What makes authors smile?

As Julia Andrews once sang…. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and so forth.

Brown paper packages too – if they have books in them.

I’ve been smiling a lot this week. Authors are like everyone else when it comes to things that make us smile. Lunch with good friends, finding exactly the right birthday card for a family member, progress on my knitting project. In my case, watching Say Yes to the Dress on TV. (If you haven’t watched this – you really must. It’s my secret guilty pleasure.) All these things, and more, make me smile.

But this week has been full of ‘authorial’ smiles. Those are very special. As a rule, we authors can be a tad insecure. Especially about our work. There is often more tearing out of hair than smiling involved in writing a book. But… we do have our moments.

So – what are these mysterious things that make an author smile? Here are my top five.

Seeing a very small number next to your new book on Amazon is a smile worthy event.

1. Publication days.

Letting go of a book you have spent months working on can be hard. I always wonder if it’s any good. Will my readers like it? Are there any things I could have improved? Are there any (heaven forbid) typos or spelling errors or grammatical errors? The answer to the last question is… possibly. Sometimes one slips through the reading and re-reading that goes into a book before it’s published. But…. despite all those fears. Publication days are wonderful. This week my 9th book was officially published. I smiled. A Lot.

 

 

2. Reviews.

Hard on the heels of publication day is the breathless wait for the first reviews, and more obsessive checking on Amazon. When that first review comes – and it’s good. The sigh of relief is quickly followed by a broad smile. Someone likes my book! My characters have found new friends. Definitely smile worthy. Think about that and if the urge strikes you – please do reviews for your favourite authors. They are important to us.

These had me reaching for my handkerchief.

3. Messages from readers.

Up there with a five star review are messages from readers. Authors are pretty easy to find. Websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter make it easy to send a favourite author a message. I send messages to some of my favourite authors when I’ve enjoyed their book. When I get messages from my readers, it is quite possible that I get a bit misty.

This came from one of my Aussie readers. He sent me a screen shot of him ordering my book How cool is that!

4. Planning a new book.

Thinking about a new book is always fun. There are so many possibilities. I sit at a desk with computer, notebook, sketchpad, coloured pencils and a cup of tea. I doodle while my brain goes into overdrive. Then I Google the things I am thinking about – just to make sure they really are feasible. Research is important and can be so much fun. I love it when I stumble across something when researching and realise there’s a whole plot strand there.

My desk in book planning mode…. and yes that IS a Dr Who pen with a TARDIS on the end of it. How could anyone write a book without one?

5. And something very exciting and super secret that I am not allowed to even hint at yet.

I promise I will tell all as soon as I can.  There is one other thing that always always always puts a smile on an author’s face. It usually involves an email. I had one of those emails this week – but I can’t tell you anything at all about it. Not yet. I can almost hear you gnashing your teeth and wanting to know more. Guess what – that’s another thing that makes an author happy – putting a reader on the edge of their seat, desperate to know or read more.

Stay tuned – there will be more news coming soon.

Stepping Into The Time Machine plus Cover Reveal

What do you have hidden in your closet?

Pam and I have been writing together as ‘Ellie Campbell’ for so long that sometimes even we forget we ever did things differently.  Recently we rediscovered some of the 140 short stories we each had published in those early years and decided – huge shock – we actually found them really entertaining.  So much so that we decided to gather some of them up into a collection.  Between world travels, multiple changes of first stone age-style word processors, then computers, plus my inability to hold on to copies or the actual magazines, many are probably lost for good, but we managed to come up with twenty funny, romantic, twisty or reflective short tales, soon to be released as Love, Lies And Other Deceptions.   It wasn’t easy to pick a cover to reflect so many diverse themes, but our talented designer Andrew Brown came up with the following. And here it is – ta-da, drum roll, please.

