Category Archives: Books

The Write Stuff in Dundee

After a winter when not much was achieved, I hoped to kickstart my creativity by booking myself on to The Write Stuff, an afternoon about writing and publishing arranged by Literary Dundee at the university there.  There were around 150 people in attendance; many of them students, as Dundee runs an M Litt in Writing Practice and Study.

Three of their recent graduates were there. Oliver Landmead, Claire MacLeary and Sandra Ireland all read extracts from their works. They all said that reading work aloud was key; initial discomfort at reading to fellow students was excellent training for doing readings from their books at festivals, and reading your work out loud to yourself could make you aware of areas needing improvement. Claire added a query letter should have three paragraphs; what it’s about, whom it will appeal to, and a little about yourself. Jenny Niven spoke about her career organising literary festivals, which has taken her all over the world, ending back at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

David Stenhouse’s talk about the BBC and the written word was fascinating; I hadn’t thought before of how much work it would be to fill all those hours of radio. As he said, if you can be an answer to someone else’s problems, you’re halfway there already. 404Ink were inspiring; their story of how ‘Nasty Women’ came to be published showed just how much they were willing to take on to make it and their publishing venture a success. The last two speakers were Laura Waddell, a writer and children’s publishing manager, and Claire Wingfield, a literary consultant and editor. Both had some great advice and suggestions which I need to follow up on.

There’s going to be another Write Stuff event next year. Would I go? Absolutely. At £3, the tickets were a bargain and the goodie bag was great!

Royal Ascot contest

Beau Monde badgeI’m really excited to announce I’m one of the four finalists in the Royal Ascot contest for Regency authors, run by the RWA’s Beau Monde chapter. http://thebeaumonde.com/resources/the-royal-ascot-contest/

I entered at the end of March only in the hope of getting some feedback, so this is wholly unexpected and very encouraging. Now I have to wait until the middle of July to find out, but I’m not worried – because with my memory I’ll probably forget about it within a few days, and the result (whatever it is) will come as complete surprise!

If you haven’t come across The Beau Monde before, there’s a blog and a free monthly newsletter you can sign up for, which gives Regency snippets and details of new titles. There’s a fun series of articles about Georgette Heyer’s novels to celebrate 80 years of the Regency novel that I recommend: Victoria Hinshaw, who writes about ‘Pistols or Two’, Heyer’s only collection of short stories, has picked my two favourites to write about at http://thebeaumonde.com/regency-turns-80-pistols-for-two/

The pleasures (and occasional perils) of rereading

Autumn LeavesRe-reading is often quite a reflective practice, why is why I wanted to illustrate this blog post with a beautiful shot of an autumn day; because autumn, too, seems like a time for reflection. A time to look back on the year so far, before the excitement and distractions of the holiday season. But the weather has been so dreadful for so long, it’s taken me ages to get a sunny day and the chance to go out and look at the leaves before they fall. I finally managed to take this snap last week, so now I can start!

The delay hasn’t been entirely bad – it’s given me more time to reflect on the practice of re-reading. I read things again for many reasons. Sometimes I’m too tired to concentrate on anything, so a book where I already know the plot is perfect. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a favourite, of course, but I’ve probably read ‘Persuasion’ more often. That makes sense, because ‘Persuasion’ is a book about reflection, and reading it at different times in my life it’s given me different things to think about. ‘Emma’, though, is one book I swore I would never re-read. I just find it too embarrassing. If I had made such a cake of myself as Emma did, I’d have had to emigrate – even though I know what a challenge that would have been at the time.

Sometimes, I re-read books I don’t like. I hated Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ when I read it school. Really, really, hated it And yet, every few years I read it again. Perhaps I hope that one time, miraculously, the story will have changed, and poor Louisa have the happy ending she deserves. Sometimes I reread books because I don’t remember reading them the first time! I’ve lost count of the times a gradual feeling of déjà vu has come over me, and it’s particularly embarrassing when I still can’t remember who was the murderer, or which man she marries.

