A Look Behind The Book With Jessica Redland.

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I fell in love with the story behind Jessica Redland’s debut, Searching For Steven, before I even opened the book – although that more than lived up to my (very high) expectations.

Since then she’s written four more wonderfully romantic, funny, feel good stories with the latest, Bear With Me, released earlier this year (and, at the time of writing, having ALL five star reviews on Amazon).

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing and in my latest Behind The Book interview, Jessica not only offers some fantastic insight into the writing process and indie publishing but she also has some very helpful and encouraging advice for anyone perhaps having the odd doubt about their own work (ME!).

I am really thrilled to share her answers with you.

I LOVE the backstory to your first book, Searching For Steven, can you please share it again?

Aw, thank you. In the early noughties, I was working in Reading as a graduate recruitment and development manager. My manager often said that my reports read like a story and I should write a book. He’d planted the seed but I had no idea what I’d write about so I pushed it aside.

In 2002, I’d split up with my boyfriend and our house was on the market. The original plan had been to stay in Reading and buy a house on my own, but I had this gnawing idea of moving back home to the north-east and setting up a teddy bear shop. Slightly different! A friend gave me a gift voucher for a telephone clairvoyant. It wasn’t really my thing but I decided that it was worth giving her a call. Perhaps talking through the situation with a stranger might help me get some clarity in my own mind.

The clairvoyant told me that I would move back home and open my own business and she was very accurate about when this would be and how long I’d live with my parents before moving into my own home. She also told me that I’d meet the man of my dreams when I moved back home and he’d be called Steven. How exciting! And what was equally exciting – perhaps moreso – was that I suddenly had the illusive idea for my story.

So, you had a fabulous story idea but had you always wanted to be a writer? How did you get started on your first book? How long did it take to write and how many versions did you do before you started to send it off to publishers? 

I’d love to say that it was six months, or even a year, but I’d be telling a porky pie. It actually took me well over a decade to write Searching For Steven. The clairvoyant conversation which prompted the premise for the novel happened in September 2002 and it brewed for a few months. I moved back home in April the following year and opened my bear shop the month after. It was then that I started putting fingers to keyboard.

I have no idea how many versions I wrote of Steven but it was a huge number. HUGE! I started in first person, then changed it all to third, then changed it back again. I started in past tense, then changed it to present, but thankfully changed my mind on that one before I’d changed the whole manuscript. The beginning caused me an absolute nightmare. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I had about 40 different versions of that.

Over the next decade, I wrote and re-wrote Steven many, many times. I had significant periods of time where I didn’t write at all, though, and had several life events during the years like closing my business, getting married, having a baby, moving three times, and changing job several times.

In 2012, I joined the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) through their New Writers’ Scheme (NWS). I knew that Steven was overly-long but was ready to seek his critique by early August that year. I edited him (including the start again) based on that feedback and put him through again the next year, then massively edited him again after that second critique (and yes, you’ve guessed it, the start changed yet again!)

It was late 2014 when I felt he was ready to seek a home with a publisher or agent. Yes, it was scary, but it’s one of those things you just have to crack on with. Several of the publishers insisted on postal submissions so I had many nervous waiting for the post to arrive days. The thing that surprised me about the process was that I didn’t get upset at any passes. Getting a no meant that I at least knew the outcome and could move on with a new submission. The hardest challenge was publishers who promised a 12-week turnaround … then took a whopping 9 months to say no! This actually happened to me twice. That’s a very, very long-time to be kept nervously waiting.

You secured a three-book deal but parted company with your publisher in 2016 to go it alone. Can you talk a little about your decision?

In summer 2014, I’d been submitting to publishers and agents for about nine months. I’d had a couple of “near misses” from agents (really positive feedback to say that they loved it but only took one or two new writers a year and didn’t love it quite enough to make me one of them) but I hadn’t found a home for Steven. I had him with three more publishers and had decided that I was going to wait for the outcome of those submissions but not try any others. If none of them wanted Steven, I was going to go indie. I was really into the idea and fully expected that to be the way I got my work out there so I was a little stunned when two of the final three offered me a publishing deal. It was a tough decision because, deep down, I thought indie was right for me, but I knew I’d regret turning down the opportunity of a publishing deal and that, if it didn’t work out, I could still go indie later.

Everything was fine at first. My publisher was new and they were really enthusiastic and committed to making it work but this seemed to wane over time and, when the owner secured another job, I wondered if the writing was on the wall for the company. After the trilogy was released, I had an open and honest conversation with the owner and she agreed to release me from my contract and revert my rights back to me.

