Guest and Debut Author Sarah Painter talks to Strictly Writing about her book 'The Language of Spells'

As part of her whistle-stop blog tour promoting her debut novel, 'The Language of Spells' which was released yesterday, author Sarah Painter settles in the Strictly Station with a nice cup of tea and a cream cake and tells us a bit more about herself and her book.

Welcome, Sarah.  Can you tell us what 'The Language of Spells' is about and how the story came to you?

It’s about going home, family secrets, and second chances. With added magic. And kissing. Here’s the blurb:

When you are ready, seek, and you shall find. It is your gift.
Gwen Harper left Pendleford thirteen years ago and hasn’t looked back. Until an inheritance throws her into the mystical world she thought she’d escaped. Confronted with her great-aunt’s legacy Gwen must finally face up to her past.
The magic she has long tried to suppress is back with a vengeance but gift or burden, for Gwen, it always spells trouble. She has to stay – she has nowhere else to go – but how can she find her place in the town that drove her out after branding her a witch…?

The story started (as mine always seem to) with a character's voice (Gwen’s mysterious great aunt Iris) in my head that stopped me in my tracks and made me want to write it down.

How was your journey to publication?

I've been very lucky to get lots of encouragement along the way, but it's been a long road… I got an agent with my second book and had the 'close but no cigar' experience with publishers. Rather than seeing this as an achievement (positive thinking!),  I responded with a massive crisis of confidence. I did a masters in creative writing and, after parting company with my agent and completing my dissertation, I decided to write a 'fun' book. Something to cheer myself up after a year of trying to write gloomy literary fiction for my degree. Then I spent what felt like a lifetime (a few months) subbing to agents. I had lots of interest - requests for the full manuscripts and rewrites and exciting phone calls - but they all ended with 'close but not quite'. By the time Sallyanne rang me, I actually didn't realise she was offering to take me on and had to check! After working with me on revisions, Sallyanne subbed it to publishers and secured the deal with Carina UK. Phew!

How important do you consider the support of family/friends?

Vitally so! As you can tell if you waded through my last response, I had a lot of rejection and a lot of near misses. There were plenty of dark moments when I thought that I should stop torturing myself with the submission process and take up something I could actually succeed at. I would’ve given up many times over if it wasn't for the support and encouragement of my writer friends (most of whom I met on Write Words, many moons ago) and my lovely family.

We always ask this because we ALWAYS want to know! What advice would you give to any unpublished writers today?

To write from your heart, work on your craft, and to keep going. Also, get yourself a support network of writer friends. You can swap critiques and cheerlead each other through the tough times. Try online forums, blogs, Twitter, or, if you’re less of a scaredy-cat than me, a local ‘real life’ group.

What's your next book going to be about/ have you already begun  writing it?

I'm working on the sequel to The Language of Spells. My publishers asked if I would write another book set in the same world and of course I said ‘yes’. After pinching myself very hard to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, that is!  

You can find Sarah's book here: 'The Language of Spells'

The next stop on Sarah's book tour is at Novelicious and she'll be there on Saturday 1st June. That's tomorrow!

Thanks for joining us at Strictly Writing, Sarah.  Good luck with the book, the tour and the next book.  We're sure we'll be seeing a lot more of you in the future!

Debut Author Paula Daly tells us how Stephen King gave her the drive to write a book that created a bidding war!

Paula Daly's debut novel, the gripping crime thriller "Just What Kind of Mother Are You"  is the reason there has been no sleep, little cooking and NO ironing in our house recently.  And you have only to read all the Five Star reviews on Amazon to know that I'm not the only one.

The story strikes a chord and fear into mothers the world over; your daughter's friend is missing and you were the one who was supposed to be looking after her. "Un-put-downable" doesn't do it justice.

So... I can't tell you how stupidly excited I am to be introducing our Guest Author today.... and here Paula reveals what every aspiring author is desperate to know... how did it happen?  How did you arrive at the Station called Success?

"You know the saying – you should only write if you cannot live without writing? Well, that wasn’t me. I belonged to the group of perhaps millions of people who longed to be writers so they could give up the day job.

What could be better than sitting by the fire on a cold, wet February afternoon being paid to make up stories?

Trouble was, I had no idea how to write. Or even how to start. I didn’t have anything to say, and wouldn’t have known how to say it even if I did. I had not studied English since I was sixteen, I was a physiotherapist, and I wasn’t even certain how to punctuate dialogue correctly. 

Then my friend called and said she was reading StephenKing’s book ‘On Writing’. She told me to read it, which I did, and the next day I started writing. His book gave me the confidence to just give it a go and write anything that came into my head. Suddenly I found I had more than enough to say. In fact, I couldn’t stop. I had paper all over the house and wrote whenever my youngest child would allow.

After around six weeks of short stories I felt ready to tackle a novel. No idea what I was doing - I thought I’d start writing and see what came out.

What came out was a rather silly, frivolous psychological thriller. Not good enough to be published, but good enough to attract the attention of an agent who said, “We don’t want this. Write your next novel and we’ll see how you do.” I tried telling her I didn’t really know what I was doing, that I didn’t know HOW to put a novel together, but she assured me I could do it.

