The valuable lesson I learned on my writing retreat

In 2015 I nervously went on a ‘How to create a submission package’ retreat at Wentworth Castle. I’d finished my first novel and although I didn’t feel quite brave enough to send it out into the world, I wanted to explore my options if I one day I drank enough wine to actually sum up the courage to share it.

Ali Harper and Anna Chilvers were the tutors and after reading the opening for The Sister, felt it would glean much interest and after running through the pros and cons of agents, publishers and self-publishing, encouraged me to craft a query letter and gave me tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. I went home believing, not that I could, but that I might, and I held tightly onto that kernel of hope until the day came when I did drink enough wine to press send on the submission emails that had been languishing in my draft Hotmail folder.

Fast forward three years, four books published, nineteen translation deals and a million sales later I was delighted to be invited back to Wentworth Castle to talk to Anna and Ali’s new students on their ‘Writing Fearlessly’ retreat about my bumpy journey to publication. I spoke about the group I was part of in 2015. How the 15 other students and I were passionate about writing but never believed it would happen for us. How being an author always seemed too far out of reach.  I shared my experience  – how extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people if you can pick yourself up after the inevitable knock backs, always be willing to listen to constructive criticism and never, ever stop writing.

It was in the bar afterwards (where else would you find a bunch of writers) a lovely lady shared with me that she never wanted to be published and had no intention of ever trying to be. ‘I write for myself’ she said ‘for the love of it, because it brings me so much happiness.’

I paused. Lowered my glass and remembered how it felt to write The Sister, with no hopes or expectations, just the pure joy of spending time with my characters. How writing lifted me out of clinical depression and gave me a purpose. I still love writing, of course I do or I’d choose another career but sometimes caught up with the deadlines, the marketing, the accounts, everything else that comes with the job sometimes, just sometimes, it’s possible to lose sight of what drove me to write to start with. The passion, the drive, the possibilities.

The desire to tell a story.

I do hope the retreat participants got something out of my visit, I know I took something valuable away too.

In 2015 I was unable to stand unaided so it was super special that this time I was up to having a little mooch around the grounds, checking out Stainborough Castle and the beautiful countryside. As gorgeous as it was, alone at the castle I was seeing crime everywhere, plots spinning around my mind, picking out potential hiding places for someone to spring out, bodies to be buried. Can we ever entirely switch off the writer side of us?

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Transitioning to full-time author & creating a space to write

When I began writing The Sister, I would perch on the end of my bed, iPad balanced on knee, for the half an hour each night when my son had independent reading time. Writing was my way to unwind, the way I fought clinical depression after suddenly acquiring a disability and chronic pain. As time marched on and my short story grew and grew I hesitantly invested in a second hand laptop, feeling horribly guilty, in the way most mother’s do, for spending money on myself rather than the kids.

It became clear, when I wrapped up the tale of Grace and Charlie at 90k words that it was a book but it was only after many weeks, and truth be told, many glasses of wine, I felt brave enough to send it out and luckily it got picked up quite quickly.

It was then the whirlwind started.

With The Sister scheduled for publication only six months after I signed my deal, and my editor waiting for book two life became really hectic. Still teaching mindfulness through the business I had spent years building up I wrote The Gift during breaks while simultaneously editing The Sister. I wrote in my car waiting for the kids to come out of school. My ancient laptop was propped open on the breakfast bar while I cooked meals. It came into the utility with me while I squeezed in a few words waiting for the iron to heat (okay I took artistic license with the last one – I NEVER actually iron but you get the picture. I wrote everywhere.) Still, I didn’t have a space in my home to write.

Juggling too many things, my health began to slide and my husband took over the business while I focused on writing The Gift, immediately followed by The Surrogate and then The Date. I wrote on the sofa, at the dining table, in the bedroom, at my son’s desk in his room. Anywhere I could carve out space in our busy house. My ancient laptop took longer and longer to boot up. I found it harder and harder to focus. My notes were scattered all over the house. I had no structure. Rooms were cluttered and so was my mind. Work was everywhere and it was increasingly difficult to switch off. Almost impossible to think of beginning a new book.

Something had to change.

And then an email dropped into my inbox from my publisher ‘Huge congratulations, you’ve surpassed a million English language sales.’ Stunned I shared this with my husband who was thrilled but had a very important question to ask.

‘Is this it now? You’re a full-time writer?’

I hesitated. I’d slipped further and further away from the business but we’d never sat down and talked properly about what I want. What he wants. What it would mean for our family if I could say ‘yes I’m an author’ rather than staring at my shoes and mumbling whenever anyone asks what I do for a living. My career has got off to a flying start with No.1 placements in various charts, in various countries and nineteen translation deals. Time wise I have been writing full-time but I’d still not made that mental shift. I felt a pang of sadness admitting aloud ‘I don’t think I’ll be coming back to the business.’ As much as I hoped one day to find a balance, writing is all consuming and honestly there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

‘Then we need to find you the space to do that,’ he said.

Last weekend I was away at a literary festival and when I returned home he’d cleared the small study that’s always been his and we spent the week decorating and choosing furniture. For the last few days, I’ve sat at my new desk, in a clutter free room that is mine and mine alone, a blank wall in front of me and I’ve felt more creative than I have in months. Ideas are flowing and I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of writing more books because finally, my name is Louise and I’m a full-time author.

I’m slightly ashamed to say this sideboard is crammed full of notebooks…

LOVE my floating bookshelves & so proud to know many of these authors.

A cosy corner to read the proofs I’m sent.

My desk will NEVER be this tidy again.

My super creative sister has made me a piece of artwork for every book I’ve released (Admittedly I’m TERRIFIED of masks so I sit with my back to this).

Rich Hall Comedian – Interview – Writing & what you should NEVER do with a good idea

Rich Hall is one of my favourite comedians. Alongside stand-up he’s a firm fixture on TV panels shows, especially QI. In 2000 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw.  This week I was lucky enough to see him live where he combined comedy and music in a show that was so funny my stomach muscles still ache from laughing.  During the first half he talked in his trademark drawl, taking an interest in the audience, randomly asking people where they were from, how long they’d been married and what they did for a living.  The second half kicked off with Rich singing a song based around an audience member’s life. I was utterly in awe of how quickly he’d pulled the song together over the interval and my writer mind instantly questioned, how had he done it? As time marched on he sang song after song using new information about different people and I knew these hadn’t been pre-written. How did he, seemingly easily, come up with ideas.

At the end of the show I asked if I could ask Rich directly and blog about his process. Thankfully he said yes.

Rich, I’m in awe of the way you put songs together so effortlessly tonight.

Thanks it’s not always as effortless as it appears.

I thought you’d used the interval to write the first song you sang in the second half but then you carried on singing about audience members. You must make them up on the spot?

Not entirely. The interval helps, trust me. In the interval I’ve got a bit of information to work with. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it but at least I know. I knew that guy drove a mini metro and I could think about it.  I guess it’s a little like you planning books?

I tend to wing it!

Hehe I wing it too but even then I’m thinking ahead wondering what could come next. Sometimes shows are shorter without an interval and then the pressure’s really on but some writer’s work better under pressure. You one of those?

God no! I don’t like too much pressure but I’m beginning to think I’m better with a deadline of some sort. I don’t have one at the moment.

 Yeah sometimes it stems creativity having to produce something. It sucks the life out of it. But sometimes you need that kick up the arse.

A couple of the songs you sang tonight I’d heard before. How do you approach song writing?

Often I work on the structure first and then I sit and teach the band – here’s what I want you to play – then we’ve got a good feel for it and I fill in the words. It comes easier with experience. Writing is writing whatever it is. Practice definitely helps.

 How long have you been writing?

Thirty five years now. I studied journalism at college and then went to work for the Seattle newspaper writing columns. I hated it. I’d always wanted to be a comedian. One day I just decided to go for it.

It’s not only jokes and songs you write is it?

No there’s plays, books and documentaries. All sorts.

Do you write on the road? Are you structured with your approach?

If inspiration hits I’ll write. I split my time between the UK and my ranch in Montana and I tend to do a lot of writing there.

Do you have any rituals?

I wish I did. I wish it was like a tap that I could do something and it would come. Sometimes I get really stuck, don’t you?

I do but I tend to only work on one project at a time so I have to work through it somehow. What do you do?

 I walk away. Writing’s pretty much the same, jokes, stories, whatever and sometimes you have to walk away from it.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

When you get an idea you know in your gut if it’s a good one and if it is don’t beat it into the ground. If it doesn’t flow and you force yourself to keep working on it you lose confidence in the idea and it becomes old. You’re a writer, Louise. You know what I’m talking about?

Absolutely. I’ve had to put the manuscript for my latest novel, The Date, away so many times because it wasn’t coming and I knew it was too good an idea to let go.

Yeah that’s the thing. You give something space and it could be good.  If you’re sick of thinking about it let it go for a while. That’s what I learned. I was very frustrated when I started out because I thought I had to sit and work on something until it was finished.  Sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. What gets you through the hump?

A mixture of pure panic, cheese and too much wine.

Hehe, I might try that!

It’s been lovely talking to you Rich. Thanks so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.

Publication day & why I feel so vulnerable

 

Today is publication day for my fourth psychological thriller, The Date and although early reviewers are unanimously calling it my best book yet, my emotions are mixed; excitement and nerves. Fear and hope. This is the story I never thought I’d finished after several false starts. My main character, Ali, suffers from Face Blindness and it took me a long time to really get to grips with the emotions she feels after acquiring this condition in her 30’s.  I first heard of Prospagnosia through a BBC documentary featuring Hannah Read who suffers from the most extreme case in the UK. (You can read about that in a previous blog here). I often approach difficult subjects when I write and it’s so important to me to remain sensitive and empathetic. A book may predominately be entertainment but real people are living very real lives within the subjects I write about and I want to remain respectful of that at all times. This is the time I feel most vulnerable. Of course it’s inevitable that not everyone will love a book, but I never want anyone to think I’ve taken the emotional side of my story lightly.

Three years of trying to get Ali right, and much research later the book is today in the hands of readers who I hope will enjoy the story and perhaps learn a little about a condition that is far more common than you’d think.

Order The Date from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google.

If you want to hear directly from Hannah about what it’s like to live with Face Blindness and the challenges she faces, check out our short YouTube interview here.

In the meantime, here’s the blurb: –

One night can change everything. 

‘I know it as soon as I wake up and open my eyes… Something is wrong.’

Her Saturday night started normally. Recently separated from her husband, Ali has been persuaded by her friends to go on a date with a new man. She is ready, she is nervous, she is excited. She is about to take a step into her new future. By Sunday morning, Ali’s life is unrecognisable. She wakes, and she knows that something is wrong. She is home, she is alone, she is hurt and she has no memory of what happened to her.  

Worse still, when she looks in the mirror, Ali doesn’t recognise the face staring back at her…

 

The Sister Paperback Launch – Magic & Mayhem

Last week was the Sphere (Little, Brown Book Group) paperback publication day for my debut novel, The Sister. After a busy day including a radio interview (you can listen to that here) it was time to head over to Waterstone’s in Market Harborough for my launch party. We arrived half an hour early with a boot full of booze (there were a lot of writers coming) and as I burst through the doors, carrying far too many snacks (writer’s arse really is a ‘thing’) I skidded to a halt. There in front of me was a table full of books. My books. And inexplicably the excitement I had been feeling turned to blind panic as a hot flush crept through me. This was really happening. My story was in the shops and soon, my friends and family would arrive, including both my publishers and I’d have to stand up and do a speech. Only then did I remember I have a fear of public speaking. No pressure.

Instantly my legs felt like jelly and I had to sit down while my husband and sons set up the refreshments. So much for revelling in my big moment. The manager of the store, Tash, took one look at me and held my hand as she kindly (lied) told me that often writers get overwhelmed when they see their books for the first time and reassured me it would all be ok and my speech would be fabulous. Those few kind words (lies) made a huge difference and I was so grateful for her reassuring presence throughout the evening.

First to arrive was The Great Adamos. I ADORE magic and I wanted to indulge myself with my favourite things (cake, wine, books, magic and the people I love). Adam was a great icebreaker and enthralled my guests as they trickled in while I mingled/tried not to fall apart.

