Last day of Summer

Sunset over Brixham harbour

Is there any sadder time? The last day of the summer holidays, and no matter what you do, what exciting outings you plan, the air is heavy with dull resignation.

I have mixed feelings about the summer holidays; the bliss of a slow wake up, with no need to endure the tightly-screwed on stress of a school morning; no nightly tussles over early bedtimes; no breathless conversations with a highly-strung husband on the lines of ‘but you said you were picking them up from badminton club’ and freedom from the tyranny of the ironing board – no-one needs any bloody white shirts ironing. But the downside – I have to spend ALL DAY with my children.

My children are extraordinarily bright, excellent company and actually very amusing, obviously, but they insist on being fed three times a day – plus snacks – and they leave bits on the carpet. All this means extra work for me, which is a Bad Thing. Extra drudgery means no time to do any writing, no head time to even think about doing any writing. A friend described being prevented from practising your artistic thing as being ‘creatively constipated’, and while I am too classy to use that term, that is EXACTLY how it feels. All those hours of elaborate plot constructions and snappy dialogue, all dissolved and washed away forever in the constant incoming tide of the six-week break.

A seagull on a sandy beach

So much sand, so many picnics

I have been writing properly (ie: feverishly), as opposed to arsing about with diaries and anguished paragraphs, for coming up to five years now, and the holidays have always killed it dead. This year I embraced the inevitable, and went with the roller-coaster of ice creams, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Pizza Hut, beach picnics and spicy memes.

Tomorrow the routine begins again, and today has a heavy grey pall hanging over  it. School bags will need to be dragged out from under beds, bus passes retrieved from behind dusty, unread set texts and new uniforms (the cost of which could pay off some countries’ national debts) shaken out of their cardboard creases. And tonight will be the most dreaded of things: An Early Night.

Tomorrow the weather will turn; it always does. No matter how mild and pleasant the days before have been, First Day Back At School signals the start of Autumn. The radiators will judder and wheeze into life, sandals will start to gather dust, I’ll begin leaving cardigans at strategic points throughout the house and start forgetting to ring the coalman. At no other time of year do the seasons pivot so dramatically.

Yes, it’s bloody miserable; but it is more of a New Year’s Eve than New Year’s Eve is. A time of fun and feasting draws to a close and we all settle back (with half a sigh of relief) into timetables and routines, all feeling a little bit wiser as we put on new clothes and zip up new pencil cases. This year I have a new pen (a green one with a feather!) and half a head full of ideas. Endings and beginnings.

Green goose feather pen in a green pen holder

Too big for a pencil case

Banged by a Brontosaurus… and other untrue romance

roses and a heart

Imagine my surprise when I found myself writing a time-travel romance. I’m not ‘into’ romance as a genre. Fantasy is my thing, with some crime and horror thrown in for light relief. Fantasy is wild and limitless and red and green and purple – a long, long LONG way from my current dreary grey existence.

But I am in the middle of revising Shriven (three books so far and counting), and felt the compelling urge to write something totally different.

One of the reasons I am drawn to fantasy is it is the opposite of my day job. As a junior reporter (a million years ago), I quickly learned to write quickly, clearly and on a deadline. I also learned to write tight. Page leads were 320 words, second leads were 250 words and a string of nibs (news in brief) was four tiny stories of 50-75 words each (usually ‘self-extinguished rubbish fires’). There was no point writing more – the subs would only cut it anyway, and who had the time to wax lyrical when newsdesk were badgering you for the page 5 sidebar?

When I moved onto the sub-editor’s desk I had to get even tighter. You had a space to fill and nothing you could do would make it bigger. I spent the hours cutting all the extraneous ‘thats’ and changing ‘investigation’ into ‘probe’.

And did all that change when news moved away from the constraints of the printed page onto the wonderfully flexible, ultimately bottomless screen? Did it hell. Now our attention spans are so short no-one has time to read a long, descriptive news story. We prefer stuff on the lines of ‘7 weird plants that only grow in Panama (number 5 will blow your mind!)’.

