Tag Archive | novels

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 11: Unpacking It

My love of writing has grown from my love of reading, and like many writers, I write the kind of books I would love to read. In my early years of writing, I enjoyed several novels by Bernard Cornwell, and took some valuable writing advice from his website.

To paraphrase, he said that when you want to understand how something is made, you take it apart, and so it is with novels. Pick a novel you love, one that you wish you had written because it resonates deeply with you long after you’ve finished reading it. And then unpack it.

I’m not talking about the way we did back in English literature classes at school or university, but in the way a writer needs to. The story, the structure, the way characters get themselves into situations and why, and how long it takes them to get through the path of obstacles you have created for them.

This is the eleventh in this series of blog-posts about writing a novel, and what I’ve written in the previous ten all have relevance, but this is where the fruits of those come together in a loose mesh which can be tugged, stretched and made to fit by doing some research and a bit of juggling. The best way to analyse your own novel is by comparing it to novels that you wish you had written. What is their secret? How did those authors manage to hit all the right buttons in exactly the right places? Unpack it and see.

I have always loved the movies, and long before I started buying books on writing, I bought books on how movie structure worked. Many of my favourite books on writing are still the ones about screenplay structure, and much of what I now think of as my checklists and story patterns for writing my novels come from reading those books.

I always have: a three-act structure (Screenwriting for the 21st Century by Pat Silver-Lasky); a hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler); a sequence of sequences (Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino); and a beat sheet (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder). From these I have, over the years, devised my own basic structure, and now that I’m struggling with the ratios and proportions of my latest novel, it’s Blake Snyder’s beat sheet that I’m using to analyse (and hopefully fix) the problems I’ve encountered.

Following Bernard Cornwell’s advice to new writers, spend some of your precious writing time unpacking three or four novels you’ve loved and wish that you’d written. Try to use works from different authors, all of whom have written in the genre you love to read and are writing in.

Re-read each novel carefully, notebook in hand. Read like a critical writer, not like a loving reader. How long does it take to reach the catalyst or inciting incident? How long does the hero debate before making the decision to take action? At what point do the Bad Guys start to turn even nastier? Is there a significant Midpoint which either foreshadows the outcome or gives the reader the exact mirror-image of what the ending will be? Which scenes are written in full, and which are summarized to move the action along at a faster pace? How long is the third act, or finale?

Knowing the novel because you’ve already read it at least once, pinpoint exactly when and where each tiny slice of foreshadowing takes place. A master craftsman plants various ideas and hints throughout the entire novel, in such a way that the reader sees the fruition of those seeds as being the perfect denouement and not as a nasty, unrelated, out-of-left-field surprise. Master storytellers also weave an undercurrent of tension throughout, which we glimpse at appropriate moments – a ticking clock, a war or revolution taking place in the background, and so on. Make notes on how they do it.

Another thing to make notes about is how subtle the love scenes are. My current favourite love scene is in one of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters: The Falcon at the Portal. It is 60% of the way through the text, and is exactly three sentences long. Because Peters has built the tension so well between the two characters up to that point, she needs only three sentences.

The first is the start of the girl’s run across the room towards him, the second is their moment of meeting halfway, and the third is later when they are curled up together in bed and he wipes away one of her tears of happiness.

Who needs more than that? No one needs more if the path to get there has been planted properly. Satisfaction all round.

Now let’s get to the horrid part of this exercise: the cringe moments when you compare these notes to your own work-in-progress. Take comfort here from the fact that your work is still actually “in progress” and it’s not finished until you’ve finished working on it. Take more comfort from knowing that those famous novels had a team of editors and beta-readers all making suggestions to the author and helping to hone the final product long before you read it.

How far into the novel is your inciting incident? How long does your hero take to make the decision to go on the journey? How wordy and purply is your love scene?

Does your Midpoint actually happen exactly at the 50% mark or does the first half of the novel seem to take forever? (Take heart, people – this is always MY big problem area!) Which scenes need pruning, and which can be reduced to summaries instead of slowing the pace?

Are your moments of foreshadowing clunky brick-on-the-foot moments that give the game away? Go back to your outline and see if you can drop hints in a more subtle, sparing way. You want readers to be pleasantly surprised by the ending, not able to foretell it before they get there. You want them to say afterwards that it all worked out perfectly in the end. Remember that, if the first page sells the novel, the last page sells the next novel…

With the notes you have made of how other authors make their novels work, and with the help of your outline, timeline and character sketches – all of which you made before you started yours – you will be able to find the right places to tweak and twist your work so that it all happens where it should, and in a much more satisfying way.

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 9: Scene & Summary

Writing a novel can be a long process, and sometimes we writers can’t tell how the pace is going because we are too close to it. As much as I love having an outline from which to work, the important thing to remember is that it is – at best – a flat, two dimensional map of where the novel is going, and what the most important points in the plot are.

What happens when the writing of that plot doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory? Sometimes a particular section of my current draft which may have worked well in the outline, doesn’t ring true in the actual writing. If I can’t solve it immediately, I highlight that section on my outline, leave it and move on to the next plot point, which often shows me the way back to solving the previous problem.

