Do you think you might have missed something important from ROSACon 2017? You know, because it’s two whole days of talks and workshops with romance writers, editors, agents and publishers? Because it’s all about romance writing? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
The top three things I learnt at ROSACon2017:
Did I say top three? There were about twenty four thousand five hundred and a million other things I learnt. Roll on, ROSACon 2018.
Want to find out more about ROSA? Have a look here .
“Which of you bitches is my mother?” Hands up if you know which novel made goldfish worldwide nervous. Hint: it featured boarding schoolgirls, a Middle Eastern prince, and an international porn star. Shirley Conran’s Lace? You haven’t read it? Why not? Probably because it’s kind of clunky nowadays; a relic of the late seventies/eighties when women’s fiction were these thick, glamorous door-stoppers brimming with sex and intrigue. But how it changed my life. Literally. Up until that moment, I hadn’t encountered the ‘bonkbuster’.
The lives of Kate, Pagan, Judy and Maxine transfixed me. They managed to claw themselves up from their upper class finishing schools to the lofty heights of the design, PR and journalism worlds. Yes, one of them was a bit of an alchie, but she managed to marry this ‘simply wonderful, darling man’ who set her up in swishy charity fund raising. Admittedly, the young supposed orphan Lili has a less than glam life, exploited by an unscrupulous photographer into the porn industry, but she too becomes a world-famous superstar known only by one name - Lili - long before Madonna made it popular. Oh, how many times have I read this book? Too many, way too many times. But it opened the door to ‘the others’.
Judith Krantz taught me all about Bill Blass, Spago (their cream cheese pizza is to die for), and how French women apparently eat nothing but a tartin and an oeuf for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For snaring oil tycoons with unexpected pregnancies, having sex on a raft on the ocean in front of a crowded beach with no-one seeing you, and finding out what happens when a starlet and an ageing producer have sex so hot his heart gives out, I thank the legendary Jackie Collins. My Form IV English teacher admonished that I must ‘improve the quality of my reading material’. Are you kidding? This was grade-A stuff.
Jetset locations, larger-than-life women who had closets bigger than their houses solely to accommodate all their skeletons, and men, ohthemen!, who wined and dined them. To this day, when I have a spare Sunday afternoon, I pick up something like The First Wives Club, and gobble the whole thing in one satisfying bite. Is it literature? Really, who the hell cares! There's a reason these books used to be passed around the classroom, certain pages well-thumbed.
Do you have a favourite? Which one?
What do you think? A little too provocative maybe? A bit too much…tongue? I’m not sure. Probably. Definitely.
Book covers. There’s an assumption that the better the cover, the better the book. Since a writer wrote the book, and a designer came up with the cover, I’m baffled at this logic. I’ve had a review downgraded because of the cover. And yet, it wasn’t my choice at all. I pushed like mad for the standard man/woman romance cover. Nope. Not happening. I went with the limited choice the publisher offered. To me, it screamed cookery book. I even said so. In an email. All in black-and-white about how the cover was not right. Ah, the irony, when a year later, the same publisher told me that the cover wasn’t working…
This book has had three covers so far. And a few more before that first one. The original was of a pseudo-Barbie, her eyes popping out of her head as she rested a chocolate bar on her lips. The next was bright blue. I liked that one. The publisher said no (even though her designer had offered it up). The next one I can’t remember, and by then, I realised any semblance of a romance novel cover would NOT be happening. As I held up copies of that novel with its gummy-toothed, lecherous smile at a cupcake (a cupcake for chrissake), I wanted to cry. Where was my hunky hero? Nowhere. He’d been replaced by a baked good.
The second I got my rights back, I yanked that cover, plonking a stop gap in its place. A pink one. A way too pink one. But it didn’t look like a recipe book. Or a tampon ad (another story from a fellow writer).
Maybe this one is destined to have a new cover every year? Dusting off each jacket with each new Spring?
