30 December, 2016

2016: My Year in Books

I don't get half as much time to read as I'd like to these days. I used to read four or five books a month (which I know is still paltry by some people's standards!). The last couple of years have been quite different. My aim this year was to read at least 16 books. And I did - just!

Listed below are the books I've got through in 2016 in the order from the one I enjoyed most to the one I enjoyed least. For each one I gave a mark out of ten for how much I enjoyed reading it. The quality of the writing obviously had a big effect on my enjoyment, but there will always be some stunning books I don't get on with, and some less-stunning ones I get hooked on - so it's definitely not a mark of how "good" they are! Have you read any of these? What did you think?

  1.  Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 10/10
  2.  The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger 10/10
  3.  The Moth - Various Authors 10/10
  4. I See You - Claire Mackintosh 10/10
  5. The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards 9/10
  6.  Before I Go to Sleep [audiobook] - S.J. Watson. 9/10
  7.  The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness 9/10
  8.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson 9/10
  9.  Going Out - Scarlett Thomas8/10
  10.  Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides 8/10
  11.  Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell 8/10
  12.  Sacred Treason - James Forrester 8/10
  13.  A Grandmother's Tale - RK Narayan 7/10 
  14.  Five Rivers Met on a Wooded Plain - Barney Norris 7/10
  15.  Stone Mattress - Margaret Atwood 7/10
  16.  The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro 6/10
  17.  The Way Back Home - Freya North 6/10

In addition to these I read a couple of non-fiction books, including a glorious collection of CS Lewis's essays. (Actually The Moth is a collection of real-life stories as told at live story-telling events in the USA. So technically it's non-fiction, but as fact is often stranger in this case, and certainly as wonderful, I've included it in this list.) It's good to see all the books written out like that as it makes me realise the width of my reading. I didn't read any old classics this year but my list includes historical thrillers, modern crime novels, "literary" novels, both Indian and Canadian short stories and Young Adult Fiction.

My biggest disappointment of the year was The Buried Giant. Ishiguro's Booker-winning novel, The Remains of the Day is the best book I've ever read so I looked forward to reading his latest work. It was beautifully-written of course, but I didn't really enjoy it at all. It was all a bit too weird and mythical and I felt like it was trying to be poignant rather than actually being so. However, that did make me read Never Let Me Go by the same author and that proved to be my favourite book of the year. So some good came of it!

What were your top reads of 2016? Did you get any good books for Christmas?

13 December, 2016

Summer or Autumn?

It appears I have created the literary equivalent of #thedress. Do you remember the dress I mean? The one which went viral after a group of friends realised some people saw it as black and blue and other saw it as white and gold. Well, in the first paragraph of my novel, I have written a sentence which has split my readers into two camps: those who think my book is meant to be set in summer and those who think it is meant to be set in autumn.

Here is the offending sentence:
"It was one of those autumn days that had lost its way and ended up in summer."

The confusion came to light when I saw I had a negative review on Amazon. "This one lost me on the first page when scene setting, the day is first described as autumn and a paragraph later as June." I was baffled. I had to re-read my opening paragraph to see what the reviewer could possibly have meant. I then posted the sentence on Facebook to ask people which season they thought I was referring to - assuming everybody would tell me that the reviewer was being silly and it was obvious which season I'd meant. 

For the record, my book is indeed set in June. When writing that sentence, I meant to convey that the it was an autumn-like day (cloudy, cool, threatening rain) that had showed up even though it was summer. I thought that was clear. In the sentence the day ends up in summer - that is its final resting place: summer. The first two people to comment on Facebook however, agreed with the reveiwer - they thought it was autumn! I was pretty gutted about this. It wasn't just any line in my book - it was a line in the very opening paragraph; the fourth sentence of the whole novel. Of all the things I have ever written in my life, the opening paragraph to the opening chapter of my debut novel is probably the thing I have sweated over and re-written the most. 

A lot of people got invovled in the debate on Facebook. In the end there was a big majority who agreed with me that the sentence meant that the scene was set in summer, but there were still at least five people who read it as being autumn.

Of course, I could have written a much clearer sentence. "It was an autumnal day, despite actually being early summer." Or, "It was a grey summer day." However, as a writer I don't want to write flowery, over-the-top sentences, but I also don't just want to state bland facts. There was one person who thought the sentence was good at least! 

I'm not entirely sure what I can learn from this incident. Maybe somebody needs to make a piece of ambiguity software we can run our work through. Safe to say, I'll be checking the opening paragraph of my next novel even more carefully. I think perhaps though, the whole episode can be summed up in four words: win some, lose some. Oh, and I still can't see that dress as black and blue, even though I know that's exactly what it is.

01 December, 2016

Draft Two - Check!

I have finally finished the second draft of my novel-in-progress. I'm hoping it will eventually become my second published novel, Novel2 if you will. But that's still a long way off...

It has been three years and three months since I started working on this novel. In the past, a couple of drafts might have taken me six to eight months to crank out. This time however, I was somewhat waylaid by having two children (17 months apart) and being a full-time mum. Having abandoned the first draft before having my eldest son, I started again when he was six months old, then started AGAIN four months later when I realised I was writing my way into a dead end. I just about managed to complete the first draft a week before my second son was born in August last year. After that it got busy!

I started writing this draft in May, hoping - but not really believing - I could do it in eight months before the end of 2016. Well, guess who's feeling smug now? I have finished one month early, despite a slow start and weeks when the ill/stroppy/not-at-all-sleepy boys took up most of my writing time.

I don't know if this is going to be a great - or even publishable - book. It's certainly not polished yet. I might have several more drafts to do before it's even anything close to a satisfying novel. But I'm proud of it. I spent the first six months after Boy2 was born, working on getting him to nap regularly. It meant I never got a break, but it DID mean that eventually I got to the stage where both boys napped at the same time. I was so tempted then to use those precious minutes of silence to relax or at least get a start on housework, but I made myself write. Every afternoon nap pllus two evenings a week I'd sit at my desk and put those words down.