If it doesn’t, then maybe the sequence of events is in the wrong order. Some writers do their outline on a series of cards – one scene per card – so the cards can be re-arranged if the order isn’t working. Personally, I don’t like using cards. I find it easier to cut and paste on my outline instead, but if cards work for you, then by all means use them.

Here’s a thought: if something is difficult or boring to write, then maybe it shouldn’t be in the book because it may be boring or difficult to read. It’s that simple: if there’s a boring bit I can’t write, then maybe it’s not meant to be written. Maybe the idea behind that scene or sequence needs to be reworked in another way.

So back I go to my original one-page synopsis and examine where that problem scene fits in the greater story. What happens before it? What happens after it? Is there a better way to get from one point to the next? Remember that every character has a desire, and has to overcome obstacles to get what he or she wants. If the obstacle isn’t big enough then the writer must either raise the stakes and make it big enough to count, or wipe it off the slate and get on with the story.

The writer must choose between scene and summary. Not every step of the story needs to be written as a scene; some can be summarized to move the reader forward to the next interesting bit. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this ill-fitting scene? Where is it supposed to lead to? If there is a better way to reveal what’s in it, then why is this scene even in the book?

If a lacklustre scene serves a definite purpose, then that purpose might be better presented in the form of a summary. Perhaps the characters need to go on a journey for a reason, but unless there’s something significant that the reader needs to witness along the way, or if the tension is heightened by the fact that they are being followed, then we don’t need to see every step of the journey, especially if it’s going to hold up the action and bore the reader. Rather end the chapter as the characters leave one place, and start the next chapter as they check into the hotel or arrive in the city where the next bit of action will happen.

While writing Benicio’s Bequest, I had a complicated sequence of events in which my two main characters travelled back and forth across the same section of Italy several times. By highlighting the problem areas in my outline, I was able to rework the sequence with one less travel hop, and turn one of them into a car chase, thus tightening the action and putting them in the right place in time for the final push to the finale.

Most plots need moments of quiet time to let the characters (and the readers) take a breath. In a romance this is often when the characters get to know each other better, but don’t linger there too long. Keep them on their feet and dancing through the plot, because that’s how it stays interesting. Plenty of time for them to get to know each other properly once they’ve saved the world!

It all comes down to a balance between pace and progression. Those writers who advise you to “leave out the boring bits” usually have a good grasp on how to keep an audience engaged. Keep the pace moving, while constantly advancing the plot.

What do you do with those lovingly-crafted scenes that don’t advance the plot, but that you’ve written so well and can’t bear to lose? Here’s my solution: I cut and paste them into a folder called the Dumping File. I tell myself that they are not wasted, and sometimes I even get to use bits of them in another part of the novel. I haven’t killed them, because they’re still there on my computer.

These deleted scenes form part of each novel’s backstory, and my own writing journey. Even though the reader doesn’t need them, I’ve still got them, kept all safe and cosy and protected. The dumping file for each of my novels is quite large – between 15 and 30% of the size of the finished novel – yet every bit of them turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Don’t waste the reader’s time with this unwanted waffle. They won’t thank you for it, and they might decide not to buy your next novel…

The Trojan Legacy – Now Live on Amazon!

Trojan Legacy Mt Rhino only

My latest novel has launched at last! The Trojan Legacy is now on Amazon as an eBook, and you can find it here.

This is a full-length novel, in the same genre of Romantic Mystery in which my first two full-length novels were written. The action takes place in two different countries, in two different time frames.

Regina, a new immigrant to Australia, seeks out the family whose name she has found in her grandmother’s papers. Together with piano-playing barman Bobby, she unravels the history of an ancient diadem which was unearthed from the ruins of Troy, but which later disappeared at the end of the Second World War. A novel of mystery and romance, set in both modern-day Melbourne and 1960s South Africa, the story unfolds against a unique slice of South African history.

Thank you to all those of you who helped me to choose between the two covers for this novel. It was (to misquote the words of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo) a close-run thing. There were so many points in favour of both covers that I felt quite bad being able to choose only one. The cover I chose was (A) – the brighter, deeper blue background with the bigger lettering. With its vibrant colour, it has a resemblance to the cover of The Epidaurus Inheritance, and even though they are not part of a series, they are the same genre. The main deciding factor was because it really does stand out better in a thumbnail, which is what most Kindle readers will be looking at when (hopefully) choosing it as their next book to read.

Visibility is the key in every sense, it seems. I have no doubt that the readers who enjoyed my previous books will enjoy this one as much – if not more so – but they just have to find it first. Unfortunately, since the last time I put a book up on Amazon, in October 2012, there are literally hundreds of thousands more books available than there used to be, and we’re all pushing and shoving for elbow room in the same arena.

So if you happen to be one of those readers who enjoyed either The Epidaurus Inheritance or Benicio’s Bequest, why not pop over to Amazon.com, click on the cover to read the first two chapters, and see how you like it. You can even click on the book cover in the sidebar to your right and it’ll take you to my book’s product page in the Amazon store nearest you.

Go on – you know you want to…!

