Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Week Forty-Two: The Art of Collaboration, plus a Q&A with Viki Meadows


I recently published a romcom novella under the name Beth Good, written collaboratively with a writer I know personally from Romantic Novelists Association events, Viki Meadows. It was the first book I've written with another author, and Viki herself is quite a new author, so neither of us knew what to expect when we started. By the end though, I think we were both pleased with the result, and would happily recommend collaborative writing to others.
The idea came to me while watching a television interview with the hugely successful thriller writer, James Patterson. He has a great franchise with his novels, but found he simply couldn't keep up with demand. So he began working with other writers on stories he had originated, editing and shaping them into Patterson-style novels, with those writers getting credit on the cover - and no doubt having a fantastic experience working alongside Patterson himself.
I was in a similar position with my Beth Good romcoms. I have a good readership for them, a (largely UK) fanbase who buy all my romcoms under that name. But with contracts underway to write thrillers as well, and several other projects in hand, I simply couldn't manage to write as many Beth Good stories as I wanted. So I rather cheekily decided to try the James Patterson approach myself, and enlist the help of another writer to work on a novella I had already plotted out in detail from beginning to end. 
That story became the delightful CHRISTMAS AT THE LUCKY PARROT GARDEN CENTRE, and I hope that it will be the first in a series of romcoms with this Yorkshire garden centre setting. 

I had known Viki for some time through the RNA, and always thought her prose marvellously smooth and well-written. I'd edited her manuscripts before too, and we had communicated well. So she was a natural first choice for this project, and I was thrilled when she agreed to give it a try.
I started out by talking to Viki about the plot and the characters I'd devised. After all, she might have hated those elements, and that would have made writing our story even more of a challenge.

Luckily though, she loved them, and indeed ended up infusing them with a wonderfully natural colour and vivacity, not to mention striking verisimilitude, being Yorkshire-based like the heroine of the story. 

After the success of her first chapter, we continued on like that, with me talking her through the plot in close detail - mainly to get the pace right - as she had never written such a long piece of fiction before, and then editing and consolidating at every stage. As the book grew, so did Viki's confidence, and it became a very enjoyable and easy-going process. After she had finished her part, I then shaped the novella, concentrating on pacing and tone initially, and then added my own contribution. It was vital that the book was recognisably a Beth Good romcom, that readers would sense that and enjoy it as much as any other Beth Good story. So that was my focus. But of course Viki's voice is very distinctive too, and that comes through in the writing.
Overall, I thought this kind of collaborative effort was not only a wonderful way to mentor a new writer, but a learning process for me too. I learned a great deal about structure from having to explain it, and I was pleased that my reputation in certain quarters for being a prickly pain-in-the-butt did not seem to impinge on my working relationship with Viki! 
Looking back, I consider our partnership to have been a brilliant success, and I certainly hope it won't be the last book I write collaboratively. Together we have ended up producing an exciting, fast-paced, and thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy that feels as much like a Viki Meadows story as a Beth Good!
Despite being busy with her own new writing, Viki Meadows has very kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the collaborative process too, and this is what she has to say ... (Viki's responses are in italics)
Can you describe how the collaboration process started for you, and your first steps when you began writing?   
My collaboration with Beth Good/Jane Holland began when I was on a writing high. I'd just got a mark of 81 for an MA assignment when I was contacted by Beth asking if I'd be interested in working with her. 
After the first excitement had worn off, I started thinking of what it would really mean. The plan was for me to work off her plot / outline and of course this raised all sorts of considerations and potential problems, but it was simply too good an opportunity to pass up, especially based on nebulous fears.
I said yes, and knuckled down (sort of) to try and do it. Because of my concerns, which included things like, would I be able to write to someone else's plot, could I write humour, would the author like my work, I asked if I could do a one-chapter trial, after which, if there were problems, we could both pull out with no hard feelings.
Once I started writing I quickly engaged with the story. At times it was a bit like a puzzle. Working out how to make something happen when it needed to required ingenuity and mental agility, and I particularly enjoyed it. Beth seemed pleased with my work, and that approval motivated me and kept me going. Working with such an easy-going person was great. I felt supported without having someone breathing down my neck. I think it was helpful that we are both quite laid back. If one of us had been more uptight it might have been more challenging to collaborate like this.
What was the most difficult part of collaborating for you, and why?
I had all sorts of preconceived ideas and fears about my ability to complete the project, and so my biggest challenge was squishing those doubting voices. I also needed to be disciplined. It’s all too easy as a writer to slip into writing when you’re in the mood or feeling inspired. Even though I knew that wasn’t a good way to approach a writing career I’d never really developed a regular writing habit and for too long I’d been hit and miss. When Beth approached me about this collaboration, she took a risk on me, and I really didn’t want to let her or myself down. So I had to be professional and disciplined, and this was also a major challenge.
What do you think you've learnt from this that will be most useful to you in future?
That I CAN finish a project to an acceptable standard, that I can write MUCH faster than I thought, and therefore I now have NO excuse not to produce a lot more work.

