Friday, 19 September 2014

John Hanley - Bringing History to Life

Everyone has heard one of those apocryphal stories about going on holiday, on the far side of the world, only to meet someone from your home town. My version of that was a happy coincidence, encountering author John Hanley online and then finding out he is based in Truro - just up the road from me (if the road is 25 miles or so of the A394).

John is both a dab hand at using social media to promote his books and willing to share the fruits of his labours - a blogger's dream! 

1. John, we met over social media. How important has social media been to you as a writer?

When I started promoting my first book I had no experience of social media so I started with twitter by following tweeps who had confessed to enjoying reading in their profiles. I then extended this to those who followed authors who had published books similar to mine. Until I passed the 2,000 follower mark it was a bit of a struggle but now I'm picking up a dozen or so new tweeps each day. I did a cull recently after discovering that nearly 1,000 of those I was following were inactive! I use Just Unfollow to manage and categorise. Tweetdeck is also very helpful for retweeting and scheduling.

I read a few books on social media and plunged into facebook without really appreciating its nuts and bolts. I have been posting background detail especially photographs about my novels on my fb author page  for some time now rather than try to manage a blog on my website as it is far easier! I now use twitter to drive potential readers to both those sites.

Fortunately I discovered ASMSG (Authors Social Media Support Group) early on and now engage with their nearly 1,000 members in tweeting, retweeting, sharing on fb, liking on Amazon author pages and rating and voting on Goodreads.

LinkedIn has also proved a very useful resource and I've enjoyed networking with authors all over the world though I am still surprised by some of the requests I receive especially from members who are not authors.

2. How did the character of Jack Renouf first speak to you, and when did he appear?

Jack has been speaking to me for a very long time as we share so many interests though he is far more headstrong and adventurous than me! He was born in 1920 - the same year as my mother. I grew up in post-war Jersey where my mother had been trapped for five years by the German Occupation of the island. I had often wondered what it must have been like for a young man who had just left school in 1939 and how he would have coped with the harsh reality of war.  Nearly all young men of his age left the island though most of the young women didn't as they had family obligations.

3. Research is obviously a key aspect of your writing - have you discovered anything that changed how you wrote the books?

What I find quite amazing is that over 70 years later new facts are still being discovered about that period. After the liberation in 1945 the UK government carried out a full investigation into what had happed during the Occupation. The subsequent report has been sealed until the year 2045! However, from information I had picked up from family and friends I was aware of certain lines of enquiry that I might follow and have been able to unearth some stories which I have been using in my "fictional" work. 

My principle resource has been my extensive library of second world war books especially the 200 or so items specific to the Channel Islands which I have collected over the past 40 years. During the course of writing Against The Tide I collaborated with someone who had been a Hollywood screen writer and he suggested I beef up one of the sub plots of the novel. This involved a whole new line of research as I always try to make events as realistic as possible. In this case I constructed a complete story around a shipment of industrial diamonds from the Belgian Congo to Jersey. During the research I discovered that not only was there a law firm in the island which represented the very company around which I had based the story but that the Germans had been working along the same lines to defeat the embargo imposed by De Beers to prevent them acquiring these essential elements for their factories!

4. How did you choose Matador as a publisher?

I followed the traditional route of trying to find an agent for several years without success and, after retiring in 2006, decided to take the gamble I was asking of a publisher and risk some of my own money on my novels. I read Harry Bingham's book "Getting Published" which had been recommended by the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and researched several alternatives before settling on Matador, which is the fiction imprint of Troubador - the mainly educational publishing company I had come across during my teaching career. Troubador offered a full publishing package and Jeremy Thomson the managing director was very honest about the potential outcomes and the poor chances there would be of actually making any sort of profit. The quality of their product was much superior to several other companies I approached though all were quite frank about the responsibility I would have to promote and market my own work.  In choosing an established publisher I have been through the same process as an agented author and experienced the joy of intensive copy editing and proofreading as the company will not print work until the editing is completed to their satisfaction!  I found the cover design process very interesting and even though I came up with most of the ideas Troubador's product management team was extremely helpful.

