Friday, 28 February 2014

F, 63, GSOH.

So I'm idling through the Guardian's 'Soulmates' column, as you do because it has good adjectives, and I am struck by the number of ladies and gentlemen who are looking for love - or possibly romance, friendship, affection, a good time, adventure, passion or felicity (yup, copied that last from someone's ad.)

Which makes me think that nothing really changes, does it? When I was researching for Honour & Obey, the sequel to Diamonds & Dust, which is all about the Victorian search for the perfect man, I read a brilliant book called Shapely Ankle Preferr'd  by Francesca Beauman. It is the history of the Lonely Hearts Ad from 1695-2010. Yes, that is not a typo.

Admittedly I know I am lucky in that Beloved Husband and I have been married for 39 years come this September, and although those of you who know us well would say that in our case it is definitely Mr Chalk wed Ms Cheese, we go along amicably and are looking forward to growing even older together. We still make each other laugh. A lot. In his case, every time I open my mouth and say something about football.

Others do not have such good fortune. 'Good fortune' being the critical attribute. To snare Mr Right in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not so much GSOH as ''Comeliness, Prudence, and 5 or 600l. in Money, Land or Joynture'' that would guarantee you an admirer quicker than you could say knife. Or wife.

By the 1800's, there were fifty-three newspapers all containing lonely heart ads of one sort or another. I was fairly gobsmacked at the audacity of one advertiser who wrote: ''A young man wants a wife with two or three hundred pounds; or the money will do without the wife - whoever will advance it shall have 5%'' (Daily Advertiser) Not for nothing did Jane Austen pen those famous words at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice that: 'a young man in possession of a good fortune ... must be in want of a wife.'

In a way, I guess we are more fortunate (sic) in that money does not feature quite so prominently in today's search for love, though I'm sure it lurks behind the scene, gurning happily. Even so, it is sad that in our digital, well connected age, when we are all supposed to be only 6 steps away from each other (or possibly 6 feet away from the nearest rat, can't remember, but maybe not inapposite, given the topic) that there are still so many lonely folk around.

And oh my, so many over 60's! Maybe I'll hang on to Beloved Husband for a bit longer. I can't see anyone going for: Totally batty writer (64) likes cake, cats, 2CVs and prosecco. Knows absolutely zip about football ...  can you?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Do Writers Need Agents?

It's a question I get asked. It's a question I see asked frequently on social media sites. So here is my 'take' on the agent dilemma. Please read this with the mindset that I am one writer, with my own views and experience. You may disagree. Feel absolutely free to do so.

I began writing without an agent. My first 7 books (counting from the bottom of the book pile up) were just submitted on a wing and a prayer. Then three books in, OUP decided I was not selling in sufficient amounts to warrant another contract, and closed the door. At which point a writer friend kindly suggested I try their agent, and even more kindly effected an introduction. As I had a track record, the agent (a big London based one) agreed to represent me. I was thrilled. More thrilled when my agent managed to place a book with Usborne.

But four Spy Girl books later, it started sliding downhill. The agent failed to place the next 4 books. They seemed to be taking an age to read them initially. I got sent no feedback from publishers on why they'd rejected my work (essential for redrafting and improving). I began to wonder whether my books were, in fact, being sent out ... trust started eroding. The final ''straw'' was the complete rejection of Diamonds&Dust - the agent saying it was in essence a load of rubbish, not worth even sending out on spec. We parted. I placed the book with Crooked Cat Books. It came out in December last year and is already up for two major literary awards. You can read its reviews on Amazon for yourself

That's my story. I would never trust my work to an agent again. However, we are talking you ... so:

Good reasons to have an Agent:

* You will never be able to submit to the BIG publishers, who won't take unsolicited manuscripts without one.

*  You will have someone to negotiate contracts, advise on your future trajectory and manage any monies.

Reasons why you do not need one

* Agents take between 10% to 15% of  your earnings (and you are unlikely to earn more than 40% of the published price of your book anyway).

* ALL writing that you want to be published has to be submitted via them and is subject to contractual obligations (see above).

* You have to trust that they are submitting your stuff to the ''right'' publisher, chasing responses and keeping on top of things.