So, as I watched Westeros’s Magnificent Seven venture forth beyond the wall to engage in possibly the stupidest plan ever, I felt a growing pang of horror. If anything happens to Tormund out there, who else would be as perfect a partner for Brienne? Jaime? Of course not. If ever a couple were more ideally suited it’s the northern wildling and the warrioress from the Sapphire Isle. She believes herself to be ugly, big, unattractive to all men. And what does he see? Only the most frigging awesome woman who can smack a man to knees, hold her head high with the best of Westeros’ knights, and rock that armour plating. If ever there were a reason to believe in love, in magic, in destiny, it’s this fledgling pair-up. That was my concern as they headed out into certain death. That Brienne would have no man worthy of her, but be destined to trudge around with Pod forever and a day. And, ohno, there’s Ser Jorah out there too. WTH? Don’t get me started on that one. Doomed to be forever friends with his beloved Khaleesi, will she ever see just how much this man worships her? Or will he survive grayscale only to be hacked to bits by an undead random? Just…no.
Sorry, it’s too much for me to handle. Part of me is wondering if my GOT journey has to end right here, season seven episode six. I simply can’t handle the stress. HEAs are not exactly abounding in this particular series. But what if they could?
And let’s face it, HEAs could happen. One thing for GOT – plenty of potential romantic heroes. Can you imagine Khal Drogo on the cover, gazing moodily out into the distance under the banner ‘The Dothraki Horse Lord and his Stormborn wench’? (Here’s a picture, in case you need help with the visualisation), an erotic tale of bondage and domination.
Or what about ‘The King’s bastard’ about Gendry who finds love with the girl who’s no-one? A historical romance of forbidden love. Maybe even a modern re-telling of Beauty and the Beast – the Hound and Sansa Stark?
So many options, when you come to think of it: You’ve got the wounded hero, Jaime Lannister. The young apprentice turned hero, Jon Snow. The everyman wiseman, Ser Davos, looking for a third or fourth chance. The abandoned sell-sword, Darius, who gave up everything for beauty.
The clever dwarf, Tyrion Lannister who would kill for love. What about a contemporary romance with Loras Tyrell as a F1 racing driver who meets Renly Baratheon, crown prince of a small principality? Or a paranormal with the Red Woman and the Night King – a fire and ice combo, if ever there were – as they join together to restore balance to the world?
But, seriously, there best be some sort of something happy with Tormund and Brienne. Really.
Once upon a time, I sucked at ice skating. Wait, hang on - I still do. Spending most of my time watching rather than skating, I bore witness to a number of teenage and tweenage angsts. Beanie Boy is the result.
I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend…. if you have one.” - George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill
“Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second… if there is one.” - Winston Churchill, in response.
Banter: also known as repartee, wordplay, a spot of witty conversation. You’ll know if you’re engaging in it correctly - much like other kinds of chemistry, there’s no middle ground. You’re either sailing away on good-natured teasing, or you’re not. I love to engage in it, I love to watch it, and I love to read it. There’s something about watching a couple strike mental sparks off each other that is infinitely engaging. We often get to watch couple’s physical and emotional attractions take bloom, oh but how delicious if a mental connection is there as well.
Take for example, Beatrice and Benedict: A couple that could not restrain from verbal sparring if their lives depended on it. When I first watched it on screen, I headed to the text immediately to soak it all up again. And again, and again. Their verbal dexterity wasn’t much ado about nothing, that’s for sure. Watch this:
For the not-really-love at first sight, good banter is a battle, a spar, a power struggle, a competition, a game where each character fires off their lexical arsenal to inflict as much damage as possible. Conflict never sounded so good:
But when it comes to writing, the ‘banter’ can be amplified to so much more. It’s dialogue after all, and good dialogue is about character, sub text, exposition, and and and. Recently, I’ve been reviewing unpublished manuscripts for ROSA’s Strelitzia award (you can read more about ROSA and their awards here). Backstory, she’s a problem alright. Within the opening paragraphs, Backstory slides in as a new character, a traffic warden telling us to stop moving right there, and wait while a chain of explanation crosses in front of our eyes. As a reader, I flick over it, waiting instead for the signal from ‘stop’ to ‘go’. But for some writers, the explanation, the telling part, gets worked into the characters’ banter.
