Saturday, 25 April 2015

Suck it Up! Dealing With Bad Reviews

Last week I wrote a blog about not responding to the difficult people you will inevitably encounter on Twitter. It has proved enormously popular, though I have been amazed at the number of people who didn't realise they had quite as many options. You can reread it/read it for the first time here.

A quick recap: Twitter is a very fast moving medium. A tweet has about a four second life, before it is replaced by others. Ignoring a nasty comment means that is is gone in an instant. As soon as you engage with the remark, you and the sender and the ensuing exchanges become visible to everyone. Whether you ''win'' or not, you will be seen by thousands of people. Will it enhance your ''brand'' for this to happen?

The same could be said for one star reviews. Most readers know what sort of person writes a one star review: either they got hold of the wrong book; didn't understand the book; didn't like the book (fair enough), or are another writer with a new book out, trying to diss the book - this actually happened to me when my teen crime Spy Girl series came out. After the 5th review comparing me unfavourably to another writer in the same genre, Usborne stepped in. Ignoring the naff reviewers and their comments gives the impression that you are a bigger person with a wider vision.

Recently, I witnessed a couple of writers receiving bad reviews and dealing with them by complaining vociferously on social media sites. Ok, their choice: they were clearly upset and it was important to them to say so. But the result? Everyone instantly hopped over to Amazon to read them. Yes, maybe their good friends piled in with supportive digital shoulders, but I'm not sure this was a professional way of dealing with it. Nor is complaining to Amazon. You may disagree.

As soon as we have published a book, we become less important than the readers' experience. In fact I don't think we, the sensitive tortured artistic little souls, figure at all. Witness the friend who rang up after my cancer op to see how I was, then went on to tell me at some length that they liked books written in chapters - which I had failed to do in Diamonds & Dust and Honour & Obey.

I may well get another call as I am doing it again with Death & Dominion. And will do with Murder & Mayhem if I ever get the time to write it. (For future reference: I write in episodes, not chapters. Episodes. Got that? And I intend to continue to write in episodes too. Pretentious? Moi?)

Suck it up, people. I have reviews of all starry hues. I have friends on Twitter and in that thing called ''real life'' who listen open-mouthed and entranced when I burble on about plot holes and Victorian sexual practices. I have some who seem completely unaware that I have a dark side involving a laptop and a pile of overdue library books.

It is always tempting to think less of ourselves - after all, lives are not saved and wars are not stopped by reading our novels, and we will never achieve world-saveage. But it is also not healthy to think we are more important than we are. And as someone who is just going through the rigours of a first professional edit, I can certainly vouch for that!

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Sound of Silence (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Before I took charge of Little G on a regular 2-day basis, my world was filled with noise and I hated it. There was DIY from next door, the radio playing pop music from over the way, the office computer whirring, the mobile beeping. Then there was the constant sound of traffic, people talking too loudly ... you get the picture. Sound surrounded me and was the background and foreground to most of my days.

Silence was a rare treat, an absence of noise that was like a welcome oasis to be savoured and enjoyed. I'd ease into the rare moments, feeling my shoulders untense, my breathing slowing. However, now that I have Little G, silence is something I dread.

Silence means she has managed to crawl to the stairs and is sitting at base camp contemplating a solo ascent. It means she has managed to insert tiny fingers into crevices she shouldn't (and how on earth did she find them in the first place?). Silence means she has found something unsuitable and is probably about to shove it into her mouth. Silence means unauthorised snacking is taking place.

Silence means that I have failed in my duties and reinforces my theory that You must be mad should never have entrusted Little G into my dodgy and clearly inadequate care. So I want noise, lovely lovely noise. Give me the busy scribbly sound of a small baby playing with her toys. Silence is such a vastly overrated commodity.

To be continued ...   .....

Thursday, 16 April 2015

To Block or Not to Block? - That is the Question.

As somebody who is quite capable of starting a fight in an empty room, I write this blog post in some trepidation but in my defence, I have been asked twice recently to intervene and advise people on Twitter who've found themselves in a difficult situation with other users. So here for what it's worth, is my 2p take on dealing with criticism, abuse and people who seem to have their own agenda.

When I joined Twitter in July 2012, I believed that I had to put up with whatever I got thrown at me. I also believed (indeed I still do) that it behoves us as writers NOT to get into flame wars on social media. I see myself as ''a brand'' and as such, I do not want to lose my good rep by tearing publically into other people.

