Category Archives: Hobnobbing with Writers

Looking at Both Sides – Adventures in Co-writing and Historical Fiction

 

Around the end of September 2015, my friend, historical fiction and non-fiction author, Matthew Willis, said the immortal words ‘Hey, does anyone want to write a book about the battle of Hastings with me?’ (I’m paraphrasing but that really was the gist of it.) I hadn’t studied anything to do with the Norman Conquest since a school trip to visit the Bayeux Tapestry, when I was twelve years old. I’d never attempted to co-write so much as a piece of flash fiction with anyone. And I mostly write speculative fiction and find it really quite hard to keep dragons, ghosts and genetically modified dinosaurs out of my stories. With that impressive list of qualifications, I immediately said ‘yes’ because, really, what could possibly go wrong? With a blithe disregard for the amount of work involved on research alone, I jumped in with both feet.

Have you ever seen the Disney film ‘Frozen’? I have two writing buddies who at regular intervals present me with ‘Do you want to build a snowman?’ moments and I find myself rashly agreeing to take part in all sorts of crazy schemes. Matt is actually the more restrained of those two friends. Just saying.

Back to co-writing. We threw around a few ideas. I think Matt may have had half the book mapped out in his head already, which was handy. One benefit of writing historical fiction is that you know how the story is going to end. You have a destination. Working out by what route you’re going to get there is the interesting, and occasionally difficult, process of producing a book. We both agreed early on that we didn’t want to present a single perspective. The Battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066 was one of those pivot points in history that changed the course of events forever. It certainly changed the face of England, and by extension Britain. And by further extension, the world. So many of the events we take for granted now as historical fact, would not have happened – or at the very least would have fallen out differently – if the Saxons had not lost the Battle of Hastings. Of course history is written by the winner, who if they have any sense, put a bit of gloss and spin on their own actions and scuff up the reputation of their vanquished enemies. Not as if said enemies would complain – they’re dead after all. We wanted to present both sides of the story and for both the Saxons and the Normans to have a voice. (In hindsight this is possibly why we ended up overshooting our word count target by 110,000 words but then hindsight is always 20/20 isn’t it?)

We’d already decided that William of Normandy himself should be one viewpoint character. But should Harold Godwinson be the other? For one thing, when a viewpoint character is dead, that’s it. No more Saxon voice. You lose that perspective. Another consideration was that while William and Harold Godwinson were undoubtably two of the most powerful and influential men of the time, they were both male. Recorded history often forgets or downplays the female perspective, taking the attitude of the time and valuing their contributions less. This isn’t a plug for gender equality by the way, merely a statement of fact. And yet there were many women of the time, both Saxon and Norman, who were important political players, who did influence events. It wouldn’t be as complete a story as we could make it if we didn’t include a female perspective. But who? It needed to conceivably be someone who was close to Harold Godwinson, so we could deliver his perspective without using him as a viewpoint character. It had to be someone who could conceivably have been at various different places, including on the fringes of some important battles. For authenticity, it needed to be someone about whom little was factually known. Which is where Ælfgifa came in.

Harold Godwinson had eight acknowledged siblings – in other words, brothers and sisters who shared both Gytha Thorkilsdöttir and Godwin of Wessex as parents. (In the Saxon tradition he probably had many half brothers and sisters as well – powerful men kept mistresses and had dalliances, and any offspring produced were usually acknowledged. It wasn’t considered shameful until the Latin Church really got a grip on Britain post 1066.) We know what happened to most of those acknowledged siblings. Harold’s brothers gained Earldoms in their own right and later died at the Battle of Hastings. The youngest brother, Wulfnoth, spent his life as a political hostage in Normandy. The oldest brother, Sven, was originally Godwin’s heir but got himself into some very hot water resulting in his banishment and Harold taking his place. Harold’s sisters too, were influential. Gunhild became abbess of the convent she joined – abbesses wielded a lot more power and influence politically back then. Edith of Wessex married Edward the Confessor and by all accounts is the reason he came to be known as ‘the Confessor’ since she ruthlessly scrubbed her husband’s public image and set about a careful, thorough and successful campaign of propaganda, the echoes of which we still feel today. Which just left Ælfgifa, one of the most shadowy branches on the Godwin family tree.