Don't believe me? Watch this clip here from Casino Royale. James Bond is meeting Vesper Lynd for the first time. Banter is on the menu. But notice how the screenwriters weave in our character’s backstories round that banter? Within one scene, we know that she is a supposedly principled, degreed professional, with a similar background to our hero, who can match him at his game, and even win. Did she launch into some boring conversation about how accounting was her life’s passion? No. Did he explain that he was an orphan who went to a posh school, pass me the wine, please? No. What we got were two people interacting, playing a game with each other, testing each other for weakness. We also got a bit of exposition - what’s to come. We now know that she is good at lying - she can bluff. Which is both important exposition and character reveal, as anyone who’s watched this film will know. As Bond noted, he’ll be ‘skewered’.
And what about that revealing character? People will often tell you who they are. Banterers tell you that they’re smart, probably well-educated or well-read or both, and that, for them, sapiosexuality is a definite thing.
Which bring me to the next scene from Body Heat.
I love this scene. It achieves a whole whack of things: her set-up (married, wealthy, from the suburbs), his (shameless man whore), as well as big hint to their future, “You’re not smart, I like that in a man”. But the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (also responsible for another favourite bantering couple Star Wars Han and Leia), has her match him and undo him with her responses to his ‘clever’ lines. Each one tells the other exactly who they are. “Lazy, ugly, horny, I’ve got em all.” “You don’t look lazy.” And again, more exposition of what’s to come. She’s a smart lady, and this guy is in way over his head.
Bantering is not just about verbal conflict. Did you notice the themes emerging in those examples? Bluffing and the big poker game in Casino Royale, the debilitating heat wave in Body Heat? How about the question/answer session of the hotshot divorce lawyer and the ‘accused’? Think of how differently Emma Stone’s character responds to Ryan Gosling’s quite witty pick-up attempts here…there won’t be conflict when they get together, as the title Crazy Stupid Love suggests. She could have been a lot harsher, but that wasn’t really the point now, was it?
And you thought banter was just about the blah blah blah!
I want to be a pastry chef. I have been in the kitchen a few times in my life, but as a lifelong lover of croissants, eclairs, and choux buns, I know that this is my destiny. I want to open my own exclusive patisserie, launch a range of cookery books, and bake for celebrities who will always want a selfie with me in my kitchen. Maybe I can even be a judge on Great South African Bake-Off? Problem is, I don’t really know anything about baking (everything I’ve ever made, I’ve unintentionally sacrificed to the kitchen gods), don’t have the time to bake, and want to start making money from baking immediately. I know that talent is totally overrated (anyone can bake, ffs), so any advice you can give me will be most appreciated.
Yours in antici-pie-ation,
I’m a pastry chef. I’m a pastry chef. I’m a pastry chef. I’m a pastry chef. I’m a…you get the drift, right? If I believe it, it will be so. If I can imagine it, me in a white coat, chef’s hat on my head, I can be it. I’m a pastry chef, I’m a pastry chef, I’m a pastry chef. Conviction, that’s what it’s called. I am convinced that I am a pastry chef, therefore, I am. Can I make choux pastry? Yes. I have made it twice. And it wasn’t that difficult. Have I made puff pastry? Yes, and that was shithard, and took years of rolling, and adding butter, and then leaving to freeze or something, then repeating the procedure over and over and over, until I was able to cash in on my pensioner’s discount. But, I am a pastry chef. Keep repeating it. Often.
Sure, there are pastry chef courses out there. Some teach you how to do the pastry thing, and it’s not so much fun. Mostly, they give exercises to get your pastry to rise, fluff, or flake, and for your flavours to ‘combine’ well. You have to roll up your sleeves, as it were, and bake, bake, bake. Do you get it right, first time? Not really. It’s not bad, maybe not good either. But an attempt. Sadly, though, these courses take time, lots of it, and require you to commit to doing the baking. Sigh. Fortunately, there are other courses too - these ones are way more effective. They require you to really challenge yourself and question what it means to be a pastry chef. Are you there to provide colourful, afternoon tea amuse bouches? Or do you want to move on to Michelin glory? As you let go of your ideas about what a pastry chef should be, the guided meditations allow you to imagine the lofty heights of pastry chef stardom. What’s getting in the way of actualising these pastry chef dreams? Visualisation. Affirmation. Imagination.
