Thursday 30 November 2017

Looking forward ... looking back ...

This has been a series of seven blogs exploring a variety of corners of fiction writing. I’ve looked at some of the genres that don’t always (or ever) get prominent billing in the book stores, plus some that are always centre stage. Each was seen through the lens of a different writer.

Elaine Hemingway: Out of Africa? The Midrashim

Danuta Reah: With Criminal Intent

Thursday 23 November 2017

International best-sellerdom via an unconventional route

My interviewee, Susan Alison, is an artist and author whose first novel, White Lies and Custard Creams shot to the top of the best-seller lists in 2011 and stayed there for weeks. Amazon used a picture of it in their online charts in a promotion to sell Kindles.

I’m especially intrigued by Susan’s decision to self-publish when she could have gone the traditional route. ‘I've always been a self-employed-type-person,’ she says, ‘and this was just an extension of that. It suits me to do it all myself and not have to rely on other people.’

Once she’d gone that route, did she have any regrets? ‘None. I was working to my own timetables rather than waiting for other people. After I'd done it, I wondered why I hadn't done it years before.’

Prior to publishing her novel, Susan was a prolific short story writer having appeared in a variety of women’s magazines. Since that first novel, she has published three more standalone romantic comedies; two in an urban fantasy series; and a collection of her previously published short stories in an illustrated anthology.

In addition to these, she has published six colouring books and two books of illustrated doggerel.
It feels like a disparate collection. It there a common thread?

‘What they all have in common is dogs. There are dogs in all of them somewhere. Oh, except for the cat colouring book - no dogs in there. Just cats... I like dogs. They are straightforward creatures. I like that.’

It’s true. Dogs figure large in Susan’s writing. They bound through the pages of her novels. One of her illustrated doggerel books is about the Corgi Olympics; the other, from the pen of CorgiScribe, is about being a writer. Her colouring books feature corgis, border collies, whippets and greyhounds; and yes there is that one anomalous one about cats.

And does she target specific markets or audiences when she writes?

‘I'm always going to write what I enjoy writing,’ she tells me, ‘rather than what I think is going to sell. Partly because it's difficult to tell what is going to sell and partly because if you're in it for the long haul you need to be able to have some enthusiasm about tying yourself to the desk and keyboard rather than a major reluctance to get on with it.’

How does the art impact the writing and vice versa?

‘The art and the writing are all on the same spectrum except that when I'm an artist I have films showing on the other monitor, but when I'm a writer I have to have complete silence. I do the art in a relaxed fashion, but am running on adrenaline when writing a first draft. I love doing the first draft but dislike editing.’

Currently Susan is halfway through 'Staking out the Goat' which is a sequel to 'White Lies and Custard Creams'; she’s also halfway through book three of her Hounds Abroad urban fantasy trilogy; and halfway through an illustrated doggerel book about a magical corgi.

It sounds to me like she needs a lot of complete silence to keep ahead of all that adrenalin. Time to tiptoe out of this interview.

Follow these links to find out more about Susan, her writing, and her art.

Thursday 16 November 2017

With Criminal Intent

My interviewee today is Danuta Reah with whom I co-authored The Writers’ Toolkit several years ago. I mention that just so I can flag that Fantastic Books’ editors took it up as their recommended text, badgered us into an expanded second edition called How to be a Fantastic Writer and that new edition is just out.

Danuta is a crime novelist. She was Chair of the Crime Writers Association a few years ago. However, her specific expertise is in English Language and linguistics, and this adds a particular weight to her views. As well as being a novelist, she’s a book reviewer; the sort with a growing following. She pulls no punches but to be reviewed by her can give a book a real boost.

What came first, the academic writing or the novels?

She tells me, ‘I started out writing academic stuff - a general book about text analysis, a book about the language of newspapers. I learned a lot about writing in general that way - learning how to structure a long piece of work and, of course, with text analysis, you learn a lot about the writer's craft from studying the way other writers do it. I used a lot of what I gained from that in The Writers' Toolkit and later in How to be a Fantastic Writer.’

In what ways does her academic writing impact on her novels?

‘I know some people get a bit nervous that my novels are going to be very “literary” (whatever that means) and that they won't enjoy them - and then they are surprised to find that they're tense, suspenseful, scary - not the same as an academic text book at all.’

