The Name of The Game

As an author, choosing a name for your characters is a tricky business. Each one has to fit their individual appearance, personality and age whilst not reminding you of someone in your own life; otherwise, instead of picturing your fictional character, you’ll envision that particular friend/ enemy/ colleague/ old classmate from primary school.

In my two novels to date, the naming of characters has created several unexpected difficulties:

1. Unintentional duplication. Having finished my first book, Landsliding, one of my beta readers came to see me to discuss her comments on the draft of the novel. To my amazement, she pointed out that two characters were both called Gail and asked me if I’d done this on purpose. I said she was mistaken – of course I hadn’t called two different characters by the same name; why on earth would I do that? – but, on closer inspection of the text, to my surprise I realised she was correct. Two of my characters were called the same thing and I hadn’t even noticed. I then became paranoid and had to go through the text making notes of each character’s name to make sure I hadn’t repeated myself again! Nightmare.

2. Changing names at the end of the novel. Sometimes you get to the end of writing your book and realise that a name hasn’t worked for the character in question. This happened in The Fortnight when I had to go back to every mention of that person and replace it with the new name (in this case, Molly’s boyfriend Josh) which was time-consuming and irritating but not disastrous. Somehow the original name I’d selected for him just didn’t seem suitable – I don’t know exactly why that was – but the minute I thought of him as ‘Josh’ I knew it was the right choice.

3. Duplication of names from one novel to the next. When I first started writing The Fortnight I was shocked to find I’d used several of the same names as in Landsliding – Peter, Aaron and Martin were just three examples of my repetition. When you think of all the names there are to choose from, it seems amazing that I hadn’t been more imaginative; for some reason I’d just reverted to names I’d already used before. Once I realised this, I hastily changed them to something different and made a mental note to be more aware of my selections .

4. Calling a difficult character by the name of a friend. This happened in The Fortnight with the character Elaine who displays many annoying characteristics. I considered calling her something else so as not to upset my great friend who shares her name, but in the end decided to give the real Elaine a special mention/ apology in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the novel. I didn’t want her to think there was any connection intended between the character’s personality traits and her own!

Overall I’d say that the naming of characters is a really interesting part of being an author. In a way it makes you feel powerful – you alone have the ability to decide their identity – but the decision-making process is a difficult one. Get it wrong and your character will always feel oddly awkward; not quite fully formed. Pick too many names beginning with the same letter and your readers may become confused. Choose a name closely identified with someone famous and your reader will always imagine the real person (for example, Rihanna, Boris or Camilla) instead of your character with their own idiosyncrasies and personality.

So next time you’re reading a novel, do pay careful attention to the characters’ names and remember how much thought and effort will have gone into each of the choices!

Publishing the Fortnight – it’s just like childbirth…

There’s a weird sense of anti-climax when your book finally makes it out into the universe. In many ways it’s like having a baby – all those months of planning, secret excitement when you don’t want to tell people too much, your friends’ thrilled faces when they hear the news – and then the moment when it stops being just yours and becomes part of the real world.

For me it’s been a two-stage process. Firstly the Kindle version came out a fortnight(!) ago and then I had to undergo a painful process of reformatting text for the paperback and finalising the cover. It’s been a long stretch from when I first started writing it to the moment of uploading the paperback… finally it’s finished and the lion’s share of the work is done.

From now on I can spend time promoting The Fortnight and encouraging people to write reviews, but the actual creative process is well and truly over. Half of me wants to start the next book straight away while the other half is desperate for a period of rest with no pressure to write, proofread or decipher Amazon’s complicated instructions for self-publication.

So I’m in a weird sort of limbo: waiting for reactions to the novel and for reviews to appear, hoping that my readers like it. I have faith in it – as with Landsliding, every time I look at it afresh I find aspects of the story gripping despite knowing it almost off by heart – and I think the paperback cover looks fantastic (thanks to photographer Rhys and designer Sammi!)

In these strangely formless days of post-publication I could start thinking about Christmas (will there be one?) or I could get fit (I’m going to the gym on alternate days and feel virtuous if not much slimmer) or, preferably, I could just chill out and do very little.

The trouble is, I love the discipline of writing – and I think I need it. It’s kind of addictive. At the peak of my immersion in The Fortnight I was getting up at 6am to write for an hour before showering and getting ready for the working day. As soon as I could I’d be writing again, desperate to see what my characters did next… and during lockdown it provided vital structure to my days and my weekends.

So I’m unsure whether NOT writing is even an option. It brings me pleasure, it absorbs me and it offers a strange sort of distraction from all the weirdness going on in the outside world at the moment.

