Thursday, 31 December 2015

U is for...Unique Selling Point by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, in spite of being hampered by Christmas and New Year festivities, she's reached U...which she has decided should stand for Unique.

When I started out as a writer I didn't want to have to do any marketing of myself.  In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted to write for Harlequin Mills & Boon.  I thought I would just be sort of absorbed under the umbrella and become part of their brand.  I thought I could just concentrate on writing my stories, and my publisher would do it all the publicity for me.  And to a large extent, they do.

But I write in what is a very crowded market.  There seem to be dozens and dozens of other writers producing the same sort of book I do - Regency Romance.  And with the rise of self-publishing, the marketplace has become even more competitive.  Why should anyone want to pick up my book and read it, when there are so many others on offer?  What is going to keep a reader remembering my books, and coming back for more?

According to marketing gurus, what I need to do is offer a Unique Selling Point.  Something that will make me stand out from the crowd.

Fortunately for me, Mills & Boon have been brilliant about helping me develop my "brand".  When I first started writing for them, they had a reader panel, made up of fans of specific lines, who would send in a questionnaire about what they liked (or didn't) about each month's books, in return for being entered into a draw for free books.  This was a great piece of market research which I couldn't possibly have undertaken myself.  And eventually my editor contacted me with the news that what readers liked about my books was the humour.  One or two people had already told me that they had giggled when reading certain sections of my stories, so when she asked me if I would mind concentrating on that, rather than on what she termed "my dark side" (which made me feel as if I was perilously close to joining forces with Darth Vader) I agreed.

Because every writer needs to fulfil reader expectation.  If you pick up a Dick Francis, you expect the hero to be an unassuming chap who thwarts the bad guys within a setting which is something to do with horses.  If you read a Dean Koontz, you expect there to be something a bit spooky going on in the background of the thriller.  Even I could see, that within the Harlequin Historical line, some writers tended to create "bad girls", those of the demi-monde, who maybe turn to crime to survive.  Others are known for getting in a lot of historical detail.  Others write extremely tortured heroes, or go for unusual settings. 

I'd already had an Amazon review from a reader who was disappointed that the heroine of the book she'd just read by me hadn't been a virgin.  And when I looked back at previous books, I saw that this was something else I'd done without really thinking about it.  I'd made my heroines virgins, (at least, to start with!) and my readers had come to expect that from me.

So, thanks to the market research done by my publisher, and a disgruntled Amazon reviewer, I'd discovered what readers wanted from my writing, and I started going all out to provide it. It wasn't any hardship...just a slight adjustment to the way I went about thinking up my plots.  I can never resist deflating a pompous character, or inviting someone to share in a joke with me, and I'd already been doing that in my stories without really noticing I was doing it. 

But then my publishers did a series of webinars on marketing and branding.  By this time even I could see it wasn't enough to simply write the best story I could.  We've all moved into an era where we have to have an online presence.  Which, they said, should be consistent across all platforms.  Which meant thinking up a tagline which expressed what we stood for.

Ulp!  As if it wasn't enough learning how to write, and write to a deadline and a wordcount, now I had to promote myself too?

Fortunately, I'd recently had a revisions letter from an editor, saying that my current manuscript (at that point) lacked the "trademark Annie Burrows sparkle".

Aha!  That was it - that was what I wanted to offer readers, and what readers seemed to want from me - some sparkle.   So my tagline became "Sparkling Regency Romance".  Now a reader has a clue what they are going to find within the covers of one of my books.  Though I do aim for total historical accuracy, which demands a lot of research and double-checking, not a great deal of that actually makes it to the pages.  In the end, what I offer my readers is a light-hearted, fun sort of read.

That is my Unique Selling Point - the sparkle.

What is yours?

