Papering over the cracks

I received a proof copy of my second YA novel for Piccadilly Press the other day. It’s called Cracks and comes out in May 2012. 

I started to write this one well before my first book, Dark Ride , was accepted, and I wanted to tell you a bit about how it all came about. 

It was Christmas 2009 and I had just been through a bruising round of submission and rejection with Dark Ride. I was seriously starting to wonder if I would ever get published. Looking back at my diary from that time, I wrote this:

Have nothing to say on creative stuff…just a big tumbleweedy, miserable feeling about it all.

So I wallowed for a bit. Then I wallowed a bit more. Then I got heartily sick of wallowing. After a while, a desire to get stuck in to another story started to take over.

I’m absolutely desperate to write something now. I’m so fed up with not having a writing project on the go. I’ve got to stop obsessing about writing something the market wants and just write SOMETHING…..

And then just like that, there was some sort of mental shift. By that same evening I said..

I find myself thinking more and more about an idea for something called Cracks. I’m imagining a boy who keeps seeing huge cracks and chasms appearing in the world that no one else can see.

Just like that, I was off and writing again. It’s true what people say. Getting stuck into a new book was instant pain relief for that bruised-all-over feeling.

I got the book deal for Dark Ride about five months later, by which time I’d written a fair chunk of Cracks and was able to show it to my new editor. Very happily for me, this was accepted too.

Writing Cracks was no easy ride though and I ended up tearing my hair out in several drafts, trying to make the story work. My poor editor can testify that there were many days when I wailed, ‘I can;t do it!’ But somehow, between us, we got there in the end and I’m very proud of the final result.

The moral of this tale? When those rejections keep pinging into your Inbox or landing with a horrible thud on the doorstep, there really is only one way to ease the agony. Start something else.

[Oh and if anyone ever tries to say that publishing a second book doesn’t have the same excitement and thrill as the first? They’re lying.]

Reading in public - an update.

A few weeks ago I posted here about my fears of reading in public. With some of my poems shortlisted for competitions or appearing in literary magazines I have been finding myself in front of a microphone more often and I wasn’t enjoying it. I hated it. The first time I did a poetry slam it was a traumatic experience and I actually worried that I might not be able to make the journey up to the stage.

Well, here’s an update. A friend of mine, David Pullen, who works with executives on communication skills read that post and contacted me. David said he thought he might be able to help reduce my fear and generously offered to travel up from Sussex to visit me.

A week later we were sitting in the summer house where I do my writing. First David interviewed me about three examples of reading my work when I had experienced extreme fear. He also asked about a place where I felt deeply relaxed. I described the path through the tramontana-swept pines behind the beach in Catalonia, near where we have a holiday apartment.

Next David took me through a sort of hypnotic journey. After helping me to relax and counting backwards slowly he asked me to walk in my mind along the path through those pines until I happened upon a television. David had me watch videos of my previous terrifying experiences of reading my work in public. I had to watch the videos both forwards and backwards and I remember finding it faintly odd, but I tried to give myself up to the suggestions he was making. It helped that David has an open, trustworthy manner and as a former actor he also has a soothingly pleasant voice. When he brought me out of the trance I was surprised to find that there was nothing else to be done. His hope was that this would reduce my fear in the future.

Since then I have done several readings. I was eager to test whether this strange hypnotic journey would make any difference so I signed up for the open mic session “Poetry Unplugged run by the wonderful Niall O’Sullivan at The Poetry CafĂ© in Betterton Street. They get a good crowd there and I had to wait for about twenty poets to read before I got my chance at the microphone. Amazingly, I was much less nervous than I would previously have been. In fact I spent most of the time trying to calculate how nervous I was – in an interested sort of way. In the last few weeks I have also taken part in the open mic session at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, with minimal nerves and have recited one of my poems at a friend’s fiftieth birthday concert. In the last case I was the only poet to read a poem, and that would have been the most terrifying of all. Thanks to David’s treatment I actually felt confident enough to recite the poem from memory. Previously the prospect of reading my work in that type of gathering would have ruined my whole evening and I would have looked for opportunities to cry off. As it was, I felt honoured and enjoyed the chance to gain an audience for the poem and to discuss it with people during the birthday dinner.

A massive thank you to David Pullen.

And the winner is...

The lucky winner of a signed copy of Cally Taylor's Home for Christmas is....


Congratulations, Bernadette! Drop us a line at with your address, and we'll get your prize in the post to you.

Let's get serious - guest post by author Claire Allan

Do all writers have to grow up? I don't mean physically, of course. I have learned that despite the best Clarins has to offer there is little I can do to stop the ravages of time taking a toll on my skin. As for my hair colour? Dying these days is not so much a case of "Because I'm worth it" as "Because I have to."

That aside and back to the basics of writing - is there a time when every writer worth her word count has to sit back, take stock and put away childish things?

I ask this question with a semi heavy heart. Only last year I fervently and adamantly fought the corner of the Chick Lit title on this very site. I have said that I embraced the term - loved it - felt inspired by it.

