NaNoWriMo Update

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As I write this, I’ve been slogging away at NaNoWriMo for almost ten days, and have kept to my required word count each day so far. Anyone who doesn’t know what NaNoWriMo is can take a look at my previous blog-post here.

I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to write over weekends, so I erred on the side of excess in the first few days of the first week, and it’s a pattern that’s paid off, because I reached my weekly word count for the first week, and I am doing the same thing for the second.

I have six writing buddies on the NaNoWriMo website: three in America and three in Australia. Bearing in mind that Australia is almost a day ahead of America, those of us who are putting our daily word count on the site all seem to be doing well. So far I’ve earned a few badges for doing such things as passing the first day’s 1667 word count, the 5000 word count, and the 10000 word count. This morning I reached 15000 words, and my next badge milestone will be 25000 words, which I’m expecting to hit early next week, if not sooner.

A few days ago I browsed the NaNoWriMo forums and found a thread for writers who are writing stories set in World War II, so I added my two cents’ worth. Doing that also helped me to formulate a brief blurb about my story. There’s space on my NaNoWriMo novel page to put a synopsis, but because a synopsis tells the whole story and has spoilers, I’ve put the blurb onto my page instead. I’ve also put a very short excerpt from the first chapter.

If any other NaNoWriMo writers are reading this, you can find me listed there as “Unique User” so you are welcome to take a look at my page while resting your fingers. Maybe we can become writing buddies too…

What have I learned from doing NaNoWriMo so far?  Most important, I’ve learned that I can do this. The pace is a little more intensive than the way I’ve worked before, but I’m happy to be churning it out at this rate. I find it invigorating and incredibly productive.

I’ve also learned that I could never just wing it with something like this. I am a plotter who always works to an outline, and if I hadn’t planned this whole novel during October and the months leading up to it, I wouldn’t be able to do this. My outline is my constant companion during the writing. It’s basically my whole plot, including story sparks, plot points, cliff-hangers and so on, broken down into sections that will become chapters. I use this to make sure I’m not going off at a tangent or writing too much about a small plot incident. This way it’s easier to keep a handle on how long each chapter is and where the characters are on their individual journeys.

The outline is also extremely adaptable and can be adjusted if a new direction suddenly takes my fancy. It’s never printed out and lives on my computer as a working, malleable thing from the first day of writing until that far off day when I finally upload the finished product to Amazon as an eBook.

I’m hoping that day won’t be too far off in the future…

Ready for NaNoWriMo!

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Writing a novel is never a speedy process for me, but I’ve always found the initial first draft can be done quickly once my momentum gets going. As long as I have my story worked out beforehand, my characters defined, and my outline arranged into rough scenes or chapters, then my first draft flies. The longest part of the whole process is rewriting and perfecting from the second draft onwards – that bit usually takes me several years.

With my last novel, I managed to plot the outline and draw up the character sketches in only one month, back in October 2012. The first draft was completed two and a half months later. I’ve always wondered if I could do it faster, but I haven’t had the chance to try because I haven’t started another new novel since then.

Since I became a writer I have been aware of a project called National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo. Every November, thousands of writers around the world join up, and each writer tries to complete a first draft of 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 1,667 words a day, or 12,500 words a week.

The event was started by freelance writer Chris Baty in 1999, and in that first year there were 21 writers. The following year there was a website created for it, and 140 writers signed up. The year after that saw 5,000 signing up, including overseas writers. The numbers have grown to over 400,000 in the last decade and a half.

Of course, many people write novels without actually joining the group – I’ve done this for years – but joining the group sounds like fun, and the camaraderie aspect of writing a novel alongside 400,000 other writers has a lot going for it. The writers who join up inspire and encourage each other, even as they track their daily progress. Those who hit the target of 50,000 words by November 30th are said to have “won” and this can be a huge personal victory, especially for those who have never before managed to complete a first draft.

For those of us who have already written novels, we know how lonely the writing process can be, tied to our typewriters for months on end, bleeding all over the page, so I’m looking forward to plunging in with a good heart and buckets of enthusiasm to share around.