Annie's latest Sparkling Regency Romance is "The Captain's Christmas Bride", still available from Amazon, Mills & Boon and Harlequin, and other book stores.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Rum Cake and Tinsel by Trisha Ashley

I don’t always make a traditional Christmas cake – or I do, but it’s a new kind of traditional cake, inspired by a trip to the Caribbean, because one year I flew out to spend Christmas on Grand Cayman, with my luggage full of packet bread sauce, stock cubes, cornflour and instant stuffing (and an inflatable Christmas tree).

In the local supermarket a helpful assistant managed to find me a solitary, forlorn, ready-stuffed turkey left over from Thanksgiving at the bottom of a freezer, but Brussels sprouts appeared to be a delicacy too far.

The turkey had been compressed into a strangely heavy, smooth, long shape like a giant lead bullet and it was just as well I checked the instructions on the wrapper when I got it back to the apartment, since to my astonishment they said it must be cooked from frozen. Well, this went against everything I’d ever been taught about cooking poultry, especially since the stuffing was in the cavity of the bird and not under the loose skin of the breast, making it more difficult to ensure the turkey was cooked right through.

Still, I was too unnerved by this strange object to do anything else but follow the directions to the letter, though I decided to give it extra roasting time, just to make sure it didn’t become Salmonella Central and poison the whole family.

You can imagine what it was like cooking Christmas dinner in an unfamiliar kitchen in Caribbean temperatures. By the time I actually got it onto the table, all I really wanted to do was climb into the giant American fridge and close the door.

The turkey looked just as it had done when it went into the oven, except that the skin had browned and it was, so far as I could tell, cooked right through to the solid, strangely greyish mass of stuffing inside. The meat was rubbery and tasted of nothing in particular, but no-one wanted to be the first to try the stuffing, which looked like something you might find in cavity wall insulation.

In fact, after all my hellishly hot endeavours, no one ate much of the turkey at all, but instead filled up with roast potatoes and the packet bread sauce I’d taken out with me, covered with thick Lancashire-style gravy. We washed it down with a refreshing local soft drink called Ting and I followed that with a couple of glasses of an even more refreshing local liqueur called Mudslide: I felt I deserved it.

Instead of a Christmas cake I’d bought a large and delicious chocolate rum cake, another local delicacy, and after a large slice of that I went for a swim to cool down. Considering I’d doggedly choked down a couple of slices of that turkey, it’s a wonder the weight didn’t pull me under.

While I was floating in the pool like a large, limp starfish, I wondered what on earth I’d do with the substantial remains of the despised turkey and remembered a previous Christmas dinner with friends at their waterside home on Antigua, where after the meal they’d casually tossed the turkey carcase to the barracuda who lived under the deck.

But on Grand Cayman we were by the beach, so that wasn’t an option: there’s just never a barracuda to hand when you really want one, is there?

You can get rum cake in different flavours all over the Caribbean, but it’s taken me a few attempts to recreate anything like it at home. Here’s my recipe for chocolate rum cake, which is as close as I can get to the original and makes a perfect alternative to the traditional fruit cake.

Caribbean-style Chocolate Rum Cake


7oz Self-raising flour
2 rounded tablespoons cocoa powder
5oz castor sugar
2 tablespoons golden syrup
3 medium eggs, beaten
A quarter of a pint of sunflower or corn oil
Dark rum


Heat the oven to 325 F/166C/gas mark 3 then grease and line with baking paper an eight inch cake tin. You can use a small bunt tin instead, if you have one, which makes it look more authentic.

In a measuring jug put four tablespoons of dark rum and then make it up to a quarter of a pint with milk.

Sift the flour, sugar and cocoa into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Into this, pour the rum/milk mixture, the beaten eggs, the oil and the golden syrup.
Mix this very well, and then pour into the cake tin.

Put into the oven and bake it for about half an hour, until the cake springs back when lightly pressed. Then turn it out onto a wire rack, remove the paper, and leave to cool.

In the Caribbean, these cakes are served plain, but for Christmas you could cover it in melted chocolate and decorate with a circle of halved walnuts or pecans and glacé cherries, if liked.

