Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

You said it! A first-quarter review of reviews

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxReviews are the life-blood of any novel. Readers… don’t ever underestimate the power you have at your fingertips, when you write a review.

15 weeks… 15 reviews… 76 stars

From the moment I clicked publish and saw my novel appear on Amazon on a real page, just like real books, where real people could click and really, actually buy it, I’ve been holding my breath. That’s what writers do, you see, as they wait to see what people make of their… baby.

But (so far…) whilst it’s been emotional, it’s been alright too.  In fact, it’s been pretty amazing.

It’s 15 weeks since Singled Out was published on Amazon (Kindle and paperback) and my first novel/baby has been fortunate in garnering a total of 15 reviews (so far…). That’s 11 reviews on Amazon.co.uk (four 4-star and seven 5-star) and five 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Yes, that makes 16 in total, but I can’t double-count the review my big-hearted blogging buddy Dylan Hearn was kind enough to upload to both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Whilst sales of any self-published debut novel are inevitably modest – and Singled Out has, ah me, been no exception (so far…) – the kind words in those reviews have been exciting, heartening, and above all, humbling.

Presentation1So this 15/15 moment seems a good point to stop and thank everyone who has taken the time and trouble to read Singled Out – I hope you have all enjoyed it, and felt it rewarded you for those few hours of your time. And I want especially to thank those of you who then went on and uploaded your reviews to Amazon – and Goodreads.

Will you permit me to share some of the reviewers’ observations with you?

I know it feels suspiciously like self-promotion and, oh, it is. But no self-published author can survive without a little of this every now and again. So here, just in case you’re looking for your next read or something to take on your holidays, is a little reader feedback from those reviews on Amazon:

“From the first short chapter I was hooked! The story swings from gritty and tense to beautifully described locations that transported me right into the midst of a singles holiday…”

“With Brenda Bouverie the author has created a wonderful protagonist, very different from anybody I’ve read before. She’s a wonderful combination of the sensuous, with her love of food and drink; the steely, but with an underlying vulnerability that makes her a very special character indeed.”

“This is a scrumptious book for every sense! Mouth watering descriptions that evoke sights, smells and tastes so that you really feel you have been taken on holiday with everyone else to Turkey.”

“With well-drawn characters and a complex protagonist, this was a really enjoyable read that kept me guessing and gave me something to think about.”

“The writing in this debut novel is impressive with descriptions so rich, you’ll feel like you’re touring, sunbathing, and feasting on delicious meals in Turkey yourself. Mystery cloaks every page…”

“An impressive debut novel for fans of psychological suspense.”

“Excellently creepy.”

“Highly recommended.”

“An excellent blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller.”

“A definite page turner, I completed it in a couple of days.”

“I couldn’t put it down!! Gritty and compelling reading.”

“An enjoyable page turner. It’s got character, location, sex, drugs — but above all the writing is captivating.”

“Wonderful story from this author. Well-crafted, believable characters, great plot line, and a description of Turkey that makes you want to take your next vacation there.”

“Overall, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys their thrillers to be a little dark and edgy, but with some warmth thrown in. Oh, and foodies. This is a great book for food lovers.”

“I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.”

“If you’re going on a beach holiday and you’re a lover of creepy, psychological thrillers, then this is the book for you.”

Are you still with me?

Okay, then it’s worth highlighting a few things people have said about the dark underbelly to this story, because it’s undeniably gritty, morally ambivalent and, for some, unsettling. In the interests of full disclosure:

“This is not, however, a book for the faint-hearted. The assault scenes in particular, while very well written, don’t pull any punches. But for me that’s as it should be. Horrible things should be portrayed as horrible. And it makes you all the more engaged in the search for who’s responsible.”

“But a caution to sensitive readers–the subject matter deals with sexual assault (that’s not a spoiler as the opening scene depicts this) and misogyny, sometimes in quite graphic detail. Normally I would shy away from material like that, but I felt comfortable in the author’s hands given the strong female lead who carries the novel, and the important message that’s unveiled.”

