30 December, 2015

2015 Review

Most years I have plenty of news to report about my own writing. This year, I was going to say that nothing happened - as a full-time mum of two boys under two years-old, I have done much less writing than I'd like. However, looking back I see that more happens when life goes on than you realise! What's been the highlight of your year?

  • My debut novel The Art of Letting Go was selected for promotion by Amazon in February which led to sales of nearly 10 000 copies and a brief stint as the bestseller in Women's Literary Fiction.
  • Even more exciting, my novel was one of the Top 10 most-read books on Kindle in the UK in February, making me one of the 20 most-read Kindle authors too.
  • My flash fiction The Language of Fish won second-prize in a competition.
  • I decided to scrap the first draft of a novel I was working on and started again in February, finishing the new draft just a few days before my second son was born in August. It was extremely hard work, especially towards the end of the pregnancy. My first drafts are always awful, but I'm proud of just completing this one.
  • The Art of Letting Go was voted for by the public and was one of three winners in the People's Book Prize for the autumn quarter of the 2015/2016 competition. It will go forward as one of 12 finalists in May.
  • At the end of the year my novel had over 100 reviews on Amazon, averaging 4.3 stars. This was my favourite review. 

So even though I've done very little writing, my past work has kept me going throughout 2015. And of course, I've read a lot of good books. The one advantage of being up a lot of the night with a new baby - plenty of reading time! Despite this, I've not read as many books as some years. Here's a summary of my reading year...

  • I read 19 books in total.
  • Four books I gave ten out of ten: Perfect by Rachel Joyce; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton; The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
  • Of these, my absolute favourite was The Book Thief.
  • My least favourite read of the year was Something Borrowed, Someone Dead by MC Beaton.
  • The average score I gave the books this year was exactly eight out of ten.

What was your top read of the year?

I hope all the people who have taken the time to read my blog and support in me in so many other ways this year have a blessed and happy 2016.

22 December, 2015

The Book... by Martyn Beardsley

Image from google books.
After a long hiatus I present to you the latest in my occasional series of guest blog posts. This series is where writers and readers tell us about a book which has meant something special to them. We've had books that encouraged early reading and books that have shaped faiths and books that will be passed on to the next generations. Today, my dear friend and author, Martyn Beardsley, tells us about...

The Book That Almost Came to Life

When I was young I read a book about a boy staying in a big old house. On a nocturnal exploration he stumbles on a way of going back to the house's Victorian past, and befriends a girl who lived there. It was Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. Each time he goes back in time and plays with her she is a little older, until finally she is a young woman with a boyfriend. Tom is still a little boy, and sadly realises that the adventure is over. I won't give away the twist ending – but it always brings lump to my throat.

I re-read it as an adult, and unlike many revisits of childhood books I wasn't disappointed. I learned that the setting was the author's own childhood village on the River Cam near Cambridge - and decided to go on a literary pilgrimage and find it.

After some fruitless wandering about I spotted an elderly lady pottering in her garden, and asked for directions. I was surprised by the grilling she gave me as to the reason for my search – until she finally admitted, 'I am Philippa Pearce – I bet you thought I would be dead by now!' (I denied it – but the books were old so I had kind of assumed…)

She invited me in for a cup of tea, explaining that she had bought this cottage because it was opposite the old family mill house which had inspired her stories. We discussed her writing, and when I told her I was an aspiring but unpublished writer myself she gave me some useful advice. I went away walking on air and clutching a signed copy of another of her books. Only a year or so later I finally had my first book published, and I sent her a copy and received a very kind reply. One lasting effect of the encounter is that I've always tried help other unpublished writers in whatever small way I could.

It's only just struck me that the denouement of my story is not unlike that of the novel, which prompted me to change the title of this little piece. Apart from the birth of my daughter, meeting Philippa Pearce remains the most magical memory of my life.


Thanks, Martyn. As an once-unpublished writer who Martyn helped and encouraged, I am very grateful to Philippa Pearce as well! Tom's Midnight Garden was one of my favourite childhood classics and I'm itching to read it again now...

14 December, 2015

The 100 Greatest British Novels

The BBC Culture website have recently published a series of articles on the results of a poll to find the greatest British novels of all time. The poll was conducted among 82 non-British book critics, who were each asked to nominate ten novels by British authors.

You can see the full list, here. Here are the Top 25:

25. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000)
24. The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing, 1962)
23. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy, 1895)
22. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (Henry Fielding, 1749)
21. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad, 1899)
20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989)

17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson,1748)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)

10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)

3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)

Of these 25 I have read the 11 ones highlighted in red. I have also seen the film adaptation of Atonement. Having spent a decade working my way through the BBC Big Read Top 100, I am daunted by the thought of starting a new list of novels, but I'm also a little bit tempted. Anybody tempted to give it a go with me? I've read 25 in total so that leaves me with a whole lot of reading to do! On the list my three favourites so far are probably, Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro), Emma (Jane Austen) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell). Which are your favourites?

