Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Cambridge Festival of Ideas – Crime Fiction, Extreme Pleasures, Part Two

Likes and Dislikes

The panel- Nicola Upson, B.A. Paris, Alison Bruce and Mick Finlay- went on to discuss their likes and dislikes about the writing process. The consensus seemed to be that writing crime is fun, as anything is possible and it deals with the basic themes of humanity: love, hate, greed and jealousy.

Alison Bruce said that it takes a long time to write 100,000 words and around 500 hours to write a first draft, which means, I suppose, that if you manage 1,000 words a day, it would take about 3 ½ months.  She said that she really enjoys the editing process, once that first draft is done, but always gets flu at the end of a book and sleep goes out the window.

B.A. Paris said that finding a new idea is quite hard in a saturated market. Her editor rang her up about a case in Poland and she really liked the idea and thought up a really good twist r the end. Then she came back from holiday and saw that `The Cry’ was on TV, which was almost exactly her own idea.

For Nicola Upson one of the best parts of writing is the research and she says that she can get lost in it.

They all agreed that they had little say on the covers (would that I had a problem like that!). Mick Finlay said he cringed at the American cover of his book. B.A. Paris said no black please on her cover, so the cover was largely black on `Bring me Back’ and no orange writing and so the writing was orange! Alison Bruce said that one of her books showed a bridge on the cover that she didn’t recognise, as all her DC Goodhew books are set in Cambridge. She searched Google Images and finally tracked down the bridge to Cambridge, Massachusetts! The book also turned out to be her slowest selling book with that particular cover.


B.A. Paris felt that suspense comes naturally as she creates claustrophobic atmospheres, becoming the central character herself while she writes. The suspense arises directly from the situation.

Nicola Upson thinks about the reader a lot and said that she’s always writing on two levels: what you are revealing to the readers and what you know and how you’ll bring that out.

Alison Bruce adds a third level: what she wants the reader to think is happening.

Mike Finlay spoke about the importance of when to end a chapter, so the reader keeps going, eg his detective gets handed an envelope at the end of a chapter.

They all seem to write in very different ways: Alison Bruce thinks in a very cinematic way. She writes herself a load of questions and clues and most stay in.

Nicola Upson sets herself challenges and sometimes doesn’t know herself when she begins a book who has committed the crime. Often the victim is someone she likes.

B.A. Paris builds her story around something she’s heard. For her it’s all about solving puzzles.

What they did all agree on, however, is that characters have to `live’ before they die or the reader doesn’t care. Bad characters need to be complex, to have some good in them and strong feelings. The murder, if there is one, is the pivotal moment, which is why motive is crucial. After all, we are all capable of killing someone given the right motivation.

Readers will always love a good story, well told, with cliffhangers along the way. What they will never forgive is bland or badly drawn characters.

In conclusion literary and crime fiction are not mutually exclusive. Apparently John Banville, who also writes thrillers as Benjamin Black, caused quite a stir at one Harrogate Crime Festival, when he declared that when he writes as BB he writes 2000 words a day and when he writes as JB he writes 200! Perhaps he won’t be invited back in a hurry, I thought.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Cambridge Festival of Ideas – Crime Fiction, Extreme Pleasures

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I made my way through the labyrinthian corridors of Anglia Ruskin University to find Lab 3 and wondered what kind of literary experiment this might prove to be. I was to be disappointed only in the title of the talk: `Crime Fiction: Extreme Pleasures’  to which no reference was made. I therefore remained unclear whether the extreme pleasures in question were on the part of the reader, a somewhat bold claim, or the writer, engaged perhaps in some sado-masochistic dance with their agent or editor.

The panel was chaired by Mick Finlay, author of `Arrowood’, set in Victorian London, featuring the eponymous detective who hates Sherlock Holmes. Dr Mick Finlay is also a social psychology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin.

The other three panel members were all women: B.A. Paris, or Bernadette, who has written three psychological thrillers, including `Bring Me Back; Nicola Upson, who mixes fact with fiction in her seven books featuring Josephine Tey, a real crime writer from the 1930’s and Alison Bruce who has written seven books in the Cambridge based DC Goodhew series, one standalone and two non-fiction books. The latest, her standalone book, `I Did It For Us’, apparently arrived in her head in 30 seconds during an event she attended with her agent who was quite concerned for her wellbeing as she was behaving most strangely! She signed the deal with her publisher before it was even written, so it was obviously a golden moment.

