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How to write a best-selling novel
So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …
Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).
But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.
It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.
Cigarettes and coffee
He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.
Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.
Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”
Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.
Look Ma, I’m a writer
To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.
And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5″ with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.
Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”
Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).
This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.
Art is theft
But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.
“So!” you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.
Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.
Secret Bude was commissioned as part of a series by history publisher, Amberley Books, based in Gloucestershire. It follows on from my two previous Bude titles, Bude Through Time and Bude in Postcards, which are far more pictorial and visual, but I’m a word person so was thrilled to actually be able to write about beautiful Bude, rather than merely create captions. Oddly enough, writing was much easier than captioning, too, because it felt like I was unravelling an ongoing mystery.
As ever, the photos came from the wonderful collection of a local man, Ray Boyd. Poor Ray, a Bude man through and through, was extremely ill at the time. I am very glad he pulled through and couldn’t believe my luck that he was still organising photos I’d asked for during his recuperation. Unfortunately, I lost a number of people I knew during the writing of the book, which rather delayed it, and which I dedicated to them. Hard to believe I have lost yet more since.
What I very quickly discovered was that Bude has lots of ‘secrets’ as in ‘local knowledge’ but that much of it is not the kind of thing anyone would put in print! There are also some extremely knowledgeable people in Bude, though at times it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Researching for a book about a place is always interesting. Much of the research is internet or book-based, but it is from local people where the true ideas, inspiration and knowledge come. Jonathan Stamp kindly allowed me into the study of his late father, local historian, Bryan Dudley-Stamp (whom I’d previously had the pleasure of meeting) which was a wealth of information. It was winter and the study was very, very cold. My fingerless gloves were a great help, alongside my phone to take photos of information, because I was too cold to write! What this did was help me to get a feel for what was important and develop something of a game plan. Even so, I still wasn’t quite sure where to start.
Next, I made a few visits to the Castle Heritage Centre where the ladies in the archives were extremely helpful. This was formative in giving me more ideas, such as the fictional tale of The Iron Pineapple, which I used. I was struck by what a fabulous resource the Castle is. Get the Bude Light up to scratch and it, too, will be a huge asset to the town.
When writing a book of this nature, contacts are always useful. I was lucky to be able to interview Tony Edwards, the only person I know still living to have met the Waite-Smith deck tarot artist, Pamela Coleman-Smith, who lived out her later years in Bude and indeed died in the town. I’d read quite a bit about her but Tony brought her to life, telling me of their interactions when he was her errand boy. By some amazing coincidence, I was contacted by Susanna Dark from the shop Wise Old Crow. Susanna had documents I copied relating to Pamela, which uncovered mysteries like how and where she died. Pamela had lived in a flat at what is now the Bencoolen Inn, so it was fascinating to uncover more about her. I’m now trying to write a book specifically on the subject of Pamela.
The more I delved, the more I uncovered until it began to surprise me quite how many famous links Bude has. I’d heard that a Titanic survivor hailed from Bude (Archie Jewell) but until I researched him, I didn’t know that his seafaring father had nearly frozen to death during the Great Blizzard, but what was the most interesting was reading his testimony from the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic.
As I’ve grown more familiar with Bude it was easy to visualise where various characters lived, and imagine the impact of their environment on their lives.
What was lovely and what isn’t in the book, but is on the Bude & Beyond website is that alongside the many messages from people saying they’ve enjoyed Secret Bude, I received one from Gavin Sampson from Guernsey. Gavin was born and raised in Bude. He was able to shed more light on the 1899 Bude Riots, explaining that the trouble began in 1897 when Mr Rundle Brendon applied for a licence to sell liquor at his proposed new hotel/inn to be built on Summerleaze Down, to be called The Grenville. The people of Bude & Stratton were quickly up in arms over this infringement of what they considered to be common land. Even now, locals feel the same. Summerleaze Down is a hugely important part of Bude, creating a sense of space for all to enjoy. As a result of protests and possible legal action. It seems that no building work was started, and Mr Brendon had to re-apply for his licence but was told he needed to start building work within a year. Bude locals were prepared to fight this, so when land was fenced off and notices erected threatening prosecution, 14 men were served with writs and the development all came to nothing. The Grenville hotel did eventually get built in Belle Vue, now used by Adventure International. Gavin mentions his great grandafather, Captain Edward (Neddy) Maynard, Master and owner of the Bude ketch, ‘Jessamine’, described the Grenville as “looking like a jam factory” when he entered Bude from the sea.
