Thursday, 12 January 2017

Week Thirty-Seven: Six Steps To Writing A Page-Turner

This week sees the publication of my second psychological thriller, LOCK THE DOOR.



Early readers have very kindly described this new novel as 'Simply compelling' (Andy Martin, crime writing expert and critic) and 'Exhilarating ... heart-pounding' (Rachel's Random Reads) as well as variously complimenting its 'pacing', 'momentum' and 'urgency'. 

So I thought I'd write a 'how to' post on creating that all-important quality in a thriller, that of being unputdownable or a page-turner. And to keep it simple, as I could waffle on forever on this topic, I'm restricting it to six steps.

Step One - Write action/reaction-only at the planning stage

If you're not a planner, you might as well stop reading now. My advice will be lost on you, and that's fine. But for planners, the outline or synopsis is where you will make your first errors in terms in creating a page-turner. So don't plot a story that starts before the main action.

For instance, young mum Jane is sitting in her house one day when her grandmotherly neighbour knocks and asks her round for tea and fresh-baked scones. They discuss knitting, and then Jane leaves to pick up her kids from school. Later, her husband bursts in and discloses that he has just inadvertently killed their neighbour's husband and hidden him in a wheelie bin. STOP. Go back and start the story with the husband bursting in ...

Readers are sophisticated. They can join up even invisible dots! So a couple of sentences about the delicious whiff of her neighbour's excellent scones  - perhaps the unfortunate woman is seen baking them as Jane and her careless husband hurry past her house with a curiously overladen wheelie bin - would be sufficient backstory/character revelation here.

When planning, think hard about pace and impact. Don't draft in backstory. Write in blocks of action and reaction instead. Start running and keep running, in other words. Otherwise your reader may put down the book at a quiet moment and go off for a scone, and perhaps never come back.

Her husband stuffed the old man's lifeless body back inside the wheelie bin and slammed the lid shut just as the patrol car rounded the corner ...

Step Two - Use dialogue to leapfrog or break up prose description, and impart info

Prose description can be very important for setting a scene. But you need far less of it than you perhaps realise, at least if you want to write a page-turner. A whole paragraph - or three - on how lovely the sparkling sea looks in summer, and you may have just lost your place on the bestseller list. Snip it down to a sentence here, then another later on. The same applies to character description or identifying and describing a new location. Yes, you need these. But make it a few bold pencil strokes, not a leisurely watercolour.

Maybe the book is all about atmosphere and local colour though. You need those descriptions to augment the sinister feel of the physical backdrop. One way to deal with that is to interleave descriptions with bursts of dialogue. This breaks them up for the rapidly moving eye of the reader, and increases reading pace without stinting on local colour. Most writers end up doing this naturally. But sometimes you get weary and can't see how to avoid the weight of description.

If your character is alone, maybe exploring an environment or locked in a room, you can bring in a line or more of dialogue from earlier and repeat it in italics, with some reaction perhaps. That's your narrative character 'remembering' a previous conversation. A bit cheesy, maybe. But again, it can break up the paragraphs and make the pages turn faster. Or have a phone ring. 'Hello?' etc. Or a text message arrive. Anything to increase interaction.

Whatever you do, don't TELL the reader plot information in a prose paragraph. Always use dialogue to impart new plot information or discuss events if you possibly can - even if this means making them WAIT until the next chapter. (Tip: another way to keep the pages turning is to sneakily withhold vital information, or dripfeed it over a number of chapters.)

Step Three - Use short sentences in your prose. No, even shorter than that.

Verbose sentences stuffed with meandering clauses and pretentious semi-colons are strictly for literary fiction and those who feel a prize nomination coming on. You want to write popular, page-turning, mass market fiction, you have to use short, eyecatching sentences. Especially if they feel highly informal and don't involve verbs. You may even need to resort to italics (or even capital letters) on very special occasions, but I wouldn't recommend going too far down the ornate route, as that can rapidly become tiring for the reader.

Like this?

NO.

This.

Step Four - On a similar note, avoid being too formal in your phrasing

To help people turn the pages in large numbers, you need to get their confidence en masse that you can tell a story that will please, intrigue, excite and engage them. See above.

But this isn't just about the mechanics of writing shorter sentences. It's about using verbs to catapult an action off the page. It's about not being afraid to be casual in your references and phrasing. It's about using abbreviations like 'I'm' and 'can't' as the norm, not simply in dialogue but within prose paragraphs too.

The majority of your readers are also television watchers and film-goers. They tweet and share on Facebook. They text each other in informal ways. They communicate via email, both at home and work. You need to sound like you're one of them. Or they'll reject you. 

'Cup of tea, love?' Mrs Crumbles asked the intruder as he lumbered towards her tea trolley, swinging a blood-stained axe ... She always had been a little shortsighted.

Step Five - Keep Your Main Characters In Crisis

Characters that are not in a state of crisis can be lovely. But they're not always terribly engaging for readers, especially if you're aiming for suspense. In real terms, this means making sure there are no scenes in your novel that do not need to be there in order to advance the story in some quantifiable way. No aimless, character development chats over tea. See step one above.

Or incorporate the chats, if you must, but squeeze them in alongside plot developments. Have the chat in a car screaming at top speed toward a developing crime scene. Have the chat with one character dangling another character out of a window.

Okay, I'm pushing the envelope here. But seriously, check that scene is required. Otherwise you run the risk of boring the reader.

