Category Archives: Writing techniques

Every writer needs a critique writing partner!

Alison and Denise

Alison and Denise in 2013

‘Critique writing partner’,  ‘writing buddy’ – call her what you will, but I believe every writer needs one. I say ‘her’ because I know of no male author who admits to having another writer read and edit his work before it goes off to the publisher, or is put out in cyberspace. (I suppose I’m now going to be inundated with male writers who have CWPs!)

Alison Morton, author of the highly-acclaimed Roma Nova series, and I are each other’s critics for our books – seven each at present (even though the last two of mine are not quite at publishing stage), not to mention short stories and articles. And when we get our red pens out we can be fierce. But that’s the point. It’s no good admiring each other’s work and not daring to make a negative remark. We always said we wouldn’t dissolve into tears when the manuscript comes back covered in red splodges together with a blunt report. We’re tough ex-businesswomen who can take it on the chin…aren’t we?

RedpengonemadMind you, that doesn’t always mean we don’t occasionally have a small silent weep when the other has pointed out aspects of our novel which requires us to do structural rewrites, especially when it’s something we know very well we shouldn’t have written! But we’re both conscious we need to do the old ‘sandwich’ trick. A few compliments to kick it off, pointing out the weak stuff in between, and a positive note to end on, with enough smiley faces to give us the encouragement we crave. It works a treat.

It’s not all ‘red pen’ with a CWP. Years ago I was dismayed when a couple of agents so nearly took me on with my first novel, The Voyagers, but decided against it. They made the point it was too long for a debut author, and anyway was two books jammed into one. I was already writing what I thought was the sequel and was practically in tears when I Skyped Alison. Without pause she said, ‘Split the two stories, then the one you’re writing now becomes book three, which is then a trilogy.’ As soon as she said the magic word ‘trilogy’ I was thrilled and began to tackle the job – more difficult than I’d imagined but immensely satisfying. Of course she ended up reading both ‘split’ books again as they’d gone through some major changes.

We’re there for each other when there have been rejections (until we decided to go the Indie route), and we cheer the other on when she’s had some great writing news. We’ve become real friends besides writing pals, which I think we both treasure.

Denise-and-Alison-Juliet_launch

Denise and Alison at the Juliet’s Story launch January 2016

How can a CWP work for you? First of all, it’s not that easy to find the right ‘fit’. Think about the difficulties of finding a life partner! It’s about on that level, believe me. Trust is the most important element after you’ve found a congenial and willing person who’s a damn good writer (even if they’re not yet published). They don’t have to write in the same genre. Alison and I don’t. She writes alternate history thrillers and I write gritty sagas. When we first swapped our manuscripts I said, ‘I would never read a military thriller, Alison.’ She promptly replied, ‘I’d never read a soppy romance.’ After we stopped laughing (in order to have another swig of wine) we agreed it might be better that we don’t write the same kinds of books. There’s no competitiveness and we can look at the other’s story with fresh eyes and hearts.

So don’t rush it. Choosing the right partner can take time, and you must be prepared to give as much as you take. Only then will it work. But Alison and I have both agreed our books are so much better for it.

Good luck!

And we’d love to hear any success stories.

Who is Juliet in ‘Juliet’s Story’?

Juliet ReeceWhen I began writing Juliet’s Story, Book 2 of The Voyagers trilogy, I thought deeply about the kind of woman I wanted as my heroine: age, physical appearance, personality, talents, flaws, fears, family, job or career…everything that makes a person who he or she is.

So that people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I see you’ve modelled Juliet on yourself’ (I hate that), I made her taller than me, with very dark hair (I’m fair) and twenty years younger (I wish!). But I couldn’t resist giving her a similar career background. If I hit it right, Juliet’s career would define her in so many interesting ways which I could use as major plotting devices in the story.

My own background is in the property world. I started an estate agency in 1988 and expanded it and ran it for 17 years, then sold (unfortunately to two conmen), so I could write fiction. Instead, I found myself writing Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business before I could tackle a novel.

Denise Barnes Estate Agents

Having your own business is fraught with problems, long hours and staff issues, and Juliet’s is no exception. She sells other people’s businesses at Reece & Co. She’s been running it for nine years and has neglected herself in the meantime: she’s a bit overweight, smokes (she gives up early on in the novel), is a poor sleeper, a non-going gym member, doesn’t take proper holidays…she’s in a much worse state than I used to be, but you get my drift.

Juliet has worked hard in her business to prove to her parents she can be successful at something. Her sister and brother are more intellectual and have brilliant careers, while Juliet feels inadequate. She married Gerrard, ten years older and a stuffy lawyer, not because she truly loved him but because her parents approved. She finally takes charge, and when the story opens she is recently divorced, but exhausted by the demands of the business. She longs to go to Australia to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps (see Annie’s Story, Book 1 of The Voyagers trilogy). But there’s another powerful reason for wanting to be there. Though how can she leave her business, not to mention her ailing father?

Like Juliet, I might have been tempted to take off to Australia for a few months given the opportunity, but it would have been an equally terrifying decision to put my business in someone else’s hands, as well as leaving an agoraphobic mother. However, unlike Juliet, I have a sister living in the same village who would keep an eye on Mum, and so I was able to take proper holidays without too much worry.

When you throw problems and miseries at your hero and heroine to reflect or exceed those in real life, you are the master of their fate. But working out how your characters get out of their multiple difficulties can often solve some of your own problems. Is the brain even more perceptive than we realise?

Do other writers feel the same? I’d love to know.
Julietcover

 

Juliet’s Story will be published on 25 January 2016.
Pre-order now Amazon UK  Amazon US  Kobo

All in the name of research

melbourne

Melbourne

To me, research is rarely a chore. It’s the dead opposite in that I get completely carried away and enjoy it so much I go over the top. For example, I find it very difficult to skim a book I need for reference and find myself reading it cover to cover. Or with Google, I can’t stick to the one website but click all those enticing links. But I don’t think any research is ever wasted and I usually learn some interesting facts and snippets along the way that I can slip in to make the story really authentic. Warning: it doesn’t half eat into your writing time. So beware.

Not all research has to be through books and Google. For Juliet’s Story I wanted her to sail to Australia so, of course, I needed to visit the country. That line of research was definitely a chore! What a fantastic month I had making notes and taking lots of photographs and talking to helpful people along the way.

As with most folk I flew to Australia but I didn’t want my heroine to go the conventional route. Juliet was to go by freighter. Through the shipping company I met a lady who had sailed round the world (different journeys) on one. Coincidentally, she lived a couple of streets away from my aunt in Pimlico, and I spent a wonderful afternoon with her. When she asked if I would like to borrow her journals of the different voyages I couldn’t believe my luck. She was a superb writer with a sharp eye for detail and I encouraged her to write a book about her travels. I think people would love to read about her adventures. The daily entries gave me great insight into freight travel but I knew it wasn’t going to replace the real experience.

freighterHaving never been on one, or even close up and personal, I thought I’d take a few days away from my estate agency business and chose to sail on a German cargo ship called Ever Conquest, bound for Hong Kong, though I disembarked in Zeebrugge. Something strange happened the minute I stepped on board – I became ‘Juliet’ and spent six fascinating days at sea, though sadly as the only passenger, with no romance in sight! Against all their rules (they knew I was there for research for my novel so bent them) the Captain and Chief Engineer answered my constant stream of questions and even allowed me on the bridge which is normally sacrosanct.

It’s wonderful when you tell people you’re a writer – you often sneak into places normally out of bounds. So don’t be modest. Tell people you’re a writer. You’ll be amazed at the doors that will swing wide open for you – all in the name of research, of course!

Julietcover

 

Juliet’s Story will be published on 25 January 2016.
Pre-order now Amazon UK  Amazon US  Kobo

Readers who swear they’re in your novel!

JulietcoverIt’s amazing how many times people ask me if I’ve put them in my novel. They look at me with real suspicion and even disbelief when I always answer: No!

Recently someone accused me of putting her in my latest novel to be published at the end of this month: Juliet’s Story, Book 2 of The Voyagers trilogy. She said, ‘You’ve based Juliet on me, haven’t you?’ Frankly, I was astounded. The woman in question is nothing at all like my heroine, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. They are in a different age group, and the opposite in height, weight, hair and eyes. Juliet runs her own business, and sails to Australia on a freighter – neither of which my friend would ever dream of doing.

smolking girlThen it hit me – they are both smokers! Except this person still continues to smoke and my heroine gives up quite near the beginning of the novel. But that’s such a small thing in common to assume I used her as a template for my heroine.

