Monday, 30 July 2018

Are You A Serial Offender? I Am.



As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but was listed for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and scored 110 + reviews on Amazon, is now developing offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, Death & Dominion which came out in October 2015. Rack & Ruin (Sept 2016) was the fourth outing for Stride & Cully, Wonders & Wickedness (Sept 2017) was the fifth, and I am currently putting the final touches to a sixth book: Fear & Phantoms, which should be ready to read this September (see below for sneak peek of new cover)

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a ''cop-out''; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

By the time you reach book 5, you can say with confidence that you have planted your flag upon the summit of Series Mountain. Whether your trajectory goes up or down is now up for debate. I can say from avidly reading crime series, that some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat read-alike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst, (bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought!)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the ''real money'' comes from a 5 book series, which means most other writers will have been told this too. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ... and here I am already tentatively starting a seventh.

So what's your experience: Do you prefer to read a series? Or a one off novel. If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts .... 

Cover c/o Gina Dickerson (Rosewolf Design)


Wednesday, 27 June 2018

10 Top Tips for Writers



1. If possible, write on something that is NOT connected to the internet. That way you aren't tempted to check Facebook/Twitter every 5 minutes. Or less.

2. If you are writing on an internet-free laptop, make sure it isn't in the same room as the internet connected one (see 1).

3. If you can't accomplish 1 and 2 for physical/financial reasons, try to allocate yourself specific times of the day to Tweet/update your Facebook. Do not weaken.

4. Unless specific, dickering about on Google is not 'research'.

5. Checking your Amazon rating and sales figures every two days is liable to lead to suicidal feelings. Ditto reading posts from other writers who do this.

6. Ditto reading the 'I wrote a whole novel today - go me!' claims on social media

7. There is no such thing as 'Writer's Block', it is just a posh excuse for not writing.

8. The only way to write a book is to write a book.

9. If you are not constantly awash with doubt/fear/insecurity/self-loathing/envy/anxiety/panic, you probably aren't a writer.

10. Follow your dreams by all means. But make sure you have a day job.


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Why Is My Laptop Bullying Me?



About a year ago, my elderly and much loved eMac died on me. There was no warning. I woke up one morning, switched it on and nothing happened. It went on not happening for several days during which I attempted to extract stuff I hadn't backed up (DON'T TELL ME!!!). It went on not happening even when Computer Expert Husband of Friend came round and performed the equivalent of CPR on it.

Eventually I had to face reality: the computer had died, taking with it 26 thousand words of the new book into some internet black hole. There was nothing I could do. There followed a short period of mourning. I missed my computer. I missed waking up to its elegant presence on the desk. I missed the response time that was so slow, it was quicker to walk. I missed the way it let me get on with the writing without bothering about silly things like punctuation or misspelled words. I missed seeing Thermidor, my red beanbag lobster glowering at me from the top.


The desk wasn't the same. My writing wasn't the same. And I was now 26 thousand words down with a 9 month deadline looming. Enter a small purple Acer laptop. And with its arrival, my literary life has moved to a new dimension. Not, alas, for the better. The original idea was to use the laptop purely as a writing tool, like its former incarnation. Therefore it was deliberately not connected to the internet. Not that it could ever be connected to the internet, as there is no internet cable in the Writing Attic. But by some devious process of its own, the laptop has managed to locate some internet. And it doesn't like being separated from it.



Thus every time I switch it on, it messages me. Usually to inform me that I am not connected to the internet. It refuses to accept that it is in 'flight mode' and has developed a strategy whereby it locks access to my files every few months until I reconnect it to the mothership downstairs. It also dislikes the sloppy way I write, snarkily underlining stuff in red wiggly lines, and tutting to itself (OK, maybe I am fantasizing, but it FEELS like tutting).

I do not recall Charles Dickens having stand~up rows with his quill pen. I find no references to Wilkie Collins threatening to throw his writing apparatus out of the window. Last week, the ultimate happened: the laptop wouldn't let me save a chunk of the new book because 'someone else is working on the file'. Whaaaat? The cat has been questioned, but denies being the secret ghost writer. I can only conclude that the laptop has decided to produce its own version of the book, as I am clearly inadequate.

This blog post is being written downstairs on the office desktop, which is connected to the internet. I am assuming by the time I return to the Writing Attic after posting it, that the small purple Acer will have read it. I expect it will immediately start working on its revenge. Is this what they mean by the rise of artificial intelligence? Send help ~my laptop is bullying me!