I also learnt a lot from the way Beth took the raw material and turned it into a polished end product. The way she knew what to exploit and how to exploit it to make the story funnier and more focussed was fascinating and the mechanics of how she did that provided a real learning curve. I’ll certainly be trying to apply some of her techniques during rewrites on my own work.
Would you recommend collaboration to other writers?
Yes, for sure. I’ve mentioned some of the many benefits above but writing can be such a solitary thing to do and collaborating with another author made it more social and much more fun. There was a great feeling of satisfaction in creating something together rather than on my own, and a sense of companionship as well. I loved seeing the project take shape and how another author’s input could transform it in ways I hadn’t considered.
What are your writing plans for the future? Do you have a new story of your own lined up, for instance?
I’m feeling quite fired up and excited. I’m writing the first draft of a new novella and also trying to finish rewrites of a romantic suspense novella. Beth’s output and professional, disciplined approach to her writing is keeping me motivated and giving me something to aspire to. I’m also working on an MA in Creative Writing which takes up a fair bit of time but also helps keep me writing regularly. 

*** 
Now, why not read the free sample on Amazon of  
Christmas is coming to the Lucky Parrot Garden Centre near Whitby. And along with those first flakes of snow comes a tall, dark, and highly tempting stranger ...

Hannah is a sensible, hard-working Yorkshire lass, and her heart is set on a career in landscape gardening. Not on falling in love, not even with a man as drop-dead gorgeous as Daniel Elliott. He's a film producer, for goodness sake, more used to Hollywood parties than stomping about in muddy wellies.

But as the evenings draw in and the snow thickens, can Hannah resist the warmth and sparkle of this very unusual man? And if she can't, what's to say Daniel won't disappear every bit as mysteriously as he arrived?

The first in a brand-new series, this cosy, festive romcom is the fruit of a collaboration between popular author Beth Good and romance newbie Viki Meadows. Perfect for fans of Jane Linfoot, Jenny Colgan, and Milly Johnson.

 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Week Forty-One: When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Self-Publish

I have a new book out.

It's a thriller: ALL YOUR SECRETS.

Much like my other thrillers, this is a full-length psychological thriller, with a twisty page-turning plot and a strong local atmosphere.

But unlike my other thrillers, this novel is self-published.

Why?

ALL YOUR SECRETS (UK Amazon)

Apparently the setting wasn't what my publisher wanted. My other two thrillers were set in Cornwall. They wanted a thriller set in London. This new book is set in the gorgeous South of France, a place I have visited many times and with which I have a natural affinity.

Last summer, I submitted two synopses and a 25,000 word sample of my South of France thriller to my publisher. Following a miscommunication of some kind, I mistakenly thought my editor was excited by the sample I'd sent and was planning to acquire the book.

Some months passed while I knuckled down and finished the book before my contract arrived. (Which is something many full-time writers end up doing, working on a book before the contract arrives.) I loved every minute of it though; it was a delightfully tactile, sensual book to write, and deeply sinister too.

In December, a few thousand words shy of finishing ALL YOUR SECRETS, I asked again about the contract. It was only at this point that I discovered my publisher did not want the book.

However, I received a contract for the other synopsis. The book I had not written. With only 8 weeks in which to write it, apparently.

I did the only thing I could.

I wrote the new book. And I did it within the required 8 weeks. It's currently at copyedit stage and will be published in January 2018.

Bizarrely, this is not unusual in publishing. It's the kind of thing that happens to writers all the time. Talented writers. Hard-working writers. Established writers. Full-time writers with bills to pay and no other way to pay them but through their own skill with a keyboard.

Most established writers can tell publishing stories to make your toes curl. Trilogies that flop and are abandoned as a lost cause, leaving one or even two books unpublished. Novels that are commissioned in conversation - like my own bestselling thriller, GIRL NUMBER ONE - and then rejected later, leaving a writer stuck with a book written to a very specific brief that they now need to sell elsewhere. Not always easy.

