Saturday 28 December 2013

Suck It Up!

A couple of weeks ago, I read a blog that has made a huge difference to the way I now view and deal with critical comments, Twitter trolls and Amazon reviews. Sadly, I can't recall the name of the blogger - but it was a male American writer, which narrows it down somewhat.

Basically his message was: Do Not Respond. Ever. His reasoning ran thus: As a writer, you are The Brand. People judge what you write by how you present yourself. Thus, if you come over as whiny, defensive or argumentative -  however justified, prospective readers will back away.

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? If not, don't engage, he advised.

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. Ignoring them and their comments gives the impression that you are a bigger person with a wider vision, he counselled.

This rang true for me: I had just recently witnessed a couple of writers receiving bad reviews and dealing with it by complaining on social media sites - ok, their choice to do so, 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. 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 soul, figures at all. Witness the friend who recently rang up 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. (For future reference: I write in episodes, not chapters. Episodes. Got that? And I intend to write the sequel in episodes too. Pretentious? Moi?)

The lessons I learned from reading the blog were extremely useful when I started tweeting promos to Diamonds & Dust. A person on Twitter, let us call them X, (though this is not their real name) decided they did not like a particular strand of my advertising. Not at all. And they fired off a series of unpleasant tweets, informing me of their displeasure and accusing me of all sorts of stuff.

Did you see the tweets? Probably not. Why not? Because I did not respond. And I blocked the person, so that the comments are not there any more. The temptation (and it was very very tempting, believe me) was to take them on. I had to have a deep breath, stand back and ask myself: what would be the point? And I decided there was no point. I wanted people to focus on the book, not on the spat.

It has been a hard lesson to learn, especially for someone like me, who has a Degree in Confrontation. But learn it I have. Hopefully. Until the next troll sticks its head out from under the bridge ...

If you would like to read a free sample of Diamonds & Dust you can do so here  
US readers can do so here

Saturday 21 December 2013


Yes, exclusively for you, as a: ''Thank you'' for your loyal readership over the past year, THE PINK SOFA would like to welcome you to the Writing Room Theatre. Your seat has been reserved in the front row so if you'd like to settle down, sort out your sweets and snacks and suspend your disbelief pretty well as far as it will go, let us transport you back to a starry December 24th night in a little town called Bethlehem, a very long time ago. 

The curtain rise on a small studio, with an unlucky DJ who has got the graveyard shift

