Friday, 28 October 2011

Covers

They say covers are vital for selling books. Any books, anywhere, in whatever format. I suppose if you hit on a good one by accident that's great, but since it's such a subjective thing, how do we know what makes a good cover? And is a good cover a cover that will sell numbers of books? Well, in this case, let's say yes.

Those people in the know say that the average person in a bookshop will decide to buy the book within 10-20 seconds. (I can't say I'm one of them, but I don't disbelieve what they claim) It means the cover has a lot to do with it, and the blurb backs it up. So the cover must be eye-catching, and resonate with something within the average reader to get them to pick it up in the first place. Then the blurb must be short and punchy and relevant - ie give a snapshot idea of what the book is about. (And that is so much easier to say than to achieve!)

Publishers, it is claimed, are appealing to something aspirational in readers, too. They want to be identified with the contents of the book, or to be more precise, what they think the contents might be. They say a good cover alone can sell a book. Indeed the reverse might be true - that readers would buy a book in brown paper if they wanted the story enough. I don't suppose the Potter fans would have refused to buy the latest installment because they didn't like the cover.




I had a look at 50 supposedly iconic book covers today, and found only two that really caught my eye. Would these have been the ones I picked up in the bookshop? Who knows! I loaded the French cover inadvertantly because it was paired with the cover I was aiming for, but the longer I look at it, the more I like it, even though I'm not sure how the title translates. "The men who would not love women?" Anyway, I thought the Dragon Tattoo cover, and the old, classic Clockwork Orange cover, both excellent. and at least one of them has stood the test of time.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

World Book Night 2

Follow the link and you'll discover the list of titles involved in April's World Book Night Giveaway. The list contains some books I've read and some I haven't, but I think it is interesting, with something for everyone. I was intrigued to see that they'd included Touching the Void - the book about climbing that still gives me nightmares.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/oct/24/world-book-night-giveaway

The event isn't about authors, it's about readers, and encouraging more readers into reading. Sometimes it seems that reading is a dying art. It also seems to have caught on to something long accepted in the e-book world, namely that a book given away repays and keeps on paying by bringing the reader back to that author's backlist and any titles published in years to come.

If people are not encouraged to read, then in a few years time authors will not have an audience, and that's a sobering thought. So let's get behind the event now, and promote it.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Critiquing

autumn colours seeping in
I find one thing I don't like about critique groups is that many people in them write first drafts and send them in for critique. Now I think this is maybe expecting too much of your critique partners. Why should they sort out your grammar, correct your spelling, and highlight spacing errors when you can do that yourself? The machine will sort out most of it, if you push the right button and let it get on with it. How hard is that?

Surely the critic comes into his/her own when s/he suggests errors of pacing or that the story line is flagging or in worst cases, simply unbelievable. Or suggests that it would be better if paragraph a) comes  after paragraph d) becuse it is more relevant there. But it's hard to spot where improvements can be made when the page is scattered with basic errors, so really, I think the first drafters are doing themselves a disservice when they send rough drafts in for critique.

Also it's nice to be able to mention good  points, but sometimes its hard to find any in first drafts. They'd be there in a second or third draft, though, I'll bet.

For your delectation, here's a link to a new book trailer I've made. Have a wander around an old fortified farmhouse at Aydon - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyui1kfCd_8

Friday, 21 October 2011

How to Write Fiction

Adam Fould's thoughts on How to Write Fiction have been printed in the Guardian recently and I have bookmarked them so I can reread them again and again. He quotes some lovely descriptions by famous authors but warns us that we break down reality and reassemble it according to our own thoughts and perceptions every time we write a description.
That was enough to make me stop and re-consider what I've written lately, and I resolved to go back and see what I can improve.

He quotes Flaubert: No matter whether good or bad, it is a delectable thing, writing! not having to be yourself, being able to circulate in amongst the whole creation that you are describing. Today for instance, as a man and as a woman, as lover and mistress both, I have been out riding in a forest on an autumn afternoon, and I was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words that they spoke to each other and the red sunlight that made them half-close their eyes, eyes that were brimming with love.
Fould's article here is quite long, and if you go to it, you’ll read his analysis of how each description works on more than one level. As an interesting aside, it struck me that Flaubert’s words are not so far removed from Ian Rankin’s description of being an author - quoted on this blog a post or two back.

