Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

2011 Writing Goals in Review

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

It seems appropriate at this time of year to review the writing goals I set a year ago, and reflect on how I did with them.

DEATH SCENE was released in 2011, and I pledged to promote it. I did what I could, but sales figures indicate that there could be some improvement in this area. Still, sales of SUFFER THE CHILDREN picked up in its second year of publication, so maybe DEATH SCENE will start to come into its own in 2012.

I also pledged to get to the end of the first draft of the sequel to DEATH SCENE. Happily, I was more successful here. DEAD COOL, as the WIP is currently titled, is in its third draft and has gone out to beta readers.

Finally, I pledged to get the UF WIP to a stage where it was ready to be critiqued. I failed dismally here. After all my beta readers unanimously felt the plot wasn’t working, I’ve trunked this project.

However, 2011 did see the start of a new project. I’m over 20,000 words into the first draft of a new horror novel, something that wasn’t even an idle thought this time last year.

On the whole, it’s not been too bad a year writing-wise. So what of 2012? Well, it will see the publication of my short story collection, SOUL SCREAMS, so there is something to look forward to. And herewith I set out my goals for 2012.

1. Finish DEAD COOL and get it out on submission. If I get a contract for it, even better, but I’m trying not to tempt providence.

2. Get the horror WIP completed to beta reader stage.

3. Step up the promotion a notch or two, and aim to increase sales of the published novels.

So it’s going to be a busy year, writing-wise, as I’ve got two WIPs on the go at present. But it will be good for me to focus. I need to develop more discipline when it comes to writing.

I wish you all a Happy New Year, and all the best for 2012.

Monday’s Friend: Leigh Russell (2)

I am pleased to welcome best selling crime writer Leigh Russell to my blog, for the second time this year. This latest appearance coincides with the release of Leigh’s latest novel, DEATH BED, on the Kindle.

The Rise of Ebooks
By Leigh Russell

My debut CUT SHORT was published in June 2009, the first in my series of crime thrillers featuring Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. After a delay of several months it became available on the Kindle, almost as an after thought. ROAD CLOSED came out in print in June 2010, followed by the ebook again after a delay of several months. But by now the quiet Kindle revolution was gathering speed so when DEAD END hit the shelves in 2011, my publisher put it out on the Kindle at the same time as the physical book came out.

While sales figures of my books escalated in print, sales on the Kindle really took off in the summer of 2011. The fourth book in my series, DEATH BED, is due to be published in 2012. This time, the ebook became available as soon as the MS was ready, before the end of December 2011, nearly six months before the print publication in May 2012.

An article in Crime Time reports that my publisher “is keen to ’embrace’ the new ‘rules’ of publishing and make the titles available as quickly as possible, avoiding the lengthy process that goes into the publishing and marketing of conventional print editions.”

It seems to me that the publishing history of the Geraldine Steel series reflects in microcosm what has been happening in the publishing industry as a whole, with ebooks first lagging behind physical books, then catching up, and finally taking over. And it has happened within the space of a few years.

A lot of readers are debating the future for physical books, with the growing popularity of ebooks. Meeting so many readers in the course of my work as an author, I can’t help wondering how much longer physical books will survive. What do you think?

Leigh Russell writes the bestselling UK crime series featuring Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel. Leigh’s new book DEATH BED is available on the Kindle now, as one of Amazon’s 12 Days of Christmas 99p offers, so buy it now to make the most of this special price (buy from Amazon UK here). It’s also available on Amazon.com, and out in print 2012.

Details of all Leigh’s books can be found on her website: http://leighrussell.co.uk

Aftermath

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

The second Shara Summers book – entitled DEAD COOL – was critiqued by the T Party this past weekend. Much as I fantasise about writing a book to which the response of all my beta readers is, “this is amazing.  Don’t change a word”, I know it’s not going to happen. I don’t think it even happens to the award-winning, rather more famous writers.

So what was the verdict on this second Shara adventure, in which she investigates the case of the defenestrated rock star?  There are some logistical problems with the plot.  Yes, I did already know that.  Between draft 1 and draft 2 the murderer changed, throwing up some issues with the original plot – pointing to the first murderer – that now make no sense with the second murderer.  I just haven’t worked out how to fix them yet.

