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Monday 31 March 2014

Three Top Tips For When You Think You've Finished Writing...

By Antonio Litterio

1. BE PREPARED: live in hope of publication, and never stop writing. Before you send anything out, make sure you’re well ahead with your next book. When I first started writing fiction I didn’t do this, and I suffered for it. I went back to writing non-fiction instead, which was paying my bills at the time. When my first novel was accepted by a major publisher, they assumed I was already working on the follow-up, and wanted it as soon as possible. That meant I had to write day and night to produce Book Two. I barely had time to eat, much less sleep, or talk to anyone! Never let this happen to you. Always have another book of a similar style on the stocks. 

2. USE A BETA READER - and the emphasis here is on the word “reader”. Editors know what sells and they can perfect your grammar and layout, but someone who can report honestly on whether it swept them away - or how you can make sure your readers are swept away  - is invaluable. You can track down professional beta readers and editors in the small ads of writing magazines. Alternatively, join a creative writing group, and ask for recommendations. Word of mouth is always the best way, and sometimes tutors will offer reading as a service, for an extra fee. Whoever you get to read your work, make sure you can trust them to offer constructive criticism rather than simply telling you what you want to hear. It's better to find out the truth sooner, rather than later. 

3. LET IT BREW: you need time to think before you print, or hit "send".  Once your perfect manuscript has been made better still by the help of a beta reader and by your careful (but ruthless) revisions, let it sit for a while before you send it out. Put it aside. Forget about it. Ideally, get right away from your keyboard. Spend time doing activities that have nothing to do with writing. Ok, I'll let you do a bit of thinking about Book Two, but that's all. Then, after you’ve been away from your manuscript for a while, read it straight through from beginning to end. You'll be looking at it with fresh eyes. If you still think you're on to a winner, that's the time to send it out. 

My next Top Tips blog will discuss whether it's better to send straight to a publisher, or get an agent first. To make sure you don't miss it, sign up using the subscription box above. 

Thursday 27 March 2014

Revised Review: Book Two in the Liveship Traders Trilogy, "The Mad Ship"

In my review of Ship of Magic (Book #1 in the Liveship Traders series), I explained how DD had introduced me to the work of Robin Hobb when I was keen to do some reading outside my ususal favourite genres. I grew to like that book more as I read further into it, and was keen to start this second book in the trilogy. I loathed spoilt brat Malta in Book 1. However, i n Book Two, she develops a maturity and depth of character that had me cheering for her, right to the bitter end. She's a fighter, and is on the way to becoming one of my favourite literary heroines. The moment when she recognises herself  in her loathsome travelling companions is priceless. It's matched when Malta finds herself rebuking them in exactly the way her grandmother tried to reason with her, back in Malta's good old, bad old days. Every parent will have sympathised with Ronica at that time. When Malta is forced to experience what her Grandmother must have felt when faced with a lazy, truculent wastrel, it's a clever use of character development.

There was only one thing about this book I didn't like. That's not bad for a volume running to 906 pages, but this failing in the text irritated me so much it pulled me right out of the reading experience whenever I encountered it. I lost count of the number of times the word "muck" cropped up. On pages 673/4 in particular, it appears no fewer than 6 times. Now, characters spend a lot of time burrowing in, and escaping from, well...colloids of dirt. There's no escaping the substance, but Robin Hobb seems to have only one word for the stuff. In my ancient Thesaurus, there are a total of fourteen alternatives to the word "muck". Not all would work in the context of this book, but surely replacing the word with mud, sludge, slime, slop, ooze and mire would bring a bit of variety to the text. I know all about repeating a word for dramatic effect, and so - in another context -  does Ms Robb. This is apparent from the amazingly beautiful effect created by the repetition of the word memory and memories when Malta is finding her way thrugh the underground caverns, but that isn't what's happening here, with "muck". All the constant overuse of the word does is to convey the author's personal revulsion in a way that broke the spell, distanced me from the fictional world and tied me far too personally in to Ms Robb's mind.
If the Liveship Traders hasn't already run to a second edition, could this be addressed in future printings?
That's my only complaint, and I'm looking forward to reading the final book in this trilogy.

