Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Getting to know … Vanessa Couchman

What genre would you say your novels fall into, or do they defy classification?
My debut– and, so far, only – novel, The House at Zaronza, is a historical novel.

What made you choose that genre?
I’ve always been passionate about history, having taken a degree in the subject. Since moving to France in 1997, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by French history. I am also very attached to Corsica, where The House at Zaronza is mostly set. The island has a turbulent history and enthralling culture that sets it apart from the rest of Europe. I find it more appealing to write about the past than the present. 

How long does it take you to write a book?
I wrote The House at Zaronza during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2012. However, I spent some time planning it beforehand. I wouldn’t have been able just to sit down and write it without that. Also, I wasn’t happy with the beginning, so I changed it later on and added another 10,000 words or so.

What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I wish I were organised enough to have a schedule! During NaNoWriMo, I wrote about 2,000 words per day and I did it in the morning, so that I got it off my plate early on in the day. I also write non-fiction for a living, so my fiction has to fit around that. It’s not uncommon for me to be scribbling at midnight, long after my long-suffering husband has gone to bed.

Where do you get your ideas for your books?
Largely from historical events. A true story was the inspiration behind The House at Zaronza. We went on holiday to Corsica and found framed love letters on the walls of our B&B. The owner told us the story and I adapted it for the novel. I am particularly interested in the stories of “ordinary” people who are caught up in historical events.

When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I wrote my first magnum opus at the age of six – but I’m not admitting how long ago that was. It was entitled The Kind Little Imp. I blush to recall it now, but it featured an imp who finds an injured butterfly and nurses it back to health. I illustrated it, too.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I sing in a couple of choirs, which I find relaxing. It’s good to do things with a team of people, since writing is a solitary, anti-social occupation. I am also fond of walking, yoga and food and drink (what else, in France?). We are also helping to restore a ruined 15th-century chapel nearby – also a team activity.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
That I could do it! Previously, I had written only short stories. A much more extended piece of work is a different undertaking, especially at a certain age. Now I’m hooked on novel-length writing.

How many books have you written?
If you count the one when I was six, then two.

Which is your favourite and why?
The favourite so far is The House at Zaronza, naturally. As a writer, you want to develop constantly, though, and if I continue to write and publish novels then it’s possible that a later one will overtake it. However, as my first novel, The House at Zaronza will always occupy a special place in my thoughts. I actually shed a little tear when I typed “The End”!

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I was going to be the UK’s first woman prime minister, but someone pipped me to the post. At another time, I wanted to be a doctor, but my maths wasn’t good enough. I never thought of being a full-time writer, although that is what I have become after a varied career.

What are you working on now?
Novel number two, set in France during World War II. It is beginning to develop into a sequel to The House at Zaronza, although it didn’t start out like that. But you know how it is: your characters take you over.

Vanessa Couchman is passionate about French and Corsican history, from which she derives the inspiration for much of her fiction. She has lived in France since 1997, where she runs a copywriting business and also writes magazine articles. Her short stories have won and been placed in creative writing competitions. The House at Zaronza is her debut novel.  

Blog: Life on La Lune –
Twitter: @Vanessainfrance
Facebook: vanessa.couchman.3

Published works:
The House at Zaronza, Crooked Cat Publishing, 29th July 2014
Foreign and Far Away: Writers Abroad Anthology 2013 (Contributor)
Foreign Encounters: Writers Abroad Anthology 2012 (Contributor)
Foreign Flavours: Writers Abroad Anthology 2011 (Contributor)
Fifty Stories for Pakistan, 2010 (Contributor)
Yesterday, ed. Marit Meredith, 2011 (Contributor)

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Monday, 28 July 2014

Getting to know who Bob might be #writetip

Regardless of genre, characters can make or break a novel. How many times have you read something that could have been (should have been) a great story, but the characters were so lacking in credibility that you lost interest long before the end? I would bet my reputation as a writer that everyone has read at least one novel fitting that description at some point in their lives.

Developing characters so real our readers fall in love with them, or despise them, is an art – one we have to learn if we want our novels to satisfy our readers. We all know characters have to have a past that has shaped them, a future they are striving towards, and a present they are dealing with in order to get from one to the other. But how we use that information is crucial. Readers don’t want a whole load of information dumped on them. They want to get to know the character as the book progresses, in exactly the same way as they would with a real life friend.

As Frances di Plino I run a book review site and, as the real me, Lorraine Mace, I am a creative writing tutor and also critique fiction for Writers’ Forum. In both guises, I get to read a lot of novel openings and short stories. One thing that stops me dead every time is a massive chunk of back-story explaining everything the author thinks the reader needs to know about a character. This effectively kills the pace and bores the pants off the reader (me).

It is our job to know our characters so well the type of person they are is apparent in every action and piece of dialogue uttered. When we get to that stage no back-story is needed.

There are various ways of getting inside the heads of characters and finding the right method for you is as important as any other aspect of writing. I use a mix and match of several techniques. As my characters often have heated discussions in my head, I sometimes feel they’ve developed just a little bit too much, but that’s another issue altogether.

I rarely describe my characters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a full description of them ready to hand should I need to refer to it. As a reader, I prefer my own imagination to conjure up images. I don’t want an item by item shopping list of the person’s features and colouring. For this reason, I only describe anyone’s looks when it is important to the story. For example, when I write crime, if my villain has dark hair then all my red herring people also need to have dark hair.

I think it’s more important for my readers to see my characters as people, than be able to picture their looks exactly as I do. So, how do I develop my characters?

