I’ve asked Nat to help me in the past, and loved her input. Nat introduced me at my latest book launch (back in 2019, when we had actual book launches!)
Today I’m asking Natalie to share some advice for creative people about the business of their creativity.
It’s not enough, as we know, to write a book. For example, the book needs a pitch and its author needs a bio. There is a business attached to storytelling.
In today’s blog, Nat is going to take us through some exercises to help us discover who we are – what values stand behind our creativity. Nat also shares some activities to help writers define who they are and what they have to share.
THE BUSINESS OF WRITING
Writing for business is not the same as writing for creativity or self-expression.
As an author or writer you’re probably well versed in the latter. But if you want to get those words out into the world, at some point, you might need to think of yourself as a creative business.
That means developing a profile and talking about yourself with a brand story. Which might feel like sticking pins in your eyes. So, here’s a few tips for when you get stuck developing your bio or preparing the perfect pitch.
Accept the challenge
Talking about yourself to sell your work is difficult. Possibly unnatural. If you’re struggling to write about you, understand that that this block is not a reflection of your writing capabilities. It’s the tricky human dance between hubris and humility. Many people feel challenged by this task, so acknowledge the difficulty and give yourself time and space to have a go.
Brain dump words
Let your ego off the leash. Without overthinking it jot down an intuitive list of words that describe your work, or how you’d like to be thought of by others. Come back to the list. Feel into the words and whittle them down. Circle the most important 30. Then cull it to your top 20. Be the ruthless editor of your own story. Repeat, to get it down to three words. Use these as themes for your bio.
Draft multiple bios
If it starts to feel like you’re pigeon-holing yourself, try writing in different styles. Write a free range playful version. Then go for bureaucratic and perfunctory (a few games of buzzword bingo will introduce you to the industry lingo). You can also give yourself word length exercises. Write 50, 150 and 300 word versions. Deposit them in your bio bank, then access the appropriate version to fit the context.
Nail your narrative
Distil your work into 30 words. Nail your narrative in the most succinct way. Another option is to pitch it to a room full of ten year olds (real or pretend). Get over any idea that this is ‘dumbing down’. Conveying your work simply does not detract from the complexity of the ideas. This exercise can help you to step back out of your mind forest to see the wood for the trees.
Stage an interview
Sometimes we need prompts or an outsider to help us see what’s buried below the surface. Call in a friend or colleague to ‘interview’ you about your writing style, background or project. The ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ questions are useful starting points. But it’s often the follow-up questions or conversation that strips away the layers to uncover a gold nugget of wisdom or insight.
Create the momentum
You know how to plot a narrative arc or chart character development. So you’ve got directional skills. You can map possibilities and assess which routes to take. See what happens when your writing career becomes the subject and you put those transferrable skills to work. Make decisions about what you want to achieve and determine what’s needed to get there. Give yourself goals and deadlines.
Some folks don’t want to consider themselves business people, because it’s at odds with the noble artist motif. But if you want to find an audience or make a living as a writer, you might want to get over that. You don’t need to compromise your integrity to tout your wares. It’s just a different type of writing that requires a shift in mindset, a commitment to your work, and a little bit of practice.
Thank you so much, Nat, for these pointers on business writing for creatives. That was – and will be – really useful! More power to you.
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about reading happily, and how to choose a book that was most likely to please you. That was Part One of my meanderings about How to be Happy with Book (click the link if you’d like to refresh your memory about that).
First, a reminder about the things I consider when faced with that delicious choice – which book next:
Clare’s three questions for being happy with a book:
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
Today’s post looks at the second list of criteria. That is, does the chosen book deliver what you expected? Let’s look at the writing quality and think about whether the book matches its promise.
Writing Quality Matters
There is no escaping the readerly expectation that books should be well-written and well-edited. We expect nothing less.
We like the book to look and feel good in our hands or on our screens. I talked about covers last time, and I want to add that I often look again at the cover while I’m reading. Does the cover represent a specific scene? Perhaps it shows me what a character looks like. Maybe it simply sets the mood.
If you don’t refer often to the cover, or you’re not really into visual mood-setting, this may not bother you. But…
When a cover doesn’t match what’s inside in any of those ways, I feel let down.
What is it about good writing? To me, it’s a bit like listening to speech. When I was a speech pathologist, I used all sorts of cues and markers to diagnose speech problems. However, most listeners wouldn’t even hear what I was hearing. For example, it’s not until a speaker is less than 96% fluent that ordinary listeners might think they are stuttering.
The same with writing. I have studied the craft, and although there are much better editors than I am, I can spot writing problems – especially in other people’s writing! Not so much in my own… Many readers will be made uncomfortable by ungrammatical writing or too many swear words. They may not be able to pinpoint the problem, but they will say that the book is not well-written, and they will ditch it.
For us writers, getting it right means endless rounds of editing and polishing.