Thursday, 10 May 2018

A Bad Case of Mobile Madness


As many of you know, I have a tenuous relationship with technology. Actually, my level of competence is so low, you couldn't limbo under it. And so, at the back end of last year, the Other Grumpy Old Sod persuaded me to buy a Doro mobile, on the basis that it was advertised as ideal for the elderly and mentally incontinent, thus rendering it eminently suitable to my requirements.

The suggestion was made on the back of my previous three mobiles going wrong (the most technical I get upon these matters), plus the fact that every time I used his iPhone, a conversation ensued containing the phrase: 'Now what have you done?' And for a few months, it was good. Very good. And then last Bank Holiday Monday, I lost it at the garden centre.

In my defence, I was minding the 2 yr old and 4 yr old at the time while their mother was somewhere else buying plants, and before you roll your eyes, your options are extremely limited if you are standing in a pay-queue with a loaded tray and the grandchildren suddenly decided to re-enact The Great Escape. Unless you have taken the pre-precaution of tying them to you with strong cord. Which I had failed to do.

In the ensuing fracas, my mobile must've dropped out of my bag. It took me 24 hours to realise it was missing. A further day was spent scouring the house/daughter's house and car. I then used the landline to ring back places I'd visited, and lo! second call elicited the joyous news that the mobile had been handed in at the garden centre and it was in their safe. Safe.

You really want this to now end with 'and they all lived happily ever after', don't you? Sadly not. Between the loss of the phone and its subsequent return, something had happened to the relationship between it and the charger, which refused point blank to charge it. Thus, armed with charger and phone, I sallied forth to the EE phone shop once more, and explained to the 12 year old behind the counter that I had suffered another #phonefail.

After testing both items, it proved to be the charger that was at fault. Which didn't entirely surprise me, as it is plugged in by the gas hob and might, possibly, have got closer to a lit gas ring that it should've. The 12 year old then looked thoughtful, did some lip-pursing, and frowning, and told me that if I wanted to save £7, it would be actually cheaper to buy the rock bottom 'I wouldn't give a phone like that to my cat' mobile, as the charger that came with it was compatible with my phone.

So that is the reason why I am currently the possessor of two mobile phones, upping, at a stroke, my potential for #phonefail by 100%!  OK, in theory, I am in a better position, as I have a fallback phone. But don't hold your breath, is all I can advise.




Sunday, 8 April 2018

Of Mice and Moan


Every now and then Hedges Towers is invaded by mice. They come in from the cold, like in a John le Carre novel. Unlike in a John le Carre novel, they then find themselves face to face with a small tortoiseshell cat with a rodent fixation. They do not survive long. Unless I get out of bed at 3.35am in the morning and rescue them. Or as the cat thinks: join in the fun, but then selfishly take the small furry toy away.

I tracked their current invasion to under the kitchen sink. There is a square hole where the water pipes go out. After the last invasion I'd blocked it up, but fitting a new outside tap on the Summer meant it had been unblocked. I re-blocked and applied peppermint oil. Cat then spent two nights staring fixedly at the cupboard door, like a replica of that old HMV advert with a small dog and a wind-up gramophone - but this time with a cat and a cupboard.

Sadly, misfortunes like buses always arrive in pairs. I now discover that I must expend a shedload of money on new glasses.This is because our nice local optician told me on Friday that my reading glasses had basically 'had it' - I think she used some technical word, but the bottom line is, they can't bend them back into shape any more without the whole frame breaking apart. And the little nose thingies have split and cannot be replaced.

Most of the damage has been done over the years by me putting them down to do closeup reading and then lying on them. Or dropping them off various surfaces and then stepping on them while trying to find them again. The rest of the damage has been done by Little G and Small. Apparently grandchildren are a HUGE source of glasses damage. Who knew?

So a frustrating hour was spent trying on alternative glasses - frustrating because I basically want The Identical Frames and they no longer make them. And I am so flaming short sighted that I can't 'see' myself clearly in new frames without coming within licking distance of the mirror, which is undignified on so many fronts.

The frames I like: the ones where you only have actual bits at the sides, (I refuse to channel Irene Apfel) cost over £350 - I have an unerring knack of picking out the most expensive stuff. And the lenses - don't go there. Trouble is, no glasses, no writing life. Currently we are scrabbling around down the back of the sofa and tipping out the penny jar.

So, if anybody with a mouse problem wants to hire a small tortoiseshell cat - completely unreasonable rates, but mouse problem pretty well guaranteed to be solved, please apply. Elderly myopic writer needs new glasses to write blockbuster to pay for new glasses.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Snippets from the Far Side of Sanity


So that was Easter. Despite the usual plea to the other Grumpy Old Sod not to buy me an Easter egg, I got one. A large one. Resistance gave out on Sunday evening, when almost the whole lot was eaten. In one sitting. It was interesting, in a detached way, to then observe the effect of far too much sugar on a member of the zimmerati.

