Saturday, 22 October 2016

Me and Stephen King

Well, no. Not really me and the maestro of horror. In fact, not even remotely me and the King. But there’s a bit of a connection. I’m not a horror fan, nor a ghost story fan, though as a reader and writer of romantic suspense I do enjoy a tightening of the strings, an increase in the heartbeat as the inevitable events draw to a climax. And actually, me and Stephen…Stephen and me… well it appears that we do like an historic hotel.

On holiday in the States recently, I fetched up in one of America’s finest old hotels, the Stanley in Estes Park. It’s historic, no question (over 100 years old). And there’s definitely something paranormal about it. The first clue was in the packed lobby, full of people waiting to take a ghost tour. Then there was the sign for Madame Vera, the hotel’s resident psychic.

Resident psychic? I’ve heard of a writer in residence, but…

So, I decided to pass on Madame Vera’s services. Dodging round the ghost tour parked outside my room (“…and on this very spot a strange and unexpected explosion took place…”) I tried to settle down. But frankly, my dear, even if every piece of wood in the vicinity doesn’t creak in a non-existent wind, it’s hard to get comfortable when the guide is spinning tales to freak out people who don’t have to sleep in the place (“…where the actor Jim Carrey saw something so terrible that he’s never spoken of it, to this day…”).

Fortunately there was an alternative to this scenario (the tours came round every hour in the afternoons, which didn’t make for much relaxation). On a bitterly cold afternoon, with the snow blowing around outside, t was time to decamp. Pick up the notebook and pen, stop by the coffee bar for a very large cup of something stimulating and grab the comfy leather armchairs in front of the fire. 

And here, dear reader, Stephen King and I found something in common. Although I never heard whether he took advantage of the beautifully dark-panelled lobby-cum-lounge — or, indeed, whether he was driven out of his room by the ghost tours — I do know that somewhere in the Stanley he’s said to have been inspired to write. And so was I.

There the similarities begin and end. He wrote The Shining; I came away with the plot for a romance. Even so, there’s something about sitting where he sat (maybe) and writing. 

You can’t beat it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Finding My Tribe

New friends! Image courtesy of John Jackson
All right, I confess. I sat in the car park at Lancaster University on Friday in a state of complete dread. I even contemplated turning the engine back on and driving away. No-one would have known. The organisers would have assumed I hadn’t turned up and hadn’t told them (which, of course, would have been true). And I’d have holed up in some little guest house in the Lakes and phoned home from noisiest part of the local pub, pretending I was surrounding by a chattering crowd of writers.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone. I had many good friends-in-the-flesh among those on the list, and a host of other friends-in-the-ether whose full acquaintance I was dying to make. There really should not have been a problem. But here’s the thing. There were over 200 of them. That’s 200-plus writers. That’s lots and lots of people like me.

Now that’s scary.

I’m glad to say that my courage not only prevailed but was immediately vindicated. I queued to register next to a couple of old friends. Within minutes I’d found new ones.  And that was always going to happen.

Why? It’s because these — writers — are my tribe. Of course those two-hundred-odd can’t all be my very best buddies. Among them there will be those with whom I have profound differences over everything from politics and religion to whether to go out for a Chinese or an Indian or whether it’s okay to have characters in your novel swearing as much on the page as the might in real life.

In the end I did more than survive the weekend. I thrived on it. I discovered that, after just a moment or two of conversation, writers reach common ground. They get each other. I might share the same things with my non-writerly friends but somehow they don’t quite grasp what I mean when I talk about writer’s block; nor do they understand the irrational, gut-wrenching intensity of killing someone. (Not in real life, of course. Not in real life.)

Any group will be the same. I’ve heard complete strangers suddenly spring to life when one of them mentions cutting fabric across the grain; I’ve been at a very serious meeting when two people suddenly discovered the supported the same football team and suddenly found themselves locked into a heated debate about who “we” should have as the new manager.

Your tribe is the group of people who get you. You may disagree, fundamentally on a lot of things. But they understand you. Two hundred and twenty people who understand you, all in one room together, is a terrifying prospect. But if you can face it, the rewards are unbeatable.  

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Are You Ready For Chapter Two?

Chapter One was easy. Not so Chapter Two...
Well, hello Chapter Two. I’ve never met a beast like you before. Normally chapters are simple and planned, with two or three characters and a defining incident, ideally following on and explaining the inciting incident of chapter one. I understand them. I’m good at them (sort of). At the very least, I’m not afraid of them.

Not you. You’re a problem for me. I don’t hate you, but you puzzle and confuse me. And you are playing on me the kind of dirty tricks that no plot — let alone a chapter — should ever be allowed to play upon ann innocent author.

For a start, you have cursed me with a heroine who is in a confused state, suffering from hypothermia. She doesn’t know what’s going on. And as I am writing in the first person, you leave me with no opportunity to explain to my readers. She has fallen among strangers (who, thank God, are kind to her). But she has no idea who they are, what they’re doing or why they are doing it and, indeed, doesn’t either see or take in a whole lot of what’s going on. I know, but she doesn’t. And if she can’t tell the reader, then I can’t. Her brain is a crazed mess of feelings and images, suddenly-sharp, unconnected snapshots against a blurred and incomprehensible background. It’s a mess. To read, and to write.

Thanks a lot, Chapter Two.

That’s only the first of your dastardly tricks. There are a lot of strangers — six, in fact, every one of them a new character. She can’t even tell these people apart herself, in the half-light of a power outage and her own confused state. They throw their names at her and she fails to field a single one. So how will my readers know which one is which?

I might be able to handle that. Just. But no. To make matters worse, your co-conspirator, Chapter One, warned me off adding any backstory on his turf. Chapter One is all about action. My mate will deal with the backstory, he said, and set up the perfect opportunity. When our heroine falls among these kindly strangers, they want to know who she is, how she came to be there. You have put the poor girl in a frankly crazy position and she has to explain to these strangers how she came to be there and where she ought to be. (Oh, and some of the things which we’ve already seen happen to her in Chapter One). Further: she may not care, right at that moment, who they are but my readers do.

You’re a challenge to me, but not one I’ll back away from. I’m up for the fight. 

In the red corner, the author. In the blue corner, Chapter Two.

Seconds out…ding-ding!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

An Author in Search of a Plot...

I've been looking back through my photos and it reminded me that it was two years ago that I was in Iceland. This isn’t to brag about my extensive travelling, since virtually everybody I know also seems to have been to the land of ice and fire at some stage, and they all seem equally bowled over by the experience. But this two-year anniversary did get me thinking. 

Normally I’m strongly influenced by location. I know that when I go somewhere I’m going to come back with An Idea — or rather A Plot. There’s always something about the sun or the wine or the mountains that gets the creative juices flowing. Hence my two novels set in beautiful Majorca, not to mention the Lake Garda trilogy. And Looking For Charlotte trades heavily on its setting.

Yet Iceland defeated me. I never had an idea when I was there, though I was constantly haunted by the nagging feeling that I ought to. There were the colours, for a start — the basic black of newly-minted rock; the extraordinary green of mosses that have taken a thousand years to turn that rock into a primitive soil; the blue of an almost-Arctic midsummer sky; the foaming white of a dozen waterfalls. 

Then there were the patterns. The waterfalls that drop vertically over cliffs of banded black and grey ash. The shadows of the canyons carved back into the cliffs. The almost-perfectly-parallel inland cliffs which mark the trench where two continents are being forced apart. The braided channels of glacial rivers on a stony plain. The smoking hillsides as hot water rises to the cold surface and the occasional (every five years or so, on average) firework display as nature comes violently to life. 

And the people. The Icelanders are quirky, different, unafraid of what anyone might think of them. They have an offbeat sense of humour. Most of them believe in fairies (or elves) and will tell you so with a shrug, not caring what you think of them. They are closely tied into their land of sagas and film sets (think Game of Thrones).

