It’s ‘a beach read’ but that doesn’t mean it lacks substance

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend of a friend who told me she wanted to buy my novel Return to Desiree Bay for her 87-year-old mother.

She said her mother ‘loved romance novels’.

I didn’t take offence but I did note her tone of voice. To my sensitive ears, it implied that ‘romance novels’ only appealed to the elderly or to someone without the capacity to read anything of substance.

It’s a beach read, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good read.

I suggested to the friend of a friend that she might also like to read the book because it wasn’t all about the romance between the main protagonist and her love interest, the hot surfer with a mysterious past!

When I dropped the book over to her place, I put a note in it to explain the difference between ‘category romance’ and ‘contemporary fiction with romantic elements’. And I mentioned the inclusion of swearing, a loving same-sex relationship, and a graphic sex scene where the bedroom door remains open to the reader.

This incident made me think about the dismissive attitude that persists around novels that aren’t considered to be literary enough; novels where two people fall in love and (gasp) the story comes together with a satisfying happy ending. Just like one of the world’s most celebrated novels with romantic elements, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Romance writing per se has had a bad rap for a long time, but I would argue that most door-stop literary novels are, at their core, romances, no matter how heavy or traumatic the content.

One of the best, Pride & Prejudice is a classic with romance at its core.

And, I would also add that romance sells way more copies than literary prize winners. Everybody knows about Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series (Regency romance) but who’s read the 2022 Man Booker Prize novel, Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree and translated by Daisy Rockwell? (Of course, someone has read it! But you know what I mean?)

I’m pretty happy to pop my novel into the ‘beach read’ box, or to describe it as ‘Uplit’. But I’d also like to think that readers will get something more from my story that revolves around the Summerhayes family of Desiree Bay, even if it’s just a warm fuzzy feeling or a restored faith in human nature.

If your author vibe is Liane Moriarty or Marian Keyes, own it

The following questions are asked often enough when an author submits their work to publishers:

Is there an author or authors whose work is similar to your writing style? Or Name several published works you feel are similar to your manuscript.

I used to struggle with this. I used to think, ‘My work is unique. My work is my work. It’s like, how I am me, I’m uniquely me. How can I be like anybody else?’

One of the mistakes I made early on was to take the definition too literally. And, I’ll admit it, I let a shaft of ego blind the light.

Some years ago, I submitted a category romance manuscript to a publisher. It was really hard to choose comparison authors because I wasn’t really into category romance (which could be one of the reasons why I didn’t achieve fame and fortune in this genre!)

Readers can get a handle on an author’s style through author comparisons. Photo: Karolina Grabowska

Back in the day (early to mid-2000s) I read a couple of American author Jennifer Crusie’s books. I enjoyed her humour and stories that weren’t solely focused on the relationship between the hero and heroine (which is what category usually wants – or at least it did back then).

Crusie became my go-to comparison author even though I’m not sure my writing style was anything like hers. It was more the feel of it. The connection.

A lot of water has passed under the writing bridge since then and I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Lately, I’ve tried to pull out comparison authors whose writing resonates with my style. Authors who include Monica McInerney (The Godmothers), Marian Keyes (Grown Ups) and Liane Moriarty (why not reach for the stars! Truly Madly Guilty). These authors write contemporary fiction with the focus on family matters and the family dynamic.

I recently read a promo for a novel Recipe For Family by Tori Haschka, which guided potential readers with this author comparison: ‘Perfect for fans of Meg Mason and Sally Hepworth…’ Haschka’s first novel Grace Under Pressure was described as ‘Big Little Lies meets Marian Keyes with a dash of Donna Hay…’ Get it? Got it.

I guess every Australian author would like to be compared to Liane Moriarty! Join the bandwagon.

I’m still not sure where my literary style sits. It has a sprinkle of Moriarty’s contemporary Australian insights with a scattering of Marian Keyes’ humour. A reader who gave Return to Desiree Bay a review threw in a Jane Harper comparison (not sure where that came from! because Harper is a crime/thriller writer to a T).

I wonder who Marian and Liane were compared to when they first started out?