Poor layout and frequent typos present another barrier to the enjoyment of a story.
To some extent this is due to the disruption of the publishing industry and the rise of self-publishing. But that’s a long discussion for another day.
If typos and shoddy layout don’t bother you, you’ll be fine with anything. That’s not what I hear or see in the world of books, though.
Let’s just say that too many typos are a big turn off for dedicated readers. Look at the review websites to see the loathing. Hmm.
Sometimes it’s wonderful to be surprised, sometimes not. The example I often use is the Game of Thrones (GOT) fantasy series.
Millions of readers were enthralled about the reversal of the typical storyline of the genre, thrilled by the way the story played with fantasy conventions, and excited by loads of extraneous sex and violence that raised the stakes higher and higher. Other readers not so much, because they invested heavily in Ned Stark and felt short-changed.
I’m not going to decree whether meeting or flouting expectations is good or bad. However, if you particularly want a certain type of reading (such as a happily-ending Regency romance), you probably shouldn’t choose one with zombies included.
When to DNF
I try my very best not to choose books that I can’t finish. As I said previously, a DNF is a disappointment for both the reader and the author. I can generally judge whether I’m going to enjoy the book by using all the cues I mentioned in the first post about How to be Happy With a Book, and reading the first page/few pages/chapter.
I am so excited when I realise that YES, this book is going to be fabulous!
I hope you get that feeling often too.
Next time, let’s talk about how to reflect on the book … and a little bit about reviewing.
Clare Urbanski is a fantasy author and Twitter-certified villain fangirl. She’s managed to confuse and alienate many a friend who can’t understand why she always falls for the brooding villains instead of the courageous heroes, or why she always wants to play villains even though no director ever casts her as one. On top of that, she can’t find any fictional villains who will date her. As such, she’s had to settle for creating fictional villains of her own, ignoring the temptation to give them all happy endings.
Hello, it’s so nice to meet another Clare! We should form a club…No, onto more important things. What was your favourite book as a child?
Clare: The Truth Cookie by Fiona Dunbar. I still love that book. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of emotional family struggles—which the main character does use magic to solve, but very much through her own initiative.
It’s really well-written, I agree, and a great premise. What about creative writing courses – do you think they are valuable?
Totally depends on the instructor and what you need. If it’s all about craft and doesn’t involve practical feedback at all, that can be helpful to extreme beginners. Instructors who impose their own preferences on you and give you bad grades for not being Ernest Hemingway shouldn’t be allowed to teach creative writing, but they can help you develop a thick skin if nothing else. The kind of course I recommend is the kind that’s basically a workshop guided by the instructor’s expertise. I’d argue those are useful for everyone.
Workshopping is a wonderful resource for any writer, I think. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Someone once told me Sixth in Line was like “Crime and Punishment times seven.” (Dostoyevski’s) Crime and Punishment happens to be one of my favourite books, and I definitely wasn’t purposely trying to imitate it, but I was absolutely delighted by both the compliment and the realisation that Sixth in Line actually does take a bit of a jab at the übermensch philosophy. I guess Dostoyevsky and I both hate it. No one is special enough to be above consequences!
I’m all in favour of undermining the übermensch! What’s your favourite writing food and drink?
I actually have this nasty habit of not eating or drinking at all when I get on a good writing streak. I remember texting my writer friend once saying “HELP I’VE BEEN WRITING FOR THREE HOURS STRAIGHT AND I JUST WROTE A REALLY DISTURBING SCENE AND IT’S ALMOST 9 PM AND I HAVEN’T EATEN SINCE NOON PLEASE TELL ME I’M NOT INSANE.” Not sure how she puts up with me.
Ah, you do like olive dangerously! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I was in fifth grade. I used to be super into those Bailey School Kids books, and I remember being very disappointed to discover that not every type of fantastical creature I liked was featured in the series. Then, suddenly, one day I thought, “What if I wrote a book about the ones they missed?” And as soon as I realized nothing was stopping me, that’s exactly what I did. (I still have that one. My mom printed out all 150 pages for me and everything. Not a bad achievement for an eleven-year-old… which is the only thing that’s kept me from burning it. It is exceptionally, prodigiously terrible.)
Ha! Lucky for me, my early efforts are long-lost. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
Anyone who knew me as a child: Oh, are you still writing?
Anyone: [Remembering cute story about plucky middle school detective girls and the evil fairies’ labyrinth of doom] So what have you been working on?
Me: Well, I just finished a novel narrated by a serial killer…
Me: And I’m editing one about a teenage prince having a mental breakdown over all the deaths in his family…
Anyone: [Runs away]
That’s hilarious! Where do you write?
Actually, for me it helps to move around. For some reason I focus better if I don’t write in the same place twice. I’ve gotten a surprising amount of writing done in very non-romantic places, like while riding the city bus or trapped in the lobby of a Russian hotel (long story).
