‘My next book’ – all three of them

Question: which of these statements is true?

Answer: they all are.

How can that be? Because what constitutes ‘my next book’ depends upon the context of the conversation.

  • Just for the Holidays – ‘is my next book to be published’. (18 May 2017 in ebook, paperback and audio, if you’re interested. And you can order it here.) This is also the next book to be promoted, which will involve me in writing blog posts, social media, radio interviews etc.
  • Give Me Till Christmas – ‘I’ve just sent my next book to my editor’. (9 October 2017 in ebook, 2 November paperback, audio tba. I was a little shocked to be told last week that you can order this, too.) This will be the next book to be edited. Structural edits first (ironing out all the plot lines that aren’t quite working etc.); next come line edits (minutiae and punctuation etc.); finally the proofreading.
  • The Summer of Finding Out – ‘I’m just about to begin researching and planning my next book.’ (Scheduled for Summer 2018) This will be the next book to be written, in between the promo of Just for the Holidays and the editing of Give Me Till Christmas.

In case you’re wondering, I am no special case. Many novelists work in this way. Personally, I love it. I choose to see it not as a pressure but as an affirmation that I’m a commercially published author. I don’t groan when I’m asked to do promo because whoever has asked me is helping me to sell my books. I don’t go into a huff when I receive my editorial notes, line edits or proofreading because we’re all working to produce the best book I can. (That sentence is grammatically incorrect on purpose – a team works to produce my book. How cool is that?)

Lest you think I’m polishing my halo, there are things I don’t react well to – spurious interruptions, people wasting my time unnecessarily, unreasonable people etc. etc. Here’s a recent example:

Phone rings. I answer. It’s the bank, asking to speak to another member of my household, one who is out of the house during the working day. This is the fifth time in two days that they’ve called with the same request. The first four times, I pointed out politely that the person is not here because he doesn’t work here but I do. Please, could the bank stop these calls? They’re interrupting me. On the fifth occasion, I’m half way through a difficult scene and my temper snaps along with the thread of what I’m trying to write. I find myself rising vertically from my chair. ‘Look! I keep telling you that he doesn’t work here! I DO! Look in your records for his daytime number and RING HIM THERE! It’s DAYTIME! I’ve told you and told you and told you this and you persist in interrupting me! I’m self-employed and I’m TRYING TO DO MY JOB! Why don’t you GO AWAY AND DO YOURS? And if you’re stupid enough to ring here again with the same request I’m going to take all my money out of your bank and put it somewhere else. Plus, I’m going to speak to your supervisor and tell him or her that you’re stupid! Right?’

And, you know what, she didn’t ring back and I was able to get on with my next book.

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.

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.

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

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!