To do this, melt a large bar of good quality dark or milk chocolate, as you prefer, in a Bain Marie or a basin over simmering water: just be careful not to get any water into the chocolate. You can also melt the chocolate in the microwave, but don’t overheat it.

Spread the chocolate over the top of the cake with a spatula or butter knife and then press on the nuts and cherries, if using, before it sets hard.

And a rum cake is not just for Christmas – you can eat it any time!

This post originally appeared in the December issue of Trisha Ashley's newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

T is for Time Management by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached she'll be talking about how she manages her time.

I'm supposed to write two books a year, at 75,000 words each.  Every time I get a new deadline, one of the first things I do is to sit down and work out a timetable which will ensure I get my story in on time.

My last one went something like this:

Due August 31st.
75,000 at 10k per week (or 2 chapters per week) for 1st draft.  = 2k per day.  Will take 7 and a half weeks.
If start 4th March, should be done by April 30th.

2nd draft - revise 3 chapters per week = 8 weeks (assuming 15 chapters)
should take until June 17th

That should have given me a full two and a half months to do a third draft, which is when I usually have only a few little tweaks to iron out.  I was hoping I would be able to get the commissioned story finished, and then spend some time on a book I'd like to self-publish.

But what happened?  Well, to start with, my first draft was over 30,000 words short.  I'd written all the story I could think of, and the only way I could have put in anything else would have been shameless padding.

Fortunately, the Novelistas helped me with some brainstorming, during which we came up with a new ending.  So that my second draft, with a completely new ending, which I managed to finish on June 29th, came in at 64,000 words.  Still a bit short, but not too far off for that stage of my drafts, so I was reasonably happy.  I still had a full two months before the deadline, although I was by then two weeks behind where I wanted to be.

However, I was going to the Romance Writers of America conference at the end of July, which would mean two weeks off, plus any time necessary to recover from jet lag which always turns my brain to mush.  So I thought it would be a good idea to get my 3rd draft done before I flew out.

But then I had an unexpected visitor, who stayed a week.  And a teacher husband at home for school holidays underfoot.  So by the time I flew out I had achieved practically nothing.

My next entry in my "progress with wip" file reads:
returned to work on August 10th.
Have until 31st to deadline = 3 weeks.
Need to revise 13 chapters = min 1 chapter per day.

I finally submitted the book on September 4th, having spent the previous week hunched over my laptop feverishly typing.  And ended up with back spasm, followed by a migraine.

So what had gone wrong with my brilliant plan?  Ok - I knew there would be a couple of weeks out at the end of July for the trip to New York, but I shouldn't have had to end up frantically trying to finish by the deadline.  I'd worked out that I'd have plenty of free time - I'd even hoped I could work on that self-published book that has been on the back burner for what feels like forever.  And this isn't the first time it's happened either.  The last few books I have produced have all gone the same way.  I've started off with a brilliant timetable, which appears to give me plenty of time, and end up begging my editor for an extension.  And given myself a migraine getting it finished.  I'm on my 21st book at the moment, so you'd think by now I would have learned how to write a bit faster than I did to start off with.

So this time, on the recommendation of a blog I read that suggested I should be able to write 10,000 words a day if I followed their advice (cue hollow laughter) I kept a writing diary.  To see if I could pick out patterns.  Which would show me where I was going wrong.  Wasn't I spending enough time at my laptop?  I certainly felt as if I was working as hard as I could.  So perhaps I was taking too many days off to gallivant - although time spent with the Novelistas wouldn't count, I promised myself.  I frequently need their input.  (And the home-made cake).

Anyway, what I discovered when I read through my writing diary was this deadly phrase:
Revisions landed.

And everything made sense.  Because, when I counted how much time I'd spent on revisions to my previous book, when I should have been ploughing forward with my next one, it came to a shocking total of 6 weeks.

The revisions came in two rounds, the first of which took me four weeks, and the second, two.

