Thursday, 26 November 2015

Publishing and Publicity Insights from the Society of Authors AGM

Last week I attended the Society of Authors AGM in London. (As with all these events, it was a great way to meet up with writing friends as well!) After Philip Pullman welcomed us all, the Society presented its plans for a new updated more user-friendly website, before holding a panel discussion. Publishing expert Alison Baverstock chaired it and the panel members were Ian Skillicorn of Corazon Books, who also runs the National Short Story Week in the UK, Gordon Wise of the Curtis Brown agency and Nigel Wilcockson, a publishing director of Penguin Random House. They each presented very lucid and entertaining insights into the publishing industry and the author’s role within it, so I thought I’d share some of those insights – and leave it to you to decide whether you agree or disagree!

Authors are constantly challenged to find the time to write – and to absorb potential material to inspire their writing. Alison Baverstock said that ‘reading is the engine of being able to write.’ So true. Nigel Wilcockson referred us to the nothing-new-under-the-sun aspect of this writing malarkey. How can we maintain creative integrity and still respond to the commercial terms of our industry? He quoted George Gissing in New Grub Street, in 1891: ‘You have to be true to yourself. You cannot write something you do not believe in.’ Well, you can, really. People do it all the time.

Writers are constantly adjured to write the book that’s true to them, the story they believe in, heart and soul. So, they go ahead and write that book. Publishers then encourage them to understand the market, and may well turn their work down because of market concerns – Nigel said, rather quellingly, ‘Never assume that quality will out.’ Cue many audience members wincing.

If we understand our market, we pitch our work to better effect. If that work is then bought and published, we still need to pitch it to the wider public. This has to be done properly: Alison said ‘There is a massive difference between getting attention and getting approval.’ There’s no point in using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media, if all you do is holler ‘Buy my book, buy my book!’ We need to establish conversations and relationships – but doing this takes up more of the precious time and psychic energy the creation of further work demands.

How to strike the balance? How can we get people to listen to us? ‘In a very noisy universe, you have to make your own noise as well,’ Nigel says. Gordon talks of social media usage as ‘drops into the pond’ – ripples go out from that drop. He says that author and publisher are ‘business partners’, that ‘it’s pushing water uphill to get any exposure’ and that if your genre is in trouble, you should have a serious conversation with your agent and maybe consider changing your name.

I’ve talked about this in the past, this industry obsession with the new and untried. Untried means hasn’t failed. Yet. So, if you’re the kind of writer who needs to be nurtured over the course of several books, or if you want to switch genre, you may be in trouble. The pressure is on to hit the ground running and stay running on the same track. If not, change your identity. I find this such a depressing, defeatist way to go about things. Even the great J.K. Rowling has to write as another person, even after we know it’s really her – and as another male personage, at that. The shelves are full of thrillers with initials rather than first names …. Well, that’s a whole other blogpost.

Ian Skillicorn sensibly pointed out that authors don’t just need to compete for attention with other writers but with all the ways potential readers now spend their free time, in this always-on digital age.

Practical advice? Have a web presence, definitely. If you’re using social media, perhaps concentrate on one or two rather than the scattergun effect of trying to use all. I concentrate on Facebook, but have a Twitter presence and a Pinterest account. I’m not yet on Instagram though it seems to be becoming more popular.

Be clear with your publisher when it comes to the terms of your contract. This includes knowing which rights they will exploit. Bring your book to the publisher in as ‘edited’ a state as possible. Know your market. Fill out your author questionnaire with useful information including possible publicity opportunities.

Publicity needs to come early and be properly planned. No good approaching a magazine in the month before your book comes out when its lead time is more like six months.

Be focussed. Know where your book would sit in the bookstore. Know who your potential readers are: ‘It’s not always about having the biggest splash, it’s about being targeted,’ says Ian Skillicorn.

Timely reminder: ‘It’s a business, writing.’ (Nigel Wilcockson)

Uplifting thought: ‘There are more creators than ever, more opportunities than ever. You can find a niche for your books that you couldn’t have had before.’ (Ian Skillicorn)

Two-edged thought of the day: Alison Baverstock reminded us that we don’t necessarily need validation by publishing – ‘Some of the happiest writers I’ve met haven’t published.’

I’ll leave you to mull over that one!

The Society of Authors website is here and how to join is here.

To find out about Fictionfire Focus Workshops pop over to the website.

Do please sign up for my Fictionfire Newsletter on the website – news, articles, links, recommended reads, tips and exercises for writers.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Yes or No to NaNo? How to get back into your writing

Image courtesy of
National Novel Writing Month
Hard to believe, but it’s that time again! November is looming up fast and November for many writers means National Novel WritingMonth. Thirty days of frenzy and exhaustion as they try to rack up 50,000 words by 23.59 on the 30th.

NaNoWriMo is in many ways a Very Very Good Thing. So much of the writing life is about procrastination, waiting for conditions to be better, writing in fits and starts – a month in which you dedicate yourself to major production levels is a month where you can discover what you’re capable of. Many writers are amazed, once they get into it, to find just how much they can achieve. They start December with a pile of messy pages, but pages which can lead to other pages, pages which can be edited into shape.

So, yay for NaNo.

But I’m not doing it this year.

