Saturday, 19 December 2015

Week Twenty-Eight: The Importance of Retreating

Welcome back to the main blog after a few guest posts and a random promo. (My debut thriller got to Number One in the UK Kindle chart - yippee! Sorry, my ego is still loving that.) This is where we resume normal service. Assuming it was normal to begin with, of course.

This week I want to talk about the importance of retreating. I don't mean in the face of an enemy offensive, I mean as a writer, i.e. packing up your kit bag and toddling off to some quiet hotel or place in the country or friend's empty flat for a few days or even weeks in order to devote serious time to your current work in progress.

Ditch home comforts, slip a discreet laptop into your rucksack, and slope off for some quality writing time alone.
As the mother of many noisy kids, three of whom are now home educated, I find a writer's retreat invaluable, especially at the start or end of an important writing project. But I accept that not everyone is like me. (It's hard, but yes, I have found a way to accept this strange truth.) Some people may already live alone and not need to get away for peace and quiet. They may have peace and quiet coming out of their ears, and would prefer to write in a floating cocktail party. Others may be like me, but need a change of scenery so their creative brains can recharge (rather than so they can write without endless distractions).

Whatever the reason, it does seem that many writers produce more when they go away specifically to write than when they stay home and follow their usual routine. More words. More pages. More chapters. More books.

I guess this is not merely because of wonderful distractors like kids and spouses, who, darling things though they are, do seem intent on disturbing us right when we're in the middle of an important scene. And often for no good reason at all, it seems to me. Simply because they can't find clean socks, or you've absentmindedly left their pizza in the oven for forty minutes and it's now a charred, smoking wreck.

No, going on retreat also avoids all those boring domestic tasks that get in the way of a good story. Some of these are unavoidable daily essentials like shopping or household maintenance. Typical scenario is you start to write, then have to stop because you're remembered the old fridge is due to be collected by the council. Then the cats need to be wormed. Someone has to find the Christmas tree at the back of the shed - and put it up! Or the milk has run out, so a quick trip to the shop is in order. And that permission slip still needs to be signed. And where the hell did we put last summer's wetsuits?

If all the above are not just part of Novel Avoidance Syndrome, you finally close the door with a sigh and sit down to bash out a few thousand words. But then the phone rings and you spend the next forty-five minutes having a circuitous conversation with Mad Aunt Maud about the aliens she can hear scratching around in her loft at night.

"He crept barefoot across the shards of broken glass and ... " Oh shit, is that the phone again?

Suddenly a writing retreat seems more and more appealing. We open our laptops and book a place, pack our cases, jump in the car or taxi, and vamoose ...

So we retreat to concentrate on our work. On ourselves as writers. Retreating is about creating and ring-fencing an important space in our lives and minds which is for nothing but writing. And the odd panini.

There will be some who can't stand their own company though, or who prefer being with other writers when wrestling with a manuscript. For these, any residential writing course will be useful, but especially a 'retreat'. My own favourite has always been those run by the marvellous Arvon Foundation. I've been on many courses with them, and even tutored one in Scotland. You get to write in a room of your own all day on one of their 'retreats' or to share your work with experienced tutors on a course if you prefer. Plus chat with other writers at meal-times and in the evenings. It's heaven for writers who get enough of their own company all year round. And of course there are many other writing retreat-style courses all around the country.

If retreating alone, here are a few useful things to consider:

What kind of retreatee are you?
If you prefer silence and solitude, a cottage in the woods or on the moors is an excellent choice if your budget will stretch to it. But beware the branch squeaking against the window in the night or the wind moaning under the eaves. If you're writing a ghost or horror story, it might be best not to go for total isolation, especially in winter (when the rents are cheapest).

I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that creaking sound upstairs ...

If you like noise and bustle and people, but anonymity with it, a city centre hotel is perfect. I have gone down both routes and find them equally useful. A budget hotel is often the cheapest option, but make sure the chain you pick has a good desk and chair for working at. And a comfortable bed! (You can always take a laptray for writing in bed if you get sick of the desk.) I usually go for Premier Inn but everyone is different. Ask if there's a coffee shop or restaurant attached or nearby - you will soon find the four walls of your room a little unvarying.

Avoid free wifi if you can, though it's becoming widespread at hotels. You will only end up spending your entire retreat on Twitter or Facebook.

What resources do you need?
Under this heading I include drinks and snacks - a bunch of grapes or a Pot Noodle can be a lifesaver when you're on a winning streak and don't want to go out for food - and books on writing or research materials. Historical or thriller writers often find themselves carting around ludicrous amounts of maps, manuals and background books. Not great if you're travelling by train or bus. If you can get such books on Kindle or iPad etc., all the better, though personally I find it easier to flick to a frequently-consulted page in a paperback or hardback.

I take how-to books on writing with me to all retreats. Like comfort food. Often I never open them. But they're on hand in case I get stuck. The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is my all-time favourite, full of practical and inspirational - if sometimes oddly couched - advice. It's about screenwriting ostensibly, but can be adapted for any medium.

Other special items (beyond drinks/snacks/research material) to consider taking include:
laptray (for writing in bed or on a sofa/garden bench)
any DVDs that could be useful (not your fav film, in other words, unless you're writing something similar!)
headphones (for excluding outside noise and/or listening to music)
warm and/or comfortable clothing (for slouching around in) 
bedsocks or slippers
a local map or map app
your dongle or whatever you use for internet access (to perform back-ups to Dropbox etc: make sure it's up-to-date/covers that area)
a USB pen/data stick for belt-and-braces file back-ups
any extra pillows or comfort items you need for sleeping
--- and don't forget chargers for all electrical items!