Apparently crime fiction has become the most popular genre in the UK with 18.7 million books sold last year, up 19% since 2015.

Why is it so popular?

The panel suggested various answers to this question: there are so many great crime series on TV and Netflix; it’s very different from your own humdrum life; people like to be scared in the safety of their own home. Readers also prefer strong characters they can relate to and this happens particularly with a series, where the main characters become familiar and well loved. Equally, in these troubled times, things can be put right on the page and evil punished, which so rarely happens in real life. Both detectives and criminals are often outsiders, which readers can relate to and the latter enjoy trying to beat the author, analysing clues and guessing surprise twists.

How did you come to write crime?

B.A. Paris wrote `Behind Closed Doors’, a domestic noir, first. She had never considered writing a psychological thriller, but couldn’t get her novels published and was told to write something `for these times’. She bases her plots on something she’s heard or stories from friends which capture her imagination.

Nicola Upson started writing her series because she was a big fan of Josephine Tey, who was very ahead of her time as a writer and whose books have never been out of print. In fact Nicola Upson set out initially simply to write a biography of Tey, but ran into difficulties because Tey was such a private character. Her partner then told her to `for God’s sake, make it up’.

Alison Bruce initially planned to write a film script, but was told it was easier to get a book published than a script filmed. She ended up writing what was later described as a police procedural, because she initially put Gary Goodhew into a scene as she needed a policeman to answer the phone in her first written (but third to be published) book, `The Calling’.

Mick Finlay came up with the idea for `Arrowood’ because he thought `God, I’d be annoyed with Sherlock Holmes if I was a Victorian detective.’ His next thought was `There’s a book in this.’

Part Two to follow this week.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Disability, Writing and The London Book Fair

Diversity and inclusion are important topics for publishing at the moment and at the LBF there are four different talks this year: Rethinking Inclusivity: Ideas for Change; Inclusivity in Academic Publishing; The Inclusivity Toolbox: Practical Tips for Understanding Inclusion; Diversity & Inclusivity: Poetry & The Small Press.

Ben, my husband, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy. Most days, when he ventures outside the house, he gets mocked or stared at or feels patronised by `well-meaning' members of the public. He's been particularly targeted by the religious and neo Nazis.

He often tells me- rightly- that I have no idea what it feels like to be disabled, to fall over and suffer the humiliation of complete strangers helping him up, to hit his head repeatedly and suffer amnesia for hours at a time.

We decided to write a twisty thriller together: THE GHOST OF POKER ALICE. The protagonist is a young woman with cerebral palsy.

I submitted the synopsis, below, to The Write Stuff competition at the LBF. If you were lucky enough to be longlisted, it meant that the first three chapters of your book would be read. The 6 finalists would then get to take part in a Dragon's Den style pitching event at the LBF with a panel of agents.

If you apply for a job in the Civil Service and you are disabled, you are guaranteed an interview, once you tick the requisite box. Obviously, you're not guaranteed the actual job, but the interview goes some way to redressing the multifarious disadvantages suffered by the disabled.

Many years ago a policewoman friend of mine had an operation on her feet, which meant she was in a wheelchair for several weeks. She said she would never forget the experience, as most people seemed to equate being in a wheelchair with being learning disabled.

When we submitted our synopsis to the Write Stuff competition, we had to give a reason why our synopsis should be considered. I felt that my husband's disability and subsequent experience of being marginalised all his life was the best possible reason to be considered. Sadly, it wasn't.

Here is the synopsis of what I feel is shaping up to be a brilliant thriller:

A grieving surgeon chases another car along a snowy road.


In a Highlands cottage Ally wakes with amnesia, covered in stitches.  

Poker Alice- an historical figure and the ghost of her ancestor- appears. She proposes raising much-needed cash by playing poker. When Ally finally gets accepted into a game, one of the players, a GP, reveals that his friend’s grandson inherited the cottage.

