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The Bees by Laline Paull

The Bees was outside my comfort zone – it was a book group choice. The Bees by Laline Paull

The novel is set inside a beehive and all the characters are bees. Flora 717 is the heroine. She was born into the lowest class of bee – the sanitation workers who are responsible for cleaning the hive and disposing of the dead. However, Flora is no ordinary sanitation worker and she shows a fierce bravery in protecting the hive, foraging for food and defeating invasions. She feels a great loyalty to the hive and its occupants but she also breaks the most sacred law of the hive …

Laline Paull is an extremely talented writer. Her descriptive prose made me feel like I was inside the hive with thousands of bees. She made me root for the underdog, Flora 717. And I wanted to find out what happened in the end (it wasn’t exactly what I guessed!). I learned a lot about bees and the impact our modern lifestyle is having on them. My only grumble about the book is that I found it hard to pick out the other individual characters amongst all the bees. The bees have generic names and, to me, it wasn’t always clear, for example, which Sister Sage bee had done what.

Laline’s inspiration for the novel came via a beekeeper friend. On her website, Laline says, “I knew I had a book when I found out about the laying worker, that one in ten thousand sterile female bees, who suddenly, and for no known reason, start forming eggs in their bodies and become fertile – the sole role of the queen of the colony.” Laline also has some encouragement for other writers, “Don’t give up. I wrote The Bees age 48, in complete obscurity. It can happen.”

So, would I recommend The Bees? Yes, if you want to broaden your outlook and experience some good writing. No, if you like human characters with whom you can identify.
I agree with Tracy Chevalier who said, “A rich, strange book, utterly convincing in its portrayal of the mindset of a bee and a hive.”

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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

I know that at least one of my followers has read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon but the rest of you may have an opinion on it too.The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon I read it in a hurry this week – it was due back at the library and couldn’t be renewed due to another reservation, which shows how popular it is.

The story takes place over the famous hot summer of 1976 with flashbacks to 1967. It focuses on the disappearance of a woman and the repercussions this has on the rest of the people in the street. Much of it is from the viewpoint of a 10-year-old girl.

It took me a while to settle into the book because I was trying to read it too quickly. The pace very much reflects the languor of summer days that are too hot and school holidays that stretch forever into the future. The book needs to be read at this pace to appreciate the tiny details of daily life 40 years ago. The story is the slow peeling of secrets from the streets inhabitants – people aren’t always what they seem. I lived through that summer and, like 10-year-old Grace, collected Whimsies – little pottery animals that cost 10p. There’s lots of this exquisite minutiae and description in the book and don’t read it when hungry because a lot of biscuits are eaten too!
My only (very tiny) gripe is the brief mention of a bouncy castle – I don’t remember those being around as I grew up.

As a writer, this book has made me realise it’s the well-placed tiny detail that makes a reader believe in the story and want to stay in that imaginary world for just a little longer …
If, like me, your work tends to lack description, read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and watch how the reader really can’t escape the heat of the sun and the watchful eyes of the neighbours.

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Benefits of Writing Competitions

At the end of January Morton S. Gray celebrated the publication, by Choc Lit, of her first novel, The Girl on the Beach. The Girl on the Beach by Morton S GrayMorton’s success was the result of dogged perseverance and the culmination of a series of competition successes. Not surprisingly, she is now a great advocate of writing competitions and she’s here today to tell us how they helped her on the road to success:

Innocently entering a writing competition caused me to take my writing seriously! In 2006, a friend started a fledgling publishing business (sadly no longer trading) and she held a short story writing competition to raise the profile of the company. I entered, primarily to support her, and unbelievably won with my story “Human Nature versus the Spirit Guide”.
It was a wake-up call for me. I’d had a baby and not been well for a couple of years, so I was looking for a new direction. The competition win made me look at writing as a serious option for the future and it was relatively easy to combine with a small child still taking naps in the afternoon. I started to take courses to learn to polish my work. I entered several competitions and began to get shortlisted.

In 2008, I entered a Mills and Boon novel competition, the forerunner of their SYTYCW competitions. I quickly decided I wasn’t a Mills and Boon writer, as it is a particular way of writing and much harder than people might think to keep the focus on the main protagonists throughout a novel. However, the competition introduced me to several people with whom I’m still in contact.

Competitions give you a framework within which to work. They give you the discipline of a deadline and a word count. Not as many people enter these competitions as you may imagine, especially the smaller local ones. I’ve been involved in running a local competition and I was surprised not only by the relatively few number of entries, but by the fact that sixty percent of the entries were essentially the same story. Tip – think around the set theme for a while and don’t go for the obvious. Your entry will stand out if it is different.