There’s no excuse for not having a plot. Everyone else seems to. There’s a thriving Icelandic subgenera of Nordic noir, and the country’s dark and unforgiving interior reputedly inspired Tolkien to create the land of Mordor. But for some reason I can’t seem to find the heart of what I want to write about it. Is it a bleak story of pursuit and destruction? Is it a modern fairy tale of the secret folk who I almost believed in while I was there? Is it a cautionary tale of a writer in search of an elusive plot?

I’ve no idea. I know the story’s there. I’ll just have to go back there to find it…

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Parallel Lives: Branching Out Into Indie

This is what a learning curve really looks like
There’s too much going on. That’s always my problem. I’m too prolific. (I like that word — it makes me sound important, vital, somehow successful. No?) I write too much.

I’ve always done that. I’ve always had at least half a dozen stories in my head and several on the go at the same time. I’ve twittered on about this before on this blog, muttered on about the struggle of different books and how to promote them. But this is the official announcement of my leap into a parallel life. I’ll keep submitting books to my publisher (and hopefully they’ll keep accepting them) but I’m going to self-publish my next book.

I’m apprehensive, and not just because the indie author’s to do list reads like one of the more fiendish tasks from The Apprentice, though at least it comes with the saving grace that I won’t get called into the boardroom at the end of it to explain my abject failure to Lord Sugar. 

There are things on it I can do with relative ease (write the book is the obvious one) or slightly less ease (produce the blurb). There are things anybody can do but are extremely tedious (produce and contact a list of potential reviewers). There are things I’ve deemed to be beyond me and have contracted out to people I can trust to do them rather better than I can (editing and cover design). And there are the things I might contract out if I could afford them but which, in the interests of parsimony, I’ve decided to do for myself.

These things don’t give me nightmares. They are things that fall within my technical capabilities, but only at a stretch. Specifically, they are computer-related. Yes: formatting. Putting a book up on Amazon is not, in actual fact, that difficult. But there are other platforms. And uploading to Amazon doesn’t give you a file you can distribute to reviewers; nor does it give you a PDF file or an ePub version. If you want to reach readers beyond Amazon, you have to go beyond Amazon yourself.

Less necessary, and rather more daunting is the shift into movie production (please allow for exaggeration). I’ve decided to make a book trailer. I daresay you’ll hear more about this in posts to come, but suffice it to say…I’ve got a few more grey hairs after a couple of afternoons wrestling with iMovie. And I’ve produced a sort of something — twenty seconds of random pictures, a rambling voiceover above a clip of crowd noise. No script, of course. But hey…I can worry about that later.

There’s one thing about this self-publishing lark. I’m certainly learning new skills!

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Life Lessons From a Walk in the Countryside

Ten thousand saw I at a glance...
TI like a good walk; and I like a walk with substance — a purpose, if you like. So where better to go on a spring afternoon in April than the English Lake District? What better objective, on a day when every garden is bursting out in patches of daffodils brighter than spilt tins of sunshine yellow paint, than the place where William Wordsworth first saw the sight that inspired him to write his most famous poem?

That place is on the shores of Ullswater, easily accessible, so the guidebook tells us, from the road. A couple of miles up a valley, with spectacular views. What could be closer to perfection on a bright and breezy day? So that was what we did. And this is what I learned.

Writers Are Not Always Strictly Accurate

We knew that anyway. Didn’t we? Or did we really expect to see ten thousand daffodils tossing their heads in sprightly dance? Come to that, did we really expect to see a lonely cloud when anyone who’s ever set foot in the lakes knows that these are the feats of nature that appear ten thousand at a time?

Every Word Counts

Yes, every word. Every and and every but. One in particular counted on this particular day. ‘Keep walking with the wall on your left and you will eventually reach a gate.’ Guess which. 

Oh, and what you don’t say counts as well. There was one word missing from the description of the walk. That was the word muddy.

Read the Small Print

I freely admit that it was my fault that the so-called daffodil walk never produced more than a handful of daffodils in a farm garden. As twist in the wall after twist in the wall failed to make good the floral display, I stopped to read the directions in more detail. And discovered that it promised nothing more than ‘a view down to Ullswater where the poet was walking when he saw the famous daffodils’.


