Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Group Therapy

Brain food or subtext?
As much as we think of writers as solitary creatures, writers need people. (And no, not just to buy the books!) Getting considered and constructive feedback can be a challenge at any point in a manuscript's life, but especially when you you're working through the early stages of a story, establishing the plot, the main characters and the major conflicts. The framework that you put together - much like a skeleton - will shape and constrain much of the later writing.

Who you gonna call? Other writers!

The right writers' group can transform your understanding of your own book, enabling you to gain valuable and objective insights about your work.

Some of the benefits
- You can set ground rules, so that the feedback is structured in a particular way.
- Other writers understand what it takes to write a novel, and what it takes out of you.
- Other writers, generally, are well read and may relate your aspirations to other novels and novelists. This can help you appreciate whether a proposed plot line is as original as you think.
- A good writers' group is supportive, and invests time and attention in your work, which boosts your confidence.
- You can learn from the experiences of other writers.
A good writers' group will not tolerate sloppy writing, but instead will inspire you to raise the standard of your work.

Some of the challenges
- If writers have different levels of experience they may also require different levels of input. 
- Not everyone's skin is the same thickness.
- Members may not feel knowledgeable about a genre they've never read or written for.
- There can be an element of competition (which, I suggest, is also a good thing). That can lead to tensions if some members are making good progress in their writing goals, while others are not.

Some suggestions for the perfect writers' group
Small is beautiful. No more than five people is ideal for a group
 Plan the session so you know when the breaks will be and how the group will spend on each person’s work.
 Let each person determine what level of feedback they need.
-  Have a timekeeper – it makes everything so much easier.
- Allow for time and space for general chatting – it’s not just a series of presentations and feedback. Writing is also about process, challenges, and ideas; plus, there is life outside writing too!
If it’s possible, bring along printed copies of the text so that everyone can follow it as it’s being read aloud.
- Everyone reads and everyone feeds back. The word ‘nice’ is banned.
- A light lunch (if it’s a long session) or snacks make it much more enjoyable. Everyone can bring something, although that can result in a lot of chocolate.
- Consider having someone other than the author read their work out. In my regular group we read our own work out, but in the ‘Famous Five’ group we read one another’s. It can help the author appreciate the rhythms and sentences from the reader’s perspective. It can also be funny when someone has written dialect speech, tha knows!
- Try to keep to the schedule as much as possible, so that everyone has their turn and you finish on time.
It’s surprising what a fresh pair of eyes, or a fresh mind can come up with. Two examples spring to mind: Susie came up with the name for Miranda’s bar in my thriller, Standpoint, while Warren’s input helped me to decide on the final scene for my comedy drama, Scars & Stripes.

There’s another side to it as well, which I alluded to in my title. A supportive and constructive writers’ group encourages all participants to thrive, wherever they are with their writing. It becomes a community of kindred spirits, who share in successes and failures, on and off the page. If writing is a kind of madness, a good writers’ group can help keep you sane.

Here’s to you: Warren, Susie, Sue, Randle, Martin, Kath, Elizabeth, David, Christine and Cathy.

Standpoint (or part one, as I like to think of it)...

Thomas Bladen keeps secrets - mostly from those closest to him - but all that is about to change. He's a civil service photographer, based in London, but the Surveillance Support Unit also assists other government departments. It's staffed by ex-forces personnel, careerists and Thomas. With an eye for details and a talent for finding trouble, leading a double-life was never going to be easy.

During a routine assignment with Customs & Excise, he unwittingly exposes a thread of a conspiracy that bleeds into his private life. When the cards are stacked against him and the only woman he has ever loved is in their sights, can one good man hold the line without crossing it?

Amazon UK

Amazon US

About the author

I'm a diverse writer of fiction, non-fiction and comedy material. Standpoint is the first in a series of contemporary British thrillers that combine action, intrigue and dark humour.

Follow me on Twitter - @DerekWriteLines

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Remembering Terry Pratchett

Different man, different hat.

It's customary when a brilliant author dies (by which, I mean someone who has something to say and who makes us think) for the great and the good to trot out stories about them. Terry Pratchett didn't just create a whole world; he created an entire universe, complete with its own physics, along with a giant turtle moving through space.

