Writing – Using the senses to make your scene sing

There was much excitement when my lovely friend Emma sent me a huge box of retro sweets for my birthday. 10am Saturday morning found my husband and I in bed, dipping liquorice into sherbet, reminiscing about our childhood. Instantly I was transported to the time my childhood best friend Clare and I would rush to the shop at the end of my street clutching shiny ten pence pieces. We’d deliberate long and hard. Should we buy chocolate mice at two for a penny or black jacks which tasted delicious and kept us amused for hours as they stained our tongues and teeth.

At the sight of the love hearts lipstick, the taste of Parma violets, the smell of sherbet lemons I was seven again. The long summer holidays stretching endlessly before me as we rode our bikes under a clear blue sky and shimmering sun. 

Bringing senses into a story is guaranteed to make your scene sing. Whether it’s creating nostalgia or a creepy atmosphere, you want to set your reader firmly in the story. While the first draft is often focused on getting words down, the edit is the perfect time to pause. Put yourself in your characters shoes. What can they hear, see, taste, touch, smell?

Often when I’m out I’m observing my environment. What shade is the sky? How does the wind feel on my skin? What sound does the rain make? Small things I can use in my stories, and often the small details can make the biggest difference. The longer I spend being in the moment. Watching. Listening. The less time I spend staring at a screen. My mobile remains in my pocket and I feel infinitely more creative.

What colour is your sky today?

Advertisements

Novel writing – What I’ve learned from an 8 year old’s story.

Last night I was sent a story written by 8-year-old Abigail. Her father was (rightly) proud and wants to encourage her writing. I was captivated by her story of the Midnight Sky which was speckled with such gorgeous descriptions that I was immediately transported to the village where the story is set.

I adore reading stories from children. There’s something very special about the way they don’t worry about structure, plots, arcs. They write the story they want to tell and there’s a huge lesson in this.

I’ve wrote back to Abigail telling her the parts I enjoyed and encouraged her to keep going but I realise now I should have added a thank you, because reading her unfiltered words which had come straight from her imagination and her heart has reminded me of a very important lesson.

First and foremost you should always write for yourself.

When I began writing The Sister the best advice I ever received was ‘write the story you want to read’ and that served me well. I had no expectations of ever finishing a novel, let alone it being published and I wrote unselfconsciously.

Writing The Gift was a different experience. The Sister was No. 1 in the kindle charts and the reviews vast and varied. I desperately wanted to please every single reader moving forward. Based on feedback I upped my pace, and then slowed my pace. Added more description. Less description. My days were spent endlessly rewriting , fighting a losing battle to this time write the perfect book.

There is no perfect book.

Releasing The Gift was even more nerve racking than publishing my debut and the relief when it reached No. 1 was immense and that brought with it a welcome change in circumstances. Writing was to be my full-time job but this came with an added pressure as it was now to be my sole source of income.

After The Gift I read the reviews and realised it’s impossible to try and please everyone and I had a period offline where I shut myself away to write The Surrogate. The reviews for this book have been amazing and I allowed myself to relax a little. But not enough.

Now, awaiting publication of my fourth psychological thriller, The Date, I’ve a new idea brewing at the back of my mind but I haven’t yet started writing and it wasn’t until reading Abigail’s story I realised why. Lately, my mind has been clouded by doubt. Is my new idea commercial enough? Will people read it? Enjoy it? Impossible questions to answer and rather than letting a story naturally evolve I’ve had potential readers at the forefront of my mind which, for me, isn’t conducive to creativity.  Thanks to the timely reminder from Abi, I’m going to write from my heart, the story that I would like to read.

A writing retreat – Is it more than wine & cheese?

 

A few months ago, I was lunching with a group of writer friends when it was suggested we should hire accommodation and go on an informal writing retreat. Four of us committed to a date and I spent last weekend packing for my big adventure.

My son sat on my bed as I haphazardly threw an array of clothes into a case and then I spent an inordinate amount of time carefully selecting notebooks and pens.

‘Like you’re going to use those,’ my son scoffed.

