Merry Christmas!

We would like to wish all our readers and contributors a wonderful Christmas, and we look forward to your company in the New Year. 

Meanwhile, if you've a moment spare between mince pies and repeats (the TV kind), why not glance through our back catalogue and find yourselves a favourite read?

See you soon! 

Santa unwrapped

I love a good book for Christmas*, so I wrote my letter and posted it off to Lapland making sure that Santa would have plenty of time to print it all off. I allowed for time for Santa to enlist the help of his elves to glue the cover on and to proofread the text.

Lo and behold, Santa turns up early. And curiosity gets the better of me.

*Yes, Santa, I have been a good girl all year!

Support your favourite writers!

Okay, no preamble, no beating about the bush. 

If you're still stuck for a present for the reader in your life, here's a selection, written by your very own Strictlies, to fill that special someone's stocking. (Other legwear is available.) 

Because even writers need a Christmas dinner. (Other festive meals are available.)

Dead Good by D A Cooper
What would you do if your dad lost his well-paid job and moved you and your family out of the loveliest house in the world and into the scummiest part of town?

What would you do if you suddenly found some random (but very gorgeous) guy in your bedroom – uninvited?

And then what would happen if it turned out he wasn’t breathing?

Maddie Preston is about to find out…

Let's Go Round Again by D A Cooper
Casey Summerfield's leaving home. Nobody understands her and she needs to be somewhere else.

Trouble is, she isn't expecting 'somewhere else' to be 1979 and the place to be her own teenaged mother's bedroom.

Now how the hell did that happen and why is she there?

Re: Becca by D A Cooper

If technology was helping you stay one step ahead of the school bullies, what would you do if you were suddenly disconnected?
Becca thinks her life is over but could it be about to start?

Dark Ride by Caroline Green
A mysterious boy. A haunting secret...
A shiver crawled up my spine. It felt like the loneliest place in the world. For a second
I thought I caught a snatch of music in the air, but it was just the wind whistling 
through cracks in the fairground hoardings.

My instincts screamed, `Run away, Bel! Run away and never return!'

But instead my fingers closed around the ticket in my pocket. ADMIT ONE.
Bel has never met anyone like Luka. And the day she follows him into the abandoned fairground, she is totally unprepared for the turn her life is about to take.

Cracks by Caroline Green
"I'm shaking all over. My brain feels like a computer whose hard drive is full. I can't take any more weirdness - I haven't got room in my head. I look around the kitchen and I know something is different but I can't put my finger on it."

Cat's discovering that his life is not as ordinary as he thought. That's scary. Particularly when it seems he's the very last to know. He needs to find out the truth - but, with lies, danger and deceit on all sides, is there anyone he can trust? 

Standing Man by Gillian McDade
Coming soon from History Press, Ireland.

The Making of Her by Susie Nott-Bower
Set in the pressure-cooker world of television, The Making of Her is a blackly funny retort to a society which values youth over age and appearance over experience.
The Making of Her is the makeover programme that Clara never wanted to produce, featuring the one person she never would have chosen.  Add to the mix an errant husband, a barefoot counsellor and a reclusive rock star and change is inevitable.  Will transformation come from the inside out, or from the outside in?
And will The Making of Her prove to be the making of them all?

Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance
Chester, 1756
Mary Helsall does not like being a nurse. The hospital stench. The blood. The lecherous surgeon. It’s a job that will have to suffice for now. At least until she has achieved the task she came to the city to do. In the meantime, rotgut gin and a volatile relationship with hospital porter Anthony will help her get through each day.But who is the mysterious patient who claims to know what she’s got to hide? He knows all about her infatuation with a thief-taker, about her connection to the notorious Northgate Gaol, and about the shocking events of her recent past.
From the stormy seashore to the screams of the operating theatre, and from a backstreet gin shop to the fetid dungeons of the prison, Mary searches for an independent future. 
Before she can find it, she must fight the attraction of oblivion and make a choice between duty, money, and a love overshadowed by addiction.

