First Draft – Fourth Novel – Feeling Good

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Hello my people! Wow, I’ve really abandoned this blog of late. I could blame, you know, the global pandemic and stuff, but the real reason is that I’ve been saving all my writing for my new book (which I am SUPERDOOPER excited about!!) It’s a slightly different genre, no history or magic, but lots of humour and uplifting themes around relationships and finding your place in the world. Sometimes I wonder if it even matters what genre you write, as most writers tend to return to the same themes, no matter what the plot. And my theme is always that of self-discovery, which I think we’ve all done a lot of over the past few months.

When this all started, I did what I usually tend to do in a crisis – ignore it! I figured it wouldn’t affect my lifestyle because I work from home anyway, so what would be the difference? I tuned out the news and escaped into my book. But after a few weeks, I just hit a wall. It became clear that I wasn’t immune to everything that was going on and it was expecting waaay too much of myself to remain unaffected by it. Anyway, I won’t dwell on it, it’s been weird for everyone, but luckily I had these wonderful characters and their story to return to. But – I don’t know if anyone’s told you this – writing is hard! There’s always that doubt in the back of your mind, “Will I finish this? Will it be good enough?” So, when I typed the words ‘The End’ this week, I felt all the feels! It was emotional, joyous, hopeful and kind of surreal. It was really when I printed it out (I find it easier to run through the second draft on paper) that it hit home – I’ve made another book! My fourth!! It’s something like a little miracle.

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I don’t know where this story will take me – that’s the joy/uncertainty of being a writer. You just never know. My last book has just hit the shelves in France this summer – I never dreamed in a million years that The Story Collector would be translated into French! La Collectionneuse d’Histoires And now I have a French publisher and a translator! It still hasn’t really sunk in. I had a good feeling about that book when I was writing it and I have a good feeling about this one too. It’s got something special – even though it was (like all books) a challenge to capture the ideas in my head on paper, it sort of flowed too. I just had to be present and let the serendipity happen.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been doing and I can’t wait to get editing and get this story out there!! I want you all to enjoy this story as much as I have enjoyed writing it – giggling at the funny scenes and tearing up at the emotional bits. It’s a journey. And now my brain wants to outline ideas for book five, because if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that there will never be a better time to do things than right now. Plus, I feel kind of lonely without a work-in-progress, so when one cast of characters move out, another bunch move in! With more interesting stories to tell and challenges to face. I’m fortunate that I can create fictional worlds in order to better understand this one – giving myself and my readers somewhere to escape to. If we didn’t value storytelling before this, we certainly do now. The arts is what has kept us all going – distracting us, consoling us, entertaining us.  So if you’re thinking of writing a story – DO IT NOW! The world needs more stories.

Don’t forget, I have two FREE short stories that you can download now … Betwixt is consistantly in the Top 5 on Amazon and Girl in the Middle is a tongue-in-cheek look at loneliness in the modern world. And if you like those, please buy the other ones/leave a review! x

girl in the middle

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A quirky short story about a woman who discovers that not all heroes wear capes… some of them don’t even have a pulse. But they do have a name. Gerald.

I wrote a short story! girl in the middle And you can download it, for free, on whatever device you use.

Nook  ~ Kobo ~ Kindle ~ Apple

Now, don’t labour under the misapprehension that I wrote this during lockdown. No siree. All I’ve done during lockdown is watch Poldark (because… I’m really interested in 18th century mining?!), curse my sinuses and basically fall apart, in an orderly fashion.

Writing during this time has been like everything else during this time – a mixture of extremes. Either I’m feeling really creative and motivated or I can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to switch on my laptop. I wrote this story last year with the full intention of submitting it for a short story award, but being the success-driven, laser-focused, ambitious writer that I am, I didn’t get around to it 🙂 But I’m so glad I didn’t, because finding it now feels like perfect timing. A gift from past-me to present-me. When I read it again, I found myself laughing out loud and enjoying the quirky characters I created. So I thought, what’s the best way to get this out into the world? Self-publish of course!

Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve released anything and the stuff I’m currently working on is more contemporary and more comedy. That’s the thing with novels – there is sooooooooooooooo much time in between, where your readers probably think you’re dead or off spending your royalties in Mauritius. When really, you’re writing TWO new novels, submitting, waiting, writing, reading, editing, deleting and repeating until another year has gone by and you’ve nothing to show for it. So releasing a little story is a great way to remind people that you’re alive and still writing stories.

And people do love a free book! It’s a great way to discover a new author. Betwixt – my first short story – which is consistently in the Amazon Top 5, is flying off the virtual shelves at the moment. So it’s a win-win, I get to share a bite-size piece of creativity and readers get a free story.

So please share, read, download, whatever it is you crazy kids do and help me to get this story out there. At a very short and sweet 15 pages, girl in the middle is fun, free and uplifting – and we could all do with a bit of that right now.

 

Don’t @ Me

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Reading reviews can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The warm and fuzzy feeling when someone has connected with your characters; understood what you were trying to do and are happy they bought a ticket to your show. The shock and anger when someone dismisses your work, casually labels it ‘boring’ or the real killer, ‘light reading’. Some authors choose not to read their reviews, which is completely understandable. But for a lot of us, this is the only kind of feedback we get and so we cross our fingers, keep one eye closed and dive in, hoping for the best.