If you are looking for some interesting reading material I recommend having a browse of the related articles on the BBC website. Among other things, you can read about why Middlemarch is the greatest of the great (something that, I have to say, baffles me - I wasn't that keen on it myself. In fact, I noted it as being the least memorable of all the books in the Big Read!), what makes a British novel great in the first place, and why women are far better-represented in this list than you might expect.

What do you think of the list? Are there any glaring omissions? If you spot any, please let me know so I can add them to my Must-Read list of books!

My special thanks to my dear friend, Joe, for pointing me in the direction of these articles.

04 December, 2015

Christmas Gifts for Writers 2015

Do you have a special writer in your life? Don't know what to get them for Christmas? Let me help!

As in previous years, I've picked out a few gifts for writers and readers. This year, due mostly to not having time to browse the whole internet, I've taken them all from the marvellous shop The Literary Gift Company. They haven't paid me to write this and I don't know them, but I love pretty much all of their stuff! Other literary gift retailers are available! Here are just a few of the things they have on offer this year, that have caught my eye...

1. Depressed pencils (£5) featuring slogans such as, "In time, I'll be pointless". For the grumpy writer in your life.

2. Library t-shirt (£19.95) for those who love libraries (who doesn't?!).

3. I'm still in love with these book handbags (£54-62) and still have no reason to spend that much money on one. Sigh. I'm not even a handbag sort of person but there's something so charming about carrying around your stuff in an old book.

4. These bookends (£15.95) sum it up for me, although I confess I rarely have a shelf of books that isn't so rammed it needs bookends!

5. I love a good literary necklace, and this Alice in Wonderland one (£32) is my current favourite.

6. This quirky pillowcase (£14.95) is designed for you to jot down those late-night moments of inspirations. Comes with washable pens!

7. These posters (£24) contain the entire (legible!) text of a novel. I already own The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I am very struck by the brooding image for this poster of A Picture of Dorian Grey. (See here for the other novel posters currently stocked).

8. I couldn't leave something Shakespearian off the list as my novel-in-progress is about a huge Shakespeare fan. My choice of Bard products is this handy insult generator (£8.99) - a flipbook which uses words from Shakespeare himself to help you create inventive insults for every occasion. Brilliant.

And that, my sneaping pale-hearted rampallians, is all you are getting from me. Happy shopping!

02 December, 2015


In September I was happy to tell you that my novel, The Art of Letting Go, was nominated for the 2015 Autumn Quarter of The People's Book Prize. I am even more excited to tell you that out of the dozens (maybe hundreds?) of entries, it is one of three books selected as a finalist in the fiction category! (See here for proof.)

I'm so thrilled to have reached this point and it's thanks to you. The Prize is awarded entirely by public vote, so to all those of you who voted for me, thank-you so much! For now you can of course continue to poke your friends with a big stick until they read my book, but voting is over until May. In May 2016 I shall need you all to vote again as I join the other 11 finalists for the annual award ceremony where an overall winner (also decided entirely by public vote) will be announced. Last year the award ceremony - a terrifying-looking black tie kind of do - was broadcast live on Sky! As well as categories for fiction, non-fiction and children's books, awards will also be given for Best Achievement and for First-Time Author, which I could also be in the running for.

I will, of course, be spamming you with every update about the Prize, and pleading for votes closer to the time, but for now I can only say thank-you again. Please do sign up for my newsletter (see sidebar) if you haven't already and do keep telling people about The Art of Letting Go - if you'd like a signed copy to give as a Christmas present, let me know and I'm sure we can sort something out!

24 November, 2015

World Book Night 2016

It has become something of a tradition on this blog to let you know when the books have been announced for the next World Book Night. Well, they have!

Each year, on the 23rd April (Shakespeare's birthday), people around the UK volunteer to give out books to people who - through opportunity or finance - don't regularly read books. I'd love to do it myself but I've never thought of a place where I would make a difference by handing out books, so I've left it to others... so far at least!

The books to be given out for World Book Night 2016 were announced today. In 2013 I'd only read four off the list, in 2015 it was just two. In this current list, I am ashamed to say I have not read any! How many of these have you read? Would you recommend any?

