New Book Alert!

I’m very happy to announce that Poison at Pemberton Hall, book 1 in the Vita Carew series, is published as an ebook on Amazon tomorrow (paperback coming soon). Here’s the blurb:

December 1903. A glittering musical evening ends in catastrophe. Is the famous chef’s seafood really to blame or are the tangled secrets of Pemberton Hall about to unravel?

To Vita a grand gala occasion is nothing but a dull distraction from her studies. But when disaster strikes, she helps the stricken victims. She soon discovers a desperate governess, a scheming footman and an operatic diva with big ambitions all had good reason to disrupt the glamorous country house dinner. But who did, and why? And can she stop the poisoner before he or she strikes again?

I had fun with this one! It is my therapeutic escape from the pressures of 2020 – I hope it will distract you too.

Poison at Pemberton Hall is a prequel to A Thin Sharp Blade, which was published in April. The challenge was to introduce the characters and explain how Aunt Louisa came to have such a very distinguished chef working for her in her modest house in Eden Street.

Deeper Than It Looks

I just published three short stories in a collection called Deeper Than It Looks.

All three were either shortlisted for or won competitions. One brought a £100 (£100!) prize, an amount which made a young granddaughter’s mouth fall open in staggered amazement. The darling girl took about three hours to spend £1 at the last school fair we went to, so my prize represented riches beyond her wildest imagination. Every time I saw her for the next few months, she asked me if I had spent any of it. I hardly liked to tell her how rapidly it had really disappeared, when she was clearly hoping I’d splashed out on something worthwhile like a tiara, or perhaps a pair of glass slippers.

Her sister (also 8) has just written a letter to the Tooth Fairy – they are in regular correspondence – asking her to ‘sort this Covid 19 thing out’. I’m thinking of doing the same. Perhaps we all should, since other sources of Powerful Magic don’t seem to be working.

Love to you all, dear readers. Stay safe and keep reading.

And in case you were wondering how we’re passing the time…

On Honest Feedback and Negativity Specs

Beware the Dreadful Spectacles of Negativity!

Honest feedback is hard to find and hugely valuable to writers (and perhaps everyone else). You churn the book out; your lovely friends and family say it’s great, but in the back of your mind doubt always lurks, buzzing like the last mosquito in the holiday bedroom.

What we need is a professional, someone who knows our genre and the book business, who is tactful and penetrative and wise and who will prod us with gentle authority into seeing for ourselves the tweaks needed to turn the book into its very best self.

This week I received feedback from a set of competition judges. It’s a quick reaction from them, but they’re experts, so it’s gold dust. Exactly what I need.

I looked at the file in my inbox – and I must admit I quailed. It’s scary, that honest stuff. These readers are judges, they know what they’re about. There will probably be things in there I don’t want to read, I thought.

I know how this works because I’ve used editors in the past. They have been great, but it isn’t a comfortable process – it shouldn’t be. Their job is to find the weaknesses and point them out, which hurts!

And a special kind of selective eyesight sets in when you read a critical appraisal of your own work: negativity specs. These are opposite of the rose-tinted kind, where you see only the sunlit afternoons of your gift-wrapped happy past; negativity specs allow you to see only bad things. Enthusiastic words of fulsome praise disappear as you fasten like a terrier upon the few lines that nail the imperfections.

The very worst of it, in writing as in life, is that these critics rarely tell you something you didn’t already know. Like the dentist who taps the exact spot that makes you howl, you know they’re right. You knew that plot detail/character/setting wasn’t really working. You knew you’d have to change it one day. Now you know it twice.

It’s supposed to be a virtue

I never realised, when I started this novel-writing lark, that one of the main qualities needed would be patience, but as it turns out, it is the root and fundament of all.

You have to be patient with yourself and your writing; patient with your characters and the plot that is meant to be one thing, but turns out to be another; patient with your readers; patient with your publishers, agents, editors and proofreaders. You have to patient with the production process of ebooks, paper books and audiobooks. Above all, you have to be patient with reviewers and people you just meet who say daft things.

I’m not very patient. Get on with it, generally sums up my approach to life, but that is on the inside.