Ooh, perhaps another book about the Russian hotel…Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
The most random places you could imagine. I did some excellent character development once by walking into a Walgreen’s to get out of the cold while I was waiting for the bus. The only money I had on me was a dollar in quarters, and since I was bored waiting I decided to search the store for anything I could buy with that. Unfortunately I was extremely hungry, and it was torture looking at all the candy when I could only afford an eraser. My mind immediately jumped to one of my main characters from a work in progress, an ex-criminal. I pictured him walking through his local market as a twelve-year-old, doing the same thing I was, but knowing full well he and his mom would go hungry that night if he couldn’t find anything cheap enough. Suddenly I understood exactly how his thieving habit started.
That’s very clever, and a kind of method-acting way of getting inside your character. I like it. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
It might be funnier to tell you who I wouldn’t suggest. I think the absolute worst candidates would probably be 1. the Jack of Spades, the villain’s sidekick from Queen of Spades, and 2. Crystal, the main character’s twin sister from Hero of the Hinterland. They’re both an incredibly dangerous combination of powerful (in combat and magic, respectively) and spectacularly socially inept. You don’t want to be the one to accidentally make them feel threatened.
I will keep that in mind! Eek. *looks over shoulder in case a magic villain has materialised* Who helped you most when you were starting out?
My parents had this one friend who used to read my works in progress when I was in high school. Every time he came over I would print out a chapter or two for him, and he read every single one of them. Considering how terrible I think those high school projects are now, I actually get a little teary thinking about how kindly and generously he encouraged and supported me by being my first “fan.”
That’s a lovely memory. Early constructive support is very important, I think, more so than early criticism or corrections. Thanks for speaking with me Clare – and adding yet more to my long ‘want to read’ list.
Real people living though unprecedented times – sound familiar? This is what author Louise Fein brings to life in her novel People Like Us (see my review of this wonderful book here). Inspired by her family’s real life travels and tribulations, Louise looked at the historic events of Nazi Germany from both sides, creating wonderful characters who will resonate with readers. How can such things happen to ‘people like us’?
Welcome, Louise, lovely to speak with again. I see mention of your novel everywhere such as in the latest issue of the Historical Novel Society journal. I’m so glad to see it getting the attention it richly deserves. You came to writing later, after studying your masters – what advice would you give an aspiring writer?
LOUISE: My advice is: persist, persist, persist. Writing is a long game, so don’t be in too much of a hurry. Read as widely as possible, it’s the best and most vital way to becoming a writer. Set yourself easily achievable targets. Ones which don’t seem too daunting. You most likely have a job or busy life around which you must write, so at the end of a long day, you probably won’t want the prospect of writing 2,000 words. But, if you set a target of just 500 words a day, four days a week, you will easily have a first draft within a year. A comfortable target means you are less likely to bail or procrastinate. Then, once you have a first draft, even if it’s terrible (and most, certainly mine, are) you will have something to rewrite, edit and polish. Only when it is as good as you can get it, should you consider sending it out.
Yes, I agree, and I’d probably add that you need to put it aside for a little before sending. How much research is involved in your writing?
A lot! I am currently writing historical fiction, so it’s a huge part of the process. For People Like Us, I travelled to Leipzig twice to conduct in depth research there; I read everything I could get my hands on about Leipzig in the 1930s, as well as fiction and non-fiction set in that time period. I listened to people’s recollections, read contemporaneous diaries, letters, official documents and even Mein Kampf, to really understand the mindset of the Nazis. My current novel is set in 1920s England and I’m having to do just as much research for that, although a totally different subject matter. Luckily I love the research part of the job.
Can’t wait to see the new one! I guess that’s part of your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I am in the editing cycle for my second novel. I am excited for this book, but can’t say too much about it at present. I am also thinking ahead to my third book, and doing some early research for that. I have a setting for it, a premise and rough outline of a story, which is how I usually start. The early research is quite general but helps me to hone the story. I will then write a pretty rough first draft which will be a chance for me to explore my characters and story lines. Most of it will end up being ditched, but it’s part of the process. When I write the second draft, I will do more specific and detailed research as required. I will finesse and add depth and detail to the storyline. I will do at least three drafts, probably, before I feel ready to submit to my agent and editor. There will be further edits after that following their input.
And that process is why your writing is so good! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
Before I started my master’s degree, I didn’t know any other writers. Through the course, I soon had a core group of writing friends and we continued to meet up long after the course had finished to critique each other’s work and to support each other in our journey to publication. Since getting my publishing deal, I have met a great many other writers, both virtually and in reality. They are, in my experience, THE most supportive, generous and lovely group of people who cheerlead each other. Writing is a lonely job and chatting to others who understand the writing life is crucial for me!
I find the #writingcommunity wonderful! Do you belong to a book club?
I belong to three! Reading is my passion and I also love chatting to likeminded people about books.
