Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Guest Post: Chris Hill sings the Song of the Sea God

Today we have another guest writer on 52 Ways To Write A Novel - Chris Hill, author of SONG OF THE SEA GOD and THE PICK-UP ARTIST.

Lovely to have you here, Chris. 

First off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Thanks for having me along today, Jane, it’s a real pleasure to be here! I live in Gloucestershire and I’m married with two towering teenage sons and a Cockerpoo called Murphy. I spent a lot of years as a journalist working on regional newspapers in the UK - I started as a reporter and finished as an editor. Now I work in PR for a children’s charity called WellChild who provide nurses for seriously ill children so they can be cared for in the family home rather than hospital. I’ve always written fiction, I started with short stories and improved over time, winning a few awards including the Bridport Prize. Later, I progressed to writing novels.

What are your ambitions for your writing career and which writers inspire you? 
I’d like to write a book I feel entirely proud of, something I think is the best thing I could possibly write. I doubt it will ever happen. Most things I write I just try to make the least bad they can be. My books are all different from each other, which I know makes no sense commercially but it pleases me. All authors inspire me - all of them, good ones, bad ones, self-published, small press, big publisher. I think writing books and stories is a tremendous thing for people to be doing, we hold a mirror up to society, we are its conscience and its soul. That’s no small thing to be involved in.

What have you written and/or are writing at the moment?
I’ve had two books published so far. Song of the Sea God (Skylight Press 2012) which is literary fiction, a kind of creepy fairytale about a man who comes to a small island off the coast of Northern England and convinces the locals he is a god. And The Pick-Up Artist (Magic Oxygen Publishing 2015) which is an off-beat rom com about a young man’s hopeless attempts to find love with the help of  PUA movement who claim to be able to use psychological techniques to attract the opposite sex.
I have another one done, a crime novel based on my years as a reporter. It’s sitting in a drawer waiting for me to dust it off and find a publisher. There’s also a short story collection I’d like to find a home for. And I’m currently working on a new novel which feels like it’s going to be a sort of thriller. Most of what I write can be appended with the word ‘quirky’ for which I feel equally cursed and blessed.

How much research do you do?
It depends on the book I think. For Song of the Sea God I had to do all sorts of reading around ancient myths and religions, for The Pick-Up Artist I learned about the rather murky world of the PUA movement. For the crime book I’d lived it as a crime reporter over a number of years but I did a fair bit of fact checking on technical details.

When did you decide to become a writer, and why do you write? 
I’ve been writing fiction pretty much since I learned to write I suppose. Scraps at first in notebooks, then proper stories and later novels. I don’t know why I write except I feel compelled to. I don’t necessarily enjoy it that much, it can be a chore, though I do feel better during periods when I am doing it. Less fidgety, more at peace with myself.

Do you write full-time or part-time?
I’ve always worked full time and I have a family so I’m one of those people who write around the day. That’s probably one reason why it takes me so long to finish anything. I quite like it this way though, I don’t think I’d change it even if I could. 

Do you have a special time of day when you like to write or a special place where you feel most creative or hard-working?
I carry a notebook around in my man-bag and scribble in it in all sorts of places - on the bus often. But I also need to sit down in front of the laptop in the evening a few times a week and work in that more organised and focussed manner.

Are you a plotter? Do you tend to work to an outline or synopsis, or are you a 'pantser', someone you prefers to see where an idea takes you?
I have a kind of middle way. I do some planning at the outset and more as I go along. I like to know where I am going to end up from the start but I don’t have a complete roadmap of the entire journey. We all find our own way of working of course but for me this feels like having my cake and eating it.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It takes me about two years in all, one for the first draft, one for rewrites, and I procrastinate a lot before I even get started. I don’t suppose I will ever be particularly prolific!

Do you ever get writer’s block?
Not as such, though I do take a long time to get started and then a long time to write anything to the level where I am satisfied with it. I do envy writers who talk about having crashed out a book in just a few months.

