In this week's post, I want to share five books I've found helpful along my writing journey. They cover a range of topics from mindset to productivity, and I dip into them regularly. I hope you find them useful. To view each book on Amazon UK, click or tap the individual images.
1: Rachel Aaron - 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love
2: Libbie Hawker - Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing
3: Jacqueline Garlick - The End: Edit Smarter Not Harder: Ten Simple Fix-Its Guaranteed To Strengthen Any Manuscript
4: Joanna Penn - How to Make a Living with Your Writing: Books, Blogging and More
5: Honoree Corder - Prosperity for Writers: A Writer's Guide to Creating Abundance
I hope you've found these suggestions useful!
Are there any books you've found helpful in your writing journey? Leave a comment and let me know!
This week's blog post is a book review of 'The Widow', Fiona Barton's first novel. The book was published in 2016 and has achieved both Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller status. It's billed as 'the ultimate psychological thriller... a terrifically chilling exploration of the darkness at the heart of a seemingly ordinary marriage.'
Wow! When I read that, I decided this novel was right up my street, both as the kind of book I like to read and also to write.. Here's the description from Amazon:
'We've all seen him: the man - the monster - staring from the front page of every newspaper, accused of a terrible crime. But what about her: the woman who grips his arm on the courtroom stairs – the wife who stands by him? Jean Taylor’s life was blissfully ordinary. Nice house, nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted: her Prince Charming. Until he became that man accused, that monster on the front page. Jean was married to a man everyone thought capable of unimaginable evil. But now Glen is dead and she’s alone for the first time, free to tell her story on her own terms. Jean Taylor is going to tell us what she knows.'
Sounds gripping, doesn't it?
'The Widow' doesn't disappoint. I read it in one sitting, forcing my eyes to stay open one night as I devoured the contents into the small hours. I loved Fiona's depiction of the two main characters, Glen and Jeanie Taylor.
Glen is a petty, self-absorbed tyrant. His persona is wonderfully drawn, shown through the myriad ways he controls Jeanie and his failure to accept responsibility for his actions. Everything is someone else's fault, never his. (Don't we all know people like that?!) He attributes his dismissal from his bank job to his boss's jealousy rather than his unsatisfactory performance. When he's put on trial, he bills himself as a victim of police harassment. According to him, his obsession with child pornography is a medical condition for which he needs help. Not, of course, a sign of his warped nature, one that he keeps well-hidden. Here is a man who is outwardly unremarkable, yet, as the book asks, is he also a paedophile and a murderer? And is Jeanie complicit in his misdeeds?
The domineering Glen is mostly seen through the recollections of his down-trodden wife, who is a masterpiece of characterisation, expertly portrayed though subtle nuances. Jeanie adores her husband at first but her love fades as she realises the kind of man she has married. It's not long, though, before the reader starts to feel she may be hiding her own dark side. In addition, she might know more about Bella Elliott's disappearance than she's revealing.
The only flaw, for me, was that she comes across as older than her age, which jars at times. This may be deliberate, to emphasise Jean's unworldliness, but if so, I think it's overdone. It's not just that her name would be more appropriate for an older woman. At times Jean behaves like a stereotypical pensioner, so much so that when the narrative refers to her as being thirty-seven, it comes as a shock. Well, to me, anyway.
An impressive debut novel
As a foil to Glen and Jeanie, the other central characters of journalist Kate Waters and DI Bob Sparkes are more crudely drawn. Sparkes is almost like a caricature of a detective inspector, and his scenes didn't come alive for me. Kate is a more convincing character, although hard to like. Ruthless in pursuit of a scoop for her newspaper, she's hard as nails despite the caring persona she projects. The descriptions of unsavoury press behaviour are hard to stomach, as they frequently descend into harassment and trial by media. Fiona Barton used to be a journalist, so the antics she depicts are presumably realistic, yet in my view they're abhorrent.
Those wanting thrills a minute and a high body count may be disappointed by this book. The story focuses more on Jeanie's character development rather than delivering a plot rollercoaster. There are no twists as such - the ending is fairly obvious from early on - and few startling revelations. That's not the strength of this novel. The interest lies more in the reader exploring every nook and cranny of Jeanie's mind, in understanding why she gradually turns against her husband during the course of her marriage. As a first novel, it's impressive, and I look forward to reading more from this author.
