Location always plays an integral role in all my novels, whether it be the ravished shores of Thailand during the 2004 tsunami in The Atlas of Us or the eerie underwater world of submerged forests in My Sister’s Secret.
And it’s no different with my latest novel The Family Secret (The Girl on the Beach in the US), which is set in several locations such as a wintry British seaside town, a stunning loch in Scotland and the ice beaches of Iceland.
Location is so crucial for building tension and atmosphere. Here are five ways I do that:
1. Use all the senses
I learnt this one while working as a travel journalist. It’s not just about what you see, but also what you hear, smell, taste and touch.
Take a Scottish lodge that features a lot in The Family Secret, for example. This is how wildlife documentary maker Gwyneth experiences it the first time she walks in:
'I was instantly struck by the contrast between the house’s chilly exterior and warm interior: inviting oak panelling, the smell of an open fire and Christmas spices, the delicious warmth of its air compared to the icy white setting outside. A large patterned rug lay in the middle of the hallway, and two wooden stairways swept up towards a balconied landing. Another Christmas tree stood at the back of the hall, so high the star at the top reached the top of the railing on the balcony. A stag-antler chandelier hung from the ceiling on chains, golden lights glistening. It was just Dylan and I in the hallway, but I could hear talking in the distance, laughter, the faint trace of Christmas music tinkling from speakers. I could also hear people walking around on the floorboards above me.'
As you can see, I used all the senses so the reader feels they themselves have stepped into that lodge.
2. Bad things can happen to beautiful places
I love writing about beautiful places which have something rotten beneath the surface. In The Family Secret, that Scottish lodge looks like the perfect location for a festive gathering, perched on the stunning loch with snow-tipped mountains beyond. But that loch, despite its beauty, can also be a death-trap when iced over, as Gwyneth discovers the first time she's there and falls through the ice. As I write, the loch ‘shone beneath the moonlight, as menacing as it was beautiful’.
3. Don’t worry toooo much about weather clichés
Authors are always warned off using weather in obvious ways when writing, especially when opening up a novel. But when it comes to scaring the bejesus out of readers, clichés – especially weather clichés – can work to a writer’s advantage. In The Family Secret, I use the increasing snowfall to create a mounting sense of tension and claustrophobia. In fact, the whole season of winter is used to enhance the effect of the locations with the potential for cracking ice and stifling snowfall.
4. Treat location like a villainous character
Okay, confession time. I sometimes plan my novels using Excel. And in every Excel worksheet I set up for a novel is a section on characters. And in that section is where I place all my notes about the location of my novel because (and you’ll hear this from a lot of writers) I treat location like a character. In The Family Secret, location becomes the main characters’ friend and their foe. Like Winterton Chine, the pretty festive seaside village where gift shop owner Amber discovers a girl walking barefoot on the icy beach with no memory of who she is or where she came from. Amber loves the place, it’s where she grew up and lives. But equally, the town can be a constant reminder of difficulties in her past. That loch is also a character on its own with the potential to claim lives beneath its hard icy surface.
5. You don’t have to write what you know
Yep, it’s nice to have an excuse to go on a jolly and visit the places I write about... and many times I have. But it’s not essential. I’m a writer after all, I like to use my imagination! I hadn’t visited the submerged forests I described in My Sister’s Secret, for example. I did it from online research and pure imagination. It’s the same for The Family Secret. I haven’t yet been to Iceland, one of the main locations, but I know people who have so picked their brains about it and did lots of online research. The location of Winterton Chine is, however, based on the lovely Alum Chine in Dorset which I visited during the Christmas I started writing the novel. Any excuse for a mulled wine on the beach, I'm pictured here with my daughter during the visit!
Right, I think that’s it, I’m off to lie on my chaise lounge (yes, I really have one!) and imagine the world of my next novel…
To pre-order The Family Secret, click here.
When I meet aspiring authors who haven’t yet dipped their toes into the publishing world, or have but it was yonks ago, a question I often get asked is: how does a writer get published nowadays?
So this one’s for you, folks! Let’s assume you’ve written a novel (maybe with the help of one of my workshops? Click here for more information), made it as perfect as you can with several rounds of revisions and now it’s ready to be read by more then you, your mum and your writing group. In fact, it’s ready to potentially make you some money. What do you do next?
There are three roads you can go down which I've briefly laid out. I then delve into them in a bit more detail below:
1. The literary agent route: Many of the big publishers will only take submissions via a literary agent. So this means you need to submit your novel first to a literary agent. If one takes you on as a client, they will then send your novel out to several publishers on your behalf. If you get a book deal, your novel will then have a great chance of getting onto the shelves of high street retailers like Waterstones and the supermarkets, and online retailers like Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books and Google Books. Income potential: Most larger publishers will offer an advance, paid in instalments such as signing of contract, submitting of final draft and publication of novel. Debut advances range from the low thousands to the hundreds of thousands (rare!). The average is about £5-10k. Once sales of your books have made your publisher enough to cover your advance, you will receive a percentage of the income your publisher receives for each copy sold of your book (known as royalties). This is usually about 11% on print, 25% on digital. An agent will then take commission, usually about 15%. This is why a lot of writers are poor, ha ha. No, I kid, I'm doing this full-time now making more money I did working my full-time office job, so it can be done and is by many authors.
2. The direct submission route: Some publishers have what is called an ‘open submissions policy’ which means you can submit your novel via their website or email. Your submission will then be read to see if it's the right fit for the publisher. With this route, there is no need for a literary agent. Many of the publishers who accept unagented submissions are digital-first, meaning your novel will first come out as an ebook via websites like Amazon. If it does well, then it might be printed too. Some of the large publishers will have ‘open submission’ periods too, usually lasting a month or more, where you can submit directly to them. Income potential: A lot of open submission publishers won’t pay an advance but you will get a higher percentage in terms of royalties, eg. 40% on digital copies. As you're not using a literary agent, you won’t have to pay any commission on this.
3. The indie publishing route: This is where you are in charge of publishing your novel yourself, forking out for elements ranging from book cover design to editing. But the return in terms of royalty percentage is much higher. Eg. 70%. But you won’t have the backing and support of a publisher.
