Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t make money from writing. Here are some articles I wrote for actual paying customers (before they went bust…)
Top Five Books for Frazzled Parents
(published on Bookwitty.com, August 2017)
FPS (Frazzled Parent Syndrome) sounds like a makey-uppy illness, but I assure you, it’s as real as the baked beans ‘picture’ smushed onto your kitchen wall or the nappy stink in your favourite tote. In the 23 seconds we get to ourselves each day, Frazzled Parents can be found in a chaotic whirlwind that is our offspring, knee-deep in their bodily fluids, wondering, mid-wipe, ‘How did I get here?’ and more to the point, ‘How do I getoutof here?’ Here’s an idea: go to the bathroom, lock the door, bung in some earplugs, and read. We only have 23 seconds, so here are five readable books that use techniques, anecdotes, and hilarity to console and advise, with simple proven tips that work. Forget condescending idealism, and get some insight, compassion, and even a few laughs.
Baby-proofing your marriage: How to laugh more, argue less and communicate better as your family grows – Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill, and Julia Stone.A hilarious and startlingly accurate look at how kids change so many aspects of your relationship, this book examines everything from in-laws to chores, from the office to sex. The authors (two stay at home mothers and one working outside the home) have themselves “crash test(ed)” these small actions that yield big results. They tell it straight, with a generous and unapologetic dose of honesty (and expletives) that make so much of this book relatable and compassionate. Thankfully these authors took the time to listen to a range of fathers as well as mothers, directly quoting them on the problems they faced, and the solutions they eventually revert to in order to reclaim some shred of coupledom. But it’s mostly for the laughs that I recommend this book. The “10-o-clock shoulder tap” alone will make some of you shudder with recognition, because it’s comforting to know that yours is not the only partner who is too shattered to help you fold laundry at 9pm, but come 10 bells he has miraculously reclaimed enough energy to try initiating a spot of sport sex…
The Manic Mum’s Guide to Calm Parenting and Co-operative kids – Allison Mitchell. So you nag your kids. They keep throwing stuff on the floor and stomping on it, so you nag them some more. They throw MORE stuff and stomp... Repeat 78 times (before lunchtime) and before you know it, you’ve spiralled downward into madness and despair. The parenting rollercoaster is non-stop, but if there’s one thing you can change, says Mitchell, it’s yourself. Her method of calm parenting is called the ‘Upward Spiral’ and takes seven weeks—sounds ambitious but it’s one habit a week. Things like: knowing what your goal is, listening in a way that connects you to your child, and helping them to take responsibility for their own actions. As I say, ambitious. For the Frazzled Parent, doing something different is really tough, but the Upward Spiral is possible if you mind yourself, be kind to yourself, and focus on doing just one thing each week. To hell with perfect—Mitchell’s approach is ‘good enough most of the time’. With compassion and these techniques, you can restore your sanity and the hearing you lost due to the sound of your own voice.
1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting – Thomas W. Phelan. Dr. Phelan’s book has been popular for two decades and counting, and with good reason—his simple counting-style technique works. Focusing on children aged 2-12 years, Phelan breaks the book into six short stages, from ‘Foundation’ through to ‘Enjoying New Family Life’. He encourages us to face two things: one, our children are notthe ‘little adults’ we sometimes believe them to be; and two, the only thing standing in harmony’s way is probably us parents and our chronic inconsistency. I say the word through clenched teeth—I’m an inattentive-ADHD parent trying to guide her equally inattentive-ADHD son, so consistency is as rare as a morning lie-in with coffee that is still hot.
Raising Boys (also, ‘Raising Girls’) – Steve Biddulph.An oldie but a goodie, Biddulph uses detailed real-life stories to examine the challenges particular to each gender, from early childhood to adulthood. Don’t let this author’s extensive professional experience and credentials put you off, it’s his perspective as a humble human and father that makes ‘Raising Boys’ and ‘Raising Girls’ accessible and useful. Biddulph has updated these books through the years to include, among other developments, the growing role of technology in many children’s lives. He writes with compassion and encourages us to parent similarly.
