Calling All Goddesses

Happy New Year!

I haven’t been a very regular blogger in recent months. This is because I find it uses the same muscle as writing fiction – or at least a very similar one – and I have been absorbed in my writing. But I don’t want to give up on blogging, so I won’t. Amongst other things, I’ve been working on a short prequel to my novel The Goddess Workshop, called Calling All Goddesses. Calling All Goddesses tells the story of how my four female characters – Janet, Estelle, Reenie and Kate – ended up on a course promising women ‘A Garden of Earthly Delights.’

When I wrote The Goddess Workshop, I must have written at least three different beginnings until I decided that the right place to start was on Day One of the workshop where the four women meet each other for the first time, as well as their inspiring workshop leader Jade. But those other beginnings were always in the back of my mind; I was very fond of them because I felt they revealed the characters with all their insecurities and foibles. So, I’m really glad I’ve found a use for them in Calling All Goddesses!

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Click here to download the story from Amazon.

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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!

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

The Dare Club – when life imitates literature

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Question: what do you get if you combine a novel featuring an abseiling woman on the cover, good weather, good friends and a deserving charity?

Answer: The Dare Club abseil challenge in aid of Keeping Abreast, which took place on Saturday 21 June at Aid Rope Access in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

It was a fabulous day – everyone was so brave. Quite a few of the ladies taking part were terrified of heights and were literally shaking as they climbed the steep steps to the top of the 20 metre abseil tower. There were 3 different heights to abseil from, but everyone went from the top, which was a real achievement.

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The 20m abseil tower at Aid Rope Access

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Me with my fellow Dare Club organisers – The Amazing Abseillers. Love them all!

There were 3 different heights to abseil from, but everyone went from the top, which was a real achievement. One of my friends said she was cursing me since it was my idea, but she did it anyway and felt amazing afterwards. But then I already knew she was brave, because she maintained a steadfastly positive outlook for the whole time she was being treated for breast cancer recently. She was also more than happy to help me with my research when I was writing The Dare Club, in which one of the characters – Colette – has had breast cancer.

As for me, I’d been fairly blasé about the whole thing right from the start – I went up the tower before the event and enjoyed looking at the views and the feeling of the wind in my hair. I’ve never had a problem with heights, so I wasn’t scared as I posed for photos before I began my ascent to the top.

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Posing before climbing to the top with the book that inspired it all!

But then I was actually standing at the open hatch with the distant view of the ground below and… well; let’s just say things were suddenly different. I still wasn’t scared of heights, but I was scared of imminent death. But of course that was never a possibility! The guys at Aid Rope Access who hosted the event were amazing, and our safety was never in doubt. And it had to feel scary, or else what was the point? People needed to be impressed to be inspired to donate, and donate they did. We raised almost three thousand pounds for Keeping Abreast, a charity that helps women who’ve had breast cancer by running support groups and providing information about reconstruction surgery.

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Coming down!! Eek!!!!!

And so, my novel about a dare club has inspired the existence of a true life dare club, and our inaugural event was a big success. “What’s the next event?” people kept asking me on Saturday. “Cliff diving,” I answered, deadpan. For just a fraction of a section, some of them believed it, but don’t worry, you won’t get me up there on top of a cliff. Now, white-water rafting, maybe.

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Any takers for cliff diving?!!!

The right time isn’t always when you want it to be!

This week Eimear MCBride – an author in my home city of Norwich – won the Women’s Prize for Fiction with her novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing. I haven’t read Emear’s book, but I understand it centres on the relationship between a girl and her brother – who has a brain tumour – and is written using a stream-of-consciousness narration.

It’s always great to hear of success, especially to someone local, but Eimear’s particular case gives me hope for more reason than one. Because Eimear wrote her novel years ago – 9 years ago – and ever since then it has been rejected over and over again, ending up in the back of a drawer. Then a chance conversation between her husband and the manager of a local independent bookshop set off the train of events that led to Galley Beggar, a Norwich publisher, accepting the book. The rest, as they say, is history.

So what’s the link between Eimear and me, apart from both of us living in the same city? Well, none; except that I recently remembered a novel I finished more than 15 years ago that has since then, languished in 3 different attics. It’s called A Nightingale In Winter, and is set during the First World War. The reason I remembered it was because of the current centenary of the start of WW1. “I wonder if I could do anything with that old novel?” I thought, and duly dusted it off and sent it to 3 friends to read. I read it thoroughly myself too, and what a very strange experience it was! I could barely remember writing any of the actual words, although I can very clearly remember the writing process itself. I did a great deal of research for it, immersing myself in books and visiting the Imperial War Museum in London to study very moving original letters and diaries of both nurses and soldiers. At the time I had a full-time job as a guidance worker in a further education college, and it was a fairly demanding role. But each evening I would return home to have something to eat, followed by a brief catnap. Then I’d make a strong mug of coffee and pour myself a large glass of wine. The combination of caffeine and wine usually fired me up sufficiently to write for a good two hours a night. And so; very gradually, the novel was completed. But I had no idea whether it was any good or not, since it was a very different type of story to those I’d previously written.

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Here’s where I made my mistake, or not; depending which way you look at it, because maybe the time is right now and back then it just wasn’t. I sent Nightingale to a publisher who’d previously published some of my stories, but didn’t bear in mind that they published romances of the traditional kind; whereas Nightingale isn’t like that. There’s love in it, certainly, but also obsession and madness and the war. It’s strong stuff: certainly too strong for the publisher I sent it to. Their rejection letter fuelled my uncertainty about the story, and, since I had an idea for a new book, I put Nightingale away.

But now it has been rediscovered, and, since the feedback I’ve received from my 3 readers has been encouraging, it almost feels as if I’ve been gifted a novel! Whoopee! I do need to do a little work to it, and as soon as I’ve finished working on Taming Tom Jones, the novel I’m currently writing, I’ll get to work on it.

So congratulations, Eimear, and thank you for the encouragement of your story, even though you don’t me!

Plunging into Cuba

I’m about to plunge into research about Havanna and Cuba in order to write some scenes for my upcoming novel, Taming Tom Jones. I visited Cuba in 2001, and had an amazing adventure holiday there, so I’ve already got some insight into the country. On that holiday I made a good friend – Sharon, who lives in London. Sometimes you meet people you just hit it off with right away – Sharon is one of these people. We met up last Thursday before I went to The London Author Fair on Friday, and it was great to catch up – we always have lots of laughs! This time, with the scenes I was about to write in mind, I turned the conversation to Cuba – and we shared lots of memories about the holiday we had there – the sights we saw and the experiences we had. And the silly pranks we played, including making ‘Castro moustaches’ out of fluffy catkin seeds stuck onto double-sided sticky tape. We dared each other to wear them and to pretend nothing was different. Strangely, it took people quite a while to comment! Daft, but great fun at the time – we laughed so much we cried.

I wish I had a photo I could show you, but that was before the digital age. Anyway, as I began my research yesterday, I came across these amazing images of Cuban murals of older people – I loved them because they really seemed to celebrate older people, and to suggest that they are respected. How wonderful!

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