Sunday, 15 January 2017

My 2017 Inspirations

In some previous years I’ve blogged at the end of the year about my favourite books of the year.  Last year, for various reasons, I didn’t quite get around to it, so instead I sat down at the start of 2017 to think about what I’d read (and watched and listened to) in 2016 that I thought would continue to interest and inspire me in the coming year. 
My first inspiring choice is Mimi Thebo.  Mimi was one of my tutors on the MA course at Bath Spa University.  I’ve written before about the haiku exercise she gave us as part of the Exploration and Experiment module of the course, and since leaving Bath I’ve followed her career with interest.  She’s a perfect example of what she teaches: her oeuvre includes adult novels (Welcome to Eudora recalls such beautiful American authors as Fannie Flagg, Patricia Gaffney and Barbara Kingsolver), children’s stories (Walker Books) and everything in between. 
Dreaming the Bear, released in 2016, may possibly be my favourite book of hers so far.  The heroine Darcy moves to Yellowstone Park with her family and suffers from an illness which becomes even more debilitating in the cold climate.  Lonely and fed up, she starts going for long walks, and when the snow becomes too much for her one day she holes up in a cave, where she finds a sleeping bear.  Soon reality and dreams become bewilderingly intertwined and the bear becomes the centre of a complicated journey back to wholeness.  Beautifully written and inspiringly put together, I read this soon after Maggie Stiefvater’s equally powerful and poetic shifter story Shiver and I’m at a loss to know why Dreaming the Bear isn’t at least as well-known. 
Mimi has inspired me to rediscover my joy in all kinds of writing.  Since I’ve had limited time to write lately, I’ve mostly focused on my romantic fiction for the last few years.  While I love romance, and will probably always write it (even my sci-fi story, ‘The Robot Who Smoked’, collected in Stories from the World of Tomorrow ended up having a relationship component), I also love reading YA books, sci-fi, fantasy, crime and thrillers.  Not to mention non-fiction (mostly about business and personal development).  And they say you should write what you love to read, so look out for more variety in my future writing projects. 
This idea gained ground as a result of reading Write, Publish, Repeat by Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt.  The book was a recommendation from one of my other 2017 inspirations, Joanna Penn (more about her later), and in it the authors talk about how they refuse to be corralled into a single genre.  They have built a brand on ridiculous unpredictability, arguing that there are enough readers who like good writing across a number of genres to build a successful following without sticking to one type of story.  And since I’m one of those readers, I wholeheartedly agree. 
This year, it’s going to be all about exploring and experimenting with multiple styles and genres.  Joanna Penn is a shining example of how to manage multiple strands of writing – her non-fiction writing advice site, The Creative Penn, is one of my go-to sources of writing advice on the web, and includes many excellent articles and podcasts.  That led me to reading her first ARKANE thriller, which has a bit of a Dan Brown feel, but wasn’t quite my cup of tea.  I didn’t read any of her fiction for ages, but then in 2016 I stumbled across her London Psychic series and was absolutely blown away by her beautiful, damaged heroine and hero, Jamie and Blake.  I’m not sure whether I’m meant to or not, but in my head I see Jamie played by Olivia Coleman.  Possibly that’s because the stories have the same sort of fully imagined world as Broadchurch – there’s so much more to them than just a murder mystery.
Another of my writing inspirations is Kate Johnson – I’ve followed her career with interest (and a certain amount of envy) since I first met her at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference some years ago.  Kate was one of a number of new(ish) authors I met there who were publishing in e-book form, back before most of the reading public had the faintest idea what this e-book idea was all about and she boldly went where very few writers had gone before to develop a thriving e-book led writing career.  
At the time Kate was writing madcap spy adventures featuring what she described as Britain’s female answer to James Bond, Sophie Green.  Given Sophie’s general ineptitude, I thought ‘the female answer to Johnny English’ might be nearer the mark, but I certainly enjoyed her adventures. 
Since then Kate has published a whole selection of books, of which until very recently my favourites were The Untied Kingdom (romance set in an alternative version of Britain, complete with one of my favourite heroes, the dashing Captain Harker) and Impossible Things (fantasy romance, complete with one of my favourite heroines, Ishtar). 
I have a new favourite now: Max Seventeen combines the madcap brilliance of a Sophie Green adventure with a deep space setting and some serious issues-based writing, all while relentlessly challenging gender stereotypes.  Witness the original strapline for the book, which if I remember correctly was ‘She needed a hero, so that’s what she became’. 
Never mind the Science Council or whoever it is spending all that money on trying to increase the number of girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers (or whatever this week’s acronym is). They should just give every girl a copy of Max Seventeen and let them get on with it. 
While I’m on the girl power theme, I have to mention two women who have inspired me enormously, both with a musical connection.  The first is another writer, Katy Lovell, who in not much over a year has gone from book blogger and aspiring writer to the author of a hugely successful romantic short story series, the Meet Cutes (of which my favourite is, not surprisingly, The Boy in the Bookshop) and a full-length novel, The Singalong Society for Singletons.  I was ridiculously excited about Singalong because I love stories about music (I’ve written two, Desperate Bid and The Santa Next Door, as well as one about dancing).  Musicals are a big thing in our house, so I loved reading about how they changed Monique’s life.

