Shadow State

Science is golden.
Even if you don't believe in destiny you probably accept the word of Sir Isaac Newton. His 'three laws', unlike Isaac Asimov's (now that's what I call a literary reference), underpin not only our understanding of physics, but also of daily life and writing.

The First Law states that:
a) An object at rest remains at rest unless a force acts upon it.
b) An object in motion stays that way - same direction and speed - unless a force acts upon it.

Simply put, in fiction something has to happen in order for something to change, whether the outcome is progressive or regressive. You could argue that every twist and turn in a novel is really a Newtonian force zinging into the protagonist from an unanticipated angle.

I'm more of a plotter than a pantser when it comes to putting together a story, but I welcome an unexpected inspiration that careers towards me and knocks a character out of the picture or into it. Shadow State, the fourth book in the Thomas Bladen 'Spy Chaser' series owes a debt to Newton. I thought I had the plot figured out and my characters were moving purposefully towards the checkpoints on my writing roadmap. (I know, it makes writing sounds really romantic, huh?) 

And then...out the corner of my mind's eye, this speck of light, this flicker of 'what if' from the muse slammed into my carefully constructed plot. Okay, carefully might be overstating it a bit. But the result was surprising. A character did something unexpected and I had a choice of whether to run with it and see where it led, or to rein them in and remind them that it was my ball and therefore my rules. I went with Plan A, trusting the character I thought I'd created - we can debate that one on a chair and couch some other time - and ended up somewhere else. It was different to my original vision and I liked it. Writers like to be surprised. It keeps us on our toes and it's a great reminder that we are engaging with a fluid and mimetic imagination. 

You could say that Shadow State is something of an experiment in places. It features many characters from the series and a couple of new ones. It redraws the map in places, as far as loyalties go, and it peels back the layers a little more of the characters we think we know. It plays with some of the conventions and, I hope, it adds something special to the canon.

If you're drawn to British spy thrillers that give a nod to Len Deighton, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler, and Harlan Coben, Shadow State might be just your cup of coffee. Intrigue, action, sardonic humour and swearing - what's not to like?

Thomas Bladen thinks he is in control. He's wrong. When Thomas is confronted by a Shadow State operative, he is given a stark choice - expose a defector or face the consequences. But who is the real enemy? A stake out becomes a rescue, an intervention leads to murder and loyalties are stretched to breaking point. Soon Thomas is forced into a dangerous game, turning the Shadow State against itself. 

"Good spy thriller with a appealing flawed hero in Bladen. Liked the London life evoked!"

Shadow State is published by Joffe Books. Come and meet Thomas Bladen.



Am I selling books or cornflakes? - Lynn Michell

I first heard about Lynn Michell and Linen Press when artist, writer and friend Susie Nott-Bower's debut novel, The Making of Her, was published in 2012. Lynn and I recently found ourselves part of the same virtual conversation and, happily, she accepted my offer to write a personal post about the world of publishing from an independent perspective. I think this thoughtful piece adds to the great publishing debate and I invite you to both add your opinion in a comment and to check out the Linen Press, whether you're a writer or a reader. 

Am I selling books or cornflakes? Lynn Michell

As the director of Linen Press I’ve seen the book trade change over the last ten years from an open space for experienced, emergent and experimental writers to a closed shop in which only the famous, the celebs, the major award winners and writers with a golden gift for self-marketing can be confident of ending up on the shelves of Waterstones, W H Smith and Tesco.

The language of publishing reflects those changes. I’m hearing online presence, marketing, niche, social media platforms and branding. Reporting from a recent writers’ conference in Brighton, Sally-Shakti Willow of the Contemporary Small Press writes: ‘branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day with every speaker stressing ‘the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.’ Writers were told ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ so make sure publishers know to place you with bananas or kiwis.’ Sally concluded: ’what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.’ (

So authors need to market themselves like cornflakes. They must build websites, set up Twitter accounts, give talks in libraries to three people sheltering from the rain, and push a copy of their book into the few remaining indie book shops. I hate to force this on Linen Press authors, not because for many it goes against the grain to chase the limelight but because I’m not convinced that their efforts will bring them recognition or sales. All the evidence from six years of Linen Press’s strong social media presence suggests that there is no correlation between activity on our social media sites and sales. Here’s the reality check. UK publishers released 184,000 titles in 2013. Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown described the figure as “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide. Of course, it is utter madness to publish so many books when the average person reads between one and five books a year.’ Jamie Byng at Canongate agreed: ‘I think we publish too many books, Canongate included, and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully. ( So it’s from inside this avalanche of yearly publications that an author must carve out a niche for herself. How many niches remain?