Which Book Cover Would You Choose?

I’m very excited about the upcoming release of my new romantic mystery novel, and would like readers to help me choose which cover they prefer.

Here’s the blurb:

An ancient diadem unearthed from the ruins of Troy disappears from a Berlin museum at the end of the Second World War. In 1962, archaeologists Ellen and Marcus track the diadem into the mountains of the Drakensberg, believing it was hidden there by a Nazi who stole it and escaped before the Nuremberg trials. South Africa’s apartheid government wants the diadem, but so does the underground political party known as the ANC.

Ellen and Marcus have their own reasons for wanting the diadem, but Inspector Uys has a darker purpose and will stop at nothing to prevent Nelson Mandela and the ANC from taking control of the country.

Two generations later an Australian bartender and a South African travel agent put together the disjointed clues from their respective grandparents, and set off on a trail of their own in search of answers.

These are the two covers: Let’s call them A and B.

Trojan Legacy Mt Rhino onlyTrojan Legacy colour edited

Which do you think is more eye-catching? Bear in mind this is for an ebook to be sold on Amazon, and the image can be quite small when viewed on some reading devices. It’s not part of a series, but it is the same genre as the first and third books in the sidebar on the right.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Thank you for your time – your input will be greatly appreciated!

Email Newsletters – The Next Big Step in a Writer’s Life

Since I left South Africa I have become a full time writer by default. Those of you who know me, know how much I love writing. I will happily write all day if given half a chance. In the last few years I have written six novels: two for practice, three for sale as ebooks on Amazon, and one more to join them shortly.

I don’t have a problem writing at all.

However, I do have a problem marketing both myself and my books. It’s not that they don’t sell, but rather that they don’t sell fast. Granted, I haven’t exactly been bending over backwards to publicize them for the last few years. Moving to Australia took rather a lot of time and energy out of my life in the not too distant past, especially in the last two years.

Time waits for no man (or woman) and in the time that I have been pottering around getting ready to come to Australia, thousands and thousands more writers have made their books available as ebooks on Amazon.

To say that competition is fierce is as much an understatement as declaring that the animals used in the circuses of ancient Rome were a bit cranky and might be prone to biting. In the three years that have passed since I wrote that blog-post in which I called myself an invisible novelist, I have become even more invisible – if that’s possible.

In fact, my author presence now resembles that big double black hole that astronomers discovered just the other day (the one that looks like a dog’s nose). Or perhaps, in my case, that should be a triple black hole because I have three invisible novels out there in the ether that no one is seeing and even fewer are buying!

Some people are great at marketing their own work, but some of us just aren’t. I’m one of the latter. It doesn’t help that I’m naturally a bit shy, nervous and introverted when in the company of people I don’t know. This includes the WordPress blogosphere, all the new people I have met in Australia, and the entire universe, of course.

As much as I am part of the tribe of writers who could happily spend all day writing and never interact with their readers, I’ve realised in the last three years that this is not how today’s writers make a living. So I have finally taken the next big step and jumped on the bandwagon of trying to promote my own work and my author platform.

What exactly is an author platform? Basically it’s an internet presence so that you – all current and potential readers – can find me and see what I’m up to. I already have a website, 3 blogs, a twitter handle and a Facebook profile. None of them are big or rah-rah, but they will shortly be joined by my monthly email newsletter. This is simply a means of letting past readers of my novels, current readers of my blog, and potential readers of my upcoming novels, know my latest news. Such as: there will shortly be a new novel out, and those of you who have enjoyed my previous romantic mysteries might enjoy the next one as much as you did the others.

By the way, I’ve also decided to take advantage of Amazon’s freebies from time to time in the future, and I need to let people know when they can expect to be able to download any one of my books for free. Yes, it will happen – I just don’t know when. That’s one of the marvelous things about newsletters…

Also, in the not too distant future, I hope to investigate organising actual print copies of all my books, and to sell them on Amazon through their print-on-demand affiliate, Create Space.

So, in the spirit of all of this “keeping readers informed” stuff, my new email newsletter will debut shortly. It will be administered by Mail Chimp, and I would absolutely love it if people would join it using the following link: http://eepurl.com/bHtC0P

If you click on it, you will be taken to a sign up page where you will be asked to fill in your name and email address.

Please be assured that your privacy will be honoured, and your email address will never be passed on, sold, or used by anyone else other than me, and I shall only use it to send you one newsletter per month. If you sign up and then regret doing so, there will be an “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of every newsletter where you can opt out at any time if you don’t want to continue receiving them.

Well, there it is – my soul on the line – the formal plea that will hopefully earn me a few followers so that I can finally tackle the twenty-first century like an adult, and maybe I will even have more time to write!


I Didn’t Do NaNoWriMo, But…

I didn’t sign up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November this year, but I did receive an enormous amount of encouragement from those who did. I hope that all who entered (and those who didn’t) were able to make the most of the opportunity to advance their current writing projects in the same way that I did.


To tell the truth, I’ve never actually signed up for NaNoWriMo, but there’s something about the last few months of the year that fires up my novel-writing desires and makes me forge ahead with whatever novel I happen to be busy planning or writing.

