Shades of 'Shades'

Unless you’ve been hibernating in a cave for the past 6 months, or out of the… no, not even out of the country would cover it… um… if you’ve been off the planet visiting alien relatives or something… then the publishing sensation that is ‘FiftyShades of Grey’ will have escaped your notice.  Here I am almost tempted to say ‘lucky you’ but then that would wholly depend on which side of the fence you’re sitting with this literary work of fiction.  And again, of course it depends what you consider literary.  In my book (pun intended) ’literary’ means something that is created from words, produces coherent and pleasurable sentences, makes me think, question, comprehend, examine and discuss; and paramount: the story entertains me.

I have to admit that I only bought this book to see what all the ‘fuss’ was about.  I’d heard about it, I’d noticed it had begun to rocket to questionable stardom but as I also noticed it started off as Fanfic for the ‘Twilight’ books,  it wasn’t on my radar  as Werewolves and Vampires aren’t actually my bag.

But it wouldn’t go away.  The furore I mean. It got to the stage that I actually felt like I was missing out on something and so I read a few reviews  - there are THOUSANDS of reviews here: and it’s more or less an equal split between the 5stars and the 1stars, so the reason for the massive controversy this book has created is there for all to see.

The big knockers are beside themselves with disbelief that a book of such sub-standard writing should be allowed to hit the all-time bestselling lists (the latest accolade being that this E.L. James’ debut novel has overtaken sales of Harry Potter and is continuing to run with its glory) let alone get published in the first place when you consider other struggling writers who have still to step onto the first rung of publication success.

I don’t like to judge books by their covers.  I don’t like to follow the herd if I don’t know where they’re going and I don't believe anything unless I've seen it for myself.  I suppose I’m a-everything until I find reason to jump over one side of the fence or the other (it does get a little bit painful sitting up here after all, but you do get a better view).  So I have to say that I remain a-Grey.

I read the book.  True, I did falter at the first paragraph, thinking to myself ‘Seriously?  Is this how the main character’s going to be all the way through because I’m already irritated by her’, but decided to press on.  After all, I managed to get all the way through and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Secret World of a Shopaholic’ and that Becky Bloomwood was just as scatty, hair-brained, na├»ve and beautiful as this Anastasia Steele is. There was just less bondage with Becky. More scarves and shoes I seem to remember.

And I have to admit that after I’d decided that Anastasia was intentionally written as an airhead and Christian Grey (he of the title) was a complete fabrication of somebody's imagination – I mean who is ever going to be the mogul of a multi-national conglomeration of a business empire by the age of 27 AND look like a god please – unless they’re fictional? So belief was suspended for the duration (oh, there are also some seriously shonky distances covered in a couple of scenes and I’m thinking of moving to the USA because they appear to have invented the 32 hour day) and I found myself enjoying the book.

So, let’s talk about sex.  I was very pleased that there was no use of the ‘C’ word whatsoever and equally no silly euphemisms for various heaving and throbbing parts of the bodies.  Sex scenes can be complicated enough without trying to decipher what exactly a furry love trumpet is doing racing through an overgrown avenue of magnolia blossom without the head starting to hurt, so for the straightforward sex, E.L. James, I thank you.

In all, I thought the story was quite sweet (okay, there’s whips and duct tape and touches of sado-masochism, but show me a B&Q where there isn’t)  and when I read this: I realised it wasn’t just me who found the whole thing a kind of  Benny Hill meets Acorn Antiques rom-com.

I actually laughed ‘til I cried whilst reading all 50 of these ‘Notes’. Here’s a couple:

40. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (2)

“Would you like a bag?”

…”Please, Anastasia.” His tongue caresses my name, and my heart once again is frantic.

a. In pronouncing the name “Anastasia”, the tongue stays entirely behind the teeth and is not visible at all. In order to accept the premise that Christian is, indeed, caressing Anastasia’s name with his tongue, I am forced to conclude that he is licking her name-badge (she works in a DIY shop).
b. On the other hand, I quite like the idea that this is what he’s doing, so I’m quite tempted to let this one go.

41. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (3)

“My scalp prickles at the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might like me…I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side.”

Why not try this one in public and see what happens?

I don’t imagine for one minute that E.L. James meant for all this contention to happen and although I enjoy reading these entertainingly scathing reviews, I also felt sorry for her that her book is being subjected to this kind of in-depth scrutiny.  But as we all know, that’s why writers need thickened skin because we can’t please all of the people all of the time, and after all, isn’t this what writing a book is all about?

Don't cower in the background

From early 20th-century Chicago come some words of advice that are just as relevant to writers as to the artists they were originally aimed at. They appeared in a pamphlet advertising Dorothy D. Deene's correspondence course in Commercial Art in around 1908.

Deene, who shot to fame as a runner-up in the Chicago Tribune's 'Most Beautiful Girl in Chicago' competition, had an art studio in East 41st Street in the first decade of the 20th century. She subsequently began selling her own blend of herbal 'Complexion Tea', said to remove wrinkles, brighten the spirits and get the bowels moving regularly.