French Children Don’t Throw Food – Pamela Druckerman. Writing with care and attention, Paris-based American writer Druckerman gives a new parent’s observations on pregnancy, birth, and childrearing àla Français. This is a humorous but in-depth analysis of how the French tend to rear their children from newborn to full-time school age, and the stark differences between them (relaxed, in control, enjoying a full night’s sleep…) and parents in the U.K. and U.S. Druckerman learns first hand that the French protect their own plaisirwith the sort of ferocity we Anglos apply to buying the right kind of organic biodegradable nappy. French parents preserve as much of their own lives (private, professional, sexual, and of course gastronomic) as possible. Druckerman explores the phenomenon of French newborns who sleep through the night, and for this alone I would pay ten times the cover price. Next year, we are hitting Disneyland Paris, so I shall look out for for brie-munching pregnant women, relaxed mothers and fathers, et bien sûr, gastronomically-adjusted children who actually eat.
Nothing prepares you for parenthood, it’s a battle of wills, so empower yourself, educate yourself if needed, and most of all, laugh your way back to the semblance of sanity, if only for 23 seconds.
Five Shades of Smart
(published on Bookwitty.com, September 2017)
It’s been a while since E.L. James’ ‘Fifty Shades’ books hit the shelves with a boom and a bang and a whole lot of controversy. There followed a glut of similar-feel stories, but it’s rare to find a raunchy read that’s emotionally compelling andsmart. Today’s readers are highly educated, successful in life and work, and largely female. They still seek a red-hot read but one that reflects their own intelligence. They need emotionally charged, not emotionally abusive. Give us characters that are smart, dialogue that is fresh, story that is relatable. Here are five books for the educated reader, with not a shade of Grey in sight.
‘Pleasures of the Night’, written by Sylvia Day. ‘Pleasures’ brings us effortlessly into the other-world of Aidan Cross, a dream guardian. Guardians work to protect humanity, and, in Aidan’s case, provide a red-hot role in a woman’s erotic dreams, feeding her pleasure, protecting her from pain. He becomes whatever fantasy she dreams up, and never fails to satisfy. I’m not into fantasy fiction, but the prologue hooks immediately – Aidan moves quickly from enthralling his ‘dreamer’ with intense sexual fantasies that she herself has wished for, to slaying a plethora of Nightmares who want to attack the sleeping woman’s psyche with her deepest fears and painful memories. Guardians nurture and heal, but one dreamer puts up barriers to all those who are trying to protect her. This skill makes Lyssa stand out for all the wrong reasons, so when it threatens the realm’s survival, Aidan is charged with discovering Lyssa’s secret. If he fails, for the good of his realm, he must eliminate her. Heavy stuff, but the world Day builds is deftly drawn, the pacing alternates between intense and fun, but authority and intelligence remain.
’30 Days’, written by Christine D’Abo. When Alyssa loses her husband Rob, he charges her with a task much tougher than grief: move on, mentally and sexually. He has left suggestions – sex cards intended to heal and comfort her, and crucially, help her over the last hurdles of loss. Told with humour, this story entices with its warmth as we watch a woman struggle to align parts of her life that grief has ripped apart, to slowly rediscover her sexuality and the woman she is now. D’Abo’s human tone infuses every page, meaning there is less ‘widow’ and more ‘woman’. Big sister Nikki is frank and hilarious, but what I like about this story is how relatable Alyssa is – mortified in the sex shop Nikki forces her into, smothered by the guilt that recurring grief brings. And when faced with life’s shittier predicaments, she says what we all mutter now and then: ‘Aw, f**k it’.
‘Dirty’, written by Megan Hart. So is this one where the title says it all? Yes and no. In ‘Dirty’, Elle makes sure she enjoys sex on her terms. She knows a bad chat-up line when she hears it, but her encounter with a brand new guy is poor escapism, erotic with a touch of romance. Hart has always written for the smart reader, and here’s why: her character portraits go deep, as deep as her sex scenes, and with frank language and unapologetic behaviour, her scenes in this erotic tale leave little to the imagination.
