April was a great reading month – one of those where I’d recommend all of these! It was hard to pick my favourites – but these three were LUSH…
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a long time. At one point there is a page-long description of what one of the main characters buys from the supermarket, and I was RIVETTED. This story is chilling and compelling and incredibly human – perfect for fans of Elizabeth Strout or Becky Chambers.
Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud is not a book I would expect to love. Chapters are often set weeks or months apart, giving each the feel of a short story. Not usually my bag, but this story grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Set on the island of Trinidad and told from three very different perspectives, this exploration of family, betrayal, and community is great for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro or Bridget Collins. But a head’s up – there are some GRAPHIC sex scenes, so if you’re not up for that you might want to give it a miss.
I picked up Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane simply because the cover appealed to me. It did not disappoint. Set after the death of a best friend, this weirdly uplifting novel explores the destructive power of secrets, how love can rise up from something very shit, and the importance of holding your friends close. A must read for fans of Jenny Colgan or Beth O’Leary, this is a book you’ll read with a smile on your face.
But, as always, read them all and we can be chums 😊
We all have those times when writing is an absolute dream. The ideas flow, the words actually make sense, we smash targets and get great feedback. These moments are lovely. But they can also be fleeting.
These inspired periods cannot be depended on if we want to write regularly. I don’t know about you, but most days I don’t launch straight into my story in a storm of wonderful ideas. I have to ease my way in, figure out my next moves, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll fall into a good head space about halfway through. Other days, I create a space for writing and I get the words down even though I’m not particularly inspired.
But then there are the other times. The times when every sentence feels like a mess, when every idea feels contrived and unoriginal, when people don’t get your vision and, no matter how much time and effort we put in, we just aren’t writing enough. Hopefully, this lowness doesn’t hit you too much, but when it hits me it’s almost debilitating. I keep writing because I’m too stubborn to stop, but there’s a lot of angst around it.
I recently tweeted about feeling low about my writing abilities:
I got some lovely responses (thank you if you said nice things, it genuinely helped) and I have been thinking a lot about lowness and how it can affect our writing. Below are some of my reflections. These are very much things I am also saying to myself – I always need a reminder.
FEELING LOW IS NOT A REFLECTION OF THE QUALITY OF YOUR WRITING
It’s all too easy to equate feeling bad about our writing ability with our writing being bad. This isn’t the case though. I don’t know about you, but when I read through my work I have no idea which sections were written when I was feeling confident about my writing or when I was feeling low. Despite the voice inside telling me that I’m not a very good writer, the work I produce is of a similar quality.
This lowness is just a feeling, not a fact. This feeling has no bearing on whether I am a good or bad writer. I might feel low about my abilities, but that doesn’t change them.
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN
There is one time when lowness hits particularly hard and predictably. You finish a first draft, you race through a round of edits, you get some lush feedback – and you feel great. For a while. This is the high and, if you’re the same as me, this will often be followed by a low.
Recently, I finished editing something that I’d been working on for about three months. I felt like a king. I would say I actually felt proud of what I’d produced, which is quite a rare thing for me. I sent the new draft off to my agent and dove into writing a first draft of something I’d been wanting to write for a while, and for a week or so everything was hunky.
Then the lowness hit. The story I’d felt so confident about only days ago was suddenly probably a pile of crap and my agent would hate it. The draft I’d launched into was too slow, too boring, too meh. I wasn’t a good writer and I should stop trying. That’s what the lowness was telling me, anyway.
I really want to get better at anticipating this kind of low time. It’s natural to come down from a high – to have some doubts and be a bit unsure. I want to create more of a space for this feeling and be gentle with myself instead of ploughing on regardless. I’m not there yet but, with practice, I’m hoping I’ll find ways to stop this low knocking me back so much.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO STOP, BUT YOU COULD TAKE A BREAK
I’m a stubborn fool. It comes from having a ridiculous drive (I WANT TO BE AN AUTHOR AND I WANT IT NOW SO I’M GOING TO WORK WORK WORK WORK UNTIL I GET WHAT I WANT). This can be great, but it can also be quite punishing. What I need when I’m feeling low is a much more compassionate mind-set, not an internal voice screaming I must do more because that’s how I will get what I want.
