Victoria Wood once said that nobody should go into stand up until they’re of mature years. Stand up isn’t just about confidence, she says, it’s about control. And no 22 year old has the right to exert that kind of influence. You’re saying – look at me. Listen to my words. Laugh. Wait for the next good line. Laugh more. You at the back, stop scratching your neck. You, m’dear, at the front? Think about checking your facebook timeline while I’m delivering my story about the bridesmaid in tight lycra who had to travel to the wedding on the back of the best man’s scooter – where was I? Oh, yes. Fiddle with your phone while I’m extemporising and I’ll fire a stream of forensically personalised bile in your direction. Nice tan, by the way. You’re with the Bisto works outing, aren’t you?
Me back in the day when I could sit backwards on a chair, talk and not fall off. I pioneered sit down comedy.
Honestly, it is not a job for shrinking violets or those prone to outbreaks of modesty. But is it a job for writers? The novels I write, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret (currently under construction, due out in Spring) are not comedy novels but they contain humour. It’s Six O’Clock Somewhere, so far unpublished, is an unrestrained dark comedy. I believe my standup experience gave me the confidence to be funny and advise other writers to give it a go.
Not just because comedy gives your ‘literary talk’ audiences a break from ‘What inspired your latest book’ monologues. I advocate stand up because regular bouts of bowel-evacuating terror hone the creative soul. Stand up is scary. You have an audience – be it a hundred people or two passers-by who’ve wandered in to get warm – that wants to laugh. They don’t care about your inner angst, or your journey from a job in credit control, or how long your jokes took to think up. THEY WANT TO LAUGH. They don’t want to be curling their toes inside their shoes because you dry up or start shaking. Stand up makes you work hard – not a bad module for writing fiction. And how can you write about fear if you’ve never experienced it? Whether it’s thrillers, cosy crime novels, romance or chicklit, your subject will involve mental and physical jeopardy. Terror is everywhere, believe me. The other day, I saw a magpie seeing off a sparrow-hawk. It was as edgy as any WWII dogfight between a Spitfire and an ME-109 and the sparrow-hawk was terrified. How do I know? It pooed.
My own stand up was observational, while my knees provided the physical action, going like a bongo drummer in a Cuban wedding band. But I did get laughs, and I will never forget the joyful shock of the first roar of audience mirth. It was my end of year drama school piece. By some quirk of timing, our year end was Christmas. Other students had prepared pieces from Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare. There was even Sylvia Plath’s suicide note. I went on last and did my version of ‘The Twelve days of Christmas’ – a woman recounting the seasonal gifts her drug-taking punk boyfriend sent her before dying under the wheels of a Depeche Mode tour-bus (I should point out, this was 1983). The first verse was sung to a stunned silence, but when I reached into the box at my feet, pulled out one of those dead-fox coat collars that middle class women used to wear and sang, ‘Road kill for dinner’ there was a collective howl of laughter. I knew then I could ‘do funny’ . I gave it up as it was sooo hard and I had a partner (not a drug-taking punk) who would listen to my stich and say, ‘Don’t give up the day job, dear.’
Now that my day job is being a writer, maybe I can go back to stand up. Now what the hell did I do with those dead foxes?
If you’re looking for great holiday reads, something to make a long-haul flight more enjoyable, here are my recommendations. What I look for in a page turner is:
Great plot and characters
Feel free to comment with your own favourite ‘sticky’ books.
1. Kate Atkinson Case Histories: a plotty twister with Jackson Brodie (my go-to life-hardened, reluctant sleuth). Kate A. gives great plot and intrigue and her writing is like fine music, seemingly effortless and fills your head
2. Ruth Rendell Adam & Eve and Pinch Me: superb tension, characterisation and an ending that’s a Rendellian tour de force of planning. Leaves you saying, ‘Oh God, no!’
3. Barbara Erskine Midnight is a Lonely Place: It is, and so is the Essex coastline on which the story is set. A page turner that’s deliciously creepy. Avoid staying in a big, ancient house in a foggy landscape where there are frequent power cuts.
4. Jonathan Coe The Rotters Club: Moving, incredibly funny, occasionally filthy, this is a joy for its writing and anarchic a***-kicking of the narrative form and illuminations about 1970s prog rock bands such as . . . http://www.hatfieldandthenorth.co.uk/
5. Anne Tyler The Ladder of Years: my first foray into this American’s novels. I remember arriving early to pick my child up from school so I could have fifteen minutes’ undisturbed reading. For contemporary, page-turner women’s fiction (which men love too) AT is a must.
6. Bernard Cornwell – he gets three; The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur: You’d need a longish holiday to read them back-to-back, but a joy for those who love history and epic tales with bite. For me, Cornwell is the best teller of the Arthurian myth.
Alix Gower’s story is told in The Dress Thief and in a flight of imaginative fancy, I am flying back in time to interview her. Hoping for a relaxed chat over a coffee, I get a sharp lesson in women’s rights, the difference between style and chic, and the advantage of following nuns across the road.
It is early summer, 1939. The international scene is troubled. Only those with heads stuck in the sand believe there will not be war between Germany and France and her allies. But sitting at a café table in Place du Tertre, Montmartre, watching the jobbing artists putting on their daily show for the tourists, I find it hard to believe that in one year’s time, this place will be occupied by German soldiers. Does Alix have any inkling, I wonder?
Natalie Meg Evans (NME): Alix, I know you’ve never been too interested in politics—
Alix Gower (AG): If you’ve come to talk politics, it will be a one-sided conversation. I won’t talk about religion either – nor gardening. They are all a mystery to me.
NME: Even you must have an opinion on the situation in Europe.
