Book Blogging 101

What follows are the unedited notes I made in preparation for my Q&A as guest speaker at Novel Nights in Bristol, which I wrote about here. The questions were sent to me in advance of the event and these answers were intended as prompts that I could talk around, depending on how the evening went.

Much of what I include in this longer than usual post was covered in my talk, albeit in slightly different form. The rest will, I hope, be of interest to some.

Thank you for inviting me. My name is Jackie Law and I run the Never Imitate book blog. I created the blog a little over six years ago and have been a book blogger for the past five years. I post regular book reviews, write-ups of literary events, author and publisher interviews, and the occasional opinion piece.

I created my blog as a space to write. Within a year I realised that the short fiction pieces I was creating were weak and lacking in originality. Feedback suggested I was better when writing about events and facts, sharing my opinion, so I started to write about the books I was reading. It was only then that I realised book blogging was a thing.

This made me think about where I wanted to go with my writing and I decided that the world did not need my stories but would benefit from discovering some of the fabulous stories already created by others.

My blog has grown and developed from there.

It has opened up to me the world of publishing and the challenges faced by authors who need to get their books on the radars of readers. I am not a publishing insider but my efforts have led to some interesting invitations and glimpses of the workings within that world.

 

Process and getting started as a blogger / how it works. 

How do you get started as a book blogger? 

Have a think about what you want to achieve. There are many, many book blogs out there. Decide what you wish to offer your readers.

For example, the Shots blog fashions itself as an ezine and promotes crime fiction and thrillers.

The Tripfiction site features books with a strong sense of place. If you’re planning a holiday you can search their reviews for books set in your destination.

Most book blogs feature reviews, event write-ups and author interviews. Some author run blogs also offer advice and information for writers.

Go online and familiarise yourself with what is out there. Note what you like and dislike – about the way a blog looks, ease of navigation and writing style.

Sam Missingham is a freelance publishing professional who runs Lounge Books. She provides links to book bloggers on her site which may be a good place to start.

The mechanics of setting up a blog requires a few decisions such as:

  • Which platform do you wish to use – the most common are WordPress or Blogger;
  • What theme do you want to use – page structure, colours, font, use of photographs, widgets (sidebar links);
  • Your blog needs a unique name. You may wish to open a Twitter account, Instagram and Facebook page to match this – creating a brand.

These things are not essential. My online presence grew organically over time so I have used a variety of names – Jackie Law and Never Imitate, my twitter handle @followthehens, my email name zeudytigre – and I have coped with the mix. If I had known at the beginning what I know now I would have stuck with one name to help build recognition.

Once your blog is set up you need to start sharing your posts across social media. Follow other book blogs that you enjoy reading and share their posts too. Interact with them, perhaps commenting on their blog or on Twitter.  Growing a following takes time, effort and patience – like making friends.

Don’t get hung up on the stats – follower numbers, blog hits and so on. Produce good content, be supportive to others, and growth will happen

 

Do you buy the books to review – if you’re sent them does this impact on what you choose to read? 

I still buy books but far fewer than before I was added to publicists’ lists as a reviewer. I currently have well over 100 unread books on the floor by my desk, at least half of which I have purchased.

Even with this backlog, I use the library if there is a book I want to read that I haven’t been sent. I am a reader first.

On how I choose what to read next, if I have asked for or agreed to take a book then I will do my best to review it before publication. If I am sent a surprise book because a publicist thinks I will enjoy it then it goes on a separate pile and I dip into that when I have time and inclination.

The books I agree to take I expect to enjoy so am eager to read them all. The remainder I will filter based on what I feel like reading at the time.

 

What is your selection process? How do you choose what goes onto your blog?

I have favoured publishers – mainly the small presses that put out maybe 3 to a dozen books a year such as Galley Beggar, Influx, Dead Ink, Charco, Peirene, Bluemoose, Belgravia, Salt. I read any book they send. This list is growing as I discover more small presses – special thanks here to the Republic of Consciousness Prize lists.

There are also authors I favour. I currently have early proofs of the new Joanne Harris (The Strawberry Thief, a sequel to her best seller, Chocolat), Polly Clark (Tiger) and Alison Weir (Six Tudor Queens series). I’m hoping that I will be sent copies of the new Jan Carson (The Fire Starters), Sinéad Gleeson (Constellations) and Anna Hope (Expectation). Later in the year I would love to receive the new Erin Morgenstern (The Starless Sea) but expect there will be high demand for this.

These are all new publications. Sometimes I simply want to read a particular book so will do so.

There are times when I feel guilty at the length of time I have had a title waiting to be reviewed so will read that. It is disappointing if I finally get to a book and don’t enjoy it. Maybe that was why it languished for so long.

 

How do you find out what books are coming out? 

From publicists and Twitter mainly. I follow and interact with those producing the books I am likely to want to read. I am sent catalogues and newsletters but mostly ask for proofs offered by email or on social media.

I am a contributor on another book blog – Bookmunch. They get books I may not hear about elsewhere and have different contacts within the publishing industry. I get quite a few of the non fiction titles I review through them.