Over time, you come to realise that your book is no longer your private property. It belongs to anyone who hands over their hard-earned cash to buy it and their experience of reading it is unique to them and something you have no control over. This knowledge has given me a certain amount of detachment from reviews. As someone once said, reviews are for the readers and that is as it should be. But does that mean that authors don’t read their reviews?

I remember when I published my first book, The Heirloom. I hoped that people would buy it, read it and with any luck, enjoy it. It took roughly two years to research, write and rewrite. As a newly, self-published author, it took a very long time to get off the ground. If someone had told me back then that people would not only read it, but contact me to say how much they enjoyed it, well, I would have felt like my dreams were coming true.

That’s why I think the recent discussion on Twitter, sparked by an author who said it was ‘rude’ to tag them, is confusing a lot of people. On a basic level, writers write because they want to share a story with the world. Now, they might not care what the world thinks about their story (I’m thinking of Sally Rooney who said in an interview that she doesn’t read reviews or let them hold any sway for her) and that is their right. Writing a book does not automatically lock you into a contract where you have to be open to everyone’s’ opinion on it.

However, this is social media. It’s where you come to interact with people and if you’re an author (especially a well-known author), people are going to @ you. I see that Sally Rooney no longer has a Twitter account, which is really the only way to go if you don’t want to be involved in the conversation. I also noticed that Gail Honeyman, author of one of my favourite books, has also been inactive on her account since 2017. Now, I don’t know the reason for this (she’s probably writing another amazing book!) but prior to that, she responded to everyone who tagged her.

Which makes me wonder about the other part of the tweet – how we are limited ‘professionally’. Does this mean that publishers preclude authors from engaging with reviewers? Perhaps that’s a valid point – but I’ve never heard of this being the case and it certainly isn’t for me. In fact, the more interaction the merrier. But I think saying ‘thank you’ or liking a tweet is hardly going to create any conflict of interest. Or is the author referring to negative reviews and the unwritten rule that authors should not engage in online spats about their books (are you listening John Boyne?!) Maybe that is what she meant – it is so difficult to have a nuanced conversation on Twitter.

But speaking of negative reviews – I think it’s safe to assume that most authors do not want to be tagged on those! I saw Erin Morgenstern had to ask people to refrain from tagging her in conversations about how they didn’t really enjoy her new book. That’s just …. shit, really. I don’t know why anyone would want to call an author’s attention to their negative opinion of their book. Where is that conversation going to go? Is the author supposed to apologise? Give up writing?? Of course not. I like to use Goodreads to write my reviews, but I’m always cringing that an author might see the negative ones. Yes, it’s my honest opinion, but I’m not going to draw their attention to it by tagging them.

The fact is, everyone is entitled to make their own boundaries and I respect that. Judging from the comments, most people don’t expect a response from the author anyhow, but it’s nice when it happens. I tag other authors when I’m in love with their book – you can bet your butt I tagged Gail Honeyman with a link to a gushing review on my blog and she said something along the lines of Yay! thanks and we all went home happy. But I have tagged one or two authors who haven’t responded, for whatever reason, and that’s cool too. Maybe we should just agree that it’s not rude to tag and it’s not rude to not reply. Simples.

However, I don’t like the idea of self-appointed spokespeople making sweeping generalisations on behalf of all authors everywhere. We have all taken different paths to this place and some of us see it as a validation of sorts when someone has taken the time to say, hey, nice work.

Neil Gaiman added his tuppence worth, giving credence to the belief that authors do not want to read their reviews. Again, it came off a little patronising and, as happens on Twitter, we all have knee-jerk reactions. Later, he qualified his comment with the following:

This just goes to show what I believe to be the crux of the issue. Most of us would struggle to get reviewed in the mainstream media. Our aim is to be read by regular readers, not critics. So yeah, of course we want to hear from those people! The day I have a bad review in the Times and someone tags me in it, maybe then I’ll understand the annoyance these writers feel. But you know what? Maybe I won’t, because I’ve had to grow a very thick skin over the years – something all those articles written by publishers and agents tell us we need to do if we want to be authors!

It sometimes feels like all of this advice for writers is being sent in the wrong direction. I’m a fan of Neil Gaiman, but he does not speak for all of us. Just like he didn’t speak for me when he said eBook piracy was ‘an incredibly good thing’. Illegal downloads are having a seriously adverse affect on authors trying to establish a career in the digital age, affecting sales and creating an environment where readers no longer see the value in paying for books. You cannot assume that everyone in this industry is on a level playing field. We are a diverse ecosystem and one of the most integral parts of it are book reviewers/book bloggers. Elizabeth Bear’s tweet was especially dismissive of bloggers who read/review/promote book reviews and naturally tag the author as an FYI.

Whatever the intention was (and I’m learning that your intention can be very much misconstrued on Twitter) it has again highlighted the amount of unpaid work bloggers do with little or no credit. Another tweet (oh my God, I’m spending so much time on Twitter!! Help!) from a book blogger laid out how much time it takes and commitment to keep a blog going and how a simple high five from an author can make it feel worthwhile. It strikes me that in a multi-million euro industry, the people who do all the work get the least reward. Authors receive tiny royalties, have to do their own marketing and bloggers work for the price of a free book.

