Epistolary Novels – Letters Enjoy These

fountain-pen-447575_1280Having just dumped a prize-winning literary novel I’d been meaning to read for years out of sheer boredom (no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was), I downloaded Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from Audible. I was immediately caught up in the flow of communications – emails, notes and diary entries – that sculpt this touching story. Despite its lukewarm reviews, I’d enjoyed the film of the book, which starred Euan McGregor and Emily Blunt. The audiobook, with a different narrator for each character, put a smile on my face within the first couple of minutes. I can’t tell you more, I’m afraid, as it’s only had 20 minutes of my time so far.

But it made me think of the other epistolary novels I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I can’t speak for them all but the ones I’ve read are not, by and large, towering literary achievements. Mostly they’re played for humour or gentle sentimentality. But reading isn’t just about literary or intellectual genius, is it? It’s about entertainment and feel-good. It’s about curling up on the sofa or spreading out on a beach towel, and being lifted out of your life and deposited somewhere else for a few hours. Everyone loves to receive a letter; we all jump to the ‘ping’ of a newly arrived email; and as for encountering someone’s secret diary – well, it would be irresistible, wouldn’t it? I think that’s partly why epistolary novels are such fun.

Strictly speaking – and the clue is in the word – epistolary novels tell their story through written communications, letters, notes and more recently, emails. But many lists also include books based around diary entries.  So here, I offer you a glimpse of five of my favourites across both categories, in case you feel like packing them in your holiday suitcases.

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Strictly speaking, not a novel, but a memoir, as the story is true and the characters are real. In 1949 in search of obscure classics and other books she has been unable to find in New York, the author contacts a second-hand bookshop in London. The book chronicles the correspondence between the author and the bookshop’s manager over decades as their friendship blossoms. You probably know that already, but if haven’t come across 84 Charing Cross Road in either its literary, film, or stage play version before, you’re missing a gem.

  1. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

I first read Daddy Long Legs as a child and re-read it last year in just a couple of hours. Brought up in an orphanage, Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbot is fortunate to gain an anonymous benefactor who pays for her education. The condition attached is that she write regularly to the benefactor, whose identity she does not know, and whom she has seen only through his distorted shadow – hence the nickname she gives him. The letters unfold into the story of how an independent girl begins to question what she has previously accepted and challenge the status quo, as she blossoms into a young woman. It’s a one-sitting book for an adult, but a gentle and touching read nonetheless.

  1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A heart-warming story, dark in places, telling of the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation. The letters to and from the various members of the eponymous society tell of quirky characters, friendship, resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Whimsical, but never trite; pretty much perfect, this one.

  1. e: A Novel by Matt Beaumont

The strapline brands it ‘the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers’ and that about sums it up. Not letters this time, but emails, and definitely told for laughs. This is a wickedly funny book, awash with backstabbing and bitchiness but above all, wit.  Expertly plotted, it’s set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. You’ll probably devour it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face – especially if you work in marketing.

  1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

Yes, and all the Adrian Mole adventures that followed too. Adrian Mole, stuffier and more pretentious than the average child, diligently records his thoughts and experiences as he progresses through self-conscious adolescence. The seven books which follow chart Adrian’s progress through life. They’ve been around for a while, but are pure gold nonetheless. Every Brit will know of these, but if you’re reading this elsewhere, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Adrian Mole.

There are others… Bridget Jones’ Diary of course; perhaps also We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Screwtape Letters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – all gems in their genres. The Martian is a newer one which has made its way on to my ‘to read’ list. Goodreads provides an excellent list of epistolary novels too.  But if you have a particular favourite, will you share it with us?

Seven Top Tips for Promoting your Novel as Holiday Read

2015-06-07 15.04.54Would your novel make a great holiday read? If so, now might be the time for a promotion.

Waterstones’ Summer Holiday Book Club list will be out in the next week or two. They pick a bunch of recently published books and through emails and blog posts, market them as great novels to take on holiday. It’s a promotion, pure and simple, but as many, many people do most of their reading on their summer holidays, the holiday season is too good an opportunity to miss.

So here are a few tips and ideas for promoting your novel as a holiday read.