  • Perfect Daughter - Amanda Prowse
  • The Rotters' Club - Jonathan Coe
  • Shadow and Bone - Leigh Bardugo
  • Too Good to be True - Ann Cleeves
  • Treachery - SJ Parris
  • Last Bus to Coffeeville - J Paul Henderson
  • A Baby at the Beach Cafe - Lucy Diamond
  • I Can't Begin to Tell You - Elizabeth Buchan
  • Someone Else's Skin  - Sarah Hilary
  • Whispering Shadows - Jan-Philipp Sendker
  • Love Poems - Carol Ann Duffy
  • Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig
  • Am I Normal Yet - Holly Bourne
  • Band of Brothers - Stephen E Ambrose
  • Now You See Me - Sharon Bolton

You can see descriptions of the book on the WBN website, here. I am most drawn to The Rotters' Club and Last Bus to Coffeeville, although in my current mental state of mum-of-two-boys-under-two the ones described as easy-reading women's fiction hold a lot of appeal to. Which do you like the sound of?

18 October, 2015

The Best Book I've Ever Read

Photo from Wikipedia.
The other day I saw a quotation from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Straight away I thought to myself, That was the best book I ever read. This startled me. Had you asked me what the best book I've ever read was, I would've told you that it was impossible to choose. And yet my subconcious appears to have made a decision to nominate the 1989 Booker Prize Winner on its own.

If we had discussed this topic without my subconcious getting involved, I probably would've mentioned lots of books which I admire greatly. There would've been the well-deserved classics (A Tale of Two Cities, Emma, 1984, The Grapes of Wrath), the modern sensations (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Room, One Day, Gone Girl) and the books that have caught my imagination at various ages (The Secret Garden, The Stand, The Eyre Affair). I might even mention books by authors like Agatha Christie, who is most emphatically NOT the best author I've ever read, but who I adore anyway. None of them, however, would be THE best book I've ever read. I'm not even sure what that means. What do you think?

Do you have one book you consider the best book you've ever read? What would make you give a book that accolade? Here are some suggestions of criteria, please add your own!

  • a book that changed your outlook on life
  • a book that made you actively do something
  • a book that made you cry
  • a book you remember vividly years after reading it
  • a book you re-read time and again
  • a book that you share with all your friends

The Remains of the Day doesn't fit any of these criteria for me - except perhaps remembering it well, although it's only a couple of years since I read it. I was just blown away by the simplicity, the tragic beauty of the story. Have you read it?

This whole train of thought reminded me of a series I did on the blog once, where guest authors wrote about a book that meant something special to them. Among the authors mentioned were Enid Blyton, CS Lewis and Geore RR Martin. I'd love to do some more blog posts in this series, so please let me know if you'd be willing to contribute. The title would be 'The Book...' and you can finish it any way you like ('... I couldn't put down' / '... I'll pass on to my children' / '... that got me through tough times' etc.) You can check out this one by Roanna Price as an example.

In the meantime, I'd love to know what you think the best book you've ever read is!

07 October, 2015

BBC National Short Story Award - The Result

Yesterday, the results were announced for the 10th BBC National Short Story Award. The five shortlisted stories were broadcast on the radio a couple of weeks ago and I wrote micro-reviews of them all. My conclusion was that there was a good reason they were all on the shortlist of such a prestigious award! I didn't like them all equally, but I did think they were all beautifully-written.

The runner-up, and the winner of the Student Choice Award, voted for by 16-18 year-olds across the UK, was Bunny by Mark Haddon.

The overall winner with a beautifully emotional and simply-told tale of a clairvoyant asked to help a family whose daughter is missing, was Jonathan Buckley's Briar Road.

My favourite stories were probably the ones that made me laugh as well as think - Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston and Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page, and I was perhaps most impressed with the writing of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. So that shows how much I know!

Which was your favourite story?

28 September, 2015

Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The final shortlisted story is Do It Now, Jump the Table by Jeremy Page, where a young man meets his girlfriend's parents for the first time and is determined not to be taken aback by their alternative lifestyle.

I think this was probably my favourite story of the whole list. It was a simple story - not a thriller or a plot full of twists - but it was sharp and funny, and somehow a little sad at points too. The premise was that blend of an ordinary situation with a spin on it that made it quirky but not bizarre. I wasn't on the edge of my seat, but I wanted to find out where it was going. My only criticism of the entire thing was that I felt the last couple of lines were unnecessary. The point being made had already been made much more subtly - I didn't need it spelled out for me and I would've preferred to be left to fill in the final thought for myself, rather than being spoon-fed. Apart from that though, I thought it was great.

I've been trying to think how to rank the five stories in order of how good they are in my opinion, but I find it is impossible. At this level of competition, all the writers are so good, I am in awe of all of them and couldn't say who was the best writer. I was instantly impressed with the quality of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, but would I say it was better than say, Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston? Perhaps. I'm not sure. All I can say is that I am surprised at just how much I enjoyed all the stories. In previous years there have been at least a couple which have left me completely cold - sometimes including the winner - whereas this year I was interested from start to finish with all of them.