Even when I did get back to my wip, I found phrases in my writing diary like:
Spent an hour in afternoon just trying to get my head round chapter 10 again

So, it's revisions that are the culprit.  If I hadn't had those revisions, my book would have been submitted in plenty of time, and I could have worked on my own personal project.

So, clearly, when I'm making my timetable for my next book, I'm going to have to factor in those 6 weeks for revisions. And next time, hopefully my writing diary won't have comments like:

Change of plan -

All went to hell in a handcart coz of revisions.  Now need to re date all these targets

So now I am officially only 1 week behind revised schedule.

Wow.  It's going to be tight.

 Annie's 20th book, "The Captain's Christmas Bride" is on sale now. 

She has just finished the second round of revisions for her 21st book, and is off for a lie-down in a darkened room. 

When she recovers, you can find her on facebook or twitter @NovelistaAnnie, and her website is here.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

A Christmas Gift from the Novelistas

It's no secret The Novelistas love books, so I asked them to tell us which book they'd love to give at Christmas - or maybe just keep for themselves!

Trisha Ashley
The Woman in Black and other Ghost Stories
by Susan Hill

The new collected edition from Susan Hill, The Woman in Black and Other Ghost Stories, would make the perfect Christmas present for several people on my list and also has a wonderfully retro binding that makes it look very attractive.  I know my son would love a copy and so, too, would Louise Marley: there’s nothing like having your blood curdled for Christmas, is there?

Valerie-Anne Baglietto
The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast 
by Alan Aldridge & William Plomer

The Butterfly Ball won the 1973 Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award. In spite of all the wonderful books I read as a child, this one hadn’t stuck with me. It was only when it was given as a gift to my own children that I discovered it properly and marvelled at the crazy, magical and fantastical illustrations.

There’s something grotesque and very Alice in Wonderland about it. A summer’s day, all these flamboyantly-dressed creatures having a party... It’s a surreal poem which would especially suit a child who is fond of wildlife. But most children would enjoy it, I think, unless they only like pink glitter, unicorns and perky princesses. This isn’t Disney; or at least, Disney’s latest offerings (which I love, before you assume the contrary).

Although I’m as happy reading fiction on a Kindle as I am with paperbacks, a stunning visual fairy tale like this cries out to be enjoyed as a hardback. It’s as timeless as a favourite nursery rhyme, and deserves to be handled and loved and read over and over again.

Anne Bennett
The Lilac Bus 
by Maeve Binchy

If I am buying a book for someone else, I like to put some thought into it. Often if a book inspires me, or moves me in some particular way, I’d buy that book for someone I knew would stand a good chance of enjoying it as much as I had. So I choose The Lilac Bus by Maeve Binchy, and this is why.

Years ago, I was attending a writing course in Conwy Library and arrived too early, my shopping not taking as long as I thought it would. Feeling bored, I took a book from the shelf to read and touched the magic that all Maeve Binchy’s books induced in me after that. The Lilac Bus was not her first book, that was Light a Penny Candle, but it was the first I had read and I still consider it one of her finest.

The story is simple. Many people who live in in the village of Rathdoon work in Dublin and one of them, Tom Fitzgerald, buys a mini bus, paints it lilac and offers to take everyone from  Rathdoon home for the weekend – Nancy, Dee, Kev, Celia and many more. Each has their own secret story, unknown to their fellow passengers or their families. And as each story unfolds, the reader is drawn into the lives of these very human characters with their own joys and sadness. I really cared about these characters and was aware I was reading the work of a genius.

However, the writing course I had come for was ready to begin. I did not have my library card, so I couldn’t borrow the book and replaced it on the shelf with real regret.

I would buy this book for Christmas for any of my three daughters or daughter-in-law, sure it would be well-received and enjoyed thoroughly. I didn’t wait to be given The Lilac Bus for Christmas, but bought it immediately! Although after that, Santa often wrapped a Maeve Binchy book in my bundle of presents at Christmas! So I have read every book she has written and was upset to hear of her death.