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a bum note. No-one is forcing us to be here, we do it because we love it, but as in life, it only takes some small courtesies to make it better for everyone. Try to not to illegally download books – I know we’re all on tight budgets, but please borrow from a library instead and if you can, leave a review. Show book bloggers some appreciation by liking their reviews – yes they love books anyway but I can’t imagine having to read loads of books I didn’t choose and then promoting them and promoting other bloggers, all for free! And do tag authors – most of us are not guaranteed newspaper reviews or even book deals. So it’s a lovely boost when someone takes the time to review your book (just don’t share the negative ones with us – no good can come from it!)

As Rebecca Solnit said, a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. We need each other.

Betwixt – A gothic short story

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I love gothic novels. Everything from Edgar Allen Poe to Laura Purcell, Bram Stoker to Carlos Ruiz Zafon – I find the blend of dark romanticism, ominous characters, decaying grandeur, curses and the supernatural simply irresistible. My favourite novel as a teenager was Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Set on the desolate and uninviting moors, with its harsh climate provided the perfect backdrop for a gothic romance and reminded me so much of Ireland, that I felt strangely connected to it. I was also really drawn to the anti-heroes Heathcliff and Cathy – their willful nature, their intensity. But it’s the structure of the story and the supernatural elements that infuse it with a sense of mystery and fear.

I was less enamoured by my penchant for the macabre when staying at a friend’s cottage in the middle of the Irish countryside, miles from anywhere. It was the longest night of my life (I was supposed to stay there for a week. Plans changed!). Nestled (or buried – depending on how you want to look at it!) at the base of a hill , it was a traditional thatched cottage with dinky windows and a half door. The smell of turf almost knocked me over as we walked inside, but I tried to be cool with the gloom and the damp. And the fact that, despite it being the height of summer, inside was a million degrees cooler than outside.

That night however, I stopped being cool with everything when the noises started. Every creak made me jump. It didn’t help that the room was full of religious icons, leering over me. The distinct sound of a chair being scraped across the floor left me rigid in the bed. I had to risk my arm being snatched by who knew what to switch on the lamp. I gave up on sleep and sat in an armchair by the smokey fire until it was light enough to pack up and go back to civilisation. But not before my companion told me the history of the house, and how we were not the first to leave the place in a hurry.

This, dear reader, was the inspiration for my gothic short story, Betwixt which is currently a number one bestseller on Amazon! I wrote it in 2015, before The Story Collector, as a little side project, so it’s a thrill to see it doing so well and garnering such positive reviews. Like all indie authors, I struggle to get my work promoted and break into new readerships. So I have made this short story permanently free on all platforms (Kobo ~ Apple) so readers can get an introduction to my writing before buying all of my books!

Betwixt is the perfect quick read for this time of year – it’s atmospheric and haunting and inspired by a true story (eek!) So download your FREE copy now and if you enjoy it, I would love if you could share the love by passing it on to a friend and/or leaving a short review. They make a HUGE difference to how books are ranked on Amazon, which in turn can really impact on an author’s career. True story! You can have all the PR in the world, but it is readers who have the greatest influence. So thank you to everyone who has made this book number one and to those of you about to read it, let me know what you think!

White Lies

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I read a great thread the other day on Twitter by author Leigh Bardugo about how, as authors, we tend to perpetuate the myth of glamour and success that surrounds the magical business of getting published. Take it away Leigh!

She goes on to talk about how we ‘big up’ the successful moments, but downplay (or conceal) the less attractive aspects, like having to make your own merchandise to bribe people with! But don’t we all do this in our everyday lives? Pretending that everything is rosy in the garden, whether it be your marriage, your job, or your house that looks lovely but is actually developing some scary cracks and is possibly built on an ancient burial site?? But that’s enough about me. Telling little white lies about your job is just an extension of that very human need to be seen as ‘successful’ or ‘having your shit together’. We pretend we’re earning more than we are or have a bigger office.

But there is something about the truth that liberates all of us. In recent times, more and more authors are opening up about the reality of publishing and what it really looks like, behind the headlines. Irish author Donal Ryan ruffled many’s the feather by revealing that his books earned him a mere 40c per book and that he was returning to full-time employing in order to pay his mortgage. (I wrote about it for the Irish Times here).

I think there is a certain amount of embarrassment – because all we tend to hear about are the big authors who get eye-watering book deals, then sell the movie rights and next thing you know, they’re featured in some home style magazine showing off their new castle. That’s what people expect will happen when you get a publishing deal, but it is the exception. Most authors just want to earn a wage, even a really tiny one, that means they can write full time. But that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s rarely the case.

But we don’t want to let the side down, or reveal to our friends and families that actually, not all book shops will stock your book, that some people still won’t read your book even though you’ve given them a copy for free, that you have to work just as hard promoting your book as you did writing it and at the end of the day, most Irish authors earn somewhere between €500 and €5,000 per year (eek!).