  • Fear to attempt something new is the rock that causes wreckage of most human careers.
  • Half-hearted endeavour at something you don't like to do, causes the discord that spoils any life.
  • If you are in a rut, don't waste hours blaming your environment. Improve moments in getting out of it.
  • Be in harmony with your every day task. You can't be worthy of your work if your work isn't worthy of you.
  • Putting off from one day to the next is a pernicious habit. It makes the years sum up badly.
  • Be in tune with the best there is in you, and play up to it.
  • The words that spoil the success of lives most often are “I can't” and “I'm afraid to try.”
  • A good profession will prove your best friend – better to lean upon than your truest friend or relative.
  • There are dormant powers of adaptability and resource in each one of us; wake them up.
  • What if you haven't had experience? You have not yet tested your efficiency.
  • What if you do fear defeat? Fear destroys initiative, and without initiative nothing is accomplished.
  • Don't cower in the background. Make your life stand out.
  • To ambition, brains and energy, success will surely make its bow.

Cynic no more

We'll always respect our first...

I'll never forget that first, magical book contract.

David French and I had been producing our own satirical magazine, As Above So Below, for a few years - a mixture of cartoons, spoof articles, quizzes, ads and interviews. But we wanted to break into print.

I was already experimenting with one-liners and slogans, and we liked to subvert popular sayings, so it seemed logical to put a collection together. Once we had around 100 quotes - some of which had originally appeared in the mag - I set about contacting every 'Little Book' publisher I could find. To our great suprise, one wrote back with an encouraging response. They said they had no budget left for that year, but they'd be willing to consider us for the following year's list.

Wind forward an exchange of letters and a year later, and we had a contract. We read it through carefully because we'd never even heard of a buy-out before. For the unitiated, it means they own your book lock, stock and barrel. Instead of royalties, they give you a one-off payment. I spoke with the Society of Authors and we went back to the publisher to try to get an improved offer, but their terms were standard.

After much deliberation we decided, based on the fact that half the material had already been in our magazine, that it was worth taking up their offer. Besides, it was effectively just a collection of 100 or so gags, and I knew from personal experience back then that gags were hard to sell unless you had contacts.

When the free copies of the book arrived, we were really disappointed with the graphics and cover design. I'm not sure what we were expecting, but that wasn't it. The cheque was nice though, even though it was split two ways.

Only later, as I waded deeper into the world of writing and publishing, did I realise how lucky we'd been. Easy to write, published on time, and with payment forthcoming, The Little Book of Cynics was a lovely introduction into the world of paid writing.

LBoC also opened the doors to a whole range of experiences: 
1. There was the book signing, where friends in Glastonbury bought in dozens of copies and watched as we sold three copies in a day. An event not recorded in any of the local newspapers, despite my press releases. 
2. The Little Book was also partly responsible for an interview I did on comedy writing with BBC Cornwall (where we were bounced off early because a dog was coming in to promote the Dog Olympics - I kid you not). 
3. And, more positively, LBoC remains a calling card, which I've no doubt has helped me procure freelance work across the web and in the real world.

The most important lesson about the Little Book of Cynics is that you never know where an opportunity will take you. I believe the book is out of print now, so if you were one of those people in Glastonbury, with a signed copy, it could be worth something one day.

We're All Doomed I Tell Ye...

As regular readers know, I have something of the Pollyanna about me. Mrs Cheery-Knickers, my good friend Sarah calls me. Mrs Large-Knickers-Made-of Steel might be more accurate. But hey ho.

And it's usually true. Faced with misfortune, I can be annoyingly upbeat.

But even I was faced with a challenge last night at my daughter's school play. If you've got kids and they've ever been in a play, you'll know they're usually good fun. First, you get to see your offspring outshining all others as second spear carrier on the left. Second, the sheer amusement of flapping sets and missed lines whispered by the prompting teacher always cheers the darkened soul. Or am I just a bit contrary?

But not last night.

Last night the sets were bloody perfect and not one, not one I tell ye, of the girls forgot their lines.

Left with all this professionalism, there was only the play to amuse us. And frankly Orpheus and Eurydice aint that amusing. Actually when my son played one of the heads of Cerberus in a Latin rendition of the greek tragedy (yes really!) it WAS quite funny, but last night we went fully legitimate and the performance as done by authentic greek chorus.

Sixty girls dressed from head to toe in black, speaking and moving as one. Have you heard sixty thirteen year old girls scream as one? It was like being at a One Direction concert.

Then there was the storyline. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but it's not exactly chick lit. Basically Orpheus gets married to a wood nymph, but even at their wedding their is a portent of doom. Or dooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom as the sixty girls shouted. At least sixty times.

Essentially, within minutes she dies. Cue sixty girls wailing.