Have I changed my mind with the passage of just 12 months? Sadly, and with my big fat slice of humble pie eaten, I have to say yes. In the last 12 months, you see, this particular chick has grown up. And while I still feel there is good chick lit out there - and in no way feel that the very name of the genre denigrates women - I just don't feel I fit the mould any more.

I now consider myself very much a contemporary women's author. That sounds grand doesn't it? Even saying it makes me react in a different way to those times when I told people I wrote "chick lit". I feel, although I'm loathe to admit it, as if I should be taken a little more seriously.

There's nothing wrong with chick lit, of course. If what you are writing fits that exact model. Chick lit to me is - and I'm aware I'm contradicting my previous viewpoint - the lighter side of women's writing. It is cool glasses of wine, designer clothes, rugged men, falling in and out of love, getting a cool job in a trendy magazine of similar. I love books like that - books which offer complete unadulterated escapism.

But are they relevant to my life these days? I'm afraid not. And I've come to think that dismissing tales of depression, domestic violence, miscarriage, adoption and more as "chick lit" has been doing those topics a disservice. We should not dismiss serious topics as fluffy - we should not say it is okay to write them only as long as they have pretty covers.

Chick Lit is still alive, for sure and for certain but it's not a one size fits all label for women's fiction either. I'm proud of what I've written, and of what I'm writing. And I proud to have served my time at the coal face of the chick lit industry, but I'm moving on.
Claire Allan is an author and journalist based in Derry in Northern Ireland. She has been a reporter with the Derry Journal since 1999 and has written for a number of newspapers including the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News and The Mirror. She has an Honours degree in the Humanities and a MA in Newspaper Journalism. She writes a weekly column on topical issues, with a focus on women's issues and parenting. Claire is a regular contributer to BBC Radio Foyle and Culture NI Magazine. Her bestselling novels have all been published by Poolbeg Press in Ireland. Her fifth 'If Only You Knew' is now available.


I'm often asked, especially by myself, how I keep up my work rate.

I've now written five books in just over six years, I think, and yes, at times it's been hard. Not least because the publishing industry is so fickle, so open to highs and lows.

I've had a lot of 'success' compared to many writers, and for that I am grateful, yet I've also had my share of rejection, editorial sharp elbows, poor reviews etc. I'm also as vulnerable as anyone to what may happen in the future. I cannot be certain that after book six I will ever have anything published again. Ever...

Despite the obvious downsides of this biz, I remain though, pretty happy. I wouldn't do it if I wasn't.

Indeed I'll never understand those writers for who the whole process is one long sick-making episode of torture. Why put yourself through that? There are places you can go and pay to have yourself whipped and wotnot if that's your deal.

But even those of us who take things in our stride, would be lying if we said we were never affected. On a grey autumn day, looking down the barrel of a deadline, even I, Queen Pollyanna, am tempted to stick my foot through my PC at the sight of an email from a loyal reader telling me she 'can't get hold of a copy of my latest...'

So what do I do to stave off, if not despair, despondency? How do I keep up the momentum?

1. I remind myself that no-one is making me do this. I can go back to the day job any old time.
2. I focus on my successes and not on my failures (I know this sounds easy when I've got real life books I can touch, but encouragement of any form will work just as well).
3. I turn to Elizabeth Gilbert, in particular the video of a speech she gave not long after EPL became a world wide success. If you haven't seen it before I promise you it will became one of your fave motivators, if you have, can I urge you to watch it again, you won't be sorry. Then save it for any time you need a pep talk.

So pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy...[[]]

Changing Tastes

Time was when I could safely pick up a screamingly 'Girly' book in whichever shop I was in at the time (C&A excluded, of course) and instinctively know I'd like it.  And even if I didn't properly love it, I'd maybe become it's second best friend, twice removed or something.  I was just safe in the knowldege that I wouldn't NOT like it; that's my point.

I could skirt over the irritatingly obscure names of the MC's (Ebonie, Sherlaine, Twinkzie, Jezzabelle - that sort of nonsense) and during my formative years I didn't even mind very much that I learned a lot more  about horses than was absolutely necessary.  Jilly Cooper was the dog's doodaghs to this impressionable tweenager and I still have a lot of love for the cheerful gappy-toothed author.  She got me through many a rainy day, even though for years I was convinced an orgasm was probably something only seen on display at the organic farmers market every Wednesday and as my mother clearly didn't know how to prepare one, THAT was why I'd never had one.

And I didn't mind too much that these stories of Ella-the-downtrodden-but-feisty-button-nosed-brunette-who-secretly(but to we readers)-enjoyed-fantasies-of-fairytale-love-and-yawn-yawn-finally-got-it-on-the-last-but-one-page.... much.  But then, like my predeliction for roasted sweet peppers, although I knew I was going to have a perfectly nice time whilst they were in front of me, once I'd digested them, they'd start to upset my insides a bit. 

There isn't a Rennie in the world that can take away the distended feeling inside that this really isn't quite your cup of tea anymore, actually, and you need to find something a bit more... well, agreeable; something that you can rely on won't leave a bad taste in your mouth and have you retching over the literary toilet pan unless you  hurl this particular forray of female fiction in aforehand.

