Monday, 18 August 2014

Words with Jam competition win and upcoming Historical Novel Society Conference

HNS Conference 2014

I haven't posted for a while because the past few months have been quite challenging. However, as we come towards the end of the summer, I'm beginning to look around me and come up for air after several weeks of teaching - first at the University of Winchester's Writers' Festival, then on two creative writing summer school programmes for Oxford University. I'll soon be posting details of the autumn series of Fictionfire Focus Workshops and of an exciting new event I'm planning in October - do please sign up to the mailing list on the Fictionfire website to be kept informed.

I also have some good news to share: the opening of the historical novel I'm working on won first prize last week in the First Page competition run by Words with Jam, a magazine for writers and publishers. I'm honoured and delighted - and even more pleased to see my other entry also made the longlist!

You can read the winning entries and the judge's comments here.

This win couldn't have been better timed, as I'll be attending the Historical Novel Society's Conference in London on the 6th and 7th of September. I'm looking forward to meeting old friends and new, to listening to some great discussions, sharing great reads and recharging my creative batteries! Whether you love to write historical fiction or you love to read it - or both - do come along!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

London Book Fair 2014: It's What You Choose to Make It, Really - Part 2

On Day 2 of the London Book Fair (see my previous post for Day 1) I attended the 'Hallmarks of Self-Publishing Success' seminar, presented by Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors and best-selling authors Rachel Abbott and Polly Courtney. Rachel told us she didn’t think that ‘books are successful by accident. You need a plan.’ She stressed that the difference between self-publishing and trade publishing is that the trade publishers market to booksellers and self-publishers market direct – to the reader. Orna emphasised building a relationship with readers over time. Polly recommended that you ‘get people involved right from the start.’ When Dan Holloway asked about their greatest failures (because we all learn from failure, right?), Polly said it was having had an amateurish cover for her first book, Rachel said that she had had her book proofread but not structurally edited – which I think is a brilliant point to make. All too often writers think that if the apostrophes are in the right places and the spelling is OK, the book is fine. Not so – the shape and flow of it, the engagement the reader is likely to have with it, need to be addressed too. This ties in with what Orna went on to say – that ‘most of us publish too soon’. All too understandable in our desire to reach out to the reader. ‘The great thing,’ she added, ‘is we go back and re-do.’ Online publishing gives us that chance to hone and perfect our work, even after initial publication.

Roz Morris, Catriona Troth, Jane Davis, Gilly Hamer,
 Jane Dixon-Smith, Dan Holloway
In terms of publicity, blog tours weren’t seen as all that useful – and they’re expensive - but guest-posting or hosting interviews and guest-bloggers on your own blog were. Orna stressed the importance of getting our metadata right – our keywords and categories, to make our work more visible. (I know! I know! But try slotting a book like The Chase into any other category than ‘literary fiction’!) Polly reminded us that many writers believe the myth that if you get a trade publishing deal, then ‘proper promotion’ will be done for you. Orna, who had worked in publishing for 20 years, wasn’t even allowed to attend the marketing meeting when Penguin were publishing her! Yikes! Both she and Polly had seen their books go out into the world with the wrong covers, the wrong marketing approach – how much better, then, to be in charge of your own creative destiny? Orna and Rachel said we need to define our terms of ‘success’ – do we mean financial/commercial success? Do we mean creative success? Do we mean connecting with the minds of readers? Orna’s final piece of advice was to write two sentences defining your idea of success.

The HarperCollins stand at LBF
After that seminar, I had a lovely chat with Helen Hart of Silverwood Books, then it was time to leave. (There was another day of the Fair left but I wasn't attending). Ironically, just when I’ve got the hang of the layout of Earl’s Court they've decided to move the Fair to Olympia next year! 

Celebration at the King's Head
The day wasn’t over yet, though, for Amazon was celebrating the launch of ACX audio publishing in Britain with a party at the King’s Head pub nearby (though I still got lost trying to get there – sorry, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, who had to toil along with me!). The joint was jumping – not only food, drink and great fellowship, but a special showcase table for ALLi authors and rousing speeches from Orna and from Joanna Penn. Also, an incredibly diverse range of readings from ALLi members – Dan Holloway, Jessica Bell, Jill Marsh, Paul Murphy and others.