I got some comments about Shara being too emotionless and wooden to be an actress and/or main character.  I got the same comments about early drafts of DEATH SCENE, which I endeavoured to fix.  I guess I haven’t yet, or she would not be attracting the same comments in the second book.

I am very lazy when it comes to research.  This has been thrown up, too, and it’s something I have to hold up my hand to.  Particularly when it comes to scene setting.  This book is set in London, but in some parts I don’t know too well.  Instead of just skirting over specific locations and street names, I’m going to have to pin the locations down a bit more – have Shara visit specific places, near specific tube stops. 

However, there is one particular sub-plot of DEAD COOL that my beta readers appear not to like.  When I wrote DEATH SCENE, Shara’s love interest Richard was only ever going to be a brief fling. I started Book 2 assuming he was out of the picture for good. However, in writing the book it became clear that Shara had unresolved issues when it came to Richard, and in one scene she decides she wants him back. Well, she is tied up in a basement at the time, thinking she’s about to die – such a situation can encourage serious self-reflection.

Anyway, in the next draft I tried to flesh out the relationship between Richard and Shara, and there is a scene at the end where she meets him to try to resolve things between them. My beta readers didn’t like that scene. “Too much like a romance novel”, they all said.

It has to be said, however, the beta readers present at the crit session were all men. I have not yet had any feedback from my female beta readers. I don’t write romance novels. But Shara is a single young woman, and an actress, and if she is to seem like a realistic character she has to have physical relationships. My editor advised me as much, and felt that in the initial draft of DEATH SCENE there was not enough about Shara’s relationships. I have been endeavouring to fix this. But the boys thought they were reading a romance novel. Possibly they are not the target audience.

I think I might need some female opinions before I start writing the romance out of the next draft. It will be interesting to see if they have a different view.

Christmas Past

This time of year, I like listening to the Salvation Army Band, which is possibly a surprising statement from a confirmed atheist. But I haven’t always been so. When I was a child, my parents belonged to the Salvation Army. I was sent to Sunday School, and taught to believe in God.

My earliest Christmas memories are from when my parents were still together. We lived in a little town in Lancashire, in a bungalow which had had the attic converted into another floor. My sister and I both had bedrooms in the attic rooms. My parents slept in the downstairs bedroom. On Christmas Eve, my sister and I put our pillow cases (no stockings for us – we had pillow cases) in our parents’ room. I once asked my mother why the pillow cases had to go in their room. She said she wanted to watch us open our presents. I never questioned this at the time – I still had an unshakeable belief in Santa Claus.  I suppose I was a gullible child – I believed whatever anyone told me, because it never occurred to me they could be lying.  So when all the grown-ups were telling me that Santa was real, I accepted this without question – after all, why would they be telling me this if it wasn’t true?

Anyway, Christmas morning my sister and I would gallop down the stairs and charge into our parents’ room to see what presents had been left for us. The excitement of seeing that pillow case stuffed with presents has been unmatched by any thrill in adult life.

My dad used to play trombone in the Salvation Army band, and in the run-up to Christmas we would go and watch him play in the shopping precinct, all bundled up in winter coats and mittens, which were attached by a piece of wool running down the arms of my coat and along the back, so I couldn’t lose one of them.

Whenever I watch the Salvation Army band play at Christmas time, I remember those early Christmases, when my parents were still together, and Christmas was all about new toys, singing carols, marzipan and Baby Jesus. And then I feel very sad, because life was simpler then and I can’t go back there.

It happens to us all, of course. We have to grow up, and when we do life gets more complicated. My parents divorced; both of them married new partners; we moved to Canada and I had to leave everything I was familiar with behind; I found out there was no Santa, and therefore no magic; I stopped believing in God; I started called Christmas ‘Xmas’ because I realised it had all become hugely commercialised and I no longer believed it had anything to do with the birth of Christ.

But music has the power to tap into our emotions on a very primal level, and I cry when I listen to the Salvation Army band because it takes me right back to the little girl I was, and can never be again.

