the character’s goal or action.
  • When you’re identifying your therefore, make sure it’s a choice made in response to what has just happened
I want happy smiley protagonists, not conflict

I want happy smiley protagonists, not conflict

It all comes down to conflict. I hate inflicting conflict and pain. I actually find it painful to watch a TV show where a bad decision leads to people dying. I don’t sit on the edge of my seat, I rue the What If and wonder how the character (albeit a fictional one) lives with the guilt.

As a result my writing is pretty and descriptive and explores the inner character of protagonists, but it doesn’t speed along. Janice Hardy even has a post about it: Do you Suffer from NWS? Living with Nice Writer Syndrome. Er, yes, that would be me!

I’ve accepted that it is too tricky to change the way I’m writing Two Hundred Steps Home, as building in cause and effect every single day would probably stretch my ability to keep up with the story (unless I have England attacked by blood-sucking aliens. Now there’s an idea!).

But as I tackle Class Act, I will have this advice in mind. Time to get tough.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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“Claire? It’s Carl.”

Claire paused in her walk along the bay and perched on the stone wall, gazing out to sea. I knew I shouldn’t have answered the phone. After believing her boss was trying to force her out for months, it was hard not to be confused by his sudden terrier-like behaviour, now she had finally resigned.

“Have you had a chance to consider my offer?” Carl spoke into the silence.

“What offer?” Claire watched as a couple wandered along the sand, fingers entwined. Behind her the amusement arcades advertised their wares with raucous music and flashing lights. The air smelled of salt and candyfloss.

“I sent you an email.” Carl’s voice sliced through her reverie.

“I’ve been busy. Catching up on the blog and collating my notes together to pass to my replacement.”

Carl didn’t respond immediately, and the scream of hungry seagulls rent the still evening air. Claire envied them their freedom of expression.

When Carl spoke again, his tone was nonchalant. “I merely emailed you with a counter-offer, as is standard procedure when someone resigns in the middle of a critical project or contract negotiation.”

Claire wasn’t fooled by Carl’s insouciance. Sitting up straight, she narrowed her eyes and glared at the arm of fields stretching into the sea, as if embracing the bay.

“And are we? In the middle of contract negotiations? With whom? Happy Cola? The YHA? Both? That would have been rather pertinent to our conversation earlier this week, don’t you think?”

“So, you’ll reconsider?” Claire imagined his tail wagging furiously. “Both accounts are more than pleased with the early results of your social media activity. The YHA have seen a marked increase in bookings at the hostels you’ve written about and Happy Cola have cited a significant increase in the healthy associations of their brand in recent regional market research.”

He sounded like Sky explaining why she should be allowed ten minutes more on the iPad, or a second chocolate bar. Claire felt her cheeks twitching in a smile, while her head reeled with possibilities. Her fingers itched to load her email and discover exactly how big Carl’s counter-offer was. Not that it’s actually a counter-offer, unless I am offered the Purbeck role, but he doesn’t need to know that.

Claire was swept up in a tide of emotion. From being the outcast black sheep of the organisation, she belonged again. No more nasty challenges from Julia, or scrawled queries on her expenses forms. If she was the king pin securing two important deals, the world was her oyster.

Although a grin stretched her cheeks, Claire forced her voice low and doubtful. “I don’t know, I’ll have to think about it. The job here is a fantastic opportunity for me to make a difference.”

“Promise you’ll think it over? Look at the counter-offer. It’s not set in stone.”

Glee surged through Claire as she heard the panic in her boss’s voice. She could imagine the strain on his face as he rehearsed the conversation with the Board that centred on granting her a significant pay increase.

Blind to the beauty of the orange sun sliding across the sky, staining the sea blood-red, Claire said farewell to Carl and loaded up her emails.

***

Beat Sheets: 2013 365 Challenge #204

Coffee Shop Catastrophe

Coffee Shop Catastrophe

Apologies to anyone who received yesterday’s post without the Claire installment attached. Technical issues were to blame (combined with crawling to bed last night without finishing my Claire Installment).

On a Monday I often write the remaining part of my post in the coffee shop (because Sunday night is the hardest time to write). I have some of the post scheduled to go live if all else fails. This morning was the first time (I think) that it happened, only because the internet was down in coffee shop I chose to visit. I’ve learned my lesson! (I spent the morning wandering round town discovering which businesses have free WiFi!)