Right, let’s delve deeper…
The literary agent route
If you want to see your books on shelves at places like Waterstones and WH Smith, then the literary agent route is your best bet as the big publishers (the ‘Big 5’ as they're known, so HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) will only take submissions via literary agents.
I'd argue the 'Big 5' is now the 'big 6' if you include Amazon, which has its own in-house imprints like Lake Union and Thomas & Mercer, and operate in a similar way to the 'Big 5' when it comes to submissions, usually only accepting submissions from agents. Or they've been known to approach authors, often indie authors, who are setting the Amazon charts alight. While you won't see your books in places like Waterstones, you will get the might of Amazon's epic influence and marketing clout behind you. They also pay advances unlike other digital-first imprints but will also offer competitive royalty percentage.
So, what does getting a literary agent involve? It’s a bit like applying for a job: a short covering letter giving some details about your background, your book and why you think they’d be a good fit for you, then a sample of your work and often a synopsis which is an overview of the novel. If they love the sound of you and your book, and think editors at publishing houses will too, they will offer to represent you. Often, they will then work with you to fine-tune your novel with their expertise and knowledge of the market in mind, then they will submit it to editors at the imprints of various publishing houses. Each publishing house has an ‘imprint’ which focuses on particular types of books. So my UK publisher is HarperCollins, and I am published by one of their imprints, Avon Books, which focuses on commercial women’s fiction and crime. A good agent will know the editors at these imprints and will compile a list to submit to. They won’t necessarily just submit to the big publishers. They may also submit to smaller independent publishers who are often just as great to work with.
Your agent will also be able to negotiate translation deals and more for you. Mine advised me to retain translation and world rights, meaning I've made a really good income from getting book deals in in the US and translation deals around the world. This is more than what I might have done if I'd sold world translation rights to my publisher as publishers will often sit on these rights and not do much with them.
Getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you a book deal straight away. But a good agent is in for the long-term and will advise you what to write next then submit that novel for you too. If you do get a deal, then your agent will then take a cut of any advances and royalties you receive. You should NEVER pay an agent upfront. In my view, a good agent is worth this cut. This is not only because it's the only way to get your novel read by editors at most publishing houses but many agents will edit your novel with you before it goes out out on submission. They can also help you make a lot of money via translation deals. Plus they can offer amazing advice and be a brilliant sounding board. Honestly, my agent Caroline Hardman is a bloody godsend!
Is it hard to get a literary agent? Yes but then it’s not exactly easy to get published. Many authors will get dozens of rejections before they land an agent. Rejection is part of this business.
For more information on the process of querying agents, I think this article is pretty useful.
The direct submission route
There’s not a great deal to add here on top of what I talk about above. The process of submitting your novel direct to a publisher is much the same as querying an agent. Just know that without an agent, you won’t have help deciphering contracts and it will be difficult to make money with translations deals and more. Of course, there are advantages of submitting direct though: one less hurdle to jump over and also, no 15% commission to pay to an agent.
However, it’s worth noting that publishers who take direct submissions will often not pay advances and are digital-first publishers, meaning your book will be out as an ebook first unless is sells brilliantly. But your royalty cut will generally be higher, more like 40% for digital sales instead of 25%.
The same word of warning applies here too: you should NEVER have to pay anything up front for a reputable publisher to publish your work. There are publishers out there who will ask for payment for things like editing and so on, but usually these are vanity presses who you should avoid at all costs. Some authors who can’t get an agent or a publishing deal but hate the idea of doing it all themselves through indie publishing could seek out a reputable business who can help them get their book out there. But I think you're better off publishing it yourself… or writing another book. Sometimes, it takes a few books to hone your craft and finally hit the jackpot.
For a list of publishers who take submissions, see this website. My publishers take submissions for their digital-first imprint, click here for more information. Bookouture, who publish me in the US, also take open submissions. Click here for more information.
The indie publishing route
Hands-up, I used to be a bit of a snob when it comes to indie publishing, or self-publishing as it’s known. But the world has changed and authors are doing some seriously exciting stuff in this area. In fact, JK Rowling is an indie author in many ways. She retained the digital rights of her novels and is publishing them herself via Pottermore, after all.
If this option appeals to you, you need several things: a business mind, a bit of money for the initial outlay (I really wouldn't recommend designing your cover yourself and getting a professional editor is key) and some savvy when it comes to marketing. You also need to accept it’s very unlikely you’ll see your books on the shelves of high street stores. The outlay of getting books printed can be high, and then convincing stores to stock your novels near on impossible. So this route really suits those happy to publish digitally.
Don’t assume your novel will get noticed if you publish it yourself. You need to put a lot of effort in without a publisher helping you with their contacts at the retailers, their knowledge and support. But if you do manage to get heard above the noise, the benefits can be amazing, not least because you get a much higher % of the profit. However, you really need to weigh this up against the fact the trad publishing route gives you a better chance of being heard above the noise. People may argue this isn’t the case but in my experience, I really believe it is.
To start exploring this area, visit the guru of indie publishing Mark Dawson’s website at https://selfpublishingformula.com/spf-resources/ and the Creative Penn is fab too: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/resources/
To sum up, the market can be a tough one to crack, regardless of what route you go down. But talent, grit and perseverance is key and whatever route you choose, the rewards can be wonderful. If you live in the UK then I am running workshops to help with all this. Click here for more information.
I thought I’d dig deep into the dark dark souls of published authors and extract our top 5 fears… and offer some advice on how to deal with them. So go fill your skull goblet up with wine the colour of blood and lock your pet bat away so it doesn’t disturb your reading. We’re delving into the dark side of authors’ top fears…
Your publisher doesn’t offer you a new contract
Let's start with one to ease us all in, ha! In all seriousness, this has to be the biggest fear for traditionally-published authors. Obviously, if you have an offer from another publisher on the plate anyway, the blow is lessened somewhat. But if it comes as a surprise and you have nothing lined up, it can be really tough. So what to do? Don’t give up, that’s what! The fact you got a publishing deal in the first place is fantastic. Brush yourself down, take a break then consider your options. If you have a novel to sub, which other publishers can you or your agent approach? If it’s the novel your previous publisher rejected, don’t write it off. Remember those rejections you’re bound to have had before you struck that first publishing deal? And yet you still eventually ended up with your deal. This shows you responses are so subjective. Use any feedback from your previous publisher to revise the novel then get back on the submission wagon. Another important bit of advice? Don’t be rude to the publisher who has let you go. They will have their reasons. There may be opportunities in the future with them, or one of their staff who moves onto another publisher. Stay professional!
