And now for something completely … old

256px-Bute_House,_Charlotte_Square_Edinburgh

Bute House, Charlotte Square (Edinburgh New Town) via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m enjoying myself. I’m having a go at something completely different. I’m researching an idea for an historical novel.

I’m not telling you what it is, because it’s a great idea (or at least, I think it is!), but I’m surrounded by reference books and I’m having a ball. It’s giving me sanction to read – because after all, it’s research. There’s something in my Calvinist nature that makes me drive myself quite hard, so allowing myself the luxury of spending an entire afternoon turning the pages of a novel, no matter how good, is rare. (For all disappointed fellow novelists reading this, I listen to a great many audio books and if I like them enough, I buy them in paperback also).

My novel will be set in 18th/19th century Edinburgh. It’s a great period – the

Sir_Henry_Raeburn_-_Portrait_of_Sir_Walter_Scott

Sir Walter Scott, via Wikimedia Commons

Scottish Enlightenment, the time of Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart, of David Hume and James Hutton, of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. It was a time that Scotland was ahead of the game, amazingly so, when ideas flowed and talent abounded and men of vision found an eager audience for their ideas. I have reread the statement produced by the Edinburgh Council of the time, setting out their vision for ‘a New Town of Edinburgh’ – and it’s the most extraordinary, inspiring document. If only today’s local Councils were half as inspiring!

Will my idea work as a novel? I have no idea, yet. I’m having to learn so much – I can’t just describe a room, or what someone’s wearing, I need to check out the facts. Did they have this kind of wallpaper, that kind of undergarment, those carriages? How did they speak? What were women allowed to do? How did society operate? I know this is meat and drink to many writers (including a lot of my friends), but it’s new to me. Part of me is terrified I’ll get it all wrong, another part is

hackney-coach-1800

Hackney Coach c.1800, via Wikimedia Commons

thrilled by the challenge.

In September, I’ll be attending the HNS conference in Oxford, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m delighted to find that many of my RNA friends will be there, so I won’t feel strange. I’m hoping to learn a great deal, and perhaps by then I’ll have a long list of questions I can bounce off my more experienced friends. But that’s a great thing about being a writer today – there are so many forums for discussion, so many support groups, and the power of the internet to lead you in all sorts of promising (and distracting) directions.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Words clouds can be great tools for editing

MWM

This year is proving to be a really busy one for me. In January, we started this new blog, Take Five Authors, which has been huge fun. It’s great to be working with some really good authors on a shared venture. I also started writing for the Love a Happy Ending lifestyle magazine late in 2015, and that’s proving to be exciting and stimulating too. (You can read my recent article on staying in castles in Scotland here.)

6In February, my novel Between Friends was published. It’s about friendship and revenge, and it’s set in Edinburgh. I love the three main characters, Carrie, Marta and Jane, and all my readers are telling me that the villain, Tom, makes them squirm. I think that’s a good thing! I loved writing about Tom, he’s a true sociopath, he doesn’t care about other people at all.

MWM webAs if all that hasn’t been enough, I have another book coming out in July. Mistakes We Make is the fifth novel in my Heartlands series, set in East Lothian, and it’s the first that takes up the story of one of the supporting characters in another novel (People We Love).

I’m off to Venice in a week (yippee!), but I am expecting to arrive back to the edits of Mistakes We Make – which is what has prompted me to produce this lovely Wordle (word cloud) made from the most frequently recurring words in the entire manuscript. I’m relieved to see that Molly has most prominence (my heroine), followed very closely by Adam (her ex husband), with Caitlyn the next biggest name. Caitlyn has a big role in the story.

The reason for creating a word cloud? Well, it’s partly just fun – you can play with the fonts and colours and layout – but it’s more than that. A word cloud can show you if you are overusing certain words. I used to use ‘little’ far too much, but this seems to have been conquered. At a recent workshop I was given a list of words you should delete. These included: really, very, that, just, then, totally, absolutely, literally, certainly, actually, basically, rather, quite, replied, asked, wonder, think, feel, realise, inhale, sigh, shrug, nod.

Looking at my word cloud, I see the word ‘think’. It’s on the large side, which means I’ve over used it, so that’s something I’ll be looking out for as I go through the edits. (Wonder if my editor will spot it?) I can see ‘felt’, though it’s quite small, and ‘quite’ (one of my weaknesses). Thankfully, ‘quite’ is minuscule, so perhaps I’ll get away with that one!

I like editing, so I’m looking forward to this. And I’ll certainly have my word cloud in front of me as I go through the text – the more bad guys I can delete, the more alive my writing will be!

 

Head to Head with Sue Moorcroft

Jenny Harper - TFA

Jenny: the interviewer

Today on Take Five Authors I’m seizing the chance to interview one of our own members, Sue Moorcroft. Such a treat!