Ha, I'd better not rub it in then that I wrote my last 100,000 word novel in 9 weeks. Do you read much - I know I find it hard to make time for reading these days - and if so who are your favourite authors? Is your drug of choice fiction or non-fiction? Any particular kind?
I’m always reading, I don’t think I could trust a writer who didn’t read. It’s mostly fiction though I go through non-fiction periods too. I read literary fiction mostly but I have read books in most genres too I suppose, over time. My first love was the work of the American novelists of the last half of the 20th century - now recently deceased. People like Updike, Heller, Vonnegut, Bellow. They combined fabulous writing, great narrative voices and amazing plots and characters. But since then I’ve spread my interests fairly widely.

For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or 'proper' books? (Personally, I love an improper book.)
It’s dead trees all the way for me. I do have a Kindle and have read books on it but for all kinds of reasons: emotional, physical, nostalgic, sensory, I prefer a book made of paper. There was a report recently in the media about the decline in ebooks and the resurgence of print ones. I’m sure there’s room for both but I don’t see print disappearing when it comes to books. Newspapers are a different matter. 

What are you reading at present?
The last three books I’ve read have been A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I’m half way through American Gods by Neil Gaiman. All wonderful books in their own way and an eclectic selection as always.

Tell us about your book covers and how they came about, and do you think that the cover plays an important part in the buying process? 
I suppose it must be important though personally I don’t think I have ever bought a book because of the cover. I work with my publishers on them. Small press publishers tend to be quite collaborative so I’ve enjoyed the process. We’ve discussed ideas, I’ve shown them covers I like and so on. With Song of the Sea God I even gave them photos I liked which were taken by a friend of mine on Walney Island where the book is set, and one of those ended up on the cover.

How do you market your books, and do you have any advice for other authors on how to market their books?
I do PR and marketing for my day job so it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, that side of things. I enjoy social media and blogging. I don’t think there’s a magic bullet; awareness grows over time. At my last book launch, my eldest son was with me. After about the fifth person had come up to me like an old friend because they knew me online, my lad said: “Wow dad, you might not be famous, but you are Twitter famous.”

What part of your writing time do you devote to marketing your book, and is there any marketing technique you've personally used that had a strong impact on your sales figures? (We all want to know this!)
I’m doing less at the moment as I’m between books - I get on it a lot more when I have a new one out but I always try to be classy and not bang people over the head with my ‘product’. That’s a big turnoff for all of us, isn’t it? I don’t think you can beat physically standing in front of people at events and talking to readers. I do that when I can.

I quite enjoy clouting people over the head with my books. Thanks for coming along to chat to us today, Chris. How can readers discover more about you and your work?

My website



Song of the Sea God

The Pick-Up Artist

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Guest Post: Su Bristow on the writing of SEALSKIN

This week, novelist Su Bristow shares with us the mechanics and mystery behind the writing of her debut novel, SEALSKIN.

What happens when magic collides with reality?
Donald is a young fisherman, eking out a lonely living on the west coast of Scotland. One night he witnesses something miraculous ... and makes a terrible mistake. His action changes lives - not only his own, but those of his family and the entire tightly knit community in which they live. Can he ever atone for the wrong he has done, and can love grow when its foundation is violence?
Based on the legend of the selkies - seals who can transform into people - Sealskin is a magical story, evoking the harsh beauty of the landscape, the resilience of its people, both human and animal, and the triumph of hope over fear and prejudice. Rich with myth and magic, Sealskin is, nonetheless, a very human story, as relevant to our world as to the timeless place in which it is set. And it is, quite simply, unforgettable.

Su Bristow: Hi Jane, and thank you for the invitation to write a guest post for 52 Ways To Write A Novel.

My debut novel, Sealskin, came out in February this year, published by Orenda Books. Does that qualify me to talk about how to write a novel? Of course not! All I can do is tell you how I wrote this one. The process will certainly be different next time; for a start, Sealskin took years to write. I don’t think I’ll ever match your speed, but it won’t take quite so long the second time around. I’ve learned – I hope! – a thing or two along the way.

But I do have a day job, so writing happens when other things don’t. And a lot of the process, for me at least, happens when I’m not sitting at the computer. Bits of plot fall into place, characters develop, and whole passages of dialogue unroll themselves while I’m walking, or gardening, or driving; anything that doesn’t need full concentration. The actual word count doesn’t tell anything like the whole story.

