Julie Cohen

In which I have read some books

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Hello. I’m here at the blogface, peering hazily at the date on my last post and blowing a layer of dust off my keyboard (because obviously I have a special blogging keyboard which isn’t used for any other activities). It has been too long fair blog readers. Apologies, and with no further ado, let’s get some blog posting done.

As it’s getting near to Christmas and the end of the year and all that sort of stuff I thought you might like an end of year book review sort of thing. It’s a post that would be very timely if these were all books published during 2016, but they’re not. They’re books I just happen to have read during 2016. Ah well, I’m sure we can all agree to go with the flow a bit on that one.

Anyway I’ve read lots of things this year. Here are some of my favourites that I would heartily recommend to you all… I will acknowledge that a lot of these are by writers I know. That’s a problem if you’re an author, particularly if you’re involved in organisations like the RNA or Society of Authors – you tend to meet a lot of writers. All of these are books I genuinely enjoyed though – trust me; I have very honest blogging fingers.

S0, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my super-short bite-sized books of 2016 reviews…

Falling by Julie Cohen

This *might* be my book of the year, if I don’t become distracted by one of the other books further down the list. The characterisation is incredible – the story follows three generations of women and they’re all beautifully drawn. I fell especially in love with Honor, the grandmother, and Lydia, the teenage daughter. They both felt like characters I haven’t seen a gazillion times before in commerical fiction. It’s really a very good book indeed.

 

Please Release Me – Rhoda Baxter

This is a book where you start off reading and you’re thinking ‘Ok, I get what sort of book this is…’ and then all of a sudden it takes a fantastic turn and you’re reading something quite different and quite unique. It’s funny and clever and I sort of don’t want to describe the story too much because I don’t want to spoil it, but Sally and Grace are fantastic main characters, and the plot is wonderfully not-average.

 

We Are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman

I cried. A lot. A lot of the action of this one is set in a hospice and you get glimpses of the different patients’ lives, stories and regrets. It’s beautifully written and the main plot strands are fantastic, but it’s the glimpses of those different lives that tips this from being good to great for me. It’s a wonderful book, but make sure you have tissues to hand before you start reading.

 

I Don’t Want To Talk About It – Jane Lovering

It was the setting and the theme of this book that got me really excited. Essentially, and without veering into spoilers, it’s a rom-com about loss. I firmly believe that comedy is a completely appropriate way of dealing with big, dark, horrible things – it’s possible that I watched too many episodes of M*A*S*H at a formative age – and this book does that beautifully. And it’s set in Yorkshire as many of the best things are.

So there’s a smattering of my reading this year – I also very much enjoyed Little Girl Lost by my writing/tutoring partner-in-crime, Janet Gover, and a little-hyped tome, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. That’s the book of the play scripts that serve as a sequel to the Harry Potter book series. I’m not sure why they chose to do it as a play this time – I can only assume that the original books didn’t do that well. Yes. That’s almost certainly probably it. I know some readers struggled with the script format, and obviously it’s conceived to be watched rather than read, but if the budget doesn’t run to a trip to the West End then I’d say the book is well worth reading.

Apart from Harry Potter, my reading this year does seem to have been very ‘commercial women’s fiction’ dominated. So please leave any recommendations for next year’s reading, particularly stuff in other genres, in the comments…

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In which I think about Theme

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Yesterday I was reminded, via a twitter conversation with the very awesome Joanna Cannon, of an exercise from a Julie Cohen writing course Joanna and I attended years ago. The exercise was simply this: ‘Tell me what your novel is about in one word.’ To which the response is inevitably, ‘Well, er, there’s sort of this woman.. and she meets this… well actually, no, but sort of and then….’ And which point Julie makes her special displeased face and repeats, ‘In one word.’ And the student goes, ‘Errrr…’ which is at least one word, but isn’t terribly descriptive of what the book is about.

But it’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. I still try to think about what the book I’m working on is about IN ONE WORD, and I generally manage to work it out. The Christmas Kisses series are all about Identity in one way or another.  Sweet Nothing is about Romance, which might sound obvious because it’s a romantic-comedy, but I don’t just mean that the book is a romance; I mean that’s it actually about Romance. It’s about whether romance is the same as love, and whether you can have one without the other, and what romance actually is or should be. Midsummer Dreams is about Fear. It’s about fear of being alone, fear of letting people down, fear of taking a risk, fear of trying to be a better person, and the way that all of those fears can paralyze people and whether/how they can be overcome.

