How I write

2 Mar 2020

Building the novel

 

I used to be afraid that I couldn’t ever write a novel because I could never think of a plot. What I didn’t realise was that authors don’t necessarily have to know the plot from the outset. I’m currently about 30,000 words into my fifth novel and while I’ve got the main characters and the locations, I still don’t really know what will happen. Instead of writing chronologically, I expand it all from the inside, going into scenes that I find interesting, and developing them – following the little shoots until they grow and blossom (or wither and die, at which point, I get out the shears). This process is both liberating and dreadful. It involves shutting down the critical voice, and trying to ignore the constant self-doubt. All being well, eventually I’ll have a first draft – an actual plot! – and then real work will begin: the editing, revising, rewriting, cutting and tightening that will make the CFD (crap first draft) into a novel.

MAGPIE LANE – coming 2nd April 2020

19 Nov 2019

Full of hidden chambers, and some of them are haunted . . .part thriller, part love story, wholly beguiling. I was glued to every page

Mick Herron

When the eight year old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers. As Dee looks back on her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother. . .

Roaming Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family, and what it is to be denied one.

Pitching To An Agent – 20 Tips for Success

30 Oct 2018

From the ‘How to Get Your Book Published’ masterclass, by Lucy Atkins and Fanny Blake.

I’ve put together these tips because agents are busy and small (or big) mistakes can put them off reading your work. There is no ‘type’ of person who gets published, other than a person who can write well. Do not feel intimidated. Literary agents  – the people who will sell your book to a publisher – are just people, generally really nice people, who love books.

Pitching to a Literary Agent – 20 Tips for Success

1. Good writing grabs an agent’s attention and nothing else – don’t make your own book jacket or marketing material or perform any attention grabbing tricks or gimmicks eg. shiny wrapping, free gift enclosed.

2. Follow the instructions the agent gives on their website for submitting your work. ONLY do this. Nothing else.

3. Target ONE agent per agency (and not at random – select them carefully according to their list, their stated interests, whether they are taking clients). Try five at a time, from the The Writers & Artists Yearbook, which has a comprehensive list of agents. Keep a spreadsheet or up to date list so you don’t infuriate anyone with multiple submissions.

4.   Proof-read EVERYTHING – grammatical and spelling mistakes can get you on the ‘no’ pile even if you write well.

5.   Most agents want something like the first three chapters plus a synopsis. Make sure those first three chapters of your book are your absolute best work and that they plunge your reader right into your story.  Double space, justify, sensible font, 12 pt.

6. Write a snappy but sensible introductory email. Avoid adverbs, gushing, exclamation marks, emojis, showing off or modesty, false or otherwise. Simply state who you are, any relevant credentials, what your book is, and that you hope they will enjoy it.

7. A  synopsis is a summary of your book. It needs to be short and to the point – just a glimpse of your plot and characters – NOT a blurb (ie. lots of excitable language ‘selling’ the story). Usually 1-2 pages of double spaced 12 point type, max.

8. No silly fonts, coloured paper, visual aids, emojis or ANYTHING in your submission (unless it’s part of your experimental novel).

9. Target an agent according to who their authors are (authors who are writing similar books to you – their agent will be name-checked in their acknowledgements).

10. Show you are familiar with the agent’s existing list of authors (& spell their authors’ names correctly!).

11.  Look on Twitter/other social media/agent websites for agents who are actively requesting submissions. These may be young agents building a list. They tend to say what kind of books they want.

12. Your covering email shouldn’t be any longer than a paragraph or two. Make sure it highlights why your book is distinctive and interesting.

13.  Don’t pitch yourself as ‘the new…’ or ‘x meets x’ because that will probably irritate them.

14. Mention any writing credentials but only if they are solid and relevant. eg. if you’ve won a serious short story prize (the high school English prize isn’t going to swing it).

15. Mention any contact who has referred you – but don’t worry if you have no contacts. Agents don’t care! Plenty of writers with no contacts at all in the literary world get publishing deals.