For us, part of the fascination was remembering the two people and the mindset that created those stories.  As mentioned in an earlier blog I started writing in my twenties, working in London publishing and living the muddled chaotic single life so hilariously described in Bridget Jones Diary.  Pam was the mother of three small children when she took the creative writing class that launched her.  We both had very different themes and topics, many reflecting our interests and lifestyles at the time.  Looking over them was was like stepping into a time machine. Now that we are… cough, cough, cough… quite a few years older, would we – could we even? – write anything similar?  Personally, I hardly know that earlier me.  I can see she was cynical, moody, sometimes romantically hopeful, sometimes despairing – and inevitably attracted to every possible variety of emotionally-unavailable womanizer, but I don’t think I could totally recreate her world viewpoint from my happily married self.  (I also suspect she might have been a wee bit more intelligent than I am now but that’s another story.)

Then again don’t we all have similar experiences when revisiting our early work?  Sometimes you look back on things and find it hard to believe you ever wrote that story, painted that picture, or took that photograph. Sometimes it shows how far you’ve moved on.  But then not only do you, the artist, change but also the way you feel about it can change with each viewing.  We’re all familiar with the awful creative roller coaster – one minute loving the work in progress, the next seeing only the flaws and deciding it might be time to give up writing for good because you’re obviously hopeless.  And then coming back again after some blessed time has passed and being amazed to find some merit in there after all.  The successful are those who can see through the illusions and persevere anyway but I bet many of us have an unfinished manuscript in our closet somewhere that we discarded in disgust.  Perhaps rightfully so, perhaps… well, who knows?

Anyway, Love, Lies and Deceptions will be available on Amazon any day now and we’re super excited. And yes, we intentionally omitted to specify which of the two sisters wrote which story.  We thought it would be more fun to leave the readers guessing and maybe to answer that question we’re always asked – does writing together mean you lose your original ‘voice’?  We don’t think so but perhaps in the end the stories tell the tale.

Plotting with dialogue

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in detail in advance or do you just sit down and fly by the seat of your pants. I tend towards the latter, but in either case, the hope is that the result will be a novel. A good one with realistic characters and a gripping plot.

Last week I was confronted by a sort of third option – plotting with a few lines of dialogue. This a really intriguing idea came from Sophie Weston, who has sold about 12 million books world-wide. That’s a very nice number. Lots of zeros involved. She was speaking at a workshop in London. This is what I took home from that workshop.

Let’s start with the traditional idea of plotting. This involves mapping out the action of the story. I know people who do it on a spreadsheet. Others do it in a document. Post it notes all over a door is another popular method, or a roll of wallpaper and a handful of coloured pens.

In this way, events are mapped out, scenes are described, characters actions and of course the all-important conflicts and resolutions. All good stuff.

At that point, if it were me, I would stop. If I know all that, there’s no reason to write the book. For me the joy of writing is the exploration: the unexpected idea that seems to just flow out of my fingertips without me really thinking about it; the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to me as I write and the times when even I start to wonder if this conflict will ever be resolved. I could never be a plotter.

But Sophie Weston suggested another idea. Dialogue. Not too much of it. Just a few lines where the characters reveal something of themselves, or react to an event. These are the key turning points of the story defined – without the detail.

Think about this moment in Star Wars….

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

What a moment. It’s a turning point for the film. It changes everything for Luke. And for Vader. It adds new levels to both characters and to their conflict.  Four words. That’s all it took.

In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise says to Rene Zellweger – ‘You complete me.’ It’s the moment when he admits he loves her. When planning the story, you could write …. he goes to her house where she is with a group of female friends and then he tells her he loves her. Or, in the outline you could just write three words and let the rest flow naturally as you write.

‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat. ’ In Jaws, this is the sign of worse trouble ahead. You don’t have to decide in advance when and where and to whom that is said. It’s just a line that tells us here is a place where the stakes must be raised.

‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives us his whole character in just two lines of dialogue.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

And let’s not forget Casablanca – with Bogie and Bergman. ‘All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ I don’t have to write a backstory.  That line gives me all the backstory I need to know when I start writing. I can discover the details as I write.

All my books start with the opening scene in my head, and the closing scene. My job is to get my characters from scene one to the last page in a believable and interesting and moving way. I’m going to have a go at writing a key line of two of dialogue before I really get into writing the book. I need lines that say a lot about my story and characters. If I can come up with a great line, I can build the story to that point, without having to map it out scene by scene. I will know where I am  going without writing so much detail that the story looses its freshness and spark.

