How to Write a Book Review

For starters, what tempts people to review books at all? If it’s for a prestigious magazine or newspaper, it could be money, though rookie reviewers are often happy to review in return for a free book and a chance to raise their profile.

bookshop

It can also be a chance to preen, to get in as many bon mots as possible, and to dazzle readers with a vertiginous vocabulary. If there’s room to slip in a lethal knife wound as well, so much the better. Will Self’s review of Julie Burchill’s Unchosen is often quoted as the epitome of this type of review:

“I can’t really dignify her latest offering with the ascription ‘book’, nor the contents therein as ‘writing’ – rather they are sophomoric, hammy effusions, wrongheaded, rancorous and pathetically self-aggrandising.”

He goes on to cite “Burchill’s repugnant gallimaufry of insults and half-baked nonsense.”

One snag is that it wasn’t a review as such. Still, it’s pugnacious stuff, and entertaining to read. Unless, perhaps, you are Julie Burchill.

Accusations are the stock-in-trade of many reviewers. In The Scotsman, Allan Massie says of Craig Raine’s oeuvre The Divine Comedy: 

“It isn’t a novel, no matter what author and publisher choose to call it. There is no real narrative interest and the characters are no more than names.” 

He goes on to give evidence for his view, leaving the public in little doubt that Allan Massie is a more riveting read than the book being dissected.

FreeImages.com/Davide Farabegoli

For a short while there was even the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. But several things have happened since then. Firstly, jokes about hatchets are a bit tasteless in a troubled world. Secondly, there are now more reviews on blogs and book review sites, far more than you’ll find in mainstream publications.

Online reviews like these are more workaday, and may serve their purpose better than the virtuoso variety. old-books1

Reviews just have two main tasks: guiding potential readers to their next book, and helping authors write what readers love most.

More readers could leave reviews, but I know that many feel inhibited from doing so. Yet the rules, such as they are, are pretty simple.

1 Short is OK, though preferably not as short as the one-word review “Book”.

2 Never include spoilers.

3 You don’t have to be a smarty-pants. In fact, it probably detracts from the value of your feedback. Just concentrate on what might help readers like yourself. 

4 Did you like the book? If so, say you did. You could also describe briefly what kind of book it is. “It’s a fantasy story about a girl who finds herself in an alternative reality which contains talking animals, strange new rules, and a lot of fun, some of it clever.” That’s not the most erudite description of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it’s enough to guide people, and it doesn’t give away the plot.

5 If you didn’t like it, don’t be rude. 

6 By all means add whether, in your opinion, the story is fast-paced, has lots of characters, is full of suspense, contains wonderful dialogue, and so on. It is your opinion, not the opinion of an English Lit professor, but it should be founded on evidence.

Your evidence should come from the contents of the book, and not depend on whether you liked the shoes on the cover, or whether Amazon delivered it to the wrong address. Here’s what one recipient wrote of a second-hand book:

“The book was in much worse condition stated, it would have been nice to have been warned about the blood stain that ran through several pages. Not happy at all as had to buy a second copy.”

7 If you feel like it, you could say which characters you liked in the book. Were they well drawn? Did their dialogue ring true? And so on.

8 Try to mention who might be the ideal reader. “Fans of cosy mysteries may enjoy this book.” It doesn’t hurt to mention other authors of books along the same lines, if any come to mind. But there’s no need to wrack your brains.

There’s a lot of really helpful advice on this blog post by top 1000 Amazon reviewer (and author) Debbie Young. If you’ve never written a review before, just come on in. The water’s lovely.

***

I still have a soft spot for this spoof review of Orwell’s 1984, by a reader called So-Crates. As feedback it’s not that useful, and you need to know something about 1984 to appreciate it, but it does show that jokes don’t have to have a butt.

“Do not buy this book if you’re expecting to find out anything at all about 1984, as this writer seems to have been living on a different planet. I was trying to do a bit of research into the influence of New Wave on cross-over dance music in the Mid-Eighties, but I found “1984” a complete waste of time… Jackson’s “Thriller”? (the soundtrack of the summer, and the biggest selling album of all-time) – not mentioned; Frankie Goes To Hollywood (their breakthrough year leading to world pop domination) – not a whisper.”  

You can probably guess what he says of The Road to Wigan Pier.

bookshelf crop

Don’t Use a Semi-Colon. Period.