In the same vein, I was once tipped the wink at an editor-author coffee meeting that my latest outline wouldn't be acquired unless I converted the setting to Faeryland, because 'we're desperate for those'. I wrote 50K of the blasted thing before the editor was made redundant. Needless to say, the remaining editors were politely baffled by the Faeryland setting, and my agent was less than impressed too. I never did finish that one. Though maybe one day ...

So two years after I was forced to self-publish GIRL NUMBER ONE (a book rejected by over a dozen publishers, mind you, which subsequently sold 50,000 copies in a few months as a self-published title, hitting #1 in the UK Kindle Chart), I found myself with yet another unwanted novel on my hands.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by now. But hope springs eternal!

This time, I was not contractually permitted to offer it to another publisher - not under the name Jane Holland, at any rate, which has become my 'thriller' name.

However, I was given permission to self-publish ALL YOUR SECRETS.

When the going gets tough in this industry, the tough often end up having to self-publish. Not the most ideal situation, especially when a book has been written with a rather different arena in mind. But I have three children to feed and clothe, and this book took about 4-5 months to write and edit - an expensive time investment for me - so heigh-ho, self-publishing it was.

I proofed the book, made a cover, wrote a blurb, and started telling the poor, long-suffering souls on Twitter that my book was about to go live.

I had a pleasing number of pre-order sales. Those are my fans, and I thank them wholeheartedly for sticking with me!

Then it came out.

A self-published novel that isn't priced at 99p - instead, it's a modest £1.99 - is not the easiest thing in the world to persuade random punters to buy. Nor do I have the surprise of writing in a new genre to help me, as I did with GIRL NUMBER ONE.

So any sales you can waft my way will be hugely appreciated. This book has been written with all my skill and knowledge behind it, the experience of writing several dozen novels, and I feel certain many thriller-reading people will find pleasure in it.

I thank you all in advance for any retweets or Facebook shares or reviews or other promotional help you can offer this new and highly atmospheric book-baby of mine ... The blurb follows.

Thank you!

Jane x

ALL YOUR SECRETS (Amazon UK)

What happens when love is perfect? Too perfect?

When her glamorous cousin Emily drowns, Caitlin flies to the South of France for her funeral, full of bitter-sweet nostalgia for the summer they spent there as wild teenagers. Her aunt Tamsin, once a film star, now suffering from dementia, invites Caitlin to stay at her chateau high above the beach at Cap d'Antibes.

Suddenly the gorgeous, charming Robin is back in touch, son of a Hollywood film producer. 
Tamsin warns her to stay away from him, but Caitlin can't resist her teenage crush. Soon the pair are falling madly, deeply in love ... all over again.

But something doesn’t feel right. What was Robin’s relationship with her beautiful cousin? And what is her aunt trying so desperately to conceal? The chateau on the Cap may be beautiful, but it hides dark secrets.

Was Emily's death an accident? Or could it have been murder?

-- ALL YOUR SECRETS is an atmospheric psychological thriller that simmers with tension and will keep you guessing, from the bestselling author of GIRL NUMBER ONE and LOCK THE DOOR.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Week Forty: Building Your Author Brand

I've noticed an odd phenomenon recently. On Amazon, new books have begun to crop up. But not like any books we've seen before. These are pre-orders on books not due out yet.

Nothing strange about that, of course. Books have always been promoted before publication day. What is strange here is that some of these pre-orders, on books from big-name authors, are for books not published for almost another year. Most are going on Amazon with no proper covers, only a glossy publicity shot of the author. A few haven't even got a title yet, they are so early in the process that turns an idea into a published novel.

In the past - and indeed still today - these early books would go live with only a 'placeholder' cover. A grey space with 'cover not yet available' across it.

Now we get these ...

UNTITLED: Jojo Moyes (out Feb 2018)


This says to me that publishers are focused on a new way of selling books. And that new way is based on the idea of the author brand.

Nothing new there either, of course. The idea of the author brand is as old as, well, authors. In the Regency era, polite society eagerly purchased new volumes from Romantic poets like Byron or Shelley because they bought into their 'brand' or personality. It wasn't only about the tortured poet, the romantic soul, but the real person behind that trope, with reports of outrageous behaviour and naughty goings-on to thrill readers and feed the salacious gossip machine ...

But in these days of social media, once again we are talking about authors, rather than books. Books are the product, but authors are the draw for readers, the brand.