I never met Terry Pratchett, so my stories, though anecdotal, are tangential.

I remember the joyous excitement among my circle of friends when one of us first encountered The Colour of Magic. Not only was it a work of fantasy fiction, but it was also rumoured to contain esoteric references. This was the mid 1980s, when every self-respecting aspirant-on-the-path had at least one set of tarot cards and harboured hopes of reaching enlightenment to make sense of everything (while hooking up with a mystical woman along the way). When it came to The Colour of Magic our expectations were confounded magically and exceeded when it came to the quality of the writing. TP did his own thing and if you enjoyed it that was fine. If you didn't enjoy it, just move along please and go find something else to read. As a developing genre writer, I'm trying to take that on board at the moment.

I enjoyed the Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, but I loved Mort. Yes, there was the shadow of Piers Anthony's Xanth series (but that had its own shadows to contend with). It takes real talent to make Death both funny and endearing - and I say that both as a writer and as an attendee of 12 funerals.

Okay, let's get back on track. My first almost TP anecdote concerns a woman I was trying to date - all you really need to know was in the first half of the sentence. There we were, both listening to me spouting mystical theories and generally making an ass of myself (though not  a Golden One). She put down her herb tea and nodded to herself. "You remind me of someone." This is it, I thought - recognition at last. She smiled, not unkindly. "That's it - Rincewind, from The Colour of Magic." For those of you unacquainted with the character, which frankly I find hard to believe, you'll find everything you need to know here: http://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/Rincewind

Hekas, Hekas, as we failed maguses are wont to say.

The second almost TP anecdote is electronic. I once saw a short Terry Pratchett interview in a children's supplement of a weekend newspaper. I want to say it was The Sunday Times, but I can't be certain. Anyway, there I was - reading the cartoons - and there he was, talking about his books. There was also an email address to ask him questions. Well, this was too good an opportunity to miss. I fired off an email, asking him which agents he felt were currently both up and coming, and on the look out for fantasy fiction. To his credit, he - or someone very like him - replied within a day or two, advising me that, as he'd never needed an agent (or, perhaps, not recently) he couldn't tell me. Back then I bristled with indignation. Now, I smile and think 'well played, sir'.

Writers are there to write, not to prop up our ideal of what they ought to be. Nor to be the stepping-stone or conduit for every Tom, Dick or Derek who seeks a leg up without earning their dues (or learning their craft).

As I say, TP walked his own path, confounded expectations and cared not a jot what the critics thought. That's a great legacy for the rest of us scribes to try and live up to.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Farewell to Musa

Tomorrow marks the end of Musa Publishing. Although I’d had some short fiction in anthologies and on websites, Musa was the first publisher to put my work out as books. Initially I was hesitant because ebooks were a new venture for me, but what won me over was their warmth,  organisation and openness. It wasn’t just a business it was a also a thriving community of authors, sharing tips, support and experience.

The Silent Hills is a 5000 word suspense story and I was surprised when they took it on as a standalone work. In hindsight it may have been due to their generosity of spirit and desire to build a list than for any commercial potential because, although well-received  and reviewed, The Silent Hills failed to really establish an audience.

However, what TSH did do was get me involved in the Musa community. I met authors of genres I’ve never been near – LGBT, Regency Romance and Erotica, to name but three – and found that our similarities as writers are much greater than our differences. Whatever the genre, the requirements of good writing are the same – always have been and always will.

TSH also gave me the confidence to try something different. Next time I wrote Superhero Club, a children’s book for a mid-grade audience. If anything this book was even more of a challenge because it dealt with bullying, food issues and the value of friendship. It was, once again, a story that wrote itself. An added complication for the book was that it was firmly set in the UK, but Musa’s house style was US English.

SC came out about a year after TSH and barely made sales into double figures. It could be that the subject matter was too close to home for the target readership. I did contact a variety of youth organisations, but either the timing was wrong or the staff had any pressures and priorities. I mention all this because I recognised (and still do!) that any publisher can only do so much. Every author must play their part in actively marketing their books and the more creative the approach the better.

