That Certain Something – a sample

I’m beginning to get like a kid before Christmas with my latest novel. I’m on my final edit, reading aloud and polishing before it goes to copy-edit, and I just want people to read it.

I’ve been muttering about writing a light romance for a while and it’s been very pleasant this winter being able to nip out to a romantic summer London with quirky characters and funny scenes.

Here’s chapter 1 of That Certain Something for a taster. I hope to publish it in May.

~~~

Chapter 1

Pia walked around the edge of the quiet London square affecting an air of nonchalance. She kicked out her boots and hummed a song but, underneath her arm, she kept a tight grip on her camera and long zoom lens. She peered over her sunglasses. No-one walked outside the tall Georgian terraces. No-one sat underneath the trees of the large private garden in the centre of Kensington Square. She wriggled her shoulders underneath her rucksack and, with one last peek around, attempted a nimble jump over the black railings into the garden.

She landed with a gentle thud on the grass and to a tearing sound from her rear.

‘Bugger.’

Left behind on a railing spike was the frayed back pocket of her jeans. She twisted round trying to check her bottom. It remained stubbornly out of sight and she spun around on the spot, rather like a dog chasing its own tail. She patted the previous location of her pocket and her warm hand found a cool patch of naked bottom.

‘Damn it.’

Two pigeons startled in the trees above and she cursed herself for shouting. They grappled with a swinging branch in their panic, flapping against leaves, and a small droplet of liquid green plummeted to the floor.

Pia dodged the super-speed dropping and giggled as she squinted up. ‘Sorry for scaring the crap out of you pigeons,’ she whispered.

She was about to launch up the nearest tree when she caught sight of a woman entering the square. Pia squinted through the bushes and hoped she hadn’t been spied. The woman tilted her head to speak into her mobile. Long honey blonde hair fell around her face and she curled it back behind an ear with elegant fingers. Her dress was smart, but not in a corporate way. A tailored shape, cream, sleeveless to show slim arms and short enough to give a hint of long shapely legs. She carried a tablet in a case under her arm and Pia was intrigued by the sophisticated lady.

‘Give me an hour sweetie,’ the woman said.

The melodious, well-spoken voice reached Pia. She watched, entranced by the soothing low tones that flowed through her.

‘Sorry. I can’t make it any sooner, not in rush hour.’ The mellifluous sound made Pia tingle inside.

‘Of course I’m looking forward to it.’ The woman laughed, an alluring soft sound, and she stroked her fingers through her long hair. ‘No I must admit, it’s not my usual Friday night, but I’m hardly going to let you down.’

The woman’s cheeks flushed in a smile that lit every inch of her face. It was a beautiful expression. She had high cheek bones and full lips. The curve of her jaw, the elegant line of her neck and the smooth rise of her chest were beguiling. Mesmerised, Pia was lost down her cleavage, when the woman turned on her heel and sauntered out of the square.

‘Come on. Concentrate Benitez-Smith,’ Pia said. She shook her head to break out of the woman’s hypnosis.

After another glance around, Pia slung the camera over her shoulder and hopped onto the bench at the base of a large plane tree. She started to climb and, after a mouthful of leaves and the odd snag on a twig, she settled herself astride a large branch with a good view of the tallest house in the terrace.

She leaned on her elbows and focussed her lens onto the four-storey town house. She zoomed in on the ground floor and scanned past the perfect white façade and glossy black door. She switched to manual focus to peer through the sash window into the house. A large kitchen and dining room swept back and generous gardens glowed green through the rear windows. No-one was in sight.

Pia lifted her lens to the first floor and was surprised to find it a grey blurry mass. It also moved. And it also made a noise. Pia peeked over her camera to find a peeved squirrel chattering and squeaking at the end of the branch. It dashed forwards at her, made an irritated noise and dashed back to turn and stare. If she could speak squirrel she would have guessed that it said, something along the lines of, ‘Get out of my damned tree. We don’t want your sort around here.’

‘Wow,’ Pia said. ‘Even the squirrels have a stuffy attitude in this part of town.’

The animal sat sulking at the end of the branch. It gnawed at something Pia hoped was a nut, rather than the last Brixtonian to enter the square.