That's why we have these covers with the author mug-shot, reminding browsers whose book it is they are buying, putting the manufacturer front and centre, before the product, the book itself.

On social media, we see profile pictures. Pictures of authors. We hear about their day, their cats and dogs, their kids, their cookery disasters and triumphs, their struggle with writing or editing ... We identify with them and turn to their books with an increasing sense of familiarity. Ah yes, there's Jill's new sequel. There's Jojo's new novel. I must get them.


This Could Change Everything: Jill Mansell (25 January 2018)

Putting out books on pre-order as many as nine or ten months before publication is about sales, yes. Let's not be naive. But it's more about increasing long-term sales' potential than any short-term, 'make a quick buck' mentality. It's about the long tail, the backlist, the whole show, not just the headliner act.

And we as authors, particularly as indie authors perhaps, need to emulate that thinking if we want to build a brand around our author name like these publishers are doing. Not just by making all our covers look similar, or writing a series, though these tricks also help to build an author brand. But by building ourselves as the force behind the fiction, by selling the author, not just the book.

Selling an author rather than a title means greater sales overall, because readers will then come for the author regardless of the book on offer.

That's the theory, anyway.

The Image Of You: Adele Parks
But how to achieve this in real terms?

Not being a publisher or a marketing expert, that's not so easy to answer. One way I would suggest is to increase visibilty on social media and elsewhere online, and to be consistent with it. I know this is old hat to most writers now, but I would suggest there's a new emphasis here that we can adopt. To propel readers towards us as people, and as authors, rather than towards one individual title we happen to have released. To adopt an overall author promotion strategy rather than single 'book' campaigns.

I don't always follow that advice very well myself. Although I've published about forty books traditionally - I lost count some time ago - and maybe ninety titles self-published on Amazon now, mostly shorts and novellas, my own career has been very scattered, across various names and brands and genres, none of which have been particularly well-developed in promo terms. (With the exception of my romcom persona, perhaps, Beth Good.)

But some authors do manage very well in building a brand. And I am gradually beginning to see how it could be done better ...

One way, highlighted here with these pre-orders, is to keep your author brand ever-present by putting out pre-orders on books not yet written, or written to a certain extent. This is hard for indie authors, who need a file to upload on Amazon for a pre-order. Not only that, but Amazon don't allow pre-orders to go live more than three months before publication date. Which means we can't put up books for sale a year in advance like one of the big five publishers, for instance. It's not a level playing field in that regard. But it can be done with an unfinished file, three months in advance, which is then replaced nearer publication time with the finished book.

And perhaps you could experiment with one of these author 'New Book Coming Soon! covers, if you're particularly photogenic and have a good, well-lit professional shot to put up there. To heighten awareness of you as the author, as a real person, as a saleable brand.

If you have other ideas to share about how to increase awareness of an author brand, do let us know in the comments below ...

My new thriller, ALL YOUR SECRETS, on pre-order now!

By me: out 2017

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

Facebook

Twitter

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

SELECTED PRAISE FOR SEALSKIN 


‘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: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sealskin-Su-Bristow-ebook/dp/B01MSUB9W6


 
   

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Week Thirty-Nine: Pitching Novels at the London Book Fair

So this week was the London Book Fair at Olympia, Kensington. I went along, as I usually do these days, met my agent, talked to my editors, went to several parties, chatted with fellow authors and a few publishers I may work with in future. And now my feet are throbbing and I'm laid up in bed with post-Fair flu.

But it was all worth it. Honest.

London Book Fair 2017

At the LBF, you will find thousands of publishers, editors, agents, and yes, even authors, from all over the world, and all under one roof for three days of buzz and excitement about books. Plus associated book-trade businesses and bodies, including bigger names like the Society of Authors, the Bookseller, etc. Then there's the Ivy Club, which hosts a special pop-up for the fair, with individual booths boasting luxurious leather sofas and armchairs, where all the top London agents do their deals. (Including my own agent, of course, dahling!)

All the fun of the fair, in other words, in one massive exhibition hall with free books and handouts on almost every corner!

Never traditionally an author-friendly event, the LBF has become increasingly more open to authors in recent years. There is the large Author HQ hub, for starters, an entire corner of the fair devoted to all things author. Amazon's KDP self-publishing company seems to sponsor much of this activity, and their team will happily talk to anyone who strolls up and asks about self or indie publishing. At Author HQ, you can hear writers talking to a large audience about their self-publishing successes, or even editors and agents disclosing what they're currently looking for ('A great story with strong characters,' is invariably the unhelpful answer). There's another area at the fair dedicated to children's publishing too, with talks that go on all day, also featuring writers and editors etc.

