Friday 29 January 2016

Thoughts on writing

Recently I came across an author's response to an Amazon review and I have to admit to feeling saddened by the exchange. I have removed names as this is not a personal attack, but a general comment about the use or abuse of our language. 

Here is the review: 

"This isn't a bad story but, like so many books, it is spoiled by a poor understanding of the English language. He was sat should be he was sitting, he was stood should be he was standing. Towards the end this seems to have been corrected so why let it spoil the first three quarters?
Also, every time the word 'yet' appears it is preceded by 'in' which makes no sense.
Possessive nouns and pronouns have no apostrophes and the awful word 'gotten' is used.
Hyphens keep popping up for no apparent reason!
If you can ignore the mis-use of the English language, the book is worth a read though a little slow."

And the author's response: 

"Authors these days are told not to use too many words ending with 'ing'. Such grammatical language alters through the years, but this is something which is frowned upon by editors and publishers, and has been for at least the past five years, so it is abided by at all times. I'm also a little worried having read your reviews, that you are mentioning the same things in each of them. 'The author wrote sat and used the word gotten' is written in all of your reviews on Amazon. These words are acceptable in UK English."

Who is told "not to use too many words ending with 'ing'."? If a writer overuses the continuous tense in her verbs, or peppers her work with gerunds, clearly that is poor style. Any tedious form of repetition may spoil prose. But if a writer needs to be told this, perhaps she should spend a few years reading others who do know how to write, before rushing to self-publish her own work while she still lacks a rudimentary understanding of language? 

It is true that the rules of grammar are constantly changing, but do editors and publishers frown upon the overuse of "words ending with 'ing' " any more than any other poor use of language? I don't think so - and what does "it is abided by at all times" even mean? I certainly don't abide by these dubious ideas about what is "acceptable in UK English".

The author is entitled to criticise her reviewer for repeated complaints about constructions like "He was sat" but perhaps this is a case of choosing your battles carefully. 

"He was sat" is incorrect, and in my view is not "acceptable" from someone who claims to be a writer. 

At the risk of being brought to task for repeating myself, I do think that if you want to publish or, in this instance, self-publish, your work, you have a duty to at least try to write well. For a fellow author to employ such clumsy and inaccurate constructions as "he was sat" and "he was stood" is shoddy. But to then defend such prose as "acceptable in UK English" is shocking. Acceptable to whom? Not to me, nor to several irritated reviewers of her book.  

Several very poorly edited books have famously become blockbusters. We can all probably name at least two. So should we blame writers for throwing their work out and hoping for the best? Am I an idiot to devote so much of my life to agonising over my choice of words, and my sentence structures? Does it really matter? Am I just an old-fashioned pedant to care about the quality of my published prose?

What do you think? 

Links to all my books can be found on my website 

Monday 25 January 2016


I wrote somewhere, rather pompously, that if you call yourself a writer you have a duty to at least try to write well. In my books I do my best to express myself clearly in correct English. This takes hard work because, as Robert Louis Stevenson said, 'The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.' 

Many authors, some of them very successful, seem to pay scant attention to the quality of their prose, which I think is a pity. Others, like Ian McEwan or Kazuo Ishiguru, express themselves so lucidly that it is a pleasure to read their books just for the beauty of the language. 

In my own way I'm a bit of a pedant, and quite old-fashioned. For example, I try not to including contractions in my work, although there is no good reason why a writer of commercial crime fiction should avoid them. There may even be an argument in favour of using them, as 'don't' and 'can't' speed up the pace, where 'do not' and 'cannot' maybe slow it down. I suppose decades of teaching teenagers how to write 'properly', in correct, formal English, has left its mark on my writing. 

But writing for a blog is different - especially when it is a post for my own personal blog. Here, I am  free to use excessive punctuation, for example!! (Would I ever use double exclamation marks in a book??? Of course not!!!) What might look inappropriate in a novel to my blinkered eyes, seems perfectly acceptable here. 