Ally tracks down her mobile- found by a loch- which has a photo of her with a man.

Ally visits the local surgery, where the GP confirms that the same man owns the cottage. After examining her, he explains that she has cerebral palsy- and has recently had a C-section.


Smita, a surgeon who was severely burnt as a child, then adopted, recently had a fight with her husband, who was leaving her. She fell down the stairs and lost her (IVF) baby.

Enraged, Smita pursued her husband to the Highlands cottage and saw Ally have a bad fall. Enroute to the hospital, her husband's car spun into a loch, but Ally was thrown clear. Smita stitched her wounds. And then stole her unborn baby.  


When Ally tracks down Smita and takes a DNA sample from the baby, Smita attacks her. Poker Alice sends Smita’s mobile flying. As Smita bends over, Alice urges Ally to smash her skull. 

The end of the book is still changing. I have a great belief in the redemptive power of children- and babies, in particular. I think Smita will be deeply affected by her experience, so maybe this book will become our small contribution to `up-lit'. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Scott Pack at The Writer's Summit: Crafting to Sell

On of the best talks at The Writer's Summit was by Scott Pack (@meandmybigmouth), the energetic and amusing associate editor of Unbound and editor-at-large of Eye Books and formerly head buyer for Waterstones. Any errors in content are mine alone!

He began by inviting us to imagine a grand entrance onto the stage for him with lights, fireworks and fanfares- which The Writer's Summit's budget couldn't run to. It was an entertaining riff and you could see the audience relax and engage. By a strange coincidence the end of the Writer's Summit was indeed serendipitously marked by fireworks bursting into the sky over Waterloo.

He began with a short history lesson. When the Net Book Agreement existed (a British fixed price book agreement between publishers and booksellers)- from 1900 until the mid 90's- bookshops flourished, as it was a level playing field. Most of the audience were old enough to remember Ottakar's, Dillon's, Borders, Books Etc gracing the high streets up and down the country. Now the NBA is no more, fewer bookshops exist for browsing and people often discover books online. You can read the first few pages of most books on Amazon for free.

And that is precisely why a killer opening is so important.

Here are his top ten tips:

1. Write a great first line. He gave us `The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' This is from `The Go Between' by L.P Hartley (1953) Also `It was the day my grandmother exploded.' from Iain Banks' `Crow Road' (1992). To this I would add my own personal favourite `It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.' from Anthony Burgess' `Earthly Powers' (1980).

2. Make the reader care. Right from the first ten pages. Think of the emotions you want the reader to feel about the people you are writing about. If you give the reader an interesting character who is relatable or striking, then we do care.

3. Dialogue is your friend. It is not an info dump. Exposition and back story are your enemies. Think about the way different people speak and how to progress the plot through dialogue.

4. Introduce conflict. You need to lure the reader in, a trail of breadcrumbs to make them want to read on. He spoke of the importance of cliffhangers- certainly within the first 10% of the book, since a Kindle sample is precisely that. He spoke of a book called `Cliffhanger' which begins with an excellent premise. (Not the action adventure by Jacqueline Wilson.) A husband and wife have a terrible argument and she goes storming off into the night. He follows her out into the pouring rain and finally spots her figure standing near the edge of a cliff. In a moment of madness he pushes her off the cliff. He returns home, paralysed with remorse, only to find his wife warm and dry inside the house.

5. Start as late in the story as you can. This was a particularly interesting point and one I hadn't considered before. I think I may have missed the next few minutes as I immediately started considering this idea in relation to my own books.

6. Make something happen (while avoiding adverbs). He even mentioned doing adverb sit ups (to make you cut them out of your prose, whenever you come across one).

7. Steal from the best. Look at the first 10 pages of a book you love and see what they've done and how they've pulled the reader in. He suggested actually typing up these first ten pages as a way of physically learning how other writers work. And then deleting it all, of course.

9. Don't follow all the rules.

10. Be yourself. Getting published has a lot to do with luck and timing. It's all very subjective. A good book will find its audience.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Writer's Summit, Part Two

The next speaker at The Writer's Summit was the energetic and engaging Sam Missingham, founder of @lounge_books, a home for book lovers ( The title of her talk was `7 Habits of Highly Effective Authors', key tips on promotion and marketing, building your author platform and more.

