Monday, 20 October 2014

The Frankfurt Book Fair

Never under-estimate the power of creating opportunities for yourself. If I hadn't been on Twitter, I would not have seen posts about the Festival of Writing in York. If I hadn't have gone to York that year, I wouldn't have met the lovely author Anika Scott, who lives in Germany. And if I had not met Anika, I wouldn't have been flying across to stay with her and attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. So, the moral of this tale is, as ever, eat lots of chocolate and drink wine, because doing both gave me the sugar rush and drunken confidence to start a Twitter account in the first place.

Hooray for chocolate and wine!

But before my tale of Frankfurt starts, a quick wave and hello, as it's been a while since I've blogged (pardon me) and I'm sorry for the while it has been. I never meant to go AWOL for so long, but it is frighteningly quick to get out of the swing of blogging. So let's strike while the smell of fresh books still hangs in the air, the furry costumes of manga cosplayers are being patched up for the next event, and somewhat scarily, I can still see Moomins when I blink.

The Moomin bus!
Yes, this year I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The largest trade book fair in the world. Over 265,000 people attended, all of whom love, adore, and possibly want to roll around in freshly printed books. (The latter may be just me. And it might be the sort of thing I shouldn’t mention in public. Whoops.) But first a caveat. I wasn't there to pitch my novel, or leap on a startled literary agent in the manner of peckish lion joyfully sighting an antelope. Most agents are tucked away in back-to-back meetings and the book fair is seriously huge. I saw this more as a reconnoitre mission, a chance to do some market research and get a feel for the publishing industry, peek a little behind the scenes.

We rocked up on Saturday around midday, having left Essen at an ungodly dark hour clutching steaming cups of coffee, and book-dreamed as the train sped beside the trees and fairy-tale castles of the Rhine.

Can you spot a castle?
On my way!
 I started to appreciate how vast the book fair was straight from the train, as it was clear I was not only entering a book fair, but a small book city. Each hall is huge and stuffed to the gills with stands, people, and of course, books. Books fresh from the printers. Books where, if you squint, you can still see the hopes and dreams of the author surrounding them like a sparkly aura.

A quick consultation of the map and we were away. One of our first stops was the UK and USA hall, collecting rights guides and 2015 catalogues. As well as getting excited about what books are coming up, both are great for studying blurbs – seeing what words pull me in as a reader, which words excite my mind. Also both give an indication of where the market is heading. I tend to write what’s in my heart rather than what I think the market would want, as by the time the book is finished things may have moved on anyway, but it’s interesting to see what sort of trends are out there. And this is all research you can do on home soil, too – visiting bookshops and libraries, chatting to sellers and librarians – but have to say it was super-lovely to be doing it in Frankfurt!

At the book fair
Bags considerably heavier, we had so much fun soaking in the atmosphere and basically basking in books. The German publishing halls in particular were fantastic – most publishers offering first-chapter giveaways and sample stories – and the buzz was incredible. These little sample stories are such a neat idea and I don’t see it that much in bookshops in England. Over in Germany bookshops have many little sample giveaways, and these work fantastically as a selling tool – people do buy the full price book if they like the sample – so I think it should be more wide-spread. But there were lots of little interesting differences like that. Book covers were another thing – it’s interesting to see how covers change according to country. Such as the one below – I’d buy the German cover in a heartbeat. The other cover? Wouldn’t even get my fingers twitching, sad to say. It just shows how subjective the industry is, and how it is easy to unfortunately judge a book by its cover. There should be a Tinder app for books – how to do you rate this cover, swipe left for dislike, swipe right for a match!

Dear cover on the right, you're gorgeous!

Moving from covers to illustration – I was so impressed with France. Nearly every picture book and graphic novel ticked my box for otherworldly, strange, beautiful illustrations – and the books stood out in a sea of primary colour.

Ceux-ci sont belles
Sunday was a bit of an eye-opener. This is the day when the general public can buy, so as you can imagine it was heaving. The German and most international halls were doing a roaring trade, and I was excited to visit the UK / USA hall to buy a few books to take home with me, but what a surprise! Most stands had ‘Books not for sale’ signs, and several publishers had packed up already, leaving behind forlorn empty stands. Presumably there is a good reason behind it, but when people are desperate to buy, and mostly everyone in Germany speaks English, with children learning English in kindergarten, it seems odd not to stay to sell the books. However, there were some who were selling so I did buy a couple to take back with me, mostly non-fiction books about London. Ah, you can take the girl out of London for a while but never London out of the girl.