Thinking about the subject of this post made me realise that the shine began to come off Christmas for me the year my parents divorced, and subsequent events tarnished it even further. I know, logically, it’s not possible for me – or for any of us – to go back to the innocence and simplicity of childhood.  So I listen to the Salvation Army band when I hear it playing Christmas songs, and even though doing so always makes me cry, it still takes me back to a happier time and place.

My Life In Books: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I’ve read this book so many times, I can’t remember where or when I first encountered it. I do remember, however, finding it in the library when we first moved to Canada (I was 10), and being quite entertained by the fact that in that version – published in America – Charlie finds a bit of green paper in the snow that turns out to be a dollar bill, whereas in the English version, which I’d already read, his eye is caught by a flash of silver that turns out to be a fifty pence piece. It hadn’t occurred to me before that point that books are edited to adhere to the expectations of the country they are published it. After that, for a long time I didn’t know whether Roald Dahl was English or American.

The story of Willy Wonka’s amazing chocolate factory and the five children who get a tour of it has endured for many decades, and there have been numerous film versions made over the years. I am rather fond of the musical version with Marty Feldman as Mr Wonka from the 1970s, although I never liked the fact that they changed the scene in which Veruca Salt gets her just desserts – in the book she’s thrown down the chute in the Nut Room trying to get a squirrel, and in the film it’s a room of geese laying golden eggs. In the more recent film, with Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, it is the nut room with squirrels once more. In fact this version adheres to the original story quite well, apart from the fact there’s an entire sub-plot about Willy Wonka’s relationship with his father that has been entirely manufactured for the film. And I don’t really like that. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to book-to-film adaptations. I think it’s best to stick to the author’s original intentions.

In any case, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY works on so many levels it’s easy to see why it’s still a hit with kids today. What kid wouldn’t want to tour the wonderful chocolate factory, with its molten chocolate waterfall and boiled-sweet boats? What kid isn’t there with Charlie when he stands by the factory gates in winter and inhales the sweet smell of hot melted chocolate?

There’s also the cautionary tale about what happens to naughty children – with four of the five child characters all possessing an unpleasant character trait that ultimately leads to their downfall. Dahl was clearly transmitting a message about the evils of gluttony, of chewing gum, of being a spoiled kid, and of watching too much TV. Charlie is the only ‘good’ child, and characteristic of Dahl he gets his reward in the end, inheriting Wonka’s chocolate factory, while the ‘naughty’ children also get their punishment. There’s a very simple message here, but it still resonates: if you are good you get rewarded, if you are naughty you get punished.

Although Charlie has had a hard upbringing, in a poverty-stricken family living on the brink of starvation, somewhat uncharacteristically of Dahl books he comes from a sound family unit. Not only does he have two parents who love him (at least he does in the book), but he also has four grandparents who dote on him.

In the end Charlie gets all the chocolate he can eat, and as heir to Willy Wonka’s chocolate empire he is able to pull his family out of poverty and provide for them for the rest of their lives. And this, for a Roald Dahl book, is a very happy ending.

Appropriate Music

(Cross-posted on the WriteClub blog)

Most writers seem to listen to music of some kind when they write. I prefer silence. I think this probably stems back to my teenage years. I spent a lot of time then holed up in my room, either doing homework or writing, and for both I needed quiet to concentrate.

However, when I have my early-morning writing sessions in Starbucks there is usually music playing. Generally, if it’s not very interesting music, I tune it out. If it’s music I know and like, I find myself listening to it, which makes it harder to concentrate on the writing.

At the moment when I sit in Starbucks I’m getting bombarded by Xmas songs. All well and good, but I’m writing a horror novel. Festive cheer is hardly encouraging the right mood.

Last week, sitting in Starbucks, I was working on a particularly difficult funeral scene, for one of the young victims of my supernatural monster. There are some key conversations that have to happen at the funeral to demonstrate the strain on the relationships between the main characters. I’m finding these scenes hard enough to write at the best of times. With cheesy Christmas pop songs going on in the background, it was even harder.