And I think that knowing that is really useful. It’s invaluable when you come to edit and revise a book. Knowing what your story’s theme is, gives you a point around which to focus your character arcs and plots and sub-plots. If you have a thread that feels disjointed from the whole you can ask yourself how it relates to that theme, and if it doesn’t, you might well have discovered the source of your problem.

But for me, a theme isn’t something that I consciously choose. It’s something that emerges from the process of writing the book. My current novel-in-progress has been my current novel-in-progress for about three years. There are reasons that it’s taken so long, and they are twofold. Firstly, the book isn’t a rom-com, and I’d just started writing it just before I signed my first contract with Choc Lit. Having signed a contract for a rom-com the onus was on me to write something else in the same genre, and so over the three years that this book has been on the go, I’ve also written another full-length novel and three novellas. That’s really bound to slow your progress a little bit.

The second reason the novel-in-progress has been in progress for so long was that I did a stupid stupid thing. I decided what it was about (in one word) before I started. And I got it wrong. Cue two and a half years of trying to bend a story to a theme that wasn’t right. When I eventually stepped back and realised, ‘Oh this isn’t about loss. It’s about parenthood’ I also realised that I now knew how to finish the book. I ssuddenly saw the point of a character that my heart was telling me to keep, but had nothing to do with the theme I thought was writing about. I saw how the sub-plots could be strengthened and linked back to my main character’s arc. The novel that’s been about two months off being finished for about a year and a half, might now genuinely be about two months off being finished.

And there you go – those are my thoughts on ‘theme.’ It’s definitely helpful to know what yours is, but I think it’s something you discover rather than something you consciously invent.

So here endeth the lesson. If you like me wittering about about How To Do Writing then you might be interested in the workshops I have coming up where I will be helping people sort out their novels-in-progress in all manner of interesting and creative ways.

In which I have read some books

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I’ve always loved reading, but since I started writing fiction my reading has changed. There have been periods where I’ve found it really difficult to get into reading any sort of novel, but recently I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge. Hence, I have some book reviews to share. Because I like an arbitrary theme today’s reviews are all in the ‘commercial women’s fiction’ genre also known as ‘fiction.’ (You can catch up on me being ranty about genre names back here.)

1. Dear Thing – Julie Cohen

I know Julie Cohen via the RNA and Julie’s fabulous creative writing tutoring, but it’s unbiased reviews only here so I’m putting the fact that she’s lovely in real-life out of my mind and focusing on the stories. This is the first of two of her novels that are going to turn up in this post. That in itself has to be a good sign because it demonstrates that having read one book by the author I wanted to go straight on and read another. Dear Thing is a story about Claire and Ben, a couple who are desperate for a baby and have been through years of trying and fertility treatments. Ben’s best friend is Romily, who already has a child of her own and figures that carrying a child for her friends won’t be that big a deal.

Obviously the emotional realities of surrogacy turn out quite differently from what Romily imagined. In plot terms some of what goes on in Dear Thing is very much what you’d expect, but it’s grounded so deeply in the emotions of the characters that I don’t see that as a negative in this case. I particularly liked that this is a book that depicts fundamentally good-hearted people who, under emotional pressure, don’t always behave perfectly. I also very much liked the emotional conflict that Ben experienced – in some stories about parenthood the fathers are somewhat sidelined characters, so it was good to see both Ben and the father of Romily’s own child given a bit of depth.

My only reservation was that, perhaps, the very ending of the book resolved Romily’s story slightly too neatly, but that’s very much a personal preference thing; I always want stories to go darker and more complicated.

I don’t really do star ratings for books very comfortably – I always end up wanting to give scores like 4.82 stars, but I would definitely recommend this one.

 

2. Where Love Lies – Julie Cohen (again)

I did warn you that she was going to crop up again, so  no apologies for that. I won a copy of Julie’s latest book in an online comp from the author, and very lovely and shiny it was too. On paper the subject matter for this one intrigued me more than Dear Thing, being very much a non-baby person. Felicity is married to Quinn and living what many people would see as a perfect life, but something doesn’t feel right, and she finds herself drawn further and further away from Quinn and deeper into her past, and the more time she spends there, the more blissful it feels.

