A Bicycle Made for Two: first chapter

bicycle-cover-webA Bicycle Made for Two is due to be published by Mirror Books as an ebook on 5th February 2018, and in paperback on 5th April 2018.

Preorder the paperback on Amazon

Chapter 1

My Friday nights were not like other girls’, I reflected as I laced up the black leather corset.

Tom poked his head around the bedroom door just as I’d finished tucking in my cleavage.

‘You ready yet, wench? It’s been your shift for five minutes.’

I jumped. ‘God, learn to knock, can you? I could be starkers in here.’

‘Excellent, I’ve always said we need to try something different on the weekends. Funbags Friday, we’ll call it. Corner the lad market.’

‘Yeah, and you can explain to Dad why you’ve reinvented the place as a family Hooters bar.’

‘Look, hurry up. I need to take over in the kitchen so Deano can go for his break. He’ll play pop if we keep him waiting.’

‘Ok, ok, keep your jerkin on,’ I said, stuffing my dark brown curls inside the unattractive Mrs Tiggy-Winkle mop cap that went with my costume.

He wasn’t wrong. Ever since Dad had become too ill to keep up with cooking duties, it felt like we’d been dancing round our diva-ish new chef Deano. Dad said a temperament like that was the sign of true talent. Tom said it was the sign of an arse.

I laced up the leather boots and stood to examine myself in the mirror.

Ugh.

‘All right, I’m ready. Come zip me.’

‘Hey, treat for you tonight,’ Tom said, grinning at me in the mirror as he fastened my skirt. ‘Mr Squeezy Sauce. Thought I’d save him for you, I knew you’d want to give him the star treatment.’

‘Harper Brady? He’s here?’

‘Yep. Can’t wait to tell Dad.’

I shook my head. ‘Not tonight, Tom. He’s not good at the moment.’

He frowned. ‘Bad afternoon?’

‘Yeah. Gerry’s sitting with him now.’

‘Ok, if you close up I’ll relieve Gerry after my shift.’ He patted my arm. ‘You take a night off Dad duty. You look jiggered.’

‘I am a bit. Thanks, bruv.’ I turned to face him. ‘So what do you think Brady’s doing here? I wouldn’t have thought he’d be caught dead in a place like this.’

Tom shrugged. ‘Maybe he fancied slumming it for a change. Hey, think we can get a signed photo to put behind the bar? It’d be great PR.’

I curled my lip. ‘You can ask if you want. You know I don’t groupie.’

‘Come on, you nearly wet yourself when that boyband bloke came in last year.’

I tilted my nose, trying to look superior. ‘That was different. He was childhood nostalgia. That band were massive when we were kids.’

‘Yeah, childhood nostalgia you wanted to hump.’

‘I did not. Shut up.’

‘Still. Harper Brady,’ Tom said, a faraway look in his eyes. ‘I bet he’s the biggest name we’ve had in.’

‘He certainly knocks that bloke from Last of the Summer Wine out of the water.’ I groaned. ‘God, I hope he doesn’t expect special treatment. Celebrity diners give me a pain. If he tries to order off the menu he can explain it to Deano himself, see how he likes the heavy end of a skillet.’

Still, as celeb customers went I had to admit Tom was right: this one was a pretty big deal. Oh, we got the occasional soap actor or washed-up pop star coming along to check us out – the quirky medieval theme restaurant with the pulled hog platters and spiced mead on tap, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Then when they’d had a good laugh, off they buggered back to their usual highbrow dining establishments to tell people how hilariously ironic they were. We didn’t mind. A visit from a name was usually good for a few weeks’ spike in business.

But we’d never had a name as big as Harper Brady.

The family were well-known locally. Harper’s mum Sonia had made a mint back in the nineties when she’d patented a design for the upside-down squeezy ketchup bottle, and when she’d passed away, her only son had got it all. He’d lived it up as a jetsetting playboy for a while, then, not content with being a gentleman of leisure, he’d blown the lot on acting lessons in the hope he could make a name for himself in TV.

