Reminiscing About Writing Retreats

Hello my lovelies,

I hope you’re all well and staying safe. I was talking to Debbie Flint who runs Retreats For You in north Devon the other day and it got me thinking about how much of The Last Charm I actually wrote there over the course of two summers, and how much longer it might’ve taken to finish the book had it not been for the lovely tranquil cottage and even lovelier team to look after me. I went digging around and found a post from 2018 I wrote about my first experience there – you can read it here The Wonders of Writing Retreats.

 

The four days I spend at Retreats For You each summer enabled me to get huge chunks of the story down, and during those visits I wrote circa 45,000 words – or half a book… The benefits of writing retreats for me are:-

  • No day job to distract me – I save up holiday entitlement to use
  • No Fiancé/son/puppy to look after/talk to/walk – very time intensive!
  • No housework – I’m cooked for and taken care of at RfU
  • No life admin – the bills can wait until I’m home
  • Headspace – the ability to focus on the story and nothing else
  • Freedom – setting my own schedule, around meal times
  • Triple the number of physical hours I usually get to write in, around the day job and other commitments*

*I got into a routine of 7.00 a.m. wake up, write for an hour, shower and dress, quick breakfast, write until lunchtime, quick lunch, write until 5.30 p.m., take the retreat dog for a walk, dinner and wine with everyone, write until 10.00 p.m, read for an hour/watch TV, sleep… repeat! This meant I got at least 10 hours of writing time a day, if not more.

If you get the opportunity to visit a writing retreat – which often includes tutors on site to deliver workshops – I’d heartily recommend it. Giving yourself permission to write is an important step on the journey to finishing a book and getting it published, or meeting your deadlines if you’re a published author. If you can’t go on a retreat due to financial pressures/family responsibilities then there’s always the option of going to stay with a friend (so long as you explain you’re not there to socialise other than at meal times!) or having an ‘at home’ retreat. I’ve done this before, and it really just means clearing the decks for a whole weekend in terms of visitors, commitments, housework etc and telling your nearest and dearest to pretend you’re not in the house and that disturbing you while you’re hiding in the spare room/shed/corner of the kitchen will mean certain death!

I was intending to visit Retreats For You again this year, but due to lockdown it sadly hasn’t been possible, and they had to pivot and offer the cottage out as an Air B’n’B… Seeing all the pictures made me feel almost home sick! But roll on 2021, because I’ll be back and am looking forward to it 🙂

Have you ever been to a retreat? What did you get done, or achieve? It would be lovely to hear about your experiences 🙂

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki / Ella xx

 

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Writing Tip #15 – Preparing for Submission

Hello my lovelies,

It’s another glorious sunny weekend and happily I get to spend the day writing 🙂 In the last blog post, we talked about whether to go the agent or publisher route when deciding who to send your beautiful baby aka manuscript (MS) off to. As predicted, this caused a lot of debate (particularly on the closed RNA group on Facebook) and it’s been fascinating to hear about the different journeys that authors have been on to get published, whether it’s agent first or publisher first, or in some cases no agent or publisher at all, and simply going it alone (aka self-publishing) and happy to stay that way…

So now that you’ve decided who to send your manuscript to, and it’s fully polished and perfectly presented, here are my top tips for submitting: –

  • Do your research

You need to make sure that when you send your MS off (a) it’s to someone who is open to submissions (b) that they’re looking for something in your genre/publish your genre and (c) that you send them exactly what they’re asking for (see point below).

You can Google this if you want, and track people/companies down, however this could take a long time. To minimise hours spent online, The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is a great help as it contains listings of publishers and agents, along with useful essays and articles on writing https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writers-Artists-Yearbook-2018-ebook/dp/B071ZJBNT8

Writing Magazine normally also has listings of publishers currently open to submissions in their ‘Writer’s News’ section. Looking in the acknowledgments section of the books written by your favourite authors/the best-sellers in your chosen genre can be a great shout, as authors will often thank their agents or commissioning editors. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, you can follow agents and publishers to get a flavour for what they’re looking for, or if they’re looking at all. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help and recommendations for publishers or agents on social media. On the whole, authors are open to questions and happy to help others who are at the beginning of their writing journey. There is room enough for everyone, and readers will devour thousands of books in their lifetime!

Finally, when you have found the right people and have shortlisted 5 – 6 people to submit to (unless you’ve decided to send off to only one at a time; but in this case be warned you could be waiting a long time to get published!) then find their website and have a read. If there are any tips or hints they’ve posted about submitting to them, read these carefully so that you can…

  • Give them what they want

Traditionally, the submission package you need to send out, whether by email or hard copy in the post (though email is much more common nowadays) is made up of three elements (a) covering letter/email (b) synopsis (outline of the whole book) and (c) first three chapters (or occasionally, the first xx pages).