I want to be an author but I don’t want to be miserable, so sometimes that means I won’t do quite as much writing as the drill sergeant in my head demands. I might not write as quickly as I’d like, but I’d rather be gentle and feel better about myself than finish projects slightly sooner.
This is something I’d still learning to be comfortable with, but breaks are really good. I have a day a week when I don’t write at all. At first I struggled with this, but gradually I’ve come to enjoy it. I read loads on that day and do other fun things that get me out of my head. I often find that the couple of days after this enforced break I am brimming with ideas and energy. Taking a break reminds me that my whole life and worth doesn’t revolve around writing. This is great when I’m feeling low, because I know writing is not the only thing I have going for me.
REACH OUT WHERE YOU CAN
You might not feel comfortable shouting about your low times on social media (most of the time I’m the same but I do try to be honest about the triumphs and struggles of writing) but find some people you can reach out to when you’re feeling this way. People who will buoy you back up and say nice things until you start to believe them a little bit.
It’s ideal if these people are writers, because they’ll get what you’re talking about. They will have felt exactly the same way at some point. I personally find this incredibly reassuring. I’m an anxious bean, and get slightly concerned when I’m feeling low that I’ll feel this way FOREVER. So it’s helpful to be told by someone else that we all have times like this, but that they don’t last.
Find your people who don’t mind you having a moan and will help you pick yourself up again and keep going. This low feeling makes us feel isolated and alone, but one way to banish it slightly is to reach out to others and sob about the difficulties of writing together.
I hope these reflections are helpful. These low moments suck but we have to remember that they don’t last and that they are totally normal. The important thing is to keep writing (even just a little) and wait for the lowness to pass. It will. It always does.
I didn’t clock it at the time, but apparently I went on some kind of reading spree in March! These were my faves…
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro was beautiful. So well written and a little bit heart-breaking, it’s great for fans of Never Let Me Go or anything by Elizabeth Strout. It combines brilliantly detailed observations on humanity with a compelling story about an Artificial Friend who wants the best for her human bestie, and will do anything she can to keep her alive.
Half Bad by Sally Green was a re-read, and one I totally loved. This is the start of a trilogy that I’ll come back to again and again when I want to dive into incredible writing and a masterful love story. Full of magic, I read these back-to-back and walked away with an intense book-hangover. And the TV series is currently casting. Ahhh!
Lost for Words by Stephanie Butland may be one of my favourite books ever. This was another reread, and one that captivated me just as much as the first time I read it. Set in a rambling second-hand bookshop and following the misadventures of Loveday, who has been somewhat battered by life, this novel is heart-warming and affirming and just everything you want a modern love story to be.
As always, read them all and we can be chums, okay? 😊
I may not have read many books in February, but they were all grand! A quick shout out to The Vanishing Act, even though I’ve not claimed it as a favourite. It’s so beautifully whimsical and well-told. If you want to develop a constant craving for pretzels and orange cake, give it a read.
The Duke and I by Julia Quinn is a load of jolly nonsense. So exactly what we all need right now! I raced through it, giggling at the ridiculous dialogue and cringy sex scenes. I wouldn’t call it a guilty pleasure, but it’s a series I’ll be returning to whenever I need to shut off reality and have a good laugh. If you liked the TV series, this is more of the same.
The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness may well be one of my favourite books of all time. It was a reread, and one that I’ll come back to again and again. One quote, to give you a taste of Ness’s beautiful writing:
‘Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But Michael, you’re not responsible for causing it.’
LUSH. This is a young adult novel with a big heart and characters you will fall in love with and think about long after you’ve turned the last page.
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley is the second in a series, so go back and read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street before you attempt this. It’s the best of magical realism combined with breath-taking romance and thrills. If you love The Night Circus or The Snow Child, you’ll love this.