I can’t find it in me to use semi-colons. I know they’re useful, in theory. But since when has effective writing been about theory?

With my thirteenth book about to appear, I can honestly say I have rarely felt the need for that little key just to the right of the L. 

Yes, I see you at the back, waving your arm in the air and bursting to tell me that General Practice Cases at a Glance is full of them. But I didn’t put them there. Or, as the copy-editor would have expressed it, “I know; I did not, however, put them there.” They crept in, aided and abetted by someone who knows more than I do about proper punctuation.

Here’s what the University of Oxford Style Guide says:

Oxford

Each could stand alone as a grammatically complete sentence? Then take off those trainer wheels and let it.

A fellow author and I were discussing punctuation recently.  We’d already exhausted the usual writerly topics such as our word count for the day, and which wine bar was nearest. I think I rashly mentioned semi-colons. Her own editor, like many others, has a fondness for these little squiggles. So, when I admitted to my friend that I try to avoid them at all costs, she asked, “What do you use instead? Colons?”

I nearly dropped my glass of Merlot. I use full stops. Period.

FreeImages.com/Ryan Gageler

I reckon that, over the years, avoiding semi-colons has saved me huge amounts of ink. The claim may be a bit infantile, rather like the school friend who once calculated that bikini briefs saved her several minutes a week, as compared with wearing full knickers. But she made us laugh.

Why use a punctuation mark that can’t decide if it’s a comma or a full stop? It’s a tasteless hybrid. Unlike mules and hybrid vehicles, however, this one breeds. Give a couple of them house room in your manuscript and you’ll soon have them on every page.

Militant semi-colon enthusiasts can get carried away, so I’m reaching for my flak jacket to say I’ve got very few uses for semi-colons. Here’s one.

winking semicolon

Project Semicolon is another.  It’s based on the premise that a semi-colon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. As Project Semicolon says, “You are the author and the sentence is your life.”

It’s a global non-profit movement for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury. You may well have seen semi-colon tattoos, which echo the theme.

There are many moving testimonies on the Project Semicolon blog. Just don’t get too hung up about the grammar.

***

At long last, Hampstead Fever breaks out on Thursday. And the cover’s pretty.

Hampstead Fever MINI FINAL EBOOK COVER MINI

What Not to Say to an Author

It’s wonderful being an author. While there’s rarely much money in it, you get to do what you love. It’s probably the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

There’s also the sheer joy of opening a box full of copies of your shiny brand-new book. That, as novelist Helena Halme points out, never gets any less exciting.

Helena Halme's latest book

And it’s a thrill meeting readers and getting feedback, especially when you find out your words have made a real difference.

But there are people who say the most inane things to authors. So, with the help of one or two fellow writers, I’ve compiled a roundup of things that really grate:

1 “Are you published?  Will I have heard of you?”

Well, yes, the author generally is published. Otherwise they’d probably not call themselves an author. As for hearing of that person, it depends. I know several people who never heard of Kahlil Gibran, yet his book The Prophet sold tens of millions of copies.

FreeImages.com/Mana Media

2 “Why don’t you get your book made into a film?”

If it were that easy, I think we’d all be knocking on Hollywood’s door. It’s not, which is why, until we get the call, we’re selling our books at around £7.99 a pop (or less; usually much less for the ebook). Not quite a direct route to the Walk of Fame.

3 “I do a bit of writing myself.”

I mustn’t scoff, because occasionally someone like David Lodge says this. More often, though, the follow-up is “I wrote a letter to my local paper once” or “I’ve written a 100,000 word novel from the point of view of a slug. Could you read it for me and help me get it published?”

FreeImages.com/Jurga R

4 “I’d write a book too if I had the time.”

The implication is that their life is far busier than the author’s, and that no talent is required.

5 “When I retire, I’m going to write a novel.”

Usually uttered by someone who’s never even written a shopping list. See 4.

6 “As you’re at home all day, could you just babysit/pick up a parcel for me/come out shopping with me?”

Because writing books is some romantic thing that just happens when you click your heels and make a wish. It’s not like it’s a proper job, right?

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

7 “Where’s my free signed copy?”

Because, obviously, authors are happy to work for free.

Many thanks to my fellow writers, especially Vivien Hampshire and Georgina Penney, both from the Romantic Novelists’ Association.  If you ever meet one of us, you know what not to say.