So why have I never done this before? When I lived in South Africa, the month of November was my busiest time of the year, filled with preparations for the annual pantomime in the theatre where I used to work. So, while I was aware of NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t practical for me to consider doing it. Last year – my first November in Australia – I was close to finishing my lengthy work-in-progress and I didn’t want to be distracted by the next novel so I didn’t join in then either.

But this year is different! I have a rough one-page synopsis ready for my next novel. I wrote it – together with a tentative first chapter – back in January for a competition, but until two months ago I hadn’t looked at either of them again. I have been thinking about this new novel a lot though, and a month or two back I decided to change the time frame from the present day to 1955, because I wanted to write it as an historical novel. This meant reworking the entire synopsis as well as completely re-motivating all my characters who are still recovering from the devastating Second World War a decade before.

I have now spent October working on my characters and outline. The original first chapter is no longer relevant, because it doesn’t fit the new story, so I’ll be starting that from scratch. I am finally ready for NaNoWriMo. When November starts tomorrow, I plan on “giving it a go” as they say in Australia.

If you’re a regular reader here, please allow me to apologize in advance: you probably won’t hear much from this blog in the month of November, but once December starts, I’ll report back on how it all went – the good and the bad.

If you’re a writer, have you decided to join NaNoWriMo this year?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 2: Characters

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Creating characters can be such fun! I start with a rough idea of who they are and why they are in the story’s setting at the particular moment when the story starts, but the details can be filled in later, or tweaked as things change. First I need to find out what sort of person each one is – outside of the story – and what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons and what keeps them awake at night.

By the time I have decided on the location, I usually have some idea of what the story is going to be about. Often I will add other locations which enable me to introduce new story sparks and plot twists. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that every character needs something, even if it’s only a glass of water. This doesn’t mean that characters have to be needy, but somewhere inside themselves there has to be a desire.

Important digression here: there is a subtle difference between what a character wants and what he or she actually needs. The characters may think they know what they need, but they are usually mistaken.

I like to put plenty of obstacles in the way of my characters, but often I give them what they want by the three-quarter mark, just so that they can be dissatisfied enough to realise that this is not really what they needed. Their outlook changes during the course of the novel, and very often they go into the third act of the drama with a new goal – usually one with a higher or deeper purpose. Having spent the first two acts evolving their goals and motivations, they are now genuinely in search of what their hearts need, instead of some shallow goal they once believed to be important. I like to mentally whisper to my characters: “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it…”

Sometimes an incident in childhood can have a serious bearing on how they behave in a given situation, and perhaps they will be forced to confront that fear and overcome it during the course of the action.

Because I write primarily in the genre of romance, I usually start with a female protagonist. Preferably one who is out of her depth or away from her usual comfort zone.

I enjoy fish-out-of-water stories where the main character finds herself in a situation she is not familiar with. Either she is on holiday, or working temporarily overseas, or has moved to a new environment and is still trying to find her feet there.

Equally important to the story is a male who first opposes, then sides with, the female protagonist. This man is usually a native of the country or city in which the heroine finds herself. He knows the environment better than she does, so she’s forced to rely on him for certain things. Sometimes he doesn’t particularly want to be with her (leastways not at first) but he needs to stick to her, either because she knows something he doesn’t, or because she has access to something he wants.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance Cassie’s desire is to find out the history of an ancient, ornate knife she has inherited from her Greek father. Travelling to the theatre festival at Epidaurus as the designer for a play gives her the opportunity to research that knife, because she has copied its design for one of her stage props.

Unfortunately she gets more than she bargained for when she meets Zander, an investigator of stolen antiquities, who recognises something in her design and begins to badger her, follow her, help her and generally push his way into her life because he too desires something. He wants to know how she managed to design a theatre prop that resembles a drawing he has in his files – the only known drawing of a stolen antique knife that disappeared long before cameras were invented.