Annie Burrows
The Captain’s Christmas Bride 
by Annie Burrows

As I have a Christmas book out, everyone is getting that one! And I’m going to donate a copy of The Captain’s Christmas Bride to the winner of the Novelistas’ giveaway as well!

Sophie Claire
Apple Tree Yard 
by Louise Doughty

Two books made a mark on me this year: the first was The Fault in Our Stars (John Green), but I’m not sure about gifting that one because, although I loved it, I can imagine others might find the subject matter difficult. (It’s the story of two teenagers, one of whom has cancer, who fall in love). So the novel I’m going to give this Christmas is Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.

Yvonne Carmichael has a high-flying career, a beautiful home and a good marriage. But when she meets a stranger she is drawn into a passionate affair. Keeping the two halves of her life separate seems easy at first. But she can't control what happens next.

I don’t usually read psychological thrillers, but I’d heard a lot about this book and I was researching infidelity for my own writing, so I picked it up out of curiosity. I could hardly put it down, I enjoyed it so much! It was full of tension, with a gripping plot and an intriguing narrator, Yvonne, who’s incredibly intelligent and self-aware, but also very human. It was mostly Yvonne’s character which drew me in, but also the way the story raises so many questions about morality, about our justice system, and about the boundaries of relationships. (If I’m being vague, it’s because I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers!) I had previously read and enjoyed Gone Girl, but this book was even better. It’s the kind of novel which makes me, as a writer, despair because it’s so intelligent and thought-provoking and cleverly crafted.

I hadn’t read any of Louise Doughty’s fiction before, although I had enjoyed her craft book A Novel in a Year for its gently encouraging tone, but I’ll look out for them now. And I’ll be giving Apple Tree Yard to parents and friends, male and female alike, because it really has something for everyone.

Beth Francis
The Snow Child 
by Eowyn Ivey

The book I would like to give as a present for Christmas is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey –
 the hardback edition, because the cover is so beautiful, and this is a book to keep and dip into again and again.

Inspired by the Russian fairy tale, The Snow Child is a magical story set in 1920s Alaska, where Mabel and Jack are struggling to homestead in the brutal environment, while grieving for their stillborn baby. As the first snow falls they build a snow child, but as it melts away they spy a young girl amongst the trees. Somehow she seems to survive alone in the wilderness. Who is she? What is she?

This is a book to read for the power of the story, then again for the hauntingly beautiful descriptions of the Alaskan landscape. It’s a book to talk about with friends. I reached for my copy before writing this, and started reading it again. It’s a Christmas present you can share, and keep coming back to.

Who would I give it to? I can’t say. It’s a surprise, as all the best Christmas presents are.

Juliet Greenwood
The Poisonwood Bible
by Barbara Kingsolver

The book I would give for Christmas is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for years but only finally got around to it a few months ago. I love Barabara Kingsolver’s novels, but this one totally blew me away. It’s one of those few novels when, after I’d finished it, I didn’t want to pick up another book for weeks afterwards, just because I just wanted to keep on savouring it, and I couldn’t imagine another story that could draw me in and hold me quite so fast, and in such a satisfying way.

I love that it’s an intelligent female take on colonialism, folly and the abuse of power, one that balances world events with the microcosm of the domestic world of one missionary family in the Congo. It is warm, funny and sensual, as well as an astute analysis of the dynamics within a family, and of the relationships between human beings of different cultures. Despite the inevitable tragedies, and the utter stupidity of the rigid mind that cannot see beyond itself in the missionary who refuses to bend to his surroundings, I found it an ultimately uplifting book. The image of the missionary persisting in planting crops in his own ‘civilised’ manner, even after a local women has demonstrated how to plant so that they actually survive, is one that will stay with me forever.

There’s one friend I can’t give it to, as she read my copy after I’d raved about it, and is now raving about it too. But this Christmas I’ll be parcelling up plenty more …. 

