NaNoWri…WOAH

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people doing NaNoWriMo should not post a blog, two weeks in, saying how brilliantly well it’s going.

Because almost exactly half an hour after posting my previous entry I wrote a paragraph which suddenly laid bare an enormous plot hole. Which then led me to spot another, and another until my happy playground of a work-in-progress had transformed into a lunar landscape of epic plot craters.

Oh, that was a fun afternoon. And then of course there was the inevitable day of work lost due to kiddy illness – and I’m sure there’s more of those who follow. This is another reason why the timing of NaNoWrMo sucks – it’s the start of cold and flu season and if you’re a parent you’re often permanently up to your neck in snotty tissues and Calpol between Halloween and March.

This year, though, I was incredibly strict with myself and on days I couldn’t work I would drag myself into the office/dungeon after bedtime and blearily crank out a couple of paragraphs of sheer nonsense to keep my head above water. I’m definitely not heading for 50,000 words but every little helps, I guess. Current word count so far is 20,421 which to a feature writer like me still seems like a lot of words.

Anyway, no learning experiences or amazing insight here but if you’re in the same boat, please do let me know and share any wisdom you may have. In the meantime, I’m off to bang my head repeatedly on the keyboard and include the results in my word count…

Tweet encouraging things to me here (please!)

Read about my previous NaNo mid-month hiccup

Or chill out with a lovely book review

I’m doing NaNoWriMo! Again.

National Novel writing month logo a shield with crossed pens, a laptop and a cup of coffee on it with a viking helmet on top for some reason

If you’re a freelance journalist the timing of National Novel Writing Month sucks. The ideas of putting aside all paid work THE MONTH BEFORE CHRISTMAS to work on a novel which may or may not get published is something I’ve struggled to get over year after year.

In fact, when I logged on and looked at my profile at the end of October, I found three versions of the same novel with three different now-discarded titles and dismal word counts for each. It was a fascinating glimpse back in time but also kind of depressing.

This year, though, was going to be different. Previous novel is finished, edited and re-titled, and I now had a fresh new idea I was itching to try out. Plus a small posse of online buddies who were doing it with me. Bring it on.

I’m half-way through it now, and here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1: It doesn’t matter if you write a pile of crap.
The sanctimonious little chart on my profile tells me that I should have written 25,000 words by now. It also says that to make the classic NaNoWriMo target of 50,000 words I need to write 2,250 words today. Well, that ain’t happening.

I have all my best ideas while writing crap


I’ve often thought the emphasis on words can be a unhealthy – you write a load of old rubbish just to bump your word count and end up having to go back and unstitch it later. But now I’ve got the first novel under my belt I realise I have my best ideas while writing crap (and also while in the shower for some reason.) Also, the unstitching is actually an unavoidable part of writing a novel. I have a trifling 13,993 words under my belt so far and half of those are utter crap but, like the weirdo I am, I’m actually looking forward to going back and changing it. I like seeding in all the good ideas I had while I was writing terrible stuff.

2: Buddies really do help
I’m lucky enough to be friends with a few unpublished writers online, and we’ve been bolstering each other up with word counts and pep talks. This wasn’t the case for the first few years and it’s made such a difference knowing I’m going to report back to people about it rather than just sitting here writing into the abyss. I spent my whole journalistic career with editors breathing down my neck, and I now can’t work without deadlines and pressure – or with the mutual support of colleagues.

3: Once a Brownie, always a Brownie
Back when I was in the Brownies, I loved getting a badge and being part of a tribe but I have to admit I find the whole tribal thing a bit cringy these days. And I’ve always thought the badges on the NaNoWriMo site were a bit patronising. You get a badge on your profile for writing two days straight, one for a week… etc. Pathetic, right? So why was it that last Saturday I wrote for 15 minutes between 11.40 and 11.55 so I could log a word count on the site and get my “Updated My Word Count Seven Days In A Row” badge? God I’m sad. But if it works, it works.