It wasn’t an easy decision to part company. Steven was doing reasonably well. He certainly wasn’t setting the Amazon charts alight but I was selling a reasonable number of copies each day. I worried about losing that momentum, but I knew that I would feel happier being indie and that there was nothing I was getting from my publisher that I couldn’t do myself. I liked the idea of being in control of my covers, deadlines, pricing, promotions and so on.

What I hadn’t expected was how much momentum I’d actually lose. Although I was able to get all reviews transferred, it was like completely starting from scratch and I had several months where I sold no copies at all which was pretty heart-breaking. It took a free promotion on Steven over May Bank Holiday weekend in celebration of the launch of my fourth novel to finally get sales moving again.

The ideas just kept coming and you’ve written four more since Steven. Are they all taken from things that have happened to you? How much of you is in the books?

 

When I started writing Steven, I quickly realised I had a trilogy on my hands because, as I developed the characters of her two best friends, Elise (the focus of Getting Over Gary) and Clare (the focus of Dreaming About Daran), I knew they both had stories to tell that were way bigger than a sub-plot in Steven would allow. Their stories are 100% fictional, as are they as characters. Raving About Rhys is a novella set before Steven and, again, it’s purely from the depths of my imagination.

Steven, however, has a lot of me in it and the protagonist, Sarah, is predominantly modeled on me. When I set up my teddy bear shop, I arrived at work one day to find a business card through the door for a sign-maker … called Steve. I got a call from a company to say a rep was in the area … called Stephen. Eek! Stevens/Steves/Stephens seemed to be everywhere so I used these types of scenarios in the story, although how they played out is very different. I certainly didn’t humiliate myself like Sarah did when Stephen the plasterer arrived. Sarah’s personality and her phrases are very me too. Friends and family members who’ve read the book tell me how much of me they can spot.

As for Bear With Me, I am indeed an arctophile (collector of teddy bears). I ran my teddy bear shop and I can also make jointed bears so I drew on that experience and passion. My shop was called Bear’s Pad and I’ve given that name to my protagonist’s mum’s cottage. The bears I make are called Ju-Sea Bears so I used that brand in the book too. Other than those nods to my past, the knowledge about bears and the experience of having a bear shop and being a bear-maker, everything in Bear With Me is absolute fiction.

How do you deal with it if the odd person doesn’t who like your books as much as you’d like? Do you take it personally?

I’ve mainly had amazing reviews for Steven but there have been a couple of reviews where the readers haven’t loved Sarah quite so much, saying she’s naïve or silly and wouldn’t do those things. I don’t take this personally and, because I know that I’ve been in some of those situations myself, I know how I reacted and if that was naïve or silly, so be it.

How soon into book one did you have the idea for book two? And how do you develop it, are you a planner or do you write and see where the words take you?

Although I set out to write a standalone novel, I discovered I had a trilogy on my hands pretty quickly. I needed Sarah to have two best friends so that one would believe the clairvoyant reading (Elise) and one would be completely dismissive of it (Clare) and their perspectives would pull Sarah in two different directions. As the two characters developed, Clare in particular held my interest. Elise is a very placid individual and Clare’s quite spiky and I felt that there had to be something in her past which had made her that way. Her story is the final one in the trilogy but it’s my favourite as it’s full of twists and turns.

When it comes to my writing approach, I’m part-plotter and part-pantser. With Steven, I knew what the ending would be and kept writing and experimenting until I got there. With so many re-writes, I decided that I would plan Gary to avoid being in that situation again. But I didn’t end up sticking to the plan because my characters kept pulling me in different directions so I decided there was something in the “just go with it” approach. With Daran, I had a loose plan but massively developed him as I wrote, then tweaked a few plot holes in the editing process. Bear was the same; a rough idea and he pretty much wrote himself.

Can you talk a little about the technical side of self-publishing. How difficult is it?

I’m lucky because my husband’s day job is as a typesetter so he lays out the pages for me and converts them into the file that’s needed for KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). He has also designed all of my covers so I leave the technical bits to him. It’s pretty straightforward, though.

After release, there’s a KDP dashboard on which all your books sit. You can make changes through that e.g. to categories and pricing. You can also keep track of sales by the hour which is helpful.

Is writing your full-time job? If not when do you find the time to write. How soon after one book is finished to you start another?

I wish! It would be amazing to write every day and earn enough from that to pay the mortgage but that is a distant dream. Other than my career break with Bear’s Pad, I’ve always worked in Human Resources. Now I’m an HR Tutor. I work from home, marking assignments for students studying their CIPD (the HR professional qualification). I also tutor on weekend workshops and I’m a Brown Owl, running a Brownie Pack for 24 seven to 10 year olds.