Starting another book straight away is tempting but also feels a bit disloyal – rather like starting a new relationship too soon after the last one has ended. I want to give The Fortnight its day in the sun before I start the next novel and I’ve also got to decide which of two options to go for. There’s one story I’ve already started and another I’m interested in developing – so which will it be?

It’s pretty intense and exhausting writing a book; a massive commitment. Several times during the creation of Landsliding and The Fortnight I’ve thought ‘Never again’… but I know I won’t stop here.

Without any doubt I need my writing fix, so now it’s just a question of how long I wait before starting the next novel!

Taste Testing – The Fortnight

I’ve reached an exciting stage with the development of my new novel – it’s the Bake Off equivalent of creating a new recipe, baking it and then giving it to the judges for taste testing!

My 80,000 words are written, I’ve gone through the whole of The Fortnight and completed my editing to get it as good as I can. Now the text has gone off to my ‘beta readers’ who are the taste testers… they’ll read it and tell me about any parts they think need to be changed or improved.

It’s so nerve racking to send off a brand new novel to people who haven’t seen it before and who know absolutely nothing about it – my nightmare would be that one (or more) of the beta readers says it makes no sense and they hate the whole story!

Interestingly, when I got to the same stage in Landsliding, two of my beta readers didn’t like the original ending. They felt it was a little flat and too ‘sewn up’ despite my insisting it was the exact conclusion that I’d always planned. At first I stubbornly refused to change it, saying I was happy with it and didn’t feel inclined to make any amendments.

But after a bit of reflection, and re-reading the end myself several times, I realised they were right – it was too neat and too unexciting. So I added a new final chapter and it seemed to make all the difference!

In many five star reviews of Landsliding, I was amazed to see it was the ending that people enthused about. It’s a plot twist, which people always love, but it’s also completely unexpected and makes the reader sit up and think. I haven’t specifically tried to emulate that with The Fortnight but again the ending might surprise some people.

So this time, once the beta readers have given me their comments, I’ll go through the whole novel once more to assess their thoughts and decide which ones I agree with and which ones I don’t. It’s a tricky process because the book is very much my baby – it’s been developing for months, it feels like my special thing and I’m very possessive of it.

Making changes can be difficult and any criticism can feel very threatening; luckily my years spent in a writing group in France got me acclimatised to hearing critiques of my writing. We used to read out our work to each other and then listen as the group members in turn would give their opinions aloud: more than once I remember the writer ending up in tears.

You have to learn to develop a thick skin – there’s a great quote from David Mitchell (the Cloud Atlas author, not the Would I Lie to You comedian!) that says:

If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stick, lie down in your coffin and say ‘when you’re ready… ’

And that just about sums it up – putting your writing out there to the world is truly terrifying and leaves you feeling exposed and ready to be attacked. If you can’t face it, though, there’s no point publishing your book!

Hearing readers’ comments is one of the great joys of being a writer, but it’s better for everyone if the comments are constructive. My ex husband once told me my writing style was ‘boring’ …and that’s one of the reasons why he’s my EX husband. (Seriously, that wasn’t the only reason!)

Writing is massively subjective which is why book groups are so popular – it’s always fascinating to hear a diverse range of views about one particular book – but it always annoys me when people criticise a piece of writing without being able to justify why they didn’t like it.

Sometimes the reason can be as simple as the fact that it’s just not your genre, yet challenging yourself to try something different can lead to pleasant surprises. As an adult I’d never read teen fiction until my daughter persuaded me to read The Hunger Games series which I absolutely loved, finding it a real feat of imagination and storytelling.

Likewise, for many years I never read science fiction but eventually found myself thoroughly enjoying two classics: Dune by Frank Herbert and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, carried away into a parallel universe by both of those talented writers.

Other hugely popular books, though, just haven’t worked for me. Two that especially spring to mind are J M Coetzee’s Disgrace and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road; both mega successful prize-winning novels which I found totally depressing and hard to get through.

I suppose if you’re going through a tough time in your life and you’re reading a book in that period, you might end up with a bad taste in your mouth about that particular book. Ideally, if the story and/or writing is good enough, the hope is that you’d be taken out of your bad time and put in a better place.

So if you end up reading The Fortnight once it’s published, and leave me a review on Amazon, Goodreads or wherever, I won’t mind if you don’t like it so long as you tell me why. Fingers crossed, though, all the reviews will be positive!

Writing – how, where, when?

Recently someone asked me about my writing process, wondering whether I stick to a regular routine or write on an ad hoc basis; do I aim for a certain number of words per day or let it flow organically?