AG: I leave opinions to others. Do the Popular Front or Mr Hitler care what I think? This city is my world and I don’t need be anywhere else because the world comes to Paris. Look around you – listen. How many languages can you hear?
NME: Um . . French, obviously. The people at the next table are Russian. Oh, and English. Lots of English, now I’m listening.
AG: Not English, American. Those men over there are speaking American. You should know that.
NME: Ah, have I just stumbled upon the famous Alix Gower mania for detail?
AG: Detail is important. In my job –
NME: You mean fashion designing and dress-making?
AG: I mean haute-couture. Attention to detail is what differentiates us from the corner dressmaker or the mass-manufacturer. Detail shows the hand of God at work.
NME: That’s profound.
AG: (Laughing) I am quoting the Comte de Charembourg, a friend I have known all my life. You should talk politics to him. He reads newspapers and is always telling me that I should hone my mind. For me, reading a newspaper is like interrupting a conversation between dull, old men. If newspapers were meant for women, they would not be three feet across when you open them. I have never met a woman who wants to be seen in public as a hat and a pair of clenched knuckles.
NME: You’re not a feminist, then, Alix?
AG: What is that?
NME: A feminist advocates the rights of women, and believes in female equality –
AG: I don’t believe in female equality. Not in the least. Women are already superior in every regard, except when it comes to choosing wine and driving in Paris. Women are embarrassed to choose wine because of course, the waiter always gives them a menu without prices. And you cannot drive well in Paris unless you are prepared to kill.
NME: Er, that’s a bit extreme.
AG: Have you crossed many streets and boulevards in your visit here?
NME: I agree, it’s not easy. It’s the only city I know where pedestrians have to adjust their speed to take account of the cars.
AG: You must always follow a nun across the road. Nobody in Paris will run over a nun.
NME: I’ll bear that in mind. So, back to feminism. In France, women still do not have the vote.
NME: Alix, don’t you want to vote?
AG: I am not a French citizen and anyway, I’d rather dress politicians’ mistresses than vote for their lovers. Until women have somebody worth voting for, why should they care?
NME: So who would you like to see standing for government, Alix?
AG: My grandmother, Mémé. She has lived through two German invasions, first in Alsace in 1871, then in 1914. She says that people who have endured only one war persuade themselves that it cannot happen again. When you’ve lived through two . . . no, let’s change the subject. Ask me something amusing. Shall we have more coffee?
NME: I was thinking of a glass of wine. The sun’s almost over the yard-arm.
AG: (laughing) This is Paris. Who cares where the sun is, or the yard-arm?
NME: Wine it is, then. Garçon, over here, please . . . Alix, I can’t remember, do you prefer red or white?
AG: That is like asking if I prefer flowers or fresh air. Today, I shall have white. Let’s see if they have an Alsace Riesling. The Comte de Charembourg, who was born in Alsace, says we have a duty to drink the wines of that region and I am happy to oblige him. Ask me another question, but nothing more about the rights of women, or the wrongs of women, or about war. Ask me something I can answer! Something that makes me look clever, please.
NME: Let me ask you about clothes, then. Have you always wanted to work in fashion?
AG: I don’t know anything about fashion.
NME: You’re being awkward, Alix. You wanted to work in the fashion world all your life, designing, wearing and making beautiful clothes. You made enough fuss about it, always going on about hating your dull job in the telephone exchange. You’d have sold your right arm to break into fashion.
AG: I work in haute-couture and that is not fashion. Fashion has nothing to do with dressing women well. It’s what business-people churn out four times a year to make women feel they have to buy new clothes in order to be attractive and equal to other women. You spoke of inequality between the sexes, but believe me, it is inequality with their own sex that trouble women the most. Fashion exists to trigger a transaction, to be bought, worn, and discarded. I am not interested in fashion. And neither are you, I think?
NME: I had to get dressed in a hurry, otherwise I’d have missed the Eurostar.
NME: The boat-train . . . sort of.
AG: So, what exactly are you wearing?
NME: Just something I flung on. Ok, you want detail. It’s a black cotton boat-neck tee-shirt, worn over black linen trousers.
AG: That’s called a tee-shirt? That thing?
NME: Yup. Easy to wear, easy to wash.
AG: So is a floor cloth.
NME: I was not born to be a fashionista. I’m a writer. A writer’s wardrobe is ten kinds of elasticated trouser and one little black dress, bought in hope of a literary lunch. Writers can get lazy. After all, you don’t need to look chic in front of your computer. Typewriter, I mean.
AG: I don’t care for chic.
NME: I might have guessed. You don’t like fashion, or chic –
AG: I like style.
AG: Chic says ‘look at me, I’m sexy, I’m of the moment.’ Style says, ‘I am here. I am not my clothes, my clothes are me.’ Style endures. Style is grown up. Chic is for girls.
NME: And what about boys?
AG: I don’t design for boys. That’s what tailors are for.
NME: I meant men. If girls like chic and women like style, what do men like?
AG: Underwear, for the most part. By the way, did you know it is technically illegal for a woman to wear trousers in France? You might get arrested.
NME: Talking of which. The stealing, Alix. Let’s discuss.
AG: (Closes her eyes and throws her head back. Drums on the table with her short finger nails. I sense she’s a moment away from flouncing off.)
NME: The pirating of other designers’ work? I might not reach your sartorial high standards, but I never pirated designer fashion for a living.
AG: I never passed off other people’s designs as my own. What would have been the point of that? I copied the work of famous designers and I did it well – that’s why I got paid. And I didn’t get paid much.
NME: So that makes it all right?