Very little is known or written about Ælfgifa. So little in fact that we can’t be sure of the dates of her birth or of her death. Contradictory accounts say she died in childhood, that she joined a convent and later died after the Norman Conquest. That she died around the time of the Battle. Did she even exist at all? It’s odd considering how well all of Godwin’s other legitimate children were documented. Either way, we had our second viewpoint, a Saxon and a woman. Matt and I were good to go.

As with writing alone, there are many ways to go about co-writing. Matt and I decided to work out our general direction – The Battle of Hastings – and then alternate chapters. We’d set aside October for research – again I was displaying my blithe disregard for my sheer lack of knowledge – and had decided to use 2015 NaNoWriMo to get the bulk of the book written. We both felt we could easily come up with 50,000 words each in a month. That would be the first draft more or less written. We were determined. We were geared up, raring to get started on our new project. We were confident.

We may also have been just a little bit nuts.

However at the end of November 2015, we did indeed have 100,000 words. The problem? We were only about a third of the way through the story. You see, the thing with the Battle of Hastings, is that it doesn’t actually start with the Saxon and Norman armies facing off. (Actually it doesn’t really end there either but that’s another story.) To give that pivotal moment in history context, you need to go back further in history, past the battle of Stamford Bridge. Past the battle of Fulford. Past the shipwreck that delivered Harold into the hands of William of Normandy and the subsequent uprising of Conan II. Further back, through sieges and skirmishes and assassination attempts – in fact at times you have to wonder if William the Conqueror, upon his death bed, looked back and saw he’d spent the vast majority of his life laying siege to one city or another. Even further back than that, because what caused a situation where the English crown was so precariously situated on the head of a childless king? Why were there so many claimants to the English throne? What made William, who lacked almost all the advantages Harold was born into, claw his way up from upstart boy Duke, to the formidable war leader he became? In the end, because while history doesn’t have a designated start date but a book most definitely needs one, we started in 1045 – twenty-one years prior to the Battle of Hastings.

One of the things we probably should have done from the start, rather than when we were both about 20,000 words in, was to create a timeline of events. Basically, beats that we needed to hit or be aware that one viewpoint character was hitting. When you’re spanning twenty years and two different peoples in a book, or two books as it became, you really do need a clear map of where you’re going and when. The broad strokes at least. Still once that was in place, we really took off.

Some of the best bits of co-writing are related to division of labour. I imagine if you don’t have absolute trust in your writing partner or if you’re a writer who just can’t let go of control, then our method of co-writing might not be for you. Matt and I had worked together  on creating anthologies of short stories before this and we’re both founding members of a writing group – the Random Writers – so there was enough confidence in each other to do due diligence on research and be sure that no major gaffes were included. Having someone who is writing the other half of a book with you is very motivational for just getting the words down too. And of course you’re less likely to get bogged down or stuck or really hung up on the ‘what am I doing, it’s all crap’ stage that all authors go through on every single book. And when it gets to contract signing time, and then to publication, you are once again not alone.

The worst part of co-writing, in my opinion, is a worry that you’ll let your partner down. That perhaps you’ll allow an error through or that maybe your writing won’t hold up to theirs, becoming a weakness in the story. Natural enough fears obviously and all writing has its downs as well as its ups. The downs were never enough to stymy me for long.

I might never have tried to write a straight historical novel, devoid of fantastical elements, if it hadn’t been for Matt’s suggested collaboration. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could write historical fiction engagingly, let alone keep up with someone who is far more knowledgeable on the subject than I am. You learn something new with every book you write, collaborating on this duology has probably taught me enough for five or six books. (So if you are an author and you like working with other authors maybe give co-writing a try.) The end result was two epic historical novels that Matt and I felt pretty justified in being pleased with. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them too.

 

 

An Argument of Blood (Oath and Crown book 1) is available in ebook and paperback from all major retailers now.

 

A Black Matter for the King (Oath and Crown book 2) release date TBC.

 

See www.facebook.com/oathandcrown for more details

Launch Day – And a Free Book!

Ok, it’s finally here. Launch day for the second novel in the Unveiled series. I have been a bit rubbish about promoting ‘I am the Silence‘ here  – possibly giving in to my natural urge as a writer to hide whenever a book I’ve written is released.

Anyway, the usual anxieties around book releases aside, I am really excited that Book 2 is now available. I feel that I’ve really found my voice with this book and that it’s even better than ‘I Belong to the Earth‘ – and it appears there is a growing consensus of opinion to that end, so it’s nice to know that I am not entirely delusional 😉

Released 19th January 2017 ebook and paperback

“Have you found your inner darkness, Emily Lynette?”

