Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Writer’s walk

By Susanna Beard, author of psychological thriller, Dare to Remember published by Legend 

For me, walking has always had a therapeutic quality. There’s something about putting one foot in front of the other, even if you’re plodding along with your hood pulled up over your head and your eyes on the ground, which helps the mood. And since I’ve started to write novels, walking has become a crucial part of the writing process.

There is a time-honoured link between long-distance running and writing - Joyce Carol Oates ran every afternoon, Louisa May Alcott felt that she "must have been a horse or a deer in some previous state" because she enjoyed running so much, and Murakami said his “real existence as a serious writer [began] on the day that I first went jogging.”

I’m not a runner – it hurts too much, in more ways than one. But walking, for me, clearly has the same effect as running has for these authors. As a writer, it’s when I walk that I wrestle with the twists and turns of a plot that won’t settle down, or the traits of a character who just doesn’t seem real.

Sometimes the walking just clears the mind; sometimes it offers the creative jolt that a new story (or a stuck story) needs.

Even when the weather’s out to get you – when it’s cold, wet and blustery, when the wind brings tears to your eyes and you can barely move your feet through a sea of mud, walking is ‘worth it’ time. The process of wrapping up against the elements, leaving the house and heading for the countryside (or a park, or a quiet lane) is in itself, I believe, good therapy for an overcrowded mind.

And if you add good weather, the countryside, wildlife, birdsong and air untainted by diesel fumes – then even better. Nothing raises the spirits as gently.

Except, of course, the presence of a canine friend or two. The unbridled, unselfconscious enthusiasm of a dog on a daily walk, the excitement of seeing another of the species - or quite often, just another human - repeats itself daily. Same place, new smells, sounds, dogs, people. Cats and birds. Squirrels! Such delight in the routine. It’s infectious.

It was on one of my daily walks by the Thames a couple of years ago – I’m lucky, I can get there in less than ten minutes – that I bumped into another dog-walker, a little late on her daily perambulation. When I remarked on this, in a friendly, dog-walking way, she replied that her husband had died in the night. What a shock! Of course, I did my best to comfort her, offering to tell people I saw who I knew to be her close friends, and went on my way.

When we parted, though, I couldn’t get the incident out of my head. The fact that she was walking on the morning after this terrible thing had happened to her fascinated me. Of course, when you have a dog, it needs walking. But it was more than that – it was the beginning of her recovery from the trauma: telling friends, getting out of the house, exercising, the fresh air by the river. The idea of walking as therapy struck me as a good theme for a novel.

I didn’t want to mirror my friend’s experience in my story. So I needed to come up with a reason for my protagonist’s need for therapy. Was there something in her past which needed to be resolved? It went from there. I wanted to explore the idea of a dog, and walking, helping to bring someone back from the brink, creating a new, safer world for that person.

That’s where my debut novel, Dare to Remember, began. It went through two working titles, some interesting critical discussions with my writing group and many drafts before I felt that it succeeded in doing what it was supposed to. But all through the novel my protagonist is supported by walking, and by her dog, Riley. The dog gets her out, meeting new people - however reluctant she is to talk - while the walking gives her space, room to think, to ponder over her life, to recover from her trauma.

I value my daily walks with my dogs, both for my health – physical and mental - but also as a way to continue working on my stories. I clear my head, problem-solve, get descriptive ideas and make friends at the same time.

Almost always I return with a sense of purpose for my writing as well as muddy boots and pawprints in my hall.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

In Conversation with Sam Blake (Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin)

By Gillian Hamer.

Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the popular national writing resources website 

She is Ireland's leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. 

Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.

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

Hello, and thank you for having me! I write crime as Sam Blake - the first in the Cat Connolly trilogy LITTLE BONES was published in 2016 and was a bestseller in Ireland, it was followed by IN DEEP WATER which is out in the UK in February 2018 and the third in the trilogy NO TURNING BACK will be out in Ireland in 2018 and in the UK in 2019.

Congratulations on the huge success of your debut crime novel LITTLE BONES – how has your life changed since its release?