If there was any divine justice, that would’ve been the end of the story. A few acting tutors would be living the high life on the squeezy sauce millions and Harper Brady, spoilt trust fund kid extraordinaire, would be forced to get a proper nine-to-five like everyone else. But no. In the most irritating twist of fate ever, it turned out he was actually bloody good at acting. Now he was twice as rich and just as handsome, with a legion of adoring fans and a string of TV credits to his name.

I made a mental note to make him wait for his food.

Downstairs in the restaurant, I spotted Harper near the front of the queue. He was perfectly groomed as always, in a designer suit and tie – I mean, a waistcoat and everything, talk about overdressed – with his long flaxen hair stylishly gelled like he was the lost member of One Direction.

I couldn’t tell if the good-looking, slightly scruffy man he was chatting to was with him or if they’d just struck up a conversation. However, there were certainly eyebrows raising among the other waiting diners. He preened slightly when he clocked the looks of recognition directed towards him, all the while talking to his friend as if he hadn’t noticed a thing.

I screwed on my brightest customer smile for the middle-aged couple at the front of the queue.

‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’

‘It is, it’s him!’ the woman in the loud purple hat hissed to her husband. ‘It is, I know it.’

I hemmed loudly to command their attention. No response.

‘It’s nice when stars patronise these little local places, isn’t it?’ her husband whispered back.

I tried again. ‘It’s just, there’s rather a queue, so if you wouldn’t mind—’

‘Yes, yes, dear.’ The woman lowered her voice and leaned forward confidentially, enveloping me in a cloud of evening primrose. ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that’s Harper Brady behind us.’

‘Lovely. So if you could just give me the name your reservation’s under, I can get you to your table.’

The woman turned back to her husband. ‘I’m going to ask for a photo with him,’ she whispered.

‘Go on, go on,’ her husband said, nodding vigorously.

‘I will. I’m going to do it.’ The woman giggled. ‘Will I do it?’

‘Yes, do it!’ Her husband smiled at me. ‘I’m sure the young lady can wait.’

There were mutterings now as those waiting wondered what the hold-up was.

‘Well no, actually—’ I began, but the woman had already turned to face Harper.

‘Oh, Mr Brady, is it really you?’ she asked, her mouth forming an O of fake surprise. Harper looked round, annoyed at having his conversation interrupted.

‘No, it’s really Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago.’

The woman carried on beaming, failing to notice the sarcasm. ‘Me and my husband are such huge fans,’ she gushed. ‘We’ve seen everything you’ve ever been in. Everything, even back when no one had heard of you.’

Harper scowled. It was clear the suggestion there was ever a time he’d been less than megastar famous displeased him.

‘I don’t suppose you’d consider letting me take a photo of the two of us?’ the woman blundered on. ‘My friends will never believe me.’

‘A selfie?’ Harper curled his lip. ‘I couldn’t consent to anything so crass, I’m sorry.’

The woman’s face fell. ‘Perhaps… an autograph then?’

Harper lowered his voice. ‘Look, lady, I’m here to enjoy a quiet night with a few close friends. I don’t appreciate having my identity broadcast to all and sundry, and I appreciate still less having my conversation interrupted by fat menopausal hatstands. How about a little respect for my privacy?’ He lifted his voice so I could hear. ‘I don’t know why the staff here allow their customers to be badgered this way. Disgraceful.’

The woman sagged. ‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘I didn’t think you’d mind.’

‘Well I do.’ Harper looked as if he might be incubating a few more choice insults to go with his hatstand line, and I came out from behind the desk to rescue the situation.

‘Follow me,’ I said firmly to the woman and her husband. ‘Never mind about the name.’ Looking hurt and bewildered, the two shuffled along behind me to an empty table, where I left them gazing with unseeing eyes at the wine list.

