Thursday, 17 December 2009

Work ethics and disappointment

Part of the problem of having a professional blog is that you tend to try and post the worthy stuff only. This can lead to either a very dull blog or a empty blog or in the worst cases both. Mine has certainly been on the sparse side for a while.

However, I have not been inactive otherwise. As well as the all the midwinter festivities many of us are preparing for I have also started the third Euphemia Martins novel. (It will be out in October 2010). It's rolling along nicely with Euphemia, as well intentioned as ever, tumbling into one escapade after another. However, with each novel she is growing just that bit more savvy.

But the real reason I find myself writing up my blog this morning is due to my unexpected freedom. Yesterday I worked extra hard and in between many and varied necessary trips I wrote an entire draft chapter, instead of my usual half. The theory being I'd free myself up for a no writing day and go and spend the morning instead with my writerly pal Z and his daughter. We are in the same writers group and have attempted to meet up several times independently (and with toddlers) for coffee before and always been thwarted. Today the heavens opened, icy blasts rained down and there is as Z put it 'the wrath of god' falling on his side of the city.
So, we're not meeting. Panda, the toddler, is pleased as he is very sleepy. (He took ages to settle last night and due to holding a one bear party in his cot.) I can of course now knuckle down to some more work. Only I don't feel much like it. I worked hard for my treat today and I feel as disappointed as a toddler who's just learned there are no more biscuits in the jar. (Or in Panda's case no more bananas - have I said how much the bear loves bananas?) I am going to get a hot cup of tea and some croissants and watch something really bad that I taped earlier and see what I feel like. Doubtless I will do some more work today, but it will feel better if I convince myself I don't have to.

If it's cold and miserable where you are take a look at my publisher's new website. Not only is there a roaring fire, but there's even a cat on the rug. You can feel warm just looking at it!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Startled but pleased.

My publisher has decided to enter A Death in the Family into the Orange Fiction prize! I am a little startled, but very pleased.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Google who?

In general writers are shy folk. There will always be some who prefer to swing naked from the trees while tap-tapping on their lap-tops, but for most of us writing is a solitary exercise undertaken through the necessity of preserving our sanity. Writers are observers. We record what we experience. We take life and jumble it up with fantasy and feelings and whatever else we have lying around at the time and then we present is tentatively to the reading public. It's often quoted that writers hold up a mirror to society, but I suspect many of them, like me, are writing to try and make sense of the world around them.

There are just so many things that don't make sense from why egg-whites go into the oven gooey and come out rock hard to the evolution of the duck billed platypus; from why a strange large lorry reverses up my dead-end lane every morning to who actually recorded the 'Stand Clear Vehicle Reserving' jingle that it loudly plays. Or why do my computer and my iPhone think it's okay to offer me entirely different calendars despite being synced or why is the weather always best when there's a deadline to be completed? And then there are the serious things that essentially all come down to why on earth do people think it's okay to hurt each other?

The wonderful thing about the internet is that it is proof positive that a lot of people out there are asking the same questions and lots of people are trying to answer them. Saying the resources on the internet are big is rather like describing the universe as being a nice little collection of stars. Who runs the internet and who feeds in all this data is a bit of a mystery. Could it be a giant army of elves of which the QI elves are the only ones to formally declare themselves?

Some of the information has bylines and even photos though you can never be entirely sure that anyone you meet or read on the internet is a) real or b) exactly what they seem to be. In a similar way you can never be sure that any of the data you find is accurate.

You'd think then that the internet was a great way for us shy authors to self publicize and to some extent it is. Social media from twitter to twirl from facebook to lj all offer us a way to reach potential readers. If we put in enough time and effort we get pages of listing on google . In fact from time to time things will be picked up and posted without any action on our behalf. My reading from A Death in the Family appeared over on The Witty Sparks blog without my lifting a finger. Someone has been also posting my performed plays on a couple of websites though they rarely seem to get the list right and appear to have borrowed the photo from my blog. They also have my nationality wrong, but it's clear it's all done with the best of intentions.

Some ebook authors on the other hand have the misfortune to find their entire works downloadable for free - presumably on sites created by people who don't understand that some of us earn a living from generating content and that giving it away for free it rather like us breaking into their houses and helping ourselves to a toaster or a telly because we rather like it.

All in all this means that the internet is at heart a reflection of humanity and therefore liable to be wildly contradictory and often misleading. The one certain thing is whatever you put out there stays out there. Googling myself recently (and there's a verb I wasn't taught in school) Caroline Dunford for the first five pages of hits is entirely me. In fact it's mostly me for the first nine pages. I think this is quite impressive - try it with your own name and see what comes up.

Friday, 30 October 2009

But what's it all about?

On my to-write list at present is the third in the Euphemia Martins Mysteries, the outline for my next YA and maybe that radio play that is always going to get written sometime.

I'm not the type that gets stuck for ideas. In general I have an over abundance of them. However, it often takes many years for these ideas to turn into a book. I may be creating worlds, building life stories of my characters, manipulating their relationships, but even when I can see and feel all this I have to decide what the story is about.