Regardless of whether I’m at the beginning or the end of the writing process, the coming of Spring (I live in the southern hemisphere) heralds a time of new buds, green shoots and the warmth of the growing season. While I am not a gardener like my sister, her enthusiasm rubs off on me, albeit in a different sphere. The promise of a productive season followed by a new year ahead spurs me on to think that I’m invincible, a prolific spewer of words, and that everyone else is going to LOVE what I’m busy with, as much as I do.


Of course, it could also have something to do with the fact that this is the time of year when the South African Writers’ Circle (SAWC) has a particular competition that I’ve always loved entering.

I joined the SAWC during 2007. Later that same year, I finished the wordy, meandering novel on which I had been working for almost four years, and submitted it to a publisher. Finally freed from the shackles of that novel, I began casting around for a new project. To my delight, I found that the SAWC’s November competition was for a synopsis and first chapter of a novel, so I set about turning another long-held idea into my second novel. I composed a synopsis for it, wrote the first chapter and submitted it.

It was awarded first place.

Thus began my end-of year pattern for the next few years. In due course, the First Chapter of a Novel competition moved from November to January of the following year. By January 2012 I had settled into a seasonal pattern. In the course of five competitions over five years, I entered the first chapters of six novels, three of which won first place, and the other three each won a placing in the top four.

I haven’t entered anything for the last three years, because I’ve been busy. Not just working on the novel that came third the last time I entered the competition, but busy with other things. Anyone who follows this blog regularly will know that I had a few small delays while packing up my life and moving to Australia, but now I’m firmly back on track.

The novel that’s been so long in the making is finally nearing completion after just a few months in Australia. I don’t want anyone to bust a lung holding their breath, but I am almost at the end of the ninth draft. Yes, it’s nearly done. Another paragraph or two to round up the final resolution, another read through, and it will be finished and on its way out into the world in time for the New Year.

At the end of January 2016 I hope to be free to enter my favourite SAWC competition again, with a totally new story. I have a lot of work to do before then.

Watch this space…


How to Focus on Your Writing and Still Do the Housework

After having sat on my rear end for three months since I arrived in Australia, struggling to churn out one or two blog-posts a month and complaining that I just couldn’t get back into writing, I finally got over myself at the end of September and re-opened the novel file on my computer. I began working my way through the pages of notes my last beta-reader gave me in January. It was a slow, bumbling process at first, but I’m happy to report that I’m now getting back into the swing of things.

Recently I’ve read a lot of blogs about writer’s block, and some on how to make the most of your writing time. I realised that my problem was not one of writer’s block, but lack of focus. This is my two cents worth. I hope it helps someone else out there.

Back in 2001 I returned to studying at university, but found that I couldn’t focus with so many balls juggling in the air. One morning when I should have been studying, I saw something on TV’s home shopping channel. I know what you’re thinking – why was the TV on when I should have been studying? Well, I had just done an aerobics class on video and the TV was still on. Why was I doing aerobics instead of studying…?

Well, you can see where this is going, right? Instead of settling down to do one thing, I was trying to do everything at once. Need I say more? Complete lack of focus.

So what did I see on the home shopping channel that morning? The Betakit Global Study System for scholars and students. It sounded simple enough and I needed a lifeline so I grabbed the phone, gave my credit card number and the little box arrived in the post a few days later.

It consisted of two CDs with various tracks of sound harmonics overlaid with white noise or music. The tones that you hear (but are not aware of) enter your brain and stimulate it to its optimum level of concentration. There are several tracks for different things, but the main Focus track runs for 30 minutes. The idea is that you concentrate on your work – studying, writing or whatever it is – for 30 minutes with stereo headphones on, and then you take a fifteen minute break in which you do something physical or manual.

Chores such as washing dishes, dusting or vacuuming, even showering, can be broken into fifteen minute segments and done between the half-hour periods of absolute concentration. I used the system through four semesters of part-time studying and never looked back. By the time my course was over, I had decided to write my family history, so I continued to use the system for that, and for all my writing since then. In the past twelve years – while working full-time – I’ve clocked up five full-length novels, one novella, several essays and articles, a smattering of plays and about 40 short stories, in addition to almost 100 blog-posts since 2012. So I think that means the system works!

The thing is, once you are in the habit of doing things in 30 minute and 15 minute segments, there are no limits to what you can accomplish. Living as I am now, in someone else’s house, I have taken on certain domestic tasks because in terms of my visa I am not allowed to work, so the least I can do is keep the house running smoothly day-to-day while its owners are out working and earning the money that helps me to stay here.

What an ideal situation for a writer, you might be thinking, but without some kind of routine and order to my day, I was drowning. Either I was getting caught up in the domestic stuff and not writing, or I was spending hours at my computer and getting neither writing nor housework done properly. Then the guilt would set in, followed by the worry about the lack of book sales – all of it disastrous to a writer’s mind.

My mind works better when it concentrates on one thing at a time, but if I worry that the other tasks are not getting done, then I can’t focus properly on any of them. A month ago I remembered my Betakit Global Study System. At first I couldn’t find the discs. I knew I’d packed them somewhere, but in which box?