It’s an interesting topic and I suspect every writer handles the issue differently according to their moods, preferences, available time/space and their own deadlines!

When I first started writing seriously I was in a group which met every month, imposing automatic deadlines on all the members. Each time we got together a task would be set in terms of having to write x number of words on a certain theme – so I’d have a specific target to meet. That tended to focus the mind but didn’t leave much scope for independent writing.

My self-discipline at this point was non existent. It wasn’t until I found out that two of my writing group friends were also starting novels – at the very point when I was developing the plot-line for Landsliding – that I found a framework. The three of us decided to meet weekly and set ourselves a target of writing 2000 words each to discuss and critique between us.

This was invaluable in terms of providing me with the necessary focus to get down to writing. I was determined not to let down my friends by failing to offer them consistent work to critique, and that incentive pushed my writing forward successfully.

At the time I was living in rural France in the huge house I’ve described before, and was lucky to have not only my own office but also a bespoke writing room in the garden. Having those spaces where I could retreat to get on with my writing made all the difference; for anyone who doesn’t realise the importance of this, just read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.

View from my writing room

Having space and peace and quiet are all luxuries for a writer, although personally sometimes I like a bit of noise in the background. Radio 2 is a particular favourite. But not having to write in a communal space enables an author to delve into their own thoughts, to focus and concentrate in a totally different way.

I remember hearing how JK Rowling would retreat to her local cafe when she was first writing Harry Potter and was living in Porto. She had a young child at the time and I imagine opportunities for peace and quiet in her home environment were limited. Going out to do one’s writing is a possibility but I always find it more distracting than being at home.

JK Rowling’s cafe in Porto

Once I’d got on a roll with Landsliding, it wasn’t hard to find time to write, and some evenings were absorbed by it as well as many daytime hours. This didn’t sit well with my then husband who described me as ‘obsessed’ because he thought I spent too much time on the novel; I’ve heard this from other writers whose families resent time away from them.

One successful author told me she’d been offered a place at a writing retreat abroad but had to decline it as her husband didn’t want her to go. That balance between home life and writing can be a tricky path to negotiate – what you think is a fair amount of time to spend on writing may not tally with your family’s views. Conflict may end up an inevitability as you try to allocate your time fairly.

Certainly when I was proofreading the final version of Landsliding before it was published, I was locking myself away for a block of seven hours each time I proofed it – and I did it eight times over. That’s a lot of hours to be cloistered away from the family, needing peace and quiet and an understanding partner and/or children.

Now back in the UK and with a full time job, my time for writing is limited and I have to be more disciplined. Sometimes I wake up early, eager to start writing, while at other times I feel totally uninspired – but it’s surprising how forcing yourself to do it can lead to unexpected results. The mere act of sitting down at the desk can switch you into ‘writing mode’.

Other times you get success in the most unlikely circumstances. Nearing the end of writing my second novel The Fortnight, I recently reached an impasse with a difficult part I just couldn’t get right. I’d had several failed attempts and was starting to lose hope. As any writer knows, there are always sections of work in progress that are more challenging than others and until you reach them you can’t tell which ones they’ll be.

With this particular part of the novel, I was utterly fed up of trying. In a sort of blankness I sat in front of the TV – it was Who Wants to be a Millionaire – and half-heartedly started reworking the very difficult segment. To my delight, the words started flowing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it: sometimes it just works and other times it really doesn’t.

If one day you’ve got a block, the next day it may well have lifted. You just push through the dry times, making the most of those days when the words come easily and you’re amazed at how the sentences seem to form themselves without effort.

So I echo Virginia Woolf’s sentiment that you need a room of your own in which to write, but it also helps to have the following: an understanding family, a good supply of drinks and snacks, a great view out of the window (though this can be a distraction too) and lots of patience. Oh – and a steely determination not to give up!

The Mag

The theme for this blog was going to be about my urge to write. I’ve always had that inner drive since childhood when I composed endless poems and short stories – and now the trait lives on in my nieces Emma (11) and Julia (nearly 7) who are exactly the same!

But then I remembered my mother’s much-loved correspondence magazine and decided to focus the blog on another means of self expression; the art of writing letters.

When I was a baby in the 1960s, at a time when new mums rarely had jobs, my mother saw an advertisement in a magazine called ‘Parents’ for other young mums to join a correspondence circle. Today the equivalent would be a mini Mumsnet! Seven new ‘friends’ were selected by the person who had placed the ad and they agreed a system for the correspondence circle to work.