We writers need a whole list of attributes: persistence, belief in yourself, determination, belief in your talents, a strong work ethic, commitment, enthusiasm, resilience, optimism and bravery. I felt like adding a few adjectives of my own: `dogged' persistence, `reckless' optimism, `crazed' determination…

Basically, however you get published, whether you choose the traditional route or go for digital self publishing, you have to be the CEO of your own writing career. No one can afford to sit back and think that your books will sell themselves or that publishing houses have anything other than miniscule marketing budgets for all but the big names. This means you need to be active, engaged, skilled and a hustler!

Where are your readers? You should have an account with goodreads, `find and share the books you love', which has 35 million people registered. You also need to be active on Twitter and Facebook, have a website- she recommended using  and create a newsletter, so that you can attract `cheerleaders for your work'. She cited the author Clare Mackintosh, whose debut novel `I Let You Go' won the Theakston's Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award, as someone who writes a brilliant newsletter.

KEEP YOURSELF INFORMED: Basically, she advocated signing up for everything, including BookBub, a free service which helps you discover books you'll love with great deals and recommendations. Foyles also does particularly good emails, as does The Bookseller.

Copy any good ideas on authors' websites and make them better. She showed us Neil Gaiman's impressive page (author of `American Gods'). She particularly recommended The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn), which is a site with blogs, podcasts, courses and her own fiction and non fiction books- totally professional and very impressive. She also mentioned Writer's Digest, an American magazine aimed at beginning and established writers with interviews, tips and helpful articles about self publishing etc.

With regards to Twitter she recommended following Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) and Marian Keyes (@MarianKeyes) in particular, as they have a huge following and use Twitter brilliantly. When using Twitter, you should express your own views, respond to others, share your writing and your hobbies, be generous to other authors, share humour and add value. Hashtags are important.

Who writes the same kind of books as you do? Everyone following them could also follow you, so see who they follow. Who follows your local bookshop? Follow those people. You should be spending at least half an hour a day on Twitter.

Look at bloggers and influencers (blog tours), join author associations as they often have events and the Alliance of Independent Authors gives good advice on self publishing. Go to festivals, events, awards.

I began to feel quite exhausted just listening to her, hadn't quite realised how much time you have to invest and despaired a little, as did several members of the audience, as to how you were supposed to do all this and write and have a full time job to pay the bills!

HUSTLING: she suggested speaking at an event, talking to your local bookseller, emailing an editor. What's the worst that can happen? (I could think of a whole list of debacles!) You should collaborate as much as possible, like Killer Women have or The Prime Writers, an authors' collective, of writers who published their first book over the age of 40.

If you blog, you can do what she called micro blogging (I confess my ignorance of this term), where you post excerpts of your book and ask the reader what they think of a particular character or plot twist, so you can get valuable feedback. Another option is using wattpad, a free online storytelling community where people can post articles, stories or poems.

 By the end of this excellent talk, I was desperate for caffeine and more hours in the day!

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Writer's Summit, Part One

Back in early October I bought a ticket for The Writer's Summit, `brought to you by The London Book Fair and Writer's Digest', held at the Coin Street conference centre, near Waterloo. Its aim was to provide new writers with the insights and advice needed about the numerous publishing options available today.

On Saturday I got up at 5 am and took a horribly early train from Cambridge, as the doors for this one day event opened at 8.45. It was an eco building, which apparently meant only two toilet cubicles existed for women on the third floor, where the summit was being held and no communal basins or mirrors. There was quite a queue at 9 am and I was transported back to school discos as a woman walked up and down said queue asking everyone if they had a mirror, as she couldn't put her makeup on blind.

The chair for the event was James Woollam, the managing director of F & W Media and Writer's Digest UK, who introduced this inaugural summit with great charm. The first speaker was Alison Flood, the book reporter for the Guardian, who was engaging and enthusiastic, but threw hundreds of statistics at us and my pen just couldn't keep up:

The good news is that print books have shown resilience in the past 18 months, whereas e book sales are the lowest since 2011. The bad news is that since 2005 five hundred independent bookshops have closed.