Great stories can usually be summed up in a couple of lines. Pride and Prejudice is exactly what it says on the cover - the story of two young lovers who have to overcome pride and prejudice. A Christmas Carol is the tale of how an old miserly man who hates Christmas is given the chance to reflect on his life and discovers a new found love of life and humanity. Rebecca is the story of how the influence and circumstances of a dead first wife almost destroys (the never named) heroine's marriage.

Each of these stories is rich in sub-text, weaves and interweaves plot, but never loses sight of what it is the core sense of the story.

One of the difficult parts of being a writer is not digressing. It might be hard to write 50,000 words, but it's much harder _not_ to write 100,000 to tell the same story. For me, it can take years to figure out what a novel or play is about, but until I have that two or three line precis I know I mustn't unleash the torrent of story I have conceived in my head. If I don't wait I end up with endless rewrites, a plot so huge it would take ten tomes to do it justice and eventually having to lose much of my hard work to create a thinner, sleeker piece. When I manage to find the patience to wait I produce my very best work and the story does that magical thing of writing itself.

A Death in the Family was one of those magical stories. Euphemia, my heroine, is loosely based on my great grandmother and as a character has been with me for most of my life. But not everything takes that long to gestate. My short play 'Breakfast After Dark' (on at the Traverse, Edinburgh on Nov 15 as part of '10') took weeks to think about, but only as long as it took to type to write. (And the director was very pleased with it.)

In essence - don't write too soon. Carry your story and let it form before trying to put anything on the page. If you're attempting to earn your living by writing then the nice idea of writing only when the muse strikes is not profitable. There will always be times when it is knowing your craft rather than divine inspiration that will get you through. Personally, I carry many stories in my head. It makes me absent-minded and distracted. I've been known to end a telephone conversation by apologizing that I need to be in 1910 now. But the brain is a wonderful thing. I can carry many stories at once. My mind works on plots for while I sleep, eat and go about my daily life. Feed your mind with experience, make small notes and stay aware of all the stories you have and hopefully one day your stories will feed you. If nothing else being so distracted gives one an excuse to be lax with the housework.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Author as Product

Once upon a time publishers used to sell books. Now, more and more they are selling personalities.

On October 1st this year eight hundred new titles were published. This stunning number is in part due to the theory that it takes most books three months to succeed or fail, so October 1st is the ideal date to start the race to be in the Christmas best seller list. (There also being this year the unspoken yet fervent hope that the credit crunch will encourage 2009 present shoppers to go for books rather than expensive techno gadgets.)

On October 10th my crime novel A Death in the Family was released into this maelstrom to fend for itself. My lovely publisher is doing all they can, but without a marketing budget into five (or even six) figures for me, like many authors, it's a struggle to be seen.

Not surprisingly with this sudden onslaught of books the ones that so far have been rising to the top are the celebrity autobiographies and novels with celebrity names on the cover. To accompany this the celebrities are out doing the signing rounds and to their fans the price of a book is a small token to pay to meet their idols - and so celebrity reads shoot up the best seller list and become the most talked about books.

This can cause a bit of consternation among more regular authors. You see, it is not uncommon for a busy celeb to outline their idea to a ghost writer, who will do the hard graft of actually writing the book. Then all the celeb has to do is ensure they read the book before they turn up at a signing, so they are familiar with what is in it. For those of us who write away in our garrets and send out our work without the backing of a tv or glamour career it can be hard to compete.

Because the sad fact is that authors are in competition with celebrity reads. You could argue they are entirely different kind of products, but they're both stacked side by side on the shelves and thus in direct competition for the buyer's hard earned cash.

Imagine Aunt Mary trying to buy a Christmas present for her teenage niece. She has to decide whether to buy what looks as if it could be a jolly good story by an author whose name seems vaguely familiar, or does she go for the glossy, picture-book autobiography of a house-hold name? Which one will produce the initial oohs and aahs of pleasure when unwrapped?

But it's not over yet. The regular authors are fighting back. Some of our stars are becoming celebrities in their own right for nothing more than writing their own books. Today, more than ever, authors are actively building their own fan bases.

We now attend more literary festivals than ever before, do more signings and put ourselves up for what was once the celebrity only territory of after dinner speeches. The days of the author-in-shady-garret are over. If you want to sell you have to convince your public. But without the wigs, make-up, push-up bras, scandalous careers, singing voice or tv career what can an author do?

They can perform. The harsh reality is authors now have to entertain not only on the page but in person. We write blogs, we join facebook, and we network like the possessed and we go to voice workshops.

Regular authors promote their work through being passionate about their story. We aim to make you fall in love with our characters as deeply as we have done ourselves. We might get our nails done or buy new shoes, but we are not inherently glamourous. All we can deliver is a passion for our craft. We aim to give you a window into our mind where our characters and ideas formed - where are heroes and heroines were first born. We are becoming performers but in quite a different way. We are the mouthpieces for our characters and the ideas and themes embedded in our work rather than for our own life-stories.

Both the celeb reads and the more mainstream authorial works are both reflections of our society. All books are mirrors of ourselves and our world whether we seek within them escapism, inspiration or understanding. And all have much to offer.