“Be warned ….there is a dark undertone to this story that can make one feel slightly uncomfortable (and it’s meant to), but the author deals with these scenes admirably, giving you enough to make you feel uneasy but not too much so that you want to stop reading – cleverly done.”

“I particularly enjoyed the ending – even when the ‘bad guy’ is discovered, there is still a dilemma to be faced. I’m not sure what I’d have done, put in Brenda’s place.”

“Pick it as a good read, but don’t be surprised if it also challenges and makes you think twice.”

There, now you’ve got the full picture.

In case it’s piqued your curiosity, you can find out more about Singled Out on this website here, and throughout my blog.  And of course, Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Blog posts coming soon(ish)…

  • Making a start on Novel Number Two – I need your help!
  • Marketing Muse: Promoting your book as holiday read.
  • Happy Endings: Should every story be tied up with a ribbon?

Singled Out: Launch + One Month – Full Disclosure

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxA month ago my first novel, Singled Out, was published on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats. Here’s how it’s gone since then…

I launched Singled Out on a largely unsuspecting world on 1st February 2015. Paperback and Kindle versions were priced at UK£8.49 and UK£2.99 (US$11.65 and US$4.60) respectively.

In the month since then, Singled Out has sold 66 copies, roughly 50% paperback and 50% Kindle e-book.

 I wasn’t sure what to expect and I’m not certain even now whether selling 66 copies of a debut self-published novel in the first four weeks is good, bad or indifferent.

One thing though; I believe I know – or know of – the majority of buyers. Many are friends and family, colleagues and clients, blogging buddies, neighbours, friends of friends and miscellaneous kind supporters and interested parties. To all of you, those I know, and those I don’t – I offer my deepest gratitude.

It’s been emotional

This last month I’ve been a bit all over the place. Other upsets and irritants have piled on top of what was always going to be an anxious time, fictionally speaking.

I’ve been surprised and touched, as several people I did not expect bought copies of Singled Out. I’ve also been overwhelmed by the kind words and largely positive feedback it’s received – both privately and through the first few 4-star and 5-star reviews which readers have been kind enough to post on Amazon and Goodreads.

But I’ve also felt as if I were sitting on the edge of a precipice, where one small nudge would send me toppling over.

A whisper of disillusionment

Like any debut author who has lately attempted to capture the interest of an agent and win that much sought-after representation, never mind the publishing deal, I can’t seem to escape the niggling whisper of disillusionment.

When it came to agent submissions, I tried, but I didn’t make the cut. I had hoped in vain that my novel was unique enough, well-written enough, compelling enough… And even though my rational brain understands the numbers game and the overwhelming odds against success, I cannot yet totally suppress my disappointment.

There are so many positives around taking ownership of your own destiny through self-publishing, and so many opportunities to capitalise upon. Things have changed and the agent/publishing deal route doesn’t have anything like as much to commend it as it used to. So why do I still feel like this?

I don’t know, but I do.

A sense of achievement

This is the other side of the scales. I do absolutely feel proud of my novel. I set out four years ago to see if I could perhaps, maybe pull together a half-decent piece of fiction. I didn’t know if I had enough imagination and creativity, or sufficient skill, for a novel-length story. I just wanted to give it a try. Four years and 90,000 words later, I had my answer.

The end result isn’t perfect – I’ve been learning all the way. But it’s a page-turning read (so say the reviews) and I am allowing myself to feel good about it. I was conscientious about the learning and the writing process and the many layers of editing; I love the cover design and I’m properly thrilled with the quality of the Createspace paperback. So there’s a satisfaction there, to temper the negatives, no doubt of it.

Stress, anxiety and fear – Gah!!

But here’s the stuff I didn’t expect – and it hit me like a bullet train. For the last month, I’ve felt spacey and nauseous. I’m waking a few times a night and seem unable to sleep beyond 5:00am. I’ve had back ache, neck ache, clusters of spots on my chin, palpitations and disturbed digestion.