Yet it seems a bit strange that authors are the ones left to gloss over these facts – as though we somehow have to protect the reputation of the publishing industry as well as our own! Well, not on my watch. Self-publishing is a great leveler and dispels you of any ‘notions’ (as we call them here) pretty early on. I’ve had to do everything myself, so signing with a publisher was a real privilege. But it’s not the end of the rainbow – there were still disappointments as well as unexpected gains. What didn’t change is the amount of effort I had to put into making sure people knew about my book.  There are so many jobs you have to do as an author that you can never invoice anyone for and I’m not sure any amount of wild success will change that.

I remember reading an article a while back (but for the life of me I can’t remember the author’s name or find the link) in which a bestselling author spoke about a reading he was due to give at a local library for his new book. About eight people showed up; one was his wife and the rest were from a local retirement home. That was shocking to me – again because I just didn’t know that most really, really successful authors aren’t celebrities. Even New York Times bestselling authors. The truth is, nobody really cares! Apart from you, your publisher and probably your bank.

So yeah, I don’t think there’s any harm in telling the odd white lie to save face, but the constant pressure to present a false picture of your life or your career – which has only increased with the dawn of social media – is just really exhausting and serves nobody. And sometimes the most inspiring stories are the ones where you didn’t make it – like, how often do we find our own inner resilience perk up when reading about authors who were rejected zillions of times? Of course, the catch is, you have to then make it big-time for your sob story to resonate, but still. Knowing that nobody really knows what their doing can be the most comforting truth of all.

How Long Does It Take To Write A Bestseller?

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Some of us have dreamed about writing a bestseller for a long time. A part of me was terrified when I published my first book. Would I be able to handle the fame that came with it? I mean, of course, I anticipated the critical acclaim and the validation it would bring, but the success might prove to be overwhelming. Hah! How innocent I was. How naive. But then again, they were the stories I saw on my TV, in the magazines. That was how it was supposed to happen. Authors, who were shot to stratospheric success with their first novel. Bidding wars. Movie deals. Reese Witherspoon gushing over the originality of the storyline.

But are these writers really representative of the majority of authors who make a living out of writing? Or are they just the one percent we hear about because it’s more exciting than reading a headline ’52 year old woman hits the NYT Bestseller List on her 6th novel’. Yeah, it doesn’t really have the same ring to it. We don’t hear about the writers who spend the best part of a decade slogging away before finally hitting the sweet-spot with their third or fourth or fifth novel.

That’s why I was so pleased to read the following on Twitter last week, the real life stories of successful writers who found longevity in their careers, rather than overnight success.

Traction is a very important concept here. As well as luck, timing and perseverance. I’m always talking about the changing landscape of publishing and how digital downloads have altered the way in which we find new authors. While books and their authors might not reach the masses right away (for whatever reason) if they keep producing good work that people are responding to, a momentum can build. Take Kristin Hannah for example, and her novel The Nightingale (which is, of course, being made into a movie!). I was astonished to find out that she has written over 20 novels! I had never heard of her and assumed that book was her debut, but no; she has been honing her craft for decades and is now reaping the critical and one assumes, financial rewards. Which is why publishers really need to support their writers and stand by them, while they build their readership.

UK author Joanne Harris often speaks about her first two novels, before Chocolat, and how they didn’t sell particularly well. I see other writers like Rowan Coleman, with a slew of books under her belt, who has found great traction with her recent bestseller, The Summer Of Impossible Things. It’s impossible to predict what will make a bestseller. If there was a foolproof recipe, we’d all be downloading it. But one thing is clear – if you give up, you’ll never know.

Then there’s age. We can sometimes see age as a barrier, but it can also be liberating. If the following tweet is anything to go by, age can give you the freedom to be yourself – to follow your heart and write what you want to write.

 

It is so encouraging to receive this message – there is no time limit on art, on creative passion, on reaching your full potential. I’m thinking of Richard E. Grant and the unbridled joy he exudes at finally receiving all of the accolades the acting world can shower upon him, at the age of 61. It doesn’t mean he’s any better now than he was ten or twenty years ago, but the right role came at the right time and he is now getting the recognition he always deserved.

If you don’t make the New York Times Bestseller List with your first book (or your second or third!) it doesn’t mean your not good enough, it just means that the stars haven’t aligned. Yet. There are so many variables that are outside of our control and all we can do is keep writing, keep believing in the power of telling stories.

***Evie Gaughan is an Irish novelist of historical and contemporary fiction with a touch of magic. Click on the links below for a preview ⬇️

#WriterProblems ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Well, I didn’t win the Costa Book Award, which is the first of today’s problems, but at least one of my favourite novels of last year – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – did, so that’s some consolation.

Now before I delve into the dark and murky waters of #WriterProblems, I have to preface it with a caveat, of sorts. A prologue, if you will. A prolo-blem. And it is this: nobody gives a shit if you have writer problems. You’re the one who kept banging on about writing a book and now you’re published, you should be full of the joys of spring and stop moaning to everyone about how hard it is. Right? *whispers* So when we talk about writer problems amongst ourselves, we need to do it in the softest voice that only bees can hear, lest we come across as ungreatful whingers.

