I have just been to the best job interview ever. Which is good, because I have had some real stinkers.
A job interview is not the kind of thing that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. It’s not like you’re going to be having lunch with George Clooney at the Savoy and, if you hit if off over the Poire Belle Helene, he’ll be asking you to write his next movie.
No. Job interviews, generally speaking, are a weekend spent with dentist in-laws, being examined on philosophy and arse-licking, condensed into an hour.
The weirdest job interview I’ve ever had? That would be the one in the advertising department of a local radio station. It didn’t go too badly. At first. I impressed the head of advertising with my choice of music for some processed cheese (Air on a Cheese String), but then he asked me, quite seriously, what famous actor I would choose to play him in a film. And what film it would be. What kind of question is that??? My mind, poor at the best of times in these situations, went completely blank. I stared at the guy, who was small, pinkly balding and perspiring freely, and then, in a splurge of sycophancy, I mumbled, ‘Oh, that would have to be Samuel L Jackson, of course, because he’s the coolest man on the planet.’
‘And the film?’ he pressed, smirking slightly.
‘Er, oh…’ and then I blurted, ‘Babe the sheep pig, because he looks like you.’
Most crushing job interview? That would be one I had in the seventies, when no one had really yet got to grips with equality. It was for the job of junior reporter on a weekly paper, and it all went swimmingly until, at the end, the editor said, ‘Well, it’s a choice between you and a young man. So, of course, I’m going to give him the job.’ Yes, he really said that. Mind you, he also said he’d call me back in six months, and he did. So, fair play. (ish)
Most time-consuming and ridiculous interview? That would be for a multi national bank. Not in the money department, you understand, but as editor of a staff newspaper. When I got notification of the interview, a friend said to me, ‘They’ll ask you what you like doing in your spare time.’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I replied. ‘Lying in bed and eating chocolates.’
‘Nooo!’ said friend. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘Why not? They’ll think I’m being friendly and humorous.’
‘Banks don’t have a sense of humour,’ counselled the friend. ‘Say, that whatever time you get home, you like to go out for a run. Otherwise they’ll think you’re sluggish and hopeless.’
And it came to pass that, during the interview, I was given several bizarre tests cunningly designed to reveal the inner me (including building the Forth Road Bridge out of plastic straws). Efficient people with clipboards watched my every move, and would ask at intervals, ‘How do you like to unwind after a day at work?’ (Oh, I have to go for a run. It’s absolutely my favourite thing). Or, ‘What’s your favourite pastime?’ (Running, of course, or possibly going to the gym. You can’t beat an hour or two on the treadmill – I mean, it did wonders for Oscar Wilde); or rank, in order of preference, your ideal method of relaxation: a, watching TV; b, lying in bed; c, eating chocolates; d, going for a five-mile run over muddy terrain in the dark (Yes, you guessed it.)
And, get this: I got offered the job. I didn’t take it though. It was too much like hard work.
Which brings me to my latest interview. This was for a job as an adult education tutor for my local county council. Zero hours contract, mind, and no cast iron guarantee of any work, but it was worth a go. So I jumped through most of the hoops online, and was called to interview last Tuesday at a former stately home in the depths of the lush spring countryside. They (whoever they were) started building the house about 900 years ago out of the glowing local stone, and the Victorians put an end to it with fancy bits of brick. It had gothic doorways, and crumbling turrets and lush untidy lawns with a stand of beehives at a safe distance. It was the kind of place that made you want to take a cup of tea out onto the terrace and conjure up a best selling romance, while the cook and butler got busy with the bacon and eggs. (Enough pointless description, ed).
Anyway, there I was with three other hopefuls, who teach music, drama and relaxation therapy. We all had to give a 15-minute lesson. The music teacher was first. She had all of us, including the county council types, up on our feet singing What shall we do with the drunken sailor and Oh, sinner man. She gave us tambourines and scrapy sticks and divided us up to so we could do part-singing. And it was truly joyful. (And mostly in tune.) Then it was the drama teacher, who emptied a bag full of masks on the table (I got the one labelled ‘confused’) and showed us how to mime. (Move over, Rowan Atkinson). My 15 minutes on how to write natural-sounding dialogue was a bit quiet after all that but, because I’d also had instruction on how to meditate from the other teacher, my nerves had flown away. I was having A Good Time. And guess what? I got the job! (And I’m hoping that the other three were taken on too, because they were really good.)