So instead I started with the simulated idea of it: some classical music (no lyrics), and a trusty kitchen timer. Now I am back in the habit, and it’s working again. I’m in the writing zone for 30 minutes, after which the domestic tasks each get their fifteen minutes of attention. I repeat the process every 45 minutes, and so it goes through the day. Don’t be surprised if you knock on the door in the afternoon and find that I’m still in my dressing gown because that particular 15-minute segment hasn’t happened yet. You have been warned!

The system works as well for me as it has always done, but I realise this is not for everyone. Some years ago I suggested the system to one of my writing buddies and she tried it, but she found that working in rigid sessions of 45 minutes just wasn’t for her. I suspect she is better at multi-tasking than I am.

I eventually found where I packed the discs and the booklet that came with it, but I’m not sure if it is still available in the world. A Google search didn’t produce anything new apart from a system called Prosper which seems to be based on it.

Personally, I don’t think it matters what system you use, as long as you find one that works for you.


Romantic Mysteries and the Melbourne Writers Festival

I have to admit that I’m confused. Again. Uploading books to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is not for the faint-hearted. I might have been fearless when I uploaded my first novel four years ago, but I’ve learned to be wary of my biggest stumbling block: Categories.

As an author, you are allowed to choose two categories (genres) to describe your book to would-be purchasers. In each category, there are sub-categories which narrow down the choices so that readers who might enjoy your book can actually find it in a niche which appeals to them. For example, for a novel you would select Fiction, then narrow it down within that by choosing Action & Adventure, further narrow it down to Mystery, Thriller & Suspense and then narrow it down again to Mystery.

Fantastic, you think – you’re now listed amongst your peers! Many peers. Too many peers.

Unfortunately, with around 4,000 titles for readers to choose from in that Mystery category, your book is probably going to be listed on page 390 out of 400 pages. This means that no one is going to find it because no one is going to have the patience to wade through 390 pages to find yours. Likewise with the second category you choose.

Beware, the author who misjudges her initial broad category! I received a less than favourable review from someone who thought that my mystery should have had more action and adventure, and less soppy romance. My romantic mysteries are more about the romance than the mystery, unlike Dan Brown who writes fast-paced, action-filled mysteries.

The trick is to select the category that is most predominant in your book. So I considered re-categorising mine as Romance, followed by Action/Adventure. Fortunately I browsed first and what did I see?  Erotica, sexy adventure, action sex, and so on. Neither the action nor the adventure that I had written about! Clearly a major re-think was needed.

Back in the 1960s, the great Mary Stewart pioneered the genre of Romantic Suspense, or Romantic Mystery. On Amazon, if you choose Romance first and then look for Mystery within that it doesn’t exist, but Suspense does. However, if you browse Amazon using keywords, Romantic Suspense brings up what others call Paranormal Romance – relationships involving werewolves, vampires or other supernatural phenomena. Mary Stewart’s Romantic Suspense novels are not about those things, and neither are mine.

As a confused writer, I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival, thinking that a little insight into current writing trends might help me. I chose my sessions carefully, hopped on a train and opened my mind. Opened it a little too wide, maybe. Shades of Pandora and her troublesome box, perhaps, but I really enjoyed my time at the festival.

The first session I attended was about romance writing, comparing the treatments between the Young Adult and traditional Romance genres, and was entitled Losing It. With a title like that, I should have guessed – but didn’t – that this session was all about losing one’s virginity. YA literature is almost exclusively about this topic, according to one of the panel members, Fiona Wood.

Well, I wouldn’t know, would I? I don’t write YA, and it didn’t exist as a category when I was in that target age group. For the modern YA reader, loss of virginity is more often non-consensual than consensual.

Romance novelist Melanie Milburne agreed that the Romance genre usually follows the same pattern, albeit aimed at a slightly older age group. Even in Historical Romance, the traditional “bodice-rippers” seem to imply that sex is non-consensual. In other words: rape. Well, imagine my shock and horror! I always thought that Romance was supposed to be about… you know, Romantic Stuff.

For example, my novels – my romantic mysteries – centre on the exploration of a mutual quest, in which two people start off on opposing sides and gradually change as the story evolves. The female protagonist gets to know another side of the male hero slowly over the first 100 pages, and their budding relationship is advanced by the mystery they both need to solve.

Along the way, diversions include the occasional picnic or shared bottle of wine, followed by an unexpected awakening of emotions, culminating in a midpoint consummation behind closed doors, heralded by that most diplomatic of writer devices: the chapter break.

In the second half of the novel, the tension notches up as the Bad Guy closes in. The romantic couple cling together through increasing danger, during which they respectively realise that they have each found their life partner through the most extraordinary circumstances, only to possibly lose that person due to the misdeeds of the Bad Guy. When all hope seems lost, the indomitable lovers gain the upper hand, solve the mystery, save each other and restore a new balance before the final Happy Ending.

Just your average falling in love, bells ringing, music and flowers Romance.