Because of my Greek theme, I wanted to introduce other aspects of Greece and Greek life, such as earthquakes. When I was in high school I had a pen friend in Thessaloniki. We had been writing to each other for two or more years when I heard about an earthquake in her city. After the earthquake, my next letter to her was returned to me, address unknown. I never heard from my friend again, and I’ve never been able to find out what happened to her, so the novel is dedicated to her.

I decided to put my character Zander into that 1978 earthquake as a child. I put him and his older brother into one of the apartment blocks which collapsed, and I gave his brother the rather horrid job of sacrificing himself to save his little brother Zander. Of course, this scarred Zander for life – not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition to living with the guilt of his father’s disappointment that “the wrong son” died, Zander also hates earthquakes, and can’t bear being underground or in any kind of confined area.

Consequently he lives in an airy, light-filled apartment on the top floor of a building which has numerous exit routes. But at a certain point in the novel Zander has to face one of his greatest fears – being trapped underground.

The character of Cassie began as a beautiful, slim, dark-haired beauty – also of Greek parentage – but she was too beautiful, too perfect. So I recast her as a buxom, large-boned gal of generous proportions whose only beauty (so her relatives have told her all her life) is her long, dark hair. She doesn’t think she is at all attractive, but Zander falls in love with this statuesque, strong-willed woman who resembles one of the stone Caryatid statues on the Acropolis – the columns carved as women, bearing the weight of the south portico of the Erechtheion. Cassie likewise bears the weight of the legacy of the knife her ancestors left her.

I’m careful about choosing names. One of the best investments I made as a writer was to buy The Oxford Dictionary of First Names. I like to choose a name that sounds right for the character, but it helps to be able to look up the origin of that name and see if it’s a good match historically as well. Cassie is short for Cassandra, who was a Trojan princess whose gift of prophecy was cursed by the fact that no one would believe her.

Zander is short for Alexander, who in this case is modelled not on Alexander the Great, but on the Trojan prince Alexander, who was better known as Paris – the one who fell in love with the wrong woman, Helen, kidnapped her and started the Trojan War. Just to annoy Cassie, I gave Zander an ex-girlfriend called Eleni (which is a Greek version of Helen), and I made her beautiful, of course…

In all my novels, I put my characters through the Myers-Briggs personality tests. I imagine each of them answering the questionnaire that will reveal which personality type they are. I like to match the couples with their ideal opposites so that some sparks will fly during the course of the novel, but ultimately they are assured of a Happily Ever After once they have sailed off into the sunset and the final page has been turned.

The Five Objects Formula

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When I was young, my dad belonged to a film club which used to have “Five Objects” competitions every few months. The filmmakers would be given a list of five completely unrelated objects, and they had to make up a story which included all five things. Each filmmaker had to film their own story, edit it, lay the soundtrack and screen the finished product on the night of the competition.

The objects could be introduced in any order, but they had to be more than just arbitrary set dressing in the background – they had to actually play a part in the story. My dad was a good filmmaker and he had a vivid imagination, so his films always did well in those competitions.

I remember the fun we had making the first one. The objects were:

  • a pound of sausages
  • a briefcase
  • a bunch of keys
  • a screwdriver
  • a piece of string.

For days my dad puzzled over scenarios about dogs running off with sausages. Which of our dogs would we use? How could we train it to do something like sausage-stealing and yet prevent this from becoming a habit? And so on.

One morning, one of my dad’s work colleagues ranted to him about the wasted evening he and his wife had experienced the night before because an encyclopaedia salesman had come to his house and bored them almost to death about how they needed to invest in their children’s future by buying a decent set of encyclopaedia for their home. (Yes, this was the 70s when such things existed.)