I didn’t submit another book to Musa. I was thinking about a sequel to SC, but that would have been in the autumn. I didn’t part with any full-length novels because I thought the house style would make edits a nightmare. Editing was always a collaborative experience, so I had some idea of what I might be taking on!

All of which is a way of saying I had less to lose with Musa with my books, but I was fully committed to their cause. It was a virtual place of passion and enterprise with an online infrastructure that’s unmatched by anywhere else I’ve seen. Musa have been responsible for dozens of books and dozens of first-time authors. It’s to the credit of the team that they are ending Musa precisely because they have been unable to run it along commercial lines. In the meantime royalties have always been paid and everyone that I’ve spoken with in the Musa family has felt a genuine sense of loss and admiration for the dream that has now come to an end.

Time is running out if you want to grab yourself an ebook bargain. Naturally I’d be delighted if you picked Superhero Club, but I also encourage you to check out the wider Musa site to see if anything takes your fancy.

Thank you, Musa, for everything, and good luck to my fellow Musan authors out there.

“Nothing good is a miracle, nothing lovely is a dream.”
   Richard Bach  Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Stepping Up

Mind how you go*

There’s a scene in Chariots of Fire where one of the athletes achieves something (hey, I claimed to have studied the film) and a younger runner is told to give him some space afterwards, in the changing room. The explanation runs along the lines that, while failing is part and parcel of competition, achievement is its own special conundrum.

I’ve had a recent taste of that because two of my Brit thrillers, Standpoint and Line of Sight, have been acquired by Joffe Books. In fact, as I mentioned on my personal blog, Joffe is interested in the planned series of five books. As my good friend and American writer, Monika Spykerman, might say, I’ve hit pay dirt.

I signed that contract with satisfaction and a Mont Blanc pen, which my former BT colleagues gave me as one of my leaving presents. Inevitably, there’s a sense of validation when an industry professional is interested in your work. You want to reach back in time and thank the previous you who stuck with it and kept writing even though no one was beating a path to your door.

The funny thing about my series is that, while Standpoint has been submitted here and there in the last four or five years, Line of Sight hasn’t been anywhere. After all, what sense is there is submitting book two if no one is interested in book one? I had to go back through Line of Sight to put a synopsis together because I’d never needed one for it before.

So what has changed? Everything and nothing! The next page of the third book (the trequel?), The Caretaker, still needs to be written. I’m also acutely aware that working with an editor might be a challenge at times – and in fact I want it to be a challenge. I want my books to be the very best they can be, and if that means a visit from the green pen then so be it.

There’s a finality to publishing as well. No more opportunity or reason to pick through the manuscript one more time, or to check my facts about Customs & Excise, Harwich Port, guns, cars, and the North York Moors National Park. I can feel my temperature rising just thinking about it all. Luckily, I know that a range of reviews and opinions is part of the game. (Plus, if you’ve looked through my reviews for Covenant on Amazon you’ll know that I’d be hard pushed to ever get a worse review.)

Like Susie, who has contributed to this blog, I’m aware that the real achievement lies in having a completed novel, imbued with sweat, toil, tears and hunger. All those hours of living in my characters’ world have amounted to something tangible.

I realise too that I cannot hide behind the mask of being a novice. Don’t get me wrong – I still have a great deal to learn – but just as I’m no longer eligible to enter debut novel competitions, I’m also no longer entitled to dismiss my work lightly. Not because it’s a work of genius (necessarily…); rather, because it’s no longer purely mine.

These days writers have a responsibility to actively market their work and I’ve already made myself comfortable with blogging and twitter over the last four years. The jury’s still out on Facebook though, as far as I’m concerned.

In case you're wondering, it was a sheer fluke that I heard about Joffe Books - through www.writethismoment.com - and that when I submitted something, last September, they were interested in the idea of a thriller series. They also needed a little convincing, which is why it helped that I had a pitch put together and that I’d considered their market ahead of contacting them.

My point, as I progress with another book, is that it can be done. Previously, I’ve been the happy conduit to two friends approaching the publisher and the agent who subsequently signed them up. This time the next step appeared before me. The next time it could be you.