‘Of course I am!’ I was a little offended.

‘It will be like the “revision” sessions I used to have with friends during A’Levels.’ he said.

‘I thought those were really valuable?’

‘Yeah. In terms of drinking beer and eating pizza. You’ll be the same but with cheese and wine.’

‘I’ll be writing.’ I stressed again, as though he didn’t know me really well.

At this point my other son wandered into my room. ‘Mum, isn’t an untutored writing retreat really just a holiday.’

‘Umm… no?’ Yes.

Monday, led by Word Warrior Tina, we checked into Centre Parcs and immediately headed to the shop and filled a trolley with wine and cheese. After we’d unpacked, I lounged on the sofa, opened my notebook and jotted down the available times for a massage. Damn my children for always being right.

But although this week there has been much talking, eating, laughter and drinking there has also been much, much more. It was such a privilege to watch and feed the wildlife including this adorable deer who slept on our patio.

The gorgeous surroundings, dusted by the unexpected snowfall, created the perfect creative environment.

Although we’ve been out – our first day saw me heading to the spa after a humungous afternoon tea – we’ve also given each other the time and space to work on our individual projects. We’ve bounced around ideas, read aloud and critiqued each others work with love. I feel relaxed, energised and as I look back at what I’ve achieved this past week I’ve also written more than I thought.

It’s been a really valuable experience and one I can’t wait to repeat. You can listen to my 90 second summary here: –

 

Can you visualise your way onto the bestsellers list?

 

Recently, I blogged about my passion for positivity and how I use vision boards to help create a life I love (you can read that post here) and keep a gratitude journal which makes me feel all warm and squishy inside every day when I realise just how lucky I am (you can read that post here).

Last week I had lunch with fellow author Darren O’Sullivan, whose Harper Collins debut Our Little Secret was a smash hit this summer, so much so his digital only deal has now been expanded to include paperbacks.

Darren was telling me about his long struggle to finish, and publish his novel and how his career only took off once he changed his mindset. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to discuss this properly so I am delighted to welcome Darren onto my YouTube channel today where we chat further about our belief that our thoughts really can shape our world.

I’d love to hear what you think.

You can find Darren over at Amazon here.

On Twitter here.

And Facebook here.

Fear of Public Speaking, Hypnosis & Me #AnxietySlayer

I’ve always had a huge phobia of public speaking and have previously blogged tips from Graeme Cumming, an author and member of a Speaker’s Club (you can read that post here) but despite the excellent advice I still never felt brave enough to try.

Last week I wrote the post I never thought I would. I spoke at my first literary festival – Althorp no less, hurrah – and you can read that post and see the photos here. Prior to taking the plunge I had a course of three hypnotherapy appointments with the fabulous Carmen Wilson of Inspired to Change and although I still had a degree of nerves afterwards, it was I think, a normal amount of nerves. Before I’d have been a sobbing mess rocking in the corner, and when I cry it isn’t movie crying, with a single tear streaking down a perfectly made up cheek, there’d have been streaming snot, a blotchy face, the works.

I am absolutely delighted Carmen has joined me over on my YouTube channel for a ten minute chat about why so many of us have fears, and how hypnotherapy works, and we both share our tips for speaking at events if you’re not in a position to have a course of treatment.

You can view the conversation here.

There’s lots of fabulous content coming up on my YouTube channel so if you’re interested in writing tips and hearing from authors, editors, publishers and agents please do subscribe here.

Until next time.

Louise x

 

 

Hook an Agent Part IV – Tightening those first 3 chapters

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here.

Today I’m joined by Eugenie Furniss, from Furniss Lawton Literary Agency and this instalment is her tips for tightening those important first three chapters.

