I am not a number…

Elaine Roberts is talking about a special day spent in North Wales and the thoughts it evokes. How realistic should our writing be? Can it be too realistic? 

I have recently come back from visiting my husband’s aunt in North Wales, just one of many scenic areas of Britain. While we were there, we visited Portmeirion, where the pottery originated from and where the sixties programme, The Prisoner, was filmed. What a fascinating and beautiful place it is.

An aerial photo of Portmeirion

Clough Williams-Ellis purchased the land for just less than five thousand pound in 1925 and it took him fifty years to build Portmeirion. He was a strong campaigner for the environment; at a time when it wasn’t the recognised issue it is today. He was building at a time when owners of mansion houses were struggling, so he used many reclaimed pieces.

The large oval windows are painted on because this is the rear of the property.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about this; well Clough used illusion in his architecture and created a beautiful, tranquil place, which inspired the design of the said pottery.

Patrick McGoohan, the co-creator, producer and star of the Prisoner, who also wrote and directed several of the episodes, was dealing with things that

The Prisoner was Patrick McGoohan’s brainchild, it was a 17 episode television series.

seemed too far- fetched to be realistic at the time. He covered generally unknown subjects such as covert surveillance, cordless phones, credit cards and state control. It warned of the dehumanisation of society.

My question, is society influenced by art? Did Star Trek give us the first design of the flip top phone? There are many films and books that are seen as influential, in the way we live our lives. In our small way, we are hoping to offer escapism in our writing, but are we hoping to influence people as well? As historical writers, are we hoping to bring back good childhood memories?

The garden chess board is a replica of the one used in an episode called Checkmate.

I have read many articles that have put down the writers of romantic fiction, and yet to weave a story into true historical events can be difficult, almost like a game of chess. A modern romance needs to be believable, but not too realistic, the reader doesn’t want to know the mundane detail of our heroes and heroines’ lives.

When I was at the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) conference this year, one of the contemporary romance manuscripts I offered to a publisher was described as too real for her, which I totally understand, but what I find strange is it’s one of my favourites. I wonder if it’s because, despite everything, it all ended well. It’s a lesson for me to learn and reminded me of a job interview I went for, that wasn’t a success either. The panel of interviewers told me they didn’t want to know how things worked, as they already knew what was wrong; they wanted “an ideal world” scenario. So are we all just trying to escape the dehumanisation of our society? Perhaps we should all be influencing it, while escaping.



It’s All In The Title…

Elaine Roberts talks about wrestling with the problem of titles.

I have always read a lot; my mother used to tell me off for not going out to play when I was a child, because my nose was always stuck in a book. There was nothing I enjoyed more than losing myself in a good adventure. Books like The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe were books I read over and over again. Nothing has changed in that I am still an ardent reader, except I now write as well.

Anybody who isn’t a writer would think coming up with an idea for a novel would be the hardest part, but not for me.

My White Board & Plan

My White Board & Plan

Some writers who are learning their trade, like me, may think coming up with the structure and avoiding the saggy middle is the most difficult part, but not for me.

Once the manuscript is written, some might think the editing is the worst part; now I don’t like it, but it’s not the hardest part for me.

Coming up with a title is my biggest problem. Am I the only one? It’s one I have mentioned on a few occasions to different people and have had a number of really good suggestions, yet I can’t seem to make them work.

Why is the title so important?

IMG_0143All the professionals say you should have an attention-grabbing title. The cover and the title of a novel usually draw a reader’s attention first. When you are submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, there is no cover to grab their attention so the title needs to make the manuscript stand out from the other hundreds they receive. So a title needs to be memorable and easily understood.

Titles can be about the theme of the novel; an example of this is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Alternatively, they can contain the main character’s name, such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronté. Some titles also contain the character’s occupation or title.

It doesn’t matter whether I am writing a short story, a blog piece or a novel, my biggest sticking point is always the title. The name is meant to give an idea of what the story/article is about. What I find puzzling is that I know what my story is about and yet a catchy title seems to evade me and I don’t understand why. Writers come up with excellent titles all the time and yet I can’t seem to.IMG_7427

Several people have suggested record titles, which is an excellent idea but not one that has helped me with my latest novel. Maybe a film title, but no, that doesn’t work for me either.

Perhaps it is my Achilles heel; maybe I have a mental block on the subject.

I wonder how others decide on their titles, where do they get their inspiration? Any advice would be gratefully received.



Come Dine With Us

Elaine and Francesca consider their dream guest list for the ultimate dinner party.