And published authors have to shout over the sales pitches from the self-published book mountain. It’s hard to find recent, accurate figures but between 2014 and 2015 self-published titles rose from 16% to 22% of the digital market. 

In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published although the average financial return was only £500. ( As Derek Thompson says in an email to me: ‘Much as self-publishing has democratised the route to seeing work in print, it has opened the flood gates without a quality filter.’

It may be that the sheer volume of published and self-published books sends readers to the security of the Top Ten in Waterstones and the other chains. They can sit on public transport reading the same novel as the person next to them. Call it Girl on a Train syndrome.

My authors ask why their books aren’t in Waterstones. The Big Five can throw £100,000 of marketing budget at a few chosen titles leaving the rest to fall by the wayside. Waterstones takes a minimum of 60% of the RRP which makes it prohibitive for small presses who work with costly small runs. We’d be paying Waterstones to sell our books.

As a small indie publisher, it’s a growing challenge to sell the books on our list. Ten years ago Childhood’s Hill by Marjorie Wilson, Linen Press’s first publication, was accepted by Blackwells in Edinburgh and sold so well that for one week it beat Ian Rankin in their Top Ten. Later books also managed a toe in the door because managers, not central sales offices, still decided whether or not to take a risk on a book. 

Jump to 2016. Sometimes A River Song, one of the best books on our list, received a dozen rave reviews and its Costa prize-winning author, Avril Joy, attended three book fairs shortly after the launch, yet still we struggle to sell copies and Waterstones won’t look at it. I sense a further seismic shift towards a limited diet of mainstream-published crowd pleasers.

The three routes to publishing have split and gone their separate ways. Think cornflakes, brand yourself, find a vacant niche and you may hook a mainstream publisher. Go down the self-publishing route if you know how to stand head and shoulders above the self-marketing crowd. Or go with an indie press which occupies the space between the other two. This year three out of six books on the Booker short list come from indies, one a tiny Scottish press. Success is possible. And, as Sally-Shakti Willow says, even without the rainbow end of best seller status, small presses are ‘committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers.’

Excuse this final bit of branding. Linen Press, the only indie women’s press in the UK, does read unsolicited manuscripts and we are looking for beautifully written books. Send us your manuscript.

The Water Babes - Norman Whitney

It's long been said - and repeated on social media ad infinitum - that every book written in the English language is just a combination of the same 26 letters. However, the divide between non-fiction and fiction has always seemed a robust one. Journalists and other professionals have been known to cross the border successfully, often fictionalising their work experiences and environments. 

Norman Whitney has gone one better by choosing a completely different setting and genre for his debut novel, The Water Babes. I caught up with him online and asked him what it was like to go in at the deep end. 

What was your inspiration for this book?

My inspiration was basically to see whether I could write a  novel, following my successful career in English Language Teaching (ELT), and as someone who is now in his seventies! I wanted to write a novel that was not peppered with violence and murders.

I also wanted to promote my main theme, which is how people – even those of very different cultures, faiths, and personalities – are interconnected, even though they may not think so. That is why surprises and shocks about such connections are such a feature of the story, especially towards the end.

How did you find the process of creating fiction, having previously written textbooks?

Textbooks, especially those in ELT, have to be written within the constraints set by syllabuses, which very from country to country. These constraints affect everything, including grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and types of illustration. Syllabuses were, and still are, subject to fashions in education, which publishers had to be aware of. 