My classes are being time-tabled, and the leaflets are blowing out over the land. All I have to do now, is get some students. Music and mime, anybody?
Picture of Samuel L Jackson: commons.wikimedia.org
Picture of Babe the Sheep pig: simple.wikipedia.org
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.
On Saturday I signed up for NaNoWriMo. On Sunday I wished I hadn’t. I haven’t written a full length romantic novel for nearly 20 years, and I’ve begun to think that I should try to write another one, simply to see if I can still do it.
I always tell my students to plan; to think about their characters, to have some idea of what is going to happen. Did I do this? No. I did not. I just woke up with a vague idea of my hero and heroine meeting in a car park (yes, really) and charged straight into it. First page, great; second page, okay; third page, blank.
I hadn’t realised, at first, that when you take part in the National Novel Writing Month, you:
And get this; there’s a little window where, every day, you log in how many words you’ve done.
So there I was on the morning of November 1, thinking that I was just going to coast along in a dreamy sort of way, writing an unspecified amount every day (so, nothing, then, ed) until I contacted Tara Sparling and she put me right on the details. (Now there’s a girl who is on fire –well, not literally, you understand, because that would be somewhat inconvenient, but she has a great idea and she is, as they say in Ireland, away on a hack with it).
A few hours later (she must have hypnotised me, guv) I found the website, signed in, put in 50,000 words as my target and the NaNoWriMo computer helpfully told me that my average of words per day should be 1,167. On Saturday I wrote 867 words. Yesterday I deleted quite a lot of those, and wrote 871 more. At this rate, the computer has informed me, I will complete my magnum opus on January 26 (what year, ed?).
Trouble is I have no idea what my characters are going to do next. They’re just sitting there, like dummies in a car, and there’s no oomph. I’d like to shoot both of them, but I’m not writing a murder mystery. It’s all very well having a target average and a deadline, but since my characters are so wooden that they’re giving my brain splinters, it might be time to rethink my strategy.
It’s odd to think of writing in such a clinical way, but when I used to write full time I sat down every morning and aimed to write 2,000 words, even if half of it was rubbish and I had to scrub it. Overall I still achieved something, to the point where I ended up with a complete book. And then I had children, and stuff happened, and writing romantic novels rather fell by the wayside.
I’ve signed up with NaNoWriMo because I need to get that discipline back. I’m determined to get to the end of another book by November 30. So, I’m going to be ruthless. I’m leaving my frustrating pair of no-hopers outside a Hollywood motel, with their fuzzy backgrounds and unplanned future and I’m going straight to Plan B. I’m going to resurrect my plans for a book I began to draft this summer, which lapsed because summer and a lack of self confidence got in the way.
I really think I might make it to the end of this one. I have a cunning plan, you know.
Pictures via Creative Commons, via:
Did I tell you I was writing a book? It must be 20 years or so since I lay back on the old chaise longue, put my hand to my furrowed brow and began scratching away. Have you tried it? (Have you been at the gin? Ed). Anatomically impossible, unless the dog holds your notebook. Plus the pink feather boa gets in the way.
So here I am clattering at the keyboard and I have to admit that all my best laid plans have gone totally agley. Like, totally. All that stuff I said about planning? Out the window. Plotting? Likewise. I mean, I made a plan. I made a jolly good one, with everything that was going to happen in each chapter all down for me to follow. But now that I’ve actually started scribbling, nothing has gone to plan at all.
My characters have stayed pretty much the same. The hero is still the drop dead gorgeous man I envisaged, although rather more ruthless than I had bargained for, if yesterday’s draft is anything to go by, but he keeps I keep changing his identity (Poor background or rich background? Texas oilman, or war hero? Or both? I spect I’ll find out eventually). Heroine has remained pretty much the same too, just not quite such a drip. So that’s all right.
The thing is, that as I write, new and exciting vistas open up, that hadn’t occurred to me when I was just thinking. So I take a sharp left or right off my highway, without a map. I have no idea what is going to happen, but it’s exciting and, really, to me, that’s the whole joy of writing fiction.
