Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Love The Machine

It wasn’t until my almost-new computer broke down that I realised how much I personify my machines. My Kindle Fire stepped into the breach very nicely. She’s a girly little thing, bright and pretty, who will only respond to the lightest touch. Poke her too hard and she goes into meltdown. She is handling my email quite well, but she does have her limitations. After all, she is only a tablet and can’t quite compete with the big guys.

Sadly, I watched them take my six-month-old computer away. A nice man handled him gently, putting him into a case lined with foam, but I still felt bad. He had tried his best, but I think he was sick right from the start. Over the last few days he had only managed to boot up occasionally, most of the time he was too weak to even light up my monitor. When I turned him on he made a sound very much like a human moan. He was obviously in pain, and every time I pushed the on-button I was making it worse. The diagnosis is bad. A faulty motherboard, the very heart of the machine, and they will probably have to totally wipe his memory. The computer equivalent of death.

Desperate to get some writing done, I rescued my old computer from the shed. He booted up first time with a very audible sigh. ‘Not good enough for you, was I? Too old and too slow, so I got put in a box and left to rot. But now you need me again you expect me to go straight back to work.’ I had to apologise, otherwise he would probably have shut down out of pique.

My main computer is always male. The big machines scare me a little, and I would never admit to being scared of a woman. Besides, my new computer is obviously male, a beautiful, glistening black with hard lines and a look of absolute power. I can’t wait to get him back. He may not remember anything I downloaded, but I’m sure he’ll still remember me.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How to write a serial

This is the second of my blog posts on how to write a serial. Last week I posted on my own blog at about writing my serial, The Lemon Grove. This week I am posting both there, and here about:-

CHARACTERISATION - characters are important in most stories but they play a special part in constructing compelling serials. This is because these are magazine stories particularly aimed at women. Now, women like a cracking good plot as much as anyone. But women on the whole have a higher emotional IQ than men. True, like men they enjoy car chases, action scenes, a stirring war tale but very often for a story to make a lasting impression on a women's magazine audience, they want to know how people feel and what motivates them. Romance is a big seller and that's no coincidence - it's because people read romances in order to feel something. Now I know this is a huge generalisation and I don't want to annoy any feminists - I guess I'm one myself - I make my own decisions and have always made my own way in life. But I have often put down a book and not turned the next page, or lost interest in a film mainly because I feel nothing for the characters or have lost sympathy with them.
In women's magazine serials the way to keep someone coming back week after week, pennies in hand, to buy the next episode is if they care about the players. They have to sympathise with them, or perhaps feel these are people who would be their friends if they met them in real life. Not to say that all your serial characters need to be likeable. They can be villains, but your villains must be compelling and believable.
One of the best ways to reveal your characters is through dialogue and this is an essential element of most serials. If there is something you can reveal through your characters' conversation, then do it, make sure we literally hear their voice. Think of all the TV series that are popular - the soaps, Morse, Downton Abbey - the characters constantly verbalise their feelings and their observations of others.
In my serial, feelings run high. It is after all, a family tale with all the dynamics and difficulties experienced by any family. Had it been about business though, or a quest to solve a mystery, feelings would still run high. In fact the only sorts of serial I think where perhaps there does not need to be so much emotion is perhaps a comic serial where the reader is kept engaged by the humour. If you can write humour well, good luck to you. It is hugely popular and there is a humourous serial running at present in one of the women's mags about a group of retired amateur sleuths which is part of a series which has obviously been well received.
In my story, I had an irascible patriarch father, Salvatore, who runs a family hotel and who his staff fear. He had to be a rounded character though. His children and his wife love him, he is not a baddy, so he had to have redeeming features. After all, he has his son's respect. Antonio (our hero) wants to honour his father and do his duty by helping to run the family business even though his dearest wish is to be an archaeologist. In order for Salvatore to be credible, I had to make him lovable as well as somewhat dictatorial. The way I demonstrated this was that he is very much the protector of his children and his wife. Everything he does, he does with the best of motives. He's flawed but he means well. The trouble is, he's old fashioned. So, when his beautiful but wayward teenage daughter Louisa who fancies herself as a bit of a model and a flirt with the local boys angers her father, sparks fly. And there you have another key to characterisation for a serial. There has to be conflict. Have you ever seen an argument in a public place, in the street, or a shop? I'll bet people stopped and looked, wanting to know how the conflict was going to play out. Conflict is the life blood of a serial. For through conflict comes suspicion, people behaving badly, worry, anger all those things which make a story interesting. Through the resolution of conflict comes love, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation - all those things which make the ending of a story satisfying.
Finally, I had a wealth of different characters. They ranged in age from 14 to very elderly, they ranged from wealthy to having problems with money. They ranged from business people to lovely Italian nanas who stayed at home and did lots of cooking (just like my Italian nana did although she ran a successful catering business for many years when she was younger!) I had a fabulous looking Italian detective and a peaches and cream English nanny. The supporting characters, the people working at the hotel, the visiting relatives, a difficult neighbour - were all in their own way as important to the plot as the leading characters. That's not to say their stories overtook the leading characters, your hero and heroine are always most important and they must remain centre stage if you are writing a romance. If you are writing a police story like a recent shorter magazine serial I read, the detectives must always remain centre stage and not be upstaged by the supporting characters. That said, supporting characters have to be painted crisply and completely and to have their own individual personalities and distinct looks or mannerisms. Never forget that your readers have to wait a whole week to get reacquainted with your characters. It is much easier if they have something specific to remember about each person. That was true in my serial, The Lemon Grove, whether they were a wine drinking blustery Professore or a kind compassionate nana who showed them how to make homemade pasta. However small a part minor characters played, they had to be written large so we could fix them in our memories and we sympathised with their motivations. Then readers can feel for them and want to know what happened next.
Good luck with your characters. Next week, I shall be doing a post at about the importance of the setting for serials.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Return to Barradale