I really loved my time in Frankfurt. It was totally heartening and inspiring to see how many people love words and pictures, and how every country pulls together to celebrate their authors and artists. At the end of Saturday, giddy-excited about all we had seen, we retired to the Finnish hall balcony to toast the fair with a glass of wine and watch the sun set over the square. It was our Frankfurt moment!

Me and Anika
The best way to end the fair - cheers!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Author interview: Janet O’Kane

I’m delighted to welcome author Janet O’Kane to my blog. I first ‘met’ Janet via blog comments, and was delighted to meet her in person earlier this year and to realise she is just as lovely off-screen as on. It’s been fab watching Janet’s journey towards publication with her debut novel, No Stranger to Death. Let’s find out more about it...

1.    What first drew you towards crime fiction?

Once upon a time there wasn’t such a thing as YA fiction. You were expected to progress from Enid Blyton and other children’s writers to whatever you found on the school reading list and at home. I must have been a disappointment to Dad: not only did I not want to play football, he couldn’t interest me in his books about military history either. On the other hand, as soon as Mum judged me ready for Agatha Christie, I became immersed in crime fiction and haven’t looked back. At that time, the so-called Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Marsh, Allingham) reigned supreme. The genre has become a lot broader since, but it still delivers what I look for in books: great stories. So when I decided to write a novel, what else would I write?

2.    Who are your favourite crime fiction authors and why do you like their stories?

Over the past couple of years I’ve noticed a shift in how I read crime fiction. Instead of avidly devouring every book by a small range of authors, I now read work by a wider spread of authors, especially debut novels. This probably started while I was trying to go down the traditional agent/publisher route and hoped to discover what, if anything, those novels had in common. The two established writers who appear most frequently on my bookshelves are Robert Goddard and Christopher Brookmyre. Goddard is a supreme storyteller, getting his main characters into fixes from which it seems impossible to escape, yet they do. I also enjoy the historical aspects of his novels. Brookmyre brilliantly combines crime with the blackest of humour, sending up everything from fake psychics to the Scottish Government.

3.    If you could meet a character from any crime fiction book, who would it be and why?

I still have a soft spot for Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, who is far more uncouth in the novels than he is portrayed by Warren Clarke in the TV adaptation. But he makes me laugh as well as being far cleverer than people realise.

4.    No Stranger to Death is your first novel. What can readers expect?

As I discovered when the time came to upload it to Amazon, my novel doesn’t fit neatly into a category. Yes, it revolves around murder and other crimes, but although the police are involved, they play a minor part, and my main character is Zoe Moreland, a recently widowed GP. It’s set in the Scottish Borders, which is very rural, but while the goings-on Zoe gets caught up in are far from the ‘cosy’ world of Christie’s Miss Marple, they’re maybe not dark enough to qualify as ‘tartan noir’. So perhaps I’ve just invented a new crime sub-genre: tartan cosy! Suffice to say, I’ve written the sort of book I like to read, with a twisty-turny plot, lots of interesting characters, and several shocks at the end.

5.    Tell us more about your main character...

Doctor Zoe Moreland is a loner – although she would describe herself as independent – and her only companion is Mac, a crossbreed dog she unintentionally adopted. She has moved to the Borders to start a new life, not realising a village is the last place to go if you’re trying to keep a secret. I wanted to make her as unlike myself as possible, so although she’s emotionally reserved she is a sporty, physically adventurous type. She also has long, thick hair, which I’ve always wished for! By contrast, Zoe’s new friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist who comes from a long line of Borders farmers, is an extrovert, forever trying to persuade Zoe to be more outgoing and trusting of people. It was fun writing about two such disparate characters and I like Kate so much that she gets her own plotline in Book 2.

6.    You live in the Scottish Borders. How much of an influence were your surroundings when writing No Stranger to Death?

