Guest Post by Essie Fox - plus Prize Draw to win a signed copy of The Somnambulist!


What could be lovelier at this time of year than a walk in the English countryside, with everything so fresh and green you can almost taste the sap in the air?

These days I live in London, but I often return to Herefordshire and have such happy memories of childhood walks in the local woods, where I used to run along sun-dappled paths, where the darkness around seemed magical. But I always stayed very close to my mother. I never wanted to go and get lost, because who knew what monsters those trees might hide.

The romance and mystery – and fear – of those woods went on to inspire my novel. The heroine, Phoebe Turner, is raised in the bustle and grime of East London. But then, one hot summer she leaves her mother to work in a sprawling country house – and that house is surrounded by miles of woods where Phoebe often wanders alone, unaware of what dangers and secrets might lurk in those shadows...

My skirts brushed against the damp grasses. Directly ahead trees were steaming with moisture almost as if they were living and breathing. I hesitated, and all Nature’s sounds seemed to hesitate too, as if those woods sensed my arrival, the stranger about to enter their dawn realm of dappled green gloom.’

The house in which Phoebe goes to live is as real and alive as those woods to me. It has haunted my thoughts for many years, ever since those Sunday afternoon drives where, on one particular route, I would peer through the car’s back window and see tall iron gates looming out of the verge, and beyond them a long straight gravel drive at the very end of which was a house – and the feelings I had on seeing that are echoed on Phoebe’s arrival …

I shivered and yawned with exhaustion, finally letting my eyes droop closed – only stirred when Jim pushed my head from his shoulder, when he jumped from the cart to close up some gates which, being of iron, very heavy and large, made the most horrible clanking sound. And now, wide awake from that raucous alarm, as we drove on past expanses of lawns, nothing prevented my view of the house – a central square tower above an arched entrance, castellated walls running either side, and so many windows, I couldn’t count – and each one unlit and unwelcoming. But, as the moon’s face broke through fast-scudding clouds I saw something else that quite took my breath, the thing that was lying behind that house, spreading upwards and outwards for several miles: the dense, sloping woodlands that glistened like silver. And, being quite overawed, and sounding far more like Old Riley than me, I exclaimed, “Strike a light! What a wonder. I’ve never seen so many trees in my life.”’

I always felt a tingling excitement whenever I saw that view. To my fanciful eyes it seemed to be the setting for a fairy tale, and surely a sleeping beauty must be hiding somewhere within those walls. But, as the house was privately owned no opportunity ever arose to see if my suspicions proved true – until one hot summer holiday when I came home from university and was offered the job of a cleaner; a post I accepted immediately, and though not particularly fond of the work it did give me the chance to explore every room and soak up the wonderful atmosphere – a mixture of mediaeval splendour combined with the later Victorian wings. One moment I was polishing ancient suits of armour, the next I was dusting ornate sets of china, or changing the linen on four poster beds, or gazing into the orangery; a glass house designed by Paxton who also constructed the Crystal Palace that once graced Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Hampton Court in Herefordshire – renamed in my novel as Dinwood Court – really is worth a visit today, if only to see the redesigned gardens which are absolutely glorious, or to sit in the elegant café converted from Paxton’s orangery – though personally I’d much rather see it filled up with pots of palms and ferns. And perhaps, when you’ve had your cup of tea, why not venture on up into the woods and imagine my heroine’s spirit there – just sleeping, just waiting to come to life.


Essie Fox’s debut novel, The Somnambulist, is a Victorian gothic mystery published by Orion Books on May 26th. To be in with a chance of winning a signed copy, leave a comment below and we'll draw the lucky winner's name out of a silk-lined top hat.

Essie’s website is:
Essie blogs as the Virtual Victorian:
The Hampton Court official site:

And the winner is . . .

We are delighted to announce the winner of our short story competition.

In the third place was Coalescence by Julia Dalby.

In second place was In the Attic by M Wilkinson.

And the winner is My burglar by Carys Bray.

Many congralutation to Carys. A quick search on the internet reveals that Carys was born in Southport in 1975. She has a BA in Literature from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Edge Hill. She is currently immersed in preliminary PhD research. She writes short fiction, but hopes to stretch her attention span and plotting skills into novel dimensions during the coming months. She has four children between the ages of seven and thirteen.

