The Genre Conundrum Part 3: Age and other issues in Romantic Fiction #amwriting

Read Me
Photo by Us Wah on Unsplash

When I was looking for a literary agent and publisher for my first novel, Change of Life, nearly ten years ago, one of the rejection reasons I was given was the age of my main characters. I was told nobody wanted to read a romance where the prospective couple were in their late forties and especially where they had to deal with awkward teenage children and cope with one of them falling seriously ill. It seemed realism was out and hearts and flowers happy-ever-after romanticism was in.

Things have moved on a bit since then. There are romantic novels, where difficult issues are included in the story. However, romance does still seem to be dominated by the ‘Cafe in the Seaside Village’ type stories with their matchstick female figures on their pastel-coloured covers. But even although the covers are clichéd, and the stories follow a formula, they can be very enjoyable in a hearts-and- flowers, young love, happy-ever-after sort of way.

But it seems to me that romantic fiction with older lead characters is still in the minority – even although the biggest part of the population in the UK is over fifty. I don’t believe it’s because people don’t want to read such novels and I think maybe the big publishers are missing a trick here.

I should also say before going any further that what follows is merely my impression and  my opinion. It isn’t based on any scientific research.

And my final disclosure is one of vested interest – I am 61 and three-quarters years-old.

Oh and PS – I should also say that I’m in no way anti romantic fiction with young main characters. I’ve recently read and thoroughly enjoyed three excellent  romances with protagonists in their twenties and thirties. These were June Kearns two historical romances: The Englishwoman’s Guide to the Cowboy and The 20s Girl, the Ghost and All That Jazz. And my most recent read is Kate Field’s The Magic of Ramblings which truly is magic – and poignant and beautiful.

But I also enjoy reading about older characters falling in love. I like romances where the protagonists are in their forties, fifties, sixties and beyond. And I like a bit of realism. I like to see the prospective couple facing up to the issues, complications and challenges that come with age. I like it when there are several generations of a family involved in the story.  And I like to see there’s hope and fun and love to be had by us all – regardless of age.

Authors in other genres – crime for example – have created hugely successful older lead characters. There’s Detective Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Novels and there’s the wonderful Vera in the series by Ann Cleeves – to name just two.

And there are some fabulous romance writers who are  nailing it in this regard. Books by Maggie Christensen, Christine Webber, Gilli Allan and Hilary Boyd spring to mind. Do check them out if you like more mature, romance-plus fiction. You’ll be in for a highly enjoyable read with any of their books.

Which brings me to the age of the readers of books – I don’t as an author aim for a particular age group. I have young and old readers. Indeed my children’s novel The Silver Locket seems to have been read by as many, if not more, adults as children.

I don’t get the impression that Crime or Sci-Fi or Fantasy are particularly appealing to one narrow age group – Harry Potter is not just read by children, and I’m guessing the Outlander books appeal across the adult age range to those who like the genre.

Why should romance be any different? Although I do get that someone in their twenties might not want to read about people the age of their parents/grandparents falling in love and you know… But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and it doesn’t mean that older readers shouldn’t be able to read romances centred around people their age.

So I suppose what I’m saying is let’s have romantic fiction that’s a bit more relaxed about age, a bit more inclusive.

As a writer I enjoy writing about characters nearer my own age, facing up to life-changing challenges and dealing with all sorts of issues – as well as finding themselves falling in love. Other writers prefer writing about younger characters regardless of their own age.

As a reader I enjoy all sorts of romances and other genres too – and the characters ages are incidental – what matters to me is that it’s a good story, well told, and with a satisfying resolution.

And in conclusion – I’m no further forward with nailing this genre thing – but it’s been fun thinking and writing about it. I know my books aren’t chick-lit or ‘pure’ romance. But I don’t think ‘love-at-the-last-chance-cafe-for-the-chronologically-challenged-with-baggage’ classification is going to work.

Help!

