The Writer’s Fan Base

I was totally awestruck when I met romantic novelist Rowan Coleman at a literary event two years ago.  I’m a huge fan of her wonderful books. (She was really lovely and modest too – most bestselling writers are) There’s quite a lot of Rowan fans about, it would appear, given her novels are frequently in the Top 10 fiction charts and she has thousands of Twitter followers.

I can only dream of having a following like Rowan’s but I have two huge fans: my mother and my husband who automatically love everything I write, plus a whole gaggle of friends who loyally support my writing dreams.  A support network is vital for those many hours (days, months) of self-doubt, dry spells, bad feedback or reviews, writer’s block et cetera, but for me the real validation comes from complete strangers.  Strangers have no emotional investment in your work and the general public is a very harsh critic.  In modern society we constantly judge. So to win a stranger’s approval is the highest form of praise indeed.

For the fledgling writer it is so thrilling to have someone tell you they enjoyed your book, column or article.  A cousin I hadn’t seen for years, a friend’s sister-in-law at a 40th party and a colleague’s wife recently enthused about my ebook and I was delighted to have their feedback.  But just last week a complete stranger approached me and said how much she loved my column: although I was incognito at a writers’ event she had recognised me from my tiny photo in the paper.  (Quite a feat when you consider that I am wearing dark glasses and I write under my rarely used married name lest I offend anyone and attract an angry twitchfork mob).  This was another great milestone for me in my writing career.  Although I bet this happens to the mighty Grace Dent all the time, even she had to start somewhere.

The same with Twitter and blog followers: they are following because they have chosen to and that is an achievement in a world with so much information overload and where most of us have so little free time.

So what are the other milestones in my writing timeline thus far?  I suppose for me the defining moments are: winning a short story competition aged 13; gaining my journalism degree (unused until my late thirties);  joining a writers’ group; having my first work published; my first blog; publishing my ebook; getting a phone call one winter’s morning from the editor of a woman’s magazine asking if they could use one of my short stories; writing my column; being chosen to write for a travel anthology; and this year being asked to contribute to a popular website. Along the way there are smaller triumphs such as building my writer platform, encouragement from some really fabulous (and famous) friends and fellow writers, and seeing my name in print time and again, which never loses its thrill.  (As does a royalty or payment cheque plopping through the letterbox although for now, I’d starve if it wasn’t for my day job).    For me, it is my ambition to always be able to walk into WHSmith and know that my work is somewhere in there.  So far this year I’ve nearly achieved that.

Next I’d like a three book deal with a hefty advance, but one can dream.  And that’s what we writers deal in: dreams.

Don’t Rain On My Parade!

No statue has ever been put up in honour of a critic, as the saying goes. But is it just me or do those critics seem extra tough on us writers, especially aspiring scribes? Particularly when the subject of the negativity is striving for their lifelong dream of becoming published or winning a book deal.

Some people enjoy nothing more than shooting others down in flames. If you have ever dieted you will be acutely aware of the diet saboteur, always keen to offer a tempting slice of forbidden cake. I was recently all dressed up for a night out only to be told by a ‘friend’ on arrival at the venue that I ‘looked tired’. I wonder what was the point of that? It just made me feel terrible. And grand public events involving an element of celebration such as the Olympics or the Royal Wedding seem to attract a particular type of naysayer: those who are intent on moaning and pontificating and spoiling it for everyone else. I’m not a huge fan of Kate and Wills but I loved the feelgood factor that the celebrations brought to the UK so I kept my mouth shut. Who cares what I think? When is constant negativity a good thing?

As an aspiring writer, it is common to hear other people utter the following gems:

“Nobody is publishing books any more” (Not true, the market is buoyant thanks to epublishing)

“You’ll never get anywhere” (JK Rowling was told this many times)

“I’ve always thought I should write a book. I could do much better than the rubbish out there” (Well, you haven’t, did you?)

