A Writer’s Toolbox – The Art of Selective Vision

When I am not writing, I don’t feel like myself. I am fidgety and restless, aware that now I have the time to do all the sensible stuff that has been neglected while I’ve been writing my novel – housework, the redecoration of the house, and of course, marketing my books. There’s no excuse not to do any of these things now – after long months slaving over a keyboard, I’m finally free!

washing up

Except that I still don’t have much enthusiasm for any of those tasks. I go through the motions, being a good grown up girl and doing what is expected of me, while not really feeling like me at all. I much prefer the me who’s immersed in writing a novel, hearing my characters speak to each other inside my head, my imagination busy at work planning what will happen next, making links and thinking of clues to leave for the reader. In this world I develop selective vision, and don’t see the places in my home that need cleaning or redecorating.

paint-and-decorating-london

Not that it’s all plain sailing while I’m writing. Inevitably, there comes a time where I start to doubt the quality of what I’m producing. Is it as good as my last book? Is it too different to my last book? Are the characters really coming to life? Is what I’ve written in fact, just a pile of poo? Once I start to get self-conscious, my confidence wavers. Rosalind Brackenbury likened this to the experience of looking in the mirror when you’re just about to go out and deciding you don’t like the way you look. You have to go out anyway if you don’t want to miss the bus or the start of the play.

To keep going with my writing, I have to try to ignore feelings of doubt and self-consciousness when they arrive. Sometimes it helps not to write the novel in its sequential order, but to focus on the parts that really grip and obsess me. I identify these by splurging them all out onto index cards, which act as touch stones to take me through to the end of the novel. And I always know the ending of the book – it’s there all the time like a light at the end of a tunnel I’m mining my way through. Some writers don’t need to be able to see this light, but they’re braver souls than me. I’m afraid of the dark.

Speaking of the dark, tomorrow evening I’m going to a highly scary Halloween event called PrimEvil. There will be hosts of actors in hideous costumes lurking in mazes, the sound of chain saws and screams. And it will be dark. Very dark. The friends I’m going with will have to be my touch stones to get me through; the pub at the end of the evening my light at the end of the tunnel. Actually, housework and redecorating suddenly don’t seem so bad after all…

primevil

 

The Whydunnit – Making Thrillers Thrilling

I have a thriller novel growing in my head. It’s at the very early stages, and I don’t know as yet exactly which direction it’s going to go in. I do know my two main characters, and I also know what brings them together. But I need to learn more about the genre before I even think of making a start.

As a first step I attended a very stimulating thriller writing master class the other weekend, run by the writer Henry Sutton. It was part of a weeklong crime writing festival in my home city of Norwich, called Noirwich, which also included some great guest speakers.

Noirwich

In the master class, Henry put us on the spot about the books we were planning, giving us feedback that allowed us to really pin our ideas down. He was wonderfully ruthless – not allowing any of us to get away with being woolly.

Henry

He also told us that a thriller should be a Why done it rather than a Who done it. I found that very interesting, because the best fictional villains for me are those you really get to know and understand. This is what I’ve tried to do with my character Leo in my novel A Nightingale In Winter, which should hopefully be making an appearance before too long. One novel I read recently featured a hit man who was just a cold killing machine, and he was an unbelievable character as a result.

Other things I learnt on the master class include:

  • A thriller has to start with a character wanting something desperately.
  • Something, or someone is in the way or out to stop them.
  • The clock is ticking.
  • There is a lot at stake.
  • Unlike as is often the case in detective fiction, the crime in a thriller has not yet taken place at the start of the book.
  • Thrillers should be emotional (this really appeals to me!)

Ways of increasing the level of suspense are to:

  • Switch the point of view to start a new chapter, so that the reader is left in suspense about what is happening to the character in the previous chapter.
  • Keep asking questions but don’t answer them.
  • Make the book turn a corner by introducing another plot strand or another character who disrupts everything.
  • Wrong-foot the reader – allowing them to think they are being taken in a certain direction then making it turn out completely differently to how they expect.