Like it or not, comparisons are a part of the pitch and publishing process. If you are an author with a product to sell, it’s a good idea to start thinking about authors whose work you admire and who have influenced your own style.

Once you get this sorted, you can move the focus to the role of your own authentic voice and how it shapes the stories you write.

If you’ve got an idea for a novel, don’t tell me about it: write the bloody thing

This is a short post about a small gripe.

It’s the “I have an idea for a book” comment I’ve heard on and off over the years since I started to write, and more lately after I self-published Return to Desiree Bay.

The scene unfolds along familiar lines. I see a friend or acquaintance, and we ask each other how life is going.

I reply, because I’m in book-marketing mode: “I wrote a novel called Return to Desiree Bay. You can buy it in e-book format or paperback, print on demand.”

Not all the time, but enough to make it gripe-worthy, the reply to my spruik goes something like this: “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a book.”

I respond: “Great. What’s it about?”

A while back, someone who had “an idea for a book” answered my question with: “I can’t tell you what it’s about, you might steal my idea.”

ME: *SHAKES HEAD* *ROLLS EYES* *FINDS DARK ROOM IN WHICH TO LAY DOWN ON COMFY BED FOR A LONG TIME*

My 90-going-on-91-year-old mother even has an idea, which she described to me in great detail before I’d published my own book.

After she’d finally finished (it took about half-an-hour – fortunately, there was coffee at hand), I said: “Now all you have to do is write the book.” (Is that a mean thing to say to a 90-year-old? Maybe. Just a bit.)

Recently, an acquaintance outlined his/her/their idea for a novel to me. Afterwards, I said, using my most upbeat tone: “You should write it. It’s a brilliant idea.”

That person smiled at me with the light of a saint in their eyes and said: “You can keep it, it’s yours.”

So there you have it. That’s my gripe.

I’m all for the idea. But that’s all it is. Then comes the hard yakka. Hats off to you if you can take that idea from concept to completed novel. It is easier said than done.

My novel is published so what happens next?

FINALLY.

Finally, my novel Return to Desiree Bay is published in ebook format and paperback through Print-On-Demand (POD). It’s taken me eight years, with stops and starts along the way.

After several rejections from major publishing houses I decided to go it alone and self-publish. I needed to get it out of the way in order to move on to my next project. I could’ve abandoned it, chucked it in the bin — but why? It’s not a half-bad read.

The novel is published but what can I do to promote it?

I believe it’s better than some of the ‘beach/airport’ novels I’ve struggled to finish. It won’t win awards or leave readers feeling profoundly affected by the experience. But maybe it will make a few readers smile and brighten their day.

I don’t care about sales figures or becoming known as a writer of contemporary fiction. I self-published the book for me! To prove I could do it and fulfil a dream.

Now that Return to Desiree Bay is a real book, I have done a few things to promote it. I created an author page on Goodreads (with not much on it yet) and one on Amazon. I’ve also given away several ‘preview’ copies (copies that contain several mistakes that have since been fixed) to friends and close family.

I might even go a bit wild and throw a small launch party down the track, when 2022 hopefully evolves into a better year — be gone floods! be gone COVID! be gone illness! be gone war! be gone climate change! be gone mining magnate f***wits, be gone mad oligarchs! be gone authoritarian nut-job political leaders, be gone misogyny! be gone racism! Maybe I won’t have a launch party after all…

Why I slashed the first three chapters of my novel

Chapter one of my debut novel Return to Desiree Bay didn’t originally start with the protagonist Skye Summerhayes driving into her home town.

I’d always resisted placing my heroine literally in the driver’s seat because, a long time ago, I took to advice from an author to avoid starting a story with a driving scene. Don’t ask me why it was a problem, I can’t remember!

Anyway, Skye has already arrived when the story opens — she’s sitting in her parked car at the beach, but I do dawdle back to describe her drive into town.

My debut novel is almost out there in the world but it’s been a long gestation.

After I finished writing the novel, I spent countless hours refining my first three chapters before I submitted them to several contests run by Romance Writers of Australia (RWA).

Chapter one originally began in Skye and her boyfriend’s harbourside apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote my description of the view of Sydney Harbour from the balcony.