‘Never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond reason.’ – Fredrik Backman
Write for the love of it.
Write because you have a story to tell. Because you have stories to tell. Write because you need to figure out the stories inside of you. Write to be known, to find the others with stories like yours.
Write because 6am doesn’t feel like 6am when you’re getting up to write. Write even when 6am feels very much like 6am because you know that it will make the rest of the day better. Write through yawning and aching and sighing.
Write in bed. Write on trains. Write at desks. Write on your laptop, in pretty notepads, in the notes app on your phone. Write for hours, write in stolen minutes, write for a second.
Write poems. Write epic novels. Write for children. Write for the child you were. Write for your parents. Write things you never want your parents to read. Write for your friends. Write about your enemies. Write for yourself. Write for strangers. Write for the happy. Write for the lonely. Write for people who aren’t born yet. Write for someone on their deathbed.
Write because starting a first draft feels like diving off a cliff, and you don’t know if you’ll land. Write because you like to plan. Write from the start, the middle, or the end. Write a bit of them all.
Write down the ideas that come at midnight, in the shower, on a long drive. Write down the odd things people say. Write down the clever things other writers say. Write even on days when every word feels hard. Write when you’re inspired.
Write alone. Write with a friend. Write with a group.
Write and rewrite. Make your words shine. Write for days to find a sentence that makes sense. Write because when you do find that sentence that makes sense, it feels like finding gold. Write until it feels good enough to share.
Write in silence. Write in chaos. Write in your car. Write despite the washing piling up. Write even when you feel like you should be doing something else. Write instead of seeing friends.
Write because you want to. Write because you need to. Write because there is no way not to.
Write the dreams in your heart. Write the sorrows of your past. Write your fears and vanquish them. Write your hidden disappointments. Write your greatest joys. Write your lost loves.
Write about places you’ve been to. Write about places you will never go to. Write to get under another person’s skin. Write because you want to live better in your own skin.
Write through the rejection. Write through the pain. Write despite the worry. Write when agents don’t get you. Write when publishers don’t get you. Write despite bad reviews. Write despite missing out on awards. Write when the world is falling apart.
Write because seeing your book in a library will never stop being a thrill. Write because hearing that others loved your novel brings you joy. Write because telling stories gives you peace.
Write a story that takes you a lifetime. Write a story that takes you a month. Write bad stories. Write good stories. Write one story. Write ten.
Write because it’s what you’ve always wanted to do. Write because you fell into it. Write because once you started, you couldn’t stop. Write because it’s part of you now. Write from your heart.
I love hearing about different writers’ processes. I’ve already chatted a bit about how I write a first draft, but this time I want to talk about how I edit my books from unholy first drafts to readable, polished stories. This is just how I do it, so please don’t worry if you work totally differently. If the end result is a book people enjoy, who cares how you get there?
STAGE ONE – TAKE A BREAK
Arguably one of the better stages of editing. This comes off the back of finishing a first draft. I write without looking back, and a break now gives me a chance to distance myself from the story before I dive back into it. The minimum I’d want this to be is a month.
This is a chance for rest, but I find my brain is constantly supplying new ideas and things to check. I’ll think of new ways for the characters to express themselves and themes that I want to strengthen. I usually start a new project during this time, either editing a different story or launching into another first draft.
STAGE TWO – READ IT QUICK
I print it out, grab a notepad and a pink pen (I find it easier to spot pink than any other colour), and read the thing as quickly as possible. I make many notes, but try not to get bogged down correcting grammar or reworking sentences. This is a chance to make sure the story makes sense. Things will probably move around a lot (I use post-it notes and numbering to keep track of everything), chunks will get cut and rewritten, so concentrating on making each sentence shine would be a waste of time at this point.
I try to complete this stage in about a week, since that’s how I’d read any other book. I’m looking at the pace, whether there’s any part of the plot that’s lacking or needs reworking, swapping around chapters, and figuring out characters. I print it out because I find it easier to make notes this way, plus I think reading my stories in as many different ways as possible can only help me spot different things.
