5 Ways Not To Start Your Novel


 Earlier this week I posted the first line of my work-in-progress to Instagram, with the comment that I knew I was breaking a rule by starting my novel with the main character waking up. I asked what everyone thought and the general consensus seemed to be that I was breaking the rule well enough for it to be good. But not everyone knew that this was a rule. So, in the spirit of learning the rules so we can break them, here are some ways that my obsessive reading of articles written by agents and publishers about what gets their attention has taught me not to start a book… 

1) Waking up
It seems like such a natural place to start. Your character gets up in the morning and goes through their daily routine until something happens that throws them off. Great. Except this is a big turn off for agents and publishers. They read countless versions of morning routines. It’s boring and cliched. It doesn’t grab their attention. All is not lost though. Delete all that stuff about them waking up and agonising about their first day of work, school, interview, date, etc while they brush their teeth. Start the story at the point in which they actually do that thing instead. 

2) Dreaming 
 Starting with a dream is a lazy technique that just makes the reader feel cheated. For example  ‘Sonia teetered on the precipice, knowing she couldn’t save herself, didn’t even want to. She took a deep breath and jumped. The wind knocked the breath from her as the ground rose to meet her… Then she woke up.’ 

 See? Promising beginning that’s then ruined by the fact that, oh yeah, it’s not actually happening. And the other problem? The real beginning is actually the character waking up, which we’ve already discussed. 

3) Prologue
 Writers love prologues and readers hate them. I’m both so you can hopefully trust me when I say that prologues are an old fashioned device and generally serve no purpose other than to confuse the reader. When I see a prologue my first thought is that the writer has put it in in the hope of showing me that things will get exciting soon. Which usually means that the beginning of the actual story is slow. 

4) Onomatopoeia 
 Bang! Crash! There’s your originality going out the window.

 I was taught this method as a way to start a story when I was at school. The problem is that it still sounds childish. Particularly if it’s something like- Briiiiing, Briiiiing went the phone on that fateful morning. ‘I wonder who that could be?’ said Harry to himself. Little did he know etc etc. Just tell us that the phone rang. You can even say urgently if you must. 

5) Setting the scene

  You’ve probably seen this done more often in films. We get a few minutes of an idyllic setting before everything goes horribly wrong. It’s a lot quicker an easier to do this in films, though. In books no one is going to be gripped by your description of tea at the vicarage or a picnic in the park. Especially not an agent or publisher, who’s attention needs to be caught at once. So cut right to the action and trust the reader to fill in the blanks. We can. If you show us a rumpled blanket on the grass with an overturned basket then we will grasp that your protagonist was having a pleasant picnic before disaster struck. 

Breaking the rules- 
 So, now we know the rules we can work out how to break them! For instance, The Hunger Games starts with Katniss waking up and going out to hunt- as she does most days. If I Stay begins with a, rather stickily sweet in my opinion, scene of the protagonist’s family interacting happily. And no doubt like me you’ve read plenty of books that start with a prologue. So the rules aren’t hard and fast. But you need to know them so you can break them well enough to get away with it. And if you can do that then that in itself may catch an agent’s or publisher’s attention. 
 I hope you found this post helpful. And if you’re curious about my rule-breaking first line mentioned at the beginning then check out my Instagram

Victorian Natural Beauty Tips


Look gorgeous for summer- the Victorian way. 


 For much of the Victorian era, using any kind of cosmetic was frowned upon. This was partly because they believed that the skin breathed oxygen through the pores, so anything covering them up, such as face powder, was unhealthy. It was also held that trying to look better than you actually did smacked of deceit, and that only prostitutes wore face paint (though in fact there seems little evidence to support this). But women were not so very different and the desire to look their best was strong. Natural remedies were popular and didn’t hold the same stigma, they were also cheaper and often more gentle than the typical Victorian soap. Here’s a couple of easy, pleasant recipes for Victorian beauty: 


Rosemary Water

 This was used for washing hair as that practice increased in popularity. Rosemary is astringent, so it’s better at removing grease than plain water, but has none of the rather harsh properties of the soap that would have been available, which could end up imparting an odd greenish tinge to your hair if you weren’t careful! All you have to do is soak several handfuls of rosemary in a bowl of just boiled water for a few minutes. Then strain the rosemary out and use the water for washing your hair. (Check the temperature has cooled enough first.) 


Elderflower Water

 I’m going to try this as soon as the elderflowers come out near me! We all know that they make an excellent wine, but did you know that, because they contain glycerine, they make an excellent body scrub? Simply add a fairly generous amount of the flowers to your bath water as it runs and use the flower heads to scrub yourself down. Apparently it leaves the skin beautifully soft and silky. 