Time to write is therefore rare and precious. I don’t watch much TV which helps, I’m used to working very long days (often still working until 10 or 11pm), and I grab my moments were I can although I wish I had a lot more time.

When I worked on the trilogy, I had a stage where all three of them were a work in progress in that I was still editing Steven for publication, still editing Gary ready for submitting to my publisher, and still writing Daran. I would have moved onto Bear straight after Daran but my day job was so demanding that I had to take a few months off before I could work on that. As soon as I’d published Bear, I started on my Christmas novella and I’m hoping to have that finished in a couple of months so I can start working on another full-length novel.

Any words of encouragement for those who are perhaps struggling with either writing their stories or getting them published?

Think about why you write. I’d imagine that, for most pre-published writers, it’s because they couldn’t imagine not writing. Creating characters and worlds gives them joy. Hang onto that joy. It can be really easy to lose this when you’re getting rejections, or when you get your work out there but it doesn’t sell loads, or when you get your first low-star review.

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Don’t give up when you get rejections because it doesn’t mean your writing is poor; it just means it’s not right for that publisher or agent at that particular time. But it may be for someone. Or it may be that you were meant to go indie instead.

And, it’s got to be asked, did you find your Steven?

Ha ha ha. No! I came across several Stevens in my search but the closest I came to romance was a few dates with a Simon who then dumped me by text, confessing that he’d only started seeing me to make his ex jealous and it had worked. Nice! A couple of months after opening Bear’s Pad, I met Mark and we’ll have been married for 13 years this September. His middle name and his surname have no connection to the name Steven.

Thank you so much to Jessica for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail. I found them really entertaining but also inspiring; I was buzzing with enthusiasm for my own story after I read them. I hope, if you are in need of a little encouragement, they do the same for you. Thanks also to Susanna Bavin (her debut, The Deserter’s Daughter, is out now) for introducing us.

If you enjoy contemporary romance I can highly recommend Jessica’s books (I’m a HUGE fan, can you tell?). You can also find out more about her work via her website , you can buy her books via Amazon and also follow her on Twitter.

I’ll have another Behind The Book post for you later in the month but for now you can catch up if you’ve missed any here.

 

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.

A Look Behind The Book With Susanna Bavin.

S Bavin 2Batman might have featured in Susanna Bavin’s childhood stories but she has turned her attention towards more everyday heroes for her family sagas – the first of which, The Deserter’s Daughter, is published next month.

With a deadline of just six months to complete her second, I’m even more grateful to Susanna, who lives in North Wales, for taking time out to answer my questions for Behind The Book.

It’s amazing to be able to tap into all her experience – and she offers some great insight into getting a book (or two) published (as well as some top tips for along the way).

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s the blurb for The Deserter’s Daughter:

1920, Chorlton, Manchester.

As her wedding day approaches, Carrie Jenkins is trying on her dress and eagerly anticipating becoming Mrs Billy Shipton. But all too soon she is reeling from the news that her beloved pa was shot for desertion during the Great War. When Carrie is jilted and the close-knit community turns its back on her, her half-sister Evadne and their mother, the plans Carrie nurtured are destroyed.

Desperate to overcome her private troubles as well as the public humiliation, Carrie accepts the unsettling advances of the well-to-do antiques dealer, Ralph Armstrong. Through Ralph, Evadne meets the aristocratic Alex Larter, who seems to be the answer to her matrimonial ambitions.

But the sisters have chosen men who are not to be trusted and they must face physical danger and personal heartache before they can find the happiness they deserve.

When did you start writing? Is it now your full-time job? If not, what do you do?

I was a child writer. My first story was about Batman (!) but my great love was writing boarding school stories, because that was what I adored reading. Is writing now my full-time job? I wish! My first career was as a librarian specialising in work with schools and children; then I became a teacher. After we came to Wales I moved into the care sector, firstly as a carer and now I have a part-time job as a cook in sheltered accommodation.

Have you always been a saga fan? What do you enjoy about them? 

When we were 14, my best friend discovered Victoria Holt’s books and she got me reading them – and I was hooked. Throughout my teens I wrote gothic stories and this soon morphed into writing sagas – not because I was reading them at that point, but simply because that was the way my story-telling naturally developed.

I enjoy reading thrillers, psychological suspense and US cosy crime, but my favourite fiction is the saga. I especially love books by Anna Jacobs and Carol Rivers. In a saga, there is so much material to become immersed in, both as a reader and as a writer. The traditional format of the saga is to follow the heroine as she faces and bit by bit overcomes her troubles, with various sub-plots adding further depth and intrigue to the story. I love the exploration of the characters’ lives – their relationships, ambitions, successes and failures, all the things that make them tick. The tiny details of a life can take on such significance. Sagas are about relationships of all kinds – family ties and divisions, friendships, enmity and love.