 

Do you get paid for your time?

No. Be aware that, as an author, you do not need to pay for book reviews. There are people out there who offer that service – to link authors with book bloggers for a fee – but by interacting on social media you can find plenty of bloggers willing to review for free.

Another thing I will mention is the blog tour. This is a popular way of ensuring a succession of reviews will be posted each day over a week or even a month. Publicists organise blog tours for new releases or outsource the organisation of tours to freelancers. Authors can also contact these freelancers direct – this is a service you would need to pay for.

Blog tour organisers hold lists of bloggers willing to take part in tours along with the genres of books they enjoy. A tour will typically include reviews, interviews, guest posts and extracts from the book being promoted. Bloggers on the tour will share each other’s work.

Whilst this may sound great – and I know of many publishers who believe tours have value, which is why they pay for them – I also know of readers who ignore blog posts on a tour as they are publicity vehicles and therefore likely to be overwhelmingly positive. Readers – buyers of books – want balanced opinions.

I used to take part in blog tours but stopped when they became ubiquitous. I prefer to carve out my own space  – I named my blog Never Imitate for a reason – and decided to regain autonomy over what I was reading, to recapture the pleasure and remove the stress of reading to a schedule.

Many book bloggers enjoy being a part of tours as it is a way of bringing them, the authors and publicists together. It helps raise their profile as well as that of the book.

 

What benefits have you found to being a book blogger?

Mainly personal satisfaction as a writer. I feel I can offer readers more value as a reviewer than I could as a novelist – I can draw attention to a good book that already exists.

I also enjoy the social side – going to author events at bookshops, attending publishing events, writing these up on my blog, feeling a sense of belonging in my small corner of the literary world.

Although I do not know them personally I am often recognised by authors or publicists when I introduce myself – by my name, blog name or twitter handle. It feels good to be welcomed.

Also, of course, there are the books. I get sent proofs, sometimes months in advance. I have been quoted on covers and inside which is always pleasing. I am one of many but it is still satisfying to be told our work is appreciated.

 

The context of book blogging within publishing – how important is it? What is the situation at the moment? What influence do bloggers have? 

The audience for print media – newspapers and magazines – is shrinking as more people turn to the internet for news and features. Bloggers share their work on social media and it pops up in search engines – my blog gets a lot of hits this way. We are growing in influence. There are, of course, a huge number of blogs of varying quality but many offer content at least as good as in traditional media.

The important thing is to find your niche. I tend to concentrate my efforts on strong literary fiction and non-fiction from the edges. I have attracted an interested audience for that product. When I recommend something my regular readers will consider if it could be for them.

Other bloggers read best sellers, romance, crime fiction – and have found their audience for these genres.

We are told by publicists that we have influence – parties are held from time to time where we are offered wine, access to authors, and advance reader copies of their books. I can provide no figures but publishing is a business and I don’t imagine I would be sent books and invited to parties if publishers did not see this as financially worthwhile.

At a prize event I attended last year, Elly from Galley Beggar Press mentioned that reviews are hugely useful and that she sees spikes in sales when these appear in key publications. When asked if reviews were really so important in driving sales the consensus amongst the publishers present was that what is required is visibility. It is to do with readers spreading the word, such as happens on Twitter when reviews are shared by the wider book reading community.

I was told by a journalist on the Guardian books desk that they receive more books each week than the pared down staff numbers can unpack. Many remain in their jiffy bags. The reach of the book blogging community – who share each other’s work – is being increasingly harnessed.

 

Questions aimed at authors

For authors wanting books to be reviewed what advice can you offer? 

Make contact with book bloggers on social media – although don’t go straight to direct message. It is irritating when following back a writer on Twitter results in them pitching their book within a day.

Share posts. Comment on blogs. Follow widely, not just the blogs with many followers but those whose reviewing style you admire.

Observe the sort of books the blogger enjoys – for example crime fiction bloggers may not want to review your romance. Find bloggers who give positive reviews to books like yours.

Once a blogger knows who you are, that you are willing to support their work and that of other authors, quietly offer your book for review. No response probably means they are busy so don’t chase.

There are Facebook groups that link authors with bloggers such as Book Connectors. I am no longer a member but believe it is still a place to seek out connections.

   

You don’t review e-books. In your opinion, is it harder for authors who are digital first to get reviewed? 

There are plenty of bloggers who read digital. Netgalley is a popular publishers’ resource. It depends on the reviewer.

I am certainly not alone in requiring hard copy. This is another aspect to check when getting to know a blogger on social media.

 

Do you distinguish between self-published, indie published and traditionally published authors?  

Yes, I no longer review self published books or any book published by a press that asks for a financial contribution from the author – if I can find that information, it is often kept opaque.

Around 120,000 titles are published each year in hard copy – 10,000 each month. I can’t read them all, I need a filter and use publishers as gate keepers.

In the past I have accepted books from self published authors. Many, not all, felt raw, lacking in a final polish to remove snags, enabling the reading experience to flow.

This is not just a problem with self published work. Traditionally published does not necessarily mean that the book has been edited, proof read and produced to make it the best it can possibly be.

