You might not want to read my latest book…

That seems a strange thing for an author to say – but the book I just finished writing is a bit … Well… it has lines in it like…

10 0 * * * root /exc/dbdump Cdiv –f + | gzip –c >      and so on.

I guess this is where I confess that I am a bit of a geek. Or nerd. Or techie… there are a lot of words for it.

In my day job I do database and workflow design with large computer systems for making TV programmes and films. I’ve just finished writing a training course for system administrators, including some pretty advanced IT ‘stuff’. The book is almost 400 pages long. I think that’s longer than any of my novels.

The cover is definitely not as pretty as my novel covers.

Although it’s a totally different type of writing, as I did it, it occurred to me there are some similarities between writing a technical training course book and writing a novel.

First – good grammar and spelling and sentence structure are essential for both. Punctuation too.

A novel has to show an unfolding story – provide some background and explanation – otherwise what happens next won’t make sense. The same is true of a training manual. The early chapters (well… lessons) prepare the attendees for what’s ahead and give them the knowledge they need to carry on.

There’s no dialogue in a training guide, but it does have to contain explanations of various things – presented in much the same way as the trainer does when speaking.

Part of me wants to open the technical book at random and turn something like this…….

… into this and see if any of the students notice.

You have to maintain the reader,s interest in whatever you write – a novel or a technical manual. It’s probably easier in a novel, because the reader is there for enjoyment. Although, a lot of people enjoy learning new things as well.

And of course, there has to be a climax… That’s easy in a novel – the moment of greatest conflict and resolution.

In a training course – it’s the exam. And the happy ever after comes when you pass and get the certificate. And you may even catch the glimpse of a promotion or pay rise in your future.

In totally honesty, I enjoy writing novels more than writing technical manuals – but both provide their own challenges. That’s what I like to do all the time – challenge myself. And I do believe that whatever you write, if you do your best to write it well, the experience will make you a better writer for all things.

And now – it’s back to the Aussie bush and my next novel.

The second time is the charm

Six years ago, I did a half day course with Michael Hauge. Who’s he, you ask. Well he’s the guy that most of Hollywood goes to for help to improve their scripts and storylines. He’s worked with the likes of Will Smith and Julia Roberts and Morgan Freeman. His credits include everything from Sci Fi epics like I am Legend to more character based films like The Karate Kid.

Two very different films but the same rules of storytelling apply to both

Two very different films but the same rules of storytelling apply to both

He is now primarily a teacher – and what a good teacher he is. Although he has worked mostly on feature films, he also works with authors and he has a lot to offer to offer on the subject of story structure, character arc and plotting. His great ability is to distil a complex book of 100 thousand words down to the key elements. To make it simple.

That half day course I did six years ago opened my eyes, and I have been drawing on things I learned there ever since and I still pop in to his website from time to time to read articles and advice.

I have written six novels since I did that first course. This week, as part of the Romance Writers of Australia conference, I was back in his audience again, for a full day seminar.

The Romance Writers of Australia conference - always a good place to learn more about my craft.

The Romance Writers of Australia conference – always a good place to learn more about my craft.

So it seemed a good idea to nominate six important things I took away from this day.

  1. The primary goal of every story is create an emotional experience for the reader.
  2. The hero or heroine is not someone who is heroic… they become heroic during the course of the story.
  3. Emotion arises from conflict, not from desire.
  4. A book should give a before and after picture of our key protagonist and their life… and we should be able to see the differences clearly.
  5. The reader needs to empathise with their key character and we need to create that empathy before we start showing the character’s flaws. That way, the reader will cut the character a little slack.
  6. Most Hollywood blockbusters (and the same can be said for successful novels too, I think) are based on five visible goals….
  • To stop (something happening). This includes a lot of crime, sci fi, thriller horror and superhero films)
  • To escape (from somewhere or some person). This would be a disaster film and some thrillers and horror films.
  • To deliver (someone or something to some place). This is not common – but the best example is Lord of the Rings.
  • To retrieve (someone or something). This is a film for Indiana Jones. It’s also any kidnapping film or heist story.
  • To win (a contest or sports event or to win someone’s love). This is the most common form of film.

I have to say some of the concepts he raised made me struggle a bit – but that’s good. Struggling to understand what we do only makes us better at it. I guess I’ll be applying what I learned today to the next six novels I write.