LITTLE BONES was far more successful than I ever expected, it was No 1 in Ireland for 4 weeks and stayed in the top 10 for another 4 which was totally amazing. Now I get to be Sam Blake as well as me and it’s incredible to meet someone who has read it and loved my books! That never ceases to surprise me!

What was the inspiration behind the novel?

Cat Connolly is a twenty-four-year-old detective who is based in Dun Laoghaire just south of Dublin City and LITTLE BONES is about the story that unfolds when she finds a baby’s bones hidden in the hem of a wedding dress.

Stephen King talks about story being the collision of two unrelated ideas – the ideas behind Little Bones weren’t entirely unrelated but they collided one sunny Sunday afternoon as I was driving back from a Readers Day that author Sarah Webb and I had programmed at a hotel in Dublin Airport. I put on the radio and a documentary was starting on RTE about Kerry born playwright George Fitzmaurice. Fitzmaurice is best remembered for his play The Country Dressmaker which he submitted to the Abbey Theatre. It was such a success that it rescued the theatre after the problems of John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in the same year. Born in 1877, Fitzmaurice became introverted and isolated as he grew older and died in 1963, in a rented upstairs room in No.3 Harcourt Street, Dublin. He was aged 86 years and left no will and few personal belongings – apart from a copy of every play he had ever published and a few in draft form, which were in a suitcase under his bed.

It was Fitzmaurice’s suitcase that caused the collision of ideas.

Several years previously I’d watched an RTE TV documentary about a young Irish girl who was living in lodgings in Manchester. Belinda Agnes Regan discovered she was pregnant before she left Ireland but, unmarried, had no choice but to hide the pregnancy. She delivered the baby herself, incredibly in a room she shared with another much younger girl who apparently slept through her ordeal. Wrapping the baby in a shawl, she crept to the bathroom but when she returned, the baby wasn’t breathing. Hiding the body in a suitcase, she left it under her bed, returning home to Ireland to talk to the family priest. While she was away, the body was found by her land lady and she was arrested for infanticide.

These two stories, quite separately lit a light bulb in my head and on the drive home I started wondering about dress makers and what would happen if the bones of the baby had ended up in a dress – a wedding dress – the crucial thing that Belinda Agnes Regan must have yearned for, for nine long months. At that point I had no idea who owned the dress, or how the bones got there, or WHY…that was the start!

Why did you choose to write in the genre of crime fiction?

I’ve always read crime and I’m fascinated by puzzles and what makes people tick – why they act and react in a particular way. I think most writers write what they read, and I love a good story that keeps me hooked until the end and then surprises me. That’s what I try to do in my books.

Who are your favourite crime authors and is there one in particular you would list as your inspiration?

I adore Lee Child, Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter. They have all been huge influences. I love the fast action of the Reacher books and the characterisation and complex stories in Michael Connolly and Karin Slaughter’s books. Good stories are all about unforgettable characters and all of these writers characters stay with you. I love Alex Barclay’s Ren Bryce for the same reason.

Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

My full name is Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin which is far too long for a book cover and people outside Ireland struggle to pronounce O’Loughlin. The key for any author is that readers can remember their name long enough to find them in a library or on a bookshop shelf - Sam Blake is MUCH nice easier one to remember. Being a B, I’m in great company on the shelf and there is a theory that men don’t like reading books by women, so Sam adds an additional layer of subterfuge...

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

Years ago I wrote a romance novel – with lots of intrigue – called TRUE COLOURS, I was between crime novels and had an idea about an interior designer and her lost love. It got rave rejections from publishers when my then agent submitted it, but now I know it wasn’t a big enough story to be a breakout novel, so it didn’t get picked up. It seemed silly to leave it in a drawer so I self-published it, launching it free on World Book Day in 2012 (I think!) it had 25,000 downloads and shot into the top ten in contemporary fiction when it switched to paid, which was rather unexpected to say the least! It definitely wiped its face in terms of costs.

Could you give us a condensed version of your route to publication?

I started writing in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks. Obviously I thought the first book would be a bestseller (it was truly awful – the opening chapter is about a doctor returning to Dublin to commit suicide and he’s dead for the whole book) but despite being rejected by everyone on the planet, the bug had truly bit and I kept writing.