Many of these things apply to all griping fiction writing of course, but the difference with writing a thriller is that the conflict or issues the characters face should be life threatening.

Henry told us that the crime writer Jim Thompson said that there is only one thriller plot – “things are not what they seem.”

Another part of my research into the thriller genre has of course, been to read lots of thrillers. Henry recommended many authors, including Val McDermid, and in particular, A Mermaid Singing. I couldn’t get that book, so I read another one of hers – I was interested by it, but a little disappointed, I have to admit. It seemed to me that she had built one of her main characters very carefully and then made her act completely out of character at the end. It frustrated me. But this is all part of the learning process, isn’t it? Finding out what satisfies you, what intrigues you and what makes you want to keep on reading.

val

Judging by the reviews this novel has, I’m not alone in my opinions about it. But readers are so disappointed that it’s clear Val’s books are usually lots better than this, so I shall persist and read more of them. Incidentally, before the master class, I got one of Henry’s books out of the library, wanting to familiarize myself with the way he writes. I couldn’t finish it – not because it was badly written or the characters acted out of character – but because it was about a struggling writer, and the issues he was grappling with were all so depressingly familiar!

What thrillers do you recommend? Why did you particularly enjoy them? I’d love to know!

To Pen-name or Not to Pen- name? That is the question.

I have just published a new novel – a romance called Secret Millionaire. It’s different to my other books because while they contain romances, so far they have been about more than that – about relationships, friendships, and the growth of self-confidence born out of facing the challenges of life. So because I wanted to distinguish between these two areas of writing, I decided to use a pen name for the book, and chose the name Kitty Alexander. (Kitty was the name I would have used for my son had he been a girl, and Alexander – no reason, it just sounded right).

Secret Millionaire 2

Having a pen name means I will have to publicize the book under the name of Kitty Alexander to avoid confusion. It makes sense to have a separate author page on Facebook for my Kitty books, and a separate Twitter account. (This is somewhat alarming, since when I’m absorbed in my writing, I forget to tweet for weeks at a time already). But perhaps Kitty will be different. Maybe Kitty will be media savvy and enthusiastic, tweeting in an entertaining way that draws new fans to follow her.

In fact, perhaps it doesn’t need to stop there – perhaps Kitty can be my alter ego. Maybe I can re-invent myself through her. The world is my oyster! Hopefully, Kitty will come to have the kind of lifestyle that includes impulsive mini breaks to Cannes and champagne suppers.

Here’s the photo I plan to use for Kitty. It is me, but a different me! I think it will suit her fine. I think she – sorry, I – look like a romantic novelist in this image. What do you think? (Please don’t say it looks as if I’ve been cuddling chickens).

Kitty Alexander pic

Tomorrow though,  I’m going to a master class on thriller writing. I booked onto it because I like to take course now and then to give me a shot in the arm, and the course is all about keeping suspense going and writing twists in the tail, which are very useful things to know about for any kind of writing. I do have a germ of an idea for a thriller though … Oh no; does that mean I might need a third identity in the future?!

In the meantime, here’s the link to my Kitty Alexander Facebook page, and here’s the link to Kitty on Twitter. Please Like me so I don’t look as lonely as I do now! I’ll be eternally grateful to you, and I’ve posted a very fine photograph of a sunrise on there. Here’s a sneak peak. I took it the other morning, and it’s the view from my bedroom window. What a start to the day!

Copper Beech woman

Margaret / Kitty X

Singing Her Way to Success

As you may know, many of my novels are about women being courageous as they face change in their lives – women who overcome their fears in order to achieve their dreams. Naomi Alexander, the new lead singer of the Norfolk band Parkhouse, has done exactly that in her life, and I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog today to tell us all about it.

MJ: Welcome, Naomi! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! 