Then Orpheus sets off to  the Underowrld to get her back. This bit has a fair bit going for it, as our hero is faced with ever greater challenges, overcoming them with his talent.
You get the picture: sixty girls swaying as the river Styx, sixty girls growling as Cerberus. I tell you, three lads asking 'Quid est Orpheus? Woof woof,' has a hell of a lot more comedy value.

Anyhow, soon Orpheus is on his way home, with the potential of having his wood nymph back, but at the last moment he fucks up. Wail, wail, howl, howl.

On the way home we told my daughter it was a triumph and that, quite naturally, her screaming skills had been vastly superior to her best mates'. To be fair, she is good at screaming...but while I was nodding and smiling it occured to me that what the whole fandango lacked was any light and shade. High drama and tension is great, but it has to be offset by quiter more reflective moments.

This is how it works in the best stories no?

I'm all for putting your hero up a tree and throwing rocks at him, but in between each new rock, there has to be a period of contrast. This allows the reader to breathe. And when the next rock comes, it feels all the sharper.

As a crime writer, I'm all too guilty of putting too much stuff in my work. This happens, then that, then something else. Tension rises and stakes get higher and higher. Yet I must remind myself to provide my readers with those breathers. As last night's show reminded me, without them, it can all get a bit much.
HB x

Twitter for Writers - use your tweets wisely!

I’m a huge Twitter fan. I probably spend more time than is healthy scrolling through my newsfeeds – I use it as a source of information and entertainment, as well as a nice way to waste time when I should be doing something more productive. But I’ve also found that it’s an enormously helpful marketing tool (I’ve had several gigs off the back of it, sold some books and made some useful contacts). But many writers are either scared of using Twitter at all, or use it badly. Here are some tips on making the most of your Twitter feed… so get tweeting (and come say hi! – I’m @thriftygal)

Avoid the hard sell: one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to use their Twitter feed as a stream of self-promotion. Nobody minds you promoting stuff – after all, that’s the purpose behind a lot of feeds, whether they are theatres, brands or artists. But if that’s all you do, it gets boring very quickly. I unfollowed one author recently because all he did was tweet quotes from his own books; I’ve read his books, so what’s the point? People want a person they can connect with – so tweet about what interests you, what you are working on, etc. Create an online persona that reflects who you really are, and people are much more likely to engage with it. (Aim for no more than 20% of your tweets to be ‘plugs’.)

Build relationships: to get the best out of Twitter, use it as a conversation. If someone tweets something you like, tell them! If someone asks a question and you can help, answer it. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you attract like-minded people. While you shouldn’t just think of them as potential customers, obviously this is widening your potential readership. It’s also fun: I have a whole batch of people I interact with regularly, none of whom I know in ‘real’ life, but it makes for some great exchanges.

Support other users: Retweet posts that you think are clever, or funny, or thought-provoking (or where people are asking for help/information); use Follow Friday (#FF) to promote tweeters who you like or who you think your followers would be interested in.

NEVER troll! Remember, your tweets are public and identifiable. Don’t ever tweet anything abusive, and try to be measured if you are stating a negative opinion. Be aware that some people follow thousands of users so won’t see every tweet, so don’t think it’s OK to tweet something then ‘contextualise’ it (eg, tweet something inflammatory/racist/homophobic that you mean ironically, then follow up with something like ‘obviously I’m joking’ – I’ve seen it done! What tends to happen is people will see the first tweet then think, hell, I’m not following this nutter any more…)

Clueless as to how to get started? I’m assuming a basic knowledge of what Twitter is and how to use it, but if you’re completely in the dark, do check out an earlier post I did on Twitter for Business which is aimed at absolute beginners.

Quickfire questionnaire with Nik Perring

Which 3 writers, living or dead, would you invite to dinner?
Kurt Vonnegut, Etgar Keret and Caroline Green (and Caroline gets extra wine because she invited me here).

What's your favourite writing snack?
To be honest, I don’t really snack all that much, whether I’m writing or not. I’m liking pears at the moment, so probably pears.

Longhand or computer? 

Longhand first, always. It makes me slow down and think a little more about what I’m writing, and it also means that I get to edit what I’ve written while I type it up. So, yes. Longhand, definitely.

Win Booker prize or land Hollywood film deal? 

Either would be pretty cool. Really, I’d just like people to keep liking what I put out. That’s the important thing.

Tabloid or broadsheet?
Broadsheet, technically, although most of my newspaper reading seems to happen on my iPhone now. The Guardian and Independent apps are great.

Independent bookshop or Amazon?

My first choice is always going to be an indie, for obvious reasons. But I think it’s important that we recognise that amazon is here and that it has its place too. (Plus, you can check your rank. This might not be a good thing.)

Hacker or adder?
Good question! Err, I’d like to say that I do whatever I think needs doing. I start out writing pretty leanly but even after that I think I’d probably be a hacker. I think aptness and efficiency are two of the most important parts of story telling and, for me, hacking allows me to get my words to be that little bit more efficient.

Plotter or pantser? [ie do you plan out all your work first or write by the seat of your pants!]
Pantser. I think finding out what happens as I’m writing is one of the best bits!