If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or you’ve read my last blogpost, you’ll know that this year has been all about distraction. Service providers have let me down and my days, weeks and months have been filled with lists, correspondence, shouty scenes and anxiety. Even now, I’m barely coming out of it.

If I sign up for NaNo this time round, the dark side of it may be revealed – it’s another form of pressure and I really don’t need any extra pressure right now. The voice, that voice any writer is so familiar with, the shrill nagging ‘Why can’t you just get on with it!’ voice, will raise its decibel-level even more.

I have projects. I have ideas. I also have clients whose work needs editing, workshops to run … so my own work will have to wait a little while longer. I’m fairly OK about that. I believe in the work. It can keep, just a little while longer.

Are you contemplating doing NaNo? I genuinely think it’s worth considering. I’ve done it before, and always on my own terms – I've written posts about previous years’ NaNoWriMos, including the technique that I’ve found served me best when aiming for ultimate productivity. You can find my posts here and here, and earlier ones here and here.

If you are doing NaNo, you could do part of it at my next writers’ retreat, Fictionfire by the Spires: Reboot and Troubleshoot, here in Oxford from 7-8 November. The title tells you what I’ll be focussing on. I’ll run four workshops designed to get you back in touch with your writing and help you with issues you’re having with your project. There will be peaceful time for you to just … write. There will be constant tea and coffee. And buffet lunches. And cake – there must always be cake.

It’ll be fun. The group will be small (maximum 8 people), friendly, supportive. You’ll be in Oxford, one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

To find out more about what’s involved, visit my website.

Here’s what people had to say about my two previous writers’ retreat weekends, in St Ives in Cornwall:
‘It took me out of my day-to-day environment with all its everyday complications and gave me a space in which to write.’ C.J.

‘I can’t recommend this event highly enough! If ever you have the opportunity to attend one of Lorna’s workshops, grab it with both hands!’ C.W.

Can’t make this one? Sign up on the website to my mailing list, to be kept informed.

And if you’re doing NaNo, enjoy the ride!

Friday, 16 October 2015

Summer schools, festivals and retreats, Fictionfire by the Spires and new workshops

Fictionfire by the Sea retreat
Saturday dinner at the Porthgwidden Cafe
It's been a while since I posted on Literascribe, mea culpa. So much has happened in the meantime, some of it good, some of it really not! I had joyous times teaching creative writing, first of all at my Fictionfire by the Sea retreat in St Ives in Cornwall, back in April. The best group of writers attended - we shared stories, advice, laughs, gasps at the beauty of the location. I stayed on for a few days after the weekend was over, to get back in touch with my own writing. That was pretty much the last time I felt relaxed! Read on, and you'll find out why.

Giving my talk on self-editing
(thanks to Debbie Young for the photo)
In June I taught for my fifteenth year at the University of Winchester's Writers' Festival - I gave a talk on editing and a day course on character building. It's always lovely to go there and meet again friends and fellow writers again - there's a real reunion feeling about it, but also the chance to make new friends. The plenary speech this year was given by Sebastian Faulkes - a very polished performance.

In the garden of Exeter College -
reception before final dinner

In July and August I taught on two summer school programmes for Oxford University. The first of these is OUSSA, held at Rewley House. I've been teaching on that programme since 2002 and always enjoy it, though it is very intense! Then, over the course of three weeks, I taught advanced fiction writing at the OUDCE creative writing summer school, for the third year. This is held at Exeter College, which is such a beautiful location. I got held up one day because they were filming the new series of Endeavour in the front quad - with the wonderful Roger Allam and Shaun Evans. When I've run Fictionfire day courses at Trinity College, we've coincided with the filming of Lewis - Oxford is always full of film crews!

with fellow tutor Julie Hearn
So, hard work, great company, good fun, fantastic stories being written!

Now for the bad news ...

It was also a summer of delays, distraction, exhaustion and frustration - and I'm still not quite out of the woods yet. I'm not going to go into detail because I can't bear to dwell on it anymore, but since June we've been embroiled in renovation of two rooms in our house after a long-term water leak caused significant damage. The leak had been there for months, perhaps years, so entailed drilling up floors, letting walls and floors dry out, stripping the rooms back, replastering, refitting, decorating etc, etc, etc. Next week, we hope to sign off on the whole process - but believe me my stress levels have been through the roof.

Also raising my blood pressure was my Fictionfire website, which was to be 'migrated' to new software in August. A process which should have taken three weeks took seven and is still ongoing. The site is at least live now and I can take bookings, but for several weeks I could update neither it nor my online shop. I have just discovered I don't have a mailing list sign-up box anymore - argh! So, it's a work in progress ...

Looking ahead, in spite of the website woes, you can now visit the site and book places on the new series of Focus Workshops and Fictionfire by the Spires: Reboot and Troubleshoot, a writers' workshop/retreat weekend here in Oxford from 7-8 November.

The first Focus Workshop will be Breathtaking Thrills on October 24th - if you want to learn how to create tension, excitement and suspense in your fiction, this is the one for you. It's followed by Layers of Meaning on November 21st, Share and Support on November 28th and Does Happiness Write White? on December 5th.

Take a look at the website for full details. There are currently only 5 places left for Fictionfire by the Spires: Reboot and Troubleshoot, so don't wait too long!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Considering self-publishing? Jessica Bell shows you the stress-free way

I've known Jessica Bell for a few years as a fellow member of the Alliance of Independent Authors. She's an extraordinary person, charged with energy. Her output is simply amazing: she's a writer, poet, cover designer, musician  ...