There is nothing like finding yourself waist-deep in the tundra of a first draft to start questioning all the rose-tinted crap you once spouted about the charmed life of being a writer. That’s the stuff you say after the book is written and published and safely out of your hands. But writing is like a game of snakes and ladders – when it’s time to start writing your new book you are unceremoniously shoved down a snake and sent back to square one, having learned (apparently) nothing. In fact it’s even worse the second time around because you know you did this before, but you have no recollection of how you did it. Was it this hard? Was I this ill-prepared? It’s like like people telling you that you climbed Everest as a toddler, yet now, as a grown-up, you’re suddenly terrified of heights.

So what are the main problems we writers face on a daily basis? What are the shared agonies that can make us feel, if nothing else, less alone? Well, strap yourself in, literally, for number 1.

Problem Number One:

How to stay in the chair –

This might sound basic, but Jesus Herbert Christ, it is probably the most challenging part of writing a book. Your house suddenly becomes a wonderland of endless activities – everything from doing housework to making tea to ‘getting some air in the garden’ are all colluding against you finishing your novel. With the help of some fellow authors on Twitter, I’m currently working on a prototype for a writer’s chair™ featuring a seatbelt, tea-making facilities and a timelock. Kind of like an electric chair, only with cushions and a shelf for your biscuits.

Problem Number Two:

Nobody takes your job seriously

If you manage to avoid the distractions of giving your oven a deep clean or attacking the grout with a toothbrush, people drop by because you’re ‘not doing anything’. It’s hard to convince people that staring into space wearing your pyjamas is work, but IT IS! ‘Sure you can do that later,’ is the battle-cry of well-meaning muggles who have NO CLUE that ‘later’ you’ll be putting together a soundtrack for the film adaptation of your book, so no, that’s not convenient either. When you have a book out, people actually start to take you seriously – they see your book on the shelves and think ‘Wow, you really are a writer.’ But no sooner have the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price’ stickers faded than you resume your lowly position as a work-shy chancer, dealing in ‘ideas’ and ‘concepts’ rather than real work.

Problem Number Three:

Other writers –

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Yay! Look at us and our brilliant award for being brilliant!! Damn them and their  daily wordcount updates, their new contracts, their constant doing stuff! It puts you forever on the back foot, feeling you’re not doing enough. You think, great, I’ve written a page that wasn’t totally awful today and then you see somebody is doing a writing retreat to kickstart the 10 book deal they’ve just signed and all before breakfast All of a sudden, your accomplishment pales in comparison – but it’s a trap. Don’t let other peoples’ success diminish yours. We’re all moving forward, we’re just at different points along the way and as Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’. Bloody joy thieves!!

Problem Number Four:

Quality Control

This is a two-part problem – not knowing if what you’re writing is any good, but also having to persevere with your ‘not any good’ writing because that’s what a first draft is. I almost have to write with my eyes closed! And the perspective keeps changing, like those mirrors at the fun-fair – one minute you think what you’ve written looks great – then it looks like one of Frankenstein’s nightmares. What seemed pithy and clever yesterday is tired a cliched today. But you know, Rome wasn’t built in a day (badum-tish!) and you just have to fake it until you make it. (I’ll stop now.)

Problem Number Five:

Having/Not having a contract.

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This is where those 10-book-deal-joy-thieves are smiling on the other side of their faces!! While the security of having a book deal is nice, being creative on purpose is a lot of pressure. In one sense I feel lucky because I’ve never really had to write to a deadline. Ideas have come organically and I’ve had the space to let them germinate into something approaching a plot. But the flip side of that is the sense of futility that creeps in. ‘Is anyone ever going to read this? Will it ever get published?’ It takes a lot of grit and determination to keep going when you don’t know the answers to those questions. And I think most authors, regardless of what stage they are at in their careers are very aware of the shifting sands in publishing, so nothing is certain. The best solution is to write for yourself and worry about the rest later.

Problem Number Six:

Refusing to give up

Well-meaning Muggles: So if it’s that tough, maybe you should pack it in?

Me: I’m sorry, what now? What gave you the impression that I don’t want to do this? I’ll be a writer if I wanna be, dammit!!

So you see, despite all of the problems with writing, it’s still the one thing you get a kick out of doing, even if it insists on kicking you back. We all have romantic notions of what it is to own a bookshop or be a musician or a circus performer. But all of these exotic-sounding jobs have very mundane daily rituals. The gloss is just the tip of the iceberg that everyone sees and many envy, but the hulk that lies in solitary darkness is the part you have to make friends with if you want to get to the end of the story. And I will get to the end of this story, just as soon as I finish this cup of tea….

What Is A Review Worth?

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Out of every 100 copies of my book sold, approximately 2 people will leave a review. At least that’s what the statistics say, but empirical evidence shows that it is far less.  The fact is that most readers don’t see the connection between leaving a review and improving the book’s visibility on Amazon or Goodreads.  Yet, that is exactly what happens, every time someone writes a review. In fact, few people outside of the publishing industry are aware of the importance of reviews.  They are the lifeblood of authors and their books – a priceless promotional tool that is aimed purely at other readers. In this USA Today article by Elizabeth Weise, it claims that “Just going from zero review to one increases the rate at which online window-shoppers actually click the ‘buy’ button by 65%.”

The publishing industry has changed a lot.  It used to be that you went to your local bookshop, picked up a book you liked the look of and if you enjoyed it, you probably loaned it to a couple of friends.  There was no such thing as writing a review and word of mouth was the only way to spread the love.  Nowadays however, leaving travel reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor has become the norm and something businesses rely on heavily for publicity and future trade.  It’s no different for books and reviews can make a huge difference to future sales, especially for Indie Authors and publishers.

