The thrill of readers & handwritten reviews

One of the pleasures of this odd book-writing habit is being contacted by readers who go to the trouble of seeking you out and telling you what they thought. They send comments and reviews, they share news, they ask how the sequel is coming on. It is really a delight to have a sense of real, live readers out there, going about their lives and genuinely enjoying what you have written. I write comedy, so I have the lovely thought that I might cheer them up and give them a little laugh here and there as well.

It’s a strange transition when your characters move from your imagination to someone else’s. People you haven’t met before can talk about one of your characters as if they knew them. The first few times it happens you think – how do you know? – and have to remind yourself, oh yes, I wrote it down, other people know about Sister B, or Alphonsus Dunn, or whoever it happened to be. It’s like someone else talking about your secret invisible friend.

Then there are the special category readers. I was ridiculously pleased when someone who had been a nun wrote to say that she had loved the book (it’s about a little convent trying to survive against the odds) and was going to send it to her friends the Carmelites, who would identify with the characters’ struggles. And there is another lovely reader who knows Peru and another who buys ten copies at a time and sends them all over the world.

Writers complain sometimes about how isolating writing can be. I have a sociable day job and solitude for writing is a luxury, so that doesn’t worry me, but it’s a tremendous bonus to have the sense of a patient and receptive audience gently waiting.


I’m including below a couple of hand-written reviews that were sent by readers who don’t usually write them, and aren’t users of Amazon or Goodreads, but who wanted me to know what they thought. I’m very grateful to them for taking the trouble. (I edited a bit. They’re long and thoughtful, but I didn’t change the gist.)

…To me, yes, unputdownable. The epistolary form, reminiscent of Jean Webster’s ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ of my schooldays, led me on, and temptingly on, to read one more letter, or chapter, and one more…
I congratulate Fran Smith on this, on its originality and delightfulness as we meet Sister Boniface and touch finger-tips with the much-travelled and adventurous Emelda. When I came, speedily but reluctantly, to the last page, I felt that the tale couldn’t end there. Hurry up, Fran, with Volume Two. Don’t disappoint the millions* of us out here.
And Jennie Rawlings – I just loved the cover.

I loved it – delightfully light touch. Elegant prose. Brought a smile. Beautifully wrought characters.

…liked how it was written – quaint, naive, commonsense; dealt with realistic current situations; well put together. Congratulations on the cover, it just catches the spirit.

* (I love the dear reader’s optimism here!)

Granny writes WHOPPING plots

Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.

I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.

George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.

My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.

Wish me luck!

PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.

*NB For the purposes of this blog you are a Granny. Everyone is. We practice extreme inclusivity. If you don’t like the title, you can be a Refusenik (RK for short), and you are welcome too.IMG_0949.JPG

It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…

Flash Fiction: Pollinators*


The discharge payment and the compensation meant she could afford to buy a place, a tiny city apartment or a small suburban house. She made herself visit a few, standing in empty rooms, trying to look interested as sharply-dressed salespeople enthused over the view or the closet space. So many dead; it was hard to care. ‘Depression,’ said her sister-in-law, ‘post-traumatic stress’, as if a label from somewhere on the internet could somehow contain the whole thing.

Then one day driving the hills she saw a For Sale sign and for no good reason turned off and investigated. A small house, needing a few repairs, in a big empty garden.They told her it was an acre.

When, a few weeks later, the truck drove away and left her alone with her few bits of furniture, she sat in the garden as the light faded and listened. Country silence; here and there an owl or the rustle of a tiny creature in the grass, the creak of a tree in the surrounding woodland, but in between something she gradually realised was the gentle, neutral silence of peace. Six months out of a war zone, it felt like a miracle. She still woke at night hearing shouts and missiles, but less often as time went by.