Of course blogs are not solely outlets for trivia. Many bloggers analyse, critique and comment on important issues in culture and current affairs. A blog can be whatever the writer chooses to make it, and we are fortunate to live in a period where blogs are so many and so varied.

In his droll and whimsical novel, Tristram Shandy, the eighteenth century writer Laurence Sterne set out to break all the contemporary rules of fiction, in an ingenious parody of the rather self-consciously worthy novels of the time. I think Sterne would have relished the liberty of a blog.

A New Breed of Bookseller

I used to worry that ebooks would lure young people away from reading to online games, which offer a superficial dumbed down kind of story. I wrote a post about my dystopian vision, my answer to Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'. But so far the rise of ebooks does not seem to be leading readers away from books. Quite the opposite, in fact, as ebooks seem to be reaching out to increasing numbers of readers. 

As with higher education, you cannot hope to engage a wider audience without compromising on standards to some extent. But is any strand of culture necessarily superior because it is accessible only to a narrow - some might say narrow-minded - intellectual elite? The highbrow intelligentsia can continue to enjoy reading and writing challenging literary books, in the same way that University Challenge reassures us that there are still students who are exceptionally brilliant and knowledgeable. That has not changed. 

What is happening, I suspect, is that with the advent of cheap accessible ebooks, more and more people are enjoying commercial or popular fiction, just as increasing numbers of youngsters benefit from higher education. And that can only enhance the lives of those individuals, and society as a whole, as people become more educated and better informed, from formal studies and through wider reading.

The way readers discover new books has also opened up. Big publishers invest heavily in their blockbusters, which are promoted with marketing budgets running to hundreds of thousands of pounds. In the face of such competition, how do unknown - sometimes self-published - authors slip past the big names to reach Number 1 on kindle? Their success can only be explained by the potential for communication, and product accessibility, offered by the Internet. 

Word of mouth recommendation has always influenced our buying habits to some extent, but before the explosion in social media it could operate only on a small scale. Now a recommendation online, together with a link, can be a relatively powerful marketing tool. 

We are witnessing the emergence of a new breed of bookseller. They are not professional book reviewers, or book sellers in High Street bookshops. They are not book clubs or shop displays funded by publishers. They are readers who have found their voice on social media websites, blogs and online book clubs. The reading world is becoming a democracy. Let's hope people vote to read more! 

Saturday 23 January 2016

Authors on Social Media

I just came across an article in Publishers Weekly presenting The Future of Reading: 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond, published in 2014. Not all the predictions have come true... yet. We are not all wearing 'reading glasses', not reading glasses like those of us with what I like to call 'mature' eyes wear, but glasses that actually do the reading for us. (As with most technology, I may have totally understood that. Perhaps I really do need a device to do my reading for me... )

Among the paragraphs on 'Visual Literature' and 'Data-Driven Narrative', 'Print-on-Demand' and 'Instant Translation' was this: "In the social media era, it’s become commonplace for authors to provide free content on blogs, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and to interact with fans on public forums (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) as a way to establish their distinctive brand personas."

So authors are not only expected to appear at literary festivals for free (cf my last post for my views on this topic) we are also supposed to establish 'a distinctive brand persona', whatever that is. (I have to confess to being out of my depth with all this.) And of course we have to find time to do that other thing... what was it?... oh yes, write books. 

Some authors are better than the rest of us at exploiting the opportunities offered by social media. Many of the very successful self-published authors have a background in PR of some sort. Of course it's a given that they write books other people want to read, but well done to them for having the knowhow to help promote their books. If I had those skills, I'd use them. Who wouldn't? When  it comes to self-promotion most of us are clumsy amateurs. 

So is this 'free content' online really useful to an author? First literary festivals, now blogs and twitter and Facebook and all the other outlets, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr... there are so many, most of which I have only vaguely heard of. Should we give up our time 'for free' to interact with fans? 