The session in full swing.

The session in full swing.

Research: Sue shares her methods

Research: Sue shares her methods

I love the research connected to my books. Research trips for The Christmas Promise took me repeatedly to London – Camden (including cafes that sold great cake and shops that sold incredible shoes), Balham, and an exhibition of graphic art at the British Library. My next book, due out next summer and currently bearing the working title of Just for the Holidays, necessitated (yes, truly necessitated) a four-day trip to Strasbourg and a helicopter pilot taking me up and pretending to crash (read about it here). The helicopter event is  my happiest research moment to date.

The book I’m just beginning to plan, which currently has the snappy title of My Next Book, is causing me to watch a lot of property programmes and learn about being an interior decorator. (Fun, but nothing on the helicopter.)Helicopterweb

As people frequently ask me about my research (‘You went up in a helicopter and did WHAT?’) I thought I’d share with you how I go about things.

  • Early research into a place sees me buying maps and books, plus ransacking any handy Tourist Information office for leaflets and timetables. It really helps me to read all this material and keep it to hand while the book’s being written. Nothing slows my output so much as me thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?’
  • I walk for miles around the area with my phone. NB I’d take a digital camera, too, if my phone had a small memory or didn’t take good pix.
  • I have to put a word in for technology here – a good phone makes research effective. I take photo after photo. Not just buildings or markets, but road signs (very useful to take the one near where you leave the car, by the way) and notices.
  • When a fabulous idea bursts into my imagination, I activate the voice recorder on my phone. Nobody thinks I’m nuts, talking into a phone. I chatter on about what might happen when Ava and Sam have breakfast the morning after Patrick’s party and note that the fastest way from the ‘caff’ to the station is probably across Sainsbury’s car park.
  • Back home in  Northamptonshire I download the images onto my much-loved Mac and, ta-dah! My memories made real. The images are also filed handily in the order in which I took them, which can be a huge help when I’m later writing about a character’s route home.
  • 2014-08-21 14.32.21Of course, I  do some of the nutty novelist stuff, too (helicopter!), like wandering around Camden until I find the street where Ava and Izz live (it’s just off Kentish Town Road and all the houses are different colours, like a Quality Street tin) and falling into conversation with a much-decorated Goth couple just to find how cool it really is to live in Camden Town. (Very, apparently, especially around the markets in summer.)
  • HatInvaluable to me is getting the right people to talk to me about whatever it is I need to know. I tend to look out for suitable careers for my characters and a few years ago I happened to be on a radio programme for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with Abigail Crampton of Abigail Crampton Millinery. I said hers would be an ideal job for one of my heroines and when I finally got around to the right heroine, I emailed Abigail and asked for help. She kindly invited me to her studio and, since then, I have invited myself to her hat-making demonstrations, back to her studio, and invited her to read my manuscript twice and get involved in the promo for the book. (Truthfully, you need a certain amount of front to make strangers into friends so that you can shamelessly pick their brains and email screeds of questions for months on end, but it’s a skill well worth cultivating.)
  • I say ‘thank you!’ a lot, too.

Taking the technical terror out of talks

Jenny, Sue and I had a great time last week at the Romantic Novelists Association conference (see the previous post)… for me there was also a bit of work involved.

I have the honour (is that the right word – I’m not so sure) to be the RNA’s geek girl. My day job involves television and complex computer systems, and I am therefore member who looks after all things technology for the RNA.

I spent a lot of the weekend running around (well – actually hobbling around due to injured foot) making sure all the speakers were happily attached to projectors, computers and microphones. And I also gave a workshop on the technology of giving talks.

Here I am - with a very very big screen, giving a talk at a previous RNA conference.

Here I am – with a very very big screen, giving a talk at a previous RNA conference.

Almost every author I know gives talks – to conferences, writing groups, educational institutions, the WI – and even on cruise ships. It’s part of the job description. I often get emails from panicking friends saying things like – I have to give this talk and they say they only have HDMI. What’s that? Can I plug my Mac into it?

Talks are scary enough without the technical terror, so I thought I should offer up some help.

If you want to connect your computer to a large screen TV or a projector, there are two primary ways to do this.