I've kind of shifted sideways in my reading fodder.  No more do I chuckle and gurn at Ella's silly girly trips over the path to predictable true love.  No longer do I have the tolerance for MC's who insist on bringing their monosyllabic, snotty kids into the frame and NO WAY am I putting up with a wizard and/or vampires and werewolves.

So, after having stood at my personal book-buffet for the past 2 years or so, I think I now know which particular tome I can reach out and open without needing an accompanying paper bag.
Give me an edgy, unsympathetic main character who doesn't even own a Louis Vittuon handbag let alone crave ("crave", I ask you) a matching pair of heels.  And please don't let her have just been dumped or be best friends with the guy who turns out to be the love of her life If Only She'd Known.

Equally I don't want an Aga, a cute dog (unless they belong to any of Jenny Crusie's MC's because she does them SO well) and a well-meaning mother/best friend who steals the spotlight and gets my lionsshare of love, meaning I couldn't care less where MC ends up.
I don't mind a bit of gore; sadness; deviation.  I can put up with paranormal possibilities and as long as  sex isn't graphic I can get through those bits too.  Too many detectives with too many weird surnames starts to confuse me and I don't want too many secondary characters with their own stories so that I end up losing my thread. And I like a twist but not a tangle.

My taste has certainly changed.  I'm not sure what it says or what it means but I'm very aware of reaching out for the darker, grittier looking covers on the shelves these days, knowing that I'll get a lot more satisfaction out of something a bit less fanciful and lightweight than I used to.  I wonder what I'll be devouring in another 10-20 years' time - a bit of gentle James Herriott perhaps or even *shudder* autobiographies of TV stars who've brightened up my living room over the decades. Maybe I'll even return to Jolly Jilly again.

Have YOUR reading tastes evolved with you or are you a once-a-fan-always-a-fan?

Equally I also can't say Donny Osmond does the same thing to me now as he did when he sang Puppy Love in that field in the 70's but then he probably wouldn't look at me twice these days either.

Revenge of the Rejected

Mea Culpa. It was my turn to post on Strictly today and I've somehow managed to miss this fact. However, my colleagues have suggested posting this video on the subject of rejection - which is actually very funny and a little bit empowering.

Oh, and on this subject, it reminded me of someone I 'know' online who has been writing novels for years and who has womanfully continued to write in the face of rejections for all five of them, determined to keep learning her craft and tenacious enough to keep going no matter what. This week, and for her sixth novel, she's got an agent. And I, for one, am thrilled and inspired and actually in awe of her. So I guess the message for the weekend is -

Don't Give Up. It Can Happen. It Has.
Have a good one.

A Kindle kinda love?

            Do you own a Kindle?
I’ve had one for a few weeks. Am I a convert?

Kinda. And kinda not, too.
I mainly bought it because I’ve been reading manuscripts as a sideline job. Being able to download them straight onto the Kindle seemed a good enough reason to invest in one, plus, the idea of taking unlimited books on holiday has always appealed.
So far I’m pretty happy with it and although I wouldn’t want it to completely replace paper books, I do feel it’s been a good investment.
I’ve noticed something, though, about the reading experience that has taken me a while to pick up on.
If I’m absolutely LOVING a story, and rattling through it at a very fast pace, I really notice no difference at all with the experience of reading a regular book. The fact that the screen isn’t backlit is a great bonus for me; after a day spent staring at various screens, the last thing I want to look at it in bed is another glowing rectangle. I missed having real covers to look at, it’s true, but it was surprising how quickly I got used to that.
But when I’m reading something that needs much more of a slow investment, and is taking me some time to get into, then I miss having the physical heft of a book in my hand. I miss being able to pause, look at the cover and the blurb again; maybe read the author’s biog at the start. These all feel like small signposts that help light my way when the path into a story feels murkier and more opaque.
So it’s mixed feelings from me so far.
What about you?

Churning out the words

I never take part in NaNoWriMo, partly because I’m always working and to rack up a word count of six for November would be uninspiring for others and embarrassing for me. I find time to write when time finds me. It could be first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night, or just before bed time. I certainly don’t say to myself: “Right, let’s do one thousand words before 9am.” I work at my own pace; I always have and I never feel pressurised to look at the word count in the bottom left hand corner of the laptop.

For that reason I’m not a fan of NaNoWriMo and I never will be. I prefer to write a few chapters and revise them fully before moving on. I’m not a fan of churning out word after word just for the sake of word count. It may look great on paper if you have managed ten thousand words before November 8, but if you’re constantly shifting POV and have made many grammatical and spelling errors, then what you’ve just written is a waste of time. There are so many people who publicise their writing goals online, some really ambitious. I found one guy who pledged to write twelve thousand words per day – is he writing War And Peace Part Two?

On the other hand if it gives people inspiration to sit down and seriously put a book together for the first time in their lives, then I’m all for it.