                                             A Starry Night In Bethlehem
DJ: And a very good evening if you've just joined us. This is Radio Bethlehem, broadcasting to Judea, Samaria and outlying regions of Galilee. That last track was Swing Low Sweet Chariot by Moses & the Pharoahs. I'm Zak, you friendly DJ keeping you company right through the night, and we've got an exciting programme lined up for you, so without further delay, let's find out who's up and about and what's happenin' tonight in the great city of Bethlehem. And first off, let's go over to our OB Unit. Jake my friend, are you there?
JAKE: Yes, Zak, I'm here.
DJ: I gather you're with some shepherds who are abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Am I right?
JAKE: (pause) No.
DJ: Er ... right. So where are you?
JAKE: Well, I'm out in the fields, but there aren't any shepherds.
DJ: No shepherds?
JAKE: Nope. Definitely no shepherds anywhere.
DJ: So where are they?
JAKE: Dunno. They were here last night. I guess they must've all gone off somewhere.
DJ: So does that mean you're not going to do one of your incisive interviews probing the intimate details of pastoral life and the place of the small agri-business in the rural economy?
JAKE: Sorry. I can give you some nice recipes for roast lamb?
DJ: Maybe not right now. OK, listeners, there are no shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, but never fear, stick with me because we've still got a very exciting show lined up for you here on Radio Bethlehem. So let's move swiftly on to Naomi, our lovely weather girl who's on the roof on the studio. Naomi, are you there?
NAOMI: Hello Zak.
DJ: And what's the weather doing tonight, Naomi?
NAOMI: Well, you know, it's night, so the weather isn't doing very much really.
DJ: Anything exciting happening out there?
NAOMI: Well, the moon is out and I can spot a star. That's about it really.
DJ: Can you give us a few more details?
NAOMI: Um ..the moon is round, and the star is kind of silver and twinkly and very bright.
DJ: No comets, shooting stars, unusual constellation patterns - possibly the odd supernova?
DJ: Son et Lumiere? Bonfires? Firework displays? Small child waving a sparkler?
NAOMI: Can't see any from up here. It's just a perfectly ordinary night. With a moon and a star.
DJ: Thanks Naomi. I'm sure all our listeners will be really interested in that. And now, before we play you some more music, let's go over to our Man About Town for a really exciting report on Bethlehem's hip and happenin' night life. Matt - hi! Where are you?
MATT: Zak - hi.  So I'm standing right outside the Camel and Pitta Bread Inn just off the main square.
DJ: Matt, I gather there have been some huge logistical problems in town tonight on account of the number of visitors to the city. Rumour has it that there is no room at the inn. Can you confirm?
MATT: So earlier today I spoke to the friendly innkeeper here at the Camel and Pitta Bread Inn and he told me there haven't been any problems. He's been able to find rooms for everybody who's turned up.
DJ: I see. So you're saying there are no major riots taking place in the streets of Bethlehem as you speak?
DJ: No cartloads of disgruntled tourists and holiday makers causing mayhem? No unnecessary acts of mindless vandalism and anti-social behaviour?
MATT: Nope. Everything's really quiet. Not even a doggie barking. There were some shepherds earlier on but they seem to have gone now.
DJ: Well thanks for that Matt. And there you have it, listeners: there are no shepherds abiding in the fields, so homeless people in the streets. Oh - and there is a star in the sky. In other words, it's a perfectly ordinary night in Bethlehem and nothing remotely interesting or exciting is happening.  Anywhere. (under breath)  Sheesh, why me? Right ... let's have some more music then.
                                                            The End

So as the actors step forward to receive your applause, it only remains for all of us at Hedges Towers to wish you A Very Happy Christmas. The PINK SOFA will be out and about over the festive season singing carols to raise money for its favourite charity: Rehouse Abandoned and Derelict Sofas. You may be unfortunate enough to find it on your doorstep. Prompt payment will always ensure it goes away.

Saturday 14 December 2013

The Victorians and Sex


Queen Victoria loved it. The morning after her wedding night she wrote ecstatically in her diary that sex was  ''a foretaste of heaven''. Unfortunately she did not enjoy what came after the nights of bliss with her beloved Albert as one pregnancy followed another. (Nineteenth century birth control was rudimentary and consisted of: abstinence, withdrawal, sheaths made of animal intestines - the advice was to wash them out between use, the introduction of a piece of sponge into the vagina to guard the mouth of the womb, or by squirting tepid water into the vagina after sex.)

Given these options, it is hardly surprising that Queen Victoria proceeded to give birth consecutively to nine children. Even if she had not enjoyed the procreative aspect, she'd have little say in the matter. After marriage, a woman's possessions, and this included her body, became her husband's. If he wanted sex, it was her duty to fulfil his needs.

Many well-brought up Victorian girls married with only the remotest idea of what awaited them sexually. The story in Diamonds & Dust of Lady Caroline Hartington, who ''tried to run away after the unspeakableness of the wedding night'' is actually based on a real event - my maternal grandmother, married at 16 to a much older man, supposedly ran back to her parents the day after the wedding. And was returned forthwith.

The same notion that girls arrived at their wedding night pure, sexless and ignorant, to be awakened (or not) by her husband can be seen in the forlorn comment of  Mary Sidgewick, married in 1859 at the age of 18 to a much older man. She later wrote in her diary: ' how I cried at Paris....the nights!'

It wasn't just young women who were in for a shock: John Ruskin allegedly was unable to consummate his marriage when he discovered on the wedding night that his bride had pubic hair. His idea of female beauty was derived from the classical Greek statues he'd seen on his travels and in the British Museum. His reaction and expectations differ little from many young men nowadays, who expect girls to be entirely hairless in all areas, as this is what they have seen on porn sites.