Dark Dates by Tracey Sinclair
The hunter just wanted to be left alone - one last drink before leaving London forever. Then the vampire Laclos walked into the bar, and suddenly his night wasn't looking so quiet after all...

There's a new hunter in the city and he's targeting Dark Dates - the vampire/human dating agency run by Cassandra Bick, who also happens to be the woman that both Cain and Laclos love. These two fierce rivals must work together to stop him before he drags London’s vampires into the spotlight and destroys Cassandra’s life – that’s if they don’t kill each other first.

Explore a darker side of London with this exciting short story from author, Tracey Sinclair. The first novel in "The Cassandra Bick Chronicles", "Dark Dates" is out now.

The Silent Hills by Derek Thompson
Let’s just say that I am a prospector of sorts. A successful one, who has never cheated anyone who did not ask to be cheated, never conned anyone who did not delight in thinking that they were conning me.

The mist clung to my face and I felt a cold resolve settle in my chest: my decision was made – he had to die.

Superhero Club by Derek Thompson

Twelve year-old Jo has never fit in at school, what with being overweight and over-sensitive. Since Dad moved out, Mum forgets who’s who in the whole mother-daughter relationship. Jo has one ambition in life: to be normal. Not gifted, or gorgeous, or even particularly popular. Just normal.
You only find out you're a butterfly if you spread your wings.

Covenant by Derek Thompson
Isca has followed the faith since childhood, taking her from the Settlements and into the City States. Now, as a priestess, a prophecy bears fruit; she receives a stone tablet to liberate her people and reveal their spiritual homeland.
In order to preserve the faith, she must be willing to teach the path of True Will to a heathen, whatever the consequences. But what if the long-awaited Righteous One isn't so righteous after all?

A mystical fantasy quest that draws on esoteric themes such as reincarnation, the tarot, the Tree of Life and spiritual truth.

What being published has taught me

So, after a hiatus of several years, I put out another book this year, and was reminded of the following… so for the newbie, here are my lessons, I hope they save you some pain.
My universally acclaimed book - oh, wait...
You won’t get the support you think you’ll get: getting published – or, indeed, self-publishing – is a huge deal for any writer. It’s likely one of the most exciting things that ever happens to you, and you expect all of your friends to be swept away on the same tide of excitement as you, and you console yourself that, hey, whatever the reaction of the wider world, you have rock solid support from your nearest and dearest, right? Um, not quite. While hopefully at least some of your friends will be excited/pleased/supportive, the most common reaction is an initial ‘well done, you’ followed by a crashing wave of apathy. This can be disappointing, dismaying and downright hurtful, but really, it’s natural: just like every new parent thinks their baby is the centre of the universe, to almost everyone else it’s a piece of good news to slot into an already hectic life (I can already hear certain writers thinking ‘bah! A baby only takes 9 months, my book took years!’). People have their own stuff going on, and there’s a whole list of reasons  hy they may not be (or be able to be) the cheerleaders you hoped they’d be: they’re busy, they’re stressed, they're skint, it’s not professionally appropriate for them to publically endorse you, or, and this is a tough one, they actually think your efforts are shockingly poor and you are not to be encouraged to continue in any way, and they won’t be hypocritical. The thing is, you’ll never know which of these reasons applies, because the only acceptable response to this apathy is to accept it and move on (OK, you get to rant to a supportive friend – but only in person, never online, and only once or twice. That’s your lot).
Everybody I know bought this book! No, wait...

Not everyone will like you: to re-use the baby analogy, you might think your precious is the cutest thing in the world, everyone else might think it looks like Gollum. Nobody gets published to universal acclaim and there are a whole load of people out there who will mightily detest whatever you have done, no matter how good you believe it to be. Agents, publishers, reviewers, readers – lots of them will think you suck. Again, the best thing to do is to rant to a sympathetic friend (never online!) and move on: though it is worth trying to be at least partially objective, as if a theme is repeated throughout the criticism it might be something you need to work on and improve (if you are left feeling the whole world doesn’t understand you, then you have to face the fact that you might be incomprehensible). But bear in mind that if you created a perfect, flawless and beautiful piece of work, someone, somewhere on the internet will still hate it.
EVERYONE likes Christmas, right? No, wait...