Three book clubs! That’s very keen. Where do you write?
I am very lucky in that I live in a 400-year-old converted watermill. In the garden we have an Elizabethan barn (dating back 500 years), beneath which runs a small stream, and which used to house a horse and some farm equipment. It has been converted into a library-style writing office, where I have my desk, a rug, couple of sofas and shelves full of books. I share the barn with some tiny birds who nest in the rafters and the odd bat! It is wonderfully peaceful and the perfect place for creativity, although, despite being heated, it is a little cold in the winter! My dog always accompanies me, curling up and sleeping in her basket at my feet while I type. Walking with her helps me solve many a plot hitch.
Writers and their dogs – a heavenly match. If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
I think I would have to choose Erna. She is the best friend of my main character, Hetty. Erna is incredibly brave, selfless and a brilliant friend. We get to know Hetty in the book very well, having access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It would be great to know more about the lovely Erna.
I loved Erna, she’s great character. Do you send out a newsletter to readers?
I do. I send a quarterly newsletter to my readers who sign up to my website: www.louisefein.com You will receive a free WWII themed short story if you sign up and I promise, I won’t spam you!
That sounds like a wonderful deal! All the best, Louise, and let us know when Book #2 is here!
In these days of lockdowns and revisiting old pastimes such as board games, knitting and baking, many of us* have been doing more reading. But are we enjoying our books?
*Well, not me, because I am a lifetime book addict and I can’t see how I could possibly do more reading. At least as long as eating and personal hygiene remain important.
How to be Happy with a Book PART ONE
I write books, and I love the fact that complete strangers read and review them – reviews are a kind of currency among authors. Most authors also read a lot, and a second aspect of my writing practice is book reviewing. To me, ‘book review’ = ‘book critique’ where ‘critique’ = ‘analysis and assessment of a book, including virtues and shortcomings’. In this series of posts, I want to talk more how to choose books better so that you spend more time reading books that suit you, and waste less time on the DNF* stories. This is about finding a book that makes YOU, dear reader, happy.
*DNF = Did Not Finish. A disappointment to the reader, and a cruel blow to any author…
As a reviewer, I see my task as working out which readers would like this book, and then telling them why. I don’t see the need to find fault, because I know that different readers like different things (gore, violence, swearing, romance, magic, philosophy, spirituality – you name it!). It’s a rare book, in my experience, that has nothing for anyone. I concentrate on finding out what’s good about this book, for which readers – hence the title of this series: how to be happy with a book.
As well as book reviews in print, there are also many online platforms to share our thoughts about books. Some readers check Goodreads reviews before they buy; others look at the Amazon scores. Authors sift through their reviews for good quotes to use on their book descriptions and some book bloggers check what everyone else thought about a particular book before they weigh in on one side or the other.
Reviews are not always positive, and authors are advised not to read reviews.* While it’s a fact that not every reader will love our books, we still like to see what others think.
*We do (read reviews of our books)
I read and review about 80 books a year. You might think that’s a lot, but it’s perhaps a quarter of the books I’d like to read each year. How do I choose the ones that will please me best?
Clare’s three criteria for being happy with a book:
Do I want to read this book? … cover, genre, look & feel, reputation
Is the book well written and appropriate to its genre? … writing quality, genre stylistics, expression, editing, production values
Was this book a success? … thoughts about plotline, characterisation, suspension of disbelief, resolution, afterglow
This post is Part One: choosing a book*
*I’m imagining that you have strolled into a bookshop or library, or you are scrolling online, just browsing for something to read. If you are looking for a specific author or title, you are way ahead.
First, look at the cover: The old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover has lost most of its power now that book production is streamlined with access to high resolution images, huge banks of attractive fonts, and the growing language of cover art. You will know what kind of book it is by the look of the cover. For example, a cover that features the back view of a young woman walking away from us into a dark street will be a crime thriller. The cover with the hovering dragon will be a fantasy. The cover with the pretty blue and pink border around a scenic view will be a romance, and the cover with the little white cottage surrounded by a flower garden is probably a cosy mystery.
Add to this the helpful work of bookshop staff and librarians who shelve novels under genre categories*, and you should recognise immediately what kind of book you are looking at, even before you pick it up.
*Genres are often imposed by libraries and bookshops. Many authors, myself included, just write the next story that comes along. Then we have to propose that story to a publisher, who wants to know ‘what genre’? Good question!
You, dear reader, now have a decision to make. Do you like reading this genre? Perhaps you have never read anything in this genre and you’d like to try it. Are you going to pick up this book, turn it over and read the blurb? If the book looks promising so far, then onwards!