And here is me - doing my best to be author as product and reading an extract from A Death in the Family.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Writing as Craft

The first novel I ever wrote was The Emperor's Men and I thought it was magnificent. It had wonderful characters, more than half of whom I was in love with. The description was vivid and new - I remember with particular fondness the Rose Petal Palace. It stood at around 60,000 words and was perfect for a debut fantasy novel. This was mumble, mumble years ago. (Let's just say while there weren't actually dinosaurs roaming the streets mobile phones were rare and heavy enough to slay a dinosaur should you actually come across one.)

What really surprised me was that no one wanted my opus. Rejection after rejection hit the doormat. Some scolded me for starting sentences with 'and'. And in that I like to think I was ahead of my time, but sadly what I was missing was my novel had a few tiny flaws.

The story jumped around all over the palace. Characters achieved great things 'off-screen' and returned to show their prizes rather than their actions. There was no coherent flow-through of story. It was essentially a series of poorly connected vignettes strung together. The characters weren't bad, but they were more in my head than on the page. There were long unnecessary pieces of dialogue added in simply because I liked 'hearing' them talk and which helped in no way progress the story. Pace was an alien planet. There was some good description, but my world was a nod to every fantasy novel there had ever been. It didn't copy anyone, but there wasn't any particularly special or startling about. (Though be to honest at the time if I had been well known enough that probably wouldn't have been a deal breaker.) But as new break out novel it had nothing going for it except to show there was a chance I might be able to write one day.

At the time self-publishing wasn't an option. It simply didn't exist except in very expensive vanity presses, which by their very name kind of gave you a clue if you were going there it was a bad idea. I'm very glad of this, because at the time I was sure enough of my work and my ability (i.e. arrogant and angry enough) that if self-publishing had been a realistic option I would have done it. If I had gone this route I would have learnt nothing about writing, my work would not have sold and I would have become the embittered sort of failed writer you find in corners of bookshops sneering at the latest top ten titles. (Although you have to admit they do sometimes have a point.)

I'm not saying self-publishing is always bad. For some people it may be the best option forward as long as their work is of a good enough standard and they are willing to embrace the engulfing necessities of marketing.

What I did and what I would encourage any writer to do is learn the craft. I already had a Eng Lit degree, so I could tell everyone else where they were going wrong even if I was totally blind to my own flaws! I trained as a journalist, learned to edit, worked as a book editor, read everything I could get my hands on and of course I wrote and wrote and wrote. I also went on to study psychology and personal narrative in psychotherapy - but even I admit that's not entirely necessary.

And I joined a writers' group.

These are always dangerous places. A group of people who tell you your work is wonderful or who tell you it is terrible are equally useless. You need people who are selfless enough to give their time and attention to your work and to offer what they feel to be constructive criticism - and then, of course, you need to learn how to listen and filter that criticism and how to give it in return. My writers' group is outstanding. I'm lucky.

I could write at length about writing groups, but a short rule of thumb is if they don't audition writers, who wish to join then it's unlikely to be worth taking part. (An audition is usually submission of a piece, followed by a crit session with the group to give and take crit.) Also if at least half the members aren't published somewhere then they're probably not on the right track

I still fall in love with characters. I still make mistakes in my writing. I still leave too much in my head rather than on the page. But I've learned a lot about the craft. Recently, a member of my group phoned me out the blue and asked my advice on which way he should take his story, saying I was rather good at that sort of thing. I won't name him, but he's well published and I remembered feeling extremely flattered that he not only asked me, but subsequently in the following draft took my advice.

I'd love to say that now I only write perfect work that needs little revising. Of course, I don't. However, I've come an awful long way from The Emperor's Men and I'm still going. Writing is far from being all imagination. A huge part of it is hard graft and a willingness to learn. Be prepared that many of your novels will fail before one is published. But with each work you complete you will learn more.

(See my previous post for an extract from the newly published A Death in the Family: A Euphemia Martins' Mystery.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

An extract from A Death in the Family

This is a video I made for the Readaway Series launch in Cheshire Oaks. I'm sitting in my own library reading a short extract from the Death in the Family - and I do voices!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

What an Author wants from a Book Signing

On Friday I had a private party to launch A Death in the Family. It went marvelously and there will pictures in another blog. On Saturday I was due to do a book signing in Borders, Edinburgh and at the party several well known authors came up to me with their warnings. Alan Campbell said he was always afraid no-one would turn up and Ricardo Pinto had equal tales of warning. I, of course, thanked them for these insights the night before my own signing and when I got home slept badly.

Borders had done a magnificent job of advertising the event, posters everywhere and within moments of being in the store the tannoy announced my presence, my fantastic book and how delighted they were to have me. I hid under the table in the upstairs Starbucks and waited for my appointed hour to come.

It was a strange experience. I'd seen several authors do signings in the store before, so being on the other side of the table gave me a new perspective. As someone who buys a great many books and will often go to signings I thought I'd offer up my new found insight from what an author wants from a signing.