Halloween Hero: One bestselling author told me about a very difficult experience she had with a famous publishing house. Editorial changes were forced upon her which she disagreed with and because of this, the novel didn’t sell well, readers pointing out the very same issues the author had expressed concerns about to her editor. Her confidence was destroyed and she gave up writing for months but then one day, she was inspired to start a new novel. This novel attracted several offers from publishers and hit several bestseller lists. She’s now with a great publisher and is happier than she’s ever been.
Your sales suck
Very common horror story. It’s a tough market out there. To make matters worse, publishers aren't hugely transparent about what they mean by 'good sales'. Sure, it's hard to say as so many variants come into play but we all know there must be some indication according to genre and more.
So, what if your sales clearly suck? First, make sure your publisher is doing all they can to pick up those sales. Price reductions. Promotions like Bookbub and Kindle deals. There may be something that can be done. As I always say, don’t be afraid to ask your publisher what they’re doing to increase sales… or ask your agent to get on the case with them. Some publishers are willing to go the extra mile too, changing the covers and even titles of books (this is obviously easier with digital books). There are countless times when authors I know have done this and ended up getting a sudden lift in sales. If this doesn’t work, write the next novel. Often, there is no rhyme or reason to why one book won’t sell well. The more books your write, the more of a chance you have that one or more of them will hit the zeitgeist.
Case study: Me! Oh come on, surely I'm allowed to make myself a hero considering this is my article ;-) My first novel The Atlas of Us sold a decent amount but not quite enough to have it deemed a debut success. I was disappointed and started to wonder if the writing career I'd dreamed of would really last that long. I thought about giving up but instead, I focused all my energy on my next novel, My Sister's Secret. That went on to become my best-selling novel to date, even hitting the Kindle and Kobo number one spots!
Your sales are on a downward trajectory
The market is pretty naff at the moment so a lot of authors are seeing a year-on-year reduction in sales anyway. But if you’re just not seeing any improvement at all and your publishers and agent are scratching their heads about what’s going on, it might be time to try a different approach, whether that be a different genre and / or pen name... or, dare I say it, a new publisher. This is difficult to stomach for someone who just can’t see themselves writing any other genre in particular, but don’t dismiss the idea straight away. Take a break, spend some time ‘playing’ with genres. You might find it’s easier and more exciting than your thought.
Case study: A great example of someone changing genre with huge success is the lovely Carol Wyer, author of current Kindle top 10 bestseller The Birthday. After her comedies didn't sell so well, she came up with the idea for a thriller, something totally different to what she usually wrote. It paid off: her series went on to sell hundreds of thousands and she's inked up a new deal. However, she would always advise authors to stay flexible. Should the tide turn again and romantic comedies become more popular, she will be penning a few more!
You’re getting terrible reviews
I always tell people, the more books you sell, the worse your reviews will be. However, it still evens itself out and you’re not stupid, you can tell when readers just aren’t vibing with your novel, especially if its average rating is a lot less then your others. So what to do? If you're brave enough, then dive into those reviews and see what you can learn. I don’t mean the silly one and two stars. You’ll usually find a better indication in your three star reviews. If you have an agent, ask for their honest opinion. Ask your editor too. Tell them not to sugarcoat it. We all see things different with hindsight and they should be no different themselves. Read the novel back yourself if you have time. Can you see where it could have been improved? Use that knowledge to inform your next novel. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade… don’t squirt that bitter lemon into your eye for the sake of your ego.
Case study: I spoke to an author at an event recently who told me after publishing three books with great reviews, her fourth got terrible reviews across the board. When she read the reviews, she realised the main reason was that readers felt they'd been missold... the cover and blurb suggested the novel was a thriller when really, it was more literary fiction. This information allowed the author to ensure her novel was packaged properly next time and her latest novel is getting fabulous reviews.
You have severe writer’s block
We all get writer's block, especially after we're experienced any of the scenarios above. I recommend taking a break to inspire yourself. Don’t just read other books but binge some Netflix, go to the cinema, visit some interesting places. No point staring at a blank screen. Then read some books about plotting and fine-tuning your craft. I find this often ignites some ideas in me. Obviously, you can’t then spend a year doing this especially if you have a deadline. There will come a point where you’ll need to get back to the desk. When this point comes, take a different approach. Do you usually just write organically (a ‘pantser’?) Have a go at planning. Usually a planner? Then write from the hip.
Case study: An author I know had the triple whammy of below average sales and reviews, then being dropped by their publisher. A very common occurrence, sadly. It completely knocked him for six and when he tried to write a new novel, it was impossible. He decided to put his laptop aside for a month and spent that month doing all the things I mentioned above. In the process, he came up with a completely new idea. That idea landed him a new deal with a great publisher.
Are you a published author going through one of these horror stories right now? Then join the Savvy Authors’ Snug on Facebook so you don’t feel so alone. We share plenty of horror stories there, but also the wonderful outcomes too.
If you’re a traditionally-published author, you might be assigned a publicist. The job of that person is to help get your name out there. By ‘out there’, I mean articles and reviews in newspapers and magazines (both print and digital) and blogs too. If there isn't a dedicated social media person available, then they might cover social media too. To be clear, a publicist is often different from the marketing team who will usually be in charge of retail placement and ads. A publicist, or PR, will be the person trying to get 'free' publicity for you.
The contact you have with your publicist will vary depending on which publisher you’re with. At the beginning of your relationship, there will often be a long questionnaire to fill out to give them an idea of any ‘newsworthy’ potential you have. You might be lucky enough to get a phone call, Skype call or face-to-face meeting with them too.
In my view, a publicist can be just as important a person to an author as their agent and editor. You can write the best book in the world but how will people know if word doesn’t get out there about it?
So how do you make the most of that important relationship… and how can you troubleshoot any problems? Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Preparation is key
If physically possible, then I recommend meeting your publicist face-to-face as soon as you can then again 2-3 months before each book is published. If you’re popping in to see you editor, for example, try to get some time with your publicist too. Or ask to arrange a phone chat or Skype.
