Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.
On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.
Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.
But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.
My Address to the Readers
People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.
Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience. Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.
Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.
In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)
Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.
Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)
Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.
You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.
Now let the stories begin.
The Story Behind the Story
My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!
To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here.
In between pulling over on impulse at various points on various journeys to take photos of the gorgeous spring views in the Cotswolds, I’ve had a packed calendar of events, the weight and complexity of which has scuppered my plan at the start of this month to post a weekly uupdate on what I’ve been up to. So I’ve decided in future to do this just once a month, in a single post at the end of each month. Today’s post will fill you in on how I spent the second half of May, having published a couple of posts earlier about the first half. Well, I did say I have been busy.
I will still try to post here weekly, including the monthly columns I write for our two local magazines, plus anything else that strikes me as possibly of interest to you.
“What is a Twitterchat?” I hear you cry. It’s a conversation on Twitter, identified by a specific hashtag , in this case #IndieAuthorChat. It takes place at at set time – in this case 8pm-9pm London time. The host asks a series of questions and the guest answeres, but anyone else may join the conversation by searching for and applying to their own tweets the required hashtag. Tim explains at greater length in a post on the ALLi blog here.
The hour flew by, and even though as Tim instructed I had carefully prepared lots of ready-made answers and photos, I felt like I was typing fast enough to melt the keyboard for the whole hour. As well as enjoying talking about HULF, and encouraging other authors to consider setting up something similar themselves, I made some great new friends.
BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club (15th May)
This month we were discussing the young adult book that everyone has been talking about lately – The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Show presenter Dominic Cotter, fellow guest Caroline Sanderson and I all have teenage daughters, each of which had identified this as a must-read, and we finally caught up with it! It tells the story of a girl living in a poor black of the USA, riddled with drug dealing and violent crime, and how she finds the strength to cope with the aftermath of the shooting of two innocent friends – and to campaign for reform. It’s an incredibly powerful book on so many levels – an engrossing read (although it took me a chapter or two to tune into the dialect and slang) with a tremendous sense of place and beautifully drawn, memorable characters, as well as politically important and empowering. We all felt it will become a timeless classic, and, we hope, instrumental in bringing about change in the real world. Read it!
And if you’d like to tune into the show to hear what else we had to say about this and other book-related topics, such as HULF, you can catch it on iplayer till mid June via this link. Book Club is the first hour of the lunchtime slot, and starts about 10 minutes into the show.
Next month’s Book Club choice is Raynor Winn’s memoir The Salt Path, and the show will be live from noon on Wednesday 26th June.
Captain Swing & the Blacksmith (17th May)
I was thrilled to have the chance to see my first ever Folk Opera, based on a wonderful book I was sent to review a couple of years ago – Beatrice Parvin‘s Captain Swing and the Blacksmith, a historical novel set at the time of rural riots against the mechanisation of farming with the introduction of the threshing machine. The book came with a CD of the folk songs that inspired it, and this show took the whole to its natural conclusion with a dramatic presentation through readings, songs and instrumental music, all in the delightful rural setting of Avebury‘s Social Centre, a tiny hall a stone’s throw from the, er, stones – the mysterious standing stones of Avebury. What better way to spend a sunny spring evening? I liked it so much I also bought a music CD from the accordionist’s band, not least because he is featured playing it in Hugo, one of my favourite films.
Oakwood Literature Festival (18th May)
The next day I had an early start to drive to Oakwood, a suburb of Derby, where my author friend Dawn Brookeswas organising her second Oakwood Lit Fest, which she’s created on a similar model to Hawkesbury’s. Last year I had fun as keynote speaker, and this year I chaired a panel talking about the nature of Cosy Crime Fiction – what it is and why it’s so popular. On the panel with me were Dawn, who writes mysteries set aboard cruise ships, and Wendy H Jones, who writes both cosy and dark crime novels. I also enjoyed talking about my Sophie Sayers series at a Meet the Author event in the local library.
Stroud Short Stories (19th May)
Next evening I was Stroud-bound, this time thankfully to sit in the audience and enjoy someone else doing the work! I’m an occasional judge for the twice-yearly Stroud Short Stories event, which culminates in ten authors reading their short stories before a live audience. This was the first time in a new venue, the Cotswold Playhouse, which, like the previous venue, was sold out for the event, despite being twice the capacity! The stories were all so scintillating, and the readings so magnficent, that many in the audience, myself included, declared this to be the best yet. I was also pleased to discover the venue, which I’d never been to before – they have a great programme of shows at affordable ticket prices all year round, and I suspect I’ll be back there again soon, possibly for the Bristol Old Vic students’ rendition of The Canterbury Tales on 4th July.