‘The DILF’, written by London Hale. Pay no mind to the cringey title, there’s nothing Dad-like or Grey (sorry) about Brandon, an older man who’s spent his life in Temperance Falls raising his daughter, as he fights his growing attraction to a much younger woman. There’s something about this town (there’s a whole series set there): it’s a place where May-December romances are ten-a-penny, including Brandon’s own daughter who’s in a relationship with his best friend. But when Brandon falls for his young adult daughter’s best friend, Gen, the mind goes ‘huh?’, but the pages just keep a-turnin’. Gen takes no crap, she wants what she wants, and although Brandon struggles with the age difference and his need to be responsible, the attraction between these two—intellectual and physical—is equal in every way. I enjoyed the super-fast pacing, the characters’ original slant, and the dual point of view proving the lust between these two is as mutual as it gets. London Hale is a partnership of writers Brighton Walsh and Ellis Leigh, and they manage to maintain a sense of respect while igniting passion in a big way. Brandon is a guy to fall in love with—he’s genuine and kind and fabulous in bed, because as the by-line goes, ‘experience counts’.
‘The Master’, written by Tara Sue Me. You’d be forgiven for thinking that writing BDSM is easy. Well, it isn’t, but writing good BDSM is where Tara Sue Me comes into form. She writes respectfully and knowledgeably (or so I’m told) about the very real world of BDSM and the strong women and men who people it. Sasha Blake has had bad experiences in the past—who hasn’t? But if you’re a woman who’s into submission, however strong you are, however much you enjoy it, one bad ‘scene’ experience can destroy any attempt you make to enjoy it again. Despite her past hurts, Sasha wants to return to this lifestyle, but needs help from Cole. Casual in social circles he may be, but in a playroom, this man is a firm Dominant. Despite the use of ‘Master’ this and ‘Sir’ that, the story threads a fine understanding of this oft-ridiculed genre, laces it with strong human emotion, and shows that beyond the playroom there is a chemistry between two people who fulfil each others’ needs in the sexual world they both adore.
Like every fiction genre, Erotica has its share of rotten apples, but these five novels shine through to delight and entertain. Have you enjoyed other erotic titles? Let us know below.
I am of Ireland
(published on Bookwitty.com in September 2017)
’I Am Of Ireland’ was written by a man, but it is his countrywomen who show through a lens of warmth and wit what Old Ireland was really like. Here are five titles from exceptional Irish writers who know a bygone Ireland from personal experience.
‘The Visitor’ written by Maeve Brennan. This beautifully written novella opens with Anastasia King, aged twenty-two, whose return to Dublin sets the scene for an emotionally charged reunion with her spiteful grandmother. Anastasia is a lonely character whose unhappiness in her only home is dominated by a matriarchal bitch whose talents are to mask spite with manners, deconstruct every single argument, and pull her granddaughter apart piece by piece. Nothing new about that—this character is the kind we hope is extinct but whom we find to be alive and well and sharing our surname. But the strength of The Visitor is its deliciously understated insights into Irish life and smooth excerpts on the human condition, as told through the eyes of an Irish writer whose own sadness echoes that of Anastasia’s.
‘Naming the Stars’ written by Jennifer Johnston. Although this novella opens in more recent times, Flora returns frequently to earlier years, blending 1920’s and 30’s Ireland throughout this tender story. Flora’s voice is hilariously honest, captivating insights into family and customs long gone, but it is the lies, tragedy, and long-buried secret that Flora finally shares that captivate readers. The fact that parts of Flora’s story mirror those of so many Irish women makes this stunner of a novel particularly poignant. Johnston’s writing is exceptionally honest, and her sleight of hand produces nuances so rich and delicate that Flora and Nellie appear as if they’ve always existed
‘Rebel Sisters’ written by Marita Conlon-McKenna. Privilege meets History in this striking tale of three sisters, during one of Ireland’s most turbulent times. With the First World War looming, the Gifford sisters’ drive for independence from their parents is central, shadowed by the country’s struggle and the 1916 Rising. Their decisions cause them to meet, and fall in love with, real-life historical figures Thomas MacDonagh and Joe Plunkett. ‘Rebel Sisters’ brings to life a country long gone – from the norms that society expected of young women to the many hindrances that blighted their liberation. The Ireland depicted is almost unrecognisable to the modern reader, but Conlon-McKenna packs enough human emotion, dialogue, and action to romp the story from first line to last.