I know for some authors, this first chat with their publicist can be a daunting prospect. This is why I advocate as much prep as possible. You'll have a head-start if you’ve written the thoughts document I recommend in this article as it will help you understand how you want them to pitch you: so what media and angles do you think will work for your readers? Of course, your publicist will often know best, but at least you'll go in armed with knowledge. Also prepare some ideas of your own and a list of questions.
In an ideal world, you will have had a publicity plan when you got your deal or soon after which you can discuss with them. If there is no plan, then ask them to email you their plan after the meeting (or even better, ask if they can bring one in when you arrange the meeting). This will usually make sure they do! As the weeks and months go on, you can refer back to their plan to check all is in order.
If you're not getting any requests to write articles or posts in the lead-up to publication, and it's only a month before publication then a quick polite email to your publicist checking in doesn't harm. Then the week of publication, I recommend popping them another email to confirm where they're at with their plans for publication day itself, especially if they handle social media (and if they haven't sent their publication day plans already, of course!).
2. Don’t be scared to chase up
One of the biggest issues I hear from authors is a lack of publicity support, despite initial promises. Some authors have even told me that, despite getting a big advance and a beautifully-presented publicity plan as a way to win them over, all they got on publication day was one tweet. One tweet!!! The advice above will help, but if you've done all this and still nothing, don’t just sit there and cry into your vanilla latte. Contact your publicist, or ask your agent to, and ask what's going on.
As Sabah Khan, my brilliant publicist at Avon says: ‘I think the relationship between an author and their publicist is so important and part of what makes it strong is being able to be honest with each other. If I felt an author needed feedback on a piece or felt they needed some media training, I would hope I could tell them quite simply and honestly. I’d also hope they could be honest with me and so if they felt that they weren’t getting enough publicity, they need to be honest and tell me what they would like to see.’
But please be polite and understanding... and do NOT email every single day, one polite email will suffice. I used to work in PR and it is so difficult drumming up publicity. Journalists make promises of interest then don’t follow up. You even get told a piece will be published only to discover it’s been bumped off by a bigger news story. Understand it's a challenging job and your obnoxious email isn't going to help. Yes, it's important to get the best 'service' you can. But it's also about a happy medium between asserting yourself as an author, but not being rude.
3. Be realistic
I’ve said it countless times: publishers have lots of authors on their rota and the simple fact is, some will naturally get more publicity then others, so don’t get too precious about it. But you absolutely should expect promises to be kept and decent publicity support too considering the percentage publishers take off your royalties (and even if you got a huge advance, even more reason a publicist should be working hard to make sure they make that advance worth while, right?)
But be realistic. As I say so many times, only you can dedicate 100% of your time to YOU. Don’t expect your publicist to be able to dedicate 100% of his or her time to you. There is nothing worse then authors who harass their publicists for updates as though they are the sole author on their rota. As Sabah says: 'I’m very lucky to do the job that I do, and I really love that my authors trust me with their secrets and the precious gift that is their novel – so I need them to have every faith in me when I say I’m on the case!'
So while you should expect your publicist to do work for you, you should also use your contacts and keep your eyes peeled for opportunities as well (just make sure you let them know anything you’ve committed to so you avoid avoid duplication). As Sabah says: 'A publicist would love to spend hours and hours on each author but we have to be realistic about how much support any one author can have so anything an author can do themselves is a huge bonus.'
4. Show willing… within reason
Publicists like it when authors show willing. If you put in the effort your side and reach deadlines, then they will do the same for you. So fill in those questionnaires, send them ideas. When a request comes in, do what you can to say yes.
However, I completely understand how busy life is and if you’re sacrificing precious writing or family time to write a 2k article for a blog that has 5 followers, then you are perfectly within your rights to push back. You should also not share anything you feel deeply uncomfortable about. I’m personally quite open about my life, and have numerous articles placed by my publicist Sabah in the national press about my infertility and other issues. As Sabah says, her ideal author is one who ‘shares things about themselves and be vocal (not too vocal!) about what they think, and contribute to topical conversations.’ Of course, not everyone is as open as me. If you’re not, then you have to accept you might not get as much media coverage.
5. Keep YOUR promises
If you have a deadline for an article, stick to it. If you’re going to pull out of something, have a bloody good reason. A big part of a publicist’s job is nurturing relationships with people who are very influential among readers. You let them down without a good reason and it makes your publicist look bad.... and you.
In all the years I’ve been writing novels, there’s one piece of advice that’s stuck with me: find the core of your novel and stick with it. There are other variations of this advice you might have heard: don’t go off on tangents, stick to the main plot, don’t overwrite, do the plank exercise every day (oops, sorry, wrong core!). But let’s delve deeper and learn what this really means and how you can achieve this.
The first time I started getting to grips with this was when reading a blog post by Maggie Stiefvater many years ago. Maggie writes great teen fiction and her Shiver series focusing on werewolves are a huge hit. And yet in her blog post, she said she would rather cut out the actual werewolves then lose the core of the novel, which for her was the mood, specifically a ‘slow, slow build to a bittersweet end’.
I found this a bit vague though. How can a mood be the core of a novel?
When I got my first book deal with HarperCollins, I worked with a brilliant editor called Eli Dryden. When she sent me the revision notes for my second novel My Sister’s Secret, I remembered Maggie Steifvater's blog post again and it suddenly made sense. As my editor Eli wrote:
‘This editorial stage is all about weighting and organising and prioritising then finessing the material. If you could say what this book is in a sentence, what would you say? I feel that you have to decide what you want to be the overarching strand and then prioritise plot lines accordingly – there’s too much noise and too many things happening.’
She was absolutely right. I think it’s fine to write your first drafts in a passion, if that’s what you like to do. But when it comes to revising, that’s when the focus on ‘core’ really comes into its own.
For My Sister’s Secret, the core of the novel was sisters. Simple as that. You might read this and think ‘yep, pretty obvious’. But actually, it wasn’t in the initial drafts. In fact, the novel was first called The Layers of Me and the different strands I’d weaved in meant the true core of it – the relationship between three sisters and the impact of this in future years – was lost.
Once my editor helped me draw that out, including changing the title to match the core, I felt I finally had something to hone in on. Everything became about those sisters and the consequences of the tragedy that befell them. It worked too. My Sister’s Secret went onto become a Kindle and Kobo number one bestseller, and one of the biggest selling ebooks of 2015.