They want people to come. They don't mind if you slip into a seat halfway through a reading - in fact they'd rather that than you bashfully hiding just on the peripheral of their vision. They don't even care if you're intending to buy the book and just want to sit down and rest your weary feet. It's so much nicer to read to faces than empty chairs. Oh, and they appreciate it enormously when you laugh at the comic moments. If you sit down at a reading there is no obligation to buy a book. Even if an author entertains you for a minute that makes them happy. Yes, we write to make a living (or try to), but we also write to entertain.

The audiences I had were lovely and laughed in the right places, but I'm told I had several people lingering behind the speakers in stationary, listening but wary of coming forward.

And then I moved to the signing table. This a device that can make any author look like and feel like a salesperson for an unpopular house fixture. It's truly amazing the number of people who walked into the shop intending to turn left, met my eyes, smiled in a rabbit sees fox sort of a way and shot off to the right.

So here's what an author wants when they're sitting at a signing table. They want you to come over and have a look. No author, with the possible exception of Derren Brown, has the ability to make you buy their book (and I'm sure he wouldn't even if he could). If you touch a book on the table, even if you read the back of it, armed guards will not spring out from under the table and forcibly escort you to the cash desk. The author won't take a penny from you - only the cash desk can do that and you have to voluntarily walk up to it carrying the book.

You see the thing is while any author is chuffed to bits when you like their work they do understand no everyone likes the same sort of stuff. None of us will cry, moan or writhe on the ground if you pick up a book and put it back. Honestly. You will get a very cheery smile if you buy one, but that's a bonus.

The weird thing about a signing table is the more people cluster around it the more that come over. And the more that come over the higher the chance it will be someone's sort of thing. So really, just by coming over to have a look you're doing us a favour.

Having said all this I must also say everyone who came up to my table, including those who didn't buy, were lovely and I was grateful to everyone of you. Perhaps, slightly more grateful to those that bought the book, but I think I hid that well. I achieved respectable sales and I hope everyone who bought the book thoroughly enjoys it.

A Death the Family remains in the buy one get one half price scheme this weekend at Borders Edinburgh. And now the books are all on their own without a scary author, they're probably lonely. If you live nearby you could help them with that!

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Writing versus welding

My car just failed its MOT in a it'll-need-welding-for-that sort of a way.

I can pretend it's cool to the kind of writer who drives a car with wing-mirrors held in place with black duct-tape. It means I'm a rebel with style. Well no, it's means I'm a writer and getting the wing-mirrors fixed when they've been broken by wanton vandalism ranks lower than getting the new tyres, or the wielding, done.

So after crowing about how easy it is to make my deadlines, I'm going to spend a lot of time tomorrow running between welders and garages - if they will give me appointments - to try and get the car fixed.

But how lucky you are, I hear many of you cry. I'm stuck in the office all day and I can never be home to see the repairman/go to the garage/run out for the mother in law's forgotten birthday present. Well, no, you can't. But then all the time you're sitting in your wee office you expect Mr/Ms Boss to be putting money into your bank account. I don't deliver I don't get money.

And here's one of the essential conundrums of being a writer, if you're working from home you end up dealing with all the home stuff and while you're dealing with the home stuff you're not earning the money to pay for it. Now, my partner doesn't drive, so I couldn't ask him to do the running around with the car, but even if I did his employer wouldn't let him out. The employer would argue, quite rightly, that he's paid to be within the office walls alleviating the sobs of people whose tech has just broken down in office hours.

However, try as I might to argue with the garage that they need to stay open late to let me do a full day's writing before having to dash out and pick the car up, they don't agree. I have the same trouble with the Emperor's school. All these places are so fixated on working only the hours between nine and five/three. Of course, everyone who has ever tried to get a dentist appointment or get to the store before they sell out of shoes/milk/the-latest-must-have-MacGuffin-that-their-kid-absolutely-must-have-or-the-universe-will end knows the feeling of frustration, but throw in the parenting and the self-employed aspects of being a writing Mum and boy - there are times when I feel like hitting my head off the table for half and hour just so I can feel the relief when I stop.

It's this kind of juggling that sees me writing at my desk when everyone else in the world is enjoying a post-prandial glass of something special.

It is, of course, my own fault for choosing such a deliciously precarious career, but next time you go round to a struggling writer's house and see they haven't hoovered for three weeks cut them a break and make them a cup of tea for once. Better yet, bring a bottle of wine with you and a spare cup of time.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Party

Here's hoping Eprint's party at Borders in Cheshire Oaks went down a storm today. This was the major launch for the Readaway series of which A Death in the Family is part and four Readaway authors were present. Hopefully there was much fun and merriment. As I couldn't be there I sent down a film of me reading part of my novel and I believe the plan was to put it up on a big screen. Rather a funny feeling to think lots of people were sitting watching me read while I was in the hairdresser.

I had intended to post this earlier in the day in case any of your down south were reading this, but as some of you will have noticed the blog came up empty. For reasons known only to itself my portable device of the moment decided I was only allowed to post a title and tags. The actual body of the blog would not load. But hopefully it will went swimmingly and there will be photos aplenty.