Outwardly, I’m usually the calm sort. I don’t tut or huff and puff in queues. An estate agent once said he admired my serenity after I discovered I was the 28th person to put an offer in on the same house. (It paid off; I got it!)

I’m a teacher. You can’t get steamed up at every little thing in education or you’d keel over in the first year. My patience has definitely developed big muscles since I began teaching. I can explain the core of a lesson in carefully planned detail to the whole class, then explain it all over again three more times as idlers amble in late for the lesson without committing any act more violent than rolling my eyes a bit. If they tell me the dog ate their homework, I just nod.

Both my children were born 10 days late. This means I have an automatic Doctorate in Endurance Waiting from Job College, University of Griselda.

But even so, waiting for agents and publishers to decide whether they want my next novel is the longest waiting ever in the whole wide world.


Minima Victoria!

As he handed over the prize-winners envelope*, the Master of Ceremonies announced that he didn’t really believe in writing competitions. Writing isn’t a competitive activity, is it? he said.

The audience seemed to agree. I might agree myself, usually, but not this time – because I’d won!

This, dear readers, is the blog of the 2018 Winner of the Chorley Writers’ Circle Short Story Competition! (Pause as blogger stops typing and bows modestly to left and right acknowledging virtual thunderous applause.)

Excuse me if I bask for a brief moment. The last thing I can remember winning was the Girls’ Skipping Race at school – 2nd place.

But this time I won! Hurrah!

OK. That’s enough. Normal service is resumed. Marketing advisers tell me to stamp Prize Winning Author all over everything from now on.

I probably won’t. Well, perhaps just for today…

* the envelope was empty – the cheque’s in the post, apparently!

If I had to add a Latin motto to the winner’s medal above, it would be ‘multi labore, minima victoria’ (after much labour, small success).

Keep at it, writer people!




Stay away from that café!

I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!

I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.

It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!

As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond  is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.

They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail  whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.



The Naughty Anarchist Muse

I’m guilty of ignoring the Muse as a concept. I fall into the Get On and Do It school of thinking, generally, where writing is concerned. I’m practical: sit down; write this many words in this many hours; edit it for this long; send result out to this many agents/publishers/magazines etc. I’ve never had much time for the idea that there might be some external force – some fleeting, enigmatic abstract involved. Pah! I thought that Muse stuff was for people who like the idea of writing, but didn’t fancy doing any actual work. “Ah,” they could say, after a convenient half-hour at their tidy desk in their well-appointed study, “sadly, no luck today. The Muse wasn’t with me.”

If you read internet writing advice (especially the sort that comes in curly typography over dreamy pictures of moonlight or lakes) most of that ignores the Muse too. Mostly it talks about “turning up for work” and “getting your bum on the seat” and “putting in the hours” and so on. Basically the meditative photos offer sergeant majorly get up earlier; work harder advice. I’m fine with that. It is hard work.

But. I hate to admit it, but I increasingly believe there is something else. Here is a terrible truth: you can work really hard for a very long time and still produce a poor result; you can also work in a playful way for not very long and produce something fantastic. And the Factor X that makes the difference is what for the sake of convenience we might call the Muse.

I’m only just getting to know this creature. I don’t really trust her. She is female, Greek and mythological, which always means a lot of complications. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:

  • she is very badly behaved
    • give her the perfect conditions, sit and wait, and she probably won’t be arsed to show up at all, but when you’re doing twenty other things and don’t have anything to write with she’ll be there in your mind’s ear, whispering
  • she is a bit of a thug
    • you will have careful outlines and plans; she will spit on them
  • she is a dangerous influence
    • she doesn’t care if you work hard or not, but her ideas stick in your brain like chewing gum sticks in your hair and will not, will not go away
    • she sneers at all sensible advice about, say, what the market likes, or what agents are looking for
    • many of her ideas are so outrageous they must have come from outside your own head (surely!)
  • she hates being bossed about
    • the second you think you’ve worked her out, she’s off
  • time is different for her
    • your time, your deadlines or schedules are irrelevant; in Muse time things are done when they’re done.

