Sunday, 28 February 2016

Five Writing Rules I Break - Guest Post Phillipa Ashley

Phillipa is a well known name in the word of romance and women's fiction and I am delighted to welcome her as a guest on my blog. I asked her what writing rules, over the years, she's allowed herself to break and whether there are any that remain sacred!

Over to you, Phillipa.

Five rules I’ve learned to break in ten years of writing…
…and one I never would

1.  Write what you know. Erm... not necessarily. Ages ago, I read a quote that said: ‘write what you want to know’. Personally, I always include a big element in a book that I don’t know anything about so I can go and find out. That’s usually at least two jobs/lifestyles I know nothing about and dozens of emotions to explore. Otherwise I’d be really bored.

2.  The editor is always right. Not always, not even 90% of the time but he or she is usually paying so learn to pick your battles. When you first get edits, by all means scream, rant and chuck your toys out of the pram. Then, take a deep breath and a few days to consider why s/he wants you to make the changes. Make them work for you, or explain calmly and rationally, why they won’t. Most reasonable editors will come to a compromise. If you’ve signed away your IP rights, ignore the above. You really do have no say. If you can’t live with that, don’t sign any agreement that requires you relinquish the rights to your characters and the story.

3.  Show, don’t tell. Well, yes, but don’t go overboard. Sometimes a pithy summary is far more reader friendly than pages of acted-out drama. Narrative can also be a great way of showing the passage of time by slowing pace or adding variation.

4.  Never compare yourself with others. Easy to say: impossible to do. There will always be writers who sell more/win more awards/have more Twitter followers/are younger, cooler and cannier at using Instagram filters etc than you. The trick is to use others’ success to spur yourself on. Envy is a horrible emotion but it’s human. Learn from your own responses to others, analyse them for use in your work and be generous to your fellow writers. The vast majority are some of the most wonderful supportive people on the planet. The rest can be inspiration for your next villain!

5.  Write every day. If you can do, then great but if you’re like me, you’ll probably need ‘white space’ in your writing life. Take breaks when you need them, and over a career, you’ll probably need them a lot. You may be out of contract and have lost your confidence; you may simply be burnt out and exhausted. If you’ve suffered a major life trauma or bereavement, you may find you simply cannot physically sit at a laptop or have no idea why anyone ever writes. Be super kind to yourself and allow time to recharge your creative batteries.

And one not to break: Never Give Up

If genuine Writers’ Block strikes, and is a result of trauma or exhaustion, then focus all your energies on recovery and your health. Tell yourself you’re never going to write again if it eases your load and takes the pressure off. However, if you’re ‘merely’ full of self-doubt, then a change may be as good as a rest. Try a different tense/POV or a short story or novella or poetry. Lie to yourself and say you’re only writing for you, you’re never going to submit this project: it’s a piece of pure self-indulgent fun.

One morning, I promise, you’ll find you’re back on the horse and galloping along like Poldark.

Phillipa Ashley, writes romantic and women’s fiction for a variety of international publishers including Avon Harper Collins, Penguin and Headline.

After studying English at Oxford, she worked as a copywriter and journalist. Her first novel won the RNA New Writers Award and was made into a TV movie called ‘12 Men of Christmas’ starring Kristin Chenoweth and Josh Hopkins. As Pippa Croft, she also wrote the Oxford Blue series for Penguin Books.

Phillipa’s new book, Summer at the Cornish CafĂ©, will be published by @AvonBooks (Harper Collins) on May 5th – and is the first of a trilogy set in Cornwall.

Summer at the Cornish Cafe is available to pre-order here

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Day My Life Changed Direction

My post today is to commemorate the week, five years ago, when my life changed.

It was a Friday - the last day of the February half term - and, after a lovely week off, I was preparing to go back to work the following Monday. Instead, I had a message to come into the school for a meeting.

I'd been the English teacher at the small, private primary school for ten years and it was unusual to be called in on the last day of our break. I'm not sure if I had a premonition of what was to come as I drove to the school that morning and took my seat with the other teachers and support staff... but everything seemed wrong. It was too quiet, with none of the usual back to school chatter. Faces were serious. Eyes wary.

The news, when it came, was devastating. The school hadn't weathered the recession and was to close. There would be no job to go back to and no classes for the children.