Morton S. Gray

Morton S. Gray

I continued to get shortlisted for flash fiction, poetry, short story and novel competitions. In 2013, I came second in the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference competition for the first chapter of a novel and that resulted in an appearance on the Tammy Gooding show at BBC Hereford and Worcester Radio. All good experience. Later that year, I shortlisted in the New Talent Award at the then Festival of Romance, with another first chapter. I met a different group of writers, many of whom I’m still in contact with in real life and online.

These encouraging signs for my writing kept me going. It is easy to get despondent when writing, as it can be a very solitary occupation. Don’t spend your life thinking no one will want to read your work, imagining that it’s rubbish, not up to scratch, not worthy of anything but the bin. Been there, done that! Keep going, keep writing and get your work out to competitions, send it to magazines, publishers, agents. Writing is a constant learning process and is generally about persistence. You need an imaginative spark, yes, but you also need to be willing to check your work over time and again to make it the best it can be. What is the point of a manuscript in a drawer?

I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme and made sure I submitted a novel for critique every year. I also made a promise to myself to take part in the annual novel writing challenge NaNoWriMo and I’ve managed seven years running to write 50,000 words in November. One of these novels, when edited and passed through the RNA NWS critique service, I sent off to the Search for a Star competition run by a publisher I’d admired for many years, Choc Lit and I won! My debut novel, The Girl on the Beach was published on 24 January 2017.

I suppose the messages here are keep writing, learn your craft, polish your work and get it out into the world. My novel could so easily still be in that drawer under the bed. Competitions are a way of assessing how you are progressing, hopefully you’ll meet friends along the way and who knows, you might win a publishing contract like me.

I love Morton’s encouraging message and I love the blurb for The Girl on the Beach – the novel is now sitting on my Kindle hankering to be read. I think it might tempt some of you too:

When Ellie Golden meets Harry Dixon, she can’t help but feel she recognises him from somewhere. But when she finally realises who he is, she can’t believe it – because the man she met on the beach all those years before wasn’t called Harry Dixon. And, what’s more, that man is dead.
For a woman trying to outrun her troubled past and protect her son, Harry’s presence is deeply unsettling – and even more disconcerting than coming face to face with a dead man, is the fact that Harry seems to have no recollection of ever having met Ellie before. At least that’s what he says …
But perhaps Harry isn’t the person Ellie should be worried about. Because there’s a far more dangerous figure from the past lurking just outside of the new life she has built for herself, biding his time, just waiting to strike.

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Two New Books for Writers

By now the initial excitement of New Year’s resolutions will have passed and keeping up that writing habit may have become a bit of a slog again. But do not despair – as always, your fellow writers are here to help and re-enthuse you.the-business-of-writing-by-simon-whaley

Simon Whaley is on a mission to make us all become more businesslike about our writing. If we treat our writing seriously and as a source of income, then our family and friends will adopt that attitude too – essential if you want to turn that ‘nice little hobby’ into a publishing empire! Simon’s blog about The Business of Writing is full of useful tips and many of you will recognise Simon’s name from his regular (and wise) column in Writing Magazine. He’s gathered together many of those articles into a handy e-book, also called The Business of Writing. It covers things like tax, record keeping, legalities, pseudonyms and much more, plus there are lots of tips and advice from writers across the genres.

start-a-creative-writing-class-by-helen-yendallTeaching writing is one way that many authors top up their income but the thought of getting a class up and running can be daunting. Helen Yendall has years of experience as a writing tutor and she’s just published an e-book sharing the knowledge that she’s built up – Start a Creative Writing Class: How to set up, run and teach a successful class. The book focuses on the nuts and bolts of setting up a writing class for adults, covering everything from finding a venue and arranging insurance, to marketing the class and giving feedback. There’s also plenty of advice on dealing with students and ideas of what (and how) to teach. It contains 100 x 5 minute writing exercises plus icebreaker ideas to get the class warmed-up and ready to learn.

 

So let 2017 be the year you fulfill your ambitions and take your writing more seriously – with the help of Simon and Helen.

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The Famous Five are 75!

Five years ago, in 2012, I wrote about Enid Blyton’s Famous Five turning 70.  Five on a Treasure IslandIt was one of my most popular posts.

