Thursday, 14 February 2013

Writing on Valentine’s Day

The month of February is always about romance, yet the nature of expected romance means that it isn’t always all that romantic in the classic sense of the word. Have you ever read a romance novel where the hero proposes to the heroine on Valentine’s Day? I certainly haven’t, and I think there are a number of reasons why this is so. Firstly, when it is expected of people to be romantic, there’s an element of predictability about it all, and when you’re writing a romance novel, unpredictability is key in creating a strong, compelling plot. It’s far more dramatic for a heroine to receive a proposal from a hero on a windswept cliff after he’s rescued her from nearly tumbling down a cliff face, say, than for that same hero to propose in a staid restaurant setting with hovering waiters all around on 14 February.

And it’s far more romantic, it can be argued, to receive a bunch of roses unexpectedly from your lover for no particular reason than that he was thinking of you, than to be given a dozen red roses on a day that has been specifically designated for romance.

Having said this, simply writing off Valentine’s Day as unromantic and therefore not acknowledging it isn’t all that easy to do, either. By ignoring Valentine’s Day because it’s commercial, you are sending a very clear message as well, in that you are refusing to offer a romantic gesture to your loved one on a day that celebrates love.

The thing is, it may be my opinion that proposing on Valentine’s Day is unromantic (with my hero-and-heroine-on-a-cliff-face scenario playing through my mind). However, someone else might perceive receiving a proposal on Valentine’s Day as the epitome of romance. It all depends on the person concerned. If a man who finds Valentine’s Day commercial, for instance, is involved with a woman who finds Valentine’s Day incredibly romantic, wouldn’t it be a loving gesture for the man to set aside his reservations about the day, and make his loved one feel special by celebrating it with her?

Because that’s, in essence, what romance is all about… doing something that makes your loved one feel special - even if it goes against the grain, and even if it means spending a fortune on flowers that you could get at a far cheaper price on another day.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Ten Questions For Mary Jo Putney

Today, I welcome the warm and wonderfully talented Mary Jo Putney to my blog.

Mary Jo Putney

New York Times bestselling romance author Mary Jo Putney was born on a farm in the Northeastern United States and early realized that she had a reading addiction, a condition for which there is no known cure. Her entire writing career is an accidental byproduct of buying a computer for other purposes.

Traditional Regencies were her first love, and she has since expanded into historical and contemporary romance, young adult, and historical fantasy. She has written somewhere around forty books and won numerous awards, including two RITAs from the Romance Writers of America. She lives in Maryland, and most of her stories include cats.
Ten Questions For Mary Jo Putney
1) Of all the books you have written, do you have a favourite?
MJP: I love them all! But if forced to choose, it would probably be The Rake, a Regency historical with an alcoholic hero. I’d read so many romances where the hero drank like a fish but never suffered consequences. I wanted consequences. So the book is not only a romance, but a realistic description of addiction and recovery. (Yes, I like to write stories with edges.)
2) What’s a typical work day like for you?
MJP: The first thing I do is feed the cats, or there’s no telling what might happen. (Four cats, all rescue kitties.) After breakfast, I check my e-mail, do chores, go out to exercise three mornings a week, and generally waste time. Most of my serious writing is done in the evening. I am not very efficient!
3) What does your workspace look like?
MJP: My writing room is a sizable upstairs bedroom with a wide window looking into trees. Two walls are all bookcases, and the custom built workstation is U-shaped with more bookshelves.  (Custom because I’m short so the work surface is a couple of inches lower than standard.) There’s a sofa against the other wall, as well as a very comfortable easy chair. Oriental carpets on the floor, lounging cats, and usually it’s not all of that neat. <G>
4) What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
MJP: I love the flexibility of organizing my own time, and I love working for myself.  Like most writers, I like spending lots of time alone with my imagination.  It’s lovely to create characters, stories, and settings. 
5) What are you working on at the moment?
MJP: I’m on the sixth book of my Lost Lords Regency historical series. The heroes of the different books were all students at a school for boys of “good birth and bad behavior.” All were square pegs in round holes in different ways, and they bonded with each other to create powerful, life long friendships. The heroines are a varied and independent lot.
6) When you have time away from your desk, what do you enjoy doing?
MJP: I like to travel, cook, play with the cats, chat with friends. The usual sort of thing! I loved visiting South Africa, and hope to return in the future.
7) Any tips about writing and getting published?
MJP: The idea of being a writer is lovely, but the reality is seriously hard work. So read, read, read to learn what works in stories, what succeeds in the marketplace, and what you love. The kinds of stories you love to read will probably be what you should be writing, because that’s where your passion is. Then write, write, write — you have to keep sitting down and doing it, over and over, even though it won’t always be fun. 
8) How do you go about writing a novel – what process do you follow?
MJP: Sometimes I’ll start with a plot idea, other times with a character who has appeared in other books and now will step to center stage. If it’s a plot idea, I need to figure what kind of character is best suited to that plot. If I have a character, the reverse is true: what story will best test that character? What kind of partner will make the best match?
After I’ve played with an idea for a while, I’ll write a short synopsis, maybe 6 – 8 pages.  If I can work out a beginning, a middle, and an end, I have a structure that means I can write the whole book.  There’s still a lot I don’t know, but once that framework is in place, I can make it work.
9) What have been the biggest changes in your genre over the last ten years – both positive and negative?
MJP: That’s a big question!  The changes have been huge and varied, but the biggest is the explosion of e-books. Traditional publishers had a limited number of publishing slots, and had to choose books with fairly wide appeal. Now e-publishing can produce a much wider range of stories for every niche imaginable because the production costs are so low. This is very positive. The negative downside is that with so many e-books produced, the quality varies enormously, and it can be hard to find the stories that you’ll love. The e-book market is a work in progress, still evolving — but it’s exciting to be part of it. <G>
10) How (if at all) has your writing style changed over the years?
MJP: I loved Georgette Heyer and other British writers who reveled in language, so when I started out, I did the same. I never met a compound sentence I didn’t like. If two words were good, four were better. <G>  Over time, I’ve learned to streamline my writing to use fewer words more effectively.  But apart from that, the same kinds of stories and characters still interest me. I love history and good people struggling to do the right thing, and definitely always happy endings!
Thanks so much, Mary Jo, for answering my questions!
MJP: Thanks so much for having me, Alissa!

