A Look Behind The Book With Shari Low.

B8B6C5EE-10D3-4A57-89C1-6D0BFFC3C49BShari Low is a writer who ticks all the boxes for me – as you will know if you’ve read any of my reviews of her books (I used the word ‘perfection’ to describe one).

Her tangled plot lines, authentic characters and wonderful writing style, which is always bursting with heart, has made her a number one best-selling author. The fact that she is also down to earth, friendly and appreciative of her fans, makes me all the more thrilled for her success.

Currently working on book 24 (wow!), Shari has taken time out to be my latest Behind The Book interviewee (and also my last one of 2018).

I had a proper fangirl moment and struggled to narrow down my questions to a number that didn’t rival a book of its own but here’s what she had to say.

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I love your books and always marvel at the planning that must go into them. I assume you have a huge glass wall where you write complex diagrams using different coloured markers. Am I close?

I so wish I were that kind of writer, positively oozing organisation and structure! The truth is, I plan absolutely nothing. Not a thing. I just start with a vague top-line concept, then type and see where it goes. Every single word of it lives in my head – I don’t write anything down, no post-its, no notes. This is why I become completely consumed when I’m working on a novel, because my mind just lives in that world from the moment I start a book until I type ‘The End’, usually about six weeks later.

While you always wanted to write, it wasn’t until you hit 30 that you actually sat down and wrote the opening chapters of what would be your first book. Do you think the life experience beforehand helped you become a better writer? 

Life experience definitely helped me. I didn’t go to uni or study creative writing in any way. Instead, I worked full time from when I was 16 in a multitude of jobs – sales, recruitment, and managing nightclubs in the UK, China and Hong Kong. By the time I finally sat down to fulfil my lifelong ambition of writing a book, I had loads of stories to tell. Twenty years later, I’m still going.

How on earth do you let your characters go? They seem so real – and I’m just a reader – I imagine they are almost like family to you.

I’m completely hopeless at letting them go! That’s why so many of my characters pop up in later books. In my head, my books are a real world, where you bump into people you haven’t seen for a while, or some of the lives overlap in unexpected ways. One character in particular, Josie, an outrageous, frank, and completely hilarious woman of mature years, stormed into that world back in Temptation Street in 2010, and she’s made an appearance in almost every book since then. She’s based on someone I adored, who passed away many years ago, and it’s my way of keeping that person around.

You’ve written under several pseudonyms, including as Shari King, with your childhood friend, Ross King. I guess the last one is obvious but can you talk about your decision to use pen names?

I think it comes down to style and genre. The books I write under my own name are tales of tangled relationships with heaps of humour and heart. Every now and then, I get the urge to write a raunchy, 80s style bonkbuster, so that’s when I slip on a leopard print jacket with huge shoulder pads and break out the pseudonyms.

You published your most recent book, the brilliant Another Day In December, last month. Will there be any more in this series? (Please say yes). How did you spend publication day?

Yes! I’m working on the third book in the Winter Day trilogy right now – it’ll join One Day In December and Another Day In Winter on the shelves in Oct 2019.

On publication day for Another Day In Winter, I worked all day, then all my mates descended at night. There was definitely gin!

 

As well as your many fiction books, you also published a non-fiction book, Because Mummy Said So, based on your popular parenting newspaper column. Would you consider non-fiction again?

Perhaps. For fifteen years I wrote the weekly newspaper column about the ups, downs, hilarity, and mortifying moments of family life. Because Mummy Said So is a collection of my favourite stories of chaos, mayhem and disasters. However we could only fit so many in the book and there are loads we didn’t use so there’s definitely the possibility of another volume. I was a relentlessly embarrassing, imperfect parent!

On the day you found out about your first publishing deal, you also discovered you were pregnant (big day!). I know your boys are older now but can you share any tips for mums and dads for juggling family life with writing time?

I write everywhere and anywhere, no excuses.  I worked on my newspaper columns and features during the day while the kids were at school, so I had to fit my novels in around that. My boys are both basketball players who have trained every night for the past five years, so my last ten books have pretty much been written while sitting in sports centre car parks drinking tea out of a flask and then overnight while they’re asleep. Oh the glamour! I look fairly close to something from a zombie apocalypse by the time I type the last page.

What’s the best and worst thing about being a writer?

The worst is the ‘head on desk, deadline approaching, oh-I’m-rubbish-at-this’panic that hits me several times during the writing of every book. I’m now on number 24 and it still happens!

shari low

Do you have a top writing tip you could share?

I always like to have at least one character that I’m madly in love with – it makes getting to the desk every morning so much easier!

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Thank you so much to Shari for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m completely blown away by the fact that she doesn’t plan. I’m even more in awe of her work now.

If you’d like to find out more about her please visit her website, Facebook page and follow her on Twitter (she’s very friendly). You can also buy her books via Amazon and all good book shops.

What about you? Are you a plotter or a panster? I was a complete panster until my first go at National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and now I’m a bit of a mix of both.

 

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A Look Behind The Book With Jen Mouat.

JenMJust a few years after visiting the Wigtown Book Festival for the first time, Jen Mouat found herself speaking in front of an audience about her own novel, Summer At Bluebell Bank.

It was especially significant because Scotland’s National Book Town also inspired part of her debut, which follows the story of two childhood friends, Kate Vincent and Emily Cotton, who reunite to make the rundown bookshop Emily has bought a success.

I loved it (you can find my review here) and couldn’t wait to go Behind The Book to find out more.

Currently writing her second novel (as well as working full time), Jen very kindly took some time out to answer my questions.

Where did the idea for your debut come from and how did you develop it?

In 2010 my then boyfriend took me to a beautiful holiday cottage in Dumfries and Galloway and proposed, overlooking Rigg Bay – the location which really inspired Summer at Bluebell Bank. Rigg Bay becomes a special place for Kate and Emily in the book. It was on this trip that I first discovered Wigtown. Dumfries and Galloway was an important place for me, thanks to very special childhood holidays there, but I fell in love with Scotland’s National Book Town, and with the location of one bookshop in particular. I started writing some scenes featuring an unlikely book proprietor, seeking refuge in her new bookshop from everything life has thrown at her, but with no clue how to actually run a business, and also playing with the idea of a girl returning to a childhood haven to find the place and people are not as she left them. This is an important theme running through the book. There was always tension within Emily and Kate’s friendship – I loved exploring their secrets and the idea of good friends being the family you choose, but not being perfect.

Quite a few secrets come out during the story, did that require a lot of planning? How long did it take to write? 

I probably should have been more thorough and organised as I ended up planning retrospectively a lot, rewriting and tying myself in knots with the plot far more than I would have liked. In total the book took me about four years to complete, but I kept taking breaks to write bits and pieces on other projects too because I had several ideas and just couldn’t decide which idea to run with. In future, I’ll definitely take the time to do more thorough planning from the outset.

How did you know it was ready to submit to publishers and what was that like? Was it an immediate hit? How did you find out it was going to be published? 

I definitely knew I wanted to take the route of finding an agent – I think I needed the support of a professional on my side and wasn’t confident enough to approach publishers unsolicited; I also felt that whilst I might be able to write a bit, I knew nothing about how to turn my scribblings into a fully fledged novel and needed lots of help. I don’t know that I ever consider my work ‘ready’ and that is still a bit of a problem for me. I’d previously never shown my writing to anyone at all and I was terrified of it being read – I still am to be honest. However, I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive best friend and I let her read a few chapters of the book in 2014; she kept demanding more so I finished it, but looking back it was still extremely rough around the edges at that stage. About the same time, my friend spotted an opportunity to pitch to the agent I’d been desperate to represent me, Jenny Brown. Jenny’s list was closed at that time, but she was offering short pitch sessions at Wigtown Book Festival. I knew right away this was an amazing opportunity and I jumped at it. Although Jenny loved the premise of the book, it still took several rewrites – including cutting 50 000 words – before she signed me up and considered it ready for publishers. I had several publishers reject the manuscript before it was accepted by HQ Digital – one very lovely rejection, a few polite disappointments and one that was rather brutal! It was just a week or so before Christmas 2016 when I got the offer from HQ. Jenny had left me a message which I managed to completely miss and I received a email from her asking me to call. She told me an editor at HQ was really enthusiastic about the book and wanted to publish. She thought I was just being really cool about it by not responding, but in truth I had missed her message and was then was running about the school screaming (I’m a teacher, but thankfully the children had left for the day!)

cover115657-medium-2It’s had a very positive response from readers, how did you feel when that first review came in? Were you worried beforehand? 