Leave on a cliffhanger or tell all?
I don’t think any story ends when the book ends, so it’d be impossible to tell all. And I like that. I like that we see a period and not the whole story because life does go on. Plus, the bit we see’s the most interesting bit.

You really must read…
Dear Everybody, by Michael Kimball. It’s wonderful.

 I get most excited by…
A great idea that I think I’ll be able to make into a good story. That, and Marion Cotillard.

If I wasn’t a writer I would be…
Less tired. And probably rich too.

An author should always/never…

An author should never stop learning.

Nik Perring is a writer and editor from the UK. ‘Not So Perfect’ his first short story collection was published by Roast Books in 2010, and he co-wrote ‘Freaks!’ with Caroline Smailes, which The Friday Project (HarperCollins) published in April.

He blogs at and he tweets as @nikperring and he would love for you to say hello.

This is a job for...Mickey Rooney*

There's light at the end of the tunnel.
So there I was with a stack of rejection letters (well, there would have been if I hadn't needed some kindling) and a manuscript that had just made it back from an editor.

I re-read his email - the one that proposed publishing my fantasy novel (yay!), but only if I provided £5000 (not so yay). I checked the biscuit tin and, apart from a few bourbon crumbs, there was nothing there. Unless you include the reflection of an unpublished novelist staring back at me.

The novel has a chequered history, which you can read about some other time here should you feel inclined. We've been through a lot together - 10,000 words in the last edit, for one thing. The reader feedback has been good and, bar the odd rough edge, I think it would work as a niche publication.

So, what to do?

Self-publish, of course, as a friend of mine has been saying for months! I've weighed up the pros and cons, which are as follows:

1. The book is already written.
2. I would have needed to complete a full edit anyway.
3. No one understands a book better than the author.
4. Affordable start-up costs through Lightning Source. (Other options are Feed-A-Read and Lulu, to name but two.)
5. I already have a block of ISBNs, having self-pubbed an ebook of comedy sketch scripts.
6. I had a marketing plan of sorts already put together.
7. I have realistic expectations of Covenant's potential as a niche fantasy novel.
8. Small number of sales to recoup my investment.
9. I get to see Covenant in paperback. Finally.

1. The edit has to be really good because there'll be no one else to act as a quality gate.
2. All promotional activities will be down to me (as opposed to 75%!).
3. Time spent on this is time spent away from writing new material / books / job applications.
4. No guarantee of success.
5. I need to sort out all aspects, including the cover design.

I aim to complete the edit by the end of June and then a final read through and the formatting by the end of July. I've decided - for this novel anyway - that it's time it was in print and available to readers.

I'll post an update in July or August. Meantime, what's your view of self-pubbed paperbacks, both as readers and writers?

* Before my time too, but I pick up lots of stray information.

A writer's greatest asset? A thick skin

One thing writers get used to quickly is rejection. With the exception of the extremely lucky or the extremely well-connected, any writer’s path is strewn with rejection letters: from agents, from publishers, from magazines…  We’ve all had them, ranging from a ‘we haven’t even read this’ form dismissal to a detailed critique of everything that is wrong with what you’ve written. We console ourselves that it happens to the best of them: JK Rowling was told she’d never make a living from writing. Lord of the Flies was rejected 100 times. I know personally of one (now pretty well-established) novelist whose first book was rejected by one agency, then accepted a month later by another, by the same woman, who had moved agencies in the interim. If that doesn’t prove how arbitrary success can be, what does? But one thing that many aspiring writers don’t realise is, this doesn’t stop when you get published. In fact, if anything, these days it just gets worse.

Anyone who produces any sort of art for public consumption has to accept that they will come under scrutiny, and that not everyone will like what they do. I write for a theatre review website, and while I – and my fellow reviewers – always try to be fair, there are a decent number of scathing opinions on the site, because we all feel it’s our duty as reviewers to speak up at what we see as poor acting, sloppy writing or ill-conceived or badly executed productions. We're there for the viewers, not the makers, and besides, it’s constructive, isn't it? Yet it never feels like that when you’re on the receiving end of it.
As someone who has been writing – and having things published – on and off for the best part of 20 years, I’ve certainly had my fair share of criticism. My first novel was about a sexually transgressive affair: dark, yes, but not – I thought – without humour. Still didn’t stop one reviewer commenting that they wondered how I’d managed to write it without causing myself lasting psychological damage, or someone on Amazon dismissing it as ‘tediously trying to shock’. (Not to mention the agent who said “I really like it – can you make it 50,000 words longer?” Um, no.)
And of course now, with the internet, everyone is a critic: and not everyone takes it well. Plenty of book bloggers report tales of furious authors taking public umbrage at bad reviews (many won’t even review self-published books, arguing that this kind of behaviour is more prevalent amongst non-professional authors). Read any article on any reasonably popular website and the comments section will make you cringe: there’s a reason they say 'never read the bottom half of the internet'. The freedom of online posting also means that people can type things they wouldn’t dream of saying in person and, I hate to say it, but if you’re a woman it’s likely to be worse, because not only are you stupid/wrong/a bad writer, you’re probably fat and ugly as well. (Only last week, I had someone post a comment on an article I wrote for a sci-fi website saying they wanted to ‘smash my ovaries’, which seems a bit of an over-reaction to me questioning the validity of Hollywood making any more Iron Man movies.)
So what to do about it? The answer, as ever, is pretty much nothing. Listen to the constructive feedback: use it where you can, have the courage to ignore it if it really goes against what you believe. For everything else: unless it’s actually threatening (in which case, it’s illegal – tell the police), take it as a good sign. No writer’s appeal is universal: for everyone who loves Ian McEwan, or Stephenie Meyer, or whoever else you care to name, there will be plenty of people who can’t stand their work. Did I mention Lord of the Flies got rejected 100 times?