That’s certainly how I would like to fall in love and find my life partner. Reality check: maybe that’s why I haven’t found him yet! Second reality check: maybe that’s why the stuff I write is primarily categorised as fiction…

Does this mean I don’t write Romance after all? Should I try a new approach and re-classify my novels as something else?

The words in my novels are not just thrown together in some random order to tell a mediocre story quickly and earn me a fast buck. A lot of thought, planning and research goes into my plots, so they are more than just romances and have a strong historical or artistic theme. They delve back into the history of a particular era or movement, with the emphasis on archaeology, art, lost loves of a previous generation, and so on. Thought provoking stuff, so perhaps what I write could be considered Literary Fiction?

This led me to attend a discussion on Literary versus Genre Fiction. Once again my eyes were shocked into the surprised open position as I learned from writer Krissy Kneen that generally, Literary Fiction seems to be another term for Erotica. Harrison Young, an American-born writer, set out to write what he thought was Literary Fiction, but his novel was re-classified by his publisher as a Thriller. He felt this was unfair because some readers of traditional thrillers thought that his book was too different from the norm, and not to their usual thriller tastes.

Writer Honey Brown confessed that she didn’t think about genre at all when writing, because that was for her publisher to sort out. I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of jealousy for both these two writers – lucky them for having publishers to take on the task of deciding on categories!

As a last resort, I attended a session on Women’s Fiction. It came as no surprise that Women’s Fiction is all about politics: the politics of domestic abuse, the politics of the glass ceiling for women in a so-called “man’s world” and the politics of women fighting against any ingrained, immovable system. This is very noble stuff, and I have the deepest respect for the people who write it. It is obviously extremely popular, judging from the queues of people (mainly women) waiting to get in the door at this session.

Unfortunately my writing is far too frivolous to be this noble, this edgy. I don’t write about politics – the single biggest reason why I was unable to find a publisher in South Africa. Some do, some don’t write Women’s Fiction. I happen to fall into the latter group.

Towards the end of the session, a woman in her 70s stood up at the back and asked: “Why is no one mentioning Chick-Lit? Surely that falls under Women’s Fiction too?” Despite the fact that the floor was carpeted, you could’ve heard a pin crashing onto it if someone had dared to drop one in the ensuing silence. The bemused expressions on the faces of the panel members made me want to laugh out loud.

The term Chick-Lit doesn’t seem to be used anymore – it’s now called Romantic Comedy – but regardless of the label, its writers have a knack for comic timing that I can only dream about. While what I write is light and frothy, fairly clean and thought by at least one reviewer to be “more Hallmark channel than cable,” I cannot claim to be a writer of Chick-Lit, but I do enjoy reading it.

One theory remained constant through all the eye-opening which I experienced at this festival. Cross-genre writers definitely need to first choose the category which reflects the main genre of the book. As explained by Harrison Young (whose Literary Fiction novel became a Thriller), writers cannot afford to disappoint habitual readers of any genre. We must give readers what they expect, plus something extra that they didn’t realise they wanted. Maybe it will expand their reading horizons, and they will come back for more. I took his words to heart and made my decision on my Amazon categories based on them.

So, after all that, what did I choose? Romance and Mystery, of course. In Romance I have chosen the sub-category of Suspense, and in Mystery I have chosen the sub-category of Cozy. Let’s see how that works out. Watch this space…


Tea-Drinking Writer, Interrupted…


What many people don’t understand about some of us old-fashioned writers is that writing can be a long process. Just like that fat lady who waits until the end of the opera before singing her most heart-rending aria, a novel isn’t ready until the writing of it is over.

I’ve said this before: I will never be the kind of writer who churns out a new book every few weeks or months. I am a mature writer who likes to drink tea while she works, or wine when she has something to celebrate. Both of these beverages require slow brewing, slow maturation, and slow sipping.

How can I put this another way? I’m not a person who believes in rushing anything. If I ever reach the point in my life where I can write and produce one novel a year, I’ll be extremely proud of myself. I have quite a way to go before I can achieve that, but I’m working towards it, despite the interruption of having moved from one country to another.

The last six to eight months have brought major disruptions into my life. For someone who is determined to continue writing against all the odds, I’m not succeeding at the moment, but I won’t give up trying.

In fact, the last five years haven’t been easy, since my sister and her husband made the decision to leave South Africa and move to Australia. From the moment of their announcement I knew I would do everything possible to follow them. If my family home-base was moving to the other side of the world, then so was I.

What I didn’t realise back then was just how difficult that would be; how disjointed and drawn-out the process was to become, how lonely and insecure I would feel left behind in an increasingly violent and potentially dangerous country, run by a corrupt, inept government.

As always, I turned to my writing to get me through the storms. When my sister left, my sense of urgency to get my unpublished books “out there” into the world increased. Up until then, my experiment at being a novelist had been – like the tea and wine – a long, slow process.

My first novel had taken me four years to write. The second took me less than two. Both of these (despite being complete) are never likely to be published unless they are extensively re-plotted and re-written, but they were a necessary part of the journey that honed my writing skills.