Let's look at some other examples from books, TV and film. Many of these 'cores' are up for discussion, but this is my take on them and the core ranges from a sentence to a mood to one simple word.
Bodyguard (BBC series): Crushed vulnerability of the seemingly strong (breakdowns, wavering, fear)
The Greatest Showman: Expressing what makes us different (a show being the ultimate expression)
Big Little Lies: The ebb and flow of female connection (like the sea, a strong focus of the novel)
So how do you find your core in your writing and then maintain focus as you’re revising your novel?
Sometimes, it’s about the first kernel of feeling that came to you when writing the novel. So I came up with the idea of my latest novel, Her Last Breath, while watching a documentary about landslides. It got me thinking about how that would impact a town, but also, the own internal landslides we experiences. With the help of my current editor, that became my core: a landslide and, as Maggie Stiefvater calls it, the ‘slow slow build’ towards it.
You see, landslides start before we perceive them. Years of subsidence and ruin, all kept hidden beneath a seemingly perfect visage until all falls to pieces. I applied this to the characters too: how a seemingly perfect life on the outside can be falling apart within. And what happens in that last gasp of breath before the landslide happens. Before Estelle, the main character, falls metaphorically to the sea below?
So how did I keep that focus?
My advice? As you toy with ideas for your novel, or tackle revisions for your novel, think about the core that brings it all together
Are you an aspiring writer working on a novel right now, or hoping to write one? I'll be running some workshops so sign up your interest here.
Time management can be a real issue for authors, especially during certain times of the year like right now when the kids are on their summer hols. You feel guilty that you’re writing while your little ones are at home. Then you feel guilty when you're with your family that you're neglecting your writing.
So how to deal with it? There are so many time management hints and tips out there, especially now more people are working freelance. But how can we cut through to the tips that really make a difference?
Here are some top tips based on my experience as a published author along with some great tips shared by other authors in my Facebook Group, The Savvy Authors Snug.
Tip One: Find your best time
This seems a really simple one but so many people overlook this when trying to efficiently manage their time. Think about when you are most productive. Are you a lark and like the early mornings? Or more of a night owl, most creative in the evenings after a day of adventure?
Schedule your writing time to fit in with this. I’ve met a number of authors who get up super early so they can have 2-3 hours of uninterrupted writing time. Likewise there are many others who will start to write only when the kids are tucked up in bed for the night.
Not knowing your best time can cause creative blocks. Take the ‘eating the frog’ advice as an example. Mark Twain once said that if you start your day by eating a live frog, this means the worst thing you’ll have to do that day is over with. For some people this can work well: by getting the most dreaded task off your job list first thing, the rest of the day looks peachy. For others, spending the first block of time doing something they dislike or struggle with can leave them feeling exhausted and demotivated – not great for us creative types.
Tip Two: Calendar block
Set aside time in your calendar to actually write. Add it in like you would a meeting or appointment and make it visible. There are a number of great apps that can help you keep track of what needs doing and managing your workflow. Todoist, Trello and Monday allow you to add tasks along with notes and attachments to keep everything in one place. These apps also allow you to add members to a project, great if you are collaborating with other authors on a piece of work or running social media group and need to assign tasks.
Tip Three: Stop Multi-Tasking
It used to be that people would boast that they are great at multi-tasking. But do you know that for most people, multi-tasking is one of the biggest distractions and significantly decreases productivity?
When you’ve blocked out time for writing, do just that: write. If you’re looking over your accounts, just do that.
OK, so there will naturally be things that enter your head as you are working on something else. But unless it’s an emergency, try to stay focused on the task at hand. Post It notes are your best friend here. Grab a post it note and jot a note down, sticking it in a place that’s slightly out of your eyeline but where you will see it when you finish what you are doing. Once you are finished add it to your Todoist/Trello/Monday list and assign some time to it.
This also carries over into your relaxation time. Down time is invaluable and helps us recharge and get motivated. It is tempting to cook dinner, clean the kitchen and play a game with the kids in that 30-minute window, but have you actually enjoyed any of that? Juggling is a fact of life and we all need to multi task to some degree but try to focus on one thing where you can have uninterrupted family time – you will enjoy it more and feel reinvigorated.
Tip Four: Minimise distractions
Distractions are everywhere, especially if you write from home. The friends that call in for a coffee and a chat as you are “at home”, the growing pile of ironing, the dog needing a walk.
These are all within your control, and yes it comes back to planning. Make sure you communicate with friends that during certain hours you are actually at work – they wouldn’t dream of calling in for a coffee and a chat while you are in an office so why should your home office be different? It sounds a bit harsh but honestly, if you create a time when people can drop in you will actually enjoy that time with them rather than feeling agitated that you have been interrupted.
Technology is also one of the biggest distractions. Everything is set up so we can communicate instantly and the notifications from social media, email and newsfeeds can sometimes feel like they are part of your playlist. How often have you been writing when you get that little pop up window as your friend has put out something on Facebook, or Pinterest notifies you of a new pin on dialogue errors to avoid? A quick click to have a look and next thing you know you have checked out 10 other posts and 20 minutes has passed and you have lost your flow.
There are some great apps such as Freedom and StayFocusd that turn off notifications on both desktop and mobile device to minimise the interruptions. You can set time frames for turning off notifications, block certain content and even schedule the times that notifications are turned off, helping you create the writing habit.
Tip Five: Outsource
This is an area that is tough for many but one that can deliver serious results. Writing is not just our business, it is our passion. Sadly, there are other things that eat into our time.
Just spend 20 minutes writing down all the things that you need to do, from a work and also domestic perspective. Things like social media, updating bios, research, ironing, cleaning, shopping etc. these all take time and effort. If you are spending hours trying to get to grips with understanding social media and what to post, consider outsourcing this to someone who can manage your social media.
Effective time management takes time but it also delivers results! Good luck!
There are over 70 million pages on Facebook and something we've known for a while is that the organic reach of these pages is in decline. One way publishers and authors try to get around this is through Facebook ads. But these can be costly and best suited to support a new book launch or to re-market your back catalogue.
So what options do authors have?
Seriously, the Facebook group I’ve set up has been amazing. Check out these insights below, the group just grows and grows every day (you get an initial flurry of members at the start then 1 or 2 a day).
