Friday, 11 November 2011
Home For Christmas: Guest Post by Cally Taylor
With extraordinary good timing, my copy of Cally Taylor's new novel Home For Christmas arrived in the post today. What a gorgeous sparkly cover! Makes me want to get the Christmas tree out already! Cally is offering some fabulous prizes just for 'liking' her facebook page - go to her blog here for all the details.
The post which follows is an updated version of an article by Helen Hunt which appeared in Writers' Forum a couple of years ago, reproduced by kind permission from the author.
Cally Taylor's second novel, the romantic comedy ‘Home for Christmas’, was published by Orion in November 2011. The novel, set in Brighton, follows Beth and Matt as they examine their love lives, jobs and living situations in their search for happiness. Cally says, 'I really wanted to write a novel about the lengths people are prepared to go to in their search for happiness. In a lot of chicklit novels that search is centred around the main character’s love life but I wanted this novel to be more true to life – more rounded – because it’s normally a combination of factors that leads to our happiness (or unhappiness!).
Cally is now working on a synopsis for her third novel but in her early days as a writer she wrote a very different sort of fiction. Cally honed her craft writing short stories for magazines and competitions, and many of the skills she developed have helped immensely in her novel writing.
'Openings are hugely important in short stories,' she says. 'You’ve only got seconds to grab the attention of a busy editor and convince them to continue reading your story. An opening to a novel is equally important. When you’re subbing your novel to agents your manuscript will end up in a huge pile of submissions so you need to grab their attention. If the beginning of your novel isn’t strong they’ll just pick up the next manuscript. When you've got an agent that same opening has to appeal to an editor and, ultimately, a customer browsing in a bookshop.'
Pace is also vital in both short stories and novels, according to Cally, 'With a short story you’ve got a limited number of words in which to tell your story. You can’t spend ages on the beginning and rush the middle and ending – they have to be evenly weighted. Short story writing taught me that description can slow a story whilst dialogue can speed it up. Using a mix of long and short sentences also helps vary pace. By writing short stories you learn to sense whether the pace is right, and when you’re writing a novel you can apply the same principles to scenes. If a scene seems to be dragging, it probably is!
'That’s where editing comes in – when I was writing short stories I learnt to never send off a story until I’d read it aloud at least once. When you write you ‘hear’ your words internally. It’s not until you read them aloud that you hear them as a reader would.
'Another important part of editing is ruthless cutting. Frequently, I pruned short stories from 3,000 to 2,000 words in order to hit a particular word limit. I had to apply that same ruthlessness when I edited my first novel “Heaven Can Wait” from a 100,000 word first draft to a much less baggy 80,000 words. Every word should count and if a particular scene bores you it’ll bore the reader, so cut it or rewrite it until it sparkles!'
Writing short stories can also help you build up a writing track record which will appeal to agents. 'If you’ve fought off competition from other writers to win a prize in a competition that proves that you can write well. A list of magazines that have accepted your stories shows the agent that your work has been vetted, and accepted, by a professional editor. A writing CV shows you can produce polished, professional fiction and that’s definitely attractive to an agent.'
Cally's novels are aimed at women of all ages who like romance, a laugh and maybe a little cry too. Cally says, 'I think my short stories appeal to the same audience. I aim to touch the reader emotionally. If they laugh or cry I’ve done a good job. A couple of the magazines I write for have included a brief mention of my novels at the end of the story which is useful for publicity, but my main hope is that women who enjoy my short stories might see my novel in a bookshop and think, “Oh, I read a lovely short story by Cally Taylor once. I’ll see what her novel’s like.”'
The biggest challenge in moving to novel length writing is stamina, Cally thinks. 'The short stories I write tend to be about 2,000 words and I can finish one in one sitting. Writing a novel is a much longer process and I initially found it strange to spend so much time with the same set of characters. Writing a novel takes an enormous amount of determination, motivation and energy. Almost every writer I know gets to a point in a novel when they have a fantastic idea for a new novel and are tempted to ditch the one they’re working on and start again. That’s particularly tempting when you’re used to writing short stories, but you must push on and reach the end. It’s normal to fall out of love with a novel while you’re writing it but you’ll inevitably fall back in love with it again.'
