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.