  • There’s a temptation to overwrite that I note frequently – particularly in the first few pages of any novel.  Be sure that the density of your prose at the opening of your novel chimes with the rest of the book, unless, of course, you are making a conscious decision to do something different with it – you open with a diary entry, for instance.
  • I would argue that in our time of short attention spans, it’s critical to engage the reader from the first page or two.  It’s tough, in your opening chapters, to get the balance right between action and scene setting.  If in doubt, I’d always recommend focusing on action, and keeping exposition to a minimum.  Character’s backstories can be drip fed into the narrative later, for instance; you don’t need all the information you wish to impart about someone up front.  It’s particularly important in your opening chapters that you’re showing not telling.
  • Keep it simple.  While I love a surprising prologue or alternative point of view, before forging forward with the central narrative, you don’t want to make the reader have to work too hard.  I’d avoid setting up more than two (max three) story lines in your narrative in the first few chapters.
  • If there’s a prologue you can send that in addition to your first three chapters.

Thanks so much Eugenie. That was really helpful. Next time we’ll be looking at how to find the right agent for you and some bestselling authors will be sharing their ‘how they hooked an agent’ stories.

Below is my opening chapter for The Sister. Good luck to everyone submitting!

Stepping out of my car with heartbreak-heavy legs, I zip my jacket and pull on leather gloves before hefting my spade and bag from the boot: it is time. My wellingtons slip-slide across the squelching mud to the gap in the hedge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I shiver as I enter the forest; it’s darker than I’d thought and I take deep breaths of the pine-scented air to steady myself. I fight the urge to go home and come back in the morning, remind myself why I’m here and drive myself forwards.

My smartphone lights the way as I look out for rabbit holes I might fall down. I take giant steps over fallen limbs of trees I’d once have hurdled. At twenty-five I’m not too old to run, but my load is cumbersome; besides, I’m in no rush to get there, I was never supposed to do this alone.

I stop and rest the spade handle against my hip, splay my fingers and shake out my pins and needles. There’s a rustling in the bushes and I have a sense of being watched. My heart stutters as two rabbits dart out, bounding away when they see my light. ‘I’m OK,’ I reassure myself, but my voice seems loud and echoey, reminding me how alone I am.

My rucksack feels tight across my shoulders and I readjust the straps before marching on, snapping twigs underfoot. I’m beginning to think I’ve taken the wrong fork when I reach the clearing with the lightning-struck tree. I wasn’t sure it would still be here, but as I look around it seems nothing has changed – but of course, everything has. Memories of the last time I was here hit me so hard I feel winded. I sink to the ground. The dampness of the leaves and earth seep through my trousers, as the past seeps through to my present.

***

‘Hurry up, birthday girl, you’ll be sixteen at this rate. I’m freezing,’ Charlie had called. She’d been perched on the weathered gate at the edge of the cornfield, plastic bags strewn around her feet, blonde hair gleaming in the weak coral sun. Never patient, Charlie kicked her heels as I trudged towards her, cradling the box that contained our hopes and dreams.

‘Come on, Grace.’ She jumped down, scooped up her wares and dashed into the trees. I shifted the box under my arm and tried to keep up, following flashes of her purple coat and wafts of the Impulse body spray she always stole from her mum’s bedroom.

Branches and brambles grasped at our denim-clad legs, snagged our hair, but we kept going until we burst into the clearing.

‘Your red face matches your hair,’ Charlie laughed as I dropped the box and hunched over, resting my hands on my knees as I tried to catch my breath. Despite the cool early evening temperature, sweat beaded on my temples. Charlie upended the carrier bags: snacks, drinks, matches, a trowel and a small present, wrapped in sparkly purple paper with a ‘Fifteen Today’ sticker on it, all scattered over the crumbling earth. Smiling, she handed the gift to me. I sat cross-legged, carefully opening the ends without tearing the paper, and inched the box out. Nestled inside was half a gold heart on a chain engraved with ‘BFF’. Tears pricked my eyes as I looked at Charlie. She tugged the neck of her fleece down, revealing the other half of the heart. I fastened the chain around my throat as Charlie began to dig a hole. Always the Girl Guide, I lit a small fire. It would be even colder when the sun went down, and the evenings were drawing in quickly now. By the time the hole was deep enough, Charlie was breathless, her fingernails caked in dirt.

