As you can see from the date of my previous post below, I’m taking a break from regular blogging.
I started this blog in May 2009 as I felt I’d reached a watershed in my writing, and I wanted to reflect on the ups and downs of my career as a novelist and poet.
I’ve enjoyed all the activities I’ve listed in the chart below, and although these have taken away more time than I’d wanted from my own creative writing, I’m hoping that this semi-fallow period will prove as productive as this wild poppy field!
If you’re new to this blog and want to find out more about me, click here and for more about my novels, click here
If you want to read a few tips about writing a book, click here and if you are interested in poetry, take a look at my Poetry page
In the past two years I’ve spent less time on creating new work of my own, than I have on the business of other writerly activities.
But this doesn’t mean that I won’t be taking part in any of these things!
I’ll still be happy to consider giving talks and/or running workshops, if you’d like to contact me by sending a message via the ‘Contact Me’ page above.
‘WordPress’ will forward any message to my personal email address, so please do let me know if you have read and enjoyed one or other of my novels, or have any other comments on my work. As you can see on this chart, you can still buy my novels at a reduced price from this site
or, if you prefer, Paper Lanterns IS available from Amazon, even though they will tell you it’s ‘out of stock’. All you need to do is click where it says, ‘new sellers’ and then, if you click on the option of ‘Novel Press’, you’ll receive your copy within 2 or 3 days, direct from Novel Press, with my personal signature above the printed name on this label, that is inserted into the front of the book..
I was about to post my latest (and probably final) information about Douglas Gordon Bruce, for my Mystery Challenge,
when I was suddenly whisked back to the end of June last year, at the Winchester Writers Conference, where the indomitable Director of the Conference, Barbara Large, MBE, kindly invited me to attend the plenary address on the Saturday morning, and say a few words about Novel Press and Paper Lanterns.
I was looking on the Conference website to see if the details of this year’s event had been published there yet, and I was reminded of an interview I’d given in the previous year. Some of the university students had been allocated the task of interviewing delegates from that year’s event.
I had walked out after Sir Terry Pratchett’s address to the conference into the blazing sunshine and was immediately accosted by a small group of young people wielding photographic instruments: Would I be willing to answer a few questions about why I was there, and what advice might I give to other aspiring writers?
When it comes to an opportunity for me to talk about writing in general (and mine in particular!) I’m not likely to turn it down, so I rattled on for several minutes, until I came to a natural ending. The interviewers were university students, and it was their project to make a record of the weekend for the university archives, with special reference to Terry Pratchett.
After that, I forgot all about it, so when I saw the yellow boxes on the left of the screen, I clicked on the one that was labelled ‘Delegates reactions to the 2010 WW Conference’. I started watching with interest, but without really expecting to see myself there.
I have to admit, that I did cringe a bit at the sight of me, jabbering away, seemingly non-stop. But on the other hand, I had to give myself some credit for being able talk off the cuff like that. Watching and listening a couple of times, I was slightly reassured to find that the words I’d spoken then were more or less what I’d say now, nearly a year later, (especially my final comment in the second section, on advice to other writers).
Although I’ve seen myself in action on a screen a few times, I don’t think I’ll ever get over the weird sensation of seeing myself in action, and what I must look like to others. Fortunately, I don’t give that a moment’s thought in everyday life! I was impressed by the clarity and calmness of the other five speakers – I wonder if any of them have had similar feelings.
I was pleased to see a pleasant man I’d had a conversation with, the evening before. He’d told me a little about his published book and it sounded very entertaining, but I’d forgotten all about him and his writing till I saw him on the video, so I was pleased to hear the title of his book, ‘Vet in Prospect’ and was able to find it on Amazon. I was delighted to hear that he’d landed a three-book deal as a result of attending the conference.
As you can see from the start of the video, he is not the only writer who has owed his success to this Conference over the last 30 years. I would heartily recommend this event to anyone who is serious about their own writing. There’s always a wealth of useful and encouraging information. Above all, it’s great fun!
It’s a whole week since my book launch and I still smile with delight when I go over the events of that evening, so I’m about to indulge myself shamelessly by giving a few more details of my conversation with Clarissa about Paper Lanterns, and how my writing career has been linked to our friendship as you can also see in my profile, published last week in the Birmingham Post, and now available to read on-line
As I said last week, we’d been treated royally by the Ikon Cafe staff, and you can read here about Clarissa’s comments on the food.