I’ve mentioned before that there is a theory that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written at least a million words. I think I reached my million about halfway through my honours creative writing module in 2009. The project I worked on for that course not only stretched me as a writer, but took me to places inside myself that I hadn’t bargained on finding.

After the project was finished, I turned my back on my first two novels, consigned them to a comfy virtual trunk on my hard drive, and began working on what I refer to as my Greek novel. The Epidaurus Inheritance took the whole of 2010 to write, and then it spent the next year with Penguin SA. In 2010 I tweaked my 2009 creative writing project, turned it into an historical novella and entered it into a novella competition, where it achieved third prize.

At the end of 2011, my Greek novel received a glowingly positive reaction from Penguin, but was ultimately rejected. By now I was tired of trying to convince South African publishers to take a chance on a romantic mystery that I knew was never going to be the next great political epic they all wanted, so I took the decision to self-publish it on Amazon as an e-book.

In the meantime, I had begun writing another romantic mystery in the same vein, but with an Italian setting. In mid-2012 I uploaded my historical novella – From Daisy with Love – onto Amazon, and a few months later I followed it with my now completed full-length Italian novel – Benicio’s Bequest.

Three books on Amazon within one year! The urge to continue writing never stopped, but unfortunately the available writing time diminished.

My current work-in-progress, which I call my Australian novel (I’ve yet to find the right title), was inspired by my first visit to Australia in early 2012. I wrote two chapters in Melbourne and then shelved it until later that year when I punched out the first draft in less than three months.

Although this draft was completed in January 2013, the re-working of it continued through the next two years. Despite feedback from beta-readers in the second half of 2014, I have yet to complete it. The fat lady had to postpone her big aria, because in January 2015 I received the green light to move to Australia.

This happy, welcome news nevertheless involved a lot of domestic upheaval! Amidst the sorting and packing, I drank the tea and gave away most of the wine, but unfortunately I’ve done no work on the novel apart from a three day session with one of my beta-readers a few days after I received the news. For the next five months everything else took a number and waited in line.

I’ve now been in Australia for two months, and to be honest, I’m finding it hard to concentrate on getting back into a writing routine. Somehow, amidst the months of packing my life into boxes, the endless lists and the closing of certain doors, making the big move to Australia has shortened my attention span somewhat.

So many things are still up in the air, so I haven’t quite settled here yet, but I know that’s to be expected. People have warned me that I won’t feel completely established until I have been here for at least six months, sorted out my employment options and found a place of my own.


Last week my Move Cube container with all my personal belongings arrived, so that’s another door I’ve been able to close. A friend of mine suggested in an e-mail a few weeks ago that I needed a break – a sabbatical, she called it – and I think that’s a good idea. My writing life has been interrupted because the writer in me has been interrupted, and the Me who became that writer is worrying about treading water and trying to find her feet. Instead I should be slowing my breathing and floating for a while. We all need a few deep breaths before jumping into a new life and expecting to fit right in.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a person who takes time to adapt, and that’s what I’m doing as I sip my slow-brewed tea (or wine), listen to some of my newly-discovered classical CDs, and savour the process of adjustment while waiting for that fat lady to hit the high notes…


Casting Characters: How Do We Picture Them?

Just in case anyone out there is wondering if Harrison Ford is the centre of my existence, let me assure you that I am far more shallow than you imagine me to be. I drool over many film stars. Which one do I like the most? Well, to borrow Ado Annie’s line from Oklahoma: “Whichever one I’m with!”

Or in my case, whichever one I’m currently watching in a movie. Movie-watching is a necessary part of life as a writer, and the ones I watch provide me with a casting selection for the characters in the books I am reading as well as the ones I am writing.

Back in 2009 I was part of a creative writing class in which there were nine students and two tutors. Seven of the students were in their 20s, two of us were… well… a decade or two older, as were our tutors.

When it was my turn to read an excerpt from the WIP that would later become my novella From Daisy with Love, I chose a passage quite far into the work, leaving out the detailed physical description of my main character. The setting was Durban in 1915, wartime, and my listeners discovered that Daisy had just celebrated her 18th birthday, she had dark hair and eyes, and her slim frame was the opposite of her chubby sister’s.

After the reading, the younger members of the class all wanted to know exactly what Daisy looked like, but my three older colleagues replied that they didn’t need a detailed description because they could picture their own version of her from the little I had inferred in the text. The four of us had grown up in the pre-television age of radio and our imaginations were able to concoct a whole from very few parts, but those who had grown up watching television needed to know more exact details in order to picture her.

Alarmingly, the younger members of the group couldn’t get into Daisy’s head and understand her as a character until they knew exactly what she looked like.

The opposite of this extreme is a remark I found on the Internet, that a POV character should never be described in full; we shouldn’t even be told the colour of the character’s hair or skin, so that readers of every ethnicity can relate.

So which one is correct? Well, I’m going for the middle ground here. I always enjoy a good fence to sit on.

Think of a character in a book and let’s cast someone in that role. Just like an actor is cast in a play.