I'm posting to recommend the latest in her series, Writing in a Nutshell: these are nifty, pithy manuals helping writers with aspects of composition and here, with self-publishing. Jessica herself explains it best:

Are you ready to self-publish your book, but dreading the massive learning curve? Well, there’s no need to dread it anymore!

This sixth instalment in the bestselling Writing in a Nutshell series will not overwhelm you with all information available—it will tell you exactly what you need to know, without the faff, by following a foolproof, cost-efficient, time-efficient, extremely easy-to-follow, step-by-step self-publishing method, so that you can go from manuscript to a professionally published book within one week.

You’ll learn how to: prepare your manuscript in Microsoft Word, design your paperback and eBook cover, prepare your front/back matter and blurb, format your paperback interior & eBook, proofread your designed pages, register with desired retailers/distributors, export your eBook to a retail-ready file and upload your paperback and eBook to retailers/distributors.

Not only will this book save you time and money, but it will also save you from inevitable stress. What are you waiting for? Grab a copy of Self-publish Your Book today! 

With Jessica at the London
Book Fair, 2014
Visit Jessica's site at to find out more about the series and all her other activities, including her book cover design service. You can buy her books via her website or on Amazon. Self-Publish your Book is available as an ebook or paperback.

Visit the Alliance of Independent Authors for incredibly useful resources and a warm, supportive community to help hold your hand along the self-publishing path. 

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Author interview: Alison Morton - strong women and shifting timescales

Another fantastic cover for the latest
in Alison's Roma Nova series
I interviewed author Alison Morton about her writing process back in November (here's the link). Now that she's just published the fourth in her very successful Roma Nova alternative history thriller series, she's back to talk about the new book, Aurelia, which is set in the 1960s.

Alison, I’m delighted to be welcoming you back to Literascribe and congratulations on publication of your fourth Roma Nova novel! 
I’m both delighted and honoured to be your guest.

I’m intrigued by the concept of going back in time within an already-imagined alternative history. As someone who was around in the Sixties myself (!) I’m really interested in reading about how you blend how that era really was with the elements of the alternative culture you’ve created. Were there any particular challenges you had to meet when writing about that decade?
The late 1960s are near enough for people to remember glimpses of it, but our memories are selective, plus there are probably parts of our lives then that we’d rather forget! Like any historical setting, the trick is to do your research thoroughly and discard 90% of it when you write your story. There are the obvious things to bring in; no mobile phones, very crude CCTV, fax, telex, formal suits, typing pools, and beehive hair-dos for women. But the tiny things are as important: flight tickets were booklets with carbon copies, passengers flying were separated from non-flyers only by a cord strung between poles, men wore hats as normal, both sexes wore slacks, not jeans.

What’s crucial about your imagined Roma Novan society is that women play such an important role. In AURELIA, your heroine, I would expect, is going to meet even more challenges than her granddaughter Carina, who features in the first three novels, in that Aurelia is living at the time when liberation for woman was still in its early stages. What differences does Aurelia encounter in social attitudes – or are they the same attitudes Carina has had to handle? Did you find it more interesting to explore the role of a woman in this era than in the present? 
Haha! The clash was much harsher fifty years ago and I’ve hardened it by sending Aurelia to Berlin in a very traditional Prussia. I took part in a student exchange to Germany in 1968 and was struck then by just how more traditional it had remained in gender attitudes than the UK at the time. Germany was under so much economic, political and international pressure through the 1950s and 1960s that traditional, ‘safe’ values were a counterweight to those anxieties. But underlying them was a social and legal structure dating back in some cases to before the First World War.

In the Roma Novan world, the Great War of 1925-1935 was as socially devastating as both world wars were in our timeline. When Aurelia goes to Prussia, I draw on that. No disrespect to Germany and Berlin is intended – I love both!

In what ways does Aurelia’s character differ from Carina’s?
As a ‘bone-and-blood’ Roma Novan, Aurelia has been brought up to do her duty; she joined the Praetorian Guard at age 18 and loved it. Aurelia is no goody-two-shoes; she resents it profoundly when circumstances force her to give up her military career but it never occurs to her to whinge, or rebel in the same way as Carina does. She is more self-contained than Carina, but very vulnerable in respect of her young daughter whom she loves to bits. However, she is put under almost unbearable strain in the story when duty, child and romantic love collide.

Are there strong women in your family (apart from yourself!) on whom you base your heroines?
I’m not sure about being strong myself…  My mother was a full-time teacher, managed a household of two lively kids and a self-employed husband, planned all our holidays, trips, and cultural activities, sewed our clothes and fought in a very polite and determined way for us at every turn, keeping her sense of humour throughout. Her mother had run a furrier and couture business in Newcastle before the First World War and my other grandmother had owned and run a general store in Hastings. So the answer is probably yes, but unconsciously!

You shared on your blog how you had to edit out the original opening to Aurelia. What were your reasons and how did it feel to have to do that?
Quite a simple, but harsh, lesson you must learn as part of your writer’s journey; if a scene doesn’t actively contribute to the story, cut it. I loved writing it, I wanted to bring Carina and Conrad in somehow but, of course, it was a contrivance, a ‘darling’, bit of fluff not really connected to the essence of the story. Readers need to be straight into the action and meet the central characters and the conflict in the first few pages. Chop.