* Even if you are dancing around the room.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A Christmas Ghost Story...ish

Something ghostly this way comes?

This year there's a new pre-Christmas ghost story in the air. You might have read about it in the news.

A debut author has, shock and horror, received help from her publisher in bringing her book to life. Okay, that's a broad brush. Let me be a bit more specific: a ghostwriter worked on it with her. Do I hear the sound of dropped cups, swooning and monocles falling out of place?

Zoe Sugg,  a hugely popular blogger and vlogger, has stepped into the literary fray by writing her first novel. So far, so what? 

Of course, we love the romantic idea of someone starving in a garret somewhere and then producing a book that would wring tears from angels, laughter from statues and respect from the critics. But that's our fiction and not hers.

Ghostwriters are nothing new (although, arguably, the runaway success of celebrity fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon). Katie Price's ghost-writer, Rebecca Farnworth, who died earlier this month, worked on both her memoirs and her fiction. Rumours persisted for years that prolific author Jeffrey Archer had a ghostwriter or two tucked away, although his prison diaries seemed to have silenced the critics.

I have a foot in each camp on his one. I've worked with some writers who had great ideas but struggled, in places, to fully realise them. It also goes without saying that any good publisher would assign a good editor. 

In the end, I think, a lot of it comes down to our expectations and projections as readers. I'd hope that the ideas behind the book, including the characterisation, plot lines and most of the dialogue, are the author's own work. However, I also know that in a collaboration ideas, themes and changes occur organically. In the end, readers will have to judge for themselves on the quality of the book.

Will Gompertz had an interesting take on Zoellagate on the BBC website.

What's your take on ghostwriters?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Coping with Bad Reviews

In the run-up to Christmas, author and Strictly Writing family member, Sam Tonge, talks turkey!

We all have our own way of dealing with bad reviews – and in my experience, whilst they may sting, it does get easier over time to cope. They are, after all, part of our job as an author, and it would be unreasonable – arrogant even – to expect that everyone is going to enjoy your work. We can all think of a bestselling movie or story that all our friends love, but we just don’t “get”. Equally, search out your favourite novel on Amazon – whilst you adored it you can be certain a number of people won’t have.

My bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, came out last November. Whilst overall it sold well, and was even shortlisted recently for the Festival of Romantic Fiction Best E-book award, it received its fair share of poor reviews. And one thing I quickly learnt was to differentiate between the constructive bad reviews and those which in tone, and choice of words, seemed hellbent on upsetting the author. The latter, where possible, are to be ignored!

However the constructive 1* and 2* reviews, I read with interest. It is fascinating to see how someone else views your work and to find out which aspects – for them – didn’t work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I took on board what a couple of them said, when writing Doubting Abbey’s sequel, From Paris with Love. I always appreciate the time people take to review my books and if they didn’t enjoy them, reading an explanation of why not can be really useful. After all, they’ve invested money in my writing - it’s only right they should have a platform to explain why they were left dissatisfied

Of course, it can be confusing – something one reviewer hates will be loved by another. For Doubting Abbey, one person would dislike the way my main character, Gemma, said “Amazin’” a lot, whilst another would head their review “Amazin’ book”! But if a certain criticism comes up more than once, I give it a lot of thought. In my opinion, the most important thing is not to take it personally – to most readers authors are faceless beings, and I don’t believe they think about them when critically dismantling a novel.

You know what they say – a bad review is better than none and I hope readers find lots to like in my Christmas novel Mistletoe Mansion, which features a celebrity wannabe, famous golfing wife, lots of cupcakes and a supposed ghost! But if not, I just need to remember that plenty of Marmite books have had great success. In other words, not everyone has to love your work for it to do well.


Samantha Tonge lives in Cheshire with her lovely family, and two cats who think they are dogs. When not writing, she spends her days cycling and willing cakes to rise. She has sold over 80 short stories to women’s magazines. Her bestselling debut novel, Doubting Abbey, was shortlisted for the Festival of Romantic Fiction best Ebook award in 2014. Its fun standalone sequel is From Paris with Love. Mistletoe Mansion stars a new set of characters and is for fans of cupcakes and Christmas!