Some Things Are Not What They Seem

I was thinking about book covers the other day. And how, quite often, they are misleading. For example, some of the more gutsy, well written 'commercial women's fiction' is often wrapped in more 'chick lit like' covers...

Anyway, I thought we'd have a bit of fun with the idea. Here's a photo I took on holiday and your mission for today, should you choose to accept it, is to provide an interesting caption for the photo.

You may choose the tropical gardening route, or a more sassy fifty shades of something idea. Go on, make us laugh.

 There's a fifteen pound book token for the winner!

Doin' the e-Math

Luckily I had no preconceived ideas about what would happen to my fledglings once I'd flung them out of the nest that had been their home for the past 2-8 years i.e. the dusty bowels of the C-drive and into the world wide web-o-sphere of e-publishing.

Okay then, so half of me (and this is where my *maths gets REALLY shonky) thought maybe I'd have a lucky break and my Big Brave Move would be the absolute making of me; I'd soar the dizzy heights of self-publishing stardom and I'd have the world eating out of the palm of my hand-held-e-reader.
Another half of me was dissecting the world of writing whilst breaking blueberry muffins with Kerry Wilkinson and Amanda Hocking in Starbucks. And the other half (*see what I mean?) was rocking plaintively and dismally in the darkest recesses of the smallest room in the house wondering what the hell had possessed me to be so utterly reckless in the first place.

Because I hadn't a clue what to expect and equally hadn't a clue how to 'promote' the fact that I'd done it  - or even if I should promote the fact I'd done it at all.  And anyway, what would 'friends' on Facebook think? *in my head* "Oh ffs, there she goes, she can't get an Agent, she's clearly plummeted the depths of desperation and she's self-published.  I'd better 'like' it and say I'll buy it just to make her feel better". And that wasn't what I wanted.  Not what I wanted at all.

I am not one of life's natural 'sellers'.  Give me a vanful of double glazed windows and I will paint pretty pictures on them rather than push them on unsuspecting members of the public.  Give me a bag full of leaflets to hand out and I'll turn them into swans and fans in lieu of squashing them into unyielding palms of strangers. Give me a market stall and instead of bawling "Grabba bargain over here love, pound of spuds fer a pound!"   I'll  hand out steaming cups of tea and slices of cake and have chats with anybody who feels like stopping by.  In short, I don't 'do' selling.  If somebody wants something, they will, as Darwin would probably corroborate, go out and look for it and ask for advice if they need it.  After all, that's what I'd do.

So I didn't want to make a song and dance.  I wanted my words to just be Out There.  Like they would've been had they been printed on paper and bound and wrapped in a lovely enticing cover and placed nicely on a shelf in a bookshop. Only the e-way. And anyway my Facebook friends weren't my target audience.  Hell, some of them don't even know what a book is *waves to husband*.  So I did a couple of 'Promo's i.e. I put my books on for free for a 24 hour or 48 hour stretch to see what would happen.
And guess what?
The figures speak for themselves.

'Dead Good' = 11 'Re:Becca' = 1
February :
'Dead Good' = 583  'Re:Becca' = 276
'Dead Good' = 12 'Re:Becca' = 1 'Let's Go Round Again' = 626
'Dead Good' = 13 'Re:Becca' = 2 'Let's Go Round Again' = 12
'Dead Good' = 3 'Re:Becca' = 241 'Let's Go Round Again' = 5

So, when I've promo'd my book for free on the 3 days that I've done it (Amazon do their own freebie days and authors get 5 days per month of their own choosing) the 'sales' figues have absolutely rocketed (*see above*). BUT this doesn't mean that the book is getting read.  We've all done it - I'm not without blame.  If there's a free read going and the opening sample is interesting enough and makes me want to read on, then I'll download it.  I might not read it right now, but I have it on my system ready for when I remember it's there and I need something to read.