Next, read the blurb: The blurb is part of the cover. Often written by a marketing staffer, sometimes by a bemused author, the blurb conveys the essence of the book in a way meant to entice the reader. The relationship of the blurb to the contents is not fixed. The blurb is as accurate as the ad for your local pizza chain. Do they serve the best pizzas in your town? The answer will be different for each reader, or pizza eater as the case my be. The blurb is to ‘sell’ the book to you, not to summarise the story.
Then check out the inside: The look and feel of a book is important too, especially in physical books. The artwork, the paper weight, the font, the ink quality, the layout – all of these can have an effect on your reading experience. I find that the font and layout of e-books is important too, and the quality of the illustrations is paramount for graphic novels in electronic form. I would usually read the first paragraph too, to see if the style of writing is one I can easily engage with.
Reputation: Have you heard of this title? Heard of the author? Heard of the publisher? What about any recommendations printed on the cover or on the inside? What do these things tell you about this book – do you think you’re likely to agree with the puff statements? Maybe you’re looking for an Australian book, or a quick read, or an elevating challenge. You can usually discover quite a lot about a book without even reading its first page.
PART ONE SUMMARY:
So, we’ve had a look at the book and we should now be able to decide whether or not to give it a go. Remember, our goal is to have a happy reading experience. I don’t mind passing on a book that others rave about, if my reconnaissance tells me it’s not going to make me happy. After all, I can only do justice to 80 books a year!
Next time, I’ll look at Part Two: Is the book well written?
English writer Alec Marsh writes dramatic thrillers set in the 1930s. He’s the author of the new soon-to-be-classic Drabble & Harris adventure series. Ernest Drabble is a mountaineering Cambridge historian and his partner Harris is an old school friend and press reporter. These two have all the dash and wit they need to solve mysteries and throws spanners into the works of bad folks.
Alec started his writing career on the Western Morning News in Cornwall, and then went on to write for titles including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Times and London Evening Standard. In 2008 he was named an editor of the year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. He is now the editor of Spear’s Magazine, a title focused on luxury lifestyle. He is married and lives with his family in west London.
Alec’s debut novel RULE BRITANNIA was released in 2019 and the second novel in the series, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, will be published this September.
Welcome to last Word of the Week, Alec, and thank you for coming along to chat about your books and your writing. Looking at your bio, I can see that you have been writing all your life. Why is writing important to you?
Alec: I can only imagine that it’s the same for a lot of writers and most people on some level. But since the earliest time I can remember I’ve been telling stories – either to myself or others, but mostly I would think to myself. And it becomes a habit that drives an urge that leads decades later to hard-drives being filled with words. So I think for me it’s pretty hard-wired.
A born storyteller! That usually goes with voracious reading. What was your favourite book as a child?
I adored Hornblower; CS Forester’s nautical series set during the Napoleonic war; I also loved – perhaps more and in very much the same vein – the Richard Bolitho series written by Douglas Reeman, under his ‘other’ name of Alexander Kent. Years later I had the pleasure of interviewing Reeman. He was exceptionally generous with his time, clearly spotted me as a fan, too, and was quietly inspirational: he told me how he would get into his car during his lunchbreaks as a young man and write with his typewriter on his knees. I’ve often thought of him since, when I’ve been sitting in Pret-a-Manger with my laptop, eating a sandwich…
Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Absolutely. I did a one day screen-writing course in Newcastle when I was a student there and learnt a huge amount in just a few hours. I still remember being terrified. Later on I was tempted by the Creative Writing MA at East Anglia university but in the end I decided I would keep working and writing around work. With my first published novel, RULE BRITANNIA, I got some advice from a literary consultancy. Books like EM Forster’s Aspects of the Novel offer important advice and insight for writers. Arguably just reading the best that’s out there is the most important thing.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
I asked Martin Amis for his advice once at a literary festival. ‘Just keep writing,’ he said. It didn’t seem very profound in the moment he said it, or repeated it. But it was – and it worked for me. I once asked Sir John Mortimer, creator of the Rumpole of Bailey series, what the secret to a great comic novel was. ‘Making people laugh!’ he roared, laughing. Then he added an important point – words to the effect of: ‘If you can make yourself laugh while you’re doing it then you’ve got half a chance.’ And that’s true for any emotion you’re trying to generate, really.
I love your anecdotes of such great writers! Do you have a go-to routine for writing?
Not really. I work fulltime and have a young family so a great deal of my second novel, ENEMY OF THE RAJ, was actually written on the London Underground on my commute to and from work. A crowded Tube carriage is not ideal, but fortunately the book was not harmed. I’ve written in lunchbreaks, or after the kids have gone to bed. Quite often, on a Saturday morning I’ll get up early and head to a local café when it opens at 8am, and get in two hours then. That’s the best time.
How do you feel about reviews?
Be grateful for good ones and listen to the bad ones. Sometimes people go too far and make it personal. That can be upsetting. As a journalist it has made me think harder about the impact of what I write upon my subjects.
Yes, it does have that effect, which I think is a good thing. Whatever we write, we can think about the effect on readers. Has your work been compared to other writers?