AG: Please stop. Shame is the worst emotion in the world, worse than grief. Grief fades but as long as the mind can produce thoughts, there is shame. Now, please, ask me something nice.
NME: How about love – hang on, our wine’s arriving. Oh dear – I don’t think the waiter approves of my trousers.
AG: It isn’t the trousers, he thinks you are a man wearing nail varnish. What about love? You tell me. You’re much older.
NME: You’re throwing questions back at me, which is usually a sign that an interview has ended. Let’s clink glasses and drink to each other’s health.
AG: And happiness. You haven’t told me if I’ll be happy. How does my story end?
I didn’t get round to telling her as I had to hurry away, to catch the time warp that hovers in front of Paris Gare du Nord station on only the most improbable occasions. I swap the heat of the Paris streets in 1939 for the air-conditioned comfort of Eurostar, knowing I’ve left my girl on the lip of an abyss. What can I do, change history? I can write Alix’s continuing story but she’s in charge. She has to answer her own questions.
Last week Kay Hudson tagged me to carry on the Writing Process Blog Hop. Kay was a fellow Romance Writers of America Golden Heart finalist in 2012 and writes ‘romance with humour and a twist of the unexpected.’ Her current project is ‘Jinn on the Rocks’, the third book in her Jinn series, following on from Jinn & Tonic and Bathtub Jinn. Kay and I are both members of the Firebirds loop, being the fiery crop of 2012 Golden Heart finalists.
So on with the blog hop questions:
What Am I Working On? My debut novel, The Dress Thief, has just been published and I am doing as much promotion and public relations as I can to support it. This involves social media, blogging, responding to review opportunities and getting signing sessions at book shops. At the same time, I am working on the follow-up novel, The Milliner’s Secret. Both these books are historical romance, kicking off in 1937 and both are set in Paris, but TMS is not a sequel. While some familiar characters make an appearance, I am telling Coralie de Lirac’s story and she’s a very different creature from Alix Gower, the eponymous Dress Thief. Whereas book 1 ended just prior to the outbreak of war, this new story goes through the Nazi occupation of Paris and explores the themes of survival, resistance and collaboration. It is also an emotional journey for a heroine whose life to date has been one of abuse and betrayal. I also get to research vintage hats, which is great fun.
How Does My Work Differ From Others of Its Genre? I grew up reading the classics and those sweeping sagas from writers like Danielle Steele, Colleen McCullogh, M.M. Kaye and my favourite, Beatrice Coogan, whose ‘The Big Wind’ has been called the Irish Gone with the Wind (and not just because it has wind in the title). These gave me a love of detailed books that envelope the reader in a big, furry mantle up to the last page. I’m aware that in a fast-paced world, where the publishing industry wants slim and snappy, I’m marching to a different beat and thumbs up to my publisher, Quercus Books, for given me a loose-ish rein. My other ‘difference’ is my tendency to give my characters a dark side which is never entirely resolved. I like to ground my characters in reality and show them struggling as imperfect beings, striving to become better beings. I do give happy resolutions, but I like to leave readers sensing that there is a ‘what next?’ for every character. You will also find humour in my books. Even in the darkest moment, there is a sprinkling of funny.
Why Do I Write What I Do? I loved history from the earliest age, and would be found leafing through big, leather-bound tomes on my parents’ shelves. Not to read the text, not at age four, but to look at the pictures. These books had fabulously detailed woodblock prints, re-imaginings of scenes such as the signing of the Magna Carta, or the trial of Charles the 1st. These very skilful illustrators wound something up in me that has been ticking ever since; the desire to get behind dry facts to the human drama. It was also pure romance, with kings, queens, gallant knights and lurking villains. A recurrent theme in my stories is that of escape, either from incarceration or from tricky backgrounds. As a not-particularly-happy child, I would often just leave home and walk for what seemed like hours in the fields around my village. I re-invoke that need to get away in my heroines and heroes.
How Does My Writing Process Work? Me and my computer are best friends. I do all my writing in Word, on a large-screened desktop PC. Not for me the whizzy little ipads. I even find laptops too confining, though will take one on holiday with me. But if I can get my full-sized keyboard into the suitcase, I take that and plug it in because I cannot write fast on anything small. One of the most useful things I ever learned was touch typing and when the spirit moves me, can still get up to about 95 wpm. On a restricted keyboard, I’ll look down after five minutes and find I’ve written rhw cqr war ib rgw nT abs rgw yuxj veiqb diz hynows icwe rfw k\T SIF,
Plot-wise, I’m a cautious panster. I have the full plot written out as a synopsis of about eight pages, and I plan the key climaxes of each part of the novel. In the past, I have done very extensive biographies on characters, but now let that happen subconsciously. I will often ‘go quiet’ at the keyboard and allow a character to tell me what he has done in his life and why he is reacting as he does. I hear my characters’ voices very clearly and I see scenes from their lives cinematically. I don’t always see their faces so accurately, and I’m happy with that as I know that readers see faces in their own way. A bit like the profile-only man who used to appear on Mills & Boon romances, readers add their own ideas.
Now I’ll pass the Writing Process baton on to my Firebird sister Catherine Rull who will post her version next Monday. Catherine writes humorous Women’s Fiction, Young Adult, CST and Paranormal. She is a PRO member of the Romance Writers of America; and a member of the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association. Take it away, Catherine . . .
The air around me feels different. Like gulping ozone.
No cast-iron certainties. You work hard, promote and hope.
Not-being-published is the comfort zone, then big boot strikes backside.
Ditto above. Byron ‘woke up famous.’ I woke up. Been snoozing too long.
A few moments squealing like a sixteen-year-old on Prom night is allowed
Tweets, reviews, writing next book & blogging fills up to-do list.