If I had to choose, then Do It Now, Jump the Table would be my choice of winner - purely on how much I enjoyed it. Perhaps followed by Broderie Anglaise. But any of them would be worthy winners. Maybe it's not a coincidence that those two were the ones that made me laugh? Anyway, I'd be glad to know what you made of the stories - have you got a favourite?

The winner will be announced on BBC Radio Four at 7:15pm on Tuesday 6th October.

25 September, 2015

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The fourth shortlisted story is The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel. The story takes place in a flat overlooking a hospital where Mrs. Thatcher is due to emerge from minor surgery. The main character lets in a "plumber" only to find he is really a sniper. You can listen here.

There was something perverse in me that wanted to dislike this story. Hilary Mantel has won the Booker Prize twice for her lengthy novels. It seems unfair that she should be such a good short story writer as well. As this particular story had already become famous, the judges knew who had written it before reading. Surely then, they had only shortlisted it because of the name attached? No. Hilary Mantel's talent shone through.

The thing that struck me straight away was the detail. The scenes are drawn so carefully, with tiny details that give the story colour without slowing the pace. There is a strange, almost flippant, tone to the narration, but somehow that seems to work too. I loved that such a dramatic situation was told without drama - drawing me in by weaing the story around me, rather than setting off fireworks in my face.

As with Broderie Anglaise, this story has the kind of ending that occurs a few scenes before you're expecting it. With both stories, some of the events the narrative appears to be leading towards haven't happened by the time the music stops, as it were. However, I think in the case of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, it works really well. I didn't feel cheated of the main event. I'm not convinced I'm smart enough to get all the nuances and subtleties of what was being said, but as a story it worked for me and I appreciated the quality of the writing - slick without being fancy. It wasn't the most entertaining of the stories so far, but I think it's the best-written one. One more to go!

Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The third shortlisted story is Broderie Anglaise by Frances Leviston. The story is narrated by a young woman who intends to make her own dress in order to attend a family wedding. But the enterprise reveals tensions between her and her mother. You can listen here.

I didn't think the premise of this story sounded promising. Dress-making and kitchen sink dramas don't capture my imagination. But I really liked this. The voice of the narrator was brilliantly-written and the other characters so perfectly-drawn it was impossible not to feel I was listening in to a slice of real life. Although it isn't a comedy, the sharp writing of Frances Leviston and excellent performance of Kate O'Flynn brought some moments of humour that seems to be quite rare among literary short stories.

I enjoyed the straight-forward story-telling - a story that started somewhere and built chronologically towards a specific moment in time. However, I was a bit taken aback by the suddenness of the ending. The story was, of course, less about actually making a dress for a wedding, and more about how it revealed the nature of the relationship between the main character and her mother. Therefore the ending wasn't unsatisfactory as such, I just felt it could've tied up a few more loose ends. I know that's not how literary fiction usually works, but I often feel the same way about other highly-acclaimed short stories - as if I'm missing something somewhere. Perhaps I'm not high-brow enough and that level of subtlety is just wasted on me! Anyway, I found this story highly-enjoyable regardless - probably my favourite so far.

24 September, 2015

Bunny by Mark Haddon - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The second story on the shortlist is Bunny, by Mark Haddon. This is the story of a seriously over-weight compulsive eater who forms an unlikely friendship while house-bound by his weight and agoraphobia. You can listen here.

On the face of it, this story is right up my street. I've always had a bit of fascination about obesity and fitness and won a public speaking competition as a teenager, talking about the subject and the potential ways of combating it. Last year I listened to the audiobook of Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, which is also about a man who is massively overweight, and I enjoyed that. However, this didn't quite hit the mark for me.

The writing was great. As with Briar Road, the language was simple and straight-forward - nothing poetic or flowery. The characters were believable and I did find it compelling to listen to. The opening paragraphs I thought dragged on a bit and it seemed in danger to me of becoming a character portrait rather than a story, but it rescued itself just in time. The main downside to me was the "twist" at the end. It didn't ring quite true to me. It wasn't a cheat or anything, it was only that in such a short story I didn't feel the character of Leah was sufficiently developed enough for me to believe in her actions. It also - and I'm sure this was unintentional by Mark Haddon - was a twist that was very similar to something that happened in a mainstream TV drama I watched a year or two ago. I know there are no truly new plots, but that did allow me to guess what was happening and feel that it wasn't much of a reveal.

Overall, I enjoyed the subject matter and the writing of this story very much, but I didn't find the plot one that captivated me.

23 September, 2015

Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley - Review

This year I am listening to and writing micro-reviews for the five shortlisted entries in the BBC National Short Story Award. Why not listen along with me?

The first story is Briar Road by Jonathan Buckley. This is a first person story, narrated by a clairvoyant who has been called in to help a family whose daughter is missing. You can listen to the fabulous Maxine Peake reading the story here.