Evelyn Waugh’s paragraph from his 1934 novel, A Handful of Dust captures typical English weather. Outside, it was soft English weather; mist in the hollows and pale sunshine on the hills; the coverts had ceased dripping, for there were no leaves to hold the recent rain, but the undergrowth was wet, dark in the shadows, iridescent where the sun caught it; the lanes were soggy and there was water running in the ditches.
But there’s method and more than pretty description in those words. Read the article and learn more.
Foulds will be teaching a Guardian Masterclass alongside Sarah Hall on Fiction Writing in London on 28-29 January 2012 for those lucky enough to attend.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Kindle Autumn

autumn is on its way
Since publishing FAIR BORDER BRIDE, I've  taken the plunge and dipped my toe into the Kindle Boards. My introduction has gone through OK, I've been welcomed by nice people and now I'm free to explore the rest of the boards. The trouble is, it's (or they?) (or are?) huge. Where to go first? I'm hoping there'll be a history thread somewhere, but it may take a while to find it. Plus which there's a whole page of rules, which I've printed out and must read through before I jump in.

Here in the north, the weather has taken a turn for the brisk cold we expect in autumn. I went to bed last night with the tip of my nose so cold a healthy dog would be jealous, and this morning dh has turned on the heating for an hour to take the chill off the house. It was so pleasant to have a shower and not freeze the moment I stepped out of it, and to have warm fluffy towels off the radiator rather than the cold, damp, clinging things they've been for the last week or so.

It's a week exactly to our trip to Ullapool and Kylesku in the far northwest of Scotland, and I still have faith that the weather will be the bright, crisp but sunny Indian summer week it often is up there. Now I'm looking at maps and deciding where we'll walk when we're there. Such a pleasant pastime, and with next to no expediture of energy!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Ian Rankin

In November he'll start to think about the next book, in January he'll begin writing it, deliver it in June, in July it'll be edited, September he'll start doing pre-publication interviews, it'll come out in October and he'll go on the road again.
entry to Prudhoe Castle
A treadmill, then?

But nice treadmill.

"It's a very pleasurable way to spend your time. It's therapeutic, it's cathartic, it's exciting, it's engaging. In real life writers tend to be quite boring, but in our books we're having exciting adventures all the time. I can't think of anything better than that, and it keeps you well balanced because all the shit inside your head goes on paper. I think we'd be troublesome individuals if we didn't get all that shit out our systems."

There was a time when Rankin's name wasn't at the top of the bestseller list. He didn't achieve breakthrough until the eighth Rebus novel (and his 15th book in all), Black and Blue, won the Macallan Gold Dagger for fiction in 1997. And even then he didn't have a bestseller until two years later, with Dead Souls.

"My publishers were taking a punt on me for a long time," he says. "That probably wouldn't happen now. I was having panic attacks, I was driving through the French countryside where we lived at the time, screaming at the top of my voice just to get it out my system. I was waking up in the night with this adrenalin rush like a heart attack. It was a pretty horrible time."

I think he's right that publishers don't hang on to authors who don't sell, or take a chance on a debut author like they used to. But if they don't, how are the new authors going to come through? And do we have fifteen years to get it right? What do you think?

Saturday, 15 October 2011


I’ve finally managed to publish a book through the Amazon Kindle programme. FAIR BORDER BRIDE was published briefly in 2009 as Till the Day Go Down, but the publisher went into liquidation very soon afterwards, and returned my rights to me. It seemed a good idea to give Harry and Alina some sort of life rather than abandon them to oblivion, so here is their story – 5,000 words lighter, re-edited and with everything I’ve learned about writing fiction in the intervening three years adding into the final polish.

The setting is Northumberland in 1543. Alina and Harry meet in Corbridge market place and because he is working for his father, the Deputy Lord Warden of the West March, he tells her his name is Harry Scott. Alina’s father is at feud with the entire family Scott, flings Harry into the dungeon at Aydon Castle and threatens him with the Leap next day. Alina creeps out of her bed to visit Harry at midnight when the castle is quiet.

“Tell me,” he said, before he forgot all practical things in the delight of her presence. “Your father threatens me with something called the Leap. What is it?”

“She dipped her head, and he heard her sharp intake of breath. “It’s the ravine, Harry.” She pointed towards the dark bulk of the hall. “On the other side is a ravine. It is deep, with the Ay burn at the bottom. Father…he makes prisoners jump from the precipice outside the hall.”