If Carys would like to send an email to Strictly Writing, we would be delighted to arrange the payment of your prize. We would also like to invite you to do a guest post for us here.

Hot Gossip

I don't know about everyone else but I've been fascinated by the whole super-injunction v Twitter saga that's been playing out this week.

On the one hand I can see that if it were me I wouldn't want the details of my sex life splattered over the red tops. On the other hand, I really can't see why it was necessary.

Footballer Has hardly so shocking that the man in question could consider himself in threat of excommunication or losing his free-weekly-boots contract.

To be honest, I'm really not mithered about what anyone gets up to between the sheets but what really did grip me was the way that the law was circumvented by the virtual world. The creativity and humour on display was, for me a writer, quite awe inspiring.

One corker worth mentioning here was on Mumsnet: a thread entitled 'Isn't It A Huge Coincidence How Much Imogen Thomas Looks Like Ryan Giggs' Wife?'
Hundreds of people posted replies, almost, but not quite, breaking the terms of the injunction.

Then, on Twitter, tweeters actually started to break the injunction and like the nasties escaping Pandora's Box, there really wasn't any putting them back in. It felt like a rear guard action, defending freedom of speech. I was almsot sorry when John Hemming MP ended it all by using parliamentary privilege to name the footballer in question. When the grown ups got involved, somehow all the fun was taken out of it. By the time the BBC had dared entered the arena everyone had lost interest.

Like I say, I found the whole thing fascinating and as I don't actually think that Ryan Giggs' rep will be shattered by the 'revelation' that he's been shagging an attractive brunette...I just enjoyed the ride. But there is of course a serious point to all this - how far should we the public seek protect our right to freedom of speech?

As a writer, I'm instinctively against any attempts to keep me in check. I react badly to gagging orders and bans and the like. The State is just a bunch of people we voted in to run our hospitals and wotnot...its job isn't to tell me what to think or what I am or am not entitled to know.

Clearly 70,000 people on Twitter felt the same.

Then again, if we are entitled to free speech, surely we also have a responsibilty to use it wisely?
I feel I should be allowed to say exactly what I want in my books without fear of supression...but then again, there are some things I wouldn't say, wouldn't feel it was right to say. While I will depict, for instance rape in my books, I won't write it in any way that might be sexually stimulating. There are, I think, lines that one wouldn't want to cross.

I had a dilemma in book four, Blood Rush, in the scenes depicting the manufacture of crystal meth and also the scenes depicting gang violence. I decided it was right to make them graphic, but I was aware that others may find these scenes upsetting. It took me a long time to find a balance I was happy with. Certainly not an overnight decision. I wonder whether any of the tweeters gave much thought to their own expressions of freedom of speech. I hope so.
Or I hope they would if the information at stake was something more important.

Someone's illness perhaps? Or a story about a child?

I guess the question is whether we should each look to our moral compasses or whether the powers that be should do it for us...

As the Chinese say 'May you live in interesting times.'

The right to write

Who has the right to write? All of us, I guess. But when the cult of celebrity takes over and breaks into the popular fiction market, there are many writers among us who get the hackles up at this brazen move.

I’m referring to the ever-growing list of A to Z list slebs who feel the need to pen some kind of popular fiction novel. I absolutely love The Hills for light entertainment, but now that the show’s reality star Lauren Conrad has penned a novel or three, it’s made me somewhat queasy. I read an excerpt from her book and I’m not even going to share my views on its merits or lack of. Put it like this – if I was an agent’s assistant, it would be straight into the recycling basket. But readers who have ploughed their way through the first in the series, 'LA Candy' have eagerly reviewed it on websites including Amazon. “OMG, this is brilliant!!” said one. Another reviewer thought it was (alarmingly) ‘well-written.’ Apparently Lauren has stressed that she has written them all on her own without a ghost writer in sight. And I would believe that. Reading an excerpt is not good for your health as you may end up with an IQ lower than plankton. It's like...a bit like the dialogue on The

Another so-called ‘writer’ (cough, splutter) is Katie Price. Why bother putting your name to trashy tat which you didn’t write in the first place? I can’t understand that, apart from the financial aspect of course. No shame Katie! Granted not everyone is blessed with a good command of English, but why not do something you’re good at. Stick to modelling/taking your clothes off, or acting. It’s like me claiming to have painted the Mona Lisa when in reality I can only draw stick men. Sorry, but I’ll stick to a hobby I’m genuinely interested in, and one in which I can invest time and effort. According to reports, Katie Price hasn’t even read her own autobiography.