LOOK! LOOK AT MY SHINY SHINY BADGES!!! I mean… not that I care obviously.

Some of my friends also prepped beforehand – putting together a day-to-day (or even a scene-by-scene) plan of what they were going to write, reading the pep talks on the NaNo website, going to write-ins. I’m not that way inclined, being more of a “splurge the words onto the page” kind of a writer, but it’s nice to know those resources are there if I should ever have a personality transplant.

All I know is that at the beginning of November I had the stub-end of a novel and, if I continue writing on the same track, by the end of November I’ll be well into the second half – even if a large part of it is drivel. So, cautiously and with a due sense of trepdiation, I’m calling NaNo 2019 a win.

Read more about my first attempt here

And more about how crazy deadlines can be motivating here

Fancy reading a book review of Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper instead?

Tweet me to chat about NaNo…

How Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper made me have all sorts of Important Thoughts

I’ve already written about how Unfollow convinced me to start blogging again after a long hiatus. It’s funny how sometimes the right book hits you at the right time and sparks something in your mind. It made me Think Big Thinky Thoughts about Life, Hate, Family and Twitter. It might not press that button for for everyone but Unfollow is still a fascinating insight into what it’s like growing up in a loving family which was full of hate for the outside world.

The cover of Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper showing the Westboro Baptist Church with a god hates America banner on the front of it

For her whole life, Megan Phelps-Roper was a member of the Westboro Baptist Church – the fanatics who rejoiced after 9/11 claiming it was God’s way of punishing sinful America; the ones who picketed military funerals with signs saying Thank God for Dead Soldiers. Megan grew up with a God Hates Fags banner in her hand and later, on Twitter, became the church’s mouthpiece and online provocateur. But in 2012 she left, turning her back on the church’s message, despite knowing her family would cut her off.

When I first picked the book up I was afraid to trust Megan. Could you really grow up in a community of hate and simply let all those prejudices go? Had she really rejected all Westboro’s teachings or just chosen to leave the church after it turned on her family? There’s no doubt the latter was a factor, but as I read Megan’s slow unpicking of her belief system I was totally convinced by it.

You can raise your children to hate but it doesn’t necessarily stick

I learned quite a few surprising things from this book. Firstly that Twitter can be a kind place. We’re used to thinking of it as a shrill echo chamber or a troll’s paradise, and it’s people like Megan – or old Megan at least – who make us think that. For years she tweeted her church’s hate-filled message, dressing it up in clever banter and emojis (You’re going to hell 😀), raising hysteria and public awareness of her obscure little church in the process.

But while most people reacted with (understandable) outrage others, including Jews and members of the LGBT community, engaged patiently and kindly, gradually breaking down the rigid thinking imposed by her family until it finally fell away.

That’s the other thing I learned from the book – you can raise your children to hate, but it doesn’t necessarily stick. It’s human nature to think, to question. These days everyone seems so polarised it seems impossible that civilised debate and questioning could change someone’s mind – but in this case it did. That’s something that’s good to know.

For slow readers, the part at the beginning, where she’s still signed up to the church’s thinking might be an uncomfortable read, especially if you’re a member of one of the groups she was taught to revile or a victim of one of the church’s pickets. But I do think it’s worth reading on.

a picture of unfollow by megan phelps roper on a train table with a blue portable tea cup next to it

There are definitely still secrets at Westboro – Megan alludes to the violence of her grandfather and the temper of her mother but won’t go any further – her loyalty to her family is still tangible throughout the book even as she rejects their ‘values’. They might condemn her as a fallen woman on her path to hell but she will never let go of them.

I found the Bible verses hard going – long thee-and-thou quotes lovingly drawn from the King James Bible, which the Westboro members used to justify their hardline stance. I found myself grumpily skimming over lots of those but as I read on I came to understand why they were there. They’re not for me, or for 98 per cent of the people reading this book – they’re for her family. Because I get the feeling that the real reason Megan has written Unfollow is as an escape manual for her siblings who are still trapped in the Church’s thinking, and an explanation to her still-beloved and now estranged parents. That fact alone makes it a heartbreaking read.

Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper is out now

Why I’ve decided to keep blogging

Let’s be honest, this book blog has never really got off the ground. I make a start, do a few regular posts, then life takes over. I get a few urgent commissions, my poor neglected novel-in-progress needs attention, my entire family descends from different parts of the world wanting to catch up, my kids get ill. Of all the things in my head clamouring for attention, this blog has the smallest voice.

But the main reason I struggle to post anything is that I’ve never been sure why I’m doing it. I trained as a journalist in the 1990s and was taught in no uncertain terms to keep myself out of the story. You are not interesting, the tutors would say. Nobody needs to know what you have to say.

I was thinking of giving up, then two things happened…

And I still partly agree with that. Who needs this particular straight, white, middle-aged, middlish-class print media person yammering on about what books she likes? What’s so bloody special about my perspective?

And then there were the books themselves. Most people devote themselves to a single genre: they’re commercial fiction bloggers, sci-fi, horror, fantasy etc. I write YA fiction, but I never met a genre I didn’t like. I read pretty much everything so I’m never going to find a niche of loyal followers anywhere.

Another problem is that I’m chronically agnostic. I’m all about the shades of grey. I can see good things in the books I hate, and all the flaws in the books I love. “Ooh, nothing’s more entertaining than equivocation…” said no-one ever. I’m hardly about to set the world on fire, so why bother?

Last of all is the amount of hard work it takes to build a following. People post and post and shout and shout about their blogs which leads me back to my original point about not wanting to foist my opinions on other people.*

So recently I’ve been thinking of quietly winding the whole thing up. Then two things happened.

cover image of Unfollow a journey from hatred to h ope, leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by megan Phelps-Roper

First, I read Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper – the story of how a girl was raised in the fanatical Westboro Baptist Church, had been holding horrible God Hates Fags signs since she could walk, but somehow got up the courage to leave the church, her family and the life she’d known because she realised what she was doing was wrong. (Review to come later once I’ve got this post out of my system.)

At the end of her book, she speaks about how often she sees the symptoms of Westboro mindset in the wider world – polarisation, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias. I completely understood what she meant – we might not all be holding offensive signs but many of us stubbornly cling to our beliefs in the face of opposition. And books are a great way of unlocking a closed mind, getting you to see things from another perspective. As a sheltered suburban teen Tales of The City gave me an insight into LGBT life I wouldn’t have otherwise had. More recently The Hate U Give put me in the centre of #BlackLivesMatter in the way a news report never could.

About an hour after I finished reading Unfollow, an author friend on social media made a throwaway comment which went something like: because of the Internet people expect to get words for free now. Soon nobody will buy books which means nobody will be able to write them.

Having just finished reading a book which had made me think a LOT, I suddenly had this desire to champion books, to never let them die. And that if I am a privileged white middleish class media person (most of the time I look at my overdraft and don’t feel privileged at all, but that’s another post…) then I should add whatever privilege I have to speak up for life changing books, biographies that open your eyes, stories that keep you up all night, novels that take you to new worlds or make you feel like you’re not alone in yours.

There’s a brilliant, vibrant community of book bloggers out there championing the books they care about. Why shouldn’t I join in?

meme stating I don't believe in much, but I do believe in books

As I write this the editor in me is already saying that none of this is news, all this has been written before. I think there was even an episode of Doctor Who about it. But clearly it needs to be said again and again and again. More and more loudly, by more and more people.

So here’s the deal. I’m not going to post several times a week, I’m not going to blog about every single book that I read but if I read something that I love, or that sweeps me away or made me think, I’m going to talk about it on here. Three or four people might even read it. One of you might even leave a comment (thanks Mum!)

So, for now, and until lame excuses take over again, I’m in. I really hope I can write something that helps make a difference.