Ask – and you will be dazzled by the support you do receive: see, you thought I was going to be all negative, didn’t you? But honestly, put yourself and your work out there and ask for feedback and support and you will be amazed by what comes back to you. People will astonish you with their generosity and enthusiasm and acts of kindness and assistance, even if often these are not the people from where you would expect such support. Be grateful, and open, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
And remember – enjoy the journey…

Now for the shameless plug: if you fancy being one of those people who are surprisingly supportive, please consider downloading my new short story, A Vampire Christmas. Yup, it’s as trashy as it sounds. I'm expecting everyone I know to buy it. No, wait...

All I want for Christmas...

Most writers have a pretty standard Christmas list that reads something like this:
- More Twitter followers, FB likes, blog readers and website visitors. (I've grouped them together because it's all the same fairy dust.)
- To be on the best seller list for their genre in Amazon (step forward Martin Bodenham).
- A contract with an agent or a publishing house. Dora Bryan might have settled for a Beatle, but that just won't do any more.

For one of my fellow contributors to Beyond the Horizon (Bamboccioni Books), Christmas has come early. Chloe Banks, a first time novelist, has signed a contract with David Haviland of The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency. I picked her brains to find out where others - including me - might have been going wrong!

1. I have to start with many congratulations, Chloe. It's every novelist's dream - has it sunk in?
I think so! The first couple of days after getting the offer I was unable to concentrate on anything – I was so excited but also overwhelmed by the speed it all happened. I was expecting months of rejections but I had an agent within about five weeks of finishing writing, after only one rejection. I sent my book to David one Tuesday and he made an offer on Friday. Once we started talking about everything that needs to be done to the book now, it made everything feel more normal. I still sometimes have to pinch myself though.

2. Have you met the agent in person yet? Is it true that they are surrounded by humming birds and creatures of the forest? (I might be confusing the words 'agent' and 'Disney cartoon' here.)
No humming birds, just thousands of Londoners rushing to get places! I travelled to London to see David. It wasn’t strictly necessary but I thought it was better to have met in person and I’m so glad I did. I think agents had always been mythical creatures to me until then. But he was a normal person (he actually recognised me in the street – rather than me spotting him by the glow of sheer agently awesomeness surrounding him) and very lovely. If all goes well, an agent could work with you for your whole career, potentially over several decades, so it’s good to get off on the right foot. We did a very unglamorous and unceremonious signing of the contract in a basement cafĂ©, but I liked the workmanlike feel to it – writing is a job not an “experience”.

3. What led you to the original premise for your novel and did it change much along the way? (Tell us about the book)
TheArt of Letting Go started in the least sophisticated way possible. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo (the annual event where participants try to write 50 000 words of a novel in a month) in 2011 as I had nothing else on my writing horizon. I had three or four short stories that hadn’t worked at all, but that contained an idea or two that I still loved – an abstract artist, a man in a coma, a missing god. So I decided to try to mash them together as an experiment!
At the end of the month, I had the world’s worst book – my draft zero. I decided to do one “real” draft to see if it had potential. I almost gave up after that as it was still awful. But the characters had trapped me. A year after I started and two more drafts later it was unrecognisable, but I thought I had something.

The book is about lies and art, secrets and madness. It tells the story of physics professor Rosemary Blunt who is leading a double life, split between respectable retirement in a seaside village and secret visits to see a comatose man lying in a nearby hospital. It’s her decision whether he lives or dies and nobody in the village has any idea he even exists. When Ben – an abstract artist – turns up, his attempt to paint a picture of God disturbs Rosemary more than it should. Despite this, an unlikely friendship develops and begins to threaten the security of her secret. But she’s not the only one with a past she’d rather forget. As summer passes they have to decide whether they can trust each other enough to set themselves free, or whether their secrets are just too terrible to be told.