Gillian Hamer and Jane Dixon-Smith
I was delighted to meet the lovely Triskele authors again – Catriona Troth, Gilly Hamer, Jill Marsh and Jane Dixon-Smith, who has just published her second novel, The Rise of Zenobia. The Triskele writers have produced an excellent guide to self-publishing, The Triskele Trailand Jane is also the brilliant cover designer for The Chase and the collection of short stories I'm publishing next, Informed with Other Passions.
Jill Marsh, Rohan Quine and Gilly Hamer

Around nine, though, in the immortal words of Wallace and Gromit, the bounce had gone out of my bungee. Time to say goodbye all round and totter off to the train back to Oxford. LBF14 in some ways wasn’t as exciting as LBF13, and maybe this is because the self-publishing community is consolidating its position, surveying its tract of hard-won ground, looking ahead to further struggles and further triumphs. The main thing – and the uplifting thing – is that we are all in this together and we are all giving each other a helping hand. Which is brilliant.
The authors' showcase table

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Parents and Children April 26th; Share and Support May 17th 

For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at 

Previous London Book Fair reports: plus and

Friday, 11 April 2014

London Book Fair 2014: It's What You Choose to Make It, Really - Part 1

So, my third year of attending the London Book Fair. How did it go? Well, it was great. Although the conventional view for years was that this was not the place for authors to visit, the author presence is strong these days. And I don’t just mean those authors whose agents and publishers bring them along to display like show ponies. I mean ‘indie’ authors, for Orna Ross’s Alliance of Independent Authors was once more championing our interests at the Fair and acting as a channel for information and dialogue between writers and the industry.

Amazon Createspace was there again, and Kobo – and this time Nook was making a big showing, now that British authors can self-publish through Nook Press. There were seminars on aspects of publishing, reaching readers, contracts …

For me, this year differed from previous years for two reasons. The first was that I have just lost one of my dearest friends (her funeral is next week) so there was a part of me not fully engaged with what was going on. The balance of priorities, in the face of sudden loss and grief, shifts.

The second reason for a degree of disengagement was that the topics or approaches in some of the seminars offered no new information or took an approach which was basic (or even, I’ve been told, in some instances, misguided).

Orna Ross points the way to our publishing futures!
So why did I go, then? Community, that’s why. Every year I’ve gone I’ve had the chance to meet people I’ve never met or have only met online. It’s an absolute joy to make these connections and the kind of guidance you’re given in conversation with your peer group is much more useful that seminars, because the advice is born out of real, get-on-with-it experience. Much of this post, therefore, is going to be a checklist of names of wonderful people. Plus piccies, of course!

On LBF Day 1, I arrived in time for ALLi’s launch, in association with Kobo, of the Opening Up to Indie Authors guide, with passionate and inspiring speeches from Dan Holloway and Debbie Young who wrote it. The message of the Open Up to Indies campaign – and there is a petition, please sign it! – is that ‘everybody benefits when author-published work is included.’ Dan reminded us that everyone in the business of books has a duty, just one duty – and that’s to readers. Debbie described how self-publishing had changed her life, how this is the most exciting time to be an author and how ‘every self-publishing author is an ambassador for the campaign.’

Dan, Orna and Debbie
It was a delight to meet for the first time, Jessica Bell, Alison Morton and Debbie Young herself – she was handing out the new ALLi lapel pins which we wore with pride! It was also a chance to meet with old friends – Orna, Dan, Catriona Troth of the Triskele books co-operative, Eliza Green, Rohan Quine, Ben Galley, Karen Inglis – all hugely dynamic and warm members of ALLi. (More photos at the end of this post!)

Louise Voss and Mark Edwards
Outside of ALLi, I had a chat with Louise Voss and Mark Edwards, the writing duo I first interviewed on this blog at the start of their phenomenal Kindle publishing success. Since then they’ve had a conventional print deal, Mark has published The Magpies himself and has done incredibly well with it and they are now going to be published by the Amazon imprint Thomas and Mercer. I also ran into Stephanie Zia of Blackbird Books – she recently published my friend Jacqui Lofthouse’s How to be a Literary Genius – an irresistible title if ever there was one!

The Hachette stand,
 featuring one of my favourite writers,
David Mitchell
It wasn’t all about self-publishing though. That’s what I love about the current situation – as writers we’re free to choose whether to aim for trade publishing or not, or select a different path per book, per project. I had a chat with a small publisher about my unpublished children’s book, Hinterland, and we’ll see what, if anything, comes of that. Meanwhile, in the background, the big guys of publishing with their glossy stands and cohorts of glossy people (drinks party after the meetings, dahling? Mwah!) trumpeted upcoming books and current big sellers, from David Mitchell to Anthony Horovitz. In the middle of the hall, more glossy people (how do those women walk the acreage of Earl’s Court in heels like that??) glide up the escalator to the International Rights Centre where deals are thrashed out.