It’s so important when submitting that you stick to whatever guidelines the agent or publisher has supplied. On the path to publication, you will have enough hurdles to jump over as it is without getting in your own way by sending them the wrong information/overly long submissions etc and annoying them. Ignoring their guidelines may look like either a lack of discipline or a lack of care, and that’s not what you want them to think of you!

  • Be brave

Getting ready to submit is also about mindset. Putting the practicalities aside, it’s a scary thought – and exciting too – that someone you’ve never met before, who knows their business, is going to read your book. So you’ve got to be brave to do this – I also call this ‘putting my big girl pants on’ 🙂  I’m not afraid to admit that I always used to find submissions daunting, and even now if I’m discussing a new book idea with my lovely Editor, I still get nervous. I think that’s normal and healthy. We are so heavily invested in our books because we put so much time, energy and emotions into them, that of course we want everyone to love them. They are deeply personal and we want to world to coo over our beautiful book baby. Knowing this might not be the case, and that an agent or editor may come back with a ‘No’ (if you hear anything back at all) can be a bitter pill to swallow… BUT if you want to be published, that’s part of the package. And if you don’t try, you’ll never know. So you have to push yourself, and send those submissions out. If you don’t want to tell family, friends or colleagues what you’re up to, then don’t. Do what feels comfortable for you. Hopefully you can then stun and amaze them all with some great news!

  • Be prepared for rejection

Along with the need to be brave, you also need to accept that you may get rejected. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to make you doubt yourself. It’s going to frustrate you, and let’s be honest, when you read about someone’s new six figure publishing deal, it’s going to make you seethe silently and grind your teeth. But you can’t let it cripple your confidence. Rejection is a natural part of being a writer. How many stories are there of best-selling authors who received rejection after rejection before making it big? Stephen King used to paper his walls with rejection letters.  J.K. Rowling is no stranger to this; Harry Potter was rejected by c. 36 publishing houses before Bloomsbury picked it up. And look at it now – movies, spin-offs, theme parks, merchandise…

So, however long it takes to recover from a rejection, whether it’s a day, week or month, you MUST keep going. You can’t give up. You have to keep sending that submission out; one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt along the way is that persistence pays.

So, are you ready to take the next step? Do you think I’ve missed anything? Comment below!

Look out for some future blog posts on writing a brilliant covering letter, and writing a synopsis (in my experience, you’ll either love or hate the latter!)

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x

Writing Tip #14 – Agent or Publisher?

Hello my lovelies,

After a great few sunny weeks, the sky has turned grey, but I hear that summer will be back soon 🙂 In the last writing tips post, I covered the wonders of constructive criticism, in order to make your book baby as brilliant and beautiful as it possibly can be. And let’s be clear, you should definitely NOT submit your partial manuscript (MS) to anyone until you’re totally satisfied with it’s quality and presentation.

So, once it is ready, what do you do before sending it out? Well, first you should decide whether you want to get an agent who will do the legwork for you, or if you’re going to approach publishers directly, usually through a commissioning editor or submission inbox. I think it’s better to pick one rather than submit to both at the same time. This is because you run the risk of either: –

  •  An agent taking you on and then approaching publishers, only to find that they’ve already seen the partial MS (and potentially rejected it), leaving nowhere for them to go;

Or

  • If you’ve approached a publisher directly saying you’re unagented, and they ask to see the whole MS and later make you an offer, but in the meantime you’ve found yourself an agent who suddenly steps into negotiations, you run the risk of annoying said publisher…

Agent or publisher is probably one of the most talked about topics among authors; the timeless debate. It’s rare that I’ve been to a writing event, or been part of a Fb group or forum, and not heard a discussion about this. To be honest, there are pros and cons to both, and as with everything writing related, it’s a matter of personal style and what you’re looking for.

Agents are (in summary) professionals who spend their days submitting books, negotiating contracts, meeting with publishers, and building relationships in the publishing world. They can be seen as ‘gate keepers’ aka only putting the best and most relevant manuscripts in front of editors/publishers. The best agent will work on your manuscript with you, and give you advice on your writing career and the direction to go in. They’ll always think about the bigger picture, and see you as a brand to be marketed – they’ll be aiming for longevity, so not just this book but the next five – and will care passionately about your stories, and believe in you. They’ll get you the best deal they can, in terms of rights, royalties, and PR/marketing. They should be your champion and your advocate, but above all they should be confident in what they do and be honest with you. They should also be willing to work on future manuscripts with you, even if they can’t sell the current one. It’s a partnership, and you must be able to work professionally together, so getting on with your agent is a must. It’s a bit like a romantic relationship – you have to fall a little in love!

In return for their hard work, they’ll take a percentage of any money you make from writing (normally 10-20% although I’ve seen other figures quoted). They may also expect you to move your career in a direction you weren’t planning on/might not be comfortable with. This really does come down to individual agents, because as in any industry there’s a range of okay, good and amazing.  So, if you decide to follow this route, do your research before you start submitting. (More on this in the next writing tips post). Also, be aware that at the moment it’s very difficult to get an agent!