If your book garners 20-25 reviews, regardless of how many stars awarded, Amazon will highlight the novel under the ‘Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought and You might also like’ section on a page.  If your book receives more than 50 reviews, Amazon will include the title in their newsletter and increase its visibility on the site with spotlights, which means it will reach more potential readers.

Obviously, reviews are paramount to your book’s future success.  But how do you encourage readers to write reviews without resorting to begging and losing any sense of dignity?!  Readers are under no obligation to leave a review and to be fair, they’ve already paid you the highest compliment of buying your book in the first place.  But I honestly believe that if readers knew how much of a difference their review could make in terms of an author’s ranking (not to mention potential revenue and ratings), I think they would be much more inclined to write one.  Especially if they are already a fan of the author’s work. When it comes to Amazon in particular, they make it extremely easy to leave a review with their ‘reminder’ email, asking you to rate the book.  These ratings are so important, because even when it comes to promoting your book with sites like Bookbub, they take your star rating into account.

So why do such a small percentage of readers write reviews? Even readers who contact me personally to say they enjoyed my book are reluctant to publish a review online, as oftentimes, they don’t know what they’re expected to say.  If you scroll through the reviews on Amazon on Goodreads, you will find that a lot of reviews are written by professional book bloggers and are written in a standard format that includes the blurb and an in-depth critique of the novel.  However, it is the reader’s choice what they decide to write – after all it is their opinion and they’re free to express it however they wish.

One reader told me that she didn’t like reviewing because it felt like being back at school and writing book reports, so I wonder if that’s what puts people off? It’s not like reviewing a lipstick, for example, because you don’t feel pressure to sound clever about it. Either you liked it or you didn’t! But the thing is, a review is simply to inform other readers – a brief review of your response to the book, saying why you liked the book (or didn’t like it), and maybe a similar book that it reminded you of.  I am currently reading a book that I would describe as an ‘Entertaining read, very likeable characters and an interesting plot.  Fans of Nick Hornby would like this book.‘  However, when I REALLY like a book, I go all out and write something more in depth.  It’s really up to the reader – if you’re really moved by a book, you want to shout from the rooftops about it.  But if it’s just okay or average, you might not bother. However, all ratings have value and even critical ones give a more balanced picture of readers’ responses.

The truth is that we all rely on reviews to some degree before hitting the ‘Buy’ button. Apparently, they drive 20% of overall sales.  I always check out the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon before buying a book, just to get a feel for it and even if there are negative reviews, it can sometimes influence my decision to buy.  As an example, I recently bought and read an AMAZING book that I absolutely loved (you can see me gush about it here) and that was after I saw a negative review saying that it was a story about a girl who talks to squirrels.  Talking squirrels you say?  Count me in!  Obviously, the story was about so much more than that and it’s clear the reviewer hadn’t read the entire book.  But the point is that what turned her off (a little quirkieness) completely turned me on.  So you see, all reviews have their own funny way of influencing future readers.  Ultimately, I think most people make up their mind using a combination of the blurb, the cover and reviews, but it definitely makes a book look more appealing if there are more reviews beside it.

So I would always encourage readers to use this platform to provide feedback on books that traditionally, might only be reviewed by book critics or worse, not at all. Short or long reviews, they all count!  Your review has a big impact on, not only the book’s future, but also the author’s career.  Writers and readers are so important to each other, as the author John Cheever once said:

“I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.”

Why Writers Are 100% My Type On Paper

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You know that old cliche – you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps?! Well, welcome to the book business my friend.  In the style of Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at publishing from both sides now – well, three sides to be precise, a triangular perspective with lots of 90 degree angles.  I’ve gone from an unpublished writer, to self-published to traditionally published and I can safely say that the one rule of successful book publishing is…. there are no rules!  I’m starting to wonder if the publishing industry is some form of collective insanity.  And it is the writer, the creative power at the centre of the… triangle, who has the least amount of certainty in this baffling equation of reader plus book, multiplied by publishing.

But wait, that’s just inside the triangle.  The real uncontrollable variables are all outside the triangle, like….. like a big circle encasing billions of little triangles (God I wish I hadn’t brought up geometry) that functions according to its own rules and agendas.

Let me break it down (and stop pretending I know anything about sums).  As an unpublished author, I clung onto the popular belief that published authors had it made, that publishers showered you with advances and follow-up deals for books you haven’t even written yet and that once your book was on the shelf, everyone would know of its existence and buy it.  It’s weird to be looking back on that time now, because I suppose it forces me to see how far I’ve come, which is not something I’m very good at doing.  I’m always chasing after the next rainbow – I guess it’s the human condition.  But it’s also a reminder of how much work went into becoming the writer I am now – which is the same for all writers.  So much work goes on behind the scenes, during the lean years when the only message you got from the outside world was, ‘getting a book deal is harder than winning the lottery‘ or ‘writing is a nice hobby‘.  At this point, a lot of writers think about quitting.  It seems utterly pointless and delusional.  A strange breeding ground for future authors, but one thing it certainly teaches us all is resilience and something else far more interesting (okay, two things, I told you I was bad at maths) PASSION.  It’s at this stage you find out whether or not writing is your passion, because if it is, it won’t let you go, so you may as well make the best of it.