The story is told from four points of view. Interwoven with the action, Ben tells the reader a very potted history of abstract art – leaving the reader to draw their own parallels between the deceptions practised by the characters, and the deceptions practised by abstract artists. I suppose if I was to pick one theme it would be that of ‘things not looking like what they are meant to be’!

4. A tricky question, but what do you think it was about your novel that attracted the agent?
I think David liked the position it holds on the novel spectrum. It’s not literary, but it’s also not a family saga or romance – and definitely not chick lit. It’s at that cross-over point between the two and therefore (hopefully!) is quite commercial. Good writing and commercial potential are the two most important things to an agent. I seem to have managed to do enough of the former – though there’s loads more work to do – and I was lucky that it happens to have the latter too! I think the use of multiple first-person viewpoints worked in my favour, which I’m very glad of as it was a gamble for a first novel. I was worried it would seem pretentious rather than interesting! But you have to find the voice that works for the story you’re telling – no point trying to imitate another book or author. I didn’t feel like I could write it any other way.

5. What happens next in the process?
I’ve got a fair bit of re-writing to do now that I have David’s notes (I’m doubly blessed that he is a very experienced editor and writer as well as an agent). Once that’s done – hopefully in a month or so – we’ll put together a proposal for publishers and then David will do his stuff, sending it out to editors seeing if he can get anyone to bite! I’ll be glad to hand it all over to him and get started on the next novel.

6. I know that you have had significant success with short stories. How did you apply that experience to writing longer fiction?
My short story successes aren’t really that significant – it’s all been in small, low-key competitions. But it has been significant to my development – both the times I’ve won and the times I’ve got it horribly wrong. Short stories and novels are such different skills, once you know how to write I’m not sure they really help each other much. But when you are just starting out, as I was three or four years ago, all writing teaches you so much, and short fiction is great because you can get it wrong 20 times over and learn 20 times as much in the time it takes you to get your first novel wrong! Short stories taught me how to build characters and plots, carry tension and create satisfying endings. They also gave me a confidence boost and a handy couple of sentences to put in my cover letter to agents!

7. How will you balance any rewriting with working on your next book?
Oh, I am itching to get on with the next book. But I’m not very good at writing two things at once. So I am compromising by concentrating on the re-writing for now, and just allowing myself the occasional hour to jot down some planning notes for the next one. I’m so excited by my initial idea, I can’t wait to get going! But I’m also not completely bored by The Art of Letting Go yet so it shouldn’t be too much of a chore. I’ll be interested to see whether writing a novel feels different when you know you already have an agent for it.

8. Does your success change how you see yourself as a writer and how you interact with other writers?
I never expected to be a writer so it’s all been a bit crazy. I have a first-class science degree, nothing more! I was only playing with writing as a hobby until – and I know how much this can make me sound like a crank – I felt like God was telling me to write. I’m a Christian and my faith is the most important part of my life (even though I don’t write Christian books). I tried to ignore God for about 18 months, and only took it semi-seriously. Then one day a visiting pastor came to speak at our church. He’d never met me and knew nothing about me and yet, as I left after we’d chatted, he told me, “God wants you to keep writing. You’ve got what it takes.” So I’ve spent the last two years trying to have what it takes. We moved to Devon and I started to tell people I was a writer – however embarrassed I felt by it.

At times I’ve stepped back and thought, ‘Seriously? Your whole life is based around the hope that you heard God right when he told you to get writing?!’ But I kept going and God was faithful even when I wasn’t. My husband is amazing too. He trusted that it was what God wanted and never put pressure on me to get a “proper job”. Now, of course, he says I’m his pension plan for the future when I’m selling Hollywood rights to all my books!