‘I do use my academic background. I have written three novels that make use of my work in forensic linguistics - the analysis of language in the context of crime - identifying the writer or speaker, identifying forgeries, voice recognition, that kind of thing. I used it a bit in Silent Playgrounds, and even more Night Angels.’

The books above, Only Darkness, Silent Playgrounds and Night Angels are three of Danuta’s Yorkshire quartet. The fourth in the series is BleakWater.

The mystery in her most recently published novel, The Last Room, centres entirely round the forensic investigation of language.

In this series of interviews, I have spoken to some people who write in genres I’ve never heard of. Danuta writes fiction in one of the most popular genres. Does being part of a big all-embracing genre cause any problems?

‘There's a tendency to get lost in the crowd. I know when I go into a book shop and look at the crime section, I'm overwhelmed by the choice and let myself become too influenced by the table displays and book shop recommendations. My reviewing has led me to authors I've thoroughly enjoyed, but probably would have missed on the shelf. I shouldn't say this as a writer, but there are too many crime novels out there and I suspect we are close to “peak crime”.

‘Another big problem is fashion and “the next big thing”. The problem is, editors want more of what sells, forgetting that quite often, the next big thing comes from a publisher who was prepared to move away from what everyone else is publishing at the moment. People forget sometimes that Stieg Larsson's books, which were very much the next big thing a few years ago are really structured as very traditional crime novels, but they seemed very new because no one was publishing that kind of thing at the time - and of course, Larsson did it very well. Right now, it's all psychology, unreliable narrators and final plot twists - great fun when handled by a good writer, but frustrating when a writer gets it wrong, and you suspect the book was written that way because the writer was pushed into it by the publisher rather than made that choice themselves. I don't want any more unreliable narrators, and I certainly don't want any more final “twists” that I can see coming from a mile away.’

Danuta has been published by a variety of publishers from the huge conglomerates to the small independents. I ask if she has any words of wisdom for other authors supposing they were in a position to choose?

‘It's horses for courses really. Small publishers are a lot more loyal to their authors and will work harder to help you publicise your books. The downside is a lot of them don't really have the clout with the bookshops, which makes it tough. You have to get out there and sell the book yourself. Amazon may be seen as the death of book shops, but it's also a lifeline for small publishers and for mid-list authors to get their books out there. Big publishers are pretty ruthless. If you don't increase your sales book on book by a certain amount, you're out, and there's a Catch-22 in this in that less than satisfactory sales means you get far less sales input.’

I ask if Danuta has ever self-published. When she says no, I ask why?

‘I don't know why. I know a few writers who got fed up with traditional publishers and went for it - but you have to be a very good self-publicist and be able to put in a lot more time than you do with a traditional publisher. If you're self-publishing ebooks it can be very profitable as once you've paid off your initial costs, you can just keep on selling. Self-publishing hard copy is very tough. It's expensive, you have to get your books into bookshops, in front of reviewers and in front of your audience. That's very hard and I would only consider that if I already had a massive market.’

Danuta’s next novel is called Life Ruins, and it turns out it has had expressions of interest from both a small publisher and one of the big 5. Which will she go with?

‘Until a contract’s signed, my lips are sealed.’

Find out more about Danuta and her writing on her website.

Thursday 9 November 2017

When romance spells trouble

Rhoda Baxter is the first of two interviewees who writes in one of the world’s biggest and most popular genres. In Rhoda’s case, it’s romance. Her fifth book, Girl in Trouble, is just out and I wonder if she considers her work part of a sub-genre or does she prefer not to pigeonhole her books like that?

‘I used to be bothered by the idea of pigeonholing my books,’ she says, ‘but I'm more relaxed about it now because it lets the readers know what to expect.’ She goes on to explain one of the difficulties which is that the pigeonholes change from country to country. 

‘In the UK, what I write is considered contemporary romance; by definition, set in the present and involving two characters falling in love. There are usually jokes, so that makes it... romantic comedy or “chicklit”. On the other hand, my books often deal with slightly darker themes behind the joking; the current book is about fathers and daughters and the choice to remain childless, which is not what people expect from romantic comedy. That nudges the books into women's fiction.'

