Monday, 31 July 2006


Today I am boasting on behalf of my fellow Romance authors, Liz Fielding and Marion Lennox.

For any one who doesn't know, the Oscars of the romantic fiction world are called the RITAs and the winners were announced at the end of the RWA conference on Saturday night.

Liz Fielding won the "Best Short Contemporary" category with The Marriage Miracle and Marion Lennox won the "Best Traditional Romance" category with Princess of Convenience.

I've read both books and they were wonderful. HM&B Romance authors rule!

Now, what is the next step in our plan for world domination? Mwaahaahaa!

Thursday, 27 July 2006

More punching

Okay, here's a little bit from "Her Parenthood Assignment" to illustrate what I think of as echoing and shadowing. (Someone else may have a completely different take on it, but so what!) Here's some blurb so you know what you're reading:

Luke Armstrong has spent five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And things don’t get any easier when he’s pardoned. He has to get to know an eleven-year-old daughter he barely knows.

Divorced Gaby Michaels is breaking out of her former role as a corporate wife to return to being a nanny. She agrees to take care of Luke’s difficult daughter, even though she knows she has a problem keeping her professional distance.

But this time it’s not the child she falls for—it’s the boss! And Luke is secretly entranced by the ordinary-looking woman who has the extraordinary ability do the warm and fuzzy stuff he’s long forgotten.

* * *

Luke tugged frantically on the strings of the kite, but it was too late. It fell out of the air and crashed on to the deserted beach. He sighed and trudged towards it. Gaby might be a bit of a shrinking violet at times, but she could talk an Eskimo into buying snow, and what’s more, he’d love her for it!

This outing to the beach with Heather had been her idea. You’re not working this Sunday, she’d said. The weather report says it’s going to be sunny, but windy, she’d said. Great weather for flying kites. Heather would love it…

And before he knew it, he was buying a multi-coloured contraption in town and spending his Sunday afternoon watching it nose-dive into the shingle again and again.

Heather had lost interest after ten minutes. So now he was left to keep up the pretence while she and Gaby wandered along the shore, arm in arm, and collected shells and bits of quartz.

He stopped to watch them. They were deep in conversation, sharing girl-type secrets, no doubt. His heart squeezed a little. Gaby had made such a difference to their home in the last three weeks. He still had to duck when Heather was in a foul mood, but more and more she was laughing and smiling, and he’d even caught her singing to herself.

He could see glimpses of the happy little girl she’d once been. That same cheeky smile she’d had, aged three, when she knew she’d said something funny or cute. They way she stroked a strand of her own hair when she was tired.

And it was all down to Gaby. He couldn’t take credit for the tiniest bit of it. All he managed was to stretch his mouth into a smile when it was required, and to say the right things—as if he were reading from a script—and watch his daughter blossom.

Gaby was getting closer and closer to Heather and, miracle of miracles, Heather was letting her.

And, all the while, he stayed on the fringes and watched. He was just as much on the outside of his daughter’s life as he’d been all those years behind bars. Why he couldn’t work his way into the centre—where all the laughter and warmth was—was more than he could fathom.

He watched as Gaby and Heather broke into a run and chased each other along the edge of the surf. The wind was cold and it blew their scarves in front of their faces, which only made them laugh all the more.

How did she do it? The woman he’d thought at first seemed ordinary, nothing special, had the ability to reach out to a heart and see it respond. A very rare thing indeed. He caught himself studying her, trying to work out what her secret was, where all that warmth and courage came from.

He alternated between admiring her and hating her for it.

He tore his gaze away and returned it to the kite lying a short distance away on the small, round pebbles. It seemed injured, lying there fluttering half-heartedly. He walked over and surveyed it with dismay.

The two figures walking along the shore hadn’t even seen it crash.

It was all in a tangle and he didn’t know what to do with it.

* * *

The emotional hit is that even though Luke's daughter is healing from her ordeal, he seems incapable of it. He feels just as much on the outside as he always did. The fact he can't fly the kite either echoes this.