“That’s not a proper job” (Not even worth dignifying with a response)

“I thought that your latest article/column/book wasn’t very good/was full of errors” (And how many books have you written? None, I suspect)

I once read a dreadful book called ‘How Not to be a Writer’ where the author spent the duration of the book advising the readers ‘Don’t Do It’. No doubt he thought he was being witty but it fell flat. It was the most pointless book ever and just made the reader feel depressed.

So why do people love to put down those who are pursuing their dreams? Well, partly jealousy: you are doing something you love when they are not. In the UK we almost seem embarrassed about following our heart and trying to make something of our lives unlike our American cousins.  And it is just in some people’s nature to put others down, so I would advise you steer clear of this kind of toxic person, often appearing in the guise of a friend. You might not make it but what if you do? You won’t if you listen to negativity and don’t even try. And even if you don’t become the next John Grisham, the journey can be hugely enjoyable. Surround yourself with those who believe in you and champion your dreams.

The successful writers I have had the pleasure of meeting have one thing in common: they are modest, hard working and hugely encouraging to newer writers just starting out, recognising the need to nurture emerging talent and be generous with their time.

So join a writers’ group, follow your favourite writer on Twitter and above all remember: nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

The Writer’s Aura

My AuraGiven Singapore’s worship of food and its obsession with shopping,  my day job bringing me here for a few weeks is no real hardship, although I have enjoyed a good middle-class moan about jetlag, homesickness and the hotel (which could star in a movie called ‘Fifty Shades of Brown’ – and not in a good way).

During my first visit here in 2006, serendipity led me to a shabby Chinese shopping centre hidden away in a very run-down part of the city where for S$20 (around £10} I had my aura read.    Every visit since I have returned for this — except the time in early 2010 where I had severe gastroenteritis and therefore didn’t have much of anything left, let alone an aura.   The spiritual realm has always held a stramge fascination for me and, of course, being a creative soul, I wonder whether this is reflected in my aura.  My husband would just describe me as gullible and mutter about fools being easily parted with their cash.

The process is very simple: you sit on a bench and place your hands on pressure sensors while a camera photographs your head and the auric  field around you.  Then a huge ancient computer-like contraption whirrs and purrs and spits out a very detailed report along with the photo.  It looks and feels hugely scientific and mysterious even if some are quick to shoot the whole concept down in flames.

The above photo is my aura as of last Monday, 6 October and it quite clearly shows I am a truly creative and compassionate individual.   I am also due a time of change ahead of me (that’ll be my three-book deal, then!) but I care more about fulfillment than money. (Definitely a writer).

Here’s a quick summary:

My right centre shows depth and compassion, and a sense of fun with idealism.  (Correct)

The left side indicates the future and it is creative, yet intellectually stimulating.  Inspired ideas are already unfolding in front of me, apparently.  (My friend and I had the very inspired idea of trying to get us an upgrade to Singapore’s Grand Dame, The Fullerton Hotel, on Monday and it didn’t go well as we were swiftly and politely ejected.)

The throat, the centre of communication, is violet indicating I am either (a) ill or (b) I have an intense desire to communicate startling and incredible visions.   I think it could be (a) in this case.  The last time I tried communicating startling visions and ideas at home it didn’t go down too well.  And  my frequent startling idea of a pay rise at work is always received with incredulity.

The heart shows I am a natural and compassionate healer.

My root is blue and white, indicating an ability to communicate on a deep and meaningful level.   Presumably that doesn’t include the number of times I have bellowed at people to f*** off  in the last few weeks.

The solar plexus, or the ‘money pot’,  says I will never be rich.

Overall,  my aura shows I may be a gifted artist or writer with my life expanding in exciting new directions.  The first part is correct.  The only thing expanding out here is my waistline and credit card bill at present, but ever the optimist I like to think that exciting new directions will come.

So is aura reading a load of old rubbish, a bit of harmless fun or is there something in it?  I’d like to think so!

Writing a Column – a few tips

I like to think I am Leighton Buzzard’s answer to the fabulous Grace Dent, or possibly even Carrie Bradshaw (minus the dreadful fashion faux-pas) as I write my regular column for the local paper.  In reality I’m neither, but my writing group have asked me to put together a few tips for a forthcoming workshop.  I’ve tried to keep it simple, as I am at heart a simple soul.