I carried out a little experiment - thanks to Rod, we’ve had a plethora of posts about poetry recently, and it has inspired me to write an ode (well, not strictly) to Strictly. Not being a poet, nor having the talent of Shakespeare or Keats, nevertheless, I’ve decided to tackle this art form in a matter of five minutes, reaching my word count of around one hundred. So here we go (it’s all fun of course):

Strictly Writing is by far the best blog.
It’s read by every woman, man, cat and dog.
We serve the needs of the writing people
Across the nation, past the tallest church steeple.
We’re here to help and entertain with our wise words
Accompanied by pictures of pens, desks and birds.
Our readers are novelists and poets too
They write in coffee shops and even at the zoo.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword
So turn to the written word and you’ll not be bored.
Thank you to our readers who comment all day
Hip, hip, hooray to Strictly - is what I say!

(Incidentally, November/Movember is also moustache growing month aimed at raising money for charity. If you haven't the patience to write a novel, then grow a tache. Go check it out!)

Birthing a Book - Guest Post by Cally Taylor...PLUS PRIZE DRAW

Back in August when I was eight months pregnant and starting to think about a blog tour to promote my second novel, Home for Christmas, I approached Strictly Writing and asked if I could guest blog on their site. When the Strictly ladies said yes, my first thought was that I'd write about the similarities between having a child and writing a book. After all lots of authors compare writing a book with pregnancy and publication day with giving birth (and worrying that, while you think your progeny is beautiful, the rest of the world thinks it's ugly as sin).

So why have I decided AGAINST making similar comparisons?

I've given birth now!

Okay so it was by Caesarean (my baby was breech) so it could be argued that I got it 'easy' compared to a natural birth, though if you'd said that to me when I tried to get out of bed the day the next day and felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach I would have punched you in the head - right before I fainted! Anyway, in this author's opinion writing a book and setting it free on publication day is nowhere near as difficult as gestating, birthing and bringing up a child. To think I was going to draw a comparison between the characters in your head and your baby keeping you awake - ha!

That's not to say I had an easy time writing Home for Christmas - far from it. Second Novel Syndrome was alive, well and squatting in my brain. My first novel, Heaven Can Wait had an easy 'birth'. I wrote the first draft in under four months and edited it in six. Once I'd found an agent and publisher there were a few more tweaks to be made (I laugh to think I called them 'edits' at the time) and then the book was ready to be published.

Home for Christmas, however, was an entirely different story. Its first incarnation, 'The PDA', was scrapped at 20,000 words when I realised I couldn't stand my main character and didn't care what happened to her (a slight issue if you want your readers to care!) Instead of trying to make her likeable I started a brand new novel instead. I called it 'Happiness Ever After' and, while I loved the main characters, it wasn't long before I realised the supporting cast weren't working and needed rewriting. So I did...for several months...until I realised that the characters weren't the problem - their subplot was. Cue the deletion of the subplot and another rewrite. Finally, over two years after putting fingers to laptop, I had a novel that my agent, my publisher and I were all pleased with. I don't mind admitting that by the end of the process I was EXHAUSTED, my confidence was dented and the thought of writing another novel made me nervous.

Not the most inspiring story is it? Or is it? Because you know what? The second I held a sparkling, beautiful copy of Home for Christmas in my hands for the first time I fell in love with it, forgot how arduous a process it had been to bring it to life, and started fantasising about writing a new novel.

Oh hang on...turns out there is a similarity with having a child after all...

Cally Taylor's second novel Home for Christmas was published by Orion paperback on 10 November. Cally blogs at Writing About Writing

We have a signed copy of Home for Christmas to give away! All you have to do to enter the prize draw is leave a comment below. We'll draw a name from an adorable baby bonnet and announce the winner next weekend.

Guest Post by Anna Stothard

I woke up in a panic last night thinking that I’d forgotten to return the telephone call of a friend, then realised (with a sense of impending insanity) I’d been dreaming about a character in the novel I’m writing. I didn’t need to call her back, I owned her, but I still couldn’t fall back asleep.

From Lewis Carroll’s Alice to Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov to my own meagre efforts, the army of fictional creatures populating my bookshelves have had a more profound affect on my world than 90% of the real people I’ve met. Is that a terrible thing to admit? Maybe. Honestly though, I’d rather have known the fiction of Holly Golightly than the reality of most acquaintances, the memory of Jay Gatsby over the memory of quite a few ex-boyfriends.

Done right it’s a baffling power, to design a character, but how is it done? Dickens was inundated with letters begging him to save Little Nell when The Old Curiosity Shop was coming to an end. Some of my most intense memories of the last family holiday I went on revolve around the thoughts of Yossarian from Catch 22 (many apologies to my family about that, I know it’s rude to read at the lunch table).

Like most writers I’d love to know the magic animating ingredient that makes a hybrid of observation, imagination and autobiography come alive on the page and last in the minds of readers. We’ve all probably conjured characters in our heads only for them to fall flat on their faces the moment they hit the page, missing some indefinable something so they just drag their feet and don’t do what their told until we’re forced to brutally dispatch them back into nothing. And then sometimes, bliss, we hit on a character that we feel like we could push out into the world and she’d exist without us. Even then we (by which I mean “I”, others are probably much less anxious) lie awake at night obsessing over whether the figments of our imaginations are too nuanced or too predictable, too unlikely or too obviously based on feral uncle Malcom or that colleague at work we hate. Or, much worse, that our carefully crafted and seemingly inventive protagonists in fact reveal a lot about ourselves that, in other circumstances, we’d rather people didn’t know.