Someone else who I’ve known a very long time said that as a writer I ought to make up my characters and not base them on any real person. She said I should use my imagination! What on earth do writers do except use their imagination?

I tried to explain that as in the song from The Sound of Music, nothing comes from nothing. That we writers take bits and pieces from several people, consciously and sub-consciously, to make an original character. It might be something as subtle as a gesture. One of the passengers, Trevor, on Juliet’s freighter constantly rakes through his thinning curls; that was taken directly from one of my ex-employees, but this man’s personality was not like Trevor’s at all. Or I might come across someone with an unusual feature.

turquoise eyesA woman I know has stunning turquoise eyes – a colour I’ve never seen on anyone before – so guess what colour eyes my latest heroine has? Or I might ‘borrow’ someone’s hobby. I needed a ‘wind-down’ interest for Juliet, and so I have her making greetings cards. I wouldn’t have thought of this if a certain literary agent didn’t have the same hobby.

I guess the lesson learned is that non-writers have little concept of what it entails to write a novel. And thank goodness. There are enough authors in the market without millions more joining us!

Restructuring the novel

scissorsWhen I started the novel several years ago I created a dual timeline. The main heroine, Juliet, granddaughter of Annie, goes to Australia to follow in her grandparents’ footsteps (though she has another secret reason for going), and interspersed with her story is her grandmother, Annie, as a young girl, and linking the two stories by way of diaries and letters and events.

Called The Voyagers, this became a huge novel of 148,000 words which no agent or publisher would touch, especially from an unknown fiction writer. Three interested agents suggested the same thing – that I separate the two stories. I was already writing what I thought was the sequel, Kitty’s Story, so I was quite upset at the idea. That is, until my fantastic critique writing partner, Alison Morton (author of the Roma Nova series), who knows my characters almost as well as I do, immediately said: ‘Separate the two and Kitty becomes the third, so you’ll have a trilogy!

As soon as she said that, I knew it was exactly right for my saga. But when I separated Annie and Juliet, the proportion was all wrong. Annie only had 49,000 words; Juliet, on the other hand, had a standard 99,000 words. So I set to and delved deeper into Annie and what happened to her, and she has now evolved as a 125,000 word novel. I’m so glad I took Alison’s advice, as I realised when I was developing Annie’s character and story that she deserves to have her own full-length book.

And because both Annie and Juliet sail to Australia, I was bound to have to go too! Purely for research, of course. More in my next blogpost!

Research Unlimited

One of the best things about being a writer is that you have to do research.

Research paperwork! (Photo courtesy of Alison Morton)

Research paperwork! (Photo courtesy of Alison Morton)

A warning –  it takes up a huge amount of ‘writing time’ and may lead you into fascinating areas that are not pertinent to your novel. However, if you’re writing historical fiction you will need to do a fair bit of research to a) find out facts, and b) check facts you think you already know. Thank goodness for the almighty Google, but remember it’s not infallible, particularly Wikipedia (although that site seems to have improved), and you should still use your reference books, biographies, maps, etc.

You don’t have to travel to the actual place to write about it. Joanne Walsh’s novella, Christmas in Venice was published in time for Christmas 2014. I ordered it on my Kindle and had a wonderful relaxing Christmas Day caught up in the story. Sheer bliss. I complimented her on her excellent evocation of Venice. ‘Thank you, but I’ve never been there,’ she said, to my astonishment.

But it’s brilliant if you can manage to visit the place you’ve set your book, as nothing’s quite the same as experiencing first hand the light and the smell and the noise and the atmosphere of an unfamiliar place.

Annie’s Story, Book 1 of The Voyagers trilogy, begins in 1913 where Annie is a housemaid in a fictitious King’s Lynn’s  country house. As I grew up in Norwich and my grandparents lived in King’s Lynn, the Norfolk settings didn’t give me too much problem. Also, my 100-year-old razor-sharp father-in-law had been a butler at several grand country houses around Britain for 40 years or so, and was a mine of information about the goings on ‘above and below stairs’.