By the time I got to book 3 I knew I was getting better but I needed to learn more about the craft of writing. My husband was in the Irish Police force (Gardai) and worked shifts - I couldn’t get to a creative writing evening class so I decided to set up my own intensive one day fiction writing workshops – all facilitated by best-selling authors. I learned loads!

Inkwell grew into a publishing consultancy and I kept writing – my now agent is Simon Trewin from WME who I was working with doing events and as a scout, but whom I had forgotten to tell that I wrote myself. One day I mentioned it over coffee in London and he wanted to see my book immediately (bit of a scary moment) Thankfully he loved the book, which was then called THE DRESSMAKER. He had lunch with Mark Smith from Bonnier on a Thursday, sent him the book, and Bonnier made an offer for three books on Friday!

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

Just keep writing – best advice I was ever given from Sarah Webb

Finish your book – Liz Nugent’s top tip

And: Read, read, read. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Edit, edit, edit. – the fabulous Monica McInerney’s advice

And read On Writing by Stephen King (sorry that’s four) – EVERY published writer had read it and has it on their shelf. I could quote from it for ever!

Finally, your next book ‘IN DEEP WATER’ will soon be released - how tough was it writing the ‘difficult second book’?
Not as tough as writing book 3! I had an idea for IN DEEP WATER but had a couple of false starts because I’ve now discovered I need to get the crime exactly right before I begin (I know that sounds rather obvious) – once I knew what had happened and how, I flew through writing it.

I know this sounds mad, but as an unpublished writer you have the huge luxury of time to get your first book right – once you’re under contract that all changes and you have to speed up! Because LITTLE BONES was in fairly good shape, I had more time for IN DEEP WATER and really enjoyed coming up with the twist at the end. My editor wasn’t very keen on the multiple points of view that were in the original draft, so that meant a good bit of rewriting – IN DEEP WATER is a much more linear story than LITTLE BONES, but keeps you hooked.

When I came to write book 3, I only had a few months to come up with an idea and get stuck in. I’d forgotten to ask when my actual deadline was and was at 70k words when I discovered it was the next day! I managed to write 30k words in 9 days and deliver almost on time, but after the first edit I’ve decided I don’t like the end, so I’ve just changed it – it’s with my editor now so fingers crossed she likes it (YIKES!)

Social media

T: @samblakebooks

For Vanessa/Inkwell
T: @inkwellhq
T: @Writing_ie

Instagram for everything!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

SCRIPTORA: assisted publishing with SWWJ

Mary Rensten, Vice President of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists, talks about the Society's assisted publishing arm, SCRIPTORA.

In 2004 my first novel was accepted for publication. What a thrill! After nearly thirty years as a journalist and playwright, I had tackled a new genre ... and found success! I began a second novel, and jotted down ideas for further ones; nothing could stop this roller-coaster. Oh no? What was that saying about Pride coming before a Fall?

The publisher went out of business ... and my manuscript went back to the drawer, where it sat for a couple of years; I went back to writing drama, rather than experiencing it. Forget it, Mary, you are not a novelist.

Hang on, though ... the book was accepted, therefore it must be good enough for publication. The problem was ... no other publisher seemed to want it. So, what now? Vanity, in connection with publication, was a dirty word; but how about self-publishing? Other people, quite reputable writers, were now doing it. It was worth a try. I dug out the manuscript, freshened it up, took it to a printer. Two weeks later I collected the fifty copies I had ordered and brought them home in the boot of my car. My local independent bookshop, now sadly no longer there, agreed to stock the book and gave me a launch, to which the local press came. My photo, and a lovely plug for the book, appeared in the weekly newspaper, The Hertfordshire Mercury, and it was reviewed very favourably in The Woman Writer, the quarterly magazine of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists (SWWJ), an organisation which has been supporting writing professionals since 1894.

I had by now garnered some very useful information about publishing, which would be helpful when I set out to get my second novel into print. But that was not yet: I was only about halfway through! In the meantime though, perhaps I could use my new-found knowledge to benefit others in the SWWJ, members who were seeking publication in a genre new to them, or poets who were finding it difficult to get their work published in book form.