VGA is a 15 point plug that outputs only the screen display, usually to a projector. There is no audio. This is most commonly found in places like the WI.

A VGA cable and port. The other end of the cable is attached to the projector or sometimes a TV.

A VGA cable and port. The other end of the cable is attached to the projector or sometimes a TV.

Sometimes your computer will automatically adjust itself and the image on your laptop screen will just appear on the big screen. If not, go into your Control Panel –> display and screen resolution to find the place where you tell it to detect another screen.

If you need audio when using a projector with VGA, you will need external speakers. I have a cheap pair of speakers I take with me. Some venues will have their own permanent speakers and a cable that you just plug in the same way you plug in your headphones. If you are including a video in your presentation, make sure you check the audio situation.

HDMI  is more recent technology and is used to connect to a big screen TV or a proper multi-media desk. It shares both sounds and the screen.

HDMI connections. The plug looks the same at both ends. This is for large screen TVs

HDMI connections. The plug looks the same at both ends. This is for large screen TVs

Most new laptops no longer have VGA ports. They only have HDMI. You are going to need a converter to attach to an older projector. You can buy a HDMI to VGA adapter online or at any electronics/computer store for £10-20. Remember, if at any point you go through a VGA port, you will not have audio at the other end.

If you have a MAC – you won’t have either VGA or HDMI – so you will have to get a proper MAC to VGA or Mac to HDMI converter. These are easy to buy and work just fine.

A MAC to HDMI converter. There's a similar one for VGA too.

A MAC to HDMI converter. There’s a similar one for VGA too.

The final piece of technology you need is what is known in the trade as a clicker thingy. These require a USB port on the laptop.

Most clickers also have a laser pointer included. The laser won't work on most TV screens.

Most clickers also have a laser pointer included. The laser won’t work on most TV screens.

Using a remote clicker allows you to move away from the laptop, walk around as you talk and wave your arms around too. Try not to do what I did and wave your arms with such enthusiasm that you accidentally throw the clicker thingy into a wall and break it. Oops.

Ok – so that’s the technology – I hope that helps.

Over on my blog at www.janetgover.com, I am talking about the slide presentation itself and how to make it entertaining and interesting. It’s all about bouncing balls and honeycomb wipes. Do drop over for a look.

A whole lot of romance

Take around 200 romantic novelists and what do you get? A conference, apparently! The Romantic Novelists’ Association conference at Lancaster University certainly didn’t disappoint, with an amazing buzz for the best part of three days.

The RNA is a diverse and incredibly supportive organisation. Writers of all ages, published, unpublished and self-published belong, and new writers are mentored through those painful early days towards publication. At the conference, there are talks and workshops on just about every aspect of writing a novel you can think of – but the best part of it is meeting new writers, making new friends and catching up with old friends.

Three Take Five Authors members were there enjoying the fun this year. Janet Gover and Jenny Harper and Sue Moorcroft.

A common pastime for me during the weekend. It's much better now.

A common pastime for Janet during the weekend. It’s much better now.

 

Janet says: I had a wonderful time and came back totally inspired. It wasn’t just the talks and workshops. They were full of useful information… but I learned something else this year. The night before conference, I hurt my foot, and at one stage thought I would be unable to go. I put out an SOS and so many of my RNA friends were there to help – with a lift to the venue, carrying my things, even dashing out to buy frozen peas to help my swollen foot. For me, that really sums up the friendship I find in the RNA.

 

Jenny says: The Conference is a great time for renewing old friendships and forging new ones – and I had a ball doing both. The only frustrating thing is that there are often two or more sessions running at the same time, so you simply can’t do everything. I’m delighted that I chose to attend the crime workshop. I don’t write crime, but I now know where to turn for accurate information if I ever need it – and it was fascinating. Roll on next year!

Janet and Jenny catching up at the conference.

Janet and Jenny catching up at the conference.

Sue says: I spent a lot of time catching up with my friends in the dining room, the bar and at kitchen parties (invaluable networking) but I also attended some great sessions. The two on commercial fiction were especially useful as I’m teaching a course on the subject in October and the ‘Together we stand panel’ of industry professionals was just fascinating. The conference always gives me a huge buzz!

Sue with RNA President Katie Fforde

Sue with RNA President Katie Fforde