Just How Fictional is Fiction?

There’s a socking great disclaimer at the front of my novels.

“This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this work, other than those clearly in the public domain, are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

The real bits should be obvious. All you have to do is check out Marylebone, or amble down Hampstead High Street.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore

I’ve made up almost all the rest. Not that readers believe authors’ protestations.

Friends and family are apt to dissect published novels with an eye on ‘real life’. Even Ian Fleming, I’m told, suffered from this problem. People don’t just ask “Am I in it?” They go straight for “Which character am I?” I have half a dozen friends who believe they’re the single mother from One Night at the Jacaranda, and one who still thinks she’s the femme fatale.

Waitrose Marylebone

“I’m Geoff,” insists my husband Jeremy. He has no discernible similarities with the doctor in my novels, though someone did once call him Geoffrey by mistake at a party.

Of course authors draw on reality when inventing their stories. Jane Davis says her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Her next book My Counterfeit Self was inspired by the plight of UK atomic war veterans. She even mentions many of them by name, but her book is still made up, and all the better for it, in my opinion.

Finnish author Helena Halme also uses the truth as a springboard for fiction. Her romantic series The Englishman is based on her own life story of meeting her Navy husband and moving to the UK. The prequel The Finnish Girl is now out, but, like the others in the series, reality has been fictionalized to provide the right pace and tension for a novel.

The Finnish Girl by Helena Halme

Fiction certainly benefits from an injection of fact. That’s what makes it relatable. I lost all faith in a story where the NHS doctor ‘worked shifts’. In those days, hospital doctors often worked a one-in-two rota. Going to work on Friday morning and not leaving till Monday evening was called many things, but a ‘shift’ it was not.

(I can’t help thinking a lot of non-fiction could do with a few facts too. Books on curing cancer with carrots really should move to the fantasy shelves, but that’s another story.)

A novelist invents stuff, but it needs to be right. While I can’t define ‘right’, I had to make that call with the image on the front of my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever.  Cover designer Jessica Bell suggested adding a little red boat to the pond. The flash of red on the water seemed a delightful counterpoint to the red hat and red lipstick. But the pond in question is Hampstead Heath’s Number One Pond. Luckily one my sons, a local councillor, knows all about Hampstead’s ponds. As he explained, only the Model Boating Pond is a model boating pond. Cute as it was, my little boat had to be hauled out of the water.

Hampstead Fever

Being right is more about authenticity than fact. Being authentic, or so the Oxford dictionary puts it, includes

“Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”

Ain’t that the truth?

How to Plan a Box-Set

Today’s post is from a fabulous British author called Jane Davis.

By fabulous, I don’t mean she writes fables. In case you don’t know, her six novels to date are all wonderfully real character-led stories. This Saturday, October 3, she’s at Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead from 10.00am to 4.00pm for the launch of the new ‘bookshop editions’ of her novels.

And let me tell you that when you get to Barton’s at 2 Bridge Street, Leatherhead, you know you’ve arrived.

Here’s Jane with her advice on how to plan a box-set.

Jane Davis

In 2014 I experimented with producing two box-sets, first releasing my own three novel box-set, and then collaborating with six other authors on a multi-author limited edition box-set.

I called my own box-set Second Chapter as it contains what I consider to be the second chapter in my journey as an author. My first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, was published by Transworld after it won the Daily Mail First Novel Award in 2009. Second Chapter contains three full-length novels, I Stopped TimeThese Fragile Things, and A Funeral for an Owl. The idea was simple. I wanted to attract new readers by offering three books for the price of two.

Second Chapter

Single author box-sets are the perfect solution for authors who write a series, and they’re great for readers too.

As JJ Marsh explains about her European crime novels in the Beatrice Stubbs Box Set: ‘Readers often say that after reading one, they immediately want the next in the series, so a box-set is a handy way to get three at once.’

My collaboration with six other members of the Alliance of Independent Authors was more unusual. While collaborative efforts have become more common among genre fiction authors, we weren’t aware of other multi-author collections of contemporary novels. Of course, several of the issues highlighted here also apply to single-author box-sets.

Why do it?

Simple. We wanted to explore the power of the group. A box-set aggregates reader bases and the theory was that our combined reader bases would result in cumulated sales. But we also wanted to demonstrate the tremendous quality of fiction that is being self-published.