Which brings me to self-publishing.  The best compliment I can give to self-publishing is that most readers hardly notice if a book is self-published anymore (I know this from my reviews).  It turns out the digital revolution was right; people don’t care where their stories come from, as long as they’re good.  The cream did rise to the top – all of the worries people had about rubbish novels taking over the world were unfounded and in the end it was the reader who shaped the self-publishing landscape.  Yes, it drove down the price of an eBook, which has had both good and bad repercussions (more anon), but it also introduced authors (who might otherwise have withered and died in a pile of their own submission material) to a new readership that traditional publishers weren’t targeting.  Turns out people wanted to read about vampires and spacemen and weird sexual contracts!  But I digress – the point is, self-publishing is brilliant, dynamic and offers better royalties than the main traditional publishers, but it does have its limits and this is where reality sets in. Your book is just one out of zillions of books published every year and the problem that needs solving is how to get noticed?

Cue traditional publishing!  The old school, tried and tested way of getting your book in front of readers, but even this approach has its challenges.  There’s no doubt that having your book published traditionally gives you (as a writer) the kind of validation recognised by booksellers and readers alike.  And for me personally, it was a huge vote of confidence in my writing career.  I’m no longer working in complete isolation and it feels good to have people who care as much about my book as I do!  But books don’t automatically appear on shelves, they need to charm the book buyers first and if you walk into any bookshop, you will see who has the most influence.  You’re still facing the same problem – how to get my book noticed in a crowded market.  This came home to me when I walked into my local Dubrays the other week, an auspicious occasion, because it was the first time I was going to see my book in a shop (that I didn’t have to hand-deliver myself!)  The windows were taken up with large displays for Anne Tyler’s new novel (like she needs the publicity – and now I’ve given her more!!) and as I walked down the centre aisle, all of the mainstream publishers had their new releases displayed like colourful fruits at a stereotypical French market. I had already heard of these books through print media and online thanks to their big promotion budget, and now they held prime real estate right throughout the shop.  So there is a lot more to this book business than meets the eye and each new deal is a giant victory for your book. (Like the fact that The Story Collector is now on promotion in all WH Smith stores in Irish airports – YAY!!)

So I’m still pushing, still trying to let people know that my book is good and it’s on the shelf.  I’m very lucky to be with my publisher and have a wonderful PR person helping me, but the truth is, I am probably working harder to promote this book than I did on my previous two.  Then again, I have more to promote and that’s thanks to having a publisher, which has definitely opened more doors for me.  I just got off the phone from the arts reporter for my local newspaper and I’m constantly submitting articles to online publications and (gently) reminding people that my book is on promotion and on the shelf.  What’s that? Where can you buy it? Allow me to furnish you with those deets 🙂

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Book Depository ~ Dubray Books ~ Foyles ~ O’Mahony’s ~ Waterstones ~ WH Smith

Amazon UK  ~ Amazon US ~  Amazon (paperback)

So what’s my point?

It’s non-stop graft, but you still have very little control over how well your book will perform.  You spend years in the Unpublished Doldrums, wondering if you’re any good at all or if you’ll ever make it, then if you hang in there, you might get to Self-Published Isle, a wonderful place where you make everything happen yourself but lack the support of industry insiders.  Then if you’re really, really lucky, you’ll get to Trad-Published Mountain, a mythical place where not all is at it seems, but the view is good and the bar is subsidised!

HOWEVER, after all of that and regardless of which route you take to publication, chances are your voyage will be scuppered by pirates (or as they should be called, copyright thieves).  The digital revolution has been such a wonderful progression for everyone who loves books, but the downside is the growth in illegal download sites.  Like the music industry before, books have lost their value for some and even 99p is deemed too high a price for a book.  A typical comparison when discussing this topic is that some people believe it’s normal to pay more for a cup of coffee than a book.  So after all those years of working on your craft for no income – the years of submitting and learning how to deal with rejection – the years of starting over with a brand new novel and putting the old one in a drawer – the years of being told it’s not commercially viable or ‘right for our lists’ – the years of promoting your author platform – more writing – more editing – waiting for a response – providing tons of free content to gain exposure – finally getting a deal – discovering you won’t be getting a six figure advance after all – more promotion – doing all of this before you see a red cent – some creep comes along, takes your new book and makes it freely available for anyone to download.

Because, as we all know, people in the arts aren’t really working; it’s not like a real job, so they don’t deserve a real income.  And the people who download your book from an illegal site aren’t really stealing, because they probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Or maybe they’re like the old me, thinking that published authors are doing quite nicely for themselves and anyway, the publisher will probably cover the loss.  Maybe articles like this in which author earnings are revealed to be less than the minimum wage, will help (and they’re the lucky ones, professional writers who got published and write full time).  For authors in Ireland, it’s even less (The €500 a year career)  This is what’s happening and finally the industry is starting to fight back, as in the recent case with OceanofPDF (The Times).  But is it too little too late?  Who knows.

