Sunday 27 March 2016

The Sailor's Waltz - Inspiration Behind the Story

I thought it was about time I wrote another inspiration behind the story. This one, The Sailor's Waltz is in this week's People's Friend and was one I wrote for an illustration that had been sent to me by my editor (interestingly, the original illustration was never used but I have to say I like this one better).

The original picture showed a couple on a boat. What did I know about sailing... absolutely nothing! Now, of course, as writers, we often write about things we don't know. In fact, I find researching new things fascinating but I'm less likely to be enthusiastic about weaving a story around something I've not experienced before. 

I'd established that I didn't know anything about sailing but what did I know about? Those of you who have followed my blog for a long time will know the answer to this... dancing! 

It's six years ago, almost to the day, that my husband and I went to our first ballroom dance class and just over nine since we met at a salsa class. One evening, we were reminiscing about our salsa wedding dance and about our honeymoon cruise where we spent our evenings practicing the few ballroom moves we'd learnt in the few weeks leading up to it (probably pretty badly). 

Our wedding dance wasn't a problem, as we were fairly proficient salsa dancers, but we might have run into a few problems if we'd attempted the waltz. We pick things up fairly quickly but we could only begin to imagine what it might be like for someone with two left feet - how could they possibly learn? Here's our wedding dance for those who haven't already seen it.

The question was, could I mix the two things, sailing and dancing, in the same story? Luckily I could.

In my story, Cally wants to dance a waltz to Moon River, a song her parents danced to at their own wedding. Unfortunately, her fiance, Paul, cannot dance. The only thing he is good at is sailing a boat. When Cally's father (also a member of the sailing club) realises his difficulty, he uses sailing techniques and terms to help Paul learn.

I wonder whether using dancing techniques would help me to learn how to sail? Probably not!

Sunday 20 March 2016

Short Stories - What I look for as a competition judge

I am pleased to be in this month's Writers Forum magazine talking to Helen M Walters about what I look for when judging short story competitions.

Over the last couple of years, I have been judge for the Chiltern Writers short story competition and also been adjudicator for the SWWJ John Walter Salver Competition (you can read about my afternoon at the award ceremony here.) 

I shall be judging another short story competition later this year. This time, it is the Rosemary Robb Ghost Story Competition for the Nottingham Writers Club. I'm very excited about this as I have written a few ghost stories myself. In fact, it was a post on this blog, about one I'd just had  published in Take a Break fiction Feast, which prompted their prose secretary, Carol Bevitt, to think of me as their judge.You can read the post on my ghost story here.

The thing about writing competitions is they are pretty subjective - what attracts one judge to an entry might leave another cold. Even so, there are a few simple things that can be done to ensure your entry isn't instantly put on the 'no' pile whoever the judge is e.g. make sure your story is professionally presented and has been checked for spelling and grammar errors and, above all, follow the competition rules to the letter. 

Other than that, you can only write something you love and keep your fingers crossed that the judge will too! 

Now of course if you want to know how I judge, the best thing would be to read the whole interview in the magazine but I thought I'd make a short list, here on my blog, of the things I like and dislike in a short story competition entry.

  • Write a story, not just a scene (however beautiful)
  • Avoid a weak ending
  • Balance narrative and dialogue
  • Make the story fit the theme
  • Whatever question is set up at the beginning of the story, make sure it is answered at the end
  • Make me care about the characters
  • Avoid cliches
  • Avoid too many adjectives/adverbs
  • I don't want to be 'aware' of the writer and their techniques
  • Don't presume that as I write a lot of romance for magazines that this is what I look for (I enjoy a variety of writing)
and finally:
  • Make me feel something (this can be sorrow, happiness, amusement, surprise... anything!) as the ultimate prize will be given to the story that a day (or even a few days) after reading will still be in my head. 

So there you have it - how to get the competitive edge in a nutshell. Just remember, the judge of the writing competition you have entered will have their own set of likes and dislikes.

For anyone thinking of entering competitions, you can do no better than popping over to Patsy Collin's blog, where she regularly posts the latest ones to try... good luck!