There’s Always a Silver Lining

It was a long upwards struggle on a day warmer than expected. But when we reached the top of our daffodil-light trek and turned to look down the valley, the many clouds showed their silver linings. The view back down towards Ullswater more than made up for a few flowers.

As it happens we did see the daffodils, on the drive back along the lake shore. They looked a bit sheepish, a few clumps of wild ones hiding among the trees and rather more than a few domestic ones (larger and brasher) marching along the grass verge on the other side of the road. Still not ten thousand; at least not at a glance.

It was a stupendous walk, though. And so to the last and the biggest life lesson to be plucked from our foray into Wordsworth country. Reader, he may have lied about the daffodils. And it really doesn’t matter.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Too Many Balls in the Air...

Different genres require different approaches...
Can you really work on two projects at a time?

Some may say I have a butterfly mind, an inability to concentrate on a single thing for too long. Or, in a mangled piece of management-speak, you might accuse me of not being a completer-finisher. I prefer to think of myself as a multi-tasker, someone who can cheerfully talk you through the chances of seeing (or not seeing) the aurora borealis while choosing a dinner menu and, as a bonus, taking note of your somewhat confused expression so that I can sneak you into my next book as a puzzled bystander.

Just now, I’m finding myself pulled both ways. Creativity is a terrible thing when it’s stifled (just think of writers’ block, if you dare) and a magnificent thing when it’s working well. Once you start you can’t stop. Barbara Cartland wrote 723 novels, 23 of them in a single year (that’s a world record, by the way) AND they were mostly historical so required at least a pretence at research. I know several authors who can turn out a book every couple of months — how those who take ten years to produce a first draft must envy them!

I fall somewhere in the middle. If I’m concentrating, I can produce three, possibly four, full length novels in a year. But the process is not a simple one. It isn’t a case of write, edit, publish, promote. From beginning to end the process might take a year (going via a publisher) and probably somewhat less (if I bite the bullet and self-publish some of the log jam that’s backing up). So, inevitably, I’m going to be working on more than one at once.

...are they clashing or complementary?
And then there’s the promotion. That’s the ball that always stays in the air, each novel, as a fellow novelist warned, another mouth to feed. When you finish one book and move on to the next you have to keep promoting the first. Now I have five active (so to speak) and have just finished the sixth. 

Number six is a different genre from the first five. It’s romance, sure enough, but it’s more heavily inclined to suspense and if the story continues into books two and three and more, it’ll end up as crime. That’s my headache. 

I can manage multiple plots and I can (just about) remember the names of my characters, which one’s the blonde and which the brunette. But I have to assume that some of my readers are more interested in romance than crime. Some, of course, might hate the romance and prefer the slightly grittier conflict of romantic suspense. Without creating a totally separate brand for myself as a writer, how can I satisfy them all?

Do I do a couple of weeks of promotion based on a sun drenched Mediterranean theme and then ditch it for a tranche of graphics of burning buildings? Or do I run them concurrently and confuse everyone as much as I’ve confused myself.
It’s an unanswered question right now; and I suspect the only way to find out is trial and error.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

A Writer's Addiction: Writing Prompts

The morning after the night before?
I have a confession. Though I don’t think I have an addictive personality there are some things in life I can’t resist; and almost all of them are writing-related. Stationery is the main one, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. What qualifies you better to be a writer than the desire to spend an amount equivalent to the national debt of a small country on notebooks too beautiful ever to write in?

This isn’t my biggest weakness, though fortunately the real one comes without a price tag attached. I’m an absolute sucker for writing prompts. I’ve bought a couple of books but mainly I find them on the internet. I’m friends with people who post them (and who, I bet, wonder of anyone ever uses them). I follow sites and accounts. I scan my Twitter feed for them.

The irony is that, like the notebooks, I don’t need them. If there’s one thing I’m not short of, it’s inspiration. I have a list of story ideas (and novel ideas) that could keep me busy for years to come if I followed them up. I have so many works in progress that I can’t keep up. But I can always find something.

Discipline’s another thing, of course; procrastination is my biggest vice. (Another tell-tale sign of a writer.) But I don’t need a writing prompt so much as a boot up the backside.