There is something beautifully sparse about this story. The premise is unusual - not many of us will ever be in the situation where we feel the need to call in a clairvoyant to help us in a heart-breaking situation - and yet it is not sensationally-written. I would call this a quiet story in the best possible way. There is an economy to the writing that creates a believable story rather than relying on merely an interesting idea.

The contrast between the level of everyday detail and the lack of over-explanation was my favourite thing about this story. In simple language the scenes are drawn so vividly, picking up details - the smell of polish, the slight changes in facial expression - that captivate and draw you in. And yet, the actual story is subtle. There is no sudden exposition - the premise is revealed gradually and naturally, no "I am a clairvoyant" kind of revelations. You come to realise what is happening as it happens which leads to a satisfying story without being obscure.

I often find the short stories with all the accolades leave me cold. They have almost no plot and no likeable characters. This wasn't like that at all. It wasn't a thriller or a mini-saga, just a beautifully-written slice of life, albeit and unusual slice, with a captivating narrator. A great start!

21 September, 2015

BBC National Short Story Award 2015 - The Shortlist

This week the five shortlisted stories in the BBC National Short Story Award are being read on Radio Four. This prestigious award is probably one of the most high profile short story awards in the UK and I always enjoy listening to the final five. The award isn't without it's controversies - from whether or not the entries are judged anonymously to whether stories can be called into the award without actually being entered by the writer. Dan Purdue has written a couple of interesting blog posts on these subjects which you can read here.

However, controversies aside, it's great to see short stories being given a higher public profile. A well-crafted short story is one of the most inspiring things to read - for me anyway. I intend to review each of the stories here on the blog as I listen to them - it'd be great if you'd listen along as well and let me know what you think too. I have so little time for short story writing now and I'm desperate to get back to it. Maybe discussing some short stories with other literature-lovers will inspire me! The stories are being broadcast on BBC Radio Four at 3:30pm every day this week, or you can catch them later on BBC iPlayer.

This year's shortlist contains some famous names and all five authors have a track record of published novels, grants or prestigious awards. I guess talent tells! The most famous author on the shortlist is Hilary Mantel, two-times winner of the Man Booker Prize, although many of you will also know of Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The other three authors are Jonathan Buckley, Frances Leviston and Jeremy Page. You can read more about them and their stories here. The winner of the £15000 prize will be announced on the radio on Wednesday 6th October, 7:15pm.

I look forward to listening with you!

10 September, 2015

Archive Autumn - That Would Be Myself

Over the next few weeks I'm going to be re-posting a few blog posts from my archives. I'm starting here with the post that recieved the most comments, both on the blog and on social media. It was first posted on 5th June 2012. I'd be interested to know whether you have anything to add to it three years later...

Just after I wrote the first draft of this post, I turned on the radio to the news that the Queen's English Society was closing down. This post, therefore, is a tribute to them...

A few weeks ago I made a comment on facebook about my current grammar hang-up. It got a lot of comments from people agreeing with me! I like it when people use correct grammar. I also know, that I don't do it all the time, not even when writing, so I try not to get too angry about such things. Grammar fascists do not make good party guests.

However, this particular trend was really annoying me. Why do some people insist on using 'myself' and 'yourself', instead of 'me' (or 'I') and 'you'? It's terrible English, and the bit that really annoys me is that they don't seem to be doing it just because their English is bad; they appear to be doing it to make themselves look better - as if the more letters they say in one sentence, the more impressive it is. It was The Apprentice that tipped me over the edge. I know what you're thinking - anybody who watches The Apprentice doesn't have the right to criticise anybody else - but it's not just them. I got an e-mail once from an editor of something I contributed to, which said something along the lines of, " ---- or myself will send you the contract". An editor. I almost sent an e-mail back saying, "Myself will sign the contract when yourself has sent it to me," but decided that was not the best way to develop a good working relationship.

I won't continue the rant here, but it got me thinking about these hang-ups. I guess we all have them - writers perhaps more than most. I've learned to my cost that one of my loyal readers does not approve of 'alright' (apparently it should always be 'all right'), and another is driven crazy by 'try and...' instead of 'try to...' (something which annoys me too, but I still have to correct it in my own work all the time!). So what's your hang-up? And what do you find yourself doing - if you dare admit to it?!

I suppose the real question in all of this is: does it really matter? Does it matter if good grammar disappears? Everything in me screams 'YES!', but our language is evolving and the changing use of grammar is part of that. I once jokingly corrected a friend who said 'wedding invites' instead of 'wedding invitations', and one of her friends - who (or should that be whom?) I didn't know - told me that as the common usage of words change over time, I was stupid for not thinking 'invites' was perfectly acceptable now. I didn't really have an answer. Why should we cherish some points of grammar and not others?