From Paris with Love

Kimmy Jones has three loves: cupcakes, gossip magazines and dreaming of getting fit just by owning celeb workouts.

When Kimmy’s Sensible Boyfriend told her he didn’t approve of her longing for the high life or her dream of starting a cupcake company, Kimmy thought she could compromise – after all, she did return those five-inch Paris Hilton heels! But asking her to trade in cake-making for a job sorting potatoes is a step too far.

So, newly single - and newly homeless – Kimmy needs a dusting of Christmas luck. And, masquerading as a professional house sitter, her new temporary home is the stunning Mistletoe Mansion. Soon she’s best buds with glamorous next door golf WAG Melissa, and orders are pouring in for her fabulous Merry Berry cupcakes! The only thorn in her side is handsome handyman Luke, a distraction she definitely doesn’t need. And talking of distractions, something very odd is going on at night…

Kimmy is finally living the life she’s always wanted. But will her glimpse into the glittering lifestyle of the rich and famous be as glamorous as she’s always imagined…?

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SamTongeWriter
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SamanthaTongeAuthor
Website: http://samanthatonge.co.uk/
Doubting abbey Blog: http://doubtingabbey.blogspot.co.uk/
AmazonUK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mistletoe-Mansion-Samantha-Tonge-ebook/dp/B00O56X3HM/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1412419104&sr=1-1&keywords=Mistletoe+mansion
AmazonUS: http://www.amazon.com/Mistletoe-Mansion-Samantha-Tonge-ebook/dp/B00O56X3HM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1412419236&sr=8-1&keywords=mistletoe+mansion

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Polls Apart

As I write this, an ebook publisher and I are swapping emails about my thrillers. The signs are good, since:
a) They like my first book.
b) They wanted to look at all the feedback and reports for the first book.
c) They'd like to look at the second book.
d) They have a positive track record in the genre.
e) They're especially interested in taking on a series (and I'm writing book three, yay!).

This possible passport to publication, as well as being a snub to those who said I couldn't do alliteration, has made me think again about reviews.

Some interesting myths have grown up around online book reviews:
1. The first half dozen or so are usually by friends or stablemates from the same publisher, and consequently ought to be discounted.
2. There is a specific ratio (though not the golden ratio) of good reviews to terrible ones that will give you a clear indication of whether your book is really cutting the mustard.
3. A stinker or two, as well as contributing to the unspecified specific ratio of reviews also shows you have written something so distinctive that it polarises readers.

I recently came across an ebook that has done fabulously well, and I use that word deliberately (unlike all the other times I've used it).

It has sales in the squllions (well, okay, many thousands), driven by word-of-mouth and glowing reviews. It also has some reviews that tell a different story - a tiny proportion of readers who, clearly, got on the wrong book bus.

Here are some of the positive comments:

"The story line was unique."
"I'm very glad I took the chance."
"The characters are well developed."
...You become totally immersed in the lives of the characters..."
"Prepare yourself to laugh..."

By way of contrast here are some of the negative comments - naturally, I've tried to pick out some funny ones:

"The heroin isn't likable at all." (Worthy of an honourable mention for the spelling alone.) 
"I wanted to punch her in the face the whole time!"
"I am at 43% (I am reading on my Kindle) and I am about to give up." 
"I guess sometimes you shouldn't buy a book based on their reviews."
"...Great plot good book and if u want me to spoil it for u just let me know." (How very public spirited of you.)
"I didn't like the fact that they were liberals."
"Not my favorite but also not my least favorite." (Arguably, the same could be applied by the author to the review.)

When you factor in the fact that some reviews are based upon review copies, the only true measure of a book's commercial success is book sales. I wonder how the metrics would look if freebie downloads and their reviews were featured separately?

The more I look into it, the more I gravitate towards the opinion that none of this really matters. However, if the ebook publisher takes me and my thrillers on, rest assured I'll be back here in search of reviews quicker than you can say paraprosdokian.

Wish me luck...and tell me about the best and worst reviews you've ever received.