Person 1 would write a long letter in a large spiral-bound notebook which she then posted to person 2 who repeated the process, forwarding it to person 3 until it finally returned to person 1. At that point, person 1 would tear out her first letter and write a new one in the notebook so that circulation could start again. They took it in turns to buy a new notebook when necessary.

Ironically, the woman who initiated the idea soon dropped out – maybe realising she’d started something she was reluctant to commit time to – but the other seven young mums embraced it with enthusiasm. The mag, as it came to be known, was born.

I well remember my mother’s thrilled cry – ‘the mag’s here’ – when it landed on our mat several times a year. The correspondents were from as far afield as the Lake District, Hampshire, the Midlands and the South East and for many years they never met in person. Once they were retired, they started having girls’ weekends away which all seven of them always loved attending.

As a child I witnessed my mother’s absorption in the lives of these friends – bearing in mind she’d never met them at that point – and the fact that ‘the mag’ became a sort of confessional for the women who were bringing up families, going through the pain of separation or divorce, parents’ deaths, illnesses of family or loved ones. I think it was a vital outlet for their feelings, their hopes and aspirations, their worries and fears.

Mum and me

One woman detailed the discovery of her husband’s affair in heartbreaking detail, begging the correspondence circle friends for help and advice. The naked pain and desperation were evident in her letter and they all telephoned her to offer support but also wrote long, heartfelt replies in the mag. At other, happier times there were photos included of weddings, grandchildren and holidays.

My memory of the mag are of how much joy and pleasure it brought my mother and what a huge part it played in her life. At a time when there was no easy way to share feelings, it must have offered a vital connection to other women going through the same experiences of marriage and motherhood, many of them probably feeling isolated in their own way.

Oddly, the mag has played an important role in my own life too. When I was nearly 11, one of the mag correspondents – Betty – wrote that her daughter Joanna was seeking a pen pal. As soon as my mother suggested me as a candidate, Jo and I tentatively started writing to each other. We were two months apart in age and both loved reading books and writing letters.

Buying stationery for my correspondence to Jo soon became a regular habit; at one point we were writing to each other three times a week, desperate to share our thoughts and news of what was happening in our lives. I just wish I’d kept all those luridly coloured letters.

Happily, more than 40 years later we’re still the best of friends, having finally exchanged letter writing for emailing and meeting in person.

The sharing of memories, aspirations and anxieties are key to making friendships and I rue the loss of letter writing as a method of communicating. I do still write to my aunt in the USA – who can no longer use a computer and loves to have letters read out to her – but I miss the days of friends contacting me via the post. Receiving a hand written letter is a rare treat.

When my lovely mother died in 2012, I found amongst her papers many of her old letters from the mag which, having torn them from the notebooks, she’d kept as reminders of what had happened in her life. It took quite a time before I plucked up the courage to go through them – it was too upsetting to hear my mum’s voice in every word – but in the end I read them.

Her pride and interest in her family and her work (she was a teacher), her love of dogs and the countryside and of course her beloved football team Manchester City all shone through. Although I shed many a tear on reading them, I was so glad I did; they formed a sort of personal history of my mum and my own family.

Two of the original seven correspondents from the mag have sadly passed away but the remaining five still write to each other, faithfully circulating their notebooks around the country at a time when that personal contact is probably extra important and special.

Joanna and I are always threatening to write a book based on the mag and the bond between our mothers which started in such a special way and led to our own lifelong friendship. We’ve been through so much together as friends, as did our mothers – and those connections were formed via the crucial love of writing.

Book or Movie?

A bookmark I was given for my birthday states ‘Never judge a book by its movie’ – which focused my mind on the thorny issue of film adaptations of favourite books. And there’s also that old question: read the book first, or watch the film?

Almost always I’d say you have to enjoy the book first – otherwise any subsequent reading will be tainted by the unshiftable vision of the characters looking exactly as they did in the movie. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is the Harry Potter series. I tried to read the first book in the late 90s, soon after it came out, when an author friend lent it to me with an avid recommendation. At that time I couldn’t get past the second page; for some reason the story held no appeal for me.

But after watching the film series over the years with my daughter, and recently seeing my niece devour all seven books in a matter of weeks, I wondered if I was missing something. So I tried the books again – and loved them. The fact that in my imagination Harry was Daniel Radcliffe and Snape was Alan Rickman (etc) didn’t matter; yes, the Hogwarts on the page had merged in my mind with the one I’d seen on the screen – but that didn’t matter, any more than the new face of Dumbledore mattered in the third movie. The films were good enough not to spoil the books.