It's no surprise. Groups have grown in popularity for businesses since Facebook announced in January 2017 that changes to its algorithms mean that posts from friends, family and groups will now be prioritised in people’s news feeds. No wonder we’re getting less engagement with our author pages on Facebook, which are now way down on the list for Facebook unless you advertise.
The fact is, groups complement your author page and help to build a community of loyal fans. A combination of a Facebook page as your attractor to drive people to find you, coupled with a Facebook group to boost engagement, can be a powerful thing. Especially as your group can be directly linked to from your Facebook Page.
Interested in setting one up?
Creating a Facebook Group is simple and straightforward. But it pays to have a think about what you want from your group and how you will manage it first.
Creating your Facebook group
Start by clicking on Group in the Create section at the bottom of Facebook and entering the details in the pop up.
Think of a name for your group, checking it’s not being used already by searching for it on Facebook. I went for a reader-friendly name which would make people feel welcome.
At this early state, you can either add friends or invite people. Adding friends will automatically make them members of the group. By inviting them you are giving them the option to accept.
Next select the privacy setting you want for the group. I recommend going for closed so members feel ‘privileged’ to be part of the group. Now it's time to start building your group page…
That’s it, your group is set up! But don’t worry, it isn’t live yet. Now you need to add some detail to make your group attractive and help people understand the value of joining your group.
Go to your group and click on the More option and select Edit group settings from the dropdown.
This will give you a number of areas to complete, including selecting your group type. Pick the option that best matches what you are trying to achieve with the group. I chose ‘Club’.
Now it’s time to write the description. You can have up to 3000 characters so make it yours. Add links to other areas such as your websites or Twitter accounts. Here is the description for The Reading Snug, my own Facebook Group which I share with the amazing Kelly Rimmer and Kerry Fisher.
You can then add up to 5 tags to help people find the group (as long as you haven’t set the privacy to Secret). Think about what your readers will be looking for.
Facebook Groups can be linked to your pages, you can create a vanity url for your group and even change the theme colour to suit your branding. You can also add apps such as Buffer and Canva to help streamline posting.
The web and email address section allows you to create a custom url and also an email address to make is easy for people to find you.
You will also be presented with a range of options too for getting new members to the group.
When you are selecting the options, think about how you would like the group to work. Too many limitations or restrictions on how people can post may increase your workload and put your readers off. I didn't go for pre-moderation on posts. My view is if any potential members look 'spammy', I won't let them in. And regular checking of posts means anything inappropriate can be quickly deleted. Your members will be great at alerting you to things too. I do however recommend posing a set of questions (under 'Ask questions' in Membership requests) to perspective members so you can get a better idea of their intentions. Here are mine:
Hey, thanks for requesting to join The Reading Snug! This group is for enthusiastic readers! So a few questions: First, what's the last book you read?
Have you read any of Tracy, Kelly or Kerry's books and if so, which ones?
Are you an author? We don't mind having author members as long as you promise to engage as a reader, not an author!
Adding a cover photo
At the top of your group page you will see the area where you can add your cover photo – simply click on upload photo.
It is a good idea to have this image ready. Facebook cover photo sizes do change and do display differently on mobile device compared to desktop. The recommended size is 1640px x 859px or 1.91:1 ratio. As you can see from the template below there is an area that needs to be considered for mobile devices but should not include any important messaging that may be lost when viewed on desktop.
Once you have added your cover photo be sure to check how it displays both on desktop and also on mobile.
Adding and Inviting people to join your group
You can now start spreading the word about your group. On a basic level, you can start by adding or inviting people you know would be interested. Click in the box below ADD MEMBERS (under your cover photo). Enter the names of your friends to add them to the group. You can also use email addresses to invite people, such as fans from your mailing lists, to join the group.
Once you have invited everyone you have contact details for remember you can always hit the share button to add it to your wall or share it to another group.
Linking your group to your Facebook page is a great way to grow your audience, it makes it easier for fans to find you, your fans have a community where they can interact with each other, and you can like and comment as your page in your Facebook Group.
To link your group to you page go to your page and select Groups.
If this option is not available click on Settings, Edit Page and scroll down through the tabs and click Add a tab. From the menu select Groups.
You will be given a pop-up window will appear and you can select what groups you would like to link to your page. Now just click Link and Link Page and you are all set!
Let me know how you get on!
It is pretty safe to say that relationships, whether professional or personal, can be tough at times. But when they’re working, they can be amazing and rewarding.
The author-editor relationship is no exception. The truth is there will always be bumps along the publishing road. But how you handle them determines whether they become molehills or mountains.
Below are three common issues authors face with advice from editors on how to deal with them.
But before sharing their advice, I want to offer some quick advice myself…
First, preparation is key. If your editor is aware of the direction you see your ‘author brand’ going in right from the get-go, you thoughts will be heard early and you can create a discussion platform that can be referred back to. I blog about how to prepare here.
Second, it’s so important to always be charming and polite. Being firm does not mean being rude and there is a world of difference between the two. Be nice and treat people with respect and they will want to engage with you.
Now, onto the advice editors shared with me.
1) The unresponsive editor
Speaking with other authors, one of the biggest issues they face is editors simply not responding to emails. I call it Publisher Ghosting.
It's important to remember how busy editors are. As Kate Mills, publishing director for commercial fiction at HQ Stories and formerly publishing director at Orion, says: ‘Editors can be in meetings much more than authors realise. Unfortunately we don’t read at our desks any more – our jobs have changed over the last ten years, reading is done at home now in the evenings and at weekends.’
Despite this though, I think it’s important to expect responses to emails within a reasonable timeframe, even if it’s a quick ‘sorry not to be in touch but will be soon’ email. I’ve been ridiculously busy in previous jobs but have always aimed to send a holding email within twenty-four hours. As Kate says herself: ‘In the best author/publisher relationships, the communication is frequent and fast.’
But what to do if you don’t hear from your editor within a few days?
Phoebe Morgan, commissioning editor at Avon and the co-chair of the Society of Young Publishers says: ‘I would use email to politely check in – and if that doesn’t work, I’d speak with your agent and ask them to chase too. Phoning out of the blue is usually a last resort – for me, I prefer to schedule times to chat with my authors so I am fully prepared for our phone call.’