*NB: I cringed the whole time I wrote this. Still cringing now.

Hack’s hacks for real life interviews

In 1998 I did my first interview for a women’s weekly – I nervously flew up to Scotland to interview a dominatrix who was upset because other mums were blanking her at the school gate. She was lovely – she made me a cheese sandwich and gave me a blue crystal “which aids communication” before explaining how she divided her time between school runs and dribbling hot wax on men’s chests. As first interviews go it could have been far, far worse.

image of a blue crystal

The actual crystal – not sure if it has aided communication but I’m quite attached to it.

Since then I’ve done too many real life interviews to count – I’ve spoken to Elvis impersonators, shagging DJs, lifesaving surgeons, campaigning mums and survivors of domestic abuse. And before each one I’m still nervous. Because until you pick up the phone you have no idea what sort of person you’ll be speaking to. However experienced an interviewer you are, each individual is unknown territory.

And then it’s up to me – the interviewer – to tread the path between what the editor wants, what the interviewee thinks their story is and the truth of the story itself. Get it right and everyone will be happy. Getting it wrong is unthinkable.

Over the years I’ve come up with a few rules to cling to as I head into this wild, wild west situation, so here’s a rough guide from a true life hack…

Get chatting

What makes a story come to life is the characters in it – how did they spend Saturday nights? What’s their favourite takeaway? What makes them laugh? Those are the details which, if cleverly woven in, make a person seem more real, gets the reader rooting for them. So before you jump into the narrative – the when, where how of what happened, take some time to ask about the people involved and what they are like.

Carry the details through

As you gather these details, squirrel them away in your mind and bring them up again later. One young woman I interviewed used to love watching The 100 with her father. Later, when she was struggling to talk about how it felt after he passed away I had some tangible questions to ask her. What was it like watching the show without him? How did it feel to hear his favourite song, watch his football team win? These sound like cruel questions but people respond well to them – it’s difficult to express grief but this gives them a framework for doing it and prompts new stories to come into their minds. That kind of detail also makes it feel more real for the readers without having to resort to cliches.

Avoid talking about yourself

Except in the rarest of cases, this kills the conversation stone dead – especially with celebrities. It’s fine to say something like “oh yes, I’ve got two kids as well, they can be a right handful, can’t they?” But once you start regaling them with tales of Little Johnny’s behavioural issues it changes the dynamic of the chat and leaves the interviewee floundering.

Sweat the small stuff

When people are describing something you can both get swept away on the narrative, then when you go to write it up you realise you’re missing a vital detail. “Then he threw a knife at me,” she says. You’re so shocked and sympathetic that you forget to ask where he got the knife from, whether it was a big scary carving knife or a butter knife, where it landed. Sometimes you have to break the flow to ask this crappy, horrible, unpleasant stuff. If you can’t break the flow, write a note to yourself to ask about it later in the conversation. No, it’s not nice but if you’re going to write a true reflection of what happened you have to know where things are.

Dates, dates dates.

The same goes for when things happen. Before you write a feature create a timeline of events and fill it in as you go – then refer back to it when you’re writing.

Check spellings

I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will. There are about eight different ways to spell Tracy.

journalist notepad scrawled with notes

If this was a proper blog, this would be a beautiful handmade notepad with a unicorn pen.

Check your voice recorder. Then check it again.

Once my voice recorder ran out of battery half way through an interview with Julie Walters. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life – to the extent that I’m ashamed to even admit it here, years later. Sure, I have shorthand but I find my notes don’t capture the nuance of the conversation as well, and it’s a bitch to decipher. The PR had to record the rest of the chat on her iPhone and email it over to me – I was so embarrassed I never told anyone in the office what happened. Since then before every interview I’ve checked the battery life and available memory on my trusty Olympus.