Today I have been looking at Beat Sheets and other planning tools. Following on from recent discussions about how hard it is to plan a novel if you’re a Pantser, I’ve been doing more internet research, specifically around planning romance novels (although most things seem to be quite generic). I came across the most amazing collection of resources on the website of an author of Paranormal fiction: Jami Gold. Jami has even written a post called A Pantser’s Guide to Beat Sheets. Perfect.

Even Pantsers can have structure!

Even Pantsers can have structure!

The thing I love about the post, and beat sheets, is that they can be used against a first draft, rather than (or as well as) for pre-planning, as a way to see how well the draft is structured. I spent this afternoon trying to map Baby Blues against Jami’s Romance Beat Sheet, with mixed results.

It would seem that (as suspected) my climax and ending fit the right pattern, but my opening third is way off beat. I also am not entirely sure what my inciting incident or first plot point is. I searched around some more to get a real definition of these, but haven’t reached a consensus of exactly what they are or where they should come in the novel.

I see my inciting incident as Helen finding out she’s pregnant and then leaving Daniel (apologies about spoilers!). In the Romance Beat Sheet, it suggests the inciting incident should involve both protagonists. Except Helen doesn’t even meet Marcio until a third of the way through the novel. One of my Beta readers did comment on this fact, but I admit I like the first third for setting Helen on her journey without it being about Marcio. Maybe it makes the book more Chick Lit than Romance (which is how I have categorised it anyway) or maybe it’s just plain wrong. Interestingly, both Baby Blues and Class Act originally started with the meeting between lead girl and lead boy, but I pulled the action back so that the backstory didn’t become overwhelming.

Pillow Talk by Freya North

I am looking forward to using beat sheets to rebuild Class Act and, had I had something similar before I rebuilt Baby Blues, I suspect it would be tighter. These things are all about learning. If I had used the sheets, though, would I have invented Sharni and given her so much air-time? She’s one of my favourite characters and I would hate to lose her.

I seem to recall that I was reading Pillow Talk, by Freya North, at the time of redrafting Baby Blues, and the structure of that novel may well have had an impact on me (as there are super-strong secondary characters and the love interest comes later). If it’s good enough for Freya North, then maybe it isn’t so bad!

What’s your view? Can you have a Romance/Chick Lit novel where the lovers don’t meet until a third of the novel has passed? Does it give you a chance to understand why they’re made for each other or would you have given up on the novel before that point? They say to write the novel you want to read, but that’s only going to work if others want to read it too!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 

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Claire closed her iPad and looked out the hostel window. In contrast to the dark wood furniture in the dim room, the view that beckoned sparkled in the late evening sunlight. In the distance the sea reflected the blue of the sky, in a deeper hue. Behind the strip of water, a long barrow of land jutted out into the ocean. Claire could just make out fields falling into the limestone cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. Her research informed her there were several pleasant walks up from the National Trust car park near the Bankes Arms pub in Studland. If the sun continued to shine in the morning, she knew where she would be.

So far, her impression of Swanage matched Conor’s description. The faded seaside town showed glimpses of its former glory, in the amusement arcades and the long wooden pier. Rather than Victorian ladies promenading along its length, Claire met only blue-rinse grannies out for their afternoon constitutional. As she had driven around looking for the youth hostel, she had seen more signs for retirement complexes than B&Bs.

It would be a tough ask to increase tourism here. She knew that Purbeck included other towns, but Swanage was the main seaside resort.

There’s also a nudist beach, but I can’t see Jason signing off tourism promoting that particular asset.

She tried to imagine living in the town for any length of time. If she had envisioned an end to her wanderings, this didn’t seem the natural place. No Waitrose, no Starbucks, so mainline train, nobody under fifty. It’s not really selling itself to me. Poole or Bournemouth were marginally better, as far as she could tell as she came through. At least Poole had Waitrose and a Starbucks, as well as being the home of the Sunseeker luxury yacht factory.

Not that I could afford one, even if I saved every penny they’d be paying me for a dozen years. Still, maybe I could hang out with the rich and famous at Sandbanks and hitch a lift.

Claire sighed and reached for her tea. One sip told her it was stone cold, and she replaced the mug with a bang on the dark wood table. Assuming Conor wasn’t exaggerating his ability to influence Jason, and I wouldn’t put it past him to do so, I will have a job offer to consider by the weekend. Two, if you include New Zealand. So why don’t I feel better?

She thought about the imminent trip back north to see Kim’s opening night. Butterflies reared in her stomach and she discovered at least one cause for her unease. It was more than fear of facing her erstwhile best friend, though. Normally she would have a gut feel for whether a job offer was the right one. Now, there was nothing. Only confusion

If only Josh were here, he would advise me what to do.