Elaine: When Francesca and I were discussing which four guests we would each invite to a dinner party, the names were endless.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe first thought that entered my head was that I’d be quite happy to sit opposite David Beckham all night. Then there’s the very talented graffiti artist, Banksy, but he would never come because of his anonymity. So I made a list. Once I had done that, I realized many of them were women fighting for what they want in a male dominated environment. Emily Pankhurst, Margaret Thatcher and Tina Turner to name just a few, but that probably says more about me than anything else.

My first guest will not surprise anybody that has read this blog before or knows anything about me, John Lennon. I grew up with the Beatles and it has to be said he was my favourite. I believe his talent for writing was ahead of its time and it shocked me when his life was cut short.

The second guest would by Dame Judy Dench, although it was tough deciding between her
and Helen Mirren. Both of these ladies have grown older gracefully; they have embraced their age and beauty, which must be tough when their careers are in a pressurized environment to have plastic surgery. I have great admiration for them both.

I recently saw Lionel Ritchie in concert and for that reason he will be my third guest. He IMG_1998surprised me by being very entertaining and it wasn’t just about his songs, he made the audience laugh.

My fourth will be the comedy actress, Victoria Wood. This lady has been making me laugh for years, and I can tell you that is not an easy task.

Please note there isn’t a writer amongst my guests. That’s not intentional, it was just a very tough choice and as a writer myself, I know they would rather be writing than sitting having dinner with fellow guests. 


Francesca: Oh dear, only four people?

Okay. I started off writing this thinking who on earth would I invite? Then, as I got warmed up the list got longer and longer and…

The kids would want  an invite to this dinner party (though won't thank me for this 10-year-old photo!).

The kids would want an invite to this dinner party (though won’t thank me for this 10-year-old photo!).

How about some eye candy, I thought, Aiden Turner, Ioan Gruffudd and Elijah Wood? I’m sure they’d all be interesting too. (I’ve actually met one of them, but that’s a story for another time.) Or I wouldn’t mind some clever/comedic banter with Jo Brand, Victoria Coren, Paul Merton, Ian Hislop and Dara O Briain.

Or Dara could bring Brian Cox and it could be an evening of intellectual discussion. Along with them I could have Lucy Worsley, Neil Oliver and Michael Wood, my favourite TV historians. I could add David Attenborough and Ray Mears for the natural touch. But with some of those in attendance I’d have to invite my children or they’d never forgive me. 

Table for five, madam?

Table for five, madam?

I wouldn’t mind a frank one-to-one with Richard III. What happened to those princes, Dick? Perhaps invite Henry VII (who I suspect was the culprit anyway), and the aforementioned historians, get a good discussion going. Or a punch up! Mother Teresa might be useful to dispense calm and words of wisdom.

Oh, so many interesting people, so little time! Ok, final decision on the four. Victoria Coren, Lucy Worsley, Dara O Briain and Ray Mears. Absolutely. Probably. Maybe. Then again, with the kitchen table added to the one in the dining room, I could actually fit ten to twelve people in…


 So tell us, who would you invite and why?

Balancing Time

Elaine Roberts reflects on 2014 to date.

I can’t believe we are in June already, where is the time going? For my sins, I work full time in an office, so that obviously dictates where a large proportion of my time is spent. My three-year-old grandson is also a large part of my life, as indeed is babysitting, so now you should be asking when does she write? I can tell you I’m very lucky that I have a very supportive family, and in particular my husband has taken control of many household chores, to give me time to write. Most of my writing takes place over weekends, so my output is probably not as good as some, but I do try to achieve between five and ten thousand words a week.

In January this year, my target was to submit one short story a month, which I have achieved. For me, the most thrilling news was selling my first short story to Take a Break Fiction Feast, my first British sale. I have sold stories to India, Norway and Ireland but the British market eluded me, until now.I’ve been brave and sent off my first completed novel to a publishing company. I’m realistic enough to know it’s unlikely to sell to the first publishers, I tell myself that only happens in films.

My second novel is nearly completed, my aim is to have it finished and sent to the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) New Writers Scheme for a critique before the RNA Conference in July, where I’m hoping to book a one to one with a publisher. Like my fellow bloggers, I’m posting one piece a month on our blog and have also made an effort to improve my social media presence. I have been particularly successful on Twitter, with over 24,000 followers.

I’m also attending the Writers Holiday at Fishguard in July; except for me it will be my first time. I’m looking forward to meeting other writers and learning from others’ experience.