Friendships forged in childhood, especially those based on shared incarceration at boarding school, can last for a lifetime, and Clarissa felt that the best way of explaining how we’d met was to read a short extract from her autobiography, Spilling The Beans.
Our lives have taken very different paths through adulthood. It’s no secret that Clarissa is a recovering alcoholic, and when her drinking was getting more and more out of hand, I was so worried about her that I wrote a short story based on this.
I entered it for a competition run by BRMB and the Birmingham Readers & Writers Festival in 1985(the forerunner of the Birmingham Book festival) and I still have the clipping from the (then) Sutton Coldfield Times with the account of my prize winning story.
That was my first ever success with my writing, and in 2005, Clarissa was there to introduce me at the Birmingham Book Festival’s launch of my first novel,The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
Neither of us could have predicted this wonderful event and the changes in both of our lives 20 years later – Clarissa was no longer drinking and had forged an amazing new career for herself in television, and I was a published novelist at last.
We talked about other events in my writing career, and the ups and downs of my attempts to get published, and then I explained the ideas, inspirations and themes that produced Paper Lanterns. This included the story of how I discovered the original letters from 1920
First I read a long letter from the married English woman, and then the one from the young Chinese woman written 4 years before that to the same man. (I’ll post that one soon, but meanwhile, here’s an extract from the English woman. As I explained during the launch last Tuesday, I brought the dates forward to 1930, and changed the setting from Canton to Hong Kong, as this is a place I know well. In my novel, I’ve kept as closely as I could to the original letters, and have invented a series of journal entries, involving a totally fictional story line for a key section of Paper Lanterns.
Ah, Mr McFarlane, you are a disturber! What do you mean by upsetting the equilibrium of two highly respectable (!) ladies in their heretofore blissful states of married and single blessedness? And two at once, mind you! And you so young and all. The poor young idlers that we endeavour to teach to shoot must certainly not have got their money’s worth this morning and now at our first opportunity (recess) we two rush together to weep on each other’s shoulders for what we haven’t got and will never get. It’s a great bond, this being crazy about the same person. I only hope I’ll be able to preserve enough of a sense of decency from the wreck to give her the chance I wish I could take myself.
After these letters I read more extracts from the novel itself, and then went on to explain about the founding of Novel Press. I was delighted with the comments of Jonathan Davidson on the Writing West Midlands blog, where he suggests in his article “New Ways of Publishing” that:
“the means of production is moving away from being held in the hands of one conglomorate… Good writing will surface for us all to enjoy: poor writing won’t be quite so often foisted upon us in an attempt to get a return on investment or to distort our reading tastes for purely commercial gain.”
A writer’s lot can be a happy one, in spite of the frustrations they might experience when they realise that they have to take on a large part of the task of marketing their novel once it’s published. This probably applies to most novelists these days, even if they have a major publishing house behind them. When my first novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society, was published by Transita, a small independent imprint (now sadly no longer working in the field of fiction) I was more than happy to do my share of getting my novel into the hands of readers.
Apart from the act of writing itself, one of the main joys for me of being a writer is the feedback from readers, whether in the form of a public review on Amazon, or other people’s online journals or blogs, or a personal note in the post, or an email from an individual.
Since I am co-founder of NOVEL PRESS, and almost all my spare time is focussed on marketing its first product, (my own Paper Lanterns) at the moment have very little time for creative writing.
Paper Lanterns hasn’t been out in the world for more than a few weeks so far, and there are lots of copies already out there, but this marketing business is a hard slog. Novel Press doesn’t have quite the same access to the book distribution services as more established publishers and there are moments when I begin to feel disheartened in spite of the progress I’ve already made.
It’s the feedback which lifts my spirits, reminding me why it is that I write. Not for money, that’s for sure! People sometimes ask me whether I write for myself or for an audience, and I guess the answer is ‘ I write for both’. Before I start, I do have an of idea of my potential readership, but while I’m engaged in the act of writing, all my thoughts are focussed on the process of creating the characters and their stories.
Readers only become a reality for me when I receive their comments, and in a kind of way, this helps to complete the creative circle – the positive feedback is both a wonderful reward for my efforts and a strong motivation to continue, first with marketing, and then, (soon, I hope) with more writing.
