It’s ‘How to Write a Novel’ week with Debbie


Charney Manor How would you fancy a short break in a 13th century historic building, hearing fascinating insights into one of your favourite topics of all time? Well last week, that’s exactly what I was doing. Yes, as promised, here's the update about my fantastic creative writing course at ancient Charney Manor.

Then later in the week, for those that have asked me for guidelines about how to get published, I’ll bring you part 2 – an update on the one day seminar I attended at the weekend – what to do and what not to do to get an agent and a publisher. It’s based on a book by Harry Bingham that’s just been released – I may even have a signed copy to give away in a little draw! So come back later in the week for the other half.

First, chic lit, well why not? In the interests of, firstly pursuing my ‘women’s commercial fiction’ ambitions (and secondly using up my annual leave!) I took myself off to the three-day course in the heart of Oxfordshire to the amazing Charney Manor – an old Quaker retreat in some of the most peaceful countryside I think I’ve ever been in. Perfect for allowing creativity to flow.

To say I was in my element was an understatement. It was lovely to be in such a like-minded group – including one of my best-writing-buddies, Litty, whom I met in Tuscany last year. And what better place to be writing romance. (Or ghost stories!!) We took our evening sessions in the old chapel – which stretches back to 1260 – complete with ancient black beams, vaulted ceilings and secrets…

Charney Manor dining room One night a successful agent – from the team that represent J K Rowling – visited us for a keynote talk about what she’s looking for. Like so many others, we heard that she receives hundreds of submissions every year but only takes on just one or two new authors. As you can imagine, we all took copious notes – aided by the odd box of our Duc d’O Belgian chocs I’d brought along specially. Mind you, the food was copious too! And this was where we ate it, atmospheric or what?

A charming setting…

The old dresser in the dining room had a date of 1650 on it, and they use it to house the glasses and serviettes! I was in heaven I can tell you! Tell you what was quaint about the place? Apart from the stories of ghosts, the huge oak doors with massive keys and locks, a gong to call us to dinner, and an exterior like a scene out of a gothic novel or a Jane Austen romance – we had to clear up after ourselves, set place settings, strip your bed on check out day and make your own tea and coffee!

Helping out and not being waited on was actually rather nice for a change. It was actually instrumental in helping the community spirit and got us all talking to each other very quickly. It was actually so peaceful, I would quite happily go back there for a week! Hopefully it wouldn’t rain all the time though – like it did much of our three days. Still didn’t stop it being a beautiful place, it was just a beautiful, wet place!


An enlightening trip

The most unusual aspect was that I had absolutely no Orange or T-Mobile signal – so no calls or internet for nearly the whole trip! Nor telly – I actually didn’t even see one in the place. Good job, because we were there to write… And write we did! And read. And listen. And learn.

The theme of the course was chic lit, heroes and heroines, pace and plot, character and conflict and a whole lot more. With eight of us on the course, our tutor, author Julie Cohen, had easy pickings when it came to using examples from our own first chapters, to help illustrate her various points!

It was refreshing, fun and very, very enlightening for us rookie novelists. Julie used a great deal of info from 'Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster' by Helen Corner and Lee Weatherly. Helen herself was also there to guide us through the maze of twists and turns. It was all thoroughly fascinating, and insightful, and lovely to be with such a talented bunch of – they called us 'authors'!

It was also great to read some of their work – or have it read to us – it’s a long time since I’ve been read to! Actually that was one of the tips – read your own work aloud, as you’ll pick up what works and what doesn’t, for instance, what you’re repeating too much. For example, in my extract from the novel I’m writing, this was deemed to be good –

"A date! One night of fun with Hot Boat Man… One night of being someone else. Someone desired. Someone that’s not boring old Sadie Samantha Turner, singleton extraordinaire."
Reasons – rules of three, but not overdone. I was quite chuffed to hear them praise this segment, I can tell you!

Whereas, whilst alliteration is good, this example was deemed to be too much, which I’d have picked up more clearly if I’d been reading each edit back to myself –

“See you at seven, Sam," he smiled. Sadie blew him a kiss and sashayed off sexily…" Er, yeh! You can bet I was straight onto the editing after that!

Naturally we also had a fab reading list – which we all compared and contrasted and analysed – over yet more wine and coffee and choccies in the old chapel room!

Expert tips

Then on the third day, another of Julie Cohen’s tips told us how to help make sure we were pacing correctly, and how she checks her plot arcs. How your heroine grows and changes, (character arc) interlaced into the twists and turns of the plot – ever increasing obstacles thrown in her way until one final, seemingly insurmountable problem is overcome in a nail-biting climax leading to the ubiquitous happy ending… (or not, depending on your genre! I like the ones with happy endings. That’s why I’m writing a Mills and Boon I guess!). Julie’s tip involved ‘post-its’… and she brought her own example along!


We topped off the course with a well-deserved 'let your hair down' session at the local pub. We left completely reinvigorated and raring to go! I loved the whole experience, and it’s left me wanting more. They do this one each year. If you’re interested go to the Cornerstones site to find out more.

When I grow up, I want to be a writer!

If you read my blogs regularly, you’ll be well aware of my ambitions to write a novel and 'be a writer when I’m a grown up'. Over the past year or so I’ve actually been on several amazing courses – one of which was my first blog, the trip to sunny Tuscany to learn about how to write a romance novel, (Sept last year – website) and another was in April – the York Festival (writers for details).

Both were invaluable in helping to inform, educate and also make contacts. And also get yourself noticed – for instance, I learned recently that the winner of a Friday night after-dinner competition (reading aloud a bit of your book) at York had earned the winner, Shelley Harris, not only lots of interest from agents, but also soon after, a publishing deal! Inspiring news!

I also enjoyed the Mills and Boon online 'new voices' competition, and came high up in the readers’ votes, although I didn’t make it to the top ten (judged by independent judges including an editor from Heat magazine – you may have read about it!).

The finalists were great, though, I must say. And they posted the reasons why each entry was chosen for the top ten. There are also several ‘how to’ videos which the editors have created to help would-be authors. (

But if it’s not a competition that’ll get you noticed, what do you do?

Well later this week, look out for part 2 of my ‘writing’ special – talking about a new book helping answer just that question and more!

If you could write a book what would it be about?

Till next time

Debs X


1 Comment

  1. Christine Wharton October 26, 2010 at 12:57 pm -  Reply

    Just a comment about celebrities wearing QVC clothes. I think Rita off Coronation Street has been stocking up with Indigo Moon. She appears to have quite a few jackets.

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