It’s amazing how writing a romantic novel interferes with blogging. I got into NaNoWriMo properly about three days before it finished and now the only thing I’ve got on my mind is what to do about the fact that my hero has completely ignored my plan and gone off piste. Ignored it, I tell you. The ungrateful bugger. You create these characters, give ’em charm and fabulous looks and this is how they thank you. Mind you, he has a point. I had made him a bit underhand about the heroine’s inheritance, and you can’t have a chap doing that. However much of maverick he is.
They can do everything else, though. They can kidnap a girl, impugn her honour, assume she means ‘yes’ when she says, ‘no’ (but only if he loves her really), and seemingly cheat on her left, right and centre (but only if, at the end, the girl he was seeing so much of turns out to be his long lost sister, or the impoverished widow of his best friend). But money? Only a cad would do a girl out of her inheritance. Odd, where all these unwritten rules come from.
I’ll just have to make him misunderstood, instead. Bloody romantic novels. Bloody writing. Does your head in.
I am supposed to be taking part in NaNoWriMo. But I have to confess, I’ve been backsliding. First part of my romantic novel; a breeze. They meet, he’s handsome she’s starchy, they cross swords (not literally, but actually…that’s an idea) they kiss and then…..oh, I dunno. It’s not got enough oomph. So, naturally, I’ve been displacing like mad.
I have cleaned the picture rails in the kitchen. (Why? Who looks at them?)
I have cleaned the oven (actually I got my husband to do that, while I had a cup of tea and supervised. It’s very therapeutic watching other people work).
I have been watching Strictly Come Dancing It takes Two on Catch Up TV. (How sad is that???) But really, Judy had to go, for the good of the collective. She was stiffer than, well, a stiff. And if you get to the point where the only thing in your favour as a dancer is your mum’s shortbread then, really, it is time to shuffle off.
I have been wandering through YouTube, looking at all those Armstrong and Miller pilot sketches. This one has to be my favourite:
But really, there is nothing to beat looking up pictures of all the silly place names in Britain.
I know, I know. Back to work.
I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.
Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.
The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.
Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.
I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).
I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).
Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’
The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.
So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’
There is a huge problem with characters once you have created them, of course: they go off by themselves. It’s supposed to be a sign that you have done your job properly, but there is nothing more annoying than a character who thinks he knows better than you.
Don’t be nuts, I hear you say, after all, aren’t you, the writer, in charge? And the short answer to that is, no. I quite often get to the end of a story, and I have no idea how I got there. Sometimes I just start with a really strong character and hope for the best, and I’m just led along, step by step to a conclusion I hadn’t expected, but which is so right. Other times, well.
The problem is the plot. You have to have an idea of where you want your characters to go. I’ve talked before about not shoehorning them into a narrow path, but you do have to have some kind of plan, based on their personalities and situation. If for example, you are writing a romantic novel, and you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, Mills and Boon are very happy to look at three chapters and a synopsis of the rest. The trouble begins when the publishers give you the green light and you get to the end of chapter four and then your characters turn round and bite you. They’re all set up to have a row, or a bit of sexual tension, and they basically down tools and refuse. They turn into those method actor types who suddenly want to know their motivation, and then you lose your nerve and you stop writing because, actually, maybe they’re right.
Maybe your hero doesn’t want a steamy moment in the shower with the heroine; and maybe after all the emotional rollercoaster stuff she’s been through since Chapter One (when her heart began thudding wildly and hasn’t stopped since) she’s got a thumping headache. Poor girl.
The first thing to do in this situation, is not to put it away and promise you will come back later; you won’t. Go back to the beginning and read through it. Writing is a lot like knitting in some respects; you can drop a stitch and not notice, and then it’s only after a whole lot of stuff has unravelled, that you realise that you are deep in the doo doo. With a read through, you can often see where your characters took a wrong turn, or where you can insert stuff that will bring them back up to speed again.
The most important thing is to finish your writing session on a high, rather than on an extremely gloomy, ‘I just can’t do this,’ low. Characters can get you down, but don’t let the stroppy buggers stand in your way.
When I decided I was going to be a writer I had the same attitude as Snoopy. I didn’t exactly start off with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ but I felt the only way to keep my reader’s attention was to be as dramatic as possible. It was a romantic novel, so I wanted it chock full of all the best stuff I could possibly think of.
I gave my characters dramatic names, Rock and Sian (Rock????? What was I thinking?) (and Sian? How many people outside Wales know how to pronounce Sian?) I put them in a lush place (an island in the Caribbean). I made him a pirate who was a property developer on the side (glamour and wealth, you see) and her a proud but virginal librarian. I even had a dissolute Hollywood film star as the sexy beast who comes between them. How could I possibly fail?