I’d add that some books from the big publishers have been so highly polished that they appear to have lost their edge, become generic. This suits many readers but I look for innovation, perhaps some experimentation, as well as depth and a damn good read.

I have got to know the publishers who release only books whose quality and content I expect to enjoy. This is important as I don’t want to spend time reading a book I’m not going to then want to encourage others to pick up. Neither author nor publisher benefits from a negative review.

I am writing reviews for readers, they are my key audience. It is the reader who may spend their money buying the book.

 

How you work with publishers and how you work with individual authors. 

I try to avoid working directly with authors. Their book is their baby and if I don’t fully enjoy it, any criticism may be taken personally.

Sending me a book costs money. When I have accepted a book from a self published author there is a cost to them and then an expectation that I will read it in a timely manner. I still have books on my TBR pile that I thought I would get to a year ago.

Last year I received an irate message from an author. I had told them I would likely review their book within a given timescale and had failed to achieve this. No publisher has ever chased me in this way for a review. Sometimes life intervenes and, as a reader, I don’t always want to pick up a particular book – it is not right for me at that time. This can affect enjoyment and therefore what I write about the book.

Of course, I understand why the author felt let down. I want to avoid the pressure and guilt of failing to read or disliking an author’s work. Working with publishers feels less personal.

Other book bloggers I know do work directly with authors and enjoy the personal interaction. We each run our blogs in different ways. We are not paid so it has to be enjoyed or why do it?

Check out a blogger’s review policy and read their posts to see if they could be a good fit for your book.

How I work with publishers is I ask to be put on their lists for a particular book or perhaps any book they think I might enjoy. Sometimes the book has been offered to bloggers on Twitter, sometimes I am emailed by a publicist. I am known by my favourite publishers and by some of the publicists at the bigger presses. I feel privileged to be sent a lot of books.

 

Questions aimed at bloggers 

Remaining independent. How do you balance the line between saying what you think and being diplomatic. 

I write for readers – my reviews are not academic literary criticism. I will always try to explain why if I don’t like an aspect of a book.

One benefit of having written fiction myself is that I understand how difficult it is, the time and effort involved. I admire anyone who can produce a novel. Even if I don’t happen to enjoy reading it I will bear in mind that getting a book as far as publication is an achievement.

Remember, all reviews are subjective – they say as much about the reviewer as the writing style or story.

I have a review policy on my blog. Its purpose is to try to avoid being sent books I am unlikely to enjoy.

I post a review of every book I read so not all are positive. No reader will like every book they read and no book will be liked by every reader. When I do like a book I continue to recommend it, not just around publication. I do monthly and annual roundups. I share anything positive about the book I find on line. I become its advocate.

 

Any writing tips for blogs? 

Decide what you want your blog to say and who your target audience is. Are you offering advice for writers, reviews for readers, pitfalls on the road to publication, interviews with those involved in bringing books to readers?

Find your niche. Seek out interesting content. Provide variety.

Write each post well. Pay attention to spelling, grammar, structure, flow. My posts are typically 500-1000 words long and take 2-3 hours to write. Blogging is a commitment – decide if it is for you.

To maintain momentum write what interests you in a style that you enjoy. Book bloggers come and go because their initial enthusiasm wanes when they do not feel appreciated after 6 months, even a year or two. It can take longer to build a following and initial expectations of numbers and engagement may be unrealistic.

I enjoy what I do and the world it has introduced me to so I make a conscious effort not to get hung up on the numbers, the stats that show site hits and followers. I do this for readers, authors and publishers but also for myself.

 

How do you build an audience for it?  

Share widely on multiple social media platforms. Interact with other bloggers – share their work too. Let the publisher know when a post goes up and hope that they share.

Only tag an author if the review is very positive!

I use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook reluctantly. I put my reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I am in a group on Goodreads who like the same sorts of books as I do and sometimes share my content.

Find your tribe and nurture contacts. Be yourself.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jackie Law

Novel Nights is a monthly literary event showcasing and supporting writing and writers at all stages of their career. Held in Bristol and Bath, their events open with selected writers reading from their published work or work in progress. After a short break there will then be a talk from a guest speaker, typically a published author or publishing professional who will offer advice to attendees on the varying aspects and challenges of their writing journey. I have previously enjoyed evenings featuring Jon Woolcott (The Business of Books), Sanjida Kay (On How to Plot) and Nikesh Shukla (Writing and Persistence).

On Wednesday of this week I faced a new experience as I had been invited to attend Novel Nights in Bristol as the guest speaker. Putting myself in front of an audience was a daunting prospect but I felt honoured to have been asked and did not wish to pass up the opportunity to talk about my passion.

The event opened with an introduction by host, Charlotte Packer, who shared with us the good news that the founder and organiser of Novel Nights, Grace Palmer, has had her work longlisted for the Ellipsis Zine Flash Fiction Competition and also for the Bath Flash Fiction Novella in Flash Award. Authors remain anonymous at this stage in the judging process so little more can be revealed but it is always wonderful to hear of a writer’s successes, especially one as actively supportive of others as Grace.

