A photo and a memory – how a novel is born.

It’s funny how some novels start out. Sometimes there’s a sensible linear journey that begins with an idea, proceeds to draft, and then becomes an edited, finished product. Nothing could be simpler. Sometimes it’s a lot messier than that. The Memory Game is one of those messy novels.

bikeLike many of the books I’ve released this year, The Memory Game started life while I was doing my creative writing degree between 2006 and 2009. I remember sitting in a class and being handed a photo. From that photo, I was told, I had to create a scenario. My photo was of an abandoned bicycle. It looked forlorn to me, as though something really bad had happened to the owner. I decided that the owner was a boy on his paper round. It wasn’t hard for me to make the next connection, that the boy had been knocked from his bike by a car, because, as a teenager myself, I had worked as a paper girl and one of the boys who worked alongside me was killed by a car while out on his round one night. It was one of those deeply affecting events, one moment that changes your outlook on life forever. It was the first time I had encountered such a tragedy first-hand involving someone my own age. Suddenly, I understood that we weren’t as invincible as I had always believed. That memory came to the fore of my mind while looking at the photo in my creative writing class that day. The next thing that happened in my story scenario was that the boy was telling us about the way he had died.

I took the scrap of an idea home and wrote a short story. I sent the short story off to one or two competitions and was shortlisted for one in 2008. This version was called ‘Say Hello to the Living’ and was a much more darkly humorous tale, based on David (the protagonist’s) experiences of the afterlife. Buoyed by the small competition success, I decided to turn the story into a full length work, keeping the black humour, but I never ended up finishing it.

Sometime in 2012 I was reminded of the story while going through some old notebooks. It seemed the right time to dust it off, only this time, as I wrote and planned, it began to turn into something much grittier. New characters were added and a new central conflict in the form of Bethany. I wrote a novella length piece early in 2013 and a couple of writer friends very kindly read it for me and gave me feedback. Having had some experience of self-publishing by then with my Sky Song books and feeling fairly confident about it, I decided to go it alone and publish the book myself. I went back and re-drafted, fleshing out the story until it had become a more complex tale. That’s the version I’m sending out into the world on September 1st with my fingers and toes crossed that people will like it.

No heckling please, I’m only a poor author.

speechOn Monday I went along to a local school to talk about writing and publishing. I had been invited by the school librarian of Haywood Engineering College, a lovely lady who is as passionate about literature as anyone I have met (and she’s also named Sharon, which can only be good!). Sharon emailed me to ask whether I would be happy to talk to year seven. Talk to year seven? I can do that, I thought with a modicum of confidence. Two hundred year sevens, Sharon said. Ok, I can still do that, I thought, with slightly less confidence.

I made up cue cards so that I could remind myself of everything I wanted to say on my ten minute introductory talk. I carefully chose a passage of Runners to read that didn’t contain too much dialogue (doing voices is not my forte) and I rehearsed it. I thought about all the questions I might get asked at the Q&A afterwards.

Was I ready? Was I hell!

After a brief chat and a cuppa, lovely Sharon led me into the hall where I’d be meeting the kids. With row upon row of chairs laid out, it was at that point I realised that two hundred was a lot more than I’d imagined. It’s ok, I thought, I’ll keep it together. Then the kids started to file in, a class at a time. I was getting more nervous with each row of chairs that filled. Then I was introduced and it was time to talk!

In the hours beforehand, I had carefully gone over a succinct and chronologically correct version of my life and career, I had even prepared a few jokes to throw in, and the reminders for each bit were on my cue cards. But as I started to talk, my brain decided that it couldn’t read cue cards – I kept looking at them but the words on there didn’t mean anything. My clever little introductory chat turned into an outpouring of breakneck speed and I missed almost everything important out, especially my jokes. We were supposed to view the Runners trailer next but as we all know that technology hates me, the sound wouldn’t work. We went to a reading instead, which I’m sure I rushed through even quicker than the intro, and then went back to the trailer (phew, a break!) and then came the Q&A. This was where it got fun!

I loved the question and answer session. I was really worried that none of the audience would have anything to ask me and we’d be staring each other down in some sort of High Noon scenario, but I needn’t have been. The kids were fantastic, hands shot up all over the place with brilliant and funny questions (are you rich, are you famous, how long does it take to write a book, will you write a book with me in it?) and before I knew it I was bouncing around the hall like an over-excited chicken trying to not to miss anyone and trying to come up with the best answers I could.

The school very kindly supplied lunch (yum, good choice by Sharon) then I went into a class to help with a creative writing session. We took our cue from the Runners extract I had read out to talk about dystopia and utopia and, once again, the discussions and ideas coming from the kids were lively and interesting and in some cases hilarious. I haven’t had so much fun in ages.