I’m not going to give away what’s actually going on with Felicity, but I was intrigued by her conflict throughout the story. Is it better to live in the here and now – problems, uncertainties and all – or would you take the option of living in a blissful dream? Where Love Lies is evocatively written and all the viewpoint characters are interesting in their own right. Part of me wishes that the author had held back what was actually happening to Felicity a bit more in the earlier sections of the story, as I did enjoy the uncertainty about what Felicity was feeling and why, but the bottom line is this – I absolutely rattled through reading this book, picking it up and whizzing through chapters when I was supposed to be doing other things, and making myself sleepy through my reluctance to put it down last thing at night, so that’s a big win.

 

3. The Sea SistersLucy Clarke

This was Lucy Clarke’s debut novel, and it’s the sort of debut that makes the rest of us feel deeply inadequate. It’s the story of Katie and Mia – two sisters whose relationship has been strained since the death of the mother. Mia is a free spirit, fearless and impulsive, whereas Katie is the responsible one, always taking care of her younger sibling. When Mia disappears, Katie is drawn into her sister’s world as she retraces Mia’s last journey to try to find out what happened to her little sister.

It’s high praise indeed for me to say that this book reminded my of Emily Barr. Emily Barr is one of my favourite writers, and has an incredible ability to evoke places and atmospheres. Clarke has the same gift and the contrast between Katie’s rather ordered normality, and the places she visits on her travels in search of the truth about her sister is tangible for the reader. The relationship between the sisters also feels real, and seeing both of the characters’ impressions of the other works well. As including one quibble seems to be customary – I would like to have seen Katie’s relationship with Finn fleshed out a little more, as I think this would have heightened the sense of conflict in that part of the story. That’s a minor point though. The key relationship in this story is the one between the sisters, and that sings out loud and true from the pages. Another page-turner. Highly recommended.

 

So three books I really liked. You could go read them if you wanted. You could also offer me some recommendations down in the comments…

In which I go on a writing retreat and it is all rather lovely

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I got home last night from a two night writing retreat in deepest Devon. I’m rather proud of that sentence. While my publisher was busily winning Publisher of the Year, at the 2013 Festival of Romance (just had to get that in – yay Choc Lit!), I was on a retreat. Going on a ‘writing retreat’ really does sound like something that other, better, more grown-up writers would do. Proper writers with lots of writerly jewellery and a penchant for scarves and overusing the word ‘Darling,’ darling.

However, somehow I managed to slip under the radar and got allowed into to Retreats For You, on a tutored retreat with most excellent writer and Queen of the writing tutors, Julie Cohen. Retreats For You is an utterly brilliant place, run by Deborah Dooley and her partner, Bob. It provides a perfect little bubble in which to just do writing, with no distractions beyond the possibility of going out for a little stomp around the Devon countryside or wandering into the kitchen and snaffling another piece of flapjack. So my weekend was all open fires and literary thoughts…lounge-150x150

while, Engineer Boy stayed home and built these:

Now I need to buy more books

Apparently, these are just to store the insane number of books, I already own, rather than an excuse to buy tonnes more. We shall see…

Anyway, back to the retreat – Julie provided a counterpoint to all the lovely, comforting, warmth that Deborah offers, with her usual tough love approach to writing critique. Julie is not the right writing tutor for you, if you want to be patted on the head and told that everything you’ve written is brilliant. If you want to make the sodding book actually work and get written, she’s bloody marvellous though.

I’m in the early stages (about 25k in) of novel 2 at the moment, with novel 1 scheduled to launch into the world in the next few weeks. And I won’t lie. I’ve been struggling. Writing your second novel is an odd process. You know so much more than you did when you started novel 1, but that additional knowledge can be paralysing. It means that you see all of the problems as you’re writing them, so, rather than just bashing out a shoddy first draft which you can revise later, you get caught up trying to fix the problems as you go along and end up not really progressing at all.