All I do know is that, in the face of all this improbability, writers keep on writing and books are more popular than ever.  I see the enthusiasm of new publishers (like Urbane) to become a dynamic and exciting alternative to the Big 5, to give voice to new writers and offer readers something different from the risk-averse mainstream.  But this whole fallacy about ‘writers not doing it for the money’ needs editing.  We might not be motivated to write by money, but we would very much like to be remunerated for our work, thank you very much.  Even if it is a pittance, we’ve earned it! Fiction writers are real people with very ordinary lives, trying to create something a little extraordinary that everyone can enjoy.  I don’t think the world owes us a living, but it sure as shit needs to protect our copyright and give us a fair share of the profits from our work (UK book sales for 2017 hit a record £5.7 bn, read more here).

So on the one hand we have an industry that has been described as ‘exploitative’ by author Philip Pullman and on the other, a section of society that now expect to read books for free.  Even with my limited skills, I know that doesn’t add up.  And that is why writers are SOOOOO my type, because even though they are aware of this shit storm going on in the big circle around them, they sit down and keep plugging away at their story, in the hope that the pen will ultimately triumph over everything else.  Yeah, maybe we’re slightly deluded, but how else do you think books get written?!  Writers are dreamers.  They have to be, to imagine a place where words are not something to be stolen, but something to be cherished.

So You Want To Be A Writer…

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I sometimes wonder what kind of advice would have helped me five years ago, before publishing my first book.  Or if I would have heeded any of it.  With that in mind, here’s a little checklist for anyone starting out on their writing journey…

  1. Get a good chair.

    I have done my best to ignore this advice over the years and on the plus side, I now have personal experience of the adage ‘buy cheap, buy twice.’  You will be spending quite a lot of time in your chair, so try to invest a decent amount in it.  Having said that (cue adage number two) ‘sitting is the new smoking’.  So the current wisdom is to have a standing desk, or better yet, switch between the two.  Just try not to sit in the same spot for hours on end wasting time on social media  writing your book.

  2. It won’t happen overnight.

    We’d all like it to happen overnight, but chances are, it won’t.  Even if it looks like authors are coming from out of nowhere with huge success, just Google them.  You’ll see it’s probably their third book, or their first book after years of rejections and unpublished books.  The same goes for writing income.  It can take years to start seeing any kind of decent return on your books and it definitely takes more than one book to build a ‘brand’.  Remember, people are buying into you, the writer, as much as they are your book.  You’ve got to show them that you’re going to stick around, that this is your thing.  I know it’s frustrating when you see other people signing deals, but be patient, your time will come.  Really.

  3. Rejection is the stone on which you will sharpen your skills.

    Rejection tells you, in no uncertain terms, you have more work to do.  It doesn’t mean you’re not good enough, but it might mean you’re not good enough yet.  Boy am I glad my first book got rejected.  There was a lot of good things in that novel, but in terms of my skills as a writer, it was unquestionably beginners level.  I learned so much from writing it and I learned even more from all of the rejections it garnered.  Rejection tells you whether or not you really want to become a writer, if you really have the commitment it takes to get better at it.  For a while, I thought I didn’t.  But the urge wouldn’t leave until I started a second novel (The Heirloom).  And when that didn’t get published, I published it myself.  It’s now in the top 20 bestseller list on Amazon US.

  4. Keep your eyes peeled.

    Everybody can list off the big publishing houses, but for new authors, it behooves you to become acquainted with the smaller publishers, the indies and digital imprints.  They are the ones who are better placed to take chances on new authors.  Off the top of my head, I can think of several writers who are getting deals right now with publishers like Bloodhound Books, Bookouture, Black and White, Orenda and of course my own publisher, Urbane.  It’s an exciting time in publishing with new platforms popping up all the time, like the crowdfunding publisher Unbound.  Keep in touch with the writing community online so you’ll be ready for opportunities when they come along.  Sometimes it’s all about luck, being in the right place at the right time (with the right book!).

  5. Write what you love.

    It can take a year or more to write a novel, so it may as well be a subject you are passionate about.   The research alone makes this worthwhile – I can’t imagine spending months reading up on a subject I’m not that interested in.  You will be sharing your life with this story for quite some time, so make it about something you LOVE!  Find your own voice and be authentic – you don’t need to imitate what’s already out there, create something new and original.

  6. There is more than one road to getting published.

    For some it’s self-publishing, for some it’s finding an agent, for others a traditional publisher.  There are authors who credit their creative writing groups and MA’s for their success, still more who claim that writing courses merely delay the inevitable – actually writing the book.  Everyone is different – I’m more of a lone wolf and that’s what suits me.  We’re all susceptible to looking at what everyone else is doing and wondering if what we’re doing is right, but I don’t think there is a right or a wrong, just different choices.  Find what works for you.  Just keep writing, don’t compromise and remember, if you don’t tell this story, no-one else will.

So here I am, 2018 with my third novel due for release in June.  Even typing those words is a bit surreal.  I had no clue what I was getting into all those years ago and maybe it was just as well.  Like most journeys in life, I think you need a healthy amount of blind faith starting out.  And a stubborn refusal to give up.  So that’s what I would tell my past self – keep being stubborn and don’t give up.  And don’t buy that crap chair.

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The Story Collector

Available to pre-order on Amazon