It’s plotting, without plotting. And without giving away too much of the story to myself.

Thinking about the work in progress, I can see and hear my central character saying ‘I need your help.’ I know who she is saying it to, and just how hard it is for her to say it. That’s already telling me things about her back story and her character. I’m off now to write the next chapter.

Thank you Sophie Weston for the idea. I’ll let you know how I go.

 

What’s in a book cover?

How important is your book cover? Well, crucial enough that publishers will change their entire design if a chain store buyer doesn’t find a jacket visually appealing. And yes, even as a tiny rectangle on an Amazon page, it has to stand out, conveying the tone and genre to attract the right readers. Now that’s a big ask!

Of course publishers have teams of experts leading the design process. Great if you love the result. Not so good as a writer if you’re unhappy with the way your book is presented, whereas indie authors have the sometimes daunting pleasure of total control. Obviously the first step is to hire a professional designer but it’s still you, the writer, assuming final responsibility.

Ellie Campbell has gone through both experiences, traditional and indie, and we’re still learning. So just for fun we thought we’d show you some of our book covers, old and new.

       

Left is the original Arrow cover. Originally we liked it. Later we decided it seemed too juvenile and we really hated that it was so easy to miss in a WH Smith promotional stand of Summer Reads – even with two of us desperately searching.

By the time we commissioned the second version (right) we’d already decided to continue some elements of Looking For La La, our first indie book cover. Hence the photo cover with the bride looking over the fence. We feel she’s possibly a bit too angry – a real bridezilla – but again it gets across the humour aspect.

The next cover is the Arrow one for When Good Friends Go Bad. I don’t think Arrow knew what to do with us at this stage but they were trying for a more grown up look. A few years on we reverted the rights and our designer came up with the one on the right, again following the theme we started with Looking For La La (cover shown below). Comments, anyone?

   dfw-ec-tcac-cover-large  

Above, we have the three covers for our ‘Crouch End Confidential’ mystery series, Looking For La La, To Catch A Creeper and Meddling With Murder. Looking For La La was the first ever cover we commissioned and we were thrilled with the response. I honestly think we wouldn’t have got nearly as many blog posts or reviews without it. We had no idea the novel would inspire sequels but then, of course, we had to come up with follow-up designs using the same or similar girl. We particularly like Meddling With Murder, so colourful and cute!

        

The next pair are interesting because we recently decided we didn’t care for the old cover of Million Dollar Question and just commissioned a new one. Although the paparazzi do feature in the story, we felt the guy in black gave the wrong impression – he looks too sinister for what’s quite a funny romantic book. Or maybe as if he’s about to deliver a box of Cadbury’s Milk Tray. We like the new cover much better.

And then we have the cover for our just released box set of what is now the Crouch End Confidential series. We wanted it to have a ‘box’ look but also show the three spines. We came up with the idea of a file folder with polaroids pinned on it and the big red “confidential” stamp. Although in translation, the designer changed the file folder to an envelope, still we think we get the point across.

Anyway, as always, we’re curious to find out others’ experiences. What do you feel makes a book stand out? Ever have a cover you particularly hated or that you felt actually hurt sales? Or one that you loved above all others? And how do you feel about photo covers versus graphic?

Making the perfect man

Superman is possibly THE most famous hero - but even he has flaws.

Superman is possibly THE most famous hero – but even he has flaws.

As writers – we get to make up people. And of course, as someone who writes about love and relationships, that means I get to make up my heroes. Whenever I start a new book – I think about the hero and how to make the best hero. The perfect hero..,

And the answer – to be perfect he has to be imperfect.

It’s the imperfections that make him believable. We will fall in love with him – not despite his imperfections – but BECAUSE of them.

All the things that make him a hero have both a positive and a negative side – and the fun comes with deciding how to use the light and shade to create a character.

I’ve made a list… because lists are good.

Strength

By strength – I don’t mean muscles. Although, let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with muscles. By strength I mean strength of purpose. Someone who will stand by his decisions and convictions in the face of all opposition. Think of Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. He’s three feet tall and has furry feet. He’s not a great warrior – but he is the one to save the world. The fact that he does not have great physical strength highlights the strength of purpose he has.