Gavin kindly sent me a photo of his Sampson’s bakery van c. 1910. His family are cousins of the bakers and he remembered the biscuits with the jammy centres mentioned in the book! It is lovely to have such feedback, including one or two corrections, from someone taking their time to contact me.
That, however, is the kind of spirit Bude impassions within its people, both locals, and newer arrivals. They are keen on their history and the development of the modern town. There is and always has been a sense of community spirit; they help others and they will fight for what is right.
It’s an interesting question. Rather like the artist in a garret stereotype, the vision of a writer is one of a lone genius in an office, pondering, seeking sweet inspiration, surrounded by screwed up balls of paper, blood, sweat and tears in the production of life’s lonely masterpiece. The reality is rather different. Writing involves inspiration, sure, but the vast majority of writing is perspiration, and for many these days, very little paper is involved. Writing, editing, checking spelling, grammar, and punctuation compile the nuts and bolts of writing. Being a ‘writer’ is rewriting, changing, amending, revisiting and revamping. That can be romantic. The shaping and fashioning of work are actually sheer acts of hard graft; it may feel extremely tedious. It is also, however, incredibly satisfying, even edifying to see something that looks right and reads well. Writing is romantic in a way because generally, in the grand scheme of life, most work people write has limited appeal/use/lasting effect. It is, therefore, something of a luxury in the activity stakes.
The reality is rather different. Writing involves inspiration, sure, but the vast majority of writing is perspiration, and for many, very little paper is involved. Writing, editing, checking spelling, grammar, and punctuation compile the nuts and bolts of writing. Being a ‘writer’ is rewriting, changing, amending, revisiting and revamping. That can be romantic. The shaping and fashioning of work are actually sheer acts of hard graft; it may feel extremely tedious. It is also, however, incredibly satisfying, even edifying. Writing is romantic in a way because, generally, in the grand scheme of life, most work people write has limited appeal/use/lasting effect. It is, therefore, something of a luxury in the activity stakes.
That said, if you enjoy writing, you will always take an opportunity to write. You will write on the backs of envelopes, on cereal packets, on train tickets, on your note taking app. Writing is less romantic than compulsive. After a time without writing, I start to feel tetchy, unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and in need, which is why my holidays always involve taking books to read and paper to write on – oh, and a decent pen!
It seems that to write, people need to try all sorts of psychological tricks to prepare themselves. Blogs offer psychological tips including ‘finding your ritual’ statements to make writing flow, having clear outcomes in mind, and writing at the right time. That writing is all about finding time, place and space to do it. Rubbish!
I’m rather with the Writers & Artists Yearbook on this one. Perhaps you need to find your own zone, if, indeed, such a thing exists. What works for others might not work for you. Most of the ‘getting into the zone’ stuff relates to place, space, and base, but what about throwing in a constraint? Throwing in a constraint in order to release your creative flow, such as writing in sonnet form, or Dickens’ form, or simply adding deadline, can help more than any feng shui.
I keep coming back to the ‘just write’ mentality. This week, I’ve written lots of stuff. I have to, with daily content creation for two websites, and other copy less frequently. To be honest, if I waited until I was in the ‘zone’ to write anything, I’d still be hanging around awaiting inspiration. It is, for me, that ‘do it now’ mentality that gets results. They may not always be perfect results, and therein lies the rub. If copyediting or writing for someone professionally, I strive for perfection. If just writing a piece for the sake of interest, perfection is too big a luxury to worry about.