But then ‘Hallelujah’ came on. This has become a Xmas song simply because it was released by the X Factor winner a few years ago and hence was guaranteed to become the Xmas Number One. Whoever decided ‘Hallelujah’ was an appropriate choice for a Xmas song clearly hasn’t listened to the lyrics. It’s a beautiful song, but very depressing. And violent. However, it seemed aptly fitting for my downbeat funeral scene, and proved to be an inspiring song to write to.

If you’re not familiar with the song, I include the Bon Jovi version here. This is admittedly not the best version – there are many – but this one’s not bad, and I do enjoy looking at Jon Bon…

Bon Jovi – Hallelujah

Monday’s Friend: Nerine Dorman

Today I am pleased to welcome writer and editor Nerine Dorman to my blog. Nerine and I have agreed to a ‘cross-interview’, so today I am interviewing her, and an interview with me appeared on her blog yesterday.

Nerine has several published novels under her belt including KHEPERA RISING, its sequel KHEPERA REDEEMED and THE NAMAQUALAND BOOK OF THE DEAD, all available from Lyrical Press.

So without further ado, let’s get on with the interview.

SJT: When did you first know you were going to be a writer?

ND: I was about three years old and grew up in a house where we had piles and piles of books on these massive teak bookcases (which I’ve inherited, by the way). There was something so arcane about the meaning of these words bound in covers. I remember being very frustrated that I couldn’t decipher the meanings, and when I tried to write, all I could do was scribble. By the age of five I could construct simple sentences. I’ve always loved words, and find it easier to express myself in writing than speaking. Since my plans of being South Africa’s next big shock-rocker never materialized (thank goodness) I’m sticking to my first love: writing.

SJT: Who would you cite as your influences?

ND: First and foremost, Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey and CJ Cherryh, who taught me to love words. I then cut my teeth on Poppy Z Brite, Storm Constantine and Neil Gaiman. Lately I love Cat Hellisen, Jacqueline Carey and Mary Gentle. But I’m also influenced by my co-writer, Carrie Clevenger, whose eye-rolling and keen sense for plotting often help me out of my propensity for using too many convoluted sentences and murky story arcs.

SJT: There’s a strong sense of place in the Khepera series – Fish Hoek really comes alive. Is Jamie’s shop based on a real place?

ND: Jamie’s shop is based on a little nook called The Cook’s Room which is in Petticoat Lane. It’s this tiny little lane perpendicular to the main room. Most of the shops display a shabby chic style. There’re secondhand bookstores cheek by jowl with tarot readers and antique shops. Granted, over the past five years many of the old, really special places have closed to make way for boutique outlets, but I like to think that I capture some of that old bohemian flair that made Kalk Bay the special seaside spot it was. Right next to Fish Hoek, of course, which still has a long way to go before it’s fully rehabilitated.

SJT: Has anyone ever annoyed you so much you’ve put them in a book and killed them off?

ND: [laughs] I’m planning on it. I’ve painted in caricatures of teachers who terrorized me at school but I can think of one or two individuals at my day job who deserve to die painfully. I’m just looking for the most horrific, gory way for them to go. Ironically they asked me once and I told them I had written them in, just to see their reactions. They were suitably freaked out.

SJT: You list travel as one of your interests. What place is at the top of your ‘places to visit before I die’ list?

ND: Definitely Egypt, but I’d like to do a road trip through the United States and Mexico. I have this wild plan to visit the gravesites of my heroes. Unfortunately most of them were Americans. New York is high on my list, as is San Francisco. I’ve already crossed off Ireland. I was very honored when I was invited on a week-long media visit earlier this year. It was an unforgettable experience. Ireland is every bit as magical as they say and I understand why it’s a beating heart for the literary world.

SJT: What advice would you pass on to beginner writers that you wish someone would’ve told you when you were a beginner writer?

ND: Please excuse me I’m going to shout now:

DON’T BE IN SUCH A GODDAMNED HURRY AND READ THE FRICKING SUBMISSION GUIDELINES!