‘The Country Girls’ written by Edna O’Brien. While many readers fall in love with O’Brien’s delicate prose, myself included, her story scares the life out of some, myself included. Caithleen Brady and her friend Baba make for an unlikely pair as they painfully yank free of 1950’s Irish country life. Caithleen’s fear and trepidation is matched only by Baba’s daring hilarity as they venture to the unknowns of Dublin. My first reading of The Country Girls was over twenty years ago and I gasped as much at their antics as at the torturous social, cultural, and sexual constraints this book depicts: if I’d lived in the 1950s, I, like O’Brien and her characters, would have had to find the nearest exit and crash through it. The Country Girls has its slants of fun and adventure, but for these two young women, the opportunities to live the lives they hope for are obliterated by those around them. It is perhaps this element that grips so many readers with writing that is beautiful and brutal. This novel was banned for many years, and O’Brien endured tremendous criticism, but watching Caithleen struggle to find her own way is equally heartbreaking. It is an accurate account of my mother’s Ireland, the Ireland that scared too many young women into burying ambition, forgetting plans, keeping pretty heads down, and saying nothing
‘The Last September’ written by Elizabeth Bowen. The year is 1920 and the word is… ‘fun’? Blissfully isolated from the nearby Troubles and War of Independence, Lois’ existence in the ‘Big House’ of Danielstown means that this young Anglo-Irish lady enjoys all that privileged society has to offer, learning little of the political and actual fires beyond the walled gardens. Lois’ naïveté and sense of displacement as an orphaned niece are a backdrop to parties, flirtations, frivolous companions, and British Army sub-officer Gerald, whose blossoming romance with Lois leaves her family in a tizzy. Written in 1928 with wit and perception, Bowen shows us a sliver of Irish society so consumed with giddiness, dry humour, and ignorance of their own country that when awareness finally comes to Lois and her family, it is altogether too late.
Incredible writers, incredible times. Who can say whether life in Ireland now is better or worse than then, but it is works like these that have helped shape Ireland into the country we have today.
My Life Repositioned
(published on Bookwitty.com in October 2017)
There are some events in life that no parent wants their child to have to endure. Be it foster care, losing a loved one, or being forced from their war-torn home, here are 7 picture books that help children grapple with grim realities.
‘My name is not Refugee’, written and illustrated by Kate Milner. This is a story that is both tender and pragmatic. Milner shows refugee migration—all too frequent a news story reality—through a child’s eyes and ears. The child is told ‘Only take what you can carry.’ She sees trains, boats, vans, and ‘lots of new and interesting things’. To the reader, Milner directs questions that are both sensible and sensitive: ‘Do you think you could live in a place where there is no water in the taps and no one to pick up the rubbish?’ or ‘How far could you walk?’ If the young reader were a refugee, he could expect to ‘walk and walk and walk’, then ‘wait and wait and wait’. Sugarcoating is shelved, and instead we get a clear and uncomplicated sequence of events. Because goodness knows this issue is really damn complicated. In our house, this story provoked much concern and some worry, but it also educated and encouraged compassion. Nothing opens a mind like the sense of being in someone else’s shoes, and it’s important that children are allowed open theirs.
‘Perfectly Norman’, written and illustrated by Tom Percival. Norman’s life is perfectly ordinary until he makes a sudden discovery: he has wings! Shock is followed by delight—these wings lift him, he swoops, banks, and feels alive in a way he never thought possible. But when he’s called to dinner, Norman worries: how will his parents react to this change in him? Illustrations are bright and zingy, and transport us to Norman’s highest heights and his lowest fears, his decision to don a heavy winter coat to hide his wings, and his misery when he cannot bear the weight of it all. With love and support, this everyday boy becomes brave enough to shed that coat, and show his wings. My children too felt the weight of Norman’s coat—they looked visibly relieved when he got to spread his wings and be himself again. What struck me on reading this book were the many possible life changes that this tale might address. While Percival is careful not to say what exactly the wings symbolise, a story like this could be helpful if a child is identifying as homosexual, or struggling with gender identification.