I carried the memory box over to the hole and placed it in the ground. We’d spent a whole Saturday choosing the contents and decorating the outside of the plastic tub, sticking on pictures from magazines of supermodels and pop stars we wanted to emulate. ‘You can never be too rich or too thin,’ Charlie said. She scooped an armful of dirt and began to cover it.

‘Wait!’ I cried. ‘I want to put this in.’ I waved the birthday wrapping paper in the air.

‘You can’t now, we’ve already sealed it.’

‘I’ll be careful.’ I slowly peeled back the Sellotape and popped off the lid. To my surprise, sitting on top of a stack of photos was a pink envelope that definitely hadn’t been there when we’d filled the box earlier. I glanced at Charlie, who was looking secretive.

‘What’s that, Charlie?’ I reached towards the envelope.

Charlie grabbed my arm. ‘Don’t.’

I pulled free, rubbing my wrist. ‘What is it?’

Charlie wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘It’s for us to read when we come back for the box.’

‘What does it say?’

Charlie snatched the wrapping paper from between my fingers and scrunched it inside the box, banging the lid on top. When Charlie didn’t want to talk about something there was little point trying to pursue it. I decided to let it go; I wouldn’t let her furtiveness spoil my birthday.

‘Drink?’ I grabbed a cider; it fizzed as I pulled back the ring, and froth spilled over the side of the can. I wiped my hand on my jeans and took a gulp; it warmed my stomach, washing away my unease.

Charlie packed the earth into the hole and pounded the surface with her trowel until it was flat, before coming to sit by my side.

The campfire crackled as we leaned against the horizontal tree trunk toasting pink marshmallows on sticks, and it wasn’t until the embers burned out that I realised how late it was.

‘We should go. I’m supposed to be home by ten.’

‘OK. A pinkie promise we’ll come back and open the box together?’ Charlie proffered her little finger and I curled mine around it before we clinked cans and drank to a promise that we didn’t know would be impossible to keep.

***

There is only me now. ‘Charlie,’ I whisper. ‘I wish you were here.’ Charlie’s half-heart, forever on a chain around my neck, spins around as I lean forward, as if it’s searching for its partner, desperate to be whole again. I gently lay down the wreath. The overwhelming panic that has plagued me since Charlie’s death four months ago bubbles to the surface, and I tug my scarf away from my throat so I can breathe a little easier. Am I really to blame? Am I always to blame?

Despite the January chill I feel hot, and as I pull off my gloves I think I hear Charlie’s last words echoing through the trees: I did something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.

What did she do? It can’t be any worse than what I did, but I am determined to find out what it was. I know I won’t be able to move forwards until I do. I hadn’t been sure where to begin until this morning, when I received a letter in the post in a pink envelope, which triggered a memory of the letter hidden in the memory box that Charlie hadn’t wanted me to read. Perhaps the letter will hold some kind of clue? It will be a start, anyway. Asking people who knew her hasn’t been getting me anywhere, and besides, I’m the one who knew her best, aren’t I? I was her best friend.

But can you ever really know someone? Properly know someone?

I sit back on my heels, remaining motionless for an indeterminable time as the air cools around me. Branches swish and sway as if the trees are whispering their secrets to me, encouraging me to unearth Charlie’s.

I shake my head, scattering my thoughts, and pull my sleeve down over the heel of my hand before wiping my wet cheeks. Picking up the spade with arms that feel too heavy to be mine, I grip the handle so tightly, rockets of pain shoot through my wrists. I take a deep breath and begin to dig.

 

 

A day in the life of…Dr. Carol Cooper

 

 

Today on my blog I welcome Carol Cooper. I’ve got to know Carol via social media and she always seems incredibly busy with so many things, I’m curious as to when she carves out time to write. Let’s find out…

My working life is varied and no two days are the same, but I usually wake up about 7 a.m. unless I’m on breakfast TV. I’m not that sharp in the mornings, so it’s just as well when I can sit in bed for a bit to catch up with social media and sip coffee made by my husband.

I’ve been a hospital doctor, GP partner, and a locum, but nowadays seeing patients is a very small part of my work. I now get more of a buzz from teaching medical students at Imperial College, which means getting to west London by 9 a.m. on some days.

