Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nirvanans are back!

This has been quite the year, hasn't it. For so many people, it's been filled with shock and grief on a national and international scale and I have to admit I've had some tricky personal challenges too.

But there have also been things to celebrate and that's what I'm trying to focus on. I ran 4 more online Self-Edit Your Novel courses, together with Emma Darwin, taking the total to 21 courses and 239 alumni. The Hall of Fame for our graduates is getting crowded. I started singing in a choir (video here) and discovered a love for mudlarking, inspired by this wonderful woman. In the face of the housing crisis, Sally Swingewood and I decided it was time to create another Stories for Homes anthology. (The last one raised mucho dosho for Shelter, as well as being the launchpad for several authors who have gone on to achieve great things.) Details of how to submit are here. Join our community on Facebook, where you can find out all the ways you can get involved.

On Mayday, I published De Nada Nirvana - my first new (though written over a decade ago) novel to be available to readers since 2005. And on 20 December, Me, John and a Bomb exploded onto the scene. This novel was written in 2004-5 - a time when chequebooks and cards were still a thing, it was announced in July that London had won the 2012 Olympic bid and, the following day, the city reeled under devastating terrorist attacks.

What goes around, comes around and the issues are still very relevant. No one needs me to tell them about the ongoing terrorist threat. And, in one of those strange bits of writer-ly synchronicity, the day before Me, John and a Bomb was published, I saw a piece on the news about a cop who infiltrated the anarchist network in Cardiff 10 years ago - the central plot thread of my novel.

We all know Amazon rankings are pretty much meaningless, but I had a little frisson when I saw Me, John and a Bomb had shot up higher than Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana ever did when they were published by Orion. Of course, that was pre-FB and Twitter. Still worth a small squee, I reckon. You can see excerpts from all my Nirvana novels on my website. Next year, I hope to publish The Gene Pool, the 5th and final book in the series.

Wishing you all the very best for 2017 and hoping for some sweetness and light in a world that often seems filled with darkness.

Monday, September 12, 2016

FoW16 in photos

Yet again, the Festival of Writing was an absolute blast. So much talent; so many inspiring stories; such warmth and love between fellow authors. I think the weekend is best summed up in this email I've received from a delegate who has just signed up for the January online self-edit course. (September's is sold out.)

I did feel a huge sense of trepidation on Friday when I was driving up to York.  My inner monologue kept asking me what on earth I was doing!  By total contrast, I listened to Jo Cannon's heartwarming story yesterday and felt a real sense that I belonged there.  I really didn't want to leave!  But I have come away with a wealth of information and tips to apply to my writing, and am looking forward to getting stuck in.

For me, it was my busiest festie yet - and that's saying something. I ran the self-edit mini course on Friday and was also on the panel for the wonderful Friday Night Live experience. Massive congrats to all the shortlisted authors and the joint winners, Gerry Fenge and Jo Bunt. On Saturday, I had two hours of Book Doctor slots, a workshop on psychic distance and I did the compering for the Saturday competitions after the gala dinner. Congrats to everyone who had cause to celebrate. The real high was being on the crime genre panel as an author rather than an editor or tutor. And on Sunday, I had another hour of Book Doctoring, a final workshop on dialogue and - oh bliss - I had the privilege and enormous pleasure of being the person who introduced the final keynote speaker and FoW success story, Joanna Cannon.

Self-edit mini course. Interesting body language when people are forced to write about an emotionally charged episode from their own past.
More Cloudies
Self-edit alumni: Gerry Fenge, Sylvia Petter, Julie Cordiner and Arabella Murray
The view from my desk for Book Doctor sessions
Veggie starter at the gala dinner
Yet more Cloudies
And more
The wonderful Cally Taylor and her agent, Madeleine Milburn
Cally and Madeleine

Struggling with psychic distance

Cloudie, Scheherezade, who won the Pitch Perfect competition
Katherine Hetzel AKA Squidge, with tiara for added sparkle
Winner and runner up for Jo Cannon's Goat bursary: Linda McLaughlin and Nasreen Rafiq
The glorious and inspiring Joanna Cannon, who made me cry in front of several hundred people. Be more goat, people
The only book I came away with - but what a book
I've been mentioned in acknowledgements for many novels but this is the first time I've had one dedicated to me. Thank you, Squidge
Dialogue workshop - writers gotta write
Who could ask for a more beautiful setting?