Cheltenham Authors’ Alliance (21st May)
A much-needed day at home was followed by my monthly trip to Cheltenham to host my Cheltenham Authors’ Alliance writers’ group in the delightful Suffolk Anthology bookshop. As ever, it was a lively discussion about everybody’s news and questions and issues of the moment, and although it was exhausting after such a busy month, it’s always lovely to see everyone there and to help them make progress with their own writing lives. When one member very kindly described me afterwards as his guardian angel, it gave me enough spring in my step to drive home safely!
Wotton-under-Edge Arts Festival Meeting (22nd May)
Just about still able to string a sentence together, next night I’d agreed to meet a representative of this festival that takes place at our nearest market town, just three miles away. Next year will be their 50th Festival, and at HULF one of their committee approached me to ask whether we might provide a literary event as an outreach for them next year. I was honoured to be asked (not least because Wotton is about five times the size of Hawkesbury!) and enjoy and hour’s brainstorming meeting with Anne Robinson, who is going to take our ideas to the next committee meeting and develop things from there.
Matilda the Musical (27th May)
And finally I wound up my hectic month with a treat – well, my teenage daughter’s birthday treat, actually! A trip to the Bristol Hippodrome to see Tim Minchin’s wonderful stage musical rendition of Roald Dahl‘s classic children’s book, Matilda. I love Matilda with a passion. You may remember I made a model of her for our village scarecrow trail last autumn, when she manned my Little Free Library for a week. I can’t bear to throw her away, so now she’s taken up residence in the reading nook in my dining room.
We first saw the show when it launched at Stratford-upon-Avon, prior to its London run, and loved every moment – and this was sufficiently long ago that we had forgotten a lot of the detail, so it was still really fresh to us. It is an astonishing show, enjoyable on so many levels – the story, the music, the ingenious lyrics, the choreography and the sentiments – and will be loved by adults and children alike. If you have the chance to see it, do – you won’t regret it.
I was pleased to be interviewed by Rachel McCollin for her blog here:
I love doing guest posts and interviews so was pleased to be invited this week by printing giant IngramSpark, to write a series of blog posts for their website, aimed at other indie writers.
What About the Writing?
Somehow – and I’m not entirely sure how – in between all of this frenzy of activity, I managed to finish my final edit of my new novel, which has now been despatched to my invaluable editor Alison Jack. I also decided in a lightbulb moment to change the title fromFlat Chance – A Staffroom at St Bride’s Mystery toSecrets at St Bride’s – A School Mystery for Grown-ups. It’s a fun mashup of romantic comedy, mystery and satire, aimed at all those who grew up hooked on traditional school stories for children, such as Malory Towers and the Chalet School series. The cover is now with my talented designer for amendment (sorry to make extra work for you, Rachel Lawston!) It will also be the first in a new series.
I also signed off the audio files for my first audiobook novel, which will be of the first in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series.
New Writing Projects
Today I started writing a new Sophie Sayers novella which will be given free of charge to everyone on my mailing list. (If you haven’t yet signed up, you can do so using the form at the bottom of this post.) I’m hoping this will be ready in August.
Then I’ll be writing the sixth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder Your Darlings, set at a writers’ retreat on Ithaca, at which Sophie inadvertently won a free place back in Best Murder in Show.
After that I’ll be alternating between the two series in future, and publishing at least one book in each series each year, if not more. St Bride’s #2, Stranger at St Bride’s, in which an American gentleman turns up claiming the estate is rightfully his, as a descendant of the (supposedly childless) founder, will be my autumn writing project.
Book Reviews Always Welcome!
In the meantime, if you’d like to spur me on, and you’ve read and enjoyed any of my books, it would make me very happy if you could spare a moment to leave a brief review online somewhere.
New reviews help books get discovered among the masses of novels out there in the world, and your support could make a real difference to my sales.
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My column for the May issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News
After a hectic start to 2019, I was hoping my May diary would be blank.
Not that I’ve turned anti-social all of a sudden. But 1st May marks a major life-change for me, as on 30th April I leave my part-time day job in order to devote all my working hours to writing. The only diary dates I’d envisaged for May were self-imposed milestones for my next book.
The impartial observer might notice no difference in my behaviour. In my day job, I worked almost entirely from home, with the shortest commute possible (bedroom to study, five paces) and an office dress code of pyjamas.
Same applies from 1st May. I’ll still be sitting in the same chair, at the same desk, at the same computer, although I regularly change the pyjamas. But in my head, the difference will be enormous. I hope soon to have a new book out as evidence of my personal revolution.
Yet despite my best intentions, before April is out, there is already a flurry of events in my May diary: Dog Show, Plant Sale, Big Breakfast, HU5K. And that’s before the May issue of the Parish News falls on my doormat. (I scan every issue, diary in hand, as soon as it arrives, for fear of missing out – don’t you?)