She ignored her furry companion and zoomed into an expansive living room on the first floor. The white walls were splashed with colourful art and low modernist sofas reclined in the middle. The sole occupant was a short East Asian woman who wore an apron and polished a curved coffee table. The two floors above, generous bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms, showed no further activity.

Pia sat back and let the camera hang around her neck. ‘He’s not home yet’. She sighed and shrugged at the squirrel who emitted a dismissive squeak and turned his back on her.

She sniggered and then glanced down, distracted by her phone vibrating in her jeans pocket. The screen flashed ‘Mama’ and her home phone number.

‘Hola Mama.’ Pia sighed with amusement. Her mother always had a sense of when Pia was up to something.

‘Mija.’ Her mother’s voice drew out the endearment. She’d lost none of her Spanish accent in the twenty-five years she’d spent in England, a fact that Pia was always fond of.

‘Is it urgent Mama? I’m…’ she peered around the square and garden beneath her feet. ‘I’m quite busy.’

‘What are you up to chica?’ Her mother’s voice was suspicious.

‘I’m working Mama.’

Pia could hear her mother tut. ‘It’s only work if you get paid.’

‘If I do this right, I will get paid. And I’m hoping quite a lot too.’ She was irritated and hoped her target would appear so that she had an excuse to end the reoccurring argument with her mother.

‘Make sure you do,’ mama snapped. ‘Bueno. Will you be home for your dinner?’

‘I said I would Mama.’ Pia frowned wondering what her mother really wanted. ‘Is that the only reason you’re phoning?’

‘Well….I was shopping in the market today…’ Pia rolled her eyes. Here it comes. ‘I was buying some beautiful peppers from the stall and that young woman, how do you call her?

‘Charlie.’

‘Charlie. She’s still single you know, and she’s not busy tonight. I thought you could invite her round. I’ll cook your favourite paella, open some red wine, and leave you two to-’

‘Mama.’ Pia cut her off.

‘Mija. What is wrong with her? She is friendly. She has an honest job.’

‘She gives you cheap veg.’

‘You shouldn’t joke. She is generous with food. A good thing in a woman. She would feed you up.’

‘Mama. She’s very nice-’

‘Pretty too.’

‘Yes, and she’s pretty. But she just doesn’t…’ Pia stared into the middle distance thinking how to explain to her mother. Through the leaves, she spotted the beautiful woman. She talked on her phone and wandered back towards the square. She held sun-streaked hair from her face, her arm soft and toned. Pia found herself admiring her again, the sun-kissed skin, the generous shape of her breasts, the way she moved, elegant and at ease. That warm feeling tickled inside again and Pia sighed. ‘She just doesn’t have that magic. That something. I don’t know.’

‘Pia. You are waiting for a dream.’ Pia tutted and slumped, digging in for the familiar admonishment. ‘You want to be swept off your feet by a princess, but there are no princesses, and one day you’ll wake up and you’ll be an old woman and alone. You need someone to take care of you. To cook for you. To hold you tight at night.’

‘Mama, how can you say that when you have dad?’

‘That’s different. Things were different for us. And look where his is now. What use is a shining knight in armour when-’

Pia didn’t hear her mother finish. A black Mercedes drew up in the space beneath her feet. The driver, dressed in a dark grey suit, marched around the car to open the back door. Out stepped her majesty’s member of parliament for West Surrey. His full head of distinguished grey hair, which so captivated his female constituents, was in full view below.

‘Mama,’ Pia whispered. ‘I have to go. I’ll be home for dinner.’

The government minister moved away from the car and ignored the driver. The front door of the house was opened by a person unseen and a person disregarded. The minister disappeared inside and the driver returned to the car, unsurprised by the lack of acknowledgment, and left the square.

Pia’s insides curdled at the thought of the politician, the most hard-lined Immigration Minister for decades, who rejected asylum requests from the most desperate of individuals. He lived a cozy life being served by the very people he wanted to expel from the country.

Pia zoomed into the first floor where the maid was cleaning. She panned out to view the full width of the room and saw the minister step through the doorway. As soon as he entered his face became stiff with irritation. The small woman bowed in apology and tried to leave the room. Her shoulders were cowed and she clutched her duster and polish into her stomach. The minister sneered and his mouth ugly around a tirade of words, inaudible to Pia but their intent clear.