I beckoned to Jasmine, our pretty teenage waitress, and she came shimmying over. Somehow on her tiny, swaying hips, ‘medieval tavern wench’ looked pure catwalk.

‘Get them a free bottle of whatever they want, with our apologies,’ I muttered. ‘My dad’ll go spare if he hears about this.’

‘Right.’ Jasmine went to take the couple’s drink order, and I headed back behind my desk. The smile I summoned for Harper Brady was anything but warm, and possibly threateningly toothsome.

‘Welcome to Here Be Flagons. Can I take the name you booked under please?’

Harper acted as though he hadn’t heard, chatting away to the man with the rumpled sandy curls.

I leaned across the desk to give his shoulder an irritated tap. ‘There are people waiting, so if you can make it quick, sir—’

Harper turned to me with surprise. ‘I’m sorry, what?’

‘The name you booked under. I’ll need it to seat you.’

‘Seriously? You’re asking my name?’ He let out a short laugh, rolling his eyes at his friend, and leaned forward to let me get a closer look at his face. ‘How’s this, good enough?’

I stared impassively into his eyes. ‘Look, if you haven’t made a reservation I can’t let you in. We’re full tonight.’

‘You must be joking! I’ve been queueing quarter of an hour.’

I was enjoying myself now, doing my best nightclub-bouncer-with-a-dictator-complex. I folded my arms across my chest.

‘Sorry, mate. No reservation, no entry.’ After a second’s pause, I added, ‘More than my job’s worth.’

BAM. Have that, Harper Brady. I’d always wanted to say that.

‘Look, I don’t have time for this. I’m meeting my agent, I have to—’ He drew a deep breath and lowered his voice. ‘Come on, don’t pretend you don’t know who I am. You know my name.’

I kept my expression fixed. ‘I can promise you I don’t.’

He goggled. ‘You’re having me on. Haven’t you seen Stitch? The Chester Files?’ He reeled off a load more of his TV credits, but I remained inflexible.

‘No. What’re they, films?’

The way his mouth fell open was worth losing out on the PR value of a big-name diner. Next to him, the handsome friend’s mouth twitched at the corners.

‘Look, maybe I can sort this out before we both starve to death,’ the other man said.

He pushed Harper behind him and leaned one arm against the desk, letting the twitch at the corner of his lips spread into a warm smile. After hesitating a second, I returned it. Next to him, Harper almost reeled to see his friend’s charm working where his celebrity had failed.

‘We booked online,’ he said. ‘It’s under my friend here’s name.’

‘Which is?’

‘Tell her,’ he said to Harper.

‘Fine. Harper Brady,’ Harper said sulkily. He scrutinised my face for any sign the name meant something, but I let go of not a flicker.

‘Ok, yes, there’s a booking here for Brady,’ I said, scanning my reservation list. ‘Can I see some ID please? Sorry, but we are very busy. When there’s a lot of demand for tables I have to be extra cautious.’

Total bollocks, obviously, but I was having bags of fun.

‘God! What is this, the Ivy?’ Harper pulled out his wallet and shoved a driving licence in my direction. ‘You know, I’ll be making a complaint about this to your manager. Bloody ridiculous.’

‘For what, doing my job?’ For form’s sake I checked his ID and ticked him off the list.

‘For being deliberately rude and obstructive. Don’t think I’m joking.’

I saw him scanning my cleavage, jutting out in the nothing-to-the-imagination leather corset, while he told me off. He wasn’t above having a perve in his righteous anger then.

‘Come on, what’s his name, your manager? He’ll be receiving an email about your conduct.’ He sneered unpleasantly. ‘Have fun on the dole queue, love.’

‘It’s a her actually. Lana Donati.’

‘Right. And what’s yours?’

‘Lana Donati.’

His friend snorted, then quickly turned it into a cough. Harper grabbed his driving licence, shot me a last resentful glare and stormed off into the restaurant.

‘Bit hard on him, weren’t you?’ his friend said. ‘Not that it wasn’t hilarious.’