NA: Thanks for the invitation; it’s nice to be asked!

Naomi Alexander Lead singer of Parkhouse

 

MJ: So, jumping straight in, did you always enjoy singing?

NA: Yes, from about the age of 7, I would spend hours in my room trying to sing like the big powerhouses like Mariah Carey and Celine Dion (cringe!)

MJ: Were your family supportive of your singing?

NA: I never felt very encouraged – in fact, one of my family members said I sounded like a drowning cat!

MJ: that’s a shame. What effect did that have on you?

NA: It made me feel too shy to sing in front of other people, and it wasn’t until my late teens/early twenties that I decided to try going to singing lessons. I didn’t feel very confident about it though, so I only went to one lesson. The lesson took place in a corridor of a junior school (the tutor hired it out for her lessons) and there was a dance class going on in the main room next door.  She asked me what I would like to sing and I chose Lovefool by the Cardigans. At the time I didn’t feel comfortable projecting my voice and, as the song is sung in a high key, when I started to sing, it sounded so weak. I was also very aware that someone could come out of the dance class at any time and hear me! The tutor asked me if I’d like to stop singing that song to which I said ‘yes please’! She then asked me to sing along with Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ – I’m not quite sure why she chose that, and again, it didn’t sound great because I was too scared to project my voice. Also, Whitney Houston had, in my opinion, one of the most powerful voices in the world!  There was no way on earth I would have felt comfortable ‘trying’ to sing one of her massive hit songs!

MJ: How many years went by until you decided to try again?

NA: In November of 2013 (so about 10 years later) I was looking at singing schools online, inspired by a friend who has also had lessons and now created their own music. I saw a free half an hour session was being held at a local school, so I went along. The tutor was amazing and really helped me with my confidence, so I booked more lessons. When she asked whether I’d thought of joining a band, I thought yes, but I’d never be able to do it; the thought terrifies me too much! But my tutor kept on bringing the subject up, so I decided to take the plunge and joined a website called www.joinmyband.co.uk.  My ad read something along the lines of ‘I’m here because of my singing tutor! Looking to join a band, either as a backing or lead singer’ so you can see why I never expected to hear anything.  When I applied, I was half-thinking, God, I hope no-one wants me as I don’t think I’m anywhere near good enough!

MJ: What happened next?

NA: Well, amazingly, I heard back within a few hours from a band looking for a lead singer! I couldn’t believe it – I really hadn’t expected to hear from anyone. I sent them a recording of me singing which I’d made on the singing course, and honestly, I was wincing as I pressed send  – I thought they’d think I was awful. But the drummer got in touch and said mine was the best recording they’d heard to date, and they’d heard a few!

Myself and another lady auditioned a couple of weeks later, and they chose me (even though she had years & years of experience in performing)! I couldn’t believe it!

MJ: Brilliant! So how long was it until your first performance with them?

NA: Only a few weeks. I practiced with them a lot to learn the songs and listened to them over an over in my car.  Parkhouse play covers like Valerie by Amy Winehouse, Mark Cohn, Walking in Memphis, Adele, Rolling in the Deep. Finally, I was ready. Or as ready as I was ever going to be! On the night of my first gig, I was so nervous. I arrived before the guys, and deep down I hoped the gig had been cancelled. I was tempted to turn around and go home! But I didn’t, and all my friends came along to support me – and even though I had a dry mouth almost all the time, I only messed up a little (nobody even noticed I messed up). It was incredible! I was absolutely buzzing & felt an overwhelming sense of achievement. I couldn’t believe how quickly the night went!

naomi-profile

MJ: So, how do those family members who knocked your confidence when you were a child feel about your achievement? 

NA: They are very proud of me and so pleased that I went for it. They certainly don’t say those horrible things anymore!

MJ: I should hope not! So, what’s next for you, singing wise?

NA:  I’d really like to have a go at something bluesy or jazzy too; maybe for a band who produce their own songs.  My friends keep saying I should go on The Voice.  I’m not so sure I want the fame though!

