Sunday, 29 August 2010

Workshop with Kate Walker

My lovely friend Sally went to a workshop last week with prolific Mills and Boon writer, Kate Walker, and very kindly wrote up her notes for this blog. If you are wanting to write longer fiction, womag stories to serials to pocket novels to M&B romances seems a natural progression. Many thanks to both Kate and Sally for this very informative article. If you are inspired by this and want more, do visit Kate's website and consider purchasing her book, A 12-Point Guide to Writing Romance.

Kate Walker’s Workshop

I promised womag I would write a report of my recent visit to Kate Walker’s M&B workshop in Doncaster. As we know many of you who write for womags are also interested in writing romantic fiction, it seemed appropriate. (I met a couple of womag fans there too. Hi girls!)
Kate Walker has been writing for M&B for 25 years, and is one of their top-selling authors. If you read her novels, such as The Good Greek Wife?, you will clearly see why. She is a writer at the top of her craft. That after 25 years she can still write a novel that has me weeping into my tea is, I think, proof of that.

As I don’t want to infringe on any copyrights, I’ve done this in my own words as much as possible. So if I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented Kate in any way that is entirely my fault and not down to her excellent teaching. I should also say that everything I say here is said much better in Kate’s book, 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance (Studymates – ISBN 978-1-84285-131-9 – this book is out of print at the moment as it’s undergoing a revamp but I bought a copy at Kate’s workshop and it is definitely worth having). Also these notes aren’t necessarily in the exact order Kate gave them to us. They’re in the order I remember them, though I have tried to stress her most important points.

Kate’s started with these essential points:

TANR – There Are No Rules

IAITE – It’s All In The Execution

Don’t Imitate – Innovate – in other words, don’t try and write like other M&B writers you’ve read. Use your own voice.

Give the readers what they want – The reason M&B novels are still selling over 100 years after they first started is that they give the readers what they want, and if you want to be an M&B author, you too need to give the readers what they want. This may also mean, assuming you’re lucky to be picked up by M&B, that you will also have to be willing to change with the times, and tailor your novels to the current requirements.

Do read M&B novels, and lots from different imprints, to get an idea of the many different types of story there are.

Kate mentioned those who dismiss M&B romances as ‘formulaic’ (and especially those who think that one writer programmes a computer, churning out novels under different names!). Whilst she accepts that different imprints have different expectations, this is because the readers pick them up expecting a particular type of story. The reason M&B is so popular is because they know what to give their readers. But there is no formula that will create the perfect Mills and Boon novel. However, she advises that there is a framework around which all the books are built.
“getting to know you”+
Lowest point (black moment)+
Happy ending
= Romance

Kate defined: ‘What Is A Romance?’

“A romance novel is the story of a man and a woman who, while solving a problem, discover that the love they feel for each other is the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime – leading to a permanent commitment and a happy ending.”
She made a distinction between a novel that contains a romantic element, and a novel that is all about the romance. M&B novels tend to be all about the romance, though there are some lines such as historical and intrigue where there is another storyline running alongside the romance. These tend to be 70k words, whereas the M&B modern romance lines are only 50k, and are predominantly about the romance.

Kate also said that she chose the word ‘problem’ rather than conflict, because some new writers make the mistake of thinking ‘conflict’ means arguments all the time. She discussed a regular newbie error, where the hero and heroine are screaming at each other all the way through, and only decide they’re in love right at the end. Or where the hero is an utter pig for most of the time, and then only in the last chapter(s) do we realise he’s a nice guy really and that everything he’s done has been for a reason. She stressed the importance of ‘getting to know you time’, where the conflicts are perhaps put aside for a short time, and the hero and heroine begin to learn that their first impression of this person might have been wrong.
She listed the four key elements in order of importance:

A man and a woman (character)
A problem which threatens to keep them apart (conflict)
A once-in-a-lifetime love.
A permanent commitment and happy ending (HEA)

Kate says that character is the most important, and that any conflict must arise from the characters, not vice versa. The hero and heroine realise they are the love of each other’s lives, and there must be a happy ending. It is what the readers of M&B novels expect when they pick up the novels. Again it’s something that’s worked for M&B for over a hundred years, so shouldn’t be knocked.

But it is the characters that matter the most. The heroine needs to be someone the reader (mostly female) will relate to, and the hero a man the reader would want to fall in love with. However, she stressed that whilst the hero may often be described as tall, dark and handsome (apparently they don’t like blonde heroes in some parts of South America), it’s worth remembering that he is being seen through the heroine’s eyes. So he may not be the tallest, most handsome man on earth. But to her he is. I was able to give an example of this from a Penny Jordan novel I’d recently read (The Sicilian Boss’s Mistress), where the hero is terrified the heroine will be attracted to his elder brother. When the heroine meets the elder brother, she concedes he is very handsome, but it is the hero who fulfils her spiritually, intellectually, sexually etc etc. Therefore the hero is the most handsome man in the world for her.