‘Couldn’t help myself. I heard what he said to that fan before.’

The man smiled. ‘So you do know who he is.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, smiling back. ‘But don’t let on, eh?’

He made a zipping motion across his lips. ‘Not a word.’

‘So what’s your connection to him?’ I scanned the athletic figure and broad chest. ‘Not his minder, are you?’

He laughed. ‘No, I’m his cousin, sadly.’ He held out a hand. ‘Stewart McLean.’

‘Oh, right,’ I said, shaking the hand absently. The name sounded vaguely familiar. ‘Family meal?’

‘Research date actually. Harper’s got a part as a cyclist. He’s been shadowing me the last few days.’

‘You cycle?’

‘Occasionally. Anyway, I get a consultant credit, so, you know, pretty cool.’ He glanced over his shoulder at the queue. ‘Oh. Sorry everyone, I’m holding you up.’

He stood to one side to let me deal with the other customers, but he didn’t go sit with his cousin. Actually, when I glanced over to Harper’s table I saw he’d been joined by someone else – a busty blonde woman in an almost invisible black dress who’d been seated by herself at the bar for the last half-hour. Charmless git that he was, the man didn’t seem to want for company.

When I’d dealt with the last pair’s reservation and Jasmine had taken them to their table, I turned to Stewart.

‘So. Sounds like you’re going to be a star,’ I said.

‘No autographs, please.’ He tossed his curls comically. ‘You really manage this place, Lana?’

‘Actually I own it – well, my family does. My dad bought it when he emigrated from Italy and turned it into this place.’ I gestured round the candlelit room, plastered all over with mounted boars’ heads, replica halberds and painted coats of arms while Dad’s favourite CD, Harpsichord Renaissance, played on a loop in the background. It felt like a Chaucer lecturer’s drug-fuelled nightmare.

‘It’s original, I’ll give him that.’ Stewart followed my gaze, taking it all in. ‘Why the medieval theme though? I mean, not that the costume doesn’t suit you, but it’s a bit… well, Here Be Flagons? Yikes.’

‘You don’t need to tell me,’ I said, smiling. ‘Just his sense of humour, I suppose. Only my dad could build a business around a single pun.’

‘Is he working tonight?’ Stewart asked. ‘A pun-obsessed Italian with a medieval history fetish sounds like someone I need to meet.’

I flushed. ‘No, not tonight. He’s… not well.’

‘Ah, right. Maybe another time.’

‘No, I mean he’s really not well.’ I had no idea why I was telling him that, this stranger. The words just seemed to fall out of me. ‘Cancer, you know? Bastard cancer.’ I cast my eyes down. ‘Terminal.’

‘Oh God,’ Stewart said, a look of concern spreading over his features. ‘I’m so sorry, Lana.’

I shrugged. ‘Not your fault, is it?’

He looked puzzled. ‘Well, no. That’s just what people say. You know, when they…’

‘…when they don’t know what to say,’ I finished for him, smiling. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude. Years of inhaling soup fumes has sent my sense of humour careering into the surreal a bit. If I make you uncomfortable, feel free not to tip.’

His puzzled expression lifted into a smile. ‘No, I like you. You’re kind of weird and funny.’

‘Gee, thanks.’

‘Don’t be offended: attractive qualities in a tavern wench. They lend her that air of sophisticated unpredictability that always leaves you checking for your wallet.’

I laughed. ‘If that was a chat-up line, it needs work.’

‘It wasn’t.’

I blushed, wondering if I’d misjudged the flirting. ‘I know. Just a joke.’

‘This one’s going to be though. Fancy grabbing a drink sometime?’

The blush deepened, with a more pleasant sensation this time. ‘Er, yeah. That sounds nice.’

‘When are you free? Next week?’

‘Thursday’s good. That’s our quiet night so I can get off early.’

‘Pick you up at eight then?’

‘Yep, perfect.’