Get some playback software

Words cannot express how much I hate transcribing, speech-to-text software is hilariously bad and most commissions don’t pay well enough to pay a transcriber. So recently I downloaded some playback software to my computer. It’s not perfect but it allows you to slow down, speed up and play back small sections over and over until you’ve figured out what that vital mumbled word actually was.

Respect your interviewee

This person might have done things you would never consider doing in a million years. He or she might live a life you disapprove of or disagree with or just don’t get. None of that matters. It’s up to you to get into their heads and understand why they got that tattoo of Donald Trump on their face. In my day-to-day life almost everyone I meet in real life looks like me, thinks like me and often agrees with me so it’s good to see things from a different point of view and get the chance to meet some amazing people I’d never otherwise talk to. And I get paid for it too! Result.

Why anyone who publishes a book is amazing

It’s easy to slag books off. I do it all the time – as a reviewer I see lots of not-very-good books: novels which are cynical imitations of another title which did quite well a few years ago, novels written to a formula, novels cranked out when the writer had a deadline but was struggling for inspiration. And everyone’s favourite punching bag, Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s fun to slag off books and as a wannabe author it’s encouraging – if this load of old twaddle can get published, so can I. So yes, I do it, I’m only human.

But it’s also deeply wrong and unfair, because every non-celeb person who has ever had a book published deserves huge respect for beating the odds. They have been through at least a dozen agonising and increasingly Hunger Games-esque stages to get there…

To get your book published takes faith determination and a rhino-like skin1: They had a Very Good Idea. You know, just like the one that’s floating round your head at the moment that would be an absolute best seller if only you could find the time to write it all down.

2: They had a Second Very Good Idea which gave the initial Very Good Idea wings. Boy goes to wizard school has potential, but Orphaned boy goes to wizard school where he discovers a dark link between himself and the powerful wizard who murdered his parents is the start of a seven-book series.

3: They found the time to write it down. Hours. Days. Months. In the middle of the night, getting out of bed at 5am, punching it out with their thumbs on their iPhone on a commute. Or even giving up their jobs. Despite all the crap going on in their lives, they found the time.

4: They didn’t give up when they got 30,000 words in and realised that the Second Very Good Idea actually doesn’t work at all unless they go back and unpick everything that happened after Chapter Two. Instead, they went back and unpicked. Or they replaced the duff Second Idea with a shiny new Third Very Good Idea which made it even better.

5: They wrote 60,000 to 150,000 words about Very Good Ideas One and Two (or Three.) It might not be in a genre you like, it might be too light and fluffy or too flabby and pretentious but they wrote the words down. A story now exists where there was none before.

6: Then they edited, going through the whole thing until they were sick of the sight of it, rejigging it, taking bits out, regretting it, putting them back in. They cut things they loved, sliced out whole characters and wrote entirely new scenes instead, all the while not truly knowing whether they were making the thing better or worse.

7: They then sent it to agents. Dozens of ‘em. They received rejection email after rejection email until they wondered whether the Very Good Idea was actually Utter Tripe Idea in disguise. Maybe they took too long writing it and nobody wants dystopian YA stories any more, or a major plot point has been wiped out by the invention of Google Maps. Or maybe they just wasted an immense amount of their time and passion on something nobody wants to read. This could happen, and does – all the time. But if it doesn’t…

More bashing into shape ensues

8: An agent actually picks it out of their slush pile of hundreds, is moved by the words, blown away by VGIs One and Two, and signs them up. More editing ensues. Author and agent eventually agree that book is in good shape. Hooray!

9: Said agent believes in the book enough to haul it all around town to different publishers, or even take it to a book fair and say: “Buy my client’s book, it’s great and it will make money for you.”

10: In order to get a book deal, the author then has to cage fight JK Rowling using only a copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as a weapon. Oh wait, no, that’s just a weird dream I had.

10: A publisher sees the book, likes it and thinks that this is a Very Good Idea, which will possibly make money for them.