Step Six - Keep Asking Questions

A book needs to ask a question that will intrigue the reader enough to keep reading. This can - and probably should! - happen from as early as the first sentence, or at least paragraph. I don't mean it has to be a literal question. Sometimes an intriguing first line will ask a question simply by virtue of an intriguing premise or implied backstory. 'I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.' (I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith) Why on earth the kitchen sink? Wouldn't a desk or chair be more comfortable? So immediately you're asking questions about what kind of narrator would kick off their story in such an informal way, and yet in a curiously formal, almost stylised manner. Themes or ideas can ask questions too, not just quirky narrators. 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.) How can these two apparently contradictory statements be true simultaneously, we ask? And so we read on, curious to find out ...

The best page-turners often start with a huge, impenetrable question, and don't answer it with any degree of truth or accuracy until the final chapter. That takes massive skill, as the reader still needs a series of smaller questions along the way, or semi-answers, to keep them reading through to the big reveal. Good luck!

But maybe you have to answer that first question on the first page, or at the end of Chapter One. What then? Well, then, you ask another question. Preferably at the very end of the chapter. The reader frowns, and turns over. What the hell, they think?

Then they reach the end of Chapter Two, and blimey, there's another question. The heroine is clinging by her perfectly manicured nails to the edge of a cliff, with the waves washing to and fro hundreds of feet below. The reader pauses, glances at the clock, then reads on, sure there's no way the character can survive this time ...

The main thing with a page-turner is to stop the reader feeling able to stop reading and put down the book. It's cruel sometimes, but they'll thank you for it. Everyone loves a page-turner!

So ask a big question at the start, and try not to answer it until the end of the book. Until the very last page, if you can get away with it. And keep asking smaller questions all the way through. Even ending a chapter with something ostensibly tiny and insignificant like, 'The telephone began to ring ...' will make a reader turn over. Why would they do that? To find out who is calling, of course. Then you just have to make sure it's an interesting, plot-moving call, and lo, they are hooked again!

So there you are, friends. Six simple steps to writing a page-turner. Go to it!


My latest page-turner is LOCK THE DOOR: Amazon UK, Amazon US

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Week Thirty-Six: Blogging A Novel Live

So Nanowrimo has finished for another year, and some people will have novels to edit, others will still be finishing, some may even have published their Nano novels already and be promoting them.

I am still finishing my Nanowrimo project, which is an ongoing thriller. Now about 10K words shy of the finishing line, plus edits and checks.

Hopefully that means it will be all ready for my agent to see in another week or so, since I'm the sort who sweeps assiduously behind me as I go along, making post-novel edits a fairly short and painless process. (Until editorial suggestions come in, that is!)

Meanwhile, I have also been doing something very new and a little scary.


DUNE, by Frank Herbert. A superb science fiction novel that was deeply influential on me as a young writer ... and also happens to feature tons of sand. Just like, ahem, Chapter One of my own first sci fi novel, THE CELL.

For the past six weeks, I have been 'blogging a novel'.

Basically, this means publishing one segment per week at roughly the same time. And because I only had just over two thousand words written when I started, it also means I've been writing it on the hoof and publishing straightaway.

An alarming prospect for a perfectionist like me!

You can find the blog here. The working title for this novel is, THE CELL. And it is clearly now a science fiction novel.

I wasn't sure at the outset if it would be science fiction. I knew it would be experimental in some way. But it's now clearly sci fi.

The first few thousand words of THE CELL are based on an uber-short story of the same name that I wrote for a 2012 Salt Publishing anthology called Stories To Read Aloud.

It's basically a character piece that I massively enjoyed writing, and I wanted to give that very rich character her own novel-length story. But I couldn't continue in the same vein for a whole novel, or didn't want to, as it was set in the world of a third century female Christian hermit living alone for years in the Egyptian desert!


The only way I could think of to turn her story into a likely commercial novel was to have a present-day character narrating alongside her with some link to the past. Slipstream, in other words. Maybe a researcher or a modern-day hermit of some kind. Which was an interesting idea, but not a story I felt compelled to tell. Hence not moving forward with that.

So five years down the line of turning this issue over in my head, I went to a talk by Catherine Fox at the RNA Conference, who discussed blogging her novels online, and how the whole process worked.

So I decided to do it myself the same way, and have started to blog the novel in weekly instalments, hoping this would force me to make a decision. And of course it did. By the third instalment, I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to write a science fiction novel. Which was, of course, startlingly different from my opening with a desert hermit ...

But I hope I've managed to make this shift in a convincing and gripping way. You decide!

Read Chapter One here.

What is it they say ... ? When in doubt, have someone walk through the door with a gun. In this case (hurriedly checks genre of novel), a ray-gun.

As far as blogging a novel goes, it's an odd situation. I am trying to publish each new 1-2 thousand word segment, which I'm loosely calling a chapter, at the weekend. So far on a Saturday morning, but that's likely to change as the weeks go on, and I get more stressed or stuck etc.

Catherine Fox said she felt two thousand words was a good length for a post, but I wasn't sure I could commit to two thousand words a week, every week, for over a year, when I have so many other books on the go. So I have opted for one thousand minimum. (Though one chapter so far has been over twice that amount, so it's pretty variable.)

Late in the week, I start thinking about what I'm going to write, and usually sit down to write the 'chapter' on a Thursday or Friday. I have to check back first, and again during the writing, to ensure good continuity in terms of tone as well as action. I try to begin and end each 'chapter' in a suitably gripping manner, to compel readers to continue reading or - if they're new to the story - to want to glance back at earlier chapters and find out what else has happened. At the moment I have two very different narrators, but may include other voices, I'm not sure.

And not being sure what's ahead is part of the fun, and the experience, of blogging a novel once a week, from scratch. When you publish a novel, it's usually been written, edited, checked, thought about almost to death, before the reader even sees the cover. When you blog a novel live, while it's still being written, everything about the usually hidden and mysterious process of constructing a novel becomes transparent and makeshift, even a little rough around the edges.