MJ: Thanks so much for sharing your inspirational story with us, Naomi. It just goes to show, you should never give up on your dream!!

You can find out more about Naomi and Parkhouse here. The link to Parkhouse on Facebook is here.

Inspiring Stories of Courage – Lindsey’s Story

Obstacle course for training in winter park

Those of you who follow this blog regularly and have eagle eyes, might have noticed that I’ve changed the wording of my header from Getting Published, Getting Laughs, to Stories About Women Challenging Themselves. This is because I wanted my blog to evolve to reflect what my books are about, and also because I wanted to have the freedom to blog about different things apart from the process of writing.

I have always been a huge fan of self-development and the growth of self-esteem, and these are always major themes in my novels. I regularly set goals and challenge myself – from small things like having a nerve-wracking conversation with my son’s head teacher to performing or taking apart in a charity abseil, as I did recently.

So to celebrate this change of focus, I thought I’d run a mini series of blog posts to tell the stories of women who have challenged themselves successfully in life. Here’s the first one, which is the story of Lindsey, who overcame her fear of heights to take part in that same charity abseil. Be inspired! I was!

If you’ve got a story to tell of how you overcame a fear or did something really courageous, please get in touch. I’d love to feature you in this mini series. :)

laughing woman 1 (2) crop (2)

 

LINDSEY’S STORY

When I was little, I developed a fear of heights and I’ve always been adamant I want to become OK with heights. Mainly because it was blatantly obvious if I didn’t, I’d miss out on a lifetime of potentially mind-blowing experiences and spectacular views with friends and loved ones and I owed it to myself, upon realising this, to conquer it…fast. Fear after all, is in your head and life’s too short for restrictions!

So time passed and discussions were had with various people which had me realise, the way to achieve this was by giving every ‘height related’ challenge I came in to contact with (within reason) a go and at worse, close my eyes if it got too much. This new way of thinking needed to become the norm, as opposed to running in the opposite direction…which believe me was far more appealing on many an occasion.

I’m pleased to say, this determination is slowly paying off. I’m now able to walk over Grapes Hill flyover, go on the London Eye, even the Nemesis at Alton Towers (with eyes closed), then in ‘06 was the big‘in…a 14,000ft tandem skydive in Australia! I can’t explain how much energy, focus and positive visualisation went in to each of these events, working through my breathing, taking my time and continuously telling myself “I CAN DO THIS”. It’s like brainwashing my subconscious to believe it’s possible and waiting for reality to catch up.

Since having children, I’ve become increasingly conscious this has become an excuse for taking time out of my goal. Then a post appeared on Facebook; some women who’ve attended the Eos Programme were organising a Charity 20m Abseil for Keeping Abreast….without even thinking, my fingers were typing “I’m in!” Proud I’d signed up for a challenge, I didn’t really give it much thought, until 4 days before the event, a group of us were chatting in the office and it hit me, I saw exactly WHAT I was abseiling down. I knew it would be a challenge, but my goodness I wasn’t expecting this! My vision of the abseiling event contained a wall, something I could fix my eyes upon whilst working my way down. Grass or sand would meet my feet on completion and if I dared to look, the views would distract any unhelpful thoughts I’d have. Instead, there stood a metal framed tower on a concrete base, surrounded by warehouses and metal spikes. My heart sank, I felt sick. I really, really hadn’t thought this through, nor had I done my research.