In the last three paragraphs I've used the image of the damaged kite to reflect Luke's emotional state:

"He tore his gaze away and returned it to the kite lying a short distance away on the small, round pebbles. It seemed injured, lying there fluttering half-heartedly." (Luke is also injured and floundering)

"The two figures walking along the shore hadn’t even seen it crash. " (Luke is alone and no one knows how much he is struggling).

"It was all in a tangle and he didn’t know what to do with it." (it's Luke who is in a tangle and doesn't know how to remedy the situation)

I find I use this technique quite a bit. sometimes it's more obvious, like the kite example, and sometimes it's more subtle and nobody else might spot it. But I hope that, almost subconsicously, it helps the atmosphere of the scene.

Screwing the Punch

Janet asked me this after I reported back from the RNA conference:

Hi Fiona,I just read this on yesterday's blog:'The thing that stuck most was the phrase “screw the punch” (a boxing term), meaning deliver the emotional hit, then echo and repeat it, making the situation worse.'Can you remember from the talk what an emotional hit is and how you echo and repeat it. Sounds very interesting, Janet

I replied:
Janet, I'm thinking on this. I don't want to use any examples from my first book because they give away the plot too much. Trying to find a good example. It's one of those "I'll know it when I see it" things that are hard to put into words.

Now, I confess to still having my “L”plates on (learner driver plates for those of you not in the UK) when it comes to talking about "screwing the punch", but I came across an example today. This may not be the best example ever, but it'll do for now.

I was watching You’ve Got Mail and there was a scene where the big emotional hit came and then there were a couple of little emotional ‘ouches’ just to ram the point home:

Kathleen owns a small bookstore which is threatened by the opening of a big discount book store in the same neighbourhood. She doesn’t realise that the man she is starting to fall in love with through an email relationship (Sam) is one of the owners of the store. Neither knows the other’s true identity.

They agree to meet in person. Sam is so excited he tells his friend he would be a fool not to marry this woman, but he turns up at the rendezvous – a little cafĂ© – and discovers the woman he is about to meet is none other than Kathleen and he knows she hates him both professionally and personally (Big punch).

Sam is too nice to leave Kathleen sitting there thinking she has been stood up so he goes inside. She is not pleased to see him but, now he knows that underneath the spiky exterior is the most adorable woman he’s ever met, he tries to build bridges. He tells her she might discover a lot of surprising things about him.

Kathleen tells him she would only discover a cash register instead of a brain and a bottom line where his heart ought to be. (Ouch!) Then goes on to say how she never manages to come out with the perfect retort when faced with a horrible, insensitive person (ouch!) and has just managed it with him.

Sam suspects that Kathleen’s sees the kind, funny man she has met on the internet as the polar opposite to the real Sam Fox and that, in her mind, the two could never be the same person. If he confesses, he will lose her.

He tells her the other guy isn’t here (implying he is) and she tells him that, unlike him, the other guy doesn’t have a cruel bone in his body and has a good reason for not turning up. She ends with the line: “You are nothing but a suit!”. (Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!)

There is an awful silence in which Sam realises there is no hope and he leaves.

Each time Kathleen says something it’s another nail in the coffin for their budding relationship. It had the impact after he first outburst, but after it has been repeated a couple of times in the ensuing conversation, you know that all hope is well and truly dead.

I also think I found an example in one of my books that doesn’t give the whole story away, but this post is long enough already! I might post it tomorrow.

Friday, 21 July 2006

Stuck in the middle with you

Okay. I’m stuck in the middle of chapter three, which I seem to do every time, but this is an odd one for me. I know what the next scene should be, but I can’t seem to get started on it because the previous scene seems a bit flat. I feel I need a better foundation before I keep on writing.

Normally this would not be such a problem, but since I still have a black hole in my plot at the beginning of act 2, I need to make sure things are tight and focused now, otherwise I won’t be able work out what happens next. I’m reading Debra Dixon’s “Goal Motivation Conflict” at the moment, which is helping things a little, but I’ve decided to resort to another little tool that helps when I need to focus on what I’m writing. (The plot board isn’t helping – it’s just sitting in the corner, with a big blank space, laughing at me.)