There may be changes made further down the line. Mistakes, perhaps! Wrong turns and glaring errors. I don't know.

Good grief, I have NO IDEA what happens next ... and this instalment is due out in two hours!

Of course, you could blog a novel that's already completed. But I'm not sure what the point would be. For me, this is a relatively painless way of getting a novel written that might otherwise never be given the time. And making it public like this also ensures I'm more likely to continue, as it could prove embarrassing if I give up and stop halfway.

To recap, blogging a novel as you write it is an interesting thing to do if you can spare a few hours a week, and have a project that's unlikely to be commercial. Because, let's face it, you should probably save commercial projects for selling to a publishing house or self-publishing when complete.  

The Cell is non-commercial at the moment, and an added bonus is that it may save me from the weight of current workloads by providing an escape once a week into this other, slightly crazy fictional world. And although I anticipate taking a good year, maybe a year and a half, to complete the full novel, it's worth the attempt, if only to see how long I can stick at it.

So far, the biggest problems of blogging a novel are twofold.

One, getting back into the main novel I'm working on - a thriller, currently - after spending maybe half a day fiddling with a sci fi chapter.

And two, getting people to read it. I think last week's instalment has only been read by two people. Whoever you are, thank you.

So please, do read it, make me feel better ... Here's Chapter One again.

Early days yet, granted, but I'm open to comments under the blog, and even suggestions on the story or the process. Not saying I'll incorporate suggestions, but I might do! And it's part of the nature of blogging a novel that there's a faint whiff of collaboration with the unseen reader. You are making public what is still being written, and on the hoof too, in a journalistic manner, and so are open to influence, even if only subliminal.

Which is a fun concept!

The Cell: coming weekly to a blog near you over the next 12 months or so.

Please, read, comment, share ... join in!


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Week Thirty-Five: Narrative POV and Tense Choices

I've talked about narrative point-of-view (POV) on this blog before, and brushed against the use of tenses in narrative, but never looked at either of those in any depth.

I have two new novels out this week.

One is an indie (self-published) short romantic novel written under my quirky romcom persona of Beth Good: THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB.

The other is published by Hodder & Stoughton under a new name, Hannah Coates, and is a feel-good Christmas tale for the whole family entitled BERTIE'S GIFT.

I'd like to explore the widely-differing techniques I used for these books, as they come at POV and tense from totally opposite ends of the narrative spectrum.

 BERTIE'S GIFT is a first person, present tense narrative in the voice of the eponymous Bertie, a young and highly inquisitive beagle.

Yes, that's right. It's written in the voice of a dog. And in the present tense, which means the reader is right there from the first sentence, living the story as Bertie. It's a fast, snappy and exciting choice for a feel-good action story, so perfect for BERTIE'S GIFT.

THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB, on the other hand, uses third-person narration and the past tense. This choice came about largely because the events in the book are seen through the eyes of two narrators, Crystal and Emma, and using first person would have been too confusing (for me, let alone the reader) when switching between narratives. Plus, third-person POV more naturally lends itself to the past tense, I personally feel, so the latter choice came along with the former.

This may be because 'She walks across the room,' has a more sinister and 'knowing' feel than the more traditional, 'She walked across the room.'

We're accustomed to the past tense in storytelling, and indeed it makes more logical sense. The past tense is an author or narrator looking back on events with some degree of hindsight, just like the oral storytellers of ancient, pre-lettered cultures. 'Once upon a time' is still a magical invocation. It allows us to settle down for a gripping yarn, secure in the knowledge that we are to some extent passengers and not in any danger from this story. However scared we may get, it was all over long ago!

Present tense narration, on the other hand, puts us right in the picture - with no escape. We open a book and find ourselves in the position of an unseen observer, an inadvertent eavesdropper, hiding behind the sofa or the arras. An uncomfortable - and potentially dangerous - position to be in. (Remember what happened to poor Polonius in Hamlet.) It can make us feel complicit in events, like a bystander who fails to step in and help at some crucial moment. Thus the present tense lends itself to narratives that deliberately push our boundaries as readers: horror or spy stories, thrillers, chillers, psychological fiction, and so on.

I was also aware that THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB is a romantic novel. I had no desire to stand out as unusual in narrative terms - and so put off romance readers looking for a quick comfort read - and while things are rapidly changing in women's fiction, past tense is still the most common choice for traditional romance and its sister genres.

I could easily have chosen present tense for both books, however. I've written a string of books in the present tense over the past couple of years, and it's becoming a far more natural mode of expression for me than when I first tried it. Present tense is also trendy right now, great for engendering a sense of urgency and immediacy, and can feel quite strong as a narrative technique. Perhaps a little too strong. Like an onion.

So while it's useful for writers hoping to make an impact straight out of the gate, and draw readers deep into the heads of their characters, present tense can also overpower your narrative if it's not right for the story.

I've often been asked, 'Should I write my new novel in past or present tense?' My answer is always, sit down and start writing your story without considering that question.

Whatever comes most naturally in your first few lines is probably the correct choice.

To force a story to be told in a particular tense over some technical or external consideration (because it's fashionable, for instance) may lead to later changes of heart, massive and painstaking rewriting, and then misery, followed by flip-flopping and more massive rewriting to 'fix' it. This is often because the chosen tense can inform the way you tell a story, and just changing the tense can lead to narrative issues you didn't intend.

I've done this myself, fretting over technique instead of devoting my energies to the storytelling. So don't worry too much about such choices before beginning your novel. Just start to write in an instinctive way, and the right person and tense should come naturally in your very first line ...