While these sorts of books lack literary merit (don’t clear your mantelpiece for an award love) are we justified in criticising the ‘authors’ for their fluffy tales of romance and adventure which pull in millions of readers? A sort of modern day Enid Blyton (my primary school teacher blew his lid when he caught us reading Enid!) Perhaps they are aimed at readers who otherwise wouldn’t open a book to experience escapism or to enhance grammar and spelling. Co-incidentally, Jamie Oliver and Victoria Beckham claim to never have read a book in their lives. What kind of example does this set to the computer-gaming generation? If you haven’t read a book don’t boast about it! Shut up.

And a final word - please don’t buy me any of this reading material for Christmas. I’m predicting Cheryl Cole will be the next sleb to start penning novels. Let’s see…the story will be about a reality television star who marries a premiership footballer who ends up cheating on her. You read it on Strictly first! I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or scream with jealousy. Seeing these books on shelves may well persuade any hard working author to hang up his or her quill and start stripping instead.

A Love Affair With Words

This morning, I’ve been chatting to myself, often aloud, the sort of conversation that one has with oneself when collecting the washing, unloading the dishwasher whatever. Telling myself, in fact more warning myself, that I’ve got to sit down today during the allocated time to finish the WIP as planned. Nothing – absolutely nothing - short of a natural disaster outside my front door, is to stop me.

My allocated time to write today is quite generous. There’s a three hour window between 3-6pm and I know exactly what I have to do. I appear to be back on track, though I take nothing for granted. I have a feeling in my tummy that’s more excitement than anxious knawing, so I’m hopeful the words will flow. It’s been a good morning, one where ideas and scenes have been germinating. But past experience has also taught me that come three o’clock, I may chew my nails, look out the window, wonder where the hoover is, or like I’m expecting to, crack my knuckles and formulate actual words from the morning’s seeds.

I love this feeling. That frisson of excitement when time has been put aside for doing something I’m passionate about. It’s like the early stages of a love affair. You sort of know what to expect, or at least know what you’re hoping for, but at the same time, there lurking at the back of your mind is the possibility that all may not go well.

Today’s post is a short one. I have figured over the years that I have only so many words to write per day, so I’m selfishly saving most of them for later. Wish me well between 3 and 6pm. I’m either going to be enjoying the love affair, looking forward to a happy future with my chapters, or wondering if that last colour wash is ready yet.

Why don't they just tell us?

It has been said many times [citation needed] that 90% of the slushpile is awful. And this doesn't mean 'not publishable in the present climate' – it means 'absolutely bloody God-awful; awfuller than Rebecca Black's Friday if it were sung in duet with Justin Bieber and accompanied by Ann Widdecombe doing an interpretive dance.'

I've never seen a slushpile and I have no idea whether this is true. I find it difficult to believe – surely it can't be that bad? And if it is, then wouldn't agents just tell people to give up and stop wasting everybody's time? While first getting rejected, I almost wished someone would just come out and say 'Look, this is rubbish. Stop kidding yourself. You'll be selling potatoes for the rest of your life and you've got to accept the fact that's all you're good for.' I just wanted to know, one way or the other, whether I was deluding myself.

Except agents don't tell us anything of the sort – and now I'm very glad about that. If I were an agent, there's no way I'd be dictating who should stop writing and who might have some very carefully concealed talent that will emerge twenty years later.

This is not just because people might come round and boil me in a vat of green ink, and not just because composing individual letters would be boring and annoying, but because writing ability is not something that remains fixed from the moment we learn how to hold a pen. The writer who sends in a grubby hand-written tale with a narrator that turns out to be goldfish might wise up, work hard for the next several years, read hundreds of brilliant books in their genre, write something that hits the zeitgeist and find out how to submit it properly. (Or they might set up a funny Twitter account and get a book deal in two seconds.)

