A Look Behind The Book With Carla Burgess.

IMG_1996 2There are some characters I continue to think about long after I’ve turned the final page of a book – and ex-soldier, Sam, the hero in Carla Burgess’ first novel, Marry Me Tomorrow, is one of them.

Luckily, Carla seems just as unwilling to let them go and one of the joys of reading her second and third novels was coming across little updates about Sam and her other creations (must try and remember they are not real people).

She released Stuck With You (which I adored, even though it starts with people trapped in a lift and I’m claustrophobic) in April this year and has just published her most recent, Meet Me Under The Mistletoe (review to follow).

I’ve been wanting to chat to her for ages and I was thrilled when she agreed to feature in my Behind The Book series. Thank you to Carla for not only answering my questions but also giving us peek at her very first (as yet unpublished) book she wrote and illustrated, which I think you’re going to love.

Marry Me Tomorrow was published after you responded to a Tweet from HQ Digital asking for submissions of stories that start with a proposal. Had you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, I’d wanted to be a writer ever since I was little. It’s weird but I remember being amazed when I discovered that someone had actually physically wrote the books that I read and loved. I don’t know how I thought they’d been made, but I was only little at the time. I suppose I just thought they were written hundreds of years ago and passed down through the generations, and no new books were ever made! But when I found out, I thought what an amazing job that would be. So when I got a bit older, I decided to write my own. I was so in love with Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers books that I wrote my own book about a boarding school. I also adored horses so it had a lot of horses in it too. My daughter was looking through it the other day and laughing at my home-made illustrations!

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I absolutely love this!

What happened after you submitted Marry Me Tomorrow? Did you already have the story written? If not how long did it take to write? Had you written any stories before?

I had only written one chapter and a synopsis for Marry Me Tomorrow, and that was completely in response to the tweet. Prior to that, I’d been writing a short story for an online writing course I was doing, and that had been about a homeless teenager who was in love with a girl he’d seen in a café. There had been lots of media coverage about the increasing rate of homelessness and how each homeless person has a different story to tell. Once you start hearing the stories, it becomes clear that it could happen to any one of us if our circumstances were to change. Basically, I really wanted to write a story about a homeless man, so I decided to adapt my initial idea and start from there. HQ (or Carina, as they were called then) phoned me back shortly after receiving it, and said they would like me to write it. I think I was given four months to write the first draft, which was daunting as I’d spent the previous ten or so years writing and rewriting just one book. But, at the same time, I knew I could do it because the previous November I’d participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and managed to write 50,000 words in a month.

You’ve just published your third book, Meet Me Under The Mistletoe, and, as I’ve already revealed, characters from your previous books make little cameos, which makes me so happy. Did you always plan for that? 

Ah, I’m so glad you liked that aspect of it. I love books where characters from previous stories pop up and readers can check how they’re getting on with their lives (Yes, they have real lives!). For instance, many years ago I read Rivals by Jilly Cooper and fell so in love with Rupert and Taggie’s story that I look for updates about them whenever she brings a new book out. I feel so excited and happy when they actually do pop up that it’s made me want to do that in my own books.

How do you know when your books are finished? Is there ever a temptation to write just one more chapter?

Definitely. I think that’s why I’m writing a sequel to Meet Me Under The Mistletoe! Rachel and Anthony have so much more to give and I don’t want to say goodbye to them yet.

Writing is often said to be a lonely profession. Do you find that? Does it bother you and if so how do you combat it?

It can be, but I have my lovely dog to keep me company, and I share my writing room with a bearded dragon who is very friendly too. I listen to music while I work so it doesn’t get too quiet, and I drop into Twitter and Facebook fairly regularly. Too regularly, to be honest. Also, the children are back from school before I know it.

How hard is it to come up with titles? Do they usually come as you’re writing?

Titles are so, so hard! Anything I come up with is usually changed by my editor anyway, but I trust her to know the market and what works so I’m quite happy to go with whatever she suggests.

How long have you been writing for? Do you do it full time now? If you don’t, how do you make time to write?

As I said before, I used to write a lot when I was a child. It tailed off as I got older and homework and studying took over, but I always had stories in my head and would often daydream about them instead of getting on with what I was supposed to be doing. After doing a degree in English literature and Psychology, I took a job as an editor on a trade journal called Medical Device Technology and really that took care of my urge to write for a long time. Also, I got married, bought a house and started having children, so I felt like I didn’t have the time. But then, in 2004, I lost my sister to cancer and I felt like I needed an outlet for my feelings so writing became a sort of therapy for me. So, for the past thirteen years I’ve been writing properly. In the beginning, when I was still working, I’d write in the evening after the kids had gone to bed, but after having my third child and being made redundant, I decided to stay home with the children and now I am able to write full time. It’s funny because I used to feel guilty about the time I spent writing. I would constantly be thinking ‘I shouldn’t be doing this, I should be doing some housework instead’. So now, as well as being a dream come true, being published has also been quite liberating because now I think ‘Yes! I am doing what I should be doing!’