Stress and anxiety symptoms; I know what they are, and I know they’ll pass sooner or later. They are the physical manifestation of my literary fears and worries… That people won’t buy my novel… that they will buy it but they won’t like it… that they’ll be bored by it… that they’ll be appalled by those odd moments that I’d intended to be gritty and edgy… that they’ll find a hundred typos… that I’ll only ever sell 66 copies… that it’s not good enough… that I’m not good enough… oh, and on, and on… Paranoia is a pathetic thing, isn’t it? Though I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this sense of my guts being reef-knotted and tugged upon, each day when I fail to resist the urge to check my CreateSpace reports, my KDP reports, my Amazon page, my Goodreads page, my Twitter feed, WordPress comments, Facebook page… Ugh.

What of the next 66 copies?

Sooner or later (more sooner than later, I fear) I’ll run out of ‘friendly’ buyers – by that, I mean those in my circle who will purchase a copy of Singled Out because they want to support and encourage the crazy author in their midst; or because they’re curious about the book I’ve been blamming on about these past four years. So it’s fair to assume the next 66 sales – and the 66 after that – may be a lot harder to come by.

I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do about those next 66 sales. I haven’t yet approached any independent reviewers. I’m going to continue playing in the blogosphere of course, but that’s because I enjoy it. Twitter taunts me – I don’t work it in the way that authors are urged to do, and I have to figure out where to go with this. I’m thinking about approaching some local bookshops, perhaps buying space at a local craft/artisan market, just to test the water. There’ll be a Goodreads promotion at some stage, maybe a campaign around holiday reading – I’d be stupid to let that opportunity pass me by, given the subject matter. There might be some paid-for advertising, but I’m not yet persuaded of its value.

One great thing about the way self-publishing works today is that the author is under relatively little financial pressure. Gone are the days when our garages would be piled to the ceiling with boxes of our treasured novels, a burdensome investment which must be sold for any profit to be realised. So I’ll be taking a steady-as-she-goes approach to marketing Singled Out, balancing these activities alongside my other work and the growing impetus I feel – heaven help me – to start writing the sequel.

One thing I’m certain of, and I’ve blogged it before here, is that I want to enjoy the marketing and promotion of Singled Out and that means not putting myself under undue pressure. So how long will it be before I see the next 66 sales?  I can’t rightly say, but if I make it in less than a month, I’ll let you know!

*  *  * 

Guess what! Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Self-Publishing – it’s a Fiddly Business

I set myself the task of preparing my manuscript for publishing on Amazon, Kindle and  paperback, over the Christmas break. Frazzled as I was by a bout of festive flu, it was… a challenge.

monster-426993_1280I got a virus for Christmas – not a PC one, a proper lung, throat, nose, ears and head one. It laid me low for two solid weeks. I felt like I’d been mugged. I was drained, sulky, achy, and very fed up. I coughed so long and hard my whole body ached. I lay in bed drenched in sweat; I lay on my sofa wrapped in a blanket. I survived on Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and chocolate (thank goodness for my festive choco-fast break) and I sipped on water. Oh, ok, and the odd tot of brandy too – purely medicinal, you understand. My eyes were sticky, my brain was mush and my limbs were leaden. Whilst nothing but my cough reflex functioned, I took to hour after hour of TV; costume drama repeats – Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Treasure Island – and films I’d seen a dozen times before. When I could resist no longer, I went on to back-to-back episodes of Storage Hunters. Yes, friends, it was that bad.

When my brain began to solidify again and I could take a breath without coughing, I returned to my PC, to tackle the job I’d always intended to undertake over Christmas (ideally with an alert mind and an energetic sense of purpose) – that was, to get Singled Out ready for publication.

It’s great, really great, that indie authors can do this for themselves, but setting a book up for sale on Amazon is a convoluted process, make no mistake. It requires a clear head (clearer than the head I was given for Christmas, if I’m honest). There is a wealth of information to assist you, both from Amazon and external sources. But when push comes to shove, you have to stop reading and actually do it.

