Prologue – The Stolen Sisters & does your novel need one?

I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.

When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.

Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”

I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.

Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.

That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.

The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.

So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Stolen Sisters’ (currently 99p in the Amazon Kindle Deal) is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.

Prologue

When Carly looked back at that day the memory was in shades of grey; the trauma had sucked the blue from the sky, the green from the freshly mown grass. She had sat on the back doorstep, the coolness of the concrete permeating through her school skirt, the late-afternoon sun warming her bare arms. Carly remembers now the blackness of a beetle scurrying down the path before it disappeared into the soil under the rose bush. The stark white of the twins’ socks, bunched below their knees.

Inconsequential details that later the police would jot in their notebooks as though Carly was somehow being a great help but she knew she wasn’t, and worse than that, she knew it was entirely her fault.

It had all been so frustratingly normal. Leah and Marie had shrieked in mock disgust as Bruno, their boxer, bounded towards them, drool spilling from his jowls. But their screams then still carried an undercurrent of happiness, not like later when their cries were full of fear and there was nowhere to run to.

The things that have stayed with Carly are this. 

The way her fingers gripped the cumbersome Nokia in her hand as though she was clutching a secret. Her annoyance as she angled her screen to avoid the glare, never dreaming that soon she would be craving daylight. 

Fresh air. 

Space. 

The pounding in her head increasing as the girls bounced a tennis ball between them across the patio. The way she had snapped at the twins as though it was their fault Dean Malden hadn’t text her. Of all the things that she could, that she should, feel guilty about, she had never forgiven herself that the last words she spoke to her sisters before they were all irrevocably damaged was in anger rather than kindness.

Although in truth, she had never forgiven herself for any of it.

‘Shut up!’ She had roared out her frustration that the first boy she loved had shattered her thirteen-year-old heart. Crazy now to recall that she once thought the absence of a text was the end of the world. There were far worse things. Far worse people than the floppy-haired blond boy who had let her down. 

Her younger sisters turned to her, identical green eyes wide. Marie’s sight trained on Carly’s face as she chucked the ball for Bruno. Carly’s irritation grew as she watched it fly over the fence.

‘For God’s sake.’ She stood, brushing the dust from the back of her sensible pleated skirt. ‘It’s time to come in.’

‘But that’s not fair.’ Marie looked stricken as her gaze flickered towards the fence.

‘Life isn’t fair,’ Carly said feeling a bubbling resentment that at eight years old the twins had it easy.

‘Can you fetch our ball, please, Carly?’ Marie pleaded.

‘Fetch it yourself,’ Carly snapped.

‘You know we’re not allowed out of the garden on our own until we’re ten,’ Marie said. 

‘Yeah, well I’m in charge today and I’m saying you can. It’s not like we live in a city. Nothing ever happens in this dump.’ Carly was sick of living somewhere so small where everyone knew everyone else’s business. Where everyone would know by tomorrow that Dean Malden had rejected her. ‘Be quick and shut the gate properly.’ 

She turned and pushed open the back door, stepping into the vast kitchen that never smelled of cakes or bread. It never smelled of anything except freshly roasted coffee. Carly clattered her phone onto the marble island and yanked open the fridge door. The shelves that were once stocked with stilton and steak and that had groaned under the weight of fresh fruit and vegetables, were woefully bare. There was nothing except a shrivelled cucumber and some out-of-date hummus. It was all right for her mum and stepdad out for the evening at yet another corporate function. They spent more time on the business than with their children nowadays, although Mum had assured her it wouldn’t be for much longer. She’d soon be at home more but in the meantime it was left to Carly to sort out tea again. She had loved her half-sisters fiercely since the day they were born but sometimes she wished mum still paid the retired lady down the road to babysit but since Carly had turned thirteen mum felt that she was responsible enough. 

She sighed as she crossed to the shelf above the Aga and lifted the lid from the teapot. Inside was a £10 note. Chips for tea. She wondered whether the money would stretch to three sausages or if they should split a battered cod.

Minutes later the twins tumbled into the kitchen.

‘Yuck.’ Leah dropped the tennis ball coated with slobber into the wicker basket where Bruno kept his toys.

‘Wash your hands,’ Carly snapped as she checked her phone again.

Nothing.

What had she done wrong? She had thought Dean liked her.

Marie perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, swinging her legs, the toes of her shoes thudding against the kick board. How was Carly supposed to hear her text alert over that? Marie had her chin in her hands, her mouth downturned; she hated being in trouble. Carly could see the way her lip trembled with upset but she couldn’t help yelling again.

‘Shut. Up.’

Marie slid off the stool. ‘I . . . I left my fleece in the garden.’

Carly jerked her head towards the door in a go-and-get-it-gesture before she clicked on the radio. The sound of Steps flooded the room. Marie paused and momentarily their sisterly bond tugged at them all. ‘5, 6, 7, 8’ was one of their favourite songs. Usually they’d fall into line and dance in synchronicity.

‘Let’s do this!’ Marie flicked her red hair over her shoulders and placed her hands on her hips.

‘It’s childish,’ Carly snapped although inside her shoes, her toes were tapping.

‘It doesn’t work unless we all do it.’ Marie’s voice cracked. ‘We have to be together.’ 

Carly pulled the scrunchie she’d been wearing like a bracelet from her wrist and smoothed her long fair hair back into a ponytail. The twins got into position. Waited. Carly reached for her phone and tried to ignore the pang of meanness that flitted through her as the smile slipped from Leah’s face. Marie’s small shoulders rounded as she headed back outside.

Minutes later she raced back in, socked feet skidding across the tiles, tears streaming down her freckled cheeks. ‘Bruno’s got out. The gate was open.’

‘For God’s sake.’ Carly could feel the anger in her chest form a cold, hard ball. It was one of the last times she ever allowed herself to truly feel. ‘Who shut the gate?’

Marie bit her lower lip. 

‘I did,’ said Leah, slipping her shoes back on. 

‘You’re supposed to bang it until it latches, you idiot. You know it’s broken. Three times. You bang it three times.’

The girls pelted into the garden, calling the dog’s name. 

Marie hesitated at the gate. ‘Perhaps we should wait—’ Under her freckles, her skin was pale. She’d been off school yesterday with a stomach-ache and although she’d gone back today, she didn’t look well. Carly knew she should ask if she was feeling okay but instead she shoved her roughly into the street. ‘It’s your fault, Marie. You search that way.’ She pointed down the avenue lined with beech trees. 

Marie grabbed Leah’s hand.

‘No,’ Carly snapped. ‘Leah can come with me.’ The twins could be silly where they were together and she had enough to worry about without them getting into trouble.

‘But I want . . .’ Marie began.

‘I don’t care what you want. Move.’ Carly grabbed Leah’s arm and led her in the opposite direction, towards the cut-through at the side of their house which led to the park.

It all happened so quickly that afterwards Carly couldn’t remember which order it all came in. The balaclava-clad face looming towards hers. The forearm around her neck, the gloved hand clamped over her mouth. The sight of Leah struggling against arms that restrained her. The scraping sound of her shoe as she was dragged towards the van at the other end of the alley. The sight of Marie, almost a blur, flying towards the second man also clad in black, who held her twin, pummelling him with her small fists. 

‘Stop! You can’t do this! Don’t take her. I don’t want you to take her!’

The soft flesh compacting against hard bone as Carly bit down hard on the fingers that had covered her mouth.

‘Run!’ she had screamed at Marie as the man who held Leah grabbled to find something of Marie’s he could hold onto, clutching at her collar, her ginger pigtails, as she dodged his grasp.

‘Run!’

I decided to use a prologue for this story, not only because it’s an instant hook, but because I wanted to begin twenty years before I started the story proper. There was vital information I wanted the reader to know. The girls are snatched in the prologue but Chapter One immediately move on to the girls as adults and we learn they were returned without any abuse. As a mother the only way I could write about missing children was if we know straight away that the girls were safe and the prologue enabled me to do this. We do, as the novel prgoresses, delve back into the past where we see, not how the girls were taken, but why and in the present it’s all about what happens when their abductor reappears on the twenty year anniversary of their abduction.

To read more of the Sinclair sisters’ story download the digital version of the book for just 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.

Two of my other books (with prologues!) are also in Amazon’s October sale. Download ‘The Gift‘ or my Amelia Henley debut love story with a twist ‘The Life We Almost Had.‘ (you can read the prologue for this here.)

RAF Upwood – the real life location behind ‘The Stolen Sisters’.

Locations can be hugely important to a book. My first four psychological thrillers were based in fabricated towns in the midlands because the place wasn’t relevant to the story, my fifth, ‘The Family’ in a cult in Wales because I needed a vast amount of rural space and I was very familiar with this area. ‘The Life We Almost Had’ my debut love story takes place on a Spanish Island based on Lanzarote.

For my 7th and latest book I needed somewhere specific. Somewhere remote and yet not too far out of a town. Somewhere creepy. Somewhere you could feasibly hide three young girls…

I’m obsessed with exploring abandoned buildings and my children are the same. If we want a day out we’d much rather go and look around a ruin, and so the hunt was on for somewhere to base ‘The Stolen Sisters’. In this book the Sinclair sisters are snatched during chapter one. In chapter two we find out they had been returned unharmed with no sexual abuse (it was the only way I could bear to write this). Chapters in the book alternate between past and present and in the past we needed to feel the girls fear, the tension and the way to build on this was to use the setting almost as another character.

I considered, and disregarded multiple locations before I stumbled upon RAF Upwood. It was everything I wanted it to be. Close enough to take the girls there in a relatively short space of time.  Vast enough for the girls to get lost when they escape their room. Remote enough so no-one can hear them scream…

I renamed Upwood, RAF Norwood for the story and like Upwood, in my book Norwood was fenced off, waiting to be demolished for a housing estate (Upwood has now partly been knocked down.) Hyde Housing were very accommodating, allowing me to look around and film. I also staged rooms where the girls might be held, with the scant possessions they were given, to try and really get a feel for the horror Leah, Marie and Carly Sinclair might have felt.

It was surreal being at Upwood. Kind of like being on a film set for a movie version of ‘The Stolen Sisters’.

This clown was really the start of everything. I imagined it being on the back of the door, terrifying the young girls, the sense of his eyes watching them every time they try to escape the room. I was never afraid of clowns until I wrote this book, now…

The corridors have so many doorways coming off them, imagine how terrifying it would be to be chased, to choose a doorway, and find yourself trapped in another dark room.

There is a scene in the book where the girls hang from these bars hoping they can pull them free from the window. They can’t.

Carly is running with her two younger sisters, she hears the men coming, does she hide upstairs or try to make it to the door?

I set up a camp in one of the rooms with Leah’s teddy bear, the blanket and the food and drink the girls were given. It was horrible

There is a terrifying scene that takes place in the shower block. Thanks to my visit I was able to describe the environment, but the smell! I could never describe the smell.

The site is absolutely vast. Imagine running around here at night with no lights. Shudder.

Some of the graffiti here is so impressive.

Everywhere I turned I spotted potential danger for the girls.

In a bid to escape, Leah dropped her teddy bear, it was heartbreaking to think of it left the RAF base amongst the rubble.

The Stolen Sisters is currently 99p for a limited time only across all digital platforms. You can find The Stolen Sisters on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Google books & Waterstones.

It’s also a Fern Britton book club pick and a special edition with extra content is available at Tesco. You can also find ‘The Stolen Sisters’ at Asda, shortly at Sainsbury’s and as an audiobook on Audible.

Ghost writing vs publishing your own novel – Emma Rowley tells all

Today, on my blog, I’m delighted to welcome psychological thriller and ghost writer Emma Rowley and chat to her about her newly published thriller as well finding out a little more about ghost writing. 

Tell me about your new novel You Can Trust Me – what’s it about?

It’s a psychological thriller about a ghostwriter, Nicky, whose new client Olivia is an Instagram influencer with an apparently picture-perfect life. Her job is to help Olivia to write a book – sharing all her lifestyle tips and tricks – but she soon finds out there are things Olivia just doesn’t want to talk about … and her beautiful family home harbours some dark secrets.

What inspired it?

My own experiences as a professional ghostwriter. I’ve got on with all my clients, but it is definitely a relationship that can be quite intense – you are asking someone to tell you all about themselves, so there is a lot of trust involved. ‘You know everything about me,’ a client told me once. ‘But I don’t know anything about you…’ She just wanted to get to know me a bit better, but I remember thinking even then, that sounds so sinister! I knew that one day I’d write a book about a ghostwriter relationship that goes very wrong.

What exactly does a ghostwriter do?

Basically, it’s a collaborative process where I help someone write their book. A lot of people will need a hand with getting their thoughts down on paper, or structuring them into an actual book, which might be up to 90,000 words. How it works normally is, I will interview someone over a period of weeks, in person or over the phone, then I will go away and use all that information to write a draft that we will work through together, making changes so that they are totally happy with it. The key is to capture their voice as much as possible, so it really feels like their book. Over the years, I have worked with everyday people who have incredible stories to tell, as well as celebrities – but I’m afraid no, I can’t say who!

How did you get into that?

Through working as a journalist for years – there are similar skills involved, in terms of asking the right questions, listening closely to what people say, and organising all the material you collect into something that’s cohesive and readable. Funnily enough, It meant that by the time my debut novel, Where The Missing Go, came out in 2018, I had already written half a dozen books already, albeit under other people’s names (and they were all non-fiction).

What’s it like to switch from ghostwriting to fiction?

Actually, I still work as a ghostwriter – I never stopped! The advantage that gave me, as I set out to write fiction, was that I knew I could finish writing a book, at least, which gave me confidence. And capturing people’s individual voices for their books – making sure I had the right turn of phrase, vocabulary and rhythm – was great practice for making sure my first-person narrators had distinctive voices, particularly as I like to write books with more than one narrator.

What was it like to see your own name on a book you’ve written, rather than someone else’s?

It was wonderful! Writing my own books, rather than helping other people write theirs, was a totally different experience. I actually found it more difficult to write fiction, as you have to conjure up everything yourself – with a ghostwritten book, someone else is sharing their thoughts and experiences, of course. But I love it – my latest book, in particular, is so personal to me.

It sounds fabulous! Thanks for chatting to me today and wishing you lots of luck with ‘You Can Trust Me.’

Emma’s first thriller Where The Missing Go was a 2020 Edgar Award nominee. Her new book You Can Trust Me was published in paperback on September 3 by Orion

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1409175804

Blackwell’s: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/9781409175803

Audible:https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/You-Can-Trust-Me-Audiobook/1409186334

How I tackle edits – Novel Writing – 10 editing tips

Today I’ve received my edits for my second Amelia Henley novel which will be published next July. I admit, that I’ve been a little worried about this story. Since writing it, my debut contemporary fiction book ‘The Life We Almost Had’ has been released on eBook (it’s currently 99p) and the reviews have been STUNNING, they’ve really taken my breath away. Readers have said Adam and Anna’s unusual love story will always stay with them so Jack and Libby have A LOT to live up to next year. Thankfully my editor has called my second commercial fiction book ‘another pretty epic love story’ so that’s a relief.

Receiving feedback can be overwhelming. As authors we send off the best version of our manuscripts and hope that our editors love it and it can be easy to believe they don’t when the notes come back with suggestions of changes. I remember that prior to signing my first book deal I asked my editor, Lydia, who had made the offer what she wanted to change with my debut psychological thriller, ‘The Sister,’ I’d already turned down an agent’s offer because they wanted me to completely restructure it. Lydia assured me she loved it and in my naivety I thought that my work was done. When she returned my manuscript with track changes (which I had never seen before) I was HORRIFIED. We spoke on the phone immediately.

‘I thought you loved my story?’ I wailed.

‘I do,’ she assured me.

‘But you’ve sent it back and it’s covered in… RED.’

She explained that even though there were no major structural changes to be made there was work to be done (and then copy edits and then the proofread, and then the typesetting…) She was immensely kind and patient guiding me through the process which felt enormous.

For those early books I would read my editorial notes, cry, panic (repeat several times) and then write an email questioning everything and then cry and panic a bit more until Lydia calmed me down.

Now I know it’s essential to take time to digest the suggestions before even thinking about tackling them.

Today, I read my notes and then went for a walk to ponder them over. When I got home I opened up my manuscript in Scrivener which is where I prefer to work until the copy edit stage and I opened up my editor’s track changed Word document side by side. I copy and pasted all of her notes into Scrivener in the appropriate sections placing an XX before each one and then I stepped away. I’ll give myself 24 hours thinking space before I tackle any writing. Tomorrow I’ll do a document search for each XX and make the majority of the suggested changes before reading it through again and expanding or cutting anything else I feel needs it. If there’s anything I don’t want to change I will contact my editor and explain why and we can talk it over.

My editor, Manpreet, is fabulous. She took a chance on ‘The Life We Almost Had’ a love story with a very unusual concept and a twist and understood completely what I wanted to do with it so I trust her BUT I don’t want to rush in and chop bits out if I’m not entirely sure it’s the right thing.

Remember: –

  • Don’t panic.
  • Take some time to digest the suggestions.
  • Your editor does love your book or they wouldn’t be publishing it.
  • Everybody has a vested interest in making the story the best that it can be.
  • Writers can become too close to their characters to be objective.
  • There’s no right or wrong way to tackle edits, you’ll find your own way of working and that might change with every book.
  • If it all seems too much try writing list – everything seems more manageable with a plan.
  • Ultimately it’s your name on the cover so if you feel you don’t want to change something tell your editor why – they won’t (shouldn’t) bite.
  • The end is in sight!
  • When you can’t bear to read through your story one more time and hate the sight of it you’re probably done!

If you’ve any editing questions I’ll be chatting live on my Facebook page on Thursday 20th August at 3pm GMT about ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ but do come & ask your writing/publishing questions.

The Life We Almost Had‘ is currently 99p across all digital platforms during August. Download it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google.

You can preorder the paperback from Amazon or Waterstones or support your local bookstore. 

 

Choosing the right location for a novel – writing

An important decision any writer needs to make is where to set your novels. The right location can really highlight the genre and set the mood. There are advantages of using a genuine place; readers who are familiar with it can instantly place themselves in the location, and disadvantages; landscapes can change so quickly and if you get any of the details wrong this can be jarring.

For my early novels where locations didn’t matter to the story so I kept things deliberately vague, never naming a town or stating exactly where it was supposed to be. Name generators on Google were my friend although this almost backfired once after naming a village ‘Therinsborough’. My editor immediately flagged this with a ‘Didn’t you ever watch Neighbours, this sounds very close to Erinsborough, Louise….’

My latest two novels however, are a little different. For my forthcoming psychological thriller, ‘The Stolen Sisters’ I use the location where the Sinclair Sisters, Leah, Marie and Carly, are taken and held captive almost as another character. The description of the abandoned site where they are held adds another chilling layer to their story and really creates a dark atmosphere. To find the perfect location, I spent hours trawling through urban explorer sites and watching YouTube videos until I stumbled across the perfect place. Here I could envisage these three young sisters huddled together, cold and scared, but also telling stories and making up games to support each other through their ordeal. The stark, cold, decay of their rooms contrasting with the warmth of their loving relationship which shines through the pages. I’ll be sharing these real life photos closer to the 1st October publication.The idea for my debut contemporary fiction novel, ‘The Life We Almost Had’ came to me in Lanzarote. I was gazing out to sea and, in my imagination, I saw a shocking scene play out before my eyes, like a movie. Instantly I knew I had to write the unusual story I had imagined.I wanted to base the novel on Lanzarote but as this love story has a futuristic element I needed to build a Scientific Research Centre on the north of the island and so I renamed my island Alircia (although I still secretly call it Lanzarote). I use the blue skies and sparkling seas to paint a warm and loving picture. We’re with the couple as they fall in love and visit the tourist attractions that I also visited – (using a real location has the added bonus of research trips!) – the house of writer Jose Saramago, the lava caves, Jameos del Aguo, the markets and of course, the place where the story circles back to, the beautiful cove at Playa Blanca where couples fasten lovelocks.I was so utterly invested in Anna and Adam’s love story with a twist that I bought them a lovelock even before I had even put pen to paper.When Anna and Adam return to the UK things get drab and bleak, much like the weather. Life throws them on to an unexpected path. Both keeping secrets, they return to their beloved Alircia to try to fix their fractured relationship but a tragedy forces them apart. Will they take the ultimate risk for a second chance at their love.You’ll have to read the book to find out!

The Life We Almost Had‘ is currently 99p across all digital platforms during August. Download it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google.

You can preorder the paperback from Amazon or Waterstones or support your local bookstore. 

Pre-order ‘The Stolen Sisters’ here.

Both books are available as ebooks, audiobooks and paperbacks.

 

 

How do writers research? My top 10 tips!

 

One of the things that put me off writing a book for years (other than fear of failing, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of being terrible at writing and shattering my author daydreams) was the research. How did writers know all the things that went into their books? I guessed that high profile authors, perhaps had police contacts on speed dial to check out procedures but what about the rest of us? Those starting out? What happens when Google just doesn’t cut it?

Writing ‘The Sister’, I shied away from including anything I didn’t know much about which left…. very little content. I had to reach out to experts and the thought terrified me.

I remember, with clarity, the way my hands shook, palms sweated, as I made my first call to the fire department to ask for their advice (and no, I didn’t ring 999 claiming a plot emergency) tentatively explaining I was writing a book and wanted to be as accurate with the details as I could. I was told someone would call me back. Despondent I hung up, sure I’d never hear from anyone. Later that afternoon my phone rang, a man introducing himself as Chief Inspector and my heart skipped beat, certain I was about to be arrested for wasting time, but he was lovely and helped enormously. His advice changed the whole scene and he worked on the detail with me until we were both happy.

I realised then that most people are happy to talk about the things they have a passion for and knowledge of. Since ‘The Sister’ I’ve spoken to numerous people about various things – the concept of cellular memory for ‘The Gift’ (a heart retaining memories of its donor so the recipient knows things they shouldn’t…) Prospagnosia (Face Blindness) for ‘The Date’, surrogacy and law for ‘The Surrogate’, brainwashing for ‘The Family‘ and kidnapping for the forthcoming ‘The Stolen Sisters‘.

One of the most interesting things I have researched is neuroscience for my latest publication ‘The Life We Almost Had’ which is my debut contemporary fiction novel published under my pen name ‘Amelia Henley’. I’d become fascinated with consciousness and, for fun, I wanted to write a story set in current times but to expand on scientific elements for part of the plot (and yes I know this sounds vague but I don’t want to give spoilers).

I called up Magdalen College in Oxford and explained what I was doing and they invited me to sit in on some lecturers. I met some of the world’s leading experts in their field and I found it so enjoyable so much so that I’ve been looking into formally studying science in some capacity.

There’s a danger, when authors research, that they want to put everything they’ve learned into the story because they’ve spent so much time learning and because they’ve found everything so interesting and this is something I definitely had to bear in mind with ‘The Life We Almost Had.’ At it’s heart, it’s a sweeping love story and I often found myself cutting out technical explanations that I knew some readers would find boring, and getting back to Adam and Anna’s tangled relationship.

Writing ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ took me to Lanzarote where much of the story is based. Research trips are great fun sometimes so much so I forget to do the actual research…

Here are my top tips for researching: –

  • Take the time to choose who you think can best help you carefully, for instance there are many different types of lawyers, doctors etc.
  • Approach people respectfully – I never ask questions in my initial email but rather ask if they’d be willing to answer questions and I let them know roughly how many or how much time I think I’d need for a phone chat.
  • Don’t fire off the same email to dozens of people asking for help and waste people time if they all reply.
  • Plan ahead so you can continue writing while you wait for a response. Appreciate people are busy and they might not get back to you straight away.
  • Also make sure you have your questions ready before you ask for help. For the book I’m currently writing I emailed a charity, assuming that because of the pandemic they might not have the time or staff to get back to me at all and they called me five minutes later and I wasn’t prepared!
  • Don’t include everything you’ve learned however interesting, ask yourself ‘does the reader need to know this and does it move the plot forward’.
  • Blogs are a great place to find people who want to talk. I found many transplant patients this way who were happy to share their experiences with me.
  • Remember that although books are entertainment as a writer you are dealing with experiences that people have lived through. Be kind. Be sensitive.
  • Don’t assume everyone wants to be in the acknowledgements. After someone had helped me I mentioned in passing I’d thank them at the end of the book and they asked me not to as they didn’t want their boss to know they’d divulged information.
  • It’s okay to take artistic license to suit the story but I always state in my acknowledgements if I’ve done this (in ‘The life We Almost Had’ I credit a neuroscientist but mention I’ve had to progress science to fit my story.)

The Life We Almost Had‘ is currently 99p across all digital platforms during August. Download it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google.

You can preorder the paperback from Amazon or Waterstones or support your local bookstore. 

Find my psychological thrillers on Amazon here.

All books are available as ebooks, audiobooks and paperbacks.

Novel Writing – Should you include a prologue? #WritingTips

 

I began writing my debut, ‘The Sister‘, for fun. It was meant to be a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction as an adult and I hadn’t any qualifications other than a clutch of GCSE’s. I never believed I could write a book. I had always thought that to be a published novelist you needed a wealth of experience and a degree in creative writing.

When it got to the point that my ‘short story’ had reached 90k words I began to tentatively hope I could edit it to a high enough standard where I’d dare to submit it. Out of my depth, I was so grateful when a writer I met at an event offered to read the opening 3 chapters for me. I didn’t check where she was published, or how she was published. The fact she was in print led me to believe she knew absolutely everything.

Her overriding feedback was that my prologue was a huge mistake, ‘”readers hate them, agents hate them and publishers hate them. If you submit something with a prologue it won’t be read.”

I felt my face burn with embarrassment. I didn’t know the rules and I’d been found out for the imposter that I was.

Immediately I deleted my prologue, but now, several books on and with over a million copies sold I’m familiar with most of the rules and (whispers) here’s the thing. There aren’t any.

That writer, as it turned out, was right that ‘The Sister‘ shouldn’t have a prologue, but not for the reasons she said.

The prologue wasn’t needed. It didn’t serve a purpose and in a novel, every single scene, every single word needs to earn its place, prologue included. After The Sister spent two months at No. 1 I found the confidence to include a prologue in my second psychological thriller, ‘The Gift‘, because no matter what that writer said about people hating prologues, I don’t and first and foremost I’m a reader. I don’t write one for every book because not every story warrants one.

So how do I decide when to use one? ‘The Family’ is my latest thriller and I’ll use it as an example, I’ve included the prologue below.  The Family is a book about brainwashing, about a mother, Laura, and her daughter, Tilly, who inadvertently find themselves joining a cult.  Laura realises there is something very dangerous about the situation they find themselves in but Tilly has already fallen for the charismatic leader, Alex, and doesn’t want to leave. It’s important for this story that we see how Laura and Tilly find themselves in such a terrible situation so this wasn’t going to be a story that flings you into action on the very first page.

I wanted to give the readers an indication that the pace will increase throughout the book.  The prologue begins in the future and then chapter one begins several months before this. We can initially see the horrifying situation Laura and Tilly are in and then we work back to see how they got there. I enjoy this set up as a reader, forming my own conclusions as to what’s going on and why. I wanted this novel to open with a question. For the readers to feel involved, part of ‘The Family’ from the beginning so when Laura and Tilly get sucked into this tight-knit, claustrophobic group they can feel themselves there too.

We can see, when we read the prologue below, that someone has been shot but who has been shot and who has shot them? I love nothing more than a mystery and it’s been such fun hearing reader’s theories at the beginning of the book and then their reactions at the end (nobody has guessed both parts correctly as yet…)

Prologues are a great tool for grabbing attention, giving background, creating a twist (as the mine below does), and for providing a hook. A question. Writing from a different point of view or a different time – past, present, or future, something that sets it apart from chapter one.

I asked my son once, who is an avid reader whether he read prologues as I was genuinely shocked to hear some readers don’t.

‘Of course,’ he said, ‘but I never bother with the things at the end. The epilogue.’

‘Why not?’ I was horrified.

‘Because I already know how the story ends,’ he said.

Not in my books. There is often, as there is with ‘The Family‘, a twist on the very last line in the epilogue, but how to end a story is another blog post entirely.

Download ‘The Family’ for only £0.99 as part of the Amazon kindle monthly deal here and read the prologue below.

 

 

 

The FamilyPrologue

NOW

LAURA 

It all unfolds with cinematic clarity; the gunshot, the scream. Every detail sharp and clear. Time slows as her eyes plead with me to help her. In my mind I bundle her behind me, shielding her body with mine, but she is too far away and I know I cannot reach her in time.

But still I try.

My legs are weighted with dread as I run towards her; the fist around my heart squeezing.

A second shot.

Her knees buckle. She crumples like a paper doll.

The ground falls away beneath my feet and I crawl to her like the animal I have become. My palms are sticky in the arc of blood that has stained the floor red. Blood is thicker than water they say, but hers is thin and beacon bright. Adrenaline pulses through me leaving numbness in its wake as I press against her wrist, desperately seeking a pulse. With my other hand I link my fingers through hers the way we used to before I brought us to this place that has been our ruin. A lifetime of memories strobe through my mind; cradling her close in the maternity wing; Easter eggs spilling out of the wicker basket looped over her pudgy arm; her first day of school, ribboned pigtails swinging as she ran across the playground.

She can’t be gone.

Can she?

Fingers of panic press hard against my skull. The colour leeches from the room. A black and white hue descending upon me. I tighten my fingers around hers, afraid I’m going to faint. Afraid I’m going to let her go.

But then.

A flicker of eyelids. A murmur from her lips.

I lay next to her, gently rolling her towards me, cradling her in my arms. I can’t, I won’t leave her. Family should stick together. Protect each other. Instead, I chose to come here.

This is all my fault.

The drumming in my head grows louder – the sound of footfall. I don’t have to look up to feel their anger, solid and immovable.

The acrid smell of gunpowder hangs in the air along with my fear.

Looking up, my eyes meet the shooter’s, they are still holding the gun and sensations return, hard and fast. The pain in my stomach is cutting and deep and I am no longer sure if the blood I am covered in has come from her.

Or is coming from me.

Her top is soaked crimson, as is mine.

The pain increases.

Terrified, I tug at her clothes, my clothes, searching for the wound. Praying. Let her be okay. Seventeen is no age. Let it be me.

At last I find the small hole where the bullet has torn through flesh but before I can apply pressure to stem the flow of blood there are hands on my shoulders. My elbows. Pulling. Pulling.

Darkness flickers at the edge of my vision but still I fight against it. I fight against them.

My feet kick out, my teeth sink into flesh, but it’s fruitless. I am growing weaker.

Her fingers twitch. Once. Twice.

Nothing.

‘Tilly!’ My scream rips through me as I am yanked to my feet. ‘Tilly!’ I scramble for traction, every fibre of my being straining to reach my daughter.

I can’t.

I am still wrestling to be free as I am dragged, my feet scraping the ground.

But I know they’ll never let us leave here now.

Not alive anyway.

 

Download ‘The Family’ for only £0.99 as part of the Amazon kindle monthly deal here.

Clouds, Rainbows, Chocolate & Unicorns – My first RNA meeting!!

The second my book deal was announced and I was able to share I’d now also be writing love stories under the pen name Amelia Henley (you can read about that here), I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The very second. Before I tweeted my news or posted on Facebook, I was eagerly signing up for membership.

I had waited a long time to join. I didn’t know exactly what the RNA was but isn’t the name wonderful? Romance conjures such evocative images (raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens).

After I’d joined I was super excited to discover there are ‘chapter’ meetings held in various locations throughout the UK. My local one was Leicester. I was thrilled. My son is at Uni in Leicester so I’d be able to go to a meeting and then see him afterwards. Immediately I sent him this message telling him my news and sharing that I thought the Romantic Novelists’ meetings would surely consist of members lying on clouds, under rainbows being fed chocolate by unicorns.

He asked me what the actual benefits were.

Unicorns, chocolate, rainbows and clouds? I thought about it properly, my expectations were, perhaps, a little bit high. I didn’t know what the benefits were but I couldn’t wait to find out. I pondered what I should wear to give out that romantic vibe.

“Do you think my wedding dress would be overkill?’ I asked my husband.

He thought that it probably would.

I arrived late, flustered. I’d been writing and had lost track of time. Everyone was already there. Everyone already eating. The room crowded, I couldn’t see a seat. Luckily Sue Moorcroft, who I already knew spotted me lingering uncertainly at the door. She kindly invited me to sit with her.

Sue Moorcroft

Lizzie Lamb, who I’d already been messaging gave me a huge smile and told me she was glad I’d made it. Instantly I relaxed.

Lizzie Lamb

The other writers were lovely, LOVELY. I was made to feel hugely welcome and after so many solitary years spent writing it was fabulous to connect with a local group who had experienced the same highs and lows of publishing, and the same hopes and fears.

After food, those that had news to share, shared. There were new book covers, publication days, nominations for awards. Each announcement met with a huge round of applause. The atmosphere was encouraging, nurturing. It felt a safe space to be. Instinctively I knew that this group would not only celebrate each other’s achievements, they would also be a shoulder when things weren’t going quite so well.

Sharing news

Literary agent, Kate Nash, came along to talk about submissions and the industry which, even as a published writer I found enlightening.

There might not have been any rainbows or unicorns at the meeting but I found something even better – friendship and support.

Thanks everybody for making me feel so welcome. I can’t wait until the next meeting.

The most important thing I learned teaching Creative Writing

My husband is worryingly good at spotting potential murder sites…

Last week I taught my first creative writing class which you can read about here. It made such a change to be out of the house, generally I’m at home writing. Every. Single. Day. It’s where I’m happiest though, in my tiny study, in my pyjamas, dreaming up worlds.

During the workshop I was asked where ideas come from.

‘They’re all around us if we keep our eyes open,’ I said. Leaving the house isn’t the only way to find ideas of course but I did mention that for me I found inspiration in getting out, living life. ‘If we never go anywhere or do anything, we might find we’ve nothing to say. Nothing to write about.’

As I said this I was mentally calculating when the last time was I went out and did something different.

I couldn’t remember.

I thought about what I might write next once I’ve finished my current book.

I had no idea.

And I was a little worried.

As my writing schedule has become busier I realise that lately I’ve been viewing life solely through my laptop and missing out on new experiences. The less I’ve been venturing out the more I’ve noticed my anxiety has also increased. It was time to make a change.