But what Pia could hear was insistent chattering. She tried to ignore it. She clicked some images of the confrontation and concentrated on the scene at the end of the lens. But it blurred, and appeared to become hairy.

‘What the…?’

Pia took the camera away to find the proprietorial squirrel blocking her view.

‘Oh no, not now. Shoo. Go away.’

Pia stretched higher, trying to shoot over the irritable animal. Inside the house, the minister was angry and gesticulated at the maid. She feared him and raised her arms to protect herself. Pia squeezed on the shutter hoping to capture an incriminating moment.

Over the desperate snapping of the camera, the squirrel’s chatter became louder and more insistent. Pia edged the camera away. She tried to keep shooting but was too unnerved by the animal’s perseverance not to peek.

The small beast sat rigid on the branch. If a squirrel could growl and taunt it surely would be now. The wretched animal crouched down, wiggled its bottom and leapt forward.

‘Shit!’

Its claws scratched on the bark as it tore towards her. As Pia jumped, she saw the minister raise his arm to strike. She squeezed her finger on the shutter and aimed in the direction of the house. She heard her camera rattle off photo after photo and focussed all her energy on pressing that button. At the same time she was aware of being surrounded by little other than air.

She felt light for a moment. Her stomach broke into butterflies. The ethereal sensation of spinning out of the tree was almost pleasant, until she was brought back to almost earth.

Her belt snagged on a branch and snapped around her stomach. Her full weight plunged around the loop and it ripped the air out of her lungs. She hung upside down, winded, with her feet tangled and rattling in the twigs above.

Despite hanging in mid-air, she felt claustrophobic. As she breathed in her short painful breaths, soft fabric sucked and sealed around her mouth and nostrils. She opened her eyes to find the world glowed white with her T-shirt surrounding her face. She also registered a light breeze on her naked belly and partially naked breasts.

‘Christ are you all right?’

Although winded and feeling as if she was about to puke upside down into her own eyes, she felt her tummy flutter and her heart beat a little faster. It was the unmistakable sound of the beautiful woman’s voice.

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Some tips on editing

I talked to a group of new authors at L Festive at the weekend, and went through some tips that I’ve found useful for editing and polishing manuscripts after the first draft. I’ve had a few requests for notes on the session so I’ve posted them here for wider use. They’re intended for authors preparing their manuscript for submitting to publishers or self-publishing.

You’ve written your novel – now what?

(1) Get feedback

If you are self-publishing, beta-readers take the place of a development editor. If you are submitting to a publisher, feedback will only help your chances.

  • Get a mix of people to read your story, ideally including other authors and people who read your genre
  • Ideally cultivate a mix of beta-readers who will both pounce on every issue and pat you on the back where you’ve done well (usually different people!)
  • Be brave and listen very carefully to issues – if beta-readers find an issue so will a paying reader or submissions editor

(2) Read through the draft critically for structural and other large issues (forget about style for the moment)

Some common and useful tips:

  • Make sure the start is strong – captivating and gets straight into the story
  • Are the characters distinguishable? This is especially important in lesfic with so many female characters – and don’t rely on the short/tall, dark/blonde distinction
  • Watch out for unnecessary scenes / description / characters that are appealing to the author but not necessary for the story – readers will get bored. Also watch out for your research showing.
  • Pacing and proportion – are scenes overwritten / underwritten given their importance
  • Conflict – is there enough to keep the reader interested?
  • Inconsistent point of views –mainly slips in third-person POV. Some readers hate head-hopping.
  • Is there too much telling and explanation – respect the reader’s intelligence and dramatise scenes to – show don’t tell (but not all the time!)
  • Too many flashbacks? Use with care – slows the momentum of the story and are hated by some readers
  • Any loose ends?
  • Are there too many characters / locations? Too much detail on minor characters (don’t name incidentals).
  • Do the main characters develop over the novel?
  • Ensure there is a strong ending

Note this step usually requires several drafts where you refine and bring out themes, give depth to characters and refine the plot and structure

(3) Line-editing and polishing

Examples:

  • Overuse / underuse of dialogue tags? Simplify most to “said” to avoid annoying readers.