But what happens when your most beloved novel is made into a film (or TV programme) and ruined? My first experience of this was when Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night was serialised on American TV many years ago. The casting of Dick Diver, the central male character, wasn’t a problem – Peter Strauss had bland good looks exactly as I’d imagined from the book. His wife Nicole was a different matter. In the wonderful novel, Nicole is described as blonde and fragile; for some inexplicable reason tall, dark Mary Steenburgen was cast in the part. I was horrified.

Unfortunate casting! Mary Steenburgen as Nicole

Other examples include the film version of Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – great acting from Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet, but the overlong movie emphasises the deeply depressing nature of the book – as well as filmed adaptations of Wuthering Heights. In my view, nothing can capture Emily Brontë’s intense writing and the bleak Yorkshire romanticism of Cathy and Heathcliff’s doomed love. Seeing it on the screen just doesn’t work.

Movie versions have been made of some fabulous novels – The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Help, The Colour Purple, Cloud Atlas – but in my opinion the books win out every time. 

Sometimes, though, novels turned into TV or film are so damned good that they bring a new audience to an author’s work. I’m thinking of Pride and Prejudice – where female viewers fell for Colin Firth in a cleverly added scene that isn’t in the book – and Sense and Sensibility, my all-time favourite movie adaptation. What makes it so perfect? The screenplay, for a start – written by Emma Thompson who won an Oscar – no dumbing down, no omission of ‘boring’ scenes; just a faithful telling of Jane Austen’s story with beautiful locations and a superb cast. What’s not to love?

Other Oscar-winning adaptations include Sophie’s Choice – I found the novel rather wordy but loved the movie with Meryl Streep – or Schindler’s List which worked surprisingly well on the big screen, starring Liam Neeson.

One film I’m eagerly awaiting is one I read hints about a while ago but of which I’ve seen no trace: an adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, supposedly taken on by director Sam Mendes. I would trust him to create a suitably magical big screen version of one of my childhood favourites – but maybe he’s given up on the idea, as the rumours have vanished. I shall keep hoping…

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your suggestions for particularly successful film/TV versions of favourite books or – just as interesting – any disasters!

Book bingeing #2 – fantasy, detectives and Nordic noir

Like most book addicts, I’m a sucker for a good series. There’s something entirely satisfying about seeing a set of covers on your shelf and waiting impatiently for the next title to be published. Getting to know a group of characters; recognising the location of the stories; that reassuring familiarity when you start the new one in the series – it can be really addictive.

In terms of selling books it’s no surprise to know that publishers are always on the look-out for new novels forming part of a series. It’s a great way to hook readers and, no doubt, hope that the books end up being filmed or televised. Look at the success of Inspector Morse, Game of Thrones and, of course, the most famous and successful series of them all – Harry Potter.

Here I want to talk about some of my favourite book series I’ve discovered as an adult; all very different but equally interesting in their own way.

I’ll start with the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake – the perfect example of how easy it is to prejudge books by their covers and by the blurb on the back. Initially I thought these looked and sounded weird! I saw them in a second hand bookshop with my then husband who picked one up, saying: ‘Have you read these? They’re amazing.’

I was put off not only by the line drawings on the front but also by the blurb which talked about ‘Gothic imagination’ and ‘fantasy’. Really not my scene – and I was also deterred by the title of the first book, Titus Groan. Nothing could have seemed less like my cup of tea, but I bought the books out of loyalty to my husband who’d enjoyed the trilogy so much when he was younger.

One of the many quirky illustrations inside Gormenghast

To my surprise, I loved them. The ‘alternative universe’ of Gormenghast enthralled me and the intricate storytelling – reminiscent of Harry Potter in parts – is so cleverly carried out that the reader is swept along in a dream land populated by characters with exotic names such as Flay, Fuchsia and Prunesquallor. Genuinely unique and incredibly creative.

Then there are the Wallander detective novels by Henning Mankell – one of the first examples of the Nordic noir genre – written in the 1990s and popularised in the UK when they were televised with Kenneth Branagh as the eponymous detective Kurt Wallander. I’ve never watched it, preferring to keep the character as I imagine him rather than seeing Ken pretending to be Swedish.

I got into this series when I lived in France and would swap books with a friend on a regular basis. It was cheaper and more fun than buying them on Amazon; rather like a mini book group for the two of us. She suggested I might enjoy the first Wallander novel and I looked doubtful – a detective novel set in Sweden didn’t sound my scene – but agreed out of politeness to try it.

A few days later I was back at her house begging to borrow the next in the series, and that continued until I’d finished them all. The sense of loss when I finished the last one was palpable: I’d enjoyed them so much, and so totally absorbed the bleak Swedish countryside evoked by Mankell, that I was loath to accept there were no more to read.

Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander

These final two series are similar in that they’re more recent; in fact, both had new books added to them last year (much to mine and many other people’s delight). One is Susan Hill’s superb Simon Serrailler series about a detective living in a fictional town called Lafferton, and the other is Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Jackson Brodie collection.

Both authors are masters of their craft and I’ve read plenty of other books by them – but these two series are, in my opinion, tours de force for different reasons.

Starting with the Simon Serrailler novels – there are ten now – I can virtually read one of these books in a single sitting; that’s how gripped I am by the stories and the atmosphere Hill creates. We get to know all about Simon, his failed relationships and his slightly odd family, as well as vicariously experiencing the gruesome crimes he’s investigating (at least one per story).

Despite the fact that an unfortunate number of major mishaps seem to befall the Serrailler clan, the books are beautifully written and extraordinarily atmospheric. An air of menace flows through each story, yet they never seem overdone or repetitive. Already I’m looking forward to the eleventh in the series and hope I won’t have to wait too long.

And then there are the Jackson Brodie stories, which followers of my instagram will know I’ve mentioned before. For me, this series is based around a perfect piece of characterisation: Jackson, the worn ex-cop – who becomes a private detective and makes bad choices about women – is totally believable in his reactions and private musings.

The books are shot through with word play, jokes and telling relationship insights but then the author shocks the reader with graphic bursts of violence which are integral to the plot but come as a surprise each time. The books are equally funny, moving and scary – a hard combination to pull off – and all I can say is that I wish I could write like Kate Atkinson. I shall keep trying.

In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend all four of these collections and would love to hear suggestions of other well written and entertaining book series.

Book Bingeing #1

Who doesn’t love a good series? At this time of lockdown, my daughter and I are working our way through various box sets on Netflix that we’ve – well, mostly me – managed to miss over recent years – we’re currently hooked on Killing Eve. Bingeing on TV is great, but I’ve always found it easy to become obsessed with book series too.

My first great reading love was The Famous Five and I genuinely think they ignited my passion for collecting books. At that time we lived in Streatham, south London, where there was a second- hand bookshop we often used to visit after school. For some reason I associate each trip there with my mother buying me a bag of pink sweets – sort of marshmallow flavour but a hard texture – and this may well explain my passion for eating sweets whilst reading!

Back to the books… this shop contained a section devoted to Enid Blyton and I can still picture the row of Famous Five red hardbacks lined up on the shelf. Each week my mother would buy me another one of the series and I gradually built up my collection – starting with Five on a Treasure Island (was Uncle Quentin a goodie or baddie?) and soon extending to over twenty. My favourite was always Five go to Smugglers Top.

Nostalgia…

I devoured these books with enthusiasm and quickly discovered the Five Find Outers (led by the non-PC-named Fatty) and the Secret series (Island, Mountain etc). Next came the school ones which were even more my cup of tea: the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, and of course Darrell and Sally at Malory Towers. Malory Towers was my first paperback set, followed by Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma series which my grandmother bought me when they came out.

Around the age of 10, I started reading the Lone Pine stories by Malcolm Saville, centred around a club founded by children under a solitary pine tree in the Shropshire hills. It was instant love. My mother had known of the series as a child – the first few books were written during the war when the author spent some time in Shropshire – and she liked them too.

My feelings went way beyond liking them. I literally adored those books; in fact, I loved them so much that I’d copy out sections just for the joy of seeing the words in my own writing. Gradually I collected them all; 18 in total, from what I remember, and persuaded my parents to take us on holiday to the Shropshire hills near Church Stretton in the hope of finding the house called Witchend where the children lived.

The fact that the books contained a disclaimer saying there was no house called Witchend didn’t deter me. I sent a couple of letters to Malcolm Saville telling him how much I loved the Lone Piners and received gracious handwritten replies which I still have. I was absolutely convinced that Witchend existed and as I grew up I kept the Lone Pine books, always believing one day I would find the house.

A treasured letter from Malcolm Saville

As an adult I often returned to stay near the Long Mynd, sometimes persuading my then husband to help me try and track down the real Witchend. We searched around rather vaguely but never saw any clues. Then one day an amazing thing happened. I was in a newsagent’s in Church Stretton and found a book called The Complete Lone Pine giving details of locations in the books.

Literally shaking as I flicked through it, I saw the name of the farm that Witchend had been based upon. Part of me was scared to go there – 20 years on from my original eagerness to find the place – would it live up to expectations? My husband and I set off straight away, with the help of an Ordnance Survey map. It wasn’t far from Church Stretton and as we neared the turning I became really nervous. Was this a mistake?