Friday, 8 February 2013

A Guide To Writing Romance - Part Eight

Authors often do a lot of research before putting pen to paper, and it is so very tempting to include all the fascinating details you’ve uncovered about a particular topic. However, it is important to restrain yourself! I once read a novel, set in Turkey, that was more of a travelogue than a romance.  The author clearly couldn’t resist including loads of extra details about Turkey. However, when a reader feels the needs to skip past large swathes of descriptive text to get to the meat of the story, then you know there’s something amiss.

Here are some more tips about this theme from “The Guide To Writing Romance” online course:
Eighth Secret: Every detail has a job to do

Detail is compelling. It’s exciting to research, and satisfying to include in your writing. It can tell us so much about your characters and your setting.

But too much, and you can choke on it, as James Wood says, in How Fiction Works.  Significant detail must have a reason to be there. Every description and every subsidiary character must take the story forward or develop your main characters.

Don’t get carried away by your research and write reams just for the sake of showing it off. Research is like good make-up. It should make you look better, but you shouldn’t be aware of it.

Think of your best friend. Which details, of her appearance and habits would you choose to include if she were your heroine? What will tell us more about what she looks like and what she’s like as a person? It could be as simple as a dimple, if people respond to it, or she uses it flirtatiously. Or it could be her habit of alphebetising her bookshelves.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Guide To Writing Romance - Part Seven

My first two novels were set in Regency England. In order to write about this period convincingly, I immersed myself in that world. I read all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, bought books on Regency clothes, gardens, houses, and fashions and researched all manner of other details necessary to create a believable setting. One of the biggest challenges of writing an historical novel is the fact that no-one alive actually lived during the time you’re writing about, and so every detail of the setting you are creating has to be carefully researched.

Alternatively, it may seem that writing a book in a modern setting is therefore much easier.  But this isn’t necessarily the case. My third novel, Send and Receive, was set in Durban, a city I had lived in for a number of years. This made it easier for me to write about it. However, if I hadn’t lived in Durban, I doubt I would have set my novel there as it is so easy to get the atmosphere of a city wrong. Often you need to live in a city to know the myriad small things that lend it atmosphere. It’s not something that can easily be researched online, although online research is, of course, an invaluable resource for any writer.

Read on to find out more about this topic from “The Guide To Writing Romance” online course:

Seventh Secret: Give your characters a believable setting.