That next novel was turned down by all major publishers. A near miss, they said, but deep down I knew it wasn’t good enough. Writing is a skill that takes time to learn. I was fully prepared for it to take the same amount of time as a degree course - my reasoning being that I was retraining for a job, and any skilled profession takes at least 3 to 4 years of full time study.

Eventually, I struck lucky. JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU? came together once I found a great premise and figured out my characters’ motivation. Once submitted it prompted a bidding war between six major publishers and to date has sold in eleven territories.

I’m still not sure I know what I’m doing, but at least now I realise neither does anybody else."

Thanks for stopping by Strictly Writing, Paula.  We all wish you every continued and deserved success with 'Just What Kind of Mother Are You' and I for one cannot wait for the next book!

New Dogs, Old Tricks and Right Times

Writing ‘credentials’ fascinate me.  If I’m reading a book I’m enjoying  (and this is where paper is preferable over screen I think) I’ll flip to the Author page and see what they’re all about  - unless it’s a writer I’m already familiar with, or am friends with already (oh yes I rub shoulders with some good ‘uns) .  And if I see that they have a Degree in Drama or English Literature then I nod sagely; ‘ah…so this is why it’s written well’, and if I read that they have worked in Theatre or at the BBC or anywhere else remotely creative and Arty then I think the same; they have the experience, the education, the knowledge to produce something of this calibre.  But show me a page where the author says they’ve got an MA in  Creative Writing or spent years under the mentorship of JK Rowling* and that’s when I’ll show you some scratched off skin (mine).

These are the itches that I can’t leave alone.  And oftentimes I wonder if the itching is purely because I’m cross and jealous that MAs in  Creative Writing didn’t exist in ‘my day’ – heck, forget the Bath College of Fine Art, I’d have sold my parents and  brother and thrown the gerbils in for a place on a Creative Writing degree course in the 80’s. (I’d have kept the dog of course).

Similarly I would have been/would be very pleased to be considered a suitable candidate for Mentoring at any stage of this Writing Career I have chosen for myself.  Well, wouldn’t I?
Because in my head (you’d better bring a cagoule – it can get messy in there), a Creative Writing degree would help me hone my craft, polish my phrasing, enhance my metaphors and sharpen my shynopshishes. Maybe.

And wouldn’t having a Mentor be the next best thing to having an agent on-side all the time? A staunch and loyal supporter who encourages, rallies, cheerleads and hands out shoulders to cry on at the drop of a cliché? Isn’t that what they do?
Another part of my internal tussle the n invites my Art Teacher, the very arty farty Mrs Black, godlove’er, who used to peer over at my latest ‘piece’, point and suggest slight alterations.  Which she’d then go and suggest to the next art student, and the next and the next, until we were all basically producing pieces of art a la Mrs Black.  Which frankly even back then I couldn’t see the point of and made me want to slap her.  I did tell her once to leave me alone, this was how I wanted to do it and I loved the result.  I even got a commission  from the Head  to produce a print for his office.  Glory days.

I bet nobody poked their nose over Van Gogh’s shoulder and told him to make his sunflowers a bit more realistic. Can you imagine Mrs Black telling Picasso he should really make his nose stay in the middle of the face and not stick an ear on the nice lady’s neck?
I mean, where would it all end?

So is there a Right Way and a Wrong Way when it comes to creativity?  Did Jane Austen get her work scrutinized by a Master or a Mentor before publication (I don’t know actually… she might have done for all I know). 

Lately I’ve been seriously considering getting myself a Mentor.  I did enter a competition earlier in the year when a successful author was offering her services as a Mentor over the course of a year which included meet ups, skype/phone calls, e-mails, help with editing, revisions, introductions to agents and publishers and I very nearly internally combusted with excitement because I thought surely, at this stage in my writing journey I must be ripe for Mentoring.  Surely there can’t be much more left I need to learn… surely….. “… (stop calling me Shirley”).

I poured my bleeding heart out into that competition application.  I told her how long I’d been writing; how close I’d come to getting an agent; how many books I’d written, how I’d give an arm and a leg (the parents are long gone and the brother’s got a family now so I don’t think he’d appreciate being a bartering tool these days) for the opportunity she was offering. I emailed the covering letter, the application and a sample of the book I was working on  at the time. And waited.
I was so certain.
And I’m the least certain person I know.

Added to the fact there were 6 winning places on ‘offer’ and a further 8 ‘runners-up’ who would receive some special assistance in their creative endeavours, I imagined it was only a matter of waiting for the deadline to arrive.
This...THIS is why I should have the miniscule Bone of Belief amputated from my stupid body.

Not only did I not gain any of the 6 winning places –which had been upped to 12, I also didn't qualify as a runner up either – of which there were now 15 (or something like that).
I was rubbish.
If proof were ever needed as to how positively sh*te I truly was, then here it was in black and white.  Or rather it wasn’t. Anywhere.
I can’t tell you the number of times I read the names on that l-o-n-g list of successful applicants and I can’t tell you how many of them I Googled – just  to make everything hurt even more.