I'm going to use a scene sheet. It’s an amalgamation of ideas I’ve got from various books I’ve read. James N. Frey uses a “step sheet” described in “How To Write A Damn Good Novel” and Raymond Obstfeld recommends little index cards with scene info on in "A Novelist's Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes". I’ve taken the basic idea, used bits that work for me and added anything else I wanted to add.

I don’t use them all the time – in fact, I only have an example for the first scene in my book. Sometimes the ideas flow and I don’t want to stop to mess around with scene sheets. But, when I’m stuck, it can help to go back and do one for each scene to make sure I’m building on the last scene in a consistent way. Here’s what I put in my scene sheet:


  • Scene no. & title I like to title my scenes in the same way I give a working title to my books. It gives me a hint as to the purpose of the scene.
  • Aprroximate word count
  • POV – who’s point of view am I in for this scene?


  • Plot - I give a brief as possible outline of the plot.
  • Purpose - three reasons why this scene should be there. Does it move the plot forward, develop a character, develop the theme, add suspense? Is it needed introduce a character, develop a character's motivation, provide the next obstacle to the protagonist's goal? (Debra Dixon suggests that if you can't find three good reasons for a scene, it should go!)

3. Goal, Motivation and Conflict

I then like to summarise what’s happening with my characters. I find distilling all the info into a few sentences helps me keep focused on what they are feeling and thinking.
I like to add a little sentence at the top to remind myself what’s going through the character’s head.

In my first scene in "Magic Hour", Adele is thinking: “I do not need a man to help me catch a spider!”. It shows her fierce independence, even when terrified, and sets up the idea that she doesn’t want to need a man at all – especially not the man who’s just about to ring her doorbell (estranged husband Nick).

Then I look at the GMC – internal and external

  • Goal: what does this character want?
  • Motivation: Why do they want it?
  • Conflict: Why can’t they have it?

Adele’s external GMC for this scene could be expressed like this:

“Adele wants to have a bath at the end of the day, because she needs to de-stress, but a spider is lurking in her bath and she is terrified of them, sending her stress levels even higher.” By the time Nick rings the doorbell, Adele is already completely wound up, increasing the tension of the situation.

Adele’s internal GMC could be expressed like this:

“Adele wants to prove to herself that she doesn’t need anyone else, because she has loved people in the past and they have let her down, but the man who hurt her the most turns up out of the blue and threatens to weaken her resolve.”

See? Now I have homed in on what is making Adele tick at this point in time. Having that knowledge in the back of my head as I write or edit helps me see where I need to go or make changes. Maybe the dialogue doesn’t reflect this strongly enough. Maybe the emotion isn’t coming through clearly enough. If I want my readers (please, let there be readers!) to become engaged with my characters, then I need to make Adele and Nick's fears and desires clear and attention-grabbing.

4. Foreshadowing and payoff.

This is a little note to myself of things I may be able to use in the future, or emotional moments I can intensify by adding something in earlier in the book.

For example, my heroine in my second book "Her Parenthood Assignment" admits to the hero that her ex-husband never told her she was beautiful. I slipped this in a few scenes before a big party when the hero is completely gobsmacked by how gorgeous she looks, even though she thinks of herself as ordinary-looking. The heroine's revelation sets up a bigger emotional hit (the pay off) a few chapters later. Of course, the fact that the hero thinks she's beautiful on the outside, echoes that he thinks she's beautiful on the inside too - a fact her ex-husband sadly missed.

So, all I need to do now is go back though the last couple of chapters and make sure I focus on the right emotions and thoughts. As I do this, I often go one layer deeper in understanding my characters and will get a brainwave for where the next scene should go and I'm up and running again.

Sunday, 16 July 2006

RNA conference - part 3

I started Sunday morning of with “Jessica Hart’s A-Z survival guide for Romantic Novelists”. She is soooo funny. But, if you have read any of her books you will know that.