‘In America, my novels are, arguably, not even proper romances because they focus on other things as well as on the couple. And there isn't enough sex! I could say they were “sweet” romances, because of said lack of on-page sex, but then the language is not clean by US standards. Being Brits my characters are fairly free with 'bloody' and 'bugger' type words. So maybe not “sweet” romance then. But if you look at the books that are classed as Romantic Comedy on the US Amazon site, you're faced with acres and acres of bare man-chest. My poor little cartoony covers look completely out of place. The best description for my books in the US would be “novel with strong romantic elements”, which, according to Amazon, isn't a real sub-genre.

‘I write two sorts of books - light romantic comedy and the standalones which are slightly darker and lean towards women's fiction rather than romance. The latest is a lighter book, but has a very angry protagonist.

‘So, the short answer is, I have no problem with pigeonholing my books. The difficulty is finding which pigeonhole to cram them into.’

Having given me a whole new angle to think about, Rhoda adds, ‘I bet you're sorry you asked now!’

No, not in the least. I want to present people thinking on the page, exploring ideas. I ask Rhoda if she’s ever tried to write up an interview with a subject whose longest answer to any question was yes or no. She promises to keep the comprehensive answers coming.

Given this fluidity of sub-genre, I wonder if Rhoda writes for a particular audience and is that audience different for the different books? Her answer is specific enough to surprise me.

‘I've always written with a particular reader in mind. She's a friend who went to school with me and she was my first reader when I wrote stories in my teens. She's well read, geeky and cynical but a romantic at heart, a lot like me. Since my books were published, I've realised that there are more people who like the same sort of thing. I tend to attract readers who like their romances to be plausible and accurately depicted, especially where scientist characters are involved. No 25-year-old ingĂ©nues with two PhDs leading research groups here. Who'd want to do two PhDs anyway?!’

Good point! I find myself quite taken with this idea of the specific audience of one. I can see where it could not only work but make a few decisions on the direction of a book a lot easier to make. So essentially she is happy with her chosen genre, but are there any down-sides?

‘There's so much competition!’ she says. ‘There's also a fair bit of snobbery from non-readers of romance - usually people who looked at a cover of a Mills and Boon book once in the 1970’s and decided they “don't read romance”. That's annoying. On the other hand, there's a large romance writing community where everyone is really friendly and the people who do read romance are usually voracious readers and are on the lookout for new books to read all the time.’

That last point is an undoubted plus as romance is by far the best-selling genre around the world. Rhoda’s previous four books have all been well-received. Her first, Girl On The Run, chose the unexpected setting of a patent law firm; Please Release Me (set in a hospice) was shortlisted for a Love Stories award in 2015 and Girl Having a Ball was shortlisted for the prestigious RoNA (best romantic comedy) award in 2017. 

Her books all have a distinct new angle. What draws her to one idea, setting or context over another?

Rhoda’s initial, ‘Hmm...’ reassures me that she hasn’t yet been tempted down the monosyllabic route. ‘I tend to look at the ideas I have,’ she tells me. ‘Then I jump on the one that feels the most exciting. It's not a scientific way of doing things. If I have a commitment I have to meet, like a novella that needs to be written by Christmas, then I'll do that first. I usually start with a scenario. For example, in Girl In Trouble, I started with the premise of what happens if a woman who is determined to be child-free accidentally gets pregnant?’

Sounds like the perfect premise for one of Rhoda’s books.

That ‘Hmm...’ again. ‘All books start off as a vast, wonderful idea,’ she points out. ‘But they inevitably turn out to be harder to execute than I anticipated. When Iris Murdoch said "Every book is the wreck of a beautiful idea," she was spot on.’

There’s food for thought here and some intriguing angles on the business of novel writing. My final question is to ask Rhoda to tell me something about Girl in Trouble. This is the question to which I expect the longest answer of the interview.

She says, ‘When things go wrong, is Olivia too stubborn to accept help?’

And that’s it. The shortest answer I’ve had from her! But in her own unique style, it’s specific, it’s unexpected and a whole stack of hidden agendas peep temptingly from behind that brief reply. My advice is to click HERE and go get the book.

You can find out more about Rhoda on her website


Thursday 2 November 2017

All things Skiffy but drawing the line at Grimdark

Shellie Horst is hard to pigeonhole in terms of what she writes because she covers such a range – Sci-Fi, fantasy, advertising copy, articles, blog posts, reviews, Minecraft projects, interactive narratives ... I could go on but my head is beginning to spin, so for starters I ask her to tell me about the interactive narratives she’s working on for Hull’s Humber Mouth Literature Festival, and in particular, the millymollymo website.

