Learning from the master

One of my favourite writers - and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour... and ...

One of my favourite writers – and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour… and …

I’m having a bit of a fan girl thing at the moment – and in between blinking in awe at the light bulb moments, I’m learning a fair bit about how to write. I’ve written ten books (eight published and two more on their way), and won a few awards, but that’s not enough to make me think I know it all – or even that I know a lot. A bit… I think I know a bit about writing, but I’m always looking to learn more.

When signing up for a writing course, or looking for a mentor, I think it’s important that person be someone whose work you admire. If that person’s work is so good it takes your breath away – literally – then that’s even better. So when I found out that Aaron Sorkin was doing an online Masterclass in screenwriting, I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.

I am not a screenwriter, although as a movie buff, the idea does appeal. But good story telling is good story telling, whatever medium. Books and films and television all need captivating characters, sparkling dialogue and engrossing plot twists.

And nobody does these things better than Aaron Sorkin. For those who don’t know him – he wrote, among other things – A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network, Steve Jobs (the one starring Michael Fassbender), The West Wing, The Newsroom… and a few other bits and pieces. His shelves must be groaning under the weight of all the awards he’s won.

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing - which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That's what I call a pitch!

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing – which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That’s what I call a pitch!

The course is a series of lectures and workshops… I’m not finished yet, but I already know that when I have finished, I’ll go back and watch it again. A lot of what he’s saying I have heard before. Or knew already. Or thought I knew. But sometimes, just presenting something in a different way can make all the difference. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Here are a few of the things Sorkin has said that resonated with me, not that I haven’t heard other people say similar things, but because the way he said these things just flicked the switch on some light bulbs.

  • When writing anti-heroes or villains, it is important to identify with them rather than judge them. If you can put yourself in their thoughts, in their point of view, you are less likely to end up with a cliché bad guy.
  • Avoid meaningless research, and look for nuggets that can lead to an engaging plot point. Look for the things you didn’t expect … and don’t worry if you don’t know what questions to ask. Find an expert on that topic and start with “Tell me something I don’t know about…”
  • You will lose your audience if you confuse them. Even the tiniest bit of confusion can ruin the experience. However, be careful of going too far in the other direction – telling them something they already know. And never talk down to your audience.
  • Rewriting is a lot easier than writing, because you have a problem to solve. There’s something wrong with the scene or paragraph or sentence and you have to fix it. Rewriting is NOT the sign of a bad script. It’s the sign of a good writer.

That one in particular has worked for me because I’m been in edits on the latest book as I’ve been watching this.

Brilliant writing - with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

Brilliant writing – with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

And finally – we’ve all heard of the three act play. That we should structure our books in three acts parts.  I’ve heard many different people try to explain this structure… and some of those explanations have made sense. But this is surely the best and clearest explanation ever….

  • Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.
  • Act 2: You throw rocks at them.
  • Act 3: You get them down (or not).

Thank you Aaron Sorkin.

I do recommend this course. The next part for me is to watch A Few Good Men. I have the DVD of course. As part of the Masterclass, I’ve been given a copy of Sorkin’s script. So now I’m going to watch and read and try to figure out what makes it so great.

Then I’ll go back to throwing rocks at a character up a tree.

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Balance in the life of a writer: how do you achieve it?

I was atphoto-of-balance a party once where a well-established mystery novelist told me she was lucky if she managed to write for an hour or two a day, the bulk of her schedule being consumed with book promotions, Twitter, Facebook, newletters, her blog. Seems we’re all performing the same high-wire act. Without a social media presence, without Bookbub, 99 cent promotions, Goodreads competitions, mailing lists, and all that ongoing effort, chances are that even the best-crafted novel will languish, lost and crying out unnoticed, in the wasteland of Amazon’s millions of fiction books. Well, boo-hoo, I can almost hear you say. After all, this isn’t high school English – no hoary old professor is forcing us to come up with the next Ellie Campbell book. And juggling time is nothing new for writers. Most of the literary greats had to fit in their artistic endeavours with full-time jobs, squeezing precious hours out of the early dawn or burning the midnight oil.