On the other hand, if you approach publishers directly and get offered a deal, any money you make (the percentage of the royalties as agreed in your contract and the advance if you get one [which is usually offset against future royalties]) is yours to keep. You can also deal with your editor directly without anyone else being involved, and may get to know more about your publisher’s future plans etc. A few of the major publishers are currently accepting direct submissions, (including quite a few of the HarperCollins imprints) and most of the smaller publishers will have a submission inbox. BUT be aware that you will be up against hundreds, if not thousands, of other people who are directly submitting to the ‘slush pile’ – a derogatory sounding but commonly used term for unrequested submissions – and it can be tough to stand out from the crowd. (Tips on how to do this will be in my next post). The other thing to consider is that when you’re negotiating with the publisher directly on any contract, as an unagented author you are more likely to get a ‘boiler plate’ contract with standard terms, which aren’t as good as an agent may have secured for you.

Personally, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong. My writing path to date has been unagented. My first commercial publication (in the RNA Mills & Boon anthology Truly, Madly, Deeply featuring best-selling authors such as Katie Fforde, Adele Parks and Miranda Dickinson) came about through a submission process through the Romantic Novelists Association, and my HarperImpulse titles because I submitted to my lovely editor Charlotte as part of the RNA summer conference (which offers 1:1 appointments with editors and agents).

I’ve been very happy with this to date, although I’ve had a few near misses with agents wishing to represent me, where ultimately I decided against it because of the genre they wanted me to write in. Sometimes it’s a question of head versus heart… However, at the moment I’m seriously thinking about finding an agent, because I’m ready to take the next step and branch out in different directions, so I’ll let you know what I decide and how I get on 🙂

Lastly, don’t forget that your writing career is flexible. If you decide to get an agent first, you don’t have to stay with them forever, and likewise if you go with a publisher first, you can always look for an editor later on.  I know lots of authors who are published under different pen names for different genres, and are agented for one genre and unagented for others. The thing is, if you’re willing to work hard and persevere, doors will open if you go and knock on them!

So what do you think? Agent or Publisher? And if you’re already published, have you done one or the other, or both? Share your experience below…

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x

P.s. in case you’re wondering, the building in the photo on the left is the HarperCollins news building, taken when I met my editor recently 🙂

 

 

Writing Tip #12 – The Power of Revisions

Hello my lovelies,

looks like the UK is getting the best of the sun, while over here in Florida it’s a bit touch and go (as I write, it’s pouring down with rain and the thunder is rumbling!) but still, it’s been a great holiday so far and it’s not over yet. Along with visits to the Disney Parks, Cocoa Beach, and Planet Hollywood, I’ve had the opportunity to sit by the pool and read a proof copy of Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall and it’s brilliant 🙂 and I’m currently knee-deep in One Summer in Italy by Sue Moorcroft, which is transporting me to the Umbrian sunshine 🙂

But on to writing… In my last post, I talked about the rewrite I do after finishing the ‘dirty draft.’ Following a question I’ve had about timescales, I’m happy to share that the first tetchy draft of my book can take anywhere from 2 to 20 months, depending on what else I have going on in my life – I have a full-time day job in HR, kids, boyfriend, housework, social media for previous books etc. – and whether I’m producing a 14,000 word novella or a 100,000 word novel. The first rewrite, which as I explained in writing tip #11 is completed in roughly four stages, can take around 1 to 3 months depending on how many hours I can put in (some weeks I can manage 8-10 hours around everything else, but other weeks only 1-2 hours) and how radical a rewrite I need to do. But once that rewrite is done, I put the book aside again for another few weeks, and come back to it with fresh eyes…

Because before I send it off to my lovely editor, I do my ‘first revisions.’ I think these are really powerful, because they add extra texture and colour to your story. It’s not about padding it out or adding lots of extra words – I might only add an extra 2000 words overall (and as I go along, I might also be cutting out anything I think is unnecessary) – these first revisions are about making your characters three-dimensional and the world they live in as real as possible.

Basically, this stage is pretty quick, and involves me reading the book a chapter at a time and adding in descriptions, enhancing dialogue tags or using actions to drive dialogue, and inserting narrative using the five senses. I do this wherever I feel that the writing is flat or there is too much dialogue without explanation, because I want every reader to feel that they’re either seeing through the eyes of the main character, or are at least in the same room as them. So I look out for these sections and add in:-

  • Description – scenery, buildings, weather, what people are wearing etc.
  • Dialogue tags – ‘He barked’ ‘She scowled,’ etc. But don’t go overboard with these!
  • Actions driving/supporting dialogue – ‘I can’t live with your mum anymore, she hates me!’ He slammed the cupboard door shut and kicked the bin across the kitchen with a trainered foot, where it hit the wall with a thud and spewed its contents all over the floor. 
  • Use of the five senses – what can the main character touch, taste, hear, see and smell? I.e. the satin of the dress slithered through her fingers as she smoothed her hands over her hips; the sweetness of the ripe strawberries rolled over her tongue; a clap of thunder boomed in the distance, making her jump; the sunset was a beautiful blend of colours – red, orange, yellow – reminding her of a favourite cocktail, tequila sunrise; the scent of lavender carried towards her on the breeze, floral and sweet.