Lemons

 Lemons were used for a number of beauty treatments, usually involving an attempt to fade freckles and blemishes. Hands were particularly important to any Victorian women who wished to be considered a lady- clean, white, blemish free hands were a mark of wealth, meaning you didn’t have to work. Hands therefore, had to be looked after and most ladies followed a regime like this every morning- hands were soaked in warm water for several minutes, then half a lemon was used to scrub the nails. This helped clean and bleach them. Then she would soak her hands in the water for a few more minutes, before trimming and filing. Apparently, rubbing your nails against your scalp will then condition them using the natural oils in your hair. I can’t say I noticed much of a result with this, but then my hair tends to be quite dry. The lemon certainly left my fingernails feeling smooth. Just make sure you have no cuts first! 

 Please let me know how you get on if you try any of these. But, obviously, do not try them if you are allergic or think you might be allergic to any of the ingredients.

Like this article? It originally appeared in my monthly newsletter. If you’re interested in learning more fascinating and intricate details from the Victorian era then you should sign up! Just fill in your first name and email address in the form on the contact page. I never share your details and never spam. 

Making Endless Lists

Day two of the seven day writing challenge with Joanne Fedler. 


 Day two’s exercise came as rather a surprise to me. I’m an avid maker of to do lists, but I’d never heard of making random lists within the context of writing a novel. The purpose of it, Joanne explained, was that it would help us come up with starting places for plots and themes. She said that writing is haphazard, and therefore we need to become good at putting pieces together. 

 I admit I was slightly skeptical, because personally I don’t feel my writing is particularly haphazard, but I was still ready to give it a go. So I made two of the lists she’d suggested. The first was things from history I wish I’d witnessed. The second was things I am witnessing now. I found the first one particularly difficult and finally came to the conclusion that I either know too little or too much about history. The only ones I could think of also came with the probability of death or, if one was lucky, disease. Mind, when it came to making the second list some points from our present world were just as scary! 

 So, it was a fun and interesting exercise. Did it help with my writing? I have to be honest and say I don’t think it did really. I cannot see how a list of historical events could be turned into a coherent novel that didn’t involve far too much time travel! Am I taking it too literally? Perhaps. But that’s just the way my mind works. However, this method may be a revelation to you, so if you feel like giving it a try, don’t let me put you off. And there is one aspect of novel writing in which I can heartily recommend making endless lists- outlining. Make lists of characters, family trees, character traits, backstories, scenes, whatever the heck you want. That will definitely help you write your novel. 

 Below are some of the suggestions Joanne made for possible lists: 

10 things you lost
10 things you can’t live without
10 objects with special meaning to you
10 books that changed your life

 If you try this then do let me know how you get on. Did it work for you? 

Free-writing

Experiences From Day 1 of Joanne Fedler’s 7 Day Writing Challenge


 As promised, I’m going to write up my experiences doing this course for you. You might want to try the exercises yourself! 

 Firstly, what is free-writing, or dream-writing as Joanne called it? Well, the idea is to set yourself a timer, which can be anything from five minutes to half an hour, and write non stop for that period of time. You cannot go back over what you’ve written or think about what you’re writing. Just write. And that means strictly to write, not type. It must be written out by hand. 
So what’s the point? Usually it’s intended to help you through a block. You write without thought and without judgement. There’s no second guessing yourself. No looking back. It’s probably rubbish, but that’s okay because you know no one else will ever see it. 

 Now, when I did this challenge I wasn’t blocked. My writing was going rather well actually. So did this exercise still have benefit? I would have to say yes. Why? 

 Joanne gave us a series of prompts to choose from to get us started. The one I chose was something like: pick three objects that describe your life. Well, that was quite easy. I wrote happily about that for five minutes. It was only afterwards that I realized, although I had followed the prompt, what I’d actually ended up writing about was a niggling little worry that had been at the back of my mind for ages. I’d written about whether I’d got my priorities in the right order. And because I’d written about it I was able to face it and sort it out. It really cleared my mind. So why not have a go and see if something similar happens to you? Here’s a couple more prompts to choose from (mine): 

The best memory I have is… 
My favourite thing to do is… 
One day I’d love too… 
I couldn’t do without… 

 See if free-writing about these tells you anything about yourself and what’s on your mind. And do let me know if you find it works! 

What to do if Your Book is Too Long or Too Short


 This is often a problem for writers, both new and emerging. Each genre carries with it a certain expectation in terms of word count. Roughly, these are along the lines of:

Full length novel: 80,000-100,000 words
Light fiction- 70,000-85,000 words
YA- 45,000-70,000 words
Middle-grade- 10,000-25,000 words. 