In short, I thought the Muse would be like this: gently kissing inspiration onto the author’s fevered brow. (Paul Cezanne’s Kiss of the Muse)


It turns out she’s more like this:

blousy muse 2.jpg

a frolicsome party animal. Not what I was expecting at all!

(Original Blousy Muse artwork by Grannywritesbooks, as you probably guessed!)

When is your novel finished?

I know that painters suffer a terrible temptation to re-work, change, add to and generally interfere with a painting that is really finished. Watercolourists, in particular, have to beware. Because of the delicate nature of the watercolour wash, they are very limited in the number of changes they can make without destroying the fresh beauty of the medium and wrecking the whole painting. They have to be disciplined; make the right decisions early, then stop.

But what about writers? We can make a million changes and nobody can tell. When should we walk away? How do we know when a book is finished? It’s not as obvious as it sounds.

Stop when:  1. You’ve finished the story.

When’s that? When they all live happily after? After the ball? After the Prince finds another princess with the same size feet and better monarching skills?

When is a story finished?

Maybe when you’ve finished telling the part of the story that interested you (this time – there are sequels, remember).

Stop when: 2. It’s long enough.

No, that won’t work. It’s the piece of string thing. 100,000 might be enough, but so might 50,000 or 75,345 or 23,479. (That’s art for you.)

Stop when: 3. An external factor prevents you from continuing.

There might be an editor or agent waiting. A publisher may be scheduling the cover design and printing. These are excellent reasons to stop writing and send it on the day you said you’d send it. They may not continue to love/pay you otherwise.

If nobody on earth is waiting or cares about anything you write, find someone. It can be a friend or relation. It can be an online writer-friend of some sort. Set a date. Tell them they will have it for their birthday/your birthday/Christmas – whatever. Then send it on time. If you don’t do this your ghost will haunt libraries screaming ‘Here! Here is the shelf where my poor novel should have been!‘ forever.

Stop when: 3. You can’t think of a single extra thing you could do to make it better.

You will think of something the moment you click send. You have spent a huge amount of time and creative energy on this book. It is lodged in your heart and soul and psyche and will probably not move into its next phase without waking you a few times in the night, but the time has come. Every last possibility for improvement has been exhausted and so have you. Send it. Now!

The following are not signs that your novel is finished. You should ignore them and carry on.

1 People keep saying ‘you’re not still working on that are you?’

2 You’ve begun to hate the title (and perhaps the whole book).

3 You’ve begun to despise the whole idea of writing books. Other people go out/have friends/eat in restaurants, for heaven’s sake!

4 A tidy house and clean laundry are a half-forgotten dream, and who, exactly, are those other people living in the house?