Of course, living in a community as lively as Hawkesbury Upton, a blank diary could only be a figment of my imagination.
But imagination’s my long suit. After all, I do write fiction.
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In just two weeks’ time, it’ll be all change for me as I leave the closest thing I have to a day-job to devote all my time to writing and marketing my books.
In some respects there’ll be no change, in that my commute will be exactly the same: from bedroom to study, just six paces. But instead of working for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi, as in “ally”), I’ll be working entirely for myself.
All about ALLi
In case you’re not familiar with ALLi, let me explain a little about what it is, what it does, and what I did there. ALLi is a global, non-profit organisation for independent authors to share best practice and support, founded by Irish author and poet Orna Ross in 2012.
In 2013, Orna invited me to be Commissioning Editor of its daily blog (www.selfpublishingadvice.org), and that role soon expanded. I moderated its members’-only advice forum, co-wrote self-help books for authors in ALLi’s series of guidebooks, wrote ALLi-related guest posts on other blogs, helped man its stand at the London Book Fair, and spoke on ALLi’s behalf at various festivals and writing events around the country. As an offshoot, I also started two writers’ groups, one in Cheltenham and one in Bristol, whose membership I had to restrict to ALLi members only to keep the numbers manageable.
With a new blog post required every day, and to a specific deadline, my ALLi work had to take priority – and for a long time I hugely enjoyed it, not least because I was networking online daily with all manner of authors all over the world, and learning an enormous amount along the way, particularly from Orna herself, who had become a real mentor to me in my writing as well as in my role at ALLi.
And Plenty More Besides
I also managed to fit in a reasonable amount of writing (I’ve published five novels in the last two years), public speaking on my own account, and running the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, of which the fifth is about to take place (Saturday 27th April). However, around Christmas time, with my work-in-progress novel beset by a series of delays, I realised that if I was to achieve my long-term writng goals, something would have to give. I was operating on as little sleep and as little housework as I could get away with, and there were still never enough hours in the day. A series of minor illnesses (all now thankfully resolved) underscored the message that I was simply trying to do too much.
For years people had been saying to me “I don’t know how you do it all” – it just took me a while to agree with them.
Onward and Upward
Orna and the team at ALLi have been gracious and generous as we’ve worked on a handover, and I’ve been vastly amused to discover I’m being replaced by not one but three people! (Ok, so they’re all working part-time on what I used to do, but the thought still made Orna and me laugh.) I will continue to be ALLi’s UK Ambassador, and to write and speak on the organisations behalf now and again, but apart from that I will be my own person. If I don’t get as many books written as I plan, I will have no excuse, and no-one to blame but myself! So watch this space – and if you’d like me to alert you as I release new books, please click here to join my Readers’ Club, and I’ll keep you posted of progress.
I’ll close now with Orna’s version of this news, over on the ALLi blog. She is very kind!
At primary school, our headmaster used to say stamina was the secret of success.
This was in the days when schools were obliged to have a daily religious whole-school assembly, and although there were always a couple of hymns and a prayer, Mr Bowering also liked to use the occasion to put across some of his own key messages about life, the universe and everything.
His favourite activities included:
using a remote-controlled system built into his lectern to illuminate capital cities on the vast wooden map of the world suspended above the platform, and we’d shout out the names of those we knew (I hardly knew any of them, and envied Simon Evans his legendary total recall)
leading a rousing rendition of William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem” every Tuesday, an extended assembly to include hymn practice (I don’t know why it took me so long to join the WI, when I’ve been word- and note-perfect in its anthem since the age of seven)
appointing the King and Queen of the Shiny Shoes every Friday (I always regretted never having patent leather shoes for instant, constant shine – the rich kids had a clear advantage there)
But perhaps his most memorable eccentricity was to impress upon us the importance of stamina if we wanted to be a success in whatever we did with our lives.
“What do you need?” he would bellow to the sea of rapt faces through cupped hands.
“Stamina!” we would shout back, as one.
Although I suspect I was not the only child to be a little confused as to what it was. The only place I’d heard the word outside school assembly was in a popular television advert for dogfood, possibly Pedigree Chum, which promised to fill your dog with stamina. This was in the same era as the famous Trill birdseed advert that promised to “make budgies bounce with health”. I imagined them ricocheting off the bars of their cages like the ball bearings in a pinball table.
Stamina as a Writer
But his saying stuck with me, and it does still spur me on occasionally. So my ears pricked up (that’ll be the Pedigree Chum kicking in) when Jane Davis, author of award-winning literary fiction, asked writer friends to explain the secrets of their writing stamina. I am very pleased that she chose to include my response among her findings, outlined in her latest blog post here: