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.

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.

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

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.

 

 

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.