Like I said, I was always extremely nervous about people reading my writing – my husband didn’t even get to read a word until after I’d been accepted by my agent and sent it off to publishers. It felt very personal and scary to open myself up that way, but it definitely helped having the positivity and support of a great agent and editor. When the first reviews came in I had to have various family members read them first before I could bring myself to look. It is so incredibly thrilling to get great responses from readers, I’ll ever get complacent about that, no matter how many books I write and I am so appreciative for each and every review. I knew very little about the book blogging world before I got published, but book bloggers have been so instrumental in creating a buzz around the book and giving me confidence about putting my baby out there. Several of them even reduced me to tears – in a good way! I don’t think I’ll ever top the excitement of publication day for Summer at Bluebell Bank, and seeing those five star reviews popping up on Amazon.

I know you studied illustration and printmaking and now work as a primary school teacher, where does writing fit in? Was it always a dream to publish a book?

My background is in art and I’ve always enjoyed a variety of creative pursuits. Although I still love to draw as a hobby, writing has been my dream from a very young age. The earliest I can remember imagining being an author I think I was eight. I’d discovered Anne of Green Gables and everything I wrote was essentially Anne fan fiction back then. I learned my craft by reading avidly and writing loads – inspired by whatever I was reading at the time. My agent describes it as working my apprenticeship in my bedroom, which is totally true. There came a point when I realised if I didn’t do something different nothing would change. I got serious about writing about seven years ago and started dreaming with more determination. Being a teacher is a massive privilege, but it obviously keeps me extremely busy so I have to fit writing around a full time job. I’m a deputy head teacher at the moment, so I fill my weekends and holidays with writing. I also do a lot of plotting on the commute to work and whilst walking the dog. I think having different facets to my life is important for balance as it helps me to be a better writer.

Would you like to own a bookshop like Emily? 

I suspect I would be a terrible bookshop owner – like Emily I would just create my own personal library and customers would get in the way! I do like the idea of books and tea tasting, like in Summer at Bluebell Bank, although I also think beer and books would be a great combination.

What about your own reading habits? Are there any particular genres you really enjoy? 

I’ve always described myself as a bookworm and that’s become quite an important part of my identity I think. However, with all the editing and writing and publicity recently, on top of a full time, full-on job I’ve found in the last year I’ve definitely had to carve out reading time for myself. I read every day, even if it’s just a few pages and my colleagues know to ignore me if I turn up in the staffroom with a book. I go through stages, but my current favourite genres are probably Crime Fiction – I grew up reading every Agatha Christie I could find in my Dad’s collection – YA – a recent obsession I can’t seem to get enough of right now, and anything about books and bookshops. As a teenager I read a lot of historical and women’s fiction – often picking up books that were a bit too grown up for me – and I’ve always loved stories that explore friendship and family.

Have you got any writing rituals? I’m assuming you write on a computer but do you need a new notebook to plan a new story? Or have you got a special pen you use? 

I do the hard graft on computer because it’s fast and I can really get into a rhythm, but to get inspired I love a notebook. All my books start out with ideas and scenes in longhand. I’m utterly obsessed with stationery, so there are always several new notebooks waiting to be used. I’m quite particular about design, feel and paper quality and I consider myself something of a connoisseur. My family buy me a lot of notebooks and pens. I like the idea of a special pen – again I’m fussy about how they feel to write with – but my bag is invariably filled with about twenty different ones in every colour you can imagine, so it’s usually whatever comes to hand. I find I write best in the morning, and if I exceed a four hour stretch my husband reckons I go a bit loopy. After a stint at the computer I find a walk with the dog or a spot of yoga helps me switch off and unwind.

Wigtown is obviously a very important place for you and this year you got to speak at its festival about your book, was that a dream come true? 

Speaking at the Wigtown Book Festival was an amazing experience. It was something I set out to achieve from the first time I visited the festival in 2014. My best friend and I sat in the audience listening to an author talk about her book, then she turned to me and said ‘that will be you next year.’ Of course, it wasn’t the next year, but it did happen three years later. That was definitely a turning point for me, because we stopped talking about ‘if’ I got published and spoke instead about ‘when.’ It helped me to really believe that it would happen and get serious about my writing and my intention to be an author. Wigtown has been massively important to me, not only because my book is set there, but also in terms of shaping me as a writer. Speaking there, about my debut novel, with my friends and family in the audience felt quite miraculous!

Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Is a second novel as difficult as they say? 

Yes! I think for me it’s always been difficult to focus in on one thing. I always have lots of ideas for books, but one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a long road from an idea to an actual book. Since my time is so limited it’s really important that I focus on the right thing. I met with my agent recently to suggest two possible ideas for my next novel – one a sequel to Summer at Bluebell Bank – and the other a bit of a departure in that it has a younger protagonist and is inspired by my love of mysteries. My agent’s advice to me was to write what I was most excited about, and I’ve settled on the latter. I think the sequel will be written at some point, but for now I’m enjoying the change of pace and liking dipping my toe into a slightly different genre. I’m loving writing the second book and it definitely gives me confident to already have been published.

Any top tips for getting a book published? 

You have to be prepared to put in the hours. Books don’t write themselves and much as you might love writing, the editing process is proper hard work for little immediate reward so you have to have that drive to write, the conviction to keep going.

For me, it’s been really crucial to develop self belief and having a friend to read my work and encourage me was really integral to that. It’s scary to tell people you’re writing a book – there’s always that scepticism, so it’s important to have someone in your corner. I’d definitely recommend finding an agent too – they really know what makes a book come together and what publishers are looking for. Find out about the agent you want, get to know the other authors on their list and what they like.

Jen Mouat quote real

 

Finally, I think it’s about the small goals – I now set myself simple targets, even if I write for fifteen minutes on a work day I count that as a achievement. I don’t think in terms of the finished book, or sometimes even a chapter; a decent paragraph can be enough to make me give myself a pat on the back.

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Always lovely to meet a fellow stationery addict and what fantastic answers. I love that Jen got other people to read her reviews first. If I ever get that far I would be exactly the same. Sending best wishes to Jen for her second novel – although I also can’t wait for the follow up to Summer At Bluebell Bank (let’s hope she writes fast).

You can keep up to date with Jen’s progress by following her on Twitter and liking her Facebook page. You can also buy her debut from Amazon here.

I’ll be back with another Behind The Book post for you later this month.

 

Book Review: The Summer House.

jennyhaleReading The Summer House was a bit like having some delicious leftover birthday cake sitting in the kitchen – it was so moreish, I kept nipping back to it (just one more slice).

Amazingly, this is the first time I’ve read one of Jenny Hale’s books, despite her being a USA Today and Amazon best-selling author of romantic women’s fiction – with eight (I think) titles to her name.

Her latest sounds like it’s come straight from one of my (very best) dreams – not only opening a bed and breakfast on the coast but also managing to capture the attention of the local millionaire at the same time.

Here’s the blurb:

Callie Weaver and best friend Olivia Dixon have finally done it: put their life’s savings into the beach house they admired through childhood summers, on the dazzling white sand of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

They’re going to buff the salt from its windows, paint its sun-bleached sidings, and open it as a bed and breakfast.

Callie’s too busy to think about her love life, but when she catches the attention of local heartthrob Luke Sullivan, his blue eyes and easy smile make it hard to say no. He’s heir to his father’s property empire, and the papers say he’s just another playboy, but as they laugh in the ocean waves, Callie realizes there’s more to this man than money and good looks.

Just when true happiness seems within reach, Callie and Olivia find a diary full of secrets… secrets that stretch across the island, and have the power to turn lives upside down. As Callie reads, she unravels a mystery that makes her heart drop through the floor.

Will Callie and Luke be pulled apart by the storm it unleashes, or can true love save them?

It’s heartwarming, charming and a proper page turner. The characters are all likeable, the plot keeps you engaged and the setting is dreamy (I want to see wild horses on the beach).

In fact, I can’t really fault The Summer House…and yet there was just something that didn’t quite flow for me in the writing.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I did, but just not as much as some of the other books I have read this year. I know Jenny Hale has lots of fans so maybe it was me?

It certainly wouldn’t put me off reading her other books or watching the film adaptation of Coming Home For Christmas if I got the chance.

Format: Kindle.

Price: £1.99.

My rating: Three and a half stars.

With thanks for the Bookouture (via NetGalley) for the ARC in return for my honest opinion.