On the brink

(Just to add today, 13th June, I wrote this on June 1st and it stayed gathering dust as a Draft until today).

I expect we all know the feeling of being on the brink of something new.  It may be only a minor change, or it may be something enormous like a life decision.  The feeling links up the mind and the body to disturbing effect.

I experience this often.  In the last few days I’ve been on the brink of making decisions about my work as a writer.  Last year I set up this WordPress site, knowing I should do something public as a writer, having – after a long silence – self-published three books with Createspace on Amazon.  I had decided to give up attempting to clamber back into the traditional publishing world.  I would fling myself into the ocean of self-publishers and take part in all the activities – blogging, engaging on social media, and so on – necessary to promote myself, my titles, and sell some copies.

For some reason, which I’m sure I thought logical at the time, I established the domain name aliveinww2.    This is the title of the non-fiction book, one of those three on Createspace, subtitled The Cousins’ Chronicle, commentary and memoir.  It’s based on family wartime newsletters and of course some present-day cousins – at various levels of kinship – were interested enough to buy copies.  Beyond them, did anyone fork out the eight necessary pounds or equivalent dollars to buy and read this book … very few, if any.  I probably thought that by using the title as domain name I might  help sales.

I set up this WordPress site with this URL and made myself explore the world of blogging.  I began to understand just how every second person in the world thinks they can write.   People sometimes tell Peter when admiring his work, that they’d dearly love to be able to draw and paint but they can’t.  I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think they can write.  After all, they’ve done it ever since they learnt to hold a pencil.  Of course a lot of people do realise that it is an art like any other.  You need a certain amount of inborn talent to start with, then a lot of hard work, experiential learning and perseverance.

One of the things I’ve found hard is being part of this unregulated world.  There is no quality control at all.   When anyone of whatever merit,  lack of talent or basic literacy can publish their writing, how can readers find a decent read?   I learnt about book bloggers, and decided that this would be a way to reach the kind of readers who might like my kind of writing.  A trawl brought up the name of Teddy Rose who organises digital book tours http://virtualauthorsbooktours.com.  I signed on, full of hope.  (I’m a incurable optimist).   My ‘tour’ ended on May 31st after two months.  As yet it hasn’t resulted in a single sale of the novel I was promoting.

In fact, I enjoyed all aspects of the tour save this non-sale result.  It was fun to answer questions about the book ‘White Lies’.   It started with a wild interview with very jolly Michelle Jordan’s  ‘Indie Review Behind the Scenes Maverick Moment’ Youtube video.  Teddy was a good companion during the strange tour of book bloggers.  An early one objected to be use of the word ‘natural’ for the woman she’d prefer to be called the ‘birth’ mother, and removed herself from the tour.  Apart from this blogger, the reviews  were in favour of the book, eleven in all.  I was pleased because they came from people who – I gathered – usually review novels that are easier to read at speed.  They found White Lies needed greater attention but said that it rewarded their time.  One of the last reviewers (on Amazon.com) said the story “paints a fuller picture of the emotional intricacies of adoption.”  She has an adopted brother.  “This book makes me think outside of the obvious.”   She expresses the hope that, if ever they talk about his adoption, she will “navigate the interaction with compassion, empathy and a whole lot of sensitivity.”  This comment pleased me.  I always hope that my books will nudge people to think about and see their own lives and relationships in a new way, as well as entertain them with a good story.

But how much effect, if any at all, has this tour had on spreading the word about Susan Barrett and her work?  I spent money on it.   I would have liked sales to pay for it.    I don’t expect to make money out of writing – very few authors do.  But I would like to reach more readers.   I also want to give up this business of working at promotion, and get back to writing the novel I’d begun before the bloggers’ tour.  Its working title is Greek Gold.  Today I began the third chapter.  Alex, my main character, is on the brink of a parachute jump.  In fact, he’s been on the brink since January.  I kept him there, alive in my head in that quivering moment, for the intervening months.  This morning I began to put into words my vision of the poor chap  – and he’s still not jumped after one page of writing.  I’ve been waylaid by this post because I have the idea that I will give a page of the site to writing this novel.  That might be a good way of finding the path between promoting work and writing it.

I’m on the brink of a decision.