My students are usually fifth or sixth years, so they’re very nearly qualified doctors and already have a vast store of knowledge which they haven’t yet started to forget… I lead small workshops, and it’s my job to help students deal with a range of challenging scenarios. We often use actors as simulated patients. In fact, just such an actor appears in my novel Hampstead Fever, but she’s entirely a product of my imagination. I’d never, ever, put real colleagues, students, or patients in a novel. It’s totally taboo – a bit of a shame, I sometimes think, as I’ve met some wonderful characters.

The teaching session ends around 1 p.m or 1.30 p.m., in time for a bite to eat. In the afternoon, I try to do some writing. I’ve been the doctor for The Sun newspaper for 18 years, which means I can get asked for my say on whatever health story hits the news, be it a radiation spill or a celeb with an injury from stumbling out of a nightclub at 4 a.m. My contribution is usually a short My View, written on the hoof. I well remember an editor asking me for 300 words on the dangers of drinking petrol, adding, “You’ve got bags of time. Take 45 minutes if you need it.” The job keeps me on my toes, and I love it. I never know what’s coming at me next, so it’s just like being a doctor in Accident & Emergency but without getting my hands dirty.

At the moment, I’m working on my third novel. My first two are contemporary fiction with multiple viewpoints, and they’re all about dating and family life in London. The current WIP is a bit of a departure. Although it still focuses mainly on relationships, it has just one viewpoint, covers several periods of time, and is set mostly in Egypt, where I grew up. I often have a non-fiction book to write or co-author at the same time, but this novel needs a tad more research than most of my fiction, so I’m concentrating on just the one book.

I say ‘concentrating’, but my willpower evaporates when it comes to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

On some days, there might be a radio interview or television appearance, such as ITV This Morning. It’s usually on a topical health issue, or on parenting. I’ve written a slew of child health books, including two on raising twins.

My own three sons have grown up and flown the nest, but one or other of my twins might drop in (my eldest son lives in Birmingham so I see him less often). Evening is a lovely time to sit on the terrace with a glass of something with my husband Jeremy, and rearrange the plants or just watch the sun set. If we’re in Cambridge, we’ll go down to the river for a stroll. Jeremy usually cooks supper. I think he’s the better cook.

On some evenings, I give talks to expectant parents of twins and triplets. I’m an honorary consultant to Tamba (Twins and Multiple Births Association), and involved with a couple of other charities as well, including Lucy Air Ambulance for Children, and APEC (Action on Pre-Eclampsia).

Fortunately I don’t have to work as hard as I did when I was a hospital doctor (in the bad old days, it could be 80 hours a week), and I enjoy seeing friends, especially at evenings and weekends. Some of my close friends go back to my childhood or to uni days, but many are fellow authors that I’ve met more recently. Book-writing is a more welcoming world than a lot of people imagine, and I’ve made good friends.

I often read a novel in bed before I drop off, and I always have pencil and paper on hand in case I have a bright idea in the night. Too bad I can’t always decipher my notes in the morning.

WOW. Don’t think I’ll complain about being too busy again. Thanks so much for sharing, Carol. 

Now you can get Hampstead Fever as an ebook for just 99p from October 14 for two weeks.

Carol Cooper is a doctor, journalist, and author, living in London and Cambridge. She contributes to The Sun newspaper and broadcasts on TV and radio. After a dozen non-fiction books, including an award-winning textbook of medicine, she turned to fiction with her debut novel. One Night at the Jacaranda follows the fortunes of a motley group of 30-somethings who, looking for love, find themselves. Her second novel Hampstead Fever focuses on six North Londoners grappling with life and relationships while their emotions boil over in the summer heat. This year, Hampstead Fever was picked for a prestigious promotion in WH Smith travel bookshops around the UK. Carol enjoys gardening on her patio. She’d probably have other hobbies too if she didn’t love writing so much.

You can follow Carol’s blog Pills & Pillow-Talk, or find out more about her writing on her website. She’s also happy to connect on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.