First off, writing a column is a huge honour and a lot of fun.  Where else do you get the chance to air your views, observations, opinions and whinges to a ready-made readership?  If you are offered the opportunity, seize it with both hands. It gives you the chance to appear regularly in print, boost your cuttings book and will get you used to the discipline of word count and a deadline, all good writerly training.

So here are my top ten tips, mainly from my experience, but a few were drummed into me during my journalistic training and which have remained seared on my brain:

1.Grab your reader’s attention in the first two lines.  I often start with a bold statement or a question.  Hook your reader and reel them in.

2. Know your readership inside out. Study the publication again and again if you’re not familiar with it.  Keep it relevant.  A local paper will need pieces with a local theme or link.  It sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes tempting to write about what you want to and not about what your demographic want to read!

3.You can be opinionated – that’s what columns are for.  But try to avoid ranting or pushing a particular political viewpoint if it’s inappropriate.  Don’t alienate your readership – or your editor!

4.Unless you are writing for a very highbrow publication, keep it light.  My philosophy is that life is serious and difficult enough, therefore I find humour always works well (But I have to rein myself in: my sense of humour can be a little off the wall).   Be sure to avoid taboo subjects – once again, tailor to your readership. There are some things that go on in the town that I am DYING to share but I know the editor won’t appreciate them … after all, he has to answer to his boss and the board of directors, shareholders and advertisers.

5.  Be completely professional.  Even if you’re writing your column on a voluntary basis, treat it as you would a job.  Keep to word count and present pieces double-spaced in a standard font, as per the specifications and house style of your publication.  Ask for guidelines if you’re unsure.  ALWAYS submit before the deadline.  A late column equals blank space in the paper and a huge headache for the editorial team.  Early is great.  Build up a good relationship with the editor.   Be disciplined – all the most successful writers are.

6. Once you’ve written your column, put it to one side for 24 hours before coming back to re-read and make any alterations.

7. Find your own voice.  Be fresh and original.  If you can’t write about something new, then at least put an unusual slant on a well-trodden subject.

8.Keep it topical. Bear in mind the lead time for your column.  My deadline is the week before publication, but I often write my column weeks or even months ahead, when I have time. What will be happening when your column is out?  Christmas, local events, schools breaking up, a big sporting event, religious festivals?

9.  As soon as you get an idea, write it down or make a note on your phone or tablet.  Ideas and inspiration are everywhere: in overheard conversations, shop windows, on a train or in a car, from watching the news or a chance encounter with an old friend.  Keep a stock of ideas to avoid the dreaded ‘blank page syndrome’ the day before deadline.  Some of the subjects I’ve used in column on are: New Year resolutions, men wearing flip-flops who really shouldn’t, the town’s 99p shop, the misery of commuting, owning a rescue dog, Christmas presents appearing in the local shops in September, working away from home and feeling completely homesick, the difficulty of being childfree in a society geared up for families, having laser eye surgery, and one of my favourites: being almost bankrupted by the wedding season.

10. And most important of all:  DON’T BE PRECIOUS.  Titles will be rewritten by the sub-editors, even if you think your one was better. Words or whole sentences may be cut, changed or reworded by the editorial pen.   The editorial team have the final say and are, after all, the experts on their particular publication. That’s life and it happens to even the greatest writers whose exhaled air we are not worthy to breathe in. Even after they’ve finished with it.  A friend of mine edits celebrity columns for a national newspaper and, yes, things get changed ALL THE TIME.  Don’t get upset or, even worse, argue with the editor.  Sorry to rant but I have been amazed at how seeing one’s name in print can go to the head of the most unassuming amateur writer.  And if the editor comes back to you and tells you your column is not suitable for whatever reason, don’t even think of huffing off. Learn from this and write another one, double quick.  Nobody likes a prima donna.  (If any of my colleagues are reading this: yes, I can be a diva in my day job, but I have been there a long time and have earned the right!)   Having told you not to rant, I’ve just ranted. But I think humility and a willingness to learn are vital.