City-raised, she knew nothing at all about gardening, but her instinct was to let the land alone. Mostly it was just grass, bumpy for lack of mowing, but over on one side was an apple tree, the grass around it dotted with fallen fruit. The apples were large and pale, almost square. When she cooked them, they turned instantly to a delicate mush. The tree had a gash, a fallen branch had left a jagged split in the bark of the trunk. This began to worry her. Should she intervene? Cut it away? Paint it with something?

In the window of the hardware store where she bought her paint she saw a poster for an Apple Day. Bring your apples for identification. It was at a specialist tree nursery, Runcie’s. Who knew there were specialist tree nurseries? So she went, with her pockets full of the pale apples. There in a marquee filled with their sweet scent, she found old Benjamin Runcie standing behind a table covered in neat rows of apples, each different, each labelled. Mr Runcie liked apples a lot more than he liked people. The Apple Day was not his idea, but he had to admit it brought the customers in. They came from all over. He took her apple and adjusting his glasses, inspected it, turning it over in his hand. ‘Lord Lambourne,’ he said, eventually. ‘Good for sauce. Won’t store, though.’
‘The tree’s split. A branch came off. What should I do?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her, he was still examining the apple, taking his time.
‘They can look after themselves. Just tidy it up. They fruit best if there’s another apple nearby. If you have the space, that is.’
‘I have space, but how can I choose which variety?’ There were hundreds spread out there in front of them.
‘A Melrose or a Jewett Red. It doesn’t much matter, it’s for pollination.’ He looked at her for the first time. ‘We can deliver, if you want to order. Are you from round here?’
‘Kelsey,’ she said, ‘over beyond the river. I just bought a place over there.’
He focused on her properly now. This was home territory. ‘That wouldn’t be the old Hovey place, north of town?’
‘How’d you know?’
‘Not many places sold round here lately. I heard it was a veteran bought that place. Military man, invalided out.’
‘Well, that was half right. I just left the service myself.’
He looked at her steadily, then handed back her apple. ‘I believe we have a lot to thank you for,’ he said.
He came round the table, leaving a line of people to wonder who would identify their apples, and gestured to her, leading her from the tent out into the long lines of saplings of all sizes. He picked two pollinators, and handed them to her in their pots. ‘A housewarming,’ he said. ‘Just be sure to give them some water at first. They’ll be OK.’

They were skinny little things with just a few leaves. She planted them, by digging holes and stamping them in, apologising to them silently for not knowing any better. They grew anyway.

That was the beginning of the orchard. Whenever she passed Runcie’s she stopped in and bought another tree. By the time the nephew came, she already had fourteen of them, and more apples than she knew what do with.

The nephew was a bit of a revelation. He’d been a podgy baby and a whiney six-year-old. She wasn’t bad about birthday cards and so on, but they didn’t know each other. At seventeen the boy was tall and skinny. He arrived carrying a huge rucksack which mostly contained books: cookery books, on inspection.
‘Cookery books?’
‘I love to cook,’ he said, shrugging. ‘They want me to be a lawyer.’ They sat side by side outside her back door, drinking coffee. ‘I have a really good applecake recipe,’ he said.
‘Did you run away?’ she asked him. ‘Tell me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just a time out. They know where I am.’
‘And they agreed?’
‘They didn’t try to stop me, put it that way. Besides, they wanted a report on you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said.
‘They worry, I guess.’ He looked out in the darkness. ‘I thought, with all the apples and everything, you might need some help. I can cook with the apples. We might even sell some stuff. We could just try it for a few weeks. What do you say?’
She said yes.
* big debate in GWB household: pollinators or pollenators – Cambridge academic says ‘en’ – retro-educated hack writer says ‘in’ – take your pick!

This was written as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges: use the names of three apple varieties in a story of less than 1000 words.

Content marketing for Grannies (don’t worry this won’t hurt a bit).

Good morning from the shed. I recommend a shed.

Dear GWB-ers,
Many writers of all ages are aghast at the idea that not only do we have write a book, we also have to use social media to promote and sell it. Just when we thought we could sit down with a nice cup of tea, a biscuit, and possibly even the tiniest bit of self-congratulation, there turns out to be a whole new world to be conquered. And it’s a new world full of jargon, conventions and more tricky etiquette than the court of Louis XIV.