 There are exceptions to these, for instance fantasy and sci-fi tend to be longer to allow for word-building, and many writers, like myself, find that there’s a gap between middle grade (which is usually considered to be for ages 8-10) and YA (which tends to be for 14+). My own book is aimed at ages 11-14 and is about 35,000 words. Sometimes you hear this genre referred to as ‘teen’. I’d say between 25,000 and 45,000 is about right for that age group. 

 If you want to be traditionally published then you need to pay attention to the length of your work. Too short or too long for your genre and a lot of agents and publishers will be put off. 

 But, I hear you say, what if I self-publish? Surely then I can do whatever I want? You certainly have more leeway, but remember that your audience will still have expectations in regard to length. Many will not be happy if they pay the price for a full length novel, only to find it’s just 40,000 words. This would put it in the novella category, which is fine, but you’d need to market and price it as such. 

 There can also be problems with self publishing a book that’s too long. For example, a writer friend of mine was recently informed by Amazon Createspace that they couldn’t upload her book because there were too many pages. 
So, how can we fix these pesky length problems? 

Too Short

 I made this mistake in my first novel. The problem was, I had a premise, not a plot. I got to about 16,000 words and thought I was halfway through. Then I googled how many words a novel should be and found I had another 59,000 to go! I had to throw in several subplots to keep the story going. So if your story is too short, consider whether you actually have a proper plot. I found this blog post enormously helpful when working that out.

 Look at your secondary characters too. Give them a character arc of their own. Not so prominent as your protagonist’s of course, but they need to be real people, not just puppets in the background. To my first novel I added a manipulative friend, a secondary romance, a sensitive mother, a misleading neighbour and a suspicious brother. And a duel. The book was a lot better for the layers this added and I got it to 77,000 words. (It’s currently being serialised on Channillo.com)

If you thought you had a series in mind but the first one comes up significantly short of your intended word count, try blending two books together. 

 Too Long

If your book is over 100,000 words you should definitely consider cutting it down. A publisher is unlikely to consider it at that length, and as mentioned before, it will probably be too long for Amazon Createspace too. You have two options with this:

1. Edit it and cut out all unnecessary scenes and words. The fact is that if your book is too long, the most likely reason is that you haven’t edited it enough. Remember, you have to kill your darlings! If it doesn’t move the story along then it has to go. 

2. Turn it into two books. If you’ve edited it as much as you can and can’t possible cut anything else out, and it’s still over 100,000 words, then it’s because you have too much story to tell. You have a series on your hands! Find, or make, a break in the book and turn it into two. It can be quite a lot of work to do this, but worth it. 

 So, that’s what I do when my book comes out too long or short. What do you do? 

5 General Principles for Marketing Your Book. 


 One of the most popular things I blog about is marketing. Of course, it’s quite a big subject and so each post focuses on various aspects of it, but in this post I want to give you an overview on the most important principles I’ve learned. But do check out my other articles for specifics, and if your question is not answered in any of them then leave me a comment. 

1. Decide on your ideal audience. 

 We all know the saying that if you try to please everyone you’ll end up pleasing no one. This is also true with marketing- if you try to appeal to everyone then you’re appealing to no one. You need to know your target audience. This may seem obvious at first. You might be thinking, well I write women’s fiction, therefore I need to market my book to women. Yes, but there are many different types of women! Women who read to escape and women who read to learn. Women who want to be comforted by the familiar and women who want to travel to another world. So just ‘women’ isn’t specific enough. You need to work out the type of woman. Something that can help you with this is looking at your protagonist. If she’s a busy working mother then your book will probably appeal to busy working mothers. If she’s a young professional looking for love, guess what? That’s also your main target audience. 
 Of course, there are exceptions to any rule. Take my book for example. Victoria’s Victorian Victory is a YA story about a fourteen year old girl in Victorian England. But I realized quite early on in the marketing process that teenage girls were not my main target audience. Teenage girls today like dystopian thrillers and vampires. My target audience is the classic-book-and-period-drama-loving woman. The ones that still adore and reread their Anne of Green Gables, Little Women and Little House on the Prairie. Women like me! 
So, who will your book appeal to? 

2. Go where your readers are. 

Once you have a target audience in mind, go where you can reach them. This enables you to focus your social media efforts on just a few platforms and do them really well. So, professional women are often on Facebook and LinkedIn. Young people use Snapchat. Full time mums love Pinterest. And classic book lovers like Instagram. You can use all these platforms of course, but concentrate on the ones where your ideal readers are and learn to utilise them really well. 
Go here for tips on using my favourite platform- Instagram. 

