In which I think about Theme

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 we have a winner

Yesterday was Awesome Birthday Giveaway Day and now it’s time to announce the winner of a signed copy of Sweet Nothing and lots of other lovely Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams book swag.

Sweet Nothing pb giveaway

This was the question:

Add a comment below, telling me which Shakespeare play you’d most like to read a contemporary adaptation of and why? I’ve done Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which play would you like to see as book 3 in the 21st Century Bard series?

There were were 25 entries and picking a winner was really hard, so before I announce the winner, here are some honourable mentions for those comments that didn’t quite make it to the top of the podium but made me smile.

Gill Stewart made a good bid for glory by suggesting a play that would give me an excuse for a holiday: “The Tempest, it has to be The Tempest. I was first drawn to read the play by Mary Stewart’s brilliant novel This Rough Magic which refers to it constantly. Recently visited Corfu, re-read This Rough Magic and then had to re-read The Tempest too! You can do it Alison – and it would defnitely require a visit to Greece.” Tempting, but not quite a winner I’m afraid.

John Jackson went as far as coming up with a modern title for his suggestion, which always helps. I’m terrible at titles! “As You Like It – retitled as “Whatever!””

Christine Stovell and Janet Gover had the same suggestion – The Scottish Play, and it’s certainly one of my favourite plays, but not really ideal for a rom com makeover!

There were a couple of votes for Measure for Measure, but Callydcfc gets a special mention for having a most excellent reason: “Measure for Measure. It’s got nuns in it. Who doesn’t love a good nun story?” Who indeed?

And my final honourable mention goes to Ros Gemmell who came within a hair’s breadth of the prize, and actually suggested the same play as the winner – The Taming of the Shrew.

But now… *drum roll please*… it’s time to announce the winner. And, the winner, because I’m absolutely intrigued by the idea of gender flipping this particular play, is … Manda Jane Ward. Here’s her comment: “Taming of the Shrew…as its the only Shakespeare play I really enjoyed as Kiss Me Kate. Except with the reverse…have the man as the shrew and the woman using her moxy to get her man. Howard Keel was so gorgeous and manly.” And obviously additional points were awarded for use of the word ‘moxy.’

So congratulations Manda! Please contact me with your address and I’ll get your prize in the post to you. Thank you to everyone else who entered. It was a lovely way to celebrate my book (and actual) birthday.

The 21st Century Bard Series

Sweet Nothing is out now in ebook and paperback.

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

Sweet Nothing is a fresh and funny retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set in the present day. 

And Midsummer Dreams is out now for kindle.

Four people. Four messy lives. One night that changes everything …
Emily is obsessed with ending her father’s new relationship – but is blind to the fact that her own is far from perfect.
Dominic has spent so long making other people happy that he’s hardly noticed he’s not happy himself.
Helen has loved the same man, unrequitedly, for ten years. Now she may have to face up to the fact that he will never be hers.
Alex has always played the field. But when he finally meets a girl he wants to commit to, she is just out of his reach.
At a midsummer wedding party, the bonds that tie the four friends together begin to unravel and show them that, sometimes, the sensible choice is not always the right one.

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

In which I have a book birthday and an actual birthday

Happy Birthday to Me! Happy Birthday to Me! etc etc. And secondly, Happy Birthday to the paperback edition of Sweet Nothing which is out this week. In honour of these twin excitements I have put together a little present for one of you lovely reading type people out there. And here it is: Sweet Nothing pb giveaway We have got a copy of Sweet Nothing (to be signed, of course), a fab tote bag, a Midsummer Dreams notebook and bookmark, and because Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams are both published by Choc Lit, there will almost certainly be some chocolate added to the haul as well. So what do you have to do to be in with a chance of owning all of these lovely things? Well you need to enter a little competition. This is how: Simply add a comment below, telling me which Shakespeare play you’d most like to read a contemporary adaptation of and why? I’ve done Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Which play would you like to see as book 3 in the 21st Century Bard series? The best idea and reason, based on my entirely subjective opinion, wins. 