I have to admit to loving my little forays into social media. Confession time: it's fun to write a blog post where I can go crazy with hyperbole and indulge myself with ridiculously excessive punctuation!!! It's very different to writing books, where I take scrupulous care with my language. Facebook is fun too. I post photos there, something I haven't mastered on my blog. Sometimes it works. Mostly my attempts fail, or the photo is ridiculously large, or refuses to go where I want it. 

But if writers don't enjoy social media, it really doesn't matter.

I'm not suggesting that, as creatives, we need only sit in our ivory towers and write a book for great wealth to pour into our needy coffers meaning we never have to work for a living again. Isn't that how it works? We are the Cinderellas of the world, and the Prince - let's change his name from 'Charming' to 'Success' or 'Fame' - will seek us out and save us from the nightmare of obscurity, a pitiful existence where no one has heard of us. 

What I am saying is that most of us are doomed to - or possibly blessed with - obscurity. It all depends on your attitude. The fairytale teaches us that there is only one prince. There can be only one Cinderella. Losers outnumber winners in that family. The majority of us are destined to play the role of the ugly sisters, names unknown. Yet Cinderella's sisters never had to sweep the floor or do menial work around the house, and they were invited to the royal ball. When you think about it, they had a very comfortable existence. They just had a bad attitude. They thought they were entitled to marry a prince.  

So here's my advice, for what it's worth. Use social media if you want to. It can be fun. You meet all sorts of lovely and interesting people online (and, just between us, it's a great way to procrastinate!) but don't expect it to turn you into a 'distinctive brand persona'. Live in the real world, and manage your expectations accordingly. I don't expect my efforts on social media to bring me fame and fortune. I'm relying on my fairy godmother to do that. 

Monday 18 January 2016

Authors at Literary Festivals

Forgive me if the following post is controversial or sounds in any way smug, in an "I'm all right so what's all the fuss about" way. But I don't understand the problem with authors being offered peanuts, or in some cases nothing at all, for appearing at literary festivals. If it's such a problem, the solution is perfectly simple. Don't go. No author is forced to attend a literary festival. If the festival is not offering a fee, you are under no obligation to accept. Not many books are sold at festivals, unless you are already a big name already selling millions elsewhere, in which case the number you will sign at the festival is going to be insignificant.

Publishers may be prepared to pay for their authors' travel and accommodation, but this is a financial consideration and will understandably depend on how well the individual author's books are selling. Your publisher will obviously be happy to cover these expenses if the amount is insignificant compared to the revenue they derive from your books. Otherwise, it would be unreasonable to expect them to pay. (I hope my publisher never feels the need to remind me I said that... )
To claim that authors depend on income from such appearances is a contradiction in terms. Fortunate enough to earn a living from writing fiction, these days I call myself a 'full-time writer'. Before I could afford to give up my day job, I called myself a teacher who wrote books. If you rely on teaching or public appearances to pay your bills, you are a teacher, or a public speaker, who writes books. You are not a full-time writer. I do appreciate the terrible irony of the situation. When you earn enough from your writing to easily fund trips to festivals yourself, someone else will pay for you to be there. While you are struggling with the finances, you are on your own. 

It seems to me that authors benefit hugely from literary festivals. That is why many writers attend even if they are not participating on panels, or giving interviews. Apart from the opportunity to catch up with fellow authors, network with industry professionals, and meet readers, festivals are interesting and enjoyable. And if you are contributing, not only is it fun, but you have the added bonus of seeing your name in the programme, which is free promotion to a target audience. 

I happen to think literary festivals are an important cultural phenomenon, allowing us to meet our readers face to face, in a world where so much of our life is acted out online. If you don't buy into the ethos of literary festivals, stay at home and spend the time writing. Vote with your feet, and stop bleating.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Life as a full-time writer

I suspect there are many aspiring writers who would love to be in my position, earning a living from writing fiction, with a series in development for television, travelling to exotic locations for research... it sounds wonderful. And, to be fair, for the most part it is a fabulous life. I've been very lucky.