A year after breaking the Pattern, Emlynn no longer fights her gift. She’s become adept at sending the Dead on to rest. Perhaps a little too good…

Sent to investigate reports of a haunting, Emlynn finds herself facing a crushing embarrassment, and worse, a deep betrayal. Deciding it’s time to leave the supernatural alone for a while, she travels to Dorset to stay with her childhood best friend, Beth. The Milton Abbey festival of music should take her mind off everything; Ghosts, betrayals and disappointments. Except Beth has changed. She’s definitely running with a new crowd – a cooler, dangerous group whose leader, Rhys, has an unhealthy interest in Emlynn.

As if that isn’t enough, Emlynn’s violin tutor turns out to be a young man she used to know. Lucas has definitely changed – hostile, volatile and rude, but also intense and disturbingly compelling. That’s one mystery Emlynn can’t leave alone. Torn between her connection with Beth’s troubled younger sister and the terrifying black beast that stalks Emlynn in her dreams, there’s no rest for the weary psychic. Facing the reality of what Beth is mixed up in, Emlynn may have finally picked a fight she cannot win…

I’ve mentioned in the acknowledgements that this was a really hard book to write and it’s no exaggeration, so I am also strangely relieved that it’s now available for general consumption. I am looking forward to hearing what you all think.

Also available for those who enjoy the Unveiled series – two novellas and a short story. You don’t have to read these before you read ‘I am the Silence’ – or at all for that matter, but there are easter eggs and snippets of back story that give a richer reading experience if you decide you want to. (Only available in ebook at present.)

 

 

 

Free Book – Ciaran’s Chance

Anyone been wondering what Ciaran has been up too since he exited stage right at the end of ‘I Belong to the Earth’? This companion novella to ‘I am the Silence’ will tell you all.

There are things we do in life that we can’t ever take back. Bad things that follow us, no matter how we wish we could change them. So I needed to find him. See the man. And the monster.’

A year after the events in Arncliffe and Ciarán is giving up hope of ever being able to return. Marked by what he did that night, he is no longer the person he thought he was. Surly, directionless and irritable, he reconnects with an old friend whilst staying with his sister. Somewhere between friendship and hatred, he starts to pick apart the strands of whatever darkness hides inside him.

A trip to find his father and confront his past turns into a nightmare that dates back centuries. Because something hunts the men of Ciarán’s family. Something ancient that cannot be reasoned with or bribed. Amongst the O’Connors, the sins of the father really are visited on the sons. If Ciarán ever wants to be able to see Emlynn again, he must succeed where all his ancestors have failed and stop the creatures that have stalked his family for generations.

This book is ONLY available through my website BUT I am giving it away FREE.

All you need to do to claim your copy is join my Readers’ Group . 

(I send newsletters around once a month or less, no spam – promise. And if you don’t like the content then you can always unsubscribe. You’ll still have the free book 😉  )

That’s it for now but there will be more updates in the days to come. I’ve been silent but extremely industrious – there are many more books on the way. Thank you for reading and to everyone who’s been part of the journey so far, and to everyone who has contacted me to ask about writing or for book recommendations or just because they liked something I’ve written. I love hearing from you – you all rock.

An especially big thank you to everyone who has reviewed my books. Seriously, authors live and die by word of mouth so every time you recommend one of my books or write me a short review (or a long one!) you are making a difference and ensuring I can write more books for you.

Ok so back to finishing book three it is then…

 

 

Dissecting Dragons – the first Guest Episode

I’ve talked about Dissecting Dragons, the speculative fiction podcast that M.E.Vaughan and I produce a bit before. However on Friday the first episode featuring a guest author was released and I feel it’s worth looking at the process in a bit more detail – not least of which because that episode has probably been our most successful one to date.

We’ve had lots of positive feedback about the podcast – people seem to genuinely be enjoying it, which is brilliant. As writers we all know how hard it is to judge your own work, so to have listeners comment or get in touch to say they like it is very encouraging. I will, in future, explain exactly how we are producing a podcast for those who fancy trying their hand at producing their own. (It’s always helpful to look at someone else’s process.)

So, first guest. James Nichol is a children’s author whose first book, The Apprentice Witch, is being published by the ChickenHouse. (To give you some context, he has been working with Barry Cunningham, the editor who discovered J.K.Rowling.) The book sounds utterly enchanting – I’m certainly looking forward to reading it myself when it is released in July 2016.