One of the most surreal problems I’ve stumbled on as a young female writer sending young female protagonists out into the world is that people insist that my characters are thinly veiled versions of myself. “You must really hate your mother,” a woman informed me sagely at a wedding reception recently, having read my latest novel, The Pink Hotel, about a young English girl travelling Los Angeles returning love letters and photographs to the men who knew her errant and recently deceased mother. I smiled sweetly at the wedding guest and let her believe that I would be capable of half the seduction and deduction that my character achieves in the course of her journey, but of course she did raise and interesting point.

Nabakov is not Humbert Humbert, Charlotte Bronte is not Jane Eyre, Thomas Harris is not Hannibal Lector, but elements of the writer necessarily exist amongst reams of observation and imagination in the making of a character. That must be part of what makes characters come alive. My character is not based on me, Mrs Know-it-all Wedding Guest, but I can begrudgingly admit there is some crossover. I’d love to know if anyone else has had this problem, being accused of the neurosis or flaws that your character has?

When Breakfast at Tiffany’s was first published, Truman Capote described a “Holly Golightly Sweepstakes” of women guessed to be the “real” Holly when of course there was no such thing. Capote later insisted that Holly was an amalgamation, a “symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear”. Biographers have added the author’s mother to Holly’s inspiration-mix (a rural Southern belle, Capote’s mother was originally named Lillie Mae while Holly’s birth name is Lula Mae) plus the author himself of course (who suffered from the “mean reds” as Holly does). Occupying some perfect place between a symbol and an ideal party guest, a thousand observed arched eyebrows, childhood memories, flirty smiles, little black dresses, martini-nights and witty conversations must have bubbled into the making of Holly.

Thank God for Yossarian and Little Nell, Lolita and Holly and all the rest, I hope I write a character as great as that one day. In the mean time one of the perks of being a writer, penning stories for ourselves or the local newspaper or the web or a publisher, is surely that we never have to choose whether to be a management consultant or a lawyer, an Olympic swimmer or a mother. We can be everything we want, including other people. What other profession can say that? Our alter egos are not “us”, but we can try a thousand lives on for size.

Anna Stothard is the author of The Pink Hotel published by Alma Books

NaNoWriMo - Nine Days In

I’m ‘nano-ing’ this year, or supposed to be. So far, and despite many hours of plotting and planning, I’ve written an unimpressive 4000 words and have come up with new and inspiring ways to procrastinate. I should forget novels and write a book on new avoidance tactics. Here’s an example of Monday’s frivolous antics:

“I wander lonely in a shroud
Floating high, my shroud has frills
When all at once I hear a sound
Bang bang they go, the daffodils
Beside the lake beneath the trees
I fluff my frills in the cold breeze”

I know. By Tuesday I was thinking of admitting myself somewhere, especially after I’d compiled the second verse. You ready?

“Continuous as the stars that shine
My billowing shroud wants its say
It stretches towards an alpine pine
While all the time the daffs they pray
Their sound it puts me in a trance
I join their chant and start to dance”

What can I say, except maybe apologise to Mr Wordsworth, whose work I revered until this week. As well as poetry desecration, I found myself putting on unnecessary clothes washes, trying to come up with new Christmas recipes, shopping online, facebook-ing, emailing, and yes, I could even be found loitering with intent on Twitter...

This is all because I’m forcing myself to write a story that I’m not sure I want to write. Has anyone else had this problem? I keep telling myself to keep calm and carry on, that it’s only one month and it might actually take a turn somewhere in the process that could lead to an interesting lead at least. I’ve done ‘Nano’ before and I’m a HUGE fan but right now, I fear for the poets. I really do.

On a serious note, all the faffing around has actually helped me clarify that I should be brave and try another idea for another novel. It’s only the 9th today and since this one just isn’t coming out the way I want it to, I actually feel that the rest of November would be wasted if I continue. I simply can't keep writing just for writing's sake. I have to want to tell the story. The characters have to be demanding to be heard, and they're not. They're giving me time off to write rubbish poetry. (Rod, your crown is safe...)

Rest easy poets of the world... I have a new plan and not having had time to plot, well let the pantsing begin.

Gotta Wear Shades

Last week I received my royalty statements for the period January to June 2011.

Yeah, I know it's November, but you remember the publishing industry works on glacial time right?

Anyway, late or not, the statements brought a smile to my face.

Not immediately, you understand. For anyone who has never seen a royalty statement they are possibly the most complicated documents known to man. And I say that as a lawyer in my previous life. So obviously it took me half an hour of knitted eyebrow gymnastics to work out even the basics of what is going on with my books, before the smile broke out.

And no, before Mr Black starts packing for Rio, it wasn't because I'd just sold my millionth copy.