‘The Tenth Good Thing About Barney’, written by Judith Viorst, illustrated by Erik Blegvad. ‘Barney’ may have been written in 1971, but neither the issue of grief nor a child’s emotional reactions have changed one bit. Dealing with the death of the family cat, Viorst’s direct language echoes a boy’s bitter sense of loss. Needing direction, his mother tells him they should give Barney a funeral. Mum also urges him to list ten good things about Barney. He comes up with nine, but at the tenth, he stumbles. But when guided and minded by a parent through difficult times, even a child can find answers and, crucially, that tenth good thing. Blegvad’s pencil illustrations are painstakingly detailed and realistic, capturing the sadness and confusion of this child. Because honest reflection on life and death is always needed, this book has stood the test of time.
‘The Heart and the Bottle’, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. You don’t need to experience loss to enjoy this book, but in it Jeffers spotlights a common childhood experience: intense confusion amid pain and sadness, and our fundamental reaction—a need to protect ourselves. When life changes irrevocably for Jeffers’ main character, she does the only thing she can and puts her heart in a bottle. This story can help readers to make as much sense of their life issue as circumstances allow. The bottle metaphor was enough to captivate my four-year-old. When I asked him why the girl put her heart in a bottle, his reply was wise and concerned: ‘To mind it’. From the mouths of babes…
‘Nutmeg Gets Adopted’, written by Judith Foxon, illustrated by Sarah Rawlings. ‘Traumatic’ doesn’t begin to describe the childhood that too many young readers have, but this tale offers hope and reassurance to those who experience foster care. Nutmeg the Squirrel is forced to leave the only home he’s known, say goodbye to his brother and sister, and live with a different family. A wise owl serves as ‘judge’ and adjustment to his new home is slow, but Nutmeg learns that the move is not his fault. He learns that with the right support, even a small creature can live again. Foxon and Rawlings have paired up to create a number of ‘Nutmeg’ books, all dealing with social issues, and while your charge’s experience may not be the same as Nutmeg’s, this gives her a chance to put shape and meaning on an experience that is far from straightforward.
‘The Most Precious Present In the World’, written by Becky Edwards, illustrated by Louise Comfort. Mia asks her adoptive mum questions like why her eye and hair colour are different to Mum and Dad’s. She asks others that wrench us even further. Sometimes as parents, we too hear these difficult questions, but Edwards helps verbalise some of the answers that elude the rest of us. This book resonates with young readers, allowing dialogue and frankness to become real tools in understanding their move to adoptive home.
‘Mummy’s Lump’, written by Gillian Forrest, illustrated by Sarah Garson. If I’m honest, the title of this book filled me with horror when I first read it, but serious illness touches every family now and then. Cancer touches this family and the young child learns the limitations and frustrations that it brings to everyone involved. As parents, my husband and I could have used a book like this. Only this year, my own young sons needed to understand why Mummy was in hospital, why she was weak and sore for so long, and why she couldn’t be around to play or do things for them. Understanding these issues becomes more important at times of serious illness – to a child, days feel like weeks, and worry is as real for them as it is for you.
Nothing soothes like knowing someone else has been in your shoes. What are the picture books that have helped your young reader make sense of life changes?
‘You mean I’m not the Only One?’
(published on Bookwitty.com in September 2017)
For a child, emotions can feel as real and as big as that scary monster that lives under his bed. The thought that no one else has ever felt the way a child does can make what he is going through even more lonely. But the things a little person cannot say, a made-up person often can, giving words to something that has neither description nor boundary, a comforting voice that tells him ‘you are not alone’. Here are five children’s books that capture more than just a story.
‘Jessica Strange’ by Malorie Blackman, illustrated by Alison Bartlett. UK Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman brings Jessica the farmyard cat to life in this simple story about self-identity. Amid her much-loved family—a clutter of white mice—Jessica is confused as to what she is. She goes outside to poll the other animals with the question, “What do you think I am?” Their answers leave her in a bigger muddle than before, until finally Jessica herself is polled: “What do youthink you are?” Her answer is uncertain, but it’s enough to let her live again. Reading this aloud to my sons, I found myself choking back my emotions—Blackman’s beautiful story reminded this reader to drop the external forces that try to cram us into one category or another, to stop the outside noise long enough to heed the wisdom that is in us, even as children.
