The Great British Write-off!

When it comes to finding success, writing is much like baking. At the weekend I went to author Christie Barlow‘s publication party and was determined to take a cake to celebrate. However, my scales were broken, so I decided I was such a good baker, I could guess the ingredients’ weights. What a mistake. That cake ended up in the bin. The next cake’s icing was too runny but looked okay. So we strapped the cake onto the car’s back seat and off we set – not thinking that the backseat is set at angle, plus the heating was on. Needless to say, the icing melted and the top layer off sponge slid off. The result is below!

cake fail christie

I’ve always prided myself on my baking but learnt many lessons from this episode and, effectively, this failure will (hopefully) lead to success next time I attempt such a cake. And it is much the same for writing. I have failed time and time again over the years – still do – but those failures were/are essential, in order for me to learn to improve and hopefully succeed.

When I first started writing, hands up, I felt a teeny sense of entitlement – I’d written a novel. Not many people did that. Surely I deserved a publishing deal? Time and time again I’d be disappointed when rejections came back. But these continued failures eventually made me realise my expectations were not realistic. If I’d given up writing after the first book, I’d probably, still to this day, be thinking that that particular book deserved a contract. But by not giving up, and continuing to fail in this way, I eventually realised that to succeed, I needed to wake up and understand that writing a novel was just the beginning of a very long journey to finding a book deal. And I thank goodness now that my first manuscript never saw the light of day! I learned a lot from all the rejection letters, pictured below.

rejection letters

 

Also, at the beginning, I kept making the same two mistakes – I’d create a main character that came across as whiny (I thought she was simply sharing her angst) and I would also drop a lot of backstory into the first few chapters. Being told where I was going wrong, more than once, eventually made me work really hard at developing appealing protagonists and opening chapters that dived straight into the immediate action instead of giving away the plot of the whole book before I’d hardly started.

I wrote several books before I eventually signed my deal in 2013 – no, I’m not saying how many! And, I learnt so much from each “failure”. One, for example, was a totally high concept book preceded by nothing on the shelves. Agents and publishers had no idea where to place it. I’d written 100% what I wanted, without keeping an eye on the market. And I’m all for that, if you aren’t so concerned about publication or sales figures, but writing is my job, I have bills to pay, I can’t afford to take a risk at the moment. So I learnt that, whilst writing from the heart is paramount, to fulfil my own personal aspirations I must keep an eye on the current market and be prepared to make small compromises in order to make sure that any book I create will fit into a genre already out there.

In fact, that reminds me… the original idea for my bestselling 2015 novel, Game of Scones, was set in… heaven. Ahem, I can still remember my editor’s face when we discussed it. I’d failed to realise that I needed to keep within my brand. I learnt through this and came up with a different idea that I loved. It taught me to think more about readers and what they want/expect from me.

Rejections can be seen as failures. But they aren’t. They are simply the industry’s way of telling you there is more to learn. I can honestly say that every author I know, who has been determined and persevered over the years, humbly learning from their mistakes, has “made it”.

Nor should bad reviews be seen as failures. I’ve learnt a lot from the constructive ones and, hopefully, they have helped me improved my craft and inch nearer to success.

So, try to keep some perspective when you feel you have failed. You haven’t. Don’t ever think you are a write-off. No doubt Mary Berry suffered many soggy bottoms when she first started out! It is hard. I’ve shed tears. Proclaimed at the unfairness of it all. But we aren’t failing if we put our work out there. That takes guts. And the bravest part is being able to admit when we are wrong and start again.

As Colin Powell once said:

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.

 

Laugh in the Face of Writer’s Block!

Breakfast under a Cornish Sun is my sixth novel, out in July 2016, and by now I’ve had some experience of writer’s block – especially as I am lucky enough to work full-time as an author. I write from 8am to 5 or 6pm most days and so it is inevitable that, at some point, my creativity temporarily runs dry. At its worst, for me, writer’s block results in time spent prevaricating on social media, fooling myself that this counts as authorly work – like when I’m doing those addictive Facebook quizzes like “what is the theme song to your life” or “which of the Kardashians do you ressemble?”. However, I have found some solutions over the years that work for me and might for you. Here are my top five.

writers block 2

Firstly…plan each chapter in minute detail. This is working for my current project. I go to Costa Coffee in the morning with an old-fashioned notebook and pen and scribble down notes on the next chapter I am due to write. Not the dialogue or actual prose, but the gist of how it is going to flow, every single twist and turn. This then makes it SO much easier when I come to write the actual chapter on screen, in the afternoon. I find it sets the story in my mind so that I usually don’t need to use the notes I’ve made. It’s like going on a journey with SatNav, instead of a paper map that you have to keep stopping to consult. So take that time to plan, whether it is in your lunch hour at the office or whilst your toddler takes a nap.

costa work

Secondly, stubbornly force yourself to write through the block, even if the result is absolute rubbish. At least you are getting something down that can be rewritten (and thank goodness for rewrites!) Or jump ahead and write an exciting scene from your story – perhaps a romantic encounter or heated argument. In Breakfast at Poldark’s I could have jumped ahead to one of the grass-cutting scenes… 🙂

Thirdly, take a break but do something that is still authorly so that your precious writing time isn’t being wasted. I might write a blogpost (like this!) or prepare some promotional materials – for example shareables for Twitter or Facebook (and I can highly recommend Canva for those).

Fourthly, take a complete break, away from the screen and writing. Recently I found myself working seven days a week and wondered why I felt stale! Now I make sure I rarely work at the weekend – I get out and do stuff. Cinema. A meal out. A walk through a park. Anything. If you hold down a full-time job or look after kids all week, perhaps grabbing every free moment to fit in writing isn’t giving your body enough time too refresh itself and unwind. Writer’s block might be its way of telling you that your brain needs to recharge. So do something you enjoy. Recently I’ve started baking again and – dare I say it – caught up on some housework. I’d forgotten that ironing can be quite therapeutic!

fish and chips

Last of all… don’t beat yourself up about it. Writer’s block happens. We are emotional humans, not metal machines that can pump out words and sentences on demand. Follow one of my above tips and I’m sure those authorly urges will start twitching again. Best of luck!

Writing to live or living to write?

I have just come back from a two-week break, away from my writing life, after promoting my short story How to Get Hitched in Ten Days. Why? Because since I got published two and a half years ago, work has steadily taken over my life. The children are older teenagers so often busy doing their own thing at weekends… It hasn’t been unusual, for months, for me to work seven days a week.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE  my job, which is one of the reasons I’ve been writing, editing and promoting 24/7. But over the last few months I’ve felt increasingly drained. Stale. Tired. So I decided to take a couple of weeks off – very unusual for me.

What did I do? Ooh, let’s see… I bought a new coat.

 

 

me coat front

 

me coat back

 

I  baked – here are some cereal bars (dipped in chocolate of course!)

 

cereal bars 2

I read.

I detoxed and replaced my usual tipple with my  new obsession: Costa Coffee hot chocolate.

hot chocolate

 

I caught up with friends.

I kept on top of the ironing and cleaning for once.

I can’t believe it has only been two weeks as I feel like a completely new woman, up early, out on my bike, skin clearer, head not fuzzy and – most importantly – not worrying about so many small things that stressed me up when I was working all hours. Rejuvenated. Motivated. Fresh. Batteries recharged, I am determined not to overdo it again.

And I don’t believe this resolution will affect my writing output as I feel a renewed but newly focussed energy to push on with my  next project. I’ve already started my new plan to fill my weekends with activities not linked to the writing world – apart from an author/blogger meet in a couple of weeks, but that doesn’t count as work! I’m talking the cinema. Shopping. Going for walks. All those things that have become rare events instead of much-needed breaks. That’s the trouble with working for yourself, whatever you do. It’s difficult not to get sucked into slaving all hours as you know that every extra minute spent at the computer might contribute to any success or, at least the next pay cheque.

So if you are a writer – or, in fact, anyone who is self-employed – take a moment to step back. Living to write had taken its toll. Now I think I’ll be a better author for writing to live.

Sweet Talk from awesome author Jenny Oliver

jenny oliver photo

 

Hello Jenny – lovely to have a fellow foodie on the blog! Food features heavily in my own writing – cupcakes In Mistletoe Mansion, my summer novel Game of Scones speaks for itself and in the latter’s standalone sequel,  My Big Fat Christmas Wedding, Pippa specializes in baking scones and pasties… yum! Clearly you  love writing about food as well, going by the titles of some of your books, like the Cherry Pie Island series, The Little Christmas Kitchen and The Parisian Christmas Bake off… Do you bake much in real life? I see from your website that you come from a family of “star bakers”!

Hey Sam, thanks for having me! I was excited to see your cover reveal for My Big Fat Christmas Wedding – it looks amazing!

Thanks so much! As a fellow Carina author, I’m sure you’ll agree their covers are fab-u-lous! So… back to food – how important is it in your personal and writing life?

I do love writing about food and I have an incredibly sweet tooth so can never resist a stop for a cup of tea and a cake. When I have the time I bake at home, and I’m looking forward to baking more with my son when he gets a bit older – I have really fond memories of standing on a stool by the kitchen counter when my mum was baking and being able to lick the spoon. My favourite recipes are a very easy all-in-one chocolate cake from a tatty old cookbook that everyone in the family has photocopies of because it’s such a winner, and my grandmother’s lemon cake which is insanely good and a close guarded secret recipe.

I really enjoy describing the texture and appearance of sweet foods and I think this comes from being brought up by a mother who was an ace baker – suet puddings, pies, cakes, all gooey and melt-in-the-mouth and… I could go on!

I can relate to that! My mum was a midday supervisor at a primary school, when I was younger, and used to bring home the recipes to bake. I can remember frequently tucking into seconds of carrot cake, suet puddings, rice puddings… Mmmm! I believe your mum is Russian and has inspired your interest in all things culinary, so would you say your palate is very cosmopolitan or are you a bigger fan of the British staples?

Ooh I like everything! Probably more than the cultural influence was the insistence that we should at least try what was on the plate in front of us, even if we didn’t finish it, and I think that lead to a pretty rounded palate. The Russian heritage has had most influence on seasonal celebrations – Easter especially – and instead of a wedding cake we had Malakoff Torte, made by my mum, which is probably one of my most favourite foods in the world!

 

jenny oliver xmas cake

What is your signature dish, if you’re throwing a dinner party?

In the winter I tend to make Coq au Vin or some other kind of hearty stew! In summer it’s lots of salads, tabbouleh and an amazing moroccan chicken dish of Nigel Slater’s which is v easy and unbelievably tasty.

I know cherries are your favourite fruit… which is your favourite:

Vegetable – probably carrots or broccoli, but I’m more of a salad person – I have it with everything – and I love avocado.

Sandwich filling – this is very tricky. I like a lot of different sandwiches. But I’m going to go with cheese and pickle. Simple but very effective.

Dessert – if it’s a restaurant then always the chocolate option. If not then Malakoff Torte (as above) or my mum’s meringues.

Writing snack – plain chocolate digestives.

Can we expect any more foodie books from you in the future?

jenny oliver book cover

 

My latest book, Four Weddings and a White Christmas, has just come out and food plays a really important part in the story. Harry, the hero, is a chef and pours all his passion and energy into his restaurant and his food, leaving very little left for anyone else… Enter Hannah to change all that!

Sounds like a wonderful read, Jenny!

Thanks so much for joining me and now I must head straight for the kitchen – all this food-talk has made me decidedly peckish!

You can find out more about Jenny here

 

Me, My Scones and Cathy Bramley!

I was thrilled when lovely Ivy Lane author, Cathy Bramley, asked me if I’d like to contribute a recipe to the back of her new book, Wickham Hall. What an honour! So a recipe from the story of my own summer book, Game of Scones, for glittery jam scones, will be appearing the the second part of Cathy’s new book, called Wickham Hall, Summer Secrets out 23rd July! Part One is out 25th June. 

Cathy portrait

 

Cathy, tell me, how are recipes relevant to the Wickham Hall Story?

I have always included recipes in each of my series as the stories lend themselves so well to food of one sort or another! Wickham Hall is my new series based around the goings-on in a stately home which is open to the public. For me, a day trip to a beautiful hall is never complete without a slice of cake in the café. Wickham Hall has the Coach House Café where lots of the action happens and so it was natural for me to include lots of lovely cake recipes – your glittery scones fit in perfectly!

Ooh, afternoon tea in a stately home – sounds perfect! And what is your favourite afternoon cake?

My favourite would probably be a slice of Victoria sponge with strawberry jam and fresh cream in the centre. Yum!

Yum indeed! What about eating cake at home – are you a good baker or have you had any disasters?

I class myself as a good family baker, i.e. I cook for the family but I’d never be tempted to do anything fancy! I’ve had plenty of disasters, usually arising from me not reading the recipe properly and missing out something vital like sugar!

Well, best of luck with the book, Cathy – the cover is absolutely adorable.

If anyone would like to know more about Cathy Bramley, please check out her website here!

wickham hall