3. Value your work. 

Too often you see writers giving their books away for free, usually via an automated direct message. This worked once, but I believe too many writers are doing it now for it to make your book stand out like it used to. You can see why writers do it. Usually it’s the first in a series and they give that one away to try and hook you into buying the rest of it. The problem is, giving your book away for free shows that the writer doesn’t really value it. And if the writer doesn’t value it then the reader certainly won’t. (I’m not talking about a flash sale here where your eBook is free for one or two days over a holiday or other special occasion. This does have some marketing value if you’re looking to up your reviews. Just don’t do it regularly.) 

 Go here for a more in depth discussion of giving your book away for free on Twitter. 

4. Provide content your reader will feel benefitted by. 

 Everyone likes to feel they are getting something from their time. And people are giving you their time by looking at your content, reading your blog and signing up for your newsletter, let alone reading your book. So never forget that! Make sure they come away feeling that they’ve spent that time well, either because they’ve really enjoyed themselves or because they’ve learnt something. 
 For example, long blog posts about how you’ve spent your week may not engage that many people, unless you can make it really funny or relatable. Because telling us that you read three books and went to Starbucks isn’t all that scintillating. Try reviewing the books instead. Then your reader will feel they got some useful information from their investment of time. Or, instead of always talking about your own writing, try talking about something that interests them. I mean, you’re reading this post, aren’t you? Would you still be reading it if it was entitled ‘Me, Selling My Book’? Probably not. But I’m still talking about how I’m selling my book. It’s just that I’m telling you about it from the direction of how my experience can help you. Hopefully, by the end you will feel you received valuable information in return for your time! 
 In a similar vein, don’t make every social media post, or even every other one, about trying to push your writing on people. Yes, you do need to post about your own work fairly regularly, otherwise your new followers won’t know what your book is and how to buy it. Don’t be scared of that. But we are writers, not used car salesmen. We don’t flog. Believe me, people will take you a lot more seriously if you don’t. The whiff of desperation doesn’t help anyone. 
Go here for my post about creating good marketing content. 

5. Last one. And it’s a simple one. Yes, you do need a newsletter.

 I find Mailchimp.com an excellent and free option for your mailing list. 
 Go here to find out where to start with that and what not to do! 

Well, that’s my five general principles of marketing. Do you have any? 

New Review! 


 This is one happy writer pictured here! There’s nothing better than getting a good review for your book, except when it also comes as a complete surprise! Look what I came across as I browsed through my Goodreads feed the other day


 What an awesome thing to see! Why not make an author’s day by reviewing their book? 

How To Choose Your Next Writing Project

 

 You may (or may not) have noticed that my blogging has been slightly spasmodic lately. The reason for this is I’ve been a bit stuck for what to write about. So, in the end, I threw it open to you fellow writers on social media- what can I help you with? Pictured above is a screenshot of the first response I got.

 Most writers struggle with the same problem- they have too many ideas. (This writer also mentions whether she should merge her two books or not. I’ll try to deal with that in a separate blog post.) Serious writers, the ones who finish things, know that they cannot drop their current project to go haring after each new idea. That’s why most of us have a notebook or file of ideas for books and stories, whether meticulously outlined or just a few scrawled pages. But what about when you’ve finished your work in progress and you’re ready to move on? For some of us, this can throw up an issue. 

 You can now choose one of your other ideas to work on. But which one? If you’re like me you could have as many as eight in your file. Or more! Sometimes they involve writing in different genres. And, even though we know we’ve done the right thing in putting it aside until we’ve finished our current project, the sad fact is that the frenzied excitement that often accompanies a new idea has usually evaporated. What’s left is a pretty much equal liking for all of them. Let’s face it, each idea is precious to us. So where do we start? Well, no one can tell you what to write next, but here are a few things to think about:

Firstly, does one of your ideas make more commercial sense than others? 

 For example, after the release of my first book, Victoria’s Victorian Victory, most of the reviews mentioned they would love a sequel. Well, in my file was a brief outline for a sequel, and it seemed sensible to keep the momentum going. So I started writing the sequel. I’m still writing it, and I’m feeding my newsletter subscribers a little information about it at a time, to whet their appetites. I feel that this will help grow my fan base more than branching out to something completely different right now. 

 What if your book is a standalone, though? There could still be some helpful pointers in reviews and sales as to what your audience wants from you next. Maybe your book is a thick, weighty volume. Or perhaps the nature of it means it’s quite expensive. You could think about producing a smaller, lighter read or a cheaper book, in order to entice more readers and create fans who will then be willing to commit to your other book. Even a small collection of short stories can help people decide if they enjoy your writing. 