One aspect of publishing I hadn't really considered was the word count of my manuscripts. I'd read in several places that a first novel shouldn't really exceed 80,000 words. It was only when I discovered how heavily publishers had to discount their books for Amazon and other major booksellers that the penny dropped! Both my novels were over 120,000 words so the production costs were relatively high but the price point remains the same for most paperbacks which means profits and therefore royalties are severely squeezed once 100,000 words is exceeded. Of course the more books you print the better the unit costs but then they have to be stored prior to distribution and that costs as well. None of this applies to e-books but I still have a fondness for hardcopy and my next novels will not exceed 90,000 words!

Another aspect about which I was unaware was the kindness with which the taxman treats authors allowing initial losses to be set against non-writing income. My accountant told me about this though I doubt he would recommend authoring as a means of feeding a family.

5. Any tips for balancing being an author with the time and effort required to maintain the profile of your books? 

If you look at my facebook author page you will see that I spend a lot of time providing historical background for potential readers. I do find that an engaging process but add that into the basic social media activities then time left for actual creative writing quickly disappears. I'm not too worried at present as I'm still new to this business and am confident that I can find the necessary time for writing the next novel in the series especially as I've decided to limit the number of words!

6. Just out of curiosity, did you attend the Writers' Day in Truro in 2012, put on by me and Literature Works?

I didn't know about the Day but would have attended if I had.

7. Where can we find out more about you and your books?

Here are my links:

My website: THE LAST BOAT:
AGAINST THE TIDE regional Amazon link:
THE LAST BOAT regional Amazon Link:
Goodreads author page:
Facebook Author Page:
Amazon Author page:
Troubador THE LAST BOAT:
Review link:

8. Any other experiences you'd like to share about marketing your books?

I found the Cornish press quite helpful and have been interviewed by the West Briton and broadcast on BBC Radio Cornwall.

As the books are largely set in Jersey I was able to secure interviews with local press outlets there as well. As a by-product of publishing my first novel I was appointed as the adjudicator for Jersey's Eisteddfod Literary Section last year

I invited the Cornwall Library Service to stock my books and I now receive a small fee based on borrowings from the Public Library Lending Service each year.

Waterstones in Jersey were happy to stock my first novel especially after the publicity there surrounding the launch but I have not had any success with booksellers in Cornwall even though I have been on Radio Cornwall and appeared in the West Briton.

I've appeared at a couple of local organisations as an after dinner speaker and this is an excellent method of promoting and selling books though it can be quite exhausting!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Not Quite the Status Quo

Hello there,

Thanks for stopping by.  We may or may not know one another - it's even possible you found me by chance. Nonetheless, pull up a pew.

Of late, in this blog, I've talked about the identity crisis writers can face - and the one that I experience on a regular basis. Apart from, perhaps, plays and poetry, I've dipped my quill in most of the inkwells out there: short fiction, long fiction, jokes, sketches, monologues, parody songs, greetings cards, branding, copywriting, articles and features, speeches and speech rewrites. Plus blogging, of course - for me and for others.

Anyway, it occurred to me this morning that a good blog is a conversation and not merely a monologue. And that brings me to you, dear reader. My blog post title is a clue to the point of this point - Whatever You Want. (See what I did there? Sure you did.)

I've been doing this for a fair wee while now and it may just be that I have an answer for your question, a solution for your writing conundrum, or a match for your candle. Why not see if that's the case and ping me a writing related question in a comment (let's keep it clean, people). 

I'll answer them in one post, or maybe dedicate a separate post for something meaty. Remember, it's whatever is useful to you.