“Ah.” He raised her knuckles to his mouth, and kissed them to dispel the shadowy presence of Death looming in the darkness behind him. He remembered looking into the ravine the night he rode up here. His tongue probed the cleft between her fingers. She gasped. Harry’s blood sang through his body, and he kissed her knuckles again. “How deep, do you think?”

“Twenty times the height of a man, they say.” She shivered and frowned as she watched him nuzzle her fingers. “There are rocks and trees…”

“And no one survives?”

Her face crumpled. “Oh, Harry, sometimes they do, but they are broken, twisted creatures—”

A deep voice sounded from above, and Alina flung up her head. “Matho, please!”

Matho must have agreed, for she turned back to Harry. Her hand had warmed in his and when he kissed it once more, her other hand snaked through the bars and stroked his face, crept to the back of his neck.

“Ah, Alina,” he murmured. “Would that we had no iron bars between us.”

His flesh hardened. If this was his last night on earth, he wanted some pleasure to beguile his thoughts. He reached both hands through the grill and drew her close against the iron bars and in truth she was not reluctant, even when his hand roamed beneath her cloak, caught a ribbon and her nightgown gaped from neck to waist. His palm found the firm weight and curve of her breast and nestled around it.”

You can find FAIR BORDER BRIDE on either of the links:  http://tiny.cc/g7ddy and http://tiny.cc/930k5

Friday, 14 October 2011

Shadows in the night


west wing of Prudhoe Castle
"Melissa looked at her watch. It was well past midnight. The sofa was comfortable, but the unaccustomed heat kept her awake. Spending summer in a romantic old water mill in the Dordogne did have disadvantages. When she ran tentative fingers over her flanks, her skin was slick with moisture. The warm breeze from the open window moved through the room, but brought little relief. Crickets chirped so vigorously they might have been sitting on the hearthstone five feet away.
A cold drink would be good.
She scrambled off the sofa and tiptoed across the floorboards, hoping she wouldn’t step on any insect life. With her hands under the kitchen tap, she welcomed the gush of cold water, gulped some from her cupped palm and ran her damp hands over her face.

Fumbling her way through the shadows to the door, she released the latch and stepped outside. That was better. Cool air breathed across her skin. Ignoring the quick rustle of lizards scurrying toward crevices in the old walls, she strolled to the chairs, pale and cold in the moonlight. She sank into one of them, and flinched at the coldness of the plastic against her skin. Stars blinked above the massed ranks of dark trees. A breeze that never reached the valley floor swept across the topmost leaves of the tall trees in the meadow and produced the soft susurration in the air that was already familiar to her.
Rory slept in the big bed on the other side of the wall. He did not like their current sleeping arrangements. The tightening of his mouth, the flexing of his jaw muscles had shown that, and said very clearly that he’d let her have her way but he was not the kind of man who gave up easily. Had his pride suffered when she refused to share his bed? He had certainly been surprised. Would he try and persuade her, or sulk until she gave in? It had been a good decision not to let Rory sleep on the sofa for then she would have felt beholden to him. Much better that she owed him neither gratitude nor thanks at this point.
She stroked her thighs. Already the slickness dried from her skin. A wisp of long grass whisked along the flagstones, breathed across her foot and vanished. Rory had shown her a shed snakeskin as a warning not to be frightened if she saw the owner one day. The fragile, almost translucent skin had been trapped between the stones of the bolly and the old drain not four feet from where she sat. A cold breeze wandered by. Melissa hugged herself against the sudden chill. Perhaps this was a crazy idea after all. Flickers of movement caught her eye.
For no reason, her heart thudded in her chest. With her teeth pressing on her lower lip, she stared at the western end of the bolly where one of the four oak pillars supporting the tiled roof stood out sharp and clear in the moon's glow. Beyond them, the shrubs and rose bushes were gray against the dusty, moonlit ribbon of the drive. Nothing moved. She heard nothing but the soft sound of the breeze, yet her heart bounced faster, as if she were in danger.
 Muscles tense, she sat poised, ready to run.
The shadows made it difficult to see anything. The blackness moved and twitched close in against the house wall, less than ten feet away. A pale shifting blur morphed into hands and a face. Melissa’s fingers clung to the chair arms while she strained to see through the darkness. Hair lifted on the back of her neck and goose bumps sprang on her arms. She stared at two pale blurs, one above the other, moving very close together. Sure it must be some young couple seeking privacy, she opened her mouth to call out. But some instinct held her rigid and silent. What if they weren't real? Her heart beat so loudly that whoever lurked by the wall must surely hear it. She forced herself to inhale slowly and quietly.
Her heartbeat slowed a little.
The air around her was cold.
It’s always cold when—she slammed down on the thought about ghosts before it formed in her mind. She looked at the space between herself and the door, and the door and the dark, shifting shape. She could reach the door. She had to. The chair scraped across the flagstones and drowned the slap of her bare feet as she hurtled into the mill, slammed the door and rattled the bolt home.
Flexed from the hips, palms braced against the half glass door, she waited, mouth open, panting. Through the mottled glass and the wrought iron Perigourdine goose that guarded it, moonlight lit the grass beyond the bolly. Nothing moved. Her breathing slowed.
She remembered she’d seen a baseball bat by the door and groped for it without taking her gaze from the door. The smooth wooden shaft came comfortingly to her hand. Something creaked behind her. Melissa whirled on a sharp indrawn breath. The bat cocked and ready, she watched the door to the hall open."