The reason was that for the first time my ebook sales outweighed my paperback sales.

For some time now we've all been told that the digital revolution was on its way. That the ebook reader was about to take its place alongside the ipod. And like many a writer I've been somewhat sceptical. Would the general public really want to read novels from a screen?

The answer seems to be a decided yes...which in turn has made me consider a number of other convictions I've held.

I've always said, and there's no point denying it, that distribution was the key to selling books in any numbers. I've ranted here for example, about authors who have been dropped by their publishers for poor sales when their books never made it into the shops.

My view has always been that the main way to sell books is to have them out there. That the public need to see them. Sure, the punters will go to Amazon et al for a bargain, but what they are buying online are the books that are visible in the shops.

Well hang on a moment. My royalty statement tells me that my very first book, Damaged Goods, has been flying off the eshelves. This, a novel, that was published five years ago and, as far as I can tell, isn't in any shops at the moment.

So what is it that is making people buy them? I'd like to say I'm a household name, but I'm not that delusional. So what is making people who have probably never heard of me buy my oldest book?

The answer seems to be a clever viral campaign by my publishers, very low pricing (readers will take a chance on things they haven't shelled out too much for) and high ranking on Amazon. The latter of course is a self fullfilling prophesy; the more you sell the higher you rank, the higher you rank, the more you sell.

When readers have emailed saying they liked DG, I've asked them how they came to buy it and quite a number have confirmed that they saw it in the top ten female detective list on Amazon and given it was selling for a couple of quid, they thought what the hell.

Now sales at low prices aint ever going to make me rich, I'll grant you. A percentage of fuck all is...well you get the picture. But if a section of this new audience likes what I do and goes on to buy my other stuff, then it's absolutely worth it to me.

All this has also made me reconsider whether self published authors can make a success of it. In the past, I'd have said no. That without the sales and marketing team of a publishing house behind them, an author can't get the necessary distribution. But does that still hold true? If a self published author produced an ebook, marketed it aggressively online and sold it for a song could they sell in numbers? Thre answer in truth is I don't know.

The times they are a-changing. And I think I like it.

Book report

I try to read as many newly released books as I can, mainly those in the so-called literary genre, but as you know, it’s like taking on the role of a goalkeeper when a thousand balls are heading toward you. As much as I desperately want to read every book as soon as it's released, I fully appreciate that even the keenest (and fastest) of readers will only select from those newly released books that most interest them. I’ve only read a handful of books this year – the first half of the year was obliterated thanks to having severe hyperemesis. I’ve missed so many good books in recent months but I always try to add them to my Amazon wish list so they don’t slip through the net altogether.

I’ve just ordered this year’s entire Booker shortlist as a Christmas present for myself (!), not only because it looks like a fine combo, but also to see if I agree with the judges’ decision. I have a feeling I won’t though. I’m especially looking forward to reading The Sisters Brothers (shouldn’t there be an apostrophe there?) Then there’s Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan published by the highly respected Serpent’s Tail. My first inkling when I saw the cover was that this particular book had been written by a man. Just goes to show you shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

Talking about having missed many fine reads over the last year, I dug around Amazon and added quite a few ‘must have’ books to my list, not all of them literary though. I really want to read The Pink Hotel by Ana Stothard, but I may just keep it as my summer sunbathing read. I also added Submission by Amy Waldman, a September 11 novel, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph, The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi (I love the cover), The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, and The Privileges by Jonathan Dee. I could go on and on and tell you about the 319 books I have on the list. I hope I live long enough to get through the list which isn’t yet complete, and which grows each week, thanks to the Sunday Times Culture section among other supplements.

It’s nice to cosy up with a good book on a cold winter’s night, listening to the gentle patter of snow on the window pane. That, I suppose, is the only good thing about winter. And I'm looking forward to getting through this long list I have. Sadly though, even if I spent every minute of every day of every year for the next fifty years, would I be able to be goalkeeper to all these wonderful books?

Guest post by Heather Peace

Thanks for this opportunity. I’m new to blogging and new to being a published novelist, but I’ve been involved with creative writing many years, one way and another. I enjoyed Helen’s recent post and thought I would join the debate. I share your scepticism about this ‘creative writing industry’ that’s suddenly appeared in the last 10 to 20 years.

I started out in theatre in the early 1980s, and was a television script editor through the 90s, and never heard of it then. Creative writing was something you just did – it was called writing. Some wrote novels, some wrote scripts… then I think it started appearing in the school curriculum and a few universities started offering degrees in it. I do remember that the UEA MA course sounded very desirable, as it was taught by Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan shot to fame immediately after finishing it.

Since then the number of different degree courses, workshops, residential courses, mentor schemes etc has exploded; even publishers like Faber are now running courses and putting their top authors in as guest teachers. Mind you, you need to be wealthy to sign up for those. It’s bound to make you wonder whether it’s good value for money.