* There is no guarantee of publication. You may find the best agent on the block, who fulfills all your requirements, but big publishers are courted by many many agents.

*Agents are not there for you. They are there primarily to make money for their agency. As your sales drop, or they can't place your books, their interest wanes (that, in essence, was my story).

Indie publishers (now, along with self-publishing, the future for a large % of writers) will take unsolicited submissions and are happy to deal directly with a writer - and in this day and age are unlikely to hand you a bad contract: if you are unsure, the Society of Authors can be contacted for help.

Lest you are thinking: Ah, but once I have my agent, and they have secured my fabulous five book deal with a top publisher, everything will be roses, prosecco and candyfloss, let me introduce a final cautionary note. I was recently speaking to a very well known and popular writer on Facebook. The sort of writer you and I envy for her success. She candidly confessed that she is not sure she will secure another contract with her current publisher. And her agent is not replying to her emails.

Do you need an agent? I'd say that if you are good enough to be taken on by one, you probably don't.

If you'd like to read a free sample of my book Diamonds&Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here. US readers can do so here.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Water, Water Everywhere!

River Lea at Batford, Harpenden, flooding into the leat (courtesy of Natalie Edwards)

It seems never ending. This time last year we were all up to our knees in snow, and I got frostbite trying to back a borrowed transit out of a tight space (you can read all about it here) Now we are all being flooded by endless rain, and although we are not seeing devastation anything like other parts of the country, we are seeing areas of land covered with water that have not been before.

The area above (River Lea flooding into the leat at Batford) is just a hop and a jump from a run down industrial estate that a local developer wants to build on (the same developer that will build on Westfield allotments if planning permission is ever granted, remember this?) Local people, in a laughable ''consultation process'', suggested some of the things they'd like to see if planning permission were granted. A surgery, a chemist, a community meeting point, a post office and a cafe being high on their bucket-list. Bless. Of course the developer has rejected this, because, let's face it, it won't generate enough profit, and instead has put in for offices, flats and a paltry amount of ''affordable housing''.

The Environmental Agency has now designated the whole locality an area of high flooding risk (see pic, they're not wrong). The developer has insisted they will put in mitigation strategies. Which, translated into reality means that at some point, they will go back to the council and say that the cost of the strategies is so high that they won't be able to build the ''affordable'' houses after all. That's how it works. And the Town Council, which seems to be in thrall to its own arrogance as well as to any large developer ... will roll over and let them renege on the agreement. That is also how it works.

And the whole area will continue to flood. But who cares? Money will have been made. No face will have been lost. That's what's important to the Tory mindset, seemingly. I have been sickened by the pictures of terrified farm animals being herded into lorries and driven away on the Somerset levels. More sickening still is the ''blame game'' now being played by the same government ministers who cut the flood defence budget, took money away from the Environment Agency, reduced staffing levels, denied climate change was a real prospect, sold off the dredging equipment, and now are finger pointing like the heartless uncaring offspring of unwed mothers that they are.

It should never be forgotten that this government also relaxed the planning laws in the face of severe pressure from the building lobby, making it easier for ruthless greedy developers to build upon flood plains. And urban green spaces. The one I'm trying to defend has been happily soaking up the rain like nobody's business, so we only suffered some flooding behind my house, but it will contribute considerably to local flooding if/when it is entirely tarmacked over. We look forward with dread to Winters of sandbags and misery.

The climate may change, the Tory mindset at all levels does not.

Friday, 7 February 2014

How (not) to Plan a Novel

Picture courtesy of Jonathon Fetcher @JonGardener

Whatever we write, be it short story, play, novel or poem, we all go through the same initial process: Planning. There are more ways of planning a piece of writing than there are pieces of writing - please read on quickly as I'm not sure this analogy works.

It is said you are either a ''planner'' or a ''pantster''. As the world's weirdest combination of the two (more anon) I don't think I am in the slightest degree qualified to lay down the law on the Hows and How Nots. Nevertheless, given that my lack of expertise has never stopped me piling in and sharing my ignorance, and several people who've read Diamonds & Dust  have asked me how I went about it, here's what I do:

Thinking: Every book I've ever written has started in the same place. Inside my head. I spend an inordinate amount of time before starting, and during the writing process just mulling over ideas for story development, or characters. Many of them will be discarded. Sometimes I do this lying on my bed, sometimes I go for a walk, sometimes I carry the story around whatever I'm doing. But however it happens, nothing begins without a lot of thinking taking place. No notes are made at this stage. The thinking will recur regularly right throughout the writing process.