But still I wistfully think – wouldn’t it be nice to get a sense of balance? And have a life beyond the laptop? Are we all being forced to multi-task way beyond our natural capacity, checking our emails while sitting on the toilet while brushing our teeth? Lifting your nose from your mesmerizing screen only to discover six hours have vasalesnished, the husband has walked in the door and dinner is still a frozen chicken and a bag of groceries lying unpacked on the counter along with the breakfast dishes. We all have responsibilities shrieking for our attention: children, elderly parents, pets that need feeding or walking, even horses, (some of us). We have bodies that ought to be exercised more, friends that are feeling neglected, the guilty sense that however we spend our precious time, there is so much out there being left undone.

Recently I decided to tackle the exercise element. Being hopelessly disorganised and blaming Google for half my woes, I turned to the enemy for help. Yes, there are apps, endless apps for every need — Schedule Planner, Lose It, Map My Dog Walk – but to motivate me out of my swivel chair, I needed something simple and fun. Pokemon Go sounded promising but I hate those ugly little blighters and I’d probably fall in a ditch. So I downloaded Zombies, Run. Now I’m not just walking the dog, I’m listening to a story while looking for clues to save mankind as well as evading the heavy breathing shuffling footsteps coming up behind me and gaining supplies to build my township. Unfortunately, I’ve had to switch off the Zombie Chase feature until my cracked rib heals — I tripped on a pavement after all — but still I am getting out there daily and enjoying it!

Next I want to tackle The Walk, from the same developers, Six To Start, which throws you into an espionage story starting in Inverness in the Scottish Highlands and walks you the length of the British Isles, using your phone’s GPS to map your progress. Oh, and for that messy house? Tody promises to get your cleaning organized, UFYH offers some foul-mouthed random challenges, Home Routine lists your morning, afternoon and evening tasks, dividing the house into manageable zones and Epic Win allows you to be a warrior princess, unlocking a fantasy game as you accumulate points by completing your to-do list.

If you can’t escape this hi-tech age, join it, right? Will any of this actually make a difference? Too early to tell but if has anyone knows of another method that can turn a procrastinating dreamer into a fully-functioning Superwoman, pass it along in the comments – please, pretty please!!!

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How I trended on Twitter with #TheChristmasPromise

The 6th of October saw the ebook release of The Christmas Promise and #MyPromise is that the morning passed  in a blur of social media activity. Although I’m a touch typist and once worked as a copy taker on a sports paper (i.e. I type quickly) I could hardly keep up with Twitter.

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The blog tour had begun, the first reviews were in ‘wildest dreams’ territory and it seemed that everyone I know Tweeted to wish me well. And the result was:

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#TheChristmasPromise trended on Twitter for over two hours. The Digital Media Manager Tweeted this:

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My editor emailed me, my agent Tweeted me, I kept checking Twitter’s sidebar and it kept being up there. Talk about exciting!

And now you might want me to tell you how it was achieved. The problem is, I’m not sure. There must be so many factors influencing it, not least of which is what else was happening that day.

I can tell you my publisher, Avon (HarperCollins), put in a massive amount of work from which I benefited enormously. It wouldn’t be right to share their social media plan with you but be assured it was wonderful.

Here’s the details of the blog tour, though. Thank you to each and every blogger on it.

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As you can see, we utilised the hashtag #MyPromise as well as #TheChristmasPromise and the day before publication I contacted a lot of people, including the lovely members of Team Sue Moorcroft, asking them to make a Christmas promise and share it on social media. As the heroine, Ava, is a milliner, I had gathered a range of photos of myself wearing hats and I shared them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram the day before. I invited people to share photos of themselves in hats, too. A LOT of people shared those posts and the review posts and every other post that used the hashtag #TheChristmasPromise on the morning of the 6th. I retweeted everything I could, I replied to everything I could and I added the buy link to everything I could. I thanked everyone I could – and if you helped #TheChristmasPromise to trend that morning, whether or not I said it at the time: THANK YOU!

The paperback comes out on the 1st of December. I wonder if we can get it trending again then? Meanwhile, if you’d like the ebook, you can buy it here for the special price of 99p.

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I plan a trophy shelf.

bbb-logoI though I’d just pop in and share some excitement with you.  The second Coorah Creek Novel – The Wild One has just won TWO US awards.

The Wild One was a finalist in the Book Buyers best Award, sponsored by the Orange Country Chapter of Romance Writers of America , in the category for a mainstream romance. I was thrilled to be on a shortlist – but just knew my category would be won by the fabulous book Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist.  After all, it won a RITA award this year.