In Earl’s Court 2, the hub is Author HQ which, as last year, was just too damn small for the sheer number of people wanting to attend presentations and seminars. There were a couple of seminars I just gave up on because I couldn’t hear a thing. I finished the day at the Nook party where the drink à la mode was the Nookerberry Glory, a blue-tinted delight that went a long way towards diverting one's attention from the pain of standing and trekking about all afternoon (seen here mischievously modelled by Rohan Quine, with Ben Galley on his left).

Tomorrow’s post will be all about Day 2 of LBF 2014.

Now, more photos ...

Orna Ross and Joanna Penn

Eliza Green and Karen Inglis

Selfie with Jessica Bell!

Julie Day and Jessica Bell

Catriona Troth and the multi-faceted Dan Holloway

A Batch of Benedicts

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Parents and Children April 26th; Share and Support May 17th 

Fictionfire Simply Write Retreat: April 12th (yes, that's tomorrow - you can still book! See

For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at 

Previous London Book Fair reports: and

My post reviewing last year's LBF and the state of publishing:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Interview with Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon

I first met Katherine Clements at a one-to-one consultation at the Winchester Writers’ Conference (now the Winchester Writers’ Festival) three years ago. She showed me the opening chapter of her novel and I was immediately struck by how powerful it was – it drew me in immediately and, more importantly, it made me want to know what would happen next! Katherine had an instinct for scene-structure and pace, she didn’t overload the opening with back story and her writing was strong and emotionally compelling.

Later, I helped her work on that opening and her synopsis for the whole story, which I thought had great commercial appeal. Imagine my delight when, after being longlisted in the Mslexia novel competition, she went on to find an agent and land a three book deal with Headline! The Crimson Ribbon was published last week. It’s a tale set during the English Civil War, exploring the developing roles of women in an era of turmoil and change. The novel deals with superstitious fear, injustice and persecution. Her central character, Ruth Flowers, is torn between her desire for liberty and the need for utter secrecy, for if people find out about the events of her past she is in mortal danger. Her struggle is symbolised by her torn feelings for the two people she is most drawn to. Bereft and hunted, Ruth finds it hard to trust. She must be cautious in all she does – yet love demands risk. Love demands payment. The Crimson Ribbon is eminently readable, beautifully realised and totally involving.

Here then, Katherine answers questions about her novel and her path to publication:

You worked for some time for one of the examination boards – how did you balance this with writing the novel? Was there anything in particular about your work that helped or hindered your development as a writer?

When I first started The Crimson Ribbon I was very lucky to be able to take some time away from full time work. I got most of my initial research and first draft done during that time. Once I was working full time again I had to learn to prioritise my writing. That meant a lot of early mornings and weekends, and saying no to distracting invitations. My job at the exam board was demanding so it took a while to complete the book. But during that time I led the development of the new Creative Writing A Level, a project that meant a lot to me, both professionally and personally. I met a lot of great people through my work, people who are passionate about books, writing and education, and that was inspiring. I loved working with like-minded people and I think it helped me to stay focused on my own goals.

Did you always want to write historical fiction?

Historical fiction felt like the natural choice for me. I never really consciously made the decision. When the idea for The Crimson Ribbon came along, I didn’t question it. I studied History and Archaeology at university and my fascination with the past has been there since I was a child. I read a lot of historical fiction and watch a lot of costume drama. They say you should write what you love and that’s what I wanted to do.

The novel is set during the English Civil War – was that always a period that fascinated you?

Not at all actually. I owe my initial interest in the 17th century to Rose Tremain’s novel Restoration, which is one of my favourites. After reading it, some years ago, I became interested in the Restoration period, because I didn’t know much about it (17th century is mostly neglected in the history taught schools, or it certainly was in my day). Pretty quickly I wanted to know what came before and found myself totally fascinated by the Civil Wars. It’s such an important, exciting period in British history that doesn’t seem to get much attention.

The novel’s themes are bound to attract readers – you deal with women’s roles in the society of the time, political and military rebellion and superstition/witchcraft – which of these was most important/fascinating to you? What particularly triggered the writing of the novel?