16. Mention if you’ve previously submitted to them or being in touch with one of their other agents (ie with a previous book).

17. If your work is rejected don’t write back telling them why they’ve made the mistake of their lives.

18. If they want to see more, don’t gush or do ‘OMGs’,  just send them the book in the format they ask for, with a dignified ‘thank you for your interest’.

19. Accept that you will almost certainly get LOTS of rejections and that this does not mean you will never be published/have no talent/are wasting your time.

20. Keep trying. Don’t give up!

 

For more tips, see my other ‘How to Get Published’ blog posts here (some will repeat some of the info above though). 

Female Ambition in The Night Visitor

17 May 2018

 Night Visitor PB final image

 

‘How far would you go. . .?’ Female historians as TV presenters – and The Night Visitor

The historian and TV presenter Kate Williams  tweeted today about the contents of her mailbox at Reading University, where she is Professor of History: ‘Today’s uni pigeonhole haul: exam scripts for marking, a PhD report, a note about the photocopier & obscene & threatening letters based on my TV appearances. The joy of being a woman in the public eye…’ Mary Beard, another brilliant historian and TV presenter who certainly knows what it’s like to be trolled, immediately tweeted back advising Kate to report the letters to the police. They are, she wrote, a crime. And a crime cannot be ignored.

As I watched all this unfold on Twitter I found myself wondering whether anybody is leaving poison pen letters in historian Simon Schama’s pigeon hole? Is anyone Twitter Trolling the handsome David Olusoga about his hair? Or publicly shaming Dr David Starkey for his glasses? Or telling Dan Snow that he’s fat. I doubt it. But when a female historian appears on TV she ceases to be judged on her intellect or wit or presenting skills. Instead she’s judged by the sum of her (body) parts: hair, teeth, bum, age, clothes.

I cannot imagine what this must add to the pressure these women are already under. Their jobs (juggling intense work in both academia and TV) are incredibly demanding. They know they are being scrutinized. As I watched the Twitter discussion, I found myself thinking about my character, Olivia, in the Night Visitor. Olivia, like Kate Williams, or Susannah Lipscombe (who helped me with the research for the character) is a history professor who also presents TV programs. She has a brilliant career, a talented husband, three children and houses in London and Sussex. But she also has a terrible secret and if the truth is ever exposed then her career will be in tatters – she will face public ridicule and shame. When you are in the public eye, with a huge Twitter following and an awareness of how vicious people can be, then the stakes must feel very high indeed.

Only one person knows Olivia’s secret and that is Vivian, the sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor. Vivian has become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant and on the surface the two women could not have less in common. Vivian is single, unattractive and socially awkward, devoted to her rescue mutt Bertie. But as the novel unfolds it becomes clear that my characters have far more in common than they might ever believe (or admit to). They are both ambitious and very clever. And they both care, very deeply, about their careers.

In The Night Visitor I explore how far a successful woman like Olivia might go to protect her reputation. Everything she has worked so hard to achieve – her reputation, her public image, her good name, her job, the happiness of her children – is under threat. Is it okay to lie to protect all this? Is it okay to commit a crime?

I wanted to write a nail biting and entertaining book, but I also wanted to examine some moral grey areas. Successful women – particularly those in the public eye – get a bad rap, as Kate William’s matter of fact Tweet about her pigeonhole poison pen letters demonstrates so eloquently. I’ll admit that neither of my main characters is exactly ‘likeable’ (I find writing likeable characters very dull). But still, I felt a growing and powerful sympathy for both Olivia and Vivian as I wrote the book. Ultimately, all these women really want is to be taken seriously, for their minds. They just want to be allowed to do what they love, and to do it well, without being shamed or exposed or ridiculed. And really, where the crime in that?