As we drove up the green-fringed lane – vividly evoked in the Lone Pine books – towards the house, I felt I knew the route so well. Then we turned a corner and there it was, nestling snugly in a small valley with the wood behind, just as Malcolm Saville had described. I can’t deny that I shed a tear or two. Finally I’d found Witchend and, just as I’d always known, the house was real.

As we stood on the hill above the house and I took some photos, a man appeared and started shouting at us. I was mortified. Was he angry? But no, he seemed to be waving in a friendly way. As he got near, I could hear he was asking something: ‘Are you looking for Witchend?’

I nodded and he beamed at us. ‘Yes, this is it. We have people coming here from all over the world because they loved the books as children.’

So it wasn’t just me who’d been desperate to find Witchend. We chatted for a while – he was lovely – and then left, feeling that I’d uncovered a special link to my childhood. No wonder those books were written so lovingly about the Shropshire countryside; Saville was describing the very house where his children had been evacuated in the war and he used to come to stay.

Another location in the Lone Pine series was Rye – particularly the Mermaid Inn – and the books sparked a long-held ambition to go and stay there. Earlier this year I did it. My daughter and I spent a wonderful day and night in Rye staying in Dr Syn’s Bedchamber (where the Queen Mother had stayed nearly 40 years ago!) and it lived up to all my expectations; atmospheric, beautiful and truly historic.

My bookish friends and I often discuss our favourite various childhood series – the characters are imprinted on our memories despite the fact we remember little of school lessons from back then – and it’s a real bonding experience. Seeing even one of those books in their original format gives me a jolt of nostalgia and delight.

From Self-Publishing to Published Author!

Having self-published Landsliding on Kindle, I described in my last blog the frustration of not having a physical book to send people to review, photograph or to give away as a competition prize. I had no publisher to help spread the word about my novel – it was all down to me – and so I decided the only way forward was to print some copies myself.

In theory this sounded easy but then I started researching the options and realised just how many challenges and decisions awaited me:

  • how much did I want to spend?
  • how should I go about choosing a printing company?
  • what would I do about designing a cover?
  • I’d have to select the book’s size, font, paper quality and even paper colour (who knew!)
  • did I want virtual or physical proof copies?
  • as I lived in rural France at the time, organising delivery wouldn’t be easy!

These issues were daunting, but I felt sure this would be the ideal way to make Landsliding more accessible to a much wider readership. I identified a company in Peterborough which had received rave reviews for its book printing services and started to plan with them the practicalities.

The path to the finished product wasn’t smooth. I won’t bore you with all the problems, suffice to say some were the company’s fault (eg. sending a proof copy with the wrong cover, causing a week’s delay in my carefully planned schedule) and others weren’t (eg. their print room being damaged by a lightning strike which led to another delay in printing).

Designing my cover was one of the more pleasurable aspects although I had no idea where to start. All I knew was that I wanted the word ‘landsliding’ to run downwards, mimicking a real landslide, and I wanted the cover to be pretty. So I went around my house photographing images or fabrics that appealed to me and soon found the right one; part of a picture showing a hazy rustic image of a sunset and some rolling hills.

My mock-up of Landsliding’s cover

I mocked up an image of how I imagined the cover to look and sent it to the designer employed by the printing company. In the end it turned out as colourful and appealing; I was delighted, ignoring the (rather vital) fact that the cover image had nothing to do with the story and gave potential readers no idea what they might expect from the book itself.

Once the copies were delivered, I was faced with the decision of what to do with them. Bravely I approached a few independent bookshops and sent a copy to each, asking them to read it and let me have their opinion. My first success was a bookshop in Yorkshire where the manager read the book and loved it, agreeing to take six copies on a sale or return basis. I thought I’d cracked it.

Landsliding on display in Yorkshire bookshop

I held readings and signings at libraries near me in France which were enjoyable and gratifying – I sold around 50 copies at each one – and attended a UK book fair for self published authors which was a pretty dismal experience. Most of the public seemed totally uninterested in buying any books and had come in to ‘have a look’ before going off to do something more fascinating with their day.

As soon as it was printed, a kind friend of mine had sent copies of Landsliding to a few of his contacts in the media world but nothing had come of it. Most told him they were too busy to look at it, or it wasn’t their genre, or they’d get back to him if they felt there was anything they could do (a polite way of saying please go away).

Many months later, out of the blue, something totally bizarre and unexpected happened. In my email inbox I found a message from someone I’d never heard of but he mentioned that my friend had given him a copy of my book. To my amazement, he said he’d read the first few chapters and liked what he saw. Would I call him? This turned out to be Scott, my lovely editor.