As an unpublished author, or if you're looking for representation, you can pitch to individual agents - possibly editors too - in the Author Hub if you book up a pitch slot well in advance. There's more about this on the London Book Fair website.

There are frequent launches and even publisher parties that sometimes allow you to drift in univited, especially if it's a smaller indie publisher. See what's on at the LBF website or look out for 'party here 6pm' notices. You can also hook up with fellow authors for a chat about trends and, ahem, any new gossip. Some of them may even stand you a coffee ... Thanks, Alison!

I often meet up with fabulous author Alison Morton at LBF for a good old book natter. This year we shared a table and a chat with John Jackson too, who's just landed a contract with Crooked Cat Books. Thanks to Anita Chapman for the pic!

If you're already published, and/or represented, the fair is a great place to meet your editor(s) and agent, and discuss the year before and the year ahead. You should ask them for a meeting slot a couple of months before the fair - which is an early spring event, usually April, though it was in March this year, which everyone agreed gave it a very different, slightly under-prepared feel.

NB
Everything I am about to say is my individual opinion, based on my own experience, which is fairly considerable but limited to certain areas of publishing. It's not gospel. Caveat lector.

Prepare well for this meeting. You may only get ten minutes, or up to half an hour if you're lucky, to pitch possibly several projects in a convincing manner. Wednesday is a good day for an appointment. Tuesday, everyone is getting settled in. Thursday, everyone is tired, especially by the afternoon, and may already be thinking about heading home, rather than listening to your pitch.

Don't over-dress for the occasion. You're not going for a modelling job or to seduce (not physically, anyway). But do wear something clean and smart-casual.

Writers can get away with a scruffy look as 'creatives' but generally only if they're men. Sexist, I know, but you could reduce your chances of a sale if you turn up looking like a bag lady. I rarely wear make-up but always slap some on for the LBF. I also dye my hair to remove a few grey hairs - only a few though, honest. I'm still practically a teenager. This year I wore black leggings and a black top on the first day - pretty low-key - but coupled it with a new suede jacket and a glitzy necklace. To meet my agent and editors at the Ivy Club, I wore black boots and a bright, slightly kookie, knee-length skirt with again, a plain black top.

Slightly crazed, but not actively terrifying. One hopes.

Dressing like you belong in an industry is the first step to getting into it. So while it may feel a bit superficial, do consider your look and what it says about you. And never drench yourself in perfume or body spray beforehand. It can make people uncomfortable and they'll soon want you to go away!

For the pitch itself, much will depend on your relationship with the person you're pitching to, and also your track record. Old hands in a longterm relationship with an agent/editor may be able to get away with very little by way of a pitch ('It's a Christmas romcom,' was one of my briefest pitches this year, which got a nod) while if you're newer to the business, or transitioning from one genre/publisher to another, you will almost certainly need to go into greater detail.

In some cases, the discussion may even become thorny and require delicate navigation to avoid looking like a total noob. Be prepared to answer difficult (often unanswerable, in my opinion) questions like, 'Who do you see as the readership for that book?' or 'What's its USP?' (Unique Selling Point).

This is my latest book: a domestic noir psychological thriller, in a nutshell. (Not literally in a nutshell. That would be weird.) 

Avoid answering, 'Blimey, I dunno,' to the first (even though it's probably an honest response) as you need to at least pretend to have considered such a question. 'Young professionals' would be better, or even something tighter like 'college-educated women between 18 and 60.' For the USP, if you're at a total loss, you could always try something equally buzzwordy, like 'Oh, it's a high concept premise.' Naturally, this won't wash well if it's, for instance, a gentle romantic novel where nothing unexpected happens.

So think about USP and readerships and longterm strategies and market placement (where your book might fit alongside other similar books) and also author branding. But don't get fixated on them. The story is still everything.

Author branding is where the publisher puts you in a box, composed neatly of whatever novels you normally write, and heaven help you if you decide you want to make a hole in that box later, escape and write something different. Branding will suit some writers better than others. But publishers do love branding their authors - ouch! - and if you can approach a hungry-for-series editor with a new series/brand idea that fits the current market, especially if it has a high concept USP, you're almost certain to get a yes.

For an example of a brilliantly constructed author brand, look at Alison Morton's 6-book Roma Nova series, starting with INCEPTIO.