But I bring comfort. I have looked into this a little, and although you won’t hear many people say this, content marketing – it seems this is the term for using social media to promote your book/play/range of fetching teatowels – is a doddle, once you get the hang of it. (I’m not saying I have got the hang of it yet, but I’m doing what I recommend to all, I’m having a go.)

There is a natural progress that anyone born around the middle of the last century has to go through in order to see what I mean. It goes:
1 Ridicule and wry scepticism: What on earth do people want to do a thing like that for? Who cares what sort of coffee you like, or whether you are visiting an Inca monument or stuck on the 7.12 between Holburn and King’s Cross?
2 Grudging curiosity: You get a following of 50,000 people when all you seem to do is tweet pictures of your kittens, or your legs looking a bit like hot dogs? Why?
3 Outright cynicism: there will always be idiots in this world with nothing better to do than re-tweet pictures of people whose underwear misbehaves at a crucial moment; I am not one of them!
5 Defeatism: even if I fancied having a go, it’s all too techie and I could never get the hang of it.
6 Blundering into the deep end of technology: I have just spend three hours reading about search engine optimisation; I still don’t know what any of it means, but I’m pretty sure it means I’m not up to any of this.
7 Secretive experimentation: actually, I did tweet a picture of my newly-invented marrow and salmon lasagne last night, but my followers are mostly in Richmond, Ohio or New Delhi, so if I did it wrong, they’re not very likely to accost me in the queue in the Post Office.
8 Overt adoption blending into bossy evangelism: Oh come on, Celia, anyone can tweet their blog posts!

I’m closer to 8 now, thanks to a real, live, Californian e-marketing expert called Michael Newman. His blog is here, if you want a look. What Michael explained, in the consultation I shared with other authors, was this: if you can write, you are head and shoulders above the other poor saps who are trying to market their stuff on the internet. If you can write, you can put together a blog post, a tweet or a Facebook post, whichever you fancy, and it will have a decent chance of sounding right and attracting the right readers. If you can’t write for toffee, you’re going to find this lots harder.

His other tip was this: do what you feel like doing on the social media scene. Maybe you like Facebook, or hate Instagram or fancy a go at blogging. Try them all, but stick to what feels best for you and set to work properly on that. Experiment; take your time. You should aim to create an online presence (a platform, in the jargon) which truly represents you, your book and your take on things. It should do this so well that you like it, you are at home with it, it’s fun to add to it and you like the views of the people who share it. The best social media posts reflect one person’s view. They may be aiming to sell you something, but they’re entertaining or informing you at the same time, which feels like a fair deal.

“If it feels like selling, you’re not doing it right!” (Nick Cook, author of Cloud Riders, who has a big Twitter following)

Social media, I think, is difficult for generations who were brought up on the “Sunday best” philosophy. You had china and clothes and shoes that were only for best and when company was coming round, you were on your best behaviour. Quirkiness was not really encouraged. In social media it is. Forget your best behaviour; keep up your standards (check your spelling, keep an eye on that grammar, choose photos that look good), but it doesn’t have to be slick or over-professional, it just has to be interesting and in some way genuine. It shouldn’t feel like being inspected in your Sunday best; it should feel like playing with your friends.

Keep on writing!


Next time: How to get help (free help, obviously).


Flash Fiction Entry

I admire the blog called Terrible Minds by Chuck Wendig. His advice for writers is pithy, brilliant and rude (really rude – watch out if you don’t like a swearword). This is my entry for one of his flash fiction competitions, written when I should have been doing other things…The challenge was to include one of the following randomly generated sentences: “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.” “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” and “The criminal disappears after the inventor.” Extra points for using all three.

Summarize this passage in English.