‘You know, for the first time tonight I’m glad I let Harper talk me into coming out.’ Stewart sighed theatrically. ‘Suppose I’d better join him, before Legs 11 over there smothers him to death. See you, Lana.’

My writing process

I’m dipping into an interesting guide at the moment between major edits on my next book. It’s called How to Write Like A Bestselling Author: Secrets of Success from 50 of the World’s Greatest Writers. The writer is Tony Rossiter, who I mainly know as a columnist for Dalesman in a regular slot as the magazine’s “offcumden” (a dialect word for a newcomer from outside the county, for those not in the know).

There are a million and one “how to write a bestseller” books, but this one’s a bit different. It recognises entirely that what works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, and instead focuses on the practices of individual authors and what we can learn from them. Jane Austen, Roald Dahl, JG Ballard, Bill Bryson, two of the three Brontës, Dan Brown and many others – it’s a diverse line-up.

Each entry covers the author’s major works and influences, how they got into writing, and the most interesting part to me, their writing routine.

I’m always fascinated by other writers’ daily routines and how different they are. I heard from a well-known and long-established writer of romantic comedies recently that she sets herself to write 1000 words a day, sitting on the sofa, with breakfast television on in the background to provide plot or character inspiration. And, she remarked, she had to fight for every word. Meanwhile, one of her contemporaries dashes out 2000 words before 8am so she has the rest of her day free. Empire of the Sun author JG Ballard, I just discovered, used to write 700 words a day five days a week, putting aside two hours in the late morning and two in the early afternoon for writing, before going for a walk to ponder the next day’s writing.

Personally, when I’m drafting I aim for 2000 words a day minimum, seven days a week. If I feel I can write more, I often do, keeping going until my invention gives up. This allows me to finish a first draft in six weeks. For my last draft, which I needed to finish quickly due to other commitments, I aimed for 3000 words a day and finished within a month. The discipline of daily word counts was something that was really hammered home to me while writing my first novel, which I did for the NaNoWriMo event in 2015.

I don’t have a dedicated writing space at home (although I’m working on getting one!). Generally I work sitting on the bed with my laptop, listening to instrumental music (nothing with words while I’m writing, ideally: I find it distracting). I also squeeze in as many words as possible on my morning and evening commutes during the working day, and in my lunch break. Part of my commute involves a two-mile walk, which I always use to plot out scenes in my head so that when I get to where I’m going – either the train or my house – I’m ready to dive straight in.

I use my iPad to write during the working day, to save me lugging my laptop around. On both laptop and iPad, I use the Scrivener program, which I really love, backing up to Dropbox so I know I won’t lose anything. At the end of each day, I track my word count using an online project planner called Pacemaker, which helps me keep track of whether I’m staying on top of targets.

I don’t go too far with planning, as I know the stories in my head morph drastically when I actually start writing them. Each new novel starts with a loose synopsis, a few thousand words describing where I think the story will go. I don’t do character sheets, preferring to learn who they are as I write them. Every now and then, when I can see the story’s going in a different direction to the one planned, I’ll write a fresh version of my synopsis based on what I think should now happen. But I don’t let what’s in the synopsis constrict me if it doesn’t feel right when I come to write it.

Some writers will recommend absolutely no reading back or editing until a first draft is complete. Personally, I find it helpful to go back and read through what I’ve written at regular intervals – usually every 25,000 words – to refamiliarise myself with my story. I will make minor edits at that stage, although refrain from cutting large chunks until the draft’s complete. I also tend to read back the previous scene every morning before beginning that day’s writing.

I tend to overwrite, so my first drafts always come in too long – usually around the 110,000-word mark. Once complete, my first job is to go through and cut a minimum of 20,000 words. This usually takes two full read-throughs. I’ll then do one or two more full edits, to polish, before sending to my beta readers for their feedback.