Charlotte then introduced the first reader of the evening, Christine Purkis, who read an extract from her latest novel, Jane Evans, recently published by small Welsh press, Y Lolfa. Set in 19th century central Wales it tells the fictionalised story of a remarkable woman who was a pig farmer, the first female drover in the area, and who nursed alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea.

The second reader was Mina Bancheva who had invited her friend, Michael, to read from her work in progress. Family Life (working title) is the second book in a proposed trilogy. It is set in Bulgaria and the USA from the 1920s through to the present day. It is a family saga telling a tale of the lives and fates of three generations.

The third and final reader was Jess Farr-Cox who read from her work in progress, described as a gently experimental murder mystery. Jess explained that she had played around with form while writing. Sections are written as script, as diary entries, and in more straightforward prose. She told us this process had been a lot of fun.

The story is set in a small village, key characters being a vicar and his children. In the section read, a young boy had just caught a fish and was weaving a tall tale about it in an effort to impress his playmates.

The first half of the event was drawn to a close with a quick word from Robert Woodshaw from Foyles in Cabot Circus. He told us about an event coming up on 20th March – An Evening of Sex and PoliticsRobert will be discussing his debut novel, The Iron Bird, which takes the premise of Animal Farm and applies it to the life of Margaret Thatcher, a bird of prey. He will be joined by Lucy-Anne Holmes who will be talking about her memoir Don’t Hold My Head Down, the story of how she found feminism through sex and took on the The Sun over Page 3. Whilst the format of this event sounds innovative and lively we were assured that clothes would be kept on at all times.

There was then a break to enable audience members to chat and buy drinks from the bar before I was required to take my seat for the Q&A, hosted by Grace.

Sitting in front of an audience holding a mic and answering questions prevented me from scribbling notes about what was being discussed as I normally do at literary events. I have therefore decided on a different approach in this write-up.

When I was first contacted about speaking at Novel Nights I was told that the audience might like to know more about:

  • how I got into reviewing books;
  • how to set up a blog and build a following;
  • how I choose who to review and (possibly) how they can get their books reviewed;
  • how I deal with requests from individuals as there must be books I am not interested in reading.

Following further emails and a chat over the phone, the topics to be covered were expanded to include:

  • where book blogging sits within the publishing industry, its impact and influence;
  • reviewing self published authors;
  • why I devote so much time to doing something I am not paid for (ed. how many writers ask themselves this?).

Having requested that the structure be a Q&A rather than a talk, I was sent a list of potential questions. My preparation involved writing out my answers and trying to commit them to memory. I hoped that enough would remain in my head to be talked around as my mind has a bad habit of going blank when I try to think on my feet. I believe this approach was successful.

Rather than try to remember the detail of what was actually said live on Wednesday, and worry about the veracity of my recall, tomorrow I will post in full the notes I prepared and from which my answers to Grace’s and the audience’s questions were drawn. This will be a long read but may be of interest to some.

My husband, who came along as taxi driver and moral support, told me that I fluffed one question from an audience member. I believe a gentleman asked me about translated poetry (I had mentioned that I wanted to read more poetry) and I thought he had asked about translated fiction. My mention of Charco Press and Peirene Press was therefore not the answer he was probably looking for – my apologies.

It was an interesting evening and experience. I mentioned in my talk that being a part of the literary world, even if only from my small remote corner, is one of the benefits of book blogging. On Wednesday, within this company, I felt like a writer who had something to contribute. Despite my habit of over analysing every social interaction there remains within me today that warm fuzzy feeling of having been a part of a tribe I admire.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Nikesh Shukla

Novel Nights is a monthly literary meetup with branches in Bristol and Bath. The aim is to showcase and support excellent writing and writers at all stages of their careers. Last Wednesday evening I travelled to The Square Club in Bristol to listen to four authors read from their work and discuss Writing and Persistence. The event was part of the Bristol Festival of Literature and featured Nikesh Shukla, as headline speaker.

Grace Palmer, who set up Novel Nights five years ago and continues to run it along with a supportive team, opened proceedings by welcoming the audience and introducing Jari Moate, from the festival, as host. Jari told us that the Bristol Festival of Literature is now in its eighth year and receives no outside funding, relying on donations and ticket sales. It is run by volunteers, and it was following one of its events that Grace felt inspired to set up Novel Nights.

Jari then introduced the first reader, Anesu Pswarazayi, who read an extract from his debut story collection The Nomadic Slave. This is a memoir of growing up straddling three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – and how perspectives are influenced by race, citizenship, and ascribed identity.

  

The second reader was Mike Manson (a last minute replacement for Karla Neblett) who read an excerpt from his latest work, Down in Demerera, which completes a trilogy of humorous novels. Mike also writes history books but likes to think he will return to fiction in the future.