She’s tried everything. Everything. Bribery is no good – all she can offer is an early end to the class, something forbidden by the course director stalking the corridors in silenced footwear. Threats make no impact – they just groan, or don’t understand, or care. Actually taking the damned things out of their hands, which she has resorted to once or twice, results in such a massive collective strop that any sort of co-operation is snuffed out, leaving a roomful of gorgon-glaring teenagers frozen in only-just-contained fury. In revenge they tick the frowny face on the end-of-course feedback form; very bad news to a teacher hoping to keep her job.

The day they market the mobile phone that can be embedded into the body is the day these young people present themselves at the implant clinic. Until then their beloved iPhones must always, always be within reach. Suck it up, Teach (or its equivalent in Mandarin).

It wouldn’t be so bad if the translation software were anything like decent. It’s not. It’s crap. But it’s still a million times easier, in your English lesson, if you’re Chinese and a teenager and you have spent sixteen of the previous 24 hours playing World of Warfare, or whatever, to pick it up, punch in the first Chinese word that comes into your head and write down whatever garbled rubbish the translator offers you.

Factor in misreadings and typing mistakes and you end up with a sentence on climate change in Scotland rendered as “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”

They are not just wrong, they are extreme wrong, don’t-know-where-to-start wrong, why-do-we-even-bother wrong, but sometimes, she had to admit, they are oddly haunting: “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” Now and then they even sound like the beginning of a short story,“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”

The teacher sighs and looks out of the window. The instructress respires and defenestrates.

Ancient Mariner Syndrome, or Pssssst! Wanna see my new book??

So when the book’s finally published and out there and complete strangers are buying it with proper money and reading it and some of them are even writing reviews saying they like it (bless their hearts!), what do you do then?

You write the next one, obviously, but you also have to publicise the dear first book a bit.

You go on the local radio and the local newspaper prints a photo that makes your dog look rather good, but you look very,very bad. You are smiling in a weird way and holding the book at the wrong angle completely. (Note to self: practise holding book at correct photographic angle and smiling so that you look less...challenged.)

Friends and family all very enthusiastic and kind. Family insanely enthusiastic to the point of starring in and directing/editing film trailer. The senior nun is my Mum – we couldn’t get her out of the costume – she loved it.

Then you start thinking you might mention it to people; at work, say.

But how do you do this without developing Ancient Mariner Syndrome? (Is is an Ancient Mariner/And (s)he stoppeth one of three)

All advice gratefully received.

Fran Smith’s Seven Steps to Writing (or not writing)

A handy excuse ready-reckoner. Delete as appropriate.

Writing this blog is, of course, a really good example of step 3.

1          Denial

Who needs more books/blogs/theses/essays/articles/reports anyway? There are way too many bits of writing out there in the world. Why add to them? Save trees; save time; save everyone the trouble of reading it – don’t bother to write it at all! Writing is a horrible slog and my ideas would be better expressed through another medium; opera, perhaps, or fireating.

2          Blame

I could have finished this ten times over if only I hadn’t had children/a partner/a house/a job/a bank account that empties faster than my sink/ difficult parents/ demanding friends/ a drink/ fashion/ interior design/ stationery/ hair-colouring habit to support/ the wrong role models/ my confidence drained away by work/ school/ college/ siblings’/ colleagues’/ success/ failure/ an extended family that loves/ hates/ is indifferent to me/ an unprecedented level of sensitivity making me uniquely vulnerable.

3          Evasion

The fridge needs defrosting. There is marking/ cooking/ proper, serious reading to be done. Friends need to be met. My hair needs cutting. There is a spider in the bath. I have to do some exercise before I turn into a human waterbomb. There is an update thingy on my computer that says it is urgent. The dog looks hungry. That really interesting video on YouTube might give me a writing idea. Children/ grandchildren/ partner need my special attention; they will evaporate immediately if they don’t get it right now. Psychologists agree that it’s more or less a straight progression from parental/ grandparental/ spousal neglect-through-writing to children/ grandchildren/ spouse taking heroin in the gutter. I’ll just do those few things first.