STAGE THREE – MAKE THE CHANGES, MAKE IT SHINE
I go right on back to the start, save a new draft on my laptop, and start making all the changes I’ve made on my paper copy. I do this chapter by chapter, making the big sweeping changes first and then zeroing in on sentences. I want each character to sound unique, for the narrative voice to be strong, and to cut out as many errors as possible.
STAGE FOUR – COLLECT ADVICE
The story is usually at a stage now when I don’t feel like I would rather burn it than show it to another human being. I involve a critique partners (you can read about one of mine here), beta readers, and editors (small shout-out for myself – find out more about my services here!) I get as many different eyes on my story as possible.
I tend to start a new draft again at this point and throw all the comments from people into it. Some I’ll agree with straight away – they might be grammar points or just really good suggestions – but some I will want to mull over for a while. Someone doesn’t get a joke a character makes, but is that because it’s confusing or they just aren’t my target audience? Someone consistently critiques the setting, but do they just prefer a different writing style? These are the choices I have to make.
But I am in control of my story. I can have a reader urging me to change something but if it doesn’t feel right I won’t. I will note down their comment and if I find two or three people are saying the same thing, I will think about how to make that element work better.
REPEAT STAGES ONE TO FOUR
Writing a book is hard work! It takes a lot of time and effort. I edit, and then edit again and again and again. My first drafts are totally crap, so I have a lot of work to do in the editing stages. A LOT of work.
I will then go back and edit some more. And more. Forever and ever. The end.
Some interesting reading this month. I get the bulk of my books from the library and as they are closed at the moment, I’ve been looking at my neglected TBR and doing some rereading, alongside a few newer books! Everything I read was great, but here are my three faves…
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers is a masterpiece. It makes me, who would never in a million years want to go up into space, think that it might be a good idea if I got to live in a beautiful community like the one she brings to life so vividly. This is the third in a trilogy but could be read as a standalone, and is great for sci-fi lovers who want something a bit gentler and gloriously human.
What We’ll Build by Oliver Jeffers will be finding its way into the hands of many of the children I know over the coming year. With his characteristic optimism, Jeffers both writes and illustrates another picture book that can be genuinely enjoyed by adults and children alike.
Despite helping to whittle down the submissions for issue six of Eye Flash Poetry, I still spent a lovely afternoon reading the collected words of many talented poets. Great for fans of shorter poems, or those of you that haven’t unlocked a love of poetry yet. I’ve popped one of my favourites from the collection below 😊
As always, read them all and we can be mates, okay?
I genuinely love working with other writers to help them make their writing stronger. I have worked with writers who have penned several books or just one, those who are agented and those who are dreaming of being on shelves, those who have polished their manuscript for years and those who want me to look at a first draft. A fun part of my job is that I get to help writers at so many different stages, whenever it is most helpful for them.
I want to tell you a bit more about my different editing options since it can be hard to know exactly what you’re getting when you ask for an editing service. I would always say to be careful and ask lots of questions if you’re unsure. I am in the lovely position if having many clients who are delighted with the feedback they receive, but if you’re unsure what that feedback would look back and you want a bit more information before diving in, hopefully this will help you.
OPTION ONE – FULL MANUSCRIPT REPORT
I will read your manuscript and write a detailed report about the things I think are working, any areas that need strengthening, and the things that need to be cut or changed. This report is generally about one page per 10,000 words, and normally concentrates on the following:
Plot – this is an overview of your story. Does everything that happens make sense? Is too much or too little happening? Do the things that happen tie in with the emotional journey of your main character? Is there too much telling, rather than showing? Could you make your start or end more dramatic? Are there too many sub-plots distracting from the main story?
Pacing – this is often combined with the plot section, since they are so closely linked. I will pinpoint those places in your novel when something happens far too quickly so understanding and emotional resonance is lost. I will give ideas for tightening sections that are too long and lack tension
Character – I will spend most of my time detailing the strengths and weaknesses of your main character, but will also include anything of note about your antagonist and supporting characters. Has your main character got agency – do they make things happen in the story or are they being pushed about by the action? How relatable and sympathetic are they? Do I understand their choices and reactions? Is there anything that needs fleshing out or are we being told too much? What do they look like, and are there any conscious choices you could be making to step towards diversity and away from stereotypes? Here, I will often talk about the voice of your novel – is the tone and vocabulary consistent throughout and fitting for your genre and main character?