Apart from the lovely reviews from Crysse Morrison and Linda Gillard (both quoted on the front and back cover of Paper Lanterns, and on the introductory pages,) and those from Bookcrossers, LyzzyBee and Heaven-Ali, the first written comment I received was in an email from a work colleague. The high from that sustained me for hours!
“I have now finished Paper Lanterns. I am no literary critic, as evidenced here, but, for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed it. I loved the way it felt like you were going on the journey with Ann, both physical and emotional, and having to re-evaluate opinions of the various characters, especially Vivienne. I also liked the contrast between forsaking a true love for the family and, seemingly, abandoning family to be with a true love. There were lots of interesting characters and I felt their stories and the past/present & England/Hong Kong elements intertwined really well. By re-exploring venues with Ann and George, but also by meeting new characters such as Stuart, it all rolled along well and I found myself looking forward to my bedtime reading session to find out where it was all going.”
A fascinating aspect of reviews is the way that different people focus on different aspects of the book. One of my favourite reader’s blogs is Rhapsody in Books, and I was delighted with the insightful review that Jill wrote a few days ago. I wholeheartedly recommend you to browse though her reviews, because if you’ve already read the book you’re quite likely to gain new insights from her comments, and be inspired to read other books.
The next post will feature one of my favourite blogs for writers.
PS - If you were wondering about the significance of the snowdrops, I’ve been meaning to post a nice spring picture, and this is a photo I took when I was down at my mother’s house two or three weeks ago. I emailed this to my mother, sister and brother, who are in Hong Kong at the moment, so that they could see them.
I arrived back in the UK on Sunday (in spite of snow at Birmingham airport delaying my departure from Schipol airport for over three hours.) The main purpose of my short trip to Hong Kong was to visit my mother, still going strong at the age of 93. She is staying with my sister on Lamma Island, the setting for a large part of my novel Paper Lanterns.
It was mere luck that I’d taken delivery of several copies of my book two days before I was due to fly out to Hong Kong. I couldn’t waste this chance of finding a home for my new novel in some of the book shops there. (This photo of me holding copies of my book was taken by my sister, in front of the same view that I’d used for the cover of the book itself.)
I soon discovered that my timing wasn’t all that brilliant when it came to marketing: this picture of the ferry pier on Lamma might give you a clue.
Those bright red globes and the strings of coloured flags are there to mark the Chinese New Year, an event that stretches over several days, during which, most businesses shut down. Not an auspicious week for arranging meetings!
But I was lucky after all, as the organiser of the prestigious Hong Kong Literary Festival was able to make time for me last Thursday morning, two days before I was due to return home. She was interested in my brand new publishing house, Novel Press, and very encouraging about the chances of my book in Hong Kong. She gave me several useful contacts: I made a few phone calls, sent a few emails and was invited by two of the three main bookshop chains to post them a copy of Paper Lanterns.
More exciting still, was the email I received from the third company, asking if I could meet with the manager the following afternoon. This publishing business is heady stuff! I arrived at the address, a large bookshop in the bustling shopping area of Kowloon, and focussed on the table displaying books with Chinese connections, both general interest and fiction. It didn’t seem an impossible dream that copies of Paper Lanterns might soon be lying among them, face up, waiting to be lifted from the pile and taken to the till.
A few minutes later, I was following a young sales assistant out of the bookshop door, and into the office part of the building, where I was ushered into the manager’s office, a charming and efficient young woman. She was particularly interested in the real-life love letters which provided the inspiration for a central section of the novel. I’ll explain more about these letters soon.
Bookshops in the UK usually tend to accept books on a sale-or-return basis, and it would be unlikely that a store would order more than one or two copies from an unknown author. When the books in question have to delivered from the other side of the globe, returning them to the publisher wouldn’t be a viable option. You can imagine my delight when the manager indicated that they might be able to accept 20 books to begin with!
Now I have to look into the cost of freight, yet one more step on the steep learning curve I’ve been treading since the inception of Novel Press.
Back to Chinese New Year for a moment - traditionally a time for giving plants and flowers. Huge crowds flock to Victoria Park in Central to select gifts for their families and friends from the Flower Market that lasts for several days, finishing on the night of the New Year’s Eve. But as you’ll see from this picture, there are also souvenirs on sale at stalls staffed by youngsters learning to develop an understanding of business.This is the year of the tiger, hence these tiger hats. In spite of the cold wind and rain, they never stopped smiling. If only we could have bottled this enthusiasm and good will!