So, after years cutting and slicing and chipping away at words, imagine the corset-cutting relief of letting rip with a fantasy novel. I started writing and couldn’t stop. 10,000 words, 20,000, 50,000 – my books come in at the 150,000 mark – each. Fancy a bit more description of that butterfly – bang it out! Want to write a scene about walking in a straight line when you’re pissed, even though it adds nowt to the plot – go ahead! Have an idea for an unusual character, who does something stupid, just for kicks – bring it on!

But when you are revising and editing, you don’t get to do this. You alter a couple of lines, check a couple of facts, correct a mistake, make some notes. DULL.

So my mind starts to wander, I come up with an idea for a fantastic brain-altering app, and before you know it I have taken this and turned it into a plot.

But it isn’t fantasy, it is more science fictiony, but I can’t commit to a ‘proper’ SF novel, with all the real science and research needed to make it good, because, y’know, Shriven. I need something closer to a news story, something with rules.

Romance has rules.

couple on beach with umbrella

Why have they got an umbrella? Are umbrellas romantic?

  • Take two protaganists (don’t have to be opposite sexes either – get with the 21st Century, grandma).
  • They are attracted to each other, even if they don’t admit it to themselves (that’s why it is called Romance. Durr).
  • But something stands in their way (and not some frustrating misunderstanding that can be explained away in a single sentence).
  • That something is resolved. Our hero and heroine/heroes/heroines come together.

With these rules you can plan and plot, and it has to be tight and it has to be convincing but it has to follow the rules. Once you have your plot, it takes some of the pressure off – you ‘just’ write the damn thing.

Or so I thought.

To get me in the groove, and to see how the pros do it, I have read a Kindle-full of romance novels in the past few months. There is a lot more to Romance than I realised.

Firstly, in the straightforward stuff, there are sub-rules.

peach rose on a page

It’s only really romantic if you’re called Anna

  • All the heroines have small hands (why? Dunno, but they do).
  • No-one is a virgin, but they have had a couple of unsuccessful relationships, or have had their heart broken by a cad (male and female).
  • The heroines have classic names, like Elizabeth, Catherine, Victoria. No Alyeesheah or Beyonce here.
  • The heroes have classic names like Alex or Adam, or cowboy names like Flint or Kane.
  • The heroine thinks the hero hates her, because he glares and shouts at her, never realising it is because he is hiding his love/scared for her safety/an arrogant twat.
  • There is usually another man who adores our heroine, but she regards him as a nice big brother, and he accepts this with a rueful smile and a shrug.
  • There is also a Wise Older Woman who rudely dispenses advice about how the couple are destined to be together and how it will All Be Alright In The End. If this happened in real life you’d tell them to mind their own bloody business.

Now, to the less than straightforward stuff. The world of the sub-genre.

I’m not talking doctors and nurses here, or Regency romance. Hoo, nope. There is a mind-trembling number of sub-genres out there. There is a market for romances set in tattoo parlours, featuring Greek shipping tycoons, Vikings, amnesia victims, reincarnation, ghosts, yetis, shapeshifters. The shifter romance section is massive – not just werewolves and stuff but whole towns of motorbike-riding shapeshifters, featuring everything from bears to hedgehogs. (Oh yes, there is an erotic werehedgehog novel out there. Ouch).

Mounted by the Gryphon, Taken by the T-Rex covers

These are real books. You’ve gotta love the prehistoric gold lame and denim

Which brings me to… dinoerotica. There is a series of books about nubile cavegirls in very un-prehistoric lingerie who get it on with dinosaurs. These books are worth writing if only for the titles; Ravished by a Raptor, Taken by the T-Rex, Banged by a Brontosaurus, Going Down on a Diplodocus (I made the last two up). Haven’t read them so I’m not going to comment on their literary merit, but hell, I wish I’d thought of them…

Instead, I came up with a contemporary time-travel romance (title pending. Something to do with dream and time. Dreamtime maybe). Which seems horribly tame next to were-squirrels and raunchy raptors, but I’m going to stick with it. For now.