Sunday 13 March 2016

Writing a Psychological Thriller - guest post Debbie Howells

Today I am thrilled to welcome bestselling author, Debbie Howells, onto my blog. Debbie's psychological thriller, The Bones of You, was published last year by Pan Macmillan after a rather nice bidding war and has since been selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club. I met Debbie for writerly chat in my local coffee shop in Steyning recently and was delighted when she agreed to answer some questions about her success.. 

How long did it take you to write The Bones of You?

It took me two and a half months, and was an incredibly intensive writing process. My daughter was away and my son was in college, so I was able to completely immerse myself.   

Your novel is a psychological thriller, have your always written in this genre?

No.  I started writing commercial women’s fiction and when I submitted my first novel to agents, I was told the same thing several times over, that it was a crowded genre and difficult to get a first novel published. However, I had enough positive feedback to make me think that my writing wasn’t complete rubbish and I wasn’t put off.  I self-published my first two books under a pen name - my second reached 150 in the Amazon ebook rankings and caught the attention of an agent, but didn’t go further than that.  My third novel, Wildflowers, caught the attention of six agents.  I’d put everything into that book and after none of them offered to represent me, I decided I had to write something different.  That book was The Bones of You.

What would you say is the hardest part of writing a psychological thriller?

After writing my other books, it was a completely different experience, not least because a police investigation needs to be accurate and true to life, but pacing is important and the smallest details must be consistent throughout.  Readers don’t miss anything! Because of the subject matter, it was quite emotionally challenging to write.  I’d done my research, but even so, I had to try to get into the minds of abuse victims.

You used to be a florist. Was it hard to give this up?

I loved being a florist and I’ll always love flowers! The mainstay of my business was wedding flowers and believe me, that’s stressful. (Read Wildflowers – very cathartic outpouring of too many weddings!) Even after twelve years, the stress was always there because each wedding is someone’s big day and it cannot go wrong! I don’t miss that feeling.  I used to dream about flowers – not always in a good way. At the moment, I indulge my inner florist in my home, though I still help with the occasional wedding for family and friends.

I can only begin to imagine the moment your agent told you she’d found a publisher for your novel. Can you tell us something about it?

I’d allowed myself to imagine finding an agent. I met Juliet (Mushens, my agent) in December 2013 – that was surreal in itself.  I worked on her edits over the next month, and when I sent her back the last tweaks, she emailed me by return, with the list of publishers it was going out to – that evening.  We had meetings with three of them the following Monday and a couple of days later, The Bones of You was bought at auction by Pan Macmillan.  Even writing this now, it seems surreal.  It was the kind of amazing story I’d read about happening to other writers, and here it was happening to me.  It was an unforgettable moment -  hugely, hugely exciting but also, after wanting this for so long, there was relief, too.

The Bones of You was chosen as a Richard and Judy read. What was it like meeting them?

It was another surreal moment, finding out that The Bones had been selected for the Richard and Judy book club.  Richard and Judy couldn’t have been nicer, they really put me at ease.  I met them just before Christmas and we had a conversation for about thirty minutes, which was recorded for a podcast for their website.  The time passed astonishingly quickly!

One of the themes of the novel is emotional abuse. That must have been hard to write about.

Having researched the subject fairly comprehensively and heard firsthand stories of victims, it was a subject I was – and still am - compelled to write about. For most of us, our children are our most precious, loved people and we do what we can to keep them safe.  It’s shocking when you realise how many children don’t have that, and how many adults live with the fallout of abusive childhoods.  You can’t tell, either, by looking at someone.  This kind of abuse is invisible.  Leaves scars where they can’t be seen. It also is more common than you might think.  

We come from the same area of Sussex. Woodland features prominently in your novel. Is there a reason for this and is it based on somewhere local?

We’re lucky to live in the midst of the most beautiful countryside! I walk on the Downs most days and one of my favourite walks is through the woods to the top.  I never tire of how they change with the seasons, the sense of peacefulness I always find there.  Not surprising they’ve found their way into my book.

Can you tell us something about your next book?

The Beauty of the End is about a reclusive ex-lawyer called Noah, who discovers that a girl he once knew is suspected of murder.  Her name is April Moon and she was the love of Noah’s life.  He absolutely knows she’s innocent but with April on life support and the evidence pointing to her guilt, it isn’t that simple.