As always please do leave your thoughts and comments below.

The Genre Conundrum Part 2: Romantic Expectations #amwriting

 

romantic heart Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

As I said in my last post I find the genre thing for novel classification rather tricky. As a writer, I don’t want to mislead prospective readers by getting the labelling wrong. But I also want to make sure my books appeal to and reach my target readership when they’re browsing the shelves in their local bookshop or scrolling through an online book selling site.

Of course, the book’s front cover and the summary of the story on the back are very important too. And, along with my editor and cover designer, I work hard to get those things right. But it will be the place the book is shelved – online or in the real world – that will get the browsing book buyer or library borrower to my book in the first place.

Literary Romance?

So what’s my genre and what are the keywords that best describe my previous and my about-to-be- published books?

And does the fact none of my books fit neatly into one category and that they have ‘serious’ themes woven through them mean they are literary novels?

Let’s get the literary thing out of the way first. I’m not sure I even know what literary means – this despite having studied English literature at university (back in the Stone Age). It seems to me to apply to fiction that doesn’t fit into any of the genres, e.g. crime, science fiction, thriller. But it also seems to imply clever content by a clever writer for an intelligent and educated readership. And I have a problem with that. There’s good and bad literary fiction just as there is with genre. And the term gives very little away as to the nature of the story.

So, I tend to favour John Updike’s view that all fictional works are literary because ‘they are written in words’. Therefore I’m not going to apply the literary tag. I take that as a given.

Contemporary Romance Plus?

At the heart of my books there is a romantic relationship set in the present day. The romance drives the story. So my genre is romance. But it would be more accurate to describe it as romance-plus.

Plus what?

My first novel Change of Life has romance + problems within a marriage, + bereavement due to suicide + facing up to a cancer diagnosis.

My second novel Displacement has romance + consequences of war + Middle Eastern politics + bereavement + infidelity + difficult family relationships.

And Settlement – my soon-to-be-published sequel to Displacement – has romance + crime thriller elements + more Middle Eastern politics where the personal and the political are seen as intertwined + the conflict between romance and realism in relationships.

So, to clarify – I hope: genres are wide concepts. Crime novels can be thrillers or police procedural, and they can be gritty or cosy, and they can feature relationships – romantic or otherwise. Science-fiction novels can deal with/predict scientific developments and their implications, they can include politics at an interplanetary level, and they can include mystery, war and even romance.

And the romantic genre is the same. It can be historical or contemporary, and it can include other issues relevant to the protagonists’ situation. Yes, it can be a straightforward tale of two people meeting, falling in love, overcoming some obstacles and then finding their happy-ever-after. But for me, I like to write and to read books with a bit more going on.

What can my readers expect?

I like reading romantic fiction that is entertaining, intriguing, and that maybe educates or makes me think along the way. I like being taken to new and interesting places, and I like the story to be both satisfying and unpredictable. And yes, I do like a happy, but also realistic, resolution.

So I write the sort of romantic fiction that I like to read, and I hope my novels are as described in the paragraph above. But I should also add that the term ‘plus’ could also apply to the ages of my novels’ main characters as they’re in their forties and fifties rather than their twenties and thirties.

And it’s the topic of genre and age group – of the author, the reader, and the main characters – that I’ll be looking at in the third and final part of this series of posts.

In the meantime, do let me know how you like your genres. Do you like pure genre fiction that sticks to the rules and formula, or do you like a bit of a mash-up? Please do leave comments below.

The Genre Conundrum in Fiction: Categories and Keywords

kazuend-71543 bookshelf
Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Part 1 of 3

As the publication date for my next novel draws ever closer, my thoughts are now turning to how to ensure it catches the eye of prospective readers both online and in book shops.

An attractive cover and an engaging back-cover summary will of course be essential – and by working with my editor and cover designer I’m confident I’ll get both of these things right.

But nailing the precise genre and the single words and phrases that perfectly describe the book’s content are equally – some might say even more – important. And it’s here that I’m not so confident. And here’s why.