There are tonnes of writers out there who give up an hour of sleep, or their office lunchtimes to write their books. I have a newfound respect for them! To write and write and write, regardless of whether I'd had only four hours sleep the previous night and how late I was going to have to stay up doing housework that night because of it, was tough. I had to learn to write in a way I wasn't used to - picking up Novel2 in an instant, and leaving it again mid-thought when one of the boys woke for the afternoon. And you know what? I enjoyed the challenge. I had a lot of fun writing this, I really did. I feel as my characters and I have come through a battle together!

So what now? I am currently reading Novel2 through and doing a very light edit - continuity stuff and double-checking facts mostly. I expect that to take only a week or two. Then I will send it to my most trusted readers for their verdict and then (gulp) to my agent to see what he thinks. There is of course always a chance that nobody will like it and my agent will think it's terrible. I'm not sure what I'll do then. But unless and until that happens I am going to wallow in the contentment of having completed another novel draft. It won't just be wallowing though. I'm going to write other stuff. Glorious, beautiful other stuff! I've missed writing short fiction so much over the last eight months and I can't wait to stretch my writing legs and give a new mini-project a go!

12 November, 2016

The Best Children's Books of All Time

I recently came across this list of the 15 best children's books of all time, published in the Telegraph. I thought that title was a surprisingly definite one! Who decided these were the best of all time? That aside, the ones in their list are:

  1. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
  2. The Hobbit (JRR Tolkein)
  3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (CS Lewis)
  4. Charlotte's Webb (EB White)
  5. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
  6. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)
  7. Emil and the Detectives (Erich Kastner)
  8. James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)
  9. Winnie the Pooh (AA Milne)
  10. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  11. The Just So Stories (Rudyard Kipling)
  12. Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Jules Verne)
  13. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Graham)
  14. The Doll People (Ann M Martin and Laura Godwin)
  15. The Child That Books Built (Francis Spufford)

I have read all of these except Emil and the Detectives, The Doll People and The Child That Books Built ( which apparently isn't actually a children's book but "a guide on how to grow into reading; and it’s a wonderfully eloquent take on how growing up happens unexpectedly"). I also didn't realise Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a children's book when I read it as a teenager, but there you are!

Would you add anything to this list? I was surprised Harry Potter wasn't on there (although it was in their list of contenders at the end of the article). I couldn't pick a favourite from the list (could you?) but all the ones I've read fill me with a sense of nostalgia, that I also get from certain other titles. So if I was to cut out the three I haven't read, plus Jules Verne, I think I would replace them with:

  1. Tom's Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce)
  2. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
  3. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery)
  4. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)

What are your top children's books of all time? Are there any children's classics you couldn't get on with?

04 November, 2016

Kindle Daily Deal

Delighted to say that The Art of Letting Go is a Kindle Daily Deal today on Amazon.co.uk. For today only, you can buy my debut novel as an e-book for only 99p. To take advantage of the offer click here, or search on Amazon.

I'd really appreciate you helping me to spread the word as once the clock passes midnight, it's too late! Thank-you.

04 October, 2016

Do You Have to Like the Author?

Is it possible to enjoy the work of an author if you disagree with, or even dislike, them as a person?

With all the celebrations going on for Roald Dahl's centenary last month, I came across this article: "Don't Ignore Anti-Semitism in Centenary." I hadn't realised there was any controversy about Dahl and anit-Semitism before reading this. This made me sad. I DID know that another popular children's author, Enid Blyton, has regularly been criticised for racism and sexism. There are many discussion about whether she was particularly unusual, or merely fitting in with the ideas of her class at her time; either way, racism and sexism are racism or sexism.

A year or two ago, when I first joined Twitter, I followed an author whose most famous book I'd just read. Within a week I'd seen a Tweet they'd written fiercely defending gun ownership and criticising attempts to introduce better gun control in the USA. I don't want to get political on this blog, but lets just say that my views are strongly and passionately different from his! I was disappointed in him. But what do I expect? That books I enjoy must be written by people I would get on with a cocktail party? (This is a hypothetical question - being socially awkward and teetotal, at a cocktail party I would be sipping water and laughing too hard at rubbish jokes or asking inappropriate questions.)

I haven't sought out any more books by that author. It hasn't been deliberate - at least, I don't think so. But every time I think of the thriller I had enjoyed so much, I also think of that Tweet and what it says about the author.

I wonder too, what people would think of me from my tweets. I am concious that it is the public face of me as an author. Not a high profile one, but public nonetheless, and I am careful not to post anything potentially inflammatory. I do however, post links and tweets about things I'm passionate about - such as Amnesty International campaigns. 

What do you think? Does an author's character (which we mostly never know, of course) affect how you think of a book? If you were an author (or already are), do you make the effort to be non-controversial on social media for fear of putting people off?

I stopped following my gun-loving author. In fact, until recently, I didn't follow any other famous authors because of that incident. I might have misread that Tweet, or got the wrong idea, or something. But it made me realise that we can know too much about the mechanism behind the fiction.On the whole, perhaps I'd rather not know the author at all.

25 September, 2016

Happy Birthday To Us!

For my son's first birthday, our friends James and Jo gave us a copy of Five Minutes' Peace by Jill Murphy. It's a book a lot of you will remember from your own childhood - I certainly do - or perhaps read to your own children. Jo told me that it was a special year to give this book as a present as it is 30 years old. James, Jo, my husband and I were all born in 1986, so we too are 30 this year! With my birthday approaching in a couple of weeks' time (I like chocolate and pretty stationery thank you very much) I though it would be fun to look at which other books share a birth year with me.