To combine present tense with first-person POV is the most in-your-face way of telling a story, as I do in BERTIE'S GIFT, and is hugely trendy at the moment.

The immediacy and emotional impact of that combination makes it an absolute winner for people raised on film and television, where they can follow lovers into the bedroom, and murderers or victims right up to the moment of death - and even beyond. They're not so keen on 'Once upon a time' anymore - though there's still a perfectly valid place for that technique, and indeed it may become fashionable again in a swings-and-roundabouts way.

At Killer Women Fest last weekend in London, I went to a workshop run by Tammy Cohen and Amanda Jennings, where the use of second-person narration in psychological fiction was briefly discussed. We all agreed that, while it's quite powerful to read a 'You walked across the room' narrative - and second-person can feel very creepy indeed in a psychological thriller - it should be used sparingly. More like garlic than onion, to continue the metaphor.

But I then went home and made use of that insight, as a dab of second-person POV might help solve a dilemma in a current work-in-progress. It may not make the final manuscript but it's worth trying. Everything is worth trying.

So don't be afraid to experiment with POV and tenses, but remember: if it feels right, it probably is right. And vice versa. Just like cooking up a sauce, always go with your gut.

BERTIE'S GIFT is out Thursday 20th October.




THE COLOURING BOOK CLUB was out yesterday, only 99p the ebook. Ppb coming soon!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Week Thirty-Four: The Ups and Downs of A Writing Career

This time last year, I was in a bad spot, career-wise.

I was out of contract with all the publishers with whom I had previously worked, my debut thriller had been rejected by multiple publishers, and I was only surviving by self-publishing romcom novellas under the name Beth Good.

We were forced to leave our lovely rented farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor and rent a very small terraced house in a Devon town instead, jettisoning over half our possessions and having to part with some of our beloved pets in the process. It was a traumatic time. I started editing other people's manuscripts freelance, but the workload was heavy and the money not quite good enough to get us through. I decided that if I couldn't make money from writing or editing, I would have to get a 'proper' job again. But as I was home educating my kids, it would have to be an evening or night job. Which would mean no time left at all for writing. Or sleeping, in fact!

In the run-up to my job search, I self-published my debut thriller GIRL NUMBER ONE. I hoped for the best, but planned for the worst, in other words.

GIRL NUMBER ONE came out in late September 2015.

After a sluggish start, it began to climb the charts.

In mid-December, it hit the Number 1 spot in the UK Kindle chart, and stayed there nearly a week, selling many thousands of copies.

By then, it had already excited huge amounts of interest and comment, and had come to the attention of an editor at Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon Publishing imprint. I contacted my agent and signed with AP for a life-saving two-book deal. My second psychological thriller, LOCK THE DOOR, is already finished and on pre-order: it will be published January 2017. 

Today, August 9th 2016, a new, revised edition of GIRL NUMBER ONE has been published in digital form. A gorgeous paperback edition will follow in September.


Following on from that two-book deal, possibly because GIRL NUMBER ONE's meteoric rise had come to the attention of the team I had worked with previously at Hodder & Stoughton, I was approached by that publisher to write a Christmas book for them. That story is BERTIE'S GIFT, a whimsical, feel-good adult read about a Beagle on a mission to save both his sister and his adopted family.

BERTIE'S GIFT was a delightful change from my thriller writing - I had to write it almost in tandem with LOCK THE DOOR, sometimes morning for one book, afternoon for the other. It will be published in hardback and ebook on October 20th 2016. It is coming out under yet another pen-name, this time Hannah Coates, in order to differentiate it from my other writing.


I am now working on a third thriller, with a side venture into a brand-new romcom for my Beth Good persona, as I know many readers have been waiting for a new one from me. We are back on our feet financially, and I have been able to abandon the idea of getting a 'proper' job in order to pay the bills. Thanks to the fantastic success of GIRL NUMBER ONE, which came utterly out of the blue, I already have a 'proper' job as a full-time professional writer again - and am very, very happy indeed.

So this post is not only an indication of the often terrifying vicissitudes of a writer's life - even a relatively successful writer - but also a massive thank you to everyone who bought, read and/or supported GIRL NUMBER ONE.

However hard a writer works, they can't get anywhere without readers, and I have been incredibly lucky to have such loyal readers, many of whom have followed me from historicals to contemporary romcoms to thrillers. And hopefully will now follow me to feel-good adult doggy fiction as Hannah Coates!

Thank you, and happy reading!

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Week Thirty-Three: On Self-Publishing, Bad Advice, and Being A Hybrid Author

I was so incensed by Ros Barber's recent piece in the Guardian, where she called self-publishers 'fools' and told us why she would never self-publish - but actually already does, she just somehow failed to mention that in her article - that I tweeted my disagreement to her. Nothing rude or clever, just this initial tweet, which more or less summed up my feelings at the time:



Unfortunately I can't represent her reply, as I have now blocked her account. Basically, she tried the back-pedalling approach, saying it was just a personal opinion. (Despite the general tone of the article not being that of an opinion piece.)


By this time, writer Jane Davis had joined in the conversation, asking about her strange use of pronouns for an opinion piece. Ros then claimed she had tried to avoid using 'one' and used 'you' instead, because 'one was stupidly posh', to which I replied, 'If the cap fits.' Heh.

To which Ros then replied, with all the cool professionalism and linguistic skill expected of a Creative Writing university lecturer:



It was at this point that I fell silent on Twitter, and began to seek out other opinions, to see how others had reacted to her piece. I found a few supportive murmurs of approval, almost overwhelmingly from literary writers in a similar position to Ros, and a large number of very angry responses from successful and happy self-publishers, who not unnaturally were aggrieved at having been referred to as fools in a major Guardian article, simply for having chosen a different career path.