These Fragile Things

Who to collaborate with?

The group needs to share the same values and aims. These should be set out in an agreement (more later) which, when the going gets tough, can serve as a useful reminder of why you started out on this journey.

Make sure you’re happy to champion the other authors’ books as you would your own. We were fans of one another’s fiction before we teamed up.

No two books should be too alike, but they should appeal to the same target market. Our decision was to focus on our characters and the boundary-breaking nature of our fiction.

Make sure that the other authors are eligible to participate. Better to discover sooner rather than later that they’re signed up to KDP Select.

Find out if all of the books have been professionally copy-edited and proofread. You will save time by asking this very simple question.

Do the books have a high number of 5 star reviews? You may find it very difficult to garner reviews for a box-set, especially if it is only available for a limited period, so it’s a good idea to have a stock of headline quotes to draw from.

I Stopped Time

Outline Agreement

Now comes the nitty gritty. Even though you may want to operate on trust, certain issues should be nailed down at the outset.

Set out your main aims. How else will you measure your success? 

Decide how you’ll work on a logistical level.  Will one person act as overall leader or manager, or will each author take responsibility for a different area? What issues will you put to the vote, and how will you make decisions if you are up against time limits?

There should be written agreement that each author will retain his/her own rights, but grants consent for the party taking responsibility for uploading the e-book to publish it. This really is a key responsibility. That same person will receive all of the proceeds from sales and must act as treasurer for the team. We are so grateful that Jessica Bell took on this mammoth task.

Release date – print magazines put their books and features pages to bed three months before publication. Newspapers have a faster turnaround, as do radio and TV, and two months’ notice may well suit them. While you may not have aimed for publicity via these channels when writing as an individual, don’t underestimate the power of the group. We featured in a number of major publications, The Guardian, The Sun and New Edition to name but a few.

Pre-orders – now available on most platforms. Our experience was that people want e-books instantly.

A Funeral for an Owl

How long will the box-set be available? Consider the appeal of a limited edition product v the benefits of having the product available in the longer term. If some of you have published only one or two books, they may be less keen for the box-set to remain on sale. We decided on a period of 90 days only.

How will the product be priced? Box-sets are usually value-priced, meaning that the box-set costs the reader far less than purchasing all the books individually. Generally, the more limited availability is going to be, the keener the pricing needs to be. We settled on a price that represented a discount of 75% off the price of the books if bought separately, which represented tremendous value.

What is each member is expected to contribute, both in terms of money and time? I was simply blown away by the skill-sets within our team. Having a cover designer, interior formatter and website designer in-house meant that we didn’t have to pay other professionals for these services. And there was surprisingly little overlap in skills, so we were all able to play to our strengths.

How each member will be paid and when (Pay Pal is useful).

A general statement of commitment to summarise what is expected of everyone.

Women Writing Women Box Set Cover_finalGIF (1)

Branding

Title – As well as capturing the theme that links the books together, it’s a good idea to mention the word “box-set” in the title, together with the number of contributing authors.  

Cover design – 2D v 3D? As instructed in the Smashwords Style Guide, Smashwords can’t accept ‘3D’ images (a digital rendition of a three dimensional box-set). And they are not alone. If you wish to publish on any platform other than Amazon, and you only want to have one cover image, it must be 2D. NB: All authors should be listed on the e-book cover image.

Your brand will extend to author photographs, memes, Facebook banner, website domain name and design, all the way to any Twitter hashtags you adopt. Ours also included video trailers and promotional giveaways. 

Formatting and Interior layout

You’ll combine the multiple books into a single e-book file. A Table of Contents becomes crucial for box-sets.

We listed each book and author name, and included a short bio, blurb and headline quotes after each title page. You might also add “Other books by Author Name” or “Connect with Author Name,” with electronic links.

Proof-reading – It is vital to ensure that errors have not been introduced during the formatting process. As a minimum, each author should proof their own book and one other novel.  Set a clear realistic deadline.

Communication within the team

We found it very helpful to set up a closed Facebook Group, as well as a shared Google spreadsheet which was effectively a diary of all of our marketing. This ensured that we didn’t duplicate efforts and that we weren’t all asking favours of the same contacts!