Like the dog we once had that used to raid the bin regularly, I'm at your disposal.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Harriet Hoult's Language of Art

I'm fortunate to number one or two artists in the UK among my closest friends. While I'm definitely a visual learner, the language of art generally eludes me and the creative process using colour and form (unless it's with words) is a mystery to me. Luckily, I recently met London based abstract artist, Harriet Hoult, who agreed to help clear the mists.

I'm really interested in that crossover point where a creative impetus arrives and can be interpreted or expressed in different ways by different people (or the same person at different times). My questions might seem a bit naive, but that's an art style too, apparently!

Over to Harriet...

Q1 As a visual artist, have you ever tried painting with words?

Actually, just very recently, I have begun introducing words into a few of my paintings. 

I have been working on a commission for a family in Kent. Before starting painting, I wrote each of their names onto the paper. It felt that in doing this, their energy was kind of imprinted into the paper and the painting was truly personal to them - even if the names are painted over and can not be seen when the painting is complete.

On another piece, I've written a word of exclamation to express a feeling I've had whilst working on it. This has been something that just came to me in that moment and I felt the urge to put it in writing.

Q2 Has any writing ever inspired you to produce a piece of work?

This is a difficult one because I am often inspired by reading books, blogs, or poetry or from hearing stories and interviews on the radio, but how that is transferred to the painting is generally more unknown to me. It's like in the moment I read or hear something, a rush of excitement or inspiration will be triggered inside me but I will not necessarily be painting at the time and so am not able to express it immediately. Therefore when I do come to paint, it's like it is a series of a whole host of impressions (from my conscious and unconscious mind) influence the work.  

Things that create that feeling of inspiration within me, are for example when I am reading a personal account of someone who has lived their life 'in their own way', and perhaps against the normal grain, but has reached a level of success that is truly aligned to them and has become somewhat of a pioneer in their field. This seems to trigger a faith in my own uniqueness and somehow a drive to express that through the paint. 

I am also fascinated by mysticism, and poetry or writing that hints at mysticism can inspire me. To me, my painting is a somewhat mystical process, in that I have often felt that something other than my consciously creating mind is being expressed through me, which can bring the painting together in a totally different and more pleasing way than I could have planned or foreseen.

Q3. Can you describe your own creative process?

My creative process is ever unfolding and the more I create, the more I am discovering about it. It's sort of like, it is the teacher and I am the student.

My inspiration comes in ebbs and flows, which are generally outside of my control. When I am in the inspired place, I feel fantastic, it's the best feeling ever and when I am not in that place, it can feel very dead and heavy. However what is interesting to me is that not all of my best work necessarily comes out of the 'inspired' place. Some of my favourite pieces were created when I was in the 'dead zone' - against all my feeling and expectation. I think part of this perhaps has to do with the fact that in the dead place comes there is more of an indifference and less of an expectation of and attachment to the outcome. Sometimes when I've been my most careless and bold, surprising results have come about. For me however, the real key seems to be in taking the action despite what I'm feeling, and from whichever of these places I am in. Just going at it moment by moment and seeing what happens. 

Q4. Describe your workspace.

My current workspace is a part wood, part brick built out-house on the side of my Dad's house in Richmond, London. It is pretty small, maybe 3m x 5m and it has a clear plastic roof which makes it fantastic in terms of light.  I am a very messy painter so it is absolutely covered in a multitude of splashes and drips of different coloured paint. At either end of the space, are shelves where I keep all of my paints and brushes. I paint against the wall - fixing the paper to the wall and working standing up. By standing, I find that I can move my body more freely and can be more reactive and expressive. In an ideal world I would love a really big studio with lots of space as I love working on multiple paintings at the same time.

Q5. Where can we find out about you and your work?

My website: 

Q6. What's next for you?

I don't have any more exhibitions planned at present as right now I'm busy working on commissions and also building up my collection. Once I have these done then I will start to think about where to exhibit next.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Copy That! (Change Please - part 2)

As opposed to the ones on holiday.
The word epiphany is bandied about a great deal. You could argue that it has now joined the upper ranks of cliché, proudly taking a comfy seat next to 'upping my game', 'this would mean the world to me' and the mathematically dubious 'I'm going to give it 110%'. Oh, go on then - let's also make space for 'I've been on a journey', which, ironically, doesn't travel well. 