So why the fascination? It’s because every writing class I’ve been to has involved an exercise, or a piece of homework, based upon a writing prompt. It can be something as simple as an instruction: just write. Anything. Go! It can be an opening sentence. It can be an idea, a word, concept that serves as a starting point. I have had several short stories published as a result of these prompts.  

These days they’re more visual. I got into the habit of carrying a camera with me and photographing things that might trigger an idea. Then, after an unfortunate allocation with a rather rude man who would allow me to include him in my picture only on certain conditions, I stopped because I didn’t need the hassle. 

But I’ve started again (avoiding people, sadly). Today I saw the perfect writing prompt on the greyest of days. I challenge you. Write about this picture — without using the word Cinderella.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

Characters who won't let go

I’m one of those people who can’t let their characters go. They stay with me. I tie them up with their Happy Ever After (HEA) or their Happy For Now (HFN) and I still find myself lying awake wondering what’s happened to them. Where do they go from here? Will it last? Will her family ever get used to the idea? How will he cope with giving up everything for love? All that jazz. 

I’m the same with other people’s books. A good friend of mine, Jane Riddell, has a book out there that preys on my mind from time to time. Daughters of the Lake is about a family gathering in Switzerland — three sisters and a brother, called together by their mother. Inevitably, there are tensions.

It’s not the most original plot, if I’m honest. (Sound effect: thrown stone smashing through my glass house.) But it wasn’t the plot that made the book so compelling: it was the characters. Annie, struggling through the break-up of her same-sex relationship. Portia, plagued by the mother’s curse of living through a teenager’s trials. Anxious Vienne, struggling with her marriage and her insecurities. Laurence, the only son, haunted by the miseries of boarding school. And the matriarch, Madalena, calling them all together to hear some news.

It’s hard to handle so many stories at once. At one level the book falls short because it doesn’t tell them all. I thought that we could have lost Laurence, a fantastically drawn character who somehow seemed to have wandered into someone else’s story (the clue’s in the title) when he really deserved a book all to himself. At another, it succeeds stupendously well, because I was left wanting to know what happened to all of the main characters.

Normally this would drive me spare, because authors are like gods: they dispose of their characters as they choose and they don’t have to tell you why or what happens. But I have a hotline to this particular god and so I asked Jane. What happened next?

I recommend you read Daughters of the Lake for yourself. But I’ll give you Jane’s reply. There are no spoilers, so have a read.

Daughters of the Lake is set in Brunnen, Switzerland
Picture by Jane Riddell
“Dear Characters

Recently, after a friend asked me what happened to you after Daughters of the Lake, I started thinking about my special relationship with all of you. You are my creation and no one can destroy you. I hope you don’t mind, but I have thought a bit about what your future might hold.  I’m sure you’ll let me know if you disagree with my predictions.  

Portia, you settle well in Switzerland; you enjoy your new job as a human rights lawyer in Zurich.  And having realised that the best place for Lucy is with you, you are glad she is now going to a local school.  You ski together and go riding. Of course being a teenager, she has her ups and downs.  But at least she now tells you what she’s feeling.    

Vienne, your marriage to Michael picks up, but there is always a background niggle in your mind about whether or not he was unfaithful. Your music career continues to flourish. Now, however, Michael accompanies you whenever he can, and when you sit down at the concert piano to play, you think of him.   

To your great pleasure, Annie, your relationship grows. After two years, you marry and are happy.  Sometimes you think back to your time with Fern, and wonder at having been happy with her,  especially when the physical side of your marriage is so strong. However, you don’t analyse the situation much: there’s more than enough to do with running the hotel.

As for you, Lawrence, when you return to Skye you contact Rebecca to see if she really is going to marry someone else, and try hard to win her back. When this doesn’t happen, eventually you feel relieved. Six months later, you move to Paris. There you spend several years womanising, before you meet someone who is strong enough for you.      

A year after Daughters of the Lake takes place, Madalena, you and Karl marry, and both your families attend. You continue to worry intermittently about all of your children, as a mother does, but Karl’s quiet and wise personality suits you and helps allay your anxieties. You get on well with his son and visit him in Heidelberg regularly. You keep busy in Brunnen with your pottery and drama classes. Karl  cuts down his working week so that you have plenty of time to be together. You go for long walks, and he takes you sailing during the warmer months.   