Prosecco affects me completely differently. One glass, and I am the life and soul of whatever gathering I am attending. Two glasses, and I am still the life and soul, but only I think so. Nobody will ever tell me what happens after three glasses.

Be that as it may, sugar in excess makes me verbally aggressive, and  I managed to get into some great scraps on Twitter on Sunday night. An ability to spell abusive words would have helped. But you can't have everything in this life.

Monday morning, the scales told me I had overdone it. Since the cancer thing, I've been trying not to put on weight, but it's hard, on account of getting breathless far more than I used to, and finding exercise difficult as a result. Nevertheless. This was depressing, and I was so upset that I had to finish off the remaining chocolate to compensate.

However ironic this state of affairs may appear, it is NOTHING in comparison to the Brexit Blue Passport Debacle. For those who live in their own bubble: our beloved government has decided that when (if) we leave the EU, we MUST have our own British Blue passports, like we used to have in the good old days of Empire (only they were black, I still have mine from 1965).

The work was put out to tender, and a bid accepted. From an EU company, based in the EU which we are in theory, leaving next year so that we can 'take back control'. Oh how wonderful! Several of the madder patriots immediately fell over themselves justifying this on the grounds that the government was getting the best deal for the British taxpayer.

Sadly, the British company who lost the bid, doesn't agree, and is now suing the government. On what grounds, I cannot imagine ~ patriotism? Sore losers? Who knows. Whatever way you cut it, you get irony in your slice. Sometimes, you just couldn't make it up, could you?


Monday, 26 March 2018

Nitty Gritty (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)



Little G and Small LOVE their nursery and frequently bring home stuff they've made (in Small's case, with help) or paintings they've done. Sometimes, they also bring home things that are slightly less welcome. Like nits.

We have had several bouts of nits ~ refuting the myth that it's only 'poor kids whose parents don't wash their hair' who have them. You must be mad attacks the little blighters with a 'nitty gritty' comb. I don't have such an article in the house, so they tend to get gone over with the cat's flea comb, which works just as well, though the cat isn't too chuffed about it.

Small, however, is proving harder to rid of nits. His hair, now the colour of golden syrup, is thick and curling over his ears. There is a reason for this: the one and only time You must be mad took him for a haircut ~ to one of those places where you pay a small fortune for your kids to sit in cute little cars with their own personal videos, he refused to co-operate. The resultant haircut looked as if the hairdresser had been snipping at a moving target. Which is pretty much what happened.

Things have now reached a tipping point, however. Not only is there the nits sitch, but whenever Small indulges his love of dressing up as as a Pink Fairy**, complete with wings and a wand, I can get his hair into two tiny ponytails. You must be mad freely acknowledges there is a problem, but really doesn't want to go through the same rigmarole as before.

Step forward our lovely local hairdresser, who is going to give it a go on the basis that her own son was a total nightmare at a similar age, but she managed to cut his hair. Little G and I are going to do some pre-haircut indoctrination, on the lines of combing Small's hair and pretending to snip it, while chanting 'Snip...snip...snip ' in jolly voices which we will get him to repeat. L-Plate Grandad (Small's favourite person) will sit him on his lap. I will provide a selection of toys, and we will apologise to the rest of the customers in advance.
What could possibly go wrong?


** The 'Trans Activists' would tell me that Small is self- selecting his own gender. To which I say: if there are TWO dress-up fairy dresses and your big sister is wearing the WHITE one, and you like to copy her, it only leaves you the PINK one, so don't be so silly.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Would Shakespeare be on Social Media?

Left jaw-dropped on Sunday by a Facebook post on a fellow writer's site. 'I had my pants on backwards all day, who knew?' she shared. Too much info? By the end of the day seventy-three people had commented. Apart from wanting to tell her that when she reaches my age, she will discover that such occurrences are so frequent they are hardly worth remarking upon, it did make me think ... and I am still thinking ... about the way we writers now have to 'put ourselves out there'.

With the development of  Facebook/Twitter etc, it is getting far harder to preserve one's privacy - given that readers, both actual or prospective, now want to share not only our work, but our lives. And yet, here is the paradox: writers, by their very nature, possess the sort of introvert, secretive personalities that make them go and lock themselves away in a room for hours at a time, so that they can invent stuff in their heads.