The traditional self-edit alumni photo. Similar numbers to previous years but many different faces

Having been reminded that I'm also an author, I'll sneak in a nod and a wink to remind people that my first three Nirvana novels are all available as e-books on Amazon: here for the UK and here in the US. This has just been posted on my FB wall by someone who bought a copy of Trading Tatiana over the weekend:

Every line is bursting with wit handled with the lightest touch, and I can't stop chuckling. The characterisation is very clever and your observations hilarious. Every time you introduce someone they become my new favourite... The list is growing.

My cockles are warmed to boiling point.

As in previous years, lives will have changed over this weekend. Whether or not people end up being signed by agents, everyone should go away with new tools to apply to their writing. FoW is magical and I wish everyone the very best for the journey ahead. See you online - if you haven't already joined the Cloud, what are you waiting for? - and, hopefully, at FoW17.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Self-edit course Hall of Fame

NB: this post has been updated regularly. 

Writing a novel is hard. Getting said novel published is even harder. Authors need to do everything they can to polish and perfect their story until it leaps off the page. Of course, you can pay for a professional critique, but it's also possible to learn how to edit your own novel.

That's where the 6-week online Self-Edit Your Novel course comes in. Emma Darwin and I designed the course for Jericho Writers (previously The Writers' Workshop) and wrote the tutorials together, though I now do all the detailed feedback, with Emma coming in at the end of the week with an invaluable round-up of the topic.

But does the course make a real difference, in practical ways? Can it increase your chances? Is there any way of proving that it does?

This should convince you: the self-edit course in numbers.

The first course was in April 2011, and it runs 4 times a year.

As at April 2016, we have had 19 courses and a total of 215 participants. (See updated figures below at the bottom of the post.)

I recently asked around on social networks to see how many of our alumni now have books 'out there'. Most of these come from our early courses, the authors having had the time to edit their drafts and go through the next steps towards being published. I'm sure there are many more in the pipeline and probably several I've missed.

So how does that figure compare to the industry average?

A top agent will receive about 2,000 submissions a year, of whom they will sign maybe 2 authors - a hit rate of 0.1%.

The hit rate for our alumni is 58 out of 215 = 26.97% = (approx) 1 in 4. (This figure refers to the first five years of the course. I will be editing the figures as new deals are announced.) Some of these have self-published but I know from the signed books on my shelf that they are as professionally presented, and as well-written, as the trade published novels they sit next to. In one particular course, back in March 2013, 6 out of 11 participants are now published, or about to be.

In case you don't believe me, here's our Self-Editing alumni Hall of Fame, with links to their Amazon pages, announcements by agents or publishers, or in The Bookseller and other sites in cases where the novels are forthcoming.

In no particular order, hearty congrats to:

Cathy Bramley (over a million copies sold)
Clare Flynn
Jody Klaire
Katherine Hetzel
G D Harper
Louise Walters
Susan Murray
Jules Ironside
Claire Evans
Sonja Price
Amanda Saint
Jackie Buxton
Claire Waller
Matt Willis
Mari Griffith
Chrissie Bradshaw
Sandra Davies
Kat Mountfort
Bernie Steadman
Isabel Rogers
Shauna Bickley
Sally Miller (writing as Sara Bailey)
Voula Grand
Aneeta Sundararaj
Susie Campbell
Barb Ettridge
E S Rollett
Sophie Cayeux
Laxmi Hariharan
Marjorie Lazoro
Sophie Wellstood
Vicky Newham 
Mandy Berriman
Maddie Please
Sophie Jonas-Hill 
Fiona Erskine
Britta Jensen
Ruth Heald 
Moushmi Biswas 
Alice Spigelman
Clare Wade 
F J Campbell
May Woodward
Angela King 
Philippa East

Christina Pishiris

Susan Allott

Nell Pattison

Karen Ginnane  

Sylvia Petter   

Eleni Kyriacou

Kirsten Hesketh  

Julie Cordiner (writing as Juliette Lawson)  

Sally Zigmond    

Maybelle Wallis 

Lorraine Wilson

Jane Shufflebotham (writing as Jane Jesmond) 

Hilary Taylor




A few of the novels published by our alumni

If you know of anyone I've missed, please shout in the comments and I'll add them to the list.