  

The third reader was Sabrin Hasbun who describes herself as an Italian-Palestinian transnational writer. In the last few years she has lived in France, Japan, and the UK. She is currently doing her PhD in Creative Writing – focusing on memory and memoirs – at Bath Spa University. She talked about feeling Arabic in the West and Western when in Arabia. She read from her current work in progress which is based around a family from mixed backgrounds. The excerpt was a fictionalised account of her father’s childhood, exploring the subtle differences in treatment of Christians and Muslims. The religion marked on ID cards creates an invisible border between people who live side by side.

  

Pete from Foyles then drew the first half of the evening to a close by talking about the local branch’s plans for the festive season, their last before being taken over by Waterstones. He spoke of the effect of negative reviews on book sales, such as he has observed with the new Murakami. He also mentioned the recent Booker winner, Milkman, and how it was good to see a paperback scoop the prize as this will be affordable for more readers. He urged the audience to buy the books he had brought along and support our bookshops.

After a short break Grace sat down with Nikesh Shukla and asked him to introduce his work. As well as publishing four novels, Nikesh is: editor of The Good Immigrant, has written regularly for national newspapers, and co-founded The Good Literary Agency. The following is taken from notes I scribbled down during his discussion with Grace.

Nikesh spoke of his journey as a writer, how he started what eventually became The One Who Wrote Destiny when he was nineteen years old as he wanted to tell the story of a court case involving his uncle. Uncle came to the UK in the 1960s to join a friend who had been offered a job juggling in London clubs. Not knowing the UK, Uncle ended up taking digs in Keighley where he met the young girl he would marry. As other family members joined him he tried to buy a house in Huddersfield but was informed by the estate agent that company policy was not to sell to people of colour as they ‘would devalue the area’. This was in 1968 and the Race Relations Act had just been passed. Uncle took the company to court, the first person to do so under the Act. It was clearly discrimination yet he lost the case on a technicality.

Nikesh wished to write this family history into a sort of legal thriller but couldn’t make it work so set it aside, going on to write his first and second novels. Periodically he would retrieve the manuscript and rewrite it. When he showed it to his agent it was still a mess. The structure of the story was unlocked when he realised it could be a humorous family tale – matriarch and patriarch. Sometimes an author’s work is best left to cook for years.

The One Who Wrote Destiny was eventually written from four perspectives, set in different time-frames. It explores: race relations, immigration, illness and grief, destiny, fate, science.

  

Nikesh wants to understand people – his characters and their interior lives. He wrote Destiny in the first person as he felt comfortable with this – earlier versions had been written in the third person but felt messy. He also aimed to provide a positive representation of South Asian women.

Grace asked about rejection and Nikesh explained why he believes this can be healthy if based on writing – not if based on race. He has had work rejected because the submissions reader did not believe it was authentically Asian (from a British perspective) and because the publisher is ‘already publishing an Asian writer this year’.

Nikesh regards ‘literary merit’ as bullshit. He believes rejection is about the tastes of the person reading submissions. Authors may not want to rewrite to suit an editor but can still pick up hints as to what may not be quite working. An editor needs to recognise potential and be passionate about a book. It took him years to realise that rejection wasn’t about him but about whoever was reading. He advised the audience to do their research and seek out that person who will love your work, to submit it to the correct person in an agency who will be hungry to build their lists. This requires persistence – and rejection still stings.

Asked how to know when a book is ready for submission the advice was to take as much time as was needed, to make the manuscript bullet proof, the best it can be (time is available before first book is published that will no longer exist once under contract). Nikesh suggested sharing work with trusted readers who would be honest in their feedback, then to set it aside before rereading.

Seek out agents who publish the sort of work written. Submit to multiple agents and inform all if full manuscript called in (although don’t say by who). This introduces an element of competition. When your published work appears in a bookshop rejections will be forgotten. Nikesh’s aim was to publish a book, anything after being a bonus. He sometimes needs to remind himself of this.

There must be an element of trust between author, agent and editor – an ability to talk through any issues or concerns. Nikesh was not impressed with the recent comments made by Booker judges about the standard of editing. His experiences have mostly been positive.

Asked about The Good Literary Agency, Nikesh told us they are now signing up writers and have a huge submissions pile. They have just completed their first six figure deal with Transworld, for an author who had spent twenty years on her book.

Not all writers have the time or ability to enroll on creative writing courses, MAs or retreats. The Good Literary Agency aims to offer mentoring and to to nurture its authors.

A member of the audience asked Nikesh about the emotional impact on him as a writer when writing his characters’ emotions. He told us that he has never made himself cry but he has laughed. Destiny did not affect him in this way, perhaps because it was reworked significantly. Nikesh regards writing as therapy so his emotional response is more often one of relief. He spends so long with his characters he comes to know what to expect from them.

Nikesh was asked  how he engages with those who may not see writing as for them, perhaps due to their socio-economic upbringing. He suggested school visits and engaging with whatever makes an author appear accessible to the children. He mentioned one boy who asked him about the hair gel he wore. The teacher was not impressed but Nikesh understood that this was a potential connection that could be built on.

He considers the discussion around Booker winner Anna Burns interesting. She was on benefits because she needed the benefits. The fact that she used some of her time to write was her choice. Making money from writing is a challenge. Nikesh can spend longer each week doing events.