Kate agrees about the polite chaser email to start with: ‘If you haven’t heard in a few days, a nudge along the lines of ‘Did you see my email re…’ is fine. Of course, if you’re waiting on a response to a manuscript, that may take longer, but hopefully your editor will have given you a timeframe in which you can expect to hear. Hopefully an author shouldn’t ever feel like a pest.’
That’s the key. You should not feel like a pest! It all comes back to that 'grateful sap' persona come of us authors have picked up. As long as you’re not hassling them unnecessarily, it’s fine to send a polite chaser email then take it to your agent (if you have one) next.
To add to Kate and Phoebe’s advice, if nothing seems to work, I’d check whether your editor tweeted in the time you’ve been waiting. Like the tweet. Respond to it. Don’t chase them in the tweet, this is more about reminding them you’re there.
Still nothing after all this? Then I’ll be blunt. Unless they have a genuine excuse, it’s time to rethink whether you want this person as your editor. In my view, communication is a key part of the process.
2) Disagreements over covers
Book covers can be a big bone of contention – publishers have a wealth of experience but we authors feel we know the book intimately.
It's often a running joke, the story of an author who designs their own cover in Microsoft Paint and sends it to their editor as a suggested cover. It's seen as part of the transition to being a 'traditionally published author' that you know it's your publishing house that will handle the design for you. But what this joke has done is make authors think they have to be completely hands-off in the process.
The truth is, you have every right to express your opinion... especially if you have already done your research and know your genre, as I recommend above. But how to approach your editor with your concerns?
Phoebe advises to first sleep on things. ‘Try to avoid emailing straight back with your initial, emotional or gut response – instead, sleep on it, ask your family and friends.’
She also asks that you think about all the work and thinking that would have gone into creating your cover behind-the-scenes: ‘All jackets will usually have a huge amount of effort put into them, with input from not only the designer but sales, publicity, marketing and editorial too. Book jackets along with the propositions are pitched to the retailers by the sales team, and so having something that stands out and positions the book well is of paramount importance.’
Still dislike your cover? This is where that all important preparation comes in. Kate advises: ’I find it helpful when an author doesn’t like their cover to receive a calm, thoughtful explanation of what’s not working from the author’s point of view. In some cases, I’ve found myself being totally persuaded by the author’s considered response. Having good examples of covers you think sit comfortably alongside your book helps a publisher see where you’re going, and how you think your book should be positioned.’
She also adds: ‘If you separate the different components that make a cover, there might be things you can build on – the font, the colour-way, the positioning of the title, etc. Pointing those out, as in: “I like the title font, but feel the image isn’t right…” already shows you’re looking for a solution together.’
If your cover isn’t changed despite putting your best case forward, I recommend patience. See how your book sells. If your novel sells well then fine, your publisher was right. If not, you have your communications with your editor as proof to push to have the cover changed for the ebook version... and push the case for your next hardback / paperback release.
3) Winning a new contract
There’s nothing that beats the jubilation of an editor adoring your work and taking you on as an author. But then that time comes when your contract is up and the dynamic can change. What can we do to increase our chances of getting a new contract?
Both editors agree it comes down to the quality of the next book you deliver. ‘Nothing puts an author in a stronger position than delivering a great book,’ Kate says.
But it’s not the only thing taken into the mix. Both Kate and Phoebe emphasise the importance of showing willingness to promote yourself, not just via social media but also by writing features and so on.
‘When publishers decide about re-contracting,’ Kate says, ‘often the whole team is involved in the discussion and will talk about their experiences of working with that author. If a publicist says ‘He didn’t want to write features…’ that goes in to the mix. That’s not to say we won’t work with that author again, but it means we know we’ll need to find a different way to promote without relying on feature coverage, etc.’
So it really is a case of writing the next book and making it the best you can, getting stuck in with the marketing and maintaining a good relationship with your publishing team. These are all things I hope I’m helping you with on this blog!
What if your contract isn’t renewed though? I plan to blog about this in more detail down the line but Phoebe makes a good point about it being just as hard for the editor. ‘It is so hard deciding not to re-contract someone and it breaks my heart every time,’ she says.
She advises authors not to see it as a sign to give up: ’I know lots of authors who have been published by several different companies in their lifetimes, and sometimes a fresh start can be a good thing, so if your current publisher has made the decision not to recontract you, don’t give up! It definitely doesn’t have to mean the end of the road.’
And that is the key: don’t give up!
ABOUT THE EDITORS:
I am super grateful to Phoebe and Kate for answering some tough questions.
Phoebe runs a great blog for authors here and I see her as being one of the interesting up and coming editors who could lead the way in changing a few things in the industry. As an editor and an author herself, she offers a brilliant insight into the publishing world and I'd strongly recommend following her.
Kate Mills is one of the nicest editors out there and I often hear great stuff about her from authors... despite turning JK Rowling down, ha! Seriously though, despite having a scary title like 'publishing director', she's fun and down to earth as you'll see from her Twitter feed. If you want to read all about her experience of turning down JK Rowling, you can read it here.
Knowing where you best fit into the book market is one of your first steps to taking control of your career and author brand.
In the indie publishing world, there’s a technique called ‘writing to market’ where authors scour Amazon sub-categories to pinpoint a growing trend. They then write and publish in time to leverage what they hope will be hungry market based on that trend (by the way, this is different from what's known as 'genre-swapping' where publishers will list your novel in a vaguely related category small enough to get your book to the top of the pile). You can find out more here about Chris Fox's brilliant insights into writing to trend.
'Writing to trend?!' I can imagine some of you gasping in horror. After all, we're told all the time by agents and publishers not to write to trends. And with good reason for those of us who are trad published. Our publishing cycle is too bloody slow to chase a trend that could well have disappeared or evolved by the time a book is released.
But even if you don't want to write to trend, we authors can use some of the techniques to help us understand our place in that market. By learning this, we can position our author brand and our books to leverage more sales and positive reviews.
Maybe you're reading this thinking you already know your place in the market. Are you sure? Follow the steps below and you might be surprised. In fact, just taking those steps will reap benefits, trust me. It's the best learning curve I ever took.