Note to self – still need to scrub the fridge out and collect dry cleaning.
I can’t answer yet though my local bookshop has already sold several to TOTAL STRANGERS.
Social media reaches into the world with the power of a pandemic, yet is silent. May create app of ringing phone for writers.
Mum never got to see my published novel, and she so wanted to .
It is, and if you’re writing and working towards a day such as this, keep going, it’s worth it.
I was asked recently how I came up with the title for my novel The Dress Thief. The short, answer is, I didn’t.
The book was originally entitled A Dark Flowering, which was my invention. Titles slip into your mind unbidden, appearing like apparitions or fog on the motorway. Absent one moment, fully formed the next. You grow fond of them and they become the skeleton supporting the flesh of your novel. You can’t imagine your book being called anything else.
Publishers are less sentimental. My editor thought A Dark Flowering sounded like the title of an erotic novel. My agent thought it sounded rather too oblique. Could I come up with something else? Quickly.
With all the sorrow of someone leaving a long-term relationship, I took out a lined pad and began to brainstorm. My technique is to jot down ideas in a stream of consciousness. Whatever comes to mind, even if it sounds rubbish. For all that, it’s a serious business. A book’s title must entice, invite, create a tingle. It has to be a finger-post for the kind of writing inside. Along with the cover-art, it should denote the book’s genre; crime, thriller, gentle contemporary romance, comedy etc. That’s a tall order in our brand-aware age. I can see why eighteenth century authors gloried in lengthy set-ups; ‘A history in three volumes in which a young gentleman of fortune sets out into the world and encounters scoundrels, rogues and harlots that turn him, for a regrettably long time, from the path of honour and righteousness.’ Nowadays, that title would probably be classed as a piece of flash fiction in its own right. One, clear idea is what we want these days. I’ve forgotten every single proposition on my lined pad except the one I liked best, which was ‘Sheer.’
Short, sharp. As the book is set in the world of haute-couture and fashion, Sheer says to me ‘scissors’ as in ‘shears’. It says ‘danger’ (as in sheer fall, sheer speed). It is a knowing nod to the new nylon stockings that made their first appearance in 1937, the year in which the novel is set. ‘Sounds like a gory murder story,’ said the first person I tried it out on. ‘I’m thinking Bates Motel and the shower scene.’ Later, over a cup of coffee in my publisher’s office in Baker Street, I came up with a host of lame ducks and my agent came up with The Dress Thief. I knew instantly it was the right title. It never hurts to have a title that tells the reader who the main character is. ‘Clouds of Destiny’ or ‘The Wounded Heart’ might describe the type of book you are about to read, but ‘The Prodigal Daughter’ or ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ tells you who it’s about. The Dress Thief not only tells you who the lead character is, but is pretty clear about what she does. That’s a hard-working title.
A few years ago, I drove my car onto field where I was keeping my horses at the time, meaning to stop just inside the gate and unload feed bags. I was thinking so hard about a title for the book I was writing then, I kept going until I was mired in mud. There was no way out. The wheels just sank deeper. I trudged home two miles on a November night whose sky was dominated by a full moon of the most mystical colour. Should I call my book ‘The Amber Moon?’ I wondered. As it had no relevance whatever to the story, I decided not. The novel in question is set in the Waterloo year of 1815. I had a working title; ‘A Season’s Scandal’ but the direction of the novel had changed, downplaying the scandal plotline. As I walked, I juggled ideas for a book set in the Regency era and inevitably started purloining Jane Austen. I came up with ‘Fortune and Felicity’ but decided that sounded like a northern drag act. The story is about a young woman trying to grasp back the fortune stolen from her. ‘A fickle fortune’ ‘To Find a Fortune’ ‘A Fair, Phantom Fortune’ flowed out. I think the F-words arose from my frustration at getting my car stuck in the mud. Actually, it took a couple of years for me to find the title for that book. A Tangled Season. It just came to me one day.
Lee Child, writer of the Jack Reacher novels, said recently in a radio interview that he believes the reason so many of his readers are women was that Jack Reacher has a ‘feminine emotional intelligence.’ Reacher conducts relationships in a way that women understand, relate to and can trust. That last word is the clincher for me. A good hero is fundamentally trustable.
In a way, I’ve come straight to my punch line because, while I enjoy heroes who are complex and even, when provoked, capable of extreme behaviour, I need to feel, as I fall under his spell, this is someone I could invest my emotions in and not end up scarred and scorched afterwards. If a hero can’t do this, I’m not reading a romance, I’m reading a different kind of novel.
Romance is read as escape – we know that because if we write it and if we read it or both. As life meanders on in its perplexing fashion, we like to be reminded that there are such things as solutions and happy endings. Heroines have their psychological dilemmas to work through alongside the external, physical ones. And the heroes . . . well, on top of being desirable and attractive, they often represent the side of human nature that the heroine is trying to confront, overcome or perhaps, to avoid at all costs. In my historical novel, The Dress Thief, my lead character Alix falls for a man, Verrian Haviland, who insists she confronts the possibility of war in Europe, when in fact, she’d rather dress up and pretend nothing bad was happening. With her abiding fear of abandonment, loving Verrian means loving a man who leaves her to fight what he considers a necessary war.
At the heart of a good romance is the notion that beyond the pain and rejection of the present lies the hope of happiness. And being happy, according to Plato, is the common desire of all humanity, and I’m not arguing with Plato! I have read romances where the hero dies at the end, and though that’s a real downer, there is nevertheless the sense of a satisfactory ending. But I can’t recall a romance where hero and heroine end the book still at emotional loggerheads, or if I ever read one, I probably threw it at the wall.