I felt so welcomed by the school, its children and staff, that I needn’t have been worried or nervous. Next time I do an author talk I’ll be ready to enjoy it.  A big thanks goes out to Haywood year seven for being amazing!

Can you learn how to be a writer?

As most of you know, I studied creative writing at university. A few people have asked me recently whether I think you need to study formally to be a good writer. This question will be even more pertinent when I go to a local high school on Monday to talk to two hundred twelve-year-olds about a career in writing and publishing. I figured I had better give it some thought!

It’s a more complex answer than a simple yes or no. Studying creative writing at that level has certainly made me more aware of everything I do as a writer. Before, I knew a good story when I read one, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what made it so in a way that was meaningful, technically. I could probably write a half decent one too, but I wouldn’t really understand what I was doing and whether it was working or not. My degree taught me about genres, literary tropes and motifs, about narrators and voices and points of view. It has made me understand the mechanics of the craft, how to utilise style and structure, how to choose the best words to elicit emotion. For me, it was a useful process and I think I’m a far better writer for it. You would think that would make the answer to the question of whether you can learn how to write a resounding ‘yes’. But, clearly, there are incredibly talented authors out there who understand all this with no formal training; they do these things instinctively with, perhaps, no clear insight into the process. So, maybe then, that’s a no.

Little old me! The hat kept falling off but after a couple of glasses of Pimms it didn't seem to matter.

Little old me! The hat kept falling off but after a couple of glasses of Pimms it didn’t seem to matter.

The most important thing I took away from my degree, ironically, was self-belief – only a smidgen, but all that was needed to make me actually finish a novel with a view to publication. Though I spent years making up stories, I never showed them to anyone. Doing well in my degree, receiving great feedback and support from students and tutors alike, did more to drive me towards writing to be read than anything else I can think of. The journey I’m on now all started at that crucial point. Perhaps, from that perspective, leaning to be confident is more important than learning to write. The other thing my degree course did was make me some fantastic friends who are as passionate about the written word as I am, and tutors I also consider to be lifelong friends who still support me as a writer now. I know that an online writing community exists and it is a strong and supportive one, but I treasure these first connections.

For me, my time at university was precious and over too quickly; it taught me so much about my craft. It’s not for everyone, I know, but I don’t think I would be where I am now without it. It might not make you a better writer, but it sure is fun!

Book blogging from an author’s perspective – Terry Tyler shares her thoughts

me meTerry is an author I’ve got to know recently on Twitter.  She currently has five contemporary novels on Amazon.  I asked her what her thoughts were on approaching bloggers from an author’s point of view, and this is what she had to say:

Most importantly, look at the submisson guidelines.  It’s classic advice, and has been said over and over again, but bloggers say that it’s still not always followed.  If they say no novellas, don’t ask them to read your novella.  If they say no erotica, don’t send them erotica – etc!

This might seem obvious, but some newly published writers might not know about it – I didn’t!  Make sure you download the mobi copy from your Amazon account page – you go into ‘Bookshelf’ and ‘reports’ and download the review copy – this is what you send to reviewers.

I’ve been reviewed on quite a few book blogs; sometimes they’ve just read and reviewed one of my books without me asking, which is always a lovely surprise.  Many of these I will ask to review subsequent works, but I always have my eye out for new reviewers.  There are new book blogs springing up every day.  What I do is this – every time a book blogger follows me on Twitter, I have a quick look to see if they review my sort of books, and if they do I tweet or DM them to say thanks for following, and say that if they’d like to review one of mine to let me know and I’ll send them a review copy.  I then put the link to my Amazon page so they can have a look at my books.  Quite often they’ll come back to me and say, yes, I’d like to review The Other Side, or whatever.  Then we swap emails and I send it!  If I come across a blog that looks good but does not review my genre, I keep it in mind to refer to other people.

Book reviewers are doing a marvellous thing for you by reading and reviewing your book on their blog.  They usually put the review on Amazon and Goodreads, too – they’re worth their weight in gold!  So remember that it’s not only about your book, it’s about their blog, too, which they want to become widely read.  Follow their blog, go to their Twitter page and RT their other reviews, maybe tweet about their blog, like they’ve tweeted about your book.  If a book comes out by a friend of yours that you think would be good for their site, you can refer that friend to them.

As far as approaching them in the first place goes, I would say that it’s pretty much common sense…..  I’ve usually chatted to mine on Twitter a bit anyway, so it’s more informal, but some have forms to fill in – again, give them exactly what they ask for.  If they only ask for a 20 word synopsis of the book, don’t send a 200 word paragraph.  Some of them give an email address – I’d say make it friendly but not too casual ( I mean no lols, perish the thought!!!), ask what their waiting list is like, tell them what genre the book is and how long it is, and provide the Amazon link.  Keep it short and to the point, with no superfluous information, as they probably have lots to wade through.  If they state on the blog that their review will not necessarily be a positive one, and you can’t take anything less than positive comments, ask if they will let you know if they don’t like it.  Finally, don’t hassle them – if they don’t reply, take it as read that they don’t want to review your book.  It won’t be anything personal, they’re probably just snowed under!