How do you write your heroes? They all seem so different. Do you have to fall for them a bit too or are you matching them to your heroine? Speaking of which, are any of them based on you?

 I think I’m a little bit in love with all of my heroes and I find it helps if I pick an actor or some kind of famous person to gaze at while I’m creating them! This, I find, is a major perk of my job! I suppose they have to match up to the heroines as well as the plot, and I think for the reader to love them they have to be kind and funny, and treat the heroine right. Sam from Marry Me Tomorrow had to be quite rugged because he was a homeless ex-soldier. Daniel was a tree surgeon and also a guitarist in a band, so I wanted him to be quite outdoorsy and confident. And Anthony is basically Tom Hiddleston. There, I said it. Obviously, the reader will create their own impression of what the hero looks like, so I shouldn’t really influence them in anyway, but that is who I based him on. Oooh, imagine if Tom Hiddleston walked into your flower shop?! Swoon! As for my heroines, I suppose all of them will have some aspect of me in them because I wrote them, but at the same time, I’m quite conscious of the fact that I don’t want them to be too much like me either.

I know you’ve just published your latest book but are you already working on something new? If so can you tell us anything about it?

I am frantically writing the sequel to Meet Me Under The Mistletoe, which should be out sometime in the spring.

Any writing tips you can pass on?

My one big tip is to try and join a writing group. It was easier for me because Authonomy was still in existence, so you could put up your manuscript and people would read and critique it. I wrote for years without showing anybody what I wrote, so it was a big boost to my confidence when people read my work and said it was actually okay. Authonomy has shut down now, but I know there are various online writing groups out there. On top of critiquing each other’s work, you get to share tips and information about the industry, and that can be invaluable. And as for the actual writing:

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Reading Carla’s answers really put a smile on my face, I hope you enjoyed them too. I know just what she means when she talked about feeling guilty for writing before she was published. I am exactly the same. In fact, I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo at the moment and have been lucky enough to buddy up with an amazing group of women, many of whom have also spoken about similar issues. Does anyone else feel guilty about time they spend writing?

You can discover more about Carla and her wonderful books by following her on Twitter, checking out her website or heading straight for Amazon where you can buy her books, including her latest, which is only 99p at present.

I’ll have another Behind The Book post for you next month.

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A Look Behind The Book With Isabella Davidson.

IsabellaDavidsonPhoto2For years she wrote the popular but very much anonymous blog, Notting Hill Yummy Mummy, which gave a rather tongue in cheek peek at the glamorous, competitive and often bizarre world of the super rich of west London.

That changed when her first book, The Beta Mum: Adventures In Alpha Land, came out and she had to reveal herself as Isabella Davidson – not just to her readership but also to her neighbours and the school gate mums she sometimes wrote about.

In my latest Behind The Book post I was thrilled to be able to ask Isabella about what it was like to be thrust into the spotlight in such a big way (she was featured in the Times and other newspapers as well as on TV and radio) together with picking up some tips for bloggers hoping to become authors.

When did you start writing? Was it with the blog or even before that? Was it your dream to eventually publish a book?

I have always written, ever since I was a child, whether short stories in class or in my diary. I also took a creative writing class during university but having my work read and critiqued in class when I was 18 was quite hard to take in. Then, I went back to writing when I started my blog, which was a fun and creative outlet for me at the time, but my dream was always to write and publish a book.

Would you say blogging helped you, aside from subject matter, with your book?

Blogging has been a huge help for many reasons. Firstly, it forces you to write even when you don’t want to, but it also helps you hone your craft. As they say, the more you write, the better you get at it, so writing blogs is a way of writing which contributes to your writing skills. Of course, when people complimented me on my writing, it gave me confidence to think that perhaps I could write a book. And having a ready audience helps. You know that at least a few people will read your book!

You gave up your anonymity when you published your novel. What was that like? Was it a big decision to take? Was there any fallout for you?