For your eyes only, here is an earlier version followed by the final pared-back version that featured about 10 pars in from the then opening line of the novel:

Early version: ‘Who wouldn’t want to live in Sydney on a day like today?

On the horizon, a silhouette of the city’s clustered skyscrapers reminded her of an odd assortment of jars in a pantry. The Botanical Gardens and naval site of Garden Island prevented the high-rise towers’ creep to the end of a small headland, which partly concealed the tiled sails of the Opera House.

A seaplane glided in to land on the harbour, sending out a fan of ripples. Close to the sandy foreshore a woman knelt on a paddleboard, her two small children perched on the front. She dug an oar into the water to propel them to some idyllic destination.

One day Skye’s life would be that perfect. But it was already, wasn’t it?’

A later version (one of many): ‘She stepped onto the balcony and leaned on the balustrade. Late afternoon sunlight danced across the harbour and gilded the distant city skyline in a fairy-tale glow. Near the sandy foreshore, a woman knelt on a paddleboard with two children perched on the front. She dug an oar into the water, probably to propel them to some idyllic destination, Skye thought.

One day, her life would be that perfect. She was almost there. So why jeopardise it by returning her sister’s call?’

It was painful to have to chop out this description and almost 20,000 words to find the real start to Skye’s story. I even experimented with a prologue set in the present in Desiree Bay in order to keep Chapter one, set in Sydney, intact. But it didn’t work.

It took me a long time to realise that the action driving the story forward didn’t occur until after Skye returned to Desiree Bay.

So, how does the story start in the soon-to-be-published novel? You’ll have to buy a copy to find out! Return to Desiree Bay should be out in late January (around about now) but I have to fix some mistakes so it might be later.

I will write about the crucial role of the editor and beta readers in an upcoming post!

Cover reveal: Return to Desiree Bay

Soon I’ll have something to show for the years I rattled on about writing a novel, and the years that followed the completion of the first draft where I went on and on about, one day, becoming a published author.

It was a distant horizon, and it still feels that way today, less than a month from publication. I can’t believe my first novel Return to Desiree Bay will be out there in the e-reader and paperback universe* in late January, 2022. There’s some fine tuning of dates to be done but I think people will be able to pre-order from Amazon, Apple Books, etc from January 15 (I’ll get back to you on that).

The novel is not perfect by any means. It’s a fun ‘beach read’ that, unfortunately, contains a few mistakes that I intend to fix down the track. In the meantime, I will have to cop criticism from readers** for errors that could have been fixed if I hadn’t been in such a rush, and had given the book to a dedicated beta reader before the final typeset approval.

But more about my mistakes in a future post! Today, it’s all about the cover.

I don’t know about you, but I believe a cover makes a huge impression on a potential reader and influences her (his/their) decision to buy the book or move on to the next shiny thing. Of course, publishers have known this forever which is why so much time, effort and money go into a cover’s creation.

A modest fee of $450 was set aside for the Return to Desiree Bay cover design as part of the course Self Publish Your Book I completed through Writing NSW in 2021.

One of several pics sent to the designer. Photo: Shayne Collier

Initially, I submitted a cover brief to the designer which included images of covers of published novels that appealed to me and aligned with the novel’s theme. I also sent off some of my own photos of coastal settings (I snapped the one above at Lennox Head on the north coast of NSW) along with the novel’s back cover blurb.

Some weeks later, a draft cover arrived. I sent it to my friend Lisa, a talented graphic designer, and she worked with the cover designer to ‘tweak’ a couple of things such as the font (colour and style), the position of the title and author’s name, and the colour tones on the image.

I’m pleased with the result. It was Lisa’s idea to add flourishes of Australian flora that frame the image and underline the title. There’s just the right amount of embellishment to draw the eye to the woman on the beach and the headland that peters out to that elusive distant horizon.

*Return to Desiree Bay will be available from major e-book readers such as Amazon, Apple Books, Kindle and more. The novel will also be available in print on demand (POD).

**My mother and partner won’t get past the dedication so that leaves a few relos, friends and randoms who stumble upon it!