‘Giraffes Can’t Dance’ by Giles Andreae and illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Gerald the Giraffe is ‘such a clot’. Even if your child doesn’t know what a clot is, she can certainly interpret Gerald’s facial expressions as he tries to join the other animals on the dance floor and his legs and arms go everywhere and he ends up on his backside. Gerald is plunged into disappointment, the kind every child feels at times. Isolation increases when Gerald sees the light-hearted smiles of those on the dance floor, those luckies who have already found their groove. In life, the word ‘different’ is too often hurled about with insult, but Andreae’s lively rhyming book instills pride in the word when a cricket tells Gerald, “You just need a different song”. This encouraging tale speaks to all readers young and old, and shows that everyone—even a ‘clot’—finds theirmoves,theirbeat.
‘The Lonely Beast’ by Chris Judge. Life for the Beast starts and ends in a garden, but not before bringing our hero all around the world in search of beasts like him. In this tale of bravery and resilience, Judge addresses our need to connect, to find our own kind. Beast is a kindly fellow—his habits of drinking tea and walking in the snow make him gorgeously loveable—but his spiky fur and two seeking yellow eyes hints at restlessness many children feel: occasional loneliness and a need to find acceptance for who they are. But Beast is smart. He knows he can’t stay in his cave forever. To find people, he must leave. Whether your child sees Beast’s journey across snowy mountains and dangerous waters as fun or fearsome, this story surprises and excites as Beast works hard to find others like him, stumbling down the side of a mountain, facing long swims across an ocean or two (and when he can’t swim any more, he walks along the seafloor). His quiet determination inspires hope amid fatigue, and when he finally reaches a city… Huzzah! He’s found people… they’re kind, they’re friendly… but somehow they’re not quite his sort. When contentedness turns to loneliness once more, Beast finds that backtracking to his very own garden brings a very wonderful surprise.
‘The Koala that could’ by Rachel Bright, illustrated by Jim Field. Kevin the Koala’s lovable cuteness is matched only by his fear of change. In this gorgeous rhyming book, Bright shows that from a distance, the world can look too fast, too changey. But high up in your tree, you can cling! You can keep things the same! Caution keeps Kevin unhappy while his friends play. They call for him, but he tells them: “I’ve clinging to do, but thanks for the thought.” Large colourful illustrations bring this little guy up-close—his simple frown mirrors the angst of a child, unable to express what is gripping him, unable to let go of the thing he believes to be true, and desperately unsure what he can do to help himself. All he knows for sure is he needs to stay safe, until out of the blue comes a woodpecker intent on carving through the tree trunk home that Kevin loves so. His friends try to reassure: if he leaps, “we’ll catch you”. They mean it, but they are no match for Kevin’s deep belief that he simply “caaaaannt”. What follows is a quartet of action pictures where Field expertly illustrates Kevin’s dread, his struggle, and finally his fall. But our koala survives to find friendship, love, and a delicious freedom from the paralysis of fear, because “life can be great when you try something new”.
‘Imaginary Fred’ by Eoin Colfer and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. Fred is imaginary but his dream is as human as yours or mine—he wants a friend for keeps. This kind sensitive scrap of imagination loves music, drama, and all things French, and despite being a super-duper friend to his ‘real’ child, things inevitably go wrong for Fred when his child finds someone else. Someone real. When he meets Sam, he hopes for the best but fears the worst: Fred has been here before, so readers hold their breath as they watch his little heart once again get dangerously close to breaking point. We hope that Sam is different. ‘Imaginary Fred’ is a story that could have been predictable in the hands of a lesser writer, but Colfer takes us down a clever road, adding perspective and depth. Jeffers’ illustrations are simple and symbolic, drawing quick and tight with subtle colours that convey so much meaning to young eyes. The predictability of Fred’s fate will wrench at readers, but this hero takes matters into his own hands. His determination to protect himself leads to a brave pre-emptive strike where he tells Sam, “The best thing you can do is let me go without making a scene.” But Sam proves that he’s not like the other children, and does something that changes Fred’s imaginary life forever.