10 Quick-draw tips for time-pinched writers

Time-pressed writers – those whose creative work is compressed into short periods, need special techniques. Not for us the lovely luxury of whole days waiting to be filled with words; we’re the ones who through choice, necessity or devotion to something or someone else, have to squeeze our writing around time-gobbling commitments. There are lots of us. And we’re feisty.
My own problem is that when chunks of writing time arrive, it takes frustratingly long to get back inside the story and the characters’ heads. Hours I can’t spare can be wasted tinkering around, re-reading and generally fidgeting before I can settle. It’s unproductive, this re-entry process, so I wondered how to avoid it.
My sister is a life coach who works with writers and other creative people, so I asked her advice (I paid in dinners​) and we came up with a list. I’m experimenting and the ideas seem to work.
Give it a try, hard-pressed author-types and let me know what you think. You might be able to add some tips of your own.
1 Steal tiny gobbets of time.
Don’t accept too easily that you can only work on the book in big several-hour chunks; try using spare bits of downtime time too. Even if you can’t actually write, you can devote, say, part of your commute or unavoidable waiting time to Keeping In Touch with the Novel (an extremely important activity hereinafter referred to as KITNO). The point of KITNO is that when you do actually have time to sit down and write, you can spring to the keys with your fingers dancing, instead of having to make the long mental trek across the barren wastelands of Now Where Was I?P1050207
2 Turn off the noise.
The friendly life coach has successfully recommended to people that they turn off their car radios/put away their iPhones or whatever, on the way to work. Emptying the head of noise is a good first step to KITNO. So is exercise. Walking works, but no earphones.
3 Ask ONE question.
Set yourself a single KITNO challenge to focus on. When you finish a writing stint, don’t pack up until you have singled out a plot knot that needs to be untangled or a character begging to be knocked into shape. Make that particular issue the one you play around with in the little spare moments you have before the next bigger block of writing time. It can help to write the question on a piece of paper and display it. This forces you to whittle it down to a few words. Family members may be puzzled by a post-it saying “Pavel’s connection with Ira Marciano??” on the bathroom mirror, but they’ll get used to it – if you’re lucky, they may even come up with some useful suggestions.
4 Night Work
Some wise life coaches suggest taking a little focused question about your book, like the one above, to bed and reading it immediately before you go to sleep so that you drift off with it on the mental To Do list. The idea is that it then goes into the brain’s night processing schedule and you wake up with an answer waiting. I’ve tried this and it works, but in a hilarious subconscious-mind-having-a-laugh sort of way. Nobody says the answers will be sensible, but they might be…stimulating!
5 Harness the tech.
Gadgets might help with KITNO. One author I know emails her manuscript to her Kindle and carries it at all times. She can read it, but she can’t edit or be diverted by tinkering with details. Others use dictation apps or voice recorders to mull things over out loud. I love a gadget, but it wouldn’t work for me. I use the writing coach’s best ever advice…
6 …Storyboarding
With no time to write, it’s often oddly possible to draw. Not proper drawings, of course, I mean the scribbly kind you could never show, but which sidestep the part of the brain that slams on the creative brakes sometimes. Ten minutes doodling in my tiny storyboard Moleskine always, always helps. It easily fits in a pocket or briefcase and it has the sober look of something that might be Proper Work, so if you need to look busy in your workplace, you might get away with scribbling in it when you should be doing what they’re paying you for (I imagine).P1050210-0
7 ​The 5 minute rule (an extension of #1 above, useful in situations of extreme writing-time poverty)
Even when you can’t find any time at all to write in, you can still give yourself 5 minutes here and there to think about a particular character or plot line. Then, when you go back to your non-writing work, your brain will continue to ponder your writing question and when you least expect it, leaning over the frozen veg in the supermarket, or sitting in a budget control meeting, a solution will pop up. The trick then is to get the bare bones of it down (smart phones are a great way of doing this) but truthfully, the really good stuff needs little recording because it’s so good, you can’t forget it.
8 Work out your minimum writing needs and how to get them
Work out what you need to write well. It will be different for all of us. If you can only write on a clear surface, make sure you either keep your desk tidy, or have a clear surface somewhere else. You don’t want to waste 20 minutes of your precious writing time tidying your desk. (20 minutes? Who am I kidding? A couple of days would be be more like it in my case!) I use alternate surfaces. I have used an ironing board before now – it works!
If you need certain music, have it ready in a playlist; if you need a particular brand of coffee, get some in!
Set the bar low. I’d quite like a daybed overlooking the beach on a Caribbean island too, but I’ll settle for any old corner, as long as I have a working keyboard and can’t see any other paperwork or bills.
9 Don’t forget to feed the outer woman or man
Your minimum writing requirements probably extend to food. So it’s good to plan your writing-time food stocks too. At certain points in the writing process it’s very easy to scoff any food that can’t actually walk away, and the main craving seems to be for sugar and transfats. If you want to live long enough to publish a nice, fat Complete Works in several decades’ time, it’s probably better to stock the freezer with home-cooked healthy dinners and/or beg/bribe someone to cook your meals for you. Eat and drink after the writing, unless you really are Ernest Hemingway.
Once everything’s in place, you know you can just sit and write, write, write!
Oh, and 10 Remember, it’s meant to be enjoyable!
Writing is hard work, but it’s Elective Hard Work and that should be very satisfying indeed, if not actual fun. No-one is holding a gun to your head. If it’s not, in the end, rewarding, do something else!