Michelle’s Word

February 19, 2007

My secret double life as a romance writer

Filed under: Writing — Michelle Reid @ 11:02 am

Valentine’s Day has gone – thank goodness – but I thought I’d put a little bit of romance into your lives on this dreary February.

It all started when I searched for myself on Google and found I’d inadvertently written 26 novels…

OK I’m cheating, it is my namesake Michelle Reid, a romance writer for Harlequin Mills and Boon.

ranieribride.jpg

She grew up in Manchester where “Rough, tough, down-to-earth common sense was the main tool of survival not fanciful dreams of love and romance with the happy-ever-after prize at the end.” Her mother opened her mind to reading, and she soon became fascinated by the romantic conflicts and journeys threaded through the works of the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and of “the great and sparkling queen of Regency Romance Georgette Heyer.”

It was strange to see the familiar shape of my own name on the cover of 26 romance books, and it made me confront some of my prejudices against romantic fiction. Having studied science fiction at university, I’m used to combating assumptions about the dirty worlds of genre writing. I’ll happily defend sf, mysteries, horror, and fantasy against the snobbishness of the literary establishment, but romance, that’s full of sexist cliches about rippling muscles and pounding waves. Or is it? How many romance novels have I read recently? What do I know about the genre?

Something Michelle Reid wrote in her biography made me reconsider: “I find there is something really satisfying in tracking two people through the trials and tribulations of falling in love. These days everyone is so busy with their careers etc. that they don’t seem to have enough time left to dedicate to the more personal side of their lives so conflicts arise.” Romance is about escapism and the happy ending, but it is also about the journey, the growing self-awareness of the characters, and the ways in which they act towards each other. There is a strong sense of morality; the characters have to earn or realise their happiness. This is perhaps a parallel to the chivalric codes that shaped medieval romances.

Arthurian stories, Gothic novels, fantasy fiction, historical novels, scientific/planetary romance, the female bildungsroman or coming-of-age novels: they are all linked to genre romance, and so am I. The familiarity of my name and the sense of being shaped by those letters gives me a connection to my romance-writing namesake. It has brought me closer to romance novels, and it is inspiring to see the recognisable pattern of our shared name on their covers.

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February 9, 2007

Writers have rights too!

Filed under: Writing — Michelle Reid @ 4:30 pm

The main advice given to writers is to write. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE and keep WRITING.

Both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King give very good advice. They are supportive and encouraging, but there is always the steely backbone glinting through; finish what you write.

I like Neil Gaiman’s statement, “On the whole, anything that gets you writing and keeps you writing is a good thing. Anything that stops you writing is a bad thing.” This is both a comforting permission and a deceptively simple piece of advice. How do we know what stops us writing until it does, and what then?

In On Writing, Stephen King cuts through the bullshit and cuts back to the bones of exciting plot. That visceral excitement of writing. He says, “But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.” (p.163)

Thanks Stephen! This kick up the backside works on some days, but what about the days when it doesn’t – ignore it. Walk away and trust yourself.

People are quick to criticise writers for not writing, not finishing, for dreaming about getting published, and for not being good enough. What about the credit for taking the risk in the first place.

To write is to be courageous and to put a piece of yourself out there on the page. Once it is there, the power lies with the reader to do with it what they will. What about the writer who made that bridge of words? They deserve respect for that act of reaching out to the reader.

This was inspired by Daniel Pennac’s wonderfully liberating book The Rights of the Reader. Thank you Daniel for telling me that it is alright to read in the ways I always have, but never knew I was allowed to. I will never feel guilty for not finishing a book anymore.

Writers should know that they have the same freedom:

The Rights of the Writer

1. The right not to write

2. The right to write about anything and everything

3. The right not to finish what you write

4. The right to break grammatical rules (including the right to use clichés if they work!)

5. The right to prefer what you write to “real life”

6. The right to experiment in writing

7. The right to write it down in any form

8. The right to show your writing to no one

9. The right to show your writing to everyone

10. The right to stuff the word count

11. The right to take only the advice you want to take

12. The right to dream

And one warning – don’t advise writers to just write…they know this, and it is never about just writing.