First thing was to get my MSWord manuscript into the correct format for CreateSpace. And that’s no picnic, because in publishing-land everything is arse-about-face and you have to get all twisty in your head to remember… the page you see on the left of your screen is actually the right-hand page, and the page you see on the right is, yes, actually on the left. Left/right, right/left – don’t you forget now.

I’d figured – and I think I was right – that it would be easier to create the Kindle version from the CreateSpace one, not vice-versa. CreateSpace offers a set of MSWord templates all correctly formatted (in terms of margins, headers and footers, at least) for the various book sizes they have available. I’d found the one I needed and made a first-pass at setup before Christmas. I received my first proof copies on 29th December. I was largely delighted. Some of the pages had printed, or been cut, a bit wonky. But CreateSpace have since assured me this was a production error and that their normal standards are higher than this, and if I had any similar complaints about final-print copies, I was to return them for a refund. I also realised I could correct a formatting error that I hadn’t at first seen a way around. This was: how to eliminate headers and footers from blank pages which may come at the end of a section. In the way these things sometimes work in my brain, I woke up at 4am one morning knowing exactly what I needed to do to fix it. I just wish my brain had delivered this particular gem before I ordered my first proof copies, not after. And preferably not at 4am either.

kindle-254339_1280So I made my corrections, submitted a revised pdf and ordered a second proof copy. Then I reformatted, minus headers and footers, for Kindle. Formatting for Kindle requires a totally contrary mindset from formatting for a pdf. Never mind the right-is-left, left-is-right issue, what you see is definitely not what you get. KDP helpfully provides a tool which enables you to see how your manuscript will appear on a range of devices, from which I realised that anomalies presented themselves everywhere. Headings don’t reproduce uniformly, some are larger, some are smaller, some centre, others don’t; some formats indent the first paragraph even if you haven’t; page endings have no relevance as different sized devices and the option to vary font size put paid to uniform layout. You just have to suck it up – which is tough, for a perfectionist with brain-fog.

The most frustrating thing I found was the way in which my manuscript appeared in iPad Kindle App format. Section and chapter headings showed up in standard type rather than heading format, but as I scrolled back and forth through the pages, the heading formats reappeared. I tried several different approaches to counteracting this problem before resorting to forum advice pages which told me I wasn’t the first to have this problem and that I shouldn’t worry because, no matter how it appeared on the manuscript tool, it would all be ok on the live version. Really? So why hasn’t anybody just fixed the manuscript tool – because it would have saved me three hours of fannying about.

So, I had my manuscripts. Thence to the rest of the process. The CreateSpace (paperback) and KDP (Kindle) versions require a virtually duplicate set of actions. There is some kind of form-filling for US tax purposes, even if you’re a UK taxpayer. Then the meta data and the blurb pages (two – one for Kindle, one for paperback, although apparently these somehow ‘find’ each other and unite at some point, so I’m advised). There are the Author Central pages (four – USA, UK, France, Germany – I did all of them) and multiple decisions on pricing (because VAT on e-books is, to say the least, a tricksy little issue since 1st January 2015, being different in every single country). With my flu-fogged brain, I’ve been back and forth, again and again, through these instructions – which are laid out differently for both CreateSpace and KDP (more helpfully for CreateSpace, I have to say). I accidentally put myself through an unintentional Kindle proof process, which cost me a day (annoying), but I think I’m there now.

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14So as of today, I await my final final proof paperback, which I expect to be pleasingly immaculate. The Kindle version of Singled Out is uploaded and live on Amazon – for pre-order only at this stage, I’m afraid as I’m synchronising Kindle and paperback launches to 1st February.

Now all I need to do is set a bit of marketing in motion. Easy, right? For a marketer like me? Oh, but no, no. This is a whole different game to the business-to-business marketing I’ve been doing all my working life. As usual in this self-publishing game, there is myriad advice out there – dare I say too much advice? I’m wading through it, picking-and-mixing what I feel I can manage, for starters.