And it's this little spark of knowing that somewhere someone has - during the free promo at least - read the opening sample of my books and thought 'yeah, that looks good enough to save for later' and has gone to the trouble of actually bothering to press a few keys and downloaded it for ... whenever.  I don't mind.  It's out there and even if it never gets read or reviewed, I know that for a few brief minutes it was worth it - because they thought that it was.

p.s. I won't mention the very hurtful (and ambiguous) "units refunded" column on the download report and how I'm automatically drawn to the *1* that sits sadly in that list.  I have already assumed the worst.  It was such a sh*t read that the purchaser felt compelled to demand the 99p refund or it was an accidental download which wasn't even worth keeping as a back-up... sometimes I really don't like the Math 'cos the imagination gets way too involved.

p.p.s  I've just added it up and I'm averaging approx £5.38/month in 'royalties'. I'm sure that must say something but I don't think I'm listening!

Retreating to go forward

You know that Mr Men book about Mr Messy, where the eponymous hero starts out as a tangle of scribbled threads and ends up smoothed out, calm and looking forward to a new life? Well, that's what needs to happen to my brain.

Lately my mind has become like a dollop of scrambled eggs – soft, mixed up and bland, inexplicably surrounded by a swarm of bees whose stings burst thoughts before they can form. I can hardly speak a sentence or hear what other people are saying through the noise. I flit from one task to another, adding a comma here and there. When I read, the printed words get no further in than my eyeballs, and a few seconds later I have no idea what I’ve read.

I've got the happy pills but I don't think they're what I really need. What will get me sorted out is some space. Space to get some words down without anyone talking over them; without the ever-present threat of someone being about to want something.

So next week I'm going on a retreat. I'm visiting Retreats for You, a wonderful place that I've blogged about before. In the quiet village of Sheepwash in Devon, Retreats for You is the family home of journalist Deborah Dooley, who has a talent for looking after people. Her guest rooms are calm uncluttered spaces with perfect white bedding and the peaceful scent of lavender. The abundant home-cooked food is made with such high-quality local ingredients that it forms genuine nourishment rather than essential fuel. This time, I'll also be going with a dear friend I've known since university, so there'll be plenty of chat by the fire (which might even be lit if the weather carries on like this.)

Chances are it will piss it down the entire time – but hey, that's what happened to Mary Shelley at Lake Geneva and she didn't do too badly. Regardless of the weather, I won't be short of things to do. I have a book to start finish to a short deadline, an MA essay, some preliminary work for a really cool collaborative comedy project, and if I get bored with any of those, there's always my second novel.

Building up word count and having the time to concentrate are the obvious reasons for going on a retreat, and they result in a huge sense of achievement. But my main aim for going is to set up my mental health for the longer term. I desperately need sleep and good food so that when I come back, I’ll be healthier and stronger and able to unravel the Mr-Messy-like tangle of thoughts.

A retreat is kind of a selfish thing to do – lots of people say they could never leave their family or justify spending money on it. It counts as 'me time' – that disgraceful phenomenon that used to be called leisure time but now means 'anything a woman does that doesn't directly involve wiping someone's arse.' But as a writer, I'm allowed to be melodramatic, so I can truly state that rather than being some self-indulgent holiday, this retreat could be the key to saving my sanity.

WINNER of signed copy of "Frisky Business"!

Thanks to all of you who commented on Clodagh Murphy's guest post last week telling us who you'd like to be alone in a closet/cupboard with - some interesting attendees!
After careful consideration, Clodagh has decided to award the signed copy of her new book, "Frisky Business" to IRALALA for wishing it could be the Cookie Monster.

Let us know where you'd like us to send the copy of this book, Iralala, by mailing us at:


Authors earn how much??!! (And I ordered a Maserati)

I took delivery of my Maserati on Saturday – well, almost. I didn’t like the pink car that Charles Fotheringham-Whitstable-Maryweather (in his bespoke suit) had on display in his showroom so I asked nicely if I could order it in black.

With the prospect of becoming a first-time author (Standing Man, History Press Ireland – subliminal message – pre-order now) I’m confident I’ll be mega rich, so with that in mind, I popped into the bank before heading to the showroom and asked if I could have a loan to cover the cost of the car.

‘Until I get my royalties,’ I said.

‘Certainly, ma’am, the money’s in your account already. I know you’ll be the next JK Rowling,’ said Mr Jones. ‘Isn’t it true that authors earn megabucks these days? You’ll be a millionaire before next week.’

‘I know,’ I replied assuredly.

With that I revved up the engine and headed off, money in the bank.

I left my little convertible behind at home and hired a fancier model just for the visit to Maserati. I didn’t want Mr Fotheringham-Whitstable-Maryweather to see the Little Black Thing in the car park and think I’d just won the lottery. I didn’t want him to think I was one of these fake rich people. No, I’m an author. Like Tom Clancy and Stephen King.

‘I want your latest model with all the extras,’ I added.

And he duly made note with his Mont Blanc pen.

‘Take a seat and I’ll go and fetch your car,’ said Mr Fotheringham-Whitstable-Maryweather. ‘Camilla will bring you a hot chocolate with edible gold leaves.’

His Gucci suit was immaculate, his Breitling watch sparkling and his Testoni shoes resplendent in the subdued lighting.