George Saunders, whose novel `Lincoln in the Bardo' was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, was allegedly selling only one or two copies a week until he was shortlisted. I say allegedly because my pen - or maybe my ears- seemed resistant to what she was saying. I believe she stated that even once he'd won the prize, his sales were only around the 3,500 mark.

What are people reading then, if not literary fiction? Sales of thrillers, children's books and non fiction have shown a healthy increase, apparently.

Digital self publishing has really taken off, which was what this conference was addressing. Should you go the traditional route or should you self publish? Definitely not the latter, if you write literary fiction, seemed to be the consensus. You are condemned to poor sales in all corners of the market.

As opposed to the long lead time in the traditional publishing market, Kindle Direct Publishing says it takes only 5 minutes to publish a book. You can also earn up to 70% royalties in a host of countries including the UK and the US.  

Alison Flood said she felt that both parts of the market were here to stay and that traditional editors were now looking at the Amazon charts, where the bestsellers were often self-published, in order to understand what the reading public wants. As a result, the snobbery of what used to be called `vanity publishing' has started to fade and many literary prizes are now open to non traditionally published books, as well. For example, `The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker prize and won the 2015 Book of the Year Award. It was published by Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher.

Tomorrow's blog will cover Sam Missingham's talk on `7 Habits of Highly Effective Authors'

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Why So Blue, Part Two

Why so sad

 My fine young friend
 Why so blue'    (Paul McCartney)

So life may be shit for kids and teenagers in 2017, but bullying in all its forms has always been present. Two things, perhaps, are different…

The internet and social media mean that innocence is often lost at a very early age. Since information about anything is instantly available and comparisons too easily made, arguments in the playground continue remotely long into the night. Kids have always wanted just to be the same as everyone else, not to draw attention to themselves, but this is so much harder now.

The commonality of cultural experiences is also diffused. My husband remembers the joy of watching `Red Dwarf’ and knowing that all his friends were watching it at the same time and they could talk about the best bits the next day. I remember the same about `Dr Who’. The 1986 Eastenders Christmas show pulled in 30.2 million viewers, The `Bake Off’ launch show only managed 10.4 million.

The number of time travelling shows on TV recently seems significant, as adults hark back to better and simpler times, a way of escaping the pressures and speed of everyday life. With so much knowledge so easily attainable it seems to get harder and harder to succeed. My husband plays online poker. If he’d been playing with the same skill as he does now even ten years ago, he’d have made us rich...

I got an agent when I was 29, the first one I approached. I couldn’t believe I’d been taken on by such a great man, Michael Thomas at AM Heath (long retired), who offered me cups of tea and spoke about Alice Walker and Gore Vidal for whom he was the UK agent. I didn’t get anything published through him- I wasn’t anywhere near good enough- but editors got to read my manuscripts and offered encouragement. Now that I’ve returned to writing years later, it seems almost impossible to even get an agent. A 1 in a 1,000 chance to even make it off the slush pile, I’ve been told.

This is the difficult, ever more competitive world our kids are growing up in. No wonder so many movies at the moment don’t deal with the everyday, but other planets or dystopian futures: `Bladerunner 2049',  `Geostorm', `Thor: Ragnarok', `Star Wars', `Transformers', `Cloverfield 3', to name but a few. No wonder so much social `interaction’ is achieved through gaming, rather than face to face and the first thing most teenagers want to do when they get home from school or college or their jobs is to shut themselves away in their rooms.

So what’s the answer? Counselling is extremely valuable, if it can be accessed, although this is also becoming harder with longer and longer waiting lists.

I would advocate three things:

·       Exercise of any kind, preferably outdoors. Whole books have been written about the therapeutic effects of walking (or running).

·       Keeping a journal to pour out all the self-hate and anger at parents, teachers, friends. Writing a letter to the hated person and then burning it can be very satisfying and affect some kind of closure.

·       Get a pet. To care for and train a pet prevents a child/teen from turning ever inwards. Who can give greater love and loyalty than a dog? Roehampton University even has a pair of `therapy’ rabbits!