‘I have a business background, and used to build and develop websites so it was only natural that I created my own site, when I started my Creative Writing Degree. I’m guessing what you really want to know is why Millymollymo?’

I do.

‘There’s nothing especially complex about it,’ she tells me. ‘Milly Molly Moo was a pet name my mother used for me. I’m in the process of rebuilding the site to incorporate some of the other aspects of my writing. It’s grown a lot since then, moving from the observations of a student to my career as a writer and overview of the reviews I do for SFFWorld. It’s something authors overlook, many use it to sell from, but it can be so much more than just another route to market.

‘In 2015 I received a Special Commission as part of the Humber Mouth Literature Festival, Ten Miles East Of England: The Quest for the Lost Stories. I was lucky enough to work with some amazing children at Alderman Cogan CE School, Hull. Together we not only developed a story but then converted it to a game for Minecraft.’

You can see more of the project HERE.

‘It was a hugely rewarding experience for the class, staff, parents and myself. The pupils discovered the elements of story planning and writing, as well as basic coding. Every child involved produced a huge amount of writing. They were eager to see it transformed to something they could all play on. It created connections within families and enabled the pupils to share something visually throughout the project. 

‘This area is something I believe strongly about. Stories are everywhere, not just printed on paper and bound in books. Just because a child isn’t reading Dickens or Austen doesn’t mean they are not interacting with words.’

This is just a part of Shellie’s life as a writer and she does all this whilst being a mum of young children. I wonder if juggling figures in her repertoire.

‘Juggling, not so much,’ she says. ‘I’d never get anything done! I’m so disorganised generally and things have a way of trying to prioritise over my writing. So malicious organisation and ruthlessly sticking to schedules is the only way to deal with the social lives of my family. Everything has its place. It’s all a bit over the top, but it gets done. Eventually.

‘When I switch from the freelance writing to the fiction, I have playlists and a number of writing exercises to get me back into the right mind-set. On the upside, you can get a lot done while waiting for a dance class to end, or a swimming club to start. I make the most of time spent waiting by editing, or writing up notes. I’m also very lucky to have a husband who isn’t fussed if the vacuuming isn’t done on a daily basis!’

Shellie is a contributor to Woodbridge Press’s successful Exploration Anthology series, which now comprises four books. Her story, When the Skies Fall, features in Explorations: Through the Wormhole. In it she explores what happens to a colony when it loses contact with Earth.

Given the huge range of her writing activities I’m curious to know if she has a favourite genre. Her answer surprises me.

‘I use the genre I need to tell the story, but only ever within SFF. Science Fiction and Fantasy, speculative fiction, SFF, Skiffy - call it what you like. It’s what I read, it’s what I love. The genre pulls in from others, stories may need romance, sometimes crime or historical, but always fantastical. The genre is so inclusive why do anything else? I do avoid hard science in my work. I prefer to explore how the technology affects the characters and how they interact with it, as opposed to the more technical details of how it works. For example, we don’t worry how a website works, only that we are able to order with next day delivery, and there’s plenty of science behind it.

‘Even in Fantasy where science takes a back step to the magical, science is still there in the Blacksmith’s or the Mill. While I enjoy reading the Grimdark subgenre, it’s not something I enjoy writing. My current project is set in a fantasy world. Fantasy gets a lot of stick for “the chosen one” trope. Yet I think that the hope of being unique is important. Being singled out in your 9-5 doldrums for positive reasons rather than not meeting your targets would brighten anyone’s day! I think that hope is what appeals to many readers.’

What’s next from the pen of Shellie Horst?

‘A project I have been working on has come to an end and I’ve just completed Nisi Shawl’s and K.T. Tempest Master Class on Writing theOther. I’m toying with the free time and mental space it’s created. I’m using it to world build while working on the second draft of my fantasy novel. I’m sure there will be short stories in there somewhere too.’

Good news there for fans of skiffy, SFF, speculative fiction and all things fantasy. Please come back before too long, Shellie, and tell us how things are going.

Meanwhile if you want to explore Shellie’s varied output, check out her MillyMollyMo website.