My own north of the border book launch will happen a week today at 1pm in Edinburgh's Borders. All welcome. It's a big store and I might get a bit lonely if you don't come.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Book Launch

Borders in Edinburgh are hosting my book launch for A Death in the Family on Sunday 10th October.

Details up on the Borders Website.

Many more details on the wonderful City of Literature website.

Also on Oracle here.

Writers don't get sick. We get busier.

Many years ago when I was in one of the many phases when I was looking to take on an outside job to support my writing addiction I was asked in an interview how many days sick I took in a year.

I think even then it was a dodgy question, but at the time I didn't blink. I looked the interviewer straight in the eye and said, 'I'm self-employed. I don't get to be sick.' Needless to say I got the job, which I stayed in for eighteen months until it became clear that although I frequently found myself in situations stranger than fiction I didn't have the time or energy to create any, so I left to go back to my real job.

Today, although the children frequently try to challenge this I write full time. I may not work office hours, but generally I put in more time during the week than I would do if I was a wage-slave. I have, as they worryingly keep saying on the news, underlying health issues, but I work around these. However, last week I discovered I am not proof against parent targeted viruses.

The Panda, now eighteen months, and occasionally condescending to grace a local creche with his presence, has gone into that phase that all parents dread when he is catching every cold and illness known to mankind in a self-determined programme to build his immune system. Everything he catches he bounces back from - he is the original Bounce Back Bear, but everything he catches he also generously passes on to me. And last week he gave me gastroenteritis of a form and a variety that would be classified by the censors as too terrible for viewing even in the worst of horror movies. Not, you understand, that he had it that badly, that was me. I don't think my head actually turned through 360 degrees, but I can't be sure.

So for the first time in forever I've taken a week off. A week because once I succumbed to this illness several others, who had been waiting for me weaken, leapt upon me like a lion on straggler of the pack.

But writers, like any self-employed person, can't get sick. It's not in the job description.

But I'd been working too hard and once down I was out for the count. What has really startled me is coming back to my desk today is to find that I can still make all my deadlines. It seems some skills once learned are never lost.

In the almost forgotten past when there were no mobile phones, I was a commissioning journalist and it seems that the art of defining deadlines has stayed with me. I'll let you in on my secret.

I quote long and deliver early.

I also, like most writers, work very hard. My long deadlines are often seen as short by editors.

Nothing short of total incapacity will stop me from delivering. I was still doing business emails from my bed on my iphone despite an inability to lift my head off the pillow.

So coming back to my desk today I have lots to do, but akin to the refrain of Panda's current favourite tv show I will be managing to get the job done.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

But what is A Death in the Family about?

In December 1909 the Reverend Joshia Martins expires in a dish of mutton and onions leaving his family on the brink of destitution. Abandoned by her noble grandfather, Joshia's daughter, the eighteen year old Euphemia, takes it on herself to provide for her mother and little brother by entering service. She's young, fit, intelligent, a little naive and assumes the life of a maid won't be too demanding. However, on her first day at the unhappy home of Lord Stapleford she discovers a murdered body.
Euphemia's innate sense of justice has her prying where no servant should look and uncovering some of the darker social, political and business secrets of Stapleford family. All she has to defend herself is her quick wits, sense of humour and the ultimate weapon of all virtuous young women, her scream.

Cover for A Death in the Family

Crime Launch nears

A Death in the family officially exists - it's on amazon, available for pre-order now!

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Purpose of a Synopsis

Hands up anyone who enjoys writing a synopsis?

No hands in the room?

Hands up those who believe a synopsis is something you write immediately before you submit your completed manuscript to an agent or publisher?

Sadly, I suspect there are now a lot of hands in the air. Here's the thing, you do need to send a short, snappy and evocative synopsis with your submission - especially if you're hoping to rise to the top of the slush pile, but this synopsis should be a synopsis of your much longer structural synopsis.

And if you're anything like me you're groaning at the idea of yet more synopsis. But here's the thing, being a successful writer is hard work. You may have written your first draft in a state of almost euphoric imaginative outpouring, but if you did, unless you're luckier than the average lottery winner, it's going to need substantial tidying.

There are many ways of using synopsis to improve your writing. I'm going to give you two examples of how I use them and that reflect two very different ways of working. One is much less painful than the other.

When I'm writing the Euphemia Martins Mysteries (launched in October!!!!!) I spend a lot of time thinking about my next idea and the themes I want to weave in. I have a short overarching synopsis that covers the entire series and first of all I need to pinpoint where this story falls on the series arch. Then I write the first chapter to get a feel for the book. I know even at this point that the first chapter will be rewritten and tightened several times, but it gives me the sense of the book. I then, before writing any more chapters, go on to write a detailed structural synopsis. By this I mean a break down of each major scene. When I finally come to write the book I always know exactly where I am going. I may find when writing I need to include a small extra linking scene here and there, but generally I'm sticking to the original structural synopsis. That first draft will need some rework, but not that much. I've already ironed out much of the issues in the original synopsis.