Setting is also important, but Kate says not to make the mistake that all M&B novels have to be set in exotic places. She gave the example from one of her novels where the very rich hero from a tropical climate is stuck in a cottage in the British countryside, where it’s tipping down with rain. What’s important is the effect the setting has on the characters. Are they out of their element? Are they trapped where they are? Even the most luxurious palace in the world can seem like hell when someone is going through an emotional crisis.

Novels must have a beginning, middle and end, and when submitting the first three chapters of a novel (or a chapter for the New Voices competition) it is a good idea to have an ending in mind. Kate gave the example of one writer who was asked for the full manuscript after M&B read her first three chapters. Ten years later M&B are still waiting. As Kate says, what a missed opportunity!

The beginning needs a good hook, and you should never end a chapter with ‘She turned the light out and went to bed’, as this is exactly what your reader will do. End each chapter with a cliffhanger, a closing remark, or anything that is going to want to make the reader carry on reading, even if she knows she has to get up with the kids in the morning.

Emotion is essential. Or as one M&B editor put it ‘emotion, emotion, emotion’. Again as with the conflict, this does not necessarily mean the heroine weeping and wailing all the time, or the couple arguing.

Dialogue is essential. Kate warned against great swathes of unbroken narrative. Narrative tends to slow the pace, whereas dialogue picks the pace up. She suggested a ratio of around 60% dialogue to 40% narrative.

Kate discussed the difference between the 'pivotal moment' (as asked for in the New Voices comp) and the 'black moment'. She explained they could be the same, but for her the pivotal moment is the point at which things change, so in a romance this might mean the heroine realising that far from disliking the hero, she's actually in love with him. The black moment is the moment at which everything seems lost. Perhaps she believes he doesn't love her and that they're never going to have a future together.

We had the chance to ask Kate some questions, and one I asked her was about my trio of sexy northern brothers. Kate kindly suggested I waited until M&B were interested in publishing me before I did that, as such series tend to be by invitation, or something you can pitch when you are established. However, and this is an important point, if you do pitch a series, they want the whole lot at once. This is because they’ll release them at one a month, as readers don’t like to be kept waiting ages for them. So for your first submission, or your competition entry, stick to a stand alone title.

Writing Types - M&B provided a handout listing various types of writer, or traps to fall into. Do you recognise yourself amongst this lot?

The Free Spirit - who has no idea on what her story is or where she's going when she begins her book.

The Procrastinator - who 'writers herself in'. She spends two or three chapters unfolding a long, rambling back-story and setting the scene, and there's no romance or hero-heroine action in sight.

Ms No-Man's-Land who doesn't introduce the hero until chapter two ... or even later!

She Who Saves The Best For Last - and who clings to the assumption that readers (and editors) will be understanding and hang in there until Chapter Four or Five when her romance really gets going.

Me-Me-Me uses lots of descriptive narrative, choosing to tell the story and so inserting herself between the readers and characters, rather than letting characters speak for themselves.

The Party Animal - includes loads of minor characters - but who are the hero and heroine?

The Show Stopper thinks of a great opening line or paragraph and then ... her book goes downhill from there!

Many, many thanks, Sally, for this wonderful write-up. If Kate Walker ever heads south I'll be first to sign up for one of her workshops, which sound very inspiring. And I think I've been all of those writing types, at different times!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Facebook experiment

Don't know what you all think of Facebook - I know many writers are on there. I have a Facebook page: I signed up a few years back when my brother-in-law posted photos of my new nephew online and I just HAD to see them... But I've never really got into it - blogging and the couple of online communities I belong to are enough for me. Or maybe I'm just a bit too old for it...

Anyway, author Nicola Morgan is running an experiment re social networking as a way of getting more people to know about her books. See her post here on the experiment, and if you're a FB fan, consider joining her page here.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A word from Henry

(It's blog takeover day, over at Sally Q's blog. I wasn't going to take part, having barely caught up after my holiday, but my great-great-great-grandfather has other ideas and wants to write something. So, I've given him a crash-course in computers and typing, and am handing my laptop over to him for a while. Not quite sure what he'll write about, but we'll see....)

I have been told many people will read my Diary, if I write it on this Tablet by tapping the buttons marked with the Alphabet. I admit, I do not understand how it all works, but as I press the buttons the letters appear. I'm told too, that others with a similar Tablet will also be able to see my words. It seems an odd way to Communicate, but I suppose things have changed since I died, in 1855.

I have been brought back to Life. A woman who calls herself my great-great-great-Granddaughter has been rummaging about in some kind of Library which she calls the Inter-Net. She seems unduly interested in all the goings-on of my Life. She wants to know who my parents were, my poor Father who died when I was Six, my Mother the daughter of a Baronet. She has traced my Brother Edward's military career (he won a medal at Waterloo, you know). She has discovered that I was in the army in India, employed by the East India Company. She found out about my disastrous marriage to Caroline, and my later Happiness with Jemima. She says that in her time, no one would care that the grandson of a Baronet set up home with a servant-girl. It seems some things at least may have changed for the Better. (Though in my day, my relationships with both Caroline and Jemima were frowned upon by my family. Indeed, I was passed over by my Uncle's Will, and it was my younger brother John who inherited the family Estate, not me. But I am no longer bitter. I knew Love, which John never did.)