  1. Start now. I know the school holidays don’t begin until late July. But don’t leave it until then, because the cruise ship will have sailed. Apart from anything else, plenty of people who don’t have children take their holidays before the resorts are overwhelmed by families. You don’t want to miss those relaxed singles and couples lazing on beaches in June and July.
  2. Plan a campaign. Run it over a few weeks. Work around a trio of pieces – a combination of blog posts and emails perhaps. Don’t just say the same thing over and over; build your picture by taking a different aspect of your novel each time. Leave a few days up to a couple of weeks between communications, and don’t do more than three pieces – you don’t want to annoy your potential readers.
  3. Think ‘Holiday’. If there’s anything about your book that relates specifically to holidays, travel, foreign lands, journeys or adventures for example, make the most of it in your promotion. It’s an extra angle.
  4. Have a price promotion. Discounting by even a little for a specified and limited time can be effective in boosting interest for practically anything. Everyone loves a bargain.
  5. Think beyond the internet. I know social media gets you a worldwide audience. But you’re a drop in an ocean of authors trying to attract readers. Think about your personal contact list, friends and neighbours, colleagues and the school-gate, clubs and organisations. Everyone belongs to multiple formal and informal networks and knows lots of people. You probably promoted your novel to them all when it first came out, but beyond your most loyal supporters, friends and family, there is still a community of potential readers; people who, with a gentle nudge, will like the idea of a holiday read, written by someone they actually know.
  6. Create a physical promotional piece. Because Singled Out is set on a summer holiday, this was a no-brainer for me. I’ve created a postcard-sized promotion using the image from the book cover. Duh, but it’s meant to look like a holiday postcard sent from a friend. I’ll be spreading it around over the next few weeks. I’m hoping it might end up hanging about on the front of a few fridges over coming months too. I used my cover designer (Alessio Varvarà) and VistaPrint to create the card. Other options – bookmarks (of course!), and for those on a very tight budget, simple home-printed leaflets. If you take that route, all you need is some best-quality paper (high gsm, sheen/gloss perhaps). It doesn’t have to cost the earth.
  7. Compile your own Summer Holiday Book Club list. It’s great to collaborate with other authors and recommended reads attract, guess what, readers. I’ll be putting an indie and small-press Summer Holiday Book Club list together for this blog in the next week or two, so, as they say, ‘watch this space’ for a fresh list of recommended reads.

Is a 1 Star Review ever OK?

audiobookIf you’re a successful mainstream author with a string of big-selling, award-winning traditionally published books and hundreds of 5 Star reviews to your name, does a 1 Star Review still bother you?

I’m ploughing through the audiobook of a well known literary novel at the moment and I’m struggling with it. This book has sold in its millions, won awards and even been made into a film – a dream-ticket for an author. But it has divided critics and readers. Many have hailed it, but a significant number have just not got it.

And I’m one of them.

I tried reading this novel a few years ago but didn’t make it past the first third. The audiobook was my attempt to make the ‘reading’ process easier and to be fair the narration is largely excellent. But it’s a long and convoluted narrative and it’s leaving me with the feeling that the emperor has no clothes.   I know I’m not alone in this thinking, but I am in a minority.

I rate books on Goodreads with stars (mainly to prompt conversations with my reader friends), but I write very few reviews either on Amazon or Goodreads. I tend only to review self-published and small-imprint published books, on the assumption that these writers – as I do – need every bit of positive endorsement and feedback they can muster. I would never write a 1 Star review of such a book. If I read one that I disliked that much, no one would encounter my opinion online.

But what about a mainstream, million-selling novel? Is a 1 Star review OK?

I wonder if this particular author still reads their reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. I wonder, with all the success the author has enjoyed, whether they care a jot when the occasional reader fails to appreciate this novel. Given that so many credible sources have endorsed it, does it matter when the odd reader has such a negative response to their literary endeavours that they pen a review layered with peevish criticism, or worse?

On balance, I think it probably doesn’t matter to an author in that position. But I can’t be sure.

Reviews exist to help other readers decide whether to buy. In that respect you could argue that all reviews are relevant – and oddly, I wouldn’t disagree. Quite apart from anything else, I really value reading other people’s 1 Star reviews of books I’m contemplating reading. Occasionally they will dissuade me and I can thank the writers of those reviews for redirecting me.

However, I doubt another 1 Star review on top of the mountain of plaudits which exist for this particular novel, would make the least difference to anyone considering a purchase. So for that reason alone, it seems a waste of my time to pen a review.

But the truth is broader; I’m an author as well as a reader, and I simply can’t do it to a fellow author, whoever they are and however successful they are. I just don’t want to be so publicly unappreciative of anyone’s writerly endeavours.

I realise this is perverse of me. I know I’m saying I want to benefit from other people’s 1 Star reviews, yet not offer up my own.

That’s how it is – I just can’t do it.

So how do you see it?

On a summer reading list – and an unfortunate omission

Bookshop chain Waterstones (no apostrophe these days, harrumph) has announced its Book Club Summer Reads this week. The list is varied and for avid readers, promises a luscious literary experience across the coming months.

Unfortunately, my debut novel, Singled Out, has – I can only presume, in some hideous accidental oversight – been omitted from this list of good and great summer reads of 2015.