Dissecting Dragons - Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.
Dissecting Dragons – Writing, Reading, Loving and sometime Hating, Speculative Fiction.

What made James a great guest was that he took an interest and engaged with the entire topic. And I think what allowed him to do that was that Madeleine and I had set things up so that we fell into a natural rhythm of conversation about that week’s topic. Between the three of us we produced some really interesting content. There was no sense of having to perform, either for James or for either of us. My theory is that it’s that relaxed atmosphere during which three authors discuss books and writing that makes it engaging for listeners.

Of course it definitely helps that James was interesting, engaging and humble about his achievements. Coupled with a sense of humour that has to be a winning combination for authors. I’ve mentioned before how hard many of us find it to talk about our work. Certainly publishers and editors both have said that they often feel that authors need to feel they’ve ‘been given permission’ to talk about their books. Could it be that a cosy chat via podcast is a way of breaking down this self imposed barrier? I have no firm conclusion on that but it’s definitely exciting times.

I highly recommend you listen to James story (not just because I want you to download the podcast) because it is as close to a ‘fairytale’ dream-come-true story of an author finding his publisher and his niche.

Dissecting Dragons – Episode 4 – Witches, Brooms and Spells with James Nichol

Dissecting Dragons Facebook page

Throwback Thursday: Tales of York: Volume One – Intimate Strangers

(First published on my old blog 2nd October 2013)

I’d hate to give anyone the wrong impression, so I’ll state now that while the title was a pleasing oxymoron for me and apt for this topic, I won’t be covering any erotica today – sorry about that 😉

September 2013 saw the University of York once again hosting the Festival of Writing. I was one part excitement to two parts bundle of nerves. It wasn’t just the thought of meeting agents for the first time ever (that actually deserves a blog of it’s own, so I won’t go into it here) it was the idea of meeting complete strangers and not so complete strangers (people I’d met and befriended via theWord Cloud) and talking about myself.

In a bizarre conjunction of personality traits, I’m quite happy public speaking, talking to strangers doesn’t bother me; I’ve stood in front of classes of 300 adult karate students and taught for 4 hrs with nary a twinge of nerves or the idea that, objecting to my gender, comparative youth and scrawniness, they might reckon me unable to teach them anything and rebel. (In point of fact they never did – I think it helps when you don’t question your own authority, maybe?)  Ask me to stand and talk about anything personal or more specifically anything close to my soul and suddenly all the shyness I thought I’d left behind in childhood crashes down on me. I like to think I’m fairly articulate. Ask me what my book is about and … blank.

Of course when you gather around 400 people together for a writer’s convention, the popular opening line is ‘What do you write?’ In fact that line is pretty much guaranteed to open up a whole vista of new acquaintance. Except that when I was asked that question I got as far as ‘Young Adult Urban Fantasy’ and then got stuck. I know exactly what my book is about. Of course I do. I worked hard on plot and themes and character – all that good stuff. I am just rubbish at selling myself. And consequently, not that good at pitching my book. There is hope however. This appears to be a skill you can learn.

When you think about it though, it’s not so weird to be overcome with shyness talking about your own writing. Aside from the fairly commonly held anxiety that what you write is probably pap that good trees shouldn’t die for, how often would you sit down to dinner or a drink with a stranger and bare your soul? Abruptly you find yourself in deep conversation on the finer points of part of your novel with someone who’s last name you don’t know. Might not ever know. You may not get around to talking about your husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, kids, pets… All the things that you would have talked to a really close friend about at some point. Usually before you got on to examining the deep seated dreams you’ve nourished in private for years. Because when writers talk shop, they really talk shop. So yes it is a strange intimacy.

Did I get over it? Well I still stumbled over discussing my work if the question came out of the blue at me. But by and large every time I did talk about my book, it got a bit easier. There is the horror movie theory of course; if you’ve seen the same horror film a hundred times it ceases to be scary. I probably did start a gentle process of surface desensitization. But there was so much more to it. For the first time everyone in the room, everyone I could possibly find myself in conversation with, was a book lover. Not necessarily my book, maybe not even my preferred genres. But we were all linked together by a love of the written word and a passion for creating it ourselves. In short, I’d found a niche I belonged in where I didn’t have to fight for space.