Almost certain. Not a guarantee. Because there are no guarantees anymore. Not even with so-called 'safe' books that seem to fit the market perfectly.

In these troubled economic times, with the book trade shifting constantly under our feet, book people have become nervous types who want to hang onto their jobs. If your great new idea makes a loss, they're the first ones to suffer. So they're always looking for sure ground, for safe choices, for reasons to say no. Not reasons to say yes. Go into every pitch meeting with that caveat in mind.

Prepare, but don't look over-prepared. Don't clutch a synopsis sheet in your sweaty fist - or worse, a laminated sheet or something in a protective plastic wallet - and stare down at it while stammering out the printed words. Be relaxed, be natural, take a breath. Smile.

In film and television, pitching is a thirty-second art at entry level: fast, slick and honed. Bang, bang, bang ... and out. Things are gradually moving in that direction in fiction land too, but we're not there yet, thank goodness. Old habits die hard. Novelists pitching to agents and editors may not bother with much small talk anymore, under sheer pressure of time, but 'Hello, how are you?' for instance, is still incorporated into most pitching strategies.

For your actual pitch, first know the market as well as any author possibly can. As above, 'It's a Christmas romcom,' pins an idea down to a niche genre and even a seasonal market. Perfect. Details come only after you've laid that groundwork in the listener's head. If you've done good research, you might even suggest a publisher. 'It's a dwarves and sorcerers epic; Tor might be interested.'

If it's literary fiction, look confident and pitch that as a genre. 'It's commercial lit fic' won't necessarily turn them off (even if it's not likely to be commercial, pretend that it is and hope they accept that at face value; honesty is not always the best policy when pitching!). Some big lit fic books can make massive sales these days, especially if they are issue-based. Everyone loves a big issue they can get weepy over. (Not me personally. But then, I'm 'ard as nails.) All the same, your chances of a yes to lit fic will improve if you can throw some recent bestselling buzz-names in there: 'It's on similar ground to Jessie Burton/Joanna Cannon/Emma Healey' should make their ears prick up. Note the recent bit. Everything has to be new, new, new in publishing. Don't tell them it's like a Catherine Cookson novel, or they'll already be looking over your shoulder at the next person in the queue.

Be as specific as possible. 'It's a Christmas animal fiction feel-good novel for adults ...'

Once you have their attention with some firm market placement, pitch the story itself, starting with character. Character is vital to a pitch. Total lack of a plot will get you a no almost every time, of course. But if your character sounds intriguing, an interested agent/editor may try to help you improve the plot rather than give a flat no to a character description that's hooked them.

Beware of too much detail though. Details will bog you down and you'll lose sight of that USP.

'It's about this mother who ...' (Try to be emotive with your nouns: 'mother' or 'wife' will work better than 'It's about this woman.' I know, I know, what can I say?) Work in two or three key characters, quick as possible, and then tell the listener why they should care about them. Jobs can be useful shortcuts to building a character if all else fails. 'It's about this mother/wife/zoo keeper's assistant who's dying of [incurable disease/condition] and she wants someone to [look after her elephants etc.] when she's gone.'

Pressure is always a good way to make a pitch sound saleable. Unity of time, as Aristotle knew, gives even a mediocre plot that extra edge. 'There's this astronaut stranded on Jupiter and he only has fifteen hours to save all of mankind.' Make sure you turn the screw hard though. 'Unfortunately, he has to sacrifice his wife and baby son in order to save the world.' Who could resist that?

Which brings me to my next caveat.

Make sure you're pitching the right story to the right person. The editor who wants the Christmas romcom is unlikely to want the Jupiter astronaut story. An easy-going agent might take both, but most agents will be looking to steer you down a branded path if possible. One or two related genres only. Be aware of that when going in with five different book pitches all in different genres. You could look like a no-hoper without realising it.

'If this Western pitch doesn't work out, maybe they'll like my idea for a sci fi 7-book series set inside a black hole. Or my paranormal trilogy set in Basingstoke.'

Especially when approaching an agent for the first time, try to look like you work in one discrete area by only preparing pitches that fit that genre. Romance OR historicals OR crime, or subsets of these. Not all of them. At least for now. You can bamboozle them with something different once you've hooked them. Alternatively, if an agent says at the end, 'Is there anything else you'd like to write/you're working on?' that could be a signal they like you as a person/writer, but not the genre or ideas you've been pitching. Then you could say, 'Actually, yes, I'm also interested in giant alien bug attacks.'