The one area I need to improve is networking, face to face. I do find it difficult to approach people I don’t know. Although, when I have been introduced to writers at RNA events, they have ben very encouraging and happy to share their experiences with new writers. The first six months of this year have been successful, I have achieved the goals I set in January. I’m looking forward to the next six months; hopefully it will bring the much sought after book deal. Until that happens, I’ll keep writing, keep learning and keep sending out manuscripts for short stories and novels.

VIV Blog picture Snoopy - the end

The London Book Fair: A Useful Resource for Writers

Francesca Burgess considers the merits of attending this annual event

The first London Book Fair I attended, back in 2010, was very quiet due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (I’m glad I’m writing that and not pronouncing it!) which grounded air traffic. Lucky for me and Elaine Everest; not so lucky for the delegates from abroad who couldn’t make it. Since then it’s been much busier, but I have found this event useful to me as a writer.

Katie Fford (in pink) talking to attendees.

Katie Fford (in pink) talking to attendees.

For starters, there are the author talks. This year, Elaine, Natalie Kleinman and I sat in on one about Genre Fiction. This gave us valuable tips from Katie Fford (romance novelist), Manda Scott (historical novelist) and Jo Fletcher (publisher specialising in sci fi, fantasy and horror).

Other talks this year (and there were many) included an introduction to publishing, hints on acquiring more readers, the emerging short fiction market and the children’s market.

The author workshops and agent one-to-ones were snapped up very quickly. I wasn’t worried about this as I’ve done similar events elsewhere, but certainly it would have been a fantastic opportunity for writers. There was also a Dragon’s Den style panel where ten authors got to pitch their books to several literary agents. One agent is bad enough but the thought of a panel has me quaking at my computer!

What takes up most time at the book fair is perusing the many stands, for both fiction and nonfiction. They do give a good insight into what publishers are looking for. Although the ‘Big Five’ publishers do attend, and it’s useful to see what genres and subject matter are currently popular with them, it’s often more useful to look at the stands of the smaller publishers. The people here, and they’re often the owners, are usually very friendly. This gives an opportunity to ask about their current requirements and submission process.

Publishers on the smaller stands are usually willing to talk about submissions

Publishers on the smaller stands are usually willing to talk about submissions

If you’re really bold, you can hand them a synopsis and first chapters of your novel, or a proposal for a nonfiction book. They’re often willing to take them, though increasingly now they’ll ask you to submit online instead. Either way you have absolutely nothing to lose.

Often on these forays we’ve found genres or nonfiction subject matter we hadn’t considered writing before. It all helps to open up new possibilities.

With around 1,500 companies represented, 150 subjects covered and over 250 free seminars, what I’ve described here really is the tip of the iceberg and aimed at all publishing professionals, not just writers. At £25 for admission (if you get your ticket early enough), it’s not cheap, but you can go along all three days.

Personally, I didn’t find the LBF so useful for me this year, maybe because five years is enough. In the future I’m going to have a go at some of the other literary events, like the Hove Book Festival and the Whitstable Literary Festival. However, if you’ve never been, it’s well worth giving it a go.

Tips for attending The London Book Fair:

  • Wear flat shoes.
  • Wear layers – it gets very hot indoors.
  • Take a bag for the directory, leaflets, layers etc.
  • Take several copies of your synopsis+chapters!
  • Sit down with a coffee when you arrive to decide your plan of action. It saves wasting time wandering around aimlessly.

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For more information: http://www.londonbookfair.co.uk/

The Hove Book Festival

Elaine Roberts had an insightful and entertaining couple of days.

all-300x144_2Dorothy Koomson gave us something special when she introduced us to her brainchild, the inaugural Hove Book Festival, which ran from Thursday 3rd April to Saturday 5th April 2014, it was celebrating her love of reading and really good story telling. The event opened in the intimate venue of Hove Library where Melanie Whitehouse, who runs the Book Lovers’ Supper Club evenings in Ditchling, interviewed three very different authors, Simon Toyne, Bethan Roberts and Dorothy Koomson. Each read passages from their books:
Hove Banner 2

Simon Toyne read from his first book of a trilogy, Sanctus.
Bethan Roberts read from My Policeman.
Dorothy Koomson read from The Flavours of Love.

They continued entertaining us with stories of how they became writers and where they find their inspiration. Dorothy believes her books fall into a new genre, which she may have invented, the emotional thriller. Though her books often have a crime in them, her stories are not about solving the crime, but about how the crime affects the characters around it.