My advice: Stop waiting for the perfect subject to write about, for ‘inspiration’. It probably won’t come. Forget the perfect office space: write on buses, trains, at a desk, onto a computer, into a notebook (this is going straight from my brain to my computer). Ignore interruptions. The kids will share their news, the phone will ring, things will distract you – they are all temporary. Don’t aspire to perfection – you are not Hilary Mantel – and, anyway, she is apparently (by her own confession) hell to live with when writing. Accept that writing can be tedious. It isn’t all inspired creative flow. Much of it is crafting and hard slog. Forget perfection. No one usually manages to achieve it.
You are a wordsmith. Nothing more, nothing less. JUST DO IT…
Well, apparently I don’t do enough of it, but it is probably time to do some self-promotion. Yes, my latest book (and the last on Bude, I think) is now published by Amberley Publishing, who commissioned it. The book, Secret Bude (and not my choice of cover by the way) has more writing in it than usual, which I enjoyed researching. My thanks to the lovely volunteer ladies in the archives at Bude Heritage Centre, to Jonathan Stamp for allowing me access to his father, Bryan Dudley Stamp’s study, to Tony who, in an interview, gave me never before heard information about Pamela Coleman-Smith, and, of course, to Ray Boyd, as ever, for most of the images. Ray was himself seriously ill during the writing of the book, to the point of life-threatening. He’s a great guy, so I’m glad he’s still with us, and was kind enough to sort out some images for me from his sick bed. Also, many thanks to others who contributed.
The book is not really about secrets, so it is a slight misnomer. I heard quite a few and most were probably libellous/unprintable! So, it is a book for locals and visitors alike containing lesser-known information about Bude, its history, and people. It contains historical and contemporary images, alongside a few tales. There is little seriously ancient history attributable to Bude so it is more a case of digging out certain information about people and places. Before I started researching, I knew about Archie Jewel, and I knew about Pamela Coleman-Smith, but I’d never before read Archie’s testimony after the sinking of Titanic, and I didn’t know that Pamela dropped dead at the Conservative Club, nor that she had an errand boy who would bring items for her bad chest. I enjoyed reading the fictional tale of The Iron Pineapple the ladies at the archives recommended – and relating it to others. There are plenty of tales and snippets within so most people will probably learn something.
Glad to see the book on sale in Spencer Thorn. Thanks, guys. I’m hardly a world-renowned author, but if anyone out there in or around Bude is buying it as a special gift and wants a few words writing in the front, then please get in touch and I’ll see what I can do.
It was something of a drawn-out labour of love and began to feel ill-fated, so I’m pleased it eventually came to fruition. During the course of writing the book, three people in my life died. One was that popular Bude man, Pritch, who we lost way too young and suddenly at 51. Two days later, my beloved big brother died, aged 61, following a degenerative illness. In December, my father in law died at a rather more reasonable 89 but missed nonetheless. While the book was printing, I lost another friend in Australia, who took her own life, and a friend in Wales, who struggled with pancreatic cancer. Both were in their 50s. It was too late to include them in my acknowledgements.
To be honest, at times other things felt far more important than faffing about with a book, but I have to give my thanks to the publishers for their patience. They encouraged me to continue when I felt like giving up on it. If there are errors (yes, I know, I spotted one in the acknowledgements) then my apologies. Due to my delays, the process was rather rushed at the end.
Lots of businesses and community groups have items/news they wish to get in the press, often at a local level. Government and big business also send out lots of press releases, yet the state of punctuation, even in official documents, is absolutely shocking. Please check before pressing the send button.
As numbers of active local reporters have dropped, then a well-written press release can gain you free coverage.
For many people, the idea of writing a press release is a little daunting but is worth mastering because the press has a voracious appetite for content and lots of space to fill. Ready-made news is thus a godsend. If there are photos to accompany the release, then even better!