Newbies are often in such a hurry to get their first publishing credit that they send their manuscript in before it is even ready. Or just in a format that elicits an immediate “delete” response from agents and editors. I’m just bloody lucky I already had a lot of subbing/writing experience within a newspaper environment by the time I submitted my first novel. But I was on sub with assorted agents and small presses for more than six months and I had more than 60 rejections before I had a contract offered.

While I can churn out a 95,000-word novel in two to three months, I’ll let it lie fallow for up to six months before I revise again after having let my beta readers go at it with scalpels. By the time I go on the submissions mill up to a year will have passed since I wrote the manuscript. I will submit to no less than 60 literary agents and/or publishers. Only then will I fall back on the known “easy” submissions where I don’t doubt I’ll have a contract offered.

Last bit of advice: Always aim higher than your current position. Don’t settle for self-publishing unless you can honestly say your product holds up to the standards of traditionally published works already available in your chosen genre. Rather put the work aside and come back to it later.

Many thanks to Nerine for being my guest today. Follow her on Twitter @nerinedorman or see her blog at http://nerinedorman.blogspot.com
Her Facebook author page is http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nerine-Dorman-author/173330419365374

Happy December

Well, it’s December. Which means I can no longer put off attempting to get into a festive frame of mind. It’s time to buy Xmas presents, do my Xmas card list, and venture into the attic to retrieve the tree and decorations.

Two years ago I did a blog post on why I don’t like the festive season. This Scrooge-like view is shared by many of my friends, but I have to say it seems to completely baffle my family. “You used to love Christmas”, my sister said to me recently. Yes, I did, when I was a kid and it was all about getting presents.

However, in an attempt to redress the balance – and to a certain degree bow to the inevitable and try to let in some festive cheer – I have decided this year to do a post on what I do like about the festive season.

Starbucks Gingerbread Latte:
I don’t drink coffee. The only coffee I like is Starbucks soya lattes – and most coffee drinkers say that Starbucks coffee doesn’t actually taste like coffee, which is probably why I like it. But I do love gingerbread, and Starbucks gingerbread lattes are one of the best things about this time of year.  Along with my customary stem ginger muffin, the gingerbread lattes have become part of the breakfast treat that accompanies my early-morning writing sessions.

Marzipan:
I love marzipan. When I was a kid I waited anxiously for my mother to decorate the Christmas cake. My sister and I would both get a lump of marzipan each to eat on its own. I would roll mine out like Play Dough and nibble it, in an attempt to make it last as long as possible.

When the Christmas cake has been cut and handed around, I’ll still go for one of the corner pieces that has more icing sugar and marzipan than cake. Because in fact I prefer the marzipan to the cake.

Ten Days Off Work:
Because I work for an organisation that closes down for the season, we knock off at noon on the last working day before 25 December, with a couple of glasses of champagne, and that’s it for us until the first working day of January. This generally amounts to ten (sometimes eleven) days of not having to crawl out of bed at 6am and trek through the cold and the dark to get to work. Ah, bliss.

The Wizard of Oz:
When I was a kid, cable TV had not been invented. Never mind DVDs, we didn’t even have video players in those days. Throughout most of the 1970s, “The Wizard of Oz” was on TV on Christmas Day. It was never on any other time of year, and there was no other way of watching it back then.

Hubby also fondly remembers looking forward to watching “The Wizard of Oz” at Christmas as a child.  So much so that we now have it on Blue Ray DVD, and we make a point of sitting down to watch it together, at some point over the holidays.

Presents:
Yes, I still like presents. I think everyone likes getting presents, even though we’re not supposed to admit it.

As a kid, I hated getting clothes – I thought they were boring presents. I preferred getting toys. Not much has changed, actually. I still like ‘toys’ – preferably those with a Star Wars or Buffy theme – and get more excited about these kinds of gifts than I do about scarves or make-up kits or any of the other things that girls are supposed like.

Having a valid excuse to eat and drink too much:
Whatever one’s religious beliefs, this time of year is a time for feasting. That means being able to forget the diet, and gorge on chocolate and all things fattening. Especially mince pies.  I love mince pies.