Monday 17 March 2014

The Two Things Every Business Needs...

By Antonio Litterio
Today’s blog has been provoked by a case I saw online yesterday. It has implications for everyone - not just writers -  who trades in either goods or services, whether on line or through stores. 
A woman who started a small printing-press and was then beset by dreadful personal problems found herself unable to pay her creditors.  I’ll come to the details of that disaster later but first, let's cut to the chase. In twenty years of self-employment I’ve seen a lot of companies and individuals rise, and sometimes fall. I’ve noticed that the successful ones have at least two things in common. They’re always ready to face what isn’t working, whether they’re small businesses or a sole-trader. And when they’re on a roll - especially when they’re on a roll - they’re always anticipating trouble. 

1. FACE WHAT ISN’T WORKING: Thousands of people start businesses on their kitchen tables, with a little know-how and less money. That’s the good news: the bad news is, most of them never get any further than that. Of the small businesses that actually get off the ground, one in three will fail in their first three years.  (Quoted from The Times 100 Business Case Studies). While that means two-thirds survive, there’s a big difference between surviving, and being a success. Yes, sayings such as: “Somebody who never made a mistake never made anything”and “Fall down six times, get up seven” are the mottoes of true entrepreneurs, but there are limits. Sensible people find out what those limits are, before investing too much time or money. 

If you have a dream, do the research, get professional advice, make a business plan then get out there and try to make it a reality. If you complain that’ll take too long and cost too much, think again. Would you rather spend a large amount on qualified, professional help now, or a vast fortune on legal teams and penalty fees later, when things go wrong? It’s painful, but think of it as insurance. Talking of which...

2. ALWAYS ANTICIPATE TROUBLE: before you make any moves toward starting your own business, have a Plan B for every eventuality, and a fighting fund of at least three months’ salary, and preferably a lot more.  How would you manage if world events meant demand for your product fell off a cliff? Remember the  horse-meat scandal.  Big food producers have contingency plans, multiple streams of income and staff employed specifically to firefight bad publicity like that. If your start-up business produced only tiny quantities of the finest hand-made beef lasagne, you’d have been be floored.  In cases like that, mud sticks to the innocent as well as the guilty. 

If roadworks, floods or bad publicity turned your customers away, how long could you last? What would happen if you couldn’t work through illness, divorce, or other catastrophe? Sudden changes in your childcare arrangements, or the need to become a carer for a partner or parent? These things happen, and more often than you might think. Make sure you have adequate insurance. 

Have a proper business account, keep detailed records and never, never, never dip into it to pay personal bills. Whenever and whatever monies you get paid, immediately put at least half into a separate account and don’t touch it. At all. That’s to pay your tax, and other dues. Fifty percent seems high, but once all your bills have been paid any excess can go toward the fees of a good accountant. Financial help can save you money in the long run, and best of all, they’ll keep you on the right side of the tax people. You definitely do not want to fall foul of them.

So remember: in business as in life, reality can be cruel but ignoring it leads to disaster. And if you assume everything will cost three times as much, and take four times as long, you’ll be delighted when (or rather, if!) it comes in on time, and on budget. 

I’m not in a position to comment on the circumstance of the original case that provoked this blog, but here’s the link so you can make up your own mind–http://www.thepassivevoice.com/03/2014/please-help-me-pay-my-wonderful-authors-the-royalties-owed-them/

I just hope it can be resolved amicably.

I’m Christina Hollis, and I write both contemporary and historical fiction - when I’m not cooking, gardening or beekeeping. You can catch up with me Twitter and Facebook, see a full list of my published books at http://www.christinahollis.com and get details of my latest release, Jewel Under Siege, here.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Three Top Tips - How To Give Your Writing Appeal...