The author most referenced by reviewers of RULE BRITANNIA is John Buchan. Stanley Johnson remarked that with the Drabble and Harris series Buchan ‘must be stirring uneasily in his grave’. It’s without doubt true that Buchan was something of an influence – The 39 Steps, Greenmantle; these are tales of personal hazard and adventure that generate an excitement for the reader that I very much wanted to ape.
Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
When I was 17 or18 I went on a school theatre trip to see Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s then new play. I had no idea how much of a big deal it was to see it (the first run with a star cast) but I came away thinking that I would very much like to do that. I also loved Oscar Wilde’s plays as a kid – anything really that demonstrated such verbal dexterity and wit. I was also fascinated by plays like Look Back in Anger, which are really very different. As a result my first efforts as a writer when I was at university were plays. One of these won a student competition which made me think there might be something in it. I switched to fiction after reading Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. I realised that you could bring the essential freshness of dialogue to life without the need of a theatre, and perhaps therefore have a more direct relationship with the reader.
Did you always plan to write historic fiction?
No, never. In fact I set out write the next great English novel. Eventually, after several failures, I listened to an old friend of mine who had been advising me for years to write historic fiction. ‘Alec,’ he would say, ‘you’re obsessed with the past, you should write about it.’ He was absolutely right. When I began writing what would become RULE BRITANNIA I knew immediately that I was on to something.
Is writer’s block a thing for you?
Absolutely. Knowing what comes next can be difficult. Quite often you run out of track and I often find my mind needs time to catch up. When this happens I go for a run, or more likely read around the topic or setting – tangential research – is the answer. Before you know it you’re raring to go again. The secret, if there is one, is to keep thinking ahead as you are writing, but that’s easier said than done.
True! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, Alec. Congratulations in the publication of Rule Britannia, and good fortune to you for Eneemy of the Raj!
Today I’m excited to share in celebrating the release of a new historical novel, set in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary QoS is one of the most intriguing women of the 16th century, inspiring a large body of fiction and drama, the latest being the movie Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan. Her story has so many facets to explore. I sometimes wonder how her experiences would look in a modern-day context, but am more than happy to read more about her in historical fiction.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown is being released today and is going directly to my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to interviewing Tonya later this year for Last Word of the Week, and discovering more about her historical fiction.
In the meantime….Look at the blurb! Look at the cover! Enjoy!
The Queen’s Almoner
Sometimes loyalty to the queen comes at a cost.
Thomas Broune is a Reformer and childhood friend of the young queen, Mary Stuart. When Mary embarks on a new life in her estranged homeland of Scotland, Thomas is there to greet her and offer his renewed friendship. But the long-time friends grow closer, and Thomas realizes his innocent friendship has grown into something more. Yet he is a man of the cloth. Mary is the queen of the Scots. Both of them have obligations of an overwhelming magnitude: he to his conscience and she to her throne.
When he must choose between loyalty to his queen or his quiet life away from her court, he finds that the choice comes at a high price. Driven by a sense of obligation to protect those he loves, and crippled by his inability to do so, Thomas must come to terms with the choices he has made and find a peace that will finally lay his failures to rest.
Australian author Mark Smith lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast, where he writes novels and stories, and runs outdoor-education programs for young adults. His first novel, The Road to Winter (2017), attracted the attention of many literary judges and has since been adopted as secondary school reading here in Australia. Its themes of a dystopian future, survivalism, compassion and the struggle against injustice in its many forms are deftly packaged in a gripping and sparely written tale, with not a word too many. It’s almost poetic in its emotional intensity.
Mark’s second novel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Indie Book Award for Young Adults, and the final book of the trilogy, The Land of Fences, was published to acclaim last year.
Hi, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Here’s a tricky question: what would readers never guess about you?
I hated reading when I was young! I know a lot of authors are brought up in houses full of books or they are turned onto reading by a sympathetic librarian, but at the age of fifteen I’d never read a book. I knew how to read, I just didn’t have the inclination. I was very much an outdoors boys and I always associated reading with being closeted indoors. Then, when I was fifteen, I had a horse riding accident that left me with a badly broken neck – so suddenly I had to spend a lot of time indoors. My mum was an avid reader and she got me started on books like Storm Boy and I Can Jump Puddles. Discovering reading could transport into other worlds and other people’s lives, I progressed quickly to Catcher In The Rye, Steinbeck and George Johnston. By the time I returned to school six months after the accident I had read about twenty books and my outlook on learning and reading had changed completely.
That’s a very extreme version of book love! Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Writing courses are hugely valuable. Though I have never studied writing at a tertiary level (a Victorian university rejected my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing last year because they didn’t consider twenty published short stories and three novels adequately met their selection criteria!), I have completed a number of short courses at places like Writers Victoria. As much as anything, I think they help expose the areas you need to work on in your writing. They are also valuable in creating writing networks that can support you through your successes and inevitable rejections!