I drafted out a plan for this venture, giving it the publishing name I had used for my own book, and presented it to the SWWJ Council. They liked the idea ... and the name. SCRIPTORA (SWWJ) was born! You won't find the word in any dictionary ... well, not yet anyway! It is derived from scriptor, Latin for writer. Published writers back then being, as far as we know, male, there was no need for a feminine form of the word. No problem: add an 'a', and you have it ... SCRIPTORA!

We published our first book, After The Battle, a volume of poems by prize-winning Sussex writer Fay Marshall, in 2010, and in 2012 , Susato, a semi-autobiographical, lyrical novel by Liverpool poet Alfa, which has since been translated into German. We now have ten titles on our list, and six more - four novels, a book of poems and an autobiography - currently awaiting publication. Yes, it's a small concern, but it is a growing one, and our authors can be proud to have their work published by us, knowing that, before being accepted, it has gone through a rigorous vetting process by professional Readers, as with any submission to a commercial publisher, making this an 'assisted' publishing facility, rather than a self-publishing one.

So, how does SCRIPTORA work? Members send for an Application Form and Notes for Writers, then submit their work, together with the names of two people of literary standing who will endorse it. The manuscripts, preferably sent as email attachments (although hard copy is acceptable), go to two Readers. If both consider the work worthy of publication, it will move on to the next stage, which may well involve some 'tweaking' and/or re-writing; that done, the manuscript has a second round of reading, and if it passes that, it is then prepared for the printer. 

Throughout all this the writer has help, advice and general mentoring from our experienced editorial team, who will ensure that our publications, whether paperbacks or eBooks, meet professional standards in content and presentation. The only charge for this service is, at the moment, an admin. fee of £15! The bulk of the cost, though, aside from the ISBN, is paid by the author. He/she pays for the Readers' assessments - at a special rate to SWWJ members of £12 per hour, with £50 for an initial critique - and then for the printing and any artwork for the cover.

As with all publishers, the writer has to play his/her part in publicising the book; here again we give assistance, through the SWWJ press and social media contacts. Blogs, together with Twitter and Facebook, are proving to be a wonderful, far-reaching, and generally free, way of spreading the word about new work. Writers are, for the most part, retiring, modest people, but we are learning not to be so ... and this beguiling, easy-to-use 21st. century technology is helping us no end to overcome our shyness!

Alfa's Susato has had very good sales, particularly in Germany, poet Doris Corti's much praised Avenue of Days has sold out, Alex Rushton's dystopic novel, Sunrise at An Lac, has had brilliant reviews, and my own novel, the book that started the SCRIPTORA ball rolling, was republished commercially two years ago as Letters from Malta, and became an eBook best-seller in Australia!

I am so pleased that I took that first step into publishing: I love to see other writers being successful and it's good to think that SCRIPTORA is contributing to their success.

For more information and contact details go to Click on 'About Us' and scroll down to SCRIPTORA.

Mary Rensten is a Vice-President of SWWJ

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Ad Experience

By JJ Marsh

This summer, I published the sixth and last in my current crime series. After spending ten years writing, my aim was to start serious selling. My platform was pretty well established but to change up a gear, I needed to nail ads.

Hello Facebook, hello Amazon.

First I learned as much as I could for free online. I looked at Mark Dawson’s Self Publishing Formula 101 and knew I should understand more about advertising before enrolling on such a course. Otherwise I’d waste both time and money. (Having said that, Mark, James and the team are immensely generous with all their advice via their podcast/books.) Check them out.

So this Scaredy-Cat started with a reassuring Welsh voice: David Penny’s ALLi video on the basics. David’s slow, patient explanation of each step made me confident enough to try it out.

Then Adam Croft’s interview with the ever-helpful The Creative Penn added more ammunition, followed up with Reedsy’s course and various other marketing advisors.

Time to dip my toe in the water.

Lovely ad for the first in my series. But I dropped the price, thinking it would be an incentive. First mistake of many. (See Lesson 1.) In June, my first month of ad spend, I lost around £100. After studying more carefully and making adjustments, in month two, I made a decent profit. Feeling more confident, I tried new ads. Month three, I’ve quintupled my sales and I’m getting an ROI of 40% plus a whole host of new readers.