After living up here for 21 years (I’m originally from Dorset) I can’t imagine being anywhere else, so maybe I took the easy way out by setting my book here too. However, No Stranger to Death would be a very different novel if Zoe had relocated anywhere else, as her new surroundings shape the events she gets caught up in. For example, walking her dog in a city may have exposed her to some types of crime but probably not finding a body in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.

While writing the book I discovered a strange thing: I had no shortage of plot ideas or characters, but I could not describe places and buildings without actually seeing them. Looking at photographs on the internet can be useful, but I got into the habit of visiting locations, which in turn provided yet more storylines. Going to Kelso to research Zoe’s visit to her favourite coffee shop (in real life it’s actually a tiny Boots) gave me the idea for a revelation on the very last page of the book, and a trip to a graveyard supplied the scene when her car goes out of control in the snow.

7.    I love researching oddities for my writing. What research did you do for your novel?

Again, much research can be done without leaving the comfort of one’s home thanks to the internet, but I don’t think you can beat talking to people to find out the really interesting stuff. I call this the ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ principle. Speaking with someone to check a few facts can lead to them sharing things you hadn’t even asked about, small details which give your writing veracity. For example, because Kate Mackenzie is a genealogist, I met up with a real one in Berwick, and learnt that Kate would probably keep an acrylic magnifying dome on her desk, to help with reading copies of old documents. When we discussed the sort of people who ask her to draw up their family trees, she said many of her American clients are far keener for her to find them Scots ancestors than English ones. It would have taken an awful lot of googling to discover that!

8.    Can you describe your writing routine?

I’m lucky in that I no longer have to juggle writing with a job outside the home, but I do help my husband run his business, so I can’t ignore the phone if it rings because it could be a potential customer. And we don’t have children, although my day is organised around caring for our two dogs who wake me at 5am most mornings. I can’t possibly write that early, but it gives me time to read and plan my day, and catch up with Twitter and Facebook. I aim to be at my desk by 9am and write for two or three hours, morning and afternoon. When I’m writing something new I try not to keep going back and editing, but plough on and finish. I’m a reluctant pantser: I wish I could plot an entire book before sitting down and typing it, but I can’t. Instead, I plan a few chapters ahead, write them, then plan a bit more.

9.    What made you decide to self-publish No Stranger to Death?

Having seen two friends, Mel Sherratt and Peter Flannery, self-publish very successfully, I always had it at the back of my mind as an option. Weirdly enough, a rejection from an agent decided me. Not because she hated my novel but because she took the trouble to phone me to say she really liked it and but didn’t think she could sell it because it was too ‘mid-list’ for a publisher to take on in the current climate. That was the validation I needed, the reassurance that I had written, in her words, ‘a very good book’.

I have a marketing background, so that aspect of self-publishing didn’t overly worry me, but I knew I had to make my book as good as it could possibly be, for it to stand any chance of selling more than a handful of copies. That’s why I invested in a bespoke cover by a professional designer, Kim McGillivray, and also paid to have it edited by Caroline Smailes at BubbleCow. One of the best bits of advice I’ve had came from Peter Flannery, who said on the day I pressed the ‘Publish’ button: ‘Remember this is only the beginning of the process’. It’s still very early days, but I was delighted when No Stranger to Death reached the dizzy height of number 17 in Amazon’s Scottish Crime Fiction on Kindle a couple of days after its release.

10.    What advice would you give to other authors who are thinking of self-publishing?

I don’t think I’ve been at this long enough to say anything other than suggest they do their homework first. There’s lots of information available now, online and in print. And get to know others who’ve gone down that route, see how they approached it. But remember: There are no hard and fast rules in self-publishing, which makes it both scary and exciting!

Thank you, Janet! 

No Stranger to Death
Some secrets can be deadly . . .

The featureless corpse lay like a grotesque department-store mannequin, elbows and knees flexed, fists clenched. Wisps of smoke rose from its still-burning torso.

Recently-widowed GP Zoe Moreland really wishes she’d chosen another route to walk her dog on November 6th. Had they gone away from the village, Mac could not have led her to the body lying in the remains of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.

Zoe’s move from an English city to the Scottish Borders was meant to be a fresh start among strangers unaware of her past. Instead, she is thrust into the limelight by her grisly discovery and gets caught up in the resulting murder investigation. Then someone else dies unexpectedly and Zoe herself narrowly escapes death.