So that’s it for now, dear friends. I’m sure we’ll stay in touch.”

You can buy Daughters of the Lake on Amazon

Friday, 12 February 2016

A book should be more than the sum of its parts

Some like it...some don't!
You learn all the time, from criticism as well as praise. That’s why I like getting reviews. Even the critical ones. Of course I’d prefer to have nothing but five star reviews but that ain’t gonna happen. No book suits everyone and the odd poor review, as long as it isn't personal/vindictive, keeps you honest.

This week I got a three star review on Amazon for No Time Like Now. In many ways it was a lovely one. It was full of praise. “As far as the technical side of the writing is concerned, I couldn't fault this book; it's grammatically sound, no proofreading or copy-editing errors, it flows well and I didn't find any plot inconsistencies; it's very well put together,” said the reviewer.

The review went on: “I don't mean this to be a bad review, as the book is extremely competent, contains much to commend it and I am sure others will enjoy it more than I did”. So what was wrong with it? For this reader it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi that makes a page turner. “Sadly, I couldn't see the chemistry…for me, it was a little bland”.

Is that fair comment? Of course it is. Writing well isn’t about competence but about touching the hearts of your readers. I can console myself by turning to one of my favourite reviews of the same book. “I downloaded this book by accident. But what an amazing stroke of luck. The story had me gripped from the start,” says someone. (No, not my mum or my daughter or any of my friends.)

Swings and roundabouts, this game.

What that most recent review does is make me think a little more about the next book. Previously I’ve managed to make my stories work for some but not for others. My focus now has to be on what I can do as a writer to appeal to more. I don’t mean in terms of something obvious, such as changing genre (vampires are pretty popular at the moment, or so I’m told) but about improving the interaction between my characters.

As it happens I thought the relationship between the protagonists in No Time Like Now was one of the stronger ones in the books I’ve written; so much so that I’ve an idea of writing a follow up. Maybe I still will, because some people seemed to like it.

What my reviewer was saying, I suppose, is that a really good book has to be more than the sum of its parts. What makes it unputdownable isn’t the grammar or the structure but the story and the characters at its heart. No book, no matter how great, will appeal to everyone — and I say that as someone who’d rather read Georgette Heyer than Jane Austen. But if a writer can capture that extra bit of soul, the book becomes a page turner.

And for me, the quest for that elusive something goes on.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Losing the plot

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading a book a week for a year. I didn't expect it to be easy, but nor did I expect to stumble quite so quickly. And over a short book, too; a meagre 83 pages of a modern classic. 

I thought I would get through A Month in the Country in no time, because the blurb suggested it was going to be just my sort of book. And let’s be honest — there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s beautifully written, it has an evocative setting. I could rip through that in a couple of days.

How wrong can you be? This slender volume, with all its plaudits (‘tender and elegant,’) took me a good two weeks of effort to read. The reason? Nothing happened. 

I can outline the content of a book without a spoiler, because there’s nothing to spoil. In the aftermath of the First World War a traumatised ex-soldier goes to a Yorkshire village to uncover a medieval painting. He meets another ex-soldier, searching for a missing grave. He feels more at home with the Chapel folk than with those of the Church. He falls in love with the local vicar’s wife but never speaks of his feelings. We get a glimpse of the breakdown of his marriage. 

But nothing happens. There is no plot.

As a writer, I sometimes struggle with plot. I spend too long setting things up, creating atmosphere, introducing my character. I’m often told that my stories start slowly but are worth persevering with (I take that as a compliment). There are endless pieces of advice on offer to writers new and old, and many of them focus on pace. If a scene doesn’t take the plot forward, we’re told, then lose it. If a character has a point of view then they must have a story. The protagonist(s) must be in a different place at the end of the story (in character development terms) to where they were at the beginning. And so on and so on.

