Wednesday, 25 January 2017

In Conversation with Claire Fuller

By Gillian Hamer

Claire Fuller is a novelist and short fiction writer. She began writing fiction at the age of forty, after many years working as a co-director of a marketing agency. Her first novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was published in the UK by Fig Tree / Penguin and sold in a further fifteen countries for translation. It won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, and has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award. It was also nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award 2015 and was a finalist in the ABA (American Booksellers Association) 2016 Indies Best Book Awards.

Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, will be published in the UK and Commonwealth also by Fig Tree / Penguin at the end of January 2017.

Welcome back to Words with Jam, Claire. We first spoke not long after the release of your debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days. How was the experience of having such a successful first novel?
It was so unexpected that at times, when I found myself in front of a crowd of people at a literature festival or wherever, speaking about my book, it was very surreal. It was wonderful too, and exciting of course.

What have you learned about yourself as a writer as your career has developed?
That I can actually stand up in front of a crowd of people and not get so nervous that I can’t speak! I hadn’t done any public speaking before my first book was published so I really wasn’t sure I could do it, and I was certain that I wouldn’t enjoy it. But I’ve visited a lot of book clubs who read Our Endless Numbered Days as well as doing the larger events, and what’s surprised me is how wonderful it’s been to meet readers and just talk about books with people who love them. As for what I’ve learned about me as a writer… that I have to trust that the process works even when it feels like it won’t.

How did you approach the writing of ‘the difficult second novel?’
Well, I’d heard all about difficult second novels, and so although Swimming Lessons was the second novel I wrote, I finished the first draft of it before Our Endless Numbered Days was even published. Often the publishing cycle is a lot longer than people expect. It was about 19 months between when Penguin bought my first book and when it was published, so I thought that was plenty of time to write a draft of the next. That got me around the possible issue of knowing my first book was successful and feeling I couldn’t do that again, or knowing that it wasn’t and thinking why bother writing another.

Was it easier or harder for you to write Swimming Lessons (your latest) than it was to write OEND?
Definitely harder, and it took me longer. I went down a lot more dead ends than I had with the first, and found myself deleting thousands of words to get back to where I could move forward again. I started writing it from one character’s point of view in third person, and then changed it to two viewpoints: first person, and third. After the first draft was finished I changed the whole of the second half. But I got there in the end.

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Swimming Lessons direct from your publisher, and when I first opened the Jiffy bag a load of used train tickets fell out. It confused me at first but as I began to read, I understood. It’s a fascinating idea. So, I’m curious about the inspiration behind the book?
Yes, a big part of what happens in the novel is about things being left in books for other people to find – hence the used train tickets! The inspiration came from a while ago when my (now) husband and I were going out, but not living together. He lived in a town about 40 miles from me, and we had been doing some art projects together, one of which was to hide notes in each other’s houses. Then we decided Tim should move in with me, and he packed up his flat and in the process found all five notes that I’d written to him. Apparently eight years later there are still two notes that he wrote me, hidden in the house we share together. He won’t tell me where they are, but I suspect they are somewhere in the thousands of books we own.

You’ve created in Gil, Nan and Flora Coleman a whole new family of characters, each as deep and complex as those in your first novel. What is it that draws you to a certain type of characterisation?
That’s a tricky question. I think it might be the only way I know to write characters, and don’t we all want to read about people who are complex? I think what I like to include are the mannerisms that help define us. My daughter and I, for example, find it very difficult to sit in a chair with our feet on the ground, we always put our feet up, or sit on them. All these little things can say a lot about the kind of people we are.

In much the way that the forest setting was almost a character in its own right in OEND, in this latest novel it’s the beach landscape, and particularly open sea swimming, that brings another layer to the story. Are settings important to you, and which comes first, plot or place?
Settings are really important to me. I need to know everything about the inside and outside space that a character occupies, even the parts that are behind them and don’t get described. I like writing (and reading) about landscape and so I picked a coastal location very deliberately, and one that is based on a real place that I know. It’s place and character that comes first for me. I have a vague sense of a person, I put them in a specific place and see what happens. Plot comes much later.

As your journey as a writer continues to flourish, are there any other themes or topics you really want to explore, and why?
Before I started writing Swimming Lessons I did write a long list of things I’m interested in that I’d like to write about, but they weren’t really topics or themes, but rather things I liked, such as Morris Minors, sea-swimming, nudist beaches, raining fish. And as you might have noticed, a lot of these got in the book. I think I’ll probably do this again before I start the next one, but I’ve got no idea what they will be yet.