We want to see your characters in their natural environment. It must be vivid and have just enough detail for us to believe in it. To do this, you have to know it very well yourself.

You need to know far more about their environment, and perhaps their occupation, than will ever appear in your book. Don’t set out to set your first love story in a hospital if you know nothing about how doctors and nurses work.

Knowing the details gives you the confidence to write with authority. And it allows you to include just enough telling details to create a credible and solid world.

If the world in which you’ve chosen to set your story is not familiar to you, then you’ve set yourself a considerable task: you’re going to have to research it.

The internet, naturally, makes research into places – towns, villages, countries even - a much easier proposition than it used to be. In your research, look for not just the broad vista, but the specific detail. Here, as in almost every other area of writing, it’s the telling detail that convinces more than the generalisation.

But if you’re setting your romance in the world of nuclear physics, medicine, astronomy, or even a legal practice or newsroom, you’re going to have to do your research on the ground. Visit the locations, take photographs, and talk to the people.


A little thought experiment this time. What setting springs to mind when you think of romance? It could be as familiar as your own office or town. It could be the more exotic location of your favourite holiday.
Perhaps it’s the office where you worked as a temp, or the volunteer work you did in your gap year.
Consider how much additional research you may need to do to fill in the blanks. Do you know the details of other people’s jobs? Could you describe the walk to the beach? What trees grow beside the pond?


Monday, 4 February 2013

A Guide To Writing Romance - Part Six

How do you show your characters’ traits and personality, without falling into the trap of telling your readers what you think they should know about them? The secret is to learn to reveal things to the reader without being prescriptive about it. It’s a subtle tool of the writing trade that can take a while to learn, but it’s very important to look at your writing critically to see whether you may be falling into the “telling” trap.

Read on to find out more from “The Guide To Writing Romance” online course:

Sixth Secret: Show, don’t tell.

Show us what your characters are like, don’t tell us. Don’t explain to us that she’s struggled out of poverty and that she’s wary of men. Show us in her overly scornful attitude to material wealth, and in her skittishness around the hero.

Don’t tell us he’s kind. Show us his kindness through what he says and does, and how other characters relate to him.

This is a powerful skill to develop, one of the most important ways to lift your manuscript above the slush pile. No-one wants to read reams and reams of exposition – in which you explain to your reader, at great length, what is going on and why.

Once you’ve developed this skill, you’ll be able to do all that, and more, without explaining it in tedious detail. You’ll quite naturally show your characters to us through the things they say (and choose not to say); through their actions and inactions and how other characters relate to them.

You can also tell a great deal about characters through the details that you choose to include. What are they wearing, for example, or what do they hang on their walls? Do they have a house full of animals, or is their kitchen obsessively neat?


Look around you right now, wherever you happen to be sitting. Which details of your environment would you, as writer, choose to highlight to show something about yourself or your setting?


Friday, 1 February 2013

A Guide To Writing Romance - Part Five

A good writer plunges the reader into the story’s action, and doesn’t intrude on the story. But how can a writer intrude on a story, you might say? Surely the story belongs to its creator? It is very tempting, as a writer, to use your novel as a platform to elaborate on certain themes that are close to your heart, but unless something moves the story along, it shouldn’t be included.

Read on to find out more from the next extract from All About Writing's “The Guide To Writing Romance”:

Fifth Secret: Write in strong scenes.

Too many novices commit the cardinal sin of storytelling: Their narrative consists of just “one damned thing after another”, as Elbert Hubbard put it.
It should never be a series of “and then…and then…and thens.”  Neither do you want to tell us what happened, as though you were telling us quickly over the phone.

We want to feel we are there. We want to watch the action unfold and hear the lovers argue and make up.  Plunge us into the action by telling us the story in a series of tangible scenes that show us what’s happening to them.

Each should have a dramatic point which drives the story forward or reveals an important aspect of your hero or heroine’s character. You may choose to write a scene to extol the beauties of the landscape – but only if this gives us insight into the heroine’s state of mind.



If you like, try this to see how you get on with scenes. Write a short scene in which your heroine, who has just discovered that the hero has refused her leave application, marches into his office to find his personal assistant massaging his shoulders.
Show us what happens from the time she enters the room. What do they say to each other (in direct speech, or dialogue) and how does the scene end?  You may choose to include a scene where two people merely pour tea and exchange pleasantries – but only if this sheds light on your heroine, or someone says something shocking in this context of domestic banality.