The first spark was encountering the figure of Elizabeth Poole, a woman who gave evidence of providential visions to the Army Council in an attempt to influence the trial of Charles I. I came across mention of her in a biography of Oliver Cromwell. There are questions about exactly why this relatively unknown woman was given an audience with some of the most important men of the day. Further research into Elizabeth revealed a dark, seductive world of illegal printing presses, extreme spiritual obsession and a mysterious scandal. I knew she was the perfect vehicle to explore some of the themes you’ve identified. I can’t pick any one as most important as they are all intertwined. For example, I don’t think you can deal with the politics of the day without considering religion, and you can’t look at the witchcraft trials without thinking about the social context. One of the things I love about the period is the way that all these things came together to create this melting pot of ideas that triggered a revolution. Of course the history is more complicated than that, but that’s how I like to think of it.

Your central female characters embark on a forbidden relationship – and I like the way you contrast conventional male-female romantic love with a love which is against the rules of the day. What challenges were there in depicting the relationship of Ruth and Lizzie? Did you worry at any point that this might affect the commercial potential of the novel?

Without wanting to give too much away, I wanted to explore the different kinds of love that Ruth experiences. I wanted to look at the nature and consequences of obsessive love. Gender actually made little difference. I also came across some interesting historical references to close female friendships and idealised platonic love that got me thinking. I didn’t set out to write the relationships in the way they ended up – it just sort of happened and, in the end, seemed inevitable.
The most difficult part for me was showing how the relationship between Ruth and Lizzie changes over time, as Ruth asserts herself, and doing it all from Ruth’s point of view. This needed to be gradual and subtle and it took a while to get that right. Lizzie is a complex character, and sometimes contradictory. I really hope I’ve managed to convey this.
I didn’t worry about that central relationship from a commercial point of view because I thought perhaps it gave the novel an unusual point of interest, but I did think people might accuse me of trying to write like Sarah Waters, of whom I’m a massive fan. I can only tip my hat to her influence and hope that any comparison might be favourable!

Was there any particular ‘Aha!’ moment when you were researching the story?

There were many small details I discovered that influenced the direction of the story but I can’t remember any big ones. For example, I tried to make sure that the real historical figures actually were where I said they were at the right times (or at least that they could have been). There were a few occasions when certain people conveniently turned up somewhere in the historical record, just where I needed them.

Were there any times when you faltered or lost your way or started to despair that you would ever finish?

There were many times when I was doubtful and despairing, but I’ve come to think of this as a natural part of the creative process. It always passes if I try to ignore the negative voice in my head and just keep going. There was a period of a few months when I didn’t write anything at all, due to other pressures in my life. That was scary, but it passed too.

What has been most satisfying/given you the happiest moment in the whole writing/publishing process?

The most satisfying thing for me is having a really good, productive writing day when I know what I’ve produced is good. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does it’s the best feeling. The happiest is probably when I got my publishing deal. It was an absolute dream come true. I was on a high for weeks.

How much revision/how many drafts did the novel go through? Did you have to change much to suit your publisher?

I wrote the first draft in a year and then spent almost three years revising it. It went through at least two major rewrites and several edits. I think I have about 8 versions on my computer!  As you know, Lorna, I also invested in working with you on refining and editing my first chapter, my synopsis and submission letter to agents. I do believe this made a big difference. It really helped to get an outside eye. I also got feedback from a couple of trusted readers and that was informative too. Soon afterwards, the opening chapter won a competition at Winchester Writers Conference, and I secured my agent. Once the deal was signed I worked with my editor on a final draft. There were some changes to be made, but not too many. I really enjoyed the process of working with someone else and I got a lot from it. I learned loads in the copy edit stage too.

How strongly do you believe a writer should have an agent? How important has having an agent been to you?

I think having an agent is important if you want to go down the traditional publishing route. For me it has been essential. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a three-book deal without that knowledge, experience and negotiating power.

You’ve now given up your job to concentrate on writing full time. How easy/difficult a decision was that?

It was easy in some ways, it’s what I’ve wanted for years, but difficult in others. I’ve had to significantly alter my lifestyle and living arrangements to accommodate. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to do the one thing I’ve wanted for so long. Having the time to completely focus on writing is wonderful.

Can you say anything about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on my second novel – as yet untitled – which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.

What three tips would you give to anyone writing historical fiction?