By Antonio Litterio
Last week, I told you that underestimating the intelligence of your audience is a bad idea. Whether they dropped out at 14 or if they're looking at their doctorate in the rear-view mirror, everyone knows something about the human condition, even if their field of experience is only a narrow strip. If we're talking of qualifications for writing or reading fiction, however fantastical the subject you need to germinate it from a grain of reality. Don’t give your landlord-evading private eye a Bugatti Veyron to drive, unless he’s stolen it. Even then, at 3 miles per gallon, he’d better take a Saturday job if the bailiffs aren't going to be winching it onto a truck. And that’s before he’s paid for the insurance.

Aways do your research, but leave them wanting more. Drip feed information. Coax them to keep turning the pages by revealing only a little bit of what they want to know. Be a literary fan-dancer, but like the best burlesques, know how much to give, and when. Lead your reader up a blind alley or two, distract them with the occasional red herring but give them the pleasure of exposing the odd secret along the way as well. Don't frustrate them too often, or for too long. When there are so many real-life distractions both on-and-off line, there's a balancing act to be managed between suspense and revelation. Keep it fresh to keep them reading.

One cliche that no tip-sheet can avoid is "write what you know". It works. You’re an expert on at least one thing - your own experiences. That’s a rich seam to mine, so get digging.  That doesn’t mean you should regurgitate your life story and nothing else ad nauseum, though. Did Shakespeare murder his wife over a pocket-handkerchief? Did Thomas Hardy hang children from clothes hooks? No, but they used their own experiences of human nature, jealousy and misery to colour their inventions. people are people the world over, and they've been like that down all the centuries. Powerful emotions  drove Cain to kill Abel and King David to send Uriah the Hittite away to war, and they've throbbed through the veins of thousands since then. Find your story, and make it speak to everyone.

I write both contemporary and historical fiction - when I’m not cooking, gardening or beekeeping. You can catch up with me on Twitter and Facebook, see a full list of my published books at http://www.christinahollis.com and get full details of my latest release, Jewel Under Siege, here.

Thursday 6 March 2014

Three Top Tips - Mind Games In Writing

By Antonio Litterio
It's one thing to have a great idea and write about it, but what works for you may not work for other people. That doesn't matter if you're only writing for your own pleasure. If you're aiming for publication, then you'll have to get crafty. Think like a reader, and keep these three points in mind: 

CONVICTION: Whether you're writing non-fiction or a novel, a short story or saga you've got to Believe in your work - note that capital B. Making up your mind to put your thoughts down on paper is a big decision. You may or may not be aiming to get published one day, but the more faith you have in your idea, the better your work will be. Spelling and grammar can always be tidied up with redrafts and revisions, but if your writing doesn't have heart,  it hasn't got a hope. 

CHALLENGE: Don’t do all the work for your readers. Add twists and turns to make them think. Give them clues, drip feed information and build tension, whether dramatic or sexual, all the time. Engage their interest, and they'll keep reading. Strap them into an emotional roller-coaster, and push them out of their comfort zone. And challenge their beliefs and their assumptions by all means – just don’t challenge their ability to finish your book. 

CARE: Don’t insult your readers' intelligence. They come from all walks of life. They’re all individuals, too. Your writing could attract either a roadsweeper with a PhD, or a high court judge with no common sense at all. You can’t generalise about your readers, so write as well as you can. Then take care with your editing, to make sure you produce something that everyone can enjoy–whoever they are, and whatever their qualifications 

I'm Christina Hollis, and I write both contemporary and historical fiction - when I’m not cooking, gardening or beekeeping. You can catch up with me on Twitter and Facebook, see a full list of my published books at http://www.christinahollis.com and get full details of my latest release, Jewel Under Siege, here.

Monday 3 March 2014

An Extract From My Latest Release - Jewel Under Siege

 Cover art by Samantha Groom 

Jewel Under Siege is set in Constantinople in the early spring of 1097. The city is besieged by Crusaders, so Elena thinks she'll be safe from strangers inside the high walls of her own garden...

