Ten Years On

There’s been a lot of stuff flying through my Twitter feed regarding the start of the new decade and the end of the old – I’m caught up in a circular post urging me to sum up the last ten years in five words. One of my resolutions for the new year – although I don’t actually make resolutions as such because they’re just more things to feel bad about failing to achieve – is to concentrate on the things I enjoy and  I’ve never felt particularly comfortable talking to strangers.  I didn’t feel compelled to join in with the Tweet and I’m sure no one was offended.

But it did make me think. Five words. Where would I even begin?

Since 2010 my life has changed enormously. I could probably fill five books summing up the last decade – ten years of international house moves,  of leaving a very large carbon footprint and ticking off various sights that regularly appear on  bucket lists (but not mine because bucket lists are another thing I don’t do). I’ve been very privileged to have travelled extensively during the last ten years, to have lived in different countries, I’ve come right out of my comfort zone, I’ve made a whole array of new friends and acquaintances, I can speak Dutch (okay just a little and very badly).  I’ve watched my 2010 teenagers mature into confident young women, both now making their own independent way in the world and I’ve remained healthy – always a bonus.

But it’s always better to look forward than over your shoulder.

This was me at the start of 2010 – and that’s another one of those social media things we should all be doing, isn’t it – the ten year photo.

Well don’t be fooled by this idyllic snap because despite that sunshine, that pool, that glorious mountain backdrop – I was in the depths of despair. We had moved from our home in Southampton, UK, where I’d grown up and lived for the last forty something years, to the town of Arcadia on the outskirts of Pasadena in Californina. I’d never felt so lonely and isolated. Sunshine counts for a lot but it’s not the be-all and end-all. One daughter had accompanied us – the other hadn’t. She was only 18 and 5000 miles away – as were all my friends and extended family members. And after younger daughter and husband had left for school and work each day – I was on my own and I knew no-one. Yes, I did feel sorry for myself – and anyone who is ever been in that position will probably tell you, you know it’s totally irrational, you know how lucky you are, you know you need to snap out of it – but on the other hand…

I did have a set of new year’s resolutions for the start of 2010. I developed a mantra. I had a to do list and on that list was walk. I walked every day for at least an hour around the housing estate where we lived. I found a second hand book shop and I read all those classics I’d never had time to read during my busy working life.  I found a voluntary job one morning a week doing something I loved – gardening – and although I had to force myself out there amongst strangers – every little bit of social interaction helped.  I wrote copious emails to friends back home, and then the idea came to start a blog about the vagaries of our new ex-pat life.

Retaining a sense of humour at all times was vital for survival and I really enjoyed writing my blog, but one post a week wasn’t enough fuel for those creative juices. I received compliments about my style of writing, and that’s when the idea that I could write novel was born.

2010 was the year I began my writing journey and ten years on I’m a published author with two books under my belt. A third is on its way and although I’ll be looking for a new publisher in 2020, I’m still very positive about my writing career. Writing comes naturally, and after ten years I can’t imagine life without it.

I feel far more relaxed and positive about what the next ten years will bring, than I did at the start of 2010.

Ten years older and wiser. Perhaps those should be my five words.

The Great Christmas Giveway

I like to think I’m a generous person by nature, but I can’t be the only author who has reservations about the idea of giving their books away for free, on mass. As the occasional prize or to a charitable cause, yes, to worthy friends and family members, people who’ve helped on the writing journey – well that goes without saying. But to the general public? That elusive audience you’ve been trying to convince for the last eighteen months to dip into their pockets to pay less than the price of a takeaway coffee for a digital copy of your book? That book you spent months, if not years, sweating over, putting your heart and soul into, ruining your posture as you bent over your PC into the small hours for, editing, submitting to agents, publishers, braving rejections, having palpitations and panic attacks for…

However, I don’t always know best. I’ve learned many things on my personal mountain climb of a publishing journey, and free downloads are considered a useful marketing tool. It’s an opportunity to boost a book’s profile, to reach a whole new audience who wouldn’t necessarily take a chance on an unknown author.

Christmas is all about giving.  Your Secret’s Safe With Me hadn’t exactly gone flying off the shelves since its launch back in February, and probably needed a good kick up the butt.  So last weekend, I bit the bullet and sent it out into the big wide world for FREE.