I think the rules of good writing are the same whatever genre you’re working in, but here are three things I’ve learned:

Know your history. You need to know much, much more than will ever go into your book. I believe it’s fine to change historical fact when writing fiction (though I prefer it when authors are clear about exactly what they’ve changed) but you need to know the facts before you can play with them.

Don’t overdo the historical detail. Description and setting is important but readers only need a few details to get a flavour. Try and include the things that are relevant to your characters and the story.

Remember you’re writing for a modern reader. People can get tangled up worrying about authentic voices in historical fiction but I believe that’s impossible anyway. Anachronisms can jolt the reader out of their experience, (unless, of course, you’re employing them purposefully), but we’ll never know how people really spoke ‘back then’, so make choices that feel authentic to your characters.

Thank you so much, Katherine, for such full and fascinating replies! Good luck with The Crimson Ribbon and with the next novel!

Katherine Clements' The Crimson Ribbon is available in bookshops and here. On Goodreads here 
You can follow Katherine on Twitter at @KL_Clements

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Life into Art April 5th; Parents and Children April 26th 
Fictionfire Simply Write Retreat: April 12th
Fictionfire Day Courses at Trinity College, Oxford: Get Inspired and Stay Inspired May 10th; How to Publish and Market your Book May 11th
For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Oxford Literary Festival 2014

Spring in Oxford, always heralded by the magnolia trees coming into bloom by the church of St Mary the Virgin and outside Hertford College. It’s also time for the Oxford Literary Festival, sponsored this year by the Financial Times Weekend. I was delighted to see that the Festival had a focal point for its activities once more: Blackwell’s Marquee stood between the Bodleian, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Clarendon building. In past years the marquee was located at Christ Church, the other main location for events – but placing it by the Sheldonian meant that the stalwart Blackwell’s Bookshop staff only needed to scurry across the road from their brilliant shop on Broad Street, when restocking laden shelves and tables.

It was in the Marquee that I attended my first event, after I’d taught an Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing class on the first Sunday morning of the festival. Blackwell’s organises free talks, so I wandered down from Rewley House to the festival tent, to listen to a presentation by Andrea Palisca, product manager at Nook, Barnes and Noble’s tablet reader which competes with the Kindle and the Kobo readers. They are now launching a self-publishing facility in Britain and Europe. As I’ve already published The Chase on Kindle and Kobo, I was very interested to hear about the Nook plans. It looks as if their interface is easy to use so I will very probably publish The Chase there too. Ease of upload and publication is one thing - discoverability, of course, is another!

Continuing the self-publishing theme, I attended a talk on Wednesday 26th at Christ Church, given by Simon Stokes of Blake Lapthorn, titled ‘Authors, Self-publishing and Ebooks: Promises and Pitfalls’, which just about describes it! His advice on examining contracts, his explanation of copyright, his discussion of moral rights, of piracy, of the risks of defamation – all of these issues were clearly and knowledgeably covered. The question and answer session, though, revealed that many are still unclear about the processes of self-publishing, or the benefits as opposed to the risks. One audience member had been told by an agent not to go with Amazon as ‘They’re rubbish and will take all your money’, no agent-on-the-ropes bias there, then! One thing Simon Stokes emphasized and I totally agree is that as a publisher you are buying services and ‘caveat emptor’ should be your watch-phrase. Check what you’re committing yourself to and check what rights you’re granting and what, in turn, the service provider will give you. (If you’re interested in self-publishing explore what the Alliance of Independent Authors can offer you in terms of advice and support – click on the button in the sidebar of this blog).

I’ll be talking more about publishing next week, because I’ll be at the London Book Fair. (I’m also running a day course in how to publish and market your own book, on May 11th – see for details).

The Festival Marquee stood in this space, Sheldonian ahead, Clarendon to the left
That Wednesday evening, I attended an event where I didn’t have to think of taking notes, but of hearing them. In the glorious surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre, Philip Pullman, in conversation with Paul Blezard, discussed his selection of favourite music – and that music was played by the Orchestra of St John’s with pianist Maki Sekiya, soprano Hannah Davey and tenor Pablo Strong. It was like Desert Island Discs, the live version, and it was quite wonderful. Some of the music was familiar – an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, Schubert’s An Silvia – but other pieces less so. My favourite on the night was the second movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, closely followed by the swoony liquid sway of Debussy’s En Bateau and the aforesaid Schubert song.

I attended with friends and we all found ourselves hoping that this is a format that the Festival might consider making an annual feature.