The thought took hold in her mind and grew. With a quick mental calculation, she worked out how many hours before she could call him. Without pausing to consider the wisdom of her decision, Claire gathered up her things and headed to her room to wait.

***

Pantser and Proud: 2013 365 Challenge #202

Riding on the mini train today

Riding on the mini train today

One of the blogs I follow – Write on the world – had a post today about structure in novels. The author, Mandy Webster, referred to another post called How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending.

I was seduced.

I don’t have a huge problem wrapping up my stories: it’s the flabby beginning – drowning in back story – and the soggy middle that I struggle with. By the time I get to my climax and happy ever after I’ve hit my writing stride. However I know I don’t put enough conflict in my writing so I’m always eager to read about how it’s done.

When I read the post, however, I didn’t come away with a plan to write a killer ending so much as a view that Pantsers (those of us who write by the seat of our pants, rather than plan and outline) only write that way because we’re too lazy or stubborn to do otherwise. That may be true. It may be true for me. Particularly as I’m about to make excuses for why I write that way.

Like a million and one other people, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I tried, as a teenager, and again in my twenties. I couldn’t get past the first page. Not for want of trying but for want of ideas. No matter how hard I tried to come up with a story, it just wouldn’t happen. It was all boring and predictable.

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Grooming Elsie the Shetland pony

Years of academia has taught me how to plan. I can write an essay outline blindfolded. Well, probably not now, but then, easily. Even in exams I would structure essays rather than just writing whatever came into my desperate brain. I’d been taught how to do it and I did it, and did it well.

With fiction, though, it wasn’t until I turned off that left brain thinking, put my editor in a box with some chocolate and told her to stay there for a while, that anything came. It was a freewrite during my OU creative writing class that sparked my first (and still my favourite) protagonist, Lucy. Nanowrimo came shortly after and Finding Lucy flew from my fingers. I couldn’t stop to think.

As a result I still don’t know how the novel ends. I’m looking forward to finding out, when I finally finish it. I genuinely don’t know which of the two male protagonists, if either, she’ll choose. I don’t entirely know the big secret her gran was hiding, though I have my suspicions. As a result, I don’t over explain or drop massive hints. No need to write RUE over this manuscript – even I don’t know what’s going on. But that’s what’s exciting. I write to find out. If I knew beforehand, I’d be bored and so would the reader.

My Pantser writing has come out most in Two-Hundred Steps Home. For example I don’t yet know what job Claire’s being interviewed for today. When I’ve figured it out you’ll be the first to know (hopefully by 10am!)

The problem, of course, as the author of How to Structure a Killer Novel Ending explains, is that:

“If you engage in story planning through a series of drafts, rather than an outline, you’ll need to write enough drafts to finally understand what Part 4 [the killer ending] should be. Same process, different tolerances for pain.

But there’s risk in that. If you are a drafter instead of a blueprinter (notice I didn’t say outliner—that’s a different process yet, one of several viable ways to plan a story), the likelihood of you settling for mediocrity is orders of magnitude greater. The prospect of rewriting the first 300 pages does that to a writer.”

Model boats at the farm

Model boats at the farm

So if you don’t write to a structure, one of two things happens. You have to do a LOT of rewriting or (more likely) you end up with a mediocre novel because, quite frankly, who wants to rewrite 300 pages. Not me. However, he goes on to say:

“Make no mistake, a rewrite is always a corrective measure. Nothing to brag about”

I’m not sure I agree with that. Redrafting is still writing. Not something to brag about, but something that is necessary for most of us.

As I suggested in my comment on the original blog (it’s probably as well I couldn’t comment on the killer ending one as I’d have embarrassed myself!) I hope that, one day, I’ll understand structure, conflict and stakes as well as I once understood writing a good essay. Maybe one day I will be able to outline without killing my muse, or maybe the blueprint for structure will be in my subconscious and will come out in my right brain first drafts. Either that or I’ll have to be able to afford a damn good editor!

Here’s hoping.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“Do come in, Miss Carleton, sorry to have kept you waiting.”

Claire looked up at the careworn woman holding open the door and felt her palms prickle with sweat. Reaching for her bag, she headed towards the room, nearly tripping over a low table lurking unnoticed in front of the uncomfortable fake-leather sofa she had been perched on for forty minutes.

With a wobbly smile in greeting, Claire followed the woman into the room. She let her gaze take in the full horror awaiting her, and had to mask a sharp intake of breath with a cough. A pungent cloud of aftershave caught at the back of her throat and the cough became genuine. It was several moments before she could stop.