I am not an expert and far wiser minds will offer more sophisticated and expert advice. So as a seasoned writer but amateur marketer, here are the lessons I learned.

Lesson 1. Ads work best for higher-priced products such as boxsets but rarely for single books or special offers. (Advertising a discounted book is best done on the many freebie/bargain channels.) However, if you have a well-branded series, especially crime/historical fiction/sci-fi & fantasy, it’s worth trying FB/AMS ads.

Lesson 2: Image is crucial - simple, striking designs, featuring the book(s) work best.
On Facebook, you have more design influence. Blue is a bad idea as it blends with FB tones and won’t stand out but orange/yellow work well. Here’s a successful Facebook ad for one of mine, chosen especially to go with a “holiday read” promotion.

Lesson 3: Use congruence – text on ad which matches what the potential buyer sees on your sales page. (In my case; Europe, crime, Beatrice Stubbs, series, detective) Don’t be afraid to use the tagline in your ad or anything that reassures the reader they’re in the right place. And if you’re advertising on mobile/cell phones, make sure the image works in black and white.

Lesson 4: When it comes to Amazon, your only choice is to use the book cover as your image. I know Tread Softly is the most appealing and award-winning cover in my collection, so I chose to advertise that one in addition to my boxset.

The only other element you can control (apart from Keywords - see below) is the copy. You only have 150 characters. Here’s what went with the cover above.
Basque Country, Spain.
A true detective is never off duty.
Beatrice Stubbs is up to her neck in corruption, blackmail and Rioja.
Lesson 5: Link to the Amazon page for the appropriate country – ie, if advertising in the US use and for Germany, etc. You can also use to make sure the link redirects your readers to their home site.

Lesson 6: Target carefully. This is IMPORTANT. Make a profile of your ideal reader. Look at Also-boughts of yours and similar writers in your genre. Use Facebook's Audience Insights feature. Amazon offers a variety of tools and suggestions but you know your book and its place 'on the shelf' better than anyone. It sounds stupidly obvious but reach readers who will read and enjoy your work. I write not-gory, intelligent European crime fiction. If I target fans of erotica and sci-fi or slasher horror, I'm onto a loser. If I target fans of Kate Atkinson, Louise Penny, Kathy Reichs or Henning Mankell, I'm far more likely to find friendly readers.

On Amazon, use whole phrases or titles as Keywords and aim for around 200. It will force you to drill down into your niche market if nothing else.

On Facebook, select only their appropriate suggestions and add plenty of your own, based on all the research you've already done. Narrow to your ideal reader by using the Lookalike feature. Facebook can generate similar audiences to those who already like your page.

Lesson 7: Duplicate ads and change one element at a time. Received wisdom says 3 ads per ad set, which costs you no more than one. When you can see which one is working, ditch or change the others. (Leave them for at least 3 days before tinkering. Stats take a while to filter through.) This one for Raw Material took three weeks of refining till it took off.

Lesson 8: Watch what works. Remember you pay per click. Refine and hone.
Check keywords daily on Amazon and change those which get a lot of clicks but no sales.  Also pause those which get few impressions. CPC (cost per click) on Amazon should be $0.70 or less.

On Facebook, watch which ads get most impressions and clicks. After following Lesson 5 above, check which ads are working and either stop or alter the lowest performer. (Tip – what you think is your best ad may not be the same for your readership.) Received wisdom suggests your CPC should be around $0.30.

Lesson 9: If an ad is working – eg you’re selling more than you’re spending, increase your budget by 50%. Remember The Read-Through Effect – if readers enjoyed the first, it results in sales for the rest of your backlist. I’m now advertising only two books and one boxset, but consistently selling all eight (six individual books, two boxsets) every day.

Lesson 10: Respond. If people sign up to your list or like your Facebook author page or have questions, make time for them. Build a relationship and engage. Don’t bombard them but make them feel welcome and part of a community.

Extra tip: Trust your designer.
This is my most successful ad to date – it’s working in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and is soon to land in India. Thanks to JD Smith Design who rejected my chosen pic and used one of her own.
As always, she was right.