Although I haven’t yet got the exact figures, a quick check on Amazon Author Central confirms that at some point over the weekend my book peaked as the 105th top-downloaded free book out of thousands in the whole of the US. This feat was mainly due to my big budget $20 spend on a book promotion website mailshot. Facebook, the Great Manipulator, cannot be relied upon to display your promotional posts alone. It pays to pay to reach that wider audience direct – although of course paying to give your book away is something the purest in me would have once cried ‘not on your nelly!’ (I told you it had been a steep learning curve).

Only time will tell if I will reap the rewards. The major downside of book promotion sites is that their audience is mostly US based. The only negative review I’ve ever received on Amazon and Goodreads was from a US reader who gave up after the opening chapters of The Theatre of Dreams. He/She clearly didn’t get my writing style at all and felt I’d over-complicated things by introducing my characters without an explanation of who they were. That’s the whole point mate, you read on and find out…

As all writers know you can’t please all the people all of the time.   The general idea is that you hope the readers who fall in love with your book will shout about it from the rooftops, while those who don’t, keep quiet.

I am very grateful to everyone who downloaded a copy of Your Secret’s Safe With Me, and to all those shared the news of my Christmas giveaway on social media here in the UK.  I hope there will be a positive knock-on effect from the free downloads, and word will spread about my books and my writing. As this is probably the only time I can make a song and a dance about one of my novels ever reaching a number one spot in the Amazon charts (on both sides of the Atlantic), it’s not such a bad way to end the year!

Life got in the way a little too much in 2019 and I know I have not been as pro-active as I should. Hopefully 2020 will be far more productive. I’ve a WIP to polish off and a new publisher to find. I’ve no deadlines and no pressure, and I feel the joie de vivre has returned to my writing.

Signing off on a high note, and wishing all readers, near and far, a very happy Christmas.

And if you are still scratching your head looking for that perfect present, I can recommend a couple of good books….

I’d Rather Be Writing…

Inspired by my holiday reading, my WIP is now romping ahead at full-speed. The muse has returned and I can’t type quickly enough.  I know I’m back in the zone because I’ve finally removed the detritus of my old dead PC from my desk to make a proper work space for my laptop. My characters are nudging me awake at night to relay their latest conversations, and new plot twists and unexpected developments are cropping up quicker than I can say I didn’t see that one coming…

Following advice from my new bible, Save The Cat Writes a Novel, the initial plan was to meticulously plot but I’m far too impatient for that. I just want to get on with the writing. I did do a plan, a sketchy outline of the main action, but already things are deviating from the track. A previous favourite scene is now totally irrelevant. A red herring uttered by character A might now be better cast into the story by character B, or maybe it’s not needed at all…

I’ve changed a few names, I’ve bought in a few new guys and deleted some of the old ones. Note to self – and any new writer – never change a character’s name using the simple search and replace tool in a Word document. I had previously thought Ted far too old fashioned for my tennis coach – a very minor character only mentioned in passing, so several chapters in I changed his name to Ryan. An awful lot of words in the English language end in the letters TED, especially when your novel is written in past tense. Far from being a minor character, RYAN became a major player. For future reference there is a way to get round this, which I have now learned thanks to the wonders of social media and helpful advice from the writing community (for all its faults Twitter does occasionally have its uses).

However, Ted has now popped up again, completely by surprise, parked on a rattan sofa at a garden party. This time he’s going to remain because this ‘Ted’ is an elderly gent far better suited to the name and now an integral part of the story – although he’s forgotten to mention a vital piece of information to my heroine so I’ll have to go back and add that in. Scribble another note to self.

My baby is growing and taking on a life of its own, and after several months in the writing wilderness it does feel like coming home. I’m excited. This is how it felt when I was writing The Theatre of Dreams and Your Secret’s Safe With Me.  Neither of these novels came effortlessly, they had a few false starts but once they got going, engines revved, they took off at a very fast rate of knots. And it was fun.

If I’m honest, my struggles with marketing these two wonderful novels (if you’ve not read them yet you really should) had a negative impact on my enthusiasm to write. My confidence took a serious knock, and there were times when I seriously questioned whether I should even bother to continue.  The enjoyment had gone – and as that life-style guru Marie Kondo dictates – if things don’t bring you joy, they have to go. I became very good at procrastination.  2019 has been an exceedingly busy year and I’ve found plenty of excuses to stay away from my desk.  We moved house – twice, helped both daughters settle into new homes, and have had some family health issues to contend with.  Of course I could have got up at six every morning and stayed up to midnight to snatch a few quiet moments on my laptop, but no…my creative juices were channelled instead into re-landscaping my new front garden, designing my fantasy kitchen, ordering new furniture and stitching soft furnishings.