How much should I expect to write per day on a retreat?
I often write very little the first day or two, depending on how long I'm away. If I have a week or more, I like to get the feel of the place first and get comfortable there, like an animal laying down its scent. Then I work hard, maybe ten hours a day at the desk, until the day before leaving, when I start to wind up mentally and look back over what I've managed. If it's only a mini-break, you may need to work from day one all the way through to the last minute, which can be an exhausting process.

Generally, I expect to write between 3000 and 7000 words a day of neat prose, by which I mean prose I've tidied up as I go along. Those who write fast, dirty drafts might do far more. We all write at a different pace, so whatever works for you is perfect.

Well, as I swing off on my latest writing retreat, to a quiet and unassuming city hotel (with free wifi, unfortunately), good luck with your own endeavours!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

My self-published thriller hits Number 1 spot in UK Kindle store

I'm utterly thrilled to announce that my self-published thriller, GIRL NUMBER ONE, hit the coveted number 1 spot in the UK Kindle store two days ago, on December 10th after 40 days in the Top 100.

I wasn't sure if it would stick there more than a few hours at first, but it has so far, apart from a few sideways shifts, but then returning to the top spot. Maybe a few days longer, if I'm lucky?

I was so shocked at first, really stunned, and only found out because the previous occupant of the top spot for many weeks, Kat Croft, author of The Girl With No Past, tweeted me to say I was #1. What a fab person she is.

The kids were even more excited than me and started making out revised Christmas lists, as you can imagine. And I spent the next 24 hours with my nose glued to the screen, sure that it would all end as suddenly as it had happened. But it clung on there, and I have never been so happy to stay in one ranking spot in my whole time as an indie author!

So now I would like to thank everyone who's been involved with helping to promote this book and getting GIRL NUMBER ONE to number one.

No one gets to a top ranking spot with an indie book without legions of friends on social media, tweeting and retweeting, sharing posts, and generally backing up an author and letting people know about their work. As far as I'm concerned, I could not have done it without you. Thank you!

Grab your own copy of GIRL NUMBER ONE on Amazon UK

You can read more about this title here, how it was rejected by over a dozen major UK publishers, and subsequently rewritten and self-published. I am completely thrilled to have hit the top spot in the UK ebook chart with my baby, and even if it only lasts a couple of days, I will never forget the wonderful feeling of being able to click on the Kindle Bestsellers' chart and see my OWN BOOK and name up there at the top.

Thank you all!

And for those who might like to see their own books up at the top of their charts, I have laid out some tips and pointers describing how I did it, on this blog.

Eleanor Blackwood discovers a woman's body in the same spot in local woodlands where her mother was strangled eighteen years ago. But before the police can get there, the body vanishes.
Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Cathie Hartigan asks: What Kind of Novel Are You Writing?

I'm thrilled to have my friend and fellow author Cathie Hartigan from Creative Writing Matters as my guest on the 52 Ways blog today. Creative Writing tutor, novelist, talented musician, and an administrator of the Exeter Novel prize, Cathie has many strings to her bow. And as you can see, she is going to lead us through the thought processes and research that led her to write her fascinating debut novel SECRET OF THE SONG.

SECRET OF THE SONG was released on October 6th and has garnered much critical praise. I have read the novel myself and can highly recommend it: a rich but delicately woven time-slip, it will transport you to a complex, musical world you may never wish to leave.  

 Cathie writes:
So you have a great idea of what your novel will be about, and are keen to get going, but before you start tapping, there is a crucial question you must ask yourself. What sort of novel am I writing? Make your decision carefully and base it on the sort of writing you can do, rather than the writing you wish you could do.

I’ve always written contemporary women’s fiction. My most successful short stories have been told in the first person, via characters with strong, individual voices. I love writing about relationships between families, friends and lovers, I’m curious, keen on puzzles and I find Italy, singing and a sense of humour irresistible.

So what sort of novel would I write?

Two separate incidents provided me with the idea for my novel, Secret of the Song.

The first arose at a choir practice when we were asked to sing a piece of music by the Italian Renaissance composer, Carlo Gesualdo. Who was he? I had no idea. The music was really difficult and I don’t think we even made to the end of the piece. There were murmurs of disapproval about Don Gesualdo though, so I decided to look him up.

It transpired that Carlo Gesualdo was a bad man. In fact, two centuries before Byron, he was much madder and badder and decidedly dangerous. Plus, whereas Byron was a lord, Carlo Gesualdo was a Neapolitan prince. Gesualdo’s story, and that of his lovely wife, Maria and her dashing lover, Duke Fabrizio was equal to anything the Tudor court in England could muster at that time.

But the retelling of an incident already documented isn’t a story; it’s an account.

Then, coincidentally, I heard a programme on the radio, during which musicians and neurological experts discussed the power of ‘ear worms’, those maddening tunes that go round in your head for days. Was Gesualdo mad because of his music, I wondered? More significantly, could his music send the musicians who performed it mad?

Here was a story. I would write a contemporary mystery about a singer haunted by the song she was singing. Yes, that was it. 

But during further research, I read the witness statement of a servant, and felt hugely sympathetic towards the poor girl caught up in such a dreadful situation. With only a little imagining, her voice was in my head. Yes, she must be heard.