This gave my dad the spark he needed and before long he had his story:

  • Housewife preparing a pound of sausages, putting them into the frying pan and setting it on the stove.
  • Doorbell rings. She leaves the kitchen and goes to the door.
  • There is an encyclopaedia salesman on the doorstep. He talks his way in with his briefcase of book examples and his car keys.
  • Once inside her lounge he doesn’t stop talking, impressing upon her how important the books will be to her family, blah, blah.
  • She tells him she’s not interested. He takes a long time to accept this, but finally packs up the books and puts them back into his briefcase.
  • Unseen by him, he catches the edge of his key-ring in one of the books and the keys go into the briefcase too.
  • The salesman picks up his briefcase to leave but can’t find his keys.
  • As he searches, the housewife suggests they may be in his briefcase. He tries to open it and realises that he can’t because it’s locked and the keys must be inside. He’s in despair.
  • She tells him not to worry and leaves the room. She comes back with a screwdriver.
  • The salesman forces the lock of the briefcase, retrieves his keys with great relief and then realises that he can’t shut the briefcase because the lock is broken.
  • The housewife leaves the room again and comes back with a long piece of thick string. Together they tie the string around the briefcase…
  • … and that’s when she smells the burning sausages and runs from the room in the other direction.
  • She runs back in, holding a smoking frying pan, and yelling at him. He picks up his briefcase and his keys and runs out the door with the angry housewife in pursuit, still holding the smoking frying pan, trailing smoke behind her.

Sometimes my dad would throw his ideas around and ask us for feedback, and when he had the story ready to film, we would all be on hand to move furniture around, help with finding props, move lights on stands, and even become part of the background if he was filming on a not-busy-enough street (which wasn’t necessary with this one).

For this story – which he called “The Salesman” – he had a great cast: the housewife was played by my mother, and the salesman was played by my dad’s work colleague, complete with three of the books he had been talked into buying for the future of his children. (He knew exactly how to do the salesman talk because he had been duped by it himself.)

My dog even had a cameo role running up to the gate as the salesman left. (At least we didn’t have to teach the dog how to steal sausages.) We used burning rags for the burning sausages and ate the real ones for supper that night.

I know this isn’t the place to wax lyrical about how much I loved all of this – living out my own movie-set/backstage fantasies – but long before we reached the actual filming of any of the stories, we had the fun of dreaming up scenarios like this, thinking of ideas to suit other lists of objects. I’ve been doing this my whole life, really – and I never get tired of it. It finally occurred to me not so long ago that it’s a good way to build up a basic story for a novel.

It’s always fun to throw a bunch of seemingly unconnected bits and pieces into a crucible of some kind and see what comes out of it. If I look at five basic objects or ingredients for a good story, they would have to be:

  • an interesting place
  • a little bit of history
  • a hint of danger
  • an historical artefact or work of art
  • the timeframe or deadline of a ticking clock.

Add into the mix two characters each with some kind of desire (and because I write romance they need to later develop a shared desire for each other), and a bad guy with crazy ambitions, and there’s bound to be a story worth writing.

I love all these enticing ingredients and the challenge they present. I’m a writer of long, rather than short, stories – I have too much that I want to throw into the pot.

When I look back at all of my successful novels, each one has those five ingredients. Even my historical novella From Daisy with Love (which is a romance but not a mystery), has all of the ingredients – the historical artefact would be the box of written letters and objects for a future generation to find, and the bad guy (although slightly removed) would be Kaiser Wilhelm II who was responsible for the war which changed the lives of all the characters.

However, if I look at my two earlier trunk novels it is now easy for me to see why they didn’t work and were never good enough to be published. They are both missing several of the vital ingredients. One day I still mean to re-write both of them but don’t hold your breath because newer stories pop into my head all the time.

To those who love reading books written by others: do you recognise any of these five ingredients in your favourite books? I do. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Forgotten Garden, The Goldfinch, My Brother Michael, The Girl You Left Behind, and so many more, from the Amelia Peabody series right back to some of the Enid Blyton books I used to read as a child.

To any writers reading this: what five ingredients do you consider essential in your novels?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 1: Starting

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My original intention when I started blogging four years ago, was to share writing tips with other like-minded writers, but there were already many writers doing this, and most of them knew a good deal more about the craft than I did. So instead of adding to the white noise of advice that surrounds writers, I decided to write for my potential readers instead. While some of my followers are writers, most are not.