I am also aware that I represent Crooked Cat Books and if I misbehave, it reflects badly on them and on the rest of my fellow writers. I always recall the sole occasion I ''did'' the Edinburgh Book Festival as an Usborne writer, and witnessed two well known authors laying into each other viciously in the writers' yurt. I have never read any of their books since. We are the brand ... as I said.

So, let's look at the various ways and means available on Twitter to rid oneself of the unwelcome Tweeter.

1. Ignore them. Basic practice. Whether they are following you or not. Just ignore. Eventually they will get the message. However, if they don't and you want to progress this a stage further:

2. Mute them: I use this for people who irritate me, but who are not personally insulting or aggressive. (I'm currently muting a lot of people whose politics I disagree with). They won't know you've muted them but it means their tweets do not appear in your timeline, giving you the chance to unmute them later.

3.  Unfollow them: If you are following anybody who you feel is making your life difficult (see below for definitions) you can just unfollow. Of course, they may still continue to follow you and send you Tweets, but they will have noticed (hopefully) that you have done the equivalent of turning your back on them.

4. Block them: This means they cannot tweet you directly, nor can they see your tweets and comment on them directly to you. It is the ultimate sanction. If they try to tweet you, they get: You are blocked from following @X and viewing @X'sTweets.

Reasons for shedding people:

1. They are taking up too much of your time.
2. They are constantly DMing about promos, reading their books etc.
3. They are being critical of your tweets/promos.
4. They are being over friendly too fast.
5. They are bombarding your timeline/convos with their opinions.
6. They are making inappropriate comments or suggestions.
7. You suspect they are not what they appear to be.
8. You feel uncomfortable about them for any or whatever reason.

Twitter is like life - you wouldn't hang out with people who criticise you or don't ''get'' you in real life. So do not hesitate to apply the same criteria to people on social media. There are plenty of lovely genuine supportive people in the Twittersphere. Hold on to them like gold dust. Trash the rest.
And finally, however tempted, taunted, teased, trolled or trifled with you get: DO NOT FIGHT BACK! You may win privately, but you will lose publicly.
Just trust me on this.

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Very Steep Learning Circle (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Since You must be mad entrusted Little G into my rickety old hands, I have learned many things. The first thing I have learned is that I know nothing. Working from this low base I have progressed to mastering a few basics. The primary one being that tops on things that are labelled 'Childsafe' are also 'OAPsafe'. The time wasted trying to open stuff is probably comparable to the time needed to read Love & Fate. (Incidentally I'm claiming that I have read it on this basis).

The same applies to clear plastic drinking cup covers. I am always handing Little G her cup with the top still on because I can't SEE it. She then tries to drink ... and hands it back. The expression of patient resignation her face is becoming hard to cope with.

There have been some minor successes, however. I can now get the purple buggy to sit, lie and stand on command, which is an advance on previous attempts. And then there are the bus timetables. Little G and I ride buses a lot. They are free and there are choices. Thus I now carry round in my head the morning, midday and early evening times of the 321 Luton to Watford bus, and the 657 St Albans bus (It used to be the 625. No, I don't know why they changed it so please do not ask me).

Given my failure to get any grade at all in O level Maths, this mastery has been rather satisfying, and has marked the zenith of my current achievements, which shows how low the bar is set. Sadly even this has now been taken away from me as last week all the local bus companies changed to their Summer timetables, so I have gone round full circle. Once again, I know nothing.

To be continued  ....   .....

Friday, 10 April 2015

The PINK SOFA meets writer Catherine Curzon

I met Catherine Curzon on Twitter in her other guise as ''Madame Gilflurt, a glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout''. Can't think why I started following her! Catherine blogs about fascinating bits of Georgian life - she is to the 18th century what I am to the 19th. So sit back and let her take you on a journey into her present and the past.

Madame Gilflurt

''It’s a real privilege to be invited to the pink sofa to chat about blogging, writing and the crowned heads of 18th century Europe!

From my earliest memory (well, not my earliest, that was breaking my arm and refusing to take my purple anorak off), my life has been full of stories. I was born in Nottinghamshire and growing up spent many long hours and the cottage on the edge of Sherwood Forest where my grandparents lived. My granddad was a great one for telling stories and he would keep us children entranced for hours with tales of outlaws in the forest, of ghosts flitting in the shadows and highwaymen on the roads.