It was a big decision to come out in the open. Originally, I wanted to publish my book under a pseudonym and keep the blog anonymous. But when the Times asked to interview me, I didn’t have much choice, because they wanted pictures of me (a massive two page insert of me in my house!) so I asked my husband if he was ok with it, and when he said ok, that was the end of my anonymity. Mostly, people have been very supportive and encouraging of my book, but they also said I was very brave. I am sure a lot of people have been talking about me and my book when I’m not there. There has been some fallout, but truthfully, not with any of my friends, who all know who I am and know that it was a bit of fun. It’s mostly people who don’t know me that have taken their distance, or people who are scared that I am going to write about them or expose their life or lifestyles. I keep it all anonymous and tongue and cheek and it’s not meant to be taken very seriously, but I understand that not everyone will be happy with what I have done.

Not only did your book get a lot of publicity when it was launched but so did you. I’ve seen some beautiful photos of you reclining on a lovely white sofa. Was that difficult to deal with, especially having been anonymous? Had you expected it? And did you get any help with managing it?

I knew that when the Times article came out, it would cause a stir, I just didn’t know how much. From there, I went on to be interviewed by The Daily Mail and went on TV and radio, but it was an intense period of time. I was being interviewed on a regular basis and it takes time and effort to prepare for the interviews and to look ‘good’ and to be ‘on’ all the time. It was quite draining. I didn’t get help with how to answer controversial questions I was asked, but I did in the end get some help with the PR because I couldn’t do it on my own. It was a lot of work. I am glad the publicity has died down somewhat and I can go back to my normal life without having people coming up to me and saying they saw me in the papers. In the process, I realised that I am a lot more private than I thought. I thought I would enjoy all the attention but after I while, all I wanted was some peace and quiet.

image1Your fabulous book follows the story of Sophie Bennett who arrives in London fresh from Canada and is thrown into the outrageous, entertaining but also sometimes quite cruel world of the Alpha Mums. I felt genuinely sorry for Sophie but by the end of the book I also (surprisingly) had some sympathy with the Alpha Mums. I think it would have been easy just to cast them as the bad guys and leave it at that but you made them very 3D. Was that important to you? 

Yes, it was important that I make them realistic too. I didn’t want my readers to think all these mums are horrid and evil, because for the most part they aren’t. There are a few exceptions like Kelly, that really exist, but most of the mums are absolutely lovely and nice. But there would be no story if everyone was nice! So I had to pile on the horridness. There is a lot of competition though, and that’s just very true in London in general or any big city. New York is 100 times worst. I also believe that most people are 3D characters and have reasons for acting certain ways, whether because they are unhappy or insecure or just negative people, so I try to understand the motivations behind people and try to have empathy towards everyone.

How much of the story was autobiographical? Is it really like that? And which side are you on?

Everyone thinks the story is autobiographical, but it’s not. People come up to me thinking I am like Sophie and are almost disappointed that I’m not. I am not Sophie in many ways, she is shy and reserved and that’s certainly not how my friends would describe me. I have lived in London for 15 years so that’s also very different. I used the set up of Sophie moving to London to really show an outsider’s point of view of London. I am probably more Alpha than Beta in the end as well… But I’d like the Alphas to be kinder to each other and not to take it all too seriously. Some parts of the book are influenced by real events that have happened to me or to people that I know, but mostly it is all fiction and fictionalised. The plot and all the characters are fiction and not based on any particular person.

Can you talk about how you were published? Did you submit to agents/publishers or were you discovered? What was the process like? How was it seeing a copy of your book in the shops for the first time?

My road to publishing in the end was very much my own path. I was first approached by an agent through my blog, (but he turned it down later) so that’s when I started thinking seriously about writing a novel. I then went on the Faber Academy novel writing course and wrote my novel that year. I did approach several agents and publishers, but after a few months, I decided to do it on my own terms and sent my manuscript to Silverwood, which is an independent self-funded publisher that I found through another writer who had done the Faber course as well. These days, there is more than one way to get your book published and I didn’t want to wait one and a half years to see if I could get a traditional publishing deal. Luckily, I already had a platform and visibility through the blog, which got me the Times interview. In the end, for me, I just wanted to see and feel my book in my hands, which was a wonderful thing. And having it all over the Notting Hill Bookshop window was pretty cool. I couldn’t have asked for a better place for it. But doing it on your own is so much work, so you need time and dedication and determination to get your book out there. Neither path is easy, but as they say in writing, you need perseverance.

You have lots of strings to your bow but I know you worked a medical doctor for a long time. Would you ever write about your experiences of that profession, either as a book or for newspapers and magazines?

Interestingly, I don’t have a need to write about medicine or being a doctor. When I was a doctor, I did quite a bit of medical research writing but for my fiction writing, I want to create a world outside of medicine. I can’t see myself blending those two worlds, which for me is a serious world (medicine) and a creative world (writing). I would love to write a book about Vietnam one day though (I am half Vietnamese).