A chilling tale, written with humour and drenched in the sights and perfumes of the rural Dordogne, a must-read for those who like a romance with a ghostly twist.
an excerpt from my book SHADOWS, available now on Kindle.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Lawful trods

Virginia Creeper in autumn
If the trod crossed the border, there were rules to ensure that it was a legal pursuit. An agreement drawn up in 1563 describes "a lawfull Trodd with Horn and Hound, with Hue and Cry and all other accustomed manner of fresh pursuit".

According to Walter Scott, who immersed himself in Border Lore, and possibly invented certain touches, the pursuer was obliged to carry a lighted turf on his lance-point to signify his good intentions and lawful pursuit.  It strikes me that a burning turf would not have lasted long, and might quite easily have shattered into a million bits as the rider's pony scrambled up and down hills and hopped across ditches and streams and boggy bits.

He was also supposed to report to the first person he met over the border, or to ask at the first village and seek assistance there. Early rules directed the pursuer to sseek out some local worthy and invite him to join the trod as witness that all was as it should be. I can imagine that this rule was flouted on more occasions than not, but actually impeding a trod was a serious offence. In England in the 1550s, refusal to follow a trod was punishable by death. Later this reduced to seven days imprisonment and a fine of  three shillings and four pence.
If the reivers were caught, they were returned to face the Warden's justice. Sometimes they were killed on the spot, especially if caught 'red-hand', ie " in the deede doinge". Lynchings happened, without a doubt, but how common they were is unknown. It brings to mind the old Wild West films we used to watch when films had a story instead of computer graphics and impossible action.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Hot Trod, anyone?


A Hot trod is a lawful pursuit of reivers and maybe it’s time to talk about them since they figure in two of my books. Trods were peculiar to the borderlands between Scotland and England. The whole area, known as the Marches, was divided into administrative blocks, with three on each side of the border; an East, Middle and West March. Each March had a Warden, who maintained law and order within that area. The East Marches were the smallest of the six and glared at each other across the Tweed from Carham to Berwick. Pleasant farmed land, with the Tweed easily forded. Armies of both nations marched endlessly across the the Eastern Marches, looting as they went.

The Middle Marches fronted each other across the Cheviots, and the crime rate of the two regions was legend. The wide, desolate hills were criss-crossed by reivers’ trails and one of the Wardens declared it an “unchristened country.”

The West Marches contained the Debateable Land, disputed over by both nations, and pursued reivers disappeared into it whenever danger threatened to get too close.  The people of Carlisle lived within easy riding distance of the Liddesdale hordes, but seemed to suffer less than the English Middle March because it was well defended, with a string of castles and fortresses that included Naworth, mentioned on this blog a week or two back. Also the broad Eden, like the treacherous Solway tide, was a genuine barrier.

Once raided by reivers, a man could complain to the Warden and gain justice that way. He could wait and plan a retaliatory raid, which most did because they often got their goods back with interest. Or he could decide on a pursuit. This was strictly legal, even if the trail took them across the border. Scott named it “the fatal privilege” because it enshrined the right to recover one’s property (usually hoofed and alive) by force, and to deal (usually nastily) with the thieves themselves. It had to take place within six days of the raid. If followed immediately, it was a hot trod; if followed later, a cold trod.