I have to admit I really enjoy these revisions, as I feel like I’m making my baby beautiful 🙂 However, I still can’t get too wedded to anything, because there’s always a danger my editor will send me a kind but firm email pointing out all the different ways I can make my book even better. So at this point, I stop revising and send the draft manuscript off to Charlotte at HarperCollins towers, and sit with crossed fingers to wait and see what she says. In the meantime, while I wait for feedback and any requested edits, I either (a) read a lot to take my mind off the waiting, or (b) start an outline for a new book. If you don’t have an editor yet, or an agent, this might be the time when you send the draft off to a critiquing service, or a set of readers, or a mentor. Which leads on to the subject of my next post – getting a second opinion 🙂

In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you have any thoughts or questions, please comment below.

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x

Writing Tip #11 – Rewriting & Refining

Hello my lovelies,

I hope you’ve been enjoying the sunshine at home. Here in Florida it’s equal parts sunny and thundery, making for an interesting combination! In the last post, we talked about getting that first ‘dirty draft’ of your story down on paper/in Word document etc. So it may be a while before this post is relevant, but if you want to think ahead, then read on…

There is nothing I love more than writing that first draft; it’s a time when you can give your creativity free rein, letting your characters talk to you and then guiding them on their journey. Your grammar may be horrific, your spelling shoddy and your sentence structure non-existent, but once you’ve got it down you have something to work with. Some authors hate revisions and rewrites but I love them as much as I love that initial draft. For me it’s an opportunity to untangle the knotty mess that I’ve made and make sense of it all (I love a good puzzle!) followed by rebuilding, refining and polishing it until I’m happy enough to send it to my editor for a first view (usually my third or fourth draft by this stage, and we’ve agreed that what I send is a draft and not a final version, as we often take the story apart and put it back together again).

But we’re talking about first rewrites here aka untangling that knotty mess, so that I end up with something coherent to do some proper revisions on. It may be different for you, and if so that’s okay, because everyone’s writing technique is different. But what does this mean for me?

adult book boring face

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, first I take a break from the book – and I can’t recommend this highly enough. I put the manuscript aside for a few weeks so that I can get a bit of distance from it, because I often find that by the time I’ve finished the first draft, I’m too immersed in the story, too close to it, to rewrite in the way that I may need to (which can often be brutal i.e. cutting great swathes of words out). So, during those weeks, I read, I spend time with family, I catch up with friends etc.

When I’m ready, I pull the first draft out and work through it in the following stages:-

  • Structure

Are the chapters in the right order? Does the story make sense? I often re-order if I don’t think it works. This can involve a lot of cutting and pasting, which is why I don’t do formatting first. I also look at pacing at this point – does the story have a ‘saggy middle’? Do I need to liven it up somehow? Sometimes reordering chapters or events will help with this, depending on the overarching structure of the book. Other times it may be changing the lengths of some chapters to vary them, or ending a chapter at a different point than it did originally, to create more a cliffhanger.

  • Narrative 

Is there more story to tell? Do I need to add in scenes or events? Or is there too much padding? Do I need cut scenes out or reduce word count? Does every single scene move the story forward? If not, it needs to go. (Stripping out narrative can also count as editing). For me this is often the most painful part of a first rewrite. I have a tendency to overwrite during my first draft so that I can get into the character’s heads, and subsequently I have to cut lots of words out. My lovely editor Charlotte calls this ‘writing yourself into the story.’ I do this less than I used to but it’s still my guilty pleasure.

  • Line Editing

During this round, I comb through and correct grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, and get my sentences and paragraphs into some kind of order so that it all makes sense, along with inserting speech marks where people are talking, where I’ve forgotten to. In my first draft I often have notes like ‘insert x here’ or ‘y needs to say something about z here’ so I will fill in the gaps at this stage.

  • Formatting

Finally, I double line space and format each chapter so that it looks like a ‘proper’ book and I have a clean version to work on in Word when I come to the next step – revisions.

So, what do you think? Is this what a first rewrite looks like for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x

 

Writing Tip #10 – The Dirty Draft

Hello my lovelies,

I hope you’re well? As I get ready to jet off to Florida, overlooking the tarmac from a comfy sofa while sipping a certain drink that might have Mr Daniels in it, it occurs to me that it’s time to start drafting your book. In previous posts, we’ve talked about reading, writing what you know and love, being prepared to work hard, plot, structure, character, conflict, setting etc. Now that you know your story and how it’s going to unfold is clear in your head, and you have the main characters raring and ready to go, it’s really time to put bum on seat and start typing/writing/tapping/whatever floats your boat.