In the real world, bookshops and libraries shelve books according to genre. This makes it easier for readers to both seek out and browse the books that interest them. Similarly in an online book store, prospective book buyers will click on genre type or associated keywords in order to find what they might be looking for. It makes complete sense to organise things this way.

And if writers and publishers get it right, you won’t find cookbooks in amongst books on mountaineering and you won’t find detective novels in amongst science fiction. Simple.

Only sometimes it’s not that straightforward. What if the book you’ve written is cookery for mountaineers whilst they’re out on the mountain? Or, what if the seasoned, somewhat cynical detective with the disastrous personal life is part android/ part Martian and investigates crime throughout the solar-system? And no, I haven’t written a book like either of these examples.

But I do find myself in a similar quandary when it comes to classifying my new book, just as I was with the previous two.

All three books have a strong romantic element to them. But they don’t fit neatly into the romance genre. For one thing, the protagonists aren’t young, and besides coping with relationship issues, they are also facing up to other serious challenges.

In my first book, Change of Life, the main characters are a couple who have been married for more than twenty years and who are in their late forties. Their marriage is already under strain as the story begins with the female protagonist, Rosie, suspecting infidelity on the part of her husband, Tom. She is then faced with the even bigger shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer. The couple’s children and wider family too, all have significant parts to play in supporting Rosie and Tom as they confront the challenges ahead.

My second book, Displacement, also centres around two main characters, this time just setting out on a new relationship with each other. There is Jack, a retired policeman, and Rachel, a children’s book author and illustrator. They meet at the beginning of the novel on the Scottish island of Skye. They are both divorced and in their fifties. Rachel has recently lost her son, a soldier, who was killed while serving in Afghanistan. And Jack is recovering from the heart attack which brought about his early retirement. There is a strong political element to the story too, because as part of Rachel’s attempts to come to terms with the loss of her son, and to move on from it, she travels to the Middle East to visit her brother in Israel-Palestine. She wants to explore her Jewish heritage, but she also finds herself facing up to some very difficult questions about conflict, nationhood and humanity’s difficulties in finding ways to peacefully co-exist.

And the new book, Settlement, is a sequel to Displacement. Jack and Rachel’s romantic relationship has deepened, but is under threat. Rachel is returning to Israel to begin work on a book about how ordinary people can be instrumental in working for peace, and Jack is returning to work as a police consultant in the Historic Crimes unit in Edinburgh. This time as well as the social/cultural/ political strands, there is Jack’s experience of being the victim of violence and of suffering from PTSD.

All three books have the romantic love and relationship between two people at their heart, but this ripples out and links into wider families, communities and issues. All three books are romance+ –  i.e. plus other issues. None are conventional romance/love stories. They are not centred around 20 or 30-somethings. The conclusions aren’t happy-ever-after – but are, rather, there-is-hope-for-the-future- as-long-as-they-work-at-it-and-accept-the-rough-with-the-smooth-and-give-each-other-space.

So wish me luck as I try to narrow down my latest novel’s genre and keywords from – Contemporary Romantic Literary (not sure about the literary) Fiction also featuring politics, crime and mental health in several very different settings – to something altogether more snappy. And don’t get me started on whether it should also be labelled Women’s Fiction. Short answer – I don’t know, probably…

As for where it should be shelved…

 

In Part 2 of this three part series of posts on classifying books, I will be looking at the romantic genre and asking what readers want and expect when reading romances.

In Part 3 I will be looking at the issue of age – the age of the main characters and of the target readership – in romantic fiction and in several other genres as well.

 

Please do add your comments below. For example: What genre(s) do you prefer? And what are your expectations when reading books in that/those genre(s)? Or for you, is it story first, genre second?

Read All About It: Writing News

writing desk
Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

It’s some writing news of my own for this week’s post.