Joni Rodgers

Publicity Campaign

We were fortunate to have our product endorsed by respected industry professionals, including Alison Baverstock and Dan Holloway, who gave us amazing quotes which we were able to use on our cover and in press releases.

We utilised social media to full effect, adopting #womenwritingwomen as our hashtag, setting up a Public Facebook Group and targeting reader groups.

Press Releases – we designed three separate press releases with slightly different emphasis in order to suit the bias of the publications we intended to approach.

We wanted a fresh idea for giveaways that would cost very little but treat the winning readers to something of genuine value. Joni Rodger’s daughter (Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing) created a fabulous digital swag bag that included a critically acclaimed novel by Joni, a free music album download by Jessica Bell and a host of delightfully fun and artsy surprises. We also gave away a couple of Kindle Paperwhites. Giving away upscale prizes in a promotion builds awareness, and brought us email addresses and other benefits.

Joni is also experienced in audio editing, so she created our book trailer – again using one of Jessica’s songs. She also made a 60 second review for each book in the set.

Blog tours – we adopted a dual approach, pulling in favours and paying for a blog tour.

Jane Davis

What we will take away from the experience

Joni Rodgers: ‘I’ve learned a lot about marketing and production, and that’s something I’ll gratefully take with me when our 90 days is done.’

Roz Morris: ‘Certainly I learned that promotion in a group gives you more courage. I find it agonising to write assertive press releases on my own behalf, but it was dead easy for our ensemble. I’ll channel that when I start bumbling through a release for my next book.’

ooOoo

A big thank you to Jane. Here’s more about her:

Jane Davis’s first novel, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She has since published five further novels.  Compulsion Reads describe her as ‘a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless.’

Visit her website: www.jane-davis.co.uk and subscribe to her blog
‘Like’ her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JaneDavisAuthorPage
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/janerossdale
Follow her on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/janeeleanordavi/boards/

And don’t miss seeing her at Barton’s Bookshop on October 3.

 

What to Put in Your Writing Space (and What to Leave Out)

As one of the least tidy people, I’m not remotely qualified to tell you, but my wonderful writer friend Joni Rodgers knows exactly what a workspace needs and doesn’t need. It’s taken from a post she wrote called The Art of Upscale Downsizing, this is what she did. I hope it entertains and inspires you. 

Joni Rodgers, author

Earlier this month, the Griz and I moved into our new quasi-retirement digs (read Ageing Hippie Lakeside Love Grotto), between thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. As water continued to rise just a few hundred yards from our new place, the complex management sent out text messages warning residents to watch for snakes on the property, and in the spirit of encroaching apocalypse, I did something I’ve never done before: I made my office my first priority.

Typically, my office (or my cough “office” cough) has been the last room in the house to be finished. This time, my kids are grown, my life is my own, and the Griz is happy to share center stage with the work that keeps me happy and contributing to our solvency. I’m scheduled to dive into editing Orna Ross’s forthcoming historical novel about W.B. Yeats and his paramour Maud Gonne. It’s a beautiful, important book, and I wanted to be ready for it.

My new sun-room office in this one-bedroom apartment is just 8×10 feet–half the size of my upstairs office, with which I’d fought a major organizational/ housekeeping battle, in our old four-bedroom house. I was nervous about the drastic downsizing, but as I worked through the process, I made three simple rules, which turned out to be the three things I love most about my Woolfish “room of one’s own”:

1) Every object must earn its footprint. For me, that means everything in this room has to a) serve and purpose and b) make me happy. Utilitarian + Joy = worth it.

Making the cut: A Salvador Dali coffee table book doubles as a lap desk. A Dr. Seuss lunch-box that houses paperclips and pushpins. My great-grandma’s kitschy plaster cat, now in charge of pens and highlighters.

No longer happening: Furniture, wall art and tchotchkes that were nice to have and sometimes hard to let go of but didn’t pass a test of archival value (“Will my kids really want this after I’m dead?”) or serve a daily need.

Gorgeous thrift store china cabinet: no. Tiger oak chair rescued from a defunct VA hospital: yes. I could have made an argument for the usefulness of either one, but the chair earns that footprint. The cabinet served as a junk collector simply because it was there. No cabinet = no junk. Winning!