King's Lynn

King’s Lynn

My own grandparents were servants who emigrated to Australia in 1913 ‘to better themselves’, so my grandfather said. But beyond the voyage, I never asked them about what happened once they had arrived in Melbourne. Trouble is, we don’t realise how important it is to record our older relatives’ memories until it’s too late. My excuse was that I wasn’t a novelist at the time!
I didn’t know the route the Orsova took in 1913 which was important in my story. And then all the information I needed came to me serendipitously.

And that’s what my next blogpost is about…

How to get back in gear (If only I knew!)

IMG_3871I’ve been rewriting and editing my three (rather long) novels which make up my trilogy: The Voyagers, for many months now. I actually thoroughly enjoy this process, as it’s usually easier to correct something than to create something, but it does spoil you for not having to worry about new characters and plots, and writing fresh scenes.

Yesterday, I looked at a brief outline of a possible novel I jotted down several months ago. It gave me about a third of a story and I have no idea of how the sub plot would work, nor any idea of the ending. And I truly don’t remember the working title I gave it. When did that happen? Do other writers look at their work and wonder how the words got there?

I haven’t looked at this outline for months but when I read it I thought maybe – it was just possible – that it had legs. But here I am today, having done a massive clear out of my office (it needs one more session for me to get really exuberant) and any burst of creative story-telling energy has left me sitting here thinking, ‘Am I excited enough by this story to spend a year or so on it?’

The answer is, ‘I think I could be if I just started writing the damn thing.’ Well, I do have a first sentence, but the style is more rom-com than mystery saga, which is what I always seem to be drawn to. Shall I risk a change of genre and see whether it might develop into a rom-com after all? Or change that first, rather good, sentence?

Answers, please, on a postcard!

Moving on

crateI don’t recommend moving two houses in the space of one week into one (quite big) house, with several hundred books, but that’s exactly what I’ve been involved in lately. Thankfully, we’ve sort of settled in, although it still feels like a very warm, comfortable 4-star hotel, and we keep wondering when we’ll be made to pack up our suitcases and go home. It’s probably because everything is either painted or tiled in cream and is crying out for paint colour, loads of pictures, and, of course, all our books.

Keeping up the writing every day has been difficult. Sometimes I’ve had a change and done a spot of self-editing. A couple of times I’ve managed to have a go with the third novel of my trilogy called The Voyagers and produced 1,000 words or more at a session. I’m so near the end of the first rough draft, but still haven’t quite worked out the ending. It’s hard to feel inspired and creative when you’re surrounded by all these dozens of boxes bursting out of every room, including my study. Luckily, all the rooms are generously-proportioned, but as soon as one room looks half-way decent, the overflow has got dumped into another room, making that room worse than it was before.

I decided to pay for a professional editor to edit the first novel of my trilogy: Annie’s Story. I found her through Cornerstones, a literary consultancy whom I’ve used before to edit my non-fiction book: Seller Beware: How Not to Sell Your Business. Not long after their report and my amendments I found a publisher for the book, so I have great faith in them. I was bowled over by this editor’s very encouraging and complimentary 13-page report on Annie’s Story which I received last week. I even get to have a face-to-face with her for an hour or two, which will take place at the beginning of March. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The editor’s comments and suggestions were mostly spot on, and I’ve made adjustments where I thought appropriate. The good thing was, she didn’t highlight any structural problems or plotholes. (I nearly said ‘potholes’ as you can hardly get down the lane leading to our new house without destroying the underside of your car.)

I guess I’m nearly ready to start sending Annie out to some agents!

Mixing Writing With Pleasure

OklahomaIt’s hard to concentrate much on my writing projects this week as I’m singing in OKLAHOMA! at the Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells. You know, the theatre with the bum-numbing, shifting-in-three seats. I’m only a chorus girl which may not sound too taxing until you step onto the stage and the lights are on you and you have to remember that you’re an alto so mustn’t forget to harmonise when your brain is screaming to sing the melody. That’s the only pressure – oh, and remembering which side of the stage you’re supposed to come on. But it’s all great fun, and when the audience show their delight in loud, prolonged clapping and whistling, I can barely sing the last notes of the encore I’m so overcome.