“Would you like some water? I apologise for not bringing you tea or coffee while you were waiting; I’m afraid we’re a bit short staffed at the moment.”

Short staffed? There are enough people here to play doubles tennis and have an umpire.

Claire turned away from the row of blank-faced men and nodded at the woman who had ushered her in. She wondered if she was the secretary, then admonished herself for the sexist thought.

Sipping gratefully at the water, Claire allowed herself two or three deep breaths to calm her agitation.

Come on, it isn’t the first time you’ve had to present to a gaggle of stern suits who last smiled in 1962.

The words were no comfort. Yes, she’d given presentations before, but not in an interview about something she knew nothing about.

“Please take a seat.”

The low voice issued from the second man from the left. He gestured at a single plastic chair, facing the long desk and the seated men. It felt more like a court hearing than a job interview.

Forcing herself to walk slowly, Claire crossed the room and sat in the chair. There was a small table for her water but, as it was at elbow height, Claire viewed it suspiciously. Placing her glass as far away as possible, she retrieved her notes from her bag and rested them on her lap.

Eventually, hoping her make-up hid the worst of the panic, Claire raised her eyes to face her interrogators. No wonder the last interview over-ran. How can you learn anything with five people asking questions?

She glanced at the woman who had shown her in, hoping for some female support, and realised her first assumption about her role was the right one. So, five stiff suits and a secretary. And they want me to work for them? I don’t think so, somehow.

Except she didn’t have the luxury of walking back out, head held high. Not since resigning from her job at AJC. Stupid girl.

“Good afternoon, Miss Carleton. Thank you for joining us. I understand you are here for the role of marketing director?”

No, I’m your stripagram. Biting back the retort, Claire nodded.

The man addressing her was in the centre of the five, and she guessed he must be the boss. Grey streaks speckled his short black hair, and her first impression was that he was in his fifties. His face was unlined, however, and something about his demeanour suggested to Claire that he was ten or twenty years younger than that. He oozed presence.

With a shiver she dragged her eyes away from him and tried to differentiate the other men. It wasn’t easy. They all wore dark suits, some grey, some navy. The man second from the left, who had asked her to take a seat, wore a pink shirt.

He was the only one who looked under 35. Claire guessed he was her age, maybe even younger, although with men it was hard to tell. As she gazed at him, he flicked his eyelid in the merest hint of a wink, and Claire felt the warm flood of gratitude spread through her limbs.

An ally. Thank god.

“In your own time, please present to the group your vision of the future for Isle of Purbeck Tourism, and the unique elements you will bring to the role.”

Claire wrenched her gaze back to the man in the centre, who she was fast thinking of as Mr Mean. He hadn’t even introduced himself or his colleagues. How could she present to the faceless five, without knowing their roles in the organisation?

Fear ran through her limbs, until it met rage bubbling the other way. No. I won’t. I won’t sit here and be humiliated by yet another self-satisfied stuffed suit who thinks he can treat me like crap because I’m a woman.

Sitting up straighter in her chair, Claire fixed her gaze on the dark eyes four feet in front of her. “Of course, it will be my pleasure. I wonder if, first, I could know whom I am addressing? It is easier to present when one knows one’s audience, I find.”

Where did that posh plummy accent come from? Behind her mask, Claire quailed, waiting for annihilation. It didn’t come.

Flicking her gaze at the man she’d dubbed Mr Cheeky, she saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. Realising he was trying hard not to laugh, Claire exhaled through her nose, releasing the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. She felt her own lips twitch in response, and dragged her eyes away to gauge the reaction from the rest of the group.

The two men to the right of Mr Mean looked bored. Finance and maybe IT she decided, assuming a tourist company had an IT Department. Her expectation for the interview had been a quiet chat with some lovely harassed woman who needed an extra pair of hands. In her scariest nightmares she couldn’t have imagined that the people in charge of tourism could be so humourless.

The last person, to the left of Mr Cheeky, was taking notes, alongside the secretary. HR, definitely. Strange to have a bloke. HR personnel are usually women. What a boys club. Oh well, New Zealand it is then.

She heard Mr Mean clear his throat and was gratified to see a faint blush of embarrassment. Is he bothered because I’ve pulled him up for being rude, or because he just got outplayed by a woman? Honestly, guys, this is the twenty-first century, not the nineteenth.

With the knowledge that she definitely wasn’t going to be given this job, Claire sat back in her seat and prepared to have some fun.

***