Fiona Barton is a former journalist who has worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. In the latter role she won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards. She gave up her job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and has worked with exiled journalists all over the globe. The idea for 'The Widow' came from time spent during her journalistic career covering famous trials. Fiona began to wonder what the wives of the accused knew or allowed themselves to know about the crimes in question. Fiona lives with her husband in rural France and has written several other novels. You can find out more at her website: http://fionabartonauthor.com/
This week I'm delighted to welcome novelist Karen Long to my blog. Karen Long is a Midlander by birth and now lives in Shropshire. She took up full-time writing many years ago and dedicates her days to writing crime fiction and observing nature. Her first novel, 'The Safe Word', reached the Amazon bestsellers' list and has now been followed by the second and third in the Eleanor Raven series, 'The Vault' and 'The Cold Room'.
It's great to have you here, Karen, so let's get started! Here's my first question:
Will there be a set number of books in the Eleanor Raven series? If so, how many?
It was always my intention to create a series of three novels that were linked thematically. The series takes place over the span of eighteen months and shares the same cast of characters and place but deals with a separate central story. All three books have now been published. I don’t intend to drop the Eleanor Raven character but have no plans for book four any time soon.
Do you share any character traits with DI Eleanor Raven?
Ah, that’s difficult. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t some aspects of the characters I create buried within my psyche. I don’t think I feel the anger, or the self-loathing that Eleanor Raven does but I like my independence and feel more comfortable alone than in company. Like Eleanor I am not religious but have an innate need for redemption. I believe most writers amplify their own characteristics when creating; how else can you achieve authenticity?
Do you see yourself writing in other genres besides crime fiction? If so, which ones, and what attracts you to them?
I like historical fiction and would love to write one but feel a little overawed by the amount of research I’d need to do. I suspect any story would have to be combined with a good murder plot, as I have little leaning towards romance. I have copy of a YA fantasy novel set in Victorian London, which is tucked away in my desk drawer. Every now and then I pull it out with the intention of self- publishing but never quite commit.
What’s a typical writing day like for you? Routines, that kind of thing?
I am not, in any way, organised as to a writing routine. I harbour a deep sense of guilt regarding my glacial output but have to be completely distraction free. I have an office but like to write in the conservatory, which has a great view of the numerous birdfeeders. Generally, I do write every day and it tends to be late morning into afternoon.
How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel? Are you a plotter, a pantser or somewhere in between?
It takes me about seven months to get a first draft completed, and then another couple to complete the second and third drafts. I am not a deadline sort of person, I’m way too vague and unfocussed. I used to write copious notes but found they didn’t really help with plotting. Now I just keep mental images of actions and storylines.
What issues have you faced with research and accuracy with setting your books in a different country?
It’s very liberating to set your novels in a different environment because it can be moulded into the vision of a cityscape that responds to your plot. That’s not to say that I am lazy with place or time. I always check distances and environments with virtual maps, and read about places from as many sources as possible. I do have a working knowledge of the detailed landscapes and buildings that feature in the novels. However, it is because I am not native to Toronto that I have been able to create a vision from the flavours I experienced. It’s not accurate but then I’m writing fiction, not a travel guide.
What do you do to relax after a hard day’s writing?
Running, reading and a couple of glasses of wine.
Tell us about the rescue work you do with injured and distressed birds.
I’m a huge bird fan, particularly of the crow family. I used to have an aviary filled with rooks, magpies, crows and jackdaws, all in various stages of decrepitude but sadly we no longer have any left. Every spring I manage to look after and release a few babies that didn’t quite make their first flight a success. I’ve kept ravens, which are wonderful. All have deliciously dangerous and cantankerous personalities but the mayhem and home destruction can be very alarming and expensive. There are few things more delightful than having a clever wild bird sit on your shoulder and share a biscuit.
Thank you, Karen! It's been great talking to you.
Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist. His most famous novel, written in English, is 'Lolita' (1955), notorious thanks to its controversial examination of an affair between a young girl and an older man.
Nabokov had an avid interest in butterflies, which was what led to his exploration of the region, rather than a prurient interest in children (we hope!) The area is stunningly beautiful and includes Arizona, parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Nevada and California. As someone who has long wanted to drive across the southern USA, I'd love to follow in Nabokov's footsteps, although without the butterfly net! Monument Valley will be a 'must see' on my itinerary when I do so. Perhaps it's time to write a road trip novel?
2. The French Riviera - Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald and his family once rented a seaside villa in Cap d'Antibes, where he wrote his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby. The French Riviera is located in the south-east of France on the Mediterranean, and became popular during the eighteenth century as a winter vacationing spot for the British upper class. It has also played host to other famous writers such as Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham and Edith Wharton. I've not visited the French Riviera for many years, but I well remember the fabulous wealth of Monaco and the beauty of the scenery. France isn't on my immediate list of countries to visit, but it would be good to return one day and explore further, following in the footsteps of the famous novelists I've mentioned.