At Sea

Susie Barrett, cartoon greetings cards

At Sea is an appropriate title for today’s post.  Teddy Rose of virtualauthorsbooktours has told me that two of my social media buttons don’t work.  Hell.  My floundering  to stay afloat in the sea of social media and the self-publishing ocean continues.   I’m keen to fathom the Twitter and Google+ links out on my own, without recourse to paying someone to do it for me.  It’s a balancing act between working at promotion in order to make money from possible sales and spending money fruitlessly on that very promotion.  The amount I earn is so infinitesimal you have to screw up your eyes to make out the figure on the screen.  Paying for help to promote is against the grain, common sense and the current account balance.  But how else to gain sales and the readers I hope for?

I’ve just posted on Linkedin talking about the way pictures are more likely to attract attention than words.  I’m thinking of writing the story behind the greeting cards.   Click on the linkedin button in the sidebar to the right and please let me know what you think.

At Sea



Nobody likes a braggart.  People of my generation in particular were brought up not to blow our own trumpets, as our parents’ disapproving voices phrased it.   So what does a writer producing a new book in one of the many independent ways that exist nowadays do about promotion?

When I was firmly bedded in the mainstream literary world, I never had to worry about PR.  The publisher and my agent would do what they could; it was in their interest, too.  The last novel that was published in the conventional way – Stephen and Violet, published by Collins – was launched with a small party at my agent’s office.  Two other writers kindly came: Jonathan Raban and Sebastian Faulks.  They were ‘names’ then but went on to become even better known.  Heady days, which I took for granted.

Today, without an agent, without a publisher, I must pick up, polish and blow my own trumpet.  Although it’s half a year since I brought out two novels and a non-fiction book with CreateSpace on Amazon, I’ve done nothing as yet.   But my reluctance to self-advertise has changed.  I’ve embarked on a publicity venture, thanks to Teddy Rose of Virtual Author Book Tours.  On Saturday I shall find myself in my study, facing my laptop’s screen, video-conferencing with someone called Michelle in the States on a Blog Talk Radio Show.   The book I will be pushing is “White Lies”.  I’d better leave this post and have a quick re-read to remind myself what on earth it’s about…

First past the post second time around

I wrote my first post on July 11th 2016.  Tomorrow that will be six months ago.   Now, at the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on my website history as well as look forward to the way the site is developing.

Re-reading my first post, I can remember my feelings of bewilderment and determination.  It was like diving into a lake shrouded in fog.  I knew I wanted to be in that lake – but was it safe?  Were there unseen obstacles?  Was it full of struggling swimmers who might pull me down?  Would I sink without trace?

Even though I’d set up websites in the past – one that I paid to have designed, another I’d created myself on a template – this WordPress one seemed almost too easy.  I hadn’t set out to make a blog appear on its home page, but hey presto!  a blog appeared: an easy forum for passing thoughts.   What was I going to call it?  The term used in the menu to describe this page was ‘Posts’.  In the whoosh of my first dive-in, the phrase “First past the post” came to me.  Well, it was the first post and I was past it.  Then I discovered how ripples appear some time after a post.  A few days after my first dive into the lake,  there were people – unknown people – reading what I was writing.  They were commenting on “First past the post.”   I began to wish I hadn’t chosen such a numerically definite title.  First is only first when it is first.  But never mind the wording, I told myself; I was getting responses from unknown people who seemed to appreciate what I was saying.

Then, among the genuine responses came the useless ones, intent on selling their own wares.  I haven’t yet learnt how to stop these coming in. Perhaps it’s inevitable that you’ll receive unwelcome visitors when you offer an open forum.  So far they are not harmful, just a nuisance.

The comments which I welcome are from people who want to learn something new.  However, I’m not sure exactly what the something new might be.  Perhaps they simply like to read of my experience as a long-term writer dealing with the opportunities and obstacles that exist in present day publishing.   It would be helpful if any readers of this post would present a specific question.  Even without such prompting, I find there is always a new thought that pops up and inspires a post.

Looking back at my first post, I’m reminded of my reason for setting up the site.  I thought I would – with a fair ration of good luck – reach new readers for my work, particularly for “Alive in World War Two, The Cousins’ Chronicle”.  There have been sales, but no more than there might have been without this website.  I know the thing to do is to stay put, keep with it, not give up.  So I’ll carry on.  I’ll continue with this First Past the Post as many times as it stays worth it for me and for – I hope – others.