Among the questions readers ask writers are: where do we get our ideas from, and how do we start writing. Every writer has their own way of answering these questions, and the writing process is not the same for all of us.

Since I am about to embark on writing a new novel, I thought it might be fun to share my unique process with my readers, in real time, as it happens. It takes me ages to write a novel, so please don’t hold your breath. Over the next year or so, from time to time I’ll let you know where I am in the process and how things change as they meander along the slow path to completion.

When I start a new novel, it’s because something in my brain has been triggered by a “what if” scenario. I’ll imagine a situation or an action in which something hasn’t gone according to plan, and I’ll think up possible unexpected after-effects which might open a can of worms worthy of a full-length novel. Very often, the original idea will come to me because I am in a particular place, or because I’m thinking about a place I’ve been to. To be honest, many places I visit cause me to think, “This would be a good setting for a novel,” but not all of them are practical.

In The Epidaurus Inheritance I brought together two great loves of my life: Greece and theatre. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and so it was with this combination. I’ve had a fascination with ancient Greek theatre since the age of about eight. All my later history of art studies, my drama studies, my first visit to Greece where I watched a performance in the ancient theatre of Epidaurus itself, plus my first two decades of working in the theatre industry all conspired to concoct an adventure that begins and ends in that great historic place.

Benicio’s Bequest began when an image jumped into my head one afternoon after tea with a fellow writer. While travelling down in the elevator I had a sudden thought about what I might do if the gentleman next to me in the elevator were to suddenly collapse on the floor with a knife protruding from his chest. (Yeah, I know – you’re probably wondering what was in that tea and cake…) As the unsuspecting gentleman left the elevator to walk towards the car park, I decided that a beautiful courtyard would be more a more dramatic setting than a car park.

While driving to work that afternoon I fantasized about a sunny courtyard, preferably somewhere old and steeped in history, possibly in Europe. Spain was my first choice, but I had never been there so I chose Italy instead. Which courtyard? Well, it had to be small, intimate and a finite space with only one exit, so I chose the romantic courtyard in Juliet’s house, in Verona. The murder would be a planned hit, and would be done with a gun, not a knife, so the gunman could do his deed from a distance and make his escape. Why not shoot from the balcony itself?

I liked the idea of turning the romantic setting for the world’s most famous balcony scene into the scene of a shocking murder. Into my head came the accompanying idea that the heroine who witnesses it is not in a particularly romantic mood because she is there on her own, having called off her wedding. She has, of course, used the planned honeymoon as a solitary holiday because it was too late to get a full refund and she needed to get her head around her own problems. Needless to say, witnessing a murder doesn’t exactly help her do that. Or maybe it does? The chain of events that this sets off provides the fodder for the rest of the novel.

My newest novel takes place in Oxford, England – a place I visited and loved many years ago. An old stone house, a partially ruined church next door to it, the grounds of Blenheim Palace beyond the back fence, and the charming pub up the road will all form part of the setting.

At this early stage, even while images of setting and romantic places flit through my brain into half-imagined scenarios, there is only a vague story idea. I know that it will be a romantic story, and there will be some kind of historic mystery to solve, but first I need to find some characters who will suit both the setting and the story that grows around them.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

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After watching some of the events of the Rio Olympics, I’m the first to admit to being totally captivated – nay, bowled over – by Usain Bolt. The man is incredible – not just as a runner, but also as a wonderful example of the Olympic spirit, the camaraderie of the track, and a shining mentor to other runners.

He’s made me think a lot about running, and how much I used to enjoy it. Long before I knew the difference between sprinting and long-distance running, I was entranced by the idea of thrusting one foot in front of the other along an open road, feeling the air rushing through my lungs, my hair, my head and helping my freed brain to invent my dreams and inform my life.

Between the two towns in which I spent most of my youth in South Africa – Pietermaritzburg and Durban – was an annual long-distance road race called The Comrades Marathon. Each year the direction alternated so there were separate records for the “up” or the “down” run. On alternate years we awoke before dawn and drove into the city centre to watch the runners line up and race away. We waved and shouted and wished them well.