And by the way, the title of this post is not a reference to a well-known book with fifty shades of S&M in it, or some kind of pornographic intro. When I talk about the dirty draft, I’m referring to a raw first draft that is full of plot holes and peppered with spelling and grammar mistakes and it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not the finished product you’ll be happy to send off to your editor, agent or anyone willing to read your book. This is not the book baby you will proudly show to the world. This is the start of your book, the birth if you like, and it’ll be some time before it is bathed, and smartly dressed, and ready to be passed around for people to smile and tell you how beautiful it is.

The reason I suggest writing this way because it’ll help you get a draft written without making it feel like a slow form of torture. The type that means by the end of it you hate your book, the characters, your life in general… and you never want to touch a keyboard again. It’s about getting the story down, downloaded from your head and heart, and onto the page. Don’t think too much, just write. Don’t worry about tense, pronouns and flowery descriptions etc. Just let yourself go, let your characters speak to you, and enjoy writing their story 🙂 Once this is done, you can go back to the beginning and start revising and redrafting and making it shine.

book-address-book-learning-learn-159751.jpeg

I learnt this the hard way, believe me. When I first started writing, it used to take me a long time to write  a book – we are talking years. Because I was being too precious about it, and wouldn’t move the story forward until I was absolutely sure that every single word, sentence and paragraph was polished and sparkling. I’d spend weeks on a single chapter because every time I sat down to write, perhaps having only a one hour slot between the day job, kids and household chores, I’d go back and look at what I’d written last time, and would revise it. I’d do this a line at a time, taking bits out and putting them back in because I wanted perfection first time around. By the end of the hour, I’d have maybe added only a few hundred extra words in word count to the end of the chapter. The next time I wrote, I might even go back to the beginning of the whole book, revising everything again. This was a slow and painful way to write, and at times I thought of giving up. Or else, I’d start writing something new, because I was so sick of the current project that I needed to feel some excitement again. I can’t remember who suggested the dirty draft to me; I think I may have overheard a conversation at an RNA (Romantic Novelists Association) event, but for me it was a game changer. Without learning that lesson I doubt The Lost Weekend (my debut novel, released under the title Crazy, Undercover, Love) would even be finished, let alone published. It’s very easy to end up with a pile of half completed manuscripts. But if you want to be a published author you need to finish one and get into a habit of finishing them!

So why not try it, and let me know how you get on? I’d love to hear from fellow writers 🙂 Good luck!

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love Nikki x

Writing tip #9 – Choose Your Setting

Hello my lovelies,

Hope you enjoyed the long sunny bank holiday weekend. How gorgeous was the weather? I’m looking forward to more sunshine, as I may just be jetting off to Florida in the next few days… 🙂 But never fear, there will still be regular blog posts coming your way 😉

In the last writing tips blog post I talked about how to structure your book, and what the most important elements are, having previously talked about plot, character and conflict. Now it’s time to talk about setting a.k.a. where your story is set – is it in the Bahamas or the Costa Brava? Is your main character living in a studio apartment in Birmingham, or travelling the world trying to find him/herself?

Setting can either be integral to the plot or simply a relevant backdrop, depending on your story. Therefore, it’s important to know which it is and accordingly how much of the setting details to weave in as you write. However, if your setting is integral, don’t let this get in the way of your story. Drip feed in details, don’t write endless pages of description – your reader will get bored!

If you are a plotter (rather than a pantster) you may have decided right from the outset where your story is going to be set, so you’ll have lots of ideas and will even have a ton of research to hand to include as you write your first draft . Pantsters may know where the book is set, but will ‘write into the wind’ to finish a first draft and then will go back and add in the details of the setting afterwards. As I’ve said in previous posts, this really is a matter of personal style!

In some books and films, setting can be as much a part of the story as the characters are, helping to drive the story forward, whether it be due to world-class views or extreme weather. Would Poldark be the same if it was set in Manchester rather than the wilds of Cornwall? Titanic would not work if it was not set at sea! Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence wouldn’t be half as good as he didn’t describe the curiosities of rural life so well.

When I was writing the #LoveLondon series, it was really important to me that readers fall in love with London as much as I had, as the whole series was based around our vibrant, sprawling capital. So I went on several research trips; taking photos, visiting locations like Primrose Hill and Chelsea, making notes, dictating observations into my iPhone voice recorder and bringing home leaflets/keepsakes to pin on the wall. As I wrote, I used the research to add in descriptions and small details to bring each story to life. I’d like to think it worked as I’ve had some lovely feedback from readers, including how much they liked the setting.  *Warning: Small Sales Plug!* If this sounds up your street, you can buy the ebook collection here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-LoveLondon-Collection-Love-London-ebook/dp/B015W1D3TQ/

 

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So, what types of things should you consider when bringing your setting to life? For me, these include:-

  • Time – modern day, historical or future? 2018, 1890 or 2400?
  • Place – well known city? Fictional town? Half way across the world?
  • Buildings/Town/City – any landmarks or specific architecture? Heavily populated or quiet and urban? Massed together or spread over miles? Streets – wide or narrow pavements? Cobbled roads or concrete? Trees? Flowers? Signs? Shops. Are the streets dirty or clean?
  • Locations/landscape – description of coastal locations/country and farms/jungles and waterfall etc.
  • People – what are they like in terms of behaviour, appearance, accents, etc. What are the social classes, hierarchy and culture?
  • Weather – miserable and rainy, stormy, bright and sunny, scorching hot?
  • Food & drink – what’s on offer? What are the local delicacies? What do people get drunk on?! Where do the locals eat?
  • Use of the five senses (more on this in a later blog post) – what are the sights, sounds, smells and tastes, and what can the characters touch?