How to set targets

Now is the time a great many of us make resolutions about how we will improve ourselves and our lives.  We resolve to give up bad habits and/or take up good habits.  My bad habit is eating too much Bombay Crunch and drinking two glasses of wine while watching the evening news.  Just to write that sentence makes me nervous that some bossy part of me will dictate that I must give this habit up.  My rebel part kicks in.  I won’t give up wine and Bombay Crunch!  Even if I managed for a week of abstinence, it wouldn’t last.

A good habit that Peter and I have developed over the autumn is a 20 minute walk.  The target is to go for this short local walk every day after lunch.  Timing needn’t be exact but it’s usually around 1.45.  We turn right along the lane, then up a steep hill to the top; turn round, and back home.  By 2.15 or so we are at work again, P in his studio, myself in my study.  If we have to miss a day, we don’t beat ourselves up.  But the reason for missing has to be justifiable.  It can’t be just “it’s too cold” or “I’m not feeling like it.”

We’ve found it easy to maintain this habit because the target is so modest.  If we’d vowed to walk two or three miles every day, we’d never have managed to keep it up.  There wouldn’t be time.  We’d sometimes be too tired or we’d have too many other things to do.

Similarly – speaking for myself – my writing targets are modest.  The morning is my time.  I am at my desk from, say, 9 until 1 p.m.  I will sometimes return in the afternoon, but as a treat away from other jobs.  How my study hours are spent vary, depending on what I’m working on at the time: it could be writing fluently while in the middle of a novel, or it might be reading background material, or writing a long email descriptive of some recent event.  That last I consider essential for keeping my writer’s hand in.  Writing is a kind of reflex action to things that happen in life.  Sometimes I can’t do anything else until I’ve understood, in the words with which I describe it, what exactly it is I have just experienced.

I never use word counts as writing targets, although I know many people do.   The important thing is to choose a target that is easy for you to achieve.  It’s the regularity that’s important, not the size of the ambition.

My target for the next month (never mind the next year) is to give up cow’s milk products.  Goat’s milk on my breakfast oats was the way I started today.  If I find this benefits me, I will be motivated to continue for longer.

Another short-term target is to discover how to block the advertising mailing that comes in disguised as comments on this page, sent by organisations or people who have latched on to my open door policy.  One that keeps appearing is about earning money from writing.  It has standard wording but is sent in by many different people.  The other repetitive comment is about bathroom products.   I trash it as soon as I see it, hardly giving myself time to work out what language it’s in, or what it’s about.

But I do click the Approve button for comments on the content of my posts.  Thanks to those people who tell me they find them useful and interesting.    “Please continue”, they say.  And so I resolve to continue into 2017.  Happy New Year.



When fact gets in the way of fiction

Good research of facts makes fiction more believable, even when that fiction is fantasy.  As readers we can relate more easily to the writing when we trust the writer knows his or her subject.

But research must be deftly sewn into the writing, so that it doesn’t outweigh the fiction, dragging it down into a muddy recitation of facts.  Invisible sewing is the name of the game.

Another way fact can get in the way of fiction has occurred in my life.  I was expecting to be absorbed in writing my new novel, working title “Greek Gold”.  I have got my main character to arrive in Cairo in 1943, poised for action.  But life, or rather death, has intervened.  My husband’s sister’s partner (not a close relationship from my point of view) died on Thursday of prostate cancer.  His unavoidable death has been expected since diagnosis last winter.  All the same, a death – however long expected – is a shock and a loss when it occurs.  As my sister-in-law’s partner he has been part of the family for many years, living only half-an-hour’s drive away.  We’ve been supporting Jennifer during this time and were at the nursing home with her when Bill died.

This is the second time I’ve witnessed that moment when someone crosses the hair’s breadth line between life and death.  Then how quickly the person we know becomes absent, leaving just chalky white material covering bones.  It is an astounding event, besides being the cause of grief.

I find that I cannot get back easily into writing fiction.  The image of Bill on his deathbed gets in the way.  Of course I know it won’t stay in the foreground of my mind for long.  The living man as he was will be what I remember.  But the manner of his death and the image attached to it will stay at the back of my writerly mind, and is likely to re-emerge as fiction in the future.

Real life feeds fiction, and fiction feeds real life.