Determined not to become the killer’s next victim, she digs beneath the tranquil surface of the close knit community to find out who is committing these horrible acts. But uncovering other people’s secrets puts Zoe in even more danger . . .

Buy the book: Amazon

Find the author on...


I love the idea of 'tartan cosy', and the evocative cover art is so enticing. As for the blurb - what a great start to a novel! Am looking forward to finding out more.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Festival of Writing at York

#FoW13 - not a sound effect from a posh Batman and Robin fight scene (take 13), but the hashtag used on Twitter to group together tweets from an incredibly inspiring long weekend in York.

I first saw a mention of the festival in a tweet. ‘Ang on, I thought (as even in thoughts I drop aitches), that sounds a bit sparkling. I then did some research and was swiftly dazzled by the amount of industry professionals signed up to hold one-to-one sessions or present panels and workshops. It was a weekend flooded with literary goodness. I ditched the plans for a holiday; decided last year’s winter wardrobe was perfectly adequate as long as no one inspects hems (and how many hem-fetish weirdoes do we really meet on a day-to-day basis?), and promptly booked.

Friday 13th dawned (thankfully not at Camp Crystal Lake). I’d been awake since 6am alternatively coaxing and threatening my printer to do its job (trust my luck to have a printer with existential issues) and, along with nerves, took with me to the festival my first few chapters, a synopsis, and my pitch.

We shall draw the thin Veil of Calm over what happened at Kings Cross station when I saw most trains were delayed or cancelled, and instead board the train. I don’t think there was a lessoning of the stomach muscles until I got to York. But arrive I did, and felt very brave asking a taxi queue of strangers if anyone else was also travelling to the festival. One girl stepped forward so we shared the cab fare and chatted on the way. I never actually saw her again – the festival is big! – but it was really nice to walk in with someone else.

I had cunningly timed my arrival to be the cheapest train from London coincide with the start of a mini-course, but there was time to say a quick hello to the lovely Nicola Morgan – who looks more glamorous each time I meet her – and for her to introduce me to Debi Alper, who was running the course ‘Self-editing your Novel’.

Debi is so lovely. (You will spot a theme here.) She instantly made me feel welcome and, as I entered the lecture hall, I felt completely at home.

Tea and coffee breaks are a great way to start chatting to people. I introduced myself to someone I’d seen in Debi’s course, and knew pretty much straight away that I had found a good buddy. We realised we had our first one-to-one sessions at the same time, so when the course resumed we made a plan to discreetly slope out together and towards the one-to-one building.

The one-to-ones were ten minutes in front of your chosen industry professional – whether literary agent, book doctor, or publisher. (I love the wording ‘book doctor’.) I chose to speak to literary agents. The feedback was insightful, positive, reaffirming, considered, and pretty damn lovely. They liked my book idea and my writing. Whoop! I think I babbled a bit – and handed one agent a business card with a pic that unfortunately makes me look like I write vampire porn - but apart from that they said they'd be interested in a submission. So this makes me think of two things.

  1. You really need to find an agent who connects with your novel. They need to love it/believe in it in order to sell it. 
  2. It is really obvious when you find someone like that as the questions they ask will reflect their interest. 
Of course, we all send submissions to the Great Slush Pile; it's rare to meet an agent first. But ways this can be translated is by researching that your chosen agent represents your genre, and get your manuscript as polished as it can possibly be before submitting.

Saturday dawned with a spill of sun soaking through clouds still damp from the laundry. I swung off to breakfast with my notebook, determined to make the most of the day. And what a day! It started with a keynote address from the author Adele Parks, a lady who is simply brilliant at public speaking. She was warm, confident, funny, succinct – and didn't shy from talking about painful things like family bereavement, which prompted her to start making her author dreams come true.

I was next in literary agent Juliet Pickering’s workshop ‘Honing a one-minute, two-line pitch’, and we did practical exercises as well as trying out how our pitches sounded to a roomful of people. Afterwards someone came up to me to say they thought my idea sounded intriguing, which was lovely to hear.