Here is a good selection (warning: some of these contain strong language):

Dear Ros (an open letter from Jane Davis)

Roz Morris (Why I Self-Publish)

On Dismissive Snobs

Don't Do This Ever

The Elites versus Self-Publishing

An Open Letter To Ros Barber (TeleRead)

Past and Present Progressive

Rachel Van Dyken

The Passive Voice

The Digital Reader

The Poptart Manifesto

Caverns and Creatures (over 18s only)

If interested in the other articles and comments on Facebook and forums, you may wish to do some Googling yourself.

Suffice it to say, I discovered that I was not alone in my powerful reaction, and that some people felt even more strongly than I did about her 'sneering tone' as one writer put it.

But what happened next was even more amazing. For Ros Barber came out swinging, a day or so later, and happily told the world via her own blog that 'fool' had not been her first choice of descriptor for self-publishers. No, for the word she had originally wanted to use was 'twat', as Ros Barber openly admits under the heading: "You" = "One" = "Me". This between describing a champagne lunch in Paris and how she opened a Patreon account so she can be supported as a writer - presumably by people who do other work for a living - without having to descend to the grubby depths of self-publishing.

I have a screenshot of that section of her post, but feel it isn't appropriate to use it here without her permission. So do please read it for yourself.

Now for my own long history as a writer. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have had five books of poetry out, including one with Bloodaxe Books, received an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors back in 1996, been Warwick Poetry Laureate, tutored for the Arvon Foundation and the Poetry School, and have been published multiple times as a novelist by so-called 'Big 5' publishers - Hachette and Penguin Random House, to be precise - since 1999, with nine full-length novels out (mostly historicals) over the past five years alone.

Not exactly inexpert, in other words.

I also turned to self-publishing in 2011 to put out books I felt were worth reading but had not found a home. In fact, I have currently over sixty novels, novellas and short stories self-published under various names on Amazon. I am easily bored, a fast and flexible writer, and like to turn my hand to different genres, often between bigger projects. Self-publishing means I can get a few quid back for my literary efforts rather than waste time trying to foist them onto a publishing world that is only interested in the next big thing.

Have they made serious money though?

Well, I have had some pleasing success in the UK with romcoms as Beth Good, getting most of my novellas in that genre into the Kindle charts at one time or another. Those books have kept us afloat as a family when my traditional contracts have dried up.

But my big breakthrough as a self-publisher came last autumn with Girl Number One. This is a debut thriller I had written on the suggestion of a traditional house editor with whom I had previously worked, who subsequently passed on it. My agent sent it out to multiple houses: all declined, for no worrying reasons, just vague refusals. Not right for us or the market, that kind of thing.

My agent eventually suggested I self-publish it.

I rewrote it, using the few suggestions given by some of those editors - thanks, guys! - and put it out with a self-designed cover in September 2015. A very well-known crime writer friend of mine emailed me soon after, generously suggesting I send it to a trad editor she knew who might like to take it on. The money on offer wasn't great, but it was surely better than self-publishing. I thanked her, but stuck to my guns.

BUY MY BOOK, etc.

Seven months on, it has sold almost 50,000 copies, hit No. 1 in the UK Kindle chart, and been picked up by Amazon Publishing's Thomas & Mercer crime and thriller imprint as part of a two book contract. A new edition will be published later this year. Given that the book is still selling well, currently priced £1.99 with a 70% royalty, I will leave you to do the maths on how much better it was for me to self-publish than go with a traditional publisher. I even published two bottom-drawer books alongside it at the same price, both of which have been well-received by Amazon reviewers and are also selling nicely, if not quite so meteorically.

To get the book selling, yes, I tweeted about it, though not to the exclusion of everything else. I ran a Thunderclap campaign. I chatted about it on Facebook, and I blogged etc.

All of which makes me a 'twat', according to Ros Barber's view of self-publishers. A twat who, if she had been foolish enough to listen to that kind of naysaying attitude, would still have her novel gathering dust in the fabled bottom drawer, marked 'REJECT'.

I very much want to make two things plain: one, that I love being traditionally published and do not prefer self-publishing, and two, that I strongly believe all writers must make their own choices without being swayed by someone else's opinion.

But, and this is a vital caveat, self-publishing is not a poor second choice for a writer. Sometimes it is a choice made boldly and for profit, and executed moreover with great skill and flair. And sometimes it is the only choice possible, and we must make of it what we can. Maybe a writer who can afford to be picky and hang on for that elusive contract, or who enjoys having to live on the streets or not being able to feed and clothe their children, or who believes someone else should do that for them while they labour over their priceless chef d'oeuvre, will prefer not to self-publish. But that will be their choice, and nothing to do with me, or you, or one, or Ros Barber.

Personally I love self-publishing. I love its freedom, its left-wing libertarianism, its inclusiveness, its fairness in levelling all authors to the same starting point of zero. But despite all that, given a straight choice, I would rather be traditionally published, if only because it means I will not have to put up with the knowing sneer on the faces of the literati when I say, yes, I put that book out myself.

The arguments Barber puts forward for traditional publishing in her Guardian article betray a lack of experience. As a successful hybrid author since 2011, I can tell you now that traditional publishers do not, as Ms Barber seems to believe, do all the marketing for you while you put your feet up and polish your sentences until they shine. Though perhaps literary authors are given carte blanche not to join in the promotional circus. I can't say for sure, because the only book I've published traditionally which might have been considered vaguely literary was with Sceptre back before the days of social media - back when you still got launch parties! (Yes, I'm a dinosaur.)