However, epiphanies can and do occur. And, in my experience, once you've epiphed, it always seems so obvious.

So, picture the scene if you will. I have some freelance clients lined up, fees have been agreed and I'm good to go. Except that, rather than feeling elated, or just grateful (it's been a sticky month financially), I had that Sunday evening feeling you used to get as a kid when you used to think about school the next day. "What gives?" I ask myself. (I find talking aloud soothing because I've always enjoyed the sound of my own voice.) My reply is that some of the freelancing I do just isn't fun any more. I actually laugh then, but I can see what I mean. 

At this point in time, freelancing isn't a full-time occupation. I do okay out of it, for the work I undertake, although I don't remember the fun part being an essential component. I mean, how many people find their jobs fun even part of the time? 

Only...only now I realise that it does matter and I recall a conversation with our Dad, back when I was unloading lorries for a living. "No one enjoys their job," he assured me. He then qualified it by telling me about how a Radio 4 programme only found one person who really enjoyed their job - a man who made wooden wagon wheels using traditional tools and methods. (This conversation would have taken place around 30 years ago, back in analogue times.) 

I remember insisting that I was going to find a job I enjoyed, and how he'd gave me a knowing and slightly patronising smile, as if to say, 'Yeah, good luck with that.'

Anyway, back to the epiphanous present. I love writing, always have. The first thing I bought for myself out of my savings, when I started working, wasn't a suit, or a moped, or driving lessons; it was a typewriter. It dawns on me now that what I enjoy about writing is a blend of information and character; I like to add my own voice and make a piece of writing distinctive. That's much easier to do when you know the subject matter well - less thinking involved.

When it comes to copywriting I've been a bit of a generalist.

 Subjects I've written about include: Sushi, yoga, poo, voucher discounts, matchmakers, relationships, weddings, sex, VOIP, PTSD, exhibitions, technology and software, ageism in the workplace, privacy, start-ups, interior design, website design, social media, branding, life-long learning, online dating, private investigations, education, interviews, coaching, freelance writing, safeguarding, staff motivation, parental engagement, exercise, cycling, art, health, green living, green tech, chickens, creative writing, big data, cycling, comedy writing and creativity.

What can we learn from this? (Apart from my range, versatility and suppressed humility.)

1)    Become the writer you are (and not just the writer you think others want you to be).

2)    Get noticed for who you are.

3)    Develop your own, unique style. Whatever I write, when I have a free hand to create the voice of the piece, it's more often than not a conversational, informal tone with a sprinkling of humour. That's the bit that makes it fun - adding character to content.

I know what you're thinking: whatever happened to part one? It set up home here:

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Value of Feedback

It's said that a true friend is one who will tell you what they really think - and why. For a writer, getting reliable feedback is invaluable. Just as a good proofreader can spot those rogue apostrophes and homonyms that you read past without noticing, so a good reviewer can tell you the essential and occasionally bitter truth. 

One must use discernment these days, of course, when reading social media and online book reviews because they offer such a wide canvas for jealousy, mean-spiritedness and invective, as well as encouragement, support and constructive feedback - if you're lucky. 

It's all in the game, I suppose, and for every book that's praised to the rafters there will also be a proportion of readers who thought it stank like last week's haddock. In fact, I received what must surely rank as the worst review I'll ever receive (on that site at least!). If I tell you it was for my magical fantasy, Covenant, and on one of the major - and tax ambiguous book retail sites, you can easily find it if you're curious.

I'll wait for you...

Ah, there you are. What did you think? Me? I was both disappointed and amused by it. Firstly, it suggested that I hadn't given the reader something of value - which is what I think most writers strive to do, irrespective of the topic or genre. Secondly, it amused me because I'd be hard pushed to get a review that bad again under any circumstances. (Although no one has reviewed my gag ebooks yet...)