11: The publisher then introduces an editor into the mix who undertakes more Bashing Into Shape along with the author who is probably feeling pretty bashed themself by now. Once they’re happy, they haul it around town to the booksellers and supermarkets, convincing them that the author has had a Very Good Idea and that they, too could make money from it.

12: It has been years since the author had the Very Good Idea but it’s stood the test of time, it’s on the shelves. Now the author, the publisher and booksellers all join forces to convince us – the reading public – that the Very Good Idea is worth spending the price of a cup of coffee on.

What a way to make a living!

Seriously, it’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it works in traditional publishing. So to get your book onto shelves and into people’s hands takes an astonishing amount of faith in yourself and your idea, extraordinary discipline and commitment plus a rhino-like skin to deal with all those rejections and edits along the way. So anyone who has ever, ever had anything published is an utter hero. I salute you. And one day, glutton for punishment that I am, I hope to join you.

Book review: The Girl Who Came Out of the Woods by Emily Barr

the girl who came out of the woods postcardFor the first sixteen years of her life, Arty lives in paradise. She, her parents and a group of idealists have built a small community in a clearing in the middle of the Indian forest. It’s not an easy life but it’s a happy one – a matriarchal society where every community member is a god or goddess, decisions are made by consensus and her biggest worry is whether the monkeys are going to steal their food.

However one night everything goes horrifically wrong and Arty finds herself stumbling out of the trees into the 21st Century, to a world she has been taught to fear. Her old life is gone forever – but can she make a new one in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Can she make a new life in this crazy place of money, Bollywood, ice cream and Instagram?

Lonely and traumatised, faced with a family she’s never met – some of whom have secrets of their own – Arty needs to figure out who she can trust and who to fear – not an easy task when her mother’s last advice to her was “don’t go into the basement.”

Not everybody in the outside world has Arty’s best interests at heart.

I’m already a fan of Emily Barr’s, but I grabbed this one with extra enthusiasm because I love a cult – any story about a group of people trying to break away from society and think differently always fascinates me. This one’s a bit different though – in most books the cult becomes twisted, dominated by poisonous groupthink and manipulation. But in this story it’s the outside world which is a dark and terrifying place and the “cult” could teach us a thing or two about getting along.

There’s so many elements to this book it’s difficult to classify. It’s a thriller, full of thrillery tricks and twists and darkness. It’s a novel about travel and adventure. It’s also a coming-of-age story with a vein of wry humour running throughout, along with a sense of wonder and hope for the future. Each of Emily Barr’s books is stronger than the last and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

The Girl Who Came Out Of The Woods is out now

Cover of the girl who came out of the woods

Two other books about cults or isolated religious communities…

Laurie and Martha are a power couple with the world at their feet – but Laurie is still traumatised by the years she spent in the clutches of a controlling religious sect and when it gets too much she holes up in a tiny, secret room in their house. Then a man from her past appears and begins manipulating her teenage daughter. The Hidden Room by Stella Duffy uses the minutiae of everyday life and the horrors of the cult to create a tense, atmospheric story.

Educated is Tara Westover’s gorgeously written memoir of her strict, religious upbringing in the remote countryside and it’s absolutely fascinating. School was banned, traditional medicine was forbidden, the End of Days was always around the corner and violence was an everyday occurrence. As she grows up Tara faces a choice – remain loyal to her father despite growing doubts about his views or educate herself and alienate the family she loves.

And two I can’t wait to read…

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson is a debut novel about a “terribly English cult” called The Panacea Society – devoted member Dilys strikes up a friendship with new recruit Grace, but as their leader’s zealotry increases their faith, and the community, begins to fall apart… Out 6 June 2019

Crime writer Alex Marwood has long been fascinated by cults, narcissistic leaders and groupthink and her book The Poison Garden tells the story of Romy who escaped a toxic cult and, like Emily Barr’s Arty, doesn’t know who to trust in the outside world. Although if I know my Marwood, this story is going to get very, very dark… Out 25 July 2019

I wrote a book in three weeks and it changed everything

A few months ago, I wrote a book in the space of a few weeks. It wasn’t a particularly long one – just 12,000 words and it wasn’t a masterwork of fiction poured from my heart through the filter of my amazing literary talent.