Another question was asked about emotions. Nikesh talked about the importance of keeping the author’s voice off the page – of reactions remaining the characters’. Authorial distance matters.

Asked about what compromises should be made for the reader who may not understand the reality of a culture Nikesh expressed a need to push back against certain attitudes, to use authentic names even if these are not familiar or some may find them hard to remember.

Asked if he had any interest in collaborating, perhaps writing a graphic novel, Nikesh was enthusiastic. He would love to write a Spiderman novel. He reads graphic novels and has recently enjoyed Booker longlisted Sabrina.

As Grace said in her summing up:

“we learned such a lot from Nikesh tonight – about persistence as a writer, the importance of a good editor, ideas on when to push back with an editor, advice on choosing agents”

I enjoy the discussions at Novel Nights for their candid content. The evening was well worth attending.

As an aside, I appreciated the value of having a professional photographer to hand. Compare the somewhat dark and blurry photos above, snapped on my phone throughout the evening, with these taken by Tom Shot Photography, who gave me permission to include a few of his – taken along with several other images that you may wish to check out shared by Grace on the Novel Nights Facebook page.

  

  

The One Who Wrote Destiny is published by Atlantic Books.

You may read my review here.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Sanjida Kay

Novel Nights is a monthly gathering of writers, with groups currently meeting in Bristol and Bath. Co-founded in 2013 by Grace Palmer, who is herself a writer and creative writing teacher, the group offers a platform for up and coming authors who may introduce and read from their work. These readings are followed by a discussion with an invited guest who will offer insight into some aspect of the creative writing process.

I previously attended when Jon Woolcott, from independent publisher Little Toller Books, gave a fascinating talk on The Business of BooksOn Wednesday of this week I returned to Bristol to hear Sanjida Kay discuss How to Plot. This subject was of particular interest as the emphasis was to be on writing commercial fiction – genres that are popular with readers and sell in large numbers. I wished to better understand the perspective of an author who started out writing literary fiction but now writes psychological thrillers.

In preparation for the event I read Sanjida’s latest book, My Mother’s Secret. I have previously read three other of the eleven books she has published (these include non fiction – she has a PhD in Chimpanzees) – Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, and from her earlier work, Angel Bird.

The first half of the evening showcased three other writers. First up was Emma Gifford who read from her novel, All Our Possible Futures – a love story with adventure elements that she started on her Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. She recently graduated with distinction and has since completed and edited the manuscript. The story is set in the UK and the Amazon rainforest. It explores the effects of the environmental crisis on a young mother’s mental health.

The second reader was Dave Weaver who has had five novels published by speculative fiction publisher, Elsewhen Press. He has also self-published three short story collections. He offered his thoughts on being published by a small press. The main issues appeared to be the problems of promotion and distribution, which he felt were similar to those faced when self publishing. He did, however, enjoy benefits from being a part of a publishing ‘family’ and the personal attention this offered from the team.

Dave read from his novel, The Unseen – a ghost story with an unreliable narrator who has visions and dreams. The latest of these involved the protagonist’s late wife, urging him to buy a cottage she had wished to purchase. He suffers from guilt following her sudden death.

The third reader was Jen Faulkner who was tutored by Fay Weldon on her Creative Writing Masters at Bath Spa University. The manuscript Jen created was shortlisted for the prize for best submission in her year. Following her inclusion in a subsequent anthology she signed with an agent and is now working with an editor. Writing a novel may be a challenge but is only the beginning of a long process involving much editing and then waiting.

Jen mentioned that she watches many films and learns from how stories are developed in this medium to help her balance structure, pace, tension and drama in her writing. She read from her book, provisionally titled The Cuckoo’s Child, whose protagonist suffers from post-natal depression. The woman is concerned that she is losing her mind, and that those close to her are not taking her concerns seriously. She feels trapped in a life she does not want, feels mounting anger at her baby’s crying, and suffers increasing paranoia.

After a short break it was over to Sanjida who was interviewed by Grace before answering questions from the audience. First though she read from the prologue of her recently published novel, My Mother’s Secret. The cliffhanger she left us on generated a collective exhalation from the audience.

Grace asked, do you plot? 

Humans intrinsically have stories. They understand the need for a beginning, middle and end – the essence of plot. Genre fiction, which includes psychological thrillers, requires tight plotting due to deadlines. Sanjida is contracted to submit one book each year. She explained how she achieves this.

Her idea for a next book is submitted as a one line pitch. If accepted she will then turn this into a half page summary, like the blurb on the back of a book but containing spoilers. From here the story is developed into a four or five page document detailing who the characters are, whose point of view the story is told from and what is going to happen to each of them. An 8-10,000 word draft is then produced which includes every scene from the novel but lacking detail, for example from My Mother’s Secret there were several scenes ‘Adam and Stella get closer’ which obviously needed elaboration. Sanjida has six months to complete a manuscript, including her own initial editing. By putting down 2500 words a day this can be achieved but only if structure and content are already clear. There is no time for major plot revisions so advance planning is necessary. After submission she will receive her work back with suggested changes and have a mere three weeks for rewrites before it goes for copy editing, proof reading and printing.