We spoke a lot over the following year. He read the rest of the book, shared it with his colleagues and in the end told me he wanted Landsliding to be part of a new series of ebooks his company was launching. I thought about it for five minutes and realised I had nothing to lose; it was the perfect opportunity to get my book out into the public domain with the backing of a reputable company.

The next months were a blur of working through the text – Scott wanted a few additions and amendments but nothing major, luckily – and agreeing a new cover. My own cover, the one I’d designed and was so attached to, was deemed ‘terrible’ by Scott for the reasons already mentioned, so his own illustrator came up with a new image of a domestic scene (a barbecue in a suburban garden) viewed from the sky.

Landsliding’s new cover

At first I wasn’t sure – it was a messy image and, to me, not remotely pleasing to the eye – but Scott loved it and so did all the people I showed it to. Descriptions included ‘intriguing’, ‘eye-catching’ and ‘totally different’ – all of which showed that Scott and his team were right. The cover really did grab attention and would help to attract readers.

Finally, on Monday 13 April 2020 – on what must have been the weirdest Easter Monday ever, with the country in lockdown – Landsliding was launched by Lightning Books as an ebook. Finally I had achieved my long held ambition of becoming a published author.

A Leap of Faith: Self-Publication Online

At the end of my last blog I described how I’d decided to self-publish Landsliding on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform – and then a whole new set of problems faced me.

  1. Obviously the whole manuscript would need to be edited and proofread – but how would I ever be certain when it was ready to go online? There would be no professional editor to advise or help me.
  2. How did one start to go about uploading a book online – how did you format it, choose the font, design a cover or promote it? I had no idea about any of those things.
  3. And suppose I received loads of negative reviews – was I resilient enough to cope, without being put off writing for life? I really wasn’t sure.

I knew I had to start somewhere, so first of all I read carefully through the whole manuscript, looking for any discrepancies, errors or typos. Then I asked a couple of my writing group friends – ones who hadn’t seen it before – to read the text and give their honest views. Once they fed back their thoughts, I made a few amendments to take their views into account.

In the meantime I had set myself up on KDP so I’d be ready to publish when the time came; happily, the admin part wasn’t as complex as I’d anticipated. Also, it turned out that both the formatting and the font were standardised as part of the process so I wouldn’t have any worries about those.

The question of cover design was problematic, as I was loathe to spend time and/or money on commissioning an illustrator to create one for me. Being an Aries I’m incredibly impatient; I want to do everything straight away with no hanging around.

I don’t know how it works on KDP nowadays but when I did it there was a very simple graphic design package whereby you could design your cover for free. So with the help of my daughter Susannah I created an extremely basic cover, hoping its lack of visual appeal wouldn’t deter potential readers.

Landsliding’s original cover (!)

After that was done, I proofed the text several more times to look for typos and was shocked to find how tiny errors can creep past you time after time. This was a really labour intensive task as each read-through took a full day. By the time I’d proofed it seven times I got to the stage where it was as perfect as it was going to get – so I was ready to upload and put Landsliding online.

This was the really terrifying part. Pressing ‘Upload’ literally terrified me – I knew that once it was online my work would be exposed to the world, risking both praise and ridicule. In the end I more or less just closed my eyes and took a leap of faith, feeling a mix of exhilaration (I’ve done it!) and abject terror (What the hell have I done?)

A couple of my friends bought the book immediately and posted glowing reviews within a couple of days. Living in rural France, as I was then, word spread fast through the local expat community so it was no problem to promote it locally. 

But beyond the local area and my friends in the UK, I had little idea about publicity. After selling around 100 virtual copies I seemed to have hit an impasse so – to try and widen the net – I did the following things:

  • I started an author Facebook account, having always sworn to keep away from social media
  • I sent the book’s Amazon link to reviewers and editors
  • I tried to interest local magazines in reviewing it 
  • I asked our local library in France (which had a popular English section) if they’d like me to give an author reading 

To my disappointment,  everyone I approached said they needed to see the actual printed book. Nowadays it’s no disadvantage to be published only in ebook format ; there have been some massively successful e-authors such as crime fiction writer  LJ Ross who’s sold nearly 5 million books. But, for me, particularly with no expert knowledge of social media, it was way too hard to get the message out to the world.

It was so frustrating. I had huge belief in my book and knew I could get people interested if only there was a product to show them. In the end I realised there was only one answer; to get copies printed myself. So now I’d be self publishing in paperback format – and the next phase of Landsliding’s journey was about to begin.

Celebrating my big accomplishment!