Which brings me to my current conundrum. Given that we sometimes like to create heroes who are challenging, damaged or who exist outside normal society in some way, how dark can we go? Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men certainly wades in obsidian waters with his drinking and womanising. He is hard and callous at times; think how he turned his back on the gay character Salvatore Romano, or refused to forgive British character Lane Pryce his paltry embezzlement, driving the poor fellow to suicide. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that twenty years ago, a character such as Don Draper might have existed in popular media, but he wouldn’t have been allowed to survive and prosper. (Note, I’ve only watched up to series 5, so no sneaking in and telling me how he ends up!)
To what extent can we threaten our own and our readers’ sense of ‘right-ness’ by giving our heroes dark characteristics?
And what is dark, exactly?
Well, here’s a list. The following manly vices are not dark, or IMO, not dark to the point where we’d give up liking the man:
Driving a performance car, too fast.
Notching up sexual encounters in youth.
Being divorced. Experimenting with drugs when young and unfettered.
Fancying the pants off the heroine, while having no intention of a long term relationship (Until chapter three, anyway)
Serial monogamy (terms and conditions apply) Causing death, injury to others, brawling, firing a gun, doing time in prison (terms and conditions, ditto)
The following vices are, IMO, too dark to make you care for the man.
Getting drunk and violent, with no intention of stopping
Smoking with kids in the room (Hey, they’ll find a cure for cancer by the time junior’s grown up!!)
Driving a performance car, too fast, without concern for other road uses, or small, furry creatures.
Still notching up youthful sexual encounters when old enough to know better
Being divorced because he was a grade II, gold plated sh*t to his ex. Add to his, leaving his kids because he can’t deal with commitment
Still taking drugs while old enough to know better, doing a bit of dealing
Fancying the pants off the heroine, with no intention of a long term relationship long past chapter three
Serial monogamy, with emphasis on serial.
Causing death, injury either for self-gratification or reckless stupidity. Being in prison for same.
The difference between the two lists is form one stuff. List one describes a person with human failings that are redeemable and in some cases admirable. A soldier fighting for his (or her) country against an oppressive foe can be on the side of the angels. That same soldier coming home and getting into bar fights, taking on loudmouths and bullies, has us rooting for him. He may end up in jail, but we know he’s sound at heart. List two describes schmucks and losers. The sort of men you’d warn your daughter off, or if you’re young enough to be my daughter, I’d warn you off.
And that, I think, is clincher #2. Paint your hero as dark as you like. Make him flawed, testosterone fuelled, overly blunt, nay, rude. A risk-freak, even a recreational drug user but if we’re going to care for him, his baseline must be trustable and moral. I mean, apart from Jon Hamm’s mesmerising good looks, why do we go back for more? Thinking about it, the one thing for me that makes Don Draper worth emotional investment is that he loves his children and in spite of everything, is there for them. He doesn’t do a perfect job, but he tries.
After that, he can be as dark as a pot of Marmite. He can be a vampire who has to have his daily quart of O-positive, or a warrior who slaughters hundreds in the name of freedom. He can like imaginative sex, kinky or even weird sex (so long as it is never coercive or vicious). He can do two-wheel turns in his Ferrari round hairpin bends, so long as it’s only his own life he’s putting on the line. I truly believe that no romantic hero can depart from that baseline. You may disagree – I look forward to your comments.
Natalie Meg Evans
The Dress Thief, published by Quercus Books June 2014
On September 13th 2014 my novel The Dress Thief won the Festival of Romantic Fiction Readers’ award for the Best Historical Read. A moment of personal satisfaction, and I don’t yet know what other good things will flow from it. Here, I make my stand for competitions as the best doorway to publication. At the event, btw, an unpublished writer won a publishing contract.
Want to get published? Then write a terrific book. Have it read by fair-minded critiquers who’ll help iron out the weaknesses that get between all writers and perfection.
Then get an up to date copy of Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – or whatever is your nation’s version of this fine tome – and submit your work, in the preferred format, to every agent and publisher who declares an interest in your genre. Put the champagne in the fridge and wait. And wait …
The above is pretty much standard advice, but if you’re doing this and getting nowhere, is there anything you can do to push open that unyielding door? When the post brings yet another SASE containing the pages you sent out six weeks before, along with a boiler-plate response or a scribbled, ‘Not for us’, you’ll wonder what you can do to change the odds. Time is passing, rejection slips make depressing bookmarks. The notion that writing was going to be a fun, creative way of making a living has evaporated.
If this scenario feels a little uncomfortably familiar – what now?
Enter every serious, honest writing competition you can. Make it your goal to enter as many as you can afford. Doing so changed my life.
It gave me the step up from being a ‘Want it’ writer to being a writer with a 2-book deal with a mainstream publishing house. My debut novel came out June, 2014.
I’m not one of life’s natural winners. I rarely win raffles and never win lotteries. I went through school without picking up so much as a book token. Even at Sunday School, the prayer book presented to me by the vicar was inscribed ‘for regular attendance.’ Yup, a plodder but turning up has a lot going for it, and if you’re a writer, ‘turning up at the page’ (as creative guru Julia Cameron puts it) is the best way to finish a book. But that’s another blog for another time. Come to think of it, I’ve already written that blog.