Good grief! That uni needs to take a good hard look. I also love the Writers Victoria courses and have found them very helpful in practical ways, while my degree was helpful in craft ways – a good supervisor is worth a few thousand rejection letters! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
No one wants to hear it, but there is no silver bullet, no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. When I started writing I had stories rejected for twelve months before one was accepted. Other than that, my own mantra for writing is: “Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.” If you are writing to impress, you are probably not writing well. Also, draft and redraft until it is the best possible piece of writing you can produce then – and only then – send it out into the world.
I love that, thank you Mark. Very happy to hear it! You talk about perseverance – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I like to get up early – about sevenish – and write for at least two hours before breakfast. I can generally bang out a thousand words, if not more, and it gives me time in the rest of my day to do other things I love, like surfing, riding, reading and planning for appearances and workshops. I am more clear-headed in the morning but I use the rest of the day to mull over what I’ve written. I do a lot of what I call writing away from the desk. This is just thinking through scenes and descriptive passages, considering how I might improve on them. I can do this while I’m riding my bike, surfing or walking the dog on the beach. When I get back to the desk the next morning, I know what I have to do to improve what I’ve written the day before.
I agree; a lot of writing happens inside your skull. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Because my first book, The Road To Winter, is taught in schools around the country, I love hearing from students who have discovered reading through my books. I like to tell them about how I was also a non-reader until I was fifteen. I also like the fact teenagers are brutally honest. On a visit to a large boys school a couple of years ago, a student waited back after my presentation to talk to me about The Road To Winter. I asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “Well, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst!”
That’s high praise from a teenager, I suspect. How do you feel about reviews?
I know some authors say they don’t look at reviews and that they don’t take them to heart, but I think most do. Good reviews are great and bad reviews – of which there will inevitably be some – can wound. The best advice I ever got regarding reviews was that I should never take them personally. The reviewer is criticising your work, not you. And, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of Goodreads reviews. Most are not from professional critics, just readers with an opinion. My favourite one star review from Goodreads was a short and simple one for The Road To Winter: “I hate it!”
Goodness, that is succinct. Has your work been compared to other writers?
Because I’ve written a YA dystopian series, my books are most often compared to John Marsden’s. To be honest, I am honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I was lucky enough to interview John at a festival last year and I found him to be a very humble and engaging man. He read my books in preparation for the interview and was very complimentary of my writing. My favourite comparison though comes from a review of my third book, Land Of Fences, by Fran Atkinson in The Age that said “…there is almost a Winton-esque lyricism when Smith writes about the big blue and the coastline that features regularly.” I am a huge Tim Winton fan and his writing has influenced me more than any other, so that quote now sits on the pinboard by my desk, for easy reference whenever I doubt my own abilities.
I agree with her – there is a very Australian lyricism to your books which is reminiscent of Winton. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I started my career as an English teacher and I always had this little inkling in the back of my mind that I could maybe try writing. But, like most people, I didn’t do anything about it for years. I was in my fifties before I enrolled in a short story writing course taught by Emmet Stinson at Writers Victoria. Melanie Cheng was in the same class and we’ve been friends ever since. After lots of rejections, I began to get my stories published in a few journals and anthologies. But I still didn’t dare call myself a writer. Then I was lucky enough to win the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short story called Manyuk. With prize money of $10,000, it was one of the richest short story prizes in Australia. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s as much as a lot of first time authors get as an advance on a novel. But, having won the prize and banked the cheque, I very tentatively started to call myself a writer. A three-book deal with Text Publishing confirmed it three months later.
Wonderful! How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
I don’t show my drafts to anyone until I’m convinced I need a different set of eyes to read them. For each of my novels I have sought the advice of my local bookshop owner. I took a risk and did this with my first book because I knew she would be a speed reader (and therefore get back to me quickly) and she knew the book trade intimately so she would be able to tell me whether the novel had legs or not. As our friendship has grown, I’ve also encouraged her to be utterly ruthless in her feedback. Her instincts have been spot on every time!
She sounds a treasure indeed. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
The best thing about becoming a writer is meeting other writers. We are a pretty small community in Australia and we need to encourage and support each other. I go out of my way at festivals and gigs to introduce myself to the other writers and I try as much as possible to attend their launches and events. Social media also facilitates this interaction – follow your favourite writers and let them know you like their writing. I have “met” a large number of fellow writers on social media, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Following them also keeps me updated on their new releases and the events they have planned around them.
I completely agree. The Australian writing community seems to be very supportive and I love interacting with fellow writers online … like right now! Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
This is an easy one to answer because my first manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Text. I knew nothing about publishers so I simply chose the one who published my favourite authors and sent the manuscript to them. Text have a house policy of all its employees reading off the slush pile on Friday afternoons. One of the senior marketers picked mine up, loved it and the rest is history!