Bring on the rewrites

My next book is now with my editor and I’m braced and ready for the rewrites that will inevitably be required. I always think I’ve polished my writing until it cannot be improved before I send it off, but then I get the editor’s comments and realise it’s not perfect after all.

However, I do enjoy the editing process. I like the constructive criticism and I love to see how my writing is improved by rewriting. And even when I don’t at first agree with suggested changes I almost always see that the editor is right after I’ve slept on it.

I call my editor the Alchemist because he takes the base manuscript and gives me the means to turn it into writing gold (she says modestly).

Sequel challenges

Some of you already know that this new book entitled Settlement is the sequel to my most recent novel Displacement. I’ve never written a sequel before and it’s a slightly different process to writing a standalone book. Continuity and consistency in relation to the first book is vital and so is having the story make sense to people who haven’t read the first one without boring those who have. I think I’ve managed it, but I’m sure my editor will pick me up on any failures there.

Next job for Settlement will be cover design. I have a few ideas and will be discussing them with the cover designer very soon.

Next up

And while I await the editorial feedback, I intend to sketch out the third and final part of this series of books and to make some notes for my next children’s book. So, no, there will be no slacking at the writing desk.

Writing conference

However, I will get some time away from the desk this weekend as I’m heading off to the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW). I always enjoy this conference – a whole weekend of workshops, networking and meeting up with writer friends, as well as the announcement of the SAW writing awards for the current year. And the food’s always good too.

I’ll report back on how the conference goes in my next post. Until then I’ll leave you with a question: Do you like reading sequels and/or novel series or do you prefer standalones?

 

Competition and Conference Success and Other Writing News

SAW Conf 2017

There’s been a lot going on in my writing life recently so I reckoned a bit of an authorly round-up was due.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and as such I’m eligible to enter their annual competitions. In that previous post I reported that I came second in the General Article competition. The adjudicator of that competition was Anne Hamilton who edits the online magazine Lothian Life, and the stipulation for entries to the competition was that they should be of interest to readers of the magazine. And I’m delighted to say that my article – all about my personal reflections on some of Edinburgh’s many parks – was recently published in the magazine and you can read it here http://www.lothianlife.co.uk/2017/03/park-life/

Then last weekend I attended the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers (SAW). I always enjoy this event and this most recent one was no exception. It’s great to meet with other writers and authors at various stages in their writing careers and to have the chance to share experiences with them. It’s also great to have a chance to network with agents and other publishing professionals.

The keynote speaker on the Saturday night was comedian and actress Helen Lederer and she gave an entertaining, funny and engaging speech after Saturday night’s gala dinner. There was an excellent selection of writing workshops on offer throughout the weekend. I particularly enjoyed one on self-editing given by author Michael J Malone and another one on writing for older children and young adults led by author Keith Gray.

I also enjoyed further success with my entries to the SAW conference competitions. Competition entries are submitted and adjudicated prior to the event, and the announcements of the results are made at the conference. I came third in the General Short Story competition judged by author Regi Claire, and I came second in the Women’s Short Story competition judged by author Kirstin Zhang. The feedback I received from both judges was helpful and constructive and certainly boosted my confidence in my writing.

And apart from competition entries, what else have I been doing at the writing desk? The answer is not as much as I would like. The reason being the desk, along with all my other worldly goods is in storage. We’re in the process of moving house and are temporarily lodging with family. Before the move I was tantalisingly close to finishing my next novel, but there’s been little time or space to write recently. However, the end is in sight – both for the book and for this transition phase. We get the keys for our new house at the end of April and after getting moved in, I’ll be able to reinstate my full writing schedule. In the meantime though, I‘ll be finding some time and space to fire up the laptop and press on with getting Settlement finished, redrafted, and ready for my editor.

Onwards and upwards!