Writing commercial fiction has its constraints.

Psychological thrillers are about the bad thing that might happen. They are about fear and threat internalised. Each story requires an exciting incident at the beginning to draw the reader in. There then need to be crises to maintain interest. There must also be a satisfying ending that offers closure for the reader.

There are certain obligatory scenes – love interests must at some point get together. There must be twists, turns and reversals, progressive complications. These could be small events that create a major crisis for a particular character. Whatever happens leads to an inevitability that must at some point be addressed.

Grace asked, does setting influence plot?

Setting is important as it mirrors the characters and their actions. In Her Mother’s Secret, Lizzie felt safe in the wide open spaces of the Lake District whereas Emma felt safe in the middle class surroundings of Long Ashton and Tyntesfield (a National Trust property).

Grace asked, with three narrators how do you keep track of narrative arcs?

Prior to writing the detail, who exactly will be in each scene is set out. The secret is revealed half way through but not all characters are privy to this, and that must be managed and developed. There is also a big twist at the end which must remain consistent with what has gone before. Emma and Stella are on the same timeline so were written together, from beginning to end. Lizzie’s chapters were then dropped in as required. Graphs were used to chart emotion and action, with plot points marked. Sanjida’s current novel has ten characters and two points of view. She has added index cards to her process to help keep things in order.

Questions were invited from the audience, one of whom asked about reversals.

Scenes require changes in emotion, a reveal or a twist that the reader won’t have seen coming. It is not necessary to write in acts but reveals must move the plot forward.

How does Sanjida lead the reader to a big twist?

Drip feed information so that the reader begins to guess, hopefully getting it wrong. Set up red herrings. Add innocent actions that can be deemed incriminating. Introduce diversion tactics.

Did a book deal change how Sanjida plots?

Her first book took ten years to write and involved extensive research, including travelling abroad. She then had a year to write the next book so had to change how she worked. She also had to figure out what her publisher wanted – her second book wasn’t. Now she is more savvy, not so much constrained as writing to meet her readers’ expectations. Her publishers are keen that she deliver what her particular readers want, for example she was advised not to kill a character, although putting him in a coma was fine.

Writing can be character driven (they do something which changes the direction of the plot) or plot driven (work that out first and then create characters to fit). What matters is authenticity.

Sanjida no longer has time for lengthy research but has early reader buddies and brainstorms with a police procedural expert.

Why did she switch to psychological thrillers?

This followed a meeting with her agent. They were discussing an idea (from a dream!) and Sanjida was advised to write it. There is also the financial aspect. She no longer has the luxury of spending two years in a library, she has to make money. Literary fiction gives a warm glow in the heart but won’t pay for the champagne.

How does she stop her day to day mood affecting her writing?

Partly to do with deadlines, which can be stressful, but mostly managed by routine and getting into her writing zone. This is not to say she doesn’t procrastinate…

Sanjida works out in advance what her characters need, what they want, how they will change through the course of the story. She finds pictures on the internet of how she imagines they look and keeps that image in mind as she writes. She does not base them on real people, although aspects are drawn from those she knows, including herself, and these are magnified to make them more extreme. She has done the Myers-Briggs Personality Test on some characters.

And with that, time ran out and Grace had to draw the evening to a close. I was grateful for the candour with which Sanjida spoke. I may no longer read many psychological thrillers but I can understand the reasoning behind writing in that genre, and also, of course, why well written commercial fiction remains popular with so many readers.

 

My Mother’s Secret is published by Corvus Books and is available to buy now.

 

The next Novel Nights gathering in Bristol will be held on 27th June. In this talk and discussion, award-winning author Tyler Keevil will explore how music can influence the way writers work, both as a source of inspiration and as a means to help maintain creative focus, and keep a project on track. Further details may be found here.

Gig Review: Novel Nights in Bristol, with guest speaker Jon Woolcott

“Novel Nights is a monthly literary event in Bristol and Bath showcasing and supporting excellent writing and writers at all stages of their career.”

I am a fan of independent publisher Little Toller which publishes books about nature, rural life, and local history, mainly in the British Isles. As well as being informative and engaging, their books are beautifully presented – high quality and aesthetically pleasing. I am always happy to receive one to review. When I spotted on Twitter that Jon Woolcott was to speak at a writers’ group in Bristol, and that all were welcome, I decided to go along. What an enjoyable evening it turned out to be.

Held in The Square Club, Clifton, this well attended and welcoming group offers creative writers the opportunity to read from their work prior to a talk from an invited guest. Last week we were treated to three excerpts from as yet unpublished novels, all with a nature theme.

Polly Roberts read from the novel she wrote as part of her Creative Writing MA, provisionally titled ‘Animals’ and currently looking for a home. This is a work of fiction and, in the excerpt read, the prose had a poetic quality. It described relationships between otters – the book is set in the English countryside.

Andy Morgan is a writer and journalist. He read from his non fiction work, ‘Sahara Soul Rebels’.

“Self, desert and nature are one and nature is beautiful”

Despite conflicts in the area there is a deep love for the land.