People who have attended more recent courses:

Steffanie Edward (winner of the first bursary, Jan 2019) 
Wiz Wharton (winner of bursary, Oct 2020) 
Elliot Sweeney (winner of bursary, Jan 2021) 
Aisha Hassan  (winner of bursary, Jan 2020) 
Marve Michael Anson  (winner of bursary, Jan 2023)

To see details of forthcoming courses, click HERE.
As at March 2024, we have 621 alumni. The above percentages refer to people who had taken the course in the first five years, at the time of the original post.  

There is one free place on each course for an author from an under-represented group. Please see here for details of how to apply for the bursary.  NB: In 2024, there are two additional bursary places.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

On this day ...

It's Mayday 2016. 

To pagans, this is Beltane.

 To lefties, it's International Workers' Day

And, to me,  it's LAUNCH DAY for De Nada Nirvana

No party, no booze and nibbles and signings, no cards and flowers, but this one is just as meaningful as the previous ones. So here's a photo of me and my dad at the launch of Trading Tatiana in Jan 2005. Dad was 90 in this pic, and had crossed London on public transport from Edgware to Crystal Palace to be there. (Londoners will get the enormity of going from NW of the city to SE.)


Massive thanks to all those people who have encouraged me to make this happen. You know who you are.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Facing Down THE FEAR

Everything was on track. I'd received the fourth version of the converted file of De Nada Nirvana. All I needed to do was a final, final proofread and I'd be ready to publish. At least, that was the theory. The reality turned out to be rather different. I'm going to talk through this part of the journey here. Let's get ready to ramble.

I can't say procrastination paralysed me. Instead, I suddenly found a huge number of things to do that needed to take priority. Except I didn't. Not really. True, I was running a self-edit course, but there was a lull in editing commissions and I didn't have my usual pile of MSs to work through. But there were Other Things getting in the way. I told myself my website had to be updated first. Emails that I'd usually consider to be non-urgent shot up the to-do list. I even cleaned corners of the flat that were shocked to see me.

My mood plummeted and the questions began to roll in. What if this wasn't just a lull in editing work? What if it had dried up forever? Had my career stalled? Was I going to go back to struggling to pay the rent? Eventually, the questions crystallised and I identified the big one, The Fear.

What if people HATED my new novel?

Yep, I'd been beset by the Doubt Demons, as a writer friend calls them. Only one way to deal with them. I had to call each of them out from the shadows and get them to state their case so I could come up with the answers to silence them.

The conversation went like this:

Doubt Demon: De Nada Nirvana is the first novel you've published in ten years.

Me: No need to rub it in.

Doubt Demon: Ah, but this one's different, isn't it. It hasn't been through a gatekeeper.

Me: That's not strictly true. My agent took me on, on the basis of this novel.

Doubt Demon: Wait. You mean you didn't have an agent for the first two? Are you mad? Or just stupid?

Me: Quite possibly both. What can I say? Hindsight's a bitch.

Doubt Demon: So let me get this right. You were signed direct by Orion without an agent. They didn't offer you a third book deal though, did they? Hmmm? Wouldn't you say that suggests it Just Wasn't Good Enough?

Me: Maybe. But it's also true that a lot of that might have been down to timing and circumstances beyond my control.

Doubt Demon: Yeah, yeah. Keep telling yourself that. Or maybe it's because the first two weren't that good either. Your sales didn't exactly set the world on fire, did they?