More utter self-indulgence followed on Friday morning. Location – the Bodleian’s Divinity Schools, with golden stone fan-vaulting overhead and history in every nano-particle of the edifice and the Sheldonian looming beyond the arched windows (have I ever mentioned how much I love living in Oxford?!). Add to this a talk, wittily delivered by James Campbell, ‘The Library: Great Buildings of the World’. The audience oohed and aahed, slavering with the desire to work in the marvellous libraries he showed us, from the ancient to the medieval to the florid rococo to the sleekly modern; from Ephesus to Oxford, from New York to Korea, with panelling, carving, lecterns and benches, galleries and graduated shelving; from scrolls to codexes, chained books to fork-lift trucks in bookstacks, from inch-long vermin-devouring bats in Coimbra to translucent marble panels filtering the light in Yale. He talked of the difficulty of accessing certain libraries and the often challenging conditions in which the stunning photographs were taken. He stressed the importance of libraries (though he was preaching to the converted, of course) and how we risk losing these spaces for dreaming and contemplation.

I emerged sated with bibliophilic joy – the only one I hadn’t liked the look of was the black library in Utrecht: glossy, noir with flashes of red, and utterly soul-destroying, to my mind. Give me Merton or Duke Humphrey’s – I’m old-fashioned like that.

Later on Friday I was due to hear novelists Essie Fox and Wendy Wallace discuss ‘The English and the Exotic’. I’d just finished Essie’s lush and atmospheric The Goddess and the Thief which makes marvellous use of its Indian settings and Indian mythology and I look forward to reading Wendy's The Sacred River. However, horrendous logistical problems meant the writers couldn’t reach the venue in time, so Lucy Atkins, who had been going to interview them, held the fort: she discussed her own book, The Missing One, then publishing and writing topics in general with Wendy’s editor, Jessica.

Finally, an extra Short Stories Aloud event on Saturday, with stories by Phil Klay and Emma Jane Unsworth, rounded off my Literary Festival week, in the Marquee once more.

Upcoming Fictionfire Focus workshops: Life into Art April 5th; Parents and Children April 26th - some places available. The next Simply Write Retreat is on April 12th. See for details.

If you love the notion of visiting Oxford in the spring why not attend one of my Fictionfire Day Courses at Trinity College? The next courses are: Get Inspired and Stay Inspired, May 10th and How to Publish and Market your Book, May 11th. Visit for details and how to book.

Next on Literascribe, a fascinating interview with Katherine Clements, whose exciting The Crimson Ribbon, set during the English Civil War, was published last week.

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Writing Process Blog Tour

This week I’ve been invited by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn to take part on this blog tour, where writers take turns to answer four standard questions about their writing and their writing process. Lindsay’s excellent contribution to the tour can be found here. I’ve invited Essie Fox, Catriona Troth and Sharon Zink to join the tour next week, so look out for their posts on 17th March (you’ll find more details about each of these wonderful writers at the end of this post).

So, here goes!

Question 1: What am I working on?

 The commissioned cover for the story collection
Currently two projects take priority: the first is a historical novel which I’ve been writing for a couple of years, a story of journeys, secrets and consequences. It’s a dual narrative set in the 1830s and 1880s in Scotland, London, Spain and Canada. I’ve absolutely loved writing it and the first draft is nearly complete, but there’s a lot of work still to come in terms of revision. In the meantime, I’m hoping to publish a collection of short stories about famous writers in the next two or three months, called Informed with Other Passions. The stories are told from the sidelines, presenting fresh insights into the trials and triumphs of literary greatness. The title story was actually written a number of years ago. It deals with Dickens’ affair with Ellen Ternan, so when in January I learned that a film on that topic was about to be released, I thought it would be a good idea to get my story out too – and then I thought it would be a good idea to write more stories for an anthology …

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Question 2: How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The paperback cover of The Chase 
I swear that everyone who’s taken part in the blog-tour has wrestled with this question! I think it can be hard for writers to define the individual quality of their writing – plus this question uses the ‘genre’ word and to try to locate your work in a particular genre can be a challenge, as I found when I wrote my first novel, The Chase. It was originally published by Bloomsbury and I republished it under my own Fictionfire imprint last year. When it came to categorising it on Amazon, I struggled: the novel has historical flashbacks, it has relationship drama, it has suspense elements and supernatural elements, it is satirical … it is all of these things but none in totality. So the ‘literary fiction’ category is all that it would fit, which reduces visibility to readers who are searching. It’s something of a relief, then, that currently I’m writing what can clearly be defined as historical fiction!