Here comes the dull bit… this competition is open from 0:01am to 11.59pm BST on August 6th 2015. It’s open to anyone 18 or over with a British or Irish postal address where the prize can be sent. One entry per person. One prize pack available. Winning entry will be selected on Friday 7th August. Good luck!

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

Sweet Nothing is a fresh and funny retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, set in the present day. 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – July

Last month’s 52 Weeks: 52 Books update ended with the realisation that I needed to  read 11 books in July to get back on track. In reality I managed to read… 2. So that went well. The two I read were:

Book 20: Jane Wenham-Jones – 100 Ways To Fight The Flab and still have wine and chocolate

Book 21: Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read and never quite got around to. I’m glad I did, and I particularly enjoyed the second half of the story, but I did struggle to get into it. That seems to be a bit of a pattern. I race through the second half of books but it takes me a long time to get fully involved in the story. I’m wondering if that’s a side effect of being a writer – it just takes longer to get engaged with a story because of the amount of your brain that’s already full of the story that you’re working on yourself.

100 Ways to Fight the Flab was an interesting read. I don’t generally do diet books (and yes – I know that this isn’t technically a ‘diet book’ but, as the author acknowledges, all diet books say that!) I don’t really buy into anything at all to do with weight loss as an industry – the very notion makes me shudder, but Jane gave me a copy of her book at the RNA Conference this year, so I set out to read with an open mind. And I did read it. And it didn’t make me shudder. Jane’s basic premise is that joyless self-denial is not a workable long-term strategy, but there’s no one size fits all approach to weight loss or maintenance, so she offers a vast array of pick and mix (mmmm… pick and mix) tips and suggestions ranging from big lifestyle change stuff to tiny tweaks and tricks. Reading it definitely made me refocus on losing weight, and some of the tips – dark chocolate, 5:2, fanatical adherence to the pedometer – have filtered into my life or been reinforced where I was already doing them. Will reading this book make you thin if you have a lifelong problem with obesity? On its own, no, but if you’re already in the right frame of mind it could make the whole endeavour feel more manageable. Could it be helpful if you’re a healthy weight and need to maintain it, or need to lose 5-10lbs before the fatness situation gets out of hand? Yes. I think it probably could.

So those were July’s books. I’m now another two books behind schedule, so only need to get through 18 in August to catch up. Gulp!

In unrelated news, my own first novel, Sweet Nothing, is out in paperback this week. Those of you who are twitter peoples, keep an eye on @MsAlisonMay tomorrow for a chance to win a signed copy.

 

In which I have to remember not to lick the books

I’ve been a bit lax in the blog posting the last couple of weeks. This is largely because I’ve been mentally trying to compose a post about the Labour leadership campaign that isn’t just a series of video clips of me banging my head against a wall and then weeping gently, probably ending with a section where I jump up and down repeatedly on a picture of Tony Blair’s increasingly haunted face. I’m not sure that a post like that would really count as insightful or, indeed, interesting.

However, it’s so clear that generating a coherent opinion about Andy Burnham is basically my moral duty as a left-leaning bod with a blog and an interest in politics, that it’s hampered my attempts to blog about anything else. Fortunately today’s post brought something that absolutely, definitely has to be shared with the universe right now this very second.

 

Are you ready?

Ta dah!

Print copies

Actual print copies of my actual novel, Sweet Nothing. Actually printed out, so you can actually hold them, and cuddle them, and lick them.* There are lots of different novelist milestones – your first finished draft; your first finished draft that’s in a state where you could plausibly show it to another human being; your first rejection; your first non-standard rejection; your first contract; your first publication day; your first review; your first horrible review; the first time one of your books gets pirated etc. And in the modern world you can do all of those without ever having a printed book. So having a printed book shouldn’t logically make you feel like any more of a ‘proper writer’ than you were the day before. You’ve still written, edited and promoted the book – all that’s changed is that somebody quite unrelated to you has had the thing printed out and glued together. But still. It’s a book. An actual lickable** book. And it’s very very exciting indeed.