Of course, like their 21st century counterparts, men could always find their pleasure before or beyond the marital bed: ''London in 1860 is notorious for filth and obscenity. There are, as nearly as can be ascertained,five hundred and nine prostitutes, if you believe the Return of the Number of Brothels and Prostitutes within the Metropolitan Police Area.'' Diamonds & Dust. Sadly the same was not true for women, who were expected to remain pure and unsullied until their wedding. Or at least, not get caught....

The age of consent in 1860 was 12 and had been since the sixteenth century. Sex with a girl under 10 was a felony; with a girl between 10 and 12 was a misdemeanour. The age of consent was raised to 13 in 1875 and to 16 in 1885. There were however places where men could go for sex with very young children, who were known colloquially as ''green fruit''. The poor unfortunate victim would be taken to a room with well-padded walls, where nobody would hear the screams as they were raped. Sadly, little changes but technology: now such an event would be filmed, and shared on numerous websites. In the book, George Osborne also refers to the fictitious 'Mrs Frost's' where young girls who were virgins could be had.

We get the impression that the Victorians were all prudes and sexually repressed. Nothing could be further from the truth! This was the start of the ''info'' era, and there were manuals, pamphlets, and advice books aplenty, if you knew where to buy them. Not to mention saucy photographs. And if you were a well-brought up young person living in London in 1860, whose parents declined to tell you the facts of life, a quick stroll down Holywell Street off the Strand, the centre of the erotic and pornographic book trade couldn't fail to bring enlightenment - and a blush to your maidenly cheek.

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

Saturday 7 December 2013

Could YOU Write The Next Bestseller?

Good Housekeeping, that bastion of recipes you cut out but never make, and clothes meant for thinner, more glamorous women who are not you, is running another of its literary competitions. Last time, the comp was about self publishing, and I got very cross about it and wrote a cross blog. You can see the result here.

This latest comp (see title) is equally cross-making on many levels. Firstly, the equation of writing with ''bestseller'' is misleading as it suggests that there is very little kudos or purpose writing a book unless you intend it to join the 0.00000001% of those that have attained ''bestseller'' status.

Because ...  nowhere is there any definition of what defines a 'bestseller'' apart from the implicit subtext that it equates with money: £250,000 ''advance'' is offered to the winner, plus 'advice' from an agent and a publisher. This advice will inevitably involve rewriting the whole thing, then altering and tailoring the book to fit the zeitgeist of the publisher's list. In other words, many such books are not written, they are created in-house.

You don't believe me? Most of the 'bestsellers' from 50 Shades to Harry Potter have achieved fame thanks to re-writes, coupled with the carefully structured publicity campaign of a crack marketing team. Some aspect of the writers' lives or experience has been seized upon and a narrative built around it. Exposure is everything. The classic example of this? My former editor at Usborne was one of the 25+ to reject the unsolicited mss of Harry Potter, before Ms Rowling got an agent, who was able to place the book. The editor did not even remember reading it. Go figure.

The comp also features three successful writers who offer some useful and sound advice to the would-be literary star. However, the words 'hits', and 'bestseller' and 'top of the book charts' occur with such frequency that it says more to me about their reason for being picked than the good advice offered.

Also, the comp makes no mention of the fact that many popular books have achieved their position solely on word of mouth. You read it, like it and recommend it to a friend. The buzz grows, the book sells, and suddenly the writer is topping Bookseller or Amazon lists. Nobody can set down the formula for that. Nor for the 'slow burn' book that might take years to rise from the general pool - though this is less likely to happen today, as publishers want fast results.

Nor is there any mention of the hard work most writers put in day by day to publicise their book. Sales do not happen by themselves. Sadly, there is also not a single mention of the fact that writing a 'bestseller' is by no means the end of it. Once fame and fortune has beaten a path to your door, you will be under immense pressure to write the ''next'' bestseller, followed by the one after that.

So do I think you should not aim high? Absolutely not. I believe you always write looking at the stars, but aware that your feet are planted on the ground. Would I have liked to have written a ''bestseller''? Maybe when I started out being published, yes. Now, with 12 published books and many more unpublished ones, I really don't care any more, deriving much pleasure from a reviewer that ''gets'' the book, or someone who has enjoyed reading it and takes the time to tell me. However, if you want to go in for the competition, go for it. Good luck, but keep a tight hold on your integrity.

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