Even though I know the most crucial factor in getting an agent is writing a good book, I still find it hard to believe that I “deserve” to have got one. I felt a bit guilty that my book was recommended to David by a friend of mine, rather than having been discovered on the slush pile. There was another agency who were interested in my novel, and they did find it on the slush pile, so that helped me get over the guilt, but I don’t think of myself as a better writer now particularly – just a very blessed one! And, I suppose a bit more of a confident one. The quality of my writing didn’t suddenly change because somebody thought it was good. Getting an agent is great but it doesn’t mean a lot unless I also find a publisher. Success – whatever that is – is made up of thousands of steps and this is just one of them.

I find in this early stage I’m very wary of how I come across to people who have been reading my blog for ages. I’m worried if I say anything encouraging that I’ll sound patronising now, whereas I wouldn’t have thought twice before – we writers need all the encouragement we can get! I know I’ll still need it. In the space of a couple of weeks I posted on my blog about getting my first rejection and about getting an agent, and both times I was so glad of the encouragement of other writers. There will be writers who I know who will never get an agent or publisher – some because they just won’t ever be good enough (just like I will never be picked for the Olympic athletics team despite spending my whole youth running round a track), but others just because. That sucks; that’s life. I’m so aware that writing requires luck as well as talent. But we can get hung up on the luck part and worry about the submissions process and wearing our lucky pants when we post our manuscript and all sorts of silly stuff, when really the bit we can control is writing a good book in the first place.

I'd be delighted if people want to come and say hello on my blog, chat on Twitter or find out more about me and the book on the agency website.

My thanks to Chloe for being so open and honest. There you are folks - it can happen the way we've always wanted to believe. Time to get writing!

Joanna Thomas: the pleasures and pains of blogging

I started blogging just after my 30th birthday, as part of a bucket-list style challenge to try out 30 brand new experiences before turning 31. Number one on the list was to start a blog, and the blog was to be about my journey through the challenges. You see what I did there? Wiped one challenge off the list with little more than half an hour’s worth of fiddling about with Blogger. Easy-peasy.

Except, blogging about my experiences has turned-out to be as important, challenging and rewarding as each of the other Thirty@30 experiences themselves. Writing the perfect piece takes me hours. I agonise over every word just as I agonise over the words in my novel. I pour my heart and soul into each blog, and worry as I send it, defenceless, into the world. I Facebook and Tweet my posts with the same anxious pride that others reserve for pictures of their babies. I hope that people are going to read, like and share them, and am hurt when some of my dearest, closest friends seem to ignore them. Conversely, I am elated when people share their own stories, and give me inspiration for new challenges. I am overwhelmed by the support of people I don’t even know, and, of course, many that I do. Putting your writing out into the world makes you vulnerable, but I’ve found that even swinging on a trapeze doesn’t match the exhilaration of hearing that people are moved, touched, or interested by my words. A particular highlight was being re-tweeted by the wondrous and bonkers Amanda Palmer. That piece received 600 page views in 24 hours, a huge deal for me.

My writing process for the blogs is completely different to my efforts at fiction. I have discovered a liberating sense of urgency around penning my posts, because I can’t wait to get them online. I’ll stay up until 3am tapping away at my keyboard, knowing that there’s going to be some fairly instant gratification once I’m done. The same can definitely not be said for my novel, which I have been working on for five years and which I fear has become stale. I keep worrying at it, prodding old wounds, burying my head in my hands at the exhausting hopelessness of it. For all that I agonise over my blogs, I rarely start writing one without finishing it, which I think and hope keeps them fresh. If only I could do that with my novel! Sometimes, of course, the blogs are too raw, and I have to go back and make tiny tweaks when I think no one’s looking. It’s worth it for the breathless excitement of typing straight into Blogger and hitting the ‘Publish’ button.
Blogger and writer Joanna Thomas
For all the differences in the process, blogging has taught me that good non-fiction, just like good fiction, is all about storytelling. If you give readers a story arc and a healthy dose of dramatic tension, humour and emotion, they’ll go with you, and forgive the raw moments or rough patches. Fortunately that’s something I find relatively easy to do when writing about my challenges, since each one implies a mini-journey for our hapless but bloody-minded heroine, aka me.