It was my granddad who awakened my love of stories and when my gran bought me a paper dress up doll of Marie Antoinette and some generic bewigged courtiers, that was that and I was hooked. I loved the glamour of the costume and jewels and the gruesome tragedy of her demise and for a time, possibly quite a worry time for my parents, headless queens started popping up in my childhood drawings wherever I could shoehorn them in!

I have been writing fiction for a long time, everything from teenage horror to romantic thriller and onto timeslip yet I never submitted them for publication, sure that I would probably be rejected. I kept on writing though, because I had these stories that I felt like I had to tell, even if I was the only person reading them. I seemed only natural that I write something set in the period I loved and so, about four years ago, I entered National Novel Writing Month with a story of Georgian prostitutes and murderous peers.

As soon as I started writing, I found myself wishing I had tried my hand at historical fiction long ago. I love the sense of being taken back in time, the chance to lose myself in the 18th century and once NaNoWriMo was finished, I kept on writing. That novel eventually became The Mistress of Blackstairs, which I am inching ever closer to finishing but which has, for reasons which will become clear later on, had to take a backseat for a few months.

Many people have commented that writing historical fiction must be a nightmare of research but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For me, research is still an utter joy; there is always something new to discover about this remarkable era, a little gem in a gazetteer or a nugget of gossip in the letters of an apparently respectable lady!

I’m not sure what it was that prompted me, with my terror of letting anybody read my work, to start blogging, but I took the plunge in summer 2013 and I’m so glad I did. Each day I publish a story from the 18th century and I hoped that maybe a couple of hundred people might visit but the reception has been wonderful, far more than I could have hoped! My approach to blogging has to be super disciplined because I post daily so I gather notes, inspiration and stories from everywhere. As the blog has expanded I’ve been privileged to feature guest posts from the world of literature and academia and made wonderful friends all over the world and I’ve learned so much about the era that is my passion.

Despite the new characters I’ve uncovered, my favourite figure from the Georgian world has not changed. For many years I have had a very soft spot for Henry Fielding, a character I never tire of. In so many ways, Fielding captures everything was great about the long 18th century. Scandalous, irreverent, colourful and ground-breaking, his life is one that would seem far fetched in fiction!

At the close of 2014, I was contacted by a representative from Pen and Sword Books and, to cut a long story short, I am now under contract with them to write Life in the Georgian Court, a breathless romp through tales of 18th century royal scandals, marriages, grisly deaths and more! This truly is a dream come true and I still can’t quite believe it; for someone who set up a blog with the intention of giving it a few weeks to see how it went, it feels incredibly surreal and utterly wonderful. I have so many ideas for future works both fiction and non fiction, but for now, I am totally immersed in the worlds of the Bourbons, the Hanovers and more.

I may not be drawing headless queens whenever I get the chance but I can guarantee you that Marie Antoinette will definitely be there in the book, both with her head and without it!''

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, will be published by Pen and Sword Books in 2016.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Bang on Target (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Little G has now been in nursery for six weeks. Enough time to generate her first report, or EYFS Progress Check. (No, I don't know what it means. Don't ask). As a renegade student all my life who frequently got reports that began 'Carol has made an inauspicious start to the term' my amazement knows no bounds.

That a baby has to be assessed for 'Personal Social & Emotional Development' is beyond my comprehension. And then there are the Targets. Not only ''In the setting'' but also at home, there are Targets. I am supposed to be singing 'Heads,Shoulders, Knees & Toes' to her to help her name parts of the body. So that's my attempt to teach her the Alabama Song from Mahagonny out of the window for a start.

There are all sorts of other things that I/You must be mad are supposed to be doing. Yes, I'm sure her lovely nursery is only obeying orders, but I have no intention of spending my days with my granddaughter checking that I am working towards a set of arbitrary targets imposed by some misguided educational wonk who needs to go out and get a life.

Instead I shall continue to play, potter round with her, ride on buses with her and share illicit picnics on You must be mad's newly tiled kitchen floor. Until such time as I am assessed as part of her 'Primary care-giving team'. Given my academic record the result, sadly, is a foregone conclusion.

To be continued ... ....

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Book Critics - What Are They Good For? Absolutely Nothing!

At last, someone (Professor Michael Luca) has come out and said what we've always known: there is absolutely no difference in the quality and accuracy of a book review by an 'ordinary' reader on Amazon, and a professional book critic. Moreover (and we all knew this, as well) critics were more likely to praise a book when the author was well-known/a prizewinner/had garnered press-coverage/ was connected to some media outlet.