Cheryl Lang
Iris & Ruby 
by Rosie Thomas

I loved this book. Set in Cairo, it had me interested right away. It tells the story of stroppy teenager, Ruby, who escapes her fraught relationship with her mother in the UK and turns up in Egypt to stay with her elderly grandmother. She writes her grandmother’s autobiography and learns about Iris’s early life in wartime Cairo. In the process, Ruby learns about herself and changes. This was a Cairo that was smothered in heat, dust and deprivation, but Iris’s world was cosmopolitan, full of glittering dances and balls. Memories of Iris’s lost love are sprinkled throughout the book. It is well-written, full of atmosphere and details of the era. You feel drawn into the book.

Louise Marley
The Annotated Brothers Grimm 
edited by Maria Tatar

I've loved fairy stories ever since I was a child, but as I grew older I began to prefer the darker, more twisted tales without the obligatory happy ending. The Brothers Grimm were German academics who collected and recorded folklore during the early part of the 19th Century. The idea was to record these oral stories for other academics before they became lost, but when the brothers realised the stories were being read by children they rewrote them for a ‘PG’ audience, cleaning them up and giving them happy endings.

This book lists forty-six stories. Some are easily recognisable – Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel – as tales that have been retold and reimagined over the years in both books and films. Others, such as The Seven Ravens, I’d never even heard of. And there are nine stories at the back which are definitely not for children!

But the main appeal of this book to me is in the annotations, which explain all the different versions of the stories and where they originated from. In this adaptation of The Frog King, for instance, the frog is killed, not kissed. And apparently Little Red Riding Hood veered from Fifty Shades of Grey to Silence of the Lambs before the brothers turned it into the story we know today.

So who would like this book for Christmas? Not Valerie-Anne Baglietto, that’s for certain! Some of the more gruesome endings would definitely give her nightmares. Maybe I could give a copy to Haydn Lee, who shares my love of the dark and twisted?

Or maybe I’d keep the book all to myself!

* * Competition now closed! * *

If you'd like to win a fabulous book bundle from the Novelistas, just leave a comment below! One winner will be drawn, in our usual random way, after the closing date. Unfortunately, due to the cost of postage, we're only able to offer this prize to entrants living in the UK.

Closing Date:
Thursday 3rd December 2015

The Prize:

A collection of signed paperback novels as follows:

A Christmas Cracker by Trisha Ashley
The Moon on a Stick by Valerie-Anne Baglietto
Another Man's Child by Anne Bennett
The Captain's Christmas Bride by Annie Burrows
Her Forget-Me-Not Ex by Sophie Claire
The Man Behind the Façade by June Francis
We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood
Why Do Fools Fall in Love? by Louise Marley

Small print!!!
Be sure to use your full name, or post using an account we can contact you on (Facebook, Twitter Blogger, etc). If we don't hear back from the winner within 72 hours of notification, another winner will be drawn.

Good luck!

Trisha drawing the winner
at our Christmas Party
Congratulations to Gurdeep Assi!

Photo copyright:

Book covers: individual publishers
Book bundle: Louise Marley
Trisha Ashley: Juliet Greenwood

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Manchester LitFest 2015 by Sophie Claire

Manchester Literature Festival drew to a close last weekend, and I have to say this was the most exciting Manchester LitFest programme I can remember (and I’ve been going since the festival first started ten years ago), packed full of big literary names. Obviously I couldn't go to all the events but I did make it to Margaret Atwood, Deborah Moggach, Joanne Harris and Louise Doughty, and below are tweets and snippets from those events: 

Joanne Harris, Lemn Sissay, Geoff Ryman, 
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey

Deborah Moggach

Deborah Moggach

At The Midland Hotel, Deborah entertained us by answering questions and recounting anecdotes in her very upbeat style, before we all enjoyed afternoon tea. I tweeted snippets of what she said:

"I wrote Tulip Fever in a rush of love for Dutch paintings of the Vermeer period." "I bought a painting and it spoke to me."