So when Mr T suggested we did a spot of decorating this weekend, the first since we moved into our new house in June,  the old, uninspired me would have I’d have said yippee, bring it on, I’ve had enough of this yellow (the whole of our new house is decorated in various shades of custard cream). Instead I sat there thinking okay, but not until Ted has told Eliza about the fling with the air hostess, and what about this fabulous final scene that came to me in a flash at 3 o’clock this morning…

I’ve no guarantees my WIP will ever become a published novel, but in moments like this, writing becomes a compulsion. Words tumble around n my head uninvited and have to be consigned to paper. I am writing again, and I’m writing because it brings me joy.

To be fair, painting the front room also brought a certain amount of joy. The walls are no longer ‘Buttermilk’ but ‘Just Walnut’ – a colour which bears little resemblance to any walnut I’ve ever seen. Those people at the paint factory have very vivid imaginations. If the writing career doesn’t work out, I might well apply for a job with Dulux.

Friends in the North

After my last post celebrating the highs and lows of my first year as published author, I promised myself I would tackle self-promotion with new gusto. I’d get on and finish my WIP. I’d spend more time being jolly on social media. Have I done that? No, once again that old spoilsport ‘life’ has got in the way.

I only have room for so many worries and domestic/family niggles take precedence. All things ‘writerly’ have currently taken a backseat. There’s more important things in life than stressing about word counts and Facebook likes. However, last week we packed up our troubles and set off on a long promised trip to the north of England – which was to culminate in York, where I had been invited to attend the Romantic Novelists’ Association Afternoon Tea to celebrate ‘graduation’ from the New Writers Scheme.

The New Writers’ Scheme is a wonderful thing – aspiring writers can join the RNA and take advantage of all the benefits of the association. More importantly, they can have their potential book manuscripts assessed and critiqued by experienced authors. When I joined back in 2016, I already had one manuscript complete and a second under way. During my time in the NWS I was lucky enough to submit three different manuscripts for critique, two of which have now been published. Authors who become published during their time in the NWS are nominated for the Joan Hessayon Award, sponsored by Dr Hessayon of the gardening books fame. His wife Joan was a romantic novelist.

So our trip north already had a literary connection, but more by luck than design it turned into a literary feast! We arrived at our first stop Warwick Castle in record time; after a quick whizz around the ramparts (Mr T and I are seasoned speed-tourists) we realised the day was still young enough to pop over to Stratford on Avon for a peep at Anne Hathaway’s cottage and then on to William Shakespeare’s birth place.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
Shakespeare’s birthplace

It was all very inspiring – as was dinner at the Spanish restaurant I’d booked that evening in Warwick purely on the basis of its Trip Advisor reviews. I’ve bought books on Amazon purely because of their wonderful 5 star reviews and have seriously questioned whether I’m reading the same novel. Not in this case – the food at Tasca Dali was outstanding, as was the service – and the best bit, it was a set menu. Takes all the stress away from the what shall we eat tonight dilemma. If you’re ever in Warwick, check it out https://www.tascadali.com/

From Warwick we headed north west to Blackpool mainly because we’d never been and we thought it would be fun.  It lived up to all our expectations so we quickly moved on. Having taken the slight detour I realised we were now close to Morcambe – home to the Midland Hotel. I’d come across the Midland Hotel during my research into art deco restoration projects for The Theatre of Dreams – so it was quite exciting to see the building in the flesh.  A lot bigger than my fictional pavilion but it does have a prime spot on the seafront and is a very impressive tribute to 1930s architecture.

From Morcambe we headed to Bowness-on-Windermere, our base for the next four days. I’m a hardened southerner and love living on the sunny south coast, but I could see myself becoming a northern convert. The scenery is stunning. There’s drama around every corner – glass lakes, craggy fells shrouded in clouds, and lush green fields dotted with sheep. We visited Beatrix Potter’s home at Hill Top. We viewed the gloomy rooms where she wrote her books (no kitchen – Beatrix was too posh to cook and had her meals delivered to her by the farmer’s wife next door – every writer’s dream!) and strolled through the vegetable patch in search of Peter Rabbit.

Beatrix Potter’s Garden

We visited Grasmere, where the poet Wordsworth famously wandered as lonely as a cloud amongst the daffodils. It was a wrong time of year for daffodils and the clouds – and crowds – were out in force so not quite the tranquil spot of Wordsworth’s time, but easy to see why he felt so poetic.