And if you don't believe me, believe this: I once had a Big 5 publicist who was greatly offended when I asked - finding myself alone on publication day, touting my book in a lonely chorus of one - why she did not have a Twitter account. She made it clear that budgets for marketing have vanished for all but the lead titles, and authors themselves are now the ones who are expected to promote their books, day and night, unless your second name happens to be King or Rowling - in which case you don't really need all those vast posters on the Underground, but will get them anyway.

And woe betide those who don't get on their keyboards and start clacking, 'buy my book,' to the universe, because their publishers will be quietly shoving their next manuscript in the bin. It may feel embarrassing to tell people you've just published a new book, especially if you have to keep repeating it for a few weeks, but it's part of the job of being a professional writer.

And this thing about traditional publishers getting your novel onto High Street book shelves? No, it doesn't work like that, or not for the vast majority of midlist titles. Very, very sadly. It may have worked like that once, but not anymore. Some books get ordered in good numbers. Others - most others, it seems to me - don't. Though you may be lucky and find one copy in the bigger stores. I am not privy to the way these things work, but I have failed to get bookstores to stock even my award-winning YA fiction in the past, which you would imagine must tick all those sales-criteria boxes.

In short, I'm sorry to say Ros Barber's article was muddle-headed, contradictory, insulting, and just plain wrong on a number of very important points. Yes, it's amazing to be in with a chance of a major prize listing. But how many books get that every year? Are you really hanging on because you think you're in with a shout of winning the Booker? (If so, go for it, my friend, and good luck to you.) Yes, it's lovely to have an editor and a design team. But self-publishers can buy in those services if they need them. Yes, it's nice to see your book in the shops. But that is no longer a given with traditional houses, if it ever was.

And finally, yes, it's fabulous to be taken care of by a team of publishing experts and to feel part of a large, well-respected company. But sometimes people don't enjoy that corporate experience, perhaps because the price of that security is adhering to rules and methods laid down from on high, and some writers don't function well in that kind of environment. And when your book doesn't sell well, nearly always for reasons beyond your control, and you get dumped, or your hardback is cancelled, or you are left off the guest list for that select Christmas party, it feels awful. Like you are a talentless hobo who will never again get past front-desk security in those shiny, intimidating, central London offices ...

In other words, traditional publishing is fantastic. It can make you a star, if that's what you are after. But it's not for everyone, and it's not the answer to every problem in an author's life. Neither is self-publishing. But going indie does open up new paths if others have been closed to you, or your temperament is not right for traditional publishing houses. Choose what you want, and what is within your grasp, and don't judge others for the route they have chosen.

So, a word to the wise. Before making any decision about whether to hold out for a traditional publishing deal or self-publish, make sure you check the credentials of the person giving you advice. Sadly, it's not always the ones in the know who write the articles that are supposed to steer your nascent writing career in the right direction.

As for my credentials, I write as Victoria Lamb, Elizabeth Moss, Beth Good, and Jane Holland among other names. Plus, in rather more fun news, a new name - and book, and genre - that will be coming soon! (With a traditional publisher, ahem.)

My latest self-published book is here. Feel free to tear it apart - but please, at least buy it first. It's only 99p.

And an author friend of mine, and creative writing tutor, Cathie Hartigan, has her own story to tell about self-publishing her debut novel SECRET OF THE SONG, and why it turned out to be right for her, here.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Week Thirty-Two: To Be Or Not To Be Edited?

I've chatted about writing again today on a new AD HOC podcast, recorded last week on Day 5 of my writing retreat in rural Devon. This is an irregular podcast about my own writing journey, usually under 10 minutes' long.

For those who like to listen to podcasts, here's the link: https://www.spreaker.com/user/janeholland/day-5-of-my-writing-retreat

During the podcast, among other things, I discuss the loneliness of writing retreats, a lack of prawn cocktail, how to strengthen a character's unlikely motivation (in this case by giving him a daughter to worry about), and most importantly perhaps, whether or not tis nobler to suffer editorial intervention or to go solo and eschew editing altogether.

Oh, I'd better cross that out. What would my editor say?

This last point is something that I change my mind about constantly. Good editors can vastly improve books and provide a superb sounding-board for writers who are not quite sure where they're going with a piece of writing. Always a wonderful thing.

But the wrong editor for you - or simply a mistaken editor - can leave you gnashing your teeth, cornered like a rabid animal and forced into some horrid - and usually pointless - confrontation over some detail which they want excised and you'd rather keep. They can also influence you even before turning in your manuscript, if you've been working with them a while: you hear their disapproving voice in your ear, and start to second-guess yourself, or self-correct, knowing you will only find that paragraph or plot development deleted by your editor if you leave it in.

Is that a good thing though? Or is it cramping our style? I ask these questions out of an impish spirit of enquiry, you understand ...

Stronger-minded writers may just tell editors to lump it in that situation. But I've always been rather careful about staying friends with mine - not that such courtesy has done me the slightest bit of good career-wise, mind you - so I tend to swallow editorial changes wherever possible and reserve my refusals for moments of absolute need.

Which means I'm often to be found shaking my head silently over notes in the margin ... and probably suffering from stress because of it.

Anyway, since becoming self-published - first as Elizabeth Moss, then Beth Good, then Victoria Lamb, and now very successfully as Jane Holland - I have learned to make do with self-editing. This mainly comes down to minor structural changes and correcting my own grammar and punctuation where necessary. I am an experienced novelist now, and have worked as a fiction editor myself, and was even brought up by a Times newspaper sub-editor, so such tasks are not beyond my skillset - and doing them myself saves me a fortune in freelance editorial fees.