With the young adult (YA) novel I've been writing for my Scottish Book Trust mentorship I gave myself much more work. I wrote the better part of the book, pausing two thirds of the way through to pull together a synopsis, much of which was based on what I had already written. This was always intended as a rough first draft. What I wanted was a body of prose to work with during the mentorship. (That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.) I've now rewritten the book several times. The second time through was to expound on a lot of the world building ideas I had in my head rather than on the page. Before the third time through I rewrote a long structural synopsis to pull the story into better shape and then followed this with another draft. I have just completed what I hope will be the last, and very long, structural synopsis that weaves various scenes in and out to (again I hope) create a fast paced story in a world that is complex, fantastic and full of peril.

In both cases I've used the synopsis to get the book under control and decide what it was about rather than to sell it.

The Euphemia Martins' stories are set in this world shortly before WWI. In these I have to track the on-going journey of several continuing characters and ensure the parts of my crime slot together well and clues are scattered throughout the novel at an appropriate rate. But here I'm working in a setting that is familiar to most of my readers and also using the tight, tight structure of crime. My use of synopsis limits the number of rewrites I need and ensures right from the start I know I'm on the right track.

In the YA I've written directly from my imagination and paid the price in extra work. But here, I'm not sure I could have done it any other way. I have to allow the rules of my world to filter through as I am showing the story. There is a lot of new information - a reader needs to know everything from how many suns there are in the sky to why the world is in peril - there is little assumed knowledge. To allow the reader to engage with this new world in an entertaining, rather than confusing, manner, as well as ensure the usual plot elements (characterization, character journey, pacing, etc) I have to weave in scenes that show how this new and strange universe works. I also have to anticipate the reader - for example I have to show their are two suns before the reader assumes there is one. Using a structural synopsis allows me to ensure the building blocks of the story all stack up to a complete and exciting story.

I'm pretty sure some of you are thinking this all all very well, but that in your case your novel means you don't need to do a structural synopsis.

Okay, there have been some amazing stream of consciousness writers (like Kerouac and Joyce), and they may appear to be the exceptions to the rule. However, even these seemingly roving tales have an inherent structure when you break them done.

Loose writing doesn't find much favour in today's world of busy, stressed readers, who snatch their reading time between the ever increasing demands of modern life. You can't risk losing their attention for a moment or before you know it your book is doing it's bit for the planet in the recycle bin.

So, no, I don't think any of you can get away without working your way through at least one structural synopsis. At least when you've done it you have something to synopsis your submission synopsis from.

Go on, you never know you might enjoy it. Your readers certainly will appreciate your efforts.

Friday, 28 August 2009

You are what you read

Today I am resisting the temptation to launch into either the third Euphemia Martins novel (intriguingly entitled A Death in the Asylum) or the redrafting of the synopsis of the YA novel before the final/penultimate redraft.* Today I am going to read.

Authors need to read. Not only to understand what is selling, but because what you like to read is often a strong indicator of what you would be good at writing. This should be a really obvious point, but an awful lots of authors miss this. An awful lot of seemingly intelligent authors - like me.

My writing group, which is also another topic in itself, had seen many many of my ideas walk in only to later fall upon their sword. Generally the reaction to my pieces went along one of these lines

  • Half the members liked it. Half hated it.
  • A few loved it. The rest were indifferent.
  • Many had used it to help them fall asleep, but one member was eager to deconstruct my story structure at wearisome length.
  • Everyone quite liked it, but agreed no one would ever publish it.
  • Nobody minded it much. One or two had used their copies to mop up cat sick.
  • Almost everyone was keen except one member who pointed out some terrible flaw(s) and then the rest turned against it as a mob and tore it to pieces
There were quite a few other permutations, but you get the general idea. Before I launch into the next paragraph you need to know that my group is essentially a Science Fiction and Fantasy writing group.

Which is why when I brought them a crime proposal I felt I was really chancing my arm. I remember coming in, sitting down and studying their little faces to gain some clue as to how terminal my critical evaluation would be. In their defense I have to say this is an absolutely excellent writing group and as such we pull no punches.

It was then history was made as one reader after another said (and I couldn't help feeling they said it with some surprise) that this was actually rather good. I waited for the voice of doom that would turn the tide once more away from me - and it didn't come.

I love reading crime novels, but it had never occurred to me to write one. Today I sit here with the third, already commissioned novel, of the Euphemia Martins mystery knocking at the back of my mind, but today I am going to read. Who knows what I will learn about myself today?

*There will be a later post explaining all the fascinating ins and out of dealing with WIP (Work(s) in progress.)

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Audio Story

Pearls Before Swine is one of Sniplits featured audio stories this week. You can download it for a mere 98 cents. It's a lyrical science fiction piece - and you don't hear those too often. Find it here.

Writing is a terrible business

I've just finished my stint for this year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was speaking about creativity, rejection, writing groups, and blogging. As usual I met some wonderful people, both published, unpublished and those who have no desire to be published. And as usual it's left me thinking about how those of us in, and wanting to join, this absurd way of earning a living deal with the many facetted aspects of writing.

Yesterday I ran my workshop on Dealing with Rejection. This is the third time I've run it there. It always sells out and I'm taking it as a good sign that I don't see the same faces year in and year out.