So I had two heroines: one in contemporary Exeter, and one in Renaissance Naples.  I felt there was only one sort of novel that would do the story justice. Secret of the Song is a time-slip mystery. The decision to write the dual narrative as alternating chapters proved challenging, but it also kept both plot lines moving forward at a good pace.

My top tip?
Remember that every reflection, every look back, brings the plot to a dead stop. Ask yourself whether it is necessary, and what is lost if you leave it out. 

Cathie Hartigan

When a song by the mad composer, Carlo Gesualdo, is discovered in Exeter Museum, trouble descends on the group asked to sing it. Lisa is full of enthusiasm at first, but she soon becomes convinced the song is cursed. Can Lisa find out what mystery lies behind the discordant harmonies? Will she solve the song’s secret before her relationship with Jon breaks for good and harm befalls them all?

In Renaissance Naples, young Silvia Albana is seamstress and close confidant of Don Gesualdo’s wife. When Donna Maria begins an affair, Silvia knows that death is the only outcome. But who exactly will die?

And where is Silvia’s own lover? Why is he not there to help her?
As a big fan of the work of Barbara Erskine, I was delighted to discover a new Time-slip author whose first novel is a delight. I’m sure Cathie Hartigan has a great future.
Margaret James - Writing Magazine 

Explore SECRET OF THE SONG on Amazon UK

Monday, 16 November 2015

Guest Post: Author Samantha Tonge on Writing

This week I am thrilled to welcome popular author Samantha Tonge to 52 Ways To Write A Novel.

Samantha Tonge lives in Cheshire with her lovely family and a cat that thinks it’s a dog. When not writing, she spends her days cycling and willing cakes to rise. She has sold over 80 short stories to women’s magazines. Her bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction best Ebook award in 2014. Her summer 2015 novel Game of Scones hit #5 in the UK Kindle chart. 

Samantha, why do you write?

Sounds cheesy, but I always knew that one day I would write. This perhaps comes from being a voracious reader as a child. I finally got the opportunity when my youngest started school, and haven’t been able to stop since.
Why do I love it? Because nothing satisfies me more than crafting words together. And whilst no one may ever read my work  once I’m dead and buried, I feel as if I am leaving behind some sort of legacy... some sort of mark that I existed.

I am sure that nagging desire to leave something behind is what drives many writers. So what is your preferred field as a writer? And is there anything you'd like to write that's outside your comfort zone?

I adore writing romantic comedies, the words just seem to flow onto the page, I think it is my natural voice. But yes, at some point I might want to challenge myself to try something different. I have got an idea for a YA thriller.
YA is a very challenging genre, I've found, not least in terms of finding the right readership for your books. But it can also be one of the most rewarding areas to work in as a writer, perhaps because fans are more likely to reach out to you on social media or really engage with your work among themselves. I wish you luck with that.

Now, back to the interrogation!

Could you describe a typical writing day for us? Any routines/techniques you habitually prefer or tricks for getting yourself in the zone?
I am lucky to write full-time from home, so usually I am behind my desk, after my cycle ride, at about 7.30 am. At about ten I realize I need to bath and breakfast, and then domestic duties allowing (!) I can more or less continue for the rest of the day.

I do need quiet to get into the zone – and the power to resist social media. I adore Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and tell myself far too often that I am on there “for work”!
Well, we all need to network and promote our books on social media. What do you fear most in terms of writing or being a writer, Samantha?

Not selling. The most important thing to me as a writer, above improving my craft or making money or earning a reputation, has been to reach an audience, reach readers – if you aren’t doing that, what is the point?

So I am very broad-minded about taking my editors’ viewpoint on board when they suggest what might need doing to suit a particular market. I’ve never been interested in just writing for myself.
So what would go in your Room 101 where books, writing or writers are concerned?

They certainly aren’t my pet hate, but I wish there were no writers who are overly apologetic about promoting their books. I understand and sympathize, but there is nothing more off-putting as a reader, in my opinion, if a status or tweet starts off with, “Sorry to do this but...” 

Especially if you are a digital-first author like me, you need to promote your work to gain visibility, to gain readers as you aren’t in  shops, on bookshelves. I am lucky in that I love social media, and I know how hard it is for some authors who really don’t. It’s an on-going battle, I feel, for the modern author, to embrace promoting and creating a brand. There is nothing sadder than a book bombing because it just hasn’t been advertised enough.

Not that promotion is everything – obviously the story, the writing, has to be good and connect with readers, But at least promoting your work gives it the chance to be read.

Do you think all writers are basically anarchist, disruptive types or harmonizing influences? Please show working-out.

Ha ha! No comment. Okay, one comment. I think we are all bonkers.

And in my case, you would be right. Talking of writer insanity, are you Nanowrimo-ing this year?

No, I am too busy promoting my Christmas book – but best of luck to everyone who is!
Thank you, it's proving hard for me to concentrate on Nanowrimo, what with all the promotion I've been doing for Girl Number One lately. But one does one's meagre best ... 

Now to promote your work. Which book or books of yours should we be reading, and why?

My Big Fat Christmas Wedding is currently only 99p and bound to add a bit of sparkle to your festive season! Perfect for fans of Lindsey Kelk and Debbie Johnson.
My debut Doubting Abbey is also at a great price and might blow those blues away if you are missing Downton after the finale!

Also Mistletoe Mansion is currently available as a paperback (as is Doubting Abbey) in The Works stores, only £1.99!
They all sound fabulous and astonishingly good value! Thanks so much for agreeing to be on 52 Ways, Sam.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Week Twenty-Seven: How To Make Your Novel A Bestseller

Yes, this blog is about How To Write A Novel, and we have been straying quite deep into How To Sell A Novel territory recently, but bear with me. Normal service will be resumed next week with a post by the lovely and talented author Samantha Tonge on books and writing.