While waiting for my car I lifted a copy of The Telegraph. On the front page was a photograph of William Shakespeare.

‘You never had the opportunity to reap the rewards of your writing by driving a Maserati, did you?’ I whisper.

I glance at the accompanying article and the screaming headline: ‘Authors earn less than £5000.’
I read on: the annual average income for professional writers aged 25 to 34 from writing alone is only £5,000. Approximately 60 per cent of all writers have a second job.

Oh dear. My heart stops. I sip the hot chocolate, delivered on a silver tray by Camilla. Surely this is wrong. I mean, this time next year I’ll be a millionaire. Suddenly I see Mr Fotheringham-Whitstable-Maryweather pulling up in my Maserati. I meet him at the door and explain it all to him.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s been a mistake. I’m definitely an author. It’s just. I thought that car was a Bentley. Can you cancel the order?’

I walk off hurriedly and jump into the car.

Reasons to be cheerful...

I must admit I wasn't overly fussed about the whole Jubilee thang. I mean, I liked the extra day off (went to see Coldplay as it happens), but the pomp and ceremony isn't my bag.

But one thing about the whole shebang that struck me as entirely positive was, well, the communal positivity. As a natin we're not often infected with mass joi de vivre are we? We like to think we're too cool for all that. A bit ironic. Truth is we're quite miserable really.

I blame the weather. And bad teeth. And 24 hour news feeds about the economy.

So it was nice to see all that stuff swept away by a tide of flag waving and BBQs in the driving rain. Indeed, as my husband and I opened another bottle of wine, we both admitted that life should be like that more often.

Thus, as this very pleasant week draws to a close, I offer you my (not at all) definitiev of reasons to be cheerful chez nous. Feel free to add your own as you see fit.

1. Books. No matter how many I read, there will always be more I want to read. My to-read pile will be plopped into my coffin I expect.

2. Wine. Is there anything nicer than a cold glass of white on a warm Summer's evening?

3. Live music. Bobbing around with 60,000 other people, all singing together. Better than prozac.

4. Music in the car. Belting out Back to Black on the M1. Pure magic.

5. Radio 4. Love it, love it, love it.

6. Walking. Out in the fresh air, wellies on, preferably with my dog. I've written swathes of books in my head this way.

7. Watching my children play together. I had twins, which has it's challenges, not least when they were in utero, stretching my skin like a sheet on the proverbial military bed. But seeing them squealing on the trampoline together, twelve years later, is heart melting stuff.

8. Texts from my Mum. She's 71 and fit as a fidddle. But dyslexic. Her texts are more hilarious than the episode of The Young Ones where they anticipate nuclear war. When she switches to Norwegian mode, the casual onlooker would not notice the difference.

9. Texts from my husband. He's a brummy. A man of few words. I've saved them all.

10. Writing. Yes, some days it's worse than torture. Characters that make you puke. Plots more boring than quantative easing...but when it works, it's the best. Which I guess is why we keep on keepin' on.
HB x


Lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ll ever write again. I’ve taken a break from feeling that I ‘should’ do this and I ‘should’ do that, in the hope that the muse will just return, take over and restore order to my messy mind.

Having ‘failed’ in my attempts to be published in the traditional route, okay, ‘failed’ is tough on myself, when I’ve very nearly made the cut a few times, I’m still now faced with a few options
  1. Drown myself in an abyss of tears and become a pain in the ass to live with.
  2. Self publish. (I have tried to embrace this route but started and never finished. I just keep coming back to ‘Is this what I really want?’)
  3. Try again. Begin another novel. The problem is, even if I could face what has to happen when its written, edited, polished and honed -  I’m not sure I have a ‘killer idea’, one that just has to be written.

See why a break is a good idea?

In taking a break from writing every day, or feeling that I ‘have to’ do/finish a certain thing, I’m slowly finding the joy in the little things again. The things that perhaps inspire people who want to write, to do just that. I’ve only just begun to feel this and I don’t know if it’s a mere tremor of hope, or if it’s the beginning of the crawl from the abyss, but I can feel it...

I’ve started to notice the beautiful shades of the rhododendrons in the garden. I lay in bed yesterday morning, listening to the rhythmic sound of the rain dancing on the roof. When I spoke with the postman this morning, I noticed he wears very thick glasses and I wondered if he’d been on the end of nasty name calling in school. Placing my mug of tea on the dining table, I put it on a coaster, not wanting to water mark the table and found myself wondering why trees never get water marked from the rain.

In short, I think my senses are waking up.

I had gotten to the point where everything I did, writing wise, seemed senseless. By that, I mean pointless, unfulfilling, crap whatever, but I also mean sense-less.

I’m not there yet. Not by a long shot – the writing break still applies. But in beginning to hear and see things differently, in wanting to savour touch and taste, ideas are starting to form and I feel hopeful.

If I take it slowly, bite sized paragraphs on nothing in particular, just because I feel like it. Maybe, just maybe...