Maybe as a society we’re getting impatient, but A Month in the Country reinforced the view that something needs to happen. It isn’t enough to write beautiful prose because even readers like me, who don’t feel they need a dead body every chapter and who actually enjoy a few pages of beautifully-written description to vary the pace of a story, feel cheated if they get to the end of the book and nothing has happened.

In the end I think I enjoyed A Month in the Country. I think I’d even recommend it. But not without a health warning: here is a book in which nothing happens. Or maybe I’m missing something…

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

It's all about memes

You can buy this one from Tirgearr Publishing 
Oh dear. Oh, dear, dear. I’ve found a new way of procrastinating. And, best of all, I can pretend it’s marketing.

One of my my (many) recurrent New Year resolutions was to increase my marketing activity. Four books out, another on the way…every one, as a wise writer once remarked, is another mouth to feed. There’s only so much mileage in posting a link to the book on the publisher’s page, or Amazon, and you run the risk of being tagged as a spammer and slammed in Facebook jail for a couple of weeks. No posts in any groups. No online promotion. 

People tell me that changing your photo to something original improves its Facebook reach, and my own experience confirms that. So I decided to make my own memes and use them to promote my book. First find a package (after taking advice I’ve landed up with Canva, though there are others), and off you go. 

You can use the book cover, with a quote from it or (even better, if you can) a snippet from a five-star review. Or you can use a suitable picture to create a teaser for it., which is ideal for something that isn’t yet published. It works on other social media as well as FB. And believe me, you can spend hours doing it. 

Not yet available!
I’m no designer, but I’m enjoying creating my own images. Some of them are better than others but the whole process is fun. I’m going to have a standard layout for each book (cover on one side, quote or review or something on the other) and then, when I’m feeling creative, something a little different for a teaser. When the weather improves I’ll go out and take my own photographs, just to make it a little more personal.

The problem isn’t the time it’s going to take up for my published book. It isn’t even the temptation to use my new-found skills for non-marketing purposes. (Don’t worry, I’ll resist being witty on social media.) It’s that I’m having such fun that I’m starting to make promotional memes for books which aren’t published — aren’t even submitted. And I’ve just had a brilliant idea for one for a book which I haven’t even written.

Time for a dose of self-discipline. But maybe I’ll have just one more go on Canva first…

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Most Woeful Time of the Year...

Let’s be honest: it’s a pretty rotten day. The papers would have you believe that the third Monday in January is the worst day of the whole year. I expect that’ll be because it’s grim and grey and all your New Year resolutions will have failed by now and so you just head for the choccie biccies and any hope you ever had of becoming that new you is gone, gone, gone…

I might add to my woes the fact that the temperature is hovering around freezing and I’m stuck in the house waiting for someone to come and mend my central heating. I’m walking around with a hot water bottle tied round my waist and, when I sit down to work, another one nestling in my lap like an ominously silent cat. (The real cat, by the way, is in front of the fire in the only warm room in the house when she could most usefully be playing the part of one of the hot water bottles.)

None of this is of any use when it comes to work. Oh, I can type on a laptop sitting by the fire. Yes. I can do that for at least fifteen minutes before I have to get up and stretch for five minutes or so. Or I can sit up in my room, nestled into that den of hot water bottles, but I can only manage that for another fifteen minutes before I have to go and make yet another cup of tea in an attempt to get the circulation back into my fingers.

To get over the frustration I attempted a weird middle way. It wasn’t exactly work, but if I stretched out in front of the fire with something mindful I might at least get a plot problem sorted out (and I have plenty of those). So I went for something new-fangled and reached for a packet of felt pens and a colouring book.

Adult colouring’s on the way back in, and in a big way. Maybe fine felt-tips aren’t the best tool for the job, or maybe I need new glasses, because there’s quite a lot of white on the few bits I managed to colour before having to get up and jump about a bit. Hmm.

I think I may have solved the plot problem, though, through the simple revelation that it wasn’t a plot problem after all but a structural one. I may have made zero progress on the edits from my next book and I may not have done the research I promised myself I’d do, but at least Ive learned that adult colouring books can be the author’s friend on a cold day when you can’t work at your desk. Even if I’m rubbish at the colouring in.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Book Chat: Versatility in Genre

Frank Parker, I salute you. You’re an extraordinarily versatile writer.