For a child, books can heal your broken heart, soothe your deepest fears, comfort your beleaguered soul. Learning about life from someone else—even if that someone is in a colourful book with a made-up name—makes it possible that what you’re feeling is true, has a name, can be heard, or even fixed.
If you want to write, read
(published on Bookwitty.com in November 2017)
If you want to write, read. Sage advice, and the kind I can attest to. I’ve been writing novels for nine years now, and wish to all the publishing gods and their associated agents that I’d found these five craft books earlier, but you dear novelist may devour them now. Whether you’re starting your first novel or your fifth, increase your chances of selling with these straight talking instructional books.
‘Wired for Story’, written by Lisa Cron. What’s the secret to publishing success? Connect with your reader. Oh, I’ve heard other ‘secrets’: prose must be gripping, characters must be real… but come on, the basis of a selling novel absolutely categorically HAS to be a solid story, one that grips a reader, enough for her to rave to her friends about it and recommend it at next month’s bookclub. Cron’s subtitle is ‘…Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence’. There’s a tad on science, but Cron backs it up with copious examples of seriously successful novels that adhere to the science. Cron teaches writing at UCLA and does story consultation for Warner Brothers among others. She tells us what in a story appeals to the human brain, and crucially, teaches you how to put these elements into your story. My writing partner and I are working through this a chapter a week, and are loving it.
‘Break Into Fiction’, written by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love. This book started off as a workshop in the US, so the book it has morphed into is an active learning tool with many many questions to get you the writer to do the thinking. Because like it or not, writing novels is a bloody lonely job; the stronger and better equipped you are, the sooner you’ll succeed. This book like others in this list refer to movies – their structure, their plots. Why? Movies are visual and are short investments of time, making them accessible and digestible. So much money goes into a movie, the story structure HAS to be solid in order to make the money back. This book is suitable for beginners and experienced writers, because we can all analyse the movies discussed, and—if we get the right questions—we can all get the answers we need for OUR story. Mary Buckham is one of the industry’s warmest and most trusted writing instructors, with a considerable body of fiction work behind her too. This book is zero faff, it’s to the point, keeps its focus, and expects you to do the same. Are you ready?
‘Got High Concept: The Key to Dynamic Fiction That Sells’, written by Lori Wilde. Wilde is a bestselling author of 78 novels and counting, and her step-by-step manual on how to construct a high-concept book works. A high concept story is one that is different, universal, emotional, one where you can see the entire story, and it can be captured in one sentence. While there’s no formula for high concept stories, there are elements that are common to them. Expect questions, but don’t let them turn you off—with them, you’ll mine your characters, you’ll connect with your story, so that eventually readerscan do the same. Working quickly is encouraged, so as to limit the dreaded internal critic that plagues so many. There’s a lot of detail in this, but Wilde’s tone is warm, supportive, pointed, and packed with help. It’s for this reason I recommend ‘Got High Concept’ to novelists starting off: it’s like having a writing instructor by your side, one who knows her stuff and takes no shit.
‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’, written by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is the most writer-friendly book on editing there is; I say that because it is respectful of the writer, his process, and his undeniable weaknesses. Look, it’s not about proofreading and it’s not about putting the comma in the right place (if only editing were that simple), it’s about looking at story, and how prose can best bring it life. Browne and King help you analyse your characterisation, the dreaded ‘show versus tell’, and devote a whole three chapters to one of my weaknesses, dialogue. The content is light and accessible and highly digestible, with copious examples that entertain as well as teach.
‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’, written by James N. Frey. This was the first craft book I picked up, and it’s still close to hand. Frey packs this book with solid advice on key aspects of the craft, from characterisation to conflict to dialogue to climaxes. A successful fiction writer and instructor at UC Berkley, he looks at a variety of authors such as LeCarré and Flaubert, and despite his academic tone, he engages you with page after page of insights, provocation, and invitations to work harder on your own novel. I still enjoy his insights on human nature, and how we writers are tempted to put on the page every nuance and detail that real life vomits forth. Useful both for first drafts and revisions, ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’ brings you straight into the heart of novel-writing.
Writing is lonely work so think of these authors as your companions. They prove there’s no mystery to crafting a novel, only work and perseverance, so trust their experience, heed their advice, and write.