My Bloomsbury editor described the books on her list as ‘literary fiction with a commercial edge’ and I think that’s what I aim to produce: I love to use precise imagery, evoke atmosphere, consider challenging questions, but I also hope to write stories which are page-turning and emotionally involving. The Chase is set in France and I’ve described it as Joanne Harris meets Daphne du Maurier – it’s Chocolat, but with a darker bite!

Question 3: Why do I write what I do?

The magical location of Cornwall 
Writers notice things. Writers make connections. Writers are always saying to themselves ‘What if ..?’ I’m no different. I’m also drawn very strongly to history – how it informs location and event. Contemporary life is influenced by the layers of the past. People of the past were people, in the end, just like us, even though influenced by different ways of behaving or of seeing the world. In the new novel (I’m not giving away the title just yet!) and the short stories, I feature real people interacting with characters of my own invention. In The Chase, historical vignettes reveal the past of Le Sanglier, the French house to which the central characters retreat – and that past reinforces the messages of the main story. Everything is interwoven – that fascinates me. I’m also a writer for whom location works as an inspiration, so I love to anchor stories in both time and place. Even in my as-yet unpublished children’s novel, Hinterland, which was shortlisted for Pan Macmillan’s Write Now prize last year, location (Cornwall) plays a huge part in not just providing a setting but triggering plot and atmosphere. Location should never just be wallpaper.

Question 4: How does your writing process work?

Staying true to my own writing is a challenge: as a literary consultant, I live with other people’s stories in my head and sometimes, because I have to think of their plot issues and possible solutions, they push my own stories out of the way!

I constantly have ideas, whether they’re first lines, newspaper reports, details in biographies, or places I’ve visited, and I keep an Evernote record of every one, plus a notebook, because ideas are slippery customers and will slither out of your brain as quickly as they slipped in, if you don’t watch out.

I know 90% of those ideas will not come to fruition. Some, though, start to burgeon and send out shoots. When it comes to historical writing, once I have my notion and a rough shape of the story, then next process is steeping: reading in and around the topic and the period until I start to think in the cadences and language of that era, until it is as natural as breathing. The risk is that one steeps too long! Research is both friend and enemy: you need to do it to make the work ring true, but too much of it is displacement activity and the story is endlessly postponed. With the new novel, I pushed the story along without knowing all I might know about the subject – as I write, I put in square brackets what I need to check or reinforce with research later.

I’m a night owl: after midnight I find I can enter a different mental state and the words and ideas flow, so that’s when I prefer to write, even though on occasion I have literally fallen asleep while writing – yet the fingers kept moving over the keyboard! When I write, I write fast. There are two techniques I recommend here: one is to set a word quota for each writing session – for me it’s normally 1,000 words. The other is not to worry about the quota so much as the regularity of those writing sessions, so the key to that is to pin a calendar on the wall and draw a big red cross on every day on which you write, even if all you produce is a couple of hundred words. This works brilliantly: as those lines of red crosses accumulate, you really don’t want to miss a day – you don’t want to see a blank, like a missing tooth in a dazzling smile!

Finally, I don’t worry too much when I’m writing that first draft: never try to edit as you write. There are times when the wind is in your sails and the words flow with ease and precision, but frequently when you’re composing you hate the words, they’re coming out in the wrong order, they’re derivative, they’re plodding, and where the hell did your plotline go! Or at least that’s what The Critic inside your brain says to you. Shut The Critic up and let The Creator set to work first. The Critic can join you later as you tackle the next stage in the process – refining the work to publishable standard.


The current programme of Fictionfire Focus Workshops is here

Details of upcoming Fictionfire Day Courses at  beautiful Trinity College Oxford:

May 10th Writing Fiction: Get Inspired and Stay Inspired  - see more here.

May 11th How to Publish and Market your Book - see more here.

Early Bird booking discount on these available until March 16th.

Here are my lovely writer friends who’ll be answering these four questions on their blogs next week:

After a career in publishing and then in the world of art and design, Essie Fox now writes Victorian novels which are published by Orion Books. The Somnambulist was shortlisted for Debut Novel 2012 at the National Book Awards and has now been optioned for TV/film by Hat Trick Productions. This novel was followed by Elijah’s Mermaid. Her latest, The Goddess and The Thief, is an exotic tale of theft and grief and obsession that combines ancient stories of Indian myth with the fraudulent trade in spiritualism taking place in Victorian parlours. Follow Essie on Twitter @essiefox and on Facebook at Essie Fox Books. Her website is

Catriona Troth is the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven, and the novel, Ghost Town. She is a former researcher turned freelance writer, a regular contributor to Words with Jam magazine, and a proud member of the Triskele Books author collective."