So there you go. A book. It’s out in paperback on August 7th, and by total coincidence the day before that is my birthday, so next week goes my birthday and then book birthday. If you check out my twitter feed (@MsAlisonMay) next Thursday (August 6th) there might even be a special #BirthdayGiveaway to win a signed copy, which would then be yours to keep, and, if you wanted, lick. Or just read. That’s probably a better idea really…

 

About Sweet Nothing

Would you risk everything for love?

Independent, straight-talking Trix Allen wouldn’t. She’s been in love once before and ended up with nothing. Now safely single, Trix is as far away from the saccharine-sweet world of hearts and flowers as it’s possible to be.

Ben Messina is the man who broke Trix’s heart. Now he’s successful the only thing rational Ben and free-spirited Trix see eye-to-eye on is the fact that falling in love isn’t part of the plan. But when Ben’s brother sets out to win the heart of Trix’s best friend, romance is very much in the air. Will Trix gamble everything on love and risk ending up with zero once again?

A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. First novel in the 21st Century Bard series.

 

And you can pre-order the paperback or pick up the ebook for just 99 of your modern English pennies here.

 

*I haven’t been licking them. Honestly I haven’t.

** Still wrong. I’ll add ‘books’ to my list of Things I Must Not Lick.***

*** List also includes David Tennant, other people’s cake, and leading literary agents.

 

In which a year has passed and I muse on how it takes a village and all that guff

So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.

Sweet Nothing

Holly's Christmas Kiss

One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.

And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.

So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.

So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.

In which we meet my main character

A tiny wee bonus blog post this week as I’ve been tagged by Laura E James to carry on a little blog hop all about our main characters. Thank-you Laura, and let’s all say ‘Hello’ to Trix from Sweet Nothing. I mean, don’t actually say ‘Hello’ out loud whilst you’re reading. She’s a fictional character, which is just one of many many reasons that that would be weird.

Anyway…

What is the name of the main character? Is she real or fictitious?

She’s called Trix and she’s fictitious. I’ve already told you that. Really, it’s almost like these are  preset questions and there isn’t actually an interviewer sitting beside me hanging on my every word.

 

When and where is the story set?

Sweet Nothing is set in York around about now. I lived in York for four years and grew up not far away in Scarborough so it’s a city I know pretty well. The fictional Trix went to university there, like me, and, unlike me, never quite managed to leave.

 

What should we know about her?

Trix is great. She’s the sort of woman you’d want as your best mate. Caring. Intelligent. Funny. Borderline alcoholic.

She loves books, and cake, and wine, and her friends, and marmitey toast, which are all the main important things that one ought to love in life.

 

What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

I’m sorry but if I tell you that I’m pretty much telling you the whole story of the book! OK – I’ll tell you this. Trix is pretty sorted in most areas of her life, but she’s not the best at romance. She’s not a sad chick lit singleton though. There’s not a lot of moaning about failed relationships into her pinot going on for Trix, not least because that would slow down the drinking of the pinot and suggest a worrying lack of focus.

She gets on fine with men. She has lots of male friends. There’s just one in particular that might be the problem. Hello Ben Messina.

 

What is Trix’s goal?

I think the achievement of a diet based solely on wine and marmitey toast. It’s a goal she’s not that far off achieving.

 

So if you like the sound of Trix, you can find out more about her by reading the book:

SN Cover small

And now it’s my turn to tag two more innocent victims willing participants in the ‘Meet my main character’ blog hop. Next up are the brilliant and lovely Janice Preston – her debut novel, Mary and the Marquis will be out in July –  and my equally wonderful fellow-ChocLiteer, Berni Stevens. As well as writing her own novels, Berni also designs all the Choc Lit covers so she’s responsible for the rather excellent redness above. Look out for their posts next week.