Me: Sales of Nirvana Bites were not spectacular, it's true, but they weren't disastrous either. Don't forget I had no web presence back then. It was much harder to build a buzz. But Trading Tatiana had a fraught journey before she even got to the published stage. There was a series of events at the publishers - some tragic - that meant she went through four different editors before she was launched. It was nothing to do with me, nor did it have any connection to my novel. The editorial team must have been in total disarray. There was no one in my corner, championing me.

Doubt Demon: Shame you didn't have an agent back then, isn't it, eh?

Me: Oh, do piss off. We've covered this one. Move on.

Doubt Demon: OK, we will. Let's get back to De Nada Nirvana. Your agent loved it but he couldn't sell it, so it hasn't been through any kind of professional editing process, has it. Answer me that one.

Me: I believe I can answer that, since you ask. I wrote De Nada Nirvana over ten years ago and only returned to it last year when I decided to self-publish it. In those intervening ten years, I've worked as a freelance editor, editing an average of 2-3 MSs a month. For the last five years, I've run an online Self-Edit Your Novel course with Emma Darwin, as well as teaching creative writing at events and to writers' groups. I believe I have both the skills and the distance to edit my own novels. In any case, De Nada Nirvana looks very different now from the version my agent was unable to sell. I know it's a better book. As far as I'm concerned, it has been professionally edited.

Doubt Demon: Yeah, but you have some worries about it, don't you. Go on. Spit them out. You've broken rules and you're scared you're gonna be called out on it. And then that'll undermine your reputation as a professional editor and tutor. You're done. This is the end, my friend.

Me: You're no friend of mine.

Doubt Demon: Go on then. Defend yourself against the charge that you've head-hopped.

Me: Right, I will. I've looked very carefully at the areas where some people might think that's what I've done and you know what? I think it works in the story. A newbie to the concept, looking for things to criticise when they read published novels, might spot it and go, 'Aha! Practise what you preach, Editrix!' but I'm willing to bet that readers won't notice any of the dislocation you get when the psychic distance spectrum hasn't been used to good effect.

Doubt Demon: OK, but while we're on the subject of breaking rules, you always bang on about how novels often struggle to sustain more than three or four. Remind me again how many POVs you have in De Nada Nirvana?

Me: Don't forget that I'm a huge fan of breaking the rules, as long as you have a good reason and do it well. I concede that there are several characters, some very minor, who have their own limited POVs, but I maintain that it's very clear that the story belongs to Jo and Jen. Besides, it's not that uncommon in the thriller genre to have brief scenes in minor POVs.

Doubt Demon: Ah, I'm glad you brought up the business of genre. What the hell is this novel? The politics are more in the background than in the two previous Nirvana books. De Nada Nirvana was the first you wrote in third person. There are two threads: Jo's, in Spain, is the crime thread, and Jen's in South London is ... is ... What the hell is that? Are you writing romance, Alper?

Me: Ha! Yeah, I know. It took me by surprise too. But I don't think I'll be joining the Romantic Novelists' Association any time soon. It's a very quirky sort of romance and I think it's the kind of thing that readers who are following these characters would expect and want to see. One of the reviews for Trading Tatiana, described it as an unorthodox mix of comedy, kitchen-sink drama and dark thriller. All I've done with De Nada Nirvana is throw a new element into the mix. The threads are interwoven. What can I say? I believe in the book. I enjoyed writing it and hope others will enjoy reading it.

Doubt Demon: You do realise that by writing this blog you're going to draw people's attention to the very things you're twitching about ...

Me: Sigh. I know. What can I do? I'm a writer. Lots of us have a tendency to over-share.

Doubt Demon: Right, howzabout this for the killer punch then. You're crap at self-promotion. You'll sell a few copies. You have loyal friends, many of then writers themselves, who will buy it because they know you. But you'll never spread the word beyond that small community because you have neither the will nor the skill to tell the rest of the world your books are out there.

Me: You're absolutely right. I'm not going to try arguing with you on this one. I'm fully aware that self-publishing also means self-promoting. That doesn't have to mean you should be ramming your novel down people's throats at every opportunity but there's an enormous gulf between doing that and doing sod all. I know I should be thinking about mailing lists and competitions and blog tours and special offers and all that but I'm not.