Here are a few highlights from the Goodreads list of most popular books published in 1986:

  • IT - Stephen King
  • The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett
  • Red Storm Rising - Tom Clancy
  • The Blind Watchmaker - Richard Dawkins
  • An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Jolly Postman - Janet Ahlberg
  • Batman: the Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller
  • The Bourne Supremacy - Robert Ludlum

What surprised me, looking through the list, was how many of the top-rated books from 1986 were part of long-running series (47 of the Top 100). Most of them are series I haven't heard of, but you can find books from the Adam Dalgliesh series, the Riftwar Saga and the Babysitter's Club! There is also an overwhelming bias towards fantasy and science fiction.

What were the most popular books in the year you were born? If you click on the link I gave above, then change the date in the address bar, you can find out! Let me know in the comments!

I also thought I'd check which books were celebrating important anniversaries the year I was born. In 1986 Gone With the Wind, How to Win Friends and Influence People and several Agatha Christie books were 50 years old, and The Secret Garden and The Phantom of the Opera were 75. (There were no results for 1886!)

So now you know. Happy 30th birthday to us!

16 September, 2016

Quotable Friday (49)

There were a lot of celebrations of the incomparable Roald Dahl this week to coincide with the 100th anniversary of his birth. How could I not join in? I adored Roald Dahl as a kid. I have particularly strong memories of listening to the audio books of Matilda and Danny the Champion of the World over and over again.

Here is a quotation in honour of one of the best children's authors this country has ever seen. It is from Matilda.

"So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone."

16 August, 2016

The Book... by Catherine Edwards

A long overdue addition to my series of guest posts where people who love reading tell us about a book that means something to them.

Today a post from Catherine Edwards.

Image from Wikipedia
The Book... that opened up a whole new genre to me

As a primary school teacher I have always read (and loved) children’s literature but it wasn’t until 3 years ago, whilst attending a training course that I was really introduced to young adult fiction. I had always considered this genre as a bit advanced for the children I was teaching but at the same time not for adults and so it had often passed me by. That was until I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

A Monster Calls tells the story of a boy called Connor who is dealing with a lot of different issues at the same time; his mother has cancer, he is being bullied at school and then he starts being visited by a monster in the dead of night. The monster tells Connor three stories and in return asks Connor to tell his story. What unfolds is a truly heart-wrenching tale of a young boy struggling to cope with everything going on around him.

Part of the reason that I love this book so much is because of the story behind the way it came to be written and published. The story idea was developed by Siobhan Dowd, an author who herself had been diagnosed with cancer. Siobhan died before she was able to complete the book and it was completed by Patrick Ness. Knowing that the ideas in the story had come from O’Dowd’s own experience really enhanced the emotion I felt when reading this book.

Since reading A Monster Calls I always make a bee-line for the young adult section in bookshops and have found so many other books which tackle some really challenging topics. It has encouraged me to explore different genres and develop my opinion of them on their own merit rather than assuming that they aren’t for me. 


Thank, Catherine! Catherine is a Year Six teacher who lives with her husband, Alex, in Royal Tunbridge Wells. More importantly, we went to school together and first made friends whilst playing urchins in the school production of Oliver! 

I read A Monster Calls because Catherine recommended it when I asked people to build me a must-read books list. I loved it. I have also just read The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Anybody else love young adult fiction?

12 August, 2016

Quotable Friday (48)

If you grew up in the UK, you will have read Ladybird books at some point. It's over 100 years since the first of these children's books was published, and they reached a peak in popularity around the 1970s, but all generations will recognise them. The distincitve illustrations of the tiny hardback books - that covered just about every genre for kids you could want - will be nostalgic for many of us. That's why, when a series of spoof Ladybird books for adults was published last year, people loved them.

I was recently given a copy of 'How it works' The Mum by my own mother. I thought I'd share with you two of my favourite pages...

"The mum gets lots of help from her little ones. Daisy is helping to move the laundry basket away from her mum. She has done this fourteen times in the last five minutes."

"Alice is a successful biochemist. She publishes at least one highly regarded academic paper a year and has won the Colworth Medal. At the school gate, nobody knows this. Alice does not even have a name. Everyone calls her Olivia's Mum. Olivia has not done anything yet."

And here is a picture of my oldest boy helping me with the laundry last summer.

PS: if you loved them as a kid, you might be interested to know that this November there will be a series of spoof Famous Five books published. Look out for Five Give Up the Booze, Five Go On a Strategy Away Day, Five Go Parenting, and - my personal favourite - Five Go Gluten Free.

08 August, 2016

The People's Book Prize - Video

If anybody has a burning desire to watch the exact moment when I didn't win the People's Book Prize, you now can*! The video is here!

The whole video is half an hour, but I make a cameo appearance at 17:30 standing in the fiction line-up. This is swiftly followed by looking shifty and awkward as I'm introduced and ends with a passing shot of me as the winner goes up to collect her award. So pick it up at 17:30 for a minute or so and you're done.

You can find the video on YouTube here.

*Some people have shown a burning desire to see what the bottom half of my dress looks like. Kill two birds with one stone...

04 August, 2016

To Booker or Not to Booker?

No, not the start of a bad joke. Just the old question of whether it's worth trying to read the books that win the most prestigious prizes.
It's Booker time again. The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize was released at the end of July. I haven't read any of the books (it usually takes me a few years to catch up with current fiction). I haven't even heard of most of them. It got me wondering how many Booker Prize winners I've actually read. And, more importantly, did I enjoy them more or less than less-prestigious books?

Some people are snobby about the big literary awards. They go so far as to boast that they never read books that win the Booker as they know they'll be dreary and "too literary". I think that's a shame. It reminds me of a friend who used to say she couldn't stand classical music. What, all of it? Every piece for every instrument and group of instruments in every style ever?!