My course books were for teenagers learning English overseas, and each country has specific interests such as guidance on how to study, how / whether to include guidance on study skills, self assessment, and cross-cultural issues. Also, the different weights given to the skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening in each syllabus have to be taken into account. In addition, my books specialised in the study of English in different subjects, e.g. history and geography.

Novels are free of such constraints! So, writing without grammatical or vocabulary limits came as a great relief! But there are other constraints such as continuity, consistent characterisation, and in my case, plausibility of plot lines. Adapting to new freedoms meant adapting to new conventions. Sometimes, this was relatively difficult (textbooks have wonderful artwork support which novels usually do not), but sometimes relatively easy (in novels, you can use any tense you want to whereas text books of my sort have very strict limits and prohibitions and different levels).

What was your path to publication?

My path to publication was not easy, despite textbook sales of 25 million. I needed an agent, for the first time in my life. I tried 25 agents, but none were interested, save one or two, who were very complimentary about my sample, but nothing more. I came to the conclusion that unless one were extremely talented or very lucky (I was neither), or unless one were already famous in some other field (politics, pop music, sport) the chances of getting an agent were very slim. Interestingly, several agents (hedging their bets?) asked if the manuscript had already been self-published. My other problem is that, at the age of 73, I am clearly not an agent’s idea of a solid future investment!

So I took the hint and investigated self-publishing. I looked up one or two companies that offered help, and came across Troubadour/Matador, based in Leicester. They have always been helpful, prompt, and clear. From the start, I wanted to give my book every help, and to cover all the bases (marketing, promotion, sales) that I could, and which were offered by Matador. Inevitably, this has proved costly, but since I wanted to give the book every advantage, I consider the expense worth it, no matter what happens in the future.

Are you working on anything at the moment?

Yes. One idea is a sequel to The Water Babes. The other is about the closed world of luxury cruising. But I am waiting to see what happens to The Water Babes before working on other ideas in earnest.

How do you go about balancing comedy and drama in your fiction?

It remains to be seen whether readers think that there is a balance in my book…!

But for me, it helps I think to have a sort of ironic detachment to the world about us. I have found that if I tell people that my novel is set around a ladies' aquarobics class, they already seem to sense the comic potential in the basic setting. It’s a bit like setting up a situation comedy.

Add to that a mix of themes such as separation, divorce, sexual shenanigans, and a farewell party, it isn’t difficult to see how life’s dramas and even tragedies might also have their place amongst the comedic moments.

What has been your biggest challenge in creating The Water Babes?

The biggest challenge was how to introduce each character. It is an ensemble piece, (unusually for most novels, I think) and so I didn’t want to have just one dominant central character. 

I had trouble making the opening scenes plausible, because I didn’t want to bombard the readers with lots of names or initial character descriptions too soon. I needed to make space for the introduction of each character’s motives for joining an aquarobics class in the first place. Then I had to combine what is initially a character driven story with what becomes a story driven more by plot, which darkens as the novel progresses. 

The Water Babes demonstrates the old adage that no man – or woman – is an island. 
On the contrary, the story shows that we are all in this together.

The ebook is available as a free download for an introductory period 
Weds 13th July to Sun 17th July

Where can we find out more about your book?

Author website:

Twitter: @nwhitneyauthor 

Dear unsatisfied customer

Dear unsatisfied customer,

I know how you feel, having bought goods and services myself and found them wanting. The price doesn't enter into the equation and I recognise you've chosen to spend your money on my book. Thanks for that initial vote of confidence.

I read your review with interest - as you can imagine, I read them all! I can't speak for your experience because, let's face it, nothing has that fingernails-on-a-blackboard feel to it like an author trying to justify their work to a critic. And it could be argued that if I have to point out the good bits, or what I was trying to achieve, that's as good as admitting I've failed.

However, while I'd never knowingly attempt to change a person's mind once it's made up, may I offer some advice? If a book has really disappointed you, when you review it why not let the author - and other readers - know where it failed and why? That way your negative experience can be turned into a positive by giving the author something to work on with their next book.

I hope the next book you choose is more to your liking. Incidentally, I have other books out there that you might enjoy, or not! 