Terry Tyler lives in the north east of England with her husband, and has five novels on Amazon – she writes contemporary fiction about many very current issues, such as internet dating, the people one meets on social networking sites, addiction, infidelity, family breakdown, the quest for celebrity – and even a spot on The Jeremy Kyle show!  Her sixth novel should be out around September.  Terry also has a blog, on which she writes about a variety of subjects, from The Truth About Getting Old, to Why All Writers Need A Proofreader, to a nostalgic look at the comics and magazines of the 1970s – all comments welcome! Check out Terry’s website or her Amazon author page.

Meet Bookshelf Butterfly and find out what she loves about book blogging.

IMG_0740I’m not even going to go into where I first met the lovely Faye, but it has something to do with little birds and social networking.  She blogs about a wide variety of books on her very pretty blog (which happens to coordinate with the Not of Our Sky cover beautifully!).  This is what she had to say in response to the questions I posed about blogging etiquette:

Name your top 5 peeves from author review requests

All the authors that have approached me have all been kind and relaxed about the process. Although nearly all the publishers I have dealt with are awesome there have been some negative sides:

  • Not so subtly trying to enforce a time limit for reviews after they have sent a book – I have other books to read too!
  • Trying to force a book on you that you have already politely declined
  • Bothering you about a review and then not responding to you after you tweet/email them said review

Can’t think of any more… sorry!

The same genre can encompass many different types of story – for example, fantasy ranges from Terry Pratchett to Twilight and everything in between. How hard is it to remain objective in your review if a feature of a book doesn’t float your boat? Say you get a fantasy about unicorns and unicorns are just not your bag, how does that influence your opinion?  

I find it really hard to blatantly criticise someone’s hard work so I try and find out about the book before I read it. As with every book there are good points and bad points so in case of books that don’t amaze me I try and focus on the points I liked best.

What are your feelings on the growing army of indie authors? How does the quality of their work hold up against traditionally published? Do you accept reviews from both and what would it take to change your mind on your current policy?

I think indie authors are brave. As an aspiring author myself, I think that if you have a story in you to tell, then you are entitled to put it out into the world, whether through traditional publishers or otherwise. I think traditionally published books can sometimes be more polished than some indie work I have seen but in terms of great stories; I think many indie authors can definitely hold their own against more mainstream competition; it’s just a case of publicity. So far I have done a few indie reviews and if an indie book appeals to me, I will continue to do them in the future.

Describe your reviewing schedule. How many hours do you put in a week/ day? How does this impact on other aspects of your life?

Once I’ve read a book I write up the review in a notebook, ready for editing and typing up, usually in the evenings. Reading is a huge part of my life anyway and I fit writing in between work shifts and having a social life. Some weeks I read more than others, so I can save some reviews for the weeks that I haven’t had time, but I always aim for at least two posts a week. My social life and my blogging life are miles apart so I always make separate time for both.

What started you book blogging? What makes you continue to do it?

I toyed with the idea of a blog for ages and couldn’t decide what to write about. I thought it would give me a chance to practice my writing and that it would be a good addition to my CV. I decided on books because books and reading are hugely important to me and I wanted to write about what genuinely interested me. Since I started Bookshelf Butterfly I’ve come across some wonderful, like-minded people and I get to have great bookish conversations. It is really satisfying to be thanked by an author for taking the time to read their work, or getting positive feedback from a reader who has discovered a book because of what you have written. I hope to add more features, meet more people and keep discovering more amazing stories that I might never have been able to if I hadn’t started blogging.

You can follow Bookshelf Butterfly and keep up with the latest review posts on Twitter or Facebook or go directly to her lovely site.

Victoria Loves Books… really, she does! And she’s all chatty about her new venture into the world of blogging.

Victoria is a terrifically chatty tweeter and a delight to know.  She’s a raving Potterhead too, so that makes her extremely cool in my book!  She only stared blogging very recently but reads like lightning and is currently averaging something like a book a minute (not even joking) in a variety of genres (ok, possibly I’m exaggerating).  This is what she had to say in response to my questions about blogging and reviewing:

photoHello, my name is Victoria Stone, I’m 26, married and have two children. My biggest passion in life other than my family is reading and baking 🙂
I am fairly new to blogging (started on May 1st 2013) and have found a real passion for it. I will read anything, I think everything deserves a go. Have found some real gems by breaking away from what I would normally read, crime/horror.

Name your top 5 peeves from author review requests

Being new to blogging I haven’t had many review requests from authors, but the ones I have received I haven’t really been to unhappy with. As any requests they have I’ve just been too ecstatic that I have even been asked to review their book.