And this leads me nicely on to the friendliness of the festival. The effect was such that I've found myself smiling at strangers ever since (very odd behaviour for a Londoner). Everyone is willing to chat, every conversation is about writing. I attended a sci-fi / fantasy panel and absolutely loved that one part of it was spent seriously discussing possible outcomes of the next ice-age. The ‘next’, mind you. It was brilliant.

The afternoon was spent in author Julie Cohen’s workshop about characterization (spelling in honour of her nationality). She is a fantastic teacher full of enthusiasm and energy for her subject. We were handed random letters and created a character from them – mine was fifty-year old Unwin Walters, a hit man out to murder his employers (‘Unwin’ means ‘enemy’). I might revisit ol’ Unwin at a later date…

Sunday’s workshops started with a talk about digital story-telling. Speakers Rob Sherman, Lisa Gee, and Tom Abba introduced us to different ways of telling stories, and it was eye-opening, revolutionary, fascinating, and mind-blowing. The workshop was extended for those of us who were practically on the edge of our seat – we were like a little church of true believers, buzzing around the speakers at the end of the talk, fully engaged with ideas.

I then decided to attend another of Julie Cohen’s classes, as she was so brilliant the day before, and was in a packed workshop called ‘Learning story structure from Pixar films’. Again, she was really lovely (that theme again!) and the class was brilliant. I've now ordered some Pixar films… research, I tell you.

This leads me onto the other thing I got from this festival: book and film recommendations based on my writing, my idea, and my genre. This is so fantastic – I'm on a literary journey, and can’t wait to bolster my education, so to speak, with authors such as Jonathan L Howard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Z. Danielewski, and films such as Hugo, and A Matter of Life and Death.

The final keynote speech was from author Sharon Bolton (SJ Bolton) who, despite a tricky time-slot, shone from the stage with an inspiring, rallying speech full of dry wit and advice for aspiring authors, namely:

  1. Be talented, hard-working and professional
  2. Be nice
  3. Don’t be a twat

And then there was only time for goodbyes and the wet taxi scrum dash to the train station.

Oh, Festival of Writing. How truly lovely you were, exceeding all my expectations. I met some amazing people, who I’ll hopefully stay in touch with (and can’t wait for them to be published so I can read their books), got some fantastic feedback and advice, attended some brilliant workshops, and, perhaps most importantly of all, feel a real confidence in my writing.

Onwards and upwards, my friends.


The Festival of Writing is run by The Writer's Workshop.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

A mini-update

I'm not quite back yet, but, in the manner of opening the windows in a guest room before Great Aunt Doris’ imminent arrival; I've given the blog a bit of an airing.

There have been a few changes.

I've decided it’s time to say goodbye to my Novice Novelist title. I love the playful alliteration, but have also been thinking about the message I'm sending into the universe with that title, and the message I'm sending to myself. I know – a bit hippy-dippy – but I believe the tags we give to ourselves are important, and it’s important to listen to what we are truly saying. It’s so easy to be subconsciously negative, and this creates barriers to our heart’s desire without us even realising. I don’t want to be a novice novelist – I want to be a novelist. I’ll always continue to learn and grow, as that’s what humans do, but it’s time for a bit of positive energy.

I've also added an About section with a list of published work to date, amongst some other bits. Once my scanner stops doing its best impression of a breeze block with buttons, and starts remembering its mission in life, then I’ll upload the articles; it’ll be nice to have them all in the one spot. I’ll also add some details of my illustration adventures. The Grand Plan for 2014 definitely involves getting some art back in my life again.

My 9-5 work is still very busy, and I'm still searching for that elusive work / life balance, as ever. As for the novel – the rewrite / editing continues – mostly I'm really happy with how it’s progressing; sometimes I want to throw the keyboard out of the window and jump up and down on its cruel blank innards…and then make a necklace out of them – that will teach you, keyboard! Don’t mess with a writer who is also into steam-punk jewellery.

Well, I think that’s it for now. Great Aunt Doris should be very comfortable here in the interim. She is very fond of Steely Grey colour schemes and is partial to Courier font (and a courier or two, so I've heard, in the Tales of her Exciting Youth Vol One).

I hope your writing, or art, is going really well, and look forward to catching up with you all soon.

J x