My personal highlight was D for deadlines. She gave us a run down of how she copes during her two month writing slot for each book:
Chapters 1-3 – not bad
Chapter 4 – slowing down
Chapter 5 – struggling
Chapter 6 – plodding
Chapter 7 – stop. Panic. Go down wine bar.
(In fact there were an awful lot of pics of Jessica at her local wine bar in her powerpoint presentation).
Chapters 8-10 – with 12 days to go, write in a complete frenzy and finish minutes before deadline.

Then I listened to Diana Burchall give a talk on ‘Life in the Hollywood Story Department’. She reads books for Warner Brothers to see if they can be made into films. Interesting. She also told us about her grandmother who was a story analyst in the early days of movies and who was rather eccentric.

We then had a PR forum and Jenny Haddon and Catherine Jones talked about raising the profile of both Romantic fiction and the RNA.

Katie Fforde talked for ten minutes about ‘The First Page’ then let us grill her with questions about her writing career.

Jenny Haddon (who writes as Sophie Weston for M&B) then gave a brilliant seminar on upping the emotion in our writing. I took home lots of nuggets from this one. The thing that stuck most was the phrase “screw the punch” (a boxing term), meaning deliver the emotional hit, then echo and repeat it, making the situation worse. I think I do this anyway sometimes, but it's always better to consciously use these techniques than just stumble along in the dark, I think.

Last of all Liz Bailey gave us a drama workshop to help us to tap into our emotions better. I must admit I got rather competitive about a game of “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” and managed to convey a rather rude gesture only by using a yellow feather.

I then spent a rather brain dead evening in the bar where Liz and I would lapse into silence because our brains were too tired out to think of anything to say. And the last few braincells gave up and went home during Stephen’s fiendish bar quiz. I now feel really thick and am sure I know nothing about the publishing industry – although I did do rather well on the low-brow music round. Curses!

Friday, 14 July 2006


I have a website! It's pretty basic at the moment, but it does the job. Take a hike over to and nose around! There's an excerpt from my award-winning first novel under 'books'.

RNA conference - part 2

Here’s a run down on some of the seminars I attended on day two:

Ann Lingard ran a session about using science in our books. She runs a website called Scitalk, which is an excellent resource for writers researching science-related matters. Plenty of scientists from a variety of fields have signed up to the site to make themselves available if a writer wants to contact them to ask a question. They have quantum physicists, forensic pathologists and people who investigate horse sweat (!), among others.

Kate Fenton talked about writing romantic comedy. She had me in stitches. She said that, although love is a serious business, falling in love is intrinsically funny – a socially acceptable form of madness, if you like. I was interested in what she had to say about off-setting humour with the emotional sections of her books to increase the tragedy.

Diane Pearson, RNA President, ran a very practical workshop on arresting the editor’s attention. She asked us to provide her with the first two sentences of our books and a short synopsis. She told us that the first couple of lines should give a feel of the whole book, saying something about character setting or theme. Unfortunately, I had used my current wip where Adele, the heroine, was faced with a spider in her bath. It read more like a horror story than a romance. Did not get a gold star…
Good tips for the synopsis (short synopsis) were to keep it to the main story and avoid mentioning too many secondary characters. She was constantly commenting on how there was “too much information”.

Dorothy Lumley gave a talk on what a literary agent is looking for. She said the submission letter is important as it is like a first meeting and it is wise to create a good first impression.

Penny Jordan also did a very interesting question and answer session. I’m afraid I didn’t write lots down, but a good tip for prop up a sagging middle was to add a subplot that lasts for only a few chapters, perhaps from chapters three to seven. I also found it hugely encouraging that she always thinks the current book is the worst one she’s ever written. Makes me feel a bit more normal.

After that it was a quick break to get ready for the gala dinner. The dining room might have been cramped, but the atmosphere was great and I had lovely time chatting to people I hadn’t caught up with yet.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

RNA conference - part 1

The RNA conference was brilliant. My brain has officially switched off now I’ve come back, though. Which is a real pity, as some of the workshops gave me ideas for improving the blah bits of the wip, but I’m just too tired to look at it.