Writing is a bit like singing, in that people are expected (or expect) to be able to do it naturally, as though ability is doled out at birth and you either have it or you don't. How often have you heard someone state that they 'can't sing', as if that's the way it is and there's nothing they can do about it? And yet it's possible to learn to use your voice just as it's possible to learn an instrument. If you'd always wanted to play the violin, you wouldn't sit there and bemoan the fact that you couldn't. You'd save up for lessons and practise a lot. You'd expect a fair few tortured-cat sound effects at first but they'd all be part of learning and improving.

It's fine – indeed, inevitable – to have a tortured-cat stage of writing too, but this doesn't mean everything we ever do will be rubbish. By communicating with other writers, by reading everything in sight and studying how favourite and not-so-favourite authors do things, and most of all by sitting on our arses and getting hundreds of thousands of words onto the page, even the most unpromising of us can work on our craft.

It stands to reason that a lot of us are going to make a mistake and send something out before it's ready. It would be pretty grim if agents took it upon themselves to tell us to give up, just because we didn't know what we were doing, yet. At the time, I thought it would be a relief to know that my submissions were the pits – but I'm glad no one went so far as to say so.

In lieu of Inspiration: A post from my girl...

My Name is Alice.

Being the daughter of a full-time modern mother is very confusing. She comments on my Facebook wall posts, takes the Mickey out of my pictures, and generally embarrasses me. She is on the computer more than I am and I’m seventeen – uh, hello? Who’s the teenager here? She gets excited when she gets new Facebook friends or new Blogger followers. She’s constantly looking at her blogs viewing figures and then screeching when she beats her last average. She is fanatic about her books and her reading – reading books when she’s in bed, on the toilet, and when we’re supposed to be watching TV. But then again, she tweets when she’s doing those things too.

Being the daughter of a writer is another thing. She moans when she has no inspiration, even though she’s constantly coming up with new and inventive things to write about. It does get me down when she gets sad about not finding an agent and then seeing others get published. I think it makes her feel like she’s getting pushed down, like she’s not good enough. But she is, and I just wish my mum’s dream could come true – I hope that one day it will.

Because my mum writes, it used to inspire me to write, although I was never very good at it – my stories were dull, and a little bit short. I could never find the write kind of stuff to fill up a whole book! I used to write about talking animals – thanks to the Warrior Cats series – and I loved getting immersed into my own world. The only problem with this was that I couldn’t quite get the words onto the page; I think I was about 9 when I wrote them, so the stories were best kept in my head. I then wanted to become an author myself, before discovering my love for cameras and photography, and then my love for moving image rather than photographs!

Being an English Literature student I have had to read two novels and two selections of poetry (and blogged about it here) but I hate being forced to read something. If I want to read it, I will choose to read it, don’t force it on me! Sadly, I have another year of having to read books pushed in my direction, but hopefully they’ll be more interesting than these last ones. Though because of this course I have realised that Auden was a great poet and that Browning was a little bit messed up – I never thought I’d be able to appreciate poetry the way I do now. Speaking of which… I should probably be revising them now!

So my mother, my wonderful, beautiful, inspirational mother has way more talent than any agent has managed to read into her books so far, and hopefully she’ll be picked up sooner rather than later. I know she deserves it. Followers and viewings make her seem appreciated – so keep it up! Make my mum feel like the special person she is!

NB: No bribes were passed before, during OR after the writing of this, although a tear may have been shed following the reading of it.  I *heart* my girl!

Neil Gaiman on Doctor Who

Okay so I'm cheating a little bit by posting this instead of blogging today. I know that. And I'm sorry. But it's Neil Gaiman! And he's talking about writing for Doctor Who! What's not to love?

Even if you hate Doctor Who, or Neil Gaiman [although I can't quite imagine that's possible], hang on for the bit of writing advice at the end. You may have heard it before, but it's still the most important tip you'll ever hear...

The votes are almost in

Thank you to everyone who voted for a winning story for our competition. The voting is now closed and we are at the count. We are also waiting for one or two votes from the Strictly Writing team (you know who you are!).

We will announce the winner and runners-up on Friday 27 May. Don't forget to check in here on that day. Join us for a virtual glass of Champagne as we toast the winner.

Don't just be yourself

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

If Robert Burns' suggestion came true, there's a danger that we'd all jump off a cliff and there wouldn't be anyone left in the world.