The morning of the abseil arrived having spent the last few days seriously working on my self-talk and visualisation. My lovely husband, parents, my Nan and two boys (2 & 5) were all there for moral support; I wanted more than anything to complete this abseil, especially with my eldest watching and ultimately creating new thoughts on what’s possible. Several kidney breaks later, my turn arrived. My harness was on and there I was, at the top of the 20m tower. Looking back, it was almost like a robot had taken over my body. My colleague went first and feeling her nerves, it finally struck me ‘yikes, this is really happening!’ I sat down on the step, convincing my body I didn’t need the loo, I repeated “I can do this – I’m bloody doing this”. Then realisation hit me if I don’t, it’s going to be pretty lonely up here tonight. I took a deep breath, approached the latch, let the instructor hook me up and then lower me down. When I finally reached the ground, I was over the moon. Buzzing as Wilson and Dexter ran towards me with the biggest hugs and grins. That moment I will cherish forever. Believe me, making up an excuse the day I was in the office would’ve been so easy; but what would that have proved – what good would’ve come from that? I needed to take control and believe in myself, have belief and courage to show this emotion (my fear), that my mind (my thoughts) was far more powerful!

Lindsey takes the plunge!

Lindsey takes the plunge!

The tower Lindsey Abseiled down.

The tower Lindsey Abseiled down.

Much to my delight my son Wilson, aged 5 was so inspired he immediately asked to do it too – the full 20m alongside a trained instructor. So I may still be working towards my goal, but I’ve achieved much more knowing my son has set the wheels in motion for an incredible future which includes heights! What’s more all the wonderful women that took part raised an incredible £3k! I’m honoured to have been part of the memorable day.

P.S My eyes were shut.

Thank you very much for sharing your story, Lindsey! Awesome!! Is this you next time around? !!!

cliff diving

Don’t forget, if you have a story for this mini series, get in touch.

A surreal night

What do you get when you combine two bickering comperes, performers who have wholly misunderstood the concept of a comedy club and a comedian who persists with audience participation even though all previous signs have indicated that this is at best a bad idea, and at worst, a disastrous one? Answer: an evening at The Redneck Comedy Club in Norwich.

redneck

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I had a go at stand-up comedy as part of my research for my novel The Dare Club. I loved it so much, I had another go earlier this year, taking part in The Funny Women Awards at Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington. Sadly, I didn’t get through to the semi-finals – boo, hiss, sob – but I enjoyed it every bit as much as I’d done on the first occasion, and it was such a buzz to make people laugh.

I’d love to keep performing, because it’s so good for my self-confidence, and a great challenge. As I’ve got a nine year old son, I don’t have the kind of lifestyle that makes it easy for me to obsessively tour around the country gaining experience at various comedy clubs, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out about The Redneck Comedy Club, as it’s local to me. I persuaded a friend to go with me, and off we went to check it out. It turned out to be one of the most surreal nights of our life.

I’m not experienced at going to comedy clubs, so I don’t know whether some of the things that happened are a regular occurrence, but I doubt it somehow. For example, how often are there two comperes vying for the microphone? And do people usually think it’s okay to go up on stage in a silly hat to read out chapter 9 from their steam punk novel? Although incidentally, this was the funniest thing of the night, since whenever the reader in question paused from her reading to offer some kind of a plot explanation along the lines of “Stella had previously been hypnotized in a dark alley” (not what she said, but it’s all a hysterical blur now, so I’m improvising) – the two guys behind me and my friend made sarcastic comments that were so funny I was soon writhing with laughter and fearful for my bladder.

And then there was the final comedian – who made the mistake of asking whether there were any single men in the audience. One audience member piped up, “Well, I’m technically single.” Oh, how that comedian must wish he’d just smiled and moved on instead of asking questions to investigate exactly what the guy meant. Because apparently, the man has a phone app girlfriend. Judging by the way he was speaking, he was very much in love with said girlfriend too, and celebrated the fact that he could change her appearance whenever he chose. He then proceeded to have a kind of breakdown moment, when, hands-to-head, he groaned with sheer horror at the prospect of a real girlfriend “with feelings and problems”. The poor comedian completely dried and lost his thread, getting drawn into what soon became more like a counseling session than a stand-up performance.

All excellent material for something, I’m sure! But will I return to brave those bickering comperes? I’m not sure. Watch this space!