  • Cliches – think of fresh vivid phrases instead
  • Metaphors and similes are loathed by a great number
  • Use precise language for impact and edit out unnecessary words – adverbs for example can be overused and words such as “seems”, “almost”, “then” are usually redundant
  • Watch out for repeated words
  • Also repeated phrases or habits – characters winking, or leaning forwards, describing the hair colour of every single character
  • Vary the sentence structure
  • Strengthen sentences – end powerfully
  • Watch out for overuse of participle phrases, including in dialogue tags. “That’s fine,” she said, sipping her tea.
  • Unrealistic dialogue to progress plot

(4) Read the whole manuscript aloud

  • Extremely useful for making sure the work reads smoothly
  • Great for realistic dialogue

(5) Finally (if self-publishing), get someone else to copy-edit it (it’s extremely difficult to spot your own mistakes):

  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation
  • Factual errors
  • Inconsistencies (e.g. character changes name in places) and plot holes

Finding beta-readers and editors

  •  For beta-readers – make friends with authors of Facebook and ask around on online discussion groups such as the Virtual Living Room. Most beta-readers will give you feedback in exchange for a printed version of the novel. Authors may be willing to swap beta-reads.
  • For editors, ask for recommendations from other authors and The Society for Editors and Proof readers. Smashwords also lists editors (Mark’s List).

 Some recommendations for books

  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Brown and King – extremely good and popular book – pay attention to what it says because others (like submissions editors) do
  • Revision – A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by Kaplan – difficult to get hold of (available on US Amazon) – but good for practical examples of how to edit for structure, meaning and style
  • Plot and Structure by Scott Bell – very prescriptive but a great way of looking at your story and a way to ask yourself the right questions to help strengthen a novel
  • The Art of Fiction by Lodge – fantastic insight into fiction techniques – stream of consciousness, sense of place, etc. – illustrated with a range of texts
  • Popular lesfic author Jae has plenty of great writing tips on her website.
  • And in general read other fiction critically – what works, what doesn’t and why
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Interview by Ylva Publishing

I had this short(ish) and sweet interview with the lovely people at Ylva publishing . They asked me some great questions and I hope you find the answers entertaining – it was fun to do.

http://ylvapublishing.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/spotlight-interview-clare-ashton/

Ylva are a relatively new publishing company coming out with some interesting books in both German and English. They focus on women writers and aim to be an author friendly publisher putting out quality publications.

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Interview with Diana Simmonds by Clare Ashton

Diana Simmonds, author of Heart on Fire and Forty Love, is an interesting woman. I got to know her when she edited After Mrs Hamilton and she also now has a new book out. Here’s my interview with her on the Women and Words site.

Interview with Diana Simmonds by Clare Ashton.

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Award for After Mrs Hamilton

Back in June After Mrs Hamilton won a Golden Crown Literary Society Award. The award itself has now made it across the Atlantic, and here it is.

DSC_5323

I find it inspiring. My first thought of “Ooo, nice shiny award” was quickly followed by “that would make an interesting murder weapon in a mystery”.

I’m making light of it, but I’m very proud indeed of my lump of award on my writing shelf.

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New short story

cover3I love writing intense, emotional mysteries, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and write something funny. I’ve just published a short story called The Dildo in the Kitchen Drawer, a comic story of slippery fingers, paranoia and recalcitrant dogs.

There’s a bit of slapstick, some black humour and hopefully some simple laugh out loud moments too. Here’s the blurb:

What has Beth’s girlfriend ordered in the plainest, squarest, most non-descript parcel? It certainly isn’t books. No-one shuffles that frantically to hide books when you come in unexpectedly.

And what would any right-minded person do when they opened the kitchen drawer to check what had been hidden? But right-minded isn’t a term that’s often applied to Beth.

Let me know what you think.

It’s available for $0.99 for the Kindle on Amazon:

US – http://www.amazon.com/The-Dildo-Kitchen-Drawer-ebook/dp/B00EK7ZCTS/
UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dildo-Kitchen-Drawer-ebook/dp/B00EK7ZCTS/

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Interview for the Lesbrary

I had a lovely Q&A session with Hannah this week. She’d heard about After Mrs Hamilton on C-Spot Reviews and asked me some great questions about that, Pennance and writing in general. The Q&A will be posted on the Lesbrary in a couple of weeks, but you can see it here first: http://hannahsnook.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/interviewing-a-writer-clare-ashton/

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