Best wishes,

An author

Spotlight on Angie Sage

It all began in Cornwall. This is where the landscape for the Septimus Heap series was born and where Angie Sage at last got the chance to switch from illustrating books to writing them.
Although you will find the Septimus Heap novels in the nine to twelve years old section of the bookshop, they were written for, and are read and appreciated by, all ages. The books are fast paced, exciting tales of adventure full of interesting people and many layered relationships. They take place in a fictional world, which has enough similarities to our own to resonate, and enough differences to intrigue and entertain.
MAGYK, Angie’s first book in the series, went to number one on the bestseller lists in New York and London. “It was such a buzz, getting that phone call from my publisher.” Her other long running series, Araminta Spook, which is for younger children, reached the top ten of the children’s bestsellers.
Angie grew up in the south of England.  Straight out of school, she trained as a radiographer with a view to getting into medical school, but when that actually happened life had other plans.  A few years later she went to art school, knowing that she wanted to be part of making beautiful books. 
“After art school I got an agent and became a jobbing illustrator,” Angie says. “I did Ladybird books and toddler books, but I was pretty sure I could write too. So eventually I wrote my first book—a very simple story for under fives in rhyming couplets—and sent it in as a dummy book. After six months they said they were still looking at it. Six months later they told me, yes, it’s still here. I imagined it in a dusty corner, lonely and ignored. I waited yet another six months and with a heavy heart I phoned them up and asked them to send it back to me. The next day I got a call from the editor, who told me, ‘I was just walking down the corridor to put your book in the post when I realized that I don’t want to send it back to you.’ And that was that. They took it, and on the strength of that I got a literary agent.”
Angie balanced life raising her two daughters with illustrating, and writing a few early reader books. But, as with the pictures, she always felt that the early reader books weren’t quite what she wanted to write. Then the illustration work began to tail off. “I was actually without work for six weeks, and I thought, well, I can’t go on any longer than three months but I’m going to use this time to get into the atmosphere of something. I really thought that at the end of it I would have to go back to being a radiographer. I was actually making enquiries about refresher course,” she says with a shudder. “But I had this scene that was haunting me, where someone finds a baby in the snow, so that’s where it started. At the end of three months I had the first eight chapters, and on the basis of those my agent got me a publisher.”
And so began the Septimus Heap series, a three book deal that went to five books and then, as the Septimus world expanded, to seven. “The characters just kept arriving, and their lives just kept growing. When people ask me about them, I talk about them as though they’re real because they feel real. I think it’s the characters that sustain the series.” The series continued with the TodHunter Moon trilogy but the publication of book three, StarChaser, in October, will be the last of Septimus Heap—apart from a few follow-up novellas for diehard fans.
Angie left Cornwall in 2007 to move to a very old house in Somerset where she and husband Rhodri discovered a huge wall-painting of Henry VIII, which at times rather took over their life. It’s a house that would not be out of place in Septimus Heap, but it is also a demanding creature that can make it hard to concentrate on writing.
Angie is disciplined in her approach, and works a full working day. “I tend to work until the Archers comes on. If I’m into a book I will have a schedule with a word count, usually a thousand words a day, and if I’ve not done five thousand words in the week, I’ll need to catch up on the weekend. And then there is all the other stuff too: emails, letters, keeping up with Septimus fans and even at times, just finding time to think about new things, which sometimes gets lost but is, of course, the most important thing of all.”

Angie is now lead author on a project that is a departure from her normal way of working in that it involves planning five books in a series story arc but writing only the first one and handing the rest over to other writers. “It’s an interesting and different way of working,” she says, “and I’m learning a lot.” She also has a new series in mind and a standalone YA (Young Adult) novel waiting for the go-ahead.
A writer’s life is about so much more than just the writing. Angie is planning to move to a less demanding house and hoping to get out on the water a lot more, but she has a sneaking feeling that writing is going to be a huge part of her life for some time to come. In March 2016 she will attend The Writing Retreat in Cornwall as a visiting author, talking to the guests and sharing writing tips with them. She’s looking forward to being back in Cornwall, and in such a magical location.