My latest Linford Romance has been published - available from Amazon and other online booksellers and from your local library:

Melody has sworn never to return to Barradale, the island where she grew up and had been so unhappy. Now, living in Glasgow, she has forged a new life for herself. But when the gorgeous Kieran Matthews turns up on her doorstep demanding she return with him to see her sick sister, she finds she cannot refuse. And for Melody, family secrets must be unravelled before Kieran's love can help to resolve her past.

Hope you enjoy it!

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Art mirrors life......

Sometimes, very rarely, you are lucky enough to have something you put in your soon-to-be-published book occur in real life. That has happened to me in respect of the serial I have just written for People's Friend. This serial was started two years ago. Writing a serial is a long drawn out process as each 5000 word episode has to be agreed (often with two or three revisions) which results in a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the writer and editor. When I began the serial all that time ago, I set it in Sorrento as I had just spent a holiday there. Our hotel and the deserted bay a short walk away were the perfect setting. Vesuvius, the harbour and Pompeii were perfect backdrops for interesting scenes which I knew would chime with many readers who had been to those places or always wanted to go.

One of my characters is an archaeology student and when we visited Pompeii there were stories in the news about the fact that there are still artefacts on the site waiting to be dug up. I therefore made it my hero Antonio's dearest wish to be chosen by his Professore to help with those digs. This became an absorbing storyline and conveniently created tension between his heart's desire and his need to honour his father by helping him run the family hotel. As I was writing the last two instalments, low and behold, my Sunday paper plopped on the mat with a two page article about the Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum. I immediately wrote into the last instalments a scene explaining how my hero Antonio had been part of the team which packaged the artefacts to be displayed. The exhibition goes on till September and therefore will be on when my serial comes out in People's Friend plus there have been fascinating programmes on the television. I was delighted that purely by chance my fiction had mirrored real life.

Purely by coincidence, a similar thing has happened to me in the same week. About a year ago I wrote a novella about a female scientist who finds herself a job on a deserted island in the Indian Ocean. My heroine had a child who died as a result of her not taking her baby to be vaccinated about which she feels terrible guilt and shuts herself off from the world. Unfortunately it was not accepted as a pocket novel because the editors felt the death of a child was too raw for the pocket novel world. I shelved the story and only recently, thanks to our own lovely Sally Quilford learnt that Harper Impulse are looking for new romance authors. I duly submitted my story (and am waiting stomach knotted, for their response) but lo and behold in the news came the story about the threatened measles epidemic in Wales due to people choosing not to vaccinate their children. Suddenly my novella was topical! Whether that will give it more chance of being accepted or not I don't know. I wonder how often these sort of coincidences have been visited on other writers, do tell if you've had anything similar. I think now I ought to zoom off and write a novel about a woman, of a certain age who wins the Euromillions lottery and lives a life of unparralelled luxury endlessly cruising the world. Might do that before I check my tickets for yesterday which are languishing in my purse....., you never know your luck! Cara.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Characters and Moral Event Horizons

Some of you may be aware of the recent plagiarism suit brought against Mills and Boon author, Kate Walker in relation to her novel, The Proud Wife, which a wannabe writer (I'm deliberately not naming names here) claims Kate's novel was  plagiarised from the unknown writer's unpublished novel. I’m not going to go into all that here, but you can read about it on the Pink Heart blog and the case notes make very interesting reading on the subject of romantic tropes. There's also an interesting blog post here on 'original ideas' in fiction. There are certainly no original ideas in romantic fiction! But as a friend said to me the other day, new writers always think they've reinvented the wheel. I was the same when I was just starting out. You get on much better as a romance writer when you realise that the tropes are there, and all you can do is bring your own voice to them.