I’ve just finished reading Frank’s Transgression, which I suppose is best described as a political thriller with a twist. It’s a story set in some fictional suburban English town, in the very modern era of politics with past misdeeds becoming uncovered by time and exposed through the media. Sound familiar?

There was much I liked about it. Very much. I liked the pacing of it, which may sound odd because it’s not a rip-roaring read. But the (only slightly) gentle pace did justice to a complicated story and also suited the character of the main protagonist — Roger Jones, a journalist in his sixties, with much in life to reflect on and the keeper of many secrets. 

It’s a complicated plot and Frank handles it with immense technical skill. The action zips around at different points from the 1940s to the present day. As a writer I avoid flashbacks wherever I can, because I’m simply incapable of dealing with them without confusing either myself or the reader. The plot of Transgression requires flashbacks to work — and I’m impressed.

If I had a problem with it, it was that there was perhaps a little too much back story. One character’s back story, interesting in itself, isn’t sufficiently crucial to the plot to justify as much focus as it gets and that’s the only point at which my attention wandered.

It’s the second of Frank’s books I’ve tackled. The first was Strongbow’s Wife, his historical novel set in twelfth-century Ireland and the Welsh Marches. There’s politics here, too, but much more brutal than the modern day (though you might argues that its victims don’t suffer any less). Aoife is the wife of Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (the Strongbow of the title) caught up in the power struggle that followed the Norman Conquest.

The pace is the same, too, and again I enjoyed being able to read a less-than-frenetic story, so that Frank’s thoughtful phrasing and descriptions aren’t lost. There’s plenty of action — but he succeeds in not sacrificing plot to pace or vice versa.

Of the two I’m bound to say I enjoyed Strongbow’s Wife the more, if only because the plot hung together rather more coherently. Some readers may not enjoy the politics of Transgression and  others may shy away from historical novels. But readers with wide-ranging tastes and an appreciation of subtle will surely enjoy either — or both.

Monday, 4 January 2016

A Book a Week for a Year

Okay, so I may be being overambitious with my New Year resolution, but I might as well be bold. In 2016 I’m going to read a book a week ... every week.

I’ve done it before, twice, but there were advantageous circumstances. I was on maternity leave for part of both years, and had a wonderful start from those few weeks when there was nothing to do but wait. The second one wasn’t so easy, of course (baby AND toddler, hmmm) but there were always those moments when one was napping and the other snoozing on my lap.

The second thing I did was set the rules to suit me. I allowed myself to read books I’d read before, which I think I would now consider cheating. I did, though, insist that at least half of the books had to be new to me — and some of the ones I’d read were books I hadn’t read for so long that I’d completely forgotten them. Maybe that’s a reason not to read them again, mind you. And I also insisted that at least 26 had to be fiction and at least 26 non-fiction. (Yes, I comfortably exceeded my targets on both occasions).

This year I’m going to try and keep it simple. Just one rule. At least fifty-two books, none of which I have previously read, by the end of 2016. I might try and read some more challenging books to go with the lighter ones, but that’s not in the rules. 

The good thing about this is that it’s a resolution that brings pleasure, not pain (gym, anyone?). It’ll make me more widely read. It’ll improve my intelligence. It’ll expose me (I hope) to genres I don’t usually read. And it’ll help me tackle that enormous to-be-read pile of all the books I’ve bought with good intentions and not yet got round to opening.

Taking advantage of the New Year bank holidays, I’m off to a flier. One book down already, a cosy crime novel from the 1930s. That’s a genre and period which is making a long-overdue comeback and one for which I have several books in the queue. And I’ll be reading books by my friends, too.

I ought, of course, to commit to reviewing every book to prove I’ve read them, but I don’t think I’m quite ready to do that, partly because I don’t review books I don’t like and that means if I don’t review a book for whatever reason — laziness, probably — then people might get the wrong idea about whether I enjoyed the book or not. But I will continue to discuss the on my blog.

It’s the kind of challenge I think I could really enjoy. Roll on book number two!