So, here’s a quick ‘how to’ write a press release:
Start by explaining when the story can be used. Is it immediate or is there an embargo until a certain date or time?
The release begins with a heading, and perhaps a subheading – this needs to be eye-catching and tell the reader what it is about (human interest tends to work).
A lead paragraph needs the hook – what has happened that is special? If you are a new business, do you have a minor celebrity opening it for you, or a special offer? Are you offering a new and innovative product? Have you had a change of image?
Let’s keep the guidelines short and sweet:
- Tell the main story using two or three short paragraphs.
- Provide one or two other paragraphs, containing background information or interesting details.
- Round off with some useful comments or quotes.
- Even the dullest stuff can be made to read well. For example: have you just tripled sales of a certain product? If so, how did that happen? It’s the ‘how’ that will contain/intrigue the human interest.
- Add full contact details for further info at the end.
- Add photo/s.
Thinking of my two most recent jobs, proof-reading an e-book, and copyediting a workbook, I can honestly say the work is painstaking, detailed and definitely not glam. However, it is rewarding to help shape something into a coherent whole.
There have been days when I have wanted nothing more than to leave my desk and all the copyediting that goes with it, but by the end it is rewarding. The pecuniary rewards are not great. It’s a buyers’ market out there, but knocking something into shape is satisfying. Rosemary Serluca writes:
Heavy copyediting not only requires someone who can do what a baseline copyeditor does: proofread and look for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation; ensure consistency and proper word usage; verify cross- references; check for correct sequencing in lists. But also, what a medium copyeditor does: maintain parallel structure; note inappropriate figures of speech; enforce style and tone; change passive voice to active voice; and make note of incorrect statements.
Add all of the aforementioned tasks to: improving flow, pace, structure, and actually add to the overall quality of the writing, and you have some of the criteria required to be a substantive or heavy copyeditor.
I’m not keen on starting a sentence with But also, but you get the gist of what copyediting is about. If you start with a disparate collection of material and create a coherent whole, that feels good. Ditto, if a piece of work has many typos and errors which may be ironed out, that also feels good. We also learn a good deal from the style questions we are asked. The fact that my work makes me think is just up my street.
Now I’m ready for the next piece!
I’ve recently enjoyed C.J. Flood’s Infinite Sky, a novel of rural England, but not the stuff of idyll. No, this is gypsies setting up home on someone’s land, bored out of their skulls vodka-drunk teenagers, poor communication between parents and their children (in particular), and trouble of the kind that involves hitting people on the head with bricks. The finale is emotional because it involves a death bed scene, and I’ve recently been involved in one of those myself. It is a scene if you are ever writing one, which needs to be utterly authentic.
The image in this book is one where the family prepares for death knowing that the ventilator is to be turned off. This got me by the throat and savaged it because I recall only too well that reality is nothing like the movies (or books). People may peacefully slip away but they still have ventilators and lines attached, and what really happens when someone dies is that the family weeps, and hugs, and hurts, and the dying person does not have ventilation removed, but merely has the oxygen decreased to a point where the body cannot work without the additional help. It is actually a terribly slow and (for those attending) painful process, even if the brain-dead individual has no clue what is happening (we simply don’t know that). The human body loses colour, turns grey, ages before your very eyes. There is no sense of romance, no unreality. It is, frankly, just horrible,
In truth, the human body loses colour, turns grey, ages before your very eyes. There is probably no major twitch, movement, sigh or shudder; you only actually know what is happening by the change of pallor and the bleeps on the machine indicating an arresting shortage of activity. You like to think you will know when the actual moment of death arrives, but in reality, you read the monitors and eventually realise the pulse and blood pressure rates are zero.
Do you need such detail in a novel? Probably not, certainly for most people. However, when you’ve been through it, then it certainly adds authenticity if it is written correctly, yet sensitively. How much fine detail in such circumstances is too much? An interesting question. I found myself wanting authenticity, yet distressed enough as it was re-living reality through fiction. A tough call.