That’s true for most people who write, of course, but I gather it’s quite unusual not to have blizzards of post-it notes around your desk, or time-line diagrams, lists of characters and so forth. All of that was inside my head until I actually came to write it down. Is it more or less efficient that way? Well, I did try writing notes now and then, but I never looked at them again, so they were pretty much redundant.

Author of SEALSKIN: Su Bristow

However, Sealskin is a retelling of a legend, so the basic structure of the story was already there. I knew how it started and how it ended; my job was to colour in the picture, add some twists and turns, and make sense of the huge moral anomaly at the heart of the story. For those who haven’t come across it before, the story comes from the west coast of Scotland, and it tells how a young fisherman witnessed a marvel one moonlit night: nine seals came ashore, took off their skins and became young women, dancing naked on the beach. He hid one of the skins, so that one of the selkies – as they are called – could not go back to the sea, and he ‘took her home to be his wife’.

And there’s the problem. Is this really a sweet, sad, romantic tale? It’s usually told that way, but the selkie woman has no choice, and certainly does not consent. She mourns for her lost life, and when the chance comes to return to the sea, she does not hesitate, even though, by then, she has human children whom she has to leave behind. As a younger woman, I might have told it as another example of how women can be used by men, tricked into servitude for sex, domestic labour and childbearing. But these days I’m more interested in how people find their way through the traumas that life deals out, and how getting it wrong at first can teach us, if we’re willing, how to get it right for ourselves and for others. After all, I’ve spent most of my working life helping people to do just that.

So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of Donald, the young fisherman. How did he come to do this dreadful thing? And if he came to regret it and tried to make amends, how would that work? I told it in deep third, so that we are always inside his head.  That was partly because Donald himself – at least at first – has trouble seeing things from other people’s point of view, but also because I wanted to follow his emotional and spiritual journey as he slowly, painfully, begins to grow up through his love for Mairhi and his desire to atone for his crime. There is no omniscient narrator: we see the way people change through Donald’s own eyes, and through what they say and what they do. And as Mairhi herself never speaks – or at least not in words – we have only her actions to give us clues to her inner life. Like Donald, we have to learn to interpret what we see and experience. Showing, not telling, was definitely the name of the game.

I won’t say too much about the twists and sub-plots in the novel, for those who haven’t read it yet. But as I arranged it into the short chapters that some people have commented on, I had in mind the action of waves on the shore: most of them small, only changing things a little, and from time to time a bigger, more dramatic one, that leaves the landscape different and sometimes almost unrecognisable. Each wave brings something, and takes something away. Land and sea are joined in an eternal dance. They can’t be united, but there is mutual dependence. That’s one of the major themes of Sealskin, played out through all of the characters in the book.

Thanks for those insights, Su! 

I very much enjoyed reading Sealskin, and can see why it has capitvated so many readers. 

Don't get concerned about your way of working though. Some novels I've written have required complex timelines on whiteboards - mostly multiple point-of-view historicals - while other novels, like the psychological thriller I finished writing today, had nothing down on paper except a 2-page synopsis from which I strayed quite far at times. The notes happened in my head. 

So it may be down to the book in hand. Not necessarily a process we choose, or one which is good or bad, or more problematic than any other, for instance, but a response to the task we set ourselves when we write the first line of a new novel.

Best of luck with your next project! - Jane


‘An extraordinary book: original, vivid, tender and atmospheric. Su Bristow’s writing is fluid and flawless, and this is a story so deeply immersive that you emerge at the end, gasping for air’ - Iona Grey

‘An evocative story, told with skill and beauty, that held me spellbound until the very last page’ - Amanda Jennings

Sealskin is the most exquisite tale of love, forgiveness and magic. Inspired by the legends of the selkies, this gorgeous novel is a dark fairy tale, an ode to traditional storytelling, a tribute to the stories we loved hearing as children. But be warned – this is no happy-ever-after tale. The language is just glorious, poetic and rich but precise. And her characters – oh, they will remain in your heart long after you’ve closed the last page. Mairhi – especially since she never really “speaks” – is a beautiful mystery, but one who haunted me when I was between chapters. If this is her first, then I can’t wait to read whatever Su Bristow bestows upon the literary world next’ - Louise Beech

Buy Sealsin on Amazon here: