6 years writing – 10 books written – here’s what I’ve learned

 

Six years ago this month, following a drastic change in health circumstances, which had led to years of chronic pain, and clinical depression I knew for the sake of my mental health I needed to find a hobby. With limited mobility, there wasn’t much I could think of but then I remembered how much I’d loved writing as a child, how I’d had a burning desire to become an author until I was told at secondary school this wouldn’t be a viable career option.

I decided to try writing a short story.  Two characters came to mind, Grace and Charlie, lifelong best friends. The story begins with Grace digging up a memory box that the girls had buried several years before on Grace’s sixteenth birthday. Grace hopes to the box might contain a clue to explain Charlie’s last words before her mysterious disappearance – “I’ve done something terrible, please forgive me.”

My short story soon became 90k words of a (terrible at that stage) novel but I’d fallen in love with the girls, with their story of friendship and loyalty and courage and I rewrote and rewrote until it was ready to submit. I’m eternally grateful a publisher took a chance on my psychological thriller – The Sister – and turned my hobby into a full-time career.

Now, just six years on I am writing my tenth book. (Five have been published, two are due for publication this year and two for next year and I’m working on something new). I’ve sold well over a million copies, been translated into twenty-five languages, and although I can’t, of course, speak for every writer I wanted to share my opinions on some of the things I have learned along the way.

1)        Write the book you’d love to read. It’s so tempting to try and follow market trends and write a book you think has more of a shot of being published. Don’t. Market trends change so quickly you’ll always miss the boat. You spend such a long time with a manuscript I think if you’re writing something you genuinely love and are passionate about it shines through the finished product. Although my thrillers have been hugely successful I’ve also started writing high concept contemporary fiction in a different genre under the pen name ‘Amelia Henley‘ because I had a story in my heart I couldn’t let go. (You can read more about writing the story you want to rather than the story you should in a previous post, here)

2)        Don’t follow the rules. They are endless and who made them up anyway? Use common sense – if you write a 300k word romance it’s unlikely to be published but don’t be afraid to trust your gut. Prologues, for example, are often the source of much debate and I wrote a recent post on my opinion, which you can read here.

3)        Don’t compare yourself to others. This. Is. Soul. Destroying. (Not just in writing but in every aspect of life). There are always going to be people you aspire to and that’s a good thing but constantly comparing yourself to others is stressful and nothing stifles creativity like stress. The writer that’s shouting about a new deal on social media – be happy for them – your time will come and you don’t know what they are dealing with in their personal life. Rarely are things as glittery and shiny as they appear online. The writer that’s written 5k words today and is SO HAPPY – doesn’t affect your progress at all, it only changes the way you feel about it. Most writers I know write far quicker than me but it doesn’t matter. I write, on average 1000 words a day but I edit as I go (see No. 2 – I don’t follow rules) and am generally very satisfied with the quality I produce. Every word builds a sentence, every sentence a scene, every scene a chapter, and then, eventually, you’ll have a book. It isn’t a race.

4)        You won’t run out of ideas. This used to terrify me ALL OF THE TIME. I’d see writers online (and back to number 3 here) and worry that they have notebooks full of ideas and I had one – ONE – that I’d be working on. So far, when I’m coming to the end of a first draft, or shortly after, another idea will start to brew but until then I have no idea what I’ll write next. My brain can’t seem to cope with thinking of more than one thing at once and that’s okay. Ideas will come when you least expect it. (Read my previous post on ‘Where do ideas come from’ here.)

5)        Don’t force the words to come. We hear much in the writing rules (see no. 2) about how writing should be a ‘discipline’ and we ‘must’ write every day. To me this sounds like a punishment and writing above all else should be enjoyable. It is important to try and form a routine and not to wait until inspiration strikes (spoiler – it doesn’t always strike) but sometimes forcing yourself to sit in front of a blank page is demoralising. If I’m stuck on a plot point I step away from my computer. I go for a swim and 99% of the time the words will begin to flow again once I’ve had a break.

6)        Don’t sweat the small stuff. Punctuation and grammar. Here’s my confession (whispers) I don’t know what an abstract noun is or a concrete noun is or why I shouldn’t use them together. This was one of the first things a copy editor pointed out I was doing wrong. I’m still not entirely sure. I try hard with my drafts, I chuck the odd semi-colon in to prove I’ve made an effort but I get things wrong as we all do. It makes me sad when I receive emails from people telling me they want to write but they can’t because they are dyslexic or feel they are too uneducated and can’t get to grips with grammar and punctuation. Of course, polish your manuscript as much as you can but the MOST important thing is you have a good story to tell with strong characters. There are proofreaders, copy editors, beta readers, even friends and family who can help iron out any niggles. Don’t let worry about the final touches to a manuscript put you off writing one.

7)        Don’t become obsessed with the charts. If you’ve published a book it’s so tempting to be constantly hitting the refresh button to see where you chart on Amazon. Don’t.  Become. Obsessed. The Amazon charts are a complicated beast comprising of Kindle Unlimited, Prime Reading, Kindle Firsts etc. which all count towards chart positions so a high chart position doesn’t always necessarily equate to straightforward sales. Remember, stress stifles creativity.

8)        You can’t please every reader. If you’ve got a book out there you’re going to be tempted at some stage to read reviews and it’s human nature that you’ll gloss over the good ones and the bad ones will lodge in your mind. My debut, The Sister very quickly sold over half a million copies and I read every single review and tried to please every single one of those reviewers while I was writing my second book – The Gift. I sped up the pace, slowed down the pace, put in more twists, reduced the number of twists, tied myself in knots. You just… can’t.

9)        Celebrate EVERY LITTLE success. This is SO IMPORTANT. Remember, that writer on social media who is having the Best. Time. Ever. They’ve had knockbacks too. We all have. It’s an industry of unavoidable lows, which makes it even more important to appreciate every single good thing that happens. Those successes will keep you going through the inevitable low times and throughout those low times never lose hope. Things can turn around when you least expect it.

10)      Don’t be embarrassed to call yourself a writer. Don’t be ashamed to want to make a living out of it. This is something I struggled with enormously for a very long time. Looking at my shoes and mumbling vaguely whenever anyone asked what I did for a living. Be proud. Don’t use the term ‘aspiring writer’ if you write, you’re a writer. Also there’s a weird thing (and I’ve been guilty of it myself) where some writers feel they have to say they write for the love of it and not for financial recompense and while you do have to love writing to write there’s nothing wrong with ambition. I have a mortgage to pay and children to feed and this is how I chose to do it. You can read about the moment I finally felt like a ‘real’ writer here.

My latest psychological thriller – The Family – is currently 99p across all UK digital platforms. Download a copy from Amazon here (back to paying my mortgage and feeding my children…)

Thank you!

 

 

Lockdown – How my reading & writing habits have changed – #AuthorLife

Laura & Tilly are confined to their cult

My latest thriller is called ‘The Family’. It’s the story of Laura and her daughter, Tilly, who are indoctrinated into a cult. It’s set in a remote part of Wales and at the time of writing I had to rely on my imagination to put myself inside the heads of Laura and Tilly. How might they feel to lose their freedom, almost overnight? To be confined to the farmhouse and the surrounding land the cult reside in? To be forced to spend each and every day with exactly the same people? I crafted my story with the sense of feeling trapped, of claustrophobia.

Laura’s and Tilly’s tale, as well as being terrifying is also an emotional one so every now and then I’d step away from my computer and out into the bright sunshine. Meet friends for lunch. Go for a swim. Before returning to Laura and Tilly who were still trapped in the same place, with the same people.

Now of course, in these unsettling and uncertain times we live in it isn’t too much of a stretch to empathise with Laura and Tilly. To feel what they are feeling, and as someone who suffers with acute anxiety these feelings are both uncomfortable and unwelcome.

At the start of lockdown I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t read. I certainly couldn’t write.  At best I felt a constant low-level anxiety: scared for my family and friends; daunted by homeschooling; worried about our income, a shortage of food; the list was endless: at worst I felt a heavy dread which rendered me unable to focus.

Like everyone, I have been through tough times before so I did what I always do, increased my mindfulness practice. Meditating three times a day instead of once. Writing in my gratitude journal each morning and night instead of solely before bed, and gradually my tumultuous emotions began to settle.

I began to read again, choosing, not one of the many proof thrillers I am sent, but carefully selecting something that wouldn’t feel like work. I picked Louise Hare’s ‘This Lovely City,’ and for the first time, in a long time, my reading mojo came back. I lost myself in her story, her characters and for a while, I was able to forget, and that’s what a good book can do – transport you somewhere else entirely. Now I’ve started Tom Ellen’s ‘All About Us,’ which I’m equally enjoying.

My cosy reading corner in my study

I itched to write again, but what? I am waiting for my edits for my thriller which is publishing next year and also for my second contemporary fiction story written under the pen name ‘Amelia Henley.

My desk is (mostly) tidy…

The logical part of me knew I should write another thriller. Until my debut contemporary fiction book ‘The Life We Almost Had’ is released in July I don’t know whether there will be a market for future Amelia Henley books but as always, I had to follow my heart and write the story I’d loved to read. A story, as my Amelia Henley stories are, about love and relationships. I began penning the lives of siblings Charlie, Nina and Duke and their complex and complicated relationship. Whether this book will ever find its way into the hands of readers I don’t know but I’m loving writing it and finding that chink of happiness is so important right now.

Later in the year I’ll begin a new thriller, I’ve had a character in my mind for the past couple of years. I feel so extraordinarily blessed I can create worlds to escape to.

Have your reading habits changed and how are you occupying your time? Do let me know in the comments below.

The Family’ is currently part of the UK Kindle Monthly Deal – download a copy today for just 0.99p.

The Family‘ will be published in the US on June 9th – you can preorder it here. I’m loving the fabulous cover Grand Central Publishing have designed!

My chilling US cover

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.

Drinking – 100 Word Flash Fiction

Photo prompt © Ronda Del Boccio

My heart sinks.

He’s been drinking again.

This I know from the flash of anger in his eyes, the purposeful way he strides towards me. My knees tremble as I stand my ground. Last time he threw my favourite ornament at me and it shattered as it hit my head. It left a scar.

I still love him.

He never drinks at home.

He’s been with her.

She enables him.

She loves him too.

But I wish my mother would stop giving my two-year-old orange squash.

He can’t cope with the additives.

I can’t cope with his personality change.

 

It’s been months since I last took part in Friday Fictioneers. I’ve been so busy launching my 5th psychological thriller ‘The Family‘ but thought I’d join in the fun again today before I get stuck into the structural edit for next year’s release ‘The Stolen Sisters.’

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly 100-word flash fiction challenge inspired by a photo prompt and hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Read the other entries and/or submit your own story here

An evening with Louise Doughty (this is how she writes) & a return to prison?

 

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited to a private event hosted by Laura Devine Solicitors (I first met Laura in prison but more of that later) which featured Louise Doughty speaking about her new book, Platform Seven, as well as raising money for The National Literary Trust.

Before I continue I’ll say I was saddened and shocked by the statistics quoted by Fiona Evans who was there representing The National Literary Trust relating to the reading ability of our children. SHOCKED. You can read more about their fabulous work and how you can help here.

Fiona introduced Louise and I settled back with a glass of wine and the most delicious canapés I’ve ever eaten, eager to find out how she approaches novel writing, nine novels in (9!!).

Firstly, Louise publishes a book roughly once every three years but she’s still hard at work in the period between each publication. Currently on a book tour for Platform Seven, she admits that sometimes she wakes up and wonders what city she’s in. The work promoting each book, plus other projects such as her involvement in the TV adaptation of her novel, Apple Tree Yard, has kept her busy but she also spends a lot of time researching each novel before she begins writing. With Platform 7 she spent the night on Peterborough station to see how it felt. Grim, I should imagine.

The thing that interested me most was the way Louise spoke about planning a novel and, being permanently obsessed with how other authors approach the first draft, I did grill her about this afterward, topping her glass up with wine, hoping she’d become so relaxed (drunk) she’d give me the magic formula. But of course, there isn’t one.

Louise says she starts with a rough idea of what the book might be about and makes notes (and like me she can never later read her own handwriting) but for her, the story is all about character. She explained that she feels if she outlined her stories before she began writing them they wouldn’t have that authentic feel. In her (vast) experience she believes that if characters are written to act a certain way to fit a planned plot then the characters may not feel realistic. She cares about the characters she writes, and for her, she lets them lead the way through the story as they naturally evolve. She told me, ‘If I didn’t care about my characters, if they were behaving in a way that didn’t suit the people they had become as the novel progressed, just to suit the story, why would readers care about them?’

Using the character first, plot second approach eventually leads Louise to a point in her book where she has key scenes and chapters and research to use and then she lays it all out before her, and pieces it together like a jigsaw.

This is a method that clearly works for her with her huge success.

Later on that evening, I found myself catching up with Neil Barclay, the librarian of HMP Thameside. I first met him when I eventually visited the prison’s book club after declining his invitation to visit many times due to The Fear, you can read about my visit here.

He’d been following my career since with interest and asked me lots of questions about past and future books. He also asked if I’d go back and teach some creative writing workshops in the prison.

‘You’ve changed.’ He told me pointing out that before I was hesitant in talking about writing, not convinced I was a ‘real’ author. Not sure I had anything valuable to say. I’m still not sure I have anything valuable to say BUT events like last night help me to grow in confidence.

Louise Doughty’s approach to writing the first draft is very different from the approach Sarah Pinborough takes which I learned about last week during an event we did together – you can read about Sarah’s approach here.

Each time I listen to another author, my layers of self-doubt shrink a little. I’m not doing it all wrong. There is no wrong. As writers, it’s trial and error to find the right process for us and that may process may change day-to-day, book-to-book, and that’s okay.

Knowing this, understanding this gives me confidence in the way I work but it doesn’t stop my curiosity into how authors write.  It’s something I will also find fascinating.

Thanks to the always inspirational Laura Devine and her amazing team who are such an incredible support to the literary world and charitable works.

 

 

What I learned from Sarah Pinborough – Novel Writing

 

Yesterday evening I took part in an ‘In Conversation’ event at Waterstones, Milton Keynes with Sarah Pinborough. I love events such as these, not only because it’s a chance to shed my pyjamas, put on some adult clothes and leave the house, but because it’s a chance for me to learn from other authors and last night I did exactly that.

Sarah is a writer I have much admired – if you haven’t yet read her books you really should , ‘Behind Her Eyes’ was one of my favourite reads last year and I was keen to know EVERYTHING about her writing process.

One thing I often struggle with when crafting my novels is my inability to plan. I’ve bought SO many books on the subject, signed up for online courses, but still find the concept quite bewildering. With experience in scriptwriting and twenty novels behind her (20!!) I couldn’t wait to hear how Sarah approaches a first draft.

She plans.

‘I’ve tried to do that with my last three books,’ I told her. ‘It’s failed each time. I don’t think my mind works that way.’

‘How long did you try for?’ She asked.

‘A morning.’

‘It takes me six weeks to plan a novel.’ She said.

SIX weeks!

Instantly, I broke out into a sweat. The thought of six weeks not actually writing the book induced an ‘I’m going to fall too far behind my schedule’ anxiety.

Sarah told me that was where I was going wrong. ‘Thinking about the story, the twists, the reveals is valuable time spent. It matters just as much as hitting that word count.’ She went on to say that once she has spent her six weeks planning, she writes the book in roughly five months.

We differed greatly in our approaches to work. I am structured, at my desk for eight hours a day. Sarah prefers to write in the mornings and then step away from her laptop. This is when she finds the ideas flow best.

I realised, on the journey home, that each time I open social media and read another ‘I’ve written XX words today!!’ post by an author that I was feeling inadequate about my own daily word count (approximately 1500 words) and I haven’t been allowing myself time away from my manuscript to think properly about where it should go.