I’ve even wound up teaching creative writing myself; these days I’m a part-time tutor for the Open University on the Advanced Creative Writing module. I have to say that it’s a brilliantly well-written course, enabling any student whether a beginner or an experienced writer to improve their skills radically in whichever direction they choose. It’s not about telling them how to write, it looks at different approaches and encourages students to help one another achieve whatever they want, by developing their own voice and improving the effectiveness of their writing. I’d recommend anyone to take it, although I can’t vouch for every tutor being equally helpful. Each year a few of my students have a wonderful experience and find that the subject has opened up to them in ways they couldn’t have anticipated; they’re usually people who left school with next to no qualifications and work in relatively dull jobs. This makes it really rewarding to teach.

I’m quite sure there are a lot of charlatans out there, I’ve attended quite a few events myself over the years which I’ve felt annoyed about. I suppose the important thing is to approach with caution, to work out what you want to develop in yourself, and to go looking for it in a discriminating way. There are no rules which can’t be broken, and anyone who tells you how to write is asking to be ignored. The odd thing for me is that I haven’t had the benefit of a mentor of any kind, but my experience of being an editor enabled me to act as my own fiction editor, and the process of teaching creative writing helps in the same way that practising scales is good for musicians.

My novel All To Play For is out courtesy of Legend Press. Its subject is making television drama, and its characters struggle with changes at the BBC in the 1990s, when creativity lost out to re-organisation and commercial pressures, and the consequences are on our TV screens today.
Heather is a former theatre director and BBC script editor who now writes fiction and teaches creative writing for the Open University. Her novel All to Play for, which draws on her television career, is published by Legend Press.

Teenage Kicks

Writing for teenagers is a liberating experience.  In my personal experience anyway – which is also debateable since I don’t have anything published – yet.  See that spark of positivity? Ah, never mind, it’s gone again now.

 I found that being in a *particularly stroppy, irritated, angst-ridden state of mind helped me write my first teenage book, ‘Double History’, never appearing in any good book stores near you anytime soon or - ever. My protagonist, Maddie was a victim of Gordon Brown’s recession and had to cope with not only her father losing his job in the bank but the family having to downsize and move house, and then she started seeing the ghosts of the family who’d died in the house prior to their moving in and getting stroppy with them too - I know.  You’d think it’d have been snapped up by agents and publishers before I’d even typed ‘the end’, right? 

Well, no because what I didn’t realise was that agents have readers who go through plots with a fine-toothed comb and pick apart the teensiest bits that I didn’t realise would even seriously matter. 
Like Matter, actually, for instance.  I didn’t honestly believe anyone reading this would scratch their teenage chin and think ‘hang on a minute, ghosts can’t be saved during a ghostly reconstruction by a living person because they’re already dead…’ (Ending No.1 scuppered).  And then, a rewrite and a new ending, let’s call it Ending No.2 also scuppered because it made the ‘hero’ (a very fit but very dead Leo) too malevolent (okay, so he tried to kill Maddie’s little brother, her best friend then her dad to get a body back into the living world – I know! I thought that was a pretty good trick too). So Ending No.3 was tried out which I thought was totally inspired, I sent Leo gently over to the Other Side whilst still allowing Maddie some romantic closure and ended the whole thing on a sunny ray of humorous hope but….. the ‘overall feel didn’t quite work’ - as Prince Charles says - whatever that means.

Was I sad?  Was I abashed?  Was I discombobulated? Yeah, a bit.  But I cut my teeth with Maddie.  She ‘enabled’ me.    She gave me another voice I didn’t realise I had and like I said at the start, writing for a teenage audience is SSsoooooo liberating.  You can even put in words like “SSssoooooo”.  It’s like that. 

The first line in DH was "This sucks." - which for me not only wraps up the teenage mind in dynamic glow-in-the-dark paper, but ties a neon swirl of ribbon around it too. If you had that as a first line in an adult book you could be forgiven for assuming the MC might turn out to be a bit of a primadonna with an attitude problem.  But this is almost a given for a young adult audience.  They're allowed to speak their mind - their boundaries are still being tested after all.

And teenage issues are so nice and straightforwardly selfish.  They don’t have the worries of the world on their shoulders.  They have far less historical, genetic baggage to bother themselves about; their prime concern is Me. What colour their hair could be this week, how many friends on Facebook they’ve got right now and whether they’ve paid enough attention to the teacher to answer questions in a test or not.  Their level of popularity is important (as it always have been for teens, I remember) and the state of the country is simply something that the grown ups have got to sort out because they’re still too young to vote.

Their imaginations are not stifled by worries of mortgage repayments, energy supplier bills and threats of redundancy.  They don’t even have to work out which motorway will take them from A to B because they haven’t even started driving lessons yet. And if they see a strange apparition moving from one side of the room to the other, they WILL talk to it like it’s a new and interesting life form and not be dragged into the ruminations of whether things like should this exist or not.  Teenage writing can be as off-the-wall as you like because a teen’s life is still pretty much unwritten anyway.

And the innocence is also so life-affirming.  You know a child from divorced parents is going to love them both no matter what either of them did or didn’t do.  You know that a teen is going to be haunted by the death or abandonment of a parent or a sibling or a close friend. Even a pet.  Because it’s all about the Self; how it makes them feel. Right now.  And it’s this immediacy that I love so much about growing up that makes writing for teens such a pure, uncomplicated joy.