4          Despair

This is a completely hopeless enterprise. Nobody cares. It will be rubbish when it’s finished anyway. Rubbish I have burst blood vessels to perfect, but rubbish all the same. Nobody will read/ publish/ enjoy/ appreciate/ understand it. Many, many writers (proper writers) have said it all before, and infinitely better. We’re all doomed. Why waste your life piling up words? It all comes to nothing in the end.

5          Bogus planning and unnecessary research

What this piece of writing needs is a really thorough plan. It should be a spreadsheet in different colours with hyperlink cross-referencing/ a bullet point list/ a mindmap with symbols/ post-it notes/ a wallchart/ those worksheets they had in that newspaper supplement/ book I lent someone/ a wonderful, innovative combination of all the above. It should be made in one particular kind of beautiful notebook/ software – only that one particular kind is any good, the rest are absolute rubbish. Once the plan is made, it is essential to google/ go to the library and look up/ ask that person I met at that party/ every single detail I may need to mention. This may take me the rest of my life, but at least I will have the best-researched unwritten piece of writing in the history of the universe.

6          Gritty (and aggressively overstated) determination

I am going to finish this if it takes me the rest of my life. I am going to finish it, if nobody ever reads/ publishes/ buys it and instead the entire population despises/ ignores/ vilifies it. I don’t care. If my family/ friends are taken ill, I will write it by their bedside. If I am taken ill, I will write it until my hands become useless and then I will dictate it until my last breath. It just has to be finished. I will get up at 5.30am/ give up chocolate/ exercise/ TV/ reading/ Sunday breakfast/ earning a reasonable living – whatever it takes, but I will, will, will get it finished. OK?

7          Submission

Right. Better get on with it, then.

How about a couple of sequels?

One of the jobs we used to try to avoid, when I worked on a local newspaper, was covering the Afternoon Women’s Guild. They were nice ladies, their cakes were great, but reporting their gentle, well-run meetings wasn’t the kind of journalism most of us keen young reporters had signed up for. We wanted excitement, crime, revelatory investigations, not cakes (even really nice cakes). There wasn’t, to be honest, all that much excitement, crime etc. to be had most Wednesday afternoons in Chalfont St Giles, so one week I went along. That’s how I first saw a real live novelist.

The speaker, I’ll call her Celia, was a writer of romances, and her set piece was the tale of how she came to write her first novel. She did it purely for the money – nothing very unusual there – but what was unusual was that she needed it to get to The Metropolitan Opera in New York, with her sister, to see Gigli, the opera singer they both worshipped. To two pennyless girls in the 1930s it seemed an impossible dream.

But they were determined; they made a plan. They saved every penny and Celia set about writing a novel. She began in high spirits, but soon found it was far more of a labour than she had imagined. Only the hopes of her sister and their passion for the handsome tenor kept her slogging away. Finally it was complete. Exhausted but hopeful, she presented it to a publisher. Yes, he said, he would publish it. Where was the sequel?

Celia nearly fell over at the idea that she was expected to do the whole thing all over again!

Fast forward a few decades and I suddenly know how she felt. I wrote the novel. It took five years. I breathed a sigh of relief. I found an agent – hurrah! At the first meeting the agent said, “Two more, please. I think it should be a trilogy.”

Two more! At the current rate of production that could be 10 years’ work! “Nah!” Say Supporters (a very opinionated crowd) “You’ve got the hang of it now, you can knock out a couple more in no time. Sleep is for wimps and you’ve never done any housework anyway!”(Part of which is true.)

Of course the lady novelist I saw all those years ago did write her sequel, and many more. Her first novel brought in just enough to get the sisters to New York – by ship, it was before easy air travel – and to buy  tickets to see their hero sing. Without funds for outfits, they made their opera gowns from old curtains, and of course it was the night of their lives.

So all I need is a plan, I guess.

Wish me luck.