Is there anything I’ve missed? How has a great sense of setting added to a book you’ve read? Are you facing any challenges with setting, in a book you’re trying to write? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please comment below 🙂

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x

Writing Tip #8 – The Importance of Structure

Hello my lovelies,

hope you’re well and enjoying the slowly warming weather 🙂

It’s already time for the next post; time is just flying by! So, if you read writing tip # 5 on Plotters vs Pantsters and you are a complete plotter, then you may have structured your book already. If you haven’t, but read and put writing tips #6 and #7 into action and now know your story/plot, characters and conflicts – it’s time to think about this.

Structure is so crucial to your book, and getting the right one can be the difference between a mediocre novel and an amazing one. The structure is how you tell your story. The reason I tackle it here rather than in earlier posts is because until I know my plot, characters and conflicts, I can’t decide which structure is right for any particular book.  In other words, if I were to decide at the outset that I wanted a book to be made up almost entirely of formal diary entries, but then my main character turns out to be illiterate, introverted and with very little to say for herself for the purposes of the plot, it’s not really going to work.

That’s just one example, and as I’ve emphasised in these posts, writing really is a matter of personal style, and just because this is the way I do it that doesn’t mean it’s the way you have to. But if you do decide on structure from the outset, do make sure that this works with the context of your plot, characters and conflict, so that it makes sense and the action is as immediate as possible to keep readers hooked.

I have seen some amazing examples of book structure that have completely suited the story and enhanced it in some way, or been absolutely key to the plot. For example, Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson (also a major film featuring Nicole Kidman) is a psychological thriller about a woman whose memories are lost every time she goes to sleep. She wakes up every morning not knowing who or where she is, and in effect has to start again. The weaving of a current thread from Christine’s perspective (her life each day as she tries to find out the truth about her situation) interspersed with diary entries, works brilliantly and really ramps up the tension. Another great example is The Last Letter from Your Lover by JoJo Moyes, a novel involving two women’s intertwined stories of love, loss and betrayal spanning forty years. One thread follows Jennifer’s story in the 1960’s, and another one features Ellie’s messy life in the present day, partly linked together with old letters from Jennifer’s lover which Ellie is reading. Some chapters also start with real life ‘last letters’ between lovers, which JoJo Moyes collected for the book. It all works beautifully, and if you haven’t read itI would recommend you do as it’s heartfelt and emotional 🙂

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So, with regards to structure, think about: –

  • The type of prose

Is it going to be straight narrative? Or will it include letters, emails, a diary, or even tweets?

  • Multiple or single view points?

Is the whole book from your protagonist’s point of view, or are you going to tell the story through the eyes of two or even three characters? If you do this, don’t forget you’ll need to differentiate between them! Each character will need their own ‘voice’ so that your book is interesting and credible.

  • Points of View & Tense

Are you writing in the first person or third person? Present or past tense? This can be so important, and will depend on the plot and characters. In the new book I am working on (which if you don’t know already, I am VERY excited about), I swap view points between two main characters; the heroine’s POV is in first person present tense and the hero’s in third person past tense. This may change if my editor and I don’t think it works!

  • Number and length of chapters

Are you going to have twenty big blocky chapters over your 80,000 to 100,000 word novel, or fifty short ones (from multiple view points)? Are they all going to be the same length, or will they vary? Hint: Varying chapter lengths can be used to either slow down or speed up pace and build tension…

  • Era

Is the whole of your book set in the present day, in the past or perhaps even in the future? Or is it a mixture of both/many, entwining two (or more) different but linked character’s stories?

  • Timeline

Will the chapters be in logical order in terms of date, or if it’s set in different eras, will they be arranged so that the reader is pulled back and forth between the present and the past etc.?

Is there anything you can think of that’s important for structuring, or any particular books that you’ve enjoyed that have been brilliantly structured? Share your comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love Nikki x

Writing Tip #7 – Character & Conflict

Hello my lovelies,

hope you’re all okay and have been enjoying these writing tips – I’ve certainly had lots of fun writing them and the comments/likes have been lovely 🙂 In the last post, I talked about constructing your story. Now we get to the heart of it – characters.