You see, back in 2017, I published my fourth novel Her Last Breath. It was pitched as a psychological thriller with the description “A girl has gone missing. You’ve never met her, but you’re to blame.” It had a dark cover of a woman looking like she was about to jump into a stormy ocean and I'd written it very much focused on delivering a plot which offered twist after twist.
It was different from my first two novels which were pitched more as being women's fiction. Why change direction? As I explain in this interview for the Honest Authors Podcast, I wanted a bite of the psychological thriller cherry after seeing what a success other authors were making of it. My third novel, No Turning Back, had seen me move into darker territory and as it had sold well, I reasoned going even darker would make sense.
But then the sales figures started coming in: Her Last Breath was attracting my weakest launch sales to date. When I realised the sales weren't great, I did what all good authors do: s*it myself, ha! But then I decided to take action. I did some research and some thinking, and it soon became clear what the problem was: I'd confused my readers.
First, some of my loyal readers who love the women’s fiction elements of my writing - the character journey, the family drama, the heart-breaking tear-jerking revelations - were turned off by the packaging and the fact I hadn't focused as much on the character journey. The fact is, the crime and thriller elements weren’t a strong motivator for them.
Second, readers who were looking for a new psychological thriller to read were disappointed. It wasn't quite dark enough. Here are some of the comments readers made:
'I would define this book as a family saga with suspenseful elements rather than an edge of your seat high-end thriller.'
'Tracy Buchanan writes well, the story starts at a good pace, there is right amount of suspense at the right areas. The story starts with a bang but there is something missing to make it a complete thriller.'
Of course, there could be lots of contributing factors when it comes to sales. But I strongly feel it was mainly down to my confusion about where I sat in the market, which had a knock-on effect on how I wrote the novel itself and then how it was packaged.
By figuring this out, I was able to pinpoint what direction I needed to go in next. From my research, it became clear women's fiction is my strong suit. As soon as I realised that, I began writing The Lost Sister, a book that feels so so right to me. Even though it's not out as I write this post, early reviews show me I've made the right choice to return to my women's fiction roots.
So how can you figure out your place in the market? Here are 5 simple steps which can help you determine, and embrace, your true place in the market. As I said, even if you're sure you already know your place, this can be a really useful exercise for all readers. Here are 5 tips...
1) Look at your reviews:
Reader reviews, as painful as they can sometimes be, are a goldmine in helping you shape your writing and chances of success with subsequent novels. Even if you just select the four and five-star reviews on Amazon, you’ll learn something. I learned those readers who loved my writing adored the women’s fiction elements of my novels and compared me to the likes of Jodi Picoult and Nora Roberts. Those who didn’t were frustrated I’d pitched myself as a thriller author when I wasn’t. This really helped me with my next novel.
2) Look at Amazon’s categories:
List five genres you believe your writing belongs in. Don’t worry if this is a struggle as this is something that will become clearer along the process. For me, it would be women’s fiction, psychological thrillers, crime, contemporary fiction, and romance. Now go look at these categories on Amazon (I looked at the UK and US sites). Glance at the descriptions of the novels in the top 25 or more for Kindle and paperbacks. Which categories feature novels that sound most like your best-selling novel and the novel you’re hoping to write next? This is the genre you should be focusing on. For me, it became clear that women's fiction was the category I should be focusing on.
3) Look at annual bestsellers:
Sometimes, a bestseller can be a fleeting thing. Someone may have got the top spot for a day or two, and never see it again. Do not get lost in the noise of the short-term bestsellers, we are after longevity. Therefore, I recommend looking at the top selling author lists that usually come out at the end of the year which reveal that year's overall bestsellers. Use it to learn more about the authors doing well in your market...and how they do it.
4) Gather data:
Compile an evidence document that includes cover and description examples used by the bestselling authors in your genre. What categories are they listed under? How does this compare with your positioning? This information will be useful for marketing discussions with your publisher.
5) Immerse yourself in your genre.
Sure, you might already be social media friends with authors who write in your genre, but do not limit yourself to just following other authors to immerse yourself. There are some amazing associations and groups that offer support and champion your genre. Once I got to grips with the fact that I write women’s fiction, I discovered the Romantic Novelists Association and I can honestly say I have gained so much from this wonderful community. Attend their events, engage in the community and embrace your genre.
These simple steps, whilst not a magic bullet, will help you lay a foundation to understanding what your audience craves in your writing, how other authors find success in this genre and, ultimately, where your writing should be aimed to maximise your sales.
UPDATE: GENUINE REVIEWS ARE BEGINNING TO REAPPEAR SO AMAZON HAS BEEN LISTENING :-)
There's been some panic recently with authors and reviewers noticing reviews disappearing on Amazon. I actually shared a post to my Savvy Authors' Snug group on Facebook about disappearing Amazon reviews many weeks before this all kicked off as it's actually happened before.
Many believe it’s part of Amazon’s crack-down on dodgy paid-for reviews, not just for books but all products sold via the website.
Admirable reason. Problem is, many people are discovering genuine and sometimes even verified reviews are going missing. Whatever Amazon has recently developed to seek out dodgy reviews is proving to be a tad over-zealous.
I think it comes down to one of Amazon's review policies:
'In order to preserve the integrity of Community content, content and activities consisting of advertising, promotion, or solicitation (whether direct or indirect) is not allowed, including:
Creating, modifying, or posting content regarding your (or your relative's, close friend's, business associate's, or employer's) products or services.'
And by 'close friend' that can include anyone who they think received a free copy of your book (bloggers, journalists and advance readers) or simply someone who follows you on Twitter or is a Facebook friend. Not good when many authors connect with bloggers and readers via our social media channels.
So for now, until we know concrete reasons why, here are two steps you can take:
1) Be careful about the kind of links you share. Long links give Amazon information which can set off their algorithms. So for The Lost Sister, when I search for it on Amazon the link is mega long:
Don’t use a link like this. Instead, shorten it by simply going to your book page and finding the 'share' link on the right. This will create a nice neat link for you. Or you can delete everything after the first long number. So for The Lost Sister, it’s https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lost-Sister-Tracy-Buchanan-ebook/dp/B0796WD7S5 As always, check the link works before posting.
2. Tell you publisher. They probably know about it anyway. But your publisher will have more clout with Amazon then you and can put in a query.
I hope this helps! Things might change over the coming days so watch this space.