Setting – this is particularly important in fantasy or sci-fi novels, when there is a lot of world building involved. Are you being too detailed or too light-touch? Is there any info dumping? With other genres, I will be thinking about how well you describe where your main character lives/plays out the story. If it is in a well-known area or city, have you taken advantage of chances to work this place into your story?
Technical – I do not pretend to be a copy editor or proof reader, but I will let you know of any grammatical or sentence structure issues I spot. Are you overusing any words or techniques? Are you formatting speech properly or overusing exclamation marks?
Although my reports follow this general structure, they are all truly bespoke to each story and writer. Before I begin reading, I will ask if there are any areas you would particularly like me to focus on. This can be a shaky beginning, letting you know if the twist at the end works, or checking that your writing fits your chosen audience. And the report would be quite different if you send me non-fiction. I would be looking for a strong voice and a narrative that flows, but I would also want to make sure that you have fully explained your premise and that each chapter compounds and expands on this until we reach a satisfying conclusion.
These reports are always littered with suggestions and hints to help you make a start on any weaker areas of your story. My hope is that my feedback will help not only this story shine, but your writing in general. And I am always available for questions after you’ve received your report, whether you just want to use me as a sounding board for new ideas or check you’ve understood one of my comments.
OPTION TWO – LINE-BY-LINE QUERY PACKAGE CRITIQUE
This feedback option focuses on the all-important query package that you will need prepped to send out to agents and publishers. I know personally how tiring and difficult perfecting this can be, and I try to give feedback that is both specific and kind. The advice I give again and again is to listen to the person you’re sending it to! Lots of agencies and publishing houses give great advice on what they want you to include in a query package, so if you’re completely stumped that is a good place to start.
You will receive line-by-line feedback on:
Your letter – is it the right length and is all the information relevant? Does your elevator pitch capture interest? Is your plot summary too detailed or too vague? Have you been specific about your hook and what makes your main character interesting? Have you detailed a threat? Have you used up-to-date comparison titles? Have you included all the information like word-count and genre? Is the focus on your story, rather than yourself?
Your synopsis – does it make sense? Are there any sub-plots included that could be pruned? Have you established your main character and their setting? Is the threat/conflict clear? Does each plot point flow into the next? Is your climax clear? Is your conclusion satisfying?
Your first three chapters – is your first line engaging? Do you introduce your main character quickly and create room for the reader to relate to them? Is the setting clear? Is the dialogue realistic and engaging? Does each chapter leave me wanting more? Does the third chapter end with some reason that agents would have to request more?
Alongside the line-by-line feedback, I will also produce a short report detailing any larger scale triumphs and areas to work on. Your letter might need some restructuring to make sure that it grabs interest, your synopsis might need some characters cut or the central theme made clearer, or your first chapters might need to show more character agency or establish a clearer launch point for the rest of the story.
I hope that this feedback will leave you with the tools you need to query agents and publishers with confidence.
OPTION THREE – DETAILED FULL MANUSCRIPT EDIT
This is a great option if you’ve polished your manuscript to a high standard and want to pinpoint key issues on a page-by-page level. This is also a good option for poetry collections. While I will produce a short report on the same areas listed in option one, I will also highlight specific areas that work well or need tightening. This will help you to make your prose clearer, your dialogue shine, and your characters realistic and relatable.
You can expect 3 to 5 notes per page focusing on your use of language, decisions made about each character’s appearance, and any distracting sub-plots. I will always point out those things that are working really well, but will make sure to also detail any areas that would jolt a reader out of your story. Although this is not a copy-editing or proof-reading service, I will point out any grammatical or technical mistakes that I spot.