Sue Moorcroft - TFA

Sue: the interviewee

Tell us about The Wedding Proposal, Sue.

It’s set on Malta. I’d always wanted to write a reunion book, as I love reading them. Had I realised how much plotting of the backstory I’d have to carry out in order to make the front story work, I might have thought twice! I was brought up for several years in Malta and a part of my heart will always be there so, periodically, I send characters out to the island. I put Elle and Lucas on a small boat together in a yacht marina we used to be able to see from our balcony, when I was a child. Then I sat back and waited for fireworks … because Lucas hates secrets, and Elle has a lot.

Now we’re seeing a bit of a shift, aren’t we? What are you working on now?

Yes – I have another book out in the autumn! It’s called The Christmas Promise. I’ve been excited about this book for ages. It’s about Ava, who hates Christmas, has to admit that her couture millinery business has run into trouble, and is being threatened with revenge porn; and what happens to Sam who’s giving his mum Christmas because she’s between surgery and chemotherapy. The cover will be revealed soon – and I can’t wait to share it!

I’m curious, Sue – do you have writing buddies, or use beta readers?

I have two kinds of beta readers. The kind who read the book at second or third draft stage and tell me where the plot isn’t working or when characters have been off-stage too long. They’re both men, so they comment heavily on the segments of my novels that are written through the hero’s eyes, heavy on the humour and sarcasm. The second category of beta readers change book to book. They are people who have been so kind as to help me with research and I ask them to read the manuscript to tell me where I’ve gone wrong. Both kinds of beta readers are invaluable. (Thank you, guys!)

Can you work with the tv on? Or music? Or do you like to squirrel yourself away?

I like to write in my study at home, where everything is to hand. That’s not to say that I don’t write in trains, planes, coffee shops, hotels etc, when necessary! I do often have music on but I choose carefully. If I’m writing a first draft (the difficult bit, for me) then I’ll often play orchestral stuff so I don’t get distracted by lyrics (which always seem better than what I’m writing …). I prefer not to have people around me when I write.

I know you’re a busy lady – you don’t just write novels, you also write short stories and teach creative writing. I’m guessing you don’t have much time for anything else?

Well … I’m learning the piano (slowly), I do yoga, Zumba and FitStep, I like to hang out with friends. I’m a Formula 1 obsessive. I actually gave up a Formula 1 column because writing it was spoiling my enjoyment of the races. As soon as the year’s calendar is available I put race weekends in my diary and try to be home for every race and as many practice and qualifying sessions as I can. I like to watch Formula 1 in silence. Alone.

Gosh. I’m feeling weak at the thought of all of that! One final question – what are your top writing tips?

Educate yourself, learn about publishing as well as writing, and persist.

Thanks for taking time to talk to me, Sue! You’ll find all Sue’s contact details on her page on this blog (see top).

The thief of time …

Alexandre Normand from San Francisco, United States via Wikimedia Commons

Alexandre Normand from San Francisco, United States via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve blogged about procrastination before, elsewhere. It seems it’s a recurring theme! But I ask you – if you are a writer, can you honestly say that you never procrastinate? Because let’s face it, writing a novel may be fulfilling, rewarding, necessary (there are a dozen important and worthwhile drivers) but there’s always something that’s easier to do, isn’t there?

I think kid myself about my writing – I’m not procrastinating, the scene/dilemma/character is taking shape in my mind while I do other things.

Really? Hmm, well maybe. But on the other hand, maybe I’m just putting off dealing with the challenge posed by that elusive plot twist, the realisation that a character needs more depth, a scene more emotion.

Currier & Ives. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Currier & Ives. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was researching this article, I came across this lovely image. Wow, I thought, that’s one the my favourite diversions: a cuppa with some good friends. I headed to an article where it had been used and found – to my great astonishment – that it had been used by a writer (Deborah Makarios) who was writing about, you’ve guessed it: procrastination.

But – there’s a but here – she had used the image in a very different way from what was going on in my head.  It wasn’t about heading down to the nearest café at all. In her research, she had come across a suggestion that a great antidote to procrastinate is motivation, and that one way to keep motivated is to have a mission statement.

Now I spent many years of my life as a corporate communications consultant. What did that involve? Mostly, it was to do with people working in big companies. The big buzzword around the time I left was ’employee engagement’. That is, how do you keep people wanting to come to work every day and, once there, getting them to apply themselves to their tasks with energy, enthusiasm and commitment? I loved the job. After all, there’s nothing in this world as interesting as people, is there?

So, what was they key to success? Most of it (certainly from my point of view) centred on clear communication and reward. Help people to understand what their role was, reward them for a job well done, and engagement would surely follow. (Reward wasn’t necessarily about money,by the way – praise and recognition were equally important).