I quite happily google things and facebook someone, when technically Google and Facebook started as nouns. I pronounce the word "garage" as gar-idge. I know some people hate that and think it should be pronounced with a long vowel in the middle and soft ending. But I bet those same people pronounce "village" as vill-idge. They are both words we took from the French, so why do people get hung-up on one and not the other?

What are you happy to let slide when it comes to good English? Are your standards different for written and spoken English? Have you got any good examples of terrible grammar you've spotted anywhere?

02 September, 2015

The People's Book Prize

I am thrilled to announce that my debut novel, The Art of Letting Go (Thistle Publishing), has been nominated for The People's Book Prize.

The People's Book Prize is a quarterly competition which aims to get new or undiscovered authors read by a wider public. Each quarter a list of books in three categories - fiction, non-fiction and children - is drawn up and the public vote for a winner in each one. There is then an annual award ceremony where an overall winner is chosen from the quarterly finalists. The founding patron of the award is the great Beryl Bainbridge (five times Booker Prize nominee) and the patron is Frederick Forysth (best known perhaps for The Day of the Jackal).

If you have read my novel and enjoyed it, please do take a few moments to vote for it. It would mean so much to me. You can vote for it here. If you haven't yet read The Art of Letting Go then you can find it here, or you might be able to request it from your library (there are two copies in circulation in libraries and I don't know where they are currently!) As I write this it has 103 reviews with an average of 4.3 stars, so there's even a chance you may enjoy it!

I would also be very grateful to anybody who feels like blogging, tweeting or otherwise spreading the word on my behalf. I shall of course be doing all I can, but with a one-week old baby and a one year-old toddler, I rely on the kindness of friends and strangers!

Voting is open until 30th November. Thank-you!

01 September, 2015

Final Version

Sometimes a masterpiece takes lots of rough drafts. Sometimes after a bit of time and a lot of effort, they come out just right straight away. A week after finishing the first, and very rough draft of my latest novel, I managed to produce something quite different but pretty special. I think it might stop me working on anything else for a while, but it's worth it.

Here he is, my latest masterpiece, Wilfred Abraham Banks. Wilfred and his brother, Digory, are far superior to anything else I've managed to create, but I think I forgive them for it.

20 August, 2015

Draft One - Check!

Nearly two years after I started, I have finally finished the first draft of a new novel, under the working title of Matthew's List. I cannot tell you how happy and relieved I am about this! The time pressure was getting pretty intense...

Some of you may recall that earlier in the year I blogged about my decision to scrap all 40 000 words of my first draft and start again. It was absolutely the right decision for all the reasons I gave at the time, but it was tough. I'd started the novel when I was pregnant with my first baby and reached 20 000 words when he was born. It took me six months to get back to it, at which point I thought it would be better to start again. To start AGAIN some months after that felt like a necessary but backwards step. Now, finally, 95 000 words later, I have a finished draft - days, or a couple of weeks at most, before Baby Number Two is due!

It's been hard to make myself write, especially these last few weeks as I've grown bigger and more tired. The impulse to lie down when my son was having a nap was overwhelming. But plenty of writers have overcome much more difficult obstacles and, with my husband and in-laws giving me the occasional extra hour to write by looking after Digory, I wanted to push on. Until a few days ago I didn't think there was any chance I was going to finish. Suddenly, on Monday this week, I realised I was almost there!

As with all my first drafts, it's terrible. There are unnecessary scenes, plot holes and a plethora of inconsistencies. I need to simultaneously add tonnes of details and slow scenes down, AND cut out a lot of waffle and speed things up. But that's OK. That's what my initial drafts are like. I am more of a natural editor than a natural writer and getting a complete manuscript in the first place is always my biggest challenge.

I have no idea how long it will take me to get back to writing - to even read through what I've written (there hasn't been time to re-read anything as I've worked on it!) It could be months. It could be years - although I hope not! Now though, I have something to go back to. I've missed short story and flash fiction writing very much, but it was worth the sacrifice just to have written that final sentence.

07 August, 2015

The Best 21st-Century Novels

It's only in recent years that I've started reading books published in the last decade. With centuries of amazing writing behind us, it always seemed I had too many other things to read first. I realised, however, that to write modern fiction, you do need to read it too! And I've read some brilliant books published within the last few years. For example, I've just finished reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which was short-listed for the Booker last year and was a fabulous read.

So, I was interested to stumble upon this article on the BBC website listing the best novels of the 21st-century... so far. Only 14 years in to the century I hope we haven't peaked! Several dozen book critics were polled as to what they thought the best books published since 1st January 2000 were. 156 books were mentioned and a Top 12 drawn up.