Writing News: January 2017

Some writing success:

I’m a member of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club and yes, living in the Scottish Highlands, I certainly take the definition of a ‘country’ membership to its limits. I originally joined the club about seventeen years ago when I lived in the city, and when I relocated up north I wanted to keep my connection to this lovely group of writers. I don’t get to meetings, but I do catch up with fellow members at the annual conference of the Scottish Association of Writers and by maintaining my membership I get to enter the club’s annual competitions.

This year I was challenged by a fellow member to enter in categories outside my writing comfort zone. So as well as the short story competition (still to be adjudicated) which I always have a go at, I decided to give the poetry and the article competitions a go.

And amazingly I had some success! I got third place and a commended for my two poetry entries and I came second in the article competition.

It was good to take on the challenge of writing in different formats from my more usual genre of novel writing, and although i found the poetry writing especially difficult, I’m pleased I did.

The article competition was judged by Anne Hamilton the editor of online magazine Lothian Life and entrants had to write an article that would be suitable for the magazine’s readership. I wrote about my six favourite Edinburgh parks – what they have to offer and why they mean so much to me. Since the article will soon be published in the magazine, I won’t publish it here on the blog just yet.

But I’m happy to share the poems with you. Both were inspired by the landscape and nature of the Scottish Highlands.

 

Sea Eagle

Cliff-soaring, loch-skimming,

Thermal-riding, high-gliding,

Mighty-winging, eye-spying,

Fell-swooping, fish-scooping,

Jaw-dropping, show-stopping,

White-tailed eagle.

 

The Long View

Breath-stealing, steep climb,

Slippery scree and wild wind

Threaten the balance.

High plateau, broad view

Ancient granite mountains

Set a scene of possibilities.

Perspective changing,

Universe overarching, and

Myself, regrounding.

(Both poems are Copyright © of Anne Stormont and cannot be reproduced or shared without permission and attribution)

images are from shutterstock.com

 

November Writing News

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November is turning out to be a busy month for me. There’s lots of writing and writing-related work to be done. And I’m really looking forward to it all.

So what’s on? See below…

As well as the final push to complete the first draft of the novel-in-progress, I have both teaching and author talk commitments.

The librarian at my local library in Portree has asked me to deliver three weekly afternoon sessions this month teaching creative writing to interested adults. The first session was a couple of days ago and I certainly enjoyed it  – and the participants seemed to as well.

book-week-scotland

I’ve also been asked to do two author talks during Book Week Scotland (run by the Scottish Book Trust) in the week beginning 21st November.

New Change of Life Cover SMALL AVATAR

 

The first talk is, again, at the library. It is scheduled for the 21st and is for adult readers. I’ll be appearing as my Anne Stormont novelist persona and speaking about my already published novels as well as giving a preview of my new one due out in 2017. Its title is Settlement and is a sequel to Displacement.

Displacement Cover SMALL AVATAR

 

But I will also be speaking as Anne McAlpine, children’s novelist, and talking about The Silver Locket, my novel aimed mainly at nine to twelve year-olds. Folks who come along to the talk will also get the chance to buy my books.

The Silver Locket Cover SMALL AVATAR

My second author talk during Book Week will be at my local primary school where I’ll be presenting myself only as Anne McAlpine and talking about The Silver Locket to pupils in Primary Six. There will also be a sneak preview of The Silver Axe, my planned follow up to The Silver Locket.

All-in-all I’m quite excited!

Click here to find out about lots more happening throughout Scotland during Book Week.

 

Writing Fiction: The how, the what, and the why of what works for me

It’s all about the story…

New Change of Life Cover SMALL AVATAR

Displacement Cover SMALL AVATAR    The Silver Locket Cover SMALL AVATAR

When I start writing a novel, I’m not sure where the story is going to lead. But, as an author of both adult and children’s fiction, I do at least know which audience the novel is aimed at. Other than that, once the seed is planted, I wait to see what grows.