In May of this year, that gang of four children and a dog will turn 75. The anniversary of the first publication of Five on a Treasure Island is being celebrated as part of Visit England’s Year of Literary Heroes 2017.
To mark the occasion the Royal Horticultural Society is creating four ‘Five Go on a Garden Adventure’ trails, one in each of their gardens: Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Wisley and Rosemoor. All four gardens will also hold a picnic party on 11th August to celebrate Enid Blyton’s 120th birthday.

A series of new paperback books will be released in May to coincide with the anniversary. These have new covers, an example of one of these can be seen on the Bookseller’s website. Have a look and tell me what you think. I’m not keen but I guess today’s children wouldn’t be impressed by the ‘old-fashioned’ original covers. I much prefer the one I’ve used to illustrate this post.

However, I do fancy that picnic – especially if there’s lashings of ginger beer plus plenty of ice cream (didn’t Julian always buy an ice cream for Timmy the dog?) and then we can relax on a bed of springy heather and keep watch for the smugglers on Kirrin Island …

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Mr Two Bomb by William Coles

If you read only one book in 2017 then let it be Mr Two Bomb by William Coles. I guarantee it will stay in your mind for a long time to come. Mr Two Bomb by William Coles

This novel is based on the true story of one of the twelve people who survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. Having survived the first bomb, the main character (the story  is told in the first person and I don’t think he’s given a name) catches the last train back to his home, wife and child in Nagasaki and arrives 90 minutes before the next atomic bomb explodes.

There is much description of the terrible injuries and deaths inflicted by these bombs and there is no way this book can be described as ‘enjoyable’. However, if, like me, you were vaguely aware that America dropped these bombs on Japan but know little else about their impact, this book will be an education for you.

Running through the book is the question of whether the main character was blessed to have survived these two bombs or cursed to have been in the vicinity of both. This is a great example of a novel where the main character goes ‘on a journey’ and emerges as a slightly different person at the end.

Above all, I felt Mr Two Bomb was life-affirming – and I think there’s a case for it being required reading in secondary schools.

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Branding a Book Series

I recently came across Anne Allen‘s wonderful Guernsey series of novels, in the form of the fifth book, Echoes of Time. It was a great read with alternating chapters set in WWII and 2010.

What particularly struck me about this series of books was the cohesive, professional branding across all the book covers.

Anne Allen Guernsey Novels

I wondered whether Anne had started off with this brand in mind or whether it developed as she went along. This is what she told me:

Authors are often encouraged to create a ‘brand’. To be distinctive. To stand out in the crowd; never more important than now when thousands of books are added to Amazon on a daily basis. I knew nothing of this when I published my first book, ‘Dangerous Waters’, a romantic mystery/family drama set in Guernsey. Then came book two, ‘Finding Mother’, also set on the island, but there was little cohesion visually between them, although they shared characters and setting. By the time I wrote the third, ‘Guernsey Retreat’, I had realised (somewhat belatedly some might say!) that I was writing a series. The covers of the books bore little resemblance to each other, except for my name, although I had chosen a strong image of Guernsey as the background for book 3.

These are the original three covers:

Dangerous Waters by Anne AllenFinding Mother by Anne AllenGuernsey Retreat by Anne Allen

Then came the enlightenment, in the form of a successful American author I met at an Indie event as part of The London Book Fair. She told me I had no brand and the genre of the books wasn’t clear. But she did like the covers, particularly the third. Sooo, it was back to the drawing board.
I decided I needed a fresh approach and engaged a cover designer who came highly recommended, Jane Dixon-Smith, who also writes books. Together we worked on producing four covers, three replacing the old ones and one for my nearly finished fourth novel, ‘The Family Divided’. I knew the backgrounds had to be of Guernsey as I now had The Guernsey Novels series. The new branding was launched in 2015 to coincide with the latest book and, boy, were they well received! Even Amazon liked them, creating a little series motif on my books page, so anyone buying one of the books could see it was part of a series, even though each book is a standalone story.

If an author isn’t writing a true series, I think it’s still important to have a cohesive look for their books, unless they write in multi genres. I’ve often noticed how the books of top-selling authors frequently receive new covers to emphasise their ‘brand’ in line with current fashion. Speaking to insiders of the Big Five publishers, I learnt huge sums are spent on cover design and redesign to keep the brands fresh; something independent authors would be unable to afford.

To find out more about the Guernsey novels, visit Anne’s website. The first book in the series, Dangerous Waters, is currently only 99p on Kindle – why not give it a try?

 

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