Despite all these games and ploys, the best book pitches are natural and fit organically into the flow of the discussion. They should come across as more a conversation than a pitch, an easy give-and-take. Tell the story of the book, if you like, but keep it short and animated. If they interrupt a pitch to ask questions, so much the better. Don't answer briefly, with impatience, and then go doggedly back to your pitch. Let the pitch develop into an organic conversation. If their eyes glaze over at any point, move on quickly to your next idea.

And make sure you have a second idea. And a third, and even a fourth, if necessary. You may only need - or have time - to pitch one. So make it your best idea, the one you've prepared most for. But don't be surprised if they prefer the final, slightly desperate pitch you pull out of thin air at the last second, maybe something you thought up on the way to the meeting or that fell out of your mouth unexpectedly when you started talking.

The Borough Book Bash, held every month, is a London pub-based event open to anyone interested in publishing. Great place to network after LBF with up-and-coming editors and book folk, and also to get new Twitter followers, ahem!

Book people like pitching authors to be prepared and in control of their material. But they love raw. They love passion and edge and sheer buzz. They're always looking for that new thing, that big thing, that shimmering book just out of sight ...

So make sure you keep at least one back-up, half-formed, slightly crazy idea in your noddle. Not on paper, never on paper. And whizz that idea out if you think it's gone badly, and the agent is politely opening their mouth to say, 'Well, it was lovely to meet you ...'

If things go well, you may not need that crazy back-up idea. But it's there, just in case.
 
Most importantly, if pitching to someone you may work with over a number of years, make sure you can get on with that person. Hard to judge in a ten minute meeting, I know. But trust your gut. They'll be trusting their guts on the other side of the table. So if they say no, they may be doing both of you a favour. You need to find the person who clicks with you and your writing, so you can both make it a longterm working relationship, not a one or two-book deal.

Get an email address and hand over a card if you like, but the important thing is to make a real connection. That other stuff can come later.

Good luck!

Oh, and bring water and snacks. There are places to eat and drink at the book fair, but they're often very busy, and are also very expensive. And if you're female, watch out for those long queues for the loo, especially around lunchtime. Take something to read while you wait!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Week Thirty-Eight: On Staying Energised as a Writer

Sometimes being a writer feels like the hardest thing in the world.


'What chance have I got among all these?'

It isn't, of course.

But that doesn't mean we don't become tired, getting up in the morning and seeing either that nothing has changed or life just got a little harder than the day before.

This isn't Novel Avoidance Syndrome, though it shares symptoms with that condition.

This isn't fear of success, though others may dismiss it as such.

This isn't even fear of failure. It can strike long-established writers as much as newbies. Perhaps more so, as we no longer have that starry-eyed 'anything could happen' vision to fuel our dreams.

It's about feeling swamped in an overcrowded marketplace teeming with other talented writers. Thrown in with your heavy books to sink or swim, while publishers mostly keep their dainty toes out of the water and direct from the poolside instead.

'Backstroke now. That's the spirit. No resting!'

It's about having great ideas and not being able to act on them. Like we're all on some vast synchronised swimming team.

'I said, backstroke! Not butterfly. Same as everyone else, please.'

It's about not having the publisher that's right for you, or not having a publisher at all and having to carve out your own path as an independent. How to rise above the crowd as an indie? How to successfully promote a book on your own while not spamming people with links and alongside so many hundreds of thousands of other, possibly similar books?

It's about not being able to get reviews without crawling through mud and barbed wire for them. Or increasingly getting clusters of one star reviews, often for reasons that hurt the soul. 'Didn't download properly.' 'I hate romcoms but this one was free.' 'Haven't read it yet.'

It's about things that ought to be simple going wrong, often insanely wrong, and not feeling able to complain or say anything about it in public, in case we lose our jobs.

'Another thirty lengths, please!'

It's about approaching other writers covertly for advice, and getting the door slammed in our faces for the same reasons as above.

'Stay at the correct distance! No whispering in the ranks!'

Sometimes it seems as though all the joy and excitement and the sheer drama of writing and publishing a novel is being sucked out of the process, to be replaced by emptiness and the steady creaking of some invisible conveyor-belt.


Factory Hen Novelists

So how do we get past this feeling of being jaded or washed-up, as professional novelists? How do we recapture our enthusiasm not only powerfully enough to finish our novels, but to write bestsellers, and to keep on writing bestsellers?