In fact if I had to define it, Everything You Need To Know: Kings And Queens Through The Ages is one of those fun books you give to people at Christmas and then spot in their downstairs loo months later. But hey – a book is a book.

A friend put me in touch with a new publishing company which was planning to roll out a whole Everything You Need To Know series and needed writers. I fancied a new challenge and after a couple of enthusiastic emails I had myself a tasty commission. There was one small problem – they wanted the book in three and a half weeks.

All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family

And so I was off, researching up a storm. I spent hours in my local library scouring biographies for light-hearted trivia, trawled Wikipedia for leads then disappeared down a wondrous rabbit hole of historical blogs and academic papers. In the process I became an expert on things I’d never been remotely interested in before. I found myself watching The Crown saying things like “Of course Princess Margaret’s been on a bus” or “ooh look, it’s the Poltimore Tiara!”

And as I worked, the words just came – lining up gleefully on the page as I discovered each treasure trove of trivia. It was tons of fun. Of course when this happens it’s usually a sign that the work will need some serious editing later on but the fact remains: at the beginning of the month there was no book – three and a half weeks later, there was one.

By then I was knackered – I’d been doing all my regular freelance work alongside it so had been working until 2am for weeks – but also kind of exhilarated. Because after spending years in limbo with my own novel, tapping out the odd paragraph between commissions, I realised I could write something long-form (well long-ish), and write it fast. All it took was a punishing deadline and the will to ignore my family for set periods of time.

And so, in the weeks that followed I came to a decision. For years I’d been struggling to fit my fiction writing around the demands of a fast-turnaround freelance job, plus the needs of two small children and a raggedy, untidy house. As a result my novel has inched along slowly, sometimes lying neglected in my Dropbox for weeks. It’s time to make a change, to take a run at it like I did with Kings & Queens.

And so from the end of last year that’s what I started to do.  I dropped all freelance work except book reviews – I could never give up book reviews. And while it was incredibly painful it was also a huge relief because for the first time in years I was prioritising the career I wanted.

Having time to concentrate made all the difference

A few months later, I have finished editing the manuscript of my YA crime novel, The Girl Who, and have started sending it to agents. Having the time to concentrate on this project has made all the difference. I know I’m privileged to be able to do it, that I have a husband in work who is able to shoulder the financial burden for a while – many others don’t have that luxury. It’s no wonder the world of writing is so inaccessible for so many – there’ll be a blog on this in the near future as I have a lot to say about this.

Sadly, things did not end well for poor old Kings & Queens. Despite the punishing deadline it’s now languishing in publishing no-man’s-land, like an ageing heir awaiting an abdication, as booksellers didn’t pick it up. But still, it could be the most important book I ever wrote, as it gave me the confidence to carry on.

Book review: Haunted by Ghost Wall

cover of Ghost Wall by Sarah MossOver a thousand years ago out in the Northumberland countryside a girl was sacrificed: kicked, beaten, tortured and finally buried in the bog by her family, her friends and the people she had grown up with. How could a community turn on someone like that, and why?

This eerie scene leads us into Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss – and the presence of the Bog Girl haunts every page, even as we jump forward into the 1990s.

Why anyone would voluntarily live an Iron Age life is a mystery but a small group of enthusiasts is spending the summer doing just that, camped out on the moors hunting and gathering. The Professor and his students are doing it in the name of research, Silvie’s amateur history-buff father Bill does it to fuel his obsession with the Iron Age and Silvie and her mother are doing it because they do whatever Bill tells them or they’ll pay the price.

Bill dominates his family, just as he believes a prehistoric patriarch would and as the little community divides and violent undercurrents emerge, Silvie is torn between loyalty to him and the growing need to break free.