You can get a better feel for each book from the article, but here they are in list form:

12. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
11. White Teeth - Zadie Smith
10. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
9. Atonement - Ian McEwan
8. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk  - Ben Fountain
7. A Visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan
6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon
5. The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen
4. Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
3. Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
2. The Known World - Edward P. Jones
1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

I have to confess I've only read two of these - White Teeth and Gilead. I have seen the film version of Atonement and I have read a different book by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I've also not even heard of some of these titles. Have you read any of them? Should I? I'd be particularly interested to hear if you've read the number one book - not only nominated the most times, but mentioned as the critics' number one choice the most times as well.

What do you think the best books of the 21st-century have been so far? Off the top of my head, some recent books I've enjoyed a lot have included One Day  (David Nicholls), Room (Emma Donoghue), Perfect (Rachel Joyce) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lionel Shriver).What have I been missing out on?

30 July, 2015

Sales Figures, Royalties and Expectations

Expectation vs. Reality?
Last week I received my latest sales report for The Art of Letting Go from my publishers, Thistle Publishing. Sales figures and royalties are given several months after the fact, and so these were the figures from February to April this year. I was pretty excited about receiving this report as I knew it would include the figures from when my novel was on promotion on Amazon and was in the Bestseller lists on Kindle.

Until I receive the reports my only way of estimating the number of books I've sold is by using NovelRank - an independent website that uses Amazon ranking information to estimate the number of sales for any book you care to track. What I hadn't realised was that NovelRank is mostly accurate when you are selling a small number of books a week/month. At higher levels, the data can be pretty far off. So, where I thought I'd sold a few thousand books - and was darned happy with that - it turns out I actually sold closer to the 10 000 mark worldwide. I probably don't need to tell you that I'm even more happy with that! I can't believe nearly 10 000 people have paid money to read something I wrote. Not only that but I also received two more reviews - both 5* - which takes me up to 62 reviews of 5* out of 102 in total. A good day!

When I mentioned on Facebook that I had sold over 9000 copies of my book, I was interested to see one of the first comments was about how much money I must've made. I've found that people are uncommonly interested in  how much money writers make. I would never dream of asking a nurse, or plumber, or accountant... or anyone, really... how much they make from their job, yet people often ask me outright about my income from writing (this particular person didn't ask, to be fair - he was just being encouraging!). Maybe the myth of the rich writer is why one recent survey found 'author' to be the most desirable profession?

I remember one of the first blog posts I read from the successful author Martyn Beardsley made me laugh because he was describing how he'd blown his latest royalty cheque on a chocolate bar and a newspaper. This particular set of figures might afford me a little more than that, but I'm certainly more towards the confectionary end of the market than the private jet end. I suspect over 99% of authors receiving sales reports this week worldwide will be in the same boat. Most of us will probably never reach the threshold even into having to pay tax just from book royalties. I wonder what other expectations people have of writers that would take a hard knock from reality?

21 July, 2015

Adaptations Better than Books?

Whenever a book is adapted into a play/film/TV programme, there are always people who loved the book and hate the adaptation. It's rare that an adaptation receives even close to universal praise (the recent film of Gone Girl being an exception). It must however, be much less usual for somebody to love an adaptation and dislike the original book(s). This happened to me recently, has it happened to you?

I love listening to cosy crime on the radio. Poirot, Marple, Peter Wimsey... they are my friends. Even the Paul Temple stories which are terribly-written and badly-acted will do when I need something to listen to. I've particularly enjoyed Agatha Raisin stories in recent years, and so I thought I'd read one of the books by MC Beaton - Something Borrowed Someone Dead. It was dreadful.

In cosy crime I can deal with a ludicrous plot and I still enjoyed the bizarre character of Agatha Raisin herself, but the writing was truly bad. I was amazed and disappointed - MC Beaton is a best-selling author. The book mostly consisted of very short scenes each containing a single conversation, over half of which were pointless. The dialogue was unrealistic and often stilted, the prose repetitive and the storyline managed to be both drawn out (through the pointless scenes) and rushed (through the constant scene changes). It wasn't completely unenjoyable, just unbelievably badly-written.

If you look for reviews online, you will see I am in a minority. Something Borrowed Someone Dead averages over 4* on Amazon. However, I was interested to see from the 1* and 2* reviews that many people were disappointed for the same reasons I was AND that most of the unhappy reviewers were long-time readers of Agatha Raisin who thought this particular book was nothing like all the previous ones and nowhere near the standard they usually are. A couple of reviewers said they were afraid first-time Agatha readers would be put off. They were right. I shan't be reading MC Beaton again, but I will return to the radio version I'm sure.

What are the best and worst adaptations you've come across? Ever preferred an adaptation to the original books?

14 July, 2015

One Year - 100 Reviews

After several weeks of not receiving any new Amazon feedback for The Art of Letting Go, I have just been given my 99th and 100th reviews! They were 4* and 5* as well which is even better. It comes at a special time for my novel as next week it will be one year since publication.