But most of all, I re-read books to evoke the feelings I had when I first read them. The promise of new possibilities, or the opportunities for exploration in the real or imagined world. I still remember the thrill I felt when I read my first Narnia book, ‘Prince Caspian’, and it remains a favourite. For years, I put off re-reading ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and the sequels, as I feared they might not be exactly as I remembered. But of course they were, and I had a flashback to reading my mother’s shabby copies from the 1930s. I suppose books are the closest we can come to time travel, since the person we were when we read them is still trapped in the pages.

Why do you reread books?

Romance as an academic subject

If you write romance, or even simply read it, you might find it enjoyable, but struggle to defend its value and significance. When the RNA began in 1960, the founding members were mocked for their work (not proper writing) and that attitude is still around today. But over the last few years there has been a growing interest in romance as an academic study, and more and more universities are running courses which offer a serious study of the genre. There’s even a peer-reviewed journal on the subject and, unlike many journals, it’s available free online. The Journal of Popular Romances Studies now has eight issues up for viewing, and each includes several articles and reviews.

It requires a strange mental contortion to view some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed in the context of the textual criticism and analytical deconstruction familiar to any student of English. But it’s a very interesting exercise, and it made me see some of my favourites in a new light. There’s an excellent essay by Laura Vivanco  on Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Nonesuch’ (one of her quieter works, and a favourite of mine) which links it to Walter Scott’ ‘Guy Mannering’ and other contemporary works, and makes a claim for it not just as an enjoyable read but as a clear moral guide to the times. And an even more academically titled article is  ‘Who the devil wrote that?’: Intertextuality and Authorial Reputation in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. If you’ve ever played the same game yourself, you’ll enjoy the analysis of Damerel and Venetia’s conversations.

The one thing good criticism will do is drive you back to the book, to consider it again in a fresh light. I’m already making a note of books I want to reread. And I might even find a new favourite if I tried A Masculine Romance: The Sentimental Bloke and Australian Culture in the War- and Early Interwar Years
by Melissa Bellanta
 or one of the other intriguing articles available on the website.

RNA Conference 2015

Queen Mary University of London

Queen Mary University of London

It’s astonishing to think it’s a year on from my first RNA Conference; time really is flying. This year’s was held at Queen Mary University of London, but unfortunately I was only able to attend the Saturday programme this time. I arrived in the cool of the morning to find these great big letters standing on the lawn in front of the main building; later I realised they had been set out for this year’s crop of graduates to use as photo props, which I thought was a great idea. Maybe the RNA could try it next year, and I could drape myself elegantly against the slope of ‘R’ or perch on the bar of ‘A’?

I attended a range of talks; some were personal reflections of a career in writing and books, and some were practical workshops – all in all, a good blend. Hazel Gaynor gave an excellent talk about promotion, stressing that writers should seek to engage their audience, rather than flat-out trying to sell their books; sales should emerge if readers feel engaged with the author and her work. Rowan Coleman was lovely; she has such a pretty voice I could listen to her for hours. She spoke about ‘Five Reasons Novels Fail’, the first one being they never get finished… valuable advice when things start to drag and you wonder why you started this writing lark in the first place.  I’ve managed to get through sloughs by telling myself firmly I owe it to my characters to let them reach their resolution, wich seems to work for me. There was a very good workshop at the end of the day, from Liz Harris, on plotting, with a superb handout to make you really work at understanding your characters.

It was lovely, too, to catch up with some writing friends, and hear how they were doing. The current economic climate, and the seemingly unstoppable rise of ebooks, means there are problems and opportunities like never before, and it was interesting to hear how many people were moving to take more control of their careers by self-publishing. Lunch was excellent (always a plus) although there were constant calls for water jugs to be refilled as it was very hot. I could hear air-conditioning throbbing away, but it didn’t seem to make a dent in the temperature. We were fortunate, however, not to have met the previous week, when London sizzled in 95 degree heat.

I enjoyed my second conference very much, and am already looking forward to next year’s, which takes place at the University of Lancaster. Unfortunately it clashes with the Romance Author and Reader Event in Edinburgh, which takes place on the same Saturday – but I’ll have to pick the RNA conference, as I enjoy it so much.