The more she discovers about me, the further I come to Life.

She is writing a Novel about me. I am flattered, though I am having to Bare my Soul to her, to fill in what she calls the Blanks, where the Inter-Net cannot tell her what really happened. I am having to relive all the major Episodes of my Life.

Recently she wrote about the time Caroline and I went up to Cissbury Ring, not long before I found I had to marry her. Readers, take pity on me. She wrote about our most intimate Moments, and left us there, in the Bushes, while she went off to Spain on Holiday. It was a long time to keep going. I was very glad to see her Home again, and already I feel heartily tired of Caroline, though we are not yet Married!

She says Caroline has some News for me when next we meet. I think I know what that will be, and am steeling myself to once more do Right by her. If only I could do things differently this time. But my Writer says we must stick to the Known Facts.

Though, would I really do anything different? Not if it meant foregoing my twenty happy Years and thirteen Children with my love, Jemima, no.

I will stop there. My Writer says she needs the Tablet back to begin the next chapter. I would lend her a pen, but she says she writes best with Lap, Top and Wine. Farewell, unknown Readers. I hope to see you again between the covers of a Book.

Good grief, Henry, don't give away the entire plot! And I really must speak to you about the changing fashions in capitalisation.


Hi all - back from camping in Spain and pleased to say we had excellent weather this year and I even managed a slight tan! Have not yet had time to download the photos though. We came home to a housefull of guests - in-laws who'd been using our house as a holiday home for a week. They've gone now but I still haven't had time to unpack or sort out the camping gear, which is strewn around the house. Roll on the weekend...!

Well, there were a few emails in my inbox asking me to pass on news and links so here you are:

1. If you struggle to find good names for your characters, and/or would like to support a very worthwhile cause allowing young Ethiopian girls to regain their lives, then follow this link to Lynn Hackles's blog, where for £2 you can buy a spreadsheet of popular names from 1860 to the current day. Got to be worth supporting!

3. For the romance writers amongst you, Gina Rossi passed on this link to the M&B New Voices competition.

3. From Gavin McCloskey, news of a free competition, raising awareness of depression and related issues:

Circalit And Little Episodes Get Writers to Open Up About Depression With Free Short Story Competition.
July, 29th, 2010 - Today Circalit, the UK’s premier social networking platform for writers, announced a free short story competition on the theme of “Broken Identities” with Little Episodes, an independent publisher and production company who raise awareness for those suffering from depression and addiction through the arts. The competition is peer reviewed, meaning that the public can read the submissions and vote for their favourites. By making all the submissions public, Little Episodes and Circalit hope to encourage writers to open up about mental health issues. Writers can submit their work by creating a free account at and posting their submissions up online. The deadline for submissions is 15th Sept 2010. Celebrated author and critic, Kasia Boddy, will judge the final winner from a short list of candidates. Kasia Boddy is author of numerous books including The American Short Story Since 1950, and she is currently editing an anthology of the top 25 American short stories of all time for Penguin Classics.

Little Episodes is a growing phenomenon in London, hosting events where people can display their art, play music, recite poetry and prose, or perform stand up comedy to raise awareness for depression. They are currently producing the second volume of their anthology series, “An Expression of Depression” where the winning short story will be published. Actress Sadie Frost, a contributor to Little Episodes anthology, said of the project, “I just thought, what a great thing to do, to channel that energy into something positive... I was in and out of hospital for a couple of years. The one thing that kept me alive at that time was writing.”
Lucie Barât, Founder of Little Episodes, commented, “We’re really excited about the idea of doing a peer reviewed competition and we love Circalit’s approach. With Circalit, it’s not just about having a single winner, it’s about getting the public involved by reading submissions and voting for their favourites. Circalit and Little Episodes have the same ethos, we want to give talented artists who haven’t had the break that they deserve a platform from which to make themselves heard and get some exposure. We both hope that this will be a good opportunity to raise awareness for mental health issues through art.”

Kasia Boddy, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at University College London, commented “I think this is a very worthwhile project and I’m glad to be a part of it. This collaboration between Circalit and Little Episodes demonstrates the strengths of the internet as a social and cultural resource with real potential to change lives.”

Circalit, which started life as a site where screenwriters could showcase their work to film studios, has already hosted free competitions with companies such as the BBC and Hollywood producer, Julie Richardson. It’s social networking features make it an invaluable resource for writers looking to make industry contacts and it is integrated with Facebook, giving talented writers the means to spread their wings and go viral across the internet.
Raoul Tawadey, CEO and founder of Circalit, said, “We’re very happy to be working with Little Episodes, who do a fantastic job destigmatizing depression and encouraging self-expression through creativity. We’re proud that Circalit can be used as a platform to bring these issues to life, and we hope to discover some bright new literary talent. This is a great opportunity for writers to gain exposure, so I encourage everyone to read the short stories and vote for your favourites.”

If you are interested in interviewing Raoul Tawadey, CEO of Circalit, or Lucie Barât, founder of Little Episodes, please contact:

Robert Tucker
Communications Director

Thanks all, hope your writing's going well this summer and please keep these news items coming!