Imagine then how thrilled I was to receive an email saying I’d won that category.

The Wild One then went on to the Top Pick contest,  against the winners of each category.  Here I was sitting alongside several fabulous authors including,  and this was a real thrill for me, Brenda Novak. She is a wonderful author and I just love her books.  I could hardly believe it when The Wild One was named the top pick for 2016. (And yes – I did get very misty indeed).

The official announcement - woo hoo!

The official announcement – woo hoo!

It’s a shame I wasn’t able to be in the US for that announcement, but I am hovering near the front door waiting for parcel delivery person. And my husband has been given a task for this weekend – to install a shelf in my office for the awards. Then , if I’m having a bad day when the words just don’t come , I can look up and be reminded of those readers who have supported me and loved my characters and their stories.

Thank you all.

The shelf will go just below the award won by Flight To Coorah Creek last year.

The shelf will go just below the award won by Flight To Coorah Creek last year.

 

Creating characters: do babies count?

booteesIt’s been a funny few days. Just over a week ago, my world was turned topsy turvy by a phone call from my son to tell us that his wife had gone into labour – eight weeks early – and was about to have an emergency C-section. Cue panic, a rush to the hospital and a call six minutes later to tell us we were already grandparents!

Since then, understandably, it has been a bit of an anxious time. The wait to be sure that mother and baby were all right (they were), a great many checks to find out why the wee one decided it was the right moment to come into the world, and the day-to-day rollercoaster  of monitoring progress, waiting by the incubator and simply watching, have been all-encompassing. So my mind hadn’t really been much on writing this week – but when I sat down to pen this post, I just knew I had to think about babies, birth signs, character, and what shapes these amazing little people as they grow into their futures.

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Baby boy, born c. 1900, via Wikimedia Commons. I wonder how he turned out?

When People We Love was published last year, I gave a talk at our local library. After chatting a bit about how I came to writing and what it’s like being a writer, I launched into one of the themes of the book: shoes tell stories. Artist Lexie Gordon discovers this and bases a whole exhibition around pictures of shoes: ‘Shoes tell stories. Stories of tiny, much-loved babies who can’t even walk, of the tottering steps of little children towards adulthood, of special events in our lives, of dances, and marriages, and mountain climbs and escapes’. For my talk, I took along a pair of baby bootees, a pair of very high stilettos and a pair of comfortable brogues, then invited my audience to tell me more about the characters who might wear them, fleshing them out with tidbits of information until we all began to ‘see’ the character for each pair of shoes. The owner of the stilettos – how old was she, what kind of woman would wear them, what was her job, what was her favourite food and – tellingly perhaps – where did she spend the night last night? (And yes, of course they might have been owned and worn by a man, which would lead to a very different story!) Then I went through the same process for the comfortable brogues.

When it got to the baby bootees, however, everything got hazier. They were white, for a start, so gender stereotyping was out. And what do we really know about newborn babies? If we believe in astrology, we might assert that my grandson (a Libran) will be balanced, charming, tactful and diplomatic and sociable. He might also be fearful, indecisive and emotionally fragile. Who knows how he will turn out? And of course, any inherent traits might be batted aside by his upbringing and events in his life.

Of course, we don’t just think about star signs when a new baby comes into the world. From the moment babies arrive, we begin to observe their behaviour. My special grandson either made up his mind he was coming early, or he needed to get here for other reasons (we haven’t discovered anything that might have caused this, by the way). But right from the start he has been a peaceful soul, though he’s surprisingly strong and clearly knows his own mind. These perhaps contradictory traits seem to me to be interesting right away. Peaceable but strong? Sounds like a hero in the making to me!

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Peaceable but strong? Aidan Turner via Wikimedia Commons.

As writers, we have the power to create our characters from nothing. It’s a bit like looking at a newborn baby – we can invest them with pretty much any character features we like, and then set these at odds with what life throws at them. I do sometimes use star guides to flesh out my characters, or make sure they have a birthday that roughly fits with accepted traits in astrological terms, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Just writing this blog has inspired me to take a closer look at the characters in the novel I’m writing right now. But forgive me for admitting that I’ll be observing my little scrap with some bias as he develops and grows into a ‘character’ too!