It’s also an excuse to drink lots of alcohol with all your friends, and nobody frowns on you if you start the year with a killer hangover, because that means you had a good time on New Years’ Eve.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that most of the above points involve food. It’s time to eat, drink and be merry. I shall do my best to be cheerful as 25 December rapidly approaches.  I think I’ll have another mince pie…

Writing Processes – Part 15: Professional Attitude

(Cross-posted on WriteClub)

Seventeen years with the T Party means I’m accustomed to my work being eviscerated. As far as writing groups go, we pull no punches.  When I workshopped DEATH SCENE, it got a fairly harsh review.

In most cases, however, I found I couldn’t disagree with the criticism. I tried to address these problems in later drafts; my editor came out with very similar comments during the editing process.

Understanding that my writing is far from perfect, then, I tend to take on board criticism and suggestions during the editing process and most of the time I change the manuscript accordingly. Hence, during the editing rounds on both books, my editor sent me suggested changes, I made them, and sent the manuscript back to her. I didn’t know it at the time, but this apparently is helping me build a reputation as a good writer to work with. It seems that not all writers take suggestions for change to their manuscript with as much cheerful acceptance as I. Some make a whole lot more fuss.

And this brings me onto the subject of this post: professional attitude. Now, if you’re a mega best-selling author, and your publishing company is making gazillions from your books, you can probably afford to be a diva who throws tantrums all over the place and people will still fall over themselves to work with you. For the rest of us, however, it pays to have a professional attitude. Editors and publishers are much more likely to want to work with you if you prove yourself to be easy to work with, willing to take on board the changes they want to make and return edits and all the paperwork in a timely manner.

Being a professional writer is about attitude. If you were an employer and you hired someone who never did what they were asked to do, who never turned up to work on time, and who whined on and on about not being in the right mindset to do what was asked of them, chances are they wouldn’t be your employee for very long.

Being a writer should be regarded in the same way. It’s a career. OK, it’s not one that pays the bills for many of us, but it’s a career all the same, and if you want people to take you seriously, you should treat it as a serious business

Maintaining the attitude is in itself is a full time job. You never know when you might run into someone socially who might be a potential punter for your book. They’re much more likely to buy it if they find you an agreeable person. This is why I carry my ‘writer’ business cards everywhere I go. Unlike the day job, which I can leave behind at five o’clock, I try to remember to weary my ‘author face’ whenever I’m out in public.

Being a writer is more than just creating the words.  It’s about being the kind of writer publishers want to work with.  About being a a writer with the right attitude.  These factors all become important when you build your brand.

And that’s a topic for a future post…

My Life in Books: The Naughtiest Girl in the School

Changed the cover image because this is the one that featured on my copy of this book

Enid Blyton apparently was unapologetic about slanting her books with her own political views. At the time I didn’t think about this – well, you don’t, as a child. But thinking retrospectively about THE NAUGHTIEST GIRL IN THE SCHOOL series, it’s quite clear there’s a political agenda to it.

The main character of this series, Elizabeth, is a spoiled only child who is packed off to boarding school and resents it. She makes up her mind she’s going to be naughty, and get expelled. This being Enid Blyton, Elizabeth eventually decides she rather likes it there, stops trying to be naughty and develops a loyalty to the school.

As a youngster, the idea of boarding school sounded glamorous and exciting to me, though people I’ve talked since to who experienced it have a very different take on it. What appealed to me about this book was the way the students ran the school. A student council was overseen by a Head Boy and Head Girl, elected by the students, and any school decision or policy had to be voted in by the student council. The school council hands out pocket money every week to each student. Anyone who gets sent money by their parents must relinquish this money into the pot – after all, the student council says, it’s not fair for some people to ‘have’ while others ‘have not’, and so the fairest way is for everyone to be given the same amount. One of the objections Elizabeth has at the start of the novel is that being rich, her dad sends her lots of money, which she is then forced to relinquish.

As a child, this seemed like a very fair system to me, and I think it coloured my view of politics for quite a long time. And I desperately wanted to go to a school with a student council. Years later, in high school, we did have a school council, elected by the students, but I realise now that it didn’t have any real power at all – the teachers always had the final say on any controversial decision.

I’m a lot more cynical these days. Sometimes I miss that idealism of youth.