The answer to that one of course, is, how could I not? It was a complete mess. I was so taken up with assembling all these marvellous elements, that I completely forgot about my characters’ feelings. I rode roughshod over them. I made my librarian go windsurfing, when really, all she wanted was a cup of tea and a lie-down. I made my pirate fall for a woman who might know the Dewey Decimal System backwards, but couldn’t even find her way to her own hotel bedroom. In any case it was obvious that he would much rather use his dark brooding charm on the hotel receptionist. And as for old Hollywood sexy boots; why on earth was he waylaying a colourless limey when every woman he met (apart from her) was throwing herself at his feet? Why indeed.
The point of course is that you don’t construct stories by just chucking stuff together. You start with one character, what they look like, how old they are, where they live, what their secrets are – and who they are keeping these secrets from. That way, everything pretty much falls into place.
If I were going to do the decent thing, I would go back to that original manuscript of mine and liberate those characters, stuck helplessly for the last 20 years in a haunted plantation house in the middle of a storm. I would allow Sian to find an old sofa to sleep on for the night, before ringing the police in the morning and getting back in time for her trip home to Bracknell. Rock could stumble about for a bit and then get knocked unconscious by a banging shutter (they always have banging shutters in storm-tossed Caribbean houses) to be awoken by the Hollywood sex god bathing his face. And they could live happily ever after running an interior design service in LA. There. Sorted. Sorry it took so long.
If men really want to know what women want, they should buy a stack of romantic novels. Seriously. If you are a man and you are reading this, then I imagine that your reaction is on the lines of ‘F*** Right Off’, but stay with me here.
Romantic novels represent our fantasies, they set out blueprints for our dream man, they detail how we like our men to look, behave and think.
If you are a smart guy and you still don’t know why women look straight past you when you’re trying to chat them up, you can do no better than to pop into WH Smiths, pick up the Mills and Boon monthly selection and spend a couple of evenings doing a spot of clinical analysis. (Of course, my booklist is readily available, but being British, I don’t like to mention it).
You will, no doubt, probably in the middle of Chapter 2, come to the conclusion that it is impossible for you to grow three inches and suddenly become a human rights lawyer, a wine-grower, or a rich businessman. And you would be right. But this is not the moment at which you throw Rebel Bride on the fire and go down the pub. It is just that you have missed the point.
Sure, the books always describe the hero as having perfect surface qualities. What is more interesting is that my Mills and Boon editor once told me that you could never have a hero who is a soccer player, an antique dealer or a pop star. You can take it then, that women want somebody reliable, who’s not going to run off with their family silver or score an own goal with their sister. They want somebody who is a considerate lover (lots of stuff on the internet about that, chaps) and somebody who dresses well (likewise).
And most importantly of all, they listen to the heroine, because she is the most important person in the book. Hey, are you reading this? Hey? Come back…
My life as a Mills and Boon novelist began when I decided I wanted to leave work and stay at home to have children. ‘How hard can it be?’ I told a friend. ‘After all, the world is wall to wall with romantic novels. They can’t be that fussy about how you write something so trashy.’
And so, dear reader, I uncapped my biro and began. An hour later I was sure I had written at least 5,000 words (a romantic novel is between 50,000–55,000) but when I counted up, there were only 1,000, in which the hero and heroine had already had a row, made up, had sex, and got married. I realised I was going to have to spend some time chewing the end of my biro over the next 49,000 words.
Two years, and many, many revisions later, I sent off my ms, and the editors at M&B (or Harlequin if you are in the US) liked it enough to meet me, but not enough to publish it. I also got a grilling about my casual way with facts. ‘How does the hero know she has concussion?’ I was asked. ‘Does he have medical training?’
‘No, he’s a pirate,’ I admitted.
‘Maybe he was forced to join the St John Ambulance at an early age,’ suggested the editor, with a sardonic lift to her eyebrow. (You see what I did there? People in romantic novels are always lifting their eyebrows sardonically). If you become an author with Mills and Boon, you are expected to get things right.
I went home, polished up my facts, corrected my spelling and got my first book accepted. I went on to have five books published by the firm, and when I later wrote books for other publishers I realised what a brilliant grounding I had been given, and just how highly respected Mills & Boon are for their professionalism and knowledge of their market.
They do give advice on what they want, but not explicit instructions on plots. The style is generally to tell the story in the third person through the eyes of the heroine (a style invented by Jane Austen) as in ‘she could feel her heart thumping wildly as he entered the room’, but there are authors who tell the story through the eyes of the hero, or both. The hero has to be an alpha male, and the heroine a strong feisty woman, someone with whom a modern woman can identify.
And when you’ve finished it, your reader should be able to consume it without ever needing to pause for thought. ‘It should be as easy as eating blancmange,’ my editor told me. In fact, as easy as having children. And how hard is that?
This article was first published in the Daily Express in July 2011