But what if it were our writing that we could view through another's eyes? Some of us might be horrified and some pleasantly surprised, but either way we'd have a revolutionary editing tool.

A famous writer (who might have been Bernard Cornwell or Stephen King, but I can't remember and might possibly have imagined reading this somewhere) tells of a discovery he made while faced with the despair of reading over his own work. He took a favourite book by an author he admired, and typed out a few pages on his own typewriter. Transformed into something that physically looked just like his own writing, he realised that he judged it more harshly than he did when it looked like a 'proper' book.

This tactic can work the other way round too – when approaching the home straight of editing, I want to gain emotional distance from my work, and be as tough – or, indeed, as lenient – as I would be if it were written by someone else. I've tried the following ploys to gain that distance, and it's surprising how well a simple practical change can show up the clunky bits.
  1. Reading it aloud – all right, all right, I know it's a crappy cliché of interweb writing advice, but it really is useful for finding out whether dialogue sounds like something a real live person would say. Reading aloud is easier said than done – it can be a bit of an eye-opener as to how little privacy is ever available – but if I get the opportunity, I don't just read aloud but record it too. The microphone becomes an 'audience' that means I have to persevere through the cringeworthy bits rather than keep breaking off to groan, weep etc.
  1. Listening to the recording after a few days and pretending it's a proper audiobook. Humiliating and illuminating in the same go.
  1. Changing the font, preferably to something you’d find in a published book, but you could use Comic Sans or Papyrus if you want to make the whole experience even more disheartening.
  1. Changing the background colour of the page – I'm told this is good for reducing glare while writing too.
  1. Changing the page setup to A5 and printing two pages to one sheet so it's closer to the size and layout of a published book.
  1. Converting the file to PDF. This is such a simple change and yet I find it has a great distancing effect.
  1. Printing it off on Lulu – I’d want to be sure the book was pretty much ready to go before shelling out for this, but seeing a story in book form can expose whether it could really compete with whatever's next to it in Waterstones. (I tend to get shelved next to Ayn Rand... thanks a bunch, alphabet.)
Do you try to see your work as others might see it? What are your practical tips?

(UPDATE: Sorry this post disappeared for a few days - a combination of Blogger problems and me not having web access to fix it. Thank you very much to those who had left comments - unfortunately I haven't been able to retrieve them.)

Redbridge Book & Media Festival

Redbridge Borough Council have been holding a six week book and media festival with loads of great events including film making classes and book readings.

Tonight, myself and Danny Miller will be hosting and author event at Hainault library 7.15pm - 9pm.
We haven't yet finalised what we'll talk about but as we're both crime writers I suspect it'll involve plenty of blood and guts.
We'll probably touch on how we go about forming our plots, the process of actually writing a book and getting published.
Danny's a hoot and I'd go just to listen to him. Actually I might just listen to him.

Then on Friday 13th May our very own Caroline Green will be appearing at Fullwell Cross library from 6pm - 7.30pm to talk about Dark Ride and writing for young adults.

Check out the website - there really is a lot of good stuff going on and if you're in the area tonight or on Friday, we'd love to meet you.
HB x

A Proper Conversation-Stopper!

During a family gathering over one of the many holidays we’ve been inundated with recently (who’s getting fed up with them now and who’s lost track of time?  IS it Boxing Day again?) I had a ‘conversation’ with my brother-in-law about my writing.
*ahem* here it is - abridged and with many seethes omitted:

BiL:     ‘How’s the writing going?’
Me:      ‘Oh, well, I haven’t done much lately, haven’t really… um (…how DO you explain about shattered confidence leading to non-production of wordage without sounding like a proper precious ponce – especially when there’s another 15 or so members of your extended family listening in with bated breath?) I haven’t had anything positive back from an agent yet.’
BiL:     ‘You know, you should send it off to some publishers, forget about the agents, just send it straight to them, cut out the middle man and you’ll probably even save having to pay them a fee too.’
Me:      (No sh*t, Sherlock…) ‘Well, it’s not really as simple as that, you can’t approach a publisher without getting an agent first, and that’s not an easy thing to do.  I’ve sent off loads of enquiries already… I have still got a couple -’
BiL:     ‘- you should just print it off; take the whole thing to them, plonk it on their desks, and wait for a reply.  You know what… J.K Rowling didn’t -’
Me:  (I’m allowed one seethe, surely?) ‘- it’s really not as straightforward as that, agents are inundated with manuscripts every day and I don’t think I’d get to see a publisher just because I happen to turn up at the door with a printout of my book, it doesn’t work like that.’
BiL:     ‘I think you’ve got to be more proactive.  If you believe in what you’re doing, your confidence will shine through and they’ll take you seriously.  If I didn’t believe in my work then nobody would be interested. That’s the way it goes I’m afraid; if you want to make a success of something you’ve got to be determined.’
Me:      (trying not to cry… or seethe too much) ‘Well… okay then, maybe that’s my problem (translation: can we shut up now and drink some wine please?).’
BiL:    ‘You know what you should do?  If you published it on line, that’s where yo’ll find your audience, you’d be out there and they’d see how good your writing is.’
Me:     (fascinated to know how he knows what my writing’s like when he’s never read any of it) ‘Online where exactly?’
BiL:     ‘On the internet, that’s when you’re going to get agents and publishers reading it.  I bet they’re always online.’
Me:      ‘I’ve got a blog.  I’ve got all the opening chapters of every book I’ve written on it.  And the only way an agent is going to see anything I’ve written is if I mail them and link to my blog.’
BiL:    ‘Everybody’s got a blog these days.  You want to just publish all your books on the web, that’s the only way to get anyone to read them.  Everybody’s on line these days – you’d be surprised what you can find on the internet.’
Me: (No. Actually I wouldn’t) (oh, and seethe) ‘If you mean self-publish, then I have been thinking about it lately but I’ve always been wary of it; I’m scared it’ll make me look like I’m blowing my own trumpet and not having anybody with authority actually validating it and championing me… I think I’d still rather wait and get representation.’
BiL:    ‘So if you can publish a book yourself then what’s the problem?  Once you’ve got a book in your hands you’ve made it.  People start reading it, then they’ll see how you write… that’s the way to get noticed, you’d soon get an agent or a publisher interested then. They’ll find your book online.’
Me:      ‘But they’d have to do a search to find anything online.  That’s what everyone has to do – they wouldn’t just happen to find it by accident.  And anyway, I think they get enough manuscripts sent to them without needing to search on-line for one that isn’t even good enough to secure an agent in the first place...’
BiL:     ‘Ah, you’d be surprised. For instance, if, say, they wanted to publish a book about a gardener who drives through Tuscany and all the adventures he has,  they could find it no problem… just type in "book... gardener... Tuscany..." publishers are always on the lookout for the next big thing and they've just got to look on the internet to find it.  Who knows, it could be you.  You just need to get yourself out there.  Get seen, you know?
Me:     (through teeth so gritted they'd be grand in a snowstorm) ‘Wine anybody?

A Little More Than Kin...

'So what do you want for Christmas?' I asked last year, expecting the usual muttered prevarications.
'A Kindle,' he replied, as quick as you like.
'Are you sure?'
'Yes. I've researched it.'

So there it was. Another dedicated reader opting into the cyber-zone. Only thing is, this was my father doing the opting. And he's eighty-four years old.

Those clever Amazonian geeks came up with a Cunning Plan when they named the Kindle. The word is redolent with the homespun, the hand made. I'm sure it's no coincidence that it rhymes with spindle, conjuring up visions of calm, Vermeer women spinning cloth, or weatherbeaten peasants gathering kindling for a welcoming fire. The word kind implies a certain benevolence, along with the diminution of kin. This little gadget will be good to your eyes, gentle on your pocket and will feel like part of the family. The adverts show dogs licking them, for heaven's sake.

My father loves his new Kindle. It's light and portable. He can adjust the font size, slip it into a pocket, browse and download from Amazon, try out books for free.

'Don't you miss having a real book to hold? Turning the pages? The smell of paper?'
Apparently not.

I can see his point. And I accept that this is the way publishing's heading. Already, only 60% or so of books are 'real', so in a relatively short time, books as we've known them will be a rarity. I foresee a time when clandestine meetings will be held at which participants handle, sniff and read Real Books. With a motto such as Hug A Hardback. Like the Campaign for Real Ale, and just as intoxicating. Though beards and sandals won't be mandatory.