That’s wonderful, and a great practice by a publishing company. I’m so glad that your book was plucked out of the slush because it’s marvellous. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mark, and more power to your writing.
Mark Newman is an award-winning writer from the UK, who is a master of the intense and difficult art of the short story. In this interview, Mark shares his perspective on reading and writing and how he tested his writing through entering – and succeeding in – writing competitions.
Welcome, Mark, it’s great to talk with you. I first heard about you because we share a publisher, but I now know that you have a substantial CV as a writer of awesome short stories, and that you’ve been winning accolades for a while now. Let’s talk about how you got to be the writer you are.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Mark:The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis. I loved the whole Narnia series, and still go back to them every two or three years just for that hit of nostalgia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, of course, a classic, but I always loved The Magician’s Nephew for that first glimpse of the White Witch in Charn, the rings and the pools between worlds and the attics that ran between the houses. All kids ever want to do is find secret places. I don’t really think that feeling ever leaves you.
And that sense of possibilities in hidden spaces – I agree. You seem to be quite productive – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I wish I did. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m not really a routine person, though I see the sense in them. I just wait for sentences and ideas to drop through the ether, write them down until there is enough there to make a story out of, spread them out in the right order and fill in the gaps. It’s a wonder I ever write anything, to be honest.
Ah, the magical ether. Stories are a kind of wonder, even to the writer. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Getting shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was pretty amazing. Seeing your face on a TV screen and blurb about your story scrolling through alongside other amazing writers was surreal. The Costa Book Awards was a weird experience – I don’t really belong in the same room as Dame Diana Rigg! It’s nice to get shortlisted for a competition that is judged by other writers as the Costa is, and the Retreat West competitions that I did so well in at the start of my writing, it really makes you feel you are doing something right.
Yes, winning is so affirming. I hope you took selfies at that awards night! Is writers block a thing for you?
Absolutely. I’m paralysed by the blank page and the blank gaps between the good ideas and good sentences. I wish writing felt like a good thing but it often feels like pulling teeth. The satisfaction comes when you read back something that works, but it’s often a long road getting there. But, it’s writing, isn’t it. It’s not brain surgery, I can’t really complain, I don’t have to do it.
It is often difficult, and we don’t have to do it, but then again we don’t seem able to stop! Those ideas still fall out of the ether, I find. On another tack, what do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
We all have favourite books that have awful covers but it doesn’t really affect how we feel about the book. It’s the words inside that really matter, but a cover for a new author is super important. We’ve all picked up books because we like the covers and passed by covers we don’t like. I was asked for my opinions about the cover for My Fence is Electricbut, unlike some novel ideas I have where I have quite strong ideas for covers, I didn’t really have any thoughts about what I wanted. My publisher, Michelle Lovi, designed it and sent it to me and I was so scared opening up the file, but I absolutely loved it. Simple and beautiful – hearts and barbed wire, sums it all up perfectly!
Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
I went to see Alison Moore speak at Loughborough Library in Leicestershire (UK). I had wanted to be an author for nearly 20 years and had written numerous starts to novels and then been unable to progress. She detailed her route to publication and spoke about the importance of writing short stories and entering competitions for her to find out if she was heading in the right direction. She got an agent early on from doing this as well and it all spread out for her from there. She andSusan Hill are my all-time favourite authors so I listen to anything they have to say! The first short story I wrote was highly commended in a competition and I was approached by an agent from one of the biggest literary agencies in London. Nothing came of that (apart from some great advice) but it gave me the confidence to keep going.
That’s a great story, thank you. What kind of reader would like your book?
Short story fans. People who love Susan Hill and Alison Moore. As I said, I’m a big fan of theirs and I think it shows! Same kind of mood.
Is it easy for readers to find your book?
Not at the moment. The global pandemic situation has resulted in my launch event and follow-up events being cancelled and distribution problems mean it’s been hard to get a paperback copy of my book in the UK. It can’t be helped, it is what it is. My book hardly matters against what is going on. The eBook version is easy to get and The Book Depository have copies in stock at the moment. And I have a box full in my front room so if you live in the UK contact me on Twitter if you want to pay through PayPal and I’ll send you one!
Tricky times indeed – I hope things improve for all of us soon. Is your local bookstore thriving?
My nearest local bookstore is Kibworth Books in Leicestershire (UK) and it’s nine miles away. I’d be there all the time if I lived in Kibworth or drove. It certainly seems to be thriving though and long may it continue.
More power to bookshops! Thanks so much for speaking to me today, Mark. Congratulations on My Fence is Electric, and all the best with your writing.
Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.
People Like Usis being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.
Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?
Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us(in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.
The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?
The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.
I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?
It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).
That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.
My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.
That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…
So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.
I believe you have a family connection to this story?
The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.
Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?
It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.
It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!