Some weeks ago, the more attentive among you may recall me blogging about how I wrote a thriller last year, but it was rejected umpteen times, so I gave up trying to place it traditionally and self-published instead. The whole story of that decision is here: Writing My First Thriller.

That was GIRL NUMBER ONE, which I self-published September 21st.

Seven weeks ago.

I tweeted about the book, shared it repeatedly on Facebook - which I bet was annoying to some of my long-suffering friends, but what you can do? - and organised a Thunderclap (see this post) to push it up a notch.

Last night I checked the book's UK ranking and was over the moon to see how far it had risen.

As you can see, after only 49 days on Amazon, GIRL NUMBER ONE had broken the Top 50 barrier in the UK Kindle store and was, spookily, at No. 49. One place for every day! (Though it changes hourly.)

UPDATE (December 10th 2015)
GIRL NUMBER ONE reached the #1 spot in UK Kindle store, following 40 days in the Top 100

Basic Promo
This achievement is something I never believed could be possible for any self-published book of mine. Especially given my rather haphazard approach to promo. I don't blog very often, and mostly just tweet my book links or chat about my writing on Facebook. I don't keep an email list - which I should, and probably will have to in the future - and although I initially paid a few quid for two ad campaigns on Facebook and Amazon, they were both of only a few days' duration and didn't make any marked difference to my sales. I currently have a Goodreads Giveaway in hand, but that's only after the book reached the Top 50!

So how on earth did I manage this? How did a disorganized mother of five who homeschools and writes her books in odd, snatched moments possibly manage to sell quite so many books?  Here are some thoughts on what has happened ...

Key Ingredients For An Indie Bestseller
The first thing that got my book into the Top 50 10 on Amazon UK is LUCK.

I know that sounds horribly random. But it is true. No one really knows what makes one book sell and another equally good book struggle. Most experienced book trade professionals will admit this. Without good luck, you might as well pack up now and go home. So one of the key elements of big book sales, whether traditional or self-published, is totally out of your hands. I hope that's a comfort. It is to me, because I know that if I fail to sell well in the future I can blame my lack of success on bad luck.

So make sure you get lucky. But okay, let's assume you can make your own luck, or at least facilitate it. How might you do that as a self-published writer?

Have a good title. By which I mean a title that works extremely well within its genre. A title that lets a reader know what kind of book it is, and therefore indicates if they might like it. But it should be a title that does all this without - if possible - being too derivative or unoriginal. In some cases, an eccentric, standout title could make sales explode. In other cases, a title like that could kill an otherwise good book. So be careful.

Have a great cover. Again, this is often about genre. The cover must reinforce the title and be genre-appropriate. At the browsing stage on Amazon, it's all about visuals. If the main font isn't readable in a thumbnail, or the cover itself looks indistinct, confusing, or just plain dull, then you could be in trouble. This doesn't demand great skills. I can only draw stick people, I am no talented artist. Yet I made my own cover for GIRL NUMBER ONE by buying a spooky-looking woods photo online, then fiddling with it on Pic Monkey. During this process, I kept in mind the colours and fonts and design features commonly used in other psychological thrillers so that readers could see at a glance what kind of book it is. And it seems to have worked.


Write a strong, succinct, genre-appropriate blurb. This is not the place to get creative and show off your purple prose. Be clear and tempting at the same time. Suggest something intriguing where you can. If your genre is popular fiction, do not be afraid to be a bit crass with your book description if it works. Present your book confidently, as you hope a publicity team would do if you were traditionally published. (Not all traditional publishers make an effort to help writers with promo, by the way. Just in case you are dreaming that they do.) In other words, it should look and sound exactly like something on the back of the kind of books you are in competition with in your genre.

Get your Amazon categories and keywords working for you. These are very important. When you self-publish, you can choose two categories where your books should be listed, and seven keywords for other elements of your story. Some keywords will get you into bestseller lists once your book begins to sell, and this can help readers 'discover' your book. Discoverability is absolutely fundamental to selling books on Amazon, which has gazillions of books on sale. Your book is left to drift on that vast ocean,and you need to find ways to draw attention to it. Not just in the first weeks or months of publication, but sometimes up to a year after publication. After that, your best bet for making sales is to publish another book.

Start to build a backlist. You need to build a readership and a brand identity as a writer, because branding your books will appeal strongly to readers. Readers like to know what to expect from a writer, just like you want to know what flavour crisps you're about to eat, in case it's Worcester Sauce and not good ol' Cheese 'n' Onion. That's always been a problem for me because I write so many different books under different names. And this being my debut thriller as Jane Holland meant I had no reassuring 'brand' to offer any would-be readers. Looking at my other books would show them only poetry. They had to take everything on trust.

So I polished up two other thrillerish books I had in the bottom drawer, and published them alongside GIRL NUMBER ONE. Hey presto, I had created an instant portfolio!

Now when people buy either of those other books, they see GIRL NUMBER ONE in the Also Bought strip, and vice versa. And that gives my debut title, I like to feel, more validity. Borrowed pedigree. Because it's no longer alone but part of a 'list'.

Keep belting them out to build your portfolio.