With four books under your belt, do you have plans for more? Has it become more easy, more natural, to write about Roma Nova as time goes by? Do you feel a reluctance to leave that world you’ve created?
Yes, indeed! AURELIA is the start of a new three-book cycle within the series; the next, set in the early 1980s, is half drafted and full of trouble. The last in this cycle is outlined, with a few scenes written about dark days in Roma Nova. After that, I have a few ideas bubbling away. Roma Nova is familiar ground to me; it’s been in my head for decades. The danger is that with such closeness, I could forget to flesh out the background for readers new to the series. But my critique partner and editors keep me on the straight and narrow with that! Sometimes, I do worry that I consider Roma Nova more real than our world. Or is ours truly the real world?

Has it been tricky to weave Aurelia’s plotlines into the pre-existent storyline Carina inhabits?
Before I wrote one word of AURELIA, I re-read INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO and made notes about everywhere Aurelia appeared or was referenced. Then I consulted my spreadsheet with ages, relationships and events. Although I longed to write Aurelia’s story, it was no use setting out to craft nearly 300,000 words if the framework wasn’t right.

I started drafting AURELIA while SUCCESSIO was going through the early structural edit stage, so as events unfolded in the former, I still had time to seed clues in the latter. Characters need a full background and Aurelia’s began to intrigue me more and more. The lesson? Be careful what you write – you may give yourself a larger task than you think!

Thanks very much, Alison, for your answers and I wish you every success with the new novel. I know you have a loyal readership waiting to enjoy it!

Alison Morton: 
Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre – regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF – all over the globe.

So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women…

Now, she lives in France and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series
– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
PERFIDITAS, second in series
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
SUCCESSIO, third in series
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014

Fact file:
Education: BA French, German & Economics, MA History
Memberships: International Thriller Writers, Historical Novel Society, Alliance of Independent Authors, Society of Authors
Represented by Annette Crossland of A for Authors Literary Agency for subsidiary and foreign rights.

Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova blog:
Twitter @alison-morton

AURELIA book trailer:

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Last Treasure Hunt - follow the trail of clues!

Following on from author Jane Alexander's guest post on crafting fiction yesterday, here, as promised, is the next clue in her publisher Saraband's exciting treasure hunt to win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt - and more!

Clue 7

There was something strange about this lady
Who’s usually the reverse of shady
Normally she points the way
And she’ll do so again, another day.


How the hunt works:

·       Each clue refers to a landmark or iconic location in a film. The landmark/location is the answer – when you figure it out, make a note of it!

·       (If you need a hand, check out the #treasurehunt hashtag on Twitter or Instagram for a hint to the landmark’s location…)

·       Clues will be revealed by some fantastic book bloggers from March 26th until April 21st. Keep checking back on Jane Alexander’s dedicated treasure hunt page ( or on the #treasurehunt hashtag for links and new clues.

·       When all the clues are revealed, the first letter of every answer will make an anagram. Solve the anagram and you have your final answer!

·       Email this answer and all the landmarks you figured out to by April 30th to be entered into the prize draw. Two entrants will win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt – and if you’ve guessed the most landmarks and locations, you’ll win a goodie bag and something special from Jane personally! On top of that you’ll get bragging rights on Twitter and we’ll publicly dub you queen/king sleuth.

·       Good luck!

About The Last Treasure Hunt:
At the age of thirty, Campbell Johnstone is a failure. He's stuck behind the bar of a shabby pub, watching from the sidelines while everyone else makes a success of their lives. The most visible is Eve Sadler, a childhood friend and rising Hollywood star. When Campbell tries to rekindle their relationship, he longs for the glitter of her success to rub off on him, but a single shocking night - the novel's shattering twist delivered with a knockout punch - changes everything. Campbell is about to discover the bittersweet taste of fame, and in the process, struggle to save his soul and overcome his own self-delusion.
The Last Treasure Hunt explores our obsession with fame and celebrity with great intelligence and sly wit - it's a modern media morality tale with bite.

Praise for The Last Treasure Hunt:
'The Last Treasure Hunt quickly asserts itself as something unique ... a masterclass on what happens when empathy is absent. [Jane Alexander's] debut novel marks the arrival of an important new voice.' Gutter Magazine

Praise for Jane Alexander's short stories:
'A trumpet call of urgency and great promise.' The Scotsman

About Jane Alexander:
Jane Alexander's short stories and creative non-fiction have been widely published in a number of anthologies and literary magazines, including Mslexia, Litro and The Orphan Leaf Review. A winner of a major national story competition, and the recipient of a Scottish Arts Council New Writers bursary, Jane is also a lecturer in creative writing at the Open University.

The Last Treasure Hunt
Publication date 26 March 2015
Publisher Saraband
ISBN: 9781908643803

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Author guest-post: Jane Alexander on the craft of constructing compelling fiction

 I'm delighted to welcome as my guest this week novelist and short story writer Jane Alexander, who's based in Edinburgh and 
whose debut novel, The Last Treasure Hunt, a witty morality tale exploring our modern obsession with fame and celebrity, was published last week. Tomorrow I'll be posting a clue in the real life treasure hunt her publishers, Saraband, have organised - you can win a signed copy of The Last Treasure Hunt and possibly more!