After a lot of cogitation, I progress on to:

Sketching: This is where I might make a few notes on paper. More likely I will write up small sections of the book, or small pieces of dialogue that I quite like. I know the names of the main characters (secondary ones get named as they appear). At this stage I usually have a couple of ''pages'' at the end of a file named ''new book'' with phrases or descriptions that I think I might incorporate.

When I think I know, very roughly, what I might want to say, I progress to

Researching: For Diamonds & Dust I visited London and took pictures of the areas I thought I wanted to use. I went online and searched for original documents (there are loads on various Victorian sites). I transferred the entire contents of 3 local libraries' Victorian history section to my TBR pile (rotating as necessary). And I read every novel written in the period that I could -- frequently skimming to get a sense of it.

At this stage, I have a couple of random pages of notes, some online, a pile of downloaded articles, and books with bits of paper and bus tickets poking out of them. (Jon, who writes sci-fi, watches films and documentaries and reads sci-fi books). Again, researching is not a finite process and will change as I write and need to find out different things.

And now, I start:

Writing: I always do this the same way. I write the end. Then I write the opening section. (Not alone in this: Jon also writes the end first as he likes to know where he's going) Then I write a bit more of the opening ... a bit more of the end. Then I kind of join them up. Yup. Weird. And AT NO STAGE do I ever have a clear idea of the overall structure of the book or what is going to happen next. It's like fast downhill skiing in the dark.

No serious pre-plotting is ever done. None. No story arcs. No narrative graphs. No cards files. Nothing. The story evolves as I write it. And I write in short episodic sections, rather than chapters, tracking the story through a host of different characters. It's a spirally way of doing it rather than a linear one. I think it makes the story far more pacy and exciting - certainly for me as the writer, although it is sometimes like herding cats as bits of plot wonder off into the long grass and have to be rescued.

As I write, I also revise in the light of the direction the story is taking. The whole thing takes about a year. And then I have to go back and edit. So that's me. Chaos and madness. How do you plan ....?

If you'd like to read a free sample of Diamonds&Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so here. US readers can do so here.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

THE PINK SOFA welcomes writer Lizzie Lamb

The PINK SOFA is truly delighted to welcome talented, funny and parrot-owning writer Lizzie Lamb. I met Lizzie for the first time a couple of years ago at a meeting of the RNA London Chapter. I was about to launch my ebook Jigsaw Pieces, and she was about to launch Tall,Dark & Kilted. Time has been good to both of us: Lizzie is now working on her third novel and it is a real joy to watch her rise to literary prominence. 

Having missed Burns Night, and not wishing to cause offence to the Pink Sofa's per haggis, Harris, there are tartan-iced cupcakes and frothy coffee on the coffee table. So, Lizzie over to you ....


or, how I became an indie author without the aid of a safety net

In July 2012, I formed The New Romantics 4 with three other writers.  Coining the phrase: ‘sisters doing it for themselves’, we published our novels on Amazon and Create Space. Our novels had been through the Romantics Novelists’ Association critique system and we felt they were good to go, so we lit the blue touch paper and stood well back. Three months later, after mastering the intricacies of ITIN forms, W8-BEN, and how to format and upload our novels for Kindle (and as a Create Space paperback), I finally held Tall, Dark and Kilted in my sticky mitts in (October 2012).

Fast forward to November 2013 and the publication of Boot Camp Bride. Two novels in a year, I hear you say? If it’s that easy, I think I’ll have a go. Well, concentrate, because here comes the science bit - how to create a market for your books from a standing start.