Call me a Luddite, but I will be sad at the passing of the traditional book. Not just because of the fifty-odd years I've spent collecting, reading and, latterly, writing them, but for the following reasons:

- Covers
A cover is the face of a book. The thing that attracts you to it, before you've had a chance to browse inside. It's what makes a book an individual, a character, marks it out from the rest. Real Books have covers with images and colours and, in the case of hardbacks, more colour lurking beneath the jacket like secret underwear. Remember Mazo de la Roche's Jalna series, with their odd, peachy covers? And the Swallows and Amazons series (sludge green)?

- Weight and size. The big, solid, bruiser of a hardback, willing and able to sit in your bookshelf for decades. The jam-it-in-your-pocket-and-to-hell-with-the-consequences paperback. How many Kindles do you see propping up recalcitrant table-legs?

- Accessories. I've a huge collection of bookmarks, so useful for showing me just how far I've got in a book, and how much there is to go. And remember bookplates? Those little sticky labels, often with gorgeous designs, that you could stick in the front of your book - your book - and carefully inscribe with your name, marking it out as your own.

- Sensuality. I love the feel of pristine books on shelves, all innocent and virginal and untouched. I love the feel of a page - that slightly rough, slightly- reluctant-to-open feel. And (shut your eyes here, all purists) I love to mark my books. My non-fiction titles are full of underlinings and scribbled notes. I like old, well-thumbed books, the corners of their pages bent, frayed with use, stained with coffee and chocolate and who-knows-what. The way they fall open to favourite passages. There's something friendly about a Real Book. Something comforting.

Real Books appeal to brain and body, synapses and senses. A Real Book is a miniature world of the imagination, gained through a physical portal. Like the Narnian wardrobe with its musty coats and creaking doors, a Real Book keeps us, the readers, anchored in the world, even as it encourages our imaginations to fly.

I would go further. Every Real Book is a potential relationship, with a body you can touch, stroke, smell and hold. Anything less is akin (geddit?) to a vibrator.

Cyber-sex is all very well at a pinch, but when it comes to reading, I'd rather have The Real Thing.

Guest Spot: Interview with best-selling author Lisa Jewell

Welcome back to Strictly Writing, Lisa, and thanks for guesting for us again.  Your new book, “The Making Of Us” is due for release next week, 12th May 2011.  Can you tell us a bit about it?

"The Making of Us is about three strangers, all in their twenties, all living very different lives, who slowly come together when they discover that they share an anonymous donor father."

It’s a fascinating concept, what first ‘sparked’ your imagination with this storyline?

"As ever, with my books, it is not the book I set out to write! I started off wanting to write a comedy a little like Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. I wanted to put a dry, childless woman in middle youth together with an unlikely younger person and see what would happen. I thought of a long-lost younger sister and then I read about the Sibling Registry that had just been set up for donor children to track each other down and thought that would make it less clichéd and quite current. So I started writing the book with just these two characters in mind, but felt it wasn't funny and it wasn't light-hearted and I needed to make it more substantial. So I brought in the other characters and tried to give it the feel of an ITV drama series instead."

Which character did you feel the closest to in ‘The Making Of Us’ and do you find you miss certain characters more than others after you’ve finished writing a book?

"Usually when I write one of my multiple character books there is one I like writing the best and look forward to getting back to. That wasn't the case with this book. I loved them all equally and enjoyed writing from all their perspectives. I think I probably felt the closest to Dean as he had it the toughest and was the most vulnerable. I never miss my characters after I've finished with them. I'm always ready to move on to the next bunch."

You've mentioned that you enjoyed the David Nicholls’ book ‘One Day’ which is currently being made into a film.  Which one of your books would you like to see made into a movie first and who would you want to play the leads?

"As I type, a group of people are trying to make 31 Dream Street into a movie. They have the finances in place which is half the battle, and they want to start filming by the end of the year, so hopefully, you never know. I thought of David Thewlis for Toby, but he's a bit old now. Or maybe James McAvoy, but he's too cute. Steven Marchant? Can he act? As for Ruby, maybe the gorgeous Karen Gillan?"

Have you already come up with an idea for your next book or do you like to give yourself a celebratory break before moving onto the next project?