Get your price right. Unfortunately, the craze for free books has led to readers expecting something for nothing, or at least for as little as possible. While big names can still attract healthy sales with large price tags, most writers need to be modest with their expectations of wealth. So price your book appropriately for its genre, length and general market fit if you want to make strong sales. I had to drop my price from £1.99 to 99p to crack the Top 100, and while that was a large drop for me (only 35% royalty instead of 70%) the increase in sales volume has been worth it.

Finally, write a page-turning book that fits the market as well as bringing something new to it. To succeed in a mass market arena, a book that is not being championed by some external factor, like a book prize or the fact that its author is a celebrity, needs to be gripping above all else. I don't mean in a thriller sense, but simply in the sense that once you have started reading this book, you simply must finish it. That's what you need for lasting success. So write clear, consistent prose that will appeal to a broad swathe of readers and keep those cliffhangers coming. Otherwise you will not attract a mass readership who will buy all your books and - most importantly - trumpet your books to other people. If you're a more literary writer, that's fine but you can't expect to sell heavily unless you can win a prize or attract attention some other way; the readership for literary fiction is not broad enough.

Because the final element in selling books is to get other people to sell it for you. Past a certain sales point, the author ceases to perform a practical function in actual day-to-day sales, and that is when high visibility and readers take her/his place. The kind of readers every author wants, the lovely ones who connect on social media and say spontaneously to their friends, 'Listen, you MUST read this book!'

And if you think that sounds like a tall order, you're right. Which is why I'm already working on my next novel, suspicious that I'm going to wake up soon and discover it was all a dream ...

QUESTION: What makes you buy a book on Amazon? What makes you choose to pass on it? How can you apply your findings to your own promotional efforts?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Week Twenty-Six: Art and the Novelist

Arts and crafts. Two different areas of expertise linked by some common threads. And the definition of both is reasonably simple. Art is about talent and inspiration and individual choice. Craft is about skill and knowledge and experience. You can't have art without talent, but you can have craft without art. Yet both can contain elements of the other.

Painting a picture comes down to art. Hand-knitting a Christmas jumper is certainly craft. Thus far we are agreed, I suspect. Yet to paint well you need to have learned some technique first, which indicates craft, and not all jumpers are equal: some are more beautifully knitted and shaped than others, which suggests that art and talent have played a part. Again, not a huge stretch.

But move into the field of literature, and the terrain becomes boggier.

Poetry is an art as much as a craft, most people would probably agree. Poetry is about delicate, minute choices, and rhythm that is akin to music, and a highly individual view of the world.

But is writing a novel an art or a craft? Can writing any novel - from Booker Prize winners down to the latest potboiler - ever be seen in the same light as poetry?

OMG, this paragraph is going on FOREVER.

Is there more artistry and reliance on inspiration when putting down words in prose, one after the other, in the manner of a conveyor belt, than there is a sense of craft involved in the process, of skilled knowledge built on experience and talent?

The long haul nature of writing a novel tends it towards craft. As a whole product, it's too unwieldy to be something built out of the artistic impulse alone. Specialised skill and knowledge, not to mention discipline, are required throughout. In the same way, making a bronze statue is a craft as well as an art. Yet at a molecular level, at the language and sentence level of writing a novel, it could be argued that art plays as large a part as craft.

What that comes down to is choice. The choice of the artist. Blue here, but what kind of blue, and how much? Applied in what manner? Repeated where? Highlighted or echoed how?

In the same way as a painter with a brush, we select words to a particular end. To shock, to inform, to depict, to illustrate, to confuse ... And once chosen, we arrange them in an order that seems to reflect the needs of the story at that point. We repeat them for effect. Or oppose them with different words.

But how does it all END? I was sure I knew when I started, 357 pages ago ...

We stop and consider our sentences. We alternative short with long, simple with multi-clause, semi-colons with commas. Then we arrange them in paragraphs. Blunt and pithy here, descriptive and relaxed there. We develop ideas along with the paragraphs, rising and falling, inevitably returning to the same themes again and again.

We shape our story into chapters, ending with high points, providing the reader with low points too, present them with the abyss to make the heights more dizzying. We develop arcs throughout, shifting our characters from one incarnation to another, giving them foils, tripping them up with plot obstacles. We think about our people, we make them the focus of our attention, we constantly bring them and their relationships to the fore. And we keep the thread of our theme running throughout the novel like a name stamped in a stick of rock, hopefully becoming clearer and sharper with every bite.

Overall, this feels more like craft than art. Perhaps because writers can only learn by writing. By serving a rather prosaic apprenticeship of writing and being rejected, and of rewriting, and sweating over our novels like steel workers. Yet we also use the language of art to describe ourselves and our processes. We say blithely that language and grammar, punctuation and syntax, the artistry part of writing, the small details, these constitute our toolkit. The story itself is our "canvas". Yet if we are artists, we are rough, uncouth types, in blue overalls rather than smocks, using a chisel rather than a fine, camel hair brush. We hew story over long months, and all our most important choices seem to be blunt-edged and large-scale.

But here's the thing. 

We cannot see the shape of the novel while we're writing it. 

Not until we finish and step back.

While we're at the wordface, the work has to be done on faith, by touch alone, step by careful step, like someone groping their way across an unfamiliar room in the dark. During the actual writing, the final shape can only be felt, sensed rather than seen, like a spider's web in the writer's head.

So the best novelists write with one finger touched lightly to the nearest thread, listening for the almost imperceptible tremors that tell them how far they are from the centre and how close to the prey, keeping them invisibly connected to the whole.

That sounds more like art to me. And so the argument continues ...

My latest arts and crafts offering, on sale now at Amazon only.