After making any changes I feel need to be made based on their opinions, the manuscript goes to my agent. She will usually have much heavier structural edits to suggest, often in stages – I took my last book, for example, through four rounds of structural edits with my agent before she was satisfied with the story. It then went to my editor, who guided it through a further couple of rounds of revision. So while a first draft may take as little as six weeks to write, the work then required to make it worthy of being a published novel takes a lot longer. My last book, Meet Me at the Lighthouse, was over a year in the making, and about half of what was in my original first draft didn’t make the final cut. It gets easier to be ruthless when it comes to cutting, I’ve found – it felt painful in the early days! Now, I try not to get too attached to any darlings I know I might later need to kill.

So, that’s what I’ve found works for me. Other authors will have their own ways of working. I think for me though, the most helpful thing is setting a daily word count and sticking to it, whether it’s a few hundred words or a few thousand. Once those words are down on the page, you’ve got the clay ready to start modelling your novel.

How I wrote (another) book

Ignore that title, it’s a fib. This isn’t really a post about how I wrote a book because no author really writes a book. They build a book, layer on layer, putting in, taking out, kneading disjointed scenes and chapters back together like word dough until they have something that reads like a seamless story. This is a post about how my word dough became a book.

I started writing my second novel, Meet Me at the Lighthouse, in March 2016. Although it will be the second book I’ve had published, it’s actually the third manuscript I’ve completed – the second, a romantic comedy about a pub quiz team in the Yorkshire Dales, is currently sitting in editing purgatory until I have time to pay it some attention.

I started Meet Me with a one-word premise: lighthouse. From the days of my Portland Bill wallpaper, aged four, I’ve loved lighthouses: something about that isolated, haunting quality they seem to have, I think. I was intrigued by the idea of using one in a novel; not just as a setting, but as a key part of the plot.

So I improvised the first scene, in which my hero and heroine meet at said lighthouse, then plotted out the rest. Some writers like to have a complete plot before they write a word, “pantsers” prefer to wing it, and for me it’s somewhere in between: improvise a scene or two, plot, a few more scenes, replot, and so on. I rarely do character sheets before starting work: I prefer to write scenes for them and get to know them as I go. Even scenes that are eventually cut can be an important way to learn about and develop your characters.

I decided my lighthouse was going to be a music venue on the Yorkshire coast, because wouldn’t that be just amazing? And as with my debut novel The Honey Trap, which I’d written during NaNoWriMo the November before, I set myself the target of writing 2000 words a day minimum until in six weeks I had a first draft.

Like all my first drafts, it was a bloated thing – 115,000 words – and even after editing and polishing, it was still far too long. I’ve worked as a professional copy-editor and proofreader in my day job for over a decade, which you might think would mean that the edit would be the easy part, but there’s actually nothing I find harder. It’s difficult to hack apart your own work, which you know almost by heart, and structural editing – fixing problems with pacing, plot and consistency – is a very different thing from cleaning up typos and grammar errors. However, I was still pleased enough with my work to start subbing it to agents, which is how I got my lovely agent Laura Longrigg at MBA.

And that was when the work really started! It was wonderful to work with an agent with a strong editorial background, and Laura’s suggestions on plot, pace and characterisation were invaluable. After four rounds of edits, I had two new characters, many new plot developments and I’d cut 20,000 words from the length. It was a slog but it was worth it; with Laura’s help I managed to make it a much stronger book than it had been when she signed me, and I’ll always be grateful that she saw its potential from the start. A new two-book contract was negotiated with HarperImpulse, my publisher for The Honey Trap, and the manuscript delivered to them.

But just as I was breathing a sigh of relief that all the hard work was over, along came another round of structural edits from the publisher. Another couple of rewrites, working with my fabulous editors Charlotte Ledger and Samantha Gale at HarperImpulse, added new backstory and plot developments, and addressed some issues with pacing. Then came the line edits, then the copy-edits, and then, at last, the words were a book! The final wordcount for Meet Me is around 85,000 words, but I’d estimate I must’ve produced twice that many if you include material that was cut or rewritten. I wouldn’t be surprised if I took out more than I put in. Which sounds soul-destroying, but actually, once done, I felt strangely cleansed – and the book felt a lot more streamlined.