As I write these words I’m seven months into a twelve month challenge, and still have lots more Thirty@30 experiences waiting to be discovered, enjoyed (or not!) and written about. And whatever happens once the challenge ends, I know that blogging will forevermore be a part of how I express myself through words. Now, back to that pesky plot hole in chapter four…
Visit my blog: Thirty@30
Follow me on Twitter: @JoannaJosefina
Joanna Thomas is a London-based writer with a day-job as managing editor of a legal publishing company. She blogs, writes poetry, and is editing (and re-editing) her first novel. She is also a freelance fiction editor.

Quick Fire Questions with Bestselling Author Carole Matthews

Carole Matthews is the Sunday Times bestselling author of 21 novels. Her unique sense of humour has won her legions of fans and critical acclaim all over the world. Her books have been translated into twenty languages and sold to Hollywood. Her latest book is "With Love At Christmas" has just been published by Sphere and  I've just added it to my personal Wish List.

Can the imperfect family really have the perfect Christmas?
Juliet Joyce adores Christmas.  She loves the presents, the tree, the turkey, the tinsel, everything. Already the festive spirit is upon her, which is just as well as this Christmas things are starting to get out of hand.
Her son Tom is out of work and bringing home a slew of unsuitable partners; pregnant daughter Chloe and her little boy have moved back in; Juliet’s father, Frank, is getting over a heartbreak of his own and Rita, her eccentric mother, is behaving more erratically each day.  And has the chaos got too much for Juliet’s husband Rick?
 With the big day fast approaching, Juliet hopes that she can stop everything spiralling out of control, because the only thing she wants is her family all around her and her home to be filled…

Born in St Helens, Merseyside, Carole began writing after she entered a short story competition in Writing Magazine and won a thousand pounds.  Then – to her and everyone else’s amazement – she spent the money, not on shoes and handbags, but on a writing course.  The tutor on the course liked what she was writing and recommended an agent who took her on straight away.  She got her first book deal, for Let’s Meet on Platform 8, a week later.

Thanks for joining us, Carole.  Here's a nice little starter (pun intended):
Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
William Shakespeare. There are so many questions I’d love to ask him. Like ‘Did you know you’d put so many school kids through so much pain?’

Philippa Gregory as I adore her books so much and I’d love to find out more about those pesky Tudors.

Bill Bryson as I’m sure he’d have some interesting travel stories to tell.

Favourite writing snack?
Anything chocolate-based.

Longhand or computer?
Always computer. I am a trained touch typist due to former life as a secretary and can just about keep up with my brain.

The best thing about being published is...
I can behave very badly and call it research.

The book I’d wish I’d written…
One Day by David Nicholls.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal?
Hollywood. How shallow am I?

An author should never...
Take anything for granted. I’m only doing this job because I have fantastic loyal readers who will spend their hard-earned cash on my books.

 Daily Mail or The Times?
 Daily Mail. The most amazing source of stories for a women’s fiction writer!

Independent bookshop or Amazon?
I hate to say this, but Amazon all the way. Click, click, click. And I adore my Kindle!

You really must read...
Any of the Tudor books by Philippa Gregory. She just makes the whole Tudor court come to life. Love them!

I really can’t stand…
Having to wear fingerless gloves in the winter to type as my fingers get so cold.

Left on a cliffhanger or told all?

My biggest tip for a Women's Fiction writer is…
Write what comes from your heart rather than chasing the market.

What comes first – character or plot?
Hmm. Bit of both. No point having a great character with a wet plot and vice versa.

My journey to publication was...
Relatively short. Got my first deal 17 years ago at the start of the whole chicklit wave. Thank you, Bridget Jones!

Desert Island companion?
The love of my life, Lovely Kev. He’d kill all the creepy crawlies and could make fire and catch fish. 

Carole's website can be found here: 

THANK YOU for taking time out of your busy schedule and visiting Strictly Writing,  we wish you every success with your latest book and, of course, a very Merry Christmas, Carole!