"The fruit trees trained against all the walls of Elena’s garden were wreathed in blossom.  The little blue irises growing behind the arbour were almost in flower, too. They would make a pretty arrangement for Easter Day.
Her mind full of flowers, Elena was an easy target. When a figure erupted from the bushes, she was dragged out of sight in less than a heartbeat. With a hard, cold hand clamped over her mouth, there was no chance to scream. 
Fear froze her from head to foot. The man gripping her was breathing quickly, and as his wrist pressed against her cheek she felt his pulse racing. Eyes tight shut, Elena waited for something awful to happen. She couldn’t imagine what could be worse than this, but his overpowering smell of leatherwork and metal dressing was unnerving. She stood stock-still in his grasp until he managed some breathless French.
‘Keep quiet. I won’t hurt you. Understand?’
Somehow, she managed to nod. His fingers relaxed from her mouth. When she didn’t struggle or scream, he dropped his hand. His sigh said he was as glad to let go of her as she was to be free. She moved to get a better view of him, knowing she might need to identify him in future. He was a tall, youngish man, but his gaunt good looks were suffering from famine and war. Leaning heavily against the garden wall, he pressed one hand to his knee. The expression in his dark eyes was hunted and Elena saw that grabbing her had sapped most of his strength.
That gave her the courage to face him. ‘What do you want?’ she said in French.
‘Help–and everyone round here speaks Greek. I don’t.’ 
That could mean only one thing. 
‘You’ve broken in from the Crusader camp!’ Elena said in horror. ‘You’ve come here to steal! And after we were told your people were coming to Constantinople to help us!’ 
‘It’s not like that. We’re desperate. We need food. Your people are slowly killing us. We’ve been held up outside the city for months. We’re dying out there.’
Elena drew herself up to her full height. No unshaven hulk was going to come into her garden and start twisting the facts to suit himself. ‘Only because your leaders won’t promise that you will behave properly. That’s all our Emperor wants.’
‘I’m starving and injured,’ the young man burst out suddenly. ‘I need help, not an argument about politics!’
Elena stared at him. He was in a bad way, but trying not to show it. His left leg couldn’t support any weight and he was tight-lipped with pain. Leaning against the garden wall he tried to look arrogant and supercilious, but she could see he was on the point of collapse.
‘I’ve had nothing to eat for three days. I managed to get inside the city wall, but climbing over your boundary to get at the fish in your pools was too much. It was mossy and wet. I slipped.’
Elena was horrified. ‘You’ve had no food for three days? Have you had anything to drink?’
     ‘Rain. That’s all.’ He swayed unsteadily, his gaze piercing her heart. ‘Get me some food? A crust? Anything. Then I’ll go. On my honour. I’m not here to make trouble.’
Elena considered. He looked dangerous, but if she could somehow sidle further out of his reach she knew he'd never catch her again. She wondered if she could trust him, and also whether he could trust her. His clothes were sodden. They clung to his frame in a way that unsettled her. The strange feeling inside her made Elena wonder whether it was only Christian charity that made her want to help him. Mud buttered his cracked and shabby boots, while his teeth chattered in a chill breeze running in off the sea.
‘Does anyone else know you’ve come here?’ she said.
He flicked his head sideways. ‘It’s bad enough that I risked getting caught. I wasn’t going to get my friends involved as well.’
He lost the look of a desperate terrorist, reduced to snatching at innocent women. Now he was dejected, alone and injured in a foreign city. He'd given Elena a bad fright, but seeing the state he was in softened her heart. In case he was playing on her sympathy, she hardened her expression and folded her hands primly in front of her.
‘I’ll go and see what can be done for you. Stay here and don’t move.’
The young Crusader put a hand to his forehead. He couldn’t offer any resistance. Instead, in a gesture of acceptance, he pulled a knife from his belt and handed it to her, handle first.
She accepted his offering warily, and held it at arm’s length. ‘Thank you - I think...'"

I hope you enjoyed this extract from Elena and Emil's story. You can download Jewel Under Siege here, see a full list of my published books at http://www.christinahollis.com, catch up with me on Twitter and Facebook, and if you'd like to sign up for my newsletter, drop me a line at christinahollis(at)hotmail.co.uk, replacing the (at) with @.