So in summary, writing-layering-creating a book is hard but amazing, and easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Please remind me I said that when I’m mired in edits on the next one, groaning softly…

Meet Me at the Lighthouse is out from 30th June and available to preorder now.

Golden giveaway for Oscars season!

IMG_2591With its cast of sexy film producers, glamorous actors and no-holds-barred journalists, The Honey Trap is the perfect read for Academy Awards season. That’s why the With Love for Books blog is holding an international giveaway that will get you feeling you’re treading that plush red carpet for yourself.

One lucky reader of the blog will win a signed paperback of The Honey Trap, prosecco (if your country’s customs will allow it) and a Grand Ferrero Rocher. To enter, just visit the blog and scroll down for giveaway.

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The Honey Trap is out today for Kindle!

Honey-Trap-Pub-day-images-quote3Proud to announce that publication day is finally here for my debut novel The Honey Trap! Described by reviewers as “a fun-filled sexy romp of a read”, “a solid, polished and bloody good debut novel” and “a thoroughly enjoyable tale with humour and warmth”, The Honey Trap sprang on to ebook readers at midnight last night. Get your copy now – only 99p!

Blurb

The trap is set – but which one of them is the bait?

Journalist Angel Blackthorne is looking for her next big scoop. When her sleazy editor asks her to use her charms on super successful – and married – film director Sebastian Wilchester for a juicy exposé, Angel thinks what the hell? There’s a staff job on the horizon, and, let’s be honest, no one can make a cheater cheat if they don’t want to, right?

After the scandal breaks, Angel tries to put the story – and Seb – behind her, but fate seems to have other ideas. A near miss at a premiere after-party and a shared love of vintage film brings the honey closer to the trap.

But what happens when pretence leads to passion, and a ‘kiss and tell’ becomes something real?

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Thoughts on finishing my second manuscript

Whooptedoo and huzzar! Filled the final hole in my current WIP, tentatively titled Quiz Team, today, bringing the first draft word count to 103,577.

So what did I learn this time around compared to my first finished novel, The Honey Trap?

The Honey Trap was my first long work of fiction, after many abortive attempts to write a full-length novel over the years (usually caving in after about 3000 words). In order to avoid hitting that same old wall again, I sat down and wrote out a full plot using a loose version of the snowflake method, carefully divided into chapters. Then I sat down to write my story linearly from chapter one.

Of course, as I wrote and got to know my characters, the plot took me in directions I hadn’t foreseen. That was fine: the very fact I had a plot at all gave me a feeling of security, a safety net. A lot of the early scenes, particularly dialogue, were then rewritten with what I’d come to know about my characters in mind.

Quiz Team, on the other hand, was pure pantsing from start to finish. To begin with I had a strong idea of characters, could hear them speaking, but only the flimsiest idea of plot. So I wrote snatches of dialogue here, there and everywhere from all over their timelines, developed the characters and created plots and sub-plots for them as I went. Then I went back and filled in the holes.

It felt like the dialogue was very authentic, and I was quite proud of some segments, but the plot and transition scenes were meandering and the overall effect was patchwork. I don’t know, that might be first draft exhaustion talking: I suspect I had a similar feeling about The Honey Trap when I’d finished it, but when I read it back it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Dreading the edit on Quiz Team, however, especially the sagging middle, and praying it isn’t an unsalvageable mess…

So, not sure still whether I’m a planner or a pantser by nature and which method I prefer. Something in the middle I think!

I wanna tell you a story…

Robotic eye design
I couldn’t find a picture to go with this, so here’s a design for a robotic eye I did last year

Sit down. I wanna tell you a story, to quote the late, great toothbrush fancier and crooner Max Bygraves.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time there was a small child who dreamed of one day being a writer. Possibly in a lighthouse, or a spaceship.