So that’s my ten tips.  I hope they were useful.  Better tips can be found in the brilliant book “Wanna be a Writer?” by author and columnist Jane Wenham-Jones.

Anatomy of a Writing Group

Author Jane Wenham-Jones in her brilliant book  ‘Wannabe A Writer?’ lists the various characters which populate an average writers’ group. There will be: a deaf old lady; a man called Brian or Stan who has written a History of the Town; a woman of a certain age and girth who wears a sensible skirt; a pimply young man who is writing a fantasy novel; and a shy young girl who’s joined because her mum thinks she should get out more.  A quick straw poll among writing friends and from my own writing group experience suggests this is a very accurate representation!

I really enjoyed the diversity of my old writing group, of which I was a founder member.  People from varying walks of life and very different personalities — and, it has to be said, writing ability — came together once a fortnight with a shared interest: writing, that great leveller.  The retired, the curious, full-time homemakers, professional people, students, the unemployed, serious writers, published novelists, tentative scribblers and the terrified made up a varied and dynamic group.

Just five of us attended the inaugural meeting in a local pub one autumn evening and now, although work commitments and a house move mean I no longer attend, the group boasts over thirty members, has published three anthologies, runs a weekly newspaper column and hosts regular events such as Open Mic nights, parties and stalls at the local carnival and history day.   Lifelong friendships have been formed and many writers have gone on to have their work published.

It’s not always so convivial.  A friend’s writing group has massive infighting due to politics, huge personality clashes and a lot of bickering over the tea and biscuit rota.  As the piece de resistance, one memorable evening two members, both elderly gentlemen, rolled up sleeves and squared up to each other over the ‘constructive feedback’  that one had made over the other’s piece.  Just as with church flower rotas which, I am led to believe, are fraught with power trips, favouritism and jealousy, I have heard of several writing groups imploding under the sheer weight of artistic differences and involving break-away factions setting up rival groups.  My friend claimed that her group provided some priceless social observation which went on to fuel her own writing.

My experience was mainly positive.  I was hugely impressed with the raw talent, support and encouragement emanating from my group. Everyone was so passionate about their writing.   In fact, so keen was everyone that a strict ten-minute clock had to be observed to allow everyone a turn to read out their work.  Criticism was nearly always constructive and praise was always given where due.

I think I largely have my writers’ group to thank for gaining the confidence I needed which set me on the road to becoming a published writer.   I loved being with people who just ‘got’ my burning desire to write.  Before then, I used to look at writing as my guilty little secret.  In fact, when I met my husband, I told him I was at an AA meeting on alternate Wednesday nights rather than ‘fess up that I was at a writers’ group.  Now I’m out of the closet and able to indulge my passion in public.   Writing can be a lonely business, just you and the blank page, and building a support network of like-minded people is hugely nurturing and a vital lifeline.

So if you have a local writers’ group, do join in.  It will be an enriching experience.

Mr Riley’s G-String (or: should I write my memoirs?)

Two recent events have once again made me consider writing confessional style memoirs of my time as a holiday rep in the hedonistic 1990s.  (These days that big spoilsport health and safety looms large in most of the very tame holiday rep stories I hear.)  For me, the first trigger was stumbling across Cy Flood’s book, Confessions of a Holiday Rep, written in the very same period when I was wearing that hideous nylon uniform and single-handedly throwing whole drunken teams of rugby players off my coach.  The second was this summer’s story doing the rounds of the tabloids about the 19 year old woman who allegedly performed sex acts on several men in a Magaluf bar to win a cocktail.  Whilst everyone professed to be shocked and horrified, I didn’t blink: when I was repping for the youth market in Tenerife, this kind of drunken debauchery was so commonplace it stopped becoming noteworthy.  In fact, some of the things I was required to do myself were pretty flabbergasting, but I’m saving the best, a game called Blind Man’s Muff, for an upcoming article. 