With the Lake District sort of ticked off we headed across the Pennines into Yorkshire and Whitby. If you are a fan of vampires, you’ll know that this is where Bram Stoker’s Dracula first came ashore. From Whitby we headed down to the beautiful Robin Hood’s Bay and Scarborough before finally arriving in York – and the RNA Tea.

The York Tea was my first RNA event and I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. It was a pleasure to meet so many ‘friends’ I’d so far only encountered on Facebook, fellow new writer scheme graduates and also to catch up with Crooked Cat authors John Jackson (the event organiser), Sue Barnard and Lynn Forth.  

I didn’t win the ultimate prize of the Joan Hessayon Award, but as Alison May, the chairman of the RNA, pointed out, to become published in today’s fiction market is no mean feat and an achievement worth celebrating in itself.   It was the perfect end to our fabulous trip north.

We will be back!

My House Move and Other Horror Stories

Bookish things have taken a back seat over the last month or so. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Basically I’ve had a lot of “stuff” going on. If I was a master of self-publicity I would use these episodes – a house-move, car trouble, elderly mother’s deteriorating health, preparations for imminent arrival of daughter, boyfriend and her dog (how is he going to get on with the cat?) from Budapest, to my advantage and continued to Tweet, FB and Instagram about my personal life to raise my social media profile.  People do but when I was knee deep in corrugated cardboard and bubble-wrap the last thing I thought about was dropping a picture onto Instagram – ooh look, another box to unpack. Anyone else have Tupperware that breeds? Some people might find that interesting – personally I don’t and I always judge my social media posts by what I consider something I’d want to read – and this, I realise is where I’ve been going wrong.

This is when I wish I’d used a pen name when writing my books because with a pen-name I could have created a whole new persona who’d be one step removed and could twitter on about anything. Suzi Smith (yes, I name I really did consider adopting) would be ever present on social media with witty comments, and even non-witty comments on every day life. She would be continually posting to keep her presence afloat (this is a tough business and if you don’t float, you sink without trace). Suzi Smith would be putting herself out there and using every situation to her advantage – even in her darkest hour.

Don’t you just love the NHS – mum’s hip operation cancelled due to chronic iron deficiency. Never mind at least we got a free cup of tea and a cheese sandwich after three hours waiting in pre-surgery. LOL!

Now I know why estate agent insisted on using the back entrance when he showed us around the house. Loving our genuine Arts & Craft front door but wish I could get it open…

New house teething problem number 2 – who doesn’t love a soft-close toilet seat. Just wish it would wait until I’d finished doing my business before it starts closing. OUCH!

By the way, have you ordered a copy of my latest book? Just £1.99 on Amazon…

Suzi Smith would not only be the master of self-publicity she’d also  write very commercial women’s fiction; her novels would be highly marketable – and here’s my next dilemma. My faithful old desktop crashed just before our house move. Had I backed up my latest WIP? Well yes, but not since about the 25K word-mark and I last left it at 40K. But now that my precious data has been recovered (at considerable cost, I might add – that’ll teach me to ignore those messages reminding me to back up my PC) I’ve taken another look at Book 3 and decided my efforts to write something a little more commercially orientated a la Suzi Smith are not winning me over, in fact I don’t actually like the hunky all-American boy-gone-bad-but-he-will-redeem-himself hero I purposefully created to attract a wider audience.

Stressing over things we cannot change is wasted energy. Today, I feel like I have emerged from a long dark tunnel. Over the last few weeks it seemed impossible to imagine I’d ever have the time, let alone the inclination, to return to the keyboard.   But now, as watery sunshine filters through the canopy of the enormous Caucasian Wingnut tree at the end of my new garden (it’s a very rare specimen – we viewed the house in winter when it was half the size)  I feel a welcome sense of calm.  

My mum has accepted she’ll never get a new hip unless she eats more greens (slipping into Suzi mode here) just as I’ve accepted she needs a little more looking after than she currently receives – but other carers are available. As always it’s a question of attitude. I’ve decided the dent in my car gives it far more character, as does the crack in the windscreen, the Hungarian Dachshund-cross compatible dog food has been ordered on-line (the cat will love him), and as much as I appreciate the historic merits of my rustic front door, a new one I can open, shut and lock is already on its way.

It’s time to pick up the pieces and crack on. I do want to complete another novel and the answer I believe lies in a good murder. In fact, I’ve decided all-American boy is going to be my first victim. His girlfriend – un-named as yet but I have one in mind – may well be my second.

Poor Suzi, what a horrid way to go...