Of the 48 previous winners of the Man Booker Prize, I have read only six (12.5%): Midnight's Children, The Remains of the Day, The God of Small Things, The Blind Assassin, Life of Pi and The Sense of an Ending. Three of them I wasn't too keen on, three of them - The Remains of the Day, The Blind Assassin  and Life of Pi - I absolutely loved. (The Remains of the Day I even consider to be the best book I ever read. I adore it!) With all of them though, I admired the way they were written very much.

I think that's the key. The Booker Prize cannot pick out books which are to everyone's tastes. Indeed, if it really awards a wide variety of novels and not just the same old thing each year, it is impossible for it to please everyoneall the time. It does however pick out books that are stunningly-written. I can pick out a book from the library shelf and I might love it or hate it; with the Booker Prize I know I am at least not going to waste my time reading something badly-written.

I love a good bit of easy-reading cosy crime or comic caper, but I like to balance that with beautiful books by amazing authors. That's why I read both Agatha Christie and John Steinbeck. They are not books that are heading towards the same goal - one is great entertainment, one is great art. Both are needed!

I would like to read all the Booker Prize winning novels. I am sad that I haven't even heard of so many of them. I think that is going to be my next long-term reading challenge. So, where shall I start? Take a look at the full list of prize-winners below and let me know if there are any titles you particularly recommend. I love a good recommendation - the three I've loved so far were all recommended to me by friends!

Do you try to read award-winning books? Or do you avoid them? Are there awards other than the Booker that you gravitate towards when looking for good things to read?

1969 - Something to Answer For, PH Newby
1970 - Troubles, JG Farrell
1971 - In a Free State, VS Naipaul
1972 - G., John Berger
1973 - The Siege of Krishnapur, JG Farrell
1974 - The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer and Hoilday, Stanley Middleton
1975 - Heat and Dust - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1976 - Saville, David Storey
1977 - Staying On, Paul Scott
1978 - The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch
1979 - Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
1980 - Rites of Passage, William Golding
1981 - Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
1982 - Schindler's Ark, Thomas Keneally
1983 - Life and Times of Michael K, JM Coetzee
1984 - Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner
1985 - The Bone People, Keri Hulme
1986 - The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis
1987 - Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
1988 - Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey
1989 - The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990 - Possession: A Romance, AS Byatt
1991 - The Famished Road, Ben Okri
1992 - The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje and Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth
1993 - Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle
1994 - How Late It Was, How Late, James Kelman
1995 - The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
1996 - Last Orders, Graham Swift
1997 - The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
1998 - Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
1999 - Disgrace, JM Coetzee
2000 - The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
2001 - True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey
2002 - Life of Pi, Yann Martel
2003 - Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre
2004 - The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
2005 - The Sea, John Banville
2006 - The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
2007 - The Gathering, Anne Enright
2008 - The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
2009 - Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
2010 - The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson
2011 - The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
2012 - Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
2013 - The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
2014 - The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
2015 - A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

The 2016 shortlist will be announced on 13th September, with the final result on 25th October. I notice that one of the longlisted authors has won the thing twice - in 1983 and 1999. That's what I call a long and successful career!

16 July, 2016

People's Book Prize - The Result

With my agent, David.
On Tuesday I went to the award ceremony for the People's Book Prize. It was a black-tie affair at the grand Stationer's Hall in London and I was one of 12 writers shortlisted for the fiction category for my novel The Art of Letting Go.

First things first, I didn't win. My category was won by The Road to Donetsk by Diane Chandler. This however, was a minor detail. I had a fabulous time! I am not the sort of person who does black-tie or socialising and especially not networking, so it wasn't the kind of event I would've said suited me at all. It was brilliant though - a complete change from everyday life. I spend all my days looking after a two year-old and a baby and I'm usually in old clothes covered in various stains and bits of rice cake. When people talk to me it is usually about my boys. That's fine, I love them dearly, but it was indescribably wonderful to be more than Digory and Wilfred's mum for a few hours.

When we arrived at the Hall, Paul and I felt out of place and introverted. Because of the need to put my baby to bed I'd missed the rehearsal and was armed only with a copy of my book and a list of nerve-wracking instructions as to which hand I was meant to hold my novel in on stage and how long an acceptance speech was allowed to be. The TV cameras were all set up* and everyone looked so elegant and at home. Within a few minutes of arriving however, a woman came sweeping over to tell us that we looked so young and she simply had to talk to us as we were the most beautiful people in the room. After that we felt a bit more at ease - especially when we realised nobody else knew which cutlery to use or whether the flowers on the starter were edible! (The woman in question turned out to be Lois Letts - the wife of the Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts. Quentin was shortlisted for the same award as me and he won the award for debut novel.) It was fun and uplifting for me to spend an evening talking about books and publishing with other authors, agents and publishers. It was wonderful to spend more time with my agent than the few seconds it takes to read an e-mail. It was encouraging that people were interested in me as a writer.

A few people have asked me if I'm disappointed not to win. Of course I would have loved to win - not just for me but for my agent and publisher and husband and all the people who have supported and voted for me. But honestly, I enjoyed myself so much I couldn't even conjure up feelings of disappointment when I felt I ought to! I'd had the attitude that I was going there to pretend to be an author for an evening; while I was there, I finally realised something - I AM an author! I wrote a book, an agent took it on, it was published and shortlisted for a literary award. This is real. My novel was published two years ago when my first baby was four months old and I've barely had time to draw breath since then, let alone contemplate how things have panned out. Well, they haven't panned out badly. I am still learning so much. I don't even consider myself a particularly good author, but I AM an author. I am getting there.

There were so many kind people on Tuesday who wished me luck, offered me encouragement, wanted me to win, told me I looked beautiful and treated me like a proper author. It was a magical few hours and the following morning, as I cleaned dirty nappies and dodged porridge being thrown off highchairs, I was glad that it was only a few hours. Genuinely. Glamour is fun, but real life is better. For one, real life is where the writing happens. I can't wait to get back to writing.

I didn't get to do an acceptance speech, but if I had I would've thanked all of you who have bought, reviewed and voted for my book. And I would've thanked the People's Book Prize for creating an award for authors like me - authors who had great feedback from big publishing houses but who were rejected over and over again for being unknown and for writing "quiet" books. So to all you unknown authors out there, keep going. One day your quiet book might also not-quite win a literary award. Or then again, it might really win! And wouldn't that be something?

*The event was meant to be broadcast on Sky News but actually wasn't in the end, although it was being filmed as if it was!

04 July, 2016

The Moorlander

Excited to see a little piece in Dartmoor newspaper, The Moorlander, this week about my nomination for the People's Book Prize. Here I am in the top left, sharing a page with Ann Widdecombe, a hair and beauty specialist, and a job advertisement for a care home. Hitting the big time!

Voting closes for the People's Book Prize on Sunday and you can see the results announced live on Sky News on Tuesday 12th. So keep voting and spreading the word, please! I've bought a new dress and everything. With any luck it won't even have bits of rice cake and baby dribble on it - you never know.

01 July, 2016

Amazon Promotion!

Happy Friday everyone! I'm delighted to say that Amazon have selected The Art of Letting Go for their July promotions. For all of this month you can buy the e-book for only £0.99. So if you've been meaning to buy it but weren't quite sure if I was worth £3.99, now is your chance!

And don't forget, you can still vote for my novel in the People's Book Prize up until the 10th July. Please do! I'm so grateful for all your votes.

29 June, 2016

Put Pooh Down and Nobody Gets Hurt

You may have noticed a meme going round in the last few days. Since the EU Referendum there has been so much anger, blaming, shaming and misunderstanding all over social media that somebody decided to address the matter by making a spoof conversation between Pooh and Piglet. It was twee to say the least, and has now been parodied so many times. Pooh and Piglet appear to have become foul-mouthed politicians. Enough! Let's reclaim Winnie the Pooh for AA Milne and for children (young and old!) everywhere.

The funny thing is, genuine quotations from Winnie the Pooh books say much more about love and friendship, tolerance and understanding much more eloquently than anything anybody else has made up. Here are a few to lift your spirits...

On talking
When you are a Bear of very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. 

On giving people the benefit of the doubt
If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.

On being a friend when everything is uncertain
"I don't feel very much like Pooh today," said Pooh. "There there," said Piglet. "I'll bring you tea and honey until you do."

But Piglet is so small that he slips into a pocket, where it is very comfortable to feel him when you are not quite sure whether twice seven is twelve or twenty-two.

On the chaos of social media
"I might have known," said Eeyore. "After all, one can't complain. I have my friends. Sombody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said 'Bother!'. The Social Round. Always something going on."

And one that is nothing to do with referendums but for the kid inside each one of us
When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.

16 June, 2016

Guest Post with Derek Thompson

Today, I am excited to be appearing on Derek Thompson's blog talking about why making a shortlist can be just as good as winning. You can check out the post here.

Derek is a friend of mine whose series of Brit-thrillers are getting great reviews. You can see what they're about here.

10 June, 2016

Competitions: the statistics!

Ever since I started writing I have kept a file on my computer listing the competitions I've entered and highlighting the ones where anything nice happened. By 'nice' I mean anything that wasn't a straight-forward nothing. These "hits" include being a winner, shortlisted, commended or published. The list starts in January 2007. So how am I doing?

  • I have entered 60 competitions
  • I have 30 hits of some sort
  • In seven of my hits I was the overall winner 
  • I have 29 misses (and one competition still awaiting results)
  • Over a third of my entries were in 2008 or 2009 - before I started writing novels or having children!
  • My longest run of hits was at the start - competitions one to six were all hits!
  • My longest run of misses was May to July 2009 where I entered seven competitions and missed out on the first six.
  • In the last two years (while concentrating on novel writing and taking two extended breaks to have babies) I have entered six competitions in total. One is still awaiting results and the other four were hits - hooray!
  • You can see a full list of my hits on the competitions tab
  • If I had to pick my favourite entries I think I would choose The Language of Fish (2nd place, December 2014) and Handrails and Parachutes (winner, October 2012)

So, it looks as if I'm running at a hit rate of about 50% overall, which I'm not unhappy with. I think a key to this is competition selection. I could have entered 61 international and prestigious competitions and had a hit rate of 0%. For me, competitions are a good chance to learn something about your level of writing. Yes, it's important to stretch yourself and enter the big competitions - Bridport, Costa etc. - from time-to-time as you never know what might happen, but you learn more from the competitions where you come third or make the longlist and can compare your writing to that of the winner. How do you choose which competitions to aim for?

I am heartened to see that the last couple of years, although very slow in terms of competitions entries, has been successful. I guess my ideal now would be one of two things:
a) to start entering more things again and choose my competitions well enough that my hit rate stays 50-60%, so I'm challenging myself but not being silly about my level of talent!
b) to keep entering very few competitions - ones where I stand a good chance but which attract a reasonable number of entrants - and try to keep my hit rate higher; focus on quality of writing and competition.

In reality, I am unlikely to enter much for the next few years. Finding time to write my second novel is difficult enough. If I enter more than one or two competitions, the extras are likely to be the fun ones - txtlit, or 100-word challenges, things like that. I am particularly interested to see that entering more competitions did not improve my hit rate - proof that, although practice is important, the quality of your practice is as important as the quantity!

Of course this list doesn't include the competitions associated with my novel, The Art of Letting Go. I am currently on the shortlist for the People's Book Prize, so please do go and vote for me and help me on my way to being a prize-winning novelist for the first time too! Thank-you.

27 May, 2016

May: Writing, Not Writing and Writing by Hand

At the start of May I began to write the second draft of my novel-in-progress. My plan was to try to write a full draft by the end of the year. In real-terms that meant writing about 3000 words a week. As a full-time mum that was a daunting target but I was ready to give it a go. It hasn't been the smoothest of starts.

I wrote the first chapter. I didn't like it. I couldn't even say why. There was something wrong; the voice wasn't there somehow. I tried again. And again. Three weeks into May and I hadn't even got 2000 words done, let alone my target of 9000. So I tried something different. I wrote by hand.

If I was to create an ideal writerly-life, I would write all my novels on sunny mornings in a summerhouse at the bottom of my perfect country-cottage garden. There would be a sea-view, of course, and I would be writing with a fountain pen in Moleskine notebooks. Later I would sit at my vintage typewriter and type it all up, sipping tea from a chintz teacup. In reality, I sit crammed into one end of our living room, with a view of two baby monitors, praying the boys don't wake up from their naps before I've finished my train of thought. I write on a computer because it's conveninet in a number of ways (including the fact that I taught myself to touch-type). And, despite being British, I can't stand tea.

The only thing I do by hand is plan. I find it easier to organise my thoughts if I can scribble and draw arrows and tap my pencil on the desk. I realised that I also plan by hand because I feel more creative - more in tune with what I'm trying to write. So, desperate to get my novel underway, I started to write the first chapter in pencil in a cheap exercise book. It worked! It took longer, but for some reason, the voice of my main character began to come out. When I typed it all up I asked my husband and my friend/chief-reader, Jenny, to have a look at it (a sign of how insecure I feel about my writing - I NEVER ask people to look at just a snippet of an early draft!) and they gave me the thumbs up to keep going in the same voice.

I haven't done 12000 words this month. I hope to get another thousand or maybe even two in at the beginning of next week, but so far I am only on 5800 so I won't hit my target. I am however, underway. Full steam ahead from here! I won't be writing the whole novel by hand, but I definitely WILL be going back the pencil and paper method whenever I need to sort anything out, or overcome a bump. Do you write by hand? How do you overcome hurdles in your writing path?

I will probably try to write a monthly update on here. If some of you could pretend it's fascinating and cheer and wave pompoms from time to time, that would help me enormously, thanks.And don't forget that voting is open in the People's Book Prize - please vote for my novel The Art of Letting Go in the fiction category!

16 May, 2016

People's Book Prize - The Final

The time has come, dear friends. Voting has opened in the People's Book Prize 2015-2016. My novel, The Art of Letting Go, is a finalist in this year's award and I need your vote!

The People's Book Prize is a nationwide award that aims to showcase "new and undiscovered works". The results are entirely voted-for by the public and will be announced during a live Sky News broadcast in London on 12th July.

So here you have a choice. If you vote for me, you can see me collecting my award on television and know that you have been directly responsible for my success. If you don't vote for me, you can watch me do my "oh jolly good show, well done" face on television as somebody else collects the award. Both are super-fun options, but I know which one I'd prefer!

There have been many, many kind readers of this blog who have cheered and encouraged me along the way. Lots of you have bought, read, reviewed and recommended my novel and I am so grateful. Many of you also helped get me on to the shortlist by voting in the earlier rounds. Please, help me again!

If you voted for me in the first round you can now vote again. If you didn't then now's your chance! And it's not too late to buy or borrow a copy of my book and get reading! You can find the voting page with instructions here. Voting is open until the 10th July.

12 May, 2016

Next Step: Success?

The idea that success is whatever lies just out of reach cannot be unique to writing. The feeling of being satisfied with what we've achieved if we only reach the next milestone is, I'm sure, something everyone understands. With writers it is easy to always be straining for the next goal: an agent, a publishing deal, a three-book deal, a place in the bestsellers, a proper income, a Hollywood blockbuster movie deal. Therefore I'm not sure if reading the story of Jojo Moyes in Good Housekeeping magazine this month is encouraging or discouraging.

Jojo Moyes had published eight novels.To many of us, that screams of success! To have an agent and to be traditionally published eight times would be a dream for so many writers. But she wasn't considered successful at all. None of her books had sold well and her publisher didn't want to publish her again. Another publisher told her agent that they thought her career was probably over. Then she had an idea for what she feared would be her final novel. That novel - Me Before You - ended up selling more than five million copies (so far!) and was turned into a major Hollywood film.

At first I was a bit discouraged. Jojo nearly didn't have the success she's had because it took too long coming. This wasn't someone who took wrote several novels before finding a publisher but then had a great career; this was someone who'd done the "hard bit" and found an agent and publisher (as I have) and still struggled.

Then I decided to be encouraged instead. Jojo mght have had to wait for her ninth novel to be successful in the eyes of the world, but it did happen on the ninth. And, who knows, if it hadn't happened then, maybe she would've kept going anyway. Maybe her 10th would've been the blockbuster, or her 15th. She kept on going.

Most of us, of course, will keep on going and never write a novel that sells anywhere near the number of copies that Me Before You has. But we will keep going too. I will keep going. I'm struggling to write my second novel. I'm finding it dispiriting at times, and it might end up terrible and unpublishable. And it might not. It might be OK. It might be brilliant.

My friend Dan, published a great post on not giving up on his blog the other day. My favourite bit was his plan to get back to writing (following a disappointment) after a cup of tea and a sulk. I think that encapsulates the writing life perfectly: Write. Don't succeed. Sulk a bit. Write some more. Repeat. Succeed (maybe).

Let's write!

05 May, 2016

Promotion - Amazon Australia (again!)

Calling all Australians and inhabitants of Australia! My novel, The Art of Letting Go, is now available for $1.99 on Amazon Australia for the rest of this month. Catch it while it's cheap!