I was fortunate to have a great mix of attendees, who had clearly been thinking about dealing with rejection. A couple had yet to send their completed manuscripts off, preferring to research rejection beforehand. This might strike some as being overly pessimistic, but in reality it is one of the steps in becoming a professional writer.

Rejection is information - if you know how to read it. It's certainly a side-effect of writing, but it's one we can all learn from. Targeting, presentation, timeliness and manners help limit it, but everyone will be rejected at some stage in their career. It's all about how you use that rejection. For example, do not as one editor told me happened to her, send your spouse down to the publisher's office to make them see sense!

Rejection has a huge emotional impact that authors must not under rate. It is not something to be skipped over. It has to be approached with a clear understanding of how to cope emotionally, interpret criticism and how to move forward - and even on occasion when to gracefully retire a project in favor of something new.

Everything stems from keeping the fires of our creativity alive. The other workshop I ran this year was on doing just this. Unlike Dealing with Rejection, this one was composed solely of women,which makes me wonder why. Do women feel a particular connection with creativity? Is it not a word or term or idea that men do not connect with so easily? Is it seen as feminine? I found it really interesting I had many men, who were prepared to face the issue of rejection, but seemingly not of inspiring creativity. But then it's dangerous to ascribe gender issues to what may be more to do with who got through on the phone to the box office first.

I found my creativity aspirants to be extremely interested, willing and active participants. We ran through a series of exercises from facing that blank page, to engaging all the senses, evoking emotion, how to use your life as fuel for your creativity to tapping into the unconscious mind.

What I love about workshops is not merely seeing happy faces at the end, but getting the energy going during the talk and seeing hope and encouragement blossom in attendees. Writing is a terrible business. It is so difficult to get published. (Don't let anyone tell you otherwise). You need a degree of talent (not as much as you might suppose!), luck, a willingness to jump at opportunity, the ability to listen and use criticism and above all persistency. Quite frankly, at the end of the day you need to be a little mad. Writing has to be a compulsion rather than a hobby - but it needs to be a compulsion you learn to control and direct.

Festivals, workshops, writing groups all are wonderful opportunities for us scribblers to mix with our own kind and whether we're leading or attending a workshop it's a guarantee that all of us with learn from each other.

Friday, 21 August 2009


And already, despite checking over my notes several times and asking someone else to do so too, I see errors in my last post.

See, that's the good thing about working for a newspaper or a publisher, you get an editor. When you're blogging it's only you - and the cat/toddler/dog/potplant. None of whom, in my experience, can spell for toffee and as for grammar, they think that's someone who comes round for tea.

Blogging Masterclass Notes

Notes from my section of The Master Class on Blogging at the Edinburgh International Book Festival August 2009

Caroline Dunford

1. Why I blog and my publishing experience

- I started blogging on LiveJournal when encouraged by a friend because I was working from home and somewhat isolated. I’ve been blogging for seven years.

- I then started using it as a warm up exercise for the day

- within a few months I had chosen to lock my journal so that only people I allowed could see it. These didn’t have to be people I knew in real life, but they were likely to be ones who knew people I knew or who were interested in similar things via a community –lj has community blogs where you can discuss common interests

-through LJ I found my local writers group, kept in touch with my friends and got involved in my first voice acting job.

- I also got a lot of feedback from my readers about how much they enjoyed my tales of my two year olds antics.

- because of this I took it to a publisher, who had previously published diaries (not blogs) and asked it they would be interested? Because the blog was locked and not public they were happy for me to include parts of my journal and even to use it as way of locating key readers, a form of viral marketing. However, they decided it had to be more than the blog, and so I incorporated a number of fact panels – about 40-60 split.

- it’s still selling. How to Survive the Terrible Twos: diary of a mother under Siege It has also been published in Italian and last week the Spanish rights were sold.

2. Blogs and their purpose

- is this a blog you hope will become a book? If so then it has to contain a journey, some kind of story arc. It has to be no less entertaining than an ordinary book. There needs to be a sense of progress – most blogs won’t make books. Everyone is writing a book – even their cats are writing and some of the cats are doing better than their owners.

- are you doing primarily for fun and you’d be happy if people read it?

- are you seeking writing validation?

- is it to publicise your work? (You lose first publishing rights if it is open on the net.) Blogging about your progress can help gather you an audience. There is a possibility of making a grass roots connection with your potential fanbase.

- Are you trying to raise your own profile (as a writer, politician, campaigner, etc)

- are you blogging for a cause?

- is it about social networking?

Whichever you choose it affects your writing style, but not the amount of time someone will read – generally you’re only getting their attention for a couple of minutes. This means you need to be more tabloid than academic journal!

- choice of platform, many options: Google’s own Blogger is very easy to start with, lots of handholding and it’s free. Wordpress can give you more options, but it can also be more complicated. LiveJournal and Dreamwidth lend themselves to closed rather than public journals. Facebook, MySpace and Bebo tend to have the blog as a tiny part of a very busy screen and are more social networking sites.

But with all of these be wary of following the shiny. Better to choose and stick with a platform.