The Comrades distance varied over the years, but it was always around 90 kilometres – more than twice the length of a standard marathon. Of course, I never actually ran it, but it was something I aspired to, and my respect for those runners knew no bounds: it was a gruelling race.

Some years back I became a runner, but it was a short-lived activity. I wasn’t very good at it, although I enjoyed the exhilaration at the end of a practice run. It made me feel good, healthy, energised and ready to take on the world, but somehow my knees, feet and lungs had other ideas. My mind had the staying power for it, but my body didn’t.

Fortunately for my poor, aching body, writing ultimately held more appeal than running.

I’ve realised that the life of a writer is not unlike that of a runner. While a short story writer might be likened to a sprinter – at his or her best in a short, controlled spurt of Usain Bolt-like energy – a novelist is definitely a long-distance runner.

Writing a novel is never short, never easy, and sometimes not even that controlled. Think of a marathon: no matter how well you prepare, train, follow a programme of fitness, diet, other exercise, there is always the chance that something unpredictable will change things on marathon day. Bad weather, a head-cold, cramp in a muscle you’ve never been plagued by before – the possibilities are endless.

Likewise, a writer never knows when her characters are going to wrench that leash from her grasp and run off in an unplanned direction. All she can hope is that her research, training and powers of endurance will guide the madness into the place it needs to be in order to finish the race.

While sprinters might relate to the single-minded objective of their sport’s goal for the duration of a sprint, they might not enjoy the marathon runner’s kinship with solitude; the ability to pull back and control the pace, preserve the energy and doggedly stick to the long-term plan for the duration of something as demanding as running a marathon. Or writing a novel.

A novelist needs time to concentrate, to marshal her reserves and plan strategically towards that far away goal. Too much energy exerted in the early part and the race will be over before it’s run. And not in a positive way.

A novelist needs a companionable silence to allow her thoughts to coalesce and form into ideas, chapters, paragraphs and sentences. A novelist needs to hear her own voice, intonation, cadence, her own rhythmic style of writing. To let the voices of her characters form their own words and not blindly follow her just because she’s running in front of them.

The title of this blog-post is misleading. Perhaps it should read: The Aloneness of the Long-Distance Writer because, while others might see us as lonely, novelists enjoy solitude, thinking of themselves as alone, but they are never lonely. After all, we carry so many characters with us on that marathon.

The Trojan Legacy – Free on Amazon for 5 Days

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My latest romantic mystery novel The Trojan Legacy is currently free on Amazon for 5 days. That’s from today, Monday 18th July until midnight on Friday 22nd July, Pacific Daylight Time (PDT). After that it will return to its normal price.

This eBook has only been on sale for a month, so this is the perfect opportunity to download it if you haven’t already read it. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free kindle app to your device from any Amazon site, and read it on that.

I’m not giving spoilers by telling my romance readers that they will get the happy ending they expect, but not before my characters have had to work hard against some obstacles in their way. Like my other romantic mysteries, this book has something to interest readers of mysteries and lovers of history as well. It dabbles with bits of the Trojan War (one of my all-time favourite topics) as well as some nostalgic South African history, including a fictional chance meeting with one of my real-life heroes. (Hint – part of it is set in South Africa in 1962 and… okay that’s enough. No more spoilers!)

It’s a dual timeline story and takes place in modern-day Melbourne as well as 1962 South Africa. I hope you find it entertaining.

The quickest way to download the book is to click on the image in the sidebar to the right, and it will take you to the book’s product page in your nearest Amazon store. If you prefer, you can click here instead, or here for the book’s product page at Amazon.com.

As I usually say at times like this: if you enjoy the book, please tell everyone you know. In fact, if you really enjoy it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads so that more people will be able to see what you’ve said and that will hopefully swell future sales.

But if you don’t enjoy reading it please send me a message on the contact form either here or on my website, telling me what you didn’t enjoy about the book. All constructive criticism will be taken on board and will help towards improving future novels.

I do hope you enjoy the read…