I’ve already completed my list of reasons why I want to be a pastry chef, and have a printed cutout above my oven that reads, “Move over Eric Lanlard!”. And let’s face it, competition can be fierce. Anybody can become a pastry chef. Being a pastry chef is never-endingly accessible. You said it, Hungry - anyone who has an oven can learn the skills. It’s that easy. You only have to flip open a Woman and Home to read about telecom directors who’ve embarked on careers as pastry chefs. Within a few short months, they know exactly how to make those profiteroles profit - they can’t believe they didn’t make the change sooner. That can be you too. You just have to believe. Focus.
Do I bake? Well, sometimes. Like on the weekend, if there’s nothing good on TV or to download. When I do bake though, my friends and family rave and sing sweet hallelujahs for the amazingness that is my baking. “You should totally open your own patisserie,” they say, and I think to myself, obviously, and I’ve handed it over to the universe to make it happen. Then they ask things like, “Would you make a cake for my nephew’s birthday?” Ah, peasants. A nephew’s birthday? That’s not where you start as a pastry chef. No, no. Making a rainbow cake in the shape of Lightning MacQueen for five-year old Brakpan snot-noses? No, no. I decline, graciously, I’m a serious pastry chef. Let’s face it, I’d rather die than have to do any of those intern things in actual kitchens, getting sworn at by red-faced chefs, and having to meekly respond, “yes, chef.” And the lack of money? I mean, I have that cutout above my oven, and it states clearly that I’m a pastry chef.
How long have I been baking? Hard to say, really, a few months, give or take, but you know, my petits-fours are epic. Literally, epic. More of a petits-five or six. Sure, they’re a little skew sometimes, and there’ve been moments when the icing doesn’t stick properly or the sponge tastes more of the bath variety, but, they’re my version. Let’s face it, the pastry chef industry doesn’t know what it wants these days, and I know because they keep rejecting my applications to join one of their kitchens. That’s why I’m starting my own patisserie. And anyway, I’ll hire someone to do the baking, someone who’s maybe done one of those courses that make you work. But a junior, obviously. It’s really not that difficult. There are literally no more barriers to building a cake empire, so I’ve asked my dad for a few hundred grand to get the ball rolling, and set up favourable reviews on FB, Zomato, and Jo’burg’s Restaurants - the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more greasing of the palms, the more grease in the kitchen (of the favourable kind). We’re doing loads and loads of giveaways - free Mercedes SLKs if you like our page, “My Patiserie”. Someone complained that we’d spelt patisserie wrong, and with no accent kopie thingies. But, you know, English is one of those languages that doesn’t mind changing with the times - they’re probably just jealous.
So Hungry, I am so delighted that you’ve found your calling in life. If you follow my advice I know that one year from now, you will be a super success with all of your wishes realised, Hollywood knocking on your door, driving round in a car that is a pheromone on wheels, and living in a mansion that sprawls across the entire Mediterranean coast. With your positive, can-do attitude, anything is possible.
Story time meant sitting on a carpet that smelt like dirt-encrusted shoes, staring at the half-filled lockers of my Grade 1 class, feeling the pins and needles creep up in my feet. Mrs Perkins read out aloud. I listened. All of us listened. Thirty iggly-wriggly six-year-olds hypnotised by words.
Many years later, I sit in an auditorium. The clanking of porcelain echoing from the entrance reminds me that there is a tea break. At half-time. Just like at soccer matches.
The CEO is dwarfed by the PowerPoint presentation that looms behind him. He has a red marker in his hand that he digs and jabs at the screen to make his point. Figures and graphs clutter up the slide. The marker continues to etcha-sketcha over the facts.
He gears himself up and runs through his presentation. Dry as a bone. Parched of life. Devoid of story.
He’s dressed in a suit with sharp cuffs and collars. He hangs onto the lectern, as he no doubt saw his old school principal do every Thursday morning at assembly. He leans forward into the audience.
Some have their heads slumped in their hands. Others text under the shelter of the chair in front of them. One shuffles his i-Pad from landscape to vertical and back again. Some doodle. I doodle. I doodle all over the presentation booklet given to me when I entered the auditorium.
The microphone squeals its discontent. The audience grimaces, and tut-tut turn to each other.
The CEO resumes. He talks about the plans for the future. I can see the bullet-points of his mind as he rattles them off one by one.
Increase productivity. Grow by acquisition. Expand our footprint.
