Is Dan Brown-bashing becoming a national pastime?

Over the last few weeks, Dan Brown’s name seemed to keep cropping up again and again – and not in a positive light. I didn’t pay much attention at first, as it wasn’t the first time I’d heard Dan Brown getting slated, but all of a sudden I was hearing sneers every other day. Then I stumbled across a review of Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, on the Telegraph website. I hadn’t realised his latest novel was imminent, but at last there was an explanation for the sudden increase in Dan Brown-bashing.

Only a few days before, Dan Brown was mentioned at a talk given by the author Lionel Shriver that I attended. Shriver was making the point that even literary writers should ask themselves the question, ‘Does your book have some commercial appeal?’ For if it doesn’t, it’ll be unlikely to sell many copies and eventually you’ll be out of a publisher – something she herself had learned from past experience.

To illustrate her point she added (words to the following effect): ‘By that, I don’t mean you should try to be commercial. Dan Brown doesn’t try to be commercial. Dan Brown’s soul is commercial.’ Everyone laughed – not that Shriver’s intention was to put Dan Brown down, it wasn’t. Her point was a valid one, in that you should be true to yourself when writing, but don’t underestimate the importance of commercial appeal. However, I couldn’t help feeling slightly unsettled by the chorus of laughter in the packed-out Brighton Dome. Was I the only person in there who had enjoyed The Da Vinci Code? It’s a while since I read it, but I can’t remember his prose being worthy of quite so much negative criticism from across the media and Twittersphere. All I remember is that the plot swept me along and I found the historical theories fascinating. Sometimes I wonder: do critics jump on certain bandwagons because they don’t want to risk their reputation by admitting they liked something mainstream and popular?

I know there are people who only read literary novels, those who only read mass-market novels, and those who only read non-fiction. There are also those who rarely read anything outside their genre of choice, be it crime, chick lit, sci-fi or whatever’s being promoted on the 3-for-2 tables in Waterstone’s. But can I just put a shout-out for those of us who love a literary novel as much as an airport novel, or crime as much as comedy? I’ll read anything from a ghost story to a lesbian love story to a travel memoir, provided that by chapter 3, it’s got my attention by the short and curlies. I’m generally not biased.

After I left university, having spent four years wading through a reading list that made me want to hurl books out the window – Baudelaire, Sartre, Proust (I studied French) – the first book I bought to celebrate after graduating was Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was a long while before I felt ready to move on to anything even remotely more taxing. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate those revered French authors back then, although I’m in no great hurry to give them another try just yet. (Apart from Emile Zola, whose Germinal was the only book in those four years that I couldn’t put down.)

I’m about to start reading my third Lionel Shriver novel, the newly released Big Brother. I love Shriver’s writing. I find her to be sharp, unashamedly honest and I sense that we share the same thoughts and values about much of what goes on on our crazy planet. However, I don’t want to read literary novels back to back. Sometimes I just want pure escapism, a well-told story. I couldn’t give a toss if – like has been said of Dan Brown – the author writes in “blunt, mechanical sentences” and “the protagonist is as vanilla as they come”, provided that there’s a gripping plot laden with suspense. I think Dan Brown ticks the gripping plot box, and personally I think he’s got a gift.

I will end by saying this to all the Dan Brown-bashers out there: The Da Vinci Code has outsold every other novel in the world. I’d like to see you try.

Blow Your Own Trumpet Week? Yes please!

Earlier this week the BBC reported on a girls’ school in London that had introduced two novel ideas. Failure Week (discussing how to cope with setbacks) and Blow Your Own Trumpet Week (discussing experiences of success and failure), were introduced by the headmistress to help the pupils learn that A) they can’t be successful at everything, and B) to recognise when they have been successful at something and feel good about it.

The article caught my attention because of the words ‘blow your own trumpet’. I’d been discussing this very matter with someone a few days previously – namely how uncomfortable it feels for writers to blow their own trumpets – especially for self-published authors who have to market their own books. There’s been much talk among the online writing community about how much self-promotion is too much, but if we don’t shout out about our successes now and again (such as mentioning glowing reviews from readers etc) then who will?

In an ideal world, we’d all have agents and publishers with shed-loads of cash who’d be blowing our trumpets for us while we get on with our job: writing. But times have changed, marketing budgets have shrunk, and social media is how writers try to attract readers to their books.

Do I love reading a positive review from a reader? Of course! Do I like pasting the link into a tweet and broadcasting on Twitter that someone liked my book? GOD NO! It makes me cringe to my core. It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. In a word, to someone of a self-deprecating nature like myself, it feels like bragging. And who likes a braggart?

I feel so much more comfortable humorously putting myself down, probably because if I take the piss out of myself, it means I’ve beaten you to it, thereby stealing your thunder and your potential ability to hurt my feelings. An odd psychology maybe, but I’d imagine that’s how many people operate. The only time I ever brag with unabashed enjoyment is to wind up my husband, eg: “I’m gonna thrash you at table tennis, loser! Fifty quid says I beat you 10-nil.” That feels comfortable, but only because my husband knows I’m joking. (Although he also knows I speak the truth – I’m the undisputed table tennis champ of our household, let there be no doubt about that.)

But anyway, I’m digressing. I think Blow Your Own Trumpet Week is a great idea to help people recognise their successes. Sometimes all I can see is the mammoth journey ahead of me – the things I haven’t yet achieved but desperately want to. I rarely look back at what I actually have achieved and take a moment to feel good about it. So today, in honour of my achievements, humble though they may be when compared with JK Rowling, I shall blow my trumpet. Or maybe I’ll just ding a triangle. With extra gusto, of course.


Fair game

photo LBF

I first went to the London Book Fair in 2001, clutching my first ever manuscript and determined to hand it to someone in person. I gave it to someone on the Macmillan stand, who passed it on to an editor, who then called an agent I’d had some interest from, who then called me with a lot more interest. I was so excited I was doing cartwheels, but little did I know it was just the beginning of a very long journey, two more very keen agents, several manuscripts and approximately zero publishing deals.

Fast forward to 2013 with three self-published novels on Amazon (and one on the way) and I decide to visit to the London Book Fair again. Not as an author though – oh no, I was far too scared to do that, fearing that maybe a lot of people had tried that approach over the years (handing their MS to a startled publisher on a stand) and that possibly if I had the word ‘Author’ emblazoned across my ID badge, I might send publishers fleeing for the hills screaming, ‘Run! Run! An author got in!’

So, instead I put ‘Copywriter’ on my badge, as that’s what my day job is. And when I asked myself why I was actually going and what I intended to get out of it, I couldn’t really answer my own question. Curiosity, I suppose. I thought maybe I could talk to someone, find out if there’s any chance in hell of ever getting traditionally published or should I just stick with self-publishing as, well, it’s been going fairly well on the whole.

A few weeks before the fair, I was having a closer look at the LBF website and discovered there was going to be an Authorlounge there, with talks and workshops specifically for – wait for it – authors! Holy cow!

So off I went to London Book Fair 2013, where I spent most of the day in the Authorlounge, listening with keen interest to the various different speakers (forgive the poor quality photo above). It was good to hear publishers acknowledge the rise and legitimacy of self-publishing and the fact that they had to deal with it in a less ostrich-like fashion than they did with the emergence of Amazon and e-books. It was also good to hear (from a self-publishing point-of-view) that traditional publishers are investing less in their authors’ marketing budgets and that these authors are having to do a lot of their own marketing, just like self-published authors.

From the very nice people I met and chatted to, I was able to build up more of a picture of the industry and the way it’s going. I sincerely hope traditional publishing never disappears, and that paperbacks and independent bookstores will always be around. But from where I’m standing, self-publishing once again seems like a pretty good place to be. And if I decide to visit LBF14 next year, it will be with the word ‘Author’ proudly printed on my badge.

Planning on visiting the London Book Fair next year? Here are my top tips:

1. Ladies, if you’re going to wear heels, you’re braver than I am. At least pack a pair of pumps for when your feet can’t take it any longer. It’s a BIG place.

2. If you’re taking a lot of stuff with you (ie books) or you hope to come back with a lot of books, you’d be well-advised to take one of those overnight-bag-on-wheels-thingies. Don’t worry, you won’t look like a plonker (unlike people wearing heels collapsing under the weight of their stuffed-to-the-brim trendy bags.)

3. There are plenty of cafés in the exhibition hall. However, don’t confuse the real cafés with some of the private stands that just look like cafés. (Looking for somewhere to sit down, I got drawn to one that had bowls of chocolates on the tables and was politely asked to bugger off.)

4. The Authorlounge hosted by Authoright was packed out, with latecomers having to stand outside in the gangway to hear the talks. So if there’s a talk you don’t want to miss, get there early to bag a seat.

5. There’s a cloakroom there, so you don’t have to lug a heavy coat around with you everywhere. It was pretty warm inside – probably thanks to all those authors overheating with excitement at finally being allowed to join the party. Or maybe that was just me.

Writing – a risky business

Got an idea? A vision for a novel, a piece of art, a business enterprise? Be primeval, be stupid, don’t think ­– act. That’s the advice given by Steven Pressfield in his book Do The Work.

This struck a chord with me the other day when I was wondering whether or not to upload one of my children’s stories onto my blog. I’d already written and uploaded two similar stories a few months ago, and had a very positive response from a handful of friends who have young kids – which always makes the accompanying tumbleweeds from the world at large easier to bear.