Let’s take someone called Bob. When I put him into a story I may not describe him, but I know exactly what he looks like, even down to a slight cast in one eye. I know how he got on with his parents and siblings, what makes him angry, what makes him cry. I know what tickles his funny bone, what he does in his spare time that he’s happy for everyone to know about – and what he does in his secret time that he hopes no one will ever discover. I know what makes him blush, what type of woman he dreams about, and also the type of woman he’ll end up with. I know his hopes, his dreams and his fears. I know where he’d like to go on holiday if he had enough money – and where he’ll go instead because that’s all he can afford.

In other words, I know everything I need to know about Bob at this stage. But now I want to develop him into a real person. To do that I need to find out how he would react in certain situations.

I put Bob in a house on fire – what would he do? Would he panic? Save himself without thought for anyone else? Would he be a hero even if it meant his own life was in danger?

I put temptation in his way – financial and sexual. Would he skim funds off if he thought no one would ever know, or is he rigidly honest? Would he have an affair if he was convinced his wife would never find out, or is he faithful enough to resist?

I put him in the path of a group of yobs picking on someone. Would Bob step in to help the victim, or would he look the other way rather than get involved?

I put him in a restaurant where he is given poor service and bad food. Would he pay up and leave a tip, even though the waiter was surly, or would he complain and demand the substandard food is replaced?

I put him on a train where it is clearly signposted no mobile phones, and then I put someone in the carriage who ignores the notice. Would Bob draw attention to it? If yes, how? Would he be diffident? Angry? Forceful? Apologetic? How would he deal with someone who carries on making calls?

I put him near the back of a long queue at the airport and have someone queue jump. Does he get angry but do nothing, or does he confront the queue jumper?

By the time I’ve answered all these question I will know Bob better than I know my own husband. In fact, I might swap him for Bob, depending on the answers.

As with everything writing related, this method won’t work for everyone, but it does the trick for me, so why not try it with one or two of your characters?

I wrote this post originally for the blog of Nancy Jardine, where it appeared in June 2012.

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Friday, 25 July 2014

Writing for Children - Tip 6 #writetip

Tip 6 – Themes and Ideas

With Vlad the Inhaler I tackled various themes. If you read the book, you’ll find I dealt with:
  • Being a child of mixed parentage (Vlad’s mother is human, his father is a vampire)
  • Bullying (his vampire cousins’ best games all involve hurting and/or frightening Vlad)
  • Being misunderstood (most of the villagers fear Vlad even though he isn’t a full vampire and would never hurt anyone)
  • Dealing with illness or being seen to be different to other children (Vlad is asthmatic and a vegetarian)
  • Being scared (Vlad is extremely timid at the start of the book and has to learn how to be brave)
  • Learning to love yourself (by the end of the book Vlad knows he is an example of the best of both species)
When thinking about the basic plot idea for your children’s book, it is a good idea to decide which theme you are going to explore. Then think about the best vehicle to carry that theme.

What is it that children like? Obviously every child is unique and will enjoy different aspects of stories, but there are certain ideas that seem to appeal across the spectrum.

Kids enjoy being frightened, but not too much. The fear factor has to be controlled so that they reach the stage of peeping from behind a pillow at the scary bits, but not get so frightened that they fear going to bed, or need a nightlight in case a creepy villain comes to life while they sleep.

They also love being made to laugh, both at themselves and at funny situations. Their humour levels are different and far more down to earth than most adults. Give your own childlike humour free rein and chuckle along with your readers.

Some Idea to Consider:
  • Gadgets that work – kids love gadgets and enjoy reading about inventions, the more outlandish the better.
  • Gadgets that don’t – gadgets that malfunction and cause mayhem are always enjoyed.
  • Things that go bump in the night – witches, warlocks, vampires, ghouls, ghosts and goblins have a timeless appeal.
  • Time travel forward – finding new life forms and visiting distant stars in the future opens endless doors to explore.
  • Time travel back – an opportunity to rewrite history, or simply to have adventures in the past.
  • New worlds to conquer – writing fantasy gives you the freedom to create new planets and countries, as well as generating new beings to inhabit them.
  • Computers on the outside – most children today are computer literate and might enjoy a tale about a computer boffin or hacker, particularly if he is evil and defeated by your heroes.
  • Computers on the inside – computer games that swallow the players, forcing them to play for their lives inside the machine, could have your young readers on the edge of their seats.

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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Flash 500 Competition News #contest

Long Lists 
The long lists are now up for the second quarter of 2014. You can find the titles of the flash fiction long list here and the titles of the humour verse long list here.
New Judges
I’m delighted to announce that award-winning novelist Louise Phillips will be judging the third quarter of the flash fiction competition.
The humour verse entries for the third quarter will be judged by someone who has been writing funny rhymes for many years and has won hundreds of prizes as a result, Michael Shenton.
Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis Category 2014   
Although this competition only closes on 31st October, entries are already coming in. Once again, the judges for this competition will be the senior editors at Crooked Cat Publishing.

Prizes: £500 first prize, plus a runner’s up prize of £200
More details can be found here.
Resources Page
Our page of useful sites for writers attracts hundreds of visitors each month. There are many links listed which could be of benefit, regardless of whether you write prose or poetry. If you know of a site you feel should be included, please let us know. Don't forget to share this page with your writing friends: Writers' Resources

For all of you who have made the second quarter 2014 long lists, congratulations and good luck with the next stage of judging.
For more information on all three of our competition categories, visit the Flash 500 Homepage.
Kind regards,

Critique Service for Writers
Flash 500 Home Page: Flash Fiction, Humour Verse
and Novel Opening Chapter and Synopsis Competitions