3. The Florida Keys - Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway is inextricably linked with the Florida Keys, in particular Key West, where he wrote To Have and Have Not. He also worked on the draft of A Farewell to Arms while living on the island.
The drive from Miami through the Florida Keys is spectacular, and one I remember well, my destination being Key West with its relaxed atmosphere. When I was there in 1994 I visited Hemingway's house where he lived for eight years. As an avid animal lover, I was entranced by the cats there, all descendants of Hemingway's own felines and sporting six or seven toes rather than the usual five. The house itself contains much of interest and was one of the first on the island to benefit from modern plumbing and a swimming pool.
4. Henry Miller - Paris
Henry Miller was an American author who developed a new form of writing novels, penning semi-autobiographical books involving social criticism, philosophy and explicit sexual references and language. His best know works include Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. He lived in Paris between 1930 and 1939, which is where he wrote Tropic of Cancer, telling a friend he'd write it as 'first person, uncensored, formless'. Whilst there he became friends with the British author Lawrence Durrell and began his affair with Anaïs Nin.
Paris is an easy trip for me, being a short hop on the Eurostar, and I was last there about twelve years ago. The city has been home to many famous writers, including Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
5. Cornwall, UK - Virginia Woolf
I've not visited Cornwall since my teens, but seeing the BBC's recent adaption of Poldark reminded me how beautiful that part of the UK is. I also read 'The Fire Child' by S K Tremayne recently, which features the old Cornish tin mines along with photographs of them.
The town's lovely coastal scenery, including Godrevy Lighthouse, may have been the inspiration behind Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Other authors, including Poldark's Winston Graham, have used Cornwall’s landmarks in their books. Mary Wesley's 'The Camomile Lawn' features Roseland House; the Headland was used in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 'The Witches'. Daphne Du Maurier's books also rely heavily on Cornwall as their backdrop. Perhaps it's time I paid the county another visit - who knows, I might get inspired for a future novel!
How I edit my novels - from first draft to completed manuscript
When I started my writing journey, I lacked the funds for a professional editor. (They don't come cheap!) Instead, I did the best I could myself. Now I'm with Lake Union, all that's changed, because Amazon pick up the costs. Until now, my editing process has gone as follows. First, I set the manuscript aside for at least a month, so that when I return to it, I do so with a fresh eye. My first drafts are rough, because I prefer to get the story out of my head first and worry about sorting the mess later. In the early stages, I spend a lot of time moving text around, deleting some parts and adding others. Once I have a coherent second draft, I check for correct spelling, punctuation, etc.; I'm a stickler for that sort of thing! I always run my books through Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar check as well, though.
Another tool I use, and love, is Pro Writing Aid. There's a free version, but I use the premium one for its extra features, and have a lifetime subscription. Pro Writing Aid will tell me when I've used the same word too often in close proximity, check for clichés and redundancies, perform a grammar check, and much more.
The next step is to tighten and prune my prose. It's scary how many unnecessary words I find! Often I shed several thousand during this stage. By the time I've done all this, the novel is, with any luck, slimmer and fitter.
Scrivener helps every step of the way
At the end of all this, I read the manuscript several times to make sure it's as good as I can make it. This is hard because I can waste lots of time tweaking tiny details - at some stage I need to release the book to my wonderful beta readers! I have several people who provide feedback on what they like and don't like, what works and what doesn't. I implement most of their advice; it's rare for me to reject anything they say. After all, they come to the novel with a fresh eye, whereas by this stage I'm usually jaded!
For me, editing is the longest part of the process, but unlike some writers, it's something I love doing. I find great satisfaction in polishing my first drafts (believe me, they really are rough!) into something better. I use Scrivener to organise every step of the way. Scrivener is software designed for writers, and has revolutionised my writing. If I could marry a piece of software, it would probably be this one!
My experience with a professional editor
First she emailed me her overall impressions of the book and her main recommendations, along with my manuscript containing her detailed notes. Next Sammia organised a conference call between the three of us. She wanted to ensure I understood the process before I got stuck in, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness. I did wonder what Gillian might want to see changed in the book, not because I'm arrogant and consider it perfect, but because I'm too close to it to be objective. All her recommendations made sense and echoed some of the less favourable reviews I've received. She asked me to tone down the sex and swearing, and make Daniel Bateman a more likeable character. With that in mind, I set to work.
I needed to learn Microsoft Word's 'track changes' feature but my inner geek enjoys stuff like that! It didn't take long to implement Gillian's recommendations. My experience of working with her has been very positive. Once I'd experienced the huge benefits of having a professional editor, I asked Gillian to edit my fiction titles that don't fall under my Amazon contract. I'm keen to make my novels as polished as possible, especially now I've joined the Alliance of Independent Authors, a professional writers' association.