How do you find time to write along with family life and all the many other things you have on your plate?

That’s a good question. When I was writing my novel, I dedicated that year to writing and said ‘no’ to coffee mornings, lunches, events and working out and spent my days between school drop offs and pick ups writing. Also, I need the mental space to get involved in my story and in my characters, so it is usually a solitary time for me. I didn’t do much blogging during that time. Then after the book was published it was about doing interviews, being on social media and doing blogger outreach and interviews, so it’s been a lot less about writing recently. Right now, I’m also enjoying doing book events, I had a book reading and signing last week and I have another one next week – and that’s also quite time consuming! But you have to find time and to prioritise if you want to write a novel. That meant while the kids were at school, after they went to bed, and sometimes when we were on holiday.

Is there another book in the pipeline? Can you talk about what you’re working on now?

I am not quite ready for my next book yet. I still need to digest this one and still need to do a bit of work with this one. There is a potential project with this book that is rather quite exciting, and if it took off, it would take up most of my time for the next year or so. But the chances that it will happen is 1/1000 or less so I think I can still keep dreaming. It’s always good to have a dream and a goal though, so that keeps me going.

Any tips for fellow bloggers interested in writing a book?

My writing tutor told me that the most important thing was ‘tenacity.’ As a writer, you have to have so much perseverance, dedication and determination. Of course talent helps, but what sets a writer apart is their hard work: to sit on that chair and write every day, to finish that book, to edit, edit, edit, to send it to agents and publishers, to accept rejection and to just keep going until one day you may get to see your book on a bookshelf in a bookstore. It is incredibly hard work, but to succeed, you need to work harder than anyone else and never give up.

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Oh, and luck really helps too, but unfortunately I can’t help you with that! What you can do though is to keep going…

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Many thanks to Isabella for answering my (often very long) questions. It’s great to find out more about her and her book. I think she handled her new found fame much better than I would have done. I can’t wait to see if her exciting project comes off, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

You can read my review and an excerpt of The Beta Mum: Adventures In Alpha Land here. You can also follow more of Isabella’s adventures via her blog, on Twitter and, of course, you can buy her book via Amazon in paperback or for Kindle here.

I’ll have two more Behind The Book guests next month. Don’t forget you can now follow After The Rain on Facebook so you need never miss a post.

A Look Behind The Book With Jan Baynham.

jan baynhamWhile currently searching for a home for her debut novel, Jan Baynham is already hard at work on her second.

It could be that she’s making up for lost time – having only really been bitten by the writing bug since she retired.

I was so inspired by Jan’s story that, while I normally feature authors who are either about to be published or already in print in my Behind The Book series, quizzing Jan about her experiences seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Here’s what she had to say.

Can we start by talking about how you got into writing? Has it always been a passion? When did you start to write for publication?

I’m always full of admiration for people who are so passionate about writing that they have always written and found time to write while working full time. My writing journey has not been like that. Other peoples’ writing has always been a passion for me, in that I’ve loved reading from as long as I can remember. As a teacher, it was teaching pupils to write stories and poetry that gave me the most pleasure. Often, I modelled the writing and you could say that was when I first began to write stories. This continued when, at the end of my career, as a teacher adviser for English, I trained other teachers in the art of teaching writing.

When I retired, I joined a local writing group and began writing short stories. I was hooked. Very soon, I took a Telling Tales short story course at the university, followed by one on novel writing. The tutor for both the courses was a published author and it was after these that I began to submit my writing for publication.

I know you write novels, short stories AND flash fiction (I think you have also written some non-creative work for teachers, too). Do you have a favourite? How difficult is it to switch between them?

I think my choice of favourite has changed over the time I’ve been writing. At first, I loved the fact that in a short story you can complete a story in relatively few words and feel the satisfaction of having achieved something. However, my stories tended to be becoming longer and longer and I often found it difficult to keep to the word counts specified by a competition, for example. Certainly, after the novel writing course, I began to think that maybe I could attempt something more involved. I’d have the opportunity to write a more intricate plot and develop more characters to interact with one another. My tutor, Lynne Barrett-Lee, instilled that confidence in all of us. So, now, I think my favourite has to be the novel. I love getting immersed in the story and thinking about my characters all the time. However, in between writing and editing, I still like the freshness of writing shorts, especially flash fiction,

You are currently looking for a home for your debut novel. Can you tell us about it? How long did it take to write?