Excuse me!

"Quit whining and get writing."

Picture an office, the frosted glass door emblazoned with the words: Writing Agony Uncle. A writer, clutching a bunch of rejection letters and a hefty manuscript, taps timidly on the doorframe.

"It's open."

The writer touches the door handle, feeling his sweat against the brass.

"Take a seat."

The Agony Uncle leans back in his seat, feet on the desk. He's wearing a Sam Spade fedora. "Shoot."

The writer slumps into a chair, wondering why the office decor dates to the 1930s. He passes over his rejection slips. "It's just not fair!"

The Agony Uncle flicks through the pages, nodding at the occasion titbit of feedback. "Of course it ain't fair, you stoopid Limey." (He's American.) "Who said it's supposed to be fair? It's nature - survival of the thickskinned. Kill or be killed. Use what you got." He senses a bunch of excuses are about to be pitched his way and picks pulls a baseball bat out of the drawer.

"I'm too old to be a successful writer."

"Funny you should say that. Helen Hooven Santmyer was published at 88."

"Well, then I'm too young to be a successful writer."

"Interesting. Christopher Beale had a book launch for This and Last Season's Excursions when he was six years old."

"Okay, but I've had too many rejections to be a successful writer."

"Four words - Gone with the Wind." (Reputed to have earned 38 rejections.)

I've had too few rejections to be a successful writer.

(Flicks through the sheets.) "Somehow I doubt that! What else ya got, kid?"

"I'm not educated enough, I'm too unphotogenic to be an author, and I don't have the right connections."

The Agony Uncle is silent for a while, weighing the bat in his hand. "I hear your pain, kid; sure I do. But you're missing the point. And the point is..."

(After a long pause.) "To...erm...write?"

"Bingo. Write a compelling, knock-me-down-on-my-ass novel and see how those hang-ups fade to the background. Sure, get an education; get some professional headshots - or a stand-in; network and schmooze until you get an 'in'. But remember that the writing comes first. Okay?"


"Now, move along. I've got a two o'clock who's struggling to match the success of her first novel. Jeez, you writers - you'e never content!"

So, what are your excuses and how do you overcome them?

A new member...and why this published author has gone down the self-publishing route

Today we'd like to welcome (quick blast of trumpets) the newest member of the Strictly Writing team, Tracey Sinclair!

Tracey works as a freelance copywriter and editor. She regularly contributes to online magazines Exeunt and Unleash the Fanboy and is the author of 3 books, the most recent of which is Dark Dates.
Over to you, Tracey...

I am a published author. Yup, several years ago I fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition and had not one but two books published. So why on earth would I choose to go down the tricky path of self-publishing?  

There are a number of reasons. My original publisher is a small ‘literary’ press and my new novel is the very definition of mainstream: an urban fantasy book (yup, vampires and everything), so it didn’t fit the publisher’s profile. Also, I’ve embraced the digital world with a vengeance: I love social media and write for several online magazines. I wanted a book that would be available digitally, which wasn’t an option with my existing publisher.

I tried the ‘traditional’ route: contacted lots of agents, most of whom came back to me saying ‘you write well, but vampires are over’.  But much I wanted – and, if I’m honest, still want – the shiny paperback on display at Waterstone’s – the whole process of traditional publishing seemed so… slow. So I simply put my book out on Amazon as an e-book.

This was a steep learning curve. Without an editor, I had to rely on trusted friends to give me feedback to help shape the story (and spot the typos!) I had to get the book formatted (this is surprisingly easy, but daunting if you have no clue where to start). I needed a cover - for someone with the artistic ability of wallpaper paste and no budget, this was a stumbling block, until a friend offered her services for free.

So how to get anyone to read it? Genre fiction has a big audience online, but people still have to find a book to buy it. I’m promoted Dark Dates via my Facebook and Twitter accounts, plugged it through my blog and the sites I write for, and set up author pages on Goodreads, Amazon and Facebook. But this is tricky: if you over-promote yourself on sites like Twitter it can backfire and lose you followers/readers. Also, as this strategy depends on building word of mouth, it’s necessarily a slow one (people don’t read books the minute they buy them - I’m as guilty as anyone of leaving books on my Kindle for months, unread) so it can be frustrating.

But it is rewarding. Pricing the book cheaply means people are more likely to take a chance on it, and the ‘conversational’ nature of social media means that readers can engage with you directly (luckily, most responses have been ‘I love it!’ – obviously that direct engagement might seem less appealing if they were saying it was crap…) I feel like I’ve taken charge of the process, rather than sitting around waiting for someone to like my book enough to publish it, which has freed me up from the dispiriting round of submissions /rejections to work on the sequel: that’s enormously liberating. I don’t think any writer who has an agent will be throwing them away anytime soon, but if you’re trying a new direction, or willing to put yourself out there and see what happens, it’s an option worth considering.

Tracey will be posting regularly on Strictly Writing. She also has a prizewinning blog here. We'll be back after the Bank Holiday break. See you then!