"I do always engineer in a break, usually a few weeks (which is why I like to complete a book in early summer!) but then there’s usually a few weeks of rewrites and edits, so it tends to be a couple of months before I start the next one. I delivered the Making of Us in June last year and started this new one in September. I want to finish it by the end of July, but we’ll see. It’s a love story set in Soho in the mid-90s, very different from the last few books. I hope everyone likes it."

Being a writer is a solitary business; how important do you think being part of an online social network is for an author?

"Unbelievably important. From the very early days of the internet I have been part of an on-line chat room of fellow authors. Since then, of course, we have seen the arrival of Facebook and now Twitter, neither of which I am addicted to, but which do form an important part of my working day. I would feel very lonely without them let's put it that way."

Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy best-selling schedule and talking to Strictly Writing, Lisa,  Good luck with the book!

"Thank you so much for having me! Fingers crossed!"

Lisa Jewell was born and raised in north London, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Her first novel, Ralph's Party, was the bestselling debut of 1999. She is also the author of Thirtynothing, One-Hit Wonder, Vince & Joy, A Friend of the Family, 31 Dream Street, The Truth About Melody Browne and most recently, After the Party, all of which have been Sunday Times bestsellers. To find out more visit her website at or

Young readers tell authors where to go…

Luisa Plaja author of Split by a Kiss and several other teen novels, reports on her new writing project.
From Friday, 6th May 2011, I’ll be working on a novel for Fiction Express , a new project launched by a children’s book packager called Discovery Books where e-books will be published in weekly instalments.

Each week, young readers can vote for the direction they’d like the story to go in. Authors then have a couple of days to write the next chapter… and so on, for eleven weeks. There’s reader interaction all the way through, and there should even be opportunities for readers themselves to be written into the stories.

When I was approached to be one of authors involved in the project, my first thought was, “Ooh, fun! And not a million miles away from the way I write anyway!” Perhaps I should point out that, up until now, I have never asked teenagers to vote on the course of my plot. What I mean is that I rarely plan my stories in advance. I am a ‘pantser’ of the highest order (by decree of the Association of Pantsers, which formed spontaneously from a random group of aimlessly meandering synopsis-dodgers). As a three-time NaNoWriMo ‘winner’, the ‘no plot, no problem’ approach to first-draft writing usually suits me down to the ground. I am just not a planner.

Of course, it soon occurred to me that a project like this isn’t entirely about pantsing skills. For starters, I won’t be able to use my usual method of finishing a first draft and then going back to the beginning and editing so much that barely a single line remains from the original. Once my chapters go live – cue spooky music and dry ice – there will be no going back. There is only an unknown path forwards, decided on by readers. Eeek! And yet, I think it will be amazing to have this type of interaction with readers.

It’s going to be a challenge. But I think it will be a thrilling one. *small voice* Wish me luck?
Fiction Express is launching with four titles in different genres: Diary of a Mall Girl by Luisa Plaja, The Soterion Mission by Stewart Ross, Soul Shadows by Alex Woolf and The Last Symbol by Rebecca Morton.
You can read free first chapters, sign up and join in with Fiction Express at from 6th May 2011 onwards, and keep up with news about the project on its Facebook page:

I have in my hands...

A book.

To me, it’s a very special book. It’s not because of the cover, lovely though it is. But no one else will feel the need to coo and stroke the gold embossed bits as I have today. It has a delicious new smell but then, don’t all new books have that?

It joins the millions of other novels that are on sale. It could end up on a remainder pile or it could do really well. Who knows? It has to take its chances, along with all the rest.

But whatever happens, opening the package that contained it today was a moment pretty much up there with saying ‘I do’ and hearing ‘It’s a boy!’ for the first time. Because it’s my book.

It’s not even the first one that I’ve had published, but it’s the first novel and the only one that wasn’t written as a work commission. Instead it was a true labour of love.

I just want to thank all of you – you know who you are – for propping me up and cheering me on during this whole rollercoaster of getting published.

I’m told by more experienced writers that the first time will always be the most special.

So I’m going to take a little time just to enjoy this moment and feel thankful. Maybe I’ll stroke the gold embossing again and give it another little sniff.

There’s always tomorrow to start obsessing about Amazon rankings....

Dark Ride by Caroline Green, published by Piccadilly Press

Watch a trailer here