He stops for water. Sipping, sipping, sipping.
I turn over the presentation booklet. Slide printouts at the top of each page with lines underneath for notes.
I write up my shopping list for this evening’s dinner. The CEO talks of progress made. I wonder whether chocolate mousse is better than lemon meringue pie. Red wine or white?
He concludes. The audience hesitates. Do we clap? No.
We file out to have tea. Do we discuss the results? No. We discuss the quality of the finger food that is swallowed in one gulp. We discuss the weekend’s big rugby game. We gossip in hushed tones about the inadequacy of the venue.
We file out to resume our busy lives. Booklets lay scattered, abandoned on the seats of the auditorium.
We are still iggly-wriggly six year olds yearning to be hypnotised by words.
We’ve just learnt to hide it better.
Corporate storytelling is not new. Business has all the elements of good storytelling - protagonists and antagonists, seemingly unreachable targets, one drama after another, and then, when all seems lost, success. It’s been used to smooth over the fallout from many mergers and acquisitions. It’s been used to demonstrate leadership, and talk strategy. And sadly, as we’ve seen recently, it’s even been used to tear apart social fabric.
Storytelling is powerful.
What’s your story?
*Originally written a while back...
Quick, what do Flash Gordon, Highlander, and Conan the Destroyer have in common? Are they Oscar winners? No. Are they fine examples of screenwriting/directing/special effects wizardry? No. But, apart from Conan (and even that’s not too bad), they have pretty high viewer scores. In other words, regular peeps, like you and me, have watched these nearing, if not actual, B-grade films and have loved them. And, still love them.
As a kid, I watched tons of films. That Betamax video machine worked overtime. And, of course, there was the Saturday movie up the road where scores of kiddies could watch soldiers in Nam being yanked from their ankles by a hidden rope and dashed against a board studded with spikes. Or ghosts screaming out of libraries. Or faces melting off nasty gestapo agents looking for holy grails. Most were pretty lame, and required you to suspend belief, and then you could fully appreciate the delights of Big Trouble in Little China, The Golden Child, and, a little later, Mortal Kombat.
Full of drama, fantasy, action, horror, I sucked them all up. Part of me, quite simply, loves films that are made with the viewer in mind, books that are written with the reader in thought.
Are these films fine examples of film-making? Are they a Moonlight? Hell, to the no. But, and here’s the but, I’d give the exquisite Moonlight a five-star review, and I’d give Highlander, a damn close four-and-a-half. Where’d that last half go? They could’ve made Sean Connery Scottish, ffs. But, these two films could not be further apart on the artistry scale.
So what, if anything, do the stars actually mean? I would recommend both, but there would probably have to be caveats; both are blood and guts, one literally, the other, not.
There’s a group on FB where readers can post their reviews. Recently, someone decided to post a DNF on Stephen King’s IT. Which led me to wonder if they and I had read the same book? When I read that doorstopper, it was more a case of do-not-want-to-finish-but-have-to situation. Gripped, terrified, and utterly engrossed, I had considered it his best until I read The Dark Tower’s Drawing of the Three. What interested me more was how the reviewer apologised to SK fans, and how said fans then justified their fandom. Justified it, because one person, who they don’t know, on a social media forum, couldn’t finish the book. Que?
Everyone’s a critic these days. Too easy. Handheld devices, anonymity, wifi access have all made critiquing a viable pastime. I’ve read book reviews such as “I hated this book it ddint good english and made it more dificult read. i would not recomend this book as to read.”
And, literally, who am I to judge? I’d give Titanic one whole star. I hated it. Kate and Leo, in my opinion, have zero chemistry. Millions of women will disagree with me. Would I quit on James Cameron for making such a shit picture? No. He directed Terminator, a frigging awesome movie. Will there be someone out there who thinks Terminator is utter crap? (Yes, my mom, and she quite liked Titanic.) Maybe if you know me, you’ll trust my opinion. Or not - there have been many times I’ve recommended stuff to my sister who wrinkled her nose after reading/viewing.
If a handful of people loved a work, and the ‘rest’ hated it, has it failed? If a work gains popularity or cult status over the years, does it mean that its critics were wrong to diss it originally? Does career longevity come down to only five-star reviews? Does it really matter?