Cally has some advice for anyone thinking of writing a novel. 'I’m not much of a plotter,' she says. 'I tend to know the beginning and the ending and let the characters tell me how to get there. But breaking your idea into chapters can be helpful as it reduces it to manageable chunks. Try not to be over-awed by how long a novel is and set yourself little targets like “I’ll write 500 words today,” or “I’m going to keep writing until I finish this scene”. Writing is such a solitary business that joining a writing group can be helpful too. You can swap notes with other writers, encourage each other to keep going or even challenge each other to write a certain number of words by a certain date.'
Cally sees herself continuing to write short stories as well as novels, and sees advantages to both. 'With novels you’ve got more freedom, and a lot more words, to flesh out your characters,' she says. 'I get to know my characters so well when I’m writing a novel that they’re like real people to me. Because you’ve spent so much time with them you grow to care for them – which makes it much harder to throw obstacles in their path and do horrible things to them! It’s important that you find something likeable – or fascinating in the case of the ‘baddies’ – in the characters in your novels because you have to spend so much time with them. Characters in short stories are more like snap shots than fully-rounded characters, but on the plus side, with short stories you’re constantly creating new characters and dipping into their lives.
'With novels you can explore sub-plots – something you don’t have time for with short stories – and you can play with structure and point of view. With ‘Home for Christmas’ I was able to tell the story from the point of view of TWO main characters – one male, one female - and that was hugely enjoyable.
'In a novel you’re exploring a period of time in great depth. You can take your time building up to an emotional punch. With shorter fiction you’re stripping out everything extraneous to that punch and getting there faster.'
‘I’ll keep writing short stories though,' Cally says, ‘because I love writing them and because it’s so fulfilling to create something finished in a relatively short time! A lot of the ideas I have aren’t suitable for a novel – either because they don’t fit within the genre I write, or because they’re too skant to support 80,000 words – but are ideal for short stories. And I never ignore what I hope is a great idea!'
'Editing is very different from writing a first draft.,' Cally says. 'It’s much more logical and clinical, so it doesn’t take long before I crave the buzz I get from writing. Short stories are like a little writing fix and help break up the, sometimes tedious, editing process.'
Cally's come a long way in her writing career, and at the moment life is really hectic. 'There’s a lot to juggle,' she says. 'I have a day job, I’m promoting “Home for Christmas”, a short story anthology called ‘Tears and Laughter and Happy Ever After’ that I’m involved with and I’m putting together a synopsis for novel 3. Oh yes, and there’s another novel that I’ve been working on (20,000 words written so far) that I’ve had to put on the back burner since giving birth to my first child at the beginning of October! If the press report a huge rise in coffee sales in Bristol you’ll know why!'
Some things stand out as making all the hard work worthwhile. ‘I recently received a beautiful, sparkly copy of ‘Home for Christmas’. When I’m having a stressful day and the phone won’t stop ringing, the baby is crying, emails are clogging up my inbox or I’m struggling to edit a scene I look at that book and I’m reminded how extraordinarily lucky I am.'
Beth Prince has always loved fairytales and now, aged twenty-four, she feels like she's finally on the verge of her own happily ever after. She lives by the seaside, works in the Picturebox - a charming but rundown independent cinema - and has a boyfriend who's so debonair and charming she can't believe her luck! There's just one problem - none of her boyfriends have ever told her they love her and it doesn't look like Aiden's going to say it any time soon. Desperate to hear 'I love you' for the first time Beth takes matters into her own hands - and instantly wishes she hadn't. Just when it seems like her luck can't get any worse, bad news arrives in the devilishly handsome shape of Matt Jones. Matt is the regional director of a multiplex cinema and he's determined to get his hands on the Picturebox by Christmas. Can Beth keep her job, her man and her home or is her romantic-comedy life about to turn into a disaster movie?
Buy ‘Home for Christmas’ on Amazon.co.uk