In the same way as Sophie Hannah has taken on writing new Agatha Christie novels, and Anthony Horowitz with Sherlock Holmes – whose novels would you like a hand in recreating if you had the opportunity?
I love this idea, which is great for fans of particular authors, but I’m not sure it works like that for me. I tend to like particular books, rather than all or most of the novels from a one author. But if someone else wanted to take it on, I’d love to see another book recreated in the style of Barbara Comyns. She’s not very well known, but is an English writer who wrote mostly in the 1950s and 60s.

Which author – alive or dead – would you like to sit down with over dinner and have an in-depth conversation about the craft of writing and books in general?
Am I allowed two? I’d like to introduce Barbara Comyns to Shirley Jackson, although it’s quite possible they’d heard of each other when they were alive, and maybe even read each other’s books. I think these women would be fascinating – Jackson wrote such a range of work, but I think her slightly odd, slightly spooky fiction has a lot of similarities with Comyns’ novels, and I’d to see if they agree.

Can you let us into your plans for book three?
I’ve got a finished draft, but it does still need a lot of work, and of course I have yet to see if my agent and editor like it. But it is about Frances, a middle-aged woman, who meets Cara and her boyfriend, Peter when they are all staying during the summer of 1969 in a dilapidated English country house. Bad things happen. I’m not sure I can say much more than that!

Could you list the top three tips, in your opinion, for helping a writer create a bestselling novel?
That’s a tricky one. I’m not that certain that creating a bestseller is actually up to the author. Yes, the book has to be well written and appealing to readers, but it has to reach them, and most of that is down to the publisher, and also luck. The three things however that the writer can influence are: make the novel original in some way, make it intriguing for readers, make it very well written.

Find out more about Claire and her writing here

You can read our Bookmuse review of Swimming Lessons here

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Snapshots from... Vermont

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. We're going over the pond this time, with author Kathryn Guare making us all envious of the US state of Vermont.

By JJ Marsh

What’s so great about Vermont?

Vermont is known most for its natural beauty, especially in autumn when the hillsides turn spectacular shades of golden yellow, orange and red. It’s one of the least populated states in the US, with more miles of dirt road than any other state. My home, the city of Montpelier, is the smallest state capital in the country, and we are proud to say it is also the only one without a McDonald’s!

All of this gives the state a lovely feeling of being small-scale, low-key and slower paced. Life isn’t hectic. Preserving the special nature of Vermont’s environment is a shared value and a longstanding tradition.

The air is clean, the scenic highways are free of billboards, and residents participate in an annual spring cleaning called “Green Up Day” to spruce up their own properties and clear winter debris from roads and rivers. The state is famous for maple syrup and for a high concentration of local artisans creating everything from cheese, beer and cider, to hand-crafted furniture.

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place

The culture of Vermont is best expressed in its small towns that bustle with farmer’s markets, community suppers, book clubs and quirky festivals. In contrast to Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, Vermont has the “Strolling of the Heifers”!

There is a vibrant theater scene with venues—some of them in gorgeous outdoor settings—featuring world-class performances for a fraction of what you’d pay in larger metropolitan areas. Because it is often seen as a refuge from the noise and stress of city life, it has always been a magnet for writers and poets, and Vermont communities treasure their independent bookstores and libraries.

What’s hot, what are people reading?

People tend to mirror what’s popular in general, so right now it’s books like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Girl On a Train, as well as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. Some current popular authors have a more local association. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mystery series is one, as her settings in the Eastern Townships of Quebec are on the Vermont border.

The Vermont Humanities Council also features a program called “Vermont Reads”, choosing one book each year that residents are encouraged to add to their book clubs. This year, the Council marked the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic by choosing two works: The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition and Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. For next year, they’ve already selected the award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson.

Can you recommend any books set in Vermont?

Many of the novels of Howard Frank Mosher are set in a region of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom and two of the most acclaimed are Where the River Flows North and A Stranger in the Kingdom. These books capture not only a sense of place but also the eccentricities—sometimes charming, sometimes dark--that can be found in the remote corners of a rural state. Most of his books have the recurring theme of old Yankee traditions clashing with the evolving values of modern society. Also, Archer Mayor’s series of police procedurals featuring Inspector Joe Gunther are set in and around the city of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Who are the best-known local authors?

Along with the above, I of course need to mention our most famous Poet Laureate, Robert Frost. He did not live in Vermont year-round, but for forty years he taught each summer and fall at Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English and had a farmstead near the school. Many other celebrated authors maintain homes in Vermont, such as novelist John Irving, playwright David Mamet, and Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Gluck. 