 Or perhaps it’s the other way round. Maybe you’ve written a small, light book. With that book done, you may feel more confident and decide you want to expand into a more literary style. Maybe challenge your readers a bit more. Well, prepare your fans for that and give it a go. 

Another thing to ask yourself is what type of book do you really want to be known for? 

 It’s all very well choosing a book with the commercial market in mind, but it also has to be something you really want to write. After all, chances are that you’re going to be spending quite a lot of the immediate future on this project. So yes, consider what your readers want from you, but don’t make that the only criteria. 

 Think back to when you first started writing. Did you see yourself as a prolific thriller writer, keeping your reader up at night, eyes popping as they feverishly turn the pages? Or did you imagine an armchair-reclining, brandy-sipping, slipper-wearing reader, enjoying your cosy murder mysteries and shaking their head over how clever you are? Or perhaps you wanted to be the sort of writer who wins literary accolades, that everyone reads because they should, but only a discerning few really understand? Or did you want to be a more active writer, giving lectures and demonstrations? Does that dream still awake a chord of desire in you? Then go for it! Write what will help you reach that destination. 

Finally, if you really can’t choose between your ideas, try this simple exercise- 

 Come up with a first sentence for all your ideas. If you still don’t have a favourite, write the first paragraph. You should at least have been able to narrow it down by now. Keep going, first page, first chapter etc until you find the one which is flowing the best. Then write that! 

Well, that’s how I choose what to write next. I hope you found it helpful. What do you do when you can’t decide which project to write? 
Do you have a writing question I could help with? Leave a comment! 

The Dandelion Clock


“I am the most beautiful of all the flowers.” The rose made this assertion with no self-consciousness. But the lily shook her delicate head. 

 “None is so elegant as the lily,” she argued. 

 “The daffodil is the first sign of Spring. What can be more beautiful than a flower that stands for renewal?”

 “You are all too obvious for true beauty,” said the daisy. “Whereas I have a subtle prettiness that grows on you.”

 “I’m not only beautiful, but am cultivated all over the world for my special properties,” preened the poppy. 

“But you are all so common,” interrupted the orchid. “I am both beautiful and rare.”

 The dandelion sighed. She was not where the others talked, but just outside. “I think you’re all beautiful in your own ways.”

 The flowers nodded condescendingly. “Perhaps you’re right. You at least have some perspective, for you certainly are not.” They all tittered. 

 “No,” replied the dandelion. “I’m not very pretty. But I have much to give if only others would see it. My leaves make a lovely salad, my stem can be sautéed and eaten, my root can be roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee, and even my flower is edible. But not many know these things and I’m not fashionable, though children sometimes enjoy blowing my seeds out for me.”

 “It must be horrible to be so overlooked,” shuddered a stately iris. 

 “In some ways,” answered the dandelion. “But not completely. For instance, that is why I’m out here, growing freely in the field. But you! I am sorry for you all.”

 “Why?”

  The dandelion looked round at the marquee in which the other flowers blossomed. “Because of your beauty, you’ve been picked- to grace people’s homes. But not for very long. Didn’t you know? Picked flowers always die…”

By Abigail Shepherd. First appeared in Whim magazine. 

Have You Thought About Kindle Scout? 


 Today I want to talk about a possible resource for writers (and readers) that I wasn’t previously aware of- Kindle Scout. 

 When a friend of mine told me this week that she was starting a Kindle Scout campaign I had no idea what she was talking about. Am I the only one? Perhaps everyone else in the world knows all about it. But then why is this the first time an author has told me they’re doing it? It seems like such a great idea. If, like me, you haven’t heard of it, or don’t know what it involves, read on… 

 Kindle Scout is a scheme in which you can upload details of a book you’ve written and start a campaign to have it published. The campaign lasts 30 days. During this time users of Kindle Scout can nominate your book for publication. The more nominations, the more likely your book will be selected for publication, though that isn’t the only criteria. And get this- if chosen, you’ll not only be published by kindle press, but receive a $1,500 advance, plus 50% royalties. And featured Amazon marketing! 

 This is a great thing for readers too. If a book you voted for gets a publishing deal, you will receive a free copy! And you’ll keep up to date with all the latest fiction, which is great if you’re a reviewer, or would like to be. 

 If you want more information, why not check out my friend Diana Tyler’s campaign to see how it’s done? While you’re there, please take a moment to nominate her book! All you need is an Amazon account. 

Diana’s book:


What if all the ancient myths are true?