It was when Cath Burke from Sphere (my paperback publisher) and Kim Nash from Bookouture (my digital/audio publisher) arrived with hugs and congratulations I began to relax. They believed in me and my writing, it was time I started to believe in me too. Cath stood on the stairs and did a wonderful introduction on why Sphere picked up The Sister and then Kim Nash led a fabulous Q & A and despite my initial nerves I had a great time answering her questions (and yes I enjoyed it so much I’ve since agreed to take part in some author panel events.) It was really emotional chatting to Kim about how I felt when Lydia, my lovely Bookouture editor offered me my first book deal and how kind she was on the phone when I tried to explain I wasn’t a ‘real’ writer and didn’t know if I’d be able to write another book (can’t believe I’m now writing book 4!)

It was only when we’d finished our chat and I rejoined my guests with a rush of relief, I realised I hadn’t thanked my family for their support and this was my only regret of the night – I LOVE YOU GUYS.

The evening flew past quickly after that, chatting to old and new friends, signing books and eating cake.

So many friends and family turned up to support me, some coming from a great distance, and throughout the evening I felt proud, excited, grateful, but most of all I felt love.

And later, as we headed for the local pub after we left Waterstones, I felt slightly drunk, but that’s another story…

Thanks so much everyone. It really was an amazing evening X

 

The rest of the photos can be viewed over on Facebook

Photographer – Antony Woolmer

Magician – The Great Adamos

 

 

Behind the scenes with Bookouture Publicity Manager – Kim Nash

 

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Kim Nash is Publicity and Social Media Manager for fast-growing publishers, Bookouture. An impressive title, but what does it actually mean? As I writer I’m eager for a glimpse behind the scenes and super busy Kim was happy to answer my questions.

 

Kim, when Bookouture takes on a new author at what stage of the process do you get involved?

An interesting question and lots of answers! Some authors that we have taken on have come to Bookouture because I have introduced them. I’ve read their work and loved it and passed it on to the editorial team for them to make a decision. Some we’ve taken on and some we haven’t.

That must be fabulous to play an active part in making someone’s dream come true.

It is and sometimes the editorial team get a book that they ask us all to read for our feedback. This is really exciting!

So an author signs a book deal. What happens next?

When we decide to take an author on, I introduce myself and we ask them to fill in a questionnaire so that we can learn more about them and look at potential PR opportunities. I try as well to have a skype call with the authors quite early on, so that they understand the process of how I work and when some of the things that I do happen.

Running up to pre-release, how do you get the book out there?

I share the cover reveals on social media which I love doing. It’s so exciting listening to everyone’s reactions and seeing how much they want to read the book, just from seeing the cover. And when the book goes onto NetGalley, I announce that on social media too.

And readers can request a copy of the digital book via Net Galley?

On NetGalley we are really looking for committed bloggers and reviewers to feature our books on their blogs. Reviews are so important to an author.

Do you read all the books that come through Bookouture? 

I’ve always tried to read every single one of our books before they go out to reviewers but with the amount we have out all at the same time right now, sometimes the reviewers get them at the same time as me. I would find it very difficult to promote a book that I hadn’t read and always find it easier if it’s a book that fits into the genres that I like reading. As I’m a blogger too, I hope I understand the pressures that bloggers are under and publishers have to understand that blogging is a hobby not a job!

How do you structure your time, particularly as social media posts are sometimes done in the evenings?

I’m a social media addict so I’ve always got my computer, my iPad or my iPhone close to me at all times. I have had many times when I’ve been out at the park with my son, or playing football in the cul-de-sac where we live, while doing a cover reveal. As long as I have wi-fi nothing stops me.   A lot of our work happens in the evening though, that’s the nature of our business and when readers/bloggers are at home and working on their blogs.

Do you instinctively know when a book’s going to do well.

It’s another great question. I know what I like to read and I know what a lot of bloggers like to read. As a HQ team, we watch chart positions constantly and send messages to each other from 6am to 11pm and are chatting all the time about books on the move. We normally get a sense through pre-orders and how many people are talking about our books and what they are saying about them, to see how they’re going to perform. And sometimes you just read a book that you KNOW is going to be a massive hit!

Exciting times! Thank you so much Kim.

Bookouture are currently open for submissions. 

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