“I’m free in my country”

Grace Palmer, the founder of Novel Nights, read from ‘Cathy’s Field’. The excerpt centred around memories – an attachment to land that was to be sold.

“Time to let it all go”

Although based on a particular landscape on the Staffordshire / Shropshire border, the world and characters are fictional. This was the first chapter in a book Grace is working on.

There followed a short break allowing drinks to be purchased and conversations with other attendees to be enjoyed before Jon took his seat to give his talk on The Business of Books.

Jon has, over the course of his career to date, worked for Waterstones, Ottakars and Stanfords booksellers. He is aware that there can be a disconnect between author, publisher and retailer. In an industry that loves to gossip, where a plethora of information exists, rumours are rife. Jon gave is some facts.

In 2016 (the last year for which figures are available), the total sales from all publishers in the UK amounted to some £3.5 billion, £1.5 billion of which was exported. Around 160,000 individual titles were published. These included technical, academic, self-published and reprints of older books. There were around 60,000 ebooks published, many as co-editions of physical titles. How, in a market awash with books, does a bookseller decide what to stock?

Bookshops are businesses. Their primary priority is to remain solvent. They will therefore stock what sells, including cookbooks, celebrity memoirs and best-selling authors. Deciding what units of stock will shift can be tricky and there have been some notable disasters in the past twenty or so years.

The first of these was the end of the net book agreement. This led to retailers offering discounts on premium authors, the very titles that would sell anyway, to get customers through the door. Supermarkets wanted a slice of the action – Asda offered one of the new Harry Potter titles for a fiver. Waterstones introduced its 3 for 2 multibuys.

Then there was Amazon. The use of the ISBN enabled the online retailer to easily catalogue available books. In response to Amazon’s success several bricks and mortar chains abandoned their ecommerce operations, although many of these have since been reinstated. Amazon was accepted as the go to on line shop.

Next came the Richard and Judy Book Club. Their first title was expected to sell perhaps twenty thousand units. It sold ten times this amount. In response, publishing focused on that market. It influenced commissioning decisions, packaging and price. Publishers tried to produce books more cheaply, affecting quality and creating generic designs.

Soon after came ebooks. For certain genres this caused a 20% drop in sales, badly affecting bookshops. Books are, after all, discretionary purchases. Attempts to copy the success of the Kindle failed.

Then, in 2011 the Booker Prize winner, Julian Barnes, praised the design of his novel. He stated that if physical books were to have a life in the world of ebooks they must be beautiful, that the product must be created to gain attention. Jon equated this to the plumage on birds.

The race to the bottom ceased.

Around the same time Waterstones was sold to a Russian billionaire who simplified the business. A centralised buying structure was introduced, stores were refurbished and many of the price promotions removed. As a result sales fell but so did returns. Publishers grew used to selling books over a longer period rather than simply around initial publication.

Book tables are now less likely to hold only the latest best sellers. Curation has grown in importance. The shortcomings of the Kindle have been recognised – they have a place but not a monopoly. The landscape of bookselling is as stable today as it has been for some time.

The invisible giant, Amazon, remains with its poor pay and ability to avoid tax. However, readers are aware of this and can make informed choices. Many bookshops, including the independents, will take on line orders and post direct to readers.

Although the big publishers are still mainly London based there has been a notable growth in the small presses. They are willing to take risks on what they believe in, and most bookshops are willing to stock their titles. Social media offers access to readers. Although still tiny, managing to survive month by month, they offer authors greater flexibility and a beautiful end product.

So, how does this affect writers?

Firstly, bookshops matter. Forge relationships with booksellers early on. Seek advice on what sells. Make friends but don’t make it all about your book. Be realistic in expectations – bookshops are commercial enterprises. Offer to sign books (there is no truth in the rumour that signed books cannot be returned). Offer to do events, then provide the audience by inviting friends. Generate interest by joining up with another writer to offer a Q&A and help sell their books as well as your own.

Other aspects that matter are a good AI sheet – offer to meet the publisher’s sales rep. Use social media – The Big Green Bookshop is a fine example of how this can work. Provide content for the local newspaper, perhaps the story behind the book. Invest time in creating an author website or blog – and sing the praises of your local bookshop. Encourage readers to use their library too.

Jon was asked about the recent growth of interest in nature writing. He suggested this could be partly nostalgia but also an increase in awareness of the planet. Little Toller started out republishing nature classics but now publishes more contemporary works, some from commissions and others from submissions. It remains small, operating out of a converted cow byre on its founders’ farm.

With that the evening was drawn to a close and the audience were able to browse and buy from a tempting range of Little Toller books. As anticipated, this had proved a truly fascinating evening.

Little Toller Books will publish the latest in their Monograph Series, Eagle Country by Seán Lysaght, in April 2018. It is available to buy now if ordered direct – click on the cover below.

You may keep up with events organised by Novel Nights on their website and by following them on Twitter: NovelNights (@novelnightsuk)

You may follow Jon Woolcott on Twitter (@jonwoolcott) and also Little Toller Books (@LittleToller)