QUESTION: Are novelists artists or crafts people, or a bit of both? And if you are a writer, how do you see the process? As artistry or craftswork?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Week Twenty-Five: Promoting Books, or, We Interrupt this blog for a THUNDERCLAP

UPDATE: July 2016
The new revised edition of GIRL NUMBER ONE is out August 9th 2016 with Thomas & Mercer, and I'm running a NEW Thunderclap Campaign to help promote it. 

Do support me by clicking the link below!

Forgive the theatrics. But it's all in a good cause. Honest.

As a writer, you may have heard of 'Thunderclap'. It is rapidly becoming THE new method of promoting books on social media. But what on earth is it? And how does it work?

Let me explain ...

You may have 100 followers on Twitter or 5000. Fair enough. You may even have a few thousand friends on Facebook. Great stuff. But using Thunderclap, you basically harness the combined social reach of 100 or more friends and followers, giving you a MASSIVE group to which you can promote your book.

You join up at Thunderclap and decide on your goal - 100 people tweeting a link to your book on Amazon along with a short promotional message is the method I went for - then start asking other people in your social media reach, i.e. your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or LinkedIn, to "support" the campaign.

Supporting a campaign means visiting the Thunderclap site, agreeing to let them access your info on one or more social media accounts - just like when you access any app like Instagram that posts elsewhere for you - and clicking Support This Campaign.

You can choose which social media account you want to use for supporting it, then Thunderclap will post the other person's campaign tweet or post ONCE ONLY on a certain date at a certain pre-arranged time.

That's the THUNDERCLAP effect. One hundred people or more at once saying, 'Read this book!'across a range of widely differing social media accounts.

And for those who feel this will be an annoyance, I doubt it. Many of the people who are supporting my campaign do not particularly overlap in their friends with my own, so a hundred or so tweets or posts going out to several hundred thousand people is unlikely to cause much annoyance.

And it's FREE. No obligation to buy and no hidden cost to you. Just an agreement to let Thunderclap post my chosen tweet on your account come Monday October 19th.

But there's a catch ...

If you don't reach your chosen number of supporters - which is 100 for me - then it will not happen at all. The campaign will have failed, and no messages will go out anywhere.

To help boost my numbers, I joined the Thunderclap Campaigns Facebook group and agreed to reciprocate with other campaigns in return for votes. Without that help, I doubt I would have made my goal. Worth considering.

A large proportion of people who share your message asking for supporters WILL NOT support the Thunderclap campaign themselves, for whatever reason: some may dislike allowing access to their account even for a one-off tweet or share; some openly dislike book promotion in any form (a staggering number of these also believe it's possible for independent authors without publisher back-up to sell books without actually telling anyone about them, just by being nice and hoping people notice they are authors, LOL); others may not want the kind of book you've written to appear on their social media feed. I myself discreetly passed on reciprocating with some of the writers who backed my campaign, mainly because I did not want to seem to be supporting certain kinds of dodgy erotica. I felt bad about that, but staying 'on message' is important on social media.

After The Thunderclap

Following my Thunderclap on Monday at 5pm, when 117 people on social media reposted my message to a social reach of nearly 655K people, to check out GIRL NUMBER ONE on Amazon, at first nothing seemed to happen.

It was a little worrying.

Then slowly sales started rolling in late that evening, and the day finished at 100 copies sold at £1.99 during that 24-hour period. The borrowed pages read (via Kindle Unlimited) reached 14,000.

The ranking shot up 70 places to #150.

That was the Thunderclap effect and I was fairly pleased with it. It's now starting to subside a little, as one might expect. But you can help stop the slide by sharing this post, my book details, or buying the book itself in paperback or ebook.

Many thanks!

November 16th 2015

It is now almost ONE MONTH since the Thunderclap for Girl Number One.  

Today, the book is at #14 in the UK Kindle chart.

As far as I'm concerned, a well-organized Thunderclap campaign with strong follow-up promotional efforts on social media can reap huge rewards.

Overall, feedback and response have been very positive. One (male) writer on Twitter told me it was a mistake to do a Thunderclap as it would 'put people off the book' and was annoyed when I disagreed. I believe it's safe to say he was mistaken.

December 6th 2015

It is now a little short of two months since the Thunderclap.
 GIRL NUMBER ONE is #5 in the UK Kindle store
A few days ago it reached #3, my highest-ever ranking with any book.
Nuff said.



reached #1 in the UK Kindle chart

mid-December 2015

and stayed there nearly a full week.


GIRL NUMBER on Amazon UK and on Amazon US.  

UPDATE: July 2016
The new revised edition of GIRL NUMBER ONE is out August 9th 2016 with Thomas & Mercer, and I'm running a NEW Thunderclap Campaign to help promote it. 

Do support me by clicking the link below!

Girl Number One on THUNDERCLAP

Monday, 21 September 2015

Week Twenty-Four: Writing My First Contemporary Thriller

Those who know me well will agree that I am a genre-hopper. I hop from one genre to another with scant regard for market positioning, or what publishers and retailers like to call 'author branding'. This is one explanation why, despite having written several dozen novels, I am not a star in any one genre. (I will leave the other possible explanations for you to guess at on your own.) But that does not mean I would not like to be!

About a year and a half ago, while I was still knee-deep in an historical fiction series, it was suggested to me by a senior editor that I should write a contemporary thriller. A crime novel, but not a police procedural. Being a rabid fan of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I embraced the idea with enthusiasm and excitement. At last, a chance to show what I could achieve as a contemporary writer within a popular mass-market genre.