And you know what? I'm OK with that. It all depends on how you measure success and what it is you want to achieve. I wanted to write books I'd enjoy reading. I've succeeded in doing that. I wanted to make the rest of the Nirvana series available for those who want to read them. The job's in hand and making progress. I also want and need to balance being an author with my role in working with other people to perfect their novels. I'm simply not prepared to devote the time and energy it takes to do more than the occasional blog post, or FB post or tweet to promote my novels. But I'm cool with this. I'm not settling for second best. It feels right to me. De Nada Nirvana will be out shortly and then I'm going to start looking at Me, John and a Bomb. It's gonna happen.

Doubt Demon: Bollocks. Looks like we'll have to go off and find some other poor author to torment.

And there we have it. I've faced The Fear and I'm still standing. De Nada Nirvana will be published on 1 May. Because Mayday, y'know. Over the next day or so, I'll set it up so it's available for pre-orders. Meanwhile, Nirvana Bites and Trading Tatiana are still on special offer at 99p each. Let's get this show on the road.


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Love your local library (before it's too late)


When I was growing up, my parents couldn't afford to buy books but I was addicted to stories. I swept through the children's library, exhausting the stock well before I'd left primary school. A kind librarian agreed to allow me to enter the hallowed halls of the adult library, where the biggest excitement was that I could now borrow five books at a time, instead of a paltry three. It was during my teenage years that I ploughed through almost all the books on the lists of 'classics you should read' that come out every so often. I worked through biographies, as well as novels, discovering the likes of Tolstoy, Kafka, Hesse, Austen, de Beauvoir and many more. Genre was meaningless to me: strong stories were what I was after. It was on the shelves of the library that I discovered that stories could take many forms.

In secondary school, I discovered a new use for the library and was there almost every day in the study room, revising for exams. Once I had my children, I was once again in my local library several times a week, pulling books from the shelves and attending reading sessions and after-school clubs. As an author, I've read at many events organised in libraries, connecting readers with writers. The staff were invariably warm and welcoming. One heard that the day I was appearing in their library was also my birthday - and baked me a cake!

When my father was in his nineties, and before he moved to a care home, I would often go over and find he wasn't at home. Needless to say, my initial response was always a stab of anxiety. My first port of call was to check his library, just a few doors away from his flat. And nine times out of ten, there he would be, sitting in an armchair, chatting to other people, or reading a newspaper or books pulled from the shelves. 

As a member of the East Dulwich Writers' Group, I was part of an event at the glorious Carnegie Library in Herne Hill in June 2011. We read in the gardens on a beautiful summer's evening and it was clear to us all that this was a perfect example of a library that was deeply rooted in the community. Libraries like the Carnegie operate as community hubs, offering so much more than book loans, though Gawd knows that would be enough.

And now the local council has decided to close the library and re-open it a year or so later as a fee-paying gym, with a single room with books, but no librarian.

On 1 April (the council has no sense of irony) the library was officially to close but a group of about 80 people, including some families, occupied the building.

The council has since served them with an injunction - which they're determined to ignore.

It's worth remembering these words from Andrew Carnegie: 'A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a spring in the desert.'
In other words, the library belongs to the community, the people. It's not the Council's to take away.

The campaign website is here. Lots more info on Brixton Buzz. If you're on Twitter, there are numerous accounts to follow but this is the one for seeing tweets from those inside the building. There's also a Facebook page. And, finally, this is a map of the location of the library. If you live locally, why not pop along. They have no cooking facilities so gifts of food are welcomed. After snipey tweets from Labour councilors in response to a photo of the occupiers drinking wine, loads of people turned up the next day - bearing gifts of wine. This is community activism at its best.

In case you're still wondering if libraries are about much more than 'just' borrowing books, have a look at the list of events which will not take place if the closure goes ahead.

 Please don't let this happen:

Hope to see lots of you there on Saturday.