"Spielberg rang wanting to make a film of Tulip Fever - we all thought it was a prank!"

"I'm always an extra in my films."

"I get 2 or 3 emails a week, mainly re: Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It's had a transformative effect on many people."

"We're all teenagers really - just a bit wrinklier!"

"Loneliness, isolation is a huge problem"

"I love good plots. I think they're a work of art."

I can't wait to read Moggach's new book Something To Hide. It sounds exciting with some really meaty themes.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood was interviewed by the broadcaster and critic, Erica Wagner, and she spoke engagingly about her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, ‘an immensely funny and disturbing satire set in a near future where the lawful are locked up and the lawless roam free. Young, poverty-stricken lovers Charmaine and Stan sign up for a social experiment but the promise of a suburban paradise soon turns into a nightmare of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire.’
Margaret’s dry wit was hugely entertaining, and I came away eager to read this novel, having previously enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale.
Erica Wagner and Margaret Atwood

Joanne Harris
Joanne Harris

This event began with Joanne reading her Writer's Manifesto which explored how the writing world has changed in modern times, and how Joanne perceives the relationship between herself and her readers. I tweeted:

Snippets from last night: "The truth is, not everyone can - or should - be a writer..."

Fiction should present a challenge. Fiction is often uncomfortable. It is not democratic.

I love my readers...their diversity, & the fact that they all see different things in my books, according to what’s important to them. 

Authors & illustrators need to pay their bills like everyone else.

Stories are never just entertainment. They help us understand who we are. They teach empathy. Stories bring us together.

The discussion which followed was equally fascinating. Questions were put to the panel, but I've kept to Joanne's answers for the sake of brevity:

Q: How much do you think about the reader while writing?

JH: I don’t. There are too many readers and they’re all too different. When reading, people see what they want to see [...] I write for myself.

Q: Have you ever had struggles with your publisher?

JH: Yes over small things. Publishers worry a lot about readers, and about moral ambivalence (eg bad characters getting away with bad things, or bad things happening to good people). 

Joanne also recounted how she wanted to call her novel Peaches for Ramadan (its title is Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé) but her publishers were worried this sounded too political or that Muslim readers might react against it. In fact, Joanne reported, she's had very positive feedback from readers.

Louise Doughty

Louise Doughty was the Keynotes speaker at the Northern Lights Writers Conference (a day of panel discussions and workshops) and she was also interviewed about her work, particularly the bestselling novel Apple Tree Yard. Here are some of the highlights:

Louise Doughty

Louise was first published 20 years ago, at a time when writers such as Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes were very popular. However, Louise felt that their novels focused on the middle class and she set out to write something different. She is especially proud of a review describing her as an author who 'writes about the people who don’t normally get written about'.

It took roughly 7 years for Louise to get published and she likens this period to the time it takes to train for any profession; for example, a doctor or a lawyer. Writing takes time to develop sufficiently.

She advised: “Enjoy those early years because you can focus on the writing itself.” Whereas later you become an administrator of your career.

Most writers, she said, have to supplement their income by teaching or mentoring. Having another job can be a positive thing because it can feed your creativity. And having lots of time to write full-time can be as difficult as having very little. 

Apple Tree Yard is currently at the casting stage for a BBC four-part drama. The genesis for the story came to Louise unexpectedly one evening: she visualised a woman in court, on the witness stand on trial for a serious charge. Louise wrote the first scene immediately, and this later became the novel's prologue. For the book’s launch, the publisher printed leaflets of the prologue which were distributed on the London Underground.

Asked about the television adaptation and the screenplay which has been written by Amanda Coe, Louise said “You develop a philosophical approach to your work being changed.”

Having read Apple Tree Yard myself, it was interesting to hear Louise talk about its structure which is complex because the story is told in the first person and with hindsight. “I wouldn’t have had the technical skill to write ATY as my first novel,” Louise admitted. “It has a certain readability and narrative arc that my previous novels don’t”.