I remember the following Monday as clearly as if it happened yesterday... going into school, collecting up my things, taking down children's work from the display boards and leaving them bare. Most of all, I remember saying goodbye to the children gathered in the hallway to collect their work and trying not to cry.

When I got home, I walked the dog along the river bank. It was a lovely clear day but instead of taking in the beauty of the place, the river meandering through the water meadows and the South Downs in the distance, my thoughts flicked back and forth from what had been, to what might be. I had no direction. On the one hand I felt relief at having left behind the parts of my job all teachers hate: preparing, marking, occasional challenging children, parents evenings and the dreaded OFSTED but I had also left behind my identity. I was adrift.

For those of you who know the rest of the story, I apologise. For my new readers, I will tell you what happened next in a sentence. I did a writing course, I did a second, I sent a story to magazines, I had rejections, I had acceptances, I carried on, I wrote more, I subbed more, I had rejections, I published more, I wrote a serial, I wrote another, I had rejections, I wrote articles, I wrote a novel, I had rejections, I had words of encouragement, I didn't give up, I had belief, I had hope, I have a new life opening up to me - exciting, challenging.

Five years ago, through adversity, my life took a new new direction.

I didn't find it. It found me.

I'm proud of myself.

I am a writer.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Ghost Stories Don't Need to be Scary

I always used to think that ghost stories should be scary - probably something to do with watching too much Scooby Doo as a child! It was only after I actually sat down to write one, that I realized they don’t have to be spine-chilling. In fact, ghost stories can be romances, family tales, comedy even – not necessarily something dark and gothic.

This week, in Take a Break Fiction Feast, I have a ghost story called ‘Hearts in the Sand’ and I thought I’d use it as an example of how to write a non-scary ghost story.

Feeling lonely after the death of her husband, Kevin, Julie moves to the seaside town where they had been planning to retire. It was a place Kevin had stayed as a child. A place very special to him.

While walking on the beach one day, Julie sees a child drawing hearts in the sand. The little girl, who says her name is Ella, the tries to engage her in conversation but Julie wants to be alone with her sadness. Ella tells Julie she loves the beach and asks her whether she does too. When Julie shakes her head, the little girl draws another heart and says, ‘I’ll teach you how.’

The following day, the child is on the beach again and Julie is irritated when she asks her once more if she loves the beach. Unperturbed by Julie's unfriendliness, Ella shows her a beautiful coral sea fan. The same thing happens on the following days with Ella showing Julie new things from the beach: a sea potato, a tiny velvet crab, an oystercatcher. The little girl continues to ask Julie if she loves the beach but, despite being shown all the wonderful things it has to offer, she can’t see beyond her loneliness.

Over the coming days, Julie notices the girl is looking increasingly pale and out of breath and worries she’s unwell. Ella tells Julie she lives in one of the cottages at the back of the beach. As Julie looks, a woman comes out and she presumes it’s the girl’s grandmother. She says she’ll take Ella back home but when she gets there Ella isn’t behind her.

The woman, Elizabeth, who is also widowed, invites Julie in. She tells Julie she’s seen her around town and had wondered whether she was new to the area. There is a photo on the wall with a little girl in it who Julie recognizes as Ella. She’s sitting on the beach with a boy. When Julie tells Elizabeth she’s met her granddaughter, we find out that the girl in the picture is not her granddaughter at all but Elizabeth’s sister, Ella, who died of leukemia when she was nine. The little boy is Julie’s husband, Kevin, who used to stay in the cottage with his family when it was a guesthouse. They had both loved the beach and Kevin used to show Ella all the beautiful and interesting things he found there.

At the end of the story, we realise Ella was in fact a ghost. Through her, Kevin was able to help his wife fall in love with the place - by showing her the things that were special to him. A well as that, Ella and Kevin had helped Julie find a new friend in Elizabeth.

So you see, it’s not necessary for a ghost story to be scary – this one was in fact a story about love.

Here were some techniques I used to write the story:

An interesting setting
Whether a ghost story is to be scary or not, you need to create atmosphere. I chose a beach (one of my favorite story settings). Whatever setting you use, remember to use all your senses in your descriptions.

Make sure your ghost has a reason or motive for existing
My ghost, Ella, was a vehicle for Julie’s late husband to help her to fall in love with her new home. She was also integral in helping Julie banish her loneliness..