Of course being a published author involves a great deal of hard work and can involve staying up far too late writing. I am permanently tired. Eugene Ionesco was absolutely right when he wrote, 'A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of writing or thinking about writing.' When we took a city break in Barcelona, I dragged my poor husband to three different police stations, in case I ever needed to include one in a book. In fact, since I began writing crime fiction, I haven't travelled anywhere without doing some research along the way. As a writer, you become a kind of gannet, storing away any snippets of information you come across. You never know when they might be useful. Research is one of the reasons I find my career so interesting. Some of my research has given me wonderful experiences, like my recent visit to the Seychelles, some has been quite horrific, but it has all been fascinating. 

So how can there be a downside to all this excitement? Well, here I am again, waiting for my next book to be published. So what's the big deal? you might ask. I've been in this position before, many times. It's just another book, you might think. But it's so much more than that, because once again I'm sticking my head above the parapet, hoping I won't be shot down. 

Whenever a new book comes out, I'm worried about how it will be received. I think every author feels the same. When you are writing a book it belongs to you, and you can do what you like with it. Once it's published, it is no longer the property of the author. It belongs to readers who can say whatever they like about it... and they may not like it. So far I've been lucky. I've had my fair share of positive reviews. But although Journey to Death will be my twelfth published book, it is my very first in a new series for a new publisher. As if that isn't enough to make me nervous, I'm aware that this new series differs from my existing Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson detective series. 

Unlike Geraldine and Ian, my new protagonist, Lucy Hall, is not a police officer. Another difference is that she is in her early twenties at the start of the series. As happens every time I have a new book, I find myself wondering what on earth I'm doing. While I can't claim to be a 'big name', my books are quite well known in the field of crime fiction. Sometimes I wish I was completely unknown, and could just write for myself without worrying about how my next book would be received. But here I am, and as President Truman liked to say, 'If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.' 

So here goes again. I shall gird my loins, pluck up my courage, and face the world smiling, if not fearless. Wish me luck! And if you're just starting out as a writer, don't stress about your future success. Enjoy your early anonymity as well as the success that may be waiting just around the corner. Whatever happens, you're going to have an exciting experience!

Links to all my books are on 

Thursday 14 January 2016

Remembering David Bowie

David Bowie was an icon to my generation. I loved the music, the lyrics, and the beauty of the man who showed us it was OK to be different. He did not preach  tolerance. He lived it. I posted RIP online when he died. I stated publicly that I was singing 'Major Tom'. The earth, to some of us, looked 'very different' that day. Along with many others I wanted to pay my respects to Bowie's unique creative spirit. 

Then came a little reaction from people objecting to this public expression of grief for a man we had never met. 'Leave the grieving to his family and friends,' we were told, as though our comments in memory of David Bowie were somehow an intrusion into the grief of those who had loved him as a man. 

Iman wrote somewhere that she fell in love not with David Bowie, the public figure, but with David Jones, the man. I'm not grieving personally for David Jones, a man I never met. I am saddened by the loss of a fellow human being who touched so many people's lives. 

I don't believe this trivialises his death. On the contrary, I think it's important to mark the death of public figures who inspired us and enriched our lives. We did not grieve for the death of Diana, the woman, but for the loss of a beautiful princess. Such public grief has its place, and I think it's important. It's wrong to dismiss it. Because our shared grief is a shared recognition that when it comes to our own mortality, we really are all in this together. 'Every man's death diminishes me, because I am part of mankind." 

David Bowie enriched our experience of life. In sharing the loss, we are offering each other support in the face of the human condition. 'Therefore send not to know for who the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.' 

It is fitting that David Bowie, who led the way in showing us how to tolerate our differences, should remind us that in the end we are all the same. When a loved one dies, our grief is personal and private. This is something different, and significant, like David Bowie. RIP.