But of course it's also an over-crowded market, and the novel I produced over the next year did not appeal to the editor who first suggested it. It went through several laborious redrafts, then was sent out to other publishers. Nobody wanted it. The rejections differed as to detail but the overall message was the same. Like the three bears' porridge, it was too hot, too cold, too salty, too sweet etc. for the market.

The project was then handed back to me, with the suggestion that I should self-publish.

To say I was disappointed is grossly to understate the matter. It was a serious blow to my self-confidence as a writer, especially as I was by that stage out of contract with all my publishers. After some years in traditionally published historical fiction, that book represented my calling-card script as a contemporary writer. A calling-card that had been handed back to me by a disdainful majordomo, and the door slammed in my face.

After some time nursing my wounds - I wish I could say 'downing tequila on a desert island' but I'm not that cool - I sorted through all the rejections I had seen and picked out the main thrust of their issues. I worked out how I could rewrite the book to 'fix' it. One key change was making my main protagonist older. A simple enough change, on the face of it. But of course that involved rewriting every single page of the book, because in the process of recasting her character, her narrative voice had to change, to mature, to harden. Rather like me as a writer ...

I really wish I had not chosen to write this scary scene so late at night ...

The main differences I noted between writing GIRL NUMBER ONE (the title of my thriller) and my previous novels, mostly either historical fiction or romances, were as follows:

Pace - a contemporary thriller is fast and furious. It has to be, to deliver the requisite thrills and keep an easily distracted reader turning the page. So introspection and description take a back seat, and action comes to the fore. The verb becomes king here, the adjective and adverb have to be rooted out. Not 'I thought' or 'I saw' (I chose a first person narrator) but 'I did'. Dialogue can take the place of internal monologue, which means it has to work harder, to underline character, drop clues and turn the plot.

Tone - the narration of a contemporary thriller is terse, or at least that's how I prefer it. It's also highly self-aware. This is someone who observes everything around them, whether a trained or natural detective, constantly noticing, examining, deciphering, unravelling, understanding. And often without an excess of emotional response, as emotion tends to hamper that process. (Emotional response being the sine qua non of the romantic novel, I often found myself working at the opposite end of the narrative spectrum to my other books.)

Character - the characters in a contemporary thriller are not, in general, those you might encounter in other genres (though that rather depends on the writer). They have to be boldly drawn, sometimes even starkly and at speed, because a thriller is about action and reaction, rather than a leisurely character study. But the main protagonists also need qualities that others around them noticeably lack: massive intelligence, strength, resolve, courage, generosity, kindness, plus a few special skills. They must leap off the page without being caricatures, and linger in the reader's memory, not least because some of them may become suspects later.

Where the narrator is concerned, assuming that is your chief protagonist, we need the reader to care about that person deeply. Otherwise, there will be little reason to keep reading when he or she is put in danger. Such a character must be sympathetic and strongly-drawn enough to elicit an emotional response from the reader. By which I really mean, he or she must feel true.

Truth - a contemporary thriller should seem realistic, even more so than romantic or historical fiction, and the actions of its characters must be completely believable too, even when your plot is unlikely or even preposterous at times. So how to achieve this? In the same way as a sci-fi or fantasy novel, you have to anchor the world of your novel somewhere that feels very realistic, and therefore works to distract the reader from the unlikeliness of your plot.

In my case, I decided to follow the well-worn advice, write what you know, and achieve narrative truth that way. So I based the world of my debut thriller on the Cornish village in which I was actually living at the time of writing. I was then able to describe, with absolute accuracy and consistency, the village layout and its surrounding area, the views, the flowers in bloom at each season, the likely weather, the very feel of the air ... A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but I wanted to nail that 'truth' element of the thriller first-time-out.

Did I manage to nail it though?

The proof of the thriller is in the reading, and I hope you will give mine a shot. You can find a free sample or buy GIRL NUMBER ONE on Amazon. Digital only at the moment, with paperback POD to follow.

UPDATE: GIRL NUMBER ONE is currently at #3 in the UK Kindle Store (as of December 3rd 2015)

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Week Twenty-Three: The Rehabilitation Of Lost Novels

If there's one thing most novelists have in abundance, it's failed or unwanted novels in the bottom drawer. And perhaps most of them deserve to be there, products of a mind not yet attuned to the rigorous demands of plot, structure, narrative.

But among those lost manuscripts, there may be the occasional gem. Something worth retrieving from that bottom drawer, dusting off, polishing, and resetting in a more publishable context.

Here follows the story of how my latest new release, MIRANDA, came into existence.

Thirteen years ago, I gave birth to twin boys, and immediately began to write a novel. It sounds strange, but I felt released by their birth like a sprinter by the starting pistol. You might think breastfeeding and caring for newborns twins should have kept me too busy to write. But at the time, I had not written for some years. I had been wandering in a creative desert, afraid of failure but thirsting for inspiration, and suddenly being granted that inspiration was like stumbling across an oasis.

So I jumped straight in and slurped up all the water!

Besides, these were not my first children, and in a way, the twins proved relatively easy to care for in those muddled early days after a birth. I had a loving partner who was only too happy to do his share, and two older girls for baby-minding, and the twins shared a cot and seemed to keep each other company, which meant fewer needy wakings between night feeds. So perhaps my situation was a little easier than most mothers of twins.