3. Psychological aspects of blogging (exposure, over familiarity from strangers, keeping private life in its place) Most people are nice, but

- keep personal details, children’s names, physical location out of it.

- you will always offend someone – there are so many people out there. Don’t take it personally.

- it offers an illusion. People will think they really know you. On occasion even that you are friends.

- whatever you put out there stays – don’t write in anger or when you overemotional in any way. Even if you delete it, someone somewhere will have seen it and the more you regret what you wrote the more it will be noticed! Google are continually capturing content on the net and the chances are it will be in a cache that someone with a little know-how can access.

4. Becoming an unpaid journalist

- last updated 18th April until recently!

– although LJ is updated every week.

- blogging can be compulsive.

- do you find yourself constantly checking for comments – get them emailed to you!

- when you discover your journal is being read then it’s tempting to write more, and expand on whatever is proving popular. This is fine as long as you have time. Regular blogging that fits around your work schedule

- blogging is a very useful tool and other than advertising (which Helen will speak about) it doesn’t pay the bills. Has to be on top of work rather than instead of. Personally I dislike blogs with advertising on them and won’t read one that is plastered with adverts.

5. Twitter – also known as microblogging

- If you haven’t gone to then do so.

- It’s much quicker to write 140 characters and less of a drain on your time.

- You can feed it through your blog

- keeps things active

- also writing in 140 characters forces you to be concise and salient – no space for waffling or ranting.


- can be very compulsive

- can be easier to let personal details out in short thoughts without realizing.

- good idea to have more than one accounts ie one that is for genuine friends and one that is blog associated.

6. Google Analytics, keywords

- sign up on Google Analytics at All you need to do is paste a given segment of code into your blog page once and it does all the statistics for you.

- use Google Analytics to check your blog’s effectiveness, but don’t get too caught up in it. There is so much information there it probably includes the building blocks of the universe!

- Google also allows you to very easily set up an RSS feed (Really Simply Syndication, which means someone can register to have your blog feed through an aggregator (a tool for capturing chosen blogs) rather than having to hunt for your blog individually.

- pingoat – helps get your site noticed. Each time you blog you can go to and feed in your blog name, url, xml (rss feed) and select which services you want pingoat to target. (If you do this too frequently pingoat may suggest you try again later.)

Pingoat is a service that pings or notifies a number of services that keep track of weblogs and publishes them. Esssentially it lets a variety of services know you’ve updated and they automatically check on keywords, topics etc and feed this to various sites or particular interest services.

- be immediate if a current hot topic is relevant. Don’t do something like “I haven’t got Swine Flu but I do have chocolate” to get the swine flu hits. It will annoy people.

- you want to be found to be trustworthy and reliable. Regular communication in a clearly defined area, so people know what it’s worth their while to take time out of their day and read you. Loyalty and following.

Things I didn’t say due to time, but are important!

- when you’re writing a blog treat each entry like a newspaper article. This means write top- down. All the most important information (who, what, where, when and how) should be in your opening paragraph. By all means finish in a neat and clever way, but be aware that people will only scan the opening to see if they are interested. Anything really important or revelatory should be in the top section of your piece.

- be aware that posting in the public domain opens you up to the laws of defamation (Scotland) and libel/slander (rest of UK) and whatever other laws of insult there are worldwide. Don’t be rude or insulting unless you’re prepared to go to court. Personal opinion, personal worldview and verifiable facts to lesser and greater extents are legal defenses, but it’s complicated and unless you’re campaigning and have some kind of legal support think about the ramifications of what you’re writing. Remember even paper journalists must do this. We have freedom of speech, but also there are rights within law to protect reputations for good reason.

- Proof-read your work before posting!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Life after blogging

Today I'm at the Edinburgh International Book Festival talking about blogging. Although I regularly write on my live-journal account this account has been rather quiet of late.

How to Survive the Terrible Twos: Diary of a Mother under Siege came out of my live journal account and is still selling. In fact only this week I've heard that Spanish rights are in the pipeline.

But this journal has been somewhat neglected. I'll be talking about that and why that is. The short version is that I ended up spending so much time researching and writing about ebooks that I realized my own work was suffering.

Since the posts here have slowed I've been doing what I'm meant to be doing. By Feb 2010 I will have delivered four books and two plays since Jan 2009 as well as doing my best to actively support my publishers publicity campaigns, doing workshops and becoming Hon Sec for the Society of Authors in Scotland.

I am intending on coming back to this blog. It is, after all, my professional site. But it's only now that I'm learning how to balance blogging and real work. That's a lot of what I'm going to be talking about today.

As an experiment, if you come to my talk today, and then come here - please leave a comment.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

I'm back and so are ebooks...

It's quite horrific to realize I haven't been here since Christmas. But then that's always the problem with following a writer's blog; we do occasionally go off and write stuff - like proper stuff, books and things. 

Anyway I'm back. 

Let's start with a little game. I've over at Books from Scotland blogging about E-books and digital watermarking, how ebooks were around in the 90s and how ebooks are lighter than real books. This piece was proof-read by three people and we still missed stuff. It's an interesting article, and even more fun if you like proving to yourself you're better than any proof-reader. Have a look here