I don’t tend to plan in great detail. I have a rough outline that develops as I go and I usually have some key points or scenes or turning points that I’m aiming for. And I don’t always have an ending in mind, preferring it to, in the words of author, Rose Tremain, ‘be earned by all that will go before it’. It’s not till the redrafting stage that I check it all out for rhythm, relevance and cohesion.

So how do I work when creating a novel? What is the process I follow? Why do I write what I write?

It usually begins with a character.

Rosie in Change of Life first presented herself to me when I was wrote a short story for a competition. The story didn’t win any prizes, but Rosie stayed with me. However, it wasn’t until the writer, Ali Smith, who was the tutor on an Arvon Foundation residential course that I attended, said that the short story had a novel in it trying to get out that I dared to take Rosie further.

Rachel in Displacement came to me when I was in the garden hanging out washing. I paused to look out over the croft and the loch beyond and there she was––not in a hallucination or anything––but in my head, in my ear telling a bit of her story.

But Caitlin in The Silver Locket wasn’t my original inspiration. She came after the setting and plot popped into my head. I was still working as a primary school teacher at the time and was on a visit to The Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre along with a class of Primary Six pupils. They’d been learning all about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie in class, hence the visit. We were out on the battlefield re-enacting, with great relish, the Jacobite charge at the Redcoat army. And the idea came to me: what if time slipped and we were suddenly transported back to 1746 and the actual battle? It was a short step from there to children’s adventure story and Caitlin and her two friends soon made themselves known.

And the characters lead me to issues.

It’s the issues the characters are facing that give the story its heart. The plot arises out of how the characters deal with the issues facing them and it’s from those issues that the themes in my novels appear.

Now, I recently did a post on the role and use of themes in fiction generally and in my own writing in particular. And in that post I explored the notion that literary fiction is driven by themes whereas commercial fiction relies more on character, plot and setting. I came to the conclusion that the divide between the two sides of fiction is often an artificial one.

I don’t write literary fiction, at least I don’t think I do, but I can’t seem to avoid themes any more than I can avoid using characters.

For example, in Change of Life the issues faced by Rosie include her having breast cancer and suspecting her husband has been unfaithful. This meant the book dealt with the themes of one’s own mortality, and of marital love and trust. In Displacement issues faced by the characters include the disorientating and devastating loss of a soldier son, the loss of one’s sense of purpose and place in the world, the end of a long career, and falling in love in later life. This led to the themes of politics, war and the displacement of people being explored, along with those of love, bereavement and the significance of home. And even in my children’s book, The Silver Locket, there were themes, those of loyalty, bravery and self-reliance.

And then there is the question of setting.

In my first novel, the setting of the city of Edinburgh and its neighbouring area of East Lothian, wasn’t crucial or significant to the action, but my characters had to live somewhere. And so I chose the place I was born and lived in for most of my life up to that point.

Setting was, however, crucial in Displacement. By the time I came to write it I’d moved north to the highlands of Scotland. The character of Rachel presented herself as a native of the Isle of Skye. Not only that though, she was also the daughter of a German Jew who’d arrived in Scotland as a child refugee just before the Second World War. I’d recently watched a TV documentary on the Kindertransport when this part of Rachel’s biography came to me. And, having Rachel’s story take place both in her island home and during her visit to Israel to explore her heritage, allowed me to explore and describe two settings I know well. They were also ideal places in which to deal with the themes of displacement, oppression and cultural destruction as they all loom large in Scottish history and of course persist in the Middle East today.

And of course in The Silver Locket the setting was also crucial. There would have been no story for the three young friends without the time travel that took them back to the setting of eighteenth-century Scotland. The setting allowed them to escape their everyday twenty-first century lives, escape their parents and grow in independence and confidence. It allowed them to have their adventure.

And what of the plot?

So, I take all these ingredients and I just crack on. I go to the desk and I mix and remix them till they hold together in a coherent mass. The characters, their situations and their issues all come together and I make a story.

But why?