The Art of Letting Go is currently nominated for The People's Book Award and has been called many lovely things, including beautiful and masterly (I know - check ME out)! I'd be so glad if you would spread the word among your antipodean friends and consider reviewing the book on Amazon for me. Each sale, recommendation and review really does make a difference.

22 April, 2016

Quotable Friday (47)

This week marks 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. The world appears to have gone Shakespeare-crazy for it. This is wonderful for me as I am in the midst of writing a novel about somebody who is crazy about Shakespeare! However, it is also 400 years since the death of perhaps the most famous Spanish writer - Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote*.

Miguel brought us such phrases such as "honesty's the best policy", and "the proof of the pudding is in the eating". He also has dozens of little snippets which are great advice for life - many of which are funny too. I like his, "there's no taking trout with dry britches". There was a lot of wit and wisdom in his work - it's a shame he's not better known in the UK.

For all my friends out there who love a good book, let this quotation from Miguel de Cervantes, be a warning to you...

"Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind."

*Incidentally, can anybody tell me definitively how to pronounce Don Quixote? I have heard it said both as Don Quicks-oat and as Don Key-oat-ee.

18 April, 2016

Can Reviews Ever Be Unfair?

Any writer who submits work for competitions or publications has to be able to take criticism. This is especially true if you have a published book. Reviews from readers are the lifeblood of a new author's career and you have to learn to take the one-stars with the five-stars. But can reviews ever be unfair, or are all opinions equally valid?

I have never minded getting one-star reviews for my debut novel The Art of Letting Go. Obviously I would rather everybody loved it, but if somebody dislikes it so much to give it only one star it was never going to be for them even if I'd written it better! My novel currently has 111 reviews, averaging 4.3 stars and with 65 five star reviews. I also have three one-star reviews which I take to be part of the process - even the most critically acclaimed books have poor reviews. However, I received a three-star review the other day that I thought was unfair.

"It was OK but I feel that I have been trapped into reading a Mills and Boon."

Now, I am not snobbish about Mills and Boon - they publish romances that are enjoyed by thousands (millions?) of readers, even if they are not considered of the highest literary merit by the critics. My problem with this review is that my book isn't a romance! Anybody reading that review would assume there was a romantic core to the story and may well be put off if that wasn't their thing. Although the main relationship in the novel is between a woman and a younger man, there is no romance between them at any point. It is a story of a strange and unlikely friendship, not a boy-meets-girl romp.

I almost jumped straight on to social media to ask people to vote the review as unhelpful, then I paused. If the words this reviewer wrote were genuinely how they felt about this book, then the review was fair, surely? (And I'm hoping that the fact my ranking plummeted rapidly in the 24 hours after that review became the most recent one on my Amazon page, was coincidence!) What do you think? Can a reader just be wrong about a book?

Individual reviews aside, there ARE two aspects to Amazon reviews that do seem unfair to me. Firstly, the disappearing reviews. At least two people have contacted me to tell me that they left five-star reviews for my novel that Amazon appear to have taken down within a day or so. I'm not sure what algorithm or checks Amazon use to decide whether a review is genuine or not, but these were real reviews that don't make it on to my statistics. There is apparently nothing you can do about this either.

The other, more minor, gripe I have, is that Amazon allows you to choose to read positive reviews or critical reviews of books. Positive reviews are the four- and five-star ones. Critical are one-, two- and three-star reviews. I think it is a bit unfair to automatically assume three-star reviews are critical. My three-star reviews are a mixed bag - from "enjoyable" to "boring". What do you think? If you give something three stars is it a criticism?

As with all reviews - good and bad - the only thing to do is to keep writing and keep hoping that people will read what you've written and like it enough to leave a good review! If you have read my novel and haven't yet reviewed it, please consider doing so - reviews do mean so much to new authors.

11 April, 2016

Second Place - ACW Competition

I am delighted to say that I have come second in a competition run by Association of Christian Writers to retell a Bible story for modern adults. This flash fiction competition was one of the three mini-projects I chose to do to ease myself back into writing after an extended break. It's great to know that I haven't lost the ability to string words together completely.

It was an interesting challenge because you start the writing process effectively already knowing your plot. I kept wanting to end the story in all sorts of different ways, and had to remind myself that it wasn't my plot to change! Considering the original story is a few lines long, I found it surprisingly hard to stick to 1000 words as well. Nevertheless, I enjoy challenges like this. (One of my favourite published pieces was a flippant re-telling of Sleeping Beauty over at Everyday Fiction.) It was a great way for me to get back into writing.

As only the winning story is going to be published, I offer you my story below. I hope you enjoy it!

Walking Home

“I can’t believe you’re doing this.” I dig my fingers into Mark’s shoulders. “Pretty sure breaking and entering is illegal you know?”

“Quit your whining, Speedy Gonzalez.” Mark shifts me further up his back. “I said I’d get us in, didn’t I?”

“I thought you meant you’d get us tickets. Not that you’d leave my wheelchair in a dark alley and drag me in through a toilet window.”

“There aren’t any tickets.” Mark is panting as he heaves me along the dim corridor. “And you saw that queue. There’s no way we’re getting in tonight.”

I don’t bother pointing out that if this guy – a street magician or whatever he claims to be – is as amazing as everyone says, then he’d hardly be doing a gig in a place like this. Somebody who could cure cancer for real would be doing a stadium tour at 50 quid a head, not one night in a grotty pub with free entry. I don’t bother saying it because I’ve said it before. Many times.