My debut novel is entitled A Mother’s Secret and took me a number of years and several drafts to write. It had a major re-vamp after an editor I met at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference in 2016 kindly sent me some suggestions for tightening the structure. It is a dual narrative family saga set in rural Radnorshire in 1946 and 1965. The novel follows three generations of Jenkins women, who are part of a family torn apart by secrets of Black Market dealing, forbidden love, illegitimacy and prejudice. When one of those secrets is exposed, Angela Jenkins’s life is thrown into turmoil. A year long journey to find her true identity takes her to Sicily and an Italian family she didn’t know existed. Only when she knows who she really is can she move on with her life. I hope the novel is a reflection of the social history of both eras and explores the role of women for whom the conventions of the times meant family secrets were deeply buried for fear of disgrace.

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Are you able to talk about the experience of submitting it? Do you try and find a publisher who you think fits? Have you considered self-publishing?

I’m in the process of submitting directly to publishers who are looking for family sagas and to agents, especially those who are looking to build their list of authors or are open to new writers. I haven’t considered self-publishing because I don’t think I have the confidence to be in charge of every stage of the process. With a very limited experience of working with an editor or a critique partner, I don’t know if I could make all the critical edits myself. I know there are people that you could get to do that with you and I very much admire those writers who do self-publish successfully.

I submitted one of my stories for publication, it was rejected and it felt like someone had trampled on my dream. I was a proper drama queen about it. Have you experienced rejection and, if so, how do you handle it?

Yes, I have experienced rejection many times and you never get used to it, do you? However, last week, I received what I like to call a ‘positive rejection’. Last month, I took part in a Twitter pitch where writers were invited to pitch their novels in 140 characters. Along with novel number two, both pitches were ‘liked’ by the publisher and I was invited to submit the first three chapters and the synopsis of each. Novel two didn’t get any further but the publishers then asked for the whole manuscript of The Mother’s Secret. I was delighted!

When the rejection came, the email contained a number of very positive comments – they liked the dual-narrative structure, the strong characterisation, the way the women’s experiences differ so markedly makes their linked tales all the more gripping for readers with a suggestion of how it could be improved further. The novel’s complete manuscript is currently with two other publishers so I’ll have to see what they say.

What about that all-important synopsis? I’ve read so many “how to” posts and they all seem to say different things about length, style and detail. How did you decide what to do?

I find writing synopses hard. I follow the synopsis guidelines for each submission as what each publisher or agent asks for may be different. Generally, getting the synopsis down to one side of A4, single spaced, is what I aim for.

You joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme in 2016, how useful has that been? What do you get out of it?

I’d heard from various writing friends what a wonderful scheme this is and I’m now in my second year. My first critique of the completed draft of The Mother’s Secret was very detailed and helpful, and I was able to undertake a full edit with the readers’ points in mind. This year, I was only in a position to submit a partial manuscript of my second novel, Whispering Olive Trees, (46,000 words) but I added a detailed outline of the second half. I have recently received a very positive and encouraging critique from my reader. The main advice is obviously to finish the novel but she has given many helpful suggestions and ways forward when I come to the editing stage. So a big thank you to her.

What about social media? I know you’re connected to other writers. How important has that been to your personal journey?

Social media has played a vital part in my writing journey. It’s through FaceBook and Twitter that I’ve ‘met’ other writers who have been such a support to me. Several of these I have now met in person, too. I’m thinking especially of Susanna Bavin, Susan Jones, Judith Barrow, Carol Lovekin and Wendy White. I started a Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page to keep anything ‘writerly’ away from my personal FB page and my Twitter following has increased considerably since it started, too. I also run a blog about my writing journey and although the comments are often from a very loyal band of writer friends who regularly comment, I’m amazed to see how many people read the blog from all corners of the world. Just as I appreciate their support, I try to reciprocate when other writer friends have some exciting news to share by tweeting, re-tweeting and inviting them onto my blog.

Lastly, do you have any tips for writers?

Just to keep going. Enjoy your writing and keep writing. I also recommend finding a writing group or, as we did, forming your own. I love meeting up with a few writing friends and we’ve become very close. After every meeting, we all go home enthused, ready to get writing again.

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Thank you very much to Jan for answering my questions. I love how she is inspired by her friends’ successes. I’m the same. I have everything crossed that soon we will be raising a glass to Jan. A Mother’s Secret sounds like a gripping story to me.

You can find out more about her writing by visiting her Facebook page, following her on Twitter or reading her blog.

Thank you also to the wonderful Susanna Bavin, author of The Deserter’s Daughter, which is getting glowing reviews, for introducing us.

Next up I will be chatting to Isabella Davidson about her novel, The Beta Mum: Adventures in Alpha Land.

And, just in case you’ve missed any, you can find all my previous Behind The Book posts here.