The Hove Book Festival had something for everyone with a Big Book Quiz, involving authors Lynn Truss, Tom Bale, Joanna Rees, Mark Barrowcliffe and Alexandra Hemingsley with Sarah Gorrell from BBC Sussex and Surrey radio asking the questions. The festival brought Stripy Horse to the seaside for 3 to 5 year olds, with award winning children’s authors Karen Wall and Jim Helmore reading from their first story, encouraging the children to discuss it. Saturday afternoon saw writers and readers alike fill the Hove Town Hall Banqueting Room, to listen to a series of “How To” talks. I attended all the Saturday afternoon talks for £12.

Elly Griffiths, while entertaining, gave valuable insight into the way she works and how she came to have a forensic archaeologist as her main character. Her top tip was to send the manuscript to at least six agents at a time, tell them that’s what you are doing, and ask them to respond in a week, otherwise you’ll assume they are not interested. Apparently this worked for her, she had three agents wanting to see more within that week, but I have to say I’m not sure I’m brave enough to take that line. However, if you’ve done something similar, I’ll be interested to know whether it also worked for you.

Jo Dickinson, the Publishing Director of Adult Fiction at Simon and Schuster, explained how publishing has evolved since she started in the business as an Editorial Assistant. Jo acknowledged it’s subjective. Her best advice was don’t give up; many famous authors got a lot of rejections before someone gave them a chance. To refer to their submission guidelines please visit http://www.simonandschuster.co.uk

Lizzie Enfield and Araminta Hall talked to us about how to find our elusive writing voice. They advised to free write ten or twelve times in a month and assume no-one will read it, this will help find your own unique style of writing, your voice. They also suggested writing about an inanimate object but in the first person, so you become the object. Pour yourself into your writing as if no one will ever read it and you will produce some of your best work.

The day and the festival ended with Eleanor Moran talking about writing for television and how you can put together a story for the small screen.

This has been a very small resumé of the Hove Book Festival, but I’m already looking forward to next year’s, the tickets were excellent value. What struck me most was how open all the authors were to sharing their experiences and happy to answer any questions that came from the floor. They had respect for people already in the business, as well as those striving to be part of that world; they were all normal people like you and me. Dorothy should be pleased her brainchild was a success and as a budding writing I came away inspired to keep trying and never give up.

For more information on the Hove Book Festival: http://www.hovebookfestival.co.uk



Francesca Burgess explores the value and pitfalls of research

Write what you know. That’s good advice for someone just setting out as a writer and something most writers do, to some extent, their whole writing life. I’ve certainly rummaged through the events of my life for plots. For instance, one of the first short stories I ever had published called New Beginnings (which consequently ended up in the charity anthology Diamonds and Pearls) had a plot based on my experience of the family Easter.

I’m sure I’ll go on using things I’m familiar with in my fiction, but as endlessly fascinating as my life is (cough cough), there comes a time as a writer when you need to break out, delve into something a little different, something you don’t have experience of.

The first two novels I wrote were Young Adult, which brought its own problems. Yes, I was a teenager once and I remember it quite vividly. However, if I had one of my characters dressed in loons exclaiming, “Groovy!” I might find myself accused of being a tad out of date. Some of the research for this was first hand, watching and listening to my own teen children and their friends. Then there was ‘Yoof’ TV and other YA novels.

I know some writers find research tedious but I am both lucky, and unfortunate, in that I love it. I discovered my penchant for research thirty-six years ago during a module for my history degree. It involved studying an area of Kingston-upon-Thames. Wading through microfiche files full of census data and tithe maps turned out to be really quite thrilling as the history of the streets I’d walked emerged.

Microfiche files! Those were the days. Thank goodness for computers. Much of what I write now is contemporary, but it’s amazing how much research I still have to do. The time of a train journey somewhere, the geography of a town I can’t get to visit (I so love walking the streets on Google View!), it’s all there on the internet for the viewing public.

For my novels I’ve had to research things like tide tables, the effects of cannabis, prison sentences for GBH, the laws for divorce and tenancy agreements. When adapting short stories for abroad, among the areas I’ve checked are Christmas traditions, the climate at certain times of year and the school system. Three of my four novels have required research into hospital procedure for certain conditions (I seem to enjoy heaping medical emergencies on my characters!).

As I hinted earlier, loving the research is also a problem. It’s very, very easy to get carried away and forget to do the writing. And that’s the danger of it: you’ve got to know when to stop, not to research beyond what you need. Maybe the answer is to set the timer, give myself only so long to do it? I’ll have to try it and see if it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a walk around Whitstable on Street View…

D&P show page