Remember that foolproof plotting sheet that I dug out of somewhere? The one showed you how your plot should progress? Strangely enough my new direction (so far) fits in with all those rules, just in a different way.
Anyway, I’m off. Got writing to do.
Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.
Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.
In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite, I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh? Yeah, right.
And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.
The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.
And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.
You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.
Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.
The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.
Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again) but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
The rather snappily titled ‘writing process blog tour’ has been making the rounds and I’ve been asked to answer some questions on how and what I write.
I was nominated for this by Bruce Goodman who posts a short story a day. He is funny and sharp, and you never know, even in 150 words, how his tales are going to end. Thank you Bruce!
So here we go:
What am I working on at the moment?
A romance set in the 1920s in France. However, to earn my daily crust, I’m also editing a document about social partners in Europe. The combined effect is having serious effects on my sanity. I’m thinking of combining the two, so that the hero could be a designated representative for occupational health and safety, with the heroine attempting to organise a tripartite agreement on pay and conditions in the metalworking sector. They interface at a stakeholder seminar for hairdressers in Monte Carlo, where he falls for her risk assessment techniques in the casino, and realises that together, they have a sustainable future in roulette. Yes? (No, ed.)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s written by me? I suppose I ought to say, because it’s sassy and funny and altogether marvellous. But so are most other romances I read. I think I just try to write something that will entertain people.
Mostly, I concentrate on making what I write fit into its genre. I was trained as a journalist, and when I became a sub editor, I spent a lot of time re-writing other people’s copy but making it look as though I hadn’t touched it. Actually, I’m going to wave a flag for sub-editors here. They are the people who write the headlines, correct the reporters’ spelling and grammar, cut out all the libellous remarks, and generally stop reporters and columnists making fools of themselves. (I give you the assistant editor who told the subs not to touch her copy and then praised George Eliot for his wonderful novels). More importantly, subs make the stories fit on the page. (It’s amazing how many reporters think that 1,000 words are going to fit in three inches.) And when I worked on papers we did it all so unobtrusively that, quite a lot of times, even the paper’s reporters were under the impression they’d written what was under their name.
Why do I write what I do?
I started writing romances, because my husband and I wanted to adopt children, and in those days (the 1990s) the social services insisted that I had to give up work. So I looked around for alternative ways of making money and thought of writing for Mills and Boon. It was an entirely practical decision. I knew Mills and Boon read every ms they received, and let you know within three months whether they were interested or not. I felt that writing a romance was merely an exercise in writing to style. And if I couldn’t do that, I thought, then I really wasn’t up to scratch as a tabloid journalist. Of course, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, it turned out to be rather more tricky than I expected. I could write a snappy 300-word piece, but turning out a 50,000-word book was quite different. I knew nothing about creating characters, or plotting, or anything much to do with writing a novel. At all. Still, Mills and Boon liked my first ms (but not enough to publish it) and then published the next five I wrote (under the name of Sally Carr).
By this time we’d adopted two children and then, to my enormous astonishment (after years of infertility treatment), I got pregnant (twice), so we had four children in three years, and writing rather went on the back burner. A few years down the line, I thought it might be good to write children’s stories and I had a few of those published, and then real life intervened once more, and it’s only now, after starting to blog, that I have come back to writing again.
How does my writing process work?
My imagination just gets sparked by something. Then I let the idea grow and grow, and then, when my brain won’t hold any more stuff, I write. For example, I recently read a book by fellow blogger June Kearns and I was really captivated by the idea of setting something in the 1920s. Hers is based in England and Texas, but I’m setting mine on the French Riviera. (I’ve got the whole first chapter in my head, and I’m at the point where I’ve got to get it down on paper.) I’d never really been taken with the idea of writing historical romances before because, with the research involved, they seemed far too much like hard work. But the 1920s I can manage. And if I get stuck I can always borrow shamelessly from look up Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse.
So there you go, there’s my contribution to the writing process tour. Next up, on Monday, May 26 is Ian Probert a former sports and music journalist. In America, in the 1990s, his first book Internet Spy was a bestseller there and was made into a TV film. In the UK you might know him as the author of Rope Burns. He’s been posting chapters of his book Shotgun Reality, which is about as far from romance as you could possibly get, and frankly I can’t wait for the next instalment.
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.