But I know other writers may not have the same level of expertise, and self-editing may cost them readers. And I'm also uneasily aware that some changes - character development, for instance, or continuity errors, or even some plot holes - may not be as obvious to me as they are to another skilled reader.

Now, was she wearing a red hat when she was murdered, or a blue one? Damn ...
So I could be missing out by not going to a freelance editor, and indeed many would condemn me straight out for not doing so, without even looking at my books to see if that's justified - simply because it's not considered the Done Thing to self-publish without paying someone £300-£500 to go through your book with a red pen first. (And thereby losing most of your profit.)

However, I blow raspberries in the general direction of those entrenched enough in their views to claim NOBODY should self-edit, regardless of the exorbitant cost of getting a full-length novel edit, or of that person's skills, and point instead to the many glowing reviews across all my pen-names which suggest the opposite to be true.

In my podcast, I don't discuss that though so much as the wonderful freedom that comes from being a self-publisher: able to write precisely what I want, in whatever style I choose, knowing that nobody in the universe can force me to change a single word of my manuscript against my will. After many years of working closely and even exhaustively with editors at mainstream publishing houses, it feels a little scary at times to be walking the editorial tightrope without a net - but also incredibly liberating and empowering.

More in my AD HOC podcast.

Meanwhile, what do you think about editors and their role in a novelist's life? They can make a bad book good, a good book brilliant, but also at times make a writer want to tear their hair out in despair. Would you ever be willing to publish without one?

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Week Thirty-One: Podcast On The Writing Process

This week for 52 Ways To Write A Novel, I've put down my thoughts in a sound file - be warned, this is the unpolished version.

I expect to use a snippet in my monthly 'Typeface' podcast, coming March 1st, which will contain interviews with other writers in my area. But first off the unedited version, complete with umms and ahhs, is available below on SoundCloud - rather better sound quality for you - or alternatively on Spreaker via this handy link to my Ad Hoc writing podcasts.

I've recorded this while on a writing retreat in an isolated one-bedroom cottage in Devon. (Anything to avoid writing my novel!) So my thoughts here include what it's like to be on a writing retreat, at least at the start, and include musings on the writer's voice, beginnings, structural tension, first draft looseness, dialogue, influences, and - as always - the threatening shadow of Novel Avoidance Syndrome.

I reference John Braine's method of first draft writing as 'red-hot' - it should, of course, have been 'white-hot'. Apologies!

Ten minutes long.


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Writers' Conference 2015 Podcast

I have started a series of podcasts over on Spreaker!

My very first podcast episode was for my own personal writing show, called AD HOC. As the name suggests, this is a short 5-7 minute show where I chat informally about what I'm working on at the moment. and any thoughts I have on writing or being a writer in general. Not sure about the frequency at the moment, but it would be nice to make it weekly.

My second podcast episode is a more epic job, and well worth a listen if you enjoy listening to writers 'out of hours' and with a glass of wine in hand. It's the first in a new podcast show called TYPEFACE, which I'm hoping to produce monthly, on or around the first of every month (this first one is a little early as I have a busy weekend ahead). TYPEFACE will feature interviews, news and general chat about the world of books and writing.

But I thought I'd kick off the series with a very special podcast, composed almost entirely of interviews on the hoof with writers at a conference last summer.

Here's how it came about ...

At the Romantic Novelists Association Conference, London 2015 - which was a lively event and very hot, with plenty of outdoor drinks and mingling in the evenings - I ventured forth with my trusty iPad and took recordings of writers chatting.

Announcing my intention to record as I approached, I grabbed snippets of conversation, interviews, ran informal question and answer sessions around the packed benches, and generally tried to capture the excited buzz of a writers' conference. After all, this is a writers' conference where (mostly) women who work alone in a room all year get out to meet other writers, exchange news and information, gossip freely, and generally let their hair down without any kids or significant others around to dampen the fun.

Writers recorded include:
 Milly Johnson, Katie Fforde, Talli Roland, Alison May, Kate Johnson, Ruth Frances Long, Rhoda Baxter, Hazel Gaynor, John Jackson, Jo Gilliver, Cal Andrews, Adrienne Vaughan, Lizzie Lamb, Joan Fleming, Rosemary Gemmel, Jan Jones, Roger Sanderson, Liz Fenwick, Brigid Coady, Jane Eastgate, Imogen Howson, Jenny Barden, Janet Gover, Carol Townend, Liam Livings, Fiona Harper, Frieda Lightfoot, Jane Lovering, Lucy Wheeler and many others ...

This unofficial podcast - THE RNA CONFERENCE 2015 PODCAST - is the result.

RNA CONFERENCE PODCAST (photo: Talli Roland)

Enjoy!


Please do FOLLOW my Spreaker account if you enjoy listening to writing podcasts - for there will be more to come this year.
Also, click LIKE to show your appreciation, leave a comment under the podcast, and/or share the link on social media.

It all helps!


Disclaimer: I am no longer affiliated to the RNA. This work is unofficial and not sanctioned in any way by the RNA.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Amazon Publishing acquires GIRL NUMBER ONE

I'm utterly thrilled to announce the sale of my self-published debut thriller GIRL NUMBER ONE to Amazon Publishing's crime and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer.

GIRL NUMBER ONE: a No. 1 Bestselling Thriller

Some of you will recall the convoluted history of this book, which was rejected last year by well over a dozen publishers. I believed in the book, and wanted to find it a readership, so decided to put the book on the market myself. I did everything on my own: editing, cover, blurb, marketing, and published the book in September 2015 at 99p, under my maiden name Jane Holland.

After a slow start, GIRL NUMBER ONE entered the UK Kindle Top 100, and reached Number 1 in the UK on December 10th.