At home I relayed this to my husband and on the Saturday morning he told me to pack an overnight bag and after loading the dog in the car, we headed for the coast.

“Are we nearly there yet?” asked Granger for the millionth time.

At first I was a little worried about leaving my current characters Libby and Jack behind. I’d left them in an awful situation, but promising them I’d sort it all out on Monday I put my story out of my mind and anchored myself to the present moment.

Everywhere I went sparked at idea. Walking along the beach in the bright sunshine, a potential love story for my next Amelia Henley book. Taking Granger down to the deserted harbour at dusk, the perfect setting for a crime for one of my next thrillers. High up on the sand dunes, overlooking the beach huts, the glittering sea spread before me was, I thought, so romantic, a great spot for a proposal. (But those beach huts could well be hiding secrets). Walking away from the sand dunes, into the forest there was a small abandoned building.

My husband nudged me, ‘You could bury a body there and nobody would find it for months.’

In the crowded coffee shop, snippets of conversation, mannerisms of customers. A real opportunity to study people (in a non-creepy, non threatening way…)

I’ve come home refreshed and revitalised, not with a new plot, but with a new setting that every now and then I’ll bring to the forefront of my mind and add detail to, and by the time I’m ready to start a new novel it will be fully formed.

Already I am excited for it.

I learned a lot teaching my class but making time to get out is perhaps, for me, the most important lesson of all.

It’s never too cold for a paddle

Creative Writing Workshop – the BIG mistake I made

The room looked HUGE

Almost a year ago I was asked by a friend if I could pull together a private creative writing workshop.

Initially, I said no, I’ve written a few books, sold a few books, but still felt I was winging it as far as being an author was concerned. I certainly didn’t feel qualified to teach anybody anything.

She asked again a few weeks later. This time I was going through a (stupid)  ‘pushing myself out of my comfort zone stage.’ Figuring I had months to prepare I shoved aside my fear of public speaking and agreed and then promptly buried my head in the sand. If I didn’t give it too much thought, it couldn’t be happening.

Only it was.

At the beginning of this year I realised that I only had a few weeks to prepare. I never go into things half-heartedly so panicking I ordered literally every ‘how to write a novel’ book I could find (and there are a LOT out there). I had many sleepless nights. I had no idea what I was doing. I knew NOTHING. I  had previously been told by a copy editor that I mixed my concrete and my abstract nouns (apparently this is bad), got my clauses in the wrong order (apparently this is worse). I was an imposter with no formal qualifications.

I spent hours – HOURS – online, looking at what other courses offered, realising that to give a basic grounding in the fundamentals of writing I needed 6-8 weeks. I had an afternoon. And yet, as a former course junkie I knew that many workshops contained a lot of waffle, ice-breakers, time-filling exercises that didn’t always mean a lot. I wanted to write a programme which covered ideas, plot, point of view, show don’t tell – a lot to cover in a relatively short period. I spent a ridiculous amount of time pulling together content, my fourteen-year-old son testing everything I’d produced. 

‘I love the exercise with the news headlines,’ he said.

‘It took me half a day of trawling the internet to choose them,’ I told him.

‘Mum! You’re a writer. You could have just made them up.’ 

He had a point. I’m an idiot.  

I carefully wrote and rewrote my itinerary, growing quietly confident I could do it. Until several days before when the thought of sitting in front of a room full of strangers brought me out into a cold sweat. I roped in fellow author, Darren O’Sullivan.

Not only is Darren a former teacher, he’s a good friend and a fabulous writer (check out his books here). We often talk at literary festivals and events together and as our approaches to novel writing are completely different  I knew we’d both bring something unique to the course. Aside from that, we always have a blast. 

And we did.

Who can be nervous with Batman at their side?

The course participants were lovely. Really lovely. Thankfully, not one of them came in waving a grammar quiz at me, or demanding to see my (non-existent) degree.

During the afternoon, I was asked a question about whether it was bad to write out of order. ‘The thing I love about writing,’ I said, ‘Is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it.’ As I spoke I wanted to smack my palm against my forehead. In the lead-up to the course I had got it horribly wrong by trying to over complicate something that is fundamentally simple. It’s not easy to write a book, I wouldn’t claim otherwise, but there are things you need to know and things you don’t. I STILL don’t quite understand concrete and abstract nouns and why they shouldn’t go together. If I’m honest, I don’t really care. What I do know is how to construct a story that keeps readers turning the page, the elements every novel needs. My hours of angst had been unnecessary. Ultimately ‘write the story you’d like to read’ still remains the best advice I can give.

Darren and I thoroughly enjoyed the workshop and hopefully so did everyone that came. They all left with the start of a piece of writing that they can develop, a smile and a copy of my latest thriller, The Family and me and Darren got to take home the leftover cake. 

I learned a lot during the workshop, both about myself, (I can do things if I push myself) and things I’d forgotten about novel writing that will help me going forward, including the one basic thing I’d let slide recently. I’ll be sharing that in my next post.