Is the location an inspiration or a distraction for you?

Some of my own novels are partly set in Vermont, so I find the location altogether inspiring. When I get tired of sitting at my desk, I head for the countryside where I have several favorite spots for writing. I’m always evaluating every picturesque landscape I discover for its creative potential, and I often make a mental note that “I should come back here some day and do some writing.”

What are you writing?

I’ve recently completed three novels in a suspense series that centers around a dashing Irish musician. He finds his quiet life forever changed when a mysterious British agent shows up in his living room to recruit him for the first of many globetrotting adventures. The first in the series is Deceptive Cadence. My latest book, Where a Wave Meets the Shore, is a historical romance set in the 1950s on Ireland’s Great Blasket Island.

Sum up life in Vermont in three words

Take it easy.

Author of the award-winning Conor McBride Series, Kathryn Guare’s character-driven novels are all somewhere on the spectrum between romance and suspense, and some are even perfectly balanced between the two. She has a passion for exploring diverse cultures and cuisine, Classical music and all things Celtic, and has a habit of mixing these into her stories along with other topics and enthusiasms that capture her interest. Formerly, as an executive with a global health advocacy organization, she traveled extensively throughout the world. Currently, as a native Vermonter, she hates to leave home during foliage season.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How To... Write a Killer Blurb

By JJ Marsh

Authors swear the blurb, or back cover copy, is ten times harder than writing the novel it describes. Which is understandable. You know all the nuance and detail of 100K words and cannot possibly reduce its essence to 250.
Or can you?

Having written cover description for all kinds of material – from cookbooks to crime, from erotica to executive summaries – I have a few tips.

Here’s a ten-step plan to creating an effective blurb for fiction.

Ready, Steady...



Start with bare branches. In Techniques of a Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain offers the basic framework for a blurb. Write one sentence and one question, containing character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. It works for every genre.
Eg: When humans begin to grow to twelve-feet tall (situation), John Storm (character) must find out why (objective). But can he defeat traitors in high places (opponent) who want to fake an extra terrestrial plot and will kill anyone in the way (disaster)?
Research I. Read the blurbs of similar books in your genre. (Yeah, I know, yours is unique, but bear with me.) If you had to describe it in the most reductive terms, would it be Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones (as Adele Parks described her first novel to attract her agent)? Or Hotel Rwanda meets Million Dollar Baby? Choose your comparisons well. You may not use them in the blurb but they might still be useful for your elevator pitch.

Research II. Key words. Which words will help your target reader find your book? Which words do they search for? Look again at those blurbs. Make a mind map of all those vital clues. For Rise of the Golden Aura by Chanrithy Him, I had a hit list: vampire, Asia-America, romance/love, myth, supernatural, underworld, beauty pageant, queen, series. We got every single one into the final draft.

Mood, style and tone. Cover copy reflects the book within. If is wise-cracking, hard-boiled noir, so must be the blurb. I always ask clients for three chapters of their book so I can get a sense of the way they write. On reading, I make notes: ethereal and whimsical / sardonic and dry / cosy and humorous. When you begin to write the text, keep these words in front of you.

Patterns. Be aware that blurbs, just as much as covers, are part of your brand. Jane Davis is not writing a series, but readers keen to discover more of her work will appreciate the similar style across her entire canon. So I kept notes on length, format, style and phrasing to avoid repetition but enabling the maintenance of a 'Davis' tone.

... Go!

Add leaves and flowers. With all the ammunition above, take your Swain frame and start expanding. Use powerful nouns and verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Vary sentence lengths. Aim for the essence. Pack every sentence tightly and make every word earn its place. Remember the power of threes. Here's a sample extract from an upcoming novel by Luna Miller.
Gunvor may be in her sixties, her hands might be too shaky to continue performing operations and her body complains every time she works out. But her mind is as sharp as ever. She’s curious, intelligent and experienced – perfect qualities for a private detective.

As the agency’s rookie, she gets a surveillance job. A straightforward case, they said. A domestic. Suspicions of infidelity. Follow the husband.

Rewrite. Keep paragraphs short and remember how it looks online. You need some white space for ease of reading. Aim for five paragraphs and around 200 words. End each sentence and each paragraph on a high-impact word. Here's the opener to The Beauty Shop by Suzy Henderson.
England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. Circumstance brings three people together, changing their destinies.
Sell. Tell the reader how this book will make them feel. Don’t be afraid to use an element of drama. This is your punchline. David Baddiel makes this point in Time for Bed. His character Gabriel is choosing a video. The review on the back of Beaches says, ‘And at the end you cry, goddamit, you cry real tears’. Gabriel wells up right there in Blockbusters.