Sagas have an historical setting too, which has always appealed to me, again both as a reader and as a writer. For me, the delight of the saga is seeing the heroine having to deal with challenging situations within the social and legal context of the day.

deserter's daughterYour debut novel is set in 1920. Were you already a fan of that era?

Thanks to a wonderful teacher called Miss Smith, history was my favourite subject at school; and I went on a do a degree in history. My particular interest is social history – specifically women’s lives; and domestic history – costume, food, furniture etc.

The first few novels I wrote had a Victorian setting and I built up a lot of knowledge. Then I looked at the market and saw that, while Victorian-based novels were still being published, there was far more concentration on the 20th Century, so I made the decision to move my next book into the 1900s… but not too far in. Hence 1920. It was a bit of a wrench at the time, but now, having immersed myself in the history of the day, it feels right and comfortable.

How did you learn your publisher was interested in a (two-book) deal? What was that moment like?

It wasn’t so much a moment as a prolonged series of moments. First of all, the offer from Allison & Busby was to publish The Deserter’s Daughter and to have first refusal on my next book. Then I received an email saying that A&B wanted to see a synopsis for book two. Fortunately for me, my agent, Laura Longrigg at MBA, had already got me to write a synopsis for a second 1920s saga and had advised me to ditch an enormous sub-plot and concentrate on the main plot so that the reader could become immersed in the story of Nell, the heroine. It was at that point that A&B wanted to see the synopsis. I had to drop everything and work on a revised version.

On the strength of that synopsis, I was offered a two-book deal. This happened a few days before Christmas. The best Christmas present ever!

Telling everyone and receiving all those congratulations and good wishes was very special. If you’re a not-yet-published writer reading this, I hope it happens to you one day.

How far into book two are you? Is it going well? 

A mere six months to complete a saga – wow! The Deserter’s Daughter is just under 126,000 words and the follow-up will be the same sort of length. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, so I need to get a move on.

For me, the pressure is associated with all the other things I have to do, rather than the writing itself. Moreover, I am not a writer who writes straight onto the screen. I use pen and paper. I don’t write in perfect copperplate – I scrawl my own shorthand. But unlike a writer who composes on-screen, the typing is a separate part of the process for me and has to be factored into the deadline.

As for the story itself, I’m very happy with it. Laura was absolutely right to tell me to ditch the big sub-plot and make it Nell’s story. This has enabled me to delve deeply into her life and the lives of the people most important to her. As a reader, I appreciate depth in a novel and I hope this what I provide as a writer.

How invested do you get in your characters? Do you think about them even when you’re not writing?

Deeply. And yes.

Most characters arrive in my head fully formed, right down to the last detail of their back-story. This was what happened with Carrie and Evadne, the sisters in The Deserter’s Daughter, and also with Ralph, the villain. Other characters might take a little longer to develop inside my mind, but I end up knowing so much about these people that I can’t help getting drawn into their lives. Writing about them in such a way as to make the reader understand exactly why they do or think or want a particular thing is hugely satisfying. As a reader, you don’t have to like a character in order to understand them, but you do have to understand them thoroughly for the story to be successful.

Are you nervous about publication? What will you do on the big day?

I don’t think ‘nervous’ is the right word, but I am very aware that my book is going to be a hardback and therefore expensive. Don’t get me wrong: I’m thrilled to be published in hardback before the paperback comes out. That doesn’t happen to everyone these days, and especially not to a first-time author. I feel privileged.

I hope lots of people will be interested enough to request The Deserter’s Daughter at their local public libraries. Coming from a family of lifelong library-users, and speaking as a former librarian, it makes me feel proud to think of my book – my book! – being on public library shelves.

As for publication day, there will be an afternoon tea with friends at one of the hotels on Llandudno’s promenade. My husband and I did some rather delicious market research before we chose the afternoon tea we liked best. It’s going to be a lovely occasion.

Any advice for writers working on their own novels and maybe in need of some encouragement?

In blogs and interviews I have read, writers often give general advice on the importance of perseverance, which of course is important, but I am going to give some practical tips that I hope will be useful.

writingtips.pngThank you so much to Susanna for her time and effort. It’s been so nice to connect with her and I loved reading her answers, which I found so interesting and inspiring. I’ve already written tip number two on the whiteboard next to my desk.

Please check out Susanna’s website, which also has a brilliant (and very useful) section on writing. You can also follow her on Twitter and, of course, please request The Deserter’s Daughter, which is published in hardback on June 22, from your local library.

Lastly, a big thank you to Catherine at Cultural Wednesdays for introducing us.