To get an idea of my prices and to see what others have had to say about my editing services, head over to my editing services page. Whichever option you decide to go for, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions – just email firstname.lastname@example.org
December was a slow reading month for me, but my two favourites are well worth checking out 😊
Home Body by Rupi Kaur is a beautiful collection of poetry exploring themes of loss, abuse, and freedom. I read it all in one sitting, and will come back to it again and again. Rupi Kaur’s books are accessible for those who wouldn’t call themselves poetry lovers, and they speak to something deep inside of all of us.
Loveless by Alice Oseman is not only a great story but it carefully details the experience of asexual and aromantic people. If you want to educate yourself about the asexual spectrum but also read a story about friendship, those weird first days of university, and potted ferns, then this is a must-read.
But as always, read them all and we can be chums 😊
I planned to read 120 books in 2020. I managed 87. Somehow, despite this being an objective failure, I still feel like I’m winning. Books, though fewer than I’d imagined, provided a refuge and escape this year, and those that follow are my favourites from 2020.
A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik is phenomenal. If you read fantasy, like novels set in magical schools, enjoy sassy main characters, or have a heart, this is the book for you. It tells the story of an underdog fighting for her place in an unforgiving world, and has many light and funny moments that will make you fall in love with a whole band of flawed and selfish people. If you’ve read anything by Naomi Novik before, this takes her writing up to a whole new level (and it was great already!)
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman is an undeniable hit. I feel like everyone and their mum is talking about this book. It is the purest form of a cosy thriller, with a warm cast of characters who will leave you smiling even as they are bumped off and revealed to be murderers. It kept me guessing until the last page and the working out of the mystery was satisfying, without too many details being withheld. I look forward to the next one!
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is an immersive read. Darting between the minds of a childminder and her employer, this novel carefully displays how very twisted even our best intentions can become. The first scene will grab you and the characters will stay with you for long after you finish reading. If you love character driven novels like those of Elizabeth Strout, this is the book to go for.
Grown Ups is the first Marion Keyes novel I’ve read. I picked it up after listening to her on Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast. Keyes was full of life and compassionate, and I wanted to read the words of someone like that. I was not disappointed. The only thing I am disappointed by is that this novel has received so little critical acclaim. It delves into what it means to be a broken human in community, and it is one I would recommend wholeheartedly.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy is beautiful. I have it beside my bed to dip into whenever I need a lift. Told through paintings and sparce but well-chosen words, this is a book for people of all ages. It speaks of love, finding meaning, feeling lost, friendship, and so much more. I have given it as a gift to so many people that I am now afraid I will start giving it to people again.
I read Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce at one of the many points this year when things were bleak, and it was exactly what I needed to help me see the brighter side of life. It is funny and sweet, following the stumbling misadventures of a young journalist. Full of bad advice for women that will make you laugh and cringe, this is a great book for when you really want to believe that things can be better but you’re not sure how they will be.
I, Cosmo by Carlie Sorosiak blew me away. It’s told from the point of view of a golden retriever, and I can honestly say that it captures a doggy understanding of the world completely. A great one to read with children, this book will have you laughing and holding back tears as you follow Cosmo’s grand plan to keep his family from falling apart. My favourite parts were his descriptions of eating those things he shouldn’t – he just couldn’t help himself!
I read We Must Be Brave by Frances Liardet as we went into our first lockdown. It was exactly what I needed. Set during the second world war when people were pulling together and caring in any way they could, it made sure I didn’t sink under the grimness of all the uncertainty at the start of 2020. It revolves around the relationship between a mother and her foster child, and the pure love these two feel for one another will keep you engaged until the last page. There were also some great descriptions of food, which had me longing for porridge and freshly baked bread. This is such a warm and engaging read, and I am excited to read another by this talented author.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides is a true page-turner. A silent woman holds the secrets and her kindly counsellor is trying to get through to her and help her embrace life again, but there is so much more to it than that. I don’t want to ruin this by saying anything more, but I will say that there were several moments that genuinely made me gasp.
As always, read them all and we can be chums, okay?