My first writer’s prize I shall always treasure as it came after I’d been flumping on a literary mudflat for some while, my confidence shot. It was courtesy of the then London Evening Standard and the writing challenge was a poem on the subject of wonderful novelist Jeanette Winterson. The prize was a set of Le Creuset saucepans. I won, I have the pans still. Confused? There’s a link to my website at the bottom, where you’ll find the full exposition. I think it’s headed poetry and sex. But I digress …
My next success came a few years later when I won first prize in a BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour competition. The challenge – to name my three ideal Christmas dinner guests. I chose The Lord of Misrule, the Queen of Sheba and late, much missed Claire Rayner on the basis, I seem to remember, that I would be guaranteed a lark, some glamour and hugs when it all got too much. My prize was a mention on Women’s Hour by Jenni Murray and a reception at the BBC’s Maida Vale studio where Jenni chatted a moment and presented me with a red rosette, which I still have.
I was writing madly, as well as doing the day job, and getting no nearer success. Scroll forward a decade. Picture nights spent at the keyboard, manuscripts completed, some abandoned, a flirtation with screen writing, a major house move and various resonating life changes. At last, in 2007, I had finished a book I thought was good enough to be published. I started marketing A Tangled Season.
I developed a tight, compelling query letter and sent it off to agents, joining that gallant company of triers, for whom hope springs eternal and every hike in postage is a cause of material pain. I got some good feedback, a couple of ‘can we read the whole book’ requests that came to nothing after a long, painful wait. I got some curt dismissals too. Mostly, it was photocopied form letters saying thanks but no thanks. The most depressing response was, ‘Don’t bother, nobody’s publishing anything.’ The most confusing was from the agency who managed to get my submission back to me within twenty-four hours of my sending it (in itself a miracle) with a typed comp slip saying, ‘We have carefully considered your work …’
There are times when trying to get published feels like a form of insanity, Catch 22 refined by the Mad Hatter. I had a good book, but I didn’t have an edge. No USP. No relatives in the media; I’m not a celebrity. Nor am I the victim or perpetrator of a high-profile crime. I’ve never had a fling with a footballer. Well, not a famous one, anyway. I’m not in any way related to the Royal Family or to the Middletons. I could pretend to trace my lineage back to Richard III or Jack the Ripper, but I’m not sure I could sustain the scrutiny. In short, I’m just me. A woman living in East Anglia, UK, who writes. My dogs think I’m special, but that’s as far as it goes.
22nd June, 2011, changed it all. I joined the Romance Writers of America which gave me entree into any number of writing contests, including its famed Golden Hearts. During the summer of 2011, I brushed up A Tangled Season for that Autumn’s Golden Hearts. During those same summer months, I worked on a separate novel, It’s Six O’clock Somewhere, and sent the first chapters to the Mslexia Magazine Women’s Novel Competition, which runs every two years.
I also submitted the start of a ‘novel with an urban setting’ to the long-running Harry Bowling prize, a biennial event run by the estate of the late, best selling writer, by Headline Books and MBA Literary Agency. Please imagine a drum roll, culminating in a blast of trumpets at the name ‘Harry Bowling.’ During the long, damp summer of 2011, I worked on each submission, paid my fees (about £60 in total) and sent them out with heartfelt good wishes. I then forgot about them and got on with other projects. The ‘forgetting’ part is important because however good you are, you might not win. I entered the Harry Bowling twice in the past and didn’t figure.
The first result was an email from Mslexia to say that ‘It’s Six O’Clock Somewhere’ was on the long-list for their award. Yippee! Then, in the November, I got an email from the Harry Bowling organisers to say that ‘A Dark Flowering’, as it was then called, was on the shortlist for their prize. In the case of the Mslexia competition, I had to storm through to the end of the book because they wanted the whole thing. Then I got an email from Mslexia to say I hadn’t been selected for their shortlist. Happy turned sad for a few days. However, as a direct outcome of entering Mslexia’s competition, I got an entire 110,000 word novel finished in about seven months. I still have that novel. Its time will come and I will always be able to say of it, ‘Long-listed for the Mslexia prize.’ From the moment I got that first email from Mslexia, I was able to write to agents as a person who had received external validation. No longer was it just me, supported by loving dogs. It was me, dogs and Mslexia. Believe me, that makes a difference.
Joy of joys I WON THE HARRY BOWLING PRIZE for A Dark Flowering. In a way, the rest is history as I had by then caught the attention of MBA Literary Agency, who now represent me. However, spool back to March 2012, having forgotten all about sending A Tangled Season to the American Golden Hearts, I got a call to say I was a Finalist and that the awards ceremony would take place in California that July. ‘I said, ‘Lovely, I’m really pleased.’ I didn’t twig how important that award is to the RWA, how coveted Finalist places are. They’re so coveted, Finalists immediately form themselves into a sorority with a website and a zingy name, in our case, The Firebirds. They were looking for me, this dim English broad, wondering where the heck I was.
Once I hooked up with them, I got the message. A Tangled Season had achieved something special, on its own, without me breathing over its shoulder.
I went to the awards ceremony in California. I didn’t win my category. Was I sanguine about it? No. I howled in my hotel room, but in the end, it didn’t really matter. A Tangled Season will always be a Golden Heart Finalist and I made friends in America that will endure.
Since being signed by MBA, I’ve been working hard on the novel that won the Harry Bowling prize, taking it through revisions and polishings. It has a new name, The Dress Thief, I have signed to Quercus Books, an independent publisher with an impressive stable of authors, among whom I’m honoured, and a little knocky-kneed, to find myself. I have a two book contract. Yes, me, the scabby kid who got a prayer book for turning up. Without competition wins I’d probably still be sending out submission letters to agents. I would know I was worth representing. My dogs and my husband would know it, but would the rest of the world?
Still not convinced? This morning, I got an email from a fellow RWA member who’s just learned she came second in a local chapter competition. An editor from Penguin now wants to see her full manuscript. Of such breaks are careers made.
