Saturday, February 10, 2007

Saturday Surprise - FinDaBoo Tips

So, in the year that Pink Heart Society members have pledged to Finish The Damn Book we're a month into the new year and we're back with some tips from our very own Natasha Oakley...

I have to hold my hand up here and say I'm an instinctive writer. I don't fill out character charts, I have the vaguest idea of where I'm headed, I don't do a rough first draft but tidy everything as I go and I've not spent much time reading 'how to' books.

For this reason, unlike Ally, Trish and Nic, I've not attempted to blog about my writing progress in any detail. You really don't want to know!

I decided to write my first book soon after my husband was diagnosed with cancer. At the time my youngest child was a year old and we had four others all under the age of seven. I kind of looked around me, thought about the responsibilities I had, and made the decision that I was going to have to stop working as an actress. There was no way I could pack my bag, wave at my children and say 'mummy will be home in ten weeks'.

It was an incredibly painful decision. Since the age of fourteen my entire life had revolved around theatre. It was 'who' I was and what I did but, when I looked at things clearly, I knew I had no choice. We settled ourselves into a routine of childcare and chemo.

By eight in the evening the house was quiet and everyone but me was in bed. That was when I first flipped open my husband's laptop and thought 'lots of actors write so I'll try that'.

Within the first couple of evenings I was fairly sure I'd found a new direction for my life. I'm blogging on eHarlequin this month and I've already said something there about how transferable the skills are between acting and writing. Writing dialogue and creating three dimensional characters came very easily to me.

Other things did not! My first 'book' had no plot at all. I kept going because it was theraputic and because I rather liked the characters I'd created.

Then I decided to get serious.

The first decision any aspiring author has to make is about what they want to write. At this point I'd never read a Mills & Boon and, if I'd thought to give an opinion on them, I would have been as scathing as anyone you've ever heard.

I decided to target M&B because they were short - and I'm essentially lazy and don't like to put in too much effort - and because I thought it would be easy. I often think about that when I'm struggling!

I borrowed eighty or so titles from the library over the course of the next few weeks.

The very first M&B I read was 'The Convenient Fiance' by Jessica Hart and, much to my surprise, I loved it. (How can you not love a book with a heroine in it who shares your passion for shoes???)

That's my first top tip. Read. And read some more. I made a mistake here in that I borrowed all my books from the library (and that's a good idea, too) but I should have made a point of looking at the 'breakthrough' books of new authors alongside the 'bestsellers'.

As of today, the newest 'Presents' author to be bought is Kate Hewitt - and you won't be able to read her book until December 2007 at the earliest. Remember that books hitting the shelves now were, more often than not, written about a year ago and lots can change in that time. It's not one hundred per cent reliable but new books by first time authors are the most up-to-date information about what is being bought for any particular line and you need to be aware of that.

My first submission hit it entirely wrong. At the time the 'traditional' line was pushing 'fresh, fun and flirty' and I knew I wasn't writing that. I aimed for 'Presents' and came very close. I had two lots of revisions, an editor who 'loved it' - but the book failed to sell because it sat on the cusp between two lines and that wasn't where they were acquiring.

Kimberley Young, sitting on a grassy hillock at an RNA conference, said her gut feeling was that I should aim squarely for 'tender'. She felt my characters were 'tender' and my plot pure 'presents' and, on the basis that plot is much easier to change than character ...

I went with her suggestion!

My second top tip - is Kate Walker.

Joining the RNA was a stroke of genius. As an unpublished member of the Romantic Novelists' Association you're given a critique on one manuscript each year. I had no way of knowing who my critique was from but a cursory glance told me I needed to pay very close attention. Not only were there five pages of detailed criticism in a 'report', my 'reader' had gone through my ms and put little pencil ticks where I'd done something she liked and lots of 'cut for pace' notes through chunks of dialogue she thought should be gone.

I wrote my thank you letter, opened my wip and hit delete at all the 'cut for pace' parts. What was left became the basis of my 'near miss'. Later Kate came forward and introduced herself, giving me generous encouragement. Without the lessons I learnt from my RNA report I doubt Kimberley Young would have offered to 'hold my hand through my next submission'.

Fortunately, Kate has written the book. It's the only 'how to' book I've read and I can't think there's much more that needs to be said.