I'm not sure what I imagined the first year of being a published author would be like. Not like this I don't suppose. After landing an agent, then struggling to get a traditional publishing deal and deciding instead to take a risk on a new type of deal, it has been an interesting year. I guess as a child I would've thought being published involved book signings and literary festivals and award ceremonies and, quite possibly, days spent writing in tiny clifftop cottages overlooking the sea. I don't suppose I would've expected to spend most of the first year changing nappies and singing nursery rhymes. Life is both more mundane and more fabulous than the dreams of a child!

After my book was published in July I sold a good few to people I knew and, gradually, to strangers as well. My minimum aim was 400 copies, which I might have crept to eventually. My true aim was 1000, which would've been harder. Then Amazon decided to promote my book in February and things took off. I sold many more copies than I was aiming for and even, briefly, made it to be the Bestseller in Women's Literary Fiction. The Art of Letting Go was also in the Top 10 most-read Kindle books in February.

Since then sales have gradually slowed down again, although I have also been promoted in Australia and India in the last three months. I know of four book groups who have read it together as well. As with everything, however, the reaction to the book is more important to me than the cold, hard numbers. So here are some cold, hard numbers illustrating the reaction!

Amazon Reviews
5* - 60 reviews
4* - 19 reviews
3* - 12 reviews
2* - 7 reviews
1* - 2 reviews

Average rating: 4.3 stars

I don't think this is too bad for my first year of my first novel. It's not a perfect piece of writing and it's certainly not a perfect piece of plotting! Reviewers have told me that it is "absurdly entertaining" and gripping, and that it's the most boring book they've ever read. It is both apparently slow to get started but gets better, AND starts well but tails off. The ending is both great and a "bit of a let down". People are both eager to read my next book and would never read something written by me again. Which means, of course, I am both delighted and disappointed, but not in equal measure. 60 five star reviews is OK I reckon (and some of them were better than I could've dreamed up myself!)

So, as I head into my second year, with my novel having sold much better than expected, I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me. I am currently trying very hard to finish the first draft of another novel before a second baby arrives and it's back to only nappies and nursery rhymes again for a few months at least. Whether the words THE END or the baby arrives first is still a close race!

Thank-you to everyone who has cheered me, encouraged me, bought and/or read my book and left reviews. If you've read The Art of Letting Go and haven't yet left a review on Amazon or Goodreads, please consider taking five minutes to do so.

10 July, 2015

Quotable Friday (46)

I've never read a PG Wodehouse book. I have however, listened to many of his adventures of Jeeves and Wooster on the radio and I love them. He's got such a sharp wit. I was reminded of this in Writing Magazine who published a small selection of quotations from his books.

Here's one of my favourites...

"She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season."

06 July, 2015

Amazon Promotion - India

I'm glad to say that my novel, The Art of Letting Go, is now on promotion in India!

If you are in India, or for your own nefarious (or otherwise) purposes choose to shop on Amazon India, you can get hold of the Kindle version here for only 85 rupees - that's about £0.86 or US$1.34.

If you have friends or family in India who you think might be interested, please spread the word! You can read more about the book here.

01 July, 2015

Hemingway App

There was an article in last month's Writing Magazine about useful online tools for writers. I'm not much a one for this sort of thing, but one of the suggested sites intrigued me. Hemingway App is a website whcih aims to help you write simply - no more purple prose, excess adverbs or complicated sentences.

Ernest Hemingway was famous for the simplicity and sparse beauty of his writing. On this website you can paste (or type) your work-in-progress into the text box and receive an immediate analysis. The things highlighted include sentences that are hard to read, or very hard to read, phrases that have simpler alternatives, adverbs and use of the passive voice.

Obviously, you could never use this tool to make editorial decisions about your work. There are plenty of times when you want an adverb, a long sentence or to speak passively. Aside from being a bit of fun however, it is genuinely interesting to see your work analysed in this way. If I can put my pride aside I think I shall use it when I come to edit my next completed piece of work - not as a definitive rule book, but as a guide as to where I could tighten up my writing.

As an example, here is an analysis of the first draft of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress...

I'm not too ashamed of this. I will go and cut one or two of those adverbs however, and re-think my first paragraph - one hard and two very hard to read sentences is probably not an ideal hook! I'm pleased that I have no phrases which have simpler alternatives - this is one way I've tried to tighten my writing in the past.

I haven't looked into how the app works in terms of the analysis - for example, why 27 or fewer uses of the passive voice is the ideal number for this passage - but I expect I'll play around a bit more as time goes on. There are some interesting features as well, such as an estimated read-time for the passage (6:13 minutes for my chapter if you're interested). So why not have a poke round for yourself, or just spend one minute putting your latest blog post or short story into the website and see how you do? Go on - I dare you!