No longer is this enough, though. It is now almost obligatory upon any writer wanting to sell his/her work to feed the insatiable reading public's hunger for details of their lives, or their writing regime. I wonder whether we are beginning to reach the counter-productive stage, where maintaining a high-level media profile is actually hindering the 'real' writing process from taking place. Even writing this blog means that I am not editing the 6th Victorian Detective book novel, prior to handing it over to the professionals.  Not sure how to square this circle. You?

But in answer to my question about Shakespeare, yes, I am absolutely sure he would have loved it. I can just imagine the sort of stuff he'd have posted, too: "To Deptford, where I quaffed much ale. Upon return to my lodgings, discovered I had been wearing mine hose inside out. A merry jape."

Not sure we'd have had as many plays, though



Saturday, 10 March 2018

How to be a Good Editor


Christmas is heading for the far distant horizon, so I am now embarking upon the major process of editing the first draft of Fear & Phantoms, book six in the Victorian Detectives series, before sending it to my first reader/editor for a read-through.

Editing is, in its essence, the art of making things sound better. I have had various editors in my time and they all work in different ways. My OUP editor maintained a firm hands-off stance, more or less allowing the book to emerge from manuscript to finished product unscathed with just a few marginal queries en route. On the other hand, I have had editors who carefully scrutinise every paragraph, and red-pencil everything they want changing.

It is a fine balance for the writer to maintain. On the one hand an editor does (or should) know what makes good, readable prose and so it is in one's interest to take on board suggestions offered. However it is a moot point how far an editor allows their own 'reading' of the manuscript, and involvement in the creative process to predominate over the original voice of the author. I have been told, on one memorable occasion, that a character ''wouldn't have said that''. As if I knew nothing about them. Sometimes, you have to fight for your integrity. It is never an easy balance.

On this occasion though, I shall be doing my own edits, which means I shall be fighting for my integrity against myself, which will be interesting, and the internal Civil War will probably throw up all sorts of queries. Which I shall have to refer to myself to solve. Hopefully any conflict and animosity will abate enough so that the two of us can get on with it.

By the time the book reaches my final editor, it will be almost summer. I am not good in hot weather, but the heat in the Victorian era must have been almost insupportable for women. Forced to go about in tight whalebone corsets, stockings, and numerous undergarments, forbidden to show their arms and legs for fear of exciting male sensibilities, one can barely imagine the torture they must have undergone.

And then there was the smell to contend with. In the days before Bazalgette revolutionised the sewerage system, everything made its malodorous journey through London to the River Thames, into which raw sewage and the by-products from factories, and slaughterhouses were poured, so that in the heat of summer, the stink was unbearable.

There is a story that Queen Victoria, visiting the Houses of Parliament one day, noticed small pieces of screwed-up toilet paper floating on the Thames. Upon inquiring of an official what they were, she was told that they contained messages of goodwill from her subjects.
Now that's what I call good editing.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

6 Top Tips for Successful Book Talks

Speaking to Harpenden Writers

At some point in your literary career, you may well be asked to give a talk about your books. If you are a children's writer, it is expected that you will tour schools doing just that. Even if you are 'just' an Ebook author/blogger you could still find yourself clobbered for a local festival/writing panel. It can be fun; it can be nerve-wracking. Most of how it will be depends upon your pre-prep. In this series of blogs, I'm going to share my tips from 10 years of public speaking (Including gigs at the Edinburgh and Cheltenham Literary Festivals). Look upon any invitation to speak as a selling opportunity. You may shift as many as 80 books in one session. You are unlikely to do that via Amazon/bookshops. And you could get spin-off invites.

Tips on Pre-Preparation

1. Check how long you are 'on'. It is usually an hour. Break that down into: 25 mins speaking, 15 mins questions, 20 mins book signing and informal chat.

2. Check whether you are going to be paid. The rule of thumb is if people pay to come in, you should receive at least 1/3rd of the 'door'.

Cheltenham Literary Festival
3. Make sure you let the venue know exactly what you will need on the day: table for your stuff,  another table for your books, a chair. I keep it very simple. Try not to bring loads of technical equipment. People really react better to just you and your voice.

4. Check who is responsible for the publicity. If it is a Festival, it is up to them to publicize you. Make sure you supply organisers with your bio, title of session, mention of signed books being available to purchase (you want to sell, right?) and an up to date picture. Please. I've been to talks where the writer used a MUCH younger pic for their publicity. C'mon people!

5. Offer to contact local press with an interesting press release. This is often a winner if the organisers are too busy or have far more famous writers than you to focus on.

6. Stock up with business cards and copies of your books. Make sure you have at least 2 pens that work and you can remember your name (if using a nom-de-plume.)

Book talks are really enjoyable occasions, and once you've done a few, you will really start to feel the 'buzz'. I assure you!
My 'Victorian' table