Anyway, the reason I was dithering is because I don’t really write children’s fiction. I write mainstream women’s fiction and have been selling my novels on Amazon since February 2012. I’ve never really had any interest in writing children’s fiction, but I make up short stories to tell my kids at bedtime often enough. It was only when they started demanding more stories about the same character – Fartina Gasratilova – that I thought I might as well have a go at writing them down and seeing if anyone else’s kids enjoyed them.

So what’s the big deal about uploading a few children’s stories to your blog? you may ask. Well here I am, trying to build up a credible name as a writer of women’s fiction, and then I go and upload stories about Fartina Gasratilova – a child who suffers from chronic wind – to my blog. The name in itself is enough to make many people cringe. And if I dwell on that thought for too long, the downward spiral of Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it, begins.

Resistance takes many forms, including the fear of what others will think. Allow me to demonstrate by sharing a few of my self-destructive thoughts (finally, something I excel at):

Fartina Gasratilova is such a vulgar name – how did you come up that? Because you’re vulgar, obviously. Will other people wonder if you’re writing from experience? Will they think you’re a vulgar, flatulent, toilet humour-obsessed joke? Is anyone reading your crapfest of a blog anyway? Hah! Exactly! So you might as well upload it and eat tumbleweed.

Dingalingaling! Round 2: So it turns out there’s a porn star called Fartina somewhere out there who specialises in…let’s not go there. Bloody great. No wonder I’ve had more traffic on my blog. And why are lots of erotica writers suddenly retweeting my promotions for Package Deal? It’s a beach read, not a bonkbuster! I thought it was generous of them, and then, suddenly the penny drops: Oh My God! My book titles! How have I not seen this before? Package Deal, Hot Property, Pearls… and my latest WIP, heaven have mercy: Blown-Away Man. Aaargh!

So my husband took pity on me and shoved Steven Pressfield’s book under my nose. One of Pressfield’s many golden nuggets of advice is: act, don’t think (clearly I managed to achieve this already with my book titles). Anyway, as I read his book, I pictured myself wearing earplugs and horse blinkers, blindly carrying on with my potentially rubbish ideas, and it felt good. I can’t tell you how nice it feels to have someone grant me permission to be stupid and not give a shit what anyone else thinks. I feel a little more confident now to carry on taking risks. Some will die a sad humiliating death, but there’s no reason why others shouldn’t flourish.

I was further comforted by a documentary on David Bowie on BBC4 the other night: ten years of epic fails before he came up with Ziggy Stardust! Who knew? Nice to know someone as iconic as Bowie made a tit out of himself too, once upon a time.


Admit it: we all love a stereotype

One criticism of my novel Package Deal that comes up now and again is that the characters are a bunch of stereotypes. My response to that: absolutely!

Indeed there are a lot of stereotypes in Package Deal. But where do stereotypes come from? They come from real people – people we’ve all met at some point, if not time and time again. And that’s what makes them amusing. Take some of these characters for example:

Ricky Gervais’s David Brent in The Office (top pic)
Harry Enfield’s and Kathy Burke’s Wayne and Waynetta Slob in Harry Enfield’s Television Programme (second pic)
John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers
Jennifer Saunders’ and Joanna Lumley’s Eddie and Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous
David Jason’s Delboy in Only Fools and Horses

These characters are classics. Why? Because we’ve all met them. And when we come face to face with them in everyday life, we often find their behaviour cringeworthy/ridiculous/abhorrent/shocking – which is why they make such good characters to base comedies around.

Many of the characters in Package Deal are loosely based on real people. Bosom buddies Caz and Babs actually inspired the whole story: while on holiday in Kefalonia over 10 years ago, my husband and I stayed at the very apartment complex the story takes place in. It was lovely and quiet, with just the sound of goat bells in the distance. Then, on our second week, Caz and Babs arrived…without their husbands, without their kids, ready to relish a fortnight of freedom.

I’ve forgotten their real names, but they were loud. They disturbed the peace with their incessant cackling and annoying ring tones. You could almost sense everyone inwardly groaning when Caz and Babs padded out of their apartment and headed for the pool. But then, halfway through the week, Caz and Babs invited everyone along to Greek dancing night at a nearby hotel and to their credit, they got everyone to go along and get chatting to one another. They were sweet, likeable women who knew how to have fun.

I only chatted with them for an hour or so but in that short space of time I learned there was a lot more to them than just their loud, larger-than-life personas. As a writer, you start to invent the rest, little by little.

There was also a guy there who was on his own. I only became aware of him at Greek dancing night because Caz and Babs weren’t keen to invite him to join us. I don’t know why he was there alone, only that he seemed to have an air of neediness about him that sadly made people want to avoid him. When I was writing the story, this guy became Simon, the jilted honeymooner, and Simon soon morphed into a geeky guy I used to work with a long time ago.