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For me, it’s hard to define what comes first – characters or conflict. The two are intertwined. Your character’s goal will normally help form the basis of your plot. But then do you: –

– Create your characters first, followed by deciding what conflicts will occur for them, both internal and external, with the conflict arising directly from their personality? i.e. their likes, dislikes, upbringing, values, life experiences

OR

– Do you decide what the conflicts will be first and then build your characters around them, deciding what personality traits and life experience will support that kind of conflict?

Let me give you an example…

Starting with conflict

The idea for my debut novel, Crazy, Undercover, Love which is a romance set over a long weekend in Barcelona, literally came to me in a dream. Yes, I know how it sounds! But I had this visual of a couple stranded in a room together, unable to get away from each other, alternatively arguing and then falling in love. For some reason, the hero was really angry with the heroine.

I woke up and jotted some ideas down, and knew that the external conflict was going to come from them working together closely over a few days (therefore unable to get away from each other) and from the actions of a secondary character. I also decided that for the internal conflict, the heroine was going to be trying to achieve something that might seem deceitful and dishonest i.e. make the hero hate her, and that she was really uncomfortable with. He was going to have an internal conflict around women in the workplace (no, he’s not a sexist pig, he just doesn’t like romance at work!) It was also going to be a bit of a comedy of errors.

After some time and thought I built a plot, fleshing out the conflicts fully based on the main character’s goal and what led her to need to achieve that goal. Once I had that, I started working on my characters. What kinds personality traits would cause them to clash, but also help each other learn different ways of looking at the world? What kind of man would my heroine Charley be looking for (if she was looking, which she absolutely wasn’t at the start of the book, being fiercely independent), and what kind of man would really rub her up the wrong way? And what about Alex? What kind of person would he warm to, or dislike on sight? What background would he need to give him such a strong sense of pride and responsibility? What might have happened to him to give him such a skewed view of the world? What kind of traits would Charley need to have to give the book the slight ‘comedy of errors’ feel?

Starting with Character

For my #LoveLondon novella, Strawberries at Wimbledon, I had the title and of course the setting, but nothing else in terms of plot, goals etc. What I did have a strong sense of was a headstrong character called Rayne who was a bit off the wall and slightly rebellious. I could fully picture her at uni in a short skirt and tight top, reluctantly making friends, falling for a boy called Adam who was very different from her. I knew that she was who I wanted to write a story about next.

So I got to know her better, and from her background, upbringing, the things she’d been through and therefore what she craved most (stability) I decided what Adam was going to be like and teach her, and how the two of them might meet again when they were older. That lead me to why they might have broken up in the first place, and what might have changed in the meantime, and from all of that grew the conflicts. So in that way, the conflict came from the characters themselves.

Personally, I’m not sure which way round is better, and I switch between either one depending on the book I’m writing 🙂 How about you?

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One thing is for sure; without characters, we’d be lost. Even if you have an amazing idea for a book and a well paced, interesting plot, you need your characters to act as the linchpins of your story. Everything they do, say and think must drive the story forward. So it’s really important to know them when you sit down to write. Again, depending on personal preference, you may build full character bio’s (if you’re a plotter) or you may just ‘know’ your characters in your head and let them act out their own scenes, and determine their own fate as you write (if you’re more of a pantster). It’s entirely up to you. Personally, I outline character bio’s on index cards or as a part of a visual storyboard. I’m not suggesting I need to know each character’s inside leg measurement before I get started, but I do need some idea of at least half of the following: –

  • Age (plus date of birth – month and year)
  • Name (this is SO important; although I have changed character names halfway through books before if I think they’re not working!)
  • Location i.e. where were they born? Where do they live now?
  • Upbringing i.e. class, heritage, culture etc
  • Living situation – do they live alone, or with family or friends?
  • Friendship circle
  • Have they got children? Do they want children?
  • Romantic relationships i.e. dating history
  • Occupation & employment status
  • Hobbies
  • Likes and dislikes i.e. cat vs dog, films, books, music, TV, driving, food, drink
  • Appearance – just a few details i.e. eye colour, hair colour, body build (unless they are especially clear in my head)
  • How do they like to dress?
  • Values and beliefs – are they honest or liars, do they treat people respectfully or not give a damn, are they risk takers or do they sail close to the wind, do they work hard or play hooky? Are they law-abiding citizens?
  • Personality – confident, shy, brash, humble, arrogant, optimistic, pessimistic, detail-oriented or visionary, selfish or selfless?
  • Significant life experiences i.e travel abroad or no travel at all, bereavements, illnesses, weddings, divorce etc

What about you? Is there anything you’d add to the character bio? And what do you think comes first – conflict or character? Would love to hear your thoughts!

Until next time, happy reading and writing,

Love, Nikki x

Writing Tip #6 – What’s Your Story?