Today, Jane highlights a crucial lesson she learned along the way about how to write compelling fiction:

 Here’s something I’m not meant to tell you: my first novel, The Last Treasure Hunt, isn’t really my first novel. It's my debut – but it's not the first book I wrote.
Though it’s rarely acknowledged, there’s nothing unusual in this: a 2010 survey found that the average number of novels an author writes before being published is between three and four. These ‘practice novels’ are sometimes published later on in an author’s career, but more commonly they're relegated to a dusty box-file or a forgotten Word document.
Such is the fate of my own practice novels.
With each of the two books I wrote prior to The Last Treasure Hunt, the fundamental flaw was the story: it just wasn’t strong enough. As a creative writing teacher, my experience suggests that most emerging writers fall into one of two categories. There are those who can craft beautiful sentences; and those who can tell compelling stories. A lucky few are equally able with sentences and stories – but most will find they have to work hard to develop their skills in their area of weakness.
I fell firmly into the first category, though it took me some time to realise this. When agents and publishers declined my submissions, they did so with compliments about the beautiful writing – but if the writing was so beautiful, what was I missing?
Though I’d completed a Masters in Creative Writing, in seminars and workshops we’d paid very little attention to the nuts and bolts of storytelling. This, I think, is a question of scale: it’s much easier to focus on studying and critiquing smaller texts – sentences and paragraphs, short stories and novel extracts – than to work through a reading list of scores of novels and deconstruct the elements of plot. Recently Hanif Kureishi went so far as to complain that most of his students can’t tell a story, and that storytelling is an unteachable skill. He’s dealing in hyperbole, of course. Storytelling may be a harder skill to teach than, say, writing convincing dialogue – but it’s far from unteachable. Dare I say that only a poor teacher would insist otherwise?
If you want to build up your storytelling muscles, though, you may have to look beyond a traditional creative writing course. Once I’d realised what was wrong with my practice novels, I turned to a screenwriting class for help. Here, I learned about three-act structure and plot points, reversals and value changes, active questions and narrative tension. I learned techniques that transformed my approach to planning and structuring a novel, and developed new methods of shaping scenes and chapters. 
In short, that class was a revelation. As with any newly acquired knowledge, the more I put theory into practice, the more fluent and effortless my practice became. Soon, crafting an absorbing story became one of my favourite parts of the novel-writing process – and when I pass what I’ve learned on to my students,  I can practically hear the cogs turning as they begin to think about their works-in-progress in ways they never have before. 
And the next novel I wrote – my third – turned out to be my ‘first’.

To find out more about Jane, her creative process and the novel, visit her website here. Come back to Literascribe on Friday to check out the latest clue in the online treasure hunt!

Reminder: my next Fictionfire Focus Workshop is on Short Stories, on 11th April - there are still places available. Find out more here Fictionfire by the Sea, my writers' workshop and retreat in St Ives, takes place from 17th-19th April. It's fully booked, but you can still add your name to the waiting list by emailing me at You can also join the Fictionfire mailing list on my website, to be kept informed about future workshops and retreats. 

In June, I'll be running a day course on Character Building and giving a lecture on the essentials of Self-editing at the Winchester Writers' Festival - visit

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Author guest-post: Sarah Bower on the joys of a writing retreat in France

Sarah Bower
As regular readers of this blog will know, last autumn I ran a workshop/retreat for writers in the stunning location of St Ives, Cornwall. This was such a success that I'm running another in April! My guest today is novelist and creative writing tutor Sarah Bower, who will be co-running a guided retreat with Mary-Jane Riley, in the gorgeous setting of the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, in late May. The Manoir has been beautifully renovated - do visit the site to see how idyllic it is! 

Here's what Sarah has to say about the value of a retreat for writers:

We are all familiar with the dictum that everyone has a book in them. While it tends to make professional writers suck their teeth and reach for the .9mm or the meat cleaver we keep handy for killing our darlings and anyone else who believes what we do is easy, there may be an element of truth in this belief. We are, after all, storytellers by nature. We have evolved to put things in order because, if we had never learned to distinguish the sabre-tooth tiger from the Neanderthal next door, bald, ungainly apes that we are, we would never have survived, let alone risen to the top of the terrestrial food chain. Storytelling and versifying are methods of ordering which have themselves evolved over time into many forms, from The Wasteland to scripts for Coronation Street.

Perhaps, therefore, what differentiates those of us who manage to realise and publish novels is not so much ability as the determination to see through what is an enormous project, taking months, if not years, to complete and fraught with as many irritations as joys. A large part of bringing a novel successfully to fruition is finding the time to write and the self-discipline to use one’s time constructively. It’s this understanding that lies behind crime-writer M.J. Riley’s and my decision to set up L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats. We have both experienced the challenge of writing novels while working at other jobs and raising families and learned to value uninterrupted writing time very highly.

Mary-Jane Riley
This is a significant part of what L’Ecrivain retreats offer. During the three days participants will spend at the Manoir de la Vieille Douve in Haut Anjou, they will enjoy three or four hours of uninterrupted writing time each day. A writing retreat is a great way to carve out and ring fence writing time because it takes you out of your everyday environment and isolates you from the distractions of work, family, social routines, the garden, the flatpack wardrobe you’ve been meaning to put together since Christmas, the weekly supermarket run and a thousand other obstacles that can knock your writing off-course. You quite literally retreat from the daily round into a space where you can focus on writing and thinking.