I had agreed to manage nights alone - as breast-feeding is a hard job to share! - so I bought a baby monitor and set up a temporary study for myself. Because within days of the birth, I had been blessed with an idea for a story. A story about the generations, about handing things on to your children. Not just possessions, but genetic material, memories, looks, personality, even secrets. The book had to be written, it would not be still. So I started to write, mostly at night, and kept an ear open for the babies over the monitor.

"Never resist when inspiration strikes, but get it down as quickly as possible."

Wasn't I tired? Well, oddly enough, no. I felt light as a bird in those first months after the birth. I felt as if I had slept all through that long, dragging twin pregnancy, and now I had been released from my burden and was floating!

I have never needed much sleep, and having to breastfeed twins gave me the perfect excuse to stay awake all night, then cat-nap during the day. It was a glorious experience, and I look back on that time as one of enhanced creativity, where I was totally alert and aware, and everything just flowed ... after years of stagnancy.

My partner's mother visited us during that period, and scolded me for being so self-indulgent as to be writing a novel when I should be concentrating on my newborns. Her disapproval was tangible. Mothers should not be writers, was her opinion. But I paid no attention. Babies don't know what you're doing when they're asleep. So I kept writing.

The book took six weeks to write. It wasn't a long novel, only 70,000 words. I initially called it THE BLOOD ARK, thinking about genetics, and after some tweaks, I sent out the first three chapters to a few agents, as my former agent had retired. None of them were interested. I had committed the cardinal sin of stepping away from my 'chosen' genre. My debut novel - about women in sport, marketed as chick-lit - had bombed, and this was a very different book. This was literary fiction, and there was no getting around that.

Easily disheartened, I put the novel away without any more attempts to place it. I decided it must be flawed beyond redemption if three or four agents had turned it down. (Yes, I was very naive.)

Being a bit deranged, I had got pregnant again when the twins were only six months old, and the new pregnancy and two house moves in quick succession were consuming my energy. Soon after that, I started writing erotic fiction to help pay the bills, and forgot all about THE BLOOD ARK. My literary novel in the bottom drawer. The book that had to be written, but would probably never be published.

"I can fix this book ... I just need more experience."

Enter Kindle Direct Publishing and the brave new world of self-publishing. And my own independent publishing venture that sprang out of that, Thimblerig Books.

I had long intended to resurrect my literary novel. But my memory of it was of a deeply flawed book that would need masses of rewrites and also be hard to place, having been written over a decade ago. Then this summer, I had a rush of blood, opened the ancient file, and started to read.

The book was a lot better than I remembered. Having written many novels since putting this one away, I saw at once how the structural issues - that had seemed insurmountable when I abandoned it in the early noughties - could be fixed with a few rigorous tweaks. I set to work, and after only a few weeks, the book was ready for copy-editing.

The biggest change, for me, was the title. It had been THE BLOOD ARK in my head since its inception. But now, with a stronger grasp of the market, I saw how that sounded too much like a thriller and would fail to reach the right readership. I toyed with various fashionable alternatives - titles with the words GIRL or WOMAN are very popular right now, as are curious phrases, like ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE or ME BEFORE YOU. But in the end, I decided on something very simple. And more in keeping with the original inspiration for the story.

So I present to you MIRANDA, the novel of my postpartum insomnia, taken down, dusted off, tweaked and retweaked, edited and repackaged thirteen years on.

MIRANDA: on sale now at Amazon

No abandoned novel is ever entirely lost to the world. It can be neglected and forgotten, but you never know when it may resurface in your consciousness. So if you have any novels languishing in that bottom drawer, why not take them out and read them again? Take notes, be generous to yourself, look at them structurally above all else - structure is usually where you'll find the most serious flaws in an abandoned novel - and consider, from your position of greater experience, how they could be fixed.

Rewrite in sections, trying to avoid any major changes that will alter or over-write the DNA of your original idea. Novels, it seems to me, come to us with their themes intact. (Even if we don't recognise that at the time.) So when we rewrite in any major way, we risk destroying that thematic integrity. Too massive a change can 'corrupt' the original idea, to borrow a word from computing, and the book will always be flawed after that, however much we struggle to fix it.

Unfortunately, if the original concept was flawed, and only major rewrites that change the book's thematic structure can hope to fix it, you may be better off giving up and starting a new project instead. Some books are beyond redemption. (Often because of botched rewrites in the past, before you were experienced enough to understand what you were doing, or perhaps because of bad advice.) But it may be worth trying again later, because the more books you write, the more experienced you become as a novelist, and the greater the distance you are putting between yourself and any earlier, failed novels. You may also become either famous enough to make it financially worthwhile to brush off old material and resubmit, or poor enough to make it imperative that you find new books to flog.

So the convergence of these three factors is usually required before a writer can successfully mine for lost gold:

EXPERIENCE - Writing is a craft, and the better the craftsperson, the better the artifact. So no attempt at writing a novel is wasted, as you are learning all the time you are failing.

DISTANCE - Think of Henry James and his 'figure in the carpet' analogy. The closer you are to a failed work of fiction, the less likely you are to see the pattern clearly. Step back a few years, or even a decade, and what needs fixing may suddenly spring out at you.

NECESSITY - It's damn hard work, fixing a flawed novel. Only people with great need or too much time on their hands are likely to manage it without failing again. And no good novelist has too much time on their hands ...

In the end, only you can know for sure whether your abandoned novel is worth saving from that dusty bottom drawer. But if it is, rejoice. For there is no satisfaction like the rehabilitation of a long-lost story.

MIRANDA is published by Thimblerig Books on Friday August 21st 2015.

QUESTION: Do you have any old unpublished novels you want to resurrect and rehabilitate?