Joni's new workspace

2) Nothing but work happens in the workspace. It occurred to me that my most precious natural resources, time and space, are both limited, and my mindset for one naturally influences my mindset for the other. This small square footage is premium real estate, and it’s most valuable to me as clean, feng shui friendly floorspace. Cluttering it with plastic bins, file boxes and obsolete computer equipment detracts from the calm, creative vibe I’m striving for, and though a lot of that stuff is arguably work-related, it’s not the work I’m working on now, so it doesn’t earn a footprint in this space. 

Same goes for time clutter. A while back, I declared a “Facebook only while standing” policy, which immediately made me more mindful of the time I was wasting there. I try to justify social network activity as “platforming”, but in truth, 90% of that falls more accurately under “farting around”. So no more magazines or leisure books on the desk, and no more games or aimless net surfing on the office computer. (Isn’t that why God created smart phones?)

Old manuscripts, tax records, press archives, correspondence and keepsakes took up a huge amount of space in my old office and our over-spill storage unit. I invested in a NeatDesk scanner and opted into their whole system. I’m still working through the mass exodus of paper from the storage unit, but the bottom line is: everything that can be digital must be digital. And almost anything can be digital.

I’ll admit, I cried letting go of my kids’ school projects, which I’d been justifying as decor in my old office. I’m keeping a few framed pieces for the wall here, but everything else is being digitally archived. My plan is to compile a coffee table book for each kid, which will be equally feng shui friendly in their future homes.

3) I work at home; I do not live at work. In the past, when my office got out of control, I could close the door and keep the insanity to myself. My new sun-room office is open to the living room in our new apartment, so it has to jibe with the living room aesthetic, and that forced me to be more mindful of the way my work serves (or or doesn’t serve) the greater goal: a happy, healthy home life with this man I love. My work tends to take over at times, and I’ve learned that allowing work to hog all my time, space and waking thought actually makes me less productive in the long run, because I get fried and don’t allow myself to recharge.

While plotting books, I’ve always built out massive grids of sticky notes on the wall à la Beautiful Mind. I had stacks of books that were sent to me for reviews and blurbs. I tacked up Max Parish and Ansel Adams calendar art and scrawled notes on corkboards. The purpose of all that (in my head) was part organization, part inspiration, and it worked for me in that space, but it’s not what I want to look at when I’m sitting in my living room. Not working. (No, really, I’m not. Seriously! I really mean it this time!)

Going forward, I’ll be organizing writing and ghostwriting projects with Scrivener, which allows me to integrate research, character notes, and chapter material. (Try it! You’ll like it.) A Passion Planner satisfies my need to physically write things down and brilliantly brings all those random corkboards and creative impulses into an intelligent plan of daily, weekly and monthly actions that pragmatically serve my creative goals. Instead of keeping a file drawer for editing and ghostwriting clients, I’m streamlining editing and book doctor projects via a nifty online system called 17 Hats, which allows me to create typical work flows from first contact to client invoice.

Joni's snazzy wall art

So instead of a blizzard of flailing sticky notes, I now have one powerful, wall-wide work of art that genuinely does serve to inspire me and provides a super cool counterpoint to the more conventional living room art. I got this amazing canvas frame X-Men panel on Overstock.com for less than $100. (It’s actually a room divider.) It comes from “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, in which Jane Grey (now Phoenix) kicks the stone-cold keister of Emma Frost (aka the White Queen).

Her power is a song within her… a passion beyond human comprehension. She is more alive than she has ever been

Just the right vibe for a fiercely focused and beautifully functional creative workspace.

Crazy for Trying

You can find out more about Joni’s writing and other talents right here on her website.

 

Inside the Dragons’ Den

What happens when aspiring authors have to brave not one but four literary dragons in front of a live audience? 

The London Book Fair (LBF2015 to the cognoscenti) had a demob flavour on its final session of the afternoon, but not in Author HQ where for ten hopefuls the serious stuff was just cranking up.

Seen Dragon’s Den? That’s how The Write Stuff was organized. Ready to breathe fire on the ambitious writers were agents Mark Lucas, Toby Mundy and Lorella Belli, plus non-fiction publisher Alison Jones.

They didn’t look that fierce from where I was sitting. As we waited for the start, I couldn’t tell if Belli and Jones were discussing books, designer shoes, or their team’s chances for the next season, but it all seemed quite jolly.