The same genre can encompass many different types of story – for example, fantasy ranges from Terry Pratchett to Twilight and everything in between. How hard is it to remain objective in your review if a feature of a book doesn’t float your boat? Say you get a fantasy about unicorns and unicorns are just not your bag, how does that influence your opinion?  

I like to give anything a go. I used to instantly dismiss books if it was something I had no interest in or wasn’t “real” to life, for example Harry Potter, I refused for years because magic wasn’t real and childish. After giving in I fell completely and utterly in love with the whole story, so now I at least try anything. If I really don’t get on with something because it isn’t really “my thing” I like to think I would still give a good review. I would try to give positive feedback for the people that do enjoy the things I personally don’t, whilst still being honest that it didn’t suit my tastes.

What are your feelings on the growing army of indie authors? How does the quality of their work hold up against traditionally published? Do you accept reviews from both and what would it take to change your mind on your current policy?

I never really read self-published work until Christmas (when I got my kindle) and even now that’s very limited, as I really do love to hold a real book, (I don’t get on with my kindle).
But after reading some recent self-published books I can honestly say I have fallen in love with the world my kindle has opened up! I have found some fantastic stories that I think are just as good if not better than some traditionally published books. I think it is all down to personal opinion really. I would happily accept book reviews for either, even more so since discovering some very good books.

Describe your reviewing schedule. How many hours do you put in a week/ day? How does this impact on other aspects of your life?

Being a very new blog, I’m not posting everyday, especially juggling my two young babies. They take priority over everything else. But as soon as I finish a book I will review it while it is fresh in my head. I also get sent or find pictures about books that I like to share on there too, just for fun 🙂
I’m hoping to get a review up everyday or other day in the future though as I can get through a book rather quickly.

What started you book blogging? What makes you continue to do it?

I set up a twitter account in February and met other bloggers through it. After spending a lot of my time tweeting about books and recommending books I enjoyed, someone noticed just how fast I was reading. They then suggested I start a blog. I didn’t take it too seriously at first thinking only my husband would read it out of duty. Then someone else mentioned it so I looked into it and decided on a whim to give it a try. And the reason I still do it is because I absolutely love it, I love it when someone tells me they ordered a book through a review I did. It makes me proud and very excited that I’ve found something that I truly love doing.

Follow Victoria on Twitter or check out her beautiful, shiny website.

Reviewing Books, Avoiding Right-hooks

For regular visitors to the blog, this fella needs no introduction!  I first met Jack on Twitter at the end of 2012 and was immediately intrigued by a YA book he was writing.  Tethers has since been released to rave reviews and I’ve personally read it twice.  I’m very tempted to launch a one woman crusade to campaign for compulsory copies in schools!  So, this is what Jack had to say when I asked him about his book reviewing habits:

jackI’ve always loved reading, and one thing that every bookish-type knows all too well is that, once you’ve read an amazing book, you want to shout its name from the rooftops and force everyone you know to delve into its pages.

Of course, cornering colleagues, friends, loved ones or vague acquaintances, and then ranting loudly about how their lives are hollow and meaningless until they have read a particular book is not always the best way to go about things. Nope, I’ve found that out the hard way; for some strange reason my eighty-year-old gran just doesn’t want to read about teenagers pumping led in hoards of shambling zombies, even when I tell her that the book is, at its core, a complex study of dystopian humanity – weirdo.

But, thankfully, there is another way. Writing a review of a book you’ve enjoyed is a great way to channel your enthusiasm for a worthy novel without risking either the sack, restraining orders, or being disinherited. Writing a review is so often a process of love. You want to do the book you’ve read justice, and so you try and produce a piece of writing which is as fluent and as reflective as possible. And then through promotion on social media and other means, interested readers can find the review themselves without you risking a butt-kicking.

As an author myself, I remember I initially approached judging other people’s books with generous helpings of both apprehension and unease. So far, I’ve only written one book (and I’ll be the first to admit that it probably won’t ever become a best-selling classic), who am I to tell other writers whether their stuff is any good or not? Well the answer is that I probably have both no right and every right, but more importantly, it doesn’t matter. Writing reviews is about sharing the books you love, and inspiring other people to take a chance on something. On top of that we authors need reviews; we need book reviewers to spread the word about our books, and to help us reach an audience. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship that seems to be becoming more and more important.

So, whilst I do still feel slightly uncomfortable with reviewing other authors’ books, I’m so glad I do because I absolutely need to talk about great stories – it’s something I’ve been doing all my life. Now, where’s my gran at …tethpurp-211x300

Author of the YA Victorian fantasy, Tethers (http://amzn.to/WRf4vI), Jack Croxall reviews books over at www.jackcroxall.co.uk as well as various other sites. He can also be found on twitter via @JackCroxall.