Then, at the very end of his quest, he weakens… he hesitates before destroying the ring. His sense of purpose fails. That highlights for us how difficult the journey has been. How powerful evil can be if it has corrupted even Frodo.

Of course – it all ends well. That was never in doubt.

A great noir novel by a writer better known for epic fantasy. A marvellously flawed hero.

A great noir novel by a writer better known for epic fantasy. A marvellously flawed hero.

Courage

We know this man – Bruce Willis would play him in an actin film.  He saves the world, tackles the bad guys and puts himself in harm’s way to save a stranger. Or a dog.

But his courage works best when balanced against something he’s afraid of. Something that makes him vulnerable. Or something in his past that weakens him. This is the policeman hero who has fallen into drink and disrepute because of something in his past. Guilt over the death of a partner or a child.

The real courage of this hero is that he eventually overcomes his past to become the man we all know he is meant to be.

Honour

We love an honourable man. A man who knows what is right and will defend it. He will draw a line in the sand and say – this far and no further. We can trust this man to do the right thing.

For me, the honourable hero is Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He is unswerving in his belief in justice. But when we see him through Scout’s eyes at the start of the book, she’s disappointed that he is not like other fathers. He doesn’t do the things that other fathers do. By the end of the book, of course, she has come to recognise his courage and to understand him. In this case, the flaw is no so much a real flaw, as a flaw perceived by the narrator. Or perhaps his flaw is that he is not the perfect father.

I fell in love with Spock's brain - or was it those eyebrows?

I fell in love with Spock’s brain – or was it those eyebrows?

Brains

Smart is sexy. But it’s more than that. We want to be able to look to our heroes for help in a crisis. The hero will figure out who the murderer is, or how to escape the locked room. Or the cure for a disease. Quite often these super smart men will have an innocence or a sense of other-worldliness that is very appealing.

Star Trek’s Mr Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) was a hero of my childhood. I wanted to be as smart as him. I was desperately in love with him when I was about twelve. Of course, his flaw is centred on emotion. Vulcans are not supposed to have them. But he is half human and does. He spends his entire life trying to overcome the emotions that he sees as a flaw… while the rest of us see his lack of emotion as his flaw.

And there’s the whole business with the Pon Farr mating ritual every seven years. That is a bit of an issue too.

Humour

Funny is sexy. That’s why we love romantic comedies so much. A hero who can make us smile will brighten the dark times. Even better if he can laugh at himself.  We know we will enjoy the company of this hero.

In the world of films, Hugh Grant typifies the hero with a sense of humour. It’s all those lovely rom coms. He is funny, but he always flawed – the humour disguises something deeper. Shyness. Or loneliness. Or fear. Or pain.

What we want is to see past the jokes to what lies beneath.

Money

Let’s be honest here – no-one wants to be poor. There’s a reason the heroes in fairy tales tend to be princes. Castles are much better than a peasant’s hovel.

I write contemporary fiction, and in today’s world, rich often means workaholic. That’s the flaw. Our hero has to sacrifice a lot on the altar of success. Or, if he’s one of those princes, there’s the paparazzi and protocol and all that to deal with.

The challenge with this hero is to find something – someone – who will make him step off the fast track. Of course, we really don’t want him to lose all that money.

Shrek got the girl - for all the reasons above - despite being... well.. an ogre. I think I would have preferred the story if Fiona had not turned out to be an ogre too.

Shrek got the girl – for all the reasons above – despite being… well.. an ogre. I think I would have preferred the story if Fiona had not turned out to be an ogre too.

Good looks

We all love a good looking hero. It’s easy the add flaws to a good looking hero – he can be vain. Or he can have too many women trying to seduce him.

But – a hero doesn’t have to be handsome. If he has a good helping of the above traits, we are going to fall in love with him anyway. But… it’s not going to hurt if he looks like Brad Pitt.

So that’s my list – have I left anything out? Apart from Mr Darcy of course… who, for many readers, remains the quintessential flawed hero.

Which flawed heroes have you fallen in love with? And why?