Today’s Rebecca is a completely different person from that freshly graduated twentysomething who (almost) lasted three summer seasons and emerged with a rhino-hide skin. Twenty years on I work in the very staid legal profession, rarely drink and like to be in bed by 10.30 pm.  I have never worked such long hours in my life as during my holiday rep years, nor gained such an insight into human nature, often at its very lowest ebb. I would say my time as a rep was the best education I received. In Tenerife, I spent a lot of time breaking up fights (now not allowed due to health and safety) and interpreting for guests at the police station and the hospital.  In Turkey, Menorca and Lanzarote I had to entertain the guests by singing and dancing at the rep’s cabaret in addition to all the usual duties.   However tough my current job gets, I’m not required by the court to sing Big Spender or do a can-can.  I once had to accompany a male guest who was wearing nothing but a g-string to the police station after his camera was stolen. He refused to put on any clothes. The police refused to let him into the building in such an indecent state. I also had to ask a couple if they could please stop having wild exhibitionist sex on their hotel balcony every afternoon.  

But are these stories actually interesting or funny or, like many confessional memoirs, are they just simply self-indulgent? Did you have to be there at the time?  I’ve read quite a few true stories where the writer is obviously writing for their own amusement.  Yes, it may have been hilarious at the time when the author was drunkenly scrambling over rocks at 2 am on a Thai beach, but for the reader it is as thrilling as looking at all 1,000 of your colleague’s holiday snaps.  Or is it all down to good writing and the way you tell your tales? The jury is still out for me, although what Blind Man’s Muff entailed is so toe-curlingly horrifying that everyone I tell is fascinated. 

Since 2009 I have been working on my magnum opus, a fly-on-the-wall novel about what really goes on behind the scenes in the legal profession.  So I guess my answer is yes!  

The Novelist – a tale of procrastination

I wrote this several years ago as a short story.  Enjoy!

THE NOVELIST

I’m going to write a bestselling novel.  I have a fantastic plot in my head with amazing characters and it will blow everyone away. Since childhood, everyone has told me I should be a writer –  and now finally I am.

I’ll just have some toast first.  You can’t write a blockbuster on an empty stomach.  I’ll start straight after that.

Right.  My new notebook is gorgeous, soft leather, embossed with my initials.  Adam bought it when I announced I was writing my novel.  He’s so proud of me. Where’s my lucky pen?  I must clear my handbag out: clutter will interfere with my zen and block my creativity.

That’s done.  Better reply to Anna about Saturday.

Now, firstly I need to do research.  While I think of it, I’ll put the washing on.  Us women are brilliant multi-taskers!

Okay, laptop on. 15 new emails!  Better check there’s nothing urgent.  Must order that ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ book: expert advice is so important.

Finally ready.  Here goes.

Look at the state of the floor!  I can’t work in this mess.  I’ll just vacuum and quickly hang out the washing.  Its lunchtime, so I’ll have a quick snack.

Ping!  Anna’s online. I’ll tell her I’m too busy writing to chat. Oh, she’s heard from Beth!

There are far too many distractions at home.  I’ll go to the coffee shop with my laptop, like Carrie Bradshaw.  Better change into something inspiring.  Vintage, perhaps?

Traffic’s awful.  Must just go to the bank first.

I’ve ordered my coffee. How shall I start the novel?  Perhaps if I type in ‘Chapter One’, I’ll feel inspired.

You know, I’d write much better with lovely manicured nails.  I’m a very visual person. Everyone knows glamorous, groomed women sell more books.  I’m sure the nail bar could fit me in.  It’s too crowded in here and someone’s baby is screaming.

My nails look amazing!  They’re not dry yet so I can’t type.  Anyway, it’s important to take regular screen breaks.

Back home.  Okay.  I’ll write an incredible opening line and it will just flow from there.

The phone’s ringing.

“Hello? Oh, Mum, I’ve told you not to call while I’m writing.  You saw who? Really?”

It’s six o’clock!  Better start dinner.  Adam is very sweet about my novel but he doesn’t understand that writing is a full time job.