Costa Book of the Year awards ceremony

31 Jan 2018

costa book awards logo

With fellow judge Freya North & author Jon McGregor

 

Last night was the Costa Book Awards ceremony at IMG_3931Quaglino’s in London, a truly uplifting celebration of some of the best writing in Britain today.  The overall Book of the Year prize went to Helen Dunmore’s incredible poetry collection, Inside the Wave, many of them written in the last weeks of her life. Dunmore, who died of cancer last year aged only 64, is the second writer to win the Book of the Year prize posthumously (Ted Hughes won for Birthday Letters in 1998).  Her family (pictured here) accepted the award last night and her son, Patrick Charnley, gave a short acceptance speech that had everybody wiping away tears.  ‘Poetry was in Mum’s soul’, he said.

‘For Mum to win the overall prize is staggering. We’re so thrilled. But there is a lot of sadness that she is not here. But she would have been really over the moon, particularly because it was her poetry … She’d have been so pleased to know that her win would bring new people to poetry’.

The category winners were:

Novel:  Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (pictured above with me & fellow judge Freya North); Biography: In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott Children’s:  The Explorer by Katherine Rundell; Debut: Gail Honeyman’s  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

 

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Costa Book Awards 2017 Shortlist (Novel category)

22 Nov 2017

Judging the Costa Book Awards has been a demanding, exciting and at times slightly nerve-wracking experience. I’m delighted to have played a part in shortlisting these four wonderful novels (see dog-eared, coffee stained books in picture below) and finally to be able to press them into peoples’ hands.

Here’s a bit about each one, and why we chose them from 170 entries

 

Shortlist for the 2017 Costa Novel Award

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Judges

Lucy Atkins                   Author and Critic

Freya North                   Author

Wayne Winstone           Owner, Winstone’s Bookshops

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

Why we loved it: ‘An extraordinary novel – poetic, haunting and hypnotic’.

A teenage girl has gone missing in the English hills, police set up roadblocks and a crowd of reporters descends on the village. But life must go on   – cows are milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured and these timeless rhythms become a force far greater than any isolated tragedy.

Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney (Quercus)

Why we loved it: ‘A novel of huge scope with a tremendous sense of period and place.’

Flora Mackie is twelve when she first crosses the Arctic Circle on her father’s whaling ship. Now she’s returning to the frozen seas as the head of her own expedition. In this remote frozen land she encounters Jakob de Beyn, raised in Manhattan, and part of a rival expedition. What follows is a powerful love story but also an exploration of science, geography, feminism and humanity.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus)

Why we loved it:  ‘A brave and important book that explores themes that feel both urgent and timeless.’

Isma worries about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong sister, and their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared to follow the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.  When Aneeka becomes involved with Eamonn the charming son of a powerful British Muslim politician the two families’ fates are devastatingly entwined. A forceful retelling of the ancient story of Antigone. 

Tin Man by Sarah Winman (Tinder Press)

Why we loved it:  ‘A tender and deeply moving exploration of love and grief written with deceptive simplicity.’

Two Oxford city boys, Ellis and Michael, are inseparable in adolescence but when they become men life takes them in different directions. Ellis works at the Cowley car plant, smoothing out dents; Michael heads to London. Then Ellis falls in love with Annie, and for a while, the old friends are brought back together again.

Sarah Winman grew up in Essex and now lives in London.  She attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and was an actor for 30 years in theatre, TV and film. She has written three novels including When God Was a Rabbit.

 

 

Judging the Costa Book Awards

8 Nov 2017

costa book awards logoSince May this year I have been reading novels for the Costa Book Awards. I’m judging the ‘Novel’ category so there are authors whose work I’ve read before, but also quite a few who are new to me – and some authors I’ve always meant to read and haven’t, until now. It has been an eye-opening experience. One thing that’s struck me is the large number of historical novels (and a few futuristic ones too, it has to be said). Is this always the case? It’s not something you tend to notice unless you have a stack of fifty books to read on your office floor. The better historical novels, I’ve noticed, are less about escaping into the past, and more about reframing the uncertainties and horrors of what’s happening in the world today. Let’s just say I’ve read more than one reworking of a Greek tragedy.

This week is the most exciting bit. I’m just finishing reading the other judges’ selections (my two fellow judges chose three books each). This Friday we’ll meet in London to discuss those, along with my own selections. It’s going to be a delight to finally meet the other judges and discuss these books – and to choose a final shortlist from them. I’ll report back soon.