Luckily, I’d been a Facebook since 2008 and had friends who were either published authors or avid readers. When I came out of the closet and said: ‘My name’s Lizzie and I am a writer,’ they were supportive. I tried my best not to swamp them with posts all about writing - the parrot (of whom more, later) comes in very handy in that respect. In January 2013 I established Lizzie Lamb - writer page on Facebook and concentrated my ‘writerly news’ there, but there is of course some overlap. I also joined numerous Facebook sub-groups: Chick Lit Goddesses/Writers on the Same Page/ Write on Girls etc to promote myself.  
I already had a Twitter account and, after publication, I started to post daily about my writing, making sure I interspersed promotion with more chatty, user-friendly stuff. I started to follow (and be followed by) more writers and now have a daily retweeting regime on a quid pro quo basis. That seems to work. Through twitter interactions, I have acquired lots of lovely readers who have followed me onto Facebook and become friends. 

As I got into the flow of promoting myself and my books, I started to think about having a website. The New Romantics 4 paid Nettie Thompson of Meldrum Media to create a website for us; then she created an individual website for me I’m starting to use more regularly since publishing Boot Camp Bride and have recently added FIRST PERSON SINGULAR where I will invite well-known authors to talk about their work.

Believing that I had established my credentials with Tall, Dark and Kilted, I contacted book bloggers, asking to be featured on their sites. So far, no one has refused! If you want to learn more about the blogs I’ve been featured on/book blogging sites, check out my pinterest board.

Carol, you asked me, ‘how often do I promo.’ The answer has to be ‘most of the time’. But I try and promo on different sites on different days so that people don’t get sick of seeing my name pop up (again). I also blog for another group of indie writers The Famous Five Plus. Check out a post I wrote back in March about this very subject. On top of promoting, there’s always the next book to write. I didn’t say it would be easy, did I?

My advice to any one who is thinking of publishing a novel is to get the systems (Facebook, Twitter, blog, Pinterest etc) in place before you finish the book. Read other authors, write reviews for their books, read blog posts and comment on them - in short, build up your persona as an author who ‘gives’ as well as ‘takes’.

What else? Oh yes, having a fabulously understanding husband and a mad, talking parrot called Jasper. Jasper Parrot - geddit? He’s there to shout: BREAKFAST READY, WHAT YOU DOING? and I WANNA A CHOCOLATE BISCUIT, among other things. He has quite a repertoire.  When I leave him alone for too long he calls out: COME ON MUMMY! pulling me out of my  dream world and making me give him attention. Thus, he saves me from rounded shoulders, DVT and writers’ pallor. I’ve promised him a starring role in my next rom com ~ Scotch on the Rocks. Watch this space.

Meanwhile . . . here’s a bit about my current book, BOOT CAMP BRIDE -

Charlee Montague is an up-for-anything rookie reporter desperate for her big break. She dreams of something, anything, which will take her away from the daily grind at celebrity-driven magazine What’cha!  When she is sent undercover to a boot camp for brides on the windswept Norfolk marshes, it seems as if all her Christmases have come at once. Posing as a blushing bride-to-be, Charlee has to get the skinny on supermodel Anastasia Markova and her oligarch Russian boyfriend. However, every rookie needs a more experienced partner as backup and Charlee is no exception. At her side (posing as her fiancĂ©), is award winning photographer Rafael Ffinch. World-weary Rafa has recently survived a kidnap attempt in Colombia and is no mood to cut inexperienced Charlee any slack. Furthermore, he makes it plain at the outset of their assignment that there is no room for love in his complicated life. Once the investigation is over, their partnership and fake engagement will be terminated.
            From the moment she sets foot in the boot camp Charlee senses that there is more to the simple ‘dish-the-dirt-on-the-A-list model’ story she’s been sent to cover. Journalistic antennae twitching, Charlee carries out an investigation of her own. What's the real reason behind Ffinch's interest in super model Anastasia and her shady Russian fiancĂ©? How is it connected to Rafa’s kidnap in Colombia? In setting out to uncover the truth, Charlee uncovers yet more secrets and puts herself in danger.
            And, as the investigation draws to a close, Charlee is faced with a dilemma - will she be able to keep her promise, hand back the engagement ring and walk out of Rafa’s life without a backward glance?

Boot Camp Bride - Romance and Intrigue on the Norfolk marshes - November 2013

Tall, Dark and Kilted Notting Hill Meets Monarch of the Glen - 2012