Give the reader clues about the ghost
Obviously, we don’t want to give the game away too soon but we want the reader to look back and say ‘Oh, yes – now I see!’

These clues might be in the ghost’s appearance or maybe in something they say. Here are the clues I left in Hearts in the Sand.

  • It’s a cold day when Julie first meets Ella. She is wearing gloves but the child’s hands are bare and she doesn't seem to feel the cold. Later, Julie comments on the fact that Ella's only wearing a woolen dress and no coat.
  • Julie is surprised that she’s out on the beach alone.
  • Julie wonders why she’s not at school.
  • I mention Ella’s pale hair and the blue veins showing beneath the skin of her wrist.
  • Ella climbs the rocks easily despite mention of her frailty.
  • From the window of her house, Julie thinks she sees Ella on the beach despite the rain.
  • When she gets to Elizabeth’s gate, Ella is no longer there.

There you have it. Ghost stories don’t need to scare. Have you written a ghost story? If so, what techniques did you use?

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Spread a Little Happiness - Inspiration Behind the Story

It's a while since I wrote an 'inspiration behind the story' post so thought I'd share one with you today. I am lucky to have four stories out in magazines this week: one in The People's Friend weekly, one in Take a Break Fiction Feast and two in The People's Friend Special. Interestingly, they are all very different - one is a ghost story, one is a medieval romance set in France and one is a contemporary story about temptation.

The final story, though, is about one of my favourite things - my grandson. He is the inspiration behind Spread a Little Happiness, which you can read in this week's People's Friend.

It all began when Tyler, had an inset day from school and I agreed to look after him as my daughter was working. It wasn't a particularly nice day but I thought it would be nice for the two of us to go on an outing. It needed to be somewhere where we could shelter if the weather got worse and one which had a cafe where we could have lunch. A place sprang to mind immediately - somewhere where I used to take my daughters when they were children. Amberley Working Museum. Its set in a 36 acre site in the Sussex Downs National Park and is one of those wonderful places that looks rather random and scruffy but is actually a wonderful hotchpotch of things to look at and explore: traditional craftspeople, a printing workshop, transport exhibitions, a narrow-gauge railway and vintage buses to travel on.

Because it was out of season, a school day and rather rainy, the place was deserted when we got there. It was also midday and we were feeling rather peckish. Luckily the museum had a lovely new cafeteria called The Limeburners which we decided would be perfect. Tyler and I chose our sandwiches and settled down to enjoy them while we waited for the rain to stop. The place was practically empty - except for an elderly couple at a table nearby.

I was just taking a bite of my sandwich when Tyler pulled at my sleeve. His eyes shone with excitement. 

"There's Grandpa in My Pocket!"

"What?" I said, confused.

"That man in the raincoat. He's Grandpa in My Pocket! He's on television."

I have to confess that I'd never heard of the programme but the man's voice sounded familiar. Where had I heard it before? It came to me then - the voice was from one of The Likely Lads. Might James Bolam also be Grandpa in My Pocket? Under cover of the table I googled his name and yes, Tyler was right, Grandpa in My Pocket was sitting just a table away. 

Now my grandson is a very friendly soul and immediately wanted to introduce himself to the man himself. I, on the other hand, was conscious of the fact that James Bolam and his wife were probably wanting a nice quiet day out so I wouldn't let him go over to talk to them.

We had a lovely day but all Tyler could talk about, when we got home, was seeing Grandpa in My Pocket. I started to feel a bit guilty. What harm would it have done to have let him say hello? Too late now though. I'd have to think of another way to make amends.

"How about I write a story about you and me and Amberley Museum? It won't be real, it will be made up, but in this story, you'll get to meet Grandpa in My Pocket. I'll send it to the magazine I write for and one day, hopefully, you'll be able to read it. Would that make up for not actually meeting him."

His eyes lit up. "My own story?"

"Yes. Just for you... and over a hundred thousand other people."

"Ok," he said.

So I wrote it, subbed it and sold it. The boy in my story is called Taylor, Amberley Museum has become Tambury Open Air Museum and Grandpa in My Pocket is now Grandpa Joe. The fabulous illustration is by Mandy Dixon.

Today, Tyler went with me to the shops. We bought the magazine and he got to read his very own story... well I did promise him, didn't I? Luckily he loved it!