* aka: PMS

The Hare and the Tortoise do NaNo*

Once upon a time there was a Tortoise. Her name was Ms Plotter (Beatrix, if you were on first name terms with her, but that took a loooong while) and she lived in a carefully constructed box at the bottom of the garden. Ms Plotter had many fine qualities: she was steady as a rock, methodical and tenacious. Somewhat shy and retiring, but hey, who's perfect? Ms Plotter minded her own business, which happened to be the Writing of a Novel entitled Slow. Every few years she would add another chapter to her oeuvre. This chapter perfectly echoed the stepsheet made of colour-co-ordinated index cards that she had created before writing a single word. She would then spend several months refining and editing said chapter until it was perfect. All this made her very happy.

Autumn came. On the first morning of November, Ms Plotter opened one eye and pondered: should she begin another sentence or hunker down and prepare for a long winter sleep? She was just turning these possibilities over in her mind when her noisy neighbour, who happened to be a Hare called Ms Panter, squealed to a halt beside her and yelled:
'NaNoooo! sweetie! NaNoooo! NaNoooo!'
- nearly deafening Ms Plotter, who retreated into her shell with all the speed she could muster (not much) in case there'd been an accident.
Ms Panter breathed heavily, but didn't go away.
'Quick, dahling! Quick!' she gasped. 'We have just 30 days to do it.'
'Do what?' said Ms Plotter, wishing the hare would go away and do it, whatever it was.
'Finish a novel, dahling -' and with that, Ms Panter was off, laptop bouncing, on another circuit of the lawn.
'Bloody norah,' Ms Plotter muttered. 'It's That Time Of Year again.' It was bad enough in March, when the Hare and her mates went berserk and dunked dormice in teapots. But this was worse. Much worse.
'It's a race to the finish!' Ms Panter was back again. Panting.
'Finish?' Ms Plotter muttered. 'Who does she think she's kidding?'
'Only sixty-thousand words, sweetie - it'll be a piece of p**s -' and off went the Hare, whispering 'what ifs' and 'and thens' and oohing and ahing like nobody's business.

After that, things went ominously quiet for a while. Ms Plotter kept her eyes open just in case, and, over the course of the next week completed another 78 words of her oeuvre. Then removed 43 of them.

On November 7th, the Hare cast herself, gasping for breath, at Ms Plotter's feet.
'Oh-God-oh-God-oh-God dahling -' she panted, like something from When Harry Met Sally, only considerably less seductively.
'Something the matter?' Ms Plotter resented the interruption. She was just getting into her stride. 'Did you get lost?'
'Lost?!' Ms Panter said. 'How can I get lost when I don't know where I'm going? No. It's just that I can't - well, I can't get them down fast enough...'
Ms Plotter cautiously checked the Hare's nether regions. Everything seemed intact. 'Get what down fast enough?'
'The words of course!' the Hare foamed at the mouth. 'The ideas, dahling. The inspiration, the muse, the whole, whole - damned - thing. You know?' And off she raced again. The Tortoise licked her pencil and very slowly crossed a 't'.

On November 14th, on one of her perambulations of the lawn, Ms Plotter discovered Ms Panter stretched out on her back, her face to the sun.
'Given up, have you?' said Ms Plotter.
'Hardly, dahling! I've pretty much finished, in fact. Thirty days? Pah! That's for wimps.'
'What's the title?'
'Around The World in Eighty Minutes.'

By November 21st, the Tortoise had completed a whole paragraph. Although it still needed a good edit.
She plodded up to the Hare, who was crouched on the grass, tongue out and forehead furrowed, still writing.
'Thought you'd finished?'
The Hare looked up. 'I have, sweetie, I have. Just the query letter to send off, and I'm done. I should have an agent by the day after tomorrow and a nice juicy deal with a top publisher by the end of the month.'
The Tortoise sighed. 'Aren't you going to revise it? At least read it through?'
'You can't improve on perfection,' smiled Ms Panter.

Winter came. On the last day of November, Ms Plotter settled into her box of straw, her index cards arranged neatly in a file, the crisply printed page of her manuscript baside it, ready for Spring. Her eyes were half-closing when there was a sharp rap at her shell.

'Sweetie! Wake up!'
Ms Panter was leaping around, trembling with excitement. She thrust a brown envelope under Ms Plotter's reluctant nose. 'It's arrived. From the agent. Just as I said it would.'
The Tortoise opened one eye. 'Open it, then.'
The Hare tore the letter open and read the contents, her ears quivering.
'Dear Ms with's competitive market...with regret...bog off.'
'I'm mortified. Mortified, dahling.' Through streaming eyes, she saw the Tortoise withdrawing her head into her shell. 'But hey...there's always next year. We could do it together. You and me, eh, sweetie? What do you say - yes or no?'

Just for a moment the Tortoise stretched her head out from the safe confines of her shell and blinked very slowly.

'NaNo,' she said, so quietly that the Hare could barely make out the word. 'Nah. No.'

*NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month