Friday, 7 October 2011

English UK

Strange things are happening in the editing world. A friend has recently come up against her present editor changing every ‘on to’ to ‘onto’. Many years ago a copy editor would not allow ‘onto’ in any circumstance and replaced them all with ‘on to’.

Naworth Castle courtyard

It is rather like the 'in to' and 'into' argument. There is a difference. The window was open so the cat climbed in to get his milk and fell into a bucket carelessly left there. I’m sure you can all see the difference.

Something my American friends are always correcting in my chapters is when I use 'different to'. They insist it should be 'different than.' Now, if enough people tell you a thing, you begin to believe it. So I looked up the grammar books and found that typical British usage is 'different to' when it introduces a clause and 'different from' when preceding a noun or pronoun. British usage doesn't include 'different than' at all.

I know it is unwise to generalise, and it is possible that all editors are not a) American or b)young twenty-somethings, (as if that is somehow a reason or an excuse, though I’ve it put forward as both!) but it is a shame that British English seems to be slowly caving in to American English. Why do British newspaper journalists and tv presenters think it is ‘cool’ to use the language of another culture? Why have I used the shorthand language ie ‘cool’, rather than think out a phrase that will describe what is meant by the slang phrase ‘cool’? Can it be that I am a) lazy or b)already indoctrinated?

Is grammar not taught in schools anymore? Have the teachers themselves got confused? Or is it the herd instinct, the reason that the less confidant follow the more confidant by adopting their style, their way of speaking? Food for thought, I think.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Relationship Fiction

W H Smith recently declared that from the middle of October it will no longer use "Women's Fiction" on promotional material in their stores. Evidently the company received complaints from two female shoppers who found the label condescending and offensive. Two things pop into mind - what are they going to use instead, and I had no idea just two complaints would change something in their store.

There is a rumour that "relationship fiction" is to be the new banner. People in the business of selling books say Women's Fiction and Chick Lit has always been about how women deal with relationships rather than the bigger issues dealt with in other types of fiction. In many ways I have to agree, but it isn't always simply getting a man that makes the story. There are complications that affect whole families, but I guess that still comes under the relationship banner. I suppose the smart thing would be to shelve the books as libraries used to do - a simple A-Z author sequence whch avoids all the cute headings.

People like the headings. They don't want to spend the time browsing through forty thousand books every time they want something to read.  And I suspect that most women like the heading Women's Fiction. And anyway, do you think a new banner is going to change the type of book that is taken off the shelves? I doubt it. But it will be interesting to watch the struggle.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Endless chick-lit

Still the talk goes on about how the women's commercial fiction genre is in recession with the genre's household names watching their sales fall. Jodi Picoult's name crops up in several articles, and though I wouldn’t have classed her as a chick-lit author she certainly comes in under women’s commercial fiction.

The facts are plain. Her book Picture Perfect (Hodder Paperback, June 2010) sold 238,832 copies in its first two months on shelves, but with Harvesting the Heart (Hodder Paperback, June 2011) sales fell by almost 50% to just 120,235 copies.

I’ve read a couple of Picoult’s titles and have heard her speak at Hexham Literary Festival. The first few titles I enjoyed, but it’s an odd kind of enjoyment when the characters are so tortured, and to be honest I can’t face having my emotions wrenched about any more. Perhaps other readers feel the same, and Picoult’s vogue has passed. This may be the answer in general. After all, how many titles in a similar genre can you read before ennui sets in? By the time I’d ploughed my way through all the James Bond stories, I think I’d be heartily sick of them and wouldn’t want another. I’ve read a good few Nora Roberts but now pass them by on the shelves because I know how she develops her characters and ties up her stories. Perhaps the charm and success of Jane Austen is that hers is a limited output, so small that the reader is left wanting more. Had she written twenty-five novels, we’d maybe tire of her writing too.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Anonymous

Can I take a moment aside from true  blog posts to say that I receive an awful lot of Anonymous comments, and that I delete them? I also receive a lot of spam, and distinguishing a genuine Anonymous from the sneaky spam is difficult. So a long time ago I made a rule to delete every comment that didn't have an identity attached to it.
Sorry, but that's the way it is. If you really want to comment, tell me who you are.