I’ve realised some author publishers are outputting at a seriously intensive level, marketing like crazy and selling tens or hundreds of thousands of books a year. Others are lucky to carve a niche amongst friends and family and shift a few dozen copies. Not surprisingly, I see myself as somewhere in between the two. I have just one book at the moment. There won’t be another one along for upwards of a year. I am just not the kind of writer who will ever turn out a torrid tome every few weeks, I know it.

I wonder if any of you already self-published authors out there could give me a feel for the sort of volumes I might anticipate? You know, a stake in the ground somewhere between a dozen and a hundred thousand… I’d like to know whether, for example, I should be delighted or dismayed by sales in the few dozens, hundreds or even… thousands. OK, I’m pretty sure I should be delighted by sales in the thousands. But should I have a target? A sales volume below which I regard myself as under-achieving, and above which I can allow myself to feel a little bit joyous? Does it make a difference that I’m a UK author, not an American? I honestly don’t know these things.

And one more thing, in the spirit of sharing the self-publishing love… if you, as a self-published author, could only do one thing to market your book, what would that be? What one marketing activity above all others have you found the most powerful and productive? Will you share it?

Here’s the Proof!

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14You’re probably fed-up of sharing my writer’s journey by now. But in case you’re not – my proof copies of Singled Out arrived from CreateSpace in the USA today. The expedited delivery charges (I have no patience) cost more than the two copies I ordered.

Yes, my story, in a real book format. I’m quite absurdly excited!

All looks good so publication (paperback and Kindle e-book) is still happily on-target for early February and I’m going to try and set up the e-book for advance orders too.

Today’s job is to begin setting up my author website via WordPress. Hopefully, this blog will transfer neatly and seamlessly across in due course. But I’m not massively technical and things can and do go wrong for me when coding and the interweb is involved. So if you have any suggestions as to how to accomplish this without accidentally abandoning my 2,700 or so wonderful subscribers – I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve got it Covered

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the cover design for Singled Out. Not that I’ve been designing the cover myself… I placed a brief with crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. Here’s how I got on…

There are many ways you can get a cover for your self-published novel. You can design it yourself, although many are the respected sources which advise against this. You can use the template design capabilities available through Kindle and CreateSpace. If you’re lucky enough to find one which fits with your story, you can buy an off-the-shelf cover from several websites. Those with deeper pockets can work on a one-to-one basis with a freelance cover designer of their choice, many of whom have a great deal of experience with traditional publishers.

Or… you can do as I did and place your brief as a contest on 99Designs, and see what comes along.

99Designs works like this: Your brief constitutes a contest. The fee you choose to pay is the award which goes to the eventual winner of the contest. You can select to award at Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels and you deposit the requisite sum with 99Designs via Paypal. I chose the Bronze level, as I wasn’t sure how the process would work for me and I didn’t want to risk too much. The higher the award, so 99Designs advises, the higher the number of entries and the more experienced the designers. 99Designs also offered me some kind of an uplift package free-of-charge – I’m not sure if they do this for everyone, or if I had arrived on the site at some opportune moment. Each contest lasts one week at which point, unless there’s a good reason not to, you select your winner.

I looked through several recent contests and noted how people prepared their briefs. Then I created my own, outlining what sort of book I’d written, the setting, tone and other key elements. I gave a feel for the kind of a cover I thought I was looking for and a few pointers on what I might like or dislike. I also populated an  iStock lightbox with a few stock photos, so designers could see the sort of imagery I envisaged for my cover.   I uploaded my brief, and I waited…

I was overwhelmed – in a good way – by the response. I genuinely hadn’t expected to see so many concepts, from so many designers. Some were, let’s not beat-about-the-bush, truly awful. WordArt, ClipArt and Photoshop seemed to be the tools of choice for a small contingent of hopefuls. But many entries were thoughtfully put together and had interesting elements. And some were stand-out. Designers came from right across the globe – I didn’t check them all, but I noted Germany, Romania, Italy, Venezuela, USA, India and the Philippines amongst the locations of those who entered my contest.