To para-phase Yuxin; In the heavens there is room for infinite stars to shine, with out one diminishing anothers brightness.

That was how I came to feel…within three hours of being at the festival. There were definite nervous moments but mostly it was a sense of coming home. The big realisation was that no one in that room was judging my writing as harshly as I was judging it. They all knew how hard it was. They all had the same fragile hopes.

In our daily lives I think we have lost, to some extent, that sense of communion as a group. It was wonderful and strange to discover something I wasn’t even aware I was looking for. It was even more wonderful that it was amongst writers I found it.

Self-Publishing Success with Joanne Phillips

Last month I took part in The Writer’s Workshop Self-Publishing Success course. I have a lot of respect for Writer’s Workshop – they provide advice, resources, help and opportunities for writers from all walks of life. Being part of that community has smoothed my path no end. But even if I were not an active participant of ‘The Word Cloud’ – the WW forum – it would be worth following the Writer’s Workshop just to participate in the yearly get together in York at the Festival of Writing. (This year will be my fourth year and I am already looking forward to it!) So you can probably imagine that I have a lot of respect for course run by WW, especially since I had already done their brilliant ‘Self-edit your novel’ course a couple of years ago.

 

I was not/ am not a complete newbie when it comes to Self-Publishing (or Indie Publishing if you prefer). I had co-edited two anthologies and done al the formatting for The Random Writers – a superb if sightly unusual writing group I belong to. So the technical stuff, the terminology and the big learning curve at the start of Self-publishing… well I was fairly confident I had digested all that. Not confident enough to do it entirely on my own behalf mind you. Oh no. I wanted to be firmly backed up by a dozen or so brilliant writers. So that alone should have told me that I was looking for something.

 

158262-425x283-Examining-antique-books

Enter Writer’s Workshop Self-Publishing Success tutor, Joanne Phillips.  Joanne is a successful Self-published author who writes contemporary mysteries, commercial women’s fiction and romantic comedies. She has also been an Amazon top 100 Bestseller and won the SpaSpa award for best Romantic Comedy. More importantly, Joanne was also down-to-earth, personable, chock full of interesting tid-bits and advice in self-publishing and just generally lovely to work with.

It was a four week course, taking place entirely online which was brilliant because you could conceivably be anywhere in the world with a laptop and internet connection and take part. The subject of Self-Publishing was broken down into four segments – an overview of self-publishing including learning terms and types of self publishing. getting ready to publish, the technical side of uploading and actually self-publishing , and last but in no way least, marketing.

At the beginning of each week we were provided with course materials including an introductory video to that week’s topic and extensive but accessible notes. A home work task was also set and often there was an optional discussion topic to get involved in. Part of the homework was to look at and give feedback on your course mates’ homework.  As is usually the way wit WW courses, this was pretty intense. While I was aided by my prior knowledge and the fact that I am already a sort of hybrid author, there was still plenty for me to do and take on. In fact it would be fair to say that the homework pushed me in ways that I had never pushed myself.

My goal at the beginning of the course was to find out how to market better and reach my readers. As it turned out the major flaw in my marketing plan was revealed in week one. Namely that as well received as my books might be to the smallish number of people who had read them, I wasn’t reaching my readers because no one knew about my books. It seems so obvious in retrospect however it’s something that many authors struggle with; the ability to talk about their work and tell people that it’s out there for the buying.

Then there was the addition of several new tools to my writing toolkit for example press releases – which I may never love but can at least see the value of now (I’d always sort of skipped them before)- and vlogs – a short video blog aimed at fellow writers and members of my audience, a powerful aid to connection which I may one day post here…

All in all this course is worth every penny. Jo is a great person to work with and gives really valuable feedback. Learning how to identify the right key words was a revelation – seriously my mind is still blown. The concept is simple but putting it into action takes a lot of thorough careful work. I can see how it could immediately improve sales and no one – not any of the books I’ve read or blogs on self-publishing or speaking to other self-published authors – has ever explained it in such depth and clarity before. Maybe it’s one of those things you think every one knows and understands if you know and understand it yourself – either way it’s a much bigger deal that the odd paragraph here and there allows for.

If you’re just starting out Self-publishing or you’ve been doing it for a while but not seen much in the way of results, this course is for you. In fact if you think you know enough about self publishing, this course is for you. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

A big thank you to Joanne Phillips who completely changed my perspective and gave me the confidence to go forward in self-publishing on my own behalf 😀