The real worth of feedback, to me, is that it's an indication of whether I've succeeded - in the reader's eyes - in parceling up my ideas, feelings and themes into a cohesive package. More than that, where it's fiction, I want them to have felt something. Where my reviewer, who didn't like Covenant, is concerned, I can at least be certain that they felt something!

Many months ago I spoke with my editor at Musa Publishing about finding out if my mid-grade book about bullying and transformation, Superhero Club, might be suitable as an education or support tool. With their blessing, I contacted two organisations connected with young people's well-being, as well as a couple of local schools in Cornwall. The schools didn't respond, but eventually, after some polite reminders - over five months and one year respectively - the two organisations said they either didn't have time or were not in a position to review my book. And you thought agents and publishers took a long time...

Undeterred, although frankly pretty ticked off by the experience, I contacted two more organisations, and almost immediately (within a day or so), I had responses from each. (Note to self: choose wisely in future and perhaps ring up first.)

One organisation has now provided three brilliant pieces of feedback, yielding some unexpected comments. Remember the context here - this feedback is from professionals working with vulnerable / troubled children.


- Suitable for a young person who enjoys reading.
- Liked the style and conversational approach.
- Felt it illustrated the benefits of talking therapy.
- It's simple and gets to the point, making it quite accessible. 
- It gives awareness that adults have issues as well.
- An interesting story covering various issues, giving an insight into how bullying affects people.- A very touching story and easy to follow, it could help a young person understand how a group could help them.

- Didn't like the use of American English although it probably wouldn't be a problem for young people.
- Concerns that the group of young people in the book were copying the bullying behaviour towards the bully.
- Some of the language was difficult for some children to understand.
- The supportive group of young children bullied the bully and the teacher just ignored the situation, sending out a negative message to vulnerable children readers that there's no point in telling teacher as they won't do anything about it anyway.

I'm indebted to the reviewers because it has given me a completely different perspective on my children's book. 

It all raises some interesting questions:
1. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club turn it into a useful educational / support tool?
2. Would a rewrite of Superhero Club increase its popularity?
3. If I hadn't had that feedback from professionals, would I have been content with the book as it stands?
4. What would my publisher, Musa think?

I was talking recently with abstract artist Harriet Hoult, who will be guesting on this blog soon, and she felt that each piece of art she produced had its own conclusion. Perhaps every piece of creative output, once it exists in the outer world (i.e. beyond a drawer or a file on a desktop), has become what it was supposed to be. Maybe, where a book or a story is concerned, revisiting and editing after that point only unravels all the elements that put it together in the first place? 

What's your feedback on that?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

A Miscommunication Masterclass

The plan was simple, oh so simple. I'd ring Anne from the penultimate station, giving her time to drive down to the terminus and pick me up. What culd possibly go wrong? Several things, apparently. It's a comedy of errors, unless it's happening to you at the time.

1. It was only at the penultimate station, when I dialled home, that I realised I had no credit left on my phone. No problem - go to plan b. I emailed her to say I had no credit and that I'd be at the terminus soon.

2. Ten minutes of waiting at the terminus with no sign of a pick-up and I sent my 'free' text to make contact.

3. Ten minutes after that I emailed to say I'd start walking and hopefully find a payphone on the way.

4. Hooray, I found a payphone. But she didn't get to the phone before I'd given up listening to rings.

5. I decide to wait anyway, just in case.

6. A minute or three later I get a text back to say she's on her way.

7. Then it starts raining. A lot.

Naturally, when she does pick me up, I use the opportunity to turn sarcasm into an artform (for me, anyway). I forget that a sensible person would check they had some phone credit, and instead I mention my original plan, which was to only phone if the train was going to be late. 

It didn't help that Anne had:
a) Forgotten which train I was on and my arrival time.
b) Forgotten that the Internet could have told her, based upon my planned departure time.
c) Was in the attic when the phone rang.
d) Couldn't get a decent mobile signal.