The contest owner is supposed to rate each concept with 1-5 stars and eliminate those they don’t favour. I offered a positive or helpful response to as many as possible and after a day or so, the quality and focus of the designs improved correspondingly. By the end of the contest I had seen over 180 designs. That’s around 80-100 unique concepts, plus variants arising from my feedback.

I noticed certain things; one or two designers seemed particularly engaged with my contest, delivering several concepts, responding quickly to my comments and suggestions, refining their designs, developing variations on a theme. It helped me identify not only the good designs, but the good designers – the ones who felt an affinity with my project. I shortlisted three and from that, it was a small step to select my winner.

There’s plenty of opportunity to liaise with your designer(s) as the contest progresses and I imagine the more diligently you do this, the better the outcome. I made a proper nuisance of myself, but my winning designer was infinitely patient and helpful, and produced a cover design for Singled Out – in Kindle and paperback formats – that I’m totally delighted with.

A mock-up of the cover design for Singled Out

The winner of my contest was Alessio Varvarà, an art and design student from Palermo, Italy. His username on 99Designs is alsov . Not only did he create the winning design and a selection of six or seven alternatives which I had great difficulty choosing between (because they were all so right for my story), but he was endlessly patient in adapting his designs in accordance with my comments and observations. He did far more than I expected – and far more than was justified by the fee/award. As a result, I have a design which would hold its own in any bookshop, and which I’m immensely proud of.

Alessio has already completed a second small project for me – that’s the design of a set of pre- and post-release banners for my blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. Once again, he exceeded my expectations. I’m actually sorry I don’t have another project for Alessio just yet; it has been a genuine pleasure to work with such a talented and enthusiastic young designer.

So, do you like my cover? I know these things are subjective, but for me, it encapsulates the themes and tone of my novel perfectly – the juxtaposition of dark goings-on in a blissful setting. When Singled Out is published in February 2015, you too might be the judge of this. Meantime, I simply offer my warmest endorsement of my designer Alessio/alsov and the 99Designs process, which worked brilliantly for me.

That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.

Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Going Down

You thought it was finished? So did I. But the word-cull continues

scissors-editLast autumn, when I drew a line under my 6th or 7th redraft of Singled Out, I honestly thought it was finished; finished as far my neophyte novelist’s abilities would allow at least. But armed with some insightful observations and having taken a few months away from the words, things look different.

I’m around two-thirds of the way through yet another edit – the one I didn’t realise I needed. And here I am deleting not just words, but whole sentences, whole paragraphs too. Here I am turning a paragraph into a sentence and still… still… deleting adjectives and adverbs. Yes, the more you look, the more you find. It’s wordy Whack-a-Mole.

When I began submitting Singled Out to agents it stood at 97,600 words. This summer in response to feedback, I’ve added three new sections, perhaps a total of around 1,500 words. But the word-count is down to 94,000.

How did that happen?

I think, at last, I’ve begun to relinquish my grip on those favourite sections – those darlings – which have thus far had a free-pass from the editor’s pen; those (not so) clever turns of phrase that looked so… so… writerly when they went in; those extravagant why-use-one-word-when-twenty-will-do descriptive sections; and those parts of the story where I’ve failed to trust the reader to get what’s going on.

This is what you need distance for; to develop the ability – and willingness – to be dispassionate. At last I’m editing as if it wasn’t me but someone else who has written Singled Out. I can cull great chunks I couldn’t bear to part with before because, somehow, they don’t feel like mine any more.

Frustrating though it is to have not seen immediate success with submitting my manuscript, I can see why I’ve not made the cut (no pun intended). I don’t know if I’ll have done enough to see a positive outcome when I go back to agent submissions in a few weeks time – the odds are against me, after all. But I continue – in a perverse and yes, almost sadistic way – to draw satisfaction and even joy from the learning process.

At this point, I want to get Singled Out out there in one form or another – because I want to see the job finished. More than that, I’m now straining to get started on my next novel, the one where I think I can bring all my learnings into play and create something better and sharper – hopefully in somewhat less than four years.

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.