It’s a story about secrets, lies, and the power of the past.  It’s also a love story. 

Debbie Howells worked as cabin crew and a flying instructor before starting her wedding flower business.  It was during a hectic summer full of weddings that she started writing women's fiction, as an escape, dreaming of one day becoming a published author.  A few books later and after a change of genre, Pan Macmillan bought her first two psychological thrillers, The Bones of You and The Beauty of the End, to be published in July, followed by a deal recently to buy two more.
Debbie lives in a small West Sussex village with her children and animals.

You can buy The Bones of You here
You can visit Debbie at her website here 

Sunday 6 March 2016

Out of the Slush Pile - How I Found My Agent

This is a follow up to my post 'The Day My Life Changed Direction'.

You know that feeling when you've just been told you've won the lottery? Well neither do I but I came pretty close to it recently.

Agent, Eve White, had just uttered these magic words, Congratulations! We only invite a few writers from our slush pile of 10,000 to meet us for a chat and you're one of them, and I was trying to think of some reply that didn't make me come across as either a) gushing b) desperate or c) unhinged.

In the end, I plumped for plain old thank you, which seemed to work.

Let me tell you how it all began. At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a novel and at the end of 2015, I finished a novel. In between, I received a favourable critique from my RNA New Writers' Scheme reader (for the partial I'd managed to complete by the deadline). I liked it, my best writing pal, Tracy, liked it, my husband liked it, the dog liked it - what more did I need to show the publishing world that I'd written something fabulous?

A lot more, as it happens. I needed someone who couldn't be bribed with teacakes, who didn't fear they'd end up in the spare bed or be denied a walk along the river.

I needed an agent.

So I made a start. I dusted off my Writers' and Artists' Year Book, I joined Agent Hunter, I read all the agent interviews on the Novelicious website and made a list of people who sounded like they a) might enjoy my genre of book b) were taking on new authors c) sounded like they'd be happy to work with said new author. Then I made a plan - I would send out my submission package a few at a time and then, after a month, send out a few more so that when the rejections came in I wouldn't be suicidal.

And that's what I did. I had a few standard rejections. You know - the ones that end with we don't feel passionately about your novel, I received a few more with short encouraging comments which made me kiss the screen. Then came the request all authors dream of - we'd like to see your full manuscript. Soon after that came another.

The first email came back. The agent had taken the time to give me feedback - great sense of place, compelling opening, strong writing, intrigue from first chapter but she wanted more drama. My heart sank. I'd come so close.

It was then it happened. I received an email from the Eve White Literary Agency. Eve represents Saskia Sarginson (The Twins) Jane Shemilt (Daughter) and Ruth Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood) whose books are (or will soon be) Richard and Judy Book Club Reads. The email was from Kitty, Eve's assistant. She'd read the full manuscript and liked what she'd read. Eve had too. Could they arrange a phone call? The following day, they'd changed their minds - could I come up to London for a chat the following week?

So that's what I did. To say I was nervous was an understatement but as soon as I arrived at Eve's office in Pimlico (which is also where she lives) she and Kitty did everything to put me at ease. We discussed my novel, we discussed how it could be improved. It would mean a lot of work but they would help me with this. They believed in me. They believed in my work. They'd like to offer me representation.

If you read the advice given to writers in this position, you will know that what I did next is not what is recommended. What I should have done is let the other agents who had my initial three  chapters know that I'd had an offer of representation and given them the opportunity to read the full manuscript if they wanted to. But, do you know, it didn't take me long to realise that this wasn't what I wanted to do. Okay, I might get more offers but what was it I wanted in an agent?

Here is the list I'd previously made. They had to be:

a) someone who I liked
b) someone who liked my work as much as Tracy, my husband and my dog did
c) someone who represented successful authors
d) someone who represented authors whose books I enjoyed
c) someone who I felt I could work well with
d) someone prepared to invest the time to work with me as a new author

I'd already found that someone - why look further?

That's why, last week, I signed the contract to be represented by the Eve White Agency.

And I couldn't be happier.