Local adonis Dimitri is inspired by an old holiday romance of mine from when I was a teenager. I imagined what he would be like in his thirties and, using his goodlooking, outgoing, bubbly personality, I invented the rest of his background and circumstances. Beneath his happy-go-lucky smile, he was sad with a gaping void he didn’t know how to fill.

As for solo holidaymaker Mia, she was inspired by a woman I saw on a TV chat show. The topic of the show was people who’d been adopted or who had grown up in foster homes, people who wished their biological parents had shown some interest in them while they were growing up. It was a heated debate, with the woman I based Mia on actually confronting her birth mother there in the studio. There was a lot of anger and emotion on both sides. I’d heard an agent say once that you can have as many characters as you like in a story so long as one of them is the central character. Therefore Mia seemed the obvious choice for that role.

Lads-on-the-pull Steve and Craig were partly inspired by characters from TV soaps and partly inspired by various male members of my own family, who, back in our younger years, were never short of rude jokes and crude stories that I didn’t want to hear. (Ok, I did, but I always regretted it.)

So yes, there are a fair few stereotypes in Package Deal. But as with their real life counterparts, what’s interesting is what’s beneath the surface of these characters. No one is the ‘sum total’ of the two hours you spend in their company on the plane or in the queue for the check-in desk. Everyone has a story or an element to their character that might surprise you. And that’s what I hope comes through in Package Deal.

By the end of the story, the characters have each revealed a deeper layer to their seemingly predictable surfaces. You’ve seen an unexpected side to them. You’ve seen their struggles and vulnerabilities. Hopefully, you’ve finished the book thinking they’re not such a bad bunch after all.

Cover story

Recently I had the cover of my novel Hot Property redesigned. The previous cover (above) was OK, but not particularly eye-catching. This time I wanted to make sure we got it right. When I say ‘we’, I’m referring to my husband Chris who is a graphic designer. He usually designs branding and creative campaigns rather than book covers, but he made an exception in my case. (Not that he had much choice.)

With the help of his intern at the time, Emily, we thrashed out what the cover needed to imply. Hot Property is about a group of expats aspiring to live the ‘sun, sea and sand’ dream on the Greek island of Crete. It’s about an idyllic lifestyle, idyllic properties, and not so idyllic characters.

After playing around with the images above, Chris felt that the colours needed to be warm – reds, pinks, oranges. The background needed to be enticing, inviting, a landscape you’d want to step into. But that on its own wasn’t enough. This novel is about romance, unrequited love, rivalry and fraud. There are lots of characters carrying equal weight, rather than one main protagonist, and the story is told from several different viewpoints.

I felt the cover needed to have an air of intrigue about it. Cue the key. All the images above and below were not used in the end, but lining them all up and eliminating them one by one was a good exercise. It helped to pinpoint exactly what was needed – and what wasn’t needed. I liked the way the key is dangling, tempting you to use it to enter the story.

Two separate photos were used in the end, both purchased from iStock, the image of the key being superimposed on a background of a beautiful looking Greek townscape next to the sea. The final result is below. I’m dead pleased with it and would like to say a big thank you to my husband Chris and to Emily for all their help. (Apparently he’s got a big pile of copywriting waiting for me, so that makes us quits.)

12 helpful quotes for writers, from Flaubert to John Lydon

Whether published, self-published or as yet unpublished, we writers need all the encouragement we can get. So I thought I’d share the following pearls of wisdom – some of which you’ll no doubt know, but it’s good to be reminded. I particularly like Thomas à Kempis’ little gem. So appropriate in the age of social media!

“Praise and criticism seem to me to operate exactly on the same level. If you get a great review, it’s really thrilling for about 10 minutes. If you get a bad review, it’s really crushing for about 10 minutes. Either way, you go on.” 
Ann Patchett, author

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.”
Flaubert, 19th Century author

“We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.”
Somerset Maugham, 20th Century author

“We should have much peace if we would not busy ourselves with the sayings and doings of others.” 
Thomas à Kempis, 14th Century writer

“Keep adding little by little and you will soon have a big hoard.”
Latin proverb

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company

“Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic.”
Jean Sibelius, 20th Century composer

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Winston Churchill

“I really fall in love with my characters, even the bad ones. I love getting together with them. They tell me what to do; they take me on a wild and wonderful trip.”
Jackie Collins, author

“The public has an appetite for anything about imagination – anything that is as far away from reality as is creatively possible.”
Steven Spielberg, film director

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare

“Do it yourself cos ain’t no one gonna do it for ya.”
John Lydon, original punk rocker.