How to Write a Novel (Psychologies Magazine Column)

31 Aug 2017

 

 

goldsboro window

Click on the links below to read my first six Psychologies Magazine ‘How to Write a Novel’ columns. They are short and basic but maybe they’ll give you a few ideas:

Month 1: How to Write a Novel

Month 2: Don’t Lose the Plot 

Month 3 Make Time to Write 

Month 4 Looking for Trouble

Month 5: How to Cut 

Month 6: Tricks of the Trade

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration for the Victorian Gothic manor in The Night Visitor

11 Aug 2017

Spooks, memories and visitors

Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare

When I was a teenager, growing up in a village near Lewes in East Sussex, I had a friend whose house was very different from everyone else’s. For a start, it had about five times as many bedrooms. It also had tall iron gates, a long, tree lined driveway and a haunted Minstrel’s Gallery. This place – which I now know to be a Victorian Gothic Manor – looked very grand on the outside. It had tall grey flint walls and grand, mullioned windows, but the inside told a different story. The house was in coming undone.

My friend’s family was not landed gentry, far from it. Her father, a drinker, keen on the races, had won the house some time in the 1970s in a bet. It was crumbling and damp, with rattling casement windows and no central heating. There was no money to fix anything. I got the sense that nobody really cared because the family was breaking down. The house was not just physically gloomy, but unhappy and troubled in a more profound, less tangible way. And I felt, instinctively, that it was not just the container of the family’s sorrows, but – somehow, inexplicably – feeding them.

I would go there from time to time during the secondary school years. I’d marvel at the grandeur of those iron gates and that long driveway; we’d climb the sweeping staircase to what is, in my memory, an endless procession of dark and musty rooms with plasterwork damp to the touch, old quilts, a pervading chill and flitting shadows. It was thrilling for a teenager. I remember one party – twenty drunk fourteen year olds screaming across the unkempt lawns, only to end up crammed into the (surprisingly tiny) kitchen, too spooked to venture further into the house.

My friend, a tall, loyal, bright girl with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, confided to me once that she sometimes had a ‘visitor’ in the middle of the night. She would wake in the small hours to find a shrouded and malevolent old lady sitting on her, pinning her to the mattress. She was paralyzed when this happened, she said, unable to even cry out for help. This terrifying apparition, she was convinced, meant to choke her.

The friend and I lost touch when I went off to university. Her life, I heard, did not unfold as happily as mine, she has had troubles. Her family broke up and the Manor was sold. But thirty years on, I found it again, in my imagination, a huge, neglected flinty beast set in an idyllic spot beneath the South Downs, a stone’s throw from the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The Manor – which I called Ileford –  became a key setting in my novel, the symbol of how the most grand and imposing façade can conceal rotten secrets. My friend’s ‘night visitor’ came to life again too. But that’s another story.

I still long for the Sussex countryside – the chalk paths up to the South Downs, pheasants panicking across country lanes in the early morning mist, and my hometown, Lewes, slotted in the cleft of the hills. I live in Oxford, now, and people tell me I’m lucky to be here but I still long to move ‘home’. I did go back to the Manor while researching my novel. I went up to the iron gates, held them and peeked through but I could see very little. I thought about going up the drive, knocking on the door and introducing myself, trying to explain who I was, what I was doing. In the end, I didn’t dare.

 

The Night Visitor launch photos

8 Jun 2017

with beetlesBook Launch night visitor launch crowd night visitor launch crowd 2 night visitor launch noodles 2 night visitor launch signing night visitor launch ted and prosecco night visitor launch with Helen nightvisitor cupcakes There were two parties to launch The Night Visitor. One in Blackwell’s Oxford, and another just a week later in Goldsboro Books, London. Night Visitor_launch invite_LondonIMG_1867 IMG_1848

IMG_1845 Quercus editor Stef Bierwerth

IMG_1844goldsboro cupcakes

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