Monday, 10 March 2014
Sue Barnard is one of the (regular) students on my Pocket Novel/Romance writing courses. She joins us this week to explain how learning to write pocket novels led to publishing success elsewhere.
POCKETING THE EXPERIENCE
How learning how to write a Pocket Novel taught me to be a better writer
Back in 2008 I did an online Creative Writing course with the Open University. It was called Start Writing Fiction, and lasted for about three months. As part of the course the students were set two tutor-marked assignments, one of which involved writing about an emotion.
The choice of emotion was left up to us, but were advised by our tutor that it was much easier to write convincingly about a negative emotion (such as anger) than about a positive one such as happiness or contentment. Having tried both, I very quickly discovered that she was right; my attempt at a “positive” piece sounded trite and shallow, whereas the “negative” emotion produced a powerful passage which was so toe-curlingly harrowing that I still cringe whenever I read it. But the tutor did give me full marks for it, so in that respect at least I must have done something right.
But for a very long time after that, I found I couldn’t write anything which wasn’t dark, or brooding, or in some cases downright depressing. This wasn’t, I hasten to add, because of any serious angst in my own life – it was purely and simply because I’d got into the mindset that the only way I could write anything “serious” was by going over to the dark side. Even when, a couple of years later, I made a tentative start on writing a novel (more about that later) I still found it very difficult to shake off that doom-laden mantle.
Then, in January 2012, I chanced across an advertisement for an online workshop run by Sally Quilford, on the subject of writing Pocket Novel romances. Romance writing was something I’d never had the courage to tackle, but this six-week course looked interesting, manageable and affordable – and I desperately needed to learn how to lighten up my writing. Despite (to my shame) knowing next to nothing about Pocket Novels, I signed up.
Before the course began I bought and read a few of the DC Thomson Pocket Novels. It didn’t take long for me to realise that a Pocket Novel offers a lovely dose of escapism, and is usually intended to be read in a single sitting (ideally whilst either lounging on a sunny beach or curled up in front of a roaring log fire). I ought to be able to write something like this, I thought. After all, how hard can it be…?
How naïve of me.
I very quickly learned that writing a Pocket Novel is nowhere near as simple as the experts make it look. Despite their modest price and unpretentious appearance, Pocket Novels are no less “proper” novels that those costing several times as much. So much so that they are recognised by the Romantic Novelists’ Association. No trivial matter, then.
As I’d found during the OU “emotion” exercise, easy reading makes for very hard writing. The story needs to be light but not bland, readable but not simplistic, and with likeable and credible characters and enough action and conflict to keep the reader’s interest until the last page. Not easy, when the Pocket Novel Rulebook is (or at least was at the time) a long list of Thou-Shalt-Nots. All plots need conflict, but how on earth can a writer produce a convincing plot when so many of the usual sources of conflict (crime, infidelity, divorce, death) are totally off-limits?
And yet, under Sally’s expert tuition and kind encouragement, I eventually began to learn that yes, it is possible – if one regards conflict in terms of a problem that needs to be solved. This can take the form of (for example) fear, or insecurity, or separation – all of which can be tackled without recourse to any of the traditionally more traumatic themes. As one of the rules for a Pocket Novel is that the Happy Ever After ending is non-negotiable, the story is all about the journey towards it, and how those problems are overcome along the way.
By the end of the six weeks I had a hero, a heroine, a few secondary characters, a basic storyline and a selection of scenes. Plus a whole new set of friends and writing buddies – all of whom are every bit as valuable to me as everything I learned during the course. It took me another few months to produce the rest of the book – during which time one of the characters completely floored me by saying something which went on to change the entire course of the subplot. Until then I had no idea that my fictional creations could take on personalities of their own! Clearly I still had a lot to learn.
And that learning curve included one of the hardest lessons of all: rejection. My pocket novel was turned down by both of the DC Thomson outlets – probably because it didn’t tick all their very stringent boxes.
So the Pocket Novel was relegated to the murky depths of my hard drive whilst I turned my attention back to the novel I’d started a couple of years earlier. This was a retelling of the traditional Romeo & Juliet story, but a version in which the star-crossed lovers didn’t die. At that stage I was writing it mainly for myself, because it was the ending I wanted, but I was now able to go back to the manuscript with a fresher and more critical eye, and a better knowledge of what a publisher might look for. In short, the Pocket Novel workshop taught me how to take my writing more seriously and how to develop a more professional approach. As a result I was able to fine-tune the manuscript and eventually submit it to a publisher. The Ghostly Father, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, was officially released (very appropriately, given the subject-matter) on St Valentine’s Day 2014.
So even though my Pocket Novel didn’t manage to jump through DC Thomson’s hoops, I learned so much from the experience of writing it – including one very valuable lesson: no writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn’t always make the final cut.
Postscript – after Crooked Cat accepted The Ghostly Father, I was inspired to resurrect my Pocket Novel manuscript and submit it to them. As I was writing this blog post, the email arrived telling me they’d accepted it. It’s billed as “a romantic mystery.” Watch this space, folks…