Why do I write what I write? I can’t help myself. I write what I’ve got to write. I write about what’s important to me. I write the sort of books I want to read.

In my adult fiction, I address the lives of real, middle-aged contemporary women. I address the realities of reaching fifty or sixty years old, the realities of maintaining a long-term marriage, or of starting a new relationship or a new career, of coping with bereavement and one’s own mortality.

Yes, there’s romance in my novels, but it’s tinged with the realism of experience. Happy ever after is just a phase; the real work starts after that––and this is central to the novel I’m working on at the moment which is the sequel to Displacement. And I like to present the positive sides to being older and a bit wiser, to include the new possibilities and opportunities that go with ageing.

And I also like the stories I write (and read) to move beyond ‘the village’ of much contemporary fiction and to travel from the personal to its links with the universal. And if all that involves the big themes, borders on the literary, and makes categorising my books difficult, so be it.

Because in the end, whether the writing is for adults or children, and whether as writer or reader, all that really counts for me is, is it a good story?

 

Themes: Not Just for Literary Fiction

image via shutterstock
                            image via shutterstock

 

A Fictional Hierarchy    

There seems to be a consensus which says that literary fiction is first and foremost about themes and that commercial fiction has character, plot and setting at the forefront. There also seems to be an apparent hierarchy to the above elements of fiction which places themes above the other three. And this gives rise to a belief that literary fiction, by concentrating mainly on theme, is written by more intelligent authors for more intelligent readers.

An Artificial Divide

But I’ve never really got the divide between literary and commercial fiction. It seems artificial and rather snobbish to me. As a reader I’m looking for a good read and I’ve found great books on both the alleged sides. And, as an author of contemporary fiction, I don’t sit down to write a literary or a commercial book. I set out to write a book.

Basic Story Writing Includes Themes

image copyright Suriya KK via shutterstock.com.

When I was a primary school teacher, teaching my pupils how to write stories, I highlighted all four ingredients: character, plot, setting and theme. I didn’t see one of those elements as more important or requiring more intelligence to develop. And as a professional writer, I still don’t.

What became obvious with my pupils was that everyone differed in their preferred element for getting their story started. Some loved to start with a character and that was what led everything else. Others preferred setting and so on. And there were some who were just plain inspired by whatever.

But what they were all aiming for was to write a good story and to impress their teacher.

And in my own writing, the same four elements are equally crucial when I’m creating a story. I play around with them all in my novels. For me, it’s usually a character who comes first and then, as I get to know that character, the setting and plot suggest themselves and the themes just appear.

But like my pupils, my overall aim is to write a good story that will impress my readers.

 

My Themes

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However, although I don’t set out first and foremost to address a particular theme, like I said, themes do appear and they become integral to the whole.

In Change of Life, the characters must deal with the themes of marriage, family life, secrets and mortality as their stories play out. In Displacement it is bereavement, belonging and relationships, as well as the politics of war that drive the plot. And in my children’s novel, The Silver Locket, the story of the three main characters’ time travelling mission deals with friendship, bullying, the loss of a parent, and increasing independence from adults.

And in my work-in-progress, Settlement, which is the sequel to Displacement, the themes are commitment, purpose, love and the politics of peace.

And Finally

There is also, in my adult fiction, an over-riding theme, and that is – there is life after the age of 45. All the main themes of life persist into middle-age and beyond. Life is as messy, interesting, frustrating and wonderful at 60 as it is at 20.

Whether this insight in particular, or my use of theme in general in my writing makes me a literary type author, I’ve no idea and doesn’t particularly concern me. But I hope I do produce a good read.

What themes do you most like to read or write about? And do you differentiate between literary and commercial fiction? Please do leave your comments below.

Maintaining Focus as a Writer

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image via shutterstock

A question that’s been concerning me of late: should I, as a writer, take the wide landscape view when deciding what to work on, or should I zoom in and maintain a tight, close-up focus?

Yes, the above sentence is a metaphor. Hey, I’m a writer. What do you expect?