Yes, it’s one of those stories, all about “my journey”: the kind I could use to kick off my appearance on the author version of X-Factor. Hmmm… they should do an author version of X-Factor. I’d watch that.

Sorry, sorry, lost the thread… where was I? Oh yes. The little child dreamed of being a writer, and she wrote and wrote: bizarre, often plagiarised fantasy tales of shrinking unicorns, psychic twins and magic frogs, convinced through the cocky optimism of youth that one day her dreams would all come true.

Many years later, the little child, grown to adult’s estate (well, sort of) was studying English at Durham University. She decided now was the time to make the dream a reality. So she sat at a keyboard and she started tapping out a story. A romantic story, about a journalist with red hair who takes no sass from nobody, and a sexy man with unruly chestnut curls…

But it turns out writing is hard, man. Three thousand words in, the child-student-woman looked at what she’d written, dismissed it as a pile of utter tosh and hid it away in a folder on her computer, never to be looked at again.

And that could have been the end of the story. Three years of studying the greatest works of literature ever written left, alright let’s drop the third person already, left me (ahhhh, you never saw it coming, eh?) with a big confidence problem and no wish to write ever again.

Some ten years later, I finally got the urge to pick up a pen again. My writing didn’t have to be good, I reasoned. It didn’t have to be read by anyone to be balm for the soul. So I started scratching out bits and pieces, usually non-fiction, until eventually I could read it back and think “you know, some of this isn’t all that bad”. I even got up enough nerve to let others read it. And finally, I found I was having my little bits and pieces of articles published in local magazines – and that people were enjoying them, and telling me they wanted to read more.

But it took NaNoWriMo – which, for those not in the know, is short for National Novel Writing Month – to finally make me go back to fiction.

It started with a challenge: my boss, hearing my tongue-in-cheek claim that I could’ve been the next big thing on the romance scene if I’d finished my university novel (also that I’d had the original idea for Harry Potter and I could easily have been a pro cage fighter), told me I should dig it out and go back to it. That got me thinking… maybe there could be a novel in me after all. Still, if I hadn’t discovered the NaNoWriMo forums and the fabulous supportive community there, I don’t think the story in my head would ever have made it to paper.

Armed with a new mantra provided by my NaNo forum buddies – push on into the white space, and don’t look back at what you’ve written till it’s done – I revisited the contemporary romance I’d planned at uni. The hero was originally supposed to be an aristocrat. Well, the grown-up me had no time for aristocrats but a great love of vintage film, so instead he became a talented film director. My feisty reporter morphed from a confident woman advanced in her career to an intern struggling to make her mark in the world of journalism. And when I’d written my little heart out through October and November 2015, I had the first draft of my first novel: The Honey Trap.

I won’t lie: when I first looked back at it, it seemed like meandering drivel of the worst kind. But after taking a few passes at editing, trimming off the flaccid areas, I was left with something that didn’t seem too bad. So I recruited a couple of friends and some fellow writers to beta read for me, made some more changes based on their feedback, and finally what I had seemed… well, still just ok, to be honest. But my beta readers seemed to have enjoyed it, and by the time you read your work back for the tenth time it’s hard to get any perspective on how good or bad it is.

It was at that point I realised the manuscript had gone as far as I could take it, and on a mad whim decided to submit to HarperImpulse, the digital first romance imprint from HarperCollins, which was open to unagented submissions. I think my most realistic hope at that point was they would read the MS – their website said they read everything submitted – and maybe provide some useful feedback for further edits in their rejection.

What I didn’t expect was the email I opened from Samantha Gale and Charlotte Ledger on the HarperImpulse team about six weeks later, in February 2016. An email full of praise. An email saying they would be thrilled – yes, that very word, thrilled – to publish The Honey Trap on their list with a few revisions. And of course I got right back to them and said I’d be thrilled too, went home, drank prosecco with ‘im indoors and celebrated my first soon-to-be-published novel.

And I probably lived happily ever after, or I will once I finally wake up…