My second musical inspiration is the lovely Rachael Wooding, a hugely talented singer who could have faded into obscurity after leaving the West End stage to have her first child, but instead fought her way back into the limelight on national television by entering Britain’s Got Talent, where she narrowly missed out on a place in the final. 
But what I loved even more than Rachael's faultless rendition of ‘With You’ was her powerful but understated performance as Carole, the social worker who hates Christmas, in little-known musical Another Night Before Christmas. The play took place at the tiny, adorable Bridge House Theatre and Rachael starred alongside the equally brilliant George Maguire.  I’m sure many West End performers would have turned up their noses at performing to such a tiny audience in a blacked out room above a pub, but Rachael and George were pure professionals and gave the performance their all, which at such close range was truly dazzling!  And, to prove that if you remain open to opportunities, you never know what will come along, this year Rachael will be hitting the road again as half of a job-share taking the lead in Wonderland.  Can’t wait!
That’s it for my girl power choices, because my last two inspirations are about as laddish as they come.  For some reason I’ve been craving gritty detective dramas and thrillers (like J F Penn’s London Psychics) and the two other series that have really kept me gripped with their strong characterisation and their twists and turns are Andy Maslen’s Gabriel Wolfe thrillers and Damien Boyd’s Nick Dixon books.  One day I’d love to write a series half as gripping!
Oh, and then of course I have to add one bonus book pick from last year, a series I came to ridiculously late in the day – Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter books.  Pure joy, and I can only fantasise about creating a world half as complex, beautiful and richly imagined.
Those are my 2017 inspirations – I’d love to hear about yours!  

Saturday, 7 January 2017

My Strictly Journey

I wonder how often those words have been uttered over the course of the 13 years that Strictly Come Dancing has been aired? The celebrities who speak them are usually referring to the intense roller-coaster ride of a single series, but those of us who have been fans from the start have travelled a much longer and more rambling route. When the show started in May 2004 I was an English graduate, ballroom dance lover and aspiring writer in my late twenties, living near London and working in market research.  Over the years, my Strictly journey and my writing journey have become intricately entwined, thanks to an idea I had as soon as I heard that there was going to be a competitive dancing show on TV again for the first time since Come Dancing hung up its dancing shoes.   I’d noticed at university that the dancing world was something of a hotbed of gossip and romance, and thought it would be fun to combine a dancing show with something more relationship-focused – think ‘Strictly meets Blind Date’.  And so Couples, the fictional show at the heart of my first full-length book, was born.

If I recall correctly, the first draft of my novel based around the fictional show – the book which later became Perfect Partners - was written in the summer of 2004, but at that point I thought Strictly would be a nine days’ wonder and the market for a ballroom dancing book limited, and I chalked the novel up to experience and moved on.  I’d enjoyed writing about dancing, though, and in 2005-6, when I went to Bath to study for my MA in Creative Writing, and Strictly was back on our screens and gaining more of a mainstream following, I started to think there might be potential for the book after all.  As part of my MA I began work on the sequel, with a working title of A Step in the Right Direction. At the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference that year I pitched the concept to an editor from Mills and Boon, who was intrigued, and so I sent a draft of Perfect Partners off for their consideration and went back to work on my dissertation – 30,000 words of Step accompanied by a critical commentary.

When I’d submitted my final coursework, I went off to Australia for a fabulous three-month road trip, so I missed watching Strictly live that year, but my best friend was kind enough to record every single episode on video so that I could watch them on my return.  By the end of the series, I still hadn’t heard anything from Mills and Boon, so once again, the novel went back in my desk drawer.  And there it remained while the real world took over and I moved to Yorkshire, worked in a host of temporary office jobs, spent a spell as English Coach for a secondary school in an ex-mining village, and generally tried to figure out what I was doing with my life.  I carried on writing and in 2010 I achieved ‘published author’ status according to the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s rules, by selling my first novella, Desperate Bid, to US-based e-publisher The Wild Rose Press.  But I still didn’t have a published paperback I could hold in my hands. 

Then in 2012 I picked up a copy of Writing Magazine and read about a new romance publisher called Crimson Romance setting up in America.  I’d already seen enough publishers come and go to be slightly suspicious of new ventures, but this one had the backing of Adams Media, the publishers behind the phenomenally successful Chicken Soup for the Soul books, so I thought they might be worth a shot.  I dug out my dancing book, polished it up and sent it off.  To my delight, Crimson Romance accepted it.  I had to do some edits and fill in a long form about what I wanted on the cover – I could link to photos that had inspired me, so I sent a link to the photo gallery on Anton and Erin’s website. I loved the cover that came back, and by the time 2013’s Strictly season began I finally held my paperback in my hands and felt like a ‘real writer.’ 

Showing off on the Strictly set at Wembley
But while I remained a fan of Strictly, and even got to watch an episode being filmed at Wembley, I wasn’t actually doing a lot of dancing myself.  Every year, during the Strictly season, I’d see adverts for dancing weekends with the stars of Strictly, but since my husband isn’t a dancer, we always ended up with other holiday plans.  But this year, he spotted an advert for a Donahey’s dance weekend with Anton and Erin which included lessons for absolute beginners, and suggested booking.  So, in May, I’ll experience another first in my Strictly journey – meeting the stars who inspired the characters of Redmond and Lisa in my book Perfect Partners. Who knows, perhaps the experience will even encourage me to return to work on the long-abandoned sequel!

If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read Perfect Partners for free.  Otherwise, the cheapest way to get your hands on it is as part of the Spotlight on Love or Perfect Game bundle.  Click here for my and here for my AmazonUK page.