Kate has agreed to blog here for us this month on The Common Mistakes you should avoid when starting to write a Category Romance - so pop by and pick up some sterling advice from the author of the 12 Point Guide and take advantage of the chance to ask her some questions!!! If we get enough interest we might even twist her arm to do a follow up on the Loop... where Pink Heart Society Member, Kate Hewitt, has JUST SOLD to Harlequin Presents!!!! Our VERY FIRST! (Look out for her in next months line up of Call Stories on Writer's Wednesday!)

So how is your FinDaBoo going - have you been plotting and planning, doing lots of reading to decide on a line or have you actually started? Come by and tell us...Get some moral support... and some words of encouragement... Or even a word or two of advice!

Natasha's newest release, 'Crowned: An Ordinary Girl', is available in store in both the United Kingdom and North America. Also online eharlequin.

Read an excerpt here.

You can check to see how Natasha is getting on with her life, her diet and the misbehaving daughter of her current hero at her Blog.

And, throughout February, Natasha is blogging on Come and play by clicking here.


  1. Hey gals and Natasha

    Thanks heaps for your story of beginning writing. I guess I'm in the early stages of finding my feet in category, although I've been writing other things for years. Actually similar to Natasha, a writing friend of mine and I had a bet that we'd both write an M&B in a year. That was last May. To date, I've finished one (which is about to have a major rewrite) and am half way through my second. Initially I thought I was targetting Desire but now think I'm more ModEx - or perhaps I'm on the fence in between *ARGH*.

    I wish the RWA Australia had a scheme like the English one, where new writers get a mss critiqued, cos that's what I'm finding hardest. I have some great crit parters but they are critting one chapter here and there, which I'm not sure is the most useful way.

    Anyway I'll shut up now... can you tell I'm at work and have more time than when I'm at hom.

    Oh, you wanted to know what stage I'm at of FinDaBoo... 36000 words into a 60000 word mss.

  2. I second Natasha's advice about Kate's book - it's brilliant -

  3. Thank you Natasha, the cheque is in the post!

    Seriously, Natasha has made some important points in her story - particularly the need to find the line you should be writing for.

    One of the hardest things I find when I'm working with new writers is to point them in the direction of the line they should be writing for - not the line they want to be writing for but the line where they belong, where their voice fits and the line fits them like a glove.

    Lots of these new writers have 'rough hewn' ideas of what makes a Presents/a Romance/a Desire . . .insert any line here and they are constantly trying to force square pegs into round holes and then wondering why their ms comes back with - we enjoyed this, but . . .

    As Natasha says one of the most importants ways to learn which line is for you is to read extensively.

    I was thrilled when Natasha was one of the writers I have worked with on the New Writers' Scheme or my other courses who made it to publication. (The list is growing satisfyingly long now!). She has such a special voice that I never doubted she would make it - and I'm delighted to see the success she's earning - deservedly so.

    Congratulations Natasha! Here's to many more books, nominations and an award - or two!



  4. Natasha,

    I enjoyed your blog so much. There's something about that story of how someone started writing and then eventually made 'the breakthrough' that I just can't resist. Yours was particularly inspiring.

    And your tips are so spot on. If I'd never joined RWAustralia I just know I wouldn't be published. And as for reading the books...well, it would be impossible. You hit the nail on the head when you spoke about reading new books too. I have some old favourites I love to reread, but as an aspiring author, so much was about learning from current releases.

    Rachael, as for getting input on your manuscript in Australia, you have several options. RWA runs lots of competitions which are designed for that very purpose. Also there are RWA sponsored groups and a mentor scheme too, where aspiring writers are paired with more experienced ones. All are great places to pick up some feedback on your work.

    Good luck to everyone trying to finish their book! (And to me about to start one!!).


  5. Hello Natasha, I, like many others, am massively excited about being able to pick Kate's brains this month. I hope she knows what she's letting herself in for!
    I'm up to about 28k now once I've transcribed the scribble I produced last night whilst doing the ironing and making dinner. I have a plot and a rough idea of which way each chapter is going but can't pin myself down to exactly what the ultimate black moment(s) will be. I've a few options. I think I will have to see which way my characters take me for a bit longer. (someone is going to tell me this is a fatal error now aren't they?!)
    Anyway, my biggest problem is discipline. I spend far too much time having fun in cyberspace when I should be reading and writing (not to mention all the other Mummy stuff!).
    Love to all,

  6. Rachel, I've often read that you need to know your 'black moment' before you start - but I rarely do. Every book I've written has been slightly different in its birth but I reckon I know what it will be when I'm about midway through.