I am leery of reviews, whoever writes them, ever since Dark Side of Midnight was compared unfavourably on Amazon to a certain well-known children's writer in the same field. This happened so many times, that the words 'stitch-up' came to mind. I have also read reviews of books by writers whom I know share the same publisher/agent. Or where some personal spat is being used to exact revenge.

The fakery of the 'professional' critic was no more clearly exposed than when Robert Galbraith, crime fiction writer, whose first novel had been rather indifferently received, was exposed as J K Rowling. Cue for more 5 star plaudits than you or I have had hot dinners. And it is always ironic when Sunday Review sections ask writers to suggest their summer/Christmas best reads how often the same old familiar authors appear in different papers. No money or favours have been proffered ... of course not.

Both my Victorian Crime novels have garnered a slew of 'ordinary' reader reviews on Amazon, veering from Five Star  'Best book ever' to One Star 'Didn't like it'. They've also had a couple of mainstream reviews in The Lady, The Mitford Society Magazine and similar publications. Honestly, if you switched reviews, you'd be hard put to tell who was 'the professional' and who 'the ordinary reader'. (Well, except in the case of the One Star people.)

Charlotte Bronte was equally sceptical. She wrote in 1850, over the sisters' decision to adopt the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell: 'We had the impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes used for their chastisement the weapon of 'personality' and for their reward, a flattery which is not true praise.'

Interestingly, when Wuthering Heights was first published in 1847, Ellis Bell was praised for the strength and passion of 'his' tale. As soon as it was revealed, however, that 'Ellis' was in fact 'Emily', the reviewer slated the book as being 'odious and abominably pagan'.

Nul points, that critic.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Adventures of L-Plate Gran: Intimations of Mortality

There is nothing like taking charge of a small baby to remind you that you are not immortal. From the moment Little G was placed in my inadequate care by You must be mad, I have had a cold, accompanied by a cough, occasionally joined by a sore throat and a hoarse voice.

Little G has the same, so we cough and splutter our way around town, occasionally stopping to share a fag (no, really - we don't). After a few weeks of this and with no sign of improvement, I plucked up courage and made a doctor's appointment. Relieved to be told I do not have lung cancer (never Google your symptoms), but surprised to be told instead that I have succumbed to 'pediatric germs'.

Apparently whatever Little G picks up in nursery she brings back and distributes generously amongst her nearest and dearest. Which also explains why You must be mad has the same thing. Our delicate immune systems are not ready for the nappy'd bugs currently attacking them. Thus we are ill. All of us. All of the time.

Once Little G develops her own immunity, and the weather becomes warmer and drier, we will be better, I was told. My quite reasonable request for a prescription for a 3 week family holiday in Tuscany was turned down. You just can't get anything on the NHS nowadays.

To be continued ...  ...

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Does a Degree in Creative Writing make you a Creative Writer?

Flicking through a couple of writing mags, I'm struck by the number of creative writing courses now on offer. Anything from an MA to a BA to a short series of lectures. Even the Guardian is now cashing in and running all day sessions on how to write various types of genre fiction, non-fiction, blogs etc.

Many of these courses come with glowing endorsements from former students, some of whom have gone on to write best sellers/make small fortunes/land top jobs in the media profession. Call me Ms Cynic if you will (please do...) but I view the whole creative writing business with enough skepticism to refloat the Titanic.

I do not have a degree in creative writing. I don't have a certificate saying I attended any courses. Hell, I don't even have a badge saying writer. I just learned my craft as I wrote. Book after book after book. And as I read. Book after book after book. Because reading and writing was all I ever wanted to do.

So here's my take on the proliferation of degrees, second degrees, courses and 'Be a creative writer' stuff:

You can learn the structure of writing: how to balance sentences; how to vary action and description. You can learn how to construct characters, and how to write dialogue. You can learn grammar and punctuation.  BUT that spark, that inner drive, that ''talent" that separates the real writer from the creative writing clone is innate. You are born with it. And if you ain't got it, you ain't.

And as for the ''best seller'' newbie writers, who have probably landed their publishing contract on the back of their writing tutors' connections to various publishing houses, (shock horror .. did you not realise that's how it works?) once they leave the cosseted hothouse world of the degree course, and let go of their mentor's hand, it is rare to see them flourish beyond that first carefully nurtured book.

The finest writers in the canon of literature: Shakespeare, Keats, Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy etc never went on a creative writing course, and never passed a single exam in creative writing. Would their works have been better if they had? I think not.