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Alison Jones, left, with Lorella Belli

Then the real business began, with the contestants standing in front of the panel plus a packed Author HQ to sell themselves. Each had just one minute to say who they were, two minutes to pitch their book, and five minutes for questions and comments from the panel, who had already sampled their opening chapters.

This happened a few weeks ago now, but there were lessons that authors should remember for all time.

First up was Lucy Brydon, a young Scottish film-maker who presented a novel set in China where she had worked. While The Boy Who Died Comfortably was redolent of Chinese culture and highly filmic. Toby Mundy wasn’t so sure that, as a foreigner, the author had ‘a place to stand in this story.’

Toby Mundy

Agent Toby Mundy

Characters came under scrutiny when romance writer Catherine Miller pitched her novel Baby Number Two.  The panel was clearly impressed with her perfect title, as well as her blurb, her writing, and her Katie Fforde bursary. AND she’s a mother of twins.

Catherine Miller

Catherine Miller

They weren’t so keen on her characters’ motives, however. Alison Jones also felt she had shoehorned in too many topical subjects.

Caroline James also writes mainly for women. Coffee, Tea, the Caribbean and Me was aimed more at those in their fifties, and drew on her experience in the hospitality industry. ‘Highly relatable,’ thought Mark Lucas, relatable being the buzzword de nos jours.

agent Mark Lucas

Agent Mark Lucas

The authors received all the comments with good grace, though Olga Levancuka was a tad more combative.  There she stood in her full-length orange coat, looking every inch the Skinny Rich Coach (her alias). She responded feistily when the panel questioned her approach and her credentials.

Olga Levancuka, aka Skinny Rich Coach

Olga Levancuka aka Skinny Rich Coach

Mike Rothery had spent decades in the Navy, so no surprise his novel The Waiting-Pool involves an ocean voyage. And a jaunty hat.

Mike Rothery

Mike Rothery

It was a good thriller, thought the panel, but it took a bit too long to get started, and Alison Jones couldn’t bring herself to care that much about the characters. The protagonists had started life in another of Mike’s books, so getting the amount of back-story right may have been an issue. A tip here for anyone writing a series, I think.

Vittorio Vandelli

Vittorio Vandelli

Italian satirist Vittorio Vandelli presented a tub-thumping account of the dystopia of the Berlusconi period. What had happened in Italy was, he claimed, a dire warning to Western democracy everywhere. He soon digressed from his blurb and just gave us his tirade.  As entertaining as it all was, Vittorio and his book came on a little strong. Mark Lucas said he felt he was being smacked over the head with all the things he should be outraged about.

Caroline Mawer is a doctor, globe-trotter, photographer, and author of A Single Girl’s Guide to Modern Iran. The panel thought there wasn’t enough of herself in the work, and the title wasn’t faithful enough to the text.  Wouldn’t Skinny-Dipping in the Spring of Solomon have been more arresting? Maybe literally?

Caroline Mawer

Caroline Mawer

Up stepped Julia Suzuki. Her children’s book The Crystal Genie is, appropriately enough, all about dragons. The panel sat bolt upright. Was it about them? They all claimed to adore dragons. But it is no longer enough, apparently, for dragons to be green. Even the youngest readers must now have them in shades of grey. Alas, Suzuki’s characters were ‘a bit too black and white.’   

Julia Suzuki

Julia Suzuki

Lennox Morrison, an award-winning journalist from Aberdeen, offered a collection of short stories. Although she writes ‘like a dream,’ the consensus was that short stories are very difficult to sell on a grand scale.

The winner was another journalist, Sanjiv Rana, who pitched The Insignificance of Good Intentions. This first person novel is about a 33-year old virgin who’s sent to prison charged with rape. Sexual assault is a big problem in India, though, as the panel said, false accusations of rape aren’t usually the issue, so it’s an original angle. The panel agreed that Rana has a very original voice too. You think that stopped them comparing him to other writers? Think again. 

Sanjiv Rana receives his award

Sanjiv Rana and certificate

Rana won an appointment with Toby Mundy, and a framed certificate for slaying dragons. 

What did the other writers get out of it?  Olga landed herself an agent shortly afterwards, and Caroline Mawer did change the title of her book. Her thought-provoking take on The Write Stuff is well worth a read. It’s on Words With Jam right after my piece.

Meanwhile Catherine has completed her novel, and I for one am dying to read it.