Author Archives: Joanna

Rose and the Panther — a Cautionary Tale of Workshops

As some of our readers will know, Sophie and I gave an editing workshop — complete with black  panther — at the RNA Conference in mid-July 2017. (Fantastic conference, by the way.)
About 70 people attended. That’s a lot — we normally limit our workshop numbers to 12!

sparklers in the hands of a loving couple

Our topic was editing to add Sparkle to our writing in order to hook and hold readers. Since we only had an hour, rather than our normal 2 full days, it was more of a twinkle.
But it was fun. And we hope that those who attended found it useful.

We certainly did. It taught us some salutary lessons which I’ll share in a moment.
First, let me introduce you to Rose…

Rose meets her Match…

One of the examples we used was the first meeting of a heroine, Rose, with her unnamed hero. Crucially, would it hook and hold a reader? This is the text that we gave the workshop:

twenties flapper woman dancing Charleston

Rose felt out of place and a bit scared, since she didn’t really know her companions very well and, when the men had had too much to drink, they had a nasty habit of pawing any woman they could lay their hands on. She glanced round helplessly, wondering whether there was any escape route but knowing, in her heart of hearts, that there would be none when, suddenly, she saw him – she had never seen him before, she was sure, and he stood out because he was quite alone, his immaculate white tie and tails fitted his panther-like body like a second skin and he was obviously in total control of all about him. He strolled nonchalantly across to her. “Dance with me,” he said.
(125 words)

Participants were invited to spend 5 minutes deciding what to change in green text #1 above so that it sparkled enough to grab a reader. We told participants it didn’t grab us. We admitted we’d written it. And we said it was OTT. What we didn’t say explicitly — mistake #1 — was that we had deliberately written it to be so dire that participants would tear it to shreds.

…and the workshop meets a Panther

Mistake #2 followed from mistake #1. Here it is:

panther with glowing eyes in the dark

Four minutes into the 5 minutes of thinking time, we put up this panther slide. We intended it to raise a laugh, or at least a giggle. It didn’t.

On a blog page like this, it may look OK, but on an enormous screen, it didn’t work well because the image isn’t high-resolution. (We learned what a sin that was during Janet Gover‘s informative conference session on manipulating images.)

And anyway, our participants were working away so hard that they probably didn’t even notice that a rather fuzzy animal image had appeared on the screen.

red oops! key on keyboard

Mistake #3 was to underestimate how kind RNA members can be, particularly at Conference and particularly when they’re invited to criticise the work of fellow authors. Basically, RNA members understand how devastating harsh criticism can be, so our participants tried to be really, really kind about that dire green text #1.

Oops, indeed. That wasn’t the plan at all.

Shoot the Panther?

When prompted by Sophie, participants did agree that there was quite a lot that could be taken out of green text #1. Once they got into the swing of it, suggestions really began to flow. That wasn’t surprising, considering how dull and wordy green text #1 is. By the time Sophie had finished taking contributions from the audience, we had cut large chunks of text and we had suggestions for improving much of the rest.

panther on the prowl

The panther was still hanging on by his claws, though. I strongly suspect it was RNA kindness again.

Sophie had admitted the panther was her idea and I think our author colleagues were too generous to tell her that her animal metaphor should have been shot at birth.
(If only we had told the audience that we were doubled up with laughter when we originally wrote it. I couldn’t read the panther passage without corpsing into giggles. Still can’t.)

Exit Panther

The revised green text we offered to our audience came sans panther, I’m delighted to say::

Rose looked at the dance floor and shivered. I don’t know where I am with these people, she thought.
     Over a drunken shoulder, she saw a commotion in the doorway. A new man had arrived.
     He was a stranger. Controlled. Mesmerising. And staring straight at her.
     Suddenly, Rose couldn’t breathe.

     A second later, he was there.
     “Dance with me,” he said.
(61 words)

Green text #2 is nowhere near perfect — and there’s never a right or perfect answer to our exercises anyway, because all readers are different — but we think it has enough sparkle to grab a reader a bit more than the first version.

The workshop produced interesting discussions about how this shorter version — less than half the length of the first one — could be improved. Opinions differed over Suddenly, for example, and over the omissions of the hero’s physical appearance and how he got from the doorway to Rose.
But no one wanted the return of the panther.

Lessons from the Libertà Panther

  1. If an example is deliberately dire and is intended to be torn to shreds, SAY SO explicitly
  2. Don’t use low-resolution images on slides. EVER. [Thank you, Janet Gover 😉 ]
  3. Don’t distract the audience with jokey slides when they’re working hard
  4. If something is intended to be a joke, make sure the audience knows it’s OK to laugh and that laughter won’t hurt the presenter’s feelings
  5. Never underestimate how kind and generous RNA members can be to fellow authors

panther at rest but alert with JOKE text

I shall create a Joke Flag for future workshops, to be waved vigorously at pantherly moments. Message — it’s OK to laugh, folks, if you find it funny. It’s OK to groan, too.

Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage

Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading

Nice words: he Rats, they Badger, but does anyone Mole?

animal words create images in hearer's mind

Language is a writer’s basic toolkit. Writers — novelists, playwrights, poets, lyricists, and all the rest — use words to trigger emotional responses or to paint pictures in the minds of their readers and listeners.

How can we fail to see layers of meaning in creations like these?

  • the wine-dark sea (Homer, Ancient Greece)
  • sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care (Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1606)
  • nursing her wrath to keep it warm (Robert Burns: Tam O’Shanter, 1790)
  • moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black (Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood, 1954)

English, a pickpocket stealing words?

Continue reading

Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale


Napoleon Bares his Breast
~ or ~
The Editor Is [almost] Always Right

Two hundred and two years ago — on 7th March 1815, to be precise — Napoleon bared his breast to (what looked like) certain death and lived to fight one more great battle. (And if you’re wondering why we didn’t do this blog two years ago, on the bicentenary, we would plead that this website was a mere twinkle in the hively eye back then.)

A cautionary tale of author and editor

Once upon a time there was an author — let’s call her Joanna — who was writing a trilogy of love stories set in 1814-15, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (He lost, by the way.) Continue reading

Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle

White evening gown, 1800, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Regency evening gown, replica, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Detail does matter. The Regency lady going to dinner, or going to a ball, wanted every detail of her appearance to be perfect. Especially if her aim was to attract a potential husband. (She might, of course, have been a married lady looking for a little diversion with a new lover.)

Did the gentlemen in question notice these details? Possibly they did, because most of the details on these gorgeous gowns were around two areas of the female body that drew the masculine eye — the low-cut neckline exposing much of the lady’s bosom, and the naughty ankle, glimpsed as the lady walked or danced. Continue reading

Love among the Thrillers: Alison Morton guests

Alison Morton, author of Roma Nova series of thrillersToday, we welcome our first guest blogger of 2017, Alison Morton, author of the acclaimed Roma Nova series. Her novels are set in the alternate reality of a breakaway Roman state that survived the fall of the rest of the Empire — and it’s run by women! There are six novels in the series, all edge-of-the-seat thrillers, but all involving at least one love story as well. So Alison is well qualified to blog here on the subject of…

lovers - but can love survive in thrillers?Love among the Thrillers

Love. Ah, love! Nothing like a breathless heroine falling into the arms of her strong, yet conquered hero.

Yes, heroes are conquered by that heart-pounding, visceral but tender feeling as much as heroines are. But that’s just in romances, isn’t it? The classic “happy ever after” ending?

Er, no. Continue reading