I’m going to blog in three parts about it otherwise it’s going to be a huge chunk of text. I took my camera, but didn’t manage to take a single photo. Doh!

I arrived on Friday afternoon after catching the train from London. I was in such a tizz in the morning, I managed to get on a train going to Blackfriers instead of Victoria. Thankfully, I was running early and didn’t get held up much. I travelled up with my pal Liz (Hi, Liz!) and we had a great giggle – especially when I accidentally head-butted a man in the bottom.

After the welcome, we had a little session of congratulating those who had had good news during the year – first sales, award wins and the like. I got my NWS award trophy, now with my name on it, so I was really chuffed.

First session was a panel of saga writers answering questions about their writing techniques and research. It was very interesting, even though they are a different kind of book to the ones I write (the thought of writing double, if not triple, the amount of words makes me quiver).

Everyone then sprinted to the bar to sit out in the evening sun and catch up with old pals. The highlight of my evening was when someone thought I was 28. They were a decade out, but I’m not admitting to which way.

Thursday, 6 July 2006

Just a little excited...

I'm packing my bags ready to go to the RNA conference in Penrith this weekend. I'm really looking forward to see friends, meet new people and soak up all the knowledge.

If you're going, say "Hi" to me. If you're not, I'll post when I get back.

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Black Hole Still Gaping

I've deicided to break out of the box and just write the first bit of my book. One of the problems with plotting the start of act two, is that I just don't know how much backstory will have come out and how much my characters will have talked about their issues.

So I just said, "What the heck!", and started writing, and before I knew it I was at the end of chapter one. (Woo Hoo!). Just goes to show that every book needs it's own approach and we shouldn't feel afraid to try something new. Normally I would find it difficult to write without a clear plan, but actually since I have been sitting at my keyboard, I've actually been less worried about my black hole.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

Sagging middles

Apparently, mine is not the only middle that is sagging. This is what my plot board looked like yesterday morning...

See? A big gaping black hole at the beginning of Act 2. (Top left is plot point 1, and then they descend in two colomns to the bottom right, where "happy ever after" is wrtitten). I know some writers prefer not to know what's coming up, but I definitely need a basic idea of my plot. I can't seem to start writing knowing that the black hole is there. But I must remind myself that I always get stuck at this point.

A great book to read on three-act structure is Linda Seger's "How to Make A Good Script Great". I know the book is mainly about screenplays, but it is relevent to the novel writer too. I'm a structure-junkie and I liked the idea of having three acts to the story, like a play.

Act one: this is the part where you set up the story and introuduce the characters. At the end of Act one there is a turning point which leads the action on to...

Act two: the story moves off in a new direction. Plot develops, characters deepen. A turning point (more dramatic than the last) leads to...

Act three: the final section of the story with a climax and resolution.

Most stories can be split into three acts, basically meaning that good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. I found using the three act structure useful when plotting as it stops me meandering all over the place with no clear direction. I don't need to know all the small details of the plot before I start, but it helps if I know the basics - what Linda Seger calls the story "spine".

I see it more as a skeleton myself. The basic structure is there, but it isn't until I write a particular scene that I start to flesh that part out, knowing its feeling and texture and how it joins to other parts of the story.

The best advice I heard regarding plotting was at a workshop at the RNA conference last year for members of the New Writers' Scheme: plot is not just a series of events, there should be a chain of cause and effect. So, I could think to myself, "What could go wrong on Adele and Nick's journey?"and come up with various ideas: running out of petrol, taking a wrong turning, having an accident. But if I throw all of these ideas in, it will just feel disjointed and episodic.

There should be a reason why certain things happen e.g. they take a wrong turn because they are arguing about Adele's driving and she's not paying attention. Then they run out of petrol because they've ended up miles down a country road with no petrol stations in sight. "Because" is an important word in plotting. Now, I may or may not use these ideas, but it makes a lot more sense than just flinging every idea into the pot.

So, I'm off back to my plot board to see where the actions and reactions of the characters are going to take me...