All four events were equally fascinating and inspiring. I always find it reassuring to hear writers talk about the difficulties they've faced in getting published or with the creative process, because they're often problems we've all experienced. It's also interesting to hear what sparked a story, what the writer hoped to communicate, and how others have interpreted it.

You can read more about Manchester Literature Festival here and it's worth keeping an eye on organisations such as these throughout the year because they sometimes hold stand-alone events. 

Can you recommend any good literature festivals?


Sophie Claire's novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is available from Amazon

Thursday, 5 November 2015

S is for Stand Alone...or Series? by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached she'll be talking about whether to write Series or Stand alone.

I have taken part in a couple of series, where each book has been written by a different author, but never, so far, created one of my own.

Harlequin quite often creates mini-series, where each author is assigned a small part of a longer, over arching plot, whilst also writing a story which can stand alone.  And I've been involved in a couple for the Historical line.  I was responsible for part 5 of the Regency Silk and Scandal series, in which a couple of aristocratic families search for the man responsible for a murder committed in the previous generation.  My instalment, The Viscount and the Virgin, dealt with the fate of the Murdered Man's daughter.  I found it tremendous fun brainstorming the murder mystery plot, which became the backdrop for 8 individual love stories, with the other authors involved.  We drew up a complicated family tree, and created spreadsheets galore to keep track of who was doing what, when, and with whom.

There's a tremendous amount of extra work involved in taking part in such a series, and both times I've done one, although I've really enjoyed it, I've also found it a bit of a relief to coming back to writing just one story, about just one couple.

However, I often find that a minor character in one book will wander into another one.  And that the more often they appear, the more real they become, until I have to give them their own story.  Captain Fawley, for example, first appeared in "His Cinderella Bride" at a ball.  Then took a larger role in "The Earl's Untouched Bride."  So large a part, in fact, that my editor at the time made me cut him back severely.  But I did get permission to write his story (even though he had only one eye, one arm, and a wooden leg!)

A similar thing happened with Lord Havelock.  He appeared as a minor character in a Christmas novella, where he strode into a men's club and set the cat among the pigeons by asking them to help him draw up a list of qualities they thought would make a perfect wife.  I didn't know, then, why he needed such a list, but I couldn't stop wondering.  And eventually I had to write him a book to explain his odd behaviour - Lord Havelock's List.  (Eventually, I'm going to have to write the story of one of the other men who helped him compile the list - the one who said his wife would have to be intelligent, because he couldn't bear the thought of giving up his bachelor freedoms only to beget a brood of idiots.)
But anyway, earlier this month I went down to London to visit the new London offices of my publisher, Harlequin UK, and to have a serious chat with my editor.   I've just been awarded a four book contract, you see, but only had one full length book and one novella completely outlined and agreed upon.  I had a lot of vague ideas...dramatic meetings between characters who had tortured back stories...but no real idea of where to take them.

I sent these rough outlines to my editor and during lunch, (during which some wine may have been consumed), she gave me the most insightful feedback.  In one of the rough outline openings, I'd suggested that the hero pursue the heroine as part of a wager between himself and a group of his friends.  And she asked me whether I'd considered writing stories about these friends, and tying them together as a trilogy.

The moment she made the suggestion it became obvious how other snippets that I'd had floating about in the back of my mind for a while could become parts 2 and 3 of a trilogy.  It would probably have happened naturally, the way it's happened before.  But this time, as I set out to deliberately write a set of linked stories, I can actually plan my own overarching story which will tie them together more firmly, rather than having the loose connections I've come up with before.

And, more importantly, I can actually let readers know in advance that it's going be a trilogy.

Do you know, I feel as if I'm finally getting my writing life organized!

(It has only taken me until S!)

Annie's current release is "The Captain's Christmas Bride", available from Amazon, Harlequin, Mills & Boon UK, Amazon UK, Mills & Boon Australia, etc...

It is a stand alone book.

So far!