February 6, 2007

Whose First Line is it Anyway?

Filed under: Word games — Michelle Reid @ 5:01 pm

I used to teach a seminar class at the University of Reading for first year undergraduates called “What Kind of Text is This?” (Great title). It was an introduction to the idea of genre and how we identify whether a text is a tragedy, comedy, satire…etc.

In my first seminar I would play a game with my students as an icebreaker and to get everyone thinking about what kinds of information we process when we’re reading, and how we use this to recognise different types of texts.

What Kind of Text is This?

  • Find the first lines from a range of different books, plays, poems, magazines, newspapers etc. Select some that are famous and some that are more tricky.
  • Write the first lines on different strips of paper and put them in a bag / container.
  • Going around the group, the first person picks an opening line at random, reads it out, and tries to guess where it comes from.
  • The player has to explain why they reached this answer – saying what it was in the line that gave them the clue.
  • You can award points – 1 point each for correctly identifying the author, title, and genre – but I prefer not to do this when it is a fun icebreaker.
  • If the player gets stuck, they can ask the audience to help them out.
  • Go around the group until everyone has had a turn.

This game is similar to Ex Libris which gets you to write the first lines yourself to see if you can fool other players.

Some of my favourite first lines:

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.”
Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines (2001)

If you’d like help finding that perfect first line for your novel or report, I offer a full editing and proofreading service.

February 1, 2007

Speaking without a parachute

Filed under: Speaking — Michelle Reid @ 5:40 pm

On Tuesday I joined the Oxford Speakers Club. Although I’m very much at home with words when they’re safely written down on paper, when I speak in front of an audience, my sentences tend to run away with themselves. I feel as if I’m flying without a parachute.

I like the control that writing gives, with the chance to draft and redraft, but it is exhilarating to talk in front of a group and build a rapport with your audience. It is terrifying as well!

Of course, spontaneity when speaking in public develops with practice. Some people make it seem effortless; an innate art that comes from charisma and confidence. Yet I don’t think anyone is born a public speaker.

The best speakers in the group know their material really well and have learned the tricks of keeping going. They have “signposts” in their speeches, like repetition, questions, gestures, or key words, which give them a structure to work with, and highlight the important points for the audience.

In the club, we all have the chance to improve our spontaneous speaking with the “table topics” at the beginning of each meeting. People are chosen at random to speak on a topic for two minutes with no preparation. The topics can be as varied and humorous as describing ladies tights, talking about things beginning with the letter “B”, or advocating why a certain part of the body is better than others!

It’s a scary kind of fun, but we are all in the same position and everyone is friendly and supportive.

Three things that I have learned from watching table topics:

Don’t fret: The most successful spontaneous speakers are the ones that don’t think! This doesn’t mean they don’t think about what they are saying, but they are focused on the moment itself and what they will say next. Crucially, they don’t think about their nerves or the awe of being in front of an audience. They avoid that double-awareness, “Oh no I have no idea what to say, and just look at all those people out there,” which could hamper the fluency of their speech. I guess this is similar to the advice given to novice climbers: “Don’t look down!”

Formal is friendly: Having a structure is a comforting framework, especially in a spontaneous speech when you don’t know what you are going to say, but you do know that you want a definite introduction, middle, and conclusion; it is something to hold on to. The comforting structure also comes from the way the meetings are conducted. The Oxford Speakers Club is very friendly, but the meetings have a set formal structure. The formality makes each session more friendly, because nothing is unexpected and there is plenty of time to clap each speaker and give positive support.

Feedback comes in threes: One table topic evaluator advised that a good way to give constructive feedback is: Commend, recommend, commend, meaning, first give positive encouragement, followed by a suggestion for improvement, then end with positive reassurance. This stayed with me, as I have a tendency to commend then recommend, but don’t end on a positive note which can “lift” the person who is receiving the advice. I am trying to apply this three-part model to all the feedback I give now.

I’ve only been to two meetings and I haven’t spoken at a table topic session yet. I know I’ll be nervous, but I can’t wait for the thrill of getting up there and going for it!

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