But somehow this week I’ve managed over the last couple of days to plug on with Book 3 of my trilogy: The Voyagers. Gone will be the fairy-tale world of this week: the last notes of the orchestra died away, the stage lights dimmed and cut, and the final curtain fallen. I may look in the cold light of the real world next week at what I’ve written and see a load of unconnected nonsense, but I hope not. My aim is to have taken the story further towards its inexorable ending – maybe not quite such a fairy-tale ending as OKLAHOMA! but satisfying and hopeful, nonetheless.

I wonder if other writers feel the same way if their usual routine is broken up beyond recognition for a few days or even weeks and months. This can happen if you suddenly have to take the role of carer (I’ve had that too for the last year), or become poorly yourself, or there’s a family problem or an unusually heavy workload to plough through. I suppose the only antidote is to adopt a new routine as quickly as possible which will allow some space and time, however short, to write. Yes, the writing might need a whole lot of polishing when you are back to normal, but maybe coming out of your regular routine will have thrown a fresh light on your writing project and you will tackle it with all the vigour and determination it deserves.

LadyMag_HarryOh, I did have a small publishing success recently. I sent a short piece to The Lady magazine (the one with Prince Harry on the cover) for their regular column The Lady & I, found on their letter page My prize is a Panettone, which apparently has leapfrogged over mince-pies so far as popularity in Christmas cakes is concerned. I’m waiting for the delivery which should be any day soon, although I have such a weakness for it, if I get it too early there will only be a few yellow crumbs come Christmas!

If that happens it certainly won’t be a beautiful morning, or even a beautiful day!

Faber Academy writing week

F&F buildingWhat a week was the last week of the short hot summer! I spent it doing a Faber Academy intensive novel-writing course called: “Summer Fiction Booster”.  If you’ve never done a Faber course you’ve missed a treat. First, it’s easy to get to, being practically next door to the British Museum (only a small distraction) and the people who work at Faber are all very friendly and helpful.

In 2011 – 12 I did a six-month advanced fiction course with Richard Skinner at Faber, and it was terrific. So when I saw this one advertised I thought it was just what I needed to push me over the half-way mark where I’d been stuck for months in Book 3 of my trilogy, The Voyagers. The course was run by the lovely Maggie Gee, but when we allowed her a day off on Thursday(!) Joanna Briscoe took the class. She was equally lovely.

There were only seven of us attendees which was perfect as it gave everyone lots of attention and a longer 1 – 1 with Maggie.  My 1 – 1 stretched to half an hour!  Maggie was so wise and encouraging and enthusiastic about all our stories which were widely different, yet we all bonded in the first five minutes.

It was great fun getting to know each other’s work, and seeing how the stories developed over the week. The group were quick to come up with ideas for plot holes (nice change from pot holes) in the critique sessions, and no matter whose work we were focused on in that particular session, it invariably had relevance to our own writing problems. Then while ideas were fresh in my mind I would stay behind in the afternoon to get on with my own writing. In five days I’d put another 3,500 words into Book 3.

I stayed at my club in Mayfair throughout the week so I didn’t have to worry about grocery shopping, cooking and all the other trivia we writers are forced to do every day. It was also an excuse to enjoy London. I saw ‘What Maisie Knew’ at the cinema, ‘Strange Interlude’ at the theatre, and listened to Mozart and Bruckner at a wonderful Proms evening. One night I had supper in a Lebanese restaurant in Shepherd Market and was joined by two handsome strangers, beautifully-dressed businessmen, one from Saudi Arabia, the other from Pakistan. We talked and laughed for four hours and I ended up giving them a bookmark each of Seller Beware: How Not To Sell Your Business which they promised to buy. If I’d had two copies with me I could have sold them on the spot (That was my own Strange Interlude. Do I feel a short story coming on?).

After all that excitement I’m home. Back to hum-drum. But writing is still the most exciting thing ever, and I’m delighted to say I’ve kept up the momentum from the week and added another 3,000 words to the novel.

Looking back, instead of calling it ‘Summer Fiction Booster’ I think it should have been named ‘A Summer Kick Up The Bum For Your Novel’.

What boosts your writing?