Mark has spent all week trying to persuade me to come tonight. I wanted nothing to do with it. After my post-graduation lads’ holiday to Ibiza went so disastrously wrong a decade ago, I grew sick of people trying to cure me. The doctors all agreed then that I’d never walk again, so it irritates me when people tell me to take folic acid or drink kale smoothies – as if I’m pregnant or prone to colds, not paralysed. The only reason I’d given in to Mark in the end was because I owed him. When all my other mates drifted away – when I pushed them away in the bitterness of After The Accident – he hung on. While I made everyone else’s life hell, he took the blows and kept calling. And until now, he’d never tried to cure me.

“This is mad.” I glance around for security cameras. “Can’t we just go for a pint?”

“We’re here now.” Mark stops outside a grey door. “Might as well see this guy.”

My irritation at Mark is replaced by a sudden fear. It isn’t the fear of getting caught sneaking in the back though. It’s the fear that Mark might be right. This guy we’ve come to see, I’m sure he’s a conman. He must be. And yet I can still hear that tiny whisper of what if at the back of my mind. What if he can heal me? And what if he refuses? What if he looks at me and realises that I’m not the victim of a tragic accident but entirely to blame for my trouble? What if he knows I put my parents through hell and he decides I’m not worthy of health? It’s better to be a hopeless case than an unworthy one.

Before I can stop him, Mark pushes on the door. The space it reveals on opening is tiny. 40 or 50 people stand pressed together, all eyes fixed on the far end of the room where a man stands on a chair. 40 or 50 pairs of eyes watching him; one pair of eyes – his eyes – watching something else. Watching me.

One by one the crowd begins to turn, trying to see what the Man is looking at.

“Let’s go,” I hiss in Mark’s ear. “Before they lynch us for queue-jumping.”

Mark stands his ground.

“John.” The Man speaks my name softly, yet the silence amplifies it in the expectant room. “I’m glad you could come.”

He jumps from his chair and edges his way through the crowd towards me, only stopping when he’s within touching distance. For an entertainer, if that’s what he is, he has made little effort with his appearance. There is nothing remarkable about him – nothing you’d remember the next day. Nothing and yet somehow, everything.

“You came to talk about Ibiza,” he says.

“No.” I shake my head. This has to be some sort of set-up by Mark. Some sick joke.

“It’s OK.” The Man smiles. “You’re forgiven.”

“No,” I say again. Set-up or not, I have a sudden mad urge to make him understand what I feel he already somehow understands. “I can’t be. It was my fault. I was drunk. I was an idiot and I...”

“I know.” Another smile. “You’re right. It was your fault.” A shrug. “You’re forgiven anyway.”

“Brilliant.” A woman in the crowd rolls her eyes. “Matey here obviously can’t walk or something and you’re telling him he’s been forgiven? Big deal. Why don’t you actually heal him if you’re so clever?”

The Man’s eyes slide from my face to the crowd. He laughs. “My friend here tells me it’s easier to heal the past than to heal a broken back. Is she right?” His eyes fix back on mine. “Is she right?”
I don’t know what to say. 

The Man turns from me. “Go home, John.”

Out in the corridor, Mark eases me to the floor and sits down beside me. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he was going to be that weird. I wouldn’t have brought you if...” His voice trails off. “I didn’t know you knew him.”

“Knew him?”

“Yeah.” Mark glances at me than back at the floor. “That stuff about Ibiza.” He shakes his head. “You were right. He’s just a weirdo.”

“No.” I wait for Mark to look at me. “He’s not that. Or at least, he’s not only that.”

I can feel he is more than that. I can feel it in my head and hands and heartbeat. I can feel it in my legs.

“Let me drive you home.” Mark stands as people begin to spill from the room we’ve just left, filling the corridor around us. “It’s the least I can do.”

“I’m OK.” I put a hand on Mark’s arm. “It’s a nice evening.” I take a deep breath and slowly, hesitantly begin to pull myself upwards. “I think I’ll walk from here.”

ENDS - (taken from Mark 2:1-11)

29 March, 2016

Mini Projects for Mini Amounts of Time

After my second son was born in August last year, I told myself I wouldn't rush getting back into writing. Full-time care of two kids under two was enough! For a few months I couldn't even contemplate finding time, but at the start of this year I couldn't wait to write any longer.

In some ways I was desperate to get back to the novel I'd been working on up to my due date, but I knew that would be a bad idea.Writing a novel is a huge investment of time. If you only get a few minutes a day to work on it, a single draft can take years. It can be disheartening to have no completed pieces of work month after month. Before launching back into that marathon I decided I needed to do some shorter races, just to be able to tell myself I had written, edited and refined an entire piece of work.

I had been asked to write a guest post for The Faraday Institute about evolution and faith, and this was the ideal way to get back into writing. Non-fiction is refreshing when you spend your life in make-believe worlds. It was good to stretch my mind into matters of faith and science from its usual resting place of nursery rhymes and nap schedules!

Getting back into fiction was harder. I wanted two short projects - flash fiction preferably - that had some element of structure and challenge to them. The part of writing I find hardest when short of time is idea-generation. I don't have the head space to be thinking "what if...?" all the time, so I don't think of new plots often. Structured competitions give me soemthing to work with - a frame to hang some ideas off!

With that in mind, I chose to enter a competition to re-tell a Bible story for modern adults, and to write a short story using dialogue only.

The first challenge was simple enough. Re-telling a tale is a good way to ease back into writing, as the plot has already been written for you! The second competition was harder. When the organisers asked for only dialogue, they meant it - even dialogue tags ("he said" etc.) were banned. The story I ended up with (an adaptation of a story I wrote years ago) wasn't great, but I enjoyed the challenge very much. Most importantly, when I finished it, I had completed three full pieces of writing - more than I've done for years!

In this last week I have launched myself back into my novel. I've already sorted out a major plot issue and am working on some more research so I can start planning Draft Two in earnest. Then all I've got to do is write the thing. Easy, right? Chloe the Writer is back!

What do you do to ease yourself back into writing when you've had some time away?