But seriously, the wide view or the close focus question is something I’ve been thinking about recently as regards my writing.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m currently working on my next novel, the sequel to Displacement. However I haven’t added a word to it for about a month. It’s not that I haven’t been at the desk and it’s not the case that I’ve done no writing in that time.

And to be fair to me, during this monthly hiatus, one of the weeks was taken up with having the family, including young grandchildren, to stay over Easter, which was lovely but quite rightly precluded getting anywhere near my desk. And there was also the weekend away at the Scottish Writers annual conference – another lovely and worthwhile time away from the keyboard.

But the rest of the month I was at my desk. I just wasn’t working on the novel. No, I was working on entries for writing competitions, writing blog posts, writing book reviews and doing all the apparently necessary online networking that writers have to do nowadays. I was spread rather thinly, spinning many plates, pick your own metaphor…

I was also procrastinating as far as the novel is concerned. I’ve hit the metaphorical wall (okay, I’ll stop with the metaphors now). The novel has stalled and having lots of other writing, and writing related, tasks to do gave me the perfect excuse to put it to one side.

book covers 011

However, I’ve now got a grip and regained some focus.

This is partly down to me giving myself a talking to – a talking to that involves reiterating that procrastination is for wimps and requires to be worked through and overcome. And it’s partly down to something the keynote speaker, crime novelist, Caro Ramsay, said in a workshop she gave at the aforementioned Scottish Writers’ Conference.

I realised, just as in any other job, I needed to prioritise. I needed to remind myself why I write – answer I love it – and what it is I most enjoy – I most enjoy being immersed in my characters’ lives. I also needed to remind myself that I’m in the privileged position of having been able to take early retirement from my teaching job in order to have more time to write. But that time waits for no-one and it’s fairly galloping along.

And Caro Ramsay’s words also came back to me and helped me sort out my priorities. She’d asked those of us attending her writing workshop why we went in for competitions, why if we were novel writers did we not just get on and write our novels?

She pointed out that she had no pieces of writing ‘in a drawer’. Everything she writes is for publication and gets published. This wasn’t said in order to boast about her publishing success, but rather to emphasise the point that all her writing has one purpose, i.e. to produce and publish a novel. She was urging focus and commitment. And this is someone who works fulltime as an osteopath and who writes in her ‘spare’ time AND who has published many novels with major publishers, Penguin.

Now there’s nothing wrong with writing competitions per se. I’ve entered many in my time with varying levels of success. Something I find very useful about them is the deadlines they provide and in some cases the feedback that is given. However, they’re mostly short stories and I’ve now come to accept that writing shorts is not my forte. And I must admit I’d recently got sidetracked by the whole competitions thing.

And I accept that social media networking, reading and reviewing the work of others, and writing my blog are all not just a vital way of connecting with readers and other writers, they’re also enjoyable in their own right.

image via shutterstock

BUT novel writing is my thing. It’s my strength, my first love and my passion. And so I must get back to prioritising what I love the most. Like Caro Ramsay, I want all my writing published. So I’m going to focus on what’s got a chance of being worthy of publication and that’s definitely the novels. I also have a sense of loyalty to my readers. I promised them a sequel and a sequel that shall have.

Therefore I’ve put a moratorium on competition entries for the foreseeable, and I’ve made diary commitments to when and to how much time I’ll give to the different aspects of my writing life each week with the novel getting the biggest share. No excuses, no procrastinating. I show up and even if I write drivel, I get on with the damn book, I move it forward.

I know that sometimes my focus will falter, sometimes real life will get in the way of the imaginary one, but that’s fine and I’ll attempt always to pay back any novel writing time lost. I might fall, but I’ll get right back on the horse – sorry – metaphor crept in there!

So here’s to getting Settlement finished and out by the end of the year. And yes doing this post was in the diary for today.

What sidetracks you and how do you stay focussed on what matters most?