I can’t begin to understand how this ghastly blunder could possibly have happened. I am dumbstruck. I can but apologise, because this incomprehensible failure means that instead of a simple ‘click to buy’ from a colourful e-mail landing in your inbox, you’re going to have to embark on a hunt for Singled Out, trailing through the Amazon, all by yourself.

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxIf you’re into sinister tales taking place in delicious settings, your search for Singled Out will reward you with a gripping read. It’s a gritty psychological story about one woman’s struggle to overcome her demons and snare a dangerous stalker. It all takes place on a summer holiday for singles in Turkey, where strangers come together and nobody is quite who they seem.

Yes, you read that right. Summer… summer holiday. Hey, you guys at Waterstones…. summer holiday! Wouldn’t this alone qualify for a place on your Book Club Summer Reads list? Wouldn’t it? No?

Oh.

I know. It’s hardly selling in its thousands. It won’t make you book-business guys rich – at least, not overnight. But what about when the bidding war breaks out over those options on a movie or a TV mini-series – when world-renowned production companies are fighting over the rights and A-listers are begging for a role? Maybe then? What was that you said? Cloud-cuckoo land? Oh, don’t be mean, guys. Don’t hit me when I’m down.

Fair enough, I can’t deny it; demand has been, well, modest. The truth? Singled Out has yet to attain three figures in the Sales column – but it’s close, it is. Sort of. Close-ish. But just think what a place on that Book Club Summer Reads list would have done for it. And I’m not just saying this out of blatant self-interest either. I think I could safely argue that, with a little display ingenuity, there’s a profit to be had for any bookshop from my modest literary endeavours. What about those magic tables – the ones that everyone, but everyone, makes for when they come through the doors? Imagine for a moment, how appealing that sultry sunset on the cover of Singled Out would look on one of those tables by the entrance – the one that says ‘Hot New Authors’ or better still ‘Sizzling Summer Holiday Reads’ perhaps. Imagine all the book-buying money-spending hands that would reach out for it.

Yes, that would work.

But hey, the list is written, the emails are out and it’s too late for all that business. So all I can do is grumple away under my breath and shake my metaphorical fist at the Book Club selectors. It gets it off my chest a bit at least.

So, friends, followers and readers – an apology: I’m sorry you’ll have to go a-hunting for Singled Out. I’m sorry you won’t ever find it at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, or even your quirky little independent bookstore. I’m sorry it’s only on Amazon and that – for the time being at least – you’ll have to go further than Amazon’s Top 100 lists to track it down. But if you look, you’ll find it. It’s there for your Kindle (a perfect medium, if ever there was one, to take with you on your… holidays), and for the traditionalists amongst us, it’s there in paperback too.

As for the Waterstones Book Club recommendations, I cannot tell a lie. Notwithstanding that single sloppy omission, it’s a great selection. If you’re an avid reader like me, it’s worth a look – and it’s worth a few of your pennies/cents (only the ones you’ve got left after you’ve picked up Singled Out though).

Meantime, I hope you’ll forgive my shameless opportunism. When I got that Waterstones Book Club email this morning, I just couldn’t resist it.

Just one more thing… of course… Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Bookshop Bliss

Waterstones PiccadillyI passed an absorbing couple of hours yesterday mooching round Waterstones in Piccadilly, in the heart of London.

Apparently now Europe’s biggest bookshop, Waterstones Piccadilly is a paradise for the reader.  Its five floors are an abundance of every kind of book from any genre you care to think of, categorised both systematically and creatively, and topped and tailed with comfy areas to kick-back with a drink and a bite to eat.

I headed straight for Fiction on the first floor.  Bypassing the helpful shopping baskets (I didn’t see them) I was soon loaded with armfuls of paperbacks.  I’m an avid audiobooker, but if I’ve enjoyed listening to a book, I need to own the paper too (I blogged about this a while back, here). Consequently, I keep a running list of books I need to buy, simply so I can go back through them and enjoy them… differently, and of course, possess them, in real leaf-through-the-pages format, as nature and the publishing world intended.

So I picked up three from my listened-and-enjoyed list:

  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach – an eclectic group of oldies retire to India
  • A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – dark but comic, about a deliciously weird, damaged girl
  • Smut by Alan Bennett – two unseemly short stories in Bennett’s inimitable style (narrated for audio by the author himself)

But it didn’t end there.  With the able and enthusiastic assistance of the… um… assistants, I tracked down another five from my must-read list.

  • Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Red House by Mark Haddon
  • May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Yes, I know I’m arriving at one or two of these a little late in the day, but there’s just so much reading one woman can do.  Especially when the thing she most wants to do with her spare time is… write.

I read all over the genre geography.  I enjoy the kind of books which fall into what’s variously called  lit-lite (yuk!), accessible literary, crossover or even, I saw the other day, ‘Richard & Judy’.  I particularly enjoy edgier psychological suspense – that’s what I’m writing, after all.  I’m not into romance, historical or sci-fi, but I meander around the fringes of crime/police procedural, thrillers, chick-lit and full-blown literary as the mood takes me.

I get leads from Goodreads and I buy loads from Amazon as it’s convenient – who can argue with that?  But an afternoon in a bookshop is an indulgence and I loved every minute of it, especially being so warmly and professionally served by people who really, properly know their books.

Grammar purists like me bemoan the demise of that apparently outdated possessive apostrophe, flushed away from Waterstones’ (ha!) branding as of last year, for reasons of… practicality.   But given the pleasure quotient of a meander around their floors, it seems churlish to dwell.

I had lunch with a friend, took my time over a coffee and dreamed.  I’ll be back again, to shop.  But just maybe, one day, I’ll be back there to do a reading and a bit of meet-the-author.  How’s that for a star to shoot for?

Practice. Practice. Practice.

IMG_0385I was given a copy of ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ by Judy Reeves at Christmas. Not out of the blue – it was on my Amazon wish list – but it was the perfect moment to receive this treasure.  For those who don’t know, ‘A Writer’s Book of Days’ is a guide and encouragement to write, to develop your creativity and practice your craft.  At its heart is an urging to ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’  The book is designed to help the novice writer develop a regular writing habit, and it includes topics for a simple 15-minute daily writing exercise.

I write copy almost every day for clients, but my creative writing – still essentially a hobby – gets squeezed into the odd hour here and there and weekend afternoons.  I’ve never tried daily writing practice but I thought, it’s probably a good idea, it can’t hurt and it would certainly be a helpful discipline to establish, given that I cherish the ambition to become a celebrated and successful novelist (dream it, believe it, achieve it… right?).

But this exercise is about creativity, and I was faced with a dull brown notebook.  Judy Reeves says keep the notebooks cheap, because you’ll get through a lot of them.  It’s a good point, but I’m a paper crafter and to me, a plain brown cover is a surface which cries out to be crafted, elevated beyond its humble origins.  So it was that after Christmas I took to my paper and card, rubber stamps, embellishments and sticky stuff, and pimped-up that plain old notebook in time for the New Year – you can see the result above.

Then, on 1st January 2013, I began, following Judy Reeves simple guidelines (write freehand for 15 minutes without pause or review) with the first random topic: Things that enter by way of silence.  And almost one month in – 26 topics, 56 pages of illegible scrawl laid down – I’m revelling in the experience.  Almost every day, it has surprised me.  Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I have surprised me.  Many times I think I’m writing drivel, but when I read it back, I find it has unexpected qualities, depth, surprising insights, interesting conjunctions of words and phrases, scenarios, senses and observations that seem to have come from nowhere and landed on the page. Not always of course – sometimes I’ve written genuine drivel – but remarkable things have emerged on to the page often enough to spur me on to keep practicing.

I’ve discovered other things too, like after a lifetime’s use of keyboard over pen, my left hand can’t tolerate the speed at which my mind races when the thoughts begin to flow – it floods with cramp-like pain after less than half a page.  Judy says you’ll be surprised how tight you’ll grip the pen, and she’s right. I’m learning to let go a little, and my hand lasts longer after 26 days, than it did on 1st January.

So I plan to stay with this surprising experience, at least for now. It’s nurturing my creative confidence and it’s throwing up a diverse assortment of treasures – ideas, images, imaginings and truths – and any one of these could be the germ of a great idea….

“As you know…”

I’m around 25% of the way through possibly the most poorly written novel I’ve ever read.  I was off on a short break and was seeking Kindle-based reading matter; this particular story cost me less than £2 to download.  I know, I know, that should have been a clue.   But it had a ton of 5-star reviews, so even though it hadn’t been recommended by anybody I know (that’s my usual lead-in to a new author) I figured it was worth a look.

It started well, but as I read, my astonishment grew.  How come there were so many solid 5-star reviews praising the quality of the writing, plotting and so on, when to me it felt clunky and characterless?  Worst still, it was swamped with the sort of sudden-death contrivances which cause editors to throw manuscripts across the room in despair – the as-you-knows and all that.

In theory, anybody can publish a novel on Kindle.  So, in a world where the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected by traditional publishers, should we novice authors be excited by the possibility that we can get our books out there without the support of agents, editors and publishing houses?  Or should we dread the tsunami of self-indulgent, shoddily written, unedited narratives that will be the inevitable result of such freedom?  Might they not overwhelm the traditional printed book and dumb-down the reading experience?