But what stood out for me about the case, and what led to this particular blog post, was that the heroine in the unpublished novel seemingly threw herself down the stairs deliberately to bring about a miscarriage. To be balanced about this, I don’t know if it was intended to address this in the story so that it wasn’t actually what happened.

But it did get me thinking about moral event horizons by characters.  A moral event horizon is what a character crosses when they commit certain acts.

To me a heroine who harmed her baby in such a way would not be at all sympathetic. I’m not talking about abortions here, as I do believe it’s every woman’s right to choose (though I would suggest that in romantic fiction an abortion would be a hard sell). What I’m talking about is a deliberate and violent act meant to bring about the end of the pregnancy because the heroine was peeved at the hero for ending their relationship. 

Of course some characters do cross the moral event horizon, especially if they’re meant to be the bad guys/girls. It can be as simple as kicking a puppy or as complicated as blowing up a building. But heroes and heroines are supposed to be above all that. I’ve often used the example of James Bond. We may not care if he kills bad guy Blofeld, but God forbid he should ever harm a hair on Blofeld’s cat’s head!

Really good television series can explore moral event horizons. 24, starring Keifer Sutherland, often posed questions of right and wrong, and grey and grey morality. Keifer, playing the hero, Jack Bauer, often behaved in ways that were distinctly un-heroic. He tortured people, and even shot one colleague because it would have caused the deaths of many more people if he had not done so. No matter what Jack did, we saw the reasons for it and we forgave him. Or if we didn’t forgive him, we understood the predicament he was in. But Jack wasn’t a romantic hero. In fact most of his lovers died or ended up in comas! I think this is another reason we forgave his transgressions, because he always had to pay a heavy price for what he did.

Heroes and heroines in romance novels have to be heroic at all times, and there are certain lines that they should never cross. When reading through entries for an open romance writing comp (as a fellow competitor, I should add, not as a judge!) I was put off by one hero who called the heroine a ‘whore’. To me there is nothing heroic about a man who verbally abuses a woman. Another story opened with the heroine being physically abused and myself and several others expressed a wish that a hero would come and save her, only to be told that this was the hero, who would turn out to be a 'nice guy' really. In my opinion, the fact of him physically abusing the heroine in the opening chapter put him beyond the realms of redemption.

I think the problem with heroes is that some people think that because a man is an alpha male, it means he has to be aggressive and perhaps angry at the world until the heroine comes along and saves him. That’s not how it works. Alpha males protect their mate and they protect others whom they love. They may have faults, but there are lines that they should not cross and in my opinion verbal and physical abuse is one of those lines.

Your hero and heroine are allowed to make mistakes, but they must be forgivable mistakes. A young woman throwing herself down the stairs in order to bring about a miscarriage is to be pitied perhaps, as she clearly has psychological problems, but that would be a different story altogether and perhaps not suited for the romance genre.

If she is the heroine of the story, she has to earn her happy ending, and she can’t do that by behaving in a way that brings harm to a helpless child. 

My latest ebook, LonesomeRanger (formerly published as Sunlit Secrets) is out this week, published by Pulse Romance, (which is run by our very own Kate Allan). In that both my hero and heroine make mistakes. My heroine, Connie, takes the role as schoolteacher in the town of Ocasa based on a lie. She lets them think she is her older sister, who has died en route to the town. Nate Truman, the hero, has a dark and troubled past. They both make mistakes, but I hope that in the novel I’ve given a damn good reason for those mistakes and that the reader can forgive them, because essentially both are good, noble people.

It’s a balancing act, I think and you have to be careful not to make the reader lose sympathy with the characters that you really want them to be cheering for.

In pocket novels, which are set in a more rose-tinted world, it is more important than ever that your hero and heroine don’t behave in a way that turns the reader against them.

What, for you, would be a moral event horizon in a hero and heroine? Do  you have any examples of heroes or heroines in romance books crossing that horizon? And if so, did they manage to redeem themselves?
(It isn't my intention to bring a witch hunt against the wannabe writer in the Harlequin case, hence me not naming her in this piece. So please keep any comments on that subject civil and polite).