Sometimes what you need at that point is a fresh pair of eyes to look at you sternly, and remind you to keep it simple and try not to actively turn your protagonist into an entirely unsympathetic psychopath. With novel 1, I can pinpoint the moment when it shifted from being an idea, into being a potential book. It was a conversation in a tutorial with my university tutor, Deb Catesby, where we talked about characterisation ideas. It sounds like a very minor point, but that was the point at which I decided that Ben, the hero, would be a mathematician. That decision defines how Ben sees the world, which defines how he interacts with the heroine, Trix, and how she then responds to him. It also gives the book it’s theme: Nothing & Everything (or for the maths-minded amongst you Zero & Infinity).

I think (although it’s too soon to be sure) that I had the equivalent of that conversation this weekend. Julie helped me to work out what my protagonist’s fundamental character needs are. Before that conversation I knew what the plot required her to do, but I hadn’t got clear why she behaves in the way that she does. Without that why, it’s almost impossible to give her the emotional depth she needs to make the reader empathise with her situation and behaviour.

Writing is a generally very solitary endeavour. That is part of the reason that we value organisations like the Romantic Novelists’ Association, that give us chances to change out of our pyjamas and interact with real people, so highly. It’s also part of the reason that we get so addicted to twitter and facebook. It makes a nice change from only talking with made up people. Sometimes though, you need to step away from your laptop and find a fresh brain to bounce ideas off, and you need that to be a person who’ll tell you honestly if they think you’re going the wrong way.

So, in summary, hurrah for Deborah Dooley and Retreats For You. Hurrah for really good writing tutors – Julie and Deb. And now, hurrah for getting one’s head down, stopping procrastinating, and just writing the bloody book.

In which I learn some things and wear pretty pretty shoes

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Two blog posts in two days! It’s all go here. I’m aiming to post again tomorrow in a more normal random thoughts and rantings sort of way, so that would be three in three days! Don’t hold your breath though peoples – I think we all know that probably ain’t gonna happen.

Anyway, this weekend I have been at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference. It was my 3rd RNA Conference and I’m feeling like a bit of an old hand now. This year was particularly exciting as I was able to announce my first publishing contract which was signed just 2 days before the conference! What? You haven’t heard about that? Seems unlikely given that basically haven’t shut up about it since Friday, but just in case, all the details are in yesterday‘s blog, and I’ll gratuitously share another Choc Lit Authors pic (with me in it!) for you right here:

Choc Lit Authors

So what did I learn at conference this year? There were things, and they were threefold.

1. A nice spider graph about your major theme can help in the planning of your novel

In creative terms, the top workshop of the weekend for me was Julie Cohen’s session on Theme. I’ve been on courses with Julie before. She’s a super good writer and a brilliant teacher. If you’re interesting in novel writing I heartily recommend that you book yourself on one of her courses. I think the details on her website are for this year, but watch that space for future stuff.

Anyway, during Julie’s conference session I surprised myself by knowing very quickly what the core theme for the novel I’m about to start writing is going to be. I can also see ways in which that theme will impact on the characterisation and the interaction between different characters. Realising I’ve already got a lot of that stuff in my brain, and getting some pointers on how those instincts might translate into actual character and plot development, was invaluable given that I’m currently suffering from what is commonly known as Total Paralysing Second Novel terror.

I’ve just contracted with a publisher for my first novel, but what if that was a fluke? What if I can’t do it again? What if there is no second book in my brain? What if there is but I can’t work out how to write it? What if I work out how to write it and it’s just a bit pants? This session didn’t make those nerves go away but it did start to make me think maybe I am just beginning to sort of slightly know a little bit what I’m doing here.

2. I must not procrastinate.

Nina Harrington led a fantastic session on procrastination, specifically on how to avoid procrastination. She talked about how fear can stop us from getting on and doing things by making tasks seem overwhelming. Those of you who reached this paragraph via the traditional route of the previous paragraph will understand that that felt pretty relevant for me at the moment.

She also gave some great ideas for breaking work down into achievable chunks and carving out your precious writing time. Combined with talks from Linda Hooper on time management and Sonia Duggan on writing through your fear, I’ve come away from conference fired up and ready to get stuck into edits and rewrites and cracking on with that difficult second novel. I’ve even written myself a little daily schedule to show where all the writing and editing fits into the day. Hurrah.

3. And finally, these shoes are art. They should not be worn as actual footwear.

So very pretty but so very hurty
So very pretty but so very very hurty.

And that is all. According to my lovely shiny new schedule, I’m supposed to be doing some rewrites right now, so I shall be gone from this place. Bye bye.