The lesson here is that communication is a two-part process of sending and receiving (preferably with the original message arriving intact). As writers, whether we're communicating with clients, with agents and editors, or with readers, we have to take responsibility for what we say and how it's interpreted.

And always, always, give credit where credit is due!

Monday, 4 August 2014

On Failing and Failing Better

Like many of us, I read a lot of blogs. Some are informative and some are entertaining; the favoured few are both. I'm not sure how long I've been following Chloe's blog but it's one that  I always make a beeline for when I see it in my list. As one of many who enjoy her writing, I'm   delighted to be part of her debut novel's blog tour. Come and meet her, and hear what she has to say about success, failure and final requests.

Chloe Banks lives in Devon with her husband, son and an obsession with words. She started writing for a dare and forgot to stop until it was too late. She is a prize-winning short story writer and a first-time novelist, represented by The Andrew Lownie Literary Agency.

The Art of Letting Go tells the story of Rosemary, whose peaceful seclusion is disrupted by the man who she was involved in a traumatic relationship with decades earlier; only this time he’s lying in a coma and Rosemary must decide whether to let him live, or let him go. In the midst of her secret dilemma  she meets an abstract artist who is used to manipulating shapes and colours to make people see things differently. But what else is he manipulating? And can he help Rosemary see her own situation in a different light?

The Art of Letting Go is available as a paperback and an e-book here.

On Failing and Failing Better

Many people have asked me where I got the idea for The Art of Letting Go. I wish I had something creative and brilliant to tell them. But the simple answer is this: I failed. I failed three times actually.

The first time I failed was in writing a piece of flash fiction (Dear Margaret) about a vicar who was trying to find God again after losing his wife to cancer. It got some good competition feedback, but never won the prize.

The second time I failed was in writing a short story about a girl who meets an artist on a beach during a wet summer holiday (Absence Makes The World Go Round). I loved using colours to enhance the mood of the story, but the plot itself didn’t work.

The third time was another short story (Flicker). This one was about a woman whose abusive husband was in a coma. She was convinced he could hear everything and wanted to live, but the doctors thought he was completely unconscious and so she had to choose whether to keep him alive or let him die. Her dilemma interested me, but I just couldn’t get the writing right. The plot was there; the good writing wouldn’t come.

In autumn 2011, I was looking for a new writing project and was browsing my file of stories that never made it. In a moment of flippancy, I wondered what would happen if I took the positive elements of Dear MargaretAbsence Makes the World Go Round and Flicker and smashed them up into something entirely new. I invented a new main character to tie the stories together – picking an woman in her seventies as I think older people are often more interesting than younger ones! – and started writing. 

It wasn’t the easiest way of making a coherent plot, I’ll admit that. But in starting out with three failures, that each had their own positives, I was able to create something far richer than I would’ve done if I’d started with one idea and built it from the ground up. Although The Art of Letting Go has been through many re-drafts, there are still one or two lines in it – and many ideas and themes – that come directly from those three pieces of failed short fiction. And – here’s the lesson, folks – I couldn’t have done it, if I’d deleted my failures. 

There are loads of files on my computer that I am ashamed of – stories where the writing is appalling. But I haven’t deleted them because you never know when the ugly duckling of one bit of fiction might become the swan you were looking for. I would be mortified if anybody browsed my writing folder, but I am proud of what has come out of it. In addition to those three total failures that made a success, some of my best and prize-winning short stories have been ones where I have failed first time round and taken a fresh look. Sometimes I’ve just edited more critically, sometimes I’ve re-written the story from a completely different point of view or in another tense. The originals weren’t terrible, but they weren’t right. Sometimes getting things right takes time, patience and a lot of trial and error.

So I have one piece of advice and one request for you, dear readers of Derek’s blog...

Advice: never delete or shred any piece of writing.

Request: if I die, please burn my computer before reading.