Hello my lovelies,

well, the sun may have disappeared but not our love of writing, so it’s time for the next post in this series 🙂

In the last post (thank you for all your likes, comments, shares and reblogs) we talked about how when it comes to writing books, people can be plotters or pantsters – or perhaps something in between. The conversations I then had with both published and aspiring authors on social media were fascinating – how writers do their thing really is unique to them… But however you do it, there is one thing we all have in common; we need to know our story.

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So, what makes up a story? Here are the important elements, so far as I see them:-

  • It’s a good idea to have an overarching theme, or set of themes i.e. love, hope, loss, survival. This basically lays the foundation for what your story is about, and if you can keep this at the forefront of your mind when you’re writing your book, it’ll keep pulling you back in the right direction.

For instance, in The Shawshank Redemption (one of my favourite films) which was actually based on a Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the key theme is hope – you must never give up even when things seem at their worst.

  • You need at least one protagonist (main character aka hero or heroine) which the story revolves around.

In a romance you’ll normally have two protagonists aka the people who’ll fall in love with each other. Some crime novels or historical fiction can have three or four protagonists as the book will be written from multiple viewpoints. E.g. a crime novel may tell the story from the points of view of the serial killer, the detective or team of detectives trying to catch him/her, and the killer’s next victim.

You need to make sure protagonists are interesting, well-rounded and engaging. You need your readers to want to root for them. We’ll cover characterisation another time, but do bear in mind when creating your story that you need to know your characters – how they think, feel and behave etc. – in order to understand how your story might unfold.

  • Your protagonist(s) will have a goal, or perhaps several – what is it that they want? What are they trying to achieve?

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In my novella, Valentine’s on Primrose Hill (part of the #LoveLondon series) my protagonist Georgiana is trying to find normality and create a new life for herself following a catastrophic car crash that has left her injured and scarred. In C.L. Taylor’s excellent and claustrophobic The Fear, Lou Wandsworth is trying (as an adult) to stop the man who abducted her as a teenager from abusing another girl and ruining her life.

  • There will be one or several conflicts. These will stop, or get in the way of, your protagonist achieving their goal(s). These can be internal or external.

Internal conflicts are a psychological struggle in the protagonist’s mind, driven by a previous bad experience or a set of values or beliefs that creates a tension for them i.e. in the film Titanic, Rose (Kate Winslet’s character) is torn between what she should do based on her class and upbringing (marry the man her mother wants her to in order to save them financially) and what she wants to do (live life on her own terms and be free to fall in love with whoever she wants).

External conflicts are events or people outside of the protagonists’ control i.e. in Titanic, Cal Hockley (played by Billy Zane) who cruelly pursues Rose and tries to force her to marry him, or the iceberg which sinks the ship, forcing Rose to choose between Jack (Leonardo DeCaprio) and staying alive.

  • You may have an antagonist (aka the anti-hero) – a character who is getting in the protagonist’s way or creating events that drive the story on and make the protagonist work that much harder to achieve their goal.

In the Die Hard films featuring Bruce Willis, there is always a ‘baddie’ who is trying to blow something up or kidnap someone. If there was no baddie, then Bruce Willis would not be trying to save the day, and there would be no story.

  • Think about the plot – this is the series of interrelated events that form the whole story. They will get the protagonist from A to Z, via B to Y, to achieve their goal.

In other words, and to simplify; first this happens to the protagonist, and then that happens, followed by this, and this, and this, until this happens and the protagonist does that, and it’s the end of the book.

Even if you are a total pantster and don’t like planning, you should at least have an idea in your mind of the main things that are going to happen to the protagonist. For example, *Spoiler Alert* the plot for Eat,Pray, Love might be: Elizabeth Gilbert breaks up her marriage and has a bitter divorce, then has a passionate love affair with an actor, then decides to go travelling to find herself, so then she goes to Rome and has a passionate love affair with food and the culture, then she moves on to India to find enlightenment, and then moves onto Bali where she finds love and faces a tough decision in order to find happiness… I won’t spoil the end.

  • You may have sub-plots too. These are secondary strands of the main plot, which either support or add tension to the story.

They can link into the main plot later on in the book or just be there to add depth to the story (but if it’s the latter, make sure it has a purpose i.e. to help the protagonist develop or grow in some way). Sub-plots can involve secondary characters or the antagonist in some way. They should take a back seat to the main plot, so only give them as much air time you need in order to achieve the purpose of the sub-plot.

In some books, the sub-plots of some characters go on to become the main plot for a subsequent book featuring that secondary character as a protagonist. For example, many of Paige Toon’s books are interlinked in this way i.e. Bridget has a sub-plot as a secondary character in The Longest Holiday in order to help the protagonist Laura achieve her goal, but later has her own story – one of my favourite books of 2017 – in The Last Piece of My Heart.

Hopefully the above should get you started with determining your core story.  There are other things you’ll need to consider when writing your book, such as setting, tension, structure, pacing, language, using the five senses, characterisation etc. but those are other posts for other days 🙂

Let me know how you get on – and if you have anything to add, please leave a comment 🙂

Until next time, happy reading and writing,

Love, Nikki x