But today, after months of wound-licking, I have finally realised and rediscovered the hole in my shell where my head is supposed to poke through, and I stand before you and ask: do you think Mentorship is a good idea? Or should this experience just be sucked up and got on with in preparation  for the Right Time?

Oh, and if anybody has a watch capable, can they please tell me where the Right Time is?!

 * Other stupidly successful authors are also available :)

Apologies, Apologies, Apologies...

I feel like the silly girl who was trying to do a Good Thing and in the process ended up doing something else she should'na.

Housekeeping in my neck of the woods is something of a rarity (I must be allergic, how else can it have such an effect on me?) so when  I undertook to do a spot of Housekeeping on behalf of the Strictly site - I noticed we had about 23,000 spam comments and another 27,000 comments in an ACTUAL spam folder which I didn't even know we had.

So I spent a bout 4 hours yesterday deleting them all.  And... yes, you know what's coming because for the first few posts on here you'll notice an absence of comments. I don't know how to retrieve them (they're not 'deleted forever' so they're somewhere in the Strictly bowels and I will make it my Quest to find them, let me tell you...) but at least they're not trying to link you to nude pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker or trying to sell you Viagra and Tramadol.

So, here's some pictures of our cat Ant, doing what he does best and looking cute.  And I forgive HIM anything.  

Forgive me?

Credit where an edit's due

That's quite enough stick for anyone.

Are you sitting uncomfortably?

I was. And perhaps you will be too, by the end of this post.

It all began, recently, when I was involved in the revamp of a paperback anthology, swapping hats from Derek the writer to Eddie the editor. I was one of the original editorial team, so I knew the material well, but this time the brief was much simpler, though no less difficult: whittle down 100 anthology entries to a smaller collection of 50. Or, to put it another way: dent the dreams of 50% of those writers who'd expect a reprint to feature their work.

I'd add, in mitigation, that we decided to cut down the size of the reprint because the paperback anthology just hadn't sold in numbers big enough to justify a straightforward reprint. The smaller version would be cheaper to produce and have a lower unit price, making it an altogether more attractive proposition. Just so you know.

Anyway, I oped for three piles - Yes, No and Maybe. 

I'd like to be able to tell you that I was scientific, clinical and systematic in my approach. But with real life, and editing, it isn;t always like that.

Some pieces (re)made the cut for obvious reasons - originality, emotional authenticity, or simply beautifully written. Those that definitely missed the boat didn't tick enough boxes, which is not to say they were not without merit. And that awkward mid list of possibilities, awaiting their fate in literary purgatory, fell somewhere between those two poles.*

It was a scarily subjective process, where something can be rejected because:
- It doesn't quite fit the original brief, on further consideration.
- It reads like a shoe-in with a few details added (sparingly) in order to fit the anthology criteria.
- I just don't feel the story.
- There are familiar themes, where something else, covering similar ground, had already won our attention. 
- We need a balance in the anthology, so sacrifices had to be made.

And I can't help thinking that some editor or agent, at various times, has encountered my work and made the same sort of judgements. Along the lines of: not without its merits, but for not me at this time. Whereas, on another day, and up against a different set of competing submissions, things might have been very different.

Editors, I take my hat off to you. Now, about this new novel of mine - I think you're gonna love it...

* At the time of writing, all the pieces are going through a second round of filtering, so it's entirely possible that the final list will change. That's show-business.

Me, for free?

In my experience, the biggest transition from hobbyist to professional writer is not one of achievement but one of attitude. Not merely in our attitude towards our craft, and ourselves, but also the way in which we view opportunity.

When I first started out (feel free to imagine the music from the Hovis ad at this point - Dvorak's "New World" Symphony), anyone who offered to publish my work, or just to let me write something for them, was seized upon in a frenzy unheard of since the shower scene from Psycho. However, wearing a professional hat will very often necessitate looking at opportunities through a lens of, "What's the benefit here?"

The Internet is awash with offers to 'raise your profile' or 'build a portfolio' in lieu of payment, often by magazines that then charge their readers for the privilege of reading all that free work. And yet...and yet sometimes writing for free can pay dividends - whether it's fiction or non-fiction.

It's important to bear in mind that:
- Not everyone is in it for the money and not every creative project can be run on a profitable basis. That's why we have an Arts Council in the UK.
- In an increasingly competitive environment, sometimes getting a free piece out there can not only give you a track record and a publishing credit, it can also give you something to refer other potential editors to. (Which is why, if you do decide to offer a piece of writing for free, it's important not to treat it as a second-best option or to skimp on the editing.)
- Something written for free can garner you valuable feedback, which can help you improve said piece and perhaps rewrite it for a paying market. You may be able to withdraw the original piece from the Internet, but check the terms of any agreement carefully.

Here are three pieces of mine on the Net, now free to read:

Perfect Circle - a sci-fi story about a boy who discovers an unusual talent.
Saturday Night - Joe understands the importance of a rich, inner life.

When you comment, let us know where we can see a piece of your writing.