Every word has been carefully chosen

The unnerving link between Silvie and the Bog Girl adds a darkness and sense of anticipation which pulls the reader deep into the story. Sarah Moss’ lyrical writing is silky smooth – the novel is short and every word has been carefully chosen. The lack of quotation marks can make the dialogue a bit difficult to follow, though.

Despite the blurb this isn’t a twisty thriller or a horror novel. Instead it’s punching at bigger themes: domestic abuse, teenage identity and even class issues (part of Bill’s rage springs from resentment – as a working class man he’s patronised and has never been free to pursue his passion for history.)

But at the centre of this book is a bigger question. How many steps away are we from the kind of savagery and superstition which killed Bog Girl? And will Silvie follow in her muddy footsteps, thousands of years after? A disturbing, offbeat and haunting story.

Ghost Wall is out now.

How to edit your novel on Kindle

It’s been two months since I typed The End on my manuscript. I thought it would feel exciting and wonderful, but actually I felt kind of flat. Because although I was pleased to get to the end of my first draft – SIX FLAMING YEARS after starting it – I also knew there was tougher work to come. I dreaded the process of picking apart my hard-woven words, taking out all those flowery bits which seemed so beautiful at the time and crunching the plot.

Yup, I was dreading the editing process.

There’s just something about scrolling through a Word document which bogs me down. I pick apart sentences and shift words around but it’s impossible to step back and look at the broader flow of the story or check the pacing. Reading on-screen or even in an A4 printout doesn’t feel the same as reading a book.

I had the chance to read my book as the average reader would

Before Christmas I sent the manuscript to a kind, generous and straight-talking author friend for feedback and she asked me to send it to her in ebook form so she could read it on her Kindle. After an initial technophobic panic, I downloaded an app called Calibre which allows you to convert Word documents to .mobi or .epub files so they can work on an e-reader. Self published authors will know this process well, but it was new to me.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had the chance to read my book as a reader would. On a Kindle while sitting on the bus, lying in bed or brushing my teeth (Just me? Probably.)

It didn’t take long to convert the latest version of my MS (instructions are below if you haven’t done it before) and I got a genuine kick out of seeing my words on the Kindle screen. It felt more like an actual book than it ever had before.

Reading in that format prevented me from stopping every few minutes to perform major (probably unnecessary) surgery on an actually-probably-OK paragraph but I could still use the highlight and note features to jot things down as I went along.

It’s been a completely refreshing, new way to look at the book and definitely worth doing if you’re in a slump. Once I’ve finished, I’m planning to keep the ebook in front of me as I make changes which makes me feel one step ahead on the brutal editing process – and one step closer to getting my book off the ground.

How to turn your MS into an e-book (for editing, not self-publishing purposes)

This might be a completely bleeding obvious process for some people, but super handy for others, like me, who are new to this malarkey.

screenshot of calibre app open on a desktop

The Calibre window open on my desktop

1: Download Calibre online. My computer runs on Linux rather than Windows, which is probably why the screen grabs look a bit weird – but Windows versions are available. I used a dummy Masterpiece for the screen grabs – that obviously isn’t the title of my book. I did this because I STILL CAN’T FLIPPING THINK OF A GOOD TITLE FOR MY WIP DAMMIT.

2: Open Calibre and go to Add Books to import your document.

click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

Add a cover then click on Output Format at top left to convert to .mobi

3: Then select your book and click on Convert Books. Go to Output Format and select .mobi for a Kindle. Other readers can run .epub documents. I added a random photo of an Elvis impersonator as a cover, just to see if it worked. It showed up in the actual document but, disappointingly, not on my Kindle homepage.

4: Hook up your Kindle to your computer and drag-and-drop your mobi into the documents folder with your other ebooks. You can obviously try to email it using your Kindle email address but I’ve had patchy results with this.

If you decide to try this too – or have used it lots before – let me know how you get on!

All about being stuck in the middle of a novel with no end in sight

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