Here are a few thoughts:

1. SHUT YOURSELF OFF FROM THE INTERNET

If the world out there is getting you down, if your reviews are crap or non-existent, or your ranking is in the toilet, or that wet-behind-the-ears new MA course writer gets asked for her 'expert' opinion on how-to-pen-a-novel while nobody gives a flying crap what you, veteran of dozens of bloody published novels, think about writing, if you're beginning to hate everything about this process ... try not to look up quite so often from your keyboard.

In days of yore, before the internet made us all so paranoid, novelists wrote books and had very little feedback - except for scattered reviews at publication and the occasional letter. They didn't have to worry about rankings outside the top few writers on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Publishers took much longer to dump new writers, so that fear too was less extreme.

Nowadays, you can get dumped almost as soon as your first book is out, if initial sales aren't strong enough. (They just won't tell you until you start innocently asking about your next title.) Meanwhile you still have to write. Because you're a writer and that's what you do. Because however shit things are for writers, everything else is shittier. Or words to that effect.

So if the noise and the trumpeting and the sheer BLAH of the publishing world is driving you crazy, pretend like you've been spirited back to the 1950s. Shut off from the internet and trade magazines as far as possible and do nothing but write, write, write.

Put your fingers in your ears and just write ...


2. STAY FLEXIBLE AND OPEN TO CHANGE

As writers, we need to stop making career assumptions based on what used to work in publishing or what used to be the norm for authors in our position, whatever that happens to be. The world is moving so rapidly, what is the case now may already have changed in six months, and many situations we took for granted, say, five or ten years ago, may soon look like something from the Dark Ages.

Why is this? Well, much of the current instability seems to date back to the demise of the Net Book Agreement in the mid-late 90s. It was trumpeted as a time of free marketeering, but the lack of protection over retail prices means books have gradually become cheaper while midlist authors have earned less and less every year. Add to that the rise of the ebook market, where many traditionally published bestsellers are only 99p and some indie authors can't even give away their books for free, and you have a very volatile, uncertain industry.

So there's no point trying to second guess where we're heading or to control that trajectory in any meaningful way. This means developing a flexible approach to writing. Perhaps accepting that some books will need to be self-published, perhaps under a new name, or that you may need to move from one publisher to another with little warning. Only the biggest brand names are insulated from such shifts these days, it seems to me.

Though such challenges can feel like the end of the world, they can also be liberating for writers. They can provide opportunities to learn new skills as a self-publisher or experiment with new genres in a way that might not have been possible on a traditional writing path. This freedom to experiment can reinvigorate a tired or depressed author, demonstrating that her writing career is only limited by her own ambition.

Old writer, new tricks

3. SEEK REINITIATION AS A WRITER

If all else fails, reconnect with your primary impulse to write. The excitement that drove you to become a writer in the first place, that had you rushing to your book every morning. Sounds great, huh? Reinitiation as a writer, especially when you're older and have been round the block so many times you're dizzy, is what every true creative seeks.

But how to achieve it?

Well, in my opinion, there are two key paths to reinitiation. To recapturing your original drive, inspiration and creative vision as a writer before reality painted your world grey.

For the first way, you need a muse or mentor who will act as a guide back to your creative impulse. A Virgil to your Dante, in other words. (Best to seek that muse in artistic terms though, not run off with the milkman/woman, though many great writers have restarted their creative engines through sex!) For this way, look for another writer whose work you always read with the greatest possible excitement - living or dead, either should work fine - and study them, emulate them, be inspired by them, and write with them in mind until you've regained enough momentum to trundle off on your own again. Like bump-starting a car with a dead battery!

What would Hemingway have written here?

The second way to achieve reinitiation is to do something hugely dangerous as a writer, for instance by scaring yourself into a new dynamic approach. Hugely dangerous things for a novelist include suddenly starting to write a book in a style or genre or on a topic you know nothing about and/or have never attempted before. Or changing your pseudonym and writing as that person, i.e. in a completely new way. Like being a method actor, you do everything in that new idiom until every cell of your creative being has been renewed and is stamped with this fresh style.

But don't do any of this reinitiation process secretly. Do it openly so that you burn your bridges. Tell people what you're attempting. Even boast about it. This will be so frightening, especially if you're already established in one particular genre or style, that you will hopefully end up feeling - and writing - like an entirely new author, with increased vigour and commitment.

That's the theory anyway. Good luck!

Oh, and if doing something reckless with your career, be sure not to spend your last advance too quickly. You'll need it soon enough to pay your tax bill.