So get comping and I wish you the very best of luck, Natalie Meg Evans 2012 Harry Bowling prize winner, 2012 Romance Writers’ of America Golden Heart Finalist, RWA Golden Pen third prize winner, RWA Daphne du Maurier Award 3rd prize winner. And that’s enough bragging.
My tip list for entering and winning competitions.
- Make your first sentence a knock-out. The opening phrase of A Dark Flowering was key in clinching me the Harry Bowling prize.
- Proof like crazy and don’t make last minute changes because they lead to typos. Try and finish your work well before the deadline to give yourself time to read with fresh eyes.
- Print out the competition rules and read them out to yourself as if you’re reading to a four year old. Every organisation’s rules are different, but they’re very specific. Some will ask you to submit in RTF format rather than docx because some judges can’t open docx files. They’re often specific about fonts, too.
- Times New Roman point size 12 offends nobody. It’s easy on the eye. Don’t use funny or fancy fonts. They’re not funny to those who have to read them at length. Double spacing goes without saying.
- If you’re asked not to put identifying names on your entry, then don’t. That goes for the data that goes with your attachment. Take out identifying markers. Trust the organisers to link your un-named pages to your entry form. They’ve done it before, you know.
- Remember page numbers.
- Don’t leave entering to the last minute. Wifi connections can be slow, the post gets delayed. I sent a story out to a competition with four seconds to go before it closed and will never know if it got there in time. Why give yourself the stress?
- Once you’ve pressed ‘send’ let the story fly and get on with something else.
- Be gracious and philosophical if you aren’t chosen. Never be tempted to write angry emails or to slag off judges. Many judges give their time and expertise for free and remember, the written word is deeply subjective.
- Ditto, be gracious if you are chosen. Winning is lovely and means you can add riders to your social profiles (see above) My American friends call them ‘bragging rights’. Note to self, don’t overdo it.
Be savvy about which competitions are valuable and will enhance your career, and which are ruses to get money out of you, or to lure you into vanity publishing. Ask – who is running this competition? Who is judging and lending their name to it? What’s the financial deal? Good competitions usually charge an entry fee to cover administration costs. If it’s free, is it because they have a grant or a sponsor, or because they’ll want you to buy a compilation of short stories/poems later? But don’t be too snobbish. Small, even local competitions, are valuable. They give you experience and a lovely boost if you’re feeling a bit down.
Where to find the best competitions?
If you write Romance, you might consider joining the Romance Writers of America as they run many competitions, often through their local chapters. These comps offer the category winners the chance to be read and considered by acquiring editors. I repeat, acquiring editors. These people are like gold dust in real life. UK and EU romance writers might consider joining the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Assoc). For other competitions, read Writers’ & Artists’ yearbook, the media pages of the press, particularly the Guardian. Writers’ News used to be a very good resource, but I can’t find it any more. Anybody out there know if it’s still around? Do search search engine trawls ‘Literary competitions’ see what comes up.
Visit my website www.wordyhood.com
Last week I was tagged by Helen Carey to take part in The Next Big Thing. This is a viral blog chain which one tries to pass on to another writer …. only nobody’s jumped in. See below and call me Billy No-Mates. Here is my Q&A about my upcoming Book.
1 What is the working title of your next book?
A Dark Flowering.
2 Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I was 14, my mother took me to Paris, where she’d lived for a year aged twenty. She’d been brought up by an aunt and uncle who were narrow-minded and authoritarian, and never travelled further than the English seaside. To her, Paris felt like an escape from prison, a world undreamed of and even though she went in the aftermath of World War Two, and there queues everywhere and shortages, the magic touched her. This she communicated to me and the two Easter weeks I spent with her in Paris in the late 1970s are still imprinted.
3 What genre does your book fall under?
It started off as Romantic Suspense, but with editing and rewriting, I’ve concentrated more on relationships and the world of Paris fashion. So I would now call it historical romance.
4 Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Okay – my hero, Verrian Haviland who is darkly Cornish would be role for Henry Cavil (who played 1st Duke of Suffolk in The Tudors.) Mr Cavil is dark enough, smouldering-y enough and tall enough at 6 foot 1.
My heroine, Alix Gower … Ideally, a young Audrey Hepburn. Is there one out there? Alix is 17 at the start of the book, gamine, naïve, half-Fench Jewish, half English. Sexy but doesn’t know what to do with it. I am drawn to Tehran-born Golshifteh Farahani who was in Ridley Scott’s ‘Body of Lies’ but in reality, she’d be a little old. I’ve just come across Celine Buckens who starred in ‘Warhorse’ and was described by You Magazine as ‘The European Ingénue’, so I’m keeping tabs on her.
Alix’s long-suffering grandmother, Danielle Lutzman, is a shoo-in for East Enders actress, June Brown. Kika Mirylees (Bad Girls) would be perfect as glacial English aristo, Rhona de Charembourg. When not being one of the ‘Julies’ Kika is quite posh. And I would like to play the part of Verrian’s mother, a tweedy English lady who gardens in pearls and bosses the local Women’s Institute about. A chance to stride about in sensible shoes saying, ‘One always knows the state of a woman’s underwear from a glance at her front garden.’ ‘Course, I’d have to grey-up and add some padding. Yes, I would.
5 What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
With a sweeping plot and a cast of characters whose lives clash and interweave, A Dark Flowering takes place in Paris and London from 1937-39, ending at the outbreak of war.
6 Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have just signed with London agency MBA, so the latter. MBA helps run the Harry Bowling prize, which I won in 2012
7 How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Three years as I wrote it when my son was very young and I was a working mum, writing only at night. That first draft hardly exists now, but it was a vital exercise even though I often fell asleep at the computer.