Tagline. Read the blurb again and sum it up in one line. Think film posters.  
‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’ 
‘The true story of a real fake.’ 
‘She fell in love with him the day he decided to marry someone else.
I find it helps to try them out in the voice of Morgan Freeman.
When you've got it, put it right at the top of the blurb, but check it doesn’t clash. My tagline for my own Book 2 was 'You Never Know Who's Watching'. Lovely! Until I noticed the word 'watching' in the first line. Not lovely.

Puff quote. Ideally, end your blurb with an endorsement from a well-known writer or enthusiastic reader. Choose carefully and don’t be afraid to edit out cliché. A current client has this: “What an amazing capture of unadulterated raw humanity, in all its shades of light and darkness. I read it over a few days. Couldn’t put it down. Really, really enjoyed it.” My advice was to trim. The stuff in bold is where the power lies.

Read the whole thing aloud. If you stumble, there’s a reason. Polish, rewrite and hone till it sings, then share with respected opinions.

This may sound like a lot of work, but your blurb and the cover are what sell your book.
So take your time and get it right.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

In Conversation with B.A Paris

By Gillian Hamer

B.A Paris
B.A. Paris is from a Franco/Irish background. She was brought up in England and moved to France where she spent some years working as a trader in an international bank before re-training as a teacher and setting up a language school with her husband. They still live in France and have five daughters. Her debut novel, Behind Closed Doors, a psychological thriller, became one of the best selling releases of 2016. She is about to launch her follow-up novel, The Breakdown, and we are lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the 'blurb'!

The Breakdown : One night, during a storm, Cass sees a woman in a car. The next day the woman is found dead. Cass begins receiving silent calls, which lead her to believe that someone saw her in the woods that night. She is also experiencing problems with her memory. Is she losing her mind – or is it just the guilt she feels in relation to the woman in the car?

Hello and welcome! Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?

Thank you, I’m delighted to be answering your questions today. I always wanted to write – it was always there in the background - but I never had time until a few years ago, when my two elder daughters left home. I always thought I would write stories for children but I had an idea for a novel and decided to give it a go. I finished writing it in a couple of months and loved every minute of it. So I carried on writing and eventually wrote Behind Closed Doors.

You’ve taken the literary world by storm this year with the release of your debut novel ‘Behind Closed Doors.’ A huge bestseller, over 6000 reviews to date on Amazon, how has your life changed since the success?

Not that much. I live in France so I travel over to London quite a lot for meetings and events, which I really enjoy as I never went anywhere much before! The best thing is that in September, I was able to reduce the number of hours I work, which means I now have more time to write.

What was the inspiration behind the novel?

I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on behind closed doors and I once knew a couple who appeared to have a perfect marriage – but then I began to wonder if it wasn’t as perfect as it seemed. It gave me the idea for a story and Behind Closed Doors was born.

I’ve been unable to learn very much about you by researching online, is that a personal choice, are you a private person and hope to stay that way?

Yes. My friends here in France only found out a month ago that I’d written a book and it wasn’t me who told them! I didn’t really want anyone to know apart from my family and close friends but the secret is out now.

You’re based in France, is location and setting something you consider important in your writing?

For the moment, anything that I’ve written has been based in England. Most of the actual locations are imaginary, although they may be based on a house or a town that I know. It’s important that in a house I have the exact layout fixed in my mind, not just the rooms but right down to where the appliances stand in the kitchen.

What attracts you to your genre of psychological thrillers?

I enjoy trying to think of ways the characters can outwit each other; this was especially true in Behind Closed Doors with Jack and Grace. I also like the pace and tension involved in creating a psychological thriller.

Would you like to write in a different genre one day? If so, what and why?

I would like to write psychological dramas that don’t necessarily have the thriller element - I’m not sure I could keep coming up with suitable thriller plots.

What themes interest you as a writer?

The relationships between people, either couples or within families.

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?

Accept criticism as a positive thing. Be relentless in discarding something you know isn’t working. And finally, the most important - never give up.

Finally, your next book ‘The Breakdown’ is out early 2017- how difficult was it writing the ‘difficult second book’?

It was more difficult than I thought it would be – but apparently not as difficult as writing the third book will be!

Follow B.A Paris on Twitter @BAParisAuthor