It stayed in the Number 1 position for five days, when I cannily put the price up to £1.99. It began to drop, but thankfully slowly, and remained in the Top 100 for 84 days. The book has sold coming up to 44,000 paid downloads to date, plus over 4 million reads via Kindle Unlimited.

I was called by an editor from Amazon Publishing back in November, who had read GIRL NUMBER ONE and was very excited about it. Although I had already made some super sales on my own, she felt that teaming up with Amazon would open up new territories for the book, and after some research and discussion with other authors, I had to agree. I was particularly pleased that she wanted to acquire a second thriller from me as well.

I took the offer to my agent, and finally signed the contract last week. GIRL NUMBER ONE will be re-edited and republished with a new cover by Thomas & Mercer later in 2016, keeping all its current reviews. Meanwhile, I will be working on a second psychological thriller for them, which we are currently discussing.

This whole experience has been a real vindication for me of my personal belief in this novel. So if you're out there now, with a rejected novel, and you're unsure whether or not to self-publish, I would say, don't wait for someone else's permission to believe in your book, just go for it. If you go down the same route I did as a self-publisher, you will have little to lose and a great deal to gain.

I've also used this opportunity to make my first-ever podcast, to announce this publishing deal and also discuss my screenplay entry in the Red Planet Prize. Why not check it out? It's only 5 mins long - and I'll be starting a whole series of writing podcasts soon, so you might want to subscribe.

My other novels like MIRANDA are selling well too, on the back of GN1's success

Monday, 18 January 2016

Week Thirty: The Suitcase of Story

While waiting to start my next novel, a thriller whose plot has not yet taken full shape, I've written a speculative screenplay. A sixty-minute screenplay for television, to be precise - the pilot episode of what would be a Victorian paranormal detective series if anyone could ever be persuaded to make it. Bizarre, ambitious, and entirely unlikely, but a set-up I've had in my story suitcase for several years now, and this was its chance to shine.

Writing in another medium after more than two dozen full length novels is an experience I thoroughly recommend. It means stepping outside your comfort zone if you're a confirmed novelist, but you don't step outside it unaccompanied. Writing a screenplay employs the same basic skillset and structural understanding you bring to a novel, it's just that everything revolves around image and nuance via dialogue, rather than prose description, and there's no way to convey internal monologue, bar intrusive subtitles, or something that takes their place - such as, in the case of Reginald Perrin thinking about his mother-in-law, the flashed image of a trotting hippo.

I was concerned at first that I would find myself flailing about in alien territory after the first few pages. Screenwriters seem to use so much off-putting technical jargon: turning point, beat, crossfade, intercut, slugline, controlling idea, pay-off. What I found though, thankfully, was that I was still able to bring the suitcase of story to writing for the screen.

It's a battered old suitcase now - I've had it since I was a child, writing absurd fantasy novels on an attic typewriter - but it has everything I need in there: beginnings, middles, ends, character building, scene structure, dialogue, story arc, and more than a few scraps of plot ideas to keep me going. It even has a false bottom where I keep emotional truths and the resonant detail.

But what's my logline, FFS?
So the thing I have learned about the difference between screenwriting and novel-writing - and please remember that I am a novice at the former - is that story is paramount, whatever the medium. Some narratives, it is true, may be easier to tell as a film, others as a novel, others as a radio or stage play, I expect. But all have this one common thread of story, above all else.

So what is 'story'?

When we were small children, someone probably sat us down and told us our first stories, either from a book or their own imaginations. If we listened, and did not pick our noses instead, we were whisked somewhere else, to a place beyond ourselves where we could suddenly see our own lives in the distance and thereby gain some strange new perspective on them. And to a large extent that is what story is: a way not merely to entertain and divert the bored self for a few hours, but to allow us to see ourselves in a fresh way, to weigh our lives against another's, our character flaws and strengths against theirs, and so perhaps find new - and better! - ways to live.

Chapter One: As soon as the blonde walked into my office, I knew she was going to be trouble ...
All stories follow a common path. They begin somewhere we can all identify with - the ordinary or common ground of an everyday existence. They develop into an adventure or quest that forces us away from the common and into the extraordinary, where every new choice is an effort and a trial, yet nonetheless we start to feel ourselves stretch for the next step up. Finally they often conclude by bringing us full circle to see how far we have come, allowing us to mourn hardships and losses, then celebrate the victories and lessons learnt along the way.

As writers, rather than dwelling too much on getting the jargon or the handshake right, we write best when we bring everything back to story. Story is about character under pressure, yes. But it's also about plot, about action and reaction, about the difficulty or sheer number of steps taken along the journey. Character shows us how each person responds to these challenges in their own unique way. It tells us which way a character will turn at the end of a scene, just as the Russian sub captain always turns to starboard in the bottom half of the hour in Hunt For Red October. So the characters we choose to follow our plot paths need to be special, to stand out as unique, or at least have the capacity to become special under duress. If not, why on earth have we chosen them?

If you're halfway through writing a novel, but your story suitcase is looking a bit threadbare, the best way to replenish it is by engaging with story via reading a book or watching a film or television drama. Sometimes a story that is very different from the one you are working on will turn out to be precisely what you need in terms of inspiration and energy. Films in particular can be useful because they are less likely to shroud story structure in other, more complex elements as prose or a television series so often do. So we may see, with sudden clarity, how to fix structural problems in a novel by grasping how a film-maker has overcome them. Equally, witnessing the complexity of character-building in a novel may lend gravitas and resonance to a few lines of dialogue in a screenplay. Mix up your mediums, have some fun with it, learn something new!

What's in your story suitcase? And what does it say about you as a writer?