How to edit a manuscript

I wrote Return to Desiree Bay in 2014. Back then the working title was House of the Week. I had planned to structure the novel in the same way as the classic romcom movie When Harry Met Sally.

The idea was to intersperse vignettes throughout the main narrative. My main character was a real estate reporter. The cameo characters in the vignettes were homeowners talking about what their homes meant to them.

After I completed the first draft, I tidied it up a bit and gave it to a professional editor for a structural edit (cheaper than a full edit). She told me the vignettes and epilogue didn’t work.

A couple of years later, I dragged the ms out again and gave it to my youngest daughter to read. By this time, I’d ditched the vignettes but left in the epilogue. I loved that epilogue. I saw sheer brilliance in every word on the page.

But my daughter thought differently. She told me the epilogue did nothing to enhance the story. Why have it there? That was two people telling me to let the epilogue go. A professional editor and an invested reader. With a heavy heart, I hit delete. Gone. All that work down the drain.

I then entered the ms in several contests run by the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA). Always, without fail, one of the judges would suggest that I start the story further into the book when the main character Skye Summerhayes arrives back home in Desiree Bay.

Sooner or later, it has to be done. Don’t hesitate – press delete.

I clung like a mollusc to a sea shelf, determined to keep my first three chapters which I had spent hours and hours and hours crafting to what I thought was perfection. I was suctioned to those chapters where the action took place in Sydney before Skye returned home to Desiree Bay.

Earlier this year, I sacrificed the first chapter and reshuffled the other two, not ready to give them up. I entered yet another contest and received sage advice from one of the three judges. She told me to get rid of the back story/inciting incident (in the second chapter). She told me to start in the present and dilute the backstory to ‘a few sentences’.

This is the part where I should tear my hair out. Instead, I throw out the second chapter.

It’s hard to kill your darlings but sometimes it has to be done. Deep down inside I knew those words – thousands and thousands of them – were destined for the tip.

‘So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.’

Writing in close third person

I wrote a 100,000-word novel Return to Desiree Bay in (what I hope is) close third person, all of it from my main character’s point of view.

So, what the reader gets is Skye Summerhayes’ perception of the world and the people in it.

The reader also, hopefully, gets to experience Skye’s inner-world and understands why she reacts to certain situations the way she does. My goal was to make Skye as real as I could through the ‘close third person’ point of view so she communicates her grief, frustration, anger, misplaced resentment, happiness and joy in ways that inspire an emotional response from the reader.

Here’s a short excerpt from the prologue of Return to Desiree Bay.

After living in Sydney for three years, Skye has returned home to Desiree Bay at the request of her estranged sister. She’s pulled into the car park opposite the beach to contemplate her next move regarding her dysfunctional family:

It was unseasonably warm for the middle of June and people were out to enjoy the day. Backpackers, couples, groups of teenagers and families were having fun on the beach.

Skye’s bottom lip trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her lips together to force back stinging tears. Fun equals pleasure equals joy.

She had none of that in her life.

You have to open your eyes Skye, her annoying inner voice chided her. Stop being a blubbery baby.

She reluctantly looked at her watch, two-fifty-five pm, sighed and whispered to the universe, ‘Why am I here?’’

There are at least two ways to write third person.

There is ‘third person omniscient’ which is generally the voice of a narrator who is outside the story and can see and know anything that happen to anyone in the story. Potentially, the narrator can see everyone’s thoughts.

Then there is my preference, ‘close third person’.

In her course on conflict run through Writing NSW , author Cate Kennedy explained the difference between plain old omniscient third person and close third person. She said that, whereas, in omniscient third person the reader ‘gleans’ what the character is thinking, in close third person ‘we get to go further inside the head of the character’.

Cate said it is ‘where we can hear the internal voice of the character’.

As many bloggers who have written on this very topic point out, the trouble with any type of third person point of view is that it can distance the reader from the character. There is an art to getting it right without over- or under-doing it.

In my latest ms, three of my characters are presented in first person point of view but the character of Millicent is close third person.

I did this because Millicent instigates the reunion of the four friends in the story. She holds the key to the mystery around an ‘inciting incident’ which took place more than 20 years ago. I wanted her to be more aloof than my other three characters so the reader doesn’t get to hear her every thought.