And one of the simple ways to help people to understand what they were signing up to  – why they were getting out of bed in the mornings – was to try to distil the essence of what the company stood for down into a very few words, a sentence at most. This was ‘the mission’. Mission statements tend to be grandiose. Here are a couple of mission statements from huge corporates – see if you can guess which ones! (Answers at the foot of the blog):

  1. People love our clothes and trust our company. We will market the most appealing and widely worn casual clothing in the world. We will clothe the world.
  2. Use our pioneering spirit to responsibly deliver energy to the world.
  3. Profitable growth through superior customer service, innovation, quality and commitment.

It had never occurred to me that I could carry the corporate ethos forward into my personal life when I left that world. After all, it was what I was escaping from, wasn’t it? However, Deborah Makarios got me thinking. She went ahead and devised her own ‘mission’. It started with that cup of tea – here’s what she wrote: ” … my aim is to write works (novels, plays, what have you) that are like a cup of tea. Sitting down for a cup of tea is both a rest, and a restoration; it eases your weariness and it prepares you to face the world again.” It’s a nice image, and it led her to her own mission: Truth – hope – take heart. (Do visit her blog, it’s lovely.)

Will having a mission statement help to keep me motivated and stop me procrastinating? I won’t know unless I try, will I? So, after a lot of thought, here’s mine: Use my imagination and craft to entertain, amuse and move readers.

In a future blog, I’ll come back and let you know how it’s working! And if YOU fancy devising your own mission statement, do let me know what it is, won’t you?

Oh – and those corporate missions? They were 1) Levi Strauss & Co. 2) ConocoPhillips and 3) BUPA. Did you guess them?

Does rejection make you depressed or determined?

Like most authors, I’ve had my share of rejection slips. I suppose I’m lucky in that most of mine were what is rather sweetly termed ‘rave rejections’. In other words, they generally took the line of ‘We love your writing, but in the current marketplace … risk of signing a debut novelist …overcrowded women’s fiction market …’ and so on.

I take a little consolation in knowing that ‘twas ever thus. The list of writers who were serially rejected is huge. Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times. (It has sold 30 million copies.)

Agatha_Christie

Agatha Christie, via Wikimedia Commons

Agatha Christie had to wait years before she was accepted for publication – now she is the biggest selling author of all time, excepting William Shakespeare. JK Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers (who must be bitterly regretting their decisions now). I can go on – Stephenie Meyer (Twilight, rejected by 14 agencies), Kathryn Stockett (Help, rejected 60 times), Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, 76 times), James Patterson, a dozen publishers.
When I interview authors on my blog, one of the standard questions I ask is, what are your top tips for writers. Without exception, they say, persist, keep writing, believe in yourself.

It’s hard though. If I’m honest, I found the effect profoundly depressing. For a number of years – despite being signed successively by two agents who were strongly supportive of me – I couldn’t get my work out to readers. I began to doubt my skill. If it hadn’t been for the support of fellow writers (including three lovely bestselling authors who always believed in me) in me, I might have given up. Then I was signed by the lovely Accent Press, I was lucky enough to be given an editor who loves my writing, and as a result, my creativity and confidence have blossomed.

We might think that it’s all the fault of editors – and surely we must query some judgements? I’m not sure that history records how Rudyard Kipling reacted to being told he didn’t know how to use English language, or John le Carré to the announcement that ‘he didn’t have any future’. Louise May Alcott was told to ‘stick to teaching’. But editors are readers, like the rest of us. They have their own loves and hates, they may be rooted in what has worked in the past, or under instruction to play safe. Thankfully, there are other ways to reach the reading public now, and many an author who has started out by self publishing has been subsequently been snapped up by a trad publisher later (or continued to success as an indie).

Cecily

But can you learn from rejection? Some authors certainly believe so. Sylvia Plath said, ‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’ CS Lewis became more and more determined to succeed through the years of rejection.  David Mitchell received a rejection from an editor at Harper Collins that ‘shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés’. He tore up the slip – but took the criticism to heart and used it to progress. And Beatrix Potter showed her self belief by eventually publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself. [This illustration Beatrix Potter (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons].

Rejection can sapping and demoralising, but do try to turn the negative energy into positive energy, find support where you can, and keep writing. You may be the next multi-million bestseller.

COMPETITION!

6The latest result of my persistence is making it to the bookshelves this month. Between Friends is set in Edinburgh and revolves round three women whose lives, careers, marriages and friendship are threatened by the return into their lives of a man from their past. Only by pulling together can they survive – but is the man too clever at sowing distrust?

I’m offering a free signed paperback to one Take Five Authors reader who signs up for my newsletter at http://jennyharperauthor.co.uk then tweets using the hashtags #BetweenFriendsComp and #TakeFiveAuthors. (Don’t worry – there’s always an option to unsubscribe later – though I hope you won’t!).

I’ll choose a winner on 25th February. Good luck!