A former literature academic with years of teaching and editing experience for consultancies and publishers worldwide, Dr Sharon Zink’s first poetry collection, Rain in the Upper Floor Café was published when she received the title of Shell Young Poet of the Year at the age of seventeedn. She has also been named as Writers Inc. Writer of the Year and shortlisted for the Raymond Carver Prize and in The New Writer short story competition four times running (including being named as Editor’s Choice). Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and journals in the UK, US and in translation in Mexico and a production of her work at Edinburgh Festival received an award from The Scotsman. Her first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, is being published by Unthank Books in June 2014. You can find more at

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Social Media and Authors: Participation and Presence

The importance of social media for writers continues to be a hot topic and is one of the aspects we'll discuss in How to Publish and Market your Book, the day course I'll be running with Ali Luke at Trinity College, Oxford on 10th May (see the Fictionfire website for more details - there's an early bird discount price until March 16th). Here's the article I wrote for Writers in Oxford last autumn after attending a fascinating discussion where the speakers were Simon Rosenheim of Imago, and Dan Holloway, who is such a superb spokesman for indie publishing.


Dan Holloway at last year's London Book Fair
‘They pay you, they forget about you and about five years later return your rights to you,’ says Simon Rosenheim of Imago, a publishing solutions company, talking about the traditional model of publishing. Cue battle-weary grins from assembled writers in an upstairs room of St Aldate’s Tavern on October 2nd. Simon describes the old throw-money-at-it-and-see-if-it-will-stick approach to marketing before he and creative polymath, poet, publisher and performer Dan Holloway show us the benefits of using social media to create our online presence. This, as Simon says, leads to publicity which is both free and targeted - and therefore more efficient.

This is great news – and I think we all know it. The problem for us as writers, though, is how to target it. Oh, and the effort of it all! Simon (who, ironically, is on neither Facebook nor Twitter) discusses how you need to be active and engaged, but able to recognise when you don’t want to devote any more time to it. At that point you can walk away – or hand the management of your social media presence to a professional. He reviews the unfathomable mysteries of Google algorithms, shape-shifting, unpindownable things that they are. I’m unsettled to hear that the keyword-selection technique no longer guarantees Google will pay much attention to you. Take that, you SEO spammers in my inbox!

Dan describes how he wrote a novel on Facebook and how his following helped him to sell many copies in Blackwell’s. His multifarious activities are proof that you can create a significance presence through social media. He demonstrates Twitter in action, projecting his Twitter-stream onto a screen, telling us to ‘think of Twitter as a big party and what you have to do is find your group of people’. (Some parties, though, are populated with crashing bores or look-at-me poseurs. So it can be with Twitter.)

One member of the audience spots that his Tweets probably amount to 300,000 words - couldn’t he have been writing books instead? Dan stresses how prolific he is in other areas and claims only to spend half an hour a day on Twitter. If that’s the case, I’m going to have a private chat with him: I love both Facebook and Twitter, but the latter is the biggest time-suck known to man.

The secret is management. Dan shows us hashtags and lists as ways of managing the endless stream of tweets. He claims that ‘there’s something wonderfully serendipitous about Twitter’. That’s so true: through social media you hear about events and make friends and connections in a randomly exciting way. It builds organically. Through Facebook and Twitter, I’ve found digital greetings often lead to personal meetings. Advice is sought and given, opinions shared, heads shaken in despair, congratulations offered. As Dan says, on social media ‘the real and the digital meet’. Whether you’re independently or traditionally published, you can’t allow it to rule your life – but you shouldn’t rule it out of your life, not if you’re an author in search of a readership. When you do a deal with a publisher, they’ll be looking for you to set up your Twitter-list anyway …

Now, I’m off to investigate the possibilities of Pinterest …

Lorna Fergusson is socially present at and and @LornaFergusson on Twitter.

Dan Holloway is on Twitter at @agnieszkasshoes and on Facebook at . He has blogged about social media and community building at 
His latest book is Self-publish with Integrity: Define Success in your own Terms and then Achieve It