I would love to introduce you to Millicent in the next blog. Hopefully by then I will have written more of the story!

The challenges of first-person narrative in a novel

I’ve never written in first person but for my latest work in progress (WIP) I’ve branched out, with three of my four main characters written from this intimate perspective.

First person isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I have to delve deep into the minds of three characters to create complexities I’m not sure I can pull off.

Each character has to have her own unique personality/voice. Each has to view the world she inhabits and the ones she observes from a different perspective.

In her fiction-writing workshop, The Story Doctor, author Kate Forsythe describes first-person narrative thus: ‘this voice is expressed in every single word – the authorial voice is mute.’

I have to inhabit my characters, slip into their skin and be them. I have to shut up for once and let them be themselves.

I chose first-person narrative to bring more immediacy and action to my writing.

Already, it’s a challenge to keep the characters real and not tip them over into parody or a ‘type’ that appears contrived and self-conscious. At the same time, the language I use to empower them has to be engaging and uncomplicated yet rich enough in analogies and description to keep the reader hooked.

I felt I could nail the character the reader meets at the start of the novel, Rochelle, using first person rather than my usual go-to – a third-person narrative.

Here’s a snippet of Rochelle, a 50-something self-help new-age influencer living the life and sleeping with a man who is almost as young as her son:

‘I stop briefly to admire my profile in its reflected light and, at a glance, I like what I see. 

Not bad for a 50-something woman who could definitely pass for… I frown and screw up my mouth. Dunno. Maybe late-40s? But what does that look like?

Am I ‘well preserved’, much like a jar of peaches that has been vacuum sealed and sterilised on a low boil before being cooled and stored? 

What about ‘good for my age’? What the hell does that mean? Does anyone say a 20-year-old woman looks ‘good for her age’?

I wonder what others see when they look at me. When someone meets me for the first time. I’m always amazed when someone my age asks the question, ‘How old do you think I am?’ to a person younger than themselves. 

Why would you do that to yourself? Or to them? It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of ugly truths or stammered compliments that are clearly lies.’

Mmm. Too much like me? Therein lies the problem. (No, there is no young lover in my life. I’m talking about her personality traits, not her lifestyle.🤣)

For my next blog, I will cover third-person narrative and introduce the one character of the four written using this technique.

Speak soon… in third person.

Get organised with a 3 act chapter by chapter outline

I’m not as organised as I would like to be when it comes to my writing.

Of course, procrastination and a lack of self worth play roles in my snail-like pace as I constantly find distractions to keep me from pursuing my latest ms.

But another issue around getting my act together is knowing at least a little bit about how my characters’ stories are going to pan out. I need to get to the nub of the story arc for all of them.

I’m doing what I’ve never done before in my latest ms. Its working title is Millicent is Dying but that’s not giving anything away because I’ve changed my mind hundreds of times about the role of the character Milly in the story. And she’s no longer dying!

This time around, I’m writing the points of view of four different characters. What’s more, it’s in the first person, except for Millicent. Added to this, the narrative isn’t linear.

My other books (surprisingly, there’s a few in the drawer, mostly romances) are all in the third person, and mostly from the main character’s point of view. They also follow one path that leads to a lovely ‘the end’ for all.

I started Millicent with the inciting incident as the opening chapter about three years ago, put it in the too-hard basket and went on to start another novel (now on-hold).

In 2020/21, during COVID-19, I returned to Millicent and wrote some more chapters. Prior to this, I’d described my characters in Scrivener but when I returned to them I decided to change all of their personality traits and their circumstances.

I dropped Millicent again to do a couple of writing courses (a good distraction) and enter flash-fiction writing competitions (no luck so far and I keep botching the prompts!). Catch my drift?

Prolonged procrastination equals maximum frustration

On the weekend I wrote an outline on a white board to go with my mud map, which will need a re-jig.

I can’t just fly by the seat of my pants with this one. I need to have guidelines.

I’m not sure how other authors deal with this. I know that some are totally tied into plot so they must have incredibly organised minds and a huge commitment to getting the work done.

No more excuses from me. I’ve got to get this baby off the ground.