8 What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
My books are not consciously moulded on anyone else’s but like all good sagas, are character-led, rich in detail, and an emotional roller coaster. Actually, the thing I’d like to be most like is Downton, as in Abbey. I am Downton Abbey with turnable pages.
9 Who or What inspired you to write this book?
See above, my mother. And a gentleman known always as ‘Monsieur Louis’, who was her very dear friend. Politically astute, a survivor of World War One, a devout Catholic, he was a perfect gentlemen who demonstrated how a well-bred, intelligent man behaves. He knew all the best restaurants in the Latin Quarter too!
10 What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Ooooh. Sex. Lingerie. Ooh la la and lots of it.
I was tagged by: http://helencareybooks.wordpress
I am now tagging: Nobody as my ‘tagee’ went off the boil at the last minute. Am I the last in line? Will I be turned into a FROG? Do hope not. Maybe you’d like to take up the baton ? Contact me
Writing is one thing; it’ll keep you out of mischief and occupied for weeks, months, even years. But writing fiction that people love to read, now that’s a real test. Not only of staying power and commitment, but of you, as the generator of words and ideas. Where do you start? How do you make all those ideas in your head live and speak on paper, or screen?
In this blog, I will explore the alchemy of writing, the essential marriage of mind and heart which I think is essential for creating work that speaks to others. A good book is not just a beginning, middle and an end, though that helps! A great book is not just a compelling tale or a few good characters. It isn’t about being able to spell or punctuate (though that helps too). It’s all those things, and other notoriously hard-to-define elements.
I’m also going to blog about some of my passions as a writer and reader. I won’t drivel on about myself – I mean, honestly, even I don’t want to hear about what I get up to some days. One of the things I most like to do as a writer is look behind the obvious. I like turning rocks, scanning between the lines and understanding the subtle intentions of the writer. I hope you enjoy my blog and send me your observations.
Who am I? I’m a writer and painter, living in an old Tudor farmhouse in one of the quietest parts of East Anglia, England, with my husband and animals. I’ve always gravitated to the countryside, though I lived in London for ten years and in suburban Surrey for fifteen years after that. I love the landscape of this eastern side of England, the endless views, the painters’ skies, church spires poking through oak trees, the ancient houses that survived the last few centuries because nobody bothered to knock them down. The landscape feeds me and I always think of walking as writing by other means. It’s the quiet time when ideas evolve and clarity dawns. I write two kinds of novel – full-blooded, romantic historicals and edgy, modern crime. Whichever type I’m engaged on, I’m determined to create strong characters readers can follow into the depths of the story, and compelling plots that get you hooked! Read more at http://www.wordyhood.com
Yes, I am launching a book, and I’d love you all to say ‘Really? Wow!’ but I totally get that nobody wants marketing lobbed at them. So as an upfront ‘thank you’ for your attention, I’m throwing my best ever anecdote into this blog, and sharing some marketing thoughts. The anecdote happened to me in London SW19 some years back. It won’t get me onto Graham Norton’s red chair but it makes some kind of existentialist point about expecting the unexpected. Read it, keep it, pass it off as your own. I have released it into Bloggosphere Commons.
OK, I need to publicise my book. The ebook release date is only two days away. I’m excited but nervous, telling myself I haven’t done enough publicising. Nowhere near.
All writers have to get behind their book. No longer can we fire a novel out into the world and say, ‘Fly little fella’ and go back to what we were doing before. We must fly with it, holding its wing and guiding it through the impenetrable flock of other ‘little fellas’ that have been launched at the same time.
But there’s a real dilemma if you have a pressured writing schedule. How to give your new book the best chance, without ending up rocking in a corner because you can’t get on with writing book 2? How can you do your share of PR activity, while also remaining creatively focussed so your follow-up book doesn’t come over like a 1950s public service broadcast?
A scatter-gun PR campaign is not the way, unless you can afford somebody to do it for you. It’s why I’m coming to the conclusion that I have to narrow the focus. Building a bigger social network platform, getting online reviews and guest blogspots. As far as traditional PR goes – magazine articles, newspaper announcements – I’m keeping it local because in your own backyard there will be people who will read your book because you are local. When I say local, I actually mean everywhere you’ve ever lived or studied, or rocked the boat. The other day, I wrote a blog for a newspaper in SW19, Tennis-Wimbledon, where I lived in my early twenties. I shoe-horned in my best after dinner fable about the day I was working in a quaint old bakery in Wimbledon Village and a group of unbelievably tall African American men came in asking for doughnuts. Or should that be donuts? In they came, stooping to get through the doorway and filling the shop with their singlet-ed presence. I nearly cricked my neck making eye-contact but I knew who they were because I’d watched their cartoon show as a kid. They were the Harlem Globetrotters, doing what it says on the tin, globe-trotting. So weirdly out of context, they had come and gone before I could properly tune in to the reality of their being there. Know what they said? ‘Can we have some donuts please.’ I know. I’ve always held that reality is basically mundane, and that’s why we need fiction.
To re-link to my earlier point about PR, if somebody reads that a girl who once lived in their town is launching a novel, and sold jam impregnated baked goods to superstars, they’ll think, ‘Did I know her?’ and you have their attention, if only for a moment.
And so now . . . drum roll, here it is, my baby. Published in ebook May 29th 2014 and as a paperback on June 5th.
http://bit.ly/1jcla3O The Book Depository
http://bit.ly/1g5bjwH – Quercus Books
If you are tempted, please consider writing an Amazon review. Every algorithm counts these days. Thank you for reading.