My theatre training puts me in a unique position here, having attended numerous casting sessions over the years. Each character has basic requirements that must be met in terms of gender, age group, ethnic group and general physical characteristics. Casting agents send to the audition only the clients who fit those minimum criteria – as well as the necessary talent, of course, but we’re not dealing with that here.

Any actor who auditions is imagined in the context of the play, and the producers and director work with what is in front of them, bearing in mind who else they are casting in other roles, and who suits this particular role the best. They look for the right fit in other ways too – a romantic hero who is half a head shorter or has a much smaller frame than the leading lady might give a more comic impression than intended.

Unless the script is specific, the only guidelines about the character’s looks are the ones above. I call this The Hamlet Question, as in: What does Hamlet look like? Based on the above, he is male, about 30, fit enough to fence well (ignore that remark of his mother’s that he is “fat and scant of breath” because we also know that his opponent Laertes is an exceptionally good fencer), and his ethnicity does not have to be blond and Scandinavian (just because the original play was set in Denmark), but can be whatever suits the style of that production.

So Hamlet looks like the actor who is chosen to portray him, of course. He can be rough and hairy Mel Gibson, cool and blond Kenneth Branagh or whoever you saw on stage the last time you watched a production of it.

I wish I could remember who said that to picture a character in a book you have to imagine seeing them at a distance through slightly narrowed eyes, so the details are blurry but the gender, body shape, colouring and overall impression are captured – rather like a figure in the background of an Impressionist painting. Specific details such as a scar, dimple or particular coloured eyes can be added to this general image early in the text, but after that it’s up to the reader to fill in further details in their mind’s eye.

Because I love watching movies, my mind’s eye contains a database of actors that I can imagine playing the various characters in any book that I read, and I don’t have to worry about who is short and who is tall, because in my mind I can picture Tom Cruise as tall as Peter O’Toole if that’s what my imagination shows me. Actors can also be any age – I can just as easily picture a young Richard Burton as an older version, because I’ve seen both in the movies.

I like the idea of a blurred impression through narrowed eyelids. To take the earlier example I used in my writing class, I imagined very old photographs of my grandmother when she was young (the character of Daisy was loosely based on her), but from the few impressions I gave my readers, they could have imagined anyone from Anne Hathaway to Juliette Binoche and it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone else. As long as you could see a person within that age group, tall and slim, and dressed in old-fashioned clothing in a hot country during the First World War, that image would carry you through the book. At least that’s how I see it.

The problem is that sometimes the writer might wait until page 150 before mentioning the character’s blue eyes and then the reader who has imagined Anne Hathaway now has to scrabble about, rejecting images and trying to picture Alexis Bledel or Angelina Jolie in the role instead, so I prefer these basics to be mentioned early on when the reader is still trying to concoct a picture.

As a writer, I am guided by voice as much as looks here. In my first novel, The Epidaurus Inheritance, I pictured Penelope Cruz as my leading character through the first two drafts of the novel, but something in me couldn’t imagine her saying the dialogue I had written, and certainly not with a South African accent. Penelope Cruz is a beautiful woman and she has the most endearing Spanish accent, but seeing her as my main character just didn’t work. She was simply too perfect.

When I changed the casting and pictured Kate Winslet instead – with long hair like she had in Titanic, dark like it was in Quills – the character fell into place. Her body shape changed, as did her impression of herself. I rewrote her as big-boned and statuesque rather than small and slim, and this added a whole new dimension to her persona. It also fitted in with the hero’s character, because to him the perfect woman is like the Greek Caryatid statues on the Acropolis. He is an archaeologist and has probably been fantasising about them his whole life.

Kate Winslet has played so many different characters on screen that it wasn’t a huge stretch of the imagination to see her as a living Caryatid. Or to give her a slight South African accent. (No more than my own, which is not that pronounced and English in derivation, like many English-speaking South Africans.) I am not saying that everyone who reads that book will picture Kate Winslet, but it was important for me to picture her so that I could keep the character looking and sounding consistent throughout the writing. If you’re happier picturing Penelope Cruz, that’s fine too.

In my next novel, Benicio’s Bequest, while trying to think of a beautiful actress for the hero’s Italian ex-girlfriend, I pictured Penelope Cruz. Having a near perfect damsel as the heroine’s love rival added weight to her feelings of inadequacy. Since I speak no European languages, the Spanish accent was not an issue for me, but if you want to picture Monica Bellucci in the role instead, she’s perfect too.

As for my male characters, they can be played by British, American, South African or Australian actors, as long as they can do a variety of accents well. I find that many Brits and Aussies are particularly good at accents, which is probably why they’ve crossed that international divide, but don’t discount the remarkable accent abilities of American Robert Downey Jnr, who pops up in my books in various guises because he is so versatile, and I can hear his voice in many different accents in my head.

I also try to use actors who look different, so that all my leading men don’t turn out the same. Well okay, they do all tend to be tall, dark and handsome chaps, but there are plenty of excellent actors to choose from. Once again, just because I picture Hugh Jackman doesn’t mean that you have to. If you think the character looks more like Robert Downey Jnr, then please go with that. As long as my hero’s eyes don’t change colour on page 150, then we’ll all be happy in our respective little book worlds!