I’m going to write a bestselling novel. Tomorrow, I will definitely make a start.

How to Write A Bestselling Novel

A few months ago I read a truly rubbish book promising easy money from your writing.  Apparently you don’t have to be any good at all or even want to write:  just follow the set formula and ker-ching!  Writing fame and fortune are yours, practically overnight.   Agents will be knocking on your door! Publishers will be writing cheques!  The public will be going mad for your musings!  And all for half an hour’s work every other day.  I suspect the only person making any money from such methods was the author who charges £2.99 for his book.

But what is the secret formula that will guarantee us writers a bestselling novel?   Is there even one? After all, everyone has a book in them (however, this cynical writer can’t help feeling that in many people, that’s right where it should stay!)  On Twitter, I follow several very well-known and celebrated novelists with books consistently in the top 10 fiction chart and I can reveal the biggest, simplest and most important formula they all apply to achieve their success:

Sit down and write.  All day, every day.  Repeat as necessary.  That’s every single working day, every single week, with a bit of time off for holidays.  Year after year after year.  No excuses, no procrastination.

Yes, there is huge talent involved and research and persistence and knowing your marketplace and getting a good agent.  But without the sheer hard graft of writing, re-writing and editing, your magnum opus will remain in your head or, like mine, scribbled on post-it notes.

Bestselling novelists are grafters.   The handful that I have met in real life as well as on Twitter (and they’re really lovely ladies too – most bestselling writers are the nicest people, never too busy to chat to their readers and encourage new talent) get up early in the morning, sort out the kids and dog and then sit down and write and write and write all day.  They certainly don’t appear to lead lives of luxury, reclining on a velvet chaise or lounging on the deck of a yacht.  They treat their writing like the serious and full-time job it is.   Then there is also the networking, publicity, tours, guest appearance, book signings.   It is certainly not glamorous, can be lonely and there are much, much easier ways to earn a living.  It is sheer hard work and requires steely motivation.

I am queen of the displacement activity.  I have read hundreds of ‘how to’ books and online articles, done writing courses, joined a writers’ group and faffed endlessly on social networking sites.  Yes, I am a qualified journalist and proofreader and I write a newspaper column and a blog and I have articles, fillers and short stories published and contribute as a guest writer to several websites.  I have my first book on Amazon.  But as for The Big One,  I have spent weeks planning character and doing plot diagrams and research and then spent years thinking about every aspect of the novel —  and occasionally wasted time daydreaming about collecting my Man Booker prize or seeing my book displayed in the number one fiction slot in the supermarket. (This probably won’t happen but we can all dream, right?)  I have files and files of rough notes for my book.  I have even written the first three chapters in draft in 2009.  I just need to put my backside on a chair in front of a laptop every single day, and write the bloody thing.   But in the meantime there is rubbish daytime TV to watch, nails to be painted, friends to catch up with and Facebook.  Oh, look, it’s 9pm already.  There’s also the matter of a full-on, full-time day job and a punishing  four plus hours a day commute – although this is golden writing time.

I also lack confidence, and I’m not alone.  Several years ago when in the departure lounge of a remote Central European airport, I was reading a chick lit novel which was hovering at around number two in the fiction charts.  The family sitting opposite, after whispering to each other for a while, struck up a conversation with me.  The mum was the author’s best friend and was thrilled to see me reading the novel and wanted to know what I thought of it.  Her friend, she said, of whom she was obviously very proud, worked like a Trojan: in fact, she still produces a chart-topping book a year. I said I was enjoying the novel, in fact, the author was a favourite of mine.   Her next words really struck me, “She’ll be delighted to hear that.  She still has no confidence at all in her writing.”  And that’s a household name author who has sold millions of books worldwide, ladies and gentlemen!  Is it fear of failure which drives her to write at such a pace?  Either way, she pushes through it and writes every day.

Who was it who said overnight success takes many years to achieve?  Like losing weight, there is no quick and easy fix for writing a bestseller.  But putting your bum on a seat and typing is a good start.