One of the reasons we are so easily distracted from writing is that it’s a lonely occupation as well as a difficult one, but if you join a retreat group of like-minded writers, you can practice your craft in a supportive environment, in which both retreat leaders and fellow participants understand and appreciate the need to balance solitude with a sense of common purpose. The guided element of the L’Ecrivain retreat will help you to use this precious time constructively and stay focused on your novel through a mix of group exercises and one to one tutorials. While the exercises are designed to address issues that most writers have in common, including technicalities such as voice, viewpoint or characterisation, or how to tighten up a sagging middle, how you use your tutorial time is entirely up to you. You might want to address specific issues to do with the content of your novel, or you could equally well use this time for personal coaching, to give you tools to take back into daily life that will enable you to keep writing despite the distractions.

Le Manoir de la Vieille Douve
Of course writing is a cerebral activity, but we mustn’t forget the body. After all, that’s where the brain resides. Charles and Chris Appleton, our hosts at Le Manoir, have many years’ experience of running hotels and restaurants and Charles is a professional chef of distinction. They have restored the house and grounds to a very high standard with the comfort and convenience of guests in mind, and the L’Ecrivain package includes full board, with Charles inviting us into his own farmhouse kitchen to share meals prepared from the finest of local ingredients. This was an important factor for M. J. Riley and I when planning the L’Ecrivain programme. We wanted the sense of community that derives from eating together, but, as the retreat runs for only three days, we were reluctant to go down the route of some other courses where meals are also prepared communally. Our time is too precious to let the focus drift away from writing. Even when you aren’t actually putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper, we want you to be able to devote your time to thinking and reflection on your writing. Planning dinner is a bit too much like being at home!

We’re excited about our plans for L’Ecrivain because we’re convinced we have something to offer which we would both have appreciated when we were starting out. An opportunity to write in a supportive and sympathetic environment, somewhere distant in both a physical and metaphorical sense from the daily round and all its distractions. If you’re determined to finish your novel but not sure how to achieve your goal, we look forward to welcoming you.

You can find out more about L’Ecrivain Writing Retreats at or contact us direct at

Sarah Bower has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the Open University and also mentors other writers. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia and is the author of three novels. Her short fiction has appeared in many publications, including The Yellow Room and Spiked. She is a regular contributor of articles on different aspects of the writing life to Words With Jam. Her fiction has been translated into nine languages. Sarah's latest novel is Erosion.

A BBC journalist and former talk show broadcaster, Mary-Jane Riley has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She has also taught life-writing in prisons, care homes and universities. Her short stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including Women's Weekly and Bella. Her first novel is to be published later this year.

(My own Fictionfire by the Sea weekend in April is currently fully booked but you can join the waiting list by emailing or join the mailing list to be kept informed about this and other Fictionfire workshops and retreats at

Friday, 30 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 3: featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis

In this third part of my feature on seven brilliant writers who've chosen to collaborate in producing an exciting box-set of their works, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women, we'll hear from Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

I heard New York Times bestselling author Joni Rodgers give a wonderfully rousing speech at the launch of the Alliance of Independent Authors back in 2012 - it was a real whoop whoop! tour de force right at the start of the self-publishing revolution. Here are the compelling reasons she had for writing her novel Crazy for Trying:

'Tulsa, my heroine, is a bookish, zaftig misfit, much like I was in my early 20s, and I drew on my experience as the lone female disc jockey at a rock station in western Montana. The themes of body image, forgiveness, making peace with one’s past were important to me, then and now. I also wanted to write about a healthy, loving union between two women (Tulsa’s mother and her partner) and how unfair it was—to them and to their daughter—that they weren’t allowed to marry. I was turned down by a number of agents because I refused to cut that storyline, and back then (in the mid-1990s) it was still a verboten topic for commercial fiction.
I started writing this book when I was living on a fire tower in the Northern California wilderness and finished it almost ten years later while I was undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (blood cancer). I had no immune system, which meant mandatory isolation. That gave me the space and quiet to write 16 hours a day simply because I loved placing words in rows. This purely creative purpose breathed joy and peace into what was otherwise a very dark time. My prognosis was poor; I was told I’d live five years if I was lucky, and my son and daughter were just five and seven years old. When I started seriously pursuing getting the book published, I was driven by the reality that this book might be the only way my children would ever really know me.

Crazy for Trying was originally published by a prestigious small press and was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, which launched my career and gave me a whole new life. This book, I truly believe, is the reason I’m still alive. Had I not found the purpose and peace I gained from writing it, I don’t think I would have made it. It gave me so much pleasure to revisit Tulsa and her crew. The book is a lot funnier than I remembered!'

The Centauress is a compelling tale of family conflict about a disputed inheritance, written by another best-selling author and Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Kathleen Jones. Not only am I loving the titles of the books in this collection, but I'm finding it absolutely fascinating to hear how these stories emerged! 