Choosing what to read

What do you like to read? I had a discussion on Twitter recently with @JYNovelist about novellas. I explained I didn’t tend to read them because I liked longer books in which I could immerse myself – but when I looked over my recent reading on Kindle I discovered that I’ve actually read quite a few recently. In my defence, they were a series, with the same main characters, so I could still get that immersive feeling.

I think I’m probably quite lazy as a reader. If I finish one book, I like to start on the next in the series since I’ve already gone to the bother of learning all the people and places. I can enjoy the story without trying to remember if Julia is the colleague or the sister, or work out what people mean when they refer to the heroine’s ‘work’. Yup, bone idle, that’s me. Although it does mean that once I’ve read up to date in that particular series I have to make a real effort to find something else I want to read, as I haven’t exercised my selection muscle for a while.

Naturally, I enjoy historical romance – but I don’t always feel comfortable reading it when I’m writing my own. If I were sounding ‘writerly’ I’d explain that’s because I want to retain my own voice, but to be honest it’s because I’m left depressed that my stuff isn’t half as good. So that’s a long list of authors who are out when I’m in the middle of a creative spurt.

I’ve developed quite an enthusiasm for cozy crime instead; I don’t really care about solving the murder mystery, but I enjoy finding out about the main character’s family, friends and surroundings. Cozy crime seems especially popular in the USA, where you can find series based in a particular place, round a hobby or even a particular job. UK writers include M C Beaton (Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin) and Lesley Cookman, whose Libby Serjeant mysteries are well-worth looking for. And with e-readers, it’s even easier to find them.

I still don’t read short stories though – I find them too frustrating, with their one tiny vignette on someone’s life.

What do you like to read – and why?

PTQ

Do people talk of PTQ these days? – Page-Turning Quality, I mean. The un-put-downable-ness of a book. You can’t bottle it and sell it, but if you could I bet we’d all be trying to buy some. I was thinking of this recently as I’ve just finished an orgy of reading, devouring titles by two authors who have PTQ in spades.

Mildren WirtThe first is Mildren Wirt Benson, whom you may know as the ghost-writer of many of the early Nancy Drew titles. But she also produced a great many other books, and I’ve been working my way through the Penny Parker series. If you wished to cavil, the quality of these varies, as does the heroine’s hair – it jumps from blonde to red and back to blonde with stunning speed. Timings in the books are quite extraordinary – at one point Penny visits a newspaper library late at night. She finds herself alone there as the librarian has just gone for lunch. I could list more but that would be mean, and in any case I suppose these errors prove my point; that no matter the  inconsistencies you spot, any author who can still keep you rushing breathlessly through the book must have accomplished a great deal. Her interesting life is chronicled in more detail here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mildred_Benson

G L HillMildred’s work was often in the form of series; Grace Livingston Hill, a Christian writer who was working at much the same time, tended to stick to stand-alone books. And she’s not so prone to Mildred’s errors, either, although there is an enormous plot hole in one of her early works, ‘The Mystery of Mary’, which a good editor would surely have spotted. Clue – it’s to do with how the heroine lost her hat, so I don’t give the story away.  And I’m quite sure many people who reads her works will skip the theological issues discussed by her characters. Grace, too, though, had this magical PTQ.  She made you care about the characters she created – and she created a new set almost every time. The only semi-sequel I’ve found so far is ‘White Orchids’/’A Strange Proposal’.

One thing I’ve noticed in reading a lot of Grace’s book is how often they start with someone on a train. A physical journey is being taken, but almost always the first character (usually the heroine) is also going from one world to another. Even if she’s going ‘home’, it’s a different home to the one she left. Sometimes there’s a physical change (her family has moved house), often a change in the family – someone has fallen ill, or left, so it’s not the situation she left behind. The journey is both a plot device and a metaphor for the journey the heroine is on.

Both women wrote well over 100 books, which puts my production schedule to shame! If I’ve inspired you to read either lady’s work I shall be happy. And I hope you will be happy to learn that several can be found free on http://www.gutenberg.org. Rather like chocolates, one is never enough!