Since ‘The Family’ was released two weeks ago I’ve had so many lovely reviews about how tightly plotted the story, featuring a Mother & Daughter who find themselves lured into a creepy commune and find themselves unable to leave, is, and how many unexpected twists there are, but the truth was I became completely stuck writing my fifth psychological thriller.

I needed a dead body for the story (this is in the blurb so not a spoiler) and I didn’t know who the body should be. I wrote several chapters with one character but then realised I needed them later on. I deleted those and rewrote with a different character dying but that didn’t feel right. For weeks I rewrote the same chunk of story with virtually every character being the body until I settled on the right person. Reader reaction to the reveal has been how clever it is that the body ties up all of the strands of the subplots but it wasn’t an easy write.

Thanks to Sarah, I feel a certain sense of freedom now in knowing that even if I don’t write for a period of time it will allow me to think creatively and it won’t be wasted time. Each writer approaches the process differently, there really is no right or wrong, but I’m very open to trying something new.

I’m going to be chatting to Sarah more about how she actually plans so watch this space…

The Family’ is currently in a Kindle Monthly deal and you can buy the Ebook for just 99p on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google Books.

You can find Sarah’s novels, which I highly recommend, here.

 

 

 

A FABULOUS giveaway & FREE event for readers & writers

 

Hello

It’s been such a busy time with last week’s publication of The Family (you can read about the launch here & the behind the scenes at the audio book recording here) but I wanted to touch base and let you know of a FABULOUS competition and some events.

Firstly, thank you to everyone who has bought, reviewed, recommended and shared news of The Family. It really is very appreciated. It’s wonderful to see it out in the world and it’s already hit the UK top 40 on Amazon, No. 2 on Kobo and the Top Ten on iBooks.

I am thrilled that Fern Britton has chosen The Family for her October Book Club pick in conjunction with Tesco and even more excited when Fern tweeted to say how much she loved my book! You can currently find an exclusive edition of The Family in every branch of Tesco which includes an interview between Fern & I, along with some additional book club questions that aren’t in the main edition. All this for a bargain price of £3. You can also currently find the paperback in Sainsburys and all good bookshops (if they don’t stock it they can order it in) and it will be in Asda from mid-December.

The Family has been getting some great endorsements from the press: The Guardian have chosen it for their best crime picks selection calling it “A good study of vulnerability.” Woman’s Weekly have said it’s “Twisted & Suspenseful.” And Heat billed it as “A gripping psychological thriller.”

Are they right? You can find out for yourself for just 99p for the eBook for a limited time via Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google Books. If you’ve already read and enjoyed The Family and have time to pop a quick review on one of the platforms it really would be HUGELY appreciated.

Now, if you’re an avid reader or writer you can catch me at a few events this month.

On 23rd October I’ll be at the gorgeous Oundle Bookshop, Nr Peterborough with fellow psychological crime writer Darren O’Sullivan. We’ll there between 17.00-19.30 speaking about how we write and publish and answering your questions. Drinks and nibbles are provided. This is a free event. Darren and I are such good friends we always have such a good time at our talks and laugh A LOT. Do come and join us.

On 24th October at 6pm I’ll be at Waterstones in Silbury Arcade, Milton Keynes, in conversation with Sunday Times Bestseller Sarah Pinborough about the art of writing twists and tension. Entry is £3 on the night but you get that back if you buy one of mine or Sarah’s books on the night.

If you can’t get along to an event I’ll be doing a Facebook Live chat via the super friendly The Fiction Cafe Book Club group on Facebook on Sunday 20th October at 8pm. As well as talking about writing and answering your questions there’ll be a giveaway. Pop along beforehand and join the group here if you’re not already a member and post any questions you have or you can ask me live on the night.

Lastly, to celebrate the publication of The Family, Good Housekeeping Magazine are giving away a free spa day for two worth £230, along with ten copies of my paperback. You can enter the competition here.

Good luck with your entry!

Louise x

The Family – Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google Books.