'The Centauress was inspired by a meeting with an extraordinary Italian sculptor who was officially female, but was very open about the fact that she was a hermaphrodite. She appeared to revel in her dual sexuality, although there was an underlying note of tragedy in the stories she told about her life. I began to wonder what it must be like to be born without any specific gender identity and what it might mean for relationships.  Almost by accident, I was present when she was being interviewed for her biography and there were a lot of discussions about the ethical questions her life story raised; how much the biographer should tell and how to protect the people she’d shared her life with.
When she died, her story wouldn’t let me go. Meeting her had changed my life – as she had changed many people’s lives, not always for the better. Fictional episodes started writing themselves in my head, often centred around one of her reminiscences.  I kept thinking ‘what if?’ and gradually the novel began to take shape. Fiction can often be closer to the emotional truth of something than factual biography.
The Centauress is set in Istria – a very beautiful part of Croatia that used to belong to Italy and has the turbulent historical background I needed for the novel. The family of my main character, Zenobia, has been torn apart by conflict. Living in Europe means living every day with echoes of a violent, recent past; sharing your village or street with people who may have betrayed your relatives, or be relatives of someone your family also betrayed. Just below my house in Italy, at the bottom of the olive grove, is a memorial to six young boys who were dragged from their houses and shot, only a year before I was born.
As a biographer myself, I’ve often felt uncomfortable ‘eavesdropping’ on the most intimate moments of someone’s life, so it’s not surprising that my narrator, Alex, became a biographer researching the life story of celebrity artist Zenobia de Branganza, who is the Centauress of the story. Alex has to struggle with the problems of her subject’s desire for honesty and the wishes of friends and family not to have their lives exposed. Alex has her own private tragedies, because the novel is also about surviving some of the worst things that can happen to you. It’s this knowledge that enables Zenobia to trust Alex with her most intimate revelations.  And the message she gives to Alex is that it is possible to heal and that you must always be ready to accept happiness and love when it comes your way.'

Finally, Jane Davis has chosen An Unchoreographed Life for the collection. Jane's debut won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and she has gone on to produce six novels - I've already read A Funeral for an Owl and was much struck by the way she observes relationships, deals with issues of class and background and writes brilliant dialogue. Here she describes how she came to write An Unchoreographed Life:

'I was gripped by a 2008 court case, when, in an interesting twist, it was ruled that a prostitute had been living off the immoral earnings of one of her clients. Salacious headlines focused on the prostitute’s replies when she was asked to justify her charge of £20,000 a week. But the case also challenged perceptions of who was likely to be a prostitute. The answer turned out to be that she might well be the ordinary middle-aged woman with the husband and two teenage children who lives next door.
Whilst I was writing the novel, it became especially relevant when change to the laws governing prostitution were proposed and became headline news.
I grew up within the footprint of Nelson’s paradise estate. The story of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, has always fascinated me. Born into extreme poverty and forced to resort to prostitution, she later became a muse for artists such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds and a fashionista by bucking the tight-laced trends of the day. Cast aside by an aristocratic lover, she went on to marry his uncle. Completely self-educated, Emma continually reinvented herself, mixing in diplomatic circles and becoming confidante of both Marie Antoinette and the Queen of Naples.
But Emma’s story is unusual. I had a clear understanding that, had I been born in another age, the chances were that, living in London, I would have been either a domestic servant or a prostitute - but quite possibly, both. Prior to 1823, domestics under the age of sixteen didn’t receive a salary. They worked a sixteen-hour day in return for ‘bed and board’, a very generous description of what was actually on offer. And, in return, when they reached the age of sixteen, they were cast out onto the streets. 
During my research, I used the Internet extensively to source personal accounts, diaries, blogs and newspaper reports. How did sex-workers come to the attention of the police and social services? What were the main reasons they ended up in court? (The answer was generally tax evasion and financial crime, things I knew about from my day job.) How did sex workers see themselves? How did they view their clients? How did this perception change if they stopped? I also consulted The English Collective of Prostitutes, who very kindly allowed me to quote them in my fictional newspaper article.  
And then I began to imagine what life was like for the child of a prostitute. There was nowhere I could research that hidden subject. And it is always the thing that eludes you that becomes the story.'

So, seven dedicated, dynamic writers serving up seven amazing and diverse novels in one set for only GBP7.99! Only for 90 days, though, starting on February 20th - though you can pre-order now here. 'The authors of these books are at the forefront of [a] strong cohort of groundbreaking, boundary pushing women writing and self-publishing literary fiction. i cannot recommend this collection highly enough.' Dan Holloway, Guardian book pages columnist and publisher.

Visit the Outside the Box: Women Writing Women website here.
See Part 2 of this feature here and Part 1 here.

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at  and Price £7.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Women Writers Boxing Clever Part 2: featuring Orna Ross, Carol Cooper, Roz Morris and Jessica Bell

On Monday, I introduced you to seven excellent novelists who've got together to issue a box-set of their works at an amazing price (£7.99/$9.99 for seven novels!) - the link to that post is here. In this and the next post I'll be asking each of the writers about the novel they chose to include in the selection, Outside the Box: Women Writing Women.

I'll start with Orna Ross. I met Orna back in 2012 at the London Book Fair, when she launched the Alliance of Independent Authors. ALLi has gone from strength to strength since then. The Bookseller has named Orna as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing and she is incredibly positive, supportive and inspiring. Her philosophy is summed up in the title of her handbooks and prospective courses: 'Go Creative - It's your Native State'. 
Somehow she finds time to write poetry and novels, while doing all she can to facilitate the creativity and success of others. She's including Blue Mercy in the collection, a complex tale of betrayal, revenge, suspense, murder mystery - and surprise. Here's what she has to say about it: 'Blue Mercy is a high-octane drama in the shape of a mother-and-daughter conflict swirling around a family murder mystery. A tyrannical old father is dead, a suspected mercy killing. The answers as to who might have killed him and why are deeply embedded in male-female relationships but also, crucially for this volume collection, in something core and primal in inter-female relationships too.'

Carol Cooper, whom I've also met at the London Book Fair - such a great place for networking! - and at the Independent Author Fair in Chorleywood last autumn, is a journalist and award-winning non-fiction author who's turned her hand to writing acclaimed contemporary fiction. Oh, and in her spare time, she's a doctor. Here's how she came to write her novel about a group of people searching for love, sex and everything in between: 'One Night at the Jacaranda is the first novel I’ve created that got as far as the hands of readers. There’ve been other efforts: a coming-of-age novel set in Cambridge, a children’s story about a stray dog, a novel about a teenager coping with disability, and the chronicle of a female surgeon in training. She never reached the top as she spent too much time horizontal (like the manuscript, still languishing in a drawer somewhere).
Now I see that I was trying to fit into particular places on bookshelves. By contrast, One Night at the Jacaranda, although it’s contemporary women’s fiction, doesn’t nestle quite as neatly into a genre.
The idea came to me out of the blue. I was on a flight to the USA, on my way to my father’s funeral. As I sat sipping a much-needed gin and tonic, the idea for a story about a group of single Londoners popped into my head. There’d be a struggling journalist, a lonely lawyer, a newly single mother of four daring to date again.
I covered paper napkins with scrawled notes which eventually developed into the novel. Finally I’d embarked on creating the kind of book I’d want to read for pleasure. I wasn’t thinking about marketing angles. I just wrote.
All the characters are made up. I don’t know where ex-con Dan came from, and I’m glad I never had an au pair as manipulative as Dorottya, but some of the influences are obvious. Although the stressed doctor in my story is male, he takes on many of the frustrations I face in my day job. Ditto the single mother, the freelance journalist, and the young man diagnosed with cancer are all people I relate to.
I like to pretend that the story has nothing to do with my father. For one thing, it would have been far too racy for him. He’d have choked on a Harrogate toffee by page four.
Yet things fall into place when a parent dies, so his influence is there. The deeper message of One Night at the Jacaranda is that the characters can’t find happiness with someone else until they confront who they themselves really are.
Over the years I’d authored and co-authored many non-fiction books. The leap to writing fiction required new skills. But it was refreshing to write what I wanted to write, without worrying about word counts or thinking of appropriate illustrations. My experience in journalism shows, I think, in my short scenes, cutting from one character to the next.
Medicine has a huge impact on my fiction. You can’t put your patients in a book, but doctoring teaches you to observe. It’s no surprise that many great writers have been doctors. While I can’t pretend to be in the same league as Somerset Maugham, Michael Crichton, AJ Cronin, Khaled Hosseini or Abraham Varghese, I’m grateful that my work brings me into contact with such a wide range of people and situations.'

I've also met Roz Morris at the London Book Fair and at various ALLi events. She's a vibrant and knowledgeable writer, ghost-writer and writing coach. I highly recommend her blog, The Undercover Soundtrack, where she features writers talking about how music has inspired their stories and writing process. Last year I read the novel she has chosen to include in the collection, My Memories of a Future Life - it's an original and poetic novel, written in a compelling voice and asking questions about creativity and purpose which I found fascinating. It features science fiction and music and sharp social observation, and it veers from comedy to pathos and back again. A really original piece of work. Here's what she has to say:

I was always fascinated by tales of regression to past lives. I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone went to a future life? Who would do that? Why? What would they find? 

Another longtime interest was the world of the classical musician. Musical scores are exacting and dictatorial - you play a note for perhaps a sixth of a second and not only that, there are instructions for how to feel - expressivo, amoroso. It's as if you don't play a piece of classical music; you channel the spirit of the composer. 

I became fascinated by a character who routinely opened her entire soul to the most emotional communications of classical composers. And I thought, what if she couldn’t do it any more? And then, what if I threw her together with someone who could trap the part of her that responded so completely to music?'

Finally, Jessica Bell, another very active member of ALLi, is an Australian novelist, singer-songwriter, publishing editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal - and a book cover designer to boot. (Where do these people find their energy?). Her latest novel is White Lady, an intense, suspenseful ride rife with mystery. She says: 'Some writers do have a distinct message they want to expose through their books before they begin writing. Those writers would be able to answer the question Why? pretty easily. I am not one of those authors. If there are messages in my books, they develop and grow organically, without my interference. But now that White Lady is complete and on bookshelves, I would say that message is the following: The power of unconditional love can be scarier than having a knife held to your throat.'

Orna, Joni, Jessica, Kathleen, Jane, Carol and Jessica
In my next blogpost, I'll be featuring Joni Rodgers